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Ranma 1/2: New Challenges
The Phoenix and the Dragon
Chapter 4




Akane retreated under the onslaught of punches, shifting from
side to side as she dodged, deflected, and blocked them as best she
could. Her opponent suddenly broke the rhythm by lashing out with a
powerful reverse kick aimed at her chest. Akane dropped under it,
sweeping out with her right foot to trip up her opponent's grounded leg.
She then planted her hands as she rotated, pushing her lower body off
the ground and swinging both her legs back around to connect solidly
with her falling adversary.

Akane stood up slowly as the older man hit the ground several
feet away. When he didn't immediately rise, she began to worry a little,
and walked over to check on him.

"Daddy?" she asked, shaking his shoulder. "Are you alright?"

A hand clasped her right wrist, and the next thing Akane knew,
she was flying across the clearing. She tried to twist her body to land
on her feet, but the throw had been low-level and fast, and she
unceremoniously landed on her back.

*Thump!* "Ow..." Akane's vision swam a little.

"Are *you* alright, daughter?" Soun inquired, his voice coming
from several yards away.

Akane managed to wave one hand at him, indicating she would be
fine. Internally, she hoped she would be. This exertion was beginning to
wear on her, causing her weakness and dizzy spells to return. Closing
her eyes, she concentrated on her breathing and opening her ki pathways,
guiding them back to normal like Tofu had shown her. It was no cure, but
it did allow her to shorten these weakness episodes and exert herself
more.

A minute later, Akane sat up, mostly recovered, to find her
father cooking over their campfire. "I thought I was doing the cooking
tonight?" she said, her voice slightly accusatory.

Soun trembled, even as he gave her his best disarming smile.
"Now, now, there's no need. I've already started." While her cooking had
been steadily improving under Nodoka's tutelage, she could only make
decent stuff when she was watched and corrected, and with the kitchen's
handy tools. There was none of that here, and so Soun knew his youngest
daughter had a 50-50 chance at best to make something edible. He wanted
to save his luck for what he had in mind to teach her.

Akane grumbled a little, but sat down on a log. Her father had
been training her for half a week now, but he had yet to teach her
anything she didn't already know. In fact, most of the skills and styles
he was showing her, he had taught her when she was much younger. So what
exactly where they doing out here? Was he going to hold back on her
again?

She knew there were things he had yet to teach her, but he had
held them back from her. In fact, it was only a testament to her
dedication, that she was as good as she was, given the limited training
she had endured. Her skills were good enough to fend off everyday
attackers, but they were practically nothing against Ranma and Shampoo.
Even though she was training religiously everyday by herself, when she
wasn't going to school, she had resigned herself to the fact that it
would be a long time before she could hope to match either one. In fact,
it was only the Tora Dokiken which had allowed her to defeat Shampoo in
the first place; yet another cheat.

Her train of thought was broken as she realized her father was
handing her a bowl of miso soup. She nodded her thanks and began to eat
silence as he poured his own bowl.

"Something on your mind, daughter?" Soun asked, somewhat
disturbed by her silence.

Akane was momentarily startled, but tried to hide it. "No, just
random thoughts."

Soun chuckled. "You do know, that you're not much better at
lying that Ranma is." He chuckled again at Akane's surprised look. "That
was part of the reason I held the engagement between you two; I knew you
both wanted it. I admit, it was my hope that you would come to love each
other when Genma and I fist set you up. but if you hadn't, then I would
have called it off. Then, when we saw our efforts were backfiring, we
backed off in the hopes you two would work things out on your own." He
smiled. "But that isn't really what you were thinking."

Akane raised an eyebrow. "Oh?" Inwardly, she was surprised at
how much her father knew.

"Yes, you were thinking of how we've up here several days, and
I've yet to teach you anything," Soun responded. "I had to get an idea
of how much you've retained, which I'm pleased to see that you've
remembered nearly all my lessons. I also wanted to see what you picked
up from Ranma. I've noticed that he's helped you tighten your defense,
and also that you managed to learn a few aerial maneuvers from him."

"Like they did any good," Akane mumbled, but loud enough for her
father to hear. Whenever she had attempted to spring them at her father,
she was surprised to see them either blocked, dodged, or countered. She
was wondering if she was doing them wrong. Was he reading her?

"You aren't really telegraphing your moves so much anymore,"
Soun said, in response to her unasked question. "But you forget that
Genma taught those moves to Ranma, and I used to spar with Genma
everyday. I know most of his moves like the back of my hand, and you
don't pull them off as well as he could."

Akane grimaced, feeling the familiar welling of anger, but most
of it was directed at herself, for not being good enough, and for
wondering if she ever would.

Soun finished his soup and scooped another bowl-full. "But
don't be too hard on yourself. The initial forms and styles I taught you
when you were younger, are the basis for the Tendo-ryu specialty. The
Tendo and Saotome styles were meant to mesh together, but only when one
has mastered one of them. To put it another way, you are attempting to
use a bow without the bow string."

Akane processed this in the quiet minutes that followed,
unconsciously filling her bow once more, then her head came up as she
arrived at a conclusion. "So what you're saying is, that if the Saotome
school specializes in mid-air combat, then the Tendo school focuses on
ground-based combat?"

Soun smiled and nodded. "That is correct. While the Tendo
school contains more formal methods of combat, including basic weapon
forms, that is only the beginning. The style as a whole is meant to lure
an opponent into thinking you are a standard opponent. As a master once
told me, `A man is at his most vulnerable when he thinks he has you all
figured out.' With the Tendo-ryu, you lead an opponent in the fight.
With the Saotome-ryu, you surprise them at every turn by being as
unpredictable and unconventional as you can. It was our hope that by
merging the two styles, we would create a near-perfect Art."

"I see," Akane replied, brow furrowing. "I think. It's all a bit
much."

"Don't worry about it," Soun told her, leaning back slightly.
"I've probably said more than I should. At any rate, I will begin
teaching you the advanced forms after dinner, but it should at least a
week to show them all. Then it will be up to you to master them. If
necessary, we can take another training trip or two until you learn them
all."

Akane smiled to herself, suddenly feeling excited about the
prospect of learning something new, something that Ranma nor anyone else
knew. With a strong burst of confidence, she met her fathers eyes and
made a very Ranma-like vow.

"That won't be necessary, Father," she declared with all the
conviction she could muster, eyes never wavering. "I will learn them all
within a week."




"Nabiki, would you take these to Ranma and Natsume?"

Nabiki glanced up from her manga to see her older sister
holding a tray with three glasses of ice and a pitcher. A small stack of
rice cakes were stacked on the side. Her eyebrows arched. "Moi?"

Kasumi continued to smile, seemingly unaware of Nabiki's
hesitance. "Yes. They must be working so hard in the dojo, that I
thought they could use a snack.."

Nabiki counted the glasses again. "So why are there three?"

"Aren't you thirsty, too?" Kasumi asked innocently.

Nabiki rolled her eyes dramatically, knowing exactly what was
going on. "Bargained well and done." She stood and accepted the tray
from her sister, who promptly retreated back the way she came.

As she headed out to the dojo, Nabiki reflected on how easy it
was for Kasumi to get Nabiki to do what she wanted. It was never
anything big, and Kasumi usually compensated her well, so Nabiki
indulged her sister. It was her own way of showing she cared; had it
been anyone else, Nabiki would have immediately insisted on double the
payment, and that would just be an open to further negotiations.

[You're getting too sentimental, Nabiki,] she chided herself,
trying to hide a grin. She was mostly successful.

She traversed the short walkway between, then climbed the dojo
steps. Just as she was about to knock however, she stopped and shivered.
[Where did that chill come from?] She scanned the skies, noting a few
clouds, but it was mostly clear.

"Hmmm, the weatherman said it was supposed to be 65-70 degrees
today," Nabiki said to herself, then smirked. "Of course, a weatherman
is the only occupation where you can be wrong 70% of the time and still
keep your job."

She turned back to the dojo, and heard the familiar cracks and
thuds that indicated weapon impacts. Then she frowned when she didn't
the other familiar sounds of grunts and kiyahs that normally accompanied
a workout. She had grown up in a dojo, after all, and was intimately
familiar with the way her father and younger sister trained and sparred.
Why were they so silent?

Curious, Nabiki set the tray down, then slowly opened the door
a crack. A cool breeze rushed out from within, causing Nabiki to shiver
again. Ignoring that, she peeked through the small opening with one eye.
What she saw, surprised her.

Ranma was wielding a bo staff against Natsume's rugbeater as
they leapt and fought around the dojo. Although, it wasn't sparring
exactly, but more like dancing. Each thrust and swing was parried or
dodged with precision. Every attack and counter missing their mark by
mere millimeters. Plus, Nabiki had seen Ranma move much faster when
sparring with his father, yet she guessed he was moving at only 3/4's of
his regular speed.

[What are they doing?] Nabiki wondered. But what puzzled her
even more, was the fact that they had been in the dojo for hours, yet
neither one showed any sign of perspiration. As she shivered again, she
realized that the source of the cool air must have been coming from
them.

During Natsume and Kurumi's fight against Ranma and Akane, when
the two sisters were trying to claim the dojo, Nabiki had noticed a
chill coming from Natsume. However, it was barely detectable due to the
warmth Kurumi generated. But Kurumi wasn't in the dojo now. Although,
the chill was stronger than she thought possible. She guessed it must
have been almost ten degrees colder in the dojo than outside.

[Is Natsume doing all that?] Nabiki speculated. She got her
answer almost immediately, when the two sparring combatants stopped.

"That's enough, Ranma-san," Natsume said, backing away and
holding up her hand. "I can't do much more."

Ranma scratched his head. "Really? It felt like you could go
farther."

Natsume shook her head. "It's possible, yes, but highly
dangerous. When Happosai taught me this technique when I was but a
child, he told me that I should never go in too deep, or else I might
freeze the blood in my veins or stop my own heart. I guess that's why he
gave us weapons, so my sister and I could focus our elemental ki into
them without much danger to ourselves. It gives our attacks an extra
sting, and allows me to manipulate small air currents." She half-smiled.
"Besides, it looks like you picked up the technique already, and in just
a matter of days. It took me a couple months to do it."

Ranma smirked. "Yeah, but I'm just good."

Nabiki, still unnoticed by the other two, grimaced. [Still the
macho wise-ass. I don't think I'll ever know what all those other girls
see in you.] She knew if Akane had been there, Ranma would have at least
gotten an elbow to the stomach. Natsume merely looked at Ranma
strangely.

"Um, if you say so," she answered carefully in a tone Nabiki
could swear held a bit of contempt. But this was Natsume, who was never
really showed much emotion.

"Yeah," Ranma continued, seemingly talking to himself now. "I
think I can take this a lot further, I just need to figure out how."

"Be careful, Ranma-san," Natsume cautioned, reholstering her
rugbeater on her back. "Control is everything when dealing with this
technique."

In the ensuing silence, Nabiki decided that she'd had enough
peeping for now, and turned to pick up the tray. It was a bit colder to
the touch than she remembered, but nothing she couldn't handle. The cool
touch did remind her of the subtle calling from the equipment shed,
where the weapons were stored.

Where a certain katana continued to speak to her in dull
whispers.

Practicing her own form of control, Nabiki once again banished
those voices as she entered the dojo, inwardly smirking at Natsume's
startled expression. The other girl recovered quickly however, and
gratefully accepted a glass and a few rice cakes after sitting down.
Nabiki placed the tray on the floor and grabbed her own munchies before
Ranma devoured everything. To her surprise, however, Ranma just
continued to stand there and focus on his bo, seemingly unaware of
anything else.

"Saotome?" Nabiki ventured, then smirked. "Little brother?"

"Just a moment," Ranma replied in a near-monotone voice that
implied his mind was somewhere else.

Nabiki shook her head and turned back to Natsume. "So, why'd
Happosai teach you two this stuff anyway? It doesn't sound like him to
do something helpful unless there was something in it for him."

Natsume blinked. "I'm not sure what you mean. He is just a
kind, wandering martial artist that helped us out." Her brow furrowed in
thought. "Although, I do seem to recall some exercises he had us run in
the nearby village. All I can remember, though, is the women of the town
running after us." She shook her head. "Master Happosai must have gotten
the villagers to help us in our training. That was thoughtful of them."

[Figures,] Nabiki thought to herself. [Sounds like his M.O.
Train up a little girl to help him steal panties. Well, it looks like
Natsume has mostly suppressed the memory, and Kurumi most likely has as
well. It's probably better that way.] Out loud, and with as straight a
face as she could form, she said, "Um, yes, I guess it was."

*Crack!* "Yeow!"

The two girls turned to see Ranma drop the staff, as if the
weapon was red hot or something. They were surprised to see the wooden
bo shatter into several pieces as it hit the ground, as Ranma shook his
hands in pain.

"Ow! Ow! Ow!"

Natsume frowned. "I told you to be careful with it."

Nabiki was still staring at the pieces of wood that was all
that was left of the staff. "Did he just do what I think he did?"

"Yes," Natsume answered, shaking her head. "He nearly froze it
solid. I could probably do the same thing if I pushed my ki too far, but
do not want to shatter my weapon."

Nabiki rolled her eyes. "Idiot. Here, stop dancing around and
have some lemonade." She handed Ranma a full glass as he settled down.

Ranma took a sip, then grimaced. "Who ever heard of warm
lemonade? Did Akane make this or somethin' before she left?"

"No, Kasumi did," Nabiki told him. "And it tastes fine to me."
She smirked. "You must have lowered your body temperature quite a bit."

"Yeah, I guess," Ranma replied, glancing at the glass with a
thoughtful look. "That's it!" Surprising the girls once more, he downed
the glass and sprinted out of the dojo.

As one, Natsume and Nabiki stared at the door, then at each
other, then shrugged.

"Wonder what the idiot is up to now?" Nabiki reached for another
rice cake, only to find them all gone. "Wha-?" She frowned. "RANMA!"




The world was blurry, sluggish, but at least the nightmares
were over. The twisted image of a sneering face, shrouded in blackness,
laughed and leered at him, making him feel powerless and vulnerable.

"My lord?"

Herb blinked to try and clear his vision. "Wh-what happened?"

Sage appeared relieved. "You've been out of it for several
days, m'lord. That vile Rogue General poisoned you. If it hadn't been
for your superior constitution and the mages' help, I'm afraid of what
might happened."

Herb tried to sit up, his voice turning harsh. "The Rogues,
what of them?"

"Easy, m'lord!" Sage pleaded, trying to get his Prince to lie
back down. "They are kept out for now, thanks to Tojiko's wall, but
unfortunately it locks us in as well."

Herb relaxed a little, though he was still upset at this turn
of events. Part of this was due to the fact that the Musk Citadel had
stood against all attackers through the centuries, but now it looked as
though it might fall under his rule. But most of all, he hated the idea
that they must hide and cower behind a protective barrier. [We are Musk.
We should not have to conceal ourselves from our enemies.]

The Dragon Prince finally noticed that his late father's
retainer had been quiet all this time. "What is it, Sage? I know you
have something else to tell me."

"It's a small matter, m'lord, so I hesitate to bring it up at
all," Sage replied.

"Spit it out!" Herb's normal paper-thin temperament was
practically non-existent, given the stress of his condition.

"Well, while you were confront the Rogue General, we were
robbed," the owlish retainer replied.

Herb blinked. "Robbed? Who? And what did they take?"

"That's what confuses us," Sage said. "We believe it to be one
of the Rogues, a powerful wizard who easily overcame the soldiers and
mages that happened across him. As for what he took, that is the
strangest of all: It was the Chiitsuon."

"The cold water ladle?" Herbs brow furrowed. He knew that
particular object well, as it had the power to lock a Jusenkyo victim in
their cursed form. "But what would they want that for?"

"Indeed," Sage intoned. "Since you have cured your own curse by
bathing in the Nannichuan, it is obviously no threat to you."

Herb's eyes closed, suddenly feeling quite exhausted. It seem
like there was entirely too much going on; wheels within wheels, hidden
motivations, and strange armies appearing out of the blue. However, he
couldn't help but feel there was something missing, some critical clue
that would snap everything into place. If Herb were a betting man, he'd
lay odds that it had something to do with the artifact that was just
stolen.

"In the meantime, I have sent word to the Joketsuzoku and the
Phoenix for any assistance they can offer," Sage told him.

"No."

Sage blinked. "M'lord? Should we not request the aid of our
ancient allies?"

"We have had little to no contact with them for thousands of
years," Herb explained. "We stood just fine without them before we
united long ago, and we have been fine since. The Musk do not need help;
we deal with our problems on our own."

Sage opened his mouth to protest, but promptly closed it again.
"As you wish, m'lord. Now you should get some rest, as you've been
mostly dead for the past several days. Even you need time to recover."

As Herb sensed the old man leave his bed chamber, he
reluctantly allowed sleep to claim him. He knew that when he recovered,
he would force these barbarians from his lands. He had underestimated
his mysterious foes once; he would not do so again.




"Well, any luck?" Ukyo asked, standing under the awning as a
soaking-wet Yuri came out of the rain to share her shelter. It was
coming down harder now, and Ukyo inwardly cursed the precipitation that
slowed their search.

Yuri shook her head. "Nobody has seen any sign of him." She
clenched her fist as she turned back around, scanning through the
downpour for someone she knew wasn't there. "I was sure he was here!
After all, where else could he have gone?" She clasped her arms around
her body and shivered.

"I'm sure he's got to be around somewhere, Yuri-honey," Ukyo
soothed sympathetically. "In the meantime, let's get you inside before
you catch a cold." She grabbed ahold of the ninja girl's arm and began
to drag her inside the small inn. She didn't like this anymore that Yuri
did, but she couldn't see what else could be done at the moment.

They had managed to track Kenji to this little seaside fishing
village, and figured that someone must've seen him. But no one
recognized the pictures they had flashed around town when they split up
to search. Then the downpour had started, and they had began to
rendezvous at an agreed upon location, the only inn in the small seaside
fishing village.

"Where's Hikaru and Konatsu?" Yuri asked as the two girls
entered their room.

"The guys have their own room down the hall," Ukyo explained.
"And Selah is taking a bath right now. Actually, I think you should join
her as soon as we get these wet clothes off you."

"I'm fine, I-" Yuri started, then sneezed. She turned to look
sheepishly at Ukyo, and relented as Ukyo helped divest her of her
clothing, directing her toward the changing room.

"Ya know, warm bath sounds good," Ukyo declared when Yuri was
down to her underwear. She stopped to let the other girl finish, while
she stripped down as well. When she was done, she turned to see Yuri
just standing there in the nude, staring at the amulet in her palm.
"Yuri?"

"I was so sure he was in this village," the ninja girl said
quietly. "Hikaru-san said this would lead me to my brother."

Ukyo came up to pat Yuri gently on the back. "I'm sure we're on
the right track."

Yuri turned to face the chef, and Ukyo was surprised by the
despairing look on the girl's face. "No we're not! The amulet is wrong!"

Ukyo stared at the small blue orb, which was currently lit up
with a simple arrow. Mentally aligning herself, she deduced the
direction it was pointed. Looking up, Yuri nodded at her.

"Yes, it's pointing west, but we've already gone as far west as
we can!" Yuri nearly cried. "This stupid thing doesn't work!" She
released the amulet, letting it come to rest in her modest cleavage as
it hung from the leather strap around her neck. She then violently
punched the wall.

Ukyo's mouth suddenly felt dry as the thought came to her. "Not
unless... he went to China."

Yuri turned around, her turn to be surprised. "My brother left
Japan and went to China? Why would he do that?"

"Maybe..." Ukyo closed her mouth. She didn't want to say it, but
she knew she had to. "Maybe he's not in control anymore."

Yuri simply stared at her, her fists clenching. "No. I won't
believe it! Kenji's stronger than that! He wouldn't let that thing
inside of him get control again! And if it does, so help me, I'll kill
whoever's possessing my brother!"

Ukyo shivered, partly from standing around in the nude and
partly from Yuri rapidly reaching her boiling point. She lightly grabbed
Yuri's arm and began to pull her toward the bathroom. "Calm down,
Yuchan. We'll find him. Tomorrow we'll go talk to the fisherman and see
if anyone charted a boat for China."

Yuri still sported a frown, but reluctantly acquiesced to Ukyo
guiding her into the bathroom.




Kenji glanced out at the pouring rain, glad he had managed to
find this small cave seconds before the downpour started. He almost
thought he wasn't going to make it. Once he detected the first few
falling drops, he sprinted at his best speeds for the nearest shelter.
Fortunately his clothes easily soaked up the light sprinkling,
preventing his Jusenkyo transformation.

(You almost didn't make it,) a cynical inner voice told him.

[But I did,] Kenji shot back, somewhat smug. [I'm better than
you give me credit for.] He was rather proud of his fifty-meter dash
speed.

(We're still moving too slowly,) Kae replied internally. (I was
hoping to be in the Quing-Hai province by today. At your current rate of
travel, we won't arrive for another two days at most.)

Kenji frowned, leaning up against the cave wall. [At my rate of
travel? Last time we tried your rate of travel, you attempted to steal a
horse and kill the old man who owned it. Unless you have a stash of
money to buy one, we walk.] He didn't admit that he was actually trying
to go slower, mostly because of what Kae ultimately wanted at their
journey's end.

She had explained to him that what she desired was the utter
destruction of a group she called the "Rogues." She also referred to
them as the "Dark", and she had made it clear that she wouldn't leave
his body until this group was dead. Kenji was decidedly uncomfortable
with killing. Beating someone up was fine, but he was loathe to actually
end someone's life, no matter who it was.

(Don't worry, boy. When the time comes, it shall be I who does
the killing.)

Kenji started in surprise. [H-how!?]

(Foolish boy, did you think you could keep your innermost
thoughts a secret to me forever?) Kae sounded almost amused. (I reside
inside of you, in the parts of your mind that you do not even wish to
admit exist.)

[Stay out of there!] Kenji snarled. [You don't have the right-]

(I will do whatever I wish!) Kae barked at him. (I was
imprisoned in the bowels of the Earth. I survived there for over 950
years, biding my time. Then I outsmarted my captors by escaping. Do not
speak to me of what my rights are. Rights go to the strong, of which I
am, and which you are not. Remember that.)

Kenji had no answer to that, and instead glanced out the cave
entrance at falling rain. It might have been his imagination, but he
thought the sudden downpour was beginning to let up.

Kae sighed, unheard to anyone but the possessed boy. (Look kid,
you're not bad. But you're nowhere near the level you'd need to be to
able to challenge the opponents you'll soon be facing. If you want your
life back, you'll have to turn over control eventually. If I have to
fight you for it, I will, but it will save both us time and energy if
you just let me handle things.)

[I'm better than you think] he countered, naturally afraid of
letting Kae take over again. Not only did that mean a loss of control,
but he was afraid of she would do.

(And the rain's letting up,) Kae replied. (Let's go.)

Kenji sighed, but relented and exited the cave. While the rain
had subsided, the clouds still appeared a little gray, and the sun was
barely peeking out from behind them.

[Okay, which w-]

"Ah, there you are!"

Kenji's head snapped up, homing in on the source of the voice.
A solitary figure floated a dozen feet off the ground, covered from head
to toe in a black robe.

"Who are you?" Kenji demanded.

Inside his head, Kenji heard Kae hiss. (That's Darmondo! He's
one of the Rogues we've been hunting. Let me take control, now!)

[No way, I can handle him,] Kenji countered. [After all, I can
fly, too!] Calling upon his willpower, a whirlwind gathered around the
ninja, lifting him into the air.

Darmondo removed his cowl, baring his bald head to the sky.
"Impressive for a mere whelp. If I had the time, I might take you in for
experimentation. Unfortunately, I cannot allow one touched by Jusenkyo
to near my Shogun Liege."

Kenji snorted derisively.. "Like you could stop me. I'm
stronger than you think."

The Rogue wizard chuckled. "In physical arts, probably. Too bad
you don't have more than that." His hands, which had been hidden the
folds of his cloak, suddenly swung out to the accompaniment of a sliver
flash.

Kenji was nearly taken by surprise, but managed to cut the
whirlwind, dropping him back to the ground. The splash of water landed
several feet away.

"That's it?" Kenji asked in disbelief. "To get me wet is the
only way you can win? That's pathetic."

(Let me take control, NOW!) Kae yelled, trying to fight her way
free.

Darmondo didn't bother to respond, but instead lanced out with
a beam of black light. Kenji, who had been trying to push Kae back down,
was caught off-guard, barely managing to dodge it. The second-hand
explosion sent him tumbling to the ground. That's when he felt the water
soak his clothing.

[Damn,] the possessed boy cursed as he shrunk. [This is only a
minor setback. If this moron thinks this will stop me...] He sprinted
out of his clothes with as much speed as he could muster, evidently
surprising his adversary. He clamped his jaws around the wizard's upper
left arm and held on tight.

Darmondo growled in anger and pain as he reeled under the
attack. It didn't last long, however, as he punched Kenji's head several
times until the wolf was forced to let go. Kenji hit the ground running
and disappeared into a thicket of bushes in the forest.

"Wretched boy!" Darmondo raged, holding his arm. "I'll get for
that!" He let loose another wave of black light in the direction Kenji
had ran, incinerating several trees.

Kenji hadn't stopped however, but continued to sprint along the
forest floor, circling the wizard's position. [If I can just get to my
thermos, I can change back.] When he had realized that avoiding the
different ways to get wet was futile, he had taken to carrying the
thermos of hot water with him. It was good for one change back, until he
could heat some more water.

Another wave of black light cut a deadly swath across Kenji's
path, but he managed to come to a stop before hitting the now open area.
Crouching behind a rather large tree, he at first thought the wizard had
found him. But as he peeked around the corner through the thick
underbrush, he realized that Darmondo didn't really know where he was
hiding.

The wizard's head surveyed the area from where he floated,
practically in the same position as before. Without warning, Darmondo
unleashed another brilliant black light attack, directed in the complete
opposite direction of where Kenji was hiding. Between the wizard and the
cave entrance, Kenji spotted his clothes and pack. But could he reach
them and splash himself before the wizard could finish him off? He was
just about to give it a try, when Darmondo laughed.

"Well met, boy!" he commended Kenji. "I see your sensei must
have taught you well. You have escaped from me, for now, but your luck
will not last forever. I was hoping to take you in for experimentation,
as I don't have any wind mages to play with, but time is short and I
have more pressing matters to attend. Plus, I have already beaten you."

Kenji growled lightly, preparing to show his foe that he was
not out of the fight, but Kae managed to hold him back.

"In time, you'll understand," Darmondo continued. "But make no
mistake; this is not over."

Kenji blinked as Darmondo disappeared in a flash of black
light.

(Idiot!) Kae finally screamed at him. (If you had just let me
take control, you wouldn't be in this predicament.)

[He just surprised me, that's all!] Kenji countered, equally
upset. [Besides, this is no big deal. We'll get changed back just as
soon as we get the hot water from the thermos.]

(More delays,) Kae growled. (The one idiot I possess, and he's
cursed to turn into a mutt when splashed with cold water.)

Kenji didn't reply, secretly pleased at the delay, while he
padded over to his clothes and located the thermos. With practiced ease,
he rolled onto his back while holding the bottle in his paws, then used
his jaw to twist the cap off. In his mind, he had gained a short
reprieve, and more time to figure another way out of this mess. Maybe
his luck was turning around.

Unfortunately, as the warm water cascaded down and he felt the
distinct lack of the tingling change, he realized that his luck had
instead just gotten much, much worse.


-----------------------------
Author's notes:

Whew, got back into my writing groove at last! Wanted to slip in some
parts about Shampoo and Mousse, as well as Ryoga and Akari, but it
didn't work out that way this time. I still have plenty I want to do to
them, but want to keep these chapters at a reasonable size. Next
chapter, look for the continuing adventures of Tenma. After that, we'll
rejoin our favorite Amazons, and begin to connect the events of the
past, with what's happening in the present. I know I'm keeping the
motives of the Rogues vague, and I haven't explored much of their goals
and such, but that was done for a reason. Expect much more development
of them in the coming chapters.

And Thanks to Brian Gorham for prereading this!

Til next time!
Kai