Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Tread Softly in the Company of Wizards... ( Chapter 125 )

[ 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
Ranma's Entries Continue:
For some reason that escapes me completely I had this inexplicable desire to drop by the Kuno place and pay my respects to Kasumi. Don't ask me what prompted this, but Shampoo seemed agreeable enough, and we had time on our hands, and we really were curious to know how she was doing since she moved out of the house to be with her girlfriend.
Now me and Kuno Tatewaki don't exactly get along these days, but with Kodachi there's a kind of nominal truce since we've never really been enemies, and we've even fought side-by-side on occasion, and she ain't really all that bad when you get to know her.
Well…maybe “bad” is a relative term here, because as soon as we knocked on the door we saw it open we were greeted by a cheerfully pleasant Kasumi, who seems to have fit in well with the Kuno lifestyle. Of course right away me and Shampoo kinda “noticed” a few odd things, like the fact that our big “sister-in-law” was sporting a pair of leather cuffs that had looping chains that linked them together through a leather belt-ring, and you could hear the slight tinkling of metal about her ankles, which made us naturally glance down and notice that her feet were cuffed with leather straps held together by a light chain, and beneath her long dress she wasn't wearing no underwear and was definitely barefoot.
Oh yeah…and she had a leather collar around her neck, complete with a loop that you could fit a chain to, just like a dog collar. Even so she was smiling warmly at the both of us and seemed perfectly at ease despite her handcuffs and leggings, and we kinda got the feeling that it was a natural thing for her to be wearing them these days. Just as naturally we didn't want to speculate on what this meant about the kind of life she lived together with Kodachi, but then again…it ain't healthy to ask too many questions when it comes to their relationship.
As long as Kasumi is happy I'm happy, but even so…ya just gotta wonder…
“Ranma-kun,” she said with typical cheerfulness, “Shampoo-san, how very nice to see you again. What brings you here? Have you business with the Mistress?”
That she was referring to Kodachi with a “sama” on the end of her name didn't exactly hit us like a news flash, but I guess we kinda stood there and gaped for a few seconds because neither one of us said or did a thing until Kodachi herself showed up and pleasantly greeted us with a coy, “What can we do for you, Saotome-san? Is this business or a social visit?”
“Ah,” I said, mentally whacking myself on the back of the head for gaping like an idiot, “Nothing, Sham-chan and me just felt like dropping by and seeing how you guys were doing…”
“Aiyaa,” Shampoo said in muted agreement, but I kinda think she meant a lot more by that than just to back up my lame explanation.
“By all means, come inside and let us sit a while,” Kodachi urged with the pleasant attitude of a true hostess, “Do fetch us some refreshments, my Pet, and let us all make ourselves at home while we acquaint ourselves with current events in the lives of our very good friends, the Saotomes.”
“At once, Mistress,” Kasumi replied, and happily went about her way as though playing the role of a servant was as natural to her now as it used to be for her to play “housewife” for the Tendos.
The little chinking noises she made as she sauntered away was a little too hard for us to ignore as Shampoo and me followed Kasumi with our eyes, still trying to grasp the fact that she was living like a virtual slave in the mansion, and yet was obviously loving the role to the hilt, which definitely marks how much she's changed from the shy and “proper” girl that first greeted me and Pop when we came to her place.
“You no doubt are wondering how my loving pet fares within this domicile,” Kodachi said, sounding pretty amused as she read our reactions, “Be assured that she is treated quite well, and that the two of us are very happy together, which you may relate to her father and stepmother should they make inquiries upon this subject.”
Yeah, I know…that's the fancy way both Kunos talk, using a lot of words to get to the point, and if it weren't for Nabiki coaching me I'd never even understand half of `em, let alone be able to spell them proper like. Good thing I've got a great memory, I'd never think of having anybody talk like that if I were writing this like in a novel.
Anyway, we soon found ourselves in a very swank and comfortable room that was almost as big as the Tendo house all by itself. I think she called it her “study,” though it was more like a place to lounge around and read some books or play the piano, or something…nothing else there that I'd call entertainment. And the cushioned chair that me and Shampoo sat on was a huge and soft-padded sofa that let us slouch together and stretch our legs with Sham-chan's almost in my lap while we sat together, watching Kodachi play the hostess while Kasumi served tea and some sweet rolls, then casually set the tray down and sat down on the floor, composing herself between the open wide-spread knees of her “Mistress.”
And in doing so she naturally extended both of her legs in our direction, allowing us to fully see the chain that linked her leather cuffs together, not bothering to hide them…heck, even boasting that she was wearing them, like she was proud of the subject, or something like that.
Something else we definitely noticed right there and then…those chains looked golden, but I kinda doubted that they were solid gold `cause that would make them way too soft and brittle. Heck, even Kasumi wouldn't have no difficulty breaking loose from a pair that thin, so either they were plated, or…maybe she doesn't want to get loose from them…like wearing them is okay with her. And on the other hand (as Nabiki would say), would Kodachi use anything less than real gold, or electrum, in order to bind Kasumi's feet like that? It really starts you to thinking…
Or other stuff, as I caught my hand moving to caress the bare foot of my wife, which I know Shampoo likes a lot. Like me she's got really tough soles and she's used to going barefoot over rough ground, but I know for a fact that her arches, ankles and insteps are really sensitive if you know how to stroke `em, and by playing with the space between her toes I can get her to purr, even when she ain't in her cursed body. For a fact she never bothered removing them from my lap as I started to play with her the way I know she liked, and all the while noticing how clean and well-manicured Kasumi's feet were, as if Kodachi took good care of `em, and considering what neatness freaks she and my big sister-in-law are I doubt that there's even a speck of dust on the floor to get `em dirty.
“Now then, Ranma-kun,” Kodachi began, having elegantly composed herself to play the role of a hostess, even as Kasumi rested her head against one knee and gently stroked a hand over the leg of her “Mistress,” while Kodachi was saying, “What brings you here on this fine day to visit house Kuno? I know for a fact that you cannot be here to pay your respects to my brother.”
There was a funny kind of twist to that last word, and I caught Kodachi momentarily frowning, as if she and her brother ain't on too good terms these days, which I have to say ain't all that surprising.
“Aw…nothing much, just a social visit,” I said, trying hard not to stare at the way Kasumi was acting, “Thought I'd see how you and Kasumi were getting along, that sorta thing…”
“I see,” Kodachi stretched out a hand and caressed the top of Kasumi's head, almost like she were a pet rather than a human, “Well, as you can see we are doing quite splendidly. At least…I have no complaints…have you any to voice, my darling?”
“None whatsoever, Mistress,” Kasumi said happily, and with a completely sincere tone of voice and expression.
I know I ain't got a great “poker face” like Nabiki, so maybe I was a little too obvious about the way I was staring, but I know Shampoo was just as curious as me over how Kasumi could enjoy living like this, a slave in all but name, but obviously not minding it, but still I had to get it out and say, “Really? That's swell…uh…but…well, knowing your brother like I do, I can't see Tatewaki being all that happy about you living like…this, Kasumi-chan.”
Again Kodachi's pleasant expression darkened and I could tell I'd hit a raw nerve, but Kasumi just tilted her head and ran her fingers up and down the leg that was exposed beneath Kodachi's dress, so Kuno-chan managed to get her smile back, though her tone was a bit frosty.
“What my brother thinks about the way I have chosen to live my life…or who with…is of very little interest to me, I must confess,” she said with a sniff of her nostrils, “And he understands that I will not part with my dearest one regardless of what he off-handedly refers to as a `scandal.' Kasumi is very dear to me, and I would not give her up for all the money in the world or all the tea in China. No offense to you, Shampoo-san.”
“None is taken,” Shampoo replied, then my wife decided to try a tact of her own by saying, “Is…it very good for you here, Kasumi-san? You no regret leave family behind to live with black rose?”
“Why should I regret it?” Kasumi replied, and again I could tell that she was being totally honest, “Mistress Kodachi has made me feel great joy in her company, and she gives me a place and a purpose all my own. I am not needed at home since father has remarried, and I am quite happy for him that his new wife, Silk-san, has everything in order and is making him feel so many years younger. Besides…the Mistress and I have an announcement that we were hoping to share with you. Is it permitted for me to tell them, Mistress?”
“You may indeed, my sweet,” Kodachi said as she continues stroking the hair to the top and the side of Kasumi's head, then she looked at us and her smile practically lit up the room, “I have proposed to my darling and she has accepted. I am adopting her into the Kuno family and she will become my wife, as well as everything else that marriage life intenders.”
“Hah?” I said, and then Kasumi extended her right hand and showed off the ring that she was wearing, one with a diamond so big that I had to blink twice, wondering how I could have missed seeing it before, and as pretty much the same thing was running through Shampoo's mind I could hear my wife murmur softly one of her appreciative, “Aiyaas,” which is the short way she has of saying “HOLY FUCK!” or something of that nature.
“Isn't it beautiful?” Kasumi said with radiant happiness, “Even father will be pleased that I am finally getting married, and to my darling Mistress Kodachi.”
I kinda had my doubts that “Uncle Soun” was gonna be any too thrilled when he heard about this, but even I've got better sense than to say something like that aloud, especially considering the way Kasumi and Kodachi treat their relationship like there ain't nothing wrong about it. Funny thing is, I'm even more worried about the way Kasumi might look at me if I implied any sort of criticism her way than I was about what Kodachi might say about it. Ever since I first met both girls there's just been something very intimidating about `em that I can't put my finger on, like anybody who gets in the way of what they want had better be prepared to back it up with more than fists, or something.
Trust Shampoo to be the one to bring up the obvious question that immediately came into both of our heads, “But…Kasumi…what about children? You no worried you no have them?”
“We've talked about that,” Kodachi replied while continuing to play with the hairs of Kasumi's forelocks, “And we have considered adoption as a possibility. However…there is one other avenue that we are hoping to explore, and as such it is quite fortuitous that you should happen upon us this very evening.”
“You see,” Kasumi said as if prompted to speak, “The Mistress and I love each other very much, but we know full well that it takes a man to get one or both of us with child…so…we would have to find a man whom we could mutually respect and trust to provide us with…a sample…oh my.”
She blushed and looked down rather abruptly, as if embarrassed by what she was about to propose, and considering the way she was acting up to this point that oughta tell you a lot about the idea if it could bring a blush to her face that reminded us a lot of the “old” Kasumi.
“He would have to be brave, handsome, strong and capable,” Kodachi remarked as if reading off from a mental list, “A proven gentleman who would not seek to intrude into what Kasumi-sama and I enjoy together, and demonstrably fertile. Do you know anyone who might possibly match that description?”
Okay, call me clueless, but the first thing that came into my head is what I stated, “You want Ryoga?”
“No silly,” Kasumi chided me as if I were a very small infant, “Ryo-kun is certainly a quite admirable fellow, but I would hardly want for my children to inherit his family curse of no sense of direction.”
Kodachi did not look directly at me but rather met Shampoo's stare and said, “Among your people is there not a tradition of one warrior allowing another to make temporary service of her husband in order to replenish your tribal numbers when war, famine or disease has ravaged your village?”
“Aiyaa,” Shampoo got it before I did, “You wish this one to…loan you the use of her husband?”
“Say what?” I blurted.
“It is just an idea,” Kasumi hastily said, “No need for you to give us an immediate decision, Ranma-kun. But the Mistress and I think you would make an excellent choice for the father of our child, and if either one of us were to become pregnant by you we would of course extend you parental rights and visitation…”
“But the child would remain our own in all other legal senses,” Kodachi said simply, “And would bear the name of Kuno rather than Saotome. I know that is asking a great deal of you, Ranma-kun, but we do hope that you will at least consider it as one possible option to provide Kasumi-chan and me with the one thing that would guarantee total happiness in our marriage.
I sat there with my mouth hanging open, but then I noticed the way Shampoo was looking at me and I promptly closed my mouth and said, “Ah…I'm honored…sorta…but…well, ah…Sham-chan?”
It's amazes me the way her mind works, and how she can often turn on a dime and make perfectly rational decisions as if working out the calculations, “This one will consider your proposal and speak of it at length with her husband. If it is deemed that this is the best way of insuring the preservation of your family line, then we will honor you both and do as you have requested.”
Yeah, I know how that comes across sounding on paper, like she was bargaining with me as though Kodachi were asking for the family lawnmower, but I could tell my wife was being polite and stalling for time so that we really could think this whole thing over. I mean…me with either Kasumi or Kodachi? Hey, they're both beautiful girls, don't get me wrong about that, but…cheating on my wife---even with her knowing about it---just to get another girl pregnant just don't sound too kosher, if you know what I'm saying…
“Thank you, Shampoo-san,” Kodachi smiled at her with sisterly affection, “You are as intelligent and wise as you are beautiful and kind-hearted…and may I ask how much longer it will be before your own child is safely delivered?”
Shampoo reflexively moved a hand to her tummy and said, “Great-grandmother and this one's mother think any day now. Is only five months, but think pregnancy speeded up by magic of Jusenkyo.”
“We look forward to the day when your child is in hand and your family has prospered,” Kodachi said graciously, “And…just between us girls, we're hoping it's a daughter.”
“Say what?” I asked, even though we'd already had the sex of our child predetermined. Not that I mind having a girl first, but what's wrong with a son? Shampoo and me are still young, and there's plenty of time to give our daughter a baby sister or brother…
“This one hopes it is so too,” Shampoo said politely, “And maybe you have beautiful baby girl too, much-much resemble mothers but have Airen's eyes and cute little dimples.”
All three women chuckled at that, but I didn't see what was so funny about having dimples. I had `em when I was a kid, but it cleared up as I got older, but I guess that's just the price you gotta pay when you're the only guy in a social group of women.
Kodachi suddenly glanced up at the wall and stared at a clock then said, “Oh my…forgive me please. I had quite forgotten that I left something unattended upstairs. I will be down shortly enough…in the meantime, my sweet, do fetch more of your delicious brownies for our gracious guests. I will try and be back shortly.”
“As you wish it, Mistress,” Kasumi said before getting back to her feet to the sound of a slight jingle of golden chains rattling together.
Kodachi must have had something important to do because she wasted no time taking her leave of us, but I began to notice something a bit odd about the way that Kasumi was walking that had nothing to do with the short steps the chains were forcing her to make, and when she wandered by our sofa I suddenly reached out with a hand to stop her.
Kasumi looked at me a bit oddly, “Ranma-kun?”
I moved Shampoo's feet off my lap and stood up, then I reached down and lifted Kasumi's dress without thinking about it, exposing her bare ass, which had a number of pink stripes criss-crossing her ass-cheeks.
“Aiyaa,” Shampoo averred, then in a rush she was at my side staring at the welts and asking, “Did…did black rose girl do this to sister Kasumi?”
“Oh, those?” Kasumi did not seem so much to mind having her behind exposed as she was by our curious expression, “The Mistress gave them to me, yes, but they're really not all that serious and they'll heal up within a few hours…”
“That ain't the point,” I said, “What'd you do for her to punish you like that?”
Kasumi gave us a very odd smile and said, “Who says that they are punishment? I consider them a reward for very good behavior.”
“Aiyaa?” Shampoo asked disbelievingly, which pretty much matched what I was thinking.
Kasumi gave us both the sort of smile one gives a child when saying, “Wait until you're older,” but what she said was, “We play games together, Kodachi and I, and you caught us in the middle of one of our especially favorite games, the one where I am an expensive courtesan and Kodachi-sama is my natural owner. Of course we play a great variety of different roles in these games, and sometimes I am the slave, but other times…I am the Mistress,” she leered with a sly look in the direction which Kodachi had vanished.
“Games?” I asked, finding it hard to wrap my mind around the idea that getting hit with a stick across your ass was somebody's idea of “fair play.”
“I do appreciate that you may have difficulty understanding this, Ranma-kun,” Kasumi said, “But I am quite content living here with Kodachi, and there is no end to the variety and depth of our affair, which is why I am looking forward to the day when we can exchange formal vows and live as a married couple together. But I must ask that you let my dress down now. Unless you have Kodachi's permission, I cannot allow you to play with her property, even if it might inspire you to consider our proposal sometime later.”
“Property?” Shampoo asked as I hastily let the hem of the dress fall down about Kasumi's ankles.
“Of house Kuno,” Kasumi turned to explain to us, “You see…you are quite right in thinking that her brother had objections to my staying in this house, and I would have left early on for the sake of maintaining peace between the siblings, but Kodachi forbade it and declared that I would belong to her and no other. I was quite agreeable with the idea, and so we signed a formal contract giving her full proprietary right over me in full perpetuity, and I will soon seek officially to have my family name changed to Kuno. Please do explain to father that I am not renouncing my ties to his house, but…I would much rather be here at the side of my Kodachi than live anywhere else, either in Japan or the whole of the world.”
“But…you mean, you really are her slave? I mean…it ain't exactly legal,” I stammered out, trying to understand her matter-of-fact attitude about letting herself be owned by somebody else.
“Perhaps not,” Kasumi said, “Neither is marrying another woman, but we will keep it a private matter to ourselves, and I am bound by my honor to live by the words written in my contract. Full payment for my indentured services comes in the form of the money that I have regularly been sending back to the house to help support you and the dojo. I consider myself legally bought and sold, and I have no regrets about it, only a great deal of joy at being so valued by my Mistress.”
“You mean…the money that Nabiki's regularly been cashing to keep up the house…comes from you selling yourself to Kodachi?” I was pretty appalled about the idea, but she seemed to think it was just a natural business transaction…which made me wonder if Nabiki really knew, and why she had never explained these details to us.
Or did that really need any explanation? Nabiki keeps so many secrets to herself these days, but usually she let me and Shampoo in on the details, sharing and sharing alike and all that. After all, as Nab-chan likes to say, the both of us are her rod, staff and emotional anchor that keep her rooted firmly to the ground when she might otherwise float off with the way her head's been swelling full of learning after studying for a year to be a Lore Master.
Of course I didn't remember any of that at the time, Ganglot's spell being in force and all that, but still it came as quite a shock to realize that we were living well at the house on account of Kasumi ransoming herself out as a slave, which didn't seem right no matter how she thought about it. But just try explaining that to Kasumi, I double-dare you…
“There is more too it than you know, Ranma-kun,” Kasumi said, looking at me and suddenly being quite serious, “You see…Tatewaki-kun has changed much in the time that he has been under the dominion of Cybelle…and Kodachi and I have watched him struggle with what remains of his conscience and humanity…and you are right to be worried. He is steadily losing that battle.”
“But…does that not mean that remaining here is a danger?” Shampoo argued.
“Maybe so,” Kasumi replied, “But Kodachi is the one person who can keep the Master in line and hold him back from totally being submerged by his dark side. She is a few months shy of turning eighteen, whereupon her trust fund will be fully active and she will gain a substantial number of shares of Kuno industries, which Tatewaki currently controls by proxy. If he wishes to remain in charge of the business he must stay within Kodachi's good graces, but that also means that she is in danger from him, or from Cybelle, who might otherwise think of taking her out of the picture, thus clearing the way for total ownership of both the company and the Kuno fortune.”
“Aiyaa,” Shampoo gasped, “You mean…Blue Thunder boy might actually hurt Black Rose sister?”
“His own sister?” I said in disbelief, “You mean…he'd actually kill her?”
“Not him,” Kasumi replied, “But Cybelle might through him, which is why I must always remain in the company of my Mistress, to see to it that no harm comes to Kodachi. For some odd reason Cybelle appears to be afraid of me…I cannot actually say why, but I know that this is so, and thus my presence here is insurance that Tatewaki will behave himself, and that Cybelle will not totally gain control over the Kuno empire. So you see…my being here is actually honorable service, quite apart from the kinky sort of games that Kodachi and I enjoy together.”
That one certainly took me aback, but I knew from the stories I used to hear from my grandfather, Masaki Katsuhito, that in old Samurai days it was considered honorable service for a warrior to contract with a Lord whom they wanted to protect, and some of the ladies that lives in castles did a lot more than just look pretty for the Master. Quite a few of `em were bodyguards in disguise who did double duty for their lords, obeying their words on the surface while carrying a concealed knife or weapon just in case somebody tried to hurt him.
But to view Kasumi in that role was an entirely novel thing. She wasn't a fighter---heck---she couldn't conceal nothing remotely like a weapon under her dress, let alone use one with her wrists and feet being fettered like that. But still…there's just something about her that's kinda intimidating, if you know what I'm saying, and there's a reason why some guys often say that nothing ever bad happens to Kasumi. It's a personality thing, I guess, or maybe something that makes the Tendo girls so different from other women, like the potential within `em that makes Nabiki a Lore Master.
All I know is that, looking up into the eyes of Kasumi, we saw determination written there, as well as a lotta other stuff even harder to nail down, and you know something? I really do pity the guy who tries to do anything bad to Kodachi, because slave or not, he's gonna have to deal with Kasumi first, and that ain't gonna be so easy. I still don't understand what it is that they got going down between `em, but there ain't no denying that they're both pretty committed, and whatever gets in the way of their happiness ain't likely to stand up to that…kinda like the way I feel about Shampoo and Nabiki. Mess with them and you're dead, so ya better watch out Cybelle or you ain't the one who's gonna be left standing…
“We are here.”
The others looked around as Cologne made that simple pronouncement, but what they saw was no cause for quick celebration. Quite apart from the stark and desolate appearance of the place, it had a quite foreboding aspect that warned off the casual tourist and made stout hearts feel a chill of apprehension. Dominating the field of their forward vision it loomed like a skyscraper made of unknown architectural composition, a towering shape upthrust like a finger of stone aimed towards the sky.
“Impressive,” Mousse commented, breaking the spell of apprehension that had fallen upon all of the others.
“Mousse-chan?” his wife by Amazon law, Kurumi, asked politely.
“Well, I'm not saying I'd want to set up a summer home here or anything like that,” the Master of Hidden Weapons replied, “But you have to admit it would discourage door-to-door salesmen, and the view from the top must surely be quite lovely…”
“We ain't here to sight-see,” Ranma growled, “We gotta get inside that place and find the kids, then put the bad guy on ice if he gives us any trouble.”
“Agreed Saotome-kun,” Kuno averred stoutly, “Formidable as this place might appear, we shall breach these gates and deliver your daughters to safety.”
“Assuming we can find them before anything bad happens,” Ryoga averred grimly.
“Do not be defeatist, Brother-in-law,” Natsume chided, “The seven of us are enough to storm the very gates of heaven, and against one lowly Wizard…”
“Archmage,” Cologne corrected, “Never forget, they are a special breed, and rare among mages, being the best or the worst of their kind, not mere conjurers and tricksters.”
“Your point is well taken, honored Baba,” Tatewaki replied, “But with your guidance I am certain that the seven of us will prove more than adequate to the task. Indeed, Ranma-kun himself is now something of a wizard himself, what with the command of his elementals…”
“Be warned that the one whom we are going up against is no mere amateur who can be impressed by elementals and specialized techniques,” Cologne said a bit harshly, “Shang-Kwan is something of a name out of local legends, and if only half the stories told are true then we are in for quite the battle, and so everyone must be on their guard and not get cocky or make mistakes that could seriously cost us.”
“If that's the case, maybe we shoulda brought Perfume along, or maybe even Aiko,” Ranma reasoned.
“Not for this particular stage of our mission,” Cologne turned back to regard the basalt tower, “Stealth is the key word here, not brute force or raw power. Getting in and out must be our primary objective as we are here to rescue the children. Doing battle is a secondary consideration, and that only if we make a mistake and allow ourselves to be detected.”
“I follow you, Old Woman,” Mousse replied, “You want me to use the Shadow Senken, and Saotome here to use the Umisenken to soft-penetrate the building.”
“You two seem the best suited for getting inside past the wards so that the rest of us may follow,” Cologne said sagely, “Your methods involve Chi manipulation more than deliberate acts of magic. The raw force part can be reserved for the rest of you, most particularly Ryoga, who knows the Bakusai Tenketsu and can---if necessary---force his way in past physical barriers in order to create a breach that the rest of us can use to follow.”
“Very shrewd, Baba,” Natsume agreed, “And the rest of us can use our individual arts to pummel the opposition into submission, thus creating a handy escape route for Ranma-kun and my nieces.”
“I don't like the idea of being separated from Mousse-chan,” Kurumi fidgeted, “Is there some way that I could follow after him? I can be pretty stealthy myself when I have to be…”
“This is no mere food raid,” Cologne chided the younger of the two sisters, “The dangers we face cannot be understated. We must do everything within our means to avoid a confrontation UNTIL the children are delivered safely. After that we can be assured that Shang-Kwan will be coming after us, and he will spare no means to our undoing.”
“Bring him on,” Ranma glared angrily, “Nobody threatens my kids and gets away with it…nobody.”
“So say we all,” Tatewaki agreed, “My sword stands ready to smite this cretin, so by all means let us be about our mission.”
“I'm with you on that,” Mousse replied, then quietly composed himself with feet squared apart, and then folded his arms across his chest…and summoned the power of Shadow in and around himself, even as Ranma assumed the Umisenken pose and slowly faded out from visibility by even his closest companions.
Moments later they emerged from their disguises, having scouted out and around the towering structure before each found a means to scale the wall, and thus needed to briefly consult with one another.
“That wasn't so tough,” Ranma said to his somewhat reluctant companion of the moment, “I've scaled mountains and cliffs that gave me more trouble than that.”
“The formidableness of a structure should not be determined by its outward breech alone,” Mousse cautioned, “But you're right, I was expecting that to be more of a challenge. Makes me wonder if we're missing something rather obvious about this place.”
“Such as?” Ranma said as he turned to regard an example of the local architecture, a huge stone gargoyle that stood at the edge of the parapet that they had surmounted, and then in a casual manner the young man rapped his knuckles against the side of the creature and said, “Ugly sucker…wonder who sculpted it?”
All at once the gargoyle savagely backhanded the unprepared Saotome, and then it snarled, “Watch what you say about my mother, Bub!”
“Like that,” Mousse said as he stood instantly on his guard studying the monstrous brute while Ranma peeled himself off of the distant wall against which he had impacted, “Not all the defenses of this place are as innocuous as they might appear…”
“Now he tells me,” Ranma groaned as he fought to shake off the double-impact to his body.
“Well, ain't you the Rhodes scholar,” the gargoyle growled as he stepped down off of the parapet and confronted the two young men with his stone wings spreading wide as though composed of organic substance, “Name's Bruce, pleased to meetcha, now sod off before I get nasty.”
“Kinda late for that doncha think?” Ranma said as he flexed his neck and recovered the rest of his bearings, then stared up at the two-meter tall brute and said, “Sorry about the crack about your looks. I take it you're the watch on duty?”
“Just me and my buddies,” the gargoyle named Bruce said to the accompanying sound of cracking his knuckles, which really did sound as though they were made of granite, “We were sleeping it off after the last party we threw about a fortnight back when you gents happened along to wake me up, and considering the size of my hangover, you'll have to mind me feeling a wee bit cranky.”
“I had heard that gargoyles sleep by day and awake by night,” Mousse reflected while studying the movements of the creature, “And yet it's near to eleven PM in this time zone and here you were sleeping on duty.”
“Eh, watch yer lip,” Bruce scowled, “You don't hear me telling you how to do your business. Not that we get much visitors around here and all, what with Shang-Kwan's reputation being what it is. Most folks got more sense than to try and break into the house of a Wizard who studies the Tao and has as much mumbo jumbo on his side as this one. `Course, not many folks is fool enough to go up against a gargoyle when he's ticked either, so I guess you two don't count as normal people.”
“No,” Ranma said, “We don't,” and all at once he went into motion, his hands moving so fast that they created deadly vacuum-blades that whipped through the air and scored against the stony hide of the monster, causing Bruce to take two steps back and make pained noises as the blows genuinely hurt him, much to his considerable amazement.
Mousse followed up by casting chains from his sleeves that wrapped around the gargoyle and pinned his arms to his sides, leaving only his wings and clawed feet unhindered as Bruce suddenly took to the air, beating down with his leathery appendages with great force, calling up a wind and forcing the two humans to back away with arms raised in their own defense.
“Now ya gone and done it now!” the creature snarled while flexing its arms and snapping the chains as though they were badly rusted, “You think knowing a few tricks is gonna save you?”
“Maybe not,” Ranma grit his own teeth and snarled, “But this will!”
This time he moved his arms far more slowly, but in doing so the wind he conjured up was ten times more powerful than the batting of the creature's wings, and all at once Bruce found himself borne aloft by an updraft much too strong to be resisted. Bruce fought for control but it was clear that he was not gaining the advantage, and all at once he was slammed into the side of the tower wall with force enough to crack a boulder.
“Not bad,” Mousse commented, “But you really shouldn't rely so much on those elementals of yours. It's like with me and the Shadow Senken…I only use it when I have to rather than to telegraph to the enemy my strongest…”
“Save it for later,” Ranma hastily motioned skyward, “We got company, and they don't look too happy!”
Three more gargoyles had appeared in the air and were hovering a few meters away, each one easily as ugly and nasty as the one Ranma had just defeated, and as the young Master of the Senkens had just observed, the definitely did not appear too thrilled about what had just happened.
“Did you see that? He hurt Bruce!”
“Bloody human, who does he think he is, knocking our buddy about like that?”
“We oughta learn him a thing or two about what we do with trespassers what hurts our friend!”
“I see what you mean,” Mousse softly replied, “Forget about what I just said…this definitely does call for the use of my Senken.”
With that subtle declaration in mind Mousse gathered the shadows in and around himself, creating a blanket of darkness around himself that he was able to shape to his will, and then the solidified darkness extended outward in the form of lance-like projections that struck the gargoyles ruthlessly and penetrated their stony bodies before wrapping them in its envelope and casting them aside like skewered rats on a set of pitch forks.
“Wicked man,” Ranma observed a bit grimly, “You know, it weirds me out when you do stuff like that, and did you have to be that rough with them? I think you might've even killed them.”
“No worse than they deserved, and certainly no less than they were intending to do with us,” Mousse said as he turned to regard his companion, “But you amaze me sometimes, Saotome. After all this time, the battles we've fought, the monsters we've put down, some of them a lot nastier than that lot, and still you would show mercy and compassion to creatures who regard us as some kind of lesser life form?”
“I just don't see the point in killing when there ain't a need,” Ranma replied, “Showing a little compassion ain't a sign of weakness, and it's not like those guys could actually hurt us…”
All at once a loud cry of, “YOU KILLED ME BROTHERS! Now I'm gonna kill ye…!” as yet another Gargoyle appeared with a weapon held high bearing down upon Ranma from the rear…only to fall back as a massive fist-shaped rock-hand molded itself out of the very stone of the tower to strike the winged creature down while Ranma himself only turned and stared at the flattened gargoyle.
“Nagisha?” Ranma asked, seeing his elemental servant form a temporary body in the place of the fist, then stare at him with stony eyes that seemed to mingle great concern with irritation.
“The Master of the Shadow Senken is correct, Master,” she grated out with the sound granite might use if it were given a feminine voice, “You are much too soft and kind-hearted for your own good, and you leave too many openings for your adversaries to exploit…which is why we who serve you must work extra hard to insure your safety.”
“Maybe so,” Ranma replied, “But do you really think I'd be all that comfortable with being that ruthless?”
“Sometimes ruthlessness is what the situation demands,” Mousse said as he turned away, “And before you fall back on some maudlin sentimental reason why you should be so high and mighty about your scruples, be mindful that these stone-bred creatures served a master who has ruthlessly taken your children and intends to use them in some unspeakable manner to steal the unique qualities that make them individually so special. Think well about that before extending Shang-Kwan and his minions the hand of mercy.”
Ranma chewed that over, fuming a bit as he tried to think up a counter-argument to the cold logic that the other man was employing, but try as he might he could not look beyond the slow rage that had been building within him over the course of the night. A threat against the children of his house was enough to set his battle instincts on edge. It hardly mattered that none of the three kidnapped offspring were of his own direct get, the fact that they belonged to him and his extended family was more than sufficient cause to claim them as his own.
And no one, NO ONE would be allowed to touch a single hair upon the heads of Lylac, Fragrance or even Eileen, who was the child of two very good friends, and so by right under direct Saotome protection.
“All right,” he said aloud, “So you've got a point there…so if we find this Shang-Kwan guy…he's dead if he does anything to my daughters.”
“Glad to see you're thinking at last,” Mousse said as he turned away, “Believe me, I don't take any particular pleasure in playing the hard ass. If anything I see a lot of myself in you, and I can't express in words how upset I am that your children were taken to be used by a villain who would think nothing of doing them harm.”
“Huh?” Ranma voiced his surprise, “What do you mean? Why should it be so important to you? And what the heck do you mean you see a lot of yourself in me? We're nothing alike!”
“There you are wrong,” Mousse glanced back over his shoulder, “We both know what it is like to feel drawn to a woman who spurns our desires. In my case, obviously, that was Perfume, but in your case it was the woman named Kodachi who treated you as if your infatuation with her made you worth little more than dirt. Of course we've both since turned our affections to someone who returns them with due interest, but that doesn't mean that I've completely forgotten how obsessed I was over Perfume, and how enraged I was on the day when Ukyo took her from me.”
“Yeah, like she was ever yours to claim in the first place,” Ranma said bitterly, though his mind turned briefly back to Kodachi and how beautiful he had always found her, how much he regretted that she had never returned any of his entreaties of affection, but had instead given her heart quite freely to Arigami Keiko, and now the both of them had a child together…which sort of made him wonder deep down if he and Mousse were really so different as he had first imagined.
“Again I agree with you,” Mousse said, “Perfume wasn't mine to claim, and it's taken me this long just to admit it to myself…but does that mean I've stop feeling for her altogether? And what makes you think that I would allow any part of her to fall into the hands of something whose value on life is deplorable even by my standards? As much as I may sometimes resent Kuonji, I am also grateful for her making Perfume so happy…and to you for the same reason…so don't even begin to doubt that I am as committed to this mission as you. I won't let anything happen to Perfume's daughter, even if she's no more a part of me than Lylac is for you, and for exactly the same reason.”
To that Ranma literally could say nothing, leaving it to Nagisha to voice the thought aloud, “There are surprising depths to you, Lord Mousse, which even I would never have suspected.”
“Coming from you, Black Dragon, that is certainly a compliment,” Mousse turned around and half-smiled, “So what about it, Saotome? Ready to break into this place and kick butt on en evil wizard?”
“Sure thing,” Ranma readily agreed as he studied the portion of the tower upon which they presently stood, “Only…how do we get into this dump? I don't see any door or opening, not even a window.”
“Leave that to me, Master,” Nagisha affirmed, “Stone is of the Earth, and is thus subject to my will, however enchanted.”
And with that declaration the Earthen elemental extended one hand and caused a nearby wall to melt and dissolve as though subjected to a blowtorch, and moments later an opening was created large enough for two men to walk through standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
“Not bad,” Mousse remarked, “Maybe I should try finding an elemental myself and get her on contract.”
“I would not advise seeking the services of an elemental of the Shadow world, Lord Mousse,” Nagisha replied, “They tend to be mysterious and subtle, and they drain the life out of whatever they touch from the worlds between light and shadow.”
“Better keep that in mind, pal,” Ranma said, “Besides…having these girls around isn't all fun and games…just ask Nabiki.”
“I have no idea what you mean by that, Master,” Nagisha said with a straight face and only the barest tone of irony in her voice and expression, but nonetheless she dissolved her stony form and flowed back into his body to take up her normal residency in the form of a tattoo around his right leg, and for some odd reason refused at first to respond to his mental entreaty.
Mousse looked directly at Ranma and said, “Now who's creeped out? Doesn't it ever seem to get a bit crowded in your head having four of them sharing space together?”
“You got idea,” Ranma rolled his eyes and decided not to pursue the issue any farther, only turning to enter the door that Nagisha had created with Mousse following closely at his side, both young men extended all of their senses and keeping their combat senses at the ready…
Meanwhile, back at the base of the Tower…
“So far so good, as such things go,” Cologne murmured half to herself, “No alarms appear to have been triggered, other than that brief commotion up there involving the stone Golems,” she indicated the broken remains of one of the gargoyles that had attached Mousse and Ranma, “Now if only they can get through the internal defenses of this sanctum without mishap and find the children before they care discovered, we might yet manage to achieve our aims.”
“I notice that there are an awful lot of `ifs' there, Baba,” Natsume remarked, “And not to cast doubt upon my brothers-in-laws' abilities to enter and leave a place undetected, I cannot quite believe that it would be that simple against a wizard as dangerous as what you have been describing.”
“I agree, my love,” Tatewaki remarked, “It chaffs my warrior's soul to stand here waiting for our turn when Ranma and Mousse face danger together. I would that I could be at the side of my warrior brother, defending his back and keeping a keen eye out for possible menace.”
“Same here with me and Mousse,” Kurumi affirmed, “I know he's good at this sort of thing, but I'd feel a lot better if I was there with him making sure that he's all right.”
“I just hate standing around doing nothing when our friends are in danger,” Ryoga growled, clenching and unclenching his fists as if struggling to contain his agitation, “And my nieces may need all of the help that we can manage…”
“Calm yourselves everyone,” Cologne urged, “Our time will likely come, and sooner than anyone either expects or should want for. Mind you well that none of you were there to confront Shang-Kwan when he staged his bold raid upon the dojo, and so you have no idea of how dangerous he truly is or what the likely odds are arrayed against us. Indeed, without intending any false modesty, I dare say that I am the only one who could stand face-to-face with him and hope to survive such an encounter. The only reason that son-in-law and the others were able recover is that Kwan did not reckon them to be any kind of serious threat to either him or his plans…a foolish misjudgment to be certain, but a strong indicator of the level of confidence he has in the superiority of his magic.”
“Who is this interloper, honored Grandmother?” Natsume asked, “And why do even you speak of him with such trepidation?”
“For one thing, in answer to your second question,” Cologne said, “I have lived a long life and have seen many things in my time that would amaze and astound you, so I know just how dangerous it can be to tangle with an Archmage. For another thing, in answer to the first part of your question, Kwan was born in a time of great unrest, when the nations of Japan and China waged war together over the land that is presently known as North Korea. He was fathered by an act of violence when a Chinese soldier raped a Korean woman after murdering her father and mother. That she survived was itself a minor miracle, but the son grew up regarded as a hated half-breed and a cruel reminder of the days of Japanese occupation, and so the people of his village ostracized him, who drove him and his mother into exile. That she perished from starvation and disease was only to be expected…but that the boy lived and grew to manhood was far less to be credited. It seems that he was born possessed of unusual talents that granted him a favored place in the scheme of larger events that were to follow, and by turns he came to the attention of a Taoist mystic, who recognized in him the seeds of greatness that could be enhanced through time and training.”
“Ah…” Kurumi said uneasily, “Excuse me, but I remember reading somewhere about this in history class…and wasn't that war you just mentioned fought back in the 16th century?”
“Precisely,” Cologne answered, “Meaning that he is at least a century and more older than myself, and has had that much more time to master the finer points of his craft. I will not bore you by reciting a list of his accomplishments and adventures save to note that his name is known throughout most of central China, and spoken of only with fear and apprehension.”
“He is that much of a danger?” Tatewaki asked with lifted eyebrows.
“Enough so that you should be wary before thinking to attach him outright,” Cologne replied, “He would think nothing of killing you or transforming you into something rather unpleasant, and there is a streak of cruelty in his nature that was instilled by the harshness of his upbringing. He cares nothing for morality; all he cares about is increasing his knowledge and power."
“I don't care how old or powerful he is,” Ryoga grit his teeth, baring one fist at the ready, “But if I get to him first he won't be living any longer.”
“Contain your righteous rage, Lord Hibiki,” Cologne urged, seeing signs of his berserker rage steadily building up within him, “Your turn may come soon enough, but it would bode us not well if we act prematurely and make Kwan aware of our existence.”
“On the other hand, Baba,” Natsume said, “Perhaps we could provide a needed distraction for Ranma and Mousse to complete our mission while Kwan is focusing upon our direction?”
“I have considered this, but I doubt it would do us any good, or be that much of an aid to Mousse and Ranma,” Cologne answered, “No, we must wait for the right time before rushing in there and stirring up trouble. Wait and see whether or not our intrepid point-men can manage to pull this off before jumping to any rash conclusions, like waking a dragon from its slumber.”
“That's assuming that this dragon ever sleeps,” Tatewaki pointed out, “Which---from what you say---may not be the wisest of assumptions.”
“Indeed,” Cologne said as she scanned the foreboding exterior of the tower with faint apprehension, “But one can only hope for the best, however unlikely the odds, and these two are the best that we have available for this type of mission, so try and think positive thoughts for their sake while readying for the possibility of an unforeseeable disaster…”
“Man, this place is something else,” Ranma murmured softly as he and Mousse took in the strange architecture all around them, “Kinda like a cross between a museum and a mausoleum.”
“What were you expecting, Saotome?” Mousse replied while taking note of the various books and scrolls set hither and about, some of them propped open to a particular page or section, “Well lit rooms with regular maid service? Obviously Kwan doesn't employ a house keeper to interfere with his personal effects, though I have to concede that he does give every indication of being something of a pack rat, what with all of these mystical paraphernalia and equipment.”
“No kidding that,” Ranma said while casually brushing a singer against the top of a glass case containing a withered skull that still had bits of hair and flesh attached to it, then he blew against a small statuette set upon a nearby shelf and saw the cloud of dust his breath kicked up, which only confirmed his growing suspicions.
“In a way it could be a good thing for us if Kwan lives by himself without a servant,” Mousse continued on as he scanned the racks of weapons lining the walls, some of which looked as though they had seen actual service, as did much of the rest of the trophies and equipment that they passed by as they made their way ever closer to the center of the complex, “It would mean one less party who might detect our presence and alert our host to our existence.”
“There is that,” Ranma conceded, then took notice of a pair of large brass doors that they discovered to one side of the winding corridor, which prompted him to say, “What's that?”
“Unless I miss my guess,” Mousse replied as he studied the ornate engravings and molded cast settings that adorned the massive frame and partition, “That's where we need to go if we're going to find the ones that we're after.”
“So how do we get in there?” Ranma asked as he ran his fingers along the brassy surface, “I don't see no doorknobs, and I doubt it slides sideways.”
Mousse glanced up and said, “No, but it does appear to have brass handles, and considering what they appear to be shaped like I feel somewhat compelled to say…”
“Don't,” Ranma urged, sensing what Mousse meant as he noted the conical shape of the projections.
“I can't help myself,” Mousse admitted a bit sheepishly, “Those are some very big knockers…and I'm not even sure if I would want to meet the lady whom they were patterned after as she would likely put even Perfume-chan to shame. Of course she might also likely deck me if she heard me say that.”
“Count on it,” Ranma said firmly, then studied the doors before saying, “Anybody have any ideas how to get it open?”
“It usually works best if you know the password.”
Both Mousse and Ranma whirled around and discovered the one who had spoken just then. For Ranma it was the instant shock of recognition, while for Mousse it was a first time experience, but both knew their enemy in an instant from the cold and calculating look in his eyes as he regarded them both with a faint smile of easy condescension.
“You?” Ranma said as he instantly stood at the ready.
“Shang-Kwan I presume?” Mousse asked, being somewhat more defensive than offensive in his posture.
The Taoist wizard regarded the taller of the two boys and said, “Your accent sounds familiar. Bayankala Mountain range, if I am not too mistaken.”
“I'm from the tribe of Joketsuzoku,” Mousse replied, keeping his hands free and at the ready, “Two of those children you'd taken are the great-great granddaughters of our matriarch…but then, you already knew that.”
“I am fully aware of their unique pedigree,” Shang-Kwan replied without many any overtly hostile gestures, “And how is my dear old friend, Cologne, doing these days? I believe that I detected her presence the moment you arrived in the vicinity of my tower, but she is cloaked as if expecting some minor disguise to confuse my mystic senses.”
“What?” Ranma said as the slow realization dawned upon him.
“You knew we were here the whole time?” Mousse's own eyes widened.
“It's a trap!” Ranma declared, at once summoning the power of his elemental ladies into both hands and attempting to harness them, only to find their mismatched forces less than easy to summon in concert.
Shang-Kwan shifted his attention to Ranma and said, “You both interested me, and I was curious, so I decided to permit you to enter my tower. You have four powerful hosts residing within you…most extraordinary. Few mortals can bear the strain of even one elemental ally at a time, yet you seek to maintain a balance between four of the seven main elements of nature. And you…a master of Shadow it would seem? No, not quite a master…I perceive that you are only just a novice, a dabbler.”
“We'll see about that, Kwan!” Mousse declared as he extended his hands and projected his chains from their usual point of concealment.
Kwan merely raised a hand and halted the chains mid-way to his position.
“Honestly, my dear fellow,” the Archmage said with an almost friendly tone of banter, “Did you think it would be as simple as this?”
Ranma decided to shift tactics and called instead upon the energies of one elemental, extending his right arm and summoning Latisha, who appeared in the form of a fiery dragon who opened her jaws wide and spewed flame in the Archmage's direction.
But Kwan merely withstood the flames then raised his hand and summoned the fires into himself and banished the flames altogether.
“Is that the best that you can do?” the wizard sniffed, “Honestly, no control, no style, very little use of creative technique. It seems you are little better than an amateur. Too bad you won't get the chance to achieve true greatness.”
With that Kwan gestured and caused a blast of energy to engulf the spot where Ranma had been standing, only Ranma was not fool enough to remain still and just take it, having shifted at once to take evasive maneuvers based on the Umisenken.
“Fast, and quite agile,” Shang-Kwan remarked as he studied the motions of his opponent while firing off blast after blast as though testing his opponent, “You are certainly a resourceful one…”
Ranma tried the direct approach, shifting from defensive to the attack, but no sooner did he close upon his enemy then he encountered some sort of invisible barrier that deflected his fists and caused him to literally bounce off and strike the nearest wall with his backside.
“Not too bad,” Shang-Kwan remarked, “But still a bit sloppy. Now, where did your Amazon friend get off to at the moment…”
“Right here,” Mousse said from directly behind the wizard, and before Shang-Kwan could react a curtain of darkness spread out from the Chinese youth and engulfed him. Shang-Kwan literally felt a wave of chilling darkness rise up from the floor to surround him, but despite evidencing mild surprise on this point the Archmage gave no evidence of concern as the blanket of Shadow rose up to neck level.
“Well, this is certainly an improvement, but still not impressive enough,” Kwan said as he flexed his arms and suddenly caused a brilliant wave of light to radiate out from his body, disrupting the Shadow and causing Mousse to stumble backwards, “The both of you interest me, but most particularly the Nexus. Of you both he is clearly the more dangerous, and yet neither of you has given me cause to justify a further expenditure of time on your behalf, especially at such a critical juncture.”
“Oh yeah?” Ranma said, getting up once again and attacking this time using the Yamasenken, attempting to employ brute force to “break down” the barrier surrounding his foe as he would the doors to a house…and yet still the barrier held, his foot coming no nearer to Kwan than his fists had the first time.
“Now that was certainly a most powerful attack,” Kwan mused, extending his own hand again, “Now feel mine.”
This time there was no time to move to avoid the assault, but Kwan had chosen to employ a widespread force projection rather than a concentrated energy burst, and so Ranma was merely stunned and hurled backwards rather than blown apart to his constituent elements.
And this time what he hit proved a lot more solid than the walls as he made close impact against the brass doors and their fixtures. Those doors swung inward from the force of his rude entry and Ranma found himself spilled onto the floor of a corridor leading to an adjoining chamber somewhere at the center of the tower itself, and as he skidded to a halt he found himself just a few meters shy of the edge of a circular pit that ran all through the length of the towering building.
“Daddy!” he heard a tiny voice call out to him, and as Ranma attempted to shake the sparks out from his field of vision he looked up in dismay and saw three diminutive forms hovering upside down at the center of the chamber.
“Lylac?” he gasped, clearing his head enough so that he could better make out the details of their current status, “Fragrance, Eileen? Just hold on there, Kids! Daddy's coming to get you!”
“Hurry daddy!” his purple haired step-daughter called out, looking at him with round eyes that went even wider as she spied something just a few meters beyond him, to which she cried out, “Daddy---watch out!”
“Huh?” Ranma turned in time to see Shang-Kwan slowly approaching him in a manner that implied low menace. Ranma wasted not time getting back to his feet and assuming a fighting crouch as he snarled, “You bastard! How dare you do this to my kids!”
“They are my guests now,” Kwan replied matter-of-factly, “And as touching as it is to see them reunited with their loving father, I still much insist on cutting this parental visit short as I have a bit of a deadline to consider, and you are just in the way for now, so I must deal with you directly.”
“Oh yeah?” Ranma snarled, concentrating all of his energy into his left hand and summoning up Sharil, “Try dealing with this, Asshole!”
The very floor literally shot up with a pillar of water that engulfed Shang-Kwan, who acted surprised for a mere second before reacting in time to draw the elemental into his hand, and then capture her as her fluid form vanished altogether.
“Now that was interesting,” Shang-Kwan remarked as he studied his own now-emptied hand, “Two of your servants down. Care to try for another?”
In Ranma's mind he heard the word, **Master, allow me this time.**
To which he heard Karina voice protest, **Are you nuts? You saw what he just did to Sharil and Latisha? You gonna let the same thing happen to you?**
**I have already labored in the service of one monster who was not worthy to be my Master,** Nagisha snarled, **But I will be damned to the lowest of hells before I allow this one to harm my more worthier Master!**
This time the very stones beneath Kwan's feet rose up and formed a fist with which to crush him, but once more the Archmage summoned up an energy field to meet and contain the danger, and then a mere twisting of one hand caused Nagisha's elemental essence to be snatched up, and all at once she vanished from Ranma's template.
“Nagisha?” he gasped, “Sharil? Latisha?”
“Three down, Boy,” Kwan smiled cruelly, “Have you learned your lesson yet? I've been doing this for centuries, and I've faced opponents far more formidable than you, and yet you keep insisting on hurling these servants of yours into my hands for disposal. Oh, don't look at me like that…they're not destroyed. I merely contained them in a pocket spell that will keep them civil until I decide what is to be done with them later.”
“You'll never get away with this!” Ranma snarled despite the fears that were gripping his chest, “Even if I can't wipe that snotty look off your ugly face, you're still gonna go down, you heartless bastard!”
“Oh, do you mean that your friends will come rushing in here to avenge you?” Shang-Kwan sneered genteelly, “Do not worry about them…I already have a warm reception planned for that lot. Fear rather for where you are going,” he mused while raising a hand and causing a swirling pool of energies to form directly behind Ranma.
“Daddy!” Lylac called out in warning, “Look behind you!”
“Huh?” Ranma risked a glance over his shoulder, only to widen his eyes as he saw what looked like a miniature spiral-shaped opening taking shape immediately behind his backside, “What…what the hell is that?”
“I call it the Gateway to Oblivion,” Shang-Kwan replied, “But for you…it is your new home away from this dimension!”
And with that he gestured and caused Ranma to be struck by a wave of force that picked him up and sent him hurtling backwards, and he might have been swallowed up immediately by the vortex save for a swiftly hurled chain that whipped by his face, which Ranma instinctively grabbed at as though it were a lifeline.
“Saotome---hold on!” Mousse urged as he firmly gripped the other end, “Don't let go or you'll be…!”
“Are you still conscious?” Shang-Kwan said in mild annoyance as he turned to the other boy and made a casual sweep of the hand that caused the chain to be severed, sending Ranma hurtling all the way into the vortex as Lylac screamed out to him, with Fragrance joining her in a shrill-voiced chorus.
Mousse staggered backwards but was not yet taken out of the fight. That feat was accomplished mere instants later, however, as Kwan hurled yet another spell, this one multi-faceted that simultaneously struck the Chinese boy in a number of unguarded places.
“Well, now that he's subdued, time to extend my best wishes to Cologne and her minions,” Kwan smiled as he turned his vision elsewhere, the vortex behind him now closed and utterly vanished, with no trace of Ranma anywhere to be found despite the weak and desperate cries of three captive elementals…
Natsume was the first to notice that something was amiss, and she murmured faintly to Cologne, “Baba?”
“I feel it too, child,” Cologne said while tensing her grip upon her staff, “Everyone be ready…it appears that our attempt at stealth has gone somewhat awry…”
Kurumi gasped and pointed, “No fooling! What the heck is that?”
All at once the very stones surrounding them rose up and took the form of menacing shapes, their black basalt hides resolving into ugly grotesqueries whose lumbering, brutish shapes denoted a form of live that was other than strictly human.
“Trolls,” Cologne said aloud, “And by their likeness of the Mountain clans, the type who are all but extinct throughout most of the world occupied by mortals.”
“These miscreants seem very real to my thinking,” Tatewaki said as he at once assumed a defensive crouch and held his bokken at the ready, “And in truth I am somewhat relieved to be at last presented a target against which to vent my righteous wrath, though I also fear for my brother-at-arms' safety.”
“If Ranma's in trouble then I'm going in there, and nothing is going to stop me,” Ryoga avowed as he balled his fists and appeared quite eager to be going into battle, “Especially not these rock things…”
“Don't let their brutish appearance put you off your wits, Boy,” Cologne said sharply, “They can move quite swiftly, and they are nearly as powerful as your Oni kinsfolk.”
“Not strong enough to deal with this!” Ryoga snarled as he lunged forward, extending one finger, “BAKUSAI TENKETSU!”
The attack, though sudden, was somewhat less than fully effective, and while his lunge did cause a portion of the stony hide of the Troll that he stuck to collapse and explode into almost meaty chunks of bone and gristle, enough of the Troll was left standing to savagely backhand the offending Hibiki, sending Ryoga flying backwards even as the other Trolls reacted with anger and dismay at this assault upon one of their number.
“Hey, did you see what he just did to Phil?” one Troll growled to another.
“That's uncouth!” the other Troll snarled to his brethren, “Let's get them!”
“Oh kuso!” Natsume exclaimed as the Trolls came surging upon them from all directions.
“What happened?” Kurumi asked as she dodged a huge club and lashed out with her trademark hair ribbon, “Why didn't Ryo-kun's technique destroy him?”
“The Bakusai Tenketsu is less effective against living stone than it is ordinary rock and granite,” Cologne replied while fending off two Trolls with her staff, “Living things are surrounded by a life aura that confuses the flow of energies that makes the Tenketsu usually so effective."
“Now she tells me,” Ryoga grunted from the pile of stones against which he had just collided.
“Living or unliving, they shall feel the sting of the sword of the Blue Thunder!” Tatewaki exclaimed, lashing out with his bokken and employing the full effect of his skills in Nampo to create energy waves that made the rosewood's attacks all the more deadly and effective.
Natsume was busy fighting back-to-back with her fiancé, but while her own trademark weapon was doing a quite effective job of holding the Trolls on her side at bay, still the nagging sense refused to leave her that the real source of their menace had yet to manifest, though her Slayer instincts warned that it was fast approaching.
All at once she cried out, “Baba! Over to your left!”
“Eh?” Cologne started to turn around when she was hit by a wave of force that drove her to her knees and made her lose her grip upon her staff before she had time enough to erect her defenses.
“Cheers and salutations, my old friend,” Shang-Kwan remarked from the high rock faced formation atop which he was standing, “Come to pay your respects to me on the eve of my ascension to godhood? How very thoughtful of you. And as for you rest…”
His eyes briefly flashed with fire, and a wave of pain and force fanned out to engulf the human fighters, leaving the Trolls utterly unaffected. Almost like puppets with their strings cut loose, one by one Natsume, Tatewaki, Kurumi and Ryoga toppled to the ground and remained unmoving, not unconscious but rather paralyzed, their bodies utterly refusing to obey the signals that their brains were frantically sending.
“When will you ever learn?” Shang-Kwan shook his head a bit sadly, “It does no good to send your Amazon warriors against me. Only one member of your tribe is fit to be called my equal, and you foolishly did not come with her as your backup. Ah well…time heals all things but memory it would appear, but surely you could not have doubted that this would be the outcome?”
Cologne frantically fought against the force that held her at bay, but then said force reversed itself and she was jerked off her feet and suspended in mid-air, hovering only a couple of meters away from Shang-Kwan as the wizard observed her closely, then smiled to himself and said, “Honestly…what were you thinking? And what is the meaning of this ridiculous disguise you are wearing? I much prefer to view you as I remember.”
Cologne struggled in vain against the invisible hands gripping her tiny body, but all at once her eyes went wide and she found herself being subjected to the effects of an even more potent spell, and against her will she started to change and lose her withered appearance. Old age disappeared, to be replaced moments later by ageless beauty as her white hair turned Indigo and her skin lost all of its wrinkles, assuming a smooth and blemishless texture as her body filled out in all the appropriate areas and grew to a somewhat more “normal” stature.
“Baba?” Natsume gasped from where she lay prone upon the ground, now gripped by Trolls who took advantage of her currently nerveless condition.
“Old…woman…?” Tatewaki asked disbelievingly as he struggled in vain to regain control over his own now-captive body.
“Granny?” Kurumi gasped weakly.
“Ah…now that is much better,” Shang-Kwan's smile became a leer as his eyes roved up and down the Matriarch's transformed visage of unparalleled beauty, “Why ever would you want to hide such loveliness from the eyes of all others?”
Cologne struggled to fight free of his grip upon her, but all she managed to grate out (in a voice no longer so raspy or withered), “To guard myself against fools like you who only see what is on the surface…”
“My, such a narrow view,” Shang-Kwan averred, “Perhaps time has dulled your memory of when we both were so much younger. Ah well, I can make up for that by inviting you to share an evening meal with me. After all, it is several more hours yet until the stars and planets are in the appropriate position.”
“Get stuffed,” Cologne retorted, but not very effectively as her helpless state only seemed to fan the Wizard's interest.
“Oh yes,” Shang-Kwan said as though in afterthought, turning to regard the others, “I suppose I should extend my hospitality to the rest of your rather pathetic crew. It is the least that I can do for strangers who are bold enough to assault me in my own stronghold.”
“Ra…Ranma…” Ryoga gasped.
“Ah yes, him,” Shang-Kwan mused as he studied the face of the fallen Hibiki, “Hmmm…I do detect a family resemblance, but you are not yourself entirely human. Well, if you must know, both he and the other chap are my guests as well, so you might as well come inside and get re-acquainted. Oh Bruce?”
One of the Trolls grated out, “Yeah Boss?”
“Do be a chap and carry them inside,” Shang-Kwan directed, “But try and be gentle…humans tend to bruise easily, and I cannot play a proper host if they are broken during transport.”
“Not to worry, Boss,” the Troll named Bruce said while lifting Natsume from the ground and dangling her by one leg, “We'll be as gentle with `em as if they were babies…the kind that aren't for eating, of course.”
“Of course,” Shang-Kwan replied, turning around and heading back towards his tower fortress, a hapless Cologne following after him as she floated in his wake, albeit unwilling.
“Natsume-chan!” Tatewaki cried out, “Unhand her, brute, or else…!”
“Aw shuddup,” the Troll presently holding him captive snapped, “The boss says not to damage ya, but if you give us any lip then I suppose a few times dropped on yer heads oughta quiet you down some.”
“Yeah, and we might even play a few games with this one,” another Troll said as he indicated Kurumi, “She looks cute enough to be made into a pet. I always wanted me own hamster.”
“This looks bad,” Kurumi shuddered, then stifled a sharp scream as she was carried like a rag doll in the brutish hands of the Troll, appalled at how easily they had just been subdued and defeated, and even more worried that none of them might live to see another tomorrow.
She only hoped that the cavalry would arrive soon to save the mission, but in light of how powerful the Archmage had just demonstrated himself to be she was starting to have doubts about it and could only pray that Mousse was all right and that they would be reunited soon because she was fighting on the verge of a real panic, and only his comforting presence could help her stave off the despair that was threatening to choke her very being…
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