Disclaimer: I don't own Ranma 1/2 or Sailor Moon in any way, shape or form. All associated characters, trademarks, etc. are the property of Rumiko Takahashi and Naoko Takeuchi. I'm just telling some stories about them.

Author's Note: This fic is a four-chapter interlude that covers the period between Part One and Part Two of the "Dark Lords of Nerima" series. Since this is a follow-up, it's highly recommended to read the first fic before reading this one, since otherwise it may be a bit perplexing why the characters are in the situations they are.

And now, without further ado...

The Dark Lords Strike Back

Chapter One: Preparation

Beneda kneaded the middle-aged woman's back with her hands, pressing sometimes with her palms, sometimes with her fingers, feeling the injured tendon in the woman's left shoulder respond to her touch. Reaching out with her ki, as her sensei had taught her, the currently-human girl was able to get an even clearer sense of how the damage was responding to her ministrations. She adjusted her movements accordingly, and was rewarded by a sigh from her patient.

It was an exceedingly simple treatment, one she could almost do in her sleep after the long months of intensive teaching and training that Doctor Tofu had guided her through. Still, it was only recently that he had allowed her to begin helping with the clinic patients without his direct supervision.

She was determined not to let him down.

Her hands moved a little lower, while still keeping up their soothing rhythm. Doctor Tofu had taught her that rhythms were very important, both within and without the body. The rhythm of a heartbeat, the rhythm of sleeping and waking, the rhythm of patients entering and leaving the clinic. The rhythm of their very lives.

It was easy to settle into a rhythm, even as utterly bizarre a rhythm as life here in Nerima was prone to be. It was comforting. Reassuring. Sometimes it allowed you to forget about looming, faraway dangers for a little while, finding peace and solace in the moment.

But as she listened to the steady pok-pok-pok of a wooden cane against the floor, coming closer and closer, she knew that even the most comforting of rhythms were eventually disrupted.

Behind her, Beneda heard the door open as the tapping sound entered the treatment room. She did not shift her attention from her patient, nor did the visitor make any move to interrupt. Eventually, though, the session came to an end. The patient thanked Beneda profusely and left, at which point it was only the two of them remaining.

Turning, the sometime-youma saw a familiar, shrunken figure standing perched on her cane. "Elder Soap," she said, bowing respectfully. "Welcome to our clinic."

The Joketsuzoku Elder looked at her with approval, giving her a small nod in return. "That was some competent work you were doing there, child," she said. "Especially after little more than six months of training. It seems the young doctor has found himself a talented pupil indeed..."

"It's really all thanks to him," Beneda assured her. "Doctor Tofu is... amazing. All the things he knows—and how he can make them seem so simple when he explains them! I just follow along with what he shows me."

Soap smiled. "I see..." she said. "At any rate, I apologize for arriving so early. My sister and I finished going over our plan ahead of schedule. And I must admit, I was curious to see how your skills were progressing. I can wait, if you have further patients to see."

Beneda shook her head. "She was the last. I can go at any time. Just... I need to say goodbye to Doctor Tofu first."

"Of course." At Soap's assent, Beneda walked past her out of the treatment room and down the hall toward Doctor Tofu's office. She hesitated briefly just outside the door, smoothing out her light green blouse where it had gotten a little rumpled and tucking an errant strand of silver hair behind one ear. Then she opened the door and walked in.

As she entered, Tofu glanced up from the piles of papers he had spread across his desk. "Ah!" he said. "I see you finished with Mrs. Nakamura."

"Yes, she was very happy with the results," replied the currently-human girl. "Most of her pain seems to be gone. I think she should only need a few more treatments after this one."

"Good, good," said the doctor. "Thank you very much for handling that for me, Beneda. It was a great help."

"You're welcome, sir! I was glad for the chance to put what you taught me to use. And to help you. Any way I can."

Tofu nodded. "Well, given that I can sense a very strong aura just out there, I assume that Soap has come to pick you up?"

"Yes, she has." Beneda studied her feet for a few moments, then spoke again. "I finished packing while I was waiting for Mrs. Nakamura, so I'm all ready. I guess... I guess I'll see you again in about a month's time."

The doctor rose from behind his desk and walked around to where she stood, putting a hand on his student's shoulder. "This is a good thing you're doing," he told her. "I'm proud of how you're willing to help like this."

At his praise, Beneda felt a small surge of heat rise to her cheeks, something her human body tended to do whenever she felt embarrassed despite her best efforts to control it. "I... Thank you, sir," she said at last. "It's just common sense, really. This is something that needs to be done, for all our sakes."

"All the same," was Tofu's reply. "You're still the one who is willing to do it. Be careful over there, my brave pupil. And don't forget to do your exercises."

The sometime-youma nodded feelingly. "Every day," she promised. Then she turned, opening the door to leave.

But she paused in the middle of the action, looking back over her shoulder. "And don't you dare start skipping meals again, just because I'm not here to cook the food and make you take the time to eat!" she warned. "I don't care how long your waiting list gets, I don't want to come back and find out you've been starving yourself!"

Tofu chuckled. "Don't worry, I'll manage. In fact..." Without warning his eyes glazed over slightly, a goofy grin crossing his features. "In fact, just the other day, K... K... Kasumi mentioned that she might be bringing a little something over..." His glasses began to fog up at the mere thought, as he became lost in his own private little euphoria.

Beneda felt like one of her own shuriken had just been twisted into her chest, but she smiled regardless. "That's perfect," she told him, the words tasting like ash on her tongue. "I'm sure it will taste wonderful, whatever it is."

She herself had never managed to get human food much more than "passable".

Turning away, the girl hurried out of the room and back down the hall to where Soap was waiting. "My pack is just downstairs," she said. "Let's go."

Soap raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. "Of course," she said, hopping up onto her cane and pogoing alongside Beneda.

The two of them retrieved the large backpack containing—hopefully—everything Beneda would need on the trip. With that done, the two of them exited the clinic. "It's always good to get a head start on things," the old master remarked. "At this rate we should be well in time to catch our plane."

Beneda, lost in her own thoughts, nodded absently, and continued walking for a few more steps before what Soap said actually sunk in. "Wait, catch our what?"

Her white-knuckled hands clutching the armrests of her seat in a deathgrip, Beneda stared straight ahead, casting occasional furtive glances out the window as the plane slowly taxied out toward the runway. In the next seat over, Soap watched her with a bemused look. "Honestly, child," she asked. "How did you think we were going to get to China?"

"I don't know!" Beneda whispered back plaintively. "You elders have experience with magic, right? Don't you have some kind of... teleportation spell, or dimensional gateway, or... some sane way of doing this?"

Apart from the past six or so months, Beneda had spent her entire life living in an underground realm of darkness and cramped tunnels. She had, of course, heard stories of these "airplanes": abominations of technology that carried their occupants to and fro at altitudes that boggled her mind, kept aloft by nothing but the strange tricks of physics that the human scientists had learned to bend to their will.

"I can't do this..." she muttered in a slightly unhinged tone of voice. "We need to find another way. I'll walk there. Swim. Ranma told me he'd done it before."

"No time for that, I'm afraid," was Soap's calm reply. "Good training for you though it would be."

"But look, there's so much metal!" the sometime-youma hissed, trying to fight down her panic as she pointed out the window. "Metal is heavy, and heavy things fall when you throw them up into the air! Please, are you really sure there isn't at least some magic involved in this? Somewhere?"

"Not in the slightest," answered Soap. "It's just the air under the wings that will hold us up, as I understand it."

"I'm going to die..." groaned Beneda. "I'm going to die for no reason in a stupid metal box that goes flying around at hundreds of feet above ground!"

"Thousands, actually," Soap corrected in a helpful tone of voice. "At our peak, our altitude should be well over thirty thousand feet."

Beneda's response was to shut her eyes tight and whimper, as the plane began to pick up speed for takeoff.

Her fears to the contrary, Beneda did arrive safely at their final destination of Xi'ning Airport, where she disembarked the plane with trembling legs. From there it was a series of much calmer automobile rides, leading progressively farther out into wilder areas. Eventually they had to walk, following old, winding trails as they forged higher into the mountains.

As soon as they left civilization behind them, Beneda took some hot water from a thermos she had prepared earlier and resumed her youma form. Even with the increased strength it gave her, however, it was obvious that Soap was slowing her own pace considerably so Beneda could keep up.

The two of them travelled onward for days, Soap eating from the stores they had brought, while allowing her companion to feed off her own mammoth reservoir of life energy. Beneda only needed the tiniest percentage to satisfy her hunger completely, so great was the difference between the auras of a normal human and a trained martial artist, let alone one of the elder's caliber.

They did not talk much, and yet surprisingly Beneda never found it awkward. The hours passed in companionable silence between the ancient woman and the reformed monster, broken only by Soap occasionally pointing out some feature of the surroundings that they were going past, sometimes an obscure landmark, sometimes a useful herb.

One night, as they sat huddled around the warmth of their crackling campfire, Soap noticed that Beneda was bent over a piece of stationery, writing on it. "What's that you're working on?" the elder asked, curious.

Beneda glanced up. "Oh, this is a letter to Ryouga I'm going to mail when I get back," she explained. "It helps us keep in touch a little better, since he can't always find his way to Nerima. He sends them to me whenever he can find a post box, and he picks up my replies whenever he finds his way home."

"Better than nothing, I suppose," agreed Soap. "So what does the young man write to you about?"

"Mostly stories about his latest travels, the sights he sees, the fights he gets into." Then she chuckled. "Oh, and he usually asks me for romantic advice too."

Soap raised her eyebrows a little in surprise. "Really? Don't take this the wrong way, child, but you aren't exactly..."

"...speaking from a human perspective?" finished Beneda. "I know! I tried to tell him that, but he seems to think that just because I'm a female, I'll automatically know how to handle this kind of thing. I try my best to give him answers that make sense, but..." She sighed, looking away sadly. "I don't think I understand how it works in your world at all..."

The elder smiled. "Well, if it's any consolation, in my experience it's mostly guesswork for humans as well."

"I do think he is getting better," continued Beneda. "He seems to have finally settled on Akari, rather than Akane. I mean... I know it's Akane that he's been smitten with ever since I've known him, and I was trying to support him in it, but... I really think Akari is better for him, in the end."

Soap let out a humph at that. "If you say so. I can't claim objectivity, since him wooing away the Tendo girl would be the best for Shampoo's prospects."

The youma's face fell a little. Then she spoke again, wistfully. "It would be nice if everything just... worked out better, wouldn't it? Shampoo wants Ranma, and Mousse wants Shampoo, and Ranma wants Akane, even if he won't admit it, and Ukyo wants Ranma, and Konatsu wants Ukyo. And Doctor Tofu—" Her voice broke off, her expression becoming pained.

"Yes... that is all too often the way of life," agreed the ancient crone. "Sometimes such things don't work out as we would wish. Sometimes they can't. But even so, in the end we live on regardless." A half-smile crossed her small, wrinkled face. "Take it from a woman who has done a great deal of living on in her day."

Beneda nodded. With a stretch and a yawn, Soap stood and walked over toward her tiny bedroll. "Well, don't let it trouble you too much," she said as she walked. "One can never be sure of what the future really holds, after all. Just be sure you get a good night's sleep. We've another full day ahead of us tomorrow."

It was two days later that they arrived at the Joketsuzoku village.

The only advance warning that they were getting near was when Soap told her to use some cold water to take on her human form. Beneda complied without hesitation, remembering what Joketsuzoku law said regarding her kind—and that not everyone was quite as liberal about such matters as her current travelling companion.

But other than that, it was sudden. One moment they had been hiking their way up a steeply inclined path, with distant mountains towering around them. The next, they crested a rise and saw their destination spread out before their eyes. Beneda took it all in: houses dotted here and there in a seemingly random pattern, interspersed with fields filled with crops.

Many people were tending the fields, mostly men and children. They laughed and sang as they worked, using the tune to keep in time with each other, though to Beneda's eyes it still looked like bewildering chaos.

There was a cry of greeting in Chinese from up above them. Beneda craned her neck, and saw two bow-wielding young women looking down at them from a camouflaged guard post in the trees, one the currently-human girl had completely missed until now. They and Soap went back and forth for about a minute in the same language, and then the elder turned back to Beneda. "Come," she said, her expression suddenly unreadable. "We may begin our task here sooner than expected."

"Sooner than expected?" echoed Beneda, frowning. "You mean... now?"

"Perhaps," Soap replied. "It seems that you are not the only guest whose presence graces our village this day."

Her nerves suddenly on edge, Beneda followed the old woman through the fields and toward a cluster of more densely-packed buildings arranged in a circle around an open area. A crowd had gathered there, mostly of women, most of them armed and fingering their weapons as they looked at the three males who stood talking with the shrunken figures of Loofah and the Matriarch.

Least intimidating of the three was the young boy on the right, looking barely older than thirteen, wearing a wolf pelt on his head and wielding a sword strapped across his back. On the left stood a young man whose massive frame dwarfed the first boy's, all corded muscle and sinew. He wore tigerskin around his waist, shoulders and ankles, and he looked around him with his fanged teeth bared.

But Beneda's gaze was drawn to the man standing between them, clad in ornate scale armor, his long, black-and-white hair running down his back. He was not as physically imposing as the one in tigerskin, but there was something in his stance, his bearing, that left no doubt whatsoever in the youma's mind as to who the most dangerous of the three was. He turned to look at her as she approached, and she felt a shiver of fear run up and down her spine.

Memories ran through her mind then, memories of the stories Ranma and Ryouga had told her about one of their most dangerous adventures. She suspected that she knew who these three were.

"Prince Herb!" Soap called out in Japanese as she approached. "It is an honor. Tell me, what brings you to our village at this time?"

The dragon prince did not take his eyes from Beneda's. "I heard that you were bringing your tame monster here from Japan to show it off as evidence of the Dark Kingdom threat," he said. "And yet, of all the tribes you arranged to show it to, you made no contact with the Musk Dynasty. So I took it upon myself to come here instead."

"You've already agreed to aid us in this, beast-man," snapped Loofah, surprising Beneda with the venom in her voice. "That was the price for Cologne giving you the location of the Kettle of Liberation."

Herb made a disdainful wave of his hand. "Of course," he said. "Indeed, kettle or no kettle, the Musk would fight through you, if necessary, for the chance to participate in a battle as glorious as this one. My desire to see this youma has nothing to do with doubting your word or requiring more proof. I was simply... curious."

Beneda licked her lips, then glanced down at Soap, who gave her a small nod. Rummaging through her pack, she found her thermos of hot water, unscrewed the cap, and poured enough over herself to return to her original body. A hiss of shock and a low mutter ran through the crowd of onlookers, but neither the elders nor the Musk gave much of a reaction.

The prince looked at her appraisingly, then walked closer. When he got within arm's length he began to circle her, examining her from every angle. He trailed his fingers along her back as he walked behind her, causing her to shiver.

"Fascinating," he said at last. "Its aura is like nothing I've ever sensed before. Though it doesn't strike me as very intimidating."

"As fighting youma go, I'm among the weakest," admitted Beneda plainly. "There are plenty of elites that could kill me without much trouble at all."

Herb let out a soft noise that might have been a laugh and might have been a snort. "We shall see," he replied. Then he turned back to the Matriarch. "As I said, you can count on the full support of the Musk Dynasty when the time comes. My father will not be able to assist personally due to his old injuries, but he has given me full authority to lead our army into battle in his place."

"Thank you, your highness," said the Matriarch gravely.

The dragon prince then turned to his two followers. "Mint, Lime, let us be on our way," he told them, glancing over to where Loofah was still glaring at him. Beneda wondered what had happened to give the old woman such animosity toward the Musk. "We've done what we came here to do. We wouldn't want to overstay our welcome."

With that, the three of them turned and walked away, the crowd of Joketsuzoku parting before them as they left.

Beneda spent the night in a guest room that the Joketsuzoku had prepared for her, in a bed that was a very welcome change from sleeping out in the wilderness. She wondered how Ryouga could stand it; just a handful of days had been quite unpleasant for her, and she'd had Soap for company and protection. He had been living that way, alone, for most of his life.

She spent the next day looking around the village, guided by Soap. She received more than a few guarded looks from warrior women who had seen her youma form, some of them downright hostile. Still, the elders had made it abundantly clear that she was under their official protection, and that any actions against her would not be tolerated.

The following morning she and Soap departed again. "Our first stop is mostly a warm-up," the elder explained as they walked out of the village. "Their group is a bit of a rabble, wild and uncontrolled... but they may have their uses, and they have a knack for surviving, if nothing else."

"But why begin with them, if they're not very impressive?" asked Beneda.

"Whenever one is trying to build support, it's usually best to start with those most likely to agree," Soap explained. "Anyone who joins our cause gives it additional momentum, however large or small, which will help in convincing others. We already have the Musk, and that will be very decisive. Now we go to another group who will almost certainly accept. There is only one thing these warriors will need to bring them to our side."

Beneda frowned in thought. "What is that?"

"Payment," was Soap's simple reply.

Not long after that conversation Soap decided to increase their speed to a fairly rapid clip, prompting Beneda to return to youma form once again. Even so, it was well into the afternoon when they finally arrived. It wasn't so much a village as it was a camp, a ramshackle collection of tents, lean-tos and other relatively temporary structures.

The inhabitants of those structures stared out at the two of them as they approached: large, muscular men, their heads shaved bald, their clothes often little more than rough kilts or loincloths. Their bodies were covered with swirling tattoos that Soap knew to be the badge of membership in this thrown-together army.

As she drew nearer, the elder raised her voice. "Lao Shihong!" she called out. "A customer is requesting your services!"

There was a rustle from inside one of the tents, and a man stepped out, tattooed everywhere like the rest of them, with a pair of large hammers strapped across his back. "So, you did come after all..." he rumbled. "I thought your tribe was too proud to bother with simple mercenaries like us."

"Times change," replied Soap. "We are preparing to fight an enemy unlike anything we have fought before, and we are gathering allies from everywhere we can. The stakes are nothing less than—"

"Yes, yes, we've heard it all from your other messengers," interrupted Lao Shihong. "You know our rates, Joketsuzoku. Spinning tales won't get you a discount."

"Not even with the end of the world facing us?" Soap inquired.

The big man let out a single bark of laughter. "We're sell-swords, old woman. This is our form of honor, however dirty it may seem to someone like you. We fight where we're paid to, regardless of who's doing the paying. We'd have fought for this 'Metallia' creature ourselves if she'd come to us first, and we'd have fought for her loyally. Just as we'll fight loyally for you, until we've fulfilled our contract."

He crossed his arms, looking down at the tiny elder as he towered over her. "So what'll it be? Do we have a deal or don't we? I don't have any desire to stand around bantering all day."

"We have a deal," replied Soap. "Half down, half upon completion of the contract. Your services in the battle against the Dark Kingdom for one month, with first chance to renew at the end."

Lao Shihong nodded, and smiled humorlessly. "A pleasure doing business with you, Joketsuzoku."

The days passed swiftly for Beneda, as they travelled from one place to another. Their next stop had been the village of a group Soap called the Yakusai Poisoners. The elder there had examined the youma carefully, but had agreed to help without much debate. Beneda got the impression that their village was already on close terms with the Joketsuzoku, and the inspection was more of a formality.

A more serious interview came when they visited a monastery of some human religious order. The head abbot, an old man with a long white beard and a penetrating gaze, had questioned Beneda alone for hours on end. He exacted everything from her without even raising his voice, every detail of her story, every fact she knew about the Dark Kingdom. By the time their interview was over she was trembling uncontrollably, and felt sure that he could read every secret she'd ever had simply by looking at her.

But then, just when she felt she was seconds away from cracking under the pressure, he had smiled at her, given her a simple blessing, and told her to tell Soap that she could count on the support of his order in the coming conflict.

"That was crucial," commented Soap, as the two of them walked away from the old stone building. "Abbot Chang is renowned for his insight; convincing the Monks of the Third Enlightenment that the threat is real will go a long way toward silencing the doubts of the remaining tribes." Then she sighed. "It probably won't help much with our next meeting, however."

"Why not?" asked Beneda. "They don't respect him?"

"Not particularly," Soap responded. "But then, they feel that way concerning most humans..."

When next the two of them stopped, it was not at any kind of village or settlement, unlike the previous negotiations. In fact, it was little more than a simple clearing. Beneda looked at Soap, confused.

"Just a meeting point," clarified the old master. "Travelling to their home would not have been feasible with all the other stops we need to make. They should be arriving soon."

Contrary to Soap's predictions, however, the other party arrived late. It was almost four hours past the appointed time when the elder glanced upward and remarked. "Ah, at last."

Beneda followed Soap's gaze, to see three winged figures descending from the skies, a woman with a sword at her hip, flanked by two young men, one dark-skinned with a sword, the other light-skinned with a bow. The Phoenix People! she thought, recognizing them instantly from Ryouga's description.

"Lady Kiima," Soap called out to their leader as they landed. "Thank you for agreeing to speak with us."

"Make it quick," responded the woman in a bored tone of voice. "I must return to the palace in time for Lord Saffron's feeding. You claimed you had additional evidence to show me? Evidence that might change my mind about this ridiculous military venture?"

"The evidence is right here," said Soap. "Whether it will change your mind or not I cannot say. I present to you the youma who defected to us from the Dark Kingdom—an eyewitness of the storm that will soon break over us all."

Kiima spared Beneda a brief glance. "You really think seeing one monster will change my opinion on this matter? Look to your own landling affairs; Ho'o peak will remain secure. We need no help to defend what is our own."

"That's not what I heard," put in Beneda. "I mean... what with the way Ranma and his friends tore through pretty much everything you threw against them..."

The winged woman's eyes flashed. "You would do well to watch your tongue, monster."

"She does raise a valid point," said Soap mildly. "However, the benefit to your people would not end with mere self-preservation. As Beneda pointed out, you were defeated in your attempt to forcibly wrest control of the Jusendo Taps. However... we are still willing to negotiate on the matter."

"Ah, I see now... Is that your trump card against us?" Beneda didn't like the smug little smile playing around Kiima's lips. "Control over Jusendo, in exchange for our aid?"

"Not control," corrected Soap. "But I have spoken with the Jusenkyo Guide, and he is willing to allow you temporary access to the Source. If you help us save the world, then when the time comes you will be permitted to drain Jusenkyo again. Though only for the duration required for your Lord Saffron's ascension ritual."

Kiima chuckled. "A tempting offer," she said, her smug look increasing. "Or rather, it would have been a few weeks ago. Unfortunately for you, we have no need of such a deal anymore. Our original spring on Ho'o Peak has re-opened."

"Re-opened? How—?" Then understanding flashed across Soap's face. "The battle. The battle between Ranma and Saffron."

"Indeed," was Kiima's response. "And with that, our last tie to the landling world has been severed. We have no need of you, or anything you can offer. We will wait out this storm as we have always done. It does not concern us."

Beneda glanced down at Soap, who wore a grimace of distaste. Then she looked back up at Kiima. Finally she spoke. "You're not really that much of an idiot, are you?"

"Excuse me?" asked Kiima in a frosty tone.

"You honestly think your people are going to be safe just because you can hide up on a little mountain away from everything else?" Beneda shook her head in disbelief. "You really have no idea what's coming, do you? You have no idea at all."

Taking a deep breath, she walked toward the Phoenix woman, closing the distance until their faces were inches apart. Beneda looked her directly in the eye. "But I do. I know what lies sealed in the Dark Kingdom. I've felt her power. Every youma has. She's sleeping. Hungering. Waiting to be free."

"She's going to harvest this world, Kiima. Your mountain won't save you; she'd blast it to rubble as easily as you or I would draw a breath. She's going to devour or outright kill every single living thing on this planet, except for the ones she keeps as cattle for her youma."

Kiima still looked unconvinced. "And this army you're raising is supposed to prevent this?"

"Yes," was Beneda's flat reply. "Cologne has a plan. It's the best shot any of us have at surviving, but we'll need all the help we can get. And if you still have doubts..." She hesitated, then plunged recklessly forward on a sudden, wild idea. "...fight me."

The winged woman raised an eyebrow. "Fight you?"

"Trial by combat." Beneda's throat had gone completely dry, and she clenched her hands tight to keep them from shaking, but she continued on. "After all... if even a low-level youma like me can beat one of the Phoenix People's best fighters, then obviously we're a threat, right?"

Kiima stared at her for a long moment, then burst out in laughter. "You actually think you can beat me?" she said, sounding both incredulous and amused. "Very well, I accept your proposal. If by some miracle you win, I will admit the danger of this 'Dark Kingdom' problem."

"Right. Good." The youma nodded—already starting to wonder whether her spur-of-the-moment challenge wasn't actually a very stupid idea. But there was no going back now. "Just... give me a minute to get ready."

The phoenix woman smirked. Beneda, for her part, walked back over to where Soap stood.

"What on earth do you think you're doing, child?" the old woman whispered as soon as she was close enough, looking at her with a concerned face. "You've officially challenged her to single combat! On my honor as a Joketsuzoku, I cannot interfere. She may very well kill you."

"I know." Beneda flashed a smile she most definitely did not feel. "But if I win..."

"That is... not likely, from what I can tell of both your abilities," warned Soap. And the ancient master was right, of course. Some amount of physical training had been included in the regimen Doctor Tofu had given her, and the effect was amplified in her youma form, but she knew full well that Kiima was a warrior on an entirely different level from her.

"Maybe it isn't likely," the youma acknowledged, as she walked over to where she had dropped her backpack. She knelt down, and began rifling through the pockets until her hand closed on the small object she was searching for. "But then again... I do have a few tricks she may not be expecting..."

Soap did not look happy at all, but she said nothing more as Beneda turned and walked back toward Kiima, holding the object she had taken from her backpack cupped surreptitiously between the fingertips of her left hand. This has to work exactly right... she thought, swallowing hard at the thought of the battle she was about to take part in.

Kiima crossed her arms. "Are you ready?" she asked.

"Yes, I'm—"

"Thousand Bird Wing Slice!" Before Beneda could finish the sentence, the air was filled with scything wind blades, shooting toward her with blinding speed. She hurled herself headlong sideways, rolling along the ground as the attack screamed past overhead.

Just like the others described! she thought as she rolled. That was one of the few advantages she had been counting on in this fight. She'd already heard the stories of Ranma's clash with the Phoenix People, and everyone who'd fought Kiima—from Ranma to Shampoo to Akane—had noted how constantly she liked to use that exact technique.

Beneda had been ready for it.

She rolled to her feet, backpedaling to get as much distance between her and the phoenix woman as possible. The more lead time she had, the easier it would be to avoid those wind blades. Kiima watched her with a condescending smile, clearly taking her retreat as proof that the ground-bound youma was no threat.

That was important as well. If Kiima were treating this fight with full seriousness, Beneda knew she wouldn't have much of a chance. I need to keep her overconfident. She has to think she can afford to toy with me.

The winged woman repeated her attack again—then a third, then a fourth time. It ripped furrows in the ground, and slashed down whole trees when it hit the edge of the clearing. Beneda ran for her life, putting every ounce of speed she had into simply staying ahead of the deadly onslaught. Even so, she soon felt a blade that she did not quite dodge cut into her leg. Youma dust sprayed into the air from the wound, and she let out a cry of pain.

The hit to her leg caused her to lose her balance, and she hit the ground hard. Desperately, she flung her arm up and formed one of her huge shuriken from her right hand, firing it directly at her opponent. Kiima raised her eyebrows a little, pausing in her attacks to draw her sword and strike the projectile from the air. "Interesting..." she mused. "But completely useless. You're doing a poor job of convincing me of the danger you pose, monster."

Beneda gritted her teeth and climbed back to her feet. She formed shuriken after shuriken on her right hand, firing them as fast as she could, only to have each one casually deflected. Eventually, though, a small frown crossed Kiima's face. "This is... growing tiring," she said, shaking her head as though to clear it. "Enough. I will end this now!"

Kiima drew herself up, and swung her wings in the largest Thousand Wing Bird Slice that Beneda had yet seen. The blades howled through the air, coming so fast that there was no possible way for her to avoid them all. The most she could do was try to minimize where she was hit, leaving her to jerk and spasm as the attack shredded into her. With a choked gasp she crumpled to the ground, dust seeping from multiple large wounds.

But, despite all that, through pure willpower, she managed to keep hold of what was between her left fingers.

Through the haze of pain, Beneda heard that Kiima was breathing hard after that last attack. "Old lady Kiima!" she heard one of her subordinates call out, concernedly. "What's wrong?"

"She's exhausted!" chirped the other one. "It must be her age catching up with her!"

"Shut up... you fools..." Kiima growled at them. Beneda cracked open one eye, and saw that the winged woman nearly doubled over, one hand resting on her knee. "I just... need to catch... my breath... and I'll finish her off."

Except that instead of recovering, Kiima's breathing only seemed to grow more ragged the more she tried to rest. After a few seconds she crumpled down to one knee. Her eyes darted back and forth, not understanding what was going on... until finally her gaze settled on Beneda.

Looks like she's onto me... Beneda thought. With a painful effort, the youma rolled back to her hands and knees, then pushed herself back to her feet. She was hurting badly, barely able to stand from her injuries, but she cracked a grin regardless.

In most cases, a youma's normal ability to drain energy was useless in combat. Too slow. Too short-range. That was why any youma sent on an energy-draining mission had to be given some kind of magical amplification to be effective. Morga had needed her energy-draining jewelry, Balm had needed her tarot cards, Kigaan had needed to lure her targets into one of her rigged busses.

Beneda didn't have any of those. But a few months ago, she had seen something else. A technique that—after a great deal of research and experimentation and practice—she had managed to adapt to a similar purpose. Something that would leverage her own unique nature to give her an edge in a world full of super-powered martial arts battles.

Raising her left hand, the youma leveled it directly at Kiima, focusing as hard as she could on sucking the woman's life energy through the 50 yen piece she held there.

The winged woman forced herself back to her feet, attempting another Thousand Wing Bird Slice. But she was too drained. Even severely injured, Beneda was able to avoid the few, poorly-controlled blades her opponent managed to create. Snarling, Kiima abandoned the showy excesses of the technique and charged toward her enemy with the last reserves of her strength, sword upraised.

Beneda kept draining as she closed, praying it would take her down. Her version wasn't nearly as powerful as Miss Hinako's original. Youma physiology allowed her to use the technique... but it was not as perfectly tailored for that purpose as the teacher's body was. Where Hinako would have ripped Kiima's battle aura out by the roots in an instant, the most Beneda had ever been able to manage was a steady siphon.

It was not enough. Kiima staggered into close range and made a sword swing aimed at her foe's head, though it was clumsy from exhaustion. Beneda formed a shuriken on her right hand and brought it up in a block, equally clumsy from pain. The two blades clashed, deflecting off each other. The phoenix woman swung again and again, but each time the youma managed to parry it—all the while keeping up her energy drain.

Finally, Kiima's attacks slowed to the point where Beneda managed to twist her shuriken, locking her opponent's weapon between the prongs of hers. With a loud cry and a burst of effort, she tore the sword from her enemy's hands and flung it away.

It was a mistake. With Beneda's guard arm out of position, the phoenix warrior ignored her lost sword and lunged straight in, slamming her shoulder into the youma's chest. Then, as her foe staggered back, Kiima began punching her repeatedly, aiming for the largest of the wounds that her wind blades had inflicted.

Beneda howled in agony and crumpled to the ground, her 50 yen piece tumbling from her fingers into the grass below. Kiima followed her down, planting one knee on Beneda's chest as her hands constricted around Beneda's throat.

The youma tried to pry Kiima's hands off of her, but she didn't have the strength. The phoenix warrior's attack on her already-grievous wound had brought her to the brink of losing consciousness by itself, and now her oxygen had been cut off. Black spots swam across her vision, and she knew she was only seconds away from passing out. There was only time for one more action, one last chance.

And so, reaching up, she gathered ki to her fingertip and poked it into Kiima's right shoulder. The winged woman looked puzzled for all of half a second... until she felt her arm go completely limp, flopping uselessly at her side.

Thank you, Doctor Tofu! Beneda thought, as she managed to drag a breath of beautiful, fresh air into her lungs. Then, drawing back her arm, she screamed and slammed her fist into Kiima's face with all her might.

The phoenix warrior was sent flopping backward, and with the strength of desperation, Beneda pressed her advantage. She crawled over to where Kiima lay, grabbing her by the hair and slamming her head back down when she tried to rise. The youma flung one leg over her, straddling the fallen warrior even as she formed shuriken on both her hands. She crossed them, holding both to her opponent's throat. "Give!" she shouted, her voice barely more than a croak.

Kiima glared back up at her, completely silent, her eyes burning with a mixture of pride and anger. Beneda, for her part, felt herself weakening. The burst of desperate exertion she had used to gain the upper hand was fading, leaving only her gaping wounds and the dust spilling from them. Her body was damaged worse than it had ever been before, and she knew she could not last much longer. "Give!" she screamed again, pressing her blades right against her foe's skin. "Give, damn it, we need your help!"

Still Kiima said nothing. Beneda tried to shout something more... but it was getting so hard to think, as spiraling darkness rose up to claim her vision. In the end, all she managed was one last groan before toppling forward as unconsciousness claimed her.

When at last she woke, it was to a constant, throbbing pain that seemed to echo endlessly through her whole body, as though it were all one huge injury. Once she had regained enough of her senses to look around, she realized that she was flat on her back on her bedroll, staring up at the night sky.

"Beneda!" Tilting her head, the sometime-youma saw that Soap was kneeling over her, a look of relief on her face. "You're finally awake."

"I... guess so..." the Jusenkyo-cursed girl croaked out. Then the memories began to catch up with her. "The Phoenix People...?"

"Long gone," Soap told her. "Kiima called your match a draw. A draw! Bah, the foolishness some people will indulge in for pride's sake..."

The injured youma sighed despondently. "So we didn't get her support after all."

Soap snorted. "Even winning wouldn't have forced her support," she said gently. "Didn't you notice how she phrased the conditions, child? She promised to 'admit the danger'. Admit it—not do anything about it. She had you coming and going."

Beneda groaned, prompting Soap to pat her on the head with one of her tiny hands. "Oh, don't let it discourage you. In fact, it may be better this way. Promises notwithstanding, I think you made quite an impression on Kiima. You held her life in your hands. And you spared it, at risk to your own—because you truly believed in the threat we all face."

The old woman gazed off into space, in what Beneda assumed was the direction of Ho'o Peak. "She'll remember that. Oh yes. Someone with her kind of pride won't easily forget a debt like that."

"So it... might have convinced her after all?" was Beneda's hopeful query.

"Who can say?" Soap shrugged. "Time alone will tell. For now, rest. That was an impressively brave and unbelievably foolish thing you did... and such deeds usually require a good deal of time to recover from."

In the end, though, Beneda did not spend terribly long recuperating. Despite the debilitation of her injuries she still had all the raw life energy she had drained from Kiima during the fight, and Soap was willing to provide hers as well. As a result, the youma was able to heal at a significantly improved rate. Two days after the battle she was able to walk again, and they immediately set out for their next appointment.

On arriving Beneda found that it was a small community in a secluded mountain valley, its few buildings austere and spartan. Many of the inhabitants seemed to be warriors, but unlike the previous villages, the only weapons Beneda saw any of them using were swords of one kind or another.

There was a bit of strain at first; despite their best efforts to make up time, they had still arrived a full day late. But as soon as Soap explained that it was due to injuries sustained in a formal duel, any offense vanished. Indeed, Beneda's willingness to call out a stronger opponent over a matter of honor seemed to positively endear her to them.

It did still take a bit of negotiation and debate, but in the end they were able to secure the support of the Tian Wu Swordsmen. Much harder to convince were the Silk Lotus tribe, a group that used the same sort of Iron Cloth techniques Beneda had seen Ryouga use with his belt and bandannas. They, however, had built their entire fighting style around it, making weapons or armor out of every piece of fabric they touched.

Their leader, to Beneda's surprise, was a young child who could not have been more than ten. Or so it seemed, at least. It was only after negotiations began that he revealed a surprising insight and cutthroat ruthlessness that seemed distinctly un-childlike. When Beneda asked about it later, Soap had only one reply: "That man is a monster—one that should have died long, long ago." After that, she would say no more on the subject.

But, even though it had been a struggle, Beneda was in high spirits as they left the Silk Lotus village. Successfully concluding matters here meant that there was only one stop left to make. Despite the lingering pain from her injuries, she pressed onward with the eagerness of someone for whom the end goal is in sight.

"I think it's just up there!" Beneda called back, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the sunlight as she peered ahead. "Yes! Yes, I can definitely see a village! This is it!"

The youma increased her pace, hurrying onward. In her excitement, it took her a few moments to realize that she had left Soap behind. Glancing back over her shoulder, she saw that the old woman seemed to be lost in thought, walking slower than usual. In fact, she almost seemed to be dragging her feet.

"Soap?" asked Beneda, frowning. Then, when it received no reply, she called out a little louder. "Soap!"

"Hmm?" the elder finally glanced up, eyes focusing on Beneda. "Oh, yes, sorry about that. Just... revisiting some old memories. Pay it no mind." With that she increased her speed, moving quickly past Beneda. The youma followed, a worried expression replacing her enthusiasm of just a moment prior.

The first thing Beneda noticed as they drew closer to the village was the palisade wall surrounding it, and more interestingly, the marks painted onto that wall. Those look like defensive wards! thought Beneda. The style is different from what I'm used to... but I'm sure that's what they are! These people know magic!

Aside from that, it seemed a relatively normal village, not unlike what she had seen of the Joketsuzoku. People moving here and there, conversation and laughter filling the air, all the signs of a happy, bustling community...

...until Soap and Beneda walked through the gates.

As soon as the villagers saw them, a quiet murmur rippled through the crowd, leaving only a strained hush in its wake. Everyone stopped what they had been doing, staring at the pair as they made their way toward a large building in the center of the compound. Nervous, Beneda looked down at Soap, but the ancient master did not look back up at her. The old woman simply walked on, her face an emotionless mask.

The youma looked back at the crowd, wondering if the two of them were in any danger. But she did not detect any particular anger in their faces, nor even any fear. They were watching. Waiting for something to happen with strained anticipation, like watching a dam on the brink of collapse.

Like watching people going to their deaths.

Feeling scores of eyes on her with every step she took, Beneda adopted Soap's strategy and locked her eyes straight ahead, though she could not match the elder's unflappable composure. The journey from the gates to the central building passed in complete silence, and felt as though it took longer than the entire journey to this village from the previous one.

At last they reached the door, which Soap swung open and passed through without hesitation. A stairway, a hallway and another door were passed in a similar fashion, whereupon they found themselves in a small study.

It was littered with books, scrolls and all manner of magical and alchemical apparatus. It was a vast treasure trove of arcane knowledge—but it was to the figure at the far end of the room that Beneda's attention was drawn.

The woman was, like Soap, small and shrunken. She stood with her back toward them, staring out a window that overlooked the village. She was dressed in a robe with strange sigils woven into it, and wearing rings on each of her fingers bearing similar runes. And when she spoke, it was in a voice that dripped anger and bitterness from every word. "So you actually came. Sister of Cologne."

Soap took a deep breath, and nodded. "Yes. I have come to request your aid in—"

The cloaked woman whirled, thrusting out her hand toward Soap. A wave of invisible energy rippled through the air, blasting the elder back into the door through which she had come. The door shattered into fragments, and Soap went flying down the hallway outside, skidding to a stop on her back. "My aid?" she demanded, rage flashing in her eyes. "The Joketsuzoku request my aid?"

She made a swift gesture with one finger, tracing a line of glowing light through the air. Another gesture sent it whipping down the hallway at Soap, winding through the air like a snake until it wrapped around her throat. The Joketsuzoku elder managed to get her cane up just in time, interposing it between her neck and the coils, just barely preventing it from strangling her.

Beneda's eyes bulged in shock. The attack had taken place with such blinding speed that she hadn't even had time to register what had happened until well after it was over. Frantic, she whipped up her arm and formed a shuriken, aiming it at their attacker. "S... stop, I'm warning you!" she shouted, fully aware of how ridiculous the threat was.

The old woman didn't look at her, barely even seemed to register her presence. Instead, she stalked down the hallway toward Soap. "Lower your weapon, Beneda!" shouted Soap, her arms trembling from the effort of holding the glowing cord at bay. Then she looked the oncoming woman in the eye. "Well?" she asked in a softer voice. "Finished with your temper tantrum yet?"

Her attacker's eyes flashed, and the noose began to tighten even harder. "Watch your words, sister of Cologne," she hissed.

Soap made no move to retaliate. "You know what it is we face, Meihui," she continued. "Far, far better than any of our other allies. You know the danger to your people. And you won't throw away their chance for survival for your own personal vengeance. You care for them too much to do that. It's the only reason you didn't start all-out war with the Joketsuzoku the instant you became their leader."

Meihui said nothing, as the glowing cord continued to strain against Soap's cane. "So go ahead," challenged the Joketsuzoku, her voice cold. "Throw me through a few more walls, if it makes you feel any better about what we both know you're going to do. If that's what it takes, then I'm willing. Just let me know when you're ready to stop posturing and give me my answer."

For an instant, Meihui's killing intent spiked, and Beneda thought she really was going to try to end Soap's life. But then she grimaced, made a slashing motion with her hand, and the glowing cord around Soap's neck vanished.

"You should not have come here," the old woman bit out, as she stalked back toward her study. "If you think you know me so well as to predict my actions, you should not have needed to come and tempt my self-control."

"I needed an official answer," rasped Soap, rubbing the back of her neck where the cord had dug into the skin. "Politics."

Meihui made a disdainful gesture with her hand, not even bothering to turn around. "Consider it given."

Soap nodded, then pulled herself back to her feet. Meihui reached the ruined doorway to her study. Then she paused. "This... grand alliance of yours..." she said quietly. "Cologne will be there as well, will she not?"

"Yes," answered Soap. "She will."

"I see." Without further comment, the old woman walked back into her room.

After all that had happened, Beneda couldn't leave fast enough. The villagers stared at them again as they left, this time with a bit of astonishment mixed in. They weren't expecting us to walk out of there alive... the youma realized.

Eventually, when at last they had left that village far enough behind that Beneda felt she could talk freely, she turned to Soap. "Is this really going to be all right?" she asked, disbelief tinting her voice. "Her as an ally? Can we trust her?"

Soap raised a forestalling hand. "I know how that must have looked," she said. "But don't worry. She really is an honorable woman, and she does care about her tribe more than anything. I'm almost positive she won't try to kill Cologne until after Metallia has been dealt with."

At long last, after far more days of travelling and negotiating than Beneda cared to remember, she and Soap finally drew near to the Joketsuzoku village, which prompted the youma to switch back to her human form. Upon arriving, they were immediately brought to Loofah and the Matriarch, who listened to their report intently.

When it was over, Loofah spoke up. "Impressive," she said. "Far better than I had dared hope. It seems we will indeed have a strong force with which to battle the Dark Kingdom."

The Matriarch turned to the currently-human girl. "Thank you for your part in this, Beneda," she said. "We could not have attained such results without your help. Please, is there anything we can do for you as a token of our gratitude?"

Beneda's eyebrows went up a little at the sudden offer, and she tried to think of a reply. It was difficult; in all honesty, she was so weary at this point from their constant travelling that she could think of nothing more appealing in the whole world than a nice soft bed and a few days worth of sleep. She opened her mouth to say as much—then paused, something finally occurring to her.

"Well, could you..." She didn't know quite how exactly to put this, but fumbled on anyway. "I'm not asking for any really secret techniques or anything, but if you have... I don't know... any esoteric medical knowledge that you'd be willing to share, there's someone back in Nerima that I'd really like to bring back a gift for, and that's the sort of thing I think he'd appreciate."

Soap smiled. "Of course. I think we can put together a scroll or two of secrets that your Doctor Tofu hasn't seen before."

The girl studied her feet in embarrassment for a few moments, before nodding. "I'd really like that."

"I'm glad we could help," said the Matriarch. "Now you should go get some rest. You look just about ready to fall over."

Beneda nodded again, unhesitatingly this time. "I'd really like that, too."


There was darkness everywhere, covering everything. Pitch black, with not the slightest hint of light to show any surroundings. It was like a physical thing, choking, claustrophobic, smothering everything beyond the point of being able to scream.

She could not even see her own hands and feet, causing a terrifying sensation of vertigo and helplessness. She was trapped, held prisoner in the nothingness, and felt almost like she had become nothing herself. She stood there in the darkness, utterly lost and utterly alone.

And then, in the space between one breath and the next, she was not alone anymore.

The sensation pulsed through the darkness, reverberating like a distant drum of immense power. It made her tremble with the force of it, pounding, pounding. A heartbeat that was outside her chest, and yet still inescapably linked to her in some terrible way. She wanted to run, wanted to hide, but knew she could do neither.

Beneath her, the earth began to quake with the advent of that horrific presence. Seeing it was impossible, but she could feel it, taste it rising up in the darkness before her, a form so huge as to blot out the sky, looming over her as though she were nothing more than an insect.

And then she could see, as glowing eyes opened above her, bathing her in hellish radiance as a giant hand of inky shadow reached down from above to crush everything that ever existed...

Beneda woke, screaming at the top of her lungs as she thrashed back and forth. She heard other voices, but she was beyond comprehending the words. Strong hands finally grabbed her arms, holding her in place. "Beneda! Beneda!" Soap's voice managed to break through to her. "Beneda, calm down!"

Slowly, bit by bit, her struggles subsided. "What happened, child?" she heard Soap ask. "A nightmare?"

A nightmare. Beneda began to pull her scattered thoughts back together. A nightmare. Yes, that was what it had been. Just a dream. Just a dream.

But it hadn't been just a dream. She knew that, right down to the depths of her soul.

Drawing in a shaky breath, she turned to meet Soap's concerned gaze. "We need to call Cologne," Beneda told her. "Right now."

The jangling of the Nekohanten's telephone roused Shampoo from her slumber. Yawning, the young woman pulled herself out of her bed and made her way downstairs, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes as she went.

Upon arriving, she found that Mousse had reached the phone just before her. He stood there in his nightclothes, still looking a little groggy himself, but listening to the voice on the other end all the same. Eventually he glanced up at Shampoo. "It's Soap," he said, a little surprised. "She wants to talk to Cologne. She says it's urgent."

Shampoo blinked, then nodded. She would have headed back upstairs to Cologne's room, but a small noise caught her attention, coming from the room with the television in it. Frowning, the warrior girl went in to look.

Cologne stood in the darkened room, staring at the television as its pale light flickered over her craggy face. The volume was turned down so low as to be barely audible, but Shampoo could make out some parts regardless.

"...far exceeding what any experts would expect from the normal solar cycle. No theories have yet been proposed that would explain this strange and troubling phenomenon..."

The young woman cleared her throat. "Great-grandmother?" she said, in Chinese.

"Yes, Shampoo?" Cologne responded, not taking her eyes off the news broadcast.

"Auntie Soap is calling from China. She says that it is very urgent."

"...helpless to do anything but watch. The growth of these strange sunspots is progressing at a steady rate, with no signs of slowing or stopping..."

"Yes," agreed the old woman, her expression hard as flint. "Yes, it is."