A shadow passed through the trees with stealth and silence. She was getting closer to her target, so close she could almost taste it. This was something she couldn't fail at.
These outsiders had to either come back with her.
Or she had to defeat them.
There was no middle ground.
Far too much was riding on the success of her mission.
Kinnosuke frowned as he stood at the gates of the temple walls.
For nearly twenty days, Nabiki had evaded his eyes and ears. The fact that no divinations worked within Xellos's temple walls were certainly a damper on his ability to collect information regarding the other Metallium, and the other priests in the temple were of uncertain allegiance regarding each other.
And if any guessed his allegiances, he'd have no allies within the temple.
But first, he had to keep Nabiki in check. She'd caused him far too many headaches in the past.
Enough headaches that he had had to leave Nerima.
The mere fact that she had come to the central temple as he was preparing to start
his mission was too much for him to accept. He'd delayed his mission while trying to figure out exactly what she was there for and ended up spending two weeks with not even a glimpse of her. It was as if she had merely vanished into the dust of the temple.
He'd even been watching the gates, with spells beyond the protection of the temple and in sight of the gates.
Not a damn thing.
Metalliums coming and going.
Beasts in cages, some for study, some to be released into the wild.
But no Nabiki Tendo.
Not in the temple, not leaving it.
And even his inability to find her was no help. There were too many places held by factions that spoke to no outsiders, even in the sect. It would be impossible to identify which of the factions was sheltering her.
And, in the meantime, he was pushing his mission aside longer and longer.
Spells were getting harder to bring out by the day. Pretty soon, if he didn't get started, he was afraid that he'd lose all his spells entirely.
He grimaced as another cart full of beasts to be released into the wild, or destroyed as too dangerous if the researcher was one of the more responsible experimenters, passed by, and there was still no Nabiki.
It was time to give up this obsession and get on to his task.
Catalonia's servants would be waiting for him.
Several miles away, Nabiki brushed herself off and waved to the beast-handlers as they drove away. She smiled and hefted a travelling bag before looking down the road to the next location on her list.
This had to be fast.
If the vision she had was correct, Ranma would be receiving a new visitor soon. That visitor would be rebuffed initially without harm, but if Nabiki was too slow, the subsequent encounters would get more intense and cause way too much of a distraction from other concerns.
The visitor would die.
Ranma would die.
Her sisters would die.
And a lot more besides.
And that was why she had to move quickly.
Hefting her bag, she jogged into the shadows of the trees and suddenly seemed to speed away towards the wreath of smoke that held about the mountains that loomed over the Metallium central temple.
Kuno breathed heavily as he sat back against the rock and scanned down below him on the cliffs. He could still see a few torches searching around for him. This had been a debacle of ridiculous proportions.
At first, everything was going quite well. As soon as they learned that he was of the noble class, they had provided him with food and some equipment for surviving in the wilds. It was as Tatewaki suspected, those imposters' curses were nothing but flash and posturing.
Then he had gone to that incompetent blacksmith to purchase a sword.
The first three swords he'd tried to purchase snapped, bent or shattered when he tried to test them on the cutting poles the blacksmith had provided.
After that the man had outright refused to even let him test a sword.
He had seemed most unreasonably upset from Kuno's opinion. The man had even thrown Kuno bodily out of the smithy, which would not have been possible had the man actually provided him with a decent sword.
Obviously the so-called smith had been plotting to have him thrown out and humiliated from the start.
Not long after that, the trees and grass and other such plants around the village had started visibly wilting and dying. The accursed smith relayed some exaggerated falsehood about the inferior blades that Kuno had broken, and suddenly everybody was up in arms and he was forced to make…a tactical retreat.
The warrior reached into his pockets and pulled out the gem of darkness suffocating light and looked into it. As he held it, the darkness seemed to grow stronger in the gem and he found himself feeling something…odd.
He didn't quite have a name for it, but it was a sensation of wishing that perhaps he had made different choices.
Frowning, he slipped the gem back into his pocket and, his rest over, he started back up the hillside. He had to put more space between him and these lunatics that populated the village below.
Out of concern for what he'd be forced to do to them, of course. His own safety was definitely not a concern, not with such weak opponents.
"My acolytes found the remains of that summoner," Kodachi noted as she walked away from the young woman that had brought the report and joined her spouses as they walked into the tavern before them. "The incubus's body was also there. Though neither could exactly be considered in one piece. They had to identify them based on that cretin's pink collars."
"The incubus should have dissipated to the lower planes," Akane said, surprised.
"Indeed," Kodachi noted. "Something or someone was very…upset with them."
"How about…" Ranma hesitated as he looked around.
"No word of anything like what the good ruruoni describes," Kodachi noted.
They were sitting down as Ranma hesitated and looked around.
"Something wrong?" Akane asked, standing back up and placing herself in front of Kodachi and beside Ranma.
"I thought I heard…" Ranma whispered as his eyes found what he was looking for.
She was wrapped, head to toe, in white bandages, with a blue-dyed fur coat and hood covering the majority of her head. As Akane and Kodachi noted the figure by following Ranma's line of vision, they immediately thought of Shi-Shio's following, including fanatics that burned themselves in imitation of their god.
"What's she doing here?" he asked himself.
"You seem to have a lot of history coming back to find you, Ranma," Akane noted. "Who's this?"
"Trouble," Ranma said. "She's…ah hell, she's coming over."
The figure moved closer and pointed a large, colorful mace at the three women.
"You is Ranma's lovers?" she demanded.
The three could already see the rumors spreading out from that loud question.
"Wives," Akane protested loudly, looking around at the people that heard the question. "We're his wives."
"I'm not as worried about semantics as my sister-wife," Kodachi noted. "But I would like to know what you want with Ranma."
"Where Ranma?" the figure demanded still brandishing her mace.
There was quiet at that as Kodachi, Akane and many others in the diner turned to look at the black-haired, male martial artist.
"Let's go somewhere else to talk about this," Ranma suggested.
"Shampoo need Ranma," the bandaged figure demanded, pointing her mace at each of the three, ending with Kodachi standing slightly behind the other two. "Where Ranma."
Ranma and Akane narrowed their eyes as the mace settled in pointing at Kodachi.
"Keep pointing that at her and I'll make you eat that," Akane growled.
"You want to back off, Shampoo," Ranma agreed.
"I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself," Kodachi protested, crossing her arms.
"Shampoo point at whoever Shampoo…
The next sight Shampoo had was the rapidly approaching window and then the street outside. She was still blinking in surprise at just how quickly she'd been ejected as she slammed into the ground and rolled to crouching position.
As she shook her head clear, she looked up to see the black-haired man jumping out of the window even as the blue-black haired girl behind him was readying a spell of some kind.
The bandages were falling away from her as she came to her feet, slashed to pieces by the glass of the window and revealing what lay underneath the white wrappings.
People fell away from her as they saw the jet black skin and the long purple hair and they realized what was standing on the street with them.
"Drow!" someone shouted.
"Catalonia's traitors!" another declared.
The calls were mostly lost as everyone cleared the area around Shampoo and the charging Ranma.
She rose her mace to slash it forward, only to find it kicked out of her hands by one foot and her head rocked by Ranma's next. She moved off to the side, rising to her feet as the priestess of Ryoko, glowing red with whatever war blessing she'd called on herself, moved forward and swung her fist outward.
Shampoo blocked the strike and hissed at the strength behind the blow as she rolled backwards.
The drow's mind was whirling as she tried to figure out exactly what she had done to provoke this. She hadn't made any overtures unusual to a wandering warrior of these people. The only thing she was sure of was that next time she approached people to ask them about Ranma, she'd pay more attention to displayed holy symbols.
The male that smelled so much like her target was leaping over her, moving to cut her off. She had no choice but to go beyond the basic Joketsuzoku wu shu.
As Akane stepped forward, she lashed outward. She just hoped she wouldn't have to resort to going for Aisha's blessings here in the middle of all these people. The Joketsuzoku needed as many of their secrets as they could hold.
"Kachuu Tenshin Amaguriken!" she shouted, fist blurring into a burst of speed too fast for the priestess to register.
Akane felt the thousands of impacts to her torso and stumbled backwards as Shampoo stood up into a stance and seemed to split into eight equal images, all of which scattered to the corners of the scene.
She was flashing through mid air a smirk on her face right up until the male grabbed her, specifically her, not even slowed by the decoys, and slammed her down into the street.
He looked down at her with a grim expression and then up to see Kodachi moving to Akane's side as the battle-priestess pulled herself stiffly to her feet. He nodded in acceptance at seeing that and then looked around the streets.
When the male next looked down at her, his features flowed into the red-headed features of her target. Shampoo growled harshly even against the pain of all the bruises her rough landing had given her.
"Ranma," she snarled. "You come back to village, or you die."
"I'm not part of your village, Shampoo," Ranma snapped back, she stood up, releasing Shampoo. "Get up."
Akane, healed now, started to move forward, at first thinking that she was going to be bringing her wrath down on the drow bitch. Noticing that Ranma was backing off, however, she calmed down and merely held onto the divine power that was coursing through her at the moment in case the drow decided to act again.
"Is this situation ended, Ranma-darling?" Kodachi asked, her hands on her own holy symbol.
"This not over," Shampoo said standing. "Shampoo no go home if Ranma not with her or dead."
"You can't win this fight," Ranma snapped.
"Are you going to give this Catalonia skulker a chance to leave?" Akane said in surprise.
"She's not one of Catalonia's," Ranma said.
"Shampoo warrior of Aisha," the drow confirmed proudly. "No Catalonia scum."
She spit as she spoke, though whether it was to get blood and dust out of her mouth or because she disliked the akuma goddess of Treachery and War so much, it was hard to tell.
The drow walked in a roundabout way to pick up her lost mace, staring as she did at the three women that faced her.
"Outsiders have no manners," she snapped. "I ask question, you throw me out window."
"You must forgive them," Kodachi said coldly towards the drow. "They've been overprotective of me of late."
"She's pregnant, Shampoo," Ranma said.
The two women looked at Ranma in confusion, wondering why he'd reveal that much information.
"Aiya," Shampoo said, obviously shocked. "Then Shampoo sorry, is terrible thing to threaten mother-to-be. In future will only threaten Runaway and Berserker. Pampered Woman is off limits. Is good?"
"That sounds…fine," Akane said, uncertain exactly how to respond to the sentiment.
"My name is Kodachi!" the "Pampered Woman" protested.
"Then Shampoo be back another time," the woman said, leaping away to land on a building. "Ranma must come back to village. Or die. There can be no choice."
And with that, the drow was leaping away from the three.
"Shouldn't we go after her?" Akane asked.
"She won't hurt anybody," Ranma said. "Except for me, anyway."
"And how did you know that alerting her of my condition would leave me off-limits?" Kodachi asked.
"When she first started chasing me, I asked someone for advice on how to get her to leave me alone," the redhead said, turning about to face her wives. "And I was told that I could kill her, make her think I was dead, actually die, or I could get pregnant."
"Ah," Kodachi said. "I see. Perhaps we should see about researching some shape-changing spells."
Ranma and Akane flushed bright red as they turned to look at the Juraian.
"Well, Akane has already proven herself interested in discovering new territory," Kodachi noted.
The battle-priestess looked around to the returning crowds and tried to shush Kodachi. Especially as she noted two of her friends among the ladies-in-waiting heading down towards the scene.
"You really are quite too easily embarrassed about our private lives, Akane-darling," Kodachi noted.
"Akane we heard that…." Yuka was asking as she arrived on scene. "Wait, what did she just say?"
"I heard it on the way down here," Sayuri said as she tried to catch her breath. "And you were running ahead of us. Akane's married, to those two."
"What?" Yuka declared in surprise. "And we weren't invited?"
It took half an hour to extricate themselves from the attention that was now coming down on them.
"What was that drow talking about anyway?" Akane asked as they finally returned to the Kuno manse and privacy.
"Yes, Ranma-darling," Kodachi said. "It sounded fairly serious. I believe that she called you a 'Runaway.'"
"My Pop and I sorta wandered into their village and accidentally took part in some sort of contest," Ranma said. "When I won, I…uh…didn't like the prize and…umm ran."
"Can we get a few more details?" Akane asked.
Two days after the disaster of Jusenkyo, Ranma and her father were walking into a small village along with the dwarf from the Jusenkyo pools.
Unlike most, Ranma had no real preconceptions about the drow, having grown up far away from the normal influences as to their nature. She found the village gate-guards rather rude, but that was normal for a lot of these independent villages.
"Sirs," the dwarf said, giving a side-long look at Ranma. "You must be very well-behaved here, Joketsuzoku very much dislike outsiders interfering in their village."
"I just need something to eat," Ranma muttered wearily.
The panda behind Ranma growfed in agreement as it lumbered behind the small redhead.
Even as tired as she was, the first thing Ranma noted as they came into the village was the giant log upon which two drow women were fighting each other viciously. It looked like it was some sort of martial competition of sorts, and, judging by the drow women being treated by the cleric of Aisha off to the side, a rather vicious competition.
Ranma didn't look around the village too much. Everywhere he looked he could see images of the cat goddess or her terrible pets. It seemed almost as if the martial competition was the only safe thing to look at.
One of the current fighters was doing exceptionally well, and Ranma watched, rapt, as she plowed through her opponent.
That purple-haired drow was a serious opponent. The sort of person that Ranma could really enjoy having a battle against.
Like Ryouga without all the baggage.
Perhaps she was a little dizzy and not thinking straight from a couple of days of light rations, but regardless, her eyes turned about and settled on the feast table piled high atop a sign that Ranma couldn't read but certainly equated with tournament prize in Ranma's head.
Her father was already heading toward it and Ranma wasn't long behind, the double chance of a fun fight and some much needed food too much to resist in her current mental state.
The food was very good.
"Uh, sirs," the beardless dwarf said, finally noticing his clients' activities. "What you do?"
Soon there after, an irate purle-haired young drow was standing before them, scimitar pointed firmly at the two outsiders while snapping hostilely in the drow language.
"She asks why you eat her prize," the dwarf noted, Genma looked down at the food he was eating and shrugged.
"Her prize?" Ranma said, happy that she'd guessed right. "So if I beat her, no problem right?"
The dwarf translated and the drow smiled in a superior, smirking manner while pulling her sword back.
The fight from that point went as it must go and Shampoo found herself dizzily picking herself up from the ground. Ranma hopped down from the log and stretched as she started heading back to the feast table.
She was disappointed. The drow should have given him a good fight, but in their first exchange, she charged forward arrogantly and blindly and left herself wide-open. Ranma herself had felt so insulted at not being taken seriously that her first attack knocked the drow off the log and ended the match before she could even try anything.
The redhead was moving to get some more food, the expression on her face clearly and openly dissatisfied with the results of the fight, when Shampoo grabbed her on the shoulder and turned her about. Then the drow, very much to Ranma's surprise, leaned forward and kissed the redhead on the forehead, with a look that said she did not appreciate the duty at all.
There was some drow muttering which the dwarf quickly translated.
"You is now to stay here for whole life," the dwarf said with a curiously cheerful tone of voice. "You belong to Joketsuzoku now."
Ranma's mind sunk into the bowels of darkness.
Aside from the issue of what appeared to be impending slavery, there was another reason entirely that Ranma couldn't stay in this place her entire life. A few minutes, even hours, spent having to avoid looking at all the pictures of Aisha and her patron animals was one thing. Trying to live her entire life out in this village, with cats and cat pictures all over the place.
That….that was something entirely different.
With a high-pitched panicky scream, Ranma fled for her sanity, dragging Genma along with her while the assorted drow stared in complete confusion for several seconds before realizing what was happening. By that time, Ranma was well clear of the area.
"You could have just asked her for a fight after the tournament, Ranma-Darling," Kodachi noted.
"I wasn't really thinking clearly," Ranma said in embarrassment.
"You win a tournament, sort of," Akane said. "And they make you a slave? What kind of weird logic is that?"
"Indeed," Kodachi said. "I suspect your translator made an error in his description at some point. They do not sound as if they meant to enslave you."
"But there are cats there," Ranma said with an obvious shiver. "Everywhere."
"And Shampoo's who was chasing you when you knocked Ryouga into Jusenkyo?"
"Yeah, I gu…wait a minute," Ranma said. "When I knocked who into Jusenkyo?"
Shampoo frowned as she considered her situation.
Ranma was not what the drow had thought she was. She'd thought Ranma was a human fighter of exceptional skill, but apparently the woman, or was it man, had some sort of shapechanging capability.
The drow had to find out if the shape-changing was natural or the result of some magic or another. If Ranma was a natural shape-shifter, a doppelganger or some such, then there was no way that the Champion's Blessing could be given to her.
Which was unfortunate.
That would mean that they would have to kill her, him, whichever. Or the blessing would stay locked up with her.
There was nothing else to do.
Now she just needed to plan a way to deal with this problem.