A Quantum Destinies side story
by D. B. Sommer
Any and all C+C is appreciated. You can contact me at email@example.com.
Disclaimer: I don't own any of the folks from Ranma ½, they belong to Rumiko Takahashi, and the US rights belong to Viz Communications.
Quantum Destinies is a universe that belongs to Jurai-Knight, and he has been kind enough to let me play in it a few times.
Author's notes: Yes, this is another QD side story, but one that works into the current story line (unlike my last QD story). It's a prelude for Shampoo and her (re)appearance in QD as of chapter 16. The story looks like it will be a bit long, but hopefully will be worth the read as many of the events in it will tie in directly with the QD main story line.
"So where is he?"
"He'll be here, child. Calm yourself."
Shampoo continued shuffling her feet in impatience. A tiny oval stone found itself too close to her foot, and it ended up getting kicked far enough to bounce off the trunk of a tree near the edge of the village. The display was a clear sign of just how frustrated she felt. She hadn't done such a childish things in years, yet she could not help herself. She needed to move, to get going, before her mind began reconsidering her decision.
Likewise, Cologne also picked up on the signs. She looked at the sun, which had broken the horizon a full half hour earlier and was continuing its inevitable rise through the sky. "Perhaps he will be slightly late after all. I heard others say he was last seen with Rei Za at the feast. I also heard it said they retired early. Most likely they were so intent on enjoying each other's company that Jaddo forgot the time. It's been known to happen."
The information was a surprise to Shampoo. Rei Za was over twice her age and would never have been considered attractive, even without the disfiguring burns to the right side of her face that had resulted from an accident in her childhood. Rei Za tended to be bitter and short-tempered with most people, though Shampoo supposed it had to do with her appearance and the hardships that came with it. Even with Jaddo's own decidedly none too appealing features, he could have chosen much better than Rei Za. Women outnumbered men nearly two-to-one in the village, and many were eager to gain the attentions of any male outsider that came by. Likewise there were some men who journeyed to the village for that very reason. Some even found the courage to visit again.
"Perhaps you would like to say farewell to your parents again?" Cologne offered. "I can wait here for Jaddo, and we can pick you up when he finally arrives."
Shampoo shook her head quickly. She had already made her farewells in the privacy of her home. It had been a good choice, since she had shed several tears as she bid her parents farewell, something she had hoped with all her heart she would not do. She was too old for that sort of thing. If she returned to say goodbye one last time, there was a good chance she would break down outright, and she needed to be strong. The time for tears had passed, replaced with the need for the resolve necessary to endure the hardships that were to come.
Surprisingly, it was her mother who had also cried over her impending departure, while her more openly emotional father had been very stoic and supportive of his daughter's leave-taking. Coming from outside the village, and knowing what the rest of the world was like firsthand, might have had something to do with the ease that he had displayed at his only child leaving their home for the first time. Oddly enough, Shampoo found his confidence more reassuring than anything her great-grandmother had told her the night before to bolster her courage. It was part of his self-assurance that calmed her so that she did not cry anymore and was able to leave home with her head held high.
Just as Shampoo was about to complain about Jaddo's tardiness again, the man himself appeared from within the heart of the village, a pack slung over his back as he headed towards the pair. Shampoo silently noted that he was indeed coming from the general direction in which Rei Za's home lay. Thoughts of what her new mentor might have been up to during his stay in the village were quickly pushed from her mind as the reality of the situation was truly setting in. This was it. She was about to leave home for the first time in her life, and it could be years before she would have the opportunity to set foot in it again. The enormity of it was overwhelming, and she was considering voicing a protest when Jaddo finally arrived at their side.
The man looked even older to Shampoo than he had the day before. Despite his dark skin, she could still make out even darker rings under his eyes, and she could have sworn there was the faintest hint of alcohol hanging in the air. His clothes were a marked contrast to the man in that, despite their semi-worn state, they did not appear anywhere near as disheveled as the person that was wearing them. Considering the late start they were getting, and that Shampoo had already been up for two hours, there was no excuse for him to be so late, especially since he was the one that had insisted on the early departure in the first place.
If Jaddo noticed her displeasure, he gave no indication of it. Instead, he looked expectedly at Shampoo, his voice carrying a bit more accent than it had the day before. "You sure you're up to this?"
The doubt in his voice angered Shampoo, and her uncertainty was quickly forgotten. "Of course I am."
Jaddo seemed unmoved by the declaration. "Just making sure. It wouldn't be the first time I had to hear some hotshot say how they thought they were ready to take on the world and then they quit at the moment of truth. Nothing I hate worse than someone making me waste my time training them and they bail out the instant things start to get tough. Now I'll ask you again; are you sure you're ready to train with me and make a run for the top?"
Outrage made Shampoo scowl at the man. It took all of her self-control to keep from snapping at him. How dare this stranger cast such accusations at her! She had never given up at anything in her life. Even if it had not been the decision of the council, she would have gone anyway. Her great-grandmother was right. She needed to leave and discover what it was that was missing from her life. And here was this man, practically telling her he thought she would be unable to handle the course laid out before her. Quit? There was no one outside of the elders that would be powerful enough to stop her now.
"I am ready," Shampoo all but snarled.
Slowly, Jaddo nodded his head in something resembling the faintest hint of confidence. "Maybe you are at that."
Watching the exchange with a close eye, Cologne kept her thoughts to herself. The way the man made his insinuations was somewhat insulting to Shampoo, but for the first time since the young girl had been informed of what was expected of her, Shampoo seemed eager to set out on her journey. The elder wondered if Jaddo was skilled enough to have detected the doubts and said the very thing necessary to prod Shampoo in the direction she needed to go, or if he had just been extremely lucky. Cologne was leaning to the former, but it would not be the first time she had overestimated someone concerning such matters.
With the business concerning whether Shampoo would be coming along satisfied, Jaddo moved on to other matters. His eyes strayed to the twin packs the young Amazon carried with her. Noticing a handle sticking out of the top of the larger of the pair, he cocked his head and pointed. "What's that?"
It took Shampoo a moment to figure out what he was referring to. "My bonbori."
This time Jaddo shook his head in disapproval. "Leave them. You won't need them. Weapon fighting is at an all-time low in popularity. You're going to be fighting exclusively in hand-to-hand. You've got a long way to go, and we can't afford to waste any time lugging around a pair of giant metal beach balls. You need to travel light. Take only necessary things and a handful of light mementos if you have to. You'll be making plenty of new memories on the way to keep you busy."
"I did take only necessary things," Shampoo protested.
That made Jaddo snort. "Typical woman. I have yet to meet one of you who could only pack necessary things on a trip."
A growl escaped Shampoo's lips. She was about make a very explicit retort at the insult to her gender, but was brought up short when Cologne cleared her throat. One look reminded the young girl that she was supposed to be showing this man the same respect she showed her elder, even if the old bastard wasn't making it easy.
Rather than argue further, Jaddo simply adjusted his pack and began to head towards the road that led from the village and towards the south. "We'll see if you're right or not. Let's get going."
The sudden change in attitude startled Shampoo as she handed her bonbori to Cologne. "We're leaving?"
Still heading in the same direction without pause, Jaddo answered by casting a glance over his shoulder. "Given that I'm walking away from the village rather than towards it, it would appear that way, wouldn't it?"
Annoyed at the sarcasm and that her new trainer kept on walking, Shampoo replied with a dirty look and picked up her packs. A moment later they were resting over her shoulders as she began walking briskly towards Jaddo. She gave one final farewell to Cologne, and then hurried to catch up to his side. It only took moments to get there; the man's limp kept him from traveling too fast. The weight on her shoulders was barely noticeable. It was just as she thought; the packs were perfectly fine. Taking too much indeed. She could have handled five times the weight and not been bothered by it. The arrogant man was underestimating her. She would show him exactly what she was capable of, in time.
Cologne watched as the two headed off until they got to a bend in the road and traveled out of sight. Just like that, it was over. Shampoo was gone, and if the gods were willing, the next time Cologne would see her great-granddaughter would be on television, triumphing over a multitude of opponents from all over the world.
What had just happened also served to raise her opinion of the Jaddo, which was high to begin with. He had deftly manipulated things so that Shampoo had departed with a minimum of fuss and recriminations. Once the young girl settled down, such doubts would reappear, but they would be lessened with the distance between where she was and her home. Cologne was certain beyond a doubt that Jaddo had intentionally done that as well. It appeared she had made the right choice concerning the man upon whom the hopes of the village would lay upon as heavily as Shampoo.
Cologne was not naïve. Only with proper training in the ways of Japan and the Arena would her great-granddaughter have any chance of success. She had to learn the language, the customs, and a host of additional skills from one who had spent nearly his entire life involved with the people and the conditions Shampoo would live in. He was the only one that met her standards and had any hope of success.
And now came the hardest part of all for Cologne. Not as arduous a task as Shampoo's, to be certain, but one that was, in many ways, more frustrating for someone the elder's age since she had spent so much of her life, especially in these later years, doing it.
Now it was time for the waiting to begin.
The weather was pleasant for traveling. The skies were clear, and the temperature just a touch on the cool side, which served the travelers well since they were exerting a great deal of energy with the pace they were setting. With the road as in good repair as it was, the duo made good time over the rolling hills the path crawled upon, only standing to the side when heavy, oxen-pulled wagons bearing crops went past on their way to the nearest town for sale.
Shampoo found it easy to keep up with Jaddo, due in no small part to the limp he sported. Still, the disability did little to hamper their progress as they made their way overland. Eventually, they crossed a bridge over a river that Shampoo recognized. That the landscape was still familiar helped to ease the growing discomfort that was making its presence known since she had finally managed to quell her ire. The anger had been useful in distracting her from the true source of her concerns, but even the irritation had to eventually give way to the reality: she had now departed home and would not be returning for several years time.
Deciding a distraction from such depressing thoughts was in order, Shampoo considered striking up a conversation with her mentor. They had gotten off on the wrong foot, and it was time to set things right. If they were to spend so much time together, they were going to have to get along, lest they be at each other's throats within a week. Shampoo took it upon herself to resolve the situation. Who knew, perhaps under that gruff exterior was a man she could look up to and eventually call a friend.
The only problem she found was where to begin. Jaddo was an outsider, and she knew little of the outside world. Within the safe boundaries of the village, such knowledge meant little. But now that she was all but cast out and on her own, Shampoo found herself wishing she had gone on at least one of the trips her great-grandmother had taken to Kwanglong, so she would have some experience with such places. It was only a city populated by fifteen thousand or so, but it was still closer to where she was going as opposed to where she had been.
Finally choosing something that had occurred recently as the best way to start things off, Shampoo mentioned in an almost teasing tone, "I heard you kept busy last night while I was preparing for our journey."
Jaddo paused and looked at Shampoo, one of his narrow eyebrows arcing slightly in question.
Now her voice was completely teasing, and she added a wide smirk to it. "With Rei Za. I heard others say you were enjoying her… hospitality."
"Oh," Jaddo's voice took on the knowing tone of a question being answered. "Yah, we were fucking until the wee hours of the morning. That's why I was late showing up. She was reluctant to let me go, and I was none too enthusiastic to head out either."
Shampoo was taken aback by the man's openness towards the question. She had expected embarrassment at the least, if not outright denial. But instead she was getting a rather explicit explanation as to what he had done to keep himself entertained during his stay in the village.
"Gal was just full of energy. Definitely one of the best lays I've had in way too long," Jaddo remarked with a thoughtful grin on his face. "Sweet thing too. I had her pegged for a screamer-"
Far too explicit for Shampoo's liking. "I don't need to hear this."
Jaddo's eyes narrowed ever so slightly, just enough for Shampoo to notice. "If you don't want to hear the answer, don't ask the question."
"I didn't ask a question."
A snort of derision met that. "Of course you did, girl. The only reason you made that comment was to know if I was banging the night away. You probably thought I'd be too embarrassed to answer or get flustered, and you'd figure it out from my reaction. I caught you off-guard by telling you exactly what happened."
"You didn't need to be that detailed," Shampoo muttered, somewhat abashed, mostly because he was right.
"I'm an up-front person, girl. Others might say I'm a bit abrasive, which is a nice way of saying they think I'm an asshole. Personally, I think it's closer to being perfectly honest with others, something few people in this world are. You'd better get used to that real fast, or you're going to be miserable for awhile, 'cause I'm too old to change, and I'm certainly not going to make the effort because some hotshot girl thinks she can head straight to Japan and win herself citizenship while coasting along in her sleep."
Shampoo felt her teeth grind. "My name is not 'girl'. It's Shan Pu."
"Not anymore. You're going to have to get used to being called Shampoo. It's going to be your handle."
"I will not!" Shampoo shouted. "And what do you mean handle?"
"Name you'll go by in the Arena."
That made Shampoo scowl. "I shall use my real name, not this ridiculous door handle."
"I said 'handle'. Not door handle, girl! Pay attention because this is the jargon you're going to have to get used to once you get on the fighters' circuit."
"I will use my real name!" Shampoo insisted. "And people are right! You are an asshole!"
Oddly, all that made Jaddo do was chuckle. "You'll be calling me worse names than that before we're through with one another," he promised with his hand held high, as though he was swearing to the gods above. "Get this. The only reason you're going to go by the name of Shampoo is 'cause on the offhand chance you can scrape by and somehow make it into the Arena itself in one piece, I guarantee those morons in the press will bastardize it into Shampoo. Japanese can't pronounce Chinese names worth a shit, and they don't give a damn one way or another about it. They want the world to conform to their standards, not the other way around. And with the way things are going in the world, it looks like they're going to get their way."
"I… see," Shampoo said reluctantly, now at least understanding why Jaddo had been so insistent on doing such a stupid thing. Still, Shampoo hated the very idea of her name being mispronounced in such a manner. Unfortunately, like her tribe, she was going to have to conform to certain ideals held by their conquerors. If the mispronunciation was one of those things, then so be it. She would just have to put up with the outsiders' stupidity. No doubt she would have to put up with worse things as time went by. Still, it was not something she was looking forward to. Not at all.
With their first 'discussion' over, the two resumed their walk, continuing in silence for some time. The exchange had not gone the way Shampoo had thought it would when she first started up their conversation. Certainly her great-grandmother had been correct, as usual, when she had described Jaddo as a bit gruff. She had met sandpaper with a less abrasive personality. Luckily, having to deal with Mousse and his annoying attentions for over half her life had given Shampoo a tremendous tolerance for dealing with people that annoyed her. Jaddo was better than Perfume, for that matter. The young warrior had dealt with worse, although she did lack the option of belting Jaddo as she often had with her would-be paramour.
Still, the exchange had gleaned a little bit of the man's personality firsthand. Shampoo needed to learn more of what he was like so she would have some idea of what was to happen in the upcoming months and how to deal with it. Hopefully, managing it would not involve either screaming or ignoring him most of the time.
Shampoo forced herself to ask more questions so that she could get to know Jaddo better. She decided to go back to the original topic, preparing for the worst. "Why her?"
Without turning around, Jaddo said, "I thought you didn't want to talk about it."
Shampoo let out an exasperated sigh. "I don't want to talk about the details. I'm just curious as to why you chose Rei Za." The topic was making Shampoo uncomfortable. She hadn't had any experience concerning sex yet, and felt awkward discussing the matter so openly with a man who was practically a stranger.
For a moment, Jaddo seemed to consider the request, then shrugged. "Why not? She's a woman, ain't she?"
Shampoo shifted uncomfortably. "Well, she's… umm.
Again Shampoo was stunned by the man's bluntness. Of course, he was right, but still, it was rude to be that forward. At least to one who was not your enemy. "Women outnumber men quite badly at home. You are obviously strong, despite your age. No one knew your personality. You could have chosen someone else."
"You mean someone prettier," Jaddo corrected. "I've got news for you, Shampoo," he emphasized the use of her name, making her scowl at the deliberate mispronunciation. 'Girl', was looking better all the time. "Looks are a fleeting thing. You think you're hot shit now with your bouncy tits and long legs. Wait twenty years down the line when age and gravity take their toll. We'll see how many guys you can entice with that chest of yours when your knockers are hanging down around your knees and you got varicose veins that no pantyhose on Earth can hide."
"That's not true!" Shampoo countered with ferocity. "My mother still looks very young. Many people think she is my older sister when they see us together. And her chest does not sag. I'll look like her when I get older."
Jaddo chuckled. "Then you'll look like your great-grandmother a few years after that."
That one made Shampoo cringe. Perhaps there was something to what Jaddo was saying. She just prayed he was wrong. This was definitely not the sort of thing she wanted to think about.
Seeing the effect on his new charge, Jaddo seemed to soften slightly. "You can't judge people by looks, girl. Seeing someone with a nice rack or cute butt is okay, but it's like leather bucket seats on a car. They're a nice addition, but just extras. It's the stuff underneath that's important. You gotta make sure the engine works fine and it gets good mileage if you want to buy it, know what I mean?"
"No. I've never been in a car before."
That Jaddo kept from ramming his head into the nearest tree was a testament to his willpower. After working his jaw back and forth a few times to regain enough control to speak clearly, he said, "The point is, it's what the person's like that matters in the long run, not how they look. Rei Za's a perfectly nice gal that's kind of soft and gentle beneath that not so pretty exterior of hers. And she doesn't like playing games when she sees a guy she's interested in. I hate teases. Anyway, those are the sort of qualities that I look for in a woman. Besides, I'm not exactly the cock of the walk myself." He rubbed the stubble along his jaw as if to emphasize the point.
Shampoo conceded him that. He was not a particularly attractive man, especially with that nose. There was no way to hide that characteristic either, not with how flattened it was. What he was saying was true. Looks were superficial. It was a far better thing to be attracted to the inner qualities of a person than the outer ones. That Jaddo was not so shallow made Shampoo feel much easier about leaving her fate in his hands. It seemed that despite the fact he was bastard on the outside, there was a good man lying underneath.
A sly smile crept across Jaddo's features. "Besides, ugly chicks don't get much attention. Throw a little their way, and they'll spread their legs for you in a heartbeat. Oh yah. Hehehehe-"
Jaddo's giggling stopped abruptly when a thrown rock connected with the back of his head.
"So my first fight will be today?"
"First one of this kind for you. First of many, if you're any good."
Shampoo found herself growing increasingly excited at the idea of finally getting a chance to be productive and fighting. A week of traveling overland, paying for food as they drifted from small town to even smaller village, sleeping under the stars rather than trying to find a room in order to save money, had slowly worn away her patience. Her whole purpose for leaving her home was to fight, not play campout on a cross-country journey with an outsider. Especially one that was difficult to get along with at times. Well, most of the time. It wouldn't have been so bad if he had simply lacked a personality.
After that first day, Shampoo was more cautious in her talks with Jaddo. No matter what else she thought of the man, he was exceptionally bright. She found that he was a bit reluctant to get into specifics about the Arena, which was disappointing to her, as well as confusing, since the entire reason she was traveling with him was to work her way there and become victorious. What he did talk about were generalities in life, like their conversation concerning Rei Za on their first day.
During the week, Shampoo learned much about the man, not all of it pleasant. There were times when she would not speak aloud for hours for fear of attacking him after he made some pointed comment about her or her outlook on life. He was unlike any man she had met. Very forceful, blunt, rude, and disrespectful a great deal of the time. Most of the men in the village were nowhere near as outspoken as Jaddo, even if they felt passionately about something. Shampoo had a feeling that if he had remained at Joketsuzoku for any real length of time he would have ended up offending at least half of the elders within the first month, if not first five minutes, after he met them. Only the gods above knew why her great-grandmother had not pounded the man for the attitude he displayed almost all the time. Luckily, Shampoo was more tolerant than those elders, or at least that was what she told herself. She needed Jaddo, though exactly for what was quickly becoming a mystery since he didn't seem to be doing anything to help her, other than walking all day and building up her endurance.
By the fifth day Shampoo had started to adjust to his presence, learning to accept, or at least how to co-exist, with some of his less tolerable traits. It was also about that time she suspected he was probing her for information as much as she was him. Whether that was a good sign or not, she was uncertain. He was too unlike anyone she had ever met to draw a comparison. Still, his tongue did not bother her so much, and at times she found herself agreeing with him, even if it was somewhat reluctantly.
Then the good news finally arrived. They were in a small town (small in the sense that it was easily six times bigger than her village) when Jaddo said he contacted a friend in the next town by telephone to inquire about a match for his new fighter. The man said there were more than enough extras on hand to add another match to the program and that room could be made for Shampoo. It wouldn't be the main event, but it was a start for her.
Shampoo was ecstatic. Finally, she could get down to business and start working on her citizenship. Amazingly, she found herself more excited about the fight than entering the tournament back home. She suspected part of it had to do with the unknown factors involved. In the village it was all the same, and she knew what to expect. But here everything was different: new opponents, new people, new places to fight. It was intoxicating and thrilling, and she had not even been in her first fight yet.
It was right around noon when they finally arrived at their destination. It was a town a third the size of the last one, much to Shampoo's surprise. She had expected something larger if it was somehow connected with the massive Arena her great-grandmother had described. The place was small and dirty, and Shampoo took an instinctive dislike to the town. It had an empty feel to it, and there were far fewer people present than there should have been on a Saturday. Or so she thought, since she had never been to such a place. There were far too many unknowns to her liking. She hoped she would learn more about the outside world quickly.
Most of the people that could be seen were women, all of them scattered about and not a single one a warrior. There was a handful of men too, and taking a close look at them, Shampoo was struck by the differences many had to most of the males of her own village, not the least of which was how so many of them were openly leering at her. She was not surprised by their reaction, given the pick of women they apparently had to choose from. It was small wonder they found her fascinating. Even the least of the warriors of the Joketsuzoku would shine brighter than any dreary woman that resided in this empty town.
The only similarity the town seemed to have with Shampoo's own home were the children. They were frolicking loudly in clusters in that manner unique to those so young and without a care in the world. They were identical to the children of her village in every way that mattered. Dirty, loud, happy, sad, all the same. That knowledge made Shampoo feel an odd sort of comfort. She planned on raising a family someday, and there was something reassuring that no matter where she might end up, the children would remain the same.
They were about halfway through the para-ghost town when a faint roar rose in the distance. Shampoo noticed Jaddo's head jerk at the sound and heard him mutter a curse under his breath. Suddenly, he was hurrying through the small town, almost at a run, forcing Shampoo to do the same in order to stay at his side.
Within minutes, they had cut through most of the town, the noise growing continuously louder the farther they went. Just as they reached a final line of buildings that seemed to signify the end of the settlement, Shampoo spotted an odd, flat area lying just beyond the edge of the town. What had been built there was the cause of her curiosity. There was a set of low wooden stands, conspicuous in their placement so far from any other structures, that were completely filled, or at least Shampoo assumed so since she could see the backs of many people standing at the top of it.
On either side of the nearest stand were two other sets of which only the ends could be seen, though there were just as many people crammed into them as well. Given the placement of the stands, Shampoo was certain there was another set directly across from the one that was visible to her. Together they formed a ring of sorts around the area between them. It was from there that Shampoo could distinguish the roar that had drawn them close: the sound of a crowd cheering in approval at what was occurring out of sight from within the circle of humanity.
Jaddo seemed to relax once within sight of the stands. More slowly he approached them, his limp becoming slightly more noticeable from his impromptu run. As they drew closer, Shampoo's evaluation of the structures went down dramatically. At the nearer range she could make out how worn the stands were, obviously from years of frequent use and being subjected to the elements. They were at least a dozen years old, if not more. It was quite possible they were older than her. She gazed at the pitiful sight with a disapproving eye. Jaddo had been unusually direct in telling her why they were here, yet this did not look like any sort of an arena to her. What were they doing here?
Jaddo kept walking, moving to the open area between the stands that allowed people to enter and view what was happening inside. He stopped behind a crowd that was composed mostly of men that stood between the stands and milled about, jostling with each other to see what was happening inside.
The crowd, now that they were right on top of it, roared as loudly as a raging river. Jaddo finally stopped and gave a wave of his hand in the direction of the stands. He waited for things to quiet down before announcing. "Welcome to your first dog pit, girl."
"What?!" Shampoo shouted in obvious surprise. "I'm supposed to fight in the Arena!"
That declaration, and the way it was delivered, made Jaddo laugh. It was a bitter thing, unlike his usual laugh, full of ridicule and scorn. Still shouting loudly to be heard over the crowd, he said in a biting voice, "Don't be naïve, girl. In order to prove yourself worthy of performing before the entirety of the Empire, you must first learn how to bleed in the dust and rock in pits alongside the dogs of the Empire."
This was outrageous! Surely Jaddo was pulling some sort of joke on her, perhaps to see what her reaction would be. This was not a time she would leave him wanting. "I am a warrior of the Joketsuzoku. A champion among a people born to be warriors. You make it sound like I'm some sort of entertainment for these people. I am above this sort of base fighting. It is for lesser warriors."
Jaddo shook his head tiredly at that. "That's what everyone thinks of themselves. No one ever believes all they're fit for are the dog pits, but I've got news for you: this is where you have to start out. Oh, there's a handful of actual Citizens that get trained over in Japan and perform in lots of tournaments to prove their abilities. Some of them even win enough and have enough money and connections to get them in the Arena right off the bat. But for the rest of the pack, folks like you and me, the bloodletters and bonebreakers, this is the only path to the Arena. You fight in backwater little shitholes like this for next to nothing, all for the entertainment of a bunch of screaming morons that don't know a round kick from a round wheel."
"There has to be another way," Shampoo insisted, fearing the truth in his words.
"Nah." And with the finality that lay in that one word, Shampoo knew this was no joke, at least not one created by Jaddo. He was telling the truth. The horrible, unrelenting truth: she would be all but degraded, wasting time fighting inferior challengers for the entertainment of a bunch of faceless spectators that cared nothing for honor or the art of the fight. Had she a choice in the matter, she would most likely have left at that moment rather then be humiliated in such a fashion. But her orders were specific, and she had made her vow. There was no choice in the matter. It was time to swallow her pride and put up with this ridiculous farce, as much as she loathed doing it. It was all so beneath her. She was a champion of the Joketsuzoku, and should have been treated as such. She was not some novice that had yet to earn the right to wear her hair in an odango. She was far, far better than this.
Shampoo looked to the sky in silent appeal to the gods. If they heard, they did nothing to change her fate. But then, they never did. All they had done was allow her to be born with the skills that could take her from this place. Reluctantly, she came to accept her fate and moved on to the matter at hand. "Why do you call this a dog pit?"
The crowd roared again at that point, forcing Jaddo to wait until he could be heard. This time the crowd remained louder than before, and the older man was forced to shout, "Come with me and you can see for yourself!"
They pushed their way through the row of men in front of them. Several dirty glares were exchanged in challenge to their forcefulness, but Jaddo, with his piercing gaze, won all of the matches.
As they made their way to the front of the crowd, Shampoo got her first clear look at the battlefield that lay in the area ringed around by the stands. It was an unimpressive sight: a shallow pit no more than six feet deep and with a forty-foot radius. It was all packed earth, dirty brown and worn flat by the thousands of footsteps that had traveled along its surface. The sides of the pit were similar, with nothing along their length save for a few dark rocks poking out periodically at regular intervals. The only unusual feature was a small ramp leading down into the pit, one that was currently blocked off by a chain link door that was braced into position. To Shampoo's eyes, it appeared to be the only way into the pit without jumping down. An easy enough feat for anyone who chose to do so, though with the residents currently in the pit, it was unlikely anyone would have such desires.
The occupants in the pit were two dogs whose breeds Shampoo had never seen before. One was smaller, no more than forty pounds, with deeply set eyes, and covered in brown with a white underbelly. It was small and tightly compacted, with a low center of gravity and a small snout. The other was much bigger, black and brown but more lanky than the other despite being a few pounds heavier. It had a long pointed snout and a row of vicious-looking teeth. It was a type of animal Shampoo was more familiar with, since there were several dogs in the village that looked similar to it; save they were not quite as large.
The pair of animals were locked in a life and death struggle, snapping and tearing at each other with both tooth and claw, each jockeying for a better position to permanently eliminate its rival. Red blood and vicious growls mixed to fill the pit with a miasma of unforgiving violence, bilious hatred, and unrelenting pain. The world around the two animals ceased to exist as they continued to snap and bite at one another with no quarter given.
The larger dog had obviously taken the worst of the fight, with one of its legs bleeding badly and several patches of flesh missing on its snout and flank. Both of its ears had been torn off, and Shampoo thought she spotted at least one of them laying a handful of feet away, next to a darker spot of earth that she recognized as blood having been spilled. Undiscriminating, the ground soaked it up just as it would the rain that fell from the sky.
Jaddo nodded at the scene of savagery that lay before their eyes. "It's how they warm up the crowd. They toss a couple of nasty dogs in there as preliminaries. People bet and cheer as they watch two animals rip each other to shreds for the right to go on living for another day. Stakes are a bit higher for the beasts than for the people. At least most of the time."
The smaller dog sunk its teeth into the leg of the taller one again, drawing blood from a new wound before the larger animal could get its leg away.
"It's barbaric," Shampoo said softly, her comment being disagreed with by nearly a thousand screaming people that fought each other for the right to see what was about to happen next.
Despite the cacophony, Jaddo heard Shampoo's comment all too clearly. "It's what you're going to be doing."
Shampoo looked at him in open shock.
Jaddo waved his hand at the statement. "Perhaps not as bloody and vicious as what's going on down there, though I have seen some close fights take that nasty a turn, but don't blind yourself to the reality of why you're here."
The larger dog lunged, and this time was rewarded with the ear of his rival.
"This is just a more primitive form of what you'll be doing, even if you make it to the upper levels of fighting. The Arena is no exception. Even at the top of the mountain, where the surroundings look prettier and the clothing you wear are made of the finest silks in the world, it's all just a pretty window dressing. The basics are the same at every stage of the fight. Your personal motives mean nothing to anyone but yourself and your fellow fighters, and sometimes not even then. You can fight for glory, honor, prestige, or for God and Country all you want, but the only reason they're putting you on display in these battlegrounds is for the people to watch you."
The crowd cheered twice as loud as the smaller dog snapped repeatedly at the larger dog, whose front leg was dragging behind it as it tried to flee its rival.
"Whether it's for the millions worldwide that watch you in the Arena, or just several hundred like in this cesspool, it's always for their entertainment, never your own. You get hurt, you bleed, you break, they might shed a tear at your passing, but another fighter will come along five minutes later, and you're forgotten faster than you can bleed to death."
Shampoo stared wide-eyed, both at the words as well as the scene before her. The wounds of the larger dog had taken their toll, and the smaller one finally got a death grip on its opponent's neck. It locked on tight, refusing to release its hold as the larger dog tried to use what remained of its strength to shake free of what it knew to be a fatal strike.
The crowd's cheering reached a crescendo as it bore witness to the killing blow.
Jaddo looked over his young ward closely as she stared at the sight before her. "You still feel up to this? Won't be the first time someone opened their eyes to see what was really going on and walked away before they got in too deep."
What a question he had posed before her. Would she like to be thrown into a pit with dogs that walked on two legs instead of four? To bite and claw and kill her way to the top while being urged on by a ring of equally barbarous beasts that cared nothing for her, save that she would either draw blood from her rivals or bleed for them herself? To be treated like an animal, only to be given its freedom if it could break all of the opponents that fought it for the same prize that she herself strove for?
"Let's quit talking and get to it. I'm ready."
There was no trace of humor in Jaddo's voice as he said, "Maybe you are, young warrior. Maybe you are"
"Who is my opponent again?"
Jaddo nodded over to where a man in his early twenties paced eagerly back and forth, threatening to run a furrow in the dirt. "That one over there. His name is Fong Wu Shen."
Taking a closer look at her upcoming opponent, Shampoo shook her head. "He holds himself sloppily. He is too at ease, and what little movement he shows is not fluid or graceful. He doesn't have the body, look, or eyes of a fighter."
"You mean not a very good one," Jaddo corrected. "You're right. He's meat."
"Slang for dog meat. People call them that 'cause that's what they'll end up being in the pits. Nothing but meat for the other dogs," Jaddo nodded to the young man. "His kind are the ones that most populate this circuit of the competition. He's why they need this stuff to winnow out meat from the dogs."
"Oh." Evidently there was still a great deal for Shampoo to learn about her new environment. Hopefully, Jaddo would be more forthcoming with information about the way the Arena fighting worked after this match.
Shampoo waited eagerly as Jaddo lounged against a wall of the small area the fighters had been given to wait and prepare themselves for their upcoming matches. Shampoo would have wagered at one time the structure was a stable, and had been converted to use for the dog pit. It was all open air with only a flimsy roof with numerous holes throughout it. There were no walls on the inside, just sets of low wooden barriers that separated individual fighters from one another. All the warriors could see one another, unless they sat down behind one of the walls, which some of them did.
There were forty of them, not including the trainers or friends that accompanied each fighter. Shampoo learned from Jaddo that most of them were there for a small battle royale (which her mentor derisively referred to as a 'Gang Bang') that involved a small purse for the last one standing. Jaddo remarked to Shampoo that only a fool entered such things, where one very strong person could be outnumbered and quickly put down by several lesser fighters. And then there was trying to protect oneself when among so many. It was too easy to be caught unawares and suffer from a blow that otherwise could be easily blocked. Shampoo found herself agreeing with his assessment. There would be no battles royale in her future.
Jaddo turned Shampoo's attention back to her opponent. "He's a journeyman. From what the guy running this thing said, Fong's been in less than ten fights, and hasn't won half of them. He's got no rep, and nothing to show so far."
"I should be fighting someone better. Someone with some actual skill, though I don't see anyone like that here. Not even those two men who are supposed to be in the final match."
"Main event. It's called a main event, girl," Jaddo explained. "You got to get used to using the language if you want to be taken seriously. Only lazy people or the really stupid don't bother to learn how the system works. Neither lasts long here."
"Main event," Shampoo echoed in a tired voice. "Why can't I be in the main event?"
Jaddo forced himself up from the wall he was lounging against, standing at his full height as he confronted Shampoo. He held up several fingers, ticking one off as he began. It reminded her of the conversation she had with her great-grandmother the day before she departed her village. "First, you start small and work your way up. Only an idiot tries to jump in with both feet first and hopes nothing goes wrong." He ticked another finger off. "Second, this is the first time you've ever been in a real fight like this. You got no rep, and no reason to be qualified as a main eventer. You're going to have to earn your way to the top, just like everyone else in the dog pits does. Third, one of the top guys is a local boy. This is your first time out, and I don't want you to have to deal with a hostile crowd."
"It wouldn't bother me," Shampoo bragged.
"Yah, but that doesn't matter. I still don't want you to have to deal with one in your first fight. You're going to have enough on your hands as it is."
"The dog meat will be easy," Shampoo assured him using the jargon he wished her to speak.
"Good, I want him to be. And you don't have to say the whole thing. Just say 'meat', and people will know what you mean."
"I want to be tested," the young Amazon complained.
Again the old Aborigine laughed, and this time it was the humorous one Shampoo had grown used to during their week together. The one he used when telling a particularly ribald tale. "You'll have more tests than you can handle on the road ahead. Be happy you're getting some meat now. If you're good enough to make it to Hong Kong, you'll find out just what it means to confront some real challengers."
With a confident smirk, Shampoo said, "I could handle it now. We should go there as soon as we can."
"No, you aren't ready. Not for the style of fighting, and more importantly, you haven't got the faintest idea on how to fight the way you'll make yourself successful."
That made Shampoo cock her head quizzically. "What do you mean? All I need to do is win, right?"
Jaddo suddenly became uncomfortable, as though he had said too much and wished to take back what he said, no matter how impossible it was. "There's no time for this. Your fight is up next. You just concern yourself with your opponent."
Shampoo accepted that. It was a time for action, not words. "Well, you're my trainer. What advice do you have for me?"
Jaddo placed his hands on her shoulders and looked downward, deeply into Shampoo's eyes, as serious an expression as she had ever seen on his face. Talking to the young warrior as a teacher would his student, he said in cold tones, "Here's the best advice I've ever heard in my life. It applies to every fight you can ever be in, including this one. Follow it, and you'll always be victorious no matter how difficult the struggle is."
Shampoo was practically on her tiptoes, eager to receive this key kernel of knowledge. "Yes, what is it?"
"Never let your opponent win."
Shampoo hit him in the head with a rock.
Shampoo stretched out one more time as she heard the announcer in the pit call out the name of Fong Wu Shen. There was a resounding cheer among the crowd, which surprised her since the man was supposed to be an unknown. Despite the cheers for Fong, the lavender-haired girl didn't mind being introduced second. Her opponent didn't stand a chance of victory. The only thing that mattered was who ended up being the last one standing.
All too soon, the gate that had hidden her from the crowd's sight moved to the side and allowed her into the pit. She walked down confidently, full of pride and assurance. She would show all of these people how a Joketsuzoku warrior fought. But in spite of what Jaddo contended, she would not show them how she bled. At least, not at this buffoon's hands.
Now in the bottom of the pit, Shampoo understood why the town had seemed deserted before. She had seen beforehand that the stands, which at close range did not appear that large, were full, but only standing in the middle of the pit did she truly grasp just how many people were attending the fight. Not only were the stands full, but so were the places in-between. Dozens of people jostled for a better position to see the action in the pit. They were mostly men, though there were many women in the crowd as well. All of them cheering and watching intently as Shampoo slowly walked into the center of the pit. For the first time since she had arrived, she felt a bit of trepidation at fighting before so many strange eyes.
The announcer was a small man whose booming voice stood in stark contrast to his diminutive form. "And presenting Shen's opponent, she hails from the hinterlands of the village known as Joketsuzoku, the amazing fighting wonder, Shampoo."
Shampoo cringed at hearing her name bastardized in her own language. Even if Jaddo had told her to get used to it, there was no reason it should be mispronounced by those that spoke her own tongue. She would have words with her somewhat dubious mentor when this was all over.
Almost as soon as the last word left the announcer's mouth, catcalls and taunts began to float down from the crowd.
"I want to see a real fighter, not some girl."
"Fighting wonder? It's a wonder someone that young can fight."
"I think Fong's a lucky guy. I wouldn't mind wrestling that hot little number."
"Hey pretty girl, with those sort of looks, you're better suited for fighting in a bed instead of a ring."
"Put me down there, and I'll make it a doggie-style pit. Hahahaha!"
Every cutting remark, every insult, every slur made Shampoo's temper boil with a rage she had rarely felt. How dare these fools insult any Joketsuzoku warrior in this manner, let alone their champion? Surely they were suicidal. Had this happened in the village, she would have challenged each of them to a duel and shown them how a 'little girl' could fight. They would have been the ones who bled, and they would have done it in copious amounts for their outrageous behavior.
It was still difficult to believe so many of these outsiders were unaware of the power of the Joketsuzoku. While it was true her people had intentionally laid low for a number of years in order to avoid gaining the Empire's attention, lest what happen to the Musk also happen to them, but there was a time when they were a major power in this region. Obviously, it had been too long since the Joketsuzoku had left their homes to show these insulting slugs just what abilities they still possessed. Well, that was going to change, at least in some small measure, starting tonight.
All but snarling, Shampoo turned to face her opponent. She was rewarded by the smirk that Shen had worn right up to that moment disappear when he saw just how angry she was. However, his surprise passed quickly as he brought up his hands and spaced out his legs in order to prepare for an attack.
The announcer left the pit and headed partway up the ramp. Just as the gate was about to close, he shouted at the top of his voice. "Let the fight… begin!"
Shen decided to play it safe and move in slow, faking a punch at Shampoo to try and gauge just how tough she was. True, she was nothing more than a little girl, and a damn pretty one at that, but she might have a move or two that could surprise him. He had been caught underestimating his opponent in two of his defeats; mistakes he had no intention of repeating. No way would he get overconfident again, though he did make a mental note not to hit her in the face if he could help it. That way, after he defeated her, he might get lucky when he asked her out. And she just might show her appreciation for his chivalric attitude towards her. Perhaps she would even be very appreciative in a physical way. Or so he hoped. Hope sprung eternal in the hearts of young men, after all.
Fantasies with wrestling Shampoo between the sheets were quickly ushered out of Shen's mind as he regained his focus. All that was left now was the fight. He had trained hard and gotten a lot better since the last time he stepped into a pit, and here was where he got to show his newly gained talents to the rest of the world as he began the slow and arduous climb to the top. After tonight, no one would ever refer to him as 'meat' again.
Cautiously, Shen came in with a slow right, ready to see how fast Shampoo would react to the blow. He was fully prepared to block or retreat from the expected counterattack. Then he would reevaluate how much force would be required to deal with his attractive opponent.
The punch had not made it more than six inches from Shen's body when Shampoo's foot came up blindingly fast in a sweeping arc toward his head. His arm was already in position to block a blow, but the force behind the kick was so great it completely overpowered his defenses and drove both her foot and his own arm into his head. Rendered instantly unconscious, his body quickly caught up to his mental state by falling awkwardly to the ground.
The sound of Shen's body slumping to the hardened earth was clearly heard throughout the entire area, the spectators having gone silent to a person from the what they had just witnessed. Even the announcer was struck speechless.
Shampoo cast one baleful glare to the crowd before placing one hand on her hip, almost daring anyone to speak a word to her. No one answered the challenge.
Satisfied her point had been made, Shampoo left the pit without another glance to the crowd. It was only after she had left the field of combat that a slow, almost reluctant applause, erupted from the mass of humanity in the stands, though it never reached the peak it had for the earlier fights. Not by a great margin.
As Shampoo made her way back into the stable the fighters were housed, she saw the other warriors back slightly away from her, as though she would lash out at them for daring to draw too near. The next two fighters were quick to head for the pit as the recovered announcer's voice called them to begin the next fight. Of all the people in the building, only Jaddo remained exactly where he was, once again leaning in the relaxed position Shampoo had left him in. He feigned being unaware or uncaring of her presence, but she knew that he was cognizant of her every step towards him.
With a taunting smirk, she approached until she was standing directly before him. "How was that?"
Jaddo opened a half-lidded eye and stared at her. Once again Shampoo felt uncomfortable under that penetrating gaze that seemed to look right through to her soul. Even her great-grandmother wasn't that good with a glare. It was intense enough to make her shift uneasily.
When he failed to respond to her comment, Shampoo became even more wary. "Aren't you going to evaluate me? That is what you are here for, isn't it?"
Again, an almost palpable silence hung between them. When it appeared Jaddo would continue to remain silent, Shampoo considered leaving. She was about to give him one last chance by speaking again when he finally broke the silence and said, "I'm just waiting for a moment where you might actually listen to what I have to say."
Somehow, Shampoo found herself unable to get angry at the accusation of her close-mindedness. She reassured herself it was because of his gaze, and not that he might be right. "I am eager to hear your observations."
Jaddo stopped leaning against the wall and turned to fully face Shampoo. His voice took on an analytical bent that Shampoo had never heard before. "Your initial evaluation of your opponent was correct. He was far inferior to you and barely worth the effort. You took him down quickly and effectively, without any permanent damage, despite the highly angry state the crowd sent you into. That last is critical, as I would have rejected further training of you if you had shown any sadistic bent. I teach only warriors, not butchers.
"The crowd was hostile to you, which is not surprising once you've been in a few of these dog pits. The majority of them underestimated you because they had next to no combat knowledge. Once you proved their assumption completely wrong, they grew quiet. For most, it was a mix of fear and anger."
"Anger?" Shampoo asked.
"Anger at being wrong," Jaddo explained. "That sort of thing will work in the first three or so fights in your career, but after that you're going to have to change your attitude. Once your name start getting circulated about as a winner, both the crowd and your opponents will take you more seriously. Once that starts, you're going to have the opportunity to use the crowd to your advantage."
Shampoo held her chin high in the air. "Their opinions mean nothing to me."
Jaddo nodded. "A healthy attitude to have personally, but don't underestimate what it means to have a crowd backing you. Deep down inside, nearly everyone wants approval in one form or another, even if it's from those they got nothing but disdain for. Those handful of fighters that feed off the anger of the crowd are some of the most dangerous you'll ever meet. They've got a hate for themselves that they project onto others, usually those they see as a threat. I expect you to keep your eyes open for that type, though if I spot them, I'll be quick to point them out to you.
"As to the crowds themselves, you're right to have a bit of contempt for them, at least at some level. For the most part, there are two basic types of people that come to these things. First are those screaming, blind idiots that live vicariously through your feats and accomplishments because they feel inadequate in what they've done. They're the loudest as they thrill to what they can only imagine life and death struggles are like, since they lack the guts to do it themselves. That's the majority of the folks you see out there. The ones that want to see the blood. If you win them over, it'll be your opponents' blood they'll want to see spilled instead of yours. I'll warn you, they do tend to be fickle. They're the ones that will be your bread and butter, and the easiest to manipulate.
"The other kind are the ones you have to have some measure of respect for, even if it's only for their control. They're the professionals. People like us that watch and learn because they know firsthand what it means to live along the fine edge of life and death. They're rare, but out there. Watch out for them, because it won't be as easy to win them over. It's okay to have contempt for them too, but make sure it's because of who they are, not what they are."
The nature of the conversation was confusing Shampoo. Certainly her great-grandmother had never talked in this way about people. It all seemed so basic, almost contemptuous. "Why is winning the crowd so important?"
Suddenly, Jaddo's posture changed. Whereas before it was relaxed, almost laconic, now it became serious. Deadly serious. It was as if some of his fighting spirit was showing through, and Shampoo marked that she would probably not have been enthusiastic about fighting her mentor in his prime, not if he was still capable of projecting himself so well, in spite of his limp.
Jaddo was smiling now, a wide thing showing off white teeth that stood in marked contrast to his ebony skin. "In the twenty years I've been training fighters, I've had over fifty make it to the big Arena. No other single trainer's come within ten of that. I had a nine make it to the semis. Three made it to the finals, but none won the ultimate prize. A little bit of me died each time, because I know they relied on me to help take them to the top. Oh, many made their name there, to be sure. Many were able to get good jobs with the reputations they built in part with the skills I helped imbue in them. Some of them even became citizens through other means, but none of them can declare themselves champion.
"Why am I so concerned? Because for the first time ever, I have a fighter that has what it takes to make it to the top. I can feel it in my bones. You've the necessary skills. You've got looks. You've got the right attitude. You need to hone those things to perfect them for Arena fighting, but that's why I'm here. You aren't ready yet, not by a long shot, but the basics are there. It'll take a bit of luck, and timing is everything. Hell, anything could go wrong at any time, but the possibility is definitely there. Over the next few months you'll learn to curse me, my lovers, hell, even my mother for bringing a bastard like me into this world, but you'll learn how to fight for the Arena as sure as I breathe. I'll help you make yourself into a star that people will be talking about for years to come.
"And God willing, in a year's time, you'll be standing in the winner's circle, the Emperor himself declaring you a Citizen of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen."
And Shampoo knew, looking into his eyes, into the depths of his very soul, that every word Jaddo spoke was the truth. Whatever doubts Shampoo had about the man's abilities were erased forever. Her great-grandmother had not simply chosen a great trainer, she had chosen the best.
Shampoo had not just taken one, but in truth, two steps further down the path of the warrior, and to the ultimate prize that awaited her at the end.
To be continued.
Author's notes: And before anyone says it, this was planned out long before the movie Gladiator ever came out. ^_^ You can ask Jurai-Knight if you don't believe me. I suggested this well over a year before it came out.
Special thanks to Jurai-Knight for looking this over.
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