Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Avatar ( Chapter 122 )
[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]
A Tale of Two Wallets
(An Altered Destiny)
Written by Jim Robert Bader
Proofread by Shiva Barnwell
“I wonder what is to be made of this?” Romeo asked of her companion as the two of them walked home side-by-side together, both studying the printed page that was held in the Amazon warrior's hands.
“I do not know for myself, Airen,” Julian admitted, “It is a curious thing, having both of our names on display like this, and in English no less, with Japanese subtext.”
“Only they seem to have misspelled yours for some odd reason,” Romeo scowled a bit, “We must ask Lady Ganglot what all this is about. She seems to understand these Japanese much better than either of us at any rate.”
“Indeed, that would seem to be the course of wisdom,” Julian noted as they entered the art studio that was their refuge away from China.
“Mistress?” Romeo asked by way of announcing their return to their Oni benefactress's presence, “We are back from another day of attending that barbarian school that you insist is for the betterment of our education.”
“Oh quit it,” Julian chided, “You know it is a rare enough privilege to be able to attend foreign schooling, even if this Furinkan does have rituals that remind one a little too much of the Joketsuzoku…”
“Over in here, dears,” Ganglot called out pleasantly from the main studio, “I'm entertaining guests, including your cousin from China.”
“Eh?” Romeo blinked as they rounded the corner and found the two who were sitting in studio chairs being entertained by their mistress, “Shampoo? And Saotome Ranma?”
“Where is Saotome Nabiki?” Julian automatically asked, at once noticing the absence of the third member of that most notorious of troikas.
“You just missed her,” Ranma shrugged, “She went on another walkabout with Lotion.”
“Elder Lotion has taken your wife on yet another training mission?” Romeo remarked, more from politeness than surprise as she was far more curious about what the two were doing visiting with their lady.
“Yeah, I know…happens a lot,” Ranma shrugged, “You get used to it after a while.”
“Airen grow strong in ways of the Lore Masters,” Shampoo helpfully explained, “Maybe too strong for Airen's own good. Need learn better control or too much strength be bad for everyone is this one's thinking.”
“Er…did something happen?” Julian asked, perceptively picking up on the hint of potential trouble.
“That is one way of putting the matter,” Ganglot replied, “But we are working to correct the harm that was done. Which is why I asked the Saotomes to hang about and chat a bit while their wife is away communing with heavenly spirits.”
“Oh,” Romeo said, accepting the explanation at face value, and so she extended the paper in her hand, as had been her original intention.
“Ah,” Ganglot noticed the gesture and moved to take the flier from her servant's hand then studied it for a moment before smiling, “I see…and I can well understand your confusion. In truth I had wanted to better prepare you for this, but I suppose that there is no time like the present for cultural introductions.”
“Prepare us, lady Ganglot?” Julian asked.
“Cultural introductions?” Romeo repeated.
“What's the deal?” Ranma asked, “What's on that flyer?”
Ganglot turned the paper towards her other guests then revealed the heading, which read: “Furinkan High School Dramatic Players Present---William Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET…a Romance To Last All Through The Ages.”
“Romeo and Juliet?” Ranma said aloud, glancing at the two young Amazons and saying, “Oh…I get it…and you guys thought this was about you?”
“Those are our names…sort of,” Julian noted, “And we were wondering why the school put them on display like that in front of all of our classmates.”
“Aiyaa,” Shampoo remarked, “Silly cousins…is no about you two. Is name of very famous play that even this one hear about in high school.”
“Play?” Romeo repeated.
“Ah…well, about that,” Ganglot said, “There is a very…interesting story that I have been meaning to share with you concerning your names and a certain play by a famous writer of sonnets who lived some four hundred years ago in a place called England…”
“So recent?” Julian asked.
“What is a play…or a sonnet, my lady?” Romeo asked.
“A form of story telling with actors who perform a drama with lines of poetry and physical illustration, much like what the old ones of your village use when trying to make a point to young ones using events that happened many generations ago,” Ganglot explained matter-of-factly.
“Oh,” both Romeo and Julian said together.
“Is story about boy and girl who come from two very different houses,” Shampoo explained with a somewhat dreamy expression, “Elders quarrel, there is much strife and bad blood between families, but boy and girl fall in love in spite of being enemies…chose to stay together no matter what no matter that friends and families say and do about it.”
“But…” Romeo paused, looking troubled.
“That sounds almost like what Romeo and I faced back home…before our own families drove us into exile,” Julian said before exchanging glances with his Airen.
“Er…yes,” Ganglot conceded, “I was rather taken by the rather striking coincidence of it all when we met…”
“Is most romantic story Shampoo ever hear about since coming to Japan,” Shampoo continued, “Lovers no wish to live without each other, even willing to die rather than to be parted.”
“Yeah, but it ain't all that nice an ending,” Ranma cautioned, “They bring an end to the quarrel between their families, but they both commit suicide in order to do it…which to me seems kinda pointless.”
“That figures,” Romeo shrugged, “Old stories told by Elders usually wind up with somebody dying.”
“But still…” Julian said somewhat reluctantly, “If they could bring peace to their warring houses…”
“Ah, don't start thinking that way,” Ganglot cautioned, “You can't control the thinking of others by attempting to manipulate their emotions. Take it from an expert on that subject, and when it comes to the stubbornness and pride of Amazon elders, those European patriarchs have got nothing on them.”
There was another faint exchange of looks before Romeo said, “But still…the people at our school seemed to think this story was about us…and when we tried to explain about the reasons why we left our homeland…”
“It kind of seems hard to deny that they have a point, lady,” Julian reluctantly concluded.
“Ah, well…that is something you may just have to abide with,” Ganglot shrugged, “It's not like the play is really about you, after all, and since neither one of you is in the drama class no one expects you to perform in the play or take the roles of your namesakes. But still I am rather pleased that you brought this to my attention.”
Romeo and Julian were just thinking this over while Ranma turned to Ganglot and said, “Well, if it's all the same to you, lady, I think it's time Shampoo and me were getting back home before dinner gets cold and our folks start to worry about us.”
“Aiyaa,” Shampoo agreed, “And Ranma mother make too-too delicious meal for this one and her Airen. Things very different now that Tendo father marry Silk, and nice-girl Kasumi move in with Kunos.”
“Yeah, to say nothing about Akane and her moving into Ukyo's place, taking a job as a waitress and whatnot,” Ranma shrugged, “It's been a lot quieter at the place with only Ryoga showing up now and then to pick fights and stuff, which is more for recreation than anything serious between us.”
“Indeed,” Ganglot remarked, “Oh…and how is that other sister of the Tendos getting along these days, the one who went off to study in America…business school, wasn't it?”
“Ah…oh,” Ranma said, “You must mean Nabiki.”
“Eh?” Romeo blinked, catching a discontinuity as she noticed the momentary look of distraction in the Japanese boy's expression.
“Nabiki…Shampoo's Amazon oath-sister, yes,” Shampoo agreed, “Last hear she doing good in other country. No remember…maybe other day when hear from her last, yes?”
“Aiyaa?” Julian asked, just as visibly shaken by the bizarre turn in the drift of the conversation, and he rapidly shot another confused look with his Airen.
“Yes, a charming girl,” Ganglot mused, “Quite clever and capable in her ways. I am certain that she will be doing well wherever she goes in her travels. Now, if you must be off, then by all means do not let me hold you here any longer than I have.”
“But…” Romeo started to protest.
“Hey, take care of yourselves guys,” Ranma said as he and Shampoo walked right past the astonished Amazon couple, heading for the door arm-in-arm as though nothing were the matter.
“Such a lovely couple they make,” Ganglot smiled, “I just know that they'll be wonderful parents…give a few more days the way that Shampoo is blossoming with her kitten…”
“Ah…lady?” Romeo asked hesitantly.
“Why were Ranma and Shampoo acting funny just now?” Julian asked, “The way they were talking…it was almost as if…”
“They had forgotten that they had to get back home in time?” Ganglot said brightly, giving both of her young wards a peculiarly intensive look, “Yes, that tends to happen when I'm the one doing the entertaining…not that there is anything else that they could possibly have forgotten…is there, my darlings?”
“Ah…” Romeo blinked, then she said, “I…ah…aiyaa…”
“That is the oddest thing,” Julian remarked, “I thought that there was…something to do with Nabiki…but now…I don't quite seem to remember…”
“Which is all for the best, believe me,” Ganglot winked, “After all, I have a promise to keep, and for the time being certain things will remain lest left unspoken. You can trust me on that to manage things as per my agreement with a certain colleague who asked me for a favor earlier in the day. Now, if it is all the same to the both of you, I think I should be planning for a special kind of dinner. I know…why don't we go out and paint the town, my treat, and then you can tell me all about the sort of day you both have been having.”
“If you wish it so, Lady,” Romeo nodded.
“School was quite informative, as usual,” Julian agreed, only to pause as he glanced towards the flier, then shared another look with his chosen mate, then the both of them shrugged and headed for the upstairs landing in order to make preparations for the coming evening, all thoughts forgotten about a certain young Lore Master in training who was on a walkabout…and the reasons for her sudden absence…
Nabiki's Journal Continues:
Unaware as I was just what sort of mischief Ganglot was cooking up---with, I might add, the direct support and collusion of my mentor, though I was not to learn of that particular deal until much later---I followed Lotion out through the dimensional gap that she opened between boundary layers, plane-traveling, if you will, through one of the natural fissures that open up and close at seeming random and which ordinary folks can never see. You have to be especially sensitive, or know just how to take advantage of them, a trick I had picked up from Lotion after more than a year of being her apprentice.
It's a sign of how much my life has changed since training under her that I can now take wind-walking like that for granted. It was now as common to me as a visit to the mall and back again, and I knew my way through the weave of time and space the way you might negotiate a trail through a common forest. It's just a matter of keeping your bearings, and your eyes and ears open, and leaving an appropriate trail of “bread crumbs” just to make sure that you can find your way back without too much trouble.
In the case of Lotion I knew that I was following a master at this sort of an adventure, so I was not too concerned about the course of our direction. She had somewhere in mind and that was good enough for me, and so I let her be my guide, as always, trusting in her wisdom to steer me right, especially as I knew that she had something important that she wanted to show me. Someplace I needed to be, a lesson to impart, like all her ancient wisdom, only this plan aimed towards enabling me to regain my tattered sense of equilibrium.
And so we walked in relative silence past sights that would once have stirred in me a sense of disbelief and wonder, of a road through layers of sound, texture and color, through one state of being and another, where even a sense of up and down was a relative concept, and backwards was as good as forward, all sense of motion itself little more than an illusion.
And always the patterns, the force-lines, the complex weavings of meticulously intersecting mathematical equations that my mind comprehended in terms that shape and form could not do justice. I studied our surroundings with a curious eye towards these phenomenon more as a means of increasing my familiarity with such alien concepts more than actual curiosity, perceiving as we traveled that we were headed to distant grounds entirely different from the fields through which we usually traveled.
After an indecipherable length of time I finally broached aloud the thought, “Going pretty far afield this time, are we, Sensei?”
“Not so distant as all of that,” Lotion answered without breaking stride, “We are following the path to the Crossroads. There is someone there whom I would like you to meet.”
“The Crossroads?” I repeated, “You mean the way between the realms? Who's waiting for us there? Three witches and a pot of Irish stew?”
Even as I said that word I winced inside, for even after this much time has elapsed the mere mention of a “pot of stew” can give me involuntary shivers. Call it bad word association, or the lingering effect of my own near encounter with the broth of a certain kettle.
“Not this time,” Lotion's tone belied a sense of faint humor that I detected, and I knew full well that she was aware of my continuing phobia involving stewpots, “The individual I speak of is known by some as the Way-Farer, though he is known by many other names, among which are `Soul Guardian' and `Binder.'”
“Binder?” I repeated, sensing a peculiarity in that name, not quite a tingling of recognition.
“The Binder of Souls some call him,” Lotion answered, “One of the Four Lords of the Way, the Guardian of the Path of Air and Fire, known as the Phoenix Force of Creation.”
“Sounds like quite an important guy,” I reckoned, but though I tried to make light of the matter I had a growing sense of ennui the nearer that we came to a place where two intersecting roads converged, and there directly before us hovered a star that shone brightly, illuminating the twilight.
Or rather the star turned out to be in the shape of a man, a hovering figure who was levitating in a full lotus position, face turned towards the sky while his legs were crossed beneath him with palms turned upward, the very posture of a living Buddha.
Only he was like no Buddha that I had ever seen gracing a temple, shrine or religious altar, for he was tall and slender with arms and legs that were well formed and excellently well proportioned. His face was youthful, agelessly handsome and he had a full head of light brown, almost wheat-golden hair, somewhat darker than blond but definitely styled to give his features balance. He was clad in a yellow shirt with open sleeves and had tight-fitting slacks and thigh-high boots that looked like well-worn velvet rather than leather. A purple sash around his waist further added style to his Spartan sense of fashion, and about his neck hung a thin gold chain from which was suspended a teardrop-shaped amethyst stone, his only other adornment that seemed to resonate upon his chest with a gentle pulsing rhythm that seemed timed in synch with a steady, even heartbeat.
Gazing on this man I had the most indescribable sense that I knew him, even though I'd swear that we had never had a previous encounter. There were force lines congealing upon him from nearly everywhere, and the intense strength of his aura was as blinding as the star I at first took him to be. I could feel the power inside him, literally immeasurable, intense beyond description, and gazing upon him was like staring up close at the sun given flesh. He was like a mountain, like the sky itself, like the vast ocean, far too deep to measure, and yet he was in all other ways quite human. If I could sense nothing else about him it was the firm belief that he was somehow…familiar.
And then Lotion bade me to stand in my place at her side as the two of us looked upon the glowing stranger, and then very slowly the man opened his eyes and turned them to gaze upon us…eyes as bright as emeralds and as clear as the heavens, the curious eyes of a man of gentle humor, who smiled easily and often, and who seemed amused by what he saw as he looked full on me…and then for some odd reason I found myself smiling back without quite knowing the reason.
And then the glow about him began to fade, and he casually unfolded his legs, setting them upon the ground so that he could stand erectly to his full height of nearly two full meters (minus perhaps no more than a couple of English-style inches). That made him very tall indeed by my reckoning, through his physical stature was a bald understatement to how much I knew he towered above us in other senses that I will not bother to mention.
And yet…and yet for all that I was in awe of his appearance, for some reason it was not terror of a kind that I would associate with fear that held me dumbstruck. Something about his very presence warmed me and told me that there was nothing to be afraid of in his presence…and yet still I could not shake the feeling that there was much, much more to him than what he would reveal upon a casual greeting.
And then his voice, gentle, mellow and well-pitched, warm with humor as he said, “So…you are back already, and I see that you have brought your lovely daughter with you.”
Despite myself I felt my cheeks grow rosy with a blush, for though I am quite happy in my marriage it would have taken a heart of stone not to be affected by the flattering way in which he seemed to address me indirectly.
“You jest with me, Lord Anri,” Lotion smiled, “I have returned with my apprentice, as I did promise.”
“Indeed,” the man called Anri said as he fully regarded us, eyes never straying far from my person, “Well met indeed, Saotome Nabiki, Lore Master and Wife of a Nexus.”
“Ah…” I stammered shyly, “You…know me, sir…?” I hesitated before asking, “Anri?”
“The name means Air and Fire,” Lotion answered for me, “He is one of the Daokan, the Four Lords of the Way of Life and Order. You know of him by other names, for he is a figure out of legend…”
“Please,” Anri said with a casual dismissal, “I am really not all that important in the greater scheme of things. I only fill a niche in destiny, as much as anyone can who truly matters.”
“So speaks the humility for which you are also legend,” Lotion replied, giving me a coy look before adding, “Don't let this charming flatterer deceive you, Student. He has a way with women that's the talk of many another legend. Why, in one of his past incarnations there is a tale of how he once came upon a field full of virgin milkmaids and…”
“Please don't repeat that one,” Anri urged, “I've been living it down for the past four incarnations, and my wife is quite thoroughly tired of being reminded that she was one of those milk maids.”
“You have a wife?” I asked, trying not to sound disappointed.
“He's been married to her through at least seven of his previous nine incarnations,” Lotion informed me.
“Whoah,” I said, “That's not a marriage, that's a serial habit.”
“Tell me about it,” he smiled, “Now then…I understand that you have been having some difficulties back on your home timeline with a certain daemon who seems to believe that you pose a threat to her continuing existence…and so she is intent on threatening your present existence, am I right?”
“Are you ever wrong?” Lotion replied for me before turning to me and saying, “Lord Anri is aware of things that even Lore Masters find difficult to fathom, but when you spend over ten thousand years in ten different incarnations as him you ought to be able to pick a few things out of the void at random.”
“You are too kind,” Anri nodded, “So now, if you would care to lend me an ear, Mrs. Saotome, I would like to ask a favor of you, something in the way of a business proposition…”
“But what about Cybelle?” I asked.
“Oh, that's already being attended to even as we speak,” Anri assured me, “What I asked your mentor to bring you here for is an entirely different matter, one that has great importance beyond what you know, or even what you suspect that you know. In other words…I wish to ask you for your assistance.”
“My assistance, Sir?” I asked rather meekly, because what I was feeling from just the near presence of this guy told me that he was a lot more evolved as a spiritual being than I was as a mere Lore Master, and the idea that I could be helping him was more than a bit disconcerting.
“Oh yes,” he smiled gently, and suddenly I saw a sadness in his eyes that was weighted with a depth of wisdom that really did make me feel foolish, “You are the very one who can help make the difference. For you see…there is a world very much like your own where another you resides, and she is presently in a state that prevents her from protecting herself and the very valuable legacy in which the fates have entrusted her. As you are momentarily at liberty to act in her place you are the perfect candidate to foil the intent of one who would render her much mischief.”
“Another reality with a me in it?” I groaned softly and turned an askance glance towards Lotion, “Not again! Just how many other realities are you planning on dragging me through just to show me that I've got it better than the rest…?”
“This is not one of those commonplace realities that I have introduced you to in the past, Student,” my Mentor chided me, “We are not doing another reprise of `It's a Wonderful Life' here. The reality that Lord Anri refers to is a special continuity line where the you that is of their present has very much achieved a level of prosperity and self-contentment equal to what you know of your own life.”
“Yeah, yeah, like I haven't heard that one before,” I said before turning back to Lord Anri, “Ahm…not to quibble or anything, Sir…but why exactly do you need my help? No offence…but from what I can tell just being around you…I should think you're more than capable of fighting your own battles.”
“A very good point, and it is true, I do prefer to fight my own battles,” Anri replied, “But I am a guardian of the Path of Life, and the enemy I oppose is a Lord of Ultimate Darkness who has set his eye upon this particular reality's destruction. For now he operates through his chosen agents and proxies, and so I must do likewise in order to maintain the balance, for to act too directly…well, that could set in motion a chain of very unfortunate circumstances.”
“Such as?” I asked, seeking further clarification.
He paused as if to consider the point then said, “Suppose that there was a man who took to the hobby of raising a colony of ants within a cage of glass that comprised the whole world of his selection. Now it is certainly condescending to infer that humans are mere ants or that I myself would be a giant in relation to ordinary men, and so the analogy is awkward…but for the sake of the matter, suppose another giant comes along and decides to sow mischief in the colony by introducing some rogue ants who will disrupt the harmony of the ants within their dominion. What if the first giant opposes the actions of the second giant and the two of them take to quarreling with one another on top of the ant hill…”
“In other words…the two giants fight and the ants get stepped on?” I fathomed rather quickly.
“You catch on quickly,” he said with a smile, “I knew you were an excellent choice for this assignment. You have a ready grasp of the variables, and the obvious with you need not be overstated.”
“Right, got it,” I said grimly, comprehending at once what he meant, because of the enemy of this guy were commensurately as strong with him then I sure as hell did not want to meet that fellow in any dark alleys. But then I cocked my head as I regarded him and asked, “Tell me something, Anri-san…do you usually instruct people through syllogisms and analogies…or even parables and stories?”
“One of my favorite teaching methods,” he said with a twinkling in his eye that caused my stomach to sink even lower than my intestines.
“That's…what I was afraid of,” I said with a gulp, suddenly understanding a LOT more about this guy than I even cared to know, and all at once it made perfect sense what I was picking up about him, all the various hints and clues to his real identity, and the sudden realization that I was standing in the presence of someone who walked a whole lot closer to the center of all being than I could ever dream of ascending.
“Now then,” he resumed as though ignoring the certain knowledge that he knew that I knew now about his true nature, “I only need for you to visit this realm for a couple of days and then you can return safe and sound to your own world, and by the time you get back home you'll find that the matter which has currently daunted you will be resolved in a positive light. In the meantime…stay focused and sharp, for the cunning of this enemy will test your abilities and teach you much about the balance between darkness and light.”
“If you say so, Sir,” I said, squaring my shoulders, “So…when do I get started?”
“Now seems perfect,” Anri suggested, nodding off towards the distance, “This being the crossroads between the branches of various worlds, it is quite easy to access any point in all of creation, but for our purposes the journey is neither long nor very far a travel. Just a few steps beyond and you are in a world as much alike as different from the one you leave behind, and there your path awaits you, and the challenge, if you accept it.”
At one time I would have hesitated, discussed terms for my services and set a price for compensation for my time and the inconvenience of what was sure to be a rather difficult assignment. After all this journey would take me far away from my own world and the company of my loved ones, but as I was fairly certain that my participation was important to this powerful and enigmatic new acquaintance of mine I did not feel the urge to quibble over the particulars. Instead I merely answered, “Very well, I accept the assignment. Am I at liberty to use my own discretion in this matter?”
“You are completely free to do as you believe is right and necessary,” Anri replied, “I will observe and only contact you when there is need, but not to interfere. You are your own agent, and I trust in you to be worthy of your teachings.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I said without meaning to be sarcastic and I started to move forward when the strange other realm between dimensions did a fade out and resolved into a more familiar real-world setting. A few steps further and I was back upon the streets of Nerima once again, and quite alone at the moment as I paused to glance around, discerning it to be late autumn, which was the same exact season as on my world, meaning that this timeline was roughly in synch with my own, which I made a mental note of and filed away for future reference.
Beyond that, however, I sensed something very different upon the winds, a feeling that this world held remarkable differences from the conditions with which I was familiar. I'd already been to several alternate dimensional realities and was accustomed to the rule changes that invariably followed a transition, but this one was unlike any other in that I felt a strong resonance here that had my name attached to it. That mean that there was a counterpart of mine here who was above the average high schooler and not like the milksops I sometimes encountered who never left home, never trained to be anything special, and most of all never got it on with Ranma…
Or even Shampoo for that matter.
But this reality held surprises galore, and as I stood there absorbing the significance of the ambient field that was this world's Akashic structure I could sense the echoes of things in the past that were moving towards the present, and in that moment I began to view a kaleidoscope of images and sensations in which I was the central player in a much larger drama. It was fascinating to say the least, because it began almost twelve years in the past, about the time when Ranma began his training mission with his father.
But that was where the divergence began, and where the strangeness followed, for rather than see Ranma leaving home at an early age I witnessed a younger version of myself in the company of uncle Genma, leaving Nerima at his side and going abroad to study the martial arts and becoming thoroughly immersed in what was supposed to be Ranma's world of adventure. I then see myself coming back to Nerima a very different person, much stronger and hardened by my years of endless fighting, and I see myself returning home a changed woman, far more confident and self-possessed and aware of my abilities, and ready to turn my back on the whole affair because of the taint laid upon me through my uncle's negligence.
In other words I see myself as Ranma…or rather myself as Ranma was meant to be, only I'm the one with the Jusenkyo curse, and the one who's the top notch martial artist of Nerima.
More images follow, the memories of battle, of seeing myself going up against a series of strong opponents who arise to challenge my position. I see a large giant of a man who stands wrapped in pain and masked in the continence of death, and yet it is by my own hand that he perishes. I see other challengers, tough ones who make things interesting for me and those around me, and one who wears the aspect of a tiger. And strong allies who fight by my side, just as they had in my world, even though some faces and names are unfamiliar to me.
But one among them who is very familiar is also the one whom I most expect to be there by my side. I see Ranma, I feel his love and support, and I know that on this timeline he is both my partner and my husband. I feel the bonds that unify us and I know that they have been well tested, and I know that we share a destiny that was meant to be the defining union of our mutual existence. And there are others in our union…not just Shampoo but two others who are just as important.
Ukyo is one of our partners, which is not really all that surprising given how her fate seems linked with our own on many different timelines…but the fifth party in our family grouping is a warrior whom I barely even know on my own timeline. Shampoo's adopted cousin Perfume…the one who is known as the Enforcer for the Joketsuzoku. Here she is tied to Ukyo, and through her to both me, Shampoo and Ranma.
Curious…a five-way marriage? Unorthodox to say the least, but only a degree or two removed from the three-way union that Shampoo and I share with Ranma, so I guess I can see the viability of such an arrangement. I listen to the Powers whisper the story in my ear of how it came about and concede that it makes sense under such a context, so then I turn my attention more towards the present, attempting to perceive the reason why I am here, and what purpose Lord Anri might have for leading me to such a world, other than for curiosity's sake.
And that is when the real surprise catches my attention, as a familiar voice breaks in on my reverie to say, “Well, come on. Are you just going to stand around all day and play voyeur, or do we get on with your supposed mission?”
I turn to see Lotion standing there close by…only I instantly perceive that she is not the Lotion whom I know but rather the local counterpart to my own mentor. She is giving me a cross look that speaks of thinly veiled impatience, and I can sense that she is attempting to size me up in the same way that I am studying her, for despite what she must know me to be I am still a relative stranger to her reckoning, which makes the moment somewhat awkward for us both.
I attempt to recover my bearings by saying, “Ah…excuse me. I wasn't expecting a reception.”
“Well, you have one, young lady,” she informs me in no uncertain terms, “And I don't know what sort of indulgent behavior you may be expecting on my end, just as I have little idea what my counterpart considers proper teaching methods for her apprentice, but with me you should expect much firmer standards.”
“I'll be certain to pass that along to your counterpart when next I see her, Elder,” I reply, “Do I take it that you're the one who asked Lord Anri for a favor?”
“Not I,” she assures me, “But when the Lord Anri speaks, it is a wise woman who listens and heeds his lightest suggestion. I trust that you are advanced enough in the art to know why this is wisdom?”
“I think I have a pretty firm idea,” I replied, only to hesitate before adding, “But…is he really who he appears to be? I'm afraid I find it…more than a bit incredible…”
“Then obviously you have progressed far enough in the art or you would know what is to be expected when you meet the Buddha,” my mentor's counterpart informs me while turning away, “Understand that he is never what you expect him to be, he is what he is, and that is why he is the Lord Anri.”
“I guess,” I replied dubiously, automatically falling into step at her side as she begins to conduct me on this strange journey, “It's just that…we never covered this in my training. I've met gods and demons a plenty in my travels…but…never one like him.”
“Anri is less than a god but quite substantially more than an ordinary man,” the Lotion of this world replies, “He is Daokan, one of the Four Lords of the Way, and anything else that might be said about him is wasted self indulgence. Anri himself would be the first to deny that he is in any part what myth and legend would make him out to be, for he has lived ten lives under different aliases, and in no two has he been exactly the same individual…and yet in every lifetime he remains Anri.”
“The Lord of Air and Fire,” I gently murmur, “Mahurabsammatrusara…the Man in the Center of the Eye of God, Maitreya…”
“Those are merely titles, pay them no heed,” Lotion said curtly, “Whether Boddidharma, Sidhartha or even Hermes Trimigestes, he is a man by any name…just more evolved than others. If you were to spend enough time around him you would understand better, and still he would be Anri.”
“I'll try and take that to heart, Sensei,” I reply, seeing that we are approaching this world's equivalent of my home, the Tendo compound, “Now…what is the task that I've been asked to perform here, and why is this world's Nabiki incapable of rendering it for herself?”
“That you shall learn soon enough, or you are no fit student on any timeline,” this Lotion replies curtly, and I begin to wonder at her unusually crusty tone when dealing with me, as if she were deliberately attempting to keep me at a distance, “For now it would be best if we approach unseen, so keep your ears and eyes open and move as I do through the shadows.”
I did not bother to acknowledge that I understood her instructions, for to do so would have implied that I was not a very good student of the art. Instead I followed her example, altering my aura to match her resonance and affect a mental field of insolvency (which is not to be confused with actual invisibility, which merely involves the bending of light waves). With our presence thus masked against ordinary detection we entered the compound and made our way towards the main house, and already I could sense substantial differences within the ether.
For one thing no scent of Oni was at hand, which meant that Atsuko Hibiki and her cousin were not present. Neither was Ryoga, at least that I could detect, though perhaps there was a lingering trace odor of his presence, meaning that he was a frequent visitor but not a full time resident. In their place was a different kind of odor that I did not at first know how to place, sickly sweet with a taste of attar mingled with cinnamon and cedar, which are the sort of odors you might find at a funeral parlor…and yet no sense of looming death could I discern, which left out that most obvious of associations.
I also did not detect the presence of another Lore Master, and thus Silk was similarly absent from the firmament. In a way that was a shame as I had grown accustomed to Daddy taking a second wife who bears a similar likeness to our late, lamented mother. Silk had her faults, and I could list them at my leisure, but after months of living around her I had finally come to accept that she really does care about our father, and daddy's been a lot more vigorous and happy since she's been around, so I chalk up more positives than negatives in her coming to live with us in Nerima.
On the other hand Aunt Nodoka is a presence I would know anywhere, and Uncle Genma was somewhere around lying about indolently in panda form, so at least that much of life around here was normal.
But as we move around behind the main building I was coming to sense considerable differences in the place quite beyond the change of residency. For one thing laughing voices greeted our ears, and then we paused to observe three small children rushing past and around this side of the dojo, all three moving quite fluidly upon tiny little legs, and not one of them taller in stature than my waist, though their apparent ages did not match what I sensed to be their actual chronological state of development.
Wait a moment, my mind belatedly reacted. Children? Obviously someone had started out a lot sooner here than on my world, and I at once discerned that the oldest of the trio had distinctly lavender colored hair, and her urchin-like features were a blending of characteristic traits that I at once recognized as a blend of myself and a certain Amazon of my delightful acquaintance.
Shampoo and me? I blinked and recoiled at the implications, but my mind at once perceived the story behind her conception and I mentally watched the events of well over a year gone by, then turned to Lotion and said aloud, “I got her pregnant?”
“Did you imagine someone else did the deed for you?” she replied, and I belatedly had to admit that such a thing was not only possible but most likely inevitable if I had indeed taken Ranma's place during that visit to Joketsuzoku.
After all, Ranma was largely ignorant of matters sexual and had been female when he and Shampoo had their first dramatic encounter. A male me, still new to the transformation, would have been a ripe prize for an Amazon to seize for a husband, and given what I know about their marriage rituals I can't see my other self as being all that much on her guard when the Elders slipped her a certain potion that was intended to “ease the transition into marriage.” No doubt my counterpart woke up the next morning with a surprise in her bed and undoubtedly hit the panic button…or else Uncle Genma smuggled me out of town rather than have the both of us face the music later. I can only just imagine what sort of story he would have concocted to tell Daddy when Shampoo showed up some weeks later in Japan and with the evidence of our night together growing inside her.
At any rate it was daunting enough to think of myself with a curse that turns me into a man, much as Ukyo possesses in my own time…and considering the effect his male half has upon women, I could only imagine what sort of stud magnet that would make my counterpart. The obvious question for me, then, would be how Ranma would have come to accept someone that bishonen for a co-husband. But then again, one glance at the second of the trio of young girls scampering past us was enough to inform me that I was far from the only one who was guilty of gender-swapping parental confusion. The girl with the brown hair had Ukyo written all over her features, but there was another cast that did not match Ranma's distinctive traits, and as I sought to discern who the other parent was I got a helpful clue in the form of a full grown woman who rounded the bend chasing after the children as though attempting to herd them back towards the dojo.
I had known Perfume the Enforcer only for a brief time when she had come to visit Shampoo in the company of my wife's former lover, Lotion the Younger, so I recognized this girl on the spot without too much effort, but with my mind now open to the prospect of her as a co-marriage partner I was taking a better look at her now, and finding what I observed was very much to my liking. She has many of the same qualities that I find so special in Shampoo, only if anything she may be a bit prettier and more lushly well developed. Her curves were definitely noticeable and there was a softness to her face that implied that domestic life had been very good for her indeed. I also marked that she had the same Jusenkyo curse that my Shampoo has borne for over a year since leaving China. Well…not exactly the same as her cursed form did not sprout wings, but in most other respects she was just as kawaii as Shampoo and liked riding shoulders in the selfsame sensual manner.
I could also feel the strength and vitality of her spirit, and she was a warrior beyond question, marked with a tinge of tragedy and former loneliness that had been caused by her hypersensitive condition. I could sense that she was not quite so lonely or hypersensitive these days, just as I mentally pictured her spending a lot of time around Ukyo, and one peculiar image of her transformed into a man in order to get her co-wife pregnant…something about a temporary exchange of curses with this world's Nabiki.
Very curious indeed, and yet as I studied her and perceived these things I also sensed that she was aware of a similar disturbance in the ether, and she turned a wary glance our way as though attempting to puzzle out some anomaly that she may have picked up with her hyper senses. A Sentinel, I realized, and gifted with abilities that were well beyond the threshold of normal human senses. She would not quite be so easy to avoid or confuse by means of our mental camouflage fields, and so Lotion and I remained perfectly motionless while she appeared to be gazing right at us without seeing.
And then a familiar voice caught her attention and called her away, and then I saw a very heavyset Ukyo treading carefully up to join her, and I took in by her swollen abdomen that she was pregnant by this world's Ranma. I thought pregnancy looked very good on her and was not unduly jealous over the matter, but even as I tried to fathom how Ranma could be married to both her and this Amazon while sharing a bed with me and Sham-chan I found myself growing distracted by the sight of Perfume gazing lovingly at Ukyo, and from that understood that there were bonds of emotion here that went well beyond conventional understanding.
In my world Ukyo and I are just friends, nothing more than that, but here this Ukyo is best friends with her Nabiki. They had met in childhood and formed lasting ties of friendship that were strengthened during middle school, and yet this Ukyo had been motivated by a different set of challenges that had prompted her to seek out Ranma for a challenge match, and all because Uncle Genma had foolishly let slip to her father that his son would make a good match for any man's daughter. The complicated web of lies and false promises had resulted in an affair of honor that had obligated Ranma to accept their engagement as valid, but it was only after coming to a very difficult business agreement that we managed to square things with our own engagement, and the inconvenient fact that my counterpart was already married to Shampoo when all of this happened.
You can imagine that my mind was spinning at the implications about this point when Ukyo and Perfume began walking arm-and-arm together back towards the dojo. The two young scamps at their feet…I knew intuitively that their names were Fragrance and Lylac, were being herded back towards where the rest of their family was gathered for the evening…but then I chanced to notice how the third young girl, the curious redhead, was glancing back at me with a quizzical look, and her gaze was not abstracted, which meant that she somehow was seeing past the field of my illusion.
I wanted to know whose daughter she was, for I sensed that she was not directly part of the family unit. But then a tall redhead trotted into view and I knew instinctively that she was the child's mother. There was something disturbingly different about this new face in the crowd that made me extend my senses to include the Akashic field around her, and all at once I felt the strong reverberation of divinity, and I knew that she had the blood of the gods within her. I also recoiled in amazement at the powerful life force that beat within her well-formed breast, and for some peculiar reason I could perceive the shadows of giant figures framing the space around her…one of them wearing a cape with a large “S” symbol emblazoned there, another a burly man wearing a dusty lion's skin, and the forth shadow that of a star spangled woman.
Truly my counterpart upon this time had formed alliances with some very unusual people, but I knew intuitively that this was not one of my counterpart's lovers…rather there was another presence with whom I felt the crimson ties of blood fate had been forged in a furnace of battle and adventure…and sure enough I soon saw a strikingly beautiful woman with ivory hair grace the scene with her presence. She was heavy with child but still quite a stunning beauty, and she wrapped an arm around the redhead with a casual ease that spoke of long practice and much devotion, and without needing to know the means by which it had been rendered I sensed that she was the redheaded child's other parent.
Indeed there were stories to be told here, and I was sufficiently intrigued that I had to study the matter even further.
Lotion indulged me this unvoiced desire as we walked to where the dojo was and observed how the family was sitting down to table, which already was laden heavily with prepared food fit for a banquet. There at the table I found a version of my wife almost exactly as I had left her, heavily pregnant and radiant with delight at her condition. And there beside her…I found me. Or rather I found the version of me that was native to this world…but unlike anything that I had been prepared to witness I found that my counterpart was bulging at the center and no less pregnant than Shampoo herself.
Now that took me by surprise completely for I knew my twin had a Jusenkyo curse that turns her into a man, and it is an accepted fact that Nanniichuan victims cannot get pregnant. Ukyo, I well know, could not sustain an embryo without her turning into a man and voiding her conception. It's like trying to avoid getting splashed with cold water for six-to-nine months, the very nature of the curses is such that they all but draw cold water to you like a magnet.
And yet there she was, me in every detail that truly matters, and quite near to term by the look and feel of such things, and acting sociable as if she were the head of the household calmly dispensing her duties like a Matriarch of Clan Saotome. Shampoo was doting on her with eyes soft with delight and admiration, and Ukyo was conceding seniority through casual gestures and body language, clearly acknowledging that this Nabiki was the head of her household. Perfume sat attentively as though accustomed to taking the lowest ranking position, and without conveying any sort of defensiveness I could sense that she was the protective one who was quietly supportive of her loved ones, not conformable with taking orders but rather quite content to receive them.
There was only one presence that I noted was lacking at this setting, that of Ranma himself, but as I formed that thought I felt his nearness and was strangely comforted. I turned to see him approach but was at once struck by a sense that there was more different about him than even what I observed as different between myself and my counterpart. He moved differently from my Ranma, not quite so brash and cocky, much more measured and attentive. There was a softer edge about him, a lack of the kind of hardiness that I sensed in this Nabiki. He was more of a “momma's boy” since he had spent his years in a home surrounded by family and was, as such, less weathered and far less worldly than my Ranma. I also sensed that he had shadows of his own attending him, for I perceived the presence of other intelligences coiled in and around him, as though he were in special alliance with some curiously otherworldly forces.
The women greeted him and he smiled back as he took his place at the side of his Nabiki, and the easy way in which his wives accepted his company informed me that he had earned their open affection and was recognized as husband even by Perfume, whom I had previously thought indifferent to the male sex. There were pleasantly sensual hints in their thoughts that all five of them enjoyed a vigorous sex life, and by that I became aware of something else peculiar about this version of my Ranma. He had a way with women that was transcendentally physical, as though his martial arts prowess also extended to a mastery of the bedroom. I was sufficiently intrigued by this that I wanted to tarry further, to fathom what secret arts he might know, and to study them for my own unique advantage.
But Lotion drew my attention away from thoughts of pilfering his secrets and instead she murmured, “Try and stay focused. Despite the tranquility of this setting there is much amiss here, and we must be on our guard against the cause that has summoned us here at the direction of Lord Anri.”
I wanted to say something curt to the old woman but I knew that she was in the right, much though I wanted to be distracted. There was something quite charming about the domestic scene of this place that made me yearn to play the voyeur to my counterpart's lifestyle. This was certainly a different kind of alternate reality from the ones I had studied before in other transworld journeys. For one thing I was very much drawn to the question surrounding the silver-haired woman sitting closely to the redhead, and I wondered why it was that I had never encountered such a duo on my world. There was something almost familiar about them and I could sense that they were closely tied to my own family. I was just beginning to pick up the gist of their names when I chanced to sense that faint disturbing air that Lotion herself had just noticed.
I turned around and scanned the night, seeing a presence hovering in the air taking shape on the breeze in the form of a strange glowing pair of eyes casting down with a look of almost malevolence. I could feel the intelligence behind that gaze and was at once on my guard, feeling as though the gathering night itself were staring down looking to cause us mischief.
And then the strangest thing of all happened. From off to the sides the night detached itself from the shadows and took the form of a rather curious young woman who was dressed head to foot in tight fitting black garments, a cape opening to reveal a rapier in the hand of this stranger, who moved away from the dojo and assumed a fighting crouch, her ruby eyes fixed not at my family but rather towards the hostile set of eyes that I had witnessed.
In a breathy voice she cried out, “Beware, my lords and ladies! I am sensing danger!”
“Lenore-san?” I heard this world's Ranma call out to the stranger.
“Something the matter, Sugar?” Ukyo asked with seeming casualness, but I could see her hand sliding under the table to grip the handle of her near ever-present baker's peel, just as Perfume by her side was suddenly sporting a pair of broad-blade double-axes.
The stranger---who had shot-cropped red hair and bore the curious scent that I had detected earlier, only hissed and revealed a wicked set of fangs that would impressed a Hibiki, her rapier extended in challenge towards the glowing eyes that we both could see---did not immediately reply, but all at once I was startled to find a full grown wolf flanking by her side and growling menacingly as though to lend the redhead support and extra menace. My senses warned me that they both had the strong presence of the supernatural about them, but then I felt a third ethereal presence move into play, and I recognized them as a formidable trio who haunted the dojo like spiritual guardians, raising the protective banner of their combined might in challenge of the evil I still sensed.
My counterpart remained calm and as possessed of her wits as though this were a fairly routine occurrence as she spoke softly to her Ranma, “Ranchan…I think we have a visitor. Do be prepared to give them a proper greeting.”
“Right,” Ranma was on his feet in one fluid motion, confirming for me that---while not quite as hardened as my Ranma---he certainly had good battle instincts and could be counted on in a fight as a very formidable ally.
Similarly the redhead at the end of the table stood up over her own silver-haired girlfriend and set hands to hip as though ready for action. She scanned the night, apparently looking for trouble, then flexed one powerful arm and growled very softly, “Think we should wait here for whoever it is to show up, or should we go out there and give `em the business?”
“Let `em come,” Ranma growled while smacking fist-to-palm in a distinctively Ranma-esque manner, “Anybody wants to start something, he's come to the wrong place.”
I felt the air tense, then heard the soft tread of footsteps as a solid form took shape in the garden, then slowly turned to regard a man who manifested his presence there, moving into the light to reveal himself in all his puissant glory.
I didn't need any introductions to know that this guy was a mage. In my line of work you can feel the presence of someone who is accustomed to working with high level magic…it's kind of like knowing the difference between the auras of warriors and mages. Or like Siren the Archmage and contrasting her with Lotion. Mages have that certain feeling about them that pulls on the force lines that surround them the way a lodestone does with iron filings. You have to be trained in reading energy flow and auras to understand what I'm getting at here…the fact that a mage stands out like a torch in a fog bank when compared with ordinary mortals. They don't just live and breathe the magic, they embody it, and power is in their very being.
I could feel this guy as he approached and it made me very, very nervous, because my experience around mages has cautioned me never to take them for granted. Though some people might think Lore Masters are a kind of mage, I know for a fact that we most definitely are not of the same system. Amazon Mages study ancient wisdom for the sake of acquiring the power to shape the heavens. This guy had a very strong, tenacious air of Power within him and it was making my skin crawl, for though he was more Gray than Dark I could literally feel his intelligence and knew that he was both ruthless and cunning, the sort of guy you don't cross in a dark alley.
He seemed to take no notice of Lenore as he swept the rest of the family with a glance, and then he said, in cultured tones, “I take it that you are the family of Saotome-Tendo and Kuonji?”
“Who wants to know?” Ranma asked without a hint of warmth or welcome.
“My name is Shang Kwan,” the man replied, “And I have come a long distance to find you. I take it that you are the one named Saotome Ranma, husband to Tendo Nabiki, as well as the Amazon warriors known as Xian-Pu and Pur-Fum, to say nothing of the lovely warrior-chef known as Kuonji Ukyo?”
“You have found us, Sir,” my counterpart answered, “Now mind telling us what's so important that you feel like interrupting our dinner?”
“My apologies if I seem rude,” the man replied, “But my business is important to me, and I cannot spare the moment to explain my actions. I only need one thing from you and then I shall be on my way, so do yourselves a favor and do not interfere with my business.”
“What kind of business?” the woman named Lenore demanded.
For the first time the stranger actually looked at her, “The kind I have already informed you cannot be divulged at this time. And you should be more mindful where you point such things, Vampire.”
I saw the power flare up from within the man and would have shouted a warning but for the hand that Lotion placed on me to restrain my impulses. Instead I watched helplessly as this Shang Kwan raised a hand and performed some sort of complex gesture, and all at once ruby rays of light struck the redhead and wrapped themselves around her body, causing her to lose her grip on her blade as she and the wolf fell to the ground writhing in agony as though the coils had electrified their respective nervous systems.
Another gesture and I saw a white shape fly back into a wall and strike it hard as a presence that had been all but invisible until now slumped to the floor in an ethereal heap. Another gesture and yet more ruby coils wrapped themselves around the legs of the other redhead, causing her to stagger and fall forward while the silver-haired girl called out her name as, “Aiko!”
By this point Perfume was already on her feet and hurled both axes at the stranger, even as Ranma made a gesture of his own and caused coils of living flame to manifest at the tips of his finger. Shang Kwan hardly broke a sweat as he made another gesture and caused the axes to bounce off of an energy shield that flared up in the space around him, and then with his other hand he projected a cloud of ionized energy particles that smothered the flames and caused them to collapse upon the floor of the dojo, taking the shape of a rather strikingly beautiful woman.
All of this was witnessed by the others, even as Ukyo got to her feet and Shampoo rose with bonbori in hand, and Perfume drew another set of axes from concealment. I saw my counterpart staring hard at the man and could perceive that she was studying him intently, apparently attempting to fathom his moves and to discern the best means of counter-attacking…but before anyone could take another step further Shang Kwan lifted both arms and summoned even more power than before, crafting it in both hands in the form of a spell that I could see him literally folding like paper origami.
The next thing you know he casts the spell not at my family but rather at the entire dojo, and all at once time freezes, slowing to a crawl, and everyone is locked in mid-motion by the temporary stall that has them all immobilized like flies in literal amber. I marveled at such a casual manipulation of eldritch energies and rated this guy as no amateur, but then I perceive that he is moving deliberately forward and sense that he has bad intentions in mind, and so I resolve to stop playing observer and to take an active hand in the matter.
Lotion did not bother to dissuade me, so I took it for granted that this was the reason why I was here, and thus I dropped my mental shields and stood revealed before the stranger. He quite literally stopped in his tracks and looked upon me with surprise in his expression, but then his eyes narrow tightly and I hear him his out the words, “Lore Master.”
“Guilty as charged,” I replied, “I take it you know what I am capable of, Mage, so I will ask you kindly to take your business elsewhere and leave these people alone. Or else.”
“Hmph…merely an apprentice,” he said dismissively, and then another gesture caused a bolt of energy to course in my direction.
But unlike with his previous attacks I stood my ground and reach out to seize the spell in hand, and I literally pick through the complex pattern of its weaving to disassemble it and break it apart into its component fragments.
This time I earn a look of grudging respect as he revises his estimation of me, “Intermediate level them. Very well, you have earned this as token of my respect for your abilities.”
And that's when all hell breaks loose as I feel him marshalling forces that literally make my arm hairs stand on end. I hear him invoking names of eldritch power and can sense the eyes of various deities and demons being focused my way, and then I'm hit with a literal wave of force that sets my nervous system ablaze, and I'm picked up off my feet and sent crashing into the temporal field that presently imprisons the residents of the dojo. The good news is that my presence disrupts his earlier spell…but the bad news is that the resultant release of energy knocks me for a loop, to say nothing of everyone else currently standing.
Time goes haywire in my head and I momentarily lose consciousness, but then I awake with the sense that the mage is gone and his spells have departed with him. Also something else is missing that I cannot quite put my finger to, but thankfully all of my body parts appear to be attached and in good working order.
Or at least for the moment.
Because the next thing I know Perfume is standing over me and she has her axes raised in a threatening manner. Likewise Ukyo and her baker's peel is aimed at my neck, while Shampoo is standing over me with raised bonbori, and even Ranma is looking more than a little hostile.
“Who the heck are you?” he demands, “And why the hell do you look just like Nabiki?”
I move my eyes and see my counterpart looking down at me with a “That is a very good question” kind of expression, so I take a moment to take stock of the whole affair, then very carefully inform them, “I am not your enemy…please don't do anything hasty.”
“Such as?” my counterpart replies.
“Well,” I glance around at the alternate family and then decide a quick demonstration is in order, and so I move fluidly to my feet while sweeping the legs out from under Ukyo, summoning raw energy to send Shampoo back by several paces while I turn to meet an attack by Perfume, raising a shield to deflect both axes so that I can gain an opening and put my palm to her chest, projecting just enough force to send her to her knees without impairing her nervous system.
I turn as I sense a flaring of energy, and all at once it is this world's Ranma I am facing. I look into his eyes and see the fires burning up from within him, and so I reach out and take that fire, plucking it out of the air so that it coils about one arm in the form of a writhing serpent.
“Hello,” I say to the hissing serpent of flames, containing its energies within a field of my own construction as I fathom its true nature then say, “Salamanth, right? An interesting pet you've acquired here, Ranchan.”
“Don't call me that!” my husband's counterpart says, and with his other arm he summons up a silvery dragon, only this one composed entirely of water.
“Let me at him!” the brawny redhead named Aiko declares as she shoulders her way forward, looking ready to start something nasty, “I'll work the truth out of her…”
“Alison, stand down,” my counterpart says, “Ranma…keep tight hold over Sharil. Let's not jump to any conclusions here. You were saying before about doing something hasty?”
“Such as might start something that none of us would enjoy very much,” I answer levelly, keeping a firm grip on the salamanth, “And before you ask, I really am Saotome Nabiki.”
“How is so?” Shampoo demands of me, “Airen is over here, and so you cannot be Airen.”
“Ah…actually,” I turn to a recovering Perfume, “Maybe you would like to confirm that I'm not an imposter, even if I'm not quite so…pregnant?”
“Guys,” Perfume says in surprisingly colloquial Japanese while rubbing her solar plexus, “I am detecting her scent, and she does smell very much like Nabiki…only I think she is pregnant. Just not that far along, if you know what I'm saying.”
“Say what?” Ranma asked, staring at me as if trying to disbelieve his own senses.
“So she's a good copy,” Ukyo insisted, “Just not all that perfect. She doesn't have your warrior's braid for one thing, Nab-chan, and for a second thing…why did she show up just now when that creep came here to kidnap our kids?”
“Say what?” I reacted, “He…kidnapped your babies?”
“As if you not know,” Shampoo sniffed, and boy do I hate to be on the receiving end of one of her patented glares, especially when I know how good she is with her maces.
“Really, I don't,” I insist, “I'm not here as an enemy. I was…sent here by a friend, but I'm from another dimension.”
“Pull the other one,” my counterpart snorts, “Why should we believe you?”
“Because she speaks the truth,” Lotion answered for me.
“Huh?” Ranma gasped as he whirled around to recognize the old woman, “Where the heck did you come from?”
“Elder?” Perfume asked.
“Aiyaa?” Shampoo exclaimed, “Lore Master Lotion?”
“She is the Tendo Nabiki, ne Saotome, from a parallel timeline very different from this one,” Lotion explained for my benefit, “Only on her world…she is my apprentice.”
“That's what I've been trying to tell you people,” I say while passing the salamanth back towards Ranma, “Here…yours, I believe.”
I watch in fascination as the salamanth coils and snakes around Ranma's outstretched hand, and then both she and the silver serpent vanish altogether while Ranma just looks at me in puzzlement and says, “Your…apprentice?”
“I am a Lore Master,” I reply, giving my counterpart a firm, hard look, “And I think the two of us should talk, especially if that creep made off with your children.”
“Obviously so,” the other Nabiki replies, looking me over, then pausing to add, “Did you say that you're name is also…Saotome?”
“Ranma is my husband,” I answer, “Only on our world it's Shampoo alone who's our other Airen.”
“Aiyaa?” this Shampoo replies, but she has put away her bonbori and no longer favors me with a hostile disposition.
“Are you saying Perchan and me aren't part of the deal where you come from, Sugar?” Ukyo asks, still skeptical but obviously listening now that I have an Amazon Elder's backing.
“Not strictly speaking, no,” I answer frankly, “And on my world your counterpart is seeing someone else from her past…a girl named Kino Makoto.”
“Mako-chan?” Ukyo responded with lifted eyebrows.
“Makoto?” I see Perfume give a narrow-eyed glance at her companion, and I can already sense that I've sparked what will likely be a lively discussion of Kuonji's past with my idle revelation, and so I resolve not to mention Akane at this time, knowing full well how that might further complicate the matter.
“I got a feeling I'd like to hear more in detail about your life and situation,” my sister counterpart says frankly, “But first I want to know more about that creep who came here and abducted our children.”
“Believe me,” I say, “I want to know just as much about that as you do. But first we need to find out who that Shang Kwan character is, and then find out what he was doing here and what he wants with your kids.”
“I can answer that question,” Lotion says with grim pronouncement, “Shang Kwan is a name known to the Amazons from long ago. He hails from a remote providence deep in the heart of central China, and he is very ancient and adept at the mystical arts of Taoism. He is neither good nor entirely evil, but he cares nothing for people, only the accumulation of power through greater knowledge.”
“So what does he want with our kids for?” Ranma demanded.
“Yeah,” the girl named Alison affirmed, “Why'd he take little Eileen along with Lylac and Fragrance?”
“I think I know the reason,” the silver haired woman---whom I learned just then was named Beatrice Daitokuji, “Or rather…I dread to suspect that I know it. He wants our children because they are all…very special.”
“More than even you know,” Lotion replied, “For your child has the blood of the gods, while Lylac is a Nexus, child of a near-Nexus, and possesses the unique combination of traits that she has inherited from both of her mothers. As for Fragrance, she is a Sentinel in training. No doubt Shang Kwan is interested in the power that lies dormant within them, power he may seek to claim for himself at the expense of these children.”
Stunned silence follows that pronouncement, and then I say very slowly, “Not if I have anything to say about it.”
“Aiyaa?” Shampoo turned and looked at me with curiosity.
“In a way they're my kids too,” I insist to their surprised expressions, “And nobody messes with my family and gets away with it. You can count me in…in fact, I insist you do.”
Ukyo and Perfume turned matching looks towards my counterpart, as did Shampoo and Ranma, who were obviously used to letting their Nabiki make all the touch decisions.
She looks me in the eye and says, “Fine…then you're in. Only I'm not sure what you can do. This Lore Master thing…I understand it's powerful stuff, and you put on quite a good show just now, but…”
“I understand,” I assure her, “And I'd feel the same way if I were in your place. Or vice versa.”
“Good enough,” she says with a decisiveness that I can't help but admire as I find myself wondering if I was ever this cocky, self-assured and decisive, “Then maybe you can tell us a bit more about this Shang Kwan fellow, Elder. I'd appreciate any useful details you can spare, such as…does the creep have any weaknesses? And how the heck do we handle him when he was throwing us around so easily just now?”
All at once I hear the voice of the redhead named Lenore call out, “Lady Saotome…your sister approaches, and I sense that the boss is with her.”
“Boss?” I ask, then give my counterpart a curious look, “You employ a vampire as a part of your home security?”
“Not me,” my counterpart replies, “She belongs to Kasumi…it's kind of a long story.”
“No doubt,” I say dryly, aware even as I say so that the surprises of the evening are only just beginning…
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