Ranma ran wildly through the trees, foliage snapping across his face as he weaved desperately through the forest. Panting hard, forcing air into protesting lungs, he surged forward, jumping across a small ditch.
His eyes stung with tears, his face bled from twigs scraping across it, his shoulders ached from the limp weight of his father upon them. His hand burned, too; heat from the handle of his father's sword seared his skin. Ignoring the pain, he gripped the sword more tightly.
Where the hell am I going?
"Go back to our home," Genma spoke, voice drifting over Ranma's shoulder. "Continue the Saotome legacy. Find ... Kayoko."
"Kayoko?" Ranma thought, puzzled. "Why?"
"Go, Boy," Genma groaned. "I'll ... delay them. Go, and survive."
Ranma stumbled, throwing his arms out in front of himself to soften the landing as the ground screamed toward him. Flashes of green and brown filled his eyes, his breath catching in his throat as he braced for the impact - but as suddenly as it had appeared, the ground fizzled out of existence, leaving a gaping chasm in its wake.
He tumbled end over end into the fissure, the sight that greeted his eyes flooding his heart with terror. The jagged grey cliff below him descended into the frothy ocean, the fall seeming infinite as he plunged helplessly downwards. He whirled around, gasping for breath as the air rushed upwards past him, and looked upwards for something, anything, to hang on to.
Genma's face stared down at him from the top of the cliff. Ranma tried to scream out for his father, to cry out for help, but his voice was scattered to the winds.
A scorching pain filled Ranma's gut; he did not have to look away from his father to know the family blade was lodged deep inside him. His father closed his eyes and turned away from the cliff, leaving Ranma on his own. The roar of the ocean below, that had once seemed distant and abstract, was suddenly forced into sharp focus, drowning out all other sound as Ranma sank toward his doom.
A monstrous wave arose beneath him, curling liquid fingers upwards to catch its prey. With a tremendous splash, the water devoured him.
Ranma sat up with a jolt, fingers grabbing the soft fabric beneath her sweat-soaked body. The darkness around her melted away as her eyes adjusted to the lack of light, revealing a sparse, quiet room. A tatami mat greeted her fingertips as they wandered past the edges of the blanket she had been sleeping on. She panted, and slowly raised her hand to her forehead.
Gods, not that dream again, she thought in annoyance as she tried to catch her breath.
A musty scent filled her nose, a vague trace of sake hanging in the air to tickle her nose as she took in the empty moonlit walls around her. For a moment, she thought of her father, imagined him asleep with an empty bottle tucked under his arm. Snoring, of course, with not a care in the world.
She shook her head, dismissing the unwelcome reminiscence. She became aware of the distant chirping of insects, but the sound was quickly pushed out of her mind by the two questions buzzing back and forth in her brain.
Where am I? And how did I get here?
"So you intend to marry him?"
The bassy voice, its edges softened by what Ranma could only guess was the sake, crept into the room. It came from beneath what Ranma now realised was a drape hung down over a doorway on the far wall. She stared intently, not recognising the speaker. The words were Japanese, which came as something of a relief, but did little to ease the creeping discomfort that prickled her skin as it crawled down her spine.
The second voice Ranma recognised as Shampoo's. Ranma wondered for a brief moment why the Amazon never mentioned her ability to speak Japanese, but the thought was dismissed by a rather more important question - marry who?
Ranma crawled silently toward the drape and pressed her ear to it, the questions surrounding her arrival in her current situation pushed aside by an all-consuming curiosity. Who was this person? And why was Shampoo speaking to him of marriage?
"If you care so much about him, why haven't you already?"
"Shampoo want to," Shampoo replied with a sigh that crept like a ghost beneath the drape, "but elders no agree. Say Mousse must beat Amazon womans to marry Shampoo, but Mousse no good at fighting."
"Disobeying your elders is an act without honour," noted the male voice.
"Shampoo no want disobey elders, so Shampoo no marry Mousse. We try think of way, but now Shampoo belong to Ranma, so have to wait for Mousse until Shampoo go back to China."
"You belong to that girl?"
Ranma frowned at the notion, imagining an accusing finger pointing at her through the thin drape. Shampoo did not "belong" to her. By the sounds of it, she "belonged" to this Mousse person, whoever that was.
"Shampoo have debt of honour. Ranma is Shampoo master until debt paid. Is Amazon way."
"You would make a fine warrior!" came the reply with a hearty chuckle. "Your master must appreciate a servant with such a finely tuned sense of honour."
Silence hung in the air for a few moments, and Ranma pulled herself away from the drape. The depths of Shampoo's sacrifice were only just beginning to become clear to Ranma. The Amazon girl had given up her family, her home, her love, to follow the demands of honour.
The man, whoever he was, was right - Ranma did indeed appreciate Shampoo's company, even if she had not realised it before. Shampoo's demonstration of dedication only firmed Ranma's resolve to keep her promise to her father. She would return home, she would find Kayoko.
"Shampoo ... never have master before. Is strange to think of."
"Well, then, I shall tell you how I came into my lord's service. Perhaps you shall learn something. If she is your master, you must learn how to treat her with respect."
Ranma crawled away from the drape and returned to the warmth of the blanket to think. She would keep her promise. She yawned, and felt her eyes drifting closed. She tried to fight it, but could not muster up the strength.
She would keep her promise, once she had slept some more. As soon as she could shake off the oppressive tiredness that dogged her. She did not know how long she had slept for, but she did not feel as if she had rested at all.
"But first," the male voice resonated beneath the drape once more, its deep tone unable to reach Ranma's mind as she drifted back to sleep. "Let us drink, to Amazons, and warriors, and honour!"
Several hours passed before Ranma emerged, bleary-eyed, from the small room in which she had slept. She yawned, still tired, and glanced around to see exactly where it was she had been taken to. The last thing she could remember was swimming, and a tingle of excitement in her stomach at the sight of a distant shoreline.
She staggered through the doorway, her legs shakily holding her upright as she propped herself against the doorway. Her muscles protested her every movement, causing her to wince with every step. Her joints creaked with every movement, filling her with the momentary dread that her very bones could snap in half every time she moved.
Sunlight streamed into the large room before her. Tatami lined the floor, which was dominated by a large table placed at its centre. Several empty sake bottles lay strewn across the table, and beyond it lay a disheveled Shampoo, curled up against the wall, asleep.
Ranma stepped gingerly over to the table and looked down at it, stunned by the sheer number of empty bottles. Her father had been quite the sake drinker, but she couldn't imagine him emptying so many bottles in one night. Shampoo had presumably never even seen sake before, let alone built up any sort of tolerance for it, so that left only their host. She scratched her head, impressed by his fortitude.
"Do not be angry at your servant; it is I who gave her the sake."
Ranma jumped in surprise then spun in place, instinctively dropping back into a loose defensive stance. She wobbled on unsteady feet, wondering how this person had managed to hide his presence from her so well.
The man smiled down at her, his broad muscular face creasing at the edges as he did. He was middle-aged, and looked to be in excellent condition. He was clothed entirely in black, the only variation in colour being his skin and the flecks of grey that streaked through his hair.
"Greetings, Miss Saotome," he spoke, his voice a bassy rumble as he bowed courteously to her. "Welcome to my humble abode."
Sensing no danger from the man, Ranma allowed herself to relax a little, and slowly, painfully bowed in return. "Thanks for the shelter."
"You are most welcome," the man replied, straightening once more. "I am Hojo Yoshimasa, servant to Lord Shingen. Please, sit, I shall prepare some food."
"I'm fine, thanks," Ranma replied. She was not overly hungry, but the more pressing reason was that she doubted she could get up again if she sat down. She turned to look once more at the unconscious form of Shampoo. "Is she okay?"
"She is fine," Hojo commented. "However, I do not envy the headache she will have when she wakes up."
"She shouldn't be drinking sake," Ranma commented, angry memories of her father's all-too-frequent drunken escapades surfacing in her mind. He introduced her to sake four years prior, and she had never developed a taste for it. Aside from the unpleasant taste, the thought of her father's foolish drunken behaviour was a sizable deterrent.
"Please, do not hold it against her. She is a fine servant. It is my fault, and for that I apologise. I kept her up half the night with my stories and my sake. Please, forgive me."
"She's not my servant," Ranma said with a sigh, turning back toward her host. A flash of annoyance shot through her, and she quickly changed the subject. "Where am I? How did I get here?"
"The southernmost tip of Honshu," Hojo replied. "I was patrolling the boundaries of my master's land, when I came across the two of you on the beach. You were unconscious, and Shampoo was pulling you out of the water. Well, she was trying to."
"She ... must have been tired," Ranma guessed. Swimming from China was hardly a small undertaking.
"Exhausted. Swimming from China?" Hojo asked in sheer disbelief, shaking his head. "I have not heard of a more foolish feat. The very fact you survived the trip at all both impresses and frightens me."
"So she was pulling me out of the ocean?" Ranma asked, eager to avoid dwelling upon the folly of the trip from China.
"Indeed. If she had not, you most likely would have drowned. When I found you, I bought you both back here. That was two days ago."
"Two days?" Ranma mouthed in disbelief. "I've been asleep for two days?"
Hojo nodded. "Shampoo seemed convinced you were going to die."
"So she ... saved my life," Ranma muttered, turning away from Hojo once more. Fists clenched by her sides, she stepped toward the table, her thoughts awhirl.
She could make no sense of Shampoo. First, the Amazon was trying to kill her. Now, Shampoo had saved her life. The angry loathing she had felt since the moment her father's chest had been skewered by an Amazon arrow bubbled to the surface, but was forced to mingle with a growing curiosity and a newfound respect for the girl.
Gods, I'll never understand women, Ranma thought bitterly. What the hell am I supposed to do with her now?
Utterly confused, she let out a deep sigh and looked down at the empty bottles on the table. Somehow, the thought of downing a bottle of alcohol did not seem quite so unappealing anymore.
"She understands the meaning of honour. She threw her life to the wind to pull yours back to safety. Truly the most profound privilege any servant can hope for. You should be proud of her."
"I'll thank her when she wakes up," Ranma grumbled, not feeling at all proud. How could she thank the girl who murdered her father? She felt torn in opposing directions; her father's blood demanded the death of his killer, but she could not kill Shampoo. The very thought of it sent a shudder of revulsion trickling down her spine. She could not kill anyone.
She imagined her father looking down upon her, eyes cast down in shame at his impotent daughter, his worthless offspring, who could not even avenge his meaningless death.
"I need some hot water," she growled to Hojo, the sudden ferocity in her voice surprising even herself. Her father had a thousand reasons to feel ashamed of her - this was one she could do something about. The Amazons could no longer stop her.
"Certainly," Hojo responded, surprise evident in his voice. "Please, wait here, I'll bring some to you."
Hot, soothing water cascaded down over Ranma's head, trickling down through her hair to tickle the back of her neck with delicious warmth, sending an envious shiver through the rest of her body. She splashed herself liberally with water from the pot, revelling in the heat against her skin.
Gods, this feels good, she thought. How long has it been since I had a bath?
She held her eyes closed, treasuring the comforting warmth. For a brief time, she imagined herself sitting in a bath, her cares washed away as easily as dust. For a moment, she was free.
Her carefree flight of fancy was sent spiralling to Earth with a chilling realisation. Her hands brushed lightly over her body, traversing her feminine curves. Her fingertips traced along her ribs and up to the gentle swell of her breasts, her palms coming to rest against them. She swallowed, her throat suddenly dry, and opened her eyes.
Breasts. She -still- -had- -breasts-.
"Oh, Gods ... no ...."
It seemed almost comical. Her father was dead. Her life was in utter disarray. She was alone, with nowhere to call home, no-one to fall back upon. To top it all off, in the most bizarre turn of events she had ever been unfortunate enough to be a part of, she was trapped in a girl's body.
A girl. She was a girl. The cure didn't work.
A choked laugh escaped her as her mind, numb with horror, failed to comprehend. Somewhere high above, the gods were laughing at her, toying with her. Her life was over. How could she be a girl? To be a strong, manly successor to her father was the only thing she had ever been taught. To take the family legacy and pass it on to the next generation. It was what she had been raised to do, and now it was all gone.
A girl. A weak, pathetic, useless girl.
The very thought of it pushed her already stressed mind beyond its breaking point; her consciousness folded in upon itself, leaving behind a single emotion - absolute terror. Her mind screamed, her heart screamed. She closed her eyes, opened her mouth, and let the screams escape.
"Can you hear me, Master?"
Ranma groaned, a sharp pain burning in the back of her mind as Shampoo's words dragged her back to consciousness. The pain ignored, Ranma forced her eyes to open. Perhaps, she dared to hope, it was all a dream.
"What ... happened?"
Her hopes died the moment the words left her mouth, the sound of her own voice betraying the illusion. She was still a girl. Her eyes closed again, the will to open them drained away.
"You're okay! Oh, Master, I'm so glad!"
Ranma felt Shampoo's arms wrap around her, the warmth of the Amazon's body next to hers. She wanted to scream obscenities, to shove Shampoo away, but she simply lay there, wrapped in her misery, wondering what on Earth to do next.
She wanted to ask if Shampoo knew something about the curse, perhaps why the hot water had not worked, and why the hell the Amazon kept referring to her as "Master", but she could not bring herself to speak. For a moment, she had to stop, rest, and give herself up to the darkness behind her eyelids.
The warmth around her dissipated as she felt Shampoo pull back from the unwelcome embrace. She let out a deep sigh. One problem at a time. She was Ranma Saotome, and she never let a challenge get her down. She wouldn't let this curse beat her. Opening her eyes would be the first step.
"Master, what happened to your hair?"
The absurdity of the question took Ranma by surprise. Here she was, pondering the end of her life as she knew it, and Shampoo was concerned about hair?
"What?" she asked, irresistible curiosity parting the bleak cloud that hung over her. She opened her eyes and looked upon Shampoo. "What do you mean?"
"Your hair," Shampoo commented, reaching down with a finger to gently brush its tip through Ranma's locks. "It's ... red."
Ranma raised herself slowly into a sitting position, ignoring the irregular waves of dizziness that gripped her, and looked down toward the ground. Near the toppled pot of water was a small puddle, and in it was reflected her face.
Shampoo had spoken the truth; as Ranma looked, she noticed a small, zig-zagged strip of bright red that ran through her black hair, starting just above her forehead and curving off to one side. Reaching up, she gingerly brought one hand to touch the small coloured patch.
She half-expected her fingers to touch dried blood, but they felt only smooth hair. A puzzled look crossed her face as she pondered this new development.
What the hell is going on?
A parade of cherry blossoms streamed by on the breeze, settling one after the other upon the surface of a small pond, each sending ripples dancing across the surface. Some stayed upon the water; others were caught by the next gust of air and sent skywards once more, to find another destination.
Ranma sat quietly upon the grass, watching the blossoms as the wind tossed them with reckless abandon. She felt strangely connected to them: cut off, alone, drifting wherever the wind may blow. The past few weeks of her life had given her much to think about.
Her life. Her. That thought alone was an endlessly uncomfortable distraction. How on Earth was she ever going to cope with being a girl?
She pondered for a moment swimming back to China, speaking with Cologne again, searching for a cure. She did not remember the way back to Jusenkyo, but surely she would recall once she was in China again.
Two fireflies flitted out from the nearby bushes and darted back and forth across the pond, twitching back and forth across the moonlit water. The realisation that she had been watching the pond for several hours struck Ranma, but was quickly dismissed. Did it really matter?
"Feeling better, I hope, Miss Saotome."
"Yeah," she replied, without turning away from the pond. She had not felt Hojo's approach, but she did not care. Such things seemed trivial now. "No more fainting."
"For that, I am glad. I was most concerned," Hojo replied, coming up alongside Ranma. He sat beside her. "I hope you don't mind the intrusion. I wouldn't want to interrupt your meditation."
"It's fine," Ranma replied. Meditation? She had never really believed in it. The only "meditation" her father had ever demonstrated was usually a result of a late night drinking binge, and was always followed in turn by a very grumpy, hung-over Genma the next morning. "I was just thinking."
"You've been outside for quite some time. Might I ask, what you were thinking about?" Hojo inquired, a curious expression on his face. "Your expression gives the impression that you are carrying the weight of the world upon your shoulders. It does not belong on such a beautiful face."
Ranma shuddered with revulsion at the compliment, drawing her knees up toward her chest and closing her arms around them. She sighed, knowing Hojo, in his ignorance, was trying to be nice. "I was thinking about heading back to China to find a cure for my curse."
"Ah yes, this curse," Hojo said thoughtfully, a hand stroking his chin. "What ailment is this that can be cured so easily with hot water? If it's to do with your hair, I would not bother. I think it looks quite stylish."
"It's a long story, and it's not the hair," replied Ranma with a sigh. She did not feel like explaining. She would also rather Hojo not think her insane.
"I see," Hojo commented. "Why would you want to go back to China?"
"To find a proper cure, a cure that works," Ranma replied with a small shrug of her shoulders. "Besides, Shampoo wants to go home."
"That is true," Hojo agreed, "but she does not want to return yet."
"Huh? What makes you say that?"
"Shampoo and I had a ... long talk last night," Hojo explained, with a smile. "And we've been talking whilst you've been out here. Lovely girl. She is quite enthusiastic about helping you find this Kayoko girl. She said it seemed important to you."
"It's important to me," Ranma replied, narrowing her eyes, "not to her."
"Miss Saotome, I would like to share a little secret with you. Call it wisdom, if you like: She is your servant. If it is important to you, it is important to her."
Ranma frowned, irritated at the repeated reference to Shampoo as if she were some sort of slave. It was Shampoo's decision to come to Japan, Ranma had told her to stay behind in China. She refused to feel guilty about Shampoo's situation.
"My master, Lord Shingen, is currently in Kyoto. He is meeting with other lords to discuss a grave problem that faces them. There are rumblings of dissent amongst warriors such as myself; some feel they are the rightful holders of power, and that the nobility should stand aside and let them rule. I know this, because my master knows this. If such a shift in power were to occur, I would almost certainly become the lord of this region, but I hope with all of my heart that this never comes to pass."
"Why?" Ranma asked.
"Because I would sooner die than see such a fate befall my master. He means everything to me, Miss Saotome, and long ago I promised I would give my life to stop such an uprising if it were to occur.
"I told this story to Shampoo last night," Hojo continued. "She is beginning to understand what it means to accept a master."
"So that's why she keeps calling me 'Master'," Ranma observed. "It's your fault."
"Yes," Hojo admitted with a jovial chuckle. "You may hold me accountable if you wish. Shampoo has a strong sense of honour - I just ... helped it to emerge."
"So that means she's going to keep doing it," Ranma grumbled. "Thanks a lot, I appreciate that."
"What it means," Hojo corrected, "is that she will stand with you on your journey. Few are gifted with such good fortune, Miss Saotome."
Good fortune? Ranma pondered Hojo's words. He was right, in a way - she probably would have drowned if Shampoo had not been there to pull her from the ocean.
"I guess it would be nice to have someone to talk to," Ranma begrudgingly admitted.
"The longest journey begins with a single step," Hojo observed. "You've just made yours."
Ranma nodded, admitting to herself that Hojo had a point. Shampoo would not want to return to her village, or China, until her honour had been restored.
Ranma supposed that finding a cure could wait. She had promised her father she would find Kayoko, and she could do that just as well as a girl. Once she had kept her promise, then she could afford to go back to China.
She watched as one final gust of wind scattered a small group of cherry blossoms further and further from the tree. For the blossoms, there was no turning back.
"I guess the next step will be toward Edo," Ranma stated, voice firmed by a newfound resolve. "I have to find Kayoko."
"You'll need to be careful. There are many who would be tempted by the sight of two girls travelling alone. I feel I should accompany you to provide protection, but my duties bind me to my master's home."
"Don't worry," Ranma replied. "We'll be fine."
"Of that I have no doubt," Hojo agreed with a smile. "But, Edo is a long way away. Perhaps not as far as China, but you still must be careful on this journey."
Ranma nodded, and for the first time in far too long, smiled. Hojo was a kind man, a good man, with wisdom beyond his years. She briefly wondered what it would have been like to study under him. She bowed respectfully to him.
"Thank you for the advice, and the lodgings," she said. "I, uh ... thanks."
"You are most welcome, Miss Saotome," Hojo replied, returning the bow. "I have enjoyed your stay. If you find yourself near here again, please stop by. You are welcome to stay again."
"Thank you. I'm ... glad to have met you."
"Master," Shampoo's voice came from behind Ranma, "I've packed our things, we're ready to go."
Ranma turned toward Shampoo and nodded at the Amazon's silhouette, surrounded by the glow of the rising sun. The possessions of which Shampoo spoke were few; some clothes, and some food supplied by Hojo. Ranma still had her sword, but Shampoo had no weapons. Shampoo still seemed to favour her left arm slightly, although her right seemed to have recovered almost entirely from the injury she had sustained in China. Considering the length of their trip, they were very poorly equipped.
We'll have to stop to pick up supplies on the way, Ranma reasoned. She was used to travelling light with her father, so while she did have some reservations, she was not overly concerned.
"Let's go, Shampoo."
Shampoo nodded, hoisting the backpack up onto her shoulders. She gave a final wave farewell to Hojo, accompanied by a fond smile, and turned to follow Ranma toward the sunrise.
The grassy hills rolled endlessly toward the horizon, the azure sky overhead unencumbered by clouds to obscure the distant meeting of heaven and earth. It was a beautiful day, the sun warming the grass, the pleasant scent of nature hanging in the air.
Ranma squinted into the sunlight as she came to the top of a small hill. The fields of green seemed to go on forever - at least, that is what it felt like to her. The pair had been travelling for six days now, covering a good distance each day, stopping to rest only when it was too dark to continue.
On her training trips with her father, there would always be training stops to break up the monotony of day after day of marching across the countryside, but this was no training journey. She had a job to do, and she had every intention of doing it.
Her determination did not, however, stop her mind from wandering. Many times during the depths of night, when the sounds of Shampoo's slumbering breath and the rustle of the night breeze upon the grass were her only companions, she could not stop herself from thinking, remembering.
She wondered from time to time where her father was, what he was doing. She had never really questioned the fundamental principles of life and death, but she could not help but ponder her father's place in the world. She missed him more and more with each passing day. So many things that were unsaid between them, so many arguments that were unresolved, so many harsh words with no truth behind them.
It was too late for that now. Her regrets were a burden, weighing her down, holding her back. She knew she would have to cast them aside, but she knew she could never forget them.
Some nights the loneliness overwhelmed her, and so she put her arms around Shampoo and let herself fall asleep holding the other girl. She needed to feel the warmth of another person, to know that she was not entirely alone in the darkness.
"Master, would you like some food?"
She turned and glanced over her shoulder at Shampoo, who was marching dutifully up the hill behind her, hunched over beneath the substantial weight of her backpack. The pack had started out mostly empty, but they had been collecting food during their journey, which made the pack ever heavier. Ranma had tried to take the pack, even if only for a while to give Shampoo a brief rest, but Shampoo would hear none of it, insisting on bearing the load.
Despite the considerable burden, Shampoo smiled at Ranma, her eyes carrying a pleasant look about them that was irresistibly infectious. Despite her weighty thoughts, Ranma found herself mirroring the smile. She had long since given up on convincing Shampoo to stop calling her "Master", and Shampoo's mood had improved exponentially because of it. Shampoo had been smiling more and more often, and her light mood had made the trip much more bearable than it had initially been.
"No, but thanks," she replied, coming to a halt atop the hill. She placed her hands on her hips and surveyed the land before her as Shampoo came up alongside her. "Quite a sight, ain't it?"
"Japan is very beautiful," Shampoo agreed, catching her breath. "I'm glad to have come here."
"Beautiful indeed," Ranma replied. She reached over and patted Shampoo gently upon the shoulder. "You look tired. We should rest."
"No, please, Master, we must continue on to Edo. I'm fine."
"Edo will still be there tomorrow. Sit down, Shampoo."
"As you wish, Master."
Ranma sat down upon the grass and Shampoo quickly followed suit, slipping the pack off her shoulders and placing it on the grass beside her. She let out a long breath, clearly glad to be rid of the weight.
"Feel better?" Ranma asked.
"Yes, Master," Shampoo replied, giving Ranma a look of genuine gratitude. "Thank you."
Ranma smiled at her companion, watching her for a moment before turning away. Shampoo had been so dedicated, diligent, the least Ranma could do was give the poor girl a rest. She chuckled to herself, suddenly wondering what she would have thought of the current situation a month or two earlier. Sitting peacefully next to the girl who killed her father. Who would have thought?
Shampoo's eyes did not carry happiness alone. Behind the pleasant facade, Ranma caught glimpses of guilt, pain. She knew Shampoo would do anything to repay her debt.
"Master, can I ask a question?"
"Hmm?" Ranma inquired, eyes still watching the horizon.
"Who is this Kayoko girl?"
"Ahh," Ranma replied thoughtfully. She should have expected this question. "Kayoko Tendo. She's the daughter of a guy my father used to train with."
"Oh," Shampoo said, sounding disappointed, as if she expected Kayoko's identity to be a matter of great intrigue. "I don't mean to question my Master, but why are we searching for her?"
"It's all right," Ranma said with a wave of her hand. "If I were you, I'd be asking questions too, I guess. Pops used to train with Kayoko's father, but he died just before Kayoko was born. Pops helped her mother raise her after that. She's a couple of years younger than me - but I haven't really seen her in about ten years."
"So now it's your job to look after her," Shampoo supposed.
"I guess so," Ranma replied with a shrug. "Pops didn't really say a lot about what I'm supposed to do."
"You don't sound very happy about it, Master," Shampoo observed, feeling much the same way.
"I guess I never really saw myself becoming a babysitter. Still, a promise is a promise. If Pops thinks Kayoko needs me to look after her, he must have had a reason."
"Perhaps she is in danger," Shampoo suggested, a hopeful tone to her voice.
"Sounds to me like that's what you want."
"I'm sorry, Master," Shampoo blustered, her face flushing. "I just ... want to prove myself in combat. I want to find out if I have what it takes to be an Amazon."
"You're strong, dedicated, and honourable," Ranma said with a smile, placing a hand reassuringly on Shampoo's shoulder. "That seems a great start to me."
After nearly a three weeks travel, they had finally found a sign of civilisation. Or rather, what remained of one.
"What do you think, Master?"
Ranma narrowed her eyes, scanning back and forth through the burned huts. Tendrils of smoke rose up to touch the sky, carrying with them the sickly smell of death. The entire village appeared to have been burned to the ground. The ground was scorched, coated with ashes. Small fires burned here and there across what little fuel remained.
"Nothing could survive that," Ranma commented, her voice as desolate as the smouldering embers in the distance.
"Who would ... do such a thing?" Shampoo wondered, utterly bewildered by the savagery of the scene before her. "Burn down a village full of people?"
Ranma looked on in silence. She knew she should have felt grief, sorrow, pain, but she could feel nothing. Somehow she was numb, utterly detached from the suffering that had been inflicted upon the village. She knew it was a hideous, terrible thing. She wanted to feel anger, outrage, to charge into the ruins filled with righteous vengeance, but she could not summon up the emotion. There was only a void, nothingness where there should have been substance.
She looked across at Shampoo, whose face was alight with horror and disgust, and for a moment envied the girl, wondered why she could not feel the emotions that the Amazon girl so obviously felt. Instead, she felt only the inevitability of the destruction before her.
"Master? Are you okay?" Shampoo asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Ranma replied, placing her hand atop Shampoo's and forcing a smile. "Sorry."
"We should find the ones who did this and punish them," Shampoo stated. "Killing children, innocent people ... it's unthinkable."
"No, Shampoo," Ranma stated firmly, her face hardening, the smile abandoned. "We are not here to get involved in things that are none of our business. We're going to Edo."
"No buts. I have a promise to keep, and I'm going to keep it."
"Yes, Master," Shampoo replied dejectedly, looking down at the ground.
Ranma sighed. "If it makes you feel any better, we'll ... go and see if anyone survived. We just don't have time to be wandering all over Japan to find whoever did this."
"I understand, Master," Shampoo said with a sigh. "As you wish."
The heavy stench of smoke filled Ranma's nostrils, forcing her to cover her mouth so she could breathe. Shampoo coughed heavily behind her, having trouble controlling her breath as well.
Their surroundings were desolate, grass and wood burned back by intense heat, leaving only scorched remains. A light breeze played across the scarred earth, gently brushing ash over the remains of a violent blaze. Flies buzzed about in swarms, settling mainly on what Ranma imagined were the remains of the villagers.
The sight and stink of scorched flesh filled Ranma's mind, filling her with a deep revulsion. Her stomach was wracked by spasms, making her fight to hold back from retching. She closed her eyes and tried to distance herself from the scenes of carnage.
It was when she closed her eyes that realisation struck. With the sight of burned flesh and destroyed homes gone, so too was the ill feeling in her stomach. The smell remained, but it was bearable.
The prospect of the villagers dying somehow did not trouble her. She imagined the land - turbulent with life and chaos - purged by the fire, the life sucked out of the earth, leaving only perfect peace. Quiet, everlasting stillness. In a perverse way, it was almost serene.
The sharpness and clarity of the image took her by surprise, leaving her wondering just where it had come from.
"This is ... terrible, awful ...."
Shampoo's sobbed words shattered the calm. Ranma opened her eyes, to be greeted once again by the hideous shapes of burned bodies, and the utter revulsion that sank into her stomach like a stone.
"Nothing could survive this," Ranma said quietly, narrowing her eyes. She could have scoured the village for a day, but she did not need to. She could feel the void left behind when the village was cleansed by the flames. Nothing but death remained.
Ranma turned slowly, catching sight of Shampoo as the Amazon sank slowly to her knees, overcome with horror. Ranma stepped toward her and slowly lowered herself to one knee.
"They're all dead, Shampoo," she spoke softly, quietly. "I'm sorry."
Shampoo's moist eyes met Ranma's for a moment, softening with a fresh flow of tears as the Amazon realised the inevitability of the truth. Ranma stood and stepped away, leaving Shampoo to grieve alone.
The sounds of Shampoo's sobs called after Ranma as she moved away, casting a veil of questions over her mind. Why did Shampoo grieve so, for people she had never known - would never know? From where did this spring of emotion come forth? And why did Ranma not feel the same?
What's wrong with me, she wondered to herself. Why don't I feel anything? Should I feel anything?
Shampoo wailed, her cries those of agony, yet Ranma felt cold, empty numbness. She could find no pity, no remorse. The dead villagers did not have to live without a father. They were not alone, they were not cursed. They were free. Free of their pain and their suffering, free of their problems and cares.
Ranma's thoughts turned once more to Shampoo. The Amazon sobbed in pain as if her own body was cast upon the flames. She suffered, felt the pain that the villagers had felt.
I can free her, Ranma realised, a sudden flash of revelation. I don't want her to feel this pain anymore. Slowly, she reached for Garyoutensei, shaky fingers closing around the hilt.
Ranma shook herself, casting off the urge to draw her sword. As obvious and sensible as the idea had seemed only moments before, it now seemed utterly repulsive. Her hand left the sword's handle and came to her forehead, cradling it gently.
"Shampoo," she called, "we're leaving. We can't do anything here."
The two walked slowly, solemnly, away from the village. Shampoo no longer sobbed, but her face was streaked with the trails of tears. Ranma kept pace with her servant, brows furrowed as she half-tried to concentrate, half-tried to close her mind off from her thoughts.
"Master ... I can't ..."
Ranma stopped as she noticed Shampoo had fallen behind. She turned, and saw Shampoo's pleading eyes, once more full of tears, staring at her.
"I'm sorry, Master," Shampoo whimpered, leaning up against a tree.
"It's okay, Shampoo," Ranma said reassuringly, moving toward Shampoo. "I understand."
It was a lie, but Ranma hoped it would make Shampoo feel better. Ranma didn't understand. That was exactly the problem.
"How could someone burn a -village- full of -people-?" Shampoo desperately questioned, utterly unable to comprehend. "How? Why?"
Ranma opened her mouth to speak, to offer some words of comfort, but could find none to say. Her thoughts rang hollow, with no real meaning. She did not know why someone would burn a village to the ground, slaughter the innocent people who lived there. What possible gain could there be?
"I ... don't know," she reluctantly admitted. "Somebody had a reason, but I don't know what it was."
Shampoo slumped against the tree and closed her eyes as she dropped to her knees, her face carrying a defeated expression. "Japan does not seem so beautiful any more, Master."
"Maybe you're right," Ranma said, unsure of what else to say. Ranma could tell that, despite all her talk of being a warrior, Shampoo was ill-at-ease with the very idea of murdering another person. Ranma guessed that before her father had made his appearance at the Amazon village, Shampoo had never seen another person killed, let alone killed anyone herself.
Ranma had never seen a person killed before her father's rampage either. It troubled her that despite being in such similar situations, their reactions could be so very different. She wondered for a moment whose reaction was the right one.
This isn't the time for that, she thought with a sigh.
"It's hard, I know," she spoke slowly, considering her words. "Nothing I can say to you is going to make what you saw back there any less awful. I know you just want to crawl under a rock and forget about it, because it hurts, even to think about it."
Why aren't I hurting, Ranma asked herself. Am I just lying to her?
"I've felt like that a lot in my life. When Pops died, when I got this curse, when I think about the awful things I've seen. Sometimes I stop and wonder why the world is so full of evil, so dark, so miserable.
"But sometimes," she continued, "I see something so beautiful that I remember it's worthwhile to hold on, to fight back. I know I can't give up, because if I do, I'll be letting it beat me, and I can't stand to lose."
"You make it sound so simple, Master," Shampoo replied with a bitter smile on her face.
Ranma reached down and gently brushed the hair from Shampoo's face, smiling reassuringly at her as she knelt alongside her. Finally, amongst the emptiness inside her, Ranma felt the stirring of an emotion - sympathy, for her companion.
"I know it's not simple," Ranma said with a sigh. She reached down and gently took Shampoo's hand into hers, lifting it from the grass. "Nothing in life is simple. I know that what we saw was awful, and terrible, and it hurts to even think that someone could do something like that. You just can't stop trying to be a good person because of it."
"I ... I'll try not to, Master," Shampoo replied, squeezing Ranma's hand.
"I know you will, Shampoo. I know you're a good person, and I'm sorry for dragging you into this. I never should have brought you to Japan."
"I'm not sorry," Shampoo said quietly. "I wish we'd met another way, but I'm glad that I met you. Thank you, for trying to make me feel better."
Ranma smiled to Shampoo and stood up. She reached down, offering her hand to Shampoo, who took it and pulled herself to her feet.
"In some ways it's a shame you want to be a warrior, Shampoo. You're a nice person, you shouldn't have to be thinking about killing anyone."
Ranma's smile slowly faded as Shampoo stared at her; Ranma wondered if she'd offended the Amazon with what was meant to be an off-handed joke. She was about to ask Shampoo what was wrong when she noticed that the girl's stare was not directed at her, but rather over her shoulder.
She could feel it. They were not alone. She wondered for the briefest of moments why she had not noticed before; it was too late to ask herself that now. Slowly, she turned to face the man who was standing behind her, his sword already drawn.
"Well, now, look what I've found here," he said, a smirk on his face.
"Who are you?" Ranma asked, all traces of friendliness banished from her voice. She did not appreciate being surprised by a man with a sword. Shampoo rose cautiously to her feet and stepped into place behind Ranma.
The man sneered disdainfully at them, eyes looking both of the girls up and down. The man seemed to like what he saw, licking his lips in approval, which made the hairs on the back of Ranma's neck stand up.
Small in stature, the man nevertheless carried an aggressive look about him, his reddish skin and wild eyes giving him a dangerous appearance. A number of small scars ran across his face, and his smile - a motley display of yellowed teeth - was vicious and predatory.
He was adorned in a tattered yellow uniform, and his sword was finely sharpened. The blade was unclean, smeared with a red tinge that suggested recent use. It pointed directly at Ranma, firm and unwavering; it was not the weapon of a petty thief or bandit.
This guy's no amateur, Ranma realised. This is a soldier.
"Who I am's none 'a your business," the man replied gruffly. "If I was you, I'd be more worried 'bout saving your own lives than the name 'a the person about to take 'em."
"You'd attack two women travelling by themselves? What kind of man are you?" Ranma asked, arching an eyebrow in surprise. The gesture was more for show than an expression of genuine disbelief - she had a good idea what sort of man she was facing.
"You're damn right I will, as soon as ya explain how the hell you escaped the fire. We didn't see anyone leaving the village."
"YOU burned the village?" Ranma spat in disbelief. How could this man so glibly admit to such an act? She had thought him a dishonourable rogue before; now, he had sunk below that definition, into a category that was less than human.
Shampoo bristled behind her, and Ranma held out a hand to stop the Amazon as she stepped forward. Ranma could not see Shampoo's face, but she could almost feel the anger radiating from her companion.
"Burned it to a crisp," the man replied, his voice filled with what seemed to be pride. Ranma suppressed a shudder at the man's repulsive demeanour. She had pondered at length her own lack of emotion about the villagers, but this man seemed to find their fate amusing, enjoyable. She could not understand such a thing.
"Why?!" Shampoo demanded, storming forward only to be restrained by Ranma.
"None 'a your business. We got what we came for, and now," the man punctuated his words with small flicks of his sword, "I finish tyin' up the loose ends."
Ranma heard a feral-sounding growl come from behind her; she frowned, knowing exactly what Shampoo was thinking. Let me punish him, Master. Let me show him what happens to monsters who kill innocent people.
You don't need to worry, Ranma thought. You'll get your chance, Shampoo.
"Well, then," Ranma announced, voice brimming with confidence as she folded her arms in front of herself, "start tying."
"Well, uh," the soldier stammered, taken slightly aback by Ranma's sudden change of demeanour. After a moment's thought, he commanded, "Get down on your knees."
"No," Ranma replied, shifting her weight from one foot to the other and back, her eyes not leaving his. "I won't."
"Do it!" the soldier barked, his cheeks flushing red with infuriation.
"Or what? You'll tell me again?" Ranma asked offhandedly, a smile coming to her face. Good, she thought, he has a short fuse.
"Stupid man no tell us what to do," Shampoo lilted in a sing-song tone. Ranma smiled, glad that Shampoo understood where she wanted this conversation to lead.
"I don't think he's got the guts," Ranma remarked offhandedly, glancing over her shoulder to surreptitiously wink at Shampoo. "He's all talk."
"Shut up!" the soldier fumed, incensed. "Get down on your hands and knees or you'll regret you were ever born!"
"I don't know about that," Ranma said with an exaggerated roll of her eyes, "but I sure do regret starting this conversation. Can we go now?"
"Shampoo bored," Shampoo chimed in, "you leave us alone now, okay?"
"That's IT!" the soldier roared, lunging forward in absolute rage. His strike was wild, uncontrolled; exactly what Ranma had been hoping for.
As well-trained as the soldier might have been, he was not prepared for Ranma's lightning-fast dodge to one side, nor was he prepared for the impact of Ranma's fist on his sword-hand. The explosive pain of his wrist snapping took him completely by surprise, sending his sword tumbling out of his grasp. These surprises were nothing, however, compared to the sight of Shampoo's bare foot closing in on his face.
A dull thud filled the air. Shampoo held her position, foot held at face height, as the soldier slumped down to the ground below. She glanced upwards and noticed the man's sword spinning through the air - with a deft flick of her arm, she reached out and caught the handle. Slowly, she lowered her foot and smiled at Ranma.
"Nice kick," Ranma commented, matching Shampoo's smile.
"Thank you, Master," she replied with a bow.
"You'd think a soldier would know better than to get annoyed so easily," Ranma commented as she looked down at the man, shaking her head. "Still, it worked out okay for us."
"What do we do with him now, Master?" Shampoo asked, gently waving the man's sword back and forth, adjusting her grip upon it as she tried to get a feel for its weight and length.
"We find out where the other soldiers are, I suppose," Ranma said, scratching the back of her head. "I hadn't really thought that far ahead."
"Japanese swords are very nice," Shampoo commented, admiring the sharp edge of her newly-acquired blade. "May I try it out on him, Master?"
"You're not going to kill him, Shampoo," Ranma stated firmly. "If we kill him, we're no better than he is. No, I think we should find out where the other soldiers are, and find out why the hell they're burning down villages."
"Master, didn't you say we didn't have time to do that?"
"Yeah, well, now this guy's pissed me off. Besides, I only said we didn't have time to go wandering Japan looking for them - I think we have enough time to find this guy's friends and deal out some pain. Now, find something to tie this guy up with."
"As you wish, Master," Shampoo replied as solemnly as she could, unable to hide the smile that had taken her face.
"Wake up, rise and shine," Ranma said, kneeling in front of the soldier. Shampoo had found some very sturdy vines that had served the purpose of restraints exceedingly well. The tree they had tied him to was strong and sturdy - the man was not going anywhere in a hurry.
"Uhhhhh ..." the man groaned as he slowly opened his eyes, blinking as they slowly regained focus. They immediately opened wide as they were greeted to the sight of Ranma's abundant cleavage. "I've died and this is my reward ...."
Ranma blinked, a confused expression on her face. She glanced down and saw where the soldier was staring, and let out an exasperated sigh. Reaching out with a fingertip, she tilted the man's chin up until he was looking at her face. "Not quite, Soldier-Boy. You're not dead yet."
"Oh, no," the soldier muttered in disgust as the reality of his situation set in. He struggled briefly, long enough to realise that he was secured tightly to the tree. He winced, as his broken wrist complained at his movements.
"Although, you might wish you were if you don't start talking," Ranma added, nodding her head toward Shampoo for emphasis. The soldier glanced in the Amazon's direction, and gulped nervously as she practiced her swings with his sword. "She's not used to Japanese weapons, but she's learning very quickly, don't you think?"
"Oh ... no," the soldier mouthed, utterly perplexed as to how the situation had been turned around so quickly.
"Not so tough anymore, are you?" Ranma asked, with a smile that resembled that of a cat just about to pounce upon its prey. "One look at the sword that's probably going to end up in your chest and you turn to jelly. It's pathetic."
"What do you want?" the soldier asked, his voice weak, a mere shadow of the booming presence it once was.
"What's your name?"
"Totoshi," the soldier spat, a spark of futile anger in his voice. He winced again, "You didn't have to break my arm, you know."
"It's only a broken wrist, so stop complaining," Ranma replied, a dangerous edge cutting through the sugar-sweet tone she had been using. "You were trying to kill us - you're lucky I didn't snap your neck.
"In fact," Ranma said with a smile as she closed her hand around Totoshi's neck, "I still might do that. Now, I'm guessing you didn't burn that village on your own. Where are the others?"
"Don't play innocent," Ranma uttered menacingly, tightening her grip upon Totoshi's neck. "You know what I'm talking about."
Ranma's smile twisted as she tightened her grip, watching the veins on Totoshi's neck bulge as his skin turned a bright shade of red. She watched him choke for breath, struggle to hold on to consciousness.
"I don't ... know!" Totoshi coughed, struggling for precious air. He thrashed against the tree, trying to escape, the pain in his wrist forgotten. Through it all, Ranma smiled.
Shampoo ceased her sword swings and watched Ranma's interrogation with a mixture of curiosity and fear. She could see Totoshi's eyes rolling back in his head, his movements weakening as he continued to lose the struggle.
"Master?" she asked, "Aren't you going a bit far?"
Ranma growled into Totoshi's face as she loosened her grip and pulled her hand from his neck, her fingers shaking. Slowly, as if with great reluctance, she brought her hand to the ground.
"Tell me what you know," she rumbled dangerously. "Is it worth your life to protect them?"
"I'll talk, I'll talk," Totoshi whimpered, forcing deep breaths of air into his lungs. He leaned back against the tree, clearly dizzied. "They're just ... north of here, in a clearing ... just beyond the rise."
"Just ... three."
Ranma brought her face close to Totoshi's and smiled at him, a predatory gleam in her eye. "Good boy," she breathed, staring at him for a moment before rising to her feet. "Shampoo, we're heading north."
"Yes, Master," Shampoo replied obediently. She gestured toward their captive. "What shall I do with him?"
"Leave him here," Ranma ordered, her eyes on Totoshi's as she spoke. "Someone - or thing - is going to find him sooner or later. If he's lucky, it won't be something that wants to eat him."
Totoshi tried to protest, but was hushed by Ranma.
"In the meantime, Soldier-Boy here can think about what he's done."
"Well, at least Totoshi was telling the truth."
Ranma squinted as she lay alongside Shampoo amidst a thicket of bushes. The pair watched over a tiny encampment: two tents and a small fire marked the centre of a small clearing amidst the surrounding trees. Three soldiers, dressed identically to Totoshi, sat around the fire. Ranma could hear conversation and laughter, but was unable to resolve the muttering into words.
"It's no good," she said, "we're too far away. We're going to have to get closer."
"Master, look," Shampoo said, pointing through a small gap in the bushes.
Ranma leaned over as Shampoo moved aside to make room, and peered through the gap. A girl sat nearby, tied firmly to a pole that had been driven deep into the ground. She slumped limply forward; Ranma guessed she was either asleep or unconscious.
Ranma squinted, peering more closely at the girl. A dark patch covered her face, but Ranma was unable to tell if it was a bruise or a shadow. Given the company the girl kept, Ranma suspected the former. The more closely she looked, the more she could not shake off the feeling of familiarity she felt about the girl.
"What do you think, Master?" Shampoo asked as Ranma stared at the girl, the Amazon's warm breath on Ranma's ear quickly snapping her out of her silent observation.
"She's in a pretty bad situation," Ranma observed, pulling herself away from the gap to return to her previous position, "but she's better off than the rest of the village."
"We should help her," Shampoo whispered.
"Yeah, we should," Ranma agreed with a nod. "Come on."
Ranma darted across between the two tents, which brought her up behind the leftmost guard, and held her hand up to still Shampoo. Watching carefully, she held her breath, waiting for the right moment.
The two soldiers laughed uproariously, and Ranma stood on tiptoes to glance over their heads and find out what was amusing them so. The third guard wobbled back and forth on the far side of the camp fire, a bottle of sake clutched in one hand as he swayed to and fro. He brought the bottle to his lips and took a deep swig, throwing his head back to swallow the fluid.
His drunken body was unable to cope with the sudden change in orientation and abandoned its balance, leaving the man to fall on his posterior. The bottle tumbled from his grasp and rolled through the grass. All three soldiers apparently found this quite amusing, as the air was filled with raucous laughter.
Ranma gave a silent nod and leapt for the nearest soldier.
Neither stood a chance. Ranma wrapped her arm around one soldier's neck, grabbing it brutally as she drove a fist into the side of his head, his arms flailing as she tossed him aside. He landed roughly, sprawling on the ground in front of his tent.
Glancing over, Ranma saw Shampoo had duplicated her success on the other soldier, who now lay unconscious at the Amazon's feet. Shampoo dusted off her hands, a gesture which appeared almost comical and brought a smile to Ranma's face. Strange, she thought, what you find funny sometimes.
The third soldier looked up at the two newcomers, his alcohol-addled mind barely comprehending what had happened. He tried to stand as Ranma strode over toward him, but did not make it very far before she planted a foot in his chest and pinned him to the ground.
Ranma drew her fist back, a grimace on her face as the powerful smell of the soldier's breath filled her nose. She brought her fist down, a powerful blow to the soldier's face leaving him unconscious.
"That was easy," Shampoo observed, scratching her head. "It doesn't feel as good as I thought it would."
"What, revenge?" Ranma asked, stepping away from the soldier. "No, I guess it doesn't. You're right, though - soldiers should have put up more of a fight. There's something weird going on here."
"What do you mean, Master?"
"I don't know," Ranma admitted, a thoughtful frown on her face. She turned and looked at the unconscious bodies sprawled by the tents. "I was expecting more of a challenge, I guess."
Ranma shivered as a sudden tingle ran down her spine, goosebumps prickling her skin as she glanced around at the trees circling the clearing. Something told her there was something else out there, but she could see nothing but trees. Nevertheless, she was filled with a strong desire to leave as quickly as she could.
"Get the girl, and let's get out of here."
"Yes, Master," Shampoo dutifully replied, quickly moving over toward the captive girl.
Ranma glanced about nervously before stepping over to help. There was definitely something wrong, but she could not understand what it was.
It was the work of seconds for Shampoo to untie the knots holding the girl to the pole. The girl was indeed unconscious, her body slumping forward against Ranma as Shampoo released the restraints. Ranma caught the girl, arms closing around the cold body.
Suddenly, she felt it. Danger. There was something coming to get her, and it was close. Instinctively, her hand dropped to Garyoutensei's handle.
Shampoo's words caught Ranma's attention and, releasing the sword, she threw herself and the girl in her arms to the ground. Shampoo charged past them, Ranma catching a glimpse of a sword swinging for a brief moment. A deep thud was followed by a cry of pain, and then silence.
Leaves rustled overhead, the sound of the wind filling the void for a moment, before another, heavier thump punched through the air, leaving silence once more in its wake.
Slowly, Ranma raised her head, and looked over her shoulder at the source of the sounds. Eyes widening, she slowly got to her feet, leaving the unconscious girl forgotten on the grass.
One of the soldiers lay before Shampoo, her sword sticking out of him at a bizarre angle, the handle beneath his armpit, the tip protruding from his neck. A large gash ran across his chest, where Shampoo's blade had hacked through his ribs. Blood streamed from the wound at an alarming rate, quickly forming a large puddle around the dead man.
Shampoo stood over the body, her eyes wide as she looked down at it. She slowly raised a shaky hand and stared at it in wonder.
"I ... I killed him ...." she muttered, disbelieving. "I ...."
"Shampoo?" Ranma asked, managing to tear her eyes away from the horrific gash and look instead at her servant.
"Master, I ... he was charging at you, he .. he had a sword ... I ..."
Shampoo dived down on the man, frantically grabbing at his chest, yanking at the sword that had killed him, trying to pull it out, to undo what she had done. She pulled and pulled, but the sword was stuck fast.
"Shampoo!" Ranma yelled, grabbing the Amazon and pulling her away from the body, "It's too late, you can't do anything now. He's dead."
Shampoo looked up at Ranma with wild eyes. Slowly she brought her blood-soaked hands to her mouth, her face twisting in revulsion as realisation began to sink in.
"We have to go, Shampoo!" Ranma commanded, trying to keep Shampoo's mind occupied, wanting to lead her away from the sight of the dead man. "Come on!"
Shampoo nodded dumbly, her eyes fixed upon her hands as they dripped with the blood of her victim, the blood she had so easily spilled.
The horrible, metallic smell of burning blood filling her nostrils, Ranma pulled Shampoo sharply to her feet. Yanking the Amazon along behind her, Ranma grabbed the other girl and tossed her over one shoulder. Without sparing a glance back, Ranma pulled both girls into the forest, away from the clearing.
The water was cold, the stream's flow strong. Ranma gathered some of the liquid in one hand and splashed it sharply across the face of her unconscious companion, eliciting a moan from the girl.
Shampoo knelt slightly downstream, holding her hands underwater, frantically scrubbing at the skin. She had managed to wash most of the bloodstains from her skin, but continued to scrub just as furiously as the moment she began.
Ranma sighed as she watched the Amazon, unsure of what to say, what to do. The girl had finally begun to come to terms with what had happened with Genma, and now this had happened. It was obvious that Shampoo simply could not cope with the consequences of killing another person.
Shampoo had now killed twice. Guilt clawed at Ranma's mind as she admitted to herself that she had been responsible for both of those deaths. The burden Shampoo carried was one Ranma had placed upon her. The first, in defense of her tribe, the second in defense of her adopted master.
The inevitable question came to her: would I have done the same? Would I have killed him? Months, weeks, even days ago, the question would have been answered with an emphatic no. But, as time marched on, she found herself questioning the things her father had taught her.
Her father had lectured her about the quiet grace of the Art, the peace and solitude it brought with it, the goal of physical and mental perfection being the ultimate end towards which all martial artists strived.
Killing had never entered into the equation, but as Ranma continued to experience the world without her father, she felt more and more that killing was a necessary tool of survival. Indeed, as she had glanced down at the blood-soaked body of the soldier, she saw nothing but a problem that had been solved.
How the hell can I say that, she wondered, suddenly disgusted with herself. She had never killed anyone, and never would. The spilling of blood was to be left to others, the warriors, not the artists. Warriors like Shampoo.
Shampoo would have been better off never knowing me, Ranma thought glumly as she continued scooping water with her hands. We've brought each other nothing but misery.
Was that really true, though, Ranma wondered. Shampoo seemed to thrive with the responsibility of serving a master, seemed to be growing proud of her achievements. For her part, Ranma had developed something of an attachment to her servant, a bond of sorts brought about through hardships the two had suffered.
No, it's not only misery.
Shampoo would talk later, Ranma knew. For now, she needed to be alone, to atone and wash her mind clean, just as she washed her hands. The time would come for them to talk, but that time was not now. So, Ranma busied herself with the newcomer.
The girl was small, her dark brown hair tied in a simple ponytail that left her face exposed. The dark patch was, as Ranma had suspected, a large bruise. The girl had a pretty face, her features endowed with a simple, earthy beauty that Ranma found familiar. Try as she might, she could not shake the feeling that she knew this girl from somewhere.
"Uhhh ..." the girl groaned, rolling her head back and forth as the light of consciousness slowly began to return to her.
Ranma withdrew her hand from the stream, shook it dry, and brought it to the girl's forehead, pressing her cool skin gently against it.
"Easy there," she spoke softly, "looks like you took quite a hit."
"Where ... where am I?" the girl asked, forcing her eyes open a fraction. She winced, in obvious pain. Her dilated pupils rolled slowly toward Ranma, stopping in place as they tried to focus upon her. "Who are you?"
"My name's Ranma," Ranma replied, "and I'm not sure where we are. You're safe for now, though, so don't worry."
The girl tensed, casting her eyes back and forth. "Where are ..."
"The soldiers?" Ranma replied quietly, mindful of Shampoo. "They won't be bothering you anymore. What happened back there?"
"I ... I came from the Ryukyus," the girl explained, her voice weak. "I had been travelling for days, and I came across a village. They let me stay for a night, and then ... then ...."
"Oh," Ranma replied thoughtfully. So, the girl wasn't a native of the village. "Do you know why the soldiers were after you?"
"I ... I don't know," the girl replied. "All I remember is some yelling, and then someone hit me on the back of the head. I can't ...."
"The Ryukyu islands are a long way away," Ranma said, trying to steer the conversation away from the destruction of the village. "Why are you here?"
"I'm looking for a man, I have some business with him," the girl replied, her voice growing stronger. She slowly sat up, propping herself up on her elbows.
"Business?" Ranma asked, leaning back a little. She was quite surprised at the girl's recovery, not expecting her to be sitting up so soon.
"I'd ... rather not say," the girl replied. "You said your name was Ranma?"
"Yeah, that's me," Ranma said with a nod. She gestured towards Shampoo, "and that's my servant, Shampoo."
"Shampoo? That's an odd name," the girl commented, looking quizzically at the Amazon.
"Yeah, she's not from around here. She ... needs some privacy at the moment, okay?"
"Okay," the girl replied with a nod. "I'll leave her alone. I should go back to the village, make sure everything is okay. Thanks for your help, but I should be okay on my own from here."
"Uh, we should push on, those soldiers won't be tied up for long, and they're probably going to come looking for you. We're going to Edo, you can come along if you like," Ranma offered, scratching the back of her head.
"I guess you're right. Staying here is only going to put the village in more danger, I suppose. You don't mind if I come with you?"
"Not at all," Ranma said, which was something of a lie. She had wanted some time alone with Shampoo to straighten things out, but she could hardly leave this girl alone in the forest. "Where are you heading?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, I'm heading to Edo too."
"Well, okay, then. Looks like you're coming with us."
"That sounds good," the girl said, her smile growing. "Thank you for helping me, Ranma. I appreciate it."
"You're welcome, uh ... I never asked your name," Ranma said with an awkward laugh.
"Ukyo," the girl said, sitting up fully. "My name's Ukyo Kuonji."