Magnus

By Nemo Blank

This is a not-for-profit work of parody. All copyrights and tradmarks belong to their respective holders.


Hikaru Gosunkugi stared at the old book and swallowed. This was the find of a lifetime. The magic shimmering and crawling across the pages had immediately drawn his eye.

"My. This is sort of interesting. How much?" Gosunkugi made himself appear to be relaxed, while his heart beat so fast that it seemed about to take off.

The vendor, an elderly Korean man with a pushcart, tried to decide on the value. He had found the book in a dumpster and had been tempted to throw it away again, but something had stopped him.

"Well, I guess about... ten thousand yen?" The old man was unsure. That was a lot of yen for such a beat up old book. Not only had it gotten wet, it was written in some unknown language.

"Ten thousand yen? It's not that interesting. Keep it." Gosunkugi dropped the book back onto the cart, praying for luck. He didn't have that much money. Tanaka and his gang had stolen almost all of his money outside of school that morning. He only had the little bit left that he always kept hidden in his shoes to buy his lunch. Fortunately for Gosunkugi, his time as Nabiki's unwilling stooge had taught him a few things about driving a bargain.

The old man immediately thrust the book back into Gosunkugi's hands. "Wait! For you... one thousand yen?"

"Here!" Gosunkugi dug in his shoe, threw the money toward the old man and triumphantly hugged the ragged tome. He felt it tingling in his arms and grinned, running for home as if hellhounds were on his trail. He had a lot of reading to do.

...

It took Gosunkugi weeks of hard concentration and increasingly desperate attempts to translate the highly colloquial Latin. Finally, late one night as he pored over the first page, he managed to translate the simple cantrip that established his ownership of the book. He recited the spell, his voice booming abnormally, and the text abruptly melted into modern Japanese.

"Son! Is that you?" Genko Gosunkugi opened the door and scowled at his bafflingly weird son. "I have to get up early for work and you have school tomorrow. Studying is well and good, but you need sleep! Go to bed, boy. You'll never get a good company without good marks."

Hikaru closed the book and shoved it up onto the shelf with his schoolbooks. "Yes, Father. I apologize for the noise."

Genko snorted. "Get to sleep." He closed the door.

"I will never be like you." Gosunkugi started in surprise. He hadn't meant to say it aloud, or with such vehemence.

...

Gosunkugi whistled, strolling around the schoolyard, getting some air, looking down at the ground near his feet as usual. He had been studying a lot, a little math and chemistry to keep his grades up and a lot of magic. He was doing a mental exercise to help him learn to feel the presence of manna. When he could reliably detect it, he would be able to manipulate and weave it into what the book called a 'wizard's skin.' He thought that he could sense a tiny glow of the spirit-energy that composed his soul, but it was a distantly guttering flame on the very edge of his perception.

Suddenly, a huge fountain of manna flared nearby, knocking him to his knees. Struggling to his feet, he saw a dripping-wet Ranma-chan by the tree, scowling at a shouting Akane. "Of course! The curse!"

"What about it, Gos-chan?" Suddenly Nabiki was there, confronting him.

"Er- I just forgot for a second that Ranma turned into a girl." It was lame, but what could Nabiki do?

Nabiki narrowed her eyes, then demonstrated exactly why it was wise to fear Nabiki Tendo. "I could show Akane some of those pictures that you took."

"Do as you like." Shuddering, Gosunkugi dumped out his wallet, showing her the empty interior. Wordlessly, he handed her the money, bowed politely and walked away. Maybe she would let him go. If Nabiki did tell Akane, he would simply surrender. He would apologize, explain about his crush and then explain that Nabiki had been blackmailing him and forcing him to take those pictures. He would still get creamed for his temerity, but he was willing to bet that if Akane found out that Nabiki had been selling the photos to Kuno then she would get the hammer too. If Akane used a hammer. In fact, he had never seen or heard of Akane using her hammer on a non-martial artist. Maybe she would just beat him up. Gosunkugi brightened. If she beat him up with her hands, it meant that he would get to touch her!

Falling into his trance again, Gosunkugi felt the residual manna from the curse triggering. Strangely, the tiny supply of manna in his body seemed to resonate with it. Taking a deep breath, he located the lingering manna and plunged into it, gathering the tiny whisps of power that Ranma had given off by walking through it. Laboriously, he used his will to concentrate it. Sweating, he visualized the chart from the book and began to lay down the primary pattern in his abdomen.

...

Nabiki eyed Gosunkugi narrowly, considering how she could pay him back for his insolence. She could of course simply beat him up. Nabiki could easily dominate the small, frail boy physically. Gosunkugi had a bird's boney chest and a thin, weak body without muscle tone or even much fat. She had taken film away from him that way once when he had tried hide it from her. She had thoroughly enjoyed the sensation of physically dominating a male, so much so that she had hesitated to do it again. It had felt good, but had been wrong, upon reflection. She was of course a Tendo and knew her father's school, even though she didn't practice it actively. He was simply too fragile for that sort of rough and tumble and it was a violation of the promise that she had made to her ancestors to use her family school against the helpless.

As he wandered in an aimless-seeming pattern, Gosunkugi began to chant, quietly but harshly, his voice full of deep, strange and unpleasantly inhuman echoes.

When Nabiki caught a glimpse of his eyes, they were glowing a dull red. Swallowing, she joined the rest of the student body in staying out of his way. Perhaps the money had been enough after all.

...

"Man! Gosunkugi really looks weird today."

Nabiki jumped, then scowled at a brightly smiling female Ranma. "He looks weird every day."

"I hope nothin' happens to him." Ranma's voice was hard, under the smile. "Gos has been a good guy for the last few months." No weird magical voodoo spirits or unexplained lightning bolts had come his way for a long time.

"As if. I could care less about your pigeon-chested little boyfriend, Saotome." Nabiki tried to sound uncaring, but her voice cracked with anxiety.

Ranma smirked. "I'm a peaceful guy, Nabiki. But I don't care for bullies. She examined the sky, airily. "In fact, neither does Uchan. Gos is a regular at Uchans, you know. He's even taken a shift there from time to time when Uchan needed the help." Throwing Nabiki a last hard look, Ranma walked away.

Nabiki swallowed. She hadn't known. Ukyo wasn't someone that anyone in their right minds wanted to cross. One easy way to cross her was to harm a friend or customer of hers. Recently, a rough fellow named Tanaka had been found, cringing and whimpering, suspended by the back of his jacket from the top of the school gate. He had been beaten into a pulp, was naked except for the jacket and was wearing a sign around his neck that said 'thief.'

Sighing, Nabiki decided to mail back the money. Postage due, of course.

...

Gosunkugi walked into his room and groaned to himself. He had never taken his prize out of the house because he didn't want anyone taking it from him. That had obviously been a mistake. His mother was in the room, his book in her hand.

"What sort of book is this, my son?" Mitsu Gosunkugi narrowed her eyes at the tall, angular writing. The book had obviously been hand scribed. "It is a rather handsome volume. Is that title Latin?"

"Um, yes." Gosunkugi flushed. He had kept the book hidden for months but his mother's relentless snooping had finally turned it up.

"Imperium Occultus. Not more attempts at magic, I trust." Mitsu frowned at her son. "I thought that you had finally given up all of that silliness. What does it mean?"

Gosunkugi frowned. "The title is To Command the Hidden, in Japanese."

'I see." Mitsu dropped the tome like it had turned into a rotting fish. "How long have you been wasting your time on this? Shouldn't you try to find a nice girl instead? What happened to that cute one that was calling all the time… Nabiki?"

Gos shuddered, his eyes wide with alarm, lest his mother try to 'fix' them up. "Nabiki is… seeing someone else now." She was seeing anyone that didn't see her first and show a clean pair of heels. Usually that poor deluded bastard Tatawaki Kuno.

"Oh, how unfortunate." Mitsu sighed. "You need to get out more, my son."

"Perhaps." Gosunkugi frowned, considering. Maybe she was right. He hadn't thought of Akane in a long time now and he had never even looked twice at any other girl. Not that he had wasted his time. His pathetic stalking of Akane had led him to Ranma, whose curse made Gosunkugi giddy with joy.

Gosunkugi bowed his head, accepting the truth. His infatuation had apparently died unnoticed, a casualty of his quest for magic.

"Magic. Such a terrible waste of time. You should be studying more." Mitsu shook her head, put down the book and went on with her housework. Oh well, maybe he would learn to read Latin. Knowing a dead gaijin language might impress the corporation when the time came for him to join his father's trade as a salaryman.

...

Gosunkugi shook the cracker box and looked inside. The four defaced copper coins had landed heads, heads, heads and tails, so he went west. He was using divination to find an auspicious campsite. Silver coins would have worked better, but he didn't have any that he was willing to deface.

Hiking into a small clearing that was almost completely surrounded by dense thickets of thorn bushes, Gosunkugi rattled the box again. Looking inside, he smiled. Every coin was heads. Clearly, he had arrived.

Dropping his pack, Gosunkugi quickly set up a small tent and then carefully dug out and built a rock-lined fire pit. It was against the law to start a campfire in the few wild lands of Japan, punishable by a heavy fine, but he needed one for his ritual. He was planning on consecrating his new athame, an elegant hand-made silver and rosewood dagger that he had purchased by mail order from an occult supply house in America. He needed the smoke from a natural wood fire to ritually cleanse the blade.

...

Dumping the last armload of branches that he had collected, Gosunkugi stripped off all of his clothes, cached them in his distant tent and then donned a small loincloth. It was machine made, but he had died it in ocher, painted it in a swirling pattern and steeped it in rosemary and sage, hoping to disguise the spiritual signature of so many straight lines of thread. Bracing himself, he dumped a small amount of water over his head in a ritual bath. He hoped that the plastic container wouldn't cause a problem. Plastic seemed to have little or no spiritual signature.

After smearing blood-red ocher all over his body, Gosunkugi got out his lumps of homemade mineral paint, wetted them and then painted his face and torso in an eye-popping series of whorls and stripes tailored to his personal aura. The camouflage paint was designed to break up and hide the human lines of his aura and to mask the energy profile of his body from the senses of spiritual creatures. He looked like a psychedelic nightmare come to life.

Hoping that no one would see him, Gosunkugi laid out the kindling for a small fire. He couldn't use matches or anything else that had been made with iron machinery so he had learned to start one from scratch.

Consulting the book again, Gosunkugi took an ash-wood stick and carefully scratched out a pentagram all the way around his camp, chanting all the time. It would serve to confuse, deflect and blind the malignant spirits, while the naturals wouldn't even see it.

After checking his work, he sat in front of his fire pit and strung a small, weak bow with a string that he had woven out of his own hair. Twisting the bow string around a thin, straight stick that he had trimmed and sharpened on one end with a piece of jagged flint, he placed the end of his improvised drill onto a piece of dry wood.

Bracing the free end of the stick with a palm-sized bit of green, slimy bark, Gosunkugi pulled the bow toward him. The branch spun on its point, rapidly propelled by the cord wrapped around it. Smiling, he pushed the bow away, watching the branch spin the other way. Placing some dry moss at the point of his improvised drill, he began to push and pull. He needed to get his fire started before dark.

Soon the high friction had a small plume of smoke rising from the point of his wooden fire drill. Blowing carefully. Gosunkugi was rewarded with a tiny lick of flame as the dry moss finally caught fire. Feeding the fire with carefully selected branches of oak, ash and yew, as well as various aromatic herbs, Gosunkugi began to chant. Dancing widdershins around his fire, he began invoking various common wood sprites, seeking to lure them in to his trap. This was the first and oldest magic, according to the book.

In magic as in life, nothing was free. Gosunkugi couldn't store, direct or channel manna until he actually had some personal manna to work with. The residual manna that he had collected from Ranma's curse had very quickly drained away, as his natural storage capacity had been virtually nothing.

Fortunately, Ranma's curse triggered so often that he had been able to make use of it. The book spoke of apprentices being 'empowered' by a master sorcerer, usually with many strings attached. The stored manna was used to 'jump start' the laborious process of forging the spirit channels needed to attract, store and control natural magic. It was called the Wizard's Skin, and its age and complexity determined just how powerful a magic user could become. Gosunkugi had simply used an unwitting Ranma for his 'jump start,' but the curse energy was too pure. If Gosunkugi simply followed Ranma around and allowed his Wizard's Skin to evolve into a perfect collector of such energies, it would limit his power dramatically.

The book, assuming that he had a master, cautioned him to follow the traditional path and not draw solely on refined manna. Gosunkugi had to learn how to teach his magical batteries to collect the natural manna around him. Manna was attracted to manna. Once he had collected enough, manna would seek him out. To get his tiny boost of start-up power, he would have to steal the minute amounts of power of whatever small, common spiritual entities that he could entice into his presence. It wasn't as hard as it sounded. Few of them had anything approaching even an insect's intelligence. It was like fishing. He simply hung out a lure and waited for a nature spirit to bite so that he could temporarily siphon off some of its power.

Holding his athame over the fire, he bathed it in the sweet smoke, ritually purifying it of all outside influence and contamination. Chanting, he concentrated on pushing his own spiritual energy into it. In spite of the coolness, sweat rolled down his body as the night wore on, smearing the ochre.

After several hours of chanting and dancing, he felt a flutter as a spirit entered his trap. With a glad cry, he stripped it of its stored manna, letting it flow into the athame. The blunt edged silver dagger grew slightly more lustrous in the firelight, but was otherwise unchanged.

With great care, he opened himself to his athame and let the filtered power trickle into the dormant network of spells, the virtually undetectable Wizard's Skin that he had spent the last several months laboriously weaving through his body.

The bare tracery of magic firmed into reality and grew stronger with the power that he fed it. Someday, the skin would grow powerful enough to render the athame unnecessary. He would become a magical generator of sorts, producing and storing huge quantities of manna. The book said that it took decades to gain the power. With all diligence, he would probably be in his eighties before he finally gathered enough to truly enable the skin.

Gosunkugi smiled as he felt the change. There was power infused in him now. Not much, but enough to attract more. He would be luckier, more attractive and generally better off now. Happily he fed the fire, released the drained spirit and began his chant again.

...

Shampoo crept through the brush, careful to avoid the many thorns. As tiny as this crowded little Japanese island was, she had been unsurprised to smell smoke from a nearby fire. Shampoo never went to sleep without finding out what was lurking nearby, so she had abandoned her own camp and come searching in the dusk for her unwanted neighbor. She was supposed to be looking for rare herbs and contemplating her next level of training, but what she had really been doing all day was plotting various scenarios to nonviolently eliminate the brutish Akane as a rival so that she could finally get her hands on Ranma.

A distant, monotonous sound finally resolved itself into a harsh, booming hollow chant, gratingly unpleasant to her ear. It pulled at her in a curious way.

Creeping noiselessly to a hiding place at the edge of the firelight, Shampoo had to suppress a sudden gasp of laughter. It was just Crazy Voodoo Boy from Ranma's school, and he was really going all out this time, leaping dancing and whirling his pathetically skinny body around the fire while chanting like a true madman.

Blushing, she put her hand over her open mouth to hold in her laughter. His loincloth had come up on one of the whirls and he was startlingly well endowed for such a weak and puny boy, although it might just be his extreme thinness.

Something pressed against her palm and her eyes popped wide open with sheer panic. Lurching involuntarily to her feet, Shampoo tried to scream, but something was crawling and wriggling its way out of her mouth!

...

Gosunkugi was expelling the latest captured spirit when the athame in his hand suddenly jerked him around to the east. He spoke a warding phrase and the crudely scratched out pentagram flared a pale violet, signifying that there was something big and nasty coming his way.

He suddenly noticed Shampoo, apparently strangling, and almost stepped out of the circle to help. Then the glowing yellow cat shot out of her mouth and made a beeline for him.

Gosunkugi shrieked as the glowing cat hit his ward, recoiled, and then circled around it, impossibly fast. He shouted at Shampoo to run, but she ignored him, staring at the cat with gigantic eyes.

Snatching up a handful of hot ash from the fire, he threw it at the thing, shouting a phrase of negation as it clawed and then penetrated his inadequate ward.

The curse hit the floating yew ash and stopped, blinded and confused.

Gosunkugi, panicking, slashed at it with his athame, automatically reaching out in the way that allowed him to drain the tiny nature spirits of their excess power.

The dull silver knife glowed like a star and the curse writhed and broke, the warp of its magical structure disrupted. Its power flooded through the athame and into Gosunkugi's prepared and spiritually receptive body, causing him to glow brightly as the power was channeled through the gossamer weak spell structures that he had invoked earlier.

Gosunkugi stood, heaving, the raging surge of manna flowing through his Wizard's Skin like nothing that he had ever felt before. He threw back his head and began to laugh, a harsh sound that echoed back from the surrounding forest.

He had learned a lot about magic from his glimpse of the curse. It appeared to be some sort of weave, all one piece, twisted into reality. The book had talked about that, but he hadn't understood.

Gosunkugi felt his hair raise as he looked at the athame, his eyes now seeing by a different light. A small, bedraggled looking cat was impaled there, meowing piteously. Obviously the death magic was gone, but the soul that had been trapped in its weaves remained. He was way out of his league, but there was no one else around who could do anything about it.

Shampoo fainted as Gosunkugi hoarsely pronounced a word of command, releasing the poor feline.

The ghostly cat paused to strop around his ankles for a while and then faded into the place where such things went.

...

Gosunkugi sat by his fire in his normal clothes, invoking small spurts of power and grinning excitedly. He had slid Shampoo into his sleeping bag and inside the tent when it had become apparent that she wasn't going to snap out of it soon. The healing spell that he had tried from his book had backfired somehow, just putting her into a much deeper sleep.

It had also drained almost all of his new power, but he had been delighted to discover that it had replenished itself. The magic of the Jusenkyo curse had energized the wizard's skin and had given him an enormous head start.

It started to sprinkle, and he quickly put his book away before entering the tent. He still had a lot to learn. The book was magical in nature itself, appearing in Japanese to his eyes, but to others appearing to be a foreign language that they couldn't understand. It said in the forward that it was indestructible by mundane forces, but he wouldn't ever risk it getting wet.

Narrowing his eyes, he waved his athame over the book and chanted a spell. That would make the book uninteresting and easy to overlook. He had no illusions about what the Amazons would do to get it away from him if they ever found out about it. Not that they could ever use it if they did, but that wouldn't bring him back. The book would only come to someone who was ready for it, but he didn't think that would dissuade the Amazons from gambling. He had learned all about them while humiliating himself as Nabiki's stooge and they truly frightened him.

Cautiously pushing Shampoo's unconscious form to one side, he got out his extra blanket and rolled it around himself, facing away from her, not daring to take off his boots. Shampoo's beautifully kissable face and perfect body made for a real temptation, but Gosunkugi knew better.

...

Shampoo stretched and smiled. She felt really, really good, ready to take on the day. Great, Great Grandmother would arrive soon and teach her how to throw a ki blast of her own, something that Shampoo had always wanted-

"What is this?" She frowned. This wasn't her small green pup tent. This tent was large, round and blue. The rain drumming on the fabric was soothing, but not soothing enough. There was a male curled up next to her. She gasped as she realized that she had been hugging him.

Looking at the blanket rolled lump beside her, Shampoo blushed scarlet and then peeked into the sleeping bag. Feeling a surge of relief, she saw that she still had all of her clothing on. Then she pulled the blanket away from her host's face, desperately hoping to see Ranma. Recoiling at the painted face, she saw who it was and laughed, softly. It was none other than Skinny Voodoo Boy, the weakest male on the planet. Well, whatever had happened, he was certainly no threat.

"How I get here? Wake up, Skinny Voodoo Boy!" She remembered nothing of the previous night, so she vigorously shook and pinched him awake.

Gosunkugi woke with a start and gaped, not ready to confront a dazzling beauty like Shampoo's without some preparation. "No! Wha? Uh... Oh, wow." He swallowed. "Good morning, Xaa... Xsh.. Xshampoo."

Shampoo smiled. She still had it, in spades. She propped herself up on her elbow and raised her eyebrows. "Good morning, stranger-male. Why I here?"

Gosunkugi blushed a startling, near-terminal red and then shrugged. "You fainted at the edge of my camp last night. It started to rain so I put you in here."

Shampoo thought hard and vaguely remembered sneaking up on a camp. She cocked her head cutely, widening her smile. "Shampoo thanks..." She gestured helplessly. She couldn't call the only native of this godforsaken country that had ever bothered to at least try and properly pronounce her name, 'Skinny Voodoo Boy.'

"Gosunkugi." Gosunkugi smiled nervously, scooting as far back as he could. He wished that he had thought things out better last night. He had no illusions about his capability, or hers. Any Amazon was dangerous and Shampoo was an Amazon Champion. She could destroy him in seconds, magic or not, if she decided that he had gotten fresh. A night out in the cold rain was better than eternity in a cold shallow grave.

Shampoo was careful with her speech, not wanting to be misunderstood. He was truly weak, and his poorly hidden fear shamed her. "No need is to be afraid. Shampoo no barbarian, to harm giver of shelter. Shampoo is having much gratitude." She frowned. "What is given name, please?"

He shrugged again. "Hikaru, but nobody ever uses it. Everybody just calls me Gosunkugi, or Gos." His mother called him 'Hiki-chan' and his father usually called him 'Shit for Brains.'

"I use it then, okay, Hikaru-san?" Shampoo smiled brightly. She was truly grateful for not waking up despoiled. She would have tracked him down and killed him over a period of days, but it wouldn't have helped. An Amazon bride that was intact could bind her man with unbreakable chains of chi-bonding on the wedding night, so long as both were virgins. Ranma would be irrevocably hers, after that, even if he hated her. All she had to do to win utterly was to lure him willingly into her bed.

"Um, fine." He blushed his startling red and then looked away. "Can I get you some breakfast, Shampoo? I have some bread and a can of soup- no... um, sorry, it looks like... er, Alphabetti Spaghetti?"

Shampoo politely hid her grimace of disgust. Males were so stupid. They would eat anything if someone told them that it was food. She fixed him with a bright smile. "Come along to Shampoo's camp, Hikuru! Shampoo fix too, too delicious breakfast to repay kindness!" Her smile went away and her voice turned plaintive. "Oh, but it rains, and not go outside because of miserable curse..." She hated being wet in her cat form.

It was early and Gosunkugi just didn't think before he spoke. "I don't think that it could possibly still be active." He peered at her with his second sight and shook his head. There was no telltale black band in her aura. "No, it's gone, Shampoo."

He sometimes forgot that not everyone could see magic.

Shampoo blinked, wondering if his strange, off-putting eyes had really flared indigo for a moment. "What? Hikaru really know magic?" Shampoo suddenly had a flash of memory, Hikaru slashing a glowing cat-thing apart with a big knife.

Biting her lip, Shampoo launched herself out into the rain.

"Ayaaa! It true!" Staring unbelievingly at her cold, wet and totally human form, she began to dance a wild dance of joy. Sweeping past Hikaru, she snatched him out of the tent and his boots, dancing and whirling him around in the rain, thoroughly soaking him and making him too dizzy to stand up on his own.

...

Gosunkugi quickly struck the tent. He was soaked, shocked and utterly horrified at Shampoo's inhuman ki-strength. She had handled him like a kabuki doll, dancing him around the treetops. Packing everything away, he glanced in the direction that Shampoo had taken to go relieve herself, then quickly slipped away. He had no desire to explain himself to Cologne or to any other Amazon, today or ever.

As he walked away, he heard Shampoo searching and calling plaintively for him, but nobody on earth could hide like Gosunkugi. Even Ryoga, who could vanish from a locked room, was at least noticeable when he was present. No one noticed Gosunkugi unless he let them. Ever since he could remember he could simply not be seen if he wanted to disappear.

Shampoo finally shrugged and gave up. The magic-boy had disappeared so well that not even an experienced Amazon tracker could find him. He must have had his reasons. Who knew with a mage? She finally returned to her camp and made breakfast for two, just in case he turned up again.

...

"Xiam-pu! Your curse... What has happened here?" Cologne bounced up on her staff, the umbrella she carried causing her to float forward and downward whenever she jumped.

Shampoo smiled widely, soaked and almost nude, pirouetting gracefully for the elder, glorying in the wonderful feel of the cool rain. "Great Grandmother! I was cured of my Jusenkyo curse by a young mage that I met in the forest last night!" She forgot herself and spoke Mandarin, but the normally inflexible Cologne overlooked it.

"A young mage?" Cologne almost fell off of her stick in surprise. The last true mage that she was aware of had willed himself to death in 1892. He had been absolutely terrifying, thousands of years old, powerful beyond belief and scarcely human in outlook.

"He called Hikaru Gosunkugi, Great Grandmother! I tell you about him before. He funny skinny Voodoo Boy with candles on hat, work for Mercenary Girl until give up on chasing Pervert Kitchen Destroyer Girl." Shampoo had reverted to her broken Japanese and was nearly incoherent with excitement.

"Interesting. How exactly did he do it?" Cologne made herself comfortable, using her ki to shield herself from the wind, and carefully listened to Shampoo's story. She had some thinking to do.

...

Gosunkugi sulked in his room, fresh from the shower, wondering once again why the gods had countenanced the creation of such a hopelessly ridiculous person. He had ridden the train all the way back to Nerima, lost in the memories of Shampoo hugging him to herself and swinging him effortlessly around the tops of the trees, never once paying attention to the smirks and stares of his fellow passengers. Then he had walked into his house and run right into his father, who had promptly freaked out. Gosunkugi had completely forgotten about the paint on his face and now his father seemed to be more convinced than ever that his disappointment of a son was flamingly gay.

Magic, the goal that he had been seeking all his life had been won, but he was still the same idiot. Why had he ever thought that power could change his basic nature?

Depressed, Gosunkugi took out his book, looked up curses and soon lost himself in its pages. He had to learn what had happened. That had been the tortured soul of a real cat that he had freed, somehow trapped within the weave of the curse that had afflicted Shampoo. Ranma turned into a girl. Could the poor drowned girl's immortal soul be trapped, suffering for eternity in a maze of magic? It was just too horrible a fate to contemplate.

...

"How! Tell me how, Xiampu!" Mousse, wearing his glasses for once, grabbed at her arm. She had been splashed in front of him that morning and he knew.

"Let go, stupid blind-boy!" She threw him into a wall of the Nekohantin, but not hard enough to damage it. She was somewhat sympathetic.

Mousse groaned from the floor. "Please, oh please, Shampoo, to be rid of this terrible curse..."

Shampoo gave an exasperated bounce. "Okay, Mousse, I tell you. I meet wizard in forest. He cure."

"WHERE IS HE?" Ryoga, covered with frost, had appeared out of the broom closet again and heard all. "TELL ME!"

Shampoo groaned. Royga was almost frothing at the mouth and that was one fight she did NOT want to lose. Admittedly Ryoga could effortlessly crush any Amazon of his generation, probably all of them at once, but he was still a distant second best to Ranma. And his nonexistent sense of direction seemed to be genetic. Husband material he was not.

Shampoo thought fast. "I not know where he go. His name Hikaru. Ranma know him."

"Ranma!" Ryoga snarled. "First he curses me and then he keeps the cure to himself! I'll beat it out of him!" Ryoga's massive battle aura flared indigo and heat began to pour off of him. RAAAANMAAAAAAAA! PREPARE TO DIE!" Ryoga whirled and ran in a totally random direction, into the back of the Nekohantin and right through the triple reinforced concrete wall.

Mousse leapt to his feet and ran after him. "Ryoga, wait! We must work together for a cure and to destroy the evil that is Saotome once and for all!"

"Hmm. I always thought that we needed a door there." Cologne hopped over to the holed wall and cackled at the sight of the twisted rebar. It was a good thing that she was so adept at screwing insurance companies. It was a highly enjoyable hobby.

Turning from the damage, the old woman hopped over to the telephone to call in the claim. "That was good thinking, girl, but what happens when Ranma finally goes after the young mage?"

Shampoo smiled brightly. "First too, too crazy fight between Mousse, Lost Boy, whatever cursed persons they meet on way to Tendos, stupid Panda Man and Airen. Airen beat all, then everybody heal all night. Shampoo leave now, find Hikaru first, and warn. Surely powerful mage can handle even Airen, if prepared." She hoped that he might even be persuaded to cure her Airen, or at least to spare his life when Ranma inevitably insulted him.

"He's probably not very powerful at all." Cologne knew a little bit about magic. Enough to know that she could never traffic in it like a true mage. The Amazons had been collecting lore for thousands of years, but amulets and other magical items prepared by the impossibly rare true-mages were still their only means of welding significant amounts of arcane power. It was more than a matter of simple genetics, because every known mage for the last five thousand years had been persuaded to produce large numbers of Amazon offspring and not one of them had ever had the spark.

"But he cure me!" Shampoo bounced and dipped her hand in a fingerbowl to emphasize the point.

"What happened to you sounds like an accident to me, Granddaughter. Such a young man would have had little time yet to gain power. What you described him doing sounded like a shaman's sprit-trap. We know little of the mechanics of the process, but the lore states that true mages do it to awaken their power." Cologne was currently pondering genetics. Perhaps the descendents of two true mages, crossed with this new line...

"It truly awake now! Shampoo go find. Hikaru very, very delicate boy. Need much protection. If Stupid Lost Boy find first he maybe shake, kill by accident."

"Do that. Protect the mageling. Consider it the order of the Council. How will you find him?" Cologne was still undecided on her course, so she stayed neutral, just gathering information.

"Shampoo deliver ramen to house before." Shampoo knew a lot of people from her delivery job.

...

Shampoo leapt up a wall, grabbed a sill and peered into a second story window. Hikaru was inside, so she started to burst through. The way his body seemed to light up from the inside froze her in place though. Gaping, she saw his body come completely apart, scattering into a thin red haze of airborne droplets. As she took a breath to scream, it began reassembling itself, layer by layer, bones, muscles, arteries, skin, clothes and all, into a very frightened looking Hikaru.

"Ayah!" Shampoo slammed the window open and hopped into the room. "What you do, Hikaru? It look very painful."

Gosunkugi swallowed. "You have no idea. I was just trying to find out why the healing spell that I cast on you didn't work." He spoke calmly, but he was shaking violently.

"Healing spell? Ah! That where old scars go!" Shampoo had been pleased to note that all of her training scars had disappeared. Her skin had a glowing golden tone to it that she hadn't seen since her preadolescent days.

Gosunkugi keeled over, pale and gasping with fright. "I wish that you had told me that before I started experimenting. I think that I just healed every cell of my body individually."

Because of his new power level, he had performed the ritual of higher initiation that would give him a complete copy of the Wizard's Skin for each cell. Throwing in the healing cantrip had been an inspired bit of experimentation. Hopefully, he wouldn't die of it.

"Was going to tell, but you leave. Why you leave without breakfast? Shampoo very, very good cook!" Shampoo hopped gracefully onto his bed, flipped him onto his stomach, pulled off his shirt, straddled him and solicitously began massaging his back, using pressure points to ease his trembling.

Gosunkugi couldn't speak for several minutes. "I had to think." He was in a state of near bliss. The pain had quickly left him, but no one had touched him for years and never anyone like Shampoo.

Shampoo spoke, her mouth close to his ear, enjoying the way that he flinched. She loved teasing men, but hadn't done it much since the incident with Mousse. "You very, very weak boy, Hikaru. Muscles not developed. Why never train, get body strong?" Even an Amazon child would likely best him if the skinny mage didn't use his magic to defend himself.

Hikaru sighed, his eyes closed in bliss. "All of you martial artists had help. Ranma had the Panda. You had your great-grandmother. Ryoga had Ranma, his own father and whoever else he could find. Even Akane had her father and Kuno. All that I've got I had to find on my own. No one ever taught me anything."

"Your family not magical peoples then?" Shampoo knew he had both parents living because she had seen them through the downstairs windows.

"My family? No." Gosunkugi shuddered with pleasure as she kneaded his spine. "My father is a salryman and my mother does housework. They're so ordinary that it makes me want to scream, sometimes."

"Ah. You no ordinary boy though. You very powerful mage, Hikaru." Shampoo was concentrating on her work, trying to make him relax. She was deeply grateful to him and intended to make sure that he survived. Being male, he wasn't truly competent to make his own decisions, so she needed an edge. He wasn't even aware of the 'Babble Point' combination of pressure points that she was hitting. As an Amazon woman, Shampoo was trained from birth in subtle control techniques for males. Great Grandmother would certainly marry Gosunkugi off to an Amazon, so she felt no compunction about manipulating him.

"Powerful? Maybe, someday. I don't really care about being powerful anymore." Gosunkugi groaned with pleasure as she hit several shiatsu points and incidentally realigned his back.

"Why?" Shampoo enjoyed the way that her hot breath on his neck made him shudder.

"Power is only good for revenge, to get what you want or if you want to protect someone. I don't have anyone to protect, I don't want anything and there's just no one left to blame it all on."

"You different, alright." Shampoo tried to imagine what that would be like and failed.

"I guess that I've always been a little different, somehow. No one understands me. My dad thinks I'm gay, but I'm not. I am a virgin, though. Sometimes I get so horny. It was really, really hard to keep my hands off of you when you were unconscious, but it just wouldn't have been, you know, honorable. God, Ranma's so stupid. To stay with a violent girl like Akane when he could have you or Ukyo. Can't really blame him though. I'm afraid of Cologne too..." Gosunkugi was drifting, unaware that he was speaking his thoughts.

Shampoo was impressed with his intelligence. Only a complete fool or a madman wasn't afraid of Cologne. She totally agreed with him about the thug Akane, too. "So true."

"Not that you would ever go out with me. I weigh less than a hundred pounds soaking wet and would lose a fight with most middle school kids. Girls like you go for idiot jocks like Ranma every time." He sighed. "Who am I kidding? Ranma's not an idiot, he's a prodigy. I kind of feel sorry for him, cursed like that. I sure hope that I can help that poor girl... I need to figure out how to get you out of the room, so that I can disappear. Maybe a few more minutes. Oh, Man, but that feels so good. No one has touched me at all in five... no, six years, except to beat me up and steal my money. That asshole Tanaka. He's going to get a donkey's head if he's not careful. I should go stay with aunt Hoshi over in Osaka for a while."

"Feel better now?" Shampoo was working on his arms, careful not to hurt him. They felt like thin dry twigs in her hands. At least the dark rings that had always been under his eyes were gone.

"Much. I'm so grateful. You are really accomplished. Damn, but you are one amazing woman. What a lucky man it will be that gets you. I wish that it could be me. I wouldn't last a second if I got involved in one of those stupid fights that Ranma always has though. Maybe if I used magic to defend myself? No, that wouldn't be right. I need to learn control first. I might destroy someone, probably me."

Gosunkugi sighed, feeling very relaxed. Shampoo was clearly an expert in shiatsu massage.

"Aww, that so nice." Shampoo finished pressing a series of points that would render him susceptible to suggestion from her. It was called the slave point when used on a woman and the marriage point when used on a man and was the basis for Amazon civilization, but that was not what she intended. She just needed his willing cooperation for a time, so she didn't make it permanent. She was very careful. It had been a botched attempt to do this when she was nine that had resulted in Mousse's obsession with her. She had been catching random boys to practice on and he had been too blind to see her coming and flee with the rest. Now Mousse was her clan's responsibility until it wore off and he remembered just how much he had always disliked her. That was the sole reason that Cologne tolerated Mousse's presence. He was a mobile object lesson and a daily reminder for Shampoo.

"We go see Great-Great Grandmother, now, okay? She know how to keep Airen and Mousse from attacking. Maybe even know how to control Lost-Boy."

"Okay." Hikaru lay and then frowned. "What am I saying? I want to stay as far away from Cologne as possible. They can't find me if I don't let them, ki or not. I'll miss Shampoo, though." He swallowed. "My God, did I just say all that out loud? What in the hell is wrong with me?"

Shampoo frowned and then noted the changing colors on the skin of his back. He was throwing off the pressure points very quickly. Cologne had told her that a wizard's body was different from one inhabited only by mundane ki, and that no true mage could be controlled for more than a few minutes via pressure point. It seemed to be true. Something was rapidly reversing the ki blockages that she had installed, returning Gosunkugi to his normal state. Well, there were other types of control and Shampoo knew how to use them as well.

"Please to come, for me?" She flipped him over and smiled her best smile down at him while subtly reversing the Babble Point. He had great power, but so did she.

Poor Hikaru stammered and almost fainted as his will to resist drained away.

...

"Nihao, mother and father of Hikaru! Shampoo pleased to date with handsome son!" Shampoo raced past the shocked parents and out of the front door, Hikaru held firmly in her arms. She would have gone out of the window, but she felt sorry for him. This should help to convince them that he wasn't gay.

Springing powerfully to the rooftops, she never noticed him faint.

...

Ranma staggered to his feet, spat a gob of blood and surveyed the carnage in the junkyard. That monster Ryoga was finally all the way out, his head firmly embedded in a rusty steel I beam. An unconscious Mousse was wrapped in his own chains, dangling precariously from an electromagnetic crane over a pile of crushed cars. Genma was snoring next to the bent and slashed-up remnants of a railroad engine, similarly out cold.

Pulling his frazzled mind together, Ranma remembered what the maniacs had been screaming when they had torn him out of the furo and tried to kill him.

Gosunkugi had the cure! He had cured Shampoo! Staggering slightly, Ranma went to find Gosunkugi. Vaguely, he wondered why they had thought that he knew where Gosunkugi lived and why none of them had bothered to just look Gosunkugi's address up in the phone book.

...

"Humph. He's fainted." Cologne poked at the unconscious boy with her staff and frowned. "He is certainly a skinny one. I do believe that I've seen nine year old girls with bigger biceps."

Shampoo pouted. "He is very nice boy though. Honorable. But so, so weak."

"Honorable? That's very good, considering what he is. A mage is constrained by nothing more than his own honor." Cologne broke an ammonia ampoule under his nose. "Rise and shine, young mage. We need to talk."

Gosunkugi gasped and awakened. "Where... oh. Damn."

"Hi Hikaru! I go cook you too, too delicious thank-you dinner!" Shampoo hit him with her best smile and then bounced away into the kitchen, feeling a little sorry for him. Now that Cologne had him, his life would never be his own again.

"Oh indeed, young man. First, I must thank you for ridding my Great, Great Granddaughter of her curse. She bore it well, but it was still a terrible burden." Cologne was truly happy about it. She had been forced to punish Shampoo, but now the girl was free of the onus.

"It was kind of an accident, but you are welcome, I guess." Gosunkugi stood, swaying dizzily.

"I had deduced as much. Are you feeling all right, sonny?" Cologne noted his flushed face and bodily weakness.

"I think that two rituals of initiation that close together was just one to many." Gosunkugi was feeling very strange, as if he were fizzing just under the skin.

"Two initiations?" Cologne was puzzled. What could he mean?

"Well, I gained a lot of power from Shampoo's curse, but I burned most of it up trying to do too much too fast." Gosunkugi blushed with embarrassment. "I was stupid. I wanted to get to the higher initiation before the curse-manna drained away, so I performed the ritual. She came to visit me at home just after I completed the final weaving."

"Wasn't it a bit soon for that?" Cologne was fascinated by this glimpse of the basic nature of magic. Could this be what the tribe was missing? She didn't know, but she was a highly skilled interrogator.

...

Ranma skidded to a halt and checked the address against the scrawled note in his hand. Dodging raindrops was fine training. This was the place. He scowled and cursed foully as a passing car threw up a spray and triggered his affliction. It always seemed to hit him when he was about to meet someone.

Brightening, she lunged forward to hammer at the Gosunkugi door. Maybe she would finally be free of the curse if Gos didn't decide to just turn her into a toad or something. It hardly mattered to Ranma. Any chance at a cure was worth the risk.

...

Genko Gosunkugi was polishing off the last of his sake and counting his blessings. He could finally throw away those self-help books. His bafflingly weird son wasn't gay after all. To the contrary, his son had apparently landed a beautiful foreign athlete. Not that Genko approved of foreigners, especially Chinese, but he had gotten a good look at Shampoo and was quite understanding. No heterosexual male under the age of seventy could ever bring himself to disapprove of Shampoo.

There was a sudden loud banging at the door and Genko stumbled to his feet. Could it be Mitsu, already returned with more sake? He navigated to the door and pulled it open.

"Hi! Is um..." Ranma-chan suddenly realized that she didn't know Gosunkugi's given name, and smiled her usual brilliant smile to cover her embarrassment. "Is your son home?"

Genko swallowed and managed to stop staring at the curvy, wildly exotic redhead's huge breasts. "N- No, he went out with some purple haired gaijin girl an hour ago."

Completely unaware, Ranma-chan pouted so cutely that the window glass almost cracked. "That sounds like Shampoo! Why, that two-timer!" It amused her that the Amazon bombshell was being 'unfaithful' to her 'Airen.' "Well, so-long!"

Genko watched her bound away, grinning. "What a ladies man! Why, the boy's just a chip off the ol' block!" Not that 'the ol' block' had ever had a women like that chasing him. Maybe there was something to his son's magical nonsense after all.

...

Shampoo bounced into the Nekohantin's private dining room and halted, shocked. "Hikaru! Why he glowing, Great Grandmother?"

"I believe that he may be having some sort of adverse reaction to the onset of his magic." Cologne looked at the trembling boy with concern. A mage was an incredibly useful person to know and it looked like this one might die without ever coming into the fullness of his power. That would be truly unfortunate for the world, as she knew of several supernatural or magical catastrophes that were hanging fire. The boy was needed.

"But... why?" Shampoo looked puzzled. "Is mage! Should be strong enough to be mage!"

"He has made a mistake and his body is too weak to bear it." Cologne chided herself for not investigating Shampoo's story of a 'Voodoo Boy.' Amazon's always investigated magic and rumors of magic. If the boy died, she would have to go before the council and admit to failure. They would not be lenient.

"What can we do?" Shampoo was immediately practical.

Cologne sighed. "We'll put him to bed. Other than that, there's just not much that I can think of."

"B- Book." Gosunkugi could barely get it out. "N- Need to look in my magic book."

"What book?" Cologne felt her hackles rise. There were some truly evil books floating around. There were books that would strip out and devour a human soul in seconds. Most were under control, but a few always managed to escape.

"Imperium Occultus." Gosunkugi sat up, with great effort. "My... book of magic. It's under my bed. Need my athame, too."

"What athame?" Shampoo had never heard of one.

"It's a silver knife. In my room." He winced as a particularly harsh pain struck. "Please don't touch it with your hand."

"Oh! I remember curse-slasher!" Shampoo wondered where she could get one.

Imperium Occultus? Cologne had never heard of it. "Help me get him into bed and then fetch them, Xaimpu. Don't touch either with your bare hand and whatever you do, don't open the book." Cologne tried a ki-probe, but it was instantly wrenched apart by the manna in his body. "It is getting worse."

...

Ranma cautiously opened the door to the Cat Cafe. The closed sign was out, but the Amazons didn't believe in locks. A lock was an insult to the community at large, equivalent to an announcement of general distrust. Only outsiders were to be feared and no outsider was supposed to approach Amazon territory without the resident Amazon guardian being aware. Happosai was the only burglar to ever successfully rob the Amazons, but then the filthy old bandit had always stolen anything that took his fancy from anyone, including emperors, demons and gods.

The lights were off, and the atmosphere was quite spooky. Ranma could sense something bad nearby. Strange surges of ki set his teeth on edge.

"Shampoo? Cologne? Um, anybody?" Ranma shuddered. Something was making him itch. A low humming sound faded in and out of audibility. It sounded like it came from upstairs, so Ranma cautiously climbed the stairs, ready for instant battle or flight.

Checking rooms, he steeled himself for battle, finally opening Shampoo's door. He gasped with surprise.

Cologne was standing on the foot of the bed, surrounding herself and the figure on the bed in a super-dense shield of tightly controlled ki. Something that Ranma couldn't really sense clearly was beating at the ki with huge blows, trying to break through.

"Son in law! Help me! Add your ki to mine!" Cologne was hanging on with all of her immense strength, but she didn't have long. The manna raging at her shields was getting stronger by the second.

Commendably, Ranma never hesitated. The old woman had played many a dirty trick on him but had never done anything truly dangerous. She was far more of a friend than anyone else that he knew.

He threw himself at the force, using a powerful ki-ball to disrupt it, then heavily reinforcing Cologne's shield. "What are we fighting!"

"Magic." Cologne eased her efforts, feeling Ranma take up the slack. "Wild magic. A force called 'manna,' something like chi, but far more powerful." And far less predictable, she mentally added as it snaked over and crackled through every part of her body. She wondered what would come of it. The arthritic pain in her joints had simply vanished the last time that it had directly touched her.

"What's it trying to do to him?" Ranma stared at the shimmering stuff, trying to see what was behind it and to come up with an attack plan.

Cologne never stopped her analysis of the situation. "The young mage Gosunkugi has made a terrible mistake. He went too far, too fast and now his body simply cannot support the manna that he is attracting."

"Attracting? What if we move him? It looks slow. Maybe we could keep ahead of it." Ranma had already discerned that the manna had no real cohesiveness. If it had, it would have broken through in an instant.

"A ship would be best, I think." Cologne had already come to a similar conclusion. "But for the moment a van will do. Can you hold it off alone for a while, Son in Law?"

"Okay. I've got it now." Ranma felt the immense pressure for an instant and then began using small ki-strikes to break up the largest concentrations of manna, causing the clumps to swirl around each other and ignore the sleeping Gosunkugi. "Take your time, Cologne. I can keep this up forever."

Cologne shook her head. The boy was nothing short of awesome. He could defeat, disable or evade any foe, given an absurdly short time to focus on the situation.

...

Gosunkugi woke up, groaning. His whole body felt like one giant bruise.

"Hikaru awake?" Shampoo stared into his face, wearing a concerned expression.

"Barely." He tried to sit up, but he couldn't quite manage it. "Where am I?"

Shampoo winced at his weakness. "You riding ambulance, outside of Tokyo." Shampoo looked around and batted away a whisp of manna with her ki. "You almost die, Hikaru. You owe Great Grandmother and Airen life."

"And you." Gosunkugi instantly understood the situation. "Why are you all helping me?" No one had before.

Shampoo looked at him sadly, seeing the complete lack of self behind the question. Outsider males often seemed to posses very little self-respect. Outsider women failed to handle them properly, leaving them with far too much time alone to brood. Males were delicate creatures and should never be left unsupervised.

She put on a cheerful smile and answered. "Because you is Shampoo's good-friend, Silly-Boy! You cure curse, so you always be friend."

Gosunkugi smiled, but his trembling lower lip ruined it. "I... Thank you. I don't think that I can stop this, though."

"Great-Grandmother arranging to lease boat." Shampoo smiled. "Amazon lore say wizard hate ocean because manna no there. We just keep boat moving until wizard can handle power."

"But... how can I ever pay you all back?" Gosunkugi almost burst into tears. He just couldn't believe that anybody really cared enough about him to go out of their way.

Shampoo saw her opportunity. "Great Grandmother be very, very happy if you accept adoption into Amazon tribe, Hikaru." She smiled and batted her eyes at him. "Shampoo be so-so happy to gain brother!" That would insure that Cologne didn't try anything stupid, like making her marry him.

She happily imagined the eldritch horrors that an Amazon mage could inflict upon the men in Beijing the next time that the filthy Communist dog-bandits forgot their lessons and tried to impinge on Amazon lands.

"Okay." Gosunkugi passed out again.

Shampoo squealed in delight. The Communists were doomed.

...

Ranma came with Cologne to the marina, searching for a boat broker. The last two brokers had refused to waste their time with a Chinese gaijin, or with the obviously poor Ranma. Looking sidelong at Cologne he felt another twinge of guilt.

"I'm um, really sorry about that." Ranma was dreadfully ashamed to be Japanese at the moment.

Cologne smiled up at him. "It's not your fault, youngster. Besides, the Amazons are far more intolerant of outsiders. Why should I let those same attitudes bother me when I encounter them among the outsiders?"

Ranma nodded doubtfully. "But, they wouldn't even look at your letter!" Cologne had a letter of credit from a major Hong Kong bank.

"There are many yacht brokers in Japan, Son in Law. Come on." Cologne led the way to the office above the marina.

...

Kodachi entered the luxurious lounge of her family's sailing yacht and inspected it for cleanliness. Her family servants cleaned and saw to the daily maintenance of the large schooner, but she knew better than to rely overmuch on Satsuki's reports. The clumsy little ninja tried hard, but he had failed her many times.

Kodachi needed the yacht kept provisioned and ready for instant sailing. If she could just lure Ranma aboard, keep him below until they were well out to sea and then take him for a nice long trip, say to France via Cape Horn, she was certain that he would quickly fall to her advances. Spring-time in Paris with Ranma. It was her fondest dream.

Sighing, she went to the quarterdeck and panned around the marina with the binoculars that she had found in the binnacle box. Her sweep halted on an unexpected, but very welcome sight.

"My Ranma-samma!" squealed Kodachi. Dropping the glasses, she leapt for the dock.

...

Cologne walked out of the office, using a nerve grip to ignominiously restrain a furious Ranma. "Control your temper, Son in Law. Focus upon your goal. Being arrested will not help you rid yourself of the curse."

"That... that..." Ranma's battle aura glowed bright red with rage. The broker had been an arrogant little man, a 'racial purist,' one of those persons that made his homeland so universally despised throughout Asia. He had been insufferably rude to Cologne after hearing her address him as 'son in law.'

"So he is a fool. What of it? There are many fools in the world. Fools invariably punish themselves far more efficiently than you ever could, Son in Law." Cologne was amused. Ranma was genuinely outraged by the insult offered to the Matriarch of the Joketsuzoku. She hoped that it was a sign of things to come.

"Damn. What are we going to do, anyway?" Ranma was amazed at how hard it was for a foreigner to do anything in Japan, except to leave.

Cologne shrugged. "I will just have to use my lawyer to lease a small ship. Perhaps-

"Ohohohohoho!" Kodachi flipped out from under the wharf, landing gracefully on her toes in a perfect gymnastics pose, her smoldering eyes drinking in Ranma. "Did I hear the Honored Matriarch correctly? I, Kodachi Kuno, The Black Rose, just happen to have a large sailing yacht available for lease."

Cologne eyed her for a moment and then smiled. The Black Rose had long interested her. "You heard correctly, my dear."

...

Shampoo was exhausted when the ambulance stopped for gas and a change of drivers. She climbed stiffly out as Cologne guided Ryoga into the ambulance.

"Just push the clumps of manna away, as Ranma showed you. Do NOT damage the vehicle, Ryoga." Cologne gave the wretched boy a harsh look. It would go very, very hard for him if he messed up. "Remember, the mage is your only hope for a cure. Defend him!"

"Um, yess'm." Ryoga feared the Elder like no one and nothing else, except for maybe Happosai. He had stepped on the old devil once and all in all, he vastly preferred stepping on landmines. They were far less dangerous.

Cologne shut the back door and the figure on the gurney stirred.

"Heya." Ryoga settled himself into the ambulance seat, nodding at the driver. "I'm Ryoga Hibiki."

Gosunkugi nodded. No one ever remembered him. "Gosunkugi. Hikaru Gosunkugi. Thanks for the help, Ryoga."

Ryoga smiled. "No problem, Hikaru. I'll ask you for a favor in return, later."

"You want me to get rid of your curse." Gosunkugi peered at him and gasped. "Man! You've got six of them!"

Ryoga went pale and absently batted away a questing tendril of manna. "Six!"

"Maybe seven." Hikaru reached out and then hesitated. "I'd like to help, but it could kill me right now."

"What's the matter?" Ryoga felt a thrill of hope.

"I'm just really weak." Gosunkugi looked ashamed. "I can't handle the power that I've got."

"Well... I could train you!" Ryoga looked excited. "We all could! Me, Mousse... even the perverted sissyboy Ranma!" His voice dropped. "Then you could rid us of our curses."

Gosunkugi cringed, remembering some of the training that he had seen Ranma go through. "Well... okay. I'll do it!"

"Great!" Ryoga was elated.

"I think that I know just how to free the magic. But, Ryoga, if I get killed by the training, no one gets a cure."

"Don't worry. Nothing and no one will get to you so long as I'm here!" Elated, Ryoga stopped short of smashing a manna ball away and gently pushed it instead. He could see dozens of them converging on the ambulance. "Driver! Get going!"

...

Kodachi stowed the last of her poisons on board, then began on her wardrobe. She wanted to look really good for her Ranma.

Humming, she packed her bikini away in its matchbox. She would be Mrs. Saotome in just a few short weeks, as soon as all of her rivals and enemies were feeding the fish.

...

Cologne stowed the last of her antidotes and herbs aboard, then began on her scrolls. She would need to keep her wits about her to survive the Black Rose's hospitality. She also stowed several intensely powerful love potions that she had been studying. Mousse would soon be happily tending the Black Rose. Hesitating, she packed several larger robes and some material. She seemed to be growing, ever since the mana had brushed her and she had absolutely no idea how far it could go.

...

Ranma picked up his pack and his extra blanket, a much treasured gift from Kasumi. He had few possessions and hadn't really accumulated much since stopping in Tokyo. Hesitating, he stuffed the female clothing that he had been given and his schoolbooks into the pack. He wasn't as stupid as people thought. Between the sudden battles for his life and his father's constant training demands he had never had any quiet time to read or study before. Maybe a long summer sea voyage would be a good opportunity to really relax and get caught up. He had tried to say goodbye to Akane, but she wasn't speaking to him, except through the good offices of Mr. Mallet. Uncharacteristically, Ukyo had reacted nearly as violently, first beating him and then almost beheading him with her horribly dented spatula.

Biting his lip, Ranma scrawled off notes to both Akane and Ukyo. He really would miss them both terribly.

...

Ryoga was already wearing a pack containing all of his worldly possessions when he followed Cologne up the gangplank. He thought about calling home, but no one would be there. He had procured a crate of Jusenkyo waterproof soap and a full set of maritime foul weather gear for the trip. If he didn't, he was going to spend most of his time as a pig.

...

Genma snuck aboard carrying his futon, a spare gi and some ancient martial arts scrolls that he and Soun had recently looted from the strong room of an ancient and seemingly poorly guarded temple. Happosai had been caught and apparently devoured when the idol had come alive, but there were some sacrifices that Genma was prepared to live with. Upon making their escape from the hordes of pursuing hell-wraiths, Genma and Soun had immediately retired to their favorite bar to hold the wake. After he had sobered and thought about it, a long sea voyage sounded like a fine way to wile away a summer.

...

Mouse brought everything that he owned, including a few kitchen sinks. He wore only his usual white robe, carrying nothing in his hands. Hidden Weapons was a very useful art for the seasoned traveler.

...

Shampoo brought dozens of bags, enough to rival Kodachi in sheer poundage. The inclusion of her skimpiest Chinese dresses, some French bikinis, some tiny sheer dresses and lingerie from Victoria's Secret boosted her confidence immensely. Ranma would be hers! He couldn't run away on a little boat.

...

Akane and Ukyo were both standing next to the broker's office under a temporary truce, glowering at the yacht when several of the more knowledgeable crewmen quit. Akane and Ukyo applied and were immediately hired by the captain as cooks. Both decided to lay low until the ship was well out to sea.

...

Gosunkugi boarded with only the clothes on his back, his athame and his book. He had only managed to call home once and his mother had been oddly unconcerned about him cruising to Europe with a strange foreign woman. It was like his family had forgotten him or something. Cologne had just cackled when he had mentioned it. He was able to stand now, but was still too weak to walk much. Shampoo had simply snatched him up and bounced up the gangway with him.

He fell asleep in a deck chair as Satsuki cast off the bowline. As the sun rose out of the ocean, the yacht motored out to sea on its diesel engines, just ahead of a cloud of questing manna.

...

Gosunkugi woke in a bunk, feeling the ocean swell under him. Standing with great difficulty, he made his way out of the cabin, found a bathroom and took a salt-water shower. Stepping out of the stall, he looked in vain for his clothes. Surprised, he saw that they had been replaced with a pair of red swim trunks and a white polo shirt. He had never heard a thing.

Climbing the stairs, or 'ladder' as the sailors had called it, Gosunkugi emerged on deck.

Dawn was about to break and the only thing on deck was a snoring panda. The wheel was secured but no one stood watch. Gosunkugi shrugged and then wandered to the other side of the deck, leaned on the rail and stared out to sea, basking in the lack of pain.

"Are you the one called Hikaru Gosunkugi?"

Gosunkugi awoke from his reverie and turned, gulping with surprise. "Um, yes, that's me." He blinked in awe at Kodachi and then gave a very stiff and formal bow.

Kodachi proudly inclined her head in acknowledgement of the impact of her designer bikini. "I am Kuno Kodachi, the Black Rose of St. Hebreke and the proprietor of this vessel."

"I know who you are, Kodachi-dono. I know your brother." Gosunkugi wondered why he was talking like a courtier in an old Samuri drama. Probably because he was afraid of her.

"Ah." Kodachi preened a little. Her fame was widespread, even among the little people. "I do not understand the reason for this ocean trip. You seem to be at the center of it all, somehow. Please enlighten me."

"I... My um, friends thought that it might help me recover from... an illness. They were right. I feel much better now." Gosunkugi felt weak, but didn't want to show his weakness by sitting.

Kodachi saw his legs trembling. "I see. Would you care to join me for breakfast?" She linked her arm through his and led him away, half-supporting him. She would get the story out of him, very soon. This had something to do with her darling Ranma.

"Um... Yes. With pleasure. Thank you, Miss Kuno." Gosunkugi swallowed, remembering the rumors of poisons, but dismissed it. She wasn't cooking anyway and if she wanted him dead all she had to do was tip him over the side.

...

"Cook! I have the breakfast orders!" Satsuki entered the galley and cringed. "Suffering gods! What are you doing here, Miss Tendo?" He kept well back. Akane had once accidentally knocked him forty feet up into the air while winding up to smash Ranma for the crime of letting his eyes briefly pause on a picture of a lingerie model in a magazine that she had been reading.

Akane smiled pleasantly. "I was hired to assist the cook!"

"We're dead!" Satsuki felt a lump rise in his throat. He was just too young to die.

Akane began to glower. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Satsuki swallowed, panic on his face.

"It's not so bad, Sugar. I'm the cook." Ukyo entered the galley with a smile.

"Another one!" Satsuki began to cry. "And I so wanted to see France, to visit the fine art museums and the bistros of the left bank before I died. Ranma and all four fiancées on one boat. It's a watery grave for me, now..." His sobs soon drowned out his choked muttering.

"Kodachi is not a True Fiancée!" Ukyo and Akane said, in stereo.

Satsuki cringed. "Ladies... Forgive me, but Genma sold my mistress an engagement to Ranma months ago. Her claim is as strong as either of your own."

"Damn that baka panda!" Ukyo and Akane echoed each other, exchanging a furious look.

"A rich dammed baka panda," quipped Satsuki. "He could probably buy this yacht for what she..." Satsuki swallowed. They were glaring again.

"So that's why he stopped pushing so hard." Akane scowled. Genma obviously had his comfortable retirement, whatever happened.

"Well, it looks like you'll be cooking for the Panda, Sugar." Ukyo smiled malignantly.

"Yeah!" Akane looked pleased, then angry. "Hey!"

"Ah yes, a fitting fate for a scoundrel so unwaveringly gluttonous-" Satsuki locked eyes with Akane, swallowed and edged behind Ukyo. "Um, ladies... Please, I'm the new captain. Killing me would be mutiny."

Ukyo blinked in surprise while Akane gaped.

"You?" Akane looked him up and down, scornfully. "A big sailboat like this needs a real captain, not some sniveling little ninja runt!"

"It had one." Satsuki shivered, looking at them. "He and the crew found out who Ranma and all of you girls were, took the zodiac and abandoned ship last night. They're all safe back in Japan by now, the miserable cowards!"

"Zodiac?" Akane frowned.

"An inflatable boat with a large outboard motor." Satsuki cursed his luck on missing the ride. Sure, he was a loyal ninja, but there were more Kunos ashore than there were aboard the yacht after all. Now there would be no lifeboat at all when the fiancées destroyed the ship.

"But... Who's going to run the ship?" Ukyo wondered who was driving right now.

Satsuki smiled nervously. "Ryoga is an experienced sailor and so am I. Mousse has had some small experience with junks and riverboats. We'll be happy to teach the rest of you." Cologne had said that turning back was not an option. Satsuki knew better than to try to argue with Cologne.

"Ryoga? Just don't ever let him steer." Akane shuddered at the thought.

...

Tatiwaki Kuno stalked up to the drunken captain and shook him. "The Pigtailed Goddess, the lovely Akane Tendo and my demented sister. WHERE ARE THEY?"

"Watch the uniform, boy." The captain shoved him away. He just wasn't in any mood to deal with Kuno at the moment.

Kuno swelled up like an angry toad. "That is the uniform of the Kuno family! You disgrace it with-

"Let me, Tatawaki." Nabiki whispered something in the captain's ear.

"Um, I would guess that they were near this position by now and moving at about four knots on this tack." The rather pale ex-captain began drawing lines on the chart that Nabiki had put in front of him. "They're bound for Europe, via the horn."

"To the helicopter!" Kuno wasn't going to allow his twisted sister to poison his loves without a fight.

"Wait." Nabiki made some calculations and frowned. "A helicopter couldn't get everyone back. I know how we can considerably increase the odds of things remaining stable aboard the yacht, Kuno."

Delusional, Kuno was. Stupid, he was not. He knew the terrible level of bloody combat that the gloating archfiend Saotome could spark in the presence of his ferocious harem of love slaves. "How can such a delicate feat be accomplished, my cold-hearted mercenary beauty?"

Nabiki smiled at the compliment. It was summertime anyway. A free trip to Europe sounded nice. "We'll just have to take Kasumi along with us."

...

Ranma yawned, sat up and looked at the clock on the cabin wall, smiling. He had slept for ten whole hours, a miracle. Springing to his feet, he made his way to the galley.

Strolling into the compartment, he froze in horror. To his left was Kodachi. To his right was Akane. Shampoo was in front of him. Swallowing, he turned slowly and almost fainted when he saw Ukyo hurrying behind him, with a tray.

"This is it. I'm gonna die." Ranma seriously thought about swimming for Japan. It was only the fact that all of the girls might swim after him, drowning Akane for certain, that made him discard the idea.

"There will be no fighting on this vessel." Cologne entered the galley, defusing the situation. "Violators will be punished severely."

Kodachi smirked. "Of course not. As the mistress, it is far beneath my dignity to brawl with the servants." Sitting, drawing Gosunkugi down after her, she gave Akane an imperious look designed to make the blood boil. "You may serve the meal, Girl."

"I only said that I would follow the captain's lawful orders. He quit, so I quit too!" Akane snarled. "Get it yourself, Psycho!" She stalked out of the dining room.

"Who is running boat?" Shampoo was curious. The foresail, mainsail and jib had been set and the engine turned off so someone had to be doing it.

"Ryoga, Satsuki and Mousse." Cologne fixed her eyes on Kodachi. "Miss Kuno, I have leased this ship, not chartered it. That means that I am the authority here. Do you acknowledge my authority?"

Kodachi moved to argue, but something in Colognes eyes made her hesitate. "Yes, Elder." Sulking, she dropped her eyes. "I understand."

"Go help them, Son in Law."

"Hai!" Gratefully, Ranma ran for his life.

"I help too!" Shampoo followed, her eyes glued to her husband's butt.

"Wait! I have okonomiyaki for you, Ranchan! Ranchan?" Ukyo launched herself after him, carrying the covered tray, unaware that Genma had already stolen and devoured the contents.

Kodachi watched with narrowed eyes, but remained silent. Eliminating her rivals would be relatively simple. Shampoo would make the perfect patsy. Ranma would blame the Amazon and turn to his only remaining fiancée for comfort. Her only real worry was Cologne.

Cologne smiled knowingly at Kodachi and then sat down across from Gosunkugi. "How are you feeling, Boy?"

"Very nervous." Gosunkugi glanced at the glowering Kodachi and swallowed.

"How is your power level?" Cologne was worried that sudden changes might be dangerous.

"Lower, I think. It's bearable now." He smiled at Cologne. "Thank you. I owe you my life."

Cologne nodded, looking satisfied. "You are welcome, young mage."

"Mage..." Kodachi's eyes widened and then narrowed in calculation. Flicking her eyes to a worried looking Gosunkugi, she smiled sweetly. "Come along, Hikaru. You may keep me company in the galley while I cook us some breakfast."

...

Kuno prodded the pilot and pointed at a smudge on the horizon.

The heavy-lift helicopter veered and was soon hovering over the water near the big sailing yacht. Ranma and Mousse quickly struck the sails and the helicopter dropped a yellow inflatable Zodiac boat.

Kuno was lowered into the boat and then a net containing a large bundle of supplies. Starting the motor, He pulled up to the yacht. "Ahoy, Lucky Dragon-Maru! It is I, your captain, Tatiwaki Kuno, Age Eighteen, come bearing provision and leadership!"

"Drop a bucket on him!" Ranma was the only one to voice it, but it flashed through all of their minds.

"What sorts of provision?" Cologne eyed the helicopter. It was still hovering. If Kuno was the only passenger, it would have left at once.

"Fresh fruit, bandages and medical supplies. Help me get it aboard... Respected Elder. I shall return with more." Kuno had attracted the wrath of Cologne before and was of no mind to repeat the awful humiliation.

"You have no authority here. You may not come aboard without permission, young man." Cologne wasn't angry about it, but it was clear that she wouldn't be moved.

Kuno had been read the lease by Nabiki. "Then I humbly beg permission for myself and on behalf of my companions to join you upon this voyage." Nabiki had made him learn it by rote.

Cologne cocked her head. With Kuno there would be enough bodies for a proper watch to be kept at night. "You must swear to stop thinking with your bokken, boy. There will be no fighting aboard this vessel."

"I so swear! No matter what the provocation, I shall not attack the foul sorcerer Saotome first!" declaimed Kuno, his arms spread dramatically.

"You will bring all disputes to me. To me. Do you understand?" Cologne wasn't surprised that he was so reasonable. She remembered the time that Shampoo had mistaken him for Ranma and glomped him in the dark. The boy had exploded in a terrible nosebleed and fainted. He was even shyer than Ryoga behind all of that samurai nonsense.

"Upon my honor, I shall."

Kuno dropped his eyes and Cologne nodded.

"You may join us then, young Tatawaki. Ranma, Mousse, hurry up and unload that boat." Cologne nodded in satisfaction as she saw her orders obeyed with alacrity.

...

"Soun! Old friend!" Genma waved wildly at the helicopter, feeling a great deal of relief. His tenuous place aboard the yacht was assured by this reinforcement. He had no true fear of the hag, but he didn't want to push his luck, either. Genma never fought anyone, especially not Ancient Masters unless it was completely unavoidable. Besides, he missed playing shogi with his friend.

Soun was sure to have brought a considerable store of liquid refreshment along. Amazons weren't the only ones to have developed a school of hidden-weapons techniques. The masters of Anything Goes had no need of weapons, so they simply used it differently.

Cologne looked sharply at Genma and then reached out toward the helicopter with her ki. Nodding, she turned to regard the part-time panda. Either she hadn't felt his scan or his ki-sense was very sensitive indeed. Either way it was disturbing. In his late thirties, the artfully bumbling Genma was something of a figure of fun to the younger generation, but Cologne knew better. As a fighter, Genma was a close second to Happosai in her estimation. He was sharp and deadly, his endless layers of deception only adding to the peril of any who failed to really see him. This was the awesomely dedicated martial artist who had trained Ranma, after all. The man was far more ruthless than the Amazons when it came to training his heir, and his determination had brought great results. Cologne had long decided that the whole fiancée situation was just another of Genma's brutal training schemes. Ranma, under tremendous pressure from his obsessive girlfriends, was quickly mastering the art of Anything Goes deception and manipulation.

Cologne was wary of Genma even before the old scoundrel Happosai had seen fit to warn her about him. She had never been able to accurately gage his skill, something that she could do with relative ease with most martial artists. He always knew when she was watching and just as he had taught his son, he never went all out in a battle or a sparring session. Even his ki remained as tightly controlled as hers. Genma was a seasoned master of his art, making rapid progress, well on his way to becoming a match for the Grandmaster.

Cologne looked at the helicopter, which was currently lowering Soun. Soun was a bit rusty but the unholy regime that Happosai had put his two hapless disciples through could never really be undone. The man remained emotionally shattered, but he was still a master of Anything Goes and unless she missed her guess, easily more than a match for the majority of Amazon elders.

Cologne's face softened slightly. It was a pity that Soun had been left alone to deal with his crippling grief. Males were brittle, having very little emotional control once they broke. Men needed a woman's strong hand to properly guide them. If he had been born an Amazon she would have forced him to acknowledge his grief, then quickly found him a new wife. She frowned, considering it. He was a powerful martial artist after all and his daughters were grown women, able to make their way.

Cologne smirked as Nodoka was lowered next, her ever-present katina worn across her back like a part of her. There was a strong woman. She was also a ki-master of some sort. Her ki presence was currently damped, the better to surprise Genma with, no doubt.

Genma was about to get reacquainted with his wife, and maybe his wife's sharp blade. Judging from Genma's massive full-body cringe, Nodoka well knew how to use the sword.

Nabiki and Kasumi came down together, Kasumi alighting gracefully in the boat and Nabiki plunging gracelessly into the sea. Kuno and Nodoka fished the sputtering girl out and the boat turned toward the yacht.

Cologne respected Nabiki as one respects any small, sharp-toothed predator that has the potential to grow into a huge, sharp-toothed predator. Kasumi was something of an enigma however. The girl radiated peace, purity and contentment to a mind-fogging extent. Her ki was far too powerful for her to not be an accomplished martial artist, but Cologne simply couldn't imagine her ever deliberately hurting anyone or anything.

Once all of the passengers and additional provisions had been loaded, Cologne repeated her warning and then assigned each person to their duties.

...

Genma-Panda moved the wheel a point away from the wind, slowing the ship to a crawl and incidentally insuring that he wouldn't have to make much effort through the night. Securing the wheel and setting the self-sailing rigging, the bear lay down on the deck, curled up and was quickly asleep.

...

Deep under the silt bed of the ocean, forty fathoms below the keel of the Lucky Dragon, an ancient manna crystal flared as it harvested a sudden increase of ambient power. It deployed long unused senses and detected a suitable master approaching. Breaking the last fragile hold of the ancient ship that held it, the crystal rose through the mud and black water until it emerged into the open air for the first time in over a thousand centuries.

Approaching the Lucky Dragon's bowsprit, it attached itself to the prow in the same manner as it had attached to the Atlantean craft below.

The ancient crystalline device felt a sudden surge of unpleasantness that it later classified as 'shock' when a giant panda bear suddenly loomed up behind it and kicked it back into the sea.

Grumbling, Genma returned to his apparently sound sleep. He knew exactly what the glowing thing had been. Trouble, and plenty of it.

Unfortunately for him, he failed to sense the now- darkened crystal rise again from the sea and stealthily enter the metal dragon figurehead mounted under the bowsprit. The metal dragon shifted its pose slightly, its eyes flickered with light and then it grew still. Unaccountably invisible seagoing panda bears weren't enough to keep the crystal orb away from its chosen master.

...

Gosunkugi was dreaming. He daydreamed of escape from his miserable existence.

"Gosunkugi! Have you finished the notes for the quarterly report yet?"

Hoshi Son, the district under-manager, was the latest and worst of the long string of petty tyrants that had ruled over Hikaru's life.

Gosunkugi hid his disdain as best he could. "No sir. You told me to leave that for later and to concentrate on-

"Stupid! The notes are due tomorrow! You'll have to stay late tonight and finish it." Hoshi looked at his planner and brightened. It was cheap drinks night at the Happy Time Club tonight. He could buy the boss and everybody rounds and not have to take out a loan to pay the bill.

"But... It's my anniversary tonight! I have reservations-

"So what? The report better be turned in by six in the morning or else I'll have your head, Gosunkugi! It's your own fault anyway. You should have thought about that before you slacked off!" Hoshi remembered when he had been Gosunkugi's assistant and the ugly freak had chewed him out for coming in late all the time. If the idiot had the sense to come out drinking with the rest of the management team he might get promoted some day.

Gosunkugi bowed his head in shame. Ko-chan would be crushed. He spent every minute that he could with her, but the life of a salryman was one of loneliness and privation exceeded only by that of his wife.

A green glowing orb appeared on his desk and Hoshi suddenly caught on fire, burning to ashes in seconds.

"W- what's happening?" Gosunkugi felt a surge of hope as the office dissolved.

"Aura acquired. Aura locked, sampled and integrated. Security engaged. Dream sequencer stabilized. Greetings, Master!" The orb brightened as it spoke. "This device has installed itself and is now ready to begin."

"Who are you?" Gosunkugi was totally confused.

"Generating persona." The orb flared and then morphed into a small, nondescript looking man. "I am archive orb 177, the container of over four hundred spellbooks. Please do not be alarmed. This unit is programmed to seek out and attach itself to suitable hosts of Atlantean descent. You have been selected as suitable for ownership."

"Why?" Gosunkugi started to worry as an ornate classroom faded in around him. "Why aren't I dreaming any more? This is just so weird."

"This unit is a library unit. Its primary duties are survival, instruction and archiving. You were chosen because you were the first suitable host to approach this unit's position. Additionally, you have a book of power that is not currently in the database. This unit will attempt to acquire and store it."

"But the dream..." Gosunkugi shuddered. He had been in hell.

"This unit has stabilized the neural environment." The persona, an amalgam of all of the teachers that Gosunkugi had ever had, took its place at the front of the classroom. "One of this unit's functions is to provide instruction during the sleep cycle. Your body will be fully rested in the morning. If you would care to take your seat, we can begin." It opened a book.

Gosunkugi stared, and then gingerly took his seat. Everything felt real and his mind was sharp and clear. "Okay."

The persona smiled. "We will begin with the basics of energy manipulation."

...

Gosunkugi woke at sunrise, feeling refreshed. The ocean swell was minimal and bright sunlight came through the porthole.

Sitting up, Gosunkugi smiled. He still knew the material that the orb had taught. It had assured him that he would gain the equivalent of a day's instruction every night, needing only four nights a week of unscripted dreaming for his health.

After taking a saltwater shower and dressing, he made his way on deck. Looking up at the sail, he shook his head.

Ryoga, Mousse and Kuno were leaping from mast to mast, screaming out death threats and in Kuno's case, vows to capture and protect his 'tree born nymph,' all chasing a laughing, dodging shirtless Ranma-chan, their solemn promises forgotten.

Cologne watched beaming from the ship's waist as Nodoka expertly disarmed Shampoo and caught the flying sword in her free hand.

"You call yourself a swordswoman? That was disgraceful! Just because you are fighting in close quarters is no reason to get sloppy. Take a lesson from Ukyo. Most real fights happen in close quarters anyway. You must be ready to defend yourself at any place or time!" Nodoka handed the sword back. "Stop getting fancy. Let's see your basic stance. That is where it all starts."

Shampoo, wilting with shame, complied.

Cologne's smile grew. Nodoka was an incredible find in this day and age. Even if Ranma had been less of a treasure it would have been worth acquiring him just to obtain Nodoka and the rest of the Nermia martial artists. Nodoka was a master swordswoman and a superb teacher. She would clearly bring many valuable new skills and techniques to the tribe.

...

Genma shuffled a deck of cards and sighed. Nodoka had taken it upon herself to show Akane, Ukyo and Shampoo some sword katas, moving with a liquid grace and speed that had always been both incredibly sexy and deeply unsettling to him as he watched covertly from behind the binnacle box. As good as he was, Genma simply didn't know if he could defend himself from Nodoka if she ever decided to dispense with their marriage. Nodoka was very old fashioned about such things and to her, widowhood was the only acceptable way out of the arranged marriage.

Wrenching his gaze away from his beautiful wife, Genma slipped into the Umisenken and made his way forward. Soun was up by the bowsprit, in a deck chair, Kasumi humming over him as she trimmed his hair. Watching for a moment, Genma felt a keen disappointment over not having any daughters of his own.

...

Smelling something good coming from the galley stovepipe, Gosunkugi turned to go back below. All of that activity was making him dizzy and he had come to enjoy Kodachi's delicious cooking, as well as their morning breakfast conversations. She was beautifully educated and he had never before been privileged to hold a true conversation with anyone that intelligent, let alone with a girl as pretty as Kodachi.

"Ah, just who I was waiting for." Cologne intercepted the frail youth before he could hide himself away again. "Miss Kuno can wait."

"Good morning, Elder." Gosunkugi eyed her suspiciously. She looked taller for some reason. "What can I do for you?"

"First, you must become strong enough to support the burden of your power. Then I'll let you know." Cologne smiled, mysteriously. "To achieve outer strength, one must first achieve inner strength."

"Okay. How can that be done?" Gosunkugi winced as Genma, far out of earshot, suddenly turned and gave him a long, appraising stare.

"Ki." Cologne poked several spots on his back and chest with her staff. "There, that should help open your flows. They were really quite constricted."

"And this will do what?" Gosunkugi eyed her doubtfully. He had sensed nothing, felt no different and had no clue as to why being poked with a stick would somehow affect him.

"To find the point at which your ki starts to flow, you must first reach the absolute end of your natural endurance." Cologne's smile turned somewhat sadistic. "Tell me young man, can you swim?"

...

"He don't look so good, Pop." Ranma stared anxiously down at the floundering Gosunkugi.

Genma shrugged, unconcerned, then growled out his opinion. "There is only one way to train, Boy. If you want results, you have to go all-out. Besides, he's tied to the bowsprit. He can only sink ten feet."

Genma personally disagreed with Cologne's lax methods. He would have chummed the waters to attract a good selection of sharks and wrapped the boy in at least thirty feet of chain before beginning the ocean-born training. Panic and terror were always useful spurs to intensify the training experience.

"If Gosunkugi drowns we might never get rid of these stupid curses." Ranma was a bit impressed. Gos actually seemed to be pulling the boat, at least a little.

"If we continually coddle his weakness he won't ever be able to generate enough ki to handle his power." Genma gave the weak boy a dubious look. "I have to admit, I didn't expect him to last this long."

As they argued, Gosunkugi came to the end of his endurance and abruptly sank like a stone Buddha.

Ranma was diving when something fast and metallic buzzed past him in mid-air, plunging into the sea. When Ranma-chan surfaced, she stared in disbelief. The ship's figurehead, a shiny chrome dragon of the western variety, was hovering over the bow, its bright wings blurring, holding a vomiting Gosunkugi by his rope while dodging Genma's viciously sizzling purple ki bolts.

"Stop it!" Cologne hopped forward on her stick and stared at the dragon with chi enhanced vision. It glowed with highly organized magic. "I don't think that it is trying to harm him."

"What is it?" Mousse peered at the chrome blob and prepared a storm of missiles.

"It's mine," Gosunkugi grunted, after throwing up. "It won't hurt anybody."

"Ah, a familiar." Cologne eyed him, wondering what else he had that she didn't know about.

"Why is our figurehead flying?" Tatawaki glared at the insolent object. "You! Return to your place at once!"

"That sort of thing is always trouble." Genma feinted and tried a parting shot as Soun nodded wisely.

"Husband." Nodoka didn't raise her voice at all, but Genma instantly stopped in mid attack.

Genma sweated, and then said with false cheerfulness, "If this thing is not a threat, what do you say to some shogi, old friend?"

"A fine notion, Genma!" The two hurried away.

"Ayahh! Mother in Law very strict with males, just like proper Amazon warrior!" Shampoo smiled cutely under the glares of her rivals, still trying to get in good with Nodoka.

Climbing out of the water, Ranma-chan shuddered.

"Suck up." Ukyo hammered Shampoo unconscious with one brutal blow of her giant spatula and then smiled innocently at Nodoka when she turned to look back at the noise. Now Ukyo was even for the beating that she had taken that morning.

Cologne smirked at Shampoo's eighth straight defeat of the day. It was a good thing that she had decided to adopt all of them as Amazons. Curiously, she glanced at the companionway and wondered why Kodachi had missed such an opportunity. Both Ukyo and Akane had grown significantly stronger and she was a bit puzzled as to why the Black Rose was staying out of it.

...

The dragon landed with its burden, then blurred away, resuming its place as a figurehead, ignoring Cologne's experimental pokes.

On the deck, Gosunkugi vomited as he felt the first faint flicker of chi washing through his body. The orb had entered his mind and spoken to him as they hovered, explaining itself and then telling him what he had to do to get stronger. He knew how to draw ki now. It was just a matter of reinforcing his miniscule ability. It would take decades, but he had some potential. He might reach Akane's level, if he worked hard.

No one saw Kodachi staring out at Ranma through the lounge porthole. Kasumi hadn't been mistaken! Ranma was cursed! He was the Red Haired Bitch that had dared to humiliate her! Kodachi ran to her cabin, buried her face in a pillow and cried.

On deck, a dripping wet, bare breasted female Ranma wrung out her shirt and then punched a slavering Tatawaki into the sea.

...

Gosunkugi woke up in the middle of the night, feeling abnormally alert and refreshed. Making his way on deck, he quietly noted that the Panda wasn't around. Nodoka must have finally forgiven him, or beheaded him. Gosunkugi found it hard to care either way.

The moon was absent, but the night was clear. The sea was very calm. Gosunkugi looked up and gasped. The stars were very close, a blazing skein of jewels.

"Good evening, Sorcerer." Tatawaki Kuno adjusted course slightly and looked at the sail. "Have you come to join me on watch?"

"I could do that. I don't know anything about boats though. What are we supposed to watch for?" Gosunkugi had offered before, but he had just been shouldered aside as an invalid.

"The perils of the deep, Sorcerer." Kuno handed him a small book. "This is Bowditch's Quick Guide to Modern Seamanship. Much of the wisdom of the sea is contained within those pages."

Gosunkugi shrugged and stuck the small book in his shirt pocket. "I'll read it tomorrow."

After a long silence, Kuno cleared his throat. "May I ask you a question in all confidence?"

"Sure." Gosunkugi was feeling his arms, frowning. He was sore all over and he seemed to have some sort of swelling on both of his arms. He hoped that it wasn't some kind of disease.

Kuno took a deep breath. "I know of the curse. I know that the wretched Saotome and the Pig Tailed Girl share a single body and to some lesser extent a mind. Tell me, Sorcerer, does the Pig Tailed Girl share the soul of Ranma Saotome?"

Gosunkugi thought carefully. "The answer is no. Absolutely not."

"Yata! I knew it!" Kuno smiled, his teeth showing white in the glimmer of the binnacle lamp. "We have seen each other, her and I. There is an understanding."

"She is not really awake, Tatawaki." Gosunkugi sent a brooding look forward. "It's a mercy. She is trapped in the spring, seeing only brief glimpses of Saotome's life, unable to touch it, suffering like no woman should ever have to suffer."

"Then I shall free her!" Tatawaki grabbed for his bokken, but he didn't have one. "I love her." He cast his eyes down. "I do not know why or how, only that it is so. I no longer feel my old attraction for Akane Tendo."

"I used to have a thing for Akane too." Gosunkugi sighed. Kuno had never even met the 'pigtailed girl.' He just had a thing for women who could fight. The sad part was that the 'Pigtaled Girl' was long dead, just bones in a spring. "I'm going to do Ranma's curse last. One mistake and I might accidentally kill Ranma and destroy their souls. I've got to learn a great deal more before I attempt it."

Tatawaki eyed him somberly and then plucked the small book back out of Gosunkugi's shirt pocket. "You are a worthy man, Hikaru Gosunkugi. Forget this trifling nonsense and concentrate your efforts upon what is truly important. We shall manage adequately without your help."

Gosunkugi started to object and then nodded. "I feel stronger already. Soon I'll start on some of Hibiki's lesser curses."

Kuno looked at the Southern Cross, low on the horizon. "I believe that my sister is spending a great deal of time with you of late."

Gosunkugi blinked in surprise. "She is a very nice girl and a fascinating conversationalist. I don't know why everyone makes up such stories about her. She has been helping me a lot, cooking for me and trying to help me get over my sickness."

Kuno managed to keep a straight face. "I have noticed a change in her. Tell me, did you bespell her somehow?" Whatever he had done, Kuno had no objections.

"I could never use magic on Dachi-chan!" Gosunkugi swelled with outrage and then deflated, remembering some of 'Dachi-chan's' reputation. "I believe that you are seeing Kasumi Tendo's influence on her. They are also spending a lot of time together."

"I see. I beg your pardon then, Gosunkugi. As the eldest brother it is my duty to make sure of such things." Kuno wondered if Cologne was drugging her.

"Given." Gosunkugi relaxed and then looked sharply forward. "There is a big teak log floating in the water about two kilometers ahead. We're going to hit it if you don't change course."

"Is that so? How do you know?" Kuno let the wheel fall off a point, without trimming his sails. "Is that enough?"

Gosunkugi eyed the sails and nodded. "That will do it. As to how I know, well, the dragon told me."

Kuno frowned. "I have been meaning to ask you about that. Why has our figurehead become mobile?"

"It's actually an ancient and really weird crystal orb that took the dragon's shape for its own. We sailed over its resting place and I attracted it." Gosunkugi looked worried. "I attract magic. That's why we're out here at sea, so that I can stay away from it. If I can't learn to control it, it'll tear me apart."

"Ah. I see. You may consider the figurehead my gift to you, then." Kuno didn't really have a choice, but he had never really been satisfied with the figurehead anyway. He had wanted an eastern dragon but the Canadian shipyard that had built the Lucky Dragon had muffed it.

"Thank you, Tatawaki." Gosunkugi was touched.

Kuno wrinkled his brow in puzzlement "Tell me, why a dragon? Is it not the convention for a sorcerer to affix his crystal of power to the hilt of some sort of magic sword?"

Gosunkugi smirked. "Certainly. It's all the rage among sorcerers that don't want to live very long. Some barbarian hero always ends up sticking him with the sword."

"Of course." Kuno nodded. No mere sorcerer could ever hope to beat a true swordsman.

"Please excuse me, Tatewaki." Gosunkugi moved forward to sit by his chrome dragon and read. He didn't need mundane light to see his Imperium Occultus any more.

...

Kodachi riffled through her trunk, her tongs selecting a deadly concentrate of rare plant venom. It would kill a person in hours, mimicking the symptoms of heart failure if touched to the bare skin. Sighing, she used her tweezers and long tongs to draw the stopper and then dropped the vial and the stopper from the open porthole. She had planned on killing Cologne first, but now she was uncertain. She rather liked the acerbic elder and her resolve to kill anyone had waned.

Ranma, now that she had spent the last few weeks in close quarters with him, had proven to be a one-dimensional lout with a curse that turned him into a lying little bitch that she viscerally hated. Was that shrill, whorish personality really a part of him? She hoped not.

The rest of the men aboard were similarly loutish, with the exception of Hikaru. He was polite, kind, self-effacing and inconceivably powerful. Even the Matriarch treated him with the utmost respect.

Brooding, Kodachi threw her last poison vial out. That one would instantly cause a stroke if inhaled. She was getting rid of all of her truly dangerous poisons. She didn't want her new and very well-liked roommate, Kasumi Tendo, to get into them and die. Not that Kasumi would snoop, but accidents happened unless one made sure that they wouldn't.

No one noticed all the dead fish and the enormous sea monster bobbing upside down in their wake.

...

Gosunkugi stared into the mirror, aghast. He had more lumps. On his chest, now. They really hurt, too, after all the swimming he had done lately. Mr. Saotome and Mr. Tendo were both helping with his training and things had gone from bad to unspeakably bad. They were teaching him how to fall. From the masthead.

"Hey, I need in there!" Ryoga had at last found a bathroom and he had no intention of going in search of another.

"Um, just a minute." Gosunkugi took a last look and then opened the door. He was immediately forced back by Ryoga's frantic charge, finally stepping aside into the shower stall before Ryoga could trample him.

"Damn! My back teeth are awash!" Ryoga urinated for a ridiculously long time, sighing with bliss, completely ignoring a thoroughly revolted Gosunkugi trapped behind him in the tiny shower stall.

"Why didn't you just use the bathroom across from your berth?" Gosunkugi felt quite ill. He had always hated locker rooms.

"It was full of these crazy American Navy guys!" Ryoga gritted his teeth with palpable rage. "They wouldn't even let me take a piss! A whole mob of them jumped on me, stunned me with some kind of really painful shocker and then threw me into the brig like some common criminal!"

Gosunkugi blinked. "How did you get out?"

"Through the fish processing room in the back of the brig." Ryoga finished with a huge sigh of relief. "Submarine my ass. I had to beat up a bunch of Chinese guys though. They were from Taiwan and there was this one that was really pretty good."

Ryoga shook the last few drops out and smirked nastily at the memory. He had thrown the Chinese martial artist into the fish slurry tank after beating him nearly senseless and giving him a thoroughly Ranma-esq taunting. He had somehow left, but not before seeing the slurry start to boil from the heat of the enraged martial artist's blood-red battle aura.

"Well, I think that I'm about ready to start on some of your curses, Ryo- don't turn around!" Gosunkugi pulled the shower curtain closed just in the nick of time.

...

Shampoo plunked herself down in Ranma's lap with a wide smile, ignoring Mousse's impotently murderous glare. Akane pouring cold water onto Ranma and his resulting change into Ranma-chan were much harder to ignore.

"Good one, Aka-chan." Ukyo high-fived her rival and smirked nastily at Shampoo.

"Shampoo no mind." Quick as a flash, Shampoo had reversed their positions, cuddling the tiny, heavily endowed redhead in her lap. "Airen is Airen."

"Boy!" Genma instantly subsided after a sharp glance from Nodoka.

Shampoo smiled admiringly at her mother in law. Nodoka really knew how to handle her males. They were both scared spit-less of her.

"Oh, My." Kasumi emerged from the galley with a tray, blushed and began passing out mugs of tea to everyone.

"Perverts!" growled Akane, settling herself onto a deck chair.

"Kitchen Destroyer and Spatula Girl just mad that they not looove Airen as much as Shampoo." Shampoo began caressing her squirming, embarrassed prize, whispering things in Ranma-chan's ear that made her flush scarlet.

Tatiwaki shuffled indecisively, not knowing whether to be jealous or horny. He soon decided on both.

"Enough!" Kodachi gave them a revolted look. "Be silent and let Hikaru-samma work. This is very serious business."

Gosunkugi stood in the bow with Ryoga, fighting off an acute attack of stage fright. "Um, thanks, Dachi-chan." He tried to ignore the whispering, bickering audience as he turned his attention back to Ryoga.

"Hmmm." Gosunkugi sent a tendril of manna snaking into the area around Ryoga's bandanna. It was instantly repulsed.

"That's interesting. When did you first start wearing that bandanna over your forehead, Ryoga?"

Ryoga shrugged. "I've always had them."

"Hah." Gosunkugi probed again, and failed again. "What's under there?"

Ryoga looked puzzled. "You know, come to think of it I just don't know. I've never even wondered before."

"Well, let's take a look." Gosunkugi had finally solved the riddle posed by the weave of the curse. It looked like a dull black thread, one of many such threads woven through Ryoga's aura.

Gosunkugi reached up and removed Ryoga's yellow 'infinite bandanna' spell. Under it, a malevolent tattooed scarlet eye glared out at the assembled audience.

"Oh my!" Kasumi covered her mouth, not wanting to seem unsympathetic.

"Red Eye of Hourus!" Nodoka threw up her arms in a warding gesture.

"Ahahahaha! Stupid Ryoga gots a stupid lookin' tattoo!" Held immobile in Shampoo's vise-like grip, a beet-red Ranma-chan giggled hysterically as Shampoo sucked on her earlobe.

Nabiki was photographing Ranma-chan and Shampoo. The Amazon was petting the redhead in her lap, and if Nabiki was any judge, using pressure points. She never noticed Ryoga's tattoo.

"You dirty little trollop!" Akane glared at the scene, having totally ignored everything but Ranma being felt up by Shampoo.

"I am not!" Ranma-chan tried to spring to her feet, but Shampoo hit a pressure point in her back that caused her to relax.

"Airen hush! Ignore pervert-girl. Shampoo want to watch magic show." Shampoo, her hands automatically moving into a very specific type of caress, didn't even notice that she had used the 'husband' point on the smaller girl.

"You look like the pervert to me, Shampoo." Akane looked away from Ranma, once again shying away from her horrific attraction to Ranma's female form.

Cologne smirked, noting Ranma's wide-eyed distress at being rendered completely helpless by what seemed to be a loving caress. No outsider could stand up to the dreaded Amazon seduction technique. She turned to Nodoka. "What is this eye of which you speak, daughter?"

Nodoka gave the ancient woman a wearily tolerant look. "An old... legend of my family. A particular demon uses those tattoos to empower its followers and to gain influence in the mortal plane. It's my clan's duty to dispatch the demon whenever it gains access to our world."

"Ha! I always knew that Ryoga had somethin' wrong with him! I'll kick his demonic butt right back to Japan!" Ranma-chan had just thrown off the pressure point, but she still couldn't squirm free of Shampoo's relentless grasp.

"What is it?" Ryoga frowned worriedly, eyes crossed from trying to look at his own forehead, until the tattooed eye glowed red and looked at first Ranma, then Nodoka.

"Saotome! You have insulted me for the last time!" Ryoga's face took on a bestial glare of rage. "You shall die!"

Gosunkugi suddenly poked the eye with his blue-glowing finger and it disappeared with an audible pop. "There, that's got it. There's one curse down."

"Oh! And all this time I thought that one had to remove the entire head to get rid of those!" Nodoka sheathed her katina, delighted to find an alternative. Taking heads was terribly messy.

Genma whimpered and Soun patted him on the back. Genma loved his wife, but she scared him almost as much as the Master at times.

Cologne gave her great-granddaughter in law a speculative look. "We must have a long talk sometime, my dear."

Ryoga subsided into a puzzled frown as he groped at his forehead. "Wow, suddenly I feel... pretty good."

Ranma-chan grinned mightily. "Welcome back, Buddy!"

"Shut up, Moron. I'm still gonna crush you like a roach someday." Ryoga turned and vigorously shook Gosunkugi's hand. "Thanks, man. I'm your friend for life."

Gosunkugi smiled, nodded and then passed out.

Ranma-chan yelped with shock as Shampoo's hands moved under her shirt, caressing Ranma's breasts. The yelp was cut off as Shampoo's tongue suddenly invaded her unsuspecting mouth.

Akane stared in stupefaction at the brazenness of it. Shampoo was acting like a total pervert in public and no one seemed to care at all! Akane's battle aura snapped into existence, blood red and as hot as a forge-fire as the slutty little redhead not only failed to pull away, but moaned into the now-searing kiss.

Ukyo's reaction came much faster.

An instant later, Ranma-chan was at the top of the mast, escaping the deck with a one-millimeter lead over Ukyo's battle spatula and at least three feet on Akane's 'Hammer of God' attack.

Shampoo leaned back, just avoiding decapitation by Ukyo's spatula and hopped on top of the deckhouse. Grinning triumphantly after Ranma-chan, she crowed her victory. For the first time ever, she had started Ranma's motor. Who would have thought that his girl half could be so responsive? It was only a matter of time now that she had found a weakness. She had almost had him then and there. Soon, he would belong to her.

Nabiki almost fainted with delight. She had caught the kiss on film! Kuno alone would pay anything for that shot! What a haul!

Nodoka set her jaw and glared murderously at her pole-axed husband. Ranma was very manly. She was also very womanly. It was all Genma's fault and hers, for allowing him to take her son. As a fine pair of bad parents, they had no right to try and tell Ranma how to live with his curse.

Kuno stared, his jaw hanging open. He suddenly fainted, his nose exploding in twin jets of blood.

Shampoo smirked at her rivals. "Soon Airen realize the truth. From his bride comes only kindness, love and kissing. From unworthy outsider womans comes only pains and suffering!"

Akane stopped trying to shake Ranma out of the mast and blinked, stricken. Ukyo frowned, worriedly.

"Enough, Child. Get below and start the chicken stock. It is our turn to cook tonight." Cologne scowled at her idiot heir. Taunting was of course a time-honored approach to demoralizing the opposition, but you never told the enemy your true strategy.

There was a splash and a disillusioned duck flew away towards China. He was nearly blind, but even a blind man could see that Shampoo had really enjoyed that kiss. He just couldn't stand looking at her anymore. He would look the mage up later, but cure or no cure, Mouse had to get off of that boat before he lost his temper and ended up as part of the menu.

...

Kodachi knelt over the supine form of Gosunkugi, patting his cheeks. "Hikaru-samma?"

Gosunkugi groaned and opened his eyes. "Kodachi-kun?"

"Aren't you feeling well, Hikaru?" Kodachi worriedly touched his cheek and then checked his pulse.

"I think that my problem is getting worse. A lot worse." Hikaru sighed miserably. "I sucked up the curse-energy like a sponge. If I start to attract magic out here just set me adrift in the raft. There's no need for all of us to die."

"Whatever is the matter, Hikaru-samma?" Kodachi lifted his head and cradled it in her lap. She would see the whole menagerie unconscious and polled off on a raft before she would allow him to throw his life away in some noble, foolish gesture.

"Profound physiological changes and a feeling of impending doom that is just getting stronger and stronger." He hesitated and then whispered, "I have... growths on my chest and arms."

Kodachi nodded, stroking his chest. She had been watching the Amazon closely and had learned some fantastic new chi based shiatsu tricks. "I believe that those are muscles, Hikaru. They are really quite becoming."

Gosunkugi inhaled, pleasure burning through him as she touched him. "Really? Are you sure? It should take considerably longer than a couple of weeks to gain that much muscle mass. What is going on here?"

Cologne had been observing. Kodachi had sealed her fate. She would join the tribe or be punished for stealing the 'touch me once' technique. "I believe that your manna is enhancing your ki and enabling your body to respond to the demands that you place on it with great speed. It takes years of training for a martial artist to reach that level of control but you seem to have gotten there by a shortcut."

Gosunkugi nodded, thoughtfully. "Ki can enhance manna, too. It's a sort of perpetual motion. I think that I know why. The orb showed me a trick in an old spellbook that helped me get rid of the pain, and that let me draw on my power." He frowned. "The Wizard's Skin was supposed to 'open the pathways to perpetual health' and promote quick healing."

"Excuse me? The 'orb' possesses a book?" Cologne was interested. Someday Gosunkugi would die and she expected that the Amazons of that age would swiftly kill all of the other contenders and obtain his artifacts, as was their custom with wizards. The more that was in the lore about those artifacts the better.

"The orb is a sort of book. Maybe it's more like a library of books that can read themselves to you. It is almost sentient." Gosunkugi didn't tell all.

"How does it 'store' books?" Kodachi was curious.

Gosunkugi smiled at her. "Watch this. Orb! To me!"

The dragon buzzed over and alighted on his arm. Gosunkugi pulled his Imperium Occultus out of a pocket that was much too small for the fat tome and proffered it to the chrome beast. "Here, hang on to this for me."

The Dragon swallowed the book and then went back to its place under the bowsprit.

Cologne nodded thoughtfully. "A strange device. Why do you call it an orb? It has clearly taken a different form, after all."

"It can take any form, but its base form is an orb."

"It seems quite a useful tool." Kodachi shot the old woman a look of annoyance. Three was a crowd.

"Quite." Cologne eyed the two and then took her leave.

"Would you like to try the Wizards Skin, Kodachi?" Gosunkugi felt that he could do it without much risk.

Kodachi raised an elegant eyebrow. That sounded like a proposition. "You wish to cast a spell upon me?"

"Only if you want me to." Gosunkugi fidgeted for a moment. "You've come to mean much to me, Ko-chan. I- I want to do something for you."

Kodachi smiled an open, pleased smile at him. She had won! "If you wish." She lowered her eyes and gave him a seductive look. "I am in your hands, Hikaru."

Tatiwaki looked worriedly at the heaving sea and gray sky, tried to check the weather report again and decided to tack. He needed to get as far south as he could manage. His maneuver put the ship nearly crosswise with the wind and heeled it over somewhat further than usual.

"Hands! Haaaands! All hands on deck!" He tied the wheel and began to trim the sails as Ranma, Genma, Soun, Gosunkugi and Ryoga arrived.

"What's going on!" Ranma looked at the shivering sails with great alarm. "You'll tip us over!"

"Arooo! Growf." Genma wondered if pandas could swim.

Ryoga closed the last button on his raingear and hoped that the Jusenkyo soap that he wore wouldn't wear off. A pig wouldn't be much help in a storm.

"Shut up and help me trim the rigging!" Kuno directed them to their tasks, considering leaving one of them in charge while he went to start the engine. It was risky, but he was the only one that knew how. Eyeing his choices, Kuno shuddered. Saotome was hopeless with anything mechanical and Ryoga would just get lost and end up in Paris again. He beckoned to Satsuki.

...

Cologne hopped up beside him. "Why have we changed course?" She had gained considerable respect for him over the last weeks. He had done a fine job acting as sailing master, his bad habits proving themselves a simple matter for Cologne to break. He had never been exposed to a real authority figure before and he took to it well, proving himself to be quite the diamond in the rough. Cologne had tentatively decided to match him up with the apprentice healer, Jade. She was a calm, levelheaded girl who would cool his impetuous nature and keep him on an even keel.

"We are on the edge of a big storm, Matriarch. There may be a typhoon developing to the northwest. Typhoons tend to move to the east, so I believe that we must tack to the south to avoid it." Kuno was worried. He could only pick up sketchy reports among the static. Clearly the ship needed a better radio.

...

That night, amid a howling gale, lightning struck a mast light. The GPS receiver went out along with the rest of the Lucky Dragon's electrical system. The computerized diesel engines died and wouldn't start again, so everyone had to man the emergency pump.

"We are in serious trouble!" Tatawaki screamed into the gale. He had lashed himself to the wheel, and was holding the ship bow on to the sea by sheer determination.

"No shit!" A thoroughly soaked Ranma-chan was helping Kuno hold the wheel, her ample breasts pressed into his back, much to his delight.

"Sorcerer! Can you abate this storm?" Tatawaki hoped he didn't drown before he could free the pigtaled girl from her terrible curse.

Gosunkugi struggled to hold onto the mast and Kodachi. They wore lifejackets and safety lines, but he had no faith in them. "I'll try." He closed his eyes and contacted the orb.

Hey! Do you know any spells for calming the sea? Gosunkugi opened his eyes and looked at Kodachi. Her face was drawn and fear lurked in her eyes. How about spells to help someone survive at sea without a boat?

The orb flashed. There is no way to directly affect the sea. You can transform the subject into an aquatic animal, but it takes lengthy preparation.

How did the oldtimers get out of storms, then?" Gosunkugi had watched stored memories from an ancient, magical world and knew that they had lived better than any class of people of any westernized country of the modern world.

Translation to another set of coordinates. Do you have a preferred destination? The orb started searching. This was one of its primary functions after all.

"Someplace safe, away from this storm!" Gosunkugi shouted.

The sea buried the deck for a long moment, heeling the ship over on its side. Slowly, it returned to its even keel, but all could see that Tatiwaki was losing his war with the elements.

"Hikaru?" Kodachi had to shout in his ear.

"I think that I can-

She hugged him, pouring all of her previously repressed emotion into it. "I have enjoyed knowing you."

"We're not dead yet, Ko-chan." Gosunkugi rubbed her back, concentrating on his task.

On the bow, the dragon began to glow blue. In his mind, Gosunkugi could hear it making contact with the worldgate, a broken fragment of a pyramid currently resting on the ocean floor.

Accessing world gate. Bringing up power. Target lock failed. Warning, sequential logic systems have degraded. This worldgate is currently uncontrollable. Initiating self repair sequence. Estimated time for minimal repairs to be complete, twenty two days, eleven hours.

Gosunkugi felt the ship start to capsize. "Get us out of here now! Just go! Anywhere!"

As the sea covered them, Kodachi said, "Goodbye, my love," and kissed him.

It was like liquid silk and pure honey. Gosunkugi felt the blood ignite in his veins.

Initiating translation sequence.

Kodachi's eyes opened wide in mid-kiss. She had heard the orb speaking to him!

Suddenly, the Lucky Dragon was outlined in blue light and then it was gone.

...

The crystal capstone of a crumbling undersea pyramid began to glow. An uncontrolled translation was occurring. The ancient device was almost surprised. After numerous system failures, tertiary safeties engaged and the capstone flared as bright as the sun, forming a large dimensional aperture. The capstone shattered into dust, but not before enough energy had been redirected to complete the uncontrolled translation.

The Lucky Dragon suddenly appeared some four meters above the water. Gravity asserted itself and the ship dropped with a tremendous splash into the sea, on its side. The heavy keel pulled at it and with a groan, the ship righted itself.

There was a moment of near-silence as seawater dripped from the rigging.

Gosunkugi was still locked in the kiss with Kodachi.

"Gods! What is this place!" Tatawaki began cutting his lashings.

Breaking free, Gosunkugi took several deep breaths and sagged in relief. The Lucky Dragon had come to rest on a wine dark sea under a cerulean blue sky, perfectly flat and calm.

...

Cologne eyed the crowded lounge, nonverbally warning the assorted martial artists to silence. Turning her attention back to Gosunkugi, she continued the interrogation. "So this orb of yours knows nothing?"

Gosunkugi shrugged. "We destroyed the local worldgate when we arrived without a guidance signal. The orb didn't have a chance to collect any information."

"That's twice that you have mentioned a 'worldgate.' What is it and can we return without it?" Cologne narrowed her eyes. If the answer was no, then effectively, she was looking at the Amazon tribe. The only real obstacle was Gosunkugi. The rest could easily be brainwashed and reeducated in the customs of the tribe. The bloodlines gathered here were uniformly excellent, and with judicious management each line would have a measure of genuine Amazon blood in just a few generations. As Matriarch, she had both the right and the obligation to do as she saw fit to protect the tribe. The tribe had done relatively well against the communists in the old days, but now things were changing. The tribe was hard-pressed by the utterly corrupt communist government and now no one knew whose life to threaten to stop the colossus from rolling over the village. This might well be the only group to survive.

Gosunkugi closed his eyes and consulted the orb. "A long time ago, I'm not really sure how long it was, there was a magical kingdom of islands on a watery world called Atlantis. They used manna like we use oil. They ran short and built the worldgates to exploit the primitive worlds in nearby alternate dimensions, usually raising an island far out to sea and away from the native population to siphon off that world's manna. There was some kind of war. Atlantis and most of its empire collapsed, literally. They had been using manna to hold up vast areas of the seafloor on their planet. What didn't sink outright washed away in enormous tidal waves."

He looked at Cologne. "The worldgate here is gone. Maybe I can get us home another way, but it will be a while. Maybe years."

Cologne nodded thoughtfully. It could all work out very well indeed. She would explore this pleasant looking world and perhaps find a new home for the tribe. Maybe the Musk and the Bird People could be accommodated too, so that the tribe never grew weak for a lack of worthy enemies.

"Great. Stuck on a strange ocean with no idea where land is or who lives there." Nabiki glared at Kuno. He had gotten her family into this mess!

"Or what lives there." Ukyo hoped that the inhabitants, if any, were human enough to like okonomiyaki.

"There's land to the east. I've seen birds flying in that direction. They were small birds, so it must be fairly close." Ryoga had a lot of experience at being hopelessly lost.

Kuno crossed his arms, stolidly. "Who is to say which way is east upon this strange globe?"

"Towards the sunrise then, if you like." Ryoga just smiled benignly at Kuno. He never seemed to lose his temper anymore. Perhaps his heroic efforts to control the demonic rages that he had born all his life were finally paying off.

"There's something on the horizon!" Nabiki's sharp eyes had spotted it first.

Ranma jumped to the top of the mast. "Hey! A boat! It's got oars! Lots of 'em!"

Kuno climbed up with a large pair of field glasses. "Two ships. There is a small lanteen masted vessel with a trireme of the ancient Greek pattern laid alongside. Obviously, a battle rages."

Ranma stared. "I see it. The little one's smaller than this boat."

Kuno looked irritated. "This 'boat,' Saotome, is properly a ship in her own right. She is one of the world's- our worlds, largest sailing yachts. If that trireme is a sample of this world's level of technological development then that smaller ship is the local equivalent of a large commercial vessel."

"Huh." Ranma had no idea what Kuno was talking about, so he just nodded wisely, following Genma and Soun's example.

Kuno looked again. "Ah! It has seen us and they are rowing to intercept. They will be upon us in an hour or two if they can maintain that pace."

Ranma smirked. "Bring 'em on."

"We would be better off just avoiding them until we know who the players are." Cologne narrowed her eyes. "However, a prisoner or two would be nice."

Ranma leapt down eagerly. "I could swim over and-

"Fire!" Kuno, still at the masthead, shouted excitedly. "The smaller ship is burning and there are still people on board! The battle was not over!"

"Dammit! Where did the hatch go! I've got to get below and fix the engine!" Ryoga stood a foot away from the ladder, staring angrily away from it. He had once spent six weeks trapped in a technical college and was proficiant with engines.

"We've got to save them! Come on!" Akane shoved him headfirst down the ladder and leapt after him.

...

It took the Lucky Dragon nearly an hour to repair the damage, start the engine and get to the smaller ship. The big trireme, very close, quickly sheered away and rowed itself out of sight eastward when its prey not only failed to run, but started to move against the wind without oars.

...

"At least they're human," Ukyo said with relief. Shampoo and Akane braced behind her as they played a fire hose onto the burning ship.

"They look human anyway," Ryoga muttered, darkly pessimistic.

"Make sure that our own hull and rigging stay wet!" Kuno didn't want to lose his yacht. He had rigged the fire pump and shown the girls how to control the hose as they had overhauled the burning boat.

"Hey! You guys want some help?" Ranma bounced in excitement on the end of the bowsprit like a hyperactive rubber ball. The native ship was a mass of flames forward. A small area aft was the only non-burning patch of deck left. A girl stood by the rail behind two large men in polished bronze breastplates, helmets and grieves. The two soldiers stood heaving from the exertion of battling the flames, having hauled bucket after bucket of water on ropes from the sea.

The girl spoke sharply to them, pointing at the Lucky Dragon.

Both men drew their swords.

Ranma narrowed his eyes and pointed at the ship, his meaning unmistakable. He beckoned to them.

One of the men spoke to the girl, his appeal plain. She shook her head and clutched a small leather sack to her chest.

Ranma suddenly leapt onto the burning deck, grabbed the shrieking redhead and launched himself back on to the Lucky Dragon. The two men shouted, shock and dismay plain on their faces.

Ranma waved at them and then leapt again. Briefly paralyzing the largest soldier, he snatched him up and carried him to safety. Jumping back to the burning deck, he found himself at swords-point.

Ranma grimaced. "Come on, man! Do ya really wanna die?" At that moment, Ukyo turned the hose onto the deck behind him, inadvertently drenching him.

The soldier's eyes bulged in comic shock; he gave a strangled gasp and collapsed onto the deck. Ranma looked down at herself and grimaced. Picking up the soldier, she jumped back.

Cologne stood balancing on her stick over the first soldier, who lay writhing on the deck.

Ranma landed and dumped the smaller man on the deck next to his comrade. "What happened?"

Cologne cackled. "The little princess objected to my looking through her pouch. Her bodyguard here tried to interfere."

Ranma scratched his head. "Why didja wanna do that?"

"Hikaru sensed a manna source in the bag." Cologne flipped the man over that Ranma had dropped. "This one is wounded. He has a bad sword cut on his side." She frowned. Did she really want these pathetic warriors on the ship? They weren't dangerous, but they would eat valuable provisions. Eyeing her companions, she again wished for a crew of true Amazons that would unsentimentally toss the useless outsiders over the side if she ordered it.

Ranma shrugged, accepting a cup of hot water from his mother. "Thanks, Mom. I don't know about patchin' people up. I'm goin' back to make sure that there ain't anybody else left alive over there."

"Be careful, Ranma." Nodoka frowned. She had made quite an effort to refine his atrocious language skills, but in moments of excitement he dropped back into his 'manly' speech patterns. "I shall attend to this man. Shampoo, please fetch me the aid kit. Kasumi, please bring soap and a bucket of hot fresh water. You may as well scrub too, you will be assisting."

"Yes, Doctor." Kasumi left to bring soap and a basin, while Nodoka examined the man's wound.

Cologne's eyes widened with interest. "Doctor?"

Nodoka nodded. "Yes, Cologne, I am a medical doctor. I recently ended my residency at Tokyo General."

Only Kasumi looked unsurprised.

"What!" Genma spluttered incoherently, shocked, waving a panda sign, forgetting that he was in human form.

Nodoka was amused at the shock that she had generated. "I had a lot of time on my hands after you took my only son from me. Did you imagine that I sat at home and wept for ten long years, Husband?" She shot him an evil glare. "I quickly went back to school and studied... many things, including medicine."

Ranma beamed, proudly. "That's so cool, Mom! It ought ta save us lots an' lots of money now that Doctor Tofu left!"

"Tofu wasn't really a medical doctor, Ranma. He was just a chiropractor." Kasumi sounded a little sad.

"I understand that he was a very good one, though." Nodoka cut the man's shirt free. "I wish that I had some pain medication."

Ranma poked the guard and he passed out. "Doc Tofu taught me lots of neat tricks."

"Well done, Son in Law." Cologne grinned. Even she sometimes forgot just how good the boy really was. Ranma never forgot anything that had to do with the art. Every move used on him was one that he soon mastered.

"You must teach me how to do that, Son." Nodoka was amazed.

Ranma grinned, happily. "Sure! I know lots of them. We can practice on Pop." Seeing Nabiki shoot a glare at him, Ranma cleared his throat. "Well, I better get to it."

...

Ranma leapt, landing on the other deck again. The girl's fire hose had put most of it out and there were only a few smoking areas left.

Ranma walked around, avoiding holes burned in the deck and grimacing at the dead bodies. Most had clearly been killed by arrows before being roasted in the fire. Taking a deep breath, he went below.

The dark and smoke were a problem, until he punched a few airholes in the hull and then used a tiny version of the Hiryu Shoten Ha to clear the smoke. Then he saw that most of the lower deck hadn't been touched by the fire.

Making his way through the ship, he found no one left alive. The slaughter had been vicious and the looting comprehensive. In the companionway leading to the aft cabin there were signs of a heroic struggle. A lot of dead men lay on the deck, a few plundered bodies still wearing bits and pieces of armor like the two that he had rescued. Most were small, dark-skinned Middle Eastern looking men with long beards and long curly hair. The guards were mostly fair skinned, vaguely Asian appearing people.

Pulling bodies out of the way he noticed that the ones to the rear had been looted of everything of value, even their clothes. His respect for the two soldiers that he had rescued went up. Clearly they were the only survivors of the troops that had fought the mob of invaders to a standstill here.

He entered the cabin and found two teenaged girls, a blonde and a black haired girl, both with the Asian-like features of the girl that he had already rescued. They were no older than fourteen, huddled together on the floor, hugging each other and watching him with huge, terrified eyes.

"It's okay, I'm here to help. Come on." Gesturing to them to follow, he turned.

Stepping to the side, Ranma took a knife away from the blonde as she tried to plant it in his back. "Hey! What's the big idea?"

She shouted something at him in an unknown language and tried to jerk the knife out of his hand.

He bent the knife into a U shape and threw it away. "Look, all I wanna do is help."

Both girls shrank away from him, one defiant, the other rigid with terror. Both covered their breasts with their arms, clearly convinced that they were going to be raped.

Ranma sighed and then spied a stone crock full of water on top of a pedestal. "Hey, wanna see a real neat magical trick?" He plunged his hand in and turned into a woman. "Presto change-o! See, now I got nothin' to rape with. Come on."

Both girls looked absolutely pole-axed. The blonde rubbed at her eyes and the Asian's jaw dropped.

"Come on! This boat's sinking!" Ranma-chan grabbed them by their arms and hustled them out of the cabin.

...

Thumping down on the Lucky Dragon's deck, Ranma-chan set her passengers on their feet. "These girls were in the cabin that those big sword guys were defending. The soldiers sliced up a whole bunch of those little brown guys from the big rowboat, but they all died."

The redhead that he had rescued first started shouting at the two girls, who immediately cringed away from her.

"Silence, wretched girl!" Kodachi glared evilly at the redhead, who fell silent, averting her eyes and swallowing.

Cologne narrowed her eyes at the soldiers. "Ranma, how many of these soldiers were killed over there?"

"Bout twelve. Eight below, but some of them were killed on deck. The cabin had six of them dead in front of it. They took at least thirty of the enemy with them. They were pretty tough guys. Too bad nobody ever bothered to teach them how to fight." Ranma smiled her thanks at Nodoka, who had finally handed her a steaming kettle.

"She must be of some small importance in this world." Kodachi looked at the redhead, her eyes narrowed. "Not too important. She mistreats her servants."

Satsuki's eyes bulged and he ignored Genma's sardonic grin.

Nabiki watched, sizing the girl up. She disagreed with Kodachi's assessment. Nabiki could smell money and this girl was rich. Smiling broadly at the girl, she gestured at Ranma. "Ranma, would you please go get her clothes and luggage? It will be in the cabin. She'll feel more at home here with her own things."

Ranma looked at the other boat. It wasn't sinking as fast as he had feared while below. "Sure." He jumped.

"This gem is really interesting." Gosunkugi walked up, staring into it.

The girl cried out and the newly awakened guard lunged at Gosunkugi with his short-sword.

Tatiwaki parried and then disarmed the man with a lightning fast blow with the flat of his katina. "None of that, Sirrah."

The guard stared at his empty hand in disbelief, then gurgled and collapsed as Kodachi's ribbon snapped tight around his neck. "You shall die for that, Peasant, and your mistress too." Her expression of shocked terror was melting into cruel determination.

The older guard watched, his anxiety mounting as the younger man turned purple. Turning to Cologne, he said something in a submissive tone, bowing repeatedly and pointing at the strangling guard.

The redhead stared at Kodachi, terror etched on her features, until Kuno stepped impassively in front of her, clearly blocking his sister's wrath.

Cologne watched for a few moments longer and smiled when Gosunkugi intervened.

"You don't really mean to strangle the poor man, do you Ko-chan? After all, he didn't really hurt anyone. He was just doing his duty as a loyal guard should. It's not like he would have gotten very far with you and the rest of these martial artists around." Gosunkugi stood so that the guard was no longer in Kodachi's direct line of sight.

Kodachi looked indecisive and then smiled sunnily, releasing the grotesquely strangling man with a twitch of her ribbon. "Of course not, Hikaru-samma. I didn't mean to insult your pride, but he certainly must be chastised for his presumption."

The guard hacked and choked, staring fearfully from his knees at the ribbon twitching fitfully in Kodachi's hand.

"I believe that he is well chastened. I could never be insulted by your great kindness to my unworthy self, Ko-chan." Gosunkugi stared soulfully into her eyes until Cologne decided to break it up.

"I agree. He should be punished." Cologne hopped over to where the man's sword lay and tossed it over the side. Glaring at him until she had his full attention, she pointed at him, then at the sea, then at Gosunkugi. "There. He is punished. That should be enough for them to get the message."

"Message... This stone is a sort of teaching device!" Gosunkugi remembered his news. "It's almost like my orb, but not intelligent and it can't store information. It can help you learn someone's language really fast though."

"Really?" Nabiki plucked the gem out of his hand. "That sounds like a monumentally useful device. Why don't I try it out on little Miss Priss?" If she was the only one that knew the local language, she could wring concessions and patronage out of the princess while she was trapped at Nabiki's nonexistent mercy as an interpreter.

Gosunkugi hesitated, then nodded. "You just put it to her forehead, hold it there and... kiss her."

"Kiss her!" Nabiki squawked. "Forget it! Ranma can learn it from her and I'll learn it from him."

Three sets of eyes locked evilly on Nabiki.

"Greedy Shark-Girl better stay far, far away from Shampoo's Airen if she no want to swim with real sharks." Shampoo was very wary of Nabiki.

"Naaaabiki," grated Akane.

"Oh, please." Nabiki rolled her eyes at the glares. "Like I couldn't have already taken him if I wanted him."

Gosunkugi hurriedly intervened as they moved to train the fire hose on Nabiki. "It doesn't work that way. It sort of borrows the language out of her mind, copies it into yours and then puts it back. If you copy from a copy, it would degrade the knowledge considerably. At best, you'd be able to manage a sort of pidgin."

Kuno arrogantly plucked the jewel from Nabiki's hand. "Allow me."

Striding to the red haired girl, he stared into her eyes and elegantly made a leg in the manner of a western courtier. "Milady, forgive my presumption, but needs must as the devil will. May I?"

The redhead gasped, squealed and then moaned as Kuno held the stone to her forehead, swept her into his arm and thoroughly kissed her.

Ranma, watching the moaning redhead's arms lock tightly around Kuno's back, was silently giving thanks to whatever deity cared to listen that it wasn't him this time.

Kuno said something to the redhead in her own language and then crumpled with her to the deck, cushioning her fall.

The older guardsman made a tiny move forward, only to be nailed in his place by an evil glare from Ryoga.

Cologne hopped over and poked at the inert samurai wannabe. "Nodoka?"

Nodoka took his pulse, then the girl's. Peeling back the redheads eyelid, Nodoka nodded. "They're both alive and breathing well. They seem to be comatose though. These people are definitely human."

Gosunkugi shrugged, trying to look casual as he draped his arm around Kodachi. "It's probably just the shock of learning so much so fast. That jewel is really kind of primitive. I think its local post-Atlantean magic, made by someone without too much of a grasp on how the mind works, trying to copy an older, more sophisticated tool like my orb."

Kodachi smiled sunnily and rested her head against him. "Perhaps your dragon-orb could be used to do the same thing, without the side effects, Darling."

Gosunkugi looked thoughtful and very pleased. "Perhaps, my dear. I shall research it tonight!"

"God, that boat stinks. I'm going to gag." Akane walked away, heading below and away from the smell of burned flesh. As she passed Ryoga, he automatically fell into step behind her, forgetting that he wasn't in his pig form.

...

Kuno steered toward the harbor entrance, valiantly trying to ignore Kisha's arms around him as she snuggled up to his back.

Kisha sighed in contentment. She had dutifully steeled herself to marry the Caliph of Quanar, old fat, treacherous and ugly as he was. But the gods had smiled and the Caliph had turned out to be a coward, cravenly sending his ship to steal the dowry and murder her. He obviously feared provoking the Emperor by making an alliance with Turay.

This was certainly destiny saving her and her people from a terrible fate. The heroes and wizards would surely be able to save the kingdom! Kisha turned to her hero. "First we must meet my father and then visit the Bishop. Then you can-

"Lady Kisha, I must warn you once again that my heart is captive to another." Kuno shifted and tried not to enjoy the feel of a beautiful woman clutching him possessively.

"What, do you mean Ranko? That's really just Ranma's curse, silly! Besides, she is Shampoo's husband!" Kisha smiled at Ranma, still pleased that the boy-girl had fetched all of their possessions and her dowry. It was obvious that her beloved was just confused.

"Just tellin' that moron ain't gonna help." Ranma walked forward, with a sour look on his face. Gosunkugi had used his orb to learn the local language from the guard and had passed it on to everyone else without the mind melding effect of the jewel.

"Why do you allow him to speak to you like that, dear?" Kisha ran her hands over the muscular chest and sighed in contentment.

"Saotome is a formidable force. Forasmuch as I have given my sacred word to hold fast to an armistice in our endless war for so long as we are destined to be comrades engaged in this honor-quest to save the life of the worthy sorcerer, I Tatiwaki Kuno, Blue Thunder of Furikan shall not attack, despite his many provocations. Additionally, Saotome holds within him the essence of the Pigtailed Girl, thus rendering his person inviolate." Kuno inhaled and gently slipped free. "It is a most complicated situation."

...

"What we do here, Great Grandmother?" Shampoo was happy to be going ashore, but worried. She didn't want either of her rivals getting Ranma alone away from her. The competition had become brutally open. Both Ukyo and Akane had tried to seduce him, but neither had what it took to try him in his vulnerable girl form.

"It is a pity that the boy's orb doesn't work for languages that one already knows. Your Japanese is simply atrocious, Shampoo." Cologne peered at the city through her binoculars. "We shall spy out the lay of the land and see about finding our sisters a new homeland."

Shampoo frowned. She missed the village. "What? Leave the village? But why? Hikaru make communists eat own heads if they attack village!"

Cologne looked aft at Gosunkugi. The young mage had spoken of scrying spells that could help her find the perfect place for the tribe to settle. "All he could do is avenge us if they used one of their bombs, Child. This world appears to be more hospitable."

"Huh. Too bad. Maybe Hikaru teach Airen Mandarin?" Shampoo looked forward and scowled. Ukyo had walked up behind where Ranma was sitting on the rail and had started brushing his hair, whispering in his ear and pausing often to run her treacherous fingers through it.

"That hair belong Shampoo!" Shampoo started forward, but a fast-moving Akane reached the scene of the crime first, cannoning into Ranma and knocking him into the sea.

Screaming threats, Akane dodged a spatula strike and punched Ukyo across the deck. The battle was on.

Cologne smirked. "Maybe you should concentrate on teaching him, Child. This looks like a fine time for a lesson."

"Ayaaa! Great-great grandmother very wise!" Seeing her rivals locked in furious combat, Shampoo leapt for a boat hook to fish her now-female husband out of the sea. She would need to be dried off, groomed and consoled.

...

The boatload of customs officials and guards climbed over the entry port and looked around at the immaculate decks of the Lucky Dragon with covetous awe. Those looks were instantly wiped away by the sight of Kisha standing next to Tatawaki, her two imposing Royal Guards flanking the couple.

The port-master blanched and bowed. This situation was above his station. "Highness! We had word from a fisherman that a trireme had taken your ship-

"Prince Tatiwaki and his guests were kind enough to drive it away rescue me. Have word of my arrival sent to the palace and fetch the royal barge and boats for my things." She glared down at the jumped-up peasant. "Hurry up, fool!"

Tranvanor, the younger of the two guards, stepped forward. "Highness, shall I go ahead to the palace to bring word? I can tell your father of the Caliph's treachery." He could also explain what he knew of the mad wizards of this strange magic ship that had rescued them, so that the king would not accidentally provoke them. Most of all, he could escape the wrath of the beautiful witch. Travanor knew that she held a grudge. The gods only knew what might happen if she ever caught him alone.

Kisha, her eyes back on Tatiwaki, nodded and gestured the guard away with an impatient flick of her fingers. She didn't need guards while her prince was nearby.

Geron, the older guard, frowned. "Good thinking. Be careful, lad. I don't see any flag on the fortress. Something's not right."

...

Ranma was pinned on the bed, her arms paralyzed and her legs weak from hot flashes. Who would have thought that the dreaded Amazon tickle attack would prove itself so effective? Things had gone from playful to horrifically intense in a split second. Desperately, she turned her head, avoiding Shampoo's descending lips.

Shampoo licked the side of her face, trailed kisses down her neck and then planted a hickey on the hollow of her throat. The attack that Cologne had suggested was awesomely effective in disrupting chi-flow. Shampoo was actually pinning both of Ranma's slender arms above her head with one hand!

"Airen be much, much happier if she just admit truth and submit to lawful authority of wife." She started kissing her way down to the hollow between Ranma's breasts. "All Ranma have to do is call Shampoo 'wife' in front of witnesses, and we do this every night!"

"Uhhh." Desperately, Ranma tried to get control of her limbs, but whatever Shampoo was doing made her feel like she was falling right out of her body. "Oh, kami. Don't... Stop... Oh, Shampoo. Please..."

Shampoo smiled and unfastened the pegs of Ranma's Chinese shirt with her lips. "Raaaaaaaaanma."

Ranma shuddered in the throes of her passion. Shampoo sounded exactly like a hunting cat.

...

Gosunkugi swallowed as the huge plume of manna arched out over the water, seeking him out. "This is going to really hurt if the technique doesn't work."

"We should kick the royal tramp overboard and get back out to sea, where it is safe." The redhead wasn't even close to good enough for her brother. Kodachi's sensitive ears enabled her to discern Ranma-chan's muffled yelping from below and she grimaced in distaste. Shampoo had dragged the soaked pigtailed girl down there while Akane and Ukyo were in the cockpit, being bandaged by Nodoka.

Kodachi had come to the conclusion that the curse affected Ranma's mind, turning the stoic primitive hero into a wanton little slut no matter how reluctant he appeared to be. "We could leave a landing party behind to scout, Sweetums. Ranma and his fiancées would do quite nicely here."

Gosunkugi shook his head. "We should all stick together. I would hate to lose anybody." They had all come for him, and that made them his friends. He wasn't going to let any of his friends get hurt. "That reminds me. I'd better take a crack at Ryoga's direction curse before we lose him on this world."

"You are a nice man, Hikaru. Perhaps some sort of location spell would be advisable." Kodachi tried to ignore the hysterical giggles from below and carefully avoided gritting her teeth. The Pig was an agreeable companion, humble and polite. He had never hesitated to defend Gos-chan.

"Um... Fine idea. Here it comes!" Gosunkugi braced himself, but the manna just fell into him and vanished with to ill effect.

"How do you feel, Darling?" Kodachi felt absolutely terrible. Some of it had arced over onto her, but she wasn't going to worry about it.

"Like..." He shook his head. "There just aren't words."

"Ranma! Where's Ranma?" Akane stalked up to them, looking suspiciously over the fantail.

"We haven't seen him." Kodachi wished that the self-important little brute would simply go away. She was sick of the constant shouting.

Below, Ranma-chan moaned.

"Ranma!" Akane dived for the hatch.

"What was that about Ranma?" Ukyo, not waiting for an answer, followed.

...

Shampoo smiled at her satiated prize and breathed on a nipple, starting the redheads motor again. "Say it again. Say it for Shampoo."

"Nghhh." Ranma-chan frantically arched her back, her trembling arms pinioned to either side by the larger girl.

"Husband know what to say to get more! It no matter anyway. Might as well say it. Shampoo is wife, after all. Is safe! There are no proper witnesses!" Shampoo wanted to get Ranma used to saying the 'W' word, or at least thinking it. He would fall into her hand like a ripe plum. Maybe today!

"Oooooooh. W- wife." Ranma pulled together her shattered will and managed to open her eyes. The way that Shampoo was grinding into her pelvis was driving her mad.

"Get off, Bitch!" Akane, her eyes glazed over at the scene that had greeted her, swung her hammer and knocked Shampoo out cold against the bulkhead.

"Akane..." Ranma managed to sit up, flushed and heaving. "It's not what it looks like!"

"It is so!" Akane furiously snatched up Ranma's discarded pants and staunched a nosebleed. "She was raping you!"

Ukyo walked in, appalled. "What are we going to do! She'll never quit now that she's..." Ukyo flushed scarlet. "Found a way to molest Ranma when he's a… she."

Akane's eyes shown with pure fire and she tore the ruined pants into tiny pieces with her fingers. "Sex isn't that big a deal. It's certainly not a reason to get married!" She picked up a shirt and started on that.

"My shirt!" Ranma-chan was sitting up now, her legs drawn up and her arms crossed over her large breasts.

Ignoring Ranma, Ukyo nodded, uncertainly. "But what do we do? Poor Ranchan has no defense against that sort of thing."

"I'll show that bimbo! We do what we always do when our defenses are poor? We spar!" Akane tore off her top and glomped Ranma.

Ranma screamed at the incredible pressure, but Akane's questing tongue cut her off.

...

Shocked, Ukyo stared. Then she nodded. Akane was absolutely right. Shampoo was on the right track and would win in days if something wasn't done about this. The only way to keep the Amazon from winning was to train. Ranma had to become experienced enough to make him impervious to Shampoo's sex-based Amazon attacks.

Thoughtfully, Ukyo fetched a thermos full of hot water and waited her turn. Akane was clearly enjoying herself, but Ukyo just wasn't into women. Watching, the action, she finally climbed onto the narrow bed and glomped her fiancée from the other side, cringing with distaste and carefully avoiding touching Akane. It wouldn't do to let Akane have that much of an advantage. "Lay back and enjoy it, Sugar. This is for your own good."

...

Satsuki backed silently out of the companionway and made his way on deck. Bowing apologetically, he informed Matriarch Cologne that Ranma and the girls had elected to stay behind and help him guard the ship from the villainous looking native hawkers on the bum boats that surrounded it. Ryoga was nowhere to be found.

Concerned that his mistress looked somewhat ill, Satsuki went to fetch her some tea.

...

Travanor stepped out in front of the sedan chair and stopped the procession. "Highness! It is a trap! Prince Phanor, styling himself 'Imperial Governor' holds the king in prison! There are a thousand Imperial Guards quartered in the palace and a full legion in the border forts to the north!"

Imperial guards appeared in the street behind them.

Tatiwaki drew his katina and thunder crashed. "Beware peasants! The Blue Thunder lacks patience!" Lightning bolts spiked through the clear blue sky and the guards milled uncertainly.

"My Prince! What shall we do?" Kisha fitted herself to him, spoiling his noble pose of defiance.

"Fear not, fair Princess! The Blue Thunder is here. What has become of the Royal Guard, Travanor?" Tatawaki had thought to don his finest samurai armor before meeting the king. He was as ready for battle as a man could possibly be, with his personal banner flapping in the wind above him. He had chosen blue, with twin lighting bolts under a cherry blossom.

"Dispersed, highness. Our captains were hanged as an example." Travanor managed to keep his voice steady. The hanged included his father.

"Slip away and find them! Gather them before the palace." He looked at Cologne. "If that meets with your approval, Matriarch?"

Cologne looked at the guards, charging her staff with enough ki to immolate them all at once. They stood like men instructed to kill, not an escort or a prisoner detail. Fifty more appeared ahead of them. There was no help for it. There would have to be a coup. But did she really want this primitive city? Governing it would certainly not be worth her precious time. "Yes. That would seem to be the wisest course."

An arrow flew toward them from the front, only to be caught by Genma, an inch from Nodoka's chest.

"Guard her, old friend." Growling like an angry bear, Genma pushed Nodoka toward Soun and vanished into the Umisen-ken.

"Husband!"

"Surely he is not running away..." Kuno frowned and reflexively joined Geron in covering Kisha.

"I doubt it, Brother." Kodachi glared coldly at the rank ahead. "The Panda is not one to take lightly."

"I wish that Ranma was here." Nabiki licked her lips and huddled with Kasumi, really scared. "Or even Ryoga."

"Ranma is a nice boy and very skilled for his age, but he is simply not ready for something like this." Nodoka swallowed. "Believe me, my husband will prove to be quite… sufficient for these."

"Curtain on!" Gosunkugi finished gesticulating and panted, sagging into Kodachi's arms. "We should be safe from arrows now. Just stay close to Ko-chan. The curtain is centered on her."

"Oh, Kami, not this again. Look away, girls. Close your eyes and cover your ears." Nodoka glanced ahead, hugged the huddled girls to block their view and hastily averted her eyes from the advancing ranks.

Soun, stone faced, turned to face the rear and stepped deliberately in front of his family. "Look if you dare, my daughters. This is your heritage. Genma and I will show you the true power of Anything Goes. Watch and learn."

Nabiki looked, but Kasumi firmly closed her eyes.

The front rank ahead erupted into shrieking fountains of gore. Dying, disembodied heads thudded to the pavement and less lucky men screamed as they were reduced to piles of bloody scrap by Genma's Vacuum Claw Storm. Like a vast scythe wielded by an angry god, the devastation passed unseen through them until they were all down.

The soldiers to the rear charged, not having had time to see the awful fate of their squad mates.

Soun's great burning Demon Head stretched out and bit their officer in half, halting the men in their tracks. Huge talons of burning chi began tearing into their front rank, throwing screaming men into the demon's slavering maw. Massive glowing teeth made sickening crunching noises, biting through their armor as blood and gore splashed down by the gallon.

Veterans all, the elite troops of an iron Empire broke in terror like raw recruits, dropping their weapons as they scrambled to get away.

Cologne felt sick as she sensed Genma pass back through the group in furious pursuit of the running men at the rear. She doubted if any would survive the next minute. It was a great pity, but the bear wouldn't listen to anything like reason until he had taken his revenge. A few dozen panicking survivors would have nicely demoralized the rest.

Jusenkyo victims absorbed some of their cursed form's nature and Genma had been very bear-like, long before seeing China. Bears were savage vindictive beasts when riled and Genma was no exception.

Both Kuno and Gosunkugi were vomiting into the gutter at the sight and smell of ruptured intestines on the street. Travanor had collapsed to his knees, utterly appalled at horrific power of the two bumbling foreigners whom he had considered to be harmless servants.

Nodoka was pale, but steady, comforting the small gaggle of girls and keeping them from looking at the carnage.

Nabiki had quickly fainted during the battle. She was being supported by Kasumi. Kisha and the two servant girls were all hiding their faces beneath their cloaks, distraught at the awful crunching and sounds of splashing blood.

Kodachi watched the slaughter impassively. Only the vomit at her feet gave away any sign of previous distress.

Cologne wrinkled her nose at the odor and moved swiftly forward to finish off the archer with a tiny, precise bolt of hot ki. Genma had left him horribly wounded but alive enough to die by inches in searing agony. Blowing a hole through a grog shop to the right, she led them through it to an alley, then through a large house to another street. It was just too messy to continue up that one.

...

Shampoo bolted awake to the sound of a shotgun blast.

"Sheer off, you ugly gajin monkeys! You at the tiller! I'll kill the lot of you if you come any closer!"

"Ayaaah!" Shampoo stared in horror at the bed. Ranma, now male, was spooning Ukyo. Akane lay beside her and they were all wearing nothing but smiles.

Another shotgun blast and Satsuki's maniacal laughter jolted them all awake.

"What was that?" Ranma sat up, rubbed his eyes, sniffed his hand and then flushed.

"Ugly little ninja slave busy killing pirates." Shampoo was too dejected to care. Her strategy was ruined!

"Satsuki needs help!" Ranma scurried into his boxers and ran up the ladder, leaving the girls to glare at each other.

"Shampoo should kill!" Shampoo stood and gathered her clothing. "Only Great Grandmother and Ranma saving husband-stealers!"

"Losers and weepers, Sugar. You started this game. We just raised the stakes." Ukyo smirked with smug satisfaction. Akane had gone on about protection and refused to let the male Ranma have her, but Ukyo knew better. If she was pregnant, she had won.

Akane grinned insolently at the angry Amazon. "She loves me." It was true. Ranma-chan had said it to her.

Shampoo scowled.

Ukyo smirked wider. Akane might have done well with his female side, but Ranma had chosen Ukyo after he had changed. Akane had actually managed to knee him in the testicles both times that he had reached for her.

"Shampoo maybe change rules to game. Play new game called Shampoo kill!" Shampoo glared at the evil bitches and resolved to crush them on this new battlefield. Ranma would be hers and hers alone.

Another shotgun blast and Ranma's horrified protests over Satsuki's deranged laughter interrupted the staring contest. Akane looked up. "We should go and help before somebody gets killed."

"Yes. I go now. You get yours later, Pervert Girl." Shampoo stalked out of the cabin.

"Oh, don't trouble yourself. I already got it." Akane grinned after the defeated Amazon. This was fabulous! She was winning on every front. She was sure that Ranma was immune to sex appeal based attacks now, and she felt a lot mellower about life in general.

...

Happosai sat in the belly of the god and radiated a chi aura of pure chaos. When the thing had swallowed him, he had immediately tried to blast a hole in it, but it was impervious to his hottest chi bolts. He would see if he could make it sick. He was the greatest evil in all Japan after all and the divine gut was turning a distinct black color as he watched.

Sighing, Happosai wondered if it would try to digest him. He wasn't uncomfortable, just bored with the waiting. Not that he was looking forward to meeting his end. Or the god's, for that matter. Opening his pouch, he poured some Turkish cut tobacco into the bowl of his pipe. Summoning a chi-flame he lit up and inhaled blissfully.

Suddenly, the floor dropped out from beneath him.

Cursing and grabbing for his tobacco pouch, Happosai dropped through a burning ring into hell. Standing up, he brushed himself off and sadly contemplated his empty pouch.

A huge red demon walked up. "Greetings, property! You must have really pissed somebody off to get sent here. Well, let's get started then."

Resentfully zipping up his pouch, Happosai kicked the demon spinning and launched it over the horizon with his pipe. He had often summoned demons for sparring in his younger days and had absolutely no fear of them. Idly, He wondered if they had tobacconists in hell. Stowing his pouch, he stalked after the demon. He needed some answers and the annoying demon could talk.

...

Tatiwaki led the small, determined party of Royal Guards through the shattered postern gate, cutting down the few demoralized legionnaires that had survived their horrifying encounter with Genma.

Pale and sickened by his first killing, Tatiwaki pounded through the outer keep, trying not to step in anything. There were a lot of red bits scattered around.

Ignoring the shrieks and howls of the awful massacre that Genma and Soun were perpetrating, Tatawaki led the small party of Royal Guards toward the dungeons.

Falling on the Imperials guarding the dungeons, they hacked brutally until the survivors broke and ran. Tatawaki was vastly disappointed. He had expected the clash of swords, elegant challenges, fine speeches and heroic combat, not grotesque butchery, grunts, vile curses and screaming terror. The horrible suffering of the wounded and the callous vindictiveness of his own men made him pale with disgust.

Throwing open the dungeon door, he blinked, and saw a boney old man lying on a straw palette, his leg chained to an iron ring on the wall.

"Sire!" Geron fell to his knees before the older man. "We have come to rescue you!"

"Geron! You live! Is my daughter alive?"

"Yes, Sire. Our party was rescued by the Prince."

The older man struggled to rise, and Kuno stepped forward. "With your permission, I shall strike off these fetters, your Majesty."

"At once. Who are you, Sir?" The old man held out his legs, marveling at the way the young foreign lord's sword sliced through the rough iron.

Geron rose at a gesture and then steadied his King. "I present to you Prince Kuno of Furican, Sire, the savior of Princess Kisha."

Kuno swept into a very elegant bow. "Majesty, it would perhaps be for the best if we bypassed such formalities for the nonce and rejoined your army."

The old man's eyes widened in surprise. "My army? How many are left?"

"Five hundred of the guard rallied to Prince Kuno, Sire! The gates are down and the prince's retainers will soon destroy the surviving Imperial Guards in the palace."

"Then we must hurry." The King struggled to his feet, leaning heavily on Geron. "Lead on, Prince Kuno."

...