Ranma 1/2 manga fanfiction
by Gary Kleppe

The characters of Ranma 1/2 are the creation of and rightful property of Rumiko Takahashi. They are used here without permission. This story may be freely redistributed, but it should not be altered substantially or used for profit in any way.

I'd like to thank Yoiko for a somewhat belated but very useful pre-read, and also the good people of One Hour Challenge group 1, in which a good portion of this was written and previewed.


"Whoa, Akane. Slow down." Nabiki's voice was faint and distant; Akane had to press the phone against her ear to hear it. "What happened?"

"We— we don't know." She took a breath before continuing. "There was some sort of loud crash that woke all of us up." Well, most of us, she amended mentally, but now wasn't the time to discuss her husband's sleeping habits. "When we looked, there was nothing there. Mu Si — he was supposed to be on guard — was gone, and Kasumi was nowhere to be seen either."

"And that's it?" Nabiki said incredulously. "Two people disappeared overnight, without leaving a trace?"

"No, they did leave something." Akane held out her hand, and Ryoga passed her the piece of paper they had found. "A hand-drawn map. It shows a route going north along a river, ending up someplace called Noyan. It's signed with kanji that Dr. Tofu says spell 'Zhen Biaozi' in Mandarin. I think it's to lead us to the place where they took Kasumi and Mu Si."

"I think it's to lead you into a trap."

"I don't doubt it," Akane said. "But how else are we going to get Kasumi back? What I don't understand is how they found us. Mu Si swore up and down that no one would expect us to be using this route. Yet they must have known exactly where we were."

"Yeah, well— just a minute." Loud voices clamored at the other end of the line. "There's some sort of trouble here."

"Trouble? The soldiers are back?"

"No, I don't think it's that. Look, Akane... find Kasumi and rescue her. But keep your head down. They'll be expecting you. I won't tell Dad that she's missing. He'd blow a gasket if he found out."

"All right, Nabiki. We'll call again as soon as we can." She hung up the phone.

Ranma, Tofu, and Genma popped up from where they had been watching, crouched behind a rusty abandoned truck. No one had ambushed Akane during her telephone call. As far as they could tell, this village was as deserted as it looked.

"What do we do now?" Ryoga asked.

"Follow the map, I suppose." Ranma let out a loud breath. "They obviously know we're coming, and Kasumi and Mu Si might be someplace completely different for all we know, but what choice have we got?"

"It seems to be our only lead," Tofu agreed, his voice cracking slightly. Akane knew how he felt about Kasumi; he was obviously fighting back some pretty intense emotions to stay in control of himself.

And the doctor wasn't the only one. Damn it, she thought, hands tightening into fists, those people had better not do anything to hurt my sister, or I'll... I'll.... But she couldn't come up with a threat that was convincing, not even to herself. Ranma was right; Kasumi could be anywhere in Mongolia, or even out of it. The map was leading them into a trap, or maybe just on a wild goose chase.

She fell alongside Ranma as they walked away from the abandoned village back toward the river, feeling a large emptiness settle at the bottom of her stomach. This was all getting more and more out of control. They were trying to sneak into the dragon's lair; a task that seems so easy, until the dragon turns its head and breathes and suddenly two of your teammates are a pile of charred bones. And there was nothing to do except plunge head first straight into that gaping mouth.


The wrinkled, white-haired figure rested in Elder Lan's arms, floating in twice-again too large clothes of pink silk.

"It's... Ke Lun?"

"No, Nabiki," Lan said. "This is Shan Pu. I wouldn't believe it myself had I not seen her change with my own eyes."

Nabiki blinked. "Change?"

"Someone set up a trap for her. Transformation water, poured down on her when she tripped a wire."

"Is she...." Nabiki gripped the unconscious old woman's wrist; a pulse throbbed faintly within.

"Shan Pu is indeed strong in body and spirit," Lan said. "I doubt there are many who could survive in that form."

"Why? I mean, this water, or whatever spring it's from, must have been created back when Ke Lun was still alive, right?"

"Alive, yes— but well over a hundred years old. Elder Ke spent a lifetime perfecting disciplines of mind over body. That training is all that let her function normally in a worn-out husk that otherwise would have perished years earlier."

"I... see," Nabiki said, her mind scrambling to sort all of this out. Who would've wanted Shan Pu turned into a duplicate of her great-grandmother? Did they — whoever they were — do it knowing that it might kill her? "Still," she said aloud, "if it was Jusenkyo water that did this, it should be easy to fix."

As if on cue, another of the senior Amazons entered. Elder Bi, Nabiki remembered, was how Lan had addressed her. "I hope this is still hot enough," she said, lifting up a kettle.

Nabiki probed it with a quick finger jab. "Yes, that should be fine. I've done this for Ranma dozens of times." Anything hotter might burn, which might kill Shan Pu before she went back to normal, she thought, and decided there was no need to mention it.

The perpetually sour-faced Bi tipped the kettle, and water poured out. Nabiki stared intently, waiting for any change in Shan Pu.

"What?!" Lan gaped incredulously, running her fingers through the water. "It's warm, so why isn't she changing back?"

Nabiki took a step back, trying to puzzle this out. Either this wasn't really Shan Pu — which meant that Lan had been fooled, or was lying — or.... "Did you recover the container that the water was in? I remember that the Musk own a bucket that once locked Ranma in his cursed form...."

"The Zhishuitong?" Lan shook her head, and held up a small ceramic pot. "No, the water was in this, an ordinary gravy dish. Taken from Shan Pu's own cupboard, it appears."

For a moment, the three women stood silently, heads lowered in thought.

"There's one thing we can still do," Lan said, carefully passing the transformed Shan Pu to her fellow Elder. "Take her to the healers; let them do whatever they can for her." She motioned to Nabiki. "Come with me."

Bi eyed them cautiously. "You intend to visit the vault?"

Lan nodded. "I can think of no other solution. Indeed, this was the very reason for which the vault was created."

"You know as well as I that Shan Pu failed to carry out a kiss of death," Bi said. "By law, her curse may not be removed." Nabiki felt her anger beginning to rise. Shan Pu had had her youth stolen, and could die, and all this woman could do was to argue legal technicalities?

"Her cat curse," Lan answered neutrally. "This additional transformation was unlawfully inflicted on her, and she is thusly entitled to a cure. Such, at least, is my decision as Chief Elder. Should you choose to contest it in the Council, then that of course is your prerogative."

"I do not contest the decision," Bi said. The two women gazed at one another for a moment, as if some sort of unspoken understanding were passing between them. Then Lan turned and stepped to the exit. Nabiki followed, wondering why on Earth she'd ever let herself get mixed up in all of this.


"You are leaving?" Elder Ban asked.

"I am." Tatewaki stepped cautiously forward. His abdominal wound stung a bit as he moved, but the sensation was far from intolerable. "I shall return when I have dealt out justice to this foul miscreant."

"To which miscreant do you refer?" The aged healer's aspect held no accusation or challenge, only curiosity.

Tatewaki's fist squeezed, as if to tighten his grip on a non-existent weapon. He would need to retrieve one of his bokkens after leaving here. Though he was prepared to take the assailant's life with his bare hands if necessary. "I mean, of course, the fiend who perpetrated such a craven ambush on the fair and noble Shan Pu."

"We Elders do not as yet know who was responsible for that attack. Nor do you, I take it?"

"It matters not," he replied. "Do not seek to disincline me from the course of action honor does demand." Her expression was neutral, unreadable. He respected the healer, as he did all the Elders, and had no desire to oppose any of them, yet he would be forced to if they tried to get in his way.

"Have you learned nothing at all in your years here?" The Elder's voice drooped with exhaustion. "Very well." She scanned the wall shelf and picked up a vial of blue liquid. "If you insist upon leaving, then take this first."

"What is it?"

"A potion. Drink it now, and it will reduce the risk of your wounds re-opening."

"Very well." Tatewaki hurriedly gulped down the liquid, then handed its container back to the healer with a nod of appreciation. Now there was no time to lose. He had to... had to...

Conscious thought evaporated from his mind into an ethereal mist. Ideas and sensations circled him, out of reach, dancing, taunting. He had to... had to do something. Images flashed, choppy and jumbled, like a poorly-edited film. Somewhere, a song from a child's game dimly sounded: When does the bird inside the cage come out? Who is in front of the back where....

Tatewaki pitched forward, falling into the arms of Elder Ban. She grunted with exertion as she pushed the young man's limp body onto his bed.


"Sorry I'm late." With a nod of acknowledgement to the guards, Bob Michaels stepped into the small conference room, pulling the door closed behind him. "I was on the phone with Washington."

"Quite all right. You are not late," replied the base's commanding colonel, whose name Biaozi couldn't even remember. She'd met so many military types in recent months that they had all begun to blend together in her mind. "The General will be on line momentarily." His English was badly accented but completely understandable.

"Your superiors?" Biaozi asked idly, lowering her voice to a whisper, as Michaels took the empty seat next to her.

"My wife." Michaels gave a wry smile. "Two of the teachers from our oldest's school called her this morning. Seems he's been bullying the other kids. Naturally, he still insists that they're making all this up because they hate him."

Biaozi chuckled. "Ah, children are such delights. A five-year-old granddaughter of mine cried because we didn't allow her to fight using actual weapons. Of course, by the time she actually was old enough for combat training, she no longer cared about it."

Michaels nodded obligatorily, obviously not believing a word of it. To him it was impossible that a woman who was obviously not yet past her twenties could have had grandchildren. For a man whose job was to recruit and train paranormals, he understood little of the capabilities of the supernatural.

Ha Bu's voice came over the speaker phone in the center of the room. "Your report, Colonel?"

"Yes, sir. We've taken the two prisoners as planned. Their status is secure. We expect the others to need twenty-four to thirty-six hours to travel here, and preparations are already under way to deal with them once they've arrived."

"What measures have you taken to prevent your current charges from escaping their confines?"

The colonel glanced down to a clipboard on the table in front of him. "The woman seems to possess the ability to influence those around her into being friendly to her. Therefore we have equpiied her cell with an electromagnetic lock that can only be opened remotely. Even if she convinces someone to let her out, he will be unable to do so. The man, we have placed in a triple-reinforced, fully sealed room. At Ms. Zhen's suggestion, we have also confiscated his clothing and all of his possessions."

"Including his glasses, which have been destroyed," Biaozi added. Even if that buffoon did manage to escape, he'd be unable to accomplish anything effectual before blundering back into captivity. "Presently, I'll be returning to the Amazon village, and I'll take great delight in crushing whatever spare pairs he keeps stored there."

"I like not this change of plans, Zhen Biaozi," Ha Bu said. "My understanding was that you were to remain to personally engineer the capture of the remaining foes."

"Yes, and I've already done so. The prisoners I've taken make it inevitable that their friends will show up here. The residue one of them carries will provide ample advance notice for your soldiers and Mr. Michaels' agents, who should have no trouble setting up an ambush for them, and if need be they can use the hostages to force their surrender. I, meanwhile, will be taking back the Amazon village, as was also part of our agreement."

The speaker phone fell silent. Ha Bu was obviously considering Biaozi's argument.

"You, of all people, know how disastrous it could be for me to be seen here, like this." She turned to Michaels. "You've been briefed on the known capabilities of Saotome Ranma and his group. Given the circumstances, will your agents be able to capture them?"

"I think so," he answered predictably. "From what information we have, I think my team is up to the task." Biaozi knew how skeptical most of Michaels' colleagues were of his project. It wasn't only that they didn't believe in the paranormal — most of them didn't, but it wasn't hard to provide them with enough of a demonstration to convince them that there was something there that needed to be exploited; the real problem was that he was in the unenviable position of having to recruit his people based on their paranormal abilities, with other considerations such as loyalty or general competence being secondary at best. Now, finally, here was the chance for his group to justify its existence, to prove that his paranormals could defeat other paranormals where conventional means had failed. He had no choice but to accept.

When it came down to it, Michaels was a family man. Bringing them home a paycheck every month was his responsibility, and if a village of Amazons or a handful of Japanese teenagers got in the way then, well, that was too bad for them. It was an attitude not too far removed from her own, Biaozi supposed. The Amazons were her family, and the fact that they now considered her a renegade reduced not in the least her determination to save them from their own foolishness.

When had she finally understood, after so many decades of blindly following her sisters' path, that it was leading them all to destruction? Perhaps it had been at the funeral of the Chief Elder. Speech after pretentious speech had extolled the accomplishments of Ke Lun, almost as if all written by the same hand. But for all of this glorification of the past, there had been no discussion of the future. Elder Lan, Ke Lun's successor, who as teacher had praised the virtue of questions, would not even consider the one on Biaozi's mind: When the great warriors had all passed away, who would defend the Amazons?

With no one willing to listen to her concerns — and having years prior been denied a seat on the Council, for reasons she could still only guess at, Biaozi had left the village. If possible, she would one day return to dissuade her lemming sisters from their course to the sea, if any remained by then. But in any case, she would not follow such a path herself. And she would not go to her death as Chief Elder Ke Lun had willingly and peacefully done. If nothing else, she had earned the right to survive.

Now, finally, that dream was to become a reality. While the name of Zhen Biaozi would be forever reviled in Amazon history, she herself would be leader, unquestioned. Life was full of ironies.

"Very well," Ha Bu said. "I wish you success, Mr. Michaels. But should you fail, it is of no real consequence. Saotome Ranma will no doubt come after me, and I shall deal with him when he does."

Probably correct, Biaozi thought. But even if not, Ranma's group would return to the Amazons, thinking themselves among friends. Either way, she would win.

"So then.... One moment." Muted voices rustled in the background. "Our agent in the Amazon village has reported news that I think you might find interesting, Zhen Biaozi. My aide is faxing it to you now."

The colonel stepped over to a desktop telephone, from whose base a sheet of paper scrolled out. He handed it to Biaozi. She scanned the contents. Her jaw dropped.

"How—" She paused to regain her carefully controlled composure. "Who knows about this?"

"At the moment, only the Council. Though a few villagers did see an unconscious Shan Pu being carried to the healer, and rumors are reportedly beginning to spread."

True, Biaozi had deliberately led Ranma's group toward a functioning telephone. She'd wanted Kasumi and Mu Si's capture to reach the village. There was a loose cannon who had beheaded one of the Japanese youths, still at large, presumably still in the village; she'd wanted to see how this unknown would react to the news, in hopes that it would give a clue to his or her identity. But this... this made no sense at all. The means to cause such a transformation would have been in the hands of Ke Lun herself, and passed upon her death to... Shan Pu.

"I know of this Amazon's special role in your plans. Will this necessitate any changes?" Ha Bu's tone seemed to carry the barest trace of smugness.

Biaozi considered for a moment. "No," she answered. "Shan Pu is an Amazon warrior. Lan will have the means to bring her back to normal, and given the current climate in the village, she'll have no choice but to use it." Though that only made it more bewildering that someone had chosen this manner in which to assault Shan Pu. Perhaps the attackers hadn't known that there was a cure, but then how could they possibly have known about Elder Ke's water in the first place? No matter. She would go back to the village as planned. She needed answers, and that was the best place to get them.


The room had walls of stone, unfinished yet perfectly level and rectangular. Its low ceiling forced Nabiki to stoop uncomfortably as she panned the beam of her flashlight from one side to the other. Rows of tall ceramic jars filled most of the area, with an open space after every second row allowing access.

She wondered if she hadn't just blundered into a trap. The most obvious reason for hot water not changing Shan Pu back was that Elder Lan had lied about it being her in the first place, was covering up after having killed her in order to hang onto the village chiefdom. Funny that this possibility hadn't occurred to her before she'd followed Lan down into some gods-forsaken tunnel where no one ever went. Hilarious, even. Such a wonderful thing was hindsight; proof positive that you are as smart as you think you are, but only after it's too late for it to do any good. Had Lan invited her down here to eliminate a possible troublemaker, a smart-mouth outsider who wasn't bound by village traditions into not asking the wrong questions? This is where I've buried Shan Pu, Nabiki. She won't ever be leaving here. And now, neither will you.

With a shiver against the cold, damp air, Nabiki forced her full attention back to the present, the real. There was no point in letting her imagination run away with her. Besides, she had to admit that her theory didn't make much sense. If Lan wanted to get away with killing her, then letting everybody see them together beforehand had been a rather stupid thing to do, and Lan didn't strike her as the stupid type.

No, she thought as she waddled forward, not much sense at all. It was Shan Pu who was in danger of dying, and if something down here might help her, then Nabiki needed to stop wasting time worrying and bring it back as quickly as possible.

Half-illuminated by the candle she carried, Lan stood in one of the open rows, her eyes scanning across the containers.

"Anything I can help with?" Nabiki offered.

"As soon as I find the particular one of these that I'm looking for, yes."

She aimed her flashlight beam across the row of jars. "Mind clueing me in as to the reason for this little spelunking expedition, now that we're here and all?"

"Not at all. We've come because Shan Pu is down here."

"Ah heh." Nabiki involuntarily stepped back, and stopped as she bumped into something. She glanced behind her. The ceramic container she'd struck wobbled a bit, but was fortunately intact. "I beg your pardon?"

"Ah. Here she is." Lan's gaze settled on one of the jars, and she motioned Nabiki forward.

Nabiki hesitated for a moment, then approached. Lan pointed toward the jar's cover, on which were scrawled a pair of characters: Shan Pu. Cautiously, she lifted it by the handle and peered inside the container. At first it seemed empty, and then she could barely make out the surface of some clear liquid that filled its interior, not quite reaching the top. "Water?"

Lan handed her a narrow, lidded bowl akin to a gravy boat. "I suggest you carefully avoid touching any of it as you fill this."

"If you say so." Holding the vessel by its large curved handle, Nabiki dipped it into the liquid and pulled it back out filled. "But what's so dangerous about...."

"About water?" Lan smiled. "What do you think?"

Okay, Nabiki thought, so it was a stupid question. Just ask Ranma — or Shan Pu, for that matter. But why would the Amazons be storing that kind of water in their basement?

"There is a secret initiation ritual that an Amazon must undergo before being admitted to the ranks of our warriors," Lan said as if in answer. "The Amazon in question is sealed up inside a box filled with water, and must remain there as long as she is able to endure. Most believe this to be simply a test of endurance. No one save the Elders know its true purpose."

But Nabiki now knew. It was obvious. "The water in the box is actually the transforming kind, isn't it. And after you're done, you quietly stash it down here."

Lan nodded as the two of them moved back toward the exit. "Long ago, our Elders foresaw the possibility that a foe would use Jusenkyo water as a weapon against us. The only reliable, permanent cure for such a curse is to use water perviously seeded, if you will, by the victim herself."

"Makes sense." Nabiki certainly understood the value of staying a step ahead of one's opposition. "Except for one thing."

"And what is that?"

"This vault of yours is so secret that even most of your Amazons don't know about it. And yet you've just taken me, an outsider if ever there was one, down here where I could see the whole thing, and you've even explained the point of it to me. Why do that?"

"Why do you think I did it?" Lan asked.

"Oh, I can think of a number of reasons. But I'd rather hear the real ones from you than play guessing games," Nabiki answered, feeling as though this were a tennis match and she'd just returned Lan's serve.

Lan said nothing as she slipped out of the small room, ascending the narrow, steeply sloped passageway with no visible effort. Nabiki paused to take a breath and then followed, the bowl of Shan Pu water held high and at arm's length. Don't spill any, she reminded herself. Especially not on me. That could positively ruin my entire day.

Of course, her being affected by nearly-drowned-Amazon water might be exactly what Lan had in mind. But if that was why she had shown the vault to Nabiki, then, well, she was in for a disappointment. Sneaking back down here and turning herself into an Amazon just wasn't Nabiki's style, and she was hard-pressed to see how that would do any good anyhow.

If that wasn't Lan's reason, then what was? Did she expect Nabiki to turn this basement of hers into a business? Surely no end of people would jump at the chance to mail-order themselves young, athletic new bodies. But she doubted that Lan would want that to happen. Maybe the Elders just wanted someone to be able to tell the whole story in the end, and saw her as someone likely to survive. Thanks for the vote of confidence, ladies, she thought with a certain amount of weariness.

Reaching the top of the passageway, Lan intoned the same combination of Chinese syllables that she had used from the other side, and just as before, the wall slid open. Nabiki pushed up the incline and followed the Elder out into the wider room. The water she carried sloshed around as she climbed but thankfully remained in its vessel. The door closed after her, once again indistinguishable from any other stone wall. It was a relief to be able to stand up straight again.

A short flight of wooden steps led out into daylight, and Lan wasted no time in heading toward the healer's. Groups of locals stared curiously at the container Nabiki held in her fully outstretched arm. "It's a gin and tonic. Kuno-chan insisted on getting it," she said with a feeble grin. The villagers responded with confused looks, and Nabiki realized that she'd spoken in Japanese. Oh well. Given the quality of the quip, she was probably better off.

"So do you think whoever attacked Shan Pu got the water from down there?" she said to Lan as they approached the healer's. "Is it possible that someone else could've gotten into that room?"

"Someone could conceivably manage to get in," Lan answered, "but the water used on Shan Pu could not have come from there. When one is made an Elder, her water is removed from storage. She herself is then responsible for its safety."

"Oh." The room was silent as the two entered. Nabiki bent over the sleeping Shan Pu-turned-Ke Lun, and watered her as she might a houseplant, watching her intently for any reaction. Any moment now she would grow, her wrinkled skin would smooth and tighten, her hair of white string would transform into lush black silk.

But it didn't.

Nabiki resisted the urge to throw her half-filled pot of water to the ground in frustration. Now what? Had Shan Pu's unknown attacker discovered some way of locking the change? Or gotten to the vault ahead of time and replaced Shan Pu's water with the ordinary kind? Or was this person in front of her not really her at all?

Too many questions and no answers. Only one thing was clear: Nabiki wasn't the only one who understood the value of staying a step ahead.


The long-haired prisoner screamed something as his naked body slammed into the door of his cell. Just as with his last three attempts, the steel door didn't budge or even shake noticeably.

"What the hell's he saying?" asked Carl Jorgenson.

Jim Wesley couldn't understand the man's language, but as always, emotions swept him up as if he were a twig in a hurricane, and he felt exactly what the Chinese man was feeling: Righteous outrage over being locked up. An undercurrent of shame and embarrassment — over being used to lure his friends into a trap, Wesley guessed — dragged down by fear of appearing weak, of displaying vulnerability. A growing, gnawing despair that he might not be able to escape and fear of what might happen to him.

"I— I think he's demanding that we let him go," Wesley said.

"Hah." Jorgenson sneered at the prisoner, seeming as if about to spit. "Fat chance, idiot." His cold contempt collided with the prisoner's seething rage, and a hailstorm of wildly conflicting emotions raged in Wesley's mind. The empath ignored it as best he could — this was nothing he wasn't used to, after all — and forced his attention back to the real world.

"From what I've heard, these people are brainwashed pretty early on," offered Chuck Crandall, the third member of the team. He turned to Mr. Michaels and the Mongolian colonel. "There's no chance of him breaking out, is there?"

"According to our intelligence, Mr. Mu is an expert in hand-to-hand weaponry," Michaels answered. "He's been stripped of everything that he might be able to use, even the clothes at his back."

"Also," the colonel added, "at Ms. Zhen's suggestion, we not only relieved him of his eyeglasses, but have destroyed each and every pair of them. Should he somehow manage to free himself, he will be unable to distinguish friend from foe."

He paused, like a tour guide giving his customers a moment to examine the exhibit he'd just described, and then led the group over to the next adjacent cell.

"Now with the other prisoner, we've had to be a bit more cautious. She may not appear dangerous, but our reports suggest that underestimating her might prove a great mistake."

Wesley glanced through the transparent polymer of the observation window into the cell, and found himself staring into the sun.

From all appearances, the captive was an ordinary young Japanese woman. Her face was dirty, her hair disheveled; her eyes held the far-away stare of one who desperately wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else. Yet she radiated, with a light that was beyond physical; brightening, warming, thawing. storm clouds dissipating under its brilliance.

"The young lady, as far as we know, has no combat skills," the colonel said. "Her ability seems to be to influence others against harming her, and possibly beyond that. Thus, her window is a one-way mirror, through which she cannot see out. Additionally, her door uses an electromagnetic lock, the power for which is externally controlled and may only be shut off remotely. Even if she should persuade someone in this area to let her out, he would be incapable of doing so."

"The three of you will be stationed here until further notice," Mr. Michaels said. "If the Japanese paranormals do manage to get past base security, which seems pretty likely, then they'll show up here to free the prisoners. Mr. Wesley, Ms. Zhen has given you a means to detect their presence, has she not?"

"Yes, sir." The stone she'd showed him gave off an aura that to his empathetic senses was quite distinct. According to her, one member of the group carried a residue of the same aura, which she had followed to find and ambush the group; it would be much reduced by now, she had said, but still noticeable at close range.

"Good. When they're nearby, I want you to sound an alarm." He turned slightly to address the team as a whole. "In any case, when they reach this room, you're to capture them — alive, if possible."

"Yes, sir," Wesley repeated. His two teammates nodded in agreement.

"One other thing. Another reason you're here is to keep an eye on these prisoners. If an escape attempt is made, I expect you to do whatever is necessary to keep it from succeeding. Even if that means shooting to kill."

Unexpectedly, a deep pang of sorrow dug into Wesley. Kill the woman who shone like the sun?

He shrugged. Whose emotion was that? he briefly wondered.

"Yes, sir," he said once more, and pulled back to consider tactics to use against the Japanese paranormals.


Consciousness returned slowly to Kuno Tatewaki. With eyes shut, he lay snuggled into the comfortable embrace of a half-waking, half-dreaming state. Though he had just slept, he still felt tired, like a child's toy whose batteries were empty and required recharging.

Yielding to inevitability, he wrenched himself back to full awareness, with an effort akin to tearing off one's own arm. Across the ward, Healer Ban conversed with an aged man, one of the few patients who had not yet been discharged. Sunlight burned brightly in the window behind them, indicating that the time was late afternoon, and tongues of shadow from the gentleman's bed stuck out at Tatewaki as if making some juvenile taunt.

The healer stepped over to Tatewaki. "Ah, you're awake. How do you feel?"

Tatewaki dragged himself up to a half-sitting position. "Adequate." The response was uselessly vague, but the only one that came to his mind. Perhaps "embarrassed" might have been more honest — embarrassed at the fool he'd made of himself earlier — but that likely wasn't the sort of answer she sought.

"Good." Her chilly fingers slipped under his shirt and began gently probing his chest.

That she avoided mentioning the earlier incident struck him as curious. Then again, what would be the purpose if she did? To apologize for having drugged him, which was obviously what had happened? Hardly, for it was well within an Elder's authority to deal harshly with troublesome children. To berate him for his stupidity? That too was not the way of the Elders, a fact for which Tatewaki found himself particularly grateful.

Have you learned nothing at all? she had asked him earlier, and before now he'd have thought the answer obvious. The Amazons had taught him that the determination to fight for a righteous cause, while not by any means a bad thing, needed to be tempered by discretion and guided by an understanding of the conflicts in question. Yet it seemed that when put to the test, Tatewaki's understanding of that lesson proved shallow at best.

Healer Ban scribbled notes on a sheet of paper. "You're doing quite well," she said. "I can think of no reason you shouldn't be released in a day or two."

"I see." Strangely, the idea of leaving his hospital bed wasn't the joyous prospect that Tatewaki had thought it would be.

"By the way, I have two items of news that you will probably be interested to hear. In the course of our investigation, we discovered a hiding place that was likely used by Shan Pu's attacker. An abandoned house in which food had been stored, and bedding had been set up and recently used. Two Elders are currently watching this residence to see if anyone returns to it; so far, no one has."

"The attacker was an outsider, then? An enemy who escaped capture, and is by now likely long gone?" Tatewaki pondered. "Though this evidence may be false, planted in order to mislead."

"Yes, that's true," the healer said, with the carefully sympathetic tones of one attempting to soften the effect of bad news. The implication was clear: as yet, the Elders had no real idea as to the attacker's identity. "The second piece of news is both good and bad. Shan Pu's condition has stabilized, and her life is no longer in danger. I expect her to regain consciousness sometime tomorrow morning. You can be with her when she does, if you wish."

"Thank you," he said with a great deal of relief — not only to the healer, but to the deities, both Amazon goddesses and Japanese kami, to whom he had prayed for Shan Pu's safe recovery. Then dread sank in as he waited to hear the rest of what Elder Ban had to tell him.

"Unfortunately, this transformation has quite mysteriously resisted any attempts on our part to reverse it. Unless a solution that we missed presents itself, it appears that Shan Pu will have to remain locked in her current state."

"I... see. Thank you," he said, his voice a good deal colder than he'd intended. The healer nodded, then turned and exited the room. Tatewaki turned to lay on his side, facing the wall, and squeezed his eyes tightly shut. He should have been happy that Shan Pu would recover. Yet the idea of going to see her filled him with an unease that he couldn't identify.

Over the past few years, he'd become convinced that Shan Pu was his chosen life-partner. She was what he'd always wanted: a warrior of noble spirit who could be both fierce and gentle. She was fire, delivering a soothing warmth to her friends, a burning death to her enemies, and — he speculated — even hotter flames to those few with whom she chooses to share her romantic passions. Since his youth, he'd always envisioned the same qualities in his mate. Only the specific person to whom he looked had changed. First there was Tendo Akane, then the Pig-Tailed—

(ranma the pigtailed girl to whom you pledged your love was ranma)

—Akane, then Ranma, whose curse Tatewaki had failed to understand. An unfortunate but perfectly understandable—


There was no way he could have known—

(of course you could have known everybody else knew imbecile imbecile imbecile)

Be silent! Be silent or I shall—

Drawing a heavy breath, Tatewaki sat up in bed. Streams of perspiration dribbled down the back of his hair, dripping onto the pillow, as he glanced around the room. Thankfully, he had not spoken aloud, but the momentary loss of self-control was nevertheless disconcerting. He had accepted his error in not identifying the curse, so why did the thought of it trigger such...panic? And why did the thought of going to see Shan Pu in her current condition make him feel much the same?

He had pledged his eternal love to Shan Pu. Would he now recant that, for the simple reason that she was no longer young and beautiful? Would he have done the same had she been disfigured in battle? Was he that shallow?

Tatewaki lay on his back, waiting. But sleep refused to take him, leaving him with only a festering disgust.


Okay, thought Gosunkugi Hikaru to himself, let's just try to work this one out rationally.

If you've got a problem, you do something about it. The principal of Tekido Middle School had told him that, when he'd complained about an upperclassman who'd been bullying him. Most likely, the principal had only intended to wash his own hands of the matter, but Hikaru had taken the advice to heart. He had spoken to his father, who had responded by arranging to have him transferred to another school. He'd left the bully behind, as well as all of his friends from Tekido, who he'd never seen again after that.

And now he had a problem, but he wasn't entirely sure what it was, much less what to do about it. He'd been jealous of a dead man — one killed protecting the village that Hikaru had supposedly come to defend. But had only cowered in the background as Ranma and the others did the real work — and that made him feel like slime. He still wanted Ti Pi to...to like him, but he couldn't think of any reason why she should, anything worthwhile that he had to offer her in return.

He leaned against the wall of the home he'd come to photograph, smiling uncomfortably at the occasional passers-by, as he waited for Ti Pi to show up. Today they would finish the last of the houses in their survey. And then what? He could leave. Go back to Japan, and get on with his life. It would mean a long walk back to where transportation was available, but that would be the case even if he did wait for Ranma's group to return.

But somehow he didn't think that leaving would solve his problem.

Do something about it. Okay, well, if Ti Pi had no use for him, then it couldn't be helped. But maybe he could do something for the old lady's son, whose name he hadn't even learned. The Mongols had gone, but they'd be back. Hikaru wasn't a martial artist like Ranma or Kuno, but he did have the techniques that Happosai had taught him. Sooner or later, he'd get the chance to help protect the home that this guy had died guarding.

"Sorry I'm late." Ti Pi emerged from around a corner. "I had to speak with the Chief Elder." Her sharply punctuated tone led Hikaru to guess that she was frustrated about something.

"Is there, um, anything I could help with?"

"Probably not." She sighed. "I tell you before about Linghungbao?"

It took Hikaru a moment to realize that she was waiting for a confirmation from him. "Er, yeah, I think so. You and Shan Pu did. I mean, you said it was some really powerful magic item. I dunno what it does or what it looks like or anything."

"Nobody know that!" She threw up her arms. "Nobody except Elder Lan and Shan Pu. Shan Pu is too sick to leave healer's, so I ask to talk to her, think maybe she tell me how to find Linghungbao. But Elder not even let me see her. Mongols could attack again tomorrow, and item that could defeat them is sitting in closet somewhere because she too stubborn!"

"This thing is really that powerful?" Of course it is, dimwit. Why else would she be this worried about it? "Uh, maybe somebody else knows where it's hidden?"

Ti Pi shook her head. "Only one person ever know that. Secret is passed on only right before death. Stupid tradition."

"So Shan Pu would've gotten it from Ke— from Elder Ke Lun." Before the latter had passed away, which was right after Ranma and Akane's wedding. Hikaru had visited the Cat Cafe that day to pay his respects. Right after....

He stashed his small receiver unit and tape recorder behind a garbage can, with the tape still running. For now, Cologne was dying. He had only met her a couple of times while eating at her restaurant. Nevertheless he felt he ought to say goodbye. It was all he could do. Maybe he would listen to the tape when he returned. Maybe not.

No. Just... no. Okay, he had bugged Ke Lun's room and taped some of what was said there. But that had been what, six years ago? Even if it had recorded the secret, by now the tape was probably...

...was sitting in a box on the upper shelf of his bedroom closet at home. He'd stashed a whole pile of high school stuff there before heading off to college, intending to sort through it someday but never getting around to it.

But what if it was still there? He could call his parents and get them to play him that tape, but no way would that do him any good by himself, what with his little problem of not being able to understand Chinese. Not to mention that he might not be able to figure out what to do with this Ling-thingy even if he did get his hands on it.

No, he'd have to tell Ti Pi about it. And then what? He knew enough about Amazon law to figure that invading the privacy of an Elder had to be the equivalent of kicking the Emperor in the balls. It certainly wasn't something that would make Ti Pi like him. More probably, she'd be demanding his head on the end of a bonbori, and so would the rest of the village.

No, the sensible thing to do would be to forget all about that tape. Nobody else knew about it, anyway. Even if worst came to worst, if the village were to fall to the invaders, no one would blame him.

No one will blame me, he repeated to himself, and he knew it was a lie. At least one person would.

"I think, um, there might be a way." His voice was weak, distant, as if he were listening to himself on tape.

"No way," Ti Pi said. "We need wait for Shan Pu to get better."

"That might be too late. You said so yourself. Let's go borrow Nabiki's phone."


"I'll explain as we go," he said, knowing that she was the one person in the world who would never forget such a promise. You're in for it now, Gos, old buddy, he thought to himself as he followed her down the dirt path. He only hoped that it would be worth it, that this would keep the Amazons alive. Because it looked like his head would be on the chopping block either way.


For Tatewaki, childhood was largely a jumbled haze of vaguely recalled words and images; nevertheless, a few memories still stood clear in his mind. At one time, he had come into his father's study in search of candy. His father turned in his chair as he entered, flashing him a two-fingered greeting.

"Peace, man."

Tatewaki took one look at the beads around his neck and the wig that reached down to his waist, and a giggling fit ensued. The six-year-old had no idea why his father liked to dress up in such silly clothes; years later, he would conclude that they were probably an attempt to annoy Mother, for her crime of taking everything far too seriously, but at the time young Tatewaki thought of his father as funny and no more about it.

"Hey, man, you look like a brother who could use a little treat." He swiveled around to reveal his desktop, on which several individually wrapped nuggets of hard candy rested. "You know how this works. How many have we got?"

Tatewaki counted. "Six."

"You got it, little brother." Father stood a cardboard screen to shield the candy from view, and his hands moved behind it. "Now, I'm putting them into two piles with the same number of pieces. How many of them are in each pile?"

That wasn't how it worked last time, Tatewaki noticed, but he could still figure it out. Was it two? No, that would leave some left over. "Four?"

Father lifted the screen. "Oh wow," he said, as Tatewaki stared and tried to puzzle out how he'd gotten it wrong. "Major bummer." He tossed a piece of candy at Tatewaki. "But you get one anyway, just for playing."

Tatewaki greedily unwrapped the treat and popped it into his mouth. "You changed the rules," he said with amusement. Though happy to get the candy, he couldn't resist the chance to play one parent against the other. "Mom says that not doing what you said you were gonna do is dis— dishon—"

"Listen to me, Tatchi." Father took off his glasses, and his expression took on a rare seriousness. "That honor business is nothing but junk. Understand me? They want to make you into what they think you should be, not what you are. You listen, and it'll eat you away from the inside."

Tatewaki giggled. The words meant little to him at the time, but he knew how repeating them to his mother would make her cringe. "You're funny, Daddy."

Father slipped the glasses back on. "Far out, man."

The next day, at the grocery store, Tatewaki's mother reacted very much as he'd expected.

"It is not 'junk,' Tatewaki," she said, her voice almost scolding. "It's what separates us from the lower animals. Honestly, I'll never understand how your father could be born into a family as noble as the Kunos and think so little of it."

Baby Kodachi reached out from the cradle of her mother's arms toward a pile of cucumbers. With an indignant huff, Mother jerked her away from her intended target, and she began crying. Tatewaki wondered whether he hadn't gone too far.

"I just think Dad's funny, that's all." In reality, Mother's worries that Tatewaki might grow up to emulate Father were quite groundless. It was she whom he respected, her to whom he looked to as the source of truth. "I'm gonna be a samurai warrior. Samurai have to be honorable."

"No, Tatewaki."

"They don't?"

She hefted a sack of rice into her shopping basket, then set a bottle of soy sauce into the smaller one that Tatewaki carried for her. "A fish does not swim because it has to. It does so because that is what fishes do. Likewise, honor is not a requirement for a samurai; it is the heart of what a true samurai is."

The words resonated deep in Tatewaki's core, for he knew them to be absolutely true. His faith in them did not waver over the years that followed, even when his mother had deserted the family. For was a truth any less of one if its speaker did not truly appreciate it?

Tatewaki had begun reminiscing over his childhood expecting to blame his parents for his current situation. But now he could see little value in so doing. For who truly bore responsibility for his present choices, save he himself? And what was more, his recollections had yielded the answer to his current dilemma in the words of both parents. He would find the right course of action by looking not to what was expected of him, but to his own fundamental nature — to what he was. And he would allow no one else to decide that.


The Amazon's consciousness floated, hovering in the twilight between dream and awareness. The young Amazon dreaming of being an old Amazon. The old Amazon dreaming of having been a young Amazon. Untethered by memory and context, she drifted through half-formed thoughts and images.

A great cheer resounded, and she was on a galley ship. A drum beat steadily amidst the roaring of the water. Mighty Amazon arms (her sisters') pushed on gigantic oars in time with the drumming, and the boat flew forward, forward past ever-darkening skies. The course they followed led to the eternal dark, the void, she knew that, but to them she was the infallible leader, greatest among the elders. They had to follow her, she had to lead them somewhere, even if she could take them to no other destination save destruction.

Somewhere in the darkness, a cat howled. It was the cat who had stolen from the Amazon, stolen her very self and left her in a clawed-up, shattered husk of a body. She had thought she'd tamed the cat, brought it under her control, stupid stupid stupid Amazon, and to show her what a fool she was it clawed away her body and consumed it, or dragged it to its lair to devour later, for wasn't that what cats often did with their prey?

The drum beats quickened, and the boat's motion seemed to accelerate along with it. The drum beat louder, ever louder. She could feel the sharp wooden rod striking against the fragile, taut skin. Soon the skin would wear through, and break, and the universe would end.

Droplets of water blew onto her face as the ship sped into the darkness. But where darkness should have been was light, beams of brilliant yellow and orange that were physically painful to the touch, fingers of light that jabbed into her eye. No longer on a boat, she could vaguely feel that she was lying on a bed, but the world around her continued to pitch and shake as the ship had.

A face came into view. Its appearance was sudden, almost like a jump cut in a movie, but it was not frightening, for the eyes held no malice, only kindness. A hand, strong and large, wrapped itself around the frazzled tentacle that had been her own appendage, holding firmly but gently.

A name came to the edge of her mind... Tat— Tate— She remembered that there had been questions, questions about the name, about the man that she'd needed the answer to. And she no longer remembered what the questions were, but knew that they were answered.

The Amazon squeezed her hand into the larger one as the world faded around her. And she was floating again, but in a small rowboat, on a placid river meandering through tall oaks, and the drumbeats continued steadily but with a slower, more relaxed rhythm.


Kasumi forced air in and out of her lungs in a slow, steady rhythm. The floor under her crossed legs was metal, cold, hard. Impersonal. She hadn't seen a living person since she'd woken; even her meals had arrived via a mechanical conveyor, a compartment in the wall opening just long enough to let them through. There were no people, at least not that she could see, and that somehow frightened her far more than simply being held prisoner.

Noticing her heart racing, she drew a deep breath to steady it. The shell of self-consciousness fell away. The physical world faded as her awareness attuned to the spiritual one. Hot, dry winds blew into her face across a vast expanse. A desert? She'd read about them in Mongolia, but... this was different. This was a psychic wasteland, a desiccation of the spirit.

"Hello?" she called. "Is anyone here?" The only responses were barely audible sounds, like animals skittering away from humans. Disappointment clouded over her. She had hoped to tap into the local spirits, as she had the Amazons' back in China. But they seemed unwilling to even make contact with her. Without their help, she had no chance of escaping.


Kasumi straightened, crossing her arms over her chest. Then, as if she had stepped out of an airplane, she plunged straight down, passing through the desert sands as if they were water, falling deeper and deeper, until there was only darkness, no longer any sense of movement or place.

Somewhere in the vast nothingness, a presence appeared. Then another. And another.

Kasumi opened her mouth to speak, and no words came out, but somehow she knew that her silent plea for help had been understood. Thoughts and memories flowed between her and the spirits, too quickly to be captured in words. They had been put to death. For opposing the new order, for speaking out against the General's right to rule, the regime had silenced them permanently.

Avenge us.

Energy built to a crescendo around Kasumi, charging like a bolt of lightning ready to fire. Unfulfilled resentments gave off a stench like rotting corpses, and she felt the urge to gag.

Avenge us.

I can't. Her voice was tiny, feeble. It was all she could do to hang onto who she was, a leaf floating in a tidal wave of emotion. I can't... but there is one nearby who can.


"I think this is it." Ranma's eyes darted back and forth between the landscape and the map in his hands. "This is where we're supposed to quit followin' the river."

Akane glanced at the map, then flipped on a flashlight to see it. "I think you're right. From here, it's just another fifteen kilometers due east, according to the directions." She sighed. "But I suppose we'll have to wait until daybreak."

"How come?" Ranma asked, but it was obvious. "Crap. We don't know which way is east, do we." Without the sun, they'd have to guess. Maybe they'd get to where they were going, and maybe they'd wander off and not even be able to find the river again.

He'd heard that you could navigate by the stars, but there weren't any; the sky was a solid mass of darkening gray. What was it Mu Si had said? Some kind of contamination in the air left over from the fighting?

"Damn it!" Ranma pounded his fist into his other palm. "Bet they planned it this way, too. They don't just know where we're coming from, but they know when we're coming." Which gave them a snowball's chance in hell of getting in and out alive, never mind rescuing Kasumi and Mu Si.

A wave of sleepiness washed over Ranma; he closed his eyes for a moment, shaking his head quickly to try to wake himself up. "Are you okay?" he heard Akane ask in a lowered voice. "You look half dead."

"Yeah, sure, 'course," he answered on reflex. "I dunno. I've been up for longer than this before and it wasn't that big a deal. I hope it's not the flu or somethin' like that. This would sure be a dumb time to get sick."

Ryoga and Tofu came out from the tree they'd stepped behind. "So, what now?" Tofu asked. "Do we go on, or make camp here for the night?"

"I think we're gonna have to wait here until it gets light, Doc. But don't worry, we're almost there."

"If we're almost there, why not keep going?" Ryoga asked, in a tone that to Ranma sounded accusatory. "Shouldn't we get to Kasumi and Mu Si as soon as we can?"

"Because none of us had the brains to bring a compass on this trip, that's why." You jerk, Ranma restrained himself from adding. Like I was too stupid to have thought of that myself. "So we're kinda stuck here until morning, unless you can tell us which way is east." He felt a certain satisfaction in bringing up Ryoga's direction handicap. Okay, so it was kind of a low blow, but Ryoga had it coming. Well, maybe he did. Whatever. Ranma was too tired to argue with himself about it.

Ryoga paused for a moment, then closed his eyes, turned slowly, and pointed. "Japan is that way."

"How the heck do you know that?!"

Ryoga's eyes flipped open. "Because Akari is in Japan, that's why."

"Oh yeah, I remember! You got that... that thing. With the bandanna." Excitement sliced through Ranma's exhaustion. They could do it. They had a chance to hit those people when they wouldn't be expecting it.

"That's right," Ryoga said proudly as he pointed again. "So I can tell you for a fact that Japan is in this direction."

"Just a minute," Ranma said. "That ain't the same direction you were pointing a minute ago."

Ryoga blinked. "Oh. Right." He closed his eyes for a moment and turned slightly. "This direction."

Just great, Ranma thought as the group started off. The blind leading the blind. And which of those did that make him? Damn it. Normally, he could handle just about any trouble that people like Ryoga could get him into. But now... he just didn't feel like himself. At least not like all of himself. Was it the flu? It had come on so suddenly that he could almost pinpoint. It was right around when they'd left the Amazon village. Right after—

He shut that thought right out of his mind, not wanting to even consider it. How could that have had anything to do with it? No way.

The words Akane had said minutes ago poked out of his memory: You look....

He followed quietly through the darkness, hoping very much that he had the flu.


He stood, silently facing the wall, pausing with head lowered as if in a gesture of respect to a human opponent. And the energy began to build. It was a feeling he couldn't understand, but unquestionably real, as if his bicycle of a body had just been fitted with a jet propulsion engine. Slowly, patiently, Mu Si shifted his weight onto one leg, bringing the other up into position.

With a giant thud, his kick struck the wall. The metal, the hardened steel or whatever it was that he'd spent the whole morning pounding on and not dented, rended and folded like paper. Mu Si raised a fist in the air, shaking it defiantly. Take that, Mongols, or whoever you are!

Abruptly, the fire of his euphoria burned itself out. What the hell was he doing?

Okay, somehow he'd managed to break through the wall. But there were surely going to be all kinds of guards around, guards with guns who were going to be showing up in a minute or two in response to the noise, and he had nothing to help him fight them off, not even a scrap of clothing. And though his kick had been worthy of Superman, that didn't mean he'd be able to bounce bullets off his chest.

Doors slammed. Voices shouted. Footsteps approached. Mu Si figured he had maybe half a minute to do something.


"What in the...."

The two soldiers warily approached the cell, assault rifles first. "Sarge, the prisoner must'a blowed himself up. There ain't no trace of him left."

"I think there 'ain't no trace' left because he ran off. Hit the alarm, and then follow me. He didn't run past us, so there's only one way he could've gone, down the corridor."

Bells began to blare. The two soldiers pushed ahead, one in front, the other covering him from behind. And, shielded from view by a hastily replaced ventilation cover, a duck breathed a quiet gasp of relief.


Somewhere else, the driver of a Mongol military transport slammed on his brakes and steered hard to the right. The covered pickup truck bounced as it swerved off the gravel road and into the ditch that ran beside it.

"What the—"

"There's a bear on the road! I saw it! A fucking bear!"

"Damn it, man, didn't you read the dispatch? Get us moving again before—"

The soldiers heard the sound of glass shattering, then felt impossibly strong fingers clamp around their necks. The soldiers remembered the stories they'd heard, and prayed to any deity who might be listening that they'd be able to get away before the terrorists killed them.

Voices spoke in foreign languages, conversing back and forth in incomprehensible syllables. Finally, one of them spoke to the soldiers. "You are stationed at Noyan Army Base, yes?"

The soldiers squeaked noises of assent.

"Two prisoners were taken to there within the past two days." The dashboard light reflected off the man's glasses, hiding his eyes from view. "Tell us where we can find them."

"We— we don't know," the driver gasped.

Another voice — a female's — spoke, and the soldier's interrogator answered it. "Is there a part of your base which is under particularly heavy guard right now?"

The soldiers assented. "But we wouldn't be able to get you into there," the driver said. "Authorized personnel only. Which we aren't."

More conversing. "But you could get us into the base?" Steel-hard fingers pressed on the soldiers' collarbones.

"Yeah, probably."


Just before dawn, the silence at Noyan was broken.


The truck careened forward toward the gate, ignoring the guard's challenge.

"Halt, or I'll—"

With a crunch, the gate tore off its hinges as the truck smashed through. The guard fired a round through the windshield, then another, and it kept going.

All across the base, alarms rang out.

From all sides, gun shells burst through the truck's metal skin. A tire popped, flailing around on its axle like a lone sock in a washing machine. The truck skidded forward, slamming into the concrete and steel walls of the security building; its hood crumpled, water spouting up from its radiator like a geyser. Bullets strafed the vehicle from all sides, again and again, hitting through every possible square inch of cover that the occupants might be using. The huge crowd of soldiers paused, hesitantly ready to approach it.

For a few minutes, no one spoke. "Shoot it again!" came the voice of the watch commander.

And they did, until the barking of bullets was replaced by the clicking of empty chambers.

Another order was called out. "You four take the point! Check for survivors." A laugh from the crowd was quickly muffled. As if anyone could have survived that.

A quartet of soldiers inched forward from the crowd, cautiously moving up to the vehicle. Carefully, one of them pulled away the remains of the passenger side door, quickly swiveling his gun inside. "Holy— Cap'n! There's nobody!"

"Of course there is," said the Captain, striding forward with newfound self-assurity. "No one could have—"

"No, sir! I mean, that's not what I mean!" The point man pointed inside, where a concrete block rested on the now-destroyed accelerator pedal.

Everyone looked from side to side, then turned around.


Fists and feet tore through a section of wall. Aware that pursuit would likely arrive in minutes, the group hurriedly slipped inside and surveyed the building's rather sparse contents. "Either this is the wrong building, or they must be down that," Ryoga said, pointing towards a ladder that protruded from a hatchway in the floor. "There's nowhere else to go."

Ranma took a step closer to the hatchway, and paused. "Don'tcha think this is just a little too obvious?"

"Huh?" Ryoga blinked. "If Kasumi and Mu Si are down there—"

"—then let's skip the stairs, and take the express elevator." He motioned to the floor, and Ryoga's eyes narrowed in understanding. "Want to do the honors?" Ranma asked, backing away slightly to give Ryoga enough space. After all, he thought, down is one direction that even you can get right, but he decided it wasn't worth saying out loud. He just wanted to get this whole thing over with.

Ryoga's arm swung down. For a moment, the five martial artists fell through darkness. Then, abruptly, a light switched on.

In the small room below, three cots stood against a wall, amidst haphazardly-strewn suitcases and duffel bags. Three men looked up from the cots, pointed, and spoke in a language Ranma couldn't understand. The largest of the men shouted something hostile at Genma, who in his panda form was leading the charge downward; the large, bearded man's eyes narrowed, and suddenly Genma burst into flame.

"Growowowowowowfff!" Genma squealed as he hit the ground, and he began rolling on the floor. What the hell? Ranma wondered? Who were these people? What kind of place had they barged into now?

The four physically human members of the team landed. Ryoga, the nearest to the bearded man, reached out and flung him across the room where he crashed into the far wall. Ranma winced, That had to hurt. Were these people martial artists? They didn't look it. Their stances, their reactions, everything about them just said that they were just Joe Averages. Except the fact that one of them had just toasted his pop.

"Now, look, you guys," Ranma said, "we don't want any—"

Some instinct made him move back. A loud zing sounded, along with a quick rush of air, and Ranma looked down to see a missing chunk of floor where he had been standing. Huh? Looking up to the hole through which they had entered, he could barely make out the shape of a gun barrel pointed down. Several gun barrels.

Oh, shit. Without a second thought, he sprang upwards. He had to take out those gunmen before....

The blond-haired Westerner offered little resistance as Ryoga yanked his arm behind his back. "Don't try anything, or I'll...." He let the threat trail off, unsure how to finish it. He had no qualms about injuring or killing an opponent in a fair fight, but these people didn't seem to be armed, nor had they shown any real fighting ability. "I got this one!" Ryoga called to his teammates. "Somebody grab the other!"

"Right, I... Aaaa!" Akane screamed as Tofu suddenly grabbed her from behind. "Doctor?! What are you—"

"What have you done with Kasumi?!" the doctor shouted. "Where is she?!"

"Let Akane go!" Ryoga said, but the doctor didn't seem to hear him. The Westerner in his arms offered no resistance, continuing to stare quietly in Tofu's direction, and as Ryoga looked he could barely make out an almost invisible nimbus of light connecting the two of them.

A half-second away from slugging his captive into unconsciousness, Ryoga suddenly felt the presence of the third Westerner enter his mind. And then he felt... nothing at all. Purpose and motivation evaporated, and he collapsed to the floor like a punctured balloon. Ranma and Akane had once described an energy-draining attack used by the teacher Ms. Hinako. Was this what it was like to experience it?

We're going to lose this fight, Ryoga thought dimly, but he couldn't bring himself to care. He no longer cared about anything.

A soldier, about to fire his rifle, doubled over as a fist jabbed into his nerve cluster. Ranma rushed desperately around the interior of the ring of soldiers. A gun barked out, and he adjusted his trajectory an instant before the shot blasted past, impacting into another of the Mongols. Probably dead, Ranma thought as his feet slammed into an adjacent pair of heads, but that couldn't even be a consideration right now.

A glancing blow sent one gunman's weapon flying. Another one down, but there were far too many left to go. With luck, a few more of them would pick each other off, but sooner or later, their superior numbers and his own exhaustion would catch up with him. And he could almost hear Kodachi laughing at him from beyond the grave. Where are your sanctimonious scruples about killing now, Ranma darling?

Then everything went dark.


As silent as a ghost, she moved through the early morning darkness. The narrow beam of her flashlight probed ahead, dimly illuminating the sign near the front door of the edifice. Ucchan's Okonomiyaki. With a supreme effort of will, she resisted the urge to laugh, though she could not identify what it was that struck her with such amusement.

A whispered instruction, and one of her little pets slithered its way under the door. The lock clicked. The door swung silently open, and she entered, closing and locking it behind her.

Her light panned around the room. This was the restaurant area. A curtained doorway stood in the back. No doubt it led to her host's place of residence, where at the moment she would be slumbering in her warm blanket of blissful ignorance.

It would be as good a place as any for a little surprise. A length of heavy-duty cord unrolled from its container. The guest attached fasteners to each side of the wall, and stretched the cord taut across, only a centimeter or two above the floor. Another fastener, this one higher up, and then the surprise itself poured from its thermos bottle. Its container wobbled slightly as she let it go, satisfying herself that it would remain in position. Until the rope was stepped on, of course, she thought, and she had to clamp her lips against one another to keep silent. No laughing. Not yet.

The visitor stepped back into the shadows and waited. The nearby window began to illuminate. It was nearly daybreak. When the sun came up, she would have to leave, of course, as she preferred not to be discovered. She hoped that the trap would be sprung before that happened.

In the darkness, the cord twanged. Water splashed. A feral yelp sounded, lasting only a moment before becoming a muffled choking and then dying off completely. The guest waited for several minutes, listening for any sound, hearing only the dull hum of a refrigerator. In the shadowy pre-dawn light, she could barely make out a form, sprawled supine across the floor.

She stepped to the foot of the stairs. The hair was white, the skin covered in wrinkes, just as before. She pushed her fingers into the body's wrists, and then its chest, checking for a pulse. There was none. She had wondered whether Ms. Kuonji would survive the transformation, after Shan Pu had, but it seemed that the okomiyaki chef was not so fortunate.

From the bottom of the stairwell, Kodachi Kuno's laughter rang out without restraint.