A Different Art
Xover elements end early through this chapter.
Chapter 7: Aftermath of a Race.
Some scenes by Skysaber and Kevin (Keian) W. Patterson. Some characters by other people. The writers do not take responsibility for anyone who is a sufficient idiot that they want to try out Amazon Boot Camp training techniques in Real Life among other things.
Zen does not appear in this chapter, and who knew he had that kind of endurance anyway?

"Acts of unwitting heroism during the period of adaptation to the Rules will always be rewarded. Heroes need all the help they can get."
Rules, volumn XXIV, page 1,204, chapter 9: the Adaptation Of Relocating Planewalkers

"No good deed goes unpunished."
-Villains handbook, page 113, chapter 2: exploiting your opponent's weaknesses for fun and profit

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

Emeraldis had gotten its name because the rock used originally in the construction had a considerable amount of copper oxide present. Hence the streets, buildings, etc had had this greenish tint to it. The Emperor's reaction to seeing his new capital city (after Kharonia's King had retired to go into spell research and let someone *else* worry about the administrative crap, and after returning from the Godswar) would put this fic into an R rating just from a fifteen minute rant about living in multiple-deleted-expletives "Oz." He then altered the building codes to suggest that variety would be good, got buried in a lot of *other* fallout from the Godswar and Sundering, then didn't see what the construction people were doing until over a year had passed. When he had the Emperor was properly horrified at what the construction people had done.

There was still a lot of green, it was the common building material and most of the inhabitants liked it. The Tourism Board had already made up flyers about the Emerald City and one entering the city saw green roads and buildings everywhere one looked at least until one got off the main drag.

The other factor in the bizarre constructs of Emeraldis was the nature of its inhabitants. Things and people from downtime could wash up on odd occasion in Aramar. Most of the time this didn't leave a Zone behind, but buildings were another thing altogether. Some of which could be disassembled and moved into the city. There were also mantis-people (thri-kreen), centaurs, elves, dwarves, five races of halfling, Amazons of four Houses, nymphs, the occasional pan-dimensional being, the blue jellylike bunjari and other races. And their cultural influences were everywhere.

Hence, on the main drag, not far from Piccolo's Place, was the Emerald Tearoom. An odd place which combined martial arts dojo, oriental teahouse, and community message board. The exterior of which bore an odd resemblence to a Japanese temple.

Keian walked over to the table in the corner where, for the moment, the Pheonix Mage sat alone. The Mage sat with his head in his hands, tapping his fingers, apparently lost in thought.

"I wanted to find you and say thanks before you left," Keian began.

Jared looked up, and seemed a bit startled. He smiled, seeming to brighten up with company. "No problem," he replied cheerfully, and then paused. "Uhm, thanks for what?"

"For attempting to help me and the other guys out at the race."

Jared looked pointedly at the three rings on one of Keian's fingers. "I didn't do as much as I had planned on, and I didn't seem to help anyone out, least of all myself."

Keian blushed a bit as he felt the three rings on his finger, separate styles that fit together almost as a single ring. "The outcome was not what I planned, but don't worry about that. It may be for the best in the long run. Who knows?

"And besides, it was the effort I wanted to the thank you for. We hardly know each other, and you went well out of your way to try and give me and the others guys a lot of help."

Jared modestly shrugged his shoulders. "Don't mention it."

He seemed about to turn back, when Keian pulled out a chair and sat down. "Do you have a minute?" he asked.

"Sure," the flamed-haired youth responded. "What's up?"

"I want to talk to you about some of the plans I have heard about," Keian said quietly. "Or rather, I want to talk to you about the plans you seem to have."

A dozen different things he was currently working flashed through the Mage's mind, while he scratched behind his head. "What plans would those be?"

Keian looked at him for a moment, and considered. "I've heard that you were planning on trying to fix the ratio of male-female children born to the Amazons."

"I seem to have mentioned something about that," Jared replied, inwardly relieved this was not going to be about some of his more delicate plans. Or his current situation.

Keian nodded slowly. He did not say anything for a moment, and then signaled for service. A buxom woman with bright green eyes and hair came up quickly. Keian blinked for a moment, but it was difficult to say if it was the hair or prompt service that surprised him. "Some peppermint tea, please."

She grinned pleasantly. "Right away, sir."

He turned to gaze out across the room. "How much about the Rules have you learned, Pheonix? Or do you prefer to be called The Mage?"

"Actually, my friends call me Jared."

Keian looked back and smiled. "Okay, Jared. How much about the Rules have you learned?"

Jared cocked his head at the apparent change of topic. "A fair amount, I guess. I have not studied them too much here, but I have come across similar things in the past."

Keian nodded in understanding. He turned back to look across the room. "I have been thinking a lot about the Rules, actually. The importance and impact they have on everything here is almost beyond measure." He glanced back at Jared, and held up the hand with three new rings on it. "I now have some long term commitments here. And that means I will be staying. And the longer I stay, the more the Rules will act to change me.

"But perhaps the Rules are not changing me directly. Perhaps the situation is more like this: The Rules are channels and pathways to safely release a lot of excess Magic energy. People from other dimensions enter this Universe with a very large Potential Energy, but very little of it realized. What they do, what they say, what they even think begins to release that energy, and the Rules safely channel that release into patterns that are not destructive."

"You think what happened to original Scarlet wasn't destructive?" Jared challenged.

"For her personally, and for many of the people she met, sure. But not as far as the Universe was concerned," Keian replied, getting more energetic as he spoke. "I have been talking to Ranma about this. There is one school of thought that gives a lot of support to this
interpretation, and I think it is the one Ranma himself ascribes to, but it is by no means the only explanation."

"Okay. I can see how that would work. What's your point?"

"I'm getting there," he said, and would have continued. However, the peppermint tea ordered earlier arrived, brought by an equally beautiful woman, this time with matching blue eyes and hair. "That is really going to take some getting used to," Keian said, almost to himself.

"Nymphs." Jared chuckled a bit. "You get used to it. Go on."

Keian sipped his tea, and quickly put it down. "Way too hot, still." He cupped his hands around the steaming cup, and continued. "The Rules seem to map out certain stable points. Anything too far away from these stable points moves into another point, sliding slowly at first, but gathering speed as it moves, releasing the potential to a new stability. People in a stable point can move to another stable point mapped out by the Rules, but it takes effort, energy.

"Sometimes it takes a change in profession, and years of work, and then one only moves a little, from this Occupation to that Occupation. Other times a great amount of energy is used, be it transformation magic, or something else. In any case, the Universe here seems to dislike certain states of being."

"Nature abhors a vacuum?" Jared joked.

Keian nodded, and took another sip of his tea. He let out a pleased sigh. "That's better.
"Yes, I think that might be a good way to say it. Nature here abhors certain states of being, and moves things around until it is more comfortable with them.

"Now, one of those things it is comfortable with seems to be the Amazons. If a human woman from my world showed up, said the right things, did the right things, she would become one. Her mind would change in subtle ways. She would gain certain abilities, perhaps losing some she had already had. Her biology would change, to match those of the current Amazons."

Keian turned to look Jared directly. "Her DNA would change to match the stable pattern that this world recognizes as 'Amazon.'"

Jared's eyes were wide, blinking very slowly.

"So," Keian continued, "what do think will happen when 100 or more women are taken from this world to a civilization with very advanced genetic manipulation techniques, the DNA traits which generate the current male to female ratios are changed, and these new beings, which are no longer really Amazons as they are currently defined here, come back to this Universe, talking like Amazons, acting like Amazons, thinking like Amazons..."

"They would become Amazons," Jared finished for him.

"I think that is a very real possibility. I have not studied enough to know, yet, though. When the local gods stabilized reality the first time, there were twelve volumes of Rules. Namerank mages over the ages have added, using what was supposed to be a regulating mechanism, so that there are now over *three hundred* volumes of Rules. I have been asking Yusef some questions about how the Rules change people, including their DNA, and I think that is what would happen, but I don't know."

Jared looked at him sharply. "Yes, I know better than to ask what the result in the future will be," Keian said. "Trends he can handle without the penalty."

"So," Jared said slowly, "I can't fix them someplace else and bring them back here."

"No," Keian said, "Not and still have them be the people they are now."

"Okay, I will just have to stay here longer, and figure out how to make the changes here." Jared's mind began to generate and discard a variety of ideas. Bring some DNA researchers here? Laboratories would be a real pain to bring along...

"I think that has a better chance of success," Keian said carefully.

Jared looked at him. "But you have doubts."

"Many. But I think you are talking more than just my self-confidence." Keian sipped from his tea again, and another waitress came up.

"Do you like your tea, sir?" This waitress had violet hair that seemed to be getting in the way of her violet eyes.

"Yes, very much." As she turned to go, he called out. "I could use another in a few minutes, if you do not mind." She winked over her shoulder as she walked away.

Keian watched her walk away. "I swear, those three girls looks similar enough to be sisters."

"Nymphs all look alike. Well, mainly," Jared said, although he had never seen these particular ones before today. "Who knows how the genetics of hair like that works?"

"Yes, who does? But that's only half my point. Look, social structures are about as delicate a stability point as you can find."

Jared was begin to look closely at Keian. The conversation seemed to skitter about all over the place, but Jared felt it was being drawn to a single point. Keian either did not notice, or did not say anything about it, but continued speaking.

"The current Shadar Empire, from what I can find out, has been the most stable government to come around in the last several hundred years. In fact, it has pulled into alliance a lot of different factions that might otherwise have been at war with one another. Meanwhile, it has stopped several attacks and invasions from forces that would have been very unpleasant should they have won. It has promoted the arts, economic development, education. It hasn't been perfect, but it really does seem to be a benevolent structure.

"In the not too distant future, the question of succession is going to have to be handled, and there is not a good tradition to draw on here. It might go smoothly, but it could also be a crisis point, and a point where things fall apart. But that is not what I getting
to."

Keian looked over at Jared careful. "Let's suppose you, do bring a group of highly talented genetic engineers here, into this world, and under their direction, create a new magical virus which will spread through the Amazon's and change their DNA so that male to
female births are near even. And let's say that you do so in such a way as to be stable within the Rules, and everything turns out the way you expect.

"What happens next?"

Jared seemed almost surprised by the question. "What do you mean, what happens next?"

"Just that. What happens after that?"

The flame-haired mage shrugged. "First of all, the 'team of engineers' was always going to be just me. Robotech labs are almost all automated anyway. I'd just have to find a qualified enough Thaumaturgist to teach me how to keep the stuff running here. Secondly, it was never
part of my plan to make the births even. I like the idea of men being valued, there was an astounding lack of that on one of the worlds that I'm from. One male in seven sounds about right."

"Thaumaturgist?" Keian whispered. "I'm not sure I know..."

Jared took a sip of his hot chocolate, noting that this wasn't such a bad society. It had hot chocolate, it didn't have some of the problems of 20th Century America. It *did* have its own problems, but they were generally livable. "It's what I call the brand of mage who makes science work in a magical environment. I don't know what they call the local ones, but on my world anything more complex than a crossbow would spontantiously turn into a hunk of wood if it didn't have magic holding it together. Thus, science worked, but only by magic. I'm not sure of the local limits, but spells in that vein ought to be useful."

"Ah," said Keian. "I ran across this in talking with some of the Amazons about their own concerns. Apparently their own birth creches are a mix of what we would consider high tech genetic cloning vats and magic that stabilizes the stuff as well as makes up for the parts that have broken down."

"Ah. I knew there would be a local equivalent." Jared put down his cup. "But okay, here's what happens next. The plan so far is to obtain the unaltered genetic blueprint from these
Amazons from before they got rewired. That could be as simple as timetraveling in to an appropriate period and snagging a lock of hair from an unattended brush, or it might be much more complicated. Probably would be as I'm told the last time someone tried something like this, they had inadvertantly created House Southern Cross and the Damarin Prophesies. Taking their mistakes into consideration, I think it could be done. Then I apply the change and I'm off."

"Oh good, you *did* hear about that. They went in with damn near the exact same plan." Keian nodded. "In any case, that's the start. More male children are born, so the total number and strength of the warriors being born into the Empire drops. Remember that the male of the species isn't as physically powerful as the females. The social culture of the Amazons are radically ripped apart in a single generation, as they have how many years of tradition to over come before they adept to an equalitarian society? There also comes a population boom for the Amazons shortly thereafter, as the social traditions will not change enough in a single generation to prevent the imperative of procreation from doing that. Now we have one of the biggest supporting elements of the best government this world has seen in a long time undergoing social turmoil combined with population pressures.

"How ready is this world for that? Do they have the room to grow? Yes, there's an awfully big surface area, but there are various unfriendly forces or limiting factors in place in all directions. The Boskone to the West, the Dead Lands to the East, the Maelstrom to the North, and the allied Kingdom of Nihon to the South. Can the Empire absorb these changes within their current resources? Will this force an expansionistic Imperial policy, encouraging the Empire to grow via conquest? Perhaps the population boom would take place just in time to allow for a
necessary labor pool for some other great change? Who knows?

"Wait, waitwaitwaitwait..." The Pheonix Mage protested, holding up his hands to signal a time out. "You imagine my hand to be less subtle than it is. I have already considered those. What do you think I'm doing here? Surgery by machinegun is out of the question. You never know what's going to happen if you release a virus like that generally. Viruses and bacteria alter each other and react in a natural environment, teaching each other their tricks. There's no WAY you could control something like that once you'd released it, and the results are infinitely more likely to be terrible than beneficial - look at what caused this mess in the first place."

"Twenty fourth century genetic engineers trying to come up with an ideal society based on their equivelant of a trade paperback series? Or the war of ideologies in the Delphins past? Or the Feryl-Delphins War that deprived both of their homeworlds?" Keian grinned slightly.

"Ah, you've heard. No, widespread contagion is out of the question. Secondly, I like the Amazons as they are. I have no need nor want to turn them into humans. Ripped apart in a single generation? I have no intention of ripping it apart at all. The Amazons are admirable in many ways, even if their cultures are a hodgepodge of whatever 'Ancient Wisdom' they've garnered. Now let me tell you my means to do this."

The Mage inhaled deeply and dropped his gaze to a spot on the table, playing idly with the spoon in his glass. "Imagine this scenario. I take the time to divine a solution, and apply it on an individual basis to about a hundred Amazons, being *very* careful to do nothing more than restore the originally planned birth rate of one male in seven. Even if I had power to do more I'd not want to. Now, say a hundred of these Amazons. We'd have to have some of these Nameranks create a new sub-Rule for them, call them True Delphins or whatever. Let them belong to whatever House they may. But all that is doable. Now if we assume that through creche or marriage each bears an average of three and a half children, that is by pure average one male birth per two mothers. This is, of course, if I can find a way past the tricky little spins that previous genetic engineers left in there.

"Naturally those who survive to maturity will pass the True Delphins traits on, but I also rig it so that the female children pass those traits on as well. In one generation's time I've done no more than produce a bumper crop of males no greater than the influx around this race. Not a big deal. Assuming all the ones of that generation survive, which they won't, and the men each marry ten wives, which seems unlikely, then the next generation will have still short of three thousand of these True Delphins just going by those same numbers. It would take a dozen or more of these generations before the population of Delphins all had a chance to marry and their kids join the True Delphin line, and it won't happen that fast."

The Mage raised his face and met his table-mate in the eyes, tear tracks sliding down his face. "Right now there are over a hundred willing females for every male, once you count in all the dryads and others that add confusion to the normal Delphins birth rate. One man with a hundred wives is unstable, too small a return of time and affection. Once the dozen, or sixty, generations that need to pass have passed away and all this stands corrected to the original levels, there will be something like one male in ten. THAT is a scenario that stands reasonably secure. Those males will still stay valuable, they always are in short supply and will be even then. But the hopelessness is gone, don't you see? Things happen at a gradual rate, with time for acclimation for everyone. They likely won't even notice they are doing what acclimating their generation calls for, it will just flow naturally. And when all is said and done, kingdoms expand or contract naturally anyway, neither the Amazon culture - which I love dearly - or this empire are in any danger. But so much pain and hopelessness has been done away. Women may be cheerful in that their daughters will live in a better, more hopeful world. Daughter may
find just a few more husbands to share, and know their daughters will have it better - It's small comfort for those alive now, but it *is* a source of some comfort. And eventually they will still be Amazons, they just won't be so crushingly alone."

The flame-haired mage pushed away from the table and stood up, wiping one of his cheeks from its tears. "I stand against evil in all its forms, in all times and in all places. I will do what good I can in whatever place I may be in. As for destroying any part of this good place? No. I am a druid, and one must respect the balance of nature. See you around."

Keian watched him go, and smiled a little at how stiffly the Pheonix Mage walked.

Jared flipped a platinum coin to the barmaid. Inhaling, he shouted. "Where can a man go to kill something evil around here? I've got some stress to work off!"

There were some snickers from some of the Amazons and a few comments about how those Scouts would help with that, turning the Mage a deep scarlet color. Finally a dwarf took pity on him. "Wouldst undead, goblinkin, or vile things from beyond the borders suit thy fancy, milord?"

"Goblins and their kin sound ideal, lead on my good man, er, dwarf."

Keian watched him leave the bar, and continued to sip on his tea. "You are thinking of the long term now, Jared-san, but were you before I asked?" he wondered. The answer was irrelevant. Keian suspected that the Pheonix Mage's mind worked faster than his. It was not his to oppose this, and he agreed with Jared that it would, in the long run, probably be a good thing. But worried still about how the secondary ripples would change things. Besides, it would take a few generations for the trend to be noticed. Time enough to think it through, and if necessary, make preparations. And to speculate on the morality of changing a society to suit one's personal aesthetics. He finished his tea, and stood up to leave.

And the Amazons commented on how stiffly Keian walked as well. Not that they were correct in their conclusions, but the truth was hardly as interesting as their speculation.

Besides, they just liked having guys blush.

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

Her name was Lita Storm, though that odd cyborg fellow she'd run into in her home dimension kept calling her 'Makoto' or 'Kino-san' for some reason.

In her home Reality she had been a high school student who had recently learned that she was the incarnation of some sentai sort of hero named Sailor Jupiter (which she personally found embarassing as sentai series had struck her as silly even before the JSDF (Japanese Self Defense Force) had launched that ill-fated attack on Jedite's Dark Citadel). She'd developed an enormous crush on the Pheonix Mage, made friends (and sparring partners) with a Chinese Amazon, and stolen a magic warhammer from the weirdo gaijin cyborg.

Well, not really stolen it, as she understood it he couldn't give it to her because of some weird rules he had to follow from his employers.

It had been an eventful two weeks.

Now she was looking at herself, a five year older, foot taller, more developed version of herself, but there was an unmistakable sense of looking at some odd mirror image here.

Koto looked at the younger version of herself and smirked. "So you're telling me you're involved with that Pheonix Mage guy, and involved in your basic Good Versus Evil Epic Struggle?"

"Yeah, that pretty much sums it up." Lita nodded and sipped at this odd stuff. Kiishan fruit punch, which seemed to change flavors slightly with every sip. There was an elusive quality that couldn't decide if it was sweet or tart or something else.

"Brings back memories," sighed Koto, getting a far-away look to her eyes. "Fighting that rogue dragon Pyre, the evil sorceress Dyannon, skirmishes with Red Rocket and the like. Ah, *those* were the days."

"So why did you call this little meeting?" Lita looked up at the taller version and tried to imagine what she was talking about.

"What will you do *after* the fight is won?" Koto's gaze was disconcertingly direct.

"You think we will? Things are looking up, but that Dark Queen type has entrenched herself pretty well in our world. She's apparently gotten a lot more power than in those stories Jay-chan keeps referring to." Lita shrugged. After the JSDF had been slaughtered, the police largely exterminated, the economic collapse of Japan, and all the other horrors occurring due to the youma presence on the Home Islands, she'd gotten so caught up with day-to-day survival that longrange plans had fallen by the wayside.

Koto pushed a leathern bag about the size of a five pound bag of sugar across the table. "Take this, it might help when the battle's done."

Lita opened the drawstring slightly and looked in at tiny paper bags marked with little drawings. "What's this?"

"Seeds," Koto said with a wink. "I've never heard of a major battle between the champions of Good and Evil that didn't involve massive collatoral damage. You know how the Delphins history has been rewritten by Ryune from the old mechanisms?"

Lita shook her head. There had been so much new and different that she was still running into things that threw her for a loop.

"Okay, well one of our males, a human also, has the gift of deciphering languages. Cuts through a lot of the legend and myth to find out that your favorite legendary heroic warrior wanted nothing more than to settle down with her husband and raise their kids." Koto shook her head at learning that the 'fierce and fearless Kinasha Re' would have preferred staying home and making love instead of going out and becoming a legendary warrior. "Anyway, the records state that the legendary First Race - that's you humans by the way, unlocked the secrets of the codes of life."

"Okay, genetic engineering," Lita said with a nod.

"Anyway, that means that some of our plants would have originated in such studies, right? Some of Ryune's stories tell us that the First Race went out and colonized worlds and used their tricks to make stuff that would grow where nothing else would. THAT is a bag of such stuff, at least I don't think any of the breeds are magical." Koto shrugged. "Though the way that spregrass grows, I wouldn't be at all surprised..."

"Seeds?" Lita blinked as she peeked within the bag again. "Any flowers in there?"

Koto smiled openly and winked. "Hey, you're me, remember? Of *course* there are flower seeds."

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

Ranma sat back in the chair, regarding the other human and the genasi (though he said he was an elf, he looked like a genasi, and according to Megumi he had ties to the Host) and wondered at the odd events that had caused this mess. It had been hours since Jared had gone goblin-hunting, only to come back looking exhausted. (Which of course, sparked much ribald speculation from certain Amazons.)

"Where're *your* wives?" Ranma asked with a smile and a sip of his kiishan fruit punch. Ah, he'd missed this stuff.

Keian smiled a bit wistfully himself at his vanished freedom. "Currently Alysse is checking out a ship. Apparently I'll be working in the equivalent of the Merchant Marine, a Seagull Class Barge if that means anything to you. Ember and Cloudrunner are filling out paperwork."

Ranma nodded. "Yeah, Seagull class. Ironstar built, fairly quick and maneuverable. They're usually used for bulk transport between here and Nihon. So they're getting you involved in work so that they can try to guide how the Rules affect you."

"Mage, Engineer." Keian shrugged. "These skyjammer engines, with psionically or magically reactive crystals, sound interesting. And engineering at least is something I can do."

"They're out 'bonding'," said Jared with a wince. "Probably shopping again."

Keian blinked. "How'd you bring them here, anyway? I mean, Sjul..."

"We got here by a different method, same with Ranma," Jared smirked and indicated the other mage by a jerk of a thumb. "Sjul uses the 'Dimensional Fisher' which is less a method of travel than summoning. And because those methods rely on underlying Chaos and dimensional instability, it doesn't matter how much tweaking with the equations she does, she'll *always* have problems with the effects."

"It's one of those things about the Namerank mages, even the Diamondranks to some extent, the magic they're used to channeling has become so much a part of them that they're a little nuts about some things. Like Sjul's obsession with Greylle and attempts to find a suitable Analogue of his."

Jared shuddered. "Then it's a good thing I'm leaving as soon as I can. By the Rules, I'd qualify as a Diamondrank."

Keian smiled, always willing to play Devil's Advocate. "And how do you know you are not already being affected? After all, I doubt Sjul thinks her actions are unreasonable."

"Not to mention that legally now, most of those 'Scouts' are now Amazons. Wanna bet their genetic structure would alter to conform?" Ranma shrugged. Having grown up here, he didn't think anything special about Amazons or nymphs. It was Japan that had struck him as bizarre.

Jared found an excuse to leave. Quickly. Sure, a Polymorph Other to change them back to being human *might* work. But why take chances?

"By the way, what happened to him? He looked like he'd just run a marathon." Keian had noticed that the Mage had looked even more tired than he had a few hours earlier.

"He got directions to the Goblin Reaches. Threw a few fireballs and magic missiles when he found a war party. Toasted most of the goblins, then discovered that some of the goblins had magic or psionics or both. I think it's in the Rules, something along the lines of 'Those who go looking for trouble, will find it, in direct relation to their own capacity.' One of the reasons that the higher rank mages and the like tend to stay home."

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

Nabiki woke up and found herself in unfamiliar surroundings. ~This is getting old really quick.~ An odd cabin with wooden beams and fabric inner walls.

Garr said something incomprehensible, putting down a book.

"What was that? I didn't understand you." Nabiki wasn't even sure the odd sing-song had even been a language.

More garbling, followed by Garr giving her a "wait here" gesture and leaving the cabin. Nabiki of course, stepped out of the cabin, and looked down over the railing.

There were at least three layers of clouds between her and the ocean below.

"How's this? Can you understand me now?"

Nabiki turned and Garr was holding one of those translator pendants. "Yeah, uhm, what happened?"

Garr regarded her for a moment. "You're Nabiki Tendo?"

Nabiki noted that the male Delphins looked tired and sad. "Yeahhhh."

"You were poisoned. Lethe arrow. I got you to the nearest cleric. Unfortunately, the nearest group of Healers I knew of were at the Finish Line."

Nabiki gasped and checked her hands. There was a ring. On THAT finger. Three bands of metal united as one by a thread made of some reddish metal. A quick check revealed a similar band on Garr's ring finger. She considered fainting.

"It isn't often that a guy drags a girl over the finish line, though I kinda had to get help. Then there was that weird cat."

Nabiki's attention was wrenched up from the ring by this. "You implying I'm heavy."

Garr stared for a moment. "Nabiki. You *were* on the route to becoming an *oriad*, an earth nymph. They *look* kind of like human women, but they're like dwarves in that they're heavier than they look. Things changed though. You sacrificed yourself to save me."

Nabiki opened her mouth to protest that it hadn't been her intention to sacrifice herself for any reason. She had just acted and wasn't entirely sure why or why things had turned out the way they had.

"Now, well, look at yourself."

Nabiki did, noting that she was dressed again, this time in braies and tunic. A green that set off the copper of her skin. The sort-of-gold had turned more coppery. The hand looked different too. The fingers were longer and more tapered. "What? What am I?"

Garr shook his head. "There were hakima present. How you hit the Rules for *that* I'd like to know, but you're a dragon."

"Oh, well that isn't so bad then," Nabiki sighed thankful she wasn't going to turn into one of those overly pneumatic teenagers. Wait a minute? "SAY WHAT?!"

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

Keian exited the tavern and saw something unexpected. It was a tribute to his mental endurance and adaptibility that after a mere week in Aramar that it phased him as little as it did.

Twelve foot long crystalline ants were not high on the list of things he had *expected* to see that day.

"Uhm, so you must be one of the Mu?"

*We are the Mu. You are the Keian.*

"Gag, it's the Borg."

*Reference unknown.*

"It was a joke," said Keian rubbing his forehead.

Ranma stepped up behind him. "The Mu don't understand individuality, much less things like humor."

"Oh yeah, telepathic hive," Keian mumbled as he considered the creature. Once you looked at it a number of differences between an ant and a Mu (besides the size and glass sculpture resemblence) became apparent. "I remember Alysse mentioned them but no details."

*Keian unit observing. Wild talent at threshold.*

"Wild talent?" Keian scratched his head, wondering what that was about.

"All humans in Aramar have a 'wild talent' - something about coming from universes with low magic to ones where it practically flows like water. Ya either sink or swim, if you sink the magic's changed you to something other than human. If you swim, you retain your humanity but you develop the talent. The Emperor's got luck, for him whatever can go right will. Ryune is a natural translator, if it's written he can decipher it. Jose's got a sort of combat sense."

"And you?"

"Me?" Ranma grinned and spread his hands. "Hey, I'm the best there is at the Art."

Keian allowed himself a smirk. "Of course. At least some things are eternal. Hey, wait a minute, these Mu don't come to witness *everyone* develop a wild talent, do they?"

"I don't think so."

*Answer: negative. Keian unit high potential. Universe of origin particularly low in magical energies. Potential equivelant of Emperor's luck factor. New arrivals worthy of closer examination.*

"Huh?" Keian said as that penetrated. A concept occurred to him, that each Mu was the equivelant of a server - each having considerable processing power on its own, but all were inextricably linked in an Internet connection. Each unit contributing its own psionic potential and all part of the same Hivemind. "No wonder the Emperor values the Mu so much."

"Hmmmm?" Ranma gave his colleague a side-glance. "He values them because they can stand against the Boskone and erect Inertial Barriers hundreds of miles long. Among other things. They can't do magic, but psionics are as natural to them as hands are to us."

Creatures that couldn't understand human nature and were that powerful, and they were interested in him. Keian wasn't thrilled with this. "oh my."

Ranma snickered. "I'll trade you. I've still got to go through my Ordeal for Sapphirerank."

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

"She's coming to," said a voice.

Shampoo groaned and wished people would lay off the double entendres. Before opening her eyes she started categorizing her awareness of the environment, as there had been enemies present last time she had been conscious.

A cool breeze, fairly strong, with a definite sea tang to it. The peculiar thrum she'd noticed in her brief experience with skyjammers before. A feeling as if she'd been imbedded into the ground by some colossal weight, only to be pried up out of it later. She also appeared to be tied to some rough surface.

"Geez, I thought humans recovered faster than this."

Shampoo let her eyes flutter open. She discovered that she was tied to the prow of a ship that was barely twenty feet above the surface of the water and going about 45mph. "Aaaaaaaa!"

"I expected better from a human Amazon."

"What am I doing here?!" Shampoo noticed the ship was now slowly approaching the water.

"You're going to Boot Camp, of course!" The Amazon who had been speaking leaned over the railing enough for Shampoo to see a glimpse of blonde hair and blue eyes. "Didn't want you to drown so we waited for you to wake up before we start skimming the waves at high speed."

"WHAT?!" Shampoo stared as the water came closer, with droplets splashing her repeatedly. "Where are my clothes? What kind of stupid training is this?! Why (glug) (gurgle) (cough)"

"Endurance training, toughness, and higher pain threshold." The Amazon disappeared back over the railing. "Okay, hold her steady and start increasing the speed till we get to max."

There were a few Amazons protesting the gentle treatment of the Outsider. It was pointed out by others that just because the Chinese girl had a husband, that was no reason to get jealous. Besides, did any of *them* want to explain to her betrothed how she'd been injured?

Shampoo blinked. A husband? She caught Ranma after all? Another splash caught her.

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

NAME: Jared Saotome
OCCUPATION: Hero/Planewalker, currently involved in a Quest (major) of Good Vs Evil on his homeplane.
CLASS/LEVEL: Mage (Generalist) 25; Cleric of Gaia (Druid)17; Martial Artist (kensai) 19; Psionicist (Psychometabolist, Telekinetic, Senpsi) 9, Veritech pilot 14
RACE: Demigod
KNOWN ABILITIES: Shapechanging, control of fire, immunity to fire, Tongues, supernatural physical endurance and healing factor, aura of command, spells and psionic use.
SUSPECTED BUT UNCONFIRMED: Child of Sif of the Norse pantheon when Loki impersonated her husband one night as part of a trick. The boy was smuggled off to the mortal planes until such time as Sif could assure her illegitimate child would be safe again in Valhalla.

Mina blinked and looked up at the Amazon who had handed her the pamphlet. "No wonder there were so many girls after Jay-chan!"

Myn nodded. "Heck, he was even considered a better catch than Ranma. Of course, you read that bit on page two about him being involved in a 'war of Good Versus Evil against desperate odds'? Heroes of *all* ages wanted a piece of that. Especially the Amazons, do you know why?"

Mina nodded. "It's a fight, and it's a good cause."

Myn grinned at her Analogue. "Exactly. You understand our ways quite well."

Mina grinned back only to let out a startled noise as the pamphlet was snatched from her hands.

"Psionicist?! When did I become an esper?! And Loki is my BROTHER not my father! Gee, they..." Jared stopped as he noticed that he had become the center of an old EF Hutton commercial. Everyone was staring at him. "Errr. Would you believe Loki was a nickname?"

Everyone present slowly shook their head from side to side in an eerie synchronization.

"What's a 'senpsi' anyway?" Mina decided to break the uncomfortable silence.

"A psionicist is a person who manipulates the powers of their mind and body rather than a mage who manipulates magical energies. A senpsi is a psionicist who uses the martial arts to increase the flow of energies within their body and use those arts to discipline mind and spirit and body and forge all into a weapon." Myn smiled and regarded the Pheonix Mage speculatively.

Jared frowned. In the AD&D terms he was familiar with, a psionicist used 'psionic strength points' but it *sounded* like the Amazon was talking about chi mastery. "Well, anyway Mina, we really need to get going."

"Great, I'll get Tarre and the others!" Mina sparkled as she went to get the other new allies.

"Tarre? Others? Oh boy..." Jared suppressed the desire to flee back to his plane immediately. The fight against the Dark Kingdom was beginning to look rather more attractive than staying here any longer.

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

Genma stretched his considerable bulk up further, straining as he did so.

Religion was a sop for the masses. A weakness. He was strong. Nothing was sacred save the Art itself.

Big metal idols with a ruby eye, therefore, were fair game.

The gemstone wouldn't come out to his questing hand, and so Genma used a prybar taken from the shipping docks in the working section of the Temple. He smiled as the prybar found enough purchase that the prize flipped out into his eager hand. Now all he had to was sneak past those idiots who would allow their idol to be unguarded.

*INFIDEL!*

Genma leapt and ran as the voice (sounding rather like James Earl Jones growling with an odd echo effect) roared.

The doors that had parted so easily before, now showed every sign of being welded shut. Genma tugged on them a couple of times before motion behind him caused him to drop the ruby and clutch the prybar a little tighter. (Which showed how rattled he was as he'd meant to clutch the ruby and drop the prybar.)

The one-eyed serpent of greenish stone was bleeding from the eyesocket. That socket blinked and the ruby vanished from the floor to reappear where it belonged. Changing slightly to become a red-hued eye a moment later.

"AH! Have mercy on a harmless old man! I didn't mean anything by it!"

*Silence, fool. You intended to rob this temple of scrolls and anything else you could pry loose. The question is not of your guilt, but how much to make you suffer.*

"But I'm a father and my family... I mean I've got a son and daughter who depend upon me... I mean what about..." Genma started babbling while looking for a way out. Genma felt a sensation as if someone was rummaging around in his head.

*You have not adapted to the Rules either. How interesting. And you've already sold your son to the Amazons, and your daughter to the dwarves. Oh, wait, that was your drinking partner that sold his youngest daughter off. How... interesting.*

Genma noted the window to the chapel was too narrow for his bulk, the door was welded shut, and that the jade serpent was well over three tons and quite capable of swallowing him whole. Worse, those fangs looked like the kind that injected venom. Time for the Saotome Special Manuever: Crouch Of The Wild Tiger.

"Please, you've already taken your eye back. I didn't know it actually belonged to anyone. I'm just an old man, and I'm not in good shape. I'm sure I'd taste horrible..."

The serpent let Genma rattle on for another five minutes before interrupting him. *ENOUGH! Having to spend time with you is punishing me, and as a magical guardian that is an intolerable state of affairs. And as you are truly ignorant of the world and its ways, I shall let you go.*

"Oh thankyouthankyouthankyou." Bowing and scraping, it worked all the time.

*But as you are not repentant, a punishment is still necessary. Perhaps losing an arm or a leg? Your wagging tongue? Perhaps turning you into a cockroach or similar vermin?*

"Ah, well..." Genma thought quickly. It had thought the selling part was interesting? Maybe... "I have a daughter!"

*Eh? Midori Saotome, yes, I saw the child in your memory.*

"I'll sell her to you, she'd be much tastier than I would be." Genma smirked inwardly, after all he could always steal her back.

*Raise your right hand. Swear the oath that appears in your heart.*

Genma raised his right hand. He swore the oath, never intending to honor the thing.

A flash of magic and rumble of thunder punctuated the end of the oath.

*So it is done. You may go, but know that I or my servants will come for the child soon.*

"Not a problem..." Genma's voice trailed off as the Temple faded around him and he reappeared in town, hours away from where he'd been. "Oh my."

"GENMA! HELP!" Soun came running up to grab Genma's gi collar. "For the love of all we hold dear, Genma, HIDE ME!"

Genma tried to take a step back in alarm. Soun looked nearly as frightened as if the Master had suddenly shown up. "What's the problem, Soun? It couldn't be that bad."

"You have no idea, do you?" Soun shuddered. "I was trapped inside a clay statue for hours, and then THEY caught me!"

"What do you mean 'they' caught you?" Genma wanted a good idea of who they were running from before he decided on which direction.

"Saotome, they *married* me!" Soun began shaking. "It was all so confusing and it happened so fast, and the sake was pouring like water."

"You've married again, Tendo? Congratulations." Genma's smile faltered. "Waitaminute. 'They' as in plural?"

"THERE HE IS!"

Soun fled.

Genma watched as four women, err, females gave chase. One had fur and a tail. The one riding some big bird had gills and blue skin. One was four feet tall at most, with pointed ears and a shock of red hair. She seemed to linger near Genma for a moment before racing off after her partners. The last one in the procession flew along on a *broomstick.*

Genma sweatdropped. Profusely. Then was grateful that nothing bad had happened to him, yet.

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

"Are you OK, Midori?"

Midori shook her head before smiling at the Amazon. "Just had a chill."

Senbei shrugged slightly and dove down through the clouds, her telekinetic field causing a sort of splash effect when she emerged on the other side.

"Aw, c'mon, it's just a chill," Midori protested from where she was being carried.

"It might be nothing, or it might be a Seeming," declared the senpsi. "This world can be dangerous, Little Flower, and I would rather not see you risked."

Midori got a sly expression on her face. "Well, then, you ought to teach me this chi stuff, shouldn't you? Just to put me at *less* risk?"

"That is up to your mother." Senbei struggled over the unfamiliar word briefly as she considered the eight year old's words. "If she permits, then it *might* be possible."

Midori hid her grin. Being able to do that Project Force thing and throw chi blasts, fly, harden your skin, and all the other tricks the senpsi had. How could a true martial artist (such as herself) *not* want to learn this stuff? Besides, if she could teleport then she could get away from her father whenever he was being a putz.

The youngest Tendo thought that she'd found her niche.

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

Nodoka watched from the square as her daughter flew about, being carried by that nice young martial artist Amazon.

"So, Saotome-san, have you considered the possibility?"

Nodoka tore her eyes away in order to regard the Elder in front of her. "I have. And I think you're quite correct. Genma selling Ranma while bar hopping does not sound like the sort of behavior I want my daughter learning."

Elder Hibari sipped on her tea briefly. "Fortunately we were keeping an eye on the two. We *persuaded* the demonologist and the necromancer to surrender their contracts. Otherwise the Tendo baby and your young daughter there..."

"Why are such people tolerated in your Empire?" asked Nodoka, deciding to focus on something besides the antics of her husband and his friend.

"Because, Saotome-san, this isn't a perfect society, but it *is* stable and unifies a lot of different people. Thereby putting risks down into acceptable parameters for the most part." Hibari set the cup down to regard the human woman. "Demonologists, black sorcerers, necromancers, even a few beings thought of as monsters elsewhere, all live together in a cooperative environment.

"Demonologists are clerics of Surtag, embodying one of the nine major philosophies. Their contract for the youngest Tendo was pre-empted by the one the dwarves had made anyway. All it took was a word to the right dwarves and they are now guarding the child. A sensible precaution, all things considered, but the dwarves are generally a sensible people. By taking Aka-chan to their warrens to raise her, they assure the child of a stable home life and protection from various forces that see her as a reborn Scarlet.

"Necromancers raising skeletons and zombies commonly use contracts such as that. A few gold now, they get your body later. Upon the death (sometimes premature) of the contracted individual, the necromancer has a new servitor. The necromancers frequently find use in the garbage heaps and in sewer work. Anything simple that sensible folk aren't happy doing. They are tolerated, if most people would rather not associate with them.

"As for the monsters, the usual attitude is that if you obey the laws and aren't offensive, you're tolerated here. Hence the presence of the occasional vampire, hobgoblin, vyort, or ravener. Some have even managed to become accepted though they have a harder row to hoe than, say, an orahm or an Amazon."

"I see..." Nodoka agreed, sweatdropping a bit as three thri-kreen (mantis-like centauroids) walked by their table. "And you say that you could provide a safe environment for Midori."

The Elder looked flatly at Nodoka. "No. I did not say that at all."

Nodoka waited until the waitress, or waiter, she wasn't quite sure what the large mound of fur was much less its gender, had refilled her cup before raising an eyebrow at Hibari. "Exactly what then are you offering?"

"Relative safety. It isn't unheard of for someone of another race to be adopted into a House. You gain many things. Stability and a home, family and community, training for your daughter and yourself if you like, protection from that which we *can* protect against, guidance from some of the worse dangers of this world. True safety? I will not promise anything I cannot deliver."

Nodoka smiled and set her cup down. "That being an honest answer, it is one that I will accept. House Rising Sun it is."

"The only problem is that you'll probably never see your husband again," Hibari offered.

"This is a problem?"

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

Jared finally stood before the menhir ring and watched as those from his universe returned to that universe, ready to once more take up the battle against Evil.

"Okay, kitty cat. Come out now."

A shadow detatched itself. It wasn't the one he had expected.

"I'm not sure why you call me 'kitty cat' Mage, but my compliments on seeing through my
'Shroud Of Stealth' spell. Not many could."

"Lijra Diamondrank, isn't it?" Jared stared at the ardrow. Black skin, white hair, yellow eyes. Sensuous and attractive if you could get over the coloration. Not that unlike any number of drow women out of certain underground cities on Toril. Dressed in a simple housedress and blouse, with a parasol perched jauntily over one shoulder. "Ranma's adoptive mother here, magic specialty is the enchantment of seemingly ordinary household items."

She inclined her head towards the planewalker. "Pheonix Mage, Jared Saotome. Twenty six hours, thirty seven minutes remaining before coming under the Rules for Diamondrank status. Specialty in flashy heroics and unintentionally wooing young maidens."

Jared laughed nervously and briefly. "It's not my fault." He idly noted the ardrow wasn't casting a shadow. "Projected image?"

"Diamondranks and Nameranks tend to not move around much," she confided. "Adventures tend to come calling and one of the Rules is that an adventure will always produce opponents of sufficient strength to challenge the quester. At my level, that could be a problem for the common folk around me."

Jared's magical senses finished penetrating the shifting cloak of spells to "read" the individual within. Kindness and compassion were the primary traits of this darkskinned elf, like some negative photo image of Belldandy. Love and pride in her son. An echo of sadness deep below it all. "And to what do I owe this visit?"

"Genma Saotome has just sold his son Ranma to House Southern Cross of the Amazons. He has also sold his daughter Midori to a guardian spirit of the Silver Temple."

Jared spent a few moments explaining, in great detail, a multiple layered curse which would bind a night hag to Genma Saotome to torment him for what would likely be a very short life.

"His wife, on the other hand, has just been adopted into House Rising Sun. His daughter too. As such, he no longer has any claim to either." Lijra seemed to study something out of the projection field. "Also, you needn't wait for the one named Nabiki. She has come under the Rules for a copper dragon and will be spending a considerable amount of time exploring the new options before her as well as learning how to use her new trueform."

"A dragon? How..." Jared blinked picturing a gleaming dragon coiled around her hoard counting yen and being the typical mischievous and greedy dragon of that type. "How appropriate. That still doesn't tell me why you chose to observe my leaving this world."

"Perhaps, it was not *you* that I was primarily concerned with," was the quiet comment.

Jared blinked. "How did Scarlet intersect your life?"

The sadness showed itself plainly for a moment on the archmage's face. "Almost two hundred years ago, fifty years before Scarlet vanished from this world, a young member of the City Watch attempted to stop a figure seen flitting along the rooftops of Port Shadar. His name was Abrahim, a human planewalker much like the Emperor. He died, slain by a technique of the Black Rose assassins known as the Quivering Palm."

"Your husband," said Jared. It was not a question.

"I was ready to cast a Seekerspell and link it to Conflagration. To take the whole of my being and use the force of the spell to turn her into less than ash." Lijra looked off into the distance. "But that would have been against the very law my Abrahim served and died for. Instead I continued to monitor Scarlet, known to the goblinkin as the Pale Lady, in case she ever returned to the Empire. Fifty years later, the pattern changed. Scarlet was there, and she was not. Eventually that pattern shifted too, and Scarlet became just another legendary figure like the Broken Man and Kiera Kinslayer."

"And then a human, like your long-dead husband arrived, a child. One who spoke often of an Art that he would master, and you adopted the child as your own."

"Ranma Saotome," agreed Lijra. "Do not worry about Genma Saotome or those you leave behind, godling."

Jared winced at the title. "Not the godling. Just a guy who's got a few extra classes under his belt."

"Superspy adventurer, mage, martial artist, monk, druid, do you even know yourself? Nonetheless, man of many talents, know that you are welcome here in the unlikely event that you can find your way here again."

Jared shook his head. "I know the ways are difficult to navigate save for a native, but that's my..." Jared paled. Wild talents were something that native humans had. How close was he to adapting to the Rules? Without another word he ducked within the Worldgate and vanished.

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

Kasumi stood behind Megumi and held onto the Amazon's waist tightly. Not that she was frightened, but she found this method of travel to be both new and exciting.

The potential for falling, though, worried her a bit.

Megumi stood on the disc of amber energies and directed the course and speed with gentle movement of her hands.

Kasumi estimated their current altitude as about 7,000 feet and speed in excess of 90mph.

Behind them, on a ship as her own shakti was incapable of those speeds, Princess Usagi was arguing with another co-wife about who should accompany Ranma to learn what his Ordeal would be like. Naturally, the paladin felt that *she* should be the one.

A wave of displaced air pulled Kasumi's attention to her "teacher" pulling alongside them. It had been *his* suggestion that Kasumi take a break from her new studies. Kasumi was having a little trouble with reconciling the usual appearance of silver-haired elf with his trueform.

Some accounts placed Frostbite's age as 700 years or older. Whatever the truth, he was classed a "mature adult" by the standards of dragonkind. Kasumi thought he was pretty.

Eighty feet long, including the tail which had obviously been bitten short sometime in the past. His gleaming skin was covered with such fine scales that one had to look close to dispel the image of a living sculpture of silver.

Kasumi had sliced her hand open examining those scales earlier, and had been shocked and surprised when she found herself muttering a few words of magic in response. It had been her almost instinctive casting of the Cure Light Wounds that had prompted the dragon-priest to declare a break in the studies.

"Look," Megumi yelled over the wind, breaking Kasumi's reverie. "Here comes the mail."

Kasumi looked in the indicated direction and made out a form diving from far above their altitude to go swooping towards the port area. "Is that another silver dragon?"

"That's Celsius, a mercury dragon. She was raised by a member of the Imperial staff. Her hoard is one of those guarded by the Emperor in a castle vault specifically designed for that purpose." Megumi pointed at where Celsius had just looped the field twice. "She mainly does courier duty between Cross Isle and Shadar Hi, and..."

Kasumi began to tune Megumi out as she went on about the dragon's rumored exploits hunting for some thrills in aerobatics and an unrequited love with another dragon of the same breed in the mountains of the other landmass.

She was worried about Ranma's Ordeal. The rumors concerning THAT had been dark and fearsome. Also mainly contradictory.

Kasumi just held tight to Megumi's waist and let the other girl pilot for now. There was much to worry about, including whatever was going on with Akane right now.

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

Ranma shook his head as he looked over the engine and started explaining the odd device in more detail to Keian. It helped take his mind off the Ordeal looming up before him.

"These pink crystals," Ranma indicated the outer slats fixed in a cage around the central shaft, "have a sort of charge to them. They convert movement of this outer cage to movement of the ship, magnified by the amplifier crystal there at the end of the shaft."

"That's the purple one?" Keian nodded. "And the central shaft has a different charge that pushes against the slats. This control changes the angle of the slots, this brakes the outer wheel, and this changes the angle of the cage itself."

"And that is the basics of skyjammer control." Ranma nodded at the less experienced mage. "It's enough for you to be able to handle basic operation, though you need to pass a proficiency test for dockings and takeoffs within major traffic areas. There's also a modified spelljammer helm for backups, but as that drains your spell ability and requires an experienced mage, it's generally avoided."

"No version for psionics?"

"Of course there is, but as you've decided to study magic, you'll eventually become a mage. Psionics and magic are a rare combination." Ranma examined the pivots.

"If I can get ball bearings worked out..." Keian eyed the worn copper joins and greased rings. He'd spotted a half dozen uses just for something simple like ball bearings. The big cities had a form of internal plumbing, but it could be improved hundreds of ways.

Ranma listened to the other human for awhile, detailing plans and ideas and innovations. He wondered idly if this was Keian's wild talent.

"So how many girls did you end up marrying?"

Ranma winced. "Six.In three hours we have our first get together. Sixteen hours after that I report to the Castle where the Mage's High Council give me my Ordeal."

"Damn. I only got three wives, and I'm expecting that to be an Ordeal all its own." Keian chuckled until he heard a throat being cleared that did not sound like Ranma's. "Oops. They're still on board, aren't they?"

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

Shampoo was cut from the prow of the ship, and the living figurehead gradually peeled from her position to land with a 'splut' noise in the practiceyard.

The drill sergeant, a massive Amazon who had a touch of dwarf ancestry, looked over the crumpled heap in the sand and expressed her hopes that the purple haired girl hadn't been discomforted by the beginning of training.

"WHAT?! Look at this! You expect me to turn *this* into a warrior?! What a pathetic lump! I thought I was going to have some sort of human Amazon to train! This?! This is nothing, this isn't worth anything! This... is unconscious." The drill sergeant threw the fainted Amazon over her shoulder. "Damn, all that vitriol for nothing."

"Maybe we should have avoided the ice fields," suggested Mika.

"Maybe we shouldn't have cut across the volcano," speculated Miya.

"Maybe we shouldn't have spent all that time in the water fighting the giant squid?" Mita asked in a quiet voice.

There was a moment of quiet. "NAH!" All three Amazons exclaimed at the concept.

"Can't show favoritism," said Mika with a nod.

"Ranma's always said that a human is the equal of an Amazon," said Miya as she took a stance similar to Mika. "Height and relative armor value notwithstanding."

"Hasn't he been proving himself wrong on that count before? Errr, I mean, we can't let someone slide just because she's acting like a member of the weaker sex, right?" Mita tried to adopt the same pose as the other two Amazons.

Tiramisu walked by. "Oh, and who is going to explain to a certain priestess of Etragar that her Amazon sister *failed* Boot Camp because you expected her to be able to keep up with a Delphins? Who is going to explain to a certain DRAGON..."

Miya, Mika, and Mita considered this with little sweatdrops forming.

"Okay, maybe," allowed Miya.

"maybe we could like..." Mika remembered hearing about the *last* time a really powerful dragon had taken a human mate (a temporary infatuation, the human only lived for sixty years) and that mate had been put into danger. Mika winced, heavily.

"...see if she's OK?" Mita said hopefully.

Three young Amazons ran for the infirmary.

"Kids," rumbled Tiramisu. Then shrugged. She had been young once herself.

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

Kasumi considered her "co-wives" and wondered why she wasn't more upset. Perhaps it was just that she was going with the flow, or perhaps it was finding that she genuinely liked these other girls.

Megumi was a Knight Arcane, one of the select holy warriors of the Silver Temple. As it appeared that Kasumi was to become a Healer, Megumi had appointed herself Kasumi's Warder. Healers did not fight, generally, it was the duty of the Warder to protect the Healer though often the reputation of the Healers was enough. An Amazon, so she was taller by a few inches than Kasumi, and much stronger. Samurai and a warleader who had led troops into battle against inhuman monsters prior to earning her shakti.

Megumi had apparently met and worked with Ranma aboard a few ships over the years and had kept her eye on the mage. Megumi had kept to the Emperor's hands off policy and hadn't approached Ranma, though she had stuttered and blushed when Kasumi had asked how closely the samurai had watched Ranma.

Usagi was a princess! A bit clumsy, a bit nieve, a bit overenthusiastic about going out to find evil to vanquish, but a nice girl. She was also a Knight Arcane, though Megumi was more defense oriented and Usagi more into the smiting kind of thing. She was at least half-Amazon, and was a paladin (Kasumi still wasn't quite sure what that meant) of the Steel Temple. Usagi wanted to be First Wife, but backed off upon finding out that Kasumi was to be a Healer. Right now there was an argument between Usagi and Megumi (going on fairly loudly from the sound of it) about who was to be Kasumi's Warder.

Usagi had known Ranma less than Megumi. She had only worked with Ranma once, aboard the Amazon ship "Keshi No Hana" but felt that she had staked her claim and that was it. Apparently Ranma had rescued her once when she'd gotten in over her head and the girl had fantasized about him ever since.

Kasumi envied the two Amazons. They could be open in their interest and affection towards Ranma, where Kasumi felt constrained by the standards of her previous society.

Then there was... Kaera. Kasumi wasn't quite sure of what to make of the kirrfolk, or how she was supposed to act around her. Amazons looked human, or at least mostly. Other than height and a few other details. Frostbite took a near-human form and it was easy for Kasumi to think of him as that form, even though the others had informed her that the huge dragon was actually his real form. Thurin, that dwarf, was kind of like a short human. She'd seen nymphs and winged elves and they *mostly* looked human.

Kaera was... well... she was likable. But she wasn't human, nor likely to be mistaken for one except at a distance. Even a dozen yards away, Kasumi thought she could have thought of the kirrfolk policegirl as a human in an alien costume. The closer one got, though, the less chance that illusion would last. The soft fur (white along the front, orange-gold nearly everwhere else) covering the scantily clad catwoman might be dismissed as a costume. The expressively moving tail was another story. The slight muzzle grinned to show a set of teeth that could have been human, but that fit that muzzle too well for a mask. The nose, almost always twitching, just below two odd green eyes that seemed to mix human and feline features. The joints were also wrong, but you had to see how fluidly she moved to see how different she must be put together.

Kaera was a kirrfolk, which Frostbite had explained to her as being of a race originally engineered from human, cheetah, and leopard genes as a race of slaves. They had won their freedom in the ogrii revolt. Kaera's view was that this was all untrue, and the kirrfolk were a group of humans who fought the Elven Empire's genocide by being tranformed by great magic into a warrior race that could stand against the elves.

She had fingers like a human, but the tips terminated in retractile claws. Her ears stuck out slightly and moved like a cat's to catch every sound. She was nice and kind and playful. And she scared Kasumi simply by being what she was. Alien.

Aura, frequently arguing with Usagi and/or Megumi, was also quite alien but concealed it better. One could see her in human form and forget that this wasn't some blue-eyed California girl and could readily believe she was Usagi's half-sister.

Then she'd change, her form flowing like water. And what replaced the "California girl" was as alien as Kaera. As a half-dragon, her dragonform was as real as her human form. Instead of mixing, the two were both her real form and she switched easily from one to the other though it was apparently tiring in some manner. Her dragonform, Kasumi was told in whispered aside, was a bit of a runt. Roughly half the size of a true dragon her age, and only able to breathe flame without using the dragonspell of Change Breath Weapon.

It was curious that her physical strength and grace were abyssmal in human form, while her endurance and self-control suffered as a dragon. The opposite was also true, and Kasumi had watched the graceful and quick dragon turn into a human who could trip over her own shadow.


Then there was the final member of the six. With two of the wives being Princesses, it wasn't that difficult to believe the sixth member of their group would be odd even by the standards of the rest of the group.

Kasumi the Healer, Megumi the Samurai, Princess Aura the Dragon, Princess Usagi the Holy Warrior, Kaera the catgirl Ranger, and then there was Riverdance.

A nymph of water, what they called a naiad. A girl with pale blue-green skin that felt slick and soft. She had been eyeing the other wives rather hungrily, which tended to put everyone else a bit off. Her appearance also tended to throw people off. Some naiads grew hair on their scalp but like all nymphs was hairless everywhere else. Riverdance had no hair other than her eyelashes.

Hair wasn't the only thing Riverdance was missing. Restraint was another thing clearly missing from the nymph (not that many nymphs had much of this quality at all). Megumi had reported that she had attempted to bathe and then noticed the water moving on its own. Not the most auspicious of omens.


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

Halflings: a term for the various races that are "half the height of an elf" (actually they are four feet in height at maximum, but the name has been in use for Ages) but bigger than a pixie (1.5ft) found on Aramar. They are otherwise unrelated. Most were genetically engineered hybrids from human and animal stock in the First Age, but a few have come from offplane during the Age Of Planar Exploration (Sixth Age of Man).
Burrowers: halflings that look like pudgy badgerfolk, usually just under three feet in height. They have heavy foreclaws and bristly coats. Burrowers are fastidious underground dwellers who prefer low light levels and are notoriously shortsighted. It is not unusual to find them dwelling near dwarven settlements, as the burrowers lack the manual dexterity to be skilled craftsmen, while the dwarves generally prefer not to be farmers. They eat mainly plants, though they are also fond of various types of insects.
Orahm: averaging 2 1/2 feet in height to just over three feet, these furred halflings are apelike in appearance. Strong, with oversized arms in relation to their body, as well as foot-hands which are prehensile if not as dextrous as their other hands. Orahm pursue a single calling in life, usually a trade such as forestry or engineering, and become monomaniacally consumed with the pursuit of that calling.
Talf: A group that looks like the typical halfling of other worlds, except more in keeping with human/elven proportions. One of the problems with talf is the odd gender role within the species. If a male talf associates with an all male group regularly, the male talf begins a shift towards female. The reverse is also true. The shift takes two weeks and is described as being quite uncomfortable, often with extreme mood swings. Making it more complicated is that the male talf tend to be more dominant-aggressive, while the females tend to act more submissive. Forced into either a dominant or submissive role has also been known to trigger the shift. Female/male balances within the talf are normally 3:1. Other than this peculiar quirk, they tend to conform to what outsiders normally think of halfling society.
Kenku: a falcon/human sort of hybrid halfling, normally very reclusive. Kenku tend not to get along with each other except for families, staking out territorial boundaries by instinct. All members of the race possess some limited telekinetic abilities, with some members possessing great psionic abilities. There are a few mages, and mage/psionicists, and clerics among their number as well.
Decori: These halflings are aquatic in nature, called the "otterfolk" by some. Resembling sleek humanoid otters, they are playful and mischievous in nature. On the negative side, it is a rare decori who can keep attention on a single subject for more than a few minutes. They are often described as flighty or scatterbrained, though often goodnatured. Their main settlement is an extended set of partially-underwater caves and tunnels along the southern coast of Cross Isle. Three to four feet in height.
Mouselings: Up until recently (Sixth Age) were known as the orra. Emperor Mannin Shades referred to them constantly as mouselings and the name came into wide usage. They look like humanoid mice, averaging three to four feet in height, often pudgy and mainly herbivores like the burrowers. They are extremely clean and neat and take pains about their appearance. Average close to four feet in height.


=============================




A Different Art, Chapter 8: Reunion
gregg sharp

Disclaimer: Not mine. Keian appears courtesy of Kevin W Patterson, Ranma 1/2 char by Takahashi. Aramar setting by me.



Keian was grateful for the protection of Cloudrunner's "Resist Fire" spell as he looked into the raging column before him. With a motion he'd practiced on the way here, he caught a swirling bit of ash within the specially prepared box and waited for the next.

With the Sundering, Aramar had ceased to be the Ninefold Worlds and had been rebuilt as a single world. With the Sundering, travel to and from the Nexus Plane had become difficult and full of twists and turns. The mechanism of magic had altered slightly too.

Now the energies of paradimensional chaos were shaped and released by what they called Keytowers. Each of these was said to release a different kind of magic into the world. Transmutation magic was the Keytower to the southwest of Nihon, and on that island anything and everything except the tower itself changed from moment to moment due to the discharge.

It had taken over a month, but Keian was now standing at the only other Keytower whose location was known to the Shadar Mage Corps. The Tower Of Fire as it was called.

Flames twisted around Keian without touching him, but if he stepped forward another few feet the spell protecting him would evaporate like snowmelt in a hot furnace. Followed almost instantly by every molecule in his body dissolving under the heat.

The force was channelled up as if through a cannon, and only trace leakage was responsible for the burned and blackened landscape and the thousand mile high pillar of flame.

The Tower Of Change had the Mantaran Artifact within its bowels, forming the linkage between the pure energies of elemental chaos and the magic of transmutation. Somewhere below him, Keian knew, was an object of similar power tied to the element of fire.

Keian left the inferno, deep in thought. Here was where some researchers came to observe the spells and energies directly, and thereby glean details of powerful fire spells and wards. That, of course, was why he had come. That and to catch a few bits of ash from where dust particles continually swirled in the inferno, clumping briefly, then disintegrating again. Except that if one personally caught three flecks of ash from the Tower, one could use them to enchant an anti-fire charm.

He hadn't gone more than twenty yards from the flame when his familiar's presence loomed. This brought another smile to his face. Many things about Aramar reminded him of an old game he had once played, AD&D, but then the world would throw him a curve ball.

One of those curve balls had been casting a "Find Familiar" spell. In AD&D, it was a random thing and one was likely to end up with a toad. In Aramar, one's inner nature was reflected in what kind of familiar one had. In AD&D, most beginning mages had a familiar while the higher power ones did not. In Aramar, a large number of mages of all ranks had familiars and one could guess what the mage was like by what their familiar was like. A big old friendly mutt was the familiar of the good-natured mage Kenimere. A razorcat was the familiar of Dagnabus the Easily Angered.

The critter that looked like a winged tiger (except for it being only just under three feet in length) hissed uncomfortably at the heat. *Home?*

"Yes, Tigger," Keian addressed his familiar. Not as intelligent as a person, about the level of a smart dog, but capable of mindlinking with him. To Tigger, home was the ship.

Cloudrunner hovered nearby. "Did you get it?"

"Three ashes from the Tower," Keian answered, holding the pillbox up.

"Oh. Hey, do you know what day this is," the winged elf zipped around him, her expression playful.

Keian nodded. "One year, two days ago, we were married. Which means that tomorrow Ranma finishes his Ordeal? Did you want to go see him?"

Cloudrunner laughed. "We're more than a month out by skyjammer. The most powerful spell you've mastered so far is Phantom Steed. How would you suggest we get there?"

Keian frowned. "We could try to get one of the researchers to teleport us, but I agree, it's probably not worth it."

Cloudrunner picked up on his mood and landed lightly near him. "Regrets?"

Keian sighed. "No, not really. I've seen so much in the past year. Those pillar-trees, as big as a skyscraper back home. The Dire Straits where Keira Kinslayer haunts the cliffs where she mistakenly slew the very family she'd tried to rescue. The Sky Islands and the Maelstrom, the hives of the Mu and the Dragonflight over Nihon. It's just that sometimes..."

Cloudrunner slipped an arm around him, then a wing. "You miss your homeland."

"Yeah," Keian brightened slightly. "Come to think of it, let's at least head back. It'll be interesting to see how Kasumi or some of the others are coping."

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

A small courtyard had been fashioned, and in the courtyard a ring of six pillars reached three elfheights to surround a simple pool of water.

Kasumi finished her ablutions, drawing on the healing magic of her patron to store within her for future need. Finishing, she drew herself up and looked out over the Faerwood to observe the flash of lightning and dark clouds of a distant storm.

"Be ready to get the linens in, Bartholomew," Kasumi advised in a quiet voice. "The storm will be here in 3 hours 27 minutes."

The mouseling straightened from his concealment behind one of the pillars. It would not do to interrupt the Mistress' meditation after all. "As you will, milady. Still time to let them dry some. Mistress Aura reports a delegation of pixies from the wood will arrive sometime early this morning."

"Oh dear, I hope they get here before the rain hits," Kasumi fretted slightly at the thought of the tiny winged faerie caught in the storm.

"There is also an excellent chance of your sisters arriving, though I would expect them to wait until after the storm." Bartholomew bowed as best he could, having learned long ago some of the Lady Kasumi's native customs and adopting them. Or at least trying to. Having a barrel chest and spine that was not really as flexible as a human's made his bowing a bit awkward.

"Make sure the dwarves have warning, you know how much they dislike surprises." Kasumi smiled at the little mouse-critter and tried to ignore the sudden urge to leap on a table and shriek the way she had when the butler/majordomo had first shown up in her kitchen. That hadn't gone over well in anyone's estimation but Thurin's, and the dwarf had complained later that he'd laughed himself sick.

Bartholomew remembered the incident without any prompting. "Thurin is liable to accompany Aka-chan, milady. And... there has been a bit of bad news."

"Yes?" Kasumi considered the storm for a moment. Much of Aramar was water, and most of it had the eternal noon effect. Storms tended to be massive affairs with quite a punch. She'd briefly wondered why have castles and towers, and why so many buildings were of mortared stone until she'd witnessed a full blown storm. Sturdy construction was definitely a good thing.

"Word has just reached us by an Imperial Esper," Bartholomew didn't like to say "ninja" as he felt the word was unlucky, "the Emperor died in his sleep three days ago. There is talk about who is to be his successor. Princess Aura and Usagi left immediately on hearing the news."

"Oh my, I'm so sorry." Kasumi had only met the Emperor once, which was once more than Ranma had, but Imperial audiences were actually fairly rare. Kasumi's impression had been that the Emperor was old and tired and probably trickier than a dwarven locksmith. "They'll miss Ranma's return, but I can't really blame them."

Bartholomew nodded. "I'm told that Emeraldis has all but shut down for the mourning. Lady Megumi is off meeting your mother-in-law and sister-in-law to guide them in. Kaera is hunting, and relayed the message that she hopes you appreciate the gesture."

Kasumi nodded happily. Kaera was kind, nice, and still scared Kasumi. Not because of how she acted, and Kasumi had gotten used to the exotic feline looks. But Kaera was, by instinct, a savage hunter who frequently ate raw meat that she had just chased down. Kaera couldn't handle large amounts of rice and many other typically Japanese (or Rising Sun) foods produced a reaction in the kirrfolk similar to Kasumi's reaction on seeing Kaera wipe the blood off her muzzle.

There were a number of other activities that Kasumi's various co-wives did that she had trouble with. Everyone made allowances for different cultures and physiologies. Right now one of Kaera's kind little gestures had been to take one of her three day hunting trips to give the First Wife some quality time with their returning husband. Kasumi understood and appreciated this, and also understood that it probably wasn't the right time of month for Kaera to have that much interest in a male. Sexually at least. Otherwise, nice intentions or no, Kaera would scent her chosen mate and literally claw her way through intervening walls to be with him.

She knew this because Kaera herself had cautioned her about this sort of thing. Followed by Megumi, followed by Usagi, followed by Aura. She had been duly warned. When Kaera got *that way* it would be best to get out of the way. Or, as kirrfolk could be uninhibited by Kasumi's standards, they'd be "having three for breakfast" as the elven saying went.

"Bartholomew, relay my sympathies to the Court, and let everyone else know." Kasumi tried to think of what else she should do but drew a blank.

"Yes, milady. May I then lower the Imperial Crest to halfmast?" Bartholomew pointed idly towards the Shadarian flag flying from the watchtower.

"Yes, take care of the details, please." Kasumi nodded gratefully. If she gave Bartholomew free rein, he'd do everything that needed done. The little mouseling had been a gods-send in keeping the tower operating.

Bartholomew merely bowed and went about his duties. A busy mouseling, after all, was a happy mouseling.

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

Nabiki stretched her wings just a little further as she caught a thermal, spiraling slowly up until the storm was three cloud-layers below her. On Earth, the air would have been too thin at this altitude for her to breathe, even as a dragon. Here, it was about her top altitude for flight unassisted by more than her inherent dragonmagic. She estimated it as about 120,000 feet.

Nabiki was content, which might have surprised any number of her acquaintances back home. After all, she had been transformed into an inhuman monster sixteen feet in length that could transform back into human form through the magic of an armband. Yes, any number of people back home would think she was in a horrible situation.

The new Nabiki Tendo would have called them idiots.

She hadn't been thrilled with it to begin with herself. Especially as it became obvious that she needed to spend a *lot* of her time in her natural form. But gradually, she adapted and came to appreciate this form on its own merits.

First off was sheer power. She could fly on her own power, shucking off the shackles of ground-based existence with her inherent magic and powerful wings. When she wanted to attack, glands along her throat could spew forth a powerful stream of acid or her own strong talons and bite could make quick work of many obstacles.

Second was that once you got used to it, she considered the dragon form to have its own beauty. In the air she had practiced until she was as graceful and lithe as any serpent. Her body was largely a reddish brown, but the pebbly scales had a shiny copper tint to them along the outer edges.

She was a copper dragon, and therefore felt more comfortable in dry climes and in mountain ranges than the areas she now flew over. Rolling around in hot sands and snoozing in the sun, these were natural pleasures that she had discovered in the past year. Now she had sympathy for those like her sister, stuck in a frail human form that wouldn't even last one tenth the lifespan she could look forward to.

Finally she made out the valley. Like the much bigger Starfall, this valley was obviously an impact crater. Outer rim of mountains, almost circular valley, single large mountain in the middle. Nabiki's draconic mouth smirked in a manner that would have been instantly familiar to anyone who had known her when she had been human.

Eyes keener than any human's read the air currents and the clouds and decided to stop on the highest of the peaks in the outer rim. The storm would then pass below her and she wouldn't have to get wet. She could catch a nap for an hour or six, then fly the rest of the way when the way was clear.

Even though she had practiced flying for months, Nabiki knew it would take more than three hours of flight to make it safely to the rest area she had chosen. Copper dragon wings were less manueverable than the batlike wings of a bronze or silver, though they were better than the brass dragons. She also was not old enough or powerful enough to make use of the feng shui or any special abilities. Except, of course, to neutralize poisons - which had proven most useful after she had discovered how delicious a giant scorpion could be.

Nabiki chuckled as she noticed a ship moving far below her. If she *could* teleport, she'd have appeared in human form on their decks and scared them. There was no way that they, mere mortals, would have noticed *her*.

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

"Ya think that's Nabiki-chan?" The eight year old shaded her eyes with one hand, pointing with the other.

"Almost certainly, squirt!" Midori adjusted her clothing, wanting to look *just so* when meeting her brother's wife for the first time in eight months. Red hair brushed back into a ponytail, check. A green tunic that matched her eyes with the kanji for "Flower" (she was frequently called little flower due to her hair and tendency to wear bright clothing) in black embroidery inside a yellow sphere. Hose of a deeper green terminating in dark boots of an elven make. At her right hip was belted her backup weapon (her primary weapon being the Art), because a well dressed Amazon *always* had a weapon. In Midori's case, this was a simple pistol-style crossbow such as a number of Southern Cross Amazons favored. At her left hip a pouch that could be flipped open in a moment to reveal a variety of bolts for her crossbow, including some with silver heads. "How many coppers do ya think'd be out in THIS weather?"

Nodoka walked towards the prow of the ship, noting that the Amazons were covering the cannon and stowing cargo. She finally found the Captain at the very prow. "We're going through the storm?"

"Aye, Saotome." Melys turned to Nodoka briefly before regarding the storm again. "It looks a bad one, but nothing we haven't handled before. Looks like the rains are heavy, winds gusting to about 45, hail mixed with the rain and some lightning but not much."

"Relatively," allowed Nodoka, remembering some of the storms she'd been through out away from the cities. Catching sight of a shimmering curtain caused by radically different air masses, she pointed. "Is that a Zone over there?"

Melys after consulting a map. "Yeah, looks like it's a heavy one like the one near Fort Blacksands. Small reptine village. Won't bother trying to pronounce it."

Nodoka nodded absently. The last she'd seen that nice Chinese girl, Shampoo had been wearing heavy weights and in one of those heavy Zones. Nodoka wondered if Shampoo had survived Boot Camp.

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

Four months previous:

Shampoo entered the cave wearing her best new armor, her BDA (best dress armor) in fact. It had been a difficult year. Though Boot Camp had only lasted four months, advanced training had taken another two, and then another two months visiting other bases and repeatedly being tested.

She had faced warriors and pirates, goblins and the fiendish octopus men, undead that clamored for her blood and monsters who sought to feast on her flesh. She had faced them all, mostly without fear.

Now a proud Amazon facing another challenge, alone. Proud, but scared. Drug-crazed, spear-toting goblins would have been preferrable.

Now she proudly wore the three badges on the left upper sleeve of her armor. The first, showing her House to be that of Rising Sun. The second, her rank within the military organization of the House (Specialist) bisected by the branch (Home Guard). The third badge, the hardest one, wasn't something she had chosen but that had been planned for her the moment she had been taken to Boot Camp. The badge indicated her Specialty.

Shampoo checked herself as she wound her way through the narrow pass. The rod at her belt was a low level magical weapon, a spear that could collapse into a rod about the length of her thigh. The thick arrows were perfectly stored within her quiver. Shampoo's horsebow, the main weapon she had trained in for months, gleamed with a fresh painting of enamel.

A snuffling sound and a vague form shimmered into being as an emerald dragonmage dropped her Invisibility spell. "*About time, human.*"

Shampoo nodded as she walked past. This was her final test. One that she had learned of only five months ago. She'd learned more and more of it over the intervening time and the initial panic had run out. Though now, faced with the event herself, her stomach hurt.

"*Good luck.*" The emerald dragon called out telepathically after her, noting the big bad human's knees were shaking.

Finally Shampoo climbed down a short overhang and entered what she had hoped was the correct cave. The scratches left at the entry matched the sketch in her booklet, at least. Deep breathing could be heard within the dark depths, otherwise the only sound was the surf far below. Shampoo swallowed nervously, then steeled herself.

"I come here to offer challenge! By the ancient pact and rules of dragonkind, I, Shampoo of Nichieju, Warrior of Rising Sun, Amazon of two tribes, demand battle!"

The slow breathing stopped. "What? Who? Oh. It's that time, is it?" The voice was deep and spoken aloud with equipment that wasn't quite right for human speech.

Shampoo let out a deep breath. It sounded like her opponent hadn't expected her to show up and had been asleep. Maybe she could win quickly. "I call for the rite of Combat Of Subdual."

"Do you know what you ask, human?" The voice ended in a puzzled tone. "Why do you challenge me? And what stakes?"

Shampoo frowned at the deviation from the script. "I challenge you because I must. Show yourself, Frostbite!"

The shadows moved, the silver dragon emerging from his lair. "The stakes?"

"If I win, you forsake this marriage, I go back to Ranma and lose my position within Rising Sun. No holding back, no quarter. We fight until one cannot fight any longer."

The dragon sighed, long and low. "You would be dishonored within the terms of Rising Sun. You would be forever outcast. And if I should win?"

Shampoo twisted the rod, transforming it to spear form. Much more useful in close quarters like the tunnel to the lair. "Standard terms of dragonkin. But I do not intend to lose."

Frostbite blinked. Slavery if she lost, disgrace and exile if she won. He reflected that HIS Shampoo never done anything by half measures either. "I do not like this, and I do not wish to battle you. Unfortunately I do not have a choice as you invoked the pact."

"Then," Shampoo said as she began spinning the spear in a rapid blur, "let us battle! Defend yourself!"

A saddened expression flitted over the dragon's face. He waited for the Amazon to get within thirty feet before slamming out with his breath weapon, a blast of ice and snow that transformed the tunnel for eighty feet into a scene out of an Ice Age.

Observing the ice sculpture caught in mid-run towards him, Frostbite grumbled about stubborn damn Amazons with a chip permanently affixed to their shoulder. "Couldn't ever try doing this the easy way, oh no. Not the mighty warrior Shampoo!"

The ice crackled, cracked, and split, Shampoo stumbling forth with icicles hanging off of her. "Hah, I came prepared for you. This won't be that eas...."

Frostbite leapt forward, crashing into Shampoo and sending her flying out into the air. She caught a quick glimpse of the surf below her, way below her. Then she was snatched out of midair by a large pair of claws.

"*Your weapons are back in the cave. You've been disarmed Shampoo. Surrender.*"

"NEVER!" Shampoo beat on the claws holding her with her fists. "I am an Amazon, we don't surrender!"

"*Stubborn, foolish, prideful, stupid, stupid, STUPID!*" The dragon swept along the beach at high speed dropping the Amazon in a dune while berating her. "*You could just file for a divorce! We never consummated anything! You don't have to do this.*"

Shampoo spat blood and sand out of her mouth, seeing the dragon building up speed for another attack. "Okay, maybe I bit off a bit more than I can chew. But I will NOT...."

The rest of her speech was bitten off as the real Frostbite dropped Invisibility and slammed the Amazon face forward into the dune, then pressed down with all his weight. With a few deft movements, he buried the Amazon to her head in the sand, then settled down for a nice nap curled around her protectively.

Shampoo woke up a few hours later to discover she was well and truly trapped. Worse, she'd been stuck like that for three more hours until the dragon awoke. Seeing that she wasn't attacking anymore, the dragon freed her.

"*Well, Shampoo, if it means that much to you, I shall register that the marriage was never consummated and that we both agree it should be annulled.*"

"That was not the terms of the battle."

"Huh?" Frostbite sounded rather less intelligent than he would have preferred.

"You have won. Now if you will take elven form?"

Uncertainly, Frostbite shimmered and took his human guise. "I do not require or keep slaves, Shampoo.

Shampoo stepped close to the silver-haired elf, seeming to examine him closely. Then, with a playful smile, launched herself. "Wo da airen! Wo ai ni!"

"Huh?!" Frostbite repeated as someone wrapped herself around him. Sometimes he just didn't get humans, even though he had been one several centuries ago.

Shampoo snuggled herself against her husband, feeling that now she had at least done the proper thing by her own culture's standards.

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

"Now:"

Eighty feet of serpentine form glinted in the sun. Silver wings sliced air as dragon and rider coasted along at high speeds.

Shampoo munched on a few sandwiches in midflight, keeping an eye out for any attackers and her bow in the saddlehook that kept it ready for use.

There were many things one could say about their relationship. One of which would be that if Mousse had ever shown up and tried to come between the two, he most likely would have been buried the very next day.

Shampoo eyed a few distant specks and pulled out a spyglass kept on a tether to the saddle. She made a face and put the remains of her sandwich away when she made out the harpies. Ugly things, carrion birds without much to recommend them. Even kobolds had better dietary habits. About as much threat to her husband as the aforementioned kobolds.

"*Coming up on the Valley. Looks like a stormfront is passing through. Do you want to go through it?*"

Shampoo concentrated on the mindlink now that Frostbite had opened it. "If big strong Master wouldn't mind?"

There was a mental grumbling which Shampoo laughed at. She knew the big dragon didn't particularly care for the slave-master routine, but tolerated it as he knew full well that Shampoo would find some worse way of teasing him if he did not.

The dragonpriest grumbled aloud and claws moved in precise motions. Glowing white sigils appeared in the air, forming a transparent shield which stretched to cover them in a teardrop shape.

"We could just go through the rain!" Shampoo slapped the neck near her saddle.

"*It's rain and hail and thunder. I will *not* endanger the little one...*

"What do you..." Shampoo's eyes bugged. "You said 'little one'?!"

"*Remember three days ago when we...*"

"I remember, I remember," Shampoo yelled, blushing furiously.

"*Well, when we passed the coast, the wind changed and it brought your scent forward. Congratulations, wife.*"

Shampoo's eyes were bugging. A hand crept up to gently touch her stomach. "I..."

Frostbite grinned, careful that the dragonrider couldn't observe. He had suspected, but the latest change in scent made things obvious. He wondered if Shampoo was really ready for this though.

Shampoo made a mental note that as soon as they landed she would have to beat up a dragon for springing a surprise like this at the last moment. Was she getting enough vitamins? Exercise? What about her diet?

Enough of the rain got through the shield to bring her out of shock.

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

Kasumi watched from a tower window as the water came down. Aramar was BIG and it was mainly ocean. The sun shone without interruption over most of it, the "string of pearls" or near-orbit moons and clouds of orbiting gas and debris providing a few areas with occasional twilight. And there were Zones that had a sort of artificial nightfall. But over most of the surface of the world, the sun was brightly shining.

Which resulted in rain being frequent unless you happened to be in a desert zone or on the far side of some mountains sufficiently high that any low clouds that might dump rain were diverted.

There were occasionally days where only a light rain would fall. More frequently there were rainstorms that were hard enough to dim visibility to a hundred feet or less. All too frequently, one had rainstorms like this one where lightning seemed to walk along the ground but you couldn't tell for sure because the visibility was measured in inches.

Almost every variety of plant had long roots to protect them, and many areas had 'Weather Extreme Diminishing' wards cast and renewed simply as a precaution. But that was Ranma's job, and he hadn't been around to do it.

So Kasumi, as a priest of Etragar, politely asked the storm to be gentle around her house. And because of her status, the storm listened and abated its fury. Visibility increased to a hundred yards.

A dragon of silvery hue landing brought Kasumi up out of her chair, and she thought she saw a glimpse of purple hair as the dragon's rider dashed for shelter. "Keide?" Kasumi called one of the maids, a slender elven girl. "Keide, that girl must be drenched. Get her a towel and some dry clothes will you? Something that would fit a short Delphins."

The thin elf bowed and hurried about her task without a word.

Kasumi returned to watching out the window as the dragon held a few bags closer to the stables, allowing the handlers within to mainly keep dry while he was unloaded. Then the dragon went out into the rain to allow it to sluice over him, uncaring of the elements.

Kasumi recalled when she had last seen Frostbite. The dragon had come to the Tower barely three months after they'd all parted ways. He'd heard how close Kasumi and Shampoo had been, and had come to tell Kasumi of the training Shampoo had undergone and of the Delphins plan to get them married.

He'd also told Kasumi that a long time ago, he had met other versions of themselves, and had ended up married to Shampoo. There had been a long battle against a demonic force that had been slowly infesting their world and which had been drawn to the area where so much dimensional travel had been done. And, in order to appease her great grandmother, Shampoo had challenged HIM in dragonform. He'd been puzzled and had pinned her under one claw while wondering what was going on. Then, with her Great Grandmother watching, Shampoo had had Frostbite shift back to human form so she could declare him her husband.

Eventually the Evil had been beaten back and contained. Odd planewalking allies like that Celestial girl had appeared and strengthened their cause. Then Shampoo and Frostbite had returned here, though one of the injuries inflicted by the demons had left Shampoo barren. Shampoo had never learned of it, as it would have been devastating to her. Frostbite himself kept those memories blocked for the most part, using a draconic mind trick.

Kasumi had sympathized and agreed that it should be Shampoo's decision. Frostbite had been overwrought by the similarities and had had to dull the memories of his previous relationship to cope with it.

Keide (who usually went by the name of Leafwhisper but Kasumi tried to use her name without translating it from Elven) could be heard talking to Shampoo in the foyer. Shampoo's voice was complaining but Kasumi couldn't make out the words.

Frostbite remained out in the rain, which Kasumi took to mean that the two had had an argument. Oh dear.

A Delphins airship, rain sleeting off it, lowered itself out of the clouds as thunder crashed in the near distance.

Kasumi spent a moment watching the experienced Delphins tie the ship off and furl sails, not that they had much open as they navigated a storm. Still, the duties of a host are many, and Kasumi eventually made her way to the stairway and from there to one of the guest rooms.

"Kasumi!" Shampoo hugged her non-Amazon "sister" lightly but with affection. Kasumi took a moment to examine the girl and was pleasantly surprised. Shampoo had lost a bit of baby fat, and looked a little leaner and tougher, but was still the bouncy Amazon who had shown up at the Tendo Household what seemed like a King's Age ago.

Shampoo looked over Kasumi, and noted that Kasumi had changed, but it wasn't a physical change that she could put her finger on. It was more the aura of serenity and lasting peace and a sort of sense of timelessness that seemed to be a part of all the Healer Priests she'd met.

Kasumi eyed Shampoo's uniform, hung over a rod while it dried, and Shampoo wore the simple tunic and braies that was the unofficial 'off duty' clothes that Delphins favored. "Oh, you've got your specialist qualification!"

"Yes, I wish I could send notice to my Great Grandmother." Shampoo shrugged. Her whole village would be proud of her showing, she felt. It had been a *tough* time training, but she had done well as a representitive of her village.

"I'm sure she would be proud of you," Kasumi nodded, knowing from her own contacts that Delphins Boot Camp meant "one was treated as a boot."

Shampoo grinned at the priestess, certain she had *no* idea what the Amazon had gone through.

--------

Despite popular opinion, he was not dead. He'd lost his left hand. Been transfixed with arrows seven times. Crossbow bolts in his posterior, twice. Hit by lightning, fireballs, manna bolts, ice, magic missiles, flying discs, thrown knives and spears and other assorted martial weapons - more times than he'd care to remember.

He had been cursed at Jusenkyo, cursed as a thief, cursed as a temple thief, cursed as a tomb robber, cursed by a really powerful blackskinned white-haired elven sorceress, cursed by other things that he wasn't sure how to classify.

He had been chased by Amazons and little mouse thingies, and he'd had dragons after him.

But he was Genma Saotome, head of Clan Saotome (no matter what his grandfather or Nodoka might say), Master of the Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts (no matter what Happosai might say), the father of Ranma Saotome who had mapped out his destiny and life long before he was born and nobody was going to tell him any different!

That he was currently a statue of a panda, with a hose parked up his butt, water spraying out of his mouth, in a goblin village known as Dungwattle was of no consequence. He was Genma Saotome, and he would reclaim the boy and his retirement would be assured.

Now if only the pigeons would stop pooping on him.

--------

Ranma gripped the railing and looked over the deck. Once through the next set of Zones, he could use a "Teleport Without Error" and get directly to his tower. The problem was that Zones could be as small as a few feet wide, or a slash hundreds of miles across, but each had slightly different physical or magical properties. Some Zones had extremely heavy gravity or the air within them was thick or magic just misfired in odd ways. So, to get from the Imperial Palace (where he'd paid his respects to the widowed Empress) to the Lonely Tower required either two Teleports (from Emeraldis to Amberlake or Tympani and then to the Tower) or going past the Koradai Drift by other means and then using a spell.

There was also the occasional ghost or monster that could interfere with the really long range teleports, though these were rare.

The year of Ordeal had been quite difficult, and Ranma had surpassed his limits many times, but there could be no doubt about his earning the Sapphire Rankstone at this point. He'd been reinserted back into his universe of origin, and been repairing damage done by his previous visit.

When Soun Tendo returned, he would find the Tendo dojo much as he remembered it. Likewise the Amazon village had been repaired. The transformations and summonings had started becoming undone the moment Wyndlace died, it was the physical damage that was hard to erase. Spells used originally on spelljamming vessels like "Repair" had proven their worth, and Ranma thought he could cast a basic "Remove Curse" in his sleep now.

A scuttling noise brought Ranma's attention briefly back to the present. A large mantis-like creature bobbed her head and chirped unhappily at the mage. Ranma nodded in reply. A stormfront sweeping through the area, a miserable thing to the thri-kreen who preferred desert climes. The merchant continued to click and chirp about this latest indignity for a few moments before going on her way.

Ranma settled back into thought as the thri-kreen continued to try to find someone who would cast a Weather Protection for her, for free of course.

Most high-levels Ordeals also contained the making of talismans or amulets, or something else permanent the mage could leave behind when finally passing from life. Sometimes it was physical, sometimes it was simply adding to the Art itself with a new spell or technique. Ranma had taken the time to craft a simple talisman that acted as a manna filter, allowing one to recharge manna normally without having a local taint affecting the spellcaster.

He had quite lost track of time when finally Ranma sensed the proximity of the Tower and used his Mass Teleport to appear in the central hall of his home with his luggage. Looking about, he noticed the large number of tapestries and a mural. The place had been fixed up quite a bit since his last appearance.

Kasumi moved forward from the archways, wearing the simple white robes of a Healer.

Ranma smiled at his wife, having learned something of Japanese customs during his ordeal. "I'm home."

Kasumi smiled back and bowed with her hands clasped in front of her as she gave the ritual reply. "Welcome home."

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

EPILOGUE:

The woman was old and grey and wrinkled, but there was a twinkle in her eye and a warmth in her smile that revealed that her heart was still young, or young enough. The child in her lap, barely past toddler, sat still and relaxed as he listened to the woman conclude her tale.

"...and so it came to pass that in the years afterward, Ranma became a powerful mage but never attained Star-rank as he valued his humanity so much. He and his wives came to the Empire's defense during the Boskone Third War nine years later, which was where Megumi perished in valiant battle, and Usagi Shades was lost in a dimensional rift - never to be heard from again.

"Ranma died at the age of one hundred seven, long after his kirrfolk wife had died, and was followed by his first wife a few months later into that last great adventure. Their children each became powerful mages or wise priests, except for Kaoru, of course. Nodoka Saotome died as befits a Delphins, surrounded by her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren.

"Soun Tendo had a number of new children by his wives, until one day he vanished. Gone back to his home plane, most say - so that when he died he would be reunited with his first wife- Kimiko.

"Midori, Ranma's green eyed sister, eventually upset all the betting by catching Stormshadow during a Sadie Hawkins Race. Some say that the dragon Nabiki had a hand in it. As far as I know, Midori is still in the Tower Of Storms, furthering her mastery of chi. One of these days I will go there and see if my old friend remembers me.

"Shampoo and Frostbite had three children. One matured and became a full dragon. One became a half-dragon. The third was human with some of the innate strength and power of a dragon, and it was he who went to his mother's homeland. Shampoo eventually followed in her ninetieth year of life, and it is said that she followed her Great Grandmother's wishes to become an Elder of the tribe of Chinese Amazons. Frostbite remains, watching over his remaining son and daughter, and fulfilling his duties to the Empire.

"Nabiki and Garr had three children as well, though Garr perished during the Boskone War. Nabiki is an older and wiser dragon now, and if she retains some of her mischievousness and love of treasure- why grudge her that?"

The child waited for the old woman to continue for a moment before asking. "But what of the others?"

"Which ones? Keian? He became a true elf and a hundred years is almost as nothing to him. He's still out there, exploring and inventing, somewhere beyond the Pillars Of Twilight. Genma? No one has seen or heard from him. One day the panda statue was there, the next -poof! Perhaps he is with his old friend Soun, or perhaps he is with his wife - reconciled at last. Zen- well, he had many children himself, all Delphins who mainly took after their mother and were a credit to their House. Princess Aura? Well, you know about *her* - she had four children, one of whom married one of Keian's children."

"...but..." The child hesitated to ask further.

The old woman chuckled tiredly. "It's late, great grandchild, and I'm not nearly as young as I twice was. Sleep, and perhaps dream, for yours is a great and glorious heritage full of warm love and hot steel, of cold nights and hot passions. And perhaps you'll have another tale tomorrow."

The child nodded with a "hmmmph" and a smile. Old folks tired easily. "Good night Great Grandmother!"

Akane watched her great grandson go out into the warrens of Ironhill and smiled. So tired. Perhaps she would rest herself, and dream of days long past.


FIN

Note: well this is a wild ride, and everyone lives happily ever after. As for what happened to Scarlet and Jared, that's covered in Skysaber's Choice by Skysaber (no i don't know WHEN this will be finished). This was done specifically for Red Death, he of the Ranma 1/2 Superhighway, and is intended for exclusive (other than the RAAC archives) to his site.

Except that a LOT of people archived it elsewhere and i haven't heard from Red in quite some time. *sigh* Best laid plans...

Hopefully you enjoyed it, this was just a mainly amusing story, not intended as epic by any stretch of the imagination. TTFN (ta ta for now)


OMAKE OMAKE OMAKE OMAKE (an idea never used)

ok, this is a weird one.
i was mentioning to Bruce (a bagel pushcart owner) the bit about Genma=Pooh, and he thought that was funny but not really appropriate for Genma. Still, we started throwing ideas about... we both thought that Ryouga made a perfect "Eeyore" and as result this just had to be written.

insert standard disclaimer. i don't own these characters, etc, etc. this is just written to be amusing, no higher meanings, just a one-shot brief look at a possible alterniverse where things are _really_ screwed up

======================

OH, POOH!
an unserious brief snicker by metroanime@mindspring.com
http://metroanime.home.mindspring.com/

======================

"HEY YOU!"

Ryouga pointed at himself. "I'm sorry, I don't speak Chinese."

"Come on, get in the bus, damnit. Geez, you're holding up the whole tour group. Damn foreign driver.
Doesn't help that you all look alike."

"Uhm," Ryouga said as the fellows directed him to the driver's seat of the bus. "Errr. I have to go catch
Ranma Saotome for missing our duel. And I don't know how to drive."

"Geez, you haven't been drinking again, have you? Damn foreigners."

Ryouga frowned and looked up as someone stepped nearby. Only to come to a slack-jawed halt as he stared up into the face of the gorgeous gaijin in front of him.

"Aw, come on, honey, let's get this show on the road!"

His mind a pleasant daze from watching the way the girl's body bounced, Ryouga didn't even realize that he was driving the bus until they were three miles down the road.

The real bus driver, passed out with a bottle in his arms, didn't notice. That Ryouga had a chance to be
reunited with his father was completely missed. That the tour bus wasn't even supposed to be in China was
likewise unknown to Ryouga, but it turned up enough that the gas station was kind of used to it by now.

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

The Jusenkyo Guide came out of his hut and wondered how the heck someone had gotten a tour bus here. This was Jusenkyo, after all, in the Bayankala mountain range. Steep mountains, torturous narrow paths with sudden drop offs, rope bridges over otherwise impassable ravines.

The Guide shrugged. "Why ask why?"

The group forming in front of the bus looked like a truly mixed lot. Foreign tourists from their clothes
and appearance, most of them. Americans in their motley clothing, Japanese wearing western clothing with
nonsense English slogans and festooned with cameras, Arabics wearing hooded robes and with the women veiled, even a pair of mufti-wearing Africans. And about thirty kids carrying various stuffed animals.

"Never have such diverse group come to Jusenkyo," admitted the Guide in a soft voice. He continued in a
louder voice, using Japanese (poor), English (even worse) a moment later, and following up with French
(don't ask) in the off hope that at least one common language could be used. Fortunately the "California"
looking girl seemed to be able to translate for the others.

Things were going well, with cameras clicking and the muted buzz of whispered translations as the Guide began explaining the Cursed Springs. Of course, things could not continue this way. It all started with one little girl dropping her stuffed donkey into a spring and Ryouga reaching in to grab it.

--------------MUCH LATER------------

"You looked at me in the nude, you... PERVERT!"

The short individual looked back at Akane. "And your point is?"

Akane's eyes narrowed. "What did you say? Are you trying to imply that you didn't see anything?"

Ranma guffawed. "I saw everything that was there. I just don't see what you're making the big fuss about. I
didn't see anything particularly interesting, just you coming in without clothes. So what was the big deal?"

Akane turned pale, then (as if a tide had reversed) turned scarlet. "You... you... you..." The table came
up as Ranma turned his head, ignoring the angry girl.

The table came slamming down. It seemed to momentarily flatten Ranma before a massive recoil took place. The table shot into the next room, dragging Akane along behind it. The sound of a massive impact and a startled yelp came simultaneously. Fortunately it was off-camera so as not to offend anyone.

"Well, that she had coming," suggested Nabiki. "Ranma, could you do your song again to remind dear sister why a shot to the head isn't effective? At least when you're in your cursed form."

"Deeee-lighted, Nabiki-chan!" Ranma gave a somewhat idiotic grin back to Nabiki, and even bounced around the yard and dining room in time to his song. Kasumi and Nabiki were amused, Soun and Genma made a pledge to get roaringly drunk later. Akane sulked.

"The wonderful thing about Ranmas
Is Ranmas are wonderful things

Their tops are made out of rubber
The bottoms are made out of springs

They're bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy
Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun

But the most wonderful thing about Ranmas is
I'm the only one

The wonderful thing about Ranmas
Is Ranmas are wonderful chaps

They're loaded with vim and vigor
They love to leap in your laps

They're jumpy, bumpy, clumpy, thumpy
Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun

But the most wonderful thing about Ranmas is
I'm the only one

Ranmas are cuddly fellows
Ranmas are awfully sweet

Everyone else is jealous
That's why I repeat

The wonderful thing about Ranmas
Is Ranmas are wonderful things

Their tops are made out of rubber
Their bottoms are made out of springs

They're bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy
Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun

But the most wonderful thing about Ranmas is
I'm the only one

IIIIIII'mmmmmm the only one!"

Akane was grateful for that at least.

=========================

and yes, the tour bus stopped at a few strange places
where the passengers picked up souveneirs.

Genma Daffy Duck "Ranma, you're desssssspicable!"
Ryouga Eeyore
Ranma Tigger, get him drunk and it's rum-tum-tigger

nasty terrible horrible shortfic. yes, it's meant to be silly. no, it is not meant to be taken seriously though
if a statue could lead to Rouge's curse then a stuffed Pooh bear could result in...

a terrible tragic story, ne?

ja ne,

gregg