RPGs

Learn a little more about the wonderful world of RPGs.  From Rifts and the Megaverse to Dungeons and Dragons.  


Fantasy Grounds

There are also various tools where the two worlds intersect.  Fantasy Grounds is an online platform where you can interact as the player or GM with others (also online).  It's used mostly for Dungeons and Dragons but because it is highly customizable you can modify it for use with Rifts.  If you're using it with the Palladium Megaverse I can show you how to change your Themes.  Actually it works even if you're not using it with it too.

Fantasy Grounds

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We also have cookies...er... News! Right, news.  I have a few news feeds from Wizards of the Coast, related to the Dresden Files and Fantasy Grounds.  No Rifts news, since their feed is broken:(

 

Ranma ½ is the property and invention of Rumiko Takahashi. The following story is not produced for any monetary or personal gain.

 

Tracking the clues Thoth has given him to find the madmen who wish to awaken the Old Ones has taken Ranma to an alternate version of Japan.  There were places where magic reigned supreme and others where futuristic technology dominated.  After being chased across the land and many heroic rescues, he has finally found a group with ties to Atlantis and hopefully the ones he is hunting.  Following this lead through a portal takes him to a very dark place.

 

The Journey

 Part Three: Tea With Splynncryth

 


Chapter 1: Insanity

Ranma could attest to the fact that the transition was much smoother than his previous jaunts using circles and spells. It was almost like stepping into another room. Actually it was more like falling. Exhaustion fell around him like a shroud. Dimming his thoughts and even making it difficult to move his muscles. All he could really appreciate was how good it felt to force air into his lungs one breath at a time. Off to his right he heard a sibilant voice.

"Hey! What happened to the gate? Move the human trash off to the side. I need to check the interface." A moment later something like tentacles wrapped themselves around Ranma's leg and he found himself unceremoniously thrown against a wall.

Through his mental haze, thoughts of chi techniques gone wrong drifted through his mind. As he had told Komar earlier, the risk with experimenting with new techniques was the danger of reducing your life force to below critical levels. He vaguely realized that he was closer to death than he had been since his father's attempt to teach him the neko-ken. A sense of disconnection followed. He was Ranma Saotome, how had that happened to him? He had known the dangers but had always had such a firm grasp on his chi that it had seemed merely a distant possibility.

Gradually, as he lay on the floor contemplating this, another thought occurred to him. What the hell had he done? Objectively, he knew that he had seen an opportunity to cripple the Shogunate's plans with its allies. Looking back upon his actions he couldn't understand how he had unleashed such a completely uncontrolled lethal maneuver. He had been thinking of variations of the Breaking Point for quite some time. After all, combined with the Heavenly Dragon it was one of the most versatile techniques he knew. However, this particular move he had promised himself to restrict to less inhabited areas. Which was one of the reasons he hadn't tested it out in a more controlled situation.

While he was deliberating over his actions a small part of his mind gloated with satisfaction. It imagined the likely consequences and death toll with satisfaction. This was how power was to be exercised. After all if you didn't flaunt it people might never know how great you were. He couldn't understand why he was upset at unleashing the vacuum blades at those ninja losers that had been attacking the Emperor. They pretty much deserved death for getting in his way. He had been avoiding thinking about those deaths when in reality there was nothing wrong with ridding himself of a few obstacles. His father had been an idiot to hide such efficient techniques. Especially considering it was the most useful thing the moron had ever come up with.

"What the heck happened? The whole interface is just gone! It's like the other circle just isn't there." The sound of dry rasping scales on stone was heard as something large moved itself. "Is the human awake yet? Maybe it knows what's going on."

Another set of tentacles wrapped themselves around the drained martial artist, lifting him into the air and shaking him like an oversized rag doll. "No. It is unresponsive. I suppose we could heal it, but considering it is due for augmentation anyway, it may be best that it's unconscious. Most of the losses occur when the subject resists the process."

"Yeah, I know. But I kinda like how humans sound when they scream. It's very restful, you know."

"Never mind. Send him to the artist. We'll contact the mage through mechanical means. No one else is due through for a while." The tentacled thing dragged the inert form of Ranma out of the room.

Ranma was lost in a world of horror as conflicting emotions and viewpoints poured through his mind. His first reaction was that he had somehow turned into an amoral, honorless monster. Logic quickly came to fore despite his blurred thoughts and he drew a conclusion. Hashimoto.

Somehow the transferred memories had affected his fundamental beliefs and attitudes. He may not have absorbed the ninja's personality but the reflexes Hashimoto had developed, involving taking advantage of every opportunity and damn the moral consequences had somehow infected him. Groaning in dismay Ranma held on the promise the priest had made, hoping that the situation would go away within two days. The vague thought crossed his mind that he now in all likelihood had more blood on his hands. More actions that he couldn't let himself think about.

He was beginning to loathe this new world he was in. While it was true that he had learned more than he had ever dreamed of, he also had more responsibility than he had ever expected or wanted. Back before his dimensional romps he had only fought his opponents with a fraction of his skill. If that proved insufficient he would gradually increase the ability he brought to bear. Meanwhile, he took advantage of the drawn-out conflict to analyze his enemy, examining every move they made so that he could make their techniques his own. This occasionally resulted in a few embarrassing losses when he miscalculated the skill level of his sparring partner, but was usually quickly corrected. Ranma Saotome never lost twice in a row. On the second round he usually either used their own attack against them or simply negated the specific maneuver they relied upon and brought the combat to a quick end.

Since he'd come to this new world all that had changed. He'd constantly been challenged by demons, gods and ridiculously huge Robot Vehicles. Each one forcing him to fight at his highest level or face defeat. Losing even one battle in this world would mean more than simply his life. It would mean the end of countless worlds. Assuming Thoth spoke the truth, a newly hatched sinister thought echoed in his mind. Exhausted he let go of consciousness. He couldn't bear the idea that Thoth had lied. If the deity had deceived him then the lives he had taken could never be redeemed. Hopefully, when he awoke again the small alien portion of his mind that didn't give a damn would be gone.

"Damn this human's hide is tough! I'm going to have to use the equipment meant for our real clients. Pity to waste it on human trash..." a sibilant voice spoke out from where a Highlord sat hunched over the human in question. The skull-like visage was drawn tight with concentration, accentuating the interlocking teeth that give his race such a deadly grin. The web-like mottling that covered the top of the skull furrowed in dismay.

"Hey! If he's already enhanced why do they want the normal stuff?" a small bipedal creature spoke out from the door's archway.

"Well... I suppose we'll use the second set. The Eye is experimental but... the first set does seem redundant if it's already modified. Must have been Bio-Wizardry type augmentation. I don't see any other tattoos."

"He might be a human mutant! I've seen them in the Arena! Some of them take a lot to kill!" the little one squealed in merriment, clapping taloned hands together.

"Well, I suppose the master must have allied with the scum for some reason. Never mind. Bring me the inks. I'll set up the equipment," he stated, running sharp claws over the unconscious figure's exposed skin. Damn frustrating how thick the skin was. Difficult to cause real pain without almost killing the subject. Of course, the augmentation process was said to be the most excruciation experience possible. "With any luck, the human will wake up and we'll get some entertainment from his pain. Either way, I suppose I'll be wasting the next few days with this one."

"Yes sir," the robed figure scurried away on his errand.

 

 

Ryouga sat in the destroyed waiting room watching the retreating backs of the technicians. For the past hour he had patiently waited while engineers and other knowledgeable men walked in and out carrying sonic cutters, fusion torches, and other gadgets. Nothing had worked. Of course. The thing didn't have a breaking point so it was only logical for it to be indestructible. These science types just snorted in disgust when he told them that, but he knew. The martial arts weren't just about smashing things indiscriminately. That was just a lucky coincidence. No, the Breaking Point had refined his chi senses so that he perceived a layer of reality only the most advanced beings knew about. Even humans and other biological structures had Breaking Points. The technique only worked on substances with a rigid, crystalline form, but everything had weak points. Except the thing holding on to his ankle.

Deep in thought, Ryouga absently tapped his umbrella against the back of the creatures head. Although the monster was unaffected, each blow drove the thing's face into the ground by a few millimeters. This had disturbed the people who came to try to remove the thing on his leg. Not that Ryouga noticed. When he concentrated on something specific the rest of the world faded from existence. This careless habit contributed to his involuntary spatial dislocations to keep him unsure where he was at any given time. Of course, it also allowed him to learn at a rate that could rival his nemesis.

"Damn you Ranma!" he shouted, a dim glow visible around his body. Each tap on the motionless being before him coming more forcefully. He didn't know how, but this whole farce centered around the pig-tailed martial artist. Somehow he had to be involved in this humiliating situation.

"Excuse me, I think I hear the PA calling for me. B... be right back," the last man in the room stuttered, turning off his torch and backing away from the seated figure. He really didn't want to be in the room if the floor collapsed. He had heard in history class about the abilities of the ancient martial artists. At the time he had scoffed at the thought of an unmodified human coming close to equaling the power of even a non-military cyborg. He still wasn't completely convinced, but one thing he was sure of. Magic and martial arts were baffling and scary. He'd come back later when the dour-faced young man stopped making the entire room shudder. The martial artist didn't even acknowledge his retreat.

The thing seemed impervious to physical force. Ryouga had met few entities stronger than himself, and Ryouga doubted that even that freak from the Musk Dynasty would be any more successful than himself. Ryouga's thoughts grew darker as he was slowly forced to face a very unpleasant truth. There really was only one way to get this thing off him.

"Get me a glass of cold water and a cup of tea... " he demanded in a commanding voice. The tone immediately faded away as he noticed that he was the only one remaining in the room. "Hey, where'd everyone go? Come on! A little bit of hospitality would be nice!" Ryouga shouted indignation edging into his voice.

A sudden flash of light and an odd sensation from the new sense Anhur had awoken within him told him that something had come into existence behind him. Spinning around, he ignored the destructive sounds caused by the prone statue smashing through various objects as it was swung in an arc around the lost boy.

"Ah! I have finally found you. Do you realize how difficult it is to follow that devious device? I think it may have shuffled a few dimensions to try to throw me off course. At least, I'm fairly sure leading me through Hades was a trick." The figure's voice continued to trail off muttering to himself.

Ryouga was caught slightly off guard by the dark-haired, six-foot figure dressed in a humble combination of gray cloth and leather. His senses told him that despite his appearances he was more than human, a fact that was countered by the rather ordinary facial features that seemed an odd mix of Asian and Indian. If his senses hadn't told him differently he would have said that he looked like an ordinary peasant farmer. An extremely healthy, and well-built farmer, but none the less...

"Excuse me... er... who are you?" Ryouga asked in a slightly uncertain voice. He had expected to be attacked. Lacking the normal flow of violence to follow, he was momentarily caught off balance.

"Eh? Oh! Well, I'm your Grandfather. Well... not really your Grandfather, more like your Great... dang, how many generations would that be?" The man shook himself out of the musing and began again. "Never mind. I'm your ancestor. I'm not sure if you're up on your genealogy but I think you're descended from Mariko Hibiki."

"You? You’re the god that Anhur mentioned? Because of you, my whole family is lost! I haven't seen my parents in over five years! Because of you I've seen Hell!" The outraged martial artist started shouting, building up a head of steam.

"Eh? You too? It's actually kind of nice this time of year. Though the neighbors are kinda rowdy. The first time I was there they asked to leave just a few months after I got there," the deity frowned and shook his head sadly. "Can you believe they didn't like orange groves? Now I ask you, what kind of sicko doesn't like a few thousand acres of oranges. It took a lot of work to get them to grow in the magma too. Damn ungrateful demons."

"Er... yeah. That wasn't very nice... " a slightly dazed Ryouga stated, eyes slightly unfocused as he tried to process the new information. He'd never been taken literally before and it had completely distracted him from his anger.

"Now I'm no fan of humans... messy things, always paving over a perfectly good forest... but most of them appreciate a bit of green if they can get their attention away from all that metal and ceramic they seem to like so much," he sighed, "Mariko was like that. That woman was a mortal after my own heart... "

"Um... that's... nice. Why are you here," Ryouga asked, attempting to steer the conversation in some sort of direction so he could get a handle on it.

"Oh. Right. Sorry. I really don't get to talk that often with humans... or anyone, now that I think of it," pausing to collect his thoughts he continued. "This old servitor attacked me, thinking that I was you. I wanted to meet any kids Mariko might have had, so I explained that I wasn't you and followed it."

"Well, as you can see I took care of the thing. It won't be bothering anyone very soon," Ryouga stated with some satisfaction.

The deity looked at the thing attached to his descendant's leg and shook his head. "I don't think you understand. These things are sort of weak by themselves. Which makes sense, since most of the original models were basically servants of the Old Ones and their successors. Glorified butlers. But they are indestructible without large amounts of time and resources. One of their main drawbacks was the time limit."

"Time limit?" Ryouga prodded his newfound ancestor uneasily. He had the feeling he wasn't going to like what he was about to hear.

"It varied slightly, depending on who constructed them, but they could usually only work for a maximum of three hours before they ran out of power and had to wait for a day to finish what they had to do."

"You mean... "

"Yep. That thing is going to activate any minute and probably either try to kill you or teleport you wherever it came from," the god clucked to himself at the foolish mortals who had sent the construct herring across the dimension.

"Hey! You said it took a day to reactivate," Ryouga snarled in anger and began to pound the immobile form in frustration.

"Well, there are several models. One version was 'on' for three hours, 'off' a day. Another creator made his 'on' one hour, 'off' one hour, one hour 'on', etc., for a total of three hours 'on' and then 'off' for a day. I think it had to do with spreading the required activity over a wider period."

"Shit!" Ryouga exclaimed, upset at the unexpected turn of events. He quickly dragged the construct over to the entrance to the chamber and poked his head out the door. "Hey! I need some hot and cold water! Now! Where the hell is everyone? Get in here!" Ryouga bellowed.

"Now calm down," the nature god said in a low soothing tone. "These things usually aren't that powerful. The only reason this one can teleport and do all its other tricks are the little gems affixed to the surface. Those were added by mortals to make this thing a bit more flexible..."

"Oh! Of course! Without those I can just grapple it... " Looking down at the indestructible, immobile thing attached to his ankle he reconsidered. "I mean toss it out the window or bury it."

"Yes! See? No problem... what are you doing? Stop that! Don't you know anything about magic?" The god said worry beginning to tinge his voice, as he raised his voice over the loud cracking noises.

Ryouga had begun to apply the Breaking Point to the jewels and stones affixed to the body of the creature. Each blow only took a second, shattering the talisman and releasing flashes of light and energy. Several times his hand went numb, but he persevered, systematically removing the magical devices. Naturally, he was so intent on his goal that he failed to pay attention to the mouthings of his ancestor. He knew what he had to do and he could talk to the odd fellow who said he was his ancestor after he was done.

"Stop that! The more powerful the talisman the more unpredictable the effects when the energy is released! No! That's the stone used for telep... " A sudden bright release of magic and a loud implosion of air and both martial artist and construct was gone.

The deity just stared at the space where his great-grandson had disappeared. "What a stubborn, single-minded human! Just like Mariko... " A fleeting smile passed over his face before being replaced with a frown. "That trait was much more attractive in a woman."

Without further words, the god teleported away. Tracking people was not his strong point. He was a god of nature and agriculture, not hunting. Maybe he'd stop by Hell again. It always seemed to be on the way to where he was going. It was such a pain how the dimensions always reshuffled themselves.

The room was very quiet within occupants. Only holes in the floors, ceiling and walls gave evidence that it had once held several being of immense destructive potential.

A few minutes later a nervous young girl cautiously, peeked in through the doorway holding a tray with a glass of ice water, an empty cup, and a tea pot.

"Sir? Sir? Excuse me sir, I have your water," the girl's voice quivered in fear as she looked around the empty room.


Chapter 2: Out of the Frying Pan

Ranma found himself writhing in pain. Around him were sinister crimson skinned demons slowly circling him and poking him with sharp oversized forks. At random intervals, they would reach out and pierce his flesh with their weapons causing a continuation of the agony. Try as he might he couldn't reach out to stop them or gather any energy for attack or defense. All he could do is lay on the ground glaring at the surrounding mob and growling his defiance. Not that it made any difference to the fiends rotating in and out of his sight.

As an indeterminate amount of time passed, he sensed some sort of force insinuating itself within him. Despite attempts to gather his tattered chi around him, the energy began to weave around and into him. Binding itself in some unfathomable way to his life and energies. Somehow the sharp prongs of the devil's weapons directed the structure that seemed to be starting to become one with his very soul.

An eternity of torture came and went and then without warning the creatures and their odd weapons were gone, leaving him still with shock as the all-pervading pain slowly subsided. Ranma lay exhausted and dazed as slowly it dawned on him that whatever the energies were that had been coiling around him were still there. It even seemed to be settling itself closer.

"No, get off, get off, damn you," shouted Ranma, noticing with horror that no sound was coming from his voice.

"... Off!" screamed Ranma sitting up and staring wildly around the room he was in. "Whoa. That was one freaky dream! I'm not even Christian, why would I dream about Hell?" Ranma shook his head in puzzlement, trying to rid himself of the haze that still hovered over his mind and weighed down his limbs. "I'll ask Kasumi about it when I get back. She wears that cross. She might know something."

Putting the odd experience out of his mind he began to examine the room he was in. It was a small chamber. If he extended his arms to either side he would be able to touch the sickly pale walls. A thin thread of sunlight was the only illumination in the room, coming from a narrow window in the upper part of the wall. The entrance was an odd-looking door that seemed to be made from stone, rather than the wood he had expected to see. Once he had noticed this oddity he realized the whole room was stone, with the exception of the thin pallet he lay on.

Shrugging he stood up, staggered slightly, and walked over to the door. He supposed he was feeling pretty good for a man lucky to be alive. Most people didn't walk away from such a massively uncontrolled use of chi. He winced as he thought of the likely consequences of the technique. Suppressing a shudder he pushed the memory to the back of his mind where he had already stored feelings concerning a fatal encounter with the Emperor's would-be assassins and his encounter with Saffron. Some things were too uncomfortable to view without a good amount of time to cushion the memory.

His chi reserves were low but a few hours of concentration would cure that. The Hadou Ken technique would also help him cull ambient chi from the area around him even if he hadn't fully mastered it as yet. Ranma was about to settle down on the floor for a relaxing session of meditation when he stopped himself.

What the heck am I thinking? I'm trapped in a stone closet and I'm taking a nap? Ranma snorted in disgust, he didn't know what had happened since he fell through the portal but sitting in a cell certainly wouldn't get him more information. He still ached all over from the strain of attempting to control the chi energy for the final technique he had used but obviously he wasn't thinking clearly either.

"First let's get out, and then make a plan," Ranma stated, confident he now knew what he needed to do. Walking over to the door he verified it was locked from the outside. Nodding to himself he briefly checked the walls and ceiling with a series of sharp taps. Since the borders of his prison proved to be as solid as the stone they appeared to be, he moved to the window noting the narrow dimension. Examining it closely he noted that the opening was more of a shaft than window, extending forward more than ten feet before opening into the sunlight.

Ranma grunted to himself. The opening was very narrow, far too wide for his male form and it would be close in his female form as well. If he had enough energy he would have had the option of using Happossai's Dimensional Cloak. The breaking point was probably the least expensive technique he knew in terms of chi, but it was also extremely loud and showy. Not ideal for a quiet escape.

Well, first things first. Seeing no convenient cup of water in the room, Ranma reached into folded space to pull out a canteen of water. It seemed far more difficult than normal to pull off this simple maneuver. The first time he accidentally pulled a set of throwing stars out he shrugged and tried again. He was tired after all. The second time he grabbed out a dress he frowned in thought. He hadn't screwed up this often since he first learned the technique. There was no way he could possibly be that tired. Reaching out his spiritual senses he caught a sense of distortion at the edge of his range. He didn't think much of it until he realized the sheer amount of energy required to be detectable at that range.

Chi senses could certainly detect a large variety of energy signatures, but the fact remained that it was best used to sense the spiritual force and life energy used by other martial artists and priests. Everything else was there if you were good enough to see it, but it was much like seeing objects by the shadows they left. If there was a dimensional distortion that large in the area then it was no wonder that he was having a difficult time accessing his pockets. He was grateful he hadn't been able to use the cloaking technique, who knows how it would have been affected. The image of himself coming out of the Cloak in the middle of the stone wall before him sent shivers of horror down his spine. He would have to work on his control if this kind of interference was common in the area. Absently, he scratched a faint itch on his forehead, and then rubbed his temples to ease slight foreshadowing of a headache.

Despite a faint concern that he might lose a hand, he reached into folded space for a third time, bearing down with his available will power. He sighed with relief when he saw the steel canteen in his grasp. Quickly removing his bracers he splashed himself and crawled into the window shaft. Grunting with the effort, she pulled herself along by her fingers and pushed with her toes. About halfway through she became frustrated with the slow progress that the lack of purchase on the smooth stone was causing. Exerting her full strength Ranma-chan fully expected to see her fingers sink deeply into powdered grooves of her own making. In her own world, she could easily crush rocks in her grasp, and the ambient energy coursing through her body in this new world increased her strength to truly ridiculous levels. She was therefore shocked when all that came from her effort were thin scratches on the surface of the rock and a tingling in her hands.

"Oh man! I can't believe I'm this wiped out. I mean I'm tired, but I thought it was just a simple lack of chi. I mean either that or this is magic stone," Ranma-chan snorted to herself at the idea of building a prison of glowing stone. Then she froze shock as she noticed a low-level tingling coming from her hands and feet and even more faintly from the length of her body pressed against the stony surface. "No way! A whole room with enchanted stone for walls? Damn, the walls alone must be at least ten feet thick. Are they paranoid or what?"

Shaking her head in disgust she sighed and continued her slow pace through the crawlway. After ten minutes of sweating effort, she was rewarded by being able to reach to the outer edge with her hands. "Okay... significantly more than ten feet," she muttered to herself unhappily. With this leverage, she was able to easily pull her body forward until her head poked outside. Looking around she smiled in relief. The smile quickly faded as it registered on her mind what she was seeing.

"Holy... Good Lord! I don't think I'm in Kansas anymore," looking around again she continued muttering to herself. "Or Japan, or even the freaking earth." Pausing another moment to try to comprehend what she was seeing. "Looks more like Hell if the property values were better."

 

 

It had taken a few days to heal the injuries and burns caused by the treachery of the human but it was time to take up the hunt once more. Flexing his scaly talon before his face he nodded to himself. The scales might take a few weeks to regain their luster but he was functional once more. He winced as he recalled the burned limb with the scales and flesh peeling away to expose the muscle beneath. He had not felt such pain for almost a millennium.

Not since an old rival of his had challenged him to mortal combat. It had been a close battle but he had finally won. He chuckled to himself as he called up the cherished memory. The pain he suffered was nothing compared to the agony he had inflicted on his foe. He had lasted for weeks before he had permitted his death. He frowned to himself. If he wanted to ensure the same level of pain on his new opponent he would have to brush up on the anatomy of humans. It wouldn't do to have the mortal worm die too soon. Not after the pain and the fire he had endured.

It was odd that the human had decided to flee here. This didn't seem to be the kind of place that would welcome the common mortal, he mused to himself as he walked down the streets. Even at his full size he only took up a fraction of the thoroughfare. The various races that made up the crowd surrounding him scurried out of his way, bowing and scraping as if their lives depended on it.

Yes, this was a good place. Who knew such an area existed? A whole continent where supernatural beasts ruled. Where the only humans and mortals in sight were dragged along behind their owners in chains. The next step brought an odd sensation under his rear leg, accompanied by a shrill cry of pain. He simply continued walking down the avenue, enjoying the sights and smells. Sure he could have flown; it was actually far easier to fly, letting the winds support the massive weight of his body. But it was far more entertaining to walk. Yes, here was a place that knew how to give a dragon the respect he deserved. There would be time to track down his enemy in the days to come.

 

 

Ranma-chan looked out of the opening in amazement. She found that she wasn't in a prison of stone. No, she was in some sort of Egyptian monument that seemed to tower several hundred feet in the air. The shaft itself emerged about halfway up the side of the edifice giving her an excellent view of exactly where she was. Easily enough to thoroughly wish to be almost anywhere else.

A closer inspection showed the monument to actually be a pyramid. The sides created a gradual slope that seemed to stretch out below her, craning her neck around she found that it likewise rose an equal distance above her. She was not in some dead city however, in fact, far below her the wide streets that began at the huge plaza surrounding the base of the structure stretched far into a sprawling city. Large buildings and weirdly shaped structures lined the avenue; only stopped by the barrier of a slightly narrower cross street.

The streets themselves teemed with life; though it was with a strong sense of trepidation that Ranma-chan realized that most of it was not human. Creatures of all descriptions slithered, thumped, waddled, and crawled through the thoroughfare. They ranged from tentacled creatures out of a hentai anime, to scaled and horned demons. In fact, once she grew accustomed to the teeming masses below her she was able to distinguish that some were indeed the demons she had studied in the bestiary tomes Anhur had given her.

"... Baalrog, Fenry, and... what is that? I know some of those things are racial enemies... why aren't they trying to kill each other?" Not all of the mob surrounding her were demons, some she recognized as those which humans considered the monster races. The vast majority of them were simply unknown. It was only after some minutes of staring somewhat blankly at the scene that it occurred to her, where were the humans? Even after a time of specifically looking for some signs of humans, she found nothing. Oh, many creatures were biped humanoids, but that was all they had in common.

She was wondering exactly how she was going to fit in when an unusual motion caught her eyes. Coming around the corner was what at first appeared to be a large troop of humans led by a heavily armored humanoid figure. The relief Ranma-chan felt quickly drained away as she abruptly noticed that they all had an odd gait to there walk.

"Chains... they're wearing chains. What kind of hellhole is this place," wondered a rather upset martial artist. The only free human seemed to be the armored one in the lead, and considering the various threatening gestures he was making with the metal shod staff he wielded, he seemed to be more of an enforcer than anything else.

Sighing, she summoned the Way of the Silent Thief to hide his presence. This place didn't seem to be an area that humans were appreciated. Pulling herself fully out of the shaft she stood, confident that she was undetected. She was leaping down the slope towards the plaza below, when she had an odd feeling that she was being watched. Pausing, she quickly glanced around.

Ranma-chan suddenly felt that she was on stage and no-one had told her the lines to speak. This was a familiar feeling, but not a comforting one. A good one-third of the inhuman crowd beneath her had paused and was staring directly at her. With growing trepidation she slowly looked behind her, vainly hoping there was a dancing clown or other spectacle that might explain the attention. The only thing she noticed was a caped, burly nine-foot tall creature with a set of upthrust tusks from its mouth, another pair to either side of its chin and an obviously mean disposition. It wore a breastplate and some sort of armor covering most of its arms and legs. A large sword was slung over its back but in its hand was held a large rifle of clearly high technology. The one part that grabbed her attention was a faintly glowing visor that seemed built into the oddly shaped helmet the being wore.

"You," it growled in a loud hostile tone. Having just glanced around Ranma-chan knew there was nothing but herself on this part of the sloping surface. "What's a human like you doing crawling around our Lord's home? Obviously, only a pathetically stupid human would cloak himself in Atlantis!" The creature let loose with a hacking sound that Ranma-chan assumed to be laughter. "You may have just as well shot off a load of fireworks to announce your presence."

Ranma-chan cursed herself, the anatomy texts she had read seemed to indicate that most supernatural entities could perceive the invisible; she just hadn't considered that her father's chi technique counted. Or even that attempting invisibility would be that obvious. Ranma-chan stopped berating herself when the armored being started insulting her. She immediately stopped hiding her chi and an ominous red glow shimmered around her.

"Pathetic? Why I... " growled an angry Ranma-chan while cracking her knuckles, completely ignoring the hundreds of witnesses some distance below her.

"Watch your attitude, you tattooed slave. You may be someone's valued property, but give me an excuse and your just another piece of meat."

Ranma-chan breathed rapidly through her nose trying to keep her anger contained. The odd references distracted her with their irrelevance, making slightly easier to ignore the slights without resorting to the Soul of Ice technique.

"I'm nobody's slave, creep. If you don't give me a little bit more respect... " Ranma-chan threat trailed off as she saw ten more creatures like the first rapidly marching towards her from the central steps of the pyramid. "... or I'll leave. Very quickly."

"Yeah... sure you will. You'll stay where you are, meat." Raising his weapon to point at the martial artist.

"Oh... sure... " Ranma paused in his speech to leap into an acrobatic flip that brought him within striking range of the thing. The rifle shot several bursts where Ranma-chan had just been. Ranma snapped a few punches in the monster's face, then a snap kick which spun it slightly in the air. Grabbing the wildly flapping cape of the creature she unloaded a final full strength kick while it was still rotating before her.

The ripping sound of the cape covered the grunt of pain from the pigtailed martial artist as she recovered from the one blow the thing had landed on her face before her final attack. "Damn thing's almost as strong as I am," she muttered to herself as spun around to face the approaching group, ignoring a trickle of blood running down her face.

Ranma-chan's chi senses stretched out to there most sensitive, attempting to gather as many clues from her attackers as possible. Her concentration was disrupted as a slight tingling was felt from her forehead. Then the world changed.

Her chi senses, combined with the Breaking Point training had always allowed her to see the world more clearly than most, but this abruptly changed. Everything suddenly came into an unreal focus, as if she could place everything's location to the fraction of a millimeter. As odd as this was, it was only the least of the changes. Everything she saw held a deeper meaning than she had ever realized. Before, she had merely sensed enchantment, perceiving a shadow of a shadow, now it was displayed before her in a glorious detail she had never expected. The whole pyramid she stood on radiated a strong magic that she intuitively knew was connected to the dimensional perturbations she had earlier detected. Inside she knew would be found gates to a hundred worlds. The very structure was constructed to tame and focus the ambient energy to its creator's will. Powerful lines of energy, rising hundreds of feet in the air swept down the wide avenues as far as the eyes could see, each line entering the stone pyramid to be added to the reservoirs inside.

The creatures below her were almost as fascinating, each glowed with there own aura, telling a tale of power, revealing a glimpse of the being true nature. The one with the horns over there had a weapon that generated a protective envelope. A lizard-like creature that was a shape changed dragon argued with a merchant over an enchanted lyre whose song had the power to...

She was shocked out of her daze by the searing pain that peppered her body. The clarity of vision and knowledge that had mesmerized her was shattered, replaced once more with the more mundane but reliable senses she had trained all her life to use,

Rolling on the ground to avoid the fire from the group, she took stock of the damage, gratified that although painful, the strikes she had withstood were not life-threatening. Putting the surreal experience behind her she focused on the combat at hand.

Leaping to her feet, she spread the cape in front of her, imbuing it with a portion of her chi. Her father's last technique had failed her; hopefully, this one would be more successful. Genma may be an idiot but he had crafted an amazing slue of chi attacks... and defenses. A monument that even greed could inspire moments of genius.

Ranma felt the shivering in the fabric as the energy spewing from the rifles struck the cape. Spinning around she folded the material to better receive the next barrage. After several seconds of futile efforts, the creatures seemed to realize the singular lack of effect the weapons were having and Ranma-chan's senses detected the weapons being dropped to hang by their slings, and the unmistakable sound of swords being drawn.

Removing the now bulging shielding cloak from before her she smiled sweetly at the ten monstrous creatures running swiftly towards her. "Well, since you're so anxious to meet me I think you should have a gift. Well, actually it's yours. I'm just returning it."

With this last taunt, she unfolded the cloak releasing a rain of energy that lasted for several seconds. Although most of the advancing troops were bowled over, few stayed down long, growling with fury and pain as they scrambled upright again.

Ranma-chan was just about to jump into the pack to follow up with a more physical attack when she saw a group of over fifty creatures of the same type bubbling out one of the entrances to the pyramid. The gesturing of the lagging few hinted that this was merely the front guard.

"Geez... " mumbled a slightly overwhelmed Ranma-chan, while rubbing the slight bruise caused by the first creature.

"Fool. You should have begged for mercy when I first approached. Now your death will be long and agonizing!" coughed the original creature, which was just then staggering to its feet from where it had been thrown twenty yards away.

Ranma-chan looked from the horde to the single monster. "If you want slow and agonizing I think you better mention it quick. I think they're going to try for quick and sure."

"Just die, you useless human!"

Ranma-chan was breaking into a sprint away from the onrushing horde when a large explosion behind her completely knocked her off her feet. Rolling several yards away she came to her feet, facing the enemy in a ready stance.

Expecting to see some energy wielding fiend of the Saffron ilk, she was completely shocked to see a huge burnt shadow behind her on the pyramid's stone surface and the creatures that had been following her either dead or unconscious. Shaking her head in bewilderment she heard another series of explosions behind her.

Spinning around yet again she saw the huge courtyard surrounding the pyramid in a frenzy of violent activity. Where before most of the creatures had been watching her confrontation, laughing and jeering at the stupid human, now most of them were running quickly out of the plaza. Apparently, trying to avoid a chain of explosions that seemed to be centered in a radius around the group of humans that had been led in fetters up to the base of the huge structure.

Most of the non-humans scrambled away, not wishing to get involved with the dangerous turn of events. Those that stayed, trying to find something to confront, were either shot with some sort of high-powered weapon coming from several sniper sources in the surrounding buildings or blown up by the steady stream of explosives. These explosive devices seemed to appear randomly about ten feet above the ground before dropping to the ground with light tinkling sounds then triggering in a fierce, though localized explosion.

When a wide clearing had formed around the terrified humans, a glittering portal formed in front of them. A young blond-haired man in garments more resembling a baseball player than a wizard's dress, a small lizard perched on his shoulder, stepped out arms spread wide, as if to keep the gate open. From behind him, a dark tressed, well-built woman walked, gesturing to the humans in front of them. Ranma-chan couldn't make out what she was saying but it was clear that it convinced the cringing mass of humanity. With a loud cry, they rushed forward pushing past the mage and the woman.

Ranma-chan noticed that she must have been significantly stronger than she looked, since the throng merely swayed her on her feet rather than bowling her over. Within moments the last human had stepped through, leaving the man and the woman limed in the glow from the portal. The woman's eyes swept the battlefield one last time before her eyes caught on the very confused pigtailed martial artist. Giving Ranma-chan a jaunty wave she turned to go through the portal. The mage also glanced in her direction before giving her a wink and slowly stepping backward through his own gate.

Ranma-chan came to her senses a few seconds later finding herself weakly waving goodbye. Grabbing her arm to stop the silly gesture, she shook her head. "What just happened?"

"That is what you are going to tell us, little human," a sibilant hiss came from behind her.

"Geez, not another one of you gorillas... " Ranma-chan started to say while turning around, readying herself for another fight. Unfortunately, behind her was not one of the "gorilla" creatures. There were about two hundred. The one that had spoken was different from the troops. It was a mere seven feet tall, spindly creature, that had a mouth ridiculously full of large interlocking sharp teeth with two small tusks jutting out from either side of the chin. There was no nose to speak of and the head was shaped more like a skull than anything else, topped with a web-like lattice of something resembling scar tissue. In one hand it held a staff that seemed to hold a jar full of liquid on one end. Ranma-chan blinked a moment when she realized that inside the jar peacefully floated what seemed to be an eye. It didn't really look very impressive all in all; however, it is remarkable what an army can do to bolster one's image.

"I think we can kill her and have one of the necromancers question her," offered the leader's companion. This stalwart fellow was of the same race as the original attackers he had encountered. Unfortunately, that's where the resemblance ended. The thing towered over the martial artist at ten feet and must have been twice the mass of anyone in of the first group, all of it muscle. He also sported an extra pair of arms and bore a huge club-like mace that resembled the skeletal creature's staff in that it too bore a glass jar. Instead of an eye, a large worm-like creature could be seen floating in the liquid. An energy blade of some sort protruded from the end of the club, transforming the overall appearance of the weapon into that of a monstrous flamberge.

"I don't suppose I can convince you that I have no clue as to what just happened," Ranma-chan asked hopefully.

"No," the smaller one confirmed the pigtailed girl's fears.

"Darn. Hey... is that a five yen coin behind you?" the redhead craned her neck and pointed.


Chapter 3: Meat Market

Ranma-chan leaned against the wall of the alley, panting from the last few hours of exertion. "I can't believe how persistent those guys were," she gasped. "This is worse than anything the fiancée squad ever put me through."

"Who's persistent, Ranma?" a familiar voice whispered in her ear.

"Nabiki?" a startled martial artist squeaked while turning around. She was further surprised to see a transparent image of the Tendo sister sitting cross-legged in the air in front of her.

"Hey, I can see you! Did you just learn that," questioned the pig-tailed girl, moderately impressed. It sure beat the telephone.

"Yes. It's very draining... but I haven't been able to contact you over a week," Nabiki said with a blank expression. Perhaps a little too blank.

"A week? Darn! I hope I never have to do that again." Pausing she assessed the reaction of her audience. Nothing. Nabiki was rarely without a sardonic grin. "Were you worried about me?"

An almost imperceptible wince flickered across the ghostly visage. "Of course not. But... I've found out how... dangerous Atlantis could be." A grimace of distaste hovered over her features. "It's hard to believe such a place exists."

Ranma-chan paused in thought, a mocking snicker poised on her lips, before the humor of the situation grew stale. "Yeah. Probably whatever you scried in your magic mirror thingy is just the tip of the iceberg." Images of a line of desolate humans being led into the square before the pyramid flashed before her mind's eye.

"Well? What happened and... What’s that on your forehead?" Nabiki asked, returning to her original line of questioning.

Ranma-chan frowned and rubbed her sleeve across her face. "What do you expect? Geez, I just woke up in a cell a few hours ago... you expect me to be clean and well-groomed. I'm lucky to be alive!"

A smirk had finally made its way onto Nabiki's face, once she had verified that Ranma was in good health. "Surely the great Ranma hasn't run into something he can't handle? Besides, I wasn't talking about a smudge of dirt. You should take a look in the mirror when you find the time. Meanwhile, report!" barked the floating image.

"Hmph. Whatever," grumbled a disconcerted martial artist, as she felt around her face with one of her hands. "I had some trouble leaving Japan," seeing a questioning look in Nabiki's eyes she just shook her head, "I don't want to talk about it. It has to do with really nasty side effects of some psychic thing a priest pulled. But it caused me to overextend my chi reserves."

Nabiki's eyes widened in surprise. She was no martial artist, but except for maybe Herb, Ranma had the best control over her chi she had ever heard of.

"I know! I know! There were... circumstances. Anyhow, when I arrived I think I was unconscious till a few hours ago. When I escaped I had a whole bunch of guards after me." Ranma-chan paused in thought, "Did you know most things in this city can see the invisible? Funny, my most useful stealth technique is like a big banner saying 'Here is the guy hiding from you!' It really sucks."

Nabiki opened her mouth as if to say something but was overridden by a venting pig-tailed girl.

"Well, at least that's what happens when I'm in line of sight. The chi suppression part still works... as long as they don't see me they can't track me. Let me tell you... " Ranma-chan continued to ramble before Nabiki finally interrupted him.

"Ranma! Shut-up!" A strange look had come into Nabiki’s eyes and although her face was calm, a tense quiver had crept into her voice. "Let me get this straight. You were in the clutches of our villain and you miraculously broke loose. Right?"

"Yep," Ranma-chan boasted, buffing her nails on her shirt. "They couldn't keep me. Oh, they had a few surprises, but the never had a chance... " Her strutting was once more overridden by the controlled voice of Nabiki.

"My, it's sure is lucky you escaped," Ranma-chan nodded happily to herself. "After all if you had stayed you might have actually found out who was behind all this," Nabiki's voice had risen to an unpleasant volume as her frustration finally became plainly visible. Ranma-chan had frozen in mid-buff a look of bewilderment on her face.

"Heaven forbid you actually go along with the freaking plan and play along. No, the great Saotome has to be the big man and prove no one can keep him..." By this time Ranma-chan had unfrozen and was making shushing gestures and frantically glancing around. Her activity was completely ignored by an enraged Nabiki, who continued even more loudly on her tirade, going on about the stupidity of martial artists in general and Ranma in specific. She also went into some detail regarding the sheer money she had lost while allowing these dimwits to represent her. She was still cursing as her image began to fade and thundering footsteps could be heard approaching the alley's entrance.

Moments later a group of ten hulking brutes obstructed the opening as they peered cautiously into the alley, plasma rifles in one hand, the other resting alertly on the hilts of their blades.

"I could have sworn the human was here. It sounded like a human," the largest grunted in annoyance.

"I still say the human is long gone. She'd be stupid to stay around and if she's a part of the underground she's long gone by now," opinioned the second in the group

"I don't know, we found some humans. She could still be here."

"The first one you shot was a male slave. The second one was a female pedestrian. One of the few free humans in the city."

"Eh. Well, humans kinda look the same. No real loss. Free or slave, no one cares."

"Well, the free one was no loss, but the slave has an owner that needs to be reimbursed," contradicted the second.

"Bah, we were on official business. If that demon complains about his property our captain will back us. If he tries to go higher up he knows he could be told he's unwelcome in Atlantis," scoffed the first.

"Well... alright. No harm done. No one important was inconvenienced." The voices and general grunts of agreement from the other guards faded into the distance as they walked past.

Seconds after they left a pigtailed martial artist faded into view. A light sheen of sweat covered her face and a disgruntled redhead could barely be heard muttering to herself.

"Yeah, well this is one human you're going to recognize one day when I feed you your liver. If there weren't a thousand of you goons right behind you it could have been today." Shoulders slumped she stared at the ground. "I can't believe I forgot the plan. Of course, I was unconscious for a week, but still..." Leaning against the wall again she slowly slid to the ground, ignoring the unidentified residues clinging to the wall.

"Still not too late to find out who owned that place. I'll just have to find another way into the... well whoever owns the place... good graces."

 

 

Ranma growled in frustration as he walked down one of the lesser roads that ran through the heart of Splynn. Although smaller than the main thoroughfare it was none the less seventy feet wide. This seemed large at first, until Ranma found himself needing to move quickly in order to get out of the way of some of the huge land barges that moved implacably to and from the center of trade. The vehicles he shrugged off. They were large, but he’d seen huge transports at home, even stowed away on many when his father was feeling too lazy to justify walking as training.

The air barges were slightly more disconcerting. Most of these were too high up to really make a visual impact. It was when they slowly descended to the top of nearby buildings and the humming of whatever otherworldly engines they used filled the air, making the bones of your skull vibrate in sympathy that the scale of the city truly became apparent. The other disconcerting fact was the huge slugs, lizards, and snail-like creatures that also made their way through the streets. It would be amusing except that forty foot long snails no longer seemed humorous when they towered over you. Then, of course, there were those obnoxious aliens.

“Hey! Scum! Out of way of Gornex the Devourer,” a deep growling voice bellowed from in front of the martial artist, quickly followed by a paw the size of a serving plate. Ranma absently ducked the few inches required for the somewhat sloppy roundhouse to fly over his head. In his male form, the authorities weren’t actively chasing him but humans seemed to be fair game for everyone and his brother to torment. The slaves he saw on the street were relatively safe since destroying someone’s property carried a heavy fine; however, a free human needed to prove himself frequently if he chose to brave the streets.

“I’ll give you one warning to get out of my way,” Ranma stated hiding his impatience. This was the fifth time this afternoon he had to defend his rights and it had changed from exciting to monotonous very quickly. Initially, he had tried to avoid attention by giving ground, but that not only chafed his pride but proved ineffective as it seemed to encourage the annoying pedestrians.

“Looks like human needs to learn place!” The eleven-foot shaggy creature loomed over him in a threatening manner.

“Looks like teddy bear needs to learn grammar,” Ranma mocked in a deliberately broken manner while bringing the Serpent staff he had started to carry around with him to bear. It never ceased to amaze him how stupid many of these creatures sounded even when the translation effect assured him they were speaking their own tongue.

Roaring in outrage, the quivering mound of fur and muscles lunged at the smaller human, only to search around in a bewildered fashion when the human disappeared from view.

“Where human go?” The confused creature grumbled to itself as it peered through the slowly milling crowds, many of whom had stopped to view the altercation. Never a shortage of entities wanting to see a human dead or mangled in this city.

“Human here behind you, dimwit,” Ranma sneered. Infusing the staff with chi he tapped the creature on the arm, spinning it around as if struck by some huge force. Once he was facing Ranma another deceptive tap from the staff to the chin caused the creature to shoot like a rocket into the sky. The pigtailed martial artist shaded his eyes while looking up into the sky, chortling softly to himself.

"Geez, I never get tired of that trick. Now I know why Happosai kept doing that. Takes the pest out of your hair... and is so darn fun to watch!" Looking around he found himself the center of some obviously unfavorable attention. Lazily spinning the staff he gave a fake growl and glared at the crowd. "Anybody else has a problem with the little human?"

As most started to drift off he nodded to himself. Most of these weren't the powerhouses of the city. The creatures with the power and spine to deal with someone like Ranma had better things to do than waste time with an uppity human. The city enforcers didn't care unless they witnessed him breaking the law. It also helped that any non-human that complained about being harassed by a human would lose any respect he could possibly have. In a way, it almost made up for being the target for anything with a bug up its ass.

"Verry entertaining," a high pitched hum broke into his thoughts. A creature that looked like a refugee from The Fly was next to him buzzing... or rather communicating to him.

"I have my moments," Ranma stated tersely, on guard for the snub that seemed inherent in every conversation he had yet to have since he woke up in the city.

"You have impressive powers for a tattoo warrior. Have you given thought to the Arena? You could make some very impressive money."

"Well no... I have other things to do in the city. I hadn't planned on any... Arena... activity." Ranma cautiously stated. Ever since he had weathered Nabiki's tirade he had been walking the streets in his less wanted male form. He had really screwed things up when he had initiated his 'escape'. Sure, he hadn't been in his right mind at the time, but he'd really fouled up any plans he might have made. It would take some heavy improvising to get back on the proper trail.

"Tattoo warrior? Nah... I just have some martial arts tricks," Ranma brushed off the bug's assumption. Probably the only humans that had any power around here were the ones that wore tattoos like the Shogunates ninja's. Tattoos...

"Hey... do you know much about tattoos? The magical kind, not the artsy stuff," the martial artist inquired hopefully. The creature he was talking to was the only thing that seemed willing to do more than spit in his direction since he'd arrived. It seemed a shame to waste its apparent generosity.

"Ah... you wish to have more. Understandable, but difficult. Humans only get tattoos if they are the personal servants of the Highlords. From your demeanor, I must assume you are no one's servant and cannot, therefore, receive any more such gifts of power. Only Splynncryth's personal Highlords have the authority to authorize this for a free human."

"Shoot. Oh well, I'll find another... " Ranma paused as the meaning of the being's words struck him. "Only Spynncryth's personal Highlord's you say? How many of them are they?"

"Only a handful. Five, I think, though I am not an expert on such things. They never give out new tattoos to any human that does not belong to them."

"Never? I could use new... tattoos. Yeah, the er... stuff I have now is getting old. Same thing over and over. Sure would be good to get some new," Ranma's brow wrinkled in concentration as he thought of words to say to show he was into the tattoo scene, "... ink done."

"Too bad. The only exception would be a personal favor. If one was your patron they may make an exception but... that's hard to imagine. You just don't seem the servant type. Although... " the creature grew silent, lost in thought. "I suppose if you won in the Arena and dedicated your win to one of the Highlord's... well even they appreciate that kind of flattery and recognition. Though relying on a Highlord's goodwill is somewhat of an oxymoron." A slight chittering seemed to mark an alien laugh.

"Do you know the names of these Highlord's?" Ranma requested hopefully.

"Hmm. Yes. They are... " The insectile creature then broke into a fit of chittering, coughing and grunts. The martial artist looked on wide-eyed afraid that the only source of information he had found in the city was about to expire in front of him.

"Are you okay? Should I get you a doctor?" he shouted, poised to run in any direction if necessary.

"Eh? Of course, I am. Why do you ask," the creature asked, fully recovered from the fit.

"The coughing and choking. I thought... " Ranma's voice faded away in puzzlement.

"Ah... that. That was simply the names of the Highlord's. I suppose they wouldn't make sense to most humans. Most probably can't even pronounce them. Well. Let's see. How about I write up the names and titles of the Highlords in question. I have a magic around here somewhere that should give me literacy in your tongue around here... if I can find it." After a slight ruffling of robes and a small flash of magic the creature handed Ranma a list that seemed to phonetically spell out the name of the persons in question.

"I, well, thanks. You've been really helpful. If you need anything just... " Ranma rambled on somewhat bewildered by an act of kindness in what was otherwise a city of nightmares.

"Well, I'm not just doing this for you. I can see you are on a course which may lead me to many profits. If it does turn out that you decide to go to the Arena contact me and I will be overjoyed to act as your agent. Simply ask for Syushra of the Bloody Grubs Plaza. Here, I'll write the address down for you."

"Thanks... I guess."

"Good luck on your mission. Remember me if you change your mind. I think you could be very popular." With those words, the creature skittered away on multi-jointed legs.

Meanwhile, Ranma was once more lost in thought. He now had a starting place. Apparently, only five of these Highlords had permission to give out these tattoo things. All he had to do was find out which of them owned that prison he had escaped from and... well there was more to it than that, but it would be a good start.

 

 

A dark-haired attractive woman stood in a large room. Spread out in a semi-circle around her were twenty people armed and armored in various styles, from the medieval to armor that appeared to be straight out of the twenty-fifth century. Almost half were glowing in various shades and colors. The woman herself wore the strangest clothing in the group seemingly nothing more than several green leaves wrapped around her along with several weapon harnesses consisting of a sword and two oversized guns.

“Alright people, make sure your protective enchantments and force fields are up. This raid is close enough to the last one that we hope they won’t be expecting it.” The woman’s strong voice easily cut through the soft murmurs that the crowd had been exchanging, bringing the group’s attention to center around the raven-haired warrior.

“Skippy, open the gate,” she quietly requested of the young blond teen that stood near her, leaning nonchalantly against the wall feeding dried tidbits to an odd lizard that perched on his shoulder. Occasionally the small dinosaur would take a small playful nip at the baseball cap the boy wore. “Remember, on the other side you're just the backup and the escape portal. I don’t want your usual silly heroics. Your place is getting us out again and getting anything that gets past our defenses.”

“Have no fear, our brave White Raven. Your flock is as good as there. My batteries are juiced up and I’m ready to kick some Splugorthian Minion butt.” The young man gave a confident grin to his audience, some of whom gave an appreciative snicker, most of which simply waited patiently for him to finish his posturing. Shrugging he waved his hands in a complex gesture and began chanting. As a shimmering circle of light formed on the wall he was next to, he paused to address the group behind him.

“The doorway to adventure awaits… also death, violence, and other stuff, but…”

“Enough Skippy! Joke later, we have a job to do. Move out!” The woman fingered her weapons, checking one last time that the harness didn’t snag any of her weapons. It was a dangerous world out there and a woman needed the proper tools for the job of changing it.

 

 

Ranma was shaking in a mixture of horror and rage. Never had he been as angry and horrified as he presently was. If he had the power he would have happily allowed the ocean to reclaim this cursed place. It had started innocently enough; he had asked one of the creatures on the road for directions for a place to eat. While the question had seemed harmless, the shambling thing he had asked had coughed out a laugh and directed him to an open-air tent several blocks away.

When he had arrived he had only noted a huge giant standing in front of an enormous scarred wooden block, butcher knife in hand and in a good-natured conversation with one of the more obscure demons Ranma had studied. Nodding in final agreement the giant had reached behind him and swung some sort of wriggling figure from some sort of scaffolding or rack and brought the butcher knife to bear.

“A good selection of meat. As tender a piece as you’ll ever find. I’ve been saving it for my own meal but... the price is right and this bit is yours,” with these words a muffled shrieking had begun. The shrieking had risen in pitch and volume as the knife sliced efficiently upward, eviscerating the bound figure. The giant paused a moment, blood covering his hands, “I could tell you that they don’t feel anything... but we both know that the screaming is half the reason you’re here, eh?” With a toothy grin, the knife flashed in an elaborate pattern and the screaming, which had reached a high point was abruptly cut off. “Damn. That was too quick. I’ll give you a discount on the next one.”

Ranma had stared blankly at the tableau, finally realizing just what he had seen. The figure on the table which had moments ago been a captive human female was now nothing more than bloody pieces of flesh. The flashing knife signaled the continuing butchering of the hapless victim.

For a moment absolute emptiness filled Ranma, quickly followed by a boiling rage that seemed to hold no limit. It filled his mind, reducing his thoughts to a single focus. Something was going to die. It might eventually be him but before he had drawn another breath the monster holding that knife was going to die. Thoroughly.

He was about to proceed on a path of destruction that would have ensured the death of most creatures in the area, most likely eventually culminating in his own end, when a brilliant light enveloped the area. Pausing to evaluate this new threat he witnessed a glowing blue oval wink into existence behind the butcher block in front of the scaffolding and tent. A moment later humans, limned in glowing auras, poured out of the light shooting a variety of weapons at the non-humans in the plaza.

Instant mayhem ensued as the butcher attempted to bring his knife around to defend himself from the unexpected onslaught. He stood for seconds before the massed fire overcame what durability the creature might have possessed and limbs began to char and burn under the massed fire.

“Anyone who wishes to survive the day should step back and don’t be a hero. The Liberation Front is here to free the slaves. Don’t get in the way and you won’t die.” The voice of a familiar black-haired woman easily reached the edges of the plaza as the woman herself stepped to the front of the crowd. A quick look at the huge wooden block assured her that she had been too late to free one of her targets. Her expression of regret was quickly replaced by determination. “Fan out. Remember the plan, group ‘A’ inside the tent, Group ‘B’ get the people on the rack, C and B set up the defenses.”

The crowd of non-humans appeared as if they might contest the woman’s claim, shuffling and fingering the various lethal instruments most carried on their persons. This hostility was quickly redirected as the ten soldiers behind the woman pointed their own oversized rifles and shoulder launchers at the crowd in unison. After several seconds of complete silence, the shapes in the crowd slowly backed away. The evil glares sent their way before they exited the plaza left no doubt that they would remember this humiliation the next time they met a human that possessed less firepower

“Since you don’t seem to be using that one, would you mind if I brought that one home? It seems a shame to let a perfectly good bit of meat go to waste,” the demon that had originally conversed with the butcher genially inquired.

White Raven stood in shock for a moment before answering with anger clearly evident in her voice. “You are either an incredibly overconfident fool or… never mind. I have no time to waste on you. Back away immediately or I’ll have my people cut you down.”

“You humans are such a prickly lot. If you didn’t make such delicious meals and adequate slaves, Lord Splynncryth would have expunged you from the continent long ago,” the demon hissed while slowly backing away from the counter.

“Hmm. I changed my mind. Team ‘B’ fire on my order…” her command trailed off as she saw the demon turn tail and lumber off around a nearby building. Her satisfaction was short-lived as a low humming was heard in the distance.

“Damn. I thought for sure we’d have more time,” the woman muttered to herself a frown of concentration marring her youthful features. “Team ‘C’ and ‘D’ prepare to receive at least three assault carriers... or the D-Squad if the gods are in one of their moods. The authorities are more on the ball than we expected today.” She paused briefly in thought, making decisions. “Break out the big guns. It looks like we’ll need them to get out of here. Skippy, shield them while they set up. Then prepare our exit.”

Ranma was resisting the urge to cheer. It was a huge relief to find that even in this morass of pain and suffering there were humans… and not so human creatures that were fighting to make this hell hole a better place. It was difficult not to go over and help. Only the thought of what Nabiki would do to him if he compromised his only other identity a few hours after screwing up his female identity kept him silent. The butcher was dead and with its life had gone the unreasoning rage that had gripped him. They didn’t seem to need his help anyway.

The dark-haired girl had given him a brief questioning look when she had first arrived, but he’d simply returned it with a cautious nod. Since then she had apparently dismissed him as relatively harmless and was presently directing the activity in and around the scaffolding and tent. He could feel that he had not been forgotten and any movement on his part would bring her full attention back to him. Turning his senses onto the group hurrying around him on prearranged tasks, he attempted to get a feel for what kind of people formed the resistance in this city of evil.

The dark-haired woman was a trained fighter, not up to a real martial artist’s standards, but from the way she moved and the limited control of her chi, he sensed that in a straight fight she might be on par with Akane. The tingling that he felt when his senses examined her told him that there was far more to her than a mere human’s aura. What it was he didn’t know enough about magic to identify. Her general aura was far stronger than a human's should be, but unfocused enough to show that she not only wasn’t what he would consider a dedicated martial artist but probably not a mage, despite the magic energy he sensed as part of her.

The young man was so obviously a mage that it elicited an involuntary growl from Ranma. So far all the mages he had met had been insane or evil. He wasn’t sure what category Nabiki would fit in when her training was done but considering her present morals he feared it would be irritating to find out. The male’s aura had the strong tingle of enchantment like the girl, but the focused aura demonstrated him to be a magician. Of course, the fact that he had waved his hands and formed a large shimmering blue dome surrounding the tent and adjacent area also helped make clear exactly what he was.

The others in the group seemed to be mostly humans with a smattering of magic, but the majority seemed to rely on the armor and weapons they bore. Ranma frowned at this. Most of the technology he had been witness to had not filled him with much respect for advanced science. Sure the giant robots had him on the ropes for a short time in the Imperial Palace, but he didn’t see anything among the freedom fighters more substantial than body armor and rifles.

Ranma quickly corrected this observation as the woman gave a command and several large containers the group had carried in unfolded to reveal some sort of rack with multiple tubes jutting at a forty-five-degree angle into the air.

Another flash of light showed that the wizard with the silly baseball cap had opened up another portal while the group that had gone into the tent was leading an impressive line of humans of all ages, as well as a few non-humans of varying races out and towards the light of freedom. Up in the scaffolding, the people were using a mixture of skill, brute force, and specialized climbing tools to make their way through the metal maze and extract the people that had been crudely tied to the framework.

Ranma just shook his head. He couldn’t believe he had been so wrapped up in his own concerns that he had been completely oblivious to the monument to human suffering towering behind the wooden block. A pang of regret shot through him as he thought about the poor woman. If he had been paying more attention he might have realized what was happening in front of him. From that moment on he resolved to try to treat every moment in this city as a combat situation.

Of course even as he thought this a voice in the back of his head told him it was impossible to be that alert. His danger sense was finely honed, but it would only alert him to hazards that affected him directly. He had often been surprised by non-lethal attacks, whether from an over-enthusiastic Amazon or inconvenient banana skin. Attempting to focus on his surrounding to the exclusion of everything else might keep him on his toes but it would also quickly mentally fatigue him, prevent him from thinking of strategies, and most likely eventually blunt his reactions in battle. At best he might succeed in a compromise. It was certainly true that he had been doing some monumentally stupid things since he had taken the place of the ninja candidate.

A high pitched humming sound drew his attention away from the activity in the plaza. Looking around he noted the sound was coming from the air. Stretching his senses he found that there were hundreds of independent, powerful entities approaching from the air. Turning back towards the woman he was about to shout a warning, but noticed she was already giving orders to those left under the dome.

Less than a minute later the first creature flew into view over the surrounding buildings. It was almost identical to the creatures Ranma had seen on the pyramid. Since he had the luxury of wandering the city for the last day, he now was aware they were known as Powerlords, a pretentious title for the more common members of Atlantis’ army. This one rode a machine similar in function to the sky cycle he had used in Japan with a more segmented shell that was obviously armor of some sort. Metal appendages pointed outward, giving it a shape akin to a star. On one of the jutting points, aligned to one side asymmetrically was a huge eye that glowed as it powered the device.

As it approached the field that enclosed the freedom fighters, two forward-pointing prongs emitted bursts of energy which seemed to splash against the dome’s surface to no effect. Undeterred by this, it began circling several hundred feet above the ground laying down a constant barrage of light across the shield. Within moments of the first shot, dozens more flyers on similar vehicles flew into the clearing and joined the assault.

The attackers swarmed in evasive patterns while bombarding the dome. Soon, it began to pulse and flicker at various places. Ranma’s senses informed him the energy within the barrier was weakening. Frowning in concern he noted that all of the freed slaves had moved through the portal as well as the two groups designated as their escorts. The two remaining groups were tense as they waited, stationed around the individual missile launchers.

Ranma slowly backed away to the cover of a nearby building. He felt somewhat torn, wanting to help when the barrier finally inevitably failed, but not wanting to sacrifice his male identity or engage in another tiring, pointless chase through the city unless absolutely necessary. These newcomers looked far more prepared than those he had battled at the pyramid. There also seemed to be a large number of them. Over a hundred now swarmed in the air and more were arriving every minute.

Suddenly, the glowing barrier dissipated apparently leaving the defenders helpless. Before the monstrous air force could fire at the ground-based fighters, the missile racks simultaneously launched a huge volley at the targets flying above them. Despite the evasion patterns they had been flying in, the sheer numbers of the attackers kept them from avoiding the initial salvo. Some of the Powerlords were overly enthusiastic in their attempts to get out of the way and ended up crashing into their comrades. These incidents did no more than knock the flyers into an uncontrolled spin for several hundred feet; however, it did sow considerable confusion. The missiles themselves each exploded into huge masses of plasma that usually engulfed three or more flyers in their blast radius continued this trend, sending the majority careening out of control.

Few, except the truly unfortunate, were destroyed, but for a moment the sky was almost completely clear. The defenders took advantage of this to make a break towards the gate at a prearranged signal from the raven-haired woman. She herself stayed slightly behind the others, firing at the few remaining who were remained a threat. A loud roar of approaching jets caused her brow to crease in concern as she hurried towards the portal to follow her troops to safety.

White Raven's run towards the gateway was temporarily halted by fire from above. This forced her to dive out of the way as some of the flyers that had recovered laid down a steady stream of fire. Although she escaped the assault, the sound of thrusters followed by a thump in the direction of the portal told her things had just gotten much worse.

Ranma cursed under his breath as he saw from his perspective the woman hurl herself out of the way of the strafing attacks. His cursing became much louder as he saw eight huge metal gargoyles streak down from the sky, turning at the last second to halt their descend with a powerful burst of some kind of jet that projected from their back. Ranma almost mistook them for Balrogs in armor. The bat-like wings and hulking figure certainly looked familiar, however, his senses told him it was merely more Splugorth minions. Admittedly, they were minions in impressive power armor, but nothing demonic.

This was somewhat less than reassuring, as he saw that the eight armored figures were gathered around the woman and the fleet which had been scattered a moment ago was now starting to re-gather itself in the air above once more. The one fortunate part of the situation was that they weren’t firing anymore, seemingly content to let the armored fellows on the ground deal with the one remaining invader.

The woman herself seemed startled by the turn of events but did not hesitate in the slightest. Dropping her rifle to the ground she drew the two swords crossed at her back and leaped to attack the armored suit closest to her. The attack was swift and well-executed, easily overwhelming the relatively slow defenses of the larger foe to deliver a strike that completely removed the head of the armor.

This was gratifying to see until Ranma realized that the mechanism was still moving. The lack of blood or weakening in the creature aura told him that the controller was safe inside the main body of the armor. Suddenly slower and less sure of itself it still moved to bring its wings into play, sweeping them through the space that had been occupied by the woman and leaving a trough a foot deep in the ground.

Although she had gotten in the first blow, White Raven found it nearly impossible to land a second. Despite the size, the powered armor moved swiftly and with eight foes she had all she could do to avoid the wings, the plasma sword and axe that seemed to be standard issue for each mechanism.

From where he stood Ranma nodded to himself. He couldn’t stand and do nothing yet he couldn’t rush in himself. Cologne had a trick that he had been working to modify to other situations. Like many of the matriarch's techniques, it looked much more impressive than it was. Still, all he needed to do was give the woman time to make it to the portal before whoever was on the other side decided it was too dangerous to leave it open with an army on the other side. Entering a light meditative state, he focused his chi on the earth and rocks under the plaza.

White Raven was getting desperate. The constant evasion left no time to counterattack and the group continued to maneuver between her and the portal. The gateway itself should have already been closed. Skippy had specific orders to close the gate if a member of the team was trapped on the other side. If she lived through this she’d give him a kiss and then kick his sorry ass for endangering the entire underground.

The odd thing that stuck in her mind during those hectic moments of dodging and parrying for her life was the black-haired human who stood partially obscured behind the buildings over a hundred feet away. She had noticed him and the rage that was evident on his face when she had entered the plaza during the initial strike. As the operation progressed she saw that the rage had left and she had the distinct feeling that he approved of what was happening.

This was not surprising, although obviously not a slave, he lacked the hard-bitten look that most minions possessed. Considering the tattoos he wore he might have even been a freed slave or a hired bodyguard. Unless you worked for the Atlantean system a human couldn’t help but approve of an attack on it. Now the youth looked on with a slightly detached expression and she couldn't help but feel that there was an energy gathering in the area around him. It wasn’t magic, but it caused sympathetic tingles to tease her skin. She hoped he wouldn’t get himself killed doing something stupid. With several hundred minions of Splynncryth buzzing around the air like an angry swarm, any overt action would be an act of suicide.

Despite her awareness of an odd energy, she was still completely surprised when the ground behind one of the armored figures deformed like a bubbling cauldron, and a huge stone hand reached up from the disturbance and grasped the closest fighter. Once the hand closed on its victim it instantly shot up into the air forming a pillar as its base, fifty feet high. There was a moment of silence as the comrades of the trapped creature gaped at the column that now held a trapped and struggling metal gargoyle. Then the frozen tableau moved as the flying Powerlords began to fire at the stone prison, blasting large chunks of now immobile stone from the prison.

The woman was as surprised as her foes but was able to overcome her shock soon enough to run halfway to the portal before she once more had to avoid the renewed attacks of the armor-clad minions. When another stone fist emerged from the ground to sweep two of her tormentors away like a battering ram or an angry child with a toy, she was prepared to leap over the two remaining minions that stood between her and the portal.

Unfortunately, this left her open to the other four behind her who took advantage of this reckless move to attack her from behind with their various weapons in an almost coordinated strike. Thrown through the air, she landed within ten feet of the glowing portal but found herself too stunned to do more than inch her way to freedom.

Groaning in frustration White Raven struggled to her feet hearing the heavy steps of the armored minion closing in around her. Through the thick light of the gate, she saw a worried Skippy, arms held out to brace the gateway, mouthing silent encouragement.

Ranma looked on in frustration. The modified Shark Fist had proved to be a useful tool for distraction. Although it did little real damage, the Stone Fist looked large and terrifying if you didn’t know it lacked mobility for more than sweeps and lunges. However, despite the woman being within feet of the gate, it was obvious she was too stunned to do more than stagger to her feet. The last series of blows the enemy had delivered to her back had looked devastating. The leaf armor that she wore had been almost instantly shredded leaving the warrior to absorb the blows of the swords and axes on her own merits. Ranma was frankly amazed she was still in one piece. Obviously, she was more than human, as he had surmised when he had examined her aura. In fact, she would probably be almost unhurt ... if she survived the next few seconds.

Her very durability gave him an idea. A normal human wouldn't survive, but she appeared almost as tough as himself. Without further thought, he reached forth his chi once more into the ground.

White Raven looked around drunkenly, trying to force herself to either defend herself or dash towards the portal that was so close. The minions appeared to be rushing at her, their intent obviously to knock her away from the only escape within reach. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the human male was staring at her with a grimace of concentration and a light layer of perspiration shown on his brow. Abruptly, an odd roiling sensation at her feet drew her attention to the ground under her. Looking down she felt a huge force erupt beneath her as if the very earth had rushed up to meet her.

Observing the scene from around the building Ranma looked on with a mixture of satisfaction and worry as a stone fist formed beneath the woman and catapulted her through the gate. He had tried to be gentle, but there is a limit to how softly you can manipulate several tons of stone.

The gateway dissolved into a sparkle of random energy as he pondered the situation. Glancing at the plaza that was deserted except for several hundred flying Powerlords, seven milling armored minions, and three scattered columns of stone that varied in length from ten feet to fifty feet in length, he shook his head. Nerima may have been hectic but he was beginning to appreciate its rustic charm.

Wrapping himself in the Dimensional Cloak he glided away from the scene of the battle back towards the pyramid. With any luck, the remnants of the dimensional energies from the gate would prevent the detection of his use of the technique and he could get on with his mission. He was getting more eager to get back home all the time. He never thought he would look forward to the madness of home or long for the peace of the fiancée brigade but... it was time to get on with things.


Chapter 4: Contract Killer

Leviathan lounged in her apartment on the huge cushioned couch that she preferred to rest on. Absently she reached over to an ornate golden-hued bowl and grabbed a dozen peeled oranges. Mulling over her plans and letting her rage simmer in the back of her mind she ate the fruits as lesser mortals might eat berries or grapes.

Now that she was in Atlantis she could continue her plans. It was a bitter irony that she was so limited in her own realm. Since her captive had escaped she had been the butt of the jokes among the other deevil lords. Oh, not to her face, but their insincere condolences at her humiliation combined with the restrictions of no overt retaliations only thinly veiled the enjoyment they hid at her fall.

Mephisto should have shared her shame but the ancient deevil lord seemed not to care. So engrossed was he in his own plots to grab on to the reins of power in their dimension that after an initial temper tantrum he had subsided into a pouting silence. To tell the truth, she was almost glad that the deevil lord had decided to stay out of the plans she was making for her retribution. Mephisto had once been lauded as the most subtle and dangerous of the Lords, but over the last several centuries something had changed within the deevil lord.

Almost all deevil lords were power-crazed megalomaniacs, but they were successful power-crazed megalomaniacs. This meant that they worked together against outsiders and kept their backstabbing to quick efficient moves that succeeded or failed before their enemies noticed. Above all, they kept up the façade that they were one large happily dysfunctional family. Lately, Mephisto hid his plans less and less. He would even engage in ranting against the Lord of their plane where others might hear. She had the sneaking suspicion that his ambitions and most of his plans were known and mocked at by the other lords. In other words, Mephisto was no longer the master of deception he once was and it might be time to disassociate herself from him. He was so wrapped up in his own little world, he might not even notice.

A loud screeching wail arose from the entrance, bringing a small smile the giantess's face. It wasn't quite the souls in torment that regularly chimed the time away in her own domain, but it was a small taste of home. A discrete flapping of wings told her that her servitor dire harpies had answered the summons and a moment later she landed by the deevil lord's side.

"The Sunaj you summoned is at the door mistress. Shall I lead him in?" the harpy screeched in a disharmonious rattle only another harpy could admire.

"Yes. No... wait. He and his ilk have kept me waiting over a week. I need his services so I can't kill him... make him wait outside for a half-hour. And bring me some peeled melons to go with these oranges. Some lemons too."

Leviathan whiled away the time savoring the contrasting fruits and thinking of various plans of carnage. When a subdued screech announced the presence of company, she was in a fine mood to do business in.

"Hail Lady Leviathan. I am honored that you wish to retain the services of my clan," a male voice, sounding partly synthesized came from the figure kneeling before her. The male was clad in armor whose helmet was formed to resemble that of an insect. Specifically, a cockroach.

"You have kept me waiting for some time. Do you treat all your prospective clients this way?" the deevil lady asked in a dangerously quiet voice.

"Of course not, some of our clients must wait for months. Our services are frequently in demand. Lord Splynncryth is our favored patron, and since we are in his country his wishes take precedence over all others," Leviathan's brow wrinkled in dismay at the blatant reminder of who their main employer was. Of course, she might have slain the mortal worm out of hand if he hadn't brought it to the forefront of her mind, so perhaps he was wise in ways of dealing with her kind. It was just as well really, it would have delayed her plans further if she had to look for helpers elsewhere.

"Yes. Convenient. Since you are finally here I'll get to the point. I need an assassin. Probably even a legion of assassins," she paused in thought before continuing. "I don't suppose you would take on Rhada as a target?"

The kneeling man broke into a spontaneous fit of coughing, before speaking in a strained voice. "I'm afraid that would not be... possible. Entities of her stature... and yours as well, enjoy a certain position of power in the Universe. It would be folly to try to eliminate one such as you... your fellow lords would simply reincarnate your essence into a new body and your whole ... pantheon... would hunt down the perpetrator."

"Rhada no longer enjoys the protection of our pantheon. She has betrayed us. There is a strong possibility that she would stay dead. She also does not have access to her normal resources and forces." Leviathan's voice trailed away into silence as she waited for a response.

"I am somewhat aware of the politics behind this situation." The man slowly stated, carefully choosing his words. "Rhada is under the protection of Abdul-Ra. He has the resources Rhada presently lacks and seems willing to exercise them. Vigorously." A slow, measured breath followed, "There is also the issue that both Abdul-Ra and Rhada presently enjoy a certain protected status, as declared by Lord Splynncryth. Our clan cannot act against our patron's favored guest. He would be very displeased."

"Well... " Leviathan sighed, "I suppose it was a bit much to hope for. Probably would have been too obvious anyway," she muttered absently to herself.

"Is there anything we can do to serve you?" the armored man asked anxiously, Leviathan would be unwise to vent her frustration on his person, but entities of her type weren't known for possessing many of the virtues lesser being developed as survival traits.

"Hmmm. Yes. I think there is. A mortal human has grievously offended me. I would like him eliminated, preferably with as painful and messy a process as possible."

"Mortals are much simpler to deal with. Consider our clan at your service for this purpose." The man smiled under his mask. This was much safer territory. Humans were easy prey. He would be able to expand the influence of his clan with the Deevil Lords for almost no effort.

 

 

Ryouga wandered around in a thorough state of depression. He was unsure where he was and fortunately hadn't seen the rune statue since his accidental release of the magical energies had flung him through a portal. Despite his emotions, the peripheral of his consciousness registered odd-looking creatures and monsters walking down the wide road next to him. Most of them glared warily at the human with a dark green corona oscillating around, the others simply ignored him.

As the strange parade slowly trickled into his consciousness he sighed sadly to himself. It was Halloween already and he was still searching for Ranma. Would he ever satisfy this inner longing and rage and make his way back to his one true love. Akane... no not her... Akari. He had given up on Akane, hadn't he? How long would he wander this city? With his luck, it would probably be New York. That would explain the powerful auras he sensed surrounding him.

There was so much to think about. The man who had claimed to be his great grandfather, the rune statue, and of course how to defeat and humiliate Ranma. Still lost in his thoughts he absentmindedly batted one of the trick or treaters out of his way with his umbrella. He had heard that New Yorkers were rude but these people were almost hostile. More importantly, they were slow to move out of the way.

A humming sound accompanied with a slight stinging sensation on the back of his head and a flash brought his thoughts to an abrupt halt. Looking around he found the last idiot he had booted out of the way had drawn a gun. A grimace of distaste crossed Ryouga's features as he faced the wielder. Martial artists, in general, held firearms in very poor esteem. For the less skilled they could be deadly, for those on the level of Ryouga and his rival they were crutches for the incompetent. Toys that should be easily taken away. He growled at the thought that if he hadn't undergone training from the old goul that he would probably be dead by now. These New Yorkers were beyond rude, they were barbarians. With his standard battlecry he leaped towards his attacker.

"Die Ranma!" Ryouga paused as his instinctive shout registered. "I mean... I will punish you in the name of... of... the Hibiki Clan!"

Frowning at his faux pas Ryouga shattered the weapon and battered the costumed freak around the head and shoulders. His blows gradually increasing in strength as he established the endurance of his foe. As his final strike propelled the costumed alien over the buildings he began muttering to himself.

"Well the people in this town may be cowards and freaks, but they all seem to be pretty durable." Shaking his head at the thought of a whole town that had undergone endurance training, be continued walking. "I really need to get a new battle cry. It is so embarrassing to call out the name of another rival during battle. Unprofessional. What I need is something generic. Spoon? No. Sounds cool but it just doesn't make sense."

Ryouga continued down the wide avenue, never noticing the way the path seemed to clear ahead of him.

"In the name of the Moon? Now that's just plain silly... "

 

 

Ranma stood in the huge plaza before the pyramid. The carnage that had been wrought a few hours before was still evident. Several large holes decorated the surface of the stones around the base, although only small chips were missing from the great monument itself. Ranma snorted, the battles in Nerima devastated whole blocks, obviously, this didn't count as more than a skirmish. Looking around the promenade, he spotted a likely temporary stall and walked over.

The vendor was some sort of furred humanoid, he couldn't quite tell what race it was since most of the upper part was hidden in the large wardrobe it was rummaging through. Ranma gave a small cough to draw attention to the fact that he wasn't alone. Several moments later he coughed again since the merchant's attention hadn't wavered a moment from the contents he was searching.

"Ahem... "

"Listen you human smuck, if you get phlegm over my merchandise I'll get reimbursed from your hide," a low-pitched growl emanated from the cabinet.

Ranma shook his head. This town seemed only to be impressed with flash and raw power. That was okay, all of his weaker techniques were ridiculously showy. It was his more powerful abilities that had more content than display. With a moment's concentration Ranma lit up like a bonfire. The small amount of litter and dust scattered at his feet began to slowly lift up as if released from the constraints of gravity. Chairs strategically laid out in front of the stall began to scrape back along the floor as if pushed by an unseen force.

The merchant spun around with alacrity upon feeling the energies mounting at his back. "Ah... I apologize. I mistook you for a human ape. I sometimes rely too much on my sense of smell. The disguise is really very good. I especially like the tattoos, it adds a real dash of authenticity... "

"C... Cat!" shouted a startled Ranma, jumping back a dozen feet before stopping and desperately starting to chant.

"Cat? Where?" The cat man looked around at his feet, then back and the chanting martial artist. "Hey! No need to cast spells! I apologized already. If you don't want to be mistaken for a human you should change your disguise. Although, why you'd want to do that I don't know," he rambled.

"Y... you’re a Raksasha," Ranma stated with only a slight quiver in his voice, fixedly staring off to the side, as if carefully examining a work of art.

"Correct. Now that we've given over with the spell casting, what can I do for you?"

"Could you change into a different form? I find that one very... er... distracting," Ranma tried to ask nonchalantly, his eyes slightly too wide to pull it off.

"Sure, no problem. How's this?" he stated with a chuckle, he transformed in a quiet glow into a fifteen feet tall, scaly monstrosity with eight tentacles.

"Ah, much better," the martial artist visibly relaxed. Monsters good. Cats bad.

"Yes... well," the demon hesitantly started, obviously not used to people being calmer in the face of a monstrosity. "What can I do for you?"

"You set up camp around here on a regular basis, right?"

"For the last few decades. I pride myself as the best-enchanted garment maker this side of Splynn." The mound of scales and tentacles took an almost heroic pose.

"Great! See that window over there, in the side of the pyramid? I need to know the owner."

The mass of scales slumped from its pose. Its single eyes seemed to bore into Ranma. "So you're not here for the clothes."

"No. I'm sure they're nice an all but... "

"Go away."

"Hey, it's just a question! No need to be rude."

"I am not a spy, I am an artist of cloth!" the mound gyrated energetically. "If you can't appreciate this, then I have no wish to deal with the likes of you. Even if you're not a mortal."

"I never said you were a spy," Ranma gestured frantically to appease the irate demon. As an afterthought, he rambled on, "Though it sure would make sense. I mean the center of government is right over there," the martial artist pointed at the huge structure overshadowing the city. "Why, I bet you can see the coming and goings of every important event or person that happens around here." He chuckled to himself, "Now that I think about it, it would be stupid not to be a spy. I bet everyone in the plaza is a spy of some sort, eh?" Letting out a final guffaw, Ranma turned his attention back to the demon, intent on convincing him to talk using every subtle tactic in the Saotome book.

"Why is everyone staring at me?" Ranma asked conversationally as he noticed that all the vendors and storeowners in a large radius about him were glaring evilly at him. "I was just kidding! I'm sure you're all just perfectly ordinary demons and monsters who are interested in making an honest dollar." Ranma paused for a moment. That last bit had sounded stupid even for his normal foot in the mouth banter. "Geez! You guys are spies! Wouldn't want to be in your shoes when the big guy finds out. Sure would be ugly."

"I suggest you leave before you find you have a mob to deal with. The various races here are incredibly difficult to get acting towards a common goal, but you may be the first being to be unanimously lynched here in centuries."

Ranma shuddered as visions of less than pleasant memories cropped up from his days in Nerima. "Hey, you’re a Raksasha, right?"

"Yes. You know you're a suicidal idiot, right?" The scaly blob stated while glaring down at the smaller figure.

"Did know Abdul-Ra and I are good friends?" attempting a different track.

The scaly mass of tentacles stood quivering in rage at the insult, "How dare you even speak the great Lord's name... " The demon froze as it saw the ring on the martial artist's finger. "Is that his ring?"

"Er... yeah, he gave it to me the last time we met. Best buddies. Almost the brother I never had," Ranma was getting into his role and was about to expound on this when the demon continued.

"Then invoke it. Only the original owner may invoke its power. If you cannot do so I shall take great pleasure in taking your shredded body to him where he resides in the city and laying it at his feet." A previously unknown orifice gaped open revealing a set of five-inch long teeth.

Ranma may not have been comfortable with guile, but threats he knew. Flaring his aura he stared imperiously up at the demon, purposely ignoring the ring of enraged demonic vendors slowly encircling him. "Invoke it? Of course I can invoke it," he didn't remember Abdul-Ra giving any instructions with the ring, or for that matter even saying it was more than just a ring. "Um... just on the off chance it's been a long time since I spoke with him and my memory ain't so great... exactly how do I invoke it?"

"Hah! Fool, you have overstepped yourself! Everyone knows you simply will the ring to activate... " The demon grew silent as whiskers grew on the martial artist's face and his skin slowly took on a velvety texture.

"Strrange... arre you surre that's how it worrks? I don't feel anything happening," Ranma said with his hands on his hips and a distracted air of concentration.

"Well, it's so good to meet a friend of my master," the demon whispered as the fang-filled mouth reformed in an odd parody of a smile. "I'll be happy to answer any questions you may have." The ring of evil vendors and salesmen was rapidly closing, leaving the Raksasha to wonder how he was going to explain a dead personal acquaintance to his master. Maybe if he said that he fell into a pit of ravenous sharks. It certainly had the benefit of being almost true.

"Hey, this is odd. My back hurts" Ranma tried to massage his back only to find he couldn't bend his arm in that fashion. Looking down he noticed that his clothed were retreating to form a collar around his neck and his exposed skin had a thick layer of fur on it. His first thought was that his Jusenkyo curse had gone mad and he really should have put his curse locking bracers back on when he had last changed from his girl form. His second thought was that 'oh cool the ring allows me to change shape. Boy, that Abdul-Ra is a nicer guy than I thought.' His third thought was 'gee, what would a ring from the lord of demonic cats allow a user to shapeshift to'. A flash of inspiration was immediately followed by a raging panic. The roar the cat form of the martial artist let loose was the last straw for Ranma's already strained psyche. In a moment there was no Ranma, there was only an irritated cat that was rapidly getting crowded by unruly prey.

The cat form of Ranma was truly impressive. Ten feet at the shoulder, he resembled a smilodon more than a modern cat. The glowing aura he had in his human form was replaced by a red, vaguely cat-shaped, aura that crackled in the air about the creature. It turned on the crowd and let out a roar to show that this pussycat was not a happy camper.

This was enough to send most of the smaller vendors running for cover, however about one fifth remained, bravely standing their ground. These were the more impressive physical specimens most over ten feet themselves. A glowing cat wasn't going to scare them, regardless of how large it was.

When the first lazy swipe of its paw created a ravine ten feet deep and thirty feet long in the mystically hardened stone of the plaza even the dimmest got the idea that maybe something strange was happening. Perhaps the obnoxious human was really an obnoxious greater entity. Greater entities are allowed to be obnoxious. It's in their charter. They wrote and signed the damn thing and who's going to argue?

When the remaining salesmen and spies had broken ranks and run, Ranma-neko gave a low snarl of disappointment. The crowd was gone but so were his toys.

With an easy leap over the trench he began a pleasant game of cat and mouse.

The scaly blob shimmered and in its place stood the Raksasha in its humanoid form. Looking around at the plaza, with its crisscrossed scarring, plowed stone, and the remnants of his own small shop he sighed. It wasn't much but it had been pleasant to play the merchant. It was especially nice to sit down with all the other spies during lunch and scheme. He'd probably be reassigned now. Another merchant, or more likely another spy would take his place on the promenade. Whatever the outcome, he had better go to his lord and report.

Looking up into the sky at the huge eye that was monitoring the area, and had in fact been there since the earlier attack by the rebels, he wondered. The Atlantian forces were remarkable in their absence, yet not only were the within spitting distance of Splynncryth's citadel of power, but everyone knew that what the eyes of Eylor saw, Splynncryth saw. Shrugging, he dipped his mind into the fabric of space and teleported himself away.

 

 

"My Lord, I still don't understand why we stood by and did nothing. Within minutes I could have flooded the area with a thousand guards. As it is, it will take days for our Stone Masters to smooth the plaza back to its original state." The pale spindly figure was obviously agitated. Its interlocking teeth clenched and the wormlike wrinkles and veins pulsed rhythmically.

Within the huge pool of slime, an enormous eye surrounded by spikes and tentacles stirred in the ooze. "You have no sense of theatrics. And obviously you can't keep track of the cast. That human was the 'pet' Rhada wanted. Not the run of the mill mortal." The mental voice of his master made the Highlord shiver.

The thick liquid churned and the bulk of the Intelligence changed position. "Hundreds of our troops would have died attempting to take the human down. They would have eventually won, however, the very fact that a human could do that well against me would have made them wonder... exactly how strong can I be if a mere human could come so close... "

"But they would be foolish to think that. Anyone who knows your might... "

"Oh yes. That is the trick of it. They hear of my might, of my billions of minions and half dozen of inhabited worlds... but what do they see?" Bubbles burbled up out of the ooze as the creature paused in thought. "This planet is filled with beings of immense power. If I brought my full force to bear, so would they, and we would tear this planet apart. And more importantly, it might carry over to my other enterprises. So we must consider what the people see.

"What they saw today was that the merchants we thought were so loyal, were revealed as spies for the various interests around us. They were immediately and viciously destroyed by my agent while I watched from above. The doubt is turned into respect."

"But the next group of merchants will be spies as well," pointed out the servitor.

"So what? I never cared if they spy for their petty interests. What I want kept secret, will be hidden from their eyes. My competitors think they have an edge and I simply feed them what they should know. My 'discovery' is simply an excuse not to destroy Rhada's toy. There is a deeper game here. A human doesn't get that powerful by accident. As much as I respect Abdul-Ra, I doubt he did more than supply a simple enchanted ring. No, what we saw is a greater mystery than it first appears."

"Ah, so we are simply looking out for possible threats."

"Of course not. I love mysteries. I can't wait for the next act. Did you see the looks on the merchants' faces? I might have let Rhada's pet get away with its mayhem on that alone," the entity gurgled in its contentment.


Chapter 5: Cat and Mouse

The sight of monstrous creatures roaming the streets of Atlantis was a common one. The factor that drew the attention of the local denizens was that usually, the wandering things were a little more civilized. Oh sure, the demons could be crude to those they considered their inferiors, but rarely were they rude enough to sniff the pedestrians as the walked along, minding their own business. Or prowl behind some of the more impressive demons slowly pacing them, body low to the ground... and utterly failing to be stealthy. The creature being stalked would eventually have his nerves shattered and make a break for freedom and then the huge cat creature would leap onto the poor innocent demon and... simply sit on it until its futile struggles stopped and only whimpering could be heard. Then it would stand up and bound away looking for the next playmate. There were many traumatized minor supernatural entities littering the street on that dark day.

Some victims retained the presence of mind to find a patrol of Overlords, the number of which seemed amazingly numerous for the past several days. The huge armored beings would simply look at the large floating eye hanging several hundred feet above the cat and tell them to go away; their Lord was aware of the issue and would deal with the problem when he got around to it.

It was in this fashion that a wandering lost boy began to have the odd sensation that he was being followed. A familiar, yet oddly different chi signature was following him. He would whirl around to catch sight of this... yet find nothing. He was beginning to get slightly spooked. The obnoxious Trick or Treaters he could handle but this was almost... supernatural.

The cat for his part was thoroughly enjoying himself. The other playthings all acted boring and predictable. Obviously, they had no concept of proper play. His new toy was different. He really knew how to how to tease. He would pause, turn to look around but never quite in his direction and then head off in a random direction away from him. The cat would hunker down to a low profile in the middle of the street and his heart would fill with pride at his evident stealth skills.

Ryouga was starting to become irritated, whatever was following him was a master of the ninja skills. No matter where he looked he could see no clues as to the strange chi he sensed around him. He had to admire their skills, but none got the better of a Hibiki for long. He would root out the coward that was tracking him and show him the error of tormenting a true master of the martial arts.

The playmate had paused in the middle of the street. Thinking the boy would initiate another one of those entertaining sudden changes in direction the cat hunkered done and thought of sneaky feline things. He was surprised when his toy broke into maniacal laughter and raised his umbrella in one hand as if in victory.

"Hah, ha! A true martial artist will never give up! Spoon," Ryouga shouted his battle cry in challenge. Okay, it would be his temporary battle cry until he thought of something more relevant.

Upon finishing his challenge, he immediately walked over to one of the scaled pedestrians that had been giving him wide birth. Seeing the approaching martial artist, with his huge entourage of one, the humanoid quickly began to walk in the opposite direction.

"Hey! Hold on! I want to ask you something," the bandana clad boy yelled in exasperation. After ten minutes of futile chasing various costume-clad idiots only to have them turn away screaming about cats, he was in a foul mood and quite ready to hit the next thing he saw with his umbrella to help him relieve some tension. It was at this point the Hibiki sense of direction finally gave in to sheer random chance and Ryouga found himself face to face with the largest cat he had ever seen since the damned ghost cat showed up in Furinken.

Looking back on his actions later he admitted to himself that whacking the cat across his nose with his umbrella was perhaps one of his less brilliants ideas. He should have wound up for a full swing or simply chi blasted the damn thing.

The cat sat on his haunches in shock. This wasn't part of the game. That had actually stung. The cat, in turn, had its own instinctive reaction very similar to Ryouga's. He batted his plaything away. As he watched the figure fly into the air to disappear over a building silhouetted in the sun, he had second thoughts. He had just gotten rid of his best toy of the day. Huffing in dejection the cat sadly wandered down the street.

 

 

The black metal figure stood in the alleyway hidden in the shadows of the building. This town had turned out to be remarkably dangerous for one of his kind. Oh, certainly he was in no physical danger but interference would reduce his chances to capture the lost one significantly. There were also things worse than death when you were an indestructible ex-servitor of the Old Ones.

"Well, Zeek? Did he come this way?" a grunting voice broke the silence just outside the alley.

"I think so. I still don't believe it." Another low, rough voice answered. "What are the chances?"

"Well, the chances don't matter, cause we just plumb hit the jackpot," chuckled Zeek. "Those rune statues are worth a damn fortune. I saw a collector buy one from this high-class merchant for four billion credits. I almost pissed myself when I saw one walking around without a guard."

"Can't figure out why it was wearing jewelry though. Who knows why the rich do things though."

"Maybe it was on the way to a party," the one creature guffawed, slapping the other on the back in humor.

"Hold on. I think I see it!" the sound of breathing became apparent as the voices approached. "Yeah, get it!"

Cursing its luck the metal form broke from cover, lumbering into the street attempting to find somewhere to hide before it became inactive in a half hour. Behind it came two gorilla-like creatures with huge balding heads, intent on making their fortune.

"Er... Zeek?" one gasped as it struggled to catch up the untiring servitor.

"Yeah?"

"Why is there a huge cat following us?"

"Shut up and run, idiot," grunted the other, fully intent on outpacing his companion. He didn't have to be faster than the cat, just faster than his ex-friend. There would be more to go around when he finally sold the artifact anyway.

 

 

The raven-haired woman sat at the head of the table. Posture straight and hands flat on the surface before her, she radiated confidence and power. Before her sat a slightly guilty appearing youth and seven other humanoid figures sitting somewhat defiantly in front of her. The chamber was not spacious but the one-way window on one wall gave the room natural light and helped alleviate the cramped feeling.

"What you did was reckless! If the gate had been open much longer Splynncryth's temporal investigators might have arrived and been able to track us down." She pointed an accusing finger at the baseball cap-wearing youth the woman once again stated her argument.

"Awe... come on! It didn't happen. Everything worked out so what's the problem?" the youth whined.

"The problem is that more than one woman's life was at stake. In fact...” The woman's tirade was interrupted by another male sitting at the table.

"Raven, just end it already! You out of all of us should know that I am the least likely to champion that irresponsible idiot... but he did the right thing this time," the man's deep voice cut across hers.

"But Max.."

"He's right," another woman spoke up, "Without you, our movement would rudderless and our chances would be... less," she ended the sentence on a low note, obviously not wanting to dwell on how low their chances of long term success were in the first place.

"But there's..." Raven began.

"Yes, I would have taken over again," Max overrode her sentence. "But I admit I don't have your charisma... or luck."

"Well. I never thought I'd hear you factor in luck to our plans," Raven stated. "Alright, I'm not going to win this one," pausing to gather her thoughts she continued. "The next thing I wanted to talk about was the aid we... I, received during the last debacle."

"Debacle? Some thanks... " the boy started.

"Drop it, lizard boy. It ended well, but you still disobeyed orders. Don't expect thanks too," the man growled, tired of the boy's whining demeanor. The mage subsided with a sullen look.

"Anyway, as I'm sure you all saw from the other side of the portal, we had help. I didn't sense magic, but I think we had a warlock of some sort helping us."

"The stone fists? Yes, we saw. Crude but effective," the youth stated in interest, suddenly over his previous fit of pique.

"They bruised my ribs, but I have to say that they saved my life. I think I saw who did it."

"That would be convenient. Assuming it wasn't a setup, another magic-user would be a valuable addition," the man rumbled in interest.

"Unlikely. I saw him there when we arrived. Long before any of Splynncryth's forces knew we were there. He seemed very angry. I'd be willing to bet that he just arrived in Atlantis."

"He was a human you say?"

"I didn't say that, but he did appear to be," she stated forcibly.

"He must be fairly powerful to wander the city openly. We can send out feelers and find out more. How many powerful humans could possibly have arrived in the last few days?"

"Sounds acceptable, let's move carefully on this one. If he's powerful he may have already drawn attention to himself," as she paused to continue she noticed that the young mage was staring intently out the window. "Skippy? Hello? I would appreciate your attention at these meetings. It might be important later." Thinking of the irresponsible youth she didn't notice the other members seated on his side of the table looking at the window with a slightly glazed look in their eyes.

"Yes ma'am," Skippy whispered quietly. He still wasn't really listening. He and the others on his end of the table were busy watching a black metal statue being chased by two of the ape-like Kittani, closely followed by a huge cat monster who was, in turn, being chased by a young man wearing a backpack as large as he was, waiving a large bamboo umbrella over his head followed by a giant floating eye.

The room was soundproofed, so they were spared the accompanying shouts, screams, roars, and curses.

 

 

Rhada sat at a huge oak table, a thoughtful expression on her forehead. Her life had certainly changed since she had fallen in love with Abdul-Ra. Oh sure, the initial three centuries of captivity were extremely unpleasant, but the last few weeks she had spent with her paramour had been very satisfying. Atlantis was also a very metropolitan city with so many more experiences available than her own infernal domain. The shopping alone almost made up for the wasted years.

There was one small nagging lack that she felt regarding her current situation. Abdul-Ra was her one true love and she would never regret her decision, but she did feel the need for a pet. Abdul-Ra kept the little psychotic human to amuse him, for a short time she had felt a similar thrill as the pig-tailed martial artist had filled her spare time with his amusing antics. Alas, she owed her freedom to the human youth and it would have been poor repayment to keep him against his will, but... it had been tempting.

She had spent much time at the slave auctions in Splynn, but none of them had the same fire. It probably couldn't be helped, most demonic entities and Intelligences fed off human misery and suffering. Those mortals that were enslaved and rebelled were usually eaten or tortured to death or until their spirit had been broken. She didn't begrudge other entities their innocent pleasures but it did mean that the type of slave she was looking for was in very short supply.

At that moment, still tracing the intricate designs in the surface of the table, her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of rending wood. A moment afterward was heard a chorus of yowling cats. Frowning in puzzlement Rhada concentrated on the screams of pain. She thought she recognized one as the doorman and the guards. The other growls were unfamiliar. Abdul-Ra might be upset if he had to replace his minions. She had no idea why he felt such bonds of loyalty and honor towards his treacherous people but she had to admit it was one of the things she loved about him. How he did it, she couldn't comprehend, it wasn't as if they were worthy of respect, unlike her own people, the Fenry.

She was just standing, with the intention to head towards the front entrance when a raksasha franticly fled through the doorway. The demon got about two steps into the room before a gigantic paw reached through the doorway to slam the poor doorman to the ground. Slumping unconscious, the unfortunate demon didn't notice as an incredibly large feline walked over him, pausing only momentarily to lazily stretch and flex his claws into the back of his sleeping playmate.

Rhada took one look at the huge cat creature that came up to her shoulder and let out a huge smile. "Ranma-chan! How nice of you to visit. I see you finally made use of darling's gift. I was worried you might have problems with it. I'm so pleased that I was worried over nothing," she burbled while walking over to the feline.

"Oh, what a good kitty! You brought me a gift!" Scratching the cat behind his ears she continued to croon. "What a sweet thing you are." With a thump the feline dropped the limb he had been holding in his mouth and stood proudly over his present. "Now why don't you sit over there while Mommy takes care of this wonderful... thing... you brought me."

Gingerly reaching down she picked up the inert form of a metal figure. Only then did she notice that it seemed to be holding onto an unconscious human boy in a viselike grip. Grimacing in distaste she lifted the whole saliva covered mess with two fingers and holding it straight out from her body as far away from her as possible, she walked to the rear entrance and threw both humanoid figures into the rear alleyway.

As she was about to go back into her residence she paused, then looked up into the sky. "While I appreciate the return of my pet, I would appreciate removing your eye a little further away from our home." With another nod at the floating eye, she closed the door.

Abdul-Ra came home to a strange scene. Rhada sat in the sprawling sofa with a large cat draped over her lap, contentedly petting the purring creature with one hand, an oversized tome floating at eye level. The sight would not have been odd if it wasn't the scale. Rhada was a healthy, well-proportioned female of fourteen feet when standing. Sitting in a couch with a feline ten feet at the shoulder and about twenty feet head to tail on her lap. The cat was still huge even considering her own height.

"Did you consider simply growing larger? That boy is enormous in cat form," the demon asked his mate.

"It crossed my mind, but the couch wouldn't fit. Besides he's very comforting. Well? Can I keep him?" the Deevil Lady teased.

"You know we owe him too much... oh. That was a joke," the tiger headed demon shook his head. "Sometimes I think I spend too much time with my people. Well, should I change him now or do you want to spend some quality time with him," he teased, utterly confident in her answer.

"Now that you're back from your conferences I'd much rather spend quality time with you," she replied with a wink. "One thing I don't miss about ruling a realm is the endless meetings and haggling. Not that I've had to deal with that for centuries anyway... but I hated it when I did."

"Hmm... it's just as well. An outright war would be bad for both our dimensions. Although, we would win."

"And how can you be so sure. Deevils aren't pushovers," Rhada replied, pride placing a slight edge into her voice.

Abdul-Ra simply gave a confident smile, "Simple my dear. We have you." Rhada immediately relaxed a smile growing on her face. "With you and your minions, as well as that insane Deevil Lord they have running loose we'd eventually win. Besides our Lord Modeus has been preparing for this war for ages, while the Dyval Lords bicker among themselves."

"It's good to be gone. Mephisto is merely one symptom. The Deevil nation has become self-destructive of late," she said with an introspective tone.

"Hmmph. Let's not get too maudlin. The Demon and Deevil nations are not, nor have ever been one large happy family. If the other Lords didn't plot to stab each other in the back they wouldn't be the supernatural menaces we have grown to know and love," he said while emitting a low growling laugh.

Padding over to his seated mistress he reached out to touch the paw of the feline reclining over most of the sofa. The feline playfully batted his hand away the first few times, but eventually, the Lord's own catlike reflexes enabled him to touch the paw adorned by the ring. This touch initiated a cascading change that finally resulted in a young human lying in the lap of the Deevil Lady.

"Oh geez. That was nasty," the pigtailed youth firmly emoted.

"I trust you are in good health," the raksasha lord inquired.

"Sure. Dandy. That was weird. I think I remember some of it. Do you think..." He was about to continue when he noticed his host was in his half feline form and immediately turned away again, trying to pretend to himself that he hadn't seen it. "... It's due to the desensitizing stuff?"

"I am not aware of any desensitizing 'stuff' you are going through. I've only heard legends of the Neko-ken. You are the first practitioner of the art I have ever met. I see you found out about the special properties of my gift. It combines remarkably well with the Neko-ken."

"Er... right," Ranma mumbled, kicking himself for confusing Anhur with Abdul-Ra. He was sure his patron wouldn't appreciate that kind of slip of the tongue regardless of how confused Ranma felt, fresh from his altered state. As the comment about the ring gradually settled into his consciousness he momentarily considered tearing the ring from his hand. Sanity reasserted itself as he reached for the band and Ranma's hand slipped into folded space to pluck out his bracer. It had been beyond foolish to not replace it on his wrist. Especially with most of the city searching for his female half.

"Did I dream that part about chasing some statue around the city?" Ranma asked still trying to get a grip on his vague memories.

"No. I hope you don't mind that I threw it out. It doesn't fit the décor," Rhada answered.

"That's fine. This city is really messing with my sense of reality," Ranma sentence trailed off.

Ranma sighed and had to resist the urge to purr. Puzzled at this, he belatedly realized that Rhada had been gently petting his head throughout his conversation. This was odd enough that it took him another moment to register that he was still in the woman's lap. Immediately after this he almost reinvented teleportation as he leaped down to the floor, hands in his pockets, and tunelessly whistling as he nonchalantly examined the ceiling. A side-glance at his hosts showed him that there were no furious men or women wanting his head for being in an intimate position with their mates.

"I understand you wanted some information regarding certain High Lords in Splynncryth's service?" Abdul-Ra asked, amusement from antics of his mate's pet barely evident in his voice.

"Wow, how'd you know," Ranma asked, glad to be distracted from his embarrassment, still looking off to the side to avoid staring directly at his feline host.

"One of my minions came to me with an interesting story," the Demon Lord continued with a huffing sound of amusement. "I suppose I should be angry at having to have his position replaced. However you did amuse Splynncryth, so no real harm... to me at least."

"How was I to know they were all spies?" Ranma cried in indignation. "It's ridiculous! Er... what did you mean no harm to you?"

"I would guess that only half of those in the plaza were spies, the others were merely offended by your insinuation. Probably fearful that such accusation might be taken seriously." Ranma mouthed 'half' in silent wonder. "Fortunately, Splynncryth was watching and found your antics amusing." Shaking his head in disdain he continued, "I hope you can live with your good fortune."

"Okay, so how bad could it possibly be," the martial artist asked.

"Not so bad if you don't mind being followed by his minions and being recorded by a giant floating eye. You can take comfort in the fact that your triumphs, failures, and mishaps will be recorded and stored for some supernatural creature's amusement."

"That stinks!" Ranma groused. "How do I get out of it?"

"You don't. I wouldn't go back to your loved ones unless you wish to get them involved in the inner workings of Atlantis," Abdul-Ra's low voice picked up at he continued. "On the other hand as long as that Eye of Eylor is following you no guards will bother you without Splynncryth's direct orders."

"I've just become a supernatural slug's favorite television show?" Ranma asked in distaste.

"Congratulations," Abdul-Ra offered wryly.

"If you ever get tired of fame you can always come back to us," Rhada slyly stated. "You’re always welcome. You're already almost part of the family."

Yeah... Fido, Ranma thought bitterly. "So he's not watching me now?"

"No, of course not. I am a Lord of Hades. As long as you are on my land... or in my home your privacy is inviolate," or at least violated with more circumspection, Abdul-Ra continued his train of thought privately.

"Great. So this is show business. Seems a lot like my normal life," the youth sighed in disgust. "You said something about having the answers I wanted?"

"Yes. The High Lord you expressed interest in is called Nagrath Rak. Or at least what he is known as by most humanoids. His actual name is difficult to pronounce."

"He owns the chamber I pointed to? And he is one of the few that are allowed to tattoo outsiders?" Ranma eagerly questioned.

"Yes. I assume that would explain your new fashion statement?" the tiger headed being asked.

"Huh?" a confused pigtailed elucidated. "I don't get it."

Rhada gave the Demon Lord an amused sideward smile, "Allow me to show you." She immediately gestured with her hand and a large hand mirror appeared in it. Raising it up before the youth she waited.

"Yep, that's me alright. Damn, I look good," Ranma preened slightly at his image before he noticed something dark on his forehead. Reaching up he vigorously rubbed the mark away with his sleeve. "Shoot, I think I need a bath. You should have said so sooner."

"Take a closer look, my little warrior," Rhada urged.

"Hey! Who's the wise guy who doodled on my face?" shouted an irate Ranma.

"I am guessing that would be Nagrath Rak," Abdul-Ra said, not bothering to hide his own amusement.

"Why that... and Nabiki knew!" I must have been running all over this damn town with this weird eye on my forehead! No wonder people were staring at me."

"They were probably staring because you were a loose human. Tattoos and the power associated with them are a well-known phenomenon here in Atlantis."

"Geez, how do I get the things off? I heard they use lasers or something."

"These are somewhat magical tattoos. They bond to your soul, I understand they simply reappear unless you remove the limb they are attached to."

"That's idiotic! It's on my head, I'd have to... " Ranma trailed off, turning slightly green at the thought. "All right. It doesn't look so... bad. Much better than Ryouga's old God mark. Almost dashing... yeah," Ranma continued, seeming more to try to convince himself than any others in the room.

"You look adorable. Trust me," Rhada shared, ignoring Ranma's return glare.

"So, what does it do? It is magical, right," the pigtailed youth asked.

"I'm not a Tattoo Master, but it is a stylized eye. Probably allowed some type of vision. See auras, magic, maybe read, speak and write all languages," The Demon Lord theorized.

Ranma remembered the moment of clarity he experienced in the pyramid. When all the world came into focus and everything he saw seemed obvious in its function and history. He had been extremely busy since then and so hadn't thought of the incident since, but it certainly made sense now.

"I'm just surprised the High Lord only gave you one. I had heard that you could receive two at once," the cat demon pondered.

"Why two?"

"Well if you get three it puts a strain on the spirit or soul. People tend to just drop dead at that point. After about a half a year you can get more."

"I don't want more! I don't even want this one," Ranma exclaimed. A sudden thought occurred to him and he frantically pulled up his sleeves and examined his arms. Not finding anything he continued to pull away the front of his shirt.

A muffled cough interrupted him for a moment, "Perhaps you'd like to continue your self-exploration in your own chambers," the demon suggested in amusement.

Only a groan met his joking offer. Ranma had found a second mark on his chest. A heart encircled with chains with an outline of a skull surrounding the heart.

"Ah darn. You were right. There are two of them," Ranma said dejectedly. "What is this one for?" a mental command and part of his shirt opened just enough to reveal the mark to the others.

"Protection. I think a force field. There's another element too. That is a very talented patron you found. I think he's mixed the effects of several tattoos. That might be physical and mental protection. He must have really liked you to go to so much trouble for you."

Ranma gave his companions a sickly grin, "You know me. The old Saotome charm." The demon gave a noncommittal grunt in reply. Thinking a bit on his problem the martial artist came to the conclusion that he needed help. Better to give information to people that believed they were obligated to him in some way than a stranger. "So... say I, you know, wanted to get into this fellow's favor. Maybe hang out with him for a while," Ranma awkwardly stumbled his way into his request. "Do you know a way to get to him?"

Abdul-Ra leveled a measuring look at the youth before him. "That is an odd thing to ask considering that he has already invested considerable time applying those marks to you. Doesn't he already know you?"

"Well... it's odd that you ask that. I was kinda... unconscious during our time together. I woke up and... wandered away before I actually met him," Ranma sweated nervously, trying to think of the best way to describe the events without really describing them. "I guess it's probably best, he might connect me to things, well things that might have... er, happened to an ally of his."

"So you want to be near him, but not as the human that he spent a week working his enchantments on. That... is difficult," Abdul-Ra pondered. "It's not as if he merely met you in passing. He must have spent much time and resources on you to give you two such complex tattoos."

"Perhaps not as difficult as you think," Rhada volunteered. "Most of Splynncryth's High Lords don't pay any attention to human appearances. To them, they all look alike. The tattoos are the real issue. He's bound to recognize his own work."

"You have a point. If you change your aura slightly," the demon Lord paused and looked questioning at Ranma. The martial artist didn't really notice, since he was making an effort not to look at the tiger headed demon. "Ahem! Would you mind paying a little more attention when we're talking to you?" the demon asked in acidic tones.

"Could you... you know. Get rid of the cat head, please," a hesitant Ranma finally blurted out in a rush.

"Oh. Certainly. Forgot about your problem," the now placated human continued, "Well, can you?"

"I usually just increase or decrease it. I think I can. It might take a few hours of practice though," the youth mumbled still somewhat embarrassed having his phobia shoved in his face.

"Good, if you do that you can just walk straight up to him."

"Whereupon the High Lord will order his minions to slay the impudent human," Rhada finished. "I think we need to work on the details."

"Hmm. Good point," Abdul-Ra admitted to his mate.

"You know I met someone earlier who suggested that if I win in the arena and dedicate my win to the High Lord, he might accept me in his household," Ranma offered.

The two infernal entities stared at the martial artist in surprise. After a moment Rhada said, "Then why did you ask us?"

"Um... I was hoping you had a better... I mean faster way to do it," Ranma said, not wanting to admit that it had actually completely slipped his mind.

"I suppose that makes sense. Well, whoever told you that was probably correct. A human going up to him out of the blue would be killed. If you prove your competency and stroke his ego as well, I think that might work."

"Do you have any connections in the arena? Some guy called Syushra of the Bloody Grubs Plaza said to contact him if I wanted to compete. But if you have something better..." Ranma left the sentence hanging.

"I haven't been here in years. You know, of course, Rhada hasn't either." The Demon Lord quietly paced the boundaries of the room. "I'll have my people look into this Syushra's credentials. If they are adequate they will contact him on your behalf." Coming to a stop he turned towards Ranma, "You’re not an agent of Ammit, are you," he stated.

"W... why do you say that? I love crocodile monsters. Why some of my best friends are crocodiles," Ranma nervously answered.

"I should have seen it immediately. Ammit hates humans. He'd never have one as a minion, regardless of its talents. He also has no patience or talent for stealth. You're not very skilled either, but you're making an attempt."

"I was with Ammit when he went in to rescue Rhada," Ranma frantically reminded the demon. The last thing he wanted was to be trapped in a room with two deity class entities out for his hide.

"Yes. Very strange. But never the less, meaningless. I would have seen it if I hadn't been distracted by Rhada's return. Ammit's allies can be counted on one hand, he usually only deals with those of his pantheon. Should I continue or do you feel like volunteering anything yet?"

"Anhur," Ranma mumbled. "I really need you not to mention this to anyone," Ranma admitted dejectedly. "It's very important."

"Anhur? That is... unexpected. Still, I'm not at odds with him," Abdul-Ra muttered to himself. "I suppose if Ammit asked for his help... "

"I have no issues with Anhur," Rhada added. "If he helped in my rescue, he has my gratitude. Ammit however... do you realize he still has several thousand of my Fenry in his service?"

"Really? I hadn't realized," Abdul-Ra said in surprise. "Well, I'm sure he'll give them back. Actually, I'm not positive, but with some prodding..." Thinking out loud, he continued, "You know, I haven't heard from him since your rescue."

"Anyway. I have no problem with you being a servant of Anhur," Rhada declared. "I'm sure we'll get along famously once we meet. He has a reputation of being a fine war god and an entity of his word. Even if he is also the god of assassins," she ended in a mutter.

"He's the god of what?" Ranma screeched in surprise.

"Well, what did you expect? He is part of the pantheon of Taut," Abdul-Ra offered.

"Which means... what?"

"Well ... he doesn't suffer the ridiculous morals and mindless rules that govern Taut's brother pantheon, the pantheon of Light."

Ranma remained silent. He had known his patron wasn't a fount of goodness but knowing he was the god of assassins was disturbing. Maybe Nabiki had been right in her warnings. He had been assured by Anhur himself that his missions wouldn't go against his own moral code. Whether it was possible to do the right thing under the direction of an evil entity, even an evil entity with his own moral code, was a question he would have to carefully consider. Later.

"Getting back to the original subject," Abdul-Ra prompted when it became apparent the human was lost in thought. "If you win the games you will be in an excellent position. You won't be able to use your new tattoos while the High Lord watches, but other than that I don't see any problems."

"So what about the big eyeball you said is floating behind me all the time now," Ranma asked.

"Well, that will be a little awkward, but shouldn't really impact things. It will stay invisible or hidden most of the time."

"So the Highlord won't mind a spy camera from his boss looking over his shoulder all the time?" he prompted.

"Well, a Highlord should never be doing anything Splynncryth would find objectionable. They are linked to their Lord and treason would mean instant death. Splynncryth will probably honor their privacy as he does ours. Which means he won't enter the homes unless invited."

"Okay, I just don't want to go through all this only to find out the Highlord don't want a pet eye following him around."

"I don't think it will be a problem. If you make a good enough showing he'll have to explain to Splynncryth the reason he doesn't want you."

"This seems to be working out pretty well," Ranma said, confidence in their plan beginning to take hold. "Thanks for your help."

"There are some minor issues I'd like to bring up at the moment. I would like to add some stipulations to the aid we will be providing," the Demon Lord smiled slightly while addressing the martial artist.

"Stipulations? You mean conditions," Ranma warily inquired. He didn't want to lose his only allies, but official deals with demons were risky propositions from all that he'd heard.

"I don't think you'll find these too restrictive," Abdul-Ra purred, eliciting a flinch from Ranma. "The first is common courtesy. I don't want any assassination attempts to be linked back to me."

"Hey! I'm no assassin! My fights are all face to face. Besides from what you said, Splynncryth will want Nagrath Rak's head more than I ever will," Ranma said without really thinking. He immediately worried that he'd said too much, but shrugged it off. His allies must already know that he was there to spy on the Highlord. His actions pretty much spoke for themselves.

"Good. That makes our involvement much less politically awkward," the demon nodded. "Our next condition involves payment," he watched the martial artist squirm uncomfortably and smiled. "Oh, nothing too onerous. We do owe you quite a bit. However, Rhada seems to have taken a liking to you. We've tried to find her a replacement, but all of them seem to lack your spirit," the Deevil Lady in question took this opportunity to run a large, though delicately proportioned, hand through Ranma's hair, which in turn made the martial artist jerk in surprise.

"Yeah... I'm one of a kind," Ranma faintly said. He wasn't very grateful for his charisma at the moment.

"I was thinking maybe twice a year, a month each visit for the next twenty years," the demon lord casually stated.

"Twenty years?" Ranma exclaimed. That was a long time, immortal or not.

"Now, calm down, little dear," Rhada soothed. "Think of it as a vacation. You've been to Abdul-Ra's realm already. It's a very nice place by any mortal standard. Your every whim will be catered to."

"But... but it's full of cats!" Ranma cried out desperately.

"They are all shapeshifters," Abdul-Ra offered. "I'll command them to take human form in your presence."

"Two months is a long time. How am I going to explain this to the others," Ranma mumbled to himself. Anhur's missions were already promised by his contract with the deity. Additional time away would have to be explained. He was sure that telling his friends that he was offered an official position as a Deevil Lady's pet would not really go over very well. "Wait a minute. Do you trade?" the pigtailed youth asked.

"Well, yes. I am technically a sovereign of a nation, though it's actually a sub realm of Hades," Abdul-Ra explained.

"If I could open up trade agreements between you and Nabiki I could explain my presence here as the negotiator," Ranma nodded to himself eagerly as the beginning of a plan started to come together. "That way Nabiki would explain to the others why I was gone. She always had much better at people management skills than me anyway."

"Do you think that she'd mind dealing with demons?" the raksasha asked.

Ranma thought for a moment, "Nah, she'll deal with anyone as long as their words good. I don't think she'll mind if I'm the only contact though. I somehow doubt that Hades is on her vacation list."

"I think my realm is one of the few that has regions that aren't inimical to human life. She doesn't need to know that it doesn't just contain deserts, lava flows, and orchards."

"For her own peace of mind then. Alright, I'll do it," Ranma gave a triumphant grin. Guaranteed vacation for twenty years was an acceptable price. He might have been less sure of himself if he had seen the Deevil Lady’s possessive smile as she again started to pet the martial artist's hair. The pigtailed youth grimaced, uncomfortable with the touch but understanding that the feelings behind it were very different than when his fiancées touched him. He even vaguely recalled enjoying the sensation while in cat form.


Chapter 6: Ambush

Nabiki sat on the floor of her room. Fine lines of concentration marred her forehead as she stared into a porcelain basin before her. Although the liquid it held was merely water, it simmered and bubbled, emitting a heatless silvery energy.

Waving her hand over her make-shift scrying pool she finally relaxed, leaning against her bed. It had been hard work following up on that fool Ryouga. He had somehow gotten lost when he was supposed to be speaking with the city council regarding a trade agreement. It was only through sheer luck she had found this out with her enchantments and had spent the last several days in an exhausting attempt to continue negotiations with her newly mastered image communication. Concern about Ranma fouling up what little plans they had come with only compounded her worried state.

Never the less, she had succeeded. She had forged contracts with two of the major forces in existence in that other alternate Japan Ranma had traveled to. She frowned at the terms. How both Ranma and Ryouga had managed to get such poor terms still amazed and frustrated her. If the act of exploration hadn't called for their durability she would have insisted on going herself. Martial artists all seemed to have the negotiation skills of six-year-olds. It's not that she wasn't rich through the terms she had... but it could have been so much more.

A knocking sounded out from her door, along with a muffled voice calling her name. Nabiki sighed, of course as with all things connected to Ranma there were complications. "Come in Masayo!"

The Demon Queller opened the door and peeked in. Personally Nabiki thought she was a sweet girl, though she naturally seemed a bit obsessed about Ranma. It had been a slight shock to find that she felt this way even though she believed Ranma was a girl. Nabiki didn't mind, it wasn't as though she was interested in her.

"So what brings you here today? Did the Emperor send you with the shipment again," the Tendo girl asked casually from her seated position.

"Well... kind of." The demon spooker mumbled from the doorway. "The war has sort of been won."

"I assume your side 'sorta' won," Nabiki asked slyly.

"Er... well, I suppose you could say that." The Demon Queller looked at her feet. "With both the Republic of Japan and the New Empire cooperating in a coordinated attack, the Oni front line collapsed. Completely routed in mere days. We actually spent more time traveling to them than fighting them."

"And your other problem?" Nabiki prompted.

"As we thought, the Shogunate attacked as soon as we were occupied with the Oni. If we hadn't allied with the Republic we would have easily been taken over. As it was, our allies ambushed the attackers and drove them into a retreat."

"That's it? No details?" the Tendo asked. Usually these fighter types boasted for whole minutes about their victories.

"Well... I was with the group fighting the Oni, but I hear we drove them all the way back to their cities. At that point, the resistance fell apart." Masayo shrugged in puzzlement. "They theorize that the leaders retreated through a portal with the majority of their forces. They just left the cities alone."

"I suppose the New Empire magnanimously offered their protection in return for accepting their leadership."

"Hey! It wasn't like that at all!" Masayo yelled indignantly. "You don't know what's it's like over there! If you don't have some sort of protection then your nothing more than fodder for Oni, monsters and possessing entities," her voice trailed off as a haunted look entered her eyes. "You just don't know what it's like," she whispered.

Nabiki shrugged guiltily, she wasn't used to dealing with fragile personalities. "Sorry. So what happened then?"

"Well, with the Shogunate cities defenseless, many of the leaders of both the allies were in favor of just leaving the traitors as Oni fodder. Fortunately, the Emperor had mercy and convinced the Republic to accept them under their own wing."

"Wait, the Emperor didn't take them himself? That makes no sense! They're adjacent to the New Empire and nowhere near the Republic," Nabiki exclaimed confused.

Masayo looked at Nabiki in pity, an attitude guaranteed to aggravate the Tendo daughter. "It is against the precepts of the Empire to use technology in any way. The only way we could accept them would be if they razed their cities and began anew. The Republic believes technology is the true path of the future, but they are more accepting of the use of magic." She paused for a moment. "It's not a politically sound decision since we are now bordered on two sides by the Republic, but it was the only decision our Emperor could make in good conscience."

"Yeah, a real humanitarian," hiding her sarcasm as best she could. She strongly doubted that the two powers could peacefully coexist indefinitely. Humans didn't seem to be made to get along together. She'd be happy if she was wrong, after all, they did have the Oni as a common foe, but just in case one did consume the other she was just thankful to have contracts with both of them.

"So crisis averted, the bad guys retreated to their backer in Atlantis and we all live happily ever after," until the Old Ones get us, Nabiki thought to herself. "So what brings you here?"

"Atlantis? Where's Atlantis?" Masayo asked in some concern.

Nabiki cursed her slip of the tongue, chalking it up to an exhausting few days. "Atlantis? Heh heh, that just a euphemism for limbo, or a generic hole in the ground. Get with the times girlfriend," Nabiki casually stated with a practiced smile. "So?"

"Well, I did well in battle, making up for much of my dishonor," she humbly stated. "As a reward the Emperor offered me a position as liaison here." Obviously straining for herself control she continued, "So is Ranma back from her errand?"

Smiling to herself, Nabiki just shook her head, "Looks like it might be a while. I can set up a place close by for you to stay in." If envoys are going to be dropping by I should probably buy a few neighboring houses and hire a maid service, she thought to herself. Sure the expenses were unfortunate but in all professional businesses, you had to treat your clients well if you wanted to continue doing business. This wasn't the small-time anymore, she smiled at the thought.

Nabiki's warm fuzzy feeling were dispelled as she felt a disturbance in the dimensional layers somewhere in the city. Not her portals and not a true gate... yet. A frown crossed her countenance as she stretched her senses, adding a minor spell to allow her to perceive more. In a moment she knew, something was happening at the Neko Hanton.

Groaning to herself she sighed, she should have known. The fiancée brigade was gone, as was Balthazar. The sheer peace and quiet should have informed her something was happening.

 

 

Ranma walked down the street. He'd been in the city for several days and had almost gotten to the point that he could ignore the hostile glares and casually bat the minor nuisances he met away. For the moment he was deep in thought as he contemplated his new career as an arena fighter.

He had avoided participating in the public fights in the past, satisfied to test his abilities against those who challenged him. That was not to say he never went to them. He often would walk into the various pit fights and public exhibitions, watch, then usually walk off again. Although these fights could be brutal they often resembled two pit bulls tearing at each other. They lacked skill, grace, and for all the bloodshed they also lacked power. Not ferocity, but at ten years of age his casual slap could send a normal man a dozen feet. There was simply no point joining in. Even his father, whom no one had ever called an honorable man, never stooped that low. Selling his son for a bowl of rice and two pickles was one thing, but sully the Art? Never.

He vaguely hoped this would be different, but doubted it. There would be blood and pain... and probably a lot of clumsy flailing around. It was distasteful but Ranma thought he could keep his goal in mind long enough to finish the competition. If not he was sure that Nabiki would be happy to remind him what the stakes were. He wondered what the gang was up to. Were they still inflicting gratuitous property damage without him? Probably. It never took much to spark their tempers. It was part of why they were fun to be around. It was also why he needed vacations. Lots of vacations.

He had just come from his new agent, Syushra, to sign and finalize his contract. The contract seemed standard and one of Abdul-Ra's more legally minded minions had examined it and given his okay concerning it. The games started next week and would run a month. If he won every battle he would fight once a week for a total of four engagements. It all seemed very straightforward if a bit tawdry.

Syushra himself seemed an honest... entity. At least Abdul-Ra's research hadn't shown any dirty dealing in an industry that wasn't known to breed honesty. It was just taking him a bit of time to adjust to dealing with something that appeared so odd. Of course his agent's address, the 'Bloody Grub Plaza' had really creeped him out. There were no tortured humans or sentients, but there were a lot of bugs. Apparently the area specialized in exotic cuisine. Grubs, slugs, and other less savory appetizers abounded. He had almost jumped to a neighboring building the first time he had seen someone's breakfast skitter away before the patron was fast enough to consume it.

Syushra had been polite and came across as very forthright. They had chatted for several hours about various fights they had each been in or witnessed. The alien had a story to suit every occasion. Each one very witty and humorous. He listened attentively to Ranma's own stories giving his own version of a chuckle in the appropriate places. He was, in short, the perfect host.

This in itself made Ranma feel awkward. He had never really met someone who was so easy to get along with. It would have been a very pleasant time if he could just get over the fact that Syushra looked like the guest star from a horror film. Probably his only lapse had been the time he asked Ranma if he was hungry and offered to treat him to a very nice local restaurant. The alien must have been an astute study of the human features since he had immediately realized that his guest looked quite ill and swiftly retracted his offer.

Still, Ranma had come away with a lot to think about. The stories his host had shared regarding the Arena had been a mixed bag. Blood and gore intermixed with honorable battle. In a way in was comforting. He had been given the impression that Syushra was extremely knowledgeable and would be willing to share his wisdom in order to efficiently defeat his opponents.

It would be fair to say that Ranma was on autopilot while walking down the thoroughfare. It would not be accurate to say that that he was ignoring his surroundings. His experience in Nerima as well as various subsequence events had honed his battle senses to a fine hair trigger. So while his conscious mind paid no attention to the two humans wearing the body armor shaped into insectoid forms, his back brain noted their location as well as the position of the other entities and their chi presence he sensed in a wide area around him.

When the two casually walked up behind him, simultaneously formed a sword in each hand, and then aimed them at him, his reflexes took over. It wasn't as if Mousse hadn't tried the same thing before. Throwing himself forward onto his hands he kicked back with both feet while allowing the blades to tangle with the others where his torso would have been.

His feet meanwhile met the stomach of the two behind him. The impact threw both opponents twenty feet backward and forced one of them to drop his sword at the ground by Ranma. The martial artist casually continued his roll forward to face his assailants.

"Hmm... you certainly don't look like fiancées," Ranma mocked at the two figures hastily getting to their feet. "Martial arts rivals? Nah, usually they yell out a challenge. At least the first time they attack me. You're also a bit clumsier than my usual fare." Saying this he casually kicked the sword lying at his feet. The weapon was sent through the air hilt first at the forehead of the face mask, knocking the single sworded figure back on its butt. "Oh, you dropped this."

The pair silently moved forward to flank the pig-tailed youth. Ranma grinned to himself. He couldn't help it, random attacks made him homesick. As the duo began their next assault he in turn began his commentary. "Not bad... for a twin set of losers," darting from side to side to avoid the flurry of strikes he continued. "I enjoy this more than a salvo of missiles. We'll have to do this again sometime. When you get out of the hospital."

Positioning himself he tapped two of the dancing blades on the side, which in turn altered their trajectory to tangle them in the other set. A loud series of clangs alerted the martial artist that his simple tactic had succeeded and the area was temporarily free of weapons.

Darting quickly into the space in front of each attacker in turn, he deftly grabbed hold of the ridge that held the helmets in place. "I'd love to chat more, but I have places to go, people to see... oh and your friend here to interrogate," holding the fellow in his left at full extension he initiated the Butterfly Kiss, the transferred kinetic energy sending the first assassin sailing almost a half-mile away. He easily deflected the remaining attacker's sword by the simple expedient of shaking him like a rag doll.

"Kind of tough to aim all those little swords of yours when your worlds moving like that," Ranma offered sympathetically while continuing to toss the hapless figure around in seemingly random directions, constantly avoiding the flailing blades. "I really feel for you. The first time Ryouga used this on me... well, as you might notice, it's really not a very dignified move. Effective until you know the counter." At this point Ranma began pounding the armored individual rhythmically into the ground, first in one direction, then the other.

"It's great against people in armor too. That heavy layer of protection doesn't seem very useful against internal impacts. Of course I'm using more force than normal in your case. I can tell by your aura that you're tougher than a normal human," smiling warmly, he continued. "That's okay, it's still a good move for keeping you off balance until I can do this."

At that point Ranma paused and threw two carefully aimed miniature vacuum blades, one at either side of the armor's neck. He followed this up with a palm strike to the faceplate, shattering the insect visage.

"Well, so that’s what you look like," Ranma muttered to himself, "I don't remember you." He did notice the tattoos at the neck and face but other than that it was just some unknown young human.

While the shaken human was recovering Ranma took advantage of his stunned condition to remove his swords. It didn't look like his hand to hand skills were a particular threat to him. Taking a better grip on his hapless victim's throat, he started his interrogation.

"So... who sent you? Either it was an idiot or someone vastly misinformed about me," Ranma helpfully gave another shake to loosen the tongue. The young man silently glared into the face of his captor and gritted his teeth. A moment later a luminescent blue glow formed around him. Ranma's grip was slightly displaced by the immaterial substance and the assassin took advantage of this to twist free and take a ready stance some feet away.

"Let me guess. A force field, right?" Ranma taunted, attempting to get some sort of reaction from his opponent. At least the idiot was disarmed, Ranma thought to himself.

Behind the martial artist the swords laying on the ground shimmered, then disappeared. Ranma, feeling the tingling sensation that presaged enchantment stepped back and to the side, allowing him to view the area behind him without losing sight of his opponent. He was slightly surprised to find the swords had vanished. A moment later he was even more dismayed to see them reappear in the young assassin's hands.

Ranma frowned to himself, mentally calculating how soon it would be before the other fellow could get back. Chances were he wouldn't be stunned long and the attack itself was mostly to gain distance, doing very little damage. Nodding, he came to the conclusion that he had a few minutes to test his opponent's abilities. It would be valuable to know his enemies' capabilities.

With this decision he leaped over his opponent and then began a methodical pounding before the swords could be brought to bear. The hardest part with dealing with swords was getting in close. Fortunately, only Kuno had ever been good enough to keep him at a distance for any amount of time. And that was only when using that silly watermelon training regime.

After about fifteen seconds of the Chestnut Fist, the blue glow disappeared allowing free access to flesh. The martial artist was about to renew his verbal assault when his danger sense told him of a threat from behind. He leaped away expecting that either reinforcements had arrived or the assassin's partner had made his journey sooner than expected. He was therefore taken by complete surprise when a 5-meter long head filled with dagger-like teeth closed around one of his legs.

The shock was soon followed by surprise, then pain. Oh, sure he was far more durable in this environment than at home, but rows of saber sharp teeth still hurt like hell even if his leg was in no danger of being removed. Most worrying, it lowered his mobility by several magnitudes. No... now that he thought about it, the fetid aroma and slime that was on his leg was the worst.

Ever since the Orroci he had lost any desire to see a big lizard up close, his encounters with Ammit and the Dragon had just driven the feeling home.

Not one to dwell on his misfortunes he grabbed a nostril of his attacker in one hand and with that leverage began quickly knocking out the teeth around his leg several at a time. The huge creature didn't even register the pain for several seconds leaving Ranma essentially free to leap away when the thing roared in agony and violently shook its head.

Gracefully landing many meters away the pigtailed youth leisurely massaged his leg while appraising the situation. His assassin now had another force field up and both his swords out. He was seemingly in control of a large T-Rex. Admittedly, the dinosaur wasn't very fast and it didn't 'feel' as threatening as most magical or supernatural entities did. Most likely it was just a big animal as opposed to a monster that used ambient supernatural energies to fuel its durability. All right, one more foray.

The lizard was closing in on him, so he simply leaped between its legs, under its body and tail, and into a swift jump kick at the unmasked youth. Ranma felt a tingle of magic and then a wall of air impacted him mid-flight. Tumbling end over end trying to regain his balance he was again struck in the side by a huge scaled tail. Once more tumbling in the air he managed to come to a semblance of a controlled landing about fifty feet away.

Working the kinks out of his muscled he looked back at his attackers. The youth was now floating in air, electricity dancing on the surface of the armor, and exposed skin. The T-Rex was rapidly approaching with earth-shaking steps.

It was obvious that he had drastically underestimated his opponents. They had begun their assault with an incredibly weak attack and he had assumed that even if they were holding some of their forces back, they weren't holding much back. The use of magic swords, spell effects without any obvious spellcasting and monster summoning proved him wrong. Of course, the very fact that they had attacked him with such a pathetic initial strike demonstrated that they knew practically nothing about him either. In this case the war might go to the one who knew more about the other.

Ranma knew he could win, heck he was barely winded. That wasn't ever in question, however, it was obvious that this person wasn't working alone. Ranma also knew it would be best if they found out as little about his capabilities as possible. Until he decided to challenge them on his own ground. It was just a variation of the Saotome Final Attack.

With that thought, he engaged the dimensional cloak and ghosted towards nearby cover.

 

 

Nabiki hurried through the silent streets. They were presently deserted. The Nerima citizens, apparently sensing that such a quiet day was merely a prelude to a disaster of epic proportion, had mostly decided to either stay in or visit relatives in neighboring prefectures. Not having anything to do except waiting, Masayo had followed in her tracks. She easily jogged next to the panting Tendo girl, even finding the leisure to glance around at the scenery.

Nabiki was worried. If the disturbance had occurred elsewhere she may have simply shrugged and sent someone to find out what had happened. However, the Neko Hanten actually had people who knew something about magic. Usually only enough to be irritating, but there were many events taking place that should not be interfered with. Ranma wasn't here, so chances were there was nothing to be worried about, but still...

The anomaly she had sensed was slowly building. It had already been worrisome and it was getting to be more so. When the eatery finally came into sight the radiance pouring out of the windows and from under the door inspired a last-ditch panicked rush towards the front door from the Tendo sister.

Nabiki was not one of the martial powerhouses that frequented the area but she was not without some limited training. This combined with one of the most unpleasant adrenaline rushes she had ever experienced combined to allow her to destroy the flimsy lock on the door and rush inside. She immediately wished she had waited.

Inside were all the people that she had been concerned about. Shampoo huddled on the floor next to the Summoner, Balthazar, listening intently to his instructions. Ukyou and Akane stood across from them, quietly waiting for them to finish. The two girls from the Timiro Kingdom stood on either side of them. Such a scene of peace would not have been cause for concern, except for the circle on the floor which was radiating a huge amount of energy and light. It gathered in a wide pillar and almost coated the walls and ceiling in eerie luminescence.

Nabiki was far from a master of the mystic arts, most of her powers were granted through Thoth rather than from her own means. However, none had ever accused her of being slow on the uptake. The girls in front of her were breaking down the dimensional barriers and it wasn't just to chat about the weather.

"Stop," Nabiki shouted at the top of lungs. Her image as the unflappable business person could be restored later. Right now the universe as she knew it was endangered. Unfortunately, whatever effect Shampoo and the circle mage had been trying for was finished. The Amazon looked up from the circle and turned in puzzlement.

"What Mercenary Girl want," she asked from the sitting position. Behind her the pillar flexed and bent. A final deformation sent waves of energy throughout the area as the excess energy dispersed, displaying a different scene on the other side of the newly created portal.

"Stay put," Nabiki commanded futilely, "Ranma is coming back in just a few weeks. You'll do nothing except risk his life if you go through that."

"Shampoo is going to help Airen," the blue-haired girl sniffed disdainfully. "Shampoo not abandon him like the others."

"Hey," a chorus came from the other girls as they glanced away from the mesmerizing gate to their rival.

"I know Ranma bit off more than even his ego can handle. Just because you think you’re the only one who knows enough about magic to follow him doesn't mean we don't care," an irate Akane responded.

"Yeah and don't think we're going to let you alone with my Ran-chan," Ukyou inserted, earning a glare of her own from the other girls.

"Ranma isn't going to thank you if you jump through that portal. Let me contact him and you can see for yourself that everything is fine! He really doesn't need help," Nabiki stated quickly, trying to keep their wavering attention focused on her. "Look, it's really a simple mission. He's in no danger at all. Just wait for him," Nabiki urged as she lied through her teeth.

"Mercenary Girl lie... Airen needs us," that was as far as she got before a huge clawed hand reached through the portal and grabbed the girl's hair. In an instant the Amazon had been pulled through the portal. After a moment of shocked silence the others shouted in rage.

When projectile and laser fire began to spray wildly through the portal, the shouting was quickly muted as the girls dived to the floor. Nabiki cursed to herself from her own position hugging the ground. The circle mage was cowering in one corner and the other girls were now spread out throughout the room.

Nabiki heard groaning timbers sound throughout the restaurant and realized with a shock that the energy and projectiles that had completely missed the people had blown huge gaping holes in the walls and ceiling. Her eyes widened in panic as she was able to see through the openings and see that outside large portions of nearby houses and even several houses behind those houses were either gone or had huge areas simply missing from them.

Eyes slotted in determination she quietly apologized to Shampoo and summoned borrowed energy from Thoth and focused it through her hand. A small fiery sphere formed in the palm of her hand and in a smooth motion she aimed and fired. Not at the portal, but at the circle under it.

The instant the energy impacted, the portal winked out taking the humming of lasers and whistling projectiles with them.

There was a moment of complete silence as each girl took count of what had just occurred. Nabiki, although feeling ill at the fate she might have condemned Shampoo to was glancing nervously around her. Most of the walls were gone and she could see the sky through the upper floors of the restaurant.

"Everyone out of the building, now," commanded Nabiki, barely able to keep her voice from breaking up."

"You... you just left Shampoo to that thing," Akane whispered in horror, just staring aghast at her sister.

"I had no choice, we... "

"What kind of monster are you," her younger sister began.

"Your sister is wise," a gruff voice broke in, "She has saved you from a fate which you most assuredly earned." Masayo stood from where she had lain. "If you continue to blindly open portals to my world you will find that there are many things that will attempt to destroy you. I believe Ranma may survive such things, but it's obvious that he is the exception in this world, not the rule." Frowning to herself she looked around. "You have paid a price, but if we don't leave we'll pay a heavier toll. It's a miracle this building is still standing. I for one will not tempt fate any longer in this fragile world." So stating, she promptly walked out through one of the open walls. Bits of ceiling starting to fall around her in earnest.

This action prodded the others to leave the condemned area themselves. Once outside they stood in silence taking in the ruined blocks surrounding the once popular eatery.

They were still staring out at the devastation in shock when the edifice behind them signaled its end with a long resounding crash.

Nabiki simply shook her head in wonder. Ranma was going to freak when he found out Shampoo was in Atlantis. Heck, even Thoth was going to be upset. Nabiki was supposed to be in control of the area. Any problems here were ultimately her responsibility.

Looking at the burning buildings surrounding her Nabiki tapped her foot on the ground in contemplation. This would take a bit of effort to put a positive spin on.


Chapter 7: Obligations

"This is complete crap!" the first armored made an angry gesture in the air. "We had absolutely no warning that he was some sort of mutant wizard!" The other individual quickly gave a blow to the back of the first person's rear helmet in token rebuke.

"Don't whine, the client will be charged appropriately for the lack," shaking his own insect helmed head, he looked around the battle-scarred landscape. "We should have been better prepared."

"Well... we knew he had to be more than standard human simply to be walking unmolested in Atlantis. There was no way to know he was some sort of powered freak."

The other turned to face the younger man. "It's my responsibility. I should have set up surveillance, instead of simply choosing to strike at him directly."

"Hey! That was my idea!" the other objected, relieved not to be blamed, but not pleased to have his contribution ignored.

The older man simply grimaced under his mask at his companion's behavior. "It was my mission. Despite it being your bonehead idea it was my responsibility for accepting it."

"Well... I won't argue," the younger reluctantly submitted.

"By the way. Get rid of the damn dinosaur," he gestured at the huge reptile that was presently sniffing hungrily at the back of his armor.

Ranma wasn't far from these proceedings. He had ducked off into the alley, engaged the Dimensional Warp technique, and then employed a mixture of the Silent Thief chi masking and mere stealth. He had found that if he fully engaged the technique in plain sight, the supernatural entities all seemed to stare at him as if he was holding a beacon. By merely masking his energy and practicing due diligence through mundane stealth, he was able to practically be invisible without the annoying 'here I am' side effect caused by actual invisibility.

What he had found was educational. The second fellow he had knocked away with the Butterfly Kiss had indeed come back a few minutes later to find the first assassin searching the area, dinosaur in tow. The helmet that Ranma had smashed open had hastily been taped together. A poor bit of protection, but it was obvious to Ranma that the armor was more for anonymity than protection. After all, anyone that could put up a new force field as fast as he could take them down couldn't be using mere armor for anything but aesthetics.

The conversation he had been overhearing was not surprising. Drawing a correlation between the armored individuals and assassins had been anything but difficult. The question of course was who. He hadn't been in the city long enough to have any new enemies and his old ones had no knowledge of Atlantis that he was aware of. That of course was the purpose of his present hidden state, to learn who had hired these people and who exactly were these armored people.

Fortunately, the eye that had been following him had chosen the last few minutes to conceal itself. Ranma could feel its chi, but to all other means of perception it was simply not there. It probably didn't want to spoil the entertainment.

Hopping up onto some neighboring roofs he simply waited until the two below stopped bickering and started to walk away. Ranma simply followed.

 

 

Nabiki absently tapped her chin with her finger in contemplation. Masayo did not know anything about Atlantis but she did know a few things about monsters. Of course, that simply led to Masayo's firm belief that Shampoo was either dead or fervently wishing she was dead. Nabiki herself had her own ideas. She was convinced that Shampoo was merely wishing she was dead.

She was grasping at straws but the attack through the portal had been far too overwhelming and organized to have been just a few demons on the street with ideas of random destruction. No, she firmly believed that the portal had caught the attention of the authorities in Atlantis and they had simply been mistaken for the typical dimensional raiders. This led to the belief that Shampoo was alive and probably being interrogated at the moment. Alive, but probably wishing she wasn't.

Even though it made her inwardly wince, Nabiki simply thanked Thoth that it wasn't Akane. It wasn't that she hated Shampoo, but Akane was her sister.

 

 

The man in the grotesque armor was presently more than happy to be wearing it. The armor and helmet easily covered his face and expression, leaving him to concentrate on keeping his voice calm and level. It was getting difficult recently. In front of him stood a huge serpentine figure. He would never mistake it for a mere serpent however, it was a dragon, an adult dragon filled with all the pride and power that goes with that position.

"So… why shouldn’t I kill you again," the dragon asked with some less than concealed ire.

"You, of course, could but my companions would avenge me. They would hunt you down and…"

"Yes, yes I heard that part,” the dragon stated dismissively. "It was the other reason that caught my attention." He had heard so many dying shouts of vengeance over the years that he mostly ignored them unless they were especially entertaining. Besides, did the little armored man really believe he’d let anyone know what happened to him? He was already using a minor spell to prevent transmissions and cries for help. Simple precautions.

"We are the private assassins of Lord Spynncryth. If anything happens to me you shall face his wrath," the man elaborated attempting to sound firm and confident. A difficult thing to accomplish when you're facing a dragon’s head as large as your body. And for some odd reason his electrical systems seemed to be malfunctioning.

"And why would Splynncryth’s private assassins be following me around trying to drum up some side work," the great wyrm’s head angled itself slightly to regard the assassin with one eye.  "Is business down this season in the great dimensional market?"

"Lord Splynncryth allowed us to do side work as long as it doesn’t interfere with his wishes." This, of course, was all an exaggeration. The Sunaj did work for Splynncryth, but it was a far looser alliance than most people believed. Naturally, allowing people to draw their own conclusions usually gave the Sunaj more freedom and influence than most except the direct minions of the Splugorth possessed. Most of the time.

"Of course. A sovereign lord lets his minions go off and assassinate whoever they like," hot breathe washed over the man as the dragon snorted his disbelief. He hadn't been alive this long to not recognize a line of bull when he was fed it. "Obviously that’s the story you're going to stick to. Well, stop wasting my time and tell me why you've felt obliged to risk your life by bothering me."

After a moment of silence where the Sunaj reflected on the benefits of still breathing he started into the speech he had begun before he was interrupted by an irritated dragon. "We have heard that you are hunting a martial artist. It so happens that we have become aware of the location of this person, for a certain price we can eliminate him for you..."

The words were interrupted as a huge clawed hand smashed the assassin back and pinned him firmly against the wall. "Where is he? I don't need your services, I'll kill him myself for the affront he gave me!"

The roar of the dragon’s voice momentarily overwhelmed the armored man. With the audio buffering systems down along with the other systems, the sound traveled unimpeded to his ears, causing excruciating pain.

"We have agents tracking him, we can give you the location if you wish," the man gasped through the crushing grip on his chest and the more localized pain in his ears. He had to admit that he was hoping the dragon would volunteer to do his people's work for him. He just wished the process of convincing it wasn't so painful.

 

 

Ranma ducked behind another building. He was almost certain the armored people he was following couldn't see invisible but he didn't want to take any chances until he had a better grasp of what their abilities were. The force fields didn't worry him so much, he was confident that he could overload the damage capacity of the field with little effort. The summoned dinosaur did worry him. That was pure distilled magic and that meant it could be a wild card in combat until he found what its limitations were.

His prey walked purposefully into a three-story building of human proportions. Hopefully this meant it was their destination. With his luck they were all vampires and this was merely the storage for cattle. He grimaced and the thought. He wouldn't discount it but the Splugorth were notorious in their hatred of Vampire Intelligences and their humanoid minions. Not that he was an expert but his talks with his manager and his 'mistress' Deevil had brought to light some gross political structures.

Ranma maintained his Umi-sen technique as he hopped onto a building opposite the one he had just made the decision to stake out. A few of the creatures on the street stared at him obviously aware that there was a human in their midst attempting to hide. Ranma simply looked boldly into their eyes... or whatever they used and dared them to do something about it. In most cases they simply went on about their business unconcerned.  A few of them looked at him, looked up to where the eye was floating and cloaking its presence to the casual eye and hurried onward. A smaller number tried to play 'abuse the cowering human'. He made short work of these idiots, however, although he tried to be discrete he wasn't always successful. It was the main reason he thought the armored guys couldn't see the invisible. Or, of course, it could be an elaborate trap. It wasn't like he hadn't walked into dozens of them in his lifetime.

He had just made himself comfortable for a long sit when he heard a voice.

"Ranma? Are you there," a familiar voice echoed in his ear.

"Ah, damn," he muttered to himself. "Nabiki, this isn't the best time. I'm spying on some psychos and I'm being watched by someone else. I don't think they can, but it's possible they might trace you given enough time."

"Sorry Ranma but we have trouble, is this better," Nabiki asked as her voice suddenly seemed to bypass his ears and resonate in his head. The gods had given him some experience with this mode of communication before, he had just never expected it from someone else.

"Telepathy? Since when can you do telepathy," Ranma focused his voice internally as he had with the few deities who had used this mode of communication on him.

"Since I learned this darn spell. The option comes with the spell but it's not often used because it's so tiring," Nabiki's voice had more than a tinge of worry in it and a large amount of urgency. "It's about your fiancée brigade."

"Oh come on," Ranma exclaimed in exasperation. "I'm not even there! How much trouble can they possibly get into?"

"They can if they get it into their heads to follow you," Nabiki stated flatly.

"Follow me? Nabiki, I'm in another freaking dimension, not the dimestore down the street! How could they even think about it? You have the only key to the circles and they all go to very safe places... very far from me," he pondered skeptically.

"Well guess who made some of those circles for me? Guess who would do anything for the attention of a beautiful woman? Guess... " Nabiki was interrupted at this point.

"I'll kill him," Ranma got the point and was beyond furious. "He's a damn Summoner... he knows how dangerous this place is," pausing in his tirade he asked the next logical question. "Are they okay? You stopped them in time, right?"

"Well... I found out about it a little late," Nabiki tentatively started. She disliked having to justify her actions to anyone, but if she wanted Ranma's help she had to give a little. "Shampoo had 'Zar start the ritual at her place. I got there just in time for some things to start shooting through the portal."

"Are they okay?" Ranma asked worriedly.

"Um... most of them are," lacking a better way to say it she just told him, "They grabbed Shampoo, and then the portal was disrupted. The Neko Hanton and the block surrounding it were destroyed but everyone else was okay."

"They have Shampoo?" Ranma asked. "Who's 'they'? If they took her she's probably still alive."

"I'm not positive but I think they were what passes for authorities in those parts."

"Ugh. A mixed blessing. They'll probably want to interrogate her before they put her on the market or eat her," Ranma thought to himself.

"Eat her," Nabiki exclaimed obviously catching the last part of his thought.

"Eat? Did I say eat? I meant greet her, yeah. Greet... lots of friendly aliens over here," Ranma lamely tried to cover his slip. "The girls must have opened a portal to a sensitive spot or somehow made them think they were pirates. They don't usually respond so preemptively to dimensional travelers. That's where most of the buyers come from."

"So you can get her back," Nabiki inquired hopefully, ignoring his earlier pathetic babbling.

"Sure, no problem I'm sure it's just a misunderstanding," Ranma stated absently. Obviously, he'd have to work fast before something permanent happened to Shampoo. He was at a loss as to what to do but his manager seemed to know how to finesse the system. Surely they could work out a story that would get Shampoo out alive. If not, he'd have to try to break her out. He was confident he could do it, but that might damage his chances later on with his mission. Nabiki wouldn't like it, but he wouldn't like it if they started eating his fiancees. That wasn't the kind of attrition he was hoping for when he started his waiting game plan.

Standing up, he starting leaping from building to building heading towards his manager's office. If he had bothered to look back he might have noticed a large black dragon writhing through the air towards the entrance of the building he had been watching moments before.

 

 

Ryoga was extremely unhappy. He didn't remember much after that long chase through the streets involving the giant cat. Apparently, wherever he had followed Ranma had dangerous creatures roaming the street. He also was beginning to have the sneaking suspicion that the people on the street weren't wearing costumes.

He had woken up a small stone cell, it had a small cot in the corner and a small basin that was perpetually filled with water. Although spartan it wasn't unclean or unpleasant. The door to the chamber was locked however, so he couldn't help but think that somebody thought he was their prisoner.

Of course stone walls don't a prison make, especially for a master of the Breaking Point, however, someone thought he was kept here. The question of course was who. Rather than perhaps create an incident he had made the decision to wait and see. He still was feeling a bit battered, though the bruises were quickly fading.

A scraping sound at the door was heard and it swung open a moment later. What it revealed was a huge humanoid with a bulky musculature and two large fangs protruding from the mouth of what almost looked like a neanderthal. A low toned voice issued from the crude face.

"Well if the little godling isn't awake," the creature taunted. "You should more careful where you get drunk and pass out, god boy. If our patrol hadn't picked you up you might have ended up in something's stomach. Things that look human should be careful in our fine city, they just might get eaten."

"Right... " Ryouga looked at the creature and thought over its words. Okay, maybe he'd been a little naive about the Halloween thing. The people would have all had to have been as rich as Kuno to afford costumes that good. "So, now that I'm awake and we're all sober, how about letting me out?"

"Not so fast, god boy. There's fines and baggage fee for housing you for the night..." The thing continued on for several minutes listing a number of ridiculous services.

"Wait! You pressed my clothes while I was unconscious and you want a tip," Ryouga interrupted at one point, unable to stay silent any longer. "I don't even have any local money!"

"That's okay, god boy, here in Atlantis we can exchange almost any currency in existence... for a fee," the jailer offered magnanimously.

"Er... I'm not sure at the going rated from yen to the credits I hear you use here, but isn't a half a million credits a bit high," Ryouga offered hesitantly.

"You high and mighty godlings disgust me," the humanoid snorted, gesturing as if to ward away dirt. "You get wealth thrown at you by your parents but won't even pay for services fairly given."

"Now wait a minute! I never had anything just handed to me," Ryouga protested hotly. "Everything I have I earned by my own hands!"

"So you'll make good on your debts," the creature inquired dubiously.

"Of course I will," Ryouga indignantly stated. Then he froze as he realized what he had just promised. He hadn't been blindsided this badly since he had made a deal with Nabiki.

"Great so hand over the money and I'll get it exchanged for you... at cost, even," it generously offered.

"Everything I have is in my backpack. You probably have it somewhere," Ryouga muttered dejectedly.

"Hmm... yes we do. A shame nothing you have covered the amount you owe," the creature sadly shook its head. "I suppose this means you'll have to default on your promise. And here I thought you were honorable. For shame."

"Hey! I made a promise and I'll keep it," the young martial artist stated stubbornly. How this had become a matter of honor he didn't even want to think about.

"You're new to Splynn? You know I happen to have a few connections," the creature stated thoughtfully. "You look like you’re a fairly powerful scrapper. I bet you're not a bad fighter with the blood of a deity running in those veins of yours."

"Yes," the martial artist answered cautiously.

"I have a relative who manages a few fighters in the arena. If you agree to sign with him for a couple of fights I think I could write it off."

"So, it's like a street fight," he had fought his share of those to feed himself over the years. It was usually pathetically easy for a fighter of his caliber, but if he had to do it then so be it.

"Yeah... just like a 'street fight', just a bit more of a crowd," the creature offered politely. Ryouga wasn't sure when he'd gone from 'god boy' to this thing's pal but really thought it didn't bode well.

The creature shuffled into a dimly lit office. In the darkened corner of the room a small tentacled creature tapped on the screen of a monitor, entering some arcane figures.

"Well," it asked in a bubbling voice.

"He was easy," the larger creature boasted. "Doesn't know a thing about Atlantis. He actually thought we were the authorities."

"Really? I didn't think he'd be that easy," the other bubbled.

"It was simple. Once I found out that he had that honor weakness I knew it was over," the creature chuckled and continued. "It also helped that he's a moron."

"It doesn't matter how stupid he is as long as he can fight. He's a demi-god, maybe even a godling. They're all fairly tough, even given the competition in the Arena."

"Just be careful. I've seen a few jokes who called themselves godlings." The creature positioned itself differently in the seat, causing some unsavory wet noises to be heard. "I think this one is different. He might be one of the more powerful ones."

"I think so," a large toothy grin followed this statement.

"Keep going with the obligation track. Also, try to make it seem like it is his own idea. We don't know how close he is to his parents or ancestors... or whatever spawned it," a wave of a tentacle enunciated this view. "If something happens to it, let it seem that it got into the trouble by itself."

"We might come close to winning. It's been a while since we collared a good one. The last few died before they could get close to getting us a profit."

"If he comes in first place we could afford a leisure pool in the office," wet sucking noises showed the creature's pleasure.

His companion stayed silent. He wasn't as fond as his partner about dark moist places. He would spend his money on some serious drinking and female company of the cheap kind.


Chapter 8: The Azlum Asylum

Ranma crept warily through the rather dimly lit corridors. The smooth stone walls had no seams giving an almost painted look to the surface. Beside him strode two huge Overlords who occasionally deigned to give him a glare of disapproval. Every hundred feet a massive stone door would adorn the wall. Small, dark vents werebe cut out near the bottom, and whimpers or cries of misery or madness would waft through them. Honestly, he'd rather be elsewhere.

He silently sent a prayer of thanks in the general direction of his manager. He had no idea where to even start looking for Shampoo. The arcane bureaucracy of Splynn eluded his grasp and mastering even the basics of where to ask would have taken more time than he believed he had. When he had come to his manager for advice he had simply laid a sectioned arm on his shoulder and told him that he'd take care of it. Ten minutes and one call later and he had the location of the purple-haired Amazon.

Admittedly, he had been all for breaking in and simply destroying anything that got in his way. This must have been more obvious than he had thought since his manager had gently restrained him on the way to the door. Only his gratitude had kept him from brushing past and continuing with his brute force idea.

He really hadn't been thinking straight. Ranma wasn't perfect. He may not admit that to anyone else, but he wasn't stupid. He may never lose when he was serious but he had... been inconvenienced... by his challengers on many occasions before he put them in their place. He had his flaws, buttons that people could push. Most of his buttons turned his playful battles into deadly confrontations his foes rarely walked away from without artificial aids. But they did make him react in certain ways.

One of the most frequently used buttons was 'the kidnapping of Ranma's fiancées'. It was a sure-fire way to get Ranma's attention and keep it focused for the duration. It also pissed him off. Really pissed him off. Sure, he'd been through the Soul of Ice training but it was never enough to do more than concentrate his outrage to a honed edge. He had so few friends over the years that the thought of someone taking them away could not be tolerated.

Never the less, Ranma stopped long enough for his manager to offer his help and so here he was. Only part of it was connections. True, the insectoid knew many powerful people, not the least of which were the Demon Lords Ranma himself was staying with. The real issue was experience. It dealt with fighters. Many of these fighters were not the powdered, civilized fisticuffs of the advanced civilizations. It worked with the most effective fighters it could find.

Once in awhile Syushra could find one with restraint, self-control, and acumen to accompany the power and skill it required. However, most of the time the people he worked with were dull brutes. Now, if you have powerful idiots working for you, chances are they don't like authority. In Splynn if you like fighting and hate authority you might pick fights with the military. If you survive this, you will end up in prison.

This had happened so many times over the years that it simply took one call to locate a newly acquired 'prisoner'. One more call arranged her freedom. For a price.

"I assume this friend of yours wasn't really a dimensional raider," the chittering inquiry caught Ranma off guard after the second communication ended.

"Is that what they thought? I was wondering why they grabbed her," Ranma said thoughtfully. "I mean they have tons of people gating in here. That’s how they make their money, right?"

"Hmm... yes. However your friend seems to have made her entryway directly into a rather sensitive installation. They were going to use her for some quite unpleasant experiments before I spoke with them..." his voice trailed away hesitantly.

"What," Ranma prompted cautiously.

"He didn't come out and say it but I think they may have already done something to her," he chittered anxiously.

"What!" Ranma exclaimed again with far more force and outrage.

"Calm down! We're getting her back and we'll see what damage was done soon enough," he paused to give Ranma time to collect himself. "There is also the promise I had to make to get her out."

"Promise?" Ranma asked with a certain amount of trepidation.

"Er... yes," the creature paused for a moment. "In a way, my influence is one dimensional. As you may know, the greater beings that have influence in Splynn suffer from ennui, boredom and are very jaded. They give great latitude for beings that have a chance to relieve them... "

"Can you get to the point," Ranma interrupted, tired of the rambling explanation.

"Fine. In order to free her, I had to say she was one of my fighters who had strayed," the manager tapped a chitinous foot rapidly on the floor. "Most of the entities I sponsor really aren't the sharpest tools in the shed, so I've actually had to bail them out of worse situations."

"Well, that's fine," Ranma said reasonably. "Once she's free we'll just say she sprained her foot and that’s that."

"Er... no."

"After all... huh? What do you mean, no?" Ranma stopped himself as the statement penetrated.

"The government actually keeps track of these things. The person I contacted may even place bets on the person I free. After all, if I go through the trouble and expense to expedite the entitie's freedom they must be worth the trouble. If their fight is cancelled they'll come looking for her."

"What if she's gone?" Ranma asked worried he wasn't going to like the answer.

"Well, since she's going to need to be picked up I manufactured an excuse for you to go in and get her. She's your partner."

"My what? I don't need her as a partner! She hasn't practiced seriously since she followed me to Japan," Ranma cried indignantly. "What's she's going to do? Dose the opponents with love potions?"

"Excellent! She knows magic!"

"Huh? Did you just hear what I said?"

"Yes. It doesn't matter. If she runs off they're going to come for you. So unless you both plan to run off you're stuck. I would try to think about your new partner's assets rather than her drawbacks."

"But... but," Ranma babbled, internally torn. He really hated getting the girls involved in his fights but if he screwed this chance to grab the Highlord's attention Nabiki would nail his hide to the wall. Thoth would probably be upset too. Oh, and the universe ending thing was also a bad thing.

"Fine."

Again, he blessed the foresight of his manager. This place reeked of both magic and advanced technology. He still believed he could have broken in. Finding Shampoo would have been... unlikely, in the limited time that he would have had. Shampoo's chi could be sensed but unless he went through this magically enhanced rock, he certainly couldn't have gotten to her.

The trio finally stopped in front of what appeared to be an anomaly. Instead of a thick stone door it appeared to be organic, perhaps wood. It pulsed with a dark, sickly energy that set Ranma's primitive magical senses and far more advanced chi senses aflame.

"Why is her cell different from the others," the martial artist asked already guessing the answer.

The Overlord gave a deep laugh, "Seems your minx has an affinity to stone doors. We had some problems at the start. She wasn't particularly powerful, to begin with, but it seems she has a talent for going through rocks as if they were nothing."

Ranma glanced once more at the entry and nodded. This was organic material impervious to the traditional Breaking Point and seemed soaked in negative chi. Shampoo wasn't advanced enough to work through negative chi and lacked the creativity that Ryouga and Ranma possessed that allowed them to adapt to situations the original techniques seemed unsuited for.

"Well, let's get my partner," he prodded his escorts before continuing. "What do you mean she wasn't?"

"Never mind, you'll see. You'll even thank us. Azlum aims to please," the one on the left said, giving a toothy grin while opening the door. Giving his escorts an evil glare he quickly walked forward to catch sight of his fiancée.

Sitting in the corner, hair falling around her like a waterfall, arms wrapped around her legs was the Amazon. She only had a few scraps of clothing left and was covered in dirt and bruises. He could tell she was barely conscious and from her chi level knew she was lucky to be aware at all.

Crossing the room he ignored the spongy feeling of the floor to kneel beside the girl.

"Shampoo," he softly questioned, to draw the girl's attention to him. Seeing no reaction he reached over to infuse her with a small amount of his chi and tap a few pressure points he knew would open up her energy channels and help center her. Behind him he could hear the guards chuckling to one another.

Abruptly, Shampoos head jerked up, her eyes locked onto his and a massive physical force threw him across the room.

Shampoo herself obviously was quite invigorated by Ranma's attentions. She quickly stood and walked towards the man now pinned to the wall.

Ranma was shocked as hell. He wasn't at all hurt, but that had taken even his honed danger sense by surprise. An invisible force hung him from the organic wall like a Christmas decoration from a tree. It wasn't like he hadn't been in this position before, Ammet had placed him in a similar situation in his first meeting with the deity. Ammet had even bombarded him with excruciating attacks while he was there.

He could respond with brute force, he himself had limited flight ability, perhaps enough to counteract the not insignificant force being exerted on him. He was certainly easily strong enough to push himself away from the wall, but then he'd just be thrown against another. He could wait her out, this had to be using energy and it wasn't really painful. He was interrupted from his contemplation by the sight of the purple-haired Amazon slowly approaching him with a grim smile and a long glowing sword.

"Okay... change in plan," he muttered to himself. His fiancée was walking towards him looking like she was about to use an advanced chi sword technique on him. Well... he didn't sense chi, so maybe it was that psi stuff Ammet used. He hated that stuff. Magic he could sense, he hadn’t encountered psionics enough to sense that garbage let alone resist or counter it.

"I don't suppose we can talk about this?" Ranma asked hopefully?

 

 

Ryouga was really getting tired of the trainers they kept sending him. They were all slackers. How did they ever intend for him to get ready for the tournament with the pathetic wimps they threw at him.

"Don't you have any decent equipment around here," he asked the ogre-like alien he was presently complaining to. "How am I going to get any tougher if all you can give me to spar with are these lightweight pansies," he gestured at the array of unconscious foes scattered at his feet.

The ogre shivered, this guy was nuts. He'd laughed at the idiot at first. Then he'd seen him in action. The guy may not be operating on all pistons but he had pressure to spare. He'd rounded up some impressive brute squads to train the kid, but godboy simply mowed them down. He kept asking for rocks and weights and so far it hadn't even slowed him down.

"Maybe I should train on my own for a while," Ryouga sighed. "I'm sure you mean well but you're all so weak."

This of course infuriated the ogre. He had trained some of the best. Even some winners in the Splynn Arena tournaments. Sure it had been a few years but still...

"Alright, you’re a little more advanced than I thought you were. No problem. I have a little trinket from Phase World that will make you sweat more than you want." He pondered the wisdom of using the items, they'd killed the last trainee, but this guy was really irritating him, regardless of what his boss said. He really hated these over-privileged supernatural freaks.

"Phase who?" Ryouga asked in a puzzled tone. He was pretty well-traveled but he'd never heard of it. Maybe it was in Australia.

"Grr... never mind. Let’s just say they have really advanced technology. The best in the Three Galaxies."

"Is that a mall?" the martial artist wondered aloud.

"Argh!" giving a cry of frustration he reached into a bag at his feet and threw a pair of oversized gauntlets and boots at his student. Ryouga of course lazily caught the slow-moving objects and looked at them.

"Er... boxing gloves and ski boots? Is that a new event in the tournament?"

The ogre sighed in disgust. "Put them on and press the big green button once."

Ryouga quickly sat down and put the equipment on. Standing up once more he clicked the button. "Is it supposed to do anything?"

Glancing at the readout that displayed on the oversized boots he grimaced. It read five. "Click the green button a few more times. If it starts killing you, hit the red button."

Ryouga immediately started mashing the green button before the words caught up with him, "Kill... ?"

This was as far as his question got before he was pulled towards the ground on his hands and feet. "This... this... "

"Is that good enough, godboy," the ogre sneered at the kneeling youth. "Those gauntlets control your personal gravity. Right now at 25 times gravity you weigh about two and a half tons. Bah I expected better of you."

"... is great," the martial artist finished his stuttering triumphantly, trying and failing to pull himself to his feet. "I can finally get rid of this bulky backpack! It only holds two tons anyway," the ogre's eyes widened at this. If the backpack was actually that heavy, hard to believe considering its size, then the boy was sitting with fifty tons on his back. It didn't look like he was going anywhere but it still boggled the mind.

Ryouga had finally given up on standing and was struggling to pull off his backpack. When he was free he hopped around a few times to get the feel of his new state.

"This is very cool, the weight is much better distributed," the martial artist muttered to himself. "This exercises all of my body, not just the lifting muscles." With this he clicked the green button a few more times before taking a deep breath. "Now I can start the real training."

The trainer dumbly shook his head. The readout showed one hundred gravities, which meant that godboy weighed about 10 tons. He was either going to win this tournament with godboy or retire. Maybe both.

 

 

The black tressed woman pulled up her hood and sat in the shade of the restaurant's public seating. She was pretending to sip a drink she had ordered to better blend in and was frankly regretting it. It tasted and looked truly vile. It was green and lumpy. She didn't want to think about the little grasshopper creatures she saw swimming in it. Perhaps this trip wasn't as good an idea as she had first imagined.

The area of Splynn she was in was actually far more tolerant to humans and mortal dimensional beings, but it was also tailored for the insectoid races. Many of these races were fairly pleasant, but they tended to give humans the creeps. And their drinks had the unfortunate woman on the edge of purging her stomach as long as she held the damn stuff.

However, this was the location that her informants told her that pigtailed man was staying. She had been the one to make the decision and now it was time to try to contact him. He seemed to have some very valuable abilities and it was time to see if it was merely a whim that had him help her cause earlier or he was inclined to more serious aid.

The information they had gathered so far seemed... odd. He seemed to have Sunaj after him, as good a character reference as could be asked for. The Demon Lords he was found to be speaking with concerned her. The group she had gathered around her for the rebellion held some odd sorts, even some that could normally be categorized as evil, but she still preferred to work with like-minded individuals who fought for freedom. Still, he didn't seem to be pure evil and if he had contacts so much the better. It just meant she had to be cautious. That was fine, when she wasn't blatantly risking her life on a mission she could do cautious.

Now it was just a matter of waiting for the fellow to come back from wherever he was.

 

 

The purple-haired woman slunk towards the martial artist hanging against the wall. "Shampoo wait long time for Airen."

"Gah! Shampoo, please speak Chinese! Your Japanese sucks and it isn't getting any better from the translation effect," Ranma complained.

"Now you're teasing me, beloved. I'll have to punish you for that," Shampoo held up her sword in a threatening manner. The two guards at the door chuckled and elbowed each other. Obviously they had expected violence. "I think I'll cut off your clothes and ravish you," Shampoo finished with a purr.

The guard's mouth hung agape at the last statement. Obviously, their own encounters had ended in a different, less pleasant threat.

Ranma's mind was in a whirl. This was not a Shampoo he was used to. Oh sure, she was using force tactics but instead of throwing herself on him immediately she seemed to be relishing the chase.

"I had some time to think," she continued, finally coming next to Ranma. "I think I must have been insane to think that throwing myself on you like a little girl with a crush would ever work. It's time to grow up and stalk my man like a real woman should." During this speech she had placed one hand on Ranma's chest and the other was poised over his shirt to carry out her promise.

The martial artist's hand shot out to grasp the sword hand of the Amazon. "Shampoo, what happened, this isn't like you." He was concerned about the sudden change.

"I've never felt better, beloved," Shampoo enunciated each word by tracing tickling designs over Ranma's chest. "You could say I've seen the light, but to be honest I really don't remember much of the last few days." Letting her hair brush lightly against Ranma shoulder she sighed. "Now that I'm thinking clearly I'll show you how a real woman seduces her husband." A quick, wicked smile flitted across her face as whispered the last in his ear.

Now Ranma had always found Shampoo attractive, but she had suddenly crossed a line between cute and irritating to sexy and distracting as hell. Despite this, or even perhaps because of this, he had been carefully examining the chi flows of his fiancée. He was intimately familiar with all of his fiancées' aura and health. Akane may get kidnapped the most frequently but he cared about them all. He had therefore been able to find several very large differences in the chi flow of the woman before him. Betting that these differences were responsible for her new powers his free hand gently tapped her in the temple.

The grip on his body immediately faded, leaving him propped up against the wall under his own power. The sword flickered and then dissipated completely, leaving Shampoo looking bemusedly at her empty hand.

"I should have known better than to think I could hold you down long," the Amazon whispered in his ear. "I'll have to do this the long way."

"Shampoo, we have to leave," Ranma stated firmly, taking hold of Shampoo's shoulders to keep her a little further away and look her in the eyes. "We have a tournament to get ready for."

"But I want to talk about us... what tourna..." Her question was interrupted as Ranma swept her up in a tight embrace that literally took her breath away. While Shampoo was extremely pleased by this, she was more than slightly puzzled. She had expected a long and pleasant chase before getting Ranma to this point. It only took a moment of thought to realize the real reason she was encased in the hug.

"As much as I enjoy this, let's talk about this tournament," Shampoo found her guess confirmed as she was once more engulfed in a very satisfactory lip-lock with her husband. When Ranma stepped away she gave a happy sigh. "I suppose we can talk about it later."

"Come on you disgusting humans! This is a jail, not a breeding pen," grunted one of the guards who had gotten over the shock. Stepping back he grumpily gestured for the humans walk ahead of him.

After Ranma had explained the tournament problem away from the guards Shampoo nodded in agreement. "I am an Amazon, husband. We were born to fight. While I could have trained more since I met you, I think these new abilities will help quite a bit."

"Don't get too cocky, I was able to disrupt those fancy psionics of yours for a few moments once I had a chance to study your aura," Ranma warned.

"Very true," the Amazon said while holding his hand. "It is why you’re my husband after all. I don't think we have to worry about our opponents being able to match your abilities."

"Yeah, you're right," Ranma confirmed merrily as he knocked a belligerent minor demon into an adjacent wall. Every time he came up with an excuse to drop Shampoo's hand she just picked it up again. But at least she wasn't hanging on him. While having his fiancée around again was slightly tense he had to admit it was nice to have a friend around again.

"I understand why you kissed me, but I hadn't realized my jailors spoke Chinese," Shampoo stated curiously. She really didn't remember too much but the creatures had never spoken in a language she could understand for as long as she was there. She hadn't gotten the amulet that allowed her to understand all languages until after she was free.

Ranma froze. Since Anhur had gifted him with languages he had never really thought about it. He had just assumed the creatures understood what was said. "Yeah... magic is pretty common in this land. For better or worse. It's good to be careful. Yeah... just careful.

Shampoo winked at him from his side. Her new tactics would finally convince her husband to act like one. Side by side the two approached the area they would be training in.

Ranma had been consciously paying close attention to his surrounding since he found out that the Sunaj assassins were hunting him. It was as he was almost across from his manager's office that he noticed something familiar. There was a person whose chi he had met before. Though they had met only briefly, the black-haired woman who had freed the slaves from the meat market had made a lasting impression.

As he noticed her start to get up from the table while looking in his direction Ranma pushed his senses outward to verify that the Eye of Eyelor was still floating peacefully above them. Grimacing at the lousy position he had just been placed in, he whispered to Shampoo. "Go inside and wait for me, I'll be right in."

Standing still, he concentrated intently and very gently used his rock fist technique to enclose the foot of the raven-haired lady. Then he leaped to the roof and started to lead the Eye in a merry chase. Losing it ten minutes later by the simple expedient of ducking for cover and after removing his bracers for a moment, switching gender.

Taking a less circular route back to the plaza she leaped down from the roof and over to the black-haired woman. She still sat there, however, there was a pile of stone dust scattered at her feet.

Walking up to the woman she bowed slightly. "Sorry about that but I'm being followed by a spying eye and I saw you were about to walk over to me. Not so good for either one of us."

The black-haired woman narrowed her eyed at Ranma-chan, "Sorry miss but I have no idea what you're talking about."

"But... oh shoot. Wrong gender," Ranma-chan grimaced. "If you'll trust me for a moment, we can get out of direct line of sight and I'll show you what I meant."

"And why would I follow a complete stranger into an alley," the woman drawled a question.

"Just out of line of sight, I can sense you’re a strong fighter. Not as good as me, of course but... who is," Ranma-chan said good-naturedly. She had found that if people thought she was joking they bristled less when she told them the truth.

"Fine," the woman said tersely, obviously suspecting foul play. Just as obvious was her confidence that she could take it. Ranma-chan could appreciate that.

Just around the corner Ranma-chan stopped, checked for spies in the area. Once satisfied she turned around to face the other woman. Reaching into her folded space the pig-tailed girl pulled out a thermos. Then she looked on nonplussed as the other woman drew her sword and sliced the bottom of the container off.

Looking at the water steaming on the ground she sighed, "If you're going to destroy all my hot water this could take longer than I thought."

The black-haired woman looked slightly embarrassed at ruining what appeared to be hot water but covered fairly well. "Move slower."

Taking a deep breath Ranma-chan slowly opened his folded space. The technique actually wasn't meant to be held open. Sweating slightly as she poured her chi reserves into the opening and pulled out another thermos. Used in this fashion, Hidden Weapons more resembled Happosai's Dimensional Cloak. A definite chi hog.

The woman's eyes did widen upon seeing the red-headed girl's hand disappear into a glowing disk and then pull out another thermos. Ranma-chan slowly unscrewed the lid and poured in onto herself.

The sword did waver a bit upon seeing the change but quickly steadied. "So you are the girl. A shapeshifter. Well, I've seen stranger."

Ranma's eye twitched, "It's a curse. Water triggered," regaining his composure he continued. "So what's a big hero like you doing here?"

"This 'big hero' is looking for other heroes who might risk their lives for the good of others," she said with a slight smile.

"You found me. That's actually pretty impressive since you've only seen me once. Your network must be pretty good."

"It is, but I really didn't want to talk to you about it. I wanted to talk to you about your intentions."

"Well, I certainly like what your group is doing. Being human, who wouldn't? I wouldn't have helped you guys if I didn't approve."

"Enough to contribute? I'm not sure if you’re a warlock or wizard but you seem to have a significant amount of power. We could use your help."

"I'd love to help but I'm occupied on my own crusade at the moment," he paused to look her in the eye. "I should be finished in a few months and free to take on other obligations." If he survived his bout as a catspaw he should have plenty of time for other undertakings even after the time promised to Rhada. What he'd seen so far in Atlantis had left an impression he'd be overjoyed to erase.

"Can it possibly be more important than saving lives here in Splynn," the woman urged once more.

"Lady, I can't say much, but if what I'm doing doesn't work out we'll all be wishing we were as lucky as those dead slaves," he shrugged his moment of seriousness off with a smile. "But don't worry, haven't lost when it counted yet and I'll just get better," he bent to whisper in her ear as if conspiring with her. "Doesn't seem possible, does it?"

"You’re a funny man Ranma. I hope you're as good as you think," she paused in contemplation. "You'll need it."

"That's true... but it sounds like you have something specific to say," Ranma prompted.

"The Sunaj have been hired to kill you... "

"Knew that."

"You seem to have a lot of enemies. Leviathan hired the Sunaj and the Sunaj have convinced a dragon to join the fray."

"Dragon? What the heck is he doing here," Ranma muttered to himself while cracking his knuckles. He'd been practicing. Maybe he still wasn't in Ammet's league but a dragon... that might be in his reach. "I hadn't expected him to be so persistent, but I suppose it is par for the course."

"They say you can know a man by the quality of his enemies," the woman said with a smile.

"What do they say amount sheer quantity," Ranma joked. "Thanks. I had tracked the Sunaj back to their headquarters, now I don't have to waste time watching them. Though I need to find out more about what their tattoo thingies do. That dinosaur was an unpleasant surprise."

"You're trying for a place in the Arena, I'm sure the veterans will help you. Consider that thanks for helping us during our last rescue," she started to turn, then paused and said over her shoulder, "If you need help or wish to join us, use this," a small cubed flew through the air and Ranma quickly caught it.

"By the way, what's your name," Ranma mumbled, concentration split between the departing woman and the featureless cube.

"White Raven," she said as she turned the corner.

Ranma stood looking at the cube. It was a really nice cube. He sure wished he know what to do with it. With a shrug he put it into the folded space he had specially made to hold all the very nice things he never used. It would go nicely with the snake staff, the rings, and the other mementos of his journey.

 

 

"Well, what happened to Shampoo? She's completely different... well not completely different, but she hasn't tried a potion on me," Ranma looked around his manager's office uncomfortably. "Although that empathic transmission thing is really embarrassing."

"From what you say, her personality has done a complete turnaround. That combined with her lack of memory and new psionic gifts is a bit ominous," the insectoid chattered from the oddly shaped chair it straddled.

"Ominous? It can't be that bad, can it? She's less irritating, I mean she's as aggressive as she was before but less... annoying."

Ranma had a hard time deciphering his manager's expressions but he was pretty sure it was glaring at him. "I didn't mean ominous for you. I meant bad for your girlfriend."

"She seems healthy, she got superpowers and realized the errors of her ways," he paused. "Er, some of her ways. I don't get it," Ranma said defensively.

"I have heard rumors that there was a research base that... tapped into something," the insectoid was still for a moment before it continued. "Those subjects who were exposed to this thing were said to have the same symptoms. Sudden unexplained psionic abilities, memory loss... personality shift."

"I just don't see it. Sure she's a little different but not that much. She once got her hands on the reversal gem... that was drastic. Love to hate, hate to love. She just seems more mature. She's really far more focused than she was and has much more discipline," Ranma hesitated before continuing. "Don't get me wrong, I liked her, but she was a flake."

"I could be wrong," the insect admitted. "The 'secret' is more a rumor than a known fact. Even if I was right, I'm not sure we could do anything about it. It would take a mind mage of the highest caliber to shift through her mind to find out what happened. They're exceedingly rare in this dimension."

Ranma's mind immediately went back to his adventures on the Palladium world. One of the fellows he had worked with, in the caravan, had been a Mind Mage. He'd had no idea what one was at the time, but they seemed pretty common there. Of course since the Timiro Kingdom's princess had decided to shack up at the Tendos until he came back, he doubted he'd find much there for him except an arrest warrant.

"I'll look into it. It'll have to be later though." After the princess had gone home and he wasn't wanted dead or alive on the civilized continents of Palladium. "Until then, I can see from her aura that Shampoo is healthy and not insane... well, not more than any of us from Nerima," Ranma voices faded into contemplation. "Until I find out otherwise I'll just assume her stay in prison matured her."

"I suppose so... the stories of Azlum are just so disturbing. No proof, but so many cases of people with the same... characteristic changes your friend displayed coming out to slay or hide from them."

"It can't be that. I said I checked her aura. It must be something else," Ranma chuckled to himself. "I mean Shampoo never really tried to kill Akane and if she was the opposite then she would have had to have been an undercover psycho," Ranma broke into a full-fledged laugh. "She was a flake, not a homicidal maniac."

"Didn't you tell me that she tried to kill you first time you met?"

Ranma sat stock still. "Er... that was just some silly law." He shook himself to clear his mind of the nerve-wracking images. "She really is a nice girl... really... "

Maybe finding a mind mage should be a higher priority. He personally thought his manager was wrong. The thought that Shampoo had been a psychopath and wasn't anymore wasn't much better than her not being one before and now being one.


Chapter 9: The Inquisition

Ranma ducked under one glowing blade while moving inside his opponent's guard in order to get close enough to deal with the other. "Butterfly Kiss!"

This declaration of his move elicited a groan of dismay before his foe went flying a dozen meters back, impacting with the practice arena wall. From her shallow impact crater where she was embedded in the wall Shampoo glared at her airen. "Ranma! Why do you always end the match that way?" she groused petulantly, "You've had that move used on you enough by the old pervert to know how aggravating that is."

Ranma smiled widely at this complaint. The move was overused but he had a reason for it. "Now if I use it all the time, how come you haven't come up with a counter for it yet?"

When Shampoo asked him this question he replied that it was for her own good, in reality it was more for his mental health. When he first started sparring with the Amazon, whenever he called break she would immediately move in closer and lightly brush up against him as she walked with him out of the practice area. It wasn't really hanging on him and the contact was never heavy, more sheer proximity than anything else. However, it was more effective than when she used to drape herself around him. In self-defense he had started ending the matches by getting her as far from him as the arena allowed. With the improved durability the world granted them and whatever experience the prison had exposed her to, crawling from a crater was nothing more than messy. In practice, it allowed him to get to the exit without his Amazon partner was the main benefit.

Shampoo herself was beginning to suspect as much. While Ranma no longer turned into a gibbering idiot and he didn't have to worry about the fiancée brigade witnessing any acts of impropriety, she saw that he was uncomfortable with her closeness. Still, he never protested, simply kept in motion so it was more difficult for her to stay close to her. It was a game of cat and mouse and she was loving it. It was a war on Ranma's subconscious; obviously the frontal approach wasn't working. She must have been out of her mind to think it would. It was a wonder Great Grandmother hadn't had her sedated. No, it was vital to her new plan that her airen become used to, even comfortable, with her presence.

It was working too. Sure he fidgeted a bit, but he didn't scream or yell for her to leave. She had even noticed him inhaling with an abstract look on his face as he noticed her perfume. It was the first time since she started chasing her erstwhile husband that she felt that progress was being made. It might take time but for some reason she seemed to have much more patience than before. Still... the Butterfly Kiss was obviously Ranma's way of getting space. She'd have to scale back her efforts yet again. Patience.

As Ranma walked out to the lunchroom he pondered their progress. Shampoo had really improved quite a bit now that she was concentrating on it. It was a relief to have a serious partner to train with. Usually it was Ryouga. Admittedly Shampoo couldn't push him as hard as the lost boy could, but the blue-haired Amazon was a competent package. Akane was a nice girl when she wasn't angry at something but she had these blind spots. Cooking, swimming, and martial arts were three of them... and P-chan of course. She couldn't believe that she wasn't proficient at these things and so proceeded as if she had expertise far beyond what she possessed. With martial arts at least it wasn't as if she was incompetent, she just believed she was far better than she was... and therefore was unable to do the work that would enable her to have her beliefs matched in reality.

Ukyou was different, it was her goal to excel in her school of martial arts. And in her school she was unmatched. Naturally in Anything Goes style combat she lacked the skills to keep up, but that simply was not her desire. She was, at heart, a cook. Few could match her in this area and her competitive instinct was only actually engaged within this realm. This focus had allowed her to surpass Akane's diffuse efforts and kept her on par with Shampoo when the Amazon's attention was solely on Ranma. Now that Shampoo had once again started to train, she began to demonstrate why she had once been the best of her age in a village dedicated to warrior women.

The Amazon could be hot-blooded in combat but after being knocked on her butt a few times she settled down and focused. No complaints that he was too fast or hitting too hard, just buckling down to improve what she needed to in order to accomplish her goal. Ranma himself had taken some time to get into his partner/mentor mode. He hated striking the woman but in an arena where death could come to the loser he had to ensure that she was prepared. Better a few bruises now than death later. Ranma had to frequently remind himself of this.

As for training, Shampoo would improve by simply sparring but... there were faster ways. Ranma had never taught anyone but he knew there were better ways. Recently, he had taken a few minutes before and after each session to try to analyze Shampoo's strong points and weak points. Ranma firmly believed that there was no one in existence who could do this better than he could. Usually he used this to dissect his opponent's style and either imitate it, incorporate it or counter it. He had never tried to improve upon it for someone else's benefit... until now.

Each session he would try to press Shampoo in a specific fashion. Whether it was to push her speed-wise, endurance, or fluidity, each spar would have a goal. Usually after each spar he would then go over the specific maneuvers he had seen as lacking and she would spend time on her own smoothing or correcting these with improvised katas. Shampoo wasn't picking things up as fast as he himself would have but he had trained with others enough to realize that she was really very talented in her own right. Ranma wasn't positive but he might go so far as to say that except for the old ghoul she was the most skilled female martial artist she had ever met. Masayo had more power and White Raven was... well mostly an unknown, but as far as skill went Shampoo was very good. Combined with her newfound psionics and durability and she was formidable.

Ranma was going to cut today's training short. The dragon that was hunting him stayed away from the training arena during the day and stalked him at night. Ranma actually enjoyed teasing the brute, leading him around dark alleys, cutting his aura, circling around back, and then letting his presence be known. Usually by throwing a bit of garbage, a taunt, or similar obnoxiousness. The dragon would then go on a rampage trying to get to him. Ranma was sure that if the eye hadn't been above watching him and probably enjoying the comedy skit, the dragon would have been banned from Atlantis from the sheer collateral damage. When Ranma got tired of this he would simply ghost away. He had no intention of formally confronting the beast until he knew more about the abilities of that breed of dragon.

One of the things he had noticed was that while he was playing tag with the black dragon the assassins would leave him alone, retreating just outside visual range. From the aura of the watchers it was apparent that more than the first two Sunaj were involved. All counted there seemed to be fifteen people working on his case. He would let them follow for a few hours, play with the dragon, and then disappear. Or rather he would employ his more advanced stealth techniques and then the hunted became the hunter.

He had spent many hours tracking the habits of the people assigned to his 'case'. He knew where they lived, worked, and played. Most importantly he knew where and when they wouldn't be missed. Now that he had laid the groundwork it was time to take care of the Sunaj. His manager had gone into extensive details regarding tattoos and their abilities, he was aware of the limitations of the armor and weapons. In other words, there was no reason to delay any further. The dragon would wait on more research, the assassins had their time in the sun and it was time to sweep the board of them.

 

 

Ranma waited patiently. The first victim was due home any minute. This would be a test of the preparations he had made. It could be the apartment was monitored by higher technology than that he had taken into account of and he would soon be inundated with assassins. It was because of this possibility that he had chosen one of the assassins that lived isolated away from most neighbors as his guinea pig.

Looking about the room he noticed how sparse it was. A bed, dresser, table, and chair. It was obvious that everything had come with the room. It was kept with almost military precision, everything folded, the bed made, and no dirty clothes. This alone told him quite a bit about the character of not only the assassin but his guild. The room spoke of temporary placement and the tidiness spoke of discipline and perhaps a lack of personality.

Footsteps were heard outside, Ranma verified that his own aura and presence was generally suppressed and glanced to the side where a small device from his manager was supposedly telling the security systems that nothing was wrong. That would come into play once he dropped his attempts at stealth.

The door opened and into the room strode a large man in armor. He wore the typical armor the pigtailed martial artist had come to expect from his profession. The head was somewhat personalized, showing a scaled beast, perhaps a parody of a basilisk.

The armored man took one step into the room when Ranma reached over to the man's shoulder, pushed him over an outstretched foot, and struck the back of the helmet with surgical precision. The Sunaj wasn't anywhere close to being subdued with the one strike and his muffled voice could be heard yelling for backup inside the damaged helmet. Recovering, he somersaulted forward to his feet, glancing wildly about for his attacker. A shimmering blue field sprung up around the man.

Ranma smiled in satisfaction. So far, so good. He engaged his stealth once more and hung from the ceiling above the other man. He then leaped down upon the hapless man began to methodically beat him into submission. The room was small, without too much space to maneuver but against a single, physically inferior foe, this was actually in his favor.

Five force fields later Ranma's smile was a bit more forced. The man was almost out of energy for those damn protective fields and since Ranma kept disarming his foe the armored man also had to waste energy re-summoning the swords but the battle was being drawn out into minutes rather than the seconds he had expected. Time to improvise. Ranma was good at that.

Leaping around the room and gradually converting his chi into harnessed kinetic energy, he initiated an older maneuver. "Meteor Kick," he shouted while rebounding from the ceiling directly above the armored man. The Meteor Kick was first used on Pantyhose Taru, it used chi and kinetic energy in a way similar Happosai's Butterfly Kiss, however, it took more time to build up the energy. The other difference of course was it could do a huge amount of damage.

Upon impact, the force field dissipated like a soap bubble in a furnace, the helmet beneath shattered... and so did the floor beneath them. The apartment was on the third floor and the two rocketed through all the levels until solid ground was impacted... and the Sunaj tunneled straight down until he was embedded into the concrete up to the shoulders. Ranma, who was still standing on his opponents head lightly leaped off.

Reaching over into the debris that now surrounded them he picked up the shattered helmet and carefully examined it. It was as his manager thought. His first strike had indeed disabled the helmet's radio system. Satisfied that he had a bit of time, he kneeled in the rubble and took the limp man's head by a lock of his hair.

"You and I are going to get to know each other very well," he said good-naturedly as if speaking to a pet, "Oh, yes we are."

 

 

"So Fred, tell me again what an Atlantean is?" Ranma asked in a puzzled voice. He had evidently walked into a mess of politics.

"I can't understand why you forgot about this, Uncle Ranma," the other man protested. "I thought you said I was suffering from memory problems."

The two men sat in the remains of the basement; several ragged chairs had been salvaged from the wreckage and were having a very civil conversation. Despite the smashed concrete and dirt that was strewn around the area, the man Ranma called Fred, was pristine from the neck up and the scent of shampoo hung in the air.

"Indulge me Fred," Ranma said congenially. "As you can see we were caught in a natural disaster. I remember much of what you forgot but I need to know about our proud clan."

"Are you sure my name's Fred?" The other man asked in a confused tone.

"Of course I'm sure, nephew. Why I named you myself," Ranma assured. "Now go on, I so admire our brave history."

"Well, as you know, our race, the Atlanteans, lived on this continent ten thousand years ago," Ranma nodded in encouragement. He had heard of Atlanteans during his stay with Anhur. They were an offshoot of the human race with great physical and magical abilities. They were supposed to enjoy using tattoo magic and pyramid magic. Until he had arrived in Atlantis he had no concrete idea what tattoo magic was, he was still unsure what pyramid magic was. He doubted it had much to do with the New Age magic some of the funny Americans played with.

"Well the mages of the time used the energies stored in the pyramids to try to open an experimental rift. The magic rebounded out of control and a huge rift formed that spread from the coast of Atlantis to what is now known as the South American shores. The dimensional vortex led to a thousand worlds and many monstrous creatures were dropped onto the unprepared populace." The man didn't look particularly horrified by the story, more vexed.

"Many lives were lost before the rift was finally closed. The creatures that had been left behind either went into hiding or eventually were slain. However, the earth was damaged. Magic energies flowed out of the planet and were not renewed as is normal in a healthy planet. Our way of life and civilization is heavily dependent on magic so this created an insurmountable problem."

Ranma grunted to himself. Typical, an advanced civilization experiences a disaster and all they think about is how they are inconvenienced. Okay, that wasn't a fair judgment but he was in a lousy mood. He also wondered if his own world had once had a similar accident. It too had relatively little magic and the entire continent of Atlantis was missing...

"The mages of the time were further horrified to learn that the accident had destabilized Atlantis. It started to fade into another dimension. One not amicable to life as we know it."

"Hmm... can we fast forward just a little bit? Ten thousand years can take a while," Ranma interrupted starting to get impatient. He didn't see how this applied to a bunch of people trying to kill him.

"I'm surprised your mother didn't slap you if you interrupted our sacred histories when she first explained them."

"I'm incorrigible. Now hurry up, nephew," Ranma urged.

"Fine. Our ancestors fled through dimensional gates before the magic became too low open them again. To repent for our role in the disaster they decided to become galactic paladins. Crusading to right wrong and other such foolishness," Ranma turned a sidelong gaze on him. How do you go from paladins to assassins?

"Then Atlantis returned and a new leader headed our clan. He had a dream," Fred's eyes gleamed with an almost religious fervor. "No longer would we humble ourselves to aid lesser creatures. We would lead them and slay those who stand in our way."

"And the other clans," Ranma asked neutrally.

"We sounded them out about our ideas. They weren't receptive. They must all, sadly, die," the man spoke with regret for the first time in his voice. "We have already started isolating them and slaying them in small numbers. We even once killed many at once, though to ensure it wasn't traced back to us many brave families volunteered to die with our enemy."

"Wow, I'm impressed," Ranma nodded, his eyes narrowed. These people really were nuts. Like the worst of the cults he had heard about. And they seemed intent on dragging some very good people down with them in their insanity.

"As you should be. Through our hard work we shall bring glory to our people. It is worth any sacrifice."

"Why the assassin thing?" Ranma asked, puzzled. Not that he expected them not to be killers after a story like that, but it didn't fit yet.

"In order to make arrangements to reclaim Atlantis and rid ourselves of the weaker clans we created the Sunaj identity. Through them we were able to forge bonds of alliance with the current occupier of Atlantis, Splynncryth as well as the other Splugorth."

"Um, do you expect that he will give you the land back?" Ranma asked curiously.

"Either that or we will take it. Until then we use his power base for our own purposes," the man declaimed confidently.

Ranma looked up at the eye that hovered in the corner, hidden by its own means. "Right."

 

 

The armor-clad man checked his helmet's chronometer for the seventh time in as many minutes. The latest shift of his agents had failed to report. He couldn't imagine what could delay five of his people at once. Most of them didn't even socialize outside their duty. They had left their family behind for the greater glory of the race. Work was their life. It was a necessary burden they gladly took up. He checked the clock again.

He was at a loss. They didn't respond to the communicator and the guild magician was not due in to work until noon. He could almost guarantee that the mage would not answer his comm. The old man was all attitude. Still... something was evidently happening; he really had no choice but to try. Nothing. Damn arrogant mages.

Starting to sweat he began to contact all of the Sunaj at the local guild, even those who had just been relieved of their duty. All responded except the fifteen assigned to the human that Leviathan had targeted, and the mage of course. He immediately called the remaining to him. Somehow he had lost contact with half the local office and if they had been targeted his choices were to order his men to go to ground or gather them to regroup.

This was Atlantis, they still had the favor of Splynncryth and much leverage as being known as his minions. He still believed that even if his men were being attacked that sixteen Atlantean warriors would be more than adequate. Unless the authorities of Splynn themselves were to align against them, it would take a veritable army to take them down.

The sound of the door opening drifted to his ears and his frayed nerves jerked his body into action as he reflexively aimed his rifle at the door, internal energies were being marshaled in case a defensive barrier or sword needed to be called. He relaxed only slightly when he recognized the beetle headed armor of one of the first of who he had recently contacted.

"It's a disaster!" shouted the newly arrived person. "We have the alert the clan master! Unless we move it could be the end... "

"Shut up and report!" shouted the commander, fingering his rifle nervously. He knew the man before him to be a stable reliable soul. If something had panicked him this much it had to be huge.

"Didn't you see the front door? It has our clan mark on it," the almost hysterical man continued.

The commander blanched. This could be a disaster. The clan mark was known more formally as the 'Mark of Heritage'. Each of the original Atlantean clans had their own mark to symbolize their lineage. The main reason the Sunaj wore the hideous armor was not simply to instill fear but to hide their identity. Occasionally, one of their own was killed and the body left, but as long as they were not identified personally the mark could be shrugged off as simply a tattooed assassin who either blindly emulated the Atanteans or someone actively defaming them. It was one of the reasons most of the lower ranks of the Sunaj were drawn from the unknown or isolated people that had no reason to meet the other clansmen. However, now someone, probably the human target, knew their connection to the Atlantean clans. If the other clans found out... and believed it... it would be an unmitigated disaster indeed. They were years from being in a position to eliminate their enemies without taking huge losses in return.  Probably even then they couldn't defeat the allied clans.

"We may have to move early despite the inevitable casualties," the leader slowly stated, his rank hanging heavy on his heart. "I believe that Leviathan's target may be responsible. I am unsure of how he found out about our people but I... I think we have no choice but to believe he did." He still didn't understand how, they had defenses against psionics, conditioning against almost any interrogation means imaginable, even the armor was booby-trapped to explode upon death and take the body, and evidence, with it... but the conclusion was inescapable. "When the others arrive we will have to initiate an all-out simultaneous strike on the target and his companions," the commander haltingly continued, verbalizing his thoughts. "If we can capture him and verify that the knowledge has not... reached our targets then we will not have to initiate our plans early."

Sighing he put the rifle aside and thought about what he would tell the people that would be soon trickling in. He activated his empathy tattoo. It allowed him to read the emotions of those surrounding him. With this he would be able to judge his audience better. How he broke this news to the people to be arriving would determine much in the coming hours.

He jerked his head to one side. There were the panicked emotions of the fellow across from him but there were also the cool, ice-cold emotions of someone else.

Ranma had miscalculated. It really wasn't the first time. His insight on motives really sucked. It may have had something to do with his father's philosophy. Sure the 'taunt them until they are blind with rage and swinging wildly' method worked in the short run but it always seemed to cause trouble in the long run. When he paused to consider, it really made complete sense. He himself never fought harder than when he was mad. He had mastered his anger into a tool but he never tried to kid himself that he wasn't furious when someone kidnapped or attacked his fiancées.

So why hadn't he thought more about the consequences of declaring his knowledge to the Sunaj? Instead of a statement that 'coming after me was more than you can handle and you better back off' he had ended up with 'if you don't come after me in your maximum force, your whole clan is doomed'. That really wasn't the effect he was going for. If he let this continue he would have to protect Shampoo, and probably his manager from a no hold barred war with the Sunaj. He could easily handle one or two Sunaj freaks at a time but there were sixteen left in the city and they were one dimensional gate away from hundreds of reinforcements.

All in all he had better make up for his miscalculation before it escalated beyond any form of redemption. It shouldn't be impossible. Only the two in the room knew that he was aware that they belonged to a rogue clan and if he got rid of the symbol on the door... hmm, why was that fellow looking his way. He had full stealth engaged and they never activated those 'see invisible tattoos' unless they actually thought they needed them.

Okay, I suppose I'll have to initiate Plan B sooner than I thought, Ranma thought sourly to himself.

A shimmering field appeared around the commander. A moment later a similar aura sprang up from his sub-ordinate. Ranma was dismayed by the element of surprise being completely lost. Obviously something had keyed them into his presence and they had activated the enchantment that allowed them to perceive him. Ranma quickly debated which one to eliminate first. The commander was more of a threat but the lackey by merit of his being the weaker opponent would be easier to eliminate from the equation.

No problem, Ranma thought to himself as the leaped at the second assassin. A moment later he had just kicked the flunky into the rear wall, his field significantly diminished. Ranma had no time to congratulate himself as a huge impact swept him off his feet and propelled him toward the Sunaj he had just struck. Groaning in pain Ranma twisted in the air to orient him toward the commander. This incidentally aligned his feet with the face of the stunned fellow he had just hit to the back of the room.

The leader had picked up his rifle again and was shooting a constant stream of fire at the pigtailed martial artist. In his other hand, he held an elaborate sword Ranma would have sworn he had not possessed a minute before. Unlike the previous Sunaj armaments this weapon appeared more solid, more real than the previously used summoned constructs.

The initial burst caused a fiery pain in his back to bloom. Many others immediately followed. Since he was already on top of the feebly struggling assassin, he took advantage of the fraction of a second between bursts to flip him in front of him to act as a shield from the projectiles. This last attack shattered what remained of the poor man's helmet as well as the left arm and torso of the armor.

Ranma was not left unscathed through the torrent of fire, using a human as a shield was unwieldy and awkward. Half of the rounds found their home on Ranma's shoulder and cheeks, leaving a bloody line of bruises and welts. Ranma grimaced, it hurt, but the same attack back home would have him missing half his body instead of just suffering superficial, though painful, flesh wounds.

Ranma took advantage of his involuntary anti-missile barrier's sudden dearth of armor to touch the first in a three-step series of pressure points. He started to enact the next pressure point but it was obvious that the commander was readying another barrage. Hoping to delay this, he threw the injured Sunaj at his officer. Although this did delay the rifle fire, the senior assassin simply and efficiently stepped to the side, avoiding the human cannonball.

Ranma spent several crucial seconds dodging the rounds while trying to line himself up for a meteor kick. He soon gave up this plan. The commander was far better at hand to hand than any of the others yet encountered and he dodged the first two attempts. Well, he admitted himself, the Meteor Kick was for much slower or less skilled opponents. His larger attacks were out simply because he needed the front of the building intact, so as to not forewarn the incoming Sunaj. Armor screwed up the access to pressure points, speaking of which...

The subordinate Atlantean had struggled to his feet. One arm hung useless thanks to the aforementioned pressure point; the other wielded a large summoned battle-axe. A renewed aura radiated from the man, obviously his newly engaged force field. At a hand signal from his commander they simultaneously rushed the martial artist from opposite sides. The commander had thrown aside the empty rifle and summoned a second, more typical enchanted long sword.

Ranma frantically dodged between the well-coordinated strikes. These men had worked extensively together, and it showed in the manner they flowed with one another's attacks. Finally, finding an opening in the less experienced man's defense, the martial artist rolled between his feet, turned to keep the younger Sunaj between him and the veteran, and placed a Chestnut strike between the other's shoulder's. The defending enchantment flickered as it absorbed the kinetic energy, and then failed. The man was propelled forcefully in the ground and Ranma followed up with a Breaking point at the now exposed armor. Without the field to keep away Ranma's touch, the ceramic armor easily succumbed to the technique and sent a fine spray of dust and rubble around the immediate area.

The temporary incapacitation of the lesser Sunaj had the unfortunate effect of freeing the commander of the burden of having his man act as Ranma's shield. He followed up on this advantage much faster than Ranma expected and laid a fairly deep cut into Ranma's arm as he went for the second paralysis point on the fallen soldier's other arm.

The pigtailed young man cursed. He was getting tired and getting sloppy. The fallen soldier would now lack the use of his arms, but Ranma himself was getting cut to pieces while the commander was almost unhurt. He diverted a bit of chi from his depleted reserves to stop the bleeding and ensure he kept the use of his damaged arm for this battle.

Confident that the injured Sunaj was out of the way, he concentrated on the commander. Dodging in and out of striking range he began to work on the forcefield and armor. After a minute of this Ranma was coming to realize that while the commander may not be as good as himself but he just might be good enough. The other Sunaj just weren't fast enough to parry or avoid the sheer number of attacks the martial artist could field. If they were fast enough they still weren't skilled enough to tell the difference from a feint and an attack. Ranma could instantly turn a block into a throw, combine his dodge into a trip or body block. In other words they simply weren't close to his league. The commander wasn't quite there either but with only one-fourth of Ranma's Strikes getting past the other's defenses and taking about one-tenth of the Sunaj's hits, Ranma was getting worried. If he didn't wrap this up before the gathering Sunaj got here he would have to choose to use the Saotome's secret attack, run away, or choose his more lethal attacks. That was if he had enough energy to pull them off at this late point in the game.

Large platter sized jaws of tiny 3-inch dagger-like teeth closed on his shoulder. Ranma's eyes grew larger and he tried to jerk his body to one side as he saw a large raptor, jaws firmly clamped on his body. A moment later the pain registered and he readied himself to attack this more immediate threat.

Okay, so I guess having his upper body paralyzed didn't completely neutralize the other fellow, Ranma thought frantically, I hear him issuing commands to the beast in the background. Through the pain of being jerked around like a rag doll by the carnivore it flashed through his mind that at least the commander couldn't really hit him like this.

He groaned as the sound of rifle fire impacted his ears and the pain of the high-velocity missiles stitched across his back. Okay, so reloading his gun was fairly logical, Ranma berated himself. The jaws relaxed, going limp and Ranma realized that the lizard had taken damage as well and had dropped the martial artist in order to deal with the pest that hurt it.

From his position sprawled on the floor he had an excellent view of the commander as he stopped firing and dropped his rifle to the floor, parrying the beast's claws and head with an armored gauntlet. Glancing at the fallen Sunaj he saw that he was trying to get the lizard's attention. From what little he knew about the summoned beasts he thought that once the injured Sunaj actually gave a command it would ignore the more experienced assassin to once more concentrate on himself. He couldn't have that.

Leaping through the legs of the flailing lizard he reached the partially paralyzed man and with a light touch, completed the series of shiatsu. The man froze and whatever commands he had intended to give froze in his throat. Glancing back to ensure the commander was occupied, Ranma took a moment to break through a briefly renewed force field and render the man unconscious. It had slipped his mind that the more experienced tattoo wielders did not require motion to activate their enchantments.

Upon the assassin being rendered unconscious the martial artist glanced back to the battle to see the lizard fade from existence, the commander's two weapons having just completely bisected the magical beast. For a moment the two stared at each other, assessing his opponent's condition and comparing it to their own. Of course, the difference was that Ranma knew he had to be able to deal with thirteen more Sunaj and the commander knew he just had to delay Ranma long enough so that his reinforcements got here.

As one they each leaped towards the other. Ranma finally got a clean full-powered strike through the defense of the older Sunaj, throwing him back through the rear wall and into the alley behind the building. Ranma was about to follow after him when his eyes fell on the rifle laying on the ground. Smirking at the anticipated irony, he picked up the weapon and followed the Sunaj outside.

On the ground lay the commander in the act of rolling to his feet, swords still in his hand. He had just got to his feet when he saw the pigtailed youth standing before him with the rifle in his hands smiling.

Ranma smiled, he was going to enjoy this. Having felt the effects of the weapon he was confident that although a single burst would hurt the Sunaj, hopefully breaking through the field, it would be far from lethal. They were both too durable for that. He pulled the trigger.

Then he pulled the trigger again. When nothing happened, he glanced briefly at the gun, and then frantically used it to parry the two swords aimed at his skull. The first sword stopped halfway through the barrel. The second sword simply shattered the gun and continued to sketch a wound across the youth's chest. Okay, perhaps that wasn't as funny as he thought it was going to be.

"Did you perhaps forget to load my weapon," the assassin's mocking voice followed the martial artist as he somersaulted backward. Ranma's decided not to reply to that. He had no idea. The darn thing may have simply had the safety on. Did he look like a modern weapons expert?

Well they were outside, if he didn't have to worry about destroying the building perhaps he could try something else. Rapidly closing he touched the ground at his opponent's feet setting off an explosion of rock on dust. Quickly maneuvering in the heavy cloud he used his chi senses to dance around the dust and deliver a long combination of chi powered strikes and kicks. He quietly cursed as the last combo in the series served to knock the assassin back out of the cloud and into the light.

Stepping out of the obscuring cloud he saw that the other man's armor was shattered. The only sword he had in his hands was the summoned long sword and his face was heavily bruised. Ranma didn't really feel much better but believed he had more reserves. The Sunaj stretched out his empty hand and another of the summoned swords appeared in it.

Once more they came together with a whirlwind of fists and glowing blades. The older man no longer had a glowing aura that offered additional protection, leading Ranma to believe that he was on his last legs and no longer had the energy to spare. Smiling in triumph Ranma prepared to make a final attack.

The next thing he knew he was face down on the ground and there was a large weight on his back. Struggling to turn his head he saw that there was a large Tyrannosaurus Rex on back looking dumbly around at its surroundings. Apparently, it had just been summoned and hadn't gotten its bearing yet. It was a little cramped in the alleyway but it had enough room to move forward and backward.

Ranma felt himself getting annoyed. No, it was more than annoyed. He hadn't like giant lizards since even before Ryouganzoua. Since then, he had grown to really dislike them. Then he started fighting these tattoo men and found out that the favorite monster they seemed to like summoning were dinosaurs. They were constantly being created out of nowhere and sent to attack him. Then this bozo creates on right on top of him and here he was, imbedded in the ground. It really bugged him.

Growling in righteous indignation, Ranma channeled the last of his reserves into his strength and grunting in the effort, lifted the huge, slightly puzzled, multi-tonned beast over his head. Glaring in triumph at the shocked Sunaj before him, he took one ponderous step forward and discovered something he hadn't realized before.

Dinosaurs aren't really made to be picked up by one foot. The weight isn't distributed correctly to be balanced and the skeletal structure isn't really rigid enough to support such an action without... well, things moving. So it was that the creature who Ranma had lifted finally figured something was happening at its feet and contorted its gigantic body to see what it was, perhaps even take a bite out of it.

Ranma tried to compensate for the huge shift in tonnage but no matter how he ran forward or back the creature would simply shift again trying to figure out what the heck was happening. It finally simply became too much to bear and the overgrown lizard came tumbling down on top of a very disgruntled martial artist.

"All right you scaly freak, let's try this again," a rather bruised Ranma growled from his cramped position under the er... he though it was under the stomach. Slowly, he once more gathered his strength and lifted again, only to find the monster fading into nothingness. Puzzled, he jerked his head around trying to figure out what was happening only to see an unconscious Sunaj commander on the ground before him, embedded in the ground and giving the illusion of being rather flat.

Sighing the pigtailed youth began to relax. Now he could take the symbol off the door and...

"Commander, are you all right," enquired a frantic voice from the hole in the rear of the building. Tiredly looking toward the opening, he saw an armored individual about to step through.

Sighing once more, not in satisfaction anymore, Ranma limped towards his next opponent.

 

 

"Hey Shampoo, you have any hand lotion," Ranma asked wearily. He looked tired too, the magic clothes he wore had been damaged. They were slowly re-knitting themselves, but at present they were torn, ragged, and had huge splotches of blood on them. Some of it was even his. The only portion of his body that seemed to be clean and free of any sign of conflict was his hands.

"What happened to you? Did the ghost cat start chasing you again," the Amazon smiled teasingly, once a quick visual scan showed her husband was in no real physical danger.

"Ghost cat! Where," Ranma shrieked eyes darting quickly around. His nekophobia was not quite under control and he didn't think he could concentrate enough at the moment to keep his fear under control.

"Now really, you should know I'm only playing with you, darling," Shampoo volleyed back. She would have done more desensitizing of her own, except that she was in the middle of morning calisthenics and training had recently become a serious priority. She could try to woo her husband later.

"I'll be gone for the rest of the day," Ranma said slowly, sitting on the couch under the practice arena pavilion was feeling really good after a whole night of frantic exercise. He just wanted to sleep so badly but had to finish what he started. The leader had been a real bear of a man and he had not been taken unawares like the others. Ranma had been fortunate in taking out the lackey early and had routed most of the collateral damage towards the rear. He had taken a beating but finally won just in time for the next two assassins to rush inside. These were much weaker but the constant battles were beginning to take their toll.

Ranma had gone to the front door, popped the hinges and replaced it with the similar, unmarked door to the rear of the headquarters. After destroying the door with the controversial symbol he had taken out a basin of water, a bottle of shampoo, and hunkered down to wait for the people trickling in. This wasn't his original plan, but... if there were only fourteen left in the city who were aware of his involvement it would be a shame not to take advantage of the opportunity to wreak complete and total confusion.

While he had waited for the assassins he searched the small complex. It was spartan except for a seemingly advanced computer system. Ranma couldn't really make head or tails of it. He had spent most of his time on this world in physical and spiritual training. Stay alive first and if you have any spare time before you collapse in an exhausted heap, then worry about technical and vocational studies. That was his motto. He unplugged the modules and stuck them into folded space for future reference. Maybe Nabiki would like it as a gift.

Ranma leaned his head back on the couch and rested his eyes for a moment. It had been bad. He had never fought more than two Sunaj at a time, but they seemed to come at him back to back. He had once trained with Ryouga all day and hadn't been this tired.

The smell of perfume and small hands massaging his shoulders gradually lulled him into the border between sleep and wakefulness. "I'd love to keep doing this all day but you seemed in a hurry when you came in," Shampoo's soft voice drifted in his ear.

"Hmm, yes. Important," he said fuzzily, still half asleep. "Lives could depend on it... especially ours." Groaning reluctantly, he staggered over to the main building where the manager kept his office.

 

 

Splynncryth bubbled in contemplation, relaxing in his pool of therapeutic slime. He hadn't had any idea that his gamble would pay out such huge dividends. He had allowed... or at least not interfered... when the Sunaj had been contracted by Leviathan to kill his new toy. He had expected a long cat and mouse game. After all, he had known his cat's paw was powerful but what chance had he against thirty or more Sunaj? Well, obviously more than he had thought. The Splugorth was far from stupid. He knew the principles of combat. In order to subdue an opponent without killing them it was necessary that you either have something up your sleeve or be significantly more powerful. His pawn had proved to be both. By stealth and strategy he had defeated his hunters in detail, taking them down one by one where he could not overcome them in mass.

This, combined with that odd method of hypnosis he had witnessed, seriously endangered the secrecy that the Sunaj relied upon to maintain their effectiveness. When the rogue Atlanteans had first approached the Splugorth it had been obvious to the alien Intelligences that this day would come. Secrets this large could not be kept forever. The revealing of this secret had a large possibility of resulting in the deaths of a huge number of Atlanteans. The 'good' Atlantean clans were annoyances, the 'evil' mildly useful. If they annihilated one another he would be satisfied. The irony would be humorous. On the other hand, if the Sunaj survived they would be outcasts and driven deeper into the welcoming arms of the Splugorth. Not as amusing, but again, Splynncryth could appreciate the irony.

Did he want to interfere? The Sunaj were adequate, if reluctant tools. He had been aware... all the Splugorth had been... that they would eventually be exposed. It would be fairly trivial to retrieve the evidence of the Sunaj being an Atlantean clan. Without hard evidence the other clans would never react coherently. And then there was his most recent entertainment. He was sharing the experience with other beings of power. Rhada, Abdul-Ra, perhaps Anhur, though his involvement in the situation was unclear, and even Leviathan, though her involvement seemed less benign. There was the puzzle over why they were all focused on one being, a mere human. There was much more involved than he had first assumed and nothing had been clarified.

No. He would let this play out more. The Sunaj would serve his amusement one way or another and they really were the least of his minions. They would survive or fall on their own merit... or come crawling back to him to beg sanctuary.

This decided, he turned to the next aspect of his toy. His skill and power far exceeded his expectations. So much so that if things proceeded as they had, there would really be no competition during the next set of games in the Arena. He could of course let the higher order of his minions compete, but this would cause a disturbance. His peers would think he was 'fixing' the games. The minions would likely slay the lesser competitors out of hand and they had quite a following in the city. Not that he really cared, but if he caused unrest he would rather do it for a purpose.

Still, the human had enemies that could not be dismissed. Perhaps he should encourage them to enter. At least one of them had difficulties making the human stand still long enough to engage. It wouldn't be too difficult to point out the benefits of being in a large but confined arena. And if they killed all the lesser opponents then any anger would devolve around them rather than Splynncryth.  He could perhaps modify the rules to allow guests not tonight in the preliminaries.  That would limit the casualties of the weaker fighters but would create the complaint of favoritism.  Decisions...

Yes, that would be entertainment.

 

 

"So you have no idea where any Atlanteans can be found," Ranma inquired again, somewhat dispiritedly.

"Nope," the alien chittered, whistled and clacked. "My business is firmly grounded in the black mire of hopelessness that we know as Atlantis," it stated in mild good humor. "The Atlantean race is widely known as wandering paladins and do-gooders. Not a lot of that going on in this town. Or not for long, anyway."

Ranma nodded to himself. He had been so impressed with how well his manager knew his way around the local system he had just assumed that he had all the answers. Thinking over the people he knew he, was slightly taken aback at the fact that most of them were considered evil by most common philosophies. Anhur, the god of assassins. Wasn't that a kick in the pants. It was ironic that he presently had such assassin problems. Obviously, the Sunaj didn't clear anything through him. Then there was Abdul-Ra and Rhada, really nice people except for the cat fetish demon thing. Still, he really had doubts that they rubbed elbows with a crowd known to hunt devils, demons, and similar evil.

"Well, thanks anyway," he slowly made his way outside, lost in thought.

The alien clicked his mandibles in amusement. It didn't know what his protégé was up to but from all the oddball requests it was fielding he was obviously hip-deep in something. It would be more reluctant to aid the young man but he seemed to be a decent entity. He was also the best damn fighter it had ever had the pleasure to manage. It had to admit that this fact aided in his patience more than anything else.

An hour later Ranma-chan used her senses to ensure that she had lost the spying eye that the present Lord of Atlantis and resident uber squid had tagged him with. She didn't mind it following her around when she was about her daily business, in many ways it was extremely convenient not to have to worry about the authorities. However, when she was planning on trying to get in touch with what passed as the rebel underground it seemed unwise to have the cosmic couch potato they were rebelling against looking over her shoulder.

After finding a relatively deserted spot, she took out the small cube the woman known as White Raven had given her and tried to activate it. This was a bit more difficult than she had originally imagined. The cube was a featureless dull-white, completely lacking in anything that appeared to trigger it. After rubbing and pressing various parts of the surface and getting no reaction she was beginning to get frustrated.

"Stupid box," Ranma-chan muttered angrily. "If you need help or wish to join us, use this," Ranma growled in a parody of White Raven's voice. "Why couldn't she just give me a flipping radio or something?"

Disgusted she tossed it at her feet. She was immediately engulfed in a blinding white light. When the brilliance faded the martial artist was gone.

 

 

"Okay, maybe this is better than a radio," Ranma-chan mumbled to herself as she looked around at a small fairly comfortable carpeted room with a couch on one side and a wide screen on the opposite wall. Her chi senses detected a fair amount of magic but nothing living within several hundred feet. One thing she didn't see, which was slightly disturbing, was an exit. Ranma-chan walked over to the wall and tapped at it lightly while examining it for breaking points. While it seemed to be a normal wall it was actually solid stone, not plaster or more conventional building material. A bit more investigation revealed the whole room seemed to be hollowed out of living rock.

"Right," the red head muttered to herself. Talking to herself seemed to be getting to be a habit. "A room with no way out except teleportation." Sighing she sat down on the couch and waited.

 

 

"Hello," the mage known as Skippy repeated a bit louder. He was in the monitor room when the alert came in that someone was in the contact chamber. It was a simple matter to reach over and switch on the cameras. What he saw was a very fetching red head and blue silk pants and a red muscle shirt. The girl was slouched in the overstuffed couch her head leaning back and mouth open... snoring like a chainsaw.

"This is silly," turning to one of the technicians in the room he asked, "Is this thing on?" He had been trying to wake the sleeping girl but had received no response. After hailing her multiple times he had increased the volume, slowly becoming convinced that there was a technical difficulty.

The technician had been watching the one-sided exchange from the start and had already been checking the status indicators. "Seems okay from this end. We may have to send someone in to check it. Of course this kinda screws with the security but it's either that or... well there isn't anything else. She's out of position for the portal so we can't get her out from this side unless she moves."

"Fine," the young man said petulantly, "Bring me a talisman bank and I'll gate in. Have a squad ready at the entrance to take care of it if it’s a trap." The talisman bank was simply a stack of energy storing devices that could act as a reservoir for the needs of larger spells. Although they were rechargeable it usually took many days of hard work. Skippy wasn't pleased with having to use one; he was the mage who had to do the work of recharging it.

Skippy had another take his station as he went to the more secure area where the squad would wait for him. This room had turrets and armored walls. It was meant to act as a secure area in case something unpleasant followed them back from their forays. After giving a few commands to prepare the people, he tapped into the battery bank, opened a portal, and stepped through.

The room looked identical to what he was expecting. The redhead was still sleeping on the couch and the large screen opposite her showed the technician who had replaced her and his small lizard familiar that he had left behind. "Well?" Skippy asked. "Is this thing working?"

"WELL, I HEAR YOU FINE, HOW IS IT ON YOUR END," the technician seemingly bellowed, sending Skippy reeling to the side of the room clutching his head.

"Argh! Turn it down! Turn it down," Skippy called out. Looking at the girl still asleep he continued. "Send a medic in here, if that didn't wake her she's obviously sick or injured."

Walking over to the girl he reached over to touch her shoulder. He was surprised to see her seemingly roll over in her sleep avoid his outreached hand. Frowning, he tried again found her moving in the opposite direction. Confused, he tried several more times, faster and faster. Regardless of how he moved, his advances were all avoided by what appeared to be coincidental movement, suspiciously fast movement but...

"Oh, it's Ranma," a familiar voice came from the speakers. Turning Skippy saw White Raven herself on the screen. He turned a mild glare at the technician and received a shrug in return. It was standard procedure to notify her or her second in command, Max, if something odd came up.

"I thought Ranma was a guy," Skippy muttered. "Is she putting me on?"

White Raven sighed. Skippy was a senior member of the Resistance but was always lax when it came to keeping up with the intelligence work. She had put Ranma under intense mechanical surveillance before she contacted him. Unfortunately, she had, at the time, missed the Eye of Eylor and the water curse but she at least knew some of his more obvious quirks.

"It is simple training. Just don't outright attack her and she should be perfectly safe," White Raven saw a puzzled look cross the young mage's face. Why would he attack her, wasn't he... or rather she on the safe list. Raven saw this and smiled; one of the servants at the arena Ranma was practicing in had let his frustration get away from him and been a tad too aggressive. The result was one servant on the other side of a hole in the wall and a still sleeping pigtailed boy. Raven's brow furrowed in concentration as she tried to recall how Ranma's training partner had dealt with this. Oh yes.

"Breakfast!" the woman called out over the speaker.

Instantly Ranma-chan stood awake and alert looking around for something edible. After a moment she took in the glowing portal in the center of the room, the presence of the mage and the larger than life image of White Raven. "Huh?" a confused Ranma-chan grunted, her brain not quite in sync with her body.

"So what brings you here," enquired Raven, not willing to wait for the other to get her bearings. "The last I heard of you there were certain errands you had to finish before you could think of joining us."

"Er... why am I here?" a confused look crossed her face and her stomach growled loudly at her. Her first reaction was to say breakfast but there was something else she was here for. Ah yes, "I need to speak with an Atlantean."

Now it was White Raven's turn to be confused, "Then why are you here? The continent is full of Atlanteans."

"No, no," protested Ranma-chan, while dismissing the statement with a waving right hand. "Not the big monster squid Atlanteans," Ranma-chan illustrated by waving her arms to demonstrate the tentacles of a Splugorth. "I mean the human Atlanteans who lived here ten thousand years and caused their continent to sink in the first place with a bungled spell."

White Raven looked nonplussed for a moment. As a dimensional traveler she was well versed on events that had impacted the multiverse on such a large scale. Never the less, what happened ten millennia was not on her list of events that impacted the immediate events. The moment of silence continued as she concentrated on Ranma's statement.

Ranma saw the blank look on the woman's face and continued. "They wear tattoos and do things with pyramids... you know magic?"

White Raven connected this description with a passing comment Max had made regarding the history of his people. "Oh. Atlanteans!" She stated in comprehension. "I hadn't ever heard them described... quite that way." Most people she knew considered Atlanteans crusaders and paladins. Max would have a fit if he heard them mentioned in this twisted manner.

"Indeed," a voice said next to her dryly, "Quite refreshing." She winced as she saw that the very Atlantean she had been thinking of stood behind her.

"Oh. Max," she paused awkwardly. "We were just talking about you," she trailed off.

"Great!" Ranma-chan broke in enthusiastically ignoring the stilted silence. "So you're an Atlantean," Ranma-chan enquired eagerly. "Funny, I thought you'd be taller."

White Raven massaged her temples. Her second in command was an even-tempered man outside of battle, but this really wasn't how she had planned to introduce the martial artist, who she viewed as a potentially large asset, to her inner circle, who already were huge assets.

"Well I am sure it's hard to live up to a reputation of a... 'bungler', I believe," Max asked with deceptive calm. He didn't know whether to be outraged or amused.

"Well, I'm sure you guys have gotten the spell thing down in the last few thousand years, we all make mistakes," Ranma consoled cheerfully. The Atlantean really didn't look as tall as the others, maybe he was malnourished, she thought to herself. Of course he was standing next to White Raven, who was really built. Ranma-chan focused her thoughts elsewhere. She kept getting distracted by thoughts of food and had no idea why. "Er... if it wouldn't be rude, could I see your... um," Ranma-chan racked her brains for the term the Sunaj had used. "... family markings? No, I meant Marks of family... um... no," Ranma-chan was floundering. "The tattoos on your arm that show what clan you're from?"

"You mean the Marks of Heritage," Max supplied, his demeanor slightly altering towards irritation as the subject became more personal. "I really have more important things to do than to deal with an admirer."

"Admirer," Ranma-chan asked, thunderstruck. "Of Atlanteans," her tone was so incredulous that White Raven winced and Skippy snickered from the arm of the couch he had retired to in order to enjoy the show better. Ranma-chan was confused. How had the tattoo guy jumped to that conclusion? She knew she was a bit crude language-wise but 'bungler' had pretty much encompassed what little she knew of the Atlanteans. She hadn't expected Max to hear, but well, so far she wasn't impressed.

"No, it's purely business," Ranma-chan continued, matter of factly. "I have a message, and I need to make sure it gets to the right clan," or at least not to the wrong clan she thought.

Max simply grunted, now thoroughly in a sour mood. White Raven gave him a subtle nudge and he sighed, moving to unlock the gauntlets of the light body armor he wore. He then held his wrist up to the camera pick-up and an intricate design done in an almost iridescent blue stood out. Ranma-chan carefully examined the marking and hummed to herself in understanding.

"So you recognize the marking as the correct clan," Max asked as he noticed the light of understanding enter Ranma-chan's eyes.

"Nope," Ranma-chan chirped, eliciting a start from her audience. Really, she may have been endowed with the ability to read and speak all languages from Anhur's gifting but the clan marking was a symbol and was not actually a language. The third eye tattoo had briefly activated, obviously triggered by his close scrutiny of the tattoo, but it could discern nothing of interest from an image on a view screen. Out of the corner of her eye Skippy burned bright with a magical aura and the floor was a triggered teleportation platform, but that really didn't interest her at the moment.

"But I know who you aren't," the martial artist winked at the people on the screen, "And that matters a heck of a lot more." Ranma-chan took out a small metal rectangular brick, about an inch across, and handed it to Skippy.

"I'm not into technology or anything but my manager says that this is a," Ranma-chan's face scrunched up in concentration as she prompted her memory. After a moment she shrugged, gave up and took out a pamphlet which she began to read from. "The Mark XXIIM espionage special. It is able to store holographic data for two weeks of high definition surveillance. Find out what your competitor..." Ranma-chan broke off as she realized that she had read too far into the description. "Well, actually this is just the memory from one. The unit was an add-on to another device I was using to disable a security system, or rather several systems. I think it was ..." her face gained another look of concentration and once again she shrugged and pulled out another leaflet.

"I think we get the point," White Raven interjected. The underground used these devices frequently in their war on the present establishment of Atlantis. She was confident that she was far better versed on the devices Ranma-chan was talking about than Ranma-chan herself. Skippy suppressed another snicker which drew a glare from the red head.

"'Kay then," the martial artist stated shortly, slightly disgruntled to have her spiel interrupted. "Anyway, this has some information on the Sunaj... "

"I think I already mentioned that we don't have the resources to openly help you," White Raven broke in once more.

Ranma-chan spared her a brief exasperated look, and then waved her hand dismissively. "Naw. I've taken care of the Sunaj... or at least the ones in the city." The others drew up in surprise and skepticism at this statement. "They're involved in a bit of nastiness with the Atlantean clans. I just thought I'd give this to someone that could pass a warning up to one of your leaders or something."

Max leaned forward. "The Sunaj were plotting against us," he enquired in interest.

Ranma-chan paused before she nodded, "I suppose that's one way to say it."

"One last thing, it's important that the Aerihman Clan doesn't see this. Anyway, I have a ton of things to do and I am so hungry I could eat a horse, so if you could just send me on my way..." Ranma-chan prompted. At White Raven's nod, Skippy tapped into the enchantment bound into to room and the martial artist vanished.

 

 

 

Nabiki sighed as she watched Akane play with the newly arrived little girl, Komar, from the alternate Japan. Looking over to where Masayo was frowning at the two disapprovingly she had to ask.

"What made you bring her here," Nabiki asked the warrior.

"She was missing Ranma," although the words were gentle, the expression as she looked at Akane was not. Masayo did not get along well with Ukyou, Shampoo, or Akane, viewing them as wild little girls with no self-control. Dangerous little girls with access to magic and not insignificant skill. "It's quiet on the other side. The Oni are pacified. The enemy leaders have fled to somewhere unknown. Since I travel here often, I brought her with me to show here where Ranma lives. It will give her an idea of where Ranma grew up."

"Er... Ranma only spent about a year here. He grew up on the road," Nabiki pointed out.

"It doesn't matter, she's enjoying herself," Masayo's frown deepened to again contradict her words.

"You aren't too fond of Akane," Nabiki pointed out the obvious.

"She really isn't bad as long as she doesn't see you as being after Ranma," Jess broke in from the side. She had often taken the role of the peacekeeper when Nabiki was too stressed and Kasumi's aura of tranquility failed. She and Masayo got along well together. Jess's hard work, dedication to the martial arts, and cool temper meshed well with what the Demon Queller considered admirable.

"Her attitude grates on me," Masayo confirmed, ignoring Jess's attempt to look on the bright side. "Has Balthazar been punished?" she inquired, changing the subject.

"Well, we threatened to ship him off home to meet the King's justice if he did one more piece of unsupervised magic," at Masayo's raised eyebrow, she continued. "Supervised by me," Nabiki clarified.

"Hmm. Lenient, considering he was largely responsible for your companion's demise," Masayo mentioned without regret. She considered Shampoo even more irrational than Akane.

"Uh, Shampoo survived," Jess felt obligated to mention. "She's training to help Ranma in the Arena."

"Oh good." The lack of sincerity in the Demon Queller's statement was overwhelming, though she did wonder what the Arena was. "Where's the princess?"

"She's with Balthazar, studying," Jess said. Nabiki smiled smugly.

"I thought she hated the toad," Masayo asked her interest raised. Masayo didn't really like Cindra but then again she didn't dislike her. She was relatively harmless, if annoying.

"She does," Nabiki said, "But I pointed out that as long as she needs his magic to go places she's stuck with him. Magic-users can live a long time. I also pointed out that if she knew circle magic that she wouldn't need to endure his presence anymore."

"So she's willing to endure the maggot now for freedom in the future. I'm impressed, I didn't know she had it in her." Jess nodded at Masayo's statement, she didn't know the princess had it in her either.

"Any more problems with Ranma's... fiancées?" Masayo asked. Usually she wasn't so grim but she always disliked talking about her competition for Ranma's heart.

"I haven't seen Ukyou since the incident, but I have to watch Akane," Nabiki said, her own mood growing sour at the subject. "Since she found out that Shampoo survived and is competing with Ranma she has been nosing around Balthazar when she thinks I'm not watching."

"So she is still is obsessing over Ranma?" the Demon Queller asked, oblivious to her own similar obsession.

"Yeah, she also seemed to be spending a lot of time looking at pictures of her and Ranma and things he gave her since he's been around," she paused and then shivered slightly. "I think she spends too much time with the damn hammer Ranma gave her. I'm not sure, but I think she may talk to it."

"It's not a possessed weapon, is it?" Masayo asked, her own experience coming to the fore.

Nabiki snorted, "Of course not. It's pretty powerful but not evil."

"Be wary. Often when people are seen to be speaking to powerful magic artifacts, the artifacts are indeed talking back," the warrior warned.

Nabiki looked once more at Akane and Komar playing happily on the living room floor and nodded. She would take another look at the weapon if she could convince Akane to let someone else touch it.

 

 

Max, White Raven, and Skippy sat in the council chamber. After the martial artist's declaration of hunger they had moved into the chamber for several reasons. The first was that the room had good security so they could avoid casual eavesdroppers in the complex. It was unwise to spread too much information around in a city controlled by the Splugorth. The second was that the room was also equipped with an advanced holographic projector. It was usually used for maps and strategic planning but it was just as often used to view surveillance intelligence.

Skippy sat down in the chair he usually took and slid the small memory brick into the reader and leaned back to watch. The image being projected was that of an empty room. Used to dealing with surveillance, where hours, even days could pass before anything of note would happen he leaned over to the keypad and gave the pre-programmed command to fast forward until the image showed motion. A moment later he leaned forward again he eyes widening. The door opened and into the room walked what was easily recognized as a Sunaj in armor. He took one step into the room before a young man, dressed almost identically to the red-headed woman they had just met, seemed to phase into existence behind the assassin. One blow almost split the helmet and sent the assassin to the ground. A minute of combat that was so fast it almost seemed a blur and the Sunaj was sent through the floor with the martial artist following, foot outstretched.

After a moment of silence the young man leaped up through the hole and the point of view shook for a while as the equipment was relocated. Skippy absent-mindedly typed in the command to steady the camera and provide an artificially smooth picture. The new view settled down to show the assassin embedded up to his shoulders in the ground. His mask was off... shattered really... pieces of it could be seen stuck to the man's hair and face. The three people watching the drama looked on with interest. No reports could be found of what a Sunaj looked like out of armor. They really hadn't even known if they were even baseline humanoids until that moment. The young man casually started to hum to himself as he seemed to pull a bottle and a basin of water from somewhere and begin the lather the unconscious man's head.

The three looked at each other in silent puzzlement. The battle had been impressive. They had expected to see some unpleasant interrogation afterward and had steeled themselves for it. This... this was not what they had expected.

Looking back to the image they saw the man's hands blur. Skippy typed a command and the image reversed and slowed. It could now be seen that the man's hands glowed with a soft blue light and his hands were pressing, tapping specific points on the man's head in a complex pattern that frankly had no meaning to him. The hands blurred once more, despite the image's slower speed and the unconscious Sunaj's hair was rinsed, dried, and brushed. The basin and bottle disappeared, most likely back where it had come from.

Without a sign of effort, the young man reached over lifted the assassin out of the floor he had been embedded into, breaking away large pieces of stone that held on in stubborn resistance. Laying the man on the ground he almost gently patted the man on the cheeks. "Wakey, wakey, Frank. You've had a terrible accident and have lost your memory of the last few weeks. Fortunately, I found you and am here to help you," the youth paused from the oddly stilted speech. "I am your uncle and you can trust me completely." The man woke and looked at the pigtailed youth with a dazed look that quickly came into focus.

Max nodded to himself. It was certainly an odd way to go about an interrogation but the 'shampoo' had obviously been a chemical treatment that induced a hypnotic state. Then the person simply stated the facts he wanted to be foremost in the victim's mind and woke him. Interesting, he would soon see how effective the method was.

From that point it was almost a straightforward question and answer session. The young man quickly affirmed that the other was a Sunaj assassin, but from there it took an odd turn.

"You're, I mean we, are Atlanteans," the martial artist asked puzzled at one point. "You mean we were born on Atlantis?"

"Uncle you jest well. You know that we are true Atlanteans, born and bred on this land far before and unclean creatures claimed what we were forced to abandon. We are the Aerihman clan, sworn to reclaim our birthright."

"Right," the youth stated skeptically. This line of questioning led to the man showing his various tattoos and gradually the scheme to exterminate the other clans of Atlantis.

To Skippy this was interesting but nothing more than a dramatic soap opera. He knew nothing of Atlanteans except Max was one and had a big paladin image he was keeping up. White Raven looked upon the revelations with concern. She knew quite a bit about modern Atlanteans. She had traveled for decades on her own through the dimensions and had learned quite a bit since she had first combined forces with Max a few years ago. She placed a comforting hand on Max's arm.

Max himself was in turmoil. He had trouble believing what he was seeing. He had been aware of... all the clans had been aware of... the Aerihman Clan being more violent and belligerent than the others, especially under the leadership of their new clan head, Lord Aerihza. Several times the other clans had to reign them in from high handed treatment and abuse of other non-Atlantean races. Still, after their latest reprimand a few years gone by, they had seemed to calm down and if they weren't model citizens, they were far more polite.

Obviously, if this wasn't some elaborate ploy then all the other clans were horribly mistaken. Horror soon became anger as he learned that the rogue clan had engineered the massacre that had ended the lives of 1300 Atlanteans. Max himself remembered hearing about it. At the time tensions were high between the Aerihman Clan and there had been some suspicions that this clan had been involved in the tragedy. The fact that men and women from the Aerihman clan had died in that disaster dispelled this belief and harmony soon returned to the clans. His mouth turned down in a grimace of distaste. If, as the assassin in the hologram stated, they had been volunteers then the whole incident took on a new light.

The other clans hadn't suspected a thing. The clans treated one another like family, offering one another the hospitality of the home or aiding another in combat with the supernatural at a simple request. In this atmosphere, it would be simple to slay the family as they slept or turn on them in the middle of combat. Aye, if the Aerihman were indeed the Sunaj, then as minions of the Splugorth they would have ample opportunity to set up traps and ambushes.

Max's attention was jerked back to the image as the pigtailed youth had managed to get his 'nephew' to tell him about the identifying Marks of Heritage. The man removed a gauntlet and there indeed was the symbol of the Aerihman Clan.

Lost in his own thoughts he only dimly recalled the display showing fourteen more impressive encounters. After each battle there followed a brief interrogation, more to confirm the information already known than to ferret out anything new.

The battles continued until it was obvious that the youth in the image was on his last legs of endurance. The commander and his aid had done most of the damage, but there had been a few other instances of fighting two of the Sunaj simultaneously.

Most of the battle with the leader of the local chapter of Sunaj was not shown since it occurs outside the range of the device. However, it was obvious in the aftermath, since the recorder was set up to show the leader's own question and answer period. The pigtailed youth had obviously taken far more of a beating during this encounter as his clothes were torn and blood liberally coated his arms and chest. Max stiffened again as he saw the face of Sunaj commander. He knew him. Not well, but at several clan meetings he had seen that man as a minor officer in Lord Aerihza's staff.

White Raven and Skippy's eyes were riveted on the images before them. They were witnessing history. A whole local guild of Sunaj had just been taken down overnight. That alone would have a huge impact on the local political structure. Oh, sure the local group was only about thirty people but the Sunaj had a position and reputation that had abruptly been altered. There was also the issue of the true identity of the Sunaj. That may or may not become public knowledge but glancing at Max's angry and resolute face, it would not be ignored.

Raven had her own console up and was looking from the display to her report frowning. "Unless our intelligence is off, there was a mage that was not taken down."

Max called up the same report Raven was viewing and nodded. White Raven shared her notes and it was evident that she had checked off the descriptions of the Sunaj as the holo played back. All the known members were checked off except for the mage. "Says here he rarely shows up before noon. That probably explains it. Mages can be notoriously unreliable." Skippy glared at the Atlantean but declined to pick up the gauntlet.

"I suppose it's no surprise that I need some time to take care of clan business," Max continued in clipped tones, obviously upset but in control.

"Take all the time you need," White Raven urged. It would be hard to do without the experienced second in command but the recording made the need self-evident. Unsaid was also the fact that if the Atlantean clans took out the wayward Sunaj, Splynncryth would be out another whole tier of minions that normally acted as informal bounty hunters, assassins and troubleshooters. Well, unless the other clans drove them into the Splugorth's hands as the only sanctuary. When she brought this possibility up Max nodded shortly.

"I am aware of the issues. If mishandled we could trigger a disaster... or rather precipitate one earlier than the... Sunaj... wanted." Max paused as if asking himself if he really wanted to confide clan business to one who was an outsider despite being a friend. Finally, he continued, "The Aerihman Clan is well integrated with the others. They are intimately aware of the inner working, defenses, and weaknesses of all of the other clans." Max's fists clenched in suppressed anger, "They were family. Despite our disagreements, there was no need to hide anything from them." Turning quickly to Skippy he asked, "I need transportation to the clan elder. I can give you the coordinates."

"Well, we already used one of our reserve batteries," Skippy answered reluctantly. "However, this is an emergency. Just say when."

"This may take a while to deal with. We will have to move carefully to avoid them finding out that we are aware of the situation and attempting a preemptive strike," he stated, addressing White Raven. "The good thing... the only good thing... that might come of this, is that if we work this correctly you might have a lot of volunteer Atlantean freedom fighters anxious to strike out at the Splugorth for corrupting our kindred," Max gritted his teeth. He knew he certainly felt that way.

"As long as they are willing to take orders," White Raven acknowledged, "You know we are so numerically outclassed that we can't afford loose cannons."

"I'll be sure that they are aware," the Atlantean sighed, "That is in the future anyway. As I said, this is going to take a while. Be careful while I'm gone."

"Now Max, you know I'm always careful," Raven smiled as she waved goodbye to her friend.

Both Max and Skippy snorted in disbelief at that statement and then looked at one another in surprise. Who would have believed that they would agree on something?

 

 

The black metal figure moved deeper into the shadows. Since it had escaped the cat beast it had stealthily hunted its prey. This city wasn't kind to artifacts of its ilk and care was required to prevent something or other from trying to lay claim. Naturally, this slowed down its pursuit to a crawl. It had to hope that the godling it trailed stayed in one place for a significant amount of time or its cause would be lost. Already almost half its embedded talismans were destroyed. This made travel difficult but far from impossible.

Its mobile period had almost lapsed. It was time to find a hiding spot until its enchantments regenerated and it could move once again. It had made about a mile that day, hopefully, it would make another mile tomorrow. It was slow but the creature had patience. It would fulfill its mission.


Chapter 10: Nemesis

A tired old man sat in front of an elaborately carved work bench idly tapping his quill pen on the side of the ink well and staring at the parchment in front of him. Sighing, his gaze swept the gems and baubles stacked in untidy piles on the desk. To an untrained person it would seem like cheap jewelry, to the magically initiated they would glow with a subtle aura that would signal various enchantments had been imbued into them.

"How did it all go so wrong," the mage muttered under his breath. The prophecies had seemed so clear. Sacrifice the godling and then march victoriously to war. It all went wrong when the wrong demon or godling had been summoned in the Lost One's place. Erasing the mistake had... simply not worked. The summoned creature had destroyed grounds and left, never to be seen again. This was not a bad thing either, considering the amount of power the monster had. Unfortunately, it had probably warned their true target. It was really the only way to explain how poorly events had conspired against the plan.

Time and time again the spell had been attempted in a more secure area, far away from the palace at the chancellor's strident insistence, yet the results had been negative. Nothing had come through. He was able to tell that it had been close, however, it had brought nothing through. The last few attempts before gambling on the rune statue had seemed to be the closest, yet again nothing had come through the portal. Those had been different though, almost as if the target had been anchored to that dimension. It had taken all his energy and most likely his credibility to convince the emperor to invest one last effort in the project. The ancient golem had been priceless and combined with the enchantments the royal guild had imbued on the statue it should have easily found the godling and brought it back to them.

But it hadn't. Nothing had been heard from it since. The gaudy gems in from of him served as a rough way to keep tabs on the statue, each was linked to a corresponding talisman embedded in the construct. Weeks ago almost half of them had shattered indication some huge trauma the statue had suffered. Then nothing more. The king had no doubt lost faith in him. Even he now doubted his abilities.

The various priesthoods in the Western Empire had all had similar results from their auguries. The Empire would fall if it moved aggressively on its neighbors before the Lost One had been removed from the empire. The mage was no religious zealot but when completely independent clergies said the same thing there had to be some truth to it. At least that’s what the Emperor thought, and who was he to disagree? It seemed that along with his reputation would go the hopes and dreams of a glorious empire of man, stretching from one shore to the other across the world.

"Excuse me," coughed a low voice from behind the mage. "Have you seen young man, sturdy build, large backpack, and a silly looking rag tied around his forehead?"

The mage whirled, causing the chair to be flung away from him as he spun to face the intruder. Standing mere feet away was a husky tanned figure of a man wearing homespun rough clothes.

"How did you get in here," the mage asked in a steady, though strained tone even as he began to mutter activation phrases for his personal defenses.

"Just a man trying to find his grandson... er, great grandson, well, you get the idea," the man said with a distracted air. "Tracking just isn't my thing; I keep getting odd resonance's here. This is the sixth time I've been here, though I haven't seen you here before."

A shimmer sprang up around the mage and in the distance an alarm could be heard.

The newcomer ignored the signs of magic springing up around him. "You're not the talkative type." He nodded approvingly to himself. "I can relate, sometimes you need some quiet. Though admittedly you're not much help."

"You will leave or be destroyed," the mage stated firmly.

"Hmm, I take that back, you do talk, though you're silly if you think I'll leave before I figure out why I'm here." With that he slowly began to walk around the cramped office, stopping occasionally to stare at something. "There must be a reason I keep showing up here."

"You were warned," the mage muttered with a wave of his hand. Sheets of lightning sprang up, illuminating a tracery of lights on the floor. The outlined circle flashed for a moment and waves of coruscating energy moved towards the wandering figure.

The newcomer didn't even glance up as the light flowed around him like a river around a stone. "That’s pretty unfriendly of you," the man said distantly, his mind on other things. As he slowly made his circuit around the room, energy continued to flow around him, with flashes of lightning, and even wind.

The mage was getting rather desperate, in hopes of getting an idea of what he was facing he reached into his pocket to grab a prepared talisman that would hopefully reveal the nature of his opponent. After activating it, he immediately wished he hadn't. Crying out in pain he staggered back tripping on the overturned chair and clutching his eyes.

The being prowling the room didn't look up from his search, but did grumble to himself. "Silly mortals, it's foolish to try to look into the true face of a god. Ah, perhaps that's what's causing the problems." Walking over to the desk he gingerly pushed the different gems around. "Say this seems to be linked to my grandson and that annoying servitor."

Eyeing the old man cringing on the floor clawing at his eyes he shook his head disapprovingly. "So you’re the group that decked the old statue up like a trollop on New Year's Eve and sent it after my boy."

Plucking up the several relevant talismans before him, he offered some advice, "I'd leave him alone if I were you, if you actually succeeded in grabbing him I'd have to come back and get him." He shook his head slowly once more. "Most humans are just too fragile to be around us too much. Don't make me come back."

Gathering up the last of the trinkets he turned and seemed to fade into the ether. Behind him he left an old man still moaning and clutching his eyes, sitting next to a fallen chair and a still glowing circle inscribed in the floor. The desk was mostly clear of jewelry but in the center lay an orange the size of a melon.

There was also blank parchment in a puddle of ink slowly spreading out from the overturned ink well. The Emperor's report would have to wait a bit longer.

 

 

Ranma ducked under another of Shampoo's attacks and tapped her hip to show that the girl was off balance. The match was nearing its end, as was demonstrated by the girl's ardent attempts to pin Ranma for a final heated embrace. Ranma almost imperceptibly shook his head at this. Shampoo was far more attractive without the bubbly cheerleader attitude but this just highlighted the problems he had at home. Still, it was time to end the match, both to keep the Amazon away and to see if she had come up with a counter to the Butterfly kiss.

Leaping over the girl during another grapple attempt he moved his index finger to touch the girl in her back to initiate the move that would undoubtedly throw her across the practice field. He held his breath as he moved at a moderately fast pace, half hoping that the girl would finally find a counter. Shampoo spun around and he was faintly hopeful as it appeared that she was going to hold the energized digit away from her in a manner similar to how he originally tried the counter Ryouga's Breaking Point before he found out that the technique was useless against living creatures. Then he became slightly worried at became obvious that she was not attempting to keep the finger away from her, but latching on to him just before he applied it. Ranma's eyes widened and he just had time to enunciate his surprise before the kinetic energy transfer.

"Shit!"

The energy was transferred to Shampoo but her hands had found very solid purchase on Ranma's shoulder and waist. The busty girl flew back, arcing across the arena... carrying the dismayed martial artist along with her. Without thinking, Ranma shifted his momentum to allow him to impact first and absorb the fall. It was completely unnecessary, but unfortunately also completely instinctive. When they finally landed after flying over a hundred feet lengthwise, Shampoo was on top and wasting no time straddling the dismayed male and nuzzling his neck. She had found that Ranma panicked far quicker if she tried kissing him and the amorous moments actually lasted longer if she compromised on showering her affection.

It actually worked here as well as Ranma lay still for a few minutes. "A suicide solution to the Butterfly Kiss?" Ranma asked half in dismay and half admiration. "Well... it's innovative but I really would prefer it if you found a better counter."

"Silly boy," Shampoo crooned into his neck. "Shampoo already know the counter, this is exactly what I was trying for."

Ranma squawked indignantly, "What? Shampoo we really need to get you training seriously. This arena championship is dangerous stuff. I know hardly anyone dies these days but I heard that there are a lot of new entries this quarter... high power entries. We got to get you up to speed fast.

"You worry too much, I have come a long way under your care," her muffled voice came from where her head was nestled in his neck. "Just because I ignored the obvious counter and went for the more rewarding one doesn't mean I don't take this seriously."

At this point a huge booming impact shook the floor followed by a ripping sound and Ranma's eyes were drawn to the center of the field where a distortion was forming that he recognized by the signature tingling sensation as a precursor for a rift.

"Shampoo! Get off! There's a gate or something forming and we're getting company." Ranma urged her in an exasperated tone. Shampoo was better, but her priorities were still majorly skewed.

"I am quite comfortable as I am. I worked hard for this moment... tell me if it’s a psychotic killer, otherwise, tell them to go away."

Ranma watched as the distortion grew and expanded outward finally forming a stable portal. Once it was solid a form stepped out. Backlit by the unusually brilliant light from the portal the creature's features were unclear as it turned to survey the training area until it came face to face with Ranma and his fiancée. All he could clearly make out was that it was humanoid and was dragging a stick in the sand. A feeling of dread started to suffuse the martial artist though he had no concrete reason for the sensation. Suddenly, the thing's eyes lit with and malevolent crimson and waves of violent energy began to pour from its skin. A subliminal sensation, almost shuddering impacts of footfalls was felt as it slowly approached the two on the ground.

"Ranma!" A disturbingly familiar cry ululated from the monstrosity. It raised its stick and Ranma's eyes widened in horror as it became clear that the stick was a familiar-looking hammer. An enchanted hammer that he had brought back as a gag gift for his fiancée and had turned out surprisingly painful.

"Akane" Ranma stuttered in incomprehension. Nabiki was keeping a close eye on Balthazar and no one except Rhada, Abdul-Ra, and Anhur know the exact dimensional coordinates where he was.

"It can't be angry girl, just beat it up and tell it to go away", Shampoo muttered comfortably.

"Ranma" The apparition repeated its battle cry. "I can't believe you! I practice for weeks with my enchanted hammer because it said it can get me to you, so I can help you save the universe and I find out you've wasted all these weeks playing snugly face with the Amazon bimbo!"

Shampoo stiffened in Ranma's arms at this descriptor. "Okay. It is the bitch." The purple-haired girl admitted quietly with growing anger. Silently she straightened up and smoothed her slightly mussed hair before turning to her rival. The flash and energy expelled by the closing rift was completely ignored as irrelevant by all participants.

"Listen up you immature little bitch! I am going to kick your ass if try to hammer Ranma when I show a little bit of affection to him," Shampoo stated in a low dangerous tone. In one hand a pillar of blue energy formed as her sword formed. Stepping forward she continued, "I have decided to be reasonable about this, I don't interfere with your lame attempts to show your 'love' and you don't interfere with mine." She breathed a trembling sigh, "I don't like it but I refuse to let Ranma get caught between us anymore."

There was a moment of silence as Ranma digested this strange declaration. It was a really sweet sentiment. It was obvious that Shampoo had really grown and matured. Well, either that or a strange alien Intelligence had reached into her body and mind and massaged it as if it was putty... but still, she had really changed. He doubted that Akane would willingly go for it though. Out of all of his fiancées Akane was the one most willing to let Ranma make his own decisions even when they hurt her... well after a small fit of anger. However, Akane was also not one to share. Of course, there was the final problem...

Akane stood silent for a few seconds, eyes glowing with anger and confusion and chi radiating in waves, trying to absorb Shampoo's response.

"Argh! You're still insulting me in Chinese!" Akane had only caught a few words of the torrent spewing from the Chinese girl's mouth, but what she had caught seemed to have been somewhat rude. Why else would she be speaking in her native Mandarin tongue? She knew no one understood the twisted thing.

"Doh!" Shampoo exclaimed as her unencumbered hand rose to massage her temples. Too much time spent around a Ranma that was comfortable with her speaking her own language had destroyed whatever reflex she once had to try to speak the Japanese tongue. Her grandmother was going to kick her ass when she found out that her efforts to improve her granddaughters Japanese had been undone. Then again, she only did it for the sake of her son I law so maybe it didn't matter anymore.

"Shampoo beat you unconscious and then try again," the Amazon stated in Japanese. "It's too, too much work to do that again." Upon making this decision she leaped towards the other teenage girl.

Ranma was about to step in between them when he noticed that a subtle glow was covering the hammer and intermingling with the girl's own aura. Shaking his head he walked over to the edge of the arena where a stool stood against the wall to watch the encounter. He would step in if there was any serious danger on either side but getting in between Shampoo's natural skills and new psionic powers and Akane's most recent power-up toy was looking to be excruciatingly painful. He had already worked on his body hardening and toughening skills enough for the day... let the girls work on their own for a bit.

Two hours later the sandy floor of the arena was covered on glassy craters and various walls had gaping holes in them. Ranma was mildly impressed at both of the women. Shampoo had come a long way and surprisingly so had Akane. Sure, most of it was the hammer but there was a lot of skill and chi manipulation improvement as well. Without the hammer the Amazon would still cream her but... still it was good to see. He had been worried the girl was stuck at her old plateau and would never budge.

A dry clattering sound came off from the door to the left. "They are still at it?" the insectoid manager asked in surprise.

"Yeah! I'm really happy with how far they've come... well, okay, once I got passed the whole pissed about having Akane follow me here in the first place," Ranma stated thoughtfully.

"You could probably have the black-haired girl fight with you instead, the people running the event probably can't tell one human from another without a psychic to read their aura", offered the alien.

The martial artist shook his head slowly. "No, Shampoo is more polished. Heck, she's got more of a killer instinct than I have," or hope to ever have, Ranma continued the thought. "They make great training partners though. I think their stamina is really evenly matched."

During the conversation, the two women had recovered from their most recent impact that had thrown the two away from one another and were slowly, painfully crawling towards the other in hopes of inflicting just one more bruise before they collapsed in exhaustion."

"Nope, I say we keep to the plan. Akane can train with Shampoo but there's no need to endanger someone else. They seem really motivated." In the field the two girls had reached the center and forgoing anything as sophisticated as weapons, were weakly trying to strangle the other.

 

 

Nabiki had just arrived home from the alternate Japan where she had overseen the loading of some very delicate machinery into the transport circle. Looking at the clipboard she gave a satisfied smile. This whole enterprise had been extremely profitable, although explaining where the money was coming from required imaginative bookkeeping verging on the miraculous, she was well on the way to becoming a real mover and shaker in the Japanese business world. Of course the ironic part was that as successful as she was at home, she was infinitely more successful in that weird twisted version of Japan Ranma had stumbled upon. The reason was simple of course, on the other side she didn't have to hide where her assets were coming from. Heck, her agreements were mostly from the government anyway.

With the flush of a job well done still upon her, it was jarring when her senses reported something happening in the dojo. Something involving a ton of magic and the dimensional membrane between worlds being rudely hammered away by more force than skill.

Cursing the chaos that seemed to inundate Nerima, she rushed downstairs and threw open the door leading the dojo. Standing in the center of the room was her little sister going through a strangely complex kata with that odd hammer that Ranma had brought back from the Palladium world. That was not surprising, Akane had been acting oddly, muttering to the hammer and her dedication to the art seemed to skyrocket as she spent hour after hour when Jess wasn't in the dojo, going through katas Nabiki had never seen before.

She hadn't thought anything of it. Everyone said the hammer wasn't evil and Nabika wasn't anything like a dedicated martial artist like Akane or their father was. There were probably tons of katas she hadn't seen. She just chalked it up to Akane working through her issues with Ranma. Staring at the hammer that was spilling forth light, and leaving a trail of visible magic energy as Akane danced through an arcane form, it occurred to Nabiki that perhaps she had taken a few things for granted.

As Nabiki struggled with the urge to interrupt the impending disaster forming in front of her and the knowledge that interrupting a major magical ritual when so much energy was already tied up in the process of tearing through the dimension couldn't have a good end, her choices were removed from her. With a boom that shook the house to its foundations, a portal formed in the space circumscribed by her martial dance.

Seeing the energy stabilized into a less hazardous form Nabiki moved forward towards her sister. "Akane! Don't go! There are a lots of things you don't understand yet and you're not going to help!"

Akane turned and looked to her sibling, hammer resting on the ground and breath coming in slight pants. "I know enough. I won't stay here and wait," she patted the haft of the handle as it leaned against her leg. "I've been practicing. I can make a real difference. You'd be amazed at what I can do now... I know Ranma will." She smiled sweetly at her sister and continued, "I'm sure he'll be happy to have some help saving the world for a change." She then confidently turned and walked into the portal.

Nabiki sadly shook her head as she stared into the shining vortex of energy before her. Her sister meant well, she really did, but sometimes she seemed less connected to reality than even Kasumi did.

From far away Nabiki heard an outraged cry of "Ranma!"

Then the portal slammed shut.

 

 

The dragon shifted his weight in thought, sending an undulation through his slowly writhing body as it floated a few feet above the ground. He wasn't sure how wise his present course of action was but he was running out of options. In the past few weeks he had in effect been laying in wait outside the Bloody Grub training area hoping to get a chance to spring into an attack upon the dreadful human he had been hunting. His efforts had so far been in vain. If he even saw the human leave the compound he was immediately led upon a merry chase through the streets, roofs, and dirty back alleys of Splynn.

Sometimes his opponent would pause to taunt him before continuing to wind his way through the city, other times his presence wasn't even acknowledged. In either case, after no more than a half-hour he would lose his prey, sometimes momentarily finding him again before the human vanished. He knew it wasn't invisibility, like most supernatural creatures he was proof against that trick. He wasn't even sure it was a martial arts technique. Although he wasn't built to use them he had a vast library of martial arts knowledge that before he met the infernal human he would have confidently stated was unrivaled.

But something always happened. The martial artist would leap behind a building and be gone. He would jump inside a sewer access door forcing him to shrink his gigantic form to follow... and simply not be there. This left him a very angry and frustrated dragon. He didn't think he was alone in a lack of ability to track the man. Often the Eye of Eyelor would be left floating aimlessly and he was quite sure it had lost track of the human as well. At such times he would eventually give up and lay in wait at the training compound. He could at least be sure that the gnat would eventually come back here.

Often, he would entertain fantasies of breaking in and wreaking havoc until the thorn in his side had no choice but to face him to keep him from destroying his friends and home. Of course, there was the issue that he had no idea if the huge complex that housed the stable of fighters that was located in the Bloody Grub suburb had any emotional attachment to the human. There was also that the games and tournaments within Splynn were extremely popular by all. Including Spynncryth. It would be very unwise to upset the ruler of the city in such an obvious way.

And so he was at an impasse. He was sure if he could just get the human to stay and fight he would be able to wreak devastation the fragile creature. It was soon obvious that he was not the only one thinking the same thing. Not too long ago he was approached by one of the annoying self-important beings that called themselves the Sunaj.

Until then, he had assumed that they had all run away and hidden from his presence. After all, he hadn't seen them since his visit to their headquarters. There they had given him the information on where to find the human and then they had vanished. He had gone back later to try to find out more about possible ambush sites but the building was deserted. The condition of the building shows signs of a fierce battle but nothing more.

The Sunaj had made an interesting offer. A way to make the human stand and fight. Of course it required him to cooperate with the Sunaj insect but the humiliation might be worth it. It must be worth it... if the human continued to make a mockery of him he would go mad with rage.

This of course brought him to where he was now, floating in front of one of the government's low-level pencil pushers filling out forms. Or rather having his 'partner' fill out forms for him. Supposedly his presence and confirmation would be sufficient. He hated dealing with such mundane matters but it would be worth it if he could trap that human.

Finally the armored assassin signaled the paperwork was complete and he placed his claw mark strategically on the contract. It was done. Events were in motion that would culminate in his vengeance.

As he floated out the door he absent-mindedly noted an oversized demonic harpy at the table he had just left, sitting down to fill in a ream of paperwork. It didn't look happy about wasting its afternoon either.


Chapter 11: Face Off

"Okay this place is big. Really, really big," Ranma stated for the fourth time. He stood with the others on the first tier of the series of elevated plateaus that surrounded the grand Arena of Champions field of battle. The field itself was nothing special, just a vast area of stone covered in sand, mostly smooth except for an occasional dune. Floating above the sand at regular intervals were metallic ovals three feet in length sprouting cylindrical lenses and antenna Ranma could only assume to microphone. Of course from what little he knew about technology, they could be squirt guns and he wouldn't know any better. He nervously examined them closer. With his luck they probably would be. Maybe he'd get lucky and they would just be simple death rays or lasers...

Sure, it was a large field but it was the stands surrounding the battlefield that commanded his attention. From a distance it looked like stone rings, set on top of one another like stairs leading up from the sands into the sky. Now that he was actually on the lowest tier, closest to the floor, he realized how large each one was. The ring was four hundred feet wide and the area adjacent to the wall forming the next higher ring had merchant stalls and restrooms and all the essentials required for the free fighters attending the match as they awaited their turn to combat. Of course those combatants that were attending against their will weren't nearly as comfortable but Ranma was trying very hard not to think of such things.

Extravagant chairs levitated gently near the wall, available for a rest or simply for a better view. Ranma assumed he would be using one of those later; they sure looked comfortable, however, for the moment he was content to look around. While the structure itself was impressive the denizens of the construct were odd even from Ranma's vastly expanded experience. Directly opposite him almost too far to see with the naked eye was a huge octopus creature with a gigantic eye in the center surrounded with spikes, wallowing in a pool of viscous liquid. The size of the thing was not obvious until he noticed tiny ant-like beings scurrying around the monster and he realized that one of them was the Highlord he had come here to find. A Highlord that supposedly stood seven feet tall. Even from here he could feel the life force of the creature, as powerful as the gods he had previously faced and infinitely more alien.  Malevolent. Ranma glanced stonily from the eye that had been following him for weeks to its master and had a hard time stifling the urge to make a rude gesture.

The rest of the arena was very far from barren as well and Ranma heard his manager, Syushra, waving his various appendages this way and that to an enthralled pair of girls. They had finally stopped their verbal, and often very physical, grudge match for the first time in weeks and were listening to the insectoid. "And over there we have the Powerlords and a few Highlords, notice how they each have a retinue of slaves and servants? Over there we have the Kittani, they love their sports." There followed more arm-waving, one limb Akane only narrowly ducked. "That thing over there is a Volute Metztla," he pointed to a 40-foot tall tower of twisted flesh and chitin with the odd blade arm and claws sticking out of it. "They are one of the Splugorths higher up minions."

"How do they serve him," Shampoo asked in her native Chinese. After much shouting, heaving of breasts, and gnashing of teeth Akane had been given a translator talisman. This hadn't really stopped or even slowed down the shouting and the gnashing, however, at least the two women were in synch with one another. Definitely a mixed blessing.

"The same way they are floating. They and their variant races not only possess huge physical strength but monumental psionic powers," Syushra expounded, seemingly satisfied to answer girls' questions all day. "Over there we have a few demons, your friends Abdul-Ra and Rhada among them. On the opposite side we have the deevils, well except Rhada..." the insectoid paused for a moment. "They are not allowed near each other. The last time they interacted here was very... messy. Mind you the crowd loved it... at least those far enough away to survive." His prism-like eyes darted around the arena seeking something. "Now that’s odd... where is that Leviathan you were telling me about? I find it hard to believe that she would miss this."

"That would be the 28-foot tall woman the security guards are trying keeping at the far end of the fighter section," Ranma stated absently, his steely eyes not leaving the Splugorth lazily consuming some poor human. Fortunately the distance was so vast that no cries were heard. He was pretty sure the girls hadn't noticed many of the horrors in the Atlantian city and he wasn't anxious to draw attention to them when there was nothing any of them could do about it... at the moment. Whited knuckles and coldness in his aura were the only signs of his distress. Hopefully, everyone simply thought he was nervous.

"Oh. I was wondering why she was screaming obscenities at that woman over in demon section," Akane commented, looking over her shoulder warily. At that moment, the giant deevil woman grabbed one of the ten-foot tall Power Lords and threw the writhing figure out over the arena ground towards her hated rival. The Power Lord arced over the field for three hundred feet and landed in an explosion of sand. After a few seconds of stillness the Power Lord struggled to its feet mostly unharmed, brushed itself off, and started to jog back to where the altercation was taking place. Ranma frowned as he saw that out of the corner of his eye. It was too bad the Power Lord was unhurt.

"She's cursing at Rhada, and probably at Abdul-Ra," Ranma offered in explanation. "The only reason she hasn't attacked me, aside from the moron squad," Ranma said while gesturing over his shoulder at the Power Lords desperately trying to restrain the Deevil Lord without turning the struggle into life and death brawl... most likely their own death. Although she wasn't going anywhere she looked far from subdued as dozens of Splynncryth's minions dangled from her like tree ornaments. "... is that she would be disqualified and she probably thinks I would run."

"Oh, is that Rhada? I was wondering why she was waving at you," Akane pouted, trying to rein in a vague feeling of jealousy.

Ranma darted a glance over at the demon section. Sure enough there was Rhada, completely ignoring Leviathan and waving enthusiastically, her fourteen foot tall height making her stand out even among the tall raksasha and fenry surrounding her. Next to her, holding her other hand stood Abdul-Ra, grinning... or perhaps snarling at him. It was hard for him to tell with cat-headed humanoids. Ranma waved back and his forced smile became more genuine as he saw some very unhappy fenry awkwardly standing on their wolf hind legs and holding up a large sign that boldly proclaimed "GO RANMA!" in the Splugorthian language.

"That lady looks way too happy to see Ranma," even Shampoo groused slightly with a small frown.

"Well I did save her from captivity and we are going to be business partners together with Nabiki," Ranma said while waving at her, now trying to ignore the evil alien intelligence opposite him. Another Power Lord flew overhead, cursing, barely missing them as it involuntarily flew towards Rhada.

"Business partner," the girls exclaimed in unison.

"Oh, right. Didn't I mention that?" Ranma said hesitantly.

"No, I think I would remember that," Akane stated darkly. "Is Nabiki okay dealing with demons?" she stated with some concern.

Ranma simply looked at her incredulously. Admittedly, he hadn't gotten around to telling Nabiki yet, but...

"Ah... never mind, silly question," Akane said looking away. She suddenly stopped as she stared in the direction of the monstrous Splugorth. "Hey! Is that..." Ranma twisted around grabbed Akane and spinning her around in the opposite direction. Desperately he looked for something to grab her attention. Giant oriental dragon... nope, 28-foot tall tantrum-throwing Deevil Lady...nope, sunaj assassin...nope, 20 foot tall armored, four-armed giant ...nope. Ah there! "... Ryouga!?!?"

Ranma's brain finally caught up with his mouth and he found himself pointing stupidly at the umbrella touting martial artist. "Ryouga what the hell are you doing here? I thought you were wandering Japan or something," Ranma called out more than a little mystified. Steel entered his tone, "Somewhere far from here."

"Ranma? What are you doing fighting at an alien tournament," Ryouga questioned, obviously disturbed. "I thought you were doing... something in that weird version Japan we found."

Ranma's gaze went down to the ankle restraints and could barely see the tips of them under some weird looking ski boots. "You took off the anchors?" Ranma said his voice growing in volume. "Damn it, Ryouga! You're not supposed to be here!"

"Ranma! Stop picking on Ryouga," Akane lightly slapped his arm. She had almost been trained not to strike Ranma with full force. For the last several weeks every time she did, Shampoo would leap upon her and they ended up fighting tooth and nail for hours. Ranma still wasn't sure how he felt about that. It was nice not to always be hit by Akane but there was a lot of endurance training he was missing out on. "I'm sure he just came to help you out just like I did," Akane continued.

Ryouga scratched the back of his head nervously. "Um, actually I had no idea you were here. I'm just here to win the tournament, I somehow ended owing some guys for bail... it’s a debt of honor you understand."

Ranma's left eye twitched. "Ryouga... I," he paused, at a loss for words. "Ryouga, you..." Counting to ten slowly, he tried to gather his thoughts.

"Ryouga, you don't understand," Akane urgently exclaimed. "Ranma has to win! If he doesn't..." her explanation was cut off as Ranma pressed his hand to her mouth to stop her speech.

"I have to win to show the universe the true supremacy of my martial arts," Ranma proclaimed in an overblown pompous manner. "Ouch!" he yelled as the short-haired girl promptly bit his hand.

"What's the big idea Ranma," a furious Akane spit out.

"Ixnay on the savinay of the universy," Ranma whispered while glancing at the Splugorth minions flooding the fighters' area.

"Ranma! I am tired of your pompous attitude and your mistreatment of women," shouted an outraged Ryouga seeing his rival manhandle Akane right in front of him. He had thought better of him than that. Believed that despite their differences Ranma was worthy of respect. Obviously, his first reaction so many years ago had been correct. Ranma was evil and had to be put down. "I am going to put you in your place. In front of this whole alien nation I am going to show exactly who the better man is and expose you for the fake you really are."

During this heated speech Ranma held his hand over his face and was shaking his head as if to block out the reality of the situation. Ranma absently noted that the situation was so bad that his mind was amplifying his rival's voice until it seemed to resonate through the arena. With a certain amount of trepidation he peeked through his fingers and groaned in dismay. Holographic screens, fifty feet high had flickered into existence all around the tiered audience seating and Ryouga's challenge was being replayed for the benefit of those not able to see the drama themselves. I guess that's what those tubes are for, was the thought that flitted through his mind.

Ryouga hesitated, it was only fair to warn his rival. "Ranma... I," he paused put his thoughts into words. "Ranma, it's only fair to tell you that I've been heavily training." He looked down for a moment. "Even though you've shown your true loathsome colors and I realize that I was only fooling myself to think, even momentarily, that you weren't a cowardly beast... I feel obligated to tell you that my skills and strength have increased by a huge amount from what they were." Ryouga put on a grim face and looked his rival straight in the eyes. "I'm afraid I can't guarantee your safety if we fight in the arena."

"Why you..." Ranma shouted, but his cry was choked on the emotions roiling within him. "I'm going to... I outta..." Ranma finally brought his Soul of Ice technique to bear and the more sensitive mortals stepped back as an arctic breeze began to circulate around him. As his outrage began to subside his brain started to race.

"I mean... darn. You found me out," Ranma said in a strained voice. "I was only pretending to be good and nice and... er, good." He felt a headache build up behind his temples as he saw his image, far larger than life projected for all to see. Even Leviathan had temporarily stopped tossing minions across the arena in favor of watching the drama in front of her. "I am a bad person, a rabid dog that needs to be put down. Evil incarnate," Ranma tried to give a vicious snarl but suspected it lacked true feeling. "I live for pain and chaos and I'm going to show everyone just how badass I really am." This last part actually contained something he felt strongly about and so he ended his impromptu speech on almost a strong note.

Ryouga looked slightly taken aback. He had known the truth but to see his rival... no ...his enemy, admit it for the entire world to hear. Off to his side, Akane had her hands over her face and he could see that she was shuddering with emotion and horror as the final masks were removed. Truly this must be what vindication feels like. He sighed, "I'm sorry it has to end this way Ranma." Ryouga in a moment of weakness placed his hand on his enemy's shoulders and gently squeezed in one final act of camaraderie. Then he slowly turned and heavily walked away.

Ranma turned back to the arena and shook his head in disgust and then just glared at the holographic projectors until they decided the drama was over and flickered off. Next to him, Akane was shuddering and choking.

"Right, laugh it up," Ranma said sarcastically, "The big, bad Ranma will get his revenge in the end." This of course sent the girl into another paroxysm of stifled laughter.

Ranma for his part was working his shoulder. Ryouga apparently had indeed been training. His shoulder ached where his rival had rested it as if a ten-ton hammer had slammed it. Although his strength was monstrous, and oddly enough his weight, his increase in chi had him concerned too. The arena was huge but he worried about it being large enough to contain the two of them if they both really let loose.

His manager just seemed puzzled at the whole display. He didn't really understand what had happened. It must be a human thing.

Ranma looked over to Shampoo, wandering why the amazon had stayed silent so long. He frowned again as he saw her looking over at Splynncryth as the Splugorth consumed another human. It was a bad time to find that she had exceptional vision. Moving over to her he gently took her by the shoulders and led her to meet some of the other fighters. Maybe they would get lucky and they could start a brawl. He could usually do it by accident; surely it couldn't be too hard to do it on purpose.


Chapter 12: First Blood

Ranma was starting to twitch with unspent energy and impatience. Looking over at his manager he prompted him, "So how does this thing work again? The fighting actually starts soon, right?"

"Today is the first set of the annual fight. There are fights every week but the next four weeks will pit the champions against one another. Today's event will put our team against one or more of the current champions," as he spoke his tongue slid down into the drink he was carrying and an occasional slurp, followed by a crunch would be heard as floating creatures were sucked into Syushra's tiny maw. Ranma winced and looked away. The insectoid was turning out to be reliable and even likable, but its disturbing visage and eating habits continued to turn his stomach. "These fights aren't lethal and assuming we win, we get to face another."

"What about miss moody over there," Ranma asked, gesturing towards the huge devil lord that continued to curse over the arena floor at Rhada, "and the reptile." The martial artist nodded in the direction of a twelve-foot long serpent dragon floating above the tiers. The small size didn't fool him. He knew exactly who the snake was and why he was here and had seen the creature demonstrate his size altering abilities in the past.

"You most likely won't go up against them today," Syushra stated with a wave of his limb. "Consider them special guests. Most supernatural creatures of their stature do not compete in the games. They consider it beneath them. Since these have signed up they only have to fight in the finals."

Ranma grunted, he'd been making plans for each of his antagonists for weeks. Since neither had made any secret of their desire to kill and maim him, not necessarily in that order, he had been ferreting out their weaknesses, tactics, and weapons. The dragon had been easy to bait and tease out his capabilities. Although it firmly believed itself to be a master strategist he had found that when personally crossed and made a fool of, almost all attempts at reason went out the window in a fight. To be honest, it was almost exactly how Pops used to say a fight would go. Insult the opponent and when it got enraged and sloppy, take him out. It was almost embarrassingly easy to deal with the dragon except for its durability. Apparently the older dragons are only a little lower on the durability scale than demon lords and gods. It probably would be easier than if he wanted to take down Ammit but it was still more than he had done to date.

Leviathan was another puzzle he would have to figure out soon. From what he had seen she was all brawn. She didn't have those tricks, spells, or ultimate attacks that many other Deevil Lords had but she was very, very strong, and had a hammer and sword. Oh, and was doubtless even tougher than the dragon. It may take him a week just to make her feel his strikes. But he had some ideas.

Everything he had heard about the other champions seemed anticlimactic. He may have been making a mistake by not taking them seriously but it was hard to lower his sights from the challenges in front of him. "So how does this team thing work? I kinda noticed that some guys seem to be in teams and others aren't."

"I was wondering about that myself," Akane chimed in, finally taking her eyes off the sights around her. Ranma had done his very best to keep both women in the training compound and out of the city proper. He had no doubt they could handle the random rude alien and the authorities wouldn't hassle an arena contender, assuming they bothered to find out first, but he did not want them to have to see the things he had. Hell, he didn't want to see these things. It wasn't surprising that both girls were almost shivering with excitement at the sensory overload around them. "It doesn't really seem fair that we have three and they have one."

"The game balances that by a fair degree. The singletons have the first choice of opponents, group-wise. Once they select what group to fight the team then decides which one to face them. Groups may challenge entire groups but that tends to be rare. This tends to be one on one. Well, as long as you are not... never mind." There was a very dark side to the arena for low-class slaves. Ranma had asked him not to discuss it in front of the women.

"I am not sure I see the point in having a team," Shampoo offered, a thoughtful expression on her face. "Why bother if it's still one on one."

"It is mostly to add variety, to be honest, I don't think it matters much. Though it can help ensure a team has a better chance to reach the finals in case there are injuries. Not every race can lose a limb and be ready to fight at full strength within a day," the manager added, wiggling in a way that may have been a shrug. "I think the only real limitation is that all members must have been engaged in at least one fight before the finals or the team is disqualified."

"Wait a minute, you never mentioned that part," Ranma squawked. The two girls looked at him evilly.

"So you knew about the rules before now," Akane gritted out. "I bet you were planning on doing all the fighting." Ranma slowly backed up until his back was against the raised stone tier.

"Now girls, what gives you that idea? You know I believe in a fair fight," Ranma weakly denied as sweat poured down his back.

"Husband also believes in keeping his fiancées safe and away from the fighting," Shampoo added cheerfully with a grin. "Husband failed. I suppose it is a good thing I asked our manager not to mention it."

The pigtailed youth stood there with his mouth open. He hadn't thought the girls would even try to outmaneuver him. Turning he looked indignantly at Syushra. "Hey..."

"Don't be mad at the manager, as your wife I asked to be the one to tell you," she proudly stated. Akane had a frown on her face but it was slowly fading as she realized that she would get a chance to fight.

"I had thought you would have told him already. Isn't this cutting it a bit close," the insectoid asked in a rather confused manner.

"Husband loves surprises," replied with a smile.

Meanwhile, with only minor fanfare, the actual fights had started. Far from settling the crowd, the denizens of Atlantis actually became rowdier and louder, each cheering for their favorite. This part the event wasn't intended for pure bloodlust and the matches were fairly even. Still fuming at being outmaneuvered Ranma didn't really pay much attention to the fights. He barely registered a tattoo man squaring off against some sort of superpowered rock man, followed by a rather spectacular spell duel between two mages. Absently, he noted the spells and pondered counters to them, but his full attention wasn't on the combat.

Finally, a smack to the back of his head from Akane brought his attention fully to the events around him. Everyone around him had their attention riveted on a bikini-clad woman gracefully approaching them from the arena ground. Well, Akane was glaring at him and Shampoo was frowning at Akane, but the other fighters Syushra managed were all looking.

Swaying as she walked, the woman drew closer to them. Her blond hair was gathered in a topknot but to be honest she could have wearing a bear's skin and it would have not detracted one iota from her beauty. Ranma's first thought was she was a hand to hand fighter before he saw the tattoos delicately tracing her form.

"Sight-Stealer," Syushra said in a hushed voice. "One of the champions I told you about. Choose your fighter."

The comment sparked his memory. Ah, right. That one. "Shampoo, you're up."

The Amazon squealed in delight as she jumped up and down excitedly. Predictably, Akane was not nearly as thrilled. "Why her? I can take her."

Glancing to the side at the midnight blue-haired girl he shook his head. Why did they always doubt his ability to analyze fights? It was one of the things he did better than anyone else he knew. And yet they never listened. He had never seen the blond woman fight but Syushra was very clear in his description.

"It's Shampoo's fight. You'll get your turn, probably today." Turning to the Amazon he continued, "Go ahead Shampoo, have fun. Just keep in mind that there's no need to get deadly yet."

As she entered the arena she winked back, "Now you should know I have other ways to spend my energy. I'll remind you when I get back." Akane glared death upon both of them but kept her peace. She may have growled a low "pervert" but even she didn't know who it was aimed at.

Both warriors walked over the sand-covered stone until they reached the center. Stopping there they faced, only a dozen feet separating each other and waited.

"I'll try to make this quick," Shampoo smiled in what appeared a friendly manner.

The other woman maintained her serene smile. "I don't mind dragging it out a bit," a hint of wickedness entering her demeanor. A reverberating tone sounded to signal the start of the fight and a shimmering dome of energy sprang up over the arena to protect the spectators.

Shampoo immediately sprinted forward, blurring to the sight of many creatures in the seats and imbedded her fist in the tall woman's stomach, launching her half the width of the stadium. Upon landing she squirmed on the ground desperately gasping for breath. Shampoo leisurely walked towards her, white energy pooling in her hands and slowly elongating into twin swords.

Finally catching her breath the blond woman staggered to her feet. Although still beautiful her hair was in disarray and a hamhock size purple discoloration decorated her stomach, almost eclipsing her artwork. Shampoo's swords were fully formed and she was a mere twenty feet away when the woman stretched out her hand and a bow flickered into existence, complete with a notched arrow. Immediately she started firing at the approaching Amazon.

Shampoo brought her swords into play, deftly deflecting the magical arrows to the left or right while still walking towards her enemy. This forced the tattooed archer to swiftly walk backward, pausing in the barrage she tapped her arm causing a large serpent to appear. The Amazon paused slightly at this turn, before continuing her stride towards the archer.

Ranma frowned slightly from the side. Shampoo was a smart girl but she had a bad tendency to play with her opponents. He had been expecting to do all the fighting or he would have gone over some basic tactics with her, none of which would have included letting the archer keep a distance advantage. And definitely not ignoring the snake.

Out on the arena, the snake had started to prove its worth by spitting smoking acid at the fiancée. The first spray had been partly turned away by the psychic blades but some of the liquid had gotten past the defense and now Shampoo was desperately wiping the burning liquid from her face and eyes with part of her torn shirt while waving her sword at the oncoming arrows. Her somewhat random defense knocked a few arrows away but two had actually hit her.

The first knocked her down and back several feet, causing no lasting harm, not even a bruise but the second arrow to strike her glowed as it dissipated and Shampoo growled in frustration as her vision was further shrouded in magical darkness.

The archer seeing her advantage stopped her retreat and began an all-out torrent of arrows upon her fallen foe. At a barked verbal command the snake also continued to spew its corrosive payload on the Amazon.

Shampoo was getting angry and frustrated. Apparently, she had gone from overpowering the bitch to being the playtoy. The arrows didn't hurt that bad but the acid was very painful and she was going to stop it. With a second of concentration, she formed a glowing sheathe of energy around her to give her a moments reprieve from fresh acid and then she concentrated on her senses. The roaring of the crowd made hearing a useless ability but she had gained another, weaker sense in her prison. She hadn't had much reason or time to practice but it was all she had at the moment.

Breathing as calmly as she could while concussive arrows of force peppered her and her eyes burning, she paused to stretch her senses around her before initiating a drunken charge at the closest entity she felt. The archer cursed under her breath as the insanely strong woman suddenly froze and then staggered over to the summoned serpent, both swords painting trails of devastation in the air. It was likely the swordswoman barely felt the snake go down. She certainly didn't pause as she changes direction and started running at the archer.

Gasping at the pain that the death of her creature caused, she slipped to the side as the blinded warrior swung past her. Whatever she was using to sense her obviously wasn't that accurate, because staying out of her reach wasn't too arduous. After several missed charges a smile made its way back onto the archer's face. She had been worried at first but now she had the rhythm of the fight down and she was going to be the victor.

This smile was instantly wiped away as the Amazon gave a muffled frustrated scream, stopped, and blindly pointed at the blond. As an invisible force engulfed the woman, flung her spinning into the air, and then sent her like a guided missile at the waiting blind woman she only just had time to be grateful the purple-haired girl dismissed her two swords to merely beat her unconscious.

Ranma looked on, shaking his head as the audience booed the change in fortune. That was such a sloppy win. Shampoo should have ended the battle in ten seconds. He supposed he shouldn't be surprised; all the fighters from Nerima shared the weakness of occasional overconfidence. Perhaps even himself. He should just concentrate on the Amazon winning and forget the events in between. Although, he might just bring it up in tomorrow's training.

"That stuff on her face is just a weak acid, right? It washes off?" Ranma confirmed with his manager.

"She may have some blistering but we have some cream that neutralizes it and heals the minor damage. Otherwise it may take a few days. Sight-Stealer is a crowd favorite but her tactics are well known."

"Hmm, if only I had known that my fiancées had to fight," the martial artist growled sarcastically.

"Yes, funny how that worked out," Syushra nodded to himself, oblivious to the sarcasm.

"Akane put that down, that’s barbeque sauce, not the salve," Ranma sighed while massaging his forehead. They should be okay as long as she didn't try bandaging anyone. He has almost been asphyxiated when she had last tried to help him.

 

 

"I'm not sure this is working out," Nabiki muttered to herself as she watched Cindra laboriously drill Komar in the basic symbology used in circle magic. It was only difficult because the princess herself had only just mastered the rudiments of the language under the Summoner 'Zar's tutelage. However, when the princess had heard that the young girl that Ranma was so attached to was staying with the Tendo's and that while she was here she needed to be tutored in the basics of traditional skills, she had leaped at the opportunity to score points with her fiancée.

"I think it's sweet," offered Kasumi as she absentmindedly directed an entourage of floating mops and dusters with one hand and turned the pages of an old tome with another. Nabiki almost could have sworn she heard her sister mutter about it also having the benefit of keeping the princess out of her hair. She must have been mistaken though.

"I really don't think this is what her family meant by a traditional education," Nabiki pointed out.

"Think how lucky she is to get such a nice head start so young," the elder sister absently muttered as she hummed to herself and turned the page. Nabiki noticed the book was more than a bit ragged and aged.

"I know Tofu practices traditional medicine but I thought he didn't loan out the older part of his collection."

"Oh, this old thing?" Kasumi negligently waved a hand, sending Cindra ducking for cover as a feather duster suddenly flew at her from behind. "This is just a fascinating thing Grayson sensei lent me."

"Grayson? Who's Grayson?" the middle sister asked, confused.

"Just a friend of Ranma's. Such an interesting man. And he knows so many new fascinating people," Kasumi added amiably. Puzzled, Nabiki leaned over to examine the book closer only to realize it wasn't in any language she knew.

"What language is that? Latin?"

"Of course not silly. I don't read Latin. Besides, that’s a dead language. It's written in elvish." In the background Komar was repressing giggles as an enraged Cindra ran after the fleeing duster.

"Right," Nabiki paused, trying to digest this. "Why are you reading an elven book?"

"Grayson says they were close to nature and the elements before their civilization fell. It's very interesting."

"And where is this Grayson guy?" Nabiki asked, still floundering a bit.

"Oh, he is staying in Timiro for the moment. He travels a lot for his job. He's going to get me a library card in Bletherad next month," she elder girl placidly stated while she turned another page.

"Where the heck is Timiro," it sounded familiar.

"Not far," breezily gesturing again with her free hand and coincidentally sending a mop charging at Cindra. "Just around the corner if you know the way. They have an excellent market. I used their spices in last night's meal. Komar loved it."

Ah, food preparation. Instantly, the middle sister's interest died. "I am pretty sure Komar's aunt meant art, history, and poetry."

"Circle magic is a respected ancient art, you should read about the history of it. Fascinating," a twitch sent another duster chasing Komar around the room, the little girl squealing in delight. Nabiki looked at her flatly. "You'd have to read Ancient Atlantean though. You can't get much more classical than that."

"Ranma called all the circle masters he knows nutcases," Nabiki responded, not impressed by the argument.

"Grayson sensei says the same thing," Kasumi admitted with a shrug.

Shaking her head, she slowly retreated to the circle room. Obviously, she wasn't going to change her sister's mind any time soon. Hopefully Komar's family wouldn't ask her to write a haiku anytime soon. She thought that Cindra's idea of poetry was some foreign gibberish no one could understand. Ranma was due to start his arena trials soon. She should probably prepare to contact him.

 

 

Of the trio, only Akane watched the start of Ryouga's next fight. She had been banned from helping the injured after one of the other fighters had to be resuscitated by a priest. Ranma blamed himself, he knew he should have been watching her closer but he was changing the compress for Shampoo.

So it was that the girl stood off to the side of the force field, cheering the lost boy on as he fought a twenty-foot tall armored giant. Although the giant had a thick eight-foot long mace his other three hands were empty. From the very beginning of the fight it was clear that it would be a simple slugfest. Ryouga had the capability of being almost as skilled as the pigtailed martial artist but had the tendency to fall back into brute force unless he was pressed. Despite the giant being equal to the lost boy in strength the fight was terribly one-sided. The mace was parried easily by the trusty bamboo umbrella and the extra arms were just blocked by Ryouga's free arm.

The sheer force of the giant's blocked strikes often blasted the lost boy all the way across the floor of the arena, but he would simply stoically stand up and march back to the fight. When he was knocked away the giant would use his crystal mace to fire beams of energy at Ryouga as he trudged back. However, except for the first time, which was a bit of a surprise, this was easily blocked by his umbrella. His counterstrikes mostly seemed to ignore his opponent's defense and methodically crushed and shattered the finely crafted armor the monster wore. He had come in wearing a work of art and within thirty minutes the legs and arms were almost completely destroyed. Within forty minutes, two arms were broken and the giant was kneeling on his crushed legs while he desperately tried to keep the martial artist away with a wall of flame from the same crystal mace. Within forty-five minutes the giant gave the signal to submit unable to defend himself once the fire guttered out. The only real damage Ryouga took was to his clothing as he was kicked back from the sheer force of the strikes.

Ranma had finished with Shampoo's first aid ten minutes into the fight. He silently stood next to the wildly cheering Akane. Occasionally his eye would twitch at a particularly strong impact from the giant or the lost boy. Once in a while he would spare Akane a dour look as she hooted and shouted in his ear.

Looking at the fight he was conflicted. He had expected his rival to win. In fact he had expected his rival to easily win. Just not this way. Ryouga's style almost seemed to have regressed a year... except, it likely hadn't. Neither martial artist had been in Atlantis long enough to have their skills degrade, even if they just sat and drank wine all day. Ranma rubbed his shoulder where the bruise was still fading and he nodded. His rival had reached another tier in strength and durability. Ranma had been training but mostly refining techniques and strategies. Ryouga's sheer strength was worrying since he had no doubt whatsoever that the fates would pit them against each other before the final contest. The plans he had to deal with dragons and devil lords now had to be expanded to include his mentally challenged friend. Oh joy.

Akane issued another shrill cry of joy as the lost boy was declared the winner. Ranma gave another snort of disgust, earning a glare from his fiancée. "Oh grow up Ranma! It was a great fight!"

"Bah. Ryouga used as much skill as... as," Ranma paused. He was about to compare him to Akane, but decided that perhaps he should leave aside the insults until they weren't surrounded by hordes of man-eating monsters. "Um, never mind. Anyway, that wasn't a fight. That was just Ryouga using the toughest opponent he could find to practice controlling his new strength."

"What? Ryouga was using a new technique?" Akane's lips pursed in concentration. "Funny, it looked just like his old style."

The pigtailed martial artist just stared at her. "Right."

 

 

The god appeared in an alley amide a flash of light. Looking around to gather his bearings he noticed a familiar shape in the darker corners. "Ah, there you are. Glad I finally caught up."

Walking over to the object he reached out and picked up the frozen statuary posing in the nook. "I see you're in your inactive phase. Glad to hear that. I'm too old to be chasing you through all the orchards of hell." Finding carrying the object a bit too awkward the god increased his size to twelve feet. This allowed him to hold the statue by the ankles. "I have been thinking about how things stand while I have been looking for you and my grandson. I think I can perhaps use your connection with him to help me get to him a bit faster."

Heaving the immobile statue up until it was perpendicular in front of him he slowly moved it back and forth like a divining rod. "Hmm, I think I'm getting some vibes in this direction."

 

 

The day was winding down when the second challenger approached the small team. Syushra had other fighters in his 'stable' but most were single fighters. They generally had their own scheduled and having witnessed the three fighters train among themselves they were firmly decided against challenging them. Since none of the martial artists knew any of the fighters well it led to rather disinterested speculation on the matchups. At least until the next champion flew up to the camp and pointed at their pavilion.

This fighter stood seven feet tall and much like Ryouga's opponent had four arms, although the lower two of them were more clawlike appendages. The creature may have once been human, it was difficult to tell sometimes in this land. Now, however, he was beyond such things. His skin looked more like a beetle's carapace than anything else and two armored bat-like wings spread out from his back. Although not wearing armor he was clothed and one set of arms held an oversized chitinous shield with an eye in the center and the other set of wielded a large mage. Oddly enough the mace also held an eye where the handle met the chain.

Ranma frowned as he looked the warrior up and down. "Akane! You're up. Remember what I said."

"Don't worry, I'm a martial artist, I can deal with this," Ranma winced at hearing this.

"Humor me. Please," Ranma replied.

As per the earlier fight both combatants walked to the center of the arena and waited for the energy shield to snap into place and signal the start of the contest. As the barrier came up, Akane charged the larger gladiator only to have him fly swiftly away a hundred feet before wheeling back, the mace spinning slowly as he prepared his attack.

Akane focused completely on her opponent as she herself began to spin her hammer before her. The spinning began to pick up speed as it began to emit a low pulsing hum. Abruptly the flyer increased his speed until he was almost a blur, diving towards the girl slightly offset as he tried to cut her down with his outstretched wings. Akane swung her hammer at the same time and both opponents flew backward thirty feet amid a thunderous crash.

The girl had a bloody cut on one arm. Slowly she flexed it to ensure it was still working as she assessed her opponent. He was likewise getting to his feet. It was obvious that he was unhurt. Akane frowned at this, as the man's stiff features formed into a grin. At least until he looked down at his shield. Almost a third of it had been destroyed by the hammer's blow. Not quite the decisive strike that she had wanted. She actually had no idea how he had managed to move the shield into place, she was sure that it was going to be a head blow.

The man growled. Apparently, he had some affection towards the shield. Akane shrugged. You shouldn't bring weapons you love into a fight unless they were indestructible. Absently she caressed the shaft of her hammer before she began spinning it before her once more.

Almost mirroring her, the man spun his own mace before gesturing it in front of him. Immediately a huge gale-force wind blew her off her feet and sent her sliding backward on her butt. While she was still sliding the creature raised his mace again and it started to emit a corona of electricity.

Akane's eyes widened at this. Ranma had warned her of this and she desperately tried to find her purchase with her feet. Just before a sheet of lightning burst from the mace she finally found enough balance to grasp her hammer in front of her and bury the shaft in the ground. She was mostly in time as she felt only the barest shock before the radiant bolt earthed itself harmlessly in the floor.

Growling in determination, she touched a necklace Ranma had recently bought her and the ground around the gladiator's feet shimmered. She then broke into a charge towards her foe, the hammer once more spinning with a low moaning sound. As she approached she saw that the man was desperately attempting to get out of the way but much to his chagrin found his feet firmly stuck to the floor.

Taking advantage of this position she swung the hammer down with all the force she could muster. She was once again surprised when the shield moved almost of its own accord to block the runic hammer. Although distressed that the perfect blow was disrupted she was somewhat cheered by the remains of the shield shattering. The thunderous clap and magical concussion that accompanied the force of the blow was enough knock the gladiator straight down onto the arena floor and shatter the ground he lay on.

Elation coursed through Akane. She had him. She was finally going to show Ranma that she had what it took to be a martial artist! She was still gleefully thinking this as her opponent stood up, rubble sticking to him as if he was tarred and feathered. Discarding the remains of the shield he spun the mace at her with his entire strength. Still basking in her endorphin rush Akane was slightly slow to parry the blow and took the full force on the side of her head.

Stunned and bleeding, she was catapulted nearly the length of the arena to be halfway buried in a pile of sand that she slid into as she landed. Groaning, she sat up trying to get her bearings. One eye had blood pouring into it and the side of her face felt like she had been hit by a train. Looking up through the arena it almost seemed surreal, bathed in a brilliant green light. Only just coming to her senses, she finally realized that the beast that she was fighting was flying towards her at full speed, the horrible mace spinning in his hand. With a panicked yelp she dived out of the way, evading the whirling weapon with the barest margins.

Standing up, she looked back as the momentum of the flying gladiator swept him away from her. Taking a breath to steady herself she held her hand in front of her and willed her hammer to her hand. With a crack of thunder it materialized in her hand. Warily tracking her opponent as he swung back towards her she paused to hold the weapon before her and gently kissed it. Healing energy flooded through her. Warmth inundated her body and pooled in the areas that hurt the most, her head and her arm. Far from completely healed, but not feeling that she was going to fall over in the next instant, she brought the hammer into the ready position again and began to spin it once more.

She finished just in time to receive the next flyby. Stepping to the side she avoided the razor wings and the mace and brought the rune weapon down squarely on one of the wings as it passed her. The creature immediately spun twice around his axis before the force of its flight combined with the blow buried him in the ground. Touching her amulet a second time she hobbled over to the magically adhered gladiator and proceeded to pound him as fast and as hard as she could.

Ranma let go a breath that he had been holding for the last minute. That had been close. Both fighters had magic weapons that, combined with their owners sheer brute strength, almost guaranteed that the first one to get in a solid blow would win. For a moment he had thought the winged gargoyle man would be the lucky one but Akane had pulled through.

Looking over at where Ryouga was glowing a dim green. He had calmed down from where he had lit the entire arena with his depression aura. Ranma thought the whole arena was fortunate. He wasn't sure how far the lost boy would have gotten taking on the city population but he didn't want to find out.

Akane was coming in, more staggering than walking. He supposed he should set up a nice cot next to Shampoo and let the healers get to work on her. He looked uneasily at the sundial on the pedestal near them. The non-lethal combat was almost over. He needed to get the girls healed enough to get back to the training complex where they were staying. Syushra had informed him that soon the event coordinators would give the order to flood the arena with low-class slaves... normal humans and other mortals, and then release supernatural beasts to slaughter them. There was nothing he could do at this moment to change this bloodsport and he desperately did not want to witness it or have the girls witness it. Kami he hated this place.


Chapter 13: Training Montage

Kasumi set her large cardboard box on the living room table and browsed through the contents. Toys and tiny mechanisms were stuffed inside to overflowing. The day's shopping results from the second hand stores and yard sales had reaped their usual benefit. Humming to herself merrily she, sorted the toys in order of value. Nabiki would go to bed soon and that would leave the circle available. Her sister was an incredibly deep sleeper, possibly second only to Ranma, so she never had to worry about disturbing anyone else. Honestly, with her family and Ranma out playing, the house would be almost empty if it weren't for Nabiki's new guests.

She was rather of mixed emotions when it came to the company. Komar was a sweet little girl, who was perhaps a little short on her attention span, but then again, her sisters never were much into academia either. Masayo was also pleasant company and an interesting conversationalist once you got around her depression. Kasumi couldn't blame her; she had been overcome with guilt herself after she had been possessed by that oni, before she had come to terms with it. She never did understand why it took so long for the family to exorcise it. It was such a simple ritual.

The old Summoner Balthazar was also full of contradictions. On one hand she loved the books he had. So many interesting things to know. On the other she had yet another elderly pervert in the house. At least this one wasn't as forward as the other one. She had gotten very tired of using trace amounts of the 'man ward' herb in her delicates. While it kept Happosai away, it also kept her social calendar very empty. Dear, funny Tofu had actually moved away. Still, between Nabiki's patron and the Summoner there were plenty of circles in the house, if you knew how to change the coordinates.

Jess was a joy to be around. Like Ranma, her pleasure in learning the martial arts energized the people around her. Especially people like her father. It always seemed that with Ranma and Jess around he paid more attention to the world around him and less time thinking about the past. Cindra though... well except for the small income the princess brought in for Nabiki, she still didn't understand why she was in the house. It was almost as if someone had invited Kodachi home. All right, it wasn't quite that bad, but sometimes Nabiki let her greed overcome her good sense. At least she had been able to set up a small oasis of peace.

"Kasumi!" her younger sister exclaimed. The older sister frowned slightly, Nabiki was up later than usual. "Did you see the next door neighbor's? Someone bought all the properties around our house!"

"Not surprising, although it is exciting around here, I think people have become a bit nervous about the local antics since that little incident happened at Shampoo's place." Kasumi returned placidly, idly tapping an elegant clockwork monkey she had found just that day. It should bring a lovely price. Maybe she could afford to buy those old tomes that kind old man in that quaint shop had for sale.

"Yeah, the kind of rambunctious fun that destroyed the houses for a block around the place in all directions. It's a miracle no one died," Nabiki muttered darkly.

"I know Miss Kragowa has been wanting to sell her house for a year. Apparently she's furious about all the property damage," Kasumi responded absently. "Besides, I'm sure you would have resurrected any that had been so unfortunate."

"Heheh, that’s a good one," the middle sister huffed halfheartedly, causing her older sister to sigh to herself and shake her head sadly. Obviously, her sister hadn't read her book all the way through. Such a smart girl but not very studious. She would bookmark that page in morning for her. "Anyway, have you looked outside in the last few hours? Someone demolished all the surrounding buildings and created some sort of weird zen garden around our house."

"Sounds very pleasant, I'll have to go read in it in the morning," Kasumi smiled, she was looking forward to it.

"I wouldn't go there until we found the wierdo that that did it," Nabiki warned her. "It has alternating ponds, streams and some special effects that look like fountains of lava. I think they must have hired some martial artist construction company to set it up so fast."

"I am sure it's lovely," Kasumi replied absently, while closing the box and moving it next to the circle room. It should be lovely, she had been planning its design for the last month and been talking to Grayson-kun to work out the kinks.

"Bah, I'll have my people check into it in the morning," Nabiki growled in disgust. Honestly her sister was so oblivious. Without herself to organize things around the house, who knows how many opportunities they would miss. "I have a new set of shipments that are coming in or I would do it myself."

 

 

Shampoo and Akane were sparing off to one side of the large courtyard that the Nerima crew had commandeered at Syushra's training compound. Or at least that's what they called it. Most others who gazed upon the wildly swinging females screaming at one another and red faced from exertion either thought they were trying to kill one another or undergoing an obscure mating ritual. Ranma was on the other side of the square and was doing his best to ignore the entire thing. Since seeing Ryouga basically power his way through the start of the tournament he had been attempting to step up his game. Ryouga may be able to magically quadruple his already ludicrous strength in a week's time but Ranma's main strength was innovation and analysis. Though he was far from weak he knew better than to chase after another's specialty.

So there he was, off to the side with a light sheen of sweat clinging to his forehead as a man sized glowing mass of externalized molten chi churned and glowed forty feet from where he sat. This was not the first time he had gotten it stabilized but it was the first time he had been able to do it on such a large scale. The girls had learned to stay to their own side of the yard after an unfortunate distraction had forced the last mass to go critical, blowing everyone present at the time over the walls and out onto the thoroughfare. Ranma thought it was well worth the bruises if it got him a bit of peace to focus on his training.

The girls had finally wound down after their vicious catfight and warily backed away from the other. "You are much better," Shampoo complemented her romantic rival. "The hammer almost seems to suppress your mindless rage and instill a modicum of foreign skill into your limbs."

"Why, you little," Akane started forward, winding up with her hammer before she decided that she was too tired. "I am going to have to wipe that smirk off your face tomorrow. I'm going to get cleaned up." Reluctantly she turned and wearily trudged towards the showers. Training with the Amazon had increased her skills by a huge degree but having to listen to the tribeswoman insult her, in perfect Japanese no less, still made her want the strangle the wench.

Passing Ranma she tiredly waved to him only to have him grunt absently at her. Frowning at the insult, she made her way inside, huffing to herself about unsocialized martial artists. She was passing the kitchens when she looked off to the side, where the food preparation area was, to see Ranma slowly assembling a sandwich. The interior magical lights were unusually dim and flickering, giving the entire interior a surreal appearance. She made a mental note to inform the manager to get his maintenance people into the issue when she saw him next.

Ranma himself looked pale and wane in the uncertain light. Usually he moved with an inherent grace that, although she would never admit it, almost took her breath away. Today was not such a day. A frown of intense concentration creased his brow and his hands moved shakily as if he was underwater. Painstakingly layer upon layer was placed just so as if they sandwich was the greatest work of art the boy could contemplate.

"Ranma?" the girl growled out. "I can't believe you can't even say 'hello' but you have time to run ahead of me and make a sandwich. If you had asked nicely I would have brought you one," the dark haired girl said heatedly, working up a head of steam.

The pig tailed martial artist turned her way with glacial slowness, his mouth opening. Seconds later he finally faced her yet only a low moan came from his mouth.

"Are you alright," the girl asked in the beginnings of concern. Any anger she had dissipated instantly at the obvious illness the other youth was suffering from. The frown of concentration on the boy's face gradually changed to concern and a moan could be made out to be, "...tomboy..."

The anger returned in waves as scarlet filled her vision. He had done it again! Taken her concern and spat it back in her face! Why did she even bother? With a growl, she moved forward and smacked the martial artist across the head. She was completely surprised when upon contact the boy vanished like a soap bubble in a brilliant burst of light. The sandwich bread that he had been about to layer on top dropped to the ground. The lights gave another flicker before brightening back to their usual brilliance.

A moment later a panicked shout could be heard in the direction she had come from and the sound of a thunderous explosion shook the compound.

 

 

Alaren frowned at the many displays floating in front of him. One showed the particular area of the Bloody Grub's Plaza. While there was plenty of traffic in and around that area, his target was not seen. He fiddled with the facial recognition software and the alarm parameters. The software was universal and could handle most of the major species in the city and even across the three galaxies, but like any software with a scope that broad you had to be careful entering the specifics. He had videos of the target from yesterday's arena. That would allow for a good identification lock. So far he wasn't impressed. The target seemed to like to watch the fight more than he wanted to participate.

His 'superiors' may want him to find out what had happened to the Atlantis sect of Sunaj but he himself had more important things on his plate. Why would he care about what was no doubt a political maneuver, likely from another Aerihman family? His clan may have wished to take advantage of his trusted position with Splynncryth and his second in command, High Lord T'Lan but he didn't see the profit or fun in it for himself. He'd spit in their faces but that would force his premature relocation. Doubtless, he would eventually have to move on when his behind the scenes maneuvering came to light but it would be on his own terms.

He sighed again. He was the most famous independent tracker in Atlantis and he was trying to keep tabs on a single human boy. The clan had found out that he was the last prominent target scheduled for termination before the local sect vanished and they wanted to know what had happened that night. It wasn't likely they were going to find that out from this lead but they were insistent.

This was time he could be using for his other projects. Speaking of which, he thumbed the communications tab and absently entered the security protocols for the encryption. "This is Lookout. Are you there?"

A clattering issued from the machinery and Alaren grimaced and activated a tattoo. His less well-known employers used a language not programmed into his translator forcing him to rely on his own personal methods. "... here. Do you have our next window of opportunity?"

"Yes. Sector 34 has scheduled training tomorrow. This should buy a delay of ten minutes to the response time if you use it wisely. Bring a couple of sacrificial lambs and mark them in red for me to catch and turn over to T'Lan. Tell them the usual crap. They need to be able to provide a good background for when they get tortured to death."

"It will be done. There are some prime raiding targets we have scouted in that sector. You will get your usual cut. Good doing business with you." The line went silent.

Yes, it was good to be trusted in Atlantis. It was a fine business while it lasted. Extraction may be tricky when certain machinations were inevitably uncovered but he had faith in the dozen or so contingency plans he had set in place.

A ghost image showed up on the screen for a moment before fading into the background. Squinting in concentration he fiddled with the filtering a minute before grunting. The target's likely location had an Eye of Eylor modified for surveillance hovering over it. This changed things a bit. It meant that Splyncryth almost certainly knew what his target was up to. It was very poorly hidden which meant that his patron was practically announcing that this was his pet project. It also implied that if this human was indeed involved in what happened to the local Sunaj sect, the Lord of Atlantis also knew this, or perhaps was even directly involved.

Running the scenarios through his mind he came to a conclusion. If this boy was involved in the fate of the Sunaj then Splynncryth either knew, approved, or was even responsible for the disappearance of the assassin clan. If he found evidence to this effect it could mean that the existence of the Aerihman clan was soon to be in doubt.

Standing up from the console he leisurely paced the confines of the control room. It was luxurious and outfitted to his exact tastes as was the rest of his abode. His many endeavors brought in wealth and resources few other freelancers could match and he was pleased to use a small fraction of his for his comfort. He could inform his clan heads but he didn't see how it would help his position to throw in with a possibly sinking ship any more than he already was. Besides, they were all arrogant assholes. Perhaps he could use their power vacuum to his advantage, assuming he could avoid their fate.

Nodding to himself he came to a conclusion. If the human was innocent of the disappearance he would inform the clan heads that he was indeed responsible. Doubtless, at that point they would command him to eliminate the target. Of course, it wouldn't do to directly touch Splynncryth's pet project, so he would likely arrange it through 'collateral' damage from an unfortunate raid. He would maintain his trust in the eyes of his clan and not be implicated in the boys death by Splynncryth.

Then again, if the boy was actually responsible for the sect vanishing off the face of the earth or his patron was, he would inform his clan leaders that he was innocent and the last contract against him had been dropped. At that point, he would make preparations to take advantage of a likely power vacuum. Either someone with significant resources was targeting Sunaj and the Splugorth didn't care or the Lord of Atlantis himself was targeting the Sunaj. Either way, the favor the clan had been enjoying was now waning.

He would work with either situation.

 

 

Ranma groaned in pain. He was leaning against the stone walls of the training courtyard, letting the coolness of the surface soothe his sore muscles and burnt skin. At his feet lay the edge of a twenty-foot deep crater in the ground. He used to think that the Phoenix pill made him immune to fire but based on recent evidence he was rapidly revising his theory. Apparently, he was only resistant to chi fires and magical flames. Who knew? His clothing had also suffered and was hanging in tatters around him. It was magical and was slowly reweaving itself back into a whole. Charred threads unblackening and forming clean fresh cloth. Frankly, it was likely to be fully recovered before Ranma himself was.

Looking over to the other side of the training area he glared balefully at the oblivious duo that was responsible for his condition. They were presently locked in another seeming life or death struggle to beat the other into a bloody pulp. Each one had distracted him from his training at least three times already just that day. Each time had resulted in his glowing sphere going critical and blowing up. What was supposed to be an effort of control and multitasking was now turning into a body hardening exercise. Ugh, he hadn't even started on the training he knew he would need to deal with Ryouga. As it was he had a feeling that one lucky punch from the lost boy would blow through his aura's protection and lay him out. He had a couple of techniques he could combine to fix this huge deficiency but he needed to master his present efforts first.

It was increasingly obvious that for higher level opponents he couldn't rely on any one thing at a time. He needed synergy from specific combinations of techniques. The trick was that these had to be simultaneous in order to work and most were active rather than passive tricks. He couldn't train himself to do them unconsciously, at least not in the time he had, so he had to learn to do it all at once. He gave the girls another nasty look. As the immediate pain faded, his stares got more halfhearted. He could think of them as impeding his training or he could accept the challenge their presence offered and think of them as a training method to master. Yeah, that was it! In combat, no one was going to wait for him to get his act together. He had to overcome these distractions and win in the face of adversity!

Having worked himself up to a proper level of enthusiasm he sat forward, ready to spring back into training. Suppressing a cry of pain, he slumped back against the soothing coolness of the wall. Yeah, he could do this... just after maybe another thirty minutes of forcing his body to heal. It only looked like he was resting...

 

 

Sighing to himself he looked at the rune statue in his hands. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but either something was wrong with his methods or the devices in the statue used for tracking were even worse than his own senses. Also, having to subdue the indestructible rune device every few hours was wearing on his last nerve. He had completely left Atlantis several times already. Now he knew without a doubt his grandchild was there. He had seen posters on the walls and a few holo displays in the Kittani quarters showing the new arena champions. He didn't know, or care, who the girls were but had met his boy and knew his face.

Then somehow he had ended up in some low energy dimension called Nerima. People there almost all knew his grandchild but hadn't seen him in weeks. After that he had ended up at some pig farm, talking to some girl named Akari. She was actually a really nice girl; he could see what his boy saw in her. Then again, he also just appreciated farmers, though usually, he liked the ones that worked with the land as opposed to raising animals. Well, he liked them as much as he liked any humans these days. Maybe once they all met as a family he would suggest they branch out and plant some crops. Assuming they actually can get together again.

The statue had gotten embarrassing to explain once he left Atlantis. No one asked about a god's business in a Splugorth's domain. In the mortal kingdoms, he got the strangest looks. Since it was proving useless in tracking his grandson he would finally leave it behind after disabling all the gaudy add-ons.

Looking around he noticed a tiny stream of magma meandering along well-defined banks of bedrock heading towards a drop-off. Oddly enough, he heard water chiming off in the distance and tiny dust devils played in the rock as it turned into sand, making swirls and patterns in the ground. Well, except for the water and lack of choking brimstone it sort of looked like hell. It was as good as any other place to drop off his burden.

"This here is where we part company," He propped the statue next to pool the liquid rock that had collected after its short fall off the precipice. "I'd tell you to leave my grandson alone, but based on the fact that you track him worse than I do, I really don't think we have anything to worry about."

After leaving his standard trademark in hell, he did his best to get lost. It was a talent he had mastered over the millennia and it didn't take him long at all.

 

 

White Raven drummed her fingers on the large table. Built to seat over twenty human sized entities the entire room felt empty with just her there. In front of the rebel fighter floated a slowly rotating image of the continent of Atlantis. It was exact down to the smallest facet, even including many areas the Lord of Atlantis surely thought were off limits and unknown. Tiny symbols and annotations covered it, becoming denser as it neared the capital city of Splynn.

A flick of her fingers tilted the image while another expanded the capital, bringing more details and more of the strange symbology into view. Shaking her head, she sighed in frustration. She had been running simulations with the help of the Liberated Underground's technical guru and co leader, one of the last of a race of intelligent robots rendered almost extinct by the Splugorth, and was rapidly going nowhere.

The door to the chamber opened and Skippy walked in with a steaming cup of tea in one hand and bowl of something in the other. Most likely stew again. Hearty and filling and unfortunately probably the best they would find while being underground. At least if they didn't want to eat what the monsters ate.

"I brought you a little something to keep you going," Skippy cheerfully announced while placing the food on the table. He earned a glare when his movement sent the image spinning in place. She flicked out her hands again locking the image so her resident magician wouldn't interfere with the tactical display. Her gaze softened as her stomach growled, signaling that perhaps it was time to take a short break.

"Thanks," she grudgingly offered. Realizing how surly she sounded she continued. "I am just at my wits ends. With Max gone, we lost one of our most experienced leaders."

"We still have you," Skippy chirped.

"Thanks," she returned wryly. Sometimes Skippy's blindingly optimistic outlook could be annoying but then again it was nice to have someone believe in her unconditionally. She had trouble doing that herself these days. "However, when Max left he took all the Atlantean forces with him."

"You know..."

"Yes! I know he had no choice but his people were a good fraction of our forces. There is not a lot we have the resources left to pursue. Definitely nothing overt anymore."

"We have gotten offers from some of our backers."

"New Camelot has offered some of their knights, but as good as they are they can't make up for two hundred true Atlanteans. Lazlo has a few volunteers trickling in. In no small part to you, I understand..."

"They would have more but the Coalition has been mobilizing and they are afraid of spreading out their resources when it could break out into a war."

"Hmm, the human elitist's nation. I remember you mentioned them. I believe we even rescued a few slaves that came from there."

"That was almost a year ago. On that raid of 'Wild Will's Dead Boy Outlet'. Damn, that was a disaster."

"Yes, I think they attacked their rescuers as soon as they got back," White Raven shook her head in disbelief. The blind paranoia and hatred that filled the freed slaves was hard to understand. The Liberated Underground never raided that particular establishment again.

"There's always the vampires..." the mage offered tentatively, taking a seat at the large table. "They have given indications that they would be willing to step up their efforts."

"Ugh. Vampires," the woman's lips twisted in distaste as she uttered the word. "Max didn't trust them for excellent reasons. You know they only help us because the Splugorth actively try to exterminate them. Otherwise, they would kill or turn us themselves."

"True, but..."

"We have already found they have been harvesting some of the people they rescue before they release them to us. We need to remind ourselves that despite appearing mortal they dance to the whims of their overlord."

"You make them sound like some sort of hive."

The woman thought about this choice of words for a moment before shrugging. "I am not an expert on the matter that Max was, but there is a lot in common. I doubt they actually have a hive mind but they definitely have a connection to an unpleasant entity and that entity consumes or repurposes mortals. I don't think it would be wise to bring them into our confidence more than they already are."

The two sat in silence for some minutes. White Raven quickly ate the bowl's contents and it was obvious the mage didn't have much more to offer. His expertise was more in the magical world and mundane planning he gladly left to the other leaders.

"I was thinking of feeling someone out..." the raven haired woman slowly began.

"I am all ears," Skippy prompted.

"It has been some time since we last contacted Ranma. He may be done with his errands and be ready to help us."

"Ranma who? The girl?" the mage gave a puzzled frown. "I still have trouble hearing out of my right ear. Anyway, it is her fault that Max left."

"Him. And he may be the reason Max left but it's also the reason his race has a chance to survive. Who knows, if he can deal with this inter-clan issue perhaps the clans won't be distracted by all the mysterious disappearances and be able to send us more support."

"Or the massive casualties caused by the clan wars will weaken them to the point that they can't send us anything." Skippy countered.

White Raven gave him a dirty look. Usually, he was the one taking a positive viewpoint. It was unwelcome that he chose to be pragmatic just when she was trying to convince herself Max and his clan were all right and would come back in heroic triumph.

"I haven't heard from him," she reluctantly admitted. "While I hope things go well for him we can't stop our operations. Every day thousands of slaves lose their lives. We need to get back to saving what we can."

"And you think this Ranma woman can help us?" Skippy asked doubtfully. White Raven just shook her head. She wasn't sure whether Skippy had really forgotten about Ranma gender issues or was simply teasing her. He may not have been paying attention during the briefing. It wouldn't be the first time.

"Yes. She is talented, powerful, and has demonstrated strong sympathy for our cause. I think she could make a difference." It was doubtful he could make up for hundreds of Atlanteans but she would take whatever she could get... as long as it wasn't undead.


Chapter 14: Critical Mass

Ranma stood in the small private arena his manager had provided him. Shampoo stood across from with sweat glistening on her brow. “Okay Shampoo. Use the modification of the Breaking Point I showed you and line it up to me?”

“I can’t believe you invented a new technique just to counter the technique you think Ryouga is going to use on you.”

“I don’t think he is going to use it. I know he is! Right now he’s having fun with his unnatural strength, but when we face one another he’s not going to be able to hit me unless he has another surprise in place.”

“But why do you think he can transmit a Breaking Point through solid matter?”

“I know you have a low opinion of him but he’s not an idiot,” Ranma paused for a second to rethink his words. “Let me re-phrase that. He is an idiot. Despite that, he is the only martial artist that has ever consistently given me a challenge. This is the obvious evolution of his main attack. There is no doubt he is going to have it mastered.”

Shampoo sighed and then squinted her eyes in concentration. Seeing the breaking points in the rock below her she lined them up and then forced chi into the ground and through the line of nodes she had identified. Plumes of shattered rock and dust raced from her finger as the stone before her exploded in a series of shocks that raced toward Ranma.

Ranma stuck his own finger into the ground as the somewhat anemic burst lead towards him. On the one hand, he was grateful Shampoo was helping him practice his counter to the techniques Ryouga was bound to throw at him. On the other hand, while she was talented, she was simply not in the same league and himself and pigboy. It was taking hours for her to learn the technique and it was just pathetically weak. Still, it was enough to practice with.

Pulsing his energy into his counter measure he matched the incoming pulse with his own, splitting it into two more pulses which in turn raced off at right angles. Trenches were formed and two bowling pins he had set up on opposite sides of the arena were engulfed in the aftermath.

“So you plan to reflect his Breaking Point back at him. If he is as good as you think he is, won’t he just cancel it or reflect it again?”

“He may,” the pig tailed martial artist nodded in agreement. “But I tend to think more about counters than he does. I think I can get at least one good hit in before he figures it out. I’ll need everything I can get. His stamina and strength are ridiculous. I can’t match that.”

His fiancée snorted, “You’re not the best because you can lift the most. By the way, where is Akane? I expected her to be hovering over us, getting in our way.”

“I have it covered. She’s going on a nice tour of the city.” One that avoids all the nasty places.

“Who is taking her?” Shampoo asked.

“I am, of course,” Ranma replied with a tiny smile.

Akane pulled Ranma out of the training area and out on the street. It was nice to finally get out and see the new city. Ranma had been remarkably tight lipped regarding it and all she really knew about it is that it had a lot of non-human inhabitants and there was an event in the arena in which she was taking part. And take part she did. She still glowed with pride at winning the previous event. It had been close but with a little help from her very own little holy weapon she had pulled through with a win. It had been a while since she had pulled her own weight in a fight. Ranma had gathered people around him that had dwarfed her own skills and abilities but she finally wasn’t the one being kidnapped.

“Geez, Ranma! Put a little more effort into it” Akane called back over her shoulder. “You look like you’re half asleep!”

The pig tailed martial artist did indeed look tired. His shoulders slouched, eyes drooped and she could swear he almost shuffled like an old man. “Hold your horses, the shops will still be there when we get there.” He looked around the plaza just outside the training area and noted that the hovering Eye of Eyelor had started following him again. Through his haze of concentration, he also noted a robed woman sitting at one of the tables watching him go by. Ah, this was going to be difficult to coordinate, but good practice.

“Good lord! Did you actually get slower?” Akane called out in frustration.

White Raven sat at the dining table and sipped water with a lemon in it. In truth, it was the only thing in this plaza that she could stomach. She had traveled for decades but admittedly had stayed within the mostly humanoid inhabited planets. Her idea of a meal did not include that which was still crawling. She watched as Ranma exited the building across the street accompanying the girl that had been identified as the third of their team members. She has seen the recordings of her fight. It had been a good fight. Perhaps a little more brute force than was ideal but it was a still a good match. She sighed as the couple left the plaza, trailing Splynncryth’s spying eye. Maybe she would find a way to send a message. It seemed almost impossible to get a moment alone with the martial artist in question.

“Good to see you again,” greeted Ranma-chan as she plopped down in the seat opposite her.

“What? Do you have a twin?” the brunette returned in startlement.

“Close, but no,” Ranma-chan drawled. She looked spent and almost draped herself on the chair. This was completely opposite the normal behavior she had demonstrated in the past.

“Are you sick?” the rebel leader asked in concern.

“Nah. Just expending a lot of energy right now. I’ll be good in a few minutes. What brings you here?”

“I wanted to find out if you had finished your affairs. You mentioned that you might be able to help us once you were done. I am running very shorthanded since my Atlanteans all ran off to deal with their own affairs.” She waved her hand, “Not that it didn’t need to be done but the movement is very much hurting right now.”

“Hmm.” The red head rubbed her chin in contemplation. “I am almost done in Atlantis. But I may have to leave it, to finalize everything. Not sure.”

“So you can’t help?” the raven tressed woman replied dejectedly.

“Not with manpower,” Ranma-chan said slowly. “But I think I can help you in other ways. Do you need a safe place to take the humans you rescued?”

“Getting people off this continent is difficult, not many places can take hundreds of refuges at a time.”

“I have some contacts on this planet and another dimension that should be able to take thousands, as long as they have a little bit of warning. And of course a battalion doesn’t follow them through the gate. They have enough demon issues, they don’t need more.”

“We could definitely use that. Though without more help we can’t really do anything big anyway.”

Ranma-chan nodded slowly. “What if I had a force multiplier?”

White Raven looked at him flatly. “That’s a bit vague. You’ll have to be more specific.”

“If you could give me a list of locations, and I could guarantee that those locations would cease to exist during the final match in this year’s combat.”

The woman looked at Ranma-chan in shock. “What do you mean ‘cease to exist’?”

“Let’s say fall into a giant crevasse, or a Volcano pops up. Somehow, it will be gone.”

“We could do something big, if the cities defenses were removed. Anyplace?”

Ranma-chan nodded tiredly, “Anyplace. Mark it on a map and hand it to me and consider it gone. Mark more than one.  No guarantees but I might be able to do something.  It depends on how well things go.”

“That would change everything,” White Raven said dazedly.

“Get me a map and I’ll get you your moment and a safe... well, safer place to go.”

“I will get you the information by tomorrow. If you can come through there will be thousands of humans that will thank you.”

Ranma-chan smiled. If things went well, Splyncryth himself would thank him.

 

 

Kasumi smiled as she directed her animated brushes and mops through the house on her last sweep of the day. Nabiki’s business venture did tend to track the mud into the house, however, these days cleaning only took minutes so it was hard to get too worried about it.

“Nabiki did you learn anything interesting from your new book?” Kasumi asked her younger sister as she passed her on the way to the neighbors from the circle room.

“Nah, it’s just boring stuff, like various rituals. I’ve met Thoth and I can tell you he is far too busy thinking about the bigger picture to care about such things.”

“Are you sure there isn’t any benefits to reading more? What if the gods granted wondrous powers to their dedicated priests?” Kasumi prodded her sister a tiny bit.

“I have all the power I need in that circle room. Thoth isn’t going to give something for nothing,” Nabiki shrugged. Kasumi seemed a bit insistent on mentioning the book lately. Maybe she was missing out on the interesting things her sisters were doing. Perhaps she should set aside a fund to allow her sister to go to college. She had enough money to hire support staff. Her business partners may look down on an establishment with only one person as the cleaning staff.

“Oh, well have a nice day visiting your clients,” Kasumi returned. She was a bit disappointed in her sister’s tunnel vision. She had read the book further than Nabiki and the gods freely granted such powers as spell like abilities, healing, removal of curses and even resurrection. While sensei Grayson’s teachings regarding elemental were fascinating she was sad that her sister disregarded such marvels out of hand.

Oh well, a few minutes meditating in the garden would cheer her up. Watching the elemental essences frolic in their gardens almost made her heart feel as carefree as her elemental brothers and sisters.

She got as far as the entrance before her senses alerted her to a stranger in the complex. Someone quite powerful was using a lot of energy to create something. It felt like a positive process, that was enhancing the wa of her sanctuary. So rather than alert one of many people adept at destruction, she simply followed her senses to the source.

It was that reason she found herself in the warmer area where a bubbling magma pond housed a playful elemental. Today she found it housed another guest. Standing knee deep in the lava was a seemingly young stocky man of some mix of Asian and Indian origin. He seemed to be coaxing a young tree from the molten rock as the fire elemental looked on curiously.

“Oh, how wonderful,” Kasumi gashed, surprising the stranger. “What kind of tree will it be?”

Looking back to the girl observing him, he responded, “Orange tree. Whenever I see a nice warm spot like this, I try to leave something nice.”

“That will look fantastic in my garden. You look familiar, do I know you from somewhere?”

“I was around here a few weeks ago looking for my grandson.”

“I remember that! I’m afraid I haven’t seen him for a few weeks. I think I heard he was in Atlantis playing with his friend, Ranma.”

“He’s got a friend? Good to hear! I met his girlfriend and some stalker automatron but I don’t know too much about him otherwise.”

“They are both martial artists so they tend to be a little rambunctious, but they always enjoy one another’s company. A rivalry is strongly encouraged in our culture to bring out the best of both people.”

“It’s good to see he is getting into the culture. Young people these days seem to only care about the newest things. I can see you care about tradition too. These are the same type of gardens I have seen on some of the elemental planes.”

“It’s so good of you to notice. Most people look at the sand and the lava and see only destruction. They ignore the potential for peace and growth,” Kasumi commiserated with the visitor. “Would you like to eat something with me? We can have a little picnic under this lovely tree you grew for us.”

“Thank you, I’ve been traveling around a bit lately trying to find my grandson,” he said as he waved his hand, forming a soft lawn of grass at their feet. Kasumi in turn had a friendly air essence fragment bring some food from the kitchen. When it came back with some supplies she used the magma to heat the food while her air fragment provided a cool breeze. Together, they chatted the afternoon away. The god promised to come back later to plant some more of his special trees in the garden later.

 

 

Ryouga stood on the arena floor waiting for his opponent. He was somewhat dubious about it, nonetheless in order to defeat Ranma and end his nefarious plans it was an unfortunate necessity to go through some poor innocent woman. Above him, he could see Akane waving to him. Shampoo simply stared at him in disdain. She seemed colder and less bubbly since these games started. Ryouga didn’t care, the Amazons hadn’t done anything for him since Cologne taught him the Breaking Point. Even then, it was obvious he was only tolerated. Next to Shampoo was Ranma, looking at him expressionlessly. Ranma had shown his true colors and it was his duty as a martial artist to punish him. It was hard to imagine that they had once been friends but even then, his treachery poisoned the relationship.

The background sound of the crowd burst into loud raucous cheers as his opponent stepped into the arena. At first he wondered why the woman surrounded herself with children, however, in a moment of realization, he saw that she was almost thirty feet tall and the people at her feet were actually normal sized. She was a statuesque woman with blond hair and blue eyes, wearing jet black metal armor with an intricate design. A long handled hammer was in one hand and in the other was what appeared to be a short sword. As he assessed her tactically, he realized that it was actually over seven feet long.

“Prepare to die, little worm. I will step over your body as I plan to have my vengeance on Rhada and her filthy little pet,” she pointed to the stadiums side where a tiger headed humanoid and a silver haired woman sat. They too seemed overly large compared to the creatures around them.

“That seems a bit much,” protested Ryouga. This trash talk from a pretty lady was disturbing. Then he noticed that her finger had moved and was now pointing to Ranma. It was shaking in rage, however Ranma simply nodded and gave a casual waive to the infuriated Dyval Lord. “Unless of course you’re talking about Ranma. He completely deserves everything that is coming to him.”

“You two can commiserate together as I hang you by your entrails,” screamed an enthusiastic thirty foot tall woman as she raised her hammer over her head and threw it at Ryouga. He frowned as he parried it off to the side. The Warhammer flew through the air with an unearthly scream. Although unhurt he shook his head slightly to get rid of the ringing in his ears.

“Ow. Noisy weapon,” the lost warrior commented as he parried the hammer again as it returned from where he had flung it. The third time he simply caught in in his free hand. “I see this thing has to go or it’s going to irritate me all night.” Stomping his foot, he unleashed his chi. “Breaking Point Revised, Bottomless Hole!” Sure enough a gaping crevasse formed at his feet, causing the entire arena to tremble. As he forcefully threw the hammer into the pit he stomped his foot again to start the counter technique to close it.

Hands on his hips he stood proudly before a now silent arena. His eyes roved the crowd and although most weren’t human he saw that just that opening move had awed them.

“What a moron. ‘Bottomless Hole’. I’m embarrassed even knowing him!” The statement from his rival confused him as he whirled around to see a fifty foot tall hologram of Ranma projected in the air. His eyes were downcast and he was shaking his head in disappointment. “I wait weeks to see what he can do, and all he has is a big hole? Wait, am I on camera?”

“Ranma, be nice! I am sure Ryouga worked really hard on that technique,” Akane’s voice came from the side.

“Pig-boy, is an embarrassment to martial arts. Grandmother should have just cooked him,” Shampoos voice could be heard.

Ryouga was shaking with rage. At the hour of his triumph his nemesis was still mocking him. Raising his umbrella over his head he was about to throw it at the projection when something impacted the highly chi reinforced surface. Looking slightly up, he saw the thirty foot giantess standing over him attempting to cleave him in two with her ‘short’ sword.

“Hey! Attacking me when I am trying to kill Ranma is just rude,” he exclaimed, as his feet sank up to his ankles in the arena floor. Turning away from the huge image of Ranma he struck the sword hard enough that it swung wide, eliciting a surprised look from Leviathan. She obviously was not used to dealing with people as physically strong or stronger than she was. “I appreciate you want to kill Ranma, but I’m afraid that you really have no chance. Even if I let you win, he would just dance around you. Only I have the ability to make him pay. I’m sure you’re a nice enough girl, and sure you’re cute enough, but you should leave the fighting to me.”

“How dare you mock me,” screamed the giant dyval, swinging the sword two handed over and over at the tiny godling. Ryouga calmly parried each blow, not giving an inch.

“You’re not going to push me back with sheer mass. Right now, I weigh more than you do.”

“I see you’re strong, but I still have the power of a Dyval Lord at my fingertips!” With that she took a step backwards and gestured at the ground under his feet. The earth rumbled as it opened up beneath him.

“Hey! You stole my technique! I don’t care how cute you are, that’s just going too far,” Ryouga shouted at the infraction of martial arts etiquette. That’s one of the main reasons he hated Ranma. Leaping nimbly away from the opening, he stomped on the ground, forcing the gorge closed. Tapping the ground with his umbrella he then forced an explosion of rock under the feet of the giantess. This had little affect except to scuff her armor and cause her to fall to her knee as she lost her balance.

Growling in frustration, the dyval gestured imperiously calling upon another power. Immediately a glowing ball five feet tall shimmered into being and started to roll towards the lost boy. Ryouga stood his ground and batted it aside, only to find that the energy sparked from his umbrella to him.

“Ouch!”

“Burn in the power of Leviathon,” crowed the giantess in triumph.

“Hey now, it stings but it’s not exactly a real final attack,” Ryouga objected as he started to easily dodge the sphere. Leviathon grimaced and summoned two more, which were avoided just as easily. “Okay, I am going to have to end this miss. It’s getting a bit repetitive.”

After saying this, Ryouga leaped at the giantess and started to batter the ebony armor that surrounded her. Over and over she tried to swat him away but he easily moved around her to slam his umbrella into the armor. Once he made the mistake of hitting with his hand and received a shock from the enchanted protection. Used to pain, he gritted his teeth and continued to slam the armor until black metal bits started falling off.

Meanwhile, the orbs tried to make painful contact but were mostly worked around. Although nowhere as fast as Ranma he was easily faster than the giantess. Finally, succumbing to pure rage the Dyval Lord screamed and repeatedly waived her hand forming swathes of lava throughout the arena. Attempting to get a reprieve from the tenacious godling she leaped into one, confident in her immunity to even magical fire.

Ryouga thought about the fight. He couldn’t dive into the lava. He knew he was resistant to fire, especially in this new world, but he was not immune. With a frown, while still avoiding the glowing balls, he stomped on the ground and was rewarded with the bubbles erupting from the pools and the rapid lowering of the magma levels. Conscious of Ranma’s mocking he didn’t call out his new attacks name.

When the pits were finally drained he realized that the dyval was nowhere in sight. Puzzled he looked around, only when he sensed immediate danger did he dodge to the side, hearing a blade slice through the air above him.

“You’re invisible? A cowardly tactic,” Ryouga reproached the unseen giantess. Moving to an open area he placed his palm on the ground and forced a torrent of chi into the earth. “Fine, I guess I am forced to take you seriously. I can’t risk not fighting Ranma.”

With that, the entire surface of the arena erupted into exploding rocks, each fragment charged with chi to multiply its force. One area had a silhouette within the reign of stone shrapnel. With a thud the giantess slumped onto the area floor.

As before, the arena crowd was silent for a moment before breaking into cheering. As a mostly unnoticed side effect, Ryouga glowed a subtle shimmering blue. Higher powers watching the fight, such as Splyncryth, Rhada and Abdul-Ra would realize that thanks to the broadcast the godling had gathered enough worshipers that his godhead had kindled into true divinity. A small, but true god.


Chapter 15: Trash Talk

Ranma shook his head in wonder as he sat on the edge of the training area holding a pulsating ball of light. It was basically the precursor to the Hadou-Ken, gathering chi from the environment, before directing it out into a destructive blast. Technically it was the most destruction move he had. He had also never used it. Why would he? Did he need to blow up a city block? A city? But he found that the energy gathered could be used for more than just the directed energy blast. It could power... everything. Well, eventually it would. So far he was having trouble keeping it stable if he drew out chi too fast. At least he was over the part where he blew up whenever he got distracted.

He looked over to where the girls were fighting again. It was inevitable that one of their out of control attacks would end up hitting him. Probably Akane's. He had been right that treating the girls as training aids was the way to go. As unpleasant as it was, his Pops was right. Pain was the best motivator. Actually that might be one of the few times he got it right. The globe fluctuated and Ranma frowned in concentration. Smoothing the flow out he sent more of his consciousness through the link he somehow maintained to his first clone.

Out in the city ran one of his chi bodies. Basically per chi molded into human form and sent to do errands. It was similar to Happosai's giant battle aura, a dash of Colone'sSplitting Cat Hairs, and a pinch of the Shark Fist. Yeah, it was hard to describe. A balloon filled with chi, shaped like a human. Most of the senses translated okay but it was really fragile, almost exactly like a balloon. The lack of mass was hard to get used to. Jumping from building to building was almost like floating. Frankly, it was a terrible combat move. By itself. But he had plans. They might even be ready for when he needed them but it was going to be close.

He chi body stumbled a bit and he focused on his coordination more on the next one. This made the Hadou-Ken node pulse as his concentration weakened again. His second clone body was in the kitchen making another sandwich. Slowly. Since it was low priority it drew the short straw and had the least bit of consciousness in it as well as energy. It showed too. He looked like a flu victim that got hit by a truck. The girls seemed to have some kind of sense when it was ready to pop and then push it over. Still, it was all training. Oh, and the sandwich would be a cool snack too.

He shook his head again. Not at his technique or his chi body floating freely through the monstrous city. Ryouga was a god. Where the heck had that come from? He had known there was something going on, after all, Anhur had mentioned some ancestral bloodline. But what happened then? Ryouga sneezed and became a god?

He hadn't known what had happened at first. Ryouga's chi signature went from his normal, large but mostly human, to some kind of hybrid of chi and magic. And oh so large. Not like Thoth or Anhur or even Abdul Ra, but it wasn't much weaker than Ammit's presence. But with chi mixed in.

Ranma had sent a clone to Rhada that evening to ask about it. Anhur got huffy if he used his link to ask perfectly logical questions. It also felt silly to be shouting out questions to the air. So the first clone got popped by the pesky assassin butler. His senses were kind of off when sent through the chi body but he guessed he was stabbed in the back. His second clone body was able to sneak past the mad man maid and immediately got blown up by Rhada during her too enthusiastic hug. His third clone lasted long enough to actually have a conversation. Rhada was fascinated by the clone technique. Mostly due to how light it was. While humiliating, it might have been good balance practice as she kept tossing him lightly into the air to watch him float down. This turned out to be an excellent incentive to increase his virtual mass.

"This is an amazing technique," squealed a delighted Rhada. "You're so light!"

"Please stop," whined Ranma, simultaneously trying to stop his spinning arc, smoothly forcing more chi into the vessel to simulate weight and pushing down a growing nausea from the moment and disconnected senses.

"How many copies can you make?"

"Three so far, but they are too useful, yet."

"It's like a mini avatar!"

"Um, right," he muttered as he controlled his spin just as Rhada threw him upward again. "I could probably do more..."

"I could tie strings to you and have a dozen Ranmas floating behind me..."

"But they are so energy-intensive they couldn't possibly last for more than a few seconds," Ranma smoothly changed his response. He was a crappy liar but he was bouncing around so much that hopefully, his movement would mask his expression. Or his nausea. "I came to ask a question. Hey, are those spikes on the ceiling? Why are there spikes on the ceiling?"

"Oh, those are just part of a defensive spell," Rhada said airily as she tossed him up in the air again. Just don't touch them and they won't trigger."

"How about you stop throwing me up here and we don't have to worry about that at all?"

"This is so fun!" she said with laughter. "You said it's just a cheap avatar. You had a question?"

"A very expensive technique," he clarified. It was but cost didn't matter as long as he was using the Hadou-Ken. He just didn't want his role in life to devolve into being a human beach ball. "I need to know what happened to Ryouga. Why does he feel like Ammit all of a sudden?"

"Ammit, the little schemer," Rhada muttered darkly. "He still hasn't given my minions back."

"What happened to Ryouga?"

"Your little friend? The one covered in saliva?"

"What?"

"He ascended and became a god. A tiny one but a true god."

"Why was he covered in spit? Wait, never mind. How did he become a god? Did he punch Leviathan's goddessness out of her?"

"Oh, that was a good one," Rhada laughed merrily, thoughts of Ammit fading. "I need to give him a nice gift. I so wanted to punish her for three hundred years of torment and boredom."

"Wouldn't boredom be better than torment?"

"You saw the room I was in, after three hundred years that was torment!"

"Um, right. So, if it wasn't from beating up a god then how did he ascend?"

"Gods are formed in two ways," Rhada replied seriously. Her little game of catch slowed down slightly as she split her attention. "Either a great being creates them, generally as a servant, or the collective belief of a people collate into the form of a god that matches their belief. Once created they can gain power by the energy given to them by their followers."

"That doesn't seem to match what happened," Ranma said in a flat voice.

"I suppose there is a third way," she as she poured a cup of tea and waited for the martial artist to descend. "It's really a variation of the second method. If enough people worship a mortal fervently enough you can ignite a divine spark and they will ascend. It practice its almost unheard of. The numbers needed are in the billions and the fervor of these believers must be almost unimaginable."

"I find it hard to believe pig boy has billions of worshippers," he said skeptically. He had mostly mastered his floating state and was now bouncing off the ceiling and walls playing a slow game of keep away from the Dyval Lord. Naturally, she had put her drink down to fully enjoy it.

"The games are broadcast throughout all the dimensions that Splyncryth holds sway in and likely the other Splugorth dominions as well. But, no. Normal fans, even billions of them would not be able to ignite a divine spark. However, he likely had a god somewhere in his background. Gods can breed with anything," she said with some disdain. "A powerful mortal, billions of fans, a fantastic display of might. You now have a brand new deity."

"This is going to make things difficult," Ranma said absently. He was so distracted that Rhada finally got her hands on him and threw him upward towards the ceiling. So distracted, in fact, that he touched one of the ceiling spikes, which immediately grew and pierced his chi body. It exploded in a small display of pyrotechnics. That was Ranma's third chi body that day.

"Oh darn," pouted the Dyval Lord. "Oh well, the games will start again soon."


The memory of this sent a frisson of worry though Ranma. He had made plans for Ryouga but they would have to be revisited and expanded on if he was actually a god-like Ammit. He still clearly remember the unavoidable deific fire Ammit blasted him with. Damaging and more concerning, unavoidable. He had some defenses prepared for that but he also doubted that was the only thing gods could do with their powers. Hopefully, Ryouga hadn't had time to master any of them or it could make his plans fall through. His plan B through Z existed but they all sucked in comparison with his first plan.

As his chi clone wandered through the eatery plaza, he saw a striking black-haired woman sitting at one of the tables, staring in disgust at the drink before her. He was in luck. He was not only trying to get practice with his various techniques but he was trying to memorize the layout of the city as well as trying to meet up with the revolutionary. He hadn't forgotten his promise and fully intended to wrap up both of their goals into a single plan.

His clone was in female form and as he sidled up to the table and sat down he received a nod in return. "Here is a list. Anything that happens to these locations would be a boon for humanity."

"What's this," Ranma replied in confusion at the thing in front of him.

"What do you mean," the leader replied. "It's a memory module. The same model you gave Max."

"Oh, right," Ranma said dejectedly. While he had recorded the interrogation with the Sunaj, it hadn't been a trivial operation. His manager had guided him extensively in using the recorder, inputting the setting, and even advice on where to mount it. He had mostly simply done as instructed within any true understanding of the device. Even if he had, it had been weeks and although he had a prodigious memory when it came to martial arts, other subjects weren't retained nearly as well.

"I don't suppose you have a map," Ranma said. Seeing her bewildered look, he clarified, "Made of paper."

"Paper?"

"Parchment?"

"What?"

"Stone tablets?"

"What the hell are you talking about? We got this specifically because we knew you had the equipment for it as well as it having enough biometric and magical sensors to actually be secure!"

"Right," he said morosely, as he took possession of the module. "Thanks."

"No, thank you," she said warmly, recovering her mood once her confusion passed. "The Liberated Underground has had a rough time of it. There was never much support for it in a land ruled by monsters. We have our supporters, but they are far away and many are, rightfully so, terrified that Atlantis's master will turn their eyes their way in retaliation. If we can stop the inhumanity, even for a short time, it will give us and the victims of the lands hope that things will change."

"Um... cool," Ranma said, slightly overcome at her gratitude. "It's a martial artist's duty... never mind. Your welcome. I've talked to my... backer, about setting up a circle that can't be traced. It will be good for one day and then it will self-destruct. We'll then set up a new one once we're sure it's safe."

Nabiki had grudgingly committed to helping, only after consulting with both Balthazar and praying for guidance from Thoth. With some assurance that the location couldn't be tracked and any enemy agents would be stopped by the Sanctuary spell, she was enticed enough by the prospect of a flood of people that she could tap for connections to potentially extremely profitable trade agreements. In some ways, Nabiki was the most reliable person he knew. As long as you could guarantee safety and profits you knew how she would react.

"Here is the location and the details," Ranma said as she pulled out a wrinkled, beat up piece of paper with barely legible scrawls on it. The rebel leader looked at the paper, then back at the martial artist several times in a mix of dismay and disbelief.

"It's all there," he said defensively. "You'll have to copy it within an hour since it will vaporize into nothing." Oddly enough she looked relieved at this.

"Thank goodness you thought about security," White Raven said gratefully. Ranma nodded awkwardly. The reason the paper would disappear was that it was a chi construct, like his clone. His clothes and items were basically temporary creations formed along with the clone. Once it was away from his clone, it would lose the power in its framework until... it just vanished in a cloud of sparkles.

"Yeah, security is always number one in our books," Ranma rallied enough to dispiritedly pontificate.

"Thank you again," she repeated as she got up. "You can have my drink. I haven't touched it." Ranma looked from the murky liquid containing writhing worms to the rebel leader's retreating back and could only give her a wry smile.


"No, you plug it in the other slot, you knucklehead. The other slot to the right," Nabiki said in exasperation.

The last thing she thought she would end up as was interdimensional tech support. She lazily took another sip of her drink, moving the tiny umbrella out of the way, as Sasuke massaged her feet. Kuno and Kodachi had gone off in search of their one true love, leaving their pet ninja alone and no means of support. Kasumi had offered a room and meals with the family until they came back. Naturally, she was taking advantage of the browbeaten servant.

"Your other right," Nabiki sighed as she looked at the floating image of the martial artist fiddling with the video system.

"Sorry, they're marked in Atlantean. Or Splugorthian. Or whatever and Anhur's translation effect doesn't do tech very well. It just says slot 64, and that other one is some confusing concept of 'first alphanumeric number'."

Ranma's frustration was building when his forehead tattoo lit up. Suddenly the entire device made sense. He knew what all the knobs and switches did. He understood what was supposed to go in the slots. He even realized that the power gauge was telling him that the unit only had a few minutes of power left in the fusion cell. How do you run out of fusion power? Fusion cells last for decades! Wait a minute, who powers a video camera with fusion power! How did he even know all this?

"Then set that mutton, to halfway up...," Nabiki paused in her stream of instructions. "Your Highlord love mark is glowing. Your heads not going to explode, it is?"

"No, it's the power it's activated..." Ranma said distractedly. "I know stuff. I thought it only worked on magic items and seeing things like auras. But I now know how to operate this. I think I might even know how to fix simple things. Neat."

"You mean I just wasted an hour draining my mana and talismans telling you how to do things that you now know how to do things better than me?"

"Well, it's not completely wasted," Ranma said with a wince. "Now you know how some of their basic technology works. You can buy and sell with confidence now!"

"I'd be angrier if that wasn't true," the mercenary girl said with a snort. "After all the research I had to go through for your deal with the Liberated Underground I found out a ton of things. Did you know priests of major deities can remove curses and resurrect the dead?"

Ranma looked at her flatly. "Yes. Yes, I did. I am pretty sure I mentioned it when I was telling everyone about my adventures. I thought that was why you decided to dedicate your life and soul to Thoth."

"Wait. Dedicate my soul," she asked in a puzzled tone. "Is that in one of the chapters I skipped?"

"Only you..." Ranma sighed in a frustrated tone. Nabiki was the smartest dumb person he knew of. Brilliant one moment, stupid in the next. At least she had made a contract with Thoth. Although not a crusader of good, he may perhaps have the best reputation of any of the gods he knew of. He was also a strong believer in equivalent exchanges. Since we were doing all of this in his service he should be good to her.

Nabiki frantically leafed through the book Thoth had left for her. She had skimmed the less interesting parts. In her defense, she almost had to. It was as thick as an encyclopedia and was one hundred percent fine print. In the background, she vaguely heard approaching footsteps.

"Nabiki," the placid, yet aggravated, voice of Kasumi sounded in her ear. "Are you using guests as slave labor again? Sasuke, I told you to ignore her or come to me when she does that. Let's get you changed. I'll get a nice bath ready for you. Nabiki, please stop being naughty."

"But she asked me so nicely," cried Sasuke. Kasumi just sadly shook her head. Only compared to the Kuno family would Nabiki be considered kind.


Ranma was working fast. Now that he knew what the targets were, he worked as fast as he could. The holographic map had a lot of details that would simply go away once the power died. Who knew where he would get another fricken 'fusion cell'! He hadn't realized his manager had gotten him such a rare and powerful device. That one fusion cell could power all of Japan for a day! He didn't even know how he felt about that!

He already had three clones in the field. One was in a closet, just manifesting a Hadou-Ken power node. He pushed that channel open more to pull more chi from the dragon lines, causing it to fluctuate a bit. Two more clones were formed and immediately staggered out, their gait smoothing out as he got used to pushing his consciousness into them.

The first clone reached the closest possible target. The map labeled it the D-Squad headquarters. It also didn't do it justice. The building was almost as large as the pyramid in the center of Splynn, except it was obviously purely military in nature. The entrance was constantly congested as squads of the enforcement branch went in and out. Brutal looking Powerlords and Overlords with about half that being the gorilla-like Kittani pilots. Those mostly seemed to fly in from the top of the building, which was apparently some sort of landing pad.

Ranma looked up in chagrin. He was hoping to get to the top. Shrugging he leaped up to an adjacent building... on the opposite side from the towering building. No need to tempt fate. Once there he estimated a line from there to the arena. It was a bit of strain for the clone's muffled senses but he could barely feel the mark he had left on the arena floor. After a few minutes, he was satisfied.

"Is there some reason you're here, human mongrel?" a voice grated out next to him. Ranma started a bit. Next to him was one of the ape-like Kittani. This one was in shiny segmented power armor. It obviously hadn't truly flown but had just landed via a jump jet pack on the back.

"Just here for the view," Ranma said with a bitter grimace. So much for secrecy. It wasn't a big deal, after all, he hadn't planned on the clone leaving here. "Well, except for the smell."

"What? What are you trying to say?"

"That you stink? You don't bathe? It smells like something crawled up your mouth and died? I am sorry if I was unclear. Let me rephrase that..." All of this was patently unfair, since the creature was wearing sealed environmental armor. Ranma didn't care. He was losing the clone, he may as well have some fun first.

"Stupid insects should know their place," the creature stated grimly as he raised the rifle mounted on the arm and fired a shot.

Dying in a clone body was odd. It was just a shell full of chi. When it burst there was a period of time he still controlled the chi before it dissipated into uselessness. Generally, it was anywhere between five and ten seconds. Within this time the martial artist forced his remaining energy into the building at his feet. Branding it with his chi signature. A signature he could sense across the city but he had found that no one except a martial artist of his ilk was even aware of. Then his awareness of the clone was gone.

The Kittani grunted in confusion. Looking from the dissipating sparks and his rifle.


The next clone's target was easier. It was the Imperial Palace of Splynn. He had been there before, or at least parts of it. It was the very pyramid he had arrived in, crawled out of, and then unfortunately escaped. Now that he had been here a while, he now knew that it was the center of governance. A large part of the military was house there. When he had first crawled out he had wondered why squads of hundreds of monsters were confronting him every few minutes. It was pretty much standing outside the Pentagon, peeing on the door, and wondering why soldiers were hassling you.

Of course, inside were housed portals to hundreds of worlds. Some essential trade locations, others vacation worlds, and others strategic military locations. Thousands of dimensional being trouped in and out of the structure every hour, not even including the military housed there. Assuming you're not climbing on the walls there wasn't even any need to stop anyone. Even a lowly human. Of course, Ranma couldn't do things the easy way. He did actually need to climb the walls to leave a mark on the side of the pyramid.

Normally he would whistle a merry toon to show how badass he could casually be, however, while piloting a clone he couldn't spare the concentration. Doing a kind of a bouncing moonwalk, he leaped up the sides. Since he was expecting it this time he immediately noticed a squad of a hundred Overlords. These reminded him of heavy set grey-skinned orcs, each with two tiny tusks jutting down from their chins. When he first met them he had no idea what they were. He still didn't but now he had a name to put to them. That and the knowledge that they were the elite of the Spugorth minions, if one of the less powerful.

He gave them a smile and a wave as he bounced upward. This body wasn't very fast and it would be unfortunate if it was destroyed before he got to his target. They sped up, still in formation, but didn't open fire.

Halfway up Ranma stopped and sat down. No one would hit a smiling sitting man, right? As the squad rapidly approached him with no sign of slowing he decided that he shouldn't take a chance. Even though he hadn't reached the top, the Imperial Palace was the tallest structure in the city. He had a clear view to the arena and with a moment, he had a fix on the mark he had laid down on the arena floor.

Then he looked at the charging army. They still weren't slowing down. In fact, they were unslinging their rifles and taking aim at him. Racist pricks. As he dissolved into a loose conglomeration of chi from a barrage of plasma rifles he imagined giving them the finger. It only took seconds to place his mark.

The other locations were far less dangerous. Or at least not the cities main barracks. The Super Being Vendor building was more of a warehouse. They sold mostly human variant mutants and super-powered individuals. Or at least that is what he got out of touring the facilities. The trick here was how to target the security forces without killing everyone on site. He designated this as a secondary target in his head.

Crazy Al's House of Crazies was a large metal and ceramic clad building. He didn't know what a crazy was exactly. They were apparently some sort of cybernetically enhanced human. Or mostly human. He just verified that there were slaves there and tried to figure a trajectory that would take out the security forces without taking out the entire block.

Wild Will's Dead Boy Outlet was weird, simply because it was run by humans and it sold humans and human mutants. Ranma had heard of the Coalition as part of his backstory when he traveled through Japan but he didn't know anything more than they were human supremacists that were out to kill all magical races, even human magicals. He was actually not sure why White Raven had included this target on the list. Wouldn't they simply attack her if they were free? Perhaps they were reasonable racist...

The guards were humans, even though they were mostly mages of some sort. Apparently from Mexico. This seemed odd but this new world often played with his sense of what was normal. After spending too much time trying to figure it out he marked the security office and concentrated on his other bodies.

Help Yourself Buffet was another nightmare. A literal human meat market, similar to the one that the rebels had raided, except all inside. Also, not fresh. Looking at the ads for the services inside it seemed that they purchased the already dead slaves from the Arena. There were also plenty of non-human meat. Enough to satisfy the craving of the most cannibalistic creature.

This stopped him for a moment. Technically they didn't kill anyone and they also didn't have any slaves of any kind. He didn't really understand the point of destroying this place. He made a mark anyway and mentally designated this place as the least priority. Sure, it was terrible they ate people but they were the least of the issues in Atlantis.

Fresh Meat was a name that vaguely rang a bell. The ominous feeling Ranma received got stronger as his clone got closer to the location. When he got there he felt a visceral flash of hate. This was the place he had first met White Raven. When he was directed by an alien's poor humor to a place that served human flesh. Fresh.

It had been raided by Liberated underground but here it was again. Operating unrestrained by any human morals. Just as he experienced the first time, rage started to fill him. The racks and tresses that hung still living humans were full of 'produce' behind the butcher. The merchant was a different race than previously. Just as large, perhaps eight feet tall, but not whatever the previous creature was. Perhaps a short ogre?

Ranma couldn't do anything to save these people. Even if he killed the butcher these people would undoubtedly die within days. However, since he was in a disposable clone there wasn't any reason to keep this animal alive. He walked forward.

"What? A human?" the creature mocked in a crass laugh. "Come to get a taste of your own kind's flesh? Come now, I won't judge. I have a tender young filly that looks delicious. Should gut her for you?"

"I have come to ferry you to the afterlife," Ranma stated quietly as he moved closer. The Soul of Ice was running full bore in his true body, attempting to keep his emotional state clear of rage and hate. The creature's expression was just changing from derision to uncertainty when Ranma let the chi erupt. He had pumped far more into this one avatar than he had in any of the others. Rather than just a flashy cloud of energy, he focused the majority in a laser thin beam that cut horizontally across the thing's neck.

By the time the head hit the ground, he had focused the remaining energy on creating his mark on the earth beneath them.


They were back in the arena and the fights were almost over. It was more loosely than be had seen before but he gathered that today was the semifinals. The previous champions were already defeated. 'Rahu-Crusher' had been defeated by Ryouga. Sight Stealer had been taken out by Shampoo and the 'Demon of Splynn" by Akane.

The other favorites hadn't even been defeated by anyone within the Nerima group. Though they had indirectly been involved. 'Momus, the False Atlantean' had been brutally beaten by Leviathan before her loss to Ryouga and 'Well Fed the Fool' had been defeated by the black dragon. Ranma now knew the dragon to be a Shikome Kido-Mi, an extremely rare and almost universally evil type of dragon. How lucky he was to have been fixated upon by a lunatic dragon?

Ranma felt rather bad about 'Well Fed the Fool". The other gladiator favorites were all mostly psychopathic volunteers. Well backed fighters who fought for money and fame. 'Well Fed' was an enslaved cyber knight. Apparently, that was a cybernetic psionic paladin. It didn't make much sense to Ranma, usually cybernetics happened after horrible accidents, but it was also a calling in this world. Anyway, he was better off than the slaves killed off for the viewer's pleasure at the end of each night. Not much, and the dragon did give him a terrible beating, but he lived. One more thing to fight for.

"Hey! You!" a growling voice resounded through the arena, bringing Ranma's attention back to the present. The aforementioned dragon was floating in front of their bleacher, writhing in agitation. Both of their images were being projected far larger than life above high into the air. "I want to fight you. Not your pets. You."

"Ah, you came," Ranma replied with a nod. "Hold on a second. I have a speech." Syushra and Ranma had researched this dragon extensively and had even purchased several counters for various spells. It was prohibitively expensive but his manager had been willing to invest the credits for a chance to win even the second place position.

Digging through his subspace he dug out his prepared soliloquy. He had been inspired by the wrestling tournaments in the Americas. "Here it is. Damn, I can barely read this crap."

"Well, you did lose the calligraphy challenge," Akane helpfully pointed out, earning a glare from him.

"He ran away mid-fight," Ranma shouted defensively. "That means I win!"

"Do you accept or not? If I have to fight one of your alternates, I will be sure to kill them in a horrible fashion."

"Shut up, snake," Ranma snapped. "If you want to fight me you have to listen to my thing." He checked to make sure the bandana on his head was fastened tightly. "Okay, I the villainous Ranma, will blot out the holy righteousness that is my enemy... wait. Wrong speech. That one is for Ryouga."

"I'll get you Ranma," a faint voice reached him from across the arena. Ranma ignored it.

"Right, here it is," Ranma held the paper up in front of him and began. "You think you're bad? Your nothing but a crawling worm. Your so high and mighty in front of the glory that is our Splugorthian lords. Hah, your scales aren't is nearly as shiny and reflective as the wondrous slime that our mighty master Splynncryth swims in." This earned a confused look from Shampoo and Akane but a nod of approval from his manager, Syushra.

"You even show your pathetic jealousy at the glorious executors of Splynncryth's will, the Highlords. No doubt because your scraggly fangs can't compare to the toothy goodness and bitey fangs of our benefactors. So, I will beat you. Specifically, in retaliation for your mocking words about Highlord Nagrath Rak!"

"Who the hell is..." the dragon began.

"Even now you try to curse his name! Well then, I suppose it time to fight and show you who your betters are! Everyone cheer our Splugorian overloads or you'll show yourself to be traitors to them!"

"What are talking..." the dragons amplified voice was drowned in a sudden wave of fervent roaring as every single individual in the stadium suddenly started to cheer as loud as their voices could possibly reach.

"All right, step one," Ranma nodded to himself as he leaped into the arena.

"Finally, I will have my vengeance... ow," shouted the dragon as Ranma immediately did a full-powered kick. It was simply testing the waters. If this thing was as durable as Ammit a chi powered kick wouldn't do much. Well, it did throw it back a few dozen feet but that was all. A meteorite kick would have been perfect but there wasn't any decent location to bounce around.

"You little, pathetic creature," the dragon started to curse. Out of some special pocket, it pulled out a gleaming ebony blade. "With this, I will swallow your soul!"

"The Emperor was right. You did take it. You're going to swing a sword at me," Ranma asked in wonder. He hadn't expected that. More spell casting honestly. "You barely have hands. How does that even work?"

It worked pretty well. Dragon hands were very well articulated, despite the generous talons tipping them. The dragon was no Kuno but it writhed its body to confuse its enemy and in between the flowing coils it struck out with the sword.

"I don't usually wield a sword," the dragon confided in a sneering manner. "Usually we work through champions for our goals. I was planning to give this sword to a champion. That could have been you, but you squandered your opportunity. Aggravated me until I can accept nothing but your death! Now I want to destroy your soul!"

"Wow, I'm sorry I hurt your feelings," yelped Ranma as he narrowly avoided the sword. The issue was that he couldn't touch the sword without a terrible feeling of dread filling him. He truly believed that it could destroy his soul if he let it. Anhur had warned him that there were certain deaths that even a god could not bring him back from. "Would candy make you feel better?"

"Only your soul!"

"Fine, how about a beating?" Ranma pulled out a staff from his own subspace pocket. This was the staff that the Kyoto Millennium Tree had gifted him, at the cost of a slight bruise. Ranma had used his new identification ability to find out what this could do. One thing it did was extra damage to dragons and serpents. It also made him immune to dragon breath weapons, which was ironic since this breed of dragon had no breath weapon. It could do a bit more but the extra damage and being able to parry the soul drinking swords were the most immediate concerns.

"Curse you," the dragon howled. "And curse that tree!"

"Hey, I stole it fair and square," Ranma said as he tried to stay in character. If he wanted to join the Highlord's circle of cohorts he had to be as evil as possible. The chi enhanced staff was causing welts and bruises, but it was clear it was going to take a while. Meanwhile, it was parrying a good fraction of the strikes and he was afraid that the dragon only needed to hit once.

"Time to switch things up," he shouted. "Bean Jam Blowout Revised! Bean Jam Blender!"

Ranma spun the staff like a helicopter blade in front of him and a furious wind funnel instantly formed and blew forward to engulf the dragon. It spun out of control, hit the surface of the arena shield, and started to spin along the entire diameter of the arena, picking up speed as it went. Ranma poured energy into the technique, forcing it to go faster and faster until the whirlwind was so powerful all the sand had been picked up and bits of the magic imbued rocks were breaking off from the ground.

Despite the energy drain, it wasn't really the power that was the issue anymore. For a single technique like this one clone sustaining the Hadou-Ken, sitting in a closet back at the training building, was enough to source it. Channeling that much energy was stressful, physically, and mentally.

After several minutes he finally saw what he needed. The sword fell to the ground, separated from the dragon by the supernatural raging winds. Ranma immediately dropped the technique, which instantly slowed by half and then stopped seconds later.

"Pest," roared the serpent. Despite being able to fly it fell heavily to the arena floor and then after several attempts drunkenly stood on its rear legs. The martial artist wasn't sitting by and doing nothing though. He tossed the staff over to the soul drinking sword. Upon landing it transformed into a serpent and wrapped itself tightly around it. Another gesture and a tiny but strong dust devil spun off Ranma's hand to pick up the wrapped blade and send it spinning wildly around the arena. The dragon saw this and roared in rage.

"Now we can really fight," Ranma said while cracking his knuckles.

"Die!" As he bellowed this a tiny black speck formed in his hand, swiftly growing to the size of a baseball. It shot forward at insane speeds toward the startled martial artist. Despite this, he was still able to barely leap away. Behind him, he heard a thump of displaced air, and the floor could be seen to be missing a perfect half-sphere.

"Annihilate!" Another black sphere sent Ranma frantically dodging. The next time the speck formed Ranma pulled a talisman out and pointed to the spell. A command word activated and he waited anxiously for it dispel the effect. As the ball of nothingness barreled down on him he dodged again. This time his heel got in the effect. It felt like it was engulfed in pure energy. Looking down he saw his shoe was gone and his heel was blackened. Burnt, showing fluids bubbling from the wound.

"Annihilate," shouted the serpent once more. Ranma took the amulet in his and imbued it with chi and shot it at the tiny ball of darkness before it left the dragon's hand. Immediately a sphere of light formed in a ten-foot diameter centered on the caster's hand.

The dragon screamed in pain and anger and when the light faded it could be seen that the surface of the creature's arm and chest had been vaporized, leaving exposed cauterized muscle.

"Lion's Roar," Ranma then started to pepper it with chi blasts. He didn't think that the serpent had much power left to fuel his spells based on his weaker aura but even so, he timed his blasts to interrupt the spells. After being blocked like this several times the dragon charged him head-on. This was a challenge he was only too happy to meet.

There were times he failed. Once he found himself adhered to the ground in a spell effect he was only too familiar with. Nevertheless, he and his manager had prepared. Pulling out a talisman he activated it to dispel the effect.

"Resorting to cantrips? Pathetic little snake," Ranma jeered.

"House of Glass," the serpent cast in the time before Ranma could restart his bombardment. The martial artist's heartbeat spiked. He had a list of spells to avoid from his manager. This one forced the victim to mirror the damage taken by the caster. He held his breath as a tingle engulfed him and the amulet supplied by his manager warmed. He was almost sure that meant he resisted the effect. He wasn't sure until he attacked and didn't feel anything.

"Multiple Image," the creature howled and three identical creatures appeared, mirroring his movements. Ranma was a bit puzzled. First of all, he could sense the chi of the original. Second, the other images were faded and unreal. He just knew which were fake.

"I don't understand why you're calling out your spells," Ranma admitted, while peppering the dragon with blasts. "I mean, I appreciate the heads up, but are you trying to lose?"

"I'm not, you damn ant!"

Ranma paused in surprise and almost missed interrupting the snake again. If he wasn't calling out the attacks, then why was he hearing it? A moment's thought allowed him to notice the itching on his forehead and realization flashed through his brain. The tattoo. Even covered it allowed him to identify magical effects. He hadn't realized that included spell attacks or he would have been far more respectful of it.

Minutes dragged on as the martial artist weaved through the serpent's attacks and to deliver chi charged attacks. Whenever the monster got frustrated and tried to cast a spell, he would interrupt it with a Lion's Roar or a Butterfly Kiss. Energy flowed through him in an unending torrent, allowing him almost endless endurance.

"Enough of this," cried the dragon in frustration. "If I have to feel the pain to inflict it on you, then so be it!"

Ignoring all pretense of defense, the creature waited until Ranma attacked and then coiled around him. Ranma was startled but not panicked. In fact, since their strength was approximately the same it didn't really change anything to his mind. In fact, it allowed him to use some powerful yet less accurate strikes. Then the creature said, "Annihilate!"

The black speck formed and grew between them, causing a sense of imminent disaster to grow larger and larger. When it exploded the serpent's body convulsed and slumped to the ground. Twenty feet away Ranma's form faded into existence, relatively unharmed. Happossai's power-hungry move was extremely effective with enough chi to feed it.


Chapter 16: Calamari

"He's obviously a fraud of some sort," stated the black-armored man. The armor was obviously custom-designed power armor deliberately created to pay homage to the traditional samurai. "Just from that speech, I can tell he is fake or a moron."

"Well, he is just a human," the Highlord replied indifferently. The webbed dome of the head pulsed rhythmically in a way that would disturb most humans. The insanely large orbs starred in the armored man, seeming to be observing a bug. His attitude was only natural for his race. For him, a human was like a talking dog. It doesn't matter what it says, it's a miracle it can speak. For the last few months, he had come to know this attitude too well. "I can't expect him to speak well, but the content was well thought out. If he wins the game I may give him a minor reward. Your human, Shogun, think of a nice human type gift."

The Shogun clenched his fists but controlled his temper. Since he had been driven from Japan things hadn't gone well. While his allies in Atlantis didn't kill him out of hand they weren't kind. He had been reduced to a glorified butler, while his men had it even worse. He had brought ten Generals and a thousand elite. In a land where a simple general commanded billions, his entourage barely counted as a skeleton crew for a janitor. Not that it mattered. He had lost hundreds of men. They weren't even fighting, they simply walked the streets and the alien citizens of the city killed them out of hand. Most were trampled by uncaring vehicles whose drivers may even have swerved to hit them. Some were engaged in altercations where they were clearly provoked. If they were merely maimed then the authorities took no action. If they died the instigator was given a verbal warning and went on his way. Heaven forbid if his men won. If that happened the authorities were likely to execute them on the spot. Three of his Generals had been killed in this manner. The standing orders were presently not to go outside. Inside the Highlord's command center his men may be bullied but they wouldn't die.

"His attire is also suspect," the Shogun reluctantly continued. "It matches the girl from Lazlo."

"I saw your reports," the clicked the sawblades he called teeth. "Even your intelligence agents mentioned that although it is the same, it is also the most common Chinese peasant garb."

"Well, yes," the armored man replied, the helmet hiding his impatience. "But that is from three hundred years ago. Why would they both wear the same thing from another time period?"

"I thought you had no information on that region?"

"We don't but we do have very good records from before the War."

"I do have some knowledge," the Highlord looked at the Shogun in silence for a few seconds, as if asking whether it was worth its time to share such things. "There is a local pantheon at war with itself. Our policy is to leave it alone. It's an extremely large pantheon so the longer they avoid our politics the more time used to settle into this dimension. That's all that you need to know, except that humans do survive there and they still wear such traditional clothes."

"But he's obviously Japanese," the Shogun protested.

"But not so obviously from Lazo," the Highlord clarified. "I know you're still settling into my command structure but you need to keep in mind that all of my minions follow my instructions... in harmony. They don't work against each other or undermine each other."

The Shogun ignored the obvious hypocrisy of this. He wouldn't have his men send to the healers on a daily basis if this was true. What caused his eyes to widen in alarm was the obvious assumption that his 'master' was considering adding another minion.


It was time. Ryouga looked out at the arena grounds and contemplated how he had gotten here. Such a fantastical set of twists and turns. A few weeks ago he had been looking forward to a fair fight with his rival. Who knew that Ranma's mind had because so deranged and malicious. It was now his obligation to destroy him and free Akane from his influence. Just the memory of Akane crying made his hands clench in rage.

Still, it may not be as easy as he had thought. He had gotten a mysterious surge of energy just a few days ago. It had filled his entire being. Far more than he had felt with that ridiculous God Mark. He didn't want to be overconfident but he had assumed he would simply steam roller over Ranma. Then he saw his rival... no, nemesis, fight the dragon and knew that this would not be as simple as he had thought. Across the arena, he saw his enemy approach. Above them flickered into existence larger images of themselves.

"Yo. How's it going Budd... er, mindless paladin of light," Ranma nodded amiably.

"It's sad to see you fall so low, Ranma," Ryouga sighed sadly, staring at the sky. "I used to respect you but now you serve evil. I shall annihilate you and the evil you represent!" He shook his fist railing against cruel fate. As he lowered his eyes, he saw Ranma sorting through some papers mumbling to himself.

"I need to clean my pockets. How do I end up with so many menus," Ranma coughed delicately into his hand. "I the villainous Ranma, will blot out the holy righteousness that is my enemy. Despite your threats against evil and my own personal idol, Highlord Nagrath Rak, I vow to defend the precepts that this land is founded upon. The power of Splynncryth and his hands and workers of his will shall forever lead this land to glory and further power."

"What kind of stupid speech is that? Who the hell is..."

"Bean Jam Blowout!" Ranma shouted, spinning his staff. He had taken out just for this purpose. He could do it without that focus but he would be busy for the next few seconds. The less he had to worry about the better.

The now-familiar funnel formed, even larger than normal. All the sand in the arena seemed to flow through it, turning it into a massive sandblaster completely focused on the relatively tiny figure of Ryouga. However, the result did not match the previous examples. Unlike the serpent, Ryouga feet remained firmly planted on the ground. In fact, any particles that came into contact seemed to instantly ignore the funnel and drop at his.

"Idiot! I can't believe you tried to sneak attack me! And with such a lame attack!" The eternally lost boy laughed in ridicule only to cough sand instantly filled his mouth.

Ranma, meanwhile was racing around the arena. Every fifty feet or so he would shimmer and leave a pulsating globe next to a radiant pillar of light so bright it seemed to burn your retina if you even glanced at it. By the time funnel subsided the entire arena had been dotted with globes and pillars.

A massive pile had formed where the lost boy had stood. It seemed that the entire contents of the area had been dumped directly onto him. His personal gravity field ensured it stayed on him. In a massive greenish explosion of light, the sand was scattered back across the stony ground.

"Gah, I can't breathe in there," Ryouga shouted as he gasped for air. "Trying to suffocate me? That's low even for... what're all these pillars? Are you trying to blind me now?"

"Hah, hah," Ranma gave his best evil villain laugh. "Now you see my real plan! Each of these pillars are proximity bombs that will go off if you get too close..."

Ryouga immediately targeted the closest one, "Roaring Tiger Bullet!"

Ranma slapped his hand over his forehead. Meanwhile, the pillar struck with chi blast exploded in a vast cloud of vaporous energy, and all the other pillars pulsed in sync with one another. A moment later the cloud shrank back down to a brilliantly shiny sphere and a beam shot out towards the lost boy. It struck him like a locomotive and shot him back as if he was physically riding the beam. Back and up he went until he struck the force field encircling the arena. It broke like a cheap glass Christmas ornament. Although the beam flickered out, the lost boy continued to arc over the city.

"... and if you attack one it will simply strike you as it blows up." Ranma finished lamely as he watched as Ryouga flew through the air. "That wasn't supposed to happen. There goes plan A. Crap. Plan B sucks!"

"Did you know those were bombs," Shampoo turned to look at Akane next to her.

"Not really," she replied hesitantly. "I mean, Ranma kept blowing up when we distracted him, but it didn't seem more explodey than any other technique involving balls of chi..."

"Syushra, I thought that the arena force field was like indestructible?" Shampoo asked next.

"So did I," whispered the shivering insectoid.

"So, is a ring out a win?" the blue-haired girl asked. Back in Nerima martial artists got blown across the city all the time. It never happened to her but even she knew how to cushion the fall. Assuming you survived the initial strike of course.

"I don't know," the manager chittered nervously as he pulled out a rumpled and well-used printout of the rules. "Damn, this copy is old. My holo-terminal should have a newer version." He pulled out a tablet type device from his pouch. "Good gracious, the fusion cell is out of power. These things are supposed to last ten years, but they seem to always die just when you need them. Boy, here's a hundred credits, get me a new cell," he said as he turned to the smaller insectoid next to him. It was actually his nephew, working here for the summer.

"A hundred credits," the youngster shrilled in surprise. "Here, you can have the power cell in my gamepad, I can get ten fusion cells for that!"

"Wait, I see something flying back," Shampoo said, pointing to the air.

"Can Ryouga fly?" Akane asked in confusion. "Hold on, he's riding... something. Is that a robot?"

"I believe that's a security drone," Syushra said as he flipped through pages of projected rules.

"Looks like something smashed into it," Akane said as she squinted to make out the details. "Oh, the dent is body shaped. Must have been Ryouga. I didn't know you could ride drones in Atlantis."

"You can't," the manager muttered absently. "Its considered misuse of military property."

"Is he going to get in trouble for that," Akane asked in a worried tone. Shampoo snorted. She used to be the village champion; she knew how things worked if you were famous enough.

"Ranma, I'm back," the lost boy shouted from the top of his descending ride. Now that he was close enough the projector above the arena picked up his image again. "How dare you try to get rid of me by throwing me out of the arena!"

"Technically a ring out is a loss," called out Syushra from the stands, earning a glare from both martial artists.

"I can't accept such a win," Ranma pompously stated, crossing his arms.

"Really?" Ryouga stuttered. "Ranma I didn't think you still had it in you! Some small morsel of human kindness and sense of fair play..."

"Since you have insulted Highlord Nagrath Rak, you can't escape a beating that easily! That bomb only beat you half to death. I will supply the other half!"

"Nevermind," Ryouga spat out sourly as he leaped down from the security drone onto the arena floor. He immediately went onto the attack. After seeing his fight with the serpent, he expected this to involve a lot of dodging and frustration. His opponent had always been more agile than himself. However, it just wasn't the case. He was slow and distracted by something. Perhaps a guilty conscious.

"You aren't up to your usual speed," Ryouga taunted. "You're slow and sloppy. Have you been lazing around, eating good food, while I have been training?" At the end of this, he moved forward quickly and actually got a well-placed hit on him. He rocketed back, through the nearest pillar of light and embedded in the far wall of the arena.

"Darn, I was hoping that would either blow it up or disarm him," the lost boy muttered.

Ranma pulled himself out of the cratered wall with a wince as he rubbed his chest. It was obvious that his opponent had tried to blow up him by using the pillar. It was absurd, of course, since the pillars weren't actually bombs. Each one a rather amorphous clone summoning and channeling power to him. Why would he attack himself?

Unfortunately, the concentration of keeping so many clones active was taking its toll. He had given up the human shape, most of the consciousness projection, it was really only on dissipation, deciding on what to do with the dissipating power that was real work-intensive. But there were so many. As Ryouga had seen he was slow and distracted. That last hit from Ryouga was horrible. Even with nigh-infinite power, his fortified body had almost been crushed. Being hit by even a small god that specialized in strength was no joke.

Ranma sighed. He really hadn't wanted to do this. Reaching into his subspace pocket he took out a ring. He hadn't ever used it in a real fight, even with his first battle with Ammit. Although that was mostly because it wouldn't have changed anything. Instantly the world around him slowed. He knew it was his perception and speed increasing but it was definitely odd. He had practiced in this state a bit, so it shouldn't throw him off, but it definitely was not normal. He moved forward to meet Ryouga. Plan A was a 'go'.

"Your moving with more pep," Ryouga sneered. "Did I knock some sense into you?"

"Laugh it up, pig boy," he snapped back. "Its time to show what a tiny god you are!"

"What?" Ryouga replied in puzzlement. Why was it that nothing Ranma said made sense today? Even less than usual.

The two met again in hand to hand combat. This time it was more like Ryouga had expected. Ranma had regained his lost speed and it was almost impossible to lay a hand on him. The most he managed to do was use his umbrella to keep him away. Naturally, Ranma wasn't having an easy time either. His enhanced blows were being felt but it seemed like fighting Ammit again. Also, that gravity field around Ryouga was seriously throwing off his blows. Still, he was very careful about not damaging the gravity boots. He wasn't sure if Ryouga had planned it or not, but he suspected that once the field shut off Ryouga strength would spike to unbelievable heights as would his speed. His control would be shot though. He didn't want to risk it. Still, there was one thing he had to set up. Tiny magnetic balls were placed on the seem of where the gravity boots met the cuffs that locked Ryouga in one dimension.

"Fine, have it your way, Ranma," Ryouga grunted as he stepped back. "I always knew it would come down to this." Disturbing blue light gathered around the lost boy as he gathered all of his abundant energy. He watched as Ranma circled around him before setting himself to receive it. This was how men should fight. Fist to Fist and chi versus chi.

"Yup," Ranma said with a smile. "It always comes down to this."

Blue chi beam met a red chi beam, as each struggled in the middle of the arena. In the past, their blasts were more like missiles. As their mastery over pure chi increased as well as their reserves, these became more like beams. Rivers of chi flowing against one another.

"I won't let you destroy Atlantis," Ranma cried out defiantly. "You may have more power than me but Splynncryth's domain encompasses all I believe in."

With this battle cry, the pillars pulsed with light, and Ranma collapsed to the ground under the screaming green beam. Somehow it seemed to massively pick up power once it was no longer being opposed by the pigtailed martial artist.

"No!" Ranma cried dramatically. "You won't have your way!" Moving clockwise he set himself to a new position. The ground bucked and shuddered as somewhere far away it landed.

"Fine," roared Ryouga. "I will destroy you and your evil ways!"

Another sickly green blast formed and shot out at his nemesis. Again, the pillars pulsed, and Ranma barely seemed again to cope against the flood of energy. Once again, he collapsed under the barrage that flew overhead, strangely larger than when he was actively blocking it. The ground rippled and shook, magically reinforced stone shattered as the blast reverberated from where it landed miles away.

Ranma looked around at the shocked and terrified spectators. It looked like he would only be able to this one more time before it hit the fan. Maneuvering himself, he set himself to receive one more strike.

"I failed in my duty, but I will protect Highlord Nagrath Rak to my final breath," Ranma cried out in a wailing tone. "Have at you assassin!"

"Ranma, I am tired of your nonsense! Die!"

This time Ranma lets the opposing flood balance his beam and made it appear to move back and forth. The pillars of light frantically pulsed in sych. After a few seconds, he split Ryouga's beam, allowing an amplified force to flew on either side of him. He fell to his knees apparently defeated, smoke curling up from his bowed form.

"For Nagrath Rak," croaked Ranma dramatically. His right hand reached inside his pocket and triggered a remote. There was a flash of light as the lost boy's gravity boots blew apart and the unlocked shackles fell to the ground.

"Ranma, I won't play your games anymore," Ryouga shouted as he strode forward, oblivious to his lost gear.

"Before you do anything," the pigtailed martial artist hoarsely whispered, "You should take a look around."

"Huh, what trick..." Ryouga started and then paused in shock as his neck craned this way and that. Behind Ranma, the entire rear half of the stadium was simply gone. Spectators, squads, Splynncryth's personal retinue... all gone. A swathe of the city for a mile past the arena was gone as well. The only remaining thing standing on that side of the arena was a smoking and charred Splynncryth. The pool of slime he had originally wallowed it had been flash evaporated, his tentacles were still withered and crisped, like overcooked squid. His eye was collapsed and desiccated. Yet he obviously lived. Even as Ryouga watched it slowly seemed to inflate and the burned tentacles were visibly restoring themselves. Several hundred feet to the right of him was a traumatized Highlord. He had a handful of Powerlords at his side. They seemed to be looking in horror from Ryouga to the several bodies on the ground where the legs or arms of Powerlords littered the ground.

"Oh my god! I almost killed someone's pet squid," Ryouga muttered before he realized that half the stadium and a massive swath of the city was gone as well. "I killed a bunch of alien monsters!"

"They were evil monsters," Ranma commiserated, keeping his defeated posture. "You also blew up their Imperial Palace and their main military installation."

Ryouga head mechanically turned to the side to see far off on the distance that the massive pyramid that once decorated the center of the city was gone. Only a deep crater remained. Looking in the other direction there was another crater, equally large.

"But... but... how?" a pitiful confused whine escaped him.

"You should run, bud," Ranma helpfully prompted as he gestured to the side. The air was darkening. It took a moment to register that it wasn't clouds or an eclipse. The sky was full of ships. Like a cloud of locusts, they darkened the sky, and moment by moment more became visible. At the forefront of them were ten massive mechanical dragon vessels.

"Ranma, I don't know how, but I know this is somehow your fault!" Ryouga cried out in anguish as he ran past the still burning pet squid and into the devastated city. For once, he was right.


Akane looked at the destruction around them. The vast majority of it was at the far end of the arena, where Lord Splyncryth was still regenerating. Ranma's energy pillars had long since faded away. He had staggered to his feet once the military started to land and made his way to the High Lord's retinue. Or what was left of it.

"What just happened," Akane asked in a daze. "Did Ryouga just go crazy and kill half the city?"

Shampoo looked her sideways and simply shook her head. This angry girl was just a simpleton. Someone like her didn't deserve her husband. She didn't even recognize that it was Ranma that had laid waste to the city of monsters. She was so proud!

"It's hard to believe," Akane whispered. "He seemed like such a nice boy. Huh, what do you mean good riddance to bad rubbage?" Akane said, addressing the last bit to her hammer. "Ryouga's not rubbage!"

"I think it was referring to..." Shampoo started and then stopped. She refused to get involved in a conversation with an inanimate object.

"Well, it's a good thing the city's ruler survived," Akane said thankfully. "I wonder what Ranma's saying to him. Oh, look the pet squid has healed up enough to crawl over to the ruler...er, king?" Both Shampoo and Syushra looked at her oddly but failed to clarify things.


Revision 1.0 06-02-20

 

Ranma ½ is the property and invention of Rumiko Takahashi. The following story is not produced for any monetary or personal gain.

Keep in mind the journey is almost always more interesting than the destination.

Ranma was taken by cosmic happenstance to another dimension.  After various adventures, he has found a greater purpose that requires him to train and perfect his arts.  Although he made his way home he will once more step outside his reality to champion his new liege.  And get out of this madhouse.

The Journey

Part Two: Stepping Out


Chapter 1: Training Dummy

Ranma gave a shriek as Ryouga leveled the gun towards his head and pulled the trigger. He immediately went into a dodging frenzy, narrowly avoiding the missiles speeding towards him.

"Ranma, stop dodging and take your medicine like a man!" Ryouga taunted the frantically dodging pigtailed boy.

Ranma for his part leaped towards the gun-waving martial artist. A kick sent the gun out of Ryouga's hands, and a follow-up Chestnut Fist sent the lost boy flying back into a pile of debris where a boulder had sat seconds before.

"What are you trying to do, pig-boy? Kill me?" Ranma roared furiously.

"Stop whining! You wanted help training, fine! Now stop whining every time we start training." Ryouga's irritated voice wafted up from the pile of rubble. A moment later the dusty, but otherwise unharmed boy shrugged off the shattered masonry lying on him.

"I said to fire the gun near me! Not at me! What part of training didn't you understand you moron! The whole exercise is pointless if you end up killing me!" Ranma continued ranting, still unnerved by his unexpected brush with death.

"At... near... what's the difference? You're still going to have to get in the way of the bullets to practice that technique of yours," Ryouga said with a careless shrug.

"Stop bein' thick. That's what I got these for," he stated, holding up his gloved hands. "The whole reason I couldn't practice this before I brought back the gloves is that the first time I screwed up I'd get my hands blown off." He continued with grossly exaggerated patience, as if talking to a child. "Now Ryouga notice the gloves on my hands. Observe carefully how I have nothing over my head. I repeat... Are you thick or something?" he ended, again breaking into a shout.

"Hey, it was an honest mistake," Ryouga said, giving a weak smile. "You should have said something earlier." Ranma turned a deeper shade of red and began mouthing dire imprecations under his breath.

Ranma, finally regaining control of his temper, stated calmly, "Okay. Let's try this again. Pick up the gun. Point the gun over here," pointing to a target two feet to the right of him. Do Not Point The Gun At Me."

"Fine. No need to make such a big deal out it. Er... I seem to be out of bullets. Do you have any extra?" Sighing Ranma pulled a few packs of ammunition out of subspace and showed Ryouga the loading process.

"Where did you get this anyway? I thought guns were illegal in Japan. Um... we are in Japan, right?" The lost boy asked nervously while looking around as if he was expecting foreign officials to pop out of the bushes and ask what they were doing smuggling illegal weaponry.

"Nah. We're still in Japan all right. Some American military guy owed Nabiki big time. He loaned her the gun and told her about this place. A nice deserted place to fire off a couple of rounds. Heh, heh, he also said that if anything goes wrong he's going to report the gun stolen. Alright, it's loaded. Remember, not at me."

"Geez! Make a little mistake and you never hear the end of it," Ranma gave him an incredulous stare. Oblivious to the irony, Ryouga pointed the gun at the indicated area and fired the entire clip in rapid succession.

Ranma's hands blurred as he attempted to push his chi senses and Chestnut Fist in ways they had never been used before. At the end of the burst, he triumphantly held six of the clip's total capacity. The victorious facade was quickly replaced by one of puzzlement, then of agony.

Ranma knelt down clutching his hands, groaning at the intense pain radiating from them. Ryouga finally realizing something wasn't right, rushed over and helped Ranma remove the indestructible gloves from his hands. Both boys hissed in surprise at the lurid bruises covering his hands.

"Wow! That looks really painful. Can you tell how bad it is?" Ryouga asked, wincing in involuntary sympathy as he saw his rival's hands visibly swelling before his eyes.

For his own part, Ranma was already using his senses to evaluate the damage. He was relieved to find that no bones were broken, no muscles, or ligaments torn... just massive bruising.

"No, just bruises. I should be fine by tomorrow. Sooner if Dr. Tofu's available." He hissed in pain and started to stagger off towards town. "Good thing I had the gloves on, or I wouldn't even have hands to worry about. I guess I need to focus more chi into my hands. Hmm, this could be adapted into an 'Iron Hand' variant," Ranma mused, successfully blocking out the pain sufficiently to plan future martial arts pursuits.

Ryouga just shook his head in disgust and followed the slightly weaving pigtailed boy back to Nerima.

 

 

"So how do you like being back?" Jess asked as Ranma demonstrated a new kata.

"It just as hectic as I remember it bein," Ranma replied with a disgusted sigh. "Probably worse."

"You are such a whiner, Ranma. You have everything you asked for and you still complain," Akane said scathingly from the other side of the Dojo.

"Well it's not like Shampoo's stopped chasing me. Heck, if anything she's after me even more." Ranma rambled on, oblivious to the anger building up in his fiancée. "What really freaks me out is Cologne. Now that she's younger, I swear she's eyeing me up. It's weird. I think it makes Shampoo nervous too. I mean I can't really blame them, me bein' manly an all, but it's getting a bit much."

Akane had begun to glow a hazy red as her battle aura sprang into existence around her. Ranma rattled on, totally engrossed in detailing his problems. Jess was a little bit more aware and slowly backed away from her teachers. She was getting much better at the art, but being between two highly skilled individuals during what would probably be a brutal clash was not on her day's agenda.

"I mean how many girls does that make so far? There's Cindra, gee, I still don't know how she found her way here. At least she stays away when I'm training. I think she doesn't like sweat. Now there's Cologne too. Well, maybe. And of course Shampoo and Ukyo. And, ugh, Kodachi." He gave a martyred sigh. "I guess I'm just too macho for my own good. I wish I knew how to turn whatever it was off. Then I wouldn't have Amazons, cooks and Tomboys chasing after me."

"Die Ranma!" Akane screamed while bringing her shiny new weapon in a long arc, ending under Ranma's chin. After the associated thundershock, it was with great satisfaction she witnessed Ranma flying through the roof and, at least temporarily, out of her life.

Jess looked at the hole in dismay. She had no doubt that Ranma would be fine when he landed. The first few times she had witnessed this event had sent her into a panicked frenzy. Now she just sighed in disappointment that the lesson was over.

Ranma was like a totally different person around his friends. When she had first met him he seemed to have a quiet strength. A dignity, demonstrated in the subdued way he lived his life and the ferocity he pursued the martial arts. Now she realized that he was just a stranger in a strange land. He had kept his guard constantly up, giving the illusion of maturity. Seeing him among his friends, relaxed enough to babble his macho nonsense was a serious shock. Many of her illusions had been shattered. Her wise Sensei was just a ridiculously talented boy. A very nice boy, if you ignored the constant effort to show his 'manliness', but far from an icon of maturity.

Ranma landed in a fountain near the center of Nerima. He remembered it well from past experiences. It was the pain that was new. He must have been suffering from a serious head injury when he gave Akane an enchanted hammer. Now her blows actually hurt. Badly. He had done such a good job of training his reflexes to ignore Akane's attacks that he was now having problems retraining them. It just demonstrated to him the folly of purposely blunting your own battle skills. The only good thing he saw coming from this situation was maybe a small increase in his durability that might improve what the Breaking Point had already accomplished for him.

Looking around, he noticed that there was only one person in the area. This person had the misfortune to be close enough to the impact area to be completely drenched. Ranma snickered as it registered who it was.

"How's it going Ryouga. You look kinda damp." Even though the two martial artists now wore devices to prevent the change, they still seemed to act as magnets for accidents and spills. If it was remotely likely that they could get wet, they did.

"Very funny Ranma. This is the third time this week you managed to soak me! Prepare to die!"

Ranma held up his hands, "Now hold on P-Chan! Remember your promise."

Ryouga froze in mid-swing. "All right Ranma. But I'm saving up all these insults of yours and you're due for a serious pounding at our next meeting. I've been training and I'll make you regret the Hell you've put me through."

Ranma just smiled. Now that they only fought at the scheduled site, he found he was actually almost looking forward to Ryouga's presence. He was still much better than Ryouga, but the matches gave him a chance to test his new skills on a respectable opponent. Ryouga even managed to surprise him occasionally. He had shown significant improvement while fighting the last few matches, apparently, he gained by fighting Ranma almost as much as Ranma himself did. It was very satisfying.

"I noticed you're around a lot more. Did whatever Anhur did to your sense of direction help?"

"I guess so," Ryouga said, still somewhat embarrassed over his lack of navigational skills. "It only takes me a couple of hours to find my way home now. I've probably spent more time at home than almost any other Hibiki in recorded history. It's just as well. I hadn't realized how dangerous wandering around could be. Did you know they have incredibly powerful martial artists in New York? They're very temperamental too. I asked for directions and this guy just clobbered me. He had very impressive chi blasts. Everything you've heard about that place it probably true. I'll bet that guy was a cab driver. I've heard about New York cab drivers."

"New York? I didn't know they had martial artists. I didn't see any when I was there. Then again I was only there for a few minutes."

"Ha! You were lucky. I'm going to have to do some serious training before I go back there. I figure when I finish kicking your butt I'll be ready to go back."

"Wow, do you think that guy's still going to be there when Hell freezes over?"

"I'm sure he will... hey! I'll just add that to the list of bruises I owe you!" Ryouga paused and seemed to cool down after a moment. "Happossai's been looking for you."

Ranma froze like a deer caught in the headlights. "Happossai?"

"Yeah. He kept going on about some new techniques he had to teach you. He sounded pretty eager to find you. Almost desperate." Ryouga scratched his in confusion. "It sure is weird to have Happossai and Cologne walking around without looking like they escaped from a B rated horror flick."

"Living Dead XXV, eh?" The two boys laughed together in a friendly manner.

"Ranma my boy! I've finally found you! I was about to go to the Tendo's again. It seems harder to find you now than when you were in that other dimension."

Ranma's eyes went round as he whirled around in the direction of the voice. His worst fears were confirmed when he saw a short middle-aged man behind him wearing some sort of mask, with a sack of clothing over his shoulders.

"It's time for some training, my boy! I've only taught you half my tricks. It's time you learned the rest."

"Um... I can't right now. I need to... er... train with Cologne. Yeah, that's it. She is such a slave driver. Training round the clock. Exhausting."

"That's odd. I just talked to her. She said she sent you home after this morning's session. If I didn't know better I'd swear you were trying to avoid our lessons."

Ryouga just looked on in puzzlement. Something wasn't quite right here. Ranma had a lot of faults but avoiding or slacking off in training wasn't one of them. Even to the lost boy, it was obvious that Ranma was attempting to escape Happossai's training. How bad could it be?

"C’mon Ranma, I've barely taught you half I know. Why there's still the Mega-glomp, the Skirt Twirler, the Panty Fling, and the Dreaded Lust Drain. Just think, with all that you could be the TRUE heir to the Anything Goes School." The only expression on Ranma's face was a sickly grimace.

"I don't feel too good. I think I better go Dr. Tofu," the pigtailed boy slowly backed away, then broke into a full-speed sprint. He might even have been heading towards the clinic.

Far above Nerima, several distant figures flew in lazy circles above the town. Even the keenest eyed observer may have mistaken them for birds.

Ranma ran into the Neko-Hantan as if the very hordes of Hades were at his heels. He certainly felt as if they were. He immediately ran up to Shampoo, who was facing away from him, serving several customers their food.

"Shampoo! I need to talk to Cologne! It's an emergency!" Ranma exclaimed to Shampoo's back.

"Shampoo is out on deliveries right now, future son-in-law. What can I do for you?" The figure turned around revealing it to be the ex-crone Cologne. She looked amazingly like a more mature version of Shampoo. She was middle-aged, yet still an attractive woman. It was very unnerving, sending shivers down Ranma's spine when he was unexpectedly brought face to face with the woman.

"Gah! Don't do that!"

"Do what?" she eyed him knowingly.

"Um… never mind. I need your help!"

"What can I do for my future son-in-law?"

"It's Happossai. He's driving me nuts!"

"Isn't he living up to his part of the bargain?" Cologne asked with a slight frown.

"No. It's not that. It's just... he keeps tryin' to teach me all these perverted martial arts techniques and it's driving me crazy. I ain't no pervert!"

Cologne stayed silent for a moment. A grim look crossed her face. "I'm afraid you've placed yourself and Happy in a difficult position."

"What? I didn't do nothin!" Ranma vehemently denied.

"Oh, but you did. The magic in the book compels him to teach all he knows of martial arts to you. Unfortunately, for Happy, martial arts include some very perverted maneuvers. He must be getting very desperate if you refuse his teaching. The geas doesn't take into account your reluctance and will be driving him even harder."

"But... but... I... it's... I'm no pervert!" he desperately exclaimed.

"You have a responsibility, Ranma. It is your magic forcing him to try to teach you. If you continue to resist, the compulsion will become painful. I know you hold nothing but contempt for the Master of your school, but surely you aren't that cruel."

Ranma stayed silent for a moment, obviously impacted by her words, "I don't hate the little pervert, but... I don't want to be like him either." He stood thinking, conflicting emotions running through his mind.

"Well, you may be able to come up with a training method that keeps it as clinical as possible. That may at least avoid the screaming women." Cologne helpfully suggested.

"Yeah! That just might work! I don't know if he'll go for it though." Ranma added doubtfully.

"At this moment I think Happy might do almost anything to rid himself of the compulsion. While this gives you quite a bit of leverage, it also makes him very unpredictable. I would be wary..." At this point she was interrupted by the subject of their conversation.

"Ranma! I thought I might find you here. Hello Shampoo... er... Cologne. You're looking very nice today. How about we do something romantic tonight?"

A faint nostalgic smile appeared fleetingly on Cologne. "I'm afraid those days are long past, Happy. However, if you stop by later and promise to behave yourself, I might be free for a bit of tea. Ranma, do you have anything to say to Happy?"

"Er... sure. I guess I'm ready for my training. Oh, one thing. The only time I have available is tonight. I need to run an errand... um... a few miles south of Nerima. Yeah, that's it. And... and I'll bring the things I need to train too. Don't worry about a thing." Ranma looked at his bare wrist and exclaimed, "Boy, look at the time. Gotta go. I need to get ready for tonight. See you later!" With that farewell, he ran out of the restaurant. Off in the distance faint cries could be heard.

"Ranma take Shampoo on date?"

"Take your hands off my Shampoo!" "Ranma how dare you betray Akane this way!" "Leave Ranma alone, peasant! Let a real princess soothe your wounds, my love."

Left in the relative peace of the restaurant, Happossai turned to look at the woman he had pursued several centuries earlier. A long moment passed, each with carefully masking their emotions.

"Thank you, Col-chan."

"It's all right, Happy."


Chapter 2: Networking

"I'm not sure this is going to work," Happossai said doubtfully, looking at the store dummies lined up in the field. Some wore dresses, some lingerie, others were covered in skimpy school uniforms.

"Of course they'll do," Ranma stated impatiently. He had been busy all afternoon preparing this area. He didn't even want to think what he owed Nabiki. "All you need to show me is the technique. You know that once I see how it's done and the training method I can learn any technique," Ranma confidently stated.

Happossai still looked doubtful, but he knew Ranma was probably right. He'd never seen anyone able to pick apart, analyze, duplicate or counter techniques as easily as Ranma did. Still, it just seemed wrong to demonstrate the Mega Glomp on a plastic figure. Of course, the Dreaded Lust Drain could be easily demonstrated on the lingerie. Heck, before he had his youth renewed he was able to renew his energy simply by draining the lingering chi from recently worn panties and other women's accessories. He only did it for sport nowadays. He had to keep his heir on his toes.

"Alright, my boy. First let me demonstrate the Dreaded Lust Drain." Bounding over to the lingerie-clad manikin, he grasped the negligée in both tiny hands and pulled. Ranma's eyes bulged as the clothing came away in one piece. "Step one, gain access to your target. In this case this sweet little negligée. Step two, now pay attention boy. I'll do this very slowly so you can clearly sense what I'm doing. Extend your chi to enfold this little silky darling. Next use your chi to grasp the lingering traces of chi in the clothing. Now observe how I take control of those energies and absorb them into my own aura." Happossai was dimly glowing by the end of the demonstration. "When your own reserves are low other people usually have small amounts of chi they're not using. You don't get much from each person, unless you're willing to drain your target to uncomfortable limits."

"This can be used on people as well as objects?" Ranma asked dubiously.

"Well, you have to be more careful and other martial artists who have any decent control over their chi can resist. I never got much when I tried it on you, but sure was fun to try."

"Is this related to that thing you gave Hinako?" Ranma asked suspiciously, unconsciously crossing his arms over his chest.

Happossai became very serious, "No. Hinako was very ill as a child. I truly believe she would have died if I hadn't done what I did. Still, what I did to her wasn't a good thing." He fell silent for a moment before continuing, "She was an incredibly sickly child. In the time I knew her she almost died several times. What I did was to rearrange the flow of chi in her body to run more efficiently. The technique also allowed her to draw off the excess battle aura, a side product of active chi. While it saved her life, I'm afraid I've condemned her to a life of extremes." A thoughtful look came over his face, "She really is a hot babe in her adult form."

Ranma gave a sigh of disgust. Just when he gained a small glimmer of respect for the old pervert, he went and said something like that. "Is there anything we can do to help her?"

"Hmm... I'm not sure. You know the counter. If you continued to apply it to its conclusion, it might cure her completely and restore her adult form," Ranma face lit up. "Then again, it might trap her as a little girl, or trap her as a little girl with the same fatal illness as before, or trap her as a healthy little girl until she grew up normally, or..."

"Alright! Alright! Geez! If you don't know just say so! I always wondered why you never did anything, even when she constantly drained you."

"She is my responsibility. Until I know for certain the results, it wouldn't do to experiment." A thoughtful look crossed his face, "Besides it wouldn't do to have such a fine figure of a woman trapped as a little girl.”  His eyes widened slightly.  “Ooops. Did I say that out loud?"

"Why you selfish pervert! I outta..."

"Getting on with the lesson. I'll let you practice the ‘Dreaded Lust Drain’ on your own. Do you know how I grabbed the nighty?"

"I assume you used a variation of that ‘Dimensional Cloaking’ thing you showed me last week."

"Ha! Wrong! I used the Dimensional Cloak... I mean, right... right, that's what I did. Good boy," Happossai grunted, suddenly in a surly mood. It just wasn't as much fun teaching Ranma when he couldn't show off his superior skills. Now Genma and Soun were a pleasure to teach. He could use all his skills out in plain sight and have those two cowering in awe in front of him. They never learned anything, but that wasn't the point.

"Alright boy, playtime's over let's get done to some serious training. Next is the Mega Glomp..." Happossai continued the lesson. Since Ranma had ruined his fun he was determined to drive his student as hard as possible. He might have to teach the snot-nosed kid, but he was going to pay a high price in sweat. No way was old Happy going easy on this youngster.

Unfortunately for Happossai's happiness, that's exactly how Ranma liked his training.

 

 

Thoth turned his attention to events occurring around one of his followers. One of the standard divine abilities was the capacity for a deity to see and hear events taking place through the senses of those who worshipped him. Since most gods of any significant power had millions of followers it was an ability used with care, even for those gifted with the incredibly expanded consciousness that accompanied godhood. At the moment he was concentrating a significant amount of his attention on the events surrounded one of his more unfortunate followers who was presently located in Japan, an infinite number of dimensions away on Rifts Earth.

The barely conscious man was securely fastened to what appeared to be a reinforced medical chair. An IV sprang from his arm, and multitudes of advanced sensors were attached to various parts of his body. Five guards stood around the edge of the chamber clad in what at first glance appeared to be traditional samurai armor. A more discerning eye may have noted something odd about the armor's joints and face mask. Closer inspection would lead to the discovery that the armor appeared to be sealed, leading to questions as to whether the figures were humans wearing advanced armor, or simply robotic monstrosities.

"My Lord, the prisoner claims to come from some city of magicians located on the Northern American Continent. I had my doubts, but the truth drugs and the monitors seem to confirm it.  We also had a mage cast several truth spells," a human-shaped figure garbed in black reported. The clothing vaguely resembled those of a ninja, the man's voice held a slight artificial tone and the man's stance was far too still to belong to a normal man

The other man was dressed in an elegant black robe, his hair was arranged in an ancient style and at his side was a sword that radiated menace to those with the senses to feel such things. He was keeping a careful distance between himself and the prisoner. It wouldn't do to have to change his clothes so early in the day. "We must assume we can trust our spells and devices. We've used them for decades and our ally, H-Brand, assures us that their new machines will work on any human. Even a worker of magics. If this city, Lazlo, should start to sent diplomats to the Republic of Japan, the New Empire, Ichto, or even that pathetic third rate power Takamatsu, it could upset our plans to destabilize our 'friends'. Too much depends on the situation as it is.”  He grimaced in disdain.  “Another variable is unwelcome. Verify what we've learned and eliminate the prisoner."

"And if others come?"

"Now that we know where to look for them, set guards on the coordinates our friend arrived at. Our Atlantean allies tell us that it is the only place known to the ones from Lazlo well enough to reliably travel to. As long as our plan continues uninterrupted, our agents will be able to throw our enemies into confusion and we should be able to easily destroy them with a little help from our other allies in the Zone."

"I doubt that the Oni will sit idly by while we consolidate our hold over the conquered territory, despite what pacts we've made."

"You bring up a good point. However, we have made arrangements through our Atlantean connections. They say that they are summoning a great power. When this is under their control they will be able to expand their power base. We will be their spearhead."

"Will we delay our plans until they have achieved their goal?"

"That won't be necessary. Even without this 'invincible' power our allies speak of, they have very impressive means of supporting our forces. They will be adequate for Japan and to keep our Oni companions in line."

"That is fortunate. Our agents are in place. It would be difficult to delay our plans for too long. The Republic may prove slightly resistant especially if they have warning, but I think the New Empire, and Takamatsu will fall with relative ease."

"You give the Republic too much credit. H-Brand's technology is every bit their equal. Combined with the magical aid of our allies their resistance will prove futile. As for the other three… well, I agree with your assessment. The New Empire is clueless when confronted with technology. Just as Ichto has no idea of the possibilities in magic, besides, I believe they will stay neutral in future conflicts. They are far too arrogant to fear us, and their attitude has alienated most of their neighbors."

"Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"If the prisoner gives any new information, tell me. Otherwise, I shall assume I won't hear anything more in regards to the foreigner. I will report what you have found to the Shogun."

"As you wish, my Lord."

As the black-robed man left the room, Thoth exerted a small measure of his power. Regardless of the toys and spells the black-garbed ninja used, his follower would never wake among the living again. It was the least he could do in return for the information he had acquired. Unfortunately, it was also the best he could do without possibly drawing the notice of his prey.

He would have to follow this thread carefully. Thoth doubted that Splynncryth was involved. Splynncryth was the Alien Intelligence presently in command of Atlantis, though young by Splugorth standards, he knew enough not to fool around with the Old Ones. However, Atlantis was large and the home of too many greater creatures. It would be difficult to untangle this web if it led to that nest of intrigue and power.

In the darkness of an enormous room sulked a beautiful blonde Deevil Lord. Her ego was still stinging from the blows that a lowly human had delivered to it. Mephisto himself had berated her for hours after the debacle in Rhada's Keep. She was also sure that her fellow Deevil Lords mocked her.

There wasn't really anything the Lords of Dyval could actually do. Ammit made his home on the Ma'ip plane on the dark side of the river Nu'Ak with the rest of the Pantheon of Taut, the land called Neter-Khertet. On the other side of the river was the land of Sekhet-Aanru where the Pantheon of Ra lay. To even think of invading this realm or attempting retribution was the far side of folly. Dyval was already in conflict with the realm of Hades, if anything the presence of Rhada in Hades enhanced the power of the Demons. No overt attack was allowed until a new balance was reached.

This left Leviathan very frustrated. She had tried to assuage her rage by torturing captives, slaying what could be found only after extensive suffering but... it was so unsatisfying. She needed to strike a blow at the source of her humiliation, preferably lethal but she'd settle for merely hurtful until a better opportunity came along.

The main problem was that even though she knew where the human was, she couldn't risk any obvious actions until things settled down. The dimension where her target lived was home to a fair array of gods. Most weren't strong, but there seemed to be quite a few of them.

After many days of brooding, a slow smile grew on her face. She might just have a way to strike at the human without any direct involvement, a temporary measure until true vengeance could be pursued. Gesturing to one of the many Dire Harpies in the chamber, she called it to her.

"I have a mission for you. Travel to Hades and deliver a message to the Lassae demons dwelling there," she casually stated in a tone one might use to comment on the weather.

"But my queen, they will surely slay me..." the deevil was unable the continue her protest due to the huge wailing hammer that had crushed her skull.

Ignoring the corpse lying on the ground she gestured she called over another minion and repeated her instructions. Strangely enough, although panic could be seen in the creature's eyes, no further protest was made.


Chapter 3: Infestation

"Eek! A cockroach!" Ukyo froze at the sound of the dreaded cry. She quickly looked over at the tables where a very short bipedal creature covered in a spiky chitinous shell was viciously beating a customer. The other clients were either engaged in attempting to fend off other similar creatures or running towards the door. Ukyo felt her heart sink, this was incredibly bad for business.

Leaping over the counter she skillfully propelled the creatures into the corner and proceeded to beat the little vermin into oblivion. These bugs seemed to be about as strong as an average man, but Ukyo was a martial artist. No insect infestation was going to attack her customers.

She turned towards the people she had rescued moments before, to ensure they were unharmed. "Are you guys alright?"

"That was disgusting. Don't you have any respect for your clients? I'm calling the Health Inspectors!" the angry, beaten man roared.

"But... it's a fluke. The Inspectors were just here a month ago. They gave me perfect marks! Here let me make it up to you with free Okonomiyaki!" Ukyo cried out in desperation.

"You're going to c... cook with that?" The man turned an interesting shade of green and raced out the door. The sounds of someone being noisily sick were heard soon after.

Ukyo looked around puzzled, "What was his problem?" She was about to put away her battle spatula when she noticed the slime and iridescent green gore that clung to it. "Eww. I guess I can't cook with this. I better clean this stuff up before the inspector gets here. Maybe I should get some of that industrial-strength RAID." Still pondering the ramifications of the day's disaster, she began to gloomily clean up her restaurant. If she hadn't been so intent on calculating potential lost business she might have noticed the people running around in the street outside, chased by numerous insectile creatures.

 

 

Ranma was exhausted, earlier in the day he had come running into the kitchen at the sound of a short scream. On his arrival he had seen Kasumi on the phone frantically calling the exterminators. In the corner he noted a Lassae demon huddled into a corner being systematically beaten by a horde of animated household tools. He may even have felt some sympathy for the creature if not for his own encounters with the ferocious beasts.

Rounding up some rope he securely tied the creature up, and went searching for others. He had come across four more of the things skulking about the house or yard. Subduing them was simple. As demons went they were among the weakest he knew of. Oh, a normal man might have trouble with a fight, but since almost everyone in Nerima knew at least some minor sort of martial arts he was confident there was no real danger.

He gathered together Jess, Akane, Soun and his father and went out to comb the neighborhood for more of the little menaces. Once out in the streets, the hard part began. These things were everywhere. The streets appeared a scene straight from a bad grade B movie. Any moment he expected some idiot in a Styrofoam suit to waddle down the street and fight an equally poorly dressed fake robot.

The work was more disgusting than anything else. The monsters died easily. A blow that would have merely stunned Ukyo, Shampoo, or even Akane, would quite crush the little fellows. Even Genma, coward that he was, didn't fear the ugly bug creatures. But there were so many of them that it had taken far into the evening until they were confident that the streets were safe. During the search they picked up Shampoo, Mousse, and even Ryouga. In fact, they kept on picking up Ryouga, since he insisted on repeatedly getting lost every few minutes. Fortunately, without his uncontrolled teleporting he was relatively easily found.

When they finally arrived at the Tendo house late that night, they were mobbed by concerned brushes and mops that took offense to people walking in, tracking ichor on the floor. Ranma wasn't sure how to feel about this part. On the one hand, it was nice to get that clinging slime off.  On the other hand, he had about enough of being harassed by some damned cleaning utensils. If Kasumi hadn't seemed so happy about having the things around he would have found a way to deal with the things on a more permanent basis.

Once the group was clean, if feeling slightly violated, they sat in the living room and Ranma explained in a more leisurely fashion exactly what the demons were, where they were from and the general way his last encounter in the Timiro Kingdom had faired. For occasional verification, he turned to Cindra, who remembered the first encounter well. Since she still was unaware that Ranma and Ranko were the same person, she was not very flattering in her account of the trial. When Ranma objected to her version, she would ask how he knew of the events. This usually was enough to silence the martial artist. By the end of his story he was resentfully glaring at an oblivious Cindra.

At the end of the narration, Ranma was shocked out of his sulk when a shimmering figure began to form in the midst of the group. The martial artists jumped backward and assumed their various defensive postures. When the blurred image solidified into a six-foot-tall ibis-headed man, Ranma relaxed, aware of the newcomer’s identity. The others were slower in their recognition, Mousse and Ryouga going so far as to actually leap at the apparent monster. They collided in midair as they met where the god's form supposedly was.

Ranma just shook his head. He had assumed it was merely an image when he had sensed the tingle of magic but not the overwhelmingly strong chi signature he had come to associate with gods. Seeing his companions in a tangle at the image's feet made his face red in embarrassment.

"I humbly greet you, My Lord Thoth, Bringer of enlightenment and wisdom," Cindra graciously stood and performed a low curtsy. Ironically since she came from a world where the worship of gods in general, and the pantheon of Ra in particular, was common, she was also the only one in the room that had a clue how to greet a god.

"Greetings, little one," Thoth said politely. He ignored the pile of people at his feet, turning his attention directly to Ranma.

"Hey! What's up?" Ranma asked eagerly. He'd been home for several months and trying to balance his reoccurring foes and his fiancées was becoming rather taxing. Ranma wasn't retreating, but a temporary tactical withdrawal might be in order.

"I have news of some possible leads. When you have your affairs in order we can start on our attempt to flush our foe's conspiracy into the open."

"Well, I guess I could go now. I mean everybody is here, so I could just say goodbye to everyone at once."

"Wait a minute, Ranma" a firm voice interjected. Looking around Ranma noticed with surprise Nabiki staring at him.

"Huh?" Ranma asked. If Nabiki wanted something, someone was going home a poorer man.

"I don't like being in the dark. If you go now we won't know anything until you come back. I think we deserve to be involved a little more in your little fling." Surprisingly the other in the group proceeded to speak up as well, declaring their desire to know what was happening.

"Well... it's really not my decision," he said looking sideways at Thoth, showing far more prudence than he normally did.

"Well, I suppose it can't cause any harm. Of course, I would have to place a geas on all those here to prevent the spread of unfortunate tales. Assuming this is acceptable we could discuss the plans here. After I make a few preparations." He looked questioningly at the people surrounding him.

"Ah, perhaps I should go on some errands. I think Nodoka wanted some things for dinner tonight," Genma stated nervously. Obviously not wanting to be involved in issues dealing with the Netherworld.

"What an excellent idea, my friend. I think I'll go with you and pick up a few things for Kasumi. In fact, why doesn't Kasumi come with us," Soun said with false heartiness.

"Oh don't worry father. I have plenty of food for all of us. Besides, I'm sure Mr. Thoth would like some tea." Kasumi merrily replied, ignoring the fact that it was merely Thoth's image there. Thoth did give her a slightly puzzled look but merely shrugged.

"Oh. All right. I guess we'll get something for tomorrow's meal." The two men made a rapid exit from the house, patting themselves on the back for being considerate enough to help with the chores.

After they had left, Nabiki looked Thoth straight in the eyes and asked, "Alright, everybody who wants to be here, is. Let's hear what's going on."

"Hold on one moment. Considering you have a pair of Dire Harpies flying a holding pattern above your house and a couple of Lassae demons observing the house from across the street, I think I'll place a shield around our location. I doubt it would be good to have Leviathan know our plans. She's too shortsighted to put aside her petty concerns."

"Leviathan?" Ranma exclaimed running over to the window and looking up.

"I doubt you can see her minions from here. If you reach your senses out, you may be able to perceive their otherworldly energies. But they really aren't important right now," Thoth said as his eyes glowed like twin suns. Strange words poured from his tongue, twisting in one's mind, at the edge of understanding, yet finally slipping away from conscious recall. After a timeless moment, a shimmering barrier formed around the inside of the room. Ranma, who was by the window, staring out, witnessed the world seeming to freeze. The wind ceased moving the trees, the few people on the street halted in mid-step.

"There are many magics that can be used to spy on the actions and words of others. This magic has the advantage of removing us from the perceptions of all such parties. Only fourth-dimensional creatures would have the opportunity to overhear our conversations, and I believe I would sense their presence."

"And the geas?" Nabiki asked with some trepidation, unsure of what she had involved herself and everybody else in.

"I included that in the enchantment. Don't worry. It will simply keep you from letting slip any secrets we may discuss."

"Now why don't I find that reassuring," Nabiki said.

"I wouldn't presume to guess," Thoth said with humor in his tone. "Now if the preliminaries are out of the way..."

"Wait a minute! Why is Leviathon after me? Anhur told me the Deevil Lords wouldn't hold grudges against a mere mortal." Ranma objected.

"Well, that is a bit odd. Leviathan has always been petty, with a rather wide cruel streak, but this seems to go a bit beyond that. Did you perhaps catch her attention in some manner?"

"Yeah... she was pounding away at Ammit. She wasn't really winning or nuthin, but I could tell she was delaying us enough that Mephisto might actually get there in time. So I caught her attention, and gave Ammit enough breathing space to go on the offensive."

"Exactly how did you catch her attention?" Nabiki inquired, smirking as she guessed the answer.

"Well, the usual things you say in battle. You know."

"Ranma! You didn't… call her names or something. Did you?" Akane asked, knowing the answer.

"Well, I might have said something about her being uncute."

The females in the group gave a collective groan. "Ranma don't you know that's the worst thing you can say to a woman!" Akane exclaimed.

"So you don't think it was the 'built like a brick' comment or the comparison to an ox? Well, if that's all, she can't be too angry," Ranma innocently stated.

"Ranma, what kind of idiot are you? I'm surprised you didn't call her a violent tomboy. You seemed to have called her everything else!" Akane shouted.

Ranma chuckled nervously, placing his hand behind his neck in an unconscious gesture, "Heh, heh. Now why would I do that? How common are tomboys? I mean you're the only one I've ever seen around here." Ranma froze as it slowly dawned on him what had just come out of his mouth.

The exclamations of "Die Ranma!" "How dare you call Akane names!" quickly followed. Ranma probably would have fared adequately in the following brawl except for the initial hammer blow that stunned him long enough for his rivals to close in on him. Thoth looked on in bemusement for several minutes, until it became apparent that the combat showed no sign of ending in the near future.

"Enough! We have a mission briefing to get through. You can play later." Thoth waited a moment to see if his words had any effect. Observing that he was being ignored, he drew upon his magic, casting an enchantment of his own design. A glowing mist rose from the floor, quickly spreading to encompass the entire house within the temporally active area. Immediately, those rolling, leaping and kicking around on the floor froze in the position they had been in. Many were in an awkward or unbalanced position and promptly toppled over.

The only people unaffected were Kasumi, Cindra, Nabiki, Jess, and Ranma. Kasumi, Cindra, Nabiki and Jess had moved off to the side, none too anxious to get between the martial artist and the object of their wrath. Ranma, who had been the object of that wrath, had been initially stunned and not allowed to recover. He sat a bruised mass, on the floor looking at his frozen companions in bewilderment. And not a little relief.

"Are they alright?" Jess politely asked the god.

"They are fine. The spell simply disabled all aggressors, acts of violence or destruction. In this case, they are paralyzed. Those not engaging in such acts remain unaffected. I designed it some millennia ago during a delicate peace conference. It had more in common with your friend's games than I like to think of."

"What a fine spell!" Kasumi enthused. "Is there any way to make it permanent?"

"What? You can't do that! This is a dojo! What kind of dojo zaps you if you start fighting?" Ranma exclaimed.

"I could but it would be costly for me. I don't really see a need for it quite yet. If supernatural forces involved with our plan take a more active interest in Ranma's origin's I will reconsider. If I do, I will limit it to the house. Ranma has a valid point about the dojo, I suppose." Ranma sighed in relief, his fears temporarily laid to rest. "Now, if you don't mind, let's start the meeting."

"Are you going to leave them that way?" Jess asked.

"Yes. They're much quieter this way. They can hear fine." Thoth stated dismissively.

"Oh dear. They look so uncomfortable. I'll just position them more comfortably." Kasumi then proceeded to sort out the fallen bodies into rows on the floor. It really looked rather disturbing to the watching pigtailed martial artist.

"Oh Ranma! How exciting! Now that those unworthy strumpets are out of the way I can have you to myself." So saying, she flung herself on the startled boy. The pile of paralyzed boys and girls started to emit angry battle auras as this was witnessed. Ranma was even more surprised when Cindra's body stiffened and she fell against him. He caught the girl before she could fall to the floor.

"This version of the spell is strongly dependent on what the target considers aggressive," Thoth calmly explained the girl's frozen state. A slow grin dawned on Ranma's face.

"I think this spell would be very good on the house." I might even get to relax once in a while, Ranma thought. I wonder if I can get Thoth to cast it on Mom's house too, it sure would save on the expense of having it rebuilt every time the fiancée crew went on a rampage. Kasumi took the immobile girl from Ranma's arms and placed her on the floor with the others while humming a merry little tune.

"Now that we are settled down a bit, let's start."  The people left standing drifted towards their seats. “There is another dimension where there exists an alternate Earth. For reasons soon to be explained, we will call it Rifts Earth. Rifts Earth is similar to your world of today about three hundred years after a holocaust. The holocaust wasn't a nuclear exchange, it was rather the demons and hordes of supernatural entities that followed an aborted nuclear exchange. Rifts Earth had, in the past, been a magic rich world. Due to the same disaster which caused Atlantis to fade from your dimension ten thousand years ago..."

"Atlantis was real?" Ranma exclaimed in disbelief.

"Yes. Now be quiet, this gets a bit involved,” Thoth paused to gather his thoughts. “Anyway, the magic energy of both your worlds began to dwindle to the pathetic trickle of what it is today in your world. Like your own world, the science of magic did not survive, leaving only the more mundane mechanics of the world in its place. Sometime in the early 21st century, a limited nuclear exchange occurred. It may have been the start of World War III, but it heralded the end of mankind's dominion of the Earth. The first salvo merely killed a few million, a terrible tragedy, but small on a global scale. The results of this salvo destroyed civilization. The psychic and magical energy released by these simultaneous deaths flowed to the dormant ley lines, swelling them into huge torrents of unfocussed power."

"What's a ley line?" Ranma asked in a confused tone.

"Just as the human body has veins and arteries to carry blood, planets develop lines where the excess ambient magical energy or life force are attracted to and flow across the face of the planet. Your planet is so low in energy that it takes a very sensitive individual to detect these lines. Rift Earth's ley lines are much more impressive and visible, you may also have heard them referred to as dragon lines."

Nabiki nodded but Ranma simply shrugged his shoulders. "Where these ley lines met they pooled their energies into reservoirs called nexus. These bloated nexus ripped the very fabric of the universe opening Rifts into other random and often hostile worlds. No, it wasn't the nuclear weaponry that destroyed humanity, it was the supernatural horrors that came after."

"Didn't they have martial artists to protect them?"

"No, they didn't. Or at least not ones of your caliber. I would think even your group would have had trouble protect more than a town or two. It's simply a question of numbers. The Rifts and heightened magical energy proved self-perpetuating, three hundred years later incredible magical energies still flow across the world along the ley lines. Supernatural creatures still rage across the face of the planet, mostly keeping each other in check enough to ensure no one entity achieved dominion. Mankind is just recovering enough to cobble something together worthy of being named civilization. Humans have learned through hard-fought survival to channel and control the energies known as magic. Similar to the mastery achieved in the last world you were in, though the magnitude of the energy is different. In other areas science has recovered enough to almost achieve the pinnacle it achieved before the Rifts, giving mankind a chance at winning back a foothold on the world they once claimed."

"This sounds like a very dangerous place," Nabiki stated.

"That's okay, I'll show those monsters not to mess with a Soatome."

"Actually the place where you'll be going is mostly inhabited by humans. It is the Japanese analog in Rifts Earth."

"So it's similar to here? But you said…" Ranma started to ask.

"I was speaking of the world in general. Japan is an unusual case. They fared better than most. They were closer to their traditional roots than many others and were able to readapt their religion and what little they remembered ancient magic. Most people still died, but civilization recovered along more traditional lines a mere hundred years later. In other areas technology is making a strong reappearance." Thoth chuckled at a pun only he knew of.

"Back when the Rifts were first formed one of the Japanese cities was experimenting in some very elementary dimensional physics. It happened to coincide with the reopening of the Rifts. Due to some harmonic interaction, several cities were removed from the face of the earth, displaced into pocket dimensions, and just recently returned to the normal space-time continuum. These cities still have their pre Rifts technology. They now get along with the existing anti-technology provinces with varying degrees of success. One of the existing provinces who had rebuilt their own technology from the ruins of the old is not taking the reappearance of these newcomers well. They have made plans that could be extremely harmful to the human-controlled lands."

"What exactly does Ranma have to worry about regarding the non-human controlled land?" Nabiki asked. She may have been greedy, but Ranma was her... well almost... brother in law. It was sounding more dangerous by the minute.

"He most likely won't have to worry much about them. The clues I have gathered point to the more technically inclined. The Otomo Shogunate specifically."

"Shogunate? As in Shogun? Isn't that a bit...backward?" Ranma asked.

"Many have chosen to reorganize along more traditional lines. Shinto has become the major religion in many provinces. The New Empire in particular."

"Wow, they really worship the Emperor?" Ranma asked bemusedly.

"Some areas in the New Empire do, others merely show extreme respect. The Otomo Shogunate is not part of the Empire and is not one of these. If they had a chance, they would conquer the New Empire without a second thought. The petty politics and schemes of the various Japanese states are not your problem. When you get there it wouldn't hurt to know who is who, just so you don't step on the wrong toes." Thoth took a long look at Ranma. "Then again, I suppose some conflict is inevitable. Try to keep it to a dull roar."

"What's that supposed to mean? I can stay out of trouble!" Ranma defiantly proclaimed. This caused Nabiki to chuckle and even Jess smiled.

"Yes. Of course. Anyway, the Otomo Shogunate is conspiring with the Oni and the local source of technology, H-Brand, to unbalance and then take over their neighbors. H-Brand was the major source of technology before the old cities came back. It would be unfortunate for Japan, but unimportant to the bigger picture if this occurred. Except for the fact that certain deals have been made with those in Atlantis. This deal hints at the control of some great supernatural entity in the future. This could be a reference to the Old Ones."

"Or it could be the megalomaniac rambling of a madman," Nabiki pointed out.

"Yes. It's certainly not unknown for the power-mad to make exaggerated boasts. But considering that failure may lead to an inter-dimensional war, the like of which hasn't been seen for a hundred thousand years, I think we should explore this option. It's the best lead I've been able to find after several months of searching," Thoth patiently explained.

"So tell me about Atlantis," Ranma asked.

"It may be a while until you actually get to Atlantis. It will need to be indirectly approached since we don't want to scare our prey into premature hiding. I'll drop you off in Japan and you can make your way to the Otomo Shogunate. Finding out more detailed information will be up to you. I suggest you keep your male and female identities separate. It should give you more flexibility in dealing with people."

Nabiki looked over at Cindra, noting the blank look in her eyes. It could have been merely the paralysis but somehow she doubted this part of the conversation was registering with her.

"Okay, and Atlantis?" Ranma repeated.

"The once-lost continent of Atlantis reappeared during the dimensional fluctuations rampant during the initial opening of the Rifts," Thoth stated, aware it would be faster to explain than argue with the stubborn martial artist. "The original noble, though arrogant, race that once inhabited it has left the Earth Rifts dimension long gone. Replacing them is the Splugorth and their minions. The Splugorth are a race of powerful extra-dimensional Alien Intelligences."

"Splynncryth, the present owner of Atlantis, has always been a very congenial, pleasant sort when we meet. However, I have no illusions of how he treats mortals. Humans usually have short, brutal lives in Atlantis.  When you do go there you will need to tread carefully. Splynncryth maintains control of this new land, mostly watching the events in the world around him. Occasionally his minions raid other lands for slaves. For now, the struggle with other supernatural entities that total dominion of Rifts Earth would require is felt to be not quite worth the effort for him. Make no mistake though; the untold billions that the Splugorth in general, and Splynncryth in particular, name as their minions remain available, waiting for the call to arms on their own worlds."

"Billions? It sounds hopeless," Nabiki interjected. Even Ranma seemed a bit nonplussed.

"The good part is that many of the other Gods and Intelligences that have made their home on that planet have similar resources. They usually keep each other in check. A full-fledged war would destroy the territory they argue over and create ill-feeling with other powerful creatures. This means that usually only small skirmishes and raids are fought. The unfortunate part of this stalemate is that the native humans have very little chance of completely reclaiming their planet in any foreseeable future. I'll give you more detailed information when you actually go there."

"As for your more immediate trip to Japan, I suggest you use your female identity for the diplomatic envoy from the city of Lazlo. You have a more detailed background in the folder." A folder containing a sheath of papers appeared in the air, falling at Ranma's feet. "In short Lazlo is a city in the North American Continent. It is a city mostly dominated by magic, although they have close ties with technologically advanced neighboring city-states."

"They have a fair mix of human and non-human and welcome almost any creature of peaceful intent. They also have quite a few explorers searching the world and nearby dimensions for possible allies. The area they live in has a precarious balance of power, and they live in constant danger from the more violent supernatural creatures and even their less pleasant human neighbors. Their last explorer was killed by the Otomo Shogunate. The Shogunate will be confused as to how you got past their defenses, but not surprised at your presence. In this identity you should be able to make peaceful contact with the New Empire, the Republic of Japan, Takamatsu, and maybe Ichto.  Ichto tends to be anti-magic, so that is questionable."

"The second identity is of a simple hapless dimensional wanderer, who was unfortunate enough to fall through a rift. Since you are obviously of human Japanese descent this is a generic enough origin to be accepted almost anywhere. Unlike your diplomat persona you may not be granted as much freedom or flexibility in the New Empire, the Republic of Japan or Takumatsu. However, your acceptance in Ichto and the Otomo Shugunate should be very smooth."

"What if people actually want to make agreements with Lazlo through Ranma?" Nabiki asked.

"Let them," Thoth shrugged, "I have contacts in Lazlo. As long as the terms are fair, the agreement will hold, when Lazlo is in reality contacted. I suggest you speak with Nabiki first before you close any deal. She seems to have a good head on her shoulders." Nabiki felt rather faint, not at the god's praise, but at the opportunity before her.

"Wait a minute! He’s going to be in another dimension. How's he going to communicate with me?" asked Nabiki, snapping out of her dreams of profit.

"This should help," a thick tome fell in her lap. "The next thing you should know is probably the most important from a mere practical standpoint." A ceramic brick fell on Ranma's head, creating a loud thumping noise. Ranma merely looked at the brick in puzzlement. "Try to smash it, I'll repress the Sanctuary enchantment for you," Thoth prompted.

"Er... okay," a confused Ranma responded. Quickly gathering his chi he brought his fist down on the brick. Ranma was stunned when he recovered from the strike to find the object undamaged. "What? How? What is this stuff." A frustrated Ranma gathered more chi and intensified his attacks on the seemingly impervious block.

"As technology advances, so does the material sciences. In your own terms, you wouldn't expect a gun fired at a tank to inflict any significant damage. Well, this substance is advanced armor from the Japan Ranma will be going to. It is used as armor for land and air transports, personal armor, Robot vehicles, and even buildings." Meanwhile, Ranma had been going mad trying to break the stubborn slab. So far he had only created a fine network of spiderweb-like cracks that didn't go deeper than the surface. Angry at not achieving his goal, he finally struck out with his ‘Breaking Point’ technique.

"Thank you, Ranma. I really needed that," a now dust-covered Nabiki growled out in a sarcastic tone. Ranma ignored her, gloating over his victory of the inanimate object.

"Very good. I hadn't expected you would be able to accomplish that so easily. This will make things easier. I doubt that will work on magical armor though."

"If that world has armor that strong, what kind of weapons are they using to fight each other with," Nabiki asked, not sure she wanted to know the answer.

"They are devastating. For some weapons, the equivalent energy of a nuclear bomb is harnessed," Ranma stopped dancing around in victory, looking at Thoth with a suddenly pale complexion.

"Nuclear? What am I supposed to do against that?" a panicked Ranma cried out.

"A normal human would die if he had no armor or other protection. Supernatural and some magical creatures absorb magical energy like a sponge. Their bodies automatically use this energy to reinforce the body's structure. In short, they become as durable, sometimes even more so than that brick you just shattered. Similar things happen to the creature's attacks. Though stronger than an average human it is not the creature’s strength that causes its considerable damage it is the concentrated magical energy within the creature’s structure which mostly inflicts the damage, although it is amplified by the strength. This is why the pre-Rifts civilization fell, despite their impressive technology and military might."

"They might have fared better if it hadn't been a complete surprise," Nabiki chimed in; she had an idea where his explanation was going.

Ranma didn't.  "What does this have to do with me? It sounds like everyone there will be unaffected by my attacks, and I get vaporized if they lay a hand on me," he loudly complained.

"One of the reasons I chose you is your specific brand of martial arts. The years you have spent using chi to mold your body into the perfect fighting machine has changed you. You now fit into the category of the creatures I mentioned, who will absorb the ambient magical energy to enhance your structural durability. The ‘Breaking Point’ training you have undergone has significantly enhanced this ability as well. The final benefit you have is your curse. Its form, though human, owes its entire existence to enchantment. When in this form, it will add a small but noteworthy amount to your overall toughness and healing."

"I'm going to have the power of a nuclear bomb in my hands," Ranma looked in wonder at his hands, as if they would suddenly be engulfed in atomic fire.

"Really Ranma, that was just an example. Your chi bursts and your punches may contain a similar kinetic force, but there's nothing of actual fusion or fission involved. You need not worry about radiation or fallout when using your abilities. Just be aware that most of the others you meet will have similar abilities. It's a very dangerous world you are entering."

"How do humans survive," Nabiki asked.

"Carefully. Mages have created enchanted armor and weapons. The cities have a slew of powerful weapons, vehicles, and armor. There are even some fighters who have limited chi manipulation capabilities. They all manage to hold their own against the supernatural forces arrayed against them. The most danger this Japan faces comes from their fellow humans, although those humans have allied themselves with Oni. This, of course, discounts the danger from Old Ones and Splugorth, which we may have to worry about in the future."

"Study that folder carefully. I will be back in a week to send you to that world's Japan. In the meantime, I will make the Sanctuary spell permanent, within the house. It will give you a little bit more time to study. The paralysis only lasts a half an hour with this spell version. Goodbye."

With those final words, the image of Thoth slowly faded, as did the temporal barrier around the house.

"This is awesome! I might actually get some peace and quiet without Mousse and a certain Uncute Tomboy..." his diatribe was cut off suddenly. Nabiki looked over to her possible brother in law to see him paralyzed in mid insult.

"Well, Thoth did say the magic depended on what the recipient thought was an aggressive or hostile action. I imagine you and Akane are going to be spending a considerable amount of time not moving in the next week. Wow, I hope I can handle the peace," Nabiki chuckled to herself.  She found it ironic that Thoth had so quickly reversed his decision upon coming into contact with Ranma's friends.

"What did Thoth give you?" Jess moved from the corner she'd been sitting in and walked over to Nabiki. Together they sat on the couch and looked over Thoth's gift. Kasumi started dusting the guests.

"Hmm. 'How To Become A Priest Of Thoth In Ten Easy Steps, written by Thoth'," Nabiki started to read the book, with Jess looking over her shoulder. It promised to be an interesting week.


Chapter 4: Enter the Oni 

Once through the portal Ranma fell a few feet to the ground. The first sensation he noted in this new world was the power. His internal chi, usually firmly under his control, surged and bubbled. This caused a feeling much akin to that of severe heartburn, a hot, painful feeling in the pit of his stomach which seemed to pulse and occasionally engulf the rest of his body. A much more dispassionate observer would have noted the young man standing stock still as a crimson aura seemed to rage around him. The only sign the figure gave that he was alive within this light show were grimaces of pain that flickered across his face, before being replaced with a blank façade of someone concentrating on something the rest of the world couldn't perceive.

Ranma slowly regained his balance. Working with his chi, he slowly brought the flood back under his control. He breathed a slow sigh, as he was able to relax, somewhat confident his internal reservoirs wouldn't burst through their new restraints. He knew he would have to leash his power carefully until he grew used to the sheer magnitude this world lent his abilities. No longer glowing and crackling he turned his attention to the world around him.

He found himself in a clearing of what was a large expanse of forest. The trees were tall and few were saplings. He was no forester but he knew well-entrenched woodland when he saw it. Thoth had refused to inform him where he was sending him, saying his ignorance would be more convincing if it were authentic. Ranma knew he lied very poorly, but failed to see that it would matter if people believed him truly lost.

He was about to set out towards the rising sun when he heard something crashing through the bushes quickly approaching his position. Adapting one of his inoffensive appearing ready stances he prepared to meet whatever creature was making the loud noises. Prepared as he was to meet a large wild animal, or perhaps one of the demon or oni that he had heard roamed the land, he was surprised to see a young girl, looking around twelve, burst through the last bit of concealing foliage and run towards him.

Putting on his friendliest smile he asked her, "Excuse me Miss. I seem to be lost. Could you..." This was as far as he got before it registered that the girl had dashed past him and was entering the woods on the opposite side. He was still pondering her strange behavior when a powerful chi signature practically spun him around. Out of the area the girl had entered now arrived a much stranger appearing creature. The creature was a misshapen caricature of a man. It stood six feet tall, a low forehead giving it a rather Neanderthal appearance. Long stringy white hair hung from the sides of its head, leaving the top empty of covering. The features that first grabbed his attention were the arms. It had five of them. Two on one side of its body, three on the other. The weapons the creature wielded were the next thing that caught his attention. This was a bit more immediate as two sets of swords, an axe, a whip, and a pistol all seemed to be heading towards him.

Leaping under the blades, he grabbed the whip end as he leaped by. Holding one end, he leaped and rolled around what he thought was his first Oni encounter in this world. The creature's feet were tangled, giving him an advantage while he dealt with the threat with uncharacteristic caution. His caution seemed justified when the thing started shooting its weapon at him. Ranma's first impulse was to use his technique to catch the missiles, the strange glow coming from the barrel changed his decision and he smoothly dived out of the way of the barrel's path. This was fortunate, as the gun spit a burst of energy rather than the projectiles he had at first expected. Ranma ignored the subsequent explosions he heard behind him coming from the near-miss.

Knowing that this battle could possibly go on for quite a while unless he went on the offensive, he gathered his chi and leaped at the Oni. The world seemed to stand still as his foot hit the creature with the force usually reserved for his Meteor Kick. The thing flew back as if at the end of a bungee cord, shattering several trees in its path. Upon landing the creature lay still for a moment before struggling to sit up, somewhat stunned by the force of the blow.

Ranma for his part was stunned for a different reason. The kick he had delivered had a lot more force than he had intended. Thoth was serious when he said his normal blows would be amplified beyond all reasonable expectations. Looking behind him, his attention was caught by the devastation the missed energy blast had caused to the trees behind him. Four thick tree trunks were obliterated, leaving the upper part of the tree to have fallen in a random fashion around the blast site. He was thanking his good sense to have avoided the energy blast when he heard a discharge from behind him, followed by several bee sting sensations on his back and legs.

"Ow!" a now irritated Ranma turned back to the Oni who was no longer sitting on the ground. The demon, which had a huge grin pasted on its twisted face, paused in shock. Humans who didn't wear armor weren't supposed to shrug off laser pistol shots. True the pistol was a pathetically puny weapon when used on even the common armor available in the area, but against a practically naked human it should have been more than sufficient.

Ranma was angry with himself. He couldn't believe he had ignored a still active foe like that. He hadn't been this sloppy in ages. He gave himself some latitude for the havoc the ambient magic levels were doing to his senses and concentration, but it still rankled. Growling he sent a small chi burst toward the Oni who seemed shocked by Ranma's continued existence. "Good thing Thoth was right about my increased durability or I would have joined the trees in the land of kindling," he muttered with ill humor.

His mood was not improved when the chi he summoned swelled uncontrollably in his hands before bursting forth at the Oni. Ranma was blown off his feet by the backlash and thrown down onto the now scorched earth. "Great! I'm my own worst enemy," he grumbled as he bounced to his feet again, simultaneously fighting to control the suddenly unruly energies surging within. When he could spare the concentration again, he looked up to see the now unconscious Oni lying in a twenty-foot wide crater. Taking inventory of his own wounds he noted that the sting from the pistol was already fading. Other than the embarrassment in his total incompetence in wielding his standard techniques, he was unhurt.

Walking over to the Oni he saw with a certain relief that it was still alive. Examining his fallen adversary, he attempted to use pressure point healing on the thing. After a few minutes, he shook his head in resignation, stymied by its alien nature. The chi flows in a normal human were lacking, only a chaotic mess of energy flowed through the Oni. Ranma guessed that this was normal for its race, rather than a symptom of some disease. Either way, he had no idea how to manipulate the chi flows for this race for anything but random effects. Still, it was probably merely unconscious.

His theory was proven correct when one of the hands reached out to claw his face. With a smoothness belaying the complexity of the maneuver Ranma caught the appendage and twisted it into a submission hold.

"Ah. Good, you're awake," Ranma greeted him in a congenial fashion, ignoring the hostile glare being leveled at him by his erstwhile opponent.

"Arg, damn human scum," the creature grunted and soon descended into an intense string of curses. His ranting was only ended when Ranma tightened his hold.

"Where are we?" Ranma asked, unwilling to spend more time than he had to in the monster's presence.

"We're in the freakin' woods, you imbecile. Ow! Ow! Stop it! I'll tell you what you want to know!" the creature howled.

"Good. Now the name of this place is..." Ranma prompted.

"I don't know what the humans named the damned forest. It's on the border of our territory."

"What's the name of the human territory? I'm losing patience." The martial artist stated brusquely.

"It's the New Empire. What kind of idiot are you?" the demon couldn't resist prodding.

"The kind that can break you in little evil pieces. Hmm, the Empire. Oh well, I guess it's time to change. Oh, and you. Go away, if I find you in human territory again I won't be as kind." Ranma gathered up the weapons, making a point to crush the pistol. This was probably not a wise idea as the little weapon exploded in his hands as he destroyed the energy source. The departing Oni snickered at this attempted display of might, while Ranma glared at him absently rubbing his stinging hands.

He was in a foul humor when he heard a familiar crashing in the woods. Acting quickly he removed his bracers for a moment before splashing himself with water from his canteen. Moments later as she replaced her bracers she again witnessed the young girl race out of the bushes. This time instead of rushing by, she grabbed Ranma-chan's hand to pull her along.

"Hurry! We have to leave! There's Oni all over the place." A despairing look came over the girl's face. "They killed Mama and Papa! Run!" The girl cried out desperately.

Ranma-chan was regretting letting the Oni leave alive, but if the girl needed help she was going to provide it. "Don't worry. I ran off the fellow chasing you," she tentatively patted the girl on the shoulder and was shocked when the girl leaped at her and hugged her with desperate strength. "Er... there, there," Ranma-chan babbled awkwardly, not sure what to do with the girl clinging to her.

"Do you have relatives you can go to?" she asked, trying to keep her mind of the immediate situation.

"Not around here. Papa used to talk about a cousin in the Emperor's court, but I never met him." The girl mumbled into Ranma-chan's chest.

"Well, I happen to be going to see the Emperor. I'm sure someone knows who your cousin is," Ranma-chan said distractedly.

"Wow, you know the Emperor?" the girls squealed, temporarily distracted from her grief and fear.

"Not really. But I'm an envoy from Laslow... er, Lazlo, and I hope he'll make some time to see me. Yup, sure would be a pity if I couldn't see him. Then I couldn't do my envoy thing." Frankly, Ranma-chan had only the vaguest idea what an envoy did. She was rather hoping she wouldn't be allowed to meet the Emperor. She had no idea what she'd say if they did meet.

"Hey did you see some guy around here. I think I ran past him a little while ago."

"Guy? Oh, the guy! He ran after some Oni. No doubt he's heroically defending the helpless right now," Ranma-chan took the opportunity to pat herself on the back in a vicarious fashion.

"Are you sure? He didn't look very heroic. He just slouched there, and looked stupid, while I ran from the Oni," she stated with some doubt evident in her voice.

"I did not... I mean, I’m sure he was just so good he didn't need to seem scary. Why he took on the five armed Oni all by himself!" she boasted.

"So, is it dead?"

"Er... no. It got away. But it was running scared." More like walking away sneering, Ranma-chan thought guiltily to herself. Next time I'll be more thorough. I had no idea the things were so deadly to the populace. Admittedly, it had an impressive aura, but it went down so easily. Probably easier than any of the demons she had fought would have gone down had they been in this world. Probably any supernatural creature here had an impressive aura. It would take some practice to properly judge an opponent’s power level again. "So which way is the Emperor?"

"I think he lives south-west somewhere," the girl said in a subdued tone.

"Well, all right let's head that way." After waiting a moment she continued. "We can't really go anywhere with you hugging me like that."

"Sorry," the girl mumbled from the depths of Ranma-chan's chest but gave no sign of letting go.

Ranma-chan finally had to settle for carrying the smaller girl on her shoulders. With the almost limitless energy and endurance that this world granted the supernatural, she had little difficulty with the added weight. Several times they ran across lesser Oni, usually smaller creatures with the heads of foxes, pigs, or other woodland creatures. It really creeped Ranma-chan out. It was like watching a parade of examples of Jusenkyu gone wrong.

The first time the little girl, Komar, screamed in Ranma-chan's ear in terror. The fearful child's wailing was replaced by amazement as Ranma-chan quickly set her on the ground and leaped towards the Oni. It only took a few blows to lay the little menace out on the forest floor. Ranma-chan was reluctant to kill the weak creature while it lay helpless. If it had happened to die during the battle she was sure she would not have felt any regret, but to slay a harmless foe, even if only temporarily so, was an almost impossible step for her to take.

Deliberating for a moment, she gritted her teeth and broke each bone in the creature's arm. Feeling somewhat disgusted at herself her gathered up the girl and began walking again. Komar's only question was to ask why he had allowed the Oni to live. Ranma-chan spent the rest of the afternoon in a vain attempt to describe her behavior and code of honor. She got the impression the child admired her strength but was baffled by her 'soft' ethics. She had entered a vicious world, she hoped it wouldn't rub off too much. Once killing came easily it was a hard habit to break. Her old man may have been a petty thief and con artist but he had warned Ranma of these moral pitfalls. She was even fairly confident that they were an area where he had actually practiced what he preached.

The next couple days passed in a similar manner. The largest band of Oni he encountered was a group of nine. The most difficult part was keeping Komar safe during the altercations. She had an almost uncanny ability to be where the Oni were. This encounter occurred within hours of picking up the girl, but rapidly became rarer as they neared the more civilized part of the Empire. At least Ranma-chan assumed that was the reason for the decreasing number of monsters. The last few encounters had ended with the Oni fleeing at the sight of them. It was possible the creatures in the area had spread the word regarding the unnatural and vicious redhead.

She had yet to see any other humans aside from herself and the girl. Still, civilization must be near. They were traveling on a dirt road clearly meant for humans rather than trails made by forest animals. Ranma-chan wondered aloud at the sanity of Komar's parents to bring her out to such a dangerous place. Komar vehemently disagreed when she brought the subject up.

"My parents weren't crazy! The Oni only started getting this aggressive recently. Before last week we hardly ever saw one. Papa used to drive away the ones we saw with a magic bow a wizard made for him. It was really neat. He used to pull back an invisible string an' a flaming arrow would appear. I miss Papa and Mama," she ended her defense of her parents with a sniffle.

Ranma-chan quietly apologized and hugged the girl for comfort. At first, she had been at a loss to deal with the frequent outbreaks of grief and emotions that the little girl was prone to. Desperation had forced her to experiment, finding hugs and kind words would stop the tears quicker than anything else. She found that it wasn't too awkward to show some affection toward the smaller girl. After all, there was no chance of it being mistaken for other than an innocent gesture. Well, she supposed Akane would think the worst, but... well that was just how Akane was.

Ranma-chan also entertained Komar with small colored spheres of chi she would summon and juggle. The first night she only did this as an exercise in control, finding more challenge than she liked in keeping the energy stable. When she saw an enchanted Komar staring at the display she got a little fancier, added a few more spheres and flashier moves. Komar especially enjoyed the part where they exploded in her face. She laughed and laughed, making even the bruised Ranma-chan smile in the shared humor. She wasn't sure but she thought Komar had believed it was part of the show. Ranma-chan didn't enlighten her, she just summoned more balls and started again.

It was on the second day, while she was murmuring soft words to the distressed girl that they finally reached the first small village.

 

 

Ryouga looked around. Ever since Ranma had come back from his travels Ryouga had felt as if he was being watched. He had been able to ignore it while Ranma was around, the almost constant sparring and havoc centered around Ranma was excellent in distracting him from other problems. Now that Ranma had run off on another mission for some god or another it was becoming harder to ignore. The sensation was still there despite Ranma's renewed absence. Without Ranma to act as the focus of the general Nerima insanity, events were mundane, even slightly boring. Ryouga had few distractions to prevent him from noticing it. It had to be Ranma's fault.

After a few days of idleness, the oppressive feeling became greater and greater. Ryouga began to look around him with uncharacteristic nervousness, sure there must be a cause for his sudden paranoia. A conviction slowly began to overtake him. Since this had started when Ranma had returned, Ranma must have some way of stopping it. After a few hours mulling over these thoughts, he came to a decision. With great deliberation he began to unfasten the ankle restraints given to him by Anhur.

"Ranma, when I find you I'll have my answers if I have to beat them out of..." the last part of his statement was interrupted by a column of light which engulfed him as the last band of metal was removed. A moment later Ryouga was gone.


Chapter 5: A Deluge of Samurai

The first hints of civilization were the partly flooded fields of rice. This was a comforting sight to Ranma-chan who had seen similar things on his travels through Japan and China. Fields meant people and people meant something besides scavenged plants and fish to eat. She may be capable of living in the wilderness for long periods of time, but that didn't mean the quality of life was anything to write home about. She could go for the type of meals Kasumi made on a regular basis, even some fried rice or Akane's curry would be a welcome change. With this in mind she stopped at the first field that had people working in it, crossing the ground while scattering seeds in their wake.

"Ahem. Excuse me do you know a place in town where we can get some food. A restaurant or inn?"

"Restaurant? Our village is a bit small for city stores, but Narumi-san has been known to give a bit of hospitality to a stranger. Her hut is that little building off in the distance. No, the one next to that one." Giving a bow in thanks, Ranma-chan headed in that direction. The meal Ranma-chan received was simple but satisfying.  Komar didn't eat much but Ranma-chan more than made up for it. A small gold coin seemed to satisfy the villager. When Ranma-chan asked for directions to the Emperor in Kyoto, she received directions and a warning.

"I'd be careful in the next province," Narumi stated in a cautioning voice. "The Overlord in our province and most of the provinces in the New Empire are hospitable and fairly run. The quickest way to Kyoto, the directions I told you about, go through the province of Lord Ito, he died recently leaving his sons to dispute his title among themselves. It's a pretty unpleasant and dangerous place to be right now, especially for foreigners. I have no doubt the Emperor will straighten things out at the next Imperial Council, but that's not for a few months. Are you sure you don't want to go around it?" she asked, giving Ranma-chan a questioning look.

"What makes you think I'm a foreigner?" Ranma-chan asked curiously. She was acting as a foreign diplomat but she was curious why this woman believed she wasn't a native. As far as she could tell their accent was almost identical to her own.

"Well, it's kind of obvious. You have the language down perfectly, young lady, but the hair is very obvious. There just aren't any red-headed Japanese people in our country unless you count the poor misguided fools in the Japanese Republic and the other New Cities who dye their hair."

"Hair? What's hair color got to do with being Japanese?" Ranma-chan asked while self-consciously fingering her pigtail.

"Well, I guess you haven't been around people that much. Native Japanese people have black hair. It the natural color of our people. Unless you have the poor taste to dye." Narumi informed her in a condescending voice.

Ranma-chan nodded blankly. It didn't make sense to her. Sure most Japanese people she knew had black hair. Her original male form had black hair too. To say that all Japanese people had black hair was going a bit far. She knew lots of people who had blue, pink, purple, brown, or blond hair. Some of them would get violent if you questioned their ancestral purity. Obviously some sort of mutation had occurred during the catastrophe several hundred years ago and these misguided people didn't realize what their original ancestors had looked like. Ironic, considering how traditional the rest of the New Empire seemed to be.

"Well, I better head out to Kyoto. I'll be careful when I pass through Ito's province," Ranma-chan said in parting, not wanting to worry the kindly woman.

As Ranma-chan neared the more populated areas of the Empire the fields became closer together and huts turned into real houses. Mostly of modest size but no longer one or two rooms. The more affluent people lived in the traditional peaked, shingled homes with the decorative cornices. Nerima was populated with similar, though slightly more modern versions of the same houses. The city they were presently in even had a sufficient population to support several houses that seemed to specialize in services or goods. By asking some discrete questions Ranma-chan was able to find his way to the central area which seemed to be a merchant's square.

Ranma-chan felt the itching sensation that signaled the presence of magical devices. She noticed several people wore robes, pouches or other items that had the telltale sign of enchantment on it. Most of the carts were of the mundane sort, with horses or mules drawing the wooden frame behind them, but a few were of a more interesting design. There were several intricately designed platforms that practically made Ranma-chan's pigtail stand on end. These stood floating several feet above the ground and passively followed the barked directions of the merchant or 'driver' in charge of it. Komar didn't give them a second glance, indicating that these were common devices, not merely the toys of the rich.

Ranma-chan found one stall selling trinkets and jewelry willing to exchange a few of her smaller gems for the local currency. Feeling a little more comfortable fitting in with the odd mixture of traditional and alien they moved toward a stand selling several kinds of simple prepared foods, along with samples of the local agriculture. Some fruit didn't seem native to Japan leading to the ironic thought that some non-traditional items were kept even after the cataclysm. Ranma-chan nodded to herself in approval. A culture had to have some priorities, she thought while chewing a rather expensive apple with no small amount of satisfaction.

A commotion by one of the further stands caught her attention and she casually wandered over to where the noise was. Standing menacingly over one of the female merchants was one of the guards dressed and armored in the ancient samurai style. This warrior seemed to be demanding something from the woman. It wasn't until Ranma-chan approached the scene that she was able to hear the merchant's reply.

"My apologies, Honored Warrior, the Samurai of Lord Toshio have already taken the money for this month. I have nothing to give you," the woman declared in a begging tone, obviously bewildered regarding the proper response to the situation.

"Lord Noboru is your proper liege Lord. The fact that you gave your earnings to an outlaw is not Lord Noboru's problem. That you cannot give him his proper due will be yours. Do you still insist that you cannot pay?"

"I couldn't tell them no! They would have killed me! Please have mercy!" the woman cried out, collapsing into a heap at the feet of the man.

"Never the less, since you will not obey Lord Noboru's laws, you must be punished," the armored man stated, placing his hand on the hilt of his katana.

Ranma-chan had heard all she needed to, she stepped forward between the two people. "Leave the poor woman you cheap samurai wannabe! Those two idiots you guys work for should deal with their own problems before taking out their stupidity on their own people." Ranma-chan angrily exclaimed. Few things could infuriate her more than people picking on those weaker than they were. Picking on helpless women was one of those things.

The samurai stood still in shock for a moment before yelling in rage. Almost before a man could react he had drawn his sword and aimed a lethal strike at the red-haired bitch in front of him. Ranma-chan could almost admire the man. He was almost as fast as Kuno. This was impressive, Kuno may have been a raving loon, but his skill with the sword was not something to be ignored. Unfortunately for the man, the time that Ranma-chan could be hit with a sword had ended when she was fourteen.

Knowing that dodging would endanger too many people in the tightly packed market place, she decided to take a risk. It was dangerous to use this maneuver with such a skilled foe but it was probably safest for those around her. As the sword came towards her she reached out, creating a small clap of thunder as her hand breached the sound barrier, and clasped the blade between her fingers. The sword was brought to a sudden halt several centimeters before it would have reached Ranma-chan, who winced slightly at the painful burning sensation she was experiencing from contact with the enchanted weapon. Weapons were bad enough, magic weapons were really starting to irk her.

"Say goodnight you armor-clad bozo," Ranma-chan smiled sweetly as she used a carefully aimed Chestnut Fist to shatter the magic enameled armor of the samurai. The warrior actually managed to block several of the hundreds of blows aimed at him. This raised him significantly in Ranma-chan's estimate but did little else except make Ranma-chan's blows tear through the arm protection, and ensure that she accidentally broke his arms too. With his arms dangling limply at his side and Ranma-chan still holding the sword motionless between her pinched fingers, she sent the warrior into unconsciousness by gently slamming the sword's hilt into the man's forehead. She had to be careful, unenhanced humans seemed far too fragile in this world. A new tingling arose from the fallen man, as an amulet around his neck gained a soft blue glow and to emit a shrill, high pitched whine.

Looking at the crumpled heap before her she dropped the katana next to the man. She had a brief thought of shattering the sword as a gesture of contempt, but entertained it only briefly. The warrior may have been a pathetic excuse for a human, however, he had earned the bare beginnings of respect for his martial skill. It wasn't easy to block even the fraction of the Chestnut Fist. It also helped that the damn sword was enchanted and Ranma-chan hadn't the faintest idea how to break it. Her hand still ached slightly from just touching the blade.

She started looking around for the woman she had rescued only to find her rapidly crawling away. "Hey! There's no need to run! He won't be bothering anyone for a while," Ranma-chan attempted to reassure her.

"Forgive me, mistress, but his fellow samurai will be here very soon. It would be foolish to be here when they arrive," the woman stated, now picking up a few things from her stall, peering nervously around. "I thank you for rescuing me, but if I wish to live I must leave. More will arrive soon. You should leave too. Quickly," she stated in a low urgent whisper. Looking around she noticed most of the other people in the market square were closing their shops, their haste expressing their near panic.

"How tough can they be? This fellow was better than the Oni I've met on the road, but wasn't that tough," Ranma-chan boasted.

"He was one of the younger guards. His fellow guards will be here soon," the woman was now talking over her shoulder as she rapidly walked away.

"Er... how many?" Ranma-chan asked, a tinge of uncertainty entering her voice.

"Lord Noboru's warriors number about twenty..." the woman began.

"Ha! Twenty's nothing, I can deal with twenty," Ranma-chan said exuding confidence. Sure that was a lot of warriors, given the skill shown by the one at her feet, but with Cologne's and Happossai's training she felt confident in her abilities.

"...but since you are an outsider Lord Toshio will no doubt make a temporary peace with his brother and bring his own twenty or so samurai against you," she finished as she ducked out an archway leading out of the square.

"Forty? I guess... I can... forty?" Ranma-chan started to get worried. At that moment there was a thunderous sound of horses and ten mounted men rode into the square through the archway opposite that which the woman had exited. The faint sound of more people behind them could be heard. An all-out brawl with Komar in the middle seemed unwise at the moment.

"Saotome Combined Special Final Attack: Now You See Me, Now You Don't!" grabbing Komar up and carrying her beneath her arm Ranma-chan used Happossai's Dimensional Cloak technique. Drawing forth her chi, she drew it like a cloak around her. Then twisting it in a directional she had only recently learned to perceive, she drew the two of them out of phase with the rest of the world. As she did, she dimly sensed objects she guessed were arrows passing through her now invisible and immaterial form. As if from a distance, she heard the horsemen shout questions at each other. Before one of them could find a way to pinpoint Ranma-chan's position she ran out of the market, passing completely through the previously solid objects in her path.

Ranma-chan had to hand it to Happossai, the little pervert seemed to have the perfect escape technique, better even than the Way of the Silent Thief. Too bad it was so energy-intensive. She found it hard to believe the old man was able to use the stealth method long enough to do anything else, let alone spy on the women's bathhouse. Besides being exhausting, all her senses except her chi sense were muffled. Useless in combat, but combined with the Saotome Special Attack, it had its place.

 

 

Ryouga landed on his feet and was slightly irritated to be ankle-deep in crushed rock. His feet had that stinging sensation associated with landing flatfooted after an ill-conceived jump. Unlike a certain pigtailed martial artist, he had far less practice falling at terminal velocity. He had already been working up a full head of steam against Ranma, so it took very little to redirect his anger. Someone was going to be in a world of pain.

Cracking his knuckles he looked around, seeing some old guy in a crimson robe who seemed to be in the middle of a speech that either was supposed to be threatening or devoted to patting himself on the back. He couldn't really tell. Around him standing in a semi-circle were about a dozen stone creatures standing at rest. If it weren't for the stories he had heard from Ranma he might have believed that they were merely inanimate statues.

"...knew you would arrive eventually, the trap set for your companion demon contained a device that would resonate with your essence when he came in contact with you. You may have resisted my call for a few months, but I knew you would eventually weaken and when you did this twin amulet would draw you into my control." The old man held up a familiar-looking chain and medallion.

"Hey, that looks like the thing Jess gave Ranma when he got back to our world! I knew it was his fault! It always is!" Ryouga stated with dark satisfaction. There was a grim comfort to be found in having the foundation of your beliefs constantly reinforced.

"What are you talking about? It was I who organized your capture. I who will spill your blood for my Emperor and my Empire. Your death will herald a new age for the Western Empire. It is foretold that the death of the Lost One will ensure our triumph." The old man was in a world of his own, obviously dreaming about great things to come.

"How about I herald your broken limbs?" Ryouga snarled. No one made fun of his sense of direction. Stepping forward he found himself slamming face-first into an invisible wall. Looking down he realized that he stood at the edge of a great, glowing circle. The circumference of the circle coincided with the unseen barrier.

The old man cackled in glee, "Did you think I didn't learn anything from my failure to hold the first demon? Ha! You'll find this circle devised specifically to hold you. There is no escaping your fate. I was too lenient... too soft with your companion. I won't make that mistake again."

"No, I guess you'll make others! First I'll deal with you, then I'll handle Ranma!" So saying Ryouga brought the flat of his hand slapping down to strike the ground before him. "Breaking Wave Tsunami!" he shouted. Immediately a ripple spread out from his hand, passing through the barrier without any signs of diminishing. More and more quickly similar and increasingly large ripples flowed outward until those around Ryouga seemed to be trying to stand amid the waves of a wildly raging sea. Only the center point where Ryouga knelt held any sign of stability in the moving landscape. The walls around the courtyard and the palatial residence beyond withstood this assault for mere seconds before explosively crumbling into rubble. The very ground, unable to maintain integrity within this turmoil, broke apart setting off chains of explosions similar to a series of breaking points that followed the leading edge of each ripple.

When the havoc had settled down a much calmer Ryouga stood up and looked around with some satisfaction. Ranma had surprised him with an inferior version of this attack. The next time they had fought Ryouga had shown Ranma what a real master of the ‘Breaking Point’ was capable of. It was fortunate that the battle had occurred far from the city. Ranma was correct in saying that their attacks were getting far too damaging to be used indiscriminately. It's too bad this attack hadn't taken Ranma out, but he had come pretty close to winning... okay maybe not winning... fighting his rival to a standstill... before Ranma had pulled out a surprise trick he had learned from Cologne.

Stepping over the now broken circle he walked through the ruins of the mansion. He didn't notice the pained groan coming from the area the mage had been buried, but he did pause long enough to grind the medallion that had brought him there to dust beneath his feet.

The golems didn't even slow him, shattering into pieces after the deft application of several ‘Breaking Points’ to each with the end of his umbrella. Madmen and idiots who attacked Ryouga with creatures of stone and rock deserved a swift end. It was almost as satisfying as beating Ranma... well not really, but probably as close as he'd get for a while. A real stress reliever.

Out in the street, several townspeople either hurried away or hurried towards the almost level ground that had once held the home of the Emperor's High Summoner. They took little notice of the boy wearing a bandana, who strolled out of the ruins lightly swinging his umbrella and whistling a merry tune. If they had, they would have seen him turn around a corner and slowly fade from their dimension.


Chapter 6: Soul Drinker

The black-haired girl looked guiltily around the room. A conflict of thought was occurring in her mind. On the one hand, she technically wasn't allowed in either the locked section of the library or alone in the shrine. On the other hand, she was the most gifted of her clan and therefore had a duty to protect them. It would be unthinkable if one of her family were to be harmed because she wasn't brave enough to follow her convictions. Besides, she already had stolen the required books from the library. Her family was temporarily away, either on various missions, errands, or simply visiting friends. This might be the last opportunity she had to set her mind at rest and learn what she needed to protect her family.

With a final grunt of resolution, she placed the relevant book on the ground and began drawing the ritual circle on the shrine floor. She was confident in her ability to summon what was needed. After all, she was the most accomplished at magic and fighting in her family. Oh, sure she specialized in spell magic, but she knew the theory behind rituals and circles. All it took was a bit of patience and some talent.

It was unfortunate that most overly confident people are blind to their own faults; otherwise, the young girl might have noticed that patience was actually not a quality she possessed in abundance. When she had been drawing the circle with exquisite care for over an hour a sense of frustration began to come upon her. Scowling to herself she forced herself to move a little faster, the symbols and archaic words she drew became slightly less defined. The chalk lines that she knelt over to reach the area she concentrated on became the smallest bit smudged. When she completed the circle over three hours from when she started she looked over her work with satisfaction, oblivious to the small details that might make the circle less than perfect. An experienced Summoner or Shifter would have looked upon the work and immediately erased the thing from existence; the girl simply smiled and began the chant to activate the circle.

To be honest, it was truly an impressive first attempt, surely only a magical prodigy could come so close to correctly working the enchantment laid that night. Many a Summoner's apprentice had indeed worked with worse. Of course, summoning is a dangerous art, and losing a careless apprentice now and then to demons and other occupational hazards were only to be expected.

As the final words of the spell fell from her lips the girl witnessed a shimmering glow appear in the midst of the circle. The glow slowly coalesced into the form of a vaguely humanoid shape. The spectral figure slowly looked around the shrine, its gaze finally falling upon the girl kneeling in front of it.

"Who do you summon?" the figure said in a hollow tone.

"Why don't you know me, grandfather? I called for your wisdom."

"Of course, I know, granddaughter. After all, I am your grandfather," the subtle irony in the tone was lost upon the entranced female.

The girl's gaze became slightly unfocused as she stared into the eyes of her summoning. Almost against her will, her eyes were drawn away from the misty figure to a picture of her grandfather sitting on a shelf on the other side of the shrine. When her eyes returned to the circle she found that she could make out the distinct features she knew so well.

"Well, little one, what can a departed spirit do for those still living?" Even the voice had lost the hollow echo that had been dominant moments before, now it was the deep, warm tones of an elderly man.

"Our family is in danger, grandfather. The Oni are becoming more aggressive. I've heard rumors that our Emperor has had attacks perpetrated on his person. I need to know why this is happening and what I can do about it," she said faintly, it was hard to concentrate, but she had gone over this in her mind so often that she was still capable of stating her request. It was so nice to have grandfather back. Now everything would be all right. He could make everything okay.

"It is fortunate you summoned me, little one. Grandfather has all the answers. You are so wise and brave to undertake the actions necessary for the good of the clan. There is one demon behind trails and tribulations plaguing the land. But it is a clever demon for it has taken the form of an innocent appearing redheaded girl. Once this creature is destroyed all will be well for our family. They will love and respect you for making those hard decisions they were unable to. For saving this land from its troubles."

"Yes... save the land... respect..." a faint look of determination entered the girl's glazed eyes.

"You knew there was a simple explanation for all the things wrong in your life. You are the only one who can see the solution. The destruction of this monster will make everything better."

"... everything... better..."

"I must leave you now, child, I will leave behind an object that will lead you to this demon. As long as you wear it you will be able to find the evil one. No matter how it appears you will be able to see the true evil hidden within." The figure of the old man faded from sight leaving behind a girl looking dazedly at the circle, empty except for a black bracelet of seemingly constructed of twining serpents.

 

 

The tall spindly humanoid looked at his notepad's display and solemnly shook its head. The large orbs that composed his eyes looked unblinking at the list of errands, notes, and chores to be accomplished that day for his master. A long black tongue snaked out to caress the serrated fangs that made up the creature's assortment of teeth. So much to do. A Highlord's job was never done. It was hard work to keep his master's favor, but the power he wielded in his position made up for much of the labor involved.

"...there's also the Goqua known as Gearalthou. He seems up to his race's typical tricks again. He masqueraded as an Old One and strong-armed the population into blood sacrifices.  He almost drained the civilization to the edge of collapse."

The huge circular pool of slime the Highlord stood in front of bubbled and frothed, finally erupting in a spray of drops that coated all those in the chamber. The humanoid stoically wiped the sludge from his face and display while he waited for his master's convulsion to subside.

A sphere twenty feet across slowly rose from the thick liquid. The iris in the globe the only clue that this was a creature's eye. As the sphere rose higher it could be seen that the eye was attached to a central mass from which long tentacles sprouted. Small spikes several feet long grew in circles around various appendages and four vicious-looking bony spikes encircled the central eye, guarding it from the world around it.

"That is very amusing. Maybe we should invite Gearalthou to Atlantis, it sounds as if he would be an entertaining fellow!" the horror in the pool stated.

"Er... My Lord Splynncryth... that might not be wise. Gearalthou actually did this on one of the worlds belonging to Sleecryth. He's very upset with Gearalthou and has vowed to chase him to the ends of the Megaverse for destroying so many of his cattle. The inhabitants of his world were considered a delicacy to many Intelligences."

"Hmm... okay, don't invite him. Sleecryth has a lousy sense of humor and I think his judgement is failing in his old age. I think he might be insane enough to bring his army to my home." The voice grew silent for a moment, only an occasional bubble showing that the creature was active. "Given this turn of events, why are you informing me of this?"

"Gearalthou has wrangled an invitation from one of the Pantheon of Set to stay here. Apparently, many think his antics are amusing. I thought you should be warned of the possible conflicts."

"This could be awkward. My legions could probably take Sleecryth's if he did something unwise, but there wouldn't be much left of this half of the planet. Not to mention that a conflict of that magnitude would disrupt my dealing with the other powers presently on this world. Make sure Gearalthou's presence stays as quiet as possible. Better yet see if you can convince him to impersonate another Intelligence while he's here."

"Goqua's have a tendency to rebel against authority figures," the Highlord warned.

"Good point. Send a Sunaj representative. They are weak enough to hopefully not trigger its rebellious nature. Besides they're more expendable than you." The Highlord puffed up at this backhanded compliment. "It takes centuries to train a competent administrator. I really regret that I killed your predecessor. It seemed funny at the time," a burbling sigh erupted from the pool. The Highlord's shoulder's slumped, his ego deflated.

"It's too bad we can't convince Gearalthou and Sleecryth to settle their differences in a death match in the Arena. That would be real entertainment. It's getting hard to be enthusiastic over a bunch of over evolved apes and other assorted mortals killing themselves for my entertainment."

"They do provide a great deal of entertainment for tourists and the merchants that visit us. We can try to capture some higher beings for the Arena, but as you know, it can get politically sticky when their patrons find out."

"Bah, never mind! One of the reasons I love this world are the fun conflicts happening all over this planet. That Gargoyle/Human war in Germany is very amusing. You just can't get a ringside seat to really exciting genocide just anywhere in the Multiverse these days. Well... unless you instigate it," Splynncryth grumbled.

"There is one other item I wish to talk to you about, Master Splynncryth. The Demonlord Abdul-Ra sent word that he will be visiting you in the near future. Apparently, his girlfriend has gotten the urge to have a human as a pet. No accounting for taste."

"I think humans can be vastly amusing. Just not in the Arena, they just don't last long enough. Their little wars, especially on this planet, are like a microcosm of the greater universe. And if things get out of hand and they are wiped out, you just move on to the next group. So, Abdul-Ra is bringing Rhada here?"

"Yes master, remember the scandal their relationship caused?"

"Yes, I collected quite a bit on the bet I made. It was great fun... well I suppose Rhada wasn't happy, but... that's entertainment. Leviathan must be quite upset."

"I understand that she isn't allowed to make any overt hostile move for the time being, but she is furious. She seems angrier at some mortal who was involved, but that could be an act to put Rhada and Abdul-Ra off their guard."

"I doubt she's that subtle. I'm sure she's merely petty. Leak the information that her former captive will be a guest here in Atlantis. I'm sure her attempts at a covert revenge will be immensely amusing. When both sets of our guests arrive, be sure to offer them our best hospitality. Include servants with our modified symbiotes. With them in place, I'll be able to watch through their eyes. And a good time had by all," the slime bubbled and fizzed with the Splugorth's amusement.

 

 

Ranma-chan was getting tired. Not physically, but mentally. It seemed that in this world her body could labor away indefinitely. The same couldn't be said for her patience, it was definitely on a short fuse.

Ranma-chan ducked under the sword blow heading towards her, and touched her armored foe with an outstretched finger. She concentrated on forcing a part of her chi to translate into sheer physical force and send the kinetic energy into her adversary.

"Butterfly Kiss," she shouted.

Her opponent's body immediately flew straight back as if hit by a truck. Ranma-chan's finger stung a bit. She supposed the aftereffects of the technique were the reason why Happossai used a pipe as a focus. Still, it was an excellent method to rid oneself of minor irritants. She had been making a point to use non-lethal techniques on the warriors that were hunting her. Unfortunately, these people must have been related to Kuno. They just kept on coming.

Hearing the thundering of hoofs on the road behind her she turned towards the sounds to see another group of ten riders rushing forward. If this kept up she would have to do something drastic, Komar was all right for now, hidden in the underbrush by the side of the road, but several times she had come close to being hit by these 'samurai'. Ranma-chan stood in the middle of the path and watched calmly as the horsemen closed. When they had approached to within twenty feet she unleashed another technique.

"Bean Jam Blowout!"

A funnel appeared from her hands and the chi energies swirling between them. Quickly expanding it engulfed the small horde before her. It easily lifted the warriors, as well as their steeds up in the air several hundred feet, spun them around until even Ranma's practiced eye could only discern a blur, and lightly deposited them about a half-mile away. Those that actually landed on their feet, immediately fell flat on their back, unable to deal with their wildly spinning world. Several threw off their helmets and armored masks and were violently sick. The horses seemed mostly unconscious; they may have been the fortunate ones.

As she was turning back to Komar she noted a rustling sound coming from her other side. Although she sensed no enemy's chi, she somersaulted rapidly to one side. She was rewarded by witnessing the sword stroke that swung through the space where she had once stood. Upon landing Ranma-chan looked towards her attacker, seeing who she had expected.

"Masayo! Why do you keep bothering me? I know you're not sworn to those losers, but you've been following me for days!" Ranma-chan shouted in exasperation. Masayo was actually a very good fighter. Before her recent training, it may even have been an equal fight. Even with her training, Masayo actually got a few lucky blows in. She noted in the back of her mind that she had a different sword than she had the previous times they had met.

"You will not deceive me, foul demon. I know you to be a kidnapper and collaborator of supernatural horrors," Masayo declared with fire in her eyes.

"Huh? Kidnapper? I didn't kidnap no one! I saved Komar from the Oni!" she yelled while dodging and parrying the sword strikes aimed at her. Masayo was much more skilled than Kuno, and by the way, she made her itch so she must be loaded with magic. That would certainly explain her speed. Outside Tarou and Cologne he had never seen anyone who could match her speed, but this girl came close. She guessed a spell similar to her ring of fleetness was responsible. She also was somewhat at a loss as to how to deal with her. Ranma-chan knew she had a hard time fighting girls. There was just a part of her that couldn't bring herself to inflict injury to a helpless girl. Ironically Shampoo was probably the only female she had come close to breaking this rule with. The horrible results of the breach of her honor only served to reinforce her reluctance.

This girl was fast and skilled enough so that pressure point strikes were no guarantee, were, in fact, more likely to expose her to a return strike. Ranma-chan wasn't sure, but Masayo may have had an aura field or force field of some sort. Chi strikes were too unreliable, either requiring too much focus for non-lethal precision or simply being too powerful in this new unpredictable world.

While Ranma-chan was pondering her options a lightning strike from Masayo gave her a glancing blow to her shoulder. In this world where her body was ridiculously resistant to damage it normally would have been ignored as a scratch. This strike was different. As the sword touched Ranma-chan's skin it seemed like a horrific force ripped through her, giving her inner self and chi an agonizing wrench before reluctantly letting go. Ranma-chan went stiff with an inner pain she had never experienced before. Her grasp on her chi failed completely, resulting in an enormous flash of energy. This was fortunate because Masayo was preparing for a follow-up strike on the frozen martial artist, which would have slid through her suddenly non-existent defenses.

When Ranma-chan came to her senses she was on her knees in the middle of a large burnt crater. Masayo was struggling to her feet, still somewhat stunned by the unexpected release of energy. Ranma-chan ignored her, the shock of the sword's attack on her very essence thoroughly dampening any sympathy or guilt she might feel for the girl.

Staggering to her feet she made her way over to where Komar looked on with worried eyes. Picking up the girl she walked as fast as she could into the woods. A moment later she heard Masayo shout in anger, recovered enough to realize her target was absent. By that time Ranma-chan herself was recovered enough to leap into the trees and head away as fast as she could leap. She had no idea what that sword had done, but she had the conviction that she had barely escaped from a fate worse than death and was not anxious to repeat the experience.

In the road behind the martial artist, the warrior known as Masayo looked intently into the forest where here quarry had disappeared. She had almost had her. The sword had informed her that it had almost drawn the soul of the creature out in its entirety. Once that happened the combat would have been over. The demon destroyed beyond any chance of return or resurrection. She had been so close.

Giving a low growl of anger she turned her attention to the warriors who were just now approaching the battle site from their landing. Shaking her head in disgust she headed into the woods. She knew they had their own reasons for the chase. She didn't care. In her mind, their only relevance was to flush out her prey. They were competent against minor supernatural nuisances, but against a major supernatural foe one needed the right tools. She didn't know why the creature didn't kill them long ago, but they served their purpose.

Turning her mind back to the battle she analyzed the battle. The demon was very resistant to the sword's attack. This didn't worry her too much. True, the creature would be destroyed in one blow if she succeeded in capturing its soul, but even if the creature resisted each attempt, it would get weaker and weaker with each strike. She guessed the thing couldn't take more than three or four such blows before dying. She wouldn't be surprised by that pathetic explosive diversion again. She had the tools and thus the responsibility to take care of the situation. Rune swords were rare, but few other weapons allowed humans to deal with the greater supernatural menaces plaguing Japan. It had taken a bit of work, gaining access to the family sword, but it was well worth the effort. She would save Japan from this monster. Her family would understand her actions when she came back a hero. A Demon Queller’s work was never done.

A soft hissing sound whispered soothing assurances from her wrist.

 

 

Ranma-chan's wound was healing with excruciating slowness. In the few days she had been in this world she had grown used to the phenomenal rate of recovery she had enjoyed with the few wounds she had suffered. The sword's damage had taken several minutes to stop bleeding and hours later it was merely scabbed over. Fortunately, her chi reserves had replenished themselves more quickly. Consciously focusing her chi combined with pressure point therapy had sped up her physical healing to almost normal. She estimated that in an hour or so most of the damage would be gone. At least the physical damage.

Whatever that sword had done had been terrifying. It was as if something had walked into her innermost being and started to haul it out of her. She couldn't allow it to hit her again. Ranma-chan started to prepare for her next battle with intense concentration. She was training in a technique she firmly believed no man should ever employ. She was trying to convince herself to strike a female. She would almost prefer to let herself die... but not quite.


Chapter 7: Thoughtless Memories

The two girls were walking at a brisk pace through one of the more densely populated villages they had come across since their chase had begun. It was peopled enough to warrant the title of civilization, perhaps on par with the past towns Ranma-chan had seen while touring the countryside with her father in China. She was still reminiscing over her travels when she was engulfed in a wave of cold water.

The drenched girl looked at the old woman in frustration. It had to be some kind of cosmic fate thing. People sometimes mocked her for getting hit by the Tomboy's strikes. That was all right, it was all part of the stamina training Akane was helping her with. The fact that Akane was unaware of her role was unimportant, and would probably upset her if she knew. This however was… just unbelievable. It seemed no matter where she went some old woman was throwing water at her. Worse, she never even became aware of it until it struck.

Komar didn't seem to mind, though since she rode on Ranma-chan's shoulders she was more often than not soaked as well. The only thing she could figure was it was part of the curse. After all, her senses were finely honed. Only the most skillful or magical fighters or creatures could even hope to surprise her. Unless it involved water. Once that irritating liquid came into play all bets were off. The bracers may have temporarily negated the humiliating gender change, however, water continued to find its way to her.

"Oh... dear. I apologize. I didn't see you there. I was just taking care of the dust on my porch. Gets so dusty about now, you know." The old woman said as she noticed the two girls in her path.

Ranma-chan looked at her in amazement. The evil old woman had actually apologized to her. That was new. Usually, they just splashed her and ignored the consequences.

"Er... hi. It's all right. Accidents happen. Heh, heh." Ranma-chan felt as if she was in the twilight zone. Her life was odd by anyone's standard, but some things she had come to expect. Still as long as the old woman was being polite it wouldn't hurt to return the curtsey.

"Why don't you two come inside. It looks like you've been on the road a bit. Besides after the mess I've made the least I could do is give you a cup of tea."

"Sure. Tea is always welcome, besides I think Komar could use a rest from her rest. She's been napping all day." She swung the groggy little girl down from her shoulders and led her inside. Ranma-chan thought she had a fair lead on the psychotic with the sword, so a short rest wouldn't hurt. She might be untiring in this world but Komar was exhausted by the pace she had set.

As they sat at the low table inside, the old woman brought out a kettle of hot water and several cups. Nodding towards the ornate napkins she gestured for them to place them on their laps. Ignorant of most customs Ranma-chan ignored the gesture until Komar gave her a hard nudge and exaggerated placing the napkin in her lap. Shrugging Ranma-chan grabbed her napkin and followed suit. She barely noticed the slight tingle the cloth gave her in her hands. What was a little more magic in this saturated land? When the woman went to refill her drink and ended up spilling the water into her lap, she simply sighed. It was pretty much what she had expected.

"Oh, dear. I am simply so clumsy today. Let me bring you some snacks to make up for that. Hmm... there we go. I'll get some more when you finish that. So, what brings you to this town?"

"I'm an envoy for Lazlo. I'm here to see the Emperor. Hey, these are pretty good! I like the little symbols on the biscuits. They look really neat. By the way, we're not in Toshio or Noboru's territory, are we?" Ranma grunted as she devoured the fish and rice in front of her. The old woman just shook her head in a good-natured fashion and brought out some other dishes she had in the kitchen.

"This is... gulp... really nice... hmm, that's good... of you."

"Thank you. No, you're actually a good distance away from that poor chaotic province. The Emperor is just a few days down the road in Kyoto. You don't strike me as the diplomat type. Who's this Lazlo to send a young girl alone to do this kind of job?"

"Hey! I'll have you know I'm perfectly capable. I was chosen for this job because of my martial arts skills. I may not have a bunch of fancy manners but I can kick the butt of any monster stupid enough to get in my way!" Ranma-chan boasted.

"She's really good! I've never seen a fighter who can do what she can! I want to be a martial artist when I grow up and beat up monsters and save people just like Ranko," Komar squealed excitedly, coming awake enough to join in the conversation.

"Aren't you a little young to be out in the world, young miss?" At this question, Komar's happiness seemed to instantly drain away and her eyes begin to fill with tears.

"M...Momma and Poppa are... are... dead." She began to silently cry. Ranma-chan seeing this, gave her food a regretful look, then pulled the child into her lap for a hug while the young girl calmed down.

"I came across Komar to the North. That seems to be a border that the Oni think is theirs. I was too late to save her parents though. Komar says she has distant relatives in Kyoto so she's traveling with me," she said softly.

"Ah. These are indeed bad times. Can't be too careful about things these days. It's good to see that she has a beautiful young lady as a protector," the woman nodded sympathetically.

"Hey watch who you're calling a beautiful..." Ranma-chan's protest died as she remembered her cover. It may be useful but she really hated being a girl. Less than she used to, but it's hard to be a man when everyone's complimenting her on her femininity. "...I mean, I'm just shy..." she finished lamely.

"Anyway, it's good to know we're so close to Kyoto. Say... if some deranged Samurai were, for no particular reason, chase some poor soul out of their territory would other Daimyo and their Samurai... er, chase these people too?" Ranma-chan subtly inquired.

The woman gave her a knowing glance, "Assuming a death wasn't involved most will ignore what takes place in other Provinces, unless the Daimyo or Emperor specifically request aid. Can you tell me there were no deaths?"

"Not unless they've since tripped and fell on their swords," Ranma-chan mumbled under her breath. They really weren't that bad for swordsmen. Before her training with Cologne and Happossai she would have been hard-pressed to handle twenty such warriors, let alone the forty she had chasing her. To the dismay of her opponents many of the techniques of the Amazon Matriarch and the old… er, young pervert were designed to clear the playing field of the less skilled to facilitate competition between two beings of similar power levels. The lech, of course, abused these skills to steal and escape the resulting mobs or put his disciples in their place, but the principle still held.

In a louder voice, she giggled in a saccharin sweet tone, "Oh I was asking out of curiosity. It has nothing to do with me." Satisfied that she had thrown off her questioner, she noted that Komar had calmed down enough that she could resume her interrupted feeding frenzy.

The old woman across from her just shook her head in disbelief. She was unsure if the young girl was joking or if she really expected her to believe what she had just spouted. She didn't seem like a simpleton. Maybe she was just naïve, though a person would have to be raised by wild bears to be that ignorant of rules of social interaction. Not to mention a really lousy liar. Considering how her hands were almost invisible while hovering over her plate it was obvious her physical skills weren't lacking.

"Well, I guess we should be leaving now. Thanks for the meal, it was delicious."

"It was the least I could do to make up for my clumsiness. Oh, by the way I happen to know some people in Kyoto. I could write a letter to introduce you. I'm not sure if they have the connections to get an interview with the Emperor, but it might make your acceptance as an envoy a little smoother," the elderly woman modestly said.

Ranma-chan froze, while a letter would aid in her cover identity, she really had no desire to actually meet the Emperor. She had no idea what an envoy did and anything that placed her in that sort of position was to be avoided. As far as she was concerned Kyoto was simply a good place to get the lay of the land and think of a plausible reason for working her way to the Otomo Shogunate. Thoth may have given him two background cover identities but had helped him very little in any other way. On the other hand, the old woman did say that her contacts probably wouldn't really make a difference in getting an interview.

"Uh... okay?" she said uncertainly.

The priestess smiled in satisfaction. The young girl may have had a large amount of mystic energies hanging around her but she seemed benevolent, if a bit slow when it came to people skills. She had shown no reaction to the blessed water, even seemed to take the treatment with a somewhat good nature. The napkin with the wards sewn into them likewise remained inert as did the biscuits. She would have said some prayers over the meal, she vaguely remembered that being a foreign custom, but considering the lack of reaction her earlier tests had shown she didn't want to go overboard. It was odd, she could have sworn the magic she sensed from the girl had been water-based, yet it had remained quiescent through her tests. Oh well.

She smiled at the recollection of the letter she had sent. It was so nice to be able to help those in need. It was the reason she had become a priestess those many years ago, and she had never regretted her decision. Oh, the Emperor surely would have eventually met with Ranko, but who knows how long the poor girl would have had to overcome hurdles of bureaucratic red tape. She could take comfort in the idea that she had reduced the time to a mere few days. She just wished she could see the expression on Ranko's face when she learned of her good fortune.

It was the next day when she noticed a heavily armored female warrior dressed in the classic Demon Queller style. She was about to politely greet her when she noticed an unhealthy aura surrounding the girl. Acting on impulse she splashed her with the water used the previous day. She was about to go into her apology speech when she noticed that a serpentine bracelet was smoking and sizzling from the contact to the water. The girl seemed about to glance down at her wrist when a glazed look entered her eyes.

"S...sorry about that missus. Didn't see you there."

The girl turned to look at her glassily. "That's all right. Have you seen a red-haired demon about so high," she asked while gesturing with her hand, becoming more animated as her attention moved from the bracelet.

"A red-haired demon? No, can't say I have." The priestess had been studying the girl as they talked and was coming to an uncomfortable conclusion. She was obviously under the control of some spell or supernatural entity. Unfortunately, she was in need of more than a simple banishment spell. The bracelet seemed to act as some sort of anchor or conduit and nothing could be done without removing it first. She had no illusions regarding her abilities, alone in battle she stood no chance of success against the powerful Demon Queller. She could feel the strength of the girl from her aura and it was significant even without the enhancement the serpent talisman offered. The muted emanations coming from the scabbard fastened to her back sent shivers down her spine. It would require significant strength to remove the focus and it would have to be done by someone with a power greater than her own.

"Well, I'll be off then. Gotta save the world you know," she stated with some cheer.

The old woman stared at her back sadly. She was relieved to be out of the presence of overwhelming power, but it was a shame that such a young girl was under the control of such an evil force. Demon Quellers dealt with many malevolent forces. It was disconcerting to see one that had been overwhelmed by such powers.

Turning back towards the entrance to her home she clapped her hands. Almost instantly a young boy scurried from the rear of the house to stand before her.

"I will need you to run a message to Kyoto. An entity has control of a Demon Queller. She could do much harm if not handled properly. It would be best if she could be saved, but from the power I felt from her, we may have to eliminate her. I think she's too good at her trade to safely subdue. Bring me a quill and parchment, you can run the message to the Monasteries and Daimyo on the way to the Emperor. The Shogun will advise the Emperor on dealing with the problem," she paused in thought. "My grandson has discretely handled similar trials. Oh, and take the communications crystal with you in case they wish to speak with me," she sighed. "Sometimes I wish I hadn't chosen to live in seclusion." Even in retirement she couldn't ignore this menace.

 

 

Ranma-chan felt a sense of foreboding flood through her. She paused in her journey to look behind her. She had felt this way before and had come to regret the times she ignored the warning it represented.

"Komar, go hide in the bushes down the road. Better make that on the other side of the hill. I don't feel anything overtly dangerous from that direction and I need the freedom to use my greater attacks."

"Be careful Ranko," the young girl whispered while scurrying down the road, eliciting an absent-minded nod from her red-haired companion. Several minutes later a familiar figure on a horse rode into view.

Ranma-chan just opened her mouth and let words flow from them, "Hello Masayo. Every time I see you, you have something new. Nice horse. I'd stop to chat but our conversations always seem so limited." Her mind was concentrating on the approaching warrior, gathering clues to her actions.

"Die Demon Spawn!" shouted the mounted girl while waving her deadly blade.

"Yep. Knew she'd say that." Rotating her hands before her she shouted, "Bean Jam Blowout!"

The expected whirlwind began but was drastically cut in its effectiveness by the opposing wind which seemed to have its source at the sword. Although not totally negated, the chi attack did little more than stagger the mount and rider. At another gesture of the sword Ranma-chan found her feet securely attached to the ground.

"Shit! I hate that spell!" As the horse closed upon the immobile martial artist she came to a decision. She would just have to hope that she was tougher than the approaching lunatic. She thought she was, but you never truly knew until the moment of truth.

"Break Away Point Ground Zero!" Ranma-chan shouted while touching the enchanted ground at her feet." The entire area encompassing the pig-tailed girl erupted in an explosion that left nothing for twenty meters around the origin except a dust filled pit forty meters in depth.

A rather stunned and very battered martial artist found herself clinging to the edge of the pit. Looking around she whistled to herself. The effects of that version of the technique was only supposed to reduce the enchanted area around her to powder, with perhaps a small concussion as a side-effect. At least that's what it did back home. Ranma-chan had felt her chi surge uncontrollably at the last moment before she completed the technique but was still surprised at the results. She'd screwed up several times at home and hadn't achieved these effects. Looking around she attempted to find her foe or her remains. She was warned by a slight change in the air pressure behind her. Flipping up and over the lip of the crevasse, she came to her feet several meters from edge facing the danger.

Suspended in the air stood Masayo, sword deeply embedded in the ground where Ranma-chan had hung a moment before. Although the martial artist was surprised at her opponent's unexpected versatility she did not waste time admiring her. Taking advantage Masayo's momentary preoccupation, she leaped forward, landing a chi empowered kick on the struggling Demon Queller. A barrier prevented the kick from actually touching the girl but a sudden lack of resistance told of force field that had been removed. In a way, Ranma-chan was grateful he hadn't used a Meteor kick. The preparation time may have allowed Masayo to recover her weapon, even though the sheer damage the kick would have inflicted would likely have ended the fight. Keeping the maniac away from the weapon was her first priority.

Keeping between the sword on the hovering girl she confidently approached her. Without the deadly blade, she was sure she could end this fight quickly. She was thus not prepared when an intense gust of wind from behind her blew her off her feet and straight into a spell Masayo had obviously been prepared to trigger. A blue glowing network of energy encased the airborne martial artist, wrapping around and pinning the girl's arms and legs together. Unfortunately, her momentum remained unchanged resulting in her impacting an unprepared Masayo. In a jumble of limbs, the two enemies fell to the bottom of the crater.

Although the recent turn of events had been a surprise Ranma-chan was experienced in using accidents for her own benefit. This combined with a relatively short distance of the fall allowed her to maneuver herself to land on top. As expected, the landing caused little damage to Ranma-chan, Masayo likewise shrugged off the impact forty meters had resulted in. Cursing herself for yet again underestimating her opponent Ranma-chan quickly twisted her body where it lay and repeatedly brought her bound feet down on the head of the recovering Demon Queller. The first blow shattered the protective headpiece the girl wore. The second caused the girl's eyes to cross. The third rendered her unconscious.

Sighing in relief Ranma-chan turned her attention to her own predicament. The spell net that bound her held her more securely than mere rope or chains could. Finding even chi enhanced physical force useless, she tried activating the Dimensional Cloak. To her dismay, she found the immaterial bindings following her when she sidestepped out of reality.

Grumbling in mounting irritation she thought over her options. She could teleport home, though who knew where she would end up. She would have to start this journey all over again, and the damn mystic net might even follow her there. Besides she couldn't very well leave Komar here by herself. She could try to blow out of it with sheer chi force, but Masayo would probably not survive her effort whether or not it actually worked. She wasn't prepared to go that far to get free and keep the deadly little pest out of the way. She bet the sword could cut her bindings, but knew she couldn't leap forty meters straight up with her hands and feet restrained.

Hearing a low moan come from the slumped figure beside her she grimaced. She had thought the demon hunter was out of action for longer. Rolling and wriggling like a caterpillar she arranged her body so it lay crossways on the unconscious girls. Straining a finger through her mystic network she attempted to press the point responsible for inducing a deep sleep. The only problem was it was next to other points and was very awkward reach without clearly seeing it…

Suddenly the body under her stiffened and the unconscious girl's left foot shot out, her knee catching Ranma-chan in the face. Cheek slightly stinging from the blow she tried again. This time an elbow sprang up embedding itself solidly in her midriff. Gasping from the unexpected shock she moved her fingers to a new location and tried again. The moaning and quivering of the girl's body stopped, giving way to a contented snore.

Bringing her attention back to her predicament she continued thinking. Running through her options she wasn't pleased with her choices. There was one technique that would probably work, but it wasn't meant to be used on oneself and would be exceedingly difficult to employ without free movement.

A glow of focused chi began to surround her body, slowly concentrating on one finger. With a swift movement of the digit a small blade appeared, quickly moving in an arc away from the fallen martial. The chi blade left a gaping hole in the magical restraints and continued forward to create a clean incision over the surface of the stone before slicing into the rock face at the bottom of the crater and disappearing from view.

Ranma-chan nodded in satisfaction. The Vacuum Blades from her father's Mountain of a Thousand Fists had finally found a constructive use. She knew that from now on she would never need scissors again. Still smiling at the irreverent thought, she carefully summoned several more small blades to clear off the remains of the spell.

Kneeling at the side of the fallen girl she called forth several items from subspace and began to put her plan for the girl into play. With any luck, it would keep the Demon Queller out of her hair.

After reaching the top of the pit she dropped Masayo off next to the ledge and headed to the sword. There was just no way she was letting that maniac leave with that sword. Even with her fangs pulled, it was terrifying to think of the damage the Demon Queller and the sword could accomplish.

When she reached her hand out to touch the sword a painful hiss escaped her lips. An agony of a lesser but similar nature as her previous encounter with the weapon assailed her senses. Pulling her hand back from the hilt she rubbed her aching hand against her shirt and stared at the sword.

"There is no way I'm going to let some maniac wield an essence sucking monster like you. Especially since I learned you can act on your own. Heh, almost lost today because of your little surprise. But I beat you and that's all you can expect when going up against Ranma Saotome, you trumped-up butter knife. And furthermore I... I... I'm talking to a sword," she stopped herself in mid-rant, struck by the absurdity.

"Oh well. Since you don't have a Breaking Point, are probably indestructible, and I can't touch you, that leaves me with one option."

Picking up the still unconscious girl, she ran over the hill and dropped her up by Komar with another warning to stay put. Going back to the crater she used the Breaking Point to cause the lip where the sword was embedded to collapse, sending the sword to the bottom of the hole. Backing away from the edge she concentrated for a moment to ensure the correct application and shouted "Breaking Point Revised, Cascade Avalanche Strike!" Wave upon wave of explosions burst forth, creating a straight line of devastation as it progressed away from the pig-tailed martial artist. Working her way carefully around the perimeter worked to collapse the crater on top of the sword until only a large dimple in the landscape hinted that a large hole once existed. That, and the complete lack of flora and fauna in a large circular area.

"Well... it'll grow back... eventually," Ranma-chan muttered to herself.

Masayo woke up feeling refreshed. That was nice. What wasn't so nice was her complete lack of memory as to what she was doing here. She looked around her and noticed a couple of girls sitting about ten feet away staring at her.

"Excuse me, do you know where I am? By the way, who are you?" she asked somewhat puzzled by their presence.

"We're about a day from Kyoto. It's over there," the redhead stated warily.

"Oh, don't be afraid. I'm after an evil demon. I won't hurt you," she assured the obviously nervous girl.

"That's very reassuring. It eases my mind knowing that," the irony of her tone lost on the newly woken girl.

"Have you seen any demons around? It looks like... like... well I'm sure it's obviously a demon looking thing."

"Can't say I have. I did hear there was a monster over there, down the trail some," she gestured to the road heading away from Kyoto, "I'll be on the lookout though."

Masayo looked down the road for a moment. When she did turn back she noticed there were two girls she hadn't noticed before sitting on the grass next to her.

"Er... sorry I didn't notice you there. I've got to go, there's an evil demon out there I have to deal with. I heard it went that way," Masayo stated, firm in her conviction, before marching down the road.

The two girls stared after her in silence for a few minutes.

"Wow. That technique is really scary."

"Yeah. And the woman I learned it from is even scarier."

 

 

The force empowering the bracelet was enraged, no matter how often it prodded its tool it would go astray. At least five times that day it had directed her towards the target. Five times they had met the target only to politely greet it and continue on her way, oblivious to the target's identity. It would then take several hours to direct its tool back towards the target and the situation would repeat itself. If the magical serpentine conduit could move it would have bitten its tool repeatedly out sheer frustration.


Chapter 8: Trading Spaces

Nabiki sat at the in front of the television letting the sound of the stock market status report soothe her as she paged through the book that described the procedures for accessing her link to Thoth. Jess was over at Cologne's ramen shop, having successfully convinced the Elder that training a potential ally in the lower level chi techniques wouldn't give away any Amazon secrets and could create significant goodwill with a large, if distant, organization. Even Shampoo was willing to help a fellow female martial artist, so long as she continued to show no interest in a relationship with her 'husband'.

It was getting hard to concentrate around the house. Over the year since Ranma had arrived at her family's dojo, bringing his special brand of madness with him, she had become used to the constant background sound of things breaking. The sudden silence was unnerving, not to mention distracting. Kasumi didn't seem to mind. In fact, she seemed to thrive on the sudden peace. Nabiki was happy for her sister but thought she might be enjoying it a little too much. Though the lack of repair costs were a distinct positive.

A sudden merry humming distracted her from her thoughts, drawing her attention back to the world around her. She sighed as she noticed what her sister had decided to dust. A small, quickly smothered chuckle escaped her.

"For 2000 yen, I can take you out to the dojo," listening closely to the silence that followed her offer she said, "I'll take that as a positive."

Walking over to where her sister was working she said, "Here Kasumi, let me take care of this, it doesn't really suit the living room anyway." Kasumi nodded happily while directing her animated cleaning crew to other areas of the house. Meanwhile, Nabiki turned her attention back to the 'art' she had been referring to. Taking hold of the stiffened form of her wealthy houseguest, she carefully tipped her back and started to drag her out the door to the dojo. It was slightly difficult because her guest had her arms extended in a clawing gesture. Whether this was the opening move of a catfight or the start of a spell Nabiki didn't know. She'd never actually seen the results since it always ended in paralysis before it was finished.

"You know Cindra, I really don't mind dragging you around. It pays well, but you might consider taking your arguments out of the house first. Hmm, hold on I'll be right back." Walking back into the house she stood in front of the still form of her younger sister, fists raised and an angry glare in her frozen eyes. "Since you're family I'll only charge you 1000 yen for this... unless you want to be dusted again? All right then." Tipping her sister over, she repeated her previous performance, dragging her sibling outside. She left the two figures facing each other in the middle of the dojo and went back to the living room to continue studying the book.

Jess would want to study it when she got back in the evening. It was uncomfortable reading with someone looking over your shoulder so she tried to stagger her study periods. She had been tempted to charge Jess for access, but Thoth had made it clear that anyone who wished to learn was to have unrestricted access to this book. So far Nabiki and Jess were the only two to take advantage of the offer but that was to be expected, after all they were the only ones who had bothered to find out what it was. She liked it that way; the idea of sharing was... unnatural. The idea of sharing with the newly youthful Cologne was just creepy.

She was just settling into reading when she felt a prickling along her nerves. Looking up from her book she examined her surroundings, at a loss to what could make her feel this way. A soft crackling noise focused her attention on one of the corners in the room. The roar of thunder and flash of light that followed brought her to her feet so quickly the book fell haphazardly to the floor. When her eyes had recovered from the sudden light she noticed an envelope on the floor.

Walking warily over to the parchment she was relieved to see the impression of an ibis icon on the wax seal. Thoth had seemed benevolent, more so at least than the other gods Ranma had described from his journeys. Nabiki privately wondered if Ranma might come to regret his agreement with Anhur. From the research she had done on the god's pantheon, Anhur didn't seem the pinnacle of goodness and light. In fact, the other gods in his pantheon were known to be outright evil. Anhur himself was known to be honorable and not prone to irrational fits of violence and destruction, still he was far from the side of angels. Ironically Thoth was technically on the side of angels, since he belonged to the Pantheon of Light. How he and Anhur became companions was a mystery, though Thoth did have a reputation for neutrality.

Breaking the seal, she opened the envelope and started to read the letter. Nabiki almost jumped from the shock when she heard Thoth's voice accompany the words she read. Stopping, she whirled around to find the source of the sound. The voice stopped as she took her eyes from the parchment, looking around wildly she sheepishly noticed that she was alone in the room.

"Magical messages. Figures," she muttered to herself, checking again that there were no witnesses to her embarrassment. Seeing she was alone, she again picked up the paper and continued to read.

"Greetings, my potential disciple. Anhur contacted me. Apparently Ranma has run into a situation he has no experience with. In order to even hope to pretend to be an envoy he needs coaching that you are most suitable to give him." Nabiki gave the parchment a puzzled look. Ranma was a dimension away. This may not seem far to beings like gods and lost boys but to the more mundane it seemed a significant barrier. The voice continued as her eyes followed the text, "Being the charitable person you are, I suppose you're wondering how you can help the poor boy. Rest assured I will grant you the abilities you need, the answers to this and more are on page 200,045 of 'How To Become A Priest Of Thoth In Ten Easy Steps'." Nabiki grimaced, it sounded like a phrase from that Dianetics cult from America.

She was on her way to open the book when the page number struck her. She was positive there weren't more than 200 pages, how the heck was she supposed to find such a ridiculous number. She needn't have worried, as she turned the pages towards the rear of the book her eyes widened in surprise as she found more and more pages. There were chapters on subjects so esoteric she couldn't even understand the titles let alone the subject. Shaking off her fascination, she kept turning the pages until she reached the one referenced by the message.

"The ABC's of contacting another god's champion without calling down the wrath of God," Nabiki sub-vocalized. Turning the page, she saw, "Top one hundred most valued products of Lazlo." The page after this rather extensive and fascinating (to Nabiki at least) chapter was, "Top one hundred most valued products of the New Empire." Eagerly turning the pages, she found the following chapters blank, the book continued but there was no further writing. Frowning in faint disappointment she continued back to the previous chapters to peruse her favorite subject. Economics.

 

 

Ranma-chan paced back and forth across her suite. She went over in her mind the events of the last few days. Where exactly had she lost control? It seemed so simple. Find someplace to stay in the city, use diplomatic status as an excuse to get the lay of the land, and then leave before anyone important noticed her. What could possibly go wrong?

She should have realized that the seemingly nice old woman was evil incarnate. The other old ladies just splashed her and ignored her. She should have started running as soon as the old biddy had actually spoken to her. She just hadn't realized how vicious she truly was.

It had seemed all right at first; on the way into Kyoto she passed under that monstrously huge thing they called a tree and everyone had pretty much ignored her. Oh, sure a guard had asked her business, but he had been polite about it. Even after an escort of two had been assigned to her she hadn't thought anything of it. After all, at home, no one met with the Emperor, especially with such a silly excuse. It would be like some guy with an accent going up to the White House and telling the guards he represented Australia and stopped by to have tea with the President, oh and could he wrestle Mr. Turtle to demonstrate the superiority of his countries leather goods? It just made no sense! As soon as they got to the Palace he gave that letter from the old lady to the guard at the entrance. That's when she had been dropped into hell.

The hell wasn't physical, after all, she'd been there and although the creatures were ugly and had serious halitosis, it was just another physical threat. Ranma Soatome ate, figuratively speaking, demons for breakfast. This was a hell of the nonmaterial kind. Pops had never stressed social interaction, as far as Ranma-chan knew Pops had no idea how to relate to anyone else except another martial artist. Well, the 'Crouching Tiger' technique might be considered a social skill, but Ranma-chan had serious doubts about that. Going into a traditional restaurant and having the people cater to her whims and hang on her every word, constantly bowing and spouting what an honor it was to serve such a fine customer made her incredibly uncomfortable. Not that it happened that often, considering her Pops chronic lack of funds. They were more likely to beg or fight for their meal. That's the kind of social interaction Ranma understood.

After she had delivered the letter the guards had started acting funny. Bowing all the time, running around on numerous god-forsaken errands for her. The only good thing to come out of their activity was the huge meal, which Komar and Ranma-chan had proceeded to thoroughly and efficiently devour. It had only been scant hours later in the bath that she had found out that the old lady was the mother or grandmother of the Shogun. Worse yet, in the morning she was to meet the Emperor. How do you talk to the Emperor? It probably involved a lot of bowing or something. In desperation, she had contacted Anhur. At least she thought she had. Never having contacted a god before she had just stood and yelled out his name and that she needed help with the diplomatic thing. Komar had looked at her really oddly when she explained she was praying, but shrugged and kept playing with a doll a servant had brought her.

Hours later she sat alone in the large tub and started to worry again. She was so engrossed in her thoughts and fears that the tiny little whispering sound buzzing in her ears was ignored until it became loud enough to be discernable as a voice.

"Ranma? Ranma! Damn, I must have gotten the spell wrong again. Sounds like the sea or something..." the voice slowly began to fade.

"Nabiki? Is that you? What are you doing here?" the puzzled redhead asked.

"Ranma? Great! It finally worked! Thoth contacted me. He said you might need help."

"Yeah! I sure do, I have an interview with the Emperor in the morning and I have no idea what a diplomat does. I don't even know how to treat an Emperor. Do I bow? If so, when?" Ranma-chan rambled on in this vein for several minutes, only pausing briefly to give directions to someone, until Nabiki grew tired of listening to her whine.

"Shut up! I know politeness is not your strong point, but in this case, it doesn't really matter. You're not supposed to know any Japanese customs. The fact that you're ignorant as a stone only lends credence to your being a foreign diplomat."

"Hey! Yeah, I hadn't thought about that I... hey! Who are you calling a stone!" Ranma-chan huffed indignantly.

"Now, now Ranma, don't take it personally. A big bad martial artist like you isn't supposed to know how to be polite," Nabiki teased.

"Well, it's not like I ever had to be. The only royalty I ever met were those idiots who kept kidnapping Akane. What they wanted with that Tomboy I don't know," Ranma-chan muttered. "And I just beat them up. This is different. This is Japan's Emperor. He matters."

"My how very patriotic. Don't worry about Ranma, he's not your Emperor and you're not in our Japan. While I don't think beating him up would be appropriate, I think he won't mind a little looseness in manners. After all, you are a 'gaijin', and you can't expect much from them anyway."

"Thanks. You've helped so much," even though Ranma-chan spoke sarcastically she was feeling much better about the next morning's meeting. Nabiki might have a cutting wit, but she also made some excellent points.

"Anyway, that's not the reason I'm contacting you. They may excuse ignorance of Japanese customs, but even the worst diplomat should be prepared for possible trade. What I'm going to do is give you a list of items Lazlo would like to trade and a list of items they would like to import. And the exchange rate."

"Wow, thanks Nabiki that's really nice of you I... wait a minute, that really is nice of you! What are you getting out of this?" Ranma-chan asked suspiciously.

"Well to transfer these goods the two countries will need my transportation services. I will, of course, accept a mere five percent for my services," Nabiki stated magnanimously.

"What transportation services?"

"Thoth offered to set up a permanent dimensional circle in the guest bedroom. He's going to put in the location of the New Empire and Lazlo, maybe a few others later. Since I will be acting as the middleman I will naturally be paid for my services."

"Oh. I guess that makes sense… wait a minute, did you say guest room? Cindra's in the other guest room so... where am I going to sleep?"

"Ranma, Ranma, Ranma don't be such a worrywart. We'll work something out when you get back."

Ranma-chan could just imagine. She was either going to be sleeping in the dojo or sleeping next to a dimensional nexus. Sometimes life really sucked.

"Yeah, right," Ranma-chan said with a surly undertone. "Let me grab some paper and we can go over that list of yours." Glancing around the bathroom she went in search of writing materials.

"By the way, who was the girl that wandered in asking about a demon?" asked Nabiki.

 

 

Ryouga was confused. In a way, it was a comfortable state of mind. One that he had spent the majority of his life in. For as long as he had been capable of walking he had no idea where he was. He hadn't realized that this was unusual until much later in life. The last few weeks had been a revelation. It was true he hadn't suddenly gained a sense of direction, but he had gained a sense of continuity. No longer did he turn into an alleyway only to find himself in the woods or on a ship or that hideous time with the women's locker room. Now, if he paid attention he could notice how paved roads would give way to dirt roads, then to trails and then finally forest. Of course, he had spent most of his life ignoring his surroundings, after all, paying attention never helped get him where he wanted to be. Learning the fine art of being cognizant of the world around him had been an unnerving, but rewarding experience.

He had thrown away this terrifying freedom when he had removed the ankle restraints. Now he was getting reacquainted with that fuzzy disconnected feeling that had in the past marked most of his existence. It was disheartening but he took some dim comfort in the fact that when he found Ranma he could anchor himself once more. After releasing some of the tension he had accumulated in the interim.

Looking around him, he saw only enormous buildings on all sides. Due to their sheer size, it was impossible to tell the time of day from the sky. All that could be seen was a dim glow that could indicate almost any time during the day. Glancing at the streets around him he was reassured to find that there were humans walking the street. His most recent travels had been the oddest in his memory. The last city where he had found giant bipedal animals roaming the streets had been a shock, and yesterday he had almost blown himself to pieces when he had experienced huge fluctuations within his chi levels while wandering the woods somewhere.

Most of the traffic was along the ground, well sort of along the ground. The vehicles hovered several feet above the street, obeying some arcane signals not readily visible. More vehicles could be seen several hundred feet above, sandwiched in an almost uniform layer. This left large horizontal areas of empty space between the buildings that was occupied by the occasional one-man vehicle and flying motorcycle contraption.

He walked up to the nearest figure, attention still held rapt by the well-ordered chaos displayed in the air above him. "Excuse me. Have you seen a red-headed girl named Ranma around here?"

"No, I'm afraid I haven't, sir," a rather flat metallic voice responded. The odd intonation forced Ryouga's attention away from the aerial ballet above to focus on the person before him. Standing several feet away was a humanoid appearing robot. At least he guessed it was a robot. It wore a uniform vaguely reminiscent of the police officers at home. The body was sculptured to show the same muscle definition that would be shown by a well build organic male. And it certainly looked realistic, although the breaking points he sensed seemed to indicate it was mostly inorganic. Well the head had very few breaking points; perhaps it was made of a less crystalline material.

"Er... well. Heh, heh, heh. I mean... are you a robot?" Ryouga's diplomacy was usually several grades better than Ranma's but he was also more easily confused. An artificial man was enough to allow less well thought out words spring from his mouth. Fortunately, the entity before him was tolerant of the feebleminded.

"Ah. You must be a visitor from the New Empire. No. I am a cyborg. Officer Matsuda at your service. I believe you nature worshippers call our kind the 'pseudo robot abominations'."  Sighing to show that he didn't take the sentiment too personally, he continued, "You must be here for the anti-tech protest. You may be our descendants, but I still don't know where you get your logic from." As the metallic man spoke further Ryouga could detect more traces of real personality hidden behind the voice modulation.

"Logic?" a bewildered Ryouga asked.

"Yeah, logic. Technology had nothing... well as far as we know nothing directly to do with the holocaust. Heck, as I understand it was the monsters and natural disasters that killed most of the people back then. The temporal anomaly that shoved our cities into the future did us a favor. We would have been destroyed along with everybody else if it weren't for technology. Even if it was an accident. If you want to spout about the horrors of technology, why not take it to Ichto or H-brand. Those arrogant bastards actually deserve to be protested. Of course, they'd probably arrest you, but if you want to complain about tech abuse why not go to the people who do the abusing."

Ryouga was trying to make some sort of sense of the conversation. He vaguely recalled Thoth mentioning something about some time traveling cities in the world where Ranma was to be traveling. He had been too preoccupied with the paralysis to pay very close attention but he did recall some key names.

"So... is this the Republic of Japan?" Ryouga hesitantly asked.

The cyborg stood still for a moment, then shook his head in wonder. "They actually let you out on your own? Sheesh, let's get you back to your group. No doubt they need all their people to preach about how evil machines are." It started to walk away, pausing to look over its shoulder to ensure Ryouga was following. "Well, come on."

Ryouga finished putting the metal bands around his legs and then hurriedly caught up to the officer.


Chapter 9: Obligatory Giant Robots

The black-robed man sat behind an elaborate oak desk quietly drumming his fingers on the surface. After a few minutes of concentration, he turned his attention to his ninja garbed minion standing before him. The waiting figure may have been nervous but the man's form held impossibly motionless throughout the interview, giving no clue to his state of mind.

"How did this envoy from Lazlo get past our guards? You assured me that they had no access to other portals." His voice was grim, holding a vague hint of threat in it.

"I can only assume that the man we questioned was unaware of any other gates or backup plans. The leaders of Lazlo must be truly ruthless and shrewd to keep such secrets from their senior diplomats," the man's flat tone replied.

"I had been under the impression that this 'city-state' was weak. I am impressed that they could implement such a clever feint. Obviously, they had far more information regarding our country than they shared with their cat's paw." A short pause followed as the followed the implications of the new revelations. "You reported that the man we captured was easily subdued. It seems they have sent a throwaway agent to us while sending the real envoy another route. Very shrewd. I want security tightened. They somehow must have known about us. Have the mages search for other portals. The real envoy had to have come into the country somehow."

"As you wish, my Lord."

"Our original intent in eliminating the envoy was to keep the political situation static while our plans moved forward... and of course keeping our enemies as isolated as possible. We have failed in that respect. Once the Emperor accepts the real envoy, the web of alliances will shift as each territory vies for the attention of Lazlo's agent. The first significant contact with a real humanoid power outside Japan will create quite a stir."

"I realize the information we received from the prisoner is suspect, but if even part of what he stated is true, Lazlo is not a very significant power. I'm sure it's impressive locally but from what we know it does not have the resources to reach further."

"I know. If it were a simple matter of real power, we could simply ignore them. Considering their relationship with their neighbors, their very future is in question. However, the facts aren't an issue here. They will be perceived as having far more power than they actually wield, simply due to ignorance. We have had the luxury of thoroughly questioning one of their agents."

"My Lord, the government may have duped their own agent but I think we can trust the information we extracted regarding general political and geographical issues. Unless false information was implanted in the prisoner's mind, it would be difficult to convincingly fake this."

"I think we should accept most of the intelligence we've gathered, but on this issue, it's a matter of perception. If the Emperor is able to start serious negotiations with a foreign power, they will be perceived as being in a very favorable position. Perhaps favorable enough to convince otherwise neutral powers to support them when we initiate our plan. In this case, any change would most likely not be in our favor."

"We could move up our timetable. Our Atlantean allies have not completed their preparations but all of our agents are in place. Even the agents that have been enhanced by Atlantean Bio-wizardry are mostly recovered and have resumed their positions. We are ready."

"While it's true we weren't depending on our overseas allies, it would have ensured success… still, the situation can only change for the worse. I agree. I will meet with the Shogun and suggest we move up stage one of our plan."

"I will prepare, my Lord."

"One more thing. I have come to trust your judgment over the years. This miscalculation is unfortunate but understandable, we've obviously underestimated Lazlo, but based on the information we had at the time it is acceptable. This time. Don't give me further cause to be disappointed in your grasp of the situation. I would prefer to be able to continue counting on you in the future."

 

 

Ranma-chan warily stepped through the doors into the room. The chamber was spacious, easily fitting the small throne that sat on the dais at the opposite end of the room, the numerous greater and lesser nobility scattered throughout the area, and twenty heavily armored guards surrounding the throne. There were balconies twenty feet above the ground, where more guards stood armed with bows. The entire room made her tingle and itch, hinting at intricate magics she could pinpoint.

She had walked into the room, confident in her ability to act the ignorant gaijin. This had been slightly impacted by the sudden deathly silence that abruptly fell as she stepped over the threshold. A rough corridor opened in the throng before her and it was evident that most of those before her had eyes only for the woman from a foreign land about to confront their Emperor.

A quiet cough came from her side as the older gentleman that had led her in nodded towards the throne and started walking in that direction. Ranma-chan sighed gratefully at the subtle hint and walked beside the fellow towards the throne.

Ranma-chan was too nervous to pay much attention to the decorations and tapestries adorning the wall, let alone the elaborate style of the courtiers surrounding her. For her own part, she was dressed in a slightly more sophisticated style of Chinese dress than her usual plain pants and shirt. Detailed stitchings of dragons and various mythical beasts decorated the sides of the suit. It was fortunate Ranma-chan needed only her imagination, as her enchanted cloak supplied the apparent skill and quality. She had never thought to use it in this fashion, but looking back it may have been the most useful item she owned. Well, perhaps the second most useful, the manacles that froze the curse being the most useful.

When they approached the throne Ranma-chan sketched a stiff bow. She knew that westerner women did something call a curtsey but was clueless as to the specific mechanics of the maneuver. No one had ever bothered to challenge her to martial arts diplomacy. Next to her, the escort began the introductions.

"Greetings, Your Highness. Allow me to introduce the envoy from Lazlo. Lazlo is located on what was once known as the Northern American Continent and it what is known as a 'city-state' of the area," the courtier smoothly integrated an explanation into the introduction. Doubtless, the Emperor already knew such details but this may not have held true for the other less privileged members of the court.

"Welcome to our country. I hope you have had a pleasant journey. Our land has been experiencing some minor troubles from the neighboring Oni. I trust you haven't been bothered too much by them," the cultured tones of the Emperor rang out clearly from the throne.

"Er... thank you. No, it's been fun. Beating up Oni is a good pastime. Though they're a bit dull after a while. The weirdoes on the horses were a bit more fun. Well, they would have been if I hadn't been in a hurry. It's hard to enjoy a decent battle when you're on a schedule..." Ranma-chan cut off her rambling as she noticed the people around her were staring. More than they had been. "I mean... Thanks." Ranma-chan ended rather lamely.

"You must be quite the warrior," the Emperor politely comment into the uncomfortable silence that followed."

"Well, I am the best martial artist I know of," Ranma-chan stated, thankful to have the conversation on something she knew about. "It was the main reason I was chosen for this job. The last fellow sent from Lazlo died sometime soon after he arrived in the country. I don't know the details, but they needed someone who could survive long enough to actually get somewhere."

"I was unaware that your city had suffered such losses. You have my condolences," the Emperor stated sympathetically.

Ranma-chan shrugged, "I didn't know him."

"Oh. Well, I welcome you to my country. I look forward to building a relationship between our two nations."

"Great. Relationships are good," Ranma-chan replied, not sure where the conversation was going but satisfied that no one had claimed she was a fraud. "There is one thing I needed to ask you..."

The Emperor looked at her attentively waiting for the typical diplomatic phrases that seemed almost universal, "Yes?"

"I rescued a little girl in the woods a few days north of here. Her name was Komar. She mentioned that she had relatives in the city. Would it be possible to find them..." Ranma-chan finished uncertainly. She had left Komar in their room because she did not know what kind of reception she would find with the court. Nobody seemed interested in the little girl so it fell upon Ranma-chan to ensure her needs were dealt with.

"That is very admirable. I'll have my record keepers look into it. We try to keep track of the lineage of the families. Now tell us about your city, Lazlo. It seems unusual that they would send their people so far from home."

"Well it's an interesting mix," Ranma-chan slowly began, racking her brains on the information she had read. "The city relies mostly on magic to function and provide most modern conveniences. They... we aren't anti-tech and we do import a significant amount of machinery from the friendlier neighbors such as the Ishpeng Empire, and Northern Gun. The closest thing we have to a technical base of our own are the Techno-wizards. I'm no magic-user but they don't really use machines. They kinda take pieces of machines and glue crystals to them and somehow get them to work by magic." Ranma-chan noticed that the people around her were frowning and belatedly realized that these people had outlawed technology from their country. "But we mostly rely on magic. We welcome any creature that is willing to come in peace and work in harmony with others. The ruling council even includes an Ancient Dragon." Please don't ask me his name, she thought to herself.

"Your city sounds like a very pleasant place. The New Empire has outlawed technology within our borders, however, we do have allies who have yet to realize the evil inherent within such devices. The Republic of Japan is an honorable ally, though misguided. We accept an ally based on actions and honor. We worry for the possible evil they may inflict upon themselves, but will not force them to change." This speech was somewhat lost on Ranma-chan, who appreciated the sentiments but failed to see the relevance. This had mattered little, the words were meant to be directed at the courtiers, who had been glaring daggers at the envoy's mention of technology. These people did register the words of the Emperor and forced the hostility they displayed to dissipate, or at least be better concealed.

"Oh, well that's nice. I used to have a watch but I hocked it for some magic stuff," Ranma-chan chimed in with her own preference for magic. She had nothing against technology but had to admit magic had been of far more use to her. She had never really liked that watch anyway. "Anyway, there are some tech-based powers in the area like..." now what were those people in the Chicago area called, ah yes, "the Coalition that are fanatically anti-magic. We're not really that close to one another so there's not much except a few skirmishes between us. For now. One of the reasons we are sending out people to other nations is the possibility of future conflict. It never hurts to have more allies than enemies." Ranma-chan knew this from experience, having barely more allies than enemies at home. Many times the distinction between them grew blurred.

The Emperor twitched. This envoy was very unusual. She seemed very open and honest. He had never heard of a diplomat's opening speech mentioning that a relationship with them might embroider them in open war with a third nation. This was usually considered a bad thing to initially bring up. She may have had a point about being chosen more for her fighting abilities than her political savvy.

"Yes, we also have some tension with some of the cruder neighbors. Most nations have their share of disrespectful companions," the Emperor politely offered, thinking of the insufferable and irresponsible behavior shown by Ichto to the downright evil hostility of the Otomo Shogunate.

"I really don't have the authority to open any kind of talks except on some trade. If that goes well they'll probably send someone a bit more experienced to talk about more important issues," Ranma-chan stated offhandedly.

The Emperor pondered this comment for a moment. It was almost unheard of to talk of trade or other 'real' issues on the first meeting, especially in the main audience hall in front of literally hundreds of people. Still, the envoy seemed to be truthful and obviously meant well, despite the extremely blunt approach. "I hadn't planned on laying out any specific issues on our first meeting. However, there is no harm in beginning such discussions. Tell me what does Lazo have that you think we might trade for. The specifics we will speak of in more private surroundings." Sighs of disappointment issued from the people of the court, it would have been interesting to witness all of the negotiations with the blunt-spoken foreigner.

"What do we have? Hold on a moment I have it written down here..." Ranma-chan started searching through her folded space for Nabiki's list she had copied down last night. "... no that's not it. No, not that. Hey! Cool! I hadn't realized kept that around." By that time she had a respectable pile of rubbage gathered at her feet, from extra shirts to a tea set she had used the time she had been challenged to martial arts tea ceremony. Pulling out a drumstick from last night's meal she absentmindedly stuck it in her mouth and started chewing on it while searching for elusive paper. "Heh... heh. I'm sure I have it in here somewhere. So, that's where that ring of speed went. Ah... didn't need it anyway. That's Akane's old hammer, what's it doing in there? Hmm... what's that? Argh! Damn! I thought I gave all of these to Kasumi."

Meanwhile, the court had been treated to the odd sight of the small red-headed girl pulling ridiculously large objects out of nowhere and dropping them on the ground at her feet. Most thought it was magic, either spells or incorporated into clothing. Only a few priests and the more powerful Samurai in the Emperor's guard felt the flux of tightly controlled chi pulsing around the girl. The Emperor used his senses to feel the energies surrounding the Lazlo envoy and came to his own conclusion. He would confirm it with the priests but this girl just maybe almost as good a martial artist as she thought she was. She at least had some tricks that he had only previously seen done with magic. The sight of the diplomat fending off a floating feather duster interrupted his contemplation. The enchanted object was a blur as it beat upon the frustrated girl until, with a frustrated growl about roasting chestnuts, it vanished once more.  Obviously a curse phrase common in Lazlo, her hands became invisible, plucking the offending tool from the air and removing to wherever it had come from. Then, with a cry of triumph, she brought forth a rather ragged looking piece of paper. It actually looked vaguely familiar.

"Here it is. Okay... Let's see... Lazlo has Chicken Teriyaki, Dim Sum, rice and... soy sauce? That sounds pretty good." Ranma-chan trailed off looking confusedly at the paper she was holding. The martial artist blushed a brilliant crimson followed by a moment of silence. "Er... sorry about that. Heh, heh, that was last night's menu. My list is on the other side." Quickly flipping the parchment over she began reading again, "Wheat, oranges, apples, tomatoes, potatoes, steel, copper, oak, a bunch spices I can't pronounce... say, I sense something's not quite right." She interrupted her list of trade goods to look around her, her eyes finally coming to rest on the balconies surrounding the sides of the chamber.

A sudden fog erupted into the room, seeming to cause no direct damage. Then it registered; the constant tingling that had sent annoying and distracting sensations throughout her nervous system was gone. As the mist reached throughout the room it engulfed the enchanted globes of light illuminating the area, causing them to flicker, and then abruptly die out leaving the room illuminated only by the dim sunlight coming through the elevated windows. A blue dome of energy flickered and disappeared around the Emperor's throne, giving visible evidence to another bit of protective magic that had been dispelled. Almost simultaneously large explosions ripped through the balconies around the chamber, throwing the now lifeless archers from their perches. Waves of black-clad warriors vaguely resembling ninja leaped through the still smoking archways falling like a stream of blackness over the balcony and converging on the throne. A faint roaring could be heard in the background, slowly increasing in volume.

The Emperor's guard instantly rushed to close with the horde, stopping their advance cold for several seconds. Ranma-chan had been about to jump into the fight with the assassins when she paused for thought. She had an excellent sense of tactics and it was obvious their goal was the Emperor. If she jumped into the crowd she had no doubt that she could rid herself of even the overwhelming number she saw before her. It wasn't like she had to hold back as she had with the silly samurai that had previously attacked her. However, the ninja closing from the other sides would then have free access to their target. Her only effective option was to protect the Emperor with her immediate proximity. Action followed thought as she covered the forty feet distance between the two in a bound. The Emperor raised an eyebrow, but obviously did not consider her a threat, as he did not hail the guards remaining near him, only nodding to her in acknowledgment.

From her higher vantage Ranma-chan was able to watch the progress of the battle. She noted that the ninja were extremely fast. Almost as fast as she herself was, though they obviously lacked the strength and durability that a chi master would possess, and she could sense no real focus of their inner strength. They also wore some kind of harness or armor under their black clothing which was standing up well against the assault of the guards and many of the courtiers that had joined the battle. In fact, even though the Emperor's guards possessed the superior skill it was obvious they were going to lose. There were far too many of the ninja clad attackers to doubt otherwise.

It was a frustrating situation; the attackers and defenders were too closely packed to use any large chi attacks. Occasionally an attacker would burst through the defending guards. These Ranma-chan picked off with a precise chi burst. The first time she did this she earned a surprised look from the Emperor and his guards. "Is there a basement under this room," she asked while watching the melee below, the roaring sound of approaching machinery concerned her as much as the fighters around her.

"No, this chamber is built upon solid bedrock," the Emperor replied.

"What about the wall behind the throne?"

"There are ten feet of solid stone, behind that is the palace proper," the Emperor worriedly said while watching his guards fall back, their numbers reduced moment by moment.

Ranma-chan finished off another attacker that had charged forward. As she looked up from the smoking body, the background roar built to a crescendo as the upper windows blew inward allowing the view of a huge mechanical figure floating in the air, supported by jets. By the sound, it could be guessed that this was only the first of many.

"Shit," Ranma-chan announced to the people around her. The metallic figure immediately focused its attention on the raised dais, bringing a huge rifle of some sort to bear and firing in a single motion. Ranma-chan saw the action and moved in front of the Emperor and allowed her training and senses to move her hands in an invisible pattern. When the thunderous roar of her hands moving far faster than sound died down she saw with regret that the Emperor's personal guards were no longer standing. Fortunately, she had been successful in her attempt to keep the primary target safe. Letting her chi build to dangerous levels she let loose with a barrage of chi bolts aimed at the floating mechanism, blowing it backward. She doubted it would be eliminated but she hoped to buy time.

Turning to the wall behind the throne she shouted for the Emperor to stay well behind her before using a series of ‘Breaking Points’ on the surface. Within seconds a long narrow tunnel strewn with dust and rubble was in front of them. Checking to make sure there were no other immediate dangers she gestured for the Emperor to go through the newly created tunnel. As he passed her, a quick ‘Breaking Point’ partly sealed the Emperor's exit and she turned back toward the war-torn room, battle aura flaring. Several other windows blew inward, hailing the arrival of more robotic monsters.

Ranma-chan cracked her knuckles, a maniacal smile on her face. Today was a good day to kick butt.

 

 

Ryouga followed his guide through several side streets before arriving in front of a sleek looking skycycle of a design similar to some he noticed flying above. The main difference seemed to be a colored light, presently quiescent, on the raised portion just behind the driver. That and the large cannon that seemed integrated with the nose of the vehicle.

Although he had been largely ignored when he had been wandering around alone, walking with his metallic companion showed him an entirely different face of the city. The men and women who passed them gave respectful nods and silently moved to allow easy passage. Ryouga may have believed this was due to fear except for the children that ran up to his companion, chattering excitedly about how they wanted to be a cyborg when they grew up so they too could protect humanity. It was almost like walking next to a real hero. Ranma usually got that kind of attention. Well, okay children didn't moon over him, it was the grown women that threw themselves at Ranma that irritated Ryouga.

It was a relief when they boarded the skycycle. Ryouga wasn't used to being in the limelight as much as when he was walking with the officer. It may have been paranoid, but he always felt like he was the butt of some cosmic joke when people stared at him. He was distracted from his thoughts when the machine vibrated slightly and rose from the ground. Ryouga looked around with interest.

"I bet you haven't flown on one of these things. Heh, flying has gotta be one of the best things about technology," the officer stated with a slight smirk in his voice.

"Well, it certainly is more relaxing when you don't have to worry about where you're going to land," Ryouga agreed. It was almost impossible to be a powerful martial artist and not be punted a few hundred feet in the air on occasion. Happossai alone had sent him and Ranma flying many times. It was almost enjoyable until you landed.

Matsuda sat silently behind the controls trying to make sense of his passenger's response. After a few minutes, he shrugged and ignored it. The New Empire seemed to send all its oddballs to the Japanese Republic. They said they were protesting the evils inherent in technology, but he personally thought they were trying to export their nutcases.

After about a half-hour of weaving between the traffic, they approached a huge building. Looking at it grow to twice its largest neighbor's size as they neared the structure simply enunciated the difference between itself and the city around it. If the city as a whole was compared to canyons and ravines, this building was a mountain.

"Here we go, nature boy. The City Council Building. Right out front... blocking the entranceway again, I might add... are the rest of your friends," the cyborg stated as they started to descend to ground level. It was only at this point that Ryouga noticed the large crowd gathered in front of the building. They seemed to be wearing more traditional clothes. He had to admit that his clothes made him look as if he had just stepped out for a stroll from this group. He wondered if any of these people knew where Ranma was.

"Um, why are we protesting outside this building again?" Ryouga tentatively asked.

As if speaking to a particularly slow child, officer Matsuda responded, "Well, I admit I would rather you went and protested in front of the city dump and blocked the land-bound traffic over there. Too bad some brilliant member of your group had the idea, 'Hey, why don't we stage our protest in front of the City Council Building so we can send our message of displeasure to the Government and people in power rather than just honking off the garbage men and junkyard dogs'," the cyborg stated with heavy sarcasm.

"Oh. That makes sense," Ryouga tried to throw off the sensation that he was being mocked. Not everyone he met was out to get him.

"Okay, time to get off and join your little group of close-minded little men," Matsuda stated while gesturing at the ground the cycle was resting on and the crowd about fifty feet away.

Ryouga swung off the cycle and went over to the crowd of people giving a polite nod of thanks to the nice officer. As he walked over to the people by the entranceway he heard a series of loud explosions far above him. Automatically swinging his umbrella free from his backpack he looked upwards.

Far above him, over the smaller buildings surrounding the Council Building, he saw what appeared to be glowing holes in the sky. From these openings issued streams of robots. Most of the larger humanoid robots had two normal arms and two more, smaller arms, built into the chest. While Ryouga was no expert on technology he would lay bets that the devices being carried by both sets of limbs were weapons. The smaller, more human-sized figures far outnumbered their hulking brethren and seemed intent on strafing the building and its defenders. The oversized mechanical creatures that had already landed on the building were firing missiles at the windows of the top floor and the mechanical dragon-shaped creatures, which seemed to be defending the Council Building. Some of the invaders were setting up several launching devices which Ryouga guessed held more missiles.

While all this was interesting to Ryouga, what caught his immediate attention was the glitter of glass and various debris raining down on him from above.

 

 

Ranma-chan unhappily looked at the devastation around her. As far as she could tell most of the guards were dead. The courtiers that had entered battle had either died or retreated once the Emperor was no longer in danger. While this gave her a little more freedom to attack there were still a few living guards strewn around the floor. Well, she would just have to draw some attention to herself.

Leaping into the crowd of the twenty remaining ninja, Ranma-chan went to her work with a will. Leaping and dodging, she was able to dance around the augmented men. She was steadily taking hits from the crowd of attackers. They were far too quick to face with impunity. However, Ranma-chan did have the advantage of resilience and a lesser advantage of speed. The strikes she leveled at her attacker were mostly from the ‘Mountain of a Thousand Fists’ which struck critical points such as the heart with chi enhanced force. The ‘Mountain of a Thousand Fists’ also included the ‘Vacuum Blade’ technique, but this was extremely expensive in terms of chi and not efficient against multiple opponents. Not to mention that the very thought of slicing a human being into several parts made her queasy. Nope, that technique was far better used for scissors and other emergencies. The critical strikes were working for now.

Now that the anti-magic fog had dissipated, several of the faster ninjas were glowing a bright blue shade. Ranma-chan guessed these were shields and concentrated her efforts on those she believed she could take out with one blow. Most of the black-clad people she hit stayed down, though it was obvious that a few were merely stunned. Frowning she took stock of her injuries. A few scrapes, cuts and numerous bruises decorated her hide, but nothing debilitating.

Those down for the count were the non-shielded ninja's, leaving ten very fast and probably very well armored individuals. Around the side of the room stood five of the huge mechanical monsters, simply watching the combat. Wait a minute, two of them weren't watching the fight, they had moved over to the throne and were moving the rubble away. Time for some maneuvering.

Leaping over the black-clad men Ranma-chan reached the occupied troops. There was no need to yell about yen since they were already facing away. A raking claw, combined with the ‘Breaking Point’ almost ripped the first nine-foot-tall robot in half. The second one was just beginning to turn in her direction when Ranma-chan's next strike tore a gaping hole in the side of the main body of the second. The robotic creature instantly dropped giving her some hope that it was taken out of the battle. She had a moment of satisfaction before the other three mechanisms struck.

Although she sensed the eighteen missiles streaking towards her, dodging proved ineffective. She frantically dodged six, unfortunately, this placed her in position to be struck by one of the others. While this missile exploded, the other seventeen which she had temporarily outmaneuvered doubled back and hit her from behind. The resulting massed explosion was so large it threw her across the room. She received vague impressions of flying at high speeds past black-clad figures before she stuck the entrance door, easily bursting through it to imbed herself on the wall behind it.

As her stunned mind tried to gather her senses together, she strained to pull herself out of the wall. She finally succeeded in removing herself from the vertical surface and almost had figured out how she had got there in the first place when she sensed presences behind her. The world seemed strangely silent and she could only guess that her hearing was temporarily stunned. Staggering and weaving she turned to face the door she had just blown through to see the familiar black-clad figures she had just flown by.

It was hard to determine facial expressions through the masks, but their body language expressed shock. Ranma-chan snickered drunkenly at them, probably surprised to see me moving let alone staring back at them. A single tear trickled down her cheek. She had an ace in the hole, but had really not wanted to use it. Still, since it was obvious her life depended on it…

"Anything Goes..." she whispered, then shouted the next phrase at the ten-people gathered in the doorway. "Vacuum Blades!" she cried out while striking the air before her in a crisscrossing motion.

With a sickening fascination, she watched the energy crescents expand before her. Upon reaching those in the doorway it didn't even pause for the shimmering blue fields. Each one flared once before disappearing. Each victim of the attack gave an aborted scream, gasp, or whimper before they were silenced.

Limping painfully slowly made her way over to the doorway, where she had made her dramatic exit. As she made towards the threshold she made a point not to look at the grisly remains of her attackers. She had three more mechanisms to deal with. Ranma Soatome never gave up.

 

 

Ryouga looked at the falling debris, then at the people around him, and came to a decision. His umbrella could only shield one person, his bandanas might save a few more. However, it was possible to defend by attacking. If you were depressed enough. The thought of hundreds of people dying due to his inaction was very depressing.

Gathering the depression within him he pushed it out, spreading it in a larger area than he had in previous uses, yelling, "Perfect Lion's Roar." Perhaps the lack of time that he had to unleash chi blast affected the usual side effects, but Ryouga felt little of the typical fatigue he would normally be subject to. Of course, likewise due to the lack of time the blast was far weaker than his usual 'Perfect' chi attack. For this reason, he was still conscious and able to see his energy blast vaporize the falling rubble and continue upward to engulf one of the portals and the metallic figures surrounding it, then fall towards the top of one of the occupied buildings.

When the energy blast faded, the portal could be seen rapidly spiraling shut. No robots were visible on that particular building. Seemingly wiped off the face of the earth. Along with the roof of the building.

The cyborg Ryouga had arrived with was waving his arms attempting to move the endangered people into the building across the way. Only half of the protesters were even looking in his direction, many just stood there looking mesmerized at the battle occurring above them. A loud crackling of energy emitted by the cyborg's hand gun focused the crowd's attention back on the ground, enabling him to move the rest of the group into safer quarters.

When the cyborg came back out he walked over to Ryouga, whose attention was on the small war above them.

"Can you pull off another one of those bomb things?" the cyborg asked. The weapons on board the cycle were smaller guns meant for normal criminals and the occasional Oni. The conflict above them was something the police cyborg was not presently equipped for.

"No. I don't have enough energy left. Usually, those things knock me out too. If those things were on the ground I could do something. I think I might be able to knock them out if I can touch them. I can almost see their Breaking Point from here. I can do a lot of things, but flying is not one of them."

Matsuda didn't understand everything the kid said, but considering what he had recently witnessed was willing to trust the boy wasn't just babbling. "Okay, if I can get you up there, can you take them out?"

"Sure. If I can touch them. There are a lot of them. I'm not sure we can really make a difference," Ryouga stated, becoming depressed again.

"All we need to do is keep them occupied. The Civil Defense Force is on the way and will be here pretty soon. They may look numerous right now, but the Force can bring overwhelming force to bear. When they get here. What we can do is keep them busy and distracted until that happens. Are you willing?" the officer asked nervously. The kid was probably the only way he could make a real impact on the battle. If he said no he might as well sit on the sidelines and flip them the finger.

He needn't have worried, assured that he could make a difference Ryouga was happy to help. "Alright, if you say so. You drive and shoot and I'll take care of the rest."

Hopping on the cycle Ryouga readied his bandanas and umbrella. He doubted the bandanas would do much, but he might be able to disarm some of the attackers. They rose quickly to then edge of one building where the enemy had set up several missile racks aimed at the Council Building. Upon rising over the lip of the building Matsuda gunned the cycle toward one of the large Robot Vehicles. While the cycle may have been lacking in armament and armor, it had the speed to spare. Ryouga found himself going from almost stationary to mach one in an eye blink. Ryouga prided himself on his martial arts skill, but his first blow to the first thirty-five-foot-tall opponent was sloppy. Despite this, the ‘Breaking Point’ was struck, though all Ryouga could make out was a distant explosion behind him.

"Hey! What's the big idea? How am I supposed to hit them if I can barely see them before they're gone?" Ryouga complained.

"Do your best." Matsuda stated shortly, "This cycle may be able to take one or two hits, but surrounded by a virtual army, hit and run tactics are the best we can expect. Did you get that one?"

"I think so. We were past it so fast it's hard to tell. Turn around and see if one of them has a big hole in their chest."

"All right. Be prepared for another run. We'll keep going after the big ones, they have most of the missiles and larger weapons."

After they turned the cycle around it took a moment to approach the Council Building once again. As they closed, they were gratified to see one of the Robot Vehicles with half of its front ripped off and smoke pouring from the opening. Two lightly armored men were crawling out of a hatch, looking around as if they hadn't a clue what hit them.

The second blow was struck more cleanly, which pleased Ryouga more, though it made little actual difference to the result. The advanced compounds making up the armor had as many Breaking Points as more primitive ceramic and metal alloys. It shattered almost as easily. Except for the mach one part. He'd never needed to do that before. He also was able to throw a few bandanas. Although they wouldn't eliminate anyone, he did see several of the guns carved in half. Well for a split second at least.

After the second strike, he felt the cycle bobbing and weaving, even making a weird loop before turning around for a second pass. "What's going on? Were we hit or are you just trying to make me sick," the lost boy complained to his driver.

"No. We almost got hit. That's what a sky cycle feels like when you're trying to dodge missiles. I'll circle around them below the building skyline and see if I can get the drop on one of the ones on the other side."

True to his word, they circled the Council Building, repeating their first maneuver on the opposite side of the battle. Even with this additional element of surprise, Ryouga could tell that they spent more time trying to avoid the resulting missiles on their way out.

"Hold on a moment, this next time is going to be rough. They'll be expecting us this time. Our tricks going to be a bit tougher to pull off."

"Who are these guys anyway?"

"Don't know. The Robot Vehicles and Power Armor are a mix of Ichto and H-Brand and who knows who opened those damned portals. I'd say they were a mercenary group, except it would be the stupidest bunch on the planet. I think they're trying to blow up the City Council, but if they don't do it within the next few minutes the Force is going to smear them across the backside of creation."

"What about those Ichto and H-Brand fellows?"

"They’re both real bastards. But they hate each other. No, whoever's behind this could have bought the equipment independently. They aren't very discriminating with their customers. I'll leave the detective work for someone else. We'll find out. Someone sunk a lot of resources into this attack, there is no way they didn't leave a trail. Okay, we're here. Hold on."

This last run was by far the worst. They were dodging missiles long before they approached the target. This time Ryouga could actually see the missiles approach. A mixed blessing, since he could now knock a few down with chi blasts and bandanas, but still had to watch several near misses come within feet of the cycle. He heard Matsuda mutter a curse after one, particularly sickening lurch.

"Damn! A smart missile! Hold on, it just turned around! I think it's gonna hit!"

The missile did hit with an explosion from the rear of the vehicle that threw them forward. Ryouga noticed an odd silence, and a sinking feeling gripped him as he realized the quiet was the lack of engine noise. His first thought was 'free fall, I recognize this feeling'.

"Hold on! We're going ballistic. The good news is that we’re are on target. The bad news is we aren't going anywhere afterward."

Looking forward Ryouga saw a large Robot Vehicle rapidly approaching. Ripping off his acceleration restraints he grabbed the heavy cyborg and leaped to the top of the building, just as the cycle crashed into the huge mechanism. Although the impact seemed to do little real damage it did cause the vehicle to take one step back. This was enough. It described a slow graceful arc in the air to the street far below. Jets could be seen activating too late to halt or even cushion the impact.

"Hmm, the fall probably didn't harm the vehicle, but the pilots inside are probably dead unless they were very well secured. Or augmented humans. Keep the other fellows off my back. I'm going to get the missile launcher to start firing on their own people," he called to Ryouga while trotting over the large rack of missiles sitting innocently off to the side on the roof.

Ryouga had his own concerns, there was one more Robot Vehicle on the roof and several sets of the smaller power armor suits that had broken off their attack on the building's defenders to head in Ryouga's direction. Nodding in determination he jogged over to intercept the towering thirty-five-foot behemoth. With his chi reinforced umbrella covering him as he ran he heard a rapid patter of impacts as high-velocity slugs flattened themselves on his shield's surface. One last leap brought him to one of the legs of the robot. One-touch later the creature hopped clumsily around on its remaining leg.

Ryouga chi senses notified him that several objects were heading towards him at a high velocity. Ryouga smirked, he may not have Ranma's speed, but there were more than one way to avoid injury. Moving over to the intact leg, he waited for the proper instant to leap behind the leg simultaneously shielding himself with his umbrella. The umbrella was almost knocked out of his hand as a few missiles exploded against its surface. A moment later the limb which he had hid himself was rocked with a series of huge explosions. Although mostly unhurt, the leg gave him a nasty bruise to the back of his head. Fortunately, it wasn't on anything he used on a regular basis.

Turning around he noticed that only a stump remained where the leg had been. Not even thinking about the implications, Ryouga threw himself from beneath the descending wreckage. Staying near the relatively intact torso and the main body of the vehicle, he used it as cover while he bombarded the flying power armor with heavy chi. Occasionally the undamaged four arms of the vehicle would flail out as the pilots inside tried to either brain him or aim a rifle in his direction. When this happened, he would rip off the offending limb and throw it at one of the flying power suits. He usually missed, but it sure relieved some tension. His chi bursts were much more effective. They hit most of the time and they usually stayed down after the second hit.

Most of his side of the building was cleared, either by the chi blasts or Matsuda's missiles when he heard a loud thunderous roar. Looking up Ryouga saw a horde of armored men and mechanical dragon creatures descending like god's own wrath on the remaining attackers.

The battle was over within five minutes.

 

 

Ranma-chan's mind had cleared a little by the time she stepped through the door. Shaking her head at her stupidity she invoked the ‘Way of the Quiet Thief’ to hide her presence. She knew many supernatural creatures had senses that would easily pierce the technique but was unsure of robots. She had never had the opportunity to see if this stealth technique could mask a person from radar and infrared sensors. She supposed it was time to find out.

She wished she could use the dimensional cloaking but was far too exhausted to give it serious consideration. Thinking stealthy thoughts, Ranma-chan crept into the room, somewhat gratified to see the three remaining mechanical creatures walking quickly towards the entrance, seemingly oblivious to her presence. Keeping to the sides of the room she worked her way behind the robot furthest from the door. Gathering her inner strength initiated a surprise attack on the lagging foe. As before, the strike almost ripped the thing in half. The two mechanisms in the lead immediately whirled around, each simultaneously firing six missiles in Ranma-chan's direction. She gritted her teeth as they approached. She wasn't sure she could dodge twelve missiles or if the ‘Way of the Quiet Thief’ would protect her.

Throwing stealth to the winds Ranma-chan activated a technique learned from Happossai. It required more energy than she could spare in her battered condition, but it should be effective against such a barrage. Calling forth her battle aura she pumped much of her residual energy into her defense. The physical effect of this was to cause a huge glowing red battle aura to form about her physical form. The missiles impacted on the surface of the projection, leaching a significant amount of energy from the field but failing to reach their target.

"Alright, my turn," she said giving half a smile. Raising her hands before her she called on her dwindling resources and fired a dense barrage of chi projectiles at the first robot. The energy swelled from the projection's outstretched hands and streamed like liquid fire onto the mechanism. The initial bolt knocked the creature over; the second bolt caused a shower of sparks to burst from the prone enemy.

The last robot fired a last volley of missiles at the huge crimson female towering over it. Seeing the lack of effect they were having, he turned tail and ran while Ranma-chan was finishing with its companion. Ranma-chan noticed the desertion and took a step towards the retreating enemy, unfortunately, her projection chose that moment to fizzle and dissipate. Without the support offered to her physical form from the aura, she found herself collapsing to her knees in exhaustion. Damn Happossai's techniques, he always spent chi like it was water.

Weakly raising an arm in the air, she hoarsely shouted, "And don't come back!"


Chapter 10: Fallout

"So, what are the manacles for?"

"Eh?" Ryouga grunted in puzzlement while chewing contentedly on some rice.

"Those bands of metal. Don't try to tell me they're ornamental. Ornaments don't have locks on them. Is it some mystic baloney from the New Empire or are you just kinky?" Matsuda commented casually, watching his young companion from the corner of his eye. He was rewarded for his vigil by a stream of half-chewed rice spewing from the lost boy's mouth as the cyborg's words finally registered.

"K... kinky? What kind of sicko are you?" Ryouga shouted, drawing the interested stares of his fellow diners. As he looked around the restaurant and noticed the attention he was receiving and nervously put a hand to the back of his head. After a moment of standing there looking at his audience, he slowly sat back down.

"The kind that doesn't go walking around with manacles," Matsuda answered amicably. It was amusing to tease the innocent and bewildered.

Ryouga was at a loss as to how to answer. His pants were supposed to cover up the metal bands. He had never expected the topic to come up. His brain froze for a moment before he thought of a response. "Uh… religion. Yeah, my religion demands I wear these decorations as a show of piety."

"Hmm. Interesting which religion is that?" Matsuda said deciding to draw it out.

"Er... the monks of the Joketsuzoku. I can't say any more. Very secretive you know. How did you know what I was wearing on my legs?"

"Legs? I was talking about the ones on your wrists. Wow, you are kinky. That must be some religion. I always thought you people from the New Empire were a bit stuffy. You learn something new every day."

Ryouga sat there stewing in embarrassment before he gathered his wits enough to change the subject. "So, what's the damage. Those terrorists did a thorough bombing before the city force showed up."

A thoughtful look appeared on the cyborg's metallic face. "It could have been worse. Most of the damage occurred in the first few minutes before we arrived."

"It's nice that we made a difference."

"Well, only part of it was the distraction we provided, although that did help significantly." Enough that the Council wanted Matsuda to take the warrior from the New Empire out to dinner as an initial show of appreciation. Many wanted to do much more but were arguing whether the New Empire would be offended by the Republic giving a New Empire citizen medals or other physical symbols of thanks. The New Empire was very twitchy about technology or anything that may have been produced through such means. They had even offered Ryouga a permanent home in a luxurious apartment. He had stayed there one night but was found the next day in the park where he had set up a tent. Despite the feeble explanation of getting lost trying to find the bathroom, it was obviously a roundabout, polite way to decline the modern luxury. Matsuda felt fortunate that Ryouga hadn't spit in anyone's face over the insult. Metaphorically speaking, of course, he seemed a young man of humble attitude and manners. Though he seemed a bit slow at times.

"The building was heavily reinforced, which is the reason it wasn't demolished during the conflict. Three members of the Council were killed in the first minutes of the barrage, not to mention almost a hundred office workers and security personnel. However, once they removed themselves to the interior or lower level of the building there were very few fatalities. Of course, at that point we had arrived so very little actual damage was being done to the structure," Matsuda continued.

"Well, that's good to know. Those missiles seemed pretty powerful... I was worried more people would be hurt."

"Well, this attack was organized much better than I originally thought. The mercenary units couldn't be traced to any one source. I'm sure we'll eventually find who masterminded the attack, but not as easily as I thought. It must have been someone with serious resources though; hiding your tracks on that scale is more difficult than gathering the actual units. Of course, that by itself eliminates quite a few suspects."

"You have no clue who did it?"

"Nothing that makes sense. We think it might be connected to a string of sabotage attempts that were foiled in the last few months. No real proof though, anyone apprehended mysteriously died. As for this last attack, any one of the city-states in Japan could possibly do it, as well as some corporations, a handful of individuals, and maybe two warlords. But I don't see what they would gain from it. No matter how tricky they are we'll eventually find out who's behind it and make a point to wipe them from the face of the planet."

"The Republic has that kind of power?"

"We don't flaunt it but anything short of another country we can easily destroy."

"And if it is another country?"

"Then it's not a simple operation. Then it's war. It's more expensive but I little doubt of the output against any one opponent."

"What if they're allied with someone?"

"It gets even tougher. We may need to call for an alliance ourselves. Your New Empire would be a candidate for that. Takamatsu would have been as well."

"Would have been?"

"Yes. The plot thickens. Takamatsu suffered a similar strike as ours. They didn't get off nearly as lightly. Except for a handful of officials that were either at home sick or out at an early lunch, their whole government no longer exists," Matsuda responded gravely, swirling the contents of his glass with a grim expression. The previous light-hearted teasing banter was gone.

"Our governments had been having serious discussions of merging, or maybe a permanent alliance. It's a serious blow to morale and Takamatsu is in chaos. The only good part of this situation is that it eliminates about half the candidates. Only a large corporation or a city-state could pull off two simultaneous attacks of this magnitude. I pity the people of Takamatsu. I visited there several times and found them a friendly, open-minded people. They used whatever worked…whether it involves technology or magic. It made for an interesting city."

"Is anything being done to help them?" Ryouga asked with concern.

"The Council is putting together a proposal. Basically, they'll offer to either accept them as part of the Republic or simply give them aid until they can get on their feet again."

"Hmm... I guess you have everything in hand then. I need to get on with my own quest anyway," Ryouga stated, somewhat relieved that he wasn't needed. He had places to go. He wasn't positive where they were, but that just made it more important he start looking as soon as possible.

"Quest? I thought you were just here to protest with your fellow idiot… er… I mean, countrymen."

"Countrymen? Oh yeah! My countrymen. Well, they can get along without me. I bet they won't even miss me. I need to find a... friend... of mine. He's... I mean she's the red-headed girl I asked you about when I first met you. She's supposed to be in the New Empire somewhere."

"Redheaded girl. I vaguely recall you saying something about that when we first met." To tell the truth Matsuda had ignored what the young man had been babbling about. He had just brushed him off as a country bumpkin who had gotten separated from the rest of the fanatics. "If you know she's in the New Empire why'd you ask me where she was," Matsuda asked, puzzled as he thought about the situation for a moment.

"Oh... I... well... just thought you might have heard of her. She tends to make a spectacle, I mean, a name for herself."

"Well, you lucky dog. I guess I know what the manacles are for. How'd you find a red-headed foreigner in the New Empire anyway? Aren't they kinda isolated?"

"Foreigner? Why do you think Ranma's a foreigner?" Ryouga faintly remembered that was the cover identity Ranma was using, but couldn't figure out how Matsuda knew about it.

"Well if she's a real redhead she must be... oh, I see. She's one of those young spitfires who dye her hair. Figures. That and the manacles. And here I thought the New Empire was more traditional. You live and learn."

"Ranma and I aren't like that," Ryouga shouted in disgust. Not even noticing the stares this time.

Matsuda just gave a non-committal grunt.

 

 

The Emperor looked at the surface of the pool with a certain amount of wonder. Looking up at the wizard that stood across from him he couldn't keep himself from asking. "Is she really human? I've never seen humans do that before."

"Well, we've done some intensive scrying and everything seems to point to it. I mean our own martial artists know 'iron skin' and other body hardening techniques. It is how many of them survive battles in these dangerous times where a touch from an Oni means instantaneous death for most unarmored fighters. Her’s are just a bit more effective, as are her other chi manipulation techniques."

"No, no, no! I mean that! How can a human consume so much, in so little time! Are you sure it isn't magic?" The Emperor pointed to the pool again where Ranma-chan was voraciously eating from a table that seemed that it should have been enough to more than fill ten large men. The blurring of the subject's hand and the rate that the food was disappearing demonstrated that this belief to be the purest fallacy.

The wizard stopped speaking his mouth still open as his line of reasoning was derailed. "Well... er... I suppose it makes sense that greater chi powers require much more energy to use. Yes... that must be it. She is just refueling after a huge energy expenditure."

"I think not. Our own martial artists draw most of their energy from the environment around them. Much like you wizards do magical energy. Besides, I had a guard speak with a cook. Our little red-headed savior ate just as much before the battle as she is now."

"Well, I suppose she could be hiding her nature. Dragons are known for that kind of behavior, though few do it well enough to withstand the magics we've used to scrutinize her."

The figure in the water paused in her eating to look suspiciously around her. After a moment, she called out in a tinny voice distorted from the scrying spell, "Nabiki? Is that you? Anhur? Hurry up, answer! I'm hungry!" After a moment of silence the redhead shrugged and went back to the process of shoveling food in her mouth. The wizard waved a hand over the waters to dispel the enchantment.

"Sensitive, isn't she? Never mind. I suppose she is human enough, and she's proven her intentions adequately. I do owe her my life. It is uncomfortable to have such a debt, but dishonorable to merely ignore it. I only wish she had been able to save those of my court that fell so bravely."

The wizard nodded gravely. It had been pure fortune he had been in his laboratory that day. Many wizards had lost their lives in the audience chamber, slaughtered before they could activate any defensive spells, let alone any offensive spells. Many more had fallen in combat throughout the city by the side of the army. Although it had been too hectic to tell at the time, most of the attacking forces had been held off and defeated several blocks away from the Palace. Unfortunately, those that broke through had been most adequate for the job of decimating the court. Only a few had survived that battle. Most too brave for their own good, throwing themselves into a battle they did not have the means to survive. Against modern weaponry anything less than full magical armor or similar defensive abilities and spells meant almost instant death for the normal human. The few to survive had been the absent, many of the wives who had been present, and the less than brave. The court and the nobles of the land would not soon forget that day, or soon recover from it.

"Arrange a meeting for us under the Sacred Tree. It will be simply the Shogun and I. And the guards, of course. Keep them inconspicuous. The Tree will provide more than adequate warning of danger. Meanwhile, I need to decide on appropriate reward for our guest… as well as a reply in regards to her purpose here. It may be wise to forge closer ties to allies who can produce such an effective fighter," the Emperor nodded to himself in thought.

"Indeed. I wish we had more witnesses, but at the time the heart of the conflict took place most were gone, dead or unconscious. One guard was semi-conscious but even he is not sure if he was hallucinating. Considering the damage done, at least some of what he thought he saw occurred."

"If even part of what he reported is accurate she might be as good as she boasted. Make the arrangements. Meanwhile, contact the New Republic. They have a better chance of tracking down the source of that attack than we do. Although some of the attackers clearly used magic, it was obvious that technology was its preferred method. Send messages to the Daimyo to gather our forces. Hmm, sent a request to the monasteries for any available monks, mystics, and Demon Quellers. They are an independent lot, but I think they'll honor a request from their Emperor and they all have significant powers at their disposal. Once we track the down source of the attack, we'll show them how well we can fight with some preparation," the Emperor said with a grim smile. The Empire hadn't been hurt this badly in almost a hundred years. It was time to share the pain.

 

 

A man in black lacquered armor hurried down the corridors of the palace. With the recent attack his ceremonial armor had taken a much more practical meaning. He almost wished that he had been with the Emperor for the attack, but admitted to himself that he probably would have merely joined the body count. No, it was his role as the Emperor's strategist, tactician, and general that was needed now. The Empire had obviously taken too many things for granted. It was time to organize the military into a more active force. With this unfortunate incident, he believed he could convince the Emperor of the necessity. Deep in thought, he almost ran over a figure waiting for him in the hallway. Stopping just short he finally took note of the man dressed in the current style of nobility. That by itself was of interest considering the few that presently remained alive in Kyoto. When his mind registered the identity of the man in front of him he groaned to himself.

"My Lord Shogun. I must talk to you regarding my niece. It is..." his voice was overridden by the deeper voice of the Shogun's.

"Your niece has made her bed in the Devil's chamber and must live with the consequences. My grandmother found this menace that your family has ignored and let roam the land and I find it unacceptable. Since you obviously can't deal with your rebellious child, the Empire will," the Shogun stated with an air of finality. Of course, one possessed Demon Queller was no longer the priority it once was. She was also a source of embarrassment to more than just her family. From the initial reports, they had expected to be able to track the girl through artifact of evil her family was supposed to guard. Unfortunately, no trace of it could presently be found. However, reports kept cropping up of sightings of a girl matching the description of the Demon Queller wandering Kyoto and the Palace asking directions to find a demon. It was infuriating to have a menace of this magnitude waltzing impudently through his security. No amount of magic or men seemed to slow her down. He wasn't certain of the goal of the possessed individual but was unwilling to see it achieved... whatever it was.

"Please reconsider, my Lord. She was such a promising girl. I do not claim to understand what happened to her but I'm sure she can be purified of her evil influences. All my family asks for is a chance to redeem her."

The Shogun's initial impulse was a curt refusal. The look in the man's eyes made him pause for a moment. It was beneath him to curry favor from nobles, but it never hurt to have people in your debt. "I will not relent on my position regarding your niece," the Shogun slowly stated. "However, if you or your family find her before my guards or the army does, you may attempt to free her. If you succeed, I will stop any further attempt to apprehend her and will forget the incident. If we find her first there will be no mercy. I also expect proof that your family has met your obligations concerning the artifact."

The Shogun nodded to himself, his guards were already overextended, and he only expected the situation to worsen. By relaxing his position to this extent he allowed this noble to do the work for him. If the child could be reclaimed, fine. If not, he would deal with it after the present emergency. So far, she hadn't injured anyone which allowed him an amount of flexibility in this situation. Yes, this was a satisfactory solution.

"Thank you, my lord. I am extremely grateful for your leniency..." he trailed off as it became obvious that the Shogun was paying little attention to him. Counting himself fortunate he nodded to the armored lord and quickly retreated. Now it was simply a question of finding his errant niece... and the object she bore.

 

 

In a darkened room three holographic displays were being shown on one side of the room. The first showed a 20-story building surrounded by armored agents and giant robot vehicles. The ground around it was littered by the broken bodies of humans in various civilian and militia dress. The massed missile fire of the surrounding horde was turned on the building. Within ten minutes the only thing that remained was a large mound of rubble with shattered ceramic and twisted beams of metal occasionally poking out. The mercenaries turned as one and flew through the portal that had been waiting for them.

The dark-robed figure nodded in satisfaction. That operation had been a complete success. Bracing himself he turned to face the second display.

Once again the image burst into motion. The first part of it showed an overhead view of the mercenary forces arrayed against the guards and military of the New Empire. It was obvious that they were not prepared for the forces that had charged through the portal. Still, they rallied and within a short time had slowed the attacker's advance to a crawl. After several minutes of being held back by spells and enchanted weapons, the mercenaries gained a momentary advantage that allowed a small group of attackers to break through and make their way to the Palace.

The same image changed from an overhead view to an interior view of the Palace audience chamber. The figure grimaced as the Emperor was allowed to escape, but took some small satisfaction that the majority of the old court had been eliminated. It was enough to create an opening his forces could exploit. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw the red-headed envoy join in the battle and the devastation she wreaked. They narrowed in calculation as the end of the battle shows the bruised and bleeding envoy barely able to stand. The envoy was truly a fearful warrior but also had clear limits. If only a few more of his forces had broken through the battle would have had a different victor.

He turned to face the last hologram as it had started the record of the last relevant battle. He frowned as the initial volley of missiles broke a few windows and caused superficial damage but had little real effect. Obviously, their information on the Republic and the Council building had been incomplete. The subsequent missile fire seemed to be making slow progress. Holes could soon be seen in the hardened surface of the roof and sides of the top floors. The large surge of light that arced from the ground came as a surprise. As the man focused on the source of the disturbance he followed the hit and run tactics and later, the crash and defense, of the bandana boy and the cyborg.

As the clip ended he thought in silence for a moment before turning to the figure at his side. "I don't believe in coincidence. The two people who interfered in our plans didn't just appear. One we know to be from Lazlo. The other one seems to have a similar fighting style. Send agents to see who he is and what he wants. Do not be deceived by the obvious. I have suspicions that he is likewise from Lazlo. I had dismissed this city as a mere distraction, but if they can field two fighters of this magnitude then we need to rethink this."

"There is a limit to what we can accomplish regarding Lazlo," the inhumanly motionless silhouette replied. "We know little about the city except for the information we were able to extract from their agent. As you can see, the more we find out the more dubious it appears to be."

"Concentrate on finding out about the two agents. I will contact our allies. I doubt they have any spies in place at present, but they have the kind of resources required to find the city of Lazlo and place them. They are very good at that," the robed man absently tapped his desk.

"What about the plan? The results we achieved with the New Republic was disappointing, but I believe the other two targets were sufficiently hurt that we could implement stage two," the hollow metallic voice responded.

"Yes. Without most of his court and the many ranking officers that were killed during the battle, the New Empire is as vulnerable as it has been in my memory. As for Takamatsu… well, they don't have a government to speak of," a small chuckle escaped him. "I think it would be a perfect time. The only catch could be the New Republic. Still... chances are they will offer to ally with the other two. That will make stage two more difficult, but it will also spread the New Republic's resources very thin."

"Can we hope for any concrete support from the Atlanteans?"

"It's unlikely at the moment. They are still focused on their own plans at the moment, but spies, magic, and a bit of borrowed technology are possible. Just not any fighters. We won't need to actually use our own people and resources until the next stage anyway."


Chapter 11: Snake in the Grass

Ranma-chan looked up at the canopy of foliage that hung over her like some surrealistic painting of the Norse World Tree. She had noticed it as she arrived in Kyoto, but had simply shrugged and passed through as quickly as possible. The 'tree' stood over a thousand feet high, spreading its huge limbs over twice that area. It was difficult to tell with any accuracy, since most of the limbs were high above her, but the leaves had to be at least as large as a human. While it was certainly far larger than even the tallest tree in Ryugenzawa it wasn't the sheer size that was making her nervous. The whole area radiated a sense of power. Even though Ranma-chan had mastered the control of her increased chi reserve, this area seemed to slightly increase the potency of her power. Not enough to cause the loss of control she had initially suffered, but enough to cause an uncomfortable bloating sensation. There was also the creepy feeling that the tree was watching everything she did. With an effort, she was able to dismiss this as paranoia.

Her sense of unease was further enhanced by the fact that the Emperor was seated across from the temporary table that been set up on the ground under the tree. Beside him sat a huge man in black armor which tingled with strong enchantments. A little distance away Ranma-chan could sense the guards of the Emperor behind the smaller bushes and trees that were able to survive under its greater cousin and among the root system that pervaded the ground.

"This is sure is a weird... er, interesting place. Big tree. Really big. Is there an Oroichi around here somewhere?" Ranma-chan broke the silence before it got too uncomfortable.

"I haven't heard of an... Orochi... in the area. Why do you ask?" the Emperor responded, seemingly at his ease in the odd surroundings.

"Well, the only time I saw stuff this large was in Ryugenzawa. And that was because the Orochi had caused some Water of Life to form. Which in turn caused a bunch of big plants and animals to grow."

"No, our tree is a singular entity. As far as I know, it is the sole tree of its kind. As for giant animals, the only ones I've seen are the Oni who borrow their shape."

"Oh, I guess it's just as well, the Orochi is a menace... and a pervert. Hey, are those people up there on those branches?"

"Yes. Approximately 150,000 of my subjects live in the tree. The tree forms dwellings for those that wish to live here."

"You make it sound like it's intelligent," Ranma-chan stated, slightly puzzled.

"It is. Or at least that is what the priests say. It has acted in an intelligent manner in the past so we must treat it as such. It has done great things for our people."

"Done? What can a tree do?"

"Hmm... it gives those worthy artifacts of great power, calms storms and brings harmony. If enemies approach the city from this direction the tree has the ability to deal with all but the greatest foes. It has also healed many of the people of the land at one time or another. We owe it a great debt. As we do you."

"Eh?" Ranma-chan asked, startled at the sudden change in subject.

"Yes. I acknowledge that I owe you my life. Part of the reason I invited you to this place is to reward you."

"Oh, thanks. I don't need no reward. Helping other people is the responsibility of all martial artists... and envoys, I guess," Ranma-chan ended, slightly less than positive regarding the role of an envoy included such duties.

The Emperor himself seemed confused by this, before visibly shaking off the state and continuing. "Never the less, I have a reward in mind, but if you have any specific desires I can certainly see if we can fulfill them as well."

"Nah, I don't need anything... well actually... now that I think of it I could use something. If you have any scrolls describing martial arts techniques I'm always looking for new ones. I don't need the original or anything, a copy will do fine. Hmm, actually all I need to do is read it once. I'm no scholar but if it's martial arts..." Ranma-chan started showing a little more eagerness at the prospect of adding to her repertoire of techniques.

"I think we can accommodate you. I can also request some of the monks and perhaps one of the Tengu to speak with you. They are an obnoxious bunch but I'm sure they would appreciate sparring with you and may even part with some of their secrets," the Emperor said good-naturedly.

Ranma-chan's eyes gleamed at the thought. To her mind sparring was one of the best ways to learn another's techniques. You were able to see how the other actually used the maneuver in a real-life situation. Her opponents were always surprised when she used their own style against them. What else could they expect? She was Ranma Saotome, and if it had martial arts in it she could do anything. She grudgingly admitted that Ryouga was almost as good as she was... but she would never say so where pig-boy could hear her.

"What's a Tengu?" Ranma-chan asked, shaking herself out of her happy stupor.

"They are a mostly benevolent race of bipedal avians. Most of them are also incredibly irritating. They are the masters of an interesting style of aerial combat. It's very athletic," the Emperor stated, smiling to himself as he noticed a wide grin on the red head's face. Ranma-chan was just excited about sparring with someone else with a similar style as Anything Goes. No matter how many other styles she integrated into her technique, Anything Goes was closer to her heart, of course, the style was mostly a philosophy that used any technique that worked, but the Saotome subclass was her favorite. After all, mid-air combat was a Soatome specialty, it would be good to add to the school.

"Great! I guess that's all, I don't really need anything else."

"Excellent! As I mentioned earlier, I already have in mind something for you. I have considered the proposal you laid out for me just before the attack. I accept. It is simply a matter of finding an efficient way to transfer goods between our countries."

"Proposal?" Ranam-chan's mind went blank as she tried to remember what she had said just before the attack. It was something about chicken teriyaki.

"Yes. You had just started a list of trade goods from Lazlo..." the Emperor prodded.

"Oh... Oh! That! Yeah right! I talked to Nabiki about that, and she had a way to transport the goods. She had a teleport circle set up in one of the rooms that can go to Lazlo. I think she mentioned that it can go here as well but she needs a receiving circle to lock in on. She's willing to offer this service for... for... I think she said five percent."

"Hmm. I think not. We have mages of our own who are quite capable of such services... unless... well I suppose if she was willing to reduce that to one percent and guarantee shipment, with a deposit for surety, I might find a use for this service."

Ranma-chan started getting nervous. The last thing she wanted was Nabiki mad at her. The last time that had happened her life had become a living hell until Nabiki decided that she had suffered enough. Nabiki was part of the reason a vacation from Nerima had seemed enticing. Now that Nabiki could follow her with spells, there was no escape. However, letting a deal fall through because she was afraid to bargain would be to guarantee her wrath.

"Uh... three percent. And she only guarantees the shipment once it arrives at the holding area until it leaves to go to Lazlo or wherever you want it shipped," Ranma-chan stated sweat pouring down her face. She really hated negotiation... unless it was done with her fists.

"Make it two percent and I will agree to the terms."

"Yes! I mean... that would be acceptable," Ranma-chan exclaimed, sagging with relief.

"I am glad we could come to an agreement," turning to his black armored companion he continued, "You can stop frowning now. The negotiation is done with."

"Trade is beneath you. You should have someone else deal with such petty concerns," the Shogun stated in a disapproving tone.

"Until our court has recovered we must make exceptions. If this is the worst that I am required to do in this time of crisis I will thank the kami."

"I understand, my Emperor," the large man stated, only slightly soothed.

"Getting back to the issue of your reward. I can't have this transport circle set up in the palace. It would be a security breach that couldn't be tolerated. I was thinking of combining this with your reward. One-fifth of a mile in that direction is a small estate. The previous owners died in the attack, leaving no known inheritors. I would like for you to accept this land and a moderate title of nobility from me."

"I... I..."

"It is agreed then. It will be your new home as long as you dwell in my land. The transport circle will be set up in the basement of the mansion. This has worked out wonderfully. I assume you are pleased?"

"I... well... sure," Ranma-chan had the feeling that she had walked into an elaborate set-up. It was a feeling that she was coming to be familiar with as she wandered the multiverse. Back home it was usually only Nabiki and Cologne that made her feel this way. It seemed that out in the wider world every god, entity, and Emperor was a con man at heart.

"By the way, who is this Nabiki. Her name seems to be coming up frequently."

"She's the sister of one of my fiancée's."

"Fiancées? I suppose they do things very differently in Lazlo," the Emperor stated dubiously.

"It's my Pop's fault he promised me in marriage to anyone with a bowl of rice," Ranma-chan scowled at the remembrance of consistently being waylaid by a new fiancée. "It's a long story and I'll be dealing with the mess Pop left me for... a long time from now."

"Sounds difficult. We must respect our elders, but they make it difficult at times," the Emperor nodded sagely.

"Anyway, Nabiki is the business... person of the Tendo Dojo that I stay at."

"It's good to have family... or almost family connections," the Emperor turned to a girl who had approached and was apparently waiting to ask something. "Excuse me, young lady, I don't believe you belong here. Please leave," he continued in a firm voice, looking around and wondering why his guards hadn't moved into position yet.

Ranma-chan just looked in embarrassment at the ground, then around at the guards who seemed oblivious to the stranger, then up at the foliage far above. Anywhere except the girl.

"Excuse me. Have you seen... a demon around here? It looks... well I seem to recall something about red. Yes, it was definitely red."

As the girl asked this the huge man in black armor whirled around from where he had been facing, a look of fury on his face.

"You! I don't know how you've avoided my guards until now, but it ends here!" the Shogun roared in anger.

"Hey, no need to get violent, big guy. If you haven't seen her... it, just say so," the girl stated slightly belligerently, unwilling to accept rudeness from strangers.

"I'll show you violence, you little irritant! Guards! This is the possessed one you were supposed to be searching for. I suggest you take this opportunity to rid yourselves of her."

From the bushes and trees surrounding the area came a rustling sound as guards who had been ignoring the situation came to attention and started to head for the clearing. From the expression on the approaching guards, it was obvious that they were unaware of how the girl had walked past all of them. Attempting to make up for the apparent lack of vigilance they rushed forward to confront the source of their humiliation.

"Hey guys, that's not really necessary! She's mostly harmless without that sword of her's..." Ranma-chan's voice trailed off as one guard was easily disarmed and laid out on the ground, armor cracked, in a dazed state. As the other guards were slowly whittled down and beaten into unconsciousness one by one Ranma-chan watched in disgust.

"Man, that is pathetic. I mean she's okay, but your guys need to work on their technique. That blow was obviously a feint. She doesn't even have that big nasty sword of her's anymore," Ranma-chan continued to critique the skills of the guards until only three of them remained. These were the best of the group and by working together them managed to keep her at bay.

"This is a little better. See how the guy on left is keeping his defense up. Hah, nice parry, but he missed that opening..." as Ranma-chan rambled on her attention absorbed in the martial display in front of her she missed the Shogun's face slowly turning beet red in fury.

"Stop the annoying analysis and stop the girl if you're so superior!"

"Interfere with another martial artist's fight? Why on earth would I want to do that? I'd be furious if someone tried that with me. Besides, she may be certified psycho but she never tried to kill anyone except me," Ranma-chan stated as if all she said was self-evident.

Seeing the Shogun was on the verge of bursting a blood vessel the Emperor decided to take control of the conversation once more. "You know this girl?"

"Yep, she chased me through... some province I don't recall right now... and was really a menace with that big sword. Before she got the sword she was a bit interesting to spar with... afterward, ugh, that thing wanted my soul. I would have destroyed the damn thing if I could have," she muttered, an angry gleam in her eye.

"She doesn't seem to have the sword now," the Emperor stated calmly.

"Well of course not! It was seriously evil. It's a martial artist's duty to remove that kind of thing from the world."

"And..." the Emperor prompted.

"Oh. I took it away from her," Ranma-chan casually said, her attention still on the martial display.

"Very interesting. She doesn't seem to hold a grudge. I would think she would still be after you. She didn't even notice you."

"That's because... hey, nice disarm! If the other guard hadn't stepped in that could have been the end of it for him. Er... anyway, I used an ancient technique from China that blocks specific things from your memory. Very effective, but it doesn't last more than a few weeks if you're strong-willed. She's already starting to remember things about her 'demon'."

"What brings her here if she can't remember you?"

"I'm not really sure. She keeps finding me, but since she can't remember that I'm her 'demon' she wanders off again. It's really embarrassing. I was hoping she'd get tired of walking in circles by now," she said to herself.

"Do you know she's possessed?"

"Nah, she can't be. I hit her a couple of times already. If she'd been possessed the Oni would have been driven out. I've had that happen before. She's just a psychopath," Ranma-chan was pretty sure about this point, she had experience with psychopaths.

"You hit her so she can't be possessed?" The Emperor looked in askance to the Shogun, who in turn simply shrugged. "I think we're talking about a different kind of possession. She is definitely either possessed or directly under supernatural control. The Shogun's grandmother was the first to detect it."

"Really? Hmm, let's see," closing her eyes, she focused her chi senses on the combat. She noted in passing that all the combatants still standing wore and wielded substantial amounts of magic. Ignoring the tingling that indicated enchantment she focused on the spiritual energies of the warriors. She noted that Masayo's chi was tainted, but not to the extent that would prove that her spirit had been overcome. She was about to come out from her light trance when she noted a slight surge of energy that focused her attention at the Demon Queller's arm. Opening her eyes she saw the serpentine bracelet wrapped around the girl's wrist. Her eyes narrowed in understanding, "Ah! Maybe you're right. So... she's probably not really a violent, psychopathic macho chick. Weird... I could have sworn she was just like Akane." Well okay, Akane's not really that bad, more like Kodachi. Still... I'll have to check her when I get back. It might explain her cooking.

"So, you understand that it is actually in her best interest to subdue the girl," the Emperor gave the Shogun a warning glance when it seemed he would object.

"Well... okay. I mean if she's possessed it would probably be the right thing to do. I just hate fighting girls. Are you sure your guards won't be upset if I interrupt their fight? It looks like a good match-up."

"I'm sure they will understand. It is to help the girl."

"Okay, they were starting to use the same maneuvers anyway." With that last comment, she hurled herself over the melee. Masayo lifted her weapon to guard against what seemed to be an overhead attack. However, when Ranma-chan didn't close for a direct attack, actually passing well above to land behind Masayo, the girl seemed to immediately forget her presence once she was out of the direct line of sight.

Ranma-chan was satisfied. As long as she was limiting herself by trying not to hurt the Demon Queller, Masayo was good enough to hold Ranma-chan for an extended amount of time. By staying out of sight she took advantage of the memory technique she had used earlier. Ignored by the combatants, Ranma-chan examined her hunter carefully, selected her targets and quickly moved her fingers to the correct pressure points.

As expected, the Demon Queller froze. Ranma-chan quickly grabbed the back of the light armor the girl wore and with a strong tug, pulled the girl away from the guards before any unfortunate accidents could occur. With the imminent danger passed she lifted the girl's stiffened arm towards her to better examine the bracelet.

Ranma-chan snorted in disgust. She couldn't believe she hadn't noticed it before. It seemed to shift color from iridescent silver to gold. The figure itself was finely detailed down to the smallest scale. A memory tugged at the edge of his consciousness. Now, where had he seen a snake like this one. It wasn't as if he had come across too many before.

"Have you found something?" the Emperor asked, keeping a wary distance from the fallen girl.

"I think this bracelet is the cause of the problem. I've seen something like this before... I've got it! They were Mephisto's minions. Strange, I remember them being somewhat larger," she noticed a slight movement in the enchanted device and looked at the coiled serpent once more. "I think we should back away, the snake thing is starting to move."

Sure enough, the once immobile figurine seemed to be pulsing with an inner light and writhing. As its body twisted, it also gained in size, slowly, almost imperceptibly, then gathering speed. Within ten seconds it had reached the size Ranma-chan remembered, twenty feet long and three feet thick.

"Yeah, sure he won't hold a grudge. What is this? A thank you gift?" Ranma-chan muttered bitterly to herself. The gods obviously held certain Deevil Lords in far too high esteem.

Sensing a tingling sensation that seemed to act as a precursor to most enchantments Ranma-chan acted. Guessing what the spell was by past experience she shouted, "Bean Jam Blowout". The powerful whirlwind fought briefly for dominance with the wind summoned by the serpent. The conflict lasted several moments before both wind funnels were deflected in different directions. The chi generated wind shot off to the left picking up several unconscious guards and depositing them several hundred yards away. The deevil's attack was sent in the opposite direction simply knocking the Shogun to the ground.

Seeing the Deevil temporarily stationary from the aftermath of the spell, Ranma-chan took advantage of the opening to level several ‘Fierce Tiger Roar’ chi bursts at its face. She wasn't really worried about the creature, she had fought an army of them before. It had some unpleasant spells at its disposal, but nothing deadly by itself. She felt another tingling sensation and leaped into close combat with the entity. Her guess at the effects of the spell proved to be correct as the area behind her turned in a watery mixture of sand. At close range, she was almost certain that the deevil's spells would be ineffectual. Behind her, she heard shouting as the three remaining guards were caught in the newly formed morass.

Her first leap forward allowed her to unleash the Chestnut Fist at the head of the creature. To avoid retaliation and keep it off balance, she then leaped over the creature, raking the hide of the deevil with hands positioned like talons.

Ranma-chan was surprised the creature was still conscious. It seemed tougher than the others she had fought. Perhaps the energy-rich environment that had benefited Ranma-chan had similar effects on the deevil. It was time to pull out the bigger guns. As this thought drifted through her mind she felt a hard impact from the side as the serpent swiftly twisted in an unexpected direction. Tucking her feet under her she turned the impact into a controlled somersault, landing on her feet thirty feet away.

Looking down at her clothes she noted a small tear on the cuff of her shirt. "You scum! That was my favorite shirt," actually considering it was actually a part of an enchanted robe of guises that was presently acting as her wardrobe, it was technically her only shirt. The robe would repair itself, but it was the principle.

Leaping from one tree to another she quickly picked up speed until she was a blur rapidly rotating around the deevil. The creature attempted to track the speeding object but ended up spinning aimlessly around in a circle. Several ineffectual spells proved to the creature that this was a situation it hadn't a clue as to how to deal with. It rapidly began to retreat from the center of the bouncing human's path. Ranma-chan took this as the cue to finish the maneuver.

"Meteor Kick," her form glowed with focused chi as her foot impacted with the Deevil.  It shot backwards a hundred feet in a writhing coiled mess.

Expecting to see a prone serpent lying on the ground she was taken by surprise by a battered and annoyed monster unwinding itself from the ground and moving toward her. "Geesh, what are you the bionic deevil? I would have been in serious trouble if you guys had been this tough the first time around in hell." The deevil itself took advantage of the red head's stationary nature to cast an appropriate spell. As Ranma-chan found herself sinking into the ground she cursed herself for her inattention. Grimacing she took the only readily available option.

"Bean Jam Blowout!"

A water spout formed around the redhead composed of mud, sand and viscous fluids. She shot into the air as if from a catapult, barely able to steer the funnel enough not to be thrown far from the battlefield. At the apex of the ascent, she vaguely noticed people shouting and pointing as she passed over the enormous bough that they stood on. As she landed from the six-hundred-foot drop, her feet sank into the forest floor more than six inches. Snorting in disgust the martial artist looked down at herself to see a thick coat of mud covering her.

"All right, obviously I've been going way too easy on you! I'd call this a final attack, but I think you're a bit too tough for that, ‘Vacuum Blades’," Ranma-chan declared while slashing at the air in front of her. Energy blades formed in front of her traveling rapidly forward to strike the Deevil in the chest. Although the blades cut deep, it was nowhere near lethal. "Damn sometimes being right sucks," Ranma-chan muttered to herself.

To be honest the thing hadn't done much more than bruise her but she didn't know why it was still up after all the damage she had dished out. Down on its own plane, it hadn't taken more than three Chestnut Fists to put down one of the things. Weren't demons supposed to be stronger on their own plane?

"Fine. This worked on an elemental. No way you're tougher than that," she said while beginning a spiral pattern. Without an external heat source, she was forced to perform the technique the old-fashioned way but felt it would worth the effort.

The serpent itself was tired of this battle. It hadn't been going as well as it had hoped. This world was like bathing in font of energy, this combined with what Mephisto had empowered it with had most likely made it among the most powerful of its kind. Yet it was finding that it wasn't enough. This human had reduced it to almost half of what it was at the beginning of the battle. The one strike it had connected with on the human had very little effect. Its spells likewise seemed lacking in results. If retreat hadn't meant death at the hands of the master, it would have left already. As it was, the best it could hope for was a few more lucky strikes or be fortunate to position the human so it could use one of its less common spells. It was with this state of mind that the deevil followed Ranma-chan into the spiral, never quite touching the infuriating human, but close enough that it couldn't give up.

"Heavenly Dragon Ascension!"

Upon completing the technique, the vortex engulfed the deevil and while rising up into the air began to spread out, forming a huge funnel that extended far beyond the top of the huge tree, and in fact showed no sign of diminishing. The creature was shot from the center of the man-made tornado while the raging chi energies ripped at the vital energies the creature. As it reached the level of the tree boughs it struck one, breaking completely through the small limb. The destruction of the branch seemed to signal the beginning of an apocalypse. The torn limb emitted a large explosion completely engulfing the already battered deevil before being absorbed in the funnel. The energy merely added to the destructive force inherent in the twister, ripping small leaves and twigs from their place on the monolithic tree. These, in turn, were swallowed by the chi phenomenon shaking more leaves and twigs free, causing more explosions and releasing more energy into the funnel. The deevil crashed into two more tree limbs, ripping them away from the main tree body and in turn releasing huge eruptions of force. By the time the funnel had risen above the Kyoto Tree it was a vast force of destruction that hovered above the city and slowly moved away, glowing with its internal energies.

Ranma-chan looked at the destruction that lay in the wake of the ‘Heavenly Ascending Dragon’, mouth gaping in confusion. It had never done that before, and what was with the exploding tree. That was a definite hazard if people actually lived up there. Fortunately, the people had the sense to run for the nearest shelter once the larger chi effects had begun to manifest.

"What was that... monstrosity?" she heard the Emperor's voice call out.

"That was a Serpent, they're mostly servants of Mephisto..."

"No! That hellish whirlwind!"

"Er..." Ranma-chan briefly entertained the idea of saying it had been the Deevil's final suicide attack, but discarded the idea. It would be dishonorable, and she'd been told that she had a lousy poker face anyway. Not that she believed them but why take chances?

"Well, that was one of my Final Attacks. The ‘Heavenly Dragon Ascending’, it's not usually this big. I think it gathered energy from the tree somehow. Speaking of which... what's with the exploding tree? Isn't it kind of... dangerous to live in someplace that blows up so easily?"

"Easily? The energy release is a self-defense mechanism. It prevents vandals and thieves from taking gifts of the tree."

"I suppose. It is a lot of risk for a bit of firewood..." Ranma-chan was at a loss at how to respond to a seemingly nonsensical statement.

"The tree has puissant enchantments in the leaves and wood. By the way, why is it so cold?"

Only then did Ranma-chan notice that the people around her were exhaling long plumes of steam and the remains of the quicksand had frozen over leaving only a thick skin of ice on the surface.

"Oh, sorry. That's me, it's the first stage of the Heavenly Dragon Ascending. I'll stop it now," she said, simultaneously dismissing the 'body of ice' effect. She never noticed the cold, but this was the first time people had mentioned such severe side effects. It must be the new area she was in.

"I'm sorry about your tree too, I hadn't expected that big a reaction. I mean it usually big, but not that big. No one got hurt, I think," she offered.

"Which is the sole reason we may choose to ignore this whole debacle," the hoarse voice of the Shogun warned as he limped towards the group. He grew silent under the warning glance of the Emperor. The Lazlo envoy was becoming a very valuable person to have around, despite the collateral damage that seemed to follow her around. So long as none of his subjects were injured he saw no need to quibble about the results. The Demon Queller had been freed and no one had died. He believed the Sacred Tree would forgive a few rustled leaves and broken twigs.

"Now regarding the sword you took from this young lady," the Emperor said with a gesture toward the still unconscious woman that lay undisturbed on the ground near their feet. "It was this lady's family responsibility to guard the blade. She has failed in this duty and will undoubtedly spend most of her life atoning for this. Never the less, I need to know the location of the weapon to assure none will use it again."

"Are you sure? It's pretty safe where it is, and if you can't destroy the thing, hiding and forgetting about is the next best thing," Ranma-chan offered her hard-won wisdom.

"The problem with that solution is that hidden things are invariably found. Allowing our ignorant descendants to shoulder the burden would be irresponsible. We must deal with problems as they occur rather than hand them to others. As someone who must deal with your father's poor judgment, I'm sure you understand."

"Well, when you put it that way... okay. I had to deal with my share of 'lost' artifacts so I guess it makes sense. All right, about a day out of Kyoto is a big patch of newly turned dirt where the road should be. You can't miss it. Just dig forty meters straight down and there it is."

"You buried it forty meters?"

"Hey! I was in a hurry! I wasn't sure when the luni... I mean the nice possessed person would wake up," she said defensively.

"Ah... that's fine," the Emperor said faintly. He would have to get used to extremes from this individual.

A chill went down Ranma-chan's spine as she sensed a chi signature where her other senses claimed there was nothing. A swirl of air signaled the departure of an unseen force.

Holding up her hand for silence she walked over to where she had sensed something. In the thawed but still firm ground was a deep imprint of a clawed foot. "Whatever left this was just here a moment ago. Do you have any idea who or what it was?"

"This bodes ill. That is a dragon's track. A benevolent creature would be unlikely to hide itself from us. I must assume this particular dragon does not have good intentions. " Turning to his armored companion he continued, "Shogun, gather the wizards and what Demon Quellers are in the area. Go to the location of the sword as swiftly as possible. Be wary of large supernatural entities. I believe it will be a race, so be sure to use whatever means the wizards have at their disposal. It seems there is no end to the emergencies."

"I suppose I could help," Ranma-chan offered.

"No. This contest will be determined by the speed we get there. If we arrive first the dragon will not dare contest our possession of the blade. Such creatures are very powerful, but our mages will be prepared for battle and there will be many of them. However, if it finds the site first..."

"It will be gone when we arrive," the Shogun finished grimly, slapping one of the unconscious guards awake. "Wake Up! Run ahead and ready the travel room. Hurry!" As the guards staggered away at a half trot the Shogun strode rapidly after him.

"He is a bit of a grump," the redhead growled as the Shogun left.

"He takes his responsibilities very seriously. Our Shogun is probably the greatest general in the history of our Empire. I understand that in the past the Shoguns ruled, either without the Emperor and or with the Emperor as a mere figurehead. He accepts his place and supports me in all things. Whether or not he wholeheartedly agrees with my decisions. He is a good man despite his moodiness."

"Okay. I can respect that. But he is a sourpuss," Ranma-chan stated.

"Yes. But he is my Shogun," the Emperor stated simply.

"Well now that the excitement is temporarily over and the rest of my guards are wandering back or waking up, let's walk to your estate. It's just outside of the perimeter of the great tree. I took the liberty of setting up a circle in the basement." Ranma-chan scowled at the man's retreating back. Emperor or no, she hated being led around. Deep in thought, she didn't notice the branch that was descending on her until it had impacted her on the head. Unharmed, but embarrassed she rubbed her head. "Hey! This place is dangerous! Are you sure it's safe for normal people to live here?" she complained.

"What? Oh my, you are fortunate. The Tree has forgiven you for your accident and has given you a branch as a token. When we get to the house I'll have the wizard or priest see what magic it is imbued with. By the way, the mage will need to speak with your Nabiki in order to set the proper receiving coordinates in the circle. I trust you can contact her?"

"Sure," the martial artist stated shortly. She wasn't too pleased with how the 'gift' had been delivered. Still, after the chi attack had gone out of control like that she was lucky to still be welcome in the country. Now she would have to go find someplace private and shout at Anhur again. Maybe Nabiki could figure out a way to contact her directly.

Perhaps by the time they arrived at the estate the enchanted clothes she wore would have cleaned themselves a bit. Squelching slightly as she walked, she trudged after the Emperor.

When the Shogun arrived at the designated area, an excavated vertical column, ten feet in diameter led straight down into the earth. No sign of sword or dragon was seen except tracks similar to those seen under the Sacred Tree. The wizards that made up the party agreed that enchantments had been used to create the tunnel, and spent most of their time there arguing the exact method and magic used. The Shogun was more interested in the present location of the blade, but no effective means were found to track the artifact or the creature responsible for its theft.


Chapter 12: Opening Gambit

Komar watched from the side of the dojo area as the combat progressed. It was glaringly obvious to her that Ranma-chan was not fighting to her full potential. It wasn't just the lack of mass destruction and the fact that the building was still mostly in one piece that clued her to this. What really underscored the fact was that Ranma-chan stayed mostly on the ground. There were no extravagant leaps, somersaults, or other seemingly impossible maneuvers that had been so common in the fights that she had witnessed out in the wilderness. Yesterday when she had brought up the subject in front of the monk she had been sparring with she had earned a flush of embarrassment and been hushed by Ranma-chan.

Later that evening, after the slightly disgruntled martial artist challenger had left Ranma-chan had explained things to her.

"Yeah see Komar... there's actually a couple reasons why I didn't use all my techniques. The first is that I asked the Emperor to have these fighters challenge me so I could expand my knowledge of the modern Japanese Martial Art schools. If I used everything I know the fights would be much shorter. Of course I'd win... but what would I learn? So, I limit the techniques I use in combat to the schools of those who fight me. I am challenged by a master of Ninjitsu, I defend and attack with the same school."

"But you still win. What can you learn from these fighters?"

"Yes, I win but the fight takes much longer. I have pretty much already mastered most of the traditional martial art schools, but not all of them. You may notice that when I first fight someone they usually seem to be doing really well?"

"Sure! I got really worried. I thought you were sick," Komar answered quietly.

"Well, that happened when I am unfamiliar with his school. I haven't mastered the offenses or defenses of my opponent yet. They get a few good hits in. Fortunately, even with me keeping my chi level as low as possible I am incredibly durable in this world so I can afford quite a few hits," she mentioned in typically modest Saotome fashion. "As the fight progresses I see more of the style and integrate them into my own. I also get better at pulling them off. Not everybody is happy with how I learn things. I fought a monk two days ago who was mighty pissed that I was stealing his precious Zanji Shinjinken-Ryo technique, fortunately, he kept attacking me anyway. He should have fought me in another style if he didn't want me to learn it. That or fight me in the dark. He had some good moves and even some painful attacks."

"Why keep your chi levels down? Isn't high chi levels good?"

"If I were fighting for real, sure. Proper focus of chi allows incredible increases in strength and speed. In this world, it also makes me very difficult to hurt. However, it goes back to what I was saying about learning as opposed to winning. If I was using chi like I do for a real fight or even back home, the battle would be over in minutes and I wouldn't learn very much," Ranma-chan continued thoughtfully. "I’ve been trying to adapt the ‘Way of the Silent Thief’ to suppress my chi and aura. It doesn't make me as weak or fragile as a normal human, but it does... temporarily... partially compensate for the durability training that I've spent most of my life practicing."

"So, the people you fight aren't as good as I thought they were?"

"Ha! No, they're some of the best the Empire has to offer. They're good too, even by my standards. Some of them could give Shampoo or Ukyo a serious run for their money. I'm just really awesome," Ranma-chan shrugged, causing Komar to dissolve into giggles. Ranma-chan looked slyly out of the corner of her eye at the little girl, "It also helps that even with the aura suppression I'm about five times tougher than anyone I've fought. They do practice body hardening but it usually just involves being beaten with punches, kicks, training under a waterfall... you know... wimpy stuff. The ‘Breaking Point’ training would seem to be suicide for them. Their training is enough to stand toe to toe with the oni, but they're at a serious disadvantage with greater supernatural creatures. They do have a few decent attacks but... the only one who came close to putting me down for the count was an old man I fought a few days ago, Kirinen is his name. He used something he called the ‘Withering Touch’. Hurt like heck," she smilingly reminisced. "It disrupts the chi to a huge degree. I think it might even kill a normal person. I think he only used it 'cause we'd been fighting for an hour and he was confident I would survive it. Man, that was a good fight."

"But you won?"

"Yeah, but probably just because he waited till I recovered. If he'd really pressed his advantage... I might not have won until the second match," she stated with an impudent grin. "Later, I stopped using the aura suppression technique and asked the guy to show it to me again. You know what?"

"What?"

"It still hurt like heck. It's probably about as effective as the ‘Chestnut Fist’. It's not very effective through the bigger high tech armor though. Give me a few weeks and I'll figure how to do it."

"You don't know yet?"

"Gee, I'm good, but nobody's that good. Any mundane technique or style I can duplicate at a glance. Chi techniques are different. Unless they're carefully taught to you by a master, they require careful study and testing to reproduce. You can accidentally kill yourself if you don't know exactly what you're doing."

"Kill yourself?"

"Sure. I've accidentally blown myself up several times trying out a new chi technique. I'm pretty sturdy, so at my level, the real danger is in manipulating the chi energies the wrong way. Chi is the stuff of life and spirit, move it the wrong way or expend too much and you might find you don't have enough left to animate your body. It gets tricky with the powerful techniques."

Komar's attention returned to the present as Ranma-chan expertly flipped her opponent over her shoulder and as he wobbly got to his feet, she gave a slight bow to signal the end of the match. As the man walked out Komar asked another question. "Why don't you insult them like you did the oni and the weird girl we meet on the road?"

Wiping the light perspiration from her face she turned her head towards the child and cracked a smile. "Have no fear. I ain't gained no culture or nothin," with a slight snicker she continued. "Insults have their place in the martial arts. Pop uses them to motivate his students... er, that actually just includes me... hmm... maybe he's just a jerk. Nah, I'm sure it was part of the training," shaking herself out of her introspection she spoke again to Komar. "Anyway, I tried that method of training and it failed... really badly. Akane just didn't respond well. Instead of using her anger to push herself harder, she would focus on me. Which helped me with my own body hardening training, but didn't do much for her. I guess it depends on the person. During battle, it can be used to make an opponent make a critical error or act without thinking. In a contest of skill, the first to make a mistake wins. In a battle of brute force, it often backfires though. It can be used to focus an enemy's attention away from something else or simply relieve some stress."

"Sounds great! I'll start calling everyone names right away," Komar stated eagerly, only half-joking.

"Wait! Let me finish!" Ranma-chan exclaimed, not wanting to be blamed for creating an obnoxious brat. "There are also times you don't use them. For example, I mentioned the times it backfires, it also creates strong animosity. Of course, that's great when dealing with a rival or enemy, after all, who cares if they don't like you? With friends... well I insult them, but I'm sure they know I don't mean it," she said, only a trace of doubt in her voice. “Getting back to the point, these martial artists came to help me perfect my art. They are not challenging me for anything else and I'm not challenging them for anything. It would be idiotic to risk alienating sparring partners for a fleeting advantage. Not to mention that I don't want them to get sloppy, the better they perform the more I can learn from them."

"You forgot to mention not insulting the Emperor or nobles," Komar piped in.

"If you already knew when not to use them, why bring it up... hey, wait a minute! Nobles?"

"They can be dangerous... well not as much to you since you've been given a title by the Emperor and have his favor," the little girl advised with wisdom beyond her years.

Ranma-chan replied with an equal lack of wisdom belaying her years, "I ain't going out of my way to insult them, but if they start something Ranma Saotome doesn't back down," she growled, already preparing retaliation to imaginary foes. People like the Kunos really brought out the worst in her. Sure, the estate was nice but not worth cowering over, if that's what was required to keep it.

"My great aunt's a noble, she's pretty nice. She even has someone escort me here whenever I want. She's really sad since her husband died in the attack, but me and cousin Kato try to cheer her up." She still missed her mother and father but had started to accept other people besides Ranma-chan into her life over the last few days.

She was happy that she was able to visit her friend and savior every day. She had even been able to bring her cousin a couple of times. Although she was alone today, they both enjoyed watching the martial dance that had been constantly demonstrated every day for the last week. As Komar left for that afternoon, Ranma-chan sighed in regret. She was fairly certain she would be leaving soon and the sometimes sad, sometimes perky little girl was one of the things she would miss most.

There were other benefits to where she presently lived as well. Ranma-chan's estate wasn't large, but it was comfortable by almost any definition of the word. The cozy mansion had an open garden in the center of the house and in the back, it even had a decent sized dojo, or at least some kind of building Ranma-chan had been calling a dojo. Several residents were already living on the land when she arrived. One servant lived in the house, taking care of cooking and cleaning. Another lived in a modest house some distance from the main house, he took care of the stables and the grounds around the house. There were also a small number of tenants who lived a bit further away. The samurai who had previously been in the service of the noble had died outside the palace during the attack on the Emperor.

Although the income from the land was modest, it was enough to support the house, two horses and a pair of servants in comfort, if not style. There were also guests. Summoners and wizards trooped down to the basement at all hours of the day and night to set up the required enchantments for travel and protection. They estimated the room would be ready in a week.

Ranma-chan had found the days since the Emperor's gift to be busy. During the day she spared with the martial artists of the Empire. She felt slightly guilty, since she held the majority of her skill and techniques in reserve, her opponents didn't get as much out of the fight as she did. They did seem to go away satisfied though. Later when his mission was over she would come back and maybe teach some of the lesser techniques she knew in return. The greater chi techniques could only be given to her chosen students. Those she learned from Cologne also needed the matriarch's permission before they could be taught. For now, her time was devoted to learning, at least until it was time for the next step of her mission.

Sparring was an excellent way to gain skills and a few chi techniques, but she had found the scrolls brought to her enlightening as well. In the evenings, she looked over the scrolls for new information. She had invited Kirinen to help with this and was delighted with the insight he offered in the techniques. In return, she showed him a technique that could be used in this type of research. Many masters write down their techniques but are wary of them being stolen or abused so they use a method that hides an advanced technique within a seemingly simple technique. Happossai, who was a master at many things, including theft, knew the ciphers to many such codes as well as a method to create new ones. The two martial artists stayed up late many nights pouring over old scrolls.

Although many interesting things had been learned, the one gem that stood out was an ancient chi technique called the ‘Hadou Ken’. At first, Ranma-chan dismissed it as a ‘Fierce Tiger Roar’ wannabe. As she read further she realized the attack drew ambient chi from the environment around her, making for a potentially devastating attack. No details were given, only the traditional vague allusion regarding the method, effects and results. This was slightly frustrating but not unexpected, most powerful chi manipulation techniques were written thus.

Anyone capable of taking such a description and realizing it, was considered worthy of the technique. It would be difficult but Ranma-chan gave herself one month, maybe two if things got really busy, until she had learned the basics of the attack. She gave the scroll to Kirinen as he left for the night since she had already memorized it. To be honest she didn't expect Kirinen to ever master it. He was good, but lacked the extremely rare intuitive understanding of chi. Ryouga would. In fact, she would lay odds Ryouga would be able to use the technique no more than a month after Ranma-chan used it on him. If not she'd be happy to demonstrate as many times as needed. She smiled in anticipation of the contest.

A slight sound and an imperfectly masked chi signature brought her attention to the open window that stood high above the dojo's floor. Without given the spy any forewarning she leaped the thirty feet to window, leg coiled to deliver a blow. Before she reached her target there was the creaking of wood, the sound of feathers on the air and then silence.

Landing in a crouch in the window she extended her senses into the night. It was risky but when fighting the unseen or well masked it could prove rewarding to leave them a tempting target and strike when the attacker exposed themselves. Of course, leaving yourself open could end the battle before it began, but Ranma-chan had faith in her abilities. After a moment of stillness, Ranma-chan was able to locate the foreign body in the darkness. Nodding to herself she decided to take another chance.

"It's late to be out. If you've the inclination you're welcome to come in for tea. Of course, if you've come to fight... that's even better."

 

 

The Shikome Kido-Mi sharpened its claws in a relaxed, lazy fashion. The dragon lay with its coils spread on the smooth stone of its home. The elongated serpent's body was characteristic of the classic oriental dragon. In the histories most had an aura of majesty, power, and wisdom. This entity possessed all of these traits in abundance and one more most of the storybook creatures didn't. It was evil. Darkness almost radiated from its soul. Even the most insensitive romantic would look at this beast and edge away from the malevolence dwelling behind its eyes.

Still, it was as happy as such a creature can be. In its hands, it played with a small blade the size of its longest talon. Occasionally it would grunt and delicately move the edge to trim the horny digit or bring the tiny weapon up to one of its eyes to admire it. An observer who was telepathically sensitive may even have noted an odd seemingly one-way communion.

"Yes, I can see how you would be glad to be free of your confinement," the scaly head nodded at the blade, hearing a response meant for no other.

"Well I appreciate that you wish to bond with me, I'm sure we could start quite the reign of terror. However, you see there is a problem. I am a dragon and you... are a sword. Many dragons shape change but I am not one of them. If I wish to assume another shape I must cast a spell."

A pause followed.

"No, you won't languish in inactivity. I rescued you for a purpose. If I bond with you I will be able to call you back to me with a single spell. Imagine using lesser mortals to wield you and when they are inevitably slain in the natural course of events, returning safely to me to be given to another pawn."

Another pause.

"Yes, it is an attractive vision, and you are a very powerful rune weapon. It is a crime not to allow you to be used. So, we have a deal. With proper care, our partnership could last for millennia."

The dragon nodded its head again.

"Yes, it's too bad about your last wielder. She sounded like a useful mortal until she was defeated. I wish to talk to you about your opponent. You may not be aware of this but my race holds the wisdom of all the martial arts known to this world as well as being skilled artificers and enchanters."

A moment of silence followed by a coughing chuckle.

"Yes, well our race isn't known for modesty, but I truly am as talented as I claim. Still, the fighter you faced demonstrated many secrets that have been lost millennia in the past. I even admit to not recognizing some of them. I sensed a strong spirit under that irritating overgrown weed of a Millennium Tree and when I arrived, witnessed a battle that impressed me. The one known as Ranma could be an excellent tool if she can be tempted by forbidden techniques. If she can't... well she is far too dangerous to confront directly. The battle would be too even to make it wise. However, by your intervention, I may be able to control or eliminate her as necessary. After all, one of the many useful traits a rune sword of your magnitude is the chance to destroy the soul of the mortal enemy every time you draw blood, regardless of skill or power."

A short silence after which the dragon to sharply shook its head.

"No. She is too potentially useful to kill out of hand. First, I will attempt to bend her to my will. If I cannot, she may still be a useful dupe in my machinations. With the Japanese territories in chaos, there is much that could be gained. Especially since very few seem to be aware of the Otomo Shogunate's duplicity. Only if she directly opposes my goal can I give you leave to destroy her."

A longer pause, after which the dragon quivered with mirth.

"You certainly do hold a grudge," the serpent stated with a certain amount of admiration. "Alright, regardless of how it turns out, you can drink her soul after I'm done with her. I like you. I think we'll get along well."

 

 

"I will take you up on that offer... both of them," an oddly musical voice responded the Ranma-chan's challenge. A slight rustle betrayed the movement a moment before a figure leaped from the tree to the ground level entrance. "Since you seem to be blocking my usual entrance, I suppose I will make do with the lower one."

Out in the open, under the light of the magical lanterns that surrounded the building, Ranma-chan was able to see the intruder more clearly. Her first reaction was that she was dealing with one of the Mount Phoenix people. The entity was revealed as a humanoid bipedal figure with wings only just folding after the thirty-foot descend to the doorway. This assumption was in conflict with the layer of feathers which covered the body of the avian creature, instead of a human head, a roughly hawk-like visage gazed confidently up from the ground back at Ranma-chan.

"Which do you want to do first?" Ranma-chan asked, unsure if she wanted to fight or talk to someone who seemed to offer such an interesting diversion in either case.

"My name is Talon. Let us drink and talk. I have word from the Emperor. After we speak we can engage in a contest. I have heard various things and I look forward to finding which tales are true," the avian responded, good humor evident in the tone.

"Okay," Ranma-chan agreed readily enough. She had heard little from the Emperor since he had escorted her to her new residence. This must be the Tengu that the Emperor had promised he would contact. She hadn't really given much thought to the promise, being incredibly occupied with other concerns. Considering the aura masking and the sinuous movements, that bespoke of either extensive training or an incredible native agility, she looked forward to a match. From what little she knew about the Tengu they practiced a form similar to the Saotome school of Anything Goes.

Descending to the ground she opened the door for her guest, carefully keeping her senses open to detect sudden movement. Surprise attacks were rare but had their place martial arts challenges. Once inside she moved to the side of the room where a kettle and a tray with several cups lay.

"Housekeeper's asleep so this will have to do," heating the kettle with a small burst of hot chi. The subtle display was not lost on his visitor, who nodded his thanks as he was handed a steaming cup of tea. Sitting politely on one of the scattered pillows she looked at avian.

"China?"

"Eh?" the visitor asked, confused by the unrelated remark.

"Are you from China?"

"No. Why would I be from there?"

"I've... heard of a place called Mount Phoenix where a race of winged humans lived. Considering all the mutations I've heard of I thought you might be from there. Are there a lot of your race around?"

"Quite a few. I live near a monastery just a few miles out of town. I'm considered a bit too serious for my own good."

"The monks think you're too serious?" Ranma-chan asked confused, it must be an odd place.

"Heh. No, the monks and I get along fine. Obviously, you haven't met others of my kind. Most humans find they have an extremely annoying sense of humor. I get along better with your race myself. I take myself far too seriously," the Tengu said with a grin more sensed than seen.

"Well... admitting you have a problem is halfway to solving it," offered Ranma-chan with a smile of her own. "So, what's the message?"

"Well, it appears the Empire is under attack..."

"What? Let's go kick butt..." Ranma-chan leaped toward the door, slightly surprised to find her guest already up and blocking the door. She subtly increased her chi level by a minute amount. It would allow her to speed up her perceptions slightly. This fellow was much faster than she had given him credit for.

"No need for that. Our foes aren't outside the door or even the city. Listen to the rest of the message. It would appear that the attack on the court was merely the first step of our hidden foe. In the last few days, the Empire has contacted the New Republic. It appears that they have been attacked as well. Though they escaped with less grievous injuries. They have also attacked Takamatsu. Takamatsu wasn't nearly so fortunate and has no government left."

"Takamatsu's the little island across from Ichto and the New Republic, right? I don't see the connection it has with the others. They aren't even near anybody."

"True, but they control a gate to another world and have been using its tremendous natural resources for trade. Lately, their factories and much of their social infrastructure such as the militia, transports, warehouse and labor unions have suffered acts of sabotage. This combined with the recent massacre has left the area almost defenseless. People are rioting in the streets rather than accomplishing anything constructive."

"That's... bad, but I don't see how it relates to the attack on the New Empire you mentioned."

"You need to see the whole picture in order to understand the parts. The New Empire's border has been attacked and nearly overrun by Oni. Although the attack caused us to start to gather an army, they have been gathering around Kyoto..."

"Leaving the borders only weakly defended?" finished Ranma-chan.

"Yes. Meanwhile Takamatsu..."

"... has been attacked by someone else while they were recovering from the attacks," Ranma-chan finished grimly.

"You seem to know this already."

"I know tactics. Someone attacked the New Empire, the Republic and Takamatsu. It makes sense that same group would follow up on their one real hands-down victory."

"Well, that's jumping to conclusions a bit. Takamatsu's been taken control of by the Otomo Shogunate. By that logic, our border with the Shogunate would be under attack rather than by border of the oni."

"Have Oni ever formed alliances?"

"You're really reaching here. Only an idiot would form an alliance with the Oni. They have no concept of honor."

"Okay. So, they could just be taking advantage of the New Empire's distraction. I'd keep a watch on your border with the Shogunate. How have relations been with them?"

"Relations? They've always sucked. We've even had a few little wars over the last couple of centuries. They use a little bit of magic, but they spent most of the time doing perverted things with their technology. But they've always been at war with the Oni too. No, it's just a coincidence."

"Even though they're moving on Takamatsu? Have you got any candidates for the attacks?"

"Well, the Otomo Shogunate is on the shortlist. I'm not really on the inner council or anything, but it's common knowledge that the Shogun thinks they did it. He would have pressed the Emperor to take action even without further proof if the Oni hadn't attacked."

Ranma-chan was in an uncomfortable position. Thoth had told her that the Oni and the Otomo Shogunate were allied but she had no proof, and the logic she was using was useless in the face of someone who knew that no one ever made deals with the Oni. The New Empire may never know the truth until the common New Empire/Otomo Shogunate border was invaded while all the defenders were trying to deal with the oni. Chances are the Otomo Shogunate would let the Oni distract the New Empire until the move into Takamatsu was settled and then make their move.

"What's the Republic doing?" she asked trying to come up with a plan to help the New Empire. Technically her final goal didn't depend on whether the New Empire fell, but she felt the need to do something.

"They're going to Takamatsu's aid... or what's left of it. I hear they're hoping to keep the Shogunate from reinforcing their position. They asked the New Empires help. Would have gotten it too if the damn Oni hadn't attacked."

"What if I told you..." Thoth is going to kill me, "...that Lazlo had sources of information that proved that the Oni and Otomo Shogunate were allied."

The Tengu stared at the redhead for a long moment, an unreadable expression on its avian face. "I would have to ask why you didn't tell the Emperor or the Shogun earlier."

"Lazlo didn't know the details of their plans. Only that they had allied themselves with the oni. I didn't put together with the attack on the Emperor until you mentioned the attack on the Republic and Takamatsu. Even, although unlikely, it could have been someone else except for the attack by the oni. One of Lazlo's agents died getting the information to my immediate superior," normally the earnest expression on Ranma-chan's face would have been impossible. She was notorious for being unable to conceal her emotions. The deadly nature of the discussion combined with the fact that most of what she said was true lent her an air of seriousness that would have been impossible otherwise.

"This... is disturbing. If this is true, the New Empire is in danger of being overwhelmed from a completely different direction. Even if it reacts to your warning, the New Empire will have difficulty dealing with both threats simultaneously."

"Can you get the Emperor to listen?"

"Yes, or at least get an audience. It's difficult in a crisis like this one, but I do know him on a personal level," a trace of amusement crossed the Tengu's face, "He takes himself too seriously too. It's how he got word to me that I might find a worthy challenge. I will take your words to him. Doubtless, he will call on you for more details. This is grim news on a day already replete with such. You will find little thanks in being the bearer of this news. Then again... neither will I. Our match will wait until later." With those parting words, the avian leaped up from his stationary position by the door. Once outside the sound of feathers on air faded rapidly.

"Well, when you screw up, you certainly don't fool around," a voice from the air caused Ranma-chan to jerk in surprise.

"Hi Nabiki. I couldn't do anything else. This seems to be a really nice place. It doesn't deserve to be overrun by oni and robots," the martial artist said dispiritedly. She may have aided the New Empire but she wasn't sure what this would do to her mission.

"Well, to tell the truth, I'm not too sad either. I would have lost a huge amount of money if this deal fell through." Of course, it would have mostly been Cindra's money, but that mattered little to Nabiki. "Whether they can make use of this information is another question."

"They are kinda outnumbered. I think they could have handled either one... but together?"

"Yep. Sucks to be them. You, however, have a completely different problem. Time is against us. Thoth said our original plan to go to the New Republic is way outdated. He detects that a gate in the Otomo Shogunate to Atlantis is active. Very active. Since you won't have as much time to build a cover as we thought, you'll need to borrow one. Fortunately, future brother-in-law, you've built up quite a bit of goodwill and trust in the New Empire. We will shamelessly take advantage of this to insert you into the Otomo Shogunate directly."

"I don't wanna lie to them!" Ranma-chan shouted indignantly.

"Ranma, you'll do as required. I've learned a lot since you've been gone. The Old Ones are a threat that so completely overshadows the petty squabbling of a few nations that even the obliteration of the planet you're standing on would be worth the success of your mission."

"Why you..." exclaimed an enraged Ranma-chan.

"Now calm down. If things work out, you'll be in the perfect position to make a difference to your new friends’ situation as well as moving a step closer to tracking down the fellow causing problems with the Old Ones. No guarantees but it's better than what you have now, eh?"

"Fine," the sullen Ranma-chan groused.

"All right, here's the story..." Nabiki continued to elaborate on the plan into the wee hours of the night. Ranma-chan had to admit it sounded good. Nabiki's plans always sounded good until she put them into play.


Chapter 13: Pieces In Play

The wizened elfish figure stood in his private circle room awaiting his guest while tapping a large steel staff absently on the stone floor. Although immune to physical exhaustion as lesser mortals knew it, he felt some amount of mental fatigue. So much was happening, so much depended on the mayflies surrounding him. At times it seemed they had no idea of the consequences their actions had on the world around them. Oblivious to the greater dangers while intent on petty power intrigues.

He wasn't sure why he had taken such an interest in humanity. Perhaps it was the potential that they showed at the most unexpected times or the sheer waste of similar potential he had witnessed in his youth during the cataclysmic final days of the Elf/Dwarf war. The Western Empire had the potential to someday surpass the feats of the earlier great civilizations. That was assuming it didn't decline once more into the morass of chaos, civil war and backstabbing political intrigue that had plagued the oldest human country on Palladium since it's inception.

These days were good for the country, the Emperor was both strong and wily. This was a combination that the Empire had rarely seen in the long millennia that had witnessed its steady decline. Emperor Itomas had proven an excellent leader. In the twenty years he had been in power, the Empire had almost surpassed all previous successes. The country was richer, more powerful than ever it had been in memory, perhaps in its entire history. Of course, considering the threats that lay in the future the power and military resources may just barely be adequate for the challenges before it.

A flicker in the circle caused him to start slightly. A creak of metal made him wince at his own clumsiness. In a smooth motion, he grasped the steel rod in both hands and straightened it before turning his attention to the circle once more.

"Greetings Summoner," he stated to the elderly figure in flamboyant robes now standing in the once empty circle.

"Who… oh! I greet you Advisor to the Emperor, High Mage of the Imperial Court and greatest living Wizard of this day and age..." the crimson robed man stated, a slight bit of awe tinting his voice.

"Yes, yes, yes let's not waste time on titles, Summoner Garthon, just call me High Mage. While I appreciate the Emperor honoring me with the title, it's a bit long. We have many things to talk about before you leave."

"Er... will I be able to speak with the Emperor?" the Summoner asked timidly.

"No. I'm not sure what you've heard in Arcadia but many things are happening in the Empire. The most prominent presently being the rebellion of the Middle Kingdoms. Again."

"House Kaze?"

"Yes, House Kaze is leading the Middle Kingdom to rebel. Not really a surprise, the Emperor has been expecting, and preparing for it for quite some time."

"This makes my project even more important! If I can find the Lost One..."

"I know. I've heard it before. 'It will ensure that the Empire can sweep its enemies away and a new age of expansionism will ensue'. Is that what you were about to say?"

"You doubt, but it's true! Even the priests and psychics verified the prophecy," Garthon stated indignantly, offended at the sleight.

"It is largely irrelevant. The Empire has many things on its plate. The Emperor believes it's the destiny of the Empire to expand and conquer. That may be the case, but for the next few years his attention is going to be on the rebellion."

"But after..."

"Afterward, he will most likely be dealing with angry hordes of Trolls, Orcs and Goblins clamoring at the eastern border. It seems that House Clynn has infuriated the non-human hordes living on the Old Kingdom Frontier. I would guess that by this time next month the Clynns will have been executed and another House chosen to replace them. Though it will be difficult considering that the Old Kingdom Frontier is on the other side of the Middle Kingdoms. Hmm. Actually, the Empire will be fortunate if those hordes don't choose to attack while the Middle Kingdoms draw attention to themselves."

"Then it's even more important now..."

"Oddly enough the Emperor partially agrees with you. He is a far-thinking man and foresees a time where he will once more turn his attention towards conquest. Despite your past follies, he is willing to give you another chance."

"Follies? I almost had the Lost One in my grasp..." the Summoner squawked.

"Yes! Follies! I can understand your first error, who knew that your subject wasn't a true demon. It wasn't unreasonable to depend on the traditional protection for summoning. We lost a few of the Emperor's elite guardsmen, but mistakes happen. Your second attempt simply boggles my mind with the stupidity involved. You had no wizards, diabolists, mind mages or other backup defenses, and sure enough, the same thing happened but on a larger scale."

"I thought for sure I had the correct bindings for a god..."

"You thought the Lost One was a god? No wonder you failed so miserably. No, the Lost One is a demi-god. He merely had a bit of god's blood in his ancestry," the old elf sighed in resignation. These scholars couldn't see what was in front of their noses. If his attempt to summon and control an actual god had succeeded the provincial capital of Arcadia would have been wiped off the face of the world rather than just one of the Imperial mansions. The whole issue was pointless. The Emperor may be interested in future conquest but he himself felt confident that other more vital issues would divert his attention long before such plans could become reality.

"Have you heard of the earthquakes and tremors in the Old Kingdom and the Nimro Mountains?" the Emperor's Advisor asked the Summoner in a halfhearted manner.

"Tremors? No, but only a few monster races and maybe a few rogue dwarves live there," the Summoner dismissed the events negligently.

"You should study history, it gives clues to the events that are happening today. Never mind. Anyway, the Emperor has chosen to divert a resource that he could be using far more productively elsewhere. Have you heard of rune statues?"

"Why, yes. They are weapons used in the Elf/Dwarf war. They're a lost art, as is all rune magic."

"Yes. Rune magic is a lost art," and the world is a better place for that fact, the wizard thought to himself, "but the Empire has come across one of these artifacts and Emperor Itomas has chosen to give you the temporary use of it to track your quarry."

"I... I am honored of course, but I thought these rune statues were similar to the stone golems I used during my summoning. Those proved ineffective against both the Lost One and his companion."

"There are some similarities in appearance but little else. The rune statue is indestructible and possesses a significant intelligence of its own. I understand your runaway sacrifice is a fighter of legendary proportion, thus the native abilities of the rune device are to be supplemented by magical devices of modern construction."

"The thing can use magical devices?" the Summoner asked in confusion. Magical constructs using other magical constructs sounded like a pipe dream to him.

"Yes. Though they had to be specifically constructed for the device. It will be very powerful, but as all such rune devices it has its own limitations."

"Such as..."

"This particular statue can be active three times daily for one hour each. I understand it's actually very good for this type of device."

"Three hours a day? How will it even find him with that kind of time limit?"

"That's where the devices that were made for it come into play. Come. I will show it to you," the wizard stated as he stood up from the chair and walked toward the door. The Summoner hurriedly stood and followed.

"By the way, you won't be returning to Arcadia. Your province borders on the Middle Kingdoms. Not only will it be too dangerous to go back to your home at the moment, but you would be distracted from your work. Besides the Emperor is temporarily commandeering your home and circle room for the duration of the rebellion. Considering your actions destroyed the Imperial grounds he was going to use as a staging point it's only fair." A low groan from the Summoner was heard.

"Don't worry, as I said, the rebellion won't last more than five years," the wizard stated soothingly, a grim smile hidden as he walked away.

After he had sent this idiot on his way he promised himself a break where he could just lay in his lair and go to sleep for a few weeks. Dealing with ephemerals was tiring and was requiring more patience every time he talked to them. He still found it hard to believe the foolish mortals didn't understand the significance of the Old Kingdom and Mount Nimro. The Tristine Chronicles clearly stated that these mountainous locations had their origins with the Old Ones, perhaps even being the prison of one or more of the legendary creatures. Well, to be honest, the Tristine Chronicles spoke in riddles and veiled references, still a few millennia of experience and study had prepared him to interpret some of the writing. The Western Empire and the world, in general, had more to worry about than mere conquest.

 

 

Nabiki looked at her ledger and allowed a warm fuzzy feeling to suffuse her. Independence was hers at last. Despite Ranma screwing up in the bargaining, two percent of all the trade through Lazlo and the New Empire was enough to make her wealthier than she had dreamed possible. Her only regret was that Ranma's trip to the Republic of Japan was to be canceled. Her mouth watered at the thought of the possible revenues.

The fiancées were handling Ranma's absence remarkably well. Cindra was waiting, confident that she was the sole reason he would be returning. She constantly bickered with Akane and Kodachi. When Akane wasn't arguing she enjoyed training Jess, though she would occasionally give a wistful sigh and lapse into private thought when she wasn't otherwise occupied. Shampoo and Ukyou had left them mostly alone, considering them not worthy of attention if Ranma wasn't involved. She had heard from Jess that Shampoo spent much of her spare time perusing her grandmother's books trying to find a way to follow Ranma. Obviously, they had no clue about the magic Thoth had given her access to, and apparently Jess hadn't mentioned it yet.

Since Ranma had left she had not had much to do except study the book Thoth had left to her. Cindra had supplied her with so much gold that to continue her petty betting pools and other minor schemes seemed pointless. Besides, without the pig-tailed martial artist to act as a catalyst, most of the profitable activity had dried up. It was clear that her best interests lay in studying Thoth's book as much as possible and continue to take advantage of the windfall Ranma's adventure's supplied. She slightly regretted being tied up as a priest to Thoth, but at present, he was the only magic game in town. After all, she didn't have any Arch Mages beating down her door begging to teach her.

A sudden flash of light behind her caused her to whirl around just in time to witness an elderly man falling off balance towards her. It had been far too many years since her martial arts training and she found her reflexes inadequate to prevent the man from falling on her.

"Oh, dear. Sorry about this. My, you are a fine specimen of womanhood," the man muttered under his breath. This didn't prevent Nabiki from hearing since his mouth was next to her ear. As Nabiki was recovering from the shock of the unfamiliar position she heard footsteps by the door, followed by a heartfelt curse.

"Balthazar? Damn, I thought I had left you behind, you old pervert," the dismayed voice of the princess could be heard.

"I could not stay away knowing that you were left to live without me," he valiantly stated while trying to disentangle his limbs from Nabiki's. She wasn't sure but she thought there was far more contact than what was necessary.

"Father hunted you down like the dog you are trying to find me, didn't he?"

"I wouldn't quite put it that way. Aren't you happy to see me?"

"No."

"Stop the touching and just get the heck off me. Any more touchy-feely and I'll consider it assault, buster," Nabiki warned the robed pervert. A moment later the Summoner stiffened where he lay on top of Nabiki, his hands grasping embarrassing portions of her anatomy.

"Argh! Get this freak off me!" shouted a very pissed off Nabiki.

"Well, he's a bit heavy for me to lift. Why don't I get Akane. She's got more freakish strength than anyone else I know," the princess said with a snicker, than stiffened where she stood.

"I heard that, you bimbo..." Akane shouted in rage before her voice was cut off.

I don't freaking believe this, Nabiki thought to herself. We've had this damn Sanctuary spell up for weeks and they still get caught in it every day. Jess won't be back from training with Cologne and Shampoo for hours and Kasumi won't be much help. She'll probably end up dusting me. Groaning in dismay she tried once more to lever the man off her or at least remove his hands from their location. A sudden glow from the air above her made her groan in embarrassment.

"I say Nabiki, did I interrupt a private moment?" the wry telepathic tones of Thoth could be heard reverberating in her mind.

"Er... no. Just working out some of the bugs in the Sanctuary spell."

"I see. Do you still want it?"

"Yes! I mean, sure, it just takes some getting used to. Heh, heh," Nabiki said weakly, finally rocking the man back and forth enough to tip him off her. "What do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"

"I just wanted to check to make sure you told Ranma of the change in plans."

"Yes. It's too bad he didn't get a chance to get to the Republic. It would have been profitable."

"Well, he'll be very busy doing other things. Why don't you have Ryouga set things up for you?"

"Ryouga? I couldn't do that. He's probably either with Akari or wandering aimlessly through the countryside."

"Actually, Anhur tells me he's in the Republic of Japan right now. I would appreciate it if you kept him busy. Ranma's going to be in a very delicate position soon. Where he's going it wouldn't do to have some apparent stranger wander up and challenge him."

"He's in the other Japan? I thought he had those cuffs to handle his problem?"

"I suppose he missed his friend. Whatever the reason, please distract him."

"Well since you asked... of course I'll do it. Can I rely on your help to add another set of coordinates to the transport circle? I'll need to set up a bit of trade... just to keep Ryouga busy, you understand."

A dry chuckle was heard, "Of course. Just to keep him busy. Keep in mind that you have just had a highly qualified, if intellectually and morally bereft, Summoner... er, fall into your lap. You might make use of him."

Nabiki took a long look at the paralyzed mage, arms still outstretched, as if reaching or squeezing something. "I'll be damned as a priest of the Old Ones before I make any use of him other than fertilizer."

"I suppose that means that I'll be working on the circle. Very well."

 

 

Ranma-chan stood before the Emperor looking around her at the scenery. It was impressive, the art, and molding reflected the best styles chosen from various ancient periods and melded together with a fine sense of taste. She was no art expert but it certainly looked nicer than the old castle turned museums that she had seen back home in Osaka and Nagoya. There, the insides had often been so gutted and modernized you may as well have been in an office building. True, she had been in Toma's and Kirin's castles but her mind had been on more immediate concerns. Also, the monasteries and villages she and her father had visited on her ten-year journey had been authentic but sorely lacking in proper care and furnishings.

A slight cough from the Shogun brought her attention back to the people before her. She gritted her teeth in determination. This conversation was sure to be awkward, but it was unavoidable.

"Greetings, Envoy," the Emperor began formally. Despite the fact that they were gathered in one of the smaller, more private audience chambers, there was plenty of room for the ten guards the Shogun, Masayo, Talon and the Emperor. "I understand you have some information for us."

"Well, yes. I guess Talon must have told you that I have some information from my patron..." the martial artist began.

"Lazlo," the Emperor supplied.

"Hmm," Ranma-chan grunted noncommittally and continued, "I don't really know the details, just that the Otomo Shogunate is working with the Oni. I didn't think much of it until I heard they were invading your border and you were ignoring the Shogunate."

"It seems odd that they would trust the Oni so easily. its common knowledge that they are untrustworthy," the Emperor mused quietly to himself. "If only there was some concrete proof."

"All I can say is I trust my source. He deals specifically in information," Ranma-chan sweated as she threaded the thin line of truth and misinformation. "I understand another of Lazlo's agents died retrieving this intelligence."

"It would explain the timing of the attacks, as well as the escalation of Oni hostilities we've experienced over the last few months, my Lord," the Shogun stated quietly from where he stood. "I suspected they were involved but was completely taken in by the Oni ruse. It's actually brilliant. As long as the Oni don't attack the Shogunate as soon as they launch their initiative on us. They may or may not. They don't think as we do. It's a gamble but if we followed their plan we would have been almost completely undefended from that side."

"Yes, if your sources in Lazlo are correct it puts a very grim face to our affair," the Emperor said faintly, obviously lost in some inner realm of calculation.

"I... pardon me, your highness, for my boldness," the Demon Queller looked up from where she had been staring at the ground, trying to keep as unobtrusive as possible. "I know my judgment means very little after my actions and I am here for no other reason but my education, but I owe Ranma so much. From what I have encountered in the past she has shown incredible mercy to me. Despite not even knowing that I was possessed. I also have heard that she saved your own illustrious life and was acknowledged by the Sacred Tree." Ranma absentmindedly rubbed her head where the tree's gift had struck her. "I just wish to say that we have every reason to trust her," she ended in a tiny voice, turning her face towards the ground once more.

"I do not doubt our envoy, I merely question the interpretation her information source may have given it," the Emperor began slowly. "Still, there is no doubt that if taken at face value it makes the events of the last months take on a grim logic. We are poorly prepared for this kind of multi-fronted war, especially after our recent losses."

"We do have one option. I know you rejected it before, but it seems to be the only option that offers more than a slim chance at success," the Shogun rumbled.

"Yes, I suppose we'll have to contact the Republic. Our interests converge more than I previously thought. I'm sure they'd appreciate knowing the true source of our problems."

"Well, they are still attempting to salvage Takamatsu, so I'm not sure what they could spare for a joint effort, even if it would be a strike directly at their target."

"I think that between us we could make it very reasonable. Very well, it is no longer an issue solely for our Empire. We shall attempt an alliance."

"Er, one other thing. This may be a bad time to mention it, but I need a favor for Lazo."

"Well the timing is not the best, but if we can do anything we will," the Emperor assured.

"As I mentioned, Lazlo lost an agent getting that information. We need to replace that agent with another. Usually, we don't send spies, but my patron says that they're getting, or will be getting serious supernatural aid. We had planned to slip someone into their normal recruiting, but that would take more time than we presently have. Do you know any way you could help?"

"This sounds like it requires more subterfuge than our normal resources or armies. There are clans that follow the Shadow path. Although they are mostly independent or attached to various noble clans as lackeys, there are likely some that would acknowledge me as Emperor. If I could get their attention."

"Well... umm... that is, my grandmother was known for consorting with the less savory members of society in her day. Before she became a priestess, of course," the Shogun coughed with some embarrassment. "I could contact her, I'm sure she wouldn't mind setting something up."

"Oh, that would be very nice. I have been recalled by my patron, but they could send the... agent they want to be inserted. He's actually... a relative of mine."

"That's too bad. We'll miss you. Be sure to come back when you have time. Your land and title will be waiting for you," the Emperor looked speculatively at her. "How old are you?"

"Almost seventeen. Why?"

"Now that you're a noble you should be educated as such. When you return we'll enroll you at the local school. It will give you the chance to meet other well to do nobles. You're not married are you?"

"Fiancées! I got a bunch of them, remember?" Ranma-chan desperately shouted, not liking where this was going.

"Hmm, too bad. Well, it will give you a chance to socialize at least, as well as learn the responsibilities that go with your title," the Emperor shrugged. "I believe Masayo will be attending as well. After she has cleared the stain from her family name. I don't think it will be in session again until the current crises are over anyway."

"Thanks," she whispered. Ranma-chan visualized a whole school filled with Kunos and shivered. Surely the weight of all the stupidity and insanity would simply swallow up any such school.

"I suppose we have a bit of work to do! I will contact you when we have word from the Shogun's grandmother. I remember her, such a sweet little thing," an odd foreboding shiver ran down Ranma-chan's back at the Emperor's words.

As she left, the Demon Queller moved to intercept her just outside the chamber. Ranma-chan looked expectantly at the young girl.

After a long pause, the girl started speaking, "I just wanted to thank you."

"It's all right..."

"No! Really! Not only did you save my unworthy life, but you saved my family name. If I had succeeded in my evil actions while using the sword, our name would have been as good as dead."

"Well, it was still stolen by a Dragon."

"That is unfortunate, but still not as shameful as a member of my family committing such acts."

"Well... you're welcome," she said slightly bewildered. Someone was actually grateful for being rescued. She'd heard that there were people like that, but had never encountered it herself. When she rescued Akane or one of the other girls all she received was a huffy 'I could have done it myself'. It always seemed a reasonable attitude since that was a phrase she herself had used in the past when people had interfered in her battles.

Ranma-chan was totally unprepared when Masayo threw her arms around her and gave her an intense kiss. All she could do as her brain froze was wave her arms feebly about. Masayo released after a short time and quickly walked away down the corridor, leaving a stunned pigtailed girl staring after her. A few moments later when she realized that she was in girl form, a small "Uh oh" erupted from her throat.

"Well, you seem to have an admirer, eh?" the unexpected voice caused her to whirl about in alarm.

Turning around she saw the Tengu standing before her, an odd look of amusement on his face. Cursing her inattention, she stuttered out a fragmented greeting.

"Ah, to be young again. Then again I'm not that old. Hah!" The avian paused long enough for Ranma-chan to gather her composure. "I wanted to talk about your future development."

"Huh?"

"I can see you are well along in the path of learning you have chosen. Later, when we spar I will be able to make a better determination of where you are."

"Er... okay," Ranma-chan agreed hesitantly, not understanding anything except the Tengu wanted to spar.

"I'll go into more detail later in private. You have a lot of promise. It would be unfortunate not to see it developed," Talon stated in a serious tone before also turning around and walking away down the corridor.

"Yeah. Too bad," she watched the feathered man walk away still wondering what the conversation had been about.


Chapter 14: By Secrets Betrayed

Ryouga looked out into the park while absentmindedly stirring the small pot boiling in his small campfire. He was lost again, but it wasn't as frustrating as it had been in the past. The city of the Republic of Japan where he was staying was huge, but there where many parks to set up camp. The parks weren't as relaxing as the wilderness sites he was used to, never the less, they were neat and clean.

"Please remember to throw the garbage away once you are finished with your campfire," chimed a fist-sized floating sphere. Ryouga nodded politely in the mechanism's direction. Seeing its warning acknowledged the little device flew off a few feet to hover above a candy wrapper. A quick flash and the automated janitor went to find the next piece of litter slated for elimination.

Several of the people in the park gave him a polite greeting as the passed, or a simple nod. A few stared, unable to understand why someone was camping out in the park. After all, the Republic may not supply luxurious accommodations for the homeless, but it was better than living in a tent.

"Almost time for Matsuda to pick me up," Ryouga mumbled to himself. In the last several days he had fallen into a pattern. Get up, eat breakfast, and wander around until Matsuda met with him. At that point, Matsuda would chat a bit about current events, offer to take him somewhere and leave. Several times Ryouga had asked to be dropped off at the edge of the city so he could make his way back to Ranma. Hours later he would be wandering through one of the tidily arranged parks that dotted the city.

A few times, while wandering the darker, less traveled alleyways he would come across a would-be mugger or thief. When he was done he would carefully lay their unconscious body comfortably on the ground for the police to find. Most of the assailants were easily taken care of, though there were the occasional challenges like that cyborg samurai who had attacked him yesterday. Ryouga didn't think the fellow was after his money since he was shouting derogatory slurs about country bumpkins not knowing their place. That guy actually needed two strikes from Ryouga's umbrella. Ryouga absently buffed the discolored area on his umbrella, where he had parried that weird vibrating sword. Next time he would invest a bit more chi into his weapon, it had almost gotten nicked.

Still, the people were generally friendly, the streets not overly crowded (mostly due to the air traffic that most people used for transportation), and the parks were pleasant places to spend the night. Each evening he'd sit by his campfire and look at the stars… and the distant lights of the huge buildings that rimmed the park, ceramic monoliths that rose over the trees on all sides.

He sighed, it wasn't what he wanted, but there were worse places to be lost in. The only option he saw to solve his dilemma was to take off his ankle restraints and hope that he appeared by Ranma the next time he teleported. He was wary of this choice since there was no guarantee that he would even stay in the same dimension… still, experience had shown that he would eventually wander into Ranma. It was just a matter of time.

"Ryouga? Are you there?" a female voice broke into his contemplation. Looking around he noted only the same people walking through the park mostly ignoring him.

"Ryouga! Answer! I know I have this spell right, I used it on Ranma several times already. Don't make me, make you regret keeping me waiting," hearing the threat allowed Ryouga to make the connection between the voice and the identity of the voice's owner.

"Nabiki? What are you doing here?" Ryouga asked, still looking around him.

"I'm not there. I'm using a spell to contact you."

"That's nice. Do you know where Ranma is?"

"Yes, but telling you would be a waste of my time."

"I think I have some yen," offered the Lost Boy.

"Ryouga, listen carefully. I... am... not... THERE! This is like a telephone, you only hear my voice."

"Oh. Sorry. Well... what if I paid you later," he said anxious to make peace with the girl who had the information he wanted.

"Grr. Never mind. I have something I want you to do for me."

"I'd like to help but I have to find Ranma," a sly look came into his eyes, "maybe if you told me where Ranma is we could come to an agreement."

"Ryouga, you're going to help me, whether you like it or not."

"Hey, I got other things to do! Sorry."

"Let's put it this way. You never know who may be listening, so pay attention. I know something you don't want to be public knowledge. If you don't want this certain something, that starts with a certain letter of the alphabet to get to the ears of a certain someone whose name also starts with a certain letter, you'll do exactly what I want to the best of your admittedly limited abilities," Nabiki stated in a low predatory voice.

Oh my god! She knows about P-chan, was Ryouga overwhelming realization. Ranma must have told her.

"Ranma, I'll hunt you down and destroy you for this!" screamed the bandannad boy, a fist holding up chopsticks in one hand and a bowl of bowl rice raised defiantly in the other.

"Maybe you will, maybe you won't. But if you don't want 'you know who' to find out your 'terrible secret' you'll put your vengeance on hold. I need you to contact the officials of the Republic of Japan. I have an offer they won't want to refuse."

Ryouga's shoulder's slumped in defeat. His rival would have to wait a little longer for the pounding that he had coming. He shook his head; he had been so close to tracking him down too.

"Fine. You keep my secret and make sure no one finds out and I'll help you."

"Good. No was that so hard, Ryouga?"

"Excellent! I had often wondered why you never acted on that information on Ryouga. You are far more ruthless than I gave you credit for," praised Thoth's telepathic voice, always appreciative of a clever plan.

"What information? I just used vague innuendos to scare Ryouga. I never really paid much attention to him. Certainly not enough to find out any 'terrible secret'. The guy is so shy his secret is probably his lame crush on Akane or maybe wetting his bed when he was five. These martial artists are just way too tightly wound." Nabiki paused in her self-congratulation for a moment, "Ryouga is also not the sharpest tool in the shed. Saner than the Kuno's, but none too bright."

"So you have no idea what you just promised Ryouga?" the god's voice seemed to tremble in humor.

"Nope. I'm sure it's harmless. I mean it's Ryouga, what…" Nabiki began.

"So you had no idea that he possessed a Jusenkyo curse?"

"...secrets could he possibly have?" Nabiki finished cockily as the words of Thoth slowly settled into her consciousness.

"Jusenkyo? Ryouga doesn't have a curse," Nabiki stated blankly.

"He never seemed shy of water?"

"Oh..."

"Never was around a little too often for mere coincidence?"

"... my..."

"Wasn't he a little more interested in removing curses than his 'friendship' with Ranma might explain?"

"... GOD!"

"And finally what were the nicknames that Ranma used to call him by?"

"Oh my god! Oh my god! He's P-Chan! I can't believe I never noticed before! But he seemed so uninteresting. Argh! I just promised not to tell Akane or anyone else this secret?"

"Yes, you did. Disappointed that you didn't get more money out of it?" the God of Knowledge teased.

"You don't understand! If Akane finds out I knew and didn't tell her she's going to kill me!"

"Oh, tough call. I guess you, Ranma, Shampoo, Cologne and your father are in for a bit of trouble down the road," Thoth said cheerily. He couldn't wait to see what his disciple would come up with to wriggle out of the situation. Watching a clever plan unfold was always a pleasure to behold. It also would probably be very amusing.

Nabiki had calmed down enough to think calmly about her dismal future in clearer terms. She never liked being outwitted. Outwitting herself didn't make her feel any better. "Well, I'm not surprised about Shampoo and Cologne. They are rivals to Ranma's affections... did you just say that father knew?" Nabiki stood in her room momentarily stunned.

"That... that... scheming, conniving scum! His own daughter... but why? He's always been so overprotective. Ah-ha! To get Ranma jealous! Of course!" Nabiki shook her head in wonder, "I never knew he could be so... so devious. He must have used his lifetime supply of sneakiness. I guess he really is my father. I'd always wondered if I'd been switched at birth."

"You approve?"

"No way! Not only is she my little sister, but she's still going to kill us when she finds out. He's demonstrated absolutely no concept of the consequences to his personal well being."

"I'm sure you'll think of something," Thoth comforted.

 

 

Ranma-chan sat on the lawn in front of the Dojo, her hands stretched out before her. With her eyes shut and a slight frown of concentration on her brow, she was the picture of a focused individual. To the discerning eye, her hands glowed, flickering in varying shades of chi. The dance of light moved so rapidly that it could easily be mistaken for a single mass. A slight breeze slowly coalesced around the martial artist. As the wind rapidly picked up speed a slight jerk of the martial artist's hands seemed to act as a catalyst, triggering a small thin cyclone to ascend away from her hands, straight up into the air.

An almost silent rustle of grass heralded the arrival of a second individual. "Not as large as I was expecting considering the tales going around about that battle of yours under the Tree," Talon commented from behind Ranma-chan.

"Gah! Don't do that! It would have been messy if you'd startled me a few seconds earlier," stated the disgruntled pigtailed girl.

"I sensed you were busy so I kept my presence discrete. You aren't the only one to play with the forces of the spirit. So what were you practicing?"

"Oh, that was a variant of the Dragon Ascending move I've been developing. That time under the tree was a fluke. I didn't know the tree would have that kind of effect. Still, it did point to the fact that I need a more reliable version. The original move takes the user's chi and uses it sorta like a lever to force the opponent's energy to rip itself apart. The problem is that it takes too much time to set up, unless he starts throwing his energy at you. This new version is a lot weaker, but it uses my own projected chi to form the chi vortex. It takes a lot of concentration to form the different kinds of chi simultaneously, and it is limited to the energy I put into it, but it will be faster. When I perfect it, that is. You know any chi attacks?"

"No, I know a bit of magic, but the advanced manipulation of chi is beyond me. However, I do know several masters," the Tengu stated modestly.

"Really? Cool! Can I meet any of them?" Ranma-chan excitedly asked, apparently recovered from her exertions.

"If you come back I will tell you their location, and you can go to them. They aren't very close to here. One's in Northern Japan, Hokaido, another is in Korea, and there are several in China."

"How come no one else mentioned them before?"

"The areas I mentioned are not close to us. Combined with the fact that they are in the heart of lands occupied by various supernatural horrors... well it's not common knowledge. Our race has the advantage of flight and few monsters actively hunt our folk."

"So why tell me if it's a big secret?"

"I never said it was a secret. I was implying that for the vast majority of people it is useless information. They aren't going to trek around the wilds to meet with people who most likely won't want to meet with them."

"Alright, again. Why tell me?"

"You aren't interested?"

"Of course I'm interested! Don't be a pain! You know what I mean!"

"Heh, yes I do," the avian gracefully admitted, "The people I met asked me not to reveal their location except to those seeking, and willing to accept enlightenment."

"Oh. Well... gee. I hadn't realized you were talking about religion. Never mind," she said dismissively.

"Religion?" Talon paused in thought. "I never thought of it that way. No, it's not really religion. Think of it as a philosophy held by those interested in exploring the mysteries held within the human spirit. Surely as one well versed in the use of the human spirit as you can see beyond the inherent flaws of language."

"Oh! Masters of Chi! Got it! It's weird, it seems once a martial artist hits a hundred they go all mystical and stop saying what they mean. Sure, I'd be interested in them. You think they know something worthwhile?"

"Not if you ask them like that! Most of them are rather proud and set in their ways, ask them in that fashion and your trip will be wasted. Still, they know arts of manipulating the energies of life and spirits, far more advanced than what I've seen anywhere else. I've seen the truly powerful change their form merely by an act of will."

Ranma-chan jerked as the words penetrated her consciousness. "Shapechange? As in human to animal... or male to female?" she asked, glancing slyly out of the corner of her eye at the Tengu. Fortunately, he was facing away, since Ranma-chan's face had yet to master hiding emotions.

"Well... I can't vouch whether they actually do that, but they do have the capability. That's really just a parlor trick though..."

"I'll have to go there right away. I always wanted to travel a bit more. Now, where is it?" Ranma-chan chattered eagerly, visions of living a curse free existence dancing in her head. She had no intention of living the next few thousand years relying on some stupid bracelets.

"Don't you have to go back to Lazlo?" the puzzled Tengu asked.

"Lazlo? Why... oh, Lazlo! Right. Shoot. Yeah, I guess that is more important right now," the redhead dependently looked at the ground.

"Cheer up! Once you're finished you can come back. I mean there's going to be a circle directly there and back. How hard will that be?"

"Yeah, that's right! How long can it possibly take..." she said slightly cheered.

"Now how about a quick spar. That should get your mind off some silly Enlightened Immortals," the Tengu said with good cheer.

"Hey, I thought you respected them?"

"Well, sure, but they take themselves far too seriously. Most martial artists do. That's why my brethren find it such a joy to tease and torment them," Talon said with a straight face while walking into the dojo.

Moments later they stood across from one another sizing each other up. Without any discernable warning, they simultaneously burst into motion, leaping up into the air to exchange the first series of blows at the apex of their arch. Each was stationary relative to the other. Talon kept his place through the virtue of his wings, occasionally deflecting a blow with the durable implements. Ranma-chan was able to support herself in the air through a combination of chi and carefully calculated blows, whose reaction partially offset the effects of gravity when blocked by her opponent. However, unlike a truly winged being it was a stopgap measure, and after several seconds of hanging in the air seemingly ignoring the laws of physics, she was forced to ground.

Ranma-chan looked up at her opponent, grinning. This would indeed be a challenge. Her opponent was skillful, durable, and fast. The battle might almost be even, if she didn't use any chi techniques. Nodding to herself she stated, "Not bad. I guess I can use the fancier stuff without worrying about whether you can take it. Let's get serious."

After stating this, she leaped up towards the hovering Tengu. Anticipating the dodges and strikes as she flew by, she rebounded off the rear wall for another pass. The Tengu was unprepared for the sudden change in direction and took a glancing blow that knocked him back several feet. "Heh, I suppose I deserved that for underestimating you. I see you are well versed in mid-air combat. So am I!"

The two combatants then broke into a dizzying display of acrobatic prowess, leaping from floor to ceiling, to wall, and back. If one had been able to fully perceive the two forms as other than blurs it would have been an amazing aerial ballet forming a complex pattern only the two participants seemed to be able to predict. Neither used blows at full force, satisfied at tapping their opponent when an opening was found and taken advantage of. In this way, they were able to prolong the challenge far longer than would have been allowed by beating the other into submission.

Several times the walls and ceiling actually gave way under the forces that were being exerted upon the surface. When this happened the other would close in, hoping to score a hit before the other could free themselves. This also acted to increase the difficulty, since the holes and obvious weak points had to be avoided while moving at speeds where thoughts became actions.

After an hour of strenuous physical activity, each returned to the ground facing the other. Bowing they smiled at each other while Ranma-chan walked over to where the tea tray had miraculously survived the pair's display. A controlled burst of hot chi once more heated the kettle and she carefully poured a bit into the two cups.

"Very satisfying. You are by far the best human practitioner of aerial combat I have ever encountered."

Ranma-chan froze in the act of putting the cup to her face. She was certain she had scored more touches during the combat.

"You've encountered someone better than me?" she gave him a disbelieving look.

"Well, yes. Not many, but my race does specialize in this style. Given eight hundred years to practice can give you quite an edge."

"Better than me?"

"Oh calm your ego. If it makes you feel any better I'm sure the battle would have been quickly over if you had used your special techniques. I was also very impressed with how you adapted my own moves and incorporated them into your own repertoire."

"Hmph," Ranma-chan muttered petulantly. The Tengu may have taken offense if the redhead hadn't ended up looking insufferably cute with that expression.

"Don't worry. You're amazing good. I'm sure that when you are eight hundred years old you'll show those other Tengu fogy's a thing or two about martial arts." Assuming you age more gracefully than most humans I've met, Talon thought to himself.

"Ha! I'm Ranma Saotome! I bet I can do it in two hundred years," Ranma-chan challenged and struck a heroic pose. Then she burst out laughing, realizing what she'd just said. Talon joined her, appreciating the humbling laughter.

Ranma-chan shook her head at her own foolishness. Ha! Imagine it taking even two hundred years. She'd never live it down if it took even a fraction of that time.


Chapter 15: Switch

Ranma-chan waved at the people who had come to see her off. There weren't many. Most of the martial artists she knew, as well as the Emperor, Masayo, and the Shogun were either in the midst of negotiations with the Republic or on the border dealing with the Oni invasion. Those who remained were mostly considered either non-essential or independent.

"Come back soon, Ranma! We'll miss you," called the little girl from the edge of the circle waving her hand in farewell.

"Don't worry little one. I think she has incentive to come back," the Tengu said, patting the girl on her back.

"Yeah, Komar, sure I'll be back. Just have to finish a few things," Ranma-chan said.

"If you're quite finished I need to finish this circle," grouched the young man in a traditional Summoner's robe, "There's a war on and I'm sure my services are needed far more elsewhere.

"Don't forget to expect my... brother in about a day," the redhead replied.

"Yes, yes. I'll be here. Goodbye," with no further warning the man finished the circle and with a flash of light, the martial artist disappeared.

Ranma-chan appeared in a similar circle. The room looked familiar and it took only a moment before he glumly realized that this was the Tendo guest room he used to stay in. The bare walls and floor showed that his few possessions had been moved elsewhere. However, despite this, the room wasn't empty. A feeling of dread filled him as he saw the crowd surrounding the circle.

"Airen back! Take Shampoo to date?" the exuberant blue-haired girl cried out as she leaped into Ranma-chan's arms. "Why Ranma girl?"

"Why is that barbarian draping herself around Ranma's sister? I thought we were here to see Ranma," a puzzled Cindra asked.

Jess looked over at Ukyou and whispered into her ear, "How come no one told Cindra about the curse?"

Ukyou looked disinterestedly at the princess, "She's not as bad as Kodachi, but her attitude stinks. Only Nabiki spends any time with her and that's mostly to collect rent."

"That's so sad," Jess said.

"Well, a jackass is a jackass. As soon as she stops the 'princess' stuff the sooner people will talk to her. Actually, I think Kasumi's been talking to her as well, when she isn't studying for that doctor or nurse stuff..."

"Ranma! I can't believe it! You're back five seconds and you're already hanging over all the girls!" I don't know why I actually missed that idiot, Akane thought to herself as she prepared her standard countermeasures.

"Ah! My pigtailed goddess. It has been an eternity. I have sorely missed your presence. Come away with me and we can leave the foul Ranma Soatome behind."

"Argh! Nabiki! I bet you did this!" said foul Ranma Soatome shouted.

Not only is this fun to watch, but Ranma shouldn't have let Ryouga get away with sleeping in Akane's bed, Nabiki thought to herself, a slight smile playing on her lips. Her eyes widened a moment later as she saw Akane douse Ranma-chan with a bucket of cold water. Or attempt to.

She froze in mid-throw, the prematurely arrested bucket instead overrunning onto the floor. However, Ranma-chan overbalanced caught in an embrace from Shampoo while trying to avoid a hug from the deranged samurai. She fell forward onto Shampoo, causing the Amazon to drop into the expanding puddle of water. Naturally, Shampoo did not long retain her human form, leaving a wet bedraggled feline hanging on to Ranma-chan's neck. Although Ranma-chan valiantly attempted to fight the haze of fear descending onto through her meditation exercises, she was distracted from her attempt by the impact of a frozen Kuno who had finally tipped over from his outstretched pose. Ranma-chan's precarious control finally broke and she ran screaming through the door, with a frantically meowing Shampoo around her neck.

"I never figured out why she just doesn't let go," Ukyou sighed as she began to run after her fiancée.

"Amazons never let go of what they consider theirs," muttered Nabiki sourly to herself as she looked around at the mess. Perhaps the amusement value wasn't quite worth the effort fixing the circle would require.

Later that day Nabiki finally managed to get Ranma alone in her room, temporarily away from the madness that had returned with Ranma. He was once more in his male form, a fact that he was immensely thankful for.

"Well? What's the big deal? You've been glaring at me all night," Ranma asked nonchalantly. After all, what could she possibly be angry about? He hadn't even been around for the last few weeks.

"Alright, mister, perhaps you can fill me in on a little detail. Like why you've been letting Ryouga sleep with Akane for the last year?" the angry girl growled at the pig tailed boy.

"Ryouga? Heh, heh, heh. I... I... have no idea what you mean, Nabiki," Ranma stuttered in panic, at a loss in how to proceed.

"Now, now, Ranma, no need to lie. I found out that you knew P-chan was Ryouga. Now why didn't you tell Akane?" she said, while looking darkly at Ranma.

"It's about honor! I swear I didn't have a choice!"

"I think I'll need a little bit more explanation than that," coaxed Nabiki.

"Well, when I first found out Ryouga had a Jusenkyo curse I promised that I wouldn't tell anyone about it. How was I supposed to know that he'd start sleeping with the Tomboy."

"Is that all?"

"Isn't that enough? But no. Later, I also found out that I was the one that had accidentally pushed Ryouga into the pool," he said dejectedly.

"How did you find out about the curse anyway?"

Ranma paused a moment trying to reconstruct the events from almost a year ago. "Well, I think Ryouga umbrella was knocked away in the first fight out on the lawn. When I saw the empty clothes I naturally thought of Jusenkyo. So, I found a dog in the back yard and brought it inside, thinking it was Ryouga. You should have seen it. It had an evil gleam in its eye, I thought for sure it was him."

"Hey, I remember that! I always wondered why you had brought the neighbor's dog inside. So after you found out Ryouga was the pig you made the promise?"

"Heh, heh. Now that I think of it, I think I made it to the dog. I didn't even think about the pig until I dumped it in the bathtub," Ranma's face turned red as he recalled the events.

"Wait a minute. This word of honor of yours was given to the neighbor's dog?"

"It's not what it sounds like! It's the spirit of the promise that counts! A true martial artist..."

"You forgot that you gave your promise to a dog, didn't you?" Nabiki smirked.

"..."

"Pathetic."

"Hey! I tried to make up for it! I kept trying to get Akane to stop sleeping with the little pervert. She's just never figured it out. Keeps telling me not to pick on P-Chan."

Nabiki nodded in thought, Akane could be a little obtuse when it suited her. It certainly explained the senseless violence between the two rivals. Could it be that some small part of Ranma's life was based on some skewed logic, as opposed to sheer random chaos?

"I figured out a way to keep him from pulling another P-Chan thing. Got him a set of bracers like mine so he doesn't change any more. Told him that if he ever slept with Akane again I'd tell her."

"Despite your promise to the neighbor's dog?"

"Enough with the dog! It was a really busy night, I was tired. I forgot, okay?"

"So, I can assume that if Ryouga ever does this again you'll deal with it?"

"You bet! A man needs his rivals to keep him on his toes, but Ryouga needs to be a man about it."

"As opposed to a pig?"

"Heh! Yeah. Hey if you know about P-Chan why haven't you told Akane?"

Nabiki thought about the possible answers to that question. In the end, her pride forced her into one. "No one ever paid me for it," she simply said.

Ranma gave her a disgruntled sidelong look. What a cold-hearted bitch.

 

 

Ranma stood in the circle once more looking out into the basement of his manor house. In front of him were even fewer people than had seen him off. There was the sour-faced Summoner who had activated the circle the day before and an old woman. The old lady sent chills down his spine, as he reflexively looked around for water. Of course, there was no water. There would only be water when he was unaware of it. It seemed the nature of the curse was to be oblivious to the presence of water, as well as attracting the stuff.

"Hello. I am Ueda, the Shogun's grandmother. I was asked to perform a service for you," the elderly woman stated in a dignified tone. She squinted at him as if seeing something odd that she couldn't quite pin down.

Ranma's eye's widened as he recognized the woman he had met on the way to Kyoto.  "Hey. My name is Ranma. My sister mentioned that you may have a way to get me through the gate."

"Ranma? I thought that was the girl's name?" the priestess asked, somewhat suspicious.

"Erk. Her name? Ha, Ha! That Ranko! We're twins... yeah, that's it! Twins! Some people say we might as well be one person! Heh, Heh! Sometimes Ranko takes it a little too seriously and uses Ranma as a nickname. Confuses everyone back home too," Ranma looked sideways at the old woman, while apprehensively rubbing the back of his neck.

"That may explain why you two have almost the same aura. Very unusual. I've never heard of that, even in twins."  The woman glared at Ranma as if this quirk was his fault. Due to the fact that it was indeed his fault, this had the effect of making him extremely nervous.

"Well, look at the time," Ranma said, reflexively looking at his bare wrist. "Let's go over the plan. Need to help Lazlo and all that."

"Yes. I suppose so. Ran... ko mentioned that you might be able to send us information about our enemies if we were able to insert you into the Shogunate forces."

"Yeah. I can contact... Lazlo, and they can in turn leave messages in the circle. I need more than just to sneak into the Shogunate though. They have some sort of gate that I'll need access to."

"Hmm. We have made several contacts with the Shogunate forces. One of them wished to defect. Apparently, they have been sending small groups of their elite soldiers through for some sort of magical enhancement. He is on the list to be sent. Only half of them ever come back, but when they do they are incredibly powerful. Strong, supernatural strength and endurance as well as the seeming ability to cast certain spells. I don't like having to deal with traitors and cowards, but it seems that taking this man's place may offer you the best hope," she said distaste evident in her voice.

"How am I supposed to pass myself off as this guy? I don't know anything about him or the Shogunate?" Ranma pointed out the most obvious flaw in plan he had noticed.

"That is the most pressing drawback. However, it's not as serious as it may initially sound," the old woman turned away heading towards the stairs while still speaking. The Summoner had long since left, tired of having his time wasted. "Once you are on the other side of the gate you will most likely be surrounded by strangers. Not just people you don't know, but people the person whose identity you'll be borrowing won't know. Faking ignorance in that fashion won't be difficult. As for the impersonation beforehand... I know an excellent psychic who can imprint the basic information needed as long as he has access to a willing donor. We'll simply make this a condition of our acceptance for our little traitor."

"Psychic? Imprint? Wait a minute! I don't want anyone messing around with my mind!" Ranma angrily declared.

"Don't worry. He's very good. The chances of anything going wrong are negligible. Besides, it's only temporary. It will fade away in a few days, by then you'll be on the other side of the gate, away from anyone who thinks they know you and you should remember enough to know who to salute, if not their names," she said in a chiding voice. "Don't you trust me?"

"I ain't gonna do it! I can sneak in on my own and take my chances!" Ranma firmly stated.

"What a pity. It seems I am cursed to deal with honorless cowards in my old age," she sighed wearily to herself.

"Honorless coward? I ain't a coward! You take that back!" Ranma shouted his battle aura flaring to life around him.

"Well, what else do you call throwing away your best chance of success because you're afraid of a few psionic tricks. Your country... er, city, is depending on you and you're going to throw it away for a little paranoia. I fear I've lived past the age of heroes. I remember some truly great men..." she seemed likely to continue along this vein for some time until Ranma cut her off.

"Hold on a minute! Let me think!" Ranma commanded. To his mind, it wasn't the least bit paranoid to think that someone might use access to his mind to either learn his secrets or try to enslave him. Even those he considered friends probably wouldn't give much more than a second thought before giving in to such temptation. Then again, according to Thoth, Anhur, and Nabiki the mission he was on was vital to the entire megaverse. He had to admit he'd rather storm the place but had to realistically consider his chance of success. It would be years before he was good enough to do that.

"Fine. But if I find that this guy did anything funny, he's toast. I also want his promise on his honor," Ranma cracked his knuckles in anger. He hated being forced into positions like this. "Where do I meet him?"

"You'll meet him at the border of the Shogunate. He'll lead you to the meeting with the defector. After that, you should know all you need to... temporarily at least. Do you need help getting to the meeting place? I know you have never been on the island before."

"Yeah, right. Hmm. I can travel faster alone. If you give me a good map I should be able to do it. I've traveled a lot as I grew up. It is through real roads? I won't have to cut across some crazy woods, right?"

"No. It is easily accessible. No major roads, since there is no trade between us, but the way is clear."

"Great. When do I go?" Ranma asked, anxious to leave the presence of the troublesome old woman. It was odd, young women jumped at him and old women tormented him. It must be the price of being so popular. It was a burden but certainly better than being ignored.

"I'll need to contact our agents, but I can have things in place in three days. I'll come by then. Until then, you can enjoy the hospitality of your sister's home."

"I'll treat it like my own," Ranma reassured the retreating woman.


Chapter 16: Primogenitor Lost

He looked out at the woods that spread out under the hill where he stood. Admiring the scenery he almost could forget his problems. Self-pity wasn't really a strong facet of his personality. He was as he was meant to be. Part of who he was determined that he would have difficulty finding home.

It wasn't a bad existence. A being of his power had very little to worry about when it came to physical danger. The whole multiverse spread out before him in a vast array of sensory banquets. Still, it would be nice to be able to stay home for more than a few months before he accidentally wandered off. The humans he had known of in the past had said that winter arrived upon his departure. It was a nice sentiment but mostly coincidental. It just happened that in the cold of the approaching winter he would wander off the search for firewood. By the time he returned it was usually superfluous.

He sighed. Some of his most treasured moments had come and gone while he searched for the way home. Centuries ago he had met a mortal woman on a quaint little island. He would have stayed if he could have, but again his very nature forced him into exile once more. It was the one of the few times he had cried and cursed what he was. Since then, he had found his way home and then wandered lost again dozens of times. She had been merely mortal and he supposed that it was far too late to count what might have been, but sometimes while far from home, standing among the wilderness of a strange world his thoughts would travel back to enjoy his happier moments.

So lost in thought was he that failed to notice a large ebony statue adorned with odd jewelry appear behind him. However, though his interdimensional senses may not have been very sharp, his sense of hearing proved more than adequate to shake him from his reverie. Twirling around he saw his assailant.

"A rune statue? How odd..." was as far as his muttering got before he was struck across the face by the massive arm of the construct. Far from showing any real sign of hurt, he was merely forced backward a step.

"I'm being attacked by a renegade domestic servant from the time of the Old Ones? This is really embarrassing. Only a mortal would have that sheer bad taste..."

His statement was cut off when a jewel that adorned the aggressive statue flashed and a glowing net flew towards the bemused deity. It settled around his form and started to constrict.

"It's had cheap mortal magic tacked on to it? This can't possibly be targeted at me. No one would think so little of me, would they," the god said forlornly as he waved his hand at the enchantment surrounding him, causing it to dissipate into a blue fog. Another gesture had the ground around him transforming into a watery quicksand. While he used his own power to stand on the liquid surface the black figure quickly sank out of sight.

"Hmm... now, what group of mortals would be misguided enough to attack a god of nature and agriculture in the middle of the forest?"

As he pondered the possibilities a hand reached up from the silt to grasp the ankle of the god. "Eh? They gave you flight too. Truly the all-terrain construct. Fine. I'll fight mortal magic with mortal magic," groused the displeased deity as he rose into the air.

With the statue clinging to his leg with one hand and pounding the deity with a clenched fist, he hurriedly dug a hand into a pocket and came up with a scroll. "Damn busybody mortals, only ever met one worth anything," he muttered as he started to read the scroll. The statue could pound on him all day and be unlikely to leave more than a bruise. These types of servants were mostly harmless to greater entities except under special circumstances. Well... they could wield weapons and magic as well as many fighters, but this one seemed to be only armed with tacky mortal magic which made it annoying but mostly harmless.

As he finished reading the scroll a mist billowed up around the floating pair, obscuring them from prying eyes. It also incidentally negated all other magic except the caster's. Noting with satisfaction the increase in weight as the rune creature's flying enchantment was suppressed.

Although the deity knew itself to be far stronger than the creature he also knew it was useless to attempt to escape the statue's grasp through sheer force. The thing's power was limited but it was indestructible. Which meant that once the statue had grasped something all it had to do was return it's handhold to its basic inert form and let its impervious body do the rest. However, gods aren't limited to mere force or to one physical shape. After a quick moment of rearranging his mass he slipped free from the hold. With a thought he commanded his form to grow to a monstrous height of thirty feet and held the body of the construct in his hands.

Despite the large size of the statue, it lay like a toy in the hands of the god. "I have defanged you, my little domestic. Without your magics all that remains to you is physical force. You will find this insufficient when dealing with a god of my nature." A paused to allow a response. Failing to receive one he continued. "Lets be a little more forthcoming little fellow. I want to know who sent you and why. I know you have enough initiative to tell me these things, unless your master has specifically ordered otherwise."

After a moment's pause a grinding voice answered, "I was sent to find the Lost One. He was not supposed to be a god, merely a demigod. Release me."

"Not quite yet. They sent you out to find the Lost One and you found me instead? I admit I find myself often wandering but it takes more than being lost to have stumbled upon me. What is the relationship between this 'Lost One' and me?"

"I don't..."

"That was a hypothetical question. If you knew the answer you wouldn't be here. Does the 'Lost One' have another name? Surely you know more." After waiting a few moments the god prompted, "You can answer now."

"My master has found through magic that the target's name is Ryouga Hibiki," the statue reluctantly stated.

"Hibiki? Could it be? That was Mariko's family name," the god said thoughtfully. It was true he might have lost the only mortal he ever cared for, but it was possible that something of their union yet remained. This was something he could not ignore.

"You will take me to your 'Lost One'," the deity commanded, lightly shaking the indestructible form he held in his hands.

"I cannot. I believe you will attempt to keep me from my command."

"Hmm. You could be right. On the other hand if you don't bow to my wishes I will lock you in a dark vault and you can while away the millennia staring at a wall. If you do as I ask you at least have a chance to accomplish your master's wish. Isn't that better than to be trapped in a small dark room for the next few eons?" This was a calculated offer. Few things were as unpleasant to the poor entities trapped in an indestructible rune construct than being isolated in a place where they have nothing to do or sense.

"As you wish. When I am released I will attempt to find the Lost One. You may follow."

The god smirked at the autocratic phrasing. "Thank you. Most kind."

 

 

Ranma leaped from tree to tree, pausing occasionally to look up into the sky and get his bearings. The path he had followed had seemingly disappeared. He wasn't worried about getting lost; he had been on the road since he was a child and finding his way had become second nature. What concerned him was that he had just started on his mission and already the information he had received from the irritating old hag had turned out to be inaccurate. This boded ill for the rest of what he had learned from the priestess.

He estimated he was about to enter the territory claimed by the Shogunate. He may even have entered it several hours ago. The map and sun wasn't the best way to navigate but it suited his purposes for the moment. As a precaution he had commanded the enchanted robe he wore to take the form of a loose bodysuit tailored in the manner of the traditional ninja. Instead of the traditional black it was a deep blue. It couldn't really be helped, the robe was an incredibly useful piece of magic, but its one limitation was that it could only form variation of the red and blue hues. In true nightstalking, crimson actually worked better, but his main purpose was get used the unfamiliar constrictions caused by the garment. He expected to be fighting in the odd garb and was determined to be prepared.

It was early evening when he slowed his path enough for some elementary caution to be used. Ranma estimated that he would come across the meeting place soon. He was even early. Not that he minded, it would give him a chance to practice some of the trickier techniques he had come across.

He was thinking of such thoughts when he froze in place. His senses on full battle alert he spread his battle aura to it maximum range. Nothing overt was causing him alarm, but something was tickling his senses. With a moment's concentration, he identified it as something he had encountered under the Sacred Tree. Knowing what to look for, he was able to pinpoint a large concentration of chi off to his left.

"You may as well show yourself! Your tricks aren't working and if you don't want to talk, you may as well leave now," commanded Ranma in as strong a voice as he could manage. Many creatures used invisibility, including humans, however many powerful creatures were included within those ranks as well.

"Certainly, little human! For I wish to talk to you about certain arrangements. Perhaps an exchange of services," a deep, sibilant voice boomed out. Above the forest floor, a huge serpent rapidly became visible. Ranma's amazement came more from the fact that this huge beast had managed to almost take him unawares, rather than the sheer size of the dragon.

"Your aura is the same as what I sensed under the Tree. You didn't wait to talk to me then, why now?" Ranma asked suspiciously.

"You were surrounded by the Emperor's troops and somewhat occupied by that little demon problem. What I have to discuss is for no ears but your own."

"Heh. What?"

"You are a martial artist of significant skill. It is unusual to see this kind of dedication in a mortal. Let alone a human woman."

"What? I ain't no..." Ranma cut himself off. This creature obviously knew he was the same person as before, yet had no clue that it was talking to a man at present. As much as it offended his pride it would not do to alert the creature to certain facts. That very statement told him that the overgrown lizard before him had used senses other than sight to track him. Probably not smell since that probably changed slightly as well. The old lady said that he had the same aura as his female form, which may mean that was the manner he had been found. It also pointed to the lizard not being able to tell one human from another to save its hide.

"Yep. Miss dedication. That's me," he stated switching to a falsetto voice, which would not have fooled anything remotely humanoid.

"I hold the secrets of many martial arts techniques. In trade for your services, I would be willing to share these with you."

"Well... I don't know. I mean I know dragons are supposed to be wise 'an all, but you don't really look like you use anything I'd recognize as martial arts. Not unless you change into something a little shorter and start walking on two legs."

"Bah. Form means nothing. My kind has watched humans since before the beginnings of civilization. We know everything there is to know about your skills and even the tricks you can accomplish using your chi."

"I guess that's possible. But do you know any techniques I don't? I kinda doubt that..." Ranma trailed off, his voice filled with doubt. On the one hand, he wanted to delay the creature as much as possible in the hopes that a plan would occur to him that didn't involve a full-fledged battle. Not that he thought he couldn't take the beast, despite its size it didn't radiate the sheer power that Ammit had. Never the less, a pitched battle near to his rendezvous would be incredibly bad at the moment. On the other hand, what could this large snake monster really know about the Art.

"I know of a technique that allows the user's hand to move faster than the speed of sound, it is known as the Chestnuts Roasting..."

"Already know it."

"There is the dreaded Silent Fist maneuver that allows..."

"Know it."

"The Withering Touch..."

"Got it."

"The Breaking Point...

"Mastered it and all known variations."

"Splitting Cat Hairs..."

"Improved upon it."

"Dragon Ascending..."

"Reinvented it. Several times."

"The Vibrating Palm..."

"That's the one where you hit something and it shatters? Right?"

"Well...yes. But that describes most of the martial arts strikes in existence. This one centers around inducing a harmonic vibration within a structure. By feeding and increasing this vibration any solid object can be shattered given time," the dragon proudly stated, happy that he knew something the human didn't.

Ranma was confident that he could duplicate this strike on his own without further help from the serpent. He was also beginning to be impressed by the creature's knowledge. "Well I don't know that one, but since I already know the Breaking Point I really don't see the point."

"Hmph. Fine. What about the Lion's Roar."

"Don't use it, but I know it and its variations."

"What about the Shadow Touch?"

"Not sure. Could you describe it to me?" Ranma asked innocently.

It was in this way that Ranma passed the next few hours. Ranma happily weaseling new techniques from the dragon and the serpent totally oblivious to the fact that it was talking to a human who could reinvent most of the maneuvers it described just by knowing the name and effects.

The dragon itself was slowly becoming enraged. It had offered many of its best bribes and the annoying human either already knew it or didn't want it after hearing various details about it. If she truly knew as many techniques as she said she did, then it was the most formidable mortal she had ever encountered. Still, the sheer frustration was going to drive it to a killing frenzy if the human kept being difficult.

Ranma was indeed having a wonderful time, but was under no illusions as to what he was doing to the dragon's temper. By keeping careful track of the dragon's chi signature he was fairly confident he could act before the creature's patience snapped.

So it came about that just as the Serpent's temper was about to be pushed to its breaking point Ranma pointed behind it and shouted in a panicked voice.

"Oh my gosh! Its Gojiro... I mean a Hydra!" he shrieked in a pathetic high-pitched girl's voice.

"Hydra? I don't sense any other dragons in the area. Wait! I sense a dimensional anomaly! Hey! Where are you? Come back here! You can't waste hours of my time and dimensionally teleport away," the Serpent roared. "Damn you! I'll feed on your intestines! The moment you step back into this dimension my spells will sense your aura and I'll crush you! While the dragon had been railing at the martial artist it had been writhing in the air gradually getting larger and larger while simultaneously ascending into the sky. Upon the last declaration, it flew south, rapidly fading into the distance.

Ranma, meanwhile stepped out from behind the boulder he had ducked behind. It had been close, he hadn't realized that dragons could sense dimensional anomalies or he wouldn't have attempted to use Happossai's Dimensional Cloak. As it was he had just managed to drop the Cloak and apply the Way of the Silent Thief to mask his presence and aura. It was fortunate that the dragon had thought he had teleported away and not looked further. Not that he wouldn't normally have welcomed a battle, but he had other priorities at the moment. From what the thing had shouted out, he was sure they would meet in the future anyway. It seemed he would be using a variation of the Silent Thief to mask his aura until he got into less critical surroundings.

Sighing at the bother, he scouted the area until he found a clearing that met the description of his rendezvous point. There he lit a small fire and sat down to wait. Knowing his senses would be dulled as long as he applied the Silent Thief technique he drew out the Sacred Tree's gift and tossed the staff to the ground. It immediately grew in stature and length until a huge snake lay on the ground.

"Quite a coincidence that the Tree gave me a Staff of the Serpent at a time I would be meeting dragons," Ranma chuckled to himself. "Then again I somehow doubt it was a coincidence." Turning towards his companion he good-naturedly said, "Tell me if any of your cousins stop by Scaly."

Making himself comfortable, he sat down to think of all the techniques that he had learned of from his erstwhile mentor. Ranma had no illusions that he could master them immediately, however now that he knew of their existence and effects, he had no doubt he would eventually reinvent them. In the meanwhile it would at least make coming up with counters much simpler if he ever had them used against him.

If someone had asked him if the knowledge was worth getting a dragon with a vendetta after him, he would have merely given them a puzzled look. After all, it was all a part of martial arts. What else could he have done?


Chapter 17: All Of My Memories

The agent Ranma met was a bit of a disappointment. He was a tiny rag of a man, barely above four feet, and gave the impression a stiff wind would blow him over. Ranma's first thoughts upon seeing him enter the campsite was to wonder how he had come through the wilderness unscathed. There had to be more to what he saw, even Voodoo boy from home looked more impressive.

The Serpent, whom Ranma had named Scaly, had given an impressive bit of warning. It was whole minutes later before his own hearing picked out the thrashing sound of the man making his way towards them.

"Well... hello. Are you the psychic I'm supposed to meet?" Ranma began somewhat uncertainly.

"No. I'm the priest you're supposed to meet who happens to be a psychic. Greetings, I am Ohnishi."

"Ranma Saotome."

"Not for much longer. Soon you will take the place of Hashimoto, traitor at large. Elite ninja of the Otomo Shogunate. I assume you can fake the ninja stuff. You'll have the memories and skills for a few days, but if you don't have the strength and stamina to pull off the moves, all the skill in the world won't help you."

Thinking back to when he had first learned the Dragon Ascending, Ranma simply shrugged, "You'd be surprised at what you can do. Doesn't matter though. Unless this guy's some freak of nature, I can fake his strength level."

"Excellent. The meeting place is a small town just a few miles away. Hashimoto-san is on his last night out he's allowed before he's sent through the gate. Once you have his memories it should prove simple to slip back inside. By the way, change into some normal clothes. You stand out like a sore thumb in that blue outfit."

Ranma shrugged and had his robe change into a set of typical peasant clothing. Of course, it was made out of blue and red silk, but he hoped no one would notice in the dark. The priest turned back towards him to continue the conversation.

"A simple set of robes will...gah! What the hell? You look like a Lord slumming!"

"Hey! It's not like I can carry a lot of luggage! You think I have some sort of dimensional closet I can pull a bunch of stuff out of," Ranma said with a smirk.

"Fine. I brought an extra robe for this occasion anyway. Where's your guardian snake?"

"He's just wandered off," into folded space, Ranma thought to himself, "I'm sure he'll find his way back."

"You should be more careful with gifts from the Sacred Tree. They should be respected, and used only in dire emergencies."

"Wow! Will everyone I meet know what Scaly is?"

"I am a priest. It is my job to know such things. Others may, it depends if they are familiar with the Tree."

"Hmph. Let's talk about this brain switch thing. I want your word of honor that this thing is temporary and you won't go looking or changing anything that belongs to me."
"I am shocked that you would even ask," the little man spouted indignantly.

"Whatever. Promise. It's my head and I like it just the way it is. If I find something different about it, I'll be back to discuss it with you. Painfully."

"I will not be threatened. I will perform the duty my high priestess laid upon me. This only includes giving you some memories or skills. If you think you can bully me, you will find me well able to defend against mere physical force!" Personality bleed through only happened in very rare occasions, the priest added to himself. Even if it did it was only temporary.

"Right. We'll see what happens," Ranma stated with skepticism.

The pair walked in silence for the next hour until they arrived at the outskirts of a small town. At the late hour, few people were out on the street though many of the small houses and stores that lined the streets had their lights on, in turn illuminating an otherwise dark path. Several odd vehicles lay in front of buildings, obviously of decent technology but lacking wheels or other visual means of locomotion.

A few minutes saw them in a small, somewhat rundown tavern. The lights were electric and there were stoves and refrigerators briefly visible when the waiter entered or left the room. Other than that, no use of advanced technology was visible.

"I thought the Shogunate was the source of most of the technology before the Republic showed up. What happened?"

"Shh. Keep your voice down. This is merely a border town. Its existence is not very important in the eyes of the government. It pretty much lives off what it can scrounge. The people who live here like it because it gives them a certain freedom, but they do pay with the lack of many amenities." He paused for a moment and then went over to the counter at the bar.

"Excuse me. I previously requested a room reserved for me and my friend here. May I have the key?"

The barkeep was dressed in simple but neat clothes and he held a glass which he polished with an available rag. "Yes sir. Got yer key right here." Giving the room a cautious glance he leaned in close to the smaller man. "You might want to be careful tonight. I saw one of the members of the government's death squads running around tonight. Those goons don't treat priests with much respect, if you get my meaning."

"Thank you for the warning. I will keep to my room tonight. Better to ere on the side of caution, aye?" the priest stated benevolently.

"Ain't that the truth. It's a dangerous world out there these days. Watch yerself." With not more than a nod the barkeep went back to his glasses.

"He's a good man. Won't stick his neck out, but if he can help, he will," the little man said as they climbed the stairs. At the top, he stopped by the third door to right and opened it.

The priest took half a step in before he was forcefully swept off his feet and dragged through the door. "Calm down Hashimoto-san," he gasped out through the chokehold. "I'm here as we agreed."

"How do I know you have not betrayed me already?" the black-uniformed man growled.

By this time Ranma had entered the room and closed the door behind him. He looked bemusedly at the scene before him. A rather large man just over six feet wrestling with a very short man.

"You don't, but if you don't let the priest go you can worry about it when you regain consciousness." Turning his attention the gasping man he continued, "This guy is a little bit larger than I am by a few inches. Do you honestly think I'm going to able pass as him?"

"You dare ignore me? Nothings take place until I allow it..." he was stopped when Ranma got tired of the man's ranting and levered his arm from his chokehold position, continuing the maneuver to place the arm behind his back in a very painful hold.

"As I understand it, you've already agreed. You can do this conscious or unconscious. I somehow doubt the priest will wait for you if you aren't capable of following on your own. Personally, I think it would be much quieter in here if you weren't awake," Ranma said in his best threatening manner. Who said it didn't pay to watch bad Kung Fu movies?

The black-clad man was grunting in pain and obviously trying his hardest to break the hold. Ranma halfway paid attention, enough to counter the moves, while he visually checked on the health of the cleric.

"You alright?"

"S...sure. Just need to get my breath back. Don't worry about his size. I have a bit of padding, you don't need much, and some built-up shoes. Once on the other side, you won't need those things. No one will know you anyway." Taking a closer look at the constrained man he spoke directly to him, "Well Hashimoto-san, I assume you still don't think we betrayed you. It would be simplicity itself to do as we wish to you at this point." Turning his attention once more towards Ranma, "I think you can let him go. He needs my services if he wishes a place in the New Empire."

"Fine. One wrong move and he sleeps off his attitude," the martial artist warned.

Groaning, the ninja staggered over to the chair rubbing his arms. The priest gestured towards the bed.

"You should lie down. I am confident of the success of this procedure but it will most likely be uncomfortable."

Ranma glanced worriedly at the ninja sitting in the chair. He had no doubts he could easily handle him now, if he was incapacitated by the procedure, who knows what would happen.

"Don't worry about him, once I have transferred his knowledge I will keep him under control until I get back to civilization," the priest's telepathic voice startled Ranma seeming to reverberate within his head. He simply nodded to himself. He knew there had to be more to the little man than first appeared.

Moving over to the bed, he lay down. He saw the priest put one hand on the ninja's forehead as the other came to rest on his own head. Then he was too distracted by the flood of another man's life to pay any attention to the world around him.

 

 

Rhada muttered unhappily to herself as she looked over the market wares. Beside her stood Abdul-Ra his hand lay on her arm as he gave her a comforting pat.

"Come dear, we have barely looked at half the marketplace. I sure we can find something you like..." the Raksasha Lord murmured comfortingly.

"It's no use. These wares have no fire... no spirit. They aren't any better than lapdogs," the beautiful demoness said disparagingly. Before her stood a long line of slaves. They varied in their age, sex, and race but a spirit of hopelessness was one thing they had in common. Before they stood a six-legged insectile entity, wringing its claws and occasionally rubbing its mandibles.

"But my Lady, you won't find a finer selection of slaves in all Atlantis. Look at this young one, perfect for the afternoon snack, or for listening to her screams by a cold winter's fire." The chittering creature continued. "We have younger, or if you prefer, the older ones who know what's happening to them and can appreciate the horrors you inflict..."

"Enough! You can't seem to appreciate the concept of a pet. Besides we're Demon Lords, torture for pleasure is for lesser entities. We have enough of that kind of thing during work. You have thoroughly broken the spirit of these pathetic mortals. The only way you could get them to say anything remotely interesting would be to beat it out of them." He said, dismissing the salesmen as one lacking the proper appreciation of the finer things in life.

"I apologize my Lord," the creature screeched, obviously not understanding why it should be sorry, but eager to grovel before a powerful Demon Lord. "The only unbroken slaves in Atlantis are probably the new slaves, gladiator slaves, they usually rebel until something eats them in the Arena, and the slaves being punished. Unfortunately, the punishments are usually terminal."

"Well, I suppose it's the price of your kind of business. Maybe Splynncryth would have something. He has the largest supply of slaves on the continent." Abdul-Ra muttered to himself.

"Yes, Lord Splynncryth is a great boon to our business. Without him this whole marketplace would be nothing..." the creatures sycophantic chants to the great Splugorth lord faded into the background of the marketplace as the two slowly walked away.

"Well, we haven't found a pet for you yet, but we have found some very nice clothes for you, and even a very attractive rune dagger that brings out the color of your eyes so very well."

"Oh, darling, I admit it has been fun. Did you know the dress I bought yesterday was made from the skins of the last of a whole race that was exterminated just to create a scarcity in the marketplace? It seems one of the Splugorth found them before they discovered space travel and scattered all over the place. It's really a pity... they had such beautiful hides."

"It's really unfortunate you have your heart set on a biped. I have a minion who specializes in enslaving feline species who works in this market."

"No. I really want to find a mortal just like that adorable human that rescued me. Besides, no offense dear, but I always have to stifle the urge to gut your minions after I deal with them. The only loyalty and honor they possess resides in you."

Abdul-Ra gave a gruff chuckle, "I understand. I feel the same about your minions. I think it has to do with being Demon or Deevil Lords. They have no choice but to be loyal to me. I think that is one of the things that first sparked my interest in you. Unlike our fellow Lords, you and I share a concept of honor. I had never encountered it before in a peer. It's very attractive," the Demon Lord purred as he brought his mate's hand to his face.

 

 

Ranma woke up feeling an overwhelming need for a bath. The filth wasn't on his hands it was on his soul. The memories that filled him were those of a coward, a bully, and generally an all-around pathetic human being.

"Ugh. This is disgusting!" Looking around to find the priest sitting beside the bed, "It goes away, right? I feel all these memories of that pathetic man are mine. I would squash this man like a bug, except it is beneath my dignity," Ranma proclaimed, and then went cross-eyed as it registered what he had said.

"What happened! I sound like Kuno!" Ranma unhappily complained.

"Don't worry. It's just this fellow's vocabulary. All his memories will fade away in about two days. Make the most of them, and be reassured that they're not yours."

"I'd hope not. The man's mind is a cesspool. What time is it? I... he needs to be back by morning. I'll also need his clothes and the padding." He efficiently went about stripping the unconscious ninja and wrapping the padding around himself.

"I thank you for your services, priest. I leave now, but let it be known that if these memories linger longer than the two days promised you shall feel my vengeance fall upon you," Ranma stated, feeling slightly queasy as alien words poured from his mouth. Without another word, he leaped out of the window into the night.

The priest remained behind, gazing thoughtfully at the back of the retreating martial artist. In his mind he was going over the memories of the two men whom he had probed. Only rigorous training allowed him to keep them separate from himself. The plan had been Ueda-san's. Ranma and Ranko had seemed too suspicious to ignore and she felt they were hiding many things from the New Empire. The priest chuckled to himself. Ranma certainly did have secrets, but they seemed benevolent in regard to the Empire. At that moment Hashimoto woke.

"No! No, you can't escape my power! Wait, get away! Cats, demons, Amazons, dragons... argh! They're all after me! Get'em off! Get'em off! Ack, another fiancée? No, not the hammer!" screamed the delirious ninja.

"Seems our little ninja was too afraid to face the trials of another," the priest passed his hand over the face of the thrashing, boxer clad ninja, causing him to lapse into a more peaceful slumber. "I think we'll wait here two more days until you forget Ranma's life. There are too many secrets that need to be kept. I'll stay awake and write up what I can of Ranma's adventures in two days for Ueda-san. I had better hurry, there's much to write."

He had just placed the unconscious man on the bed and sat at the desk when he felt an overwhelming sensation of raw power behind him. Turning, he saw a lion-headed man who appeared far too large to fit into the room, yet somehow did.

"You have access to many secrets, some of them mine, some belong to other beings of power. Normally I would slay you out of hand for taking what is mine. However, you have aided my champion. For this reason only will I spare your life. You will sleep two days and neither you nor your companion will keep any memories except your own. Be grateful for my mercy."

As the shining entity finished its statement the priest found it impossible to keep his eyes open and gradually slumped over until his head lay on the desk. Almost immediately the light filling the room began to fade.

Soon the only sound in the room was light snores and a quiet whisper that quickly faded, "Damn Mind Mages. Always poking their fingers into other people's business."


Chapter 18: Lava Lamps

Ranma leaped out of the window and down to the alley behind the tavern. Not seeing any reason to be overly stealthy he simply walked around the front of the building and to one of the fallen vehicles on the ground. Settling into the seat of the one he 'remembered' as his own, he casually punched in the proper code and revved up the engine. A moment later he raised the vehicle to a hundred-foot cruising altitude and headed toward the headquarters where the gate would be in the morning.

Ranma took a moment to glory in the motion of his skycycle. So far the best he could accomplish with his chi manipulation was a slow hovering. Flying at half the speed of sound through the clear night sky he could appreciate the benefits. Oh, sure he'd been punched and kicked hard enough to send him ridiculous heights but those experiences always lacked control. To emphasize this thought to himself he made the cycle dip, bob, and weave to a merry tune he hummed to himself.

"If Hashimoto wasn't such a slime, I might even thank him for this experience."

To keep his mind on his surroundings and away from unpleasant memories, Ranma took note of how the countryside and dirt roads gradually gave way paved roads and ever-larger clusters of buildings. At the point where the trees completely disappeared and the buildings took on an almost monolithic quality he knew he had arrived.

Aiming towards one of the disparate huge skyscraper in the center of the city he started the cycle's ascent. Leveling off at the height of the landing site he activated the radio and spoke the codes needed for a legitimate approach. It simply would not do to be shot down at this point. Bringing the vehicle down lightly on one of the circular areas marked on the surface he powered down and jumped off. The maintenance crew would deal with the mess. It would be grossly out of character to care how much work others had to perform to clean up his messes.

"Why do you always leave your crap lying around?" growled a man in coveralls as he walked up the abandoned cycle.

"Why do you keep asking me that when you know I'm going to tell you to shut the hell up and do your job?" Ranma spat out, keeping his voice low and husky.

"Hmph. Got a cold... so sad," the man stated in overdone sincerity.

Ranma paused for a moment to glare at the fellow, then turned to stalk towards the rooftop door. Coughing for effect into his hand, he tapped in the security code and stomped into the corridor beyond. Making his way swiftly towards his assigned room he was briefly grateful that Hashimoto had no roommate

Ranma left his mask on and sat down on the narrow bunk that was the only obvious piece of furniture in the room. Ranma knew that a desk, monitor and a small fridge would come out of the wall on command but chose to simply sit and think for a moment. Since he would only be in the building for a few hours it was safest to wear the mask. It would be easier to explain why he wore it than why he looked nothing like Hashimoto.

According to his new memories Hashimoto had no access to any truly sensitive information. They only informed him of his assignment just before he was sent on a mission. High-security areas, records and computers were kept in the basement and Hashimoto had no real hacking or security skills anyway. Neither did Ranma. This eliminated the obvious sources of information that he had access to and the fact that he left in the morning meant he didn't have time to use other people to get information either. No one really liked Hashimoto anyway.

Ranma shook his head. It appeared he would have to wait until after passing through the gate to search for the Shogunate's Atlantean patron. It was too bad he couldn't find anything important out for the New Empire but that would have to keep until he knew more. Nabiki had a point, his mission dwarfed anything happening between the Empire and Shogunate. Still, if he saw an opportunity to help he certainly would make a point to exploit it. Anything Goes specialized in exploiting weaknesses. It also specialized in midair combat and panty raids, but those things didn't seem to apply at the moment.

Ryouga looked out the window at the sun's position and then around the room. The room wasn't spacious and had a  bunk, but after opening one of the walls to expose the desk it was obvious from the books and magazines scattered around the tables that this was just a place to wait until you were sent for.

 

 

Things had gone rather well. Matsuda had agreed to be his middle man in the initial talks with the board members. Apparently his part in the defense of the Council building had done amazing things for both Ryouga's and Matsuda's visibility and credibility. It had at least bought a personal meeting to allow Ryouga to offer the terms Nabiki had dictated to him.

He shuddered. He had known attracting Nabiki's interest would be bad. After all, he simply had to look at the hideous things she had done to Ranma in the past, but he hadn't realized the true horror until recently. The threats, the bribes, the contingency plans. He had heard cram school was like that but Nabiki took it to a new level. He almost felt sorry for the Council, they didn't have any idea what they were stepping into. Never the less, he had no choice if he didn't want Nabiki to expose his secret to Akane. His poor heart would shatter if he saw the inevitable hurt and betrayal in her eyes. Not to mention the pain that would quickly follow. He had firmly decided that Akari was the girl for him, but Akane still drew him like a lodestone and it would kill him to see hatred in her eyes when she looked at him.

He was still contemplating the unfortunate situation he was in when he felt a change in air pressure in the room and a slight breeze behind him. Turning he witnessed an eight-foot-tall humanoid shimmer into existence. Ryouga, being the paranoid martial artist that he was, immediately assumed that he was about to come under attack and quickly unslung his umbrella.

One of the glittering gems covering the surface of the creature flashed and the previously slow movements increased in speed as it lunged towards the slightly surprised martial artist.

"Good feint, I underestimated you for a moment," Ryouga shouted to the creature as he caught the rush on the tip of the umbrella. With a grunt of effort, he heaved the thing into the ceiling where it hung for a second before plummeting to the floor. Ryouga took advantage of the creature's movement to ready a huge uppercut to the chin of the monster. The force of the blow forced the thing headfirst through several layers of the reinforced ceiling before its momentum was stopped.

"What the heck are you made of?" Ryouga wondered aloud as he massaged his knuckles. He hadn't hurt his hand but was surprised at the solidity of the creature. It had felt as if he had struck a metal object. Of course most metal structures were demolished when he stuck them and he had felt no give from the creature. Despite this, he was surprised when the figure's protruding legs started kicking and it slowly began to work free of the hole Ryouga had stuck it in.

Ryouga quickly recovered from the shock and began to strike the thing's body as it descended. His first assessment proved accurate as repeated pummeling showed no effect. Seeing simple force was not having the desired effect he decided to give himself some time to think. Walking over the dangling legs he grabbed hold of them and pushed upward, forcing the creature back into the hole he had created. Although the thing resisted Ryouga found he was easily able to keep the legs stationary while he pushed, though paradoxically he was unable to force the limbs to bend where he wanted them.

Plans flickered across his consciousness to be examined and discarded. The breaking point wouldn't work; he sensed no weaknesses or chi nodes from the thing he held. It looked like stone and may have felt like a metal statue but his senses told him nothing more. It could obviously be immobilized, but that was simply a delaying tactic. If he were outside in a deserted area he was confident he could bury it deep enough to keep it trapped for a few centuries. Inside the building this course of action would be inappropriate.

One of the jewels flashed again after a breeze that indicated displaced air, the Lost Boy suddenly found his arms empty. Before he could do more than stare at them in puzzlement he felt himself grabbed from behind and flung into the wall. Pulling himself from the newly created crater he looked at his adversary in annoyance.

"Well, that was surprising. Harmless, but surprising. Your blows felt like those of a baby," Ryouga taunted. He actually wasn't far from the truth. He had felt the blow but the minor bruise was fading even as he thought about it.

Another gem flashed and suddenly a glowing sword was in the hands of the creature. Ryouga's eyes widened slightly as he saw the power level of the fight increasing slightly. Of course the real problem was the creature's invulnerability, not the weapons or fancy tricks. He could try to jump out the window and lead the thing to the park for burial. Then again, if it could teleport perhaps he would have less success than he thought.

While he was entertaining these thoughts, he was absent-mindedly parrying the creatures flaming sword with his own umbrella, although he was unhurt the thing's blows were forming deep smoldering gashes on the walls around them. Finding an opening he moved forward, grasping the outstretched arm and used it to swing the creature around and into several walls in turn. While the move was a success, it did not drop the sword, forcing Ryouga to maneuver himself to avoid being singed. Sighing in disgust, he finished the move by flinging the monster away into the wall opposite him.

As it embedded itself into the wall, he opened his umbrella and sent it hurtling towards the creature. Another gem flashed and suddenly he found himself picked up by a huge gust of wind and slammed into the wall behind him. Annoyed, he looked towards his foe only to see his own weapon blown towards him. Eyes wide with dismay, he was about to wrest himself away from the wall when he saw another gem flash out of the corner of his eye. As he attempted to throw himself to the side of the oncoming projectile he found himself unnaturally fastened to the wall and quite incapable of movement.

"Shit! Lion's Roar!" shouted Ryouga calling forth a chi blast that knocked the projectile through an adjacent wall. "Damn! If I've scratched my umbrella I'll find a way to take it out of your hide! Silhouette Breaking Point Reversed!" This forced the wall to explode away from him around his body. Unfortunately, it left large parts of the broken wall sticking to the martial artist's back.

Ryouga gave a grunt of surprise as he brought his attention back to the creature only to find it was almost upon him. Whirling completely around, he initiated a hasty spin kick. He was only mildly shocked to find that the thing had grabbed his ankle. It had been a fairly pathetic kick, he admitted to himself. Acknowledging the creature's momentary advantage he braced himself to be thrown into another wall. After a few seconds of bracing for the impact, he craned his neck around to examine the thing.

Frozen in position with its arm outstretched was what seemed to be a statue. Unmoving, it had Ryouga's ankle grasped in its hand but simply wasn't doing anything. Ryouga got tired of waiting and used his strength to swing his foot down.

While he was successful in his attempt to stand on his feet Ryouga felt a lingering sense of dismay as he stared at the ground at his feet. He sighed as he took an experimental step forward and idly wondered if the board would notice an eight-foot obsidian statue attached to his leg.

"Eh? What happened to you? Forget to eat your Wheaties this morning?" asked a disgruntled Ryouga to the immobile figure.

"The Council will see you now. I hope you weren't bored by the wait..." a female voice called from outside.

At that moment the door to the waiting room opened. Slowly it swung to its full extension and then fell in a neat arc to land flat on the floor, shattering into several pieces. A nervous office girl cautiously peeked through the door, her eyes wide with horror and shock as she took in the huge gaping holes in the walls and ceiling.

"No. Not at all. A very relaxing stay. Heh, heh," Ryouga chuckled as he nervously held his hand to the back of his neck. He then nonchalantly walked out of the room, pausing only to pick up his umbrella. He was slowed at the door due to the statue getting stuck in the doorframe. Giving the two-ton ankle decoration a hard yank, he continued to saunter down the corridor leaving a trail of the broken frame and torn carpet behind him.

Patting his pocket he checked to make sure the speech Nabiki had prepared was in place, checking with his other hand to make sure his hair was in place and trying to get off the pieces of the wall struck to his back. Nabiki said it was very important to make a good first impression.

Ryouga was rather pleased with how well the speech had gone. The audience had seemed riveted to his words. Of course, they did have a tendency to give sidelong glances at the thing attached to his leg. And the clattering the bits of the wall made as the adhesion effect wore off had been slightly distracting too. But in general, he thought it had gone well.

"So in conclusion I would like to point out that four percent is very fair for the services and guarantees that Tendo Unlimited is willing to offer." He looked around the group noticing that they were still staring at him with a slightly vacant expression. "Any questions?"

"Er... yes!" one of the older fellows at the table spoke up. "What exactly is that thing attached to your leg?"

Ryouga frowned to himself, he knew he should have thrown a rag or tarp over the statue thing. "It's just some monster. I was actually referring to Nabiki's... I mean... my speech."

"Why is it attached to your leg?"

"I don't know. It just shut down while I was in the middle of beating the snot out of it," Ryouga exaggerated slightly. After a thoughtful pause, "Have you thought of fumigating or something? We had a slight problem with Lasae demons in Nerima but the pesky things didn't come back after we fumigated the town," Ryouga helpfully offered. "So do we have a deal?" Ryouga anxiously inquired.

"We... we'll have to think about it a bit," the man spoke up with a slightly distracted air. "However, if we do decide to enter into this contract we won't agree to more than two percent," the man said, seeming to gather his senses.

Hmm, Nabiki said to under no circumstances accept less than two percent, Ryouga thought to himself.

"Okay. Two percent it is," Ryouga smiled to himself at getting such a great deal for Nabiki.

 

 

Ranma looked around at the almost deserted room. Off in the distance an automated cleaning crew swept the floor. The door he had entered from was actually several hundred feet away, bringing home the sheer size of the sub-basement chamber. On the floor surrounding him were several dozen circles, each tingling in that distracting fashion that signaled the presence of strong magic.

The only other real person in the room was a single black-robed mage. Various mystic symbols adorned the robe probably announced his rank and position to those who could interpret them. He seemed safely ensconced behind a protective dome-like force field emanating from a large circle that seemed to be connected to several other glowing circles.

"Your precautions don't inspire me with the safety of this procedure," Ranma stated derisively. He intended to keep up his façade until the end.

"We don't require the foot soldiers in our army to be inspired. All we require from you is instant obedience. Our records show you to be competent. We intend to make you the best," the mage droned, obviously having done this numerous times.

"You seem pretty safe in there. I bet it would take something really big to get through that."

"Larger than anything you will likely ever encounter," the mage confirmed, his attention elsewhere. "Step into the light."

"Light? What light," Ranma asked puzzled until a new tingling announced the presence of magic next to him. "Oh. That one."

"Are you the only one who has the coordinates to where I'm going?" Ranma asked subtly.

"At the moment. Now stop talking and start walking," commanded the mage, irritation beginning to show.

"Oh look, a ten yen piece!" shouted Ranma enthusiastically pointing behind the mage.

"Stop babbling about change and go already," shouted the now furious circle master.

"Damn, I hate rich people. No appreciation for the little things in life," muttered Ranma. "Okay, here's to something really big!"

Gathering his breath and his chi powers, he shouted, "Look out! It's a bomb!" Sure enough this time the mage actually looked over his shoulder, giving Ranma time to build up his chi to his highest levels

"Breaking Point Apocalypse," shouted Ranma while pouring his entire supply of chi into the ground around him. Barely able to stand in the aftermath of the technique he staggered over to the luminous portal and fell through it. Behind him, the last he heard was a slight rumble as reactions began deep in the bowels of the earth and one man calling out a question in a slightly worried voice.

"Bomb? Are you sure? I don't see anything."

Many miles away a dragon arched his head up and canted it to one side. His prey had announced his presence. Loudly. It would be rude if he didn't accept his invitation. In a dazzling display of magic the dragon disappeared.

The mage looked around, a worried intent expression on his face. It was only natural to be concerned when someone shouts a warning about a bomb and then leaps away as if to escape. Admittedly he didn't see a bomb, but those tremors seemed to be rapidly gaining force.

He had just coming to a decision and turned on his communicator to contact internal security when an incredibly large serpent materialized in the ground outside the force dome.

"Where is she? Where is the dead woman? I have come to collect," roared the dragon.

"Gah! Security! Security! Alert! A huge dragon just teleported through our wards! Scramble everything! Class A Emergency!" was as far as he got before the earth started to move in earnest.

Unlike the previous tremors, the earth began shaking with enough force to knock down anything left unsecured and just increased in intensity. Within moments cracks appeared in the armored and reinforced walls and floors. Soon after, the floor began to explode. In many ways it was like being inside an erupting volcano. Where holes were blown, gouts of compressed chi heated molten stone burst upward. Each spew of magma seemed to herald a dozen more in reaction until the huge basement area was filled with liquid stone that quickly built up pressure and began to climb upwards, floor by floor the interior of the building.

As for the dragon, the tremors were ignored as the serpents huge body whipped agitatedly around, unsupported by the ground. The first series of explosions stunned the creature knocking it to the ground where it quickly became battered by earth and fire. Desperately attempting to get to its feet among the molten stone, it screamed in rage and pain, as its body was seared by the trap left for it by the mortal. After several agonizing minutes, it managed to gather enough concentration to teleport away from the hideous deathtrap, bellowing curses and promises of vengeance.

For those in the city outside the building, it heralded the start of a peculiar spectacle that lasted many hours. The heavily armored exterior of the building acted to contain the magma far better than the interior walls, floors, and windows. This resulted in the tower becoming the oddest looking fountain in the history of the Shogunate as crimson glowing rock poured out the windows and top of the Otomo security building.

This, combined with the constant hum and buzz of emergency rescue vehicles as they raced to evacuate the people remaining in the building, kept the local populace awake and entertained well past nightfall.

By morning the building was nothing more than a slightly heated, unyielding stone monument.

 

Here ends Part Two of the Journey

Started 03-24-99 finished 11-29-99

Revision 1.0

Revision 1.1 (08-22-10)

The Journey

Ranma accidentally gets summoned to another dimension. His presence is quickly taken advantage of by certain entities. And there we have the beginning of a very long Journey. 

Thoth

 

The Journey, Arc 1: Back to the Real World 

rakshasa

 

The Journey, Arc 2: Stepping Out

oni

The Journey, Arc 3: Tea With Splynncryth

Updated 6/13/2020; Chapter 16

robotarmor


The Cast

Ranma cast


 

fanfictionnet button

 

Ranma ½ is the property and invention of Rumiko Takahashi. The following story is not produced for any monetary or personal gain.

Keep in mind the journey is almost always more interesting than the destination.

In an endless universe where someone else's fate is another person's misfortune, Ranma is dragged into a dimension not his own. Despite this, he will never give up and will strive to turn this one unfortunate moment into a new destiny.


The Journey

Part One: Back to the Real World


Chapter 1: The Rabbit Hole

Ranma gracefully somersaulted over his opponent, landed lightly on the huge pack and waited. The boy whose pack he was balancing on immediately turned around to face the direction he had seen his hated foe go in. Of course being who he was he actually turned to face a random direction. Not that this mattered considering where his enemy actually was.

“Ranma you coward! How dare you run out on a fight like that. Come back and face me like a man.”

“C’mon P-chan, not that I don’t appreciate you entertaining me or nothin' but why’re after me this time?” Ryouga, realizing he had been made a fool of yet again, threw off his pack in a single smooth motion, hoping to catch his foe by surprise. His pack flew in a straight line for 30 feet before impacting and demolishing a brick wall. Looking intently at the devastation for any sign of movement, he at first did not notice the person slightly behind him shaking his head and tsking to himself. “Miss Kragowa is not going to be happy about that. That’s the third time this month she’s had to fix her wall.”

“Ranma how dare you treat Akane that way. Don’t you know how much time she spent making that meal for you?” Ryouga screamed while swinging his umbrella with one hand and throwing his bandanas in his other.

“Hey, I can’t help it if I had to defend myself against that sludge she tried to feed me! I mean after it ate the table it started to lunge at me. A chi blast was all that saved my life!” Ranma loudly declaimed while easily dodging the bandanas and umbrella while occasionally guiding the closer blows away with a delicate tap.

“Prepare to die!” Ryouga was unaware that during the combat he had been carefully led. When Ranma stepped aside the umbrella continued forward to demolish the public fountain he had been standing in front of. The destroyed fountain began to spray everyone within five feet with cold water.

“Bwee...Bwee!!!” screamed an enraged Ryouga in his new piglet form.

“Man, maybe that plan wasn’t such a great idea,” stated a disgusted Ranma-chan from her position next to the piglet as it tried to gnaw on her foot. “It would have been better to simply beat you silly, at least then I’d be dry.”

“Ranma!! Are you picking on P-chan again? What did I tell you about picking on my pet before, you pervert!” Ranma-chan shivered as he heard the voice behind him. No, it couldn’t be. She’d just raced across Nerima to escape Akane and her cooking. It just wasn't natural. “If you leave P-chan alone and try the new recipe I have for you I may not mallet you. Yet.” The last part was delivered in a whisper that Ranma-chan didn’t think she was supposed to hear.

“I am sooo out of here,” she stated while giving ‘P-chan’ a kick that sent him across the park. She saw an enraged Akane start running towards him, a huge mallet in her hand. Just as she was about to tear off sprinting into the distance she was engulfed in a splash of light.

To the others watching, it appeared that Ranma-chan was covered in a descending cylinder of pure white light. The beam then dwindled to a thin beam and disappeared.

Akane was left staring in bewilderment at the place Ranma-chan last was. “Ranma?” she said in a small voice.

“What pervert girl do with Airen?” asked a well built blue-haired girl.

“Shampoo? What happened? If this is one of your magic tricks...” Akane’s voice trailed off. Shampoo and her great great great (etc) grandmother had been known to use magic to try to entrap Ranma but these attempts had usually been limited to drugs and potions. She’d never done anything as spectacular as what she’d just seen. This combined with the fact that Shampoo appeared just as confused as she herself was encouraged her to consider that Shampoo may be innocent. This time at least.

“Talk to pervert girl later. Shampoo go to great Grandmother now.”

“Wait a minute! I am not letting you out of my sight if you might know something about that...thing.”

Shampoo just shrugged her shoulders. If the violent pervert girl wanted to follow her around she didn’t care. She had more important things to consider. Her husband had just vanished in a flash of light and it was her duty as an Amazon to find him and drag him back to her village. He simply didn’t realize how lucky he was to have her as wife, but he would learn. As soon as great Grandmother found him.

Forgotten, a small black piglet wandered dazedly from the park making small 'bweeing' noises. If anyone had been able to understand they would have heard it muttering about training journeys and vengeance.


Chapter 2: Curious Cubes

To Ranma-chan the world was lost in a glare of whiteness, then there came a sensation of falling. This was a very familiar feeling and she flexed her chi in the way she had learned to do in the past to minimize the damage and pain she would feel on impact. She had much experience at this.

When the impact came she heard rocks shatter and a choking cloud of dust arise around her. By the amount of force, she estimated that she had fallen about 250 feet. Well within her tolerances.

Ranma-chan lay in the center of the crater she had created and let her senses inform her of her surroundings. She estimated about twenty-one people surrounded her by the sound of breathing and the light patter of leather shoes against cobblestone. Ten more people had bows that she could pinpoint from the creaking of the drawn strings. Hmm, possibly hostile. She made a note to pay attention the sound of high-velocity objects in the air and gently expanded her battle aura to help minimize possible damage and aid in the sensing of missiles.

The sound of bows actually relieved her. If the people around her used arrows, pellets, darts shuriken, bandanas, spatulas or other sub-sonic missile systems she was very confident she could catch, parry, or avoid them. If they used these types of weapons chances were they wouldn’t use guns or similar tools. Ranma-chan had theorized that the Chestnut Fist combined with certain chi manipulated would allow her to deal with higher technology but had yet figured a way to train that didn’t involve crippling injury at the first failure.

Believing she had gotten a grasp of the current situation, as much as she could without seeing it, she slowly sat up and looked around at the room through the subsiding dust. Around her was an open courtyard. There were indeed twenty-one people surrounding her on the ground, most wore something that looked like guardsmen’s uniforms over some sort of chainmail.

The uniform was a red overcoat with some sort of black vicious-looking lizard thing that appeared to be glaring at the watcher. One wore ornate robes that looked like they may have been appropriate on priests. The robes were red and gold, embroidered with bizarre-looking symbols. Looking up where her senses informed her the archers were, she noted they too were dressed in the same type of uniforms the guards wore.

Still moving slowly, she stood up, being sure to subtly gather a few shards of rock in her hands.

The mage was confused. He was expecting something much more impressive. Before him stood a young red-headed girl barely more than four feet tall. According to the spell description he was supposed to have summoned the demon or godling, also known as the Lost One. The prophecies he had researched and wrangled from the oracles spoke that in order to guarantee victory in the upcoming war such a demon was required to be bound and sacrificed. The mage carefully examined the summoning circle. Hmm, intact though the area where the...girl...stood had somehow become badly damaged, he knew that part was not important. It was expected that the bound demon would destroy the area it stood. It was the rest of the circle that would confine said demon.

“Are you the infernal being known as the Lost One?” The girl gave him a confused look and answered in some foreign gibberish. This was not a good start, demons all had the gift of tongues, if this one did not understand then something had gone awry. Giving it some thought the mage regretfully came to a decision. Rooting in the pouch he had at his side he brought out the amulet he used while meeting with foreign diplomats for the King. Pulling a simple gold disk with the stylized ibis head from the pouch he threw it into the circle at the girl. She gave him an odd look and cautiously bent down to pick it up.

“Are you the infernal being known as the Lost One?” the mage repeated his question. This time the girl’s head jerked around in surprise.

Ranma-chan had picked up the amulet when the she heard the fellow in the robes speak. This time she understood what he said. “Nah, sorry. I think you must be looking for Ryouga. I was just talking to him," Ranma-chan asked in a hopeful voice. "How about you send me back and I’ll tell him you want to see him?”

The man shook his head regretfully, “I’m sorry too, but if you are not the Lost One we cannot allow you to go back to your home plane and warn him.” With a look of regret he turned, walking away while signaling with his hand.

Ranma-chan sighed, so much for the easy way to get back home, from the way the guy had talked it was doubtful she was on Earth. Perhaps she had eaten Akane's cooking and was hallucinating, then again why take the chance.

There were several twanging sounds as arrows stood vibrating where the red-headed girl once was. A moment later and much louder twanging sounds signaled the destruction of the bows courtesy of carefully aimed shards of rock.

The guards surrounding the circle jerked their swords from their scabbards as they finally realized that things were not going as they had planned. They frantically looked about trying to find the target that was no longer safely contained in the circle. The mage turned back toward the circle to identify the source of the unexpected sounds.

This was when the horrible noises began. Guards started to scream only to have their voices cut off mid-yell. The mage could see little of the proceeding but what he could, made him begin muttering the beginnings of the guardian trigger spell he had not ever expected to use. The sound of metal shattering could be heard from within the large clump of guards, and people were being jettisoned up in the air twenty feet to fall only to the ground unmoving. Occasionally the red-haired girl could be seen jumping from the head, shoulder, sometimes the actual blades of the guardsmen before leaping back within the pack of guardsmen. Then the bodies would start flying again. In less than a minute all twenty-one guards were unconscious, the mage simply assumed they were dead. Truly he had vastly underestimated the power of this demon.

Once the swordsmen were dealt with the red-haired girl slowed enough that she could easily be seen again. With deliberate slowness, Ranma-chan walked towards the still chanting mage. “You will send me home. Now.”

His voice rising in triumph the mage completed his spell. An eerie blue fog enveloped the area around him, seeming to distort the distances of the courtyard. A shimmering square plane of energy sprang into being on each side of the mage until he was enclosed in a cube of force.

Ranma-chan had backed up, nonplussed at the unexpected events taking place before her. After a second, seeing that nothing else was happening she approached the cube, gathered up several pebbles and flicked them with surprising force at the shimmering wall. Ranma-chan was not very surprised when they bounced off to no effect.

The mage was feeling much more confident. He had stymied the demon-girl, and with his safety he would be able to initiate other countermeasures. “You may as well admit defeat gracefully and die with dignity. This area was built with demon containment in mind. This wall around me is impenetrable.”

Ranma-chan walked up to the glittering wall. With the test of the pebbles she believed it was safe to touch, which she gingerly did. She felt an incredibly smooth surface, no discernable temperature, and completely unyielding. Beginning with light punches she gradually built up force to her most powerful. Not seeing any effect she added a significant amount of chi to her blows causing loud percussive shockwaves to resound through the courtyard. Still no effect, except for stinging knuckles.

She was about to continue testing the barrier when her danger sense noticed the robed man smile and look over her shoulder. She then heard a slight whistling sound and felt an object broach her chi field. Cocking her head to the side she felt an arrow fly through the space where it had been. Quickly reaching behind her, she plucked a second arrow from the air. Just as she grabbed the arrow, the first arrow hit the barrier Ranma-chan had been standing in front of. Ranma-chan was caught totally by surprise as the impacting arrow blew up in front of her, sending her flying 40 feet across the courtyard. Ranma-chan’s reflexes kicked in quickly enough to turn it into a controlled somersault, but once she landed on her feet she staggered and collapsed on her butt.

The mage had been watching this with great delight. When the creature had shown its determination to get through the barrier he had some passing doubts. Few magic defenses had no weaknesses, and although as far as he knew his were perfect, it was a very powerful demon. Demons didn’t cast magic in its traditional form, so while a normal mage of sufficient power may have been able to get through the walls of force with some type of dispel or negate magic, demons shouldn’t be capable of this, but...it had looked very determined.

The mage’s deliberation was interrupted by said demon shaking itself out of its stunned daze, and after a determined look in his direction that spoke of much future pain, it blurred, running at incredible speed over to the balcony, jumping up the thirty feet to where the arrows had come from and disappearing inside. A few screams later the figure reappeared carrying a quiver of arrows, and a bow. While running by the unconscious swordsmen she grabbed up a sword with an odd bluish hue to it.

Ranma-chan was really beginning to worry. This place was one unpleasant surprise after another. Cubes of force, exploding arrows, and who knew what was next. It seemed less and less likely that he would be able to compel the old man into sending her home, and she was becoming less willing to trust him even if it was offered. She would try a few more attempted before she admitted that she had to find another solution. But first things first. During the brief combat with the swordsmen she had concentrated on destroying their weapons, much as she usually tried to destroy Mousse’s. This had worked on most of the guardsmen but a surprising few had swords that just would not snap. She actually took some minor cuts from these swords before she adapted her style to this new danger. However, it was time to see how these weapons work on that cube thing.

Ranma-chan walked toward the mage, stopping at the barrier. Noticing that the man was mumbling something to himself, she picked up her pace. This guy seemed to have almost as many tricks as the old goul. Grasping the sword and channeling chi through it as Kunou did, she combined it with the Chestnut Fist, the sword becoming nothing more than an invisible blur. As the blade began to chime in a high pitched wail she abruptly stopped. Ranma-chan growled in frustration, the sword had merely slid off the barrier with no other effect. Ranma-chan tossed the sword aside. Tools were for the weak, a true martial artist needed nothing more than his body, mind, and spirit.

Ranma-chan jogged about forty feet away from the cube, turned and in a smooth motion notched drew and fired an arrow at the cube. Knowing the lack of effect this would have from the time the other arrow hit the side of the cube, she fired arrow after arrow at the cube to form one long explosion. Once again she paused to think then, hissing in between her teeth in frustration at her lack of speed, she threw the bow aside and used his Chestnut Fist to throw all the arrows that were left in the quiver, forcing one huge explosion from the remaining arrows.

Although severely shaken from the continuous explosions, the mage persevered in his spell. The Demon used tools. He had never heard of a demon that did that before. He had been taught, and learned this from past years of summoning experience that demons just didn’t do that. Clearing his mind he forced himself to complete the spell despite his distraction. He had the tiger by the tail and to let go would mean a quick death. As he completed the words of the spell, he dared looked up to see the demon-girl smile as if she had had a brilliant idea. Holding her hands together a brilliant sphere of light began to form between them. The sphere quickly grew larger and then suddenly came barreling towards the cube walls. No ...not at the cube walls, the ground under the cube. Eyes Widening, panic struck just before the light hit. The cube only had five faces.

Ranma-chan was very pleased with herself, she was a master at analyzing a technique, picking it apart and finding a counter. She may have overdone it a bit though. She had put far too much energy in the chi blast and there was a huge pit that the five-faced cube was presently hovering over. There was also no sign of the robed guy. Damn, she didn’t mean to kill him, even if he probably deserved it, besides he may have been the only way home. Shit.

She was so wrapped up in her contemplation that she didn’t fell a slight quiver in the ground. However, when the pillars surrounding the courtyard crumbled, revealing the huge stone golem-like creatures within, it did catch her attention.

Seeming to be statues of roughly human shape, they swung their limbs into motion with a certain glacial inevitability. They were slow lumbering creatures, twenty feet tall and they were moving towards her. Ranma-chan had no doubts he could defeat them, but there was little point. It was obviously the old man’s last spell, and he was already dead. (Shit.) She was tired, and hurt and this stupid battle was against one silly spell after another. No challenge of skill, just brute force and stamina.

If she knew Ryouga’s Breaking Point she might relish a battle against rock monsters. Of course the same reason she hadn’t bothered to learn the Breaking Point was why she saw this whole battle as disappointing. The Breaking Point was a crutch. A neat trick whose whole purpose was to allow Ryouga’s fights to last long enough for some skill to be displayed. Of course, she never expected to be attacked by a rock, which made Ranma-chan rethink the value of learning it. She did after all know the training method.

Anyway, it was time to leave. She had a whole world she had to search to find a way home. With those final thoughts, she leaped over the courtyard wall, over the rooftop of what appeared to be some sort of large mansion, and into the streets of a large city.

Of the courtyard she left behind, there wasn’t much remaining intact. The cube still hovered over the pit, most of the trees were either blown over by explosions, or cut through by Ranma-chan’s own version of the Kunou sword strike, which while ineffective against the cube seemed to work well against everything else. The stone walls of the courtyard likewise bore long deep troughs, further evidence of the effectiveness of Ranma-chan’s borrowed sword.

Eight minutes after she left a shimmering light bloomed in the empty space inside the cube and the form of an old man appeared to unravel from within his cloak, jerked in the air for a second and started to gently float down. As he descended he looked around at the devastation. Then he noticed the stone golems were wandering aimlessly around the courtyard occasionally eliciting a groan or scream, sometimes only a death rattle, as the unconscious men on the ground were stepped on by several tons of stone golem.

“What am I going to tell the Emperor?” were his thoughts before beginning the monotonous task of rounding up the stone golems.

On another plane of existence, a being of power looked upon his scrying pool, then up into the eyes of another being of great power and nigh-infinite knowledge. “That is a human? I always considered them so weak before. I am pleased that you informed me of her arrival. With a little bit of training she has the potential to be a very effective tool.”

“They prefer being called Champions or something with favorable shadings. Considering the danger this being is going to put through on our behalf, we can at least be polite.”

“Sure Thoth. Whatever," he grunted.

"Remember, Ammit is not always to be believed, he most likely has his own agenda aside from the goals of his alliance."

"I appreciate your concern, but this is hardly my first taste of intrigue, Ammit asked for my aid and thanks to your counsel I have the perfect...champion. Of all our pantheon you know I appreciate martial skill."

"Be wary not to alienate your champion, you are both honorable, but he...er she is also very compassionate. You can be very strict in following what you believe, give her some flexibility. When she is done with your favor I will need her in good health for a serious mission."

"How serious can it be if you wish to send a human?"

"I need a human for the same reasons as you, they are almost impossible to detect by deities and Intelligences. It, therefore, means we need as powerful a human as we can find. This one is as powerful as I've yet seen. I've come across weaker Godlings."

"And her mission?"

"Say nothing to the others but I believe I've detected the Old Ones stirring."

After a moment of silence, "Well I suppose you can't get more serious than that."


Chapter 3: Proof of Good Will

Ranma stood by the doorway of the tavern, absently keeping an eye on the patrons within. The weeks since his arrival had not been particularly happy ones. Growing up on the road with his father had been lonely. The only friends he had as a child had been Uchan, and Ryouga (sorta). Both had been too short for an attention-starved young boy. The last year he had stayed at the Tendos had been hectic, weird, dangerous, weird, active, and weird but Ranma considered it almost Heaven. He had friends that stayed around for more than a few days, powerful martial artists wandered in and taught him new styles and techniques (although he doubted that's what they had in mind), many girls vied for his attention (he didn’t know what to do with them, but the attention was very nice), and he’d been reunited with many old friends from the past (who would have thunk Uchan was a girl?). Then suddenly he had nothing. Not even that honorless piece of filth he called his Pop. It was almost as bad as those times he’d been stuck in his girl form.

Worse this city he was in, maybe this whole world, sucked. Oh sure they had lots of guys throwing magic around...but little else. He’d looked around at some training centers, watched hidden as the elite guards practice their art, and had come to a conclusion. They were pathetic. Even Akane or Kunou would seem to be a fighting god to these people. They all used weapons...poorly. Oh sure they could give each other a challenge but even the mediocre clods back home in the Kendo club were better than the best he’d seen so far.

He had doubled his training regime, working harder than he ever had in the past. New katas, imagining new techniques for situations he’d probably never be in. Ranma Saotome would not get soft, or let his advancement in the Art suffer just because he was stuck in a world that had no concept of real martial arts. No way.

He had the time. Employment as a bouncer was easy work. A pressure point here, a glare there and instant peace. During most of the evening when he worked he was imaging different techniques he could practice either later that night or in the morning. The tavern was also a good place to get information. They apparently had no idea how good his hearing was and he had already learned of an underground movement, as well as a few other juicy tidbits of information. Apparently the city was the Capital the Tarldet Plains, a city called Arcadia which in turn was a province of a larger country called the Western Empire, the rather corrupt remains of an expansionist empire. The city he was in stank of decadence, there were no controls on drugs, meaning that a good portion of the population spent most of their time in a drug-induced haze. Heck, a few of the bar's patrons were staring in a stupor at the empty air in front of them. Many times a city guardsman had come into the bar to create trouble, only to be slipped several gold and given a few drinks. From what he had heard this was likely the most harmless of the corruption around him. Listening to events on a larger scale there were rumors that the Emperor had been considering taking up the conqueror's mantle again, but was waiting for the right moment. Whatever. Politics didn’t interest him. Getting home did.

This led to his interest in magic. It got him here it should be able to get him home. Unfortunately, he had achieved a bit of notoriety in the mage circles, so directly requesting help was out of the question. He had learned a bit about the different types of magic available in the world he now inhabited. He had also learned of the places such magic could be found. Since the Western Empire seemed hostile to him, he figured he might more easily gain aid elsewhere.

Looking around he noted that his target had just seated himself at his usual table, and decided to put into play the plan he had come up with earlier. He was no Nabiki but it seemed straightforward enough.

Ranma casually walked over to the mature gentleman who had just sat down at a table in the corner. The importance, or at least wealth, of this individual was displayed by the hulking brute of a man that stood alertly behind him in a guard position. “Greetings. May I have a seat?” Ranma paid close attention to politeness. The last two people he had approached had been so offended by his blunt approach they had immediately left and not come back. This fellow was the last one he knew of who fit his needs.

“I really don’t have time for chitchat right now. I’m getting my caravan ready for travel in two days and I really need to hurry. Besides it looks like you’re needed for your job,” he said with a slight hint of amused condescension. As he had been speaking the man’s attention had been drawn to the scene of one of the tavern’s drunker patrons raising his mug over his head in preparation of smashing in the back of the head of one of his fellow patrons.

“Don’t worry on my account. I have plenty of time to talk to you.” As Ranma calmly stated this, he flicked his wrist behind him, sending a spoon flying across the room to imbed itself through both sides of the metal tankard. Incidentally soaking the hostile tavern drinker who still had the drink raised above him. Shocked at his sudden shower he took a look at his tankard, the spoon through it, and the bouncer’s back and wisely decided to leave well enough alone. He wasn’t drunk enough to mess with a magic user, even one hard up enough to be working as a bouncer.

“Ah, perhaps I can make a little time for you,” stated the gentleman with considerably more respect in his voice. His bodyguard, however, was looking on with much more hostility and wariness than he had demonstrated before. Ranma didn’t care, it wasn’t his problem.

“I have been thinking of leaving this town, but I don’t know much about the area. You have a caravan ready to leave for...er...was it Timiro or the Eastern Territory?”

“Ha, it’s Timiro my friend. Still want to go? The rates for passengers are 100 gold. Or do you have something else in mind.”

“Er, well,” Ranma fumbled, his concentration slightly thrown by his own verbal slip. “Something else. Heh, heh...er... I heard you have a need for guards, for your caravan. I’m interested in that position, until we reach one of the larger cities of...er...Timiro.” Ranma had his hand positioned nervously on the back of his neck and was sweating bullets. Give him the clarity and focus of battle. Talking was for people like Nabika. Heck, even Pops negotiated okay...for a lying honorless bastard.

“If you can handle a sword anywhere near as well as you can a spoon we’ll be happy to have you on our journey. I will, of course, need to speak with the tavern keeper, but as long as he’s been satisfied with your services you will be a welcome addition. The wages are 5 gold per week, food and lodging, what little there is while on the road are included. Agreed?”

“Sword...yeah, of course, got a sword, I mean, am good with a sword,” Ranma said chuckling nervously. He hated lying, he’d have to get a sword tonight. Ranma quickly got up and backed away toward his position at the door.

“I’ll see you in two days at first light by the Eastern gate, ask for the merchant Grayson. Goodnight.”

The brutish man scowled as Ranma left the table. “I don’t trust him. He’s too good to be true. And that bumbling shy boy routine is also too convenient. I think it might just be a clever mask to put us off our guard. Someone might suspect who we really are and he could be their response.”

"You might be correct in your suspicions. We’ll take precautions. The first one being that barmaid draping herself over our reluctant bouncer. Call her over, she may have something useful.”

When the barmaid arrived the merchant ordered a drink and a light meal. While chatting and flirting in a light-hearted manner, Grayson politely mentioned that she had something on her shoulder and kindly plucked a long black hair that had been lying there. A moment later he wrapped up the conversation and asked to talk to the tavern keep.

Later that night Grayson and the large man retired to their room. Bringing out a shallow silver bowl, he filled it with water. Gazing into the bowl, he chanted a few phrases while burning the hair retrieved earlier that night. After some moments the surface of the water shimmered and an image formed of a black-clothed girl with several strands of red hair poking from a black cowl and mask. The two men looked at each other in confusion. Something was not right. Their look of confusion was replaced with one of intense interest soon after.

Ranma-chan hopped from rooftop to rooftop. She kept a careful eye towards the skies, several weeks earlier she had been surprised to see one of the mages of a guard patrol take to the air and fly above his earthbound cohorts. It’s the things you didn’t know that usually got you Ranma-chan had found. She merely regarded it as a healthy learning experience. It didn’t really worry her. Herb flew...sortta, as did Tarou and Saffron. Mid-air combat was a Saotome specialty. It just wasn’t usually quite that high.

When she reached his target, she only hesitated long enough to quickly scan the grounds for anything new. She had been here in male form earlier and knew the layout and probable guard location already. She leaped up to an outside window twenty feet up and while holding onto the bricks with her fingers and toes, used her other hand the remove the inner window frame from the outer window frame. The only sound heard was a short sharp snapping sound. Still holding the window she leaped inside, replacing the window loosely behind her. Looking around she noted with approval that she was in a well-furnished office. With a small smile of satisfaction and a shake of her head, she tsked as she saw the large metal safe in the wall. There were a few squiggles engraved on the metal but the owner seemed a little overconfident. Well, she wasn’t here to rob the owner’s safe, she had other plans.

Walking forward on silent feet she quickly opened the door. Complacency was replaced by surprise as she saw a guardsman coming down the corridor with a drawn flaming sword. Upon seeing a figure opening the door the guard pointed his sword at it and barked out a word. Instantly a large fireball shot forth, screaming down upon her. Her aura had had just started to turn blue when the fireball hit her crossed arms.

The guard was just congratulating himself on an easy victory when the smoke cleared. Standing with her legs braced, arms crossed, and a very visible blue battle aura was a very pissed off looking redhead. Her clothes were scorched with holes burned through in several places, but except for this and various black smudges on the skin, she looked overly healthy for his tastes. The last thing the guard saw was a lithe form blurring toward him and an icy coldness when the aura touched him.

It's very hard to maintain the icy calm necessary for the Dragon Ascending Defeat and still be angry, but Ranma-chan was. She wasn't angry at the guard…much, mostly she was mad at herself. She kept telling herself to be careful, expect the unexpected, and then casually strolled into a completely unexpected situation. She fingered the hilt of her new sword and wondered if every bozo she'd meet in this world would be casting fireballs at her. She might as well have stayed on Mount Pheonix.

Walking down the corridor she halted as she heard the patter of many feet coming her way. She wouldn't be surprised this time. Indeed, Ranma-chan wasn't surprised when fifteen guardsmen came around the corner. She had knocked eight of them unconscious before most could even ready their weapons. When one the people in the rear held up a necklace, pointed at her and she found herself firmly affixed to the ground…that did surprise her. Before she had readjusted her tactics to suit her stationary position one guard scraped his sword on her forearm giving her a nasty cut. Unfortunately for him a moment later he joined his fellows in sleep.

Ranma-chan looked at her feet, looked at her one remaining opponent, and thought quickly. Pulling out the sword (which burst into flame upon leaving the scabbard) she brought the blade down with great force on the ground next to her right foot. Her gasp of delight as she found her foot free (albeit, with a chunk of the floor attached to her feet) turned into a groan of dismay as she found the sword now firmly attached to the ground. Meanwhile, the remaining guard had fearfully backed away and was pointing with an innocuous ring he wore on his hand. Guessing what might be coming her way she readied her aura and her arms blurred in a circular pattern before her. Sure enough out of the ring sprang a sphere of fire bearing straight at her. Upon reaching her aura and moving hands the fireball seemed to instantly be shredded and a huge horizontal wind tunnel formed in front of her.

Ranma-chan, although feeling a huge force upon her, still had one foot stuck to the floor. The difficult part wasn't bracing herself against the wind, it was balancing on one foot to prevent it being reattached to the ground. When the wind died down she noted that her adversary was no longer before her. She also noted the wall and a good portion of the ceiling was no longer before her as well. Upon looking around her she saw only the few that had been stuck to the floor or blown into the magic effect were still with her.

Grunting in satisfaction she used a conveniently place body to keep her free foot from touching the magically enhanced floor, while another borrowed sword freed her other foot. Jumping out of the area she continued down the newly renovated corridor and through the hole in the wall. Beyond the wall lay a hole in the floor through which she passed with a sprightly jump.

Finally got here, Ranma-chan muttered to herself as she looked around. Surrounding her were the most pathetic group of people she had ever laid eyes on. Dressed in rags, those that were dressed, about fifty people stood in cages.

"Please, help us," cried out one of the braver souls.

Ranma-chan nodded began to shatter the locks of the cages with chi enhanced blows as she walked down the aisle. The people gathered behind as she moved until she came to the end of the cages.

Turning to face the released captives she drew in a breath and gathered her courage for a speech she had already said several times in the last few weeks. "Who among you are familiar with the streets of this city?" Upon finding a volunteer, Ranma-chan pulled out a map with directions written on it. "This is a map to a location in the city where you can find temporary hiding and shelter. The people here should also be able to smuggle you out of the city, or even the country if you feel it's necessary. There should be several carriages in the next room, set them up and ride to this location. I suggest you use as few as possible to avoid attention."

"Thank you, but why are you helping us?" asked the same brave woman who had first asked for help.

"It's a martial artist's duty to help those weaker than himself. Besides, slavery is just plain evil." The woman looked puzzled, as if this didn't explain anything and seemed to be mouthing the words 'martial artist' or maybe 'artist of war' as if she had never heard of such a thing.

At that moment Ranma-chan felt the floor pieces come loose from her feet, and she gratefully stepped off of them. She did not consider high heels very manly even if she was otherwise short in girl form. The crowd around her seemed more startled at her suddenly shrinking several inches than her spectacular arrival.

"Does she seem shorter to you?" a whisper was heard.

"Hey! Who're calling short," Ranma-chan cried out indignantly.

"Now don't bother the powerful sorceress. It's obviously that time of month," a second whisper was heard.

"Hey! Who're calling a girl?" only a confused silence met this remark.

Not being sure exactly what they were talking about, she used this distraction to galvanize the crowd into moving. This rescue was a lot noisier than she had expected and she knew the night watchmen and city guards would need to be distracted away from these people's rendezvous.

Once the people were underway she headed back upstairs to pick up the flaming sword from the rubble and continued on to the office she had originally snuck into. Upon reaching it she paused for a moment and then said to herself, "Why not? If you can't steal from slavers, who can you steal from?"

She gathered her chi and sent her fist smashing into the safe.

When she regained consciousness she found herself firmly embedded in the wall opposite the safe. There wasn't much left of the room except kindling. Note to self: strange engraved squiggles on safe=pain. From past experience with unconsciousness, she estimated she had lost only a few minutes. Prying herself out of the Ranma-chan shaped hole she collapsed and dragged herself on hands and knees to the now open safe. Damned if she had suffered through all that for nothing, she grabbed the few pieces of jewelry, gems and coins and tucked them into subspace.

This momentary breather was enough for Ranma-chan to get her second wind back. This was fortunate, because after that explosion nothing short of blowing up a guard post would be enough of a distraction. She'd have to keep moving in order to maintain the guard’s attention yet avoid any unknown magical traps.

It was going to be a very long night.

The two men looked down at the bowl, then sideways at each other, then down at the bowl again.

Finally, the huge man spoke, "Okay I'll grant you it's pretty unlikely he ...er she, was a Western Empire spy."

"If that was our bouncer he seems to be marginally competent enough to be one of our guards."

After another moment of silence, the pair broke into hearty laughter.

An exhausted Ranma-chan dragged herself to the tavern the just before dawn. Just before she was about to enter she noticed a group of six disreputable appearing fellows standing before her and the door. "Oh what now!" she sighed in a tired voice.

"We think you've been stealing. You don't have permission from the guild to steal. You can either give us everything you took tonight and forty percent of all future hauls or we'll take it anyway and place you in a world of hurt," grumbled the apparent leader of the group.

After a moment of silence, Ranma-chan stated in a conversational tone of voice, "You know the difference between Nabiki and you?" At their puzzled glances, she continued, "I don't hit girls, and you ain't anywhere near being my sister-in-law."

The next morning a half dozen paralyzed thugs were found standing in a fierce intimidating manner outside the tavern.


Chapter 4: Fair Trade

Later that day a still tired Ranma forced himself awake and trudged through streets of the city. When he had first tried to find this shop he had needed to ask for directions repeatedly. He still didn't read the language (the amulet wasn't that powerful) but he usually remembered how to get to places when he'd been there before. Eventually, he stopped before a small unobtrusive shop. It had only a small picture of an open eye on the sign overhanging the door.

It had taken quite a bit of asking around to find this place. Apparently even in a world disgustingly full of magic, the city was chock full of quacks and loons. This was supposed to be one of the finest shops where items of a magical nature could be found. Soon after he had arrived he had stopped by here to see what was available. In a way he was disappointed, no sign of anything that could get him home was apparent. On the other hand, there were some really amazing things that were available. Even if most were useless to him, he still examined the more common and dangerous items. You never know when these things might be used on you by some misguided soul. He could just imagine Cologne drooling over the things he had seen.

When he went inside the first thing that struck him (as it had on his previous visit) was the size of the room. The room seemed to stretch on for about eighty feet yet still maintained a cozy feel to it. Considering how small the cottage-like building was on the outside, this by itself was a testimony to the effectiveness of the owner's talents. The next thing he noticed was the owner leaning on a staff some ten feet away. He was looking directly at Ranma, and he had the disconcerting sensation that regardless of when he arrived the owner would always be in that same position ready to serve him or any other customer. He somehow didn't feel real.

"Greetings, my son. I am pleased to see you once again," the old man spoke in a creaking voice.

"Hi, Gramps. Do you have that thing I ordered?' Ranma asked cheerily. He actually sorta liked the old man. He could be his normal irreverent self and the old man only seemed amused. He hated being polite, it was so…unnatural.

"Yes, and a very interesting request it was. You seem to have an interest in defective goods. Two pairs of magical restraints, indestructible and enchanted so that even the most accomplished wizard cannot spell himself free, or metamorph into another shape and free himself in that manner. Unfortunately, the locking mechanism is defective on both sets making them useless as shackles. Ha, ha such irony. And all you wanted was the chains removed. I would have given them to you for almost nothing if it weren't for that. Indestructible chains are very hard to get rid of."

"Yeah, whatever, you got my watch, and that was supposed the cover the manacles and gloves."

"Heh, the other defective item. I wish all my customers wanted my failures. Well the claws of the 'Gryphon Claws' may not work, but they are indestructible, I guess I could have sold it to some Man-of-Arms as gauntlets…but that 'watch' of yours was very interesting."

"Yep and it's worth a cool 1000 yen too (about $10). Anyway, I recently 'found' some stuff and I thought I might actually want to buy that speed ring you showed me last time."

"Ah, the 'Ring of Fleetness'. Well, that’s a good 30000 gold. Are you sure you have those kind of funds?"

"I think so," he said nervously as he brought the jewelry, gold and gems from subspace and handed it to the old man.

The little man took the items, giving a low whistle. "I'm no pawnshop boy. If these are stolen goods I won't take them," he stated in a serious tone.

"No really, the people I took them from were breaking the law," it was only after he had said this that he recalled that slavery was legal in the Western Empire.

"Well…okay, but only because I can tell by your aura that you're telling the truth. I am an honest businessman, and wish to remain so." Ranma let out a sigh of relief, he never thought that having a mouth that was faster than his brain would be a good thing. "What you have here it is easily worth 50000 gold. If you think you can get more you can go to a jeweler and I won’t think any less of you."

"No, I'm going on a journey tomorrow and I need what time I have to wrap some things up, I accept your offer. Hey, is that cloak new?"

"Yes, it just came in three days ago."

"It's not something silly like that 'Pit Cloak' you showed me, is it?"

"Well some people have found 'Pit Cloaks' to be useful, but no, this is a 'Cloak of Guises'. The old man immediately went into salesman mode. "It can turn into several full sets of clothing at will. Almost anything you can imagine. If you were a woman you could have any style of dress you wanted at any time. The perfect gift for a girlfriend or spy. I hear they're also illegal in certain countries. Fortunately not much is illegal in our lovely Western Empire," the shopkeeper chuckled. "The only drawback these have is the garments are all the same basic colors and material. For instance, this particular cloak is silk and has a blue exterior with a red inner lining. This means it can transform into any combination of clothing but it must always be some shade of blue or red. Oh, and it will always be silk."

"Hey...yeah, it could work! Um... how sturdy is it," Ranma started excitedly.

"Well it's not indestructible like those other things, but it's not too shabby. Unless specifically targeted it's very unlikely to be destroyed. Minor damage will regenerate over time." He chuckled as he thought of something. "Ha, if you're so worried about it being destroyed, the next time you're caught in a fireball, command it to change into a kerchief and hide under your decorative manacles. Ha, ha, ha." The old man was so caught up in his joke he started wheezing. He abruptly stopped laughing when he noticed Ranma nodding silently to himself. "That was a joke son. If you have a fireball coming after you I think you got other things to worry about than your new clothes."

"Yeah... very funny," Ranma muttered with a distant look in his eyes. "I'll take it. How much?"

"Well, for you I'll make it 20000 gold, after all, you've taken some useless trash off my hands. What do you need this stuff for anyway."

"Well the manacle is for a curse, the gloves are for a training technique I want to eventually try, the ring is for emergencies, but I don't expect to use it that often." He would be a poor martial artist if he came to depend on a stupid magic ring to win battles for him. Then again considering how weird this world was a ring that doubled your speed could come in handy if things got really hairy. "The cloak is just to avoid embarrassing situations." Like being in a dress while in male form, very bad.

The old man simply sighed, "If you didn't want to tell me just say so."

"Oh, by the way, I got a sword the other night. It bursts into flame and throws fireballs an' stuff, but I...er...forgot the magic word."

"I'm sure you did. I recognize the sword type, it's fairly common. Just point and say 'Acba' and instant fireball. Just 'remember' it only works three times a day," the old man winked at him. "Oh, that reminds me 'Acba' is a fairly common magical trigger, be careful what you touch when you say it. Hmm...it's also the trigger for your ring so you may want to wear it around your neck or something if you plan on throwing fireballs and don't want to go into overdrive. Remember the ring also only works three times a day."


Chapter 5: Of Boxers and Brushes

Ranma met up the caravan the next day without mishap, finding Grayson just inside the East Gate. Grayson greeted him warmly enough though he kept glancing with an odd expression at his sword. He also learned that the large man he assumed was the bodyguard was named Kahil. Kahil wore a look of wary respect and most of his previous hostility seemed to be muted. Of course, Ranma noticed none of this and lazily roamed amid the milling horses until he was given directions. Once Grayson drew him away from the noise of the caravan he was given his instructions.

"We need a scout to travel ahead of the caravan and warn the main group of possible dangers. You seem a young man in excellent shape so I doubt you'll have any problem running back and forth, from point back to the main group. At night I, of course, expect you to scout the perimeter, and then you can get a nice night's rest while the other guards take turns keeping watch." Grayson spoke with his back turned towards Ranma, braced for some expression of outrage. He was not expecting what came next.

"Cool. Sounds reasonable. Is that it?" Ranma said in a cheerful manner, simply happy to move out of the dreary city.

Grayson began coughing into his sleeve and kept his back turned. "Yes, that’s it. If there's nothing else you want to discuss, I need to get these lazy camel herders moving."

"There is one thing," Grayson winced expecting some form of protest. "When do we eat?"

Grayson broke into another fit of coughing. "Well there's some food prepared over by the cart, you can snack on that this morning. The normal schedule will be breakfast at dawn, a short stop for lunch and dinner soon after the evening camp. Enjoy."

Soon after Ranma went to the food, Kahil wandered over. "Well?"

"He didn't protest at all. I think I almost cracked a rib laughing. By the way, did you see the sword?"

"Yes. It seems he is the one that gave us such an adventure. Think he's a metamorphed dragon?"

"Could be, they're more common than people think among the more advanced races of dragons. I hear they find people amusing to be around. I don't understand his easy display of abilities though, a dragon would be more subtle, besides they're generally not known for any martial skills in their human form. Brute force is their forte when their magic fails. I'd almost think he was a warrior monk, but he's much better than any I've seen before. When we get back to Timiro we can send some feelers out to a local Monastery and maybe consult a Summoner or two, in case he's a demon."

"That's doubtful. He showed a strong moral code. Though little common sense."

"True but on the off chance he's a demon or a slumming godling, a Summoner could tell us. Despite appearances, he really can't be human. I checked his aura again this morning, he's wearing enough magic to make a lordling green with envy but he still appears a human male of high skill. I'd say changeling for the sex change thing except they are supposed to be extinct, and what lore I know says they have very weak constitutions. The boy's as strong as an ox."

"Hmm... that’s not the only thing he shares with an ox. Look at him eat. Better send someone to get extra rations," Grayson stated staring as the pig-tailed boys hands blurred on the path from food to mouth.

The caravan was delayed a few hours. Apparently the caravan master had underestimated the supplies needed for his passengers. Several of the wealthier passengers sniffed at this amateurish mistake. Ranma didn't care except some of the female passengers kept wandering over wanting to talk to him. This combined with their 'accidental' touching had him nervous enough to leap at shadows. He was exceedingly anxious to leave by the time the horses started down the road.

Not to mention that his clothes itched. The cloak that was presently supplying his wardrobe was irritating him something terrible. It wasn't quite physical, the silk was of fine quality and very smooth. No, it was a tingling sensation whenever he flexed his chi in any way. Being the martial artist he was, this meant he was in almost a constant state of distress. The bracers he wore (defective manacles really, but they looked enough like bracers to pass them off as such) also itched, but he was able to ignore this as a lesser discomfort.

It was several weeks into his new routine when he came to an abrupt realization of what this might mean. He was several miles ahead of the caravan running around as per his normal daily routine. The trail was a wide rocky path that wound in a snaking pattern between two mountain ranges. He took out the ring he carried in subspace to check his theory. He wasn't having much luck with his test until he became frustrated and commanded his cloak to become a bandana wrapped under one of his bracers. With the general distraction gone he was able to sense a slight sensation coming from the interaction between his battle aura and the ring.

He smiled. The sensation wasn't a curse after all. If he could perfect this talent he would give Shampoo a surprise the next time she tried to slip him a potion. As a side thought it crossed his mind that it might also come in handy fighting magic users. He did, after all, seem to be in a world that couldn't take a piss without a spell to help out. Of course, in order to do this, he would need to be able to tune out the magic he wore, it was really playing havoc on his battle senses.

As if to underscore this thought, he heard a voice behind him. "I was going to warn you of bandits, but it appears you've already encountered them."

Ranma looked behind him to see a rather well-built female with short black hair, wearing a plain brown robe, tied with a thick robe sash. She pointed behind her with her spear. This also happened to be behind Ranma. At this point, it suddenly penetrated his brain that he was wearing only his boxer shorts and a T-shirt. Sweating bullets he immediately started babbling. "I can explain...honest...it's like...I mean...well..."

The woman interrupted him, "I'm sure you have excellent reasons for being as you are, never the less, there is a furious warlock and his pet Elemental behind us. I think we should probably leave. Now."

Ranma immediately regained control of his tongue, beautiful women he couldn't deal with, but fighting was his life. It was like breathing. "Well, I guess I'll just wait here for it. There's a caravan a few miles back I'm guarding, so it's kinda my job. Er...you bein' a girl and all, perhaps you might wanna head over that way while I handle it."

The woman's eyes went wide as she attempted to process the insult. Did the warlock have something against women? That might explain his violent reaction to her when it was obvious she had nothing of value. "Why that evil scum...I'll show him he can't treat a woman like that!"

This only served to confuse Ranma, it was like they were having two different conversations. He was distracted from attempting to get the woman to leave again by whistling sound. Leaping over to the woman he lifted her in his arms and jumped away just as a huge boulder smashed down where they had been. Looking back at where the boulder had come from he momentarily froze in surprise.

"Man I really, really need to learn that Breaking Point thing," he whispered to himself.

Seemingly pulling itself out of the earth was a rock creature. Not just any rock creature, a really large humanoid shaped one. Ranma estimated that it would be about fifty feet once it stood up. Shaking himself from his surprised stupor he bounded over to a large ridge and deposited the woman there. He then leaped toward the monster. He didn't usually pull out the big guns so early in the fight but he believed that only his more powerful attacks would even dent this creature.

By now the creature had pulled itself out of the ground, the earth seemingly sealing itself up after the monster's exit. Ranma began shooting his Fierce Tiger Domineering at the creature while closing the distance. The projectiles were doing damage, but even a five-foot crater in the things hide seemed insignificant. When he had closed most of the distance it pointed its arm toward him and a huge shower of large rock shards flew towards him. He was able to dodge most of them, and the few he couldn't, he gathered in his arms in a manner similar to how he fought Ryouga's technique. Fortunately, the creature was fairly slow, he could dodge the rocks and it looked far too clumsy to physically touch him.

At this point, he sensed a dangerous tingling from the ground beneath him. Remembering the adhesion spell he had encountered earlier he leaped away as far as he could. This turned out to be fortunate as the whole area behind him had become a seething mass of lava. "Shit, time to get serious."

Working his way behind the creature with quick leaps he made a final large jump onto the things back. Satisfied the creature couldn't reach him he let loose with a powerful chi charged Chestnut Fist. Having created a crater in the things back as wide and deep as he could reach he was feeling pleased with himself when he felt his chest and legs enveloped in unyielding rock. Looking up he realized in horror that what was once the creature's back was now its front. This was disastrous, the thing was stronger than Ryougo and with his arms trapped at his sides he had no leverage. He might be able to summon a chi blast, but enveloped as he was it would hurt him more than the monster.

Fortunately, the thing decided against squeezing him into a paste. It gestured with its other arm creating a large chasm in front of it. Raising its hand it seemed about to throw Ranma down into it when it was distracted from behind. Ranma heard a small tink and a scrape, from his scenic view fifty feet in the air he saw the woman strike the creature's calf with her spear. To his eyes it didn't seem to do must damage, but she had a visible battle aura and from the way the thing reacted it must have hurt. It continued its attempt to throw Ranma but with its timing disrupted, he missed the crevasse and hit the ground.

It was a stunning fall but Ranma was used to similar impacts. With a small wince, he staggered to his feet and prepared his next attack. Shouting to the woman to leave, he began a spiral around the stationary beast. It had no chi battle aura but it tingled in the field of his battle aura and he hoped that the magic or whatever made up the beast would prove an adequate substitute. He was fortunate that the next few attacks were clear misses. Once the creature gestured over him, but whatever the purpose of this it seemed to be ineffective. When he reached the center and completed the move he was fearful it would have no effect. A moment later he was gratified to see the whirlwind of the Heavenly Dragon Ascension form. It seemed to actually have much greater energy than usual, seemingly to glow and sparkle as large shards of rubble were ripped from the creature.

Usually, Ranma left his foes flying helplessly in the air until they landed, but considering the large scale of the thing that seemed unwise. Firing repeated chi blasts at the rock creature as rapidly as he could manage, he waited for it to come down. When the whirlwind abated so the weight of the thing could no longer be supported it fell several hundred feet to land with a crushing impact. When it finally stirred and stood up he was dismayed to see to creature seemed mostly unhurt. The craters that had covered it were smoothed over and the only sign it had been in combat was that its stature was half its former size.

Ranma was exhausted. He had given this thing all he had and it was still coming on. He didn't have enough energy for a chi blast or Heavenly Dragon Ascension. Well, he was still faster than the monster, he could only try. Besides what better way for a martial artist to go than protecting the helpless.

Just as he was about to close once more with the creature he felt a hand on his shoulder. He was about to tell the woman to find shelter when he realized it wasn't the girl standing behind him.

Behind him stood Grayson, Ranma looked around for the other but he appeared to be alone. "Allow me. I have a certain rapport with elementals." He paused before speaking loud, "Peace my Brother, we do not wish to harm you." He paused for a moment as if listening to something. Ranma heard nothing but the sound of rocks grinding together. "Hmm... I see. If you continue this conflict not only will you have to deal with this human which has hurt you so much but I will have to intervene and oppose you as well. I do not wish this." Pausing to listen he nodded. "So my fellow warlock keeps you bound long past the terms of your agreement. This is not right, he must be punished for treating his brethren in such a shameful manner." Standing in silence he considered things for a moment before continuing. "The commands the traitor gave you do not include a time limit. Give us a day to deal with the warlock. If we succeed you will feel your bonds to this plane cease. If we do not, you must, of course, continue with your instructions. Oh, before you go, please restore that human to its original state, we may need it to free you."

Ranma was puzzled by this last part until he examined the landscape closer. About fifty feet away was what appeared to be a statue of the woman he had met earlier. Mouth open in shock he was running toward her when the granite surface of her skin began to glow and slowly took on a pinkish cast. When the glow disappeared she collapsed on the ground. When he looked back towards the creature, it's head was already sinking into the ground. He also noticed Grayson walking towards him.

"Well, you impressed that one. It called you quite the pest."

"Is she going to be all right?"

"She should be fine. The stone transformation is only fatal if the body is smashed while in that state. It's actually very difficult to manage. From what our friend had to say, he tried that on you a couple times, but gave up once he found your resistance to direct magic to be significant."

"Eh? Direct magic."

"You know sleep spells, paralysis, transformations. Spells that affect you directly as opposed to indirect effects such as Fireballs, Lightning, River of Lava, or Chasm," he said nodding toward the slowly cooling magma and chasm.

Ranma congratulated himself again on getting the bracers and made a note to find out what kind of offensive spells people and rock thingies had available. "So why were you so buddy buddy with that thing?"

"I am a warlock, we are linked to the four elements, and more relevant in this case, to elementals. We consider them kin to us, and they treat us in a similar fashion. That poor fellow has been bound by a rogue warlock who has used his bond to coerce the elemental into servitude."

"You mean it wasn't evil."

"Evil is irrelevant, an Elemental's thought processes are not those of a human. They consider human, and most other beings insignificant. They won't actively try to kill you unless ordered, but it may happen anyway if you don't get out of their way. The only exception is warlocks. Fortunately, they are content on their own plane and only leave it when summoned."

"So the bad guy is this warlock, right?"

"Yes, he is the 'bad' guy. I told the Elemental we would deal with him. Of course, until we do our caravan isn't going anywhere."

"Don't worry, you take the girl back to the others and I'll get the warlock guy." He was about to head off into the mountains when he felt Grayson's hand on his shoulder.

"Do you have any idea where he is?"

"Er... no?"

"Well, fortunately, the Elemental mentioned his whereabouts. By the way, what happened to your clothes?"

Following Grayson’s directions Ranma hiked for a ways, until looking upwards he saw a rather imposing structure entirely composed of crystal jutting out from high up on a cliff-face. Sighing in resignation Ranma began his climb. An hour later he reached the odd fortress and leaped from the cliff to one of the structure's openings. Looking around he noted he was in a large open room with a huge bed next to the wall. The cleanliness of the room made it unclear if this was where the warlock slept. He was still examining the room when a brushing noise caught his attention. In the adjacent room a brush was scrubbing the floor around a recessed tub as if wielded by a disembodied hand. Seeing the cleaning utensil was not hostile Ranma carefully backed out of the room.

Hmm... I bet Kasumi could use one of those, he thought to himself. Pushing his musings to the back of his mind he carefully concentrated, hoping to sense the warlock aura. After several minutes of this, he was able to discern the sensation of what he believed was the warlock. Opening his eyes and getting his bearings he proceeded through the corridors always bearing towards the aura he had sensed earlier.

The whole building seemed full of animated cleaning utensils merrily brushing, scrubbing or polishing. Every few feet had some new cleaning tool doing its work. Obviously the guy had a real cleanliness fixation. Ranma ignored this, he had seen weirder things. He couldn’t think of them offhand but he was sure this was true. What really distracted him was the interference that various miscellaneous enchantments apparently caused with his battle aura. The whole place stank of it. He expected it of the brushes and stuff, but the walls themselves distracted him. The only way he was able to keep his ‘lock’ on the person’s position was reducing the interference to a minimum.

Ranma finally came to the room where the aura was located. With only a second’s hesitation, he burst through the door. About thirty feet away, a robed middle-aged man looked up from the mortar and pestle he’d been using to mix some ingredients with a shocked expression etched on his face. The shock was almost instantly replaced by indignation and the strangest battle Ranma had yet fought begun.

The man yelled something in a garbled tongue, pointing at Ranma. Seeing this Ranma leaped towards the warlock before he could cast something unpleasant. He was only halfway there when he was struck in the face with a feather duster. As he fell to the ground from his leap it was joined by several brushes and some kind of buffing rag. Hacking and choking he noted that the warlock was in the midst of casting some sort of spell. Panicking he grabbed a brush from the mob around him and threw it with significant force towards the chanting mage, eliciting a yowl of pain and a curse. Several seconds later the chanting began again.

This continued for some time. Ranma using his Chestnut Fist to keep the mob of cleaning tools at bay while occasionally throwing one to keep the magic-user from completing his spells. He could only move slowly towards the mage while the mage, in turn, backed away to keep a constant distance from him. Once he tried to leap through the whirling of brushes but was immediately forcibly knocked to the ground.

Seeing how this stalemate could probably continue indefinitely (or until he got tired enough that the mage got a spell off) he shot off a weak Fierce Tiger Domineering which was enough to push its way through the mob of brushes and knock the mage back into the wall. Unfortunately, while shouting the name of the attack one of the brushes shoved itself forcibly into his mouth and almost down his throat. Choking and gagging he ignored the brushes still flying around, beating him to concentrate on removing the foreign object from his orifice. Almost turning blue from the effort, he was finally successful and staggered as quickly as he could over to the warlock’s body. Grabbing him in a fireman carry he limped over to the closest window, and while still being beaten by the cleaning crew, jumped out of it.

Ranma knew he could survive a fall from this height without permanent injury but doubted the same was true with the warlock (besides which, the brushes followed him out of the window). Drawing his stolen sword, which immediately burst into flame, he spun it beneath him while adjusting his aura appropriately. The resulting wind funnel was just enough to reduce his fall to merely tooth-rattling. It also had the added benefit of blowing away the irritating cleaning products.

Okay I changed my mind, there is no way I’m getting Kasumi a set of those things, a disgruntled Ranma reconsidered.

After a few pressure points to ensure his guest didn’t regain consciousness at an inconvenient time, Ranma headed back towards the caravan.

“You brought him back with you?” Grayson asked in a puzzled tone.

“Of course, you didn’t think I’d kill him, did you?”

“No, no, of course not, it’s just that now we have to convince him to let loose those he has bound. If he had, of course, ‘accidentally’ died all the entities he had placed in servitude would have naturally been freed. Warlocks are notoriously stubborn you know,” he said, apparently oblivious to any irony, while Kahil chuckled quietly to himself, while nodding in agreement.

“Don’t worry. I think I know a way to convince him.”

"Say, did you just take a bath?  Something smells lemony fresh?"

 

“Don’t be ridiculous, you obviously don’t have the guts to kill me. Why should I get rid of any chance to free myself? You must believe me a fool,” stated the warlock known as Stabula a few minutes later, his voice dripping with contempt.

“I think you’ll agree,” said Ranma having just come inside the tent carrying a bucket.

“Yes, of course, I will. When unicorns fly, boy. You were just fortunate, when you burst into my study dressed in your underwear, the surprise was the only thing preventing me from crushing you.”

Grayson and Kahil, looked sideways at Ranma, whose face was red, and sweating bullets. “I can explain it all! I swear! It was all part of my master plan to... to take him by surprise and get a tactical advantage... yeah that’s it! Really!” Grayson and Kahil gave a noncommittal grunt. Stabula’s was outright skeptical.

“Anyway... do as we say or I splatter you with... this,” Ranma said while pulling out a glob of mud from the bucket.

“C’mon lad. Do you really expect a pathetic threat like that to... to...” Grayson’s statement of disbelief trailed off as he recognized the look of horror on Stabula’s face.

“Now I’ve seen everything. An Earth Warlock with a terror of mud. How did you find out, my boy?”

“My martial arts training makes me incredibly observant,” Ranma just stated with a wise, inscrutable look on his face. The effect was ruined by a floating mop slamming into the back of his head. Ranma’s hands were a blur as he grabbed the mop and stuffed it into subspace, while cautiously looking around.

“What was that,” asked a confused Grayson.

“What was what? Oh... that! Probably just someone’s idea of a practical joke. Heh, heh,” Ranma chuckled nervously.


Chapter 6: Ware Exploding Rocks

Ranma was, as usual, several miles ahead of the caravan. It was several days since they had resolved the warlock issue. The warlock in question was under guard with the caravan’s main body. Apparently, there was some kind of guild for warlocks where his crimes would be reviewed. Grayson seemed unconcerned with his banditry, however, he found his abuse of Elementals intolerable. Ranma could relate to that, sorta, but it was hard to get emotional over a pile of rocks that had been well on its way to flattening him. As far as he could learn from Grayson the only regrets the Elemental had in regards to its past actions was that it had failed to finish off ‘that pest’. Ranma wasn’t positive but it just might have been referring to him.

He had almost trained himself to ignore the interference caused by the cloak. He wasn’t sure he trusted his newly focused concentration in combat, but thought he would soon. The reason he was out a little further than normal was he had found his patience failing with rock creatures lately. There were far too many in this world for his comfort. It may have been ideal for Ryouga, him be’in rock headed an all, but Ranma found it disconcerting being so woefully unprepared.

He also was frustrated at the lack of perceptible progress in his personal training. Without other skilled opponents to test out the effectiveness of the techniques he had invented, he had no idea how effective they were. Sure they weren't the incredible destructive maneuvers he had learned from Cologne, but he was fairly proud of the throws, attacks, and defensive moves he had come up with on his own. It looked like he might never find out if they were as good as he thought they were.

He really wished Ryouga were here to spar with. Sure he always beat the Lost Boy but it was always a good workout. What was the point in being the best martial artist in the world if he was also the only one? He also missed the okinomiyaki Uchan always made, and the friendly conversations, Akane and her hammer, the verbal sparring.  Heck, he even missed Nabiki… well not much, just a little.

He shook himself, if he kept obsessing about home he would get as depressed as Ryouga, it was time to concentrate on the training he could do. To aid his initial concentration with the perception he was attempting to achieve, he had banished all distractions, even his bracers had been placed in subspace. The only distraction left was the odd faint fluttering sensation he had come to associate with having animated cleaning utensils using his subspace storage. It had been very disconcerting at first but he had to put the damn things somewhere. The warlock hadn’t been able to call them off, apparently, after freeing his ‘brothers’, he couldn’t change the last command he’d issued. So every once in a while a new brush or something would attack him. He got no sympathy from Grayson or the other’s, all they did was laugh as he was chased around the camp until he managed to force the tool away.

He was standing next to a large boulder meditating, and trying to feel how it was connected to him, when he heard footsteps behind him. Knowing who it was before he turned around, he desperately rooted around in subspace for his cloak. Spinning around, he mentally commanded his cloak to form his normal clothing. He was taken by surprise when the thing in his hand started to whip around and repeatedly smack him about the head and shoulders.

A giggling sound confirmed his fears. “Sensei, is this another of your new training methods?” Sighing at yet another humiliation Ranma calmed his mind and put the brush he’d grabbed for back into subspace.

“No. I was just brushing some of the dust off. What do you want?”

Ever since the battle, the girl he’d met before had been following him around like a lost puppy. He was sort of flattered but it did lead to awkward situations. She didn’t seem to mind but it usually embarrassed the heck out of him. She was apparently a member of some kind of Warrior Monk order. Her martial arts weren’t anywhere near up to his standards but they were the best he’d seen so far.

“I’ve been practicing those forms you showed me, and I think I’m ready for something new.”

“Hmm... show me. And remember I want to see some real Battle Aura control this time,” he grunted.

He nodded in appreciation as he watched her gently glowing form. She was the first person with any chi control he had seen since he gotten to... wherever he was. It was crude and relatively weak but it was there. She said she was one of the best in her order but it was obvious she’d been overwhelmed when she’d seen him in combat. That was to be expected. He was Ranma Saotome after all.

When she had recovered she had begged him to teach her. Usually, he hated fighting, or even teaching girls but she was so far behind in the martial arts that it would be some time before they would be up to sparring. For now, it was chi control, physical exercise, and katas. Eventually, she would be able to channel chi while doing exercises and katas, she would find her speed and strength increasing rapidly thereafter as the chi flows optimized the body’s development. He was actually rather proud of her progress so far. Not that he expected anything else. With him teaching there really was no chance of anything but success.

After she finished her form he nodded in approval and demonstrated her next exercise. He ignored the fact he was in his boxers. He hoped she thought it was some weird teacher thing. When he was done they chatted for a while and she asked what he had been doing. Giving up the inscrutable teacher act he excitedly began explaining about the Breaking Point and his plans to master it. He admitted that he didn’t have the traditional setup, but if he could learn the Chestnut Fist using water and fish he figured he could learn the Breaking Point without a large boulder repeatedly smashing into him.

“Are you sure, sensei?” she asked in a doubt-filled voice.

“Of course I am. No problem, I think I’m close too. I almost could see something the last time I tried. Er... before you came by.”

“Could I stay and watch?’

“I suppose so, just stand back. When the technique works the rocks should explode.”

“That sounds very dangerous. Are you sure about this?”

“Sure I’m sure, what could go wrong? I mean the whole technique’s point is to toughen the body. Sorta like a stone skin technique. I mean really how often do you get attacked by stone monsters...” Ranma trailed off as he mentally tallied the numerous rock creatures he’d met so far. “Anyway, the technique only works on rock, metals, and other really solid stuff.”

“If you say so.”

After making sure Jess had moved to a safe distance, Ranma began his concentration again. Reaching out he was able to sense his surroundings much clearer than previously, but nothing that looked like a Breaking Point. Still, after some time had passed he noticed on the peripheral of his senses a faint network of lines. As he focused on this new phenomenon he saw with sudden clarity how there was a lattice of something, maybe energy, maybe chi connecting everything he sensed. It was pretty but he wasn’t sure what good it did. In a sudden moment of inspiration, he noted that there were nodes where lines connected. Maybe that’s it, no one ever said what the points look like, maybe that’s it!

With this thought, he brought his finger forward towards the rock to touch one of the radiating areas. Nothing. Hmm, probably needs to focus chi into the point as well. Ryouga sure made it look easy. Reaching out again he focused his energy through his finger into the nexus. He sensed the start of some sort of reaction and inwardly began to cheer. Yes! I did...

For Jess, it had the feeling some car wreck victims have experienced. A huge disaster you could see clearly as it unfolded before you, but were helpless to alter. Ranma began to glow as he reached towards the boulder and then he was engulfed in a huge explosion. Even from fifty feet away she was pelted with stinging shards. Ignoring this, she ran toward the epicenter, where the dust was rapidly dissipating, crying out Ranma’s name.

She found him lying unconscious in the bloody, tattered remains of his clothes. Small shards and slivers of stone were embedded in his skin. She frantically checked his vital signs and breathed a small sigh when she saw he was breathing and no body parts were missing. Not being a stranger to wounds and healing she began to pluck the shards from her teacher's skin. Knowing this would cause additional bleeding she planned to remove the projectiles from a small area at a time, clean it, then stop the bleeding and bind the wounds. She had clothe in her pouch and the caravan would come by within the hour.

Her heart almost stopped when Ranma’s body shrunk and grew breasts when she poured water on the first patch of wounds. Stifling a yelp of surprise she continued to clean and bind the wounds. Ranma would explain later if she had to drag it out of him/her kicking and screaming. By the time she had finished Ranma was just regaining consciousness.

“Agh... what happened? I feel like I was blown up by the old pervert,” Ranma-chan muttered groggily.

“Shh. Lay still. Your technique was just a little too effective,” she softly said, trying to keep Ranma-chan still.

Looking down at herself, she moaned. “Damn!  It’s going to take days to heal this!”

“You're not upset?” asked a very surprised Jess.

“Nah, just a training accident. I guess that’s why you’re supposed to get pummeled by boulders for a while before you actually use the technique. Shit.”

“Doesn’t this hurt though?” Jess asked. She was skeptical, those wounds had looked fairly serious.

“Oh, you bet it does. But ‘the path of a true martial artist is difficult. Only real men can succeed against such trials'," he said quoting his father's favorite phrase. "Besides I know some chi healing techniques,” Ranma-chan stated, quoting her father.

“About that ‘real man’ thing...” she stated pointing at Ranma-chan’s breasts.

“Shit. How’d that happen? Ah, never mind, can you get some hot water before the caravan gets here?”

“Hot water?”

“Yeah, I want to change back before anyone else finds out. I don’t like to advertise about the curse. I’ll explain while you heat the water.”

Groaning in pain she sat up, ignoring Jess’s protests, and started poking herself at pressure points meant to ease the pain.

“There’s actually not much to it. There’s a valley where there are over a hundred springs... or there was at least. Each spring had an animal or person drown in it. Any time after that, if someone falls into the spring they take the shape of what drowned in it before. I fall into spring of drowned young girl. Very tragic story,” Ranma-chan spat with a half-hearted Chinese accent. “Now when splashed with cold water I change into a girl. Hot water reverses the curse until next time.”

“But you get splashed all the time. The others in the caravan joke about it all the time. Why haven’t we noticed this before?”

“Well, before we set out I bought these.” Ranma-chan pulled out the bracers from subspace. She also made sure to grab her cloak. “They lock my form in whatever I happen to be in. They’re really cool. Is that water hot ready yet?”

“Sure. Here.” She watched in fascination as Ranma-chan poured the hot water from the small pot and transformed into a man again. Looking nervously around, he quickly put the bracers on again. It was fortunate he did so for at that moment a light rain began.

“I’m not sure, but I think the curse also includes me being a cold water magnet,” Ranma stated grumpily.

Several hours later he still looked pretty awful, but no longer in danger of falling over and dying. Ranma lay back down. It looked like he would have to put off completing the Breaking Point Training until he found a nice quiet spot to pummel himself with rocks. He doubted he would have survived at all if he hadn’t been toughening himself all along by letting Akane hit him. Of course, if he could survive her cooking he doubted anything less than divine intervention could kill him.

There had been a priest among the passengers who had been pleased to offer his healing ability for a fine guardsman unfortunate enough to get caught in a rockslide. He had a lousy bedside manner though.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t die, isn’t it?” the priest chatted merrily.

Ranma gave him a disgusted look. “Yeah, it sure is. Would have ruined my whole day,” he said sarcastically.

“Well, I could always have asked my patron for HIS Intervention. Or if that had failed I’m sure Master Grayson would have been happy to hire a priest or mage to raise you,” he stated nonchalantly.

Ranma sent the tea he’d been drinking spewing across the tent staring incredulously at the mad man in front of him. The priest misinterpreting his look continued, “Of course he would have. It’s frightfully expensive of course but this has been the most uneventful caravan trip I’ve ever been on. Don’t think we haven’t noticed the unconscious Ogres and Orcs we’ve seen by the trailside. I doubt they just decided to take a nap on their own. Now I don’t know why such a nice powerful mage like you decided he wanted to protect a caravan, but we all appreciate the thought. In fact, if you tell me what mage guild you belong to I’ll be happy to write a letter of recommendation to them. I’m sure Grayson would do the same,” the priest added helpfully.

The last the priest heard from Ranma as he left his freshly healed patient was some muttering, “Great now I DO have to worry about divine intervention.”

"Ranma, what are your plans when we get back to civilization? Do you have a place to stay?" Grayson asked one evening after dinner. Ranma was off to the side of the camp with Jess. She was doing katas, while he watched and corrected her occasionally. It was several weeks into the journey and they had already passed a few of the smaller towns near the border of Timiro.

"Well, I talked to Jess and she says the Monastery in the area would be happy to put me up. She's going to vouch for me. I ain't gonna be dead weight either. I can teach some of the more advanced maneuvers and katas to them. Maybe the basics of chi manipulation. I mean they got they one trick with focusing their aur