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The Unbroken Circle: Chapter Six

Fuseiseki

Part A

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

What has gone before:

Nodoka defeated Kuno in a duel of honor, prompting the kendoist to reconsider his options. Ryouga agreed to marry Akari, but proposed to Akane first. After Akane told Ryouga that she never wanted to see him again, he gave in to Rage, who now controls him completely. Tofu battled with him briefly, then sent him away, leaving Akane to think things over. After confronting Tarou about his feelings, the sometimes-monster left for China, while Happosai was then able to use the magic book that he had stumbled across, and attempted to raise a demon. He failed, and the demon was freed, while Tofu was unable to stop it.

 

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

Brief key, trying to stay simple.

<> frame thoughts.

"" frame speech

"{}" frame speech in Mandarin

 

"...Nine in the third place means:

He who does not give duration to his character

Meets with disgrace.

Persistent humiliation.

Six in the fifth place means:

Giving duration to one's character through perseverance.

This is good fortune for a woman, misfortune for a man..."

I Ching - The Book of Change

 

"There are many details involved in preemption, but they cannot be fully written down because it is a matter of putting priority on the pattern of the particular time, perceiving the intention of opponents, and using your knowledge of martial arts to win."

From 'The Fire Scroll' - Miyamoto Musashi's 'The Book of Five Rings"

 

Tofu spun the Makaze to a defensive posture, and stepped back a half step. The demon blinked at him briefly, then threw back its head and laughed. Resisting the urge to flee, the doctor began focusing his will. <If this one is more powerful than I am, then there's nothing I can do. I dearly wish that I had remembered to have a Name to call on for these situations.>

Akane shuddered, recoiling from the massive form that had somehow appeared in their backyard. "What... what's going on here?"

Tofu watched the demonic figure warily, as it eyed him with an idly speculative glance. Narrowing his eyes, Tofu snapped, "Ask later. I'm _really_ busy right now."

Moving more quickly than Akane had thought a lumbering mass its size _could_ move, the demon lashed out at the doctor. The Makaze rose and intercepted the claw as Dr. Tofu danced away from its reach. Beez'le grinned slightly, showing off a gleaming array of sharp teeth. "Such simple things... really. I expected to have a little more challenge from you."

Tofu spat, lunging forward and striking a glancing blow on the demon's side before tucking himself into a roll and springing away. "Challenge you'll receive, hell-spawn!" he shouted, landing on his feet lightly. "I haven't fought your kind for three thousand years for nothing."

The doctor winced when he realized that the demon had _let_ the doctor strike him. There was no wound. Beez'le's hide was completely unscathed.

Grimacing, Dr. Tofu began to slowly back away. The demon turned its attention to Kasumi, and Tofu swore again. "Don't even think of it!"

Kasumi stepped backwards quickly, a look of consternation on her face. The demon charged towards her, only to be deflected by a slash from Nodoka's katana. The demon howled, and stepped away from her. Narrowing his eyes, Beez'le sniffed at the air. He stared at Nodoka, who gestured Kasumi back. "Your blood is rich, human... no? Rich blood indeed."

Nodoka looked at the creature disdainfully, and held onto the sword firmly with both hands. "I think you might want to reconsider fighting me. This blade is more dangerous than you realize."

Tofu raised his sword in both hands and threw it with all of his might at the demon, hoping to take advantage of his distraction. Beez'le stepped to the side, as the Makaze planted itself in the ground at Akane's feet.

The demon hesitated for a moment, unsure of which opponent to face. Making a decision, he turned his back to Nodoka, and charged at the doctor.

***

Ranma blinked, finding himself in the front room. The sword that Chame had shown him when he and Ukyou had first arrived was shedding a slight glow from its case. With a small show of reverence, the pigtailed boy opened the case, and removed the sword from its stand. He frowned for a moment, not noticing his aura extending tendrils to touch upon the sword, only to be rebuffed by the scabbard.

Nodding to himself, Ranma left the house, and walked towards the dojo in the backyard. As he marched through the pounding rain, he did not even notice the change.

***

Akane hesitated for a moment, then snatched the Makaze from the ground. <I'll be damned if I'm going to let this thing attack my friends and family!> Sword in hand, she froze, as she watched Dr. Tofu and the demon battle. They exchanged blows faster than her eyes could record, occasional grunts or words of power sounding from them. <I've never even seen _Ranma_ move that fast!>

Kasumi raised her hands, watching apprehensively, while Nodoka stood back. After a moment, Tofu leapt from the blur of battle, clutching a hand over his side. He flipped over the demon's head, and landed near Kasumi. Once he was still, he retched blood, and slumped to the ground.

Beez'le laughed heartily, and lashed out with an errant claw towards Tofu.

Tofu raised a hand, managing to erect a barrier of force at the last moment.

Grinning, the demon began to rain blows against the doctor's wall of force. Tofu gritted his teeth, feeling his power beginning to fade. "I... can't... handle... run, Love..."

He screwed his eyes shut, gathering his will to him, in an attempt to stave off the demon's next attack.

Kasumi hesitantly took a step away, then shook her head, and knelt next to Tofu, gently wrapping her arms around his torso. Opening her mind, she shared her own power with him. Kasumi's power, added to Tofu's, would buy them time, but not much.

Nodoka seized the opportunity, and struck quickly, inflicting dozens of light wounds across the demon's exposed back. The cuts smoked, and oozed a dark, black ichor. Grimacing, Nodoka dashed away.

Beez'le turned, narrowing its eyes again. The woman could not move as fast as it could, and the doctor was out of the battle. As far as it was concerned, it had won.

***

Ranma stood in the silence of the dojo, and carefully drew the Soyokaze from its sheath. Where before her aura was reaching tendrils out to touch the sword, it now flowed into the blade, flooding the room with a soft amber glow.

Subtly shifting her stance, Ranma began noticing dim figures forming in the light near her, looking vaguely similar. Only one was important right now, the enemy.

Ranma let her focus fade, needing only to recognize the outlines of the enemy. Her body responded sluggishly. Frowning, Ranma shook her head, and willed mastery over her body.

***

Akane lightly danced forward, feeling oddly energized as she lashed out with the Makaze. Beez'le ignored her until she slashed across his side, laying his flesh open and sending a noxious, smoking, cloud upward.

Shrieking, the demon spun to face her, only to be harried from the other side by Nodoka. With a bellow of rage, he focused on Akane and swung a forearm towards Akane's head, faster than she could move the Makaze to intercept.

***

The enemy swatted towards Ranma's head, and her sluggish body couldn't raise the Soyokaze in time. Focusing herself briefly, she erected a barrier of force to stop the attack, and began channeling more energy into the blade.

***

As a shimmering wall of force stopped the blow, Akane noted that, somehow, she wasn't surprised. With a pleased detachment, she watched herself bring the blade to bear against the demon's chest, crackling energy wreathing its length.

Beez'le threw himself backwards, trying to escape the Makaze, but fell back onto Nodoka's sword.

Writhing, the demon managed to spin around, and kicked Nodoka in the chest. Akane's eyes widened as the telltale moist snapping sound spoke of broken bones. Nodoka's sword tumbled in the air, landing near her as she rebounded off of a wall and fell to the ground, prone.

Unfamiliar power filled Akane, as she spun the Makaze, reversing her grip. With an inarticulate cry of rage, she charged the demon, cleaving it in half.

Akane dropped the sword and fell to her knees. Coughing, she began to crawl towards Nodoka. Dr. Tofu stood slowly, aided by Kasumi and a healing spell.

He retrieved the Makaze, and watched as Beez'le's body dissolved from their reality. Kasumi rushed towards Nodoka, worried about her friend. She closed her eyes and placed a hand over Nodoka's chest.

Akane peered around Kasumi, expecting Nodoka's chest to be a bloody mess. To her surprise, Nodoka's breathing was even and unlabored. She shook her head slowly. "Kasumi... did you hear bones break in that hit?"

Kasumi nodded, opening her eyes and removing her hand from the woman's chest. "I don't feel any damage when I probe her for healing, though..."

Frowning, Akane wiped a trace of blood from Nodoka's mouth. "This isn't exactly normal... if she just took a blow like that, why does she seem to only have just fallen asleep?"

Giving her a younger sister a level gaze, Kasumi asked, "And I suppose fighting demons in the middle of dinner _is_ normal? Or any number of other odd things that happen around here, for that matter."

Akane shrugged uncomfortably, muttering, "Er... I suppose, but... things never seemed this violent before." At Kasumi's glance, she amended, "Things never got this _lethal_ before."

Dr. Tofu shook his head, as he sheathed the Makaze. "I suspect that there's more to this than meets the eye."

Akane briefly wondered when Tofu had retrieved the blade's sheath, but returned her attention to Nodoka. <Enough inexplicable happenings for one day. Well, considering how things have become since Ranma came here, enough for several days.>

Nodoka stirred, then opened her eyes. At the others' glances, she straightened out her rumpled kimono. "Oh, dear. What seems to be troubling you three?"

Kasumi smiled brightly, handing Nodoka her sword. "You dropped this, Auntie. We were just wondering how you managed to take that hit from the demon."

Taking the sword in hand, Nodoka rose to her feet. "It wasn't nearly as bad as it looked, I'm sure."

Tofu and Kasumi exchanged a glance, then shared a sigh. Tofu shook his head, focusing on recovering his strength. "I... Where is Happosai?"

Soun collected himself from witnessing the staggering display, and explained, "He fled while you were distracted..."

Grimacing, Tofu placed the blade within his cloak. "I'm very displeased with him right now."

***

Blinking, Ranma looked down at the sword in her hands and frowned. <What was that?>

Chame's answer reverberated through Ranma's mind briefly. <I don't know, Ranma. Wait there a moment.>

Sitting down in a meditative position, she sheathed the Soyokaze. She pondered its construction for a moment, wondering at the skill that it would take to create, then set it beside her on the floor of the dojo. A breeze passed by, rustling the foliage outside of the dojo before Chame entered from the rain, and regarded her cautiously. She heaved a sigh, "Can you tell me what happened?"

Ranma scratched the back of her head, handing Chame's blade over with her free hand. "Um... I'm not sure. It was kind of... fuzzy... like I was trying to be two people at the same time." She sighed, "It was like there was another me on the other side of the sword, and she was having trouble fighting a demon."

Chame drew the Soyokaze, examining it briefly before sheathing it again. "Ranma, do you ever see yourself as a woman?"

The taller redhead shook her head vigorously. "Of course not! Why the heck are you asking me that?"

She eyed the other girl for a moment before answering. "You said the other you was a 'she.'"

Ranma grimaced, muttering, "I'm a guy, damn it! Don't... I don't know. It was like there was another me and she was... she was a she, even though I wasn't."

Chame nodded, running a finger along the sheath of her blade. "Dr. Tofu must have given the sword to someone else, then. The Makaze and the Soyokaze work best in unison. They can be used independently, but..." She trailed off, then said, "I wonder who wielded the Makaze, then."

Shrugging uncomfortably, Ranma looked away. "I don't know. There was an enemy, and we destroyed it. There were others, but I could only see the enemy..." She gestured at the recesses of the dojo, still illuminated by her aura. "What is this, anyway?"

The elder Machin frowned. "A sign of your heritage. It is... power. And if you aren't careful, it will corrupt you."

Ranma shuddered, not noticing the fluctuations in the aura's glow. "I... don't like the idea of that."

"Power corrupts, Ranma."

"Does it have to?" She asked, "You have power, and you aren't corrupt, are you?"

Chame winced, and looked away. "I... I have no excuses, Ranma. I have power, and I am old enough to have earned it... but I have committed actions that I regret. I may be old, but I truly doubt I have the wisdom that my own power requires."

Ranma pondered for a moment, then nodded. "I think I see what you're saying. But if you thought you _were_ wise enough for your power, then you certainly wouldn't be. Do you understand?"

The Machin smiled briefly. "Perhaps. You seem very wise for your age."

A frown creased Ranma's face for an instant. "I guess. Martial arts is more than just fighting, it's a lot about thinking, too... but..." She trailed off, staring at the rain through the door of the dojo.

Chame raised an eyebrow, prompting, "'But'?"

Ranma heaved an exasperated sigh, "It's like... there's... I don't know. I remember more than I know." She scowled, tapping one finger against her knee. "That doesn't explain it. Words I don't use come into my head, I find myself thinking about things more deeply..." She sighed again, "I mean... ugh. I have to cling to my normal method of speech. I want to call Mom, 'Mom,' but sometimes I slip, and it's 'Mother.' It's like there's something in me that makes me want to analyze things faster, and..." She slumped her shoulders in defeat. "What the hell, you know? I didn't even _know_ the word 'analyze' two months ago. I just don't understand it."

Chame stared into the rain with Ranma for a long moment before answering, "I don't know. I think that it's time for you to start expressing yourself in the arts, though. Things like this... well. You might feel better once you work out some creative tension."

Nodding slowly, Ranma asked, "Do you think that's what the problem is?"

Hesitantly, Chame answered. She couldn't lie, as much as she wanted to. "Probably not."

***

Happosai ran. The dark streets flashed past him in a blur, while he panted, "Oh, man. Oh, man. Stupid, stupid, _stupid_ Happosai. What the _hell_ was I thinking? _Stupid_!" He slid to a halt, gasping for breath. <Oh... what the hell was I thinking? There had to have been a hundred things I could do that would be better than that, but nooooo, I have to go and do the dumbest thing I possibly could!>

He shuddered, remembering. <I never thought that Tofu was an Ancient One. That explains a lot. The boy's mother... that's even worse. I can't go back, now. They'll tear me apart. Oh, god, what am I going to do now? Why did I do it _again!?>

Smacking himself in the forehead, he cursed his idiocy again. "What can I do now?" he whined plaintively.

A voice answered him from a darkened alley. "You have two choices."

The old man spun to face the source of the voice, and saw a shrouded figure standing in the shadows. That was most certainly a masculine voice, powerful and deep. "Who are you?"

The figure began marching forward slowly. "You will call me Master."

Happosai began to turn away, then froze when he saw the man's face. He swallowed, and backed away nervously, eyes wide. Voice quavering, he asked, "Uh... uh... what... what's my other choice?"

The man's face twisted into a smile. "Join the Band of the Dead, or die."

Happosai swallowed nervously. <I don't want to die!> "I... Master."

A low laugh echoed off of the buildings around them. "Excellent, student..."

***

Nodoka walked through the night with Dr. Tofu, neither of them saying anything. After a moment, Nodoka shook her head, and broke the silence, "This isn't about Happosai, is it? I doubt we'll find him."

Tofu bit his lip nervously, then relented. "I should have seen it earlier. Chame mentioned it, and I checked... how can Ranma be a full-blooded Machin, and Genma have no Machin blood? But then... you don't have a trace either." He sighed, shaking his head. "Who... what are you?"

Smiling wistfully, Nodoka hiked the katana a little higher on her shoulder. "I am Saotome Nodoka, and before that, I was Dakahoshi Nodoka. More than that... I suppose you can guess about my father then, can't you?"

Numbly, the doctor nodded. "He... I never imagined. I thought that he had chosen a different woman... but... your mother? I've not heard much of her."

With a note of pride, Nodoka explained, "One of the best demon hunters in the world. Of course..." She trailed off for a moment, then resumed, "When I did not inherit her skills, and instead took after my father..." Nodoka managed a wry smile. "They conspired to keep me away from magic and the like. If I _had_ come into my own as a youth, it would have been disastrous. But I suppose that's just as well. The Saotome blade serves in the capacity that my mother's heritage did not. And if what I hear is to be believed, Ranma has inherited the full benefit of my father's gifts, and my mother's." She grinned, shaking her head. "I was only lucky enough to gain the barest of gifts from my father's heritage. I wonder how much of Ranma's father is in him..."

Tofu heaved a sigh, looking heavenward for a moment. "I'm afraid I don't know, and something tells me right now, I'm not ready to find out. Tell me what you can of the Saotome blade, then. I'm curious about a sword that can harm a demon when the Makaze fails."

Nodoka nodded thoughtfully, offering, "It was crafted by a student of Masamune himself. It's said that the blood of a dragon and the blood of a god were used to quench it. Folded one thousand times by a great smith..." She made a thoughtful noise, tapping a finger against the hilt. "But there's something more important beneath this."

The doctor swallowed nervously as Nodoka unsheathed the blade, and produced a small set of tools. Carefully removing the hilt revealed a pair of names chiseled in careful Kanji. The name of the blade, and near that, the name of the crafter. Tofu blinked, reading the name of the sword aloud, "'Kami no Ken'? What kind of person would craft a sword and name it 'The Fist of God'?"

Nodoka gestured to the second set of Kanji characters. Dr. Tofu read the name of the crafter. Then he passed out.

The Saotome matriarch sighed, and refitted the hilt to the blade. "It might explain a bit, hmm?"

***

Akane paced back and forth anxiously, then glanced at her sisters and snapped, "Well... what do we do now?"

Kasumi shrugged indifferently. "I suspect we won't see Happosai for a long time. I'm just thankful no one was harmed."

Akane scowled at her oldest sister briefly, then relented. "Yeah... I guess. It's been a weird week for me, Kasumi. I doubt anything could happen to make it any stranger."

Nabiki frowned at Akane thoughtfully. After living for nearly a whole year with Ranma, Akane should have known better than to say such a thing.

***

Ranma listened attentively as Chame explained the situation to him. With a sigh, he shook his head, complaining, "Okay. So you and Ucchan are going to stay here, and send me off on a month-long expedition with these Musk people?"

Chame winced, shifting her hands in front of her nervously. "Well... yes. Musk kind of lose control around women... if the two of us were there..." She trailed off.

Rolling his eyes, Ranma grumbled, "Ucchan can disguise herself and come with me. Aside from which, if I get splashed, I'm in trouble, too." He scowled, muttering, "There's more to this, isn't there?"

The redhead stared at her feet. "Yes... but I really can't explain it now. Right now, you're the best bet at helping the Musk."

He shook his head. "What do we care? I mean, they're the ones with the problems and the weird magical devices, right?"

Chame frowned, not expecting this level of belligerence from Ranma. <I suppose centuries of having everyone's perceptions of me enhanced with magic has left me much worse at actually dealing with people.>

Ranma snorted, "You got that right."

The redhead slammed down her mental barriers and glared at Ranma. "Stop that! Fine, I'll tell you the whole truth. I want you to spend some time with the Musk till you get yourself under control."

The pigtailed martial artist blew out a breath. "Why? Are..." He blinked and took a step back. "You're afraid of me?" he asked incredulously.

Chame stood from her seat and stalked away from Ranma, across the living room. "YES! Damn it! Who wouldn't be! You scare the hell out of me, because you aren't even twenty and you already can channel almost as much power as _I_ can!" She wheeled to face Ranma. "I want you to leave for a while, to get control of yourself! Last night in the dojo, you didn't know what you were doing, but you came this close!" She raised a hand, thumb and forefinger a millimeter apart. "This close! To losing control!"

Ranma stepped back, unsure of how to deal with this. "What? I don't understand... A week ago, I was 'good,' and now I'm almost as strong as you?"

The redhead rubbed her temples. "That part, you'll have to figure out for yourself. You aren't 'better' than me, but you are becoming more powerful. You know how that works, don't you?"

He nodded slowly. "I... yeah. Someone can be strong without being skilled... so..." He frowned, staring at the floor. "You want me to leave and take care of the Musk."

She looked uncomfortable, then offered, "I'm sorry, Ranma. Right now... look. You love Ukyou, right?"

Ranma nodded vigorously. "Of course!"

Chame swallowed. "Do you want to hurt her?"

With a shocked expression, Ranma nodded slowly, "I see what you're saying. I'll leave tomorrow."

The elder Machin stared at her feet. "Ranma... try... try expressing yourself. Without a creative tap... I really don't want to lose you as an ally." <Or a friend...>

Ranma smiled, catching the stray thought. "Okay. I'll think of something. So... you think I can manage to control myself in just a month?"

Chame shrugged, "I hope so. Or find a focus... I'll lend you my staff, and a cloak. You can use it to help hide your gender if you get wet."

With a nod, Ranma turned away, to speak with his wife before he had to leave.

***

Ukyou dropped a plate, and picked it up absentmindedly. "What?"

Hanging his head, Ranma explained the situation to her again.

With a swallow, Ukyou realized that the plate was broken into small pieces. She stared at her hands in fascination, as Ranma began pulling out shards of porcelain. His words faded into the back of her mind as he healed her, then washed the blood away.

Bringing herself back to the present, she nodded. "I understand... I... I'll miss you." He bit his lip, considering, and Ukyou smiled, already guessing what was on his mind. "One last time before you go?"

He smiled back at her, "Yeah. Why not?"

***

With a groan, the large man heaved his bulk across the fifteen-foot gap between the ship and the dock. To a casual observer, he might be overweight. However, as those who had fought him could attest, the bulk of Genma's mass was muscle. He proved this again by making his leap and landing in a roll.

The cask was clutched to his chest. Even though he wouldn't use it on himself yet, there should be enough for two people. <Nodoka will _never_ forgive me if I cure myself and not him.> He paused for a moment, considering, then sighed. <I should send her a letter telling her the truth. Then... I'll find the boy.>

With a weary glance over his shoulder, he rose to his feet and began walking. <I should say something to Soun first, but it would probably be best to send him a letter and take care of this as soon as possible.> He wracked his mind again, trying to remember a diminutive red-haired fiancee. <I can't remember her... well, wouldn't be the first time a girl decided to engage herself to Ranma.>

Genma shook his head, taking long strides forward. <But why does she claim that she's got a blood feud against me?> He sighed, and finally decided, <That question will be answered later, I suppose...>

***

Lime stared at a map. The map didn't change, simply showing him the same thing it had the last three times he had examined it. Growling, Lime crumpled the map up and threw it downwards.

Darting forward, Mint caught it before it struck the ground, and smoothed the mass of paper back out. Shooting a glare at Lime, he said, "Be careful! Master Herb will be angry if we break it."

Lime grimaced, then whined plaintively, "This isn't fun. I hoped we could see some girls. Herb didn't even let us stay in the city long enough to see any!"

Mint laughed, "We saw the girls in the Joketsuzoku village, right?"

With a grin, Lime nodded. "Yeah, there was even one that looked like Herb!"

Mint ducked his head and folded up the map, "Don't let him hear you say that! He'll beat you up for sure. Come on, let's wake him up. He'll show us where we're going next."

While Mint busied himself packing up their few belongings, Lime reached out to wake the sleeping Herb. He frowned slightly, as he put his hand on Herb's chest. <That's odd... feels... soft.> Blinking, Lime drew back the edge of Herb's cloak, which had been wrapped around her while she slept.

After a moment of hesitation, Lime opened Herb's shirt and gaped. Tentatively, he reached forward with one hand. Touching the exposed breast brought a feeling welling up in Lime, not entirely unlike an angry female Musk Prince driving a fist into his gut, then throwing a powerful blast of chi to follow it up. A barely functioning bit of his brain informed him that, most likely, that's exactly what the sensation was.

Mint spun around in time to see Lime impact heavily against a large boulder. Herb was pulling her shirt shut. Confused, Mint scratched his head, and asked, "What was that?"

Herb glared at him, snapping, "Nothing. Now give me the map, I want to get the Kaisui-fuu and be done with this."

Obligingly, Mint handed the map to Herb, who groaned at the new creases in the paper. Deciding that proximity to the already cranky Prince of the Musk was unwise to maintain, Mint crept over to examine Lime.

Lime was glancing around with a dazed expression. "Uh... I thought... Herb had... breasts..."

Herb growled at the pair menacingly, and they wisely shut up. With a sigh, Herb carefully folded up the map. "We should be in the village tomorrow. Now behave yourselves."

***

Ranma fingered the cloak as it settled about his shoulders. It was a sturdy piece of cloth that could serve as a blanket in a time of need, and had a hood for rain. Chame examined it critically, "It's mostly waterproof, and will keep you warm when you're cold. It might get in the way when you fight, so you can tighten the cords here if you must."

Experimentally tugging on the cord whipped the cloak into a small bundle in the middle of his back. He smiled slightly, "Okay, that's convenient. Anything I should know about the staff?"

Chame licked her lips, "It's a powerful weapon, Ranma. Do you know where I got it?"

He shook his head. "Nope."

The Machin held the staff in front of her, intoning seriously, "It's the blood of the fallen of the Machin tribe. The focus of all the anger that the fallen bear towards the Joketsuzoku..."

Ranma raised an eyebrow. "And this is to help me with control?"

Chame scowled. "Yes. So don't open the staff."

He accepted it from her and stared at it for a moment. "Open? How would I open it?"

She shook her head, shaking a single finger at him in a gesture of negation. "That, I won't tell you. Suffice to say you won't do it by accident. As a staff, it will help you as a focus, and it's a decent weapon. As a distaff..." She trailed off. "Well. It's quite dangerous. But you would need the focus that three thousand years have put into the staff to avoid harming those around you."

Ranma stared at the staff again, then nodded. "Okay, then..." He raised his head, scanning the area in front of Chame's house. "Where's Ucchan?"

Chame shrugged. "I haven't seen her since breakfast."

The pigtailed martial artist frowned. "Okay. Um... here we go." <Ucchan, I'm leaving now. I love you.>

A moment later, he felt her response, <I love you too, Ranchan. Hurry back.>

He nodded, staring blankly into the air. "I'll try." Shaking himself out of his reverie, he abruptly wheeled away, and used the Breath of the Earth to take him to the village where he would be meeting the Musk.

***

Akane stared at the tableau in front of her. After a moment, she decided to pass on fainting, since _this_ turn of events was simply too odd to ignore. Idly, she wondered if Nodoka had seen this coming, and if that was why she had invited Akane over for tea.

Kuno knelt on the floor in front of Nodoka. "I beg your forgiveness, Mrs. Saotome. I find myself unworthy and seek to redeem myself. I apologize for my... careless actions. I owe both you and Tendo Akane apologies. And Ranko, though I haven't seen her in some time."

Nodoka cocked her head to one side, accepting a bundle from Kuno. She made a 'tsk'ing noise at the contents. "I think you may have overstepped your bounds before, but I think you've made a mistake here, too. Your honor would appear to be broken." With a sigh, she set both halves of Kuno's blade on the table. She watched Kuno, still prostate, with a bemused expression.

Akane collected herself enough to sip from the tea that she had been served a moment before Kuno had knocked on the door. She briefly considered commenting, but after a moment, she decided that silence was best and stared some more.

Nodoka paused to take a sip of her own tea, then gestured to a seat, "Rise, Kuno. I would speak with you on equal footing."

Kuno gracefully rose to his feet, and took a seat on a seat between the two women. "Thank you, Mrs. Saotome."

She nodded absently, and poured another cup of tea for Kuno. After he had taken a sip, and returned the cup to its saucer, she asked, "Now what brings you here? I suspect you seek something."

With a stoic expression, Kuno nodded. "You are very observant. I wish to make amends and redeem myself. I... have made grievous breaches of protocol, and wish to repair the damage I have done. I was a fool to do the things that I have."

Akane blinked. Then she frowned. Then she decided that blinking was easier. <People change, I guess. Ryouga's a monster, Ranma fights demons, Auntie Saotome heals broken bones in seconds. I shouldn't be surprised by a simple thing like Kuno apologizing for his actions and trying to make amends, right?> A sip of tea helped calm her nerves slightly, though she suspected that stranger things were going to happen soon. <Is this what it was like for Ranma? Strange things were _always_ happening to him.>

Nodoka considered for a moment then nodded. "Very well, then. I will tell you what you must do to make amends." She took a sip from her teacup. "First, you must apologize to the Tendos. All of them, not simply Akane." Kuno nodded. "Then, you must apologize to Ranma." She frowned thoughtfully. "I do not think he will be visiting for some time, so I suspect that you will have to send him a letter. Give it to Nabiki, and she shall see that it gets to him." After another sip from her teacup, she added, "Do not let anyone know that Nabiki can contact Ranma. That is imperative."

The kendoist nodded once more. "I understand, then."

The Saotome matriarch pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I think that the Tendos might expect restitution, but I will demand none."

Kuno smiled slightly, and paused to enjoy some of the warm drink. "This is good tea." He remarked, "Though I still owe Ranko an apology, do I not?"

Nodoka frowned then. "That is a more complicated issue... allow me to explain the matter of Jusenkyou..."

***

Kuno walked home, deep in thought. <All this time, one of the women I was chasing was really a man. Saotome, no less. I truly _do_ owe him an apology.> He paused to heave a sigh. <Once that is done with, the matter of dealing with my sister will be next. And my father. Perhaps an extended vacation to Hawaii...>

Shaking his head, he couldn't help but smile. <But now, I can be a man, and be quit of these foolish games.> Buoyed by the thought, he felt as though a burden had been lifted from him. He paused a moment to shift the two halves of his katana. <I will have the blade repaired once I have atoned. Not until then.>

***

Ukyou watched Ranma leave from the front door. Once he stepped into the Breath of the Earth, his form seemed to waver, as though misty, and he shot forward into the trees.

She heaved a sigh, then turned towards Chame. The Machin regarded her for a moment, then offered a slight smile. "Things... should be in control once he gets back."

Ukyou shook her head. "Chame... something's wrong. Whenever I try and use magic, everything goes all... odd. I don't quite understand..."

Chame raised an eyebrow, "Do you feel ill at all?"

The okonomiyaki-chef-turned-mage shook her head, "No, why?"

The redhead frowned thoughtfully, "Well, let's get you inside and scry a bit. We'll find out what's wrong."

Reassured, Ukyou let herself be led inside.

***

Ranma lost himself to the rhythm of travel. Switching off when territories ended, he did not notice the distance until he reached the village. The main street was dirt, so it did not break Ranma's breathing. He let go of the Breath of the Earth and slid to a halt, leaving a long skid mark behind him. He paused for moment at the end of his slide, as his cloak billowed about him dramatically and the breeze of his passage kicked up dust.

He suppressed a smile, wondering if he resembled any of his manga heroes at all. A few of the village kids gawked at him, making him think that he had. Ranma grinned at them, resisting the urge to show off any further.

With a sigh, he walked towards the town fountain and seated himself, waiting for the men he would be traveling with.

***

Herb growled low in her throat, as she consulted the map again. "You _fools_. We would have been there yesterday if it weren't for you." Her voice trembled with anger and she folded the map to put it away before she inadvertently tore it.

Lime winced and stared at his feet. Mint cautiously put himself between the two, then pointed into the distance, asking, "Is that the town?"

Herb glanced in the indicated direction and sighed. "It may be. Let's go. I certainly _hope_ it's the right town."

The three trotted along in silence for a few minutes, until the village drew closer. Herb glanced down the street, and saw a cloaked figure sitting on the edge of the fountain in the town square. The rest of the village's population milled around idly, eyeing the Musk with undisguised suspicion.

Herb smiled, thinking, <Finally. If the Joketsuzoku are to be believed, then the Venerated One here should lead us to the Kaisui-fuu.>

When Herb approached, the cloaked figure drew back his hood and turned to face her. He smiled politely. "Herb, Lord of the Musk, I presume?" He paused a moment to take in the eyes and other slightly inhuman features of the men of the Musk tribe.

Herb nodded. "Indeed. Are you the Venerated One? I was told she had red hair."

Ranma blinked at this. "Ah, I am of the Machin. The one you speak of is my teacher." He paused to draw in a deep breath. "I expect that you've spent a long while on the road. Let us go to a restaurant, and have something for your friends to eat while we speak."

Herb smiled genuinely. <This Venerated One knows the polite speech forms. The trip should be tolerable from this point forward.> "You are most kind, Venerated One."

Ranma frowned as he led the trio to the village's small deli. <When the hell did I start talking like that? Well. It makes him happy, might as well keep doing it.> "If it pleases you, you may call me Ranma. Your retainers may address me the same."

Herb nodded, as Mint leapt to a seat, and Lime sat slowly to avoid breaking his own. Ranma and Herb shared a wry grin, before the waitress approached. While Mint and Lime openly ogled the girl, she shied away and stood behind Ranma. <What the hell is with these people? They have funny eyes, and that one's wearing some kind of armor. Ranma's normal, not like them. So why is he hanging out with them?>

Ranma shrugged, not realizing that she hadn't spoken, "I'm aiding them in a quest, Kikuko. Lime will have a beef-bowl, and Mint would prefer some ramen." He blinked then, realizing he was sifting through the distraction in their minds to produce those answers. He turned to Herb, only to find a barrier that prevented him from reading her mind.

Herb blinked a few times, then nodded, thoughtfully. "Interesting... I will have whatever you have... Ranma."

Ranma hid a frown, concentrating. <Got to remember not to read minds without thinking about it. Damn. What can I order that won't offend him? Wait... Why do I care?> he sighed while shaking his head. "Myself and this gentleman will have pork okonomiyaki."

Kikuko blinked a few times, then nodded and took the orders to the kitchen. <Weird... is he reading my mind?> Repressing the urge to choke, Ranma sipped from his glass of water.

Herb smiled widely, eyeing Ranma with undisguised interest. "I have not yet tasted of that dish. This should prove interesting. Ven... Ranma. Can you answer some questions for me?"

Ranma nodded. "If I can."

Licking her lips, Herb asked, "Do you know where to find the Kaisui-fuu?"

Rolling his eyes, Ranma released a sigh. "I had hoped you would know. Cologne should have told you something. Ah... Ch... My teacher and I cast auguries to help us locate it. The closest we were able to find was the mountain, Horaisan."

Herb nodded, his smile slipping only slightly. "That was what Cologne told us, but she said that we should try and contact you before we retrieved it." She frowned then. "I'm not certain why, however I welcome the opportunity to spend time with a Venerated One."

Ranma nodded, as the food they ordered was placed in front of them. Mint and Lime scratched their heads at the bowls. Mint looked up, confused. "How did they know what to bring us?"

Herb interrupted before Ranma could explain. "Silence, Mint! Do not question the ways of a Venerated One."

Sighing, Ranma asked, "Why do you call the Machin tribe 'Venerated Ones?'"

Herb blinked and frowned slightly. "You do not know? I... am surprised. Well. We call you the Venerated Ones because it is your heritage that gave us Jusenkyou, and the means for our tribe to come into being."

Hiding a shudder of revulsion, Ranma ate a bite of his okonomiyaki. <Not as good as Ucchan's. Hell, I can make better than this.> "Ah. I remember hearing of that."

Herb tasted her own okonomiyaki, then shook her head. "How old are you, Ranma?"

Ranma raised an eyebrow. "I'm seventeen years old."

Herb stared in shock. "I see. I thought your tribe no longer had young."

Grimacing, Ranma sighed, "It's a long story. Let's not talk about it now. Okay, we need to get to Horaisan, so we're going to want to go westward... there's a train station there that will take us fairly near. I expect we can be there in about a week, and then a few days to find it... after that, a week to get back."

Herb smiled widely, "That will be excellent... I am greatly pleased with this turn of events." She turned to Mint and Lime, who were idly licking out their bowls. "Shall we be on our way?"

Ranma wondered how long it would be before the group fell to arguing. He sensed a great deal of hidden tension and anger beneath Herb's seemingly calm exterior.

***

Genma glanced around the open-air cafe warily. He doubted anyone he knew would be around here, but it paid to be certain before one made a guess about things like that. A chance encounter with a jilted fiancee last week left him bruised. He grimaced, berating himself, <Why was I such a fool? And when I had Ranma with the one I wanted him to be with...>

He heaved a sigh, and sipped at his tea. A bitter taste reminded him of why he had let it cool so long. <Kasumi's was much better.> He sighed again, remembering. <And Nodoka's.>

Turning his gaze to the blank sheets of paper in front of him, he pondered again. <I made mistakes... so many mistakes. I have to try to make things right, and the first step to making things right is telling Nodoka the truth.> He nodded, taking the brush to the ink, and quickly scribbling out a rough draft of his letter.

Eyeing it critically, he practiced a few of the kanji, until he was satisfied. Then he began scribing another copy, slowly and painstakingly.

He mumbled to himself as he wrote:

 

"Dearest Nodoka,

I hope that this letter finds you well. I know that I have not been keeping properly in contact with you over the last year, and it shames me to admit it, but it is my own fault. I have made many mistakes, and that is truly the least of them.

However, I do wish to set things right. I am no longer the man you married, or even the man who left with our son all those years ago. I have made many grave errors and poor judgments. The reason I did such things is... well. There is no true reason.

I should have repented sooner, I realize this now. But the truth of the matter is, none of the problems and mistakes I had made have caught up with me. Rather, none _had_. But that changed in China, when Ranma and I got cursed. Soun can tell you about the curses. If he can't, his daughters can help. Nabiki knows much more than she lets on.

I am going to attempt to set things right, though. Ranma has run away, and I fear it’s one of my irresponsible actions that has caused it to happen. I am near Ranma's new home now. I will find him and give him the cure for the curse, and bring him back to you as a 'man among men.'

I hope you can forgive me for my mistakes.

Your Husband,

Saotome Genma"

 

Genma stared at the completed letter for a long minute, then raised his teacup to sip from it. At the last moment, he grimaced, and set the cup back down, untouched. "No. It'll never work." He crumpled the letter up, and set it in the ashtray. A few minutes later, it was ashes, and Genma was gone.

***

A shadowy figure and his miniscule disciple stepped out of the shadows and watched Genma depart. "Intriguing."

The smaller figure glanced up at his master, "How so?"

The shadowy figure turned away. "It doesn't matter now. We have an appointment to keep. The first of three, from this point."

The smaller figure heaved a sigh. "Of course, Master. When will we find the second?"

"The Band of the Dead will be five strong when we are ready."

"But the second, Master? When will we find him?"

The shadowy figure gave a small smile. "Quite soon, Student. Only a few months away. Then we will come back for the third."

"And then we'll challenge the Founder?"

The shadowy figure's smile faded, and he sighed, "Perhaps. You have a weak understanding of such things. We shall see."

A breeze swirled across the deck, sweeping the ashes out of the tray, and across the street outside the cafe. By the time the ashes settled, both of the figures were gone.

***

Ranma woke with a shiver, and huddled back into the cloak. He whispered a quick prayer of thanks for the warmth it provided him. Lime snored softly across the campfire, while Herb's still form lay near Ranma's. Mint paced the perimeter of the camp nervously, with his odd curved sword drawn.

Stirring from his pallet, Ranma cracked his neck and looked at the sky. Mint eyed him for a moment, then resumed his pacing. Ranma gathered his cloak about him, and packed his bedroll. He had an odd feeling he wouldn't be sleeping any more tonight.

"Mint?"

The boy turned towards him quickly, and blinked. Then he scowled, and put away his sword. "Yeah?"

Ranma found a semi-comfortable seat on a log. "I can't get back to sleep. If you want, I'll finish your watch."

For a moment, the wolf-boy seemed like he would agree, then he shook his head. "No... Herb gave me an order. I have to follow."

Ranma stared at Mint for a long moment, then heaved a sigh. "Very well then. Do you want to talk or anything? Just sitting around is kind of boring."

Mint blinked thoughtfully, then nodded, "I want to ask you a question. Herb says that the Venerated Ones are all very wise. Can you tell me how a man can grow breasts?"

Attempting not to choke on laughter, Ranma made a show of clearing his throat. "Well. There's only one way I know of, and that's to fall into the spring of drowned girl. Your tribe uses it, don't they?"

An odd look crossed Mint's face. "Not anymore. We used to, a long time ago, but Herb says that we don't do that kind of thing anymore because it's outdated."

Ranma frowned. "Why do you ask, anyway?"

Mint checked to make sure that Herb was still asleep and whispered conspiratorially, "Herb's a man, but he's got breasts!"

For Ranma, various clues began to click into place. He just smiled, and nodded. "I see. Herb is a man; he's just trapped in a girl's body right now. That's why we're searching for the Kaisui-fuu. It will unlock his curse."

It took a few moments for Mint to absorb this, and then he nodded slowly. "I see. So Herb's lovely breasts will go away?"

Ranma rubbed at his forehead. "You know... if you want to see them that badly, you can jump in the spring at Jusenkyou and get your own."

Mint considered this for a while, then nodded. "Maybe. If Herb did it, there's probably a good reason. And if I had my own..." His voice trailed away, as he got that far-off look in his eyes that Ranma recognized from Hiroshi and Daisuke whenever they asked Ranma about his curse.

Ranma just shook his head. <This is going to be a _very_ interesting trip.>

***

The mountain loomed in the distance ahead of them. Herb was berating his servants again. Ranma had taken to walking ahead of them, to avoid them as much as possible. The rain had gotten through to her a few days ago, when she wasn't wearing her cloak. Then, the Musk had stared at her. Now they all treated her oddly. Then again, with the Musk, it was hard to tell.

Gritting her teeth, Ranma quickened her pace again. <The sooner we get this over with, the better.> Then she sighed. <Chame said I would be losing control. That hasn't happened yet. So what's this all about?>

She glanced at the staff for a moment as they crested the final rise before the mountain. A long rope bridge stretched before Ranma, the far end shrouded in mist. She sighed in relief, and began striding forward again.

The bickering Musk crested the rise shortly afterwards, and continued across the bridge, only stopping when Ranma's shout ahead of them caught their attention. Herb blinked, then dashed forward, flanked closely by her attendance.

They came to the end of the bridge, which was a sheer stone face. Ranma's face bore a look of extreme anger. She growled, and tucked her staff through her belt, and again through the collar of her cloak. <What the hell? A bridge that leads to the center of a cliff?> "Let's get this over with. We have to climb this, then we can find the Kaisui-fuu, and be done with this."

Herb nodded, and they began the climb. "I agree. The sooner the better."

Ranma muttered quietly, "Maybe your temper will be better once you're out of that body."

Herb stiffened, hearing the words she wasn't meant to, and grew angry. The Prince of the Musk was not used to being spoken to in such a manner, even by a Venerated One. Though, to be truthful, this was the first Machin she had met. This didn't change the fact that she resented the words.

When they reached the top, Ranma pulled the staff out from behind her. "Do you know where it is from here?"

With a gesture to Mint, Herb called out, "Bring out the Chiisui-ton." Mint retrieved a small bucket and ladle from Lime's pack, and handed them to Herb.

After setting the bucket on the ground, Herb shot a glance towards Ranma, then back to the bucket. Herb held the ladle over the bucket's handle, but there was no reaction. She heaved a sigh, "We're going to have to get closer before the Chiisui-ton can detect it."

Ranma groaned, "This mountain is huge. I don't want to spend a whole week searching for the damn thing. Mind if I try?"

Glowering, Herb handed the bucket and ladle to Ranma. She held one in each hand, then reached out with her senses briefly. "Ah. Simple... very simple enchantment... and one very complex one... The simple one is very weak. That would be the one that we need to enhance." Her brow furrowed in thought, then she nodded. "Ah..."

Ranma felt her power coursing through her, though it always felt slightly... different when she did it in her female form. Nodding, she carefully applied her strength to the minor spell for location, and increased its range. Smiling, she opened her eyes, and set the ladle across the handle as she had seen Herb do.

For a moment, it seemed nothing would happen. Then the ladle twitched, and pointed compass-like towards the interior of the mountain. Ranma heaved a sigh of relief, and handed the bucket to an awe-struck Herb.

Mint and Lime stared at Ranma with admiration, and Mint asked, "Wow! That's neat. You can make magic stuff work better? Can you do other magic tricks?"

Ranma snorted and rolled her eyes. "I'm not a stage magician. Come on. Let's go get the Kaisui-fuu. The sooner I can get back to my wife, the better."

Herb blinked at this. "You never mentioned... you have a wife?"

Shrugging, Ranma began to walk forward. "I never thought it was a big deal. Now come on."

The Prince of the Musk frowned thoughtfully, then followed. They stopped occasionally to consult the Chiisui-ton, and corrected their course. After an hour of walking, they came to a clearing. Ranma scanned the clearing quickly, and noticed a suspiciously shaped rock formation.

Shaking her head, she asked. "Does that rock look like a kettle to you?"

Herb nodded. "Indeed. The Kaisui-fuu must be near..."

Ranma heaved a sigh of relief. "Thank the gods. I can't wait to be done with this."

Herb frowned thoughtfully, and poured some water from his canteen into the bucket. Ranma was too absorbed in studying the rock formation to notice, until Herb splashed him with it.

Grimacing, she turned to face Herb. "What was that for?"

Herb smiled slightly. "You should have more respect for a Prince of the Musk. Now perhaps if you ask nicely, when I retrieve the Kaisui-fuu, I'll let you use it."

Ranma's grimace twisted into a glowering stare. "What the hell do you think you're doing, you jerk?"

Mint and Lime glanced at each other, then at Herb, unsure of what to do. Herb frowned. "You've been nothing like the Venerated Ones I've read of. And the legends say that Venerated Ones can't be cursed, but you are. I think you're lying and attempting to deceive us. Lime, Mint, capture him. We'll take him back to Cologne and she'll tell us the truth."

Mint rushed at Ranma, as she leapt out of the way. Mint's hands reached for the trailing edge of Ranma's cloak, but it seemed to writhe out of his grasp. Lime's attacks were simple for someone with Ranma's speed to avoid, but would hurt Ranma seriously in her girl form.

Ranma realized then, with a certain fatality, that she couldn't win this fight. It was an idea that had never occurred to her before, but the three she was facing were a deadly combination. Herb's ki and chi abilities, which Ranma had witnessed, coupled with Mint's speed, and Lime's strength would beat her, and it was only a matter of how long it would take.

Her mind raced, searching for a solution that would let her escape alive. <I have to win. Ucchan needs me.> He spun around, and shouted as he ducked another salvo of attacks from Mint. "I thought you were a _man_, Herb. I guess I was wrong." Ranma paused to leap over Lime, causing Mint to strike his shoulder. While the strong musk warrior bellowed in pain, Ranma dashed away. "If you're a _real_ man, then you'll call off your men, and fight me one-on-one." She hoped that Herb would agree. She could only assume that Herb wanted to speak with her, since she wasn't throwing any chi blasts yet.

Herb growled, and called Mint and Lime off. "Agreed, Ranma. We'll fight... just you and me."

Mint and Lime retreated to the edge of the tree line, to watch the two men-turned-women fight. Herb adjusted her cloak. "It's a real pity that I have to fight you in this form... my true body has a much greater reserve of ki to draw from." Herb scowled, glaring at Ranma. "But I suspect that this body shall be sufficient to defeat you."

Ranma narrowed her eyes, readying herself for Herb's attack. The two combatants circled each other warily, neither wanting to make the first move. Ranma finally gave in, and made the first offensive move, snapping the staff out in a feint towards Herb's knee and following up with a kick towards Herb's torso. The Musk Prince danced out of the way, as Ranma gauged her speed. <Damn, she's fast...>

Herb attacked with a knife-hand and an axe-kick. Ranma blocked the knife-hand with a blow to Herb's forearm, and somersaulted to the side of the kick. Ranma countered with a foot-sweep, but Herb leapt over Ranma's leg, and remained suspended in the air. Rolling away, Ranma heard Herb shout, "Ryu sei hisho!"

A bolt of chi that moved too fast for Ranma to see slammed into her, as Herb flashed past. Landing with a grunt, Ranma maintained her grip on the staff. <What the hell? I've never seen this kind of technique before!> Joints protested as Ranma climbed to her feet. She groaned. <Okay, screw this. No more playing around!> "You want to pull out all the stops? Let's go, asshole!"

Herb flinched away, as Ranma reached deep within herself, and brought her aura to life. The Prince of the Musk blinked a few times, having never seen a gold-colored battle aura. She shook her head, exclaiming, "I doubt you can defeat me. I am the master of all chi techniques."

Ranma gathered herself, pouring all of her ki into her body to reinforce it. <I might be able to beat him with an earth-based fighting style.>

Herb leapt into the air, raining down chi blasts towards Ranma. Ranma raised magical barriers to deflect the blasts. Herb grimaced, coming to rest a dozen yards away from Ranma. <How does he do that? He shouldn't be able to stop my blasts... unless he's using magic. Very well then.> Herb smiled widely. "I shall enjoy your defeat. Hito ryu-zan ha!"

Ranma's shields deflected all but the final blast of knife-like chi, which sliced into her stomach. Ranma stared down at the gash in her abdomen in surprise and was dimly aware of a rock formation behind her exploding from redirected force. She placed one hand over the wound. <I'm going into shock. How deep is this cut?>

Blood welled up from underneath Ranma's hand, followed by a bright golden glow. <Is my aura bleeding out of me? What's going on? I can't die like this... I should have been faster.> She felt her strength begin to drain from her, and sank to her knees. "No... not like this..."

Herb blinked, then shrugged. "It should have sliced you clean in half. Now all you'll do is prolong your suffering."

Ranma's free hand tightened her grip on the staff. <Dangerous, huh?> She managed a weak laugh before choking up a mouthful of blood. "You made a grave error, Herb... grave indeed." <Open the staff... how do I tap into that power?>

Ranma's world disappeared in a rush of blood and unsealed power. Her last conscious sight was of a confused and fearful Herb, cowering away.

***

Ukyou swallowed nervously. "Chame? I have this feeling that something's wrong with Ranma..."

The redhead glanced up from another book. "I hope you're wrong, Ukyou."

The brown-haired girl began to shiver uncontrollably. "I'm really worried about him..."

***

In a large room beneath the Joketsuzoku village, Shampoo shuddered at the strange sensation that crept up her spine, and snapped her book shut. She cast around her for a moment before finding another book, and flipped through until she found the entry she wanted. "{So...}"

Her expression turned pale, and she dropped the book, running upstairs to Cologne.

***

Akane's eyes widened as she meditated in the dojo. <What's going on here?> She resisted the urge to convulse and curl into a little ball, as the dojo shrine's supports gave way.

Staring numbly at the ruined shrine, she stood, and ran into the house shouting, "Dr. Tofu!"

***

Rage looked up from the middle of the field he was crossing, smiling widely. "Excellent..." Akari watched him from their house, wearing a curiously blank expression.

***

A shadowy figure and his disciple stood at the base of mount Horaisan. The master turned to his disciple, announcing, "Appointment number one. If we are not careful, much of what we have tried will fail here. We must keep him from destroying our plan."

The short figure nodded slowly. "So, that's the Founder?"

After a moment of quiet, the taller figure nodded. "I believe so. Now watch me carefully, while I guide him through his first Ascension. He will not realize it yet, but this is the power that will eventually forge the circle for us."

"I understand, Master."

The master only grunted once, as he cast out with his mind and his powers.

------------

Author's notes:

Fuseiseki, the tile of this chapter means 'failure.' There's... not really a whole lot to say about this half of the chapter, really, aside from thank you to my pre-readers for putting up with me, and doing a great job. Especially Chris Stassen and Druid, without whom this story wouldn't be half as good.


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