Part One: Ripples. To claim his cure, Ranma must thwart a tribe of Chinese Sorcerers who have come to Jusenkyō, drawn to the spring ground for reasons of their own.
In the Cold Rain
In the years since the Jusenkyō Guide had first taken up his post, many a lost traveler had come knocking on his shack's rickety door, and every one of them brought a unique flavor of trouble. From time to time, ignorant tourists sought out the spring ground, expecting that they could train atop bamboo poles over the dozens of cursed pools below. Nothing could possibly go wrong with this idea—that was their thinking, at least. Ranma was one such person, but the Guide excused him for it, since he'd been led into trying by his reckless father. The Amazons liked to train there, too, but only with disgraced warriors who, in the Tribe's judgment, deserved the punishment if they fell into a spring. Ambitious martial artists weren't the only ones to come by the small shack on the edge of the spring ground. The last visitors to drop in had been vicious bird-men, and they hadn't bothered to knock. It was all the Guide could do to get his daughter Plum to town and out of their reach, and the ensuing conflict had almost dried up the springs completely.
After that debacle, the Guide dug out the old books his predecessor had left behind on the tribal peoples of Qinghai—just in case more natives stopped by—and wondered to himself if he should've stayed in Beijing to drive horse-drawn carriages. The money wasn't nearly as good in the city, though, and with the remoteness of Jusenkyō, there was a certain appeal to being immersed in nature. Indeed, the Guide had never had problems with the animals. Only when people arrived did bad things tend to happen.
Then again, when the Guide had received a call from Tōkyō earlier that week, he knew mayhem and chaos were well on their way. He just didn't expect them to come pounding on his door—rap, rap, rap—quite so soon.
"Who's that, Daddy?" His daughter Plum looked up from a doodling pad, puzzled. "Is that Honored Guest from Japan here so soon?"
"I doubt it," said the Guide. "If it were, he'd be days earlier than he said he would be. Hide yourself for a moment. Let's not have a repeat of what happened last time."
Sighing, Plum crouched behind an icebox, taking her drawing pad with her. "You're worrying too much, Daddy."
Rap-rap-rap! The door rattled on its hinges again, and the Guide went to the knob. He collected himself for a moment, making sure Plum couldn't be seen, and called through the door. "Yes, hello? Who's there?"
"We understand you are a guide to this place, that you direct visitors around this spring ground."
It was a girl's voice, cold and serious. The Guide didn't recognize it. "That's right," he replied. "Who are you?"
The Guide inched the door open cautiously, and with the first slivers of light from outside, he studied the strangers. There were four of them, all relatively young—around age twenty or so he guessed. Their clothes were solid black—short-sleeved shirts and long pants for each one. Three men and a girl stood before the Guide's door. The Guide guessed the girl was the leader, and despite her stern expression, he thought her fairly pretty, with her straight reddish-brown hair extending halfway down her back.
And lastly, each of the four carried a stick—thin, slender, and nearly as tall as its wielder. These weapons were capped with blunt, cast iron tips.
"So," said the Guide, eying one of these dangerous staves, "you would like to visit the spring ground?"
"We have questions for you," said the leader, the girl with the reddish-brown hair. "What happened here twenty-two days ago?"
"Twenty-two days?" The Guide laughed. "Are you sure you don't want to ask about twenty-one days ago—or twenty-three? Saying exactly twenty-two is quite particular, don't you think?"
The leader blinked, but her stony expression didn't waver.
"Ah, you must be talking about the interruption to the springs' water supply," the Guide concluded. "If it's that you're asking about, I can assure you, nothing of the sort will happen again on my watch. The culprit has already been dealt with."
"Who?" asked the leader.
"Who is the culprit?"
The Guide hesitated. A sweat broke out on his brow. To find strangers on his doorstep asking extremely specific questions was unsettling, even more so considering just what and who they were so curious about. If only he'd had the presence of mind to read that book on the natives of Qinghai Province a little sooner, he might've known what they were really after!
As it was, the Guide decided to be cautious. "I'm afraid I don't quite know," he said. "Some wandering martial artist took care of the problem; I really had absolutely nothing to do with it, I promise you."
The leader narrowed her eyes. "Where do we find him?"
"I really couldn't say. He left in a big, big hurry. So sorry!"
And with that, the Guide slammed the door on his visitors, breathing a sigh of relief.
"Daddy, I hope you're more convincing than that when you tell the army men no one came by the springs," said Plum, who scribbled away at her notepad nonchalantly.
"What do you mean? I don't think they suspect a thing!"
"Then why are you trying to block the door?"
The Guide jammed a chair under the doorknob, hoping to stall the door before it could move inward more than an inch. Truly, there was no hiding anything from a perceptive child, so the Guide didn't bother arguing with her. Instead, he cleared his dinner table of scattered bowls and plates, and from the back wall of the shack, he retrieved a set of scrolls, books, and parchments. He flipped through pages and notes frantically. Men with fighting staves—that was pretty unique. There had to be something in all those papers about them. Though he heard nothing from the visitors outside, the Guide searched for even a fragment of information about their kind, just in case they returned. Sure enough, in a dusty hardback from the 1960s, he found a crude drawing of warriors like the ones at his door. Their metal-tipped staves were distinctive, but what caught the Guide's eye most were the jagged, colorful bolts of lightning that emanated from the warriors' hands.
"You found something about those people?" asked Plum, coming out from her hiding place. "What does it say?"
"Hm?" He stepped back from the book, his brow furrowing with confusion. "It says they use magic."
Ka-PAM! The door splintered in two; the chair holding it there bent and shattered. A wave of air pressure pushed into the shack, and it shoved the Guide forward with all the gentleness of a sledgehammer. His body catapulted through the table. The texts ripped, spreading papers over the floor, and the Guide lay sprawled atop the shredded texts with stars in his eyes. He worked his jaw repeatedly, trying in vain to get his ears to pop.
The visitors entered through the broken door, the leader in front with her staff in one hand. She watched as two of her comrades took the Guide by his arms. They turned him on his back and pulled down his shirt by the neck.
Shink. The last visitor plunged a hollow bamboo needle into the exposed skin by the Guide's shoulder blade. The Guide went woozy and glassy-eyed. He slipped from the visitors' grasp, keeling over face-down on the floor, and the visitors took him by the arms once more to carry him away.
"Hey!" cried Plum. "Where are you taking my father?"
The leader of the visitors thrust an open hand toward the girl, and from the stranger's fingers, ripples of golden energy emanated. Plum shied away from the stranger, half-hiding behind the icebox once more, and the visitors ignored her. They left without a word, and indeed, the shack was eerily quiet.
Until a black rotary phone on the Guide's desk rang.
The Guide's feet dragged on the ground as they carried him out, and Plum didn't dare give chase.
The phone continued to ring.
Two of the strangers took the Guide on their backs between them, and with him firmly in their grasp, the Guide's feet left the ground. His captors levitated and flew, and Plum stepped through the broken doorway, staring in awe.
The phone stopped ringing, and a bulky piece of machinery spun into motion, playing a magnetic tape. "Hello, Honored Guest! You've reached the phone line of the Guide to the mystical training ground Jusenkyō! Please leave your message after the beep, and if I haven't drowned and turned into a cat or some other voiceless animal, I'll be sure to get back to you. Pleasant journey!"
The visitors soared skyward, taking Plum's father with them and becoming small dots in front of a blue backdrop. Only their leader remained, listening intently as the call came in.
"Hey, Guide, it's me," said the voice on the answering machine. "I was just calling to see if the weather's good at Jusenkyō. I should be there in a couple days, so if it starts to rain, maybe you could prepare another cask? Yeah, I know I didn't explain what happened to the first one or why I'm back so soon. It's a long story."
Plum blinked, turning around. Her eyes focused on the black rotary phone in the shack, which sat neatly on the Guide's desk, but the leader of the strangers saw it, too. The girl gripped her weapon tightly, and even from outside the shack, one swing of her battle staff launched a shockwave, piercing the walls and shattering the telephone and the desk it sat on. Satisfied, the leader followed her men, flying past the trees.
And with her only link to the outside world irrevocably cut, Plum could only watch the strangers go. On the horizon, wispy clouds began to roll in—the first portents of a coming storm.
It was a storm Saotome Ranma heard coming through the loud, grating, repetitive tone of a busy signal.
"Hello? Guide?" He distanced himself from the phone's earpiece, wincing as that irritating sound poured out. With two fingers, Ranma pressed down on the switchhook, resetting the line, and dialed again, only to get the same result: a busy signal with no trace of anyone on the other end.
A man peered out from a desk, looking at Ranma and the phone on the wall. A glass divider separated the man from the outside world, with only a small opening for cash to change hands. He spoke to Ranma haltingly, consulting a red booklet as he spoke.
"Is…there…a chestnut—ah, a problem, young lady?"
Ranma huffed to himself. "No, no problem," he assured the clerk at the front desk. "It was just a shorter call than I thought it would be."
The man at the front desk nodded and smiled, putting away his booklet, and Ranma thought better of explaining further. There was only so much to say to a man who needed a pocket dictionary to speak Japanese. Trying to explain a gender-changing curse and the trouble of dousing himself with more cursed water to reverse it was right out.
Puzzled by the Guide's lack of response, Ranma headed upstairs, across tiled floors and wooden steps to his room. It was a small, dinky motel he stayed in, with flat, blackened remains of discarded chewing gum sticking on the walkways and floors, never mind the odor of cigarette smoke that seemed to ooze from the walls of the lobby, practically choking him as he'd talked. Still, Ranma was in no position to be picky. In the wilds of Qinghai Province, there were few outposts of civilization to break up the arid wastes. One of them was Yushu, the last bastion of the modern world for at least two hundred miles in every direction, and as luck would have it, it was just two days' hike from Jusenkyō—the cursed training ground. That was Ranma's destination, and he wouldn't let an ear-splitting busy signal deter him.
Ranma climbed the steps to the third floor in a brisk, chilling wind. Exposed to the elements, he walked under stained, flickering lights to his room. A glow in the sky told of the coming dawn, and in the distance, the great mountains of the Himalayas loomed over the horizon, catching sunlight that had yet to fall on the town. Once sunlight hit, it would be time to go. This was Ranma's third visit to China, and he'd endeavored to make sure it was an expedient one. Unlike his last two visits, Ranma had enjoyed a reasonably quick plane ride from Japan to the central city of Lanzhou—a polluted, industrial city. From there, he took a train to Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, and arrived there within six hours. The harder part was the long bus ride from Xining to Yushu, spanning nearly two days. The time spent didn't bother him, but the traveling conditions did, for Ranma had very little money of his own. To fund this journey, he'd needed more than a little help, and fortunately, there had been one man entirely willing to provide for his precious and darling pigtailed girl.
On returning to his room, Ranma made a beeline for his pack, uncovering a canteen. A good splash of water would wake his traveling companion, if only he could find him.
"Kunō?" Ranma glanced around the room, from the lumpy carpet to the hazy windows. "Where'd you go, Moneybags?" Ranma frowned, thinking back. Kunō had proved a more irritating and enthusiastic traveling companion than even Ranma had feared. Naturally, Kunō wasn't in the bed—that was Ranma's territory, and Kunō would've had a bed of his own if he hadn't insisted on only one for the both of them. No, Kunō had to be dealt with and restrained in other ways, and that's when Ranma remembered what exactly he'd done with the misguided boy.
Ranma went to the dresser under the television and opened the bottom drawer.
"There you are, Kunō. Morning."
The self-styled samurai Kunō Tatewaki lay stuffed in the drawer, his body contorted and bent. He stared up dully—his eyes open yet his mind still asleep.
Ranma felt a pang of pity at this sight. When he'd come to the Kunō estate earlier that week, dressed in a pink skirt with frills of all things, he'd known there was some danger in going to Kunō. The boy had a raging attraction to his darling "pigtailed girl," and the only thing firmer than that lust was the wood of his practice sword. Ranma had hoped to use that against Kunō, persuading him to take a journey to the cursed training ground of Jusenkyō with the promise that it would help him defeat Ranma and claim both Akane and the mythical pigtailed girl. Unsurprisingly, once Ranma crafted a suitably epic tale about the legendary powers one might gain from training at Jusenkyō, Kunō came to this conclusion in roughly three seconds flat.
All in all, it was the quickest path back to China. Swimming across the Yellow Sea would've taken a few days and left him beat for the rest of the journey on foot, and Ranma wanted to avoid any unnecessary delays. His urgency should prove to anyone he was serious. He'd never been serious enough about trying to reclaim his cure, had he? If he had been, he wouldn't have taken off for home while the springs were flooded the last time he'd been in China.
On the other hand, no one had questioned his manhood then.
Ranma shook himself, putting that line of thinking out of his mind. He turned the cup of water over, and the liquid splashed over Kunō's face. "Good morning, Sempai!" he cried, his voice squeaky and chipper. "It was so gentlemanly of you to hide in the drawer to protect my virtue!"
Groggily, Kunō blinked. "I…hid myself?"
No doubt he was struggling with a very different memory, one of pretending to sleepwalk from his futon on the floor to fondle Ranma's breasts. Never mind that sleepwalking people seldom announce that they're sleepwalking while trying to feel a girl's chest. At that, Ranma had tried desperately to restrain Kunō with minimal fuss. His first attempt involved sealing Kunō in a sleeping bag by breaking off the zipper, but somehow, the man slithered back to the bed. After a couple more rounds of this nonsense, Ranma lured Kunō to the head of the bed and knocked him out cold. Perhaps the drawer was a bit much; Ranma had hoped to avoid tripping over him in case he'd needed to take a trip to the toilet overnight. Stumbling over Kunō's body might've started all that ruckus over again, but still…
"My darling, you are as luscious and beautiful as ever! It is a joy to see you at this early hour, though I regret that it makes my body react in ways I cannot control. I do apologize for that, but it means I can't quite…" He jerked in the drawer and gestured to his waist. "Perhaps you could assist me?"
With that, Ranma's pity for Kunō dimmed like a lamp on its last drop of oil. Somebody shoot me for taking him along. Really.
Ranma left Kunō there to struggle a bit. It was only a temporary measure to keep the boy restrained while Ranma washed up and prepared their things for the hike ahead. Ranma took the half-empty canteen and went for the sink to fill it up. The sink sputtered like a wheezing giant, and a residue of dark minerals swirled around the drain.
"All right, guess we're not doing that," said Ranma, turning the faucet shut. Searching through his bag of toiletries, Ranma fished out his toothbrush and wetted the bristles with clean canteen water. He squeezed out a dab of light blue paste from a travel-size tube and looked up, into the mirror, staring at the image of a girl.
"Well?" he asked his reflection. "What do you have to say for yourself? Any last words?"
The girl in the mirror looked back with a hard, inscrutable expression.
"You know, it's not going to be long before I'm rid of you for good," Ranma went on. "You're not going to come out in a rainstorm or when I go to the beach. You'll be gone forever."
The girl in the mirror frowned, her brow furrowing in thought.
"You're part of the reason I'm not married right now," said Ranma, pointing the toothbrush at the mirror. "We would've had Shampoo and Ucchan under control, but I needed water to get rid of you. That's not to say I wanted to be married, but still—if Akane had married me without the water, she'd be marrying you, too, and a girl can't marry a girl."
Ranma's reflection raised an eyebrow.
"Well," Ranma corrected himself, "not anywhere around here, anyway. Maybe in Holland."
The girl in the mirror said nothing, and Ranma thought better of trying to talk to her. He stuck the toothbrush in his mouth and cleaned his teeth for the next minute straight. In fairness, the girl in the mirror had served him on occasion. He'd used her to taunt Ryōga from time to time, pretending to be his fiancée or his sister. He'd gone out as a girl to play tennis in the winter, tricking his perverted master Happōsai to capture him. These deceptions were her forte. They came easy to her—the girl in the mirror, who was borne of him not a part of him. She was a silent reflection, and nothing he did while in that body could really be said to come from him, could it?
Indeed, the only good thing his curse had ever done was present a non-threatening face to a girl, putting her at ease long enough to say, "I'm Akane; want to be friends?" Even that hadn't quite turned out the way they'd expected, for either of them—mostly because Ranma was never really a girl at all. That shy, casual friend his fiancée had been looking for? She didn't exist.
Perhaps that was why things had always been rocky between them. That girl had been looking for something within him that he just couldn't give. He was a man through and through. Once he went back home cured, even she would have to see that.
Once Kunō managed to break himself free of the drawer, he and Ranma set out. On the whole, despite the annoyances Kunō could bring, it was better to travel with a partner. One lone man, as strong as he might think himself, could slip on a rock and fall—or worse, he could wander into a den of hungry panthers and become paralyzed with fright.
And since Ranma had to go as a girl on this journey to keep Kunō pacified, he could reasonably persuade Kunō to carry both their packs. Taking that weight off Ranma's shoulders was no small benefit, either. At the very least, it let Ranma focus on navigation instead of the weight on his back or his footing. Being efficient with their path would prove key, for as daylight came, cloud cover grew over the Tibetan Plateau. Qinghai Province had seen an unusual amount of rain of late. March was supposed to be part of a dry, cold winter, but Ranma just been to Jusenkyō to see it flood from rain. On the way in, Ranma and Kunō had found the paths into town spongy and soft, so whatever the weather pattern, Ranma knew they needed to make good time. Kunō's wild blathering, however, seemed to sap Ranma's energy with every step.
"Three weeks," Kunō decided to himself, nodding confidently. "Three weeks of nonstop training, and I will humiliate Saotome and demonstrate my true worth to Tendō Akane! Oh, and to you, of course."
Ranma rolled his eyes. "Three weeks, huh? Is that all?"
"You think it will require more training to defeat him handily?"
"I think you could train there for ten years and not even scratch me—I mean, him—as long as there aren't any watermelons around."
"I fail to see what melons have to do with it."
"That's because all memory of that place has already left your brain."
Kunō stared at Ranma, mystified, like a child marveling at how two and two could add to make four. "Regardless," he went on, gazing across the Plateau, "once I have completed my training regimen, Saotome and I will duel one another atop Mount Fuji, in the snow, while blindfolded and hopping on one leg. To your raucous applause, I will overpower him! Children will speak of this feat in awe for years to come."
Ranma's gut spasmed, and he suppressed a dry heave. Free food on the plane back to Japan versus getting away from this idiot. A smooth, quick trip back versus a rickety old ferry or swimming across an ocean yourself. Man, Kunō—how can you be so annoying that this is even something I have to seriously think about?
"Is something wrong, pigtailed girl?"
Ranma flinched. With miles upon miles of cold, arid desert around them, there was frighteningly little to distract them from each other, and Kunō seemed to enjoy staring at Ranma's face, studying his every expression, a bit too much.
"No, of course not, Sempai!" Ranma answered in the highest pitch he could maintain. "Whyever would you think that? Hehe, you're so silly! That's why I really lo—oh, I mean, why I like you so much!" His stomach twisted into a sailor's knot. Acting sweet like that is really going to kill me. I swear.
"I'm flattered you find my company so rewarding," said Kunō, nodding proudly, "but I've been troubled since we set out. In truth, it's something that has gnawed at me every since you came to my home with word of this accursed training ground. It stirred a question within me that I cannot shake or resolve, no matter how much I apply my impressive intellect."
By 'impressive,' do you mean, 'on par with that of an ant'?
"Pigtailed girl, is it possible that you and Saotome…?"
That we what, are the same person? No way. There is no way in hell that you're making this connection now. If you do, forget going to Jusenkyō. I'll stay as a girl forever and kiss your feet.
"That you and Saotome…"
Come on, spit it out!
"…have colluded to bring me here?"
Ranma scoffed. Knew it.
"Please, take me seriously; I don't understand."
"I'll bet you don't," said Ranma. "Er, I mean, what don't you understand?"
"Giving me this opportunity to learn and defeat that wretch is something I relish with every passing moment, but there is no reason for you to be here, pigtailed girl. As much as I enjoy your company, I did not think I could free you from Saotome's spell until I bested him in fair combat. So, why are you here?"
Ranma looked away, his gaze lengthening to the distant horizon. "Does it matter?"
"It matters to me, pigtailed girl. If you've undertaken this task out of the generosity of your heart, I wish to thank you. If there is some other reason you've come here, I wish to assist."
You could assist me by cutting out all this talk, thought Ranma, but alas, his private griping would do little to dissuade Kunō, so in frustration, he tried a different tack instead. "Tell me, Kunō—you ever had your pride, your manhood, challenged by someone important to you?"
"Whatever do you mean?"
"If I said you were weak and not strong enough for me, what would you do?"
Kunō laughed. "What a curious question. You need not pretend you dislike me, pigtailed girl. We're growing too old for such games."
You and me aren't doing anything of the kind.
"But, if I must answer your question," Kunō went on, "I would ask what I must do to prove to you my strength and prowess, if defeating Saotome won't suffice, and I wouldn't rest until it was done."
"Then at least there's one thing we understand each other on," muttered Ranma.
"But I don't understand—what does that have to do with you?"
Ranma shrugged. "Sometimes, there are just things you have to do, and you need to do it on your own, so you can prove to yourself and anyone else who might've doubted you. You get me?"
"Of course. If you should require aid, I will provide it, but I too know the meaning of personal duty. I will not interfere if you don't wish it."
At last, the guy is reasonable, thought Ranma, relieved. Maybe we can survive this trip after all.
With that matter settled, the two trudged on in silence, and Ranma was grateful for that. The long hike to Jusenkyō would take much of his energy—energy he didn't need to waste on chatting with Kunō. The high altitude slowed both of them down, and Ranma purposefully paced himself to keep from overexertion. The thin air and desolate landscape made the Tibetan Plateau a harsh, unpleasant place, and as much as Ranma desired his cure, every minute spent in that desert knotted his stomach with foreboding and dread. The wilderness was nothing like the city. It forced a man to do what he needed to survive.
In that respect, Ranma and Kunō were no exceptions. Though Jusenkyō lay several hours ahead, Ranma and Kunō set up a camp partway through the afternoon, preparing for a cold night. While Kunō rounded up sparse twigs and branches from the runty vegetation in the area, Ranma went about finding food. A hot meal could do wonders for a man's state of mind in the wild, and Ranma had never been fond of nutrition bars. The human body worked better when it had something of substance to digest. The Plateau was scarce in berries and edible grasses, but it supported some wildlife. With pieces of string, rocks, and twigs, Ranma set snares and traps for whatever might wander into them. He checked the traps frequently, more out of boredom than any real hope of catching anything so quickly, but Ranma was in luck.
A small, spotted bird flapped its wings in vain, pulling the string taut, but the weight of the rock on the other end kept it grounded. It was a partridge, and a feisty one at that, for as Ranma reeled it in, the bird pecked and snapped at him. Ranma didn't need it to be well-behaved, though. The spotted partridge, with lines of black around its eyes and a touch of red down near its head, would make for a fine snack when roasted over a fire. If anything, the more the bird struggled, the harder it would be for Ranma to put it down quickly and mercifully, and that was important. Just because Ranma was hungry didn't mean the bird had to suffer. It had done nothing to deserve such a fate, after all.
Not like another bird he'd run across.
Nevertheless, Ranma grabbed the partridge, holding its legs and body with one hand. The bird seemed to realize the futility of its actions, giving up as Ranma held it restrained. He took the head in hand, but he hesitated. It was one thing to take an animal's life when it was injured and wouldn't survive anyway. That was an act of kindness. To kill for other reasons—for food, or in one's own defense—wasn't brutal or cruel, at least not in itself. As long as the man doing the killing took no pleasure, joy, or satisfaction in it, what was the harm?
Ranma frowned. What was the harm in eating granola bars for a night when he'd be at the Guide's house by the next day?
He set the bird down on the ground and snapped the string with his bare hands, and when the partridge looked at him curiously, he stomped on the ground to scare it off. "Shoo! Go on, get out of here!"
The bird took off—perhaps surprised that it could fly again—and never looked back, nor did Ranma.
Night on the Tibetan Plateau was frigid, but a well-stocked fire and sleeping bags helped mitigate the cold. What didn't help was Kunō sidling up to Ranma in the middle of the night, claiming they could share body heat.
When daylight broke the next morning, it came through a heavy blanket of clouds, and Ranma scrambled to pack up their camp and hit the road with Kunō lagging behind, but for all Ranma's haste, the weather was faster. As the Plateau turned from desolate, rocky wastes to thickening forest—a byproduct of the springs' ample water supply, no doubt—Ranma donned raingear for the rest of the hike. Rainwater beaded on his clear poncho and fell away, leaving him unbothered, but behind Ranma, Kunō struggled.
"Forgive me," said Kunō, breathing heavily as he fumbled over the poncho's folds. "I am usually brilliant, but this contraption seems oddly puzzling. I must not be thinking clearly right now."
Try 'most of the time,' Ranma thought to himself, but even for Kunō, this was unusual. Perhaps the hike and the thin air had taken too much of a toll on the boy. It would be better for him to rest. Besides, Ranma didn't want to have to deal with Kunō wandering about Jusenkyō in search of his missing pigtailed girl.
So Ranma fished though his pack, finding a pair of cookies. "Here, Sempai!" he cried in the most chipper, feminine voice he could muster. "Eat these; they'll restore your strength!"
"Why thank you, pigtailed girl. I shall savor every bite." Munch. "They are delicious, but nowhere near as delectable as your pure…your pure…" Kunō wobbled, going unsteady on his feet, and Ranma caught him by the arm, easing him down to sit dazed by a tree trunk.
"I might've forgotten to mention your sister made them for us," Ranma explained. "You don't think she laced them with something, do you?"
Sure enough, Kunō slumped over, falling asleep, and that was for the best anyway. Gods only knew that if Kunō got any closer to the springs, he might fall into some nasty pool, like the Spring of Drowned Wannabe Samurai with Delusions of Awesome.
Kunō's already all of those things, though, and he's not that dangerous. Just annoying.
For good measure, Ranma tied Kunō to that tree. Only then did he feel safe entering the spring ground. To protect himself from the rain, he pulled tightly on the hood of his clear poncho, but the thin material could do only so much to keep the water out of his face. If it was already raining that hard, the springs couldn't hold out much longer. Hopefully the Guide had heard his message asking him to prepare a cask. That way, he wouldn't be at the mercy of the weather, of waiting for the springs to finish flooding and go down again.
When Ranma set eyes on the Guide's shack, however, his hopes were dashed. A whole corner of the shack had been lopped off, as if it were a block of tofu for an angry chef to cut and shape at his prerogative.
Slowing his steps, Ranma approached. He peered into the remaining, open shell of the shack and called out. "Hello? Anybody home still?"
Weakly, a voice answered him. It came from behind a white icebox—one that had become stained from dripping water that came in freely through the roof. The voice was soft and quiet, difficult to hear above the rain. "Honored Guest?"
Ranma tip-toed over soggy scraps of paper and parchment. He crept around the icebox, and there he found Plum. The young girl shivered, having wrapped herself in some dusty bedsheets for warmth, but nothing could keep the rain totally at bay. Water pooled in spots on the floor, hemming the girl into an uncomfortably small space to stay dry.
"What the hell happened here? Where's your old man, Plum? He didn't just leave you here, did he?"
She shook her head slowly, stuck in a lethargic daze. "Very tragic story, Honored Guest," she said. "They took him. People came for him, and they took him."
So that's why the Guide didn't answer. Someone had come after him, someone who—judging by the damage where his desk had been—had smashed the Guide's phone into pieces.
"Who did this, Plum?" demanded Ranma. "Those Phoenix bastards again? I thought they didn't need anything else from Jusenkyō!"
"Not Phoenix," she said, shaking her head. "It said they were called Sorcerers."
"Sorcerers? There are more crazy people in this area?"
"I read about them in Daddy's book." Shedding her layers, Plum crawled over the floor. She fetched a thick, dusty book with yellowed pages and dragged it back to the icebox. Her stomach growled, but Plum flipped the pages of the book, oblivious to the sound.
"Hey, when's the last time you ate?"
"Yesterday. There was a bag of berries Daddy had picked. He left them in the icebox; I wanted to eat them before all the ice ran out."
"How big a bag?"
Plum put her hands together, forming a small cup. "About that much."
"All day? Plum, when did these guys come for your old man?"
"Yesterday, right at dawn, when you called."
"That was a day and a half ago! Why didn't you go get help?"
"I knew you were coming," she said groggily. "I just had to stay here and wait."
Little wonder she was so zoned out. She'd used up all her strength to hold out for him, to stay alive.
Ranma undid the cap of his canteen and put it to Plum's lips. "Here, drink first; then you can have whatever food's in my pack. There are some dry clothes in there, too, but I doubt any of it will fit. Eat what you can, but not too fast, and don't touch the cookies. They're bad."
Wiping her mouth from the canteen, Plum looked at him strangely. "Cookies can go bad?"
"When they're poisoned, yeah. You don't want to know, trust me." Ranma leaned over the thick, dusty book. The open page showed men in lightweight cloth armor wielding staves. Ranma figured they must've been the culprits. "Now what's this about Sorcerers?"
Plum turned the book around for Ranma to read. "I don't understand some of the really complicated characters, but I think it says the Sorcerers were one of the major tribes of the Province until twenty years ago, when their village just disappeared."
Ranma squinted. Chinese and Japanese shared some common ideograms, but staring at the page in front of him made his eyes cross. "Sorry, I really don't read Chinese. Just bottom line it for me; if their village disappeared, how are we going to find them and get your old man back?"
"Oh, we don't have to go all that way," said Plum. "They're still here; come and see." She rose to her feet, wobbling for a moment as the blood rushed from her head, but she tugged at Ranma's pant leg, leading him back to the door and the rain. "Look past the trees. Smoke's coming up; they're still here, with my father."
Rummaging through his pack, Ranma retrieved a pair of binoculars to look into the distance. Sure enough, there was a thin column of smoke rising against the background of clouds, but it was subtle and difficult to discern. Much easier to see was the intense rain. Stray droplets splattered on the lenses of the binoculars, quickly rendering them useless. With just his own unaided eyes, Ranma watched the springs fill with rainwater. In minutes, the springs could begin to flood.
"Listen, Plum," he began, "have you been to this camp of theirs? Did you see that your old man is still there or not?"
"I didn't want to get too close," she said. "They might do to me whatever they wanted to do with him. They can use strong magic, Honored Guest. Their leader was ten steps out the door when she heard the telephone ring. She just swiped with her stick, and everything between her and the shack blew apart! She didn't even have to touch it!"
"That's not that impressive," said Ranma, "and look—I want to get the Guide back for you, really, but I can do that a lot better as a man, not like this. Do you have a map of the springs still? I need to find the Spring of Drowned Man before everything goes to soup."
Plum gaped at him, appalled. "Honored Guest, what are you saying? You want to go cure yourself before you save my father?"
"You don't even know he's still there! I can fight at least ten times better when I'm a man, and how long will this take—two minutes, tops? This is what I came here to do; I'm not leaving empty-handed."
"But this is my father!" cried Plum. "Those people could be torturing him or hurting him or doing something else to him even right this second!"
Ranma balled his hand into a fist. Really, of all the things he'd faced to get his cure, the thing that was stopping him most right then was a little girl trying to give him a guilt trip? He'd pretended to be a girl for Kunō, the most chivalrous lecher within ten thousand miles! The humiliation of having Kunō stare at Ranma's female body was stomach-churning, but he'd endured it. So what if Plum wanted to act like a spoiled child. He's crossed a whole ocean and countless mountains to get his cure!
"Look, Plum," he said, "me taking the time to go skinny-dipping for a second isn't going to make a bit of difference! Either the Guide is still alive and they aren't going to hurt him any more than they already have, or he's gone and there's nothing to be done about it anyway!"
Plum's eyes went wide. Her mouth hung open, and her whole body began to shake. "Daddy's gone?" she mumbled. "Daddy could be gone…."
Oh hell. "Now wait a minute," said Ranma, "that's not what I meant! I'm sure he's fine; he's fine!"
But Plum bawled her eyes out. Sobbing, she clung to Ranma's leg, and her tears soaked into the fabric of his pants. Ranma stared out the door with a sigh. The springs were awash with ripples and chaotic waves as the rain fell, but so far, they hadn't flooded. They were safe at that moment, but they may as well have been a single mess of mixed curse water. With that innocent little girl stuck to him, there was no way he could go looking for the Spring of Drowned Man. To even try would've been pointlessly cruel.
So he patted Plum's head, saying nothing, for he could find nothing worthwhile to say to a sobbing little girl.
Damn, he thought. Why is it I have a handful of girls after me, anyway? How is that possible when I'm this much of a bastard—enough to make a little girl cry?
There was always something keeping him from his cure, it seemed, but what was he to do? The springs would still be there the next day. He'd already spent months living with his curse. What was a few more hours? Soon enough he'd be a man again. Until then, he'd deal with being stuck in that girl's body as a man incomplete.
"Okay, Plum," he said to her. "If your old man is still there, I'll go get him back. That's a promise, understand? You stay right here. Hide out; don't make a sound."
Nodding, Plum released him, and Ranma ventured out, into the rain—a thickening, impenetrable downpour—with only the thin material of his poncho to keep out the wet and cold.
And as he headed back to the forest, the springs of Jusenkyō flooded over.
What Ranma had promised Plum was not without danger. To approach an unknown foe—or several of them—was the deed of a reckless man. Ranma could be reckless, of course, but knowing that his actions might put the Guide in danger, Ranma exercised caution. He headed into the nearby trees and worked his way around the springs, preferring not to stay in that clear area for too long. The rain was deafening; the splashing of droplets on his poncho sounded like marbles dropping on a tin roof. Even if no one else could've heard it, Ranma considered ditching the poncho and dealing with the rain all by himself. After all, it was loose and thin. It would give any enemies he faced an easy way to grab him and disturb his balance or momentum, but Ranma thought better of it. Dealing with sopping wet clothes or the bone-chilling cold would be much poorer alternatives. The best he could think to do was to fight with what he'd been given, what he had on him. He didn't need weapons. Just his own two hands would do.
And as much as Ranma had wanted to get his cure and go back home, there was something strangely refreshing about the idea of going into a fight. When a man trades blows with another, the battle lines are clearly drawn. It's just you versus your opponent. Nothing could be simpler than that. There are no entanglements, and it can only end one way: with either you or him on the floor.
Certainly that was a lot easier for Ranma to understand than being trapped between two girls as one of them wept and another stared at him in disappointment and anger. It was only just beginning to rain at that moment, too…
He pushed the memory out of his mind. He had promises to keep, one to Plum and her father included. With an arm held high to shield his face from the rain, Ranma slogged through the woods around Jusenkyō, searching for a faint trail of smoke amid darkening skies and a torrential downpour. Though his eyes were keen, Ranma never spotted that faint smoke trail again.
He found a dry bubble—a pocket of clear air—instead.
The hell is this?
The bubble had no well-defined surface, but raindrops turned away from it all on their own. Ranma extended his fingers into the bubble, and he felt a light pressure trying to keep him out. The bubble extended upward, well beyond Ranma's short stature as a girl. It was big enough and wide enough that Ranma could only guess where the center was—somewhere deeper in the woods, to be sure, but where exactly…?
He stepped into the bubble, through a sheet of deflected raindrops, and left the clattering of the downpour behind. If these people who'd taken the guide were really 'Sorcerers' of some kind, then this dry bubble could only be their doing. It struck Ranma as massively inefficient—why would anyone waste precious magic points on such a spell when a simple animal hide tent would protect them just as well? Unless it were cheap, permanent, and easy to perform, of course. If that bubble were an easy feat for them, they just might put up a decent fight.
Going deeper into the bubble, Ranma slowed his steps, moving carefully. The clamor of the rain had faded to a distant roar, and even one broken twig could give Ranma away. He knew well how to move silently, though, and how to keep his presence undetectable to even the most attentive martial artists. That much he'd learned from his father's stealthy thieving art, and while he'd vowed to seal those techniques away, the basic principles of bottling one's aura to stay hidden were too useful to totally discard.
With a methodical search, heading further and further toward where he thought the center would be, Ranma glimpsed the flickering embers of a fire. He hid behind a tree trunk and turned just one eye to the campsite. The Guide sat by the fire, his wrists and ankles bound with rope. Across from him, two of the Sorcerers meditated, sitting quietly with their staves laid out by their sides. The other two Sorcerers stood by the Guide. One of them—a girl just taller than Ranma with long, reddish-brown hair—spoke with her prisoner in Chinese, and when he didn't give her the responses she wanted, she motioned to her companion, who obligingly stuck the blunt tip of his staff into the Guide's gut, adding a spark of lightning for good measure.
The Guide gave a sickening groan. He was beaten and bruised—that much Ranma could see. Just the way he breathed—in big, exaggerated gasps—showed he was laboring for air.
They might've broken a couple of his ribs or punctured a lung. Man, what would you want the Guide for? He just works here, so why take him? Or is that the thing that all the tribes around here just like to do? People back home like to go shopping or see a movie on a weekend afternoon. I guess around here, abducting someone from a cursed spring ground is just as entertaining!
As the Sorcerers tortured the Guide further—alternating between physical blows and blinding electrical shocks that drew unnatural, high-pitched cries—Ranma studied the situation. Facing all four of these Sorcerers at once was an unappealing prospect. He looked around for some subtle way to cause a distraction, to encourage the Sorcerers to split up. Perhaps he could throw a rock, but he spotted nothing of any size. He could dig through the ground looking for a boulder, but that would attract attention when he wasn't ready for it, and if the only option was to attract attention…
Well, there was no point in being subtle then. Ranma turned to the tree he'd been hiding behind. He balled his fist, cocked his arm back, and punched!
CRUNCH! The wood sheared and splintered. Two of the Sorcerers leveled their staves. The tree creaked and rocked, and Ranma gave it a thundering kick!
Creak-creak-creak! The trunk tilted toward the Sorcerer encampment. The meditating Sorcerers took to their feet, grabbed their staves, and jumped away!
CRASH! The ground rumbled; the tree trunk landed on the campfire, extinguishing the flames, and the incessant deluge penetrated the camp, falling with its intolerable clatter. With the two Sorcerers who'd meditated to maintain the spell having to move, nothing could keep the rain out any longer.
And that was just as well for Ranma—more noise and distraction could only help him as he made his getaway.
"Sorry!" he shouted toward the camp. "Thought this was a logging area. Might've forgotten to say timber there. You guys didn't get hurt, did you? Because if you did, that makes my job easier."
The girl with the long, reddish-brown hair reached out with her left hand, and the trees around Ranma glowed brightly with a golden hue.
Oh, that looks bad.
The girl closed her fist, and—
BANG-BANG-BANG! The trees exploded like mortar shells, blasting wooden shrapnel in every direction. Splinters and branches bombarded Ranma, and he shielded his face to keep the small pieces out of his eyes.
All right, time to go!
And go he did before more of the trees could erupt around him. He ran back, toward the springs, and the Sorcerers followed—two men gave chase. It was just as he'd hoped; if they'd been smart, they would've stayed put at their camp and made Ranma come to them. Instead, he drew them further and further from help, chipping away at the advantage they had in numbers, but the Sorcerers didn't make his flight from them easy. Bolts of lightning nipped at Ranma's heels, charring the ground behind him and ringing his ears. The bolts were so close, he felt the heat from each strike on his back, and to add to the chaos, an invisible force uprooted the trees around him and threw the trunks, as if they were as light as ping-pong balls.
Oh, sure, just keep hurling everything in the world at me; it doesn't matter. I've got a plan.
A car-sized boulder rose from the ground and flung itself at Ranma, smashing him into the earth. Dirt and mud went up his nose and into his mouth.
Well, I kind of had a plan.
Ranma crawled free of the boulder, thankful that he lived in a world where being smashed by one-ton rock was only a minor inconvenience, at least for a martial artist like him. Seeing his pursuers closing, Ranma kicked at the boulder, sending it flying back at the Sorcerers.
But they jumped and flew out of the way, hurtling upward into the soupy gray sky. The boulder rolled beneath them out of sight.
Flying with magic? Oh, come on! At least that Phoenix prick had wings to tear off and make me feel better!
The barrage of lightning strikes and thrown debris continued unabated, however, so Ranma had no time to complain about the unfairness of the Sorcerers' advantage. He moved to negate it instead. He scrambled to his feet and jumped, landing on a low-hanging branch of a nearby tree, but he didn't stay there for long.
CRACK! A lightning bolt struck, turning the tree he'd left to flames. Ranma hopped from tree to tree, gaining height with each jump and escaping the last with just enough time before the trees snapped themselves in two or electricity sheared off the branches he'd set upon. He searched the dark gray skies, looking for even a trace of his enemies—the flutter of black cloth in the wind, for example…
Or the glint of a metal staff tip as lightning lit up everything in the area. Ranma saw this brief sparkle, and he pushed off the treetop, catching the Sorcerer in mid-air and slamming him to the ground.
That was where martial arts theory and training could differ from reality. There was nothing civil and disciplined about being crouched over an enemy in a muddy crater, about bashing his face in with a flurry of punches, but that's what Ranma did, without regret, pity, or remorse. He drew blood from the Sorcerer's nose, and the sleeves of his clear poncho ran with a variety of colors—brown from the earth, green from short grasses, and red from blood. Though the rain ate away at these stains over time, nothing could fully erase them—not from Ranma's mind.
The man was dazed and delirious. He made a weak moaning sound, like a crippled animal, but Ranma kept slugging him. "Be quiet!" he cried. "You don't get to speak, hear me? All I came here to do was get some water and cure my curse, but no!"
Bam! Ranma punched him across the cheek, turning the Sorcerer's head at an unnatural angle.
"You guys had to show up and make trouble! I don't even know who you are!"
Crunch! He hit the Sorcerer on the nose, and there was a loud pop of broken cartilage.
"I'm going home, and she's going to see I am a man, dammit! I am!"
THUD! A sharp stone flew off the ground and struck Ranma in the side with the speed of a bullet.
Ranma staggered, coming to a defensive pose as he recovered. His foe was already beaten into finely-pressed wood pulp; that phantom moving rock was nothing he could've done.
Ranma looked around and spotted the culprit: the second Sorcerer stood in plain sight, straight and tall, unprepared for physical combat, yet with just a slight movement of his eyes, the stone shot at Ranma again, nailing him in the back. Ranma turned to face the object and defend himself, but the stone rebounded away, like a yo-yo catching on its string.
Right, there's nothing to be done to fend off a swarm of angry rocks. Ranma turned back to the Sorcerer and charged!
Thud, thud! Stones bombarded him from all sides, smashing at his ribs, his knees, and his ankles. Ranma lost his footing, slipping in the muddy ground, but when he couldn't walk on two feet, he bounded after the Sorcerer on all fours like a panther after its prey.
Rocks and logs zipped by Ranma's head, unable to keep pace with him. The Sorcerer's eyes bulged in fright, and his magic shoved a mountain of dirt in Ranma's way. Ranma shut his eyes, hurtled through the wall of earth, and kicked blindly, not knowing if his foot would connect.
Soiled and dirty, Ranma came up on his own two feet, finding the Sorcerer's body embedded halfway into a nearby tree trunk.
In the pouring rain, Ranma headed back toward the Sorcerer encampment, and this time, he ran quickly, unconcerned with stealth or silence. The last embers of the campfire had faded, snuffed out by the fallen tree and a growing puddle of water. The Sorcerers had packed up their equipment into plain brown rucksacks hung over their shoulders with waxy cords. The girl with the reddish-brown hair pulled the Guide up by his ropes, freed his feet, and walked him along with his hands still bound.
But where was the other Sorcerer? Ranma looked all around for the fourth, not knowing if to expect more lightning or a telepathic mudslinger or some other bizarre magic, but when the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, Ranma dove for safety.
PAM! The earth erupted; a Sorcerer smashed his staff into the ground, displacing the soil with the force of a landmine.
TCH-CHEW! A golden beam of energy shot out, grazing Ranma on the arm and disappearing as fast as it had arrived. The wound stung, feeling warm like a burn. Ranma looked back to the source—the girl with the reddish-brown hair, who tugged on the Guide's rope to lead him away.
Ranma dashed in after them, coming after the girl, but a golden barrier rose between him and her, protection the girl in a shimmering sphere. She yanked the Guide back behind her, and Ranma punched and punched against the gold shield. His blows bounced off harmlessly, but with each strike, he forced the girl back, one step at a time. He stayed with her, waiting, while he watched for the girl's partner to dash in. When he glimpsed a staff twirling from the corner of his eye, he darted away, and—
WHAM! The shockwave from the staff's impact reflected off the girl's golden shield, knocking the attacking Sorcerer back.
"What a bitch!" said Ranma, stifling a grin. "You just stood there while your guy came in; you totally stuck him on his ass! I guess he's not completely out of the fight right now, though."
Ranma broke off part of the fallen tree's trunk and, when the girl tried to shield herself, he smashed the third Sorcerer into the ground instead.
"Well then." Ranma wiped his hands clean in the rainwater. "I guess now he is."
The girl glared daggers at him, still protecting herself behind the golden shield. She kept one hand on her staff and the other holding the Guide's tethering rope. She didn't seem keen on backing down, and while Ranma thought he'd walk all over her as long as she insisted on keeping the Guide near, a bystander's presence could work against him, too. He'd promised Plum he'd rescue her father. A fight with him so close, beat up and bruised so he could barely limp to walk, could end very badly.
The Sorcerer under the shattered tree trunk groaned, and the girl behind the golden shield took her eyes off Ranma to look. That's when Ranma made his decision—the best decision for everyone involved.
"I don't like fighting girls, but if you're going to stand there looking angry, I can rough you up as well I have the rest of your goons," said Ranma. "Give me your prisoner, and you can go tend to your people. Guide, tell her that. Even if she can't understand everything you say, a little is enough."
The Guide nodded, relating Ranma's offer in a hoarse, weak voice to the girl with the reddish-brown hair. The girl didn't look at the Guide; she watched Ranma the whole time, and her eyes only narrowed as he finished translating Ranma's words.
"If she doesn't agree, then she can get a few bones broken fighting with me," said Ranma. "Tell her to look at her people. I did to this guy what I did to the other two that she sent after me. They're all weak—physically weak and squishy like Saffron was."
The girl's eyes flashed.
"For all their mighty magic," Ranma went on, "they can't take a direct hit. I bet this girl's the same. You tell her that."
It was a calculated risk—showing bravado when he himself didn't want a fight. If there was one thing Ranma knew how to do, it was how to goad an opponent, how to needle him incessantly with insults and snide remarks until he lost his cool, but this was a different matter entirely: he had to provoke an opponent into not fighting?
But the girl obliged him seemingly without argument. Before the Guide was even a quarter of the way through his translation, the girl had released his rope.
Wait—how could she know that's what I wanted? Did she understand me?
If she did, she didn't say anything to prove it. She kept up her protective shell and circled around Ranma to her fallen comrade, freeing him from the tree trunk and checking for signs of life.
"Now's our chance." Ranma went to the Guide and tore the rest of the rope bindings with his bare hands, freeing the Guide's wrists. "How fast can you walk?"
"Not fast," said the Guide.
Ranma took one of the Guide's arms, trying to support him despite being over a foot shorter in his girl body. "Then this'll have to do," said Ranma, watching the girl with the long hair. "She'll be back for you if we don't get out of here soon enough."
"Why…?" The Guide breathed heavily, every step forcing exertion from him. "Why you think that?"
Because the girl with the golden magic barrier met Ranma's gaze, following him and the Guide with her eyes until they were too far through the trees to watch anymore.
With the Guide struggling to walk, Ranma knew they wouldn't get far. That was probably what the girl was counting on. She'd see if any of her people were still battle-worthy and then come back with renewed force, knowing that Ranma was a threat. Though Ranma had come out of his scrape with the Sorcerers fairly well, he wasn't exactly unscathed. His sides ached with bruises. His poncho had torn, exposing him to the rain, and his knuckles ached from the blows he'd delivered to the first Sorcerer. All in all, it was not what he'd had in mind when he'd set out for China.
It had to be magic Sorcerers. Why couldn't it be something easy like, I dunno, Martial Arts Mahjong players? I could've handled people being overly dramatic when they put down tiles. Being out here in the freezing rain, fighting again for life and limb…
He shook off the thought. Everything he'd done there was the result of a promise he'd made or a goal he'd set for himself. At least no one could accuse him of doing the unmanly thing, of not following through on what he'd set out to do. It might even make for a good story once he claimed his cure and made his way back home, if there were someone who'd be willing to hear it and someone he'd want to tell it to.
But first things were first. Ranma had to get the Guide out of there, away from Jusenkyō. The girl and her companions would likely come searching, and the more of them who could move about and walk, the less time Ranma and the Guide would have. They'd start with the Guide's shack, Ranma reasoned, so the first thing to do was go back, retrieve Plum, and get as far away as possible. When he and the Guide came within shouting distance of the shack, Ranma called out to Plum, and she came running out with little more than a plastic bag over her head to keep her dry.
"Daddy, Daddy, you're alive!" she cried, hugging her father's leg tightly. "Honored Guest, thank you! I knew you'd come through!"
"Don't get too excited," said Ranma. "Those goons are still out there; we have to move. I've got a camp just a little ways from here, so let's get going. We ain't safe yet, and you'd be a fool to think otherwise."
"Honored Guest quite right, but if you not come back to springs, I'd still be in their hands." The Guide limped along, prying Plum free from his injured leg. "What good fortune that you come back."
Ranma looked away. "I dunno if fortune had anything to do with it. In fact, I'm pretty sure it didn't do anything at all."
"Fortune that you broke the castk," the Guide insisted. "That's why you come, no?"
Ranma eyed the mountain, whose peak was obscured behind cloud cover. "I'd rather not talk about it."
"Forgive me," said the Guide, "but I ask because they were curious."
"Who? Those Sorcerers?"
"Yes. They ask about the person who dealt with Saffron. They wanted to know what happened three weeks ago, if there had been some kind of event or battle here." The Guide touched a hand to his temple, straining. "Yes, very specific about date. Twenty-three days ago now, I think. The day you killed—"
"I don't want to talk about that, either," said Ranma. "We all know what happened then. Just why are they asking about me? You didn't tell them anything, did you? Did you tell them who I am? Did you tell them my name?"
"No, no, not a word," the Guide promised him. "That why they beat and shock me. I mistake them for friends of Phoenix Tribe, so I no answer."
Ranma nodded at that, saying nothing, for already his mind had begun to race. It was in the shadow of Mount Kensei that he'd fought before, just as the Guide had said, and yes, he'd killed a man to save a life. So what if he'd taken pleasure in doing it, if he'd felt relief and joy in the moments after? That was one moment in time, a moment he could've put behind him and forgotten had he not needed to return to China.
And he'd almost lived that moment over again as he'd bashed in that Sorcerer's face with his bare hands.
By way of a softening trail, Ranma led the Guide and his daughter Plum away from the spring ground, and it wasn't far to the spot where Ranma had left Kunō tied to a tree. The poor, deluded man greeted his cherished pigtailed girl with delight.
"My darling! At last, you return for me! Oh, what a terrible mistake it was, believing my sister would pack us a genuine token of goodwill!"
Ranma rolled his eyes. "I dunno who you're talking about, but I'm not the one who made any kind of mistake."
"But surely you gave me that poisoned biscuit not knowing how tainted it was?"
The Guide eyed Kunō strangely. "Honored Guest, this man not know who you are?"
"Nope," said Ranma, taking a knife to Kunō's ropes. "Monopoly Man here has an excellent echo chamber inside his skull, if you know what I mean."
"Ah, yes of course!" cried Kunō. "I've been told I have well-shaped sinus cavities that give my voice a pleasant timbre. Perhaps I should recite some poetry for you?"
With an exaggerated sigh, Ranma slapped his palm on his forehead. There was no other way to get the idiot to shut up, so Ranma cleared his throat. "Sempai, there are bad bad men after the friendly guide here! You should stop talking so they don't hear you!"
Kunō blinked. "But you're still talking."
Now you decide to be smart? "That's because my voice is so high they can't hear it! Hehe."
"I see. Then, in defense of this honorable guide, I, Kunō Tatewaki, shall help escort him to safety!"
Ranma pressed a finger to his lips, hissing.
"…silently," Kunō added with a whisper.
With one annoyance taken care of, Ranma slowed to the back of the group, and in a low voice, he spoke only to the Guide and Plum. "We'll go back to Yushu and hang out for a couple days. Hopefully, those Sorcerer freaks will have cleared out by then."
"And if not?" asked the Guide.
"Well, that'll just be inconvenient for you; either way, I'm getting what I came here for. I'm not going home like this." Ranma squeezed one of the mounds of fatty flesh on his chest. "If they're still here, then it'll just be a fight for it. That doesn't scare me."
"If Honored Guest can lead us back to town at all," said the Guide, struggling to keep pace despite support from Ranma. "I walk slow; night will come before we reach Yushu halfway."
Ranma knew that well. Though each step put more distance between the group and Jusenkyō, those steps were too slow and small to be enough. The girl whom Ranma had left behind would find them—Ranma expected that much, and when his skin began to tingle and a disturbance sped over the treetops, he was prepared. There was only one course of action to take to protect the Guide whom these Sorcerers were after and for Ranma to claim the cure he'd been so long without.
"Kunō," he said, "take the Guide and Plum to town. I'll catch up with you later."
"Not a chance, pigtailed girl! I couldn't possibly leave you here!"
Forcing a tense smile to his face, Ranma pleaded with Kunō in the sweetest voice he could muster. "But Sempai, it will be so amazing when you lead these nice, innocent people to safety! I'll stitch your name into my panties and everything!"
Kunō's eyes went wide. "Into your pa-pa-pa-panties? But, you mustn't say such things, pigtailed girl! I cannot abandon you; I—"
Ranma touched Kunō's chest, and the upperclassman went as red as a beet.
Those small, feminine hands clenched Kunō's clothes like a vice. Ranma spun, flinging Kunō about like a child swings a weight on a string. "Why don't you just do what you're told for once, moron?"
That was the last Kunō heard of his darling pigtailed girl that day, for Ranma hurled him on a low arc through the woods, and Kunō landed somewhere out of sight with a satisfying thud, rustling in the brush.
And it wasn't a moment too soon to get rid of Kunō, for the disturbance in the treetops landed before Ranma and the Guide with a rippling wave that cut through the rain. The girl with the reddish-brown hair stood straight and upright with her staff in hand and her stare fixed solely on Ranma.
"Go on now, Guide, Plum," said Ranma. "I'll handle this."
The Guide took a fallen tree branch and used it as a walking stick to help him limp away from the scene, and Plum followed closely at his heels. Ranma circled around to put Plum and the Guide at his back. He made himself the obstacle for the Sorcerer girl to go through.
"Well?" Ranma called out to her. "What do you have to say for yourself now? The Guide's getting away, and you're all alone. Maybe you should just give up. Go back home and practice card tricks. I hear that kind of magic really surprises people."
The girl with reddish-brown hair raised her free hand, and the golden, spherical barrier took shape around her, shimmering as raindrops touched it. She said nothing in response to Ranma's jives. Her stony expression had hardly changed at all.
"All business, huh?" said Ranma. "Suits me fine, then. Let's go!"
He charged at her with fists and feet in a flurry, assaulting the golden barrier with a barrage of punches and kicks. Each blow pushed the girl back—sometimes as much as a few inches, sometimes less—but the barrier held.
You can hide behind that wall all day if you want, but you're the one coming after me. Sooner or later, you have to attack. That's when I'll get to you. It's just a matter of time before you drop that barrier to do it.
The golden shield flattened and grew. With both hands, the Sorcerer girl shaped it from a distance, forming an impenetrable bubble as tall as three men.
Oh, come on. Are you serious?
And then she pushed.
CRUNCH, BANG, SMASH! The barrier expanded, pushing Ranma back like a tidal wave breaking on a beach, except the surf he rode in was a rough mixture of broken trees, dirt, and rock. The golden wall dissipated quickly, and Ranma tumbled through the mess of debris like a ragdoll—a soiled, scratched, and pummeled doll at that.
All right, maybe you can put up a fight after all!
Ranma sprang to his feet, eyes open, searching for his foe, but he didn't have to look for very long. A shimmering beam connected them, glowing and persistent. It was like a tether from his chest to the girl's open hand, and from that, Ranma felt a tugging sensation—a weakening of his own aura that strengthened his opponent instead.
"So what, you don't need a hollow coin to suck the fighting spirit from me?" Ranma called out to her. "Does that actually make you grow breasts, or do you stay as flat as you are right now?"
TCH-CHEW! A beam of golden energy passed through his body, carrying with it no momentum, no force, but Ranma's chest burned with heat, as if someone had placed a Bunsen burner in his lungs. A tree behind him exploded in flames, and Ranma took to a knee, trying to catch his breath.
Damn you're sneaky!
But Ranma didn't dwell on the pain. He'd known worse. There was a reason he was in China, and no puny tribal Sorcerer girl was going to get in his way. She faced him there, in the woods around Jusenkyō, and though Ranma had reeled from her knockback attack and her penetrating beam, not once had she even moved a step toward the path—the trail that the Guide, Plum, and Kunō were retreating on. Either she or Ranma would be the victor, and only once that was settled would the matter of Ranma's cure or her questions for the Guide be dealt with.
Fine by me. Let's finish this, then!
He charged her again, but this time, he was ready for her tricks. When she meant to push him away with her expanding barrier, he retreated on his own and circled around to get back at her. He feinted with a kick at her legs, and that distracted her long enough to weaken her barrier up high. A right hook of Ranma's connected, drawing blood from her nose, and her wooden staff clattered on the ground.
"Don't worry," said Ranma. "The blood doesn't really ruin your looks. You weren't that pretty to begin with."
The staff flew through the air on its own, back into the girl's hands, and at last, her stoic expression gave way to a definite scowl.
"What, you do understand me?" Ranma pressed. "Then you should know I'm just getting warmed up. Come on! What are you waiting for?"
The combatants charged each other, and that time, the Sorcerer girl didn't hide behind her magic barrier. She imbued her staff with energy, giving it a radiant glow, and each swing and thrust of the weapon sparked magic through the air. Ranma bore the brunt of these painful jolts, but pain was in the mind, and burns would soon go through the skin to leave desensitized nerves that felt nothing. Ranma didn't try to keep up with her strikes, though. She was fast—unnaturally fast. She dodged the bulk of his attacks like she'd seen them on film the night before and had worked out the choreography to avoid them, so Ranma didn't waste his time. He focused on his footwork, on keeping cool despite the heat and warmth that coursed through him every time the Sorcerer girl landed a blow. He let her run rings around him, for that was all part of his plan. The girl had expended much hot, energetic ki into the air. It was the stuff that made her magic blows painful, and Ranma knew well how to turn an opponent's energies against her. He led the girl in a circle as the air crackled with her golden ki magic, and with a single upward punch—
He spawned a tornado unlike anything he'd ever seen or created. Bolts of golden ki shot from it, zapping the Sorcerer girl as she rose upward, ever higher, unable to break free of the wind.
Ranma took to a knee, panting, and admired his work. He would have to think of a name for that maneuver. Flying Dragon's Ascent Storm, perhaps? That would have to do. His body ached; his skin was tender and red in places, and even the cold rain falling from the sky did little to soothe his burns.
When he heard a pronounced thud at a small distance, Ranma trudged through the dissipating tornado, hoping to find his opponent beaten and broken, but it wasn't Sorcerer girl climbed to her feet, using her staff as a support. Her hair was frazzled and dripping. She staggered with her steps, but she looked him in the eye, her gaze hard and unwavering.
Not over yet? All right; bring it on!
She waved a hand over the ground, and the earth itself began to glow and shimmer. Ranma took to a foot to jump, but—
TCHEW-TCHEW-TCHEW! The soil exploded with pulsing, penetrating heat, and he fell. He fell into a dark chasm that opened beneath him, and rock and mud piled on top. He clawed and kicked at the pit, but soil filled it in faster than he could dig himself out. The gray sky disappeared, going dark behind the mud, and with each moment, Ranma felt a terrible crushing weight that grew and pushed against him, trying to force him further down. He was like an ant drowning in molasses, and the more he struggled, the more he realized he had nowhere to go. There was no air down there, no way to see or know which way was up. There was only darkness, cold, earth, and water.
Water was his enemy, the reason he couldn't be a man all the time. How fitting it was that he would fail there, so close to the waters that'd cursed him, so close to the one spring that held his cure.
He would be defeated—he might even die—as a girl. Not as a man. He hadn't earned that dignity after all, so he closed his eyes to sleep—to sleep perchance to dream. To dream of places far away from that cold, dark hole. He wished for some place bright and warm, and he found that in his memories.
What he found in his mind was the swirling inferno over Mount Kensei as the flame-throwing bird-man sneered and taunted him. He felt the tiny doll stuffed into the neck of his shirt, her eyes drooping lower and lower with each passing second. Such a tumult of emotions he'd felt then: anxiety, knowing that he was losing time; rage at the bird-man who stood in his way despite all reason; and emptiness, for when he slew that monster and revived the doll, the girl he held there wouldn't breathe. For whole minutes, she'd lain naked and lifeless in his arms, and that drew tears from him. Even a man could cry over the dead, couldn't he?
But eventually, she came to, and they'd had a chance to get to know each other once again, to walk to school together like nothing had happened, yet Ranma focused on that emptiness, that moment when he thought all was lost. He opened the way for these melancholic thoughts to consume him, for if he died there under the earth, without even his cure to show for his trouble, he'd have just lost her again. These feelings cut at his heart; they hollowed him out into an empty shell, one that relived over and over a scene of abject helplessness until all that was left was a forlorn husk.
A husk that would be undamaged when the weight of his depression came crashing down in a ball of pink and purple light—the perfect Shishi Hōkōdan. The ball of ki blasted through the earth, leaving a crater with Ranma freed at the center. He wiped his face in the rain, and he breathed.
Sorry, Ryōga—I just had to borrow that for a sec. Despair is your thing, not mine, but I have known it once or twice. I don't know how you can take doing that to yourself over and over, because that scares the shit out of me. Even just that one time, when I thought she was gone…
He shook off the thought. He had no need of those feelings any longer, and if he could've banished them outright and made them something outside himself—like the image of the pigtailed girl he saw in mirrors—he would've done just that, but that didn't make the sentiment fake or unreal. Far from it: would the ball of ki come down at all if his feelings at that moment hadn't been real?
And for that depression and his drive to reclaim his manhood, he had just one person to thank.
Kunō, Plum, Guide—you guys all asked me what I'm doing here. It's to make myself a man again, yeah, but I never told you who I wanted to prove it to. I didn't even want to admit it to myself. Akane, if you could see me now…
He looked to the east, where Japan would be, but in the cloudy sky, he saw nothing different in that direction compared to any other. That thought he could finish when he'd earned his cure, when there wasn't a threat to him or the Guide any longer.
Ranma climbed to the edge of the crater, shading his eyes from the rain. Where was the Sorcerer girl? He looked around, spotting only her staff on the far side of the crater and a small indentation in the ground. He trotted over and saw more clearly what had happened: the Sorcerer girl had been buried, just like him, but through the force of the Shishi Hōkōdan. Only a hand remained above ground, and the fingers moved weakly, without direction or strength.
So it was. Ranma had won, and he could leave his opponent underground to die. It would be a fitting punishment after all the trouble she'd caused—not only for himself but for the Guide, too. That way, if the other Sorcerers knew what was good for them and didn't come back, Ranma would be free to claim his cure and go home once the spring waters receded and the pools were safe. He would be a man again. And if he walked away then and there, all it would cost was one more life. The Sorcerer girl was defeated, and she knew it.
Just like the partridge he'd held in his hands.
Ranma made it about ten steps from the crater before he stopped to ponder that thought. When he'd first killed a man, it was necessary. His enemy was dangerous and fiery and volatile; there was no coexistence with him, and Ranma took pleasure in punishing him for his arrogance and selfishness because of the person that man had wronged. One person—the same girl he was so eager to prove himself to. She'd helped him land that deathblow, but she wouldn't approve of this. That girl in the earth had kept him from his cure, kept him from going back home, but there were no more lives in danger. To leave her in the dirt to die would be ruthless and cold, and if he did it in someone else's name, that would be even worse.
So Ranma crouched in the crater, took the Sorcerer girl's hand, and pulled. His feet sank in the mud, but he yanked and tugged at the girl all the same. "Come on, dammit, you've got magic powers, don't you? Give me some traction here! Do something to help save your own pitiful life!"
The ground beneath him dried, in defiance of the rain falling all around Ranma, and only then did he find the strength to rip that girl from the clutches of the earth. They fell together into a heap on the surface of the crater. The girl was cut and scraped all over, and a bruise had started to develop over her left eye, which she could hardly keep open. She turned over, onto her back, and stared at Ranma questioningly.
"Do you understand me?" he asked. "Do you or don't you?"
The girl nodded once, saying nothing.
"Then you're welcome," he said. "Don't hesitate to thank me. You know, if you can speak."
The girl opened her mouth, and her voice came out hesitantly. "Thank you," she said in deliberate but precise Japanese.
Ranma huffed. It was little consolation. He was soaking wet despite his poncho, which bore traces of blood and dirt that the rain just wouldn't wash away. The springs were flooded, and both combatants suffered scratches and bruises from their battle. The Guide's shack was ashambles. All this destruction—what was it for?
This girl in front of him had asked the Guide about Saffron—about Saffron and the person who fought against him. Though she couldn't know it, that person was Ranma. He could leave her there, and she might never know, but the girl's look told him she would never stop hunting for him. As soon as she could stand on her own and walk, she would go looking for the Guide again, and after that, it would only be a matter of time before she heard about Ranma and what he'd done.
Ranma had already put curing his curse off for too long. To let another wound fester would be the height of arrogance and folly. He stood over the Sorcerer girl, looking down on her from above. "What is it you want? Why the hell did you come here?"
"To save ourselves," she said. "Saffron can help us. You know him, don't you?"
Ranma made a face, panicking. She couldn't know that. How could she? The Guide hadn't said anything to her!
They're all weak, he'd said. Weak and squishy like Saffron was!
His heart sank. It wasn't the Guide. Uknowingly, Ranma had betrayed himself, and the Sorcerer girl's keen gaze all but confirmed it to be true.
"Me?" said Ranma, touching a finger to his chest. "No, I have no idea who you're talking about, not a clue—"
There was a sharp, stinging sensation on Ranma's thigh. He looked down, and he saw the girl had stuck him with a bamboo needle, and already, just standing there, he felt woozy on his feet.
"If that is true," the girl went on, "then meeting the Lady will only prove it so."
Ranma's strength left him, and he cursed himself out over helping that girl. He collapsed in the crater, rolling to the bottom, and as his vision darkened, he caught one last glimpse of the Sorcerer girl as she picked him up and draped him over her shoulder. So many questions he had—why they would want him after having questioned the Guide, for instance…
Or why, when he looked at the girl's fingers as she carried him, he spotted the bubbly residue of waterproof soap.
His mouth went numb; his eyes closed, and Ranma faded away into drug-induced sleep. Not knowing where the Sorcerer girl would carry him or how far away their destination would be, the last thing Ranma felt was the cold, incessant rain pouring down on his neck.
As it says in the summary, this is a rewrite of Identity, but perhaps rewrite doesn't quite cover it, for though the spirit of the story is the same, the text—especially in this first chapter—is quite different. I hope that fans of the original will enjoy the rewrite's improvements while newcomers or those who previously dismissed this story will find something much more coherent and fluid, but as always, the burden is on me, the author, to make that come across, and it is my sincere hope not to let you, the reader, down.
The old version will still exist on the site, to show the mistakes in construction and ideas that were made, as well as the differences. I hope those of you who enjoyed the story before will find this reboot as refreshing as I do. With the journey underway once again, let the quest for Ranma's freedom begin anew.
November 4, 2012
For notes and commentary on this chapter and others, check out my blog at westofarcturus dot blogspot dot com