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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...

Sunday, 03 May 2020 22:13

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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)

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