Ranma ½ is the property and invention of Rumiko Takahashi. The following story is not produced for any monetary or personal gain.

Keep in mind the journey is almost always more interesting than the destination.

Journey

Part Three: Tea With Splynncryth

Chapter 12

Ranma was starting to twitch with unspent energy and impatience. Looking over at his manager he prompted him, "So how does this thing work again? The fighting actually starts soon, right?"

"Today is the first set of the annual fight. There are fights every week but the next four weeks will pit the champions against one another. Today's event will put our team against one or more of the current champions," as he spoke his tongue slid down into the drink he was carrying and an occasional slurp, followed by a crunch would be heard as floating creatures were sucked into Syushra's tiny maw. Ranma winced and looked away. The insectoid was turning out to be reliable and even likable, but its disturbing visage and eating habits continued to turn his stomach. "These fights aren't lethal and assuming we win, we get to face another."

"What about miss moody over there," Ranma asked, gesturing towards the huge devil lord that continued to curse over the arena floor at Rhada, "and the reptile." The martial artist nodded in the direction of a twelve foot long serpent dragon floating above the tiers. The small size didn't fool him. He knew exactly who the snake was and why he was here and had seen the creature demonstrate his size altering abilities in the past.

"You most likely won't go up against them today," Syushra stated with a wave of his limb. "Consider them special guests. Most supernatural creatures of their stature do not compete in the games. They consider it beneath them. Since these have signed up they only have to fight in the finals."

Ranma grunted, he'd been making plans for each of his antagonists for weeks. Since neither had made any secret of their desire to kill and maim him, not necessarily in that order, he had been ferreting out their weaknesses, tactics and weapons. The dragon had been easy to bait and tease out his capabilities. Although it firmly believed itself to be a master strategist he had found that when personally crossed and made a fool of, almost all attempts at reason went out the window in a fight. To be honest, it was almost exactly how Pops used to say a fight would go. Insult the opponent and when it got enraged and sloppy, take him out. It was almost embarrassingly easy to deal with the dragon except for its durability. Apparently the older dragons are only a little lower on the durability tree than demon lords and gods. It probably would be easier than if he wanted to take down Ammit but it was still more than he done to date.

Leviathan was another puzzle he would have to figure out soon. From what he had seen she was all brawn. She didn't have those tricks, spells or ultimate attacks that many other Deevil Lords had but she was very, very strong and had a hammer and sword. Oh, and was doubtless even tougher than the dragon. It may take him a week just to make her feel his strikes. But he had some ideas.

Everything he had heard about the other champions seemed anticlimactic. He may have been making a mistake by not taking them seriously but it was hard to lower his sights from the challenges in front of him. "So how does this team thing work? I kinda notices that some guys seem to be in teams and other aren't."

"I was wondering about that myself," Akane chimed in, finally taking her eyes off the sights around her. Ranma had done his very best to keep both women in the training compound and out of the city proper. He had no doubt they could handle the random rude alien and the authorities wouldn't hassle an arena contender, assuming they bothered to find out first, but he did not want them to have to see the things he had. Hell, he didn't want to see these things. It wasn't surprising that both girls were almost shivering with excitement at the sensory overload around them. "It doesn't really seem fair that we have three and they have one."

"The game balances that by a fair degree. The singletons have the first choice of opponents, group-wise. Once they select what group to fight the team decides which one to face them. Groups may challenge entire groups but that tends to be rare. This tends to be one on one. Well, as long as you are not... never mind." There was a very dark side to the arena for low class slaves. Ranma had asked him not to discuss it in front of the women.

"I am not sure I see the point in having a team," Shampoo offered, a thoughtful expression on her face. "Why bother if it's still one on one."

"It is mostly to add variety, to be honest I don't think it matters much. Though it can help ensure a team has a better chance to reach the finals in case there are injuries. Not every race can loose a limb and be ready to fight at full strength within a day," the manager added, wiggling in a way that may have been a shrug. "I think the only real limitation is that all members must have been engaged in at least one fight before the finals or the team is disqualified."

"Wait a minute, you never mentioned that part," Ranma squawked. The two girls looked at him evilly.

"So you knew about the rules before now," Akane gritted out. "I bet you were planning on doing all the fighting." Ranma slowly backed up until his back was against the raised stone tier.

"Now girls, what gives you that idea? You know I believe in a fair fight," Ranma weakly denied as sweat poured down his back.

"Husband also believes in keeping his fiancées safe and away from fighting," Shampoo added cheerfully with a grin. "Husband failed. I suppose it is a good thing I asked our manager not to mention it."

The pig tailed youth stood there with his mouth open. He hadn't thought the girls would even try to outmaneuver him. Turning he looked indignantly at Syushra. "Hey..."

"Don't be mad at the manager, as your wife I asked to be the one to tell you," she proudly stated. Akane had a frown on her face but it was slowly fading as she realized that she would get a chance to fight.

"I had thought you would have told him already. Isn't this cutting it a bit close," the insectoid asked in a rather confused way.

"Husband loves surprises," replied with a smile.

Meanwhile, with only minor fanfare, the actual fights had starting. Far from settling the crowd the denizens of Atlantis actually became rowdier and louder, each cheering for their favorite. This part the event wasn't intended for pure bloodlust and the matches were fairly even. Still fuming at being outmaneuvered Ranma didn't really pay much attention to the fights. He barely registered a tattoo man squaring off against some sort of superpowered rock man followed by a rather spectacular spell duel between two mages. Absently, he noted the spells and pondered counters to them, but his full attention wasn't on the combat.

Finally a smack to the back of his head from Akane brought his attention fully on the events around him. Everyone around him had their attention riveted on a bikini clad woman gracefully approaching them from the arena ground. Well, Akane was glaring at him and Shampoo was frowning at Akane, but the other fighters Syushra managed were all looking.

Swaying as she walked, the woman drew closer them. Her blond hair was gathered in a topknot but to be honest she could have wearing a bear's skin and it would have not detracted one iota from her beauty. Ranma's first thought was she was a hand to hand fighter before he saw the tattoos delicately tracing her form.

"Sight-Stealer," Syushra said in a hushed voice. "One of the champions I told you about. Choose your fighter."

The comment sparked his memory. Ah, right. That one. "Shampoo, you're up."

The Amazon squealed in delight as she jumped up and down excitedly. Predictably, Akane was not nearly as thrilled. "Why her? I can take her."

Glancing to the side at the midnight blue haired girl he shook his head. Why did they always doubt his ability to analyze fights? It was one of the things he did better than anyone else he knew. And yet they never listened. He had never seen the blond woman fight but Syushra was very clear in his description.

"It's Shampoo's fight. You'll get your turn, probably today." Turning to the Amazon he continued, "Go ahead Shampoo, have fun. Just keep in mind that there's no need to get deadly yet."

As she entered the arena she winked back, "Now you should know I have other ways to spend my energy. I'll remind you when I get back." Akane glared death upon both of them but kept her peace. She may have growled a low "pervert" but even she didn't know who it was aimed at.

Both warriors walked over the sand covered stone until they reached the center. Stopping there they faced, only a dozen feet separating each other and waited.

"I'll try to make this quick," Shampoo smiled in what appeared a friendly manner.

The other woman maintained her serene smile. "I don't mind dragging it out a bit," a hint of wickedness entering her demeanor. A reverberating tone sounded to signal the start of the fight and a shimmering dome of energy sprang up over the arena to protect the spectators.

Shampoo immediately sprinted forward, blurring to the many creatures in the seats and imbedded her fist in the tall woman's stomach, launching her half the width of the stadium. Upon landing she squirmed on the ground desperately gasping for breath. Shampoo leisurely walked towards her, white energy pooling in her hands and slowly elongating into twin swords.

Finally catching her breath the blond woman staggered to her feet. Although still beautiful her hair was in disarray and a hamhock size purple discoloration decorated her stomach, almost eclipsing her artwork. Shampoo's swords were fully formed and she was a mere twenty feet away when the woman stretched out her hand and a bow flickered into existence, complete with a notched arrow. Immediately she started firing at the approaching Amazon.

Shampoo brought her swords into play, deftly deflecting the magical arrows to the left or right while still walking towards her enemy. This forced the tattooed archer to swiftly walk backwards, pausing in the barrage she tapped her arm causing a large serpent to appear. The Amazon paused slightly at this turn, before continuing her stride towards the archer.

Ranma frowned slightly from the side. Shampoo was a smart girl but she had a bad tendency to play with opponent. He had been expecting to do all the fighting or he would have gone over some basic tactics with her, none of which would have included letting the archer keep a distance advantage. And definitely not ignoring the snake.

Out on the arena the snake had started to prove its worth by spitting smoking acid at the fiancée. The first spray had been partly turned away by the psychic blades but some of the liquid had gotten past the defense and now Shampoo was desperately wiping the burning liquid from her face and eyes with part of her torn shirt while waving her sword at the oncoming arrows. Her somewhat random defense knocked a few arrows away but two had actually hit her.

The first knocked her down and back several feet, causing no lasting harm, not even a bruise but the second arrow to strike her glowed as it dissipated and Shampoo growled in frustration as her vision was further shrouded in magical darkness.

The archer seeing her advantage stopped her retreat and began an all out torrent of arrows upon her fallen foe. At a barked verbal command the snake also continued to spew its corrosive payload on the Amazon.

Shampoo was getting angry and frustrated. Apparently she had gone from overpowering the bitch to being the playtoy. The arrows didn't hurt that bad but the acid was very painful and she was going to stop it. With a second of concentration she formed a glowing sheathe of energy around her to give her a moments reprieve from fresh acid and then she concentrated on her senses. The roaring of the crowd made sound a useless ability but she had gained another, weaker sense in her prison. She hadn't had much reason or time to practice but it was all she had at the moment.

Breathing as calmly as she could while concussive arrows of force peppered her and her eyes burning, she paused to stretch her senses around her before initiating a drunken charge at the closest entity she felt. The archer cursed under her breath as the insanely strong woman suddenly froze and then staggered over to the summoned serpent, both swords painting trails of devastation in the air. It was likely the swordswoman barely felt the snake go down. She certainly didn't pause as she changes direction and started running at the archer.

Gasping at the pain that the death of her creature caused, she slipped to the side as the blinded warrior swung past her. Whatever she was using to sense her obviously wasn't that accurate because staying out of her reach wasn't too arduous. After several missed charges a smile made its way back onto the archer's face. She had been worried at first but now she had the rhythm of the fight down and she was going to be the victor.

This smile was instantly wiped away as the Amazon gave a muffled frustrated scream, stopped and blindly pointed at the blond. As an invisible force engulfed the woman, flung her spinning into the air and then sent her like a guided missile at the waiting blind woman she only just had time to be grateful the purple haired girl dismissed her two swords to merely beat her unconscious.

Ranma looked on, shaking his head as the audience booed the change in fortune. That was such a sloppy win. Shampoo should have ended the battle in ten seconds. He supposed he shouldn't be surprised; all the fighters from Nerima shared the weakness of occasional overconfidence. Perhaps even himself. He should just concentrate on the Amazon winning and forget the events in between. Although, he might just bring it up in tomorrows training.

"That stuff on her face is just a weak acid, right? It washes off?" Ranma confirmed with his manager.

"She may have some blistering but we have some cream that neutralizes it and heals the minor damage. Otherwise it may take a few days. Sight-Stealer is a crowd favorite but her tactics are well known."

"Hmm, if only I had known that my fiancées had to fight," the martial artist growled sarcastically.

"Yes, funny how that worked out," Syushra nodded to himself.

"Akane put that down, that's barbeque sauce, not the salve," Ranma sighed while massaging his forehead. They should be okay as long as she didn't try bandaging anyone. He has almost been asphyxiated when she had last tried to help him.

"I'm not sure this is working out," Nabiki muttered to herself as she watched Cindra laboriously drill Komar in the basic symbology used in circle magic. It was only difficult because the princess herself had only just mastered the rudiments of the language under the Summoner 'Zar's tutelage. However, when the princess had heard that the young girl that Ranma was so attached to was staying with the Tendo's and that while she was here she needed to be tutored in the basics of traditional skills she had leaped at the opportunity to score points with her fiancée.

"I think it's sweet," offered Kasumi as she absentmindedly directed an entourage of floating mops and dusters with one hand and turned the pages of an old tome with another. Nabiki almost could have sworn she heard her sister mutter about it also having the benefit of keeping the princess out of her hair. She must have been mistaken though.

"I really don't think this is what her family meant by a traditional education," Nabiki pointed out.

"Think how lucky she is to get such a nice head start so young," the elder sister absently muttered as she hummed to herself and turned the page. Nabiki noticed the book was more than a bit ragged and aged.

"I know Tofu practices traditional medicine but I thought he didn't loan out the older part of his collection."

"Oh this old thing?" Kasumi negligently waved a hand, sending Cindra ducking for cover as a feather duster suddenly flew at her from behind. "This is just a fascinating thing Grayson sensei lent me."

"Grayson? Who's Grayson?" the middle sister asked, confused.

"Just a friend of Ranma's. Such an interesting man. And he knows so many new fascinating people," Kasumi added amiably. Puzzled, Nabiki leaned over to examine the book closer only to realize it wasn't in any language she knew.

"What language is that? Latin?"

"Of course not silly. I don't read Latin. Besides, that's a dead language. It's written in elvish." In the background Komar was repressing giggles as an enraged Cindra ran after the fleeing duster.

"Right," Nabiki paused, trying to digest this. "Why are you reading an elven book?"

"Grayson says they were close to nature and the elements before their civilization fell. It's very interesting."

"And where is this Grayson guy?" Nabiki asked, still floundering a bit.

"Oh, he is staying in Timiro for the moment. He travels a lot for his job. He's going to get me a library card in Bletherad next month," she elder girl placidly stated while she turned another page.

"Where the heck is Timiro," it sounded familiar.

"Not far," breezily gesturing again with her free hand and coincidentally sending a mop charging at Cindra. "Just around the corner if you know the way. They have an excellent market. I used their spices in last night's meal. Komar loved it."

Ah, food preparation. Instantly, the middle sister's interest died. "I am pretty sure Komar's aunt meant art, history and poetry."

"Circle magic is a respected ancient art, you should read about the history of it. Fascinating," a twitch sent another duster chasing Komar around the room, the little girl squealing in delight. Nabiki looked at her flatly. "You'd have to read Ancient Atlantean though. You can't get much more classical than that."

"Ranma called all the circle masters he knows nutcases," Nabiki responded, not impressed by the argument.

"Grayson sensei says the same thing," Kasumi admitted with a shrug.

Shaking her head, she slowly retreated to the circle room. Obviously, she wasn't going to change her sister's mind any time soon. Hope Komar's family wouldn't ask her to write a haiku anytime soon. She thought that Cindra's idea of poetry was some foreign gibberish no one could understand. Ranma was due to start his arena trials soon. She should probably prepare to contact him.

Of the trio, only Akane watched the start of Ryouga's next fight. She had been banned from helping the injured after one of the other fighters had to be resuscitated by a priest. Ranma blamed himself, he knew he should have been watching her closer but he was changing the compress for Shampoo.

So it was that the girl stood off to the side of the force field, cheering the lost boy on as he fought a twenty foot tall armored giant. Although the giant had a thick eight foot long mace his other three hands were empty. From the very beginning of the fight it was clear that it would be a simple slug fest. Ryouga had the capability of being almost as skilled as the pig tailed martial artist but had the tendency to fall back into brute force unless he was pressed. Despite the giant being equal to the lost boy in strength the fight was terribly one sided. The mace was parried easily by the trusty bamboo umbrella and the extra arms were just blocked by Ryouga's free arm.

The sheer force of the giant's blocked strikes often blasted the lost boy all the way across the floor of the arena, but he would simply stoically stand up and march back to the fight. When he was knocked away the giant would use his crystal mace to fire beams of energy at Ryouga as he trudged back. However, except for the first time, which was a bit of a surprise, this was easily blocked by his umbrella. His counterstrikes mostly seemed to ignore his opponent's defense and methodically crushed and shattered the finely crafted armor the monster wore. He had come in wearing a work of art and within thirty minutes the legs and arms were almost completely destroyed. Within forty minutes two arms were broken and the giant was kneeling on his crushed legs while he desperately tried to keep the martial artist away with a wall of flame from the same crystal mace. Within forty five minutes the giant gave the signal to submit unable to defend himself once the fire guttered out. The only real damage Ryouga took was to his clothing as he was kicked back from the shear force of the strikes.

Ranma had finished with Shampoo's first aid ten minutes into the fight. He silently stood next to the wildly cheering Akane. Occasionally his eye would twitch at a particularly strong impact from the giant or the lost boy. Once in a while he would spare Akane a dour look as she hooted and shouted in his ear.

Looking on the fight he was conflicted. He had expected his rival to win. In fact he had expected his rival to easily win. Just not this way. Ryouga's style almost seemed to have regressed a year... except, it likely hadn't. Neither martial artist had been in Atlantis long enough to have their skills degrade, even if they just sat and drank wine all day. Ranma rubbed his shoulder where the bruise was still fading and he nodded. His rival had reached another tier in strength and durability. Ranma had been training but mostly refining techniques and strategies. Ryouga's shear strength was worrying since he had no doubt whatsoever that the fates would pit them against each other before the final contest. The plans he had to deal with dragons and devil lords now had to be expanded to include mentally challenged friend. Oh joy.

Akane issued another shrill cry of joy as the lost boy was declared the winner. Ranma gave another snort of disgust, earning a glare from his fiancée. "Oh grow up Ranma! It was a great fight!"

"Bah. Ryouga used as much skill as... as," Ranma paused. He was about to compare him to Akane, but decided that perhaps he should leave aside the insults until they weren't surrounded by hordes of man eating monsters. "Um, never mind. Anyway that wasn't a fight. That was just Ryouga using the toughest opponent he could find to practice controlling his new strength."

"What? Ryouga was using a new technique?" Akane's lips pursed in concentration. "Funny, it looked just like his old style."

The pig tailed martial artist just stared at her. "Right."

The god appeared in an alley amide a flash of light. Looking around to gather his bearings he noticed a familiar shape in the darker corners. "Ah, there you are. Glad I finally caught up."

Walking over to the object he reached out and picked up the frozen statuary posing in the nook. "I see you're in your inactive phase. Glad to hear that. I'm too old to be chasing you through the all the orchards of hell." Finding carrying the object a bit too awkward the god increased his size to twelve feet. This allowed him to hold the statue by the ankles. "I have been thinking about how things stand while I have been looking for you and my grandson. I think I can perhaps use your connection with him to help me get to him a bit faster."

Heaving the immobile statue up until it was perpendicular in front of him he slowly moved it back and forth like a divining rod. "Hmm, I think I'm getting some vibes in this direction."

The day was winding down when the second challenger approached the small team. Syushra had other fighters in his 'stable' but most were single fighters. They generally had their own scheduled and having witnessed the three fighters train among themselves they were firmly decided against challenging them. Since none of the martial artists knew any of the fighters well it led to rather disinterested speculation on the matchups. At least until the next champion flew up to the camp and pointed at their pavilion.

This fighter stood seven feet tall and much like Ryouga's opponent had four arms, although the lower two of them were more clawlike appendages. The creature may have once been human, it was difficult to tell sometimes in this land, now however he was beyond such things. His skin looked more like a beetle's carapace than anything else and two armored bat like wings spread out from his back. Although not wearing armor he was clothed and one set of arms held an oversized chitonous shield with an eye in the center and the other set of wielded a large mage. Oddly enough the mace also held an eye where the handle met the chain.

Ranma frowned as he looked the warrior up and down. "Akane! You are up. Remember what I said."

"Don't worry, I'm a martial artist, I can deal with this," Ranma winced at hearing this.

"Humor me. Please," Ranma replied.

As per the earlier fight both combatants walked to the center of the arena and waited for the energy shield to snap into place and signal the start of the contest. As the barrier came up, Akane charged the larger gladiator only to have him fly swiftly away a hundred feet before wheeling back, the mace spinning slowly as he prepared his attack.

Akane focused completely on her opponent as she herself began to spin her hammer before her. The spinning began to pick up speed as it began to emit a low pulsing hum. Abruptly the flyer increased his speed until he was almost a blur, diving towards the girl slightly offset as he tried to cut her down with his outstretched wings. Akane swung her hammer at the same time and both opponents flew backwards thirty feet amid a thunderous crash.

The girl had a bloody cut on one arm. Slowly she flexed it to ensure it was still working as she assessed her opponent. He was likewise getting to his feet. It was obvious that he was unhurt. Akane frowned at this as the man's stiff features formed into a grin. At least until he looked down at his shield. Almost a third of it had been destroyed by the hammer's blow. Not quite the decisive strike that she had wanted. She actually had no idea how he had managed to move the shield into place, she was sure that it was going to be a head blow.

The man growled. Apparently he had some affection towards the shield. Akane shrugged. You shouldn't bring weapons you love into a fight unless they were indestructible. Absently she caressed the shaft of her hammer before she began spinning it before her once more.

Almost mirroring her, the man spun his own mace before gesturing it in front of him. Immediately a huge gale force wind blew her off her feet and sent her sliding backwards on her butt. While she was still sliding the creature raised his mace again and it started to emit a corona of electricity.

Akane's eyes widened at this. Ranma had warned her of this and she desperately tried to find her purchase with her feet. Just before a sheet of lightning burst from the mace she finally found enough balance to grasp her hammer in front of her and bury the shaft in the ground. She was mostly in time as she felt only the barest shock before the radiant bolt earthed itself harmlessly in the floor.

Growling in determination she touched a necklace Ranma had recently bought her and the ground around the gladiator's feet shimmered. She then broke into a charge towards her foe, the hammer once more spinning with a low moaning sound. As she approached she saw that the man was desperately attempting to get out of the way but much to his chagrin found his feet firmly stuck to the floor.

Taking advantage of this position she swung the hammer down with all the force she could muster. She was once again surprised when the shield moved almost of its own accord to block the runic hammer. Although distressed that the perfect blow was disrupted she was somewhat cheered by the remains of the shield shattering. The thunderous clap and magical concussion that accompanied the force of the blow was enough knock the gladiator straight down onto the arena floor and shatter the ground he lay on.

Elation coursed through Akane. She had him. She was finally going to show Ranma that she had what it took to be a martial artist! She was still gleefully thinking this as her opponent stood up, rubble sticking to him as if he was tarred and feathered. Discarding the remains of the shield he spun the mace at her with his entire strength. Still basking in her endorphin rush Akane was slightly slow to parry the blow and took the full force on the side of her head.

Stunned and bleeding she was catapulted nearly the length of the arena to be halfway buried in a pile of sand that she slid into as she landed. Groaning, she sat up trying to get her bearings. One eye had blood pouring into it and the side of her face felt like she had been hit by a train. Looking up through the arena it almost seemed surreal, bathed in a brilliant green light. Only just coming to her senses, she finally realized that the beast that she was fighting was flying towards her at full speed, the horrible mace spinning in his hand. With a panicked yelp she dived out of the way, evading the whirling weapon with the barest margins.

Standing up she looked back as the momentum of the flying gladiator swept him away from her. Taking a breath to steady herself she held her hand in front of her and willed her hammer to her hand. With a crack of thunder it materialized in her hand. Warily tracking her opponent as he swung back towards her she paused to hold the weapon before her and gently kissed it. Healing energy flooded through her. Warmth inundated her body and pooled in the areas that hurt the most, her head and her arm. Far from completely healed, but not feeling that she was going to fall over in the next instant, she brought the hammer into the ready position again and began to spin it once more.

She finished just in time to receive the next flyby. Stepping to the side she avoided the razor wings and the mace and brought the rune weapon down squarely on one of the wings as it passed her. The creature immediately spun twice around his axis before the force of the flight combined with the blow buried him in the ground. Touching her amulet a second time she hobbled over to the magically adhered gladiator and proceeded to pound him as fast and as hard as she could.

Ranma let go a breath that he had been holding for the last minute. That had been close. Both fighters had magic weapons that combined with their owners shear brute strength almost guaranteed that the first one to get in a solid blow would win. For a moment he had thought the winged gargoyle man would be the lucky one but Akane had pulled through.

Looking over at where Ryouga was glowing a dim green, calmed down from where he had lit the entire arena with his depression aura, he thought the whole arena was fortunate. He wasn't sure how far the lost boy would have gotten taking on the city population but he didn't want to find out.

Akane was coming in, more staggering than walking. He supposed he should set up a nice cot next to Shampoo and let the healers get to work on her. He looked uneasily at the sun dial on the pedestal near them. The non lethal combat was almost over. He needed to get the girls healed enough to get back to the training complex where they were staying. Syushra had informed him that soon the event coordinators would give the order to flood the arena with low class slaves... normal humans and other mortals, and then release supernatural beasts to slaughter them. There was nothing he could do at this moment to change this bloodsport and he desperately did not want to witness it or have the girls witness it. Kami he hated this place.

Chapter 13

Kasumi set her large cardboard box on the living room table and browsed through the contents. Toys and tiny mechanisms were stuffed inside to overflowing. The day's shopping results from the second hand stores and yard sales had reaped their usual benefit. Humming to herself merrily she, sorted the toys in order of value. Nabiki would go to bed soon and that would leave the circle available. Her sister was an incredibly deep sleeper, possibly second only to Ranma, so she never had to worry about disturbing anyone else. Honestly with her family and Ranma out playing, the house would be almost empty if it weren't for Nabiki's new guests.

She was rather of mixed emotions when it came to the company. Komar was a sweet little girl, who was perhaps a little short on her attention span but then again her sisters never were much into academia either. Masayo was also pleasant company and an interesting conversationalist once you got around her depression. Kasumi couldn't blame her; she had been overcome with guilt herself after she had been possessed by that oni before she had come to terms with it. She never did understand why it took so long for the family to exorcise it. It was such a simple ritual.

The old Summoner Balthazar was also full of contradictions. On one hand she loved the books he had. So many interesting things to know. On the other she had yet another elderly pervert in the house. At least this one wasn't as forward as the other one. She had gotten very tired of using trace amounts of the 'man ward' herb in her delicates. While it kept Happosai away it also kept her social calendar very empty. Dear, funny Tofu had actually moved away. Still, between Nabiki's patron and the Summoner there were plenty of circles in the house, if you knew how to change the coordinates.

Jess was a joy to be around. Like Ranma her pleasure in learning the martial arts energized the people around her. Especially people like her father. It always seemed that with Ranma and Jess around he paid more attention to the world around him and less time thinking about the past. Cindra though... well except for the small income the princess brought in Nabiki she still didn't understand why she was in the house. It was almost as if someone had invited Kodachi home. All right, it wasn't quite that bad, but sometimes Nabiki let her greed overcome her good sense. At least she had been able to set up a small oasis of peace.

"Kasumi!" her younger sister exclaimed. The older sister frowned slightly, Nabiki was up later than usual. "Did you see the next door neighbor's? Someone bought all the properties around our house!"

"Not surprising, although it is exciting around here, I think people have become a bit nervous about the local antics since that little incident happened at Shampoo's place." Kasumi returned placidly, idly tapping an elegant clockwork monkey she had found just that day. It should bring a lovely price. Maybe she could afford to buy those old tomes that kind old man in that quaint shop had for sale.

"Yeah, the kind of rambunctious fun that destroyed the houses for a block around the place in all directions. It's a miracle no one died," Nabiki muttered darkly.

"I know Miss Kragowa has been wanting to sell her house for a year. Apparently she's furious about all the property damage," Kasumi responded absently. "Besides, I'm sure you would have resurrected any that had been so unfortunate."

"Heheh, that's a good one," the middle sister huffed halfheartedly, causing her older sister to sigh to herself and shake her head sadly. Obviously, her sister hadn't read her book all the way through. Such a smart girl but not very studious. She would bookmark that page in morning for her. "Anyway, have you looked outside in the last few hours? Someone demolished all the surrounding buildings and created some sort of weird zen garden around our house."

"Sounds very pleasant, I'll have to go read in it in the morning," Kasumi smiled, she was looking forward to it.

"I wouldn't go there until we found the wierdo that that did it," Nabiki warned her. "It has alternating ponds, streams and some special effects that look like fountains of lava. I think they must have hired some martial artist construction company to set it up so fast."

"I am sure it's lovely," Kasumi replied absently, while closing the box and moving it next to the circle room. It should be lovely, she had been planning its design for the last month and been talking to Grayson-kun to work out the kinks.

"Bah, I'll have my people check into it in the morning," Nabiki growled in disgust. Honestly her sister was so oblivious. Without herself to organize things around the house who knows how many opportunities they would miss. "I have a new set of shipments that are coming in or I would do it myself."

Shampoo and Akane were sparing to one side of the large courtyard that the Nerima crew had commandeered at Syushra's training compound. Or at least that's what they called it. Most others who gazed upon the wildly swinging females screaming at one another and red faced from exertion either thought they were trying to kill one another or undergoing an obscure mating ritual. Ranma was on the other side of the square and was doing his best to ignore the entire thing. Since seeing Ryouga basically power his way through the start of the tournament he had been attempting to step up his game. Ryouga may be able to magically quadruple his already ludicrous strength in a week's time but Ranma's main strength was innovation and analysis. Though he was far from weak he knew better than to chase after another's specialty.

So there he was, off to the side with a light sheen of sweat clinging to his forehead as a man sized glowing mass of externalized molten chi churned and glowed forty feet from where he sat. This was not the first time he had gotten it stabilized but it was the first time he had been able to do it on such a large scale. The girls had learned to stay to their own side of the yard after an unfortunate distraction had forced the last mass to go critical, blowing everyone present at the time over the walls and out onto the thoroughfare. Ranma thought it was well worth the bruises if it got him a bit of peace to focus on his training.

The girls finally had wound down after their vicious catfight and warily backed away from the other. "You are much better," Shampoo complemented her romantic rival. "The hammer almost seems to suppress your mindless rage and instill a modicum of foreign skill into your limbs."

"Why, you little," Akane started forward, winding up with her hammer before she decided that she was too tired. "I am going to have to wipe that smirk off your face tomorrow. I'm going to get cleaned up." Reluctantly she turned and wearily trudged towards the showers. Training with the Amazon had increased her skills by a huge degree but having to listen to the tribeswoman insult her, in perfect Japanese no less, still made her want the strangle the wench.

Passing Ranma she tiredly waved to him only to have him grunt absently at her. Frowning at the insult, she made her way inside, huffing to herself about unsocialized martial artists. She was passing the kitchens when she looked off to the side, where the food preparation area was, to see Ranma slowly assembling a sandwich. The interior magical lights were unusually dim and flickering, giving the entire interior a surreal appearance. She made a mental note to inform the manager to get his maintenance people into the issue when she saw him next.

Ranma himself looked pale and wane in the uncertain light. Usually he moved with an inherent grace that, although she would never admit it, almost took her breath away. Today was not such a day. A frown of intense concentration creased his brow and his hands moved shakily as if he was underwater. Painstakingly layer upon layer was placed just so as if they sandwich was the greatest work of art the boy could contemplate.

"Ranma?" the girl growled out. I can't believe you can't even say 'hello' but you have time to run ahead of me and make a sandwich. If you had asked nicely I would have brought you one," the dark haired girl said heatedly, working up a head of steam.

The pig tailed martial artist turned her way with glacial slowness, his mouth opening. Seconds later he finally faced her yet only a low moan came from his mouth.

"Are you alright," the girl asked in concern. Any anger she had dissipated instantly at the obvious illness the other youth was suffering from. The frown of concentration on the boy's face gradually changed to concern and a moan could be made out to be, "...tomboy..."

The anger returned in waves as scarlet filled her vision. He had done it again! Taken her concern and spat it back in her face! Why did she even bother? With a growl, she moved forward and smacked the martial artist across the head. She was completely surprised when upon contact the boy vanished like a soap bubble in a brilliant burst of light. The sandwich bread that he had been about to layer on top dropped to the ground. The lights gave another flicker before brightening back to their usual brilliance.

A moment later a panicked shout could be heard in the direction she had come from and the sound of a thunderous explosion shook the compound.

Alaren frowned at the many displays floating in front of him. One showed the particular area of the Bloody Grub's Plaza. While there was plenty of traffic in and around that area, his target was not seen. He fiddled with the facial recognition software and the alarm parameters. The software was universal and could handle most of the major species in the city and even across the three galaxies, but like any software with a scope that broad you had to be careful entering the specifics. He had videos of the target from yesterday's arena. That would allow for a good identification lock. So far he wasn't impressed. The target seemed to like to watch the fight more than he wanted to participate.

His 'superiors' may want him to find out what had happened to the Atlantis sect of Sunaj but he himself had more important things on his plate. Why would he care about what was no doubt a political maneuver, likely from another Aerihman family? His clan may have wished to take advantage of his trusted position with Splynncryth and his second in command, High Lord T'Lan but he didn't see the profit or fun in it for himself. He'd spit in their faces but that would force his premature relocation. Doubtless, he would eventually have to move on when his behind the scenes maneuvering came to light but it would be on his own terms.

He sighed again. He was the most famous independent tracker in Atlantis and he was trying to keep tabs on a single human boy. The clan had found out that he was the last prominent target scheduled for termination before the local sect vanished and they wanted to know what had happened that night. It wasn't likely they were going to find that out from this lead but they were insistent.

This was time he could be using for his other projects. Speaking of which, he thumbed the communications tab and absently entered the security protocols for the encryption. "This is Lookout. Are you there?"

A clattering issued from the machinery and Alaren grimaced and activated a tattoo. His less well known employers used a language not programmed into his translator forcing him to rely on his own personal methods. "... here. Do you have our next window of opportunity?"

"Yes. Sector 34 has scheduled training tomorrow. This should buy a delay of ten minutes to the response time if you use it wisely. Bring a couple sacrificial lambs and mark them in red for me to catch and turn over to T'Lan. Tell them the usual crap. They need to be able to provide a good background for when they get tortured to death."

"It will be done. There are some prime raiding targets we have scouted in that sector. You will get your usual cut. Good doing business with you." The line went silent.

Yes, it was good to be trusted in Atlantis. It was a fine business while it lasted. Extraction may be tricky when certain machinations were inevitably uncovered but he had faith in the dozen or so contingency plans he had set in place.

A ghost image showed up on the screen for a moment before fading into the background. Squinting in concentration he fiddled with the filtering a minute before grunting. The target's likely location had an Eye of Eylor modified for surveillance hovering over it. This changed things a bit. It meant that Splyncryth almost certainly knew what his target was up to. It was very poorly hidden which meant that his patron was practically announcing that this was his pet project. It also implied that if this human was indeed involved in what happened to the local Sunaj sect, the Lord of Atlantis also knew this, or perhaps was even directly involved.

Running the scenarios through his mind he came to a conclusion. If this boy was involved in the fate of the Sunaj then Splynncryth either knew, approved or was even responsible for the disappearance of the assassin clan. If he found evidence to this effect it could mean that the existence of the Aerihman clan was soon to be in doubt.

Standing up from the console he leisurely paced the confines of the control room. It was luxurious and outfitted to his exact tastes as was the rest of his abode. His many endeavors brought in wealth and resources few other freelancers could match and he was pleased to use a small fraction of his for his comfort. He could inform his clan heads but he didn't see how it would help his position to throw in with a possibly sinking ship any more than he already was. Besides they were all arrogant assholes. Perhaps he could their power vacuum to his advantage, assuming he could avoid their fate.

Nodding to himself he came to a conclusion. If the human was innocent of the disappearance he would inform the clan heads that he was indeed responsible. Doubtless, at that point they would command him to eliminate the target. Of course it wouldn't do to directly touch Splynncryth's pet project, so he would likely arrange it through 'collateral' damage from an unfortunate raid. He would maintain his trust in the eyes of his clan and not be implicated in the boys death by Splynncryth.

Then again if the boy was actually responsible for the sect vanishing off the face of the earth or his patron was, he would inform his clan leaders that he was innocent and the last contract against him had been dropped. At that point he would make preparations to take advantage of a likely power vacuum. Either someone with significant resources was targeting Sunaj and the Splugorth didn't care or the Lord of Atlantis himself was targeting the Sunaj. Either way, the favor the clan had been enjoying was now waning.

He would work with either situation.

Ranma groaned in pain. He was leaning against the stone walls of the training courtyard letting the coolness of the surface soothe his sore muscles and burnt skin. At his feet lay the edge of a twenty foot deep crater in the ground. He used to think that the Phoenix pill made him immune to fire but based on recent evidence he was rapidly revising his theory. Apparently, he was only resistant to chi fires and magical flames. Who knew? His clothing had also suffered and was hanging in tatters around him. It was magical and was slowly reweaving itself back into a whole. Charred threads unblackening and forming clean fresh cloth. Frankly, it was likely to be fully recovered before Ranma himself was.

Looking over to the other side of the training area he glared balefully at the oblivious duo that was responsible for his condition. They were presently locked in another seeming life or death struggle to beat the other into a bloody pulp. Each one had distracted him from his training at least three times already just that day. Each time had resulted in his glowing sphere going critical and blowing up. What was supposed to be an effort of control and multitasking was now turning into a body hardening exercise. Ugh, he hadn't even started on the training he knew he would need to deal with Ryouga. As it was he had a feeling that one lucky punch from the lost boy would blow through his aura's protection and lay him out. He had a couple of techniques he could combine to fix this huge deficiency but he needed to master his present efforts first.

It was increasingly obvious that for higher level opponents he couldn't rely on any one thing at a time. He needed synergy from specific combinations of techniques. The trick was that these had to be simultaneous in order to work and most were active rather than passive tricks. He couldn't train himself to do them unconsciously, at least not in the time he had, so he had to learn to do it all at once. He gave the girls another nasty look. As the immediate pain faded his stares got more halfhearted. He could think of them as impeding his training or he could accept the challenge their presence offered and think of them as a training method to master. Yeah, that was it! In combat no one was going to wait for him to get his act together. He had to overcome these distractions and win in the face of adversity!

Having worked himself up to a proper level of enthusiasm he sat forward, ready to spring back into training. Suppressing a cry of pain, he slumped back against the soothing coolness of the wall. Yeah, he could do this... just after maybe another thirty minutes of forcing his body to heal. It only looked like he was resting...

Sighing to himself he looked at the rune statue in his hands. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but either something was wrong with his methods or the devices in the statue used for tracking were even worse than his own senses. Also, having to subdue the indestructible rune device every few hours was wearing on his last nerve. He had completely left Atlantis several times already. Now he knew without a doubt his grandchild was there. He had seen posters on the walls and a few holo displays in the Kittani quarters showing the new arena champions. He didn't know or care who the girls were but had met his boy and knew his face.

Then somehow he had ended up in some low energy dimension called Nerima. People there almost all knew his grandchild but hadn't seen him in weeks. After that he had ended up at some pig farm, talking to some girl named Akari. She was actually a really nice girl; he could see what his boy saw in her. Then again, he also just appreciated farmers, though usually he liked the ones that worked with the land as opposed to raising animals. Well he liked them as much as he liked any humans these days. Maybe once they all met as a family he would suggest they branch out and plant some crops. Assuming they actually can get together again.

The statue had gotten embarrassing to explain once he left Atlantis. No one asked about a god's business in a Splugorth's domain. In the mortal kingdoms he got the strangest looks. Since it was proving useless in tracking his grandson he would finally leave it behind after disabling all the gaudy add-ons.

Looking around he noticed a tiny stream of magma meandering along well defined banks of bedrock heading towards a drop off. Oddly enough he heard water chiming off in the distance and tiny dust devils played in the rock as it turned into sand, making swirls and patterns in the ground. Well, except for the water and lack of choking brimstone it sort of looked like hell. It was as good as any other place to drop off his burden.

"This here is where we part company," He propped the statue next to pool the liquid rock that had collected after its short fall off the precipice. "I'd tell you to leave my grandson alone, but based on the fact that you track him worse than I do, I really don't think we have anything to worry about."

After leaving his standard trademark in hell, he did his best to get lost. It was a talent he had mastered over the millennia and it didn't take him long at all.

White Raven drummed her fingers on the large table. Built to seat over twenty human sized entities the entire room felt empty with just her there. In front of the rebel fighter floated a slowly rotating image of the continent of Atlantis. It was exact down to the smallest facet, even including many areas the Lord of Atlantis surely thought were off limits and unknown. Tiny symbols and annotations covered it, becoming denser as it neared the capital city of Splynn.

A flick of her fingers tilted the image while another expanded the capital, bringing more details and more of the strange symbology into view. Shaking her head, she sighed in frustration. She had been running simulations with the help of the Liberated Underground's technical guru and co leader, one of the last of a race of intelligent robots rendered almost extinct by the Splugorth, and was rapidly going nowhere.

The door to the chamber opened and Skippy walked in with a steaming cup of tea in one hand and bowl of something in the other. Most likely stew again. Hearty and filling but probably the best they would find while being underground. At least if they didn't want to eat what the monsters ate.

"I brought you a little something to keep you going," Skippy cheerfully announced while placing the food on the table. He earned a glare when his movement sent the image spinning in place. She flicked out her hands again locking the image so her resident magician wouldn't interfere with the tactical display. Her gaze softened as her stomach growled, signaling that perhaps it was time to take a short break.

"Thanks," she grudgingly offered. Realizing how surly she sounded she continued. "I am just at my wits ends. With Max gone, we lost one of our most experienced leaders."

"We still have you," Skippy chirped.

"Thanks," she returned wryly. Sometimes Skippy's blindingly optimistic outlook could be annoying but then again it was nice to have someone believe in her unconditionally. She had trouble doing that herself these days. "However, when Max left he took all the Atlantean forces with him."
"You know..."

"Yes! I know he had no choice but his people were a good fraction of our forces. There is not a lot we have the resources left to pursue. Definitely nothing overt anymore."

"We have gotten offers from some of our backers."

"New Camelot has offered some of their knights, but as good as they are they can't make up for two hundred true Atlanteans. Lazlo has a few volunteers trickling in. In no small part to you, I understand..."

"They would have more but the Coalition has been mobilizing and they are afraid of spreading out their resources when it could break out into a war."

"Hmm, the human elitists nation. I remember you mentioned them. I believe we even rescued a few slaves that came from there."

"That was almost a year ago. On that raid of 'Wild Will's Dead Boy Outlet'. Damn, that was a disaster."

"Yes, I think they attacked their rescuers as soon as they got back," White Raven shook her head in disbelief. The blind paranoia and hatred that filled the freed slaves was hard to understand. The Liberated Underground never raided that particular establishment again.

"There's always the vampires..." the mage offered tentatively, taking a seat at the large table. "They have given indications that they would be willing to step up their efforts."

"Ugh. Vampires," the woman's lips twisted in distaste as she uttered the word. "Max didn't trust them for excellent reasons. You know they only help us because the Splugorth actively try to exterminate them. Otherwise, they would kill or turn us themselves."

"True, but..."

"We have already found they have been harvesting some of the people they rescue before they release them to us. We need to remind ourselves that despite appearing mortal they dance to the whims of their overlord."

"You make them sound like some sort of hive."

The woman thought about this choice of words for a moment before shrugging. "I am not the expert on the matter that Max was, but there is a lot in common. I doubt they actually have a hive mind but they definitely have a connection to an unpleasant entity and that entity consumes or repurposes mortals. I don't think it would be wise to bring them into our confidence more than they already are."

The two sat in silence for some minutes. White Raven quickly ate the bowl's contents and it was obvious the mage didn't have much more to offer. His expertise was more in the magical world and mundane planning he gladly left to the other leaders.

"I was thinking of feeling someone out..." the raven haired woman slowly began.

"I am all ears," Skippy prompted.

"It has been some time since we last contacted Ranma. He may be done with his errands and be ready to help us."

"Ranma who? The girl?" the mage gave a puzzled frown. "I still have trouble hearing out of my right ear. Anyway, it is her fault that Max left."

"Him. And he may be the reason Max left but it's also the reason his race has a chance to survive. Who knows, if he can deal with this inter-clan issue perhaps the clans won't be distracted by all the mysterious disappearances and be able to send us more support."

"Or the massive casualties caused by the clan wars will weaken them to the point that they can't send us anything." Skippy countered.

White Raven gave him a dirty look. Usually he was the one taking the positive viewpoint. It was unwelcome that he chose to be pragmatic just when she was trying to convince herself Max and his clan was all right and would come back in heroic triumph.

"I haven't heard from him," she reluctantly admitted. "While I hope things go well for him we can't stop our operations. Every day thousands of slaves lose their lives. We need to get back to saving what we can."

"And you think this Ranma woman can help us?" Skippy asked doubtfully. White Raven just shook her head. She wasn't sure whether Skippy had really forgotten about Ranma gender issues or was simply teasing her. He may not have been paying attention during the briefing. It wouldn't be the first time.

"Yes. She is talented, powerful and has demonstrated strong sympathy for our cause. I think she could make a difference." It was doubtful he could make up for hundreds of Atlanteans but she would take whatever she could get... as long as it wasn't undead.

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