A Ranma ½ fan fiction story
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ characters property of Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.
Book II: The Eight Phases.
Chapter Three: The Masters of the Mountain
The sun hung low, a golden blur shining brightly through the grey wash the clouds painted across the sky. The tall spires of Tokyo's hub stood like tiny sentinels in the distance, the sprawling metropolis spreading to the ocean, which was barely visible as an indigo band spanning beneath the dark clouds upon the horizon.
Shampoo crouched upon the rooftop awaiting her prey. Perhaps some instinct born of Jusenkyo compelled her into the posture of a prowling cat, her back curved into a feline arch as she squatted on her haunches, the balls of her feet and the tips of her fingers poised upon the tiles like a runner at the blocks. She peered carefully over the edge of the roof, eyes scanning the streets and the skyline for any sign of her quarry. Raising one hand she tucked a stray lock of lavender hair behind her ear, listening to the sound of the city.
Curse these Japanese for being so noisy, she griped silently. She had once been proud of her tracking skills. One of the best in her village, she had honed her senses to human limits and beyond, hunting wild game for her people in the valleys of her home in Qinghai. The thrill of pursuit was almost as sweet as the rush of combat, and far better for the soul. Harrying deer through the woods, trapping wild boars, her sisters at her side and sharing the glory. No longer the young champion, but one of a whole, the pack, dispatching their target swiftly and painlessly with a single arrow, a hurled javelin, and occasionally her bare hands; the perfect test of the weapon she had honed her body into.
There was no pleasure to be had in the hunt while in Japan. The dense smog choked her lungs, the acrid scent of factories and people clawed at her senses. The sounds were deafening, the honking of cars, the revving of buses, the shuttling chant of the trains, and the voices of thousands and thousands of people. Her senses were overloaded, her quarry flitting unseen beneath the noise.
A scream pierced through the urban din. Shampoo tensed and lowered her crouch, her body coiled, ready to strike. From the corner of her eyes she saw a blur bounce across her periphery. She pounced, her body unfurling and snapping straight, launching upwards like a human arrow, her foot streaking at her target.
She hit nothing but air.
She recovered quickly from her failed kick, whirling around with a snarl, arms immediately crossed defensively across her chest.
"Morning, Shampoo dear," came a thin voice from behind her. "Starting early today, aren't you?"
Shampoo turned quickly to face the Anything-Goes master, her arms still shielding her expansive bosom. Her grimace grew deeper as her eyes came upon the bulging sack upon which the diminutive old man was sitting, the strap and a single cup of a bright white bra protruding from under the crudely tied knot. His eyes were sunken and squinted amidst wrinkled, sagging skin, yet they still twinkled as they ran over her leanly curved form. Shampoo growled and lunged forward, twisting into a low roundhouse that cut the air like an iron flail.
Happosai dived to the side, leaping up and somersaulting over the Amazon's vicious attack, carrying the black sack that dwarfed him in size through the air like it weighed nothing.
Missing its target, the momentum of Shampoo's kick spun her like a top. She pulled her leg back in, cocking her heel beneath her and bringing herself into a controlled pirouette. Ending her spin, she kept her leg raised as she faced the withered figure in the Proud Crane stance, one arm outstretched and the other across her stomach, both hands formed blades levelled at her enemy.
"Please be more careful, Shampoo," Happosai chided softly. "That kick almost took away my silky darlings."
"They not yours, pervert man," she spat. "You give back to people you steal from."
"I can't do that," he whined. "Those girls, cute though they be, could never appreciate these lovelies like they deserve." His gnarled face twisted in what she assumed was an attempt to look cute.
"You give Shampoo panties now."
"Oh, you want them, Shampoo?" A wide grin suddenly split his shrivelled face from ear to ear. "Of course. Anything for you, dear. I had worried about a sexy young thing like you having no panties of your own. Yet now you wish to model lingerie for me." He wiped a crocodile tear from his eye. "You make this poor old man so happy."
"Happi keep dreaming," she roared as she leapt into the air, arching her leg vertically into the air and bringing it down into violent arc as she descended. The old man became a small black blur as her heel slammed into the space he had just vacated, broken tiles erupting from the impact.
Her vision went white, and then black as something fell over her face. Staggering with surprise, she fumbled to the side, hands clawing at the fabric stretched over her eyes. With a growl she ripped the material away, finding herself holding a pair of torn white panties. Roaring loudly, she shredded the garment with her nails, and flung away its remains, her balance wavering at her toes encountered the roof's edge.
"Aw… that was a nice pair," the withered master's voice whined from behind her. "But I'll forgive you."
Shampoo felt a pair of tiny hands press against her behind, stubbly little fingers pinching and rubbing at the firm flesh. With a muffled squawk she hopped forward, jerking her hips forward and pulling her bottom out of the ancient pervert's reach, clasping her hands protectively over her buttocks.
Her feet did not touch down on the tiles; her indignant jump had vaulted her over the edge of the roof. She dropped like a dead weight into the alley between the houses, plummeting with her hands grasping at her ass, into the dumpster below. Half buried beneath bulging plastic bags of trash, she screamed, reducing a soda-can to aluminium foil in her fist as she watched Happosai leap across the alley, hefting his sack of ill-gotten gains.
"See you around, Shampoo my dear," he called as he bounced away. "Say hello to your granny for me."
Still snarling low in her throat, she wrestled her arms free of the heaving garbage and pulled herself upright. She tossed aside the twisted remains of the can with as much force as she could summon from her position, a small spike of satisfaction peaking as it pierced a brick wall like an artillery shell. The moment soon passed, and she sighed heavily as she gripped the lip of the dumpster and hauled herself out.
Her lips twisted as she furiously tried to brush the dirt and stains from her silk blouse and pants, grimacing as the result of her action was only to smear ketchup stains further into the fabric. Suppressing the urge to slam her fists through the nearby walls, she stomped out of the alley. The few observers who had seen the fight or were curious as to the noise scattered once her expression came out of the alley's shadow. Shampoo pushed as much anger into her reddish irises as she could, as if her gaze could reduce into ash those who had seen her shameful loss.
Shampoo stalked along the streets in the direction of the Nekohanten, the current people before her parting like the sea around the prow of a boat, some weaving carefully to avoid her while others, seeing the fury on her face, simple leapt out of her path.
At least I have not become so weak that I cannot scare a few outsiders, she thought bitterly, and on the heels that realisation came an even darker one. Or perhaps I have become so weak that I've been reduced to scaring weaklings, like some sort of bully.
A sweet scent wafted into her nostrils, the smell of freshly baked pastries and other warm treats diffused in the air from the open door of the local bakery. Shampoo's stomach twitched and emitted a burbling growl. Her eyes were drawn to the shop's window, her eyes feasting upon the array of sweet delicacies, from red bean wraps to western fondants. She could feel her mouth fill with saliva as her nose and eyes devoured the displayed cakes.
Balling her fist, she jerked her head aside forcing her gaze away from the bakery and back to the street before her. She quickened her pace, marching ahead and turning the corner swiftly moving towards the restaurant she still refused to acknowledge as home.
The restaurant was dim, the sun having hidden behind the clouds and now providing only meagre light, which reduced the usually bright scarlet furnishings to a dull burgundy and the white walls to a pale grey. Like every morning, the room was empty but for the young man who leant over the tables, running a damp cloth over the lacquered tabletops. The only sound was soft squeak of his scrubbing and the occasionally spurt of his cleaning spray that filled the air with a bitter citrus tang.
Mousse paused in his work, his eyebrows drawing together as he wrinkled his nose. Shampoo scowled.
"Shampoo?" the male Amazon inquired, lifting his head and blue eyes scanning vaguely around the restaurant.
"What Mousse want?" she spat.
He locked on to the sound of her voice, and squinted in her direction. After a moment he started, head flinching and eyes opening wide, his nose crinkled as he sniffed at the air once again.
"Why duck boy keep sniffling?" she asked through grit teeth.
"Um… well… ah…." he absently scratched at his temple with one finger and then at his nose, his gaze cast downwards towards his shifting feet. "Well, it's just that you smell so lovely, Shampoo, as always." His face was coloured by a flush that spread over his cheeks. "I always like the way you smell, my love."
Shampoo snorted. What a sycophant, she thought, lips twisting with disgust. She knew full well how she currently smelt, with the scent of the dumpster clinging to her clothes and her hair. Did the fool think she would respect him if he did not even have the guts to tell her she stunk? She wondered if their time in Japan had affected his Amazonian heart as well, or if he genuinely had no idea who she was.
Do you know who you are? a small voice in her mind asked in reply to her thoughts.
She shook her head to banish the voice and carried on through the restaurant, walking around two tables to avoid crossing paths with Mousse. He had hardly latched on to her since Ranma's departure, something she suspected her beloved had something to do with, yet she did not want to tempt her bad luck, not even reeking of garbage as was.
"Table four short of chopsticks, duck boy," she grunted over her shoulder.
"Got it," he replied, reaching into his sleeves he withdrew a neat bundle of chopsticks and idly tossed them over his shoulder without turning around. The wooden utensils remained in their stack as if joined together, travelling through the air in a graceful arc. Their trajectory landed them neatly in a tall metal tin upon the desired table with barely a rattle, coming to rest amongst point down and in perfect order with the other sticks in the tin.
Shampoo blinked and her lips compressed to a fine line to prevent a gasp or any other sound from escaping. That was good, she thought, yet continued to scowl at the young man as he continued wiping down the tables, unwilling to allow her impression to show. The throw had been perfect, effortless; yet he had not turned to face his target and was not wearing his glasses. He had made the shot based on his memory of the Nekohanten's layout and instinct.
Despite her own skill at using forks as projectile weapons, she knew she could not have performed a feat even whilst aiming at the table. Watching almost blind martial artist do it without thought forced her to acknowledge how far his talents had progressed.
Her hand had balled itself into a fist, and was now clenched so hard that the knuckles whitened as her hands trembled by her sides. Feeling the room start to shrink, she slapped at the door of the kitchen, making the panel swing viciously upon its hinges and slam into the wall besides. She stalked into the kitchen as the door slowly swung back, vibrating rapidly with a low hum.
"Greetings, great-granddaughter," Cologne said, looking up from a pan of boiling soup broth. She ran her gaze over Shampoo's bedraggled form and twitched her nose as she slid her right eyebrow up to the band of red leather that held back her cascade of ghostly hair, making dark folds appear in her tanned, leathery face. "I see you've been chasing after Happi again," she sighed.
"Old pervert say hi to great-grandmother," Shampoo muttered.
"How nice of him," the Amazon matriarch said in an absent tone as she returned to her cooking, reaching into the pot and stirring the broth with a long wooden spoon.
"I go take shower before customers arrive."
Colognes nose crinkled again, "Yes, I think that would be a good idea." Her eyes rose to lock onto Shampoo's firmly, creases comings at the corners of her eyelids as they narrowed. "Be quick. though, Shampoo. I must talk to you."
Shampoo repressed the urge to sigh, and nodded. "Yes, great-grandmother," she said in a polite voice and headed up the stairs to the bathrooms, shedding her foul-smelling shirt on the way.
She gasped as the warm spray hit her. Holding the hose over her head as she knelt in the tub and arched her back, a small groan formed low in her throat as the hot water washed over her body. Grabbing a nearby loofa, she began rubbing the soap into her skin, making small circles firm muscles jarred and aching from her encounter with Happosai. Suds slid across her smooth skin as she worked the soap in to her joints, massaging deeply as the heat from the shower penetrated her pores. Her eyes fluttered closed and she groaned again.
When the sound of her own voice reached her ears, her eyelids snapped open. Yet another weakness, the inner voice taunted her. Once she had been blissful and content bathing in the icy stream beside her home. Her curse had taken that from her, and now she had been bewitched by heated water and scented herbal soaps. Her fist rose and smacked down onto the rim of the bath stall, the blow obliterating the tiled enamel. Looking at the results of her rage, she sighed, her body deflating as she slumped down onto her bottom. Mechanically she resumed washing, roughly scrubbing herself piece-by-piece, then towelling dry and dressing with systematic efficiency.
Dressing with slow robotic motions in a blouse of pale blue silk with scarlet rim, and matching pants that ended with curves at her calves, she returned downstairs, running the long teeth of an ivory comb through her lavender locks.
"You want to talk, great-grandmother?" she called as she entered the kitchen. Cologne's gnarled face popped up from a cupboard beneath the counter.
"Yes, Shampoo." She hopped on to the table and began rifling through the shelves of spices that hung above. "Could you make some tea for us, dear? It'd be nice to take it easy before the first customers arrive."
Shampoo scowled but dutifully increased the heat beneath the kettle that was constantly on the stove, filling a nearby teapot with richly-scented green leaves. She grabbed two cups; shallow, handleless vessels with thin cracks marring the outside, while the inner surface was lined with pale rings from previous use. Taking the kettle off the heat before it could fully boil, she filled the pot, inhaling with some small relish the sweet smell of jasmine.
The Amazon matriarch leaped from countertop and pogoed on her warty staff across the kitchen to a small pine table beneath the window, hopping easily to one of the mismatched chairs, waiting for her young descendant with her eyes cast through the pane of glass into the clouded sky. Shampoo joined her promptly, laying a tray laden with the teacups, pot and a couple of sweet biscuits onto the table, beside a thin vase holding a wilting but still colourful iris.
Shampoo sat opposite Cologne, leaning over to poor tea first into her elder's cup and then into her own. "What you want tell Shampoo, great-grandmother?"
Cologne glanced at her from the corner of her eyes, "I only said I wished to talk with you, my dear," the old woman said. She pivoted in her chair, moving away from the window and leaning over to grab her cup, the leathery skin of her face puckering as she blew gently at the steam wafting from her tea. "I believe that it is you who have something to tell me."
Shampoo swallowed. "What great-grandmother mean?"
Cologne smirked wryly. "Don't play stupid with me, young one, Granny knows better." Her gaze dropped from her heir as she sipped at her tea, Shampoo almost sighed with relief. "Now child, tell me why you have been chasing that annoyance Happi around town every morning, without a care for your duties here or for your dignity as an Amazon." She sighed as she set her cup down once again, "And please tell me why you have been so insufferable to live with the past ten days?"
Shampoo squirmed in her seat, suddenly feeling small, as she stared gloomily through the pale amber depths of her tea.
"Look at me when I talk to you, girl!" Cologne snapped. Shampoo's eyes darted up instantly. "I expected moping for a time," the Matriarch continued. "Your beloved ventured out to test himself. I can understand and forgive some small emotional turmoil."
The ancient woman raised her voice, cutting off Shampoo's weak protest as it crept from her throat. "However, I had hoped that as a warrior, you would understand Ranma's decision to seek new challenges. I never thought that the young woman I had picked as the scion of three thousand years of heritage would stoop to a ten day temper tantrum like some spoilt outsider girl."
Shampoo winced as those last three words were driven into her like nails. "Perhaps that is the truth now."
"Would you care to elaborate on that, Shampoo?" Cologne said in a dangerously soft voice, her tone like ancient ice sliding on the mountainside.
Shampoo has not realised she had spoken her thoughts aloud, her mouth opened and closed silently, brain frantically scrambling for something to say, some excuse to fill the silence and dissuade Cologne's falcon glare. Nothing came, and she was forced to snap her jaw shut with an audible click.
Cologne's face softened, the creases and folds off her aged skin fell from the furrow of her brow the dimples of her cheek as she ventured a warm smile. "Tell me what troubles you, child," she chided. "Remember the wisdom of the warrior Xin Da: 'The unwise fool tells all of her fears, and others will use them against her…'"
"'The stubborn fool tells no one,'" Shampoo intoned from memory, picturing the worn, aged pages of the books her mother and great-grandmother had read to her as a small child. "'And she will use them against herself.'"
The smile on the old woman's face grew as she nodded. "You learnt those words well, but I read doubt in you, Shampoo. Why?"
Shampoo frowned, wondering whether or not her great-grandmother, Khu Lon, Matriarch of the Joketsuzoku, hailed as the wisest and greatest warrior of the last seven generations, could possible understand her worries. Her head was bowed low, but her eyes flicked up from the ripples in her tea to glance at her revered relative through her purple locks. She probed the old woman with a question of her own.
"Can love be weakness, great-grandmother?"
Cologne blinked, "I'm afraid you're going to be more specific than that, Shampoo. It could be my old age, but you don't seem to be talking sense."
"That what other Elders in village say. Say strong men are good for eyes, good for bed, and sometimes good for company. But no good for heart, make warrior weak."
Her great-grandmother snorted with contempt. "I taught you to respect the Village Elders, but I also told you to take all that they say with a whole crate of salt. My sisters have a tendency to be stuck in their ways." She sighed and drained the remains of her tea. "Perhaps you had best start from the beginning."
Shampoo leant across to refill the Matriarch's cup, before settling back in her chair and gazing from the window. Tilting her head upwards to pear above the high rising building that crowded around the small restaurant, she watched the sun retreat behind the clouds, its presence a radiant halo behind a shroud of murky grey.
"Few days ago Shampoo had been on delivery, was not too busy to Shampoo take time come back to Nekohanten, walk bike through town, and window shop." The last words were forced out as a muted hiss. Her hands gripped the table, the knuckles turning white. "See nice dress, low-cut in red with slit up leg, think make good for Airen when he return. Young couple come to store window, look at same dress." Her lips twisted into a scowl. "Girl was simpering fool, hang off man's arm like she have no legs of own, smiling all time at man as if he were god in skin. She talk about how pretty dress was, and ask man if he buy it her. When man say 'he not sure', girl start crying, eyes going teary like turn on faucet. Finally man give up, he see how much it cost and they go into shop." She remembered watching with disappointment as a store clerk came and removed the scarlet garment from the window, "Shampoo was disgusted." She had glanced at the girl, her irritation swelling as she compared the other woman to herself, knowing that she was far prettier and would look far sexier in that dress. With a sigh she turned away unable to stop wondering wistfully if the lost outfit would have been the one to get her beloved's attention, the one to make him see her as beautiful. That was when it had hit her.
"That how Shampoo behave since meet Ranma," she half-cried, half-growled, her nails scoring the table as she balled her hands into fists. "Every time he nearby, I act like girl, grabbing him, hugging him, jumping up and down." She shook her head roughly. "That no how Amazon warrior should act.
"When Shampoo think of Airen, it like proud Amazon dribble out and leave weak outsider girl." She frowned at the table surface, ready to hear the matriarch's scornful rebuke. She looked with wide eyes up when all she heard was soft thump. Cologne had fallen from her chair and now rolled upon the kitchen floor, seized by paroxysms of laughter, her stunted, bony legs kicking at the air as she cackled.
"Great-grandmother!" Shampoo cried, scowling at the old woman.
"Child," she managed to squeeze through her guffaws, "that is what men do." Her laughter trailed off, and she sighed as she pulled herself back into her seat. "The good ones, anyway," she added.
"So Elders right," Shampoo grunted. "Fall in love with man is weakness."
Cologne frowned; leaning forward to peer into Shampoo's eyes with her narrow, wrinkled eyes. Shampoo shifted in her seat. The ancient Amazon leant back into her seat and sipped from her tea, peering into the cooling brew between sips as if reading the patterns formed by the rippling surface. "Let me tell you a story, Shampoo." She set the cup down and put her hands together, lacing her fingers.
"When I was a girl, not much older than you are now, a man came to our village. He was a fascinating man, strong and brash and cocky. Much like your Airen in some ways." The wistful smile dropped from her face, twisting into a scowl. "The total opposite in many others. That was the first man I ever loved, though at first I fought against it, hoping that if I refused he would not find a place in my heart, just as the Elders taught." Cologne shook her head and exhaled in a slow rush.
"He wormed his way in and I fell for him, hard. He left the village as an enemy, but I followed him, determined to make him mine. Together we travelled through China and Asia, and it was bliss."
The matriarch went silent, her litany paused with a tangible quiet and the old woman twisted her cup in her gnarled fingers, watching the golden fluid spin. "I should have known he would betray me; that was who he was. But I had blinded myself to his many faults, so in love was I. When the day came, I was devastated. I dared not go back to the village in my shame, and so wandered through China carrying the shards of my broken heart, wondering what I had done wrong."
"You no do anything wrong, great-grandmother. It stupid man's fault. You should have kill for betraying you."
Cologne gave a shrug of her bony shoulders. "Maybe, Shampoo, but maybe not. Sure, it was his fault; but as I was soon to learn, I was not guiltless."
"Well as I said, I was travelling through our homeland. There were many martial artists in those days; the nobility had split into many clans who used the Art to strengthen the family. Many mysterious artefacts were scattered throughout the country, and new styles were springing from the hands of the masters. It was impossible for any martial artist to travel without being challenged by some warrior looking to test themselves, and as I tasted defeat after defeat, I learned what I had done wrong."
"Defeat?" Shampoo gasped. The concept was something that she had never associated with her revered relative, a living legend of fighting prowess. It was like being told the sky was green or that the monkey sage was just a story.
"Yes, child, I once had to learn from my defeats in battle just as young Ranma is learning to. However, at the time I was convinced as you are now that everything I had learnt in the village about love and men was true. My time with my first love had made me weak, the comforts of the outside world, though much harder than the life of today, was still easy compared to the harsh life of training and working as I had done back home. My skills had faded and fighters who would have once been a trifle defeated me, and I was sure it was all that man's fault. So I began training harder than I had ever done before, challenging all who I encountered, determined to regain my strength and never let anyone take it from me again."
Shampoo found herself nodding as her great-grandmother spoke, her own feelings stirring like a modern echo of the Elder's tale. She recalled a long, hard battle with the okonomiyaki chef, fighting for the attentions of an amorous Ranma bewitched by a magical band-aid. They had exchanged blows from morning until the afternoon on a hot summer's day, fists and feet against spatulas large and small, neither of them winning until Shampoo had seized on her opponent's distraction and trapped Ukyo with a volley of thrown forks. Yet the young Amazon knew that she should have easily beaten the other woman; her strength, breeding and training were far superior, but her abilities had dulled. She had watched the many warriors of Nerima grow stronger, her beloved and his rival the pig-boy Ryoga had both progressed by great strides, while she grew weaker. Even Mousse's talents had ripened, and Shampoo felt black fear creep into her heart as she thought of the blind boy again challenging her for her hand. Her hands tightened against the table as she fought back a shudder.
"I was wrong back then, Shampoo. Maybe not completely, but still very wrong." Shampoo blinked and then her brow furrowed at the Cologne's words, but she said nothing and waited for the other woman to continue. "I didn't learn my error until I met a Korean warrior called Hwang Siu Kim." The old woman cackled. "Oh, that man. Handsome, even more so than son-in-law." Shampoo scowled. That could not be possible. "We fought many times, though he was not quite my match. He was smitten by me. I was quite the beauty back then, so I can't blame him." Shampoo rolled her eyes at the boast and Cologne chuckled, a sound like breaking leaves. "Events conspired to bring us together time and time again, but I refused to fall for his charms, determined not to let another man make me weak as before."
Again Cologne sighed, and smiled towards Shampoo. "Love is very much like the ocean tide. Eventually even the most stubborn rock gets worn away. So it was with my apathy towards him, and I fell in love for the second time. We spent many happy years together after that, and then I knew why it had all fallen apart the first time."
Cologne smirked enigmatically. "Is it not obvious, dear? It is the same reason Mousse has yet to capture your affections."
Shampoo grimaced; lips twisting as if she had eaten something foul. "Surely you not compare self to stupid duck-boy, great-grandmother?"
"I'm don't relish the idea myself either," Cologne said wryly. "However the comparison stands. When Mousse fell in love for you, he devoted himself to you and tried to become the kind of man he thought you would love." The old woman's eyes flicked at the door to the restaurant where the boy in question continued to work. "It has gone so far that no one, not even Mousse himself, even knows what sort of man he was or was capable of being. He tried too hard, as did I back then. Do you see what I'm trying to say, Shampoo?"
Shampoo remained silent turning her gaze away from the withered woman and studied the fine cracks and flakes that ran through the paint upon the window frame.
Cologne tutted and sighed. "You see, Shampoo, this weakness that men and love can bring is not their fault but our own. We allow ourselves to change, get caught up the whirlwind of first romance and we lose touch of ourselves. Feelings change us; that much is inevitable. Our surrounding alters us, and that too cannot be stopped. However, whether the change is for good or for ill is the question. I tried to become what I thought that man wanted most so that he would not betray me. In the end, I made it easier to do so by changing from the person who he had been attracted to. The second time, it was an affair of equals. I remained myself, as did he, and we loved each other dearly for it."
"So you say Shampoo try too hard to win Ranma love?"
Cologne smiled and shook her head. "I merely told a story that I thought may provide some insight. The heart of the matter is, what do you think, Shampoo?"
Shampoo frowned. She let her great-grandmother's wisdom form a filter for her thoughts. She poured her worries and fears through the revelation like light into a prism, sifting through the spectrum of ideas that emerged. Did she try too hard? Was on the same path as Mousse? She knew he did not trust her. Was her ardour just pushing Ranma away? Perhaps that was the problem. Did she care too much about Ranma's opinion of her? The questions swarmed and multiplied, overloading her thought.
"Shampoo no know what think," she admitted in a low grumble.
"There's nothing wrong with that, child. No doubt I have given you too much food for thought to ingest in one sitting." Taking up her cup, she sipped away the last drops of tea. "Though perhaps you should consider another thing. Although this separation from your airen is very painful, it may present an opportunity to assess the affects of your love for him, and the changes it might cause. A chance to determine who you are, who you want to be. And then maybe when you know this, consider what son-in-law may want." She paused for a moment before adding a dry, "Though I doubt he knows for himself."
Shampoo let those words sink in. Who was she? What did she want? An Amazon warrior, she hoped. That is all she had ever wanted to be, the best in her tribe, for her tribe, and the best she could be for herself. What did Ranma want? To be the best he could be? A smirk crossed her lips; that was why she loved him, and maybe that would be why he would love her? She thought of all the times she had clung to him, only to be pushed aside, and of the battles they had fought together, side by side.
She rose to her feet, reaching over to once more fill her great-grandmother's cup. The tea was cold now, but that did not matter, it would fit her designs. Holding the cup gently in both hands, careful not to spill a single drop she walked around the table, now standing before the small but powerful presence of the matriarch. The old woman said nothing, just sat in her chair with her tiny legs crossed watching the young Amazon like a hawk with her large grey eyes.
Lowering herself to her knees, the hard tiles of the kitchen floor biting at her bones, she raised the cup before the Cologne with both hands. She bowed her head low, unable to see the ancient warrioress through a veil of lavender hair.
"Honoured Elder, one who is in search of knowledge and strength humbly asks for your teachings."
Cologne smiled warmly, the gesture restoring some youth to her wrinkled face as it shone with affection. "Shampoo, my dear, you never needed to ask." With a light touch she took the offered cup, and brought it to her lips for a dainty sip.
Shampoo could not stop her self from grinning in reply. Ranma has proven himself worthy of my love many times since he defeated me. Perhaps it is time I made myself worthy to share his path and his heart?
Rain and dew clung to the bare and sodden branches, each fluid sphere shimmering slightly as the wind whistled through the boughs, before they finally succumbed and toppled in a glistening arc to the moist ground. Pearly droplets glistening on the fine strands of a spider's web, making the arachnid silk appears as hair-thin threads of liquid light as they played with the wan glow of the grey sky.
Ranma grimaced as he ducked beneath the web, the sight of its captured water making him glance anxiously at the dark clouds overhead. A prayer to hold on to his natural form floated silently on a puff of tensely exhaled air. He heard Ryoga snort from behind him as he slashed his umbrella through the air lazily, sending the spider's silk scattering with a tiny shower of released moisture.
"Get a move on, Ranma," his companion grunted, weaving around the trunk of a slanting ash tree to trudge ahead.
"Just giving you a chance to keep up, Ryoga. I got to keep an eye on you, or you'll be trekking through the desert and asking camels for directions."
Ryoga snorted, looking back of his shoulder with a scowl, his fangs bared. "At least I'd be away from you, jerk," he grumbled, and continued walking. Ranma followed swiftly, sliding around the tightly-knit trees as he moved closer to the lost boy.
"That way I wouldn't be forced to wade through this damned forest because someone managed to alienate us from the town by beating up a girl, so now we can't even take the pathway up the mountain," Ryoga continued, the volume of his voice ramping until he was roaring the last sentence.
"Like you could keep to the road," Ranma muttered under his breath before replying in a louder tone. "Just let it go, Ryoga. We have to find that girl." He scowled at the bare but dense winter forest, striking out with a blurred knife hand at a branch in his path, severed twigs falling to ground like severed fingers. "Are you sure she didn't give you any more details about where she lived?"
Ryoga half-sighed, half-growled. "For the two-hundredth time, NO!" Ranma was now close enough to see the other boy's hazel eyes roll beneath his mop of thick, black hair. "All she said was that she lived somewhere on the mountain. She and her family are some sort of scholars."
"Which is all well and good, but it doesn't make finding her any easier." Ranma bit back a few curses and scowled, tilting his head to glare at the mist-shrouded peak of Emei that towered above them.
"I don't know why you are so determined to find her. Don't you think you've done enough?" Ryoga said, frowning at him from the corner of his eyes. "I mean, you did beat her up. A girl, no less." The bandana-clad youth's jaw tightened, the sharp white tip of a fang just visible against his lips as his mouth worked.
Ranma could not blame Ryoga for his anger; he had his own swelling in his chest, and all of it for himself. Nevertheless, he shot some it upon his rival, growling out his rebuke.
"She started it, Ryoga, and you encouraged her."
"Feh," Ryoga spat dismissively. "You deserved it, Ranma, and it was you, not I, who launched her into the sky."
Ranma's hands tightened on the strap of his pack, trembling as he squeezed the material in his fist. Ryoga was right, he admitted silently, stomach twisting at the thought. The Hiryu Shoten Ha had been too much. His bile rose in his throat as he recalled the girl's panicked, frightened face as she was sucked into the whirlwind. He grimaced, his brow knitting as he cast his mind back to the fight. The girl had also known the technique, somehow, and was going to use it against him. What he had done, he had done in self-defence.
That was the crux of the dilemma. His father had told him that girls were weaker than boys, but he had also taught him to defend himself from attack and that the heart of the Anything-goes school lay in answering all challenges. He tried to avoid fighting women, but like everything else in life, sometimes the fights were unavoidable. He had always given them less than what he knew they could handle, emphasising his victory with boasts and posturing… Making it all seem so easy to him that they knew he had beaten them. Just as it had been with Shampoo, another battle that had come back to bite him in the butt.
He could not avoid the fight with the Amazon; he had eaten what should have been her prize and the only way to make it right was to earn the reward for himself. He had watched the girl fight her previous opponent, and knew she was a skilled warrior. A prolonged battle would only waste their time and force him to hurt her. So he had posed with insulting disregard, not even bothering to take a fighting stance. When Shampoo had charged, he saw the weak spot and attacked it with forced lethargy. Sweeping the Amazon's leg from under her and sending her flying from the log, deliberately following through with his leg until it rose above his head, displaying his flexibility to show how easy it had been. In reflection he found it easy to understand why Shampoo gave him the Kiss of Death, and wondered if things may have been different, his life easier and his heart less burdened by her eventual affections, if he had been less mocking.
Ryoga had continued in his lecture, his words touching on a similar subject as Ranma's own thoughts.
"You had to go and insult her, Ranma. No wonder she attacked you. Just like with Akane, you have to mouth off, and instead of taking your lumps like a man, you use a violent move like the Hiryu Shoten Ha…."
Again the lost boy was right. Ranma scowled, detesting Ryoga's new insights. Maybe it was just like with Akane. The scenario did seem achingly familiar. In his anger at Ryoga for leaving him in the middle of the forest, he had tried to embarrass him in front of the girl who hung rather close at his side. Knowing how easily the other youth lost all decorum around girls, he had thought it would be easy; but a offhand remark about the colour of the young woman's hair had inflamed her, just like a negligent comment about Akane's cooking or her martial arts would earn him a trip through the Tokyo sky. Then the girl had insulted him, and things had plummeted from there, until she had finally attacked, refusing to listen to his weak protests against the fight that arose as his pride gave way to his sense.
The difference was that this girl was good: better than Akane or Shampoo, better than any girl he had ever fought. He had tried dodging and blocking but her unusual style came at him from all sides, wearing away at his guard and penetrating his defences, forcing him to counterattack. Still he tried to limit himself, using only passive techniques; redirection, throws and weak low kicks. It was not enough; so he slowly increased his force, which only served to increase her assault, unleashing powerful ki attacks.
Then came the Rising Dragon Wind. Ranma sighed and again stared at the mountain ahead, the fogs that swarmed around its top blurring its outline making it appear like the washed scene of a watercolour painting. Was it right to use it? Willow had attempted it on him, but surely he could have thought of a better way to defend; a kick, a punch. He did not like the idea, but it was better than dragging her into the vortex to be spat out in to the distance and probably sent crashing through any number of branches before slamming into the ground. His stomach tried to tie itself in knots as the image of such a landing plagued his mind. Sure the blonde had known the technique, but was obviously unprepared to be caught in it herself. Could she take it?
Ranma sighed. Despite his pledge to become an honourable man, he had acted just like the jerk he had always been. His hand trailed across the silken fabric of his red shirt over his stomach, almost feeling his mother's disapproval at his actions. Ryoga said he should have taken his lumps like a man. Well, there was no way he was just going to stand there and let a girl he didn't know hit him. He'd had enough of that from living with Akane. But perhaps he should have simply taken her insults and let them wash over him. Instead, he'd launched his own barbs and started a fight, and why? Because the girl had insulted his beauty, had mocked the looks of a curse. His vanity left a bitter taste in his mouth.
"Ranma," Ryoga snapped, stopping ahead and glaring daggers at him yanking his thoughts away. "Where are your usual excuses? Say something for yourself." The other boy revealed a single fang as his lips curled into a smirk. "Or am I finally witnessing Ranma Saotome take responsibility and feel guilty for being a jerk?"
"Shut your face, Ryoga," Ranma barked, pushing his rival aside roughly as he continued ahead. "We have to find her." I may not have been able to stop myself screwing things up, but this time I will make up for it, he promised.
"Don't shove me, Ranma," Ryoga roared.
Ranma spun, twisting to avoid the lunge he knew was coming. As he dodged the fanged youth's attack, he felt goosebumps tingle upon his skin, and that was not coming from Ryoga.
"Shut up, idiot," he hissed, wrapping an arm around the larger boy's waist he spun, clipping Ryoga's legs with his heel and projecting them both into the bristling bushes that choked the roots of the nearby trees. He heard a feral growl and felt Ryoga's knuckles dig into his ribs, causing him to grunt. Ranma shifted his weight on top the lost one, pinning both of Ryoga's arms down across his chest and wrapping both legs around his hips, using his legs to hook the other fighter's shin and lift his feet from the ground, preventing him from gaining any leverage. He could already feel Ryoga start to squirm free, trying to slide his hips from beneath Ranma's weight. Using his elbows to press into the lost boy's sternum, he heard his rival's muted cry as the sharp bones poked sharply downwards. Hoping he could suppress the Hibiki's monstrous strength for a little longer, he lifted his head to look into the other boys furious eyes, trying to speak urgently without words. Ryoga writhed like a caged beast, spittle frothing from his fangs as he snarled. Risking his defence, Ranma lifted a finger to his lips.
"Trust me," he whispered.
Ryoga's mouth opened for a rebuke, but remained silent as the sound of voices floated to them on the breeze. Mossy green-brown eyes met the blue-grey of the morning sky, and the bandana-clad youth stopped his struggling. He inhaled long and deep through his nose, filling his lungs as his teeth clenched, and with a visible effort he nodded shortly.
With a sigh Ranma rolled to the side, suppressing a wince as thorns tore at his exposed skin. Sitting on the wet ground, he listened and watched through barbed brambles and stalks of grass.
A thrashing sound grew louder, reaching an apex as two men came crashing at a run through the brush, emerging into a clearing that had been several paces ahead on Ranma and Ryoga's previous pass. Three other men joined them from the opposite direction, melting out of the shadows of the tightly-knit trees. They were all dressed in loose blue habits. The folds were held back by sashes of braided leather, wrapped around their waist so that the robes hung like an azure tail down the back of their legs. They wore baggy trousers of a course brown fabric, tied around at the ankles above the thick black wrappings that covered their feet, stained with the dirt of their travel.
The only other common factor between the five was their movements, their posture and steps holding the fluid grace of trained warriors.
The newcomers glanced around the clearing, and then the five men began chattering in Chinese, punctuating their words with wild hand gestures at each other and at the surrounding forest.
"What are they on about?" Ranma asked Ryoga softly.
"They're some sort of guards, and they've been looking for us," Ryoga grumbled. "Or at least they've been looking for an 'interloper' said to be travelling with a 'foul and offensive redheaded girl'." He shot a pointed glare at Ranma. "This is all your fault."
Ranma sighed, "Think of a new line and shut up, moron," he grunted.
A cry rose from the men, one of the men, a short, wiry figure with a straggled plait of dark hair scrambled into the trees waving his arms at the object that lay slumped in the grass. Ryoga's pack, its pockets bulging, remained where he had discarded it before attacking the Saotome heir. Ranma winced as he saw his own bag protruding from the tangled growth of long grass, thistles and tree roots where it had landed when he had flung it aside to dive into the bushes with the lost boy.
"They'll wait by the bag in case we come back," he guessed. "We'll have to take them on." Despite the reluctance in his tone, Ranma could not fight the smirk that slipped on to his face.
The other men joined the small one, who had pulled the bag upright, moist blades of grass falling from it as it moved. His rat-like face screwed into a frown and he wrapped his hand the handle of the ribbed, red umbrella that was strapped to the pack's top. With a few yanks the weapon came free, and both it and the man dropped sharply to the floor with a wet thump. Grumbling what seemed to be curses, he began pulling at the umbrella. The sleeves of his robes rode up to reveal the bunching muscles of his forearms as he tried to lift the formidable weight, his torso jerking as he brought more of his body behind the effort. The umbrella lifted a few inches before plummeting to the ground again, deepening the impression of crushed grass and squashed mud it had made.
He yelled at his companions, still scowling at the umbrella as he stepped away.
The largest man chuckled and strode over to the items, the swelling of his broad chest noticeable even through his the folds of his habit. He scratched at his tight curls of dark hair, before stopping to grasp the umbrella's handle. After an unsuccessful attempt to lift it using single hand, he seized it in two fists and yanked it up with a strong heave. He staggered back a few steps as the weight shifted in his grasp. Widening his stance and bending his knees, the broad fighter hefted the weapon experimentally, waving it in small circles with first two hands then just one, the motion of the single hand jerky and strained. After a while, he examined the umbrella's broad, blunt tip and then after a stiff nod he began to swipe and slash at the air, his knees bending and shifting and feet digging into the dirt as he treated the umbrella like the club he had guessed it to be. Twisting over his shoulder, he chuckled something to his friends, who shrugged.
Ranma heard a low growl and then a snap. Ryoga's fangs were bared, and the mangled remains of several sticks fell from his shaking fists. He pounded his fist into the ground hard enough for Ranma to feel the tremor, and used it to surge upwards. The lost boy tore through the sticks and thorns of the bush, seizing the debris in his way and tearing it aside and he stood up strode forwards, the sounds of tearing fabric just audible above the noise of the ripped and crushed vegetation.
With as much as a shrug as he could manage in his prone position, Ranma crawled quietly from beneath the concealing shrubs and following behind, patting and brushing at the leaves and smudges on his shirt and pants.
Ryoga stalked towards the men who watched his approach with narrowed eyes, their feet shifting on the grass as their bodies tensed and their hands rose with palms outwards into a wary guard. The lost boy took no notice, marching towards the larger man with a dark scowl. His heels thumped against the ground with every step and his shoulders heaved as his rolled his fingers into fists, knuckles cracking. The guard watched him approach, holding the umbrella out before him with both hands like a sword.
The gesture made the bandana-clad youth's eyes narrow and as soon as he was close enough he tore the weapon from the man's huge hands with a fierce yank, snarling something in fluent Chinese. Ryoga's opponent replied with a cocky sneer, which dropped into a grimace at the lost one's short comeback, the muscles in his angular jaw swelling.
The man's great shoulders quivered as he glared as if to reduce the Japanese boy to dust with his eyes, he bit out a few short words through grit teeth. Ranma saw the other youth shrug and step back with a smirk, propping the umbrella on his right shoulder as he lifted his left hand and crooked his four fingers in a beckoning gesture.
Ranma shrugged and buried his hands in his pockets as the large man threw himself forwards with a roar. Ryoga can handle it, he thought as the lost boy stepped to the outside, swinging the umbrella in a small circle to bat aside the palm strike that shot at his face. Twisting his arm at the elbow he clubbed the attacker across the back, the tip of the weapon whipping into the kidney. The man growled in pain and stumbled forwards, one arm bent behind him to clutch at his spine while the other nursed the bruised organ. Besides, it's not often I get to watch as a third person, Ranma thought wryly, eyes trained on his rival's every move and mind comparing each action to their previous bouts.
A second fighter gave a shout and charged from behind. Ryoga's eyes darted, glancing from the corner of his eyes as he spun the umbrella in his hand, reversing his grip on the handle. With a step backwards Ryoga intercepted his new attacker with his back still turned. He swung his arm back, elbow turning to thrust the umbrella back beneath his armpit and into the man's sternum, knocking him off his feet with a hard gasp of expelled air.
The first attacker had recovered and came at Ryoga again, lunging low with arms like pincers for the tackle. Ranma's eyebrows flew upwards as he watched the lost one throw his umbrella forwards with a flick of his wrist, sending the bamboo weapon spinning through the air so as the blunted point arced upward it caught the large fighter square on the chin like an uppercut fist. The man reeled and Ranma's jaw dropped as he watched Ryoga shoot forward, and slam the butt of the still falling umbrella precisely so that it would fly forward into his opponent's nose. The blow whipped the man's face around, and Ryoga grabbed the umbrella as it recoiled from the strike at with a flourish, brought it round in an arc to slam into the top of his foe's battered head. The man crumpled to the floor, out before he hit the dirt.
The small man with the ragged braid came in from the left, sweeping the folds of his robes back as he swung his foot around in a vicious arc at Ryoga's head. The youth dropped into a crouch, folding on leg across the ground in front of him as he sat on his haunches and bowed his head, slashing into the shin of the rat-like man's supporting leg and ploughing the limb from beneath him. He hit the floor hard enough to make his head bounce, even in the soft mud. His weak cry became a loud squawk of pain as Ryoga stepping on his back, planting his heel in between the shoulder blade and pressing him further into the dirt as the lost boy made a fencer's lunge, poking the returning second attacker in his already abused chest and stopping his rush.
The small man squealed again as Ryoga pushed off from his back to hop forwards and thrust his foot into the second man's gut. The kick folded the assailant around his leg. The man bent double with a straggled groan as the fanged youth retracted his foot, and brought the pommel of his umbrella down like a hammer upon the exposed base of his opponent's skull. The man slumped forwards into unconsciousness, but Ryoga seized the collar of his robes in his spare fist and flung him into the path of a fourth attacker.
At this moment the fifth guard, a tall rangy figure with a pointed beard and unruly brown hair, took notice of Ranma's presence and leapt forward with his right hand outstretched, seizing a fistful of Ranma's shirt at his left shoulder. With a tired sigh the pigtailed boy slipped to the inside just as the man's fingers curled around the silken fabric. Pulling his hands from his pocket he reached under the man's grip with his right, seizing the offending arm at the crease of the elbow and pressing firmly on a nerve cluster with his fingers. His opponent yelped and tried to pull away, but Ranma's left hand had seized the fist that gripped his shirt. Pulling sharply with his right hand, Ranma forced the man's arm to bend while pushing the limb captured in his left in an arc over and towards the man's back. The attacker cried out as his arm was twisted the wrong way. His elbow was now in front of his face and his hand behind him and being pushed towards the small of his back. Ranma's stepped in close and propped the back of the man's arching shoulder against the top of his own, earning a loud yell by his ear as his foe protested the twisting of his joints, the shoulder being held on the verge of popping from its place.
Ranma turned back to the fight, the bearded man hissed at the movement, so he pulled down gently on the wrist in his hands, applying more pressure to the locked joint and ceasing the man's struggles immediately.
Ryoga was now defending against the fourth attacker, who had dumped his unconscious comrade to the side and resumed his assault. He was more skilled than his fellows, managing to avoid the umbrella swipe at his head and the downward slash that followed. As Ryoga jabbed with the bamboo club and then spun full circle to lash out with his heel, Ranma noticed the skinny guard gather himself from the ground.
He released the bearded man from the lock by straightening the captured arm without breaking it. As expected, the man jerked backwards in a desperate attempt to escape, but Ranma stepped into him as he pulled and spun around. Drawn into the sudden twist by his still-held hand, the guard was tossed over the leg that Ranma had left outstretched and was dropped hard into the mud by a jerk of the braided youth's shoulder. As soon as he had the opponent on the ground, Ranma punched him swift and light between the eyes, knocking him out, before turning to see if Ryoga had noticed the small man's recovery.
He apparently had, because as the rat-like warrior picked himself up and began walking slowly and warily towards the lost boy's back, he was sent crashing down again as Ryoga flung the umbrella absently over his shoulder; the brolly-turned-javelin struck the wiry figure in the centre of his forehead and floored him.
Free of the umbrella's weight, Ryoga sped up his hand-to-hand, swinging his fist in two mighty roundhouses that the fourth man just barely dodged, and followed with a powerful kick that his opponent blocked on crossed forearms, but was still bowled from his feet by the blow's force. Ryoga leapt high into the air and descended with a punch. The guard just managed to roll aside as the lost boy's fist cratered into the earth where his chest had been, springing back up and slamming two palm strikes into Ryoga's face.
The boy blinked at the impacts and then bore his fangs in a wide grin. The man's mouth fell open and his eyes widened, barely managing to stop gawping as Ryoga launched a fist at his head. Ranma frowned, his brow knitting together as he watched the man weave around his rival's attack with a familiar swinging, circling step that set his hairs on end.
The guard twisted into a kick, whipping his leg into Ryoga's chest. The lost boy barely grunted, but a wince twisted the man's face, and as he brought his foot back he limped slightly, grimacing as his weight shifted to the tender limb. In his attacker's moment of weakness, Ryoga swung a wild backhand. His fist crashed into the fighter's jaw like a mace and sent him flying against a tree trunk, where he slumped to the ground.
Ryoga twisted his neck, glaring across the clearing for another opponent, as his green eyes locked on to Ranma his lips twisted. "Don't butt into my fights, Ranma," he growled, eyebrow quirking at the man laid motionless at the pigtailed boy's feet. "I don't need your help!"
"He came for me." Ranma shrugged, walking across the clearing to where Ryoga had bent to recover his umbrella from beside the smaller fighter's form. "Went a bit overboard, don't you think?" he asked, sweeping his gaze across the clearing and frowning at the large man's bloodied face and the tree now standing crooked with a patch of bark stripped by the fourth man's impact.
"You're not the only one who can drag a fight out for fun," Ryoga said in a low tone. "Besides, I like this umbrella."
Ranma regarded the weapon of waxed red fabric and bamboo ribs as the lost boy hefted it over his shoulder, "You've never said where you got the damn thing anyway." He was sure that such umbrellas could not be found at festival stalls.
Ryoga turned to face him, eyes seeming to gaze through him. Then those hazel irises became shimmering and distant and he ducked his head, staring at the ground. "Hong Kong," he grunted after a while.
"I should have known," a new voice said through the rich chuckles that rang through the clearing. "Only you could cause so much trouble, Ranma."
The two martial artists whirled towards the source of the words, Ryoga brandishing his umbrella defensively, while Ranma's body tensed his hands rolling into fist as he watched the newcomer approach through narrowed eyes.
Sunlight glinted of the round lenses of the man's glasses as he pushed them further up the bridge of his nose with his fingers, and his face was lit by a gentle smile that Ranma had not seen in what suddenly seemed to be centuries.
Ling Ling sighed as her sister crawled along the rocks frowning at the ground. "Are you sure it came this way, Lung Lung?"
"It's a mountain lion, isn't it?" the green-haired girl snapped in retort. "And the tracks lead this way."
"So now you're looking for even more footprints in stone?"
Lung Lung jerked and snarled back, "Just carry on looking and let me worry about that!"
"Fine, fine. Sorry to interrupt," Ling Ling said, holding her hands up in a calming gesture. She returned her gaze to the surroundings, walking restlessly along the cragged bluff that she and her sister were poised on. On the horizon beneath the wash of clouds, she could see the wooden roofs of her village appearing like tiny pictures between the trees. She swung her gaze over the beaten dirty trail that had led them up here, weaving its sinuous way amongst the forest trees and past the Amazon paddy fields, the rice stalks poking through a pool of diamonds as the wind rippled the field's fluid surface. To the north she could see the veil of mist that roiled continuously around the site of Jusenkyo, shrouding the cursed pools from innocent and curious eyes.
Humming a random tune, Ling Ling gave up. She could not see the lion, and since it probably knew they were hunting it, she knew it would not be tempted to show itself. She hefted her trident in both hands and brought it to rest across her shoulders, pacing across the pale rocks and scuffing at the fine dust with her shoes.
"Stop making such a racket," Lung Lung growled. "I can't concentrate." She resumed running her hands along the stone, sniffing at the air. Ling Ling muttered under her breath and moved to sit by a stack of boulders that lay in a heap by the rock face.
Her weight continued to sink as with a loud crack the rocks gave way beneath her, seeming to crumble through the mountain and send her tumbling into darkness, before the lights flashed for an instant before her eyes.
"Ling Ling? Are you okay?"
She opened her eyes at the sound of her sister's panicked voice and winced, as the streams of light that flooded from the hole above her seemed painfully bright compared to the blackness that surrounded her. Ling Ling pulled herself upright, groaning as her muscles protested the act. She glanced back at the hole that she had dropped through, where the shock of jade hair marked her sister's curious and concerned face, and thanked her Amazonian toughness. Spitting out the dust that had caked her lips she wiped at the sticky fluid she felt trickle down her chin, holding her hand up to the light to see the crimson smear that confirmed it as blood.
"Ling Ling? Sister?" Lung Lung called, her voice starting to waver.
"I'm okay," Ling Ling called back, pushing a shattered chuck of stone away to gather herself to her feet, her knees shaking as pain blossomed in her ankles. She coughed and waved her arms at the dust that swarmed in the beam of light that shot in from the hole above. Moving to edge she squinted into the gloom as shapes began to coalesce in the meagre glow.
She was in some sort of chamber. The smoothness of the wall beneath her fingers told her this was no natural formation, and driven by curiosity that swelled in her stomach, she stepped forwards cautiously, trying to make sense as the room's features were slowly revealed. There was a rustling and a crunch beneath her slippers as she moved, glancing at the floor she saw that it was littered with the fragments of paper scattered in disorder amidst the dust. She glanced at where the chamber was illuminated by the light from above, and saw broken and charred pieces of wood from what had once been shelves jumbled along the walls.
Her next step was halted as her pelvis bumped into something in the darkness. She reached out and lay her hands on what seemed to be a table of cold stone. It was circular, she discovered as she felt the curve of its edge. Her intrepid fingers also found more papers strewn across the slab. She grabbed a handful and stepped back to regard her findings in the light.
Beneath some smudged writing was a skilled but simple drawing of inked lines. It depicted a figure crouching upon crossed and folded legs, body coiled but head held high and hands raised, one held flat across his chest while the other was poised aloft, two fingers outstretched and forked. Ling Ling's brow bunched with recognition. It was the Snake Flicks Its Tongue posture from the Amazonian Divine Battle Fist, an old and powerful style that the matriarch had taught her family alone.
Her frown dissolved as she flipped through the other papers she had gathered. All had similar drawings and all were of combat postures and techniques, from hand to hand, to weapons, and even ki manipulation. The writing around the images was old and faded, yet she just recognise the criticisms, and complaints against, that were listed against the depicted movements speed, strength and vulnerability. Some drawings even had thick crosses painted through them. Some of the techniques she recognised as Amazon, others she had never seen the like of before.
"Ling Ling," her twin called. "Ling Ling!"
"What?" she snapped, looking up from the mysterious pages.
"What's that on the wall?" the girl replied, sticking an arm in through the hole to point the wall across the room from where Ling Ling stood at the very edge of the glow that streamed from outside.
Ling Ling rolled the pages in her hand and squinted at the spot indicted by Lung Lung's outstretched finger. Through the sandy dust and cobwebs that coated the chamber's walls she should see glimmers of colour against the smooth, pale stone. Moving across, she placed her hand against the cold rock and brushed away the grime, the dust coming off thick against her hand and falling to the floor. Her eyes widened as hidden images came into the light for the first time in centuries.
A woman with bright scarlet hair was rendered in flaking paint, twisting her body into a kick, while beside her another woman with tresses the colour of the sea threw a fist into the sky, a hurricane blossoming at her side. Both women wore Amazonian garb, as did the woman depicted above them, who crouched with low hands held before her like claws. However the figure next to her in the same pose was definitely not an Amazon; his skin was covered in mottled black spots and stripes, the details of his teeth showed pointed fangs, and his eyes shone in silver gild. Elsewhere on the mural another animal man, this time with cat-like ears and a long bushy tail, launched himself into a flipping kick that was blocked with a smile on the talon-like fists of a woman who hung in the hair, suspended by the outstretched span of her brilliant white wings.
Ling Ling's mouth worked but her voice seemed to catch and cling in her throat. Swallowing she forced the sound out from her mouth, forcing it into trembling words.
"Lung Lung, I think you should bring an Elder."
White foam sprayed around the rocks that sat in the stream's path. The fast flowing water was kicked into frenzy as it wove through the boulders, each wave crashing into another and churning around the wet stones. Ahead the water calmed, widening into a shallow pool were the ripples weakened and died. The water became like glass, a mirror that reflected the bare image of the leafless trees and the dark ferns in perfect clarity. Black clouds swarmed in the pool's surface as they did in the grey of the winter sky.
Ranma frowned at the babbling stream, rubbing the sore swelling on the back of his head where Ryoga had struck him in return for launching them in to the bushes. Keeping his distance from the cold water's flow, he watched the Doctor shrug the small pack from his shoulders.
The man looked much as he had over a year ago when his clinic had closed and he vanished without a word. The circular glasses still framed his dark eyes, eyes which glinted with intelligence as he swung his gaze over their surroundings. His dark brown hair had grown longer, and though he still wore it as he always had, the thick brown fringe parting around his face now hung to his chin and a neat tail now lay between his shoulder blades. The smile was the most familiar, the small but warm curve to his lips that convinced everyone that he was the perfect man for the equally gentle Kasumi Tendo.
"Are you sure it's okay to leave those guys back there?" Ranma asked, ignoring Ryoga's pointed snort as he too slung the bag from his shoulders, yet kept the umbrella protectively his fist.
"They'll be fine," Tofu replied in a light tone, waving Ranma's concerns away with a sweep of his hand. "The Order trains their warriors harder than that."
"Order?" the lost boy asked, before Ranma could give voice to his own similar thoughts.
"The Heavenly Order of the Tao," Tofu answered, settling himself on the flat surface of a nearby rock. "They're the ones who you've managed to upset, and the one's who sent me those guys and me after you."
"You?" Ryoga gasped.
"Yes. I'm the only Japanese student," The doctor said with a smile and a shrug. "Master Locke felt that the Japanese troublemakers that appeared in their lands might be more willing to explain themselves to a countryman." He pulled his backpack over and dug around, extracting two bottles of soda and tossing them to the pair.
Ranma snagged one out of the air with a blur but did not open it. Ignoring Ryoga's grumbling about not being a troublemaker, he sat opposite the older man upon the hollowed-out corpse of a petrified log.
"This has something to do with that blonde chick I fought the other day, doesn't it?" he inquired, tapping absently on the lid of his soda, remembering where he had seen the guards' fighting style before.
Tofu chuckled. "Indeed, Ranma. That 'blonde chick' is one of their most senior masters."
Feeling his brow furrow as he scowled, Ranma flicked a glance at Ryoga, whose eyes had widened and whose eyebrows had disappeared beneath his bandana. "She never told me that," he heard the other boy murmur.
Ranma sighed. "Sit down, Ryoga. This will probably be a long story."
Ryoga turned back and forth, eyes scanning across the ground for some place to sit. Seeing nothing but wet dirt and pebbles, he growled and dragged his heels to share the log with Ranma, elbowing the pigtailed youth sharply and ordered him to move up. Ranma rolled his eyes but did as asked.
"So who are these people and what have they got against me?"
"You means besides the obvious fact you're a jerk," Ryoga grunted dryly.
Suppressing the urge to elbow the fanged boy's smart mouth, Ranma kept his eyes locked on Tofu's awaiting an answer. The doctor kept on smiling.
"In good time, Ranma. First, could you tell me what you know about Taoism?"
Ranma blinked, "It's some kind of religion, isn't it?" What the hell does that have to do with anything? "Like Buddhism."
Tofu shook his head. "No, Ranma, although Taoists do emphasise meditation and inner peace like Buddhists, the Taoist line of belief is quite different.
"The Taoist believe in nature in its highest," he explained. "That the universe is governed by a force that set everything into flawless, natural order. They call this order the Tao. It is the essence of perfection and envelops everything into a cycle, where everything starts as one unified whole, and then splits through elements and to manifest the world and all its variety."
Ranma snorted. "Anyone who believes in natural order has never been to Nerima."
The Doctor laughed. "No, I supposed not. However, you have just touched one of the great paradoxes of Taoism and of life. If the universe is governed by order, why is the world so chaotic? The fact is that chaos is just a facet of order."
"That makes no sense," Ryoga said. "Chaos and Order are opposite things."
"Yes, they are," Tofu agreed. Bending down, he stretched out a finger and began to scratch at the dirt, drawing a circle that he divided by a sinuous line down the middle and then poked two dots into the pattern. "Consider the yin and yang, the balance of opposites into a greater whole. Chaos and order are simply opposing but complimentary parts of the higher force of the Tao. Such opposites are evident in all aspects of life — such as men and women; opposite in many ways, but both genders need each other, which is why love exists." A faint blush coloured the doctor's cheeks, which made Ranma's lips curl to a small smile.
"You mean like positive and negative charges, which is how electricity and stuff works?" he asked.
Tofu blinked rapidly, "Uh, yes… that's another good example."
"How would know about that stuff, Ranma?" Ryoga muttered loftily, glancing at him from the corner of his eyes.
"Someone gave me a book," he replied in a curt voice, thinking about Cologne's gift that was stuffed in to the back of his pack.
"And you read it?" the lost boy's hand slapped over his mouth as he gave an exaggerated gasp. Ranma's hand trembled as he fought the urge to belt the other youth into the skyline.
"As you've pointed out, western science is slowly beginning to understand what has been part of Chinese wisdom for thousands of years," Tofu continued, interjecting between the teenagers' argument. "My teacher has told me of something called Chaos Theory, which shows that even in seemingly sensible occurrences, there is an element of disorder that shows that similar events do not have similar outcomes. Like how a drop of water that falls onto the same spot on your hand, will roll in a different direction as another one."
Both boys nodded; they had seen Jurassic park too.
"Even in this chaos lurks a sense of order so that it can be explained by western mathematics. However, physicists have only grasped half of the truth when they realised the relation of disorder and energy. They realised that when energy flows through objects as heat, they grow more anarchic, more muddled. They call this disorder 'entropy'."
"What does this have to do with Willow and the people that Ranma managed to piss off?" Ryoga growled, fiddling with a small stone as his feet tapped against the ground.
"Just a moment, Ryoga. I'm explaining as fast as I can," Tofu said, his smile never slipping. "The Second Law says that the entropy of this world can only ever increase without external energies, thus the natural order of things is to grow more chaotic. To restore order, one must put in work and energy. Think of it like a bedroom; unless you take the time and effort to clean it, it will steadily grow messier and messier."
Tofu paused glancing at his audience, Ryoga still scowled impatiently but Ranma had leant forward as he listened and nodded to show his understanding. The doctor smiled as he adjusted his glances and continued.
"However, as I said, scientists as yet have only put together half of the puzzle. It is true that in nature the universe grows more muddled, but as the yin and yang show, chaos is just one half of the Tao. Just as the flow of heat both causes and is produced by the increasing disorder, there is another energy that ripples through the cosmos to restore order."
"Ki," Ranma gasped, eyes widening as realisation came on him like the light that creeps of the horizon from a rising sun.
Tofu's grin grew and he nodded. "Ki is the life force that nourishes the order of the Tao. All things in the world, time and space, are cyclic. Order falls to chaos and warmth flows like exhaust, but then ki returns order to all things."
Ryoga's fangs chewed at his lips. "Willow said something similar, that her style of martial arts concentrated on the harmonisation and development of ki. She called it 'internal martial arts rather than external muscle power'."
"Yes," Tofu confirmed. "The Divine Order of the Tao are an ancient society who have lived on the mountain for millennia. In keeping with our physics analogy, I suppose they could be thought of as research scientists of ki."
"Ki scientists?" Ranma repeated, lifting an eyebrow.
"In a way," the older man said with a shrug. "Though they meditate rather than use experiments, they have the same aim, to understand the ways of nature and gain a deeper understanding of the Tao. Through their meditations and through exercise, they try to synchronise their bodies' ki cycles with that of the world around them, and through that bond learn how the energy manifests itself through the eight phases of nature."
"What phases?" Ranma broke in.
Tofu glanced up, eyes wide behind the lenses of his glasses. "Did I not mention that?" Seeing the other boy shake his head, his rubbed at the base of his skull sheepishly. "Sorry.
"Many centuries ago, a wise sage named Bao Xi meditated on the Tao and had a revelation. He determined that the energy of the Tao came through many changes and divisions as it permeated through the universe." He leaned over to the mud again and beside his rendering of the yin-yang, he drew a long horizontal line. "First from nothing comes something small, which blossoms into Tai Chi, the grand ultimate and the inspiration for another internal martial art." He gestured at his line. "From the Tai Chi come the two poles, yin and yang, representing the unity of opposites." Beneath the line he drew two smaller ones, one whole and the other broken. "From the poles come four elements, Si Xiang." He scratched four symbols of unbroken and broken lines in the dirt and then eight small icons beneath. "The four elements split into eight trigrams, or Bagua, which represent the eight phases of nature."
Ryoga continued to frown at the diagram while Ranma met the doctor's eyes, eyes narrowed with thought.
"Bao Xi wrote his theories into a book known as the Yi Ching, the book of changes. The Bagua are the most important; the trigrams represent the cycle of ki in nature. Ki begins in the heavens. There, it is pure energy with no shape, only intent. However, it condenses like rain and falls to the earth." He inscribed a downward arc in the air with his finger. "As it does so, the intent becomes form and order. However, the form is lost to chaos and heat, rising like warm air back to the heaven." The finger curved back to the origin and completed the circuit.
"This is known as the greater cycle. As the ki energy transverses the cycle, it shifts through many forms and manifests itself as different types of energy." The Doctor began pointing at different parts of the invisible circle. "Thunder, Fire, Water, Mountain, Lake, and Wind, combined with the Heavens and Earth, are the eight phases."
"You said something about our bodies having a ki cycle?" Ryoga reminded.
"The lesser cycle," Tofu supplied with a nod. "The body is constantly keeping its cells and organs in a state of order. This requires — like the universe requires — ki energy. This ki flows from the head, where it is formless intention in the mind, downward, and is stored in the Dan Tien, or as you more likely know it, the hara." The doctor opened the black fabric of his gi to tap to fingers at his abdomen, indicating a point about a thumb's length from his navel. "Nearly all methods of focussing and using this inner energy mention this spot in some form or another."
"That's were I feel it," Ryoga said, his voice a touch breathless. "When I draw my heavy ki in for the Shi Shi Hokodan, I feel a swelling. It's like a large weight is inflating inside my stomach, then I push it through my hands."
Ranma nodded, familiar with the experience from his use of the Moko Takabisha, yet instead of a weight he felt a light and restless surging, like a fire fighting to get loose.
Doctor Tofu's smile had dropped into a small frown. "You know the Shi Shi Hokodan?" He didn't even wait for the lost boy's reply as he leant forwards and narrowed his eyes the young Hibiki. "Yes, I can see it now, the thickness of your aura. Be careful, Ryoga, to use that technique too much is not very…" His brow furrowed. "…healthy," he finished after a moment.
"Uh, Doc," Ranma said. "The Order?"
Tofu shook his head and his grin was back on his face in a flash. "Yes, anyway." He paused and cleared his throat. "The lesser cycle of the human body is much like the greater cycle in the natural world. It divides into the eight phases as it moves through the eight organs: kidneys, liver, stomach, heart, lungs, spine, spleen and brain. The ki also travels through eight channels around the body and into the eight extremities, hands, feet, legs, chest, back, hips, abdomen and head. This is the basis of shiatsu and other acupressure medicines, and much herblore, depending on where the ki is at what times. No doubt this is also how Elder Cologne and Master Happosai continue to live after so many years. Death is essentially the body losing itself to chaos.
"The Order of the Tao, by attuning their bodies' cycle with the cycle of nature, try to learn from the Tao's perfection and emulate it within themselves. By learning about the ki flow in the world and in themselves, they can apply that knowledge in medicine and in other fields. Such as by understanding the flow of the energies of the winds and waters, they can predict the weather and the motions of the tides. Such talents they share freely with the people, which makes them deeply revered by the folk of this mountain."
That explained the shock and fury on the faces of the townspeople after his fight with Willow. They had looked ready to mob the two Japanese youths and lynch them from the rafters of the café.
"So why the martial arts, if they are scientists?" Ranma queried.
"The Emei martial arts started as exercises to harmonise one's own life force with the greater cycle, using relaxed breathing methods and circular body motions. Eventually they blossomed in to the internal fighting styles of Emei, including the most powerful techniques of Bagua Zhang, the full secrets of which are taught only to the senior masters."
"Like that blonde girl?" Ranma said, glancing at the doctor for confirmation.
"Girl?" Ryoga spat. "Damn it, Ranma, she has a name, you jerk."
"Calm down, Ryoga, I'm not insulting your girlfriend."
As expected that comment quietened the lost one as his face flushed scarlet. He muttered quiet and muddled denials as he suddenly became interested in the little circles his index fingers made around each other. Ranma gestured for the doctor to continue his explanation.
"Indeed, she probably does have a name," Tofu muttered in a wondering tone, eyes rolling upwards as he thought. "However, the name she took as her own when she ascended to the council was Willow, master of winds. The Order has many members, scholars and researchers and fighters, who help gather and archive their wealth of knowledge. Most are orphans taken in by the order; however some have come seeking wisdom.
"They are led by a council of eight masters, the ones who have displayed the greatest affinity to the phases. Each of the eight were chosen for by the previous master as soon as their talents were recognised, and are taught the greatest secrets of the Order, including the most powerful martial arts and the secrets of manipulating the body's ki energy to emulate the forces of nature."
"That explains how she knew the Hiryu Shoten Ha," Ranma grumbled, feeling the last piece fall into place with a snap.
"The hurricane attack you used to defeat Happosai for the Moxibustion cure?" Tofu pushed his glassed further along his nose and he gave a thoughtful hmm. "I can see how that would work. If they learnt how ki energy forms tornados, they would be able to modify that knowledge to combat. That is the power of Emei's Arts, what makes the masters so dangerous, and what makes them interested in you, Ranma. That you defeated on of them has caused quite a stir on this mountain. Master Locke said it has been over a hundred years since any of them has lost a fight."
"You've mentioned this Locke before, doc," Ranma said slowly. "Who is he, and you still haven't said why you are here in China."
"Ranma!" Ryoga cried aghast.
"It a fair question, Ranma. I suppose I should explain my absence from Nerima." Tofu said, scratching at the back of his head with a small chuckle. "Locke is the Master of the Lakes, the oldest of the Eight Masters, and the keeper of the Order's archives. A most wise and knowledgeable man, he is also my teacher. You see, I came to Emei Mountain for the Order's knowledge of ki control. I wanted to gain more discipline over my inner energies to help me with a certain condition." Red coloured the man's cheeks and the lenses of his glasses had become misty. At once Ranma understood.
"I see," he said simply, willing to leave it at that; but Ryoga had to open his fanged mouth.
"What? What's wrong with you, Doctor Tofu? Is it serious?" the lost boys tone grew high and strangled.
This time the Ranma did strike out, bashed the other youth's skull with his fist. "Shut up, idiot."
"It's okay," the older man said with a widening grin, but his blush grew, spreading like scarlet fire over his face. "Master Locke called it 'love fever'. You see, I feel quite strongly for this girl and when I was around her, I would act a little… odd."
"He made you and your nosebleeds look suave, Ryoga," Ranma expanded with a sorry shake of his head, pigtail swaying. "He would just go nuts, poor guy, dancing with that skeleton." He noticed Tofu lowering his head with a frown. "Sorry, doc."
"Who was the girl?" Ryoga asked, suspicion larding his tone. "Was it Akane?"
"Why the hell would it be that tomboy?" Ranma yelled instinctively, prompting Ryoga's snarl.
"Don't call her that," the lost one growled. "Isn't that who it usually is anyway?" he said more quietly. "You know, all those princes kidnapping and falling for Akane?"
Ranma considered this, and nodded with a sigh. "Yes, I suppose it is. However, that isn't who the Doc's interested in." He regarded the older man with a careful sidelong glance. "I can't say who it is, but it isn't Akane."
Doctor Tofu waved off Ranma's concerns with his hands. "Don't worry, Ranma, I can say her name. It's K… K…" he paused, and began inhaling deeply through his nose and releasing the air from his mouth, hands clenching and unclenching against his knees. Ranma thought he could feel a trickle of power from the man, and his glasses were now completely fogged. "K… Kasumi."
"Kasumi Tendo?" Ryoga asked with a blink. "Akane's sister?"
Tofu nodded, hands trembling.
"Anyway," Ranma cried, distracting the doctor from his romantic ideas of the gentle sister. "You never said why these guys sent you here."
"Oh, right," Tofu said as if snapping out of a trance. "Master Locke wanted me to talk to you, and establish who you are and whether or not you are some sort of threat." His face was near split by his grin. "But I can see that you're not, so I can tell them it was all a misunderstanding and we can avoid more trouble."
"With this jerk, I doubt it," Ryoga murmured, jerking his thumb at Ranma.
Ranma ignored the lost boy, "I still need to find her, and apologise."
Doctor Tofu nodded, "That's nice of you, Ranma, and should help smooth this over. I'll see if I can arrange it," he trailed off, shedding his glasses he cleaned the lenses with a kerchief pulled from his pocket and glanced up at the sky.
The sun had fallen behind a wall of clouds, darkening the sky. The only sounds in the air was the burble of the stream the rippled crashed through the rocks, and the soft whisper of the winds as it shook the bare boughs of the trees, their reflections repeating the same dance in the glassy surface of the pool.
"Ranma?" the doctor said softly, and replaced his glasses over his eyes, turning to the youth, his smile gone and yearning in his eyes.
"Tell me about Nerima." The older man swallowed stiffly. "Tell me about Kasumi."
Ranma smiled. "What would you like to know?"
Sasuke felt his body jerk as he slammed into the wall and slid slowly along the surface to the floor like a thick stain. His body folded on the carpet, his knees pressed against his chest and head lolling. Something welled in his lungs and his head jerked as he coughed harshly. He felt the thick clot of blood flying from his mouth on to his stomach, and a thin red trail dripped down his chin. Pain screamed in his chest and his senses swam, lights continuing to flash in front of his eyes.
The icy grip of fear seized his heart as for the first time he looked on his mistress with abject terror. His body began shaking so hard it felt like he was having a fit and he jerked in petrified convulsions, as he watched Kodachi's lips move. They were red, blood red, and slowly twisted from a furious snarl to a wide and manic grin. Kodachi's room was always dark, but now the shadows waxed, growing ever blacker. With a shudder he released the darkness was coming from her, her aura swarming with a blackness darker than the night, making her pale skin shine with such brilliant whiteness that it no longer looked like living flesh, but as ashen as a death shroud. Her ribbon twisted and coiled around her as if alive, a serpent that writhed, pulsated and lashed, its razor edge tearing through the chairs and tables like fangs.
She tossed back her head, dark locks lost in the shadows that massed around her like a litter of spawn to their mother, and she released that long, demented laugh. Each long peal resounded like the tolling of the dead's bell and reduced Sasuke to tears, racking him with chocking sobs. All he could think was one single thought that he clung to desperately.
Don't shoot the messenger.
To be continued.
Author's notes: Uh… Sorry, there's a lot of theory to this chapter, but I need to set the basis for various plots later both involving the Order and the use of ki in general. It's all based on the real ideas behind ki in Chinese martial arts and Bagua (of which my understanding is not perfect and has been embellished). However I did add the science bit because I thought it would make things more understandable, and be a bit more original since in most fics ki energy is always at odds with science. I wanted to bring them hand-in-hand. I hope you found it interesting, and if not, I'm sorry and let me know how to improve. ^__^
Also hope I answered peoples concerns about Ranma and fighting girls. The series makes it clear he is reluctant to fight girls, but he will if he has to. Also his words "a guy holds back a lot when he fights a girl" shows that if he does have to fight he will try and do it without hurting. If you have anything to say, about my depiction of this or of Shampoo in this chapter, leave your e-mail or send me one, the same with all other constructive comments or criticism. Cheers.
Hara: 'Belly'. The point in the abdomen two inches below the navel, and the human body's centre of gravity. It is also the point in Japanese belief where internal energy and ki is found and stored so it can be harnessed. In Chinese it is called the Lower Dan Tien.
Greater Cycle: In Taoist belief, it is the flow of ki from pure energy in the heavens to the earth and back, shifting to manifest as the eight phases of nature.
Lesser Cycle: The flow of ki from the centre of the mind to the hara in the human body, which nourishes the organs and channels the energy through the body.
Tao: The perfect and divine natural forces which balances the universe in harmony. Taoist religion is based on reaching enlightenment by becoming one with the Tao.
Um. Think that's it. Thanks to Rob for his great help, Larry for hosting, and you for reading.
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