A Duet of Pigtails
By Libby Thomas (& special guest co-writer Rob Barba)
Based on the characters and storylines of Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi and Magic Knight Rayearth by CLAMP
Keiei stepped off the jetway and into the main concourse of Kansai International Airport. She had to catch a train from the airport to her hotel in downtown Kyoto; she wanted to be well rested before she went hunting the following morning. If she was going to kill Nabiki and rescue her family, she had to be prepared for the sorceress’ onslaught of magic spells and illusions, and that meant that every one of Keiei’s skills had to be honed to its utmost perfection.
“FUITAMU!!!!!!!!!!!!” A woman dressed all in white approached her, soft blue eyes dripping a beguiling menace that also sat firm in its tones. “So, we meet again. Are you ready to die?” The woman glowed with a shimmering white aura, so bright that anyone looking at her could barely make out her platinum blonde hair.
Keiei gave the woman a feral grin, then gave a malicious laugh. “Shidara Fubuki. To what do I rue the dishonor of your presence, you freak?”
Fubuki looked at Keiei with eyes of hatred. “I am here to kill you for what you did to Wu Ling.” At the sound of her voice, people within the immediate area began to back up and move away. Enough of them had heard of the insane amounts of martial artist duels that occurred in Tokyo or Kyoto on a daily basis, and though it was far less common down here by the airport, the fact was that usually these duels did a massive amount of property damage. “You killed my Wu Ling-chan.”
“I killed her in a fair duel, Fubuki.
She was one of the best Chinese Amazons there was, and she gave me a
grand fight. She lost, but she lost
fairly. That in itself wasn’t
her mistake.” Keiei began to
approach Fubuki. “Her mistake was
thinking that I would make an ideal mate for her.
I’m disgusted by the concept of lesbians, and I wasn’t going to do a
three-way relationship with you two. She
objected, tried to force me, and I didn’t appreciate someone trying to rip my
shirt off. So I killed her.”
Keiei shrugged in a manner that would have been seen as whimsical under
different circumstances. “Some people don't take rejection well, I guess.”
Fubuki dropped into a fighting stance. “I cannot allow Wu Ling's death to go unavenged. I will kill you now, Black Blade.”
Keiei didn't even bother to stop walking. “Get out of the way if you want to live, whore. I have better things to do with my time than deal with a whiny lesbian brat like you.” As she moved past the girl, she said, “A bit of advice, Fubuki. You're an attractive enough woman, so do something with your life--go get a man. I can tell you from experience, that my husband and son give me a joy that you just won't get from being with another woman.”
As Keiei walked past, Fubuki said, “You know, that's a good idea. Maybe after I kill you, I'll start off with your husband. I hope you won't mind much if I raise your son up to be mine.” Those were the last words that Shidara Fubuki ever spoke.
With motions of speed imperceptible to the human eye, Keiei turned and drove her tanto into the woman's collarbone, boring though muscle, bones and veins, causing a small geyser of blood to spray all over the place. Pinned against a nearby wall, Fubuki screamed in pain and shock, still not expecting such a rash and vicious attack. Blood spurted through her mouth, and the woman jiggled against the wall like a live insect trying to break free of the pin that stuck it to the box.
Keiei wheeled around, turning to look at the woman with the same glance she would give a bug that was about to be squashed, “YOU will NOT take my family from ME. NO ONE will keep my family from me--NOT YOU, NOT NABIKI, NO ONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Unsheathing her blade in one smooth move, she sliced with the fatal grace of the mastery of swordsmanship that she had. The movement was flawless, perfect, elegant, and geometrically precise, a talent that few in the world had, and fewer still could produce on a regular basis.
A second passed before the two halves of Shidara Fubuki separated. One portion, still pinned to the wall by Keiei's tanto, stayed put, while the other portion fell to the ground with a squishy thump. Hanging out of the pinned section of Fubuki’s gored corpse, the innards, brain half, and skeletal structure slowly started to slip out, dragged towards earth by gravity.
Not even concerned about the dozens of horrified and sickened people staring in shock at the killing that just occurred, Keiei bent down, wiped the blade of her katana on what little white was left of Fubuki’s clothing, then walked away as she sheathed the blade. Pausing only to say to the eviscerated corpse, “Never threaten to take what is rightfully someone else’s. Remember that in your next life,” she walked away, heading for the taxi stand with a disgusted look on her face.
The nerve of that...strumpet! Suggesting that she would actually take someone else’s rightful husband and son and raise them as their own, at the expense of that person’s life! What kind of insane freak would even think of such a thing? Keiei wasted no more time on such foolish thoughts. She had to get to her hotel and get some sleep. Rescuing her own family was now a priority, and she had no time to deal with foolish notions like that which had been brought up by the late Shidara Fubuki.
“And they eat this on a regular basis?” Dacia asked, attempting to master both of the concepts of chopsticks and sushi. As the group was recovering from their embarrassing defeat by the priest (who Estima had pointed out was a priestess--a woman!--and not a male cleric), the kunoichi had headed back into the forest in search of the priestess and her charges. It was becoming personal for the Japanese warrior, Dacia had noted aloud, and only proved why the Japanese were an inferior race that was at least trying to move beyond their animalistic natures. Now, if they would just master the concept of forks and cooked food, things would be perfect. Ah, what I would not do for some decent bratwurst at the moment....
“Estima assured me that it would be safe to eat,” Sharan pointed out. “Personally, I believe her. We are all allies in this, and I think it would be best if we trust each other in that respect.”
“I think it would be best if we get a panzer division after these people,” Astra commented. While he’d managed to order something that was closer to Western palates than sushi was, he too was having difficulties with the concept of putting together two sticks to eat. “I realize that this is not our time, but I wonder if this is our world, as well.”
“You worry too much, mein friend,” Cupra answered. “We are doing this all to serve the Fatherland. Though I can’t understand how taking these abominations are supposed to stop the so-called Pillar. She doesn’t seem human, so why should she care about these whelps? She can always rut with her husband again and have another litter. It’s not like it would be a waste to this world if we just killed them.”
Sharan set down his drink, then took a bite of his sandwich, having had the foresight to ask Estima which of the foods was closest to their norm. Swallowing the bite, he mused, “You are looking at it the wrong way, Cupra. These people are not the Juden. Our leaders in Berlin have dealt with them in the relocation cities, and will continue to take care of the issue in that case. However, these people, as Dacia has mentioned, are different. They are trying to move beyond their bestial natures. They will never be as pure and untainted as we Aryans, true, but they are at least making the effort to be better than what they are, and that’s why they are our allies.
“Of course, this also presents a problem when they oppose us. Take for example, the Lady Umi. She is one of them, but she has fought us, and although we’ve managed to tame her, she has been quite a problem before then. Likewise, the Pillar and her husband and their friends are dangerous yet powerful animals, full of cunning and strength yet no souls. You cannot reason with creatures like that. You can only use methods that you can hope they’ll understand. Threatening an animal by placing its young in danger is something that even the lowest lifeforms can comprehend, and I’m sure the Pillar is no exception.”
“Well, you do as you will, Sharan,” Dacia grunted, deciding he’d had enough of the “food” on his platter. “I trust Estima only because she is an ally, not because I believe that she is someone to place faith in. It is my belief that in the end, she will show her true colors and prove to be as unreliable as her commander, Berlina.” Tossing the napkin down, he said, “And for that matter, why are we forced to wait here while your ‘precious ally’ is canvassing the forest, looking for our missing targets?”
“You heard her answer--because she knows what to look for, and you do not. Remember, this nation is hers, and if there is one person who knows anything about what to look for here, it is her.”
Outside the town, the kunoichi named Kukogawa Aikawa, reluctantly known to her teammates as Estima, canvassed the area of the battle once more, moving in an outwardly expanding circle. Once in a while, she moved over to where the rescue operations were going on by the wreckage of the bullet train, but to no avail. Under most circumstances, a group composed of a Shinto priestess, two women, four children and a dog wouldn’t get that far in a forest, but these weren’t normal conditions and thus, they seemed to have melted into the shadows of the trees.
Stopping momentarily to rest at the base of an aged tree, Estima sat down and reached into the small pack at her side, fishing out a bento and a bottle of water. If it weren’t for the fact that I have a mission to perform for Lady Botan, I could get used to this, she admitted to herself with a slightly guilty conscience. I wish I had the time to stop and see home. Does Oyuki-chan still live there, waiting for us to come back all these years, or has she given up on us by now? I know it’s close to sixty years into the future, so she must be an old woman by now. Smiling to herself, she mused, Knowing her, she probably married Noboru and had a family with him. Even before he started courting her, we knew they’d end up together.
Quickly finishing the bento, she turned to face the tree, to feel for the kami within. Lowering her head and pressing her hands together, she gave a solemn wish that she would get the chance to finish her mission honorably and return to Lady Botan’s side, that they could someday return home victoriously and greater glory that life would accord them. And to do so, all she had to do was to capture and spirit the Pillar’s children back to Cephiro. Finished with her prayers, she moved on down the distance of the forest, continuing her search for the group that had already given her the challenge of her life.
Never once did it occur to her to look back towards town, or even to the Shinto shrine that sat nestled near the edge of the town’s outskirts, a bit of the way into the forest, by a well-manicured glade that was known to all as the Duelists’ Circle.
Soft, warm light spilled onto Kasumi’s face as she opened her eyes, lying down in what felt to be a futon of some sort. Propping herself up on her elbows, she looked around at the new location where she was. The floor was the standard wood and tatami setup, while the walls were made of a simple wooden and stucco look. The room was sparsely decorated with a wall scroll or simple zen art, but it made the room that much more beautiful for its simplicity, and over in the corner in a large futon, slept Akama and Hiro, with Hikari loyally sleeping at the foot of the futon; next to them in a makeshift bassinet, were the twins, looking as peaceful as ever in their slumber. Turning her head to her right side, she discovered that the wall on this side of the room was not a wall, but a great glass expanse that showed the forest from a relative bird’s-eye view. The vista was such a breathtaking view once Kasumi looked at it that it almost made her forget her troubles.
However, the reflection of the figure in white solved that issue. Turning around, she noted the figure that was kneeling next to an injured and unconscious Kodachi, ministering to her wounds. There was a basket by the side of the injured fighter, filled with bloodied bandages from Kodachi’s shoulder wound. Next to the wastebasket was a first aid kit; while it wasn’t the same sort of thing that Tofu had in his office, it sufficed for an out of the way situation such as this. Comforted that her sister-in-law would be fine, Kasumi changed the focus of her attention, from patient to attendant.
The figure, wearing the clothing of a Shinto cleric, tended the wounds with an effortless grace, almost as elegantly as Kodachi could move. She was heavily involved in the ministrations of tending Kodachi, that Kasumi watched her patiently and quietly, until the priestess, not turning to face Kasumi, said in a soft voice, “It is good to hear that you’re well, miss. I was becoming concerned that you were in worse condition than I originally thought.” The priestess then turned to face Kasumi, and the reaction of the housewife was no less different than that of Kodachi.
There were minor differences that could be accounted for the passing of time, Kasumi had to admit while she fought both shock and fear in her stomach. The woman before her had the same violet shade of hair as the original Chinese Amazon that had murdered Akane, but the hairstyle was entirely different--gone were the bells and buns that she had in her hair, replaced by a hairstyle that seemed typical of shrine maidens that she’d seen before. There was an enigmatic, placid look on Shampoo’s face, and it seemed that she truly was what she was dressed as, and not just yet another of the myriad tricks the girl had played on Ranma and Akane over the years. But the most shocking thing of all was the color of the woman’s eyes...they were a light, almost clear, gray. The Shampoo that Kasumi had known had sienna eyes, almost the same color as Hikaru’s. Was this truly the woman that had haunted Akane to the grave...and was also reputedly just as dead?
After a second or two, she spoke, her voice soft, clear, and exactly the same as that of the Chinese Amazon. She was also speaking in full, unbroken Japanese. To boot, her tone and command of the language was in the old, formal Kyoto dialect. “You have been asleep for close to two days, miss. I know a bit of first aid, but not much more than that. I was worried that I’d have to contact the local doctor for assistance.” She noted the disturbed and unusual look on Kasumi’s face, and interpreted it in a different manner. Moving forward, she gently laid the woman back down on the futon and looked into her eyes intently. “You don’t seem to be in shock, though I can imagine that the events of last night were no doubt stressful for you, your friend, and the children.”
That seemed to bring Kasumi out of her shocked state to a degree. “Shampoo....” she whispered, unable to believe that the person addressing her might be that selfsame person. Which brought up a horrifying thought: if this woman was Shampoo, Kasumi, Kodachi and the children might be in even worse danger than they were against their pursuers.
“Would you repeat that? I don’t believe I heard that correctly,” the priestess asked. “I thought you said ‘shampoo’. Oh--you must want to bathe. Well, I can’t argue with that. I shall prepare everything in the bathing area; I could well use one myself. I will return shortly.”
She didn’t understand.... Something about that didn’t sit well with Kasumi and that bothered her. Not wanting to deal with the possibility of being face to face with a cold, heartless killer at the moment, she asked something a little more neutral: “Excuse me, but where are we?”
“You’re a guest in the Shrine of the Duelists’ Circle. This is a small shrine, filled with a small group of lowly, humble, simple priests who maintain the duelist circles here in the Gotemba forest for the heritage of Japan, but also for people to see the right and wrong of the old ways. Our shrine is not too deep in the forest, but we’re not within eyeshot of Hakkone town, either.” She smiled and replied, “But I seem to have been an inconsiderate host to you--I don’t even know your name, even though I’m much pleased to make your acquaintance. As for me, I am Miko.”
Why would she announce that she’s a priestess, when that’s fairly obvious? Unless she only wears the garments of the shrine, and does nothing actually priestly.... Instead of voicing the question, Kasumi merely nodded and said, “Thank you. And my name is Ono Kasumi. The other woman is my sister-in-law, Kuno Kodachi, and the children with us are my son, my nephews and my niece.”
Miko nodded, and a gleam entered her eye as she worded Kasumi’s unasked question. “And you wonder why I mentioned that I am a priestess, when that is already clear. Believe it or not, Miko is my name, and quite a fitting one, considering what I do for a living. For as long as I can remember, my name has been Miko, and it will likely be Miko until the day I die.”
“As long as you can remember?” Kasumi inquired, picking up on that immediately.
“Yes, but I will explain that a bit later, when we have the time to share stories--I would be interested to know why you are being hunted by gaigokujin and shinobi. But for now, I will check the bath, and I will return momentarily.” Standing up, Miko slid open the classically-styled bedroom door, and stepped out with a final, “If something happens, please don’t hesitate to call out, Ono-dono. I will be back soon.” A second and a softly shut door later, the gentle footfalls of the miko named Miko disappeared down a hall.
As she left, two things happened: a surreal feeling popped into the mind of Ono Kasumi, as she wondered if she just experienced the event that had just occurred in front of her. The woman who had just introduced herself as Miko was by no means the same as the old Chinese Amazon of old. Was it really even Shampoo? What if it was a total coincidence? What if this woman was just a priestess with a rather apt name?
The other event was Kodachi’s comment of, “Miko, huh? Excuse me if I say I’m not convinced. I’m just wondering at what point she’s going to say ‘Ni hao’ and slit our throats.” Kodachi opened her eyes, sat up unsteadily and murmured, “Oh God, I feel like shit.”
“Kodachi, lie down or you’ll injure yourself further.” Kasumi moved to the wounded girl’s side to help.
“Kasumi, believe me, it takes a lot more than just a bullet to stop me,” Kodachi grunted as she looked at her sister-in-law. Moving her arm around to dispel any stiffness, she added, “I do have to admit, she did a good job with it. I can hardly feel the pain. Of course, you know as well as I do that I’m lying through my teeth, so don’t tell me that I’m putting up a front. But you’re the doctor’s wife, not me, so you tell me how it’s going.”
Inspecting the bandages, Kasumi gave it her best clinical look. “Well, I only know the basics of EMT--remember, I didn’t go to college--but it seems that the priestess did an excellent job on your arm. But the question is, why would she? If she is Shampoo, why would she go to all the trouble?”
“You sound like you’re not sure,” Kodachi commented. “How could it not be? She sounds like Shampoo, she looks like Shampoo, and I can tell you that she knows how to fight like there’s no tomorrow. About the only thing that changed is that she can speak full Japanese now and that she picked up a Kyoto accent somewhere along the line. But I think we went from the frying pan to the fire, and I really don’t feel comfortable about being here in the fox’s den. What about you?”
“I don’t know,” Kasumi admitted, turning her eyes away from the other woman. “I wish I did know.”
“Well, you’d better think about it, Kasumi. From what I saw, even at my best she could fight me to a standstill...and I don’t think that I need to point out that I’m hardly at my best at the moment.” Kodachi leaned back and sighed. “I’ll fight to protect you and the children, Kasumi. But I hope that she isn’t who we think she is, otherwise, by the end of the day, we’ll be dead and the kids will be in the clutches of Akane’s killer.”
As if on cue, there was a knock at the door, and Miko stuck her head in. “The bath is now prepared, Ono-dono and--oh good, you’re awake, Kuno-dono. I have some things to attend to for a moment before I join you in the washroom. It is down the hall, second door on the right just before the stairs. Would you like some assistance with the children before I go attend to my duties?”
“No,” Kodachi all but barked at the priestess. “We can manage, thank you.” Kodachi was somewhat surprised to see a look of pain and hurt on the face of Miko, as though Kodachi’s rebuff had caused her pain. However, Miko didn’t seem to take it as a personal strike, apparently chalking it up to the pain in Kodachi’s shoulder. Nodding once, she closed the door and went back down the hall again.
“Kodachi, that wasn’t very nice of you,” Kasumi said when Miko had left. “She looked sad, as if you’d insulted her.”
Still watching the door, Kodachi answered Kasumi with, “Well, even a spider can feel sorrow for the flies it’s about to devour.”
Sitting down at the table to have a nice breakfast before his classes started for the day, Genma poured himself a cup of tea, then picked up his chopsticks and started into breakfast. Nodoka was in the furo, still cleaning up after her morning kata, and would be along shortly. He looked at everything around him in their home, and smiled to himself. Despite everything, the whole world had turned out fine after all. His son and Tendo’s daughter had an heir to the School of Anything Goes, Happosai was gone, and he finally had a chance to spend time with his for-so-long estranged wife. For the longest time, it looked as though Ranma and Akane were too pigheaded to deal with their various affianced problems, but finally they managed to work it out together, get married and have a child.
Then the real problems began. Akane had been killed in her duel with the Chinese Amazon. Genma still hurt over that one; the whole situation there had been his failure, and he did love Akane as if she’d been his own daughter. He was glad that Shampoo died in the battle, as honor would have demanded that he, Tendo, Ranma, Nodoka, and Tofu--he was married into the family, after all, and he was a martial artist, though no one was really sure how good he was--kill Shampoo in retribution, not to mention save Ranma from a fate as a Chinese househusband. That likely would have entailed a clan war with the Amazons, and Genma was by no means that eager to join his ancestors any time soon. Then to make matters even more difficult and sorrowful, Tendo had given up on life, fading away into nothingness. Genma felt a pang of sorrow at that; he missed his old friend dearly. Still somewhat surprised by Tendo’s request that Nabiki and Ranma wed--even though giri had been met--he and Nodoka moved back to her childhood home in Kyoto, leaving Nabiki and Ranma in the much emptier home. Things hadn’t worked out between the two quite the way that Tendo had hoped, but considering how fiercely protective Ranma and the Tendo girls were of each other, perhaps it worked out better in the long run.
Another thing that had worked out for the best was the move to Kyoto. It had given Genma the chance to heal the old scars with Nodoka, and the pair had begun to be more than just married in name. Now, the love that had been absent for so long in their relationship had begun to flourish and take hold, and that carried the two on. There was also the fact that the two were considering having a second child, even though they had three grandchildren now; Nodoka for so long had wanted a second child, and Genma had begun to think about it as well. Nodoka was, at 52, still an alluring woman, and was near the nadir of the childbirth age; it wouldn’t be unthinkable to have a second child, maybe even a daughter. Who knew?--maybe it would give Genma a chance to train another kempo grandmaster, especially since Ranma’s second wife seemed very disinterested in learning the hand ar--
The sound seemed to echo in the empty house with the roar of a shotgun. Genma looked down and found that the sticks had snapped in twain, a dark omen if there ever was one. Something’s wrong with the boy, or his family. Leaving the broken chopsticks on the table, he went over to the phone, dialing the dojo. When there was no answer, he next dialed, in succession, Tofu’s clinic, the Kuonji home, and the dojo once more. Now concerned that something was amiss, he went back to the table, grabbed a second set of chopsticks and began to have breakfast once more. The news could probably wait until after breakfast, and it could be that it might not even be an emergent situation, but just simple happenstance.
Slipping into the water, Kodachi felt much better. Though her shoulder still throbbed with the painful wound she’d received, the water and the poultice would improve things for her although she wouldn’t be able to do much with the arm at the moment. Hopefully however, Miko--if that was who she really was; something Kodachi heavily refused to believe--would be able to escort them onto the first available shinkansen at Gotemba station and from there, the group could travel to Kyoto with no further difficulties. That’s assuming that we manage to get out of here alive.
From where she was, she saw Kasumi, quietly tending to the babies and giving them baths in the basins that the priestess had provided. The dear ones seemed to be heartier than any of the older children or adults, having slept quietly throughout most of the whole situation at hand; the little dears were even cooing now, pacified by Kasumi’s beautiful humming. Over in another corner of the natural hot spring, Akama and Hiro were heavily involved in splashing antics as boys were wont to do, their cares forgotten at the moment. Over on drier shores, Hikari snoozed, the gently napping canine still acting as stalwart sentinel for the family as much as he could.
Despite all this, and even discounting for the priestess’ possible lies, there was the matter of the enemies that might still be lurking relatively nearby, waiting for them to reappear again before pouncing once more. Who were they and what did they want? Kasumi obviously didn’t know, otherwise she would have noted something; Ranma would have said something as well if he knew there was going to be trouble. Was this problem all because of what-was-her-name?--ah, Hikaru--but that was unlikely as well. Several more theories surfaced and subsequently were discounted by the dancer. Ranma’s life, in retrospect, did have a tendency towards chaos in consistent motion, but this seemed even beyond the pale for him. Kodachi didn’t want to admit it, but she knew that before this little adventure was over, she was going to tangle with them again, possibly even their pet ninja girl.
But for now, all was peaceful, quiet, and serene. A girl could get to like this really quickly, she admitted to herself. Maybe I should take Midori’s advice and move out to Miura. It’s not that far away from work, and it is this quiet, so....
But her thoughts were interrupted as Miko walked into the
room, wearing a simple white robe and carrying a simple tray with a stoneware
kettle seated on it. Setting it
down by a tatami on the far side of the area, she ceremoniously kneeled down on
it, softly slipped out of her robe,
revealing her nude body and long mane of hair.
Each move intricately motioned, she reached down for the kettle, then
poured a clear liquid over her body. Even
from where the two other women were, the cloying scent of sake was unmistakable.
Setting the babies
on soft towels, she turned and watched the miko as she performed the Shinto
ritual purification on herself. “I
wonder why she’s doing that? If I
remember, priests only do that when they need to purify themselves for some
great struggle ahead of them,” Kasumi recited, pulling the memory for some
report done a school, a long time past. “I
wonder if that is what she’s doing now?”
Kodachi grumbled under her breath, “sake baths don’t change her into a cat
like cold water would.” Kodachi
turned and glared at the priestess as she took her ritual purification bath.
There was a sorrow about the whole scene, as though Miko knew that there
was something inherently wrong, and there was little she could do about it.
Something, perhaps, about her own self, even?
Finally, done with
it, she turned and walked towards them, sliding into the waters of the hot
spring with the grace of a rose petal sliding down a banner of silk.
Her long mane of lavender hair trailing behind her, Miko sat over by
Kasumi, feeling a bit nervous. “I’m
sorry that you had to see that,” she said, her gray eyes holding an unclear
emotion in them. “But I felt it
was necessary to attend to my weekly purification before I could take a bath.”
purification?” Kasumi asked. “Are
you an ascetic, Miko-san?”
But I....” She paused,
sounding uncertain as if to continue. “I
can’t explain. It’s too...disturbing, and I don’t think you would
surprised what I’ve come across, Miko-san,” Kasumi said gently, though her
tone also seemed to tell Kodachi to hold off on the biting remark that the woman
Miko looked at
Kasumi’s gentle, understanding glance, and the scowl on Kodachi’s face that
she was no longer sure was due to the other woman’s pain. Did Kuno-dono know...? I
hope not, or else I will be damned for all eternity.
Perhaps I am already, just one step short of becoming a jikitori and I
don’t know it. Perhaps I was one
to begin with, and this is the end of my respite.
“I’m deeply ashamed to admit it, but I take daily purification
rituals because I am probably one of the most evil people on this world and I
don’t know it.
“To begin, I
should tell you something about this temple.
The Temple of the Fighters’ Ring was set up not only to assist
travelers in need, but also to maintain those historical fields of honor, which
still see use quite often, sadly. Though
I am the only one here at the moment, usually there are five of us priests; the
others are at the annual convocation of our order in Nikko. For the most part, the priests here have been warriors and
fighters who have since foresworn battle in favor of serving the kami; in fact,
our head priest, Katsunori-guji, was a general in the military.
I am the lone exception, for many reasons.
“I am the only
priestess here, the only woman. I
am also the only one who carries a geas by the gods that cannot be denied.
I do not know any of this because I do not know who I am.”
Turning slightly in the water, she moved her long mane of hair, to reveal
a nasty scar on her neck. The scar,
even with extensive plastic surgery, would have remained to some degree. “Ono-dono, from what I saw of the other bandages that you
placed on Kuno-dono, I would not be wrong if I were to guess that you are in the
medical profession, correct?”
paramedical training,” Kasumi answered, “but I’m not a licensed nurse or
“I guessed so.
Even still, you know that gray eyes such as mine only come two ways:
either a person is born with them, or--”
“--it is a result
of severe cranial and spinal trauma,” Kasumi interrupted.
“But for that to occur, and you not be blind, you would have to be--”
commented, reversing Kasumi’s interjective.
“Master Katsunori told me he found me seven years ago, barely alive,
though he doesn’t remember where, other than that it was fairly close to here.
The only thing he does
remember was that my neck was bent at an inhuman angle, and that I didn’t seem
alive, not really. But something in
him must have thought of me as like one of his troops in his military days, and
he gingerly carried me back to the temple.
He gathered one of the other priests, a former military doctor, to gather
his tools of his trade and see if he could rescue me.
There was no time to take me to a hospital, no feasible way to. The doctor-priest was my only hope.
hours straight he operated on me, using the most rudimentary of tools.
Master Katsunori refuses to tell me what happened that day, and swore
everyone else to silence. But every
so often I see the fear and horror in their eyes when I celebrate my
‘birthday’--the priests think that I may be 24, though I think that I might
be older than that--and I can only wonder at what they saw, what they heard.
But just their looks alone scare me, even though they are the only thing
that I have as a family now.
“And it was they
who were there for me when I came out of my coma, nearly a month later.
I’d come out of it, but with a price: I’d lost most of my memories,
including the ability to speak. Master
Katsunori looked at me with pity, saying since no one had come looking for me,
and that I was clearly an outcast, due to what I was--they think that I may be
Chinese, though I think I might be Korean--that the kami should deign that I
become one of them. I had nowhere
to go and nothing else to do, so I accepted their offer.
“For years, I had
to relearn Japanese, learning from a local innkeeper in town who was from
Kyoto--which is why I have a Kyoto accent, even though I’ve never been there.
I think. I don’t know if I
once knew any other languages, but I’ve since discovered that I have no talent
for them, as I’ve tried to learn English once, and the results were
disastrous. Chizuru-dono died last
year, and she was like a mother to me, giving me as much of an identity as I
guess I’ll ever have. From what I
understand, I wasn’t the first girl she’d taken under her wing, but I never
learned the identity of my companion in this.
It was Chizuru-dono that gave me the name of Miko, as she felt it fit me
best when the others were trying out names for me.
Personally, I don’t think I would have made a good Kimiko, Atsuko, or
Sakura, but Miko suits me fine, and that’s why I am named such.
I don’t have a surname yet; I will take on one of those one day when I
feel I am ready for it.
“In the years of
my life that I can remember since the day I opened my eyes to my new life,
I’ve discovered a few things about myself.
One of the more interesting things is that I have a talent for cooking,
though I do not know where I got it. At
first, the original cook wasn’t too happy for me to take over in the kitchen,
but now, he’s been delighted to learn various recipes from me, most of them
Chinese--which is why they feel I may be Chinese. The other thing is my fighting skills, the likes of which
even Master Katsunori has never seen. A
martial artist that recuperated at our temple once saw me going through my katas
and said that he’d only seen my style or martial arts twice before: once in an
isolated village in western China, where his wife was from; and once in a
Buddhist nunnery in South Korea. And
the third thing,” she added as her voice turned into a dry whisper, “is the
geas the kami have placed on me.”
“Which is, if I
may ask?” However, Kasumi felt she already knew the answer.
There were too many empty links in Miko’s story that could be easily
filled, too many holes that the Tendo and Saotomes held the historical pegs to.
Miko might be telling the truth, but Kasumi had a far different picture
of what was surmising at the moment.
Starting to tremble,
Miko looked at Kasumi with eyes of fear; whatever it was, the young priestess
considered it very disturbing. The
priestess stood stock still for what seemed the better part of eternity, unable
to voice anything, whether good or ill. The
silence was a deafening sound, filling the whole chamber with its ominous
presence, the mass occasionally broken by the soft babbling sounds of the hot
spring pouring into the pool. “I
don’t think I’m human,” she admitted at last.
“I must have been an evil being or some sort.
I think the kami gave me a second chance by making me human and wiping
away my memories of what I was in the beginning.
But they exacted a price from me, a terrible price in order to make sure
that I learned whatever lesson it was I had to learn.
“What kind of
lesson?” Kodachi almost snarled. “So
you don’t, oh, to say for example, murder
someone?” The tone in the
dancer’s mocking voice was clear, her comments undeniable as much as the
accusation unable to deflect against.
Miko reacted as
though she’d been shot. Her eyes
began to well with tears, as she rasped, “If I ever have, it would explain why
I have become what I am.” Quickly
getting out of the water, she went over to the washing area, grabbing the
nearest tub and scooped water into it from a nearby well.
“It can be the only reason why my fate is to go at a weather’s whim
from a powerful and capable fighter to completely and utterly defenseless.”
And with that note, Miko overturned the tub of water onto her head.
Kasumi was once
again familiarized with the transformation of a body that she’d seen a couple
of times just a decade back. Violet
hair and golden skin became white and lilac fur.
Body curvatures and limbs changed, appendages converting and in one case,
appearing where it would normally be vestigial. But it was the eyes of the being that radiated sorrow, horror
and shame, the keening note sounding a lot like a feline moan of humiliation and
despair. This was not the tone of a
proud and mighty Amazon, but a young woman ashamed of what she was and even
unsure if she was human. And to be
honest, Miko couldn’t even claim humanity at this moment, as a cat of
indeterminate breed stood where the priestess had been just a few short seconds
ago. With a moan that likely would
have been sobs if the vocal cords were different.
From where the boys
were, they stared in shock. Hiro,
not accustomed to seeing transformations, was completely surprised.
Akama, having already seen the changes his father went through on a
regular basis, chirped, “Wow...I didn’t know that priests knew magic!”
Hikari, having caught the scent of a cat, turned, saw Miko and growled,
hackles rising to the occasion.
In the past,
Shampoo, feline or not, would have stood her ground.
Kasumi had once seen her fight as a cat, and the feline had access to the
traditional attacks a cat did, but also had many of the human attacks available
to her as well. Miko, however,
cowered in fear and panic before turning tail and running like the proverbial
winged mammal out of the nether realms. As Kasumi and Kodachi watched, the cat scurried out of the
bath area, likely to her room or a source of heated water. Kodachi took this time to snarl, “And now she shows her
true stripes. Still doubt that’s
“I’m not sure I
know the answer to that,” the older woman answered in reply.
“I’m not sure at all.”
“Kasumi, from what
you’ve told me, Akane was tricked into a fight and murdered by this woman when
she knew that Akane had little chance of survival. She is
Akane’s....” she bit off, having the presence of mind not to reveal such
dark precepts in front of the children. Kodachi
pointed in the direction where Miko had gone, snarling, “How can you have any
sympathy and pity for her? She’ll
repeat her act again and again, Kasumi, and she won’t give a damn, either!
And she’ll do it all while playing that simpering priestess routine!”
Kasumi then turned
to face Kodachi. “I saw that mark
on her neck. If it is as bad as she
says it was, she should be dead or a quadriplegic, or worst of all, nothing but
a shell of a person. In some ways,
she is. The Shampoo we knew had
brown eyes that were furnaces of hate and rage, of a desperate love for my
brother and slave to her tribe’s ideals.
This woman’s eyes are dead gray, mirrors of a soul that is empty,
wanting and filled only with just enough to survive in the world.”
“You mean to kill
in the world,” Kodachi hissed, slightly under her breath.
“People don’t change, Kasumi.”
true, Kodachi. You of all people
should know that.” As the Dancing
Rose gave her a puzzled look, Kasumi explained.
“You said that people don’t change their stripes, yet, on the way
here yesterday, you’d told me about all that’s changed in your life.
If what you now say is true, should I expect you to knock me unconscious,
take the children, and bait Hikaru into a trap so you can do away with her and
try to clear the path to end up with Ranma?”
The look on
Kodachi’s face was one of revulsion. “Kasumi!
I’d never do that to them! Maybe
in the old days, but I’ve changed since!
You know that and I--”
“How do I know
that, Kodachi?” Kasumi asked innocently.
“Should I take it on face value, or should I take it on your actions,
when you saved the lives of the children and me? Just like Miko saved yours?”
When Kodachi bit back the response she’d already had set, Kasumi’s
eyes filled with sorrow and offered, “Have you ever thought that this is the
kamis’ punishment of Shampoo for what she did to my sister? It’s clear she doesn’t remember a thing of who she was.
Shampoo would have never run from a fight, regardless of her form; you
saw how Miko just ran in complete terror. If
what Miko’s saying is true, then Shampoo is truly dead, regardless if the
person is still alive. You’ve
told me that the Black Rose within you is dead, so why cannot the Chinese Amazon
be just as dead?
the fact that she saved our lives. At
the very least, honor demands that we give her the benefit of the doubt.
She personally saved us all, and bandaged up your wounds, or you would
have bled to death--she saved your life in a very personal way.
Honor cannot be denied, Kodachi, and my family has spent too much time
living under the umbrella of honor to turn it away now.”
“But I don’t
understand why you’re taking this so easily!” Kodachi shouted, loud enough
for the children to hear. The boys
turned and looked at the adults, wondering what to do next, but fortunately,
Akama figured that this was one of those “grownups only” conversations.
Quickly saying that they were going to go get dressed and look around,
the pair grabbed towels and left with Hikari in tow, to the relief of the two
women. Once they were gone, Kodachi
repeated her statement, paraphrasing only with a, “Don’t you understand,
yourself? How can you stand to be
in the same room as the person who murdered your youngest sister?”
“Because I can sit
in the same room as the person who once tried to do the same thing to Akane and
‘the pigtailed girl’, who constantly drugged and tricked Ranma, who even
held her own flesh-and-blood brother in contempt.
If you’ve found it within yourself to change, why can’t she, if
she’s got the benefit of not knowing who she was?
I loved my sister very much and miss her every day.
And I will hate Shampoo for the rest of my life--yes, even I can hate
someone, so don’t look so surprised. But
I can’t hate someone whose life has been taken away from them.
“I believe fate
set a path for Shampoo, Miko, whoever she is now, for a path to atonement.
And I believe that we are that path, somehow; that in protecting us she
is redeeming herself. She may never
know peace as Shampoo, but if Miko gains peace of mind through all of this, that
is enough for me. I can hate
Shampoo, but I cannot hate Miko. And
if Miko earns forgiveness for who she was, then I can find it in my heart to
forgive the Amazon.” Nothing more
to say, Kasumi grabbed a tub and filled it with warm water, then got out of the
water. Walking over to the tatami
mats and gathering up Miko’s robe, she turned back to Kodachi and asked,
“I’ll need you to watch the babies while I go have a talk with Miko.”
The look of concern
in the other woman’s dark eyes was unmistakable.
“And if you’re wrong, Kasumi?”
“Then I’ll be
dead for my mistake, and as the childrens’ aunt, you’ll have to get them out
of here,” Kasumi intoned, her voice catching.
“I remember one thing my brother told me once: to win against your
opponents, you have to find their weaknesses.
I’m betting that I’ll find Miko’s weakness will be my ally, one
that will help us in our hour of need.”
“And that is?”
“The fact that
she’s just like you, Kodachi: she’s at the crossroads of change.
If she really is Shampoo, we’re the only ones who’ve known what she
was, the only ones who can restore her to who she was...assuming Miko wants to
remember. And if that’s the case,
everything here is a matter of giri.” With
that, Kasumi slipped on Miko’s robe to cover herself and walked out of the
bath chamber, leaving Kodachi to brood with her own dark thoughts.
minutes of walking around the temple with tub in hand, Kasumi finally found
Miko’s private room and walked inside. “Oh,
there you are. We were worried
about you.” She found the cat
staring up at ancient samurai armor, one of the relics that were likely found
all throughout the temple. “Miko,
is there something wrong?”
The cat turned to
look at Kasumi, and there was bottomless sorrow in her eyes.
The despair and melancholia didn’t change as Kasumi poured the warm
water onto Miko and allowed the woman to resume human form.
“So now you know my secret,” Miko moaned.
“You know my shame. I am
no better than the beast that I turn into.”
true, Miko,” Kasumi consoled, walking over to the priestess’ closet and
pulling out a robe for her. “You’re
better than you credit yourself for. You
saved the lives of Kodachi, the children, and me.
From what I can tell, you’re doing wonderful work here as a priestess.
We wouldn’t have survived without you, and how many others owe you a
debt such as the one we do now?”
“Then why is it,
Ono-dono--” the Shinto warrior priestess began.
“Please, just call
me Kasumi,” the older woman interjected gently.
Kasumi-dono. Why is it that Kuno-dono
stares at me as though she knows....” Clarity
sank into Miko’s mind like a sniper’s bullet.
“She does know me from somewhere, doesn’t she?
I must have done something horrible to her in a previous life, and she is
here to exact revenge.”
not,” Kasumi skirted the answer, feeling uncomfortable about doing so, but
feeling that she needed to set the mind of the miko at ease. Or am I setting my own
at ease? Does it need setting?
“You see, your fighting skills remind her of a rival she had
once...that rival was responsible for the death of my younger sister.
Kodachi is a very passionate person, and above all she wants to protect
her family. And whether she
realizes it or not, she sees you as a threat because your fighting skills are
similar to the woman’s was.”
Miko nodded, as if
in understanding. “I could never
take the life of another. It’s
against my vows, and against the way. Maybe
I did often in a previous life, without remorse or regret, but that life is over
with, and I never want to know what it is.
I have enough shame to make up for without the added burden of knowing
why. But I do
have much to rectify, and I vow that I will someday.”
As she slid on the robe, she decided to deflect from her own troubles.
“Kasumi-dono, why are those people chasing you?”
know,” she admitted, getting somewhat tired of the constant use of the phrase.
“I think they may be enemies of my brother and his wife, and they’re
trying to get at him through me and the children.
Both of them are powerful martial artists, and I’m sure you can
understand that everyone has adversaries, whether or not they intended it to be
so.” Kasumi hugged her arms
around herself and sighed. “I
hate not understanding. I’m the
only one in my family with no fighting skills, and I was proud of that until
now. For the first time in my life,
I feel useless.”
Miko gave her a
smile. “You’re braver than I
am, Kasumi-dono, and you’re not fooling me.
Kuno-dono was probably concerned that she was right and that coming to
see me would end in your death, correct? I
will put her fears to rest as best I can and perhaps atone for all the darkness
I have caused.” Walking over and
grabbing her staff, she swore, “I vow as this temple’s miko that I will
escort you to safety, and defend you with my all and my life.
I am your most humble and loyal servant, Kasumi-dono.”
Bending down on one knee as though she were a European knight, she
prostrated herself in the presence of what might be a daimyo, if times were
alternate embarrassment and mortification at that.
She simply intended to improve Miko’s spirits, not to add another to
their dangerous journey. It was
already perilous for a housewife, four children and a dog, and while Kodachi did
her part to abrogate that danger a bit, she was now injured as they had upped
the ante. Now, to ask a stranger to
step in and join their struggle...and to make it worse, the stranger was not a
stranger, but the Chinese Amazon that had taken Akane’s life!
wasn’t Shampoo’s taken as well? Even
if that’s the body, is Miko Shampoo? Just
as Kodachi is no longer what she was, I have to believe that Miko is merely who
she is and not who she was. But am
I making the right decision, or am I inviting a monster to my side?
Ono Kasumi fought with those thoughts for a span of a breath, trying to
determine what would be the outcome of something so vital and important to her
life and those of the children. She
could be calling to her aid a powerful ally, or the viper in the den that was
worse than the enemies that were drawing near now.
But a dangerous
choice might be better than no choice at all.
“Miko, I will not accept your service.
But I will accept your friendship, if you will have it so.”
She reached out a hand to pull the woman back to her feet.
Miko blushed like a
girl half her age. “If you
will have it so, Kasumi-dono, then I would be honored to accept it.”
Motioning her to a seat, Miko said, “Tell me all that you know about
this enemy while I change into something more appropriate.
Your struggles are now mine, Kasumi-dono, and I intend to protect you and
yours with my very life.”
“But what about
your duties here?”
“They will keep.
I will send word to Master Katsunori, and he will send one of the others
back here. We have all gone on our
own personal business from time to time, and if I tell him that this is a part
of what I need to do to find out what I am and what I need to be, he will gladly
send someone to take my place here. And
it’s not as though I’ll be gone for long.
I will return here soon enough. This
is my home, after all.”
Back in the room
that she and Kasumi had been using, Kodachi was changing the diaper on little
Hotaru, thinking of how sweet and lively the baby was.
Unlike her much more silent twin brother, the baby girl was cooing often
in what sometimes seemed like musical patterns.
Kodachi smiled; unlike her brothers, it wouldn’t be surprising if
Hotaru were to do something musical in her life.
She would make her parents proud.
was a time you might have called me mother, Hotaru, Kodachi
silently thought to the baby, though
it’s probably better in the long run that you call me your aunt.
Hotaru looked at Kodachi, the innocence of a baby shining true in her
sienna eyes. Gazing back at that
baby, Kodachi whispered, “You are one lucky woman, Hikaru.
I guess I’m lucky I didn’t pound you into oblivion.”
The dancer turned and watched as Hiro, Akama, and Hikari walked into the
room. Hiro, a bit nervous, asked
his question. “What’s gunna happen to us?”
Though Akama had a braver look on his face, it was clear that he was just
as worried. “Where are we going?
Are those bad people going to try to hurt us again?”
said, thinking of the answer, “we’re going west, to Kyoto and your
grandparents’ home. We’ll be
“But what about
those bad people? They tried to
hurt us, and they hurt you!” Hiro said, his voice filled with a nervousness
that indicated he was on the figurative edge.
With a bravado that
could only come from his father, Akama said, “Don’t worry, Aunt Kodachi!
If they try to hurt you, they’ll have to fight me first!”
gently, walking up to the boy and ruffling his mop of hair.
“Akama, I appreciate that, but I need you to stay with your aunt Kasumi
and the others to protect them. I
have to fight our opponents on their terms so they can’t get near your aunt
and your brother and sister. The
closer they get, the harder it becomes to fight them off, you understand?”
Kissing Akama on the forehead to his embarrassment, she added, “But the
fact that you’re willing to watch out for me means a lot, Akama-chan.”
“It also speaks
well of his warrior spirit,” Miko mentioned as she walked into the room,
Kasumi closely behind her. “Kasumi-dono
tells me that young Akama is filled with his parents’ sense of martial
righteousness, and that will make for a formidable warrior in some day to come.
And believe me, I know something about warriors.”
The Shinto warrior priestess was no longer dressed like a priestess, but
rather for battle in the most interesting getup that Kodachi had seen in quite
some time. Vaguely based upon her
Shinto robes, it added a lot more freedom of movement and looked a lot more
dangerous...as well as sexy, something that Kodachi always felt Shampoo (Miko,
whoever) flaunted where- and whenever possible.
vestments still had the vague look of Shinto robes, from a distance, but upon
closer inspection looked like she was rejected for a the role of a ninja in that
Kombat movie that came out a few years ago.
For starters, she wore a black bodysuit that hugged and caressed every
curve on the body, and would have left pretty much nothing to the imagination,
had it not been for the white surcoat-like garment she had over it, obscuring
her more ample assets from view. The
surcoat, whiter than the purest snow on the initial fall of winter, held a
contrasting purity of beauty that clashed and intermingled with the ebon of her
body suit. Accenting all of this were white ankle boots, white cuffs
that looked like silk cloth wrappings, and the sole hint of her chosen calling,
the red ribbon edging on her surcoat and the matching red sash tied around her
waist, serving as her belt.
“Aren’t we just a bit overdressed?” Kodachi spat, a hint of acid in her voice.
“Kodachi, I’m surprised that you have such little kindness for Miko,” Kasumi gently scolded as she moved from her position at the side of the priestess. From what Kodachi saw, either the priestess had a profound effect on the other woman, or Kasumi was now seriously realizing that they were in a more lethal brand of trouble than they’d ever faced before. Kasumi, usually the very picture of a housewife in any nation, was wearing slacks, a t-shirt, and comfortable loafers; Kodachi assumed that they were charity castasides left for those in poverty. While it still by no means gave any indicator that Kasumi was drifting into the realm of tomboy clothing, the very fact that such a feminine person would adorn such practical garments added a whole new dimension to the amount of danger they were facing.
In any case, Kodachi was still recovering, and though she might be able to move, her fighting was seriously limited by what she could do under the circumstances. Much as she didn’t care for it, their only chance was to trust the person before them, and hope to hell that either Kodachi could heal quick enough, or that shock beyond shock, Miko might actually be on the up and up.
Looking at both of them, Kodachi responded with, “Whatever, Kasumi. We’ve still got to figure a way out of here and past the group, and to the train station.”
“Is that all?” Miko asked. “That’s simplicity enough. There’s a car for our use in the adjacent garage. We don’t use it much, to be honest, but we have it in the event that we need it. I can drive us to the station, then we can continue on to your destination.”
“Great. You realize if they get a hold of us, it won’t be a car anymore--it’ll be a coffin for all of us,” Kodachi pointed out. A second later, though, she amended her statement: “But I guess we really don’t have much choice, now do we?” Turning back to the babies, she said, “We’ll have to make sure they’re warm. If we’re going to be traveling, you know that babies need a lot of care.”
Kasumi’s mothering instincts kicked back in as she went to Kodachi’s side. “Thanks, Kodachi.”
“Don’t thank me,” Kodachi rasped, her tones flat. “I’m merely being pragmatic. I still don’t trust her, and I’ll still do whatever I have to in order to protect us all.” Giving the Shinto priestess a fierce glance for a second, she added, “and I really hope it doesn’t come to that, or we’re all dead.”
This is a total waste of time! Keiei seethed to herself as she wandered the streets of ancient Kyoto. Searching for her missing quarry, the majestic beauty of the ancient town was lost on her as she continued her one-track mission. Nabiki, if I must say something good about you, it’s that you’re a devil of a challenge to hunt down. But hunt you down I will, you bitch, and I will get my family back!
So far, she’d been in Kyoto for several hours now, with no sign of the witch and her unfortunate entourage. Keiei had made ready for a battle royale at the front gates of Kyoto’s main station, but Nabiki had failed to show up with her husband or child. While the chances that Nabiki had managed to get off at another stop were minimal, it was a possibility, and one that Keiei had to prepare for.
But why would she come here? Keiei asked herself. I would figure Kamakura, Nikko, or one of the other sacred towns, a place where she could draw dark magicks from to thwart me even further, to take all that is important from me. But it makes no sense to meet them here unless.... Images dawned in Keiei’s mind as the answer came to her easily: She has some sort of assistance here, some ally, willing or no, that she can fall back on to defeat me. That is the only answer that can be. But what sort of assistance could she get from here except....
The Black Blade shook her head; no, it couldn’t be.
Even someone as depraved as Nabiki
wouldn’t do something like that! Keiei
wanted to banish the thought from her head, but couldn’t--the horrific
possibility left little choice. There
has to be a more reasonable explanation to all of this.
Unfortunately, the sudden attack against her gave her little time to think about it. Moving out of the way, she dashed towards her left as a huge, hulking brute of a man dashed forward with a high-powered attack, tearing through the nearby wall as though it was nothing more than papier maché. As he pulled away from the wall to face her, that was the last mistake that he made. Keiei rectified the problem by leaping onto the man’s shoulders, twisting her body around to drag him towards the ground, and slammed his head against sidewalk, rendering him unconscious.
“Hmph. Amateur,” she sneered as she got back to her feet. Speaking to the air, she commented, “I hope the rest of you aren’t as clumsy as this one was.” Her answer came seconds later as a small flurry of throwing stars and knives came her way. Taking just enough time to yawn from boredom, she called out, “Happo-bitsu Satsu Waza Namiutsu!” and one by one plucked the deadly missiles out of the air. Taking the time to juggle them, she snarled, “SHOW YOURSELF, COWARD!!!!!!! I AM FUITAMU KEIEI THE BLACK BLADE, AND YOU CANNOT HOPE TO WIN AGAINST ME!!!!!!!!!!!”
Without explanation, an unknown wind blew a spray of sakura petals from an unknown location, as the air resonated with the chilling laughter of a thousand ages. “Keiei,” the wind spoke, “Turn back while you still can. I have come here to warn you, while you still have a chance to turn away.”
“HAH!!!” Keiei screamed against the wind. “Who are you to think that I can be beaten! Nabiki has been lucky before, but now her fortune has run out, and it is I who shall be victorious!”
“Keiei, why do you disbelieve? Why do you not listen?” The breeze held steady, the sakura petals becoming blown into dust devils down the street, as though nature was creating columns of ersatz-marble for this unusual presentation. “You must turn away while you still can. I have seen what this path leads to, and you have seen what it has done to me.”
“So it is you!” Keiei snarled, her voice reaching a worse contempt for the voice, even more so than that which she held for Nabiki. Assuming such ultra-contempt was possible. “LEAVE NOW OR I WILL CUT YOU INTO A BILLION PIECES AND GLEEFULLY SEND THE REMAINS TO THE DEEPEST BOWELS OF THE NINE HELLS, YOU ILLEGITIMATE WHORE!!!!!!!!”
“Why do you hate
me, Keiei? I’m your older
“No. You’re not my sister. You and I may have the same father...but my mother wasn’t some Shinjuku bargirl!” Keiei roared against the wind.
“Yes, our father
slept with my mother while he was drunk; I’ll admit that, but none of our
parents was a paragon of virtue. Our
father valued strength and power above all, and he found the same in your
mother. He found something similar
in my mother, too, which is why they were lovers.
But we learned a lot from him, and one of those things was something we should
never have learned.”
The voice, carried on the breeze, came from nowhere and everywhere at
once, though it was beginning to slowly fade away.
“Keiei, I once hated just like you, and I paid the price.
I once had a mortal enemy like you, a rival above all.
And I have paid a price that wasn’t worth it, and I cannot ever hope to
correct. Now you are at that crux, and I want to help you before you
pay that same price...if not worse.”
“COME OUT NOW, AND I’LL SOLVE YOUR MISERY, ‘ONEESAN’!!!!!” Keiei screeched, her level of rage incalculable. “I’LL GUT YOU AND FEED YOUR ENTRAILS TO THE DOGS, YOU MISERABLE SLUT!!!!”
“Keiei, please--before you lose everything. Come to see me.” As the breeze left, final words floated down to the Black Blade. “Come see me one last time, Keiei, before everything reaches the end. Before you reach your end.” And then there was nothing, save for strewn cherry blossoms and a dazed man at the Black Blade’s feet.
As soon as she was sure it was over, she sheathed her blade and reached down for the man, grabbing him viciously by the neck, shaking him around like a rag doll. “How much did she pay you?” she hissed, her hand clamping like a vise around her attacker’s throat. “Did she promise to sleep with you if you killed me? Answer me, damn it!”
However, the only answer the man could give was a gurgling sound as Keiei crushed his windpipe and spine. And a second later, as a sickening click sounded as the man’s neck was completely snapped, Keiei dropped the lifeless body to the floor, more furious that he had not answered her than the fact that she had taken another life. She paused for a few seconds, awaiting a second strike. When none came, she quickly rifled through the pockets of the corpse at her feet, then took off, more concerned about being within an ambush zone than any police arresting her for murder.
Well, that confirms it, Keiei ruminated, with a slight mental shiver as she made her way back to the hotel. Nabiki has made a pact with the devil, and not just some minor type, but that thrice-damned whore, too! Of all the people Keiei knew, only one could inspire such strong feelings in her. One was her joyous and beloved husband, Ranma, trapped by Nabiki after so long and so needing to be rescued from the fate that he and their child endured. The other was the demon-spawn of a woman, her enemy amongst enemies, she who dared to deign herself not only with the insult of sister to Keiei, but that of older sister to boot. Snarling as many curses as she’d picked up over the years, the Black Blade cursed with all her might the most hated name she knew so well...
Sazuran Asuka, sometimes known to the world as Asuka the White Lily.
Asuka waited just a few more minutes before Keiei was completely gone from the location. Leaping down from the nearby treeline, Asuka raced towards the body lying on the floor, hoping that he wasn’t as dead as she feared him to be. However, a quick check of his pulse at the neck revealed that it wasn’t there, nor was the neck column intact. Moving to a nearby phone booth, Asuka called the police and revealed the body, but no other details. Once that was complete, she leapt for the rooftops and headed back to her own refuge, the hotel in the Nishinomiya ward of Kyoto which she was currently at.
As she moved on, she wondered what that man, obviously a
mugger and brigand of some sort, had done to deserve death at the hands of
Keiei. Likely just existing, she assumed. Keiei has always been a
little unstable and quick to condemn. But
then again, she mused sorrowfully, so was I.
Stopping to look at her reflection in a nearby store
window, she wondered how she could have changed so much over the years.
Although her slightly wavy silver hair and iron-gray eyes had remained
the same physically, the face they adorned no longer held a visage of scornful
derision and contempt for the world that they used to.
A decade ago, the “pinnacle of feminine beauty” would rather have
died than to find herself in the tight silky clothing indicative of the Chinese
again, that girl from ten years back had absolutely no idea what the Amazons
“Musing again, child?” a weathered, crackling voice croaked from behind her.
“Yes, elder,” the girl said, without turning around. Somehow, she expected to have the elderly woman follow her. She’d been a surrogate daughter to the elder of the tribe since the day she wandered into that section of western China, seeking the power to defeat her rivals once and for all. Instead, the Niicheju taught her power that came with responsibility, not to mention humility. And in time, she came to understand that her greatest challenge was not her enmity with Kuno Kodachi or her half-sister, but with the burning rage within. And once she mastered that, her mind was free and at peace.
Funny, she thought, that she had to learn that from a tribe of Chinese Amazons. “So, what can I do for you, elder Khu Lon?” she asked reverently. There had been a time when she’d had difficulty pronouncing her mentor’s name, calling her “Cologne”, which was a Nihonized version of it, but since then Asuka had learned Chinese. “Out on a stroll?”
“Of course, my child,” Cologne said. “At the twilight of my life, I could use all the exercise my old Yoda bones can get.” The wizened Amazon elder chuckled softly at the joke that she shared with her prodigy. From the first minute Asuka had met the village elder, she’d referred to her in the same light as the fictional Jedi Master. And considering how powerful and aged Cologne was, perhaps the comparison wasn’t too far off.
“Elder, you’re not old,” Asuka answered gently. “Why, you’ve made this journey with little trouble.” The pair began to walk down the street, continuing towards their hotel. “Although I must confess, why we’ve left the village to return to Japan escapes me.”
“And I have told you, my little Lily: we are searching for a missing Amazon treasure, one that must be returned to us soon.” The old crone leaned on her staff; the weight of everything seemed to rest on her tiny shoulders, making her stoop all the much more. Coughing slightly, Cologne looked at the younger woman with weary but determined eyes. “I do not know if I will live to see the treasure recovered, Asuka, but if I do not, then it must be up to you to return the treasure to the village. And once you do, then you will be free of your bond to me, my child. Or, more likely the treasure will never be recovered, and you must stay...to be my heir.”
Asuka couldn’t help but beam proudly at that; what may have once been a trifle to her was now the honor of honors. Instead, she asked, “But why Japan? Was it stolen from you when you lived in Tokyo? Or just before you returned to the village? You’ve given me so little information to go by, and I need more if I am to successfully find it,” Asuka pleaded. “How will I know?”
“Believe me, my child, you will know when you see the treasure,” Cologne replied in a dreamy voice that hinted she was no longer entirely present but instead lost in the memories of a bygone time. But to still Asuka’s fears, Cologne sharpened up and added, “And I believe this was the last place the treasure was seen. I may be in error, but I doubt that I am.” The old crone looked up at the Amazon warrior and smiled. “I have faith that you can succeed, child. Unlike me, you are a native of this land, and you may do better in your search than I did so long ago.”
Asuka gave Cologne no verbal answer, but instead mused, I
certainly hope so. I have no idea
if I can succeed, especially considering that I have no idea what it is I’m
looking for. Oh well, maybe if
I’m lucky, the answer will just come to me.
Arriving in central Odawara city, several miles away from where their train had been derailed, the trio stepped out of the temple’s car, an old station wagon that was sturdy but in need of a paint job. Parking it in a lot across the street from the train station, Kasumi looked around as Kodachi handed her the children. “We only have an hour left until the shinkansen arrives, Kodachi,” the older woman pointed out. “Can you get the tickets, please?”
Kodachi was about to head over to the ticket counter, when she was halted by a gentle turn of Miko’s staff. The Shinto priestess looked around carefully, eyes scanning the passersby for a hint of impending danger. “Don’t. You’re too high profile. I will go get them. You stay here and defend Kasumi-dono and the children, ne?” Before she could answer, the miko was off, moving through the press of people towards the ticket counter across the street.
Rather than taking the time to voice her usual dislike of the warrior priestess, Kodachi merely moved closer to Kasumi and whispered, “There’s too much of a crowd. I don’t like it...well, at least not in this case. It reminds me too much of the Champs--a place too easy to set up a terrorist attack.”
“The what, Aunt Kodachi?” Hiro asked. Although Akama didn’t seem interested in the question at all, petting Hikari, she could tell that he too was interested in it.
“The Champs Elysees. It’s a famous road in Paris.”
“Wow! You’ve been to France?”
“I lived there for a spell. In fact, I still have a small house on the outskirts of Paris, and I may go back there someday.” Smiling to her nephew, she added, “If you’re good, maybe we can all go there on vacation someday, ne?”
“Can we go there someday, Okasama?” Hiro asked his mother, tugging on her pant leg.
The answer came not from Kasumi, as expected, but rather from the restaurant across the street, whose façade suddenly exploded in a shower of sparks, debris, and flame. Miko, already somehow expecting it, managed to dive behind a nearby car, allowing it to take the brunt of the blast as the explosion incinerated sixteen people in its wake. Thinking quickly, Kodachi pulled everyone behind a nearby van, shielding them from the shrapnel of the attack.
From the top of a nearby building several figures leaped down, hitting the ground long enough to gain their footing. Guns at the ready, they raced towards the group as fast as they could, the ninja leaping ahead of the pack. Kodachi saw her and engaged instantly, racing towards her and attacking first with a flying kick.
Estima saw that attack, however, and countered with a ki blast. Snapping her hand out, she launched what looked like a spray of small darts at her opponent. The ki-fujuki impacted against the side of a nearby kiosk, destroying it utterly and leaving a crater in the ground as the site was demolished utterly.
Kodachi, however, had managed to avoid the attack in
mid-air, connecting with her kick. As
she leapt back she did a tight mid-air roll, then dashed forward and initiated
her rapid punch attack. Waves upon
waves of her fists lashed out, guided by her ki, as she ignored the biting pain
in her shoulder that had begun to flare up again. I’m not even remotely
ready for this, but if I don’t do something, Kasumi and the kids are done for!
Estima leapt back, calling out, “Nice try, miss, but we’re not through yet!” She punched the floor, her fist swirling with snarling tendrils of red ki as though she were holding a ball of lightning in her hand. When her hand connected with the pavement, the ki discharged into the asphalt, and something underground buckled the black tar of the street as it raced towards Kodachi. The ground underneath her shattered; and the dancer was tossed like a frisbee through a store window, shattering it into an orchestra of shards.
Taking no chances, Estima moved in for the kill. This dancer wasn’t going to beat her this time, and if Dacia and the others did their job right, this whole fight would be purely for her satisfaction.
Rock concerts of pain were sounding through Kodachi’s head and shoulder. She felt every bump and bruise that she’d picked up since this little adventure began, and was sure that she added a few new ones in the past couple of minutes. Her vision tunneled in and out for a second, but cleared just in time to see the ninja racing towards her. “Now or never,” she whispered to herself. “Looks like this is where I prove I’m willing to go the distance.”
Leaping into the air, Estima charged herself with overwhelming power as she roared, “AND NOW YOU DIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” She slashed down, the blades of her ki-charged shortswords carrying enough power to completely slice through a tank if need be.
Too bad it didn’t happen that way. Kodachi smiled, then made a slight hand motion, whispering something inaudible, but possibly not Japanese.
The air around the two combatants blurred into a shimmering field of coruscating, pulsating light, as if they’d suddenly been transported into the middle of a disco. Estima was blinded for a second, feeling nothing but the air around her moving with the agility of a snake.
And then suddenly, there was pain. Bad pain.
Moving clear of the attack, Kodachi cartwheeled to the side, the focused all her ki to the fore. Knowing that she had one last chance to deal with the kunoichi once and for all, she roared in French, “FINAL ATTACK!!!!! RIVIERA RAZOR FLASH!!!!!!!!” The dancer’s aura strobed around her like a living, pulsating organism, and Kuno Kodachi moved in for the counterattack with a fierceness that could not, would not be denied. Moving like a Chinese acrobat, Kodachi began a rocket-fast series of flip kicks, each one belting Estima across the face. Fifteen cycles later, the kitsune kunoichi dropped to the ground like a sack of rice, impacting with a dull thump.
“Now that I’m done with you,” she seethed, “time to deal with your friends for once and for all!”
“That would be difficult, seeing as you’ve got more problems,” Estima answered in reply. “Turn around.” Sure enough, when Kodachi had turned, there were the three gaijin, holding the children and Kasumi at gunpoint. “One move from you, miss, and Dacia and the boys will execute everyone, got that?”
Kodachi narrowed her eyes in a hateful glare. Where
the hell is that Chinese bimbo when you need her? Unless she sold us out....
That would explain a lot of things, wouldn’t it?
Clear away from the blast, and even fight against these people last night
to set Kodachi, Kasumi and the others at ease, so “Miko” could deliver them
all into the hands of the enemy. And
people who I have no idea why they’re our enemies...oh Ranma, what have you
gotten into this time?
She had no time to ask those questions, however, as Estima got back to her feet and looked Kodachi straight in the eyes. “You’re good, little miss, but now it’s time for you to die.” Estima held up her hand, and in it, she held a small clear satchel filled with a small but effective amount of a violet powder. “You should be thankful, miss. I’m going to give you a peaceful death, with this little bag.” Kodachi blanched instantly as though she recognized it, and Estima cooed, “So you’re familiar with this, aren’t you? Interesting....”
All Kodachi could think of was the old Western saying “He who lives by the sword....” Nevertheless, if she was going to die, she was going to do it to make sure Kasumi and the kids got away. Tensing ever so slightly, she momentarily blanked out, deciding to make peace with the world for once and for all, then follow it up with a suicide attack against her enemies.
“HOLD IT!” Miko’s voice split the air, as she walked towards the assembly with a measured, angry gait that meant the Shinto priestess meant business. With no fear showing whatsoever, Miko called out, “Release them now, and tell me why you mean them harm!” To show her opponents that she meant business, she called up her aura, the nimbus of bioenergy surrounding her and ready to be used for a fight.
“Oh, shit, you again,” Dacia deadpanned. “Well, I don’t have time to play with you now, little girl. Estima, get rid of that priestess for once and for all.” At the same time, he turned to Cupra and Astra and barked, “if any of the others move, stun them. If that one there moves,” he continued, indicating Kodachi, “kill her.”
“With pleasure,” the kunoichi cooed, unsheathing one of her shortblades, intending to strike true. Estima’s ki aura also flared up, the volcanic red of her own force screaming to the fore, ready for combat.
“I WILL NOT ALLOW THIS!!!!!” Miko screamed, pointing her staff at the kunoichi. At once, Estima’s ki began to swirl around her in patterns that she was unfamiliar with. As the ninja dropped into a defensive pose, the warrior priestess began to spin her staff around and threatened, “This is your last warning. Release my charges and tell me now why you hunt them. This is the last warning I will give you, and if you defy me once more I will ensure that you that I must retaliate. Please do not force me to do this.”
“You are of no consequence. Die!” Cupra snarled, turning his gun away from Kasumi and firing on the Shinto priestess. The green beam of energy lashed out, the tip of the fiery lance seeking a burning death for its target. Fortunately, the spinning of Miko’s staff saved her life, as the beam and the wood of the staff clashed, the latter shattering into smoking, burning splinters and leaving its mistress unharmed, and still ready for action.
Having expected it, Miko flung away the ruined pieces of her staff and continued to focus on the control she had over Estima’s aura. “I warned you...” she said in a dangerous voice, “and yet you failed to listen!”
“KILL HER NOW, DAMMIT!!!!!!!!!” Dacia bellowed, even though Estima had changed her stance immediately from defensive to offensive, leaping in for the attack. The kunoichi brought her blade up, intending to slam it completely through the neck of her foe. Dacia and his men turned his guns from their captives to their would-be rescuer, opening fire, verdant spurts of death racing free of the gun barrels.
Miko became a flicker, inexplicably countermoving against shafts of light far faster than she. Readying her attack, the miko canted a silent prayer, hoping that her own soul wouldn’t be damned further by the violence she had to use to save her charges. It is the way things are, she realized, and as long as I do not take a life, I can retain some measure of self-worth left. It didn’t matter, regardless; the attackers’ failure to listen to reason or even stern demands caused Miko to play her hand in a manner she dreaded.
As Estima rushed into engagement range, Miko acted, her fist rising into the air as she shouted, “The Vengeance of Heaven be upon you now! SPECIAL ATTACK, TENBATSUTEKIMEN TEIKIATSU!!!!!!!” The air around the immediate vicinity instantly transformed from a battleground of ki into a swirling zone of power, energy dancing and snarling in the air and lighting nearly everything in the immediate vicinity with a haze of the power of life.
Miko spread her arms out and punched into the air, giving direction and motion to the dynamic centrifuge of power. With a thunderous roar of nature itself seeming to shriek in revenge at the violent criminality of the Vanden Plaz the blasting, searing light tore into the sky, creating a cyclone of immense strength. A massive shockwave shook the area, as the column of collected ki ascended to the heavens, borne upon the winds of the attack that the Shinto priestess had called Tenbatsutekimen Teikiatsu--Heaven’s Vengeful Cyclone.
However the lavender-haired woman may have called the attack, both Kasumi and Kodachi had seen the assault used many a time in its previous incarnation, Hiryu Shotenha. Windows shattered, rubbish cans overturned, and cars began to move slightly, all affected by the growing, raging cyclone of energy. Papers, leaves, and a myriad of small objects were swept up in the vortex, hurled skyward like blocks thrown into the air by some petulant child. The ruby-hued force tornado expanded by the second, growing stronger and larger, tearing into nearly everything in its path.
More than familiar with what came next, the two Nerima women acted. With split seconds to act, Kasumi held the twins closely and wrapped her arms around a nearby pole, holding on to both for dear life and trying to hold in her fear. She’d often been in a spectator position to see Ranma perform this attack several times, but she never dreamed that she would end up seeing it from a much closer view.
As Akama, Hiro, and Hikari were swept into the vortex, Kodachi, forcing aside her pain, relied on a lifetime of acrobatics, gymnastics, dance and martial arts to save her nephews and the dog. Leaping into the energy storm, she caught both boys by the leg, screaming for one of them to do the same to Hikari. Akama was able to grab his pet, and as the three continued to rise towards the sky, the Dancing Rose proved why she was worthy of her name. Twisting with the grace that only a dancer could have, she caught a nearby set of telephone wires by the crook of her knees, forcing them shut as their only hope of safety. That accomplished, she used every bit of her strength to pull the three in as she spun around the line like a pinwheel, praying that both her stomach and her strength would hold.
As for the Vanden Plaz troops, they had no way to prepare for the attack, nor any indication of what would occur. By the time they understood what was occurring, there was no way to counter the assault. Dacia, Cupra, Astra, and Estima were swept into the skies, dragged along by gale winds that showed no signs of stopping. Within seconds, the attackers were no longer in reach of Kasumi and company, and headed on an arc to who knew where.
At the eye of the storm, still holding the pose with her fist to the air, Miko shed tears for her action, whispering words no one else could hear: “May the kami forgive me for what I have done.”
A minute later, Kasumi let go of the pole, and checked her niece and nephew. The two babies, after being through so much were crying along, somehow understanding on a basic level of what was going on. Gently she held the babies, trying to soothe them; this was not the best time to see if they had other needs to attend to, and even though it was a minor failure on her part as a mother and their guardian, Kasumi knew that there were other priorities at the moment. As soon as she was assured that they were fine, she looked around at the scenery, unable to comprehend the amount of damage that had been caused by Miko’s assault. In doing so, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the shattered remains of a store mirror, and had to admit that she’d seen far better days since. The windburnt, slightly bedraggled and harried Kasumi that peered back was a far cry from the so-called goddess of domestic bliss of the Tendo clan.
Meanwhile, as she came back to some semblance of herself, Miko also looked at the chaos she’d unleashed. Shaking her head sadly, she mused, “This much damage…this much destruction wrought, and yet you still don’t see me as a monster, Kasumi-dono? You must be braver than I thought.” Miko raised her head and saw the pure amount of damage that had been caused. Though it had only been localized to a few buildings close around them, the debris had spread for a couple of square meters around. Crowds had gathered, and a few recognized the local miko, dressed in something more martial than normal and having unleashed incredible attacks. Miko felt she was under the microscope and that now more than ever, she was doomed.
Kasumi gave Miko a smile. “No, it’s not bravery, Miko. If anyone, you’re the brave one here. You’ve involved yourself in our affairs, and have gone out of the way to protect us. No one else would have been as brave as you are. Thank you.”
Miko returned the smile. “Thank you, Kasumi-dono. You’re a good friend to have, and better than I deserve.” Kasumi had actually managed to cheer the younger woman up when a shout came from above:
SOMEONE WANT TO GET US DOWN FROM HERE?!?!?!?!?”
Miko looked up, and found Kodachi, hanging upside-down from a set of telephone wires, holding one boy in each arm, her face clearly showing strain and annoyance. Hiro was trying not to look down, his face revealing a boy who was bravely trying to master his fear of the current section. However, Akama, true to his upbringing, seemed to be enjoying it and stoutly held his pet dog by the left hind leg, something that Hikari clearly did not care much for. Although the telephone cables sagged from the combined weight of the quartet, it held fast for the moment.
“Why, Kuno-dono,” Miko asked innocently, “what ever are you doing up there?”
“I’M IMITATING A BAT, WHAT DO YOU THINK?!??!?!” the dancer all but screamed. “What does it look like I’m doing? No, don’t answer that, just get us down from here!”
As Miko scrambled to find some way to get Kodachi and the little ones down, Kasumi looked up, relieved and glad that her relatives had survived. “Kodachi...thanks for saving the boys. I owe you a world of debt.”
Kodachi gave her sister-in-law a wild grin that looked weird, considering her inverted position. “Don’t worry about it, Kasumi. Just let me get all the blood rushing back in the normal direction again, and we can call it even.”
The blade sliced through the wooden post as though it were nothing. Still carrying momentum, the swordsbearer continued the kata, slashing and moving through several planes of direction, all the while connecting with the various targets. Regardless of the attacks, the swordsmaster continued on, moving the blades through the various planes with the grace of a dancer and the agility of a butterfly.
At last, Saotome Nodoka stopped her practice, feeling something to be amiss. She wasn’t sure what it was; only that it heralded something very out of place. Perhaps it was the call of motherhood once more, as she oftentimes thought. Perhaps it was her son and his family, caught again in the spiral of insanity that had marked Ranma’s teenage years. Perhaps it was just an odd feeling that she was getting as an old woman--she couldn’t deny it now, she was getting on in years to the point where there were more days behind than ahead in her life.
But to her, something felt wrong, as if forces were coming nearer, forces that she knew all too well. Unsure of what it portended, she sheathed her blade and began to clean up her mess; her students would be here soon, and she and Genma had several classes to teach today.
But after that…after that she would call her son and Hikaru and see if anything was wrong. The impulses were too great now, and things had progressed far beyond what one might think to be simple bad feelings, and into the realm of premonition.
Sharan bent over and closed the eyes of Cupra. The man had found the peace in death that might have eluded him in life, and at least he was able to die on the planet, if not the land, of his birth. Ironic that his face should be so peaceful, the mage thought, considering how he died.
The mage looked at the gaping, ragged hole in the center of the stormtrooper’s chest, then at the guard pole on the edge of the sidewalk where Cupra had been impaled when he landed. The attack by the Shinto priestess had thrown them a few kilometers from their original location and made them completely unable to hold on to their would-be captives. Had that been the only problem, it would have been disappointing but not disastrous. But when Sharan managed to counteract the attack with his own magic, the group fell from the sky, towards the waiting, punishing asphalt.
Estima suffered only a bruise to her pride as she landed skillfully into the middle of a water fountain. Dacia crashed against a storefront awning, while Astra found himself caught in the branches of a tree. Only Cupra befell the misfortune of death.
Dacia, looking at his deceased subordinate, turned to the
mage and seethed, “I don’t care what Daimler says. I want all of those vermin dead! I don’t care if we have to
burn down this fuckin’ town, I want them dead!!”
Estima gave a feral smile. “Don’t worry. I know where they’re going. We’ll catch them, and avenge your teammate...for what he was worth, which I don’t feel to be much, mind you.”
Astra gave the
kunoichi a hard stare. “Watch
your tongue, wench. I’ve had just
about enough of you and your inferior ways.
One more condescending word out of you and I’ll cut out your eyes and
use them as jacket ornaments.”
The kitsune kunoichi
yawned. “Words, that’s all you
ever say. Do you have the balls to
back it up?” As if in challenge,
her aura flared to life, a cocoon of volcanic red that dared the Waffen soldier
to step towards the flame like a moth beckoned to its death.
both of you,” Sharan interceded. “We
don’t have time for this. Now,
Estima, while Dacia and Astra attend to the disposal of Cupra’s body, I would
like to know what information you have of their whereabouts. I think it’s time to try a new approach.
Simple magicks didn’t work; neither does the brute approach.
I think it’s time that we come up with something else.”
tersely; at least Sharan was the sole person around here that could actually use
his braincells. “Perhaps.
And we’ll be hitting them in a town called Kyoto, the ancient capital
of Japan before Tokyo became the Emperor’s seat.”
“Oh wow, I’m
impressed,” Dacia snarled sarcastically.
“Perhaps we can invite him for a decent pilsner or two?”
Estima would have
marched over and lopped off the Waffen officer’s head right then and there,
but a gentle hand from Sharan dissuaded that action. In a low voice, he admitted, “I don’t care for him and
his ‘friends’ any more than you do; they’re a shame to the Fatherland,
nothing more than bullies. However,
it’s not wise to rid yourself of them until our mission is achieved.”
favored him with a smile. “I knew
there had to be something smarter about you than the rest of them.”
As soon as they’re done attending to Cupra’s remains, I think that we
should head on towards this Kyoto of yours.
If things work out for the best, we can deal with our problems for once
and for all, and you can easily attend to the business of ridding us of those
two bodyguards of theirs, correct?”
Meanwhile, a short
distance from the pair of them, Astra looked to his sergeant and said in a tight
voice, “Whose side does that bastard Sharan think he’s on, anyway?”
Both men were carrying the body of their fallen friend to a clearing on
the street. With the events that
had occurred, no one was likely to come out and see what the trouble was.
Setting him down,
Dacia reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out his laser pistol.
“If I knew that, mein frieund, I wouldn’t have the concerns that I do
now about Sharan...or that slant-eyed bitch with him.
I don’t trust either of them, and if you ask me, I personally cannot
understand for the life of my why Herr Daimler does.”
Turning a small dial on the side of the gun, he intoned to Astra, “Set
your gun for maximum fire.”
Astra inquired, doing so.
“Then we make them
all pay for Cupra’s death--all of
them,” Dacia answered as he and Astra opened fire, immolating their friend’s
body in a makeshift funeral pyre, “and we give Cupra the chance to get that
eternal rest that he so well deserves for his service to the Fuhrer, the
Fatherland, and Herr Daimler.”
The two were quiet
as Cupra’s body burned, solemn flames flickering into the sky.
If I have
weaknesses, don’t let them blind me, or camouflage all I am wary of...
The words from an old song echoed in Miko’s mind as they sat on the train while it raced on towards Kyoto. Not feeling that tired, she opted to stay awake while the others took a nap. She needed the time for reflection, anyway. She was feeling troubled, and it had everything to do with her new companions.
There was something comfortable, familiar about them. She couldn’t pinpoint it, or even get a general feeling--it was as though if what she felt was an animal locked behind a gate, something she could hear but not see. She couldn’t turn to any of the others of her shrine, as they were not there, and were in any case unavailable as she headed towards the western capital of ancient Yamato.
But that was the strange thing. She felt like she was, in a sense, with her fellow priests; as though she was amongst family. She’d never felt that about anyone else before, and in truth it had taken her quite a while before she was able to be that comfortable with the rest of the priests. But with these people, it only took a day or so.
Perhaps it was just because Kasumi-dono was an incredibly friendly type of person. Perhaps it was because of the grudging respect that Kuno-dono had been giving her during the course of the day. Maybe it was even the way that the boys looked up to her, a kind presence willing to do what it took to protect them all. Miko at first thought that she was doing for them simply what she would do for anyone in their situation, but was this in fact the case?
Somewhere deep within, a part of her knew she owed a debt and allegiance to Kasumi-dono, and it had nothing to do with the words spoken earlier this morning. But with that came that thought again: did they really know who she was, who she’d been? And if they did, would they tell her? Would she even want to know? What if that person that Kasumi-dono mentioned earlier--the one Kuno-dono hated with a passion--turned out to be her?
I always thought I might have been a wicked person once, she admitted to herself, but I never thought that I could be a murderer. Her eyes began to moist, and even though everyone was asleep, she turned away from them, embarrassed to cry in front of such an august group.
“Here.” Miko turned to find Kodachi handing her a tissue.
“Thank you,” Miko sobbed as she gratefully accepted the item. She managed to give the other woman a small smile, then turned back to the window. A second later, not turning away from the window, she cautiously inquired, “Weren’t you resting just now?”
“No, I’m fine. I tend to bounce back pretty quickly,” Kodachi replied.
“Look, Miko, I don’t know how to say this,” the dancer began, “but you saved Kasumi and the kids. With my injury, I don’t think I could have done that on my own. Thank you.”
“You’re quite welcome, Kuno-dono,” the Shinto priestess answered. “I do what I can to fulfill my vows, and I ask for nothing more than to serve my task as a humble instrument of peace.”
“So that’s what you call what you did? Peacemaking?” Kodachi said in a flat tone. When Miko turned to look at Kodachi, the other woman explained, “That’s not a mark against you, Miko. What I was looking at was the irony of your words in this case. I suppose that there’s a lot of irony going around at the moment, considering what we’ve gone through.” Kodachi had a pensive look on her features for a brief second before they fell back behind the mask of composure that she normally wore. “Maybe things aren’t likely to get better any time soon. I hope that’s not the case, but I certainly think it just might be.”
“You might be right, Kuno-dono,” Miko agreed. Perhaps the other woman was right, the priestess considered; since they’d come into her life the difficulty level reached astronomical proportions. However, there was a paradox to the whole thing in that having them there felt so right, as though she’d always known them and only recently had a veil removed from her eyes. Additionally, while protecting them, her blood seemed to sing, making her feel alive; while she had always feared that she’d once been a monstrous person at best in the past she couldn’t remember, there was something good in this sort of combat, the timeless axiom of valiant heroism proving to be very much true in this case.
Maybe this is even where my life will lead, its next step, she reasoned. It feels so natural and so right, that it could very well be--
“Miko, did you hear what I said?” Kodachi repeated, staring at the amethyst-haired woman.
“I’m sorry, my mind had wandered for a second,” Miko answered, flush rising to her cheeks in embarrassment for having been pulled out of a reverie in such a manner.
Kodachi grinned affably. “No problem; I daydream occasionally as well. But what I was saying was that I haven’t treated you as well as I should have. You’ve saved Kasumi and the children twice now--not to mention my own ass--and I’ve given you nothing but grief in the process. I owe you an apology, Miko.”
“No apology is necessary,” she replied hastily, sensing Kodachi’s discomfiture at apologizing; it was clear that she was a woman not accustomed to doing so very often. “Kasumi-dono has told me about the incident regarding a woman you knew when you were younger, and how I likely remind you of her.”
Kodachi was taken aback by that admission, even though she didn’t reflect that on her face. Kasumi told her that? Why? A second later, the reason sank into her mind, unbidden. Because it doesn’t matter. Kasumi’s right: even if Miko is biologically Shampoo, she’s not her, not really. She’s a changed soul, a kindred soul, just like me, and I owe her more respect than I’ve given her. “But still, that’s no excuse on my part. I’ve treated you unkindly, and you don’t deserve it. You can’t be blamed for what Sh...for what she did back then. You had no part in it, and I took it out on you. I’m very sorry, Miko.” Despite the confines of the train, Kodachi stood up and gave the Shinto priestess a formal bow.
Embarrassed by the display, Miko took Kodachi’s hands and asked, “Truce?”
Kodachi gave the other a grin. “Sounds fine by me, Miko.”
The smile warmed her heart and gave her cause to be more confident about what would occur next. “So, where are we going now, Kuno-dono?” The conversation between the two soon gave away to friendly chat, and as the train slithered its way down the metal tracks towards Kyoto, the pair felt far more comfortable about themselves and a cautious armistice that had developed.
Over on the other set of seats, by the sleeping children, Kasumi lazily opened one eye to see that the pair was fine, then closed it again. She was hoping that eventually the bad blood between the two would go away, and it turned out that she was right. Though she didn’t know much about fighting, Kasumi did know about teamwork and loyalty, and that both of them had to have faith in the other if they were all to make it to Auntie’s in time. Confident for the moment that everything was okay for the moment, she went back to her nap, certain that everything in the end would be all right in the next thirty minutes, when they arrived at the Saotome household.
Keiei wiped the streamer of red off her katana, the
remainder of her latest battle now done with.
Though her opponent would live, she wasn’t sure how he would adjust to
having only one arm, if the doctors couldn’t successfully reattach it.
No matter; the bastard deserved whatever he got.
She’d beaten him fairly originally, and when she turned around, he
nearly took her head off with those bladed nunchaku of his.
Once he did that, all bets were off, and she came out of her corner,
black blade at the ready. If he
thought she’d been vicious unarmed, he had no chance of appreciating her
lethal skills when wielding the weapon that was verily a part of her own being.
The idiot charged in against her, planning to cut her into so much bloody shreds with the blurring cycles of death that were his nunchaku. What he hadn’t counted on, however, was that Keiei already detected a pattern in his style and the corresponding flaw within a matter of nanoseconds. By the time he’d already entered striking range, she had already become a blur of motion as she danced out of the range of his attack and initiated her offensive. The guy’s next few instant was a symphony of pain as commenced with an attack that she didn’t have the pleasure of doing often, Manzan no Mai, the Dance of 10000 Slashes. Like a leaf buffeted by the natural fury of a whirlwind, she commenced slicing into him, a living abrasion force that began to flense the skin from his flesh. The attack was traditionally completed with an overhead iyai strike that split the combatant in two, but to his credit he managed to move slightly at the last second, causing her to only lop off his arm.
As he howled in unearthly pain, Keiei walked away, cooing, “Keep it up, vermin, and I’ll take away the manhood you don’t deserve! You’re no man, you’re less than a man! You don’t deserve to be called the same sex as my husband! Go crawl off to your dolls, little girl; you’re worthless to no one and I hope that when the final breath of your life runs out that you realize it!” Tossing the bloody sheets of paper on the man’s dying body, Keiei walked away, having better things to do. Vermin like him had so far succeeded in wasting her valuable time, if nothing else, and for every substandard martial artist that had an axe to grind with her it took time from her investigation of why she was actually here.
Where would that hellswhore Nabiki take my beloved family in a town like this? Keiei pondered. There were dozens of places that the witch could hide, a hundred hidey-holes that she could sequester Ranma and their son in order to continue her dark crusade against Keiei’s happiness. None of it was acceptable, and not a single instance of it would be tolerated when Keiei got her hands on Nabiki. It was only a matter of time, Kyoto only so big. She would run into them, one way or another, and when that happened, Keiei would enjoy chopping her foe into a thousand tiny pieces as she showed her family how much she loved them beyond all comprehension.
It was only a matter of time before she found them. The kami would smile on her, as they had so many times before.
“Wow, Shiori! So Saotome Nodoka-sensei is giving you extra training?”
A second one spoke up: “Yeah, that’s right. Saotome-sensei says that I’m the best at the Art that she’s seen in a long time. She even says that if I’m willing to be flexible enough, I might be able to train with her husband’s kempo classes. Soon, I might even be good enough as you, Yui. I certainly can’t get as bad as Kei.”
A third one chimed in as well. “Gee, I wish I was that good; I’ve only learned the basics of kempo so far. Personally, I think the Saotomes’ pet panda seems to know more about martial arts than I do!”
The words, spoken by a pair of girls as they rounded the corner, pierced into Keiei’s stream of consciousness with the force of a bullet. Saotome... My husband’s name. The name I am entitled to, had that bitch Nabiki taken my family from me! Roaring in fury, Keiei pounced on the girls as a raptor would its next meal. Standing there in full fury and with the blood of her last battle still clearly on her, Keiei wasted no time in finessing an answer from the group. “WHERE IS THE SAOTOME DOJO?!?!?!”
Apparently that was the wrong question to ask the girls, as one of them instantly attacked, shouting, “I won’t let a dojo destroyer come anywhere near the Saotomes!” Racing in, the girl probably named Shiori moved in with lightning speed that indicated that she had serious talent...for an amateur.
But tragically (for her), Keiei was by no means an amateur, nor was she even really in the mood to deal with someone who was the equivalent of an insect to the Black Blade. Nearly yawning, she called out in a bored tone, “Happodaikirin.” A blast of yellow slammed into Shiori, sending the teen flying back to crash against a nearby mailbox. The girl impacted with a painful-sounding thud before slumping to the ground bonelessly.
The one likely named Kei raced to help the downed one, while Yui moved in front of them, assuming a defensive position with a barely hidden look of fear on her face. “Don’t come near us,” she challenged, her voice shaky, “or I’ll have to deal with you!”
“Little girl, there is no way you could hope to deal with me. And if you persist in trying to do so, I will split you into tiny pieces with my blade. Your loyalty to your dojo is commendable, and I am not a dojo destroyer; quite the opposite--I am trying to save the Saotomes from an evil fate that will be coming their way soon. However, I have no time to trifle with children who think that just because they can kick means they are worthy of being martial artists. Now I’ll ask once more and that will be the last time I ask: where is the dojo?”
A second later, Keiei had all the answers she needed. And true to her word, she did not kill them, as they had given her the information. But she also knew that those girls could be used against her, if Nabiki were to find out about it. And so with a slight nerve pinch here and a pressure application there, she put the three girls into a peaceful, meditative trance. She was pretty sure that the acupressure-induced comas wouldn’t last longer than a couple of months.
“She has done it again,” Asuka commented to herself, no more than five minutes later. Standing across the street, watching as a roving patrolman came across the victimized girls, she breathed a sigh of relief that he called for an ambulance, and not a coroner’s vehicle. There was nothing that the White Lily could have done: she had no idea what her younger sister had done to the girls, and didn’t want to step into the middle of a trap.
Regrettably besides, she had other problems at the moment. Khu Lon had asked her to approach a family that lived locally, one that she had ties to in the past: from what she hinted at, those ties hadn’t been too good to begin with, and were far worse now. She took a look at the paper again, reading the name: SAOTOME. The name sounded familiar...wasn’t that the family name of Kodachi’s boyfriend, the one she tried to take so long ago? Asuka really didn’t remember; that had been a different Asuka, so long ago.
It wasn’t important, anyway. The elder had asked her to talk to the family as a neutral third-party, and so she would. She was sure that they wouldn’t have any quarrel with her, and considering that it might mend the peace between the Amazons and this family, they might be interested in that fact. Besides, her honor as an Amazon herself demanded that she do what she could; even if she didn’t have her word to Khu Lon, she still had that.
Brandishing the map in her hands, Asuka took to the rooftops, moving with a determination that was vital to her. When she was done with this, she would be one step closer to being free from her servitude to Khu Lon. When that happened, she would be likely chosen as the heir to Khu Lon’s legacy. After all, the wizened Amazon had no living relatives left, admitting to losing her granddaughters years and years ago. To a degree, Asuka also had the same problem, in that she no longer felt comfortable with the society that she’d grown up in. Too many years of living with the Niicheju had made her tired of the modern world, and made the rural life of an Amazon that much more palatable.
But first steps first, she reminded herself, as she neared the ward where the Saotomes dwelt. If I can persuade them to discuss the situation with Elder Khu Lon, then that will make my situation that much more desirable.
Asuka moved on, completely unaware that she would have much to do with the fate of worlds.
“Auntie!” Kasumi rushed over and hugged Nodoka. “It’s been too long!” A second later, she was swamped by the boys as well, the reunion of a family that didn’t get to see each other as often as in the past. “My, how you two have grown,” he commented cheerfully to the two boys, fussing on them and generally acting like a grandmother would.
“Kasumi, dear, it’s wonderful to see you too,” Nodoka mentioned, looking up at her while she still held the boys. “But what brings you down to Kyoto?” As Kasumi pulled away, the swordsmistress could see fear and worry in Kasumi’s eyes. The second was that the undeniably feminine Kasumi was wearing practical, more masculine clothing; between those two hints, that was all Saotome Nodoka needed to know. “You’d best come in, dear, and we can talk about it. But where’s my son, Hikaru, and the twins?”
“We’d better sit down to discuss this one, Auntie,” Kasumi answered, her voice nervous. “As for the twins, they’re safely over there.” Kasumi gestured to two women standing just a bit away.
The first, wearing bandages and clothing similar to what Ranma wore, held the twins with a gentleness born of love. But the look in her eyes reflected a fierce protectiveness of the two, a gaze that swore that she would die before letting a scratch come to them. She looked vaguely familiar, though Nodoka couldn’t quite picture where she’d seen her before. As she walked up towards them, she recognized the woman as the maladjusted (and that was putting it kindly) Kodachi Kuno. But there was no insanity locked in the girl’s eyes but instead the warmth and love that she held in them, directed towards Nodoka’s grandchildren. It emboldened her that someone else was willing to fight for the children’s safety, and to escort Kasumi to the same.
The person behind Kodachi, however, did not set the same
feelings for the swordmistress. Dressed
roughly in the colors of Shinto robes, the clothing was too sleek and
form-fitting to allow for the person to be an normal priestess.
Additionally, the woman wore a cloak and hood, the cowl neatly hiding the
woman’s features. Nodoka had heard of a group of warrior priests in the general
Five Lakes area. Could she be one
of them, and if so how did Kasumi and Kodachi run into her?
If this was the Shinto warrior’s primary level of warning, it worked
quite well. And yet, there was
still something dangerous about her, something Nodoka didn’t like but still
didn’t feel comfortable about.
“Auntie, this is
Miko. She saved all of us when we
were in a terrible spot, and she agreed to escort us here to safety.
Those gaijin who’ve been hunting us still might be around, and I
don’t know if we could have made it here without her help.
We really owe her a debt that we cannot repay.”
“It is no debt, Kasumi-dono,” the woman named Miko spoke, her voice caressing the local accent with ease. “Kodachi-dono and yourself have been greater friends to me than the kami could ever allow otherwise.” She bowed in Nodoka’s direction, adding, “and it is an honor to be in your presence, Saotome-dono. I have heard wondrous things about your schools of martial talent, and of the great deeds your husband and you have accomplished.”
Nodoka’s eyes narrowed. There was something about Miko’s voice that sounded familiar, a soft note or two that seemed to scream of a horrific past, and a danger. And then that’s when she saw it: Miko turned slightly, and a swath of amethyst hair tumbled out of the hood’s confines, the flash of golden skin and felinesque eyes. It couldn’t be her, Nodoka thought. I must be overworried about Kasumi’s situation, and thinking about Xian Pu as a manifestation of that danger. Aloud, the homemaker said, “Come, let us go in. Boys, you should go say hello to your grandfather--he’s in the dojo.” As the two scampered off, she continued with, “I have a funny feeling that this story is going to be a long one, isn’t it?”
“Too long, Saotome-san,” Kodachi answered as she handed the babies to the matron. “Far too long.”
Well, that was too easy, Estima mused as she watched the group enter the Saotome home. I thought they would have tried to make it a little more difficult to find them. And this house isn’t that well defended, either, from what I could see. Other than the multitude of students, it should be a snap getting into the place.
The kitsune kunoichi turned to look at the sun as it began its slow descent towards the horizon. Nighttime of course would be the perfect time to strike, to do what it was she had to do. Turning in the opposite direction, she gave a slight hand flicker in the direction of a building a few blocks down; Sharan, observing her through binoculars, would know it was an indication to ready his last remaining army of...whatever those things of his were. Likewise, two flickers of motion signaled to Dacia and Astra that they two should prepare their heavy weapons for the struggle to commence in several hours.
Her job complete at the moment, she decided to sharpen her blades. She had scores to settle with both that priestess and the dancer, and neither of those commitments could be denied. The rest she would leave for Sharan’s group, and the two stormtroopers.
Stay and relax a while, ladies. Eat, enjoy your peace, and unwind from the troubles of the road. By the time the night is done, I will have either slit your throats, or defeated you both in combat. As I am of the Kitsune kunoichi, I swear that one way or another, you will die at my hands, on my blades, and none other. This I vow.
“No, I won’t let you hurt her!” Akama cried, standing his ground in front of the dazed and vulnerable Miko. “She’s a nice person! I don’t believe you!” At his side, Hikari stood, ready to protect his master in any way he could. On the ground, stunned and trying to recover from a thunderous blow, was the Shinto priestess, bleeding from a gash on her arm and downed from a blow to the head. At the moment, she was unsure if she should attack to save herself, or to take what might likely well be deserved punishment for her sins in life.
Brandishing her sword, Nodoka stood in a battle posture, ready to lash out faster than a serpent. “Akama-chan, get away from her. She’s a murderer. She killed...she killed a relative of yours,” the Jigenryu grandmaster explained, not sure how to bring about the truth of Akane’s life into that of a boy who had still yet to learn who his real mother was.
Not too far away were the other players in this event: Hiro crouched over the unconscious, sprawled form of his mother, hugging her and tearfully begging her to wake up. However, it was no good, as the young woman was still unconscious, the slight gash on her head telling the reason why. Behind the rest of them was Genma, angry as hell for the first time in ages and held back from ripping Miko to shreds only by the restraining hold hastily placed on him by Kodachi, furiously shouting for them to leave Miko be, that she was no threat to anyone and was in truth a close friend of both the younger women.
It had begun so innocently, Kodachi had thought. Shortly after Genma had released his students for the day, he and the boys entered the house, to find the women sitting there. Kasumi and Nodoka were in the kitchen, preparing dinner, while Kodachi and Miko were sitting down calmly in the room, having tea. Genma sat down with them, while the boys sat to the side of the table and began talking. As he conversed with them, hearing the tale of the flight from Nerima once more, he was grateful that both women had stepped in to defend Kasumi and the children, but something about all this bothered him. While he could see the changes in Kodachi and welcomed her easily into the family, there was something odd about her friend, such as why she had yet to take off her hood. Still, he tried to be as courteous a host as he was able to (and for such a boor as Genma could be, that could be construed as a challenge).
But the tense situation worsened dramatically as Nodoka and Kasumi came into the dining section, bearing the trays. The younger woman tripped, dropping the tray. With lightning speed, Miko leapt up, catching the tray and zigzagging it to the point that she caught the meal easily without spilling a drop. But her hood slipped off in the process, allowing both elder Saotomes to see the face of the Shinto priestess for the first time.
With a look somewhere between shock and rage, both of them instantly attacked an unprepared and confused Miko. Nodoka, standing up already and hands free, whipped out her blade and initiated a series of attacks. To her credit, Miko was able to defend herself with the food tray while asking “Why are you doing this?” but eventually, Nodoka struck true, cutting a gash on the side of her arm. Screaming in shock and pain, Miko launched the tray wildly, which caromed off Kasumi's head, felling her instantaneously. As Hiro ran to the side of his mother, Genma entered the fray, throwing a rapid-punch attack that Miko was barely able to counter against while Nodoka continued to slash at the woman. Finally, as Kodachi moved to stop Genma, and Akama moved in front of Miko to protect her, Genma threw a vicious turning palm punch to Miko’s head, connecting violently and slamming her against a wall.
Now, the situation was out of control, and the woman that had saved the lives of the Saotome children, Kasumi and even Kodachi was doomed to die at the hands of so-called benefactors, just because she resembled a murderous nightmare from the past. Nevermind that to a degree they were correct, but Kodachi had learned yet another lesson in life since she’d met the Shinto priestess and that message was that people can change, sometimes radically. Shampoo had not paid for her crime by ceasing to exist; Miko was an entirely different soul, if in the same body. And if I can change, the Dancing Rose thought, why can’t she? I see that now, I understand!
There was only one way to resolve this, and Kodachi knew it might make things worse. “Sorry, but I have to do this,” she announced to Genma. Applying a quick nerve pinch, she dropped him to the floor, his girth thundering against the ground as he fell. Her hands free now, she called up a small ball of ki, just enough to stun Nodoka if necessary. “Leave her alone, Saotome-san--she’s done nothing wrong.”
murderess,” Nodoka practically shrieked, tears
of rage and pent-up loss for Akane streaming down her cheeks.
“I cannot let her live!”
“SHE IS NOT SHAMPOO!
CAN’T YOU SEE THAT?”
Kodachi snarled in return. “MIKO
PROTECTED US WHEN WE WERE ABOUT TO DIE! LOOK
AT HER! SHE MIGHT LOOK LIKE THE
AMAZON, BUT SHE IS NOT HER! YOU’VE
JUST ATTACKED AN INNOCENT WOMAN, ONE THAT SAVED YOUR GRANDCHILDREN!!!”
Kodachi went toe-to-toe with the
Jigenryu master, moving easily to with striking range of her razor-edged katana.
In a soft, threatening voice, the Dancing Rose barked, “I cannot--I
will not--let you harm this woman who fought to defend my family--your family.
And if you’re so true to those concepts of honor you hold dear, you
will not harm her either.”
“I see I came at the wrong time.” At the sound of that voice, all turned towards the engawa. Standing on it, her hand on a short sword and dressed in casual Chinese clothing was a young woman about Kodachi and Miko’s age, with platinum blonde hair and eyes that shone like the blue sapphire sky above on a summer day. She gave a wry grin and added, “If you’d like, I could come back after you kill each other, but I’m afraid I won’t get my answers then.”
Nodoka eyed the stranger suspiciously, Kodachi even more so. “Well, well, well. If it isn’t Sazuran Asuka. I haven’t seen you in ages,” the raven-haired woman said, her voice holding the threatening tone still.
“Yes, it has been a long time, hasn’t it, Kodachi? But I’m not here to fight with you, and likely never again. We were children then, stupid and immature. I hold no grudge against you anymore. I hope you can find it in your heart to do the same.”
“It wasn’t easy,” Kodachi admitted, “but the Black Rose has been dead for quite some time. But what brings you here to the Saotome household?”
Asuka’s brow arched slightly as she said in saturnine tones, “Watching you beat up relatives?”
Kodachi flushed in embarrassment as she banished her ki-ball. “A...minor misunderstanding. But what brings you here?”
“I came to talk to the Saotomes. I was sent by my elder to meet with them to see if they held information that she needs.”
Nodoka turned to Asuka and addressed her. “I am Saotome Nodoka, miss. What does Cologne want?” In the meanwhile, Kodachi moved to Miko’s side to help the downed priestess. She got the feeling that the discussion was tabled for the moment, but far from over.
“You’re very direct, Saotome-san, just as my elder told me. But she has asked me to come to you to beg a favor. She knows that she has done you and yours irreparable harm in the past, and she does not expect you to give the boon. But we Amazons are in desperate times now, and through the twisted fabric of fate, you are the only ones we can turn to.
“Sometime after your family and my elder parted ways, we lost the most important thing to the Amazon culture. We lost the last of the tribe’s treasure. My elder will not tell me what it is, but she says that you might know what happened to it. I cannot tell you more than that, because I do not know. I am Amazon now, but I lived most of my life in Japan, as Kodachi can confirm. So I’ve never seen the treasure.”
“How important is this treasure to her?” Nodoka asked while she moved to her husband’s side.
“According to elder Khu Lon, we won’t be able to survive the next generation without it.”
Meanwhile, Kodachi helped Miko bandage her arm, then moved to Kasumi’s side. Since Kasumi was just coming to, she directed Hiro and Akama to help Kasumi to the guestroom upstairs. She heard Miko’s whisper, “Thank you for your intervention, Kodachi-dono. But why was I attacked?”
Whispering back, Kodachi offered, “Well, remember when I was hostile towards you because of who I thought you were? These people have even more reason to be hostile. It was their daughter-in-law that was murdered. It wasn’t directly intended for you, but as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, temperament and restraint aren’t exactly the top virtues of the Saotome, Tendo, and Kuno families.”
“I see your point,” Miko replied, wincing as she finished bandaging her wound. “I also saw Saotome-sensei’s as well, and you’ll forgive me if I say that hers was a bit sharper than yours.”
“Humor, at a time like this?” Kodachi’s respect for the priestess increased. “I wouldn’t have expected it.”
“Well, it has been said by some that if you don't learn to laugh at troubles, you won't have anything to laugh at when you grow old," Miko replied, “though if this keeps up, my ability to grow old may be a bit jeopardized.” She would have added more, but her attention was diverted elsewhere.
“You, priestess,” Nodoka said in a tone that brooked no argument and still held quite a bit of hostility, “what do you know of the Amazons?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I know nothing of them, other than the legends of the ancient European warriors.” Miko’s face was a perfect cast of confusion, pain, sorrow, and slight fear. “There’s also some myths about a similar tribe in South America, where the Amazon River is, isn’t there?”
Nodoka looked at her with mild surprise. “Are you sure you don’t know of any other Amazon?”
“Well, I could mention the Internet company, but I get the feeling that’s not what you’re referring to,” Miko said in soft tones. Turning to Asuka, she added, “I’m sorry, but I know nothing of your tribe of Amazons, if that’s what you call yourself. I’m simply a mendicant priestess from a shrine in the Gotemba forest.” Deferring back to Nodoka, she inquired, “Saotome-sensei, why do you ask? It seems that you more about this group than I do.”
Nodoka tried to contain her shock, but wasn’t entirely successful. She knows nothing about the Amazons? Was Kodachi correct? What have I done? Composing herself once more, she gave the priestess a noncommittal answer: “I have heard of your tribe of fighting priests, Miko-san, and I thought that you might have more recent information on them than I do. It appears I was mistaken.”
“Well, if you do not have information for us, I apologize for disturbing you all,” Asuka intoned, readying to depart. “I wish you a good evening then.”
Nodoka nodded. “If you will, please come by tomorrow. My husband and I will discuss this between ourselves, and if we come up with anything, I will offer to tell you what I know. Is there anything I can offer you before you leave?”
“No, I believe that you have your hands full as it is, Saotome-san, though I appreciate the sentiment.” Walking back towards the engawa, she added a quick, “Until the morrow, then,” and leapt atop the house. Within seconds, she was gone.
“Well, this has been an interesting night,” Kodachi drawled. I think I should help you clean up a little. Miko, would you be so kind as to check up on Kasumi and the children?” When it looked that Nodoka was going to complain, Kodachi threw in a "After you do that, then I’ll need you to come downstairs and help me with this big lug,” pointing at Genma.
As Miko went upstairs, Nodoka asked, “You weren’t deceiving me about this miko, were you? And what is her name, anyway?”
The Dancing Rose sighed; considering how Nodoka was acting, maybe she was lucky that she never won the heart of Ranma after all. “Her name is actually Miko, Saotome-san, and no I was not joking. She’s just a priestess from the Shine of the Duelists’ Ring in Gotemba forest. We haven’t asked her where she was born, but it was probably China, as you can guess. But you’ve seen how she acts: do you really think she’s Shampoo?
“I’ve changed over the years, myself, and I do know people can change. But dead people can’t. From what Kasumi told me, Ranma’s friend Hibiki saw Shampoo as she died, heard her neck snap from the blow Akane gave her. Are you going to condemn a person who saved your daughter-in-law and grandchildren’s lives just because she looks like and may have the same nationality as the woman who killed Akane?”
“I don’t know. I loved Akane as if she had been my own child. And to see that my grandson is being raised by another woman--granted, Hikaru is a wonderful girl, but it should have been Akane to raise Akama.” Nodoka grew wistful, pained at the loss of someone so dear to her as the emotional wounds reached forward from the past. “Because of Xian Pu’s actions, the Tendo family is a ghost of themselves, and I would avenge myself against her and the Amazons if I could. But if this girl is not who I thought she was, then I have shamed myself and my family.”
“No you haven’t,” Miko countered from her place at the top of the stairs. “You attacked me because you were doing what you thought was best for your family. That is, from what I gather, absolutely normal for a concerned mother. It didn’t matter that I am of the path; you overrode that instinct in order to defend yourself. Be at peace and know that you did what you thought was right. Besides,” Miko added as she twisted her arm to try to make some of the soreness dissipate, “I’m made of sterner stuff. I am a fighting priestess, you know.”
“Perhaps you are,” Nodoka replied. “And perhaps I am an old fool for not realizing that either.” The Saotome matriarch was so intent on facing the Shinto priestess that she didn’t see a relieved Kodachi exhale, glad that this latest problem was complete.
“And that is my story, elder,” Asuka told Cologne, finishing up her tale. “While I have the feeling that the Saotomes were hiding something from me, I don’t believe they were necessarily lying about the fact that they are not aware of what the treasure is, either.” The room the one-time White Lily sat in was dark, perfectly suited for sleeping, which is what her elder had been doing until the neophyte Amazon had arrived. Upon arrival, she wasted no time in passing along the information regarding the events at the Saotome household, up to and including the fight between the Saotomes, Kuno Kodachi and the strange priestess named Miko.
Sitting up with some difficulty, Cologne sighed, the air escaping her shrunken, wizened body like the ghost of final strength. “That does not surprise me. I have always thought that the Saotomes were slightly unhinged, and that is why Ranma ended up so ill-mannered. But that is no longer a concern. What is, is whether the Saotomes know of the treasure. You say there was a priestess with them?”
“Yes, a Shinto priestess. From what I gathered, she was one of the fighting priests from the Duelers’ Ring Shrine over in the Five Lakes area. She had very strong chi, but I sensed no fighting spirit from her, no bushido. She was more afraid, if anything.”
“I see,” Cologne responded. “Well, she is unimportant then, not likely the treasure. But we must keep searching for it until we have a final answer.”
Asuka’s brows arched at that as she crossed her arms. “The treasure of the Amazons is a person, elder?”
“I guess an old gal like me was bound to slip up sooner or later.” Cologne let out a slight chuckle that sounded like a cough; a second later it turned into one as her ancient frame could no longer hold the body spasms that were caused by such an event. “I guess you’re entitled to know, because it does affect you. The treasures of the Amazons are not entirely of our tribe, but more like my personal treasures. They’re my lost granddaughter and great-granddaughter. The last of my living relatives.
“My daughter died in childbirth, leaving only one daughter. My granddaughter, Luo Xian, had two children of her own, Xian Pu and Au Pei. Shortly after the younger one’s birth, there was a schism between my granddaughter and myself--she wanted to try the city life, and I was dead set on having my family stay. There was a battle between Luo Xian and her husband, and while he loyally stayed with me and wresting control of his older daughter Xian Pu, Luo Xian took Au Pei and left the village with several other women and moved far away.
“Since then, my last remaining relative and heir, Xian Pu, died six years ago while unsuccessfully fighting for the hand of Saotome Ranma--the son of the people I sent you to see; that, amongst others, are the wrongs I have done that family, even though tribal law required me to. But now I am dying, and I shall not last much longer. Which is why when you came to our village, seeking power, I knew that you were destined for more.
“There are likely two left of my line out there somewhere. I’ve given up hope of ever seeing them again, and soon I will be gone. Once that happens, you, Sazuran Asuka, will inherit all that I own as the elder of Niicheju; this I give to you because you have served me faithfully and deserve it. But I ask you this: search for my granddaughter and her child. And when you find them, tell them that I am sorry, and that I love them.”
“Yes, of course, elder,” Asuka replied without hesitation. “But why would you ask the Saotomes if they know anything of your descendants. Surely they can’t.”
“Yes, but I am hoping that they will tell me where Xian Pu is buried. I know she is dead only because her would-be lover, Mu Si, came and told me. I had him beat within an inch of his life and left him to die over on the slopes of Mt. Quingang; if he loved her as he said he did, he should have defended her better than allowing her to die so shamefully. But in her death, I lost everything I cared about, and will likely never see any of them again.
“But you have listened to an old woman’s ramblings long enough, child. Go get some sleep. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.” Nothing more to add, the ancient crone turned on her side and slipped once more into the twilight of sleep, unsure if it would be her last time to do so.
Leaving the elder’s room and heading for her room in the large hotel suite they shared, Asuka sat down on the divan and thought for a bit. Khu Lon’s last dying wish, other than what she’d told the neoAmazon, was to find the final resting place of her great-granddaughter and gain some inner peace. The Saotomes, as much as they were wronged by Khu Lon’s family, had answers to the puzzle, and only they could provide them.
Picking up her weapons, she opened the window, heading towards the Saotome home. If elder Khu Lon wanted those answers, she’d get them now. Asuka owed everything she was now to Khu Lon, and would owe more still; besides, by talking to Kodachi, maybe she could heal some personal rifts of her own, and since it was apparent that Kodachi was related to the Saotomes in some manner--maybe she had married Saotome Ranma?--then she would be the best person to go to.
Keiei looked up at the moon. It was time. By the end of the night, Saotome Nabiki would pay for taking the Black Blade’s family from her, and Keiei was looking forward to personally perforating that witch.
About five hundred times or so should do it, she mused as she added the final hone to her famed nightshaded katana. At long last, my loves, my dearest husband and child, this trial shall be over and done with, and we shall be free once more. We shall be a family again. Wiping tears of anticipation from her eyes, Keiei said a small prayer to the gods, begging their help in her quest, before leaping towards the Saotome home.
One way or another, this will end tonight, or I will never find peace, she vowed silently. One way or another, the end comes this night!
From where she stood, Kukogawa Aikawa, the ninja known as Estima, sat in her meditation. It was nearly time, and by the end of the night, she would stand supreme. She no longer cared about the mission as it stood, with its trivial aim of capturing mere children for the sake of furthering the Vanden Plaz’ cause. This was now a personal mission of honor.
Twice now, Estima had been bested by those of lesser skill; the dancer and the priestess were capable fighters of immense talent, and under the right conditions likely earned every accolade that was merited to them. But they were up against Estima, the Kitsune Kunoichi, personal aid to the Lady Botan, and by rights they should have lost before the skills of the ninja.
Yet both won. And within her soul, Estima burned for revenge with the power of a kitsune’s rage. She could not live her life as it was until she’d defeated both women in combat. And once that was done, once she held the mantle of honor once more, then she could focus on the mission at hand.
Count what little blessings you have left, ladies, she mentally threatened as she opened her eyes, for death is coming to you and it comes in the form of the fox ninja!
A short distance away, the two remaining Stormtroopers sent to accompany the team loaded up every weapon they brought with them. By the end of the night, the only two that would be standing would be Dacia and Astra, and they would take those damnable children back to Cephiro, to the will of their lord and master, Daimler. And everything else would burn in a damnable force of flame that would rise to the highest reaches of the sky.
Dacia grinned in a feral rictus. “We will win, do you hear me? We will take this world in the name of the Vanden Plaz and the Fatherland! Seig über alles!” Firing his gun into the air, an acidic green shaft of energy tore into the sky, a grim harbingber of what was to come.
Sharan laughed. It was time to unleash his final spell, the one that would win against all, or would doom the expeditionary group to utter failure. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a crystalline, multifaceted vial, filled with a sulfurous looking gas. Canting, “Creatures of the night, you will do my bidding, you will follow my orders, and you as I command, for I am your master by the rites of dark magic!” Magically etching arcane characters in the air, he threw the vial down on the ground as hard as he could.
There was an inhuman shriek, as the immediate vicinity, a usually light-drenched patch of neighborhood road, fell into the dark. Within the vicinity a warpspace opened, bringing forth a dark valley of sulfur pits and granite stalagmites. Foxfires and Will O’ the Wisps skittered and shimmied around, and there was a series of wavering growls that sounded only vaguely reminiscent of a dog.
The ground erupted multiple times, and out of the pits crawled mutant beasts of a hideous nature. An unearthly cross between a man, a wolf, a bull and a bat, the creatures screamed a horrible shriek that shattered windows for meters around. Eight pairs of eyes glowed with hellish intent, as the unnamed beasts took their first steps on Earth, with every intention to cause as much mayhem as they could.
Sharan called out to his servants, and they stared back in obscene hatred. “I fear you not, but you’d best fear me! Go and do my bidding! Destroy the ones who prevent me from my task! Do my bidding, or the decree of pain will be swift! Succeed, and further power will be yours! Now go and do your duty!”
Hastened by his words, an octet of hellbeasts took to the air, headed towards a relatively close household, to hunt the people within.
Kodachi sat up with a start. I could’ve sworn I heard the sound of breaking glass, and.... Turning her head towards the window, she saw the shattered remains of the guest room window...and Miko already investigating. “What happened?” the dancer asked.
Miko turned to face her companion, and although Kodachi couldn’t see her features, she could see Miko’s eyes, twin moon-hued orbs with a look to them that seemed very, very feline. “I don’t know, Kodachi-dono,” the priestess answered dutifully, “but I don’t like it.”
“You don’t think...?”
“Yes, I do think. And that’s what bothers me.” At those words, Kodachi crawled out of the futon provided to her by the Saotomes, and reached for her clothing. As she got dressed, Miko continued to converse: “There’s magic about, tonight, foul spells that cry out to be banished.” Miko looked to the horizon and narrowed her eyes dangerously. “We’re in trouble again. Look!”
Seeing where Miko had been pointing, Kodachi noted several bats coming their way. Only these bats were too large to be normal. And a second later, as the profile changed, they revealed themselves not to be bats, but demons, and it could no longer be denied that they were coming this way.
Both women looked at each other, whispering, “Oh shit!” No arguments brooked, they immediately began to wake up the household, Miko moving to alert Kasumi and the children, while Kodachi, being closely followed by a just awakened Hikari, raced to the master bedroom to warn the Saotomes. There wasn’t much more time to prepare a defense.
The newest battle for the fate of Cephiro had arrived in,
of all places, a usually quiet neighborhood of Kyoto.
Round Three: The Final Cut