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?"
"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.