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The Unbroken Circle: Chapter three

Kenzan no Akuinnen

Part B

Disclaimer: Takahashi provided the paints, I'm just working on my own easel.

What has gone before:

After revealing his curse to his mother, Ranma explains what's going on in his life. Nodoka forgives Ranma for the deception, choosing to blame Genma for the mistakes instead. The trio of Ukyou, Ranma, and Chame leave Nerima, heading into Kansai. Happosai broods, and hatches a quick plan to retrieve Ranma, using the aid of a certain flying monster...

Previous chapters are archived at: http://ranma.stassen.com/uc/

Brief key, trying to stay simple.

<> frame thoughts.

"" frame speech

"{}" frame speech in Mandarin

 

"In the science of martial arts, the state of mind should remain the same as normal. In ordinary circumstances as well as when practicing martial arts, let there be no change at all -- with the mind open and direct, neither tense nor lax, centering the mind so there is no imbalance, calmly relax your mind, and savor this moment of ease so thoroughly so that the relaxation does not stop its relaxation for even an instant."

From 'The Water scroll' - Miyamoto Musashi's 'The Book of Five Rings'

 

"The mind is like the moon in water,

The body is like an image in the mirror."

Yagyu Munenori - from 'The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War'

 

Ranma stared into the campfire silently, poking it with a stick occasionally. Ukyou was asleep to one side, already rolled into her sleeping bag. Chame reclined against a tree, staring up at the few stars peeking through the branches of the trees that enclosed the clearing.

He set the stick down, sighing, and turned to his new teacher. "Chame?"

She blinked a few times, then looked at him, turning away from her study of the heavens. "Yes, Ranma?"

Ranma licked his lips nervously, then asked, "Why did you lie to my mother?"

She stared at him for an intense minute, not saying anything. Her eyes bored into his, and he was about to tell her to forget about it, when she spoke again, "I'm sorry." She stared back up at the stars pensively. "I know you deserve to know the truth, but there is a lot that I can't tell you. It has to do with when I was a child..."

Ranma said nothing, afraid that if he did, she would stop speaking.

Chame sighed, still staring at the sky. "My father... he told me that I had to lose my name. He said that I would get it back one day, when the time was right." She shook her head, as though to clear an idle thought from it, and looked Ranma in the eye. "He told me that I would get it back when I found someone who could help me fight... an enemy."

Ranma grinned cockily. "That's easy. I'll help you," he said, pointing a thumb towards his chest.

She stared into Ranma's eyes, brooding. "Ranma... this isn't going to be easy. This isn't a normal fight where you knock someone down, maybe even knock them out..." She hesitated, then explained, "This is a fight to the death. To totally destroy something."

Ranma stared at her, not saying anything for a moment. His smile slipped. "I'm... not sure I can do that. I've been mad enough to before, and I might have said that I'd do it but..." He trailed off, uncertain, then asked, "What did he do to deserve this?"

Chame drew her knees towards her, and stared at her feet. "No, not a... person. But it is a conscious thing."

Ranma frowned thoughtfully. "I've fought a few things that aren't human... but not very often. I fought the Orochi before."

Chame raised an eyebrow inquisitively. "You did?"

He nodded, eyes distant. "Yeah, and it was the first time I really got close to-" he snapped his mouth shut, staring sullenly into the coals. <Why do I keep thinking about her? Why can't I put this behind me?> He sighed, continuing, "Yeah. I did. But I wasn't alone, and I didn't kill it."

Chame sighed, putting her arms around her knees, and eyeing Ranma in a considering manner. "A dragon. You fought a dragon... No... you wouldn't have to be alone." She shuddered. "Being alone is the worst fate that can happen to a person, I think. But it would be much more dangerous than the Orochi..."

Ranma stared into the fire glumly for a moment. "Yeah. I guess so. That thing was pretty much half asleep when I fought it." The fire snapped suddenly, and a glowing coal fell out. Ranma kicked it back into the fire pit, mulling things over.

"Remember, you aren't alone and... you don't have to do this if you don't want to." Chame's expression was unreadable.

Instinctively, Ranma felt her aura, gently this time, not letting the emotions overwhelm him. He felt... fear? Worry? He blinked, and felt again. <She's afraid. She's afraid that I'll abandon her.> He swallowed, worriedly. This was almost as bad as a girl crying, but he knew that she wasn't faking it, like some girls would to him. "Chame?"

"Yes?" Her voice betrayed no emotion, it seldom ever did.

"Who abandoned you?"

She blinked, taken aback, then resumed staring at her feet, grabbing her knees tighter. "My father. My father cast me out... after my mother left us. He left, and said that I could have my name back when I 'break the circle.' He said that I'd know when the time was right to reclaim my name. That there was an enemy that he needed help to destroy. I have to find someone strong enough to help me and him to fight. Someone who was powerful, and should hopefully have the blood of our tribe. But I'm not so sure now, I don't even remember what my family name used to be."

Ranma sat back, surprised. "I'm... sorry. I didn't know. It must have been hard for you to watch me and my mother..." He trailed off lamely, realizing how hurtful his words might be.

Surprisingly enough, to him, she smiled, and he could feel that she meant it. "No... it was nice. I felt a little jealous, but my father never did anything to me near the magnitude that your father did."

He nodded again, studying the glowing coals. "Is your father... is he still alive?"

Chame's smile widened, "Yes. I contact him every now and again... but I've not seen him since he left. He cares about me, I know, it's just that... He keeps himself busy doing his part towards breaking the circle, but he doesn't tell me much."

Ranma mumbled, "The 'Unbroken Circle,' right? What is it?"

Her smile disappeared, replaced by the stern gaze he was slowly learning was the face she used when she was not sure what the best answer to a question. "I'm not certain, though I have a definite suspicion."

Ranma waited impatiently, prompting, "And that is?"

Chame's expression changed to a look of sorrow. "I can't tell you. I'm sorry. I wish... I can't. Not yet. Not until I'm certain. Sometimes, I get flashes, and I think I know what it is, but if I say it... it will be wrong. I have to wait until I know before I tell you."

Ranma nodded at the truth in her words. "I understand, then. I won't press. We should get some sleep."

She agreed, and they retired to their sleeping bags.

***

Ryouga opened his eyes. <Dark again.> There was a familiar pain, as he opened his eyes again, the sound of something rending, the sensation of caked blood on his eyelids. He shuddered, and managed a soft squeal.

The woman turned to him, exclaiming, "Oh! You're awake again, eh?" She gently cupped him in her small hands, and looked him over, adding, "You're a lucky one, you know. Very lucky."

She smiled, and turned off the television in the background, nestling him in her bosom. He sighed contentedly, almost letting himself drift back to sleep, but kept awake by the slight lurching sensation of the girl walking from the room. The smell around her was... clean. Safe. He wiggled around, trying to look into her eyes.

She looked down on him and smiled again, gently kissing his nose. "You cute thing! You're going to be just fine. Now, sit here, and don't move around or you'll fall off." So saying, she sat him down, and turned to pay attention to the facilities. Blinking, the pig glanced around, idly noting that they were now in a bathroom.

He nodded at her, and she regarded him for a moment. "You're a smart little guy, aren't you. Well, let's get you cleaned up..."

He sat on the towel she had left him on, and looked around. The towel rested on a small overturned bucket, he could probably jump off easily, but he wouldn't; she had asked him not to.

A small voice in the back of his mind warned him, said that she was going to use warm water on him. He snorted softly to himself, what was so bad about warm water? There shouldn't be a problem with it.

She hummed softly as she prepared the bathtub. It only needed to be a few inches deep for the small pig. Testing to water to make sure it wasn't too hot, she nodded, and turned towards the pig again. She smiled at him, sighing wistfully. "You are _so_ cute!" With that, she picked him up.

The pig's eyes widened, as he flashed back suddenly to an earlier memory.

"Curse you Ranma! Today you will die! You knocked me into that damned cursed spring!" A moment to draw in breath, "Because of you, I've seen _hell_!"

He shuddered, twitching. <No! She can't! The water!> He struggled, weakly. He dimly realized that something was wrong with his body, something aside from being a pig. <I can't let her, I can't, I have to->

But he couldn't. He was too weak. She spoke softly, stroking his head gently, and murmuring to him soothingly. She was too strong for him right now, and then... she lowered him into the tub.

Taking stock of his choices, he opted to pass out before he hit the water.

***

Akari stared, wide-eyed. The wounded piglet she had found a few days before had been healing well. It was well behaved, and even seemed remarkably intelligent.

She had nursed him slowly back to health, and decided that he was well enough to be washed. She was slightly worried about the wounds getting infected, and hesitated to use too much iodine. But then she put the piglet in the bath...

Akari ran out of the bathroom, screaming, and fled to her room. She clawed though her things, and the small pile of odds she had found with the piglet. Someone's clothing, and a bloodstained umbrella. She didn't think it was much of a weapon, but it would do. Her original assumption was that the pig had been beaten with it. Sighing, she hefted it. <The damn thing weighs a ton!> If it weren't for a lifetime of working with pigs, she suspected that she wouldn't have been able to carry it.

She marched back into the bathroom, resolute, and flung the door open. The man hadn't moved, and didn't seem to react. She approached him slowly, wary of any sudden movements. He appeared to be asleep.

He was cute, in a rough sort of way. Akari shook her head. <What am I thinking?> She poked him gently, to wake him, and leapt back. He didn't budge. Akari studied him closely. His breathing seemed labored, and the bandages he wore as a pig had torn off. One of the wounds looked like it had been re-opened.

She bit her lip, considering, and sighed, dropping the umbrella. She winced as she heard tile crack, but prodded the man more firmly. He still didn't react. She groaned, noting the red tinge the water was taking, and grabbed the spare bandages. After she had deftly cleaned and bandaged the wounds, she sat back, considering.

The man was naked, and that made her nervous, but... She shook her head, and gathered him up in her arms. He was heavy -- heavier than the umbrella -- but she could carry him. She placed him in the guest bedroom, pulled the blankets over him, and left.

She returned to the room shortly after, with a chair, and the umbrella. He would wake up eventually, and when he did, she had some questions.

***

Cologne glanced around the room, critically. Shampoo entered, carrying a few bags of clothing. Mousse was behind her, carrying the rest.

The old woman sighed, and hopped over to a chair a short distance away. The dust rose around her as she sat, giving her a brief, but ominous halo as the last vestiges of sunlight creeping through the window. Shampoo looked around miserably. Mousse tried to put a consoling arm around her, but she wouldn't have it, and smashed her fist into his face.

He staggered back, hands covering his nose, protesting, "{But, but, Shampoo!}"

She snorted at him derisively, "{Leave now, Mousse. I have a number of problems, and you are among the least of them. I have no wish to speak to you further today.}"

He sulked, and left, taking his bags with him.

Cologne sighed as Shampoo set about cleaning. She could see the anger in her great granddaughter's movements, and she knew that if she ignored it, things would only get worse. "{Sit, Child. We need to speak.}

Shampoo's hands twitched, but she dropped the broom and sullenly sank to her seat. "{Yes, Honored Elder?}"

The old woman cracked a smile, and shifted to a more comfortable position. "{You don't have to call me that. We're alone. But tell me, what troubles you right now?}"

The purple-haired girl fidgeted angrily for a moment, before her words burst forth, "{Why didn't I get to take my husband home? Why did I have to lie and say he left with me! Why didn't he come with us?!}" She trembled from her anger, fighting tears back with rage.

Cologne sighed, then stated, "{All is not lost. We still have a chance.}"

Shampoo perked up instantly, and her anger faded. "{How, Honored Elder? How?}"

Cologne sighed slowly, savoring every second she took to expel the air before replying. "{He will have to return here someday. When he does, I have a plan. But it will require patience... possibly years of patience.}"

The younger girl paused for a moment, then shook her head. "{I don't understand... what is your plan?}"

Cologne's eyes gleamed in the dim lighting of the room. "{We can take him by force if we have to. Now that the... girl has him, we can't do anything. But if she isn't around to protect him... What the girl didn't realize, is that she trusted us too much. We can read all of their letters before passing them on.}"

Shampoo nodded thoughtfully, saying, "{And some day, when he mentions she's not near, we send him a letter designed to bring him here. But once he's here, how will I get him?}"

The old woman's smile was sinister in the lighting. "{When he comes here, I will have a trap laid for him. A trap he won't escape from.}"

Shampoo smiled eagerly. "{Tell me more, Honored Elder! Please!}"

"{We will bind him with magic. Once that's done, I have a spice... a rare one, that will bind him to us utterly.}"

Shampoo's eyes fairly glowed. "{And then he will stay with me forever?}"

Cologne nodded at Shampoo. "{Yes, though there might be a few complications... let us discuss this tomorrow, after a bit of rest...}"

***

The beast flew low over the land, searching for its prey. A forested valley passed beneath it, as it growled softly, and flew about in questing patterns. It was dark out, and would be hard to see anything.

It beat its wings furiously to gain some altitude, and spiraled downwards slowly, scanning the ground. <If fem-boy's got a camp somewhere, I'll see the light of his fire. The old man said he'd be around here...>

Snickering to itself, the monster thought. <Jeez, this is easy. Find fem-boy, take care of anyone following him, and bring him back to the old man. I can't wait... the name of my choosing, and it will be mine. Nothing will stop me. Ranma, you are _MINE_!!>

The beast let out a booming, screeching laugh, and flew off to the next valley. <Soon...>

***

Ranma sat up, breathing heavily, and looked around him. Ukyou had already woken. She was humming to herself as she prepared something for breakfast.

He blinked, rubbing his head, <What was that dream about? Never mind that... something smells good.> He grinned as he rose, stretched, and crept towards Ukyou. Her back was to him, and he couldn't see what she was making.

She released a battle cry, and Ranma jumped back, only to catch the flung okonomiyaki in his mouth. Ukyou grinned wryly, and turned to face him. "Morning, Ranchan."

He gulped down his breakfast, and smiled back. "Thought I could get you by surprise. Good morning, Ucchan. Rest well?"

She nodded, and glanced over towards where Chame was stirring. "Yeah. Chame, you want something for breakfast?"

Chame blinked and stared at the portable grill for a moment before shaking her head. "You have one to take with you. I should have guessed. Yes, please."

Ranma yawned, and stretched again. "I have a good feeling for the day. How long do you think it's going to take us to clear that mountain?"

Chame shrugged, chewing on the okonomiyaki that Ukyou had made for her. "Well, if we can find the demon lurking in these woods, then very quickly."

Ukyou and Ranma shared a glance, but the pigtailed boy shook his head. "What's this about a demon?"

Chame paused, thoughtfully, then explained, "I wish you to know the nature of the enemy we discussed last night."

Ranma stared, slack-jawed. "You mean... I have to fight a demon?"

Chame nodded to him. "Yes. The demon in these woods is nothing spectacular. The one I seek to destroy is the one who spawns these lesser demons. I wish to show you what they are, and train you to fight them."

Ukyou shook her head. "What about me?"

The red-haired girl bobbed her head. "If you wish to continue staying with Ranma, then it would be best to train you as well. I meant to ask this of you a while ago... do you wish to learn magic, alongside Ranma?"

Ukyou grinned, then laughed out, "Heh, I'll be a witch. Sure, I've been called that before, why not?"

Chame frowned, shaking her head. "Don't think of it that way... are you seriously sure?"

Ukyou shrugged, uncomfortable at Chame's sudden formality. "I don't have a problem with it. I'd like to learn."

Chame's frown deepened. "Are you certain? It's a permanent change in your life... you won't be able to discard it. Once you use it, it becomes a part of you. Ranma had been reading auras on almost everyone we passed in the city, and he's reading ours right now."

Ranma blinked, startled, then scratched the back of his head, "You know, you're right. I hadn't even noticed."

Ukyou rolled her eyes. "Yes. I wish to learn. How many times are you going to ask me?"

Chame smiled slowly. "Only three. But now you are bound." Ukyou blinked, but before she could say anything, Chame wheeled about. "Come. We should be on our way."

Scrambling to pack their possessions, the young couple trailed after her. Ranma paused for a moment, wondering why Chame had only asked him once, but decided not to mention it.

***

After trudging through the forest for what seemed to be hours, Chame called an abrupt halt. She nodded to herself, then turned to face the couple. "Ranma, Ukyou, I want to be very clear on this. Three things. First off, be careful. This is no joking matter, it's a dangerous creature, and you need to be quiet until I say it's done. Second, do not attack it. I want both of you to just watch. Third, do not stray more than a few feet from each other. Do you understand?"

Ranma frowned, but agreed. Ukyou thought for a moment, then shrugged, asking, "What's so important about staying together?"

Chame raised an eyebrow, explaining, "If you get too far apart, the demon might be able to separate you, and use you as hostages. As long as you're near each other, it shouldn't attack. At least, not while it's busy with me. Now, it's waking up, we have to hurry."

They followed, feeling an unearthly chill briefly. Ukyou clutched Ranma's arm. Ranma patted her reassuringly, but didn't try and remove her arm from his. After a short distance, they came to a clearing. Chame set down her pack, and motioned the other two to stay where they stood.

She skirted the edge of the clearing, staff at the ready, as Ranma watched intently. In the center of the clearing was an odd pile of rocks. The more he looked at them, the more he became convinced that _something_ was wrong. He couldn't name it, but he knew it was something.

Chame picked up a small rock from the edge of the clearing, and flung it at the pile. The topmost stone wobbled, then rolled to one side. As it hit the ground, a faint hissing noise filled the clearing. Ranma tensed, nervous, and Ukyou grabbed him more tightly.

Darkness and shadows seemed to congeal, stiffening like pudding, and dribbling up from the rocks to form a sphere. The shadows continued to fill the sphere until it was about the size of a small child. The surface of the ball roiled and flowed. Ranma felt sick just looking at it, and Ukyou buried her face in his shoulder, not wanting to see it anymore.

Chame mumbled something softly, and her aura flared brightly. The shadow seemed to harden in response, turning into dull gray stone. Chame leapt forward and struck it with her staff in an arcing overhand blow, before darting to one side and eyeing it warily.

The stone gave a creaking sound, and split, shards spilling off and raining to the ground. Ranma stepped back a half step before realizing it, and put an arm around Ukyou. The apparition that emerged from the stone was the size and shape of a small child.

Its entire body was covered in points and contusions, as though someone had taken each bone in its body, and smashed it with a hammer until every inch of flesh had been ruined. Ranma shuddered at the sight. Black ichor was slowly oozing down the points, to drip on the ground. Tattered bat-like wings beat at the air as it floated. It's glowing eyes were blood red, and darted around, taking in its surroundings.

Chame held her staff in front of her crosswise, and began chanting. With her free hand, she traced a six-pointed star in the air. Ranma felt a detached part of his mind comparing it to Mrs. Hinako's 'Happo-five-yen-satsu'. The demon roared then, a shrill piercing noise, and charged at Chame. A field of bluish light bounced it back, and it shrieked again.

Ranma winced, worrying about Chame's tolerance for sound. She looked pained, but continued chanting, and tracing symbols in the air.

The demon suddenly wheeled, and dashed towards Ranma and Ukyou. The thing flew with incalculable speed, faster than Ranma had ever seen anything move. Time seemed to slow as it moved, and Ranma felt himself move without comprehending how he did so. Ukyou could not be moved quickly enough without harming her, so he stepped in front of her.

The step forward seemed to take ages, with the super-fast demon dashing towards them at a snail's pace. Ranma gathered his will, and braced for the impact the thing would strike him with. It smiled, near the end of its leap, and opened a mouth with too many teeth, dripping more of its dark ichor.

Time seemed to resume, and even though he didn't understand how he knew what to say, or even to say it in time, he spoke. A sensation similar to gathering his ki for an attack, but subtly different filled him briefly, as the syllables rolled off his tongue, "White light, surround and protect."

The instant before the creature reached him, a barrier of light, a solid wall thinner than the edge of a razor, sprung into existence between them. The creature slammed into the barrier, and bounced off, snarling. It's flesh smoked and sizzled where it had struck the barrier.

Time seemed to slow again, but not as much as it had before. Chame's voice rang out across the clearing, resonant and meaningful, "In my father's name, I still thee!" The first line of symbols around the glowing star flared briefly, then disappeared.

The demon shuddered, and stilled, while Chame spoke the next line, "In my father's name, I bind thee!" The next row of symbols flared, and faded, as a circle of light surrounded the six-pointed star.

A piercing wail sounded from the creature, seemingly ready to drown out Chame's voice, but failed. She smiled grimly as she continued the chant, "In my father's name, I _banish_ thee!"

The circle of light and its star flared brightly, and turned black, as a vacuum tore the creature from the ground, and swallowed it, as it shrieked in vain. Then, its job done, the blackness winked out of existence.

Chame slumped to the ground, clutching the staff. Ranma led Ukyou to her, and touched the redhead's shoulder gently. Chame looked up slowly. "Sorry... I didn't think it would make that noise... by the way, how did you use that shielding spell?"

Ranma shrugged, crouching to examine Chame. "It just came to me. Are you okay?" His concern obviously overrode any questions he might have had about the spell.

She nodded, relaxing slightly. "Yes... I'm surprised, though..."

He sat down near her, and Ukyou followed suit. Ranma glanced around the clearing briefly; the menacing feeling was gone. "Why?"

She took a deep breath, and said, "Fighting demons is a complicated task. There are two ways to combat them... very few people have the power to harm a demon on their own. Only a few people out of every generation."

Ranma nodded, frowning slightly. "Okay, how do people without that power fight demons?"

Chame smiled, saying, "Unless they have an artifact that can harm demons... They have to call on other people to lend them power. When a Shinto priest attempts to drive out a demon, or even an unruly spirit, he calls upon the kami. When a Christian priest wishes to drive them out, they call upon their god."

Ranma fidgeted, suddenly nervous. "And?"

She rolled her eyes. "You have the power to fight them directly, which is pretty rare. Others can call upon you to aid them when they fight."

Ukyou smiled slightly, still a little shaken from the experience. "So if I call Ranchan's name, I could harm one?"

Chame paused thoughtfully, then shrugged. "I suppose, though 'I banish you in Ranchan's name' sounds a bit silly."

Ukyou blushed faintly. "I see. So he's better at fighting demons?"

The redhead nodded, turning her attention back to Ranma. "Right. The only catch is that you can use your power whenever you wish. If someone else wishes to use your name, you have to allow them to, first."

Ranma laughed, "That's easy enough. Ukyou, you can fight demons in my name." He paused for a moment, then mumbled, "Actually, I feel silly about that. It's kind of embarrassing..."

Chame shrugged. "There's one other thing to be aware of, though."

Ranma's expression sobered. "And that is?"

Chame looked slightly worried, and explained, "You only have so much power within you. If someone else calls upon it, you have that much less."

He frowned for a moment, then shrugged. "It should be fine. It's just me and Ucchan, right?"

Chame nodded confirmation. "Yes, that's right. I just thought you might like to know beforehand."

Ranma stood up and offered a hand to Ukyou. "Well then, I'll keep that in mind... though, couldn't we just use your father?"

Chame climbed to her feet, wincing slightly. "No... you'd have to meet him in person first. And the power that flows through connections like this depends on how close you are to someone. Since you two are close, it should be simple enough. It would be more powerful if she had a blood connection to you, if she were a sister or a daughter. That's related to why priests get better results with stronger faith."

Ukyou smiled, batting her eyelashes at Ranma. "I hope I'm close enough to Ranchan..."

Chame smirked, noting how quickly Ukyou was able to put the grisly apparition behind her. "Okay. Let's get out of here, if we hurry, we should be able to reach my house in two or three days."

***

Ryouga opened his eyes slowly. A bandage was on his face, half covering one eye. He raised a hand. <Hand? Yes! A real hand! I'm human again!> Ryouga touched the bandage gingerly. Something had hurt him pretty badly, but he healed much faster in his own form.

He tried to sit up, but was too weakened. He managed to say, "Nnnggguuhh..." before collapsing to the bed.

Someone in the room shifted suddenly, and he heard a voice, "Okay, who are you?"

He coughed weakly, unable to raise his head enough to look for the source of the voice. He croaked out a single request, "Water..." He coughed again, feeling dehydration catch up to him.

After a few minutes, someone pressed a glass to his lips gently, only allowing him to drink small sips. When the glass was finished, he tried to slowly raise himself to a sitting position. His benefactor helped him, and then backed away.

He blinked his eyes a few times to clear them, and looked at her. She was dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. She was carrying his umbrella and tried to look menacing with it. <She's the one who was taking care of me.>

He groaned, raising a trembling hand to his face. "Where am I?"

She backed away to a chair at the foot of the bed, and eyed him warily. "You're in my guest bedroom."

He managed a feeble nod. "I see."

She set the tip of the umbrella against the floor, out of his sight. In a firm tone, she demanded, "So, who are you, and what are you doing here?"

Ryouga rubbed his head, pleading, "I... I don't remember. I was splashed, so I turned into a pig... I think a car hit me. My name is Hibiki Ryouga."

The girl studied him for a moment, surprised. "You turn into a pig?"

He nodded weakly, and explained, "Yeah. Cold water. Hot water changes me back."

She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Interesting. What's it like?"

Ryouga's eyes widened for a moment in surprise, then he snarled, "It's horrible. It's a curse, and one that destroyed my life!" He winced. <No anger, no anger, no anger...> Calming himself, he continued in a level tone, "It's... kind of a painful thing. I don't like it."

She nodded, taken aback by his weak show of vehemence. "Okay. You aren't going to try and rape me or anything, are you? I'm strong enough to whack you with your own umbrella, if I have to."

He stared for a moment before laughing. The laughter died quickly, due to the pain, but he still smiled. "No, I'm not going to try anything like that. I swear upon my honor."

"Good. My name's Unryuu Akari." She eyed him speculatively, while she asked, "So, ah, how did you get your curse?"

Ryouga sighed, then spoke softly. "I got knocked into a cursed spring in China." He smiled for a moment, relaxing internally. <The rage is gone for now...>

She nodded at him again. "That's kind of neat... I wonder why I've never heard of anything like that before."

He let his eyes drift closed. "I know a few others with curses. I know a man who turns into a duck, and a girl who turns into a cat."

Akari made a speculative noise as she stared at him. "I envy you. It must be neat."

He stared, letting his jaw drop, before he sputtered, "You _envy_ me?!? How could you! Having my own body stolen from me every time it rains, I..." He trailed off, not knowing what to say.

She just shrugged at him, seemingly unconcerned. "It would add another aspect to your life. You would be able to sneak around, explore places that people can't fit into..." As she trailed off, she stared at the ceiling. Abruptly, she stood up, announcing, "Never mind about that now, though. I'm going to make something to eat, you're probably starving."

Ryouga grinned widely. "Yes, very much so. What are you making?"

She shrugged as she walked out of the room, calling out, "Pork chops."

His grin faded, and he stared at the door to the room. <Pork chops? I can't eat that...>

***

Tarou stalked across the pebble strewn mountain path, back and forth. They would come here soon, if they kept going the way they had. It wouldn't take long to subdue them. He had spotted three of them from a distance, but didn't want to get close enough for them to see him.

He grumbled, kicking one of the larger rocks around. <What the hell is taking them so long?> He sighed, checking for the fifteenth time to make sure he had a flask of cold water on hand.

Shaking his head, he let out an exasperated sigh, "Hurry the hell up, Saotome."

***

Ukyou nodded to Chame, confidence evident in her posture and voice. "You know, I don't know how, but I learned all the symbols you showed me."

Chame smiled, and glanced to Ranma. "Okay, both of you at the same time then. Demonstrate."

Ukyou gathered her will, and after a moment of fumbling, Ranma did the same. Chame rubbed her chin thoughtfully. <He learns things so fast it's frightening, but she has a natural talent for this.>

The two traced their symbols in the air in front of them. Chame examined them closely, then marveled, "Yes, you both got it right. Ukyou, are you sure you've never done this before?"

She blushed, shaking her head. "No, not until you showed me how."

Ranma gave her a good-natured grin. "Heh, I'm jealous, Ucchan! You're outpacing me!"

Chame shrugged, saying, "You both have a lot of potential. Ranma probably has more, but that's mostly due to him being Machin."

Ukyou blushed more deeply. "Thank you!"

Ranma grinned. <I guess she isn't used to being praised for anything other than okonomiyaki.> "You would probably be better than me if it weren't for my blood."

Ukyou covered her face with her hands and stared at her feet, unsure what to do. Ranma debated kissing her, but in this state, he wasn't sure that was a good idea. He suspected that if she were to flush any more, she'd burn her hands. "Er... I think we should do the words now, right?"

Chame nodded, and Ukyou's blush almost instantly faded. Raising an eyebrow Chame noted, <That's good focus.>

Ukyou chanted the words carefully, not missing a single syllable. Chame nodded her approval, and turned to Ranma as Ukyou's symbols faded out. Ranma managed to say everything correctly, but nearly stumbled a few times.

Chame sighed. "Well, Ukyou got it perfect, and knowing how you do things, Ranma's mistakes will be gone the next time he tries it. I could not have asked for more gifted students." She smirked, adding, "Almost makes me feel like I'm not needed."

Ranma laughed, as he shouldered his pack. "I wish my teachers at school thought so."

Ukyou rolled her eyes. "If they taught something you were interested in, maybe you would be."

Chame snorted, "Well, there's still a long way to go, and a lot more to learn... But I'm sure you'll manage."

Ranma nodded, glancing towards the sky. "Yeah, but we should get going, we've lost a little time on this." Chame and Ukyou followed. They had paused in the last clearing, before the forest ended, to prepare for their ascent.

Chame had pointed out a path that led up the rocky mountainside, and Ranma led the way. The trail wended back and forth, and Ranma was tempted to simply bound up the side, but loose rocks and his companions made him wonder if that was advisable.

Ukyou was lost in her own thoughts, for once, not about Ranma. <I'm a witch. I have an aptitude for magic. Yes! I'm good at something aside from cooking and fighting!> Ukyou blinked. <But that's never been a problem for me, why should I worry about that?> Frowning, she thought, <Ranma started saying something like that right after Chame taught him to see auras... maybe that's it.>

She paused to read Ranma's aura briefly. It was gold, flecked with all tones of soft green and blue. He explained to her that colors meant different things to different people, but she saw the vibrant red swirls that swept through it on occasion, and she knew what emotion _that_ represented.

Smiling, she thought to herself. <He does love me. Even if he didn't get a chance to say it.>

The two women jerked to a halt as Ranma stopped suddenly. He glanced around, something tingling at his danger sense. "Something's not right."

Chame peered around, and Ukyou nodded to herself, trying to see any other auras in the area. Ranma interrupted her concentration. "There, I see it." He pointed to the top of the trail. Someone was standing there, leaning against a boulder and tapping a foot impatiently. She could only barely make out that detail from here.

Ranma asked, "Everyone think we can get to the top in just a few seconds? If we leap from path to path..."

Chame nodded, and glanced at Ukyou. She nodded as well, adding, "Sure, we just need to stick together."

The three leapt almost as one, up the switchbacks of the mountain, rising one hundred and eighty feet in a matter of seconds. When they reached the top, Ranma stood in the center, with Ukyou and Chame on either side. There was a boy standing there, arms crossed and an annoyed expression on his face.

Ranma opened his mouth, but Tarou cut him off, "Fem-boy. How you doing? Going out with some friends for some girl-talk?"

The pigtailed boy growled, low in his throat, "Don't mock me, I'm not in the mood. Why are you here?"

Chame shifted her position, wielding her staff, and glanced at Ranma. "You know him?"

Ranma nodded, and jerked a thumb towards Tarou. "Yeah, this here's Pantyhose."

Tarou's face twisted in rage for a moment before he controlled himself. There was a hint of suppressed anger in his voice. "I'll let that pass, fem-boy. It's probably just that time of the month for you. But that's not the point." He smiled wickedly. "Is it?"

Ranma bristled with anger, more for not knowing what the insult was despite his ability to recognize it as an insult than anything else. "What the hell do you want?"

Tarou shrugged, and buffed his nails on his shirt as he explained, "The old letch made a deal with me. I find you and bring you back to him, and he changes my name. Sounds pretty easy, so do I need to take out your friends, or will you be coming with me on your own?"

Chame snorted, "He thinks he can stop us? Boy, I've fought people a lot more dangerous than you. Don't make me laugh."

Ranma shook his head, putting an arm in front of Chame. "He's more dangerous than he looks," he cautioned.

Tarou laughed again, relaxing from his stance. "Okay fem-boy. Tell you what, I'll fight her. If I win, you come with me. Agreed?"

Rolled his eyes as he responded, Ranma said, "No deal. I'm not going with you no matter what."

Tarou shrugged. "Fine. I'll take you all on at once, then." He shifted to a ready stance, beckoning them towards him, "Whenever you're ready."

Smirking, Chame examined Tarou. "Let me handle this." She stepped forwards, and motioned Ukyou and Ranma back despite their protests.

Tarou sneered at her, stating, "Be a shame to hurt one of your girlfriends, Ranma." He eyed Chame, taking his attention off of Ranma. "Need a weapon to handle me?"

Chame grinned widely, and tossed her staff to Ranma. "Not for the likes of you. I don't like your attitude, and I certainly don't like your mouth."

Tarou shrugged, maintaining his haughty expression. "That's too bad. Are we here to talk, or fight?"

"I thought since you were obviously at a disadvantage, I'd let you make the first move."

The boy growled, and charged at Chame. She neatly sidestepped, and danced out of the way. He spun around mid dash, and swept a leg out from underneath her.

Chame rolled with the sweep, and somersaulted a few steps away, using a handspring to get back to her feet.

Tarou charged again, and this time, Chame dived at his feet. He jumped to pass over her, since his momentum was too much to change course, and she deftly clipped his legs with one arm. He spun, but managed to roll away and spring back to his feet.

Chame stood slowly, giving Tarou a mocking grin. Tarou charged again, growling as he did so, "No more playing nice, girl."

She shrugged, commenting, "If you wish." She stood there, waiting for his attack, and at the last minute, retaliated with what looked to Ranma like a blur of strikes. Each blow hit a little harder and moved a little faster than the last. Ranma counted one thousand four hundred blows before Tarou was knocked out of range, all in under three seconds. As Tarou flew back, she mocked him, "Tenshin amaguri-ken revised. Little trick my father taught me before he left."

Tarou impacted heavily on a boulder behind him, cracking the rock, and breaking open his water flask.

Chame took a quick step back, muttering, "Okay, this just got a lot uglier."

Ranma shook his head, annoyed at the situation. "I told you so." He tossed her the staff, and she snatched it out of the air. "I don't know if we can handle him, things tend to get messy when he's around. Especially like this."

Tarou shakily got to his feet, holding his head in his hands and growling deeply. Ranma and Chame turned to Ukyou, as they noticed that she had begun chanting.

Ukyou had her eyes closed, and had just finished the final symbols of the banishing spell. Tarou ignored the glowing symbol, and shrieked, charging at Chame.

Ranma wanted to tell Ukyou to stop, but Chame collapsed at the noise, and he didn't have enough time. He leapt to Chame, picked her up, and leapt away again, running in a circle around Tarou. Chame just grabbed onto him and shuddered convulsively. Tarou's tentacles whipped at him as he wove through them, Ranma frantically dodging the writhing masses.

Ukyou's voice rang out through the confusion, loud and clear, "In the name of Saotome Ranma, I still thee!" Ranma froze, as a shudder went through Tarou's cursed form, and he slowed to a snail's pace, "In the name of Saotome Ranma, I bind thee!" Tarou's eyes darted about crazily as the rest of him halted, unable to move.

Ranma frantically scrambled of the side of the mountain, trying to get clear before the final words rang out, "In the name of Saotome Ranma, I _banish_ thee!"

Tarou attempted to scream as the vortex took him in, but couldn't escape as it swallowed him. The small circle expanded until it was able to take the monster in, and then dwindled. Ranma bounded down from his perch, still carrying Chame. He just stared at the pulsating point of light that remained.

Chame unsteadily climbed back to her feet. "Ouch. Um, Ukyou, you shouldn't banish real people. Only demons."

Ukyou blinked, then protested, "But, I thought he was!" She stared at the point of light, eyes widening in horror. "Oh no, you mean, that was..."

Ranma nodded slowly. "A Jusenkyou curse."

Ukyou's face paled, and she whispered hoarsely. "Did... did I kill him?"

Chame studied the point of light for a moment, then sighed. "No. He's going to pop back out in a moment. But before he does, do you know who sent him?"

Ranma nodded, scowling. "Happosai."

Chame rolled her eyes. "Explain that to me once I'm done with this." She turned to Ukyou, placing a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Okay, do what I do, and repeat after me."

Ukyou followed and perfectly mimicked Chame's gestures and symbols. When they were done, there was a faint flash, and the point of light was gone.

Ranma boggled for a moment, then asked, "What was that?"

Chame grinned, relaxing her stance. "She sent him back to Happosai. I'm sure he'll love that."

Face paling, Ranma mumbled, "I hope he wasn't at the Tendos." He brightened suddenly, then stated, "Wait, today is Thursday, my Mom's at home waiting for a call. I hope the old letch is out drinking with my pop."

Ukyou sputtered for a moment before bursting into laughter. Chame frowned. "Good point. I hope there's enough room for him wherever he showed up."

The three thought about it for a moment, then Ranma shook his head, turning to the task at hand. "Let's try and get down the other side of this ridge before sunset. I don't want to camp up here, or climb down in the dark.

***

Happosai laughed to himself as he ran down the street. <With the boy and Cologne gone, there's no one to stop me! I still want the boy back, but this gives me a few days of FUN FUN FUN!> He chortled again as he kept ahead of the crowd of angry women. He could probably outrun them, and he could easily leap to a rooftop, but he enjoyed the chase.

A point of light winked into existence ahead of him. He pondered its significance, and was about to probe it with his senses when it exploded into Pantyhose Tarou, in his beast form. The beast landed on top of him, sending the goods from the raid all over in a soft, silky, panty explosion.

Happosai wept more for the loss of the panties than the fact that he was crushed beneath Tarou. They rained down on the streets, myriad colors shining and twisting through the air. Even worse, Tarou's presence had scared the girls away.

The old man stood, and unceremoniously dumped the monster off of his back. He grumbled, then jumped onto Tarou's chest, glaring down at the beastly muzzle. In an angry tone, he demanded, "Okay, what are you doing back, and what's going on here? Why don't you have Ranma?"

The beast swatted at Happosai with one paw, and righted itself, scurrying away to attempt huddling in the corner between two buildings.

Happosai blinked. Twenty foot tall demonic figures did not normally huddle in a corner shaking in fear. <What the hell?> Happosai sighed, 'appropriating' a tea kettle and some hot water from a nearby house.

Once Tarou was restored, he curled up into a ball, pleading, "Don't send me back! Don't send me back, whatever you do, don't send me back!"

Happosai blinked. "Eh? Don't you want your name changed?"

Tarou laughed, a crazed glint in his eye. "Screw changing my name! That wasn't worth it! Some freak sent me into-" He broke off, shuddering, then whimpered, "Oh, god. I am not going back. Nothing is worth that."

***

As Ranma wended his way down the path, Chame remarked, "Though, it does occur to me, trying to banish someone who doesn't belong in that dimension would leave them there for a minute or two. I imagine that would be quite traumatic..."

Ranma looked back, raising an eyebrow. "You mean, he was in Hell?"

Ukyou shuddered. "I'll remember to make sure I don't use that on people again."

Chame shrugged, unconcerned. "I'm not sure if it's exactly what you would consider 'Hell', but it certainly wouldn't be pleasant. He would merely see... what he expected to see, and in his vision, would probably blend in with the natives. The memories would fade in a few days." After a moment, she shrugged, and added, "Probably."

Ranma nodded thoughtfully, picking his way around some loose gravel. "I didn't think that would work, actually. I certainly wouldn't have expected him to come back."

Chame nodded knowingly, and began a long winded explanation, "Well, you see, a demon doesn't have a real presence here normally-"

Ukyou cut her off, "A demon only has a metaphysical presence. They create a physical shell, and bind themselves to it. That's how they can have an incorporeal body, and possess people, or create a body of their own. When you banish them, their ties are severed. When you banish something from this realm, you actually send the physical body away.

"The physical matter cannot belong in the other world, where they were banished, so it pops back into this reality. So if you were sent to another world this way, you could be slashed to pieces, but never truly die. As soon as you popped back, the physical change would be undone, and the only scars would be left on your mind."

Chame blinked, stunned. "Uh. Right. That..." She shook her head, frowning. "Some natural talent. You think you were a demon hunter in a former life Ukyou?"

Ukyou blushed. "Um, I don't know, it just came to me."

Ranma nodded slowly. "Just like I knew the words to stop yesterday's demon from attacking us, right?"

Chame sighed, looking uneasy. "Well. I suppose I'm going to be asking you two for help with magic soon.

Ranma and Ukyou shared a brief laugh as they descended to the forest.

------

Author's notes:

I had a lot of difficulty with the demon confrontation in this chapter, and on the whole... I'm still not certain that I'm happy with the scene. However, it's been 'touched up' so many times, I'm unsure I really want to alter it anymore. Most aspects please me, but...

Thanks, as always to Chris Stassen, Druid. And Ginrai, as well.


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