Three

A Ranma ½ Fanfic by jimra

All Ranma ½ characters, places, and things in general are the property of Takahashi Rumiko-sama. All hail the great Takahashi!

Chapter Four

--

"Whadja do that for?!"

The question hung in the air for all of a second before the young redhead who spoke it dropped the panda she what about to hit and turned to the three Joketsuzoku currently facing her. She hadn't been paying attention to the three amazons, but that didn't mean that she was unaware of their presence. Ranma stared balefully at the pink-haired girl that still held the now-empty canteen from which the water that now dripped from her small form had come. "Well?" she reiterated.

"Umm…" replied the flustered girl, her voice weak and a bit confused. "Perfume want see if it work right way is all."

The irate redhead blinked, trying to parse the badly formed sentence, and then, some confusion coloring her own words, she asked, "Right way?"

Another of the strange girls stepped forward when the pink-haired one looked quizzically at Ranma. This one, her violet hair and eyes being rather striking, said, "Right way. Jusenkyo curse change with water, but you change without."

"Ooooookay," the pigtailed youth replied, not understanding her answer, and she turned back to the panda that used to be her father. "Maybe you should explain, Pop."

The panda growfed irritably, looking beseechingly at the Chinese girls, and the third one brightened. "Curse is reversed with hot water," she said, answering their unspoken question.

Ranma unceremoniously snagged her animalistic father by the scruff of his neck and dragged him toward the hut, hoping that the remaining miso soup was still warm. At the door, she dropped the panda and, stepping inside, she found the soup pot at the edge of the fire. Luckily, the remaining coals had kept the fish-stock-and-soy-paste soup within warm, and she returned bearing the pot. Without preamble, the redhead dumped the contents on the panda, and apparently the liquid was warm enough as her father quickly replaced the animal. Genma swept a finger across a small puddle of the liquid on his shirt and licked it.

"Not bad, boy," he said in a distracted tone. "Shame that you had to waste it changing me back."

Ranma growled, hoisting her father back up by his much-abused shirt. "Nonna this makes any sense, Oyaji. What the hell is going on?!"

Genma opened his mouth to reply, but he was pre-empted by an approaching figure, one using a most unusual means of locomotion.

--

Cologne crested the final rise before coming within sight of Jusenkyo just in time to see her 'guest', Saotome Genma, have a pot of soup dumped over his head, transforming him back into human form. Hopping on her staff, as was her custom, she raced forward join the group outside of the Guide's hut. Before speaking, she quickly scanned the assembled people, determining by process of elimination that the redhead, who was presently lifting the elder Saotome into the air by his collar, must be Genma's son, Ranma.

"Nonna this makes any sense, Oyaji," the red-haired teen growled. "What the hell is going on?!"

"Perhaps I can be of some assistance in that regard, child," Cologne answered. "The curse of Jusenkyo often disorients those touched by its waters. You would be Ranma, would you not?"

Dropping her father, Ranma turned toward the wizened crone, stating, "Anythin' you can tell me would be appreciated."

"Well," began Cologne, "no one actually knows how old Jusenkyo is, but every spring here has a curse, due to something or someone drowning in it. From what the guide told me, you fell into the Nyannichuan, hence your currently female state."

Before the red-haired girl could answer, a groan sounded from over Cologne's shoulder, and she was quite surprised to see two Musk, Mint and Lime no less, just waking from an obviously injury-induced slumber. Taking this as a priority over explaining anything else to the neo-girl, Cologne threw a perfunctory "Just a moment" over her shoulder and hopped over to the Musk Royal Guards.

Since, at present, the Joketsuzoku and the Musk were at peace, Cologne asked them, "What happened to you two?"

Mint, who was recovering faster than his much larger friend, blink-blinked at the elder before replying. "We saw a red-haired girl out here and decided to say hello."

Cologne could sense Ranma approaching, so she waited for the redhead to join her before speaking. However, Ranma preempted her.

"What the hell are you talking about?" asked the red-haired martial artist, and Cologne made a mental note about how little emotional control the girl had. "You walked out of the woods and GROPED me!"

The two Musk warriors cowered back, and Cologne instantly knew why: the girl's grey-blue eyes were glowing with an aquamarine battle aura. The Amazon Matriarch quickly added another mental note, recognizing that as the power that had initially drawn her to Jusenkyo after her heir.

"B—but," Mint stammered, "we didn't mean anything by it."

A growl escaped the redhead's throat, and then something happened that caused Cologne, Elder of over three hundred years of age and Matriarch of the Joketsuzoku Amazons, to fall off of her staff: Ranma spontaneously changed from cute, diminutive redhead into powerfully-built young man. Fortunately, the Joketsuzoku warrior retained enough poise and battle sense to realize that the pigtailed youth was about to unleash a beating on the two Musk. Quickly interposing herself between Ranma and the hapless Musk warriors, she quickly said, "Ranma, these are Musk warriors. It is likely that you are the first non-Amazon female they have ever seen, so you might want to give them the benefit of the doubt."

Ranma blinked owlishly at the elder, but it was obvious that he was calming down. "Alright," he finally stated, and turning to the Musk, he continued, "Just don't do it again."

Nodding enthusiastically, the two animalistic warriors bid a hasty retreat, and Cologne and Ranma returned to the group. As they approached, the wizened woman studied the young man out of the corner of her eye; never before in all her years had she seen the like. Imagine, someone spontaneously changing due to a Jusenkyo curse!

"Anyway," the pigtailed boy continued in a now-calm voice, as though the incident with the Musk had never happened, "please continue."

"Honestly, young man," Cologne answered, "I've never seen the like of that, of someone transforming without the aid of water. I would like to extend an invitation to both you and your father to stay with us in Nyuucheizu while I study how this occurred."

Of course, he didn't know that Cologne had no intention of letting him refuse the offer, but the Joketsuzoku Elder saw no reason to tell him that. After a moment with a thoughtful expression on his face, Ranma replied, "I dunno. I still need to train, and Tousan and I have a lot more places to go."

Before Cologne could make a counter argument, Genma of all people preempted her. "Actually, boy, I've heard legends of the Joketsuzoku that speak of powerful techniques." Turning towards the Amazon Matriarch, he continued, "I'm sure that if you would share your techniques with Ranma and me, we would be glad to stay for you to study the effects."

Recognizing that Genma had essentially linked their staying to instruction in Amazon fighting techniques in the younger Saotome's mind, her respect for the man rose a notch, and she answered "I'm sure we can work something out. Why don't we all go back to the village and discuss it over lunch?"

Ranma nodded, but before acquiescing to return, he insisted on chopping some wood for the guide to replace what he had used to make breakfast, and after doing so, apologizing for using the hut without permission, and thanking the Guide, he joined the other. In short order, Cologne led the other three Joketsuzoku and the two Japanese martial artists back to Nyuucheizu.

--

Ranma wasn't particularly impressed with the Amazon village, but considering how far Jusendo was from modern civilization, the village's appearance was understandable. Consisting of only two dirt roads and surrounded by a tall, wooden palisade, Nyuucheizu was composed mainly of thatch-roofed houses that couldn't have more than three or four rooms, most only having a single story. Still, the ripples of smoke coming from the brick chimneys gave the place a quaint feel, and there were exceptions to the largely uniform construction. At the center of town, actually built in a large square where the roads intersected, was a modest-sized fortress built of local stone.

"That's the council hall," said a wizened voice from over his shoulder, and Ranma realized that Cologne had noticed him staring.

"Ah," her replied intelligently, turning away from the imposing building to face his hostess.

Cologne smiled at the young man, saying, "If you'd like to take a look around, I would suggest asking my great granddaughter to give you a tour. However, first I would like to get you and your father settled in one of the guest houses."

After noting his nod, Cologne turned once again to lead the way, and Ranma fell into step behind her, coincidentally right next to the purple-haired girl the Matriarch had just volunteered as a tour guide. So many strange things had happened in the past two days, and since he had spent most of the trip to Nyuucheizu getting to know the Amazons, this was really his first chance to ponder the bizarre nature of recent events. To Ranma, it seemed that there were holes in his memories, or perhaps more precisely, a mental haze covering most of the previous day. When he had woken up on the ground near the Nyannichuan, it was like a great weight had lifted from his mind, and ever since then he knew he had been acting peculiarly. The strangest part, Ranma reflected, was that his strange behavior was only strange from an academic view. The pigtailed boy could remember acting differently in similar situations, but for the life of him, he couldn't remember why. Every action since awakening this morning seemed both right and utterly strange.

On top of that, Ranma could only remember hazy bits from the time he'd fallen in the Spring of Drown Girl and waking up this morning. His mind's eye met with only vague images when he tried to recall what had happened. An image of a huge, dark cat here, an image of a naked girl who looked just like him when he was a girl, a bleak landscape with black clouds. The most disturbing one was an image where he was looking at himself, and he didn't mean in a mirror; Ranma had the distinct impression that he had been looking at himself from another body.

Shaking his head at these musings, the youth turned to his aberrant behavior, especially giving his father a hug. It was strange: all of Ranma's memories told him that the action was utterly uncharacteristic, but his feelings, on the other hand, told him that it was a perfectly reasonable action. And then there was his quick temper, now seen in hindsight. His memories told him that he could easily control his temper and use his feelings as weapons against his opponents…at least, other than his memories of insulting friends, like Ryoga.

Ranma almost ran into Cologne's back when she stopped abruptly, so absorbed was he in his musings, and a moment later his inwardly looking mind finally realized that someone was talking to him. "Sorry, Shampoo," he said, feeling an embarrassed blush spread across his face. "I missed what you said."

The violet-haired girl smiled brightly, telling him that she wasn't insulted by his inattention, and Ranma could feel his own lips turning up. It seemed that Shampoo's cheerful disposition was contagious.

"Shampoo ask," the Amazon repeated in her broken Japanese, "if want tour now. Or Ranma want rest first?"

"Sure, that tour sounds good," Ranma answered. "Just lemme drop my bag inside."

That said, Ranma walked up to the house where Cologne was speaking with Genma, and he caught the tail end of their conversation. "…board, and we will want several hours a day with your son."

"What about instruction?" his father asked in a dubious voice, but Ranma knew Genma well enough to know that the unsure tone was false. "The boy can't afford any stagnation in his training."

"I'm willing to instruct Ranma in some Joketsuzoku techniques," Cologne answered, "but the council must decide to what extent. We will convene tonight to discuss the matter and tell you in the morning."

"Very well, then," said Genma, "I'll give you my final answer tomorrow after you tell me the council's decision."

"Fair enough."

Taking that to be the end of the adults' conversation, Ranma asked, "Is this where were gonna be stayin'?"

Cologne smiled indulgently at him, replying, "Yes. Please make yourselves at home."

"Thanks," Ranma said, nodding to the Elder before walking past her and his father into the house. A brief scan of the interior revealed a clean, if a bit small, living area, and in the back, the pigtailed teen found a small kitchen and a sunken area for bathing. Since there were no other rooms, Ranma assumed that the living area would be where he and Genma would be sleeping, so he dropped his pack there. All in all, it wasn't the best place he'd ever lived, but it was a far cry from the worst.

Walking back outside, Ranma quickly caught Shampoo's eye and motioned her over to him. "Wanna show me around?" he asked with an open grin.

The questioned girl nodded cutely, motioning for the Japanese guest to follow her.

--

Cayenne, along with Basil and eight powerful Musk warriors, found Mint and Lime, both looking battered and bruised, sitting under a tree about a kilometer from Jusenkyo. The two Royal Guards jumped to attention upon seeing the High General, but the black-haired Musk motioned for them to be at ease.

"What happened to you two?" asked the bear descendant. "It looks like you got into a fight with an Amazon elder!"

Mint answered Cayenne in a rush. "We were going to Jusenkyo for water when we saw a girl who wasn't an Amazon and we tried to—"

"Slow down!" bellowed the general, cutting off the wolf descendant's nearly unintelligible account.

Taking a deep breath, Mint started over, making certain to control his instinct to speed up. "Prince Herb ordered us to go to Jusenkyo and retrieve several jars of girl water, but when we got there we found a Japanese girl with red hair eating next to the springs."

"And so you made a complete fool of yourself trying to talk to her, didn't you?" asked Cayenne, though his voice was a bit kinder considering how seldom Musk of Mint's or Lime's age ever saw a woman.

In a small voice, Mint replied, "You don't have to put it quite like that."

"Are you telling me that a woman, and not an Amazon, defeated both of you?"

"Well, that's the strange part," said the Royal Guard. "After getting mad, she changed into a black-haired boy, and he had a ki aura nearly as strong as Prince Herb's! There's not much we could do against that."

Learning that the object of his mission was one of the Japanese who the Pass outpost had reported recently entering Jusendo brought Cayenne up short; usually anyone entering the forgotten valley was weaker than its inhabitants.

"Did the girl change with hot or cold water?" asked the bear descendant, assuming that the outsider had a Jusenkyo curse and wanting to know the natural form of the outsider.

"That's the really strange part," answered Mint. "She changed with no water at all!"

That news caused Cayenne's eyes to widen in disbelief, but his mind quickly assessed the situation in a cold, military fashion. Magic users were not unknown in Jusendo, but neither the occasional sorcerer found in the phoenix nor the odd Joketsuzoku elder dabbling in magic could perform such a feat. Coming to a decision, Cayenne recomposed himself and began to give orders.

"Mint," he said in a tone that caused the younger Musk to come to attention, "you're the fastest here, so I want you to bring this news to the prince as quickly as possible."

Without a word, Mint nodded and took off at a speed that had him out of sight in seconds, and then, Cayenne turned to Lime. "Lime, you will join our party. We are under orders from the prince to find the one you encountered at Jusenkyo and investigate his or her intentions. However, we are to avoid any kind of hostility; it is better to remain neutral or have an ally than to make another enemy."

Lime, not one for words, simply nodded to his superior and fell into rank with the other soldiers. With everyone set to go, the column continued on, and as they continued on to Jusenkyo, the High General of the Musk army mulled over the possibilities.

'The ki was impressive enough,' Cayenne thought, 'but to couple that with magic more powerful than anything we have seen, I will have to very careful how I approach this person.'

His thoughts continued on that track all the way to the accursed training ground, and upon their arrival, Cayenne immediately sought out the guide.

"Good afternoon, honorable warriors," the guide greeted. "It has been some time since such a large group from the Musk Dynasty visited Jusenkyo. How may I assist you?"

Cayenne nodded to the guide, greeting him in kind before asking, "I understand that three Japanese martial artists have recently entered Jusendo and came here, and I am looking for them."

The guide cocked his head to the side, answering, "I helped two Japanese customers, but I don't know of a third. The two that visited were a father and son who were on a martial arts training journey."

"Did they receive curses from Jusenkyo?"

"Yes, the father fell into the Shonmaoniichuan and the son fell into the Nyannichuan."

The second spring caused Cayenne's eyebrows to rise, and he asked, "Do you know what happened to Mint and Lime?"

Nodding, the fat Chinese man answered, "From what I understand, the young man defeated them after they accosted him in female form. It was very strange, honorable warrior. The young man transformed without requiring any water."

Having now corroborated Mint's story, the general asked one more question. "Is he still here," the black-haired Musk asked, "or if they have left, do you know where they went."

"They left for Nyuucheizu just before noon," the guide answered, much to Cayenne's unease. "The Matriarch herself was with them when they left."

Now knowing that his mission would be twice as difficult, the High General thanked the guide, and after the man returned to his cottage, Cayenne turned to his men.

"As you all know," he stated, "we have a treaty with the Joketsuzoku at the moment, so under no circumstances are you to fight an Amazon while we are in their territory. Don't even unsheathe or raise a weapon unless given the order; I won't have a fifteen-year peace end due to someone losing their temper. Basil, you should get over to the Jusenkyo outpost and prepare a report for his highness." After seeing the spidery man nod and head away, Cayenne turned back to the assembled warriors, "Our destination is Nyuucheizu, so let's get moving."

--

Mint arrived at Prince Herb's citadel, deep in the heart of Musk territory, out of breath from his long run from Jusenkyo. Obviously surprised by his dirty, bruised countenance, the guards at the gate for got to salute him as he entered the fortress, but the young Royal Guard ignored the impropriety in favor of completing his mission. Despite being near exhaustion, Mint raced through the entry hall and burst into the throne room, surprisingly empty at this time of day. Not seeing his prince, Mint raced back out of the throne room and stopped the first servant he saw.

"Where is Prince Herb?" asked the breathless warrior, and the servant, obviously recognizing Mint's urgency, told him that his highness was meditating in his private chambers.

Forgetting to even thank the servant, the wolf descendant raced up three flights of stairs and walked into Herb's apartments without even knocking.

"Prince Herb!" he shouted, "I have news from—"

A quiet growl from said prince cut Mint off immediately, and the young Musk warrior finally took a moment to look around the room. In the center, reclining in an ornate, four-footed bathtub full of steaming water, was Herb, formerly reading a piece of parchment. Eyes narrowed in annoyance, he grated, "Don't you knock, idiot?"

Embarrassed, Mint turned away, but that didn't stop him from relaying Cayenne's message. "Lime and I met General Cayenne near Jusenkyo, and he ordered me to get back here as fast as I could to report."

"Well," prompted the cyan-haired prince, "spit it out!"

"The person you ordered Cayenne to find was at Jusenkyo when Lime and I got there, and he…she…whatever. That person defeated us both pretty easily."

"What do you mean 'he, she'?" asked Herb. "Even if they got a gender curse, surely you noted the temperature of the water they used to change."

"That's just it," replied Mint. "The person didn't use any water!"

Mint heard some splashing behind him, and a moment later, the Musk felt a hand on his shoulder, spinning him around to face his prince.

"No water?" Herb demanded, his voice filled with intensity. "Are you sure?"

"Positive, your highness."

Mint could almost see the gears turning in Herb's head as the prince turned and walked away, but the exhaustion Mint had been ignoring in favor of completing his mission would wait no longer. The wolf descendant spied a chair outside of Herb's chambers and collapsed into it, instantly asleep.

--

Whistling a merry tune, Plum, the eight-year-old daughter of the Jusenkyo Guide, walked toward her home from the Joketsuzoku village of Kunicheizu. Sometimes she disliked having to live so far away from her friends and school, the distance being why she often stayed in the village for a few days at a time, but today, the black-haired girl didn't mind too much. For mid-march, it was quite warm, and the afternoon sun was shining brightly in a cloudless sky. The two hour walk from Kunicheizu, the closest of the Amazon villages to the cursed training ground, allowed the little girl to enjoy nature, and listening to birds sing put a spring in her step. Of course, when she neared home, that sound faded in the distance; animals knew better than to come near Jusenkyo.

Plum was almost home when she saw the small, black and yellow shape near the edge of the path, and being a curious child, she walked over to investigate. The object, a piglet with a yellow and black bandanna tied around its neck, was asleep, and the black-haired girl couldn't help but pick up the little animal. The piglet awoke instantly, its surprised squeal startling her, but it quickly calmed down as Plum began to scratch it behind the ears.

Smiling, Plum whispered in Mandarin to the pig, "Shh. Don't worry, little piggy. I'm not going to hurt you."

Cradling the animal in one arm and alternately petting and scratching her newfound pet, the brown-eyed girl continued toward home.

As Plum crested the final rise and looked down on Jusenkyo, she could see her father walking back from the springs toward their house, a large bundle in his hands. Most of the bundle appeared to be a large, canvas backpack, and on top were a bundle of yellow and black cloth and a red bamboo umbrella. Having seen many such bundles in her eight years of life, Plum knew that her father must have had another "customer" fall in a spring.

"Papa!" she called out, racing down the trail toward her home, and her father turned to face her, an indulgent, loving smile on his face. It only took her about a minute to reach him, and she threw her free hand around the guide's waste, hugging him tightly. "It's good to see you, Papa."

"It is good to see you also, daughter," the elder man replied, and after extricating himself from the hug, he continued toward the house, Plum following after.

"Did we have another customer while I was away?" the black-haired girl asked.

"We had two that I met," answered her father, "and judging by these items I found near the Heituenniichuan, we had a third while I was over in Nyuucheizu."

"Wow," exclaimed Plum. "It sounds like I missed all the excitement!"

"Don't worry," said the guide. "I'll tell you all about it when we eat dinner. Speaking of which, what's that under your arm?"

"Huh?" asked the girl, puzzled until she remembered the piglet she had found. "I found it on the path, just a little ways from here."

The Jusenkyo guide nodded sagely, saying, "Well, we had better test it with hot water then."

Suiting actions to words, her father walked over to the stove, and retrieving the water he had been heating for tea, he walked toward his daughter. Plum, knowing exactly what this was all about, set the piglet down on the ground outside her home, and Jusenkyo's caretaker, without preamble, poured a stream of steaming water on the animal.

Having seen it so many times, the Jusenkyo transformation no longer surprised the little girl, but she did blush a bit at seeing the naked boy that replaced her erstwhile pet. Obviously knowing his currently unclothed state, the boy immediately covered himself, embarrassment covering his face before he spoke in Japanese. "Thank you for curing me; I thought I was going to be like that forever."

Her father affected a sorrowful expression, and Plum knew what was coming next. "So sorry, mister customer," he said in broken Japanese, speaking the language about as well as she could. "Is no cure. Cold water change back into piglet. Since curse form piglet, you must be customer what fall in Heituenniichuan, Spring of Drown Black Piglet. Very tragic story of piglet what drown there one thousand two hundred year ago. Now, any what fall in spring become black piglet with cold water. Very tragic story."

While her father was talking, the boy's eyes widened, and after the guide finished, in a tremulous voice, the boy asked, "Is there a cure?"

"So sorry, mister customer. I not know any cure."

The boy's shoulders slumped, a defeated, depressed expression covering his face, and Plum's heart went out to Jusenkyo's latest victim. Placing a hand on his shoulder, she said kindly, "I Plum. What you name?"

Looking up at her with a soulful expression, the dark-haired boy replied, "My name is Ryoga. Hibiki Ryoga."

Plum smiled at him, and then she gestured to the bundle her father had retrieved from the Spring of Drown Black Piglet, saying, "Plum think those yours."

From his sudden blush, Plum divined that Ryoga had just remembered his undressed state, and he asked in a small voice, "Could you turn around so I can get dressed?"

Without answering, Plum turned away, and after about thirty seconds, the Japanese boy said, "Okay, you can look now."

The black-haired girl turned again and saw that Ryoga was now dressed in the clothes her father had retrieved, a yellow tunic with black pants that were tied around each leg from ankle to knee. The dark-haired boy gave Plum something of a wan smile, asking, "Is there anyone around that might know more about my curse?"

Thinking for a moment, Plum replied, "Best people ask is Joketsuzoku. They elders wise."

Nodding, Ryoga continued his interrogatories. "Can you give me directions?"

Plum smiled and nodded. Thinking that the elders in Nyuucheizu would be the best ones to ask, she quickly gave him directions in her broken Japanese, and after thanking her, the boy set off…in exactly the wrong direction. Racing after the boy, she called out, "Wait! You is going wrong way!"

Ryoga laughed nervously, scratching the back of his head in what seemed to be an unconscious motion. "I…um…I have this little…problem…with my sense of direction."

Considering what her father had always told her about the role of the guide at Jusenkyo, that is, to help any customer to the best of her ability, Plum instantly offered, "Plum lead you there."

"Don't go to any trouble on my account."

"Is no trouble," Plum quickly replied. "Is job of guide. Plum guide's daughter. Plum help."

"Well, if it really isn't any trouble…" Ryoga trailed off.

Shaking her head cutely, the black-haired little girl asked Ryoga to wait a moment while she told her father where she was going, and after racing back to the hut, she spoke to her father in Mandarin. "Papa, I'm going to lead that new customer, Ryoga, to Nyuucheizu and stay there for the night before coming home, okay?"

As she knew he would, her father quickly accepted his daughter's proposal, commenting, "You will one day be a very successful guide, daughter. Be safe on your journey."

Bidding her father goodbye, Plum returned to Ryoga, beckoning for him to follow her. It would take them a good three hours to reach Nyuucheizu, and she didn't want to arrive too much after dark.

--

Even with his massive ki reserves, flying was an exhausting way to use it, and if he were any less worried about the implications of a magic user able to perform such a powerful feat as a polymorph spell, Herb probably wouldn't have bothered. As it was, though, the cyan-haired prince had come to the conclusion that such a powerful and unknown quantity as the Japanese, considering the ki levels he had felt and the magical information, required his personal attention. He was certain that that was the reason Cayenne had sent Mint back to the citadel; the general had known that such developments would be of great interest to him.

When Herb did not find Cayenne at Jusenkyo, the dragon-descended prince headed immediately to the Musk outpost, and there, Basil updated him on the situation. After leaving the outpost, Herb flew towards Nyuucheizu, hoping to catch up with Cayenne before he arrived at the Joketsuzoku seat of power. 'So,' the fifteen-year-old prince thought as he flew, 'the ki I felt earlier belongs to a boy cursed by the Nyannichuan, but there has to be more to it than that. So far, every account says that he can change without water.'

Only about a kilometer from Nyuucheizu, Herb finally spotted Cayenne's team, and without warning he landed in front of them. Half of the warriors had fallen into defensive crouches when he startled them, but once they saw whom he was, all of them except Cayenne and Lime knelt.

"Welcome, your highness," the high general intoned formally, but the dragon descendant waved it away.

"I got Mint's report," Herb said in a clipped tone. "Do you have any new information?"

"If you received Basil's report, then no," replied the bear descendant. "He heard everything that the guide said."

Nodding, Herb spoke again. "Alright then, I guess we are heading for Nyuucheizu then."

Suddenly, a female voice spoke from above. "And why would a large group of Musk warriors be going to the center of Joketsuzoku power?"

A bit startled by the voice, Herb looked up, and in the tree branches above them, fifteen Amazons stood with weapons ready. Their leader spoke again, saying, "Your being this close to an Amazon village without announcing yourselves comes near to violating our treaty, so please, Prince Herb, explain yourself."

Deciding that hiding their reason for coming would be pointless, Herb replied, "Earlier today, I felt an immense source of ki coming from Jusenkyo, so I sent warriors to investigate. It seems that your Matriarch personally led them away from the training ground, so I traveled here to treat with her and investigate this mysterious Japanese."

Apparently what he said satisfied the squad leader, because a moment later the Joketsuzoku had lowered their weapons, the tension leaving all the assembled warriors, Musk and Amazon alike. The leader dropped down from her perch and approached, saying, "Very well, then. We will escort you to Nyuucheizu to meet with the Matriarch."

"Thank you," replied the dragon descendant. "That is very much appreciated."

The Joketsuzoku fell in around the Musk column, and side-by-side, Herb and the squad leader lead the mixed group of warriors toward Nyuucheizu.

--

It was early evening when Shampoo finally concluded her tour of the village, her pigtailed companion walking beside her. She had shown him all the high points: a quick look into the council chamber from the door, a look at the library, the challenge log outside the fortress, and she finished her tour outside the house she shared with her great grandmother. Ranma had made all the proper responses to each of the sights, making appreciative comments about each locale, and he had occasionally asked questions about this or that. The red-eyed girl had been thankful when Ranma mentioned that he understood Mandarin passably, though he said he did speak it very well, and she had been able to speak more eloquently than her Japanese would allow. It did, however, make for an interesting conversation, because like him, she understood Japanese better than she spoke it. It certainly drew a few odd looks when anyone noticed that she was speaking in Mandarin and he in Japanese, but that didn't bother her, especially since she got to spend the afternoon with one of the handsomest males she had ever seen.

"And this is my house, Ranma," Shampoo narrated, presenting the final stop on his tour, a house right across the square from the fortress. Leading him around to the sparring yard in back, she continued. "You are a martial artist, are you not?" Seeing him nod, she asked, "Would you like to spar with me? I am the best fighter of my generation in this village."

Ranma stood silent for a moment, considering his answer, and then, suddenly, he shifted into his female form before answering, "Sure, why not."

Shampoo blink-blinked her purple-red eyes at the spontaneous transformation from handsome boy to cute girl, and she couldn't help but ask, "Why did you change?"

Now it was Ranma's turn to blink-blink, and after looking down as though she hadn't even noticed her gender changing, the redhead shrugged, saying, "Not a clue."

Shampoo shrugged along with her now-female companion, and after a moment of puzzled contemplation, she motioned Ranma into the training yard, asking, "Do you wish to spar with or without weapons?"

Smiling, Ranma answered, "I'll go without, but you can use them if you wanna."

Shampoo didn't want to have an unfair advantage in their first spar, though Ranma actually laughed about a weapon being an advantage, and dropped into a stance. The pigtailed girl just stood there, and the purple-haired Joketsuzoku asked, "Are you ready?"

Still smiling brightly, Ranma chirped back, "Yeap!"

Shrugging at the other girl's non-stance, Shampoo leapt to the attack, opting to test her new friend's defenses with a few quick jabs at her chest and face. Never losing her smile, the redhead dodged each of the strikes, and the Amazon ratcheted her estimation of Ranma's skill up a few notches as she jumped back from her first attack.

Deciding she would need to be a bit more serious if she intended to win this spar, Shampoo rushed back in, leading off with a roundhouse that lead into a low sweep. Ranma just leaned back a little to avoid the roundhouse, and her quick leap immediately thereafter avoided the sweep. Unfortunately for Shampoo, the leap also ended the Japanese martial artist's dodging routine, and the Amazon had to shoulder-roll away to barely avoid the redhead's follow-up drop kick.

Shampoo expected Ranma to press the attack, but she was surprised to see the pigtailed girl just standing there, the same cute smile that had been on her face from the beginning still on her face. Knowing that Ranma was at least at her skill level, Shampoo decided to stop holding back, and she renewed her charge at the pigtailed teen moving at full speed. This time, the redhead was unable to dodge her first punch, being forced to block it, and finally, the purple-haired girl could see in Ranma's eyes that the girl would take the spar seriously. This, of course, only fueled her warrior's spirit even more, and she followed up her attack with a flurry of blows that nearly reach Amaguriken speeds.

Amazingly, at least to Shampoo, Ranma kept up with her blows, dodging, blocking, and occasionally throwing a blow back at her, and each girl managed a few clean strikes on the other. At some mutual, unknowable signal, Ranma and Shampoo jumped back from the spar, both breathing hard. By the violet-haired combatant's estimation, they had been fighting at those speeds for nearly two minutes, and that was tiring work indeed.

Just before Shampoo finished catching her breath, Ranma raced forward again, forcing the Joketsuzoku teen to fight before she was fully prepared. To Shampoo's senses, Ranma had taken the fight up yet another notch, the pigtailed girl's aquamarine aura glowing brightly in her eyes and shimmering thinly around her form, and Shampoo felt a little fear. It had only been that morning when she had witnessed Ranma fight full out against her father, and even if this was just a spar, the Amazon didn't yet know how to harness her ki to the degree that the Saotomes had demonstrated at Jusenkyo.

Suddenly, Ranma's aura flashed, and Shampoo found herself flying through the air, propelled by an unbelievably powerful axe kick. The last thing she saw before hitting the side of her house and blacking out was the wrinkled visage of her great grandmother watching the spar from the gate into the yard.

--

After catching her breath from that rapid punching exchange, Ranma had gained a good deal of respect for her new sparring partner: it took a very talented fighter to get so many good hits on her. Now have something of a measure of Shampoo's skill, Ranma decided to ramp up the fight another notch or two, channeling ki into her limbs as she charged the purple-haired Amazon. Racing forward with even greater speed, Ranma unleashed an axe kick, intending it to be feint to open a hole in Shampoo's guard, but something utterly unexpected happened. Ranma lost her concentration briefly, and instead of the ki receding from her leg, it surged, causing the kick to be far more powerful than she had anticipated. The pigtailed girl's foot lanced through Shampoo's guard and connected hard with her chin, the purple-haired fighter launching into the air like a rocket. Before Ranma could do much more than lower her leg, Shampoo slammed into the side of her house, sliding to the ground in an unconscious heap.

Heart leaping into her throat, Ranma rushed to the side of her new friend, quickly checking the Joketsuzoku's vitals, and the pigtailed teen sighed in relief after she checked the girl's pulse, finding it strong and regular. Before Ranma could go further in her first aid examination, a small, wrinkled hand landed on her shoulder.

"She'll be fine, Ranma," Cologne assured her in Japanese. "She's take blows far harder than that in training before. Congratulations, by the way, on your victory. However, judging by your reaction, you weren't expecting your kick to be that strong."

Shaking her head wordlessly, Ranma waited for the Joketsuzoku Matriarch to continue.

"It appears to me that you have far more ki at your disposal than you were expecting," lectured Cologne. "Part of the reason I want you to stay is to figure out why your Jusenkyo curse is different than any other we've ever heard of, and in that investigation, we might be able to find out why you have so much more ki than you should, even given your training. In addition, since you do have so much ki, you must learn to control it, or you will be a danger to others."

Knowing she was right, Ranma nodded, asking, "Does that mean that you have permission to train me?"

Cologne smiled knowingly, replying, "Indeed, Ranma. I just came from the council chambers to tell you."

A low groan interrupted the pigtailed girl's next statement, and she was immediately kneeling beside Shampoo. Even knowing the girl was all right didn't abate Ranma's concern for her new friend, and she immediately exclaimed, "I'm so sorry about that, Shampoo! I didn't mean to kick you that hard!"

The girl herself shook her head a couple of times as she blinked her eyes, apparently trying to clear her head. Ranma knew, from past experience, that being knocked out by a blow to the head usually left a person disoriented, so the redhead let Shampoo come back to herself.

A moment later, the purple-haired girl looked up, and seeing Ranma and Cologne, she gazed into the former's eyes, slowly approaching. Ranma, for her part, was frozen in place by the Amazon's stare, but when the other girl was close enough that Ranma could feel Shampoo's breath on her lips, Cologne barked out, "Shampoo, they are official guests now."

The sound of the elder's voice seemed to break the trance, and Ranma turned away from her new friend, blushing. Shampoo seemed a bit angry, speaking in an upset tone. "But Great Grandmother! He just—"

Cologne cut her off, and in a tone that brooked no opposition, she said, "You know the law, Shampoo, and they have been declared guests by the council."

Ranma watched as Shampoo slumped in defeat, chalking the entire episode up to Joketsuzoku eccentricities. Before anyone present could speak again, however, another Amazon raced into the yard, whispering something in the Elder's ear that caused the old woman's eyes to widen fractionally. Without a word, Cologne jumped onto her staff and hopped after the messenger, and that is when Ranma felt it: several beings were approaching with abnormally high amounts of ki. Without him realizing it, Ranma's form became male once again, and he and Shampoo followed after the Matriarch.

As the two young fighters reached the square, Ranma saw a large group of warriors, at least numbering twenty five, entering the village by the same gate through which he himself had entered the village earlier that day. The warriors around the outside of the formation were Joketsuzoku warriors, but in the middle, Ranma saw a group of ten Musk, including one of the unfortunate duo he had encountered at Jusenkyo. Luckily, his anger about that had fully abated.

Ranma was about to move forward to get a better view when a hand on his shoulder halted his movement, and he turned his head to look questioningly at the owner of that hand, Shampoo.

"That is an official envoy from the Musk Dynasty, Ranma," she whispered to him. "It is very unusual to see them in the village."

While she was speaking, Ranma turned back to the action, and as he watched, the Amazon guard around the Musk formation separated. A single man from that group approached Cologne, who was joined by six other equally wizened women. Ranma was too far away to hear what they were saying, but the small bows exchanged between the cyan-haired man and the elders, ones meant for the meeting of equals, told him that who ever the man was, he was important.

After trading a few words with Cologne, Ranma was surprised to see the ancient elder point in his direction, and the Musk nodded and turned, striding purposefully toward the pigtailed boy. As he approached, Ranma could feel the immense ki within the newcomer, and he readied himself for a fight. However, the Musk surprised him, stopping three meters from him and offering him the same small, polite bow he had offered the elders. Automatically, Ranma returned the gesture, and the man spoke.

"I am Herb, prince of the Musk Dynasty."

--

Author's Notes:

I live again! Finally and at last, I've overcome both writer's block and a general lack of time, and after almost two years (and nearly four for this particular story), I'm finally updating one of my stories. On the bright side, at least I am back, right?

It's really odd that this is the first update I've managed to complete since actually getting back to writing, especially considering the problems I outlined in the author's notes of the rewrite of the last chapter. Just to reiterate, unless I can get some inspiration for this story (an ultimate goal would be a good start), then it's just not going to get much attention. The story just doesn't have an outline to speak of, and the original goal of the story is now part of another one of my fics, where I think it fits better. That said, even the title is no longer relevant to the story, so any suggestions from you on a new title would be greatly appreciated. Using the foreshadowing in this chapter, I can probably write another chapter, and going by that logic, I could probably continue ad infinitum. Unfortunately, that would probably create a meandering storyline that has no real focus, and that just isn't my style.

On a side note, for those of you out there mad at me for updating this story before Negawarrior, I have twelve pages of the next part of Negawarrior written, and it is continuing to grow apace. I know you've been patient, but I'm still working on limited time here. C'mon, you all know how long those parts end up, and that one is only about a third done as is.

In any case, I hope everyone enjoys this new update, and I'll try to keep it up. Since this is my first update in quite a while, I hope it lives up to my earlier work. Later all.