A Duet of Pigtails
By Libby Thomas (& special guest co-writer Rob Barba)

Based on the characters and storylines of Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi and Magic Knight Rayearth by CLAMP

Part Eight:
Meanwhile....

FINAL ROUND: The Final Cut

Nodoka was none too gently awoken by the sounds of commotion in one of the rooms upstairs. At first, she thought it to be a dream, albeit a loud one; that idea was shattered as Kodachi opened the door to the room and called out, "EVERBODY UP!!! WE'VE GOT COMPANY!!!!" Calling out about how there were demons and zombies headed in the direction of the home, the girl sounded like a madwoman at first, until Nodoka remembered her talking about the same thing while in battle at the Tendo dojo.

Like a great beast aroused from his slumber, Genma turned over and muttered, "Okay, what was that all about, dear?" He however didn't expect an answer of anything other than "Nothing dear, go back to sleep," so when he anticipated that and rolled over, falling asleep once more, he was rapped sharply on the head for it by Nodoka's tsuba. "Ow!" he moaned, now fully awake. "What was that for?"

Nodoka, however, was already dressing, slipping a robe over her bedclothes, the bound katana glittering in the light of the bedlamp. "The children are being attacked," she answered in a steely voice. "Our grandchildren. Someone dares to attack our grandchildren, Genma, and they are fools if they are to think they can get away with it."

Genma nodded, getting out of bed himself and reaching for the nearest gi. There were myriad things that he would try to argue or cajole his way out of, but his duty as a grandparent wasn't one of them. If someone was going to try to attack the Saotome home to get at the younger ones, then they were going to learn the hard way about the follies of trying to invade the grounds of the Saotome home. "Let's go then, dear. We have a family to protect."

Scampering back to the door, Kodachi noticed the pair was as dressed as possible for the situation. Gulping a quick breath, she said, "There's about a hundred zombies, and eight demons. Miko said she'll take care of the demon problem, and we can deal with the rest. I have a funny feeling that those gaijin and that ninja are around here somewhere, and they're responsible for this."

"You would guess right," a new voice said from within the darkened corners of the room. Being birthed from the shadows, Estima came out sword at the hand and a murderous look in her eyes. "It is time we ended this, wench." Her blood-red aura began to appear, a sanguine haze that hinted at what she fully intended. "Time to die!"

Kodachi brought her fists up, a challenging grin on her face. "Yes, I believe it is, but I'm not the one who's gonna kick the bucket!" From where she stood, the Dancing Rose exploded into motion, leaping towards the kunoichi with a shooting star kick that blazed a literal path of energy during her flight. Her leg was caught by the kunoichi, but Kodachi had expected that and spun around quickly, blasting her foot across the other woman's face. Estima rocked back, her body twisting from the blow, but during her arc she charged up a blow and coming out of the spin, she flung a gout of energy out as she canted, "Maruibadoken!"

Kodachi leapt back, pulling Nodoka out of the way as she shouted, "Get out of here! I'll deal with her! Make sure that Kasumi and the children are okay!" Estima's attack connected with the futon and the nearby dresser, setting both on flame. "Sorry," she countered to Estima as the Saotomes vacated the room, "but we don't have time for you to keep destroying things! Let's take this outside! HANABIRA SANDANJU!!!" Kodachi's blast hit perfectly, punching a hole in the wall and carried her opponent out with it. Behind her, the flames began to spread, but there wasn't anything she could do about that now. Stopping this attack for once and for all was what mattered, and if that didn't happen, then watching the Saotomes' home burn down was the least of their troubles at the moment.

Three fujuki barreled in her direction, and Kodachi cartwheeled in an attempt to avoid them. She managed to dodge two, but the third one buried in her side, causing her to scream in pain. Forcing herself not to drop, she felt three more painful blows rip across her body as Estima applied in short order an elbow to the face and two high-speed punches. "You may have been lucky the last two times," the Kunoichi taunted, "but here's where your fortune runs out!" In one hideously smooth motion, the kunoichi whipped her blades and plunged them towards Kodachi, her hands moving so fast they were a silvery blur of jagged death.

However, Kodachi countered from her spot. Leaping up in a reversal, she caught the woman with an inverted upwards bicycle kick, lancing several hits in the direction of the kunoichi, who managed to dodge or parry most of them. Her position open, she flipped while at the zenith of her attack, throwing a murderous uppercut that sent Estima airborne. Leaping up to continue, Kodachi applied a couple of palm strikes, one elbow jab and a Rose Petal Shotgun blast that bounced the ninja towards the Earth. Pressing her advantage, Kodachi dived towards her, her foot blazing with ki, but unfortunately, was prime for a counterattack, which Estima took.

The movement was flawless, perfect, elegant, and geometrically precise, a talent that few in the world had, and fewer still could produce on a regular basis, as Estima leapt back. The minute Kodachi hit the ground, Estima charged forward, crying out, "SPECIAL ATTACK--SANSHUNOJINGI GENZO KAIGAI!!!!!!!" Appearing to split into three, the ninja caught Kodachi in the center of a vicious attack, throwing just about everything she had at her, effectively catching the Dancing Rose in the center of a human hurricane of blows intending to squish her to a bloody pulp.

Kodachi moved, juked, and parried with a speed borne of desperation, but to no avail as multiple attacks still continued to get through to all directions. Feeling her strength flagging, she had to do something, and do it fast. I only saw Akane do it once, but I hope to hell it works! Using all her strength and calling up her ki to the fore, she punched down on the ground, roaring with all her might: "KARAWARAKUDA!!!!!!!!!"

Shafts of light blasted from the ground, followed by a ring of ki-fire erupting from the earth. The ground rippled as a low rumble toppled a couple of trees and stone lantern in the immediate vicinity. Two meters away from them the low-grade precision earthquake halted, knocking Estima off her feet and onto her back, and the same with her ki-simulacra. As the energy clones hit the ground, they dissipated, freeing up Kodachi to leap away, gasping for breath and in serious pain from her blows.

"THIS ISN'T OVER YET!" Estima screamed as she dashed over and picked up her short swords. "I WILL NOT REST UNTIL MY BLADES HAVE TAKEN YOUR LIFE!!!!!"

"The only thing they're going to bite is your corpse! TENKYU NOROSHI SHO!!!!!!" Though her barrier attack wasn't as strong as Ranma's Hiryu Korin Dan, it was more than enough to jar the kunoichi viciously, knocking the air out of her and making her cough up a streamer of blood as the energy jolt slammed her back inside the house.

Hope everyone's out of there, because it looks like the only way to win this is to literally bring the house down on her head! Kodachi mused grimly as she raced into the burning house. Though the fire was spreading slowly, it was still spreading, and eventually the house would be burnt to the frame at this rate. Kodachi felt a twinge of guilt at that; had she not brought everyone here, the house might be standing. However, it did not allow her to forget who was truly at fault for this whole mess. And as Kodachi began searching in the fiery home for her foe, she swore she was going to teach the fox ninja a lesson she wasn't likely to forget: that roses have thorns, and some thorns cut to the quick.

~*~

Acting immediately on Kodachi's pleas, Kasumi got the children up, and tucking the babies into the bassinet, the eldest daughter of the Tendos got moving. Somehow, Hikari had also understood what was going on, and after quickly licking the face of the children, the dog took a sentry position at the door, ensuring that no one would get in that wasn't recognized. Immediately, the group opened the door, smelling the first hints of smoke that had begun to waft into the home.

"Oh my, let's get out of here--the house is on fire!" Moving at a very unladylike pace, Kasumi shooed the kids downstairs, looking frantically around for the source of the fire and hoping that Kodachi had already woken up the rest of the household. But how did everything catch on fire, and what had happened to cause it?

It couldn't be, could it? she asked herself. They wouldn't be so cruel as to roast us alive, would they? But the answer was clear enough: if they were willing to come close to murdering them several times, what would stop them from burning them? Once again, the question surfaced in Kasumi's mind: what had Ranma and Hikaru gotten into that was so bad, so dangerous that assassins would be coming after his family? She knew her brother well enough to know that if he'd known that was going to happen, he would have arranged for more protection than just Kodachi--and from what Kodachi had told her, it had been Tatewaki that had called her for backup, not Ranma. Which meant that no one expected this, not even Hikaru with her powers--and that scared Kasumi most of all.

Reaching the bottom level of the home, Kasumi could see the fire coming now from the master bedroom. She wanted so desperately to rush in there and find out if Auntie and Uncle were okay, but she couldn't afford to. The children were paramount, and she could only hope that they'd been able to get out in time. Once they'd all gotten to safety, maybe she could get one of the neighbors to check. On the other hand, if it was indeed those German terrorists that Kodachi had mentioned, it might not be safe to do anything. They could be outside, waiting for us to come out so they could shoot us, she realized. There had to be a place to hide, somewhere they could wait in safety until the enemy had given u--

The dojo! The thought sank into her mind like a stone dropping into a pond. Back in Nerima, the dojo had a shelter underneath it in the event that a typhoon were to come; Kyoto was in a safer location than Tokyo insofar as typhoons were concerned, but the house was old enough that it likely had a bomb shelter left over from the Pacific war. Leading the children to the direction of the dojo, she tried to hold in her fear, but between the babies, which were now crying at being jostled; and the boys, who were old enough to realize what was going on; it wasn't working.

"Okasan," Hiro asked, "what's going on? Where's Aunt Kodachi and Miko-sama and the others?"

Akama, no less scared, fell back on his version of his parents' bravado to try to calm down. "Don't worry, Hiro. I've been in situations like this before. Someone tried to hurt Aunt Nabiki, an' I wouldn't let 'em. An' if I'm not gonna let Aunt Nabiki get hurt, I'm not gonna letcha get hurt, either."

Kasumi, hearing those words, felt icicles crawl down her back. So what Nabiki told me was true. Granted, she knew her younger sister wasn't lying, but somehow having Akama's eyewitness report of the situation put the whole thing into perspective. Once again, the Saotome and Tendo families were surrounded, fighting for their lives against monsters and villains, but now none of the family powerhouses were nearby, and Kasumi was on her own. It was a situation that she wasn't comfortable with, not to mention never having been in before.

Finally, they cleared the now-burning house, heading into the dojo. They'd made it without being spotted, and as soon as Kasumi found the hatchway to the shelter, they'd be completely safe. Fumbling in the darkness, the woman as quickly and quietly as possible began to rip at the tatami mat edges, looking for the latch that would open the shelter.

There was a woman's soft laugh, and Kasumi stopped, turning in the direction of it. "So there you are, at last," the voice said, sounding oddly familiar. "You seem to be struggling in the dark for something. Let me help you." With that, the lights went on, the blinding light overloading the visual senses of all but Hikari. Kasumi turned and looked at the blur that was leaning against the wall by the light switch, and when her eyesight began to return, she found herself looking at a face from the past, a face from the dark times around the birth of Akama and the death of Akane.

Ono Kasumi found herself staring at the insanely fearsome face of... "Fuitamu Keiei," she whispered, remembering the name as it burned on her tongue. The Black Blade, the woman who'd nearly killed Nabiki because she thought the middle Tendo daughter was Ranma's wife; and who'd easily defeated and scarred Ukyo. That seemed to bring Kasumi out of her shocked state to a degree. "What...what are you doing here?"

Keiei gave Kasumi that winsome smile she had, the one that could break men's hearts if it wasn't for the fact that she was far more accustomed to ripping them out of men's chests. "Why, you should know the answer to that. I'm here to kill you, and take my husband back."

Husband? "I don't know what you're talking about." Kasumi tried to do her best impression of Nabiki's cool attitude; however, all she could muster was the same fear her younger sister had when she faced off against Keiei. "I have no idea at all."

"Well," Keiei gritted between clenched teeth, "let me remind you, slut! Years ago, you took my husband and son from me--you and your cronies Ranko and Hikaru. Well, I've faced them all and every black trick that you've thrown in my path. It is time for you to face the music, and face the end of your life with what little honor you have. Of course, you could attack me and give me the pleasure of chopping you into so much sashimi." Keiei's eyes glinted, reflecting a mad rage that hinted at her desperation and total lack of sanity. It is time for you to die."

Kasumi was stumped. What do I do? She'll kill the children, or she'll kill me! But if I allow her to kill me, will she spare the children, or does she have another plan for them? Kasumi looked at the martial artist before her, wondering why she picked now to arrive. Could she be with those Germans and the ninja? Could she be trading my life and those of the children for Ranma?

"No. You will do no such thing. If such a person as you has honor, you will leave now." Something elemental came to Kasumi's lips, even before she could realize what she was saying, but as she spoke the words, she knew what it was. It was the blood in her of the Tendo line, of a heritage that had produced fighter after fighter after fighter and though she physically saw combat she was still a Tendo and still had that spirit within her.

Behind her, she could hear Hikari growling, the dog's hackles rising. And behind that, she could somehow sense her nephew Akama, his ki coming up very strong for one his age. But such could be said for the son of Saotome Ranma, and it should not have been a surprise at all.

"Now that you're done with your speech, I shall kill you now." Slowly pulling her sword free of its scabbard, she slid slowly into a pose that was a ready position for either an offensive or a defensive strike. "Because you've managed to elude me for so long, I shall give you the honor of a quick death, whore. It's more than you deserve, but never let it be said that I'm not a woman of my word." Twisting to her side, she moved into one of the famous "one-stroke, one-kill" postures.

"Mother," Hiro gulped, not sure of what to do.

Kasumi knew at that very moment she was about to die. But if she was going to die, she was going to make sure that the children were at least taken care of. "Akama-chan, Hiro-chan, make sure that little Hikama and Hotaru are taken care of. As soon as everything's done here, get out of here and get to your Aunt Kodachi!"

"Do you think I would let those creatures of yours live?" she asked, staring at Kasumi with baleful eyes. "I think not."

At this point, Akama had enough. Just as he did last time, he walked right in front of his aunt and dropped into an offensive position. "Hey, I dunno who ya are, but you're not gonna hurt her. I'm Saotome Akama of the Saotome School of Marhsal Arts, and I'll fight you if you try!"

Oddly enough, the murderous look on Keiei's face evaporated the minute Akama stood up to her. With a surprising gentleness, she said, "Dear, you shouldn't talk to your mother like that."

"You're not my mother!" Akama retorted. "I know my mother, an' you ain't her!" As if to add insult to injury, he also added, "An' my mom is a more better fighter than you are! She doesn't bully people, and she's nice to everyone, not like you...you...MEANIE!!!!!" The look of challenge rose in the eyes of the young boy, the trademark cocky confidence of a Saotome.

The world stopped for Keiei as she could only hear Akama's words in her mind over and over again: you...MEANIE!!!!! you...MEANIE!!!!! you...MEANIE!!!!! you...MEANIE!!!!! you...MEANIE!!!!! you...MEANIE!!!!! you...MEANIE!!!!! Her world crashed around her, and for a split-second, she couldn't comprehend the reality of her own child talking to her like that. No! She did something to him! She did something to my son!

Keiei tilted her head back, screaming with the rage of a lifetime, and when she looked at Kasumi once more, she was fit to completely rip the housewife apart with her bare hands. "WHAT. HAVE. YOU. DONE. TO. MY. CHILD?!?!?!?!?!" Keiei stepped towards Kasumi fully intending to rip the woman's head off and do the proverbial defecation down her neck, and she would have too, had not Hikari, emboldened by Akama's stand, plunged in for the attack.

The dog plowed into Keiei at full speed, mashing her against the wall. With a vicious growl, Hikari sank teeth into Keiei's leg, clamping on and not letting go. Keiei screamed in pain, the harsh canine jaws of Nabiki's beast tearing her leg to bloody shreds. Reaching behind her, Keiei knew there was only one way to deal with the dog, and so be it. She was a cat lover, anyway. Flicking her wrist, she shouted, "Happodaikirin!"

The resulting explosion blew the dog off Keiei's leg, flinging the animal away like it was a stuffed plushie. Without wasting a moment, Keiei attacked, her sword moving in one ebon blur, a tear in the fabric of reality. Hikari howled in pain as the blade connected and passed through, and the two halves of Hikaru's beloved pet hit the ground with a sickening slap.

Hiro, horrified by what he'd just seen, turned and threw up, the cacophony of the twins' screaming making it all the worse. Akama stood in shock, staring at the remains of his mother's pet and longtime companion. Kasumi averted her gaze from the animal that sacrificed all for those he loved, and a somber tear ran down her cheek. Then the tear hit the floor, and all there was, was an anger she'd never felt before.

"HOW DARE YOU!!!!" Out of control for the first time in her life, Kasumi roared, her voice rising to a banshee's pitch. "YOU ILL-MANNERED DOMINATRIX!!!!" Running forward, Kasumi did something that no one would have ever, ever expected of one of the world's most peaceful women.

She slapped Keiei, the surprising strength in the blow enough to topple the martial artist off her feet and leave a huge red mark there as blood vessels burst in Keiei's cheek. The sound rang with the echo of a shot heard around the world, a sound that said that Ono Kasumi had finally hit the point where she could take no more.

Kasumi looked at the brief jag of golden-hued lightning that raced across her palm for a second before disappearing. "Oh! Oh my, what have I done?"

Kasumi had no chance to find out as she was dropped from a footsweep, then was kicked twice in the face and the chest. Crying in pain and telling the children to stay away, Kasumi shouted to Keiei, "Stop this, please!"

Keiei unsheathed her blade for the final time, feeling a positive emotion she hadn't felt in a while: jubilation. "Don't worry, witch--it will all be over soon." She began to raise the blade over her head slowly, debating on exactly where she was going to land the killing stab. "For what it's worth, for a second there, you were almost worth fighting."

Kasumi never acknowledged the taunt, instead looking in sorrow at the dead form of faithful Hikari, who'd served his masters right up until the end. And yet despite the dog's valiant efforts, it wasn't enough. It was nowhere near enough. And now it was too late, as Fuitamu Keiei brought the Black Blade down, intending to cut Kasumi in two.

"PREPARE TO DIE, SAOTOME NABIKI!!!!!!!"

~*~

The minute they cleared the engawa, both Nodoka and Genma noticed the shambling forms coming towards them. They moved with a slow, unnatural gait to them, as though they were under some sort of spell. As they came closer, she could see the twin lights on the forehead serving as a second set of eyes and a sign that these poor souls were being controlled. As they got even closer, she recognized a few more of them as people in the neighborhood. What exactly is going on here? What has my son gotten into, that they would use black magic to hunt his children? Or is this something related to Hikaru? Either way, when she saw both again she was going to want answers. She loved her son and his second wife dearly, but this was not the action of a man amongst men and his dutiful wife.

As if sharing her thoughts, Genma adjusted his glasses and said, "You know, dear, in all the times we've had with the boy, I think this one takes the cake." Dropping into a comically heroic pose, he addressed the oncoming crowd as they rushed towards him: "Listen up, people! I know what you're here for, and I Saotome Genma of the Saotome Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu will not stand for it! Along with my wife, Saotome Nodoka of the Saotome Shinden Jigenryu, we will do our best to stem your tide before you come further towards us and deal a harsh blow to those innocents within the house. We will--"

"Dearest," Nodoka interrupted, "I don't think they're listening. The magic spell on them is clearly too powerful. We're going to have to fight them."

"And they can't break it?" he scoffed.

"Well, you haven't gotten rid of your curse," she pointed out. "Perhaps this one is too strong for them to break, and they're not martial artists as we are. They may not have the willpower strong enough to deal with it." Unsheathing her blade, she noted, "I'll have to hit them with the flat of my blade. That's going to be a challenge. But I want you to be fairly gentle with them as well, dear."

His answer to that was a splash of water, and when she turned, the Panda dropped the kettle, holding up a sign that read, [[I'll just fuzz 'em. Will that work?]]

"Of course, dear," she said, kissing the Panda on the cheek, making him blush. Before Genma had a chance to move, the matron of the house rushed towards the assembly, flashing out her sword in on deadly move. But as she reversed it for a strike, she spun it, reversed her grip and brought it down with a head-blistering crunch. Five people were rendered unconscious in the strike, and although they might come back to normal later with headaches of an unnatural sort, they at least were alive. However, in her attempt to spare her neighbors from pain, the vast majority of her arsenal of attacks was minimized. If they group got into closer range than her sword would allow, her limited knowledge of her husband's kempo would really be a problem for her. There was no way that she could hope to--

SMACK

Several dozen more neighbors went down, trampled by a massive blur of black and white. Genma wandered through the crowd as fast as his Panda legs would carry him, knocking down people left and right and occasionally bashing one in the head with a sign. He woofed with the feral snarl of an animal, but in truth the situation seemed very surreal, more akin to a rubber monster movie than a karate-kicking Panda on the hunt. For a second, Nodoka nearly laughed at her husband's antics, but a swipe from a nearby zombified neighbor brought her back to the emergence of the situation.

With a determination to do whatever it took to win, Nodoka pressed back into the fray. Things were getting to the point where if this kept up, they would have to both switch to their more lethal moves to get the job done.

~*~

Taking off like a rocket, Miko shattered the window as she leapt out of the Saotome home. She'd broken the window intentionally; from what she knew of Shinto and Buddhist demon lore, some demons had a vulnerability to the musical tinkle of broken glass. She wasn't sure how that was going to help her at the moment, as she'd never been in an exorcism conflict before, but there was a first time for everything; besides, this was more akin to her duties as a priestess than, say, fighting German thugs trying to kill a housewife and children.

The first one she took on in midair. Catching the beast by its oversized horns before it could lay a hand on her, she spun around to its back, immediately throwing her rapid-punch attack. The beast fell down towards the ground, and Miko waited until the last second before hopping off the brute. As it impacted, leaving a crater big enough that the small pond in the Saotome's backyard began to fill it as well, she called up her ki. She was going to have to end this one; otherwise eight to one odds were going to be pretty uncomfortable. Not that seven against one is any better either, she mused grimly.

The beast poked its head out of the water, emitting the unearthly roar that shattered more windows for feet around, and at that moment Miko knew that these weren't the glass-affected types; and that these were also not going to be easy to deal with, either. But she had its attention, and as it turned to look at her with eyes full of diabolical hatred, she let him have it. "SAIKAIJUMON!!!!" The orange burst of power from her palms roasted the creature for a second as it was sent back to its particular hell, and Miko threw a ward on the location where it had been. One down, seven to go.

The second one made its presence known as it raised its arms in a spell that obliterated the ground around Miko. Showered in curtains of dirt, the priestess moved back several times to ensure that she wouldn't be caught in a second strike; the attack was doing no harm to her physically, but could distract her enough to set her up for a real strike. As she retreated, watching the dirt vaporize, a mirror in the back of her mind opened, the faintest glimmer of a memory from her past. In that memory was the face of age beyond age, instructing her to perform a move. She'd seen that face before, and that mental image had revealed to her many of Miko's array of combat techniques. Was it a sign from the gods, or was it a memory from the distant past? She wasn't sure at all, and to be honest, now was not the time to worry about those sorts of things anyway.

So instead, she acted, jabbing a finger towards the ground and reversing the attack on him. "TAKE THIS! JIHIBIKI KYOKUKO!!!!" The ground underneath her hand exploded into a spray of larger earth and rocks, all spewing with the speed of bullets in the direction of the demon. The creature, not expecting the move to be used against him, furled back from the more powerful blast, more out of surprise than injury.

However, this left him open for Miko's vortex attack. Uttering a quick prayer to the gods for support, she thrust her fist directly towards the beast and a tight spiral of energy lashed out, strong enough to bore through the demon as it passed. The ki-hurricane continued on, taking the demon's body with it on a trajectory to the sea, where it would disintegrate upon contact. Miko allowed herself a chance to rest. So far, she'd taken on two demons with little injury, and something told her that the two were probably the weakest of the bunch. The other issue was how many there were to deal with; she'd spotted eight initially, but that didn't mean that there were mo--

The next thing she felt was being slammed into the stone perimeter wall of the Saotome property, as a hundred punches continued on her backside. There was a booming laugh behind her, the demon treating her as though it were a boy having fun at the expense of a tortured animal. Miko had felt both things during her life, many times simultaneously. But being pounded into a wall as though her skin was going to make a new layer of it was a new experience for her, one she was sure that she didn't care for.

Reaching back, she threw a ward wildly. There was an eight-octave scream of pain, and as she slumped to the ground, she knew that she'd gotten lucky. Turning around with some strain, she noted that the ward had turned one of the beasts hands into a scorched rack of meat, the monster twisting around while roaring in pain that the holy ward meted out. Not bothering to regard the pain bursting all over her back, she moved at a hummingbird's speed, planting dozens upon dozens of wards all over the beasts body. At once the magic kicked in, burning the creature to the point where the hellspawn melted into nothing, his skin boiling off him and bones turning to ash. When it was over with, there was nothing left but a burnt scar on the ground where it had stood.

Miko gasped for breath, now finally feeling the pain of the blows. Incidentally, she looked into the sky, seeing the five remaining ones. One of them barked an order in a language that seemed to be made up of nothing but the sounds of ripping metal and screeches, and three more made their way down towards the Miko.

Here we go again, she thought as she summoned her ki. The path of righteousness requires me that I do all I must to combat evil and in return, I will atone myself. That mental notation done, Miko dropped into an offensive stance. This battle wasn't done yet.

~*~

The entire neighborhood was jarred from their sleep by the sounds coming from the Saotome home. By the time they'd seen the demons, the ki detonations and the house on fire, the locals had long since realized this was not a situation to get themselves into. By the time the local police had arrived, they'd come to the conclusion that whatever the hell it was, so long as it stayed in the perimeter of the property fence, they were going to treat it as a personal issue and not deal with it. On the other hand, should it get out of hand, well, hopefully the JGSDF would be fast enough to respond before Kyoto got leveled.

It was into this situation that Asuka found herself, racing down the street. Seeing as the crowds began to fill up the neighborhood streets, she stopped one of the locals and asked, "What exactly is going on?"

"I dunno," the woman answered, "but it's got something to do with the Saotome home. From what I heard, there's a battle going on between the Yakuza and some ninjas over there!"

"Naah, that's not what I heard," a man within earshot of the conversation replied. "I heard there's some demons trying to possess the wife of the household, and that there was a miko over there, in full combat with the demon! Can you believe that? A fighting priestess! I haven't heard of anything like that other than in the history books."

"Are you two crazy?" a third man chimed in. "From what someone was telling me, there's some gaijin gangsters over there, trying to kidnap the Saotomes' grandkids. However, their niece is there, and she's a better fighter than ol' Genma is."

"Enough! I'll go check for myself!" Leaping onto the rooftops, she began to sprint faster. Something was up at the Saotomes and whatever it was, there was a chance that they were at risk. There was much to gain by helping them out, and even if she wasn't inclined to assist, there could be casualties, ones she couldn't afford. Right now the only chance that elder Khu Lon had to get that information lay in the hands of Saotomes Nodoka and Genma, and now that chance was threatened.

I don't know what's going on, she admitted, but whatever it is, I can't afford to not get involved. There's just too much at risk here.

As she reached the compound, she noticed that a small war had apparently broken out. Several hundred people were rushing the Saotomes, who were fighting for their lives; there were occasional ki blasts coming from within the burning house, and on a third side of the home, somehow managing to hold off eight demons--demons?!?!?!?--was the priestess that she'd thought earlier to be of no consequence. It seems that she can fight after all and-- The Amazon had to twist out of the way as a whirlwind pillar of energy, carrying the smoking, cored corpse of one of the demons, blasted by, destination unknown. She's a lot more powerful than I thought she was! Too bad she's a priestess; she'd make one hell of an Amazon!

Screams erupted from another part of the house, by the dojo. Leaping onto the flaming home and hoping that no one noticed, she made a beeline for the building. Clearing the other side of the house, she noticed the injured woman from earlier shielding the children, her face a mask of utter fear. In front of her was the decapitated remains of a dog, probably the family pet who'd clearly tried to protect its masters at the cost of its life. And, somehow not surprising, was the person who'd committed the atrocity: a woman holding a sword aloft, the blade covered in gore and ready for another round.

The sword, though covered in spots with the red sheen of blood, was primarily a matte black shade the color of night.

"PREPARE TO DIE, SAOTOME NABIKI!!!!!!!"

Moving faster than she ever had before, Asuka silently charged her younger half-sister. If the Amazon didn't move fast enough, there would be no way that the woman and children would survive the onslaught of the Black Blade.

~*~

Estima swatted Kodachi against the nearby wall, drawing blood in her strike. The Dancing Rose spit up blood from the blow, unsure how the situation was going for the others. Right now she was able to hold her own against her opponent, and she did so by grabbing Estima's hand at an opportune time and blasting her into the wall, but some of the others she was sure weren't going to be able to face things that came their way. For example, she knew the Saotomes were tough, but how tough were they against the army of zombies she'd caught out of the corner of her eye

"PAY ATTENTION!!!!!" Estima shouted at Kodachi. "How do you expect me to kill you fairly if your mind's not on the game?" Out of an inner shirt pocket the ninja pulled out another set of fujuki and with a speed usually associated with semiautomatic pistols she hurled them at Kodachi, the hailstorm of metal spikes coming at her like a swarm of iron wasps. Kodachi noticed them and moved on instinct, initiating a series of dodges and jukes that would have made a contortionist stare in awe. "THAT'S THE SPIRIT!!!" Estima shouted, her voice sounding almost pleased. "It'll make it much more fair to kill you now!"

Kodachi continued moving, but it seemed as though the kitsune kunoichi had dozens upon dozens of the blades, and somehow the blades seemed to be increasing. Other than the fact that the blades were ki-charged she could sense no output of the life force, and there was no way to tell if this had the taint of magic behind it. The wall behind her was beginning to look like a porcupine's hide, and with her continuous dodging, there was no way that she could get out of the defensive mode. It was a stand off, and she was being made to dance to a tune that she didn't like. Kodachi preferred to dance to her own design, and no other.

Clarity filled her mind, and she took a chance. Leaping toward her foe at a disjointed angle, three fujuki hit her inner thigh but there was little she could do at the moment other than to bit away the pain and hope that her trick worked. If it didn't, there would be no doubt whatsoever that it would be the last thing she ever did.

~*~

Several of the next group of people was slammed aside painfully by a Panda moving with wooden signs at high speed. At the foot of the great beast, there was a growing pile of unconscious people and broken signs; though the pile was growing larger and larger, more and more zombies were coming and things were going to get out of control. Genma was concerned about the rising number of attackers to the point where he voiced that concern to his wife.

Unfortunately, Nodoka didn't have the capability to understand a panda's growls and barks, so that much was lost on her. However, she also knew that her husband wouldn't do something like that in battle unless the situation warranted it. Pulling another bokken free from the ground in front of her and throwing the broken one on the ground, she darted her eyes left and right, searching for the end of the onrushing mob. So far she hadn't found it. At the rate things were going, it seemed as though the whole of Kyoto was pouring into her backyard. "There's got to be someone behind all of this," she wondered aloud, moving her bokken in a dancing, aerobatic motion that felled scores more.

A blast of green raced by her side, and Nodoka managed to move as the beam ripped through the air, burning into the ground near where she'd been a second or two before. Looking up, she noted that a pair of gaijin was standing on an undamaged section of the perimeter wall, hefting sleek-looking guns and sneering at her. They shouted a taunt in a language she wasn't familiar with, but the Saotome matron got the gist of the message simply from their tones.

"Okay, if that's the way you gentlemen wish to play it, so be it," Nodoka responded, slamming her bokken through another wave of zombies, then dropping it and moving into a clearer position, readied for iiai-style attack. I'm going to have to reverse blade this, and I haven't done that since I was a young girl. But it seems I don't have much of a choice.

One of the men fired, the shaft of acidic green energy blaring its way towards her with the speed of light. Impossibly, though, Nodoka seemed to be faster, flowing into counters with a grace that belied her advancing years. Deflecting two of the beams into the nearby wall, she charged the spot where the two men were sniping from, continuing to carom energy blasts into the surrounding yard.

"Whoever that old woman is, she's dangerous," Dacia grunted, reaching behind him for another blaster. "She might be good enough to handle two pistols, but can she handle three?"

His partner caught the gist immediately. Reaching for his other weapon, he added, "I certainly don't believe that she could deal with a fourth weapon. But that's entirely her problem, all we have to do is hit the mark on--ooof!"

Dacia went on the alert, confused at the sudden change in his partner's comments. The answer came a split-second later as a giant furry beast stood in front of him, claws at the ready and anger in its eyes. With a speed borne of years of elite military training, the stormtrooper leapt back and opened fire, releasing a hailstorm of energy slivers, each one lethal in its own existence.

Even so, the black-and-white bear before him moved with skill, agility and intelligence that no mere animal could have; it was almost as though it was possessed of a human intellect. Letting the beams pass harmlessly to its side, the furred beast reached out with a huge paw and swatted the man as a batter would a homerun, sending the man spinning. Dacia fell to the ground, clutching his head and ignoring the spurts of blood that raced out of the scores on his face. Above him, the bear stood, a look of righteous anger inexplicably in its eyes, and even odder, wielding a sign written in Japanese.

There was the soft whine of an energy weapon being held at close range. Dacia looked a bit to the left and saw Cupra holding both pistols at the creature's head. To the surprise of both men, the beast stepped back from Dacia, raising its paws in the air and dropping its sign, as though it were a person surrendering to superior forces.

"Amazing, an intelligent bear." Cupra shook his head. "And here I thought I'd seen it all in this misadventure among the inferiors. In any case, sorry you had to get mauled, Dacia, but unfortunately this mongrel caught us by surprise."

"That it did," the downed man responded as he picked himself off the ground, dusting off his uniform. "Okay, kill the thing."

"Gladly," the armed man answered, beginning to depress the trigger, the light of the priming pulse growing brighter as both pistols were about to eject their fatal payload.

Without warning, there was a splash of hot water, and the sound of a metal teakettle impacting against the ground, empty. Cupra was surprised by the sudden onrush of heated water, but still managed to keep his guns trained on the animal before him, opening fire and letting two beams slice through the creature's head. The beams had enough power to cut through just about anything short of high-grade metals, so the chance of a semi-intelligent mammal's skull withstanding the blast was decidedly less.

Therefore it came to the Nazi as a surprise that both weapons were immediately slapped from his hand. A second surprise came a couple of seconds later as he took several blows to the face and stomach, then felt himself lifted into the air. Dazed, he looked down and saw himself in the grip of a hulking, angry Japanese man in middle age, wearing one of those pajama suits that seemed to be popular for some reason.

Behind the man, he saw Dacia diving for a gun, ready to open fire at the mysteriously arrived stranger--where had the bear disappeared to, anyway--only to see that light thwarted as a slivery blade arced out, its presence glinting with the twin sheen of moonlight and fire, cutting through the barrel of Dacia's weapon. The stormtrooper platoon leader looked up and found himself at the mercy of the old woman with the sword, the bladed weapon pointed at him in a clear indication of what would happen next unless he capitulated.

Cupra had one chance. As fast as he could move, he grabbed the stiletto from his side and in one swift move, threw it. The blade flew, impacting into the old woman with a muffled thump. As she screamed, crumpling to the ground, the sword fell, bouncing on the grass and giving Dacia a chance to move to safety.

However, safety was not to be for Cupra. At the sound of the woman's scream, the man went into a furious rage, clamping down on the soldier's windpipe. By the time the man would have died from asphyxiation, it would have mattered little, as his throat had been completely crushed.

Dropping the corpse with a vengeful disdain, Genma turned to face the other man, angrier than he'd ever been in his life. Granted, he hadn't been a paragon of virtue himself, but there were certain lines that had been crossed, lines that even Genma saw as inviolate. "Let her go, or I'll kill you!" he shouted at the foreigner.

Said foreigner picked up the sword at Nodoka's neck, in such a way that made it clear all it would take would be a single strike to kill her. Assuming if she wasn't already dead; there was no sign at all that the Saotome matron was breathing, and with the blood pouring from a wound that couldn't clearly be seen, Genma feared the worst.

"You threatened my family," Genma snarled, anger in his eyes. "You will pay for your folly." Genma brought his hands close to one another, the energy coalescing in them, building as his aura, a dirty shade of neon green, emerged. His eyes began to glow with the same power, and the aura built, he seemed for a second to take on the strength of his altered form.

The German threw down the blade, the katana sinking into the ground perilously close to Nodoka's slumped body. Reaching into his tunic for a small traditional Luger, Dacia barked something that Genma would never understand, but had the older man known the Teutonic language, he would have understood Dacia's insults of everything and the fact that the patriarch of the Saotome clan did not stand a chance in hell of defeating a member of the elite Waffen SS.

But even if Genma could have understood that, it wouldn't have mattered to him. In an explosion of power, he moved nearly as fast as his son, his power sheathing him in a blanket of energy as he rammed into Dacia as hard as he could. Still having the momentum, Genma took advantage of his opponent's unbalanced position and uppercutted him into the air with a ferocity that would have made his belated first daughter-in-law proud.

However, that wasn't the end of the strike. Still calling his power up to him, Genma screamed at his vanishing opponent, "SAOTOME YAMASENKEN FINAL ATTACK--KANZENCHOAKU MANNEN SUISEI!!!!" Raising both hands to the air, he threw a massive globe of ki towards his opponent, which immediately splintered into a hailstorm of energy bolts, the swarm of fireballs rocketing through the sky, a pack of energized piranha on the hunt. As Dacia hit the zenith of his arc so did the energy balls hit him; the result was a spectacular blossom of bioenergy that briefly lit up the sky like a firework, the last thing that the Waffen SS officer would ever know.

Genma slumped to the ground, spent. It had been a bit since the last time he'd ever used that attack. But the Good Punishes Evil Eternity Comets Strike was one of the last few moves that Genma had never taught his son, and it was a good thing, too--that move made a person weak, and though it was certain to remove an opponent, it would leave the combatant susceptible to any attacks.

Sure enough, the zombies began to move in again, somehow buoyed by the defeat of the two foreign gunmen rather than dismayed. Not caring, Genma moved to his wife's side, gingerly moving her head back to inspect the damage. What he saw wasn't good. Her skin pale and body as limp as a rag doll, the knife sat embedded in her chest, barely able to staunch a massive flow of blood even as the red poured out of the wound around the knife. Husband set wife down gently on the ground, feeling for a pulse; it was weak, but it was there. Her breath was a series of ragged, labored motions.

The prognosis was clear: unless Nodoka got some help soon, she'd be dead. Genma knew he couldn't take her from the area, as the jostling would kill her. As he got to his feet, though, he immediately had to prepare for another onslaught. The zombies were coming from all directions now and the only way he could save Nodoka would be to fight them all until assistance came. But would it?

The man that so many thought to be a lout and a heartless bastard blinked away tears at the possibility that his wife was soon to die. He himself wasn't afraid of it anymore, but he was a different person now than what he'd been during his years on the road. Nodoka's return to his life had changed him back into a man of honor somewhat, and to lose her would be to lose a great part of his own self. That would be something he wouldn't, couldn't tolerate.

As the waves approached, Genma dropped into a malleable offensive posture. He would take down anything that would come his way...

...or he would join his wife in whatever fate they would face.

~*~

Metal rang out against metal as Keiei's katana crashed into Asuka's falchion. Momentarily surprised by the block, Asuka took advantage and viciously slammed her half-sister in the stomach with a kick that sent the raven-haired madwoman staggering back. Dashing forward, Asuka struck hard against Keiei's blade, but the younger woman was prepared and counterattacked with a parry and thrust that made Asuka leap back in surprise.

"You've gone too far, Keiei!" the neophyte Amazon shouted as she moved into a traditional Chinese sword dancing posture. "Attacking combatants is one thing, but harming an innocent woman and children is completely out of line. I should have realized there's nothing left of you to save, dear sister!"

Keiei didn't even bother dropping into a stance, merely holding her katana in one hand and brandishing her fist in the other. "You don't think you could actually defeat me, do you, whore? It will take more than the black magic of Saotome Nabiki and her minions to stop me from gaining what has been taken from me!" she seethed.

"'Saotome Nabiki?' I thought Kodachi was Ranma's wife!" Asuka wondered aloud. Though she didn't look at the third woman in the room, she'd clearly intended the comment at her. "Regardless, harming children isn't the answer." Stepping nimbly over the remains of what appeared to be a wolf, Asuka figured that the dead canine was likely the result of Keiei's doing, the end of a faithful pet trying to protect loved ones at the cost of sacrifice.

"Only one of them is a child, and that's my son. I don't know what the rest are, but I can assure you they're not likely even human," Keiei scoffed with a dark gleam in her eye. "You should know that, you're working for the witch! You don't even respect what miniscule bloodlines there are between you and I!"

"Funny," Asuka answered coolly, "if there was a person that I ever thought would decry family ties, it would be you, Keiei."

Keiei didn't bother answering that. Instead, she charged in with an attack, blood fury in her eyes. "PREPARE TO DIE, WHITE LILY!!!!!!!!!"

"IT WILL TAKE MORE THAN YOU HAVE, BLACK BLADE!!!!!!!!!!" Asuka countered, racing to meet the other's challenge.

The pair met in the center, blades singing out against each other as the swords locked. The two were pulled back and met once again with a vicious clash, the paired shafts of metal pounding against each other in furious blows, each of their owner moving with furious anger and rage, both determined to end this conflict between them for once and for all. The look on Keiei's face was the very image of bedlam itself, her need to destroy and rend for her twisted goal at all costs prevalent in the insanity of her eyes. On the other hand, the situational awareness of battle was clearly showing in the eyes of Asuka, her mind searching for a way to end this meaningless conflict and assist with the others at hand.

Leaping back, Keiei called up spheres of energy in her hand. Lobbing the orbs with one hand, she shouted, "HAPPODAKIRIN SHOWER!!!!!!!!" and immediately burst forward, directly behind the ki strike. If her plan worked, she would be able to score a final, fatal blow against the White Lily, paving the way for the slaughter of Nabiki and her creatures. Once she did that, she could rescue her son and figure out what was the next stage in what to do to get her husband back--and where exactly was Ranma, during all this, anyway?

Asuka expected something of the sort, so she countered as fast as she could. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out objects and threw them with true precision; the metallic discs slamming into the ki bombs and detonating them in phosphorescent pulses of explosive light. Their use expended and mission completed, the slagged, warped remains of the shuriken fell to the ground with a metallic clatter, the heated remains burning smoking holes in the tatami mats on the ground.

Meanwhile, the distraction allowed Keiei to strike true. Moving in like a bolt of light herself, the Black Blade seemed to appear out of the detonations, swinging her katana in a deadly arc and drawing a line of gore on Asuka's arm. Reeling from the blow, Asuka made a desperate parry, only to nearly take a stab through the chest as Keiei seized her advantage with all the finesse of a berserk's frenzy. As the dark crimson of her blood stained her clothes, Asuka took a chancy move to get out of her situation; leaping up without notice, she spun and delivered a blasting reverse spin kick to the ravenhair's head, connecting on the right side and propelled her into a nearby wall. Landing, she moved forward and stabbed into Keiei's shoulder, eliciting a howl of uproarious pain from the other combatant. Still wincing from the bloody agony of her arm, Asuka bounded back to reassess the situation at hand.

"Now," Keiei seethed, "we finish this once and for all, Asuka!"

"I readily agree!" the Amazon snarled, forgetting about her pain, charging forward once again. Blade clashed against blade once more, this time both slivers of steel flying fast enough they seemed as lightsabers, the blur of their movement appearing to leave light trails of their own. The look of determined rage set upon the faces of both women, and there was certainty that only one was going to walk away from this one alive.

From her point of view, Kasumi held the children behind her, terrified at the situation unfolding in front of her. Hikaru's dear pet was no dead, and a new person she hadn't seen before was no in effect the one defending them. There was no way out of here save through the space where the two combatants were busily trying to eviscerate the other, and should Keiei win, they were all as good as dead--and there was no idea what would happen should the Amazon win. The only thing that Kasumi was sure of was that whoever won, there was going to be some serious repercussions, and as usual, this family would suffer them.

~*~

From where he stood, watching the various battles unfold on the Saotome property, Sharan had a realization. It was that sort of understanding, borne of a crisis, that their assault team wasn't going to survive this mess, that despite the overwhelming odds they were throwing at these people, there was something different about them, something so completely out of the norm that the abnormal could be blasé for them.

It would make sense. Even now as he stood, demons summoned by his spells were getting seriously beaten by a mere wisp of a woman dressed in robes; at another angle, the idiot stormtroopers were getting their just desserts from what looked like a bear, of all things. Though he couldn't see Estima and her opponent, chances were that she was probably in serious trouble as well.

So this is the family of the Pillar, he comprehended, analyzing that thought and all that it meant. If this group were related to a woman that had become a goddess on another world, it would stand to reason that all of them had that same power within. Perhaps Daimler's earlier idea to use the children as bait could be wrong. Maybe, just maybe, we can capture the power within one of these souls, see if that person's a match for the Pillar.

Sharan smiled. It would be perfect ease to change the operation's parameters, and if what Barina had told him of Daimler's latest plan, the two ideas would dovetail nicely. It would be the fruition of the Fuhrer's plans, and at the same time a delectable irony that such a force could be brought to bear against not only one but both universes at hand. With the way things were progressing, if that force wasn't brought into play relatively soon in the war, the Pillar's forces might, Gott verbieten, actually be capable of defeating the Vanden Plaz.

Reaching into his cloak, Sharan pulled out a small metal ball. On the world they'd first ended up on--Autozam, a place that reminded him much of his home town of Munchen, for some odd reason--this silver and black orb was used as a sort of probing device, mainly for medical purposes. However, Sharan, Barina and Citroen had taken a few of them and adjusted them to their own needs, such as this one. Tapping it on the top, a soft green light spilled out of the scanning diode, pronouncing it ready to do its master's bidding.

Throwing it towards the Saotome home, it would analyze then capture the person most suited to what he had in mind. By the time the others realized that one of their own was missing, Sharan would be able to set up a return trip back to Cephiro with whoever survived the combat down below.

Not, he admitted silently, that I think anyone will.

~*~

Miko pushed herself back to her feet with as much strength as she could muster. Somehow, she managed to beat seven of the eight beasts, and all she wanted to do at the moment was to return back to the hot springs of the home she'd known for so long. But she was a priestess, and she not only had a mission to perform in defeating these demons and to see this family safe, she also had a personal obligation to make sure that her friends would survive this day.

It suddenly dawned on her that she never had friends before, not really. The priests were her family back at the shrine, and treated her as one of them, but they were never close to her, never got more than personal. While it was untoward that they would approach her in a romantic manner (something she understood), they had never approached her in a manner of friendship, either. Even the few people in town she knew kept themselves apart from her, as though they knew the nature of her curse and considered her a demon with beautiful form rather than a troubled young woman. Assuming, of course that she was a woman and not the demon she felt they thought her to be.

But there was now a group that thought of her as a friend, and had even gone out of their way to say so. Kasumi-dono, Kodachi-dono and the children treated her with more than the average kindness; they showered respect and affection on her. That was, that had to be the sign of friendship, and that was something that Miko knew she had to be a part of. Somehow, a part of her knew even in the ur-life she led before this, she had no one that she could rightly call friend, that there had been no one until now.

Unfortunately, the sudden attack against her gave her little time to think about it. Moving out of the way, she dashed backwards as the ground below her exploded into a massive spray of rocks, dirt and a small section of the wall that had been caught in the blast radius. As the geysered earth began to succumb to gravity, Miko focused on her opponent for a second, the final demon that she had to deal with. Something told her this was going to, by far, be the hardest one to beat, the ringleader of the group.

The first impression she got of it was a giant, towering over four meters in height and with a breadth of the great Daibutsu of Kamakura itself. Then there was a whiff of smoke that obscured everything, and when it cleared, Miko found herself staring at a twisted, broken-mirror image of herself. Granted, the image was dressed substantially different than she was and had a fancier hairstyle too, but there was something dark and deadly about the doppelganger, something that indicated this was no mere reflection.

Miko didn't waste time moving into a defensive posture. "Who are you and what do you want?"

The copy spoke to her, her voice sultry, Japanese broken and with a melodious accent that Miko couldn't identify. "Show you side do not see. You hide evil side now to be shown to you. This who you is." Before the Shinto priestess could take stock of the situation the dark clone rushed towards Miko, shouting, "Kacchu Tenshin Amaguriken!" A thousand punches came at Miko at once and already wounded, she was unable to dodge the brunt of them. Several hundred strikes connected, staggering the priestess back from the onslaught of this evil twin before her.

"Kill you now," the demoness continued, her cruel smile seeming a mockery of the usual sincere smile Miko gave. "Kill you much, take your place."

"I don't think so," Miko snarled, anger coming to the forefront. Leaping into the air with what strength she could, she came down for an attack...

…which the demoness laughed about. Punching the ground with ridiculous ease, she canted, "Bakusai Tenketsu!" The ground beneath her fist exploded and the storm of earth rushed up, pummeling against Miko, pushing her back and painfully against the ground. Not merely content with dealing with that damage, the other woman punched her hand forward, unleashing an energy vortex with a cry of "Hiryu Shotenha!"

Knowing it would be the end of her if she didn't move quickly, she dived forward as the ki-cyclone blasted over her. The second it cleared, she darted into the demoness' attack range, screaming, "Ohitaki Matsuri Mai!" Fists glowing with her orange ki, Miko returned the high-speed punches at her foe, with fortunately similar results. Though the clone moved faster, she was still unable to outmaneuver the onslaught and took several painful blows. "You're not me at all!" Miko seethed. "I am neither cruel or harmful!"

The demoness smiled. "Yes you is. You is born--" The words never came out as Miko delivered a jaw-snapping kick to the side of the other woman's face, sending her spinning in a shower of spittle and blood.

"You lie, demon. I KNOW who and what I am! I am Miko, Shinto Fighting Priestess of the Shrine of the Duelists' Ring and I will brook no darkness from the likes of you!" Her eyes filling with holy rage, Miko could no longer contain the anger and wrath she held, could no longer bind the contempt she had for this unholy creature. This monster thinks to deceive me, make me think that it can read who I was. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that's not who I am!

"Time for die!" the demoness screamed, bringing her hands up and pointing them at Miko. With little difficulty, she released a blast, shouting at the top of her lungs, "MOKO TAKABISHA!!!!!!!!" A reddish-orange blast of force ripped away from the demoness' hands, heading on a fatal collision course with Miko. There would be no way that anyone, the Shinto priestess included, would survive an attack like that.

Miko closed her eyes, put her hands together, and prayed. Opening her eyes, seeing the beam onrushing like a freight train, she began to wave her hands and arms in circular, spiraling motions, whispering words that had been around since the world began: "RIN, PYO, TO, SHA, KAI, JIN, RETSU, SAI, ZEN--" With a look on her eyes that approached beatification, the miko smiled and said, "Let's play your game, demon!" Her hands glowing, she drew the familiar five-pointed star, slammed her hands forward onto its plane and screamed "SETSURI KASAKU--SHINTOKUZAIKAIJUMON!!!!" On cue the Divine Virtue Purification Blast volcanoed from the star, a pure whitish-orange beam that raced against its counterpart, racing to connect in a pulse of incredible force.

The blast connected with the gentleness of a small tactical nuke, completely flattening a good-size portion of the perimeter wall as well as a few trees in the Saotome backyard. Spectators safely behind police lines now saw the same thing: a woman dressed in Chinese clothing fighting what appeared to be her twin, dressed roughly somewhere between a shinobi and a miko. Both women rushed forward for another rounds of attacks, these hits far more personal and damaging than previous.

The demoness leapt towards the miko, her acrobat's thrust kick coming straight at Miko like a human lance. The priestess, however, swatted the demoness aside. Getting her second wind, Miko gave a terse smile. "What, are we beginning to give up now, hellspawn? If you truly were me, you'd know that I never give up."

"Kill you now, kill you good," the demoness snarled in a singsong voice. Moving forward, she released the Tenshin Amaguriken again, but Miko countered with her own Ohitaki Matsuri Mai, both sets of hands moving faster than the wings of a hummingbird. Micronized sonic booms erupted in the space between the two combatants, a thousand firecracker bursts that continued on as the fists moved fast enough to create vacuum pockets where the air rushed in. This continued for endless spans of seconds, the two combatants determined to one-up the other.

However, after one second and fifty-eight punches, Miko gave a hint of a bare smile. The reason for it came a second later as the world exploded in a fiery burst of solar flame. The demoness screeched in pain, unable to take the heat of ki-fire scorching her damned soul. Rearing her head back and screaming with an ear-shattering shriek, the creature was now vulnerable.

Miko used that advantage, glad that at the last second she was able to remember the old Yokei no Seika trick her master taught her. One of the few spells the wily old priest knew, she used her ki vice magic to replicate it, and it seemed that the replication worked as well as the original did. However, this was not the moment to waste time gloating, this was a time for decisive action--either she put down this demon once and for all, or it would put her down and subsume her life with a strange copy.

Thundering, "You have mocked me for the final time, creature!" Miko's ki exploded into an aura that blinded the world around her. "You want to be human, demoness--LEARN THE PAIN OF HUMANITY!!!!! RIN, PYO, TO, SHA, KAI, JIN, RETSU, SAI, ZEN--KIRIBI MIKO MAI!!!!" Initiating her final attack, the priestess put everything she could into her assault, boring through the creature's defenses. Miko launched 827 punches, a quick hurricane kick, then an uppercut, launching the creature into the air. Following via a well-honed jump, the priestess went into another combination of 674 ki-explosive rapid punches to the chest, an aerial rounding snap kick to the face (also charged with ki), an elbow smash, and a reverse snap kick, drawing blood from the doppelganger. As the creature went spinning to the earth, Miko pulled out the last of her spellwards. Harshly whispering a prayer, she loosed the storm of paper at the demon.

The magical sheets of paper slammed onto the creature at a ballistic rate, adhering to the skin and burning into the soul of the demon. Uttering a mad, tortured howl as it plowed into the ground, more and more of the mystical weapons were brought against it, covering it in a swarm of papers as though it were a dying insect being torn apart by a horde of army ants.

As the ground began to smolder with the furnace-level heat and flames of unnatural death, Miko took one final step to halt the beast. Reaching in her pocket for a small vial, she unstopped the small cork and poured clear liquid on the ward-enveloped beast. Jerking already from the pain, the beast began to howl more as the blessed sake burrowed down onto the bound, mummified thing, making it thrash all the more.

"Now to teach you the lesson you so richly deserve, monster." Her aura glowing with a power that usually only a senior priest could attain, Miko went over to the demon's side and began to trace designs in the air, her aura leaving trails of light to dance and sparkle in the night as though a flight of fireflies followed her index finger's every movement. Etching arcane patterns that only a few could comprehend, Miko took a chance and said, "You wished to suborn my life and corrupt it. I give it to you freely now, so that you may know the error of your ways." With that, the miko dropped to her knees and placed her hands on the creature, infusing her life force into the being.

For a second, the power around the two intensified to the point where it seemed a binary sun had set up shop in the Saotome yard. Eventually the searing light faded into nothingness and the creature, still buried under the wards, began to still. A thousand images burned through the mind of the Shinto priestess, not entirely clear yet too visceral not to be fragments of a life she once led--

...wandering around China, the strongest of her generation, only to be beaten by an outsider...

...following the outsider to Japan, only to find a man beyond her wildest dreams. The man was with another woman, but she was willing to kill that other woman to get what she wanted...

...after years of trying, she managed to kill the woman who'd been her obstacle to everything, but there would be a price the Mountain Girl would have to pay for sinking the Sunrise, as the Wild Horse forever ran from her....

Miko stood, shaking her head and watching the form of the defeated demon, as it slowly began to shrink and take on a less defined shape. Whatever had run through her head, part of it was who she'd been in that life before she became Miko. Was there an answer to what she feared knowing? Yes, there was, but the gods had been merciful to her and continued to hide away names, faces, points of reference. She now knew that she'd once been an assassin of a sort, but she also now knew that whatever that woman had been like, she no longer existed in the frame of the pious priestess.

Hearing a scream to her right, Miko closed her eyes and rushed towards it, knowing it would lead her back into battle. It was the way things were now. She'd been given her abilities if not her memory to make up for her crimes, and her cursed form to instill humility and to remind her of what she should strive to be. Now having a clear purpose for the first time in her new life, Miko dived into her new world and friends eagerly, ready to give whatever it took.

~*~

The house was aflame and it would burn to its foundations. Nothing could stop that now; the fire was too out of control and the local fire department quite rightly feared stepping closer to the absolute chaos that was present. The best that could be hoped for in this situation was that the conflagrations--fire or otherwise--wouldn't spread to the surrounding homes. Regardless, it would take a long time for the damage that had been done to this section of Kyoto to heal; though the Saotome property could be rebuilt, the peace and serenity that this neighborhood had was shattered in the most violent way possible, and it would likely take years if not decades before it went back to normal.

Nerima was once like that, I'm sure, Kodachi thought while in mid-air, but now it's devolved into a place where you expect nothing less than everyday anarchy. I'd hate to see this place go that way. Even still, she knew it was inevitable in this situation. So the Dancing Rose went, so chaos followed.

The hypothetical turned into cold hard fact again as Kodachi completed her arc and connected violently with Estima's face. Having not expected such an unorthodox move, the kunoichi took the blow unshielded, crumpling to the ground. Kodachi had just a half-second to stabilize a landing before she found herself cartwheeling backwards to avoid a footsweep by her opponent. Shuriken stormed through the immediate vicinity and it was through a minor miracle that Kodachi was able to dodge.

Bringing herself to her feet, she drew her breath in pained, gasping spurts. She felt both the weakness of injury and bloodloss, knew that she was off her game. Her only consolation at the moment was that her opponent was in just as bad a shape. Both women clearly looked not at their best, and if there was something to be derived from this, it was that they were definitely both at the edge.

"You know, it is a true shame," the shadow dancer commented between gasps, "that you choose to oppose me. You might be the best fighter of your time, but I am far better than you are. In a way, I suppose it's like destroying a fine work of art out of necessity--a regrettable task, but one that must be done." She gave Kodachi a not unkind smile and answered, "If it is any consolation, I have been honored to fight both you and the priestess. It has been a while since I have come into contest with anyone approaching my level of skill."

Kodachi looked at the woman, not saying a thing. Here was a situation where the world was burning around them, innocents were at risk, and this woman was actually more concerned about honor in battle? To put it mildly, things were highly out of sorts at the moment, and it wasn't likely to get any better.

"You aren't going to win," Estima said in a plainspoken voice. "You have no chance to beat me. You've managed to stop me so far, but you're going to die now. It's just the way of things." The kitsune kunoichi folded her hands together, and her blood-red aura sparked into life, the energy seeming as a hungry ghost waiting to be fed.

With an unspoken cue, Kodachi lifted off her feet, moving towards her foe unconsciously. Something primal moved within her, something fierce and unthinking. Moving at a pace that was animalistic, Kodachi's eyes filled with a placid calm, as though she was about to perform something vital to her soul enough to entrance her in a zen state.

"So be it." Estima snapped her hand out, loosing her ki-fujiki. This was immediately followed by a second, third, and four more waves as both combatants entered what would finally be the endgame of the battle, the last time they would likely clash against one another.

The attack bored past Kodachi, and with an agility that would have done a ballerina proud, she pirouetted and flipped out of the path of the small missiles, continuing her forward charge all the while. Reaching the point just in front of Estima, Kodachi cut loose with her Taikyokuken Senju Kombo faster than she ever had before. Waves of punches lashed out at the ninja, a blur of pure painful motion should even one of them connect.

Estima stood her ground, stretching back and throwing a countermove to it. With every fist coming at her, the ninja blocked in some way or another, each of the movements parried or dodged. Finally, the two moved fast enough to be forcefully tossed away from each other via a localized sonic boom that blasted the ninja back into the burning remnants of the Saotome home. Undaunted, Kodachi flipped in mid-air and bolted straight into the building, heedless of her own safety. This was going to end, and it was going to end now.

Moving through the smoke and flames, Kodachi moved, ready for anything. It was a final confrontation and there was no knowing exactly what the other would do. Carefully, she stopped momentarily to pull the three spikes out of her leg. Though it hurt like hell to remove them and started a new flow of blood, it was easier to deal with that than the limited mobility leaving them there might entail. Gingerly moving on the leg, she threw the weapons out of the home, into the limited safety of the outdoors.

Immediately, the Dancing Rose jerked to her left, narrowly avoiding being buried by the sudden caving in of a nearby wall. Cartwheeling back into the smoky interior, she could see little else save for the walls of cloudy gray around her and the occasional flashes of lethal fire. Somewhere in all of this was the ninja, and Kodachi had to take her down once and for all if she, Miko and the others were going to make it out of this intact.

As the ceiling groaned under the weight of fire and the above items, Kodachi realized that it wasn't just a question of merely defeating her foe, but also of escaping to safety in time...and there was no way to know how much time was left.

~*~

On the other side of the torched structure, Estima picked herself up off the ground, listening for the sound of a person moving through the mess. Despite her exhaustion and injuries, she felt completely alive. This was the moment, the primal instance that she lived and thrived for. She was Kukogawa Aikawa, Estima, the kitsune kunoichi, and every part of her very essence called for her to commit to whatever it would take for her to complete her tasks. Drawing herself closer to one of the few unburned sections of the home left, she stretched out with her senses, feeling for her enemy through the enhanced perception she had.

A rock concert's worth of sound was what she could hear. Timbers groaned, fire snarled and crackled, electrical conduits in the home sizzled and burst as the flame consumed them. Here and there a pop made itself known, as did the occasional other sound. These were the sounds of fire, of flame. For the most part, they were natural cues, or in the case of the electrical equipment, perfectly reasonable to explain.

Just beyond the sounds and slowly coming closer was the near silent fall of footsteps, the soft breathing of someone accustomed to that discipline. Estima smiled to herself; even as injured as she looked, the other martial artist was still playing by the rules of the game. It would likely make her death that much more sweeter when Estima ran her blades through the combatant that opposed her. It would be about time, too; Estima lived a life of honor as both a kitsune kunoichi and an officer of the Imperial Japanese Army, but even more important than those two was her calling as the personal retainer to Lady Botan's family. Estima couldn't afford to make another mistake as she had before, and if she was ever to face her mistress again, she had to do what personal honor required. The dancer; and later, the miko, must die for their effrontery...as well as for being nearly as good as Estima was.

As Estima drew her final weapons, the kunai she saved for special occasions, she almost felt bad for a second; once she completed her acts, there would be no one good enough to challenge her anymore, and completing Sharan's part of the mission would be too easy in and of itself. But that was the nature of her business, she realized as she sank into the hazy blue depths of the burning house, waiting for the approach of her enemy...and the kill that would come about.

~*~

The air around the two combatants seemed to shimmer with the sparking, dancing remnants of energy. Both the Black Blade and the White Lily stood, calling up their reserves of energy. To Kasumi, the whole thing seemed like a binary star gone mad and about to supernova amongst her and the childrens' midst. There would be no safety, no surety.

Suddenly, both combatants tore against each other, neither afraid of what was to come and both ignoring the unwilling spectators. The first to strike was Asuka, dashing to Keiei's side and opening fire with one of her own attacks, a strobing series of flashed kicks, each one slamming Keiei across the face and chest. However, on the eighth one, Keiei coughed up blood. Despite the pain to the raven-haired fighter, it was just enough to distract Asuka momentarily, and give Keiei the edge, which she seized with a fury.

"TAIFUSHU!!!!!!!" Keiei snap-kicked towards Asuka, tagging her twice. The first blow came across the chest as Keiei's foot slammed painfully into the flesh just above Asuka's heart. This was followed up as the point-blank Typhoon Kick as the energy blasted straight into the platinum-maned woman with no chance to dodge or counter. A scream followed as a ripping sound came a half-beat before. Blood tore through the air and when the strike ended a half-second later, the pressure of the attack tossed the combatant into the nearest wall with a sharp crack.

Kasumi screamed and that drew unwanted attention. Her eyes blazing with unnatural hatred, Keiei looked in the Tendo family housefrau and snarled, "I'll deal with you next as soon as I take care of Asuka here. Wait your turn!" Pointing a hand at Kasumi, she loosed a blast of indigo energy, violating another tenet of the martial rules she claimed to follow. The bolt of ki splashed against Kasumi's right shoulder and sent her spinning, her impromptu dance finally extinguished by a dizzying blow to the face as she careened into a nearby wall.

Hiro stared in complete shock, which Akama, still standing in front of his crying younger siblings, watched the woman with a mixture of anger and despair. He knew this woman was good, maybe even as good as his aunt Nabiki or his parents. But there was no honor to her movements, none of the martial righteousness that his parents and aunt always cautioned to him. This woman was a bully, and worse still, she was a bully with no one to stop--

"KEIEI!!!!!" With a scream of rage that rivaled the gods themselves, Asuka rushed to her feet and moved in for the kill, eyes blazing with a furious hatred. Energy dancing around her as she brought up the final amounts of ki she had within her, she moved in with angry rage.

"Time for you to die, Asuka," Keiei seemed to yawn in disinterest. But there was no idle motion as the combatant whispered darkly, "MUSABETSU KAKUTO RYU FINAL ATTACK!!!! HAPPO TENMAREPPA!!!!" Keiei raised her hand to the air, a sphere of power forming in her outstretched palm that grew impossibly larger by the minute. Eventually, the ki-ball bulged to grotesque proportions, and with a grin that bordered on the insane, Fuitamu Keiei swung her arm forward in one great swipe. The massive globe became a monstrous gout of energy, tearing forward with an oddly slow speed, but it mattered little as the Happosai Demon Wave consumed everything in its path like a voracious raptor on the hunt. Due to the confines of the room, there was no place to run, no place to hide, and not only was Asuka caught in the path of the strike, so too were Kasumi and the children.

Keiei, realizing what she'd done, moved forward to try to cancel her own attack. She'd placed everyone in the path of her strike in her blind rage, and now unless she stopped it, her ultimate goals would fail and any victory here would turn into a self-inflicted case of infanticidal defeat.

Kasumi came to quickly enough to see the tearing stream of energy crawling towards them, blocking their only hope of escape. Seeing the children, her maternal instincts kicked in and she moved to put herself in the path of the attack. She didn't know or care if she would survive; Ono Kasumi's only goal now was to save the lives of her niece, nephews and son and make sure they would not fall to the blast. As she spread her arms out in an attempt to act as a living shield, she looked at the Chinese Amazon, picking herself off the ground. Kasumi gave herself a beatific smile; somehow she knew the Amazon wouldn't let the children be injured. To you I bequeath their safety, Amazon. Please protect my young.

Asuka looked up dizzily and peered into Kasumi's fearful and hoping glance. She gave Kasumi a tiny yet understanding smile as she moved to intercept the blast. There would be payback between her and Keiei, and if the other woman was willing to incinerate everything to defeat her, innocents included, she'd become a murderess, and Asuka couldn't abide wanton, unjustifiable murder. Stepping into the path of the blast, Asuka drew her power around her like a cloak and instead of using her ki to power up her final attack, channeled it into saving lives. Pushing her palms out, the White Lily prepared for Keiei's Ki Onslaught.

Demonic strike and Amazon defense met in a violent clash of light and power. A shockwave tore through the surrounding area, flattening almost everything in its path. The air shimmered and finally turned a pure, blinding white, caught up in the forces of white noise and a spectacular detonation of bioenergy. All around her Asuka heard myriad wails and screams, though if it was the others--or even her own voice joining this anarchic choir--she had no way of knowing. A series of jagged explosions ripped through the whole of the area, and she felt buffeted by forces stronger than she'd ever known in her entire life. Still she held on, though, knowing that giving up would destroy everything, herself included.

Khu Lon, give me strength, Asuka mentally pleaded. Ancestors and Amazons that have come before me help me to hold on and turn the tide of dark evil. I am not worthy of my status as the successor to the great elder Cologne, but I ask you in this one event to give me the aid to prove myself to be up to the task. The act alone seemed to infuse her with a new force, and Keiei found herself able to press forward into the strike, possibly even having enough power left to...

...break...

...the...

...attack!

There was a final, dazzling shower of light, followed by the air rippling and dancing in front of Asuka's hands. Finally everything stilled and went silent, and the Chinese Amazon crumpled to the ground, unconscious. Had she turned to look to her left, though, she would have seen that she'd mostly succeeded in her plans.

Mostly. In the space where Ono Kasumi had held herself up as a shield for the lives of her dearest ones, was a burnt crater, smoking and stinking with the scent of charred human remains. Other than the hole, which had burned through the dojo floor to the ground below, nothing else remained.

Kasumi had protected those most dear to her, but at a terrible, final price.

It was a blessing that Keiei's strike had rendered the children unconscious, for not even Keiei could have withstood the maddening howl Hiro would have uttered if he knew his mother was in the domain so many of her family members were already--the next world.

Keiei blinked for a minute, stunned at what had transpired. Not only had Asuka moved into the path to stop the strike and somehow managed to succeed, there was enough bleedover to incinerate the witch herself. Saotome Nabiki was now dead, and the path to her child was clear. When she'd freed her son from the glamorie and rid the earth of those demons next to him and the abomination that was her half-sister, Keiei would have a talk with her son and find out what happened to Ranma. If he was still alive, the battle was not yet done; if he'd been killed by Nabiki, she'd avenged him and she would remember the man she loved always, and raise their son to be a man amongst men.

Seeing that her plans had finally come to fruition, the Black Blade bent down to pick up her katana then would do the final deeds that needed to be attended to. Once that was complete, she would then take her son and head back to her ancestral home. She had her brother to reckon with, and then to plan her long-delayed revenge against Shidou Hikaru. Filled with rapture that after all this time everything was falling into place, she took a step with blade in hand...

...then felt the punishing effects of the energy expenditure of her attack. Happosai had always stressed to her that the Happo Tenmareppa was to be the absolute last chance to defeat an opponent, as the strike drained away such bioenergy from the wielder that it would be enough to cause death in all but the strongest of casters. That much she remembered and was sure that she'd prepared for that, but in doing so, she'd forgotten the other side of the coin--that even in those strong enough to withstand the attack, there would still be a condition of torpor needed, which came in the form of a total and complete coma. As Keiei's world blacked out with fiendish speed, her last thoughts were that at least she'd freed her son from his slavery. That was the first step.

Had she been conscious, she would have regretted it a second later as a second war broke out in the same spot, heralded by a blossom of burning wood and heated flame.

~*~

Miko turned to run towards the rest of them when she heard a high-pitched whine behind her. The Shinto priestess turned around, staring at where'd she'd stood a second ago. In the distance, the hole in the perimeter fence revealed that those watching from earlier were gone including, it seemed, the local law enforcement as well; apparently the intensity of the fighting at hand had frightened them off as someone must have come to the conclusion that the battle could possibly expand beyond the boundaries of the Saotome home. That was a sobering enough concept for anyone, Miko included, as she wished to see no innocents hurt.

The wail sounded beneath the pile of spellwards again, and Miko reached her hand into them. At first she pulled out the tattered clothing the demon had worn. Part of her felt disgusted by that; the unabashedly tightness of the clothing indicated a personality so in tune with sexuality that it was never consciously acknowledged. The miko was highly embarrassed about her own looks, and the one time she'd been complimented on her attractiveness, she blushed so much she feared to step out of her room in the shrine for days. The other thing was that the feeling she could get were that these clothes somehow stood for warriors unguided by principles as hers were; just like that ivory-haired woman from earlier in the evening. If she also wore this, it was an indicator that there were no guiding tenets for these--what word had Saotome-sensei used for them? Amazons?--people and thus each was guided by one's own rules. For good or evil it meant that each fell where their own morals lay. In a system like that, assuming that the demon's words were as true as the flashes of thought in her mind hinted them to be, it would be easy to understand why whoever Miko used to be was a beautiful monster.

Plunging her hand in once more, she pulled out something even more surprising. With a wail that seemed to be the instinct of any child leaving the womb, Miko pulled a baby clear from the wards. Looking at it, she was surprised at first, but then it all made sense. The gods, in rebuilding her, had given her all her skills yet none of her dark memories of the past, but they saddled her with a curse to remind her to be a better person than she'd been in the past. Miko met their challenge with honor and did what she had to do and ended up a far better person for the experience. Looking at the baby girl with a baby's thin patch of purple hair and eyes a warm brown, Miko realized the kami had deigned to repeat their actions with the demon. Miko had told the demoness she would "face the pain of humanity", and the kami had decided that the demon would face that challenge, in the most literal way.

The Shinto priestess wondered for a second of what to do, when she heard another scream--an adult's one--sound in the distance. With no time to waste, she cradled the child under her arms and tore off towards the sound. Her ability to fight may have been cut in half, but so long as evil threatened this family, she would not give up.

Racing around the corner, she noted a gathering of people, all seemingly brainwashed and moving towards the Saotomes in the center. At the feet of the head of the household, the swordswoman lay bleeding and dying, with little chance to survive unless something was done and soon; Saotome Genma looked to be flagging despite the great numbers, it seemed, of foes he'd dealt with already.

Miko announced her presence with a scissors kick, taking out a group of them. She'd barely landed and straightened herself on the ground before she had time to hold the baby close to her and leap into a helicoptering kick, breaking her way clear. As she reached the center of the melee, she ducked under Genma's hamfist blow and shouted, "Hold, Saotome-sensei! Take the child and your wife out of here while I deal with these pour souls!"

Genma looked at Miko with mild surprise, caught by the fact that the proverbial cavalry had arrived and it was bearing a rather inopportune bundle of joy. "Child? What nonsense is this? And I can't move my wife, or else she'll die!"

The Shinto priestess' answer was to thrust the child into Genma's hands. Reaching into her vest, she pulled out one final ward, the one that was only to be used in rare circumstances. Chanting Buddhist and Shinto spells to activate it, the ward erupted in a glowing blue flame not unlike the pure burning of the brightest stars in the nighttime sky. Miko bent down and placed it on Nodoka's unconscious body, and a net of light spread around the Saotome matron for a second before dissipating. In response, Miko staggered to her feet, punchdrunk, before slurring, "Tha'outa do't." She took a deep breath before continuing slowly, "It cost me a great deal of my own lifeforce to heal your wife in that manner, and any wound she has now I have taken for her."

Genma looked at the priestess, not daring to speak. Finally, he gave her a terse nod, his eyes holding respect for her. Whoever she might or might not have been in the past, that person couldn't hold a candle to the vivacious and courageous young shrine maiden that stood before the Master of Saotome Martial Arts. Bending down quickly to take his wife, he held both of the females as he leapt over the nearby wall, towards the relative safety of the streets.

Miko had many of them to deal with, and there was only one way to do so. However, these people were ensorcelled, not in control of their actions and shouldn't be held accountable for things likely done against their nature. Closing her eyes, Miko warded away the pain growing in her body like a tumor and the wash of red and black that threatened to rob her of her awareness. Praying that the combination would work, she thrust her fist into the air, palms spread out, calling forth the familiar centrifuge of power and ki. "TO ALL OF YOU, ALL THOSE HELD UNDER THRALL BY DARKNESS I GIVE TO YOU YOUR FREEDOM!!!!!!! TENBATSUTEKIMEN TEIKIATSU, KAITEBAN—SAIKAIJUMON TENSHODAMA!!!!"

As was the norm for the move, the searing blast of ki began to rapidly swirl around Miko's outstretched arm, creating a mystical tornado that roared into the sky, a fiery vortex of burning orange and red that shook the area both with the force of its power and the shockwave that accompanied. Tearing towards the sky, the column of energy reached a crescendo as it burned through everyone, not carrying them along on the winds of the strike, but rather holding them in place by the force of the winds. The mandarin-hued force cyclone expanded exponentially, growing larger and stronger by the instant, carving itself a sizable swath in its immediate surroundings.

As the blast reached a space about thirty meters in the air, the ki vortex exploded in a shower of white light, as tiny motes of fairies began to gently float down to the people on the ground. Like a gentle snow it alighted on everyone, giving the bystanders a sense of peace, but even more so coming into contact with the zombified victims, counteracting the dark magicks used on them and bringing them a benevolent amnesia and the freedom of their minds once more, even as their own bodies kicked in, ferociously screaming for a need for downtime.

Seeing the freed people mercifully slipping into a healing sleep, Miko shed tears of joy, proud at her own victory in saving peoples' lives and their futures. Whispering a soft "Namu Amida Butsu," she closed her own eyes and let the red and black wash over her, dropping the warrior cleric into a well-deserved faint.

~*~

Estima was fast. Sensing her opponent, she launched her last kunai and prepared a ki blast. The kunai flew through the air, thrown with precision with little way they could miss. The kunoichi prepared for this final confrontation, knowing that she had to defeat this woman at all costs, or else she could not live with the shame that would result.

Kodachi was faster. Somehow expecting the blades to be coming her way, she fell back, allowing the twin knives to sail over her with a ridiculously clear space of about a meter. Kippupping back to her feet, she took a chance and dashed into the smoke. In doing so, she caught a glimpse of her enemy just for a second, and it was just enough to allow her to react. As one woman acted, so did the other. Kodachi got the first strike in, allowing for a painful flying kick, slamming the kunoichi straight out the other side of the burning home and towards the dojo. Kodachi leapt in to finish, but Estima ducked under Kodachi's next blow and landed one of her own, a double punch strike that nailed the dancer in the chest, then straight in the right eye. Despite the pain, Kodachi ignored it, then rapidly spun and cut loose with a high-speed kick attack, landing thirty blows and staggering back the other further.

However, this was the moment that the rust-maned woman had been waiting for. Pulling her arm back, an angry ball of red appeared in Estima's hand. Within a matter of seconds, the ball of ki became a writhing, snarling orb of energy. Throwing it with as much force as she could put behind the throw, the kunoichi roared, "NOW YOU SHALL DIE!!!!!!! KITSUNE KOKUTENBOSATSUDAN!!!!!" From her hands the ball turned into a shotgun blast of multiple small orbs of energy, each one carving their way through whatever they impacted--no burning or cutting, merely boring through the obstacle cleanly and continuing for several more meters before each exploded with the force of a stick of TNT. Behind the whole assembly the bottom floor of the Saotome home caved in via a massive detonation, dropping the second floor into the space as the flames roared anew, nearly completing the utter consumption of the ancient household.

None of this, however, was noticed by Kodachi, who had expected the attack. The minute she heard the first sounds of motion, her dash turned into a ground slide, the lowest levels of Estima's strike passing barely above her. As the last of the balls blazed past and coming up close to the ninja, Kodachi immediately executed a tucked roll and leapt up, decking the woman with an unexpected uppercut. As her foe staggered back from the strike, it gave the Dancing Rose enough time to truly cut loose. With a look on her face more akin to confidence than rage, Kuno Kodachi called out in French a move she felt was appropriate enough to put down this murderous threat for once and for all: "FINAL ATTACK--DANSE DU SOLIEL!!!!!!!!!"

Her power exploding around her in rippling arcs of cyan, Kodachi moved into a flashdancing blur of punches and kicks, her body seeming to glow with a thousand neon colors. Each punch released a burst of light, while each kick sent a spray of ki-motes, shaped like rose petals, sailing. The sheer blitz of martial prowess pushed the woman farther back while dazing her, and as Kodachi leapt back as galaxies of rose petals floated around her firsts, Estima knew that she was doomed. A second later, as Kodachi launched the largest Hanabira Sandanju strike she ever fired, the ninja was brutally punched through the wall, headed to only the kami knew where.

Kodachi looked at the hole she'd blasted Estima through, a weary but elated look on her bloody, bruised face. She wasn't sure if she killed the assassin, but it really didn't matter: if the kunoichi didn't get it straight who the real "Kuno Ichi" was around here, the Dancing Rose would have to get it across to her once more. But right now, a bit of rest would be nice. Like a few days. With a groan, the master martial artist pitched forward, falling face forward and landing on something relatively cool, fuzzy, and hard.

Somehow, a part of her idly wondered what she landed on, and that part made her look. The results of that glance immediately banished any sense of completion for the moment. She found that she was leaning against the bloodied remains of something wet, furry, and cold. As her eyes focused, she realized that it was the decapitated remains of Ranma's pet dog, Hikari. Kodachi turned around immediately in the dimly lit room and threw up, tears stinging her eyes. Someone, possibly one of the ninja's allies, had murdered this animal, and why? Looking around the room, she found more answers.

In the corner by the far side of the dojo, Asuka was unconscious, laying roughly in front of the children, also unconscious, with Akama shielding his younger siblings. But...where was Kasumi? Her motherly instincts should have allowed her to protect the children no matter what, unless.... Kodachi's eyes, despite her exhaustion, widened in shock at what the scene told.

Sh-she couldn't be...she can't be! Kodachi reacted in complete shock, what few slivers of strength and power she had left retreating from her body at this horrifying revelation. Not Kasumi! No, take me, take anyone else, but not KASUMI!!!!!!!!!!! Kodachi arched back her head and screamed a silent roar of despair and pain, losing one of the few relatives she had left. She was too exhausted to even speak, and barely had enough energy to move, but it didn't matter. She felt herself going numb and certainly going into a tunnel of blackness, as her vision began to cave in around her.

Cave in?

The ceiling groaned again, and Kodachi knew what it meant. With a superhuman effort, she pulled herself to her knees, half-crawling over to the children. Using what little strength she had left, she tried to put the boys over her shoulder, but couldn't do that and carry the babies at the same time. The ceiling groaned once more and tears poured in Kodachi's eyes. She couldn't let the children die here, there had to be another way to save them--

The ceiling cracked visibly now, star- and moonlight streaming into the structure, revealing the decrepit situation that it was in. There was little chance of survival if she didn't get them out of there and do it now!

"Unggghh...." A voice warbled behind Kodachi, and the Dancing Rose turned to see her former enemy Asuka slowly moving to consciousness. The raven-haired beauty turned to scream for help, but a portion of the ceiling fell to the ground at the far side of the chamber, and that seemed to be enough to fully catch the Chinese Amazon's attention. Staring dizzily at Kodachi, there was a look of insane hatred on Asuka's face at first, one Kodachi didn't understand, given the White Lily's earlier words. A half-second later it was gone, reason again unknown, and Asuka was forcing herself to her feet, struggling to move towards Kodachi.

"The--" Kodachi threw up blood in midspeech, turning away from the children. Her mouth still leaking blood, she looked at Asuka with her one good eye and rasped, "The children. Please."

Asuka merely nodded and moved to grab the older boys, as Kodachi strained to lift the babies' bassinet. With the edges of their strength faltering, the pair made their way towards Estima's involuntary exit hole, as the ceiling began to sag deeper and deeper and the frame on the northern side of the building began to buckle. Kodachi made her away through first, crawling through and moving with what final strength she had left to tear as far away from the building as she could, a mere five meters, but enough, she hoped, to take her away from the destroyed house and dojo. Looking at Ranma's babies, she thought a final I will protect you, dear ones. I, your Aunt Kodachi, promise y-- She couldn't even complete her thoughts as the blackness claimed her.

Asuka gently shoved the boys out of the hole, then turned and quickly scanned the wrecked room for Keiei. No matter what she's become, she's still my sis-- The ceiling groaned with a loud crash, and it was clear only seconds remained before the whole ceiling collapsed. There was only the choice of the children or try to save Keiei too and risk failure. Under better conditions, Asuka would have risked it. But with barely enough strength to do what she had to do, the choice was clear.

Farewell, Keiei. May the kami be merciful to you in your next life. Sending her final thoughts to her half-sister, the White Lily dived clumsily though the maw, scooped up the children, and with the greatest effort she could give, stumbled the last few feet towards where Kodachi lay. She set down the children by their aunt then watched as both the Saotome home and dojo, a home that had stood forever, collapsed as the final victims of this battle. With a final tortured roar, the last of the home fell apart, caving in on itself even as the dojo did the same, the final resting place for a dog that died defending its masters and a madwoman whose reasons for murdering an innocent housewife Asuka would never know.

Satisfied that she'd done right by the code of Nicheju, Sazuran Asuka, the White Lily of the Chinese Amazon clan, slipped once more into her regularly scheduled coma.

~*~

Standing a distance away from the whole scene, Sharan watched the disaster. All three of the stormtroopers dead; Estima, laying at his side in a gelatinous stasis sheath, broken almost completely and near-death herself. The mage shook his head, wondering how such a perfectly planned operation, despite that idiot Dacia's attempts to screw things up, managed to fail.

I know the answer to this, he realized, pulling a small metal box out of his cloak. It is the family of the Pillar. They are powerful beyond comparison, and maybe we had no chance of winning here. But thanks to my analysis, perhaps we still have a chance of winning the war, even as we've lost this battle. Regardless, it wouldn't be a pleasure tendering the report to Daimler; the unbelievable prospect that elite Waffen SS troops had fallen to inferior foreigners would rattle the whole of the Vanden Plaz High Command, if not the whole of the entire organization.

But that was something to consider, he mentally muttered as he placed the cube on Estima's stasis pod, for another time. As he began to move his hands in the arcane patterns that would open the warpspell to Cephiro, he idly wondered if there would be a time to consider that. Both the cube and the stasis pod winked out of existence, followed by something else behind the mage. Seconds later, Sharan followed, leaving the battleground behind in full retreat.

~*~

Asuka opened her eyes softly, looking at the unfamiliar surroundings. The room looked like nothing that could ever be in that other house, and somehow everything felt slightly colder. She motioned to rise, but found that she couldn't muster the strength to do so.

"Don't move, child. You've been through an impossibly rough ordeal, and I do not want my heir to be injured further." Asuka knew that voice and turned her head slightly. She found herself looking at Cologne, the look on the wizened crone's face one of concern. "It is good to see you back amongst the land of the living, child. You've been out for a whole week."

"A week?" Asuka whispered, unable to comprehend that so long had passed since the fight. To her it only felt like the instance of minutes, as though nothing had occurred.

Cologne nodded. "We were very worried about you, enough so that the lot of you were moved to a hospital. When it became feasible to move you all, you were brought here to Tokyo." Cologne spread her arms out, taking in the whole of the room. "You are in one of the guest rooms of the Saotome home in Nerima." Seeing the look of confusion on the younger girl's face, Cologne amended with, "The home belongs to Saotome Ranma and his wife. He's a Grandmaster of the Arts now, as I understand, so he is rather well off."

Asuka nodded at this, then seemed to realize something. "What of the others? The children, Kodachi, and the priestess?"

"The older boys are asleep in Akama's room, recovering from the blows they were dealt. The babies are also in their crib, none the bit harmed for this incident. As for the two women, that I do not know, but from what I understand, they are planning to hunt down Kasumi's murderers." Cologne paused for a bit, then added with a note of pride, "I know you would do the same, Asuka. You are an Amazon."

The younger girl seemed to nod slightly in appreciation of the older woman's words before drifting back to sleep. Cologne bent over and touched Asuka's forehead, whispering, "Sleep well, my heir. Though you are not of my blood, you are the last of my family." Giving the dosing girl a smile of pride she could never, to her shame, give Xian Pu, Cologne left the room and headed downstairs. As the Elder of the Tribe descended the flight, she was met by weary but proud Nodoka, one arm in a sling and the other holding a small babe to her chest. At Nodoka's side, Genma stood to support his wife in both body and soul. These two, despite all I have done to them, have given me more than I deserve.

Seeming to read Cologne's thoughts, Nodoka answered, "It was your warrior that came to our rescue in our darkest hour. Without her, the children wouldn't have survived. Sheltering you and her is the least we can do, and the signal of a truce between our families." Behind the Saotome woman, Genma nodded his head solemnly. Nodoka paused and then said, "I know it has been a bit, but I believe that Asuka asked on your behalf for our assistance?"

"I thank you nonetheless in attending to her injuries and for putting up with this old woman again," Cologne answered, bowing. "As for the request, it is of no matter any longer. What is lost cannot be recovered anymore, and the Amazon tribe must look to a new future without it."

"I understand," Nodoka responded, inclining her head. "Of course, you two are welcome to stay as long as it takes for your protégée to heal."

Cologne smiled and nodded once more. That condition met, she then ventured another topic. "So, what now? I understand that a hunting party has been mounted against the people who caused you so much grief."

Nodoka's eyes began to water at the loss of Kasumi; the only remaining Tendo left was now Nabiki, and not only was there no way of letting her know what happened, there was no way to be sure that she was even alive. Unable to speak, she turned away and let the tears fall freely for the girl that had been like her own daughter. Instinctively she held the baby close to her body, needing new life to comfort the old.

In her stead, it was Genma that responded. Adjusting his glasses, he spoke, his own voice tight with emotion. "Kodachi believes that the killers came from Germany, in retaliation for something that Ranma had done to them." In brief, he repeated what Kasumi had told them about Ranma and company's trip, and how they were up against new sorts of ruthlessness they were unaccustomed to dealing with. "It seems," Genma sighed, his own eyes beginning to water, "that they wanted to kill my grandchildren, but were willing to settle for Kasumi. Kodachi refused to let them get away with this, and so off she went. The other woman...was a friend of Kasumi's as well, and being a Shinto fighting priestess, she agreed to head off to Europe with her. They should be on their way to Paris right about now."

There was a slight instant, Cologne somehow felt, that Genma seemed to be hiding something from her. However, she chalked it up to the Saotomes' grief and the situation that was still to be resolved. For a change, the Amazon elder decided to not push it any further. "I understand, Genma. If there is anything my tribe can do for you, please let me know."

"Thank you, but no, this is a family matter and we already have people on hand to deal with it." Putting a supportive arm around his wife, the old Master of Saotome Mesabetsu Kakuto Ryu smiled. "Besides, as you can tell, we have other concerns at the moment."

"Such as your grandchildren, no doubt," Cologne agreed.

"That, and our daughter," Genma said with a catching note of pride in his voice, the only kind a father could have.

At Genma's mention of the child, Nodoka smiled faintly, tried her best to wipe the tears from her eyes. "The miko found this child, abandoned by the crowd during the battle. While our house is being rebuilt, we can have the child here with us while we care for Ranma and Kasumi's children. If by the time we get back and no one has claimed the child, we'll have no choice but to adopt the child and raise it as our own." The look of love and tenderness on Nodoka's face indicated that by far this was her preference. "I've been wanting a daughter, anyway, and perhaps this is for the best."

"May I hold her?" Cologne asked, adding, "What have you decided to name her?"

"Her name's Rin," Nodoka answered, the dreamy look only a new mother could have in her eyes. Things would be different now, Nodoka knew; Rin would be raised far differently than her older brother, and with any luck, she would have no skills or desire for the Arts. It would be a challenge to raise a child to have a normal life. With the slightest instant of reluctance to let go of her newfound daughter, Nodoka allowed the far older woman to take the child in hand.

Taking the child in her arms, Cologne peered into the child's eyes, the baby gurgling and looking up at her. There was something about this child that seemed to tug at Cologne's heartstrings. The child was Chinese in ethnicity; that much was clear. But there was something more as well, and it seemed to relate to Rin's small thatch of violet hair and warm brown eyes. Even more, there was an effervescence about this child that far outstripped her years.

If I didn't know better, I would think that Rin is somehow related to Shampoo. Cologne closed her eyes and felt for the child's ki, tapping into a wellspring that she hadn't sensed in years. I don't know how...I can't understand how...but this child.... Without realizing it, a tear of bittersweet melancholia and joy rolled down the cheek of the ancient woman, the lone tear tracked along the myriad maze of skin that made up the Amazon elder's face. Wiping away the tear, she handed Rin back to Nodoka sighing, "The baby just reminds me of all that I have lost, all of my selfishness."

Neither of the Saotomes could answer that one. Cologne had pushed away her granddaughter and great-granddaughter, and when it came to the one that remained, her Amazon pride and honor caused the death of so many, including Shampoo herself. There was nothing left for the old one, and only Asuka could carry on for her, hoping to take the old woman's legacy to a place where it should be. Holding the child close to herself, Nodoka looked at Cologne with understanding, and the older woman made eye contact as well. Something passed between them, a silent moment of the sisterhood, and wordlessly, Cologne turned and went up the stairs to check on the last remaining member of her family that she had left.

~*~

Somewhat nestled at Kodachi's apartment for the past few days while the pair recuperated from their wounds, Miko had plenty of time to think about what she had to say now to her closest friend; the priestess found it to be the hardest thing she'd ever had to say. "Kodachi-dono, I have to confess...I don't know if I've done the right thing or not." There was fear in Miko's eyes, the sort that showed a woman unsure of what was going on and what would be the next step in her life. In the aftermath of the situation at the Saotome home, Miko called her fellow priests at the shrine to tell them she would be going on an indefinite sabbatical and she wasn't sure when--or if--she would return. The reason for that was simple: in the past week or so she'd discovered a life and a family; maybe not in the traditional sense, but it was enough to go by to remind her that she still had a life to lead outside of the cloth and that the evil person she may have been once could only be countered by the person she was now.

Passing her a glass of water, Kodachi looked at her friend and smiled. "Miko, trust me, okay? You've done the right thing. Once we're done helping Ranma and Hikaru in Europe, we'll get you on the right track. Even if it means that Midori and I have to move into a larger apartment, okay? You're with friends now, gal. Get used to it." Kodachi bent down and picked up her overly plush cat, cuddling the gray mass of purring fur to her. "See? Even Nezumi agrees, Miko-chan."

The priestess smiled, still feeling self-conscious about wearing something other than the vestments she was used to. Currently adorned with a tubetop and jeans courtesy of Kodachi, Miko felt very weird, as though everyone and everything were staring at her. It was not something she was accustomed to in any way shape or form, and definitely not something she liked.

"I'm home," a high-pitched voice squealed, then immediately bolted through the vicinity, tackling Kodachi in a speedy blur. "Oh, oh, oh, my Kodachi!" the figure cooed, completely glomped around the larger woman. Kodachi groaned, trying to straighten herself up, but it made it difficult trying to do so with the additional body weight added.

As Miko watched on in surprise, Kodachi finally managed to peel off the other form, turning and trying to contain both laughter and frustration. "Midori, you do realize I'm not going to live to see the next day if you continue to do that, ne?"

"But I'm only trying to show my love for my dear Ko-chan," Midori replied, a bit abashed.

It was during this conversation that Miko got her first good look at Shintaro Midori, Kodachi's roommate and best friend. The girl was smaller, more willowy and petite, but judging by Kodachi-dono's groan, the girl had serious strength. With her long grass-green hair draping down her back, festooned by a bow; and her aqua-green eyes covered by a pair of nondescript eyeglasses, it made the girl seem far younger than she probably was. The fact that she was in her mid-twenties and still had a squeaky voice didn't do much to help either.

However embarrassed Midori was by Kodachi's mild scolding, it didn't last long. "Well, I picked up the passports at the prefectural services building like you asked, then went to that place downtown for Miko-san's. Although why her passport had to be picked up at a different location than ours is beyond me." The emerald-haired girl handed Kodachi a small but bulky packet. "Anyways, afterwards, I made sure that our reservations for Paris are rea--"

Kodachi put her hands up, already knowing what the other girl was going to say. "Look, Mi-chan, you don't have to come. I know you--" The Dancing Rose found herself silenced by a slender finger from the younger girl, and there was no way to mistake the look of respect, loyalty and love the smaller girl had for Kodachi.

"Ko-chan," Midori spoke, apparently giving a speech that she rehearsed for the longest time, "you've been protecting me since the first day I met you back at St. Hebereke's. When I ran into you again in Roppongi, you saved me and helped me back on my feet. I have a debt to you that I can never repay.

"Now you need help. Your sister-in-law was murdered, and I know you're hurting. I know Miko-san and you are going out there to go and fight to restore justice to your family name, but you shouldn't handle the pain alone, Ko-chan. I won't let you handle the pain alone. Your sister-in-law deserves to have her murderers brought to justice, Ko-chan, but she doesn't deserve to be a banner of revenge, and you shouldn't burn with blind vengeance.

"I want to take that pain away from you any way I can, Ko-chan; I'll do whatever I have to do in order to take that pain away from you. I've always wanted to be whatever you wanted me to be--maybe that sounds crazy, but that's how I feel. I owe you so much, Ko-chan, and I love you so dearly, and I'll always be here for you. Don't send me away, Ko-chan. Not when you need me." The last she punctuated with a hug to Kodachi, not the usual glomping variety, but one that was actually tender and full of unfulfilled promise and need.

"Thank you," the Dancing Rose murmured as she returned the embrace. For so long, Kodachi realized, she thought she was basically alone in the world, and now, just like Miko, she discovered she had family and friends. The three of them were really sides of the same diamond and truly deserved each other in any way that was to come. Come what may, she knew that the three of them formed a triumvirate of sorts, three people that would need each other in the times ahead. Still embracing her friend, Kodachi blinked away the tears from her eyes and offered, "How much have you kept up with your gymkata skills, Mi-chan?"

Midori looked up at her friend, her eyes filled with tears of bliss, knowing she wasn't going to be left behind. "I was on the team as the Yari specialist, remember? I wasn't there for combat, I was there for the archery techniques." Flexing her arm gently, she said, "An' I'm still a pretty fair shot when it comes to that."

Kodachi laughed. "Miko, Mi-chan, I think that by this time tomorrow, we'll be on the way to fulfilling the promises I made to the children. We'll make those guys pay for what they did to Kasumi. I have to show them when they step on one of us, we all fight back."

The Shinto priestess nodded but added, "What of the others in Europe that Saotome-sensei mentioned? Shouldn't we try to contact them? Also, do we even know if we can--I don't think we know where they are at the moment, and it may not be easy to locate them. That may be something to take into account."

"You might be right, Miko-san," Midori agreed. "Is there a way you can contact your brother or something, Ko-chan?"

Kodachi shook her head in the negative. "No, I wouldn't know where to begin, and Kasumi was the only one who knew where they went. We'll have to wing this on our own, but I'm confident that we should have little problem finding them. After all, we know that whoever it is, they're hiring mercenaries and also have some contacts to a few ninja and possibly Yakuza clans."

"Why do you say that?" Midori and Miko said simultaneously, without intending to.

"I don't know. But I can have two more days before we head off to Paris, and I can query more of my family's old contacts. After all, if they could come up with a passport for Miko, they can certainly should be able to dig up some clues where we can search, right?" Reaching into the package Midori had handed her, Kodachi pulled out a brown vinyl-bound booklet and tossed it to Miko.

Miko caught it, looking at it for what seemed like the longest time. She remembered her words from only a scant week ago: Maybe this is even where my life will lead, its next step. It feels so natural and so right, that it could very well be--

"Miko, did you hear what I said?" Kodachi repeated, staring at the amethyst-haired woman.

"I'm sorry, my mind had wandered for a second," Miko smiled at her friend, proud to know this wonderful woman. "But is this real?"

Kodachi grinned affably. "Let's just say that as far as the Japanese government is concerned, that is who you are now. As far as I'm concerned--and I daresay the Saotomes and anyone else in the family--that will stick stronger than any glue. To the whole world, that is who you've always been, and always will be." Kodachi walked over to the girl and gave her a broad hug. "Welcome to our family, cousin Miko."

The smile and embrace warmed Miko's heart, just as the writing on the passport did. Kuno Kodachi had closed the circle on the priestess' life, filled in the missing space. Now and forever, whomever Miko had been in the past, would stay that way. That was another person who was gone, and certainly not the person who would ever answer to the name that Miko saw emblazoned on her passport:

PASSPORT SERIAL NUMBER: QEWR6665SG-EEW5W6RW-56525

FAMILY NAME: TENDO GIVEN NAME: MIKO

~*~

The construction crews were off the day the demon burst from the earth; otherwise, they would have cowered in fear. With a blast of deep indigo energy, Fuitamu Keiei clawed her way free of the remains of the dojo, a level of rage in her eyes so fierce, one would have already thought her to be insane if she wasn't already...which she surely was. Pulling her sooty, dust-coated body free of the final fragments, she collapsed momentarily on the lawn of the Saotome property, gulping massive gasps of air into her lungs, every so often each large intake of break punctuated by a spastic cough of blood.

As she wiped the streamer of red from her lips, the Black Blade looked around at the carnage around her. The whole property was absolutely destroyed, the charred remnants of the house still bearing the stench of fire. There were chalkmarks on the grass indicative of where bodies had lain; the whole of the property was cordoned off by the familiar yellow plastic tape that law enforcement agencies used worldwide. Keiei started to shake as if emerging from a frozen lake, as a hand of icicles tore its way down her back.

My baby...he's gone! With certainty, she knew that her son was not at the bottom of the rubble that had been the training hall. She would have known if it had been so; all mothers knew their sons. If he's gone, that only means one thing--that godsbedamned bitch Nabiki is STILL ALIVE!!!!!!!!!! Rearing her head back to howl in unearthly pain, Keiei bellowed out a pained cry of anguish and despair, the kind she never felt in her life before. To lose Ranma and her son years ago was pure shame. To lose them now, just when she'd fought through all of this to gain them back was the hardest slap in the face she'd ever received. Keiei walked back to the rubble, rooting around for it and after a few minutes, found what she was looking for. Though there was no time to prepare for the full ritual version of seppuku, hagakure would have to suffice. Ironically, she would be doing it on the grounds of her beloved husband's home, the only family in a sense that she had left. That thought did not escape her as she lay the black blade on the grass, kneeling and preparing for the last moments of her life.

Though I leave this life now, my husband, my child, I love you both dearly and will watch for you in the beyond. Taking the katana into her hands, Fuitamu Keiei raised the edge to her throat, ready to take her own life. The blade, despite the battle with her half-sister, was still fairly sharp and would suffice; if it wasn't as much as it used to be, once she was dead it wouldn't matter anyway. The sole irony that stood was that this would be the end for the ebon katana, which after someone found her body, would probably dispose of the sword, not giving it the proper respect. It would be destroyed, dead and gone...

Those words repeated themselves in her mind, then once more. She saw Saotome Nabiki die, felt it despite the ki onslaught. She remembered that Asuka had shielded the children for some inconceivable reason. There had to be an answer in that somewhere....

Just past the range of her vision, obscured by the wall, voices wafted to her, each word seeming to bring the explanation that was just waiting to be revealed:

"Mitsukake, man, I hope your dad's alright. Did they say why he attacked the Saotomes?"

The youth named Mitsukake answered, his voice tight and filled with confusion. "They don't know. The police can't explain anything. They can't explain at all what happened, and until they get the chance to interview Saotome-sensei, they're not going to get an answer." There was a pause, a sigh, then further words: "It makes no sense. A good portion of the neighborhood attacks the local martial arts dojo and gets creamed, and when they wake up they can't explain it? Sounds like the police aren't seeing what they should see."

"Huh? I don't get it."

A third one chimed in, his voice sounding as though he were speaking for dramatic effect. "C'mon, fellas, you know what it is. Magic--black magic, evil, like they use in the Western nations."

The first boy laughed. "Kenzo, stop with the theatrics. Magic, what a joke!"

Kenzo spoke up. "Beware my words, Mitsuru. You'll see I'm right. Why, some people even said that a girl dressed in Chinese clothing showed up here earlier last night. I'll bet it was one of those Chinese Amazons Saotome-sensei was talking about--you know what he says about them, right?"

Keiei heard those words and clarity sank in. She knew Saotome Nabiki was dead. But why had Asuka chosen to intervene in a situation, especially after the two hadn't encountered each other in years? The answer seemed to repeat itself once and again, and Keiei's fractured mind came up with a thousand possible reasons as to what happened, but one continually came back and settled upon her mind: the White Lily had arrived just at the same time Nabiki was on the ropes. When Nabiki died, there was no trace of her, but Asuka, who the blast had hit straight on, survived without a hitch.

Keiei's jaw dropped at the realization of what that meant: How could one person be that...but that would mean that.... Keiei dropped the shocked look immediately and thought about it, her analytical mind running through the chances of it. Yes, she'd heard of it before, but it was always thought to be a myth, something that was not ever possible.

Standing up gently, the woman known as the Black Blade sheathed her katana, deciding that her death would have to be postponed. She couldn't allow herself to die. Somewhere out there was the witch, living in the body of her half-sister, still holding Keiei's son and possibly husband as well. As long as she held breath, Fuitamu Keiei would tackle any seemingly insurmountable obstacle in order to get back what was most important to her.

"Ranma," she whispered, "hear me, my one and only love, my dearest husband. Give me a sign so I can carry on our struggle." Without being aware of where she was going, she found herself in the middle of the burnt husk of the home. Her feet idly sifting through the ashes of the damaged place, one sift unearthed a smoke-scored and slightly burnt picture. In it was Ranma and his son; someone was holding the baby and the face was burnt away, but Keiei didn't have to see the face; she knew in an instant who it was.

"Ranma...don't give up love, remember that I'm coming for you and our son." Keiei held the picture close to her heart, tears of joy coming to her eyes as a beatific smile came to her face. She didn't remember when she took that picture with them, but it had to be her holding their son. It had to be, because she was the woman in the right here; anything else would be heresy. When the final score would be tallied, it would be the Saotomes, Ranma and Keiei and their son, together at last and for good.

Keiei wasn't sure how long she stayed standing in that spot, but when she regained awareness of her surroundings she noticed that several hours had passed; the sun had dipped from noon to long over the horizon, and night was coming to pass. It didn't matter though; she was too filled with joy to let a trifle as a lost period of time bother her. In fact, Keiei was so happy at the moment, she even was gentle with the foolish police officer who tried to arrest her for trespassing. As she sheathed her katana and left the property, she was confident that given prompt medical care, the officer might be able to have his hand successfully reattached again.

Keiei headed towards the train station, a beatific smile on her face. Nabiki, wherever you are, you can't hide forever. I'll get my family back from you, it's only a matter of time. Looking at the stars and wishing on the brightest of them, she whispered, "Have courage, my loves. I'm coming. Wait for me." Rounding a corner, Keiei disappeared into the inky Kyoto night.

~*~

In the infirmary room at the Piazza Nero, Estima stared at the ceiling, depressed. Though the mission had lost almost all of the members and the primary objective had failed, at least they were able to pick up some valuable data and come up with a new angle to the operation that could lead to a bigger success than the first one. Sharan himself had put in a commendation for Estima, crediting her with far more restraint and responsibility than Dacia and the others had. That restraint, he further added, had enabled him to succeed in his part of the operation, and had deflected any detection of his own presence.

It is a shame that he is gaijin, Estima mused, thinking of Sharan, or else he would make a decent prospect for a husband. But I am kunoichi and retainer to Lady Botan, and he is a scientist for an organization that barely tolerates their allies. He may not be as barbaric as some of the others, but it is something that we cannot sort out until the end of this war.

There was a knock at the door, and the kitsune kunoichi turned to look at the new person entering the room. "Are you asleep, Aikawa-chan, or do you mind a visit?" The voice was cheery and bright and indicative of the person. Just the presence of Lady Botan brought a grin to the ninja's face. "Oh, you've been hurt," the Japanese officer said with a frown, and it was clear to see there was visible pain on her face.

"I'm glad to see you, my lady," Estima said reverently. "I am always glad for your visits."

"'My lady?' Must you always be so formal, Aikawa-chan?" Berlina leaned forward and hugged her old friend. "You're practically part of my family, and you've been with us forever!"

"I know that, Berlina-dono, but we are in a war right now. I must follow the rules of the blade and the art of war. If not for that, I would be happy to be with you, Botan-chan, because we were like sisters before the war, and after it's over, maybe we can go back to being that way again."

"Oh, I wish we could now," Berlina pouted, and it was so silly, Estima had to laugh. The dam broken, the two old friends continued to converse about old times and such. When Estima revealed to Berlina that she saw the old home, the Japanese officer hugged her friend all the more, and over the course of Berlina's visit, Estima almost forgot the rage and humiliation delivered on her during the mission.

Almost. Count yourselves lucky for now, dancer and priestess. You have escaped me for the moment, but eventually I will return, and when I do, you will not be long for this world. I am Kukogawa Aikawa, and as a kitsune kunoichi, this I vow! For the briefest second, the eyes of the hospitalized woman flared with an intense rage. However, it eventually subsided into the normal depths.

~*~

Barina turned to Sharan, a smile on his face. "Good work, mien fruend. From what I saw, you've done the fatherland proud. On another note, you also got rid of Dacia and his lackeys. Now we can have another, more levelheaded officer assigned to command the infantry units."

Sharan nodded to his friend. "Barina, old friend, you don't know how hard it was to be on the world you were born on and not being able to go home. Even if I returned to my old hometown of Landstuhl, there is nothing there for us anymore. Our way of life has been defeated, destroyed and our countrymen corrupted by the inferior ones."

The other mage nodded in sympathy. "Yes, I have often wondered that myself, and we have lost a lot of people in this conflict, my sister included. But I can assure you, thanks to the efforts of you and the...Japanese combatant...we now have the means to turn the tide of the war back to our favor and put the savor of victory in our hands. It may not be tomorrow, but eventually you and I will be able to march victoriously down the streets of Berlin and we can toast a brau or two to this moment in time when we changed the world again!" Barina laughed and clapped his friend on the back, his enthusiasm infectious for the moment.

The recipient of the clap gave his friend a weary but kind smile. "I'll be counting on it, you can bet on that." His eyes scanned the nearby visual screen and read the data on it. "So when will Herr Diamler give us the plans for this upcoming operation?"

"Patience my friend, patience. Soon enough, we'll have that information. Right now, Daimler is personally inspecting the laboratory we'll use as well as all the equipment. I'm not sure why, but I'm sure we'll know soon enough."

Sharan gave his friend an odd look. "You don't think...?"

Barina grinned. "Daimler? Never. His heart only beats for the fatherland, not for some flesh-and-blood girl--and certainly not some upright animal."

~*~

In all his years of life, the man known as Daimler had never known love. Duty, yes. Respect, of course. Even friendship and loyalty. But love, love--now there was an emotion that eluded him. Granted, he'd caught the eye of many a woman in his time, and we was well versed in what to do with them, but none of them had ever caught the attention of his heart, much less held it firmer than the confinement facilities Gobbels was building. To love a good Aryan woman, of fair skin and pure blood was alien to him. To love one of these semi-intelligent inferiors, such as the Japanese contingent, or worse--one of the non-Cephiran or Autozamians--would border on heresy.

Yet here he was, gazing at the most beautiful face in the world, even if she was in a comatose state. He traced her body curves, an easy thing to do since she was completely nude on the laboratory table. She had fair skin, certes, but the shape of the eyes and face gave it away--she was one of the inferior. Worse, she was not one of the "trusted" Japanese that served with him, but a prisoner from the future, where the Axis was lost forever.

He looked at the name, translated into German on the placard. Kasumi. Her name meant fog, and it suited her well; her beauty was ethereal, transcendent; she was the perfect maiden of a thousand fairy tales rolled into one. Other than her race, her one flaw was that if what Sharan said was true, this woman was related either to the Pillar or her husband, and was even more important as a potential tool than their children.

Regardless, he could feel a power deep within her, inexplicable but very vibrant and alive. For that purpose alone she had to die, so that his plan could succeed. In the end, Daimler gave all for the Reich and the life he believed in; the Fuhrer would expect no less of him.

"I promise you this, Frau Kasumi," he whispered into her ear. "You'll feel no pain, even if I have to perform the operations myself. I promise you that." Bending down slightly, he kissed her gently on the lips, and though the sleeping beauty failed to awaken, the leader of the Vanden Plaz felt something of himself stir. For a moment, he considered what his men were doing to the Water Knight in the dungeon and considered a variation of the theme here; he would be gentler to her and would never cause her harm. But a second later he knew even that was a risk; should his seed find root within her, it could throw their readings off. Secondly and more dangerous, though, was the fact that he might consider taking her to wed, and what sort of signal would that send to his men--stout, loyal Aryan, Cephiran and Autozamian soldiers zealous to the cause?

"I'm sorry, but it has to be this way," he whispered once more. "Maybe in another life. We shall see." Caressing her perfect face one final time, the leader of the Vanden Plaz turned his back on love and left the room. The mission counted now, and if love should raise its head again, he would be considered truly lucky. If not, then it was just one more sacrifice that he would commit for his cause. The Fuhrer was gone on their homeworld; sad as it was, nothing could be done about that. But so long as the spirit of the Aryan beat in the heart of Daimler and his followers, the dream would be a reality, and the Commander of the Vanden Plaz would ensure that the Fourth Reich would be built, a shining ideal that he and the others aspired to.

Whistling an old German tune to himself, he rounded the corner, headed for his quarters, when one of the newer officers--a Cephiran who'd been enlightened to the error of his ways--saluted him and stood at attention, apparently to pass him some news. Daimler saluted back and allowed the junior to report.

"Lord Daimler," the officer announced with a smile that bordered on absolute pride, "we've just received some excellent news from a patrol out on the western edge. If what they're saying can be confirmed, we have the Pillar herself as a prisoner!"

NEXT
Part Nine: Bai-bai, Bu-ru

Author's Notes:

Well, this was an interesting chapter to do. I wanted to show that life on Earth continues on, and since we are talking about Nerima, life isn't always calm just because Ranma isn't there. Besides, I did have a couple of things to do in this chapter that would have an impact down a ways in the series, so....

I realize this was a little longer than the average chapter (okay, a lot longer ^_^;), but let's be honest: there was quite a bit of ground to cover (no pun intended) in this particular issue.

Massive amounts of thanks go to Rob for his invaluable assistance for this section. A person who's been my personal fanfic mentor for the longest time, he refused to take credit for the amount of work he did on Duet 4 (only a few people knew that he'd actually written the lion's share--almost all--of that Part when I came close to quitting fanfiction). Since our styles are so similar, he's easily able to step in and work with what I have. Additionally, he's a god when it comes to research on Japan; any mistakes in this are clearly mine and not due to him.

Next chapter: the return of Ranma and Hikaru to these pages, not to mention an itty-bitty rescue attempt…. ^_~
--Libby

~*~

It's been fun working with Duet again, but I really have to figure out sometime how I get suckered into these guest spots.... ^_^;;;
--Rob