A Duet of Pigtails
By Libby Thomas
Based on the characters and storylines of Ranma ½ by Rumiko Takahashi and Magic Knight Rayearth by CLAMP
Commencement of War
Morning dawned on Cephiro.
Hikaru stretched and yawned, feeling a bit drained, but otherwise well-rested. At her side, Ranma slept somewhat peacefully. Looking at him lovingly, she thought that he deserved the rest--they had been fairly active the previous night. Kissing him gently on the cheek, she thought about getting up and making them breakfast, but the bed was warm and the nearest thing she could cover herself with was out of immediate reach.
Unfortunately, beauty’s kiss was what woke up the sleeping beast.
“Ohayo, sweetheart,” Ranma said, his arm reaching around her and giving her a kiss...
...which stopped as he stared in total shock, realizing who he was kissing. Hikaru ran a hand through her long black hair, gazing at him with bedroom eyes. “You were wonderful last night, Ranma darling.” Hichan gave him a passionate kiss before asking in a kittenish voice, “Can we do it again, loverboy?”
“Bu-bu-bu-but I.... You and I couldn’t have.... But where’s my wi--”
A gasp sounded behind him, and the martial artist turned to find his spouse, a look of pain and shock on her face. “Ranma! How could you! I thought you loved me!” Her face was a study of betrayal, tears running down her face. “I thought we were forever, anata! I thought it would be you and me, always!”
“But Hikaru, I--” he tried to explain, though in vain as Hichan wrapped her arms around him and started nibbling on his ear. “Um, would you stop that?”
“But Ranma dearest,” Hichan said. “You didn’t complain about it last night. In fact, I don’t recall you complaining about this, either.” Getting on top of him, she began to rub herself up and down the length of his body, and it didn’t take rocket science to see what she wanted.
“RANMA!!!!!!!!!!!!!” The Voice of the Gods roared at him, calling death on nigh. Ranma looked behind Hichan, knowing that voice as much as he knew anyone’s. Sure enough, standing there with the fury of a thousand burning stars, wielding her familiar Mallet O’ Doom, was Akane. “BAD ENOUGH THAT YOU HAVE TO FLIRT WITH A BILLION WOMEN, THEN GO MARRY SOMEONE ELSE AFTER I DIE, BUT NOW YOU’RE GOING TO CHEAT ON HER, TOO? YOU PERVERT!” Without further ceremony, Akane raised the mallet over her head and it didn’t take rocket science to see what she wanted.
“Akane! Hikaru! I didn’t--” Ranma protested, but was silenced by another passionate kiss from Hichan as she said in a breathy voice, “Let’s make babies, Ranma darling.”
An indescribable sob of utter sorrow issued from the redhead’s lips.
“RANMA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! DIE, YOU BAKA!!!!!!!!!!!” Akane screamed, as she swung the mallet down as hard as she could....
Ranma bolted upright, unable to contain the shout of panic that set into his mind. Rivulets of cold sweat rolled down his face and body, and he panted from the surprise. At his side, Hikaru turned and mumbled, “Anata, go back to bed. It’s too early to be up.”
Slowly and panicky, Ranma turned and looked at the woman sharing his bed. Red hair, check; similar in looks to his female side, check. All was right with the world. So far. Instinctively, Ranma grabbed his wife and held her close to him, as though he wanted to molecularly bond with her...or at least get closer than they’d been during the course of the night.
“Hey, Ranma!” she said, “what’s with--” An angel’s breath later, she looked at him with eyes of understanding as she quickly heard his panicked explanation. “Anata, do you ever think I’d let her that close to you?” She leaned up against him, returning his embrace. “Like you said last night, there’s nothing that can ever separate us.” She smiled and kissed him gently. “Well, at least there’s one good thing about that hussy: she does have good taste in men.” Her countenance changed to a slightly more somber one as she said, “And to think that’ll probably be the last night of peace we’re going to have in a while, too.”
“You think so?” he asked, sliding out of bed. Hikaru held onto him from behind, her love for him present through her embrace.
“Just the memories alone of the last two times I was here is enough to ensure that. I remember when I was younger, I thought about the spectacular battles and glorious stuff of war...the stuff they teach in the history books and all that. I remember my parents always filling me and my brother’s heads with all of those stories. Of course, I never told the others, lest they think I was some sort of ginsu freak or something. But nonetheless, the stories stayed in my head at the time.” She grew deathly quiet for a second, a harbinger for her words to follow: “Until I learned that it was all a lie when I killed Emeraude. And Eagle.”
“I thought that you didn’t....” he began, not sure if that was a good idea. For years, she’d made vague mention of what had happened to her lover, Eagle. But now in one swoop, she was telling him a different answer--the truth.
“I know what I told everyone, that he succumbed to a combination of his madness and the cancers that ate him alive. I just failed to mention that it was the cancer that had driven him to madness, and that he challenged me for the mantle of the Pillar. When we both touched the barest edges of the power that one of us would carry, I saw the look in his eyes and what the taste of power absolute would do to him in his madness. I couldn’t let him have it, no matter what my feelings were for him. He’d gone insane--this universe might’ve been destroyed by him.” Her voice was oddly quiet and her eyes were distant; though the tears had been diminished over time, the sorrow wasn’t. “I did what I had to do, and I did what I know was the right thing,” she said to no one in particular, “but I wonder if I set a precedent.”
“That a Pillar must be killed to be succeeded,” she answered, looking into his eyes as she climbed off the bed herself. “I tried to abolish it, and it didn’t happen. There has to be a Pillar. I killed Emeraude, then Eagle, and now I am the Pillar.”
“As Nabiki would say, that’s faulty thinking,” Ranma answered, leading her to the bathing room, which had magically been prepared for the both of them. “Weren’t you the one who told me that Emeraude had never led a normal life? That from her very birth she’d succeeded the previous Pillar? And her downfall was a normal human emotion--love--and she overreacted so much that you were summoned to set things in motion.”
“The Pillar isn’t supposed to wish for her own happiness,” Hikaru intoned the old law with grave reverence.
“Well, in that case, Pillar, explain last night, then.” He graced her with one of his trademark grins as they stepped into the shower area, and it made her heart tingle. “See? You’re the Pillar and you’ve not only wished for your own happiness, you’ve made it. But what I’m trying to say is that from what I’ve seen and what you’ve said, being a Pillar sort of requires a martial artist’s flexibility. Maybe the others were too rigid in a way of thought to be able to handle it; while you’re still the Pillar...and this is the first time you’ve been back to this universe in ages? After all, weren’t you the one who tried to get rid of your own power because you thought it was too unfair for one person to have that much power? That in itself speaks of a flexibility that I know most people don’t have, much less gods and kami.”
At this time, the showers kicked in, a glistening cascade of soft cool water that seemed to originate from nowhere and go back to nowhere; an ideal recycling system. The two women continued their conversation, Ranma’s gender changes still a bit discomforting to Hikaru’s eyes but nothing she hadn’t seen before. “You know, anata, I’d never thought of that before. Leave it to you to think of the answer.”
Ranma shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly. “Credit yourself, dear. I just put the puzzle pieces together and do husband-type stuff.” As both quickly showered, the two redheads looked at each other. “Besides, anyone that wants to kill you has to come through me, first.” Ranma kissed her wife gently, then both got into the furo, with only one remaining female in gender. “I’ll fight to the very end before they come anywhere near you, dearest,” he added, his voice dropping in octaves as the changes occurred.
“And they would have to answer to me if they so much as harmed a hair on your head,” she said, though she winced slightly as she watched Ranma go through his transformation. Changing the subject, she commented, “I’m sorry that I couldn’t remove the curse from you.”
A brow arched. “You tried?” Admittedly, he hadn’t even thought of asking her, but....
“Un. While you were asleep last night, I spent a couple of hours looking into it. I wanted it to be a surprise for you.”
“Sweetheart, you didn’t have to....”
“I know how much it bothers you when you’re in female form...even if it happens to remind you of your loving wife,” she giggled. “Anyways, I’m not sure why I couldn’t break the spell. I don’t know if it’s because it’s an Earth spell, or if it’s because it’s a curse, or whatever. All I can say is that by the time I went back to sleep, I had a really bad headache. Maybe the only way to cure it was Jusenkyo itself, and as you told me, it’s destroyed now.” She paused in thought, before adding, “If you’d like, I can ask Clef to look into it. He’s more practical at that sort of thing, and he might be able to figure it out for you.” Unspoken was the fact that if the Pillar couldn’t do it, the Guru shouldn’t have much better odds.
At the mention of Clef’s name, Ranma leaned back in the furo, thinking of what the Guru had told him just the day before: “You have a destiny about you Ranma, one that is perhaps even more convoluted than that of your wife’s.” “No, dear, don’t worry about it. I’ve kinda grown used to it over the years. Besides, something tells me that it might just come in handy.”
Hikaru smiled softly. “Good. I was so worked up about it, I could have sworn I sensed three other Jusenkyo curses on the planet. It was probably nothing more than the mystic echoes of your curse, though.” Hikaru leaned back against her side of the tub and sighed in relaxation, closing her eyes, which was fortunate for her husband. For if she’d kept them open, she would have wanted an explanation for the look of surprise on his face.
Four Jusenkyo curses, here? Ryoga an’ me, that’s two of them...so who’s the other two?
There were times, Michael had to admit, that his less than desired duck form came in handy. For one, it was good for hiding in small spaces, and a big asset in what was termed “sustainable detection avoidance”, basically not getting caught.
Like right now, for example.
Wandering around the room, rooting in the closets and other parts of the chambers set aside for him was Shiki, pushing a massive cart of breakfast for two. “C’mon out, Michael-kun! I had breakfast especially prepared for us, too!” the girl pouted, wondering where her dreamboat of a man was. There was no trace of him, sadly, though there were duck feathers in the bathroom--Shiki had no idea what to make of that. Stopping by the desk she stopped to pen a little note for him, then quietly slipped out of the room.
Michael slowly flew up to where the note was, opening it with his beak and taking the time to read it. Shaking his head in what was a pleasant little way, he was touched. The girl really did have feelings for him, it seemed, enough to make her write poetry on a level to make Kuno’s look good. He also felt touched that she would need to bring him breakfast. Flying back to the bathroom, he only wished that she’d have settled on a more realistic time for breakfast...say, unlike, four in the morning.
“Fuu, are you too busy this morning before the meeting, or do we have time to talk?” a man asked.
The queen, in her office at the moment, felt a little better about that voice. “Come in, Ascot, and have a seat. I’m always available for my friends. Care for anything to drink?” she asked, motioning to the coffee carafe sitting on a nearby dais.
“No, but I thank you, though.” The beastmaster sat down at the seat next to the desk. “Now that the ARK CEPHIRO is back from our scouting mission of Chizetam and Fahren, and we’ll be here for repairs for a while, I’d like to take some time when possible and check in on my wife, if Sintra hasn’t already done that.”
“No, Sintra’s been busy assisting Lantis during the Vauxhall campaign.” Fuu looked at Ascot, noting the changes that had went through him. Though older, he’d changed little in demeanor. His hair was as shaggy as always, covering his expressive green eyes. Though he no longer favored the hats and flowing robes of his old style and now wore something more akin to Autozamian fashion (somewhat appropriate, since he was made the Captain of the ARK CEPHIRO), there was no mistaking the boyish charm that he still had, something that just didn’t seem evident in his daughter. “You know, I’ve said a dozen times that if you so desire, we have room for you all here.”
“She...feels that her position in Lumina is an important one,” he explained. “She didn’t want us to leave her, but she knew that we had to fight for the safety of all Cephiro.” Ascot gave his friend a weary smile. “Yes, I am a bit secretive about my wife, and it’s not because I don’t trust you or any of the others, Fuu. It’s just...well, she values her privacy. When she feels it is time to be known, she’ll come out and tell you so.”
Fuu nodded. “I can understand that. Very well, then: after the briefings this afternoon, you and Sintra take some time and go off to Lumina. I’m just curious how you’re going to get there--Lumina's on the other side of the world, isn’t it?”
Ascot nodded. “I’ll summon Fyula or Seriu to take us. Either of them will be more than happy to help. But thank you, Fuu. I appreciate it.” He rose out of the seat, ready to take his leave of her.
“One last thing, if you would,” Fuu asked as he turned towards the door. “Does she know? Caldina, I mean.”
“How could she not know? Zazu’s FTO was blown apart right in front of our eyes, and Geo didn’t survive the battle, either. We were both on the bridge at the time, directing the combat,” he said, his voice sounding pained and haunted. “Most of our FTOs that went with us were destroyed by the enemy FTOs--what they apparently call Levins. We watched Zazu’s mech get shredded by enemy fire, Fuu. Do you have any idea what that’s like?” Ascot looked at her, anger in his eyes, though not directed at her. “We couldn’t help him, nor could Geo. Geo managed to make it back to the ARK CEPHIRO, but he’d lost too much blood. By the time medical arrived on scene, it was too late.”
Fuu fought back her own conflicting feelings at losing those friends, too--How many of my friends will die when this is all over? She sighed; sadly, there was something more important to be asked. “That wasn’t what I meant, Ascot. That intelligence report you sent me last night while the ship was coming back into Cephiran airspace....”
“No. I couldn’t.” His voice had receded to a whisper. “She’s already worried sick about LaFarga--I couldn’t do that to her. Her mind was on him and Carina for the entire trip, and I’m amazed that she was able to do her job out there.”
“I asked you to tell her. I think you’d have been more amicable to a Royal Request, Lord Ascot.”
“Excuse me, your Highness,” Ascot said, a tone of annoyance in his voice, “but that wasn’t what you were asking me to do. You were asking me to do something that only you or the Pillar can, not me. I’m your friend, Fuu, but I am not going to do your dirty work for you. Caldina’s like a sister to me--years before I knew any of you, she was the one I could turn to for help. If you think that I’m going to do something like that to her, you have got to be out of your mind.” Turning away from Fuu, he walked out the door in a huff.
“I’m sorry,” she said to him as he walked out the door. As he was gone, she looked at one of her pets, a jade-green chevelle in its cage, one that reminded her of Windham’s avian form. Walking over to the cage, she let it out, the eagle-sized bird daintily climbing onto her arm and cooing, waiting to be petted. Stroking its feathers almost with an absent grace, she whispered, “I’m losing my sanity, that’s for sure. I can’t run this kingdom alone.” Looking out the stained glass windows of her office, she asked rhetorically, “Oh Ferio, my love, where are you?”
Sadly, she knew she wasn’t likely to get an answer from the glass, so she put her pet away and left her offices, her royal robes transforming into the armor of the Wind Knight. It was time to get down to a very different sort of business, and different means called for different vestments. She only wished that none of this senseless combat would continue. She also knew, without hesitation, that it would get far, far worse before it got better. That’s the way it usually worked before, so why should it be any different now?
“For the most part,” Fuu said from her position at the head of the conference table, “we all know each other, so I’m going to dispense with protocol. We don’t have time for that, and I don’t want to put you to sleep. Obviously, all of the Cephiran hierarchy knows the Pillar by name or reputation, and you also know what she’s capable of--last night’s incident should have covered that nicely,” the queen groaned.
Hichan shifted in her chair, groaning from her bruises, while the look on Hikaru’s face was somewhere between satisfaction and embarrassment for the previous night’s events. Lantis looked at Hikaru with a sense of sorrow and longing, while Ranma had a generally predatory air about him, protective towards his wife as always.
“Well, doubtless that everyone knows why Hikaru, her husband, and their friends are here--they’re here to aid us in our time of need. Up until last night’s intelligence report, I hadn’t known how bad of a situation we were facing. However, now I do, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m not afraid about what we’re dealing with.” Fuu paused, trying to find the best way to explain it, but couldn’t come up with one. Giving up, she decided to go for the more direct route: “Here in Cephiro, you have your monsters. On Earth, we’ve had ours. Now, they’ve come here.”
The queen tapped a white crystal embedded into the lacquered wood of the table, and it began to glow, even as the lights dimmed in the room. “Gentlemen, this came from various intelligence forces in Hiace and Vauxhall. Some of this also came from Geo and Zazu, at the cost of their lives.” The room fell deathly silent at that; losing friends was never something to be comfortable about. “This is the first complete images of what we’re fighting.”
The assembly watched with a critical eye at first. Eventually, two different opinions rose amongst the groups watching. The Cephirans initially watched with a look of surprise that soon gave way to a biting discomfort as they realized the full brunt of what they were up against. As for the Earth group, they knew from the first views, what they were fighting and there were looks of disbelief complete on their faces. As the visual feed ended, only Clef was found to have spoken amongst the Cephirans. “And these people are from your world, Fuu. And that symbol they rally around...the manji...isn’t that a symbol of peace on your world?”
It was Michael who spoke. “No, sir. I’m afraid you have that wrong. The manji is a symbol of peace on Earth--but that’s not a manji. It looks like a reversed one, but when it’s in the configuration you see here, it is called the swastika, and it’s the symbol of the National Socialists--or more popularly known as Nazis. I think I speak for every Earth-born in this room when I say that if you’ve got Nazis running around, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands.” With that, Michael began to give an abridged version of the history of Nazism on Earth, from the first echoes of the Second World War, up until the problems of this week before he’d left for Japan. By the time he was finished with the basics, he’d gone into specialty. “In fact, based on what little markings we’ve seen, I might be able to give you more data on what we’re facing, but not until I see better data.”
“I don’t understand,” Hichan said, shivering from the very butchery that Michael had described so analytically. “If they’re all a bunch of killers and monsters, why do you want to know more about them? Why just not kill them all and burn what’s left?”
“Because sometimes you have to know how to kill something before you can,” he retorted. “Trust me, I deal with idiots like them on a regular basis, and they’re like roaches--you can’t kill them easily. Additionally, you don’t think they just pop up here on a regular basis, do you? However they got in, is what we have to shut down as well, or you could find yourself having to deal with the Fourth Reich moving in. And I can assure you that they don’t make for very pleasant neighbors.” As an aside, he said to Fuu, “I hate to be rude, your highness, but if this is the best your intelligence apparatus can come up with, they need some serious work.”
Presea was livid. “Excuse me, but who are you to be telling me how to run my intelligence units?”
“Assets. Intelligence assets. Units are for the military,” Michael corrected. “And well, as for who I am, I think this should say it all." Reaching into his pocket, he tossed his wallet to Fuu, who caught it deftly and read the identification visible in the inner pocket window.
She looked at him. “Is this for real?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he grinned. “Operative Michael W. Tseng, Directorate of Operations, United States Central Intelligence Agency, at your service. Field work is my specialty.” Bowing with an amused flourish, he looked to all of his friends and said, “Sorry for lying about what I do for a living, but under the initial circumstances, I’d hope that you didn’t expect me to be able to tell you the truth, right?”
“Of course not,” Nabiki muttered to her husband. “Great. Just great. Nazis on one side, the CIA on another, magical forces on a third, and the rest of us in between. Why do I feel like I just stepped into a bad 50’s B-film?”
“Oh, Michael,” Shiki whispered, her voice thick as molasses, “why didn’t you tell me? Does our relationship mean so little that you couldn’t tell your love your greatest secret?” Just as quick, she shrugged it off with a, “Oh well. Should make for an interesting time, ne?”
Ignoring Nabiki and Shiki’s comments, he stated, “One of the things that I’ve done over the years for the Company is Nazi hunting in South America. Some of them have built up some serious armies, too--let me tell you, they weren’t easy to dispose of, especially the ones involved in the drug trade. And I’ve picked up a bit of information, too. One of those tidbits is a legend about a magic-based division that never saw combat. Hitler, who was obsessed with the occult, gathered enough people knowledgeable in the ways of magic to form an army division. With the help of his axis allies, his goal was to use the division, code named Vanden Plaz, to go back in time and destroy the Alliance’s major members: Britain, Russia and the US.
“He gathered his forces in a Belgian valley known as the Portal of Ages. The reasons for that, I don’t know, but with a name like that, it could mean anything.” He shrugged. “Now, depending on what you believe, this next part gets a bit strange. The Nazis believe that the Vanden Plaz was whisked away to a place of safety, until the day when they could fight again. On the other hand, according to a report by a bunch of gypsies who were on the scene, the Vanden Plaz was destroyed by the Queen of the Fey for trying to break into her realm.”
“The who?” several people asked, while Minica said in a teary voice, “We don’t have a queen. We had a mayor and she was my mother.”
“The Queen of the Fairies,” the CIA operative explained, feeling rather small about the half-fairy’s outburst. “It’s a Western legend--French, to be precise--that the Fey Queen protects the magical realms from invasion by the real world.” Pausing for a second, he then added, “The name of the Queen of the Fey, by the by, is Emeraude, though I doubt you care to want to know that much about old French myths.” His words were met with silence, and he arched a brow in surprise. “Did I hit a sore note?”
“Emeraude was my aunt,” Marino explained, “my father’s older sister, and the prior Pillar until she was...succeeded...by the Knight Commander. She’s dead now, needless to say.” Marino looked at the current Pillar and said, “She’ll have to brief you on that if you care for further details regarding the, er, succession. I wasn’t born at the time.”
“Of course!” Clef exclaimed, rising to his feet. “It makes sense now!” While others were staring at him, he explained. “Years and years ago, long before the Knights ever came to Cephiro, and while she was still the Pillar, Emeraude had sensed that something was wrong, near Lake Eteruna. She went alone to deal with it, feeling that it was something that she alone could deal with; when she returned, she never told the rest of us what had occurred, other than ‘it will be a while before they trouble us again.’ If she ran into your Vanden Plaz back then, she could have placed them into Eteruna for a number of years. And they could have broken out somehow after she died, and we merely didn’t notice until now.” Clef’s brows creased in thought at the very impossibility regarding that. “But I fail to see how we could not have noticed such a group returning.”
“I don’t think it matters so much that, as it does that they’re here, and we’re going to have to do something about them,” Sintra pointed out. “But what concerns me is that they seem to have a lot of Autozamian technology. How did they get their hands on it?”
“Simple,” Ascot answered. “They started off on Autozam, and plundered whatever technology was there. Autozam is habitable for relatively short-term periods, if an army is well stocked. From there, it was a simple matter to take whatever was left. Additionally, we were involved in a massive battle above the dead world, and it appears that this Vanden Plaz now have complete control of Autozam.”
“But what about Fahren and Chizetam? What about those worlds?” Alero spoke, his voice carrying a gravity of concern. “We can’t abandon them to their fate! We must help, if they need it!”
Hikaru stood, intending to put in her two yen on the matter. “Look, I don’t know if I have the right to speak out on this, but since I’m the Pillar, I guess my words carry some weight. There’s no doubt that we have a crisis on our hands. But as Michael said, we need to know more about the problem before we can do something about it. We know they’re crawling all over the Cephiran countryside. We know that they control the remains of Autozam. We don’t know the status of Chizetam or Fahren.” Seeing Ascot and Fuu blanche as one, Hikaru insinuated, “Or do we?”
“We’ll discuss that later, Hikaru,” Fuu answered, while Ascot kept to his uncomfortable silence.
Hikaru’s only answer to that was an arched eyebrow, the type that would have done Nabiki proud. Instead, she offered, “I propose a battleplan: I want the Knights, Ranma, and Michael to head out on a reconnaissance mission to see what we can find out about them. Satoru-nisama, Nabiki-nesama and Tatewaki, I’d like you three to come up with some sort of long-term containment strategy.”
“Is this the part where I point out we’re not generals, Hikaru?” Nabiki noted.
“I know that, but I also know that you’re one of the smartest people I know, and Satoru and Tatewaki do know military tactics. Additionally, we’ll be leaving Ryoga and Ukyo behind with you to plan combat. I have the utmost faith in them, since they’re almost as good as Ranma--no offense, you two.”
“None taken, sugar,” Ukyo piped, while Ryoga merely nodded. However, Ukyo’s eyes drew towards Ranma, and there was an unusual look in them, as though something had just gone wrong in her world.
Presea took this time to point out a tiny bit of a plan: “Um, Hikaru, as the General of the Cephiran military, would you mind me pointing out that this is my job that you’re stepping all over?”
“I understand that, Presea, which is why I’ve only directed my friends and the Knights, which is also my prerogative. I ask that both the military and the Guard try to work with us as much as possible.” Looking directly at the General, she also added, “The other thing I’d like for you to do, Presea, is to find out what hidden potential lies within the Earth group. Something’s changed in them, and they’ve become more powerful. Even Kuu, who has no combatant skills to speak of, has manifested Wind Magic, and I’m wondering if Satoru-nisama is capable of using Fire Magic.”
At the mention of this, murmurs and comments began to buzz about the room. Alero spoke for everyone. “Your Holiness, is it true that you’ve modified your Apostles to aid in your combat here in our realm?”
“First of all, Alero, please drop the ‘Your Holiness’ and ‘Holy Apostles’ references, please? I’m not really comfortable with it, and I’m sure the others aren’t, either. Secondly, I did nothing to them--I would never do that to my friends. Something happened to them as they crossed the dimensional barriers. In the case of the ki-throwers, I think that the fact that their willpower is manifested stronger here may have something to do with it. In the case of Kuu and Satoru, their magic abilities may just have been latent until they arrived; since they have the same genes as myself and Fuu, and bearing in mind the genes of the Water Squire, that may explain Kuu’s and my brother’s potential. Regardless, if you can help them to fine tune their skills, I would appreciate it.”
“I will see what I can do, Hikaru,” Clef answered. “It should prove interesting to have Fire and Wind Squires as well as our own Water Squire.” Hikaru nodded her thanks to the Guru.
“As the Second in Command of the Guard,” Lantis answered, “you have my full support, Hikaru-chan. If they need training, Sintra and I will be more than happy to help.”
Hikaru’s eyes narrowed as she said heatedly, “And you have no idea how glad I am to hear that.” Putting aside her vitriol, she looked at everyone in kind and said, “I know that this all sounds a bit odd, especially to the Earth group. But right now, I think it best that we play it off the cuff. I know I prefer to operate that way, as do quite a few of you.”
“One question,” Caldina asked. “Fuu, I don’t mean to take away from your standing as the Wind Knight, but do you think it’s safe for you to be going out? You’re the queen, and to leave the country effectively without a head of state in the castle...I don’t like that idea.”
“I don’t need to worry; I’ll have you here, Caldina.” Fuu looked at the illusionist nervously before sighing. “I wasn’t sure how to bring this up, but as of now, you’re relieved of your duties to the Cephiran crown...you, your husband, and Carina.” Turning to Lantis, she said, “I know this is unusual, Lantis, but as of now, you are Head of the Cephiran Guard; Sintra will take the position of Second in Command.”
Caldina, needless to say, was stunned. “Fuu, what the hell? Why are you doing this? What have we done wrong? LaFarga, myself, my daughter, we’ve always fought for the Cephiran crown with honor!” she shrieked, practically leaping out of her seat and looking at Fuu with total confusion. “After all we’ve suffered, you’re stripping us of our rank and duties? What is going on?”
Tears began to well in Fuu’s eyes. “Please, Caldina, don’t think I’m doing this out of spite. But I can’t allow your or Sintra to be exposed to danger anymore. As the Queen of Cephiro, I cannot allow a peer to be harmed...Sultana of Chizetam.”
“Aunt Fuu, it’s not like my mother, my father or I haven’t gone into battle before. We’re well aware of the dange--what did you just say?!?!?!??!” Carina stopped in mid-tirade, catching the Wind Knight’s words. She immediately turned to her mother, who was beginning to grow pale, her dark skin growing cold with the weight of Fuu’s words.
“We received information that we got while the ARK CEPHIRO was searching for signs of the others on Chizetam and Fahren.” Fuu held up a small stack of papers that had been sitting in front of her for the longest time. “As of now, you are functionally the head of state of Chizetam, Caldina. Later on, with the Pillar’s blessing, we’ll officially make you the Sultana.”
“B-b-b-b-b-b-b-but...that’s impossible! What about my aunt and uncle?” the Illusionist whispered. “Even my cousins, Tatra and Tarta...do you realize how far down the line of succession I am?”
“Eighteenth from the crown, right after your father and older brothers.” It was Ascot’s turn to look helpless. “The information was brought to me while you were asleep, Caldina. I...I couldn’t tell you. You’ve got enough worries, and to add to them...I couldn’t do that to you, Caldina. I just couldn’t.”
Caldina looked at the man who was very much like a little brother to her. “But what about my family? My brothers? My father? My mother and sisters?”
“From the images we got back,” Ascot said, his voice barely audible, “the entire capital has been destroyed.”
“My entire family....” Her hands pounded the table, and Carina ran to her mother’s side as the Illusionist dropped back into her seat, her body seeming not entirely under her control. “How could you not tell me? MY ENTIRE FAMILY HAS BEEN WIPED OUT, AND YOU COULDN’T TELL ME?!?!?!??!?!?!!?” She stood up from her seat and walked towards the doors, shaking with myriad emotions. “If you’ll excuse me, I don’t think my daughter and I have much more to contribute to this war council.” With that, the newly-informed ruler of Chizetam walked out, towards her rooms in the castle...her home in exile, now.
Carina looked at Fuu, then Marino. “Aunt Fuu, please reconsider. Mom’s already worried about our situation, and now this...Mom’s never wanted to be a princess, and I can’t imagine how she feels right now. We can’t rest until our ordeal is over.” Following her mother, the swordswoman left the chamber as well, taking time only to turn around and say, “From what you just implied, I’m now the Crown Princess of Chizetam. But I’d rather that my life was normal, instead.”
From where she sat, on her older sister’s shoulder, Minica’s heart went out to the two women on the other side of the table. She’d lost so much, but didn’t have the disadvantage of having something as heavy as the crown of another world dropped on her. Speaking to no one in general, she murmured ironically, “That seemed to have gone well....”
Hikaru sighed and whispered to herself, “Great. Another mess I have to fix.” Facing the assembly, Hikaru said, “Caldina, Fuu, I think the three of this should talk about this in private. In fact, I think we’ll want to recall Ferio and LaFarga from their positions to deal with this as well--as potentates of the worlds involved, we should have their....” The redhead saw the stunned look on the faces in front of her, a total visage of stares from the Cephiran entourage. “What’s wrong?”
An inhuman growl sounded from Hichan. From her place at the table, she leapt up and launched herself at Hikaru, snarling, “YOU BITCH!!!! HOW CAN YOU JOKE LIKE THAT?!??!??!?” In one smooth motion, Hichan whipped her saber out of her gauntlet, intending to use it against the side of Hikaru’s neck. However, Hikaru was faster at defending herself and lashed out with a rapid snap kick, which slammed Hichan viciously against the table, almost making it collapse under the force of the blow.
“Knock it off, kid, or I won’t pull my punches anymore,” Hikaru warned her namesake as she dropped into an offensive position. While she wasn’t going to make the matter worse by pulling out her own sword, she wasn’t going to give the so-called Water Squire a chance for a second strike.
Wiping a rivulet of blood from her mouth, Hichan said, “I don’t give a damn who you are, you bimbo! My mother and the others are prisoners of these Nazis or whatever you call them, and all you can do is make light of the situation? Some ‘merciful goddess’ you are!”
“Umi, Ferio and LaFarga, captured?” Hikaru parroted, unable to believe it.
“It’s not Hikaru’s fault, Hichan! I hadn’t told her yet!” Fuu exclaimed. “Now, can you two please calm down?” Both Hikarus looked to Fuu, and she explained. “I didn’t know how to tell you this, Hikaru. The reason Ferio, Umi, and LaFarga haven’t been around is because they were captured three months ago when the hostilities started on this world.” Fuu blinked away tears; now was not the time to be the teary wife, for she was queen and Wind Knight and had to be a column of strength for the land. “We’ve gotten back several of the bodies of those who went with them, but we still hope that the others are still alive.” Fuu looked at Presea, and saw that the General/Weaponsmaster, like her, was fighting back tears. She’d loved Cabrio, and paid for that love with pain as he’d been killed.
The Knight Commander looked at Fuu. “Why...why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I didn’t want to open old wounds, Hikaru. We were working on our own rescue plan before you arrived. We just don’t have enough information to pull it off.”
“No, Fuu, that’s not right. Regardless of how I feel about Umi--and the jury’s still out to lunch on that one--they shouldn’t have to suffer one more minute just because of me,” Hikaru commented, her words as strong as the very bones of the earth. “We’re mounting a rescue expedition, and we’re doing it now.”
“Excuse me, O High and Mighty Pillar,” Hichan said, her voice venomous, “why can’t you just use your vaunted Pillar powers to whisk them out of there? Or are you too vapid to pull that off?”
“Do you know what it’s like to be the Pillar, Ryuuzaki? Do you know what it’s like to have the world so tied into your own self, that the slightest error could destroy some innocent person? Do you know how it feels to be able to blink and set off a volcano?”
“No, I can’t say I have,” Hichan admitted.
“Okay, then shut the hell up and leave me the hell alone about that. The fact is, I can’t really use my Pillar abilities on a mass scale. That power can go wrong really quickly, unless I’m precise about using it, and I’m too human to be precise. I will not use the magic of the Pillar to fight this war...but that doesn’t mean that I’m abandoning them. I still have my powers as the Fire Knight Commander, and I damn well intend to use those!”
Fuu breathed a sigh of relief; deep down, she knew Hikaru would never give up on her friends. “Good. So, do you have an idea?”
“Of course. I’m going to let an expert handle this.” She spun around on one foot to face another person, the one person she knew had more than enough experience at that sort of situation: “Anata, think you’re up to this one?”
Ranma grinned. “Was wondering when my specialty would come in handy.”
Fuu looked at Hikaru’s husband. “Your specialty?”
Ranma shrugged. “Okay, one of them. I tend to have a knack for putting together rescues from some of the strangest situations. And I never lose.” Behind him, Nabiki, Ukyo, Ryoga, and Tatewaki all nodded as one, completely confirming Ranma’s words. “If we pull it off right, we can get the info that Michael needs, rescue the captured people, and give those Nazis a pretty mean slap in the face.”
Hichan’s eyes positively lit up at those words; if Ranma hadn’t been married at that point, she would have taken care of that in an instant. “Oh, Ranma my darling, you would risk your life and limb to save my mother and the others? Such charity and bravery deserves a kiss!” From her position on the table she leapt towards the martial artist...
...only to find him pulled out of the way by Hikaru, who obligingly grabbed her and slammed her up against the wall. “Don’t. Do. That. Again.” Seeing that Lantis gave Ranma a dark grimace, she turned to Lantis and said, “And you don’t try anything either, you understand?”
Fuu counted to ten and tried to keep her resolve. Why is this whole thing descending into madness? If the enemy finds out about this....
“Well, this is certainly interesting news,” Daimler said, as one of his spies came in with some information from their head agent. He was seated in his personal chambers in the newly restored Piazza Nero, once the city hall of Hiace, and seated with him were several of his lieutenants.
“Yes, sir. It seems that the Pillar is more human than we took into account. From the account given to us by our head agent, it seems that all she can do is start arguments with her own forces and rely on her husband to do her thinking for her.” The spy, named Aztek, stood in front of Daimler, wearing the clothing of a senior Cephiran officer. He was but only one of the spies in the palace, and certainly not the spymaster in charge over there. However, he was one of the best, and it was a testament to his skills that he’d been able to get the information to the Vanden Plaz so quickly after the end of the conference.
Daimler laughed, a short, sinister bark. “Does she really believe that she can just come here and spy on us without being caught? The very audacity of that woman--next thing you know, she’ll be attempting a rescue attempt for Ferio and the others.” He turned to face the spy. “This is excellent work, Aztek. You are to be commended, and when we retake Earth, you and your Italian contingent will be rewarded generously.”
“I live but to serve the Axis,” the spy answered. “However, that isn’t all. We had some of our agents go through some of the rooms occupied by the others who came here from Earth as well. We found something vital in one of the women’s rooms, something that may be of use to us.” Aztek handed Daimler a small stack of photographs. “It seems that the Pillar and her husband have a family, three children. If Citroen went to that world to try and assassinate the Pillar, perhaps we can send a team to capture her children. We can use them as leverage against her.”
“Very good idea, and I will be sure that you’re well rewarded for your efforts. You’re dismissed; you’ll have to get back to your post at the palace before they notice you’re gone, anyway.” As the spy left, Daimler looked at Berlina. “Berlina, I want you to assign a team to that option. Coordinate with Dacia and assemble a team. I want one of your fellow Japanese to accompany them--preferably the most adaptable of your crew. Additionally, see how much assistance Barina will need to transport everyone back to Earth. Citroen was able to do it because she was transporting only herself; Barina will be transporting about a squad of five people, and at least three more on return.”
Berlina stood and saluted. “Understood. I’ll assign Kukogawa to this task--she’s very adaptable and will be able to do the job easily.”
“Kooko...what did you say her name was again?”
“Kukogawa Aikawa. Your men refer to her as Estima.”
“Ah, now I see: she’s a dangerous woman, is she not? Good. See to it that it gets done.” Daimler next faced two of his own. “Trabant, Jetta, I am assigning you the task of setting up the ambush on the Pillar’s assault group. I want every one of them slaughtered, save for the Pillar herself. I want her captured, and bound with every magic-dampening item we have. I want her completely helpless...so we can execute her, Ferio, LaFarga and Umi, with every one in Cephiro watching. As soon as we obtain the information, I will ensure that it will be passed on to you.”
“Fuu, can I have a word with you?”
“Sure, um, Nabiki, isn’t it?” the queen asked. She was in the armory, loading up on arrows. She’d decided that she was going to be as prepared as possible if things got hairy while they were on the road to Hiace.
“Yes. Look, I can understand the need to have ‘relics’ of the ‘Holy Apostles’ and such, as well as the Pillar and her husband, but I would appreciate it if the maids didn’t go through my purse. I had a picture of Ranma, Hikaru and the kids, as well as other pictures, and they’re gone now.” Nabiki groaned and muttered, “I knew I should have left my purse at home.”
“I’ll talk to the chamberlain about it. You’re not the only one who’s come to complain to me in the past hour or so. I had Ranma’s friend--Ukyo, I think her name is--complain about something similar, and someone went through my sister’s pack as well. It’s probably just hero worship, but that still doesn’t excuse the theft.” Fuu tested the tension on her bow; perfect as always.
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“The pleasure’s mine--you came here to help my homeland; it’s the least I can do.” She turned back to Nabiki and said, “I don’t mean to be insulting, but Hikaru has a lot of faith in Ranma’s skills. I wonder if they’re misplaced--I don’t doubt that he’s good if she says so, but even I tend to overstate my husband’s talents at times.”
Nabiki grinned earnestly. “Then you don’t know my little brother. I can’t say how powerful any of your people are, nor do I know all of Hikaru’s powers as the Pillar, but I can tell you this: from what I’ve seen of Hikaru’s pyromancy, and what I know my brother can do, he’s more powerful than she is in that aspect. Don’t look shocked; he was carving the tops off of mountains back on Earth when he was seventeen. Ranma’s a very dangerous opponent, and a better ally. But he’s at his most powerful when he’s fighting for what he believes in and for those he loves. Hikaru has faith in him because she knows his talents, and so do I.”
Fuu looked at Nabiki with mild disbelief. “He’s that powerful? Maybe I should ask you to come with us as well, Nabiki.”
“I’m not that powerful. Yet,” she laughed. “But as for coming along, I’m one step ahead of you, your highness. Hikaru and Ranma already asked me to come. They figure that with Ryoga, Ukyo, and my husband here, that’s enough power in reserve, and I agreed. Besides, I didn’t want to slight your general on warfare planning; I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. Besides, although I’m not as good as my little brother, I’m still good in a fight, and if he’s asking me to come and back him up, there’s no way I’m gonna say no.”
“Your group must be some of the world’s best martial artists, then,” Fuu commented.
“Absolutely. Not bad for a bunch that was constantly at each other’s throats a decade back,” Nabiki replied. Seeing the look on Fuu’s face she clarified, “Think of it this way: as bad as we were to each other, I can guarantee that we’ve been much worse to outside problems. And now that we all get along internally, you can imagine how little mercy we show to anyone stupid enough to pick on one of us.”
In an almost completely darkened room barely large enough for her to fit into, Umi sat. She hadn’t been fed or attended to in the past few days. Of course, the benefit of that was that she hadn’t been touched in the past few days. Which was a good thing--she was at her limit and every bone in her body ached, and she bled from a dozen places.
An insect of some kind skittered across her lower part of her body; she ignored it. She had sadly grown used to them during her imprisonment, and at least the roaches and the like weren’t likely to violate her body, unlike the two-legged ones that were basically using her as entertainment.
She blinked away a tear, staring into the room that was barely lit, and that only because of the energy that her magic was dumping into her restraints. The spells on them already had to be replaced twice, as her power was too much of a strain on them, and they couldn’t afford to have a regular sorcerer assigned to watch her. Apparently, that was their weakness--they were lacking in Gurus, just as the Cephiran side was.
One thing that she noticed, and wasn’t sure why: her power, a couple of days ago, almost doubled in strength. During the months of her captivity, her power had been on a steady decline. And just a couple of days ago, it had gone back up, almost to the level that it was at prior to her capture.
Such an occurrence could mean only one thing, though it wasn’t possible. She wouldn’t return. Umi wouldn’t expect her to return, especially not to rescue her. After what Umi did to her, the Water Knight wasn’t sure she would ever be that lucky. But if there was one thing about Shidou Hikaru, it was that she was capable of extreme kindness, even to her worst enemies. And that in itself brought hope.
Hikaru, if you’re still my friend, I need you more than ever, Umi called out in her mind, hoping that the Pillar would hear. Please forgive me, Hikaru. All I want now is my child and happiness for us all.
The semi-dark silence of the confinement cell was her only answer, and possibly her only one. But there was hope now, and maybe--just maybe--the chance that Hikaru was coming, and that Umi would be reunited with her own child. A thought came into Umi’s mind: maybe, if Hikaru had already met Hichan, that would be a clue how much Umi still loved her estranged friend. Maybe the two were even getting along as wonderfully as she and Umi had, prior to their schism.
Anything’s possible, isn’t it?
“Ranchan, promise me that you’ll come back safely,” Ukyo said. “You and Hikaru and Nabiki and the rest.”
Ranma and Ukyo were leaning on a ledge over the training grounds, watching as Kuu and Satoru were being given the first in their training in the ways of magic, courtesy of Clef. Hikaru was off doing some Pillar-related business with Fuu; and Nabiki and Tatewaki were...well, Ranma did understand that those two needed some personal time alone. Down on the field, Michael and Shiki, with some assistance from Ryoga, were going over some extra martial artist techniques. Ryoga’s right: it’s time that he started teaching. He’s certainly good enough at it, and he’s calmed down enough to be a patient teacher. Maybe when we get back, I’ll have to have Nabiki and Hikaru talk to Akari about supporting Ryoga in opening a dojo on their farm. Maybe his school’ll get as famous as mine.
“Did you hear a word I said?” Ukyo said, her voice concerned.
“Absolutely, Ucchan. Crystal clear. And you’re worrying too much.” Ranma smiled in an attempt to ward off Ukyo’s black mood. “I always make it through okay, don’t I? Relax, will ya? If I can beat the likes of Saffron, I can certainly kick Nazi butt, ne?”
“I’ve just got a bad feeling about this time, Ranma--Iike I’m never going to see you again.” The look in Ukyo’s brown eyes were serious, solemn. She actually believed what she was saying, and there was something seriously wrong with that. “ I don’t want to lose you, Ranchan--I’ve already lost you to Akane and Hikaru, and I don’t want to lose you for good!”
“Ucchan, I....” Ranma was lost for words. He’d never seen her this way before. Sure, she was depressed when he married Akane, and was in a similar way when he’d married Hikaru, but this went beyond the pale. “Ucchan, we’ve been friends all our lives--just because I’ve married different people, doesn’t mean you’ve lost me.” His eyes met her, and they held all the warmth and love for his best friend that they could. “Ukyo, what can I do to ensure you that I’ll make it through okay?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Somehow, this is different than all the other times. I’m afraid, Ranchan! Doesn’t that mean anything to you?” She glomped him, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I love you, Ranma. I don’t want to lose you! I just have a bad feeling, one I’ve never had before, and I don’t like it.”
He held her tightly, something that he’d been afraid to in the past; but that was a different, less mature Saotome Ranma than he was now, and the situation for him had changed quite a bit. “Ukyo, I’ll be fine. Believe in me, okay?”
She looked up at him, as though she was trying to burn his features into her memory, forever. And when that was done, she kissed him with all the love that she’d ever had for him, from the day that she’d first met him, up until that point, and there was not a single other woman--not Kodachi, not Shampoo, not Kaori, not even Akane or Hikaru--that would ever take away the love that she knew that he had for her. She wasn’t his wife, she would never be destined for that. But she knew that he loved her in his own way, and that was something that she’d learned to cherish. And that was what she was fearing she would never have again.
For his part, Ranma didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t expected this kiss; fortunately, all of his friends knew him well enough now that he could explain weird situations like this. I hope, he thought, as the flash of the previous night’s nightmare briefly popped up in his mind.
“HEY, TAKE IT TO A
HOTEL, YOU TWO!!!!!”
Ranma’s face blanched at those words, while Ukyo, realizing what she’d just done, blushed a deep crimson. The pair, still entwined in each other’s arms, looked down at the training field to see everyone looking back up at them. Ranma’s eyes grew as big as that of an animated character, his mind in total sickened shock, while an embarrassed Ukyo stammered, “Sorry, Ranchan. It, um, just sort of happened.”
Ranma looked at her. “Hikaru’s going to kill us when she finds out. If Satoru doesn’t, first.”
“I’ll be sure to hide the mallets,” an equally mortified Ukyo agreed. “Maybe I should hide the whole armory.”
“What the hell does Ranma think he’s doing?” Satoru snarled, more out of bemusement than anger. So far. Ryoga had been the first to notice what had happened, and made his shout; that, in turn, caught the attention of everyone;
“It’s okay, Satoru,” Ryoga explained. “Ukyo did that, not Ranma. Something’s bothering her; she’s not usually like that.” The lost man gave everyone a quick explanation on the life of Ranma and Ukyo, hoping that it wouldn’t make it worse. “I have no doubt that Ranma didn’t enjoy that--to him, it would probably be like kissing Nabiki or Kasumi, something he just wouldn’t do.”
“Okay, if you put it in that light, I understand,” Satoru admitted. “I’ve never thought of him as a philanderer, anyway.”
“Trust me: there is probably no man more faithful to his loved one than Ranma. Even if he was the cheating type, which he’s not, Akane pretty much beat it out of him,” Ryoga quipped with a fond gleam in his eye. “Basically, I shouted that just to mess with their heads.”
“Why do that, if they’re in a vulnerable situation, Ryoga?” Clef asked. “Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to leave them to figure it out for themselves?”
“Simple: they’re my best friends. I have to mess with them. It’s in the rulebook,” he stated authoritatively. “But I think I’d better go up there and help. Something’s wrong with Ukyo, and I think I should help. If you’ll excuse me.” With that, Ryoga headed off towards the left.
“Um, Ryoga, the exit’s that way?” Shiki pointed in the opposite direction, as a bead of perspiration graced her brow. They’d all been told of his famed lack of direction, but to see it in action was something else, entirely.
The lost man laughed nervously, scratching the back of his head. “I, um, knew that. Really. I did.” Beating a hasty retreat, he called up to them shouting, “We gotta talk, you two! Meet me in the central atrium!” It was a big enough place for Ryoga to find, and relatively easy for them to go.
As Ranma and Ukyo left to join Ryoga, Satoru watched them leave. “It must be very interesting for him, having two friends like that.”
You don’t know the half of it, Satoru, Michael mused, though he said aloud, “Personally, I envy the guy.”
“How so?” Kuu asked.
“Think about it: he has friends like that, the type where he and they can tell each other anything. He also has that same relationship with his sisters, from what I see of him and Nabiki. And, he apparently can do the same with his wife. A lot of people would kill to have relationships that close.”
Shiki slid her arm around Michael’s. “Well, you have me, Michael-kun, ne?” He wasn’t sure how to answer that, and at his awkward silence, Kuu and Satoru exchanged knowing glances, then chuckled.
From nearby, Lantis had watched the whole situation with Ranma and Ukyo, without the benefit of Ryoga’s explanation. So, he’s two-timing her, and with one of her friends, too. I don’t care if you are her husband, Ranma; you’ve proven to me just now that you don’t deserve her. And I intend to make sure that she doesn’t have to put up with you. Turning around, Lantis went off towards his chambers. There was much to be planned.
At another area, Hichan observed the same thing. So, apparently their marriage isn’t as strong as the bimbo says it is. I have a chance, then. She watched as Ranma and Ukyo left, obviously off to some tryst somewhere. A strong man like that needs a capable woman, and apparently the Pillar can’t keep him. I think I’m just the girl he needs, then.
“I don’t want the crown, dammit!” Caldina said. “I’m a dancer and an illusionist! I’m not cut out for this sultana crap!” She, Carina, Fuu, and Hikaru were in the neo-Sultana’s private chambers in the palace. They’d come to talk some sense into her, and so far, it wasn’t succeeding.
“And you think I was cut out to be a goddess? Or Fuu, the queen of Cephiro? Get off your high horse, Caldina!” Hikaru seethed, at the limits of her patience. “I didn’t come in here to hear you bitch, whine, and moan about a promotion! You’ve always gone the distance for Cephiro’s people, so why not your own?”
“I was not destined to rule, Hikaru! That was something for Tatra or Tarta, not for me!”
“AND YOU THINK I GOT A GODDAMN INSTRUCTION MANUAL WITH THE POWER OF THE PILLAR? WE ARE NOT TALKING ABOUT A CUISINART, CALDINA!!!!!” Hikaru for a second really began to wonder why the hell she’d bothered even coming back to Cephiro--the enemy didn’t have to worry about the destroying the Cephirans, as they were doing a good enough job of it themselves! Still, Hikaru was committed to helping out her friends, so she had to put aside her temper and go into explanation mode. “Look, Caldina, I know how hard it is to lose your family. My parents died when I was ten, but I can still remember what it felt like. All I wanted was revenge against what had been done to me, for what I lost. You have a few advantages that I didn’t. You have an adult daughter who looks up to you for guidance and support--you may be the Sultana now, but she’s the Crown Princess, and in some ways, that’s even more pressure than you’ve got. Secondly, you have a world of people who are depending on your leadership now, and that’s something that you can’t turn away from...I tried to turn away from the mantle of the Pillar and I couldn’t do it, so how can you walk away from the Chizetamian crown? And lastly, unlike me, you have a target for your revenge, should you want it--though I think better of you than to watch you go for useless revenge. My parents were killed by an avalanche in Kyushu, while your family was killed by the same monsters that we’re fighting.”
Caldina looked at Hikaru, then to her own daughter. “Carina, what do you think?”
“Mom, I want to become a Princess even less than you want to become Sultana. If there were a way for me and Marino to have a life together without me being the Princess, I would do it. But I’m stuck one way or the other: I’m going to end up as the Crown Princess of a world, regardless. So, with that in mind,” she said, trying to brave a smile for her mother’s sake, “when Hikaru saves Dad, can you two please come up with a little brother to be Crown Prince? I’ve got enough headaches.”
Caldina gave her daughter a grave look, then said, “You know, you have your father’s lack of humor,” before embracing the swordswoman in a maternal hug. “I’ll do it, then. I don’t want to, but I suppose that a ruler has no other choice, does she?”
“No, sometimes you don’t,” Fuu agreed. “But I’ll be more than happy to give you whatever advice you need, Caldina.”
“Thanks, Fuu. You’re a lifesaver.” The sultana then looked at Hikaru and said, “You have changed, Hikaru, a lot. The last time you were here, you would have told me to go with my heart, and I would have refused this. Also, I don’t recall you being as...fervent...about things before.”
“I know. That was before I learned that sometimes it’s not for the best to go with your heart, because you’ll only end up with shattered pieces. And I learned that sometimes that rule isn’t even true. If it wasn’t for my husband, I don’t think I would have learned anything more than self-pity and hatred. I also picked up a bit of his ego along the way as well, I think.” Hikaru looked at her friend and said, “Chitzetam will be in good hands, Sultana Caldina. And I promise that I’ll officially crown you when I get the chance. But for now, I have a promise to keep, and a duty to fulfill. Let’s get going, Fuu. We’ve got some friends to bail out.”
Ukyo sat over her cup of tea, holding it as though it were a lifeline for her. “I don’t know how to explain it, guys. Maybe it’s just an irrational fear, but it’s not one I can get over easily. I woke up this morning feeling it, and it’s not going away. In fact, it only intensified after the meeting.” She looked at Ranma, refusing to take her eyes off him. “But I’ve never had a feeling like it, and it made me do something stupid. Sorry again, Ranchan.”
Ryoga gave his friend a smile. “Well, no damage was done, and I explained it to everyone--”
“Great. You ‘explained’ it to everyone. We’re doomed,” Ranma joked, trying to lighten the situation.
“Damn straight you are,” Ryoga added, joining in. “Seriously, Ukyo, You know as well as I do that he’ll be fine. We’ve all survived worse than this. Besides, remember how badly we trashed their asses at the beach? C’mon, Ukyo, we’re a lot more powerful now. Even you are! D’ya really think that we’re gonna get creamed so easily?” He looked back to Ranma. “Seriously, though, pal. You watch your back. Yours, Hikaru’s, and Nabiki’s, especially.”
Ranma shrugged. “We’ll be fine, you two. Don’t worry, okay? Ucchan, I promise that I’ll be fine.”
“I want to go with you guys, just to make sure!” she put in, nearly dropping her tea in her excitement. “If I’m there, I’ll be able to make sure that you’re okay!”
“Ukyo, we’ve got too many people coming already--we’ll lose our hiding advantage if it increases. Besides, I need you to stay here and train with Ryoga. You’ve just learned ki, and you’ll want to develop it to its fullest potential, and since I’m not gonna be here, he’s the best at it. I don’t want you out there unless you can defend yourself to the utmost. With your spatula broken, you’re going to be going hand-to-hand until it’s fixed.”
“Then why is Nabiki going? She’s not much better than me in ki!”
“You try and tell my sister she’s not going,” Ranma noted.
“Point,” Ukyo conceded. “Okay, I’ll stay and train with Ryoga, on one condition: that you and the rest make it back okay. I don’t ever want to lose you, Saotome Ranma.”
“You won’t, Ukyo. You never have, and you never will.” The voice belonged to Hikaru as she walked into the room. “I heard what happened, Ukyo.”
The okonomiyaki chef blushed. “You don’t know how embarrassed I am about that, Hikaru.”
Hikaru smiled. “It’s okay; I know you better than that, Ukyo. But I don’t want you to worry.” Something flashed in Hikaru’s hand, and when the glow went away, an amethyst pendant sat in her palm. “Ukyo, take this. If something happens to Ranma or one of us, you’ll know, because the gem with begin to glow.”
Ukyo took it readily and put it around her neck. “This’ll be perfect, sugar. Now I’ll know you’re safe, all of you.”
“Good; then you can see us off. We’re leaving in an hour.” Hikaru went to stand beside her husband, and wrapped her arms around him. “I’ll take good care of him, Ukyo, just watch.”
The spymaster, in his private chambers, smiled.
The Pillar and her knights have given us their travel plans, and now we
have a way to deal with them. Looking
at a map, he found the ideal location. Catera Ridge. Perfect.
Just the ideal location to hit them, and they won’t be expecting it.
Furthermore, since it borders the Forest of Silence, there is nowhere
that they can run to without risking their lives. Any chance they have of victory will be forfeit under the
circumstances. It is a perfect
I must pass the word along to Lord Daimler. In fact, it would be ideal to make our final push for Demio at that time. With the queen out of the way, there’s not anyone who can really take her place. The spymaster began to prepare a message to send back to the Vanden Plaz. Between the might of his own Italian forces, Berlina’s Japanese group, and Daimler’s German war machine, they should be able to take this universe with no trouble. And once that was complete, the conquest of their homeworld would begin in earnest, and the world would be theirs.
“General Presea, I beseech you,” the young man in Autozamian clothing said, “I want to join the military, or the Guard. I want to avenge my brother’s death.” Around him, several Cephiran officers and Guardsmen enjoyed a chuckle at the young man’s bravado.
“Look, kid, you can’t be more than, what, 14?
15?” She looked at him,
noting that there was something familiar about his black hair, green eyes, and
the form of his features. He looks really
familiar, but I can’t place the face.
“I’m seventeen, and more than capable of whatever needs to be done, General. Like my brother before me, I’m a whiz at tech, and you need a guy like me out there on the field!”
“Look, um, kid--”
“The name’s Prizm. Geo Prizm, ma’am,” he retorted. “An’ I ain’t a kid!” The young man stood before her, the embers of anger growing in his eyes. “Those bastards killed Metro, and I want their hides!”
At the mention of the name, Presea looked at him oddly. Several of the others stopped their chuckles and looked at the boy with new eyes. “You’re Metro’s brother?”
“Yes ma’am. He and Zazu taught me a lot of what they know, as well as how to fight. I came out all the way from my village to avenge him, and one way or another, I will, if I get your help or not!”
“Can you pilot an FTO?” Not that we have many left....
“Can I pilot them? General, I can build them! I have a design for an advanced FTO, which is better than any of the current leftover Autozamian models you have.” He held up a small data wafer and said proudly, “I call it the Aerostar, and it’ll do circles around our own FTOs, and it’s more than a match for anything the enemy has.”
That caught Alero’s attention. “Hey, wait--how do you know about the enemy FTOs? That’s classified information!”
Prizm looked at Alero with total disdain. “Tell that to the people of Vauxhall. They’re being slaughtered by them!” Turning back to Presea, he said, “Please, ma’am! I have to do this! I just have to!”
Presea smiled; it wasn’t so long ago that she’d dealt with teenagers that wanted to save the world, and look how they turned out. Besides, her sister would have taken a chance on them, and if that’s what she would have done, Presea would do no less. “Okay. Alero, contact Sintra and tell her we have a new candidate for the Guard.” Turning to Prizm, she said, “Admittedly, while you’ll be doing mostly defense and constabulary work in the Guard, it will allow you to build the skills that you will need. Good luck to you, young man. You will need it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have other business to attend to.”
Geo Prizm gave the General an earnest, cheery grin as she departed the room. “I don’t need luck. All I need is a chance to avenge Metro, and that’ll be all for me.”
Daimler stood in front of the forces that would be heading back to Earth. There were five of them: Dacia, the recently wounded leader of the group, wore a pair of sunglasses over his maimed and ruined eye; perhaps by the time he returned, Barina might be able to fashion some sort of replacement for it--anything was turning out to be possible with the Autozamian technology at their fingertips. To his side, stood Astra and Cupra, a pair of almost identical men, swarthy and strong and definitely the pure image of Aryan bliss that the Fuhrer had in mind. To their side, dressed almost in the robes of a priest, was Sharan, their mage. He would be responsible for getting them to and from Japan. It would be dangerous, as he was their only remaining mage, but if the plan succeeded, it would be well worth the risk.
There was still someone missing. “Where is that damned woman Estima?”
“Right here,” a voice said from above him. There was the movement of shadow, a glistening of white, and the sound of splashing water. Appearing right before him was a vision of Japanese loveliness, a young woman with light green eyes, fair skin, and hair black as night. She stood before him in a kimono, though there was a hint that she wore something beneath. “I was sent to aid you, Daimler. My mistress Botan commands that I do so, and I shall.”
Daimler looked at Estima with disdain. Another one of those rutting Japanese women under Berlina’s command, whose talents were to tempt men and bring them asunder. Fortunately, unlike, say, the Water Knight, or even the Pillar and her cronies, the Imperial Japanese that served with the Vanden Plaz could be trusted.
The group complete, Daimler addressed them, though his eyes were on the expanse of Cephiro’s clear blue sky. “I don’t think I need to remind you of how vital this operation is to the success for our forces here.”
Dacia’s gruff voice echoed out for all to hear: “We are well aware of the situation, Lord Daimler, and will do our best to ensure that we will succeed for the glory of the Fatherland.”
Daimler’s eyes flashed with a sort of passive anger. “Just like you succeeded in capturing the last of those pests they call fairies? You lost your eye as a result of your carelessness, Dacia. Don’t let it happen again, or you may not make it back this time.”
Estima laughed, her voice caressed in musical tones. “Do not worry, Daimler. Your band of gaijin will be safe in my hands, although I will deal with them myself if they screw up.”
“You are not in charge of this operation, Estima. You would do well to remember that and remember your place, woman.”
Estima looked at him with eyes that were as cool and aloof as the color they showed, and commented simply, "Estima is only a name of convenience. I bear the name of Kukogawa Aikawa, and that is who I truly am.” She sauntered over to him with the grace of a geisha and whispered, “This is my land we are traveling to, my world. I am in charge, despite whichever of these fools thinks himself in command. And if they think they can control me, I say only this: fox magic is to be wary of.”
Sharan, the mage, looked at her and said, “As you wish, Estima. You know the lands better than we do, so we shall leave you in command of the situation.”
The woman smiled, her countenance seeming both feral and refined at the same time, an interplay that seemed to make sense for all its difference. “Thank you for your wisdom, Sharan. There may be hope for you gaijin yet.”
“Then see to your duties, all of you. Seig Heil.” Raising his arm, he saluted the expeditionary forces and watched as they began the traveling sequence. Their bodies began to glow with an unusual light, turning into small galaxies of lights. Five arcs of power encircled them, and the galaxies seemed to become one with the arcs of energy. Finally, the transport spells lifted off the ground, and bolted into the sky. A few seconds later, there was a rainbow burst of liquid colors as the five spheres burst through the dimensional barrier.
His forces away on their mission, Daimler turned away from his watching, and to his next task at hand. Soon the Pillar herself would be falling into his trap, and there would be no chance for the Cephirans to win. This world, as Autozam and Chizetam before it would fall, and so would Fahren. And when that was done, their true mission--the return to conquer Earth would commence.
Headed down to his personal laboratories, he knew that his plan would be risky and possibly lethal. But if it worked, he would have the power of a god at his fingertips, and a pliant slave to do whatever he wished. And he would rule all in the name of the Fuhrer. The Fourth Reich would begin soon.
Horses raced across the plains of Cephiro, striding away from the palace, headed towards a stretch of mountains in the distance. Seven steeds, all strong and swift, all bearing their riders towards the Catera Ridge, all under the shining light of the afternoon sun. Within the party rode two finely armored women, the Wind Knight and the Water Squire, the green dress-like armor of the Wind Knight and the blue armor of the Water Squire signaling to those that watched that the Magic Knights were once again on the ride for the sake of Cephiro.
Their leader, the Fire Knight Commander, for some reason was not wearing her armor. Racing on her own horse, she wore simple clothing that appeared as though she was from Fahren or China, on Earth. Hikaru had informed Fuu that she had no plans to don the Fire Knight armor, as she no longer needed it; she would instead wear the clothing that marked her as a Saotome, the same clothing that her husband and his sister wore. The three martial artists rode their horses, though it was clear that Ranma and Nabiki weren’t as used to horses as Hikaru and her fellow Knights were.
Finally, bringing up the rear was Michael and Shiki. Shiki chose a simple T-shirt and jeans, similar to what Michael had been wearing. Michael scanned the horizon occasionally with a pair of binoculars, taking the time to adjust settings on a high-powered rifle that he carried with him. Shiki, for her part, rode as close to Michael as possible, looking at him every so often as though she wanted to be a part of his all-consuming love and joy.
Fuu pulled up aside Hikaru. “Y’know, this reminds me of the old days, except we’re not on foot like last time.”
Hikaru smiled. “Okay, maybe one of us should have asked Mokona to come up with some sort of transportation for us. But I don’t think any of us knew how to drive back then, and I’m certainly not coming up with a car, now.” Hikaru watched as a pair of butterflies zoomed by, blissfully unaware of anything save their own lives. “It’s been so long since I’ve gone through Cephiro, I wonder if anyone will remember me?”
“Hikaru, you have a glow to you, something that defines
you as otherworldly. People can’t
help but notice you.” Fuu looked
at the Water Squire, not saying anything to anyone, but merely riding alone and
aloof. “Speaking of noticing,
I’ve noticed you’re not wearing your Fire Armor.
“It’s simple, Fuu: I may be the Fire Knight Commander, I may be the Pillar, but I am Saotome Hikaru when all is said and done. I don’t need the armor, anymore. I’ll still use the Fire Sword, but the image of the Fire Knight isn’t me anymore, and you know I will not wear the robes of the Pillar.” She tugged on her tang for emphasis. “This is who I am now: a mother, a wife, and a martial arts and kendo instructor. And as you said, I have a glow, so I stick out like a sore thumb, anyway.” She looked at Fuu’s Wind Knight gear and asked, “I know that you don’t wear the armor on a regular basis, and I’m assuming you don’t wear the royal robes of the Queen of Cephiro regularly, either, do you?”
“No, I don’t. But I have to a lot: I’m a symbol of the majesty of both the Crown and of the Wind Knight.”
“And that’s fine for you, Fuu, but I’d rather be a symbol of belief that things will be normal again. And the only way I feel I can do that is not by being the Knight Commander or the Pillar, but by just being Saotome Hikaru, a woman who happens to be the previous two entities.” She gave her old friend a smile. “And even so, still having you by my side, my old friend, makes it all worthwhile.” The two women, feeling much more at ease, allowed their conversation to continue on towards other venues.
Ranma, on the other hand, tuned out his wife’s conversation. He had other topics on his mind. At the moment, he steered the horse away from Hikaru and Fuu, allowing his wife some privacy with her old friend. Fortunately, Hichan hadn’t noticed, so she was still riding off alone, and Michael and Shiki were in conversation about something that it would not be best to intrude. Besides, he wanted time alone to think about his current set of problems.
“Ranma, what’s wrong? You’ve been morose since we left,” Nabiki asked. “Want to talk about it?”
“It’s Ukyo,” he admitted. “I’ve never seen her like this, sis. She’s always been a very willful and strong person, but today...you should have seen her, Nabiki. Maybe you could have helped her; I sure wasn’t able to.” Since Nabiki wasn’t aware of the situation, Ranma quickly updated her on what went on, from the first incident, right up to the conversation between them and Ryoga. “Ryoga’ll do what he can, but I don’t think it’ll help much. And I feel like I abandoned her, in a sense.”
“Don’t think that, Ranma,” Nabiki assured him. “I think she’s just worried because this is unlike any situation that we’ve ever been in before. These aren’t the same over-attitude martial artists that we usually deal with--this is an army of killers that we’re facing this time, professional killers. Moreover, the Nazis weren’t known for mercy and kindness, and we all know that. She has some very valid fears, little brother, and they’re the same fears I have. I don’t want to lose you any more than she does. I’ve just been slightly better at hiding those feelings.” She looked at Ranma and said, “Just promise me that you won’t try to play hero, Ranma. Just do what you have to and don’t put your life at needless risk. If you can promise me that, that’ll be enough for me, and I’m sure enough for Hikaru.”
“You’ve got a promise on that.” Watching the same butterflies that Hikaru had earlier, he said, “Thanks, sis. You always know the right things to say.”
“Hey, isn’t that what big sisters are for?” She shrugged merrily as the horses approached the beginning of what appeared to be a hillside pass, over by a dark and sinister looking forest. Nabiki took one look into that dark, primeval mass of twisted, gnarled trees, and shuddered. “What is that?” she asked.
Without looking at her, Hichan answered. “That is the Forest of Silence. It’s a cursed place, where, for the most part, no magic can work. Over the years, ‘pockets’ have developed where magic can be used; it was one of those pockets where I found Minica while she was trying to escape from some Vanden Plaz assassins. But for the most part, you have to be heavily armed to enter that place, because the monsters within are nasty, and you don’t have the advantage of using magic to deal with them.”
“So, being this close to the Forest on one side, and that ridge on the other, it would make a nice place for an ambush,” Michael said. He stopped his horse, and grabbed the rifle, looking around in the scope. “I don’t like this at all,” he said. “I think we’re in trouble.”
“But who the hell would know we’re out here unle--OOF!!!” Hichan was blasted off her horse by a sudden jet of water that seemed to come out of nowhere. As she hit the ground, she rolled and in one smooth motion, unsheathed her rapier. The ground exploded beneath her, knocking her back as it began to form into an earth golem. “AMBUSH!!!” she screamed as she leapt back up to her feet and attacked the monster that had just assailed her.
All around the group, the ground began to rise, forming into creatures. Fuu and Michael, carrying ranged weapons, rushed their horses away from the immediate area, both going to higher ground for sniper positions. As they moved to ground, the air around them rippled as an immediate flash flood filled the area where they were. Michael had just enough time to shout, “OH SHIT!!!” before the wave enveloped him and the Wind Knight.
Hikaru leapt off her horse as a monster appeared directly underneath it, shattering the animal’s rib cage as it punched through it. In her leap she aimed for the nearest golem, attacking it with a flying kick, rebounding off it and yanking out the Fire Sword from netherspace. Within seconds, she’d begun to swing the blade like a scythe, lopping appendages and sections off the creatures as more of them appeared.
Shiki leapt off her own horse as it ran off, fearing for its own life. Landing on the ground, she turned and heard the sounds of a band of heavily armed Germans racing towards her on what appeared to be hovercycles of some sort. Dropping into an offensive stance, she yelled, “I am Nijirono Shikisai of the Nijorono School of Freestyle Shotokan, challenge you all, you cowards!” Holding her hands before her, she charged up her attack and screamed, “Unsanmushodama!” releasing her beam of emerald ki upon the oncoming vehicles. Two of them exploded, throwing their drivers clear of the flaming wreckage, though the rest of the wave came upon them.
A silent signal passed between brother and sister and as one, Ranma and Nabiki leapt from their horses. Two monsters appeared on either side of the martial artists, but they were more than ready. Ranma screamed, “TENSHIN AMAGURIKEN!!!” and immediately cut down the two golems on his side. Without even bothering to worry, he moved towards Hikaru’s side, throwing himself into a flying kick, and upon connection with the nearest golem, carved it to pieces with a series of rapid kicks. Charging up his ki, he screamed, “YOU’RE NOT GONNA WIN, YOU BASTARDS!!!!! SAOTOME YAMASENKEN ATTACK, KIJIN RAISHU DAN!!!!!!” The twin crescent blades of energy he unleashed cut a path through several of the monsters before crashing into the side of the ridge and carving a massive hole in it as they exploded.
As for Nabiki, she hit the ground, ducking under the strike of one of the golems. Following his momentum, she punched upward, shattering its arm and breaking it off. Catching it, she rammed it against the side of its head, knocking that off. Sidestepping to avoid another assault, she taunted, “C’mon, mud boys! Let’s see how well you can dance!” First swirling with crimson energy, she roared, “TENDO SPECIAL ATTACK, MUCHITSUJO BAKAHATSU!!!!" and slammed her fist straight into the ground. At once, concentric rings of ki rippled out from her hand, rocking and rolling the ground beneath the monsters sweeping them off their feet and shaking them to bits. Seeing that Shiki was already charging a group of Nazis that were rushing in, she raced to the girl’s side, ready to back her up, lest she get overwhelmed.
Fuu scrambled to her feet, soaked to the bone, and quickly grabbed her bow. Nocking and drawing with the grace and speed of the wind, she loosed her first volley against the oncoming Nazis, taking down several of them with her shots. In return, energy blasts came her way, followed by smaller jets of water. They impacted against the rock face in a single blow, causing a small cloud of steam that obscured her vision. She called out “Midori no Shippuu!” and cleared everything away with a blast of jade wind. Racing forward, still aiming and firing her bow, she tripped over an unconscious and soaked Michael, whose body felt damp from the steam and was oddly surrounded by dozens of duck feathers. Not really knowing what the hell that meant, she grabbed him and did the only thing she could: began to drag him to the safety of a nearby boulder. “Hikaru!” Fuu cried out. “We’re outnumbered! What’s the plan?”
The Fire Knight swung her blade, embedded it in the chest of another golem, turned and punched her fist through a second, then reached back, retrieved her blade, and threw it like a boomerang, the Fire Sword slicing through three more. Leaping back to avoid the hamfist punch of yet another golem, she responded by landing an arc kick to its shoulder, sending it spinning, and as it tried to rebalance itself, skewered it with a well-placed fireball. Reaching out her hand, a gout of flame erupted into being, and she began attacking once more with her sword. Hearing Fuu’s cry, she shouted, “Fuu, I’ve got a plan! Head towards the Forest of Silence!”
“ARE YOU INSANE?!?!?!?” Hichan shouted, blasting a nearby pair of golems with the Mizu no Ryu. “WE’LL BE POWERLESS!!!!!! AND, WE’LL HAVE TO DEAL WITH THE MONSTERS ALREADY IN THE FOREST!!!!!!!” She stabbed through another golem, and saw that their numbers were increasing; for every one they’d obliterated, three more were coming out of the ground. “Okay, we’ll go with your plan, but if it falls apart, don’t say I didn’t tell you so!”
Racing down in one of the hovercrafts, Trabant screamed out, “WATERSPOUT!!!!” and pointed his hand forward. A massive blast of water raced from his palms, aiming towards the group of Cephiran heroes. “Run, vermin, it will do you no good!” he called out, his voice full of glee. Shouting to the hovercycle near him, he said, “Jetta, it seems that your Geoslaves are having quite an effect on our visitors. Look at them! They’re running like cowards!”
Jetta looked back at Trabant. “It looks like they’re pretty powerful, Trabant. They’ve managed to destroy the first wave of my Geoslaves, and looks like they’re regrouping, heading into the forest over there!” She raised her arms into the air, and more of her golems began to sprout from the ground. “That should keep them busy until we arrive.” Turning to the assembly of forces, she called out, “Prepare for battle, men! This should be an easy thing to deal with, after we pick up what my Geoslaves have destroyed!”
It was an eerie sight, dozens of golems rising from the earth as though they were the undead, while the combatants began to turn tail and run, occasionally taking the time to turn and blow apart any Geoslaves that may have gotten too close. As the remainder of the Cephiran forces raced into the Forest, one single person was covering their retreat, a man who was taking on wave after wave of the Geoslaves.
With a flair and style that was unbelievable if the two Nazi lieutenants had not seen it with their own eyes, a single man was dodging and destroying the Geoslaves with ridiculous ease. Darting in and out of their reach with incredible agility, he was destroying them by some means of wrist weapons that they couldn’t see. For a second, it seemed as though he was tearing them apart with his bare fists and that he was summoning up the energy from his own body, but that was hardly possible--they weren’t feeling any magic coming from him. There was a shout of “Kijin Raishu Dan!” and twin blasts of energy raced towards the attack group. There was only enough time for Trabant and Jetta to maneuver their units out of the way, but even so, there was a price: the three rearmost cycles and their drivers went up in explosive balls of flame, spinning out of control and crashing against the ridge or slamming to the ground.
“I will deal with him, personally; he seems like the perfect challenge!” Racing towards Ranma, he loosed an extra strong blast of water at the martial artist, the German’s way of throwing down his gauntlet at the martial artist.
“RANMA, GET OVER HERE!!!” Hikaru cried, “We’re okay! We’re in the Forest!” From where she stood, ensuring that the rest of the group got into the relative safety of the Forest’s perimeter, things were not looking good. Michael had been hit with one of the magical water blasts that one of them threw, and it had knocked him out. Nabiki and Shiki were a bit tired but otherwise okay. Fuu was reaching exhaustion, having dragged Michael to safety while still engaging the enemy. Hichan was unharmed and watching the Forest perimeter for further attacks. That just left Ranma, covering their backside.
As she watched him, she felt a strong sense of pride and love well up in her. There was nothing that could touch him, nothing at all. Although the golems weren’t that fast, compared to Ranma, they may as well have been, well, dirt and rocks. Without really even trying, he was juking and attacking, a whirlwind of punches, kicks, and ki-strikes that was leaving an increasingly larger and larger pile of dirt at his feet. It was just the way he moved, as wild and untamable as his namesake. She smiled a personal grin; no matter what Hichan, Sintra or any other woman thought, he was hers and hers alone. She was virtually hypnotized in watching the beyond rhythmic movements of his attacks and counters.
So it completely caught her off-guard when he was hit with a massive water attack, which threw him for a loop and propelled him straight into the Forest of Silence. The blur that was Ranma got smaller, more dainty, and changed hair color, and an all-too familiar female form crashed painfully into the side of a tree, fingers splayed in the oyazoku posu. “Owwwwww....” Ranma moaned as she picked herself off the ground, soaking wet--her water magnetism struck again.
Immediately, Fuu raced to her side. “Hikaru, are you okay? Looks like you took a nasty hit.”
Ranma scrambled back to her feet, shrugging off Fuu’s concern and not realizing she’d been mistaken for her wife. “Don’t worry, I’ve put up with a lot worse.” Making a fist, azure ki erupted from it as though it were a star in the initial stage of supernova, and Ranma barked, “Those goons are going to pay.”
“Ranma, are you alright, anata?” Hikaru raced through the underbrush, reaching her husband’s side. “You took an awfully nasty hit and…oh great--you’re female again.” The tone of her voice was so matter-of-fact, it almost seemed comical.
“Sorry, dear,” Ranma replied, scrambling off the ground, taking off her shirt and wringing it out. “But I can stay like this until things calm down.” Ranma momentarily considered taking off her black T-shirt and wringing that out, too, but refrained, as Michael, though unconscious, was a male and there was no need to exacerbate the situation. “Think you can at least dry out my clothing?”
“Sorry, but we’re in the Forest of Silence. My Fire Magic’s nulled, and I’m not going to attempt to try my Pillar powers here.” In consolation, Hikaru gave him a kiss on the cheek. “At least you’re okay, that’s the important thing.” Assured that Ranma was okay, Hikaru called to her sister-in-law. “Nabiki! I’ll need you and Shiki to get over here, so I can tell you the plan.”
“Sure thing, Hikaru,” Nabiki answered as she raced over.
“Because we’re in the Forest of Silence, our magic’s not going to work, so I’ll need you, Ranma, and Shiki to do the brunt of the attacking. We’ll need you to lure them deeper into the forest, and from there, we’ll attack from the rear.” She turned to her fellow knights and said, “Okay here’s the plan. You...oh, that’s right. You didn’t know, did you?”
Hikaru tried not to giggle as Fuu, Hichan, and Shiki stared at the soaked redhead in complete shock. With the exception of a couple of minor details, she was a perfect match for Hikaru. Turning to Nabiki, she wryly commented, “I forgot to mention a couple of details, didn’t I?”
“It would appear so, but look on the bright side: maybe this’ll shock Hichan out of chasing Ranma.” She gave a studious look at the Water Squire and added, “Then again, maybe not....”
Meanwhile, the other three women were dealing with the new wrinkle in their current problem. “Who are you?” Hichan asked, afraid that she was going to have to compete with two redhead bimbos for Ranma’s affection. “And...what happened to my Ranma?”
Fuu looked at the newcomer and said one simple word, as though it would explain everything: “Nova....”
The soaked redhead was about to explain, when the treeline above them exploded in a haze of wood splinters. Energy bolts and bullets immediately filled the air, and everything became cacophony as birds, animals and kami-knew-what began to make noise, frightened by the sounds of warfare in the Forest of Silence.
“C’mon!” Ranma screamed, dragging Hikaru and Nabiki and pulling them deeper into the brush. The others, not wanting to argue, followed, Michael coming too just in time to be dragged along. Ranma turned and noted the team of Nazis chasing after them, and had enough. “The rest of you, keep running forward! I’m going to deal with this!” Appearing to defy gravity with a vengeance, the new redhead leapt into a nearby tree, running along the length of one of the thinner branches and shouted, “I’ll deal with this bunch--you go on ahead!”
As Ranma raced off, she could feel the worried stares of Nabiki and Hikaru on the back of her neck. She was doing exactly what she promised she wouldn’t do. But there was no other choice, the martial artist felt. Sometimes one had to risk one’s life, if it meant saving the things that were most important. Akane had taught Ranma that, and it would be a lesson she would take to her grave.
Noting that they were taking pains not to be noticed in the Forest, in the field, Ranma leapt into the grove of trees nearest them and raced upon the branches until she was able to position herself perfectly; they’d never know what hit them. Teeth and fists clenched in fury, the redhead leapt straight down into the center of the group and immediately engaged in her attack. The kempo grandmaster unleashed a flurry of punches on the most immediate target, dropping him like the scum that he was. The rest of them, startled, trained rifles on her, but the legendary martial artist had been expecting that and rebounded off a nearby tree, staying far clear of their fire.
“Give up now, and I won’t have to hurt you,” Ranma snarled, her eyes burning with anger. “I really don’t want to have to resort to senseless violence...well, any more than I have already, but I will if I have to!”
“So you’re the Pillar,” one of the Nazis, a green-haired woman, replied as she crossed her arms. “You’ve just made your life forfeit, woman.” The woman pointed her hand at Ranma and canted, “Earthcage,” but nothing happened. She tried it again, and once more, all in vain. She stared at her hand in complete shock, wondering what had just gone wrong.
So they think I’m Hikaru, huh? Well then, better put the fear of a goddess into them! Ranma’s response was to charge up her ki and drop into a combat stance, taunting, “You forced my hand, and now I act! This is the Forest of Silence, where no magic works, save my own; you have come at your own peril! I am the Pillar, the goddess of this realm, and I will end this!!!! MOKO TAKABISHA!!!!!!!!!” Almost enjoying the joke, Ranma threw the blast of energy at them, knowing they would get out of the way of her ki-attack. But that wasn’t the point. The point of the exercise was, simply, their magic was gone. Ki was not magic. Therefore...the tide had just shifted in the redhead’s favor, with a bullet.
The massive blast of blue carved a huge path out of the Forest, creating a new trail where it burned through. Trabant and Jetta looked in shock, barely moving away from the blast. The beam continued to race out of the cursed woodland and impacted against the ridge, completely shattering a decent section of it, kicking up chunks of grass and blasting a boulder in twain. Five of the stormtroopers had been caught in the blast, and summarily incinerated in the process.
Seeing that she had a clear advantage, Ranma dashed towards Trabant, did a tight mid-air roll, and executed the Kacchu Tenshin Amaguriken, loosing a wave of 587 punches against the German warrior. Trabant quickly found himself on the defensive, having to seriously hustle to outmaneuver each thrust. However, it was all in vain as the Chestnut Fist Attack was fast enough to tag him several times over, introducing him to a new world of pain. Thrown back by the ferocity of the assault, the Vanden Plaz’ Water Mage was flung like a rag doll, to crash painfully against the side of a stern tree.
Two more soldiers rushed her, but Ranma merely took them out with vicious kicks to the head. “This is the last warning I’m going to give you. Leave now, and you won’t be hurt.”
Jetta’s response was to drop into a fighting stance of her own. “I think I’m going to enjoy beating the hell out of you, traitorous bitch!”
Ranma sighed, wondering when will these idiots ever learn? Never mind that she was fighting a woman, said woman was a Nazi and thus in Ranma’s mind was exempt from her usual prohibitions. “So be it,” the Japanese woman said as she rushed forward, assaulting her foe with a kick-punch combo, causing widespread damage. Ranma intentionally did this, trying to go for as little damage as possible to the woman. She had a plan, and if it worked out correctly, it just might be the advantage they needed. Multiple trees in the path of Ranma’s attack were being either pulverized into wood chips, or being flung to the four winds.
Jetta bounded from her perch to a tree behind Ranma as the martial artist punched through a large, jutting natural crystal, reducing it to rock dust. “Are you trying to frighten me?” the woman asked, “because if you are, it’s not going to work!” Rushing forward, the Earth Mage of the Vanden Plaz attacked.
“No, just letting you know what you’re in for,” came the reply, as cold and dark as the ground underneath her feet. To prove that matter, Ranma made good on that advice, leaping into the air, bounding off a heavily damaged tree, then launched herself into a diving kick. She slammed into Jetta at a high speed, then initiated an elbow shot, throwing the other woman back. Still having momentum, Ranma entered a rapid-kick combo that bored through Jetta’s hasty defenses, then spun and nailed her squarely with a slice kick that sent her flying towards the ground.
The Nazi slowly got to her feet and looked at Ranma with eyes of rage. “Is that the best you can do?”
“No, I had this saved!” Ranma leapt into the air, turned and screamed, “SAOTOME UMISENKEN ATTACK, ENTENKA SHOKYAKU!” Glowing with energy, she leapt towards Jetta in a flying kick, seeming to swirl with tendrils of power, as though she were a comet or a solar flare. She connected with Jetta’s chest, and the world went black.
Reality restarted in a glowing burst of bioenergy that rivaled the sun, and Ranma landed on the ground. Looking into the sky, she saw the woman thrown with enough power to go severely airborne, something that she was painfully familiar with, herself. If the woman was lucky, she’d reach escape velocity and die a merciful death in the vacuum of space. If not, Ranma didn’t envy her the landing; the redhead doubted that such a person had the stamina and strength that would be needed to survive such an event.
Crossing her arms, Ranma looked at the remaining Vanden Plaz soldiers and asked, “Next batter up, please.” The soldiers didn’t need to be told twice; they turned tail and ran. Not quite done with them yet, she went over to the man she put under. Grabbing him by his tunic, she raised him up to her eye level and slapped him awake. What to do now? How would Hikaru handle this?
The answer came instantly. Trying to be as calm as he could, he spoke to the man. “I give you mercy, in the hopes that you’ll take that back to your people and tell them to leave. But if I see you again, it will be the end of you.” Not waiting for (or wanting to hear) his reply, she tossed him in the general direction of his allies, allowing them to retreat. There would likely be a second round, but those morons would take with them the message that the Pillar was not to be trifled with, and that was good enough for Ranma.
Dusting her hands off and having mixed feelings of relief and regret, Ranma leapt back into the trees, racing back to where he’d last seen the others. Likely Hikaru and Nabiki were going to give her the lecture of her life, but that was unimportant to her: the fact that they were safe was important, and to her that was the only thing that mattered at the momen--
In the distance, the voice lifted over the treetops. She knew Hikaru’s Meteor Sword Dance attack when she heard it, and if she’d heard it now, that likely meant trouble.
“Kusottare,” Ranma seethed as she raced towards the others and realizing that putting a quick end to this whole escapade was not likely to occur.
As she completed dissecting a freakish-looking cyclops-plant hybrid of some sort, the Knight Commander took a split-second to relax, but she couldn’t. Hikaru was seriously worried about her husband, and Ukyo’s own fears filled her mind for a second or two. However, she unfortunately didn’t have time to think about that; she had problems of her own.
While Ranma went off to battle, the rest of them managed to make it to a nearby clearing. They wanted to avoid it, but several monsters appeared behind them, and there wasn’t much choice. However, entering the field turned out to be even less of a good idea, as somehow, every single monster in the Forest of Silence was now aware of their presence, and had decided to turn this whole situation into a complete frenzy. The clearing was still in the Forest of Silence, which left all but the martial artists and Michael without extensive powers; worse yet, the monsters had a sizable number advantage.
There was no other choice. Hikaru ordered an attack.
As the battle continued to rage, more and more creatures were being drawn into the mess, which Hikaru didn’t like one bit. Fortunately, this wasn’t Nerima--there weren’t any concerns about the amount of damage being left in their wake, nor having to explain to the police on what was going on. In any case, that’s the least of our problems, Hikaru thought.
Right now, there were so many creatures, she could only make out glimpses of how the others were fairing. Fuu had resorted to pulling out her broadsword and was hacking away, as was Hichan; both of them were holding their own, but the monsters were doing serious damage. Michael, having fully recovered now, was alternating between martial arts and an Uzi to keep things at bay; he was likely the one best off at the moment. Also cutting wide swaths of damage at the moment was Nabiki and Shiki, but they were both beginning to flag in their strength, and who knew how much more they were able to withstand?
As Hikaru chased down another monster, she moved like an inferno, cutting down anything in her path, but it still wasn’t making a dent in the numbers. It was as though something had signaled to the beasts that it was feeding time at the old clearing and that if you caught it, it was yours. None of them were ready to die just yet, but they still had to survive this conflict.
Meanwhile, the Knight Commander wasn’t the only one involved in deep conflict.
“Damn you, leave me alone!” Nabiki screamed, tangling with something that resembled a cross between a lizard and an octopus. Although the creature had an arms advantage, so to speak, it failed to keep up with her blazing speed as she launched a rushing punch, fist burning with ki. When she hit it, there was an explosion of energy, sending chunks of debris to the four winds under the guidance of a plume of flame before somehow magically disappearing. Not wasting any time, she engaged the next beast, leaping into the air towards her opponent, ducking under the blow and cutting loose with her flying uppercut. The creature, who was eerily reminiscent of Pantyhose Taro’s cursed form, was sent sprawling into the path of one of Michael’s grenades, and it disintegrated in a fiery, bloody blossom of debris.
Swinging the Wind Sword with an angry fury, Fuu dodged, leapt and counterattacked with all the non-magical skill she had. Even though the number of attackers were immense, the queen of Cephiro had years of experience on her since the day she started out as a young, naïve schoolgirl with a penchant of referring to these things as “monster-san”. Inwardly, she chuckled at that; was there a time that she was that formal towards the things that were trying to kill her? As she rammed her blade into the chest of what seemed to be a whale with legs and oversized canines, she realized that it was her way of detaching herself from these inhabitants of Cephiro. But that was a long time ago, and a far different Fuu than the one that was fighting now. And there are those days that maybe it was better to be the detached girl who was calling these things by so formal a concept, she thought as she engaged the next in line.
Leaping into the air, Hichan lopped off the arm of one unnatural creature before landing, leaping back into the air and carving a second one in half. All of her training, everything that her mother and father had taught her, was being used to their utmost. Mama, I’m coming to save you, and there’s nothing that’s going to stop me!!!! Screaming in rage, she moved her blade with deadly speed and precision, the rapier moving like a flashing, shining sliver of death, tearing apart everything that was and would be. All she had to do was weather this, then she would be able to save her mother. Once that was accomplished, maybe her parents would get back together, which would leave her to take care of Minica, kick the redhead bimbo’s ass, and take Ranma’s hand. All it would take would be getting through this mess, and all the pieces would fall into place...and Ryuuzaki Hikaru was certainly willing to make as many pieces fall as needed to accomplish her goals.
Combining traditional martial arts with the more modern martial art of carrying an Uzi, Michael was cutting down several creatures that looked like moving inkspots. Still, they bled, and that was for the best. He was fighting once again, once more for country and honor, something that was alien to him a decade ago. Stepping into range, Michael slammed a fist across the (possible) face of one of the monsters, turned and broadsided them all with a spin kick, then as they backed off, he whipped the Uzi back into range and shredded its head, black ichor spilling all over. He opened fire, emptying the clip, then snapped his finger, making the Uzi disappear. Snapping his fingers once more, he gave his enemies a wicked grin and pointed his shotgun straight into the face of a second. “Cliché time, boys! This is my boomstick!” and pulled the trigger with gusto. There was an explosion of force, tossing back the newest group of beasts. Looking for his allies, he waded into the next group, planning to take them down and get to the side of his friends. He owed Ranma a debt of honor for tons of reasons, and if the Nazis were active, as a member of the American intelligence community he was obligated to do something about the vermin. And just as important, he had to protect Shiki...she was climbing on the roster of important things in his life, and he’d lost too many important things already.
Shiki punched forward, releasing her projectile attack. The blast of ki spiraled towards her opponents, slamming into its chest and pushing it back. A creature that was reminiscent of a land-bound manta ray sailed through the air, opening its mouth and flinging some sort of unknown energy at the Chinese martial artist. Leaping out of the way, she initiated a spin kick, spiraling round and round and round again, hitting her sizable foe each time. She spun to the point where she was lifting several feet into the air, before swatting the giant back to the floor with a well-placed ax-kick. “C’mon, bugs! I am Nijirono Shikisai, and I will not be beaten by the likes of you!” A creature similar to one of the ones that had attacked Michael charged her, and almost hit her with an inky blast of some fluid. The ground near her began to bubble from acid, and Shiki leapt back. “Is that the best you can do?” she cried.
Without explanation or ceremony, all the monsters stopped their attacks. The area went deathly silent, as though there was a scheduled intermission. There was a soft rumble on the ground, and without warning, the legion of monsters began to flee the area, as though something had absolutely frightened them.
“I don’t like the looks of it,” Nabiki deadpanned. In response, the ground rumbled again, a stronger tremor.
Michael snapped his fingers twice, banishing his shotgun and bringing up what appeared to be an RPG launcher. “Whatever’s doing that, I think we’re in for it.”
There was an unnatural scream, and a section of the trees exploded in a shower of dust, dirt, and wood. As the haze cleared, a huge monster, four meters tall strode over them, radiating pure and utter power. Similar in appearance to a sort of mutated lobster, the creature in question had eyes that burned with animalistic fury and a gargantuan strength as it stared at the group. Clearly, it had decided that it had found its quarry, as the other fauna had left the clearing. This then was the top of the food chain in the Forest of Silence, and it had found its newest meal. To prove its mastery, it screamed a cry of power at a nearby grove of trees; a wide swath of disintegration occurred as everything in the vicinity was obliterated in an invisible wave of sonic force that rivaled the white soundblast of a nuclear detonation. With its demonstration of power, the lobsterbeast thought itself the proverbial King of the Hill.
Not a good idea to do around the goddess of the universe.
have had enough of this! I am not
going to put up with this any more, damn it all!!!!
I have been attacked, separated from my children, dragged to another
universe, worried to death about my husband and friends, and I HAVE REACHED MY
GODDAMN LIMIT!!!!!!!!!” Calling
up her innermost reserves of strength and banishing her sword away, Hikaru went
into a deep focus, ready to show the monolithic being before her exactly who was
really at the top of the tree of life
in this world. She opened her eyes,
and they went completely red with anger and frustration; the time for dealing
with this was long since past. Racing
in at her top speed at the moment, Hikaru snarled, “This
ends here and now!!!! SAOTOME
MUSABETSU KAKUTO RYU SPECIAL ATTACK, STEP ONE--SHIPPUDOTO SAMBYAKUDAN!!!!!!!”
Moving on a scale that usually only her husband could move at, the Fire
Knight unleashed a blur of kicks and punches that in no way the monster could
have been able to counter; it was being pummeled senseless with each thunderous
blow that the redhead threw. Spinning and booting her opponent into the air with
an upward roundhouse kick, she turned to Nabiki and snarled, “Take him.”
Nabiki immediately bounded into the air, screaming, "STEP TWO--TENBATSUTEKIMEN SEMPUKYAKU!!!" Matching her opponent’s trajectory, the master of Tendo Anything Goes Shotokan delivered her own blazing assault of high-speed kicks in mid-air, releasing hellishly powerful strikes of ki with each blow. Finally, she did a snapping spin in mid-air, and slammed her opponent to earth courtesy of a downward ax kick.
As Nabiki landed on the ground nimbly, she noticed that the creature somehow managed to stagger to its feet from the crater it’d created on its none-too-graceful landing. Seeing that it was ready for more, she gasped, “Hikaru, we’re all going to have it hit it at once, and do it now, or it’s going to tear us apart!” Sure enough, the creature was opening its mouth, ready to loose its sonic force against the assembly at hand.
Hikaru pulled her sword out from netherspace. It was going to be now or never, and she wasn’t sure if they were going to be able to pull it off.
She needn’t have worried.
Just as the lobster creature reared its head back to unleash its blast, the earth moved and the heavens shook as a pronouncement came from on nigh: “YOU STILL HAVE ME TO DEAL WITH!!! SAOTOME YAMASENKEN FINAL ATTACK, REVISED--TENPENCHI YAKUSHIN!!!!” There was a spectacular outward pulse of azure energy, and as in the space of two seconds, a shadow-blurred Ranma threw an Amaguriken to the chest, an aerial rounding snap kick to the face, an elbow smash, a reverse snap kick, and a rapid trio of Kijin Raishu Dan blasts that set up the creature for the final blow, a rising blast kick that sent it into the air, where Ranma followed, punching with an Amaguriken attack and knocking it back to the ground. As the redhead approached the ground she created a massive sphere of ki, calling up the Hiryu Korin Dan and slamming the creature with it, completely shattering its exoskeleton and charring the remains in a mushroom cloud of energy and terrain as it was buried fifty meters into the earth below, crater notwithstanding.
Standing in the center of the crater, Ranma was breathing heavily, before gasping, “Sorry I was late. Had a hard time trying to find you all.” Hikaru gave her currently female husband a scowl, and Ranma couldn’t help but grin happily at her sister and wife, relieved that they were okay. “Nabiki, Hikaru...wow. You two really held it together. I’m proud of you both,” she admitted.
Nabiki’s eyes narrowed. “Saotome, you’ve got some explaining to do about breaking promises.” She stared at her brother for a couple of uncomfortable minutes before intoning darkly, “Don’t ever do that again.” Hikaru just stood there, giving her husband a glare on the level of the Akai Inazuma, and figuring how long Ranma was going to be pulling sleep time on the couch.
“Love you too, sis. I was just as worried about you, too. Both of you,” Ranma admitted, knowing that, with certainty, everything was her fault. Again. As usual. Regardless of what world they were on. After all, the fates forbade Ranma from getting constant breaks, and she was about due yet another setback in her life. “I couldn’t let those goons get at us; what did you expect me to do?”
“Couldn’t you have asked one of us to go with you?” Hikaru said, her voice dripping acidly.
“I, um, didn’t think of that,” Ranma admitted, feeling somewhat embarrassed.
“That was pretty obvious,” the other redhead all but shouted.
In the meanwhile, now that the calamity was over, and everyone’s mind began to calm down, it was Fuu who voiced the question on everyone else’s minds: “Who are you?”
With that ever-familiar statement, the one that she’d said so many times it seemed like a pat answer, she looked at the rest and said, “I’m, um, Saotome Ranma. Sorry about this.” As the others facefaulted, Ranma looked at Hikaru. “You didn’t tell them, did you?” Hikaru just simply turned away from him, angry as hell, as did Nabiki. Turning back to Fuu, she gave a quick explanation: “Okay, here’s the tankoban version: when I was fifteen, I fell into a cursed pool in China. The curse turns me into a girl when I get hit with cold water, and back to normal when I get hit with hot water. It’s a complete coincidence that my female side looks almost exactly like my dear, loving wife.”
“Flattery isn’t going to get you out of this one, Saotome,” Ranma’s “dear, loving wife” remarked. Looking into the sky, she noted the setting sun and sighed. “Let’s get back onto the main trail. I doubt we’ll be harassed again, and we should be setting up camp for the night, soon anyway. Shall we, Nabiki?”
“Why of course, dearest sister-in-law,” Nabiki answered, falling right into step. The rest, still somewhat shocked, also fell into step behind the Knight Commander.
“Man, I can’t ever get a break,” Ranma groaned. “Even when I win, I lose.” Raising her hands to the heavens, she asked, “What did I do to deserve this?”
“Here.” Michael handed him a small flask; Ranma felt the warmth in it and looked at the CIA operative curiously.
“So, what’re you doing with hot water?” Ranma asked, unscrewing the top off and lifting it towards her head.
“It’s not water.” As Ranma poured it over her head, beginning the transformation, Michael clarified, “It’s coffee. You might smell like Juan Valdez and his donkey Pablo for a couple, but it’s better than nothing, right?” Placing a friendly hand on the now-male martial artist’s shoulder, he asked, “I take it you’ll be sleeping in my tent tonight?”
“Yeah, I guess; I can stand my female form, but it’s not something I care to live in on a daily basis.” Ranma watched as his wife continued walking, not even bothering to look back to see what he was doing. “Yup, she’s definitely pissed at me. So, Michael, I have to admit, you didn’t seem surprised by my change. It’s like you’ve seen it before, or something.”
Michael laughed, quickly coming up with an excuse to cover the situation. “Remind me to tell you sometime about the Lake of Souls in Kenya sometime--after seeing what that did, I’m not surprised by much. C’mon, let’s catch up with the others. If you’re lucky, I might have a dozen roses with me that might get you out of your current situation.”
“So you two got completely defeated by the Pillar?” Daimler looked at his two defeated lieutenants, a critical gaze in his eyes. “Considering what information we have about her, I really don’t put much faith in your words.”
Rubbing her arm, Jetta sighed; the appendage was likely broken. “Sir, the Pillar isn’t exactly like she seems, and her husband is more powerful than we can imagine. I had my Geoslaves attack him, and he was taking them down as though he was an entire division of Panzers. Once inside the Forest, we were attacked by the Pillar herself, and she is as dangerous as her male. These two are not to be trifled with, Lord Daimler, and I must recommend extreme caution.”
“Feh. Do you expect me to believe that a pair of inferior Japanese beat you, the pride of the German forces? If the Italian or Japanese contingents were in command of this fiasco, I would understand. But you two are of the finest mystical Aryan blood! I expect better of you!” Eyes blazing with fury, he snarled, “Report to the infirmary, and have Targa and Passat report to me. We will have to deal with our adversaries in a more...effective manner.”
As the two disappeared from his chambers, he could only hope that the expeditionary team would have more success than those two idiots. If not, then he would have to go with his plans and that indeed would be a very costly, and weighty decision. Looking out the window at the star-filled skies, he knew it to be a symphony of light, one that would coo and sing to him his eventual victory, even if he had to blot out their majesty themselves.
It was early evening and the stars and twin moons of Cephiro were rising into the nocturnal sky, Sebring with its pearly, Luna-like hue, and the red, rusty sphere that was its lunar sibling, Lanos. Both of the moons were haloed by dozens of stars, some near and some incredibly far away. One of them, Ukyo surmised, might even be Sol itself, the star under which she and her friends were born.
Sitting on the balcony railing overlooking the rose garden, it was hard for the young woman to picture this place as a world at war. But at war it was, and some of her loved ones were out there, possibly never to come back. Especially Ranma, the one and only man she’d ever loved, the one person that she’d dedicated her life to. Married or not, she’d dedicated her life to him, and the thought of facing a life without him gripped her heart with fear.
“Ukyo, relax. He’ll come back. He always does,” a voice said behind her. “You know he’ll be alright. He, Hikaru, and Nabiki will look out for each other. There’s no way that any of them would let the others come to harm.”
Ukyo exhaled a gentle breath, composing her words. “Ryoga, I appreciate your concern, but I can’t change how I feel.” She made a hand motion, and it was clear that she was wiping away tears. The lost man moved a little bit to see her face, and he wasn’t wrong. “I’m terrified, Ryoga. For the first time in my life, I’m genuinely afraid of losing him.”
Ryoga hopped up to the ledge, then sat down next to her, putting a comforting arm around the morose okonomiyaki chef. “I don’t think I need to point out that he’s survived just about everything that has come his way. He survived Saffron, Toma, Kirin, avalanches, and even Akane’s death. He’ll make it through this as well. Don’t you have faith in him?”
“I do, Ryoga,” she whispered, “but I don’t trust those he’s fighting.” Looking at him, she asked, “All I’ve ever wanted was to love him, and I keep losing him. What will happen to me if I lose him for good?”
Ryoga looked into her eyes and smiled. “That’s a question you’ll never have to answer, and deep down, you know it.”
Ukyo looked at her friend, and did something she rarely
did: she lied. Hopping off the
railing and back onto the balcony, she said, “Thanks, Ryoga, for cheering me
up. I think I’m going to go to
bed now.” And
cry myself to sleep.
He nodded and responded, “Anytime, Ukyo. Anytime. Oh, don’t forget to meet me at the training grounds tomorrow morning at six. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and I want to make sure you’re prepared.”
“I will, thanks.”
As Ukyo went back into the palace, Ryoga looked out at the
moons, the stars, and the skies that his friends were currently slumbering
under, so many kilometers from here. As
though he was sending his friend a mental message, he thought, Ranma, make it back soon. She
needs you, and I don’t know how much I can be of help. Getting
off the railing and heading back inside himself, he added, Take
care, my friend.
In the middle of the night, Hikaru woke up to something unusual. She turned and saw Nabiki still asleep in her sleeping bag, and couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. Turning over, she came face to face with a bouquet of roses, red as flame and giving off the most pleasant scent there was. Lifting them to her nose to take in more of the delicate touch of the rose’s aroma, she mentally winced as she realized who else should be in the tent with her.
She set the flowers down and felt a bit guilty about what she did. Although she and Nabiki had every right to be mad at Ranma for his antics, she’d also disrupted the rest of the day. Nabiki, after giving him a decent chewing out at dinner, was no longer angry with him, so why was Hikaru still holding her temper at the man she loved? Even the tent arrangements had to be swapped somewhat because of her anger.
Opening up her mind, she searched for his presence, probably in Michael’s tent. Oddly enough, he wasn’t sleeping there. Could Hichan be up to some tricks? Ranma would never cheat on her, but that didn’t preclude the Water Squire attempting something; she’d heard plenty of “fiancée war stories” from Ukyo and Nabiki, and that bothered her. Not wanting to take a chance, Hikaru quietly slipped out of the tent, to look for her husband.
Under a gorgeous canopy of stars, the Fire Knight saw her husband, still sitting at the campfire, occasionally firing a small bolt of ki onto it to keep it lit, and watching the stars with a sense of longing that Hikaru found troublesome. Had her anger done something to him? Was he now wishing to be somewhere else, perhaps with Akane? Hikaru found she didn’t have an answer for that, and that in and of itself was another set of concerns. She took one step towards him, but found that she wouldn’t know what to say right now. Feeling morose, she turned around and decided to go back to bed. Things would be much less troubling in the morni--
“Hikaru.” The redhead turned and found that Ranma wasn’t even looking at her, instead, continuing to watch the stars. Before she could ask, he answered, “I knew it was you, love. I can always feel when you’re near.” He turned to look at her finally, and the light from the bonfire made him look otherworldly, as though he was the god and she the everyday mortal. “Hikaru, I’ve thought about what happened today, and--“
“Anata, you don’t have to apologize,” she admitted, walking over to him and sitting down beside him. “You were right and Nabiki and I were wrong. I think Ukyo’s paranoia set us off, and....” She looked at him, and there was tender concern in her eyes. “You’ve trained for combat more than any person I’ve ever known. I was a relative latecomer to the combat game, but I’ve learned fast, and my magic has allowed me to learn faster. Nabiki learns faster even than I do, I think. But we’re human and still capable of dying, and a part of me died just a little when I saw you get hit.
“Ranma, you can do amazing things with your talent. You can move in ways I’ve never seen anyone do. You have powers and skills that outclass even mine at times. But you’re still human, you’re still the person I love, and you’re still the person I’m going to worry about most while we’re here.” She snuggled up closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder and watching the starscape above.
There was nothing but silence for a few minutes, the pair simply watching the canopy of jewels glittering in the ebon expanse. “Hikaru, I did what I had to do because you and Nabiki were in danger. I have always fought because it’s a passion for me, but I have always fought hardest when those I care about are in danger. I have no regrets, and I’ll do it again if I have to, if it means you two are safe. You two are capable, talented martial artists, but I will never accept standing by and not doing something about it if it’s in my power to do something. You can’t expect me to.” He leaned over and kissed her gently. “I love you too much to do that.”
She sighed and wrapped her arms around him, glad that this problem was over with. “Thank you for the roses, Ranma. Where’d you get them?” When he didn’t answer, she asked, “I’ll bet it was the same place you got the coffee bath, isn’t it?”
“Not unless I started doing your laundry in Starbucks decaf, which I don’t remember doing.”
“You should consider it. Adds for a nice cologne for him,” a voice yawned.
“Sure, sis. And you can douse your shirt in cream,” he added.
Nabiki stretched and said, “I just came out to make sure that you two were doing okay, and to let you know that we love you, Ranma. But this isn’t Gotemba, and neither of us is Akane. I know you did what you did today because you had to protect us, but you’ve also taught us how to protect ourselves. Have some faith in us and your teaching abilities.” She yawned once more and said, “Get some sleep you two. We’ve got a long day ahead tomorrow. And do me a favor: don’t wake me up when you come into the tent, ne?” With that, she left the two sitting watching the stars together, a pair strong in their powers and their love. And that, Nabiki had to admit to herself, was probably the strongest reason why she felt they would survive this mess--not because Ranma or Hikaru was incredibly powerful, but because both of them in the end, loved each other to the point that such a love was stronger still.
“Oyasumi, little brother, Hikaru-chan,” she whispered as she reached the tent and took one last look at them. Her heart swelled with pride and love. Oh, Akane, she thought as she crawled into the tent and her sleeping bag, you should be proud of him. He still survives, and thrives, and he’s done our family proud.
As Nabiki went into the tent, Hikaru looked at her husband. “So, what are you thinking of, anata?”
“I was thinking of the children, and Kasumi. I hope they’re doing fine.”
“So do I,” she said, a tone of melancholy creeping back into her voice. “I’m a poor excuse for a mother, being so far away from my children. I wonder what your mother would think. Or mine, if she were still alive.”
“Well,” Ranma answered, “I would think that they would be proud to see you do what you’re doing. You came out here because you wanted to protect your friends here, and because you wanted to protect your family. You made a hard choice, but you made that choice because you were a mother who wanted to defend her children, a wife who wanted to defend her husband, and a woman who wanted to defend her friends.” He gave Hikaru a kiss on the cheek, and yawned. “Nabiki’s right. We should get some sleep.”
As Hikaru took his hand and led him towards the tent, she wondered aloud, “I wonder how they’re doing? I’m sure Akama is being a handful for Kasumi.”
As they both crawled into the sleeping bag, Ranma kissed her gently and assured her, “I’m sure that everything’s fine, dear. What could go wrong?”
“FLIGHT 817, ARRIVING FROM BANGKOK.”
A woman walked off the jetway, into the main concourse of Narita. An average-sized Japanese woman, she had long hair that cascaded down the length of her back, the shade a jet black, save for a long white swath that streaked down the length of her mane. Her dark eyes had a cool, calculating look in them, the look of a predator finally in the land of plenty. Despite her long flight, her plum-colored kimono was perfect and exquisite, the ideal image of the Japanese housewife. Under her arm, she carried a long package, perhaps a parasol or something of equal length.
She gave the customs officer her passport, and the man took a cursory look at it. “You’ve been gone from Japan for quite some time, miss. Welcome back.”
“Thank you,” she replied in pleasant tones. “After my long training trip, I’m looking forward to reuniting with my husband and child. I’ve been away far too long.”
“A training trip, you say?” the inspector asked, as routine and just to make conversation with the alluring woman that stood before him. She was obviously attractive, and was likely the pride of her husband.
“Yes. I was training to make myself the best martial artist, to be worthy of my family’s honor and my husband’s name. I didn’t feel that I was worthy of taking his family name until I could improve my skills.”
The man nodded sagely; it was a rare woman that respected such old ways, and to find that quality in a girl so young spoke of refined breeding and good stature. Handing her passport back to her, he said, “Well, I wish you the best of luck, lady, and hope that you will be reunited with your family soon.”
Fuitamu Keiei, the woman known as the Black Blade, said, “I thank you for your kindness, sir.” With that, she took her passport and walked towards the baggage claim. At long last, she was home, and it was time to take what was rightfully hers. Seven years of exile, and that exile would end with the deaths of Saotome Nabiki and Shidou Hikaru. Once that was done, she would have a much deserved reunion with her husband and her child, and all would be for the best.
I’ve returned, Ranma, she thought, and when I am done, nothing will ever separate us, ever again.
There was disorientation for a second, and when it went away, five people found themselves standing in the middle of a park. One gaijin, dressed in the robes of a priest, three dressed in normal clothing, and a young Japanese woman in a kimono, stood in the center of Mikasa Park, between the train and the ancient museum ship known as the MIKASA.
Estima looked at the statue of Admiral Togo, then at the beached artifact that was once his flagship a long time ago. The sun was setting over Tokyo Bay and Yokosuka Harbor, over Monkey Island and the still waters that the ship had longed to touch. “When I was last here, this was our Naval Academy. I was brought here by Botan, shown the ways of civility here, and brought to be her personal aide. When we assembled our group, I was made he second in command because of my clever, clever ways. We thought we would rule our corner of the world,” the woman said, in a sorrowful tone.
Dacia looked across the way, over at the marina and to the set of buildings that sat on the other side. There were several English-adorned buildings on the other side, hinting that it was no longer the Japanese naval base it used to be. This was proven true a minute later through his eyes; while the German spoke no English, it was easy to make out the colors of the American flag in the fading daylight. “And it seems that we know who now rules this corner. This is the future of your home, Estima. I wonder if this a similar fate has befallen the Fatherland.”
One of Dacia’s henchmen, a man named Cupra, all but bit off his scream of rage. “This is a travesty!!! We cannot allow the Amerikaners and the Allies to rule the world, my friends! We must take it back!!” As if defying the American military facility across the marina, he shouted, “WE WILL DESTROY YOU AND BRING THE REICH BACK TO ITS PROPER PLACE!!!!!”
Estima backhanded him. “You fool!” she seethed. “You will attract needless attention. We already stand out here like sore thumbs, would you like to get us arrested?!?!?!” As Cupra crumpled to the ground, she pulled out the stack of pictures and looked at them intently. Holding up one of the pictures, she said, “I know this place. I know where this is. This is Nerima, a ward of Tokyo.”
“How do you know?” Sharan asked.
“Nerima was the ward my lady Botan came from,” Estima answered. “Botan’s family took me in, made me practically a part of their own family when they knew I had none.” The Japanese warrior gave Sharan a feral smile and cooed, “If the Pillar’s children are in Nerima, we will find them, and we will take them. And I swear to you, if there is anyone that stands in our way, I don’t care who it is--I will personally tear them apart with my bare hands and eviscerate them with my tantos. I am Kukogawa Aikawa, a Kitsune Kunoichi, and I will win the day, no matter the cost!” With a flourish, she headed towards the park exit, and the nearest train station. There was much to plan, and children to capture.
Part Eight: Meanwhile....
Be prepared for a couple of surprises next chapter.
Special thanks goes to John Shearen for his description of Misaka Park, the onetime Imperial Japanese Naval Academy. ^_^