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: Just an FYI for those who use the default story-filtering rules of this site, which only show up to the "T" rating. When Chapter Three of this fic is released, I may decide to bump the rating of this fic to an "M" to be on the safe side, due to some of the fight scenes I have slated for it. It all depends on how they work out in practice, when I actually get them written. Just wanted to let you all know, so hopefully nobody misses it.
Chapter Two: Converging
Ranma spared a troubled glance upward as he walked down the street. Dark clouds stretched out across the sky, slowly roiling and writhing like long fingers reaching out to choke the heavens in their oppressive grip. A chill crawled up and down his spine. There was something unnatural about those clouds. He didn't know how he knew, but he did.
Beside him, Cologne hopped along on her wooden cane. Her appearance at the Tendo dojo had been unexpected. Even more unexpected had been her terse request that he accompany her to the Nekohanten. The ancient master had spoken little since then, keeping pace with him in silence.
Several times Ranma opened his mouth to speak, but each time he had swallowed the words at the last minute, allowing the strained quiet to continue. Eventually, though, his curiosity proved too much. "So what's all this about, granny?" he asked, glancing down at the diminutive old woman.
Cologne did not respond for a while, and when she did speak it was not a direct answer to his question. "Tell me, son-in-law..." she asked. "How much do you know of the recent disturbances that have swept our world over the past few weeks?"
Ranma blinked. That was not a subject he had expected her to raise. "Uh... just what we've been hearing on the television," he answered, scratching his head as he tried to shift mental gears and remember what the newscasters had said. "Earthquakes... Hurricanes... Volcanoes erupting... And it all started with those weird sunspots. I hear no one's seen anything like it before."
"Mmm..." Cologne murmured. "Yes, the sunspots. But this is not the first time that such signs have occurred, son-in-law. It happened once before. And for the same reason."
"Really?" asked Ranma, surprised. "You mean you know what's causing all this?"
The ancient master let out a mirthless chuckle. "That is the wrong question, I am afraid. It is not a question of what is causing this... but rather who." Now she did turn to face Ranma, looking up at him, directly into his eyes. "The demoness Metallia is straining against the bars of her prison... and the entire planet is trembling under the weight of her power."
Ranma felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. "Wait, what are you trying to say, old ghoul?" he asked. "When you say 'straining', do you mean she's—"
"I mean," Cologne interjected, "that as I read the signs, she will be completely free inside of a week."
A curse died unspoken on Ranma's lips, as he was too shocked to voice it. "Then... what are we going to do about it?" he demanded. "And what about the Senshi? And that princess chick? I thought you said she had some kind of special power that'd let her nuke the damn thing!"
"She does," replied Cologne. "And she must. But the power of House Serenity does not come without a price. It is capable of defeating Metallia... but to employ it at such earth-shattering levels exacts a heavy cost on the wielder. At best, its use would cause extreme exhaustion. At worst... it could cost her life, as it did her mother. Either way, it is an exceedingly treacherous weapon, a double-edged sword of last resort."
Ranma stared down at the old woman. "So you're saying that this 'invincible' power she has... it's a one-shot deal?" he asked, incredulous. "That doesn't sound very invincible to me. It's not like Metallia is the only thing they'll be throwing at her!"
Cologne nodded. "Quite so," she agreed. "We ourselves received a taste of their might when Jadeite's army attacked Nerima, and that was only a small fraction of the Dark Kingdom's full, combined forces."
"Then she can't win. Not alone." Ranma shook his head. "There's no way those girls can fight an army like that using their normal power, and if the Moon girl burns her big magic taking out small fry she'll be screwed against Metallia. Or hell, even just the next wave of youma they send. She's gonna need our help."
"Very astute, son-in-law," was Cologne's approving reply. "You grasp the situation quite clearly."
"Yeah, well... let's just hope we can come up with something really good," Ranma muttered. "I mean, we barely survived against Jadeite's last attack. And if we're going up against their full army now, it... might get a little tricky."
At that, Cologne let out a tiny chuckle. "Perhaps..." she said. "But then again..."
As she spoke, the two of them turned the final corner, and the Nekohanten came into view. Ranma's eyes bulged at what he saw.
The entire street was choked by a tightly-packed crowd, spilling out of the restaurant and stretching back as far as he could see. Nor was it only at ground level; the rooftops were also thick with people. Many of those had large wings sprouting out of their backs, and at the sight of Cologne's approach, several of the Phoenix warriors took to the air, swooping in overhead for a closer look before veering off to circle in the air above. Ranma caught sight of Kiima among the fliers, though she did not acknowledge him.
Down at ground level, Ranma was able to pick many familiar faces out of the crowd—Joketsuzoku warriors who had been part of the first army sent to Nerima all those months ago. The elders Soap and Loofah were among them, though he could not see the Matriarch.
And there were far more that he did not recognize, men and women both, with clothes and weapons of a markedly different style from Cologne's tribe. One large group clustered over to the left wore little more than rough kilts or loincloths, their bodies covered instead by intricate, swirling tattoos. The weapons they carried were a mishmash of various types, in varying states of repair.
Further on, another group particularly stood out. Its members were all clad in loose, flowing robes, with many different sashes and scarves wrapped around them every which way in a riot of color. They bore no visible weapons... but Ranma was willing to bet that they studied the Iron Cloth techniques, and could do some very nasty things with all those innocent-looking strips of fabric.
There were a few others that he recognized as well. He caught a brief glimpse of Pink and Link through the press of the crowd. The identical twin poison masters looked much as he had seen them last, except this time they were each decked out with a full bandolier of various gourds and satchels, no doubt containing all manner of noxious concoctions. They were surrounded by a group of close to a hundred similarly equipped warriors.
And there—with even the other martial artists keeping their distance from him and his group—stood another figure Ranma would have known anywhere: Prince Herb of the Musk Dynasty.
The dragon-blooded ruler was flanked, as usual, by his two bodyguards, Mint and Lime. Together, the three of them stood at the head of a large contingent of other warriors, rank upon rank of men who bore the bestial features of that fearsome clan. Some were massively built, with hints of the tiger about them, while others were small and wiry, with hints of the wolf. Some were tall and slender, with hands that looked more like hawk talons than human hands, while others had skin reminiscent of scales and forked tongues that occasionally flicked into view.
Jaw hanging open, Ranma stared at the vast army spread out before him. Beside him, Cologne smiled with grim satisfaction. "The challenge we face is daunting," she agreed. "However, we have not been idle in preparing for it."
The next few minutes were a blur of faces for Ranma, as he followed Cologne through the teeming press of martial artists. The old woman paused at various points to exchange words with people who seemed to be leaders or representatives of the various tribes. She was unfailingly courteous, but Ranma could still detect a tense undercurrent to many of the conversations with the non-Joketsuzoku.
Then, as they wound their way toward the entrance to the Nekohanten, Herb himself stepped into their path. He looked down at the human, a half-smile on his face. "So, Ranma. We meet again." Almost unconsciously, the pigtailed fighter's hands curled into fists.
"Herb..." broke in Cologne warningly. "This is not the time..."
In response, the dragon prince held up one hand. "Peace, Elder. I have no intention of starting a battle here. Nevertheless, once the larger matter we face has been dealt with, I would like to request another match. A formal duel this time. Not to the death. I have re-intensified my training since last we met, and I am... eager... to see how we fare against each other now."
It took a large measure of Ranma's self-control not to swallow visibly. Herb was easily one of the most dangerous opponents he had ever faced, and even the single win he had managed to achieve had been through a last-minute trick that would certainly not work a second time. The thought of facing an even more powerful Herb was not a comforting one.
Aloud, though, he simply laughed, making sure his cocky smirk showed no signs of wavering. "Any time you're ready," he offered. "Just don't let the youma get you first. It'd be pretty embarrassing if I had to save your life. Again."
Herb's mouth flattened into a thin, irritated line. "Indeed," he said. "Do not think that I will ever allow that event to repeat itself. I have worked tirelessly since that day to remove all weaknesses from my fighting style. Those monsters will not have the slightest success against me."
His boasting, however, was interrupted as a young woman ran up to them from within the ranks of Musk Dynasty soldiers. Ranma didn't recognize her; she looked to be a year or two older than him, with short-cropped black hair and a pair of steel tonfa strapped across her back. "Ah, there you are," Herb said to her. "Your timing is perfect. Xi Feng, this is Saotome Ranma, the warrior I told you about. Ranma, this is Xi Feng, my wife."
Ranma blinked. "Wife?" he echoed, surprised. But of course, now that he thought about it, Herb had mentioned during their last fight something about his upcoming marriage being the root cause of the events leading up to the prince's quest for the Kettle of Liberation. "So, this is her, huh?"
"Yes," Herb told him. Then he leaned in closer to Ranma, his smile increasing in smugness. "And there is one more avenue of attack that you will no longer be able to use against me. In addition to my martial training, I have also been undergoing very extensive training to remove my weakness to female breasts."
To his side, Xi Feng's entire face flushed a brilliant shade of crimson at his words. She immediately whipped out her tonfa, raised them high above her head, then brought them down on Herb's skull with enough force to drive him face-first into the street. The strike was accompanied by a shouted string of Chinese words which Ranma could not translate... but which he nevertheless felt intimately familiar with.
As she stormed off, Herb pried his head out of the crater it had formed in the road, spitting a few bits of concrete out of his mouth. "Women..." he muttered, in a perplexed tone of voice.
"You said it, man..." agreed Ranma, nodding sympathetically. "You said it."
It was several minutes more of moving through the crowd, speaking with people along the way, before the two of them reached the Nekohanten proper. Upon entering, they made their way to one of the upper rooms. There was a long table there, with over a dozen chairs surrounding it. Most of the seats were empty, save for the seat at the head of the table where the frail figure of the Joketsuzoku Matriarch sat. "Saotome Ranma," she greeted him as he walked in. "It is a pleasure to meet you again. Even if the occasion for it is such a dark one."
But any further conversation was cut off as more people began to enter the room. The Matriarch made sure to greet each of them personally as well. Ranma recognized many of them from their recent trip through the army outside, and realized that a meeting of the tribal leaders was about to occur.
Many of the figures entering were small and shrunken, looking of similar age to Cologne. Many, but by no means all. Herb was one of them, as was Kiima. Another one appeared to be little more than a child... at first glance, at least. But there was a jaded, world-weary expression on the boy's face, and looking closer Ranma noticed hints of wrinkles around the boy's eyes that didn't look quite right.
More and more kept coming, filtering in one by one and finding their seats. And with each new arrival, Ranma felt the level of tension in the room increase. Everyone—save for Cologne and the Matriarch, who kept themselves impassive—seemed to have at least one other person that they were watching suspiciously. Most had more than one. A huge, bald, tattooed man further down the table seemed to be trying to watch the entire room at once.
Then the door opened once more... and in an instant the very air seemed to freeze.
Ranma turned to see who it was that had entered. It was another tiny old woman, this one wrapped in a robe that was covered in all kinds of indecipherable symbols. Most of the other masters tensed, as though preparing themselves for imminent battle. All eyes were on the newcomer as she made her way to the table and took her seat at the far end, opposite where Cologne and the Matriach sat.
The robed woman's gaze was fastened directly on Cologne, and Ranma felt his skin crawl at the intensity of it. He had his own fair share of enemies. He had received his own share of challenges and death threats. But never, in all his life, had he seen anyone look at him with the kind of raw, aching hatred that this woman was directing at the Joketsuzoku elder.
Cologne, for her part, met the woman's gaze without flinching. "Meihui," she said at last, giving a small nod.
"Cologne..." responded Meihui, her voice thick with venom. "It is a pleasure to see you again... old friend." Something flashed across Cologne's face for just an instant, an emotion Ranma could not identify. But it was gone as quickly as it had come, smothered behind the elder's emotionless mask.
Even so, the exchange seemed to relax the tension just a bit, indicating to the onlookers that there would be no immediate violence. The Matriarch took the opportunity to raise her hand in a gesture of welcome.
"I thank you for agreeing to this venture," she began, her voice grave. "All of you know the reason we have gathered our forces together. All of you have heard the legends of the Dark Kingdom, legends that have spread throughout our region since time immemorial."
As she spoke, a younger Joketsuzoku warrior entered, bearing an ornate black box. She placed it in front of the Matriarch, bowed deeply, and then backed out of the room again. "Now these legends have confronted us in the present day," the ancient woman continued. "And it has fallen to us to do battle with them. But before anything else, I would share with you the ultimate source of these legends we all know. The means by which this tale has survived the ages."
The Matriarch reached beneath her robes, pulling out an ancient key that she had been wearing around her neck, held by a length of cord. "In showing this to outsiders, I break with untold generations of Joketsuzoku tradition," she explained, as her frail hands inserted the key into the lock on the box. It turned with a sharp click. "However, all of you are soon to stake your lives alongside us in battle against the very evil to which this artifact bears witness. There is no question in my mind that you deserve to see this for yourselves."
She lifted the top of the box and set it aside, revealing the small metallic disc that had been inside. "We have come seeking wisdom we do not possess," recited the Matriarch, as she reached forward to press the single button on the disc's face. "We prepare this day to wage war against those who murdered your family. Honored Altine, please listen to our plea..."
Ryouga glanced around as he walked, noting the buildings as he went by them. It was mostly a perfunctory gesture; he had little hope of distinguishing them from any other of the countless buildings that his nomadic life had carried him past.
At least this time he actually had a good chance of reaching his destination. Clad in her usual sweater and skirt, Unryu Akari was walking demurely along to his left, while her gigantic sumo pig Katsunishiki was walking along to Ryouga's right. The two of them were working together to keep the lost boy roughly on course for the Nekohanten.
Ryouga turned to look at his girlfriend—and even after all the time they had been together, he still marveled to think of her as... as that. How had someone like him ever gotten so lucky? He watched her, drinking in the sight of her as she absently tucked a loose strand of her shoulder-length hair behind one ear. So beautiful. So gentle. So wonderful.
To his right, Katsunishiki's towering bulk was certainly a less lovely sight, but Ryouga didn't begrudge the pig's presence. He knew how dearly Akari loved the animal, and besides, it was thanks to defeating that pig in battle that he had become Akari's boyfriend in the first place.
He had spent the last three days at Akari's farm, thanks to a mysterious request from Cologne. The ancient master had sent word to the young pig breeder, first asking her to keep Ryouga there should he manage to find the place, and now summoning him to her restaurant. Ryouga had not, of course, minded staying at Akari's in the slightest, but at the same time he was curious as to what Cologne wanted of him. For no reason he could put a finger on, a cold worry was already starting to form in his stomach.
Eventually they reached the Nekohanten. Ryouga's eyes widened at the sight of the army gathered there, and he heard a small gasp from Akari. The cold feeling in his stomach increased drastically. If there had been any doubts as to the seriousness of Cologne's request, they were now gone. In fact, he could think of only one thing serious enough to prompt such a marshalling of warriors.
The Dark Kingdom.
Inside the restaurant, each member of the war council sat in silence, digesting the story they had heard from Altine's artifact. The gravity of the situation they faced hung over them like a cloud.
At length one of them spoke up, a tiny old woman wearing the same sort of gourds and satchels that Ranma had seen on the members of Pink and Link's tribe. "This is troubling indeed," she said. "But I assume that, since you've gone to the trouble of calling us out here, the Joketsuzoku have some plan to stop this from coming to pass again?"
This time, it was Cologne who responded. "Yes, we have a plan. We have spent many months preparing for this moment. We have gathered weapons, gathered information, and gathered allies. But we can prepare no longer. Now is the time to strike with all our might... and take this war to the Dark Kingdom."
The ancient master reached under the table, pulling out a map of the city. "Beneda—the youma many of you met recently—has told us the location of the portal they are using to move their operatives back and forth from their realm to ours," she said, her finger stabbing down on a certain location in the Minato ward. "I have studied the seal on it, and I have prepared a counterspell to 'pick the lock' as it were. This will allow us direct access to their territory."
One of the other leaders snorted—the huge tattooed man. "Is there no other route to our opponents?" he rumbled, contempt in his voice. "I dislike relying on Joketsuzoku witchery."
A thin smile crossed Cologne's face as she turned to look at him. "The enemy managed to open another portal in London at one point," she told him. "But it was abandoned and sealed some time ago. The only other access point is at the North Pole... and if you think you can handle the logistical difficulties of transporting our forces there, you are welcome to make the attempt, Lao Shihong."
The man grunted, and said no more, so Cologne continued. "We will make our move tomorrow evening, using the cover of darkness. The Juuban authorities are not as numb to... abnormal occurrences... as the ones here in Nerima have become, and our army will cause unnecessary complications if we give them time to react to it."
The old master spread out a new map onto the table, this one hand-drawn. "We know—again, thanks to Beneda—what we will find on the other side once we breach the portal: a system of underground tunnels between us and our goal. This is their layout as best she can remember it."
"How wide are these tunnels?" inquired Herb. "Too narrow, and it will impede the flow of our troops through them."
Cologne nodded. "They are, indeed, much narrower than I would like. To maximize the speed of our attack, we will need to divide ourselves into three groups, each taking a different route. Group One will consist of the Joketsuzoku, the Yakusai Poisoners, and the Silk Lotus Tribe, led by Loofah. Group Two will consist of the Jiuxue Mystics, the Phoenix People, and Lao Shihong's mercenary clan, led by Meihui. Group Three will consist of the Musk Dynasty, the Tian Wu Swordsmen, and the Monks of the Third Enlightenment, led by Prince Herb."
Pausing, she looked around the room, silently challenging any of the leaders to object. There was some muttering, but the overall tone seemed to be grudging acceptance. Privately, Ranma wondered how much of the way the groups had been split was due to actual tactics, and how much was due to politics—the tribes that Cologne had known would be willing to fight alongside each other.
The old woman ran her finger along the map, tracing three different routes along the twisting lines drawn there. "Our battle plan is simple. The three groups will fight their way through the tunnel system as quickly as possible, then meet up again and stage a combined assault here, on their main citadel."
Her finger then stabbed down on a different part of the map, where the tunnels opened out into a huge cavern. At the far end of that cavern was the rough drawing of a building. "The objective is to kill Beryl, seize control of her palace, and—most importantly of all—to secure the central chamber where Metallia is sealed."
"And what then?" asked the hooded Mehui. "Securing her resting place is all well and good, but do we have any method of destroying such an unbelievably powerful entity? Or preventing her eventual escape?"
"We do not," answered Cologne, a small smile flitting across her face. "Fortunately, however, there is another group which does."
Kiima frowned. "Who are you talking about?"
"The Moon Kingdom reborn," Cologne's replied. "I have seen them with my own eyes. In this darkest hour, Metallia's ancient foes have returned to battle her once more."
A low murmur ran through the assembled leaders. Cologne let that news sink in for a moment, then went on. "Once our armies have removed the threat of the Dark Kingdom forces, I will entreat the Sailor Senshi to deal with the slumbering Metallia under controlled circumstances. It may require a bit of explaining, due to... certain first impressions that were made... but I am confident we can work through that in time. For now, there is no reason to risk our trump cards on the front lines in this battle. This part is our fight."
"But is it a fight we can win?" asked the child-like leader.
"We must win," was Cologne's immediate and unhesitating reply. "And I believe it is possible. This alliance represents the greatest concentration of martial might in any of our clans' histories. And, thanks to the scheming of my son-in-law, the Dark Kingdom has no idea we even exist. Our attack will come as a complete surprise."
She looked around at the other leaders, her gaze drilling into them. "This is the moment we have been waiting for, our one chance to strike. The fate of this planet—of everyone any of us has ever cared about—will hinge on our actions tomorrow night. This battle has been millennia in coming... but one way or another, the war against the Dark Kingdom is about to be decided."
The leaders talked and argued for hours after that, going over the details of the plan. Ranma followed along as best he could, but large-scale battle tactics had never been his area of expertise. Still, eventually the leaders reached something resembling agreement, and one by one they started to leave to inform their respective troops.
At length, the only ones left were Cologne and Ranma. The pigtailed fighter was not long in speaking up. "So I noticed you didn't mention me when you were splitting us into groups," he said. "Where am I going to be in all of this?"
"I would like you to accompany Group Two, son-in-law," the old woman replied. "That is by far the weakest of the three, and I am counting on your strength to help bolster it."
Ranma nodded. "Makes sense," he said. "Though I don't know how well the Phoenix People are going to take that, considering what I just went through with them."
"They will be difficult to handle," Cologne agreed. "I honestly wasn't expecting them to involve themselves in 'landling' matters at all, but it seems that Beneda was... quite persuasive when she spoke with them. And you may find that you yourself impressed them more than you realize in your time there. There are not many who can claim to have defeated the ascended Phoenix King in open combat."
"I guess..." Ranma was skeptical, but he didn't press the issue. "Well... as long as they're helping us, it's good. I just hope there isn't going to be any trouble."
Cologne sighed. "Believe me, son-in-law, if a grudge is going to flare up, there are even more likely sources. In the end, your little spat with the Phoenix People is a very, very small thing compared to the animosity between some of the tribes gathered here."
"Yeah, I kinda noticed that..." The pigtailed fighter frowned. "What was the deal between you and that Meihui woman, anyway? And why did she call you an 'old friend'?"
"Because that is what we were, son-in-law," Cologne replied simply. "Friends. The closest of friends."
"She didn't look very friendly to me."
"She was, once." Cologne's eyes lost their focus slightly, staring off into the distance. "Our tribes were allies at the time. We fought alongside each other. Saved each others' lives more times than I can count. In fact, most of what I know of magic is based on what I learned while training with her."
Second after second stretched by, the two of them standing there in silence, until at last Ranma spoke up. "So... what happened?"
"Alliances between tribes are such... ephemeral things," said the ancient master. She turned away from Ranma, speaking with her back toward him. "And her elders decided that our alliance was no longer to their advantage. They decided to end it by means of a traitorous ambush. Had it been successful, it would have killed half of the Joketsuzoku Council and a good number of our best fighters... including me."
As she spoke, Ranma could feel pain and regret in the old woman's voice, like an open wound laid bare. He licked his lips, a terrible suspicion growing in him as to what had happened all those years ago. "But... she warned you," he guessed. "Didn't she?"
Cologne nodded, slowly. "The only reason I am alive today is that Meihui managed to send word to me of the betrayal. I, of course, brought the warning before my own elders. I thought... I suppose I thought that they would simply avoid the ambush. Perhaps use their knowledge of it as a bargaining chip in future negotiations."
She paused, then let out a mocking laugh—one utterly devoid of anything resembling humor. "I was much younger back then. And a much, much greater fool."
"Our Council had no interest in negotiation. They had been betrayed. And they wanted blood. Instead of avoiding the area, they used the information Meihui had given me to attack the ambush party head-on, wiping them out entirely. No mercy. No quarter. Everyone there was slaughtered." Cologne drew in a deep, shaky breath, then let it out. "Including Meihui's younger sister."
Another bitter laugh escaped Cologne's lips. "That was how Meihui had learned of the plot, as it turned out. Her sister had slipped word to her, so that she could slip word to me, so that I could warn my people... so that we could repay her with death. And ever since that day, Meihui has hated me almost as much as she hates herself."
A dead silence fell across the room, each second feeling like an eternity. "But..." Ranma said at last, fumbling for the right words. "But you had to warn them or they'd have all been killed, right? And... once they knew, it's not like you could have stopped them on your own! I mean... what else could you have done?"
"A thousand different things!" Cologne snapped. "A thousand different ways I could have handled it, if I'd only had the sense!"
Then she sighed, the anger deflating out of her. "Not that it makes any difference now. Even if I spend another hundred years thinking over what I should have done... I won't be able to undo what happened between us. Time flows in only one direction, son-in-law. It's a simple lesson, but a painful one."
Ranma stood there, not knowing what to say. He wanted to offer some kind of comfort, but everything he thought of seemed woefully inadequate in the face of what he had heard. How could anyone fix something like that?
But, although he didn't speak, in that moment he did silently resolve to keep an eye on Meihui as best he could whenever she was with Cologne... just in case the ancient mystic decided to act on the desperate hatred he had seen in her eyes.
Soap hopped along atop her cane through the milling crowds of fighters packing the streets, following the young Tian Wu swordsman who had approached her.
"Just this way, ma'am," he told her. The boy was trying to sound formal and officious, as he no doubt thought would befit a warrior dealing with a dignitary from another tribe, but the ancient master could hear the youthful uncertainty in his voice. Probably his first time dealing with such weighty matters.
She could sympathize. The fate of the world! Who was prepared for such a task?
After a bit more walking they reached the most recent problem that had sprung up in their way. A pair of extremely nervous policemen were standing at the edge of the army, their exit blocked by a half-circle of about a dozen warriors. It seemed that—even despite the usual Nerima jadedness regarding martial arts antics—word had reached official ears about such an unprecedentedly huge gathering. And they had sent these men to investigate the truth of it.
Not that Cologne hadn't prepared for such an eventuality, of course. She'd had scouts—like the ones who had caught these two—patrolling a wide radius around their camp from the very beginning, alert for both disguised youma as well as more human investigation.
The former hadn't proved to be an issue. Save for Beneda, there hadn't been a youma in Nerima since Jadeite had pulled the remnants of his forces out all those months ago. Still, too much human attention could result in their enemies learning of it as well.
The Dark Kingdom did still have deep-cover spies in the human world; Joketsuzoku hunters had identified almost a dozen over the past months, searching them out by their tell-tale ki signatures. They were mostly concentrated in governmental centers like Chiyoda Ward, with some others in Minato Ward since it was their base of operations. Still, even there, word might reach them if steps weren't taken to nip this in the bud.
The element of surprise was, after all, one of their few advantages in this.
"Ah, good morning gentlemen!" Soap called out to the policemen merrily as she hopped up to them. "So nice of you to visit us. How can I help you?"
The two men glanced at each other, then nervously out at the ring of grim-faced warriors encircling them. "We... we heard a report that there was a... strange gathering at this address..." one of them spoke up, his face pale. "Our chief just told us to check it out. We're not looking for any trouble!"
"Of course, of course," the old crone said soothingly. "Please, by all means, have a look around! We're always glad to welcome more visitors to our cultural festival."
Both policemen blinked, then took a long look at the ranks upon ranks of hard-bitten warriors flooding the street behind Soap, armed to the teeth with all manner of lethal-looking weaponry. "Cultural... festival?" one of them said, disbelievingly.
"Oh yes!" Soap went on, as though oblivious to their skepticism. "Our first annual Chinese Cultural Festival! We even have a sign; I'm surprised you didn't see it on your way in." She pointed behind the two officers, and reflexively, they turned to look where she indicated.
The instant they turned their backs, Soap whipped a comb and a bottle of Formula 411 shampoo out of her sleeve using the hidden weapons technique. A quick swing and a squeeze of the bottle slathered both their heads with it, and she immediately went to work. The old woman scrubbed both their heads simultaneously, one with each hand, while still balancing atop her staff, while at the same time pressing the shiatsu points in the skull to manipulate memory.
After finishing the main part of the Xi Fa Xiang Gao, she produced a bucket of ice-cold water and splashed it over them, followed by a quick drying with a battery-powered blow dryer. All in all it had taken twenty-one seconds.
When they finally turned around again the two policemen had a slightly befuddled look on their faces, but that quickly vanished. "Well, thank you very much, ma'am!" one of them said. "It was very kind of you to show us around your wonderful cultural festival! We'll go back and report to our superiors that there was nothing to worry about; just a harmless gathering that got blown all out of proportion by rumors."
"Oh, thank you very much!" responded Soap. The Xi Fa Xiang Gao would ensure that these two always remembered their time here as the festival she had told them it was, utterly impervious to any other evidence that might come up. And since neither of these two looked to have the strength of will that the Tendo girl had, she wasn't particularly worried about either of them snapping out of it.
The old woman sighed. One more hurdle cleared, at least for the moment. She turned back to the ring of scouts. "Let them go," she ordered. "And resume your patrols. There's no telling who else might decide to come looking."
Ranma walked out of the war council room troubled, still trying to come to grips with what Cologne had told him. His train of thought, however, was interrupted immediately after stepping through the doorway when he saw who was waiting for him on the other side.
It was Kiima, leader of the Phoenix People. Temporary leader, at least—the last time Ranma had seen Saffron, the true Phoenix ruler had been sucking on a pacifier while in baby form after his reincarnation, and as far as he knew that was still the case.
Now the question was, how much of a grudge did this Phoenix woman still hold over that whole mess?
Ranma met her gaze without flinching, and for a moment they just sized each other up. Then Kiima sighed, her lip twisting in an expression of mild distaste. "Well, it seems as though we'll be fighting on the same side for the present," she told him.
"Yeah, guess so," agreed Ranma, not taking his eyes off her.
"And since we are on the same side... given the situation..." Whatever she was trying to say to him, he could tell it was hard for her. After hesitating a little while longer, she simply raised her arm in his direction.
Ranma saw that she was holding something very long, and wrapped tightly in an ornate cloth. With a quick yank on the strings binding it the fabric unwound, revealing what it had been covering. Both were staves, one with a circular blade on the end, the other with a blade in a crescent shape. The pigtailed fighter recognized them instantly as the Kinjakan and the Gekkaja.
He tensed, instinctively preparing to defend himself, but Kiima made no move to attack. Instead she took one weapon in each hand, then turned the Gekkaja to extend it toward Ranma, haft-first. "Here."
"Wait... you're saying... for me?" asked Ranma, stunned. "Really? I mean... I know we didn't exactly get off to the best start..."
Kiima scowled. "Please, don't remind me," she said. "But even so, despite our... experiences with each other... I trust you more than most of those landlings here. I will bear the Kinjakan into battle myself, but to make the most efficient use of our resources against this enemy I must find a bearer for the Gekkaja as well. And... I have never in my life seen anyone wield it with as much skill as you did."
Hesitantly, Ranma reached out, running his fingers along the length of the staff. Then his grip tightened, even as Kiima relinquished hold, and he felt the familiar weight settle into his palm. "...thanks," he said at last.
The Phoenix woman's only reply was a curt nod, whereupon she turned and walked away, leaving Ranma to re-acclimate himself with the weapon.
Ryouga meandered through the teeming press of warriors. Katsunishiki and Akari followed in his wake, the latter timidly. He sized up the new arrivals as he went, wondering how well they would stack up against him or Ranma. There were a handful of sparring matches going, and the fighters involved were showing tolerable skill... though nothing to write home about by his standards.
The directionally-challenged warrior turned at the angry shout, and his eyes widened a little at the sight of Lime shoving his way through the crowd. Even the Musk are here? he thought.
He stood his ground as the huge, tiger-blooded fighter bore down on him. Lime drew to a stop with mere inches separating them as he glowered down. "Just so you know," the young Musk behemoth growled at him, stabbing a finger into Ryouga's chest that knocked the human staggering back. "When this is over, we're going to settle our score from last time. Be ready for it!"
Ryouga opened his mouth to throw back a retort—no matter who the opponent, he couldn't let himself look bad in front of Akari, after all—but he was cut off by a deep, booming laugh from the direction Lime had come. A moment later, the crowd parted as a giant of a man waded through it.
He was a full head and a half taller than Lime, and he was built like a tank. He wore the same style of tiger furs, and—save for the slight difference of a sprinkling of grey hair around his temples—he bore an uncanny resemblance to the younger Musk warrior.
"Ah, so this is what made you run off so fast..." the man rumbled. Then he turned to Ryouga. "You're the one who beat him, yes? Don't mind the cub. He's just sore from all the taunts he's been getting back home for losing to a human."
"Father!" protested Lime, clearly mortified at his parent's intrusion into his affairs. His father responded with a quick cuff behind the head, prompting a yelp of pain from his offspring. Ryouga blanched a little, knowing from personal experience just how much force it took to make the tiger-warrior so much as flinch.
Then Lime's father spoke again. "As I said, don't pay it any mind. A good loss every now and then is the best thing for a cub! Keeps them from getting soft, keeps their fighting spirit up. Keeps them hungry to get back in the fight and rip their opponent to shreds!" He gave Ryouga a beaming, toothy smile. Ryouga responded with a smile of his own... though it was, perhaps, just a bit on the sickly side.
Still, his personal reservations aside, it did actually hearten Ryouga to see the Musk here. He had seen firsthand the powers that their animal ancestry gave these warriors, powers that were inhuman even by his standards. Having an entire army of them backing him up would definitely go a long way to balancing the odds they were up against. As for Lime himself... well, he could deal with that later.
The lost boy turned, and saw Ranma heading through the crowd toward him. Surprisingly, his rival was carrying the Gekkaja, of all things, a weapon Ryouga had not particularly expected to see again. "Ranma!" he called out, grateful for the distraction from the bone Lime had to pick with him. "What are you doing with that? Don't tell me the Phoenix are actually letting you use it?"
"Yeah, I was surprised too," answered Ranma, giving an experimental twirl to the magical weapon. "But it'll definitely come in handy. Heh, too bad they don't have one free for you to use."
Ryouga shrugged, then reached over to Katsunishiki and pulled his red umbrella off the pig's back. He spun it once, then let it drop tip-first to the ground with a thunderous crash, its enormous weight causing the ground to crack around it as he rested his hand casually on the hilt. "Don't worry," he said. "I'll manage."
Akane jogged to a stop, her jaw dropping a little in spite of herself. Cologne had briefly described what to expect in her phone call to the Tendo dojo, and she had thought herself prepared, but actually seeing the sheer scale of the force gathering around the Nekohanten brought her up short.
This is really it... she thought, anticipation and fear twisting around each other in her chest. A battle for the entire planet. It's all come down to this.
On either side of her, she could feel her father and Mr. Saotome fidgeting. They were doubtless thinking similar thoughts, although from the expressions on their faces, the emotions they were experiencing were more along the lines of pure fear. Nevertheless, they followed along as the trio made their way toward the rendezvous.
"Akane! Over here!"
The voice was Ukyo's. Turning, Akane saw the okonomiyaki chef waving at her. She and the fathers adjusted their course, and soon joined a group of other fighters gathered from their own circle.
Since Ukyo was there, Konatsu, of course, was there as well. The male kunoichi was wearing his katana at his side, and he stood behind his employer and unrequited love interest, watching her anxiously. Ryouga was there as well, talking quietly with Akari off to the side. Behind them stood Mousse, who—without his glasses on—was confessing his passionate, undying love to Akari's sumo pig.
Shampoo, also nearby, was completely ignoring him in favor of keeping a wary eye on the poisoner twins, Pink and Link. The two of them, for their part, had wandered over to the Nerima group and were chatting animatedly with Kodachi, occasionally showing each other various powders or chemicals to illustrate a point. And over there...
Akane blinked. "Wait, is that really... oh, what was his name? From the Martial Arts Tea Ceremony school?"
She said it mostly to herself, but Ukyo picked up on it all the same. "Daimonji Sentaro?" she asked. "That's what he told us his name was, anyway. Apparently he owes Ranchan a favor or something."
"...you could say that," agreed Akane. Indeed, the entire Daimonji family was present: Sentaro's grandmother, his bride, and even their pet monkey Sanae. And now that she looked, she could see even more familiar faces. Konjo Mariko was there, hanging on the arm of a disinterested Kuno. Even Hyato Myojin was standing off at a distance, cooking up his trademark takoyaki and selling it off to a crowd of warriors from the various tribes.
"Wow..." murmured Akane. "Ranma really is calling in everyone he can think of, isn't he?"
"What of Saotome?" demanded Kuno, who had made a beeline for Akane the moment he had caught sight of her, to Mariko's pouting dismay. "I know not what he has to do with this venture, but it was an old woman who informed me that I could display my might to the pigtailed girl by assisting in this glorious battle!"
"It was the same for this unworthy one," spoke up Sentaro as well. "Though I came to repay my debt to Ranma for uniting me with my beloved—" He gestured toward his wife, who blushed demurely. "—it was a strange old woman who informed us of his need. And, indeed, of the danger we are all in."
Others also nodded, surprising Akane. So this was all Cologne's doing? Just how much research had she done in preparation for this moment? "Wow..." the Tendo girl said. "I wonder who else might be coming?"
Ukyo frowned in thought. "Well, let's see... I overheard that Cologne was hoping to get some guy called Kumon Ryu to join," she offered. "But apparently he dropped off the face of the earth a while back, and no one knows where he is now. Something about retraining himself."
That was another name Akane hadn't thought of in a while. "That's too bad. He really was strong." Then another thought struck her. "But if we want someone really strong, then what about... Happousai?"
"Is no good," interjected Shampoo. Both Akane and Ukyo turned at the words, the hackles on the backs of their necks rising as the young Joketsuzoku warrior strolled over to join their conversation. She moved with her usual effortless grace, making Akane feel clumsy just by standing next to her. "Great-grandmother put foot down. She say even old pervert strength not worth what might happen to battle plan if he there."
It was, Akane had to grudgingly admit, probably true. The old lecher was an embodiment of the worst kind of chaos, completely uncontrollable. There was no telling which way his lunatic whims might carry him at any given moment—and with someone as powerful as he was, that instability could be a terrible double-edged sword. "All right, then what about Pantyhose Taro?" she asked. "If you're looking for someone more controllable, he's... not quite as bad."
Shampoo sniffed. "Shampoo track him down in China two weeks ago. He no believe what Shampoo is telling him about Dark Kingdom. He say it all just stupid old legends. Just distraction from new plan for getting name changed." Then the Chinese girl shrugged. "Also, he not be working well with Airen anyway."
"I suppose not..." said Akane reluctantly. But the last sentence had reminded her of another question that needed answering. "Where is Ranma?"
Ryouga glanced up. "I think he said he was going back into the Nekohanten to talk to one of the elders about something," he said helpfully, while pointing with his finger directly away from the Nekohanten and out toward the street. "You should be able to find him in there."
Smiling and thanking him politely, Akane proceeded to follow the spirit of his advice, if not the letter of his directions. She made her way through the crowd and into the building beyond, glancing back and forth for any sign of her fiancé. It took a few minutes, but eventually she found him on the second floor, leaning over a table, talking to Kiima, of all people. They were both gesturing at a map on the table between them, both clearly very into their discussion.
"...yeah, yeah, I see what you're saying," Akane heard him say as she drew nearer. "Okay, that makes sense. Then as soon as we get out of the tunnels, you guys can—" His voice broke off as he glanced over at his approaching fiancée. "Akane? What're you doing here?"
"What do you mean?" she asked, puzzled. "Cologne called me, just like the others."
"Cologne called you here?" A frown fell over Ranma's face. Then something else registered. "Wait... others? What others?"
Without even waiting for an answer, Ranma ran over to a nearby window looking out across the crowd below. After a few seconds he let out a short hiss of breath and swore feelingly. When he turned back around, his expression had darkened. "Where's Cologne?" he demanded, tight anger in his voice. "I gotta talk to her."
Ranma stormed down the Nekohanten stairs, and quickly caught sight of the person he was looking for. "Old ghoul!" he barked.
At his words, Cologne paused in the conversation she was having with Soap and Loofah. "Please excuse me a moment," she said, then turned to face Ranma, her expression impassive. "Son-in-law. Walk with me."
His first impulse was to have it out with the old woman right then and there, but he bit his tongue and followed a step behind her as she hopped along on her cane. They left the building, moving through the crowd in tense silence until they had gone far enough away from the army that they were alone. At last Cologne spoke. "I assume this is about the Tendo girl?"
"It's about all of them!" Ranma shouted back. "Damn it, what were you thinking? Kodachi? Sentaro? And... and yes, Akane? They're not good enough to survive a fight like this is gonna be!"
"Nothing is certain in war," replied Cologne. "And they are stronger than you give them credit for. But... yes. Their survival is by no means assured. Or even likely."
"Then what the hell did you call them for?" Ranma snapped. "We've got plenty of guys already. Why involve them?"
"Because we will get exactly one chance at this, son-in-law," Cologne answered quietly. "One single chance. For the lives of everyone you ever loved. For the lives of everyone you ever knew. This is not the time for restraint. Even if the weaker fighters kill only one youma before they die, even if they only divert the enemy's fire for a few moments, I will use that. I will spend their lives like water, if by doing so I can throw the smallest grains of dust onto the balance of this conflict."
"Even if it means sacrificing—"
"Yes." There was no hesitation in Cologne's reply, her gaze cold and utterly unyielding. "Even if it means sacrificing Kodachi. Or Sentaro. Or Akane. Or you. Or myself." There was a slight pause, and Ranma heard the old woman's voice catch on what she said next. "Or even my great-granddaughter."
Silence fell between them. Eventually, Cologne spoke up again. "You should be able to understand, if you allow yourself to," she said. "After all, wouldn't you be willing to give your life for them? For your Akane?"
The pigtailed fighter shifted his feet uncomfortably. "Well, sure, but... that's me. For her to do it is—"
"—not your decision to make, son-in-law," finished the ancient master, not unkindly. "Not for her. Not for any of them. They all have their own loved ones in whose defense they have come to fight and die, and to deny them that is just as much a dishonor to them as it would be to you."
Ranma turned away, closing his eyes, his face twisting into a grimace as he wrestled with Cologne's words. At length he spoke. "I... don't like it."
The old master snorted. "I would be worried if you did," she told him dryly. "Make no mistake, son-in-law, it is a terrible business we are beginning today. This will not be the kind of 'fight' you are familiar with—not anymore. From now on, this will be war. And it is a war we must win at any cost."
The day dragged on, hour after hour kept passing into the next. The army trained tirelessly for the upcoming assault, familiarizing themselves with the tactics expected of them, as well as with the other members of their disparate groups. Ranma, with his natural confidence and charisma, had assumed de facto leadership of the Nerima contingent, though not without the grumbling of some of his enemies in it.
Ryouga, for his part, simply threw himself into his work. He didn't really have much problem following Ranma's lead—not anymore, at least. He'd certainly done it enough times on their other escapades, the clash with the Phoenix People most recently. No, any worries about being subordinate to his rival were a very distant second to his worries about the battle to come.
He ran down the street in a blur of speed, launching himself at the three muscular, tattooed warriors in front of him. They rushed ahead to meet him with wild battle cries, lashing out with their fists and feet, but he didn't waste any time with them. He made a diving roll underneath the kick of the fastest of the trio, then swerved past the second-fastest, taking advantage of the large gaps in their uncoordinated approach.
The third man swung his fist at the lost boy, but Ryouga leapt clear over him, stomping on his head on the way over and knocking him to his knees. As he flew past them, two more members of their army came into view: two young women, each of whom was forming a ball of glowing energy between their palms.
The pair tried frantically to backpedal at the sight of him, but he landed right in front of them before they could. Both his fists shot out, stopping less than an inch in front of each of their faces.
Behind him, he heard the pounding footfalls and angry battle-cries of the tattooed warriors, as they came at him once again. He turned to face them, but their conflict was interrupted by an angry cry of "Enough!"
A moment later, the shrunken form of Meihui—commander of their third of the overall army—stalked in between the warriors and Ryouga. "Once again you have failed," she snapped. "Is it too much to ask for you to hold ranks and attack a target together, rather than each one charging off on their own?"
The tattooed warriors glared resentfully at the ancient mystic. "You ask us to wage war in ways that are not ours!" one shot back. "This is not Lao Shihong's way of fighting!"
"It will be Lao Shihong's way of dying if you try to fight enemies as powerful as the youma this way," was Meihui's acidic response. "If all three of you had kept your formation—had worked as a team—you might have been able to buy these girls enough time to cast their combined Mogui Feng and stop your opponent. As it is, all five of you have died. Again."
"We have not yet been defeated!" protested one of the remaining warriors. "Don't group us with your weak little sorceresses. The three of us still could have—"
He was cut off by a harsh guffaw from the old master. "You truly think so?" she asked, disbelievingly. "Very well. We will run the exercise again." She turned to Ryouga. "This time, boy, give them a taste of some real pain. It may be the only thing that can get through their thick skulls."
That was a request Ryouga would have little trouble granting. Cracking his knuckles, he favored his training partners with a fanged smile that made them pale a little. "My pleasure."
The next half hour was more or less a continuous stretch of Ryouga pounding them into the ground. Whenever it started to get a bit boring he stole glances around at the other groups, performing similar exercises. He saw Mousse out of the corner of his eye, performing ground-to-air dodging drills with a group of the Phoenix People. The glasses-wearing boy's arms were blurring as he hurled up a constant stream of blunted weapons, which the winged warriors had to avoid.
Eventually, Meihui decided that Ryouga's group had done as much as was profitable for the moment, and told them to take a break before someone ended up truly out of commission. The other fighters quickly staggered off, trying to retain some scraps of their dignity.
It hadn't been a particularly draining workout for the lost boy, however, and after a few moments' thought he strolled off in search of Beneda. He had heard that she had come back from China with the Joketsuzoku, but their paths hadn't crossed yet and he really wanted to catch up with her in person.
But he had hardly gone far at all before he felt a hand clamp onto his collar from behind, dragging him backward. "What do you think you're doing, moron?" came Ranma's exasperated voice. "Wandering off by yourself? This ain't the time to be making trips to Kyoto!"
Ryogua opened his mouth to make an angry retort to his rival, but he could think of nothing to say—Ranma was right, of course—and so he had to settle for a muttered "...shut up."
Ranma sighed. "Look, just stick with me for a while, all right? I need to find my pop and see if he can take over working with the Phoenix guys I was trying to whip into shape so I can talk to Cologne for a bit about some ideas I had. Then I'll take you wherever it is you're trying to go."
The lost boy shrugged. "Fine, whatever."
Both of them walked in silence for a while, threading between group upon group of training warriors, spread out everywhere. Eventually, Ranma spoke up again. "Heh. Can you imagine the expressions those Sailor girls will have when we tell them what was really going on back when we were fighting them? And then when we tell them that we went ahead and smashed the Dark Kingdom army for them? Bet their eyes are gonna pop right out of their sockets."
Ryouga cracked a small grin at the thought. Left unspoken was the silent "...if we actually win..." even though both boys knew full well the qualification was there.
They walked on for a little while longer. "Hey," Ranma said suddenly. "Meihui was training your group for a while, wasn't she? Did you... notice anything suspicious while she was working with you?"
The lost boy frowned, puzzled. "Suspicious? No, not really. She's tough as nails—all the good teachers are—but I didn't notice anything that made me worry. What do you mean?"
"Nothing." Ranma shook his head. "Just... there's some bad blood between her and Cologne, and if it boils over it could be bad. Really bad. So keep an eye out, okay?"
Ryouga shrugged. "If you say so."
By this time they had reached the Nekohanten, and the two of them ducked inside. "Where is your father, anyway?" asked the lost boy.
Ranma glanced around, a small frown crossing his face as they went from room to room in their search. "He should be right around here, somewhere. He and Mr. Tendo said they were going in to get something to eat before they..." His voice trailed off as he caught sight of a small white envelope lying on one of the restaurant tables, with Ranma's name scrawled across it.
The pigtailed fighter snatched it up and ripped it open. Unfolding its contents, he began to read the note aloud, disbelief and anger warring across his face. "Son," he read. "Tendo and I have just remembered a very important training trip that we need to go on right away. It's a very special anniversary, of something that absolutely can't be missed. Don't worry; I'm sure all of you can handle this fight just fine without us needing to—" Ranma broke off in mid-sentence, his hand convulsing into a fist and crushing the paper he was holding.
Ryouga sighed. It certainly would have been nice to have had fighters of their skill level backing them up, but even based on his own limited experience with the two men this was utterly unsurprising. "Well, I guess that answers that question," he said, rolling his eyes. "Should we tell Meihui that they're going to be..."
But then the lost boy's voice trailed off, realizing that Ranma was barely even listening to him. His rival's eyes were still staring down and the crumpled letter, clutched so tightly that his knuckles were white. "Damn it, pop..." Ryouga heard him whisper. "The whole world. The whole damn world..."
And with a start, Ryogua realized that—even though Ranma had far, far more experience with Genma's personality than he did—the pigtailed boy had been caught off-guard by his father's flight. Despite everything, despite all the countless reasons to expect otherwise, Ranma had wanted to believe that this time, this time, his father would finally do the courageous thing.
They stood there for a long while in strained, uncomfortable silence, Ranma not speaking, and Ryouga not sure what he should say. Then at last Ranma looked over at the lost boy. "Listen. We don't tell Akane about this, all right? If she asks, we just tell her that her dad is off... I don't know. Doing some scouting, or looking for more reinforcements or... something."
Ryouga nodded once. There was no need to burden her with the same disappointment that Ranma was feeling. With a burst of Amaguriken speed Ranma shredded the letter into tiny pieces, then let them stream away, fluttering down to the floor like falling snowflakes.
Then he let out a disgusted sigh. "Come on," he said to Ryouga. "Let's get out of here."
Off in Adachi ward, far away from both Nerima and Juuban, Genma shrugged the large backpack from his shoulders, dropping it to the ground as he leaned against the wall of a nearby building. The heavyset man let out a deep breath, staring up at the clouded, foreboding sky, then closed his eyes.
The sound of his friend's voice caused Genma to look over to where Soun stood. The long-haired man looked uncomfortable, fidgeting a bit as he stood. "I'm just... resting a bit," Genma told him. "We can get moving again in a second or two."
There was a long pause. Then Soun spoke again, hesitantly. "Do you think... we should go back?"
The question caused something in Genma's chest to constrict. But unfortunately, his con-artist's mouth was already answering before the rest of him even had a chance to weigh in, regurgitating the same excuses that he had spent hours convincing himself of prior to leaving.
"Now really, Tendo," he said. "What good would that do? You saw the army they had. You saw how many grandmasters were there. With that much power, it's not like the two of us would tip things one way or the other. So that means there's no reason for us to risk our lives."
"Right," Soun agreed, nodding. He was clearly trying to convince himself just as hard as Genma was, though he didn't have Genma's experience at hiding it. "No reason at all."
"And they have my boy with them!" continued Genma, picking up steam. It helped to say these things out loud. It made them feel more believable. "Think about it, Tendo—have you even seen him lose? I mean, when it really mattered? It'll be fine; there's no reason to worry."
Yes, Genma thought, this is the best course of action. Ranma would handle the heroics. He always did. All Genma needed to do was survive—the way he always did. And by doing this, he would keep Soun alive in the bargain! That had to count for something, right?
It was all so terribly easy to believe. It was his entire way of life—one he had grown so accustomed to in his long years under his monstrous master. That he was currently fleeing a newer, far more terrible monster mattered little in the end. It all came down to the same thing.
Shouldering his pack again, Genma walked onward, his old friend following in his wake. It was pointless to worry, he kept assuring himself. They would come back in a week or two, and this whole business would have blown over. Of course, Ranma would be angry, disappointed... but it would hardly be the first time.
His son's disappointment was also something to which Genma had long since grown accustomed.
The army continued to train, the tumultuous sounds of their mock combat reaching even to the area set apart for the healers of the various groups to undertake their own preparations. The drills those medics ran were less violent, but no less strenuous, as they practiced the various aspects of battlefield medicine: triage, field dressing, quickly moving bodies back from the front lines, and much more.
Beneda ran an arm across her forehead, wiping it clean of sweat, then took a long drink from the bottle of water that Doctor Tofu had given her earlier. She swallowed the cold liquid, feeling it run down her throat, and once again marveled at the unique sensation that was human taste. Even spending months straight primarily in her human form had done little to diminish the novelty.
Water was the same substance, of course, no matter what form she was in. And yet it wasn't. As a youma, water was a liquid like any other, mostly uninteresting except for the fact that there was so much of it in the human world. But as a human, water was a precious necessity for life, something this body knew and longed for.
So what did that make her? A creature who lived in both bodies? A creature who stood between two worlds? She certainly wasn't a human, but after living for so long as one... could she really call herself a youma anymore, either? In this conflict, at least, she certainly wasn't standing with her people... and it surprised her how unsettling that thought was.
Why should her new allegiance trouble her? She had never had a particularly strong sense of patriotism toward Beryl's rule to begin with, even before she had defected. Beneda's service had been more out of self-interest and self-preservation than any idealistic commitment to her queen's goals.
But things were very different now. Her time in Nerima had taught her so many new things, showed her so many new ways of looking at the world. She had experienced the power of compassion, discovered the reasons for sacrifice, and felt the bond between friends.
Yet now they were hurtling toward a deadly confrontation with the rest of Beryl's youma. Youma who saw the world just like she had seen it... and like she would still see it, had it not been for the quirk of fate that had crossed her path with Ryouga's.
She gave a humorless half-smile at the irony. When she had served the Dark Kingdom, she would have been willing to stab most of her fellow youma in the back without a second thought. But now that she had betrayed them, the very qualities she had learned while doing so had given her more sympathy for her fellow youma than she had ever had while actually on their side.
The youma whirled around at the familiar voice, her face lighting up. Her previous worries vanished at the sight of the two martial artists who were approaching. "Ranma! Ryouga!" she called out, rushing over to wrap both boys in a tight hug, which they each returned.
"It's good to see you again, Beneda," Ryogua told her. "How was your trip to China? Are you all right? Some of the Joketsuzoku mentioned that you had some... trouble... with Kiima?"
Beneda could guess from his tone that things would probably not go well for Kiima if Ryouga realized just how close the winged warrior had come to killing her. So, in the interests of preventing strife between allies, she fibbed. "Trouble? No, we just sparred for a bit. Nothing too bad. She was just trying to get a feel for how strong I was, I think."
A smile of relief crossed the lost boy's face. "Oh, I see. That's good. I'm glad to hear it wasn't anything serious." Beneda hid a small, affectionate smile of her own; Ryouga was—as always—absolutely terrible at detecting when people were being less than honest with him.
Ranma, for his part, was looking at her with a bit more suspicion, but when he spoke it didn't show in what he said. "Well, sparring or not, I hear it was a close fight," he said. "That's pretty impressive! She's no slouch to go up against." Beneda gave him a look of thanks for not pressing the issue.
And really, this was the answer to the worries she had had earlier. Was she youma, human or something in-between? She didn't exactly know anymore... but it didn't matter. She did know that she had friends now, friends who cared deeply about her. Whatever she was.
This was her home. Her family. And no matter what, she was not going to stand idly by while the Dark Kingdom hurt them.
She just hoped that somehow—when this was all over and Metallia was dealt with—her fellow youma could somehow be shown the way of life that she had discovered in her time here.
The afternoon passed into evening, and the evening into night. Ranma and Ryouga, along with the rest of the Nerima fighters, kept on working with the less-powerful fighters in their overall battle group, drilling them over and over. Eventually, though, a final halt was called. Ranma had to admit that they were improving, the different tribes fighting better as a team than they had at the beginning.
Would it be enough? That, he didn't know.
The pigtailed fighter walked restlessly through the darkened streets, glancing back and forth at the few straggling members of the army still moving back and forth. Most of the rest had dispersed, finding places here and there to hole up and sleep, resting in preparation for tomorrow's battle.
Farther down the street, he caught sight of Ryouga's distant figure. He was talking with Akari, though of course Ranma could not make out the words. The girl was looking up at him with an anxious expression, while wringing her hands. As Ranma watched, Ryouga hesitantly took her hands in his own and said a few more words, his face pained, his manner halting.
Suddenly Akari flung her arms around him, burying her face into his chest. The lost boy's body went rigid, but after a few moments he responded by wrapping his arms around her as well—slowly, gently, as though she were made of glass. They stood there, silently holding onto each other, and eventually Ranma turned away. He was even more troubled than before, uncertainties eating away at him that he couldn't even identify, much less deal with.
He moved onward, hands jammed into his pockets, with only his brooding thoughts for company. Memories played unbidden through his mind, memories of the failed wedding, memories of his battle at Jusendo.
Memories of holding Akane's lifeless body in his arms...
The pigtailed warrior exhaled, closing his eyes for a moment in a futile attempt to shut out the remembrance. What on earth am I doing? he wondered. And what on earth am I supposed to be doing? Right now I don't even have a clue.
His meandering walk continued, lost in thought, until finally he found himself back at the Tendo dojo. He pushed his way through the main gate, then stopped in his tracks. Akane was there, sitting in the doorway, waiting.
She glanced up as the gate opened, looking him in the eye. "Hey," she said quietly.
Ranma licked his lips, his throat suddenly dry. A thousand things to say shot through his mind in an instant. A thousand things that he had wanted to say to this girl, a thousand things he was terrified of saying. They all jammed together in his brain and in his throat, in a half-second of strained silence. The only thing that escaped in the end was a matching "...hey."
Akane rose to her feet. "I'm glad you're back," she told him. "I just got back not too long ago myself. I spent some time looking around, trying to find where my dad was."
"Er... Oh yeah!" Ranma said, scrambling for an excuse. "Mr. Tendo, he's... uh... gone out to look for more reinforcements! Y'know, other martial artists who could help us! I... don't know when he'll be back..."
His fiancée looked at him for a moment, then gave a sad little look. "When I asked Ryouga, he said that dad had joined the scouting teams. To make sure there were no youma in the area."
"Oh. Um, well..." Ranma's voice trailed off. He could tell she knew. Probably she had already known, even before he had said anything. She knew her father.
The Tendo heiress blinked a few times, then ran her arm angrily across her eyes. Ranma looked at his fiancée, stared at her, completely unable to put what he was feeling into words. But he had to say something.
He clenched his fists, struggling to do the one thing he had never been able to do. Eventually, he managed to force something out. "Akane, I..." he began, then forced all of his pent-up emotion into one single statement. "I don't want you to come on this!"
It wasn't what he had wanted to say, and certainly not what he should have said. Just a pale mockery of it, one that he mentally kicked himself for immediately after voicing. But to his surprise, Akane only nodded. "I know," she said. "But this is too important. You understand, right?"
Ranma managed a single, curt nod. The movement felt as though it wrenched his body all the way down to his heart, but he nodded.
They stood there in awkward silence for a while longer. At last, Akane turned to go back into the house. "Well..." she told him. "We really ought to get some sleep. I'll see you in the morning, Ranma."
The pigtailed fighter opened his mouth to say something—anything. This couldn't be what she had been hoping for, what she had been waiting here for. But he could only watch as she walked back into the house, the door shutting behind her with a solid thud. And with that he was left standing there, alone in the silence and the darkness, with all the unspoken words collecting in his chest like lead weights.
It shouldn't have been so troubling an experience for him. This was how all such conversations between them had always ended: each of them avoiding what neither of them could bring themselves to discuss. There was nothing different about this time.
Nothing different at all.
Later that night, the jangling of the Nekohanten's telephone woke Cologne from a troubled sleep. She picked up her cane, and before the third ring she had hopped over and answered. "Yes? What is it?"
"Elder Cologne, this is Balm!" The old master immediately recognized the frantic voice on the other end as one of the Joketsuzoku guards stationed in the building across the street from the Dark Kingdom portal, to keep an eye on their enemy's movements. "Something strange is happening here! A group of girls just went into the café you told us to watch!"
Any lingering traces of sleep were abruptly banished from Cologne's mind. "Girls?" she demanded. "How old? And how many?"
"Five of them, elder, in their early, teens! I didn't recognize any of them. They weren't disguised youma—at least not that we'd seen before. And they had two cats with them!"
The ancient master let out a hiss of breath. It was them! It had to be! They had somehow found the location of the portal all on their own, and were going through it!
"Those were the Sailor Senshi!" she snapped. "Stop them! I'll be there in ten minutes!" Without waiting for a reply, she slammed the phone back down and vanished into a blur of speed, rocketing toward Juuban at speeds the eye could barely follow.
The possibilities and counter-possibilities waged war in the old woman's head all throughout her desperate run, weighing the danger to the Senshi against the danger of revealing themselves to the Dark Kingdom prematurely. Whatever happened, she couldn't allow them to face the challenge alone, but how best to intervene now that it had come to this?
She reached her destination seven minutes later, panting and out of breath, to see Balm awaiting her on the rooftop. "Elder!" she called out quietly. "I... I was too late. By the time I got down to the café, they were gone. No trace of them anywhere."
Cologne closed her eyes, and nodded. As she had feared, they had gone through to make their own attack. "Send word back to the rest of the army to mobilize," she said. "Meihui should be able to figure out how to open the portal when they arrive. I'm going to go through immediately to see if I can help—"
But her words were cut off as Balm's eyes widened, and she pointed down to the street. "Elder, look!"
Emerging from the small café were five colorfully-dressed girls. Two of them—both blonde—were each carrying a cat in their arms. They all looked considerably worse for the wear, tired, limping, their uniforms slashed in various places. But they were all alive.
"Are... those the same girls...?" Balm murmured. "They don't look anything like—"
"Disguise magic," was Cologne's brief reply. She let out a long breath of relief. There would be no need to rush the plan after all, no need to risk revealing themselves too soon.
She turned back to Balm. "From now on, keep up your watch with particular care. If those girls you saw tonight—in either form—come back here for a second try before we're ready to move tomorrow night, warn them to stop. If necessary, you have my permission to divulge information about our plans in order to convince them."
Then a wry smile crossed Cologne's face. "But even then, tell them as little as possible. If they suspect our connection to the 'Dark Lords of Nerima', or our participation in the battle that took place six months ago, it could create... unnecessary incidents... at a time when it is crucial that we keep a low profile."
Balm nodded. "Understood, Elder," she replied, with a grin of her own. "Our villainous escapades will remain a secret."
The next morning the army continued its training, but where the previous day had been an intensive regimen to acclimate the different tribes to fighting together, this was a much more restrained affair, little more than warm-ups. Everyone was conserving their strength for the battle that was to come.
As night fell once more, the invasion force assembled in the streets outside the Nekohanten. A muted hush hung over the scene, a feeling of stifling tension. As they all watched, Cologne leaped up to stand atop her restaurant, looking down from her vantage point, her gaze sweeping across the huge gathering of warriors spread out before her.
Then she spoke, her voice cracking out with an astonishing force that belied her tiny frame. "Countless millennia ago," she shouted, "the people of this world joined with an evil demoness, to attack a civilization that had only ever defended us and sought our best interest. Our forefathers helped her massacre them, killing them to the last man, woman and child."
"Now we, their descendants, stand at a crossroad. That same demoness is returning once again. And we are faced with a choice. Will we cower like beaten dogs before her strength? Will we prostrate ourselves before her in hope of being spared—as our ancestors did so long ago? Or will we stand and fight? To the last warrior, to the last breath, to let that accursed fiend know that this time she will not find humanity so easy a plaything?"
The old woman's eyes blazed, her battle aura flaring so high that it sent shivers through everyone watching. "Tonight, we match our strength against the greatest enemy any of us have ever faced! Tonight, we take the fires of war to the gates of the Dark Kingdom! Tonight, we strike for the future of our world!"
Cologne took her cane, then thrust it straight upward toward the sky. "For Earth!" she cried out.
Below her, the sound rose up of hundreds upon hundreds of weapons being drawn simultaneously. Swords, maces, bows, spears, fists, all shot up toward the sky in response, along with a deafening cry that rattled the surrounding windows. "FOR EARTH!"
Then, with a swift motion, the ancient master swung her cane to point in the direction of Juuban. As one, the army below exploded up into the air, the mass of warriors sweeping out across the rooftops toward the confrontation awaiting them.
Elsewhere in the city, other hearts were preparing themselves for battle. It was a more subdued preparation, but a preparation nonetheless. They readied themselves, knowing the stakes should their enemies win. And, just like the Nerima army, they set out that night to do their duty for the world they loved.
In the moonlit night, five girls converged on the Hikawa shrine.