On That Winter's Day A Ranma ½ Fanfiction By Prospero Hibiki The Grandmaster Mongoose God of Misdirection, Caffeine, and Those Socks You Lost Last Tuesday Hail Eris! Hail Discordia! Hail Kallisti!

hell_frost@hotmail.com

Disclaimer:
Were I anything but a poor college student I would ... well I don't know what would happen since I doubt that this situation will change in the foreseeable future except if I fail out of said college. As it is I'm not making any money off of these characters and any character that you don't recognize from Takahashi Rumiko's Ranma ½ series is mine. And the truly sad thing is I'm not even making money off of them. I also don't own the characters from the OTHER series that shall show up in this story. They are owned by someone else also even if I don't want to say who he is or what company he publishes under. Still rest assured that I don't own his characters either.

*** Snow:

The heavy snow blurs the world around me as I push my way through it. I'm scared, truly scared and that in itself is frightening to me because it is very rare indeed that I am ever afraid enough to admit it even to myself. I think I'm going to die here. Not on this very spot here, but rather sometime soon before I finish crossing this vast plain of snow. As I realize that I'm going to die I realize something else as well. It's not my death that I fear, but rather I fear meeting it alone.

If I had the strength I'd laugh at the irony of it all. I, the great Ranma Saotome, defeater of dragons, slayer of the phoenix god, the man who faced the eight-headed Orochi and lived, am afraid of dying alone. Yes it's truly ironic considering the fact that I've been alone my entire life until a little over a year ago. But looking back on those times I almost regret leaving. Leaving behind human companionship even that which was only grudgingly given to me. Still it's only a matter of almost, for honestly I can't bear the thought of living in that foretaste of Hell any longer than I did. As I recall the almost physical weight that had been lifted off of me when Japan had finally faded from the horizon was all too glorious in its absence.

I roll over only now realizing that I've fallen. It's happened several times now and I know that it's not good. I'm losing too much body heat to this fierce storm. I need to find some shelter if I have any hope of surviving to see another day. I know full well that exposure can kill a person. In fact one winter had been particularly bad in that some of the homeless had taken to the woods. Being close to homeless ourselves at the time I'd had an appreciation for how tough it could be. Pop was an unscrupulous bastard, but we'd delayed ourselves in our travels several times when we encountered people who'd died from the cold. We'd buried them and said some words, but I think it was mostly for me as I think Pop just wanted their stuff.

This time when I realize that I'm lying down again I don't try to get up immediately and at this point I reach my hand down to my knife that is sticking out of the top of my boot. Slowly as to reduce the damage I prick my arm, the pain practically jerking my body up in spite of my lassitude. That's the sixth time I realize. And after the first I hadn't even remembered falling down. My probable death has stopped being probable and become a near certainty. Of course those are the odds I work at best. Looking around after I stand I can't see anything in the distance through the blizzard. Not good.

Something odd just now occurs to me. I look up at the sky and sure enough I can't see anything to indicate what part of the sky the sun is in. I'm lost and I have no idea what direction I've been headed in. I could even have been heading around in circles, though I don't think I have been. Right now I need someplace to get out of the cold and since Nature has decided to neglect me at the moment I'll have to do something myself. Again I wish that I hadn't lost my tent from that brief fall from the cliff several weeks back.

It takes me a lot longer than I had wanted to pile up an enormous, well, pile of snow. But at least the activity has gotten more of my muscles warmed up than the walking did for my legs. Now I dread having to do this next part because I might change into a girl and I've noticed my girl form always seems a little bit colder than my guy form. I start to tunnel into the massive drift and it goes much faster than I had feared and I manage to maintain my gender. I make the inner chamber a little bit bigger and go back outside to grab my pack and bring it in with me.

Pulling out my stove and the larger of my two pots I pile some snow into it and start it to melting thinking to maybe try to have a hot meal. Still it's a little cold in my snow cave so I put my backpack on to keep my back warm. As I turn back to my little stove something prickles at the back of my mind. I've forgotten something and by the way my mind is reacting it's very important. But I'm just so cold that all I can think of is the stew that I intend to make. But still I can't quite relax. Something about the stew? It doesn't seem right. Am I going to run out of fuel? No, I haven't really used it all that much since I've been relying on natural fires. I curse myself for leaving the forest and even setting out on this stupid barren waste. Nothing but snow and snow. The snow, something about the snow.

I can feel myself drifting off slightly, but this time it's okay. I'm here in my nice cave of snow that soon will be warming up nicely. And after that I can have the stew I'm making on the stove. As my eyes start to close I realize what my brain has been telling me. I forgot to pack the snow. I forgot to pack the snow down firmly enough. My eyes shoot open in time to see the roof of my cave start to give way and then the rest is blackness.

Sunshine:

My first sensation is one of heat. I'm burning and can practically feel myself starting to cook. I can't move my body enough to open my eyes yet as I feel just too weak. I resolve to devote myself to that task and find that it takes me a little longer than normal because my eyelids seem to be almost welded together with...something. When my eyes finally do open everything is dark, which is probably to be expected if I just go buried under my cave. But something is strange. I'm hot not cold. And my body can't move because I feel weak and not because I'm trapped under several hundred pounds of snow. What's even stranger is the fact that now that I concentrate I can see just a little bit of light seeping though whatever it is covering me.

Energy seems to be flowing back to my limbs due to my briefly forcing chi into them to reawaken my muscles from whatever has weakened them. Nice little technique that I learned from an ancient man who had helped me heal from a bad fall that resulted in a messily broken leg. It helped me recover from the weakness that resulted in spending almost nine months in a cast. Still my muscles don't seem to be getting the energy that I need and it doesn't take me very long at all to find out why. I'm starving. Definitely not the mild hunger of missing a single meal, it's more like missing two week of meals. And water. Definitely thirsty too.

My body probably shut itself down so I wouldn't need food or water until I woke up. It's the only thing I can think of that would explain why I'm so weak and why I didn't wake up until just now. I'm probably at the limit of what my body could take because of my limited fat reserves. So now that I know what's going on inside I can focus on what's going on outside. And I'm starting to realize that whatever's happening outside is going to be much harder to explain.

Devoting all of my energy to the task I slowly struggle sit up. And quickly lie back down again, my surroundings finally coming into focus in such away that I'm extremely confused. Unfortunately it doesn't really help since now my eyes are no longer covered.

Above me I see a tree. Not just any tree, though. No this has to be the mother of all maple trees since it is huge. And rather bare of leaves at the moment, something which reveals what it was that was covering me. From my perspective, that of looking up at the under part of the tree I can see that this tree is dead. Something damaged the trunk enough that it's dried out completely. It's kind of sad really. But without all of the leaves I can see the nests of some owls fairly high up. I scold myself slightly for letting my thoughts trail off on such paths. Not that they aren't worthwhile tangents, it's just I have much more important matters to think of at the moment than the death of a giant maple tree in the middle of a forest. More important things like the reason I'm lying under said tree when I should be buried under two meters of snow in the middle of a plain of snow.

By now I've realized that my backpack is still on, since I'm not exactly lying flat, so I tilt my head up to look around. I really need to get some water or I'll be in real trouble soon. In fact I might already be in serious trouble if all of this is a hallucination brought on by dehydration. Not that I think this is because everything I've felt so far seems extremely real though there is a strong air of unreality hanging in my thoughts, but that could definitely be dehydration.

I manage a smile when I see a very small stream not fifty feet away. It takes me several tries to get out of my backpack straps but I manage it and also manage to pull myself towards it using my arms. My legs seem to be still waking up as they are feeling painfully tingly. It's all I can do to reach down with a hand and pull some water up to my face, but I manage it idly noting the change of my hand's shape when I do. The water tastes so much better than anything I can ever remember drinking.

Once I've drunk some water, not too much because I don't want to get sick, my stomach reasserts itself. By now I can move my legs enough to at least crawl over to my pack. As I look inside I don't see my stove, which makes sense since was using it to cook with when the ceiling collapsed atop me. But after a brief but through search of the surrounding area I can't find a trace of my portable stove or my larger pot. Giving up on it at the moment I reach into the pack and pull out some of the jerky that I had saved. It looks good enough, more than good enough actually, and I tear a hunk off and start to chew it while I pull out some crackers. I don't want to put too much into my stomach too soon, but I just couldn't resist the jerky. The first edge of my hunger pangs knocked off for the moment I devote myself to trying to stand.

It's the work of maybe ten minutes, but I can eventually stand up though my legs are very shaky when I do. Thankfully the dead maple had lost several limbs of about waist height so I crawl once more to one of them and use it as an improvised cane, resolving to find something sturdier and larger soon. With my new cane to help me balance better it's not long at all before I'm moving around the base of the tree stretching my legs. I'm starting to get the feeling that I was unconscious for much longer than I had previously thought, but since I've never been unconscious for more than two days it's hard to compare the sensations.

With mobility returned I can now focus again on what I'm going to do with that mobility. If I had thought myself lost before I am even more so now. I'm still rather hot and it occurs to me that I should probably take off my heavier clothing since it seems unnecessary since it's so hot outside. I'd almost think it was summer with the way the surrounding forest looks but that'd be impossible because it was winter when the snow buried me. I pause my thoughts for a moment. It's funny how I, Ranma Saotome, am discounting something because it's impossible. Okay so nothing's impossible.

I decide to look at how things are as opposed to how they should be. Okay, first things first. I need to figure out where I stand. Going over to my pack I pull out some more jerky and taking it over to a large rock not that far away from the dead tree's closest neighbor. Thinking about it for a second I also grab my water skin from where it's tied to my pack and fill it up in the stream so I can slowly get some more water into my system.

First, I'm weak from hunger, thirst, or from remaining unconscious for an extended period of time. I decide that it's probably a combination of all three. Luckily I can take care of all three problems with a minimum of work. In fact I start to extend my legs and bring them back while I think about other things so they can get accustomed to working again.

Second, I'm, well, I'm lost. Very, very lost. Reasons for this are almost uncountable. I could have lost my memory of traveling to this place. Not very likely since I remember ending up in the position I ended up in even if it was someplace else. Also I doubt that I would be wearing my winter coat if I had traveled here under my own power. This could all be a hallucination. I still kind of doubted this, but it was possible. Still even if I believe it is a hallucination I have to act as if it isn't because I could be wrong. The last idea I have is that I pulled a Hibiki, meaning I somehow ended up someplace else somehow. This is probably the most likely though I have no idea how it happened.

Third, I seem to be a bit more limited with what I have now than I did the last time I remember. Namely I've lost my stove and one of my pots. I'd lost the tent several weeks before that so that wasn't new and while losing the stove is annoying it wasn't critical while I have a good supply of wood. The pot, well that annoys me more than the stove actually. I'd liked that pot because it was just the perfect size for making stew. Now I only had the smaller one that I used for the rice.

Standing up I decide to pull my pack over with me to my rock and go through it to see just what items I did have. Putting my changes of clothes aside I slowly fish out the other items I have inside. Looking around for a spot to pile them I realize that the entire forest floor is covered with leaves and the smaller items might be lost. I grab my jacket and put it down before putting the items on top of it. The pile is actually depressingly small. I don't know where to really start so I just grab something. This time I lay out one of my extra shirts to place the items on.

The first item is a change purse with my money in it. 48,281 yen though most of it is the four 10,000 and the five 1,000 yen bills. Three 500, seventeen 100, one 50, two 10, one 5, and six 1 yen coins. I give a brief snort. Not that they do me much good in the woods. The next thing I grab is my small hatchet. It reminds me about the knife I have in my boot. It's a little larger than what I'd have chosen for myself, but since I got it from someone who had decided I was easy prey for a mugging I can't complain. I have the standard rough blanket though it's seen better days and looks rather ratty, but then who's going to see it besides me. A camp shovel. My eating utensils get set aside with my sack of rice. So does my sole pot. My flint and steel are set aside with their leather pouch as well having run out of matches a while ago. Several mementos of my travels are here as well. A couple of scrolls forced on me by aging martial arts masters long ago and couldn't throw away. A rope braid with a bead tied in for each new move I add to the Anything Goes style. It hasn't grown since I left Nerima and I frown at it. That just won't do. I pull out some more rope, about thirty feet of it actually. Bath things, towel, pillowcase for clothes, more soap, the water skin, fishing gear, and some small lengths of rope that have been tied off as snares. That's it. I also have that large sheet of canvas that is tied to my pack, but I don't really want to untie it and retie it again. Loading everything back into the pack doesn't take much time and afterwards I change out of my cold weather clothes completely and into one of my sleeveless silk shirts with bracers and kung fu pants.

Thinking things over I decide that there isn't much more I can really do. I'm not ready to travel anywhere as my legs are much too weak. But then again if I really needed to I could start traveling in three days, I just wouldn't be back into fighting shape and since I'm not really in a hurry I should probably stay here to recover a bit. There's water from the stream and I could always hang the piece of canvas from several tree branches if it rained. The only problem I might have would be food and that'd only be a problem if I couldn't catch anything in either the stream or with my snares.

Looking up at the sky once more I can see that the sun is almost directly overhead. If I get my snares set up now I should have the rest of the after noon to start getting back in shape. Of course I'll have to work up the energy to move around to do so, but I figure that it won't be long until I can rouse myself once more. Hopefully.

Travels:

All packed up I look around the area that's been my home for the time I've been recovering. It's surprising, but I actually think I'm going to miss this place. Five weeks of absolute torture as I tried to exercise muscles that just wouldn't cooperate. I'd pushed myself too hard that first week and had suffered for it, my muscles getting even more damaged making it necessary to start over again even further back than before. All too many times I had found myself hating the sight of these same trees and rocks, but now that I'm leaving it I'm almost sad. This place might have seemed a prison, but it wasn't one except in my mind. The physical thrill of pushing my body as far as it could go was the same as it had always been, but I think that I hated it this time more because it had been small, simple things that were the challenges instead of my usual feats of strength. Things I had taken for granted had become difficult, and it bothered me. I'd fallen into a trap that I'd told myself I wouldn't after the weakness moxibustion point incident. It'd proved all too clearly that I needed to live from moment to moment without brooding on the things I'd lost. It was a lesson that had cost me dearly to learn and I was ashamed that I'd forgot it so easily.

I sigh and shake my head to rid myself of these melancholy thoughts. They aren't doing me any good and are only serving to delay my departure. Picking up the solid, maple staff I'd prepared in case of a relapse I turn to the stream. Changing my mind I walk back over to the dead tree and break off a small one-foot section of branch and put it into my pack. It'll be a good reminder of my time here.

As I head back towards the stream I wonder just what I'll find ahead of me. I've already decided to travel downstream in the hopes that my stream will connect with some larger river perhaps even one with a town or a city on it. It's also the only source of water I've run into which means any small animals will probably have to come to it giving me a source of food. And even if they don't I have enough food for a week or two and by then the stream should be large enough to have some decent sized fish. I shouldn't even have to break out my fishing gear to catch them either.

~~~

Three hours of travel have gone rather well and I think I'm about ready for a noontime break, despite going barely eight miles. I truly don't wish to risk injuring myself further and have thus been traveling much slower than the pace I'm used to setting while traveling with first the old man and then later on my own. Several things are bothering me though and while I pull some of the dried strips of rabbit meat from my pack I sit down on a rock to think while I chew.

Of course the thing that's been on my mind the most is the question of where exactly I am. I've been through many forests in the world and while there are similarities between them there are also great differences. I think I can honestly say that I've never seen a forest quite like this one. It's hard to pinpoint the differences but it's almost as if there are too many types of trees around me. Most forests will have tree after tree all the same whether they be oak or maple or pine, but this one it's as if all these trees were planted in some pattern. It's impossible of course because they're quite a few trees that are hundreds of years old. Who knows, maybe this forest is just weird that way.

~~~

It's about two hours before sunset when I end up stopping for the night. Twenty miles isn't bad seeing as how I'm not in any real hurry. This journey was more about the traveling and searching than any eventual destination. Though I must admit that ending up in this place was very unexpected, wherever this place is. But that's how life is.

I was so occupied with my thoughts earlier of where exactly I am that I didn't put sufficient thought into the other things bothering me. Like how exactly I got here in the first place. Sure I think the most likely thing to have happened is that I pulled a Hibiki. But that doesn't explain how I ended up in the same position that I was buried in. Another thing I'm slightly concerned about is something I hadn't noticed by the time I had stopped for lunch. There are too many dead trees here. Sure it's expected to encounter some fallen trees and the occasional dead one, but this is almost surreal. These trees all seem to have died in the same way as the giant maple as if someone, and the word someone does seem appropriate, had deliberately damaged these trees. Looking at them I've almost become physically sick something that hadn't happened when I'd looked at the tree I'd awoken under. It's been very disturbing to me and I hope that I'll find an answer to why it's happening.

The last thing that's bothering me is the sense that someone is watching me, but no matter which way I turn I can't seem to find anyone. I want to say that it's my imagination but too many months of trusting any information my senses have brought to my attention has made it almost too difficult to ignore. Again I can only hope that this person means me no harm, because if I can't spot them then they might be able to attack and kill me before I even realize they're there.

So many things to think about and yet as I try to think about them as I set up camp for the night I come no closer to a solution for any of these problems. I seem to be accumulating worries recently the way I had accumulated fiancés in my earlier life. I let my mind work on these problems that I can't consciously solve while I try to devote my mind to something that I've wanted to do for a very long time.

I've decided that it's time to give the Anything Goes my influence. It's past time really. I need to come up with something that is truly me. Something that isn't taken from Pop's aerial techniques or Mr. Tendo's ground based techniques. No this contribution to my art will be mine alone. I'll even try to stay away from Amazonian wu-shuu. I'm on a sort of automatic as I clean and then cook the rabbit that had been unfortunate enough to cross my path twenty minutes before I stopped. Waiting for my stew to fully cook I put out a couple more snares that I can check in a couple of hours before I go to sleep. All the while I'm trying to think about what I can add to what I consider the greatest art ever to be created.

It's a lot tougher than I thought it'd be and by the time I've finished dinner, cleaned up, and taken in my snares, all empty this time, I'm still no closer to coming up with an answer. The only thing I seem to have done is further defined the problem. But still that's enough to notice something that I hadn't realized about the users of Anything Goes. We play to our own strengths. A rather simple realization really but the implications are staggering. My pop's branch of the style was based on his aerial prowess, but even more amazing were the styles he created based on the attitudes of thieves. Truly playing to his strength of thinking in the short term. The Tendo style is based on utilizing emotions to fuel attacks quickly and powerfully. But both branches have serious flaws. My branch seems use its basic theory of living for the moment to ignore the long term completely. Tendo style's flaws are obvious in that it seems to make people emotionally unstable, something that explains why Akane and I never got along for very long.

I try to think back to all of the fights that I'd gotten into in Nerima seeing if any of the other fighters played to their strengths as much as we did. The answer seems to be not many and none of the really good ones. Sure everyone emphasized one aspect above others but they also seemed to focus on possible weaknesses as well. Ryoga concentrated on power but also on taking the hits that his slower speed forced him to take. Mousse knew that his strength was his Hidden Weapons techniques and so used those techniques to offset the weakness of his eyes. Ukyo who lacked the power to truly rise to the top of our group used distractions to lure people into range of her impeccable techniques. It seems that most of the people that could keep up with me knew something that I hadn't. So why had I been able to do so well? No one could really beat me. Minor defeats were always rebutted with devastating victories. Why was it that whenever it really mattered, people always turned to Ranma Saotome?

It's kind of humbling to figure out that I wasn't the most skilled of martial artists in Nerima. It's devastating actually. I resolve to change that whatever else I do. None must doubt that Ranma Saotome is the best martial artist in the world. Looking down I realize that somewhere in the middle of this thought I've stood up and gotten into a pose. It's quite humiliating really.

Enough messing around. I've gotten distracted from my main purpose of the evening. I was supposed to start thinking of a basis for a new school of Anything Goes Martial Arts, but all this introspective nonsense is getting me nowhere. I need to force myself to come up with something, anything to try. Something seems wrong with that thought and I mentally review it. It comes to me quickly. I'll never make a new style if I try to force myself to be creative. But it's the only way I really know how to do things. I've always worked best when in confrontations. It runs against the grain to just let things come to me. I sigh and sit down in lotus position. I guess it's time for me to learn.

Trials:

It's taken me almost two weeks to get the hang of meditating and in that time I've traveled all of maybe thirty miles, and all of that was in the first week. I stopped in my present location because it's rather soothing, and the large rock formation beside what can probably now be classified as a river provides a rather nice shelter from the occasional rainstorm. I've tried so many things to get myself better at meditation but none of them seem to work. Embarrassing as it is I keep wanting to fall asleep instead of achieving the proper meditative state. All those old masters made it look so easy when they sat on rocks exposed to the elements. It's only after trying to achieve that for myself that I can truly appreciate how difficult it really is. My old man never had me do anything like this during our training trip and I'm beginning to wonder why. As it is two weeks after I started, I'm just barely at the level I need to be at to begin looking for the thing my new style will be based on.

Starting the internal search has been frustrating, but I've reasoned out several things that have to happen before I can figure out the base of the style. One, I have to be able to call upon it whenever I want to as opposed to meeting specified conditions. The Hiryu Shoten Ha is a prime example of an ultimate technique ruined by its limitations. Sure I've managed to use it in a wide variety of instances, but it's really just useful in variations of the same theme. Two, I have to be able to call upon it easily, something that is seeming more and more unlikely as I try to reach the proper state of mind. I'm hoping that once I achieve what I'm trying for, whatever it is, that it'll become easier to do the next time. Lastly, I need to be able to recognize whatever it is. In all reality these things need to happen in the opposite order. Recognition. Achievement. Dependability. I've been writing these thoughts down on a blank scroll in the hopes that someday my new style will be a success. If I record the creation of the style as it happens then perhaps future styles can benefit from these painful steps I've had to go through. Besides it'll beat having to have the Letch or my old man teach the beginnings of my style.

My emotions this past week have been bouncing between extremes that are as surprising as they are undesirable. I know that many of the emotions aren't healthy, and I definitely don't want them to have anything to do with my style. The three I seem to be repeating most often though are very familiar to me though. My usual confidence trades places with something similar to Ryoga's depression and angst. But anger is the emotion that most often disrupts my meditations completely, the others just tinting it slightly. I know that I don't want anger to overwhelm me and depression such as Ryoga felt is often self-destructive, but do I really want my confidence to become so powerful?

~~~

The answer to my question comes several days later. I've let my confidence guide me in my searching, but I've gotten nowhere. It's hard but I decide to abandon that emotion all together. Maybe it's something else, something that maybe I've never done before. I'm constantly drawn back to my original thoughts, the ones that led me to the idea of meditation in the first place. My memory has always been a little spotty, but I seem to recall something about confrontations and how they probably weren't the best for doing this sort of thing. It's a ridiculous idea of course, but still it clings to my mind like it's important in some way. I visualize pushing the idea aside for the rest of my mind to work on. If anything comes from the idea I'll realize it and use it, but for now I have some other things that I've been meaning to try but have been putting off for too long. Maybe the Amazons were onto something when they started to put their trainees through such ridiculous tortures. I just need to come up with something equally ridiculous and maybe I'll figure something out. Maybe I'll try dancing on spears. Kind of like that training in Jusenkyo, but with sharp points instead of flat bamboo tops it should be much more challenging. I can even name it something like the Dance of One Thousand Spears. This bears looking into.

~~~

If there were a stupidity gene then I definitely inherited it from my father. What could I have been thinking? All of this comes to me, of course, only after I've tried my new idea. From my new position my new training method can be classified as almost as stupid as some of the worse things Pop had me do. That my new position involves sitting on my back wrapping the remains of one of my socks around my feet to stop the bleeding of my feet might have something to do with my new opinion makes my new opinion no less valid. Meditation doesn't seem that bad right now since all I got out of the spear dancing is a thoroughly perforated pair of boots and two impaled feet. Yep, meditation isn't seeming that bad at all. Course that's all I'll be able to do for a while unless I take up walking on my hands. Hmmmmm. I've never done that for any real length of time, and it would allow me to get around the surrounding area while still letting my feet heal. Improving my upper body strength, balance, and hand- eye coordination all at the same time.

Remembering the drawbacks of my latest attempt at devising new training techniques causes me to pause and think things over very carefully though. Are there any drawbacks to this type of training? My gut reaction is no but Pop often thought with his gut and I know how much trouble that got me into. I can't see any possible dangers, but I can think of some training issues. I'll be neglecting my legs entirely during this time so I'll need to keep them in shape. I should also try to protect my hands as much as possible. I know all too well how hard training can be on my hands and I can't let them get any more damaged than they already are. The remains of my boots should be good for that though. It feels somehow right to be actually planning out training with specific goals in mind to meet specific needs as opposed to grabbing onto something because it'd be cool. I think I'll give this training five days to start and continue it till two weeks from now if I can feel that it's worthwhile. My feet should be completely healed by then and I think by then it should be time to move on. But if it works as well as I think it will I'll continue it every so often.

But my meditations need to continue. I remember thinking that before I got onto the idea of walking on my hands. There's something I'm forgetting about and I just can't think of what it is. Pop and I stayed at so many monasteries during our trip in order to learn about their martial arts. I remember watching these masters sitting there. Whenever I asked them about it later they said they were meditating and offered to teach me, but Pop always decided that it was time to move on whenever that happened. Something about doing better without thinking about it. But that one master said something different and I think that's what I'm looking for. If only I could remember what it was. We were talking about why Pop wouldn't let me learn there anymore, and he said something and gave me a scroll. Of course Pop took it and burned it before I could read it, but I get the feeling now that it was what the master told me that was important and not the scroll. There was something in his eyes as he talked to me that I'm sure my old man didn't see. Arrrrgggggghhhhhh! I shake my head violently and push the thoughts aside. It'll probably come to me later. Right now I need to check my snares for some rabbits and it'll probably take longer since I'll be walking on my hands.

~~~

I just had my breakthrough. I've been spending so much time on one aspect over another that I was completely missing the point. It seems so obvious now. Alright I must admit that it didn't hurt that I remembered what Master Fei had said. Looking back on these past five days I have no doubt that I would have realized this on my own.

"Ranma," he said, "take this scroll. It should help you to understand that your mind and body are not merely in the same being but rather are the same being." He'd flicked an almost angry glare at my father right then before turning back to me, and I think that's what made the entire thing stick in my mind because I'd never seen before Master Fei become angry at anyone in the three months we'd stayed there. "Train both or both will suffer. A cup by itself is useless."

It raises all sorts of interesting questions though, the major one being just why my old man didn't want to train my mind himself. Another is why he was afraid to let me read that scroll so I could do it myself. But all of those are questions for another day. Right now I need to push my physical training just a little bit farther than I have been. My worries about neglecting my lower body were unnecessary because just holding my body in one position for long enough to do some tasks uses muscles I didn't even know I had. Popping my self off the rock and onto my hands I walk over to my shelter and dig out the leather pads I made that fit over my palm and first two fingers. It was a rather good idea if I do say so myself and since I managed to make it out of the remains of only one of the boots I still have one of them left for other things. The hand protector things are pretty cool too since they protect the two fingers I use the most while allowing me to slip them off to work on fine delicate things. I'll need to pick up a good set of leather gloves if I want to really do things right but I figure I'll keep these around since they are thick enough to withstand my newly devised exercises. I'm hoping that when I get the mental part of my art completely settled I'll be able to work these exercises into some sort of formal kata but first things first.

As I start to enter into the first of fifteen spins I notice once more the spears I'd stuck in the ground for that ill-fated training idea. There is something about those spears that is just calling out to me, and it's not anger at my earlier stupidity. It might be another memory trying to surface. Since it worked so well last time I decide to let the idea just come to me without trying to force it. It's important that this idea not go away. I can feel that figuring this out will be very important to me. I just hope I don't screw it up.

Insight:

I think I've figured it out. I'm not sure, but I think I hit the just hit the first step. Something happened. For just the briefest of instants I felt something. I tried to latch onto it with my mind, but it slipped away. It was, wow, I almost can't describe the feeling. Calm. Peaceful. I was in total control over everything about myself in a way that's totally different than that of the Soul of Ice. And yet at the same time I knew that what I could control paled in comparison to what I could not. It was uplifting and humbling at the same time. This is truly what will be the basis of my art. I know it's possible now, and simply knowing it's possible has taken such a load off of my mind. Now I can concentrate on letting myself achieve that same state. 'Letting' seems to be important. I think it's because 'forcing' has been almost sabotaging my efforts. But I still need to find a way to hold onto that feeling.

As to my other idea with the spears, I think I've gotten that planned out properly after two days of wondering about it. It really seems a waste to just get rid of those sixteen poles since it took me so long to find them. They're all so straight and solid that it's driving me insane that I'm not going to use them. But I think I've figured out a way. All of the spears come to points on one end, but I left the other end flat since I was going to be burying it anyway. If I uproot them all and flip them over I'll have something like the Jusenkyo training. But I've already proven that I can do that. Instead I need to try to design it in a way that tests my new skills. I frown since I'm not confident enough in my balance to hop from pole to pole like I would with my feet. The memory I've been trying to remember comes to me. The Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics Competition. I almost lost because I lost my balance at the end. Only my death grip on the severed post saved me there. Now it's clear that I really do need this skill, but how will I manage to begin because I can't start trying to balance on an area so small? I'll just fall off.

It's a bird landing on a branch in front of me as I rouse myself from one of my mediations that solidifies the idea in my head. I need make crosspieces for the tops of them some how. But the question is what can I use for the crosspieces? It took me forever to find enough straight pieces of wood strong enough for the poles. How am I supposed to find even more? I've staring at them for an hour when it occurs to me. I don't need anymore because I won't be able to take all sixteen poles with me and since the purpose is to come up with a training program that I can maintain taking these poles with me is kind of necessary. I figure that at most I'll probably take five with me. That should be plenty. And since I'm only making five I have more than enough wood.

Of course, I start to get worried when the first three poles I pull up have large splits running up the centers along with evidence of water damage. Luckily only one of the others is the same. I figure that I'll use the broken ends for firewood, and practice how I'm going to join these pieces together with the other ends. I've already figured out that that's going to be the tough part because I don't have any nails or screws. I'll probably have to make due with wooden pegs of some sort. But then again I'm Ranma Saotome, and Ranma Saotome has never backed down from a challenge.

~~~

Now I remember why I really hate working with wood. It's so easy to break when you get frustrated. But finally I've finished all of the pieces. I even have one whole pole left over and I think I'll keep it around. I made the five I finished off with crosspieces shorter, by about two feet so they're only five feet tall now. It was really tough to get the stupid pegs wedged in there without breaking anything, but I managed. Now all five have four one foot rods coming out from the blunt end and four one foot rods about one foot from the sharp end for stability. Heck, I even managed to make a decent rope out of some vine bark so I could carry the stupid things around tied to my pack. I figure I'll find all sorts of uses for the things if I try, and I will try very hard because otherwise three days of absolute hell will have been worthless.

Having been waiting for this moment for a while I take the five rods and stick them into the ground. Luckily I found some wood of a good enough quality to make some geta while I was agonizing over how to join the rods together. Now while I am mostly walking on my hands I am no longer restricted to only doing so. Taking a few moments to take off my geta and put on my hand protectors I take a deep breath before flipping myself onto the first of the rods. It's a different type of hand motion than what I use to balance on solid ground and I almost fall off before I figure out the best way to hold it. I grin slightly because other than that it's exactly the same.

As always I can feel the blood rushing to my head, but this past week has made me able to ignore that. Now I figure it's time to see if I'm ready to take the next step. Using both hands I push up with all my strength towards one of the other poles. I grab at the rods to support myself ... and then fall over when my legs decide to keep going in the direction my body was. I am definitely going to need more practice with this. Warily I look back up at the poles from my position flat on my back. Both on the poles and on the ground. Definitely on the ground some more. Or at least not four feet off the ground in rocky terrain. Idly I pull the large stone located under my left kidney out of its position and look at it. Funny, it felt so much sharper when I landed.

~~~

Finally. It's taken me a week, but I've managed to complete my new kata using the teaching rods. And they are katas I realize. Ever so slowly and without me ever realizing it I've managed to turn what had been simple into the beginnings of a kata that had only needed slight touching up before it could take its place as the first in the ... something School of Anything Goes Martial Arts. I still can't think of a good name for it. There's already a Saotome School, a Tendo School, and a Founder's School, though why anyone would want to learn that one is beyond me. The Ranma School just sounds arrogant like I'm boasting, which isn't something I want to do even if I am the best. I just need something to pull everything together. Pop managed it with his Umi-Sen-Ken and Yama-Sen-Ken and created truly devastating arts. And if Pop can do something like that then I should be able to do at least as well if not better.

Wiping my head I slip my geta back on and head to my favorite rock to meditate. My progress here has been slightly less than that in the physical aspect of the art, but then I've kind of expected that having spent most of my life training in the physical as opposed to the spiritual. But still I have been making progress. I can now call whatever it is consistently if only for a brief instant each time. Still I cannot help but think that there was something about those last words of Master Fei's. "A cup by itself is useless." He could have meant that I needed to study other things than martial arts as well, but he'd said as much immediately before. No, he must have meant something else. And it's that something else that is what is just out of reach. But try as I can I just can't see any other meaning to his words.

The sky opens up overtop of me changing me to a girl with the first few drops as well as bringing me out of my thoughts. I was supposed to have been studying and obviously wasn't doing so. I sigh. It's all too common. It's just so easy to use the time I set aside for meditation for other things unless I force myself to do it. Chuckling quietly to myself I get out of lotus position and sit on the edge of the big rock dangling my legs off the side. There are just so many more fun things to do than meditate and I am still young. I close my eyes and turn my head up at the sky. The rain is fairly warm despite having activated the change. In fact I don't really care right now that I'm a girl. I've been enjoying myself immensely these past months even when I've been in pain. It's something I've had to do and since I couldn't change it I found myself looking for ways to have fun.

The rain stops almost as suddenly as it began. I keep my head up in the position I turned it to earlier. I feel calm, at peace, and it seems as if nothing can affect me. It feels good. I just wish I could feel this way forever. Over where I had set my dishes I can hear a slow drip, drip, drip as water falls from a nearby tree branch into my bowl. I smile imagining all the peace inside me falling into a bowl where I can catch it all. All the calm settles into the bowl stilling the water in my mind. My eyes still closed I smile. I've been fighting myself for so long. That it was hard for me to just accept that things could be any different. But it's so easy now. Acceptance.

I shoot fully upright once more losing the sense of peace as I do. That was it. That was what I'd been searching for. Acceptance. Breathing slowly I form the bowl again in my mind and allow it to be filled with that feeling. I allow myself to just accept it as it flows into me. No it's flowing out of me. I'm at peace now, and I'm filling the bowl myself. The me in my mind reaches out to the bowl and places my hand into the water almost feeling the water flow around it. And there at the bottom is what I've really been looking for. I can feel it there, not with my hand but with some part of my soul. I feel the resistance. The strength of accepting things as they are and making the best of them. That single drive and strength that pushed me far enough that I ripped apart an immortal. This is truly what will be the basis of my art.

Perspectives:

Already I'm having difficulty with developing the Flowing Water School of Anything Goes Marital Arts. I've based it on acceptance of one's situation so one can adapt. But my problem is that while I have always been a master of the latter the former goes against the grain indeed. I've never been one to just accept things as they were. Sure I might appear to accept things, but as the people in Nerima found out appearances in this case are very misleading. And of course the biggest problem I face here is the curse.

I don't like my curse. Which when you think about it makes sense. It's a curse after all. But besides that, I don't like having it. I know my faults, or most of them at least. I'm arrogant, or at least that's what people tell me. I'm impulsive, stubborn, ignorant, and forgetful. My verbal circuit breakers don't work all that well either, though they're better than people think since making outrageous statements, like I've been known to, is a great way of seeing how people really feel about certain things. But by far my biggest fault is my inability to detach myself from the problem of my curse. I'll go one thousand miles out of my way to chase after a possible cure and lose track of the things that are really important. I've done everything except accept my curse, and now I'm trying to found an art based on acceptance. The gods must truly wish to test me.

The real problem is that I don't see myself changing. I want a cure for my curse. I want to be able to live my life without worrying about when I'll next be able to get hot water. And until that happens I can't help but think that this desire won't go away. Which means my school won't be complete until I cure myself. But I can at least learn to accept that I have the curse in the first place even if I can't accept the curse itself. Or at least that's what I hope.

Standing up on the rock I look around the site I've been staying in for so long. Around a month actually. It's time to move on. I probably should have done so earlier, but ... No, I won't worry about what might have been. I need to learn to accept things as they are. But it is time for me to move on. I've stored up more food as well as figured out more of what's edible in this strange forest. The Flowing Water School is off to a good start despite my own inadequacies. Yes, maybe I should have moved on ahead of time but that doesn't mean the time was poorly spent. I place my right hand on the rope braid that I've started to use as my belt. It already has a new bead on it though this one is much bigger than the others. From this moment on I'm adding the beads for my own school and not my father's, and to show this I'm going to make those beads myself.

Since it's still morning I decide to quickly pack up all my stuff and head as far as I can while it's still light. It'll make me feel a bit better about not traveling during this time. I grin and settle down into a crouch while still atop the rock. I can even try to see how quickly I can get things done. Taking several deep breaths I form the bowl in my mind and let the peace enter me. With it comes the feeling of energy that I've worked myself up to with this technique. I hold the energy for a few moments thinking ahead looking for the easiest way to get things done. The path set in my mind I nod to myself and begin.

A small kick pushes me only slightly off the rock and into position for a much stronger kick over to the training rods. As I pass over I twist my body and land atop the spot where I can see the first of the rods pushing up on the canvas I threw over them to serve as a shelter. It's actually more reflex than anything that I've assumed the first position of the kata and more than reflex that I only have to twitch a finger to grab a hold of both the canvas and the rope lying on top of it. Pushing of with all of my strength I flip over once again and push off of a tree with my feet having taken the canvas and rope with me. Dropping the canvas for the moment I make a quick run around the five rods and the lone pole with the rope and pull them all out of the ground and tie them together. Setting them down I grab the canvas once more and head to another tree and use it to carry my clothes that are hanging up there to dry.

Now I take my two bundles back to my rock and set them down before darting over to the area where I've been cooking. There my eating utensils that aren't in my pack get put inside, as does the extra food. Next it's over to the tree I've done all my craftwork at. Tools go into the pack quickly and get settled. Taking the pack I head back over to the rock and start folding the clothes and putting them in as well. The canvas goes in over these things to prevent any water seeping in to get them wet again. Changing my mind I take it back out and grab my blanket and pillowcase first before replacing the canvas over them. Sighing to myself I take one last look around. Only my water skin and my hiking staff remain and I'm going to fill up the water skin before I head out and use the staff to walk with. Not bad. Which is of course when I remember that my camp shovel is over where I'd set up my latrine. Almost forgot it. It's only a brief moment before I've gotten that and tied everything onto the pack. I quick stop for water and I' headed downstream with my stuff for the first time in a month.

~~~

It's been a long time since I realized it, but I can tell now that I'm being watched. In fact, I don't think whoever it is ever stopped. But now I know for sure. I surprised him because shortly after I set out, an almost imperceptible weight eased off my shoulders before coming back an hour or two later. I still can't spot him though I'm not actively trying to. If he thinks he's been spotted there's no telling what he'd do. Besides it's not like they're doing anything wrong. For all I know he could be the true owner of this forest and is making sure I don't do anything wrong. That seems kind of wrong though. I mean, if someone owned this place and cared enough to watch me constantly like this, then they'd probably try to talk to me at least once and tell me what their rules are. Suddenly I'm very glad I tried to keep my campsite as orderly as possible.

I've been moving along at a fairly good clip the entire time and it seems that my shadow has managed to keep up with me. Not wanting to look back I try to figure out how that could be happening by looking ahead of me. That's when I see it. Or rather them, because there seem to be a lot of them. Hundreds even. Virtual highways through this forest by way of intermarried branches. I was right earlier about the trees being off slightly. It's as if these older trees were encouraged to provide just the right support to make a smooth path through the treetops. I berate myself for not noticing earlier, before mentally pausing even as my body continues the pace I've maintained all day.

There is no way I could have possibly known about those roads. It seems they were designed to be all but completely invisible to inspection. Only the knowledge that there had to be a faster way than what I was using even made me look for one. For a moment I consider jumping up to a tree and pretending to discover the pathways on my own. It's an idea that I quickly discard. Not only might it upset my watcher it'd probably be a total pain to travel across because of the poles I have strapped to my pack. Instead I decide to just keep following the river and hope for the best.

~~~

It's lunch time, but since I just had an idea for some more training I decide to just stop for long enough to pull out some of the rabbit strips and one of the carrot things I've found occasionally as well as refilling my water bottle once more. That done I set off and eat as I travel. Sure it's rude, but I don't see any other people around. Frankly I don't care what my watcher thinks since he still hasn't revealed himself yet. For all I know he doesn't think it's rude at all. After all Lime and Mint didn't realize fondling girls was rude either. Course they weren't exactly the sharpest people I'd ever met.

After several minutes of eating I brush off my hands and get ready for the next step of my training. I've already created my first technique to go with my style; I simply failed to see it as such. Forming the bowl. It's more mental than anything else, but it is a technique and using it I should be able to do more. I form the bowl in my mind and absorb the peace. It's like my spirit has become a part of the imaginary water in my mind. I find that working with the bowl formed is kind of energizing and am tempted to just stay like this. I can't do that though. It's a trap to rely so much on the energy that it provides. If I do it too often for little things then I won't really be exercising my body. It's commonly thought that using one's chi enables a person to use more of it and more powerfully, and maybe it does but if so then it's very slow. No, the only real reasons to use one's chi is in times of need, such as in battle, or to develop the ability to do so. Right now I need to use the chi I've been accessing with the technique so I can develop ways to use it. Which is why I'm doing this while running. It probably wouldn't make much sense to other people, but by running while I do this I can ensure that I don't build up too much chi before I can use it. This way I'll always have a sort of outlet on standby.

I draw away the chi suffusing me from the technique and start to collect it in my hands. Already I can feel the energy surplus draining out of my limbs, but it's not as regular as I had hoped. It's hitting my hands in bursts of some sort that break my concentration enough to cause me to dump it into my legs and use it. I shake my head and erase the bowl from my mind. Stopping completely I look around, and spotting a convenient rock I take a little break and sit down to think. After a couple of moments I believe I've gotten an explanation as to why I failed earlier and get up to try again. This time the bowl comes to me quicker as I suspected that it might. But this time the real test is in what happens after. Instead of collecting my chi as I'd done with the Moko Takabisha what I really need is to imagine it flowing to my hands like water. I picture me forming paths for the chi to travel down. Instead of scooping it from my body I imagine it moving on its own.

I blink, only now realizing that at some point in time I must have shut my eyes, not exactly a good thing when traveling at fairly high speeds. Or so I figure out as I see the bark of a tree only an inch in front of my face. Yes, definitely not a good idea. I slowly peel myself off of the tree and sigh as I look around to see just why I'd run into this tree. Oh, the river was diverted in order to move around a large rock outcropping. Right before I would stop looking at the outcropping something on it catches my eye. There are footholds chiseled into the side of the largest rock. Not very visibly mind you, but they are there. I doubt that I'd see them at all if it weren't for a bird perching on one of them.

Hmmmmm. It seems that here is yet another place where my shadow has altered this forest. In fact I doubt that my shadow is only one person. It'd take quite a bit of effort to make those steps up the outcropping, let alone the overhead road. Yeah, it seems much more likely that I'm being followed by a group of people. That also makes me feel a lot better about not leaving them far behind. They're probably relaying watch duties amongst themselves along my path. In a way that's almost more frightening than one person keeping up with me and remaining silent the entire way. Now it seems like a large group of people is managing to do the same thing with none of them making any mistakes. Yeah, I'm definitely glad I haven't done anything to upset them yet. I hope.

Flow:

Moving quickly I get back onto the river's bank and start running. It wouldn't do to change my pattern visibly and let my watchers know they've been discovered. If they do turn out hostile then maybe I can surprise them by not being surprised. I frown for a moment. Damn, they've seen me working on my art. If it comes down to a fight they might know what to expect. I shake my head. There's no way they'll be able to counter everything I know since I haven't used any of the Amazon techniques in all the time I've been here. If all else fails I can always try to pull off a Hiryuu Shoten Ha. Slightly reassured I decide to try again with getting my chi to do what I want it to. If this does come down to a fight then being able to use my chi in this way will definitely come in handy.

This time I form the bowl in my mind and imagine it connected to the pathways I started to create before. They're kind of like tubes and they terminate in the palms of each hand. Slowly I let the energy start to flow into the tubes, which are a little like veins really. Thoughts surface and I try to push them away, but I fail and become distracted enough to have to dump the energy into my leg muscles again. At least I can do that correctly having learned it almost eight years before when I was ten. Or is it nine years now having spent almost three months wandering and training my body since waking up as weak as a ... mouse. Yeah, weak as a mouse and definitely not at all like a k...k...kitten.

It occurs to me that that's another thing that I'm going to need to work on before I can say I've mastered my new school. I'm scared of c...cats. Oh hell, I can't even think it without shivering. I doubt that I'm ever going to be able to accept that. Just the mental image of one of them with it's claws going in and out as it stares at me, wishing that it could scratch and cut at me until there's nothing left for it to attack...man do I need to stop thinking about that. Still I think I can force myself to admit that I'm afraid of cats, but accept it? I don't want to accept that. It's like my curse in a lot of ways. I could eventually accept that I have it, but I'd never accept the fear itself. It's too much of a danger, to both me and others for me to tolerate the it.

But I don't see any way for me to overcome either of them in the near future. Does that mean that my quest to complete my school will never end? I knew before hand that I'd always work to improve my art, but to think that I'd never master it is just frightening. This new way of accepting things would advise that I just accept it and move on, but I don't want to! I won't tolerate never being able to master my new school, my curse, or my fear. It's just wrong to look at things like that. This is the same way of thinking that would tell me to just stand by and do nothing when I had the chance to help someone. Just accept it. It seems like such a tempting way to weasel out of any decision in my life. But I won't! I won't accept my curse. I won't accept the fear. "And I swear that I'll never accept not mastering my art!"

Only now do I realize that I've come to a stop with all this thinking, and that I've just shouted out my last thought to all in the woods. I sigh and look around the banks of the river for a spot to sit down for a bit since it doesn't seem like I'll get anything done until I resolve my current concerns. There's a good sized rock sitting in the middle of the river and I take a leap up to it and sit in a lotus position. I'm missing something important here. I thought that acceptance was the key to this, but it seems like it's not. If things just keep on going like this then eventually I won't care about anything at all and just be apathetic to everything. And if that's what acceptance eventually leads to, then what's the point? So I can't accept everything. Or rather I don't want to accept everything, which is the same thing. I think it is anyway. Could I be wrong?

I shake my head to clear it and try looking at this from another angle. So I have a choice. I can either accept things or...what? I used to think of everything as a fight I had to win, but how does that relate to curing a magical curse? I guess I could fight the curse, but it's never worked before. The only thing I can think of is to cure it. I still think I'm missing something though. I'm close though. It's a choice between acceptance and what? Denying things seems like it would be the other choice, but it's kind of stupid because I know from long experience that denying that something is or that something is happening is fairly stupid. So that's out. Fighting's out, or rather it's not quite the answer.

A large fish jumps out of the water and lands back in the river making a fairly decent splash that of course soaks me enough to turn me into a woman. I grumble a little bit annoyed at the change for interrupting my thoughts. I blink at the suddenness of the thought. Change. That's the other choice. Acceptance or change. Sure I have to accept things as they are, but things won't always stay the same. Especially if I try to change things. It's so obvious now. I've always had the choice. Even in Nerima a place where I thought that things were designed to give me grief I had a choice. I could either stay there and accept things or change them. My not doing anything about my problems was like making the choice that I accepted them. I nod at this simple way of thinking of things despite never having thought of it in quite these terms before. It's true and I realize I must have known it on some level because my decision to leave Nerima and change who controlled my life was just a way of making a choice. Still if it's a choice between acceptance and change how do I decide?

It seems I've gone fairly astray of where I should have. Still now that I've figured out what my choices are I can work at the art itself. From my position on the rock I try once more to summon up the energy into my hands once more. I think I was on to something when I was trying to create pathways through my arms. It'll make it so that the energy flows much easier through these tubes, but I can see a drawback immediately. By creating the tubes I'll actually be making it more difficult to direct the chi to areas close to the pathways but not connected to them. Kind of like a river digging through stone. The deeper a channel is dug the harder it is for the course of the river to change. What I need to do before establishing all of these pathways is to determine where I want them all. If I'm right about it though it's going to take a long time to make all of the ones I want, and even then I'll most probably need some in the future that I didn't make. Luckily for me I don't have to worry about what this'll do inside my body since these pathways are more a part of my aura than my physiology. Still if I get it all to work correctly I should be able to pull off some pretty damn incredible feats. I might even be able to set up reservoirs that I can use as starting places to make future paths from. So many things to do in order to set this up properly.

With a quick leap I'm off of the rock and on my way once more, but this time I'm not going to try to work on my new art while I run. I think I've already determined that I need some time to prepare and work on things slowly without messing up. And I can't do that while running through the woods. That in mind I just run at a nice easy pace and enjoy the beauty of the forest around me.

Frowning I look around me a bit and see that the dead trees I'd been seeing earlier seem to have gotten more and more common than they were before. I take a quick glance upwards in order to subtly look at the overhead pathways and the sight of them disturbs me a bit more. Instead of the carefully hidden and formed roads I'd seen before the one over my head seems to be twisted and much more obvious than before. Still if I hadn't known what it was ahead of time I would have overlooked it much like I had before. Maybe more so because this road isn't straight like the earlier ones were. I wonder if this means that I'm getting closer to whatever it is that is killing this forest. Probably does with the luck I have. I really don't know how I feel about that either. Sure I'd like to get rid of whatever it is that can kill trees off for dozens of miles around, but on the other hand I somehow doubt that I'd be able to do anything about it unless it was some kind of giant beaver or something like that. Which I somehow doubt. No, whatever it is seems...evil in some way. The sort of evil I felt only in really bad places during my training trip with the old man. The ones that even he wouldn't go into. So with all that I'm not exactly all that eager to face whatever it is. Unfortunately it seems I have to go towards it. I've already spent quite a bit of time heading in the direction and following the river is still my best bet for getting to a town. I discount my watchers since they don't exactly seem all that eager to get in touch with me.

Oh well, things will work out or they won't. I can't do much about anything right now except maybe get the attention of my pursuers and I'm not too sure I want that. Other than that I can only move ahead like I've been doing. Still I think I'm going to take a day off from traveling tomorrow and work on getting my chi pathways started. I should probably map where I want them too. Maybe even use some charcoal and draw what I want on my skin before putting all the effort into making them. Hmmm, sounds good. I think I'll do that.

Paths:

Sighing I put the charred stick back into the fire pit and look at the designs I've spent the past few hours drawing onto my skin. I only wish I'd gotten more done than just my left arm, but I suspect that the right will go much quicker now that I have the left to base it on. Still I should check everything out one last time before I get started.

The hand's pattern starts with a reservoir node directly under the palm in the middle of the hand. From there tubes lead down the length of each finger, the thumb, and to another node at the wrist. From each finger tube there is a connection to the surface at the tip and the two knuckles closest to the palm on that side of the hand. Also wherever a tube goes to the surface there it also goes to the surface on the back of the hand. The thumb is the same. The palm reservoir also connects to three end tubes in the middle of the palm, each in turn connected to the other, forming a triangle. An end tube on the back of the hand finishes off the tubes connected to the surface. Two tubes connect the palm reservoir to a reservoir in the wrist which is in turn connected to one in the elbow by six tubes. The arm is completed by another reservoir in the shoulder connected with yet another six tubes to the elbow reservoir.

Looking things over I sigh and add a third tube connecting the palm and wrist nodes as well as an end tube leading from the elbow to it's reservoir. My hopes are that I'll be able to direct extra force through the end tubes using a burst of chi as I attack. The connecting tubes between nodes will be strengthened to act as reinforcement for when I use my arms to block powerful blows. This is the reason for more end tubes in striking areas like the hand and elbow and more connecting tubes running the length of limbs. At least that's the theory. I hope it's true at least, but if it's not I'm only going to start off working on one arm at a time and not both together.

Course I won't know anything until I try which is why I've been doing everything I can to look at this from every angle I can before I start messing with the way my chi will move through my body. I suspect that doing this will be rather permanent. None of the scroll I have with me mention anything like this, but I'm not that surprised by that. One deals with exorcising demons from people and objects, another deal mainly with stealth, and the last with something fairly similar to the old man's vacuum blades but a lot less deadly. The fourth scroll which I'd thought was about martial arts seems to be about wood working instead. When I found that out I'd wished I'd seen it earlier when I was trying to put together the balancing poles. I ended up recreating some of the tricks shown on the scroll the hard way. Still I'll keep it around because it's kind of interesting. Besides learning to work with wood better than before could always come in handy. One of the projects on the scroll is designed to build up precision while making a chain from a single piece of wood. Maybe if I do it right I can turn that into a training exercise. Having a wooden chain would be kind of cool anyway.

I shrug and realize that I'm stalling again. I think I'm just a little nervous about getting started on setting up the chi pathways, so I need to sit down and just do it. The palm reservoir seems like the best place to begin so I sit in a lotus position and start to direct energy into that part of my hand with the proper intent. When my arm practically explodes in pain I realize that this is going to be much more difficult than I thought it would be.

~~~

Well it seems I was wrong earlier. About a great number of things. The biggest was probably underestimating how painful it would be to do this. When I was running and imagining my chi flowing down pathways I thought I was creating permanent tubes that I could use in the future. In actuality I was just using my will as a sort of temporary river bank to contain the flow. Each time when I stopped imagining them they would disappear, something I didn't notice until I started to actively create pathways two weeks ago. Another lesson I had to learn was that in this, speed is definitely not my ally. When I first encountered the pain I thought that I could just bull through things quickly and get the pain over with. When I regained consciousness several hours later I wisely decided slow and steady was the correct course. But I just wish that slow and steady didn't mean slower than a snail through glue.

Still I've come to some interesting conclusions. The first is that, because I won't need to use my will to create temporary tunnel walls, my chi will be much easier to direct than I previously thought. This completely blows away all of my theories of what I'll be able to do with this technique. And it is a technique, the second technique of the Flowing Water School, creating a path. I even found a really interesting red pebble that I've drilled a hole through to act as the bead for my belt. My second conclusion isn't as uplifting. This is going to take a long time. A very long time. I could actually go much faster than I have been, but since there is not real urgency in doing so, I'm going slowly enough that the only pain I feel is an occasional twinge as if someone pinched me. I've already been working on this for two weeks now, and I'm only about halfway done with my left arm. I am however picking up speed because the reservoir nodes were indeed the most time consuming of the components followed by the end tubes and then the connecting ones. With all four nodes finished it should be much easier going. Seems I was also wrong about doing everything at once. I think when I work on the right arm I'll go much more slowly only making one part of the pattern every few weeks unless there's a real emergency at which time I'll accept the need for a more painful speed.

Working with my will and chi in this manner is extremely tiring. I can't recall the last time I was this weak and tired...that is if you discount the time I spent after waking up under that ancient maple tree. Headache's that leave me constantly distracted aren't helping the situation any and hopefully as I get more used to exerting myself in this way it'll get better. There's going to be a lot of work ahead of me after this though in getting my body back into shape since I've been pushed into only doing two, hour long, workouts a day, one in the morning and one before I go to sleep. That second one leaves me short of breath despite it being one of the lightest workouts I've had in years.

All in all I'm pretty damn proud of my accomplishments so far. I've gotten so much done in creating my own school as well as managing to pull myself out of a level of apathy that, looking back, was dangerous for someone that faces challenges at the levels I used to. Two techniques and a kata for my school aren't too shabby. Hmmm, I should probably make something for my belt to represent the kata. A hanging bangle might be a good idea. I also need to transfer to two beads to a new belt. It'll be better to separate my old school from my new. Still, my biggest accomplishment is probably the scroll I'm making detailing the steps taken in the creating of the school. It's something I've never seen before, though I'm sure they exist, and I think that using it as a teaching method for future students will allow a much faster progression in learning. It'll also show the things that were attempted and didn't work as well as why, though it'll be embarrassing to have these future students read about the Dance of One Thousand Spears. I'd briefly considered leaving it out, but it was part of the learning process and so I wrote it down anyway. Not that I'll ever make a student go through that. I should though come up with a way for my students to be forced to walk on their hands though. It was an interesting experience and helped me look at things from another direction.

Moving back under the canvas I've been using to stay dry if it rains, I roll my shoulders a few times and get the kinks out of my muscles before starting once more on creating chi pathways.

~~~

I've finally finished. Three whole weeks of constant headaches and exhaustion are over. Last night I skipped my evening workout so I could just go to sleep, my body aching from increasing the speed I'd been working at. Still the extra pain was worth it since I think it cut half a week off of the completion time. The nodes seem to have been a great idea because they give me a focus point for forming the bowl. And when I do... it's amazing. The sheer amount of energy that flows through my arm is breathtaking. It's almost effortless too. Instead of forcing my body to produce chi, I'm concentrating on remaining calm and letting it flow on its own with only the occasional nudge. The change is enormous. I'd never realized how much of my energy went to directing my chi into the proper places.

Still I have discovered some pretty serious drawbacks. Both of the truly dangerous ones are related to the manner with which I chose to start my experiment, and since I was planning on changing that anyway I shouldn't run into these problems again even if I do run into others. I really should have started out more slowly like I'd planned to with my right arm. With such large reservoir nodes in place it's actually more difficult to limit myself and my abilities right now when using my chi than it is to use more. Starting with fewer tubes and smaller reservoirs and then building up from there will definitely be the better way to go in the future. It'd give me, and any future students, a chance to slowly adapt to the increases in speed and strength that accompany using chi in conjunction with the new pathways. This should also prevent potentially embarrassing and dangerous training accidents like punching a hole through the tree I'd selected as a training dummy, and crumpling the handle of my cooking pot. Still I make a note in my scroll that I need to watch out for students who wish a quick power up. There is another danger in that this could be used by students who aren't ready for the responsibility that should go hand in hand with this technique. I will not have the techniques of my school abused by anyone. Just the thought of someone like any of the Kuno family gaining control of this technique terrifies me. This section of the school shall most definitely be taught only to those who advance towards mastery.

The second danger that occurred to me is more of the order the pathways must be laid in than of number. I think it was a mistake to begin laying the tubes in my arm. With the ease of flow in the arm chi from other parts of the body is seeming to be pulled towards it. While this might be in some ways a good thing, as it would increase the force of the arm's blows, there is a hidden danger if I'm not careful of pulling too much chi from those other areas. The heat of battle might hide a dangerously low level of chi in important areas of the body like the heart and brain. A person would quite literally drop dead because they removed the chi powering his heart. Luckily I think this will be fixed by incorporating these areas into the chi tube network. That, I think, will be my next goal, setting up a series of pathways through my chest, neck, and head. Key areas will of course be the brain, lungs, heart, and other vital organs. This is a rather high priority and I think when I do lay the tubes through these areas I'll also see about using connecting tubes to turn my ribcage into an impenetrable barrier. But despite this priority I think I'll hold off for a little while and maybe only work on it a few days of the week at the most.

Digging through my pack I find a rather long strip of white cloth that I don't remember seeing earlier. I shrug since in its rolled up form its small enough that it probably got stuck in something like a shirt or tangled up with my rope. Still it gives me an idea and I use it to wrap up my left arm. Hopefully this will remind me that I need to work on my control. I'm glad I'm in the woods right now since I'm less likely to get into a fight that would be potentially fatal for someone if my control slipped.

Looking around the area I wonder how I've once again managed to delay my return to civilization. I blink a few times. It just now occurs to me that I should have run into some sign of habitation by now. But I haven't seen a single thing indicating a human presence outside the treetop roads and that one rock with carved steps. The area around me is beautiful, the water clean and rabbits plentiful. Except for the dead trees that are too common for my liking, it's practically a paradise for someone like me who wants to be alone to work on his art. What's going on here? I've traveled well over one hundred miles downstream along a river. I should have run into someone by now, if only someone fishing or hunting. I can't think of a single river I've ever been to in a temperate climate that had a completely empty hundred mile stretch along its course. Sure I'm sure there are some somewhere, but I can't think of any and there can't be that many. I go over the distance I've traveled in my head and sure enough I have gone over a hundred miles. I freeze up when one possible explanation comes to me. Perhaps the reason is a lot simpler. My watchers might not like company and so no one ever enters their territory. Of course this doesn't make sense since if it were true then they would have done something by now. Still why would anyone follow a person all this way and not even reveal themselves. Not knowing what's going on with anything is really starting to piss me off something fierce.

I take a deep breath and use that time to calm down. Once that's done I start to pack up my stuff. I think for the next week I'm going to do the most of my working out while on the move. This way I can start to cover a lot more ground than before. I'm starting to miss civilization and it'll be good to talk to other people again even if I probably won't have the correct type of money. One thing I do know is that I'm not in Japan since no place on the islands is more than seventy miles from the ocean and this river has been going fairly straight. I suppose it just means I'll have to get some type of job to pay for food and the like, but I've done it before and likely will again. Besides all this is in the future. Right now I just need to get on my way. It's only noon so I suspect I can get a good thirty miles in before I stop for the night.

Darkness:

I think I've finally discovered why I haven't run into anyone coming upstream. There are dead trees everywhere now. I don't want to go any further today despite having a good hour before I would have normally chosen to stop. The evil crawly feeling I've had for a while now is almost overpowering and I don't want to be any closer to what ever is producing it when it gets dark. I remember hearing someone say that fear is actually a good thing, that it tells a person that something was dangerous. For the first time I really believe it. I'm afraid. Somehow though I get the feeling I'm going to need to face whatever is doing this since it's right along the path I'm taking, and changing course now would send me off in some other direction without the benefit of following the river.

Looking around I spot a live tree even if it doesn't look that healthy. I drop my pack against it and pull out the poles I've been carrying around. I stick them into the ground in a half circle around me with my back to the tree. Nodding at the sight I head to the river to pick up rocks of various sizes. Again my plans have changed. Somehow I doubt that I'll be getting much sleep tonight one way or another. I'm going to experiment with my chi tubes. Tonight, though, isn't for working on control. Tonight is for finding out just what my left arm can do. Tomorrow morning, as soon as the sun comes up, I'm heading down stream as fast as I can looking for trouble the entire way. And knowing my luck I'm going to find it. When I do I want to already have a firm grasp on any and every trick I can think of. I don't want to head into yet another battle where I have to rely on my ability to create moves on the fly. This time I'm going to be ready for anything. Reaching my pack once more I dig out the scroll on exorcisms. I remember it had some useful information on all sorts of things related to darker spiritual energies. With the almost tangible feeling of evil in the air I have a hunch that what's inside might be needed. I'm going to study this scroll until the light gets too dim to read by, and then I'm going to use my chi to make a light to read some more. I chuckle. It's kind of like a pop quiz that can make or break my grade, but this time the stakes are probably much higher. What a cheery thought.

~~~

I'm getting close now. I haven't seen any live trees in the past hour. Even more disturbing are the skeletons that have started popping up in the past few minutes. None human thankfully but some large animal skeletons, deer and what looks like a wolf, all facing away from the direction I'm going as if they were fleeing from something. Several more miles in and the skeletons are getting more plentiful as well as being mixed with ones much smaller than before. I get the feeling that whatever it is that I'm looking for terrified these animals into running so hard that it killed them. The larger animals either got further or got away altogether while the smaller and presumably weaker ones didn't make it. It certainly explains why I haven't seen any large animal tracks these past few weeks. Everything that once lived in this part of the forest probably ran off, only the rabbits being too stupid to be afraid. Which also explains their numbers not having anything around to compete with or hunt them. The ground is really uneven now and covered with moss and fungus that I don't particularly wish to push aside. Not only does it look diseased, but the ground is crunching under my every step. I know without even looking that I'd find yet more skeletons underneath the ground cover.

I almost trip when I see him, but I don't. Leaning against a tree is the first human skeleton I've come across, and I'm surprised at my lack of shock. I think I've probably been preparing myself for this mentally for the past hour ever since I saw the first animal skeleton. He's leaning against a tree in metal armor of some sort, though it's horribly rusted. One of his arms, I only guess it was a man because of the shape of the chest plate, is pressed against the stomach area where a huge gash has been cut through the metal. The other arm is just gone. I don't see it anywhere nearby so I can only guess the damage occurred before he got here. When I turn away to continue, a flash of light catches my eye. Looking closer I see that by his side and leaning against the tree is the remains of a spear. It astonishes me that while the shaft is completely rotted through the head remains as shiny and polished as the day it was made.

What should I do? Do I take it and risk offending the spirit of this warrior, or do I leave it and let it go to waste? I'd like to say that he'd want it to be used, but I wonder just how much of that is my father's teachings talking. My decision made I slowly reach down and pick up the point and step away. Bowing my head slightly, I clap twice. "Thank you for this gift. I will not misuse it." I stare in shock as the skeleton falls from its position. It must be a sign, so I start to put it back when I notice two things that must have been hidden between the warrior's back and the tree.

The first is what I can only call a dagger, though its blade is a foot long and two inches wide. It, like the spear point, is polished like new and without the slightest trace of tarnish. It's quite possibly the finest blade I've ever seen, with a rippling pattern down its length that seems to shift even as I look at it. The hilt is contrastingly simple in design forming a plain cross shape and wrapped in leather which is also blemish free. The only decoration apart from the blade itself is a green stone with lines etched into it to form...something. Hesitantly I pick it up along with the silken bag next to it. Looking inside I blink as I see a number of various coins the likes of which I've never seen before. The only things inside besides the coins seem to be a small whitish pebble and a pendant on a golden chain.

I nod to myself. What happened earlier was indeed a sign but not the one I'd thought. I dig around in the pouch and pull out a coin that...appears to be made of gold. My brows raise at this, but I continue with my intention and place the coin atop the man's chest after carefully laying him out straight. I remember that some peoples leave money with the dead and as it was his to begin with I do so. Besides it just feels wrong to take his processions without some sort of ritual.

Taking off my pack I place the pouch inside with the intention to look for the man's family using the pendant as identification. I also detach the single pole I'd left uncut from it's place strapped to be back with the others. I grunt slightly in annoyance as I slip the head over the end. It's too big as I suspected it would be. Still it was worth a sho... "What the hell?!"

Right before my eyes the socket of the spear head contracted around the pole's end until it was a perfect fit. I stare in amazement and try to wiggle it around a bit, but nothing happens the join being that tight. That was just plain eerie. Still it means I now have a leaf bladed spear with a seven foot shaft instead of a sharp stick and an impromptu dagger. I'd definitely going to see about returning this to they guy's family though when I get through. I put my pack back on and stick the dagger into my belt. I get the feeling that there's something special about it as well though what it is I have no clue. With another bow to my unknown benefactor I'm off with the spear in hand.

~~~

This is it. There aren't any animal skeletons around this place though I would have gladly traded them for what does lie about. My pack at my feet, I lean around a tree and look into the center of the clearing and force myself to ignore the pile of broken human remains to one side. I'm about two miles from where I found the earlier body and my respect for the fallen warrior grows. The evil in this place is visible in the decay that runs rampant everywhere. It's strange though. The hairs on the back of my neck are standing on end, and yet I can't see anything that I would consider dangerous. Despite this I know that whatever it is, is here. I grin slightly at the realization that my unseen watchers haven't been with me for a while. The smile goes away when it occurs to me that they probably know exactly what I'm going to be facing and aren't dumb enough to come. I make a note not to try and cheer myself up before a battle like this ever again.

The clearing here is about seventy-five yards across, give or take with the pile of bones a good twenty yards from the center. Roughly circular in shape I wonder if that is a coincidence or by design. I focus my eyes on the only thing that seems out of place in this clearing. It's a gray statue about half again my height sixty yards away and designed after someone strongly built. I can only see its right side, but just the lines used to depict the muscles convey a sense of power and grace. Still it's not something I'd consider dangerous, though it does seem strange.

I shift my body so I can take another look around the clearing when a loud crack comes from under my foot. I mentally curse since I've been extremely careful not to make any noise before this. My thoughts cut off abruptly when the 'statue' whirls to face in my direction. Involuntarily I gasp. While its right side appeared perfect in every way, it's left seems to contain everything and anything mankind could consider ugly and hideous. Open sores and scars are depicted alongside a manic, rictus grin. Warts, oozing wounds, misshapen limbs and bones, everything is practically designed to revolt the viewer. It makes the right side with all its beauty a mockery of the human form. This isn't the sort of place I'd choose to fight something this large. The open terrain here lacks the obstacles that would emphasize my agility over its size. I know my thoughts aren't exactly fair, but I have a feeling that this fight won't be about fair play.

All this comes to me in the instant as I dart obliquely forward spear in hand. I don't need any further evidence that this thing is connected to the source of corruption, especially when the evil in the air increases as it too darts forward to meet me somewhere in the middle of the clearing.

Battle:

This thing is fast, though thankfully I seem to be just a little bit faster. It's probably a lot stronger than I am though if its size is any indication and in this case it probably is. If I'm right then this should be a much tougher version of the battles between myself and Ryoga. It comes into range after I've covered forty yards of a ground soft enough to be easier on my feet than rock, and yet firm enough to push off of without losing force. I take back my earlier thoughts. This is good ground. The spear in my hand isn't exactly a weapon I've mastered and so I treat it much like a naginata, a weapon I have. My first slash scores a deep cut across the thing's chest. I'm slightly shocked that its blood is an ugly, olive green but more so that the wound closes right before my eyes. I really wasn't expecting to face something like this. The only reaction I have time to make is to try to once more regain the advantage of mobility and flip over its head.

"Oooof!" Damn, I must have been more shocked than I thought because I seem to already have forgotten that this thing is close to my speed. I made the mistake of thinking of it like Ryoga for an instant and it's cost me. A quick turn and it slammed its left fist into my chest, the deformed bones of its hand acting like the studs on a pair of fighting gloves. Needless to say it hurts. I'm thrown several yards before I can plant the spear in the ground in time to wheel both my feet into its chest in return, only remembering to channel chi into my geta at the last possible moment. It doesn't do much beyond giving me a chance to regain my feet, but then that is all I wanted. Again we both dart obliquely towards one another and this time I don't pause in surprise when its wound heals once more; I simply continue to slash at it as quickly and powerfully as I can. Several times our paths cross and each time I manage to get to these imaginary points first. Strangely this is the first real running battle I can recall ever fighting in. I kind of feel like I'm in some sort of samurai anime like Rurouni Kenshin.

My inattention costs me even more this time than it did before when the statue, though I wonder if I should still think of it as a statue when it clearly isn't, manages to get a good hit in that numbs my right arm. I manage to get away though, and my mind whirls. It's going to be about a minute before my arm gets back to normal and that makes the spear useless. I plant the spear once more and use it to spring at a ninety degree angle forcing the thing to follow me. I don't want it to get a hold of a weapon even if I don't know if it can use one. Unfortunately as I'm headed forward I notice it puts on a small burst of speed and gets there ahead of me. I wince since it's starting to show some semblance of tactics now, even if it doesn't seem to have any defensive instincts at all. That thought just warms my heart for a second as I let my chi build up in my palm reservoir. This is just the chance I've been waiting for. Cocking my left arm back I grin and punch forward with the all my strength in my arm and chi exploding from my knuckles. If this works I'm going to need a cool name for this move.

This move has several results. The first is putting a fairly good sized hole through the stomach of the creature and spraying myself with its blood. The second rather less pleasant consequence is bringing me to a complete stop in the rather awkward position of having my fist practically inside its belly. Rather unpleasant in that it fails to even notice the amount of damage I just inflicted and uses a backfist to send me ten yards closer to the pile of human bones and almost to the center of the clearing. Still my thoughts this time are more clear than before and the numbness of my arm has gone away. I touch the ground with my feet for only a second before pushing directly towards the monster whose wound is almost completely healed by now. My right hand darts to the small of my back and I pull out the dagger in time to slash deep into its left leg with it as I shoot between its legs. This time I plant my hands immediately behind it and pull my body into a tight ball before lashing out with both feet into its back. In addition I flare my left hand once more and add even more force to the blow. All the planning for this occurred instantly, the thoughts for the actions only coming after the motions were completed. As the thing flew forward I notice the four short lines my chi enhanced geta scored into its back. I grin. Now this is a battle.

I dart forward again, at a much shallower angle than I've been using. That was my problem earlier, I was being too cautious and it was costing me. I needed to just let myself go and allow my battle instincts to take over. This time I'm going fast enough that I actually make it past the thing despite it having started closer to where we eventually meet. The two of us start beating on each other, or rather more accurately, I start beating on it. I rain a virtual storm of blows on it using my new chi tubes to direct the energy in my left arm to the parts that need it the most during every strike. The chi is constantly moving back and forth and seems to be generating more force from its very movement with each attack. My right arm isn't left out this time, as it too strikes in quickly holding the blade in hand. The combination is too much for it and for the first time in the fight I'm actually driving it backwards. It pauses for a moment and I think it realizes it's damage for the first time. It isn't healing as quickly so I throw the dagger into the ground at my feet and use my right arm to throw one of my father's vacuum blades at it. I use my left to both collect and then send a tightly focused ball of chi outwards which smashes into it, hurling it backwards thirty yards, over half way from where we were to the edge of the clearing. Not satisfied yet I continue the barrage of vacuum blades, my left arm proving to be even better at it than my right. I send blade after blade until I feel my breathing starting to come harder to me at which point I stop.

There's a cloud of dust surrounding where the thing's body should be. I wait for it to settle down, praying in my heart of hearts that it's dead. Nothing could have survived that. Still, I feel like I'm in some sort of horror film, and that as soon as the dust settles it's going to be standing there staring at me or even charging straight for me. Seconds pass and the air around it clears. I can only gape. It's just lying there. I slowly advance towards it looking for any sign that it's only playing dead. As I get closer I see that one of its arms is several yards away from it. Still closer and I see that it's torso is just a bloody ruin that isn't regenerating at all. I briefly thank the gods. Two thirds of the way there, only ten yards away, I let out a sigh of relief that comes out strangled when it stands up. Reflexively I take up a heavily defensive stance. My shock turns to horror as what's left of its flesh starts to...melt for lack of a better term. It flows into its skeleton which seems to grow before muscle and skin starts to appear around it once more. Even larger than before, it seems to have abandoned all attempts at looking human, instead choosing something out of every person's nightmares, mine included.

I dart almost directly away hoping to give myself enough space to think and catch my breath when it suddenly appears next to me. Its fist lashes out and hits me harder than all the blows before combined. Twenty yards in the direction I dropped the spear I prepare to plant my feet once more to recover when I realize it's there to hit me again. I can only brace myself before the blow strikes. This time I understand what's going to happen and so am ready for it. My left arm is practically burning from the inside from all the energy I've directed to reservoirs. I shoot my right arm downwards into the ground and stop my flight in time to right myself before it gets here to hit me again. It raises its hands in an overhead crushing blow that would kill me for certain if it hits. My legs push upwards with all their force. My left shoulder directs it's energy to pushing the arm into motion before sending its energy to the elbow. From there the elbow reservoir empowers the joint to withstand the forces flowing through it before it too sends the energy forward adding to it its own. The wrist does its job as well. All the energy of my body is now collected around my knifed left hand which seems to be darting forward of its own free will towards the monster's stomach. This time as it connects I do everything it takes not to flare it. Soon my arm is buried up to the elbow inside this things ribcage. I grin and push sharply outward with the entirety of my internal energy. The explosion is enough to send me back ten more yards.

It's funny how I've never really looked up at the sky since I woke up under that giant maple tree so long ago. Damn, I don't even know how long it's been either. Three months? Four? Oh well I'll figure it out later. When I have more energy. That fight really took a lot out of me. I tilt my head up from my prone position and look towards where my enemy should be. Seeing it I let my head drop back down and smirk. I'm reminded of an American saying I must have picked up from some place. Damn, my entire body hurts. I say the next part out loud, "But you should see the other guy!" For some reason I just find this incredibly funny. Unfortunately laughing hurts right now. Hurts a lot. I think that first punch the thing got in broke several of my ribs and now that the adrenalin is wearing off I can feel them. Still, this piece of ground is damn comfortable at the moment. Grunting in pain I sit up once more, taking a second to confirm that my adversary is now quite thoroughly spread across the clearing while its legs remain pretty much where they fell. With another few moments past I start to push my way to my feet. Reaching over with my right arm I grab my right shoulder and force the joint back into its socket. I'm thankful that there isn't anyone around to hear my scream of pain.

I start to stagger towards where I left the dagger, when a large screeching sound comes from my right. I whirl towards that direction...and see nothing. It only now occurs to me that the feeling of evil that I've been sensing this entire time hasn't gone away. If anything it's gotten stronger in the past twenty minutes that I lay looking at the sky. This cannot be good. My thoughts are confirmed as something pushes its way out of the pile of bones.

What did I do in a past life to deserve this? I finish off a fight with a monster that heals just about everything I throw at it and now there's a skull hovering about two feet over the heaped up human remains. I think this time I can safely say that this is what's responsible for whatever the hell is going on around here. And if everything thing goes as it usually does in my life this thing should be even harder to beat than the other was. Yep, there's no question about it. "My life sucks." Now, I'm even starting to talk to myself.

The skull interrupts my thoughts by spitting a glowing ball of flame out at me. It's moving pretty fast, but not nearly fast enough to give me any challenge in dodging it. Or so I think until it swerves towards me instead of shooting by with plenty of room to spare. I dodge again, but it misses by only a fraction of an inch or two, and I can feel the immense heat as it passes by. This time I watch it, expecting it to turn and follow me again. Which is why I'm surprised when it just explodes throwing me off my feet once more. I make a note to step up my regular training. I'm getting caught off guard way too often for my tastes lately. But that's something I need to take care of when I'm not in serious danger of being flambéed after I win this battle; because I will win this battle!

My geta crack under the strain as I push off the ground with all the energy I can spare, but only a small, distant portion of my awareness takes notice. The entirety of my concentration and analytical skills are focused on the task at hand. The earlier fight was just an ordinary one, really. There wasn't any chance for me to use the skills I learnt last night. This battle though is different. My eyes focus on the black, metal band set directly over the thing's glowing eyes. That, I realize, is my true opponent. I don't really question how I know this for when I've entered into this hyperaware state during a battle, even the slightest change in air pressure against my skin is enough to tell me a great many things. Dashing once more to the side I almost absently deflect one ball of fire into another with a moving plane of chi. The same part of my mind that noted the broken geta files away just how I did that for later review. Meanwhile the resulting explosions mostly cancel each other out with the residual energy only barely affecting me from my position almost ten yards away.

The scroll I read last night said something about the possession of objects by dark forces. If it was right, and if I am as well, then destroying the black circlet will end this. Still, it's going to be tough because processed items are supposedly very durable. I mentally curse the fact that I had to skim over most of the scroll in order to learn a little about everything on it. It was a choice between only knowing a little bit of everything and the chance to not know anything on whatever circumstances came up. I shake it off because it's in the past and I can't do anything about it. I've just got to accept where I am now and move on. I frown doubting that I'll be able to get a second shot in if the first fails. Physical contact between me and the band will be necessary and with the amount of force I'll have to use I'll be open with no chance to dodge any of its fireballs. I grin once more. This is the sort of all or nothing desperation gamble that I live for.

My already abused geta groan under the added stress of a sudden direction change and dash towards the skull. I don't pay them any mind because one way or another it won't matter. If I win I'll have time to make a new pair. I think this time I'll make them out of a tougher wood than the one I chose for this set. Once more I start to build up energy in my shoulder node; only this time I have twenty yards of distance to work with and all the time it will take to cross it. That extra time equals to more chi. At three yards I dodge a fireball by leaping into the air with all the force I can muster into my legs.

"Aku."

Arching in such a way as to cut down wind resistance and so gaining as much height as I possibly can. I roll into a tiny ball to change my orientation and briefly stall in midair, my head pointed directly at my enemy. My left fist is held tightly to my chest prepared for the time to strike.

"Soku."

I start to fall, going faster as time goes by. For once all the little tricks the Saotome School uses to slow the descent of a fall are being ignored. Instead I focus all my motions on making myself fall faster and still faster. My momentum increases. The skull shoots off another fireball at me. I can't help but grin. It's facing me now looking almost directly up. I tiny flutter of my right hand adds a slight twist into my fall and the fireball flies by with no chance to turn around and catch up before I hit. At the last possible instant I dart my fist forward so as to add the punch's strength, enhanced by the chi cascading through each reservoir node in turn, to that of my fall. It lands precisely where I intended it: on the ornamentation right in the middle of its bleached forehead.

"Zan."

Merely the weight of my fall pushes the skull to the ground, robbing the attack of a small portion of force. Not enough though, as the broken bodies of these earlier warriors prevent the skull from escaping to the side or even burrowing into the ground. It seems even the dead can have their revenge. An almost feral grin crosses my face as the bone and metal both crunch under my fist. A part of my mind urgently tries to grab my attention. A stray memory about how destroying possessed items can cause...a magical backlash?! I close my eyes in the hope to spare them at least. "Oh shi..." The rest of the profanity is cut off by an explosion only slightly less than the most powerful I can remember living through. Which wouldn't be so bad had it been located somewhere further than two feet in front of my face when I've used up most of the chi in my body. Still, I hold onto consciousness long enough to smile at the knowledge that I've won.

Aftermath:

Waking up is interesting to say the least. I can tell right away that something is off. Not in a dangerous way though if that makes any sense. It's rather more pleasant than that. After all I wasn't expecting to wake up on my back appropriately bandaged and feeling much better than I have any right to. I stretch out my arms and find that they don't hurt nearly as much as I thought they would. Which could mean one of three things. I was mistaken about how many hits I took. I've been out far longer than I thought. Whoever put me hear is an amazingly good doctor. Since I remember taking quite a few hits and because my stomach hasn't eaten a hole in itself I suspect it's option three. I've probably been out for a full day though which explains why I'm feeling quite puckish at the moment.

Pushing off the blanket that's covering me I blink as something else registers. All of my things seem to be gathered around me, and there's a lot more of them than before. The blanket that was settled over me is a good example for it looks hand made and of good quality. The two weapons I found are also here, leaning against a nearby tree, though the dagger is now inside a sheath that seems to have been made especially for it as is the other knife I had in my pack. That gets another blink. So someone's been going through my stuff. Reaching for my pack I flip the cover open and have to stop myself from gasping in shock. It's full. Slowly I start to take things out and set them on top of the new blanket.

There's the pouch of coins from before, though it seems heavier. Looking inside I see that there are indeed more coins than before as well as some more pebbles like the first one though of different colors. There's another leather bag and I nod slightly when I see my jerky inside, that there is a lot more of it than there should be doesn't surprise me as much as it should. Two more similar bags appear to be filled with dried fruits in one and a hard grain that I suppose is like rice in the other. I start to sigh as I realize that there are still more leather pouches inside as well as several cloth ones. Apparently all of my gear has been put into them. In one aspect that's good because I really can't have too many bags. The next bags contain my cooking, bathing, fishing gear, as well as a bag of bandages of all sizes while my mementos seem to be in another with my flint and steel kit, wallet, hand guards, and soap. My clothes are both clean and folded up neatly along with my towel and old blanket. Under those a rather bulky shape at the bottom gets my attention and I pull it out revealing it to be two things. The first is a new pair of boots that I have a feeling will fit perfectly. The second is a case holding my scrolls as well as some extra blank ones.

Carefully I look around. I don't see anyone, but that doesn't mean anything since that sensation of being watched has returned. This is just too strange. Obviously whoever it is approves of me and just as obviously doesn't want to actually talk to me. Still I can take a hint so I start to put everything back into my pack. Doing so I find my pack has seemingly sprouted new additional straps securing my hatchet, shovel, water skin, and cooking pot. I roll my eyes when I spot several more that seem meant for my training poles and my spear. Hell, there even seems to be something to use to strap on the piece of canvas I've been using as a tarp. I throw my hands up in disgust and start looking for my shirt so I can get away from these people. I spot it next to the weapons and poles and put it on only to discover my bracers under it. That wouldn't have been so bad if they hadn't been next to a new pair of geta and a black leather belt both lying atop a green cloak. I sigh and put the cloak into the pack after slipping the other things on. After a moment of though I take the belt back off and attach the two blades in their sheaths. The one I had before coming here fits onto the belt perpendicularly but the linger one I found the other day is parallel and it takes a few minutes of adjusting before I find a comfortable way to wear it. It ends up at the small of my back with the handle on my right side and the other blade on my left.

I'm about to pick up my pack when I start to smell something quite good coming from behind me. I whirl around and spot a wooden bowl filled with what looks to be a stew of some sort. It's a little small for my appetite but I've never been one to turn down free food. There's also a wooden cup and spoon next to it so I sit down and start to eat. It's really quite good and, much to my surprise, I find I have to push myself into finishing it as it is quite filling. Whatever is in the cup is interesting too because I feel completely refreshed with the last hints of soreness fading away. I stand and stretch again and sure enough everything seems great. Turning my attention to the bowl again I wonder what I should do with it when my thoughts trail off in amazement. The bowl, cup, and spoon are all gone. Instead there's a small rolled up piece of paper tied with a string sitting next to a little stone figurine. My hands shake as I reach for both. It finally occurs to me that these are not people who've been watching me but rather spirits or something 0of that sort. Apparently they're thankful, and I don't want them to change their minds. I slip the figure into a pouch on the right side of my belt and start to unroll the paper when I freeze up once more. There's a pouch on my belt that seems to be filled with colored stones. I didn't put it there. It's everything I can do to keep from whimpering. If it was some sort of martial arts technique I'd be worried but not scared. Whatever this is though has let these people deliver food and clean up when my back is turned for seconds and somehow unbuckle my belt and slide a pouch into a position that is just barely out of my line of sight. I unroll the paper and arch an eyebrow because it's nothing more than a large elaborate pattern of colored lines. Still it's a gift so I roll it back up again and put it into one of my pack's outer pockets.

I work fast in gathering everything up and getting it onto my back before turning towards the rock I was eating on. Bowing low from the waist I thank whoever has been helping me as politely as I possibly can and once more start heading down stream along the river. I don't reach the clearing again, so I can only guess that they dropped me off on the opposite side of it. Just as well since I don't have any reason to go back. I'm moving a bit faster than normal because I'm just plain freaked out. Mysterious gifts, still hot food, silent and invisible hosts, all located in an unknown forest? Needless to say I want as far away as I can get before I become one of the tragic fairy tales I've read before. I make a big mental note to pray to the kami more often.

Another shock comes to me an hour or two later when the forest ends. I mean I guess I expected it a little bit, but it's still strange. As I traveled the dead trees started to get less and less common but at a much faster rate than when I was headed towards the center of that blighted area. Looking back I try to see if I can spot any of the dead trees, but I can't. I suppress another shudder at the thought that something's been helping my speed along without me noticing. Bowing low once more I start to head down stream, relieved both when the forest recedes normally behind me and when the sensation of being watched goes away.

~~~

It looks like there's the beginnings of a road here. Seems kind of pointless though since there's nothing around on either side of the river but grassland and a few scattered clumps of trees. I look on either side of the road but I can't spot any reason for it. It's pretty faint though so what I'm looking for could have been gone for decades or even longer. Shrugging I start to walk along the road since it pretty much parallels the river. I know I'll eventually have to make a decision about which to follow, but that's in the future and I might get lucky and come across something before then.

I'm almost upon it before I realize because I've pulled my thoughts in close in order to let the miles pass away without having them drag on me too much. It's probably like a lot of the small towns I've seen out in the wilderness areas of the world. This far out it probably doesn't have electricity or running water, but they will have a healer of some sort or at least know where I can get a hold of one. I've been feeling kind of sore, which is to be expected after a fight like the one I had, and past experience has taught me to at least get someone else to check that I'm healing correctly. A couple of times when I was younger I broke bones only to have them need to be rebroken in order to heal properly. It isn't a particularly fun experience and not one I wish to go through again. Though with how quickly I heal I might be in for a lot of pain if they aren't in the correct positions. Since I'm eager to speak to someone again I pick up my pace figuring that I can get to the edge of the town in about ten minutes.

Well I'm here. Not that it's doing me any good. I don't speak the language and it's pretty damned frustrating. For the first time I'm actually pretty glad I was given all this stuff because if I really need to I can just get back on the road and head to the next place. And it looks like that's exactly what I'll be doing too. Everyone I've approached has given up in disgust after a few minutes of trying to puzzle out what I'm asking. It's starting to get late in the day anyway so I start to look around for a place to eat or some place to sleep. If I can't find anything then I'll just head off. Just now it occurs to me that I've been going about this the wrong way. What I should have been doing was trying to get some shopkeepers to understand me. At least then we could have talked with the starting place of hard currency. That usually causes people to try harder to figure out what I'm saying. Or at least it always has in the past. I figure that one of the larger buildings is a hotel or tavern or something. I start to look inside several and find one on the third try.

As is usual for these places the conversations quiet down a little when I step halfway inside so my eyes have a chance to adjust and rise up once more after everyone's gotten a good look at me. Spotting an empty table in one of the corners I head over to it after catching the eye and attention of the innkeeper. With a sigh I take my pack off and set it in the corner. The proprietor comes over and fires off several questions before I can get his attention.

"I know you can't understand but figure out that I can't understand you either."

He pauses and asks what are obviously more questions. I shrug and point to the seat across from me.

I think he gets the idea because he sighs and sits down after yelling something to what looks to be his daughter. I nod and smile glad that for once someone's going to try to help me out. Even if what he shouted to his daughter was probably some curse about stupid foreigners who can't understand a simple language.

I reach into my pack and pull out the pouch of coins and fish out one of each of the four types I find. Something I notice is how his body tensed up slightly when I reached into both my pack and every time I reached into the pouch. This firms my resolve not to make any movements that could be mistaken as threatening. The coins seem to be copper, gold, and two silvery ones, though of these two one is heavier than even the gold. Placing them on the table I push them into a line with the copper on one end and the gold on the other, the two silver ones between. I look up at him and point and raise my hands to my side indicating not knowing. "Is this right?" I make a motion indicating small over the copper and one bigger over the gold.

After a few seconds regarding me his expression lights up and he shakes his head indicating no and moves one of the middle coins, the heavier one, to the other side of the gold. He makes the same larger motion I did over it indicating that it worth more.

That was fairly simple and really helps a lot. I've learned a few things from this. One is the obvious relative scale of worth, and the second is that this man is quick enough to work out what I'm trying to get across if I can relate it somehow. It also means I have more money on me than I though because the coins that are worth the most were given to me by whoever it was that helped me on my way. They gave me quite a lot of them too. From what I can tell from just looking inside the pouch I have just as many of them as I do the rest of the coins put together.

Moving onto something more complex I pick up the copper coin and the one next to it and pretend to weigh them in each hand. "How many of the copper coins equal one of these?" I heft each in turn as I speak. Mostly I'm just speaking because it helps me better put together my own thoughts.

This time he scratches his head for a few minutes and almost absently mimics what I did before he gets it. Pointing at the copper he holds up all ten of his fingers and points at the silver one and holds up one. Working together like this we quickly work out that there are ten copper to one silver, ten silver to one gold, and one hundred gold to one of the other ones. Idly I wonder if I'm anywhere near correct in identifying these metals because I have absolutely no clue what the last one is. It looks like the other one that I think is sliver but it's shinier somehow as well as being heavier.

Looking up at the manager I grin and nod my thanks. He grins back as if this was the most fun he's had in ages. He asks something but this time mimes eating. It's easy to understand as all around the room people are ordering and eating food brought out from the kitchen. I nod and point to the coins that are still on the table. His smile disappears for an instant. This question puts much more trust in him than the earlier ones did. He could tell me anything and I'd believe him and he knows it. He sighs and points to the silver and holds up one finger making a small motion and three making a larger one. I nod and reaching into the pouch pull out three silver coins. I'm kind of curious if they have anything like tea so pantomime pouring and drinking tea while I ask. He seems confused for a minute before nodding tentatively and points at the copper holding up fore fingers. I dig those out and hand them to him as well before sliding the four coins into the small pouch on my belt and put the rest into my pack. It'll probably be good to have one of each easily accessible until I figure out what the hell I'm doing here. Though I doubt I'll be bringing that strange coin out too often. Worth as much as it is I doubt I'll need to use them too often other than to trade in for the smaller coins.

Since it's probably going to be a while until whatever it is that I ordered is ready I dig into my pack for the case holding my scrolls. Pulling out the one I've been making on my art I try to remember which pocket it was that I put my pen in. Several seconds of fumbling later and the scroll is unrolled to the last point I stopped writing at. Quickly I outline the two fights before getting to the things I really want to document. This way I will have a reference to the fight where my techniques originated from as well as the techniques themselves. One of the things I've learned is that the circumstances of learning are almost as important as the learning itself. Maybe my future students won't have to go through as much as I have in order to learn that lesson for themselves if I write down all of my struggles. Still the techniques themselves are important as well.

The first was the way I moved the chi in my arm rapidly from one node to another during each strike. I did it almost instinctively but looking back it was definitely the way to go as that final attack on the skull showed. What's more is that I should be able to vary the power of each individual strike by controlling how much chi continues to the next node. Perhaps with enough practice I'll be able to exchange power for speed and vice versa. I can already do that to an extent but that is for each blow. What I suspect could result from this line of thought is a blow that is both fast, powerful, and able to be used with another identical blow immediately afterwards. Sure each one won't be as amazingly powerful as the ones I used in desperation in both of these battles but I should be able to come up with a decent middle ground.

The next thing to come out of the fight was that chi blast that I pulled off. Sure it was build up incredibly quickly for its power but the chi making up the blast was also collected differently than I usually gathered my energy for such an attack. Instead of having to spend a lot of concentration to contain the ball before firing it off, it seemed to control itself. I can only think that it happened because the chi was coming from all the end tubes on the palm side of my hand instead of just being gathered at the palm itself. Weird but I don't really understand its significance yet. I shrug and write it all down, including that I don't know at the moment. Someday I'll read this and will understand what I don't now. And if I don't then someone who succeeds me will. It's kind of interesting thinking off successors when I've yet to fully create the school in the first place though. As I finish writing this down my food comes.

It looks to be a fairly good spread. A cooked bird of some kind, a loaf of bread, some cheese, and what looks to be a small dessert pie. There's also a kettle of something and a mug. I pour some of it and take a cautious sniff before drinking. Not that I suspect my host of drugging or poisoning me, but it's just gotten to be a habit over time. One that's more than once saved my life in the past year. I wince slightly as the first bit of it hits my tongue, but after another sip it seems better. Like a combination of coffee and chocolate with out the latter's sweetness. The food smells just as good and after looking at other people in the room I just eat with my hands without digging out my chopsticks. As I absentmindedly eat my thoughts go back to the fight once more and my right hand picks my pen up once more while my left continues what it's doing.

While not as spectacular as the chi blast, whatever I used to deflect that one fireball could be one of my most impressive accomplishments to date. Use of one's chi as a physical barrier has always been considered an unattainable goal of master martial artists. Just the amount of power that would be needed to slow something down using chi is enormous, or so I've been told by masters with half a century more experience than I have. To create something that is strong enough to reflect an attack without using a physical aid is incredible. From what I can recall it drew upon the ideals of Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan concerning the redirection of force and energy. What's truly amazing wasn't so much what it was but rather how it was made. Instead of using up tons of energy to make a solid plane of chi to deflect the ball, something that is probably centuries beyond where I am now, I generated a thin line of it between my thumb and ring finger. It in and of itself probably wouldn't have been able to do anything, but once it was moved with the fastest speed my arm could achieve without some sort of special attack the air by the line acted like a mirror to reflect the attack. Not perfectly but enough that my subconscious was able to direct it to where I wanted it to go which was in this case into the second ball of fire. I suspect that this technique will work on physical assaults as well as ... well whatever that thing was. I might have to change just how I perform it but it should work. Of course I need to do a lot of testing on it first to see at just what point it fails before I try it out in a fierce battle. Maybe with swinging metal weights if I can't find a decent sparring partner.

It didn't happen last but I know why I've been putting off thinking about it. I once thought I'd become nothing like my old man but it seems I've broken that promise to myself. Flaring my chi like that after knifing my hand into that thing's chest was a move designed to kill or maim. I can't deny that. There could be on other reason for coupling a knife hand strike with that large of an explosion of chi, let alone the delay between striking and execution. What's more is that I didn't even think about it before acting. This attack is much like the old man's Yama-sen-ken vacuum techniques in that they don't offer a second chance if they hit. Nodding to myself wearily I write down this move adding a note that it is the first forbidden technique of the Flowing Water School. However unlike my old man I won't deny its existence and will actually teach it with the rest of the school when a student has shown that he has mastered himself enough to only use it when necessary. I only wish I could say that I had reached that point. I haven't though which is something I've slowly come to accept and will hopefully change in the upcoming days, weeks, or months. It's after all one of the reasons I left all those idiots back in Japan. Acceptance and change. I snort, I guess it truly is the basis of my school.

Sighing once more I pour another cup of whatever it is not surprised to find that my other dishes have been cleared away. I lean back in the chair slightly and sip my drink. The taste is kind of growing on me. I should probably look into buying a kettle while I'm in town and see if I can get the manager here to tell me how to make whatever this is. I can only imagine how difficult it will be to pantomime my requests. Looking outside though reminds me that there's a more pressing concern now...that of finding a place to sleep. A quick wave gets the manager's attention and after my ridiculous arm waves and hand motions set us both to laughing he manages to indicate that I should pick up my things and follow him up the stairs.

Seems I was right earlier when I guessed this was a tavern or an inn since this room is obviously designed for guests as it has a key for the door as well as a drop bar. There's also a comfortable looking bed, a desk like table, and some shelves. I nod when he looks over at me and tilts his head. Once more I take out the four coins and make my how much gestures. More silly hand motions set us to chuckling before I understand that it's one of the gold for a night but only two of them for three. I think he's going too low for that second one but I shrug. It's nice for a change for people to try and do right by me.

I nod and dig out two of the gold coins and hand them to him. Three days sounds about right for me to pick up some useful phrases with such a helpful host. "Where's the bathroom?" "How much?" "I didn't mean to offend you." "Where can I get hot water?" "I'm sorry but I'm not going to marry your daughter/sister/grandchild/son/brother no matter what the panda said." The last is going to be kind of tough to figure out but it'll probably be more important to learn than asking about the bathroom. Speaking of which I should probably find out where one is. I shtart with I good indication of 'where' when I freeze. How am I supposed to finish my question without making vulgar hand motions in inappropriate places? Nothing comes to mind after a full minute. "Shit!"

My host looks like he's close to tears. I think he's discovered both my question and my dilemma from my exclamation. No doubt he understands the meaning behind it if not the word itself. He waves for me to follow and I do after setting down my stuff and locking the door with the key he provides. We continue along the hallway and down a set of back steps that leads past the kitchen and outside. There we he points to what appears to be an outhouse before we enter a separate building that resembles a small onsen. Knocking first before he shows me the inside I see that it is indeed a small pool that would fit no more than about three people comfortably. I guess I didn't notice this before because the outer fence around the rear yard is so tall. It there are more of these around town it could very will explain why this town is even here. I grin at the thought of being really clean once more and not having to stay female because of it. I nod my thanks to the proprietor and go back to my room for a change of clothes. Snapping my fingers I remember something I was going to do and so dig out another of those weird silvery coins. I lock the room back up and make my way back to the dining area and approach the manager. Taking his hand I curl it around the coin and bow trying to express my gratitude to him even if he can't understand me. When he tries to give it back I just wave him off and give him a clap on the shoulder. He's helped me a lot even if he doesn't realize how much. Besides if I'm correct about that other bulging sack I found when looking for my clothes I think I have several hundred of the things. And if I'm wrong...who cares? I'd probably get cheated out of it by someone less honest than him anyway. But I put it out of my mind because I can almost hear the hot spring calling to me.

~~~

I'm much more cheerful when I stretch out on the bed in my room. For the first time in months I'm able to sleep under a roof and on a real bed. Hell, I haven't even changed into a girl for the last few days. Sure I know it isn't going to last bus aside from the whole not speaking the language and not knowing where I am this is the best my life's been in ages. That thought depresses me for a moment. Imagine considering only two fights with highly powered beings in four months easy. I really need to get a better set of standards.

I push that out of my mind. Now that I'm in civilization again I have different worries than those I had in the wilderness. It's easier to find food, but I have to pay for it somehow. The same applies to shelter and other supplies. Hot water's more common too, but then again so is cold. There are people around to talk to if I don't mind them possibly finding out about the curse, accusing me of things I didn't do, or not understanding me. Pretty much things cancel each other out in my mind but staying a while before deciding what to do, one way or another, will put me in a better position than I started in.

Standing up once more I open up the window of my room to let in some fresh air. The night is warm enough that the cool breeze that comes in feels quite comfortable. I pull that second pouch of money out of my pack and pour its contents onto the desk. Sitting down in the room's chair I push the pile so that it lies not so much in a pile but rather a large spread of stuff. Just as I earlier though it's filled with more of those larger coins. What surprises me is that there are also about a dozen gemstones mixed in with them varying in size and color. Even my eyes, which are by no means trained in appraising gemstones though Nabiki's might have been, can see that these are worth quite a bit more than the coins themselves. I wonder once again if this is some sort of reward for defeating those things in the woods. I mean sure they were tough, but anyone could have done the same. Seems excessive to me even if it wasn't something anyone else could do even. Heck, all I got after defeating Saffron was a barrel of water from the Spring of Drowned Man, not that it did me any good. It's something I can't figure out until I learn the language at least better than I know English so it will probably be a while, meaning not anytime in the near future even if I do have a better incentive to learn it than I did to learn English.

Leaning further back in the chair until the front legs leave the ground and my feet sit on the desk I close my eyes and concentrate on just listening to the sounds of the night coming from the open window. It's as close to meditation as I ever got while training with pops and always relaxed me if I did it long enough without interruption. At first, and as usual, nothing comes to me until the perceived silence is broken by something. This time it's an owl. As if it were a signal other quieter noises fade in from the background. The distant crying of an infant is quickly hushed by its parents. Irritated a man snaps the reins of his cart trying to get the mule pulling it to move faster down the cobblestone street. A faint cry of pain is cut off by the sound of flesh meeting flesh with a meaty thwack.

My mind only truly registers the wrongness of that sound when I'm falling to the ground from my window. As I push off the ground and make another leap atop the next building I can hear the light crash of the chair hitting the floor of my room. I can see the source of the noises as a pair of shadows deep in a truly dark alley across the street. My third jump is aimed for the entrance to the path between the buildings across the street. When I get halfway across I see the glint of a knife being dragged cruelly down the smaller shadow's arm. Even as I arrive the light smell of stagnant water is being covered up by a growing scent of something coming from the wound. Past experience sets my mind to shouting poison of some sort, though different than any I've encountered before. My leg snaps out once, kicking away the knife while my arm strikes the aggressor sending him the length of the alley unconscious and with a broken nose at the very least.

Next I turn to the victim of the attack who to my surprise still seems to be a shadow in the dark alley. I gently reach for the wounded right arm confirming that it is the source of the blood and that other smell assailing my nose. To my puzzlement the area around the wound seems fuzzy as if this, girl it seems from the hair and face, has ... fur. My mind pushes all that aside. I've dealt with stranger things than fur before, winged warriors and fire breathing orochi come to mind, and the amount of blood coming from the wound as well as its placement indicates that whoever it was that did this purposely cut along one of the veins. Very bad and that doesn't take into conclusion what else is going on with the wound.

Instantly I wrap my left hand around the cut, glad that her right forearm is so small. Scooping her up I dash across the street and into the inn door shouting for someone to get a healer. Not caring if they can understand me I place her down on an unused table and use my right hand to try to reduce the blood flowing through the damaged vein by putting pressure closer to her wrist. From the shouted orders from the manager and the fact that a few people dash off I figure out that someone's been sent off for the nearest doctor or midwife. Only now do I have the chance to look up and really look at my patient.

Seeing her clearly in the inn's ample lighting is almost enough to shut my mind down completely. The fact that she's obviously a young child in a lot of pain and bleeding is all that prevents my total mental collapse though it is extremely close. The reason? She has fur. She has black fur. And a tail. And oddly shaped ears. All these things I could handle, but what is slowly eroding my concentration and my sanity is the fact that she's most definitely feline. "CAT!!" My hands haven't even loosened enough to allow a sheet of paper to slip through before my higher brain functions, or which ever ones haven't climbed into my shoes, can kick in enough to reassert the grip that is literally keeping her alive.

I close my eyes. "Girl, not cat. Girl, not cat. Girl, not cat." One of my eyes cracks open slightly before it immediately slams shut again. "This isn't happening. This isn't happening." Through all this something is screaming at my brain and it takes a moment before I realize it's not my fear of being so close to my patient. It's the wound which seems to be making her much weaker than I should be doing. I suddenly remember the smoke. Using my sense I try to take in a feel of her aura. It's very nature almost sends me to the other side of the room, but I push that aside once more. I can't afford to be a gibbering wreck yet. Maybe in an hour from now but not yet. Then I sense it. It's a spreading darkness in her aura originating from the wound. "Damn!" It wasn't a poison as I thought after all but rather something different. The only thing I can think of doing is pushing some of my chi into the wound and hoping for the best.

It's hard because my fear is making it difficult to maintain my calm state enough to make the chi flow down the proper pathways, but eventually I do it. But it can tell it's not enough almost immediately. I should have known that. What I'm doing is the healing equivalent of wrapping someone's entire body up with ten feet of gauze. It helps, but it'd be a lot more helpful if it was concentrated in the right place. Things are the same here. My chi is helping a little bit but it isn't overcoming the whatever it is that is causing her to slide closer to death. And the sliced vein us almost getting further apart. If I could only seal the vein then half my problems and hers would be gone. But that would require focusing my chi through too many tubes which are already too far apart to do any good. In order to get enough tubes to do any good I'd have to use every finger tip tube on my left hand and even then it'd only be four on one side and one on the other. They'd never fit where they needed to go and even if they could the positioning time alone would let her bleed out too much. What I need is a bunch of tubes in one spot.

Understanding comes once I've figured out what I need to solve the problem. It'll hurt so much more than when I tried it before, and with a large portion of my concentration forced into keeping myself from bolting I don't know if I'll even remain conscious. Hell, I don't even know if I'll live through it, but when has that ever stopped me before? I close my eyes once more and start taking deliberately deep and even breaths. Quickly I move my left hand so that my forefinger is running the length of the vein while still holding tightly to her wrist with my right. Taking one more breath I release my right hand and grip the table edge. Pushing all my will power into my left forefinger I flood chi through it instantly creating eight permanent end tubes, four on either side of the cut.

"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!" My head arches back on my neck as the pain hits. I can feel the four inch thick table snap in my hand as the room echoes with the primal scream I let out. I move as fast as I can through the pain in directing my chi to sealing the cut and pushing the darkness aside so whatever natural healing she has can start to fight it. My fear starts to gain control of my mind once more and I beat it back with the pain that still burns in my arm. It's only temporary and I know it. It will gain control of me eventually once the pain dies down to bearable levels. I can barely concentrate on what I'm supposed to be doing and this causes me to work all the faster.

Several things happen all at once in the next few instants. A man bursts through the front door shouting, the kitchen door is broken down by a fiercely angry cat man, and the last of my control slips away even as my work is finished. A wave of dizziness hits me causing me to stagger away from both the girl and the kitchen until I'm huddled in as small a ball as I can get in one of the corners. Shivering I start to rock back and forth staring at the back of the man who barged in the front door and went straight to work on taking care of the girl. The part of my mind that held control for so long is telling me what a good thing I've done, that I saved her, and that I can rest now. The other, more dominant part though continues to rock back and forth and occasionally allows a whimper to escape from tightly clenched lips and teeth. This part just wants things to be better, for the fear to be gone, for someone to say that everything will be okay. That part of my mind is what is causing me to stare at the man's back. It is the part that knows he'll say those things to me. Because Doc Tofuu always makes things better. He'll know what to do.