There will be: language, nudity, sex, violence, death, and rather detailed descriptions of such. I'm an adult, and a writer. I revel in the coincidence that I'm also an adult writer.

I only own what someone else does not.

AN: Subtle. Like a chainsaw.

Chapter Eight

It was the sort of scene a movie producer could only dream about; its imperfections making it even more ideal. The moon wasn't full, but the light was bright and shone strongly on the scene, nearly making the streetlights that dotted the lane unnecessary. Cherry trees shed their petals with the small breezes, but those came irregularly, so that brief spray of fallen pink, paled to silver in the moonlight, was all the more poignant for being rare. The two figures weren't matched in the slightest; one was the very picture of a swordswoman, the other appearing little more than a vagrant ruffian. The former, with her yukata tucked into her hakama, her traditional haircut bound up on one side in a tufted knot, and her hand wrapped firmly around the whitewood sheathe of a simple blade, was the picture of a heroic protagonist. The latter could have been her foil, with her stained and rumpled shirt with a Mandarin collar left untucked over a pair of loose, baggy, cargo pants, and hair that looked like it had been left in that strange unkempt state that could either be a sign of apathy in its style, or deliberately mussed to achieve what was sometimes known as 'sex hair'.

Ranma eyed her quiet classmate with a kind of quiet, expectant glee that one could easily find hovering about children who were promised a new toy when their parents arrived home. It was the face you could see when play stopped, the sound of car doors audible despite being beyond the home's walls, as the reality of what was about to happen dawned. The corner of her mouth refused to remain still, crooking despite her and taking the small stick of wafer she held in her teeth with it on occasion.

For her part, Setsuna was the picture of tranquil, leashed potential. Her gaze was even, her posture steady, and her hands still where they lingered. One, gripping the shirasaya of her sword, the other loosely at her side, ready and poised to move at a moment's notice. Her expression gave nothing away, and her dark eyes were still, never moving from those of the young woman who seemed so eager for her arrival.

"So," Ranma began, her energy having restored itself enough in the last small while to give her a nervous sort of unease that she bled off by pacing in a wide arc around the recently arrived Setsuna. "You finally show yourself."

If her quiet classmate had anything to say to that, it was kept to herself. Dark brown eyes continued to track the martial artist, however, and her body turned to keep the redhead at her profile as she circled like a languid shark.

"You know, I kind of figured the old man would have me watched. It only makes sense, really," the cursed young woman continued, her steps deceptively graceful for such idle talk. "It would be stupid to not have people watching someone like me; especially considering who I keep company with."

There. The slightest twitch of a muscle below Setsuna's right eye. Ranma's grin doubled.

Changing direction suddenly, Ranma paced back the way she'd come, the distance kept even and equal. Where she stepped, small eddies of air disrupted by the sharp motions of her feet blew the errant cherry blossoms away, leaving a clear path to show her footsteps. "Up in the bell towers. Atop nearby buildings. In the trees just up and above the Baraen-sō. Hiding in the forest here, between the lanes," each tick on Ranma's list was punctuated with another step, as she kept her path.

If her words this time had an effect on the stoic Shinmei-ryū student, she didn't show it.

"I know your partner is watching right now, with her gun scopes and binoculars," Ranma commented almost idly, if one ignored the fierce, expectant gleam in her eye. "Just like I know you've been doing, pacing my steps every time I'm out in Mahora."

"You are correct," the swordswoman stated, simply.

Ranma nodded amicably, happy to move things along. "And I bet, you did more than watch. How close were you? Could you hear me? Could you hear us?"

There was a faint rattle as a tremor ran down Setsuna's arm, and into her held sword.

"And what do you think about all that?" Setsuna's eyes went wide as the martial artist seemed to materialize inside her personal space, casually leaning against her side as if they were a couple friends speaking about the weather or sports. "You were there that day when we were outside the Baraen-sō. You saw the screw-up with the brat teacher and her roommate. You know she was there when I talked with Eva."

Setsuna took a rapid step back, unsurprised that the sudden lack of her support from where the martial artist was leaning against her did nothing to upset Ranma's balance. In fact, she turned the motion into a slow walk to approach her, again. "I do not see your point," she hedged, taking up her own pacing now, to keep a wary distance from the disturbing redhead.

"No? Oh c'mon!" Ranma gestured about herself widely, indicating the whole of Mahora with the simple sweep of a hand. "I've practically handed it to you! I've been trying to set this up since the day she bawled her eyes out in front of the inn!"

"Wait, what?"

"You're yōjimbo, yeah?" Ranma asked, receiving a startled blink in response. "I kind of put it together after everything. I mean, you were there when the Dean pulled his crap in that arena. You knew what I was capable of, but still ended up watching me.

"The other girl I could understand. She wasn't there. She didn't see me go all… unhinged at her teacher; unlike you," the martial artist admitted with some small discomfort at the memory and her lack of restraint that day. "But you? Why you?"

Setsuna frowned, feeling exposed by the supposedly dim martial artist and the direction this line of conversation was going. From all reports, Ranma wasn't supposed to be this observant. Sure, the gender-cursed girl was an amazing prodigy at martial arts, but nothing the Dean had supplied her and Mana with suggested this degree of situational awareness was something they would have to worry about. Worse, it seemed to be aimed almost specifically at her. "The Dean trusts in my abilities, as well as your tacit agreement to be on good behavior."

Ranma knew she'd pay for this lapse in her public persona, but honestly, Konoka was a sweet girl, and it wasn't like the Dean and his lot really trusted her anyway. The fact he'd not mentioned the overwatch put on duty to keep an eye on her said as much, despite her own status as being a part of Mahora's 'Special Security' squad. Worse, considering the two girls that had been shadowing her in those times she wasn't in class were also on the same squad. 'Left and right hand, yeah right,' she groused to herself.

She could understand it, to a degree. Maybe her 'coworkers' wanted to observe her, before introducing themselves. This had occurred to her the first time she'd picked up the traces they left, after being spotted by Suzumebachi. She'd slipped notice and visited the few hides her Shikigami had pointed out at that point, to get an idea who was watching her. Putting the pieces together wasn't that hard, considering she shared classes with both girls, and they weren't the most subtle people in the world.

Mana might give no indication she was some kind of weird gun nut shrine priestess, but there was exactly one shrine in the area run by people named Tatsumiya, and she knew the kinds of tells that came from work at a shrine. They were just as obvious as gun oil and powder; the stuff got on your hands, inevitably, and it stained. And smelled.

The girl with the sniper rifle she could understand, once she put away her incredulity at sniper rifle!? but the little Shinmei-ryū girl who wasn't allowed to get involved that first day? Why her? Various things had occurred to Ranma, from on-the-job training to maybe putting her at ease so she didn't give anything away in classes. Basically, let her see the scary martial artist lady go about her day, and prove she wasn't some kind of boogeyman. But it didn't fit. Not once she started actually watching how Sakurazaki moved and handled herself.

And who she looked at.

Of course, she'd never have noticed half what she had, Ranma knew, if she'd not spent literally years dealing with lunatics, assassins, love-sick psychopaths, and stalkers of every stripe known. Nerima – some days she couldn't decide whether to be thankful for her time there, or curse it more than Jusenkyo.

Once she noticed who Sakurazaki watched, then things got clear. "You knew I'd be in classes with Konoka," Ranma countered Setsuna's argument regarding the Dean. "You knew I'd be around the girl you were sent here to watch over – who you've always watched over – and considering what you'd seen, you decided to get proactive.

"And then I started spending more time with her, and it just reinforced what you were already doing," the martial artist prompted, her smile returning. "I'm pretty impressed actually. You two are good at what you do."

"Yet, you still knew we were there." Setsuna found no real reason to deny it at this point. It was a pointless argument for various reasons now.

"I'm the best," Ranma countered immediately, but without boast or bravado. It was a simple statement given with the kind of confident acceptance of a fundamental truth. She could have stated 'gravity pulls things down' or 'water is kind of wet' with the same tone and surety. "But that's not important. What's important is…

"What are you going to do about it?"

From her perch above Mahora, Mana Tatsumiya watched the progress of someone she was expecting to see, but frowned once she noted something off about the situation. True, she was expecting Konoka to be out walking that night, considering what she'd been briefed on by the Dean that morning, but there were elements wholly wrong with this picture.

One, the girl was alone. She'd left with Ranma earlier that day, and she knew how Konoka worked, for the most part. She was a rather cheerful little thing that liked her friends and for the most part, was still in that 'naïve schoolgirl' phase of life. Having never been there herself, Mana didn't really understand it beyond psychological profiles and assessments. Being raised in a Private Military Company would do that for you.

Two, she was clearly irritated about something, and though Mana had classed her as a 'typical schoolgirl' some time back, Konoka expressing open negativity was rare. The girl wasn't shallow, but she tended toward optimism and looking at things from positive viewpoints – that much anyone who spent more than five minutes in her company could tell you. That had changed recently during the conflict she'd observed centering on their new teacher and Eva's assistant, Chachamaru Karakuri. She'd witnessed a side of the Dean's granddaughter that reminded her of her ancestry, when the normally polite, bubbly, pleasant girl had torn into her roommate with a verbal lash equipped with thorns and nine tails.

"Girl definitely got her temper from her mother," Mana muttered to herself, glad there were counters to that temper obvious in her background as well. Namely, the Dean and her father.

All that had little bearing on the here and now, however. Adjusting her scope, she zoomed in on her classmate, frowning at what she noted. "'The Principles of the Spheres'? That's a magic student primer… keys, and a box of Pocky?" Mana sat back and considered that for a moment, before the obvious conclusion occurred to her and she palmed her face with a grimace.

True, at least in some part, the current situation was slated to happen tonight anyway… but it would be her luck that it went tits-up right at the end of the operation. "I wonder who I get to blame this on," she groused, quickly packing up her kit as her sense of unease grew.

Setsuna's answer was to toss the redhead a small folded piece of paper. Ranma caught it deftly, having sensed nothing about it in the moment she'd spared it in-flight. Some would consider her paranoid, but she knew damn well what kind of tricks someone could put in a simple slip of paper.

She had some pretty nasty ones herself, in fact.

Unfolding the note, she began to read with relish, her tone dropping and becoming more confused as she did, "The Dean would like to offer you the use of the MSS clubroom… attached key… meeting tonight… wait. What? Wait, wait, wait! This isn't right at all!"

The kenshi quirked a brow slightly at the distressed martial artist. "Oh?"

"Where's the challenge letter? The demand to stay away from your Ojōsama? Promises of vengeance for… well whatever?" Ranma growled as she stuffed the abbreviated note into her pocket before crossing her arms. "You're supposed to challenge me for Konoka's sake, and then get beaten down, and then start scheming ways to get close to her. Don't you know how this is supposed to work?"

Setsuna stared. "What on earth…?"

Ranma was clearly too focused on her own explanation however, and ignored the other girl's blatant confusion. "…and then, we'd have this epic rivalry thing, where I would show you techniques while we fought each time. You'd get better obviously, I mean Shinmei-ryū's alright, but," Ranma rolled her eyes a bit before laughing quietly. "Right. Anyway, while all that was going on, you'd plot ways to get close to Konoka and I'd be 'fooled' into letting it happen. It was a totally win-win plan!

"And you didn't even intend to fight me at all did you?" Ranma slumped as the confused swordswoman shook her head slowly. "Yeah, I was kind of confused by your lack of intent there, but thought maybe you were just good at hiding it. Damn. I put a lot of work into this too."

"I… can see that," Setsuna murmured, unsure whether to be disturbed or impressed at the depth of Ranma's planning. True, it had fallen quite short of what she'd intended, but there was a certain charm about it. She didn't appreciate the implications about her school very much, particularly in that was inferior in some way, but didn't feel up to arguing the point considering doing so would likely lead to a fight. She wasn't as frightened of the martial artist before her as she had been some days ago, but that still didn't change the fact that she'd bested her teacher here at Mahora quite handily.

She knew there were portions of the Shinmei-ryū School she was unaware of, or yet to reach the level of competence needed to be taught. Those much more advanced techniques and the principles behind them weren't the material for spars, however. They were the pinnacle of the School's arsenal of anti-spirit skills, and as such, had little place in a casual or even heated battle against a flesh-and-blood opponent. True, they could be bent into such a form as to cause harm on such a target… but even the thought of doing so made her slightly ill. Such a perversion of her art wasn't something she'd contemplate. Never mind the likely swift and final repercussion of the school itself to such a thing. 'They'd likely send Tsuruko-sensei,' she mused morbidly, shuddering slightly at scenario playing through her mind.

"You alright there? You went really pale and started shivering."

"Yes," Setsuna murmured, snapping out of her waking nightmare. "I am fine." Still, there was the martial artist before her and her intent to address. The question was of course, did she bother? She would likely regret this but… "Do you intend to continue your association with Ojōsama?"

Ranma tilted her head at the nearly resigned tone the question was asked in. "Uh, well yeah. I mean she's a nice girl, and we seem to be getting along alright. We're classmates, and work together. We're friends," the redhead explained simply. "I've not had many of those."

"You asked what I was going to 'do about it', earlier, in regard to your friendship with Ojōsama," the swordswoman laid out, picking her words carefully. "I am curious. Do you value that friendship above your… plan?"

Startled somewhat, Ranma thought over Setsuna's words with initial confusion, then mild annoyance and chagrin. "What? Oh, I get it. You're worried I was just using her somehow, to start that whole thing up. No, I wasn't really thinking like that, but I get why you'd think so," she muttered, bringing a hand up to rub at her chin in thought. "Huh, that did seem like kind of a dick move, looking back on it from that point of view."

Setsuna nodded minutely. "I would rather your 'plan' not come to light, to Ojōsama. It may damage her regard for you, and she seems to genuinely consider you a friend. I would expect no less from someone with a similar claim."

Ranma flinched from that, dropping her head a little while tugging at her braid where it lay before her shoulder. "Alright, alright. I get it. Sheesh, and here I was just trying to help, you know?"

The Shinmei-ryū swordswoman spared the martial artist a slight grin, little more than the lift of a corner of her lips. "I see that. However, things were never so simple between us."

"Yeah? Well, what about now? I know there's that whole 'keep magic secret' thing going on, and the Dean's probably going to throw half a library at me for getting his granddaughter caught up in my crap, but you can talk to her at least now, right?"

"Saotome-san," the kenshi muttered, shaking her head slightly, missing Ranma's eyes narrowing. "There are things you don't understand—"

"Well, what's so big that you can't talk with her about it? I mean you two seemed to be pretty close from what she said," Ranma pointed out, but rather than accept her words, the face of young woman before her closed down further. "Oh come on, it couldn't have been that bad."

Setsuna didn't appreciate how lightly the woman across from her considered her duty and how she went about it. However, she wasn't some uncouth ruffian or barbarous ignorant. Reacting to blunt or rude situations with her sword was the sort of thing that was inexcusable. Most of the time. "I do not expect you to understand, Saotome-san. I sim—"

"My name," Ranma growled out, startling the swordswoman, "is Ranma. I thought I made that clear in class? Drop the 'Saotome-san' thing. Really. Like right now."

"I, uh. Very well then," Setsuna fumbled, blinking rapidly.

Ranma nodded sharply. "Alright. That handled, let me explain something I've learned to you," pacing once more, though this time without the expectant tension of before, the martial artist began. "You're yōjimbo; that much we've gathered. You're Kono-chan's protector. I've dealt with this kind of thing before, so it's not so strange to me.

"What's strange, is that you're only half-doing your job, despite how serious you're taking it."

The hand holding her sword clenched at that claim, rattling the blade within. "Explain yourself," Setsuna demanded, her voice sheathing steel.

"I was getting to it, yeesh," Ranma groused with a roll of her eyes. "So this is how I figure it; you were hired or given your job by someone in Kyoto back when you were both kids. She's from there, and you were either training there, or were brought in early because of your age.

"I've heard of that kind of thing, but it's not something I've run into much, personally. Usually with the old houses, schools like yours, or maybe people way too fond of the old traditions. Anyway, you were there. I know Kyoto's where the Shinmei-ryū are based, so maybe it was some kind of political agreement between them and whoever hired you. I can guess Kono-chan's a pretty big target, considering who she's related to and all.

"So, they let you two hang around one another while you're small. Maybe you were just getting into your school, and they hadn't hit you with the duty stick yet. But then something happened. Maybe you slipped. Maybe she did something stupid—"

Setsuna did not snarl at the martial artist. It was merely a slip of her expression in surprise at the light nearby flickering.

"—but the bottom line is the same. You took that duty spiel and what happened and decided you got too close maybe. Maybe you thought your emotions were clouding up your perceptions or that you couldn't be objective. I have no idea, but I know you do.

"The bottom line is that one day you just shut down. But, your job got easier, didn't it?" Ranma didn't wait for some kind of response, instead focusing on pushing forward with what she was seeing with her mind's eye. "You didn't have all the distractions. You could focus more on what going on around Kono-chan, just what you could see with her." Turning, blue eyes met hard near-black. "See, the problem with that is, your job got easier, but Kono-chan? She lost her best friend."

Setsuna stumbled back as if struck. "Wh-what?"

Ranma stalked closer as she paced, closing the distance little by little. She'd been making a lot of wild accusations, but they were things that she could understand. When put into context as 'social battle', the maneuverings of people got much clearer to her. She still had blind spots and tended to her own blunt methods, but understanding other people had gotten easier, not that meant very much in the greater scheme of things. She still screwed up – badly – at times. This time, she just happened to have had some references to pull off of, to put things into context. After all, those old schools still had very traditional methods, so there was documentation around one could read up on to figure things out to a degree. The old system where lifelong bodyguards were trained alongside the people they were set to protect was something they still told stories about, for instance. It didn't really take her long to figure the girl before her out, watching her discreetly in class, and with Konoka's few but detailed stories in mind.

"You blind or something?" Ranma continued, keeping Sakurazaki off her mental balance. "That girl misses you. It wasn't like you took away her ball or something, Sakurazaki. How about this, let's think back on it a bit. How many friends did she have? How many kids were around her back then?"

"None," the kenshi replied quietly. "It was too much of a risk. She was the daughter of the chief of Kansai. There were no few people who didn't recall the recent conflicts with the Kantō Association and their Western mages, or who had not lost someone during them. Only those who could be vetted with absolute certainty were allowed to freely mingle with Ojōsama's household."

Her demeanor shifting to one less confrontational, Ranma let her steps slow as well. "And then there's that thing with the Dean, right? How he set up a marriage between Kono-chan's dad and his daughter. Bet people weren't thrilled by that, either."

Setsuna nodded solemnly. "Understatement, really. There are even now some who work to undermine the peace they symbolize."

"People don't like their ideals being messed with," the martial artist surmised with a slight smile. "Which brings us back to you, and how you messed up. You were Kono-chan's only friend growing up. Chances are they expected you to be, and if you hadn't gotten close to her, you'd have been pulled out of that spot," Ranma pointed out, causing the kenshi to startle. She regardless nodded slowly, seeing the supposition as reasonable; it was a sensible sort of thing, and even she had to admit the value of a trusted friend over a blasé mercenary in such a position. "You're yōjimbo. That means you're her guardian.

"I'm guessing you did a good job here," Ranma explained, waving a hand over her body. "She didn't seem to have had too much in the way of injuries or anything. So I'm guessing you kept her safe. But, what about here?" Tapping her chest lightly, Ranma met the eyes of the frozen swordswoman standing across from her. "A person isn't just a body, Sakruazaki."

Setsuna bit her lip and looked away sharply. "I-it was not m-my place."

No more than a few paces away, Ranma scoffed at that. "Then whose was it?"

Having no answer to that question, the swordswoman shook her head unsteadily. "What you are saying, it cannot be correct. There are things that despite your intuition in this situation, you do not understand."

Ranma rubbed at her forehead in irritation. "You're not going to budge on this are you?"

"I am afraid not."

With a resigned sigh, Ranma nodded. "Huh. I suppose I have to go with Plan B."

Setsuna had nearly missed how close the martial artist had gotten, but the awareness came too slowly to stop what happened next. Once more, Ranma simply seemed to materialize into her personal space. A single piercing touch aimed at a spot at the base of her neck caused the young woman to seize up with a strangled 'gurk!' before she went utterly limp, dropping her sword as she began to fall like a puppet with its strings cut.

"Plan B," Ranma mused, catching the insensate Sakurazaki before she could hit the ground. "Show up with a knocked out Setsuna, and get Konoka to use the infamous 'lap-pillow' technique till you wake up. Of course I should probably paralyze you somehow before that… don't want you running through any walls trying to escape or anything. I plan on getting my deposit back one day."

"She's going to be rather cross with you, you know."

Ranma spared the other third of the Mahora Special Security team an abbreviated wave from where one of her hands was occupied with keeping Sakurazaki settled on her shoulder. "Oh, hey Tatsumiya. Say, would you mind carrying her sword? I know how touchy people can get about that."

Mana simply sighed, but did as Ranma suggested. "You don't seem surprised to see me," she stated more than asked as she picked up Yūnagi from where it had fallen. The oversized nōdachi was too long for her tastes, and frankly she didn't understand Setsuna's fondness for the weapon considering her own slight frame. It wasn't her business, however, so she didn't ask.

"I figured you'd be around to check on your partner, sooner or later," the martial artist explained to her taller classmate. "Especially since I sent Kono-chan back to my place alone."

"You expected me to see that, did you?"

"Figured it couldn't hurt," Ranma shrugged. "Besides, I was pretty set on running into you one way or another after she gave me that note."

The part-time priestess chuckled lowly at that, shaking her head as she kept pace with the martial artist and her unwilling cargo. "So she managed to deliver it. Do you recall the meeting it mentioned?"

Ranma did, however she'd completely neglected to pay it much attention. "Oh crap," she muttered, wishing she'd put the note in her other pocket now. At least then she could discreetly retrieve it without being too obvious. "Uh, you don't happen to know…"

Mana smiled slightly, her amber eyes glinting faintly in the twilight as the two made their way back toward the campus proper. "We won't be late if we hurry. By the way, the meeting is with the Dean."

"Double crap."

Mana tucked her free hand into her pocket, humming quietly to herself. The weight of her kit settled along her back comfortably, her larger tools folded and disassembled inside. "Mhm. He seemed particularly anxious to speak with you, in fact."


"But, that said… I agree with Plan B."

Ranma's head snapped around so quickly that her braid slapped against Sakurazaki's rump with an audible 'crack'. Both figures froze for a moment as the unconscious kenshi muttered a quiet "not… so rough… Ojōsama," in her forced sleep. Taking a deep breath, the martial artist stated quiet firmly, "That didn't happen."

Mana nodded, though her grin said otherwise. "Sure. I didn't hear a thing."

"Excellent," Ranma agreed. "Now, what did you mean about Plan B?"

Snorting, the part-time priestess waved a hand at where Sakurazaki was draped across Ranma's shoulder. "I'm getting tired of her sighing and moping around on patrol constantly. 'Ojōsama' this, 'Kono-chan' that. The girl needed to either get drunk, get locked in a closet with Konoe, or both. Preferably on a hot summer day."

Nodding, Ranma could only snicker at the mental image for that, though, it did seem slightly different than her own take on the situation… "So, you mean sword-girl here has a crush on Konoka? They aren't just estranged friends?"

"If by crush you mean utter and total devotion with a side of pervert stalker, then sure."

That brought the martial artist up short for various reasons. "Eh? Pervert?" Ranma eyed the slight weight on her shoulder with a raised brow. "Huh. Never would have seen that one."

"Period dramas," Mana offered, counting off points on her fingers. "The kind with the noble lady seducing the loyal maid or bodyguard. She also has one of those kinky maid uniforms. Don't get me started on what's in her nightstand, or what's she's named it."

"Please," Ranma muttered, blinking with wide eyes. "Don't. But, uh. Why do you know those… things?"

"She's my roommate."

"Oh. So, yeah, I suppose that would get kinda tiresome after a while."

"Three. Years."

"Or three years," Ranma agreed with a rapid nod of her head – which she carefully made sure kept her braid nowhere near Sakurazaki. "So, you think she's just shy about approaching Konoka about things, on top of everything else?"

Mana spared the redhead an assessing gaze. "Martial schools that have a heavy focus on discipline rarely balance out the emotional side of a person's growth. Sure, they don't directly stunt it most times, but teaching someone to push it into their focus, or redirect it, or simply meditate to lessen the 'effect' isn't uncommon." Seeing the cursed girl nod, she continued, "Sakurazaki has no idea how to approach Konoe, much less the confidence to do so. Compared to what she does know – the Shinmei-ryū – she probably feels like a bumbling neophyte in that regard."

"Yeah," Ranma agreed, masking her own sympathetic flinch at the blunt assessment. An assessment she could have applied to herself recently, and found quite accurate. Still could, if she was being honest with herself, though more recent situations were helping to broaden her scope, finally. "Guess that makes sense."

"So, the best thing we can do to help both Konoe and Sakurazaki, is this," the dark-skinned young woman stated, promptly producing what looked like a dart suited for use in a firearm of some sort. "This way, you don't have to worry about her escaping once Konoe engages that 'lap-pillow' technique you were mumbling about earlier."

"That's a dart?" Seeing Mana nod, Ranma continued, "And what's in it?" She asked with a growing sense of unease.


Fifteen minutes later found a wide-eyed Konoka ushered out of the door she'd just opened as it admitted more people than she was expecting. "Um! Oh, ah. Good evening, Tatsumiya-san."

The normally stoic girl favored her with a slight grin and a nod, before turning to the redhead accompanying her... Who was carrying someone on her shoulder? "Now, that dart will only keep her paralyzed about an hour. Despite how slight she looks, Sakurazaki's got a good constitution. We should get to that meeting." So saying she leaned a familiar, simple, pale wooden sword sheathe up against the wall by the door.

Wait. Dart? Paralyzed? Sakurazaki? "Secchan?"

"Yep!" Her host chirped, slinging the bundle across her shoulders down and onto the couch with a muffled 'whump!'. "Found her on the way over, and decided to bring her back."

Konoka shook her head at that. "Wait, you found her? On the way?" What she'd just asked registered in her own mind at that point and she darted over to the couch at speed, checking the lightly snoring figure who had curled up on her side rapidly for any sign of injury. "What happened to her?"

Ranma shrugged, looking up at the ceiling for a moment as she sucked air between her teeth, "Huh, I don't know. I mean one minute she was just, you know, doing that broody thing she does then," the redhead slumped suddenly as if pantomiming something. "Out like a light. Damnedest thing, really."

"Uh, huh," the Dean's granddaughter muttered, eying the martial artist for a moment before returning her attention to her sleeping friend. True, there didn't seem to be anything outwardly amiss; no bruising, obviously broken bones, and no obvious cuts or blood thankfully. Konoka paused in her assessment, as she came upon one anomaly. It was rather obvious, considering it was sticking out of Setsuna's behind. "Is… is that a dart?"

"What? No! How silly would that be?"

"I have no idea what you could be talking about."

Konoka sighed, closing her eyes and counting silently to herself. When she reached ten, she opened her eyes once more and smiled brightly. "I'm going to make some tea for myself and Secchan when she wakes up—"

"Allow me," Mana muttered before leaving the room as quickly as her long strike could carry her. Which, Ranma noted with a silently mouthed 'traitor!' at her back, was pretty damn fast.

For her part, the martial artist turned a beaming smile to her temporary roommate, who's happy expression was cracking almost audibly. "Hey, I have an idea! You know, since she's not feeling too well, maybe Setsuna would like to get more comfortable."

Konoka's gaze was sharp as she took in the slight damp sheen of sweat on Ranma's forehead. "Oh? And how would you accomplish that?"

"Here, why don't you sit—"

Mana's voice broke in from the kitchen. "Ranma, where's the kettle?"

"Under the stove!" the redhead bellowed, before turning with a smile back to Konoka. "Just sit down and we'll get her all comfy, alright?"

The dark-haired girl hummed suspiciously, but regardless seated herself on Ranma's couch without any more argument or pause. "Alright, now what?"

"Now we just move her—"

There was the sound of a cupboard closing, and an annoyed huff from the kitchen. "Ranma, where's the tea?"

"Over the sink!" Ranma bellowed with a twitching eye before taking a deep breath, returning to the much touchier situation at hand. Didn't Mana know she was busy at the moment? Bothering her about the little stuff when she had the Boss of the whole plan eying her like that? "Now, as I was saying, we just scoot her up so her head's resting on your lap."

Konoka's mild ire evaporated as Ranma snapped into a flurry of motion, and she was suddenly pinned beneath the surprisingly slight weight provided by a sleeping Setsuna Sakurazaki. For her part, the unconscious swordswoman reacted to the sudden motion and warmth by reaching over and bunching a corner of Konoka's shirt in her hand with a sleepy murmur.

Ranma watched all the fight melt out of Konoka as a slight smile worked its way across her face. Even she had to admit that was cute! This could work! "Alright. Now, I'm going to get a damp towel in case she might have a fever or something," the martial artist murmured, backing away slowly from the tableau before her.

As expected, Konoka was too busy staring down at Setsuna to notice her. Regardless she moved slowly, knowing rapid action or loud noises would pull the young woman's attention once mor—"

The sound of the sink being played with preceded Mana's griping. "Does this hot water even work?"

"It needs a second to warm up!" Ranma bellowed into the kitchen, before slapping a hand over her mouth. Turning slowly, she was relieved to see Konoka idly running her fingers through Setsuna's hair.

She'd just loosed a sigh of relief, she Konoka's voice cracked the silence with deceptive gentleness. "When you get back from your meeting, you will explain this."

"Uh, sure. Yeah, sure thing," Ranma agreed with a nervous laugh. "I mean, not that there's much to explain really! Like I said, I just happened across her, then 'thump'. Completely out of the blue!"

She was saved from Konoka's disbelieving look as Mana finally showed up with some tea. "You know," the tallest of the three muttered as she bent to sit the tray near where Konoka was seated, "you didn't have to scream. I was just in the other room."

"You shut your mouth," Ranma hissed before turning a smile to Konoka. "Well! I suppose it's time for us to head out. See you later, Kono-chan!"

Mana nodded, rising just as suddenly as she started walking toward the door. "Have a good evening, Konoe-san."

As the door slammed shut after them, Konoka breathed out a sigh, which then became a quiet laugh. "Those two…"

Setsuna shifted with a small sound, turning her face into Konoka's stomach. "Mmph… Ojōsama… not there."


"Huh," Ranma murmured, slapping an ofuda on her door with a nearly tangible sense of relief. "That actually worked."

"Barely," Mana offered, inspecting the rapidly dispersing sealing writ with a critical eye. "That was a nicely made seal. I wasn't aware you studied at a temple."

Ranma scoffed at that before wrinkling her nose at her shirt, after looking down and seeing the state it was in. She was still running around in the one Eva's afternoon of experiments had left stained and wrinkled. True, she wasn't really as prone to bouts of feminine modesty or caring about her clothes too much, but she was trying to make a good impression on people with this new beginning she'd been offered. Running around in a filthy shirt just wasn't going to cut it.

"Here, hang on a second," she muttered, fingers deftly undoing the buttons, before she whipped the shirt over her head and at the confusedly blinking Mana. "Now, where is that spare… damn."


"Hang on. I think… no. That's a towel." Ranma seemed to be trying to scratch at her back, though the part-time priestess had an idea that was definitely not what was going on. Also, towel? "Did I forget to put it in there?"

Mana shook her head. Her assessment of Ranma's martial potential went up, seeing her without a shirt close up. The amount of muscle tone the shorter girl had was impressive. "Unless you managed to hide a towel in the latch of your bra… What the hell?"

There was a pile of things in the apartment hallway that hadn't been there a moment before. "Towel, pack of sealing papers, ink, thermoses, more paper, brushes, rubber duck? Oh hell no," the aforementioned bath toy hurtled past Mana at a significant portion of the speed of sound. "More ink, my jacket, spare panties, pair of pants… damn. Forgot to pack a shirt."

Blinking down at the small collection of things, Mana pointed with a raised brow. "You don't strike me as the Gekota type."

"Huh?" Ranma looked down where the taller girl was pointing and blushed crimson as the panties disappeared in a blur. "They were on sale!"


Ranma grumbled as she started pulling things behind her back, making them disappear. "Never mind that. I guess I'll just go to the meeting with a dirty shirt, then."

"Well, you look to be about my size in the places it matters," Mana noted, eyeing the redhead up and down critically. "You're what, a 75C or D?"

"Eh? Yeah around that. How'd you know?"

"Aside from that looking like what I wear," Mana explained, indicating Ranma's simple bra, "there was the health check the other day. You and I are of a size… well. There at least."

The martial artist grumbled at her slow growth, as far as her height was concerned anyway. She was beginning to catch up, but it was going to take a while yet. Given, Mana was tall even for people considered tall, but still. It would be nice to not feel so off-center, compared to her male form. "Well, if you have anything that won't look like a dress on me, I'd appreciate it."

Waving off the other's girl's concern, she handed her back her shirt, which Ranma just as quickly put back on. "I have some things similar to this. You can return it sometime once you start joining us on patrols."

"It's funny," Ranma noted as they moved from the residential area where Mana's dorm was located, and started making their way toward the staff offices. "No matter where you go on campus, it seems like you're headed toward that tree."

At the martial artist's side Mana nodded as she settled her long jacket about her shoulders. She'd decided, since they were already at her dorm to change into her more comfortable 'work' clothes. Those consisted mainly of a long coat over a brief skin-tight armless leotard and her pistol holsters, a pair of shorts or slacks, and a set of chaps that she had protective seals set into, much like the jacket. It was an eclectic sort of ensemble, but then, a shrine priestess that used guns to perform exorcisms wasn't exactly mainstream either.

The amusement as Ranma ducked and hid her eyes while she was changing only served as a bonus. "The campus is organized so that the World Tree stands at the point of a triangle," the shootist explained. "When you're walking to class or any of the associated buildings from the outlying areas, it sits behind them. With how the area is laid out, if you're heading back to your dorm, the roads typically curve around so that you get a sidelong view of things at a few points."

"Seems pretty deliberate." Something tickled at Ranma's awareness, causing her to frown. It was faint, but intense. She likened it to how someone described to her how people would get the sensation of hearing a very high pitched sound randomly at times. She shook the sensation off, "Though, I guess it does make some sense. Makes you remember where you are."

"Which is important, at times," Mana agreed. "Making this the center of the Kantō Association was a risky choice. One I don't really agree with, but what's done is done."

Ranma considered that point with an expression of distaste. "Yeah, I can see that. I don't much like the idea that so many kids are around this much magic. It just puts everyone at risk."

Mana regarded the redhead ruefully. "You're mostly worried about the magic affecting them? Not conflicts between different Associations, like Kansai?"

"If the mages weren't here, then there wouldn't be a problem," Ranma declared heatedly. "Still, it does seem like a bad choice. It's almost like they're holding the students hostage against other people acting against them, now that you mention it."

"Mahora is a tactical location for a number of reasons," the part-time priestess countered, honestly surprised at her coworker's ire in that regard. "It's a natural nexus of ley energy, with the World Tree at the center. The wards around the extended campus are some of best outside of the great shrines, and with the terrain, it's not so easy to approach."

"Maybe for machinery, but people?" Ranma laughed mirthlessly. "All that forest cover, the hills near them? That's perfect for small groups. Having so much water nearby is basically the same thing. Anyone that really wants to get to the heart of this place just has to do it on foot. Or by air, but that's a given," she added with less enthusiasm.

Mana was quite aware of those weaknesses, but wasn't expecting someone else outside her own realm of experience to have picked up on them as well. On the other hand, it was nice to have someone around that had the same sort of mindset for things that she did. "At least the campus has a number of strategic points of observation."

Ranma bobbed her head in a noncommittal gesture. "True, but how useful are they to the people here?" Seeing the clear question on Mana's face, she elaborated, "Well, you're good with guns, right? But who else could use them as well? Do the mages here have your kind of accuracy and range to take advantage of them?"

"Most of the Academy mages are more medium range," the exorcist admitted, having not considered that herself. She also had to admit, most of her own observations were made from the standpoint of someone who had people of similar skill and armament in mind. "As far as range goes, I'm pretty much the top end of the spectrum."

"The campus is full of either wide open spaces," Ranma indicated, pointing to their own wide lane near the staff offices and closer to the 'heart' of the campus, "or narrow little alleys between blocks of dorms or classrooms. It's pretty lousy security from a terrain standpoint. It was obviously a school or just privately owned before it was supposed to be the center of some big Association."

"Hm." A chirp from the taller girl's cellphone grabbed her attention. "Hold that thought."

"Which reminds me," Ranma mused to herself as she waited for Mana to finish her call, "I should get a phone. Seems everyone in class has one these days."

"They're where? I thought the reports had them just arriving in Japan?!"

Peering over at the exorcist as her posture took a definite shift into the aggressive, Ranma started to scan her surroundings with a bit more scrutiny. Maybe that strange feeling she'd gotten earlier wasn't just some random background noise from all the magical bullshit at the Academy.

"She's right here," Mana replied to an unheard question. "Yeah, here."

Ranma nearly dropped the phone when it was thrust into her hands, as Mana slung the large case off her shoulder and onto the ground with a resounding 'bang!'. Bringing the device to her ear, she offered a hesitant "Hello?" to whoever was on the line.

"Ah," a wizened voice murmured in her ear, "you are there with Tatsumiya-san. It seems the meeting I wanted to have with you may need to be postponed."

"Huh, that you old guy?"

The sound of Mana assembling a rifle stole Ranma's attention until the voice on the phone spoke again. "Yes," the Dean of Mahora affirmed with clear amusement. "I was originally going to ask you to take a look at some photographs that were taken by one of my associates on the western coast earlier, but it appears to be a moot point now."

Ranma considered those words with a mild sense of concern. Worse, she never liked it when old people seemed this happy. It never boded well for her. "Oh? Why's that?"

"The people I had thought to ask you to identify were just recently sighted outside of the metropolitan area."

"And they were headed this way?"

"Perhaps not," the Dean allowed, as Ranma turned sharply to her left, going very still. "However, I believe, based on their description that they were most likely looking for you. I have been lead to understand that they have followed a path leading almost directly to Mahora since making landfall."

The cursed martial artist narrowed her eyes as she rattled off a list to the Dean, "Five women, ages ranging from about mid-teens to middle-aged, wearing silk clothing in variations on traditional Chinese styles, mostly in tones of blue and gray. Hair colors ranging from brunette to blue and teal. Oh, and they'd be carrying some pretty interesting baggage for tourists."

The Dean hummed quietly before making a sound of agreement. "Ah, well. Yes. That's them. How did you know?"

"They're across the street," Ranma replied, closing the phone and handing it back to Mana as she scanned her surroundings discreetly. The exorcist took it back while bracing a rifle on her thigh, a large caliber slug held in her teeth as she pocketed the thing. They were nearly to the central staff offices of the Academy, which meant it was too populated, too central by far for the kind of fight that was going to break out. "Talk you out of getting involved here?"

Tatsumiya replied by cocking her rifle with a sharp sound, then slinging it across her back as she loosened the straps on her underarm holsters. "Nope."

Ranma expected as much, nodding as she relaxed her left hand, letting the mala there unwind with an ominous clatter. In the tense silence, the jade sounded more like hollow bones rattling. "Then you might want to move!"

As far as running battles went, Ranma had dealt with worse. Immediately, she's broken with Mana as the exorcist had taken an almost lateral path compared to her own full retreat. She didn't expect that the Joketsuzoku wanted to paint a target on their head's due to a bodycount of students from Mahora, so both sides of the upcoming conflict wordlessly agreed to move their battle somewhere with less collateral damage. For that alone, Ranma was willing to cut the Chinese hunter team some slack. It didn't mean she was going to let them determine the battlefield, however.

Leaning forward into her sprint fully, Ranma cycled her ki roughly through her chakras, awakening her body with a jolt that left her feeling light-headed and giddy. She hated it, but it was the cost of sealing herself – when the seal was broken, she nearly felt drugged with the sudden influx of energy. Besides the sudden and blistering energy coursing through her body, her perceptions sharpened, while her mind's grasp of the passing moments seemed to slow. It was an illusion of her brain reacting to the sudden abundance of ki, but it regardless gave her a few extra, precious moments to set her plan.

Though the battle proper had yet to begin, the first probing strikes were being made as sped through Mahora in a roundabout path taking them back toward the heavier forests north of the campus proper. She wondered where Mana had gotten to briefly, before something stole her attention back to her own predicament. A pair of slender knives skipped across the pavement before her, thrown by one of her pursuers; she didn't know which beyond they had been to her left when she heard the whistle of air splitting from the blades passing her. As they bounced and clattered, she snapped out a hand and tucked one into the crook of her palm.

The street they were following ended abruptly ahead, turning sharply to the north. Ranma chanced a burst of speed before hopping lightly, turning her back to her own path as she surveyed the pursuing team of Joketsuzoku, her trajectory continuing to carry her on a course to the wall. The two lithe fighters of the team were hanging back slightly, one bearing the wide sleeves and loose clothing Ranma had come to associate with those that used the Hidden Weapons style she'd most regularly encountered from Xian Pu's paramour Mu Tsu. Not that it was a two-sided situation anymore than her own with the Joketsuzoku girl was. She got the label 'Ducky', partly for her resemblance to Mu Tsu, and partly for her hairstyle which resembled one.

More concerning was the figure currently running point to the formation, bearing a massive kanabō that looked to be nearly the width of a telephone pole with an ease that made the martial artist wince. She rarely worried about people with big weapons, but a woman with an Oni's club that size gave her pause. Worse, the woman looked to be getting along in years, which Ranma had learned early on usually meant she was dangerous. Spending time with the Phoenix after her change and working to re-secure their borders only emphasized that view, as most of the few times she'd had problems or came away wounded were from teams with an older leader or member in their number.

Nearly abreast of the older Amazon sprinted a woman with a similar build to her own, with a pair of small swords sheathed along the small of her back beneath a rather ornate bow with trailing ribbons. Ranma pegged her as a speed-type, and on the mental corkboard she began to plan on, labeled her 'Bows'. Flanking 'Tank' as she'd labeled the older Amazon on the other side, Ranma spied one of her pursuers wearing a motley arrangement of pouches and satchels about her person, sporting no weapons or indication she had any. Immediately alarmed, the redhead snapped the knife in her hand at the woman in the final moments of her flagging jump.

She heard rather than saw the kanabō snap to the side to defend the woman, as she was suddenly concerned with the wall she was closing in on. Tucking her legs under her, Ranma changed her angle of momentum slightly, finishing the spin her desperate throw had started. Now facing the approaching wall at crushing speed, she unfurled like a kite, catching the wind with her clothing as she slowed fractionally and prepared for impact.

If the Joketsuzoku expected her to hit the wall directly rather than possibly try to alter her momentum to make the turn somehow, they didn't show it. They were less prepared when Ranma cratered that wall beneath her feet, before springing back off and directly back at them.

Eyes wide and wind-milling their arms to try and prepare for the sudden assault, the Joketsuzoku were caught flat-footed as Ranma speared through their loose formation like a launched arrow. With an almost casual motion she reached out in passing, a layer of sharp ki along her forearm as she passed between 'Tank' and the as-yet unnamed woman with the pouches. Too concerned with stopping her rather significant momentum, Tank was unprepared to defend the woman, and none of the other hunters were much better. Two strikes that she judged weren't worth her attention were ignored as Ranma met the panicking woman's eyes in that moment before she sailed past with a muted roar of wind ripping at her clothing.

'Medic' as Ranma would identify her later, made a weak defense with her arms, more a warding gesture than anything else. Ranma didn't so much as slow as the blade of ki and wind along her braced arm slashed through the woman's arms and beyond. In her wake a spray of blood misted in the air, followed with the hollow 'thuk, thunk, thump' of a head hitting the ground.

Ranma didn't bother to turn and survey the carnage as she tumbled and regained her feet, focusing entirely on regaining the initiate and getting the likely enraged Joketsuzoku to follow her outside what little of the Academy they were still within. A spray of steel bit at her heels, telling her that Ducky was definitely following, but what she wasn't prepared for was the sudden appearance of the one girl she'd barely noted, right in her path.

Screaming something incoherent in Mandarin, the brown-haired, unremarkable, honestly rather plain girl nearly took her head off as she spat out what to Ranma's senses was a plane of force the size of a small car. The sonic attack – 'Noisy', Ranma named the girl idly – sailed past her at an angle, cutting a swath of destruction across the street and a storefront that had it collapsing in on itself instantly. Not unscathed from the miss, Ranma noted the ringing in her ears and the faint, warm, concerning dampness across her neck.

"Ruptured eardrums," she surmised into the ringing silence, tucking into a spin that took her past the girl as she caught her breath for a second 'scream'. Leaning further into her sprint, Ranma chanced a look behind her and winced.

Bows was in the process of dodging around Noisy, giving her a wide berth as she drew her swords. The reason became clear as Ducky was bowed down in front of Noisy, loading the air with a nearly solid sheet of sharpened steel. Braced behind the sound-wielding Amazon, Tank had settled her shoulder into the girl's back, which set the warning flags going up in Ranma's mind into overdrive.

'FuckfuckFUCK!' she screamed within her mind, dropping limiters she'd not touched for months. It had to be enough, it would be enough—

"BREAK!" she outwardly screamed, causing the mala on her hand to shatter in a flash of malevolent power that countered the sudden spike of her own ki manifesting as a collapse of silver-shot motes, forming a pair of sharply-angled wings along her back that tore through Mana's borrowed shirt. With a desperate heave she bent to launch herself upward—


'Too slow,' Ranma cursed, as she curled her manifested wings about her like a cocoon, the steep climb she'd planned aborted as the literal wall of swords washed over her. The tide hit and took her aside as if she'd been sitting there waiting for it, wholly ignoring her attempted leap to safety.

Her world was a hell of swords and sound, both sweeping her up and swatting her like an errant fly down the street. Striking her at nearly the speed sound that carried them, the blades were far beyond her natural or ki-enhanced toughness to deflect or mitigate. Dozens of blades pierced and slashed at her wings, cutting them to a ruin of feathers and blood that in places were little more than shredded tatters instantly. Some of those were pinned in turn to the street itself or her, as the swords, daggers, and random blades the Hidden Weapons user had sacrificed to the sound-user had easily bypassed the weak defense of her shielding wings.

Stunned and still reeling from the impact of sound which had literally concussed her from the inside out, Ranma was barely aware of her current state. Oh, she knew on an empirical level that was in deep trouble, but the actual, visceral reaction had yet to process. She knew she was pinned to the ground like a butterfly by half a dozen swords, while what parts of her weren't outright impaled were littered with wicked gashes and still-embedded blades that had at some points been ripped and warped into even more dangerous forms by the sonic bomb that had launched them.

Her field of view was fouled, and Ranma didn't bother to guess why, letting her head loll to the side bonelessly. Blood dripped across her good eye from the motion, but she didn't blink, instead focusing with all her concentration on the Joketsuzoku.

The four remaining women were standing loosely in formation still, surrounding Noisy as she gripped at her throat with a pained expression. Tank was still watching over her, but her attention was lax and she was wearing a wide, pleased grin on her face. Of the four, Ducky seemed the most distraught, sparing glances back at the cooling corpse of her fellow hunter, left headless and bleeding out behind them some distance. Bows was simply holding her blades at attention idly, looking about the street for further threats.

"So that was the Phoenix's pet demon, eh?" Tank's Mandarin was rough and peppered with small bits of nuance she couldn't quite place, but Ranma recognized it well enough. She'd been exposed to the Joketsuzoku dialect for years, after all. Hearing through one ear that seemed packed with tinfoil however… that was new.

Noisy tried to say something but instead coughed into her hand, which came away bloody. "Stop, Xue. You'll just end up mute for a month again," Bows chided in a cold tone. "Now, what the hell was that? Have you three been practicing that?"

"The elders warned us this one was special," Ducky grumbled, picking up the few weapons that were close at hand, tucking them into her sleeves. "We felt a special attack could be helpful."

"Still," Bows groused, before shaking her head. "Never mind. It doesn't matter. Our people's shame is erased with this. Elder Khu Lon and her granddaughter will be able to return to the fold, finally."

Tank snorted at that. "Honestly, they were having trouble with that? Maybe we'd be better off if they stayed away." Tank flinched as Ducky pinned her with a glare. "What?"

"If you somehow managed to forget it, Gao, Hisen is dead," Ducky snarled, stabbing back the way they came with a blade she'd yet to stow. "Let's not make light of this day, agreed?"

"Yeah, sure," the older woman agreed with a sigh. "Still, I'll be glad to head home—"

"You're not going anywhere."

The four Joketsuzoku turned with wide eyes at the figure that was currently tearing itself off a sword that was too fixed into the pavement under it to dislodge. Dragging swords behind her that were still thrust through her wings, and with a handful still impaling her at odd angles, the figure facing them was one out a hardened warrior's nightmare.

Ranma took a breath that hissed around invasive steel and bubbled bright red blood from between her lips. Regardless, she sported a smile that was all red-stained teeth and a wide-open jaw. One side of her face was literally torn practically off, leaving a sheet of red coursing down to her chin, where it dripped steadily with a slow patter to the ground. The ruin of one eye quivered there, iris shattered leaving it a glaring black pit that itself bled into the already significant ruin it was set in.

With a crackling, wet snap the horrible vision twisted a shoulder back into place, causing a blade lodged in its back to clatter to the ground. "I'm not done with you yet."

"Th-this one… it's already dead," Tank murmured, shaking her head slowly, unconsciously backing away from the walking nightmare that left bloody pools instead of footprints. "She just doesn't have the sense to lie down and be still."

Ranma shook her ruined wings with a snarl, sending loose blades, feathers, blood, and viscera spraying out in an arc from her sides. Panting shallowly, the martial artist reached up with the hand that wasn't twisted and pinned by a sword to her side, and delicately plucked the intact origami wasp from her hair.

The massive wash of ki that blasted off the lethally wounded martial artist was enough to light the dim street, for the brief moment it outlined her before it was all dumped into the slip of paper that shook angrily in her hand.

Ranma's voice was quiet, despite the resounding echo it held. "Suzumebachi. Come out and play."

There was no transition from slip of paper to Shikigami, and whatever the once-more wary Joketsuzoku were expecting from the wounded woman, this was not it.

The sound that buffeted the street wasn't so much a buzz as a fierce, punishing, bass roar that threatened to steal breath and break bone. The droning pulse only grew more oppressive as the figure solidified into full form, the hazy heat-shimmer of its summoning quickly brushed away with a shrug of furious, membranous wings. Above the street, above the top of the nearby, low-roofed buildings, a giant Japanese wasp the size of a military attack helicopter hovered, its antennae twitching fitfully as the massive compound eyes fixed on the four warriors across from its master.

Bows fell backward in shock. "What the hell? What the hell is that?"

Ranma's ghoulish laughter echoed from where she continued to drag herself closer, inexorably. With a shuddering wrench, she ripped her pinned arm loose, turned it, and drew the blade that had been stabbed through her body from between the bones of her arm with a grating rasp with her good hand. "You should have finished me while you had the chance."

"You intend to fight still?" Ducky's bravado died quickly, as the wasp darted to the side with a jerk, its attention fixed wholly on her suddenly. "Y-you can't even walk! Just give up, a-and we're make your death quick!"

"Quick?" A wave of virulent ki pulsed, washed out of the maimed martial artist, then was sucked back in. Left hovering before her were the one-hundred and eight jade beads that had deflected a bare fraction of the damage that had been visited on her in a desperate attempt to shield herself. Each of them bobbed in its own faint limning of ghostly light, pained hisses emanating from them in hellish whispers. A second pulse stilled the mass of sealed jade, only for them to turn and seemingly attack the maimed figure.

Jade stars fixed themselves to the martial artist, dragging at her ki and the body connected as they arranged themselves in a constellation around her. The faint light of their contained and now unsealed yōki mingled with ki being drawn from Ranma resulting in a viscous cloud of poisonous essence that reared up around the maimed woman like a dire shadow. Horned and with great starry pits for eyes, the visage of an Oni from legend regarded those before it with disdain as it swelled larger with each passing moment.

Within the miasma, Ranma felt the welcoming embrace of her once-lover and smiled. Mingled ki and yōki seeped into her wounds with a burning sensation that seared at her very concept of self, twisting her essence and branding her fundamental ideal with its corruption at each labored beat of her heart. However painful it was, her blood stilled its dripping as her wounds glimmered faintly like starlight. With each step, Ranma moved a little faster, bled a little less, her motion growing more sure and fluid. "You had your chance at 'quick'."

The nightmare's laughter grew manic and was punctuated by the angry thrumm of her summon's wings as they sheared the night. Mirroring her steps, the shadow of a colossus loomed above, eclipsing the half-full moon as the Oni leered down with a star-filled and fanged maw. "Heh… heh heh.… you just don't get it!"

With a burst of unnatural speed, the maimed figure closed on them in a spray of her own shed blood. "I'VE STILL GOT ONE HIT-POINT LEFT!"

AN: Ancient Writing Technique: Bait and Switch. Very deadly, use with caution. Clearly. So I bet you were expecting a little fun spar between Ranma and Setsuna? Hahhaha. Nope.

So… this is where I point out that shit got real. When I pointed out that Ranma was up in Jusendo reclaiming Phoenix land from the Joketsuzoku some chapters back? Yeah, they didn't like that. And, clearly, they'd progressed beyond subdual damage looong ago, on both sides.

So, basically what was supposed to happen was Ranma would get her dodge out and evade the attempted attack of murderous band o'plot devices. Cue some impressive collateral damage for plot use later. However… I decided some time ago to actually give Ranma a challenge here. So, I had rough stat sheets penned down for each of them. Individually, they'd end up wiped. Together, they made up a 'solid challenge'.

Ranma managed to identify the most dangerous of the party I set up, as 'Medic' not only had the ability to use shiatsu pressure points that could debilitate, but also heal her allies, and deploy wide-area poison attacks that those same allies would be immune to. She made her roll to identify threats, and got Medic as her target. Seeing as how I always intended this to go into lethal territory from the beginning, with how Ranma's been reacting to her condition, her escalation should have not been a surprise. Plus, well – you always kill the priest first. ALWAYS.

However, a critical fail on a defensive maneuver countered by three – THREE – confirmed crits by the hunters? I could have handwaved it. Ranma dodges because Ranma Dodges. But... I wanted to see how it played out.

I literally ended up with Ranma having One Hit Point Left. Ok, this is probably going to get gruesome, but alright. Let's run with it.

Overpowered Suzu summon? Yep. That was already in the cards. Maybe not that overpowered, but hey. She's an adorable engine of terror and destruction – yes she is! Yes she is!

Engage the mala's 'angry protective Oni girlfriend contingency'… check. Huh, I was going to save that for like… way later but ok. I can roll with that. Maybe this will bring me into that 'herculean situation' that some old bastards were considering before…

And now? Next chapter: Where the FUCK is Mana, and Ranma's Zabuza charge.