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.
This one is darker than the previous two.
"So, what do I have to look forward to in this match?" Shampoo asked.
"I seen the kid's record and watched him showing off to one of the other fighters. More meat," Jaddo remarked idly as he watched Shampoo finish putting on her footgear for the fight. "You're going with the pink outfit and the leather breastplate, huh?"
"What's wrong with it?" Shampoo asked, fingering the garment he was referring to.
"Well, it ain't bad, but the leather covers up your chest and makes you look not so ample. You want to provide the boys with eye candy out there, while trying not to be too sleazy. But anything that covers up your chest that much isn't letting your body work in your favor."
That earned her mentor an evil glare. If there was something wrong with her outfit, he should have mentioned it before she was nearly finished dressed. "I only brought three fighting outfits, since you said I had to travel light," Shampoo reminded him.
"What about the light blue one you got? The one with the gold trim?"
"It got torn in the last fight. I haven't had a chance to repair it with us traveling as fast as we have been. Not that I have the material to fix it so it looks presentable, either," Shampoo huffed. The last woman she fought had been a higher-caliber fighter. She had actually managed to grab onto the sleeve of the Amazon's outfit during the fight. When Shampoo administered the knockout blow, the woman's grasp had remained firm, and as a result, the sleeve was torn off from the force of the kick the young Amazon had used to finish off her opponent.
"I ain't telling you to change outfits. Just get rid of the breastplate," Jaddo countered.
"It doesn't look right without it," Shampoo said in a tired voice.
"You shouldn't hide those knockers."
A low growl issued from deep in Shampoo's throat. Her trainer's relentless, and brazen, criticism was irritating her again. It always did that. It was like he knew exactly the right buttons to push that would set her off, and he had a tendency to gleefully hit them all at the same time. The problem was further compounded by their current location. With the small room they had been assigned, there was no refuge from either the foul man or his equally aggravating comments. "Maybe I should fight topless!"
"That's one way to get the crowd to back you."
Shampoo could barely restrain herself from hitting him. This was what happened when one had to share their quarters with their trainer/mentor/bane-to-their-existence. The only saving grace was that the room signified they had moved up in the world. Instead of the converted stalls, and sometimes kennels, they had to use in the early days of the dog-pit circuit, they were living in small dorms that had been especially built for the fighters. True, the sterile rooms were only about two-thirds the size of the one Shampoo had lived in at her home, and here she had to share it with a sadist that dogged her every action and snored with a deep rumble that felt like an earthquake, but it was still better than living in places that were originally intended for the exclusive use of animals.
This room even had two mattresses, a vast improvement over the last place they stayed which had provided only one. Worse, that bastard Jaddo had made her sleep on the cold stone floor, claiming that he was too old and his body was too out of shape to do it, and that she should be differential to her elders. The hypocrite; as though he had ever acted with a bit of deference to anyone older than him. He was just using his age as an excuse to sleep snugly while Shampoo enjoyed the “comfort” of a hard floor. She knew firsthand he was in great shape from the numerous training sessions they had started to engage in after she had racked up a handful of victories. After their first few sparring matches, Shampoo quickly learned that the old man was not only in magnificent physical condition, but that he was a tricky bastard as well. Nearly every time they fought he used some move or tactic that put her on the defensive, if it did not end up hitting her outright. He never did any real damage, his skills were too sharp for that, but it was enough to remind her why not allowing an opponent to land a blow was a good thing. Only her great-grandmother had ever handled her with such seeming ease. Jaddo's bad leg was the only thing that acted remotely like an equalizer, but even that he had turned into an advantage, as there were times he would pretend it was affecting his fighting ability, then lured her into a trap which always ended up with her receiving a blow followed by some barbed comment about her not being able to handle a “fossilized gimp”.
That was not to say she failed to learn anything from him during those times. Frequently, he would pause either during or after their session and explain to her in detail what he had just done. His fighting technique was little like the various styles she had learned back home. Much of his unorthodox style relied upon quick bursts of attacks, followed by extended periods of defensive work, waiting for an opening to unleash another volley of powerful offense. Some of the techniques were ill suited to Shampoo's strengths, but others played right into them, and she incorporated those into the Amazon styles she already knew. Even those techniques she chose not to use were practiced so defenses against them could be created. No matter what other problems she might have had with Jaddo, his ability to teach was not one of them.
A loud belch resounded through the room. "Whoa! That tasted a lot better going down than it did coming back up."
His personality though, that went right to the top.
"You're a pig," Shampoo said acidly.
"Yah, all men are."
Shampoo was surprised with his agreement at the declaration. Most men would have protested it ardently, even if it were the truth.
"Of course, so are all of you women. Us guys are just more open about it."
A flush overcame Shampoo as her blood pressure rose in tempo with her anger. That's the way it always was. There was always a catch with him. Perhaps that was the trait that frustrated her the most. No matter how hard she tried to argue, no matter how well she stated a point, he could always outmaneuver her. Sometimes it was with a quick quip that she had no response for, like that comment. Other times, in more serious conversations, he would deflate some viewpoint of hers using logic and reason, which frustrated her even more because that meant she was wrong, not that she would ever admit it aloud. It was like arguing with her great-grandmother; there was no possible way to win. No matter how much she thought she had the upper hand, she always ended up being taken down a peg or two with seeming ease. The only consolation Shampoo could take from that knowledge was that her great-grandmother could do the same thing to the elders almost as often. At least other people suffered from the same losses that Shampoo did. It was a cold comfort, but a comfort nonetheless.
But with Jaddo it was very different. Her great-grandmother had enough tact to not make one feel too bad about losing an argument. Sometimes it felt good to understand the older woman's point of view, which turned out to make more sense. When it came to Jaddo, he was the exact opposite and would rub one's nose in their error, making them feel like they had been stupid for even considering such notions. It was almost a reflex with him. Shampoo knew there were several instances where he could have softened the blow when pointing out how wrong she was, but instead it was like he pulled out a bag of salt and rubbed it in the open wound he had made, laughing about it the entire time. It was small wonder that she had to resist on numerous occasions the urge to strangle the man in his sleep.
There was one characteristic about him she did like, one that most men would not have been able to claim, at least in her somewhat limited experience; he never expressed the least bit of sexual interest in her. It wasn't that he thought she was unattractive, he openly acknowledged that she was very beautiful, but he treated it solely as a talent, no different from a fighting skill. That a warrior should use her looks in actual combat was an odd concept to a woman raised among the Joketsuzoku. A warrior relied on her combat skills, not her appearance, at least in physical combat. In the battlefield of the heart, it was an altogether different story. You used any resource at hand, looks first and foremost.
Jaddo was slowly teaching her how to use her physical appearance to win over the crowd. A look here. A bounce there. Nothing too blatant, as Shampoo would have been inclined to use in such situations. Instead, he was teaching her to be subtle, beguiling the audience without letting them know they were being seduced. One perfectly delivered smoldering glance could be more effective than stripping naked, or at least that was what Jaddo told her. Shampoo had to admit, since she had started taking his lessons regarding her looks to heart, the crowd seemed more enthusiastic than ever to cheer her on.
However, when it came to Jaddo regarding her looks on a personal level, he never acknowledged them. There was never a suggestive leer (not a sincere one, though there was the occasional comment delivered specifically to make her angry), never an occasion when she caught him looking at her from out of the corner of his eye. There was one time her curiosity had gotten the better of her and she had intentionally changed in front of him just to see if he would show some interest. Instead, he didn't say a word and sat on his bed with his back to her. He did not move a muscle the entire time, and she had been watching closely for any sidelong glance so she could accuse him of taking advantage of their sleeping arrangement. After she had finished changing, she told him it was safe to turn around. When he didn't react, she went over to him only to discover that he had fallen asleep sitting up. That earned him a bucket of cold water dumped over his sleeping form. Afterwards, he even had that audacity to stay angry with her for the next two days instead of admitting he had been a jerk. After all, just because she didn't want him sexually attracted to her didn't mean she appreciated his blatant lack of interest.
Jaddo was easily the man most disinterested in her looks that Shampoo had ever met. She would have sworn he was gay, had it not been for the comments and burning stares he frequently gave other women he came across in the various towns they passed through in their travels. There were many he cast very amorous looks at, and he was not very picky about their appearance. Many of them Shampoo regarded as unattractive, and it was not based on their lack of fighting ability. About the only women he expressed no interest in were fighters, even the hardened type she thought he would like. The only explanation Shampoo could come up with was that over the years he had become unable to deal with female warriors in anything other than a professional sense. Or perhaps it was because such women knew how to beat the hell out of him when he said made some inevitably rude comment about them. At least that made sense to Shampoo. If there was some other reason he avoided such women, she was unable to figure it out. Still, the mutual lack of attraction made that aspect of their relationship easy to deal with.
"You getting rid of the breastplate?" Jaddo asked.
For a moment, Shampoo considered ignoring the advice and going into the pit wearing it, but then reconsidered. Against dog meat there was no need for the added protection it provided, and Jaddo was correct about it making her chest look smaller than it was. She was still working on her body expressions to interest the crowd, and every little bit helped. It would make her outfit look a little off, but the majority of the audience held no interest in her outfits, just what lay hidden inside them.
Casting a scowl to show she was doing this under protest, Shampoo discarded the breastplate and placed it back in her bag. It had felt a bit stiff and probably needed oiling anyway.
Jaddo nodded in approval. "We'll see about picking you up a new outfit once we make it to the inner circuit. You won't make a lot there, but it'll be more than what we're making here. If you get to Hong Kong, then the price per victory goes up, and you'll be able to afford at least several nicer outfits, which you'll need since that stuff gets televised. They want their dogs to look pretty when they mix it up."
That caught Shampoo's interest. "I'll be on television?"
"Only if you can make it to Hong Kong," Jaddo warned, cautioning Shampoo from looking too far ahead. "Yah, they televise the stuff there. It's the number-two fighting program behind the Arena show in Japan, though it ain't anywhere near as big a deal as that. Hong Kong fighting is a lot more popular in Southeast Asia than it is back in the seat of the Empire. The Impies can get the Hong Kong stuff, but it's mostly relegated to the real die-hard fighting fans over there. They air it in early morning on Saturdays, which is a crappy time slot since people usually spend their Saturday mornings recovering from their Friday nights."
"Not all people drink themselves into a stupor like you do," Shampoo snapped. There had been several occasions when Jaddo had staggered into one of their shared rooms after a night of “drinkin' and whorin’ “, as he put it, smelling of cheap alcohol and waking her up with his clumsy maneuvering in the dark. The only consolation Shampoo had was the predictability on his party nights and she could be prepared for them. He would never go on a binge before an upcoming match, even if it were a few days away. He always waited until after her victory to go out celebrating, though he never took her along. She had mentioned going out with him once, but he responded with a laugh and stated that she wouldn't be interested in the sorts of games he played when he went out to really enjoy himself. He was probably right, but it still annoyed her that she had to stay bored in her room while he could go anywhere and do anything he wanted.
It was unfair. All she ever did was travel, train, and fight. She was bored and lonely. Even if she hadn't had any close friends back home, they were still acquaintances she could talk to, other girls she felt a kinship with. Here it was different. There were a handful of other fighters she had talked to, but very few of them were anywhere near her age, and most regarded her as a child, admittedly a very dangerous one to fight, but still too young to become friends with. All they ever did was talk to her, not with her. And even with the handful she did talk to as equals, it never really mattered since her and Jaddo would move on in a couple of days to another fight somewhere else.
Then there was the inevitable homesickness. Her great-grandmother had warned her it would come, but that failed to make dealing with it any easier. She missed her family. There was the way her mother would greet her in the morning with a bright smile that rarely failed to make Shampoo look forward to her day. Her father's quiet, stoic bearing that in its own way held as much warmth as her more openly emotional mother. The delicious food he would cook and the meals they shared at the dinner table together as they talked about trivial things with as much importance as the meaningful ones. She missed being able to walk around village, knowing everyone she saw and they knowing and acknowledging her in turn. She missed knowing the lay of the land around her, where everything wasn't new and strange. She missed a decent bed to fall asleep upon. She missed waking up and opening her eyes to see a familiar ceiling overhead. Perhaps that was the worst part, awakening, and during that one brief instant of disorientation as the mind switched from sleep to wakefulness, spotting a strange ceiling and wondering why she wasn't home.
Here it was completely different. If she didn't awaken first, Jaddo would be happy to… Happy to kick her awake and grumble at how she overslept and needed to get off her “fat, lazy butt” and get to work. There was nothing quiet or stoic about him. Meals were plain fare eaten on the ground or from small street vendors more often than not. No one in the various towns recognized her when she walked around, nor she them. Every town was full of strangers, and all regarded her as such. She never knew what lay over the next hill, and now a mattress had become a luxury.
This was not what she had expected. Nothing had been so far.
But there was one thing she had here that she would never have gained in a lifetime of living at home. One goal that she found herself wanting more with each passing day, one that could only be achieved with the path she was traveling and having to put up with all of the unpleasant things around her: a chance to become a Citizen. She was going to fight her way to the top, no matter how long it took, and achieve that goal no matter what measures had to be taken. As long as she focused and kept that single goal in mind, she could overcome her homesickness and tolerate her mentor, just so long as she never lost sight of her eventual destination.
But things were going too slowly. She wanted to go to the Arena, and she wanted to be there yesterday. "Jaddo?" She always called him by his proper name, at least when she wasn't referring to him in terms that would make even her occasionally foul-mouthed mother blush. It seemed the aborigine disliked titles, at least ones attached to him. It was practically the opposite of the village, where you called an elder an elder or were whacked in your head for the disrespect. But the one time she had tried to call him teacher, he expressed his thoughts, in graphic detail, about being called anything but his proper name by her. It was ridiculous. Animals would not do the sort of things he implied, especially with people.
"What?" Jaddo gave her his full attention.
Shampoo felt a bit of hesitation at asking the question. It had come to her after a match a couple of fights ago, but for some reason she had never felt it was an opportune time to ask. But now, now there was something in the moment that felt like the time had finally arrived. "Why can't we go on to the inner circuit now?"
Jaddo rolled his eyes "You know damn well you need a minimum of thirty-six victories, and at least ten more victories than losses, to move to the inner circuit. That's the least you need to qualify, otherwise the shitty meat you've been fighting in the pits would work its way in there, too."
"But that's exactly it!" Shampoo protested. "They're all meat. I've been hit a grand total of once, just once, in the last twenty-six matches, and none of them would have gone a minute if I hadn't dragged them out for the audience's benefit. All of these people are far beneath me. I'm just wasting my time here. Isn't there someone you can speak to so I don't have to go through this farce?" It was more akin to pleading than a request. She hoped he would hear the need in her voice and react accordingly.
It was not to be as Jaddo growled, "Even if there was, girl, I wouldn't do it. You still got to shine up your technique before you hit Hong Kong. You go there like you are now, you'll get eaten up and spit out in less than a week. Screw that up and you could end up in Singapore, and almost no one makes it out of there to the Arena. Hell, more than enough don't make it out at all. That shithole is just one step up from the dog pits, at least on a brutality level. You think it's bad here? Official stats say there was just over fifty deaths last year, but the real number is well over a hundred with all of the side-fighting that unofficially goes on. And that's only if the Slayer's Club is still shut down, which I doubt."
The name caught Shampoo's attention. "Slayer's Club?"
In an instant, Jaddo's mood had darkened in a way Shampoo had never seen before. The very air around her mentor seemed to take on a nameless dread. "Death matches, every last one of them. The victor is the one that doesn't get killed. Officially, it's illegal, and the Empire claims they shut it down a few years ago, but they ain't half as influential in Singapore as they like to think. Besides, it was run by Shadowlaw, and they don't exactly sweat even when the Empire comes a calling, at least not in that neck of the territory."
That painted a grim picture. Shampoo had seen men crippled, and even a handful die in matches on the undercards of the dog pits she had been in. It was always brutal, bloody, and of a level of violence she had borne witness to only once before. Pain and broken bones were part of the risks involved in any fight, but many went out of their way to inflict harm, or were too clumsy to avoid it. She just thanked the gods she was better than that, both in ability and conscience.
Seeing the effect the warning had on her, Jaddo's mood went from dark to sympathetic. "Don't worry. You ain't going to end up in any death matches. I ain't that kind of guy. Never have been, never will be. You just toe the line and be patient, and you'll go all the way to the Arena. Just listen to what I got to say, and you'll be there before you know it." Jaddo mentally debated encouraging this line of thought, and decided to go ahead and do so. "Tell you what. We'll scout out the competition next time, and if it's just more meat, I'll see what I can do about getting you two matches on the same card."
"Yah, sure. Sometimes if a fighter's really good, they can get more than one match a night. I did some of that in my move to the top. I did it on the inner circuit and Hong Kong, but I was really good. Even did three in one night once as a special challenge match. Last guy was an impact player, but I was the dawg in Hong Kong in my grouping. Took a lot out of me, and we put on a hell of a show, but I was the one standing in the end. Oh, yah."
Jaddo had drifted off in memories of yesterday, but Shampoo did not notice. So a fighter could be in more than one match per evening; she hadn't suspected that. Very interesting. With that new information, the wheels of her mind were sent spinning as a plan began forming in her mind.
Shampoo found her heart beating faster as she stood across from her opponent. It was a woman in her early twenties. She was unremarkable in appearance, save for several scars decorating her face. Shampoo had scouted her out beforehand and knew that the woman had managed to accumulate twenty-seven victories, but also carried losses that numbered in the low double digits as well. Some middling level of talent that would, at best, have one or two moves Shampoo would have to look out for.
Apparently the woman was aware of Shampoo's reputation as well, displaying far more caution than would be necessary under usual circumstances. The caution was noticed by the crowd, and they let the woman know their displeasure by shouting at her and calling her a coward. Shampoo noted the criticism did not seem to affect the woman in the slightest. She had good control over her feelings as well. Not bad. Odds were she would eventually move on to the inner circuit in time.
But she would move no closer on this night.
Shampoo decided to get the crowd, already hostile to the woman, more into it. She pranced slightly, while making sure not to leave herself vulnerable to an attack, for the audience's benefit. They responded, especially the men, by cheering Shampoo on further. Small surprise considering she was by far the more attractive of the fighters. Truly, looks mattered to them almost as much as skill. Deciding to excite them further, Shampoo feinted an attack that elicited another cheer, and subsequent boo when her opponent backed away again.
Deciding that the crowd was now fully behind her, and that she needed to win quickly in order to enact her plan, Shampoo went forward in a bold series of strikes which forced the woman to counter them rather than simply retreating. Taking a minor chance, Shampoo faked an opening in her defenses. Much to her satisfaction, the woman tried to take advantage of the perceived opportunity with a fist to the Amazon's midsection. The hole disappeared, leaving the fist countered, and the woman susceptible to a counterattack.
Much to the woman's credit, she deflected the first kick and punch combination, only to fall victim to a knee to her stomach and an elbow delivered perfectly between the eyes. The force of the blows stunned the woman, leaving her helpless. Feeling a great deal of respect for her opponent, and not wishing to add to her scars, Shampoo put her down quickly with a carefully measured blow to the back of the neck. The woman lasted only a moment longer on her feet before collapsing to the ground. The only lasting effect would be a headache for the next few hours, a reminder that she had lost her match.
Shampoo pumped her fist in victory to the crowd, which responded by doubling their cheers. Jaddo had been right; they were easy to manipulate once you knew how. Having served in the Arena itself, and been popular, Jaddo had learned how to play the people in the audience like any master musician would a finely tuned instrument. His detailed explanations made learning how to handle them as easy as cooking ramen. With every match she could work them up to further heights, and there appeared to be no end in sight. They wanted to cheer, wanted to be guided; and Shampoo was happy to be their guide. She suspected by the time she reached the Arena, she would be at least as good as Jaddo had been, if not better. But those were concerns for another time. At the moment, there were more important things to deal with, namely with executing her plan.
The crowd's cheers died down as the unconscious woman was removed. The announcer had come onto the field, microphone in hand, and began the obligatory congratulatory speech for Shampoo. It was only a slight variation from the other five he had given applauding the other winners of their matches. His eyes were tired and unenthusiastic; a direct contrast to his bellowing voice. Shampoo marked him as another who knew how to manipulate the crowd as well, though less rode on his shoulders than hers.
He was little more than two sentences into the speech, when Shampoo ripped the microphone out of his hand and began speaking into it. The public announcement system was old and carried a bonded a bit of static to every word, but it still served well enough to carry the young Amazon's voice over the general din of conversation that inevitably erupted in-between the matches.
Seeing her unexpected action had grabbed the majority of the crowd's attention, she enacted her plan. "I have an announcement to make to the other fighters in the competition. I challenge any nine men back there to a match with me. I will fight you one at a time, one after another, without a break in-between fights. Only standard fight rules apply."
"That isn't part of the card," the announcer tried telling her, but Shampoo paid him no attention. For the moment, the card was hers now to do with as she pleased. Just another manipulation, no different from doing the same to the crowd.
Seeing the young woman's challenge now held the full attention of crowd, the announcer backed off and allowed her to speak. Shampoo turned her eyes to where some of the fighters that were preparing for the next match waited. They were watching even more intently than the crowd, their bodies tensing further in expectation for an upcoming fight. She also happened to catch a glance of Jaddo, who was off to the side in the area, glowering at her in fury. That gaze troubled her, and for just a moment she considered backing out. But just as quickly she realized it was too late. Like her path to the Arena, she had set out on this course of action and had little choice but to see it through to the end.
Working up her courage, she shouted into the microphone, "And as a reward, should you win, not only will you claim victory over an undefeated opponent, but as per the laws of my people, the Joketsuzoku, I will become the wife of any man that can defeat me in one-on-one combat."
The crowd went silent for a moment, processing the information they had just been given. Once it finally settled in, they reacted with a thunderous roar of approval that was deafening. Likewise, when Shampoo spared another glance to the fighters still in the warm up area, she saw that they too, after a moment of processing the new information, reacted in approval as they raced to see who would be the first to get to the entrance to the pit. The final thing she did was force herself to look at Jaddo, who seemed even angrier than before. It was unfortunate that he was being so intractable, but he was too cautious. She needed nine victories to advance, and there wasn't a single reason in the world why she could not get them tonight.
Turning back, she saw that the tallest of the men, Kwon Chu, if she remembered correctly, had made his way through the door first as he raced through it and towards Shampoo. Kwon stopped before both the announcer and herself, obviously far more eager for this fight than his previously scheduled bout. The grin he wore was more of a leer than a sign of humor. His eyes hungrily traced every curve of Shampoo's lithe form, making her feel uncomfortable. Perhaps she should not have mentioned the marriage part, but at the time it had seemed a good way to encourage the men to fight her. Judging by the other fighters that had come down from the rear portion of the building upon hearing the declaration, and by the way they were arguing among one another, her encouragement had worked to perfection.
Kwon continued leering. "Oh, yeah. You're a bit younger than I'm used to, but you'll do. You'll do just fine. Nothing wrong with enjoying a little fresh meat every now and then."
Now Shampoo started to fully understand the main drawback to her plan. By now most of the men she had fought in previous matches had heard of her reputation and record and took her seriously, but with the announcement that if they could defeat her they could bed her, it appeared this lots' higher functions had disappeared as their testosterone took over. Her mother had always said that was what usually happened to men. Wave an attractive woman around them that carried the promise of pleasure, and their brains relocated to the object between their legs. It appeared her mother had been absolutely correct in her assessment of the members of the opposite gender.
The way Kwon continued leering made Shampoo feel increasingly uneasy. Unlike her previous opponent, she held no respect for this letch, and would hold nothing back. Shampoo dropped into her ready stance. Seeing her do so, the announcer gave a cry for the match to begin and immediately backed away.
Kwon attacked with a passion and fervor that caught Shampoo off-guard. For a moment, she found herself driven back and forced on the defensive. Worse, she could hear the crowd cheering Kwon on as he pressed his advantage. All of Jaddo's lessons of the masses being a fickle thing surged to the forefront of Shampoo's mind. He had warned her that given the proper motivation they would do this, but to have it actually happen only served to fuel her anger at the situation not having turned out exactly as she had planned.
Shampoo allowed herself to be struck once below her left breast, absorbing the pain from the blow. Her training took over as she accepted the pain in favor of gaining an advantage. Even as a soft grunt escaped her lips, she unleashed a back-fist that connected squarely with Kwon's nose. There was the soft feel of cartilage giving under her knuckles and something moist splashed on her hand. As she had anticipated, her opponent had not been prepared for that level of pain and reflexively grabbed at his nose, as though touching it would somehow lessen the tremendous amount of agony shooting through the broken mass of tissue.
A second fist to the stomach doubled Kwon over, and a high axe kick struck him in the back, driving him to the ground like a sack of rocks. He tried getting up, but Shampoo kicked his arm out from under him, and then fell into his back with a knee shot just above the kidney. Kwon didn't try to get up a second time. A brutal victory by Shampoo's standards, but he had it coming with his lurid comments and undressing eyes.
Once it became obvious Shampoo had won, the crowd switched back to cheering her with an even greater amount of unadulterated abandon. It was then the Amazon truly understood for the first time that they cared nothing for her, just for the performance she and the others put on. It was a sobering thing, even after all this time in the dog pits of the Empire.
She had little time to ponder the revelation though, for even as Kwon's body was carted away, a second fighter had taken his place. His eyes shone with the same eagerness Kwon's had displayed, but his body was held far more at the ready. Obviously, he had seen what had just happened to the last man, and had taken the lesson to heart. Shampoo prepared herself for this next fight in rapid succession.
Nearly thirty minutes later, it was an out of breath Shampoo that stood over the eighth consecutive victim to her battle prowess. The crowd was nearly out of breath at the display of skills they had borne witness to. What made it all the more impressive was that towards the end, someone in charge had decided not to bother carting off the bodies of her fallen foes and just allowed the next warrior in line to charge after her. That served to make it a running battle with her last three opponents. Luckily, none of them had been particularly skilled, or the final outcome might have turned out very differently. But as it was, the seventh man had managed to connect with a solid punch right below her eye, and she could already feel the area around it swelling. She was certain it would be black within the hour. On the upside, she had always healed exceptionally fast from such cosmetic damage (as well as the few times she had taken a more serious injury), and it would be gone almost as quickly as it appeared.
Shampoo looked towards the rest of the now much smaller crowd of fighters, awaiting her next opponent. She noted that at some point, Jaddo had become absent from the group. Mentally, she decided she would play this one smart, falling into a fully defensive posture until an opening presented itself, rather than trying to make an opening of her own. However, she was surprised to discover that no one approached in answer to the challenge. She looked at the handful of men remaining, but none would go near the entryway to the pit's floor.
That wouldn't do. She needed one more victory for thirty-six. For a moment, Shampoo considered trying to urge one of the men forward by either posing for them or insulting their manhood, but then reconsidered. She was out of breath, and far more vulnerable to an attack than at the start of the night, than at any point in her career in the fighters' circuit so far. Mistakes could be made, especially if she underestimated the skills of any of the men beforehand. The last thing in the world she needed to do was find herself married before even getting out of the dog pits of her homeland.
Standing firm and making it appear as though she was just as ready as she had been for her first match, Shampoo looked to the group of fighters and asked, "No more?"
The remaining fighters either responded by shaking their heads or walking away. That settled things, and Shampoo felt as though a great burden had been lifted from her shoulders. She gave a triumphant cry to the air, which was responded to by the loudest roar yet from the crowd. As Shampoo exited the pit and headed towards the dorms, she could hear the people speak in awe of the spectacle being unlike any other they had seen. The young girl felt her pride grow at the declaration, even if it had been a tiring affair. They would remember this night for a long time to come.
As Shampoo passed the small cluster of fighters that had remained for the next fight, she saw them back away from her, almost as though they feared she would grab one and throw them in the pit to fight her. Small chance of that with the way she felt. Now that the fighting was over, the exhaustion began crawl and settle in muscles that called out for her body to rest. The continuous fighting towards the end, when she was at far less than peak condition, had worn her out. All she wanted to do now was take a shower and get some sleep.
As she made her way to the entrance of the dorms, the reality of the situation set in and brought a smile to her lips. She had made amazing headway in one night, saving herself weeks of wasted time traveling to small, dirty towns and their holes in the ground that smelled of blood so that she could do battle with insignificant opponents. Just one more fight, and she would end up in the second stage to her goal. It had been a marvelous evening, possibly the best she had since setting out on this path several months ago.
Or at least it was until she ran into Jaddo, who was resting in his familiar lackadaisical posture against a wall. A casual glance would have led one to conclude he was at ease, just lounging in the hall and hanging around, but Shampoo knew better. His placement on the way to the showers was deliberate, and in spite of his outward posture, she could detect the subtle signs of anger he was giving off.
Lacking the energy to waste any time with his usual word games, Shampoo walked up until she was right next to him and stated bluntly, "Go ahead and tell me what I did wrong."
Now he was openly scowling. "Pretty much everything after you grabbed that microphone was a mistake."
Shampoo felt her anger rise. "I did what was required of me. I needed to win ten matches. I got nine, and would have had the last one if any of the remaining men had any courage."
"And if he had a lick of skill, you'd be on your back, moaning and groaning as he pumped in and out of you right about now," Jaddo replied acidly. "You were in bad shape towards the end. You were getting tired and sloppy. That shiner that seventh guy gave you was inexcusable. I'd give you a matching one myself if you had made that kind of mistake in your first match. And it wasn't getting any better with you taking them on one after another. You're real lucky they were all meat, otherwise we'd be taking your husband along with us to Teijingpan."
Shampoo scoffed at that. Obviously, he was just jealous that she had come up with the idea of fighting several opponents in the same night. She was never in any danger. "I had the situation completely under control. I looked them over beforehand. You could have picked any dozen men there and they still would not have beaten me. All of them were meat, which is why I want to get out of the pits. This is all a waste of time. I should be in Hong Kong already if you'd have let me take on several opponents an evening."
"You don't know shit, girl. You're the big fish in a small pond and think there aren't any other fish out there. I got news for you, girl, there's nothing but big fish in the Arena, and they will eat you alive without a second thought. So you better knock that chip off your shoulder before we get to Hong Kong, or you won't be going anywhere."
Again all he would do was insult her, never a single admission that she could do anything right. That was it! Tired of his constant demeaning of her impressive skills, annoyed at his personal jibes that constantly underestimated her, and oh, so weary of his personality in general, Shampoo stood proudly before him and said, "There isn't a man in this place that can defeat me."
Shampoo was unaware of exactly what happened next. She certainly didn't see it, but rather felt it as a hand grabbed her by the bottom of her jaw and a foot lashed out at the back of her legs. The next thing she felt was a sensation of flying in mid-air, though not for long as the hand on her jaw forced the back of her head to crash down hard on the tile that lined the floor of the dorms. It seemed the rest of her body had only just followed suit when she felt something grab the backs of her ankles and force them over her head, pinning them with a heavy weight to the floor. Now she was practically bent into a ball, her head and shoulders trapped underneath her while her bottom had become the highest point of her body, sticking up in the air. Luckily she had been wearing pants instead of one of her outfits that ended just below her derriere, or else her panty-covered bottom would have been on display for the whole world to see.
It took her a moment to realize that it was Jaddo who had put her down and pinned her in this humiliating position. From the feel of things, he was now sitting on the backs of her ankles, pinning them down and preventing her from moving. Only the gods above knew what his hands were preparing to do, as she did not feel them anywhere on her person.
A panic unlike any other set in as Shampoo struggled in vain to remove herself from the pinning predicament Jaddo had her placed her in. But even with her tremendous strength, there was no leverage to be had, and Jaddo, in spite of his age, was far too strong to overpower with the advantage in position he had. That did not stop her from struggling as she wiggled and tried to break free, but Jaddo continued to hold her in place. Her heart raced even faster as she realized that it was impossible to escape, no matter how hard she tried. Even her arms were useless in the position they were in. It was like being stuck in a spider's web, and no matter how hard she struggled, all she managed to do was exhaust herself while not coming close to gaining her freedom.
Shampoo felt in icy hand clutch her heart as Jaddo said from his position above her, "Not a man in this place that can defeat you, eh?"
Slowly, the horror of what had just happened set in. He had defeated her. She might not have been prepared for the attack, but she had made a direct challenge to him by stating to his face that no man here could beat her. She had not been considering him when she uttered that statement, but the truth was it technically included him; there was not an elder alive that would claim otherwise. Nor would they claim she was anything but beaten with the untenable position she was in. Her heart sank until it stopped somewhere in her the bottom of her gut.
Shampoo's mouth was bone dry. She was trying to manage the words that were supposed to be spoken when a warrior was defeated in fair combat, such as this. She just managed a reluctant, "I lov-," when she heard Jaddo say in a sly voice, "Good thing for you I got no taste for inexperienced little girls with flabby backsides." She felt a hard swat applied to her bottom before the weight on the backs of her legs was removed.
Shampoo immediately uncurled herself and brought her legs back to their proper position, but remained collapsed on her back, unable to summon the strength to get up. It had all happened so quickly. She had been on top of the world one moment, and then completely humbled the next. In the span of five heartbeats she had suddenly found herself married, and then… what?
Jaddo remained standing above to her, looking down expectedly. Slowly, almost demurely, Shampoo rose to her feet. She didn't want to say it, but honor demanded it. "You have defeated me." She felt a hard swat meet the back of her head.
"Don't be any more stupid than you've been tonight, girl! The fight wasn't over until I said it was over, and I never said it was."
"No," Shampoo insisted. "You did beat me. I challenged you and you defeated me without even trying. I was helpless, and you could have done anything you wanted to me. Anything. We are married."
Jaddo rolled his eyes, appearing nothing more than totally exasperated at his companion's declaration. Softly, he mumbled under his breath, "Why did I ever take this stupid job? All women are complete idiots. I keep forgetting that, but then I get a kick in the gut like this and it all comes back. No wonder I never married. Especially some silly twit that knows how to fight. They're even worse than the normal ones."
Though he was mumbling quietly, Shampoo was under the distinct impression he was intentionally saying everything just loud enough for her to hear. In spite of the situation, she felt her temper rising at the slander against her gender, even if it was from her new… husband.
Finally, Jaddo turned his full attention towards her. "You're not going to let this go, are you?"
"I cannot." Shampoo had to drag the words out of her mouth.
Jaddo reacted as though he had been punched. Again he mumbled just loudly enough to be heard. "Oughtta just do her to shut her up. Nah, once she gets a taste of ole' Jaddo and his 'Iron Spike' she'll never go back. Can't spoil her that way. Getting way too old for this crap."
Shampoo felt her teeth begin to grind. Why did this have to happen to her? He was the worst sort of man she had ever met in her life. It was all her great-grandmother's fault for getting her into this. And the Elders for ordering her to become a citizen, as well as the Empire for conquering her people in the first place.
The list of people Shampoo was placing the blame upon was growing quite large when Jaddo snapped his fingers in delight. He pointed to her and said, "This whole stupid, 'you have to marry the outsider that defeats you,' stuff comes from the idea that once you shack up, you'll have a bunch of strong little anklebiters, right?"
"Yes." In many ways, Shampoo was living proof of the idea, since her father was such a capable man, to say nothing of her mother's battle prowess. Their union had given exactly the results the law was intended for.
Jaddo appeared delighted at the confirmation. "Right, that means we can't get married. I know you were getting all wet in anticipation, but I'm going to have to break your heart just like all the other women I've met. You see, even though the gun barrel's long and hard, I'm afraid the pistol only shoots blanks."
Shampoo looked at him, not comprehending in the least what he was talking about.
Seeing the confusion on his “wife's” face, Jaddo gave another exasperated sigh and said, "I've got no seeds to plant the furrow with. All goes back to a nasty injury I took to the balls towards the end of my career. The blow was delivered by a woman, by the way."
The way he said the last was like it was an accusation directed to Shampoo. "I still don't get it."
"Didn't you learn basic biology?!" Jaddo snapped.
"Then you know all about where kids come from. Sperm mixes with the egg in the woman and she gets knocked up. Then there's nine months of weight gain and a perceived license to bitch constantly until out pops the kid, and then the woman still acts as bitchy as when she was pregnant."
It was getting extremely difficult for Shampoo to resist bludgeoning her new husband to death.
Jaddo stated proudly, "Well, in my case, I don't have the little swimmers running around in my spooge, so I can't knock up anyone no matter how hard I try. Not that I have any desire to take care of some whining brat until it turns into a teenager and then I have to kill it before it runs amok, or worse, turns out like you."
That was it! Shampoo was going to kill him! At least right up until the point what he said finally registered. "You mean you're sterile?!"
He swatted her in the head again. "What do you think I've been going on about the last few minutes?"
"I couldn't tell! You were being such an asshole, I didn't think you were trying to say anything!" In spite of her outward anger, Shampoo was overjoyed. She didn't have to marry the irritating bastard. That would have just driven her over the edge, not that he wasn't coming close to doing it anyway, but if she had to be married to him it would probably have happened within the next few hours.
Seeing that she was going to accept the argument, Jaddo finally let out a sigh of relief. "You're a real pain in the ass. And you still really screwed up tonight. Word's going to get around about how if you get beaten by a man, he gets to marry you. A lot of guys don't have my high standards and might actually think you're worth sleeping with."
Shampoo was too happy at the moment to punish him for the jibe against her. She would do it later when she was in a foul mood. "It was always a risk. I knew that from the beginning. That others know about it doesn't affect me. It doesn't change anything." Shampoo shrugged. "Besides, it doesn't matter. I don't plan on losing to anyone else. Not after what just happened. And I doubt anyone I run into can fight as good as you."
Much to Shampoo's surprise, Jaddo's demeanor completely changed. For perhaps the first time in the months that she had started traveling with him, she detected a hint of great sadness in his eyes, "You just don't get it. Sometimes, when you put a woman before a man, he'll fight through heaven and hell to win her heart." Without further commentary he walked off, leaving Shampoo to stare at his back in confusion until he was around the corner and out of sight.
The air in the hallway was just a touch on the cold side, making Shampoo shiver as she made her way to the room she shared with Jaddo. Perhaps she should have dried off better, but she had been distracted by what had almost happened to her, and the mysterious way Jaddo was behaving when he had left her alone. It had taken the young Amazon the majority of the long, hot shower to come to terms with all that had happened this evening. Perhaps it had been as Jaddo said, and giving her opponents the additional motivation of marriage by defeating her was a mistake, but with the decided lack of competition she had faced thus far, anything to improve the quality of her opponents would be acceptable. Besides, she sincerely doubted anyone could defeat her, Jaddo's unexpected attack notwithstanding. She had improved considerably under his tutelage, and would only get better as she continued training with him. Eventually, she would be as good as him, which would make her all but unbeatable. Citizenship was practically in her grasp.
As she entered the room, she saw that Jaddo had already changed into what he had dubbed his “nice” outfit, which consisted of denim pants, a white silk shirt with brown leather vest, and a pair of crocodile skin boots. An odd-looking hat with a flat brim rounded things out. The ensemble looked strange to Shampoo, but Jaddo insisted that it was common wear from the place he originally came from, though why anyone would refer to their land as being “outback” seemed even more bizarre than the clothing he chose. That he was wearing it also signified something else.
"You're going out?"
He tipped his hat to her. "Yah, damn straight I am. And since we ain't married, you don't have the right to bitch at me for having a good ole' time all night long."
The smirk he wore irritated Shampoo to no end. There were many men who would have been proud to have her as their wife. That she had so many people willing to fight her earlier had proven that. "Where are you going?"
"I'm going to a whorehouse. It's where they sell whores. Want me to bring one back for you?"
"No!" Jaddo's humor was the foulest she had ever come across. Spending time with Mousse would almost have been preferably to spending another minute with the rude male before her. Almost.
"Don't wait up for me." He all but swaggered to the door as he made to leave.
Just as he was halfway through the door, Shampoo said in a soft voice, "You lied to me about not being able to father children, didn't you? You just said it so I wouldn't have to marry you?"
Rather than swagger, Jaddo gave her a soft look and said, "What? Me lie to you? Not that I would ever admit it if I did." He tipped his hat one final time to bid her good night and left.
As Shampoo changed into her pajamas (for there was no way she'd give Jaddo the free show of seeing her in just her underwear when he got back) she smiled in return at what he had just done. Yes, there was no doubt about it. Their relationship was just fine the way it was. Just fine. Still, an idle fantasy of Jaddo being about two decades younger passed through her mind. Had that been the case, who knew what might have happened.
Well, if he had been two decades younger and had someone else's personality, who knew what would have happened.
Deciding such thoughts were futile and counterproductive, Shampoo laid her head on her pillow and was asleep within minutes.
The sound of quiet movement in the darkened room roused Shampoo slightly from her deep slumber. She was about to get up when she groggily remembered that Jaddo had gone out earlier for a night of carousing. At least this time he had the decency of attempting to be quiet. Ordinarily, he just stomped in and collapsed in his bed, but not before kicking a metal garbage can across the room then swearing at it for jumping out in front of him and assaulting his foot.
Shampoo was just about to go back to sleep when she detected a second sound come from another area in the room. She was about to rise when a body fell hard directly upon her. The unexpected impact knocked the wind out of her, and by the time she recovered, a beefy hand was clamped over her mouth and a cold line of steel find itself pressed against her throat.
"Not a sound, bitch," a deep voice quietly hissed.
The edge of the knife pressed ever so slightly into Shampoo's flesh. She felt a faint moistness form under the cold touch and caress her skin; a clear indication the knife wielder meant business. In response to the threat Shampoo went limp, though her mind raced along as quickly as her pulse as she tried to figure out exactly what was going on.
The knife wielder spoke again, and this time Shampoo recognized the voice as belonging to the first person to answer her challenge: Kwon Chu. "Get a light going and close the door behind you."
For the first time Shampoo became aware of the presence of others in the room. Her eyes traveled from Kwon, who was almost comical in appearance with the way his broken nose was bandaged up, to scan the room. She looked as best she could with her head being held motionless. To the left of Kwon was another of the men that had challenged her and lost. She thought his name was Yun, who she had disliked the most. He had not said a word during their entire fight, but he did not have to; his eyes had spoken volumes for what ran through his thoughts. They were doing the same now, as he pulled the covers from her and allowed his eyes to rove over her form. In spite of the clothing she wore, she felt naked under the lustful gaze. Much to Shampoo's relief, he and his stare moved out of her direct line of sight as his form became hidden behind Kwon's impressive bulk.
A third man was just visible out of the corner of her vision. He stood off to the side, away from the others and appeared slightly unsure of what to do. She was fairly certain he was another of the men that had challenged her. Wai, or something.
The fourth she spotted next to the light switch near the door. He was the youngest of the quartet, no more than a couple of years older than Shampoo. Hung, if she recalled correctly in her panicked state. He was the one that had managed to hit her in the eye and caused it to blacken. Unlike the others, he appeared afraid, as though he would bolt at any second. Even from her prone position, Shampoo could see his hand trembling visible on the doorknob as he drew it close.
Despite the orders to the others, Kwon kept his eyes riveted on Shampoo, holding tight to both her mouth and his knife, not allowing it to waver in the least. Up close, she could smell the foul odor of some cheap liquor decorating his breath. It was a hundred times worse than even Jaddo could smell on the biggest of his all-night benders. "You're going to get it now, you little bitch. You're going to get exactly what's coming to you."
"I-I'm not sure we should do this," came Hung's voice from next to the door, a position he seemed unwilling to leave.
"Shut up!" Kwon hissed again.
"Besides, she wants it. You can tell. Just take a look at her."
That came from Yun, who was still hidden from Shampoo's gaze, though she could tell from the direction of his voice that he was somewhere around her legs, crouched down low. That made her heart rate double. She wanted, no, needed to see where he was, but she couldn't seem to force her eyes from Kwon's lethal glare any longer. He was the most dangerous of the lot.
Any doubts about what the men were up to were erased as she felt Yun pull at her pajama bottoms, taking both them and her panties off at the same time. She could feel the cool air caress her bare skin. A tremble of fright greater than anything she had ever felt before pulsed through her entire form at being so vulnerable to such men. "Very nice." The soft words seemed to slide through the air, but the promise they carried made Shampoo's trembling double.
Again, Hung spoke, "But… we shouldn't… I mean it's not right. She's-"
"She's got this coming!" Kwon hissed, his eyes still riveted to Shampoo's. "No little bitch can defeat eight guys in a row. She tricked us! I don't know how, but it must have been some kind of set up. Maybe they drugged some of the food we ate or something. Made us slow. No girl can be that good."
"Oh, she looks that good to me," Yun said again, his voice still as soft as a whisper and sharp as the edge of a blade.
Shampoo was uncertain which was worse, the way he said it, or the way his hands began to travel down the length of her legs. She started to move them, but felt the blade press even harder against her throat. The wetness underneath it increased.
"Don't even think it, bitch," Kwon warned. "I'm getting what's coming to me, one way or another. Now you can give me what I should have had in the pit when I beat you, or I can take it the other way." He allowed the pressure of the blade to ease slightly. "Your call."
The toll to her heart and mind grew and added up: The fear was suffocating, unlike any she had ever felt, and it threatened to shut down her mind. The very real threat to her life, the first one ever delivered with such sincerity, and the ability to commit the act. The violation these men had committed upon her, forcing the revelation of her body to their eyes and the liberties they were taking, and would further take, with it, all overwhelmed every one of Shampoo's senses. Worse, her emotions were nearly in the same state. Just as her clothing was being stripped away, so was her ability to control the maelstrom of fear and anger that swelled within her. And without that control in the face of such raw, primal emotions, Shampoo could feel the beast coiling inside her, threatening, no, demanding to get out.
It was a familiar feeling. One that she had felt on a handful of occasions shortly after reaching puberty. The first time it had happened was in a difficult fight with Perfume. Shampoo's rival had gotten a solid blow to her skull, and was pressing a vicious advantage that might have ended up seriously injuring Shampoo. Just as all seemed lost, something deep within her being seemed to surge forth, and she was filled with an energy unlike any she had ever felt before in her life. Pain didn't matter, neither what she had felt nor what Perfume continued to inflict upon her. Everything seemed to slow down for Shampoo as she was filled with more power than she had ever felt in her life. She quickly battered through Perfume's defenses as though they weren't there, making it seem the pink-haired warrior had never possessed an advantage at all. At the very end, Perfume almost seemed to rally, but it was too late with the damage already done. Shampoo rendered her unconscious with a blow that sent her opponent flying nearly ten yards away. Luckily, Perfume had not been seriously hurt, but it had been a near thing.
And then it happened a second time in a fight with another girl who had managed to seriously anger her. The girl had been spreading rumors that Shampoo had been at some nearby falls making out with Mousse. Hearing the preposterous story on everyone's lips, and that they seemed eager to believe it, angered Shampoo further. When she had tracked down the perpetrator of the lie, she snapped once again and came close to severely injuring the girl. After the second incident, Shampoo explained to her great-grandmother what had happened. The elder had seemed concerned about the astonishing ability Shampoo demonstrated, referring to it as the “Dragon Rage”, which was a gift from the gods. It was a mixed blessing, for although it granted its wielder fantastic power, it could also consume the wielder's own strength just as easily as the Rage bestowed its own might upon her.
And now, more powerfully than ever, the Dragon Rage wanted to break free of its self-imposed bonds and visit destruction upon those dogs that walked on two legs. However, Shampoo had to resist its siren call. Whatever powers it could impart to her, invulnerability to having one's throat slit open was not one of them. But if Kwon's attention drifted for even a fraction of a second, let the gods fear for her attackers' souls instead of her own.
Despite the drinks he had consumed, Kwon kept his attention riveted solely on his prey. It was not the first time some little bitch had denied him his due, and he had to take it from them, but most of the teases were compliant with his demands once he showed them who was boss. True, none of them had been as dangerous as the young girl beneath him, but he was a man, and she nothing more than a woman; good for screwing and not much else. But this one wasn't cowering like the others. True, at first she had seemed frightened, but now there was the unmistakable look of anger, no, bloody murder, in those eyes. He didn't think he had ever seen such hatred in a person. For a moment, survival instincts almost overrode his lust and demanded he cut her throat, but he quickly placed them back under control. Apart from the questions that would arise from a death, he wanted the little bitch properly cowed. Death would not give him that satisfaction. He knew the audience had made fun of him, mocked him for losing so easily to some young slut, one that had tempted him with her body, then not only cheated him out of the prize, but had done it in humiliating fashion. He wanted to hear her openly admit she was wrong, that she had deceived him, and that he was the powerful one who was better than her. He was Kwon Chu, and she was nothing more than a worthless bitch that knew a few moves. She would say that, and mean it, before he was done. And if he had a little fun while putting her in her proper place, that made it all the better. Even if the girl wasn't being as submissive as he thought she would be. He'd just have to teach her.
The situation was under his control. Even with the drinks he and the others had consumed, they outnumbered her four to one, and he was the one with a knife to her throat. Getting some of the others that had been cheated out of their victory to join him for vengeance had not been difficult. Most of them had resorted to drinking just as heavily over their humiliating defeats. When Kwon had boldly proclaimed his desire for revenge, Yun had been eager to help him. Wai initially was as well, though now he seemed confused once the moment of retribution was upon him. But the worst was that sniveling brat, Hung. If Kwon had known the kid was so squeamish about having a little fun while putting the slut in her place, he would never have persuaded him to come along. But four sounded better than three, and Kwon was willing to wager once the kid had his turn at the bitch, he would change his tune quick enough. A nice piece of ass could change a man's mind even faster than a good drink and a pocket full of money.
But still, those eyes ached to lash out and strike him dead.
Kwon was considering blindfolding Shampoo when Hung said with an air of finality. "That's it! I-I can't do this! We can't do this! It's wrong! Let her go and let's get the hell out of here!"
Kwon heard the door start to open and growled. The spineless, whining shit could ruin everything if he ran outside and started screaming about what was going on. Some of the other fighters might interfere, and then it would be a huge mess to get out of. Kwon turned for just a second, certain that a direct order to Hung would calm him down enough to get him away from the door and let Wai take over there…
And then he felt something clamp around his wrist, the one with the knife, holding it in a grip as powerful as any vice. Before Kwon could voice a protest, his wrist was driven backward towards him, and the knife buried itself to the hilt in his chest, right below the collarbone.
And suddenly it was Kwon Chu whose life was in danger.
The distraction, though only for the briefest of moments, was all the opening Shampoo needed. The Dragon Rage was set loose upon the world. Her body, which had already been cascaded with a volatile mix of adrenaline, endorphins, and a host of other chemicals, and was prepared to react. In the blink of an eye, Kwon's hand was in an unbreakable grip of Shampoo's own. Effortlessly, she drove the blade home into Kwon himself, taking him out of the fight.
The Dragon Rage turned its attention upon the other threats. Events were happening so fast that Yun, who had repositioned himself by getting on the mattress near Shampoo's ankles and was preparing to undo his pants, was surprised when Shampoo's legs darted back almost to her chest. He was awarded one more brief view of the goal he sought between her legs before both feet came forward. There was no time for him to form even a basic defense as both impacted fully with his pelvis, shattering the bone in five different places and hurling him into one of the walls six feet away with enough force for him to bounce off before falling to the floor. He writhed in a subdued agony that was in direct contrast to Kwon's screams of pain.
Shampoo backed her legs up again and thrust them forward, using the momentum to regain her vertical base, the Dragon Rage fully upon her. She didn't even look as she unleashed a roundhouse kick to the unsuspecting Kwon's lower back. There was a snapping sound as Kwon's screams stopped abruptly, and he sank instantly to the tile floor.
Wai, who had stood by the entire time and said nothing, finally moved. Sensing that he was the next target, and that there was nothing he could possibly do to change that, he lashed forward with his fist. Shampoo batted it away with her left hand and lunged forward, grabbing the side of his head with her right. Off balance as he was from the blow, there was nothing he could do as she literally picked him up off his feet and drove his head backward until the side of it met the stone wall. A resounding crack of both bone and rock echoed in the room.
At his position next to the now open door, Hung had witnessed the systematic dismantling of his trio of acquaintances within the span of three heartbeats. He felt his stomach threaten to heave its contents as Shampoo released the head of her current victim. Wai's body made a slow decent to the floor, his head and face leaving a wide bloody smear that traveled downward, decorating the wall as the head remained pressed against the unyielding stone until it finally came to rest on the tiled floor.
And then Shampoo turned towards Hung.
Never in his life had Hung felt such terror as when that lethal gaze turned towards him. Already frightened by what had happened before, his mind shut down and instincts completely took over as he bolted out the door and into the hallway beyond, fleeing from the mortal danger he knew his life had been plunged in.
Hung had made it to the end of the hall when he heard the door shudder in its frame. He spared only a single glance as he turned the corner. One look was all it took to make him wish he hadn't.
Shampoo stood in the doorway, naked from the waist down but completely unmindful of her half-clothed condition. Her awareness was spared for only one thing, and Hung knew that deadly look was for him alone. She smiled, now more huntress than human, having turned the tables on her would-be rapists (but not him, Hung told himself. He was not going to do it, and he had made that clear). But that smile, that feral grin, told him she thought otherwise, and her opinion was now all that mattered in Hung's world. It promised pain and hinted at something even more. The young man found he had no desire to discover the truth behind the hint, but feared it would be forced upon him all the same.
Hung turned and ran, cutting through the halls to the nearest exit to the dorm. He didn't bother looking back, for all that would do was throw off his rhythm. He didn't need to see to know what was there. Shampoo bearing down on him, running as fast as she could to bring him down like a cheetah would an antelope. He had only one hope, and that was to make it outside and possibly lose his pursuer by making it to either the wooded countryside or the local town, whichever seemed closet.
Fight was not an option; she would destroy him as easily as she had the others. All that was left was flight. In that, perhaps Hung stood a chance. He was easily the fastest man in the town he hailed from, and that was from a population of five thousand. Winning both sprints and longer runs had come easily, though never with death pursuing him at the time. But that one skill, perhaps the one thing he was best at, just might be enough to allow him to survive another day.
The halls were empty this late at night, leaving no one to see the race of life and death through the building. Much to Hung's relief, he spotted the doors leading outside: the first of several checkpoints in this marathon. He burst through them, delighted to see a small stand of trees not all that far from the main building. If he made it through there, and was lucky, Shampoo might trip over something and give up or be unable to continue her pursuit. It was dark, and the terrain uncertain. If she was more concerned with bringing him down rather than for her own safety, he could conceivably outdistance her in a matter of minutes. While it was true that he ran the same risk of turning an ankle that Shampoo would, he was going to take the chance. They were better odds than slowing down and seeing what would happen next.
There was no pacing involved in this run as Hung somehow managed to keep up his headlong flight. He was barely halfway to the trees when he heard the door to the dorms slam behind him again; a sure sign he was still being pursued just as intently as before. Also, it meant that he had gained somewhat on Shampoo, as the distance between his current position and the door was greater than at the corner of the hall and the room they had started out in. He was outrunning her.
Like a rabbit, he burst into the grove of trees, heading through the widest spaces between them. The ground was uneven and full of tangles of undergrowth that Hung could barely make out in the dark. Several times he stumbled, and once he almost fell down. That would have been a death sentence for certain, but he managed to maintain his balance and burst through the trees, clearing the obstacles and running in a straight line for the nearest tree line, which looked like it was a mile away.
By the time he had covered less than a quarter of the distance his pace began to flag. Never had he run that fast for that long, never even close to that, but then he never had such motivation to. His breath came out in increasingly heavy bursts, and none of the breathing exercises he had learned could seem to make him regain it.
He was almost halfway there when the burning in the muscles of his legs slowed him down further. It felt like someone had stuck hot coals under his skin and directly to his hamstrings and calves as the burning became worse with each step he took. No longer was he able to run effectively, no matter how much his spirit wanted to. His body was reaching its physical limit, and perhaps even beyond. Each footfall sounded like a cannon shot as his feet slammed to the soft earth below his feet. He had to concentrate and focus, forcing his legs one in front of another as his lungs began gasping increasingly harder, trying to take in and covert more oxygen for their use.
He was three quarters of the way there when he heard the first footstep behind him.
It wasn't very loud, he was barely able to discern it from his own heavy footfalls, but there was no doubt the sound that reached his ears was out of synch with his own flagging pace.
It wasn't fair! There was no way she should have been able to keep up with him! He was the fastest man in five thousand. He was in better shape now than in his last major run. There was no way someone as powerful and as deadly as Shampoo should have been able to match his near-inhuman pace. Surely he was better than her at something. Yes, he could admit she was quicker, stronger, and a better fighter than he was. He could never have accomplished the feats that she had in the dog pit. He had known there was no trickery involved, just that she was the best warrior he had seen in his life. Yet when Kwon had boldly stated they had been tricked by Shampoo, Hung had jumped on that excuse to soothe his bruised ego. Less certain he had been for extracting the vengeance that Kwon had claimed should be theirs, but with the encouragement of the other three and more amounts of alcohol, as well as a healthy dose of lust for the beautiful girl, he had chosen to follow them, at least until the moment of truth was upon him. It was then he showed his true inner nature and realized that not only could he not go through with the plan, but denounced it and was prepared to leave and get help when all hell broke loose.
And now he was paying for his momentary loss of morals. He was being run to ground, even as he and his companions had tried to force themselves on the young Amazon warrior who had defeated them fairly. Now he was going to be beaten to death at her hands, left in the same bloody, broken heaps that the others had been in. All due to no reason other than a moment of weakness. A man's life shouldn't depend on a single moment. It wasn't fair.
The next footfall sounded as though it was right behind him. Panic filled him again as he somehow managed to put on another burst of speed and got closer to the trees ahead. Just another hundred meters, that was all it would be, then he might at last elude her. These trees were thicker, and she had to be more tired now. Perhaps even as he ran she was losing pace, laboring for each gasping breath as hard as he was, heart threatening to burst out of her chest just as his was, a burning sensation in every muscle in her legs, right down to her toes, just like him. She had to be, otherwise she couldn't be human. Nothing human could do that.
The burst of energy faded, and Hung's pace ebbed even further. Every step was an effort in will, and he only had so much will, no matter who was chasing him. The world seemed to be spinning as the trees drew ever closer, their low hanging branches the goal he raced for. They were almost there. Almost within his reach. All he needed to do was reach out…
…And he was there. In the trees. He had made it. Now all he had to do was-
-And then the world really was spinning as a heavy weight crashed into his back and into the grove. He fell to the ground, sliding a considerable distance down the hill that had been hidden on the other side of the trees. Hung's skin on his knees and legs tore off in large patches as he fell across several rocks that stuck out of the ground he on the hill he was rolling down. Then the bottom came, and the most he managed to do was roll with the impact so that he was lying on his back instead of stomach. But it was so hard to even think, let alone regain his footing and try to run again. He doubted he could, with the raging torrent of pain that was coming from both of his lower limbs, only some of it from the shredding of flesh on stone. He could barely breathe with the red-hot pokers of pain that were stabbing through the delicate tissue in the walls of his lungs.
And then what little breath had remained in his lungs was knocked out as Shampoo fell hard across his chest. She maintained a sitting position on his upper body, pinning him helplessly to the ground. Her hands snaked around his throat, preventing even the slightest intake to regain his breath. Instead, Hung flailed weakly, helplessly against her hands as they constricted ever so slowly around his windpipe, threatening to break both it and his neck.
Shampoo was still in the midst of the Dragon Rage as she straddled her opponent and slowly squeezed the life out of him. She was enraged that he had tried to escape her divine retribution for the heinous acts he and his associates had committed. The others had all paid for their actions, but this one had been cowardly and tried to flee instead of turning to face his inevitable fate. He had made her expend a great deal of energy in running him down. He would pay for that offense as well. He would pay for it in the slow delivery of pain instead of quick before the end.
Hung's hands went from their weak assault on hers to falling limply to the ground. Yes, that was more like it. Soon it would be over, and final vengeance would be hers over the quartet of would-be rapists. Death was all he and his kind deserved, with their cold hands and heartless eyes. Eyes just like this one's.
Except there was no lack of emotion in those eyes, just pain and fear, though even that was beginning to leave them and was being replaced by a blankness instead. Something began to cut through the haze of red that the Dragon Rage had placed over Shampoo's own vision. This one hadn't been like the others. Perhaps at first he was, but hadn't he protested what they had done? What they were about to do? The others had told him to shut up, but he had resisted and protested again. Not protecting her, not exactly, but trying to prevent her from becoming a victim at the least.
A rattle and thin trickle of frothy spittle escaped his lips as Shampoo's hands remained where they were, locked around his neck. Perhaps this one was not like the others; perhaps he did not deserve to die. It was so hard to judge through the anger she felt through the Rage. They had come so close to defiling her! Shouldn't they all have been punished? Weren't they all culpable, even if they had not gotten the opportunity to take their turns with her?
But wasn't it Hung's final protestation that had allowed Shampoo the opportunity to free herself? Would she have been able to do what she had to Kwon if he had not been distracted for that split second? It was so hard to think. What should she do? Kill or not kill the animal? Which was the proper choice?
Jaddo was looking over the grounds around the dorm with a careful eye. It was times like this he damned that he had never learned proper tracking skills from his father. That old bastard, when he was still alive, had been able to track an ant ten miles through pitch-blackness in a drunken stupor if he had so chosen, but not Jaddo. No sir, he couldn't track a marching band through five miles of flat, pristine snow without a map and a guide. All he knew how to do was fight until he was crippled and screw up young girls' lives when they needed him the most.
Jaddo was still trying to find some clue as to which direction Shampoo had run when she slowly came into view from a cluster of trees that weren't that far away. She was walking dejectedly, but appeared physically unharmed save for a small red stain on her neck. Other wounds though, ones that didn't leave their mark on the outside and that were more difficult to heal, that would be another story.
He walked towards her, uncertain of exactly what to say in this sort of situation. As he drew closer, he noted that the pants she wore were not a pair that she owned. Processing that information, he tried to be all the more cautious in his behavior. He could do so when the situation merited, and this was definitely one of those times.
Shampoo stopped before him, the dazed look leaving her eyes as they focused on her mentor, then she turned them to the ground, unwilling to look at him again.
Sensing she was waiting for him to speak, Jaddo said, "You okay?"
Shampoo gave only a slight nod of her head, eyes still pointed to the ground.
So that was the way it was going to be. Jaddo thought he might have understood. "It didn't take much to figure out what happened, not with the scene I found. I got here about the same time as the authorities. You did good work on them assholes. Docs said broken pelvis and internal bleeding on one, probably lose at least his spleen, and he'll walk worse than me when he gets back to his feet, if he ever does. Same as that guy with the knife in his chest. Broke his spine good. No chance he'll ever have another sensation from below his waist. A case of justice there. Fractured skull on the last one. Docs are fairly certain they can keep him alive, meaning he'll be a vegetable the rest of his life. Real fine work."
Shampoo remained silent, nodding at his statements.
"You don't got nothing to worry about. Some of the other fighters overheard what those guys in the bar were saying. They knew the score. Hate to admit it, but this sort of thing has been known to happen. Sometimes not ending as appropriate as this. Local authorities tend to turn a blind eye to this sort of thing when they can. They don't want the hassle, and it ain't like any of the victims hang around to complain. Fighters are just entertaining transients as far as they're concerned." He noted his Chinese was becoming heavily accented. He hated that sort of loss of control. The girl needed his strength right now, not signs of weakness.
This time Shampoo just stood mutely, staring at the ground.
"Heard someone say you were chasing the last one. Looks like you must have caught up to him."
She didn't respond again.
"You finish him off, or he still in what passes for working condition?"
She nodded her head. Jaddo took it to mean the latter part of his question rather than the former. There was something about her attitude that convinced him of that. Not that it would have been any great loss if he had died. Had Jaddo gotten to him first, that would have been his fate.
Her reactions, or lack of them, were frustrating Jaddo like few things ever had, mostly because he couldn't just give a caustic comment to deal with them. He would be the first to admit he lacked delicate people skills. Ordinarily, with most of the people he spent time with, he did not need them. It was one of the reasons he didn't enjoy hanging around the same people for very long; it was too easy for him to wear out his welcome. There were a handful of individuals he called friends, those that could see past his harsh exterior to know what he was like on the inside, but it had taken most of them years to really get a grasp for it. For Shampoo, he didn't know exactly how to deal with her in a way that would do more help than harm. It was one of the reasons he was so relieved he never had any children. He would have been a terrible father. He had no idea whatsoever how to deal with them. They weren't just smaller versions of adults. They were different. More delicate, and he was not a delicate person.
"Look," Jaddo reached his hand out to touch her and comfort her in some way. Women usually liked that sort of gesture. But as his hand came close, Shampoo darted back out of reach, like a tiny mouse that had let a hungry cat draw too near.
Now Jaddo understood what was happening. This was a problem that had to be dealt with now, before it became unmanageable.
"I see," Jaddo said softly in the hopes that it would settle Shampoo, then lunged forward, pushing off with his good leg. He was able to grab her by the shoulders before she could react, just as he had hoped. Acting quickly, he forced her in close and held her tight in his arms, burying her face in middle of his chest.
For a moment, Shampoo went limp, and then the struggle began. There was a frenzy of punches and kicks as she screeched incoherently for him to let go of her.
"Let it out, Shan Pu. Let it all out," Jaddo said as softly as he could, hoping she would hear him and understand what he meant. He began to doubt that she had as her struggles became twice as powerful, and he suffered blows and scratches over every area of his body she could reach. It was like trying to hold on to a terrified cat with the way she was screeching and struggling. He was certain she was about to work her way free when the struggle stopped just as abruptly as it began. He felt her shudder one last time, then hold onto him in a crushing hug. The cries of rage became cries of pain and sorrow as he felt tears began to soak into his shirt.
He did the only thing he could think of: tell her the truth. He stroked her hair with his hand, and said in the softest voice he could muster, "I won't hurt you, Shan Pu. I'm not like those men. You know that. I'd give my life for you if I had to. I swear it. You'll never have to fear me. Never. So you just let it out. Let it all out, and I promise I'll be there for you as long as you need me, no matter what. No matter what."
And Shampoo cried even harder and held ever tighter, and Jaddo remained where he was, holding her the entire time, a single tear glistening in his eye as well.
It was the first one he had shed in over twenty years.
To be continued.
Author's notes: Special thanks to Jurai-Knight, L.B. Drifter, Wade Tritschler, and Ryan Anderson
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