The Nerimans stepped blinkingly out into a sunlit world that they hadn't seen in what their bodies remembered as months, still brushing the accumulated dust off their shoulders and trying to fit everything they had seen and heard within into their minds, but their ruminations were somewhat hugely interrupted by the presence of a person they hadn't seen in a good deal longer than that.
In the lee of the vast cathedral, standing alone on sun speckled grass and dressed in his habitual travelling gear was a young man that they hadn't just feared dead, but had carried the burned corpse of, his slightly fanged mouth broken into an uncomfortable smile. Of the burned ruin they had mourned over there wasn't the slightest trace.
For a moment the four of them stopped and stared, blinking now for very different reasons than the comparative brightness of the sun. Ryoga meanwhile slowly reached a hand up behind his bandanna-ed head and offered, "Hey guys", his voice solid and real as it had been before that fateful day. "Sorry about this" he offered, his tone re-enforcing the sincerity of his words, "How'd you thank some people who give up everything they know to bring you back from-" he began but he never got to finish as instead he was rushed by the others.
The first came from Ranma, temporarily excused his thoughtlessness if only because of the occasion, and completely forgiven by a Ryoga who was every bit as stunned at seeing his buddy once more, not least of which at seeing his friend whole, his eyes and hands complete as they hadn't been since that terrible morning when everything had gone so very very wrong. He threw an almost lazy punch at each the other man, about as close as either of them really got to a hug.
The last came from Gos who was busy carefully, 'scientifically' prodding the apparition in front of him, even more amazed now that the act of resurrection had it's physical proof. In his mind he reckoned that he alone could guess at the sheer magnitude of what the Matriarch had achieved, the monumental expenditure of energy and power merely healing the flesh would have taken, let alone the recall and re-integration of the departed spirit. Quietly he had struggled all along to believe that such had been possible, even for someone of such legendary status as the Matriarch, yet here Ryoga was, Living proof in a very literal sense. It was magic beyond even the wuthering heights he had learned to be accustomed to on this side of the veil.
The girls were somewhat more physical, Ukyo all but lifting her friend off the deck as she squeezed him hard enough to cut off his air supply and Nabiki contenting herself with a simpler but no less heartfelt embrace.
"We missed you" she promised, the words laden with all manner of things none of them were quite ready to say aloud.
The reunion was however soon cut a little short as other real world issues forced their way through the miraculous, things like Ryoga, as he was finally allowed some air, clearly being utterly shattered and the rest of them being very much aware of how fragrant they weren't; unlike Ryoga they were still in the same clothes that they had arrived in, sulphur and brimstone satins and all.
More than even this though there was another thought that they were all silently sharing, Ryoga most blatantly of all as he looked about them in quiet askance, not quite daring to ask where their missing number was.
It took Nabiki a moment to admit what they were all looking for and only then, in a voice that told how much she was still conflicted about it, she explained, "Akane won't be better yet" she said, all eyes turning to her, silently demanding more information, "the mind won't heal as easily as the body" she paraphrased, something in her tone letting all the others know exactly where she stood on such facts. In fact there had been quite a lengthy 'discussion' between her and the Matriarch over the very issue, including some very bitter words spoken by Nabiki, and she was deliberately trying to avoid the same now. If nothing else the conversation with the apparently far from all powerful near deity had convinced her that there was nothing she could do about the Matriarch's decision, however she felt about it.
"But she will be better" Nabiki said, quoting directly now, and fighting down her misgivings to put on the brave front the others needed "and she is among friends" she said, "who will let no harm come to her" she promised, "no matter what" she added, just in case any of their minds had started to hear the word 'hostage' as hers had when she had first been told about her sister's extended stay. It didn't take a big leap of imagination to realise that even gratitude for Ryoga's miracle wouldn't stop the others from storming the very Taberncale if they thought for a moment that something underhanded was going on here.
"We have a rough time ahead of us" she added, offering one of the Matriarch's most telling arguments but not going into the details of that yet either, "and we need not to be worried about Akane almost as much as she needs to be somewhere she isn't worrying about slavers" The last word came out as evenly as Nabiki could make it, but there was no way she could completely suppress her distaste at the word, and even if she had the flare of raw anger in every other set of eyes around the small circle would have made the effort meaningless. The dragon might have hurt them really very badly, even temporarily killed one of their number, but they didn't hate it, there wasn't enough left of it to hate. The filth that made their lives by the trading of the lives of others however….
Revenge was not a strong enough word.
"Konatsu?" Ranma asked, a dark hope in his tone revealing that he had dared to think there might be one more than they had asked for. The simple emotion putting a shame to Nabiki's own thoughts. He was taking her at her word, trusting her again as simply as he had since then, and already moving on to other issues. Issues that to her discomforture she had honestly all but forgotten completely about.
The loss of the dedicated young ninja was still there but so much seemed to have happened since then, the weeks been years..
"Beyond even her" Ukyo quoted, her own tone somewhere between ironical disdain and long drawn out frustration, she hadn't forgotten. Of course she had asked about her friend, and indeed gone on to have an argument no less vociferous than the one Nabiki had shared on behalf of her sister, but in the end she too had been forced to accept that their 'benefactor' had her limits and that the young ninja was beyond even those, or at least beyond what the woman-goddess could be persuaded to use on their behalf, even with all the young chef had offered in return
The news hit Gos like one of Happosai's bombs, draining the sudden flare of hope from his eyes and twisting his gut in ways that nobody needed to read minds to know. He too had apparently dared hope, if not actually vocalise that hope. The fresh dashing of which was like a bolt through his own chest.
"Hey" Ranma offered, cutting in before Nabiki could think of anything to say, "where there is a will there is a…" he offered sincerly, at least some of that indomitable boy who had refused to stop looking for cures to his curse was still alive and well, "she's not the only power about this world" he said, and Gos gave a reluctant nod, recognising the effort for what it was but comforted all the same.
Ukyo meanwhile brightened far more considerably, "Hell!" she swore, "I hadn't thought of that" she admitted, turning to Gos ready to begin asking him what he might know about other options…
And meanwhile Ranma was going on to say something about there maybe even being someone who could do something about curses…
"Whoa" Nabiki offered "It can wait" she said, "sorry" quietly but firmly taking charge for a while longer, "remember what the Matriarch said!" she added, ominously referring to the parting words that had still been ringing in their ears as they had left.
"The boon is given" Gos quoted, not making any attempt to duplicate the unearthly tone of the voice, "and there shall not be another" he added, another twist of his gut showing in his face as for a moment he contemplated the finality that had been delivered with, "Neither I nor my church shall aid you again. You must now leave, never to return to these halls.
Gird yourself" he quoted "your enemies will soon enough know you live" he finished, just as the Matriarch herself had done so, without needing to name those enemies any more than she did.
"We'll need somewhere to camp" Ranma said, following Nabiki's lead and taking on the immediate details now the course was set, "and an assessment of what we have" he added. "And some food" he tacked on a little louder, while his stomach churned agreement "What?" he asked, as the others variably rolled their eyes or shook their heads "You want me to starve to death?" he tried, attempting some humour, and getting a few smiles, along with a comradely slap around the head from Ukyo.
"We'll also need to know if we're wanted hereabouts" Nabiki warned, "and if there are any here who might want to collect?" she suggested, reminding them all that there was a bounty on their heads yet and that without the sanctuary of the Tabernacle they might yet be painfully exposed.
"Camp, food, security" Ranma parroted, agreeing
"Then plans" Nabiki finished, and this time there was no argument.
In the end they found a place to camp fairly easily, there were many useful sites left around the area, made presumably by would be tabernacle petitioners or their escorts who had waited to hear the outcome of their own pleas, and the site was quickly made more secure with the rapid fashioning of a thorny fence chopped and dragged from local scrub. It was more than they would have done before but nobody questioned the need.
Food proved to be even less of a problem, Ukyo's keen aim bringing down two brace of birds, and a rather rude reply telling the rest of them just how much she was worried if the clerics of the Healing Hand didn't like the killing of their avian life. The feathers were quickly stripped and a flat rock procured for backing purposes.
Nabiki, with Ranma watching over her, disguised by a newly reckoned out spell from Gos, did a quick tour of some of the other camps, apparently trading but mostly after the information that Nabiki had already stated to be vital. To their relief such information was readily imparted by people who were only too happy to share a story with strangers claiming to be in a similar boat to themselves.
By the time the fowl were cooked the five of them were back together again and Ukyo had even managed to turn some of the traded flour that Nabiki had acquired as part of the proceedings into something approaching a pancake wrap to put the bird meat into. They were all soon sat around the fire, eating and thinking, waiting for Nabiki to relay what she had found, more than one of them wondering at just how natural this had all become.
"Good news and bad" Nabiki said at last, taking a brief moment to reflect how her expensive tastes in cuisine had plummeted since she had come to this side, but enjoying the 'duck' wrap anyway. "The good is that standard law about here says we are safe from attack even without the explicit protection of the sanctuary" she said, her tone saying once again that she wasn't about to put a huge amount of faith into that protection if they didn't have to, "and that there are no representatives of the slaver's guild here" she said to the obvious relief of some of the listeners.
"The bad?" Ukyo asked, actually smiling a bit now she was eating and for once neither nursing a hangover or actually getting drunk. But then a month of suspended animation while waiting in the tabernacle had apparently done wonders drying her system out in ways that even the crossing of the desert hadn't. Not to say she wouldn't actually really appreciate a decent drink just then, but she was finding it easier to ignore that for the moment than she had expected.
"They're close" Nabiki offered, not needing to explain who 'they were, and immediately clapping a hand onto Ranma's shoulder to stop him leaping off to find them, "As in" she continued pointedly, "they were here up until two days ago" she said, feeling Ranma relax and settle back down again, almost completely back to his only habitually wary state. At least now though he was going to listen to the rest of what she had to say.
"The hand does not refuse healing to chattels" Gos quoted, another saying he had picked up from somewhere, "it makes sense for them to swing through here and let their chains recover before moving them on" he said, "fatten them up for the block" the venom in his tone saying all anyone needed to know about how much he agreed with that kind of sense, and speaking volumes of his own lingering hatred for the filth that made their living in such a way.
"They're gone now?" Ryoga asked, his tone solid as he made very sure, the determination he had found before the dragon still apparently very much with him and very much aimed at the people who had done most to hurt them all since they got here. Even without Akane here to be a physical reminder of that hurt he was apparently finding ways to nurture his own anger.
"Yes" Nabiki said, "and their slaves with them" she added, because she knew it as only a matter of time before the subject came up, and this way at least she might manage the next logical step. She could tell just from the faces of those around her that something was brewing, and was finding it hard to justify any disagreement with the sentiments that brew was springing from.
"Which way?" Ukyo asked, her tone more or less exactly what Nabiki had expected it to be, the implication almost as obvious from that as the way she was now gripping the knife she had recently been carving the roasted fowls with, a silent promise of violence to come.
As she looked around Nabiki saw the rest of her friends' expressions come into line too, just as she had guessed they would. Their hurt, the rescue on the way to Bremon, and the recent promises to the Deific woman who had healed them all contributing to a shared thought of necessary action.
Even so she felt it necessary to make sure, "We don't need to do this" she said, "we can't stop every caravan" she insisted, studiously hiding her own emotions to try and promote them to follow suit, "the trade is too big for five people to stop"
"Bull!" Ukyo growled, rather unexpectedly immediately backed up by Gos's nod; while Ryoga instead looked to an unusually thoughtful Ranma.
"True" Ranma argued, cutting through the protestations, his steel tone returning even as he looked up to meet their eyes in turn, "but we also don't need to let this one go" he said looking directly at Nabiki, his hand held out to say he wasn't finished yet. "They also have things we need," he continued, "and information" he added, clearly far from willing to entirely take the local word for the lack of Slaver agents in the area, but just as clearly finding excuses to do what tey all felt the need to do. "We made a promise" he added, raising his hand up to underline his point, his once again whole hand, even so Nabiki had to wonder whether the promise he talked of was actually one to the matriarch, or if perhaps it had been born earlier still, on a bloody morning not too far north of here.
"Okay" Nabiki replied, ignoring the urge to shiver at the returned edge in Ranma's tone that she was reasonably certain the others would have missed, and apparently willing to be swayed by their own practical needs. "We'll need a plan" she said, trying very hard indeed to reign in any sign of how much she wanted this too.
Two nights later she was wishing that she had stayed a little more detached as they had made that plan, and given a little more thought to what it would actually mean for her and Gos to be trying to keep up with the others as they ran through the night.
As they had expected the Slavers had avoided Metryll altogether, heading instead for the more direct route back towards the larger markets and avoiding the issues and taxes that might have arisen with taking their 'wares' into what was the nearest town to the Tabernacle. This had presented them with the problem that, out once more onto the Waste, there really was no cover to use to sneak up on the caravan in broad daylight and without cover they might fast lose the necessary element of surprise.
They had however quickly come up with a way around that, which is why Nabiki was currently feeling like her lungs were set to explode, forcing herself to keep putting one foot out in front of the other and continue to try and keep up with the others. Gos was cheating of course, she could hardly blame him; indeed if she had been confident enough in her own fledgling abilities he might have done the same, but that even with that he was only keeping stride with her was some small satisfaction. But even that and the quiet thought about just what all this exercise would be doing to her figure seemed little compensation right now for all the pains and the aches.
The halt, when it came took her almost completely by surprise, called as it was by the hunkering figures that only intellectually could be recognised as the three martial aritists who had been leading the group through the dark night.
While she fought for her breath they, almost silently and using a half language that seemed unique to their type of people, went over what Ranma, had seen fit to change from the plan they had made two nights ago. Apparently he had already done a preliminary recce and count of what and who they were up against.
But Nabiki was frankly more interested in getting control over her breathing, in the bottle that was being put into her hand and the cool water that was within it.
Hours ago they had left the majority of their stuff hidden at a point not far from their original camp, taking only what Ranma and Ukyo had reckoned to be the minimum necessary for survival and 'the job' they were going to do, mostly consisting of a few waterbottles and a lot of sharp things. That had undoubtedly speeded them up but had meant that Nabiki's ration of the water had never seemed enough, the desert air seeming to have sucked the wet out of her even during this night run.
Reluctantly, following a frown from Ranma who didn't seem to need to verbally remind her to take small sips rather than gulps anymore, she handed the bottle on to Gos and then went back to fighting to get her heartrate down again, recognising that she would need all her focus if she was to do her part tonight.
"It's a big group" Ryoga was saying, apparently not for the first time, a hint of concern in his voice, which in itself was more than enough to alarm Nabiki. She was far more used to the thoughtless pig-headed young man who had always charged where others feared to tread.
"Yup" Ranma agreed, further alarming her, despite a hint of levity in his agreeing tone "but not too many" he insisted, mollifying her only a little, "especially without a mage" he said and now she had to stop him. There was no way that a caravan this size would travel without one, and if they hadn't identified where he was by the time they went in…
"Without. A. Mage?" she asked, her breathing still ragged. She was only just starting to feel the chill of the desert's night air but the question wouldn't wait.
In reply Ranma lifted a small bundle he had apparently brought back with him from scouting, a small bundle on which Nabiki could make out not only some symbolic stitching, but also a dark stain, undoubtedly a mage's garment, presumably recently relieved of it's owner and it's owner of…
"Was taking a piss " Ukyo offered, her tone undisguisedly bloodthirsty even if she hadn't been the one to do the deed.
Nabiki was more surprise by her lack of revulsion than she was by the revelation, and took a few moments to wonder when exactly it had become okay in her mind for Ranma to take human lives, and then when it had become okay in his. It seemed not that long ago that this young man had been a boy concerened even about hurting beasts like Taro let alone doing anything permanent to people who manifestly deserved worse.
The answer came to her quickly enough, another thing that Ohlmin's attack had apparently cost them all. Her fist, shaking from the exertion of the long night run, clenched tight and she breathed a silent curse at him in whichever hell he now dwelt.
When she focused again they were apparently agreeing something with Gos and about to set off again, she quickly reached out to stop Ranma and asked, "No change in my part?" she checked, fighting down a not entirely unexpected swell of other thoughts, risen unbidden at the physical contact. She was still far from sure how she felt about whatever it was growing between them, but she was very sure that now was not the time.
He shook his head and squeezed her hand tight, "It worked the last times" he said, meeting her eyes and letting her know that his mind wasn't completely removed fro that first attack, or their response to it either. She would again be using the crossbow that he had acquired for her before they left, it wasn't something she was hugely comfortable with but she had taken the time to get some practice in and they were adamant that having the support would be invaluable, in case they missed anyone. They were trusting her to watch their backs in a way that they never would the younger version of her.
Soon they were off, following Ranma and, rather unexpectedly, Gos, hunkered low and small as they tried to minimise the chance of being spotted by the watchmen that Ranma had identified but not taken out when scouting. It was a bit of a tall order but Ranma had insisted it could be done and his talk about the effects of starlight on empty landscape and the tricks it played on watching eyes had meshed well with what she had practised for far less serious reasons back in Nerima.
The camp was well illuminated and even if they couldn't see the fire itself because of the very deliberate angle Ukyo was leading her and Ryoga in, then they were well aware of the dangers of the extra light in this barren landscape. A few minutes ago they had begun to crawl instead of run and the extra delay was playing merry havok with nerves that didn't exactly need reasons to be taught anyway, every passing moment seeming to stretch and every hint of movement ahead threaten to be the first sign of being rumbled.
There were a dozen crude but metal banded boxlike coaches in this train, and even more simple canvas tents, the still night wind allowing the scents of the fire, the horses and the almost trademark stench of the trade to drift randomly about the area. For Nabiki the most marked thing of all was the pounding of her heart, the telltale encroachment of her own fear. From where she was she had picked out at least a half dozen people still awake, all armed and either moving about or settled down to watch, but still no Ranma.
"Sneaky" Ukyo breathed respectfully, barely audibly, a few feet ahead of where Nabiki now lay. The middle Tendo daughter looked up to see if she could see what the chef was talking about, but came up with very little, whatever it was the Chef ahd seen was far from apparent to her less well trained senses.
Then, to her surprise Ukyo stood up completely, standing out suddenly like the proverbial sore thumb amid the plain, moonlit landcape, and soon Ryoga was joining her. The only explanation she got was a pointed finger that showed a figure up by one of the wagons unmistakably waving his pigtail and waving them on, another less identifiable robed figure next to him presumably having to be Gos.
"He must have used Gos to clear this whole side" Ukyo offered, reaching out to catch Ryoga's wrist before he headed off on his own and risked becoming completely lost in the night desert. "Made them stay up some how too" she added, clearly unsure how that had been done, "we better hurry" she said and Nabiki nodded, wondering why she hadn't thought of that, before realising that she had, only she had discarded the idea after Gos had argued about how close he would have had to be, apparently Ranma had gotten around that, and Go's objections to being so out on a limb.
When she reached the wagon the others were hiding behind she saw just how Ranma had achieved it and was perhaps less comfortable still than she had been when he had shown her the mage's bundle; the nearest guard was still sat bolt upright, but had a neat red, leaky hole in the middle of his chest, his eyes fixed and staring in the way only the cooling dead could manage.
She looked to Gos, who in turn looked positively sick. "Necromancy" he said, his tone saying that sick had been the right word, "not quite" he quickly qualified "but close enough" he said, his cheeks bulging as he fought down another urge to chuck. Meanwhile Ranma patted him on the back, smiling and apparently oblivious to the distaste, and waved a few more of those hand signals to Ukyo and Ryoga, before pointing to Nabiki and then to the top of the wagon.
She nodded an understanding and began climbing, filing away this latest change with all the others tat had been assaulting her recently, promising she'd take the time to analyse it when she had the time, like when she wasn't next to a camp full of people of Ohlmin's ilk.
Meanwhile the three martial artists were spreading out, Ukyo and Ranma circling around the camp perimeter to complete the job they had started and Ryoga forcing himself to stay calm as he took the place of one of the sentries on this side. Nabiki was soon in a position to see at least some of this as she lay down on the top of the caravan and pressed her re-checked crossbow to her shoulder, the cool hard wood scant comfort to her still frayed nerves.
From up there the camp looked no less worrisome than it had from afar, there were a lot of people here, presumably originally needed to capture and escort the even larger number of prisoners. A good many of those guards had chosen to forgo full tents and just rigged simple pole and tarp lean-tos. For the life of her Nabiki couldn't see how Ranma and the others were going to deal with this many, let alone without getting someone killed in the process.
She, perhaps more than anyone, knew how good they were, she had been setting odds on them for years, but she also knew that confidence was part of what made them as good as they were. Not accepting the chance of defeat was part and parcel of striving to be the best, but you could do precious little arguing when you were dead because you bit off more than you could chew. Amazing martial arts aside there really were only five of them.
Nor was she so much of a fool to count herself as even close to as useful in a situation like this as even Gos with his newfound magics might be. One bolt was hardly going to make that much of a difference.
Then it started