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?"
"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."
"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."
"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.
"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.