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A Ranma ½ fan fiction story
by Beer-monster

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ characters property of Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.

Book II: The Eight Phases

Chapter Four: The Mists of the Mind

Though this be madness, yet there is method in it
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet: Act II Scene II, Polonius

Sirens screamed into the night, howling like mad dogs at the moon that was reduced to a white disk in the sky, its silvery glow stolen by the orange canopy of the city lights. Music still pumped within the empty nightclub like a frantic pulse. Outside a throng of people gasped and murmured. Women clung to men and hid their eyes, burying frightened faces in the chests of their boyfriends, who whispered soothing words. Others, more curious, inched closer, trying and peer into the shadows but the surrounding ring of police forced them back roughly before they could glimpse more than a mangled hand, barely visible in the gloom.

As Shigurei Toshiyama stepped out of the car, one of the uniformed men glanced his way and then began barking orders at the crowd, who dutifully parted to allow him through. As he strode past he tried to ignore the people watching him avidly from all sides, their whispers and mutterings growing as they eyed the heavy metal box hanging from the handle gripped in his fist. He shut the noise out with practised ease; there would be time for the living later. First he had to speak to the dead.

The body was a large man-shaped shadow, barely visible in the darkness. It lay crumpled on its back by the far wall, legs folded at awkward angles beneath the torso and one arm flaccidly stretched towards the light at the mouth of the alley.

"Can we get some more light in here?" Shigurei said over his shoulder at a nearby cop, and resumed squinting in the darkness of the alley, the tight buildings of Tokyo shadowing the narrow passage from the streetlights.

"They're getting more flashlights," said a voice from the alley. A woman came from the shadows, the echoes of her short heels following her. She hefted the flashlight in her hands, the bright beam glaring across the small octagonal lenses of her spectacles. The light that flooded across one side of her face paled her blonde hair into almost ghostly whiteness. Her red lips formed a small smirk, before the light vanished with an audible click and the torch returned to her side. "Didn't you bring yours?"

Shigurei rolled his eyes as he set his case down. "A good night to you too, Mizuki," he muttered. The top of steel box unfolded into four trays, racked with vials, pipettes and swabs. "A murder, then?" He pulled his flashlight from the box's bottom, running his thumb up the ridges of the grip.

"Why are you asking me?" she asked with a shrug.

Turning the torch on, he lifted the beam to illuminate the writing across the material of her blue jacket, the word rippled by the swell of her breast. CORONER glittered in fluorescent letters across the dark fabric. "That's your job, isn't it?"

Mizuki pouted, the gesture seeming out of place from a mature and sultry beauty. "You're no fun, Shigurei." She turned back into the alley, her eyes hooded and the shadows of the torchlight danced across her face. "There's precious little fun in this job as it is," she said softly.

She cleared her throat loudly, switching her torch back on, and began walking swiftly ahead. He followed swiftly, the beam from his flashlight melding with hers and cutting through the darkness.

"Victim's name is Tetsuo Matsuhara. One of the uniforms told me he was also known around here as 'Tetsuo the Tank'. Bouncer at the club. His boss ID'ed the body; even so, I did find a wallet on him." She held out a bag of clear plastic that swayed in her fist from the weight of its contents: a wallet of plain and wrinkled black leather, and a set of keys. Shigurei eased his hands into his white latex gloves and took the bag from her, fishing out the wallet and inspecting it. There in a transparent pouch was a driver licence; a picture of the dead man appeared smiling next to his name despite the scar that ran across his brow from his dark parted hair.

"It wasn't a mugging," he murmured aloud, running his gloved thumb over a wad of bills before returning the wallet to the bag.

"I doubt anyone would dare to mug him," a gruff voice said from beside him, bringing the scent of smoke. The man pulled a hand from his jacket to run his fingers through his thick but greying black hair, and frowned. Lines creased the corners of his eyes as he inhaled from the cigarette clamped in his yellowed teeth, the tip glowing orange in the gloom.

"Tetsuo the Tank, legendary in most of greater Tokyo as the toughest doorman in the capital. Was building up quite a name for himself in the world of Pancrasse until he was banned for excess brutality, so he earned his money and his name brawling in bars and clubs to keep the riff-raff out." He pulled the cigarette from his mouth and blew a ring of smoke into the night air. "Doctor Egawa, Mister Toshiyama," he greeted each of them with a nod.

"Detective Izumi," Shigurei returned, and then frowned. "Haven't I already asked you not to smoke at a crime scene? You may contaminate the evidence."

The cop shrugged with a wry smirk. "If I dropped the butt now, it definitely would."

Shigurei sighed. "Just watch the ash," he muttered, and then turned back to Mizuki. "Cause of death?" He swung his torch round to illuminate the corpse. The man's cheek was rippled with purple, his eye swollen shut. Both lips were split wrecks that were smeared with blood and several teeth were broken. "Beaten?" he guessed.

The coroner nodded. "Looks like it. His skull was caved in two places from blunt force trauma, one by the right eye over the area of the temple," she pointed at the warped and discoloured cheek, "and a much larger impact at the base and back of the skull. I won't know which killed him until the autopsy, or what kind of weapon it was."

"Probably the yakuza," Izumi grunted. "'The Tank' here had quite a bad reputation with most of the local gangs, having been known to have kicked seven shades of shit out of many of their members." He shook his head at the corpse; smoke streaming from his nostrils as he sighed. "They have been rumoured to have tried to kill him several times before, with them coming out worse for each attempt. Guess they finally got him. Must have taken a whole lot of guys, though."

"Whoever they were, they were brutal," Mizuki said, lifting the victim's hand, which hung limply and at an unnatural angle from his wrist, the splintered ends of several bones protruding from a bloody tear in the back of the hand. "From what I can tell from a quick glance, his right ulna has been snapped at the elbow. His shoulder and left knee have been dislocated, and I think he has broken ribs on both sides."

Shigurei swallowed hard, biting at his lip while Izumi's jaw hardened, teeth grinding the butt of his cigarette.

"That's not the worst part," Mizuki said as she reached down and tugged aside the flap of the victims black jacket, revealing a dark blue shirt, the entire abdomen stained with the dark crimson of blood. She pried apart a tear in the garment to reveal a large wound. It was deep and defined like a stab wound, the skin around it still wet with blood. However, its shape was a large irregular slot, long with a tapering narrowness of notched and rounded edges.

"It almost looks like he was stabbed with the edge of a spade, but the hole is too misshapen," Shigurei said with knit brows.

Mizuki nodded. "I've never seen a puncture wound like that, not even in the textbooks."

The sound of a new siren echoed in the night, accompanied by flashes of blue light. He turned to see the ambulance pull up, the uniformed police pushing people to the sides as two men heaved a gurney from its back and began rolling it towards him.

"That's my ride," she sighed, before resting a hand on his shoulder. "I'll give you the results of the autopsy as soon as I have them."

Shigurei nodded and stepped away from the body, allowing two men in green overalls to load the corpse on to wagon. Instead he scanned the alleyway, flicking his flashlight over the features of the crime scene. "Definite signs of a struggle," he mused as the light illuminated a bunch of trashcans toppled onto their sides, the metal folded and the contents spilt on the floor and squashed. "But not as much as you'd think if so many people had jumped him. Don't suppose anyone saw anything?" he asked of the detective.

Izumi shook his head with a snort. "Everyone was either in the club or queuing around the other side, out of sight from this alley. There were no passersby who may have seen anything, according to those I interviewed. One of the other doormen had said that Tetsuo had come down here to investigate a ruckus. They kept an eye on the door and the lines."

"And they didn't come running at the sounds of a fight or any screams?" Shigurei inquired in a bitter tone.

The policeman shrugged. "They said they heard screams but they didn't know they were Tetsuo's; they never heard them before. As for a fight, they claimed that sort of stuff was normal, especially for 'the Tank'."

Shigurei said nothing, but wandered up to a dumpster that was lent upon broken wheels against the wall of the club. Its front was smashed and dented, the metal of its handle twisted with a concave bend. Blood welled in the dent and was smeared across the side, a smudged, red handprint wrapped vivid against the yellow plastic. The blood still dripped wetly in thin rivulet, puddling on the pavement below.

"I would say he had been forced against this dumpster when he was stabbed with whatever it was that caused that wound," he said rubbing at his chin with one hand while he walked to where he had left his kit box and retrieved a bulbous squirt bottle. "That mean's we may be able to read what happened in the blood."

Squeezing the trigger of the bottle he released a fine mist of liquid that floated gently to the ground. The moisture of the blood that was only visible by the glistening of his torchlight now appeared as a pool of liquid light, glowing blue-green in the shadows of the alley. He sprayed again, this time revealing more luminescent stains, and a footprint, the treads imprinted in sticky blood.

"I think this is Mister Tank's print. The heaviness of the mark suggests he already had his leg broken." He walked towards the body slowly, carefully advancing on the tips of his toes step by step as he surrounded himself with sprays from the bottle. Carefully watching for the past that was told in the patterns of blood. It was a waste of luminol, but it was the only way to determine anything in the gloom. He soon made his way down the twelve paces back to Izumi. His head swivelled as he frowned at the radiant stains in the passage and then back at the wall in front of which the body had lain.

"Curious," he murmured, leaning closer towards the splattered marks that were plainly visible against the brickwork.

"Damn it, Toshiyama," Izumi cursed, punctuating his words with a blast of exhaled smoke. "You know I hate it when you do that. Spill whatever your egghead has worked out."

"Well, Detective…" Shigurei let the word roll dryly as he rolled his eyes. "Don't you think it odd how our victim can get from that spot there…" He gestured to a smear of fading blue light by the dumpster's corner. "…all the way across here to this wall, without leaking copious amounts of blood? And he also somehow left quite a spray of his body fluids over this wall."

Pointing his flashlight ahead of his tentative touch, he reached out with a probing hand to press against the wall. The bricks wobbled, then cracked, the wall collapsing with a crumbling of stone and a cloud of fine dust. The cigarette dropped from Izumi's jaw, which hung open numbly. Shigurei raked a hand through his grey-streaked brown hair as he once again regarded the chalk outline that represented Tetsuo Matsuhara's smashed corpse.

"If it wasn't impossible, I would say that this man had been thrown clean across this alley," he whispered, feeling the tingle of a puzzle beginning to tug at his mind.

The cracked white walls shook. The stamping feet and frenzied roars of the crowd resonated down the wall and vibrated along the metal of the lockers. Bright sunlight flooded in through the slits of the blinds, painting stripes of shadow and light across the walls. The room sweltered in the heat, the bulky air conditioner emitting nothing but a strained and ragged hum, which joined with the muted buzz from the insects that flew in a swarm about the ceiling.

Ryu flexed his fingers to make sure the bindings were secure, clenching and unclenching his fist. With a satisfied nod he grabbed a fresh roll of linen from the bench beside him, and began on the other hand, wrapping the bandage slowly across his palms and knuckles, taking care not to bind his fingers together. The materials seemed unnatural as they covered his palms; they were wrong in some way, a weak substitute for the hardened leather fighting gloves he had worn for years.

Master Vut entered without knocking, scrubbing a hand through his shortly cropped white hair with one hand and tugging at the knot of his tie with the other hand. A grimace twisted his tanned face as he fussed with his white shirt collar, muttering as his attentions creased the short sleeves. Brushing his callused hands down the sharp creases of his blue trousers, he squatted on his haunches before Ryu, then he lifted the boy's hands in turn, examining the bindings with a critical squint. With a gruff nod he let both arms drop, but remained in his crouch as he raised his dark eyes to meet Ryu's gaze.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked.

"He is the best, isn't he?"

Vut's scowl deepened. "He's the champion," he grunted simply.

"Then I want to do this," Ryu replied flatly.

The old Thai master shrugged and grabbed the gloves from beneath the bench, presenting them to Ryu, who sighed sharply through his nostrils and held his hands out, allowing Vut to slip the padded mitts over his fists. The cushioning wrapped his knuckles snugly and comfortably, his lips twisted in distaste. Such a waste, he thought.

As Vut yanked the yellowed laces taught and tied them off, the Japanese boy turned his hands and glared at his fists, trying to see the hardened calluses of his knuckles and the bony swellings on his fingers through the faded black leather. The calluses he had worked so hard to gain; he could still almost feel the pain of their forging. Ever since he had first opened the scroll his father had given him with his last breath, he had worked to turn his fists into hammers and his fingers into weapons. He had slammed his fists into the trunks of mighty trees and pulverised great boulders until the bruises and blood had given way to hardened flesh. He had jabbed fingers into the slats of fences, through the cracks of bricks, until his nails were cracked and cut, but the force of his Dokuja Tenketsu Sho could punch through a man's ribcage. After so much blood and pain spent in developing his tools, it seemed almost heresy to cover them in padding so as not to injure his opponent.

He shook his head with a jerk to dismiss such thoughts and clenched his gloved fists, testing the mitts flexibility. He had no right to complain, for he had made the challenge, fighting and defeating the champion's five greatest rivals in public with contemptuous ease. After each victory he had called out his challenge, until pride and national honour forced the man to accept, unable to disgrace his country by submitting to a foreign warrior. However, as the defender, he had exercised his right to dictate the challenges of the duel, choosing an official Muay Thai bout. So Ryu had bound and padded his weapons as the rules decreed and had doffed his camouflaged fatigues for the loaned pair of black satin shorts impressed with a white flow of script.

He still wore his white headband across his brow, holding his dark curls from his face, a reminder of who he was and of his purpose.

"It's time," Vut said.

Ryu nodded and rose, throwing a few test hooks with his gloved hands before following the master out of the door. The shouting of the crowd built up as he walked down the narrow corridor like the rising of the tides before a squall. Their voices washed over him like the waves as he approached each cry higher and louder than the last as if he were walking into a stormy sea of sound. The noise rose to an apex as he emerged into the arena, the audience roaring like the first clap of thunder. The cameras flashed to capture his approach to the ring as jeers and taunts came from the Thai spectators voicing their resentment of the foreigner, all but drowning the sound of the band playing their ancient battle tunes.

He ignored them, concentrating on the heated swell of anticipation that rose in his chest, the banging of the musicians' drums setting an excited tempo for the beating of his heart. He ducked between the stretchy ropes and entered the ring, nodding to Vut, who returned the gesture from beside the post. Ryu strode to the centre of the ring and bowed smartly to the judges and the crowd.

The three men frowned. Ryu's bow had been of the Japanese style, not the Thai, but he barely repressed a smirk. Let them frown. I will not pretend to be what I'm not.

The voices of the audience fell to a hush before rising into a frenzy of cheers. The piper began playing a fast-paced heroic song as the Champion approached the ring. Ryu glanced up to see his opponent approach, his dark Mohawk swaying as the man twisted his head and lifted his fists to acknowledge the crowd's adulation, the waves of people suddenly alive with colourful banners and sashes. The champion known as "Tan the Tiger" vaulted over the ropes into the stage and smiled at Ryu. The bright red silk of his trunks shimmered in the light as he moved, throwing a few test jabs at the Japanese youth. Ryu stared back without expression.

The song of the band grew faster, the Java pipes whining a fast and exultant tune. Tan dropped to his knees and began the Wai Kru, the white tassels of his mongkol headband swinging like the tail of an eager racehorse as he moved through the ritual dance. Ryu reached up and pulled his own bandana tight, an act that was more a gesture of reassurance than of any effect since his hands were clumsy in their mitts. His headband was not woven or rolled with spells of fortune and words of power, but it had served him well.

Tan weaved on his knees and bobbed with the crashing cymbals, his arms making wide circles as he bowed, dancing his devotion to his school, teacher and art; but Ryu just watched the other man carefully from his corner, noticing with interest the Thai warrior's lithe figure. His sleek muscles bunched like corded steel beneath golden skin, the deceptively slender physique obviously full of great strength.

Ryu's fist clenched and he felt the much larger bulge of his own biceps, wondering if size really did make a difference. He continued to regard the man through narrowed eyes, the hairs on his arms standing on end as he felt Tan's battle aura begin to rise. Tan tossed aside the mongkol and stood waiting. Ryu joined him and met his glare, barely hearing the referee's mutterings.

With a nod from the panel and the peal of the bell, the fight began. Ryu circled his opponent and matched his stance, loose fists held high as he bounced lightly on the balls of his feet. The music continued, playing the music of their combat waltz.

Tan whipped his leg around at Ryu's thigh.

Ryu let the blow contact, knowing it was just a probe of his defence.

The champion shuffled to the side before launching another kick with the opposite foot, this time spinning in with full power at Ryu's neck.

Bringing his fist behind his ear Ryu covered, Tan's shin slamming into his arm with a wet slap. As his opponent's foot came down from the attack Ryu pushed forward, striking both of the Thai boxer's cheeks with a left-right combination.

The older man staggered back a step, before shaking his head slightly and resuming his wary circle of the young foreigner.

Ryu matched his movement, following him round for a few slow steps before suddenly shifting, stepping to the other side before closing in with a thrusting kick.

Tan barely dodged, but saw Ryu's following punch and brought his arm up so the fist slammed against his forearm.

Ryu did not stop, but jerked his hips around, putting his force behind his lead arm as it hooked around the kickboxer's guard and crashed into his jaw.

Tan stumbled with the blow, but kept to his feet, setting his stance with a snarl as the flesh of his face turned purple. Ryu kept his face stolid and waited for the next attack.

He did not have to wait long. The Thai champion charged forward. Ryu tensed, but was caught off guard as Tan launched himself like cannonball, knee lashing into face.

Ryu reeled back with the blow and bounced against the ropes, tasting the copper tang of blood in his mouth. The crowd roared in triumph at the shot and he could not blame them; that had been a good hit and hurt like hell. Mentally filing the attack away in his mind, inspiration already fruiting, he pushed off the ropes and raised his guard, allowing himself a smirk at his opponent. He would find Ryu was made of tougher stuff than that.

Tan's scowl deepened, but this time he approached slowly, shuffling closer with his feet skimming upon the ring's surface.

Ryu stepped up to meet him, each step bringing him closer within range. They crossed the invisible line and stopped, each having their narrowed eyes locked on the other. The crowd waved their arms and screamed for action. To Ryu, it was like the buzzing of distant, insignificant flies almost lost in the pounding of his pulse.

He saw the subtle shift in balance and watched Tan spin his body into a roundhouse kick, his club-like shin ready to smash Ryu's ribs.

Ryu saw and matched the technique like a mirror launching his own right kick as his opponent's leg came arching in from the left. The strikes smashed into their targets in the same moment and their forces nullified.


With strength built in a life of training in a violent secret art, Ryu's kick slammed harder, his extra power enough to knock the champion off balance and send him tottering to the side, eyes squinted as his face screwed from the sting of bone on flesh.

Ryu seized the advantage, closing the gap and swung his lead elbow up to his opponents chin, being rewarded with a small spray of blood from Tan's mouth. His torso whipped around viciously to cut his rear elbow across the Thai boxer's face.

Tan reeled back, but Ryu kept flowing into the next move, bringing his shoulder up to drive an uppercut at the already abused chin for the knockout. His eyes widened as he felt his fist stopped cold, and his respect for Tan the Tiger rose as he saw that the older fighter had managed to bring his forearms down to form a shield, blocking the rising punch hard, despite the effects of Ryu's elbow combination.

Tan jumped on Ryu's moment of surprise, shooting across the small distance and bringing both arms around. His forearms clamped around the Japanese boy's neck like pincers, digging into his throat as his fists hooked behind his head and locked him tight.

Ryu was jerked forwards, straight into the champion's rising knee.

He gasped as his air left his lungs and felt his opponents grip tighten, clinching the two fighters together tightly. His ears were filled with the frantic and struggled sounds of his own breath, and the frenzied pants and grunts of Tan as the knees continued to come in a barrage of strikes.

Ryu grit his teeth, lungs aching as he tried to control his breath to clench his gut, toughening himself against the incoming knees. Pain lanced in his collarbones as Tan's forearms squeezed the grip. He folded his arms into a cross over his stomach, allowing the strikes to pound into his gloves and elbows. After a moment his lungs began pumping air and the pain lessened. The force of the blows suddenly seemed less, though he did wince slightly as the Thai fighter occasionally swung his knee in an arc to thump his kidneys. Ryu felt a tiny smirk form on his lips. This was a good tactic, but he was too strong for this so-called champion.

He let his energy focus within his abdomen, before pumping it into his arms. Bending his arms at the elbow, Ryu pressed his hands together and as closed as he could manage with the bulky mitts. He dropped his weight for a second, taking a fast half-step back to break his opponents balance, and surged upwards with all his might. He brought his hands up, punching them hard between Tan's tightly squeezed elbows, and then swung them wide apart, tearing away the champions grip. Arms flung apart; the Thai boxer was wide open.


Ryu's two hands returned to his hips before they shot out like twin pistons, both fists blasting into Tan's chest and sending him rocketing across the rings. He struck the ropes and was launched back like a slingshot, straight into Ryu's fist. Tan fell to the floor, his eyes rolling back in his head, and it thudded upon the ring. Doctors rushed into the ring, slapping the fallen champion gently and waving small vials beneath his nose. The man stirred slowly with a barely audible groan.

The judges glowered at him, but Ryu ignored it, standing away from his downed opponent and waiting for them to declare his victory. He had beaten the best that Thailand had to offer, as he had through Burma, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Another notch in the banner of the Kumon family. Another step in his quest. He turned to Master Vut, who smiled back, though his eyes were still wide with wonder. He bowed towards the old man, and allowed himself a small smile. It was time to move on.

Murky brown water fell in drips and streams that spluttered loudly against the bottom of the plastic basin as Konatsu rinsed the cloth in his hands. He folded the damp, ragged fabric in half down the middle and proceeded to twist it tightly in his grip, releasing another deluge of dirty water. He dipped the cloth into another bowl of clean, lemon scented water and scrubbed at the surface of Ukyo's hot plate.

He noticed himself humming as he worked, rubbing harder at the grill to remove any streaks that would mar the shining metal. The tune was familiar and yet foreign. It was the same song that he would always murmur as he worked, and he knew the melody well; but he did not know what it meant, what the words were, or if it even had words. He was simply taught the melody as a child, and was told that it was a cute tune for a girl to hum, so he did.

Spotting a blackened splotch of burnt batter sticking to the back of the grill, he scoured the stain with his cloth but the stubborn mark refused to move, still clinging to the metal surface. Konatsu pouted and leaned across the grill and scratched the stain away with one of his long, red-painted nails.

Just as the finals scraps of charred food crumbled away, he realised what he was doing.

Bad Konatsu, a voice hissed in his mind.

He examined his nail and sighed. Now he would have to touch up the varnish. His jaw tightened but he caught himself, venting his frustration with a small pout. Running his tongue over his front teeth, he tasted the waxy sheen smudged across them and knew he would also have to reapply his lipstick. He tossed the cloth aside and reached inside the fold of his kimono for his make-up compact, when he noticed an odd smudge on the wall. Suppressing the urge to roll his eyes, he leant over the grill to grab an errant chopstick…

…and tossed it like a dart at the opposite wall, which squawked as the utensil struck hard, and fell over one of the booths.

Drying his hands on a nearby oven towel, he walked calmly around the counter, the wooden heels of his geta clacking against the polished floors.

"Tsubasa," he growled, then snapped his mouth shut as the harshness of his own voice echoed in his ears. He sucked a deep breath in through his nose. Always cute, always polite, always a lady, the mantra sprang into his head and he let it fill his mind. With measured slowness, he released the breath slowly through his mouth and continued over to the slumped form.

"Mr. Tsubasa, I'm afraid Miss Ukyo has made it clear many times that she has no romantic intentions towards you." Or me, a voice added, but he ignored it. "I'm also sorry to remind you that she has asked you to never visit here, and I regret that I must enforce her wishes." He did not know why, but he had a sudden desire to crack his knuckles, but quashed the urge as he knew that ladies did not do such a thing. It would ruin his hands.

The former wall rolled over on the table top, revealing a pudgy man with a rodent-like face. His thick eyebrows hung over black, beady eyes, one of which was swollen shut and ringed with purple bruises. His lips were pulled back in a grimace of pain, revealing bucked teeth one of which seemed recently chipped.

"I'm sorry ,sir," Konatsu gasped, bobbing a quick bow. "I thought you were someone else. Please accept my apology."

Konatsu ran his eyes over the man's clothes, a snug fitting dogi that was bound with arm pas across the forearms, and the trouser cuffs were tucked into soft, pliable tabi boots. Beneath the folds of the suit was a thin shirt of meshed material that protruded from his sleeves to wrap over the backs of his hands. The rear half of his garb was coloured white, presumably to allow him to blend in with the rest of the restaurants walls. Konatsu repressed a snort. That was a basic and ultimately useless trick utilised only by "wannabe" shinobi.

"Forgive me for saying so, sir, but you don't appear to be very skilled at ninjitsu. Suppressing your breathing so as to pass unnoticed is a very basic technique that should be mastered before any attempt at spying." He watched the diminutive ninja, ready to read his reaction. The man simply coughed and a pained hiss emerged from his grit teeth. "If you would like my advice, sir, I would also recommend that you not play ninja in your obviously wounded condition."

The figure coughed again and rolled over onto his front, forcing himself onto his hands and knees. Konatsu could see the ninja's swollen lips move slowly and craned his neck to hear.

"Must… mission… can't fail… mistress will…." the man's small frame convulsed suddenly, and his shoulders shook as if his bones had become ice.

Mission? Konatsu thought, lips tightening into a small frown. Miss Ukyo!

Reaching into the bindings of his ornate yellow obi, he withdrew a long and slender kunai. Light blossomed on its point as he raised it up to his eyes, testing with a gentle press of his thumb.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you about your mission." He twirled the weapon across the back of his hand, using the ring of the handle to spin it back into his fist. "I'm also afraid that I will have to be quite insistent that you answer."

Konatsu smiled apologetically.

The wind rushed down the empty street, rattling the steel of the fence and whistling through its links. Plastics bags and candy wrappers spiralled through the air and skimmed across the ground in the grip of the winds. Akane stopped and squinted as dust whipped past her. She pressed her book bag against her thighs, clamping down the fabric of her dress as it billowed around her. The winds calmed and she resumed walking, lifting a hand to tuck a stray lock of midnight hair behind her ear.

She grimaced as a stiff pain tugged at the muscles around her spine and hunched her shoulder, feeling the shift of the heavy weight contained within Ranma's old school bag. Genma Saotome had presented it to her yesterday and ordered her to wear it to, from, and during school.

At first she had scoffed; it was a mere eighty kilos. She had always been proud of her strength, and though she was not as fast or as skilled as Ranma, even he said she was strong. She frowned as she remembered that he had always disguised that compliment as an insult, calling her a brute-strength tomboy. Nevertheless, she was strong. Maybe not as strong as Ryoga or Shampoo, but she had some force behind her. Thus, when Genma had asked her to carry the weights she had been surprised; she knew that her punches had more power than his. The master of the Saotome style simply snorted, saying that a little extra strength could make a great difference. She had begun to protest, but her new sensei overrode her, raising an eyebrow from behind his glasses and saying.

"If you are too weak, just say so, girl."

The last word had been a sneer, voiced like an insult. Her nails had bit into her hand as she glowered at him, jaw locked and trembling, wanting to say something in her defence but knowing there was nothing to say. All she did -- all she could do -- was sling the bag over her shoulders and march out of the house, determined to show Genma Saotome that girls were just as strong, that she was just as strong. And one day she would show his arrogant son, too.

It was during second period that she began to realise that she had grossly underestimated Genma Saotome. She sat at her desk, the pack's weight beginning to pull at her shoulders and back, sending growing twinges of pain through her muscles which assaulted her brain while she was trying furiously to concentrate on Miss Hinako's childish antics. As the aches became more frequent and she could hear her breath grow harsh, she knew that her sensei had not intended this as an exercise of strength, but of stamina. Sure, she could lift massive objects and smash bricks, but for how long?

Thinking of Ryoga's umbrella, the heavy club that she had strained to lift that day at school, and how he carried it with him constantly bearing its weight so easily and naturally he could swung it with one hand as if it were a part of his arm, Akane began to realise that every martial artist she knew took such endurance for granted, trained it to the point it no longer mattered. Shampoo carried those massive maces with grace and poise, Mousse carried an infinite arsenal of weapons yet never felt their weight; and Ranma….

Akane drew breath and her mouth worked but caught between sighing and crying, growling and yelling, no sound came out. Thoughts of Ranma made her rise with anger or occasionally joy, yet also made her heart sink with the pangs of his absence. Her feelings were like a floating buoy, bobbing up and down on continuously shifting tides of emotions that she was rapidly becoming accustomed to. It seemed like everything brought her back to him.

She had always known that her life in Nerima had woven itself around him like the pattern of a tapestry; yet now every aspect of her life reminded her of him. Training under her new sensei forced her mind to consider his first student, and as she punched the striking post she could almost hear his voice mocking her skills. There was a void at meal times in the Tendo house, and although her family and she still spoke and chatted as they passed the rice, it was strangely quiet, though Ranma had rarely spoke at the dinner table as he stuffed his face.

In school there were hushed whispers between the students behind her back that transformed into nervous smiles when she turned around. Kuno boasted about his victory over the "vile sorcerer" and sang embellished poems chronicling his triumph. Punting him viciously had not ended his tirade, yet thankfully it may have convinced the foolish perverts amongst her classmates not to revive the morning charge, though she suspected her sister's hand in that decision. The worst part of school now had become facing Ukyo.

Akane had not seen the chef smile in weeks, the girl spoke the same friendly words in the same friendly tones and acted congenially to any who spoke to her, but her face was empty and pale, with dark rings beginning to form beneath her eyes. Looking at Ukyo made a black feeling creep into her chest, and Akane now scrutinised her reflection every morning, searching for any sign of the same pallid despair.

That jerk should rot for doing this to m… her! Akane thought, gritting her teeth her hands clenching around the handle of her book bag. She seized the anger like a security blanket and embraced it tightly, letting it sink in, and drew breath to release her fury in a wild scream that cursed the young Saotome for eternity.

The breath was sealed in her lungs with a clang as something slammed against her back, a metallic ring chiming in the air as the object struck the weight she bore. The projectile's impact rippled through her, sending painful vibrations pulsing along her rib cage. She spluttered as the impact pounded against her organs, knocking her to the ground. Her palms stung as she landed in a sprawl, the flesh skinned from her hands. She hissed as her teeth bit onto her lip and she tasted the coppery tang of blood in her mouth.

She growled as she gathered her hands beneath her and pushed herself up, coughing as she tried to force air through her bruised chest. Her eyes shot open wide as she felt something wrap around her leg, clenching tightly around her ankle. She felt herself jerk as she was heaved from the pavement and flung aside, her body slamming into the links of the wire fence with a rattling crash before dropping back to the hard ground. She landed harshly on her hands and knees, and her bones jarred, making her wince.

A whip-like rushing snapped by her ears and she saw a blur of pink from the corner of her eyes. She barely had chance to gawk at the rose-coloured fabric that had wound around her forearm before she was yanked into the air, flipped into a high arc, and smashed into the ground once again. Lights flashed in a coruscating spark before her eyes as her shoulder pounded into the concrete; she cried out weakly, saliva spraying from her mouth.

She writhed on the floor as pain seemed to sink into every bone, spots and motes swam in hazy blurs across her vision. She tried to blink them away but was assaulted by another explosion of agony as a twist of the whip wrenched her shoulder in its socket and dragged her slumped body across the concrete. Her eyes squeezed shut and she hissed through gritted teeth as the flesh of her thigh was scraped raw across the ridges between the paving slabs. Each pull seemed to last hours, her dress riding around her legs to expose more skin to the burning friction. When she stopped, her body ached and she slowly let her eyes open, but soon they flew open with terror.

Kodachi Kuno loomed over her, filling her vision like a giant, garbed in a leotard of stormy grey with face of white lightening. Her lips were painted a deep red; the colour of blood, a grim part of Akane's mind noted. They were twisted into a wild snarl of wordless rage. Kodachi's eyes were onyx black, lacking any glimmer or light. Like empty voids, they seemed to draw Akane in like a malevolent vortex. Akane could feel tendrils of ice close around her heart as her gaze was locked to those eyes, which seemed like windows into a realm of eternal night.

Those crimson lips contorted into a dark smile, revealing a row of inhumanly white teeth. Akane's eye widened as she watched transfixed as the gymnast's pale, slender arm rose with a smooth grace like a dance. The whiteness of her skin stood stark against the grey sky as her hand reached an apex, as did the colour of the baton clasped in her fist, the meagre light of the clouded sun forming tiny stars of light on the steel points of its bladed spikes.

Kodachi's smile grew wider, those pearly teeth almost appearing like fangs against the blood red of her lips, her eyes were wild with frenzy that froze Akane in place.

The club began its violent descent.

Move girl, a gruff voice barked, an echo of the order she hard heard many times before.

Jerking her muscles into action she forced her self to roll to the side, ducking her head to her chest to avoid the weapon that would certainly crush her skull. She felt the fierce tremor as the club ploughed into the pavement where her head had been an instant before, flakes and shards of shattered concrete bouncing off the back of her skull and her shoulders.

Akane dared to open the eyes that she had squeezed shut painfully tight from instinctive desire not to see the end as it came. From the corner of her adrenaline-dazed vision she noticed a blur of white, and with a low growl of defiance lashed out at it. Her fist slammed down onto Kodachi's slipper-clad foot, with a crunch.

The gymnast howled and leapt back with her other leg, the spiked gymnastics mace clattering to the floor as she retreated, clutching her foot in her hands. Akane rolled over on her side, gaining distance before slowly pushing herself to her knees, beaten, scraped muscles wracking her body with pulses of pain to accompany each movement.

"What the hell is this, Kodachi?" she roared despite the burning in her battered lungs. She could feel her knees tremble and quiver as she tried to push herself to her feet. Her jaw bunched as she forced aside the wince summoned by the aching of her limbs.

The Black Rose's face contorted with rage. "I shall not bandy words with you, witch," she spat, a thread of spittle flying from her mouth. "Remain silent, so as not to taint the air with the deceit of your last words."

Kodachi bolted forwards, the blow to her foot seemingly forgotten as she moved with fluid elegance, those dull eyes open wide and her lips curved into a frenzied smile.

Akane braced herself, trying to summon strength into arms that felt like lead. She let her fingers ball into fists, ready to counter whatever the other girl had to throw at her.

The gymnast threw herself upwards, rising into the air as if on wings and disappearing from sight.

Akane cursed and tried to spin around, but a blur of pink dropped past her eyes and her throat was wrapped in a vice-like grip, causing her to belch gutturally as the ribbon closed on her neck.

Her arms floundered, waving about with as much strength as she could muster, trying to arc behind her. Akane flailed her arms to her sides and over her head, trying to strike her crazed attacker

She hit nothing, and could hear Kodachi's throaty chuckle at her efforts. Her attempt grew weaker as the power seemed to ebb from her muscles. She tried vainly to draw in air, but her breathing was a rasping gurgle in her own ears punctuated by coughs and splutters, like the working of an ancient bellows, wormed with holes and covered in rust.

Her pulse thundered frantically, each beat of her heart making her head throb with pain as the blood welled in her head, surging through the veins of her brow and temples with force so that she was sure the vessels would burst. Her eyes seemed to swell in their sockets, bulging from her lids as if wanting to escape the explosive pressure that built inside her skull and pop out.

Akane tried to seize the ribbon around her neck, clawing at the fabric wildly, nails tearing at her own skin as she strove for grip.

Kodachi continued laughing, the sound cresting into her infamous, haunting cackle. "This method is so inelegant," the snobbish girl said with a fake sigh. "I had hoped to finish this quickly and not sully myself by getting close to your foul form."

The ribbon's grip tightened with a jerk. "So inelegant," she repeated, "but so much more satisfying."

Akane was fading; she could feel it as if something were leaking from her. Her hands had dropped limp to her sides, she no longer had the strength to lift them. Her mind raged at her to move, to keep fighting, but that inner voice grew softer like the dissipating echoes in a deep cavern. Her vision began to waver, the image of the street before her becoming blurry, the picture seemed to stretch and contract as if rendered on rubber. She had once been happy to live on such quiet, peaceful streets, but now as her thought grew sluggish she cursed them for being empty. Darkness began to creep in slowly from behind her eyes, wisps of blackness closing in. From the void she could hear the sound of clanging metal.

The pressure vanished, and she slumped to the ground. Air rushed into her in one great rush, her mouth open as she pulled in the air with a rumbling croak. Her head felt stuffed with cotton. The pavement was cool against her cheek as she lay there, mouth hanging as she gasped in huge lungfuls. Her eyes opened a crack and she saw a world that spun round like a kaleidoscope. Then something black stamped in front of her and everything was shocked into clear resolution. The houses stretched in the distance behind what Akane recognised as a foot. She tried to roll to her back, her gaze following the length of the sleek, black-clad leg to its owner.

"Ukyo?" she gasped as her eyes found a grim face and locks of long chestnut chair.

The chef stood firm in her okonomiyaki garb, snug black leggings conforming to the curves of her legs, splayed wide and slightly bent in a defensive stance. She lacked her usual bandolier of spatulas, her blue tunic bound by a simple white sash around her narrow waist. Her great battle spatula was gripped in white-knuckled fists, the weapon held tightly before her braced like a shield as she glared at her opponent, who growled from several paces away, hunched warily as her ribbon lashed and swung about her like a serpent.

"You," Kodachi screeched. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm sorry, your ladyship, but apparently you haven't heard that even us peasants can have ninja helpers now…" Ukyo smirked. "…and mine is much better than your little Umpa Lumpa."

"Sasuke. The worm," the gymnast hissed in a tone that made Akane feel sorry for the inept little shinobi. The ribbon lashed again with furious snap.

"Have you lost what little of it you had, you psycho?" Ukyo demanded.

Kodachi's face grew warped as she bared her teeth; a snap of her whip smashed the pavement, raising a gout of shattered concrete. "So the witch is saved from her reckoning by a sister of the same evil coven. Flocking together like ravens about rotting carrion, birds of the same wicked feather."

Suddenly her rant broke into loud peals of piercing laughter. "But perhaps it would be best to kill two such birds with the one stone."

"I would say you're the one flying high, sugar," the chef said, sneering the last word.

"Ukyo!" Akane groaned as she fought to push herself to her hands.

"Sit back, Akane," the taller girl said never taking her eyes from the cackling gymnast. "Leave Lady Loony to me. You just guard my delivery, 'kay?" Ukyo shifted to the side, her stance slipping in front of Akane, almost protectively. Akane grit her teeth and tried to stand, but pain lanced her knees and kept her down. Damn it, she cursed silently, as she watched the other women charge at each other.

The air snapped as Kodachi lashed out her ribbon, forcing Ukyo to shift to the side. The fabric tip smashed the pavement as its target slipped to the right, barely slowing in her dash.

As she closed the gap Ukyo swung her spatula in a massive swipe, the steel flat aiming to swat the gymnast aside.

Kodachi sprang back, pulling herself from the weapons path, black locks tossed in the wind raised by the huge utensil.

As the rich girl slid back, Akane saw her wrist twirl, a circular wave rippled along the rose-coloured silk.

"Ukyo!" she yelled, watching the ribbon contort and twist sinuously, the end reeling back on its length and streaking to the chef's back, still turning with the momentum of her missed attack.

Ukyo jerked at Akane's call, and her eyes narrowed at the wicked smirk that crawled across Kodachi's painted lips. Surrendering to the pull of her heavy weapon, she pivoted on her heels and pulled the spatula in tight. She gripped the haft with one hand and she pressed her other palm to the flat blade, bracing for the strike.

The pink tip struck the steel with a clang and a flash of sparks that lit Ukyo's grimace as the vibration rang through her.

Kodachi jumped on the momentary advantage as she leaped up and struck with both of her slippered feet, slamming her heels into the back of Ukyo's skull before somersaulting backwards.

Ukyo stumbled forwards from the blow and gritted her teeth, but quickly shook the strike off, and turned once again to face her opponent, the muscles in her jaw now bunching visibly.

"Such defiance you have against your just reward," Kodachi sneered, as the anger seemed to build in the chef.

"Cram it up your inbred rear," Ukyo spat, hefting her weapon.

The gymnast's eyes narrowed and her face seemed to drain of any colour, becoming ghostly pale but for her blood red lips, which twisted into a scowl. The ribbon that whirled in accelerating rings over her head trembled as the fist that controlled it quivered with rage.

"You dare insult my lineage, you common beast-lying harlot?" she hissed.

"Your lineage, yourself, and the horse that carried your fat ass in," Ukyo replied, punctuating her words by spitting forcefully to the floor.

The dark-haired girl's only retort was a wordless cry, a high-pitched roar like the scream of a leopard, and it was with feline speed and grace that she attacked, leaping into the sky, her lithe body arching as she flipped and then spun tightly. The ribbon twirled after her, its pink trail watched intently by Ukyo who lowered in her stance, fingers flexing on her spatula's haft.

Kodachi's aerial pirouettes gave strength to her weapon; the fabric gained more power from each revolution until it snapped out with speed that blistered the air.

Ukyo was ready, and batted the flailing fabric aside with the blade of her spatula. As the ribbon reeled away, she jabbed at the gymnast with the steel edge.

She missed her mark as her opponent pushed stiffly on the flat and swung herself over the chef's head, ready to strike from behind.

Ukyo was ready, and twisted her hips sharply, swinging arms back to slam the butt of her spatula into Kodachi's gut.

The girl gasped, folding over the steel haft.

Ukyo twisted the weapon, squeezing another groan from her enemy before she whipped her body around, reversing her spin and bringing the spatula's blade around in a wild arc, swatting Kodachi aside like a giant's fist.

The gymnast crashed into the ground several paces away, grunting as her shoulder ploughed into the pavement as the force of her impact left her rolling across the concrete. She stopped as she flopped on to her back, her face screwing up into a tight grimace as a cough made her body jerk.

Kodachi's teeth ground as she tried to roll onto her side, reaching a hand for her ribbon that lay in a limp coil a pace from her fallen form. Ukyo had closed in, pressing her heel down on the gymnast's questing fingers, watching the other girl's face twist as she ground her food on the bones.

"Okay, Kodachi, lets talk," the chef said, lowering the blade of her spatula to Kodachi's neck. "What's the deal?"

Akane moved towards the pair. Her legs felt like water, knees trembling with each laboured step she took. Her ribs seemed to ache even more now that she could breathe, her chest blazing each time she inhaled. She hissed as a lance of pain shot through her ankles, making her stumble. She wobbled but managed to keep upright and continued forwards, her path swaying from side to side as she advanced on her rickety legs.

Rubbing at the reddened flesh of her neck Akane kept her eyes locked on Kodachi, whose own empty gaze fixed on the edge of Ukyo's weapon.

"C'mon, fruitcake, spill it," Ukyo growled, pressing her weapon in tighter.

"Another time, witch," Kodachi gasped, clapping her hands together.

Smoke exploded with a small flash, wisps of white clouds flowering from the gymnast's hands.

Ukyo cried out, dropping her weapon and clasping her hands over her face to protect herself from the gas. Then both girls disappeared, becoming fading, flickering shadows amidst the rising smoke.

Akane yelled the chef's name and forced her body into motion, stumbling forwards and pushing herself to run, which came more as a hobbling trot. With clenched teeth, she endured the aches of her body to throw herself into the cloud.

Harsh coughs rang amidst the rushing sound of the flushing smoke that filled her ears as the gas clogged her lungs. She kept her eyes squeezed shut, but could already feel a stinging burn blossom beneath her lids. She had to get out of this.

Tracking onto the sound of Ukyo's splutter, she launched herself in that direction, colliding into the other girl's body and ejecting them from the poisonous haze.

They landed together in a heap of tangled limbs, Akane yelping as the impact shocked her already bruised ribs. Any complaint the chef might have made at the hard landing was swallowed by a renewed fit of coughs. Her eyes still burned, but it was fading and she forced herself to open them. The haze of smoke was dying, the last wisps being carried into the sky by the wind. A steel canister rattled on the ground, still hissing. Nearby a still twisted length of pink ribbon lay across the cracked pavement, but there was no sign of its mistress.

"The fruitcake gone?" Ukyo asked in a hoarse voice.

"I think so," Akane replied. She turned her head to scan the street for their enemy, but winced as the motion sent flares along her raw neck.

Ukyo stood, brushing herself down. She turned and offered Akane a hand. Her eyes were reddened and watery slits, and tracks of tears were etched in the dust on her cheeks, but she managed a weak smile. Akane glowered and her jaw bunched as she slowly got to her feet on her own strength, ignoring her body's protests. The other girl frowned, but turned back to the ravaged street. Her eyes narrowed as they fell on the abandoned ribbon.

"Whoa," she muttered. "She really wanted to kill us this time."

Akane opened her mouth to reply, but could not find anything to say. Kodachi had been out for blood, Mine especially, she added silently, her mouth twisting with the bitter taste that thought left.

Ukyo's hands wafted at the air as she bent to collect her dropped spatula. The gas had gone, but the chef still seemed cautious, waving away at the air while pinching her nose. Taking up her weapon, she slung it over the back of her shoulders and made her way back to Akane.

"Let's get you home," she said with a nod.

"I'll be fine," Akane replied roughly, picking up her scuffed and torn book bag. She glanced at the bag, which contained the weights given to her by Genma. It had fallen off when the strap had snapped from Kodachi's attack. A steel gymnastics hoop, now bent, lay next to it. She shivered as the keen, razor sharp edge glinted in the fading daylight.

"I don't need you to check on me," she grunted and she began to walk towards her home, head held high and praying that Ukyo did not notice the trembling of her weakened legs.

"Perish the thought," Ukyo replied in a tone that irked Akane with its dryness. "I just want to wash the damned, stinging stuff from my eyes, and your place is closer than mine." She lifted a flat takeaway box, miraculously unharmed after the battle. "My delivery is on the way, too."

"Fine," Akane huffed, and continued to walk as fast as her aching legs would allow. There was nothing to say to that. Her hand almost drifted to her sore neck, but she forced it to remain at her side. She heard Ukyo's footstep following behind, and her hands balled in a quivering fist as the sensation sank in that once again, she had been rescued.

It had not even deserved to be called rain. There were many types of rain: slow falling fat droplets that pounded you, fast bullets of water that flailed your skin, icy cold drops that seemed to pierce the surface and chill you straight to the bone. Today the rain had come in a spray so fine it had been invisible but for the barest shimmer of light on the winds, the tiny beads making no sound as they fell all across the forest, not even causing a quiver on the frail needles of the evergreens.

Ranma had not even felt the moisture that dampened his skin, had not even known of the rain. The magic of Jusenkyo had known, though. The magic always knew.

She unclamped her lips from between her teeth and sighed, aiming the expelled air upwards and watching as it stirred her bangs of thick scarlet hair. As her tresses fell back into place, a sardonic grin crept onto her face as she considered the action. The gesture ironically summed up her opinion of her situation; it blew.

She could hear the rushing of the river now. Tossing the bottle into the air, she listened to the sloshing of the meagre remaining contents as it spun end over, then snagged it out of the air as it dropped. She had left Ryoga back at the camp, trying to ignore that nagging in back of her head that said that the moron would wander off and get himself lost. Ranma hoped the pig wished to change back into a man as much as she did, which should keep him at the campsite while she fetched the water.

Doctor Tofu had left before the rain had come, returning to his new master. Ranma frowned, still unsure what to make of that, and all that his friend had told them. The Devine Order of the Bagua, he thought, his brows knit together.

A society dedicated to the knowledge of the life force ki; thousands of years of research into the behaviour and manifestations of the energy that bound all spirits together as one. It was what Ranma had been looking for when he had began this quest and left Nerima. The proof that the realm of martial arts was so much bigger than his hometown, or even Japan itself, loomed over him with mist-shrouded peaks. Near the summit of Emei mountain walked eight living libraries of ki techniques.

Since their encounter with the Order's guardsmen, Ryoga had been whining that they should leave the area. Despite the fact that it had been him who had pummelled the five warriors, the lost boy had been adamant that Ranma's battle with Willow was attracting too much trouble and that he did not want his name to be dragged down with whatever new trials Ranma was bound to attract.

Although it was mostly the same old "Ranma is the source of all evil and misfortune" crap he usually spouted, Ranma could not help but admit that there was a ring of truth to Ryoga's words. The very thought made his lips twist into a grimace, left a bitter taste in his mouth, but the fact was that fight had gone too far. He knew, despite Doctor Tofu's assurances that he would smooth things over, that something would come from it. It always did.

It still seemed a shame to leave, though, because from what the Doctor had said about the Order, particularly this Master Locke, they were good people. They were not dragon lords or winged princes of fire, but masters of their art seeking to gather and utilise knowledge for the benefit of all. Tofu had said that the locals revered the Order and the Eight Masters for sharing their talents. With their understanding of the cycle of ki that flowed through nature and maintained order, the Order had been able to teach the villager's ancestors farming techniques that used the periodic flux of energy to ensure a plentiful harvest, aligning their field with the web of ki channels in the earth. By living in accord with the Greater Cycle, those who dwelled on Mount Emei had enjoyed cleaner water, survived the wildest storms and bloodiest conflicts in Chinese history, and lived long lives in lush lands where famine, pestilence and war rarely rode. Ranma knew that such people make good allies and maybe, in some ways, teachers.

However, he also knew that was unlikely. Even as he thought of all the reasons why he should endeavour to befriend the Masters, he felt the same arguments start a warm tingle in his guts, like setting sparks to tinder. The sensation made his skin itch like something was moving restlessly beneath the surface, something hot. He tried to push it down, stuffing the growing heat back into his belly, but his fingers moved restlessly. He knew this feeling well; it was the relapse of a flaw, a vice, almost, and addiction. It was something that always got the better of him, something wild he could not tame, something that always created more problems and sunk him deeper into trouble. Ranma had a bad habit.

He liked to fight people who fought well.

"Do you always glow like that, or are you just having a good day?" a voice inquired from behind her.

Ranma started, body jerking stiff, but her instinct slammed into control and turned the startled jump into a tight spin. Pivoting on her heel she whirled around, her legs bent slightly like the coiling of a spring and her hands flashed up before her, fingers curled into loose fists.

"I see you weren't expecting me, or sensing my presence," the stranger said, one eyebrow rising towards a flare of spiked, yellow hair. "So what's with the aura, Red?"

Ranma's eyes narrowed at the nickname, but her half-formed frown died as she realised what the man was referring to. Though she could not see it herself, she felt the prickly feeling of goose bumps as they skimmed across her skin, the sensation she had come to associate with the release of her battle aura. The line of her lips tightened. She had let her mind wander out too far. As she had walked in to the mists of her own thoughts, a tiny crack had formed in her will and allowed her fighting spirit to leak out into the visible spectra. She inhaled deeply through her nostrils, filling her lungs with the swelling tension of her abdomen, and the goose bumps vanished.

"Not too bad," the man murmured, drawing Ranma's attention back to him. She met his gaze and something in his bright blue eyes made her feel as if cold oil was trailing over her flesh.

The figure was tall and lithe. He stood with his shoulders slouched idly and his hands buried in the deep pockets of his pale khakis. His posture spoke of practised laziness and ease, despite standing perched upon the slender wooden bough of a tree. The branch swayed with the gentle blowing of the wind, yet his stance never wavered. The same soft gusts rustled his bright hair, which struck upwards like a nest of spires but for the one lock that fell to his nose like a descending spear. The man wore a long black mantle of rippling fabric, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Beneath the folds Ranma could make out the pastel blue of a thin shirt, the top two buttons unfastened to the collar, which hung open. Upon the dark silk of the mantle two dragons strode, the play of the light across the gilded threads animating the serpents into sinuous false-motion, clashing in a fury of golden scales and silver fangs.

Ranma eased out her anxious crouch and assumed a neutral stance, one foot behind the other with her arms at her sides with loose tension; she regarded the other man with narrowed eyes.

"So what brings one of the mighty masters of Emei to this part of the wood?" she asked, forcing her voice flat.

The man brow flickered. "You've heard of us? Then Locke's little envoy must have stopped by."

"You could say that." Ranma did not like the dryness that had crept into her tone. Little envoy, indeed, she thought darkly. "So which one are you? Jack Frost, lord of snow and sneezes?"

The blonde man smirked and let out a soft chuckle. "Good, you have a sense of humour." His smile widened into a wide grin that twisted her stomach into knots for some reason she could not place. "Since you asked so politely, I am called Blitz, Lord of the Thunders."

"Am I supposed to be impressed?" Ranma grunted, although she knew it was not the right thing to say. She wanted to make friends with these people, but there was something about this guy that riled her.

Blitz shrugged. "Most people are, but I see I will have to try harder to impress you." As he finished his sentence his body tilted forwards, tipping until his inertia caused him to topple from the branch and fall, spinning head over foot like a tumbling bottle. He landed smoothly on his feet, not making even the slightest sound as he touched down; his hands had never left his pockets. He was still smiling at her, the corner of his lips forming a wry curve.

"That won't work either," she sneered. "I can do that much myself," she said, ignoring the faint stain of doubt that clouded her boast. It was true that such a fall was easy for her, but whether she could have made such a landing as the other had — silently and without even a small quiver of his nonchalant exterior — was something she was less sure of.

"I don't doubt that you could," Blitz said. "After all, you defeated my dear sister, Willow. So I'm sure you have many talents." There was something behind the way he had said that word, so softly that the sound seemed to hum with a double meaning.

Blitz walked towards her with a languid strut, each step slow and measured as if he were gliding across the grassy earth. "I'm sure Locke's friend has told you how curious we all are about you and your friend. So I thought I'd come and check you out for myself."

As he spoke, Ranma watched his eyes leave her face and rove down her body, his gaze like an oily hand that lingered over her curves. Her fists balled so tightly that her nails stung her palms as she fought down the bile that swelled in her gut.

He wants to check me out all right, she thought furiously as she felt her teeth grind against each other.

"I see the aura is back. Was it something I said?" His eyes had widened for a moment, a small tremor entered his voice. Its disappeared quickly though, and his sly smirk and twisted his lips again, small glitters of amusement flickering in his irises.

"No," she hissed, "but if you're going to continue saying things, say them to my face," she said, roaring the last word.

A low chuckle erupted from his throat through lips that had crawled into a steeper smirk. "I'm not sure I can do that. It's a natural reaction to a hot babe. I am a guy, after all."

So am I, she was about to yell into his face, when she looked into his leering eyes and the words died in her throat.

He had gotten close, she suddenly realised. Too close. Somehow without her noticing, the blonde lecher had crossed the gap between them. Now the man was watching her intently less than an arm's length away. As if trying to test the measurement, Blitz reached out with a hand, arm moving slowly, fingers reaching to brush her skin.

Snarling, Ranma batted the entreating arm away fiercely. Blitz yelled and yanked back his hand, rubbing at the tender spot where the protruding bone of Ranma's steel-hard forearm had jabbed into his flesh.

"Hmm," he muttered. "Looks like I really am going to have to try hard to impress you." His pale teeth caught the light as he smirked and ran a hand through his blade like spikes of hair. "But I like a challenge."

"Funny," Ranma said with a sly grin. "So do I," she lowered her stance, lifting her guards, hands curled into loose fists.

"See, Red," Blitz raked a hand through his wild spikes again, "we already have things in common."

As the sound of his last word hung in the air, his form blurred into motion.

Ranma's eyes followed him, watching as he flashed to her side. Pivoting on her heel her right knife hand clove the air in a sweeping arc.

The blow stopped short of its spiked target as Blitz's forearm was swung into its path, the Bagua master flowing past her. Ranma watched the sparkling light shimmer across the golden-scaled dragon across the back of his robe as he spun, one leg crossing behind the other to step around the furious redhead.

Behind! Ranma's instincts screamed and she jerked her hips round, twisting her pelvis to throw force into her arm as she jabbed her elbow out to her rear. Satisfaction flared through her chest as she felt her attack make contact, hearing a woof of expelled air as her opponent folded, the point of her elbow ploughed into his gut. She took a half step forward, gaining space for her next blow when the skin over her spine began to crawl.

She glanced down, eyes wide and jaw tightening as she glared at the two, fine fingered hands that had clamped over the swells of her breasts, the fingers flexing to knead at the pliant flesh. Her body stiffened, muscles tense and trembling. Like the vibrating string of a guitar, the music was a tune of rage.

"Hands off!" she screamed, seizing both molesting hands by the fingers and yanking them back, delighting in the yelp that accompanied the bending of the digits.

She lifted her leg up, cocking it like the hammer of a gun before she snapped it back, heel colliding with her attackers shin. The sound of Blitz's sharp hiss came from right next to her ear.

A low growl rumbled in her throat as she clamped one of his wrists in her left hand and the right wrapped itself around the silken folds of his sleeves. The snarl swelled into a roar and she dropped to her knee, flipping the blonde man over her shoulder and driving him towards the dirt.

The sound of Blitz's hand slapping against the ground was muffled by the thick grass, but it still dispersed the energy of his fall, allowing the Chinese master to land lightly in an arc, only the backs of his shoulders and the balls of his feet touching the ground.

"Almost," she heard him say, his tone filled with wry amusement. The arm she still held pinned against her twisted sharply, snaking from her grip. Both of his hands then pushed into the ground bringing the man, curling backward as his body seemed to fold. His legs came over; fine leather shoes swing down towards Ranma, who sprawled backwards to avoid the blow.

She watched as he continued to roll onto his shoulder blades, knees down pressing into his chest. He winked at her from between his feet, before he snapped himself straight again, flipping onto his feet.

The sight of his grinning face made her teeth grind as Ranma tucked herself into a handspring, landing in a wary crouch with her white-knuckled fists quivering before her.

The mountain above them sang with the pealing of a bell. The faint rings echoed through the misted peak like a ghostly call filtering through the trees. Ranma's muscles relaxed but she kept her eyes locked on the man in front of her, fighting the urge to follow his gaze to the haze-shrouded mountaintop.

Blitz spat what sounded like a curse in Chinese as he glowered at the ocean of dark clouds that gathered at Emei's apex. "Always when I'm having fun," he grunted. His eyes then found her again and he flashed his teeth at her in a wide, slanted grin. "The mountain calls me," he crooned. "Try not to miss me too much, Red." His eyebrow quirked as he winked at her and he left in a blur of black and rustling silk.

The branches did not give the slightest creak of protest as he bounded into the thick forest.

Ranma's breath sawed in and out through her bared and clenched teeth, she could feel the goosebumps blazing across her quivering body like wildfire. The grass as her feet became blackened and twisted, flattening under the pressure of her raging battle aura.

"Bastard!" she bellowed and kicked the ground with an angry lash of her foot, clumps of turf and earth shooting forwards as a spray of dirt rose from the soil like a giant tidal wave.

Watching the large chunks of mud splatter and break against the far trees, she felt herself relax. Her shoulder slumped as if deflated by the heavy sigh that she blew from her mouth. Ranma glanced at the tear she had produced in the forest floor and frowned. Her chest felt filthy where he had touched her and she stepped back to where she had dropped her water bottle. The plastic folded in her grip, but she forced herself to relax and rushed to the babbling stream to fill the vessel, feeling a surging desperation to be male again.

The air hummed a high melody and light danced across the bright metal. The twin blades sang as they cut, the keen edges shining like crossed sickle moons. The branch did not even quiver before a rain of twigs and forked evergreen leaves fell like shed tears, as if the tree itself wept. Brand smirked and crossed both weapons over his head, letting loose a flurry of slashes. The blades became flashes of sparkling steel and wailed like furious winds, a deadly storm that swept the falling debris and scattered it, tiny slices of plant flesh and wooden shrapnel spraying across the worn, white stones.

Brand surveyed his work with a stiff nod, before continuing down the mountain path, one of his deer-hook swords hanging limp in his fist while he resumed twirling its partner across his calloused knuckles. He lumbered down the slope half-heartedly, his steps dragging idly except for when his hands would flash out to sever another low hanging branch, or to slice some long cross that jutted out from the cracks of the mountainside. The exercise would liven his step, but as the sound of rushing water floated to his ears his pace slowed, his scowl deepening.

The trees slipped away as the mountain split to allow a surging stream of icy water to slide across its rocky face. The water's surface was like liquid glass, falling in clear flows that caught the light as the low winter sun slid behind a grey ocean of clouds. Brand descended the ancient steps, hewn from the very face of the mountain, smoothed by the tools of man and the hands of the centuries. As he stepped lightly downward, he watched the stream splash against the damp, jagged rocks. The water turned white as it crashed upon the ancient stone and wet vapour rose in clinging droplets like a pale mist.

Rock jutted from the mountain into a wide plateau, the rushing falls plummeting past the ledge making it glisten in its spray. The moist vapours, Emei's own ghostly shroud, parted for Brand as he strolled across the ledge. Shimmering silhouettes formed, the low arching roof of a shrine, its green tiles and red pillars slowly taking form with each step he took. The shadow of a man appeared, a huge wavering giant in the fog.

As Brand stepped once more into clear air, the figure slowly resolved into Cragg, the huge warrior standing stiffly with his hands clasped at his back, head titled upwards to stare upwards at the shards of light that glowed among the canopy of dark clouds around Emei's summit.

"You know, Brand, it's not very Taoist to go around slicing up the local plant life," Willow said from where she sat, sprawled on a flat slab of grey rock. Her legs were stretched out before her, crossed at the frayed cuffs of her faded blue jeans. She leant back on her hands, craning her neck over her shoulder to glare at him with one eyebrow quirked behind the long strands of golden hair that fell over her face and brushed her cheeks.

Brand grunted and flicked the scraps of twigs and broken leaves from the sleeves of his long green coat. "None of your business," he grumbled.

"It is our business," a new voice said. Stone pushed himself off from the gnarled tree he had been leaning against, the shadows of the bare branches casting harsh lines across his angular face. He wore a habit of dull maroon fabric, the material worn and threadbare with frayed tears at the shoulders that revealed the corded muscles of his forearms and biceps. His clothes were smeared with white dust and his hands and bare feet were caked in a chalky powder, showing that he had returned from the dark caves that wormed beneath the mountain. He inclined his shaven head in a bare sketch of a bow that Brand returned respectfully, but just as minimally.

"A Bagua master slicing apart the trees out of petulance is… unseemly," the older man said as he passed by Brand, walking toward where Willow sat.

The deer-hook swords trembled in Brand's fists as he fought the scowl that tugged his lips. Finally he snorted, scuffing the ground with a kick of his boots. "What is this all about anyway, and why drag me all the way up here for it?" he demanded.

"Locke has new information about the strangers," Cragg rumbled in his deep voice. Willow's eyes were distant, staring through the rushing falls and into the void, but Brand saw her tense at Cragg's words. He felt his jaw tighten, knowing that his sister was still wondering about the two Japanese… about that boy.

"Then why are we here?" he snapped. "This is why we have the great hall, is it not?" He glanced around, darting his eyes over the surrounding. "Where's Blitz?"

"Probably goofing around with some slut," Willow said with a shrug. "He heard the bell. Someone will tell him where we are." Her frame slumped as she sighed slowly. "As for why we are here…." she began in a wavering voice, but the harsh chorus of loud, spluttering coughs gave him his answer.

The coughing grew louder, wet and gravelly as it hacked at the air. Cragg had his eyes squeezed shut, a deep frown marring his wide face and making his bottom lip tremble. Stone stared at the ground, brows furrowed as he glared at his dusty feet. He turned to Willow, whose slim body flinched as the harsh cough rang out. With a gasp and a croak the terrible noise stopped, and the air seemed unnaturally quiet in its absence, the whisper of the wind and the hiss of the falls the barest of tremors in the long silence.

Brand opened his mouth, but no sound came out, his throat seemingly locked. He licked at his dry lips before he tried again, this time forcing his voice out though very softly.

"Was that…?" was all he could manage.

Willow did not answer. She pulled her knees in close and hugged them to her chest. Her bright golden bangs fell across her eyes like a veil, hiding her face from view as she stared over the edge of the ledge at the rushing waterfall and its clouds of white vapour.

Brand turned to Stone, who stared back with a face as hard and impassive as the mountain above. He could feel the man's glacial eyes bore into him before they narrowed and he nodded.

"Locke and Cloud are with her," he said finally.

"How is she?" he asked, but Stone gave no reply, he simply folded his arms across his broad chest and closed his eyes, waiting. Brand scowled and stepped towards the other man, ready to demand an answer, but a whisper rang in the air. He turned to watch the red-panelled door of the shrine slowly crawl open, the metal of its base rasping against the stones beneath as it opened just enough for Locke's withered but wiry form to step through. His long white brows hung against his face as they furrowed, creasing his dark, leathery face. He gnawed his thin, bloodless bottom lip with his incisors as he stepped from the shrine, pulling the door closed softly in his wake.

Willow scrabbled to her feet and stepped forward, mouth already opening.

"She's sleeping," the old man said, reading the question on their faces as he glanced up. His frown smoothed as he smiled towards Willow, but to Brand it seemed a very small, frail smile.

"She needs her rest," Locke continued, hands rummaging around within the wide sleeves of his silken, maroon robe, "So I tapped a point to make her sleep far easier."

"What happened?" Willow asked sharply. "She was looking so much better yesterday." Her shoulders quivered as she glared at the ancient master, as if accusing him of some foul misdeed.

Locke sighed and shook his head, long brows flailing. "She was, but I'm afraid these things happen. Recovery is never a smooth gradient; there are occasional low spots, perhaps caused by an errant eddy in her ki flow." He shrugged, but his smile lifted and grew warmer. "With some rest, and the abundance of ki in the water's flow, I'm sure she'll be on the mend again soon."

He was trying to reassure them, Brand could tell from his tone. His withered tone was soft and high, the way an adult speaks to a small child. Nevertheless he felt comforted by the words, safe in knowledge that the old man was a master of his arts, and that their older sister was stronger than any illness.

Locke resumed fumbling through his voluminous sleeves, frowning as his hands flailed about beneath the shimmering silk. After a while he pulled out his long-stemmed pipe and twirled it in his fingers. Withdrawing a pouch of herbs from the folds around his black sash, he began stuffing the pipe's silver bowl with the fragrant leaves. He then began patting his baggy garments again, obviously seeking his matches, but his pale grey eyes settled onto Brand and his face folded with a warm smile. He extended the pipe with one hand, and with a grumble Brand snatched it from his thin fingers.

Holding the stem in the fingers of his left hand, he wrapped the pipe bowl in his right fist and clenched it tight. He could feel the song of the silver, skittering and bouncing like a discordant tune on a xylophone. Flexing his hand and squeezing the metal tight, he reached for the song, and with a jerk of his muscles twanged it, making it hum with a screeching rhythm. Brand then passed the pipe back to Locke with a low grunt, as the aged scholar nodded his thanks and brought the pipe to his mouth. He swiftly began puffing the leaves into an orange glow, rings of smoke floating from the blackening herbs.

The door rasped open again and Cloud emerged, but only the back of his sleekly muscled frame was visible. His dark hair blended softly into the shadows within the shrine as he leaned through the doorway, speaking softly to the one inside. After a moment he stepped back from the portal, the light shimmering in waves across his silk-garbed back as he moved. His hand whitened and trembled against the red panels of the door as he pushed it closed before him. Brand felt his jaw drop as he saw quiver run through Cloud's body, setting his body trembling like a tree in an autumn gale. A jerk suddenly followed, his spine locking and his form bolting straight and upright. He pivoted on his heel and began stalking towards them. His dark scowl and flashing blue eyes gave him a face like a storm cloud, and Brand took a reflexive step back before he could stop himself.

"Let's make this quick," he hissed as he folded his arms over his chest and glared at Locke, who sucked noisily at his pipe step as if nothing had changed. "What has your student found out about the strangers? Are they Amazons?"

Locke's withered face wrinkled as he grinned. "We've been quite fortunate," he said, pipe bobbing as he formed the words. "My student was already a close acquaintance of the strangers. You see, back in Japan he is a doctor, specialising in shiatsu therapy and holistic medicines. Our stranger, named Ranma, was one of his patients, as were many of his friends."

"Well, that's just great," Cloud spat dryly, "but you still haven't answered my question. Are they Amazons?" He bit the words out one by one in a voice like iron.

"Not exactly," the old man said slowly before blowing a ring of wispy smoke into the air. "Though there is a relation, as this young Ranma is apparently the betrothed of the Amazon's youngest champion."

"Have you lost the plot, Locke?" Willow barked from where she sat on the trough stone, legs crossed in front of her. "I know the Amazons hate men, but I don't think they've all turned into lesbians."

Brand frowned at the young girl's tone and shot her a dark glare she did not seem to notice.

"Ah, well, that's because he's not a girl," Locke replied with a shrug of his thin shoulders. "Apparently he's a victim of an unfortunate accident with the Nyannichuan." He snatched the pipe from his mouth glanced around at his companions one by one and blinked. "Did I not mention that?" he asked after a while.

"No, you didn't," Willow said through gritted teeth.

"Oh." He placed the long step of his pipe back between his small teeth, and inhaled deeply. "I guess I would have if I had not been interrupted," he muttered, regarding Cloud from the corners of his eyes as he blew two long streams of smoke from his nostrils.

"So both strangers are male," Stone said flatly, a summation rather than a question.

Locke nodded.

"And he's been to Jusenkyo," Brand snorted. "The fool."

"Apparently it was some sort of training trip. Tofu — my student — tells me his father is an interesting character. But if all of what he says is true, the boy is even more remarkable, and he and his friend require watching very carefully."

"So he's not a cocky bitch but a chauvinistic pig," Willow said harshly. "What's the big deal?"

"From what Tofu tells me, a great deal. The boy is like a living maelstrom; wherever he goes, chaos unfolds and things change. Apparently he has over four fiancés and as many bitter rivals." Locke's shoulders shook as he chuckled at some private joke.

Willow gave a pointed snort. "So he's a player. I fail to see what that has to do with us."

Locke's head bowed as he shook it softly, his long eyebrows swaying like tails of white. He sighed loudly, smoke billowing from his nose as the embers in his pipe bowl glowed. Then his grey eyes flicked up and locked on each of them in turn.

"Do you recall that great spike of energy about a year ago? A great wave that came rippling through the ki flux from the north, from Qinghai province? I believe you were the first to sense it, Brand."

Brand frowned as he felt Locke's probing gaze fall on him, scanning him and wearing on him like an ocean tide, seeming to analyse and magnify every stitch of him. He felt his eyes narrow. "You mean the destruction of Jusendo, don't you?"

The other man nodded his wrinkled head and his lips creased into a small smirk. "Tell us about it, if you would."

"What's to tell?" he snapped. "We already know what happened. You all felt it, though maybe not as closely as I."

"Indulge me," the aged scholar said with gentle smile.

Brand's lips twisted and he rolled his eyes with a sigh. "Fine," he grunted. "As you said, there was a huge gathering of ki from the mountains of Qinghai, which caused a ripple in the Greater Cycle. Most of the energy was of the fire phase, and was at first consistent with symptoms of the King of Phoenix Mountain's transformation. However, the levels of energy surged to heights unheard of for centuries. I could feel the sheer power of it even here; we all could."

Brand remembered gathering with the others at the mountain's peak and watching the northern skies, his senses quivering with the echo of the distant power. "The energy rose to an explosive level, it was same kind of sensation as an erupting volcano, but bigger, closer," he mused as the memories began to clear.

"Then it just seemed to decay away like a snuffed match, fading to a tiny glow, then flickering out beneath my senses. Later you told us that Jusendo had been levelled and the cursed springs flooded." Brand shook himself and scowled. "What is the point to this, anyway?" he barked.

Locke puffed thoughtfully and his pipe while he stroked the long wisps of his beard with a bony hand. "Shouldn't the Phoenix Lord's power have stayed near constant, as it had with all his predecessors? You should have been able to feel Saffron's power from then until the day he died, in a burst of fire and ash. Why didn't you?"

Brand jaw's tightened, and he drew breath to reply, but Stone's hard, granite voice broke in.

"Are you implying that this Ranma was the one who defeated Saffron?"

Brand started, body jerking as if had been slapped. He felt his eyes widen in flash and his heart felt as if it had leapt into his throat. From his side, he heard Willow gasp loudly. Cloud's face darkened, his jaw bunched and his eyes lit with blue flares.

"That's absurd," he yelled. Stepping forward, he seized a handful of Locke's purple robes and spun the old man around to stare growl in his face. "No matter how strong this brat is, there is no way he could have beaten Saffron. Once transformed, the King of Mount Phoenix is a virtual god. No one short of Cloud could possibly have had the power to defeat him." The feel of the bunched silk in his trembling fist registered in Brand's brain, and he released his grip on the robe as if it were aflame and stepped back swiftly.

Locke frowned, the lines of his face deepening as his withered skin folded with the motion, and brushed his crumpled sleeve. "As you should know, Brand, strength is not just about power. Saffron may have possessed enormous power, but he was no warrior. Skill can often overcome raw power, and these two strangers seem to have plenty of both."

"I'm assuming there is more behind this than that," Cloud said with a lifted brow.

"Well, after that day, I sent a message to Mount Phoenix, asking them what happened. For weeks I received no reply, and so I had to call in some favours from an old acquaintance named Jalfurez, a fellow scholar. He reported that some strangers had come to Mount Phoenix and interfered with Saffron's transformation. He could not provide many details, as the Captain of the Phoenix Guard, a severe women by all accounts, had deemed the details classified. However, he was able to tell me that the interlopers had all possessed Jusenkyo curses, and that while two of them were believed to be foreigners, there was also a woman who he said was definitely Amazon. He also passed on a rumour that one of them had fought Saffron in single combat at Jusendo and wounded him, forcing him to revert to a state of infancy."

"Circumstantial evidence," Stone remarked roughly.

Locke nodded, "True, but circumstantial evidence can often lead to the truth, if you have enough for it to no longer seem like circumstance." He withdrew the pipe and expelled another blast of sweet-scented smoke, then pursed his lips in thought, crinkled forming around the lines of his thin lips. "Given the other unusual factors in that boy's life, almost anything seems beyond coincidence."

"Seems you're determined to tell us this jerk's life story," Willow muttered as she sat up, folding her legs beneath her. "Shame I forgot my popcorn."

"No need to be facetious, Willow," Locke chided, still wore that same crooked smile. "I just think the more we all know, the better we will be prepared if this boy does prove to be a liability. Besides, there are elements of him and his companion that warrant our attention. Not least is his lineage."

"Lineage?" Brand asked, his brow furrowing. "Something to do with this interesting and obviously masterful father figure?"

Locke's head tilted as he puffed on his pipe step. "In a way. But I was mostly talking about his martial lineage. You see, the boy's full name is Ranma Saotome, and he has been trained since childhood in his family style of martial arts. However, it is the style itself that is worrying, as his father Genma Saotome is one of the two second-generation masters of the Anything-Goes School of Martial Arts."

"What!" Cloud suddenly roared, and punctuating his words was a loud snap as a crack opened in the mountain beneath his feet. He continued regardless, his voice now lowered to a venomous hiss. "Are you saying that this fool is a student of that devil Happosai?"

"Happosai?" Brand repeated the name, for some reason feeling a sour taste in his mouth. "You mean the bandit, who raided the Chamber of the Forked Tongues and molested the former Master of Thunders? I thought that was just a rumour."

Locke scowled, wrinkled face pinching like he had taken a bite from a lemon. "It is not something that we like to publicise," he muttered. "That was not the only run-in our Order has had with that foul man. He is one of the most sneaky and conniving people on this planet, but also he is known to be a formidable martial artist. The Anything-Goes School is the martial arts system he founded, and is not something to be taken lightly.

"However, Tofu tells me that Ranma has not received any formal training from Happosai, but was taught by his father, who is little better. However, Tofu also vouches that Ranma is nevertheless a good man, but can be misguided, which gets him into trouble quite often."

"Oh yeah," Willow said dryly. "He's a real gentleman." She rubbed ostentatiously at her shoulder, which Brand knew still carried a yellowing bruise from her fight with the Japanese fighter.

"Well, I trust Tofu, so I doubt that Happosai's influence makes him a threat. However, I cannot say the same about the rashness of youth." Locke's eyes flicked to shoot a sidelong glance at Willow, who squirmed under his gaze. "I did wish to mention it, as his unusual fighting style becomes even more of a concern when you consider that he received his Amazon training from Matriarch Khu Lon herself."

"So that old woman is involved with this too," Stone said coolly. "I would have thought better of her."

"As I mentioned, the boy is linked to the Nichieju by ties of betrothal. His bride is Xian Pu, the Matriarch's named heir and great-granddaughter. Though Tofu tells me that young Ranma is quite reluctant with the arrangement."

Willow barked a laugh devoid of humour. "He's probably just running from commitment so he can screw around more. Typical man." The five men gathered scowled at the comparison, and Cloud's hands balled into a fist as his eyes darted in the direction of the shrine, and the muffled coughing from within.

"Anyway," Locke said, clearing his throat loudly, "it appears that Khu Lon has taken some interest in him, and not just as her heir's future mate. Tofu told me that the Matriarch locked the boy in his cursed form for days and made him jump through hoops in an attempt to get him to wed Xian Pu. However, I doubt it was so simple, as the boy learnt a high level technique from the experience. As well as the Phoenix Wing Gale, it appears that Ranma also knows the Amazonian technique of the Flame Roasted Chestnut fist."

"So, this boy is not only a student of a formidable martial style, he may also have been taught by two of the most renowned — or in Happosai's case infamous — masters in Asia," Brand concluded after a moment. He could hear the pulsing of his heart, its rhythm echoing in his head like a pounded war drum. He rubbed his fingers against his palms, and was surprised to find them moist and sweaty. Fire seethed in his belly.

"What of his friend?" Willow said in a rush. "What of Ryoga?"

Brand felt his jaw tighten as he teeth pressed against each other. His sister's thoughts were still drawn to that boy. He could not fathom what it was about that impudent brat that held her interest, but he knew he had to quash it. No man would lead his sister awry.

"She raises a good point," Cloud said, with a quirk of his eyebrow. "Is the other stranger as remarkable as you claim this Ranma Saotome is?"

Locke suddenly became fascinated by the swirling smoke that wafted like a misty aura about his frail body. His brows were furrowed so that the tips brushed his face and he wore a sheepish frown. "I'm not sure," he said after a moment.

"You're not sure?" Willow repeated slowly.

"He is interesting, no doubt about that. But Tofu could tell me very little about Ryoga Hibiki, and most of that was in relation to Saotome."

"Can he fight?" Brand asked immediately, trying to keep his own eagerness from his voice.

Locke blinked. "Oh, yes, that much is certain. He is said to be quite skilled. Tofu could not tell me what style of martial arts he practises, or much else about him, other than he turned up in their town not long after Saotome, chasing him. Apparently they are rivals."

"Then why are they here together?" Cloud asked.

Locke shrugged. "Who knows? The Japanese are a weird bunch, the martial artists most of all. With all the notions of honour and the samurai tradition, it's no surprise that two people who will be bitter enemies one minute will become allies and friends the next." He sucked noisily on his pipe before blowing out another smoke ring. "Their literature is full of such things."

"They didn't seem too friendly," Willow said, flicking her tail of golden hair over her shoulder. "She — he rather — flung a pack at his head while his back was turned."

"Maybe so," Locke said with a slow nod, "but Tofu told me that they have helped each other out on several occasions. He said they argued yesterday when he spoke to them, but they seemed to be amiable. Just a load of pride and hot air, as young men tend to have."

Brand scowled as he saw Locke's eyes glance in his direction.

"It does not seem unreasonable," the aging master continued, "to assume that Ryoga Hibiki was another of the strangers that stormed Mount Phoenix, since the Amazon girl was most likely Saotome's bride." His gnarled forehead crinkled as he frowned, the focus of his eyes growing distant as he lost himself in thought. "I wonder," he said softly from around the stem of his pipe.

Willow exhaled sharply, a sound that was half growl and half sigh. "What do you wonder this time?" she muttered as she rolled her eyes.

"As I recall, before the incident at Mount Phoenix we heard of another unusual incident among the three tribes of Qinghai. The Prince Herb of the Musk and two of his finest warriors were all beaten in single combat on a trip to Japan by three young warriors."

"And you think this involved these two as well?" Brand gave a derisive grunt. "Why not blame him for the defeat of Kirin of Nekonron as well?"

"It is not as ludicrous as you seem to think, Brand," Locke said, his lips tightening. "Prince Herb journeyed to Japan in search of the lost open-water kettle. It was also said that only Khu Lon of the Joketsuzoku knew of its location. Also, one of the martial artists who fought with the Musk was known to practise a strange style that utilised a unique ability to pull weapons of any size out of nowhere. Tofu tells me that among young Ranma's rivals, there is an Amazon man named Mu Tsu who possessed such an ability."

He raised his pipe to his creased lips for a quick puff, misty, sweet tendrils floating into the sky. "The most compelling evidence however; is that in both events, at Jusendo and with the Musk, there was the presence of very wild, but very short-lived tornados."

Silence crept in among the six master of Bagua Zhang like the mist that slithered around the peaks of Emei. The hiss of the waterfalls fell away as if the rushing waters had been muted. Brand could feel the cold gust of the mountain wind on his face, see it rustle Locke's dark robes and Willow's golden hair, but he could not hear it. He was deaf but for the swirl of thoughts and processed information in his brain and the seething bubbling of the fire in his gut.

Surprisingly, it was the stolid giant Cragg who shattered the calm, he had not yet uttered a word, but now his lips moved slowly and his deep voice rumbled like a landslide. "So what do we do now?" he asked simply.

"It is clear that the laws of the Accords have been broken," Cloud said his blue eyes shining through the shadows of his dark bangs. "However, to what extent is the question, and what we are to do about it? Much depends on whether we consider Ranma Saotome as Amazon by virtue of his betrothal."

"I'm not sure there is much we can do," Locke said, shaking his head. "Perhaps is too late."

"What!" Cloud snapped.

Locke gave another shrug of his bony shoulders, his robe swaying at the motion. "It had been over three thousand years since the Accords of Qinghai were written. Since then, our Order has shunned any involvement with affairs outside of our mountain. The laws of that age have lost their power over them, as have we. If incidents such as this go all the way to the Matriarch of the Nichieju, and the Royalty of Phoenix Mountain and the Musk, this is almost certain."

"Are you saying we do nothing?" Cloud hissed. His hands were at his sides, balled into quivering fists. "Let them do whatever they want? What of Jusenkyo? What of the work of our ancestors? What of the Reds?"

Locke sighed, and in that moment he seemed much older, and very tired. "I do not like the idea myself, Cloud, but remember, it was our ancestors who pledged not to interfere three millennia ago. It was your own teacher, the last Master of Heaven, that watched as the Reds took the land. He had wanted to do something as you do. He felt it his duty. However, he knew that he could not. 'Emperors fall and flags are raised,' he said to me, the pain plain in his eyes, 'but our place is here.' We have stood apart from the world for millennia, we can not go back now." His lips curled into a smile, but it was a weak and pale thing. "The tribes of Qinghai have survived for three thousand years. I'm sure they will continue to do so."

Cloud's mouth opened for a moment but then snapped closed, his jaw bunched as it hardened, his face setting back into the same dark expression, like the black clouds of the typhoon.

"So what of Ranma Saotome and his friend?" Brand asked, unable to keep the sneer from the last word.

"His name is Ryoga," Willow said in iron tones.

Brand at scowled at her but said nothing.

"Locke's student claims that they mean no harm to us," Stone grated. "Is this reliable?"

Locke nodded, and puffed on his pipe.

"Then we should do none to them," the bald man concluded. "Though it would be better if they were to leave Emei and not return."

"I agree," Cloud grunted, casting a sidelong glance at his twin. "However, it would be best if they were to leave immediately and be watched. If what Locke suspects is true, then he is correct that Saotome should be watched very closely."

Locke and Cragg also concurred.

The flames in Brand's stomach flickered as he felt a desperate panic cling to him. They could not be banished, not yet. Not until I've had my chance, a furious voice said. His teeth ground on each other as he clenched his jaw; his voice wanted to speak, to give some sort of a reason why they had to stay, but his mind could not think of one. Damn it, I have to work fast, his brain was still working rapidly when he noticed that the old man was speaking.

"…he seems quite set on seeing Willow again."

What? The roar almost erupted from his mouth with such force that it pained his throat as he reined it. He glanced at Willow whose eyes seemed rather distant, a small smile curving her lips. Why did she have to look so damn happy? The flickering flames erupted within him, and he barely fought them back as his skin began to crawl with prickling heat.

"So we're agreed," he said, the words tumbling from him. The others looked at him with small frowns, as if they could not remember who he was. Eventually Cloud sighed and nodded.

"Why in such a hurry, Brand?" Willow asked slowly, eyes narrowing as she glanced at him.

"Well, someone has to tell Blitz of our discussion," he shot back, and then noticing the heat of his tone, he pushed his lips into a small smirk and shrugged.

"I wanted to spar with him anyway." He hoped his voice sounded casual. He had never been good at appearing calm. It was against his nature.

Willow snorted. "Thinking with your fists again," she muttered, and turned away.

Cloud was staring at the shrine again; eyes fixed on the small building yet seeming lost in a void. In his hands had appeared a rosary of dark glass beads, each capturing the light as they swayed from his hand, sparkling as if tiny stars were captured in their spheres. His fingers toyed with one of the beads back and forth with his thumb. After a moment, he wrapped the whole length in a white-knuckled grip and stuffed the rosary back beneath his tunic, eyes regaining their dangerous flash.

"Brand's right," he growled. "This has gone on long enough. Locke, send a message to your student to inform the strangers of their banishment, and have someone keep and eye on them."

Locke's wrinkled eyes widened at Cloud's voice, and Brand felt his own narrow as he frowned. That had almost been a command, he noted. Such a thing was not done in Emei, not among the eight masters.

After a moment he forgot it, turning on his heel and walking from the peak. Idly, he hoped his steps were steady, as his legs felt rather insubstantial beneath him. His blood seemed to sing in his veins, and he could hear his own breath grow ragged. He rolled his tongue about his mouth, a mouth that seemed strangely moist, like that of a starving man drawn by the scent of roasting meat.

Within his grasp were real warriors, ones who had fought powerful opponents and grown stronger. They had beaten the bestial strength and styles of the Musk. Fighters of such calibre that they had challenged the great works of his ancestors and matched themselves against the flames of Mount Phoenix's king… the one who had defeated his sister, the Master of the Winds, with ease, and the other who had tried to seduce that same sister.

He realised he was drooling and wiped off his chin with the embroidered cuff of his coat. From his feet his could smell the acrid scent of burning grass.

Few people knew darkness, Kodachi mused as she sat in the shadows of her room. Most thought it simply an absence of illumination, space where the warmth and glow of light was blocked.

Kodachi knew it to be more. She knew that the darkness lived. It breathed, it moved, it thought, it had form and soul, and it watched.

She knew the darkness in her room was watching her, even as she watched it. With the thick curtains pulled shut, it swarmed and pulsated, its inky black tendrils writhing and distorting whatever it touched, making ordinary objects into nightmares. That was why people feared the dark, why everyone at some point in their lives felt terror in the shadows. In those times, the shivers running down your spine really were the cold caress of the dark.

However, Kodachi no longer feared the dark. She had gradually become to know it, to befriend it. Now she knew its secrets; for in the dark were not nightmares, but reality.

She had once heard a scientist say that the act of observation changed what was observed, altered it from what it was to what was seen. She now knew that was what light did. Light twisted things, polluted them, made them what ignorant people thought they were. It was in the dark that things were real, stripped and bare. In the cloak of darkness she could see the word's true form, and hear its true voice.

Did you think it would be so easy, Rosebud?

Kodachi looked down at the ribbon held loosely in her pale fingers, the rose fabric a dark magenta in the darkness. She caressed the soft silk and a ripple slid through its length, like a cat arching its back at its master's gentle touch.

Truly good things do not come so easily, dear Rosebud, the ribbon purred.

"She is a foul peasant," Kodachi hissed. "If her wicked coven-sister had not been there…."

Ah, but she was, the ribbons smooth, dulcet voice broke in. Peasants they may be, but their black arts are strong and evil, for they even overcome the might of your beloved knight. Their wicked arts destroyed his magnificence and now they have taken him.

Kodachi's hands balled around the ribbon, hard enough to turn her knuckles white were her skin not already ghostly pale. The points of her nails, painted the crimson of blood, dug into her palms, as did the sharp edge of her satin weapon.

She could feel the pain as the flesh broke, and it filled her with an almost delirious high greater than any potent narcotic.

"They will suffer," she rasped between her clenched teeth, spittle forming on her ruby lips. "For the sake of my beloved, they must."

And so they shall, the ribbon promised. But it shall not come easily. Something as wondrous as suffering does not come unless it is earned. The silky fabric writhed in her hands, shuddering as if drawing breath. You remember her suffering don't you, Rosebud? How rich and sweet it was, as you choked her? How when you wrapped me around her slim, pretty throat you could feel her pain? Her breath held by your strength, her pulse bound by my length, and slowly she began to fade. You could feel the life drain from her, couldn't you Rosebud. It slipped from her so slowly that you could taste it, and what a delicious elixir that was?

"Yes," Kodachi bit out, her voice was low and husky, her breath caught in her throat as the recollection made her knees wobble and her shoulders tremble. "Delicious," she whispered.

There will be so much more for use to taste, Rosebud. Together we can make them suffer endlessly, make them weep and writhe with their succulent pain. It will not be easy; their evil is strong, especially the Amazon witch and her demon elder. However, ambrosia so sweet never is.

"How will we defeat them?" she asked the ribbon. "How shall we make them suffer?"

Like the spider, dear Rosebud. Like the itsy-bitsy spider.

The ribbon trembled and coiled and Kodachi could have sworn that it was laughing.


Brand watched Blitz seethe. The blonde's once wild crest of spikes now stood straight and vertical like upthrust knife pints. His usually cool features were obliterated by the frenzied snarl on his face, sparks flashing in his blue eyes and nostrils flared as his breath sawed in an out through his clenched and quivering teeth. Bursts of foul language fell from his lips, vile obscenities blending with low mutterings of which Brand could only make the words, "queer" and "bent".

Brand's nose twitched as the scents around him changed, becoming the crisp and clean scent of ozone. Bangs and pops erupted from nothing as the air seemed to collapse and implode from the anger pouring from the lithe figure. Small bolts of electricity swarmed and danced in Blitz's aura, winking into life then vanishing like blue-white flares.

Brand felt his lips curl into a small smirk. "I was thinking," he said lazily, "that since these foreigners seem to have captured everyone's attention, we should see them for ourselves." He made himself shrug. "Just to see what the fuss is." He glanced at the younger man from the corners of his eyes. "You interested?"

Blitz said nothing; he just grinned, a gesture that did not touch the lightning in his eyes.


To be continued.

Author's notes: Yes it's been too long. My life has undergone some changes, I've moved house and am now working as an intern in a lab. Not sure how this will affect my writing, but hopefully it will only be for the best.

Thanks to Rob for pre-reading and all his help above and beyond the call of duty, Ryan for letting me bug him with questions, Larry F for hosting the fic, and you for reading.


Mongkol—A ceremonial headband worn by Muay Thai fighters before a match, said to contain rolled up papers of prayers and good-luck spells.

Wai Kru—A ritual dance performed by Muay Thai fighter before a match, and to their master before commencing training, which shows respect for their camp and teachers.

Sanmon Zenkai Ha—Temple gate opening blast (wave), a technique of the Kumon style Kokyuken, modified and improved from the Saotome Ryu Yamasenken by combining the Mouko Kaimon Ha and Gaimon Tetsusen Shi techniques.

Kunai— Ninja weapon that can either be thrown or used like a dagger in close combat. A sharp dirk with a thin, triangular blade and often a metal ring on the pommel of its handle so that it can be spun or used with a rope.

Book 2, Chapter 5
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