Chapter 19: Showdown
A Ranma ½ story
by D.B. Sommer
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.
All comments and criticisms appreciated. You can contact me at email@example.com
What’s gone on before (or what you really need to know to enjoy this fic) In the beginning the Saotomes traveled to Jusenkyou to spar, not realizing Shampoo and Mousse had already begun a duel there. One midair collision and bath in Spring of Young Drowned Man later there is a male Shampoo as well as a female Ranma. (So Ranma-chan= Female Ranma. Shampoo-kun= male Shampoo. Enjoy.) Shampoo elected to travel to Japan with Ranma and accidentally became engaged to Kasumi. After that was cleared up Ranma became engaged to Akane. After many months of battles and other chaotic situations too numerous to mention here (i.e. Read the earlier chapters for full details) Ranma and company thought they discovered a cure for their curses. It turned out that the magic kettle they sought could not cure their curses, and Ranma, Mousse (who turns into a panda) and Ryouga (who turns into a bat with a direction sense) were captured by Herb of the Musk Dynasty then locked into their cursed forms. Herb kidnapped the trio and took them to China. Shampoo discovered their destination and followed in hot pursuit, alone.
Notes: <> Denotes Chinese
** Panda “sign” language
Raise the arm.
Grasp at the handhold.
Pull. Make certain it can hold the weight.
Find a foothold.
Put pressure on it. Make certain it can hold the weight.
Pull yourself up.
Raise the arm.
Grasp at the handhold.
Pull. Make certain it can hold the weight.
Find a foothold
Put pressure on it. Make certain it can hold the weight.
Pull yourself up.
A simple mantra repeated a thousand times. Something had to be done to maintain his focus. It was not always as easy as it sounded, though. If there were no handholds or footholds to find, Shampoo-kun had to use some of the climbing equipment to scale the cliffs. It went on like that for hours. It had been a dream to scale this mountain. To relax and enjoy the brisk, challenging climb it represented.
It was the typical, stupid crap he would come up with.
Scaling it was closer to a nightmare than a dream. Maybe he could have enjoyed it, if Ranma’s life hadn’t been on the line. Maybe if he hadn’t been on the verge of exhaustion, he could have enjoyed it. Maybe if he hadn’t sprained his shoulder in the first thousand feet, he could have enjoyed it. A thousand maybes that didn’t do him any good. He was stuck where he was, climbing for all he was worth, praying he could make it to the top of the mountain without plummeting to his death, but that was beginning to look doubtful.
Raise the arm.
Shampoo-kun would have been finished if he hadn’t made that almost fatal mistake so early on. He used a piton and fastened some rope through a particularly tricky part. Only when he put all his weight on the rope, the piton gave way. It really had been too long since he went climbing. If he’d been in practice he would have realized that the rock he had hammered the spike in would not have held. So he dropped almost thirty feet before his arm, thankfully, caught onto an outcropping of rock. The sudden stop nearly dislocated the shoulder though, and it still hurt like hell, even now.
The first thing he checked after the unexpected freefall was the vial in his shirt. If it had broken, or even leaked, the climb would’ve been over and he would have plummeted to his death. Thankfully it was still intact. Shampoo-kun was off to a wonderful start, and there was still several thousand feet to climb. If only all life and death matters could be so much fun.
Grasp at the handhold.
So, after assessing the damage, he set off again. Every time he used that arm to haul himself up it would shoot out messages of intense pain. He ignored them as best he could, and when it couldn’t be ignored anymore, he would stop and rest. Not comfortably, but it was still rest. Then he would make himself go on. It was a snail’s pace, but he continued onward, ever onward. For the first time since it happened, he was grateful for the curse. His male body was more powerful than his female one, and added strength was what was needed to scale the cliff. He had to save Ranma. Failure meant pain. Pain far worse than anything that could possibly imagine. The pain of a sprained shoulder was nothing compared to the pain of failure.
Pull. Make certain it can hold the weight.
That was yesterday. His progress had been too slow and the hour late as night fell. When Shampoo-kun knew he could not go much farther, he looked for a wide ledge, wide being relative to what was around. He needed it, though. He absolutely had to find a large ledge and tie himself in. His body could not go on any more. When he first laid eyes upon the mountain, he was convinced it could be scaled in a day. Now it looked like it was going to take two, at least. Why did he have to hurt his shoulder? It slowed him down too much. That was why it was taking this long. If his shoulder was fine, he could have gone faster. Much faster. And he wouldn’t have been so damn tired.
Find a foothold.
Ranma was running out of time. Shampoo-kun had to move rapidly, but rapidly was a good way to get killed. A frontal assault was looking more and more feasible than this insane plan he had come up with. It certainly would have been easier than what he was doing now. A frontal assault meant he would only have had to deal with a hundred or so soldiers instead of thousands of feet to climb.
No foothold. Damn!
He pulled out the hammer and piton. There were few left, and they had to be conserved. Now that Shampoo-kun thought about it, this was the worst side to climb up. Maybe he should have started on another side, then moved over once at the top. A wonderful time to come up with that, now that it was too late. Life really sucked sometimes.
He finished the task and managed to scale over the smooth surface he was at now. Once past that part, finding hand and foot holds would be much easier. Easier, not easy.
Raise the arm.
His mind went into neutral after that, all energy and concentration directed towards climbing. Higher and higher he moved as the air became cooler and thinned. He didn’t even realize day had turned into night. It just suddenly was. The only reason it registered at all was because the pain had gotten to be too much once again. He had to get to the top soon. He was approaching the absolute limit on how much farther he could go. Ever since Japan, he’d been on the move. First tracking down Ranma, then traveling to China, then rounding up all the things he needed to accomplish the rescue, then traveling to the fortress of the Musk Dynasty. Sleep was caught in fitful moments, when the flesh was no longer willing to follow the course of the spirit. And the sleep was never enjoyed.
Find a handhold.
Every time Shampoo-kun fell asleep, he had nightmares about Ranma being dead. And always upon the first moments of waking, he was convinced they were genuine, that the dream was the reality. That was the worst part, the belief that he had failed and Ranma was dead. There was no way to describe the anguish he felt until he could recall that it was just a dream. Maybe he was losing his mind. That was a pleasant thought. “I’m crazy, and risking my life trying to rescue someone.” He would have given anything to hear Ranma’s voice now, to reassure him he was not going insane. Sleep would be so nice. Just let go…
Reflexes took over as Shampoo-kun grabbed onto the ledge and held on for dear life. He had nearly released his grip on the rock. The drain had to be located soon; otherwise there would be no rescue, since he would end up as nothing more than a splotch on the ground. No one would even be able to identify the body. A spectacular way to check out, but he wasn’t ready to die yet. Just as he was about to give up hope, his nose caught the scent. There was no mistaking what it could be. The smell of raw waste was somewhat unique.
It was the best smell in the world Shampoo-kun had ever caught wind of.
He had located the drain, and now could gain entry into the fortress, just as he planned. It took him several moments to spot the hole in the dark, but spot it he did. A hole to salvation. All that was left was to get to it.
It was unquestionably the easiest part of the climb he had done. Energy he didn’t think he possessed surged through limbs that previously could barely make another foot. He was able to hoist himself to the aperture within moments. As he pulled himself up, the powerful stench and junk along the lip of the open drain indicated it was in working order. A good sign. It meant there was still access to the inside the fortress. Shampoo-kun made his way into the drain, walking bent over for about twenty feet before finding a somewhat higher spot out of the muck (a nice word for the odious substance he was now in) and sat back upright. There was no telling what he would contract if he lay down in the muck. As he sat back he assessed his condition. No part of his body was unaffected by the climb. Every muscle ached, even his tongue, though he had no idea why. He just had to rest a few moments. It had been such a long and arduous climb, and he needed to rest his eyes. Just for a little while. Ranma needed rescuing, but it would not do to have Shampoo-kun collapse in the middle of the rescue. No, it would no…
Shampoo looked down at Ranma’s grave. There was nothing more than a plain, gray tombstone that adorned it. The headstone possessed none of the elegance it deserved. Such a simple monument to one so complex. Even the words on it were elementary:
Here lies Ranma Saotome.
It was then that Shampoo finally realized Akane was standing quietly next to her. Her black dress was nearly identical to the darkness that surrounded them. The hour must have been late for it to be so dark out, though she could make out clouds obscuring the moon. The two stood alone.
Shampoo examined Akane more closely. There was nothing but a mask of cold emotionlessness on her face, almost as though she were just as dead as Ranma.
“Akane, I sorry.” Shampoo had no idea on how to express what she felt. It went beyond her inability to speak good Japanese. She would not have been able to do it in Chinese either. It was a feeling of total emptiness, as though there was nothing left in the world. Just a void.
Akane’s reaction was blindingly fast. A shovel appeared in her hands, just like one of her mallets would have, and she connected it with Shampoo’s head. Right before the metal made contact with Shampoo’s skull, she saw the rage that was now upon Akane’s face. She had never seen such animalistic hatred on another human being before. Never.
The first blow was only enough to stun, and knock Shampoo off her feet. Akane followed up by applying a second blow to the Amazon’s head. This one managed to immobilize her as Shampoo’s body fell flat upon the ground, leaving her head positioned so she could witness Akane’s next action. What she saw scared the life out of her.
“You screwed up, Shampoo!” Akane shouted as she used the shovel to start digging next to Ranma’s grave.
“You let Ranma die!” She scooped up another shovelful of earth as she continued to dig. The glaze in her eyes indicated sanity was no longer retained in the girl. Looking into those eyes, Shampoo suddenly understood what it meant to have one’s blood freeze in their veins.
“You just had to play the hero, didn’t you?! The great and mighty Amazon warrior that can do anything in the world!” Each accusation was punctuated by another shovelful of earth as the hole became deeper. “But you messed up! He’s dead, and it’s your fault!”
Shampoo wanted to shout out “No!” at the top of her lungs, but all that came out was a weak mumble of protest.
Akane understood anyway. “Yes! You could have called for help! You could have bothered to think things through! You could have trained harder or moved faster! But you didn’t! And now it’s too late.” She was standing in the hole now and digging from within. It was deep enough now that she was visible only from the waist up, and still she continued digging as the accusations flew.
“You say you loved him? You think he could love someone like you?” She spat out with contempt. “How, when you’re nothing but a failure? You should have been there to protect him, but you ran off like a little, heartbroken schoolgirl! You ran, just like you did from your village when you got cursed! Amazon pride, my ass! There’s nothing proud about a weak little girl like you!” Akane’s face was now smudged with dirt, adding to her insane appearance as she kept yelling. “And then you couldn’t catch up to him, so Herb carted him off and he died! There were a million things you could have done to prevent it, but you failed each and every time!” Thunder suddenly broke out from the skies, mirroring Akane’s rage, yet no rain fell.
The hole was now deep enough that Akane’s head was barely visible from Shampoo’s position. Akane paused long enough to mop the sweat from her brow before she threw aside her shovel and heaved herself out of the hole. She then stalked over to Shampoo like some kind of bestial predator. The lightning highlighted the wild-eyed appearance of the dirt covered, crazed maniac as Akane stared at Shampoo’s prone body. With a small smile of satisfaction she bent over and grabbed the purple haired girl by the back of her shirt and began dragging her. It took but a moment for the Amazon to realize where she was being hauled. The attempt to resist was an exercise in futility, as her muscles still refused to cooperate no matter how much she wanted them to. All she could do was whimper in protest.
Akane paused next to the empty hole as another crash of thunder came to Shampoo’s ears. Almost as though it was some kind of signal from the gods, Akane once again continued her rant. “You love Ranma so much? Fine! YOU CAN BE BURIED NEXT TO HIM!!!”
And with that Akane threw Shampoo brutally into the hole. Pain shot through her arm as she landed roughly on it, then gravity finished the job as the Amazon landed on her back and gazed upwards at the cloudy, midnight sky. She had a view of Akane moving back and forth within sight of the opening of the hole. The youngest Tendo’s pacing stopped as she finally picked up the shovel and scooped up some earth with it. Shampoo could only watch in paralyzed terror as the first shovel of dirt came crashing down upon her head. She tried crying, even begging for mercy, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. As her body continued accumulating an ever-growing coating of earth, Shampoo heard Akane make one last condemnation.
“You wanted to rest? Well, here’s your big chance. Rest in Peace! HAHAHAHA!!!”
Shampoo-kun sat up bolt upright, thumping his head on the top of the ceiling of the pipe. A nightmare, the worst one yet. No matter how tired he felt, he was not going to sleep until the matter with Ranma was resolved. One way or another.
He heaved himself to his feet and trudged through the offal that lined the bottom of the drain. The lord only knew exactly what coated the bottom of it. Fortunately, it was pitch black in the pipe, save for the minute shafts of light that came through tiny drains in the ceiling. At last the smaller holes gave way to a large metal grate in the top of the drain. Pried open, it would be large enough for Shampoo-kun to get through. He placed his ear next to the opening. Once he ascertained there was no one in the connecting hallway, he forced the grate open. There was a slight twinge in his shoulder, but not enough to cause any real problems. He silently wondered how long he had been out. There was no question that he was still close to exhaustion, but his body felt ten times better than what it had felt like before the horrible nightmare. If only his mind had felt so strong.
He left the climbing equipment behind. It would only serve to weigh him down, and it wasn’t as though he would be leaving the way he had come in, even if he was physically able to. No, escape would come by a different route. Hopefully Shampoo-kun could come up with it soon. Still, there was something to be said for making things up as you went along.
He hadn’t traveled the corridor for very long when the sounds of metal-shod boots echoed down the passageway. Shampoo-kun set into motion instantly. He tried the two closest doors to him, but both were locked tight. True, he could certainly shatter the doors. He could knock down a wall if he had to, but the noise would serve to alert half the soldiers within the fortress to an intruder. No, there had to be some other way to get out of sight. There was nothing large enough in the corridor to hide behind, and judging by the sounds the hall was too long to race down and get out of sight before the men saw him. Dispatching the guards before they could raise an alarm might have been the only course left. The only real problem with that would be how long it would be before it was noticed the men were missing. Shampoo-kun did not need the added complication of a severely limited timetable from which to work with.
That was when Shampoo-kun spotted an alternative. There was an alcove in the ceiling directly above him. If he leaped up, and spread out his arms and legs, he could probably brace himself and hide up there. The only way anyone could possibly see him was if they were directly under him and looked straight up. Since he wanted to maintain a low profile, he put his belt knife in his teeth and leaped up. If someone saw him it would take only a second to use the knife on the person below. By having it out and ready to go, it might make the difference between a warning cry and complete silence.
It didn’t take long for the guards to walk under Shampoo-kun’s position. Only two of them, working their way slowly up the hall. Two soldiers in the same style armor Shampoo-kun had seen so many years ago. Interesting that they hadn’t changed the design. The duo had almost walked out from under Shampoo-kun’s position when they abruptly stopped.
Perfect! Someone was going to end up dead. And if Shampoo-kun wasn’t careful, it might end up being him.
One of the guards pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his belt and handed one to his partner. It appeared smoking really was going to kill the two of them, if either one chanced to look up. The duo began to talk of irrelevant things. Women, fellow guards, how much Herb was paying them, and if they were going to get a raise. Shampoo-kun would have liked to inform them they were never going to collect another paycheck again if they didn’t get moving.
Shampoo-kun felt his arm began to shake uncontrollably. A muscle spasm indicating just how weak he really was. If the fools below him did not move within the next minute they were dead.
One of the guards started sniffing the air. “<God! What is that smell?>”
His partner sniffed also. “<Must be one of the drains clogging or something. Happens all the time in this place. Once you’re here as long as I have, you get used to all the idiosyncrasies of the fortress.>”
“<Well, let’s get out of here! I don’t want to have to smell crap all day. >”
Both men continued along the hall, turning the corner at the end just as Shampoo-kun let himself down. That was far too close, and now he had to change his clothes. He was going to give himself away by scent if he didn’t.
Shampoo-kun found some extra clothing, which fit somewhat loosely, in an unoccupied room, then changed and continued down the halls of the fortress. The shadows were his ally as he evaded roaming patrols of guards time and time again. It was not that they were observant, but there was so many of them. Too many of them, in fact. There was at least four times the number of soldiers in the fortress than there needed to be. The Amazon suddenly got a bad feeling about the whole situation. The only reason Herb would be paying so many mercenaries so much money was if he was planning something big. Like mobilizing an army and conquering something.
As much as Shampoo-kun was dying to know what was going on, it would have to wait. Ranma had to be rescued; then the knowledge he had gathered could be put to good use. Alerting his tribe might be in order. However much was still unknown, one thing could be for certain: Herb was up to no good.
Shampoo-kun was quickly becoming frustrated. He had to hide in shadows so often there was seemingly no time for movement. Ranma and the others had to be found. As Shampoo-kun walked through a large room with several stone columns, a man approached from a doorway at the far side, not more than ten feet away. Shampoo-kun had no time to take cover before the man would spot him. A decision was made in an instant: best to take him out as he stepped into the light of the room. Shampoo-kun allowed a smile to purse his lips, as the man entered dark haired boy’s vision. Just the man he wanted to see. Maybe his luck was changing for the better.
Lime came into the room and spotted Shampoo-kun immediately. “<Who are you? You aren’t supposed to be here.>”
Shampoo-kun smiled in return. “<Hi there, Lime! Don’t you remember me?>”
Lime examined the youth more closely. “<Nope.>”
Shampoo-kun gave a soft laugh. “<Of course you wouldn’t. I’ve changed a lot since you last saw me. I bet you don’t find my chest anywhere near as interesting as you once did, eh?>”
Lime shook his head in confusion. “<I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’d better come with me.>” Lime moved forward to seize Shampoo-kun so he could be properly interrogated by others.
The Amazon allowed his hand to slip into his shirt. “<Lime, is it true that you have the blood of tigers running through your veins?>”
“<Yes!>” Lime pounded a fist to his chest in pride. “<I have the strength of the great cats in me. No one can match my might!>”
“<Too bad most three-year-olds can match your wits. Get ready to get in touch with your roots, Lime.>”
“<What’s that supposed to mean?>” Lime knew he didn’t like the little man in front of him.
“<This,>” Shampoo-kun said calmly, then threw the vial of water at Lime.
Mousse-panda hung from the chains on the wall. He had lost all feeling in his arms about an hour ago. That was something of a relief, as the pain from his appendages had been tremendous. Having nothing better to do, he allowed his gaze to wander over the inside of the cell once again. His equipment and robes were lying in a pile at the far side of the room. The amount of material he had stashed on his person surprised even him. Where the hell had he picked up a lawn mower and VCR? How unfortunate they had taken the three hours required to remove everything from his person. There had to be something in that pile that could break the chains he was in. If only he could reach it somehow.
Mousse-panda looked to his cellmate. Unlike him, Ryouga-bat wore no shackles. There wasn’t any need for them, since his jailers had seen fit to prevent him from escaping by hammering nails through the membrane of his wings and into the wall. Mousse-panda believed the lost one’s unconsciousness was probably for the best. The screeching he had done when he was first put up was enough to drive a panda crazy.
The sound of the door opening caught his attention. It felt like they had eaten only about a couple of hours ago, so it couldn’t be a meal. A shudder of terror went through him as he silently wondered if Herb was coming back. Some of the things the prince had done when he extracted information from Mousse-panda were very painful. And the worst part about it was Mousse-panda had written the truth on his boards. Herb just didn’t believe he would betray Ranma so quickly. But when the story held up under the torture, Herb relented, promising more pain if Mousse-panda was lying. He had no desire to go though that again. Anything but that.
He could just make out a blurry form entering the room in front of him. It might have been Herb, the height was about the same, but it was hard to tell from a distance of ten feet. Best to make a preemptive strike instead of taking a chance.
*I’ll tell you everything you need to know. Don’t hurt me!*
“<What an iron tower of courage you are, Mousse. It reminds me of why I care for you the way I do.>”
Mousse-panda jaw dropped in shock. The voice sounded like… *Shampoo? Is that you?*
Shampoo-kun dropped the sack he was carrying to the ground and seriously considered belting Mousse-panda just on general principle. How unfortunate there was no time for horseplay.
“<Yes, it’s me, you blind fool!>”
*You’ve come to save me. I knew you loved me. Oh, the dangers you must have faced to rescue me from this awful dungeon. I always knew it was true what they say, about there being nothing like a little danger to the ones you love to bring out your true feelings for them.* Mousse-panda dropped his sign as he cried in joy.
Under the circumstances it probably wouldn’t have done to tell him his true feeling was to leave the panda right where he was. That wasn’t exactly true. Shampoo-kun wouldn’t leave him to die, even if it would solve an awful lot of problems.
“<I’m here for one reason and one reason only. Where’s Ranma?>”
Mousse-panda paused a moment before giving a soft look to Shampoo-kun. *He’s dead. Herb killed him.*
It was amazing how five words could destroy a person’s life.
Interlude: Seven Devils
The trawler the man in black rode upon chugged its way loudly across the water. The previous owner was dead at the hands of the stone giant that traveled with him. He had gotten to kill someone after all. The action made him happy for the first time since he had been resurrected.
“Is it almost time, my lord?” The young Japanese man in white robes, the newest recruit, asked the man in black.
“Patience. There is one other I wish to retrieve, first. Bringing her back will be just as difficult as your resurrection. She blew herself up, I’m afraid.”
“Serves the bitch right,” the man in the white robes mumbled.
Pain lanced through the robed man’s gut as the man in black tightened his hand. “There will be no infighting amongst you. I will tolerate it no more than I will defiance. This time there will be no mistakes. You will all obey me to the letter, or I will do something to you much worse than death.”
At last the man unclenched his hand and allowed the robed man to grovel before him. “I’m sorry, master. I didn’t mean to defy you!”
“I know. You still live. Now, enough talk. It is time to raise the next to last of your members.”
The man in black repeated the same spell that he used to bring back the white-robed man. The only difference was that the resurrected person was a woman with scars across her face. Unlike the white robed man, no lightning was needed to bring her back to life. The woman opened her eyes and stared at the man in black.
“Who are you?” She managed to croak out at the man in black.
Mousse-panda just stared at the woman/man he loved. Shampoo-kun had recoiled, as though shot, upon reading Mousse-panda’s declaration. Since then the black haired Amazon had stood there, motionless.
*Shampoo. Let’s get out of here. Every second we waste just leads us closer to death.* Any moment now, Herb could return. If that happened, everyone was dead.
It was almost a full minute before Shampoo-kun finally responded by whispering under his breath. “<I can’t kill them all in a straight fight. There are too many.>”
*Shampoo, what are you talking about?* Mousse-panda was becoming increasingly concerned. Shampoo-kun wasn’t behaving rationally. They needed to escape, not fight. Trying to take on the Musk would be suicide.
Shampoo-kun’s head shot up as an idea occurred to him. “<Poison! They have to eat, and I’m sure there’s some kind of mess hall where they all dine at the same time.>”
He calmed down a little as he continued to plan, hand raised to his chin. “<It’ll have to be slow acting, though. Maybe an hour before the effect hits. I wouldn’t want to have a dozen drop dead immediately and have the rest refuse to eat. If there’s an infirmary, I can mix something together, I’m sure.>”
*Shampoo, you aren’t making any sense.* Mousse-panda’s worry increased by the moment. It seemed Shampoo-kun was talking to himself instead of the hanging prisoner.
Shampoo-kun continued, oblivious to the panda’s writing. “<Some won’t eat, though. They’ll be busy doing other tasks, and others won’t eat for whatever reason, but there won’t be enough left to cause a problem. I’ll start at the gates and work my way from there. Make sure no one escapes.>”
Mousse-panda finally saw Shampoo-kun’s face and could make out the wild gleam in his eyes. The Amazon was quickly losing his mind to a psychotic frenzy. The panda had to defuse the situation quickly or else it would be too late for any of them.
“<Herb dies last. Slowly. Painfully.>” Shampoo-kun began to tremble. “<I’ll give him pain. I’ll show him what it means to have your soul torn apar…>” He stopped abruptly as Mousse-panda slammed a sign against the wall to get his attention.
*I lied. Ranma’s still alive.* Mousse-panda hoped that would bring Shampoo-kun back to reality. If it didn’t… he let the thought trail off.
It had an effect, just not exactly the one the panda desired. Shampoo-kun looked at the hanging prisoner, then turned, going over to the pile of weapons that had come from Mousse’s person. After sorting through them he settled upon a large battle-ax and approached Mousse-panda. The way he slowly brandished the ax back and forth scared the life out of the prisoner.
*W…What are you doing with that? I’m sorry! All right? It was just a joke.* Mousse-panda did not like the way his long time companion was looking at him. If he did not know better, he would swear Shampoo-kun was going to use the blade on him.
Fear gripped Mousse-panda as Shampoo-kun stared at him, then held the weapon to his throat. “<If you ever do anything like that again, I will kill you. Do you understand? Not hurt. Not cripple. Kill.>” Shampoo-kun lowered the weapon long enough to allow the panda to nod his head.
Shampoo-kun paused a moment before going over to take a closer look at Ryouga-bat. He really was nailed to the wall. Those sick Musk bastards were going to pay. If they did this to Ryouga, there was no telling what Herb had done to Ranma. He went over and released Ryouga-bat from his predicament, and lowered him to the ground. The lost one began to recover and curled into a ball, trying to relieve some of the pain from the tattered remains of his wings.
*Are you going to let me down?* Mousse-panda finally worked up enough courage to address Shampoo-kun with a sign.
Shampoo-kun did not answer, but rather walked over to the pile and pulled out a pair of bolt cutters. Mousse-panda relaxed, if Shampoo-kun was going to kill him he was not going to use bolt cutters. He hoped.
The chains were cut as Mousse-panda landed on his feet. They moved all right as he worked his arms around in an effort to get his circulation going once again.
“Where are they keeping Ranma?” Shampoo-kun switched to Japanese so Ryouga-bat could understand.
Mousse just shrugged as he retrieved his robes and weapons. Herb had interrogated him about Ranma, not given him a tour of the fortress. *I don’t know. We need to get out of here. Ranma wouldn’t want you to risk his life for him.* He silently added to himself, “And I don’t want you to risk his life for him.”
The cold stare he received was all the answer he needed.
Ryouga-bat ‘sqeee’d’ at Shampoo-kun. The Amazon understood what he was trying to say in an instant. Ryouga-bat could find Ranma with his tracking ability. Shampoo-kun thanked every deity he could think of that he had accidentally knocked Ryouga into the Spring of Drowned Bat. Mousse-panda picked up the bat and placed him on his shoulder. The winged rodent indicated which way to go with his nose. The trio set off down the corridor to find Ranma.
The mists parted, allowing Ranma to witness the awesome scene before him. He had arrived at Jusenkyou, alone. Eyes took in the land of a hundred springs and poles. He could find the Spring of Drowned Young Man at last, then a cure. As he approached the floor of the valley he sensed a presence. He slowly turned to see the back of the Jusenkyou Guide next to a pole. The guide remained with his back turned as he spoke.
“Ah, young visitor. Welcome to Jusenkyou. You seek the Spring of Drowned Young Man, yes?”
“Yeah!” Ranma could barely contain his excitement. The cure.
“It right over there.” The guide still didn’t move, but rather pointed to a spring to the right.
“Thanks.” Ranma raced off as he saw the solution to all his problems. “Never gonna be a girl again. Never gonna be a girl again,” echoing through his mind.
He jumped in the pool, immersing himself totally. He was a man, a man, a man. He raised himself out of the water and examined himself. The shock was absolute as she saw that breasts now adorned her chest once again.
This was wrong; it was some kind of mistake. It had to be a mistake. She turned to the Jusenkyou guide, only to see it was not that Chinese gentleman she had met in what seemed like a lifetime ago.
Herb-chan, in the clothing of the guide, smiled at her. “Oops! Guess I made a mistake. That was the Spring of Drowned Young Girl. Do you know what that means?”
Ranma-chan could do nothing but shake her head.
“You get to be a girl full time!” Herb-chan began dancing around. “Never gonna be a guy again. Never gonna be a guy again.”
Ranma-chan sat there in shock as a heavy rain started to fall. “Never… a… guy… again?’ Her mind refused to accept it. There were several moments of dumfoundedness, while she tried processing the information, failing each time. Even as her mind danced along the thin line between sanity and madness, she heard Herb-chan start speaking to someone else.
“Welcome to Jusenkyou, young lady. How’d you like to take a dip in that pool over there.” Herb-chan pointed one out to Akane. “It’s guaranteed to make you feel like a new man.”
Akane thanked him and walked over to the pool, while Herb-chan looked Ranma-chan’s way and smiled. That set her into action as she jumped out of her pool and raced over to Akane. The rain seemed into increase as she lost sight of her fiancé in the deluge.
Ranma-chan awakened from the nightmare to feel hot water pounding on her back. She was standing up, her arms stretched upwards, out, and back, thrusting her chest slightly forward. A closer examination revealed manacles clamped around both wrists. The chains that were attached reached back, wrapped several times around what appeared to be a the arms of a giant statue of a dragon. The chains ran through two bolts in those arms, firmly secure. The mouth of the dragon was spraying the hot water that was splashing Ranma-chan in the back. She tried moving her legs, but felt some kind of rope wrapped around them as well. That was when something finally donned on her. She was topless in the waist-deep water.
“I’m afraid your cries went unheard by any but me. And my ears would qualify as being deaf to your needs.”
Ranma-chan looked up to see the speaker; not that she didn’t already know to whom that loathsome voice belonged. Herb-chan stood at the end of the huge bath Ranma-chan was chained in. Bath wasn’t really an accurate description of it. The area was more like a large pool given its vast size. Statues of various animals decorated the sides of the stone bath, giving it a dark feeling. A quick scan of the room revealed the duo were alone.
“It’s nice to see you’re awake. I was afraid the drugs we used to keep you subdued were never going to wear off.”
Herb-chan removed her exotic bathrobe and allowed it to fall softly to the floor. Her slender, naked body moved suggestively as she approached the water. As she took a step forward Ranma-chan saw the transformation take place. It was only the second time Ranma-chan had observed a naked woman turn into a man from a viewpoint other than her own body. Fortunately, Shampoo was unaware that Ranma-chan had accidentally seen the transformation on that occasion. It had happened when they were in China, and he went to bathe in a nearby spring, unaware Shampoo had already gone there for the same reason. It was purely by accident that he spotted her nude form quietly slip into the cold waters of the stream and transform. If she had known Ranma-chan had spotted her in the buff at that point in their relationship, the redhead had a feeling that she would have received a savage beating for violating Shampoo’s privacy. A beating at the least. It was interesting to note he discovered purple really was her natural hair color that night. Quite a surprise, that little fact was.
It was bizarre watching the transformation happen to someone else. So different from when she changed back and forth in that Ranma-chan could see the entire transformation at once, instead of just pieces of it with her point of view. Still, it felt slightly disturbing that her body underwent that metamorphosis in exactly the same manner. That was when a simple fact occurred to her.
“You’re really a guy!” Ranma-chan blurted out.
“Of course,” the now male Herb sniffed. “That was why I was seeking out Kiifuiton.” He indicated the magic kettle sitting in a special altar next to the bath, “So I could unlock my curse. Oh Ranma, you poor, silly fool. You actually thought the Kiifuiton breaks Jusenkyou curses. Tsk Tsk!”
“What does it do, then?”
Herb chuckled and explained how Chiisuiton locked people in their cursed form and Kiifuiton unlocked it. Of how the Musk used it in the past to increase the battle prowess of future generations by making animals into women, and locking them in their cursed form so they could bear children with the abilities if those animals. Bragged about how he had the blood of dragons coursing through his veins. His bragging changed to bitterness when he described how he was accidentally cursed when he transformed an animal into a woman, not to mate with her, but so he could get used to breasts. Due to his training, he had never seen women, save later in life, and certainly wasn’t used to them naked. While he watched her in shock the animal knocked him into the Nyanniichuan and locked him in female form with Chiisuiton. After explaining the situation, Herb sidled over to Ranma-chan.
“I must thank you and your,” Herb indicated Ranma-chan’s chest. “Display. I really am starting to get used to the sight of breasts.”
“Get away from me, you pervert! I’m really a guy!” Ranma-chan struggled to break her bonds.
Herb laughed at the attempt. “Those chains could hold even Lime. You cannot hope to break them.” He moved closer still and held Ranma-chan’s chin in his hand. Her attempt to bite him ended with a blow to the jaw, stunning the girl.
“I have no desire to do anything with you Saotome. At least, nothing sexual.” Herb released her jaw and waded away from Ranma-chan. “Besides, I don’t think it really is proper to call someone like you a man.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ranma-chan desperately tried to think of a way out. Nothing came to mind.
“You are as stupid as Mousse claimed you were. What temperature is this water?”
Ranma-chan had no idea what he was getting at. “Around eighty-five I’d say.”
“And what sex are you?”
The revelation hit Ranma-chan like a proverbial ton of bricks. She struggled against her bonds once more in mad panic. “Change me back, you bastard! CHANGE ME BACK!!!”
Herb roared in laughter at Ranma-chan’s suffering. Bringing Ranma to China was worth it, if for no other reason than the sight before him. “Now you know how I felt while trapped in a woman’s body. You should have kept your mouth shut, you stupid, little fool. I might have let you off easy. Now this ‘empress’ shall have her revenge.”
Herb floated on his back and began to backstroke, taunting Ranma-chan the entire time. “You really are the most pitiable girl I have ever seen. You’ve wasted your life in an attempt to find something that couldn’t do you the slightest good. What a pathetic reason to die.”
“So why haven’t you killed me?” Ranma-chan spat out venomously.
Herb broke off his swim and approached Ranma-chan again. “Because I want to see you suffer first. You dared to mock me! No one may do that and live. It’s now only a question of how you die. Be thankful that you helped me get over my breast fixation. I will probably let you die relatively painlessly.”
“Thanks a lot.” Ranma-chan said sarcastically.
That comment elicited yet another blow, only much harder. “On the other hand, I have learned to enjoy inflicting pain on others. You really should learn to keep your mouth shut, little girl. It will get you into trouble before all is said and done.”
“Why should I be intimidated by some chick—” Ranma-chan paused in mock regret. “I’m sorry, I mean guy— I ain’t ever heard of?”
Herb’s face twitched at that one. He took a deep breath to calm himself and examined Ranma-chan much more closely. “Do you know how much more sensitive your breasts are as a female than when you’re male?” He settled one hand on Ranma-chan’s left breast, caressing it gingerly.
The reaction was instantaneous. “Get off me, you disgusting pervert!”
Herb gave a little smile, showing off his small fangs. He allowed his tongue to play across the larger teeth as he gave a sadistic leer. “I told you, I know you’re a man. I’m not going to molest you. I’m going to hurt you.”
And with that Herb sent hot chi energy through his hand and into Ranma-chan. He smiled in delight as the girl writhed in pain and screamed. Oh, how he loved to hear them scream. He broke off the torture after a few moments, allowing him to assess Ranma-chan’s condition. Surprisingly, the girl looked at him, through the pain and tears, with defiance remaining in her eyes.
“Is that the best you can do? Torture helpless prisoners?” Tears of pain rolled down her cheeks as she allowed her accusation to pass from her lips.
Herb reluctantly admitted to himself that Ranma-chan certainly had resilience. “And what would you have me do?”
Ranma-chan looked at him weakly. “Let me loose and give me a shot. If you’re such hot stuff, you should be able to take me out easy.”
Herb looked at the girl in shock, and then began to laugh. A deep, sonorous laugh, which seemed to echo in Ranma-chan’s ears. She hoped her plan would work, to get Herb mad enough to let her go and try to fight her. Then she could take care of him and get the hell out of wherever they were.
Herb apparently figured out Ranma-chan’s line of thinking. “Clever, girl. Very clever,” he said in appreciation. “In fact, you might be clever enough to understand what’s going on. Would you like me to tell you exactly why I have the audacity to call myself emperor?”
“I thought it was because you’re an egomaniac.”
“It won’t work. I’m not going to let you out. Now, unless you want me to continue demonstrating to you what other parts of your female body are more sensitive than your male one, and believe me, there are much more sensitive parts, I suggest you keep the commentary to yourself.” Herb waited a moment to see if the girl absorbed that bit of information.
Ranma-chan at last nodded. She couldn’t care what Herb said; if he kept talking that meant she had extra time to figure another way out.
“Good.” Herb didn’t know why, but he felt the need to boast about what had happened to others. Of course, he could not possibly let anyone else with the knowledge live, which meant he would have to kill Ranma-chan once he was done with his tale.
“It all started a little over three years ago…”
Shampoo-kun, Mousse-panda, and Ryouga-bat, who was perched upon the panda’s shoulder, made their way through the halls as quickly as they could. Ryouga-bat was taking them along the most direct route he sensed. Ranma was up ahead, somewhere. It was a small miracle that they had not run into any patrols, almost as though this section of the fortress was forbidden to have them. That was not to say it was devoid of everyone.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” The voice came from behind the group. All turned around in unison to see Mint staring directly at them. The youth immediately recognized the panda and bat in the party.
“So, you escaped your cell. I’ll give you a chance. You can go back there now, or I can make you go back.”
Shampoo-kun took charge of the situation before the others could do anything. “Mousse, take Ryouga and find Ranma. I take care of Mint.”
*No way! He’s too dangerous. I’ll help you fight him!* Mousse-panda pulled out a duck potty-training seat and prepared to go into battle.
Shampoo-kun ripped his weapon out of his hands and swatted him in the head with it. “If you stay, you just get in way. Go rescue Ranma! And if you fail…” The glare he threw Mousse’s way left no doubt what fate would await the panda if he failed to find Ranma alive.
“Hey! You can’t leave!” Mint shouted in protest as Mousse-panda and Ryouga went on ahead. His attempt to prevent the animals from leaving was made impossible as Shampoo-kun cut him off.
“<You helped to take Ranma away. Now you find out what it means to threaten that which is most precious to me.>” Shampoo-kun moved forward to attack.
“…I ended up helping a man,” Herb began. “It was the chancest of meetings, I confess. I saved his life, not knowing who he was. I prevented him from being assassinated by his enemies. I almost didn’t do it, though. For a moment, I almost decided not to get involved. But I did, and that day changed my life forever.
“The man was a being of immense power, and he had a plan. When I saved him, and he found out who I was, he said that I could be involved in this great plan. It fell to me to gather the necessary resources to see to it the scheme worked. He knew he could trust me.” Herb gave a crafty smile towards Ranma-chan. “We’re family, in a manner of speaking.”
Herb continued, “As a symbol of trust he enhanced my powers. The blood of dragons courses through my veins more powerfully than ever. It is to that I owe my enhancements. And now I have gathered the last of the materials, and raised an army to help defend the place of power in our time of need. It is a time fast approaching. And when the smoke clears from our campaign, he will rule the world, and in turn, I will be given control of China. Perhaps even the entire continent of Asia. At last! The Musk Dynasty will be a name that will be feared throughout the world once again! All will bow before us!” Herb looked to the ceiling in imagined glory.
Ranma-chan shook her head. The man was a loon, all right, and she was stuck with him. Any further thoughts on the matter were cut off as a roar emanated from the entryway of the baths. Mousse-panda leaped out of the adjacent corridor and sent a series of chains spraying from his robes. Herb reacted almost instantly, submerging himself into the water, while taking a glancing slice in the shoulder by one of the blades on a chain. One of the other chains, this one with a mace on the end, struck one of the arms of the statue binding Ranma-chan’s arms back. Mousse-panda landed in the water of the baths.
Herb propelled himself out of the water and grabbed the panda by the throat, once again sending chi energy through his hands. Mousse-panda was paralyzed by the pain as the energy ripped through his body. No matter how hard he tried, his muscles refused to obey his commands. Worse, he was starting to feel as though part of him was withering away, almost as though his heart was somehow curling up and dying. Why couldn’t Shampoo simply let Ranma go, and allow the two of them to escape? He was all she needed. Now he was going to die because Ranma was too powerless to help himself.
Herb allowed himself a toothy grin as he felt the life being burned out of his opponent. Watching people slowly waste away made him ecstatic. Maybe he was becoming psychotic, as the last person he killed this way suggested. It didn’t really matter. No one could assault his person and live. His thoughts of vengeance were interrupted as Ryouga-bat managed to affix himself to Herb’s face. It was pure muscle alone that enabled the lost one to leap from the edge of the pool and attach himself onto Herb’s face. No chance of flying with his wings torn up as they were.
Herb released his grip on the panda and grabbed at the flying rodent. He quickly edged his fingers under the bat and threw him off across the baths. Fortunately for Ryouga-bat, it was the wall furthest away which he impacted into. The distance was enough that he lost most of his velocity, and only hit with enough impact to render him unconscious, rather than killing him.
Herb turned in time to witness the now-recovered panda leap on him. The creature’s tremendous mass proved too much as he knocked the wind out of the prince while his weight forced Herb completely underwater. Herb made the mistake of trying to replace the air that had been knocked from his lungs by gasping in water. Immediately he began flailing as his body tried forcing the water out of the lungs by trying to exhale with air it did not have. Matters were made worse as Herb felt the panda’s paws grasp themselves around his throat and keep him from the precious air he needed. His vision began to go red as he felt consciousness start to leave him. It was nothing more than a reflex that enabled Herb to raise his hands to the panda’s chest and employ the Breath of the Dragon to his opponent. The force of the blast threw Mousse-panda off, flying through the air. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.
Herb raised himself to his feet, throwing up the water that had been in his lungs. His body desperately attempted to get oxygen back in even as it forced the water out. Herb was in so much pain from the battle raging within his body, that he failed to hear the whistling sound from behind him. He was made aware that something was wrong as a swinging chain wrapped itself around his throat. The piece of masonry still attached to the end of the chain connected with his head, opening a huge gash above his eye from which blood flowed freely. Once again, his body’s attempts at regaining air were thwarted as the chain cut off the flow of oxygen to the lungs.
The masonry was what was left of the piece of arm of the stone dragon that had been knocked loose by Mousse’s errant assault. The end of the chain still bolted in the piece, and the chain itself was still manacled to Ranma-chan’s wrist, but the extra twenty feet of length made it just long enough to swing around in a circle until she could wrap it around Herb’s throat. She pulled back on it for all she was worth, choking the life out of Herb.
“Change me back, you bastard! I swear to god, I am going to kill you if you don’t change me back!” Ranma-chan continued to pull back on the chain, strangling Herb.
Herb was too busy choking to death to take note of Ranma-chan’ threats. It took several moments before he managed to get his fingers underneath the chain that was wrapped around his throat, enabling him to get some air back. Once his panic attack subsided he realized what action he should take. Rather than run in the opposite direction, away from the pull, he would lessen the tension by running towards the girl. He spun and, while still gasping for air, ran towards Ranma-chan. The tension on the chain became nonexistent as he closed the distance between himself and his attacker. He hurled it to the side and prepared to drive his fingers through the girl’s skull for the audacity of the attack. Ranma-chan was still chained to the rock by the other length of metal and could not escape the blow. Just as Herb was about to drive his fingers forward, Ranma-chan lashed out with her feet, connecting with the combined might of both the force in her legs as well as Herb’s forward momentum. The effect stunned the prince, forcing him to reel backwards in an attempt to recover.
Ranma-chan had freed her legs by breaking the rope that bound them. It was a simple matter once her hand became loose. Unfortunately, she lacked the power to shatter the stone the other arm was shackled to, so she elected to attack Herb from where she was. Now that he was stunned once more, she jumped up and grabbed onto the dragon’s remaining arm. Using that for leverage, she wrapped her legs around Herb’s throat, cutting off his air once again.
Herb reacted immediately by locking his hands together and raining two-fisted blows into Ranma-chan’s midsection, trying to dislodge her legs from his neck. It wasn’t as bad as having the chain wrapped around his throat, but he was still becoming weak from the beating he was suffering. Blood continued to flow from the cut above his eye and into his face. He could taste the sweet tang of his blood with the tongue as he desperately gasped for air. The sixth blow into Ranma-chan’s midsection at last made her release the hold on the stone arm. Now all she had for leverage was the chain itself. Unfortunately for Herb, it was enough for Ranma-chan to maintain her leg lock around his neck.
Herb was becoming desperate once more. Today was the closest he had ever been to death, and he felt himself losing his abilities. He could not concentrate enough to use any of his chi attacks, and his vision was starting to go red yet a second time. In desperation he lashed out at the remaining stone arm, shattering it and discontinuing Ranma-chan’s ability to apply leverage against him. With the sudden release, Ranma-chan fell back into the water while maintaining the leg lock. Herb took advantage of this and grabbed her waist, preventing the smaller girl from surfacing.
The shock of the leverage loss was so sudden that Ranma-chan did not have a chance to take a breath of air before being submerged. Try as she might, Herb proved too powerful and kept her from surfacing. Now that she was underwater, it became a waiting game; who would run out of air first? It didn’t take long for someone to come out ahead.
Herb felt Ranma-chan loosen the leg lock around his head. Once her legs were out of the way he released his grip on her waist and grabbed her throat, preventing the red head from surfacing. He felt a rush as his fingers embraced Ranma-chan’s throat. It felt wonderful, having the girl kick and thrash weakly in his grasp. Drowning was an appropriate method for the girl to die. Her life had been changed in the waters of Jusenkyou. Now it would end in the waters of the Musk, whose past, present, and future were linked with that of Jusenkyou.
Herb was pleased that Ranma-chan’s form ceased struggling. It shouldn’t take too much longer. Soon the girl would be dead, and then he could deal with the panda and the bat.
“<LET HIM GO!!!>”
Herb’s head whipped around while maintaining the stranglehold. He didn’t recognize the voice. He turned to observe a dark haired boy come into the bathroom with a bloody Mint in front of him. At present, Shampoo-kun had an arm around Mint’s forehead, bending it back so that his throat was revealed. All the better to stick in the knife that was poised at his throat. The fastest member of the Musk Dynasty wasn’t going anywhere.
“<Release him!>” Herb hoped the tone of authority would convince the fool before him to give up Mint.
Shampoo-kun would have none of that. “<LET HIM UP, HERB! OR I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL KILL HIM NOW!!!>”
Herb pulled Ranma-chan up by the neck and out of the water. Rather than simply tossing her aside he whipped the red head in front of him and placed an arm around the throat, as well as a hand by the side of her head. It would only take an instant to break the girl’s neck. Just the lightest of tugs.
“<Stalemate. You kill Mint, I’ll kill her.>” Herb watched the boy’s response. It was a surprise that Shampoo-kun came closer. He took his hand from Mint’s head long enough to release a large sack at the edge of the pool, then continued forward. Once his foot touched the water Herb saw the transformation take place as a purple-haired girl replaced the black-haired boy. That was more than a little surprising. It seemed cursed people were coming out of the woodwork nowadays.
Shampoo moved closer until she and Mint were waist deep in the water, then stopped about twenty feet short of Herb.
Herb tried evaluating the opponent before him. A young girl cursed by Nanniichuan, and no more than sixteen, that could speak fluent Chinese. And she knew Ranma-chan was really a boy. A friend or lover, perhaps.
“<Let Mint go, or I’ll kill her.>” He indicated Ranma-chan by shrugging her forward slightly.
“<Let Ranma go, or I kill Mint.>”
“<I don’t think you have the guts.>” Time to see how far his opponent would go.
“<Mint,>” Shampoo said softly. “<Shake hands with the man.>”
Mint slowly brought his right arm up to show Herb. The prince took in a short intake of breath. Mint’s arm ended in a bloody, loosely bandaged stump.
The girl had signed her own death warrant. “<You dare maim the members of the Musk Dynasty? You will die painfully for this travesty,>” he hissed quietly.
The threat didn’t register with Shampoo. “<I’ll do more than maim them if you don’t release Ranma now. I’ll kill Mint before your eyes. I’ll kill Lime before you recover from that, and then I’ll kill you….>” She allowed the last word to roll off her tongue. “<…Slowly.>”
Herb wasn’t sure about what to make of the threat to Lime. He wasn’t anywhere in sight. Perhaps the girl had accomplices. No. That didn’t make sense. They would be here if there were any, showing him Lime’s capture. That part had to be a bluff. At least he could tell, judging by the girl’s posture, she was serious about the threat to Mint. “<I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll let you live, and give you a large sum of money, if you release Mint.>”
“<Don’t be stupid. Just give me Ranma, access to Kiifuiton, and safe passage out of here. Then I’ll be out of your hair,>” Shampoo responded.
“<Why? What is the boy to you?>” The more Herb thought about it, the more it seemed to him the girl wasn’t Japanese at all. Her Chinese had a local dialect. Then the memory came back to him. He knew who she was. It was one of the Amazons that had visited two or three years ago. The young one.
That was bad. Very bad. Herb would never admit it, but the Musk still carried a healthy respect, almost fear, for the Joketsuzoku ever since Hu Chiang killed the royal family all those centuries ago. They had been the only ones that ever threatened the Musk successfully. And there was still the problem of what the girl was doing here. The boy could not be family. He was Japanese. It could be a husband, though. The girl was old enough for one, and if that was the case it could mean disaster. The Amazons were famous for taking back what they felt was theirs. And if a family member was threatened, a small army of Amazons that had come to reclaim one of their own could very well infiltrate the fortress. But Ranma had been in Japan, not China.
“<The boy is your husband?>” Herb had to know.
Shampoo made a face. “<No. That doesn’t matter. Release him.>”
Herb was becoming frustrated. Mint was bleeding through his bandages and might not last much longer, but he still did not want to give up Ranma-chan. She had to die for what she had done.
“<Well, then, why do you want him? He isn’t family, and he isn’t your husband. Why are you risking all this for one?>” None of it made sense to Herb. What would bring this girl before him to risk life and limb to rescue the boy? And why had she made that face when he asked her if he was her husband. It was almost as if…
Then it all fell into place.
Shampoo did not like the smile that slowly made its way across Herb’s face. He may have had fangs like Ryouga, but the lost one’s smile was warm and friendly. Herb’s was anything but. It was almost as if he knew something.
“<Tell me what your name is, little one,>” Herb asked.
Why was he attempting to find out her name? He was trying to buy time; that must have been it. “<It’s none of your business.>”
“<Au contraire, my dear. It is very important. Now tell me it.>” He gave Ranma-chan’s neck a slight jerk. It was with much amusement he saw Shampoo react to the motion.
“<It’s Shampoo!>” She responded quickly, desperate to know why he wanted it, and to get him to stop threatening Ranma-chan.
“<Just as I thought.>” Herb said to himself as Shampoo saw a look of satisfaction cross his face. He had her. “<Would you like to know what the first word out of his mouth was when he came to? I think you’ll find it informative.>”
“<What!>” she snapped.
“<Oh this is so good. It was…>” he paused a moment before continuing.
Herb was rewarded by a look of devastation on Shampoo’s face. It was as he suspected. She loved Ranma and that love was not returned, the pitiable little girl. Time to apply more thumbscrews.
He allowed contempt to trickle into his voice. “<Why throw your life away for a man that doesn’t even love you?>” Now he switched to a tone of sympathy, hoping to gain the girl’s trust.
“<I will make you a generous offer. All you have done will be forgiven, and you can join the ranks of my army. I could use a crafty, skilled woman such as yourself. It wouldn’t be without its rewards.>” The girl was attractive, and Herb wanted to make certain he was over that fixation with breasts he so recently possessed.
For the briefest of moments, he thought she considered it. It would have been pure folly to not take him up on the offer. She would be dead, otherwise. That line of thought changed when he saw tears form in her eyes and she moved the knife hand ever so slightly, causing a small trickle of blood to run down Mint’s neck.
“<Herb! Pissing her off is a bad idea!>” Mint felt the blade break his flesh, certain it was the end for him.
“<Very well! You can have safe passage, access to Kiifuiton, and the girl!>” Herb shouted, then released Ranma-chan. It was a surprise to see her stand up very weakly. Still out of it, but conscious.
“Ranma! Come here!” Shampoo barked at him. The red head slowly made her way over to the Amazon. As soon as Ranma-chan was close enough, Shampoo released Mint and grabbed Ranma-chan. The wolf pelted boy wasted no time in darting to Herb. Once he stood next to Herb, the prince gave a quick examination of the stump. He was bleeding heavily through the rough bandages the Amazon had bound him with. Without medical attention death would come soon.
“<Go to the infirmary. Have the doctors heal you. Tell them if anything happens to you, they will deal with me.>”
Mint did as he was ordered, darting out of the room. Herb took note that Mint wasn’t even moving at half the speed he usually ran. Very bad shape, indeed. There was no more time to be concerned with the departed youth as he allowed his attention to return to the remaining duo before him. Shampoo was helping Ranma-chan out of the water, supporting the smaller girl by the shoulder. There was no mistaking the concern on Shampoo’s face; she was unquestionably in love with the girl. Well, he was going to give her a chance to die in the red head’s arms. How romantic.
“<Shampoo. Remember how I told you I would let you leave here alive?>”
“<I lied.>” That felt real good.
Her back was to him now, and he saw it stiffen at the declaration. “<We had a deal.>”
Herb shrugged in response. “<No one else heard it but the three of us and Mint, and soon that will be just myself and Mint. I don’t think he’ll be telling anyone.>”
“<You would break your word?>” Her back remained to him.
“<As I said, who would know?>” Herb couldn’t help but compare her to a fly caught in a web. Now it was time for the spider to dine.
This time she didn’t answer him. She just turned around and smiled.
A smile of ice.
The type of smile that freezes the blood in the veins.
Herb understood the smile.
She had not just expected this.
She WANTED it.
And at that moment he was more afraid than any other time in his life.
Shampoo made certain Ranma-chan could stand on her own, then bent down and opened the sack she had left next to the pool. It took but a moment for dexterous fingers to undo the knot that had closed the burlap sack. Herb tensed up as she reached in and pulled out an object, unable to tell if it was a weapon or some other object. Shampoo began speaking in the same tone Herb had just used with her.
“<Herb. Remember how I said I could kill Lime before you could do anything?>”
“<I didn’t lie.>” And with that she boldly held out the object from the sack in front of her, making certain Herb could see what it was.
She held a large, orange and black striped tomcat by the scruff of its neck.
“<Wave at Herb, Lime.>”
The cat looked sheepishly at Herb and waved.
Herb’s rage was so great he was unaware of the subtle shift in his body as his blood altered and eyes became a deeper shade of red. She had changed Lime into a cat! She dared to curse the Musk Dynasty!
“<I SWEAR TO YOU, YOUR SUFFERING WILL BE LEGENDARY, EVEN IN THE DEEPEST PITS OF HELL!!!>” Herb frothed at the mouth as he allowed the largest chi aura he had ever summoned build up around his body. Once Lime was out of the line of fire the girl was dead.
Shampoo appeared unafraid and grinned at Herb. “<It gets worse.>” She turned to Ranma-chan. “Ranma, you forgive Shampoo later, okay?” And without waiting for a reply she stuck the cat into Ranma-chan’s face, pressing it tightly against her.
The reaction was predictable, as within moments the red head began pinwheeling her arms in terror, screaming out “CATCATCATCAT!!!” at the top of her lungs. Her weakness from the ordeal of the last few days was forgotten as adrenaline from places she didn’t know existed fueled her body. It took all of Shampoo’s strength to keep Ranma-chan from bolting too soon. It was only a few moments before she stopped resisting and crouched down on all fours, hissing and letting her hair, including the pigtail, stand up on end just like a real cat.
“Look, Ranma! There the bad man that hurt you. Do something bad to him.”
Ranma-neko needed no words of encouragement as she hissed and launched herself at Herb. The shock that had gripped Herb as he watched the transformation from girl to cat was broken as he realized where Ranma-neko was leaping, and whom it blamed for all the agonies it had had to go through. Herb had just enough time to channel one blast through his hands before it was too late.
“BREATH OF THE DRAGON!!!” Herb shot the wide swath of flame-like chi into the air and directly in the path of his assailant. There was enough energy in the blast to fry over fifty normal people. Even Ranma-neko didn’t stand a chance, or so Herb believed.
Ranma-neko saw the incoming blast and did the only thing she could. Instincts took over as she employed the cat fist itself to shred the chi attack as it arrived to char her body, even as it had done so in the mountains of Japan. This time none of the energy got through, as the flames were reduced to nothing by Ranma-neko’s maneuver.
Herb only had one last moment of coherent thought before Ranma-neko landed full force on his body and used the cat fist on him. Being killed at the hands of a human that thought she was a cat really was the most undignified way for a member of his great lineage to die.
Shampoo watched the carnage in glee, hoping Herb suffered every bit he deserved. It seemed too short a time when Ranma-neko broke off her attack and sat proudly atop Herb’s motionless form in the water. Ranma-neko looked nervously at the water it despised and leaped effortlessly to the edge of the bath, landing next to Shampoo.
“You is such a good girl, Ranma.” She sat down and began scratching the top of Ranma-neko’s head, eliciting a purr of content from the would-be feline.
Ranma-neko’s purring stopped as she noticed an odd smell. She bent closer to Shampoo and began sniffing her side. Something wasn’t right with the nice girl that was petting her.
“What you doing Ranma?” It took Shampoo a moment to realize what had captured Ranma-neko’s attention. She slid her fingers under the shirt. “I seeping. That not too good.”
Ranma-neko began nuzzling at the side.
“No do that, Ranma. I’ll be all right.” That was when she heard the moan that emanated from the waters of the bath.
Herb’s floating form bore many deep scratches and bruises. Most of the cuts were bleeding, though not badly. As terrible as the injuries were, Shampoo could clearly observe the prince’s chest rise and fall with every breath he took. How unfortunate he hadn’t passed out face-down. He would have drowned already, saving her a lot of problems. As it was, she was going to have to clean up the mess.
Shampoo looked at Ranma-neko in a disappointed manner. “Why you no finish him off, Ranma? He try to kill you.”
Ranma-neko just meowed in response to the Amazon.
“I take care of it, then.” Shampoo pulled her knife out once again and moved into the bath, making her way over to Herb’s floating form. She got as far as placing the knife under his chin, and was about to finish the job, when Ranma-neko gave a caterwauling howl. Shampoo looked up to see Ranma-neko staring at her.
“Why you stop me, Ranma? We have to kill him. He do many bad things to you.”
Ranma-neko let out another howl.
Shampoo sighed. “If we no kill him now, he’s going to try to hunt us down again. He going to make life very hard for us.”
Ranma-neko continued her howl of protest.
“Fine,” Shampoo’s shoulders sagged. “You win. You is the one that beat him. If you want to show mercy, it okay.” She made her way back to shore. “Your merciful streak is going to get us in trouble some day.”
Ranma-neko rubbed against Shampoo in response. The Amazon couldn’t help but smile. Even as a cat, Ranma’s affections made her feel elated. “Come on. We get you Kiifuiton and change you back into boy-type.”
As she made her way over to the altar that housed the magic objects, Kiifuiton and Chiisuiton, her mind began to think ahead. Maybe it was in their best interest to leave Herb alive. Now they could use him as a hostage to escape, which would be much easier than fighting their way out.
It took several moments to change Ranma back, the result of which caused him to come out of his neko phase, and then douse the recovering Ryouga and Mousse. All four looked as though they had been through a war. It took a good bit of rationalization on everyone’s part not to kill Herb for all he had done to them, but when several dozen soldiers appeared, his value as a hostage increased tremendously.
They used Herb to get safe passage out of the fortress, and a promise that there would be no pursuit in exchange for emancipating him once they arrived at the base of the mountain. They used the single road rather than climbing down. They could see almost to the top, reassuring themselves the soldiers of the Musk were not pursuing. Once at the base they dumped Herb in a ditch and ran off as quickly as they could, getting as much distance between the castle and them should the group be betrayed.
Herb looked up to see the sun beating down upon him. It took several moments for the prince to determine he was alive. Once he started moving that changed to a wish he wasn’t. His chest burned from the cat-fist he suffered at Ranma-neko’s hands, or claws, as the case might be. A grimace crossed his face as he forced himself to an upright position and determined where he was. Naked and in a ditch. Some people didn’t know how to treat royalty.
Reeducating his attackers would be a task for later. Right now, Herb had to return to the fortress. His castle. A place he could feel safe. Also of paramount importance was finding out if Ranma and the others had taken any of the objects that were needed for the great plan. He finished hauling himself to his feet and started up the mountain. Halfway up he encountered a contingent of guards led by Lime, who must have located some hot water. Herb ordered them to help him return to the fortress.
The first thing he did upon his return was to burst into his personal chambers and go to the secret compartment. He let out a sigh of relief as he discovered the blood of the various creatures was still present. There would have been no time to get any more of the rare substances before the time of the great plan would be upon them. And if he had failed, the Shogun would have been most displeased. Herb most likely would’ve taken his own life before allowing that one to have his way with him.
As his wounds were tended to, he thought long and hard about his foes. He was too weak for a direct confrontation at the present, yet he still wanted them. There had to be some way to strike out at them before the great plan took effect. True, once he was made emperor of China he could burn Joketsuzoku to the ground and hunt down Shampoo and Ranma at his leisure, but he didn’t want to wait that long. Every second they escaped his vengeance was akin to pure hell, and they had to be punished for their crimes. Punished mercilessly. With their tremendous head start he believed it unlikely his soldiers would be able to catch up to the escapees, which meant there had to be some other option. As he let his mind wander, a part of what transpired nagged at him. He had studied the laws of the surrounding villages as part of his training to rule the Musk. There was something about the Amazons and Nanniichuan that was on the tip of his tongue. If only he could remember it…
The physicians stood out of earshot from Herb and began talking anxiously amongst themselves. It was not Herb’s injuries that concerned them. As painful as they were, he would recover from them in about a week’s time. It was the physical changes that had occurred to him, seemingly overnight. All agreed that his fangs had seemed to grow longer and his eyes had become even redder than they had been. But the thing that really had them in an uproar was his skin. If they did not know better, the places where he had been cut were healing over with what appeared to be scales. They were attempting to figure out what to do with him when Herb suddenly erupted in laughter. The physicians looked at one another in confusion, wondering if the pain had proven too much for their leader and his mind had snapped.
Two days later:
Reiza and Shi Fan continued playing cards. The road outpost watch duty was always a chore. They had so few visitors this time of year it was hardly worth the effort to place guards there. But they had to alert the village to the visitors that came so they could be greeted properly. That was why it was such a surprise that the lone man approached the outpost. Reiza got up first to greet him. She hoped he spoke Chinese. Sometimes the visitors were tourists, and it was always a chore to communicate to them. You would think that if they were coming to China, they would bother to learn at least a little of the native language.
“<Greetings, visitor!>” She spoke with the practiced ease of having said the words a thousand times. “<Welcome to Joketsuzoku! Have you been here before, or is this your first time?>”
Herb smiled at the girl. “<It’s my first time. I would like to speak to someone in charge. It concerns one of your warriors, Shampoo, and a certain curse she has.>”
To be continued.
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