Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Laying Your Cards on the Table ( Chapter 111 )
A Tale of Two Wallets
(An Altered Destiny)
Written by Jim Robert Bader
Proofread by Shiva Barnwell
Kachu was more than a little annoyed at being hastily summoned to an address only to find no one waiting for her at the place and time specified. Being told in advance that there was a need for her services, it grated on her Demon Hunter's soul to think that there was a supernatural danger loose upon this town that she was only beginning to think of as her home away from China, and the thought that there innocent persons might be harmed in the interim made her offer up a faint curse of frustration. Had it not been her trusted Aunt Comb who had offered the summons she might be tempted to believe that the whole matter was a false alarm, but the Warrior-turned-Healer was too serious and respected a figure to call upon Kachu's services for any casual or flighty matter.
As she stood on the corner of the crossroads where she was to have met Comb and the others, she scanned the air in search of any hint of potential mischief, but none was carried upon the breeze and so she heaved a sigh and voice a harshly worded, "Where is she?"
"Take it easy, Kachu honey," Tofu urged his wife, "Maybe we got here a bit early. I'm sure the address is right, but maybe Comb-san was mistaken about the crossroads…"
Kachu would have reprimanded another who dared speak so solicitously to her, but instead she smiled in fondness before responding, "No…my aunt is many things, but she is no Hibiki to get lost in a foreign market. I am certain that this is the address she spoke about…what I don't understand is why she is not here. Normally she is so punctual that you could set a sundial to her movements, and so I find her absence to be most distressing…hinting at some less than pleasant prospects."
"You mean she might have gone ahead without you?" Tofu speculated.
"That is my fear," Kachu nodded, pleased at how well her husband seemed to know her thoughts before she spoke them, yet another uncanny aspect of their altogether most satisfactory union, "But why she would do so is something else I cannot fathom. A Healer ought not meddle in the affairs of a Demon Hunter, or vice versa, for we each have our special disciplines with only a small overlap between us."
"You mean there are areas where a Demon Hunter and a Healer can combine their magics?" Tofu asked with mild irony and amusement.
"Indeed," Kachu replied, "When an illness is caused by a demonic influence, which happens far less frequently than some people seem to think in many of the villages that I once traversed. Most diseases are caused by poor diet and unsanitary conditions, and there is little that a Demon Hunter can do to dispel that particular evil," she remarked in a very rare display of humor.
"No, I can't see how you could be expected to make that much of a difference by yourself," Tofu smiled at his wife, pleased to see her smiling again, which she rarely did when she was on official business, "After all, you may be an Amazon, but you are only human."
"True enough," she readily agreed, not adding that she was privately torn by conflicting emotions at having him with her. On the one hand she was glad for any time that she could spend with her beloved airen, the only man who had ever made her feel happy and complete and who felt as much a part of her now as her own left arm, a very respectful and dutiful husband who rarely complained about having her for a wife and who was a very competent healer in his own right, surprisingly so for a man not raised in an Amazon household.
On the other hand there was the pride of any Amazon wife, not wishing to admit that she needed a man by her side even as a companion, coupled with her desire to shelter him from danger. Demons were such treacherous and vile creatures and in her time Kachu had dispatched many terrible specimens of the breed, confronting situations of such malevolent character that she would not wish her husband to be exposed to such horrors. Kachu had been trained to endure nearly anything that the netherworld might throw her way, from brain-eating leeches to tentacle-rape Shikima, and always she had won out in the end, though not always coming through unscathed by these soul-scarring escapes. To have her precious Tofu-chan in peril, or forced to witness some of the things that Kachu had been trained to endure in her psychic battles, went against her very nature, and if it would have been within her power she would have forbidden him from accompanying her on this particular mission…
Only the look he would give her when she told him to stay home…there was just no way for her to describe the effect his "whipped puppy" expression could have on her resolve, so that she would find herself giving in and agreeing to have him be by her side under the stern promise that he would not interfere in her work and would refrain from offering more than his professional services afterward, in case she was in need of a good healer. If anything the recent news of her pregnancy had made him become even more protective towards her, a strange phenomenon in the way he could be both paternalistic and tender in the selfsame moments. Kachu knew his resolve to remain behind the lines of a battle would amount to very little if he perceived any threat actually being directed towards her or the unborn child that she carried. It was but one of the many perplexing things about this man that both vexed endeared her towards him, even as she knew in herself that she would sooner die than see him injured. Yet how uncertain matters were anytime one went up against the hideous powers of the demons…
**Kachu!** A voice suddenly spoke into her head.
"Eh?" Kachu turned to one side, even as Tofu looked at her and said, "I beg your pardon?"
**Tofu Kachu,** the voice spoke again, **Can you hear me?**
"I hear you," Kachu slowly turned around, vaguely disturbed at the unearthly timber of the voice, "Who are you?"
"Who is what?" Tofu blinked in obvious conclusion.
"You did not hear that?" Kachu turned an inquisitive look his way, seeing only blank incomprehension in his handsome expression.
"Hear what?" Tofu asked, realizing as he said this how cliché his response was, like dialogue out of some third-rate horror movie.
"The voice," Kachu turned to glance towards a certain row of buildings, "I've heard it once before, but…"
Tofu was wondering if maybe his wife needed to lie down and take it easy as it seemed to him that hearing voices was a symptom of the stress she was under, but that notion was dispelled a few seconds later when the air itself burst forth with a blaze of glory, and a shimmering gold radiance surrounded them both, along with a curiously blissful state of otherworldly grace descending.
And from this blazing light emerged a figure of burnished gold with long silvery hair who hovered in the air before them, wings unfolded, like an angel come down from the heavens. Tofu stepped back in dismay and adjusted his glasses, marveling at the manifest glory of the vision before them as the womanly shaped smiled before the both of them before turning her focus towards Kachu and speaking in a clear and radiant voice, "Can you see me now, Noble Devil Hunter?"
"It's you!" Kachu surprised Tofu by bowing her head and taking on an astonishingly humble manner in the face of this heavenly vision, "Lady Garimel, to what do I owe this great honor?"
"I have come to warn you, Fair One, of a danger that confronts you and your loved ones," the vision replied, "The Healer and her friends have gone on ahead of you to the Tendo estate, where the evil one is gathering her forces even now to menace your father's family. She has allies who mean to steal your father's house from his possession, and unless they are stopped now your sisters could themselves become casualties…"
"My family is in danger?" Kachu reacted to this news with immediate fury, "I must go to them at once! No one can threaten my father, mother, or sisters without facing my righteous wrath!!!"
"Then go with grace as I prepare your way," the vision gestured with both hands and a portal opened up before them, "Step through this and you will be conducted to your house near-instantaneously, and once there…well, I have no doubt you will know what to do when you get there."
"I thank you for your kind help, Honored One," Kachu bowed, then to Tofu she said, "Come husband, we must go!"
"But…how can you…?" Tofu started to ask, only to have his wrist be snatched as he was drawn after his Amazon bride before he had time to fully form the question.
The heavenly vision smiled as she banished the portal, then in an amused voice she said, "I like those two…Ozzie and Harrier-Jet Tofu. Well, that's one more piece of the puzzle in place, now time to sit back and watch the fireworks…or the shit hit the fan, as it were…"
And with this the demoness Ganglot vanished, returning to her cap-stone to recharge her psychic batteries in preparation for the outbreak of war that she knew for a certainty was about to break out in both the Tendo house and the greater part of Nerima…
Shampoo's Diary Resumes:
For all this day's strange catalogue of events, I found the experience overall to be quite illuminating upon several particular matters. Having my beloved wife be replaced by a less experienced and gifted version of herself was in itself a revelation as the Nabiki who was with us for a brief while proved to be very much like the Nabiki whom I had met when I first came to Nerima. She had the same materialistic temperament, the same hesitation about expressing her emotions and the same tendency to deny her real wants and desires, all the facets that had first tantalized and intrigued me about my wife when I had taken a fancy towards conquering her and making her my co-wife.
The thought did briefly occur to me that I could have the joy of seducing this Nabiki just to relish that sense of accomplishment once again, though I suppose that might make for a strange situation…to think of having a Nabiki in my arms who did not know in advance what to anticipate. This girl was in some senses a stranger in that she had never truly pursued our Ranma, and as such had never admitted to feelings nor confronted her desires the way my Nabiki had prior to our first encounter. This Nabiki was alone and seemed to fancy herself that way, which again suggested to me the fun that might be had in persuading her that alone was no where near as desirable than being with someone who cared for you, a fact that I may attest from my own experiences with great enthusiasm. Had there been more time in which to explore that option…well…be assured that this Nabiki would not have gone home to her world unfulfilled, and she would very much have been in touch with herself as a woman. Perhaps even the version of me that is on her world would thank me for this, having given her Nabiki some much needed insight.
I wonder, though…would that count as being unfaithful to my Nabiki? Making love to her counterpart…that does sound rather complicated…I only know that I felt attracted to this other version of my beloved, no doubt because this one was unconquered territory and greatly in need of my strength, but as they both are one in the same person I feel no shame or disloyalty, knowing that it is the essence of Nabiki to which I am devoted.
Would Ranma have felt the same way? Would I have been able to persuade him to share with me the joy of another version of our wife, one who seemed to manifestly need to be comforted, to be loved and cherished? It would have given me delight to bring the both of them together, but my husband can be very peculiar when it comes to certain things, though I knew implicitly that he, too, shared a strange fascination for this stranger who looked, talked and acted a bit like our beloved Nabiki.
Of course even as I thought these thoughts I was deeply concerned for where our true wife had gotten off to while this stranger briefly took her place in our existence. Bringing our Nabiki back into this world was a priority for us both, and were I equipped as a mage to effect such a transfer I would gladly have done so, if only for the sake of restoring the balance to our reality. My true wife is a woman who has learned much and gained great confidence in her own abilities, while this less learned counterpart was like a child newly born who had not yet learned to test her own legs, and thus inspired in both my husband and me an intense need to shelter and protect her. We needed to have our Nabiki return, but in her absence this stranger would be good company and a study in contrast to what progress our wife has made in her time as both fiancée and apprenticed Lore Master. In that sense it was most desirable to send this stranger back to her home with all the haste due to the immediate situation…and yet there was a kind of secret joy to be had in the thought that-should our Nabiki not be restored in any brief amount of time-that we could do much with this version to recapture the glory that was had during the process of her education.
I am just saying this to be practical, of course, for in no way do I want my Nabiki to be replaced with a younger, less experienced model. To be fair in both senses, I feel confident in speculating on how our Nabiki would have behaved on that other world should she have been forced to reside there for any great duration, especially in light of the fact that there was another version of Ranma and me waiting there for her with which to make time, nor would I hold it against her for exploring such an option. Could I possibly be jealous of another version of me who was not currently destined to know such happiness as I have found with both Ranma and Nabiki?
But I digress…this does not bear immediate relationship to those tension-charged moments when this other Nabiki sat across the table from the Gambler King, the fool who dared seek to take possession of the dojo from my beloved wife and husband.
I confess to being less than knowledgeable about this particular game of card playing, but from the first exchange it was obvious to all concerned that Nabiki held the edge over her rival, at least until Cybelle appeared to alter the balance against us. I could sense that my wife's counterpart was at least nominally aware of the danger represented by Ryoga's evil grandmother, if not exactly to the degree of threat that those of us whom had faced her knew on a first hand basis. I stood nearer to hand and watched Ranma do the same out of the corner of one eye, the both of us perceiving that Nabiki was in a vulnerable spot and would need our aid should matters turn ugly. Cybelle is not above attacking an unarmed opponent, as was demonstrated by her lashing out at my wife's loyal retainer, Ryonami.
Thankfully the girl was not too badly injured, but I could see how upset Nabiki was at the treatment of her friend. For myself I was outraged at the cowardly act of seeking to harm a non-warrior in a casual display of her powers. We were all similarly vulnerable, but some of us are prepared to risk our lives in every battle that we take a part in, so attacking one who could not defend herself was shameful. Even Mousse would not sink so low and I doubt even Kuno would be at ease with such tactics were his mind not clearly influenced by the powers of the Demoness.
As for the King's allies…well, they were indeed formidable fighters, a fact we were shortly to learn the hard way, for all that they share the King's flamboyant taste in costumes. I had my eye on the one they called The Queen, sensing something very dangerous about this one, a fear that was shortly to be proved justified, though that is getting a bit ahead of my narration. In point of fact it was just as the game was reaching a critical juncture that something very strange seemed to come over my beloved, and that was the signal for many other odd occurrences which were shortly to follow…
Nabiki felt the tension in the air rise up a notch as she prepared to pick yet another card, this one to determine if she would keep possession of the hall closet. A peculiar sensation came over her, as if she had a friend tapping her on the shoulder to call her attention to something that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, and then she saw the way the King was smiling at her, as if her hand was about to pick the Old Maid card, even though clearly the card that he had pushed up from the others had to be the Old Maid as they had already discarded the Joker.
A gambler was typically a creature of superstition and habit, and few Gamblers varied their pattern away from that which was comfortable and familiar, so breaking with his ingrained pattern did not seem at all in keeping. This man was not clever or intelligent enough to fake out those tell-tale signs that were as much ingrained in him as any conditioned reflex, so she knew at once that something was the matter with this set-up, and with only a little thought she reasoned the cause had to be the presence of that Demon-woman, Cybelle.
Playing on a hunch she moved her hand away from the card that she had been about to take and saw the King's face go from a grin to a sad expression. That confirmed in her mind that the "Old Maid" card was the one she had avoided, but why was the king varying from his established modus operandi, and why had she been moved to take that card in the first place? To test the best hypothesis that she could think of at the moment, she reached for another card, and-sure enough-the King went from sadness to smiling.
That clinched it…somehow she was being compelled to draw the Old Maid card even though she would swear that it was not the card that she had been after before. That meant that the King either had a hand full of Jokers, or there was some sort of psychological trick involved here, possibly an illusion or a suggestion of some sort, and three guesses who would be messing with her mind and playing upon her perceptions.
Even as this thought began to form in her mind, she felt another voice speaking up from within her saying, "Well duh she's using an illusion…after all that is her primary source of power."
Without changing her own expression in the slightest Nabiki felt a weird sensation flowing through her, then silently asked to herself, **Who the heck are you?**
"I'm you, dummy," the voice replied, "Took me a few moments to establish contact, but now I'm in your head and you'd better damned well get used to it, because from the looks of things you're up to your neck in real hot water."
**Huh?** Nabiki thought to herself, **Mind running that one by me again?**
"I'm the Nabiki who belongs where you are," the voice replied, "And you're the imposter who took my place at this card game."
**Ah…** Nabiki's eyed grew wide and she formed a troubled expression before replying, **You're the one who's had that magic training…?**
"Lore Mastery," the voice replied in her mind, "And we don't have time for twenty questions. Keep your face under control, fool, or you'll tip off Cybelle that I'm here inside you."
**Ah…right, got it,** Nabiki swallowed, feeling that the weirdness factor had just escalated about fifty points above where it had been a minute ago, **So…what's the deal here? You gonna help me out here or what?**
"Just a minute, Sunshine, I need to update my memories," there was a pause before the voice increased in volume, "SAY WHAT??? You hacked into my files? How could you!?!"
**Ah…well…** Nabiki inwardly winced, hoping that she did not do so externally, **…You see…**
"Never mind," the voice inside her head barked harshly, "Probably no different than what I'd do in your place. Now listen here, you'd better not give away the fact that you have that disk in your possession, because if Cybelle finds out and hacks into that data base…"
**I got it,** Nabiki replied as calmly as she was able, **That would be bad news, right?**
"To say the least," the voice responded coldly, "If it looks like there's any chance of her getting a hold of that disk, destroy it…utterly! Don't let my data fall into her hands of it'll mean disaster for everybody, not to mention it will give her the access codes for hacking into the Yggdrasil system through the linkage Skuld set up for me…"
**Who?** Nabiki evidenced confusion.
"Never mind…you're gonna owe me for this one big time, sister. Tell you what, why don't you let me take over for a bit and then we'll have a little discussion about appropriate behavior for when you're in somebody else's universe."
**Let you…?** Nabiki started to say when she felt something wash through her that felt as though she was being overlapped by a second presence very much like her own, then all at once her mind opened up to possibilities that she had never realized before, new perceptions well beyond her prior experience with her thoughts flowing in a different channel as her mind silently reached out and began to draw in the invisible force-lines of elemental energy that surrounded her on all sides.
This entire exchange took no more than half a minutes to elapse, but in that time there had been some grumbling and nervous looks from all around as Nabiki seemed to waver and hesitate, then lose interest in the game altogether. The King was about to snap something impatiently her way when all at once the girl's eyes grew focused and a sly, sardonic smile found its way across her lips. Nabiki straightened up and her manner became infinitely more confident as she regarded him with a predatory expression that, for some odd reason, left him feeling nonplussed and disturbed on some fundamental level.
"Cute," Nabiki noted in droll tones as she regarded the cards in the King's hands once again, seemed to reach out for the one that made the King smile whenever she had seemed about to take it, only at the last instant to move her fingers slightly to the left so that she drew another card, one that made the King's face go blank with amazement.
"I think it's time we come out of the closet, don't you think?" Nabiki asked as she placed the card out on the table with its matching set from her own hand, "You lose. A nice try this time, but you don't take Tendo Nabiki all that easy."
The King's eyes shifted nervously to the side where Cybelle was standing and there was obvious concern written large in his expression. To his surprise, relief of dismay, however, the Demoness was not looking towards him but seemed to have her attention focused elsewhere. Nabiki also took note of this, then found to her surprise that it was Ryoga whom Cybelle was eyeing, and on her expression was a curious hint of glee as though she were anticipating something rather nasty and devious that revolved around him, and whatever this scheme was she knew that it could not be anything healthy.
Ryoga himself seemed oblivious to his grandmother's intentions, but then again he was usually quite oblivious anyway, so there was no telling just what was passing through his head as he stared at the card table with a peculiarly vacant expression…
"Hello?" Ryoga asked, finding himself standing alone in the gloom of eternal darkness with no clue at all as to how he had arrived there, "Where is everybody? Is the game over already?"
There was no forthcoming reply, so Ryoga turned around looking for some clue about his surroundings, only to find the same infinite dark mass on any side to which he turned his expression. It began to trouble him greatly, as if suspecting he had gotten himself lost once again in one of those places that existed outside of normal timespace.
"Hello?" he tried again, "Kennou, Minako, Akane…anybody?"
"Why trouble you the names of the dead?" a voice replied in somber tones as a long figure materialized in a swirl of black robes, holding a farmer's scythe in one hand and radiating an aura of doom and desolation that vastly exceeded the foreboding of the darkness.
"Ah…hi," Ryoga turned to this caped figure, "Can you help me? I seem to have gotten lost again and…"
"THE NAME IS THATOS," the figure replied in booming, sepulchral tones that had all the warmth and charity of a slab being dragged over a sarcophagus, "I AM THE REAPER…THE GRIM REAPER, AND MY NAME MEANS DEATH!"
"Ah…right," Ryoga lamely amended, "Do you have a farm nearby where I can use a phone? Mom gave me a number to call if I ever got too far off the trail…"
"EXCUSE ME?" the shadowy figure responded.
"Er, sorry," Ryoga replied, "You said you were a reaper, and naturally I just assumed you were a farmer…"
It ill suited the figure of Death to perform a facefault, but the urge was enormously tempting. Instead the dark clad figure leaned on its staff again and said, "PERHAPS I DID NOT MAKE MYSELF CLEAR…I AM THE GRIM REAPER, AND I AM DEATH INCARNATE."
"Oh?" Ryoga took stock of the cowled figure then amended himself, "Sorry…didn't recognize you for a moment there. I thought you were a girl the last time I…well, never mind that. I'm sorry to have troubled you, but I really do have to find my way back to the Tendo dojo…"
"WHY GO YOU TO THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD?" the cloaked figure tapped its bony fingers along the wooden shaft of its scythe as if trying to contain an uncharacteristic impatience.
"Er…excuse me?" Ryoga blinked, "Maybe I didn't say this just right. I'm looking for the Tendo dojo inside Nerima ward, and they were very much alive the last I checked…"
"NOT ANYMORE," the grim figure replied, making a sweeping gesture with its scythe as part of the surrounding gloom parted to reveal a scene of carnage and devastation.
Ryoga sucked in a sharp breath of dismay as he saw the bodies littering the dojo, blood splattered everywhere as though there had been a literal blood bath of orgiastic violence unleashed within the confines of the structure. The lost boy gazed in horror as the remains of his friends and family lay strewn about the floor in barely recognizable condition, leaving him momentarily in doubt as to their identities until he forced himself to look closer and confirm that it was indeed those nearest to him.
"H-How…?" Ryoga felt faint yet somehow remained clear-headed and unusually focused.
"IT WAS AN ENEMY THAT UNLEASHED THIS TERRIBLE CARNAGE," the figure of Death responded, "SHE IS AN ANCIENT FOE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD WHO HAS SOUGHT THE DESTRUCTION OF YOUR CLAN AND THOSE NEAREST TO THE HIBIKIS. SHE IS THE ONE YOU MUST SEEK IF YOU ARE TO PREVENT THIS FATE FROM COMING TO PASS."
"Prevent?" Ryoga latched onto the word like a drowning man spotting a log in the currents, "You mean this hasn't happened just yet?"
"WHAT YOU SEE BEFORE YOU IS THE SHADOW OF WHAT MAY YET COME TO PASS IF THESE EVENTS REMAIN UNALTERED," the cloaked figure replied rather gravely, "IF THE DEMON WHO INSTIGATED THESE EVENTS IS NOT DESTROYED AND SWIFTLY, THEN THIS WILL BE THE FATE OF YOUR FRIENDS, LOVED ONES AND CLOSEST RELATIONS. THINK WELL UPON THIS AND DESPAIR."
Ryoga stared in horrified shock, seeing Ranma draped in death over a bloodied Nabiki, Ukyo's bloodied remains draped over an equally bloodied Akane, while over in a corner his mother lay slumped in death next to Comb and his father, Genma, whose fur had been half stripped from his bloodied panda carcass. And nor was this the full extent of the hideous obscenity, for closer to him lay the bodiless head of Kennou, staring up at him with a blank expression, while a dying Shirokuro whined plaintively before her tail ceased beating. And nearer to Ryoga still than this…
"No!" Ryoga recoiled from the sight of a motionless Minako, "NO! NO, NEVER! Tell me how I can prevent this!"
"YOUR TASK IS SIMPLE," the gravely voice of Death responded, "GO TO THIS ADDRESS AND SEEK THE STRONGHOLD OF THE DEMONESS, AND THERE YOU WILL FIND THIS STONE THAT IS THE SOURCE OF HER EVIL MAGICS."
Ryoga saw the exterior of a building and recognized it as being located in the downtown Furinkan Financial district, then he saw the doors open to reveal of large stone block that looked like the capstone to a pyramid (he knew what a capstone was from his wanderings to the pyramids of Mexico and Egypt).
"SHATTER THIS STONE AND THE DEMONESS'S POWER WILL BE BROKEN," the figure touched the stone with its scythe and caused the stone to explode into a million pieces, "DO NOT BE DECEIVED BY HER LIES AND ILLUSIONS, SHE IS A TERRIBLE EVIL THAT MUST BE ERADICATED!"
"Right," Ryoga started to charge forward, only to have his way be blocked by the scythe-wielding figure.
"NOT THAT WAY, YOU BLOCKHEAD!" Death snapped in disgust, "WAIT UNTIL I SHOW YOU THE WAY…THIS IS HOW YOU WILL FIND THE LAIR OF THE DEMON!"
The bony hand of Death stretched out one finger to touch the space between Ryoga's eyes, then all at once he knew how to get from where he was to the building that housed the Demoness, so with no further ado he thanked the Grim Reaper and turned away, all but charging through any obstacle that blocked his path, be it living or inanimate, his haste inspired by thoughts of his dead or dying loved ones.
Cybelle threw back the cowl and shook her head in disgust, then said, "No doubt about it, he's the son of my nitwit daughter! Having the other half of his genes belong to that fat-headed Genma is almost enough to make even me pity the boy…oh well…at least he's properly motivated and just competent enough to get the job done…"
Meanwhile back in the real world, Kennou and Minako both turned as one upon hearing a startled gasp from the boy standing in the space between them, and in dismay they each read the pale and horrified expression of his features.
"No!" he gasped, backing away from them without a single hint as to what was causing him to react this way, "I won't let it happen…NO, NO, I WON'T LET IT HAPPEN!"
"Ryoga-kun?" Minako asked with concern written in her own expression.
"You all right, guy?" Kennou frowned, "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"NOOO!" without warning Ryoga turned around on one heel and tore his way out of the dojo, scattering the people unfortunate enough to be standing in his path, and not even pausing when he reached the wall and bore right through it.
"Master?" Shirokuro belatedly inquired, distressed upon seeing the anguish in the boy's features.
"Don't just stand there you three," a voice drew their attention at once and they turned to see Lotion standing next to them, "Go after the boy, you must not let him wander off alone in his condition."
"But…what's wrong with him?" Minako asked, then growled, "Oh hell!" and she went charging off after her wayward boyfriend."
"Master!" Shirokuro shifted from her human form to that of a half-tone canine with such speed that those who witnessed her transformation were left to question what it was, in fact, that they had just witnessed.
Kennou lingered a moment longer, turning from the old woman to stare at the party she knew had to be in some way responsible for her nephew's peculiar behavior, a suspicion that was confirmed the moment she saw the smirking confidence written plain in the blond Demoness's expression. In a low voice she growled, "You…!"
"Don't tarry long, dear," the Demoness shot back, "You'll get left behind…one way or another, Bitch."
Kennou suspected that last part was directed at her as an oblique reference to her Jusenkyo curse, and she seriously considered forming an insult of her own in reply, but the thought of Ryoga getting lost without her made her grit her teeth and growl, "Oh hell!" and then she was out the door hoping she had enough clues on hand to help her catch up with her vanishing nephew. Fortunately for her peace of mind there was a new hole in one nearby wall that gave her a good hint which direction she should follow.
The one good thing about a Hibiki, she reckoned, was that they tended to leave a path that even another Hibiki would have little problem recognizing.
"Ryoga?" Ranma murmured faintly.
"Ryoga-kun?" Akane asked in belated reaction.
"Mina-chan," Makoto breathed, "Maybe we should follow and see that he doesn't get hurt…"
"Your place is here," Lotion said firmly, turning a stern look towards the smug Cybelle, "Now, if we may have no further interruptions?"
"Why, whatever do you mean?" Cybelle feigned innocence, "My poor grandson seems to have developed a chill. Carry on, everyone…oh, and King…if you lose one more round it will be your head that you forfeit."
Nabiki's eyes narrowed, suspecting the worst of intentions from the Demoness, yet knowing better than to allow herself to be drawn away from her card game. In soft, inward reflection she said, **Now you see what's at stake here? If that witch gets control over the dojo it will mean bad news for everybody, and I don't just mean a possible eviction.**
**Right,** came the inward voice of her counterpart, **I got it.**
"Deal," Nabiki said aloud, knowing that there was little else to be done for Ryoga at the moment, though she could not help wondering just where the Demoness had sent him off to in such haste and distress.
"Man," she heard the burly man named Kento remarked, "Wonder if she's related to Dais."
"Whoever that is," amended Naomi in a soft whisper.
"Great Grandmother," Shampoo said as she regarded her elder, "What Nabiki do, and why Elders help? Shampoo no understand what they do here."
"The heck with that," Akane sounded even more disturbed, "Who is that lady with them, and why…why does she look so much like…like…"
"Like our mother?" Kasumi finished for her.
"A fair question," Cologne replied as she stood beside Siren, "My best estimation would surprise and amaze you young people, even with all the wonders you have so far witnessed in your two-brief lives…"
"What she means to say is that you're looking on the embodiment of a living goddess," Siren interpreted, leaving the Matriarch looking somewhat non-plussed and exasperated, "She just happens to resemble your late mother, which no doubt is because of her having been based off of the same Template…"
"Off the same what?" Ranma asked with a puzzled expression.
"A Template," the Arch Magus replied, "Like a copy from the same pattern, the original being the source of the pattern, and a goddess is naturally closer to the source and thus enjoys the distinction of being the Prime Pattern from which is drawn many a Template."
"You mean like a copy," Akane interpreted, looking more than slightly weirded by the whole situation, "Are you calling our mother a mere copy?"
"Not at all," Siren replied, "There's nothing 'mere' about being a Template…in fact it is a distinct honor and a privilege, meaning that your mother walked in grace for the time that she was on this earth, being drawn from a heavenly source that walks in the shadow of the powers of creation."
"And how fitting that this should be the one from whom that particular Template was taken," Cologne murmured faintly, though her expression and tone were difficult to interpret.
"Oh my," Kasumi said with an unusually thoughtful look to her normally serene expression, "You said our mother was one Template…you mean there are others?"
"Ah…yes…" Siren exchanged a hesitant look with Cologne, who continued to maintain a neutral expression, "I do know of one person in particular who does, in fact, does strongly resemble the Goddess and-by inference-your late mother, but I suppose you could chalk that up to the Divine Machinery that governs us all getting a bit repetitive in churning out the same recurrent patterns. There's nothing unusual at all to this, however, lots of people have a near-double image of themselves running around loose. In fact, there's an Amazon whom we knew who looks a little like you, sweet child, in everything but temperament and nature…and no doubt you both are drawn from the same divine archetype…"
"What about you, lady?" Ranma asked, "Are you somebody's Template-thingie?"
"Who, me?" Siren laughed at the suggestion, "You are talking to an original model here, when they made me they broke the mold…"
"Except for a certain American actress to whom you are continually compared," Cologne noted with a hint of faint amusement in her voice.
"I wasn't talking about her," the Archmage said a bit testily, "A nice girl but I fail to see the resemblance, or like that astronaut fellow who seemed to have mistaken me for his wife on that one occasion."
"But of course," Cologne murmured with a rolling of her eyes, "What could I be thinking…?
"Well…all that stuff can wait, I guess," Ranma turned back to regard the still-silent Nabiki where she was sitting across from the Amazon Elder named Lotion, "What the heck are they doing in there? They've been like that for over an hour!"
Siren turned a sly look towards Cologne and said, "A nice boy…he kind of reminds me of someone whom we both knew back when we were young and innocent about life, don't you think?"
"I don't know what you are talking about," Cologne's expression darkened slightly, but other than this she remained stoically neutral.
"Shampoo agree with Ranma," Cologne spoke up, "Why Nabiki sit like that with Elder? If she Lore Master, why Shampoo never see this before?"
"Perhaps because none of us have ever taken the middle Tendo sister all that seriously, other than for her mercenary tendencies and propensity for mischief," Cologne noted, "Obviously in her world those talents that make her so proficient as an information gatherer were recognized early and cultivated by the Lotion of their world, and so this Nabiki is a far more formidable person that to which we are accustomed."
Ranma was silent as he regarded the silent girl currently in deep meditation, but his thoughts ran over the disturbing way that she had been acting around him, as if taking it for granted that they should both be involved in a relationship together. There was no hint of this being one of her usual clever scams and whimsical deceptions, and he failed to see how she could gain a profit out of any of this, and his instincts inclined him to believe that she was sincere this time in professing her affections. He still had not fully gotten over his resentment towards Nabiki for the way she had treated him only a few weeks back while pretending to be his official fiancée.
The problem disturbing his current state of mind that was he could not feel the same way towards this Nabiki…in fact the smile she had favored him with before entering the dojo had unnerved him more than words could say, and he was not altogether certain if it was a good or bad thing the way that smile made him feel, or why he could not stop thinking about it…
"I don't get this," Akane was saying aloud, "Are you guys saying that Nabiki's some kind of mage on the world where he comes from?"
"Lore Master," Siren corrected, "Not mage. That's my turf, thank you very much. We have very different interests and the only thing we share in common is a working understanding of the forces that govern the Cosmos. Other than that we achieve radically different ends and have goals that we pursue in very different directions."
"Of course," Cologne remarked, "You look for power, they quest for knowledge."
"I am powerful," Siren replied with a wink, "But it's what I do with the power that counts, eh Kho-chan?"
The three teenaged youths saw the flirtatious gleam in the blonde Archmage's eyes, and the stoical rebuff given by the withered Matriarch, who seemed more than slightly ruffled at being addressed in such an intimate manner. Three sets of eyes blinked in unison, then as one Shampoo, Ranma and Akane purposefully glanced away rather than try to fathom out the attraction. Only Kasumi remained unchanged in her expression, though in her case it seemed her usual obliviousness had returned with a vengeance.
They all turned back to regard the still-silent Nabiki, noting a slight crease of perspiration that was now forming on her brow as her formerly serene expression took on a look of intense concentration. Sitting across from her, the Elder Lotion studied the young girl with one critical eye and found she much approved of what she was observing. There was a conflict, a doubling effect about the girl's aura that suggested two minds sharing one space rather than the singularity of before, yet somehow this Nabiki was expertly balancing the forces at her disposal without the kind of strain one might have expected from a relative amateur. It greatly pleased her to know that such a capable apprentice could exist at this time and place, let alone a child of such gifted and unusual heritage. It gave her hope that she had finally found the one who could take up the mantle of a true Lore Master.
(Not that there was anything particularly wrong with her granddaughter, of course, but there were times when Silk could be fairly exasperating, and though the child usually meant well she had a longs way to go before Lotion was satisfied enough to designated her as her chosen successor.)
Peorth looked on with parental pride as she observed the way Nabiki was handling her mind-meld with the Nabiki of this timeline and was no less impressed at how well the girl was balancing the forces that linked the two worlds together. She had a sense that there was a crisis on the other timeline, and Nabiki's increased heartbeat and metabolic rate meant that she was gathering her forces to meet some looming challenge, and the goddess yearned to lend her own considerable resources to further aid her spiritual stepdaughter, but the rules constrained her to act only as an observer…at least for the moment, pending further evidence that her godly hand was needed.
Beyond that, there was nothing in the rules that prohibited her from acting like a much-concerned mother…
Nabiki was only peripherally aware of any of these things, her expression currently expanded far beyond her usual limitations, but largely drawn to the hand that she was currently playing in another world where another Nabiki was matching wits with her enemies. Not just the Gambler King on his throne-like chair, of course, but the far more menacing presence hanging just slightly off in the background.
The illusions of the Demon Sorceress were growing in strength as Cybelle made a serious attempt at drawing her attention away from the card that she was attempting to draw from the King's hand. The sweat on her brow was the only physical indication of the strain that she was under as she ignored the roaring flames and sensations like pins and needles being prodded into her skin, none of which was real as she sternly repeated to herself while attempting to calm herself down with the sense of the utter unreality of the situation. The other Nabiki was submerged within her consciousness yet very much a presence and acting like a wide-eyed girl totally out of her element and amazed at how calm her counterpart was behaving.
Nabiki KNEW what the reality of her situation was and allowed that to serve as an anchor of stability amid the barrage of constantly shifting distractions. Cybelle was clearly toying with her, making a game out of twisting her perceptions of reality, so much so that even her eyes could not be trusted to accurately reflect her surroundings. Merely knowing that it was all an illusion would not have been enough to dismiss or drown out the cacophony of misleading sounds, sights, smells and tactical sensations that were assaulting her from all angles. Some of the scenarios the Demoness conjured up with hideously perverted, and yet false to the core, images that seemed as though they were taking place on a different reality to some other person, and only be remaining true to her own inner sense of self could she remain sane under the relentless bombardment.
Her eyes remained focused on the one card that she knew she had to draw, and it seemed in her mind that this card shone with a golden radiance that distinguished it from all others in the King's hand. With great attention to what underlying reality she knew was there, she forced her hand to pick that card, and sure enough it turned out to be the correct choice, though the effort left her shaking and unsteady.
Obviously her counterpart was not as well adapted to manipulating such forces or honing her senses like a sharp knife that cut through the fog of Cybelle's illusions. More disturbing still, when the illusions faded, Nabiki saw amusement rather than alarm in the expression of the demoness, even though the King was down to two remaining cards, and the next hand was likely to decide the winner for this round of the match and be that much closer to regaining legal possession of the dojo.
"Not bad," Cybelle turned to regard Lotion sidelong, "You trained her quite well. Even in the body of a novice she still has the ability to tell one illusion from another."
"It is her birthright," Lotion replied, "I expected nothing less, even from this novice who momentarily has taken the place of my apprentice."
"Too bad for her that she won't get any farther in her training," Cybelle noted with a hint of genuine regret, "She would have made a formidable successor for you. How disappointing for you this must be, but the end is still a forgone conclusion."
"You believe so?" Lotion mused, "We will see about that, Hibiki."
Cybelle's pleasant smile momentarily faltered, "It's Anslat now. I gave up on my useless husband ever finding his way back to my bed. If we should meet again it will not be a pleasant reunion, I assure you."
"Really?" Lotion responded, "What a pity…and here Atsuko was no doubt hoping for a reconciliation between you."
"That girl always was a dreamer," Cybelle's nostrils flared, "She chose to side with my enemies, she can share the fate of the rest of you. I wash my hands of the matter…"
"Your maternal concern is touching," Lotion replied, "But you haven't won the match yet."
"Eh?" Cybelle's eyes moved back to the game, where she saw the King looking more than slightly flustered, holding in his hand the "Old Maid" card, which he had drawn while her attention was focused elsewhere.
"Oh my," Lotion remarked, "Took your mind off the game? Now how did that happen?"
"You…witch," Cybelle hissed, but then regained control over her temper as she said in a renewed sultry voice, "Oh…your Majesty…"
"Eh…?" the King's already pale face drained of all remaining color.
"I warned you that I don't tolerate failure," the Demoness made a sharp motion with her fingers as though drawing a line across her throat, and like that a flash of light shot forth from her hand to slice the air between her and the reputed "Gambler King," and for a moment nothing seemingly happened.
And then, with startling inevitability, something topped forward, striking the table and rolling onto the floor with the sound of finality while the rest of the King's body wavered where he sat, then stumbled forward.
Nabiki gasped, almost jumping back out of her chair as she stared in disbelief at what had just happened.
"I'm bored," Cybelle flexed her arms in the ensuing shocked silence that followed, "The game was becoming tedious, let's cut to the chase shall we and get things really moving."
Naomi was stunned, but not so mush so that she failed to recognize how Kento had moved to turn Rachael's away from the table and shielded her from the gruesome sight with his broad-shouldered body, for which she was silently and entirely too grateful.
"Sh-she killed him!" Ranma said into utter dead silence of the room, stating the obvious for those who were mentally still trying to cope with the utter savagery of what they had just witnessed.
All at once the headless neck of the body slumped over the table started gushing blood at Nabiki, who reacted as if she were being sprayed by acid, yet before the red ichor could make contact a wooden staff was thrust into the space over the table, and all at once the illusion was banished and the rumors of the King's death were proved to be more than slightly exaggerated.
"Eh?" the Gambler King felt along the sides of his neck as if no less surprised than anyone at finding hit still in an unblemished condition.
"Really," said Lotion snorted, "Can't you for once dispense with these cheap theatrics?"
"Oops," Cybelle replied in mock concern, "Did I forget to do that for real and merely use an illusion? Silly me…and here I was under the impression that a proper villainess should be ruthless with employees who fail her. Guess I just need more practice playing the role of the heavy." She turned to the Royal Flush gang and calmly pointed at Nabiki and the others, "Gentlemen, time for you to earn your paychecks."
"All right with me," said a man who stood up from his chair, dressed like the playing card figure that he was, though he was a King of a very different set from the Gambler King, whom he had been regarding as a useless pretender, "Gentlemen…the game is a foot."
"About blood time," grinned the figure of the Jack of Spades as he drew his sword and adopted a flashy stance that even Kuno found overly flamboyant.
"Indeed," the Queen of Spades noted slyly as she flexed her arms then struck a pose most stylish, "Time enough for us to have some fun with these children."
"Don't make much difference to me either way," the Ace of Spades remarked as he stood to his huge and formidable height, cracking his knuckles with the sound of rocks being broken, "Long as we're being paid. You in with us, Ten?"
"All the way," said the feminine girl with the number ten emblazoned next to the symbol of a space on her chest, "Let's show these losers what the Royal Flush Gang is made of."
"Humph," Tatewaki snorted, "You had better very well impress me for the price you are charging my lady."
"That's what you say, Lady," Ukyo remarked as she unslung her baker's peel and assumed a fighting crouch.
"You guys just made a big mistake!" Akane agreed as she stood beside the chef with her arms raised to attack positions.
"Yeah," seconded Makoto, who stood at Ukyo's other flank and cracked her own knuckles, looking eager for the rumble.
"You guys messed with the wrong dojo," Ranma insisted before adding in a side-voice, "Shampoo…keep Nabiki out of trouble and stay sharp, okay?"
"Hai, Airen," Shampoo agreed, taking Nabiki by the elbow and carefully steering her back to the rear of their battle lines.
"Hey," Nabiki protested, "What gives? I'm a part of this too, you know!"
"At the present it would be most unwise for you to participate directly in this matter, Child," Lotion informed her, "After all, in your current state you are vulnerable, and if Cybelle were to harm you…"
"Just so," Kodachi mused as she came to join the rest of their side of the looming battle, "And should anything untoward happen to you it would be most distressing to Kasumi-sama, which is why you should allow those of us who are trained in combat to deal with these ruffians."
"But…!" Nabiki started to protest, even as a voice in the back of her head was screaming, **WOULD YOU LISTEN TO WHAT THEY'RE TRYING TO TELL YOU? WHO THE HECK'S BODY DO YOU THINK YOU'RE TRYING TO USE TO PLAY HERO HERE?"
"Er…" Nabiki considered the wisdom of having an argument with herself even as the spectators who had gathered around the room backed away to give wide space for what was promising to be a more than typical altercation in the lazy province of Nerima…but one that would most likely decide the fate of not just the Tendo house but the entire community for generations yet to come.
The only question in everyone else's mind was: Would the dojo survive this particular challenge…or any of the occupants for whom the battle was a more than personal matter?
Comments/Criticisms/Long-Delayed Continuity: Shadowmane@msn.com