Hiiiiiiiii~~~! Tsubasa Kurenai here, and I am just SOOOO excited to be your recapper! Are you reading, my dearest Ukyou? *blows kisses* I really don’t like that guy who has been shoved in your head and is giving me threatening glares because I’m not getting to the point of this!
Anyhoo, last time on Hybrid Theory… not much happened! My beautiful girlfriend Ukyou decided, out of the goodness of her boundless heart, to save Dr. Tofu from falling down an open sewer and dying because his business was going bankrupt! They also gave that little harridan Nabiki what she deserved and snubbed her from their social clique, leaving room for ME!
Speaking of ME, I appeared last chapter! I’m soooooo happy! And I’m totally going to embarrass that ugly klutz Usagi! She’s going to be SOOOOOO freaked out when she finds out my darling Ukyou is actually a girl, despite Usagi having a crush on her!
And is it wrong that I find that slightly arousing?
Nooooo, nooo, kyaaaa, naughty thoughts!
Ryouga showed up last chapter, but really, who cares? Bad things happened to him, but really, what else is new? What a boring old stiff. Speaking of stiffs, that nasty old Chris guy/girl/corpse/whatever went to China and fell off a cliff or something. My dearest Ukyou wasn’t involved, so I didn’t pay much attention!
That’s pretty much it! Thank you, thank you, and please, tip your wait staff!
C&A Productions Presents
A Work of Blatant Self-Insertion
Chapter 6: Breaking the Habit
Chris felt a bit of a thrill as he stood upon the hill and looked down upon the Nyuuchezu – he refused to call it “Amazon”, even mentally – village for the first time. It was like being in the Tendo Dojo… here was the proof, the stories come to life. This was the world of wonders. Of course, unlike the Dojo, he wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from the Nyuuchezu village. A crowd, a table, a banquet, and a log. All that had been seen in the manga… not much to go by.
From this high up, the village probably seemed smaller than it actually was. The encroaching shadow of night and the lazy sprawl of houses made it hard to guess at the exact size of the community. It did not even begin to fill the valley in which it was located, but the rice paddies that spread out from its northern end certainly took up a huge amount of space. Only one building appeared to be over a single story high, and that looked like some sort of giant dome. A tribal meeting place? The house of a community elder? Capsule Corp? Heh, okay, maybe not that last one.
As Chris watched, lights began to appear in the windows down below. They weren’t the flickering lights of bonfire or lamp that he had expected. Instead, they glowed with the clear, steady white of electric lights. But how had they gotten power out here? A quick scan to the west of the village showed several windmills. At first he had dismissed them as archaic throwbacks, but maybe they served some more modern purpose here after all.
The walk down to the village was almost disappointingly uneventful. The path he followed was well-worn, the dirt packed flat by the tread of many feet. Ruts too narrow to be tire tracks showed the passage of carts. Night continued to fall, but with an idle laziness that Chris had grown to expect in the wilderness. The village slowly grew in his view. It was definitely large, but nothing he would even call a town in a more civilised part of the world. But then, he had passed through highway “towns” that were both smaller and dirtier than this. Nonetheless, one probably could have walked from one end to the other in a half hour, and there couldn’t have been more than sixty buildings.
Most were short, stocky affairs made of some dark, smooth wood. They looked like any number of other village houses he had encountered in his journey here. Perhaps more sturdily constructed, actually. There still couldn’t have been more than three or four rooms to each. Only a few people walked between the houses, men and women moving together with the casual hurry of people going about their business anywhere.
A few of them looked up as Chris walked into the village proper, but none paid him any particular heed. A few curious expressions, but no yelled greetings, angry challenges by heavily armed warriors or rushes to escape the strange foreigner. Of course, why would there be? He felt a little silly for half-expecting it. Chris shifted his grip on his pack as he moved inward and took in more detail.
The village seemed like something lifted straight from a pre-industrial Chinese epic, mixed in with several obvious anachronisms. Aside from the electric lights (no power lines were in sight… did they have generators?) there were other signs of modern influence. Here and there a village man or woman wore a digital watch, or carried a small trinket of the modern world. One pair of young girls were huddled in a corner with a flashlight and several copies of some modern teen magazine, giggling to each other.
Chris soon arrived in the centre of the village, where the largish dome stood. It was made of stone, but masterfully erected. Chris was no architect, but he could detect no seam where they must have fitted the stone blocks together, nor was there any break to the smooth lines of its exterior. It was maybe two and a half stories tall, and twice that wide. A perfect hemisphere, at least to his untrained eye.
There was one entrance, and this was the first clue Chris saw of any martial presence. A tall, buxom brunette in one of those form-fitting Chinese breastplates Shampoo favoured was sitting in front of the building. A spear was leaning against the wall beside her, within arm’s reach. She wasn’t paying attention to much beside the game of solitaire she was dealing out on a patch of dusty earth.
He hesitated a bit. Kodachi knew a little Chinese. It was part of the proper education of the elite, such as she was. But it wasn’t something she’d had great interest in. Her brother could probably get by conversationally, but he knew better than to try that. Misunderstandings in dialogue could lead to bad things, when he didn’t even know what this building was. Maybe a shrine? Well, first, let’s see if the problem was moot. “Excuse me,” he said politely, “Do you by any chance speak Japanese?”
The woman – she looked to be in her early thirties – looked up without any surprise, or anything else beyond mild annoyance. She had muddy brown eyes which were clouded with confusion. Chris repressed a sigh and repeated his request, this time speaking the words more carefully. The woman seemed to get the message this time. She said something rapidly in Mandarin, pointing off at an angle to the direction Chris had taken entering the village. Chris couldn’t make out a word she was saying, but she was shaking her head slightly. Guess that was a no.
Well, let’s try something else she might recognise. “Cologne.”
The guard tilted her head to the side, obviously recognising the word. Then she grunted and pointed back in the same direction. Her voice was rough, but oddly musical. Then she said a few Japanese words. Chris recognised “traders”, “morning” and “guests” past her horrible accent.
He nodded, and thanked her – he could at least do that in Mandarin – before turning and moving in that direction. Cologne DID speak Japanese… aside from Mousse, it was entirely possible few or none of the others in the village did, depending on how often anybody there travelled. In which case, he might well be being directed straight to her, which would certainly simplify things.
He moved through the village slowly, keeping an eye on every house he passed since he was unsure what he was looking for. The guard’s directions had placed him on what was obviously the main thoroughfare of the village. After a half-dozen or so houses passed by, Chris came to what was obviously his destination. The building was about three times as long as any other in the village, and most of it was dark. The front door was wide open and white light spilled from inside. On the wall next to the door were signs in a half dozen languages, including Japanese and English, all of which basically said “Inn.”
Well. Didn’t he feel stupid. He walked in, wryly hoping he’d provided the bored guard a little amusement. Although that still left the question open as to what exactly she had been guarding… but that wasn’t important at the moment.
The inside of the building was furnished in a spartan but comfortable fashion. The light came from a few tasteful and expensive-looking lamps that hung from the ceiling. The part of him that was Kodachi recognised their value, and he was mildly impressed. The walls were covered in elaborate murals of Chinese art, as well as one piece of western art (a piece he did not recognise). The room he was in was small, with a pair of stuffed leather chairs in one corner. A man stood with his back to Chris behind a waist-high desk of carved mahogany, watering what Chris recognised as a cannabis plant. Heh, maybe that’s what Cologne smoked in that pipe of hers. It’d explain her usual mellowness.
“Excuse me,” he said in Japanese.
The man turned slowly. He was old… not ancient, but Chris couldn’t place his age. He had short black hair and tiny black eyes. His cheeks and brow wrinkled with grandfatherly good humour as he smiled.
“Yes, may I help you, young lady?” his voice contained the same rough but musical accent as the guard, but his Japanese was impeccable, a fact for which Chris almost sighed in relief.
“Yes, hopefully you may. Am I correct in assuming that I have reached the village of Nyuuchezu?” Never hurt to be polite.
“You assume correctly.” The man nodded and gestured for Chris to come closer. “You must have walked far. From your pack, you’re either a martial artist here for training, or a trader here for barter. If you hoped to witness the tournament, I’m afraid you’re almost two months late.” He laughed, a loud belly-quaking sound. Not that he had much belly. He was thick and rounded, but there appeared to be not much fat to him.
He smiled in return. “I have come far, but not for training. I have come in search of the wisdom of one who resides here.” He paused for effect. “Her name is Cologne.”
The man frowned, but only slightly. “Well, that is an odd request. But Cologne has always been a bit of an odd sort, hanging out with the strangest people.” He shrugged. “I’m afraid you’ll probably have to wait until morning. Cologne has spent many years acquiring wisdom and it shows in her health, which isn’t what it used to be.” He gestured towards the far wall, which had a single door. “I can offer you a room. Reasonable price. It’s the off-season, you know. Snow is just now melting out of some of the higher passes, so we don’t get many but the really determined in.”
He sighed. Too late after all. “Thank you… but as it turns out, I don’t really need to sleep at the moment. If Cologne is truly unavailable, is there perhaps something I could do for you or in the village to pass time until the morning?”
“No, we pretty much take care of ourselves around here,” the man said with a kindly smile. “You best be careful offering help to anyone else in this village. I’m more worldly than most, but the people here are known for their pride for a reason. It’s best you just keep your nose outside their business and stay out of sight until your dealings here are finished.”
“I understand,” he nodded. “Well, in that case, I can at least practice my martial arts. Is there an out of the way nook where I could do so, or should I have to leave the village until morning?” He grinned. “Don’t worry… I do know better than to get into any fights with the women here unless they are strictly friendly sparring matches with no winners or losers.”
“So I was right, after a fashion,” the man said with a quick chortle. “If you want to practice, I suggest doing so outside the village. The square at the other end of the village is open up enough, but you’ll probably attract the wrong kind of attention.” He paused and gave Chris a long, piercing, and slightly discomforting stare. “Sometimes the people here have more pride than brains, and don’t give you chances to turn down challenges, if you know what I mean. Like I said, best to keep a low profile if it can be helped at all. Outsiders here are tolerated, not welcomed.”
He laughed. “You’re probably right. And since I actually want to be able to be here tomorrow, I would do well to avoid joining them in that pride-overcoming-brains thing. Fair enough. I’ll go outside the village for the night, then. If anyone wants to fight me, they’ll have to walk for it.”
“Ah, good, good,” the man nodded. “If you need any help tomorrow, just come ask me. Name’s Bath. In case I see Cologne before you do, can I tell her who came calling?”
“I don’t believe she’ll recognise it, but my name is Kodachi,” he responded.
Bath nodded, and gave him a jovial goodbye as he left. As he exited the building, Chris scowled a bit. This was exactly what he was hoping to avoid. But oh well. He could wait until sunrise to see Cologne. It’d be boring… but boredom was, after all, the least of his problems.
Ukyou ran her hand over the coat that was hanging on the rack Tofu had kindly set in her “room.” Well, it appeared it would be her room, at least for the foreseeable future. She wasn’t sure she wanted the coat here, and hadn’t even touched it, or the large spatula leaning against the wall next to it, since waking up in this very same room a little over a week ago. The coat was the same one she had worn in that disaster at the Kunou mansion…
Ukyou sighed. It had been Aaron’s idea to purchase the thing. It was supposed to help save their bacon, but really it was just because he was enamoured of the badass ‘Matrix’ look. She paused when her hand encountered an unexpected bulge in the material. Aaron frowned and reached in, pulling out the small metal container. It was an emergency respirator, a portable metal case filled with pressurised oxygen attached to a simple plastic mask. The idea had been to use it in case of gas attacks by Kodachi. A problem he would likely never have to deal with now. Because Kodachi was dead.
Ukyou growled and pulled the forearm-sized tank back, ready to pitch it out the window. But Aaron stopped her, holding Ukyou’s arm in place with what was probably the first exertion of his will since… since that night. “It might still be useful, for other things,” Aaron said out loud in Ukyou’s voice. Ukyou was forced to nod reluctantly, then she slipped the container back into her pocket.
Next up was an inspection of her weapons. A visual check showed that her combat spatula had a few dinks and nicks, but no structural damage a good wetcloth and a few hours of polishing wouldn’t fix. Her bandolier of miniature spatulas was hanging from it, and Ukyou sighed again. There were only three of them left. Moving on, she found a few bags of her Flour Bombs (patent pending) and a single tiny explosive. That was it.
That was it for all her physical possessions on earth. Everything else had been in the pack that had been blown up along with her ratbag motel room. Strangely, Ukyou couldn’t bring herself to feel bad about losing most of it. It was just clothes, some cooking ingredients and some survival gear. Nothing worth getting worked up over. She wasn’t sure if that was Aaron’s influence or not, and that worried her in a small way she didn’t dwell on.
The only thing she cared about, and that Aaron cared about even more, was the loss of their notebook. That thing had contained all the notes Aaron could remember about the timeline of Ranma 1/2 and a few other animes. It also contained all the information Aaron remembered about the history of his world. The important events that would shape history, like the election of presidents and prime ministers, the wars, the economic bubbles and bursts and new technologies, and the events like 9/11 and the other things the future held. But that was still fresh enough in his mind that he could recreate it all.
The real loss was the writing, the drawings, the musings and diagrams. Aaron had always been a writer, and his interest in drawing, while not as advanced, was definitely there. Strangely, he had found that Ukyou shared some of his passion for art. Unwilling as she was to admit it, she had quite a bit of talent and enthusiasm for drawing. It only stood to reason, he guessed, given her passion for creative cooking.
Ukyou shook her head and smiled. She did hate to admit it, but he was right. She liked drawing, a lot. It was probably the only thing she had found that she and Aaron could do well together. She was going to miss some of her sketches.
“Ukyou? Are you here?”
“Back here, Akane,” Ukyou called over her shoulder. She stepped back from the coat and weapons, drawing a deep breath as she did. Ukyou would have to take the day off from helping the doctor. Today she needed to go and make sure her affairs were still in order, shop for new clothes, and while she was out she would acquire a few things to help in the days ahead.
“Ah, good morning,” Akane called cheerfully as she walked into the room. “Here, you better take this: he’s a bit of a handful.”
Ukyou reached out reflexively to take the thing Akane thrust at her before even looking at it. She blinked when she realised she was holding a small black piglet, that appeared to be quivering and trying to retreat up her arm.
“Oh, H-chan…” Ukyou said as the memory of her conversation with Akane came back. She looked down at the piglet, giving it a quick visual inspection. “What’s a matter, pig, did Akane scare you or something?” she said as she looked into his strangely human eyes. He nodded rapidly. Well, at least the pig hadn’t fallen in love with her. “Heh. Good for her.”
On an impulse Ukyou stored the piglet under her arm like a football (heh, pigskin, Aaron thought) before turning back to Akane. The cursed man struggled a bit, but Ukyou just squeezed a little to keep him from getting too excited. Akane was dressed for school, but that wasn’t a surprise. “Where’s Ranma?”
“He’s out looking for that guy Ryouga,” Akane said with a shrug. “He was chasing around the neighbour’s dog this morning with a tea kettle, screaming something about his curse.”
Ukyou blinked, then sniggered, then coughed as she tried to keep herself from breaking out into fits of laughter. She pounded her chest a few times, wincing as she coughed again. “Never mind then,” Ukyou coughed a third time. “I think we won’t have to worry about Ryouga disappearing on us.” She looked down at the pig under her arms. “Isn’t that right, H-chan?”
Ryouga stared back at her with his little piggy eyes, obviously confused. It was amazing how human his expression looked, considering he was an animal at the moment. That tickled something, made Aaron do a mental double take, but the feeling passed quickly.
“I have this guy well in hand,” Ukyou said to Akane. “You should probably run off to school…” Ukyou considered teasing Akane about visiting with Doctor Tofu, but let the idea pass unvoiced.
“Right.” Akane stepped back towards the door. “Oh, just one thing.” Ukyou raised an eyebrow. “Have you seen Nabiki at all this morning?”
“Funny, she wasn’t in the house when Kasumi got up,” Akane muttered. “I thought she might have snuck off to spy on you again.” Akane didn’t bother trying to filter the exasperation from her voice.
Ukyou smirked. “No, your sister hasn’t made a serious effort to catch me with my guard down for the past two days or so.”
“Well, I’m sure I’ll see them at school,” Akane sighed. “See you later, Ukyou!” Akane waved cheerfully over her shoulder as she jogged from the room. Ukyou waved goodbye in return and smiled to herself. Something about Akane’s visits always made her feel better. Then she remembered the cursed boy tucked under her arm.
“Hey, let’s see if we can’t find you some clothes,” Ukyou grunted as she stepped out of the room. Damn, how was she going to ask Doctor Tofu for yet another loan of fresh clothes?
The morning finally came, in the form of strong enough sunlight that Chris’s flashlight was no longer necessary to see the words on the page. He switched it off and tucked both it and the journal back in his backpack. As it turned out, he had practiced for awhile, further learning the nuances of Kodachi’s art, but had eventually decided to continue writing his memories of various anime into one of the journals he had brought for that purpose. Even spending eight or so hours doing so, frustratingly, was only scratching the surface. He’d filled up one book already, and he estimated at least three more would follow before he even got a decent overview of everything that was reasonably possible to exist here.
He straightened to his feet, wryly thankful that corpses didn’t experience discomfort due to staying in one place for long periods of time. Once he returned to Japan, he’d have to see about finding a less vulnerable method of storing all his thoughts and information. Unfortunately, it’d be quite a while before CD burners would be commercially available, and he couldn’t trust anyone else to take dictation. Maybe tape-record himself…? Well, he’d cross that bridge later.
He glanced down at the Nyuuchezu village from the same hilltop perch he had first seen it the previous evening. Forms were beginning to move through the streets, doing whatever it was they did in the early morning. He jogged down the slope, angling at the inn. Bath struck him as the sort who would be an early riser; hopefully his intuition was correct. He still didn’t know exactly where to look for Cologne, after all.
Nobody accosted him as he made his way to the long building he remembered, for which he was grateful. He didn’t recognise anybody, but then, that wasn’t surprising. Shampoo shouldn’t have been there anyway, and while that left her father and Mousse, the chances of stumbling upon them was probably pretty low. Especially since Mousse had a decent chance of not being here either.
He stepped into the open door of the inn… and stopped. Bath was indeed there. So was Cologne. Both of them were sitting in the stuffed leather chairs, enjoying a morning smoke on their long pipes.
Well, well. How very convenient. He wondered if Cologne had really been asleep the night before after all.
The old woman looked at him as he hesitated in the doorway. “Come in, child, have a seat. You wanted to talk, yes?” Her voice was old, scratchy, and very, very canny, much like he expected (and remembered). It also didn’t give away much. He set himself, walking in. This was it. Ranma was one thing, but he seriously doubted his ability to get away if Cologne decided he had to be destroyed. Hopefully she would be more curious than revolted by his condition.
As he entered, Cologne made a shooing gesture at Bath with her pipe; the old man swiftly arose and drifted out of the room, nodding slightly to Chris as he passed. As he left, Chris sat down and tried somewhat unsuccessfully to relax. He looked over at Cologne. “Well, it seems you’ve been expecting me. I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long.”
“Not really.” Cologne eyed him carefully, taking a long draw on her pipe. He felt a tingling, a sense of… something at the back of his head as her eyes seemed to stare past him… and then it passed. “I get so few visitors, and have so little else to do I leapt at the chance to have a conversation. Please, tell me what wisdom it is you seek.”
He shifted a bit. Well, she hadn’t attacked him yet. “I have a bit of a problem, and I was hoping you might know something that would assist me in it. However… the nature of my problem is a bit personal. If we talk here, are we likely to be overheard?”
“Not any more than the rest of the village. And it would be unusual for business to be conducted elsewhere in the village or outside of it. Curiosity is a powerful lure, the mundane far less so.”
“As you say, then.” he nodded. Oh well. Best to be as cooperative as possible. He settled himself in the chair, collecting his thoughts. “Well, I rudely have not introduced myself as of yet, for which I apologise. My name is Chris McNeil. You were probably told something different by Bath, which was not precisely an untruth. This person whose body you look upon was called Kodachi. But I am not her.”
“Ah,” she said, in a tone which indicated a complete lack of surprise. “An interesting statement, but not exactly a request for wisdom.”
“You’ll have to excuse me; it’s my nature to try and explain things one point at a time.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “To the best of my knowledge, I’m dead. I believe myself to have died in a car accident. But that car accident was not here, in this world, but in a world similar in some respects but very different in others. I ‘woke up’, so to speak, in a body in this world. But it too was dead. It seems I am some sort of spirit, as I’m able to possess and animate other dead bodies, something I am unfortunately forced to do, as the bodies I inhabit start decomposing over time – a process I find quite unbearable as it progresses. However, I don’t really want to do this. I want to find a way to be in a living body, or failing that, at least halt the decomposition of the body I’m in so I can stay within it indefinitely. I know you to be wise, and learned in many different subjects, both mundane and… not so mundane. Thus I came to you in hopes you might be able to help me, or even just point me in the right direction.”
Cologne took another long draw on her pipe, savoured the flavour for a few moments, then exhaled an acrid cloud of smoke. “Interesting.” She paused, looking him up and down. “You are no spirit, or ghost, or elemental, or demon.” She tapped the ashes out into a small dish near her chair. “You are, as far as I can tell, a nothing. Ambulatory flesh with no more animating essence than a rock or a stream. Either you are an automaton, like those ‘robots’ I have heard about, or you are impelled by a force I can neither detect nor have heard the least amount on.” With that, she began elaborately and carefully stuffing her pipe again.
He slumped. “Well. That doesn’t exactly sound very hopeful, I must admit.”
“Wisdom rarely does.”
“Touché. Well, is there anything you can suggest? Any avenue I might take, source of information I might seek out, expert I might consult?”
“I never said I couldn’t help you,” Cologne noted as she finished lighting her pipe. She took another puff before continuing. “You came seeking my wisdom, and I gave it to you. Which is to say, I know nothing about what you are or how to solve your problem.” Cologne smiled, more to herself than to him. “But the far better question for you to ask yourself now would be: why should I do anything at all to help you?”
He chuckled a bit. “Well. I am willing to do what I can to repay anything you might do for me. Whether that repayment be through usage of skills or information. But I’d need to have an idea as to what you might wish in return for helping me.”
“I have no needs you can fulfill and few wants these days. Retirement after a long life of prosperity and respect has left me with not much to want that I can not get, for much less effort, from virtually anyone else.” She took another puff. “You say you can provide me with information. What kind of information?”
“I know a lot of things. Some of which are likely to be of interest to you, because they relate to you, or your people, or your family. How I know these things is, however, part of the information. However, as proof that I am perhaps more knowledgeable than the average person, I will point to the fact that I came here, knowing who you were, and where you lived, and that you were indeed very wise and knowledgeable, despite you not particularly advertising these things to the Japanese public.”
“I’ve never made my existence a secret. People who know where to look can find out my name and living arrangements. Though one thing I am curious about… the question of ‘why me?’ In this world, there are people who are both wiser and more widely known than me.”
“Perhaps that is so. But I knew about you, and knew enough to know how to find you. I can’t say that for any others.”
She chuckled. “Then let me rephrase that. Answer my question, the question of ‘why me’, or walk out the door now.”
He shook his head. “I’m not sure what you mean. The reason was that I knew about you, and didn’t know about anyone else who had remotely the same sort of experience in odd, magical, unnatural things. Truly, that’s the only reason. Hmm, well, actually, to be fair, I have to say there’s other things I wish to look for while I’m here in China, but the reason I’m here right now is because you were my best hope for being able to help, not because of anything else.”
“Allow me to clarify the question again: HOW did you know about me, and not about others who are both more famous and more wise?”
He sighed. “Fine. As I’m coming to you for help, I suppose I have to also put my good faith in you first. As I said, I do not come originally from this world you’re in. I know about you because I’ve read about you. I’ve read about many things that have happened in this world, and about many that will happen in the future. I know about many people in this world, and many more who may be in this world but I am not yet sure of. That’s how I know of you, and the source of most of the relevant information I could impart to you.”
“Interesting,” Cologne muttered. “Tell me about this world of yours. Is it a spirit realm? Are you a god of some kind who knows my future?”
“Quite the contrary, in fact.” He leaned back, grateful that she seemed to be interested again instead of hostile. “It’s a world much like this. Except there are no unnatural things. No magic, no martial artists who can defeat legions of men singlehandedly, no cursed springs, no bird people, no gods, no spirits. A world of, for lack of a better term, normalcy.” He paused. “Mmm. I’ll qualify that it’s possible that there may be spirits, or gods, or other supernatural phenomena there… but there’s no proof, and that’s not for lack of looking on the parts of many people. If there is anything, it’s far less visible, accessible and common as such things are here.”
“Sounds very boring,” she said with an amused chuckle. “But how can such a world know my future?”
“That, I really don’t know,” he responded. “If I were to guess, I suspect that events in this world – and perhaps others as well – might resonate somehow in the minds of people of that world, leading them to write down or otherwise create stories they think are made-up but are in fact chronicles of this world’s events. But that’s just a wild guess… I really have no idea either way.”
“Then what reason do I have to trust your information?” she pointed out easily with a tip of her pipe. “Nothing you have said to me so far indicates a knowledge of the world beyond that which other mere mortals can come to possess. Why should I take time from my hard-earned retirement helping you, when I have no reason to believe that anything you tell me will be accurate?”
“Well, for starters, I know my information is accurate up until the point where the events I know will or have occurred are interfered with. I’ve seen that myself. For instance, I have never met your great-granddaughter Shampoo. But I know that right now she is searching for a girl who first ate the prize she was supposed to receive at a tournament in the recent past, and then defeated Shampoo when she understandably challenged the girl to combat. I know that she is searching because the law of your village is that a woman defeated by an outside woman must kill that woman.” He leaned forward, and raised a finger. “But perhaps I could learn that through another source, you think. Well, I know something that neither of you know, and that I could not learn from another source, namely that the girl Ranma who defeated Shampoo is in fact a man, who had recently fallen into the cursed springs of Jyusenkyou before coming to your village. Indeed, he was not the only one, for the pet panda that was with him and also ate at the prize buffet was in fact that man’s father, also recently a victim of the cursed springs.” He sat back again, and spread his hands. “That is the sort of thing I know. What has happened, and to an extent what will happen. I know a few other things I expect will be of interest to you, and perhaps other things that I do not realise will be of interest to you. I can’t say how much they will be of interest, but since as you say you do not NEED anything, that is seemingly all I have to offer. But, you also said you have little to do and are bored. If nothing else, I daresay I present a riddle that is interesting. Wouldn’t that have some value to you?”
Cologne raised an eyebrow and chuckled. “I think you overestimate my boredom. If what you say about my great-granddaughter is true, then that is worth an equal share of information, at the very least.” She took another long draw on her pipe. “I can not revive the dead. I am certainly not skilled at creating souls where none exist. I think, in fact, that there will prove to be nothing I can do for you at all. This is because you obviously exist outside the limits of the Two Circles.”
She paused, obviously waiting for a response, which he did not disappoint her in. “What are the Two Circles?”
“So, you’re unfamiliar with the term.” She nodded as if expecting that. “Don’t feel bad. Most martial artists are. Indeed, so are most who practice the mystic arts.” Cologne hopped down from the chair, making a large circular gesture with her staff. “The term refers only to the difference between the two disciplines, and as such has no use to those who practice one or the other exclusively.” She made a somewhat smaller circle in the air with the tip of her staff. “The First Circle is the power of Chi. It is the animate force of will and life. All things have chi, and all can learn to access its secrets. The Second Circle is most often referred to as magic. Unlike chi, it is a force which exists outside of life. Also, only certain beings may wield the energies of the Second Circle. These two forces comprise the totality of the universe as we understand it.”
“Hmm. And thus, since I am from outside the universe as it is understood, I’m also outside these two circles?”
“That would be the logical conclusion,” Cologne nodded. “Of course, it is also possible my skill with mysticism is not so advanced that I can detect the subtle strands of Second Circle working on you. But I doubt that.”
“I doubt it as well.” He grinned slightly. “But what does that mean? I mean, it’s obviously the case that I can interact with this world. And I can use the skills of this world, including the martial arts you say are First Circle-related. So why would you be unable to help, aside from the fact you can’t raise the dead?”
“In the same way that the currents of the ocean will never influence the orbit of the moon,” Cologne said, making another circle with her staff. “The First Circle may never influence the workings of the Second Circle, even if the second can influence the first and often does. It is a sad fact, but magic is just MORE than chi. I suspect that since you CAN influence the First Circle, and exist outside it, then much the same laws might abide in what you are as well.”
He spoke carefully. “So. What you are saying is… that, essentially, being from outside this universe I’m like a ‘third’ circle. And thus, while I might be able to use chi or even magic, none of these things, nor anybody who wields them, can affect that which is ME in any way. That in fact, nobody except someone who could also wield that same kind of energy, that is not native to this universe, could help me?”
“I would not go so far as to say that with certainty,” Cologne said, but she nodded her head at the same time. “However, if what I suspect is true, then you are a person not of ‘this’ universe and such, you may exist beyond its laws.”
“Well, that’s… rather disheartening, to say the least. Uh… let me think. Hmm. Well, if there’s one, there may be others. Have you ever heard of anything, or anyone, who might do something similarly inexplicable, that might be related to this third circle of energies?”
“No, not really,” Cologne said. “I wouldn’t get too disheartened. Just because you may exist beyond the laws of our world doesn’t mean you are necessarily beyond saving. For instance, magic can create a stone from nothing. No amount of chi mastery can unmake the stone. But if you want the stone gone, then crushing it to dust with the power chi can give you is almost as effective.”
“A good point, and thank you. Well, is there any course you might be able to suggest to me?”
Cologne paused, looking thoughtful. “I would suggest looking for that which exists outside the two circles yourself.” She tapped her staff on the floor. “To know the limits of things will help you in that. Know this: the power of chi is mighty, but it may not raise the dead, it can not reverse the flow of time, nor create things from nothing or the reverse, it can not linger beyond the will of its master, and in finale it can not influence effects of the Second Circle. The Second Circle has far fewer limits. It can do those things I mentioned. Its only limit is that magic may not alter the fundamental laws of reality. It can bend them, suspend them, even break them for a time. But it can not change things so that rocks fall up. This means that magic can not create something that is eternal. All things end: that is a law of existence. Magic can not break that final law.” Cologne tapped her staff on the ground, frowning. “I can’t be of much more help than that.”
“Something eternal…” he mused. Might be worth talking to Akio about. If he existed. “All right. Thank you very much. You gave me rather more information than I gave you, so I should tell you something else, at the very least. One thing does occur to me immediately. When you were young, you knew for a time a man named Happousai – indeed, you knew him well enough to call him by the nickname ‘Happy’. That man, after being rejected by all the girls of this village, stole many of the village treasures and ran off into the night, never to be apprehended. I believe my memory is correct in that?”
“Yes,” she responded, in a short and curt voice. Well, she’d been annoyed about that in the manga too.
“Hmm. Well, as it turns out, that self-same man was also the martial arts master of Genma Saotome, who is the father of the faux girl Ranma I mentioned earlier. Genma and his friend, Soun Tendo, both disliked Happousai about as much as most people seemed to, so about ten years ago they got him drunk and sealed him in a cave. I don’t know where the cave is… however, within a few months at the most, Happousai – who is apparently rather too tough to be more than inconvenienced by being sealed in a cave for years – will escape from his confinement. He will go shortly afterwards to find his old students, both of whom are at Soun Tendo’s dojo in the Nerima ward of Tokyo, in Japan. He still has many, perhaps all, of the things he stole, and will bring them to that dojo shortly after arriving there.”
“I see,” Cologne said slowly. “Thank you. That is even more valuable information, should it prove to be true.”
“I’m glad to have been able to help. In a related note, I should say that Genma’s son Ranma is also at the same dojo, where Shampoo will likely find them both shortly in her search for the girl Ranma. Given Shampoo’s lack of knowledge about the true situation, things are likely to get complex. It probably does not help matters that Ranma has two other fiancées at the moment.”
“I see…” Cologne paused. “Then I have a piece of advice for you, too.” She waved her staff. “Things such as you… they do not ‘just happen’.”
“I agree. I’ve been wondering what – or whom – might have brought me here. But I haven’t been left with very many clues to answer that question.”
“I can’t be of any help with that.”
“I understand.” He rose from the chair. “You’ve been a lot of help already, and I thank you for it. If I may, then, I’d like to ask one more favour of you. As I mentioned before, there are a couple of other locations I’m looking for, which are both in this general vicinity. Could I trouble you to give me directions?”
“If I know the way.” She nodded.
“You should, I believe. The first I am going to is Jyusenkyou. The second, which I wish to go to from there, is a herbalist’s village which I do not know the name of, but which you have gone to in the past. There are twin girls there, named Pink and Link, who are excellent herbalists and whom are decidedly unfriendly with your great-granddaughter Shampoo.” He rummaged around in his backpack and took out one of the empty journals and a pen.
Cologne paused, frowning. “Jyusenkyou will not solve your problems. Its waters do not change the dead.” She tilted her head to the side. “And I’ve never heard of anyone named Pink or Link. The best herbalists in this region are a day’s long walk from here. You go north through the mountains along the trails which travel downward, only going up when you have no other option. You should reach the village if you stay to that course.”
“Hmm, that’s probably it. As for Jyusenkyou, I guessed as much, but there’s other reasons for me to visit. I’d like to get some samples of various waters from it.”
“It is best not to toy with the waters there. Forces far too dangerous to trifle with have interests in that place.”
He smiled a bit. “Heh. I know of the Phoenix, if that’s whom you’re referring to. But it’s for my own good, as well as that of others, to be blunt. As I said before, eventually the bodies I am in start to decay, something which nearly drove me insane before I escaped from my first body. I can’t help myself from seeking out new ones. If I can get access to Jyusenkyou’s waters, I can create new bodies from animals. It’s a far better solution than the alternative.”
“You were warned then,” Cologne said with a sigh. “The place you seek is further into the mountains, about three days travel on foot. When you leave this place, head towards the setting sun. Stay away from the paths which lead into forests or large valleys, take the left fork at the foot of the mountain of howling stones, always keeping the mountain to your right or over your right shoulder. Eventually you will walk into a large valley filled with a thick, unnatural mist. Travel through that mist and you will reach Jyusenkyou.”
He carefully wrote that down, then looked back up at her. “All right. Thank you. Not just for the directions, but for listening to and attempting to help me. Given what I am, there are many others that wouldn’t. While I did give you some information, I still feel indebted. In the admittedly unlikely event that I ever can do something for you, you need but ask.”
“I sensed no evil from you, and you made no hostile action towards me or my community,” Cologne snorted. “Besides, you more than paid back your debt to me, if your words are truth.”
“Well, that’s good to know.” He packed the journal again and shouldered the bag. “But thank you nonetheless.” He bowed deeply. “I hope that you will be able to make good use of the information.”
“I will, I will…” Cologne muttered.
He grinned. “Take care of yourself, then. Perhaps we may meet again.”
“Don’t tell me you got lost in there,” Ukyou called over her shoulder. She laced her fingers together behind her head, tapping one foot rhythmically against the wall she was leaning against. The door next to her was closed, and she could hear the sounds of shuffling and grumbling from inside. At least he hadn’t wandered out of the room. Not that she really expected he would. Ryouga’s sense of direction was not nearly as bad as it tended to be portrayed in the fanfics Aaron had read.
“Don’t tell me you need help getting dressed,” Ukyou called over her shoulder again.
“Dammit! Leave me alone! These pants don’t fit!” Ryouga snapped from behind the door.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Aaron commented philosophically.
Finally the door banged open as Ryouga walked out into the hallway. Ukyou raised an eyebrow as he strode into view. The pants he were wearing indeed did not fit, so Ryouga had torn the seams a little to fit his muscular legs into Tofu’s considerably slimmer trousers. Not only that, the doctor appeared to have longer legs, so the boy had a huge mass of rolled–up cloth above his ankles. Thankfully, he hadn’t even bothered to try on the loafers Tofu had been kind enough to lend Ukyou. He was also doing his best to wear Tofu’s shirt, which was both too long and too tight, so the boy had left it unbuttoned and it trailed out behind him like a miniature cape. Ryouga grunted and tugged on the collar of the garment.
Ukyou did the only thing she could do in the situation: she burst into laughter.
“Hey! You’re the one that gave me clothes that are two sizes too small!” Ryouga growled. Ukyou continued laughing, Ryouga’s serious frown only causing the giggles to roll up from her lungs even harder. “Fine, I don’t have to stand here being mocked!” Ryouga grunted, and turned to storm out of the clinic… and straight back into the room he had just left, of course. Ukyou slid down the wall, clutching her stomach and laughing so hard that nothing came out but a few shallow gasps for breath.
Ukyou spent a breathless minute trying to regain control. This was one of the few times Aaron wasn’t of any use in that regard, since he was, if possible, even more amused by the spectacle of Ryouga than she was. Finally she succeeded in at least standing on her feet and putting on Aaron’s standard emotionless expression. Taking a deep breath, she walked into the room.
Ryouga was standing in the centre of the room, obviously aware he had walked in the wrong direction, but unwilling to admit it. For some reason, he reminded her very much of a cat, standing there proudly after it had just fallen off the couch, staring at you as if it had meant to do that. The urge to laugh again was rising, but she squashed it with brutal efficiency after getting a good look at his face.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, okay,” Ukyou held her hands in front of her, trying to calm down the boy. He gave her a long glare, then grunted and nodded.
“I’ll forgive you, but only because you saved me from that crazy devil girl,” Ryouga said sullenly.
“Crazy devil girl?” Ukyou blinked, cocking her head to one side.
“The one with the long hair who took me here this morning,” Ryouga explained.
“You mean Akane?” Ukyou said incredulously.
“Yeah, her… the crazy devil girl.” Ryouga nodded, wincing slightly. “I have never met anyone more scary in my life.” Ukyou allowed the corner of her mouth to quirk up. It appeared her little plan had worked: Ryouga was certainly not in love with Akane at this point. Now all that remained was letting him and Ranma get this silly feud out of their system, and the so–called ‘lost boy’ would become a minor player in the drama that was her life.
“Whatever, not important,” Ukyou said as she walked into the room. Seeing Ryouga wasn’t sitting, she hopped up onto the bed and sat lotus-style. She gestured for him to take a seat in the chair provided. Reluctantly, he did so. “I’m sure you have questions.”
“Huh?” Ryouga blinked.
“You do have questions for me, right?” Ukyou said in a leading tone.
“Oh… you’re right, now that I think about it, how did you know that was me…” he paused. “And who on earth are you? We’ve never met, have we?”
“Nope,” Ukyou nodded and crossed her arms over her hidden breasts. “We haven’t met. I know you strictly by reputation, actually. But I’ve heard about your problem, and once I saw you were in town gunning for Ranma, I decided we needed to talk.”
“Reputation?” Ryouga groaned and placed his face in his palms. “Great, I haven’t had this curse for two months and everyone in Japan knows about it already.”
“Nah, just people who have their ear to the ground when it comes to the supernatural.” Ukyou shrugged. “I doubt anybody else in this town knows about your condition yet, except Doctor Tofu. As far as I’m concerned, we can keep it that way too.”
“So, you’d be willing to keep my secret?” Ryouga looked up at her. Reading his expression was painfully easy as hope blossomed there.
“Yup, for a small favor,” Ukyou said with a nod.
“Oh…” Ryouga’s face fell, then he sighed and nodded. “Okay, I see how it is. What do you want from me, anyway?”
“Just some conversation, really,” Ukyou said as she unlaced her arms and began to tap her fingers along the mattress. “I’m known as a bit of a peacemaker around these parts, and I was hoping I could play that role again.”
“Between you and Ranma, obviously,” Ukyou pointed out.
“Ranma?” Ryouga leaned forward, growling again. “So you’re his friend?”
“Indeed.” Ukyou ran her hand through her bangs. “You could say that. But I’m not here to help him ruin your life, or to aid him in beating you up, or even to get you to leave him alone.” Ryouga stared at her, obviously unsure how to take that. “Quite the opposite. In fact, I want to see you two really go at it, beat each other to a pulp… whatever you want.”
“You mean you don’t mind if I beat Ranma bloody?” Ryouga said, a hint of suspicion in his tone.
“He’s a martial artist. Getting into fights like this is something he does,” Ukyou pointed out. “I understand that. I’m not about to stop a fight of honour. In fact, I heard you disappeared in the last fight, so I just wanted to make sure you stuck around for the next one.”
“Not that I’m accusing you of running from a man to man fight.” Ukyou smiled happily and leaned back on her arms. “I wouldn’t accuse you of ditching Ranma in the middle of a fight because of cowardice, especially since it probably wasn’t your fault.” Ukyou watched Ryouga squirm a little. “I know I would be annoyed if someone suggested I ran out on a challenge, when I had no choice in the matter. So I’m not about to leap to conclusions.”
“What do you really want from me?” Ryouga said in a low voice.
“Just to see this thing worked out between you and Ranma,” Ukyou pointed out. “I need Ranma, I need him focused and ready… he’s helping me with something very important and I can’t afford to have you attacking him in the middle of a sensitive operation.”
“You wanted my reason, I gave you it,” Ukyou noted with a shrug. “I don’t really care what you have against Ranma, but I need him at one hundred percent and not worried about this little feud of yours. So the sooner you get it out of your system the better, as far as I’m concerned.”
“But you said you wanted something out of this, didn’t you?”
“Indeed.” Ukyou nodded. She leaned forward slowly, staring hard into Ryouga’s face. “I want your promise, your sworn oath, that this is the end of it. If you beat Ranma, then you’ve had your revenge. If you lose, you swallow whatever problem it is you have with him. And that’s it.” She held up one finger between the two of them. “One fight, one outcome, one decision. Period.”
“Do you intend to lose?” Ukyou noted in Aaron’s most dangerous tone.
“Of course not!”
“Then what do you care?”
“I… that… you…” Ryouga grunted and crossed his arms. “What if I don’t agree to this condition of yours?”
“Then…” Ukyou sat back and shrugged. “I guess we find out how many other people want to know about your curse.”
“Perceptive, aren’t you?”
“Don’t make the decision right away, Ryouga.” Ukyou slid off the bed and walked over to the combat spatula leaning against the wall. “Take a few hours if you want.”
“No… I get you,” Ryouga stretched to his feet. “I can-“
“Ukyou, you finished back there?” Tofu’s voice suddenly called from the front of the clinic. Ukyou frowned as Ryouga trailed off. She shrugged and stuck her head out the door.
“Almost, I just need a few more seconds…”
“Well there’s some people here to see yyyARGH!”
Ukyou gasped as the entire front of the clinic suddenly shuddered with an ear-ringing explosion. The shockwave funnelled down the hallway, forcing her to clutch the doorframe to keep from collapsing. Her hair snapped in the brief wind.
“TOFU!” she cried. There was no response. “Oh great, oh just fucking perfect…” Ukyou leapt back into the room and snatched her coat and weapon from the wall. “You,” she called over her shoulder. “Stay here for a minute.”
“What? Are you insane!?” Ryouga stalked forward. “That was an explosion! What’s going on out there…”
“I’m not sure…” Ukyou admitted, but she had her suspicions.
“I’m certainly not staying here!” Ryouga growled and clenched his fists.
“Fine, but stay behind me…” Ukyou grunted and slid carefully out into the hallway.
Jadeite smiled as the human doctor flew across the remains of the office and impacted the wall. A spiderweb of cracks materialised in the gyprock. He lowered his hand, the mystical discharge seeping from under his glove as a cloud of firefly-like motes. Behind him, he felt more than saw Tethys drop her human guise and assume her warform.
He was glad the youma commando had come with him on this operation. She had been trying to curry his favour for centuries, but he had always brushed her off. Now he needed her to ensure his victory over the boy, Ukyou. But the fact that it had come to this annoyed him to no end. He was well aware that this would be his last chance, Beryl hadn’t said as much… but she cared for Tethys in a way the witch queen did not about many other servants. Not that he doubted success… he just wished he could have found some other way to deal with this. Direct confrontation was not his preferred style.
“I sense two more humans coming down the hall towards us,” Tethys reported as she stepped up beside him. He forgave the presumption, but noted it away in the back of his mind. “You’re right… their energy is so vast compared to a normal human’s… Even the doctor has an exceptional life force.”
“Yes,” Jadeite grinned. “This shall prove most useful an excursion.” Jadeite left unsaid that a far more important goal than getting the human’s energy was getting back in the good graces of Queen Beryl. The blue-skinned youma woman nodded; she knew exactly how serious the situation was for him.
The door into the back of the office opened violently and two figures rushed out. One was Jadeite’s new nemesis. Ukyou was much as Jadeite remembered him, dressed this time in a long black coat and carrying his bizarre polearm in one hand. The boy that came in behind him was new, not the one that had been with him that day. He was shortish, muscular and wearing clothes that were poorly tailored, to say the least.
“Ukyou,” Jadeite smiled and bowed mockingly. “Good to see you again. You left before we could be properly introduced last time and…”
“Ryouga, take my hand!” Ukyou called as he whipped something out from within the confines of his coat. Jadeite blinked as a cloud of white dust erupted all around him. Then he roared, raising his hand and unleashing a potent blast of electric pink magefire. Something beyond his range of sight exploded, but there was no shout of pain.
“Tethys, get rid of this cloud!” he roared.
At first the water came in lightly, then with increasing force. Soon a virtual torrent of rain was pounding down on him, driving away the white cloud. Once his vision was clear, he scanned the room, noting only that the boy had fled.
“He can’t have gotten far,” Jadeite barked as he spun to face his lieutenant. For a being with nothing but a pair of glowing red eyes for a face, Tethys did a good job of cringing at his expression. “Find them!”
“They’re…” she paused, staring upward into the miniature downpour she had created. “That way, heading down the street.”
“Good,” Jadeite growled. He wasn’t about to let them escape so easily. “I need a portal to cut off their escape.” She nodded wordlessly and drew magical energy out of her body with a deceptively simple gesture, forming a whirling blue portal in front of them.
Aaron grunted; someone had to tell Tofu to go on a diet. Thankfully, whatever attack Jadeite had used had blown open a significant hole in the wall, allowing him to get out of that office without rushing past Jadeite or his youma. Ryouga had even managed to keep up with them as Aaron sprinted down the road.
“What the hell is going on here?” Ryouga cried from behind them. Oh well, too much to hope that he would leave the questions until later.
“Not really much time to explain,” Ukyou hissed. “Just leave it at this: that was a bad man who wants to hurt us.”
“Why didn’t we stay and fight?”
“Because Doctor Tofu is hurt, and I happen to live in that office, so I’m not going to get him or it hurt by brawling there…” Ukyou replied. Of course, there was also the fact that they were running towards Furinkan High School, where Aaron hoped their reinforcements were. But considering who those reinforcements consisted of, Aaron thought it best to keep that fact a secret for now.
Aaron was reacting even before he saw the attack, leaping up and tucking as the bluish humanoid dashed through the space he had been in seconds ago. His eyes narrowed. That wasn’t like the youma woman from before. This one could be called humanoid in only the vaguest sense of the term. It was more like a blob of water than a real human figure… wait, this reminded him of an episode!
“Get away from me!” Ryouga roared as he smashed out towards the blob with one fist.
“No!” Aaron shouted. He was still in mid-air, carrying the doctor on his shoulders, and that left his options limited. Thankfully Ryouga was within kicking distance, and so a good swift one knocked the lost boy’s attack off course. It did throw off his balance enough that the boy was sent skidding along the pavement.
“You bastard!” Ryouga growled as he kicked to his feet. Ukyou was just setting down, and didn’t have time to answer him. The blob-like thing twisted its whole body like a towel as it swung to attack her. She tapped her foot to the ground only briefly, just enough to push her back out of range of a clumsy swing. Then her other foot came up in an air-cracking snap kick, neatly bisecting the beast. Its faceless head stared at her for a slow instant as it drifted apart, then the entire creature burst into a spray of water, dousing Ukyou.
“That’s why I stopped you,” she commented as she delicately landed, making sure not to jog Tofu too badly. That burn on his back looked pretty serious, but at least he was still breathing.
“It was made of water…” Ryouga muttered as he stared at the puddle on the ground. Aaron was already scanning ahead of them, however.
“Not it, them,” Aaron pointed out in a resigned tone. Ryouga spun in place and saw the small army of gel-like water men crawling out of the alleys, and sewers, and over the nearby canal fence… or more accurately through it. Ryouga began to back up towards Ukyou, his fists going up into a boxer’s stance.
“How am I supposed to fight these guys?”
“You don’t…” Ukyou blinked and backed away suddenly. The puddle at her feet was slowly growing in size. She could see the beginning of a hand reaching out of it. “These things aren’t that dangerous by themselves, but it looks like they’re hard to put down.”
“Yeah,” Ryouga whispered as he backed towards her some more. The golems were slowly surrounding the two of them.
“Take Tofu for me, I can fight them better without my arms occupied,” Aaron instructed. Ryouga wordlessly pulled the man off Ukyou’s shoulders, and she grabbed her spatula from its harness. A few quick slashes bisected some of the golems that had gotten too close, but Ukyou knew better than to hope that was the end of them.
“Having a bit of trouble, boy?”
Aaron turned their attention to a nearby rooftop. Jadeite stood on top of it, his arms crossed and his neatly pressed uniform pristine. An arrogant smirk had etched itself firmly across his face. Behind him stood the youma whose name Aaron couldn’t remember. He got a better look at her this time. She was blue-skinned, with no facial features except a pair of slitted red eyes. Some sort of antenna-like golden tiara held back her long blue bangs while the rest of her hair flowed freely down her back. She wore a skintight costume in a deeper blue than the rest of her body. Aaron didn’t recall her specifically, but he remembered the episode of Sailor Moon she had appeared in.
“Not really,” Aaron feigned a yawn as he slashed a few more of the mindless creatures in twain with expert slashes. He could already see a few of the ones Ukyou had destroyed earlier reforming. But he needed to play for time. Jadeite… what weaknesses did Jadeite have… think, goddamn it. Of course, he was arrogant. “These things are no threat to me. I’ve dealt with their kind before.”
“You seem to be at a disadvantage,” Jadeite pointed out in amusement.
“Only because I have to protect these helpless idiots,” Aaron called back with his own smirk. Ukyou saw Ryouga about to say something and kicked him, hard. He shut up. “If they weren’t holding me back, you’d already be dead.”
Jadeite laughed. “Oh, I like your spirit, boy. If you hadn’t annoyed me so much, I might even be sorry I have to kill you.” Aaron’s eyes narrowed. This was going to be a long shot, but if it worked…
“Ryouga,” he hissed softly in the lost boy’s direction. “When I make the signal, clear us a path with those bandannas of yours.”
“A path…” Ryouga whispered. “Where?”
“Anywhere… just away from here.” Aaron whispered back and stepped forward. “Come on, Jadeite!” Aaron shouted as he put on the most condescending expression he could manage. “This is child’s play and you know it. You’re not up to taking me on face to face, so you’re hiding behind a woman…” Aaron put enough stress on the last word that Jadeite couldn’t help but snap his eyes back at the youma. “Are you so used to taking on little girls that you’re not used to fighting man to man anymore?”
Jadeite ground his teeth together and pointed his finger at them as they walked forward. The golems backed away from Aaron as he walked. “So you want to take me on yourself? Is that it?”
“Normally I don’t stoop so low as to fight obviously inferior opponents,” Aaron yawned theatrically. “But in your case, I guess I can make an exception.”
“Jadeite, don’t!” The youma sounded distressed as it moved in front of Jadeite. “Let me destroy this impudent human…”
“Tethys-” Jadeite began but Aaron cut him off.
“Just as I thought, hiding behind your minions again.” He ran his hand through Ukyou’s bangs and shook his head silently. “We’ve all seen how well that’s worked for you in the past. How many youma has Sailor Moon killed… oh wait, that would be ALL of your youma, wouldn’t it?”
“Very well,” Jadeite growled as he stepped around the youma. “I’ll crush you with my bare hands!”
Aaron resisted the urge to make a Transformers quote, and just stood expectantly. Jadeite leapt from the roof, his body floating more than falling as he descended onto the pavement. The golems pulled back, forming a neat circle around the two of them. Ukyou pulled her spatula up into a defensive stance. Damn, why did she have to be out of flour bombs now, of all times?
Jadeite didn’t move like a martial artist, but he definitely knew a thing or two about fighting. He walked forward, cautiously, his hands in front of him curled into fists. Ukyou held her ground. She had to hope she had a speed and strength advantage over him, and could keep the duel on a purely physical level. She wasn’t sure she could handle him if he began to blast about with magic.
But the point of this fight wasn’t to win, it was to buy them a chance to escape. Which meant playing defensive wouldn’t do any good at all. Releasing a deep breath, Ukyou allowed her chi to flow through her limbs unrestricted. Suddenly everything began to move in slow motion. Jadeite’s approach became a crawl, the swaying of the monsters virtually ceased, even her own heartbeat seemed to ring slower in her ears.
The sensation shattered like a mirror as Ukyou drove them forward. Dust flew up in her wake. Her spatula snapped out to her side, its blade trailing a path of sparks along the pavement. Jadeite’s eyes widened, but it was too late. Her attack came in so fast the weapon was a silver blur. Water golems disintegrated into geysers as Jadeite flew through them like a cannonball. Finally three of them caught him before he smashed into the fence blocking off the canal.
Ukyou skidded to a stop. Aaron couldn’t believe it had been that easy. They were completely flat-footed as they stared at the slowly rising Jadeite. The youma general was rubbing his side where Ukyou’s spatula had caught him. They could hear the youma woman (Tethys, wasn’t it?) calling out her obvious concern over his well-being. They could see him waving it aside. The man was mad. Very mad. Ukyou had caught him by surprise just as much as she had caught herself.
Then it suddenly struck her. She could win this. Not just buy time, or escape, or even get Ranma’s help. She. Could. Win. Aaron would have preferred to stick to their original plan, but she overruled him with a vicious thought. Ukyou needed this. This victory would be hers.
“You’ll pay for that, you brat,” Jadeite growled as he stalked back into the makeshift circle. Ukyou didn’t have to pretend to smirk this time.
“Do your worst,” Ukyou said in a low, emotionless tone. She spun her spatula around her wrist, then spread her legs and shifted the weapon behind her back with a flourish.
“I’m about to!” the man cried as pink energy began to seethe around his hands.
Ukyou leapt, seconds before an electric pink lightning bolt slammed into the ground where she had been standing. She soared into the air, a gracefully gymnastic flip. Jadeite snapped his other hand at her, releasing another lightning bolt. Ukyou twisted in mid-air, allowing it to pass under her. Dust blasted out in a circle as she landed behind him. Jadeite tried to turn but Ukyou spun her spatula like a baton. There was a sickening crack as the ring collided with his skull. The man blasted across the road, momentum holding him up as his heels dragged the pavement. Finally the inertia died out, and he collapsed to the ground.
“Jadeite!” the blue-skinned youma growled and gestured towards Ukyou. “I’ll kill you!” Several of her golems sprung at Ukyou, but they were destroyed shortly thereafter. Ukyou skipped forward, out from the press of monsters. Jadeite was beginning to regain his feet, but Ukyou had no intention of letting him do so.
Jadeite, however, was more resourceful than Aaron had thought. With a roar he pushed downward. The air around him seemed to bend and warp, and then he blasted into the air like a rocket. Ukyou passed underneath him. With another roar he lashed out, two bolts snapping from the ends of his fingers. Ukyou wouldn’t have been able to dodge them, if Aaron hadn’t seen him charging up. Guessing correctly, he snapped Ukyou’s leg forward. The pavement exploded in a geyser from the force of his kick. They flew backwards, momentarily dizzied by the sudden g-forces. But the blasts of lightning impacted harmlessly into the pavement, doing nothing but kicking up concrete and dust.
“You are… annoying,” Jadeite growled. Aaron landed a few meters back, crouching and spinning the battle spatula to his side. Jadeite was now floating five meters above the street. Ukyou frowned. She could make that jump, but not quickly enough that Jadeite couldn’t float away. “But this ends here!”
Screaming, Jadeite launched another wave of energy at her. Ukyou was moving even before he finished the gestures, the blasts exploding behind her. Ukyou found her focus narrowing as she propelled herself along the road. The sounds of explosions raced her, and she could feel the heat and concussions on her heels. Again and again the blasts rained down around her, and Ukyou kept zigging and zagging just enough to throw off Jadeite’s aim.
Aaron, however, could focus beyond that. He could see Ryouga grinding his teeth, prevented from attacking by the ring of water golems surrounding him on all sides. He could see Tethys standing on her rooftop, glaring down at her, but unwilling to interfere in Jadeite’s duel any further. He could see the telephone pole only a meter away from where Jadeite was hovering.
Jadeite’s attacks stopped for a second as Ukyou drove her legs forward, creating a small furrow in the pavement as she changed directions. But soon enough his attacks began to slam down around her again. Then the telephone pole was in reach. With a cry she leapt, the pavement exploding underneath her. Her legs bicycled through the air, until finally one of them touched the thick concrete shaft. But Ukyou didn’t push off, she snapped her foot down, pushing herself up. Then again. Soon she was racing up the pole. A blast echoed beneath her. She almost slipped as the pole began to sway to the side. But she was already high enough.
Jadeite only realised what she was doing a second too late, and tried to fly higher. Ukyou somersaulted forward, stretching her weapon out. Her spatula flew out like a giant fly-swatter. Jadeite was caught dead-on, driven down by the metal peel. He hit the ground with enough force that a crater formed around him. Ukyou continued her somersault and landed on top of a wall.
For a few moments the street was quiet. Then a groan rose from Jadeite’s crater. Sluggishly, the man managed to get a hand under him, then another. He pushed himself to his feet, and swayed there groggily for a few seconds. His face was a bloody mess, having caught Ukyou’s attack full force. Trails of blood leaked from his nose and the edges of his lips. He spat, and a red stain appeared on the shattered roadway.
“This… this is… impossible!”
“Famous last words, Jadeite,” Ukyou leapt to the ground. “You can’t beat me. Surrender!”
“Never!” Jadeite roared and lashed out with another set of lightning bolts. Aaron had already dashed to the side, and Ukyou reached into their coat. Her hand came out holding a half-dozen spatula shuriken. With a cry she launched them. Jadeite gasped in pain as the weapons streaked past his body, leaving shallow cuts through his uniform in several places.
He didn’t stop, however, striking out again with his lightning bolts. Ukyou tossed another handful of spatulas at him… and frowned as Jadeite waved a hand and vapourised them in a blast of lightning.
“Hah! You merely caught me off-guard,” Jadeite hissed. His voice had a slightly nasal quality from his injury. “Now I’m ready for you!”
“Indeed…” Aaron murmured. The inkling of an idea was forming in his head. Ukyou dodged another blast of lightning and tossed some more mini-spatulas at Jadeite. These ones he again disintegrated with a wave of his hand. Then Aaron began to smile. Not a pleasant smile. “I’m pretty sure you’ll run out of energy eventually,” Aaron called out in his most taunting tone. Jadeite growled, and fired again.
This time while Ukyou dodged, Aaron reached into their coat and retrieved their weapon. Except it wasn’t a mini-spatula. It was a small grey tank. With a roar, he lobbed it towards Jadeite as fast as he could. The man didn’t have a chance, he only saw another grey blur. Reacting quickly, he waved his hand and produced another field of electricity to destroy the tank. Of course, the compressed oxygen inside did not react well to this.
The explosion was strong enough to throw Ukyou off her feet. Aaron blinked as they landed on their back. Then he heard Jadeite’s scream, an agonised scream. Flexing their back, Ukyou managed an elegant kippup back to their feet.
Jadeite hadn’t just fallen down, like Aaron had hoped. His entire left arm, from the elbow down, was simply gone. The grotesque red shreds of his sleeves dangled from the stump while blood poured from his wound. Jadeite’s good hand reached up and clutched futilely at the flow. Ukyou could see the bloody gashes traced along his entire body now. Shrapnel, she guessed. But that had definitely knocked all the fight out of the man. Aaron couldn’t help smiling. He felt like laughing.
“Jadeite!” the blue-skinned youma cried in shock and horror as she landed beside the man. She grabbed his head and cradled it in her lap. “You’ll be okay!” she insisted, her voice filling with an odd choking. Then she snapped her head towards Ukyou, and her blazing red eyes narrowed dangerously.
“You want to be next?” Aaron said, unable to keep the amusement out of his voice. Apparently she didn’t. With a gesture she formed a swirling blue portal behind her, and leapt through it with the injured Jadeite. Aaron didn’t even try to stop them.
Akane burst into the hospital room, her breath coming in short gasps as she skidded to a halt. The lights overhead buzzed and hissed fitfully, and a number of machines near-by contributed their own whooshes, pings or beeps to the disconcerting ambiance of the room.
“Ack! Scary devil girl!”
Akane snapped her head to the side and saw someone slipping behind Ukyou. Despite wearing an outfit that appeared both too large and too small for him at the same time, Akane had no problems recognising Ryouga. He was still wearing that yellow and black headband of his, and his boyishly rugged face still had a mouth accented by pronounced canines. Ukyou smirked in her passive, distant way at the boy’s antics.
“She isn’t going to hurt you,” Ukyou pointed out to Ryouga. “Are you afraid of someone half your size?”
“I… of course not!” Ryouga barked as he stepped out from behind Ukyou. Ukyou herself was sitting in a chair. Her black trenchcoat had been hung across the back of her seat, with her spatula and harness leaning against it.
“Where is he?” Akane asked breathlessly. It had taken her almost an hour to run across town to the hospital. She clutched her stomach, trying to force air in and out of her burning lungs. Ukyou gestured further into the room and Akane turned her attention away from the two martial artists.
Doctor Tofu did not look well. His face was pale and covered in a light sheen of sweat. His eyes were closed, but pinched as well and his lips twisted downward every now and then in a grimace of pain. His normally enticing messy hair seemed greasy in the harsh hospital light. It was impossible to see most of the rest of him, covered as he was in a green hospital sheet. Only his arms were uncovered, and one of them had a small tube hooked up to it. Akane walked over hesitantly, not wanting to disturb him.
“What… what happened?”
“He was shot in the back by some kind of magical lightning bolt,” Ukyou pointed out from her chair. Akane turned and stared at her. “I think.” Seeing Akane’s expression, Ukyou frowned and ran her hand through her bangs. “He’ll be okay. The blast knocked him out, and he might not be up until a few more hours, but he’ll live. Basically, he got the equivalent of a really good electrical shock. Most of the stuff hooked up to him here is precautionary.”
“That’s good…” Akane sighed, honestly relieved. She turned her eyes back to Tofu, examining his face. Where had the handsome, charming man she’d fallen in love with disappeared to? This man lying on the bed seemed far too hurt, and vulnerable and… human to be Doctor Tofu. It made Akane shudder inside, but she wasn’t able to pin down why.
“Where’s Ranma? Didn’t he get my message?” Ukyou asked.
“Ranma’s coming here?” Ryouga said from where he had wandered over near the door.
“Yes, and if you want your clothes back, you won’t wander out of the room,” Ukyou pointed out.
“Whatever,” Ryouga grunted. He squatted by the door and crossed his arms. He eyed Akane warily, but looked away sharply when she noticed him doing it.
“Ranma said he had to pick up that package you mentioned,” Akane pointed out in the wake of Ryouga’s statement. She turned from the supine form of the doctor and took a long breath, trying to return her breathing to normal. “Now, what on Earth happened to him? I went by the clinic on my way here. The entire front office has been gutted and the place is crawling with firefighters.”
“Must have shown up after we left,” Ukyou muttered. Seeing the question on Akane’s lips, Ukyou waved her to silence. “I’d rather not tell the story more than once, Akane. We’ll wait until Ranma shows up.”
“Ukyou, I really want to know what happened!”
“Don’t bother, he isn’t talking,” Ryouga said in his teenage tenor. “He won’t tell me the whole story, and I was there.” He? Akane blinked. Then she remembered that most people didn’t know Ukyou’s little secret. With that in mind, Akane decided to watch her words for the rest of the conversation.
“Don’t give me that look, Akane,” Ukyou said, staring at her with her intense, but distant, eyes. “I fully intend to tell you guys everything, but I need everyone here first. It’s a long story, and I don’t want to have to tell it three times.”
“Hmph,” Ryouga grunted. “He really just wants a chance to rest because he pulled all his muscles in the fight.”
“Well, it’s true,” Ryouga laughed. “I was almost impressed. Then you collapsed halfway here once your adrenaline ran out.”
“I’m recovering from very severe injuries!” Ukyou sniffed and crossed her arms, looking away out the window. Akane chuckled a bit, and decided it would be best to wait. In the meantime, at least she could introduce herself to Ryouga properly.
“Hi! I’m Akane Tendo, pleased to meet you!” Akane moved towards Ryouga and bowed just a bit.
“Ack! Scary devil girl!” Ryouga shouted and leapt away from her. Akane blinked. What was his problem?
“Get away from me!”
Tethys reeled as a wave of energy slammed her back. She staggered, unable to maintain her balance, and finally collapsed onto the floor. Her eyes squeezed shut, half-expecting a follow-up attack, but it never came. Timidly, she opened one eye to a slit, then the other.
Jadeite was leaning against the wall of his personal chamber. Sweat dripped from the edge of his perfectly formed nose. His lips had peeled back from his teeth, but his mouth refused to open as his breath came in deep, body-shuddering hisses. The left side of his body was still covered in rapidly drying red gore, some of which had flecked onto his face. The blood caked his normally severe grey uniform against his impressive physique. At least he wasn’t bleeding any more. The magic of the Dark Kingdom wasn’t meant for healing, but Tethys’ control over water had helped a little. Blood was basically water, after all.
Seeing that he wasn’t paying attention to her, Tethys slowly climbed to her feet. She had once again assumed her human guise, appearing to all eyes as an attractively svelte blue-haired woman in a tight blue mini-dress. The glamour was, literally, skin deep. But Jadeite preferred this appearance to her more economically designed warform, so she assumed it whenever she wasn’t required to do battle.
“Jadeite…” she began slowly. She flinched as he turned his quivering, rage-filled eyes on her. Thankfully the rage in those eyes was not directed at her. If it had been, Tethys would have gladly committed suicide on the spot. For centuries, she had quietly adored this man from afar. The thought of him despising her made her flesh crawl.
“That bastard… he took my ARM!” Jadeite roared. The sound echoed throughout the massive chamber, and the youma commando felt the ground tremble slightly at his rage. Dark energy leaked from Jadeite’s body like wisps of steam. There was a sharp crack, and Tethys saw the black marble at his feet crack slightly. “Nobody has ever… ever dared to…” Jadeite stalked forward, his movements swift and certain.
“I am going to kill that boy.” His voice came out a dangerous hiss. Tethys forced herself to smile, but inwardly she felt her soul (or what passed for it with her kind) shrivel slightly at the thought. Knowing it would probably do no good, but still unable to prevent it, she opened her mouth.
“Jadeite… Master… perhaps you should wait until you are fully recovered. The boy already bested you at full strength and…”
The blow came swiftly and sharply, catching Tethys right above the cheek. Her vision exploded into a series of black stars and pain rocketed up and down her face in the stars wake. She collapsed to the ground again. A shudder ran up her body, and she reached up, rubbing a thin trickle of green youma blood from the edge of her mouth. She smiled.
That was the Jadeite she had fallen for. Cruel, ruthless and very, very dangerous. He had survived millennia in this twisted hell-prison beneath the Antarctic ice, and through sheer cruelty and twisted imagination had risen to the position of Queen Beryl’s most trusted general. It had been during this rise in the ranks that Tethys had grown first infatuated, then… something deeper with him. She wasn’t sure if it was love or not; youma were not designed to love. But it was close enough for her.
“Don’t question me,” Jadeite commanded in a quiet voice.
“Yes, Master,” Tethys murmured submissively as she sat sprawled on the ground beneath his feet.
“I still have my trump card,” Jadeite informed her as he turned to walk away. He hadn’t given her leave to rise, but Tethys did so anyway. She may have submitted to him, but she was still one of Beryl’s favoured servants. He could only treat her so much like lesser youma. “My mistake was challenging this boy in his own element. This time, I will control the field of battle.”
“A trap?” Tethys cooed.
“Yes, a trap.”
“What about my idea of the cruise ship…”
“No,” Jadeite snapped over his shoulder. He was rubbing the stump of his arm, channeling dark energy through it in slow, steady bursts. “I already have in mind the place I will fight this boy.”
“Master… I know this isn’t my place…” Jadeite turned his eyes to her. They no longer quivered with rage, but their cold, seething hatred silenced her for a moment. The silence dragged on for a second, and it became clear he was still waiting for her to finish. “I think that we should confront this boy, Ukyou…” Tethys trailed off, unable to say the word without spitting. It was too bad Jadeite would surely claim the boy’s life for his own. Tethys would have very much liked to drag him under the sea and watch him futilely struggle to breathe for a few minutes as she crushed him… but such pleasant thoughts could wait until later. “But given that he seemingly has many allies, it might be prudent to counter them with our own. I know some of the youma in the kingdom, many of whom would gladly assist us at this time.”
“Hmm,” Jadeite turned from her and strolled across the deceptively large room towards his furnishings. “Perhaps you are right. A few more youma could help balance this confrontation in my direction.” He raised his stump and stared at it for a few moments. “It is certain that if the boy expects me to fight him ‘fairly’ this time around, then he is quite misinformed.” He spun on her. “Go, fetch a few more of your siblings. I need time to recover my energies and plan.”
Tethys nodded. With an arcane gesture, she raised her arm and formed a swirling blue portal into the depths of the Dark Kingdom. Then she vanished through it. She would not fail Jadeite this time.
“… and then Queen Serenity raised her hand, the silver crystal flaring to life as her tears dripped down her ivory cheeks. With her last breath, she willed the Ginzuisho to activate, and its power was awesome to behold. Like a nuclear explosion, its energy flooded the entire battlefield. In an instant the Dark Kingdom, which had stood on the cusp of ultimate victory, was no more. Those survivors of the initial onslaught were driven deep under the Antarctic icecap, where they dwell in darkness to this day.
“At the same time, the Queen wished for her daughter and court to be sent to the future. Their spirits floated forward, bubbles in the streams of time, travelling millennia into the future to be reborn as normal young women and men. And so it would have been forever. But such a happy ending was not to be. Now the Dark Kingdom stirs once more, its tendrils seeping out into our world. Its servants seeking to gather the life force of humans to shatter the seal placed on their Empress by the Silver Crystal.”
Ranma leaned back as Ukyou wound up her story. He hadn’t realised how caught up in it he had been. It was… he struggled for the word… epic? Like a fairy tale, or something. And Ukyou told it well. Her voice had been… quiet, yet firm. It made him kinda sleepy, and he could almost see the images in his mind.
“So…” Ryouga said, breaking the comfortable silence that had descended on them. He was dressed in his yellow tunic and black draw-string pants once again. The jerk hadn’t even thanked Ranma after Ranma had gone through all the trouble of lugging his deceptively heavy backpack half-way across Nerima. “This guy, Jadeite, he works for the Dark Kingdom?”
“Indeed.” Ukyou leaned back, running a hand through her bangs. It was impossible to read her expression, but that wasn’t unusual. “Jadeite is one of four generals of the Dark Kingdom, and likely the weakest of them.”
“He doesn’t sound so tough,” Ranma said as he clenched and unclenched his fists. “If you can do that to him, the two of us should have no trouble beating him up again.”
“Maybe…” Ukyou rubbed her chin and stared at the still unconscious form of Doctor Tofu. “I still wish you hadn’t been dragged into this.”
“Dragged into this?” Akane spoke up for the first time since Ukyou had started her explanation. Ranma noted that her face was a little pale, and she looked somewhat green. He shrugged. The girl must not be familiar with life or death battles. Not that Ranma had ever done that much damage to another human being… but he knew he could, if it came to that. Accepting that was a part of being a martial artist.
“That’s why I asked you to stay around after the story, Ryouga.” Ukyou didn’t take her eyes from the man on the bed. “I owe you an apology. Those two monsters were after me, and now I think that you may also be a target.”
“A target?” Ryouga blinked.
“I told you, they need human life energy to revive their Empress,” Ukyou reminded him. Ranma nodded as understanding struck him. “I see Ranma’s got it. We martial artists have exceptional life energy, or chi, and they want it.”
“So, we’re like giant walking buffet tables!” Ranma crowed excitedly and raised a finger proudly into the air. Everyone else gave him blank stares. Ranma lowered his finger slowly.
“Great,” Ryouga grumbled and rubbed his fist into his jaw lightly. “Ever since I’ve met you, it’s been one thing after another.” Ryouga glared at Ranma. “This is all your fault, you know.”
“Stop being so clichéd, Ryouga,” Ukyou sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s my fault. I did the same thing with Ranma when I took him to Juuban. He’s probably a target now, too.”
“Bring it on!” Ranma grinned. “I’ve been looking for a decent challenge for months.”
“Oh, and what about the beating I gave you the other day?” Ryouga snapped.
“You must have selective memory,” Ranma pointed out in his calmest and wisest tone. “I clearly remember handing you your ass.”
“Don’t make me prove who’s better on your face right here, right now!” Ryouga growled through clenched teeth. Ranma wasn’t intimidated, but he admitted that toothy maw of his had probably won the lost boy a bunch of fights before they had started. “I’d rather not break the hospital.”
“We can always take this outside-“
“Children!” Ukyou barked, bringing everyone’s attention back to her. “This isn’t the time or the place.” She leaned forward and poked Ryouga in the chest. “Remember that deal we made?” Ryouga stared at Ukyou for a moment in defiance, then sighed and nodded his head in defeat. Ranma blinked. He had never seen Ryouga back down like that before. “Good. You can have your fight with Ranma later. For the moment, I need him in good health.”
“Hey, guys,” Akane called out. She was leaning against the window. “Does anyone know what’s happening outside?” Curious, Ranma walked over to the window.
“Just looks like it’s getting cloudy out,” Ranma pointed out. It wasn’t like sudden rainstorms were uncommon in this part of Japan, a phenomenon to which Ranma could attest with bitter familiarity.
“No clouds I’ve ever seen look like that,” Akane shot back with a bit of acid in her tone. Ranma looked again, and had to agree with her. The clouds appeared to be… blooming from a single point over the centre of the city. As the dark, roiling mass expanded, blasts of grey-green lightning shot through them. He could hear the rumble of thunder growing steadily closer.
“Let me see,” Ukyou said as she pushed between the two of them. Her eyes narrowed and she clenched her fingers into the windowsill. “This… doesn’t look good.”
As the three of them watched, the sky slowly grew clogged with the dark clouds. The unnatural lightning continued to streak across the sky. For a moment, Ranma thought he saw a pattern in the movements. Then he blinked, because he saw a giant face emerge on the underside of the mysterious clouds.
“Jadeite.” Ukyou’s voice was cold and steady.
Ranma recognised the guy now. It was the same jerk from the temple they had visited. He had curly blonde hair cut short, and a cruel, angular face. Ranma could just see his shoulders before the image dissolved beneath them into grey mist.
“What is it?” Akane breathed softly.
“An illusion,” Ukyou pointed out. “Jadeite is about to tell us something.”
“Why not come here in person?” Ryouga asked evenly from behind them.
“He probably doesn’t know we’re here,” Ukyou answered with a nod. “We’d best listen to this.”
“Ukyou Kuonji,” Jadeite’s voice boomed out across the city. “You have foiled my plans for the last time, boy. It is time we finished this once and for all. I’ll be waiting for you at the Narita Airport at exactly midnight tonight. If you don’t show up…” Here the image paused and reached to the right. Ranma gasped. The titanic vision had just dragged another face into view. The girl was clear for all to see, and appeared unhurt. But her eyes, they were empty, like she was drugged. Jadeite curled his fingers under her chin and lifted the unresisting head. “Friend of yours?”
“Nabiki!” Akane cried out. She reached towards the window, but her hand fell away.
“It’s just an image, Akane,” Ukyou pointed out in a calm, but sympathetic tone.
“Come and face me tonight, or your friend here faces a slow and painful death.” The last words devolved into a loud cackle that crashed like thunder over the city. Then Jadeite smirked, and with that the entire image faded from view. Even the clouds disappeared, revealing the soft blue sky and the cheerful sun once again.
“I’m coming with you,” Akane growled. Her tone left no room for argument. Ukyou nodded quietly.
“I’m coming too,” Ryouga added. Ranma backed off from the window and stared at the slightly shorter boy. “Don’t give me that look, Saotome.” Ryouga stretched his neck, causing a sharp crack to resound through the room. “Ukyou told me that I’m involved with this whether I like it or not. Besides, I’m not going to sit back and let some innocent girl die just because I don’t like any of you.”
“Indeed,” Ukyou nodded, as if expecting no less. She turned back to the window. “We have less than ten hours to get ready. I’ll tell you everything I know about Jadeite’s abilities in the meantime.” Everyone nodded. Ukyou said something next, and Ranma had the distinct impression it was not addressed to anyone in the room. “Ask and ye shall receive, that’s what I always say.”
“This sounds like fun,” the youma yawned and stretched. A thin mask of lilac-coloured fabric covered half her face, leaving only her black eyes and her long elfin ears uncovered. Her straw-coloured hair has cut in an efficient bob with a long widow’s peak down her forehead. She raised her right hand, a hugely distorted claw of interwoven wooden tendrils, and tapped her chin thoughtfully. “It’s just a bunch of humans. I don’t see why you even need our help, Tethys.”
“Don’t underestimate this human, Grape,” Tethys all but hissed. She was still wearing her human glamour, and thus looked out of place among her more obviously inhuman companions. The other two youma in the room both might have passed for attractive human females from a distance, but up close their chalk-white skin, pointed ears and the floral-themed unitards they wore marked them as something more. “You three are the best assassins I know, and I need your help.”
Admitting such a thing was anathema to most youma like herself, but Tethys was willing to go that extra step. Jadeite was obsessed with the human boy, and she was going to stack the deck in his favour as much as possible when their inevitable confrontation occurred.
“Say no more,” Suzuran, Grape’s taller green-clad companion added from where she was lounging idly in a chair of carved basalt. The third of the youma assassins was leaning against the wall just within hearing range. Housenka had always been the least outspoken of the trio, preferring to defer to Grape’s lead in most situations. “We’ll be sure to help you with your pest problem.”
Tethys glared at her, but kept her lips shut. How was she supposed to convey how dangerous this mission could potentially be, without revealing how badly Jadeite had been mauled? Not that the fact could be kept hidden forever, but it would look much better once Jadeite handed Ukyou’s head on a platter to Queen Beryl. But at least with the three of them willing to come along, Tethys felt much better about the confrontation. It was rumoured that this squad had the power to defeat even one of the Generals in a fight, though of course nobody had dared test that theory. Of all the youma in the Dark Kingdom, only the DD Girls had a more fearsome reputation.
“Good, I need you three to come with me,” Tethys added sharply. She refused to allow her relief to show in her voice. The three gave her stony looks for her tone, but she ignored them. Tethys spun on her heel and started to walk out of the chamber, but paused when she saw the figure floating nonchalantly in the entrance.
“Tethys,” Zoicite said as he tossed his blond ponytail over his shoulder with a flip of his head. The deceptively young-looking Dark General gazed down at her with an amused grin on his face. “I leave for five minutes, and you’re leading my servants off on some wild goose chase.” His tone was flippant, but his eyes were icy.
“I thought you were busy looking for the Silver Crystal,” Tethys said cautiously. She knew better than to be rude to Zoicite; he was known to hold grudges for a long time.
“I’ll bet you did,” Zoicite said and raised his hand daintily to his lips. He laughed behind his palm for a moment. “Weren’t you supposed to be helping Jadeite with his energy-gathering operations? What are you doing commanding my servants?” Zoicite’s voice had suddenly lost all the mock humor.
“This is a part of Jadeite’s operation,” Tethys countered hastily. “He… he ordered me to collect these three to help him destroy some pesky humans.”
“Those Sailor Senshi?” Zoicite grinned once more and laughed behind his palm again. “What a laugh. Fine, if he needs my troops to kill some little girls, then go ahead and take them.”
Tethys bowed quickly, then stepped rapidly around the floating general and out of the chamber.
“But I expect them back in perfect health,” Zoicite called over his shoulder. “Or I shall be most cross.”
“Yes… General Zoicite,” Tethys responded coldly as she stepped down the hall. She lingered when she realised that Grape and her sisters weren’t following immediately. Of course. Zoicite must be interrogating them and giving them last-minute instructions. Tethys ground her illusory teeth. If Zoicite played things right, he might be able to get some of the credit for this operation. Tethys dismissed the concern with a wave of her hand. There were bigger things to worry about.
Chris trotted at a swift pace across the Chinese countryside, idly watching nothing and everything. He hoped he’d be there soon. As much as he’d appreciated the view upon arriving, a few days of lonely overland travel made pretty much everything old hat. He wondered briefly if the Kunou family was rich enough to afford a private jet, then dismissed the idea. Too conspicuous. And besides, he didn’t know how to fly one.
His lack of attention caused him to stumble a bit at a rise in the ground. His superhuman reflexes easily avoided falling, but the slight lurch caused his backpack to jangle. He smiled a bit. That was the result of his trip to Jyusenkyou. Well, and some smart packing and forethought, taking as many sturdy leather-and-steel canteens as he could shove in the backpack with his other things. Now, all of them were full, as well as labelled with various cryptic references that would likely only make sense to him. And their contents, of course, were precious indeed.
He’d gotten water from the springs of Man and Woman first, after contracting a day’s services from the guide to get a proper tour of the springs. An elementary precaution; aside from making himself spare bodies, there were more than a few people in Ranma 1/2 he could bribe either to help him or get off his back with those waters, which would allow him to cure their curses. He wondered idly if Ryouga had arrived in Nerima as of yet… he, certainly, would want it, and Chris liked him personally (as personally as he could a previously-fictional character he had not met) as well as respecting his top-class martial arts skills. It might be a good idea to help him out.
Several other springs from the manga he’d found and gotten samples from. Tarou’s spring, Yeti-Riding-Bull-Carrying-Crane-And-Eel, was first, and a no-brainer; having the ability to turn any ally into a giant flying minotaur-like beast couldn’t help but be possibly handy. By the same token, he’d gotten the Spring of Asura, Rouge’s “curse”, but the manga wasn’t very clear on how much that affected the mind of the victim. The guide didn’t know either, unhelpfully, so he’d be cautious if he ever used that.
Spring of Octopus, which Tarou would use later in the series to enhance his cursed form. Might be similarly handy if he ever gave someone that form. Spring of Twins, which Tarou had mistakenly tried to splash Happousai with in the same story. Could be VERY handy. If only it worked on someone already dead, he could have solved his body problem. Still… it presented possibilities. Spring of Virtuous Person, which Tarou had been looking for. The guide assured him anyone splashed with that water gained the personality of a true good samaritan. He grinned at that. Maybe it would have done Ukyou some good. And finally, Spring of Youth, used by Happousai’s “old friend” Lukkosai. A true fountain of youth, at least as long as one avoided hot water. The guide didn’t know, irksomely, if someone affected by the water would remain permanently young in their other form, or if it would age from that point on. Apparently no one who used it had stuck around long enough for him to check. Still, the number of people in the world who would want something like that was enormous. If he needed to bribe someone – or several someones – in order to get help with his condition, this was a pretty damn good one.
The others he had gained weren’t from the manga, and were the result of careful questioning from the guide. Spring of Lecherous Person was fairly self-explanatory, as were the springs of Beautiful Woman and Amnesiac. The first and third could once again be pretty handy if used right; the second was another good bribing possibility.
The last two he had gained were a bit more worrisome, but too potentially useful to pass up. Spring of Suicidal Person was just that. The guide explained, in no uncertain terms, that any human or animal cursed by that spring would immediately try to kill themselves by the most expedient method possible, and continue trying until the curse was lifted or they died. Dangerous, dangerous stuff, and the guide had tried hard to persuade “Miss Customer” not to take any. He almost hadn’t. But while it was an awful weapon, it was also a very good one. And he did have the springs that could cure any human of it, so finally he had taken it. He just wouldn’t use it unless he had to. Spring of Slave was the final spring he’d found interesting. The guide didn’t really know what it did, but like the spring of Suicidal Person, he had been even more wary of it than most of the other springs. Chris had wondered, and accordingly taken some. Did it make anyone splashed with it perfectly obedient? Or something else? Hard to say. But it might come in handy, so he took it just in case. Better to have it than not.
He returned his gaze to the road he ran along, straining to look around the curve of an upcoming hill. He should be almost there, if the directions he had received were accurate. The Jyusenkyou Guide knew of the village he’d been given directions to from Cologne, which shaved a good day from his travel time.
As he moved around the hill, he slowed down, gratified, as the path opened out onto a cheerfully pastoral scene. The village was built on a plateau in the mountains, only as wide across as two buses stretched end to end, though rather longer than that. The village was thus (not unexpectedly) small, consisting of barely two dozen houses, none more than a story tall and most built of sturdy-looking wood that must have been quite a chore to carry all the way here from the nearest forest. No rice paddies or huge fields of produce could be seen; instead, the ground was littered with dozens of small gardens, stretching between every house and full of plants of every colour and size Chris could imagine and some he could not have.
The plateau abutted a gentle rocky slope that formed the rest of the mountain, and Chris could see several goats walking about on it. A disinterested-looking boy with a long staff sat watching them, his attention idly turning to the newcomer every now and then. Further up the slope, at the apex of a series of carved stone steps, was a huge windmill. It was made of blocks of quarried stone, and stood nearly five stories tall, with blades that dipped all the way down to its base and stretched high into the sky above it. The canvas creaked and moaned audibly even from this far away.
A single path wound through the village, disappearing around the edge of the mountains on the other side. Each house had a small path leading to this one, and all faced inward. Maybe ten or twelve people were strolling between the buildings, stopping to chat or hurrying without pause as was their business. Maybe half again that number could be seen moving among the gardens, harvesting or tending or planting or doing a dozen other tasks. Unlike the Nyuuchezu, there was no evidence of modern conveniences around this village. But then again, it was still sunny out.
He walked into the village, looking for an inn. Though small, it was almost certain the economy of this place was trading herbs, so maybe… ah, yes. To his left, on the cliffward side, one of the small buildings had a sign, the Chinese characters on it recognisable from the inn he had seen in the Nyuuchezu village. No Japanese on this one, though, which could be problematic. Still, he knew Pink and Link spoke fluent Japanese; if nothing else, he might be directed to them.
The room was small, but not cramped. There was a number of small rugs laid out on the floor. An old woman, bent and crooked with a face covered in fine lines, sat yoga style on a green mat. She had her face balanced on one hand and was snoozing softly.
“Hello?” Chris called in Japanese. The woman stirred, but didn’t immediately respond. “Hello?” Chris tried again, a little louder. The woman hissed something in Chinese, and it was impossible to tell if her eyes had opened a bit or if the wrinkles on her face had just relaxed slightly. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese,” he said with a sigh.
“Room is booked for tonight,” the woman snapped out in heavily accented Japanese. “You will have to camp outside.”
“That’s all right,” he said, slowly and carefully, trying not to use any complex words. “I am looking for Pink and Link. You know them?”
“Pink? Link? Aiya. No good troublemakers. Everyone knows them. They outside.”
He smiled. That was a good sign. “Could you show me where?” He fanned out a few yuan. “I would be grateful.”
The woman’s demeanour shifted so fast Chris could almost feel the wind from her bad attitude flying out the window. “Aiya. I can tell you where to find them,” she said in what was still badly accented, but now obsequious, Japanese. “They live in small cottage around side of mountain. Not allowed to live with other peoples. Powerful enemies they have, always bring trouble they do.” The woman grinned. She was missing several teeth, but they had been replaced by ivory that glittered slightly in her shark-like smile. “Can’t miss it.”
“Thank you.” He smiled again and handed her the money, which vanished even more quickly than her former attitude. Then he headed out in search of the cottage. So much for melodramatic fanboy fantasies about the village living too much in fear of Shampoo to save the twins. They might fear Shampoo, but it was pretty obvious they weren’t overly concerned over the fate of their own.
Or it might just be that old woman. But somehow he didn’t think so. He shrugged. Considering Pink’s personality, at least, he probably couldn’t blame them.
The rest of the village was rather interesting. In front of about half of the houses, men or women in elaborate silk robes sat behind mats filled with unguents and ointments and baskets full of unidentified substances. They called out in Chinese, and once or twice in Japanese, to Chris as he passed. When he glanced over, they smiled boastfully and pushed forward a jar or flask, babbling something at him.
Halfway across the village, the steps of the windmill descended. A woman stood in front of it, her long hair blowing behind her. She wore a Takahashi–esque female Chinese breastplate and skin–tight leggings, an outfit remarkably similar to Pink and Link’s. There was no kanji on it, however, and she carried her staff and body stiffly. Her dangerous eyes did not invite idle conversation. There was one other foreigner in the village that he saw. A man in a white gi, sleeves torn from his bulky shoulders, sat dickering with one of the merchants in Chinese. His back was to Chris, but white strips hung down to his mid-back from the headband in his short brown hair.
He had almost started to walk past when he did a doubletake, and then stared at the man. “Ryu?” he said out loud, not really thinking in time to stop himself.
The man turned his head slightly, looking over his shoulder. Chris blinked. It certainly looked like Street Fighter’s seminal character Ryu. His eyes were disinterested, but still gazed steadily at Chris. The man behind him seemed agitated by the interruption.
“My apologies,” Chris said, bowing. “Seeing you, I was startled slightly. Are you, in fact, Ryu?”
“That’s my name,” the man said in a clear voice. It didn’t sound exactly like Chris pictured it would. It took him a moment to figure out this must be a voice from the video games, and not any of the numerous anime made out of the franchise. He waved the man to silence behind him. “And you are?”
“Kodachi Kunou,” he replied easily. “I wasn’t searching for you or anything, but I am something of a martial artist, and your name and likeness is rather well-known in some circles. Again, my apologies for interrupting your business.”
Ryu just gave Chris a long, odd stare for a moment. Chris could see the man’s muscles tensing, and saw his pupils dilate the tiniest fraction. But then he breathed out, and seemed to calm down. “Okay.” His gaze lingered for a moment, then he turned back to his negotiating.
Well, somebody just noticed his deadness. He walked on, deciding it best not to give Ryu any more reason to worry. He’d considered asking the man to spar – the fight with Ukyou and Ranma aside, he hadn’t really gotten as much chance to ‘field test’ his abilities as he’d like – but the body wouldn’t heal from any wounds he took. Best not to risk it. Odd coincidence for him to be there, though.
The village ended as the plateau curved around the mountainside, and with good reason, as the amount of land suddenly went from ‘not much’ to ‘practically nonexistent’. The path dipped down back towards the valleys again, and Chris could see what looked like more herd animals through a thin layer of mist from a waterfall which gurgled merrily a dozen or so meters down the path. Next to that waterfall was a small cottage, partially built into the surrounding mountain. It was obviously well-cared for, but showed signs of wear and tear. A woman was sitting in the doorway, strumming on a lyre-like instrument.
Chris paused to take a better look at the woman. She was tall for an Asian, with long black hair that flowed gracefully down her body. She had a willow-like figure under a provocatively cut, but not especially revealing, blue and green silk pantsuit. She looked vaguely familiar, but Chris couldn’t place from where. The twins’ mother, maybe? He shrugged, and stepped towards her.
“Excuse me. I am looking for Pink and Link.”
The music stopped as the woman seemed to notice him for the first time. She stared at Chris, her blue-black eyes unreadable, and she murmured something under her breath before speaking aloud. “Whatever Pink did, I apologise.” She spoke in an oddly deep voice for a woman, but it had a pleasant musical quality to it. Her Japanese was flawless.
He laughed lightly, with genuine humour. “I’m sorry, you’ve mistaken my intent. I don’t wish any ill towards either of them; indeed, I’ve never met them before. In fact, I only want to talk with them.”
“I see…” the woman said. He noticed her relaxing, and in so doing realised he’d failed to notice the tension in her posture until this moment. “They’re in the back, experimenting on something.” She paused. “If you want to buy something from them, you’ll have to wait. They don’t like being disturbed about that.” The woman gestured slightly inside the cottage. “I have a number of herbs and potions for sale, however.”
“Thank you, but I’ll wait, if you wouldn’t mind.” He smiled a little bit. “Do so many people come here seeking retribution?”
“Only the really determined ones,” the woman pointed out with a weary sigh. “If you want, we can step inside…?” She stood up and moved into the cottage. Chris could now see past her into the room. Plants hung from every conceivable location, and some inconceivable ones as well. The walls appeared green and wet, with bright plumes of every colour imaginable appearing in a haphazard, yet strangely intriguing manner. A curtain led off to another room, and in the back a dark tunnel seemed to bore further into the earth. Out of it spilled a light green mist that clung to the floor like a cloud of creeping insects.
“Impressive,” he noted, looking at the walls with interest. Of course, where Pink and Link lived would be niftier than the makeshift garden they’d set up at the Tendos. Stood to reason.
He continued to follow her until she came to a small table, where she gestured for him to sit down, and offered to make tea. “Thank you, but no,” he said. Not wishing to seem impolite, he added “I’m currently fasting.” Which was certainly true, after a fashion.
She nodded and made herself some on a small stove nearby, humming to herself as she moved, her every action graceful and with purpose. Time flowed onward as the woman finished her tea, seemingly content to merely sit and enjoy the ambiance.
Eventually, he broke the silence. “So, if you don’t mind my asking… what is it they’re working on at the moment? Or would you know?”
“Some sort of poisonous concoction, no doubt,” the woman replied easily enough. “It’s only a few weeks until…” she trailed off and coughed into her hand. “Well, they have odd habits, you see?” She laughed a little uncomfortably.
Hmm. Did Shampoo come on a regular schedule? How egotistical of her. Perfectly in character, he supposed, if so. “I see,” he nodded. “They and you seem very talented and imaginative. The gardens and plants I’d seen elsewhere in the village were impressive, but this seems even more so.”
This caused the woman to smile, and her voice swelled with pride.
“They try twice… no, three times as hard as anybody else here,” she noted with a nod. “None of the others admit it, but they do the best work in the entire village.” She laughed, not nearly so uncomfortably this time. “Not that I really would know the difference, I suppose. They have quite surpassed my meagre skills.”
“I understand,” he noted. “I know a bit about such things myself, but I see this is far beyond my own level of knowledge. It makes me glad I made the trip here.”
“So…” the woman nodded. At this point there was a resounding explosion from the cave and a pair of shocked squeals. Chris blinked as a rush of air flowed from the cave mouth, causing his hair to flip and twist. A huge bead of sweat appeared on the woman’s head, and she lowered her face to the table.
He stood up. “There seems to be some sort of trouble. Should we go see if they’re all right?”
“They’ll be fine,” the woman waved him back down. “They should be out in a few seconds now.”
“All right,” he said, sitting back down. He was curious as to what they were working on that caused something like that. They didn’t have any sort of explosive plant in the manga, that he recalled. Of course, the experiment seemed to have not been a complete success.
The sounds of bickering and approaching footsteps grew louder as he waited. In a few short moments, the two girls came into view. They looked much like Chris had pictured them. They each had the short hair, the colour–coded breastplates and tight leggings under floral skirts. The being covered from head to toe in some sort of viscous green slime part was new, admittedly. They were waving their hands at each other and chattering back and forth in Chinese, and what few words Kodachi’s schooling provided him with told him the conversation was not a pleasant chat, even if their shouting and finger-pointing wasn’t enough of a clue.
He couldn’t help but grin a little; synchronisation on many things aside, they looked remarkably similar to any other squabbling sisters. He stayed silent for the moment, though… best not to introduce himself by interrupting them when they were already annoyed. The twins continued to yell and bicker and shoot recriminations back and forth as they stalked purposefully into the room… and just as purposefully back out again. They hadn’t even looked to one side or the other as they stepped out of the cottage. The sound of their yelling seemed to circle around to the side of the house, then a loud splashing commenced.
He chuckled, looking at the woman, who smiled apologetically at him.
“Distracted, aren’t they?” he noted. “Then again, I might be too if I was just blown up and covered in green gook.”
They were a little different than he expected, even aside from the squabbling bits. But it made sense: the shift from manga to reality was a pretty major one for everyone else he’d seen so far. Pink was not PERPETUALLY smiling while her sister perpetually frowned, for instance; he’d noticed their expressions had a bit more variety, but it was still a strong tendency… even arguing with her sister, Pink’s expression could best be described as an ‘angry smile’.
Still, their knowledge could be useful to him. Or it might not. But there was more to it than that. Having little else to do during the long trips overland in China, he’d given a lot of thought as to why meeting Pink and Link and ‘recruiting’ them was such an attractive prospect to him. After speaking to Cologne, he had serious doubts whether something so simple as herbal embalming could even do much for his body, especially in light of the fact it was obviously somewhat supernatural how long Kodachi’s was taking to decay. He’d hoped for that… but it also meant, realistically, that it’d probably take supernatural means to further prolong it by any major amount. Granted, Pink and Link’s plants were more or less supernatural… but he still didn’t think the solution would be that easy.
But there was more to it than that. Chris was never one to enjoy being surrounded by people all the time; he liked his privacy. But he didn’t appreciate having NO human contact either. Ukyou was out, and by extension that cut out most of the rest of the main Ranma crew as well. Few others did he want to approach; he’d explicitly rejected the idea of contacting Pantyhose Tarou even before he’d arrived in China… too anti-social, and too powerful. If he reacted badly to finding out Chris’s nature, or even worse, noticed before Chris could even make it clear he didn’t want to fight Tarou, he might attack, and that was a fight Chris had no doubts he’d lose. The Sailor Senshi, an even worse bet, given his status as… well, basically, an undead monster. Plus he didn’t want to mess with their plotline, if possible.
But Pink and Link were a perfect choice. He could help them with their overriding character motivation, which meant he could actually talk and confide with them without (likely) driving them off. Also, Link was a nice person, and Pink was, if nothing else, interesting. He was himself interested to find out more about them than what the manga showed. Neither of them were particularly stupid, though they were typically short-sighted in that Takahashi character way. And they were no threat to him whatsoever, no matter what happened… poisons and noxious gases didn’t bother corpses much.
And who knew? Maybe they could help him. He couldn’t help but feel a little manipulative in his plan to gain some companionship, but hey, he was going to (hopefully) help free them from the endless cycle of being beaten up by Shampoo, so it wasn’t as if they wouldn’t benefit.
And besides… he really felt he needed someone he could talk to, who he didn’t have to put up a false front against. Just the thought of it made him feel a bit better about his situation. And anything that made his situation more bearable was probably good for everyone.
The girls walked back into the cottage a few minutes later, now dripping wet and free of green gook but otherwise still going at each other like the proverbial cat and dog. They paused for a moment, yelled something loudly at each other simultaneously, and turned their back with symmetrical snorts. Pink was smiling and Link was frowning. He grinned a bit at the sight.
“Girls,” the woman called out into the sudden silence. Pink, who was facing in their direction, replied in Chinese through her angry smile. “This young woman came a long way to speak with the two of you,” the woman informed them. “She’s Japanese, so you might want to use her language.”
“If you say so, over,” Pink said flippantly. She gave Chris a thorough once over then seemed to lose interest in him. The smiling twin walked over to the curtain while the frowning twin sat down at the table.
“Where are you going, over?” Link asked.
“To change outfits. This one stinks, over,” Pink pointed out over her shoulder. Link shrugged at that as her twin stepped through the curtain. Then she turned to Chris.
“What would you like, over?”
He leaned back, smiling a bit. If only Pink knew. “As she said, I’ve come a long way. I’ve heard of Pink and Link. I’ve heard you two are about the best there is when it comes to knowledge of exotic plants, herbs, poisons and medicines.” He glanced around idly at the jungle-like walls of the room. “It would seem those rumours are correct.”
The girl blushed prettily. “We’re very dedicated to our craft, over.”
He nodded. “I can tell, and I’m glad I came. I’d like to make a proposition for you two.” He glanced apologetically at the woman who had shown him in. “I’m sorry, but if you wouldn’t mind, could I speak briefly alone with the girls? I’d rather only they knew about what I wish to tell them.”
“Not at all,” the woman replied. She retrieved her lyre-like instrument (the name of it danced on the tip of Kodachi’s memory, but refused to solidify) and stepped out of the hut. Link didn’t give her a second glance, staring intently at him. That was one possible obstacle removed. The woman, almost certainly the twins’ mother, might not like the girls’ ‘association’ with Shampoo – not that he could blame her for that! – and wouldn’t necessarily be nearly as confident as Chris was that he could help the twins out in that area.
He leaned back, stretching his arms out. “We’ll just wait for your sister to come back, if you don’t mind. Out of curiosity, what was it you two were working on just now?”
“Fertiliser,” Link replied, then wrinkled her nose and looked at her sleeve. “Pungent fertiliser, over.” Chris took a reflexive sniff, but frowned a bit when the smell failed to reach him.
He paused a moment, not quite having planned to make this much small talk before getting to the point, then suddenly laughed a bit. “I’m sorry, how very rude of me. I know your names, but haven’t given my own.” Rising from the table, he bowed at Link. “My name is Chris.”
Link nodded and bowed her head slightly. A minute or so later, the rustling in the other room stopped. When Pink re-emerged from behind the curtain, she was no longer wearing her archetypal breastplate and bodysuit. Instead, she was clad in a tight red Chinese dress with elaborate green piping up the right–hand side. It was hemmed to mid-thigh but cut to the hip. Over her heart was sewn a tiny kanji. She looked incuriously at Chris as Link introduced them, then sat down herself. Seeing some tea was prepared, she helped herself.
“What is this all about, anyway, over?” Pink asked her sister.
“I believe she was just waiting for you to arrive before she got to that, over,” Link pointed out. There was a bit of scorn in her voice.
“Indeed,” he noted, sitting again. He leaned forward, steepling his fingers. “Let me cut right to the chase and see if you’re interested in what I have to offer.” Pausing a moment for effect, he then continued, “I know about your problems with Shampoo. I know where Shampoo is going. And I can help you defeat her.”
That certainly got their attention. Or so he guessed, from the way Pink was shaking his head by the neck. “What do you know about Shampoo!? Did she send you!? Are you a spy!? Over!?”
He stopped his head from shaking, leaving Pink grasping it rather impotently. Gotta love that Martial Arts Death Machine strength. “The same way I knew about you two, no, and no, respectively. I’d be an awfully poor spy if I was offering to help you beat her, wouldn’t I?”
Pink didn’t seem to notice his resistance to her efforts to strangle him, at least until Link pried her hands off. “Excuse my sister, over” Link pointed out with a bit of acid in her tone. “Shampoo has… what is the word… joked? Played? Tricked? She has made us think we had friends before when we did not, over.”
“Hmm. That is a problem, isn’t it? Now, how to prove I’m sincere…” he paused for a moment. “Well, how about this? I’ll give you two a freebie. I’ll tell you where Shampoo’s going, and why. You could track her down and make trouble if you wanted, or you could stay here and relax in the fact she won’t be coming around for awhile, if you wanted. But if you want to go and defeat her… well, for that, you might still want my help. And just to make it even more fair, you don’t have to do anything for me until after I’ve helped you. Sound fair?”
Pink and Link skimmed back like they had rollers on their knees before spinning their backs to Chris. They talked for a few minutes in hushed tones. Finally, Pink said something final-sounding. Link leaned away from her, her frown becoming somewhat worried. Pink repeated something in Chinese harshly. Chris grinned to himself as he realised he had figured out which word meant ‘over’. Link nodded, and walked down the tunnel in the back.
“My sister will be back in a moment, over,” Pink pointed out happily. She was leaning forward, rubbing her hands together and chuckling just under her breath. When she caught Chris staring at her, she forced herself to sit still… only to start chuckling and rubbing her hands again the moment she thought he was distracted.
“Are you going to try and drug me?” he said, bemused. “You can try, if you like, but I don’t think it will work very well.”
Pink’s smile cracked, and her entire body slumped to the side. “But… my plan was perfect! How did you see through it, over?”
He laughed out loud. “Call it a hunch. Also, I know about you from reputation. Very fearsome in certain quarters, you understand. So I made sure to be prepared.” He couldn’t help but grin.
“Then you’ll have no problem submitting to our whims if you want our help!” Pink recovered with the speed of one of those blow-up punching dolls. “I refuse to listen to anything you have to say until you submit, over!”
He shrugged amiably. “Sure. I’ll let you drug me, or even hit me if you want. I won’t try to stop you. But I’ll expect you to trust me just a little bit because of it. After all, if Shampoo sent a spy, would they let you try to drug or beat them up?”
“No…” Pink mused. “I suppose not, over.”
Shortly thereafter Link returned from the cave. She carried a clear glass flask filled with a thin blue liquid. Pink pointed out that Chris had already agreed to take the potion, and Link nodded. She turned to him and flashed him an apologetic frown (wow, that was a new one) before asking him to roll up his sleeve. Chris agreed amiably enough as the girl uncorked the flask with a small pop of displaced air. Then she frowned in concentration, produced a cotton swab from inside her outfit and carefully extracted a bit of the concoction. Chris watched this in mild fascination as the girl scanned along his arm, dabbing the swab here and there. The touch was so light that Chris couldn’t even feel it through his dimmed senses. As Link continued her application, she seemed to pause longer and longer between attempts. Her eyes kept flickering to Chris’ face, then back to his arm, and he saw increasing concern each time she did so.
“Sorry,” he noted, “but I did mention that while I’d let you try to drug me, it probably wouldn’t work. I’m pretty well-defended against that sort of thing.”
“The-” she used a Chinese word here Chris didn’t understand “-isn’t… it isn’t even absorbing into your blood stream, over!”
“That’s impossible,” Pink snorted. “You must be doing something wrong. Here let me try, over.” Pink snatched the flask from her sisters’ trembling hands. The other twin staggered back, her eyes widening as she continued to stare at Chris. He felt something jab his arm and looked down to see Pink applying the concoction liberally and carelessly over his arm. She stopped suddenly, the swab she was using falling to the floor with a wet splotch. He watched the girl reach out and touch his skin with expert fingers. “But… there’s no coating… that isn’t possible… over…”
He sighed. “Well, I at least know I came to the right place. I didn’t think there was any way for you two to notice that quite yet, but you surprised me.” He spread his hands. “As you’ve noticed, I’m a little… different. That’s part of why I came to you.”
“What are you, over?” Link said, her voice trembling.
“What magic is this, that lets a dead woman walk…” Pink mused aloud as she touched Chris’ arm again. Chris blinked as she failed to end her phrase with the usual code.
No point trying to be coy now, he supposed. “Well, Pink just said it. I’m not alive. Or rather, this body isn’t. I had some sort of accident, and via a process I don’t know, I’m stuck in a corpse body until I can find a way out of it. That’s bad, because corpses, as I’m sure you know, don’t last forever. The help I wanted to get from you, because you two are the best herbalists I know of in the world, was some research and perhaps experimentation in a preserving or embalming process. Don’t worry, I don’t feed on the blood of the living or anything painfully stereotypical like that. I’m mostly harmless.” He smiled, he hoped reassuringly. “But. I know I can help you two. I’m strong. Stronger than Shampoo. And like I promised, if you want, you two don’t have to do anything for me until I help you beat her. I’ll admit I’d prefer it as soon as possible, but I want your help, and I’ll be patient if that helps you trust me.”
There was an uncomfortable silence as the girls digested that. Sensing it would probably be better to remain silent as they thought, he did so. Link had stopped backing away, but she hadn’t relaxed or returned to the table either. Pink, on the other hand, was eyeing him directly. There was no fear in her expression, only mild curiosity. The kind of curiosity a cat has for a bird with a broken wing. Chris repressed a frown at that analogy. What level of his subconscious had that bubbled out of, uninvited?
“I say we trust her, over,” Pink said finally.
“But why, over?”
“She just told us the complete truth,” Pink shrugged. “And I don’t think Shampoo has access to this kind of magic. Nothing that could fool us, anyway, over.”
“But this doesn’t-“
“I just want to listen to her!” Pink cut her sister off harshly. “What harm does listening to her do, sister, over?”
Link rolled her eyes but stepped forward. Chris noted idly that the fear had evaporated from her posture as well. She was not looking at him like a monster to be avoided. Her eyes carried more… disgust? Pity? It was hard to tell with her expression being that nearly monotonous frown all the time.
“Well, thank you. I’m relieved, really. I didn’t know where I’d go if you two had freaked out.” At least not for any sort of compatriots. “All right, so is there anything else you’d like to know? You know what I want, and what I’m offering.”
“I’m very interested in-“
“Why don’t you start with what you were going to tell us before, over?” Link cut her sister off. Pink glanced over her shoulder, but then shrugged.
Hmm. Looked like Pink wasn’t quite the obviously dominant one of the two she’d seemed to be up until now. “Ah, yes, that. Well, Shampoo was, say about a month ago, defeated by a female foreign martial artist. You know about the Joketsuzoku law regarding that sort of thing?”
“Yes, over,” Link nodded. Pink leaned back, idly gazing at the ceiling. Obviously she was content to let her sister run the conversation as she pleased, at least for the moment.
“Mm. Well, the female martial artist in question wasn’t interested in a duel to the death with Shampoo, so she fled China, and went to Nerima, which is a ward in Tokyo, Japan. Shampoo hasn’t followed her trail all the way there yet – or hadn’t when I left, anyway – but she’s persistent. She’s going to show up there pretty soon, and I think she’ll be there for awhile.” Well, unless Ukyou decided to remove her from the equation, too. But he doubted she’d kill her, so Shampoo being a Nerima regular was a pretty safe bet.
“Aside from moving our problem across the ocean for a few months, how does that concern us, over?” Link asked sharply.
“Ah, well you see, that’s the fun part. The female who defeated Shampoo isn’t actually a female, but rather a guy. That’s going to come out sooner or later, and I’m sure you know what that means. But the guy in question already has a fiancée. Plus he’s too strong for Shampoo to simply force to do what he wants. So I suspect rather strongly that Shampoo’s going to be in Japan for quite a long time. She might even end up living there permanently.” He leaned back. “That’s good for you; you might want to leave it at that. Of course, that lets Shampoo get away with everything she’s done up to now. But it’s up to you, naturally.”
“The girl… is really a guy…. over?” Link blinked. She shared a long look with her sister.
“And Shampoo is going to have to marry him, over?” Pink chuckled.
“Hilarious, over?” Pink broke out into a sudden fit of laughter, clutching her stomach.
“I was going to say disturbing, over,” the frowning twin harumphed and crossed her arms.
He grinned. “Quite, on both counts. I’m a little sorry I can’t see her expression when she finds out. But that’s where she’s going, and where she’s likely going to stay for awhile, given the… weirdness of the situation.”
“Well that’s nice of you to tell us, over,” Link said with a tone of finality.
“She has offered to help us, over,” Pink pointed out in between giggling fits.
“We can take care of Shampoo ourselves,” Link replied. “Now that we know what’s going on, we can come up with some sort of suitable revenge. We don’t need her help, over.” Link’s voice was stern, but there was a hint of a question in her tone.
“Well,” Pink leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table and grinning predatorily at Chris. “I want to find out what she proposes to do to help us with Shampoo. We know what she wants from us. But in any good bargain, you find out how much the customer is willing to pay before closing the deal, over.”
“Fine,” Link grumbled. “But I think that this is our business, Pink. Our revenge is our revenge, over.” Pink glanced at her, but said nothing.
“Hard bargainers,” he noted. He reached down and retrieved a ribbon, drawing it between Kodachi’s slender fingers. “I understand that your revenge is your business. Something you want to accomplish on your own. And I have no doubt you can do it.” A flick of the wrist, and the ribbon slashed out between the twins, flew into the mouth of the cave, and then was back in the blink of an eye. He flipped the small rock thus retrieved up and down in one hand.
“Persistence pays off. Eventually, everyone makes mistakes. But in the meantime? It’s not been very pleasant for you thus far, has it?” He caught the rock in his hand one last time, held it out. “Sometimes it’s nice to know someone’s got your back. To know that if something goes wrong, if there’s a problem…” He clenched his fist, squeezed. It took a bit of effort, but not really that much. Turning his hand over, he let the rock dust fall onto the table. “…you have a problem-solver. I only have one condition. You can’t kill her with my help. You’ll have to do that on your own, if you want. But I can beat her. And once she’s beaten, helpless… you can do whatever you want. Hit her a hundred times. Five hundred. And, you know, there’s worse things than death, especially for a warrior like Shampoo. Things like knowing she’s been beaten by people she thinks so little of. Things like knowing that everything she’s done, all the bad karma she’s gained, has come back and she’s paid for it. Wouldn’t that be the right thing? The just thing?”
Pink smiled dreamily, and even Link’s frown lessened as they listened to Chris’ words. But Link shook her head and threw the effects of his speech off.
“That isn’t a big deal,” Link pointed out with a flip of her finger towards the pile of rock dust. “I’ve seen Shampoo crush rocks before… usually with our heads.” Her perpetual frown deepened. “You might be strong, but I bet she’s stronger, over.”
“You have so little imagination, sister,” Pink pointed out. “Think about it. This girl isn’t just strong like Shampoo is. She’s also DEAD, over.”
“And that means… what, over?”
“You saw it yourself,” Pink shrugged. “She’s immune to most of our herbal attacks, more than likely. How often have our plans gone awry, just because our ambushes blew up in our own faces? With her helping us, we don’t have to worry about that. We don’t even have to worry about how safe any of the plants we employ are, over!”
Link was wavering, Chris could see it in her eyes, but she remained firm for the moment. “I still don’t think we should trust her,” Link pointed out. “We can handle Shampoo ourselves…”
“Then let’s do that,” Pink laughed, cutting her twin off. “What harm could it be, following this one to this Nerima and laying a trap for Shampoo? If things work out as you say, then we hardly lose anything. If we fail, we have an ally to fall back on so we can try again, over.”
“It sounds good to me,” he nodded. “Although, just to note. Shampoo might be as strong as me, true. Maybe even a bit stronger. But you see, there’s more to fighting than just that. I don’t feel pain. I don’t fall unconscious. I don’t get tired. And not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m a lot smarter than Shampoo.” Insulting Shampoo would never go down poorly with this particular audience. “So, rest assured, if it comes down to it, you’re in absolutely no danger from Shampoo. Not when you fight her, and not if she comes after you later for revenge.”
“And if you can’t trust the undead, who can you trust, over?” Pink said as she burst out laughing. Link grumbled under her breath and leaned back with her arms crossed.
He laughed too. “I think I like your thinking, Pink. Hmm. So, then, I’ll take you to where Shampoo will be. When she shows up, I’ll let you do what you want. If you want my help, I’ll give it, and if not, I’ll stay out of your way. That sound like a good deal?”
Link hesitated, but Chris could see Pink’s smile transforming into a smirk. In a sudden epiphany, the living dead boy realised he had already won this round. Sensing the need to remain silent, he once again did so. Link took almost a minute to think everything over, her eyes looking everywhere but directly at Chris while she did so. Then she stood up.
“Yes, I’ll go to this Nerima,” Link agreed. “Now if you excuse me I have to go change. I feel unclean in these clothes, over.”
Well, Pink seemed to like him better. No surprise. But hopefully Link would come around soon. She wanted revenge on Shampoo just as badly. He stood up as well, brushing the last of the rock dust from his hands. “All right, then. You two get whatever you need to go, and we’ll be off. No time like the present, after all.” The side of his mouth quirked up. “And thank you, once again. This, as they say, could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
To Be Continued…
Epsilon: Well, we already thanked Elin in our last author’s notes, and Jenn in an author’s notes before that…
Blade: But let’s thank them again anyway!
Epsilon: We’d thank other people, too, but nobody else is prereading for us.
Blade: Except Rob.
Epsilon: Oh, right, since he HASN’T HAD ANY COMMENTARY FOR THREE CHAPTERS NOW, I completely forgot.
Blade: Actually, you just forgot because you forget everything.
Epsilon: Well, yes. So, what issues to cover this time?
Blade: Well, a lot of people are saying Hybrid Theory is unrelentingly depressing.
Epsilon: Hey, Hybrid Theory isn’t unrelentingly depressing! We keep giving you moments of humour and joy, so when the inevitable depression crashes in on you, your guard is down!
Blade: Ignore him. Though it’s true to an extent. Hybrid Theory ISN’T unrelentingly depressing. But, to paraphrase the unintentionally ironic comment from a reader, “it isn’t Ranma”. Because… well, it ISN’T Ranma. It’s not Sailor Moon either.
Epsilon: It’s the result of self-inserts and multi-crossovers, treated and taken seriously with attention paid to actual consequences.
Blade: Amongst other things.
Epsilon: And with that, there isn’t much else to say, soooo… NEXT EPISODO!
Akane threw her arms in front of her eyes as the explosions rocked the hangar. The light turned the whole world red for a second, and she could hear the blasts echoing in her ears long after they stopped. Cautiously she lowered her arms. Ranma appeared to have leapt back at the last second, but he had still caught the brunt of the blast. His entire shirt was burned off, leaving a nasty looking red and black burn on his chest. His pants had escaped the brunt of the damage, but scorch marks swirled up his neck and onto his face. He was moaning, lying spread eagle on the concrete.
Akane wanted to run to him, but she remembered the monsters were still here. She turned her eyes back in their direction, just as the smoke from the attack was clearing to reveal them. She heard more than saw Sailor Mercury step up beside her. The petite girl seemed to bring an aura of calm with her presence, and Akane breathed a little bit easier.
“Just two more pests to go,” the tall youma informed her partner laconically.
“Let’s finish them quickly then,” the shorter one grinned visibly through the half-mask covering her face. Akane gasped as she thrust her palm at them and another cloud of cherry bombs flowed out. She backed up a step, knowing that there was no way she could leap away from the attack in time. Not to mention the fact that Sailor Mercury was slower than her. Gritting her teeth, Akane stepped forward, determined to absorb as much of the assault for the smaller girl as she could.
Hybrid Theory Chapter 7: Carousel