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Ranma 1/2: New Challenges
Bonds and Connections
Chapter 12




The scene that greeted Akane and Ranma when they finally
entered the dojo, was one that spoke of much confusion and tension. True
to Kasumi's word, the old monk-like figure in the faded, dark brown robe
was sitting on a cushion on the far side of the dojo. His staff rested
against the wall nearby, as he took a sip from the teacup.

The group arrayed around him, contained much of the family,
friends, and rivals Ranma and Akane knew. Ukyo, along with Yuri, were
two of the most vocal as they waved their 'invitation' and demanded to
know about Kae. Only the presence of Kasumi next to the elderly
gentleman, was what most likely keeping violence from breaking out.

The young couple noticed that their fathers were there as well,
one standing on either side of the man, yet keeping their distance. Soun
was wearing a continual frown, while Genma appeared more unsure of the
stranger. Nodoka was sitting on a cushion next to her husband, looking
merely curious. Nabiki was also there, leaning against the wall and
studying the situation.

The Kuno siblings and Sasuke were near the back of the room,
surprisingly quiet, and merely observing. Occasionally one would whisper
something to the other, earning a nod or a short answer whispered back.
Akane glanced at Kodachi quite warily, remembering her last encounter
with the gymnast. Ranma remembered as well, and directed his wife to the
side farthest away from Kodachi.

The last group of people surprised Akane the most, though she
belatedly realized she had seen them out in the yard a short while ago.

"Miyo-san, do you know what this is all about?" Akane inquired,
moving to the young fortuneteller's side. Akane recognized, and nodded
to, the two young men with the other girl. Hikaru she knew, but the
other young man she only vaguely remembered meeting a long time, though
she recalled his name to be Toshi.

"Some," Miyo replied with a cryptic smile. "But I believe we
shall all find out shortly. If we are wise enough to have a little
patience." She gestured to Ukyo and Yuri, who were still demanding
answers from their mysterious guest.

Akane had no reply for that, deciding to heed the advice.
Behind her, she sensed her husband had completed his own survey of the
room, then walk to her side. Their hands sought out each other once
more, then they sat back to wait while their fingers intertwined.

They didn't have to wait long, as the old man finally spotted
them across the way. "Excellent! Everyone is here."

Ukyo and Yuri quieted down at this, the first words they had
heard him speak since he arrived and announced himself. Reluctantly,
they quieted down and turned, following his gaze to see the newlywed
couple standing next to each other just inside the door. Yuri smiled
slightly, while Ukyo quickly turned her head back, trying to hide her
expression.

"So, are you going to finally tell us what this is all about?"
Ukyo asked in an exasperated voice.

"I shall you what I know, yes," the old monk replied with a
smile and nodding slightly.

"How about starting with who you really are?" Soun demanded in a
low, almost threatening, voice. "What's your real name?"

Akane and Nabiki started, not really used to the barely
contained rage in their father. They had seen it last night as well, but
it was still quite a change from the normal weepy man they had known
most of their life. Oh sure, their father got angry at times, but he
usually just exploded right then and there, and then the anger was gone
a short time later. In short, very similar to Akane's temper.

This time, it looked like Soun was focusing that anger, and if
he exploded now, he might just take the man's head off.

"My name?" the elderly monk said, raising an eyebrow. He
appeared to think that over, then sighed. "The name I was born with, has
been lost to me for most of my life. I have taken many different names
throughout my lifetime, like the two you and Genma know. If you wish a
label to ascribe to me, then you may call me the Caretaker." He paused,
then chuckled darkly. "Sadly, even that moniker is no longer
appropriate."

"What do you mean?" Nabiki asked, prying for more info about
their mysterious guest. Despite her best efforts, she couldn't dig up
much of anything on this man using the two names he had given last
night: Ochiai and Hidenori Taga.

The man known as the Caretaker sighed tiredly, then settled
back on his cushion, suddenly appearing far older than he did before.
"When I was but a lad no older than ten, my parents apprenticed to older
gentleman. For the next ten years after that, I learned what his life
entailed, since I was to take over for him when he passed away. Like me,
he had no name, but was also known as the Caretaker."

"This is all very interesting," Kodachi said in bored tone. "But
I fail to see what this has to do with us."

The Caretaker looked up and speared Kodachi with a grim look
that made her gasp internally. "Because the woman I took care of was
your mother."

"What?" Tatewaki blurted, clearly shocked by the revelation.
"Speak man, what dost thou mean by this!?"

The elderly gentleman waved him off. "Well, actually she was
more than just your mother. Over 900 hundred years ago, there was a
woman who was married to a powerful daiymo."

"Lady Kuno," Miyo whispered reverently. Despite her low tone of
voice, nearly everyone heard her. "She was real..."

"Indeed," the Caretaker confirmed, while nodding his head once.
"I do not have the clear vision of the past that you do, as my knowledge
comes from books and from what my Lady showed me. In order to seal away
a threat from long ago, the original Lady Kuno underwent a ritual to use
her body as a Living Key to another realm. As long as she lived, the
link between the worlds would be sealed. From then on, one Kuno girl in
each generation would merge her life-force with that of Lady Kuno; in
effect, keeping her alive." His eyes swiveled to the two Kuno siblings.
"The last was your mother, and that is why she left you two."

Kodachi could only stand there, trembling, but her brother
managed to throw off his astonishment enough to speak. "But, she
perished the day that abomination attacked yon mental hospital."

"Yes, and that is where the problem now stands," the Caretaker
intoned gravely.

"What problem is that?" Akane asked, speaking up for the first
time. "And what does this have to do with us?"

"Remember what I said, Akane-san," the old man replied,
smoothing out his faded robe. "As long as she lived, the link between
the realms was sealed. But now that she is gone, the portal can be re-
opened, and the Dark Shogun will return."

Soun sighed noisily. "As my daughter said, what does this have
to do with us? I sympathize when the Kuno family over the loss of their
mother, but I would still like to know what that has to do with sending
Saotome-kun and I to Happosai."

"Do not worry, as all shall be made clear," the old man assured
Soun. He pointed his gnarled staff at a girl standing off to the side.
"Perhaps Miyo-san can enlighten us?"

"But I haven't seen the full story, and there is so much still
left out," the young fortuneteller protested.

"It is enough," the Caretaker replied. "My lady and I began
sending you the dreams in order that someone from the present would know
what had happened in the past. I learned what I could from books, but I
am old and my memory is not what it used to be. Also, I am not long for
this world." As if to emphasize this point, he covered his mouth and
coughed once. "Please, tell them what you have learned."

Miyo looked to Toshi, but he merely shrugged. Turning back to
the gathered group revealed everyone's eyes on her. She took a deep
breath to quench her nervousness, then closed her eyes and spoke.

"A long time ago, a war raged across Japan," she intoned. "An
army led by an unknown individual known only as the Dark Shogun,
advanced from the south, conquering all in their path. Apparently, not
many could stand against this army, until survivors from previous
attacks gathered under the banner of Tendo Senshin."

Nabiki's eyes widened at this, while Akane inhaled sharply.
Soun merely looked a little surprised.

"I gather than, this is an ancestor of ours?" Nabiki deduced.

"That is correct," the Caretaker replied. "Please, continue
Miyo-san."

She nodded and closed her eyes once more, visualizing the
dreams. "Senshin's army was joined by a mysterious young man by the name
of Saotome Tenma, who was a warrior of extraordinary skill."

It was Ranma's turn to look surprised, as Akane turned to see
her husband's eyes widen. She, too, was confused. They both had
ancestors that had met long ago?

Miyo continued without noticing. "Together, he departed with
the youngest daughter of Senshin, Akara, who was also a warrior. They
sought help from the ninja clan Garou, but returned too late, finding
the army campsite had been attacked by Dark Shogun's troops. From there,
the two warriors headed to the Kuno castle, being accompanied by a
kunoichi from the Garou clan named Kae."

Ukyo and Yuri instantly recognized that name, and shot to their
feet.

"Wait a minute, that doesn't make any sense," Yuri interrupted.
"If Kae was supposedly fighting against this Dark Shogun army, or
whatever it is. How and why did she take control of my brother now? She
should be dead, right?" Her voice grew soft with that last phrase, as if
fearing the answer.

"Many things are not impossible," the Caretaker told her
solemnly. "Much has been lost to time, but great feats of magic and
sorcery were not so uncommon many thousands of years ago. That is why
this situation is dire now, as humans have slowly lost their innate
potential and turned to technology instead. No modern weapon, no matter
how powerful, can stand against the power that was wielded over a
millenia ago." Before anyone else could speak, he motioned for Miyo to
continue.

"They met up with Tenma's old training partner named Ryo Hibiki,
and Akara used Ryo's horse to travel ahead to the Kuno castle," Miyo
told them. "As Tenma and Ryo traveled there on foot, Kae apparently
betrayed them and they were captured. They were freed with the help of a
young girl named Ranko, but the two men had lost the majority of their
strength. The trio eventually made it to the Kuno estate to stop Kuno
Tateyama from forcing Akara to marry him."

"What the hell is this all about!?" Ranma finally yelled, giving
in to his increasing discomfort. The old man merely looked at him
curiously. "What are we, some kind of reincarnation of people who lived
a long time ago or somethin'? You're supposed to be givin' us answers,
but this don't make any sense!"

"I have to agree with Ranchan," Ukyo said, crossing her arms
across her chest "This is just too eerie. You can't possibly be serious
about this! It's just too ridiculous!"

"And what does this nonsense have to do with our mother?"
Kodachi shouted. "Surely you can't expect us to believe our mother left
to join with some ancestor of ours?"

The Caretaker pounded his wooden walking stick into the floor,
getting everyone's attention. "Please, everyone! I ask that you have
some patience. I will do my best to answer all your questions, but let
Miyo finish her story first." When the room had quieted back down to a
low murmur, the old man nodded once more toward the young fortuneteller.

Miyo took a deep breath and continued. "Like I was saying,
after the wedding was aborted, it was discovered that the remnants of
Senshin's army and Akara's family were there as well. But the Dark
Shogun's army was approaching the Kuno castle and those inside knew that
it would only be a matter of time before the castle fell to the Dark
Shogun's advance. Lady Kuno called Tenma and Ryo into a meeting, where
they also met her daughter, Konisha."

Miyo paused then, seeing if anyone would interrupt her. Kodachi
looked like she was ready to erupt again, but was barely holding herself
in check. The fortuneteller spared a glance at the Caretaker, then
continued her story.

"There, the two boys were instructed to travel to the western
shore of Japan and attempt to find a young warrior Lady Kuno and her
daughter had encountered a month previous, and also to possibly find a
cure to their strength affliction. They set out, but were accompanied by
both Tateyama and Konisha, as well as Akara and Ranko. When the small
group finally reached the Sea of Japan, they encountered a little over a
hundred Amazon warriors from China, led by a young woman named Xian Po."

Miyo stopped again and accepted the glass of water from Kasumi,
who had suddenly appeared by the other girl's side. Miyo replied with
her thanks, then nearly downed the glass in several large gulps. He
throat had become a bit dry with all her talking.

Ranma had released Akane's hand by this point, crossing his
arms over his chest and waited impatiently for Miyo to finish her story.
His feelings were growing nearly identical to Soun, who was still
waiting for his own explanation.

Miyo handed back the glass and continued, closing her eyes once
more. "Akara and Ranko were attacked by a small group of the Shogun's
army, led by Kage, another Garou ninja who apparently knew Kae. During
the fight Tenma discovered that the lack of his strength was due to a
moxibustion point on his back, and used a heated pebble to remove it.
Thus cured, he managed to defeat the ninja, but let him go rather than
kill his opponent. Shortly thereafter, Tenma encountered a young woman
from his old village, who had been tracking him. Her name was Kuonji
Yukio, and she accompanied Tenma and the others as they headed back to
the back to the Kuno castle, except for Ryo, Ranko, and Tateyama, who
remained behind to the guide the rest of the Amazons."

The young mystic stopped and opened her eyes then, and it was
apparent to all that she was finished.

"That's it?" Ranma asked in disbelief. If anything, he was more
confused then ever. "There's got to be more!"

Genma nodded, frowning. "The boy is right. What happened after
that?"

"I am afraid that is all I know, Saotome-san," Miyo replied,
then turned to the Caretaker. "Can you tell me the rest?"

The old man shook his head wearily. "I'm afraid not even I know
exactly what happened next. I believe my Lady did, at one time, but she
has forgotten much. She was the embodiment of several generations of
Kuno women, but the human brain was never designed to hold more than one
lifetime of memories. As a result, with every new fusion, she forgot
more and more. After the second fusion, when she realized what was
happening to her, Lady Kuno transferred all of her memories of that time
into a magic receptacle, so that one day someone would know exactly what
happened back then." He indicated Miyo.

"Well, that was useful," Kodachi spat out with an air of her old
disdain, trying to hide her tumultuous feelings about the truth she had
just learned about her mother. "Just what do you know, then? Or can you
only offer vague comments and explanations?"

"Sister..." Tatewaki said, placing a hand on her arm in an
attempt to calm her. "Perhaps there is more to learn?" She glared up at
him, but saw only concern, and so she relented.

The Caretaker appeared not to be bothered by the Kuno girl's
comments. "I assume Tenma and the others confronted the Dark Shogun and
his generals, but for some reason were unable to defeat them. Instead,
Lady Kuno enacted her last resort spell to trap the Shogun into another
realm. Apparently this also had the effect of expelling the generals
from Japan, warding the country and keeping them from returning. That
was approximately 977 years ago." He closed his eyes and sighed. "But
with my Lady's passing, that which has been 'locked' has now been
'unlocked'. The portal to the other realm can be re-opened and the Dark
Shogun can return. This also means the generals, now known as 'Rogues',
can know freely enter Japan."

"Return?" Akane questioned, looking quite confused. "But they
should be dead now, right? I mean, this happened hundreds of years ago,
right?"

"Longevity is not a problem for those who know the secrets
behind life and death," the old man explained. "I am not totally sure
how they did it, but the generals of the Shogun somehow preserved
themselves, waiting for the moment to revive and recover their leader.
Now, they seek to restart the old war and take over Japan. Their number
is few, but my Lady saw glimpses that their ranks are slowly expanding.
Soon, they will come here."

"So, we're supposed to stop them, is that it?" Ranma asked,
finally understanding a little bit of it. If there was one thing he knew
well, it was fighting. "Why didn't you say so in the first place. I may
not understand much of anything else, but if it means a fight, I can
handle it." He grinned and cracked his knuckles for effect.

"Though I never thought I would say this," Tatewaki intoned. "I
shall stand with thee if any of these accursed infidels dare to set foot
in the Land of the Rising Sun!"

Nabiki shook her head while rubbing her temples. "Something
about this still doesn't make any sense. Why couldn't our ancestors
defeat this Shogun before? And how do you expect us to succeed where
they failed?" She turned a glare on Ranma and Kuno. "It might be a good
idea to know this little bit of info before you recklessly run off and
get yourselves killed."

"To answer your questions," the Caretaker replied, as everybody
waited for his response with much expectation. "I don't know. I only
know that Tenma and Akara perished during that fight and everyone else
barely got away with their lives. It is rumored that Tenma and Akara
willingly gave up their lives, in order that Lady Kuno's spell would be
successful, but I'm not sure."

Akane stiffened at this, worry evident on her face. After all
this time, she knew Ranma pretty well. If there was a threat, he would
fight it; doubly so if the threat even remotely affected her. But what
hope could they have against people that had lived for hundreds of
years? Ranma had just barely bested Saffron, and these Rogues had
apparently been more than a match for their ancestors, including
Ranma's.

She blinked, suddenly realizing that there was an inconsistency
here. "Hey, if the Saotome ancestor died, how come the line still
exists?"

"Because there was more than one Saotome ancestor," the old man
explained. "Tenma had a sister, and it is from her than the line
continued from."

"Let me guess," Nabiki offered dryly. "It was Ranko."

The Caretaker nodded. "You are correct. The two siblings were
separated at birth to protect them, and only at the end did they figure
out they were related. Ranko was weakened greatly by the last battle,
but survived and gave birth to a son nearly a year later. She used to be
a strong warrior, but when she unable to fight anymore, she began to
record the styles and moves that Tenma had used on various scrolls and
books. Some of these ended up being taken back by the Amazons as they
headed home. The majority, however, ended up sealed away, hidden from
the world when Ranko apparently realized the power that one could gain
by using them. Nearly a hundred years ago they were found, by a young
martial artist who was traveling the land seeking to improve his
skills."

Soun's eyes widened at that. "Y-you can't be serious!"

"Why not?" Genma answered his friend, pushing his glasses up on
his nose. "It does make sense, of why he is as good as he is."

Ranma eyes narrowed in confusion. "What? Who are you talking
about?"

Akane elbowed him. "Don't you get it, Baka? They're talking
about Happosai."

"Happosai!?" Ranma blurted, clearly surprised. "The old freak
found a buncha scrolls and things with secret techniques on them?"

The Caretaker nodded. "My Lady had been searching for them for
a long time, and was surprised when Happosai found them. Unfortunately,
he hid them again before we could act to safeguard them. The best we
could do, was to send a Saotome to him for training so he could relearn
the techniques that were known so long ago. We also sent a Tendo, so the
two families could meet once more. Unfortunately, Happosai taught
different parts of the Musabetsu Kakuto-ryu to each of you." The old man
indicated Genma and Soun. "We don't know what possessed him to do this,
but suspect it was something he read in the scrolls."

Soun chuckled darkly. "Or didn't teach us everything, because
he wanted to be sure we would never defeat him. I wonder what he did
with all that knowledge."

Genma nodded, and when he spoke, his voice was devoid of
emotion. "We'll never know now, since he's gone for good."




There was one other person listening in on all of this.

Pantyhose Taro reclined on the roof of the dojo, listening to
the conversation taking place within. His note had said there would be
information about Happosai to be found here, but instead of confronting
everyone, he hung out of sight and listened. If the freak did show up,
he could get the drop on the old lech and then finally get his name
changed.

He found all the previous bits of information only mildly
interesting, as it didn't really concern him; until they talked about
Happosai. That was when his ears perked up, only to catch Genma's line.

[Gone for good!?] Taro thought angrily. [If that's the case, I
can't ever get my name changed!] He wanted to punch the roof, or swoop
down into the dojo and beat everybody within an inch of their lives. In
fact, he had just settled on that second option, when he heard that
strange old man speak again.

"Oh, I wouldn't say he's gone for good."

That got everybody's attention, but most of all Taro's, who
froze and strained his ears, hoping the old man would elaborate.

"But he said he didn't have long to live when he left," Ranma
protested.

"Yes, he did, didn't he?" the Caretaker replied, somewhat
amused. "It's true that he's not well, but he is still very much alive.
The last my Lady and I saw of him, he had left for China. My Lady's
vision is hazy when trying to view events happening outside of Japan,
but she did mention that he is still alive."

Taro stood, then silently dropped down to the verandah
surrounding the dojo. [So, Happosai is back in China, is he? I suppose
it makes a strange kind of sense. He started this by giving me my name
in China, and now I'll end this in China by forcing him to change it.]
He grinned. [Then maybe I'll beat the snot out of him for old times'
sake.]

"Why don't you come in, young man?" came the elderly gentleman's
voice again. "You don't have to leave just yet."

Taro froze, aware that while he was next to the dojo door, no
one should have heard or seen him.

Ranma was the first to appear in the dojo entrance. "What?" He
looked eyes with the other youth out there and blinked in surprise.
"Pantyhose Taro?"

*Whap!* "Don't call me that!"

Ranma rubbed his head and scowled, as most of the group inside
either went to the windows to look out, or joined Ranma outside. Akane
stopped just behind, and a little to the side of Ranma, while Ukyo took
up a position just to the other side of him.

"Hey, Ranchan, wasn't this the guy you were tellin' me once,
that was too stupid to get his own name changed?" Ukyo asked curiously,
seeing the pantyhose sash around the guy's waist and hearing his name.

Ranma nodded, smiling. "Yep, that's the jerk."

Taro seethed, then grinned suddenly. "Hey femboy, do all your
friends crossdress? Or is your friend a gay-boy?" He indicated Ukyo who
was dressed in slacks and a shirt (and breast bindings, as she was used
to them). While not looking entirely like a guy, she didn't appear
incredibly feminine, either.

"Why you, jackass!" Ukyo scowled and drew her battle spatula,
preparing to inflict grievous bodily harm. "I'm 100% woman!" She was
stopped by Ranma's arm blocking her advance. "Ranchan, what-?"

Ranma shook his head. "He maybe an arrogant jerk, but he's also
a pretty tough fighter."

"In other words, sorta like you?" Akane said with a smile.

Taro laughed as Ranma scowled at Akane. "Well, femboy, as much
as I'd like to stay and pound you, my business is with the old freak."
He turned to the elderly gentlemen standing in the dojo doorway. "Hey
old man, is Happosai really in China?"

"Yes he is," the Caretaker replied. "But I do not know his exact
location."

Taro waved him off. "No problem. I'll just look for a rash of
panty thefts."

The Chinese youth turned to go, but then caught sight of
Kodachi, the girl who had treated him. She seemed to be watching him
with a look reserved for the dissecting of specimens. Needless to say,
it made him feel rather uncomfortable. He also noticed that she seemed
to be a part of femboy's little group, and somehow he felt a little hurt
by that, but shook it off as he headed for the pond.

Ranma crossed his arms over his chest. "Good riddance."

Kodachi caught the tone of voice Ranma used, and frowned. She
could look at her former love in a whole new light now, when before she
couldn't see anything but what she wanted to see. Before, she would not
have attributed anything like dislike or animosity to her dearest Ranma-
sama, but now she could see him for the human he was. She also noticed
that no one else seem to care much about what Taro did.

Making up her mind, she separated from the group to walk
towards the lone Chinese boy.

"Sister, what are you doing?" Tatewaki asked.

The gymnast ignored her brother, and spoke to Taro. "Would you
care for some company on your trip?"

Akane stepped forward. "Kodachi? That's not such a good idea.
Taro is dangerous, and-"

"I have never cared what you thought before, Tendo, and I do not
intend to start now!" Kodachi snapped at Akane. As the other girl
recoiled in shock, Kodachi briefly regretted her words. Part of her was
scared at how easily it seemed to be able to slip back into her old
role. She didn't want people to fear her, but she still held plenty of
negative feelings for her old rival and those weren't easily overcome.

Ranma's eyes became hard. "Akane's right, Kodachi."

"You should listen to them," Taro told her, while keeping his
back to her. "Heh, first time I agree with femboy, imagine that."

"And why is that?" Kodachi asked him sharply. "You don't want my
company?"

Taro shook his head. "Naw, I live it rough on the road. A rich,
pampered girl like you wouldn't last five minutes out in the real
world."

Kodachi's eyes narrowed at the stinging barb. "Oh, so you
assume to know me? Perhaps I should listen to everyone else and forget
about helping a mere gaijin peasant? Or perhaps I should have just
thrown you out with the rest of the refuse when you crashed into my
house?"

"Fine!" Taro barked. "You want a real reason? How about this!"

"Taro, don't!" Ranma yelled, sensing what the other boy was
going to do.

*Splash!*

Selah eep'ed and dashed into the dojo, and Hikaru fainted. Miyo
and Toshi merely looked amused, while Nodoka backpedaled in fright, only
to have Genma put his arm around her shoulders.

Kodachi took a single step back as the hulking monstrosity rose
from the Tendo's koi pond. Her eyes grew wide, and she stared for
several long seconds as everyone else awaited her reaction.

It wasn't quite what they expected.

"Oh, my, my, my, my, my," the Kuno girl stated in a very Kasumi-
like fashion. Then, "Ohohohohoho! How marvelous!"

"Moo?" Taro blinked in surprise, figuring the sight of his
cursed form would be enough to drive the girl away. Why wasn't she,
though? And why exactly was he trying to scare her away, anyway? He
could not recall the reason off hand.

Ranma turned to Tatewaki and Nabiki, who happened to be
standing next to each other now. "You sure she ain't nuts anymore?"

"Perhaps she is not fully recovered," Kuno said, eyeing the
great beast and slowly drawing his katana from it's sheath. Given past
experiences with another grotesque creature, he came to a logical
conclusion. "Truly, that is a demon, however." Before anyone could stop
him, the kendoist leapt to the attack.

"You idiot!" Nabiki yelled, knowing it was fruitless. "Don't!"

Taro eyed the swordsman coming at him, and raised a finger.
*Squirt!* Then he turned to the side to allow Kuno's visually impaired
leap to carry him into the pond. *Splash!*

Kuno leapt up, clawing at the black stuff covering his face. "I
be blinded! Do not worry, sister, I shall yet smite the demon!"

Kodachi rolled her eyes as her brother tried to wash the
octopus ink out of his own, then she clubbed him on the head with a
tonfa, dropping him like rock. "I appreciate the sentiment, Tatchi, but
I believe I am in no danger." She was at a loss to explain why she felt
that, however. She glanced up at Taro again. "My, you are quite an
interesting beast."

Taro was suddenly hit with that dissecting look again, and it
still made him nervous. Especially the way Kodachi was eyeing his
tentacles and licking her lips. "Moo!" He tried to look threatening.

Kodachi gave him a lidded glare. "Right, well if you're
through, shall we go?"

"Kodachi, I really don't think you should go with him," Ranma
stated evenly.

"Jealous are you, Ranma-sama?" Kodachi told him icily. "That is
hardly suitable for a married man. Unless you plan to add me as your
mistress? I suppose I should expect that, considering all the women you
let chase you around, never caring about their feelings." While Ranma
spluttered at this, Kodachi turned to Akane. "Congratulations, Tendo,
you won. You can keep your little man-that-turns-into-a-woman. I'd
rather have someone with a much more powerful form!"

Before anyone else could protest, she lanced out with a ribbon
that wrapped itself around Taro's left horn, then gave a tug and swung
up to land on his shoulder. "Shall we be off?" she whispered into his
ear. "I assume those wings are fully functional."

Taro shrugged and moo'ed, as if to say, "Your funeral," then
took to the sky.

"When my brother awakes, tell him I'm off to see the world!"
Kodachi called as she and Taro disappeared into the western horizon.

"That was too weird," Ukyo said, summing up everyone's thoughts.

Of course, that's when Kuno awoke. "Where be the demon!?" he
demanded, wiping enough of the ink off to see and brandishing his sword.

Nabiki shook her head. "Kuno-baby, you are still hopeless. If
you're referring to Taro, he's gone, and your sister went with him quite
willingly. If you're still planning on fighting him though, I can give
you all the information on him." [And maybe once I do, you'll reconsider
going. Not that I care, though.]

Tatewaki nodded, then turned to Ranma and dropped to one knee.
"I must be off now, but know that if these fiends from the past dare
threaten our noble country, know also that I shall stand with thee in
repelling them. For it is the least the once-noble House of Kuno can do
to make up for past unjust actions." He stood. "Sasuke!"

The little ninja appeared at his master's side. "Yes?"

"It is time to go, farewell!" The not-so dynamic duo departed,
post-haste.

The group stood there and blinked a few times, as a stray
breeze blew a rolling tumbleweed by.

"Ya know," Ranma remarked at last. "I almost prefer them the way
they were." [They used to be annoying and simple. Now they're annoying
and confusing.]

Akane nodded, absently. "I think I agree."




Hikaru felt someone poke and prod at his body, until he awoke
and sat up. That's when he noticed the old Caretaker standing above him.
"Um, w-what do you w-want, sir?"

The elderly man chuckled, then his face turned serious. "It's
not what I want, but what you want. If you wish to revive Ariko, seek
out the Mage Clans, for only they have the magical potential to 're-
ignite' her magical fuse'."

Hikaru's eyes widened, for he clearly remembered the Mage
Clans, and the fear associated with them. They had stalked him and
kidnapped him, then locked him up. And who could forget their leader,
with his powerful magic abilities. Hikaru still didn't know how he had
the strength to stand against such a person, then realized it was the
same strength that let him stand up against that dragon-creature.

In both times, he was fighting to protect someone else. If it
was just himself, he would have been too scared, and would have
submitted to the inevitable. But he could not just stand by and let that
sorcerer hurt Akane, nor let the dragon harm Ariko. Akane was truly lost
to him now, but perhaps...

"How do I find them?" he asked, not having any idea on where to
begin searching.

He let his staff point to Ukyo, Yuri, and Selah, who were
standing in the dojo entryway and conversing in low tones. "It might be
a good idea to seek out traveling companions." He waited for Hikaru's
hesitant nod, then moved off, stopping to hand something to Miyo. After
that, he headed for the dojo entrance, only to be impeded by a large
spatula blocking his path. "Yes?"

Ukyo's green eyes were hard. "What about this Kae? What is she
really up to? You never really told us."

The elderly monk shrugged. "I can only speculate as to her
motives. She reappeared briefly during that battle at the Kuno castle,
only to disappear shortly thereafter. Since she is hunting the Rogues,
or the 'dark ones' as she calls them, I assume they are in some way
responsible for her banishment deep within the Earth." He shook his head
sadly. "I am afraid she will very likely fail."

"What!?" Yuri jumped forward and grabbed the front of the
Caretaker's robe. "She's got control of my brother! Are you saying she
is going to get him killed!?"

"I'm afraid so," the old man replied sadly. "She is highly
skilled, but she is only one person. She cannot possibly accomplish
alone, what a large group failed to do."

Yuri's eyes shot daggers at the old man, even as she lifted him
up face-to-face. "So how do we find my brother? And once we find him,
how do we get her out of him? Tell me!"

"Please, young lady, calm yourself!" the Caretaker said as he
tried to pacify the angry girl. She reluctantly released him and he
brushed his robe off. "Thank you. I'm not entirely sure, mind you, but
since Kae's condition was brought about by magic, perhaps magic can undo
it." He shook his head. "I'm afraid that is all I know."

Yuri collapsed to the floor feeling hopeless and drained, and
watched the old man walk off while Ukyo came up and sat down beside her
friend. "We'll find him, Yu-chan, I know we will." The chef laid a
comforting hand on the other girl's shoulder.

The emotionally-turbulent ninja girl smiled wanly. "I know we
will; we have to. He may be an idiot, but he's the last of my family. I
won't lose him again."




"Well, I must be off," the strange old man known as the
Caretaker announced. "Thank you for the tea and hospitality, Kasumi-
san." He offered a short bow.

"You're quite welcome," the eldest Tendo daughter returned.
"Please visit anytime."

The old monk shook his head. "I'm afraid that won't be
possible. My life was linked with that of my Lady's. With her gone, I am
not long for this world. I am afraid this is the last we shall see of
each other." He turned and headed for the outer gate.

"I still don't really understand all of this!" Akane yelled at
him, suddenly feeling frustrated. She was trying to assimilate all this
new information, and failing. "Why us? Why is all this happening? Why!?"

Ranma frowned, as he was thinking along the same lines. While
he would deal with anything that came his way, he didn't especially like
the way this was dropped on them.

The Caretaker stopped in the outer gate entryway, as he took a
few minutes to formulate the best response. "Because there is no one
else. Because your family's were involved before. Because you may just
have the key to ending this threat." He turned around to face the
gathered group. "I will offer this last piece of advice: The coming
battle cannot be won with fists alone. It is true you are all very
skilled, possessing advanced combat capabilities. But your enemies are
likewise just as powerful. It is not your power that makes you special,
however. It is your compassion, your hope, and your love."

He paused, then pointed his staff at the gathered. "Keep these
ideals in your hearts, and you may yet triumph. Oh, and there are others
that will be needed as well. you will need to explain these events to
them."

Before anyone could formulate a response to that, a large cloud
of dust and smoke blew by the old monk, obscuring him from view.

When it was gone, so was he.




The group stood there for a few minutes, until a new figure
came through the gate. At first they thought it was the Caretaker, until
they heard him speak.

"Hey, we got this strange note telling us to come here," a
confused and unsure Ryoga explained. Akari was at his side and
Katsunishki was behind them. Then the lost boy noticed everybody looking
at him funny. "What? Are a little late or something?"




It wasn't until much later when we finally figured out what the
old man was talking about, and I shudder to think what would have
happened to Ranma and I, as well as all of our friends, if we hadn't
figured it out. The coming month would prove to be a trying time for all
of us and a challenge that was greater than any of us had ever dreamed
of.

True to his word, we never saw the Caretaker again. Yet I can't
help but look back and remember what he told us and think how we might
have ended up, had he not gathered us together and revealed the past.
Part of me wonders why he didn't tell us earlier, but I am thankful now
that he did.

I also used to wonder about my marriage to Ranma. I thought I
loved him and he loved me, but because we married young, we had that
many more obstacles to overcome. For awhile there, I had feared that
maybe we made a mistake. I don't like being forced or controlled, and
neither does Ranma; one of the many reasons our relationship floundered
during that first year. But what we learned during that mighty battle,
shook both our confidences.

Yes, ever since Ranma showed up at our door, life had been
getting steadily more interesting. What we faced in the past was nothing
compared to what lay ahead.

We would soon find out if we had what it would take, to face
the greatest challenge of our lives...

------------------------------

Author's notes:
Whew! This last chapter completes Volume 7 of Ranma 1/2: New Challenges:
Bonds and Connections. One more volume to go! Coming up next is the
final volume: The Phoenix and the Dragon.

More old enemies and allies return, as the showdown between the forces
of the past draws ever closer, with the future at stake. Yet more
secrets will be revealed, more surprising twists and turns, and a new
member of the Ranma cast gets cursed! What will he/she turn into? What
is the secret of Jusenkyo? What purpose does it serve?

Also, I know the ending to this chapter is kinda ambiguous and more of a
cliffhanger than the others. I apologize for this. I would have liked a
more definitive ending, but this is how it worked out. I was kinda
thinking of a confrontation where everybody fights Taro's cursed form
when he attacks them, because the Caretaker wouldn't tell him where
Happosai is, but this is the way the story wrote itself. I still may go
for that alternate ending if everyone wants to see it, however.

I would like thank everybody who gave useful comments and criticisms,
especially Raven Flight, since he helped me plug a few plot holes and
reminded me to add a few more scenes that I was going to, but forgot the
first time around. I'll get the hang of this writing thing yet...

And thanks to everyone who's continued reading this far, and a really
big THANK YOU!!!! to Takahashi-megami-sama, without whose genius mind,
we would not have the fun and delightful members of the Ranma cast in
the first place!

Brad aka Kaiphantom
www.geocities.com/kaiphantom2000