A Duet of Fists

Chapter 7

The mere concept of a preface is intrusive (let alone the awful reality) so I'll be brief: I've rewritten Chapter 1, nearly doubling the initial length. Enjoy.

The duration until the cre'lak'din's challenge seemed to move at two wildly disparate speeds: The progression of hours spent in exhausting training slipped by both boys with a scarcely perceptible haste, while the hours between one session and the next moved with all the sloth of poured molasses to the pigtailed boy, knowledge that each day spent in Yuki-onna's domain added more time to a journey which was already destined to last far too long.

Ryouga felt his companion was lucky: Were the perception of time's pace measured by comparison, Ranma would have claimed victory hands down. The presence of Koyuki and her disapproval, voiced often and loudly, made the instances between training stretch into an eternity.

Even training was interrupted by the white-maned lass, though intrusions on the pairs martial endeavors was always unintentional and very often withdrawn with haste. Only the pigtailed-boy's undeniable urge to throw out a taunt extended the duration of Koyuki's anger during those times, verbal barb flowing from his lips before the blue-eyed boy could hope to reign himself in.

After two weeks, she'd even taken to throwing Ryouga a look of faint apology before magma-heated vitriol poured from her own rosebud lips, turning her cute frown into a mask of horrific fury as she returned Ranma's comments with a vocal broadside of her own. Despite the girl's unyielding wrath outside those few displays of a previously-unseen tender side, Ryouga found he was getting angry with Ranma right along with Koyuki whenever the blue-irised boy's insults turned a brief interruption into an abrupt cessation of training.

A sudden clarity of perception found him early one morning, the serenity brought by his meditation on a rock far from Yuki-onna's welcoming cabin shattered as he : He realized his anger with Ranma was not caused by the damage to their training but the hostility on the girl's face.

He stood, feet finding purchase on the dry surface of the boulder as his mind fought the terrifying reality. He firmly shook his head, denying the feelings as he focused on Akari's soft brown hair and ever-present smile. The Lost Boy couldn't deny a longing for the wide veranda which encircled the farmhouse she shared with her grandfather, dozens of fond memories of the house, of the girl's warmth forcefully united into a mighty phalanx which was thrown in front of Koyuki, seeking to maintain it's dominance of the boy's vast heart.

Memories of Akari's wind-chime laugh a ghostly whisper in his ear, he bitterly accepted that the mighty military formation had already ceded fertile ground, allowing a rosebud to stubbornly grow. A small part of him fervently wished to see it reach it's tentative promise of a fully-bloomed glory.

Ryouga noted wryly that the month had seen a lot of excitement, for both the permanent residents and their guests. They were all slowly becoming used to one another.

The Snow Lady herself warmed considerably to both guests, flashing them a small smile which grew more common as the length of their stay expanded. Her harshly uttered rebukes dulled to a gentle, playful chiding as she grew accustomed to the pair's habits. However, the woman seemed determined to mask her dismay at the revelation that Ranma was cre'lak'din. Her opinion of the boy was darkened further by the increasingly frequent theft of her husband's attention. Demon and youth often spent hours on the couch, swapping tales drawn from lives with an endless amount of misadventure.

Maz, on the other hand, seemed to delight in finding that Ranma was a kindred spirit in both personality and in his tangibility to Fate. The pranks and mischief the pair caused nearly tripled the amount of snow storms which occasionally lashed the cottage: The resulting valley of snow had the duo being loudly thrown outside until they'd shifted the massive snowbanks, Maz's cheerful assent fading only when he found he would have to assist his younger partner by hand. More than once the rest of the residents had gone to sleep as Maz and Ranma chatted by the fire, only to awaken and discover that neither had seemed to acknowledge the consumption of time or the human's need for sleep.

The unlikely pairing of benevolent devil and notorious pugilist also filled the pigtailed youth's mind with invaluable knowledge about the spirit world. Noting the crafty half-smile he wore during the duo's frequent conversations, Miyuki relented in her disapproval as she realized that planting that knowledge had been her husband's goal all along.

The red-horned man's opinion on Ryouga himself seemed split to the bandanna-clad boy: Half the time a wry amusement had the man prodding the youth into attempts to win his daughter's affection; The other half conspired to make the boy the sole target of countless acts of aggravating pranks. Some tiny part of the guest knew the focus was not just due to the lack of other potential victims he could target without reprisal. Rather than dwell on the confusing contradiction, the boy simply did his best to avoid the demon's company.

Even the once-bitter rivalry the pigtailed-boy and his wandering ally shared seemed destined to fade into a friendly camaraderie, largely due to Maz's magic. That they could walk away from one another meant the time they spent together was no longer tainted by the knowledge that the proximity was forced. Ranma still baited his brown-eyed rival with taunts and Ryouga still enjoyed the satisfying resistance of Ranma's flank or jaw beneath his fist, yet a seed of tentatively maturing respect lay underneath.

The largest change seemed to be in Koyuki herself, the bulk of her anger slowly shifting from her magically-destined suitor to his brash-mouthed partner. As the first month of their stay approached it's end, it appeared that Ranma seemed to be the focus of the snow-girl's rage just as often as Ryouga himself. Though the change seemed to be fueled primarily by the unceasing taunts she heard from her blue-eyed house guest, she also showed an interest in the breadth of Ryouga's travels.

He happily told the attentive girl stories of his decade spent wandering, describing the myriad wonders he'd seen. Her hunger for these descriptions never flagged, from the magnificent horizon-to-horizon beauty of Canada's expansive wilderness to the astonishing density and undeniable culture of Hong Kong. His heart would then curdle as the fascinated girl inevitably paused after some time, frost creeping into her vision as she abruptly spat a verbal barb and rushed off... mere

Guilt warred with joy as those rosebud lips slowly began to blossom more often, each time lasting longer than the last. Her hatred for the boy eventually seemed to have withered entirely, transforming the rearguard battle of Akari's memories into crushing rout, the rigid formation of memories of Akari crumpling before the growing bloom.

She still swore she would never marry him, but the smile she wore and lack of regret made even those declarations feel as great a victory as any he'd won.

It was at the end of that first month that Maz firmly took charge of their training, sternly explaining that the beings they were going to be encountering would inevitably have abilities they had no hope of countering unless the pair gained some experience with the intricacies of magical combat.

He then smirked, the smug certainty of the gesture a chilling promise softly brushing their survival instincts in ways that made their bones quake, ignoring their synchronized flinch as he told them he would now be their opponent.

Miyuki agreed to limit her spouse's power enough that the boys would have a sporting chance against the red-hued man. Even with the disparity in their strength negated, Maz proved an impossibly cunning foe. No matter how the boys struck or what variations they applied to their techniques, the wily devil seemed to have an ace up his sleeve to escape, nullify, or in the most embarrassing cases actually turn back towards the pair whatever attack they used.

It was also difficult to find themselves once more limited to being within thirty feet of one another after a month of freedom, but Maz steadfastly refused to allow them to fight without the handicap the Braids presented. He wouldn't allow them to learn to fight together unless they agreed to learn with the magic that would bind them once they left Yuki-onna's plane.

After a full week of intense bouts they had managed to defeat their tricky foe just once. Both boys oozed pride at the feat, until the defeated man casually told them to use the amulets. Pride quickly faded to dismay when the spark of light shuddered just once before growing to fill a mere quarter of the mental diamond. The sober realization that they should have been able to simply overwhelm the chuckling demon gave them a sudden respect for the versatility of magic.

"Look, I know you guys are new at this but I need you to really understand just how much of an advantage magic can be," Maz noted, eyes growing distant as a rare maturity entered his features. "Most of your foes will be playing for keeps. From what Ranma's told me, you've only had to deal with guys like that a few times. It helps to remember that even if you kill them, you can't destroy a god."

"And demons?" Ryouga pondered, absorbing the lesson.

"Unlike a god, they can die. Just remember: Devils might not be born evil but the way our power grows is ample reason for us to be evil. Anyone strong enough to challenge you two probably deserves killing anyway," Maz finished grimly. Then a playful smirk suddenly broke the somber mood. "Either that or, like me, they're among the few who had other demons after them all the time."

"You don't use the kiddie gloves, huh," Ranma commented, the revelation casting his demonic pal in a dimmer light. He glanced towards the silent fanged boy by his side, suddenly introspective. "Even pork fry over here never made me wanna do anything permanent."

"Let's just say that most of my foes raised the stakes to the level Saffron raised them with you," Maz explained with a dry chuckle. His eyes narrowed as his gaze flickered between his two students. "Look, I'm not suggesting that you start ending foes whenever you can: The idea probably bothers you as much as it bothers me.

"I just want you two to face up to the cold facts now instead of during a moment of crisis: There will be times when your only option is a permanent one. Accept it now, when you have the luxury of time," Maz turned, walking towards the cottage. He glanced at the duo over his shoulder. "You might not have the chance to struggle with your conscience when the moment comes to act."

Nothing but silence followed their demonic teacher as he strolled back to his home.

Ranma bitterly reflected that he'd been forced to make that choice before. Flame-drenched wings of gold framing a haughty, delicately-featured face rushed to the front of his mind before he could slam the door closed. That decision had forever sullied the beauty of his martial art, had been totally unavoidable. It had damned him in allowing him to protect that which he must always protect.

His somber blue eyes found Ryouga's bowed head, wondering if his partner would be able to survive the consequences of choosing his own life or the lives of his friends above the life of an enemy, when the time came.

It was just a day before his challenge. In less than a day, he would fight Miyamoto Musashi. A terrible dread and a fierce pride warred within Ranma, rising and dropping his emotions with all the frequency and range of the worst waves an ocean hurricane could generate.

He couldn't decide if he should be proud of the fact that Musashi himself considered the blue eyed boy worthy enough for a formal challenge... Or if he should feel terrified of having to fight a man so legendarily adroit with even a wooden practice blade that his name was known across not just all of Japan, but all of the world itself.

The man had defeated four masters of Kenjutsu, one right after another, using nothing more than an improvised bokken roughly carved from a boat paddle.

It made him wonder how he could possibly tell anyone that he'd fought the man, let alone the chance that he could win. He'd accomplished things few people thought even existed before: Fighting, let alone defeating one of the most famous warriors in his nation's history would be a firm contender for a prominent place on his Top Ten Things You'll Never Believe I Did list.

He decided it would wind up as number three if he won, supplanting "Blowing up a cure because of Akane AGAIN". Even if he lost, just the opportunity was enough to dislodge the current number five, "Fought an eight-headed dragon dressed in drag". Regardless he knew that number ten, "Got cursed to turn into a girl", would finally be dropped from that first block of weirdness.

He wasn't sure if he should be happy he'd accepted his curse or worried that he was getting close to considering it one of the less notable events things in his life. Though only the fact he could prove it with cold water kept it from a spot in the top three.

He sat, quietly ignoring the latest episode of some ninja anime about a blond kid, allowing his thoughts to meander aimlessly in the last hour before bed. Ryouga had already gone to sleep over an hour before, Koyuki retreating to her room shortly after. Miyuki was still chatting quietly with her husband at the dining table, though with a glance towards the pigtailed boy she finally nodded once and strolled up the stairs.

"Alright kid, are you ready?" Maz pondered, tossing himself bottom-first towards the floor and snapping his fingers, landing with a light bounce in his well-worn armchair, leg thrown over one of the chair's arms as he intently studied his youthful friend, jaw resting on one loose fist.

"I dunno," Ranma finally admitted with a shrug, his unfocused gaze dropping as blue eyes met red. Eyelids covered sea-hued orbs as he focused on the upcoming match and let his surroundings fade. "I've almost brushed the fight off as nothin' big a few times. The guy reminds me so much of Kuno I keep assuming his fighting ability is like the idiot's skill as well. The only thing which snaps me back from that is knowing who my foe is."

"Not to mention the fact he's had centuries to wander the realms of existence," Maz added with a sly grin. He flicked his hand, rising to sit with elbows resting on knees, bridged fingers supporting a thoughtful face. "He's probably grown in skill since he died. It's also a pretty good bet he's got a few magic trinkets to help him. That wooden bokken he uses was crafted from the branch of a World Tree and has some pretty impressive auras besides. He's probably got an amulet, rings, or other small tokens which give him other advantages, too."

"Aww man..." Ranma groaned, head sinking to hit his right palm with a dull thud that rattled the chains on his arm just once. His head rose slightly to meet Maz's gaze. "Why does everyone got a bunch of magical crap but me?"

"It is an unfair advantage," the demon admitted, standing with a flourish and snapping his fingers. The fiery red tunic which appeared in his hand was woven from the finest silk, delicate gold embroidery dancing along the edges and skirting the buttons in twisting vines. He held it out to his young friend. "One I can easily correct. I was saving a few gifts for when you and my future son-in-law left, but if you're going to be fighting tomorrow you should have yours now."

"Thanks, man!" Ranma exclaimed, getting to his feet and accepting the tunic. It greatly resembled his favourite Chinese shirt, with only a few subtle differences. Black buttons made of obsidian held the garment together instead of wooden pegs. The gold embroidery was fancier than he might have liked, but he thought it might grow on him.

The black material lining the inside, was decidedly not cotton. It felt almost like a liquid, warm to the touch and slightly clingy. His wondering face rose to meet his benefactor's smile.

"Inside that shirt is a fabric weaved from the hair of a dragon. It might not be as good as a full suit of armor, but it's certainly a lot lighter. Technically you can't enchant dragon hair, but those buttons were easy to work with," Maz added, fingers pointing to the six jet black buttons gleaming with light reflected from the T.V. "The top two buttons grant a partial immunity to cold and heat. The third button protects you from minor spells, while the fourth gives you a bit of protection against the sort of diseases and poisons you'll probably encounter.

"The fifth button is a one-use bomb: Throw it at something, yell my name and ask for fire, and instant boom. Make sure you've got a bit of distance," Maz added with a grin, rubbing his jaw. "I put a lot of pep in that one. The sixth is a last-ditch escape. Crush it and you and anyone you're touching will be thrown into a random plane you can survive on. Just use it only in the worst circumstances... Whatever you run from won't be able to follow, but you might wind up in a place just as bad."

Ranma swallowed the lump in his throat, fingers brushing the buttons as he realized just how much this shirt would help. He knew he held something which could prove the difference between life and death in dozens of situations. He head rose. "Thank you."

"Don't worry about it," the demon replied with a dismissive snort. He pushed a length of bamboo conjured out of the air into the boy's fumbling hands, chuckling at the renewed incredulity as the youth juggled shirt and staff. "That staff isn't nearly as fancy: It's impossible to break and will cause damage to most spirits that regeneration won't heal. The only other tricks it has are pretty minor. If you block a weapon strike, the weapon will stick for half a second so your foe can't slide it along and whack fingers and it will shrink to a foot long with a thought, so you can store it when it's not needed."

"These are great," Ranma whispered, his eyes examining the dark lacquer covering the staff. The dark blue resin seemed to absorb light rather than reflecting it, giving the bamboo a soothing finish which made the wood seem to glow.

"I figured the best way to help would be to give you things that negate an enemy's magical advantage," Maz grunted, tapping the staff with a talon. "You and Ryouga are both fairly inept with handling spells and innate abilities. Giving you a handful would probably hurt you more than it would help."

"Hey, I'm the best!" Ranma retorted with a scowl which couldn't entirely smother his grin, the severity of the gesture diminished further by the laughter in his eyes. "There ain't a thing I can't learn. I'm gonna master magic some day, old man."

"I'm sure you could," Maz muttered, rolling his eyes. He sat back down, stretching his neck and sighing with a quiet contentedness at each muted pop. Ranma followed suit, staff shortening as soon as the boy realized how awkward the six foot length would feel while sitting. He rested the one-foot length on top of the shirt, reluctantly postponing his admiration as he focused on the devil in front of him.

Maz pursed his lips in contemplation as he studied his pigtailed friend, nodding to himself after a moment.

"The only other thing I've got for you is a bit of advice," Maz finally said, sinking deep into his chair. "You don't have any restraint... an attribute you'll need to learn if you want to survive the journey you now find placed in front of your footsteps. You need to control your need for action and understand the inevitability of having to watch and wait, no matter what you might feel at the moment."

"Hey, I've had to be patient plenty of times!" Ranma retorted, mind wandering back to that desperate game of hide and seek as he had avoided the Lost Boy, desperately forcing his mind to invent a solution to the near-insurmountable stamina the Bakusai Tenketsu training invested. Other events which had lead to the pigtailed boy's temporary retreat, inevitably followed by intense brainstorming came to the fore. "I can think of a few times when I've had to fall back and figure out how to win!"

"Yet you've never slowed the pace of a fight to consider a counter to a foe unless you had no other alternative," the youth's demonic teacher countered. His eyes glowed with intensity as he leaned forward once more, stabbing one razor sharp talon in the cre'lak'din's direction. "Against some of the foes you'll run into, you won't have the time or the stamina to fiddle with your limited range of chi techniques.

"You need to learn to figure out what you need to do to beat your opponent first. Not as an afterthought when you've tried all your special moves. Chi tornadoes, raw arrogance turned to blunt force, and countlessly repeated punches won't be enough to take down everything you fight." Maz scowled, shaking one finger in the boy's direction. "Hell, if Fate wasn't blind and numb to you and I wasn't in a position to give you that tunic and staff, I'd rate your chances of surviving your quest below a snowflake's chance in Infernus. You're an ignorant whelp accompanied only by a mewling newborn. Only the fact you've already downed a god with two prime domains, however limited he was, salves my conscience enough to let you continue at all."

"Saffron was a god with two prime domains?" Ranma exclaimed, thoughts racing back to the desperate fight in the sky above Jusendo. It had certainly been the most spectacular example of stupidity he'd ever found himself caught in but the way Maz had talked about the powerful magic of the spirits, even a god with a single prime domain was to be feared and avoided at all costs. "Then how'd I beat him?"

"Two reasons, kid. First, he was on the mortal plane of existence. Only the top-tier, big time honchos get to keep their magic when they're playing with humans," Maz chuckled, index finger popping up from a closed fist. The middle finger then joined it. "Second, he only had a few thousand followers. The power a god has to wield is partially influenced by the amount of faith he or she is invested with. Even a prime domain isn't worth much if you don't have hundreds of thousands devoting themselves to you."

"I guess the domains are sorta like faucets then," Ranma mused, scratching his temple as his gaze unfocused, mind intent on the analogy. "A prime domain is a fire hydrant, while a scrappy domains like left-handed circus freaks is a drinking fountain."

"And the followers are like the water," Maz finished with a scowl. "If you don't have enough water, a hydrant might not have much more flow to it than the fountain. Just be sure the hydrant's got low pressure before you stick your nose in it's face, okay?"

"Otherwise I might get my head knocked off by the geyser," Ranma agreed. The smirk on his face told Maz all he needed to know about the red-clad youth's opinion on danger. He returned the look with a smile, seeing in the young man more than a bit of what the demon had been like in his own youth.

He wondered if Fate railed even now against their meeting. Surely she knew that circumstances of their introduction, the nature of the pair's quest, and even the aid he and his family could render went far beyond the realm of good luck. The pair had been brought to the one place which could give them the tools and the knowledge they needed to turn the planes on their head and rattle the eternal spirits from that Norn wench who ruled in Hades to God Almighty himself.

Knowing her own magic had brought the event to fruition would surely give the green-haired bitch one hell of a migraine.

Author's Notes

First off, I offer profuse and repeated apologies for the delay. Lady Shinimegami has forever railed against the evils of Windows. It will please her to no end to learn I have abandoned that fickle overseer. Not to Mac OSX as she's pushed, but to Linux Ubuntu. The choice is equal parts spite for Lady Shinimegami and desire to keep my hardware.

I've spent the last three days acclimating to this strange, new environment. I like it.

I think.

The slant on Gods and Demons I'm using here is actually culled from an old pencil and paper RPG I wrote for a group. As Maz has explained here, players assumed the role of one of the two different types of eternal spirits. Thus I've posted a link in my profile, for those interested.

Working on this has actually lit a fire under the part of my ass associated with GMing. I'm looking for a group... So if anyone is interested, feel free to PM me or email me AFTER you've taken a look at the rules.

Cheers,

Gaming Ikari

Update: Well, it's officially been more than two years since I've done anything with this story. That's pretty damned painful since I don't even have the excuse of not wanting to do a rewrite like I do for the Loss, Hope & Redemption project. So I'm chucking a lot of the fate and interdimensional bullpoopie aside (and getting rid of Koyuki and Miyuki) to rework the project. It's going to essentially be the same premise: "Ranma and Ryouga are linked together by magic and have wacky adventures trying to fix the problem," but I'm going to move it in a totally different direction for the adventures and solving of the problem.

The way I'm doing that is by making Maz a shady bastard living in Roanapur who can certainly help, but only if Ranma and Ryouga are willing to work with (and occasionally against) the Black Lagoon company. Crossover. Booyah. Check out Forcibly United, as that's the way I'm officially continuing with this project. Sorry to anyone who was actually looking forward to more of this story in it's current form, but I'm really, really not liking it the way it currently stands.