This is a work of fanfiction.  All Ranma ½ characters are copyright
Rumiko Takahashi and are used without permission for entertainment
purposes only.
 

TSC Vol. 5

On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
 

     This guy was better than the others.
     Better, but fortunately for me not luckier.  He'd jumped the
gun, not by much, but he'd definitely made a mistake.  I didn't know
whether he'd been anxious, overconfident, or just spooked by the
crowd that had exited the run-down bar just as I'd passed.  Whatever
the case, I'd had enough warning to dodge his first shot.  Judging by the
effect that bolt had on the dumpster it hit, my reflexes had definitely
saved my life.  Again.
     Now it was cat-and-mouse, once again featuring yours truly,
Ranma Saotome, in the role of the mouse.  Only this time, riding the
wave of adrenaline that narrowly escaping death tends to produce, I
knew it was time for a change of strategy.  Well, actually, it was time to
create a strategy.
     And my strategy, concocted as I sprang over a low wooden
fence that exploded into splinters moments later, was simple.  I was
tired of these maniacs with their black robes and death's head masks
trying to kill me.  If I could turn the tables on this guy, maybe I could
finally get some answers.
     Of course, he really WAS better than the others.  I was barely
keeping ahead of him and his purple lightning bolts as it was, much less
finding a way to take the fight to him.  I breathed easily as I ran, my
muscles warm and loose.  Funny, it probably should have bothered me
more that I'd nearly died.
     Oh, well.
     Saeni was a fairly large city by this place's standards, and I was
heading towards the local equivalent of an industrial area.  It had
several advantages, like few people and lots of places to hide.  The sun
was nearly all the way down, and if I could widen my lead I was
confident I could slip away from Kid Lightning.  Then it would be My
turn to stalk HIM.
     Of course, for the plan to work at all I had to get away from
him, and so far that wasn't proving easy.  More bolts arced towards
me, striking the wall of a dilapidated warehouse and causing it to
explode in a shower of sparks.  My enemy was using his power to try
and corral me on this street, and as I realized that I suddenly knew
why.  I could see by the sun that we were heading south, and I was
willing to bet this dark and narrow lane that I'd chosen came to a
sudden end at the river.  He wanted me penned in, and if I didn't find a
way off the street soon, he'd succeed.
     I could always turn and fight, but that wouldn't get me the
answers I wanted.  And it might just get me killed.
     That thought didn't bother me as much as it should have.
     Still, I wanted answers, so I did something I'm pretty good at,
and improvised on the fly.  Broad warehouses fronted both sides of the
street, and I picked a likely candidate at random.  Of course, the way
my luck had been running lately, it would be empty, but then I'd just
have to improvise some more, wouldn't I?
     I sprang up over another volley of those lethal bolts, twisting in
the air so that I came down close to the building I'd chosen.  I landed
already running, smashing the unpainted wooden door with one swift
kick.  Then I was inside, plunging into the gloom as another volley hit
the doorframe behind me.
     Just a little too late.
     And my luck was changing, because the place was just full of
stuff.  I went bounding into the shadows, springing up onto a stack of
wooden crates.  When I reached the top, I crouched down, my black
clothing blending in nicely with my surroundings.  From here I had a
perfect view of the doorway, and I willed myself to be still, slowing my
breathing.  There was a chance that he wouldn't chance the doorway,
but from my vantage point I'd have a good opportunity to see him
wherever he came in without being seen myself.  And he would have to
come in, or risk losing me.  I didn't think he wanted that to happen.
     And I was right.  He strode right over the shattered remains of
the door, bold as you please.  Overconfidence it is, I thought smugly.  I
could pick you off right now, jackass.  But I think I'll wait until I can get
up behind you and take you alive ...
     "Boy!"  His voice was deep, resonant, and it boomed through
the dark warehouse most impressively.  I wondered idly if he was using
magic to make it sound even more impressive.  It was hard to tell much
about him when he was dressed in flowing black robes and that mask,
but his head came nearly to the top of the doorframe and he moved
easily for someone who'd been chasing me through half the city.
     "Come now, boy!" he rumbled.  "I have no time for games!
Come to me and I will end it quickly!"  Heh.  I wondered if that
approach actually ever worked for him.  I figured no.  He just stood
there, his face obscured by that featureless white mask they all wore.
     "Hiding, eh, little mouse?" he went on after a moment.  "Well,
let's see how good you are at this particular game, shall we?"  Then he
gestured, and a ball of light erupted near the high ceiling.  The flare of
intense white light caught me off guard, and I was temporarily blinded.
     "Ah, there you are," he rumbled, and I tensed for a leap.  Bolts
of energy flashed out before I could, though, smashing into the stack of
crates with explosive force.  I was sent tumbling down, still half blind
and trying desperately to find my balance.  My shoulder rammed into
something as I fell, and my right arm went numb as I crashed heavily to
the floor.  Shattered wood rained down around me, and an entire crate
crashed down onto my back, driving me into the floor and forcing all
the air from my lungs.
     Distantly, I was aware of footsteps approaching down the
narrow spaces between stacks, and I blinked groggily, trying to get to
my feet.  The crate on my back couldn't have been full, or I'd have
been in much worse shape, but it was heavy enough.  I tried to get up
again, but my right arm was still useless, and I couldn't get the leverage.
If the arm was broken, I was in real trouble.
     Hell, I was in real trouble anyway.  One of us had been
overconfident, all right, but it hadn't been Kid Lightning.  Blinking away
the blue afterimages, I fought to draw a breath.  There were black
spots mixed in with the big blue blotches in my field of vision now, and I
was no longer certain if the pounding in my ears was footsteps or my
own heart.  The urge to just lay down was suddenly overpowering.
How nice it would be to relax, just close my eyes and rest for a while.
Just for a while ...
     But I didn't.  Somehow, for better or for worse, I always
seemed to find some spark that drove me to go on.  Some days I
cursed it, but so far it had always flared up when needed, and this time
was no exception.  I planted my left hand flat against the floor and
growled between my clenched teeth as I gave one ferocious shove.
The weight pinning me to the floor slid off to one side, albeit reluctantly,
and I scrambled to my feet, darting around a stack of boxes just as
another bolt came from behind me, exploding against the floor.
     "Nearly had you, boy," my opponent said with a strange sort of
cheer.  It occurred to me that the bastard was toying with me, enjoying
himself.  None of the others had done that.  Of course, that gave me a
chance to dodge in amongst the clutter, but I knew he wasn't worried.
He figured it was only a matter of time now.
     I wondered if he was right.
     Sensation slowly began to creep back into my arm, all pins and
needles and fairly painful, but at least I'd be able to use it again soon.  I
listened for him as I moved, but didn't hear anything.  Flexing my hand
tentatively, I decided to take a chance and try to get the guy talking.
As long as I kept moving, he'd have trouble getting a fix on me.
     "Hey, can we talk about this?" I called.  Laughter boomed
back from somewhere off to the left.
     "It is much too late for talk, boy," the man called back
pleasantly.  "And I certainly haven't tracked you this far only to stop
and chat."  A bolt exploded somewhere not far away, and I fought the
urge to bolt.  He was just trying to flush me out, I assured myself.
     "Hey, pal," I replied, fighting to keep my voice reasonable.  "I
don't even know what this is all about.  I think you've got the wrong
guy!"  More laughter, from a different direction this time.  He was
moving too.
     "A valiant effort, boy, but in vain.  Now, why don't you start
fighting back?  So far I'm terribly disappointed, you know.  You
somehow managed to overcome all of my brothers, so I know you can
fight.  Perhaps if you impress me sufficiently, I'll make your death
quick.  Not painless, but quick."  Oh, joy.
     "Not much to look forward to," I gritted, trying to move
soundlessly around some stacked bolts of cloth.  Sweat trickled down
my back as I imagined Kid Lightning lining up a shot right between my
shoulder blades.  More laughter came, from distressingly near.
     "It is the most that those who dare steal from my dark master
can aspire to," that resonant voice came back, tinged with insincere
regret.  That caught my attention.  Dark master?  Steal?
     "Now I know you've got the wrong guy!" I shouted, ducking
and sprinting down a narrow aisle formed by stacked pallets of boxes.
"I'm not even from around here!"
     "Oh very droll, boy," the voice boomed back, its point of origin
uncertain.  "I'll give you credit, though.  Choosing this world was a
stroke of genius.  You gained the time to master the key, and this place
is beyond even our master's reach.  But my brothers and I are devoted
servants, and we followed you here, out of time, to regain that which
was lost.  And although I would sacrifice all for my master, before I
allow you to die I will tear from your shattered mind the path to leave
this wretched plane."
     I was frozen, pressed up against one of the walls of the
warehouse, my pulse hammering in my ears.  The key?  This was all
about the damned KEY?  I couldn't follow all of what he was babbling
about, but one thing definitely stood out in my mind.
     He didn't know how to leave either.  He thought, for some
reason, that I'd come here on purpose, and that I knew how to get out.
     Boy, was he in for a disappointment.
     I had good movement in my arm again, and could probably
manage a chi blast if I had to.  I was in a real bind, though; now more
than ever I wanted to question my enemy, because he clearly knew
more about this whole deal than I did.  Unfortunately, I wasn't sure I
was going to have that option.  I might just be lucky to get out of this
with my skin intact.
     "Guess you figure on a big reward if you bring the key back to
your boss, huh?" I asked, keeping my voice level.  "But what if there
isn't any way out of here?"
     "There is a way, else you would not have run here," the voice
replied confidently.  "After all, what is a key for save to open that which
is locked?  You seek to pervert a tool my master has sanctified with the
darkness.  That key has been sworn into the service of the dark, boy.
It is no longer suited for futile quests to restore the Lost, the Sealed.
You should not have embarked on such a foolish quest."  I thought
about informing him that I never embarked on any such thing before
realizing my mistake.  I'd been listening to him too intently, and as I
caught a movement out of the corner of my eye I realized two things in
quick succession.  One, where the voice was coming from had no
relation to where Kid Lightning actually was.  And two, the guy could
fly.
     Well, hover, but splitting hairs wasn't particularly useful right at
the moment.  He rose silently above a nearby stack of crates, and I
barely had time to register his presence before he unleashed an intense
volley of bolts at me.
     No.  Not at me, at the crates surrounding me.  I realized then
what he was up to.  He was confident enough in his abilities that he was
trying to take me alive.  Of course he was; he thought I knew how to
escape this place.  He may have claimed devotion to his master, but it
seemed to me he wanted to get out and claim his reward pretty badly.
A truly devoted servant would have just killed me and been done with
it.
     This screwing around had to stop.  I summoned up my chi and
leapt straight up, arrowing out of the tumbling wreckage like a missile
and enjoying the way Kid Lightning's head snapped up as I did so.  I
imagined a look of shock behind that mask as I brought my hands
together in front of me, eyes narrowed.
     "Moko Takabisha!" I shouted, unleashing a brilliant lance of
chi.  It caught my opponent square in the chest and drove him down
savagely, through several stacks of crates and into the floor where he
bounced, then rolled and slid to a halt in an untidy heap.  I landed easily
and bounded towards his fallen figure, intent on taking advantage of the
situation before he could regain his composure.
     I pulled up short, balanced on the balls of my feet, ready for
him to sit up and hurl another of those lightning bolts at me, but he
didn't move.  I suspected a trick, and eased sideways, ready for
anything.  Or so I thought.
     My movement took me far enough around him that I could see
why he wasn't moving.  Somewhere along the way, a broken board
had speared into his chest.  Judging by the dark stain spreading over
the front of his robe, the wound was probably fatal.  I eased closer and
knelt down, where I could hear laboured breathing.  Tentatively, I
reached out and pulled his mask free.  There was a long crack snaking
its way down the smooth surface, and the thing fell apart in my hands,
clattering to the floor.
     "Well ... played, boy," the man gasped.  Now that I could see
his face, he seemed less imposing somehow.  Younger than I'd thought,
too.  A thin trickle of blood escaped from his lips, and he coughed, a
painful spasm that shook his whole body.  I tried to dredge up some
sympathy, but not surprisingly couldn't find any at all, just a sort of
vague regret.
     "You ... think you've won ... I suppose?" he rasped, his voice thick
with pain.  He chuckled then, a throaty, unhinged sound, and stared up
at me.  His eyes were regular human eyes, dark brown, but something
in them made me pause, something dark and more than a little mad.
     "Looks that way from where I'm standing," I replied.  It wasn't
a gloat; I just didn't know what else to say.  The others had all gone
quickly.  He laughed again at my words, and although his laughter was
no longer a thunderous boom something in it set my hackles on edge.
     "Do you truly think ... you can win?" he gasped, his face white
against the loose black cowl.  "My master's reach is long, his ... power
great.  You have chosen a ... losing cause, boy.  THEY do not watch
over ... their chosen.  They do not see, neither do they know ..."  His
voice trailed off into another coughing spasm, and when it subsided his
eyes were bright and feverish.
     "One boy," he whispered.  "What can you do to stop the
coming dark?  It will have you, boy, all of you ..."  He coughed again,
weakly, the trickle of blood from his mouth turning into a flood, then he
stared up at me with a deranged grin.
     "THE DARK!" he shrieked merrily.  "THE DARK WILL
HAVE YOU!  IT WILL HAVE YOU!  HAVE YOU HAVE YOU
HAVE YOU THE DARK THE DAAAAAAARK ..."  He started to
convulse like a beached trout, and some instinct caused me to spring
backwards in time to avoid the ball of flame that billowed out from his
seizure-wracked body.  I watched as the strange, greenish fire
consumed him alive.
     "THE DARK WILL HAVE YOU, BOY!  ALL THE LITTLE
LIGHTS SWALLOWED IN THE GLORIOUS DARKNESSSSS
..." he screamed, turning his empty eye sockets toward me even as the
unearthly fire ate him up, peeling back flesh and incinerating his robes.
He kept it up even when there was no way he should have been able
to, his naked skull promising that the dark would have me.  I watched,
not flinching from the intense heat that licked at my face even from
where I stood.  I watched until the skull finally crumbled and his shrieks
died away, until the twitching skeleton was reduced to a pile of dust on
the floor and the strange flames died away as mysteriously as they'd
come.
     I suppose I should have been horrified, but I really didn't feel
much at all.
     But then, my capacity for horror isn't what it once was.

***

     I'd had enough of Saeni.  Well, it wasn't the city itself, so much
as the sudden need to be away from people altogether.  I walked to the
south gates, getting there just as full dark was coming on.  The guards
were late shutting the gates anyway; things locally had apparently been
peaceful in recent times.  Anyway, Saeni was pretty much a backwater.
The walls around the inner city wouldn't have stood up to much
punishment.
     I left the city behind pretty quickly, but finding my way wasn't
too hard.  The moon rose nearly full, giving plenty of light.  That other
thing that looked sort of like a moon but probably wasn't rose too.
Everybody seemed to accept its presence, and I hadn't thought of a
way to ask somebody what the hell it was without sounding like a
lunatic, so I still had no idea what it was.
     The road was wide and level but not paved outside the city
limits, and I scuffed along as the heat of the day faded somewhat.
Crickets started up in the long grass beside the road, and off to the right
I could hear the sound of the river as it rushed off towards somewhere
else.
     Somewhere else.  I wanted to be somewhere else, too.  I just didn't
know where.  It was like that sometimes, more and more recently.  The
night air was like bathwater, eddying around my skin intimately, but I
wasn't enjoying the sensation.  That familiar, uneasy restlessness, tinged
with darkness and longing and a million other feelings, was coming on
fast, and I knew better than to try and fight it.  Maybe it had been Kid
Lightning, but I knew I was going to be spending another sleepless night
brooding.
     Even though it wasn't late, there was nobody else on the road
this far from the city.  I cut off the road and through the dry, rustling
grasses towards the river.  It narrowed slightly here, rushing noisily over
several large rocks before plunging down with the slope of the land to
widen somewhere downstream.  Perfect.
     I tensed lightly and launched myself into a high arc, turning a
lazy somersault as I came down squarely on the large rock in the centre
of the river.  It was fairly flat on top, and high enough so that I wouldn't
get wet from the spray.  I eased myself down, feeling the sun's trapped
heat leaking from the surface of the rock, even through my shirt.  With a
sigh I lay back, lacing my fingers behind my head and staring up into the
sky.
     It was a clear night, and the stars were out in all their glory.  I'd
spent many a night on the road with my father, staring up at the night
sky just like this.  Well, okay, maybe not just like this.  For one thing, I
couldn't recognize any constellations.  Of course, most people would
probably be surprised to learn I knew anything about constellations at
all, but I did.  Enough to wonder why here, of all the worlds I'd been
to, the stars were different.
     All those worlds.  I reached into the collar of my shirt and
pulled on the piece of rawhide there, bringing the key out into my hand.
All those worlds.  And this thing had given them to me.
     That had helped, at first.  Learning how to use the thing was
trial and error, but I'd had nothing but time.  I sat up, crossing my legs
loosely as I regarded the dangling key idly.  Smooth blue crystal
managed to throw off glints of even the pale moonlight, spinning lazily at
the end of the cord that I wore it on.  I pulled the rawhide over my
head and held it out in front of me.
     It did kind of look like a key, actually.  It had a loop at one
end, then a narrow body which curved away from the loop to form a
slight hook at the far end.  I held my hand up, letting the thing dangle
loosely, and concentrated my chi.  A gentle blue glow began to
surround me, and I focussed on the key, watching as it, too, began to
glow.
     When I'd first discovered this trick, the key had glowed darkly
and spat small black bolts from its surface, much as it had when I'd
taken it from its former owner.  It never again grew to the size it had
been that day, though, and over time the dark energy began to fade,
until now it was almost totally gone.  Now the key shone with a
soothing light, deep and serene, and I waited, hoping this time it would
move, knowing it wouldn't.
     It didn't.
     I'd found that I could discover the direction to the nearest gate
by doing this.  When I focussed my chi, the key would begin to swing
around at the end of the cord, eventually pointing towards the nearest
passage between worlds.  As I got near such a place, it would start to
thrum gently against my chest without me having to do anything.  And if
I stood at the threshold of one of those gates and poured enough chi
into the small crystal key, the gate would open and I would be able to
pass through.  I'd done it often enough that it had become nearly
routine.
     Until that last time.
     Sighing, I let my aura settle.  Deep within the key, the glow
flickered and died, and I looped the cord over my head again, the cool
key sliding down to rest against my chest.  Ten months ago, give or
take, I'd been leaving a rainy, grungy version of Tokyo called
Megatokyo.  I hadn't stayed long, the place was too depressing despite
all the neat gadgets.  I'd found a gateway, checked to see that I was
alone, then opened it with the key and stepped inside.  There was a
flash of light, and the next thing I remembered was waking up in a field
with rain falling on my face.
     I'd been a little concerned at first, but only a little.  After all,
even though nothing like that had ever happened before, I was
operating out there on the edge.  It wasn't like the key came with an
owner's manual or something.  For all I knew, this was a regular
occurrence.
     I only really started to worry when I started looking for the
nearest gate, and nothing happened.  The key didn't so much as twitch,
and that had never happened before.  There wasn't even any sign of the
one I'd come through.  I'd started walking, hoping I was just out of
range, if that was possible.
     I'd been walking for ten months now, all over the place, and
the key had yet to do so much as twitch.  But soon after I'd arrived,
something else had come up to occupy my attention.  These maniacs in
the black robes and white masks had started trying to kill me, and now
I finally knew why.
     The key.  The Astounding Kid Lightning had said that I was in
trouble for stealing from his dark master, which was strange.  I had
stolen the key, of course, but only to distract that monstrosity that had
been holding open the link between my world and my double's.  And
when that nice shiny sphere had detonated inside of old One Eye, I was
confident that he'd ceased to be anyone's master, dark or otherwise.
     Well, maybe he'd been working for someone else.  Still, I
didn't see how anyone could have found one little piece of crystal, not
after all the different worlds I'd gone through before I'd gotten stuck
here.  But apparently these guys had.
     I thought back to the other things the talkative assassin had
said.  He'd thought I was smart to come to this world for some reason,
and I didn't understand why.  There was nothing special about it, at
least not that I could see ... except that there was no way out.  He'd
come from outside, too, but he expected me to know how to leave.
And I didn't.  I wanted to leave, though.  Even though I'd been
wandering constantly since I'd arrived here, the mere act of keeping in
motion was losing some of its healing power.  Those black moods
came on me more often now, making me want to rage or fight or sulk
or sometimes just sleep for days at a time.
     It had been better when I could leave a world whenever I
wanted.  It felt sometimes like I could leave whatever moods were
bedevilling me at the time like an old skin and travel someplace totally
different.  But I was very aware now that I was trapped, and after
having such freedom a single world didn't seem enough to contain me.
     I knew one of those dangerous moods was coming on now, but
I didn't think it would be possible to get into too much trouble out here
all alone.  And I felt more like brooding than fighting anyway.
     I lay back on the rock and listened to the sound of the water,
patiently eating away at the obstruction in its path.  How long would it
take for this rock to be worn away to nothing?  A hundred years?  A
thousand?  Longer than I'd be alive, certainly.
     I closed my eyes and there, unbidden, were thoughts of them.
Ranma and Akane and all the others, mirror images of my own home
and friends and even of me.  And as almost always happened when I
started thinking of them, I wondered if I'd done the right thing in
leaving.  And as almost always happened, I decided I had.  At any rate,
I'd decided long ago, before risking that first crossing, not to regret my
decision.
     Still, that didn't stop me from wondering how things were
progressing back there.  With all the changes my appearance had
caused, how had everything ended up?  I thought of my double and the
way he and Akane had looked together at the end, and sighed.  Not
even he could have screwed that up.  Yes, I was confident that their
lives were peaceful and normal and, most of all, happy, now that I was
gone.
     But I could admit, even if just to myself, that I'd been tempted
to stay.  Staying, though, would have been wrong.  I had trouble
explaining exactly why, but somehow I knew that it would have
lessened me somehow, made me his shadow.  It would have been
easier, maybe even pleasant, but it would have crippled something
inside me, something important.  Something I needed.  I couldn't stay
there, couldn't go back, until I'd found ... something.
     I laughed out loud then, a bitter little bark drowned in the
gurgling of the busy water.  So here I was, looking for something to
save myself.  But on the bad days, I was sure that there was no way I
could ever find this mythical something when I didn't even know what it
was.
     On the worst days, I became convinced that I'd been wrong,
and that there was no salvation for me, not anywhere.  I'd sink deeper
into that still black despair, and hear a tiny inner voice mock me for
leaving Nerima behind because of some unformed need.  That voice
would whisper that I'd thrown away my second chance and was now
wandering lost, cursed to look for something more when there was no
more to be had.  That had been it, the best I'd ever discover, and I'd
thrown it away.
     But today was only moderately bad, and I lay staring at the
unfamiliar stars, searching for that thread of need that guided me.  It had
been stronger in the beginning, and back then I'd almost been able to
articulate what it was I was looking for.  As time went on, though, it
became faded, elusive, a ghost that haunted me at the strangest times.
     I am Ranma Saotome, I thought clearly.  Sometimes Ranko
Saotome.  Sometimes I'm numb and sometimes it still hurts and
sometimes I wake up screaming and I'm back there on that dead
world, but I haven't quit.  I've travelled to different earths and survived
several attempts on my life in this one.  The people who tried to kill me
are all dead, and I'm not.  And every day I get up and go on, even
though some days I can't think of a damned reason why I should.  I
can't ...
     Yes, you can, that little voice piped up.  When there's nothing
else, there's your promise.  Remember?
     Yes.  My promise.  I shuddered lightly, as if someone had
walked over my grave, and growled deep in my throat.  I wasn't likely
to forget that promise, was I?  Akane, my Akane, so light in my arms it
was as if most of her was already gone.  But she'd still been alive, and
she'd made me promise to go on.  Some days I honestly thought I
could hate her for that.  I honestly did.
     Once, about a month after I'd left Nerima that last time, I'd
woken up in a small cave where I'd sheltered out in the country on one
of the many earths I'd visited.  I'd woken, and just lay on the hard
packed dirt, staring out at the rising sun.  I'd still been there when the
darkness returned that night, in that exact same spot.  In fact, I didn't
stir for three whole days, not for anything.  I just lay there and watched
things pass by, feeling nothing.  Finally, on the morning of the third day,
a thought had crept stealthily into my pleasantly blank mind.
     If you don't move, you'll die.
     Everything had been so peaceful, I'd tried to ignore the thought.
It wouldn't go away, though.  It just set itself down in the middle of my
brain and set up camp, making itself right at home.  Finally, another
thought had come along to challenge it.
     So what?
     You promised, came the reply, and it was delivered in Akane's
voice, so real that I'd sat upright, heart almost bursting, as if I'd see her
sitting there at the mouth of the cave, staring at me mournfully.
     Of course, there'd been no one there, but I'd managed to get
up and stumble to the nearby stream where I drank until I felt bloated.
That experience still frightened me, because I'd thought I was going to
be okay until then.  I'd thought, with my typical cockiness, that I was
dealing with things, that everything was under control.  Then I found
myself sitting in a cave one day realizing that I'd let things slip
dangerously away and hardly noticed it happening.  I'd stopped
fighting, and I knew myself well enough to know that if I stopped
fighting it was all over.
     I remember hearing somewhere that there are these stages
people go through when they lose someone.  I don't recall how many
there are, but they're something like getting angry, then denying
everything, then accepting it.  Supposedly you had to go through all
these before you could be healed.  Well, that being the case I should
have been healed about a thousand times over, I figure.  I seemed to go
through those stages a lot, sometimes a whole bunch in one day.  I
guess at the heart of things, only one thing really matters.
     Time heals all wounds.  I've heard it said a million times, but I
finally think I understand what it means.  Maybe it's wishful thinking,
but it seems to me there aren't as many bad days as there used to be.  I
guess that's the best I can hope for, at least in the short run.  I find it's
easier to go on if I concentrate on the short run, though.  Maybe some
day I'll find some long term goals to chase, but for now I'll just
concentrate on getting through one day at a time.
     A shooting star arced across the wide night sky, and I thought
briefly about wishing on it, but in the end I didn't.
     Kid's stuff.  And such things had lost their charm for me.
Maybe forever.

***

     The strange dark mood had mostly passed by morning.  I
hadn't been able to sleep until pale light began to appear on the
horizon, though, and I woke bleary and unfocussed.
     Immediately rolling over and falling into the river didn't help
much.  I nearly drowned myself before I woke up, flailing and
sputtering as I broke the surface of the water.  I managed to steer clear
of the rocks until the current carried me to where the river widened
again, then I swam to shore and pulled myself out of the water ruefully.
     I'd left the city without any supplies to speak of, so I had no
extra clothes, nor did I have anything to heat water in.  That meant I
was going to be a girl for a while, at least until the next town.  I tugged
at my wet shirt, watching idly as it moulded itself to my breasts.  Once,
the thought of being stuck as a girl for any length of time would have
made me acutely uncomfortable to say the least.  Since leaving Nerima,
though, my attitude had changed, albeit so gradually that I really hadn't
noticed.  Now the prospect didn't revolt me the way it once had.
     Maybe that was because I'd been faced with true horror, and
realized that this wasn't it.   Or maybe it was because being a girl had
come to represent sort of an escape for me.  I could almost pretend
that I was someone else for a little while, someone whose life hadn't
become badly derailed.  I sensed that wasn't a particularly healthy way
to deal with my problems, but I did it anyway.  Hell, any old port in a
storm, right?
     Not that I wanted to BE a girl, mind you.  I was still all guy as
far as I was concerned.  But being a girl for a while wasn't so bad.  I
even learned some things while travelling that way, most of them about
my own gender and most of them bad.  But no one messed with Ranko
Saotome when they met her.  Anyone who tried quickly found out she
was an excellent fighter with a bad temper.
     Stretching, I took off my shirt and wrung it out.  Since nobody
else was in sight yet this morning, I took off my muscle shirt too, getting
as much moisture out of it as I could.  I'd been letting my hair grow,
and my pigtail was now more of a braid that reached past the mid-point
of my back.  I shook the excess water out of that, too, then got dressed
again.  I could take care of myself, but there was no sense in asking for
trouble.  And outside of the cities, there was plenty of trouble to be
had.
     Politics has never been any kind of interest of mine, but I'd had
to learn a little about this place while I'd been here.  This part of the
country was composed of city-states, mostly self-contained.  They
controlled a certain amount of area around their borders, the bigger
ones extending their influence farther than the smaller.  Most of the
areas outside the cities, though, belonged to whoever was strong
enough to take and hold it.  Houses and farms I'd seen tended to be
built for defence, since bandits and other raiders were a real threat.
Most people tended to live close to the cities for that reason, although
the bigger cities had fairly large safe zones around them, due to their
larger military forces.
     I had no idea how well this system worked.  People always
seemed to be complaining about how difficult it was to deal with all the
different jurisdictions and the problems of doing business between the
different cities.  Travel in the lonely spaces between cities could be
quite hazardous, but there was always someone willing to risk it if there
was money to be made.  And those people always needed security,
which meant that I'd been able to find work pretty much whenever I
wanted.
     Right now, though, I had enough money to get by for a while.  I
could have gone back to the city and looked for a caravan heading out
to join up with, but honestly I still wasn't in the mood to be around
people.  And there would be outlying towns and relay stations along the
main road where I could get food and supplies.
     I glanced back over my shoulder as I began to walk.  The walls
of the city were already distant, although there was certain to be traffic
on the road as the day went on.  I wondered if anyone had discovered
the mess Kid Lightning and I had left in that warehouse yet.  Somehow,
I'd gotten the impression that my would-be assassin had been the last
of his group.  That could mean that I was now in the clear, or it could
mean I'd have a whole bunch of new problems soon.
     Such a lot of bother for a key that didn't even work anymore.
So many things that I just didn't understand, and maybe never would.
     But for the moment, I had no place particular to go and no time
I needed to be there by.  Scratching that restless itch, I started down
the road.

***

II             Whispers in the Dark

     He knew as soon as the other appeared.  Not that his visitor
made any attempt to hide his presence, however.  Smart.  Subterfuge
would only have annoyed him.
     Not that he wasn't annoyed already, of course.
     "Great Wyrm," the visitor said respectfully.  He rolled one eye
lazily away from the barren vista to glance at his visitor.  Human,
wearing black robes and a white mask, with the aura of a magic user.
     Hmph.  One of HIS toadies.  Was there to be an accusation?
If so, the human was either incredibly brave or appallingly stupid.
     "Quite a view, is it not?" he rumbled, rolling his eye back to the
shattered plain.  He raised his snout slightly and sighed, a sound to
reduce most men to terror.  This one seemed to hold firm.
     "Indeed," he replied politely.
     "Do you know why I favour it?" he asked idly.  The man turned
his featureless mask upwards towards the wyrm's visible eye.
     "No, Great Wyrm," he replied.
     "Because," the wyrm rumbled, "nobody ever comes here."
There was a moment of silence while the wyrm waited to see how his
visitor would react.
     "I apologize for intruding on your solitude," the man finally
replied, a trifle stiffly.  "I am Voros, and I bring my master's respects.
He is ..."
     "I know who you serve, man," the wyrm said flatly.  The man's
features were obscured, but his stance and aura told the wyrm that his
visitor now felt they were on even terms.
     So, he thought wryly.  Stupid it is, then.
     "And my master knows of you," the man said, his voice full of
the confidence of someone used to instilling terror.  "He has sent me to
appeal for your assistance in a small but important matter."  The wyrm
cocked his head, which was larger than the man in the robes.
     "What matter?" he asked.  The robed figure spread its arms.
     "Something of my master's was taken during a recent struggle.
An artifact for travelling the many worlds ..."
     "A key," the wyrm rumbled.  Voros hesitated uncertainly.
     "Yes," he continued.  "The thief was travelling near this place,
and because the key still bore my master's mark he was able to track
it.  Just as we were about to swoop down upon the miscreant,
however, he ... vanished.  Into the Lost Place."
     "Not very smart, your thief," the wyrm said.  "Entering a
broken link that way."  Voros shook his head.
     "That is what puzzles us," he said, clearly agitated.  "The link
was NOT broken.  Somehow, he entered at one end and did not
emerge from the other.  Some power managed to pluck him from that
link and place him beyond our grasp.  But not beyond yours, mighty
one."  The man was being deliberately ambiguous, which managed to
amuse the wyrm somewhat.  He didn't allow any of that amusement to
enter his voice when next he spoke, however.
     "I nearly think that you accuse me," he rumbled, his voice
careless but with a dangerous edge.  He turned his head so that he was
staring at Voros directly for the first time, and the man took a
deferential step back.
     "You misunderstand me, Great Wyrm," he said quickly with a
placating gesture.  "I merely meant that you could reach him where we
cannot."
     "I expect your brotherhood can follow this thief easily enough,"
the wyrm pointed out.  He was tiring of this game, but it couldn't hurt to
let the man dig himself a little deeper first.
     "And we have done so, but you understand the problem,"
Voros hurried on.  "We cannot contact them, and it seems likely they
will never return.  And my dark master wishes to be certain that the
thief is dead."  Voros stopped for a moment, then stepped closer and
lowered his voice conspiratorially.
     "He sees THEIR hand everywhere now," he murmured.  The
wyrm was surprised in spite of himself.
     "He thinks this thief is a servant of the Sentinels?" he asked, not
bothering to hide his amusement.  Voros looked pained, even hidden in
his robes and mask.
     "We ... do not refer to them by that name," he said,
uncomfortable.  "It angers our master."
     "What foolishness is this?" the wyrm snorted.  "They are almost
completely forgotten by men and demons alike.  The Eyes are sealed,
and see naught.  They call no champions to their aid, their true nature
lost to the ages."
     "The Brotherhood agrees.  Nonetheless," Voros hurried on,
"we serve our master's will.  He would not risk some seeker of lost
truths stumbling upon their power.  He has charged us to bring him his
key, and the thief's head."
     "A problem," the wyrm acknowledged, "since you can send
hundreds of your kin into that hidey-hole, but none can return."
     "But it is said that your kind can go there and return at will!"
Voros exclaimed.  "And so I have come seeking your aid, mighty one!"
     "Indeed?" the wyrm boomed, suddenly weary of this self-
important human sorcerer who had dared intrude for such a trivial
matter.  "And even if I can travel there and return, why should I do
so?"  Voros straightened slightly, and the wyrm knew his visitor thought
they were down to haggling over price.
     "A dark tide rises," Voros asserted, his voice thick with smug
confidence.  "Your allegiance to our master would ..."
     "I have sworn no allegiance," the wyrm growled.  "And I know
of your claims.  The battle of darkness and light is eternal.  If the dark
rises, it will eventually fall again."  Voros seemed unfazed.
     "Well, then," he pressed on.  "Perhaps some more tangible
reward.  It is rumoured that you, great wyrm, have developed a taste
for human women.  Perhaps ..."
     That was as far as he got before the great black talons
descended on him, pinning his body to the stony ground.  The wyrm
listened to the snap of bones and the man's high, thin shrieks as fury
boiled in his belly.  He had quite forgotten the intoxication of anger.
     "You," he breathed, moving his snout over the fallen form.
"You forget yourself, little man."  Voros squirmed frantically as a dark
stain spread out from his body.
     "Wait!" he screeched.  "I am an emissary of the Dread One!  If
you kill me, you will be declared his enemy ..."  The wyrm applied
more pressure, the sound of bones snapping like old ice soothing his
temper somewhat.
     "Little man, I care nothing for the enmity of demon lordlings or
the twisted little men who serve them in the hopes of gaining some
measure of power," he growled, his breath stirring the blood-sodden
robes.  "I am an elder Black, one of the Great Wyrms, and I cannot be
bought or threatened, certainly not by the likes of you or your master.  I
think it has been too long since your dark circle has faced any real
opposition."  He smiled, his long sharp teeth hovering menacingly over
the cowering form.
     "I suspect that is about to change.  Too bad you won't be
around to witness the final battle."  There was a satisfying crunch, and
Voros gave one last shriek, then fell silent.
     "I want you to pass on a message to your master," the wyrm
said, picking the ragged form from the ground easily.  It hung limply
from his talons, and he sniffed.
     "Ah, well," he sighed.  "I suppose he'll get the message
anyway."  He cast the limp corpse aside and turned to regard the sky,
his anger somewhat assuaged by swatting the smug sorcerer, but still a
glowing ember in his gut.  It surprised him that he still reacted so
powerfully, but then many things surprised him lately.
     He supposed that was good.  When you could no longer be
surprised, life would likely become boring.  His visitor had provoked
his interest, however, and he unfurled his huge black wings, launching
himself into the cold dark sky with a grace that belied his bulk.
Normally he was quite patient, but suddenly he felt the urge to be doing
something.  He judged that enough time had passed, anyway.
     Time to see how his little experiment was coming along.

***

     A couple of weeks after my informative encounter with the
Astounding Kid Lightning, ex-member of the human race, I wandered
into a fair-sized town near a crossroads.  The town was called Kobasa,
according to the weathered sign that slumped at the side of the road.
Kobasa wasn't very fancy, but it was a happening place.  It seemed to
be a major rest-stop for traffic going along both roads, and promised to
be a good place to stop and grab a bite.
     I shuffled down the main drag, keeping out of the way of the
constant traffic.  There was a weird mixture of machinery and magic in
this world, and things weren't always in balance.  Some of the cities
had lots of machines and big shiny buildings, some had almost none, but
lots of castles and weird creatures.  Kobasa was somewhere in the
middle of everything, and the mix was bizarre to say the least.
     There were lots of vehicles, although I found the machinery in
this world strange looking, lumpy and kind of exotic-looking.  There
were horses too, some being ridden and some pulling carts and
carriages.  I even saw one with wings strolling down the street with a
guy in silver armour.  He was talking to the horse (a Pegasus, I think
those are called) and it seemed to be talking back.
     Like I said.  Weird.
     It was near noon and the sun was beating down pretty good as
I stopped to wipe the sweat from my forehead with the back of my
arm.  When I'd first arrived here, it had been early autumn, another
thing that made no sense.  Every time I went between worlds, the day
and time of year had stayed the same, even though the time period was
sometimes different.  This was the first place that hadn't followed that
rule, taking me from early summer directly to fall.  Now it was summer
again, and while I liked the heat better than the cold I'd been doing a
lot of walking under that sun.  It hadn't rained for over a week, and I
began to consider taking another caravan guard job just so I could ride
in comfort for a while.
     But first things first.  My stomach was letting me know that it
was hungry, and my stomach doesn't like to be ignored.  I picked a
place just off the main strip that looked fairly respectable and not too
crowded, and headed in.  There was a pretty good lunch crowd,
mostly travellers by the look of them.  There was no way I could get a
table but I did snag a stool at the long polished bar.  Eating at the bar
wouldn't bother me at all.
     The noise was a pleasant, constant hum as people talked and
ate, and I was done my first iced tea by the time the attractive blonde
woman behind the bar returned with my food.  I raised my glass to ask
for a refill, and she nodded absently.  My thirst taken care of for the
moment, I went to work on my lunch.  It was pretty good, nothing
special but better than the cold rations I'd been eating out on the road
lately.  I wolfed it down enthusiastically.  Nobody around me was likely
to criticize my table manners, not the way they were plowing through
their own meals.
     Just as I began to wonder what had happened to my drink, I
heard a voice rising above the din from further down the bar.
     "I don' care!" the voice shouted, sounding angry and more than
a bit drunk.  Swell.  It was a bit early to be drinking, much less drunk,
but I'd seen my share of troublemakers in inns and taverns in my
travels.  I wondered whether he'd end up being reasonable, or whether
some brawny cook would end up throwing him into the street.  Well,
not my problem at any rate.
     Or so I thought.
     "Jus' give me a damn DRINK!" the voice bellowed, getting
even louder and more belligerent.  The surrounding hubbub began to
die down a bit as heads craned to watch the developing scene.  I
frowned at my half-empty plate.  It had to be my imagination, of
course, just had to be, but ...
     But didn't that voice sound a little ... familiar?
     "Please, sir, I don't want any trouble," a female voice
responded firmly.  I turned and could see the blonde woman, my ice
tea in her hand, trying to calm the rowdy down at the other end of the
bar, her stance telling me that this was not an unusual occurrence for
her.  She did seem to be surreptitiously looking for someone, though,
and I was willing to bet that someone was big and strong and probably
well-versed in the handling of ugly drunks and deadbeats.
     I couldn't see the man she was talking to because of all the
customers between us, but a few people were beginning to back away
from the bar as his voice got louder and his arms began to wave.
Apparently, he wasn't going to be reasonable, after all.
     "Sir," the woman tried again.
     "DON'T SIR ME, JUST GET ME A DAMNED DRINK!"
the man bellowed.  A plate shattered against the floor, and more folks
cleared away from the disturbance, not wanting to get involved.  That
gave me my first glimpse of the drunk.
     My breath caught in my throat, and for a moment I felt a wave
of dizziness so intense that I thought I might faint.  There was a distant
rushing sound in my ears, and I told myself over and over that I hadn't
seen what I'd thought I had.  No way.
     But there he was, big as life, and as more people backed away
from his tantrum he caught sight of me, too.  He fell silent, shock plain
on his haggard face.
     I'd always known that it was possible I might run into someone
I knew someday.  I'd already seen that there was at least one world full
of doubles of people I'd known.  There could certainly be others,
certainly WERE others if Jack had been telling the truth, and I had no
reason to think he hadn't.  But somehow I just hadn't really prepared
myself for this moment, as if somehow I hadn't really believed it would
ever come.
     No wonder I'd thought his voice seemed familiar.  It was,
although I'd never heard it raised in anger before.  And he was thinner,
unshaven, with dark rings around his eyes and a crack through one lens
of his glasses.  But it was him, no question.  Doctor Tofu.
     And he recognized me.
     I saw his mouth work silently, forming my name.  I smiled
tentatively.  There was no guarantee that a Doctor Tofu Ono from
another world would know of Ranma Saotome, but apparently this one
did.  I straightened up, my heart pounding, suddenly aware of just how
painfully alone I'd been this past year.  The sight of a familiar face
suddenly had me awash in emotions I'd thought were locked up tight.
     "Hey, doc," I said softly.  The place was suddenly dead quiet,
as if everybody could feel the odd tension between us, could feel just
how significant this meeting was.
     "You," he whispered.  He slid off his stool, stumbling and
nearly falling before catching himself.  His eyes never left my face,
though, and he straightened carefully, adjusting his round glasses with a
small, self-conscious motion.
     "You," he repeated.  I smiled and stood.
     "Hey," I said, wondering how to begin.
     "You ... BASTARD."  I froze at the venom in his voice.  His
face was twisting in on itself, and he was beginning to shake.  The
blonde was looking from him to me, backing away from the bar until
her back was against the rear wall.  A ball of ice formed in my gut as
the doc took a step towards me, then another.
     "How dare you show your face in front of me, Saotome," he
growled, his voice low and guttural, like an animal's warning snarl.  I
started to back up instinctively, holding my hands out.  I didn't want to
fight him.  The very thought made my stomach churn painfully.  This
was wrong, just wrong.
     "Hey, doc," I said, keeping my voice calm.  "Let's talk about
this thing, huh?  Whaddaya say?  We can be reasonable ..."  He
stopped, his red-rimmed eyes glaring at me wildly.  His clothes were
ragged and patched, and he frankly looked like hell.  A fight between
us wouldn't last very long, if it came to that.  I was hoping it wouldn't.
I've never been a very good talker, but was desperately hoping for
some inspiration to defuse this thing before it got ugly.  Okay, uglier.
     And then a little voice in the back of my mind murmured, Hey.
What do you suppose he's so mad about, anyway?
     A good question, but I didn't have time to consider it further,
because at that moment the doc did something very unexpected.  He
reached over to the bar and picked up a bowl of soup left behind by
the guy who'd been sitting next to me.  He cradled it in his hand and
grinned fiercely as he started advancing again.
     "Reasonable?" he asked, his voice low and menacing.  "Oh, I'll
show you reasonable, Saotome.  Why don't we step outside for a
moment?"
     "Sure thing, doc," I said placatingly as I continued to back
away.  Maybe outside, away from all these eyes, he'd be easier to talk
to.  At the very least I wouldn't have to worry about someone else
stepping in.  I was in no danger from this Doctor Tofu, and I didn't
want him getting hurt.
     I slipped out the door and into the street, and the doc followed,
still holding that bowl of soup.  He held it like it was a weapon, and I
wondered just how stable this guy really was.  What could he hope to
do to me with that?  It was hot, but not hot enough to do any real
damage even if it hit me.
     "What say we take a walk, huh?" I said cheerfully.  Maybe if I
sobered the guy up he'd start to make sense.  The doc, though, wasn't
having any of that.  Instead he stepped off the worn planks that formed
the front porch of the roadhouse and turned to face me, an unsettling
expression in his bloodshot eyes.
     "I have a better idea," he said hoarsely.  "I think I'll kill you."
So saying, he raised the bowl over his head dramatically.  I just sighed
to myself and got ready to dodge the stupid thing when he threw it.
     He didn't throw it.
     He upended it, dumping hot soup over his head.
     Then he exploded.
     At least, that was how it appeared to me at first.  I blinked, and
tattered pieces of his clothing were drifting to the dusty street.
     Time seemed to slow even as I tried to make sense of what
was happening.  There was no sign of the doc himself; where he'd been
standing was what appeared to be big black tree.  And it was dark,
suddenly, as if the sun had been blotted out.  I blinked stupidly, staring
at the huge black column, trying to coerce some sort of sensible answer
out of my brain.
     The doc's a tree, my brain supplied helpfully.
     Then the tree MOVED.
     I tried to swallow, but my throat was painfully dry.  I raised my
eyes, noting with numb amazement that what I'd taken to be a tree
trunk was, in fact, a leg.  There was another off to my left somewhere,
and more further back.  They joined a big black mass that towered
above me, and as my head came all the way back I found myself face
to face with ... well, with a face that was as big as my whole body.
     And definitely not human.
     Spring of drowned dragon, my brain babbled.  Wow, bet that
comes in handy, huh?
     For a dragon it was.  It was covered with black scales that
shone with a rainbow iridescence that might have been beautiful in
something smaller and less intent on killing me.  Huge wings spread
above its back, blotting out the remaining sky, and I could swear that as
it stared at me with those unearthly eyes it was smiling.
     That, unfortunately, gave me a clear view of its teeth.  The head
wove for a moment on the end of its long, snaky neck, then steadied
again.
     "Ranma Saotome," it rumbled, hot breath washing over me
unpleasantly, "prepare to meet your doom."  I felt that voice as a
vibration right down to the roots of my teeth, and it shocked me out of
my stunned pose just in time.  I sprang back barely in time to avoid that
head as it crashed into the ground where I'd been standing, jaws wide.
I didn't stop when I landed, just spun and began running.  Behind me,
the huge black dragon bayed in anger, and the ground shook as it took
off in pursuit.
     So much for reasoning with him.
     I tore through the street, bounding over whatever got in my
way.  The terrified expressions on the faces of everyone I passed told
me all I needed to know about how close the dragon was.
     The dragon.  Doctor Tofu in this world had somehow fallen into
a cursed spring, a Spring of Drowned Dragon, and this Tofu dragon
wanted to kill me for some reason.  Welcome to my life.
     I took a corner at top speed, wincing as my pursuer cut the
corner, smashing part of the building in the process.  Debris rained to
the street in our wake, the noise partly obscuring the panicked screams
as the busy thoroughfare emptied with almost supernatural speed.
     If this had been one of the major cities I'd been in, the city
guard might have been able to handle this thing.  Altua had been lousy
with giant war robots armed with huge swords, and Fenestrialla's
guardsmen included heavy-duty magic users.  But this was a fairly small
town, and I didn't think there's be anything here capable of handling a
dragon.
     Wait a minute, I told myself.  He may be a dragon, but he's still
the doc!  You can't let anything happen to him, idiot!  You've got to
get him away from all these people and calm him down somehow!
     I glanced back over my shoulder and saw the dragon coming
on strong, although he seemed to be weaving from side-to-side as he
ran with large, awkward strides.  At first I thought that it was just his
gait, then realized the real reason.
     He was still drunk.
     Swell.  Just swell.  I spotted a narrow alleyway running
between two fairly tall buildings and ducked into it.  There was barely
enough room for me in there; it was a fair bet that my new friend
wouldn't be able to follow.  I just hoped that I could get through to him
before he did something stupid, like rip the buildings apart to get at me.
I had no doubt he could do just that if he tried, drunk or not.
     I backed away from the opening as the dragon slid to a stop,
his bulk blocking the narrow slice of light.  Nervously, I glanced over
my shoulder at the far end of the alley, judging the distance, before
turning back.  I could make out one of the dragon's eyes peering in at
me, and I tried to smile convincingly.
     "Hey, doc!" I called out, hoping my voice didn't shake.
"Come on, let's talk about this, okay?  There's been a big
misunderstanding ..."  The head reared back, and that hungry mouth
opened wide.  At first I thought he was laughing, but it hit me at the last
moment what was happening, and I felt a stunned half-grin creep to my
lips as the depth of my stupidity became apparent in a moment of
crystal clarity.
     "Ah, sh ..."
     I spun neatly and bolted with all my speed for the far end of the
alley as the dragon's head jerked forward and a gout of bright orange
flame jetted out, filling the narrow alley.  I rocketed from the far end
just as the leading edge of the roiling flame began licking at my heels,
and I rolled to the side, fighting to keep from panicking.  A quick look
assured me that I wasn't on fire, then I was off and running again, my
heart slamming against the inside of my ribs painfully.
     So much for not hurting him.  I'd be lucky to get out of this with
my skin intact.  Too bad my cursed form didn't breathe fire ...
     Wait a minute.
     Something that had been nagging me way at the back of my
mind finally made its way forward as ran.  I'd been assuming that the
doc had picked up a Jusenkyo curse, and all the signs were there, but
something was off.  Something ...
     The ground shook, nearly pitching me forward into the street.
A quick look over my shoulder revealed that the doc had used his
wings to make a short hop over the buildings, and was now behind me
again.  He still looked a little unsteady, which was probably why he
didn't just fly after me.  Well, I'd take any break I could get.  A hot
spring would be nice, preferably one big enough to fit a whole dragon
...
     And then I had it.
     The soup.  The soup had been hot.  I was sure of that; I'd seen
the steam rising from it when the doc had grabbed it from the bar.  Hot
soup.  That meant ... that meant ...
     "Hot water," I breathed raggedly.  "The dragon isn't his cursed
form, it's his NATURAL one ..."
     I dodged and wove amongst hastily abandoned vehicles,
hoping to slow the dragon down and keep him from getting another
shot at me.  I needed a plan, and now I was beginning to think I had
one.  The rough outline of one, anyway.  If I could live long enough, I
might just be able to pull this off.
     Making a sudden right-angle turn, I bolted across the street and
leapt up, spring-boarding off of an awning and up four stories to the flat
roof of what looked like a hotel.  A quick sweep showed me that the
river, glistening like a jewel in the sun, was too far away.  But there had
to be something ...
     There.  I caught sight of it out of the corner of my eye, and as I
did the plan fell into place just like that.  My thoughts were speeding
along now, a quicksilver blur, and I felt a familiar tingle settling over my
body.  It was a sensation I'd had many times in the past year, most
recently during my battle with the Astounding Kid Lightning.  And I
knew better than to fight it.  Hell, I welcomed it with open arms.
     I turned to see the dragon's wedge-shaped head rising to my
level.  I grinned at it, my blood searing through my veins like liquid fire,
my muscles loose and hot, a dark careless joy/fury boiling up out of the
dark places in my mind.
     "Hey, ugly!" I shouted before it could react.  "Yeah, you!  You
know what?"  The head jerked back slightly, as if puzzled by my
sudden change of mood.  Well, too bad.  Too damned bad for him.
     "Yeah, I'm talking to you, ya stupid lizard!  I've had to put up
with a lot of crap in my life recently, and you know what?  I'm sick of
it!  I'm really just sick of it!  And you know what else?  I'm sick of
YOU!"  The great eyes blinked, and I was pretty sure I'd managed to
surprise it, but I didn't much care.  I was rolling now, and nothing
would stop me.
     "Here's what I think, lizard lips.  I think you're going down,
you overgrown iguana!  You're ... going ... DOWN!"  The dragon
shook itself as if waking from a daze.
     "You ... dare," it breathed.  I grinned, feeling my lips peel back
from my teeth.
     "You bet your ass I do!" I screamed.  "I'm Ranma Saotome,
and you're gonna be sorry you picked a fight with me!  Let's get it
ON!"  With that I launched myself into the air, landing briefly on the
astonished dragon's snout before springing over its broad back.  I hit
the ground running, but even as it bellowed in rage and began to turn, I
was gone, laughing like a maniac.
     I darted through the now deserted streets, riding a wave of
intoxicating recklessness.  I'd cast myself out into the void once again
without any safety net, and if I stepped wrong just once it would be all
over.
     (And would that really be so terrible?)
     But I wasn't going to slip.  I was riding the wavefront of
whitehot anger and black joy like a bullet, and anything that got in my
way was going to be annihilated.
     (And if I should slip, it would be over quickly ...)
     Metal tore and something exploded as the dragon stomped on
a row of abandoned vehicles, his long tail sweeping the burning wrecks
aside as he came on.  I taunted him, throwing my words to the wind,
hardly even remembering what I'd said.  It didn't matter; his answering
shrieks of rage were sweet music to my ears.  I sailed over the ground,
floated around obstacles, untouchable.
     Somewhere below the rush of giddy carelessness I
remembered what it was I was trying to do, and I steered our progress
in the proper direction.  Not too obviously, of course; I didn't want the
big bad dragon to get wise to my plan.
     Anyway, I was having fun.
     That thought would almost certainly return to haunt me later,
but at that moment I danced along the tightrope with the recklessness
that only comes from knowing you've got nothing to lose.
     Except, of course, your life ...
     Coming around a sharp corner running flat out, I could see that
everything had nearly come together.  I couldn't do it like this, though; if
he saw it coming, it might not work, and I couldn't have that.  I wanted
it to work ... because I wanted to WIN.
     So I reversed direction, and as the dragon came tearing around
the corner of the big brick building in a ragged curve, I ran straight
between his legs.  If I'd misjudged at all, I might have been crushed, but
I hadn't so I wasn't, and that was what mattered.  I ducked his tail as
he went into a sideways skid, turning his head to gape at me.  It almost
made me want to laugh.  Almost.
     "You are a madman!" he spat.  I grinned back, summoning up
my chi and concentrating.
     "Ugly," I gasped, "you ain't seen nothing yet!"  Then I raised
my hands and unleashed a powerful chi bolt.  The dragon ducked his
head with the speed of a cobra, unsettling in something so big, and the
bolt lanced past him.  He turned back to me then, staring down his long
snout, and I'd swear he was smiling.
     "Well, boy," he rumbled darkly. "Looks like you're out of
tricks."  I studied my hand, deliberately not looking behind him where
my bolt had impacted with a crash.
     "You big ugly stupid lizard," I said easily.  "I warned you not to
mess with me."  He just blinked those huge eyes, and opened his
mouth.
     Too late, he became aware that something was wrong and
started to turn.  My chi bolt had taken out the leg of the town's water
tower closest to us, and as it toppled it unleashed its load in a huge
wave directly at us.  The wave broke around the dragon's bulk, and his
form shimmered for a moment before seeming to vanish.
     Watching the water tower topple had filled me with a fierce
exhilaration, but now the heady mad rush that had been driving me
seemed to vanish all at once.  My plan had worked perfectly, but
unfortunately I hadn't thought beyond this point.  If I had, it probably
wouldn't have mattered to me that if things came off the way I'd
planned I would find myself standing in the path of a wall of water.
     But it mattered now.
     "Oops," I managed before the flood swept me off my feet and
away.

***

     I could hear lots of shouting in the distance.  The locals seemed
to be in quite a state; hardly surprising, considering the amount of
damage the dragon had done while chasing me.  I couldn't blame them,
really.  I could, however, stay the hell out of their way while they
picked up the pieces and looked for someone to blame.
     I was pretty safe.  Aside from slamming into me, nearly
drowning me and carrying me a couple of blocks away from where I'd
been, the water had left me in girl form.  I'd be able to walk out of
town unrecognized, a definite advantage.
     Tofu groaned and started to stir.  I waited patiently.  He'd been
naked when I'd found him, but was wearing a pair of shorts now,
courtesy of the clothesline I'd snagged from behind a small apartment
building.  I'd been unobserved; everyone had stayed out of sight until
they were sure the trouble was over.
     The clothesline itself had also been put to good use, a fact the
fake Tofu was able to appreciate as he slowly regained consciousness.
     "Erm," he mumbled.  "Ack.  Um ..."  He opened his eyes and
froze.
     "Hiya," I said cheerfully.  "Now let me explain how this works.
You are suspended head first over this shaft, which goes down a pretty
good distance.  All that sharp, jagged junk down there must be from
the renovations being done to this dump.  Now, if I pull this end of the
line, the knot unravels and you plunge down to start your new life as a
pincushion.  Any questions?"
     "You," Tofu said, speaking slowly and distinctly, "are a
lunatic."  He blinked, shaking his head carefully from side to side.
     "Yes," I agreed.  "But at least I'm not hanging upside down
over a six story drop onto a bunch of sharp wooden spears."  Tofu
laughed then.  I was glad he could see the humour in the situation.  The
mad exhilaration I'd felt during our fight was long gone, and in its wake
I felt spent, not to mention irritable.
     "That was very sneaky," Tofu said finally.  "But effective.  I
suppose I should congratulate you."
     "Don't bother," I said flatly.  "All you have to do is answer
some questions, doc.  But don't yank my chain, okay?  I'm really sick
of people trying to kill me."
     "In fact, I wasn't trying to kill you," Tofu said, swinging slightly
over the hole in the floor.  The building was decrepit and in terrible
shape, but it was also empty, which meant we weren't likely to be
disturbed.  He eyed the clothesline, which was wrapped around his
ankles and ran up and over an exposed beam, then glanced back at
me.
     "You did a pretty good impression of someone who was trying
to kill me," I said, toying with the free end of the line which was tied off
around the door frame beside me.  Tofu nodded.
     "I suppose I should say that I was not trying to kill you
specifically," he clarified.  Ah.
     "Huh?" I asked.  He sighed.  If being upside down was
bothering him, he gave no sign.
     "You are not the Ranma Saotome I am angry with," he went
on.  "Had I not been so ... intoxicated at the time, I would have of
course realized that you could not possibly be him."  He paused, then
cocked his head.
     "You do recognize me, though," he mused.  "In this form, I
mean."  I nodded.
     "Of course," I said.  "You're Doctor Tofu Ono."
     "Not at all," he replied with a thin smile.  "I am Baahnid, a
black dragon.  This human body is simply the result of Jusenkyo magic,
as is your present form."  I looked down at my very female chest and
frowned.  Of course, if he was really a dragon, then he wasn't the doc.
But ...
     "So you fell in the Spring of Drowned Man, and got that
body?" I asked.
     "It was somewhat more complicated than that," Tofu ...
Baahnid, I should say, replied.  "But basically, yes.  You recognize this
form?"  I nodded absently.
     "He was a chiropractor in Nerima," I muttered.  "Weird
coincidence."
     "Not necessarily," Baahnid shrugged, the gesture looking
strange upside down.  "Many patterns tend to repeat themselves
throughout the many worlds.  Perhaps it is the pull of destiny, or some
force even stranger and more subtle."   I blinked.
     "The many worlds," I said slowly.  "So you know about them."
Baahnid looked surprised.
     "Of course," he said, sounding offended.  "You don't think I'm
from this place, do you?"  Actually, I had thought that, but now my
head was spinning.  If he knew about the other worlds, then ...
     "Pardon me," he said politely, interrupting my reverie, "but now
that we've established that I have no wish to kill you, do you suppose
you could let me down?"  I scowled.
     "I don't remember establishing any such thing," I grumbled.
"How do you know I'm not the Ranma you're looking for, anyway?"
Baahnid smiled that thin smile of his again.
     "Oh, I can be certain of that.  Trust me."
     "That's just it, pal," I snorted.  "I DON'T trust you.  This
whole thing is just too weird for my liking.  For all I know, you're with
those wackos in the black robes, after your master's key."
     "Black robes?" he asked sharply.  "Key?  Well, well.  Isn't this
interesting.  You would appear to be in a little bit over your head,
young man."
     "Just don't forget which of us has the other guy hanging over a
deep hole," I snapped.  He gave me that thin smile again.
     "Oh, I suspect that your situation is as precarious, if not more
so, than my own.  I may be able to help you, Ranma Saotome.
Perhaps we can ... deal?"

***

     We sat on the roof of the building, able to see the clean-up
efforts of the townsfolk.  That seemed to amuse Baahnid greatly, and
when I pointed out to him that he was responsible for most of the
damage, he just smiled.
     "If you hadn't been so damned hard to catch, I wouldn't have
had to be quite so ... energetic in my pursuit," he answered glibly.
     "If I hadn't been so damned hard to catch, I'd be dead now," I
pointed out.  He grimaced.
     "Point," he conceded.  "However, you did prevail, and so here
we are."
     "Yeah," I nodded.  "But you'd better make this good.  Our
deal ..."
     "Yes, I know," Baahnid interrupted curtly.  "I tell all in return
for my freedom.  I haven't forgotten."  He looked so much like the doc,
but when he talked I had no trouble thinking of him as Baahnid.  He
was abrupt and sarcastic, not at all like even-tempered Doctor Tofu.
     "So, where do we start?" I asked.  There was a lot I wanted to
know, and the prospect of finally having some answers had me excited
for the first time in a very long while.  Baahnid stared at me for a
moment.
     "Perhaps this will go more smoothly if you first tell me what you
know of the many worlds," he said.  I thought about arguing, but he had
a good point.
     "Well," I said cautiously, "not that much really.  I mean, I know
there are different worlds, since I've been to more than a few.  I was
even on one that was almost exactly like where I come from originally.
I know that there are only two ways to travel between them, either with
a key or some machine that'll open the way ..."
     "Rubbish," Baahnid snorted.  "Who told you such a thing?"  I
blinked.
     "Ah ... a guy," I muttered.  "He worked for a group called the
DTF ..."
     "Oh, yes," Baahnid snorted.  "Them.  Humans have many
strange idiosyncrasies, young man, but attempting to catalogue and
organize an entire multiverse is certainly one of the strangest.  They do
manage to accomplish some good, I will give them that, but they are not
nearly as important as they believe."
     "So he was wrong," I said tentatively.  Baahnid sighed.
     "Oh, undoubtedly about many things," he grumbled.  "But I
suppose realistically it does not matter.  For the most part, your
mentor's words will hold true."
     "He wasn't my mentor," I blurted.  "He tried to ... ah, recruit
me.  Sorta."  Baahnid raised one eyebrow.
     "Indeed.  Well, apparently he failed, or we would not be here."
     "Okay, let's get to the point then," I said eagerly, leaning
forward.  "Where IS here?  I could always use my key to travel
between worlds until I got to this one.  Now I can't find any gates at
all."
     "Of course," Baahnid said simply.  "Because there aren't any."
     "Well, how did I get here then?" I asked.
     "You must have entered a broken link," Baahnid mused.  "They
are rare, but do exist.  That would be a one-way trip here, as you've
discovered."  My eyes narrowed.
     "Well, how did YOU get here, then?" I asked suspiciously.
"And more importantly, how do you plan to leave?"  Baahnid kicked
his feet idly.
     "What makes you think I plan to leave?" he asked.  That tore
it.  I reached over and grabbed the worn shirt I'd given him to wear,
pulling him roughly toward me.
     "All right, let's go talk to the local law," I said shortly.  "I'll bet
they'd love to see you again ..."  I hauled him up easily, even though in
girl form I was smaller than he was.  He smiled thinly, not resisting.
     "Be at ease, Saotome," he said.  "All in good time.  But first,
we must speak of what makes this place special."  I let go of the shirt
and he fell awkwardly to the warm roof.  I glared down at him, hands
on my hips.
     "Don't jerk me around," I snapped.  "I'm not having a very
good day.  Or year, for that matter."  Baahnid just inclined his head.
     "So," he murmured.  "You really don't know anything about
this place, do you?"  I sat back down, trying to think of anything useful
I'd heard while here.
     "Well," I sighed at last, "the last guy that tried to kill me said
something about me being smart in choosing to come here.  Said it gave
me time to master the key, and that this place was beyond his master's
reach."
     "And this is one of the black-robed assassins you spoke of
earlier?" Baahnid inquired, a strange half-smile on his face.  "Well, well.
He was quite right, you know.  You could not have chosen a better
sanctuary if you had tried."
     "But I didn't try!  It was just an accident!" I snapped back.
"Now are you going to tell me what's so special about this place or
what?"
     "Oh, it's quite simple, really," Baahnid replied, fixing me with a
stare, never letting that half-smile slip.  "This world is a lost place, you
see.  Somehow, in the distant past of this world, some catastrophe
overtook this world.  Not even my people know precisely what
disaster befell this place, but all of the links connecting it to the other
earths were severed.  Now it exists outside of them, beyond them."  I
waited.
     "What the hell," I finally gritted, "does that MEAN?"
     "You travelled between the other earths at will, yes?" he
replied.  "What did you notice about time?"
     "Time?" I asked.  He nodded.
     "Yes.  Did you ever leave one world in December and arrive in
the next in June?"  I saw what he was getting at then.
     "No," I confirmed.  "It was always the same day.  Crossing
over never took more than a few minutes.  But it wasn't always the
same YEAR.  Mostly it was, but Megatokyo was the future ..."
     "Yes, yes," Baahnid said impatiently.  "Some worlds are ahead,
some behind, and don't ask why this is so, because I don't know that
either.  However, they all progress together.  If an hour passes on one
world, it passes on them all.  There are exceptions when it comes to
realms, of course ... the faerie realms spring to mind, but ..."  He broke
off and bowed his head slightly.
     "Ah, but I digress.  The point is, time flows constantly across
the linked worlds.  Here, however, we are not linked, and so ... well,
for instance.  How long have you been trapped here?"
     "About eleven months," I told him.
     "Ah.  Well, young Ranma Saotome, would you believe me if I
told you that hardly any time at all has passed in the linked worlds while
you've been here?"  I just stared at him.
     "What are you talking about?" I asked.  "A year is a year,
right?"
     "Anywhere else, yes, that would be true," he said.  "But not
here.  I would estimate that, were you to return now, you would find
about two days had passed."  I just stared.
     "Two days," I repeated.  "That's ... two DAYS?"
     "Oh, yes," Baahnid said, seeming to enjoy my reaction.  "The
one who set his dogs on you has barely had time to wonder if they
were successful.  I expect he faces a quandary because, you see, he
will never know if his men succeeded in their mission.  No one returns
from a lost place, and no communication is possible with the worlds out
of step with this one.  So he must wonder, impotent.  That thought
amuses me."  I was hardly listening now.  So that was why I was stuck.
I would grow old and die here while my counterpart and his friends
back in Nerima were still teenagers.  That thought saddened me
somehow, even though I wouldn't have been able to find the way back
to that world if I'd tried.
     "Well," I said finally.  "Well.  How about that."  I looked up to
see Baahnid just watching me.  "So you're stuck here too, huh?"  He
smiled that thin half-smile again and looked away.
     "There are secrets known to my kind," he replied.  "Many
secrets.  Dragons enjoy knowing secrets, you see.  Generally we keep
them to ourselves, but in this instance I may make an exception."  I sat
very still, feeling the heat of the sun prickling my skin pleasantly.
     "Is there a way to leave?" I asked at last, since he seemed to
want me to.  He glanced back and smiled.
     "Yes," he said.
     "And are you going to tell me what it is?"
     "I will tell you what you need to know to find your way, if you
first do something for me."  I sat there for a moment.  He seemed to be
watching me very closely, and I was suddenly painfully aware that I
was in girl form.  I felt heat rush to my cheeks.
     "Hey, now ..." I began.  He blinked, then burst out laughing.
He laughed so hard I was afraid he would roll right off the edge of the
roof.  But he didn't, just wrapped his arms around his waist and
convulsed in fits of mirth that looked almost painful.  Finally, his face
red and his eyes watery, he managed to get himself under control.
     "Oh," he gasped.  "Oh, my.  No, not that, my young friend.  I
have no designs on your virtue."  He started chuckling again.  "Although
you do have a certain vivacious charm in that form, I must say ..."
     "All right," I grumbled.  "I get it, okay?  So what DO you
want?"  Baahnid sighed loudly, dabbing at his damp eyes with his
ragged shirt tail.
     "Simply, I want your story," he said.
     "I don't get it."
     "Your story," he repeated patiently.  He reached out to touch
me gently between my breasts, and it took me one panicked moment to
realize that his finger was resting on the key that hung under my shirt.
     "I want to know how you came by such a rare artifact," he
said.  "I want to know what brought you to this place.  That is my
price."  I just looked at him.  That was a strange request to say the
least, but what choice did I have?  I didn't think threatening to turn him
over to the locals again would work.  He had me and he knew it.  If
there really was a way to escape this crazy place, I wanted to know.
He could be lying, of course, but my options were pretty limited.
     So I told him.  I started with the day I'd left the dojo, and
skimmed over the deaths of the others.  Then I told him of my
recruitment by Jack Conroy of the DTF, and my escape into the other
Nerima, the attempt by the demons to invade, and our battle.  He
seemed very interested in how I'd taken the key from the huge, one-
eyed demon inside the link and blown him straight back to hell with the
sphere from Jack's Door.  After that, I touched lightly on the worlds
I'd visited before ending up here.  When I was done we sat silently for
a time, listening to the sounds of cursing and cleanup from the streets
below.
     "Quite a story," he said finally.  I shrugged.  It didn't hurt to
think about it the way it once had, and I supposed that was good.  But
then, time does heal all wounds.
     "So," I said.  He smiled.
     "So," he replied.  "There are many things you need to know,
but you will have to discover them for yourself."  I opened my mouth
and he held up one hand to forestall my objections.
     "One thing you need to know I AM going to tell you," he said
gravely, "even though it is forbidden.  There is a way for you to leave
this place, if you are smart enough, tough enough and determined
enough."
     "Tell me."  He sighed and nodded, suddenly looking tired.
     "Very well.  Seek the wastelands.  In the centre of them lies a
city whose name is lost to memory.  It is now referred to, by those who
remember it at all, as the City of the Dead ... and not without reason.
In the centre of the city there is a tower.  Seek the tower, pass its
guardian, and you will be able to escape this place.  Do you
understand?"  I nodded quickly.
     "Sounds simple enough," I told him.  He grinned sourly.
     "It is far from simple.  The journey will be difficult, with hazards
you can barely imagine.  But then, after hearing your story I can see it
would be useless trying to frighten you, so I'll just say this.  If your
desire flags, if your will is not strong enough, you will not prevail."
     "Oh, I'll make it," I said, feeling a strange sensation filling the
void I hadn't even realized was within me.  I felt like I finally had a
purpose, something to work towards, and suddenly I burned to be on
the road, trying to find these wastelands.  I hadn't heard of them in my
travels thus far, but there were plenty of travellers around.  Someone
would know where to find them.
     Baahnid stood, and I bounded to my feet too.
     "Hey, wait," I said quickly.  "Where're you going?"
     "Our business is done," he said.  "I am leaving."
     "But ... I mean, what about you?"  He cocked his head.
     "Me?"
     "Well ... how did you get cursed?  Why were you trying to kill
me when you thought I was the other Ranma?  I mean, there's so much
about you I don't know ..."
     "Saotome," he said quietly.  "If you escape this place and we
meet again someday, then perhaps I will tell you what you wish to
know.  Perhaps.  But not today.  I believe I have transgressed enough
for one day.  Farewell, Ranma Saotome."  With that, he turned and
disappeared into the dark stairwell.  I stood there for a few moments,
wondering if I should go after him, then decided that would be fruitless.
If he didn't want to talk, I couldn't make him.  And anyway, I was
anxious to get started.
     I finally had a goal, something to look forward to.  The feeling
was unusual.
     But I liked it.  I liked it a lot.

***

     He waited until Saotome was gone, then climbed back up to
the roof.  It would be prudent to wait until after dark to leave town.
Enough people had been witness to his transformation that he didn't
want to just go strolling through town.
     Well, that was no problem.  He wasn't in a hurry.
     "This time, Baahnid, you've gone too far."  He grimaced at the
sound of the sexy contralto voice coming from behind him.
     "Well," he sighed.  "How fortunate that you are here to chastise
me, Alia."  The sound of hooves was muted on the worn roof as the
gleaming white unicorn moved over to face him.  Her horn threw off
razored shards of sunlight, and her dark eyes held his steadily.
     "This isn't funny," she said sternly.  "Your foibles have been
tolerated thus far, but there are limits."
     "My limits are hardly your concern," he said, suddenly weary.
"Your kind and mine have traditionally been at odds over just about
everything, if you will recall."  She snorted, a surprisingly delicate
sound.
     "Falling in love with a human was just foolish," she said.  His
jaw clenched tight at that, but she was unapologetic.  "And using the
Jusenkyo springs so you could be with her was foolish and dangerous!
You are so vulnerable in that form, Baahnid!"
     "The choice was mine," he said stiffly.  She stamped one hoof,
her tail flicking in agitation.
     "There are reasons we avoid getting entangled with humans,"
she scolded.  "And you are ignoring all of ..."
     "Enough!" he roared.  She stopped, then sighed and regarded
him with those dark, liquid eyes.
     "I do not wish to be cruel," she said softly.  "I know you loved
her, and mourn her still.  But this is what comes of ignoring the wisdom
of your elders.  We are removed from humans and their ilk, and our
struggles are not theirs nor theirs ours."  He walked a few paces away
and looked out over the town.
     "Can you not leave me in peace?" he asked.  "I came here so
that I could have some peace and still not be absent for too long from
my duties."
     "Oh, really?" she asked in a tone that made his heart sink.  "I
thought you came to see that boy."
     "Nonsense!" he snapped.  "Why would I do that?  He reminds
me of ..."
     "Of that other, the one you held responsible for her death," Alia
broke in smoothly.  "Yes, and if I had merely seen your fight here, I
might believe that you had taken after him in a drunken rage, provoked
by his unexpected appearance.  But I think that is not what really
happened.  I think you were testing the boy."
     "You see conspiracies now, Alia?" he asked, forcing a note of
weary amusement into his voice.  "How droll.  Perhaps you are the one
who has been spending too much time with humans."
     "The link he entered was intact," she said easily.  "I saw.  The
Brotherhood had tracked him and was waiting for him to emerge, but
he never did.  Someone or something snatched him from that link and
brought him here."  Baahnid continued to stare out over the city, his
outward appearance unconcerned.  Alia snorted again.
     "Do you think that no one noticed that?" she asked angrily.
"There are very few forces capable of taking someone from an active
link like that.  Their master will suspect ..."
     "Let him," Baahnid snapped, tired of subterfuge.  "He can
prove nothing, and if he could, what would he do, one ambitious demon
lordling?"  Alia raised her nose into the air.
     "That is what this is about, isn't it?  Hurting the demons?
Denying them their prize?" she demanded.  His jaw tightened again and
he turned away from her, full of unreasoning anger at her persistence.
     "Oh, why don't you go stick your head in a virgin's lap or
something?" he gritted.
     "Fine!" she shot back.  "Get angry with me if you must,
Baahnid!  But remember, we have our own struggles to attend to!  If
you continue to sulk and ignore your duties, someone else will have to
pick up after you!"  He just stared out over the busy town, hands
clasped tightly behind his back.
     "That," he said wearily, "is why I came here to ... sulk.  I will
not be missed for some time yet."  She snorted, managing to make even
that sound delicate and feminine.
     "I don't know why I bother," she grumbled as she walked
away.  He reflected silently that he didn't, either, as she gathered herself
at the edge of the roof and leapt gracefully, disappearing into the air
without a trace.
     Then, at last, he was alone.
     She was right, of course.  There were very few rules amongst
his kind, but he was young yet and there were duties he was expected
to perform.  If he was caught shirking by the Elder, he would be
punished.
     But he couldn't leave here yet.  Out there, somewhere, that
young human was embarking on his new quest, and Baahnid was quite
curious to see how that would turn out.  Alia had been correct in her
assumption that Baahnid had been testing the boy, after all.  He had
survived in this place for nearly a year, had dealt with the Brotherhood
assassins who'd sought his death, and now had held his own in combat
against a dragon.
     Yes, there was cause for optimism.  Of course, the boy was
young, even for a human.  And there was the matter of the razored
darkness that lurked in him, waiting to burst free.  Baahnid had
witnessed that first hand, and knew without a doubt that life had
marked the boy harshly.  Whether or not he could survive long enough
to tame his inner demons was far from certain; having looked into the
boy's eyes that day at the height of battle, Baahnid personally
considered it far from likely.  But it was at least possible.
     And he was, even unknowingly, cleansing that key.  Baahnid
suspected that the taint had allowed the Brotherhood to track Ranma
this far, but soon the trail would go cold.  Yes, the boy had potential.  If
he could pass this test, if he could find the City of the Dead and reach
the tower there, then Baahnid would consider telling the boy more,
enough to make him a real threat.
     You are forbidden to make war on them, the Elder had told
him sternly.  I have my reasons for this, youngster, and I will not explain
myself to you.  But mind me, disobey and I will deal with you
personally.
     That had been pretty unequivocal, even for the Elder, and
Baahnid had no doubts the old lizard meant what he'd said.
Nonetheless, he would see the guilty party dragged out of his shadowy
sanctuary and punished for what he'd set in motion.
     And there was a certain poetic irony in the fact that he'd be
using Ranma Saotome to do it.

***

     "So, you're the lunatic, hmm?" she asked.  I didn't take
offense.  I was getting quite used to people reacting that way.
     "And you're the captain," I said agreeably.  She sat across
from me, lounging in her chair with a quiet, lazy grace, kind of like a cat.
Something about her, though, told me that she would be a dangerous
woman to have for an enemy.
     That was all right with me.  I didn't want to make an enemy, I
just wanted a ride.  I sat still, aware of the two husky guys that stood
behind my chair, flanking me.  They were trying to be menacing, and I
didn't have the heart to tell them that they just weren't cutting it.  Oh,
sure, they were big and carrying all sorts of sharp steel between them,
but despite the show they were putting on they just didn't think I was a
serious threat.  Probably it was the fact that I wasn't carrying any
weapons.  Everyone out here carried at least one weapon, after all.
     The way they were standing, I could have taken them both out
in a flash, but that wouldn't get me any closer to where I wanted to be.
So I sat, watching the captain, and she watched me back.  I definitely
got the better part of that deal.
     I hadn't expected her to be an elf.  I'd seen only a few in my
travels, and those had all been far from people, usually alone on the
road.  They were all beautiful, and they knew it.  This one was no
exception.  Unlike the others I'd seen, though, her skin was a dark
dusky tone, her hair more white than blonde.  Her long, gracefully
tapered ears had silver hoops hanging from them, and her exotically
tilted eyes were narrowed thoughtfully as they studied me.
     Her clothes were strange, too, not the browns and greens that
I'd seen on the others.  She dressed more like a buccaneer, a loose
white shirt with tight cuffs open a little further in the front than was
proper, a dark red vest cut low and loosely laced, a red sash wound
tightly around her narrow waist, and dark pants that tucked into high,
soft boots.  I could see a sword tucked into her sash, the kind with a
bell-shaped hand guard, what was referred to as a sabre or cutlass (if
there was a difference, I didn't know what it was).  From the length
and width of the scabbard, though, it didn't look like the same as the
ones I'd seen others carrying.  It seemed too slim and long for that.  A
special weapon, maybe?  That would suit her.
     She had a pair of dark gloves in one hand, and she slapped
them absently against her thigh while she looked me over.  I just sat
there and let her.  After coming this far, I wasn't going to let a little
staring get to me.
     "So," she said at last.  "What makes you think I can take you
where you want to go?"  I smiled innocently.
     "I've been asking around," I said simply.  "Looking for a ship
that might take me where I want to go.  People seemed to think your
ship fit the bill."
     "Oh, really?" she asked, raising one eyebrow.  "What people?"
     "Oh, just people," I said.  She smiled.
     "Ah," she said.  "Well, people will talk, won't they?  But, of
course, you can't believe everything you hear."
     "True," I said, trying to remain outwardly calm as she took a
slow, meditative drink from her gold goblet.  This was so frustrating!  In
the months after I'd encountered Baahnid, there'd been times when I'd
wondered if he'd been lying to me, or even if I'd gone a bit crazy and
imagined the whole thing.  At first, I hadn't been able to find anybody
who'd even HEARD of the wastelands.  I'd had to wander farther than
I'd ever been before I finally began to find people who would admit,
usually while looking over their shoulders, to knowing that the
wastelands at least existed.  Apparently, they were rumoured to be evil,
or haunted, or something like that.  But each rumour, every hint or half-
recalled story, had ended up leading me closer.
     Now they were within my grasp, I was certain of that.  But still,
mention of the wastelands tended to make people suddenly remember
that they had business elsewhere.  Finally I'd bought an old one-legged
drunk few rounds, and he'd gotten talkative as the ale flowed freely.
When I'd gotten around to asking about a ship that might be hired for a
dangerous trip, he'd singled out the one whose captain I was sitting
across from now.  I'd heard mutters about her and her ship before, so
that was promising.  Then I'd mentioned the wastelands, and he'd
snorted.
     "Kid," he'd slurred, waving his mug around wildly, "if anyone'll
take ya ta THAT gods-forsaken place it'll be that witch.  Sail right
through the gatesh a' hell itself fer gold, they say."
     I hoped he was right.
     "And you think I might take you there," she said at last.  I tried
to keep smiling innocuously and not grab her and shake her.
     "That's what I'm hoping," I said.  She shook her head, her long
white hair rippling over her shoulders, then took another delicate sip of
her drink.
     "Young man, do I look stupid to you?" she asked at last, her tawny
eyes gleaming dangerously.  I blinked.
     "Of course not ..." I began defensively.  She leaned forward,
her open shirt showing plenty of firm cleavage as she planted one elbow
on the table.
     "Then perhaps you would be so kind as to explain to me why I
should even consider defying the duke's edict and approaching the
wastes," she asked, her voice low and dangerous.  "For all I know,
you're one of the duke's spies yourself."
     "What?" I blurted, taken off-guard.  This was the first I'd heard
about any duke, although suddenly the trouble I'd had getting people to
talk about the wastelands was starting to make sense.
     "Oh, come now," she said, fixing me with a piercing gaze.
"Trossik may be a free city, but everyone knows the duke's influence
extends even here.  People who defy him have been known to just
vanish from even these dark streets.  And yet here you are, pretty as
you please, asking questions and talking openly about travelling to the
wastes.  Well, young man, I may walk the line occasionally, but
Pirotess knows better than to go looking for trouble with the Royal
Navy.  You can tell whoever you report to that I steer clear of the
wastes at all times.  Now, I believe our discussion is ended.  Boys?"
     The two behind me leaned forward, each taking an arm and
hauling me out of my seat.  The tavern was crowded and dark, and
nobody took much notice as they propelled me towards the door.  I
didn't put up a fight; there didn't seem to be a point.  Anyway, I
wanted to get out of there fast.  If this duke really was interested in
people asking about the wastelands, then I very well might have
attracted some bad attention over the past couple of days.  It might be
a good idea to lay low for a while.
     They shoved me through the door and stood flanking it, hands
on the hilts of their swords as if expecting trouble.  I just held my hands
out and backed away, though.  Satisfying as beating on the two of them
would have been, it just would have increased my chances of attracting
attention, and I didn't want that.  Not with the wastelands so close.
     Of course, I had no idea how I was going to get there.  I had
only a rough idea of which direction they lay in, and the terrain was
pretty rough, not to mention dangerous, a fact that I was hardly likely to
forget after some of the things I'd run across just making it this far.  I
might have to abandon the idea of booking passage on a ship, though, if
tonight was any indication.  But I wouldn't give up, not with my goal
finally in sight.
     I slipped along the narrow street, pulling my hooded cloak
around me to ward off the chill.  This was my second winter in this
world, and while the weather here in what the locals called the
borderlands was milder than back around Saeni, it was still pretty
miserable, cold and damp with a heavy fog shrouding the city.
     I decided to find someplace to spend the night and plan my
next move just about the same time I began to think someone was
following me.
     It could have been paranoia in the wake of my talk with the
dark elf, but I wasn't keen on taking any chances.  The main street was
pretty well-travelled even at this hour, and it was hard to tell just what
had set my nerves on edge.  I slipped into a dark, garbage-strewn alley
and dashed into the shadows, dodging half-seen shapes as I went.  It
would be easier to tell if someone was following me back here.  If I
was being followed, someone was going to have a very bad night,
because my mood had been getting steadily worse since leaving the
tavern.
     I slipped around a corner and flattened myself against a cold,
grimy wall.  My dark clothing blended well into the deep shadow, and I
controlled my breathing as I waited to see if anyone came after me.
     It took a few minutes, but soon the soft sound of feet scuffing
against the worn cobblestones came to me on the heavy night air.
There were two of them from the sound of it, and they were pretty
good.  They didn't give themselves away by talking or making any
unnecessary noise.  I watched them as they hovered uncertainly at the
corner, looking down both branches of the narrow alley.  Very little
light filtered back here, and there were nooks and hidey-holes galore.  I
watched as the two, wearing long black cloaks, motioned to each
other, then set off in opposite directions.
     One passed almost close enough that I could have reached out
and touched him, and for a moment I wondered if he was another of
Kid Lightning's assassins.  I could see that he wasn't wearing a mask,
though, and so I figured he wasn't.  Just who he was remained to be
seen.
     I gave him a lead and checked to make sure his friend wasn't
coming back, then started following him.  Keeping to the shadows, I
managed to remain unseen.  It wasn't all that hard, really; he didn't
seem too concerned about the possibility that someone might be
following HIM instead of the other way around.
     Finally, the alley opened out onto a street, and I saw the man
pause and look around.  He stepped away from the mouth of the alley
and I saw a group of men approach him.  They were all dressed alike,
in dark clothes and long cloaks.  Of course, that didn't have to mean
anything.  Hell, I was dressed like that myself.  They were definitely
together, though, and I edged closer to the mouth of the alley to see if I
could catch what they were saying.
     "... his Grace will enjoy hearing that, do you?" one of them was
muttering in a low, unpleasant voice.
     "He'd be much more forgiving if we brought him that elf bitch,"
the one I'd been following hissed, glancing up and down the nearly
deserted street.  "The boy went straight to her."
     "Too dangerous," someone snorted.  "She has friends here,
resources ..."
     "Not her ship or crew, just her," the other man shot back.
"Then we use her as bait and scoop the whole lot of them!  Come on,
we've never had so many men in Trossik before, this is a perfect
opportunity!"
     "I don't like it!" one of the others broke in.
     "Tough, because I told the men to nab her before she gets back
to her ship," my quarry announced triumphantly.
     That did not go over well.
     I was puzzled.  I'd thought at first that the guys tailing me had
been with the elf.  She'd thought me a spy, after all, so that made sense.
Instead, it seemed that I'd put my foot into something even bigger.
     And I still wasn't any closer to the damned wastelands.
     The furor died down a little as more men joined the group.
     "Bas, you idiot!" one of the men barked finally.  "He's never
been able to get her ..."
     "But he wants to.  Bad," Bas, the one I'd been following, said
stubbornly.  "And the group around the tavern have both our sorcerers
and all the archers.  The weather's perfect, and we have a fast ship to
get us back into kingdom territory before anyone knows we have her!
No risk to his Grace and great potential rewards!"
     "I don't like it," one of the others grumbled.
     "You don't have to," Bas shot back.  "I'm in charge while
Troy's gone, and I say we seize the opportunity!  Only bold action will
land a prize like Pirotess, boys."
     "What about the outlander?" grumbled the man he was facing
down.
     "We'll worry about him later.  He's been pretty clumsy so far,
the amateur.  He won't stay ahead of us for long."  I flushed.  Amateur,
huh?  Asshole.
     And a plan was beginning to develop out of all this.  If I went
back and warned Pirotess about the ambush, I might gain her trust.
That would be a good first step, anyway, and if it got me closer to
passage to the wastelands it would be worth it.
     The men were still clustered together, although Bas seemed to
be winning the argument.  I turned to slip back down the alley, and
caught a movement out of the corner of my eye.  I spun to meet it, only
to find something horrible staring back at me from a nearby window
ledge.
     I just can't explain it.  I've seen demons that still give me
nightmares.  I've seen friends killed, and fought a berserk dragon bare-
handed.  And still, one thing never fails to throw me into a panic.
     "Mrowr?"
     The cat was a big black battle-scarred tom, and as soon as my
brain registered what I was looking at I yelped and jumped backwards,
away from the threat, my heart pounding wildly.
     Of course, my reaction was completely instinctive.  It was also
very poorly timed, as I jumped right out of the mouth of the alley.  The
noise or the motion alone would have given me away.  As it was, I
managed to get myself under some semblance of control in time to see
the entire group turn towards me.
     Oops.
     "It's him!" Bas shouted as several of the men went for their
swords.  Fortunately, they were slowed down by being so close
together, giving me a few extra seconds to react.
     Unfortunately, the cat was spooked by all the noise, and leapt
down from the windowsill, streaking out of the shadows the way cats
will do ... straight towards me.
     Leaving me only one avenue of escape, straight through about
fifteen armed men.  Panic rising, I did the only thing I could under the
circumstances.
     I mean, that damned cat was HUGE ...

***

     Pirotess sipped from her goblet, making certain that her
appearance was that of a woman with no cares at all.  That was a
facade; however, she was very skilled at projecting facades.  No one
would have suspected she had examined the crowd and determined the
likeliest threats, much less decided which would have to die first.
     She only smiled as Drake returned to the table with fresh
drinks.
     "Well?" she asked pleasantly.  He sat down across from her,
plunking his mug down on the table with a thunk.  He was acting slightly
drunk, although she knew it to be as false as her own serenity.
     "Bad news," he muttered through an amiable smile.  "I spotted
at least a half-dozen of them.  I think I saw movement on one of the
neighbouring rooftops too, but with the fog closing in I can't be sure."
     "This is serious," she agreed.  "They must be the Duke's, but
what is he up to?"
     "He's become pretty bold lately, since his ships took out
Griffon and Revenge," Drake said softly.  "Maybe we're next on his
list."  Pirotess smiled.
     "Well, we'll just see about that, my friend," she murmured,
taking another sip.  They both looked up as someone approached the
table, Pirotess shifting subtly to give her more room to draw her sword,
but that precaution proved unnecessary.
     "Kirry," Pirotess frowned.  "Why are you back?"  Kirry sat
without being asked and leaned forward.
     "Me an' Kit followed the outlander like you asked, skipper,"
he said quietly.  "We were hanging back, an' it's a good thing too,
'cause we weren't the only ones.  He picked up another tail, two guys.
He must'a made 'em, cause he ducked down an alley an' they went
after.  Kit stayed to see what he could an' I came back to let you
know."  Pirotess frowned.
     "The Duke's men," she mused.
     "No way to know for certain, but it seems likely they're the
same ones watching the tavern," Drake agreed.
     "What?" Kirry asked, vaguely alarmed.  Drake shushed him.
     "But why?" Pirotess asked, puzzled.  "Kirry, they didn't try to
contact the outlander?"  Kirry shook his head.
     "Nope, they were bein' sneaky.  Looked like trouble ta me,
skip."
     "So maybe the boy wasn't a spy," Drake said, sounding mildly
amused.  Pirotess nodded wryly.
     "Yes," she agreed.  "He may have just been a clumsy fool who
led every royal lackey in Trossik right to us.  The difference, Mr.
Drake, is moot, is it not?"
     "I suppose," he sighed.  "You try calling the ship?"
     "Psionics are blocked," she confirmed.  "They must have a
sorcerer."
     "Well, at least they seem to be waiting for us to leave before
moving," Drake observed.  Pirotess nodded.
     "For now, but they won't wait forever.  We need to act while
we still have the initiative.  What we need, Mr. Drake, is a fight."
Drake grinned.  He had a face made for devil-may-care grins.
     "Ah, a little chaos," he nodded.
     "Exactly.  We all split up and make for the ship ..."
     "Split up?" Kirry asked, alarmed again.
     "I don't like that, skip," Drake said solemnly.  "You'd be their
preferred target."
     "Drake," Pirotess said with a sly smile, "I was getting myself
out of scrapes tighter than this when you were still sucking at your
mother's teat."  He grinned again.
     "Ah, I love it when you talk dirty, skip," he sighed.  Then he
turned to Kirry.
     "Kirry," he said, "your mother was a whore."
     "I know that," Kirry said, sounding puzzled.  Drake sighed
again.
     "Work with me, Kirry," he groaned with a pained expression.
Kirry flushed.
     "Oh," he said.  "Gotcha.  Sorry, Drake."  Then Kirry shot to
his feet, slamming his large square hands onto the table.
     "What?" he bellowed.  "Whaddid you say?"  Drake rose
unsteadily, waving his mug around and splashing the contents onto his
hand.
     "You heard me, ugly," he sneered.  "Your mama was a whore
and a lousy one at that!  I know because I HAD HER!"  Kirry was a
large and intimidating man, in contrast to Drake's lean rangy height.
Despite the disparity in sizes, Pirotess knew that if it came to a real
fight, poor Kirry wouldn't stand a chance against Drake's skill, but that
wasn't really the point.  She stood, moving back from the table,
catching Moira's eye as she did so.  The bartender caught the signal
and nodded once.  Pirotess and her people would have help getting out
of the tavern.  After that, all bets were off.
     She watched as Kirry picked Drake up and tossed him onto a
nearby table with a roar.  It was really no challenge to start a fight in a
bar, especially in a crowded one late at night, and she watched as
ripples of violence spread with predictable speed.  Kirry and Drake
were quickly lost to view as the place erupted in booze-fuelled
mayhem.  She slipped around the periphery, trusting that her men
would follow their orders and get clear.
     It came as no surprise when one of the men she'd tagged as
probably being a threat moved subtly to intercept her.  It figured the
watchers would have slipped a few of their men inside the tavern, after
all.  Hopefully they would send even more in when the trouble started,
leaving holes in their perimeter.
     The man manoeuvring close to her was unremarkable, and she
knew that there would be nothing on his person to connect him to the
Duke.  To the casual observer, he would be just another anonymous
man looking for work in a dangerous city.  She kept tabs on him out of
the corner of her eye as she palmed a small dagger from inside her
sash.  In a few seconds, he would be just another anonymous corpse.
     She danced around a flying body, then stepped forward,
pretending to trip, and thrust her dagger up under the shocked man's
breastbone just as he was beginning to withdraw his own dagger from
under his cloak.
     "Terribly sorry," she said sweetly as she stepped away, letting
him fall.  His body disappeared into the milling tangle of bodies as she
moved towards the bar, then slipped behind it.  Moira had the door to
the back ready for her.
     "Sorry about the mess," Pirotess murmured as she slipped past.
     "You can owe me one," Moira sighed.  That was a fact, and
Pirotess would be sure to reward Moira well.  It was the complicity of
people like her that made Trossik friendly territory for renegades like
Pirotess and hostile for the Duke and his ilk.
     Pirotess moved silently through the dark back hallway, her
elven sight penetrating the darkness easily.  She veered away from the
door that led out the back, knowing it would be watched, and eased
her way into the rear storeroom.  There was a hidden door there that
led outside, known only to a few people.  She pressed one tapered ear
to the smooth wood, listening until she was certain that nobody was
near, then triggered the panel.  It swung inward smoothly, and she
slipped out into the cold damp night, easing the panel shut behind her.
     Her caution was warranted, she saw immediately; a shadowy
form was huddled further down the alley, poised beside the rear door.
Ghostlike, she faded back into the gloom, already plotting the best
route to take to reach the cliffdocks, wondering if the enemy had
enough men to cover her ship, too.
     She sensed the sudden gathering of sorcery, and thus had
enough of a warning to dodge the spell.  A net of glittering light
collapsed to the ground where she'd been standing a moment before,
and she cursed under her breath, throwing a handful of small throwing
daggers into the dark as she turned and bolted.  That sorcerer had
nearly had her, and her daggers had clearly missed their mark; a cry of
warning went up, and suddenly pounding feet seemed to be
everywhere.
     Well, the blades had bought her a few precious seconds, and
the spell told her that the enemy wanted her alive.  She had no desire to
be taken by the Duke's men and no compunctions about using lethal
force on them if necessary.  However, there seemed to be quite a lot of
them, and discretion was necessary even for a natural huntress ...
     Come on, then, she thought grimly.  Let us see if you rabble can
catch a running elf in the night.
     She sprang over a stack of barrels and sped silently over the
dirty cobblestones, confused shouting in her wake.

***

     By the time my panic started to subside, I was lost.  That was
the bad news.
     There wasn't any good news.
     The bad guys were in hot pursuit, and presumably they knew
the territory.  Sooner or later I was going to end up running into a dead
end, and then things would get sticky.  As the shock of my close
encounter with the cat began to wear off, I started considering my
options.  I could fight, but that might not be smart against that many
armed men, with who knew how many reinforcements in the area.
They'd mentioned sorcerers, too, so fighting was a last resort.
Escaping to let things cool down was my preferred option, but so far I
hadn't been able to lose the competition.
     I had managed to thin them out a little, though.  They were
strung out in a line, and I began to think about trying to pick off one or
two of the front runners to improve my chances.
     Then another crossbow bolt whistled by my head.  Did I
mention the crossbows?  It couldn't be easy to shoot those things while
running, but I'd nearly been hit twice so far.  My night just kept getting
better and better.
     I put on a burst of speed to get me across a well-lit area and
heard noise ahead.  Either the weather or some premonition of trouble
had cleared the streets, but someone was ahead of me, and I heard the
distinctive sound of metal on metal.  It was hard to tell how far away
the fighting was, because sounds carried strangely in the fog, but I
began to worry I would end up caught between two groups of armed
men.
     Then I skidded around a corner and discovered the fighting
was closer than I'd thought.
     I took it all in within seconds; the unmoving bodies on the cold
street, the dark shapes with gleaming swords swarming out of the fog,
and the beautiful dark elf fighting off two attackers at once while a third
suddenly materialized behind her.  I decided what to do almost before I
was aware, and charged straight in.
     The one behind her was holding his hands out, and that
combined with his appearance made me guess that he was a sorcerer.
I didn't wait for confirmation, though, just blindsided him as I moved in,
sending him soaring into a nearby wall with an ugly thud.  Then I was
moving past a startled Pirotess, slipping under one swordsman's guard
before he could react.  I grabbed his wrist and kicked up, catching him
under the arm and dislocating his shoulder, then continued my motion
by spinning and throwing him into his partner.  They both went down,
and I was looking for a way out.
     "This way!"  It was her, of course, and she darted by me,
sword blade still dark with blood.  I followed, not having any better
ideas, while the two pursuing groups nearly collided.  They took a few
seconds to sort things out, seconds we desperately needed.
     "Well, this doesn't look good, huh?" I asked weakly.  She
didn't answer, just kept scanning the dark buildings around us intently.
It looked like the ambush hadn't done so well against her, assuming that
both groups were together.  I assumed that because it was just too
much to think that I'd managed to get two entirely different groups
trying to kill me in one night.
     I glanced at her as we ran.  I'm very fast, but I was having
almost having trouble keeping up with her.  The way she moved told
me she knew how to fight.  Then again, I could've gotten that message
from the bloody sword and the guys on the street back there.  Four, if I
remembered correctly.
     She flicked the blood from her sword blade with a snap of her
wrist, and sheathed it without breaking stride.  Then, without warning,
she stopped and spun, her hands extended, one held horizontally, the
other vertical above it.  A ball of fire came streaking at us out of the
darkness but splashed against an invisible wall a few feet from us.  I
flinched back, but didn't even feel any heat.  Then she turned and
began running again, and I followed, painfully aware of the sounds of
pursuit.
     "The rooftops," she said abruptly.  "Look for a way to get up
..."  That was a good idea.  The buildings on the left side of the street
were too tall, and the front faces too smooth, but I was willing to bet I
could make second one on the right.  Hell, I WAS betting on it,
because if I was wrong ...
     I pivoted and scooped Pirotess up easily.  Two steps, and I
was in the air.  I couldn't make the roof, not with uncertain footing and
carrying someone, but I had a plan.  I reached the second floor ledge
easily, and though it was small I hit it squarely and sprang again, aiming
for a window ledge above us.  A series of leaps got us to the flat roof,
and I released Pirotess, who gave me a strange look as she got her
footing.
     "Next time, warn me you're going to do that," she said, and I
only then noticed the small but lethal-looking dagger in her hand.  My
face warmed as I flushed and I opened my mouth to say something,
most likely stupid.  She saved me the bother by turning and racing
across the roof.  I shut my mouth and followed.
     Our pursuers may have been close enough to see us go up, but
I was betting none of them was skilled enough to follow even if they
had.  That meant they would have to find a slower way, and meanwhile
we were cutting across several blocks.  Fortunately, we were in an area
where the buildings were of similar heights and close together, and by
the time we reached a gap over a wide street we'd covered a good bit
of ground.  Pirotess led the way to one side of the building so we could
descend into an alley without being seen from the street.  She danced
down nimbly, moving from ledge to ledge until she reached the ground.
I flushed again as I realized she might well have been able to make the
roof back there on her own.
     When I joined her, she had her head cocked, as if listening to
something.  Hell, with those ears, maybe she was.
     "Did we lose them?" I asked in a low voice.
     "I believe so, at least for now," she replied.  "But they do
appear to be out in force."  I grimaced, swallowed, and cleared my
throat.
     "I, ah ... have to apologize," I said, painfully uncomfortable.
She raised one elegant eyebrow, and I plowed on.  "I overheard them
talking earlier, and I guess I sort of ... well, they were following me and
found you.  They were talking about capturing you for some guy they
called "his Grace" ..."
     "The Duke," she nodded.  "Not a surprise.  As for your
clumsiness, I suppose it is preferable to finding out that you were a spy,
although just barely.  Your actions earlier speak well for you, though,
so you might not be entirely hopeless."  I flushed again.  I didn't like
being talked to that way, even if I did sort of deserve it.
     "Give me your cloak," she said firmly.  I blinked.
     "Hah?"
     "Your cloak," she repeated imperiously.  "I am too easily
recognized.  If we are going to risk the streets, and we must, I shall
need to keep a lower profile."  Well, I couldn't argue with that.
Wordlessly, I handed her my cloak, and she slung it over her shoulders
with one graceful motion.  Then she gave me a long look.
     "I suppose you'll do," she said at last.  "They know what you
look like, but you don't stand out TOO badly ..."  I grinned suddenly.
     "Oh, I can fix it so they won't recognize me," I said.  She
looked puzzled.
     "Indeed?" she asked, sounding unconvinced.  I turned and
moved back a little.  There was a weathered old barrel sitting by the
wall, and it was over half full of water.  I could have used water from
the gutters if pressed, but fortunately the water in here looked pretty
clean.  I cupped my hands and began scooping water into my face,
letting it run down my neck and under my shirt until I felt the change.
     "Brrr!" I shivered.  "Damn, that's cold!"  Pirotess was looking
at me with undisguised interest.
     "Now THAT was interesting," she murmured.  "I felt a small
burst of magic, but it didn't come from you ... or rather, you didn't
create it.  It was external ..."
     "A curse," I said.  "Long story."
     "I should think so," she said.  "Still, you might attract the wrong
kind of attention looking like that."  I just looked at her blankly, and the
corner of her mouth twitched up in a smile.
     "At any rate, we should go," she murmured, pulling the hood of
the cloak up.  It did a good job of hiding her features, and together we
moved towards the street.
     "By the way," she said softly, "we haven't been properly
introduced.  My name is Pirotess."
     "Yeah, you said earlier," I replied.  "Ranko Saotome."  I'd
taken to using that name automatically while in girl form.  A little schizo,
maybe, but what the hell.
     "Well, Ranko, shall we run the gauntlet?"
     We stepped out of the alley and joined the late-night traffic.

***

     We walked along the street as if we belonged there.  Pirotess
at least had the cloak; I felt naked without something to cover my face.
That was stupid, of course, since the bad guys hadn't seen my girl form
and would have no way of linking it to the guy they'd followed earlier.
Still, the experience was nerve-wracking.
     Pirotess seemed to have a destination in mind, as she wove
through the fog-shrouded streets.  I'd only been in town a week and
had no idea where we were or where we were going, but Pirotess
didn't seem inclined to talk.
     Trossik seemed to have quite a night-life, I observed as we
walked.  There were people out and about even this late and in this
lousy weather.  Many of them looked disreputable, but then, much of
what went on in this town looked that way to me.
     I had a scare once, when a couple of guys led by Bas came
down the street towards us.  Pirotess kept her face lowered, though,
and Bas only gave me a glance.  Still, I didn't start breathing again until
they had vanished behind us.
     Soon the buildings began to thin out, and I could see bright
lights ahead of us, blurred by the fog.  Some quality of the air told me
that we were approaching a very open space, and just like that I knew
where we were.  The city was built against the edge of a huge cliff
which dropped off hundreds of feet to a river below.  That was where
the airship docks were located.
     "Hey!" I hissed.  Pirotess glanced back at me.
     "Yes?"
     "Are we going for your ship?"
     "Things are too hot to stay here right now," she murmured
quietly.  "I have to get out of town for a while.  I was planning on
leaving soon anyway, so that won't be a problem."
     "Yeah," I whispered, "but won't they be watching the ship?"
She chuckled, a low, throaty sound.
     "Well, you're not as stupid as I thought," she said, bringing
another flustered blush to my cheeks.  "But to answer your question,
yes, so follow me and do what I tell you.  Now let's go."
     Together, we stepped around a storage shed and began
walking toward the docks.  The area was quite large, following the
curve of the cliff edge.  There were lots of warehouse-type buildings
and stacks of boxes, but further out the docks themselves extended
over the end of the cliff so that the airships could pull alongside.  I was
very aware as we walked that there was no longer any ground under
us, and that if the bad guys showed up now we would have our backs
to a very long drop.
     The fog was still pretty thick here, which gave us some cover, but I
knew that would work for anyone watching for us as well.  There were
faint sounds of laughing voices, but in the fog they could have been
coming from anywhere.  Or everywhere.
     I just kept getting jumpier as we walked along, turning and
heading out on one long finger that jutted out into space.  There were
ships docked on each side, hulking shapes in the gloom, but the area
seemed pretty quiet.  Quiet enough that I heard footsteps and was
certain they were following us.
     We came to a berth marked 65B, and paused.  The sound of
feet was definitely coming closer now.
     "What's this?" I asked, glancing over my shoulder.  The lights
strung along the framework above the berths cast pools of light, and we
were standing in one, perfect targets.
     "This is my ship's berth," Pirotess said calmly.  I blinked.
     The berth was empty.
     Several forms appeared out of the fog, moving in a line towards
us, moving cautiously.  What the hell, I thought darkly, they had time.
We weren't going anywhere.
     Or so I thought.
     "Come on," Pirotess said sharply, dashing towards the end of
the dock.  I followed, knowing we were only buying a little time.  Those
behind us quickened their pace but didn't break into a run, which was
smart.  I didn't like that they were being smart.  That didn't bode well.
     All too soon we reached the end of the dock.  The dock itself
was painted yellow, but there was no railing or anything, and I idly
wondered why not.  It was a hell of a long way down if someone
should take a wrong step.  Pirotess paused by the end of the dock, and
I stopped beside her, then turned to look back.  Our pursuers were
catching up in their own good time, and there were more and more of
them coming.  I felt that dark savage lust for battle rising, and fought it
back.  This was a time for thinking, not fighting.  If I let loose now, I
wouldn't be able to stop, and while I didn't mind going down fighting, it
had been my carelessness that had gotten Pirotess into this mess.  I
owed it to her to help her get out.
     Not that I had any clue how to do that.
     "So," I said, striving to sound nonchalant.  "What's the plan?"
     "We jump," she replied.  I blinked.
     "Not funny," I shot back.  The shapes were beginning to
resolve themselves into people, and all of them seemed to be armed.
And there'd probably be more sorcerers, too ...
     "I'm not joking," she said, staring out into the dark beside me
as I watched the trap closing.  She'd thrown her hood back, and I
thought it was a shame such a beautiful woman had to be completely
insane.
     "Quickly," she added, glancing at me.  I narrowed my eyes and
planted my fists on my hips angrily.
     "Look, I don't know what ..." I began.  That was as far as I got
before Pirotess stepped quickly in front of me, gently framed my face
with her hands, and kissed me.
     The bozos chasing us, the fog, the night, even the wastelands,
all vanished from my mind for several long, exquisite moments.  Her
mouth brushed up against mine and clung there, hot and intimate, and
her breath tickled my skin as she nuzzled and pressed, stealing my
breath sweetly.  Her soft, lush lips parted slightly and pulled at my
mouth before retreating, and her hands trailed down my cheeks and
over my shoulders, coming to rest lightly on my chest.
     I focussed on her gorgeous tawny eyes, struggling to remember
how to think, how to BREATHE, and she gave me a sultry smile.
     "Sorry," she breathed.
     And pushed me.
     Before I could react, I was falling, the edge of the dock
receding quickly.  My brain was still trying to get past "wonderful kiss"
to process "long drop" when I found myself caught neatly in a pair of
muscular arms.  A man's face looked down at me, smiling broadly.
     "Well, hello there, beautiful," he grinned.
     "Guh?" I inquired.  I saw something coming down out of the
fog, and turned to see Pirotess being lowered to the deck by another
man.
     "Thank-you, Drake," she said.  "Glad you made it back in one
piece."  He gave her an exaggerated bow, and she turned and started
giving orders.  I realized we were on an airship, and that the guy who'd
caught me still hadn't put me down.
     "Excuse me," I growled.  He just smiled.
     "I'm Jusse," he said in a voice that was probably meant to be
sexy.  It probably would have worked on a real girl, too; he was a
good-looking guy.
     "You can put her down any time, Jusse," Pirotess said from
behind us, and I was sure she was smiling.  Reluctantly, he did so, and I
pulled away from him fast, distantly aware that my legs were much
steadier than they had any right to be.
     "You," I said, pointing at Pirotess.  "You ... that ..."
     "There was no time to argue," she said simply, but her eyes
gleamed with amusement.  I still didn't know whether to be angry or
happy, so I settled for being confused.  It seemed like I did that a lot.
     She headed for the front of the ship, or the bow, or whatever
they called it.  Having no better ideas, I followed her, aware that Jusse
was watching me pretty closely the whole way.  There was a cabin
there, and she went through the door quickly.  I followed, trotting down
a narrow hallway and through another door that led into a large room.
     The front wall of the room was mostly curved window that
looked out over the front of the ship.  There was a curved console with
a big ship's wheel in front of it, covered with levers and switches and
things whose function couldn't even guess at.  A girl about my height
with shoulder-length brown hair was standing at the wheel, and Pirotess
went to stand beside her.
     "How are we doing?" she asked no one in particular.  The guy
with the long blonde hair she'd called Drake answered her.
     "We got most of the provisions in, and nobody got left behind.
That's the good news.  The bad news is Lou didn't get a chance to
finish overhauling number two, and she's pissed that we're underway."
     "She'll get over it," Pirotess said.  She turned to the wall and
pulled a strange, funnel shaped tube from the wall and talked into it.
     "Engine room," she snapped.  A female voice came back a few
seconds later.
     "Kei here," it said cheerfully.
     "We may need to run very soon.  How are my engines?"
There was a thin noise in the background, and the voice came back,
sounding slightly amused.
     "Number two is still running hot, skipper," Kei replied.  "Lou's
still cursing you for leaving dock without warning."  Muffled chuckles
broke out at that around us, and a distant outraged squawking came
from the tube.
     "... she ever let me finish fixing the damned ..." a faint voice
bellowed.
     "She thinks not more than three quarters, skipper, and only for
a short time, or we run the risk of wrecking number two but good,"
another voice, female and husky, added from the tube.
     "I understand, Sonya.  You and Kei be ready, we may see
action soon," Pirotess said just as a whistle came from nearby.  She
replaced the tube and picked up another.
     "Conn," she said.
     "Lookout one, skipper!  We've got a cutter just slipped out of
the docks over by gate six!  Looks fast, and its heading this way!"
     "Keep an eye on it," she advised.  Then she turned to the few
people clustered in the control room.
     "We won't outrun anything with the engines still bollixed," said
a rough-looking character with a patchy beard.
     "We could try to hide in the fog," Drake said.  "Rig for sail.
Without engines, it'd be a lot easier to shield the ship."
     "No," Pirotess said.  "It would take too long, and they're too
close.  They'll be on us soon, and there's no place to hide around
here."
     "The Duke's getting too big for his britches," another young guy
growled, slamming his fist into the wall.  "Taking down Griffon and
Revenge has got him feeling bold.  Hell, if the Council of Provinces gets
wind of the way he's operating in these parts, they'll band together in a
flash!"
     "Possibly," Drake nodded.  "But if we get taken out by another
"raider" in free territory with nothing to link the incident to the
Kingdom, then nobody'll worry too much."  The whistle came again,
and Pirotess answered it.
     "Lookout one, skipper!  The cutter's staying with us and
closing!"  Pirotess racked the tube picked up another.
     "Lookout two," she said.
     "The cutter has far eyes on us, captain," a female voice
reported.
     "Can you block the spell, Melissa?"
     "I'm trying, Captain, but one of the engines is putting out a
strange pulse.  It's playing havoc with my screen, and the cutter is
almost close enough to see us without sorcery."  The voice was
apologetic, and Pirotess bowed her head for a moment.
     "All right," she said finally.  "Forget that and get up to the
deck."
     "Right away," Melissa answered.  Pirotess turned to the others,
and Drake gave her a lopsided grin.
     "Not going to be able to run or hide, huh?" he asked.
     "Hell, it's only one cutter!" the clean-shaven young guy said
with remarkable enthusiasm.
     "I'm glad you feel that way, Tamahome," Pirotess said dryly.
"Because you're going to be leading the first wave."
     "No problem, skipper," he assured her.  She picked up another
tube and held it to her mouth.
     "Now hear this!  All hands, battle stations!  Stand by to repel
boarders!"  She glanced at Drake and he nodded, ducking out with the
Tamahome guy and the rough character trailing.
     "Ease off," she told the girl at the wheel, "but don't let them get
above us."  The girl nodded, and Pirotess came back towards me.
     "Well," she said with a small, enigmatic smile.  "Not quite out of
the woods yet.  But don't worry.  We have done this before."  I didn't
know what to say to that, so I kept quiet and followed her out onto the
deck.  People were appearing from hatches and doorways, mostly
carrying weapons.  I could see some figures up in the rigging with
crossbows and the like, too.  I felt a surge of anticipation.  I'd been
doing too much running tonight, a little voice whispered.  It was time to
fight back.
     And it looked like the time would be soon.

***

     Pirotess strode easily out onto the deck, checking the
disposition of her people with a quick glance.  Drake had everything
well in hand, which didn't surprise her in the least.  That was why he
was her first officer.
     Ranko was behind her, and Pirotess wondered briefly at her
decision to bring the boy (or should that be girl) with her.  Ranko had
really bailed her out back in that street fight, but Pirotess wasn't the sort
to trust people easily.  She'd half-suspected Ranko of playing at some
devious plot, but as things had progressed she'd had plenty of
opportunities to betray Pirotess.  And finally, at the docks, she'd stood
with Pirotess when the Duke's men had been closing in.
     Not really definitive proof, but then at some point trust was
always necessary, and Pirotess's instincts were excellent.  She
suspected that this girl was worthy of her trust.  But she wouldn't wager
the lives of all her people on instinct; she'd be watching the girl during
the fight for signs of treachery.  That was only prudent.
     The faint, low throb of engines came to them, and she caught a
faint glimpse of the cutter's running lights approaching.  If they'd had
both of their engines, she'd have been confident of outrunning even the
sleek cutter, but as it was there was no chance of that.  And she didn't
want to leave the other ship to trail them while calling for
reinforcements.  The Duke was bound to have other untraceable ships
in the territory, and she wasn't willing to let the opposition dictate the
terms of their battle.
     No, if they took out the cutter now, they could limp off into the
dark and fog before the jackals arrived to snap at their heels.  Bold
action was required, and Pirotess was never one to shy away from that.
     "You fought well back on the streets," she murmured to Ranko.
The girl's long red braid snaked gently in the stiffening breeze, and she
smiled slightly.
     "I've been in a few fights," she said, no boast but simply a
statement of fact.
     "Well, you are about to be in another," Pirotess replied,
watching the lights grow nearer.  "If they get close enough to grapple,
try to keep any boarders busy.  Perhaps you should try to memorize as
many faces as possible now so that you know who is on our side.  The
enemy are undoubtedly Royal marines, but they will not be wearing
uniforms."
     "Got it," Ranko said distantly.  Her eyes were focussed on
something distant, and Pirotess knew she wouldn't have to worry about
the girl turning tail.  She seemed to be looking forward to the fight.
     Without warning, a lance of bright light streaked from the other
ship, aimed at their deck.  Pirotess's sorcerers were ready, though, and
the spell bolt splashed against an invisible shield.  Then her people
returned fire with their combat magic, which also met a shield.  They
were still just feeling each other out, though; with both sides having
magic, the battle would end up being won in closer quarters.
     The characteristic throbbing of airship engines grew louder as
the cutter bore in and started to manoeuver to come alongside.  The
archers began firing, and bolts and arrows streaked through the
diminishing distance between the ships.  The boarding party was still
protected behind a shield, though.  She noted the calm and discipline of
the enemy.  That alone would have told her these were no motley
collection of raiders.
     Then grappling lines began to snake out to catch in the rigging
and rails.  Crews ran to cut them, but they had to be careful, because
the sorcerers couldn't protect them all.  More lines flew, and another
intense magical exchange flashed between crews, thunder echoing
loudly over the deck.  Pirotess met Drake's eye briefly; he nodded.  He
was ready to implement the plan.  It had looked good on paper when
he'd proposed it only weeks before, but this would be the first real test.
     More and more lines were coming now, and the two ships
were being drawn together.  Pirotess drew her sword and waited until
the hulls collided with a solid thud, then brandished it high.
     "ATTACK!" she commanded.
     And they did.

***

     All at once, armed men started pouring over the rails and things
got wild.  The sorcerers seemed to be duelling each other for the
moment, so I concentrated on the fighters.  They mostly had swords,
although a few of the bigger men carried axes.  I didn't stop to think,
letting myself leap into the fray.  After all, if this ship went down, I went
down with it.
     I ran into the thick of things, which was probably not too smart.
By that point, though, I was beyond smart.  I felt that dark, savage joy
again, that wild freedom that came from running across the tightrope
with no safety net.  I let myself become lost in the fight.
     The other guys were good, and more than that, they fought as a
unit, supporting each other.  I threw myself through a net of steel and
got close to two swordslingers, sending both flying with spinning kicks
before they could react.  Some animal instinct warned me to duck in
time to avoid losing my head to an axe.  I spun to face a huge, scarred
guy with arms like tree trunks.  He was grinning, and I remembered that
I was in girl form, and probably looked pretty harmless to him.  I let the
fury in my soul out in a burst of wild laughter, and ran straight into him.
The look on his face as I sprinted up his chest was priceless.  I'd left
myself open, but I figured he wasn't likely to expect that move, and that
I'd have enough time to get him before he recovered.
     I'd guessed right.  I arced into the air, coming down solidly on
his head with both feet.  Then, as he was finally beginning to get his axe
up again, I dropped head first inside his guard, planting both hands
firmly on the deck and catching him in the chest with a savage double
kick.  He howled as he flew back, the opposite railing catching his heels
neatly as he toppled over the side.
     I spun again, caught up in the dance, hardly noticing as an
arrow went through one sleeve, drawing a thin line of blood on my
forearm.  I leapt straight over a group of combatants, gambling that
none of them would have time to get a sword up into my back, then
rushed two more who were heading for the forward cabin.
     They didn't last long.  Disappointing.
     But what the hell, there were more where they came from ...

***

     The first wave had broken over the defenders, and now both
sides were engaged in a melee on the deck.  Pirotess engaged a lanky
woman who broke through the general chaos.  The woman was tall and
had good reach, but she couldn't match Pirotess for speed or skill and
found herself run through in short order.
     Pirotess watched for the opportunity they needed.  The enemy
would take any chance they got to storm the cabin and wreck the main
controls or to get below and take out the engines.  If they crippled the
Hawk, then they could retreat and wait for help.  They couldn't be
given that chance.
     And they wouldn't be.  There, she thought triumphantly.  There
it is!  Her people had drawn the invaders deep under the guise of a
sudden collapse, and the enemy had pressed the advantage.  Now they
were slightly overextended, not a serious lapse in a normal fight, but
one which Pirotess intended to exploit.
     She leapt forward, utilizing her innate speed and grace to bound
over the knots of fighters.  She saw Drake leading Lou, Sonya and Kei
in a headlong charge through the enemy, clearing the way through the
weak point with his twin swords.  They met at the rail and leapt across,
boarding the cutter before the enemy knew what was happening.
     There was still a skeleton crew on board, but they were taken
off-guard, and scrambled to engage their unexpected guests.  That was
expected, and Pirotess watched as one of them went down with one of
Sonya's throwing blades in his throat.  Drake moved to cover them,
and Kei tore impatiently at her dress, her green eyes flashing as she
shifted into panther form.  The enraged cat and Drake rushed the crew,
keeping them back as Pirotess moved over to a point on the deck.
     "Lukish, will this do?" she asked.  Lou frowned, a furrow
appearing between her brows as she studied the deck.  Pirotess
thought about telling the shapely young girl that she looked adorable
when she did that, then decided that this was probably not the time.
Lou held a huge broadsword in one hand with no apparent effort, and a
large bundle of cables and spheres in the other as she scanned the
deck.
     "Geez, Lou, hurry up!" Sonya groused, throwing several more
diamond-shaped blades with deadly accuracy.  Pirotess heard a feline
snarl and a scream, and knew that Kei had found a playmate.
     "Here," Lou said finally, pointing.  "That'll be close enough."
     "If it works," Sonya muttered, brushing her long raven hair out
of her face impatiently.
     "I said it would, didn't I?" Lou growled.
     "Ladies," Pirotess said coolly, "not now."  She held her hand
out, palm down, and concentrated.  The air above the deck rippled,
and then the wood shattered, leaving a large hole.  Lou immediately
leaned forward and peered down intently, the wind ruffling her already
tousled mop of collar-length dark hair.
     "Good enough," she pronounced.  She did something to the
bundle in her hand, and it suddenly lit up with flashing lights and began
to hum.  Triumphantly, she held it out and let it drop through the hole.
     "Time to leave," she announced with a grin, hoisting her sword.
They turned and ran back towards the rail, covering fire from the
rigging keeping the cutter's remaining crew at bay.  Sonya turned and
put two fingers between her lips, whistling shrilly, and Kei lifted her
bloodstained muzzle from the body of some unfortunate and bounded
back towards them.  Drake neatly disengaged from his two opponents
and did likewise.
     The operation hadn't taken very long, and the enemy was only
beginning to realize that something had gone very wrong.  Two men ran
over to the hole as Pirotess led her party back over the rail and into the
thick of things.  She noted how the battle was going, pleased to see that
casualties appeared to be at a minimum.
     "How soon?" Drake shouted, laying about himself with twin
gleaming arcs of death.
     "Any minute now!" Lou responded.  Her broadsword cut a
pikeman nearly in two with one swing, and Pirotess engaged another,
taking the pressure off Jusse and Kirry, who'd been holding the path to
the rear hatch alone.
     If the plan didn't work, the enemy would soon reform and dig
in, trying to wear them down.  And every minute they stayed here
increased the chances of a stray spell or arrow getting through, or
something unforseen ruining their chances for escape ...
     A shrill, high pitched noise erupted from behind her, and Lou
howled with glee.  The noise got louder and louder, and snaking lines of
green energy began to crawl over the cutter's deck.  Pirotess allowed
herself a small smile as the enemy began to falter, aware that something
strange was happening.
     "Now, Mr. Drake!" she shouted.  With the crew on the cutter
fully occupied, Drake gave the signal and the Hawk's crew formed up
and began pushing the boarders back towards the rail.  Sonya had
joined the archers in the rigging, and they were concentrating their fire
on the lines that bound the ships together, severing them quickly and
efficiently.
     The cutter was shaking badly now, the tremors being
transmitted through the joined hulls into the Hawk.  The strange green
bolts were more intense, erupting from the front hatch and all the
portholes as well as the hole the boarding team had made.  Several of
their archers jumped from their perches, and more were thrown.  The
Hawk's crew were forcing the boarder's back, and some of them,
seeing their ship was in trouble, had jumped back across.  More were
being forced into the rail, and as the last of the lines was severed those
remaining had to decide whether to take their chances on the stricken
cutter or stay to face overwhelming odds.
     Most jumped across the widening gap.  Those that didn't were cut
down or forced over the edge.  Then the crew watched the cutter as it
began to list badly, intense energy discharges playing over the sleek hull
as it spun down into the fog, finally tumbling out of control toward the
ground below, dark shapes falling from the spinning deck as it went.
     Pirotess took in the scene quickly.  There was some minor
damage to the rigging, and the port rail was broken in a few places, but
they appeared to have weathered the storm yet again.  The wounded
were being attended to, and it didn't appear that they'd lost anyone in
the short but pitched battle.
     "Nice work," she said to Lou, who was standing nearby.  The
tanned girl grinned bashfully.
     "It was really the chief's idea," she demurred.  "Wait'll he hears
that we finally tested it!"  Behind Lou, Sonya was looking amused as
Kei changed back into her human form.  The lovely blonde was naked,
a state that never seemed to bother her.  It was causing something of a
stir amongst the men on deck, though, and Jusse had gallantly fetched
something to cover her with.
     Drake, who was standing behind the three girls, caught her eye
and motioned slightly with his head, and she followed the gesture to see
Ranko standing by the rail.  The red-head was peering down at the
point where the cutter had disappeared, a disquietingly empty look in
her blue eyes.  Her hands were locked around the rail so tightly that
even from this distance Pirotess could see her knuckles whitening, and
blood dripped fitfully from one wrist.
     She knew what point Drake was trying to make.  He'd have
been keeping an eye on the newcomer during the fight as well, after all.
That was one of the things that made him a good first officer.  She
sighed under her breath as she began issuing orders to get them
underway and clear of the area in case reinforcements were on the
way.
     It appeared that Pirotess had once again managed to find
trouble.

***

     "Well?" Pirotess asked.  Drake stretched, running his fingers
through his thick blonde hair in a way that his captain knew had
weakened more than a few female knees.  Not hers, of course.  She
just watched him wryly, wondering if he was deliberately flirting with
her.  With Drake, you just never could tell.
     "Loky is going to be laid up for as long as a week, Annie says.
He took a pretty bad stab wound to the chest.  That was the most
serious injury, so we got off lucky, all things considered.  Lookouts say
no sign of pursuit, and we'll be in the Maze in less than thirty minutes.
After that it should be no problem to find a place to lay low so Lou can
finish fixing number two engine.   She says it should only take about a
day.  Other than that, the old girl's in pretty good shape."  Pirotess
nodded.  Drake just stood in front of her desk, and she favoured him
with a wry smile.
     "Out with it, Drake," she sighed.
     "The girl," he said simply.  She nodded.
     "The girl," she agreed, motioning him to sit.  He did so
gratefully, and she dug a bottle of deep red wine out of a deep drawer,
along with two glasses.  She poured them each one, then sat back in
her chair and sighed.
     "Picking up strays is nothing new for you, skipper," Drake said
after savouring a sip.  "But this one's very big trouble.  Were you
watching her today?"  She nodded.
     "I saw some of her performance," she murmured, cupping the
goblet under her face so she could breathe in the wine's fruity
fragrance.
     "I've seen it before, and you have too," he said wearily.  "That
kid's way out on the edge, skip.  Probably lost whatever it was kept
her world anchored, and now she's out in the borderlands with a
grudge against destiny and a crippled sense of self-preservation."
     "There are hundreds like her out there, Drake," Pirotess
nodded.  "Especially after the war in the south."  Drake grunted and
leaned back, crossing his long legs at the ankle.  His white shirt was
open to the middle of his chest, and was loose enough that he could slip
his hand inside his collar to massage the back of his neck.  The motion
set his long gold earring swinging, sending mesmerizing flashes of light
through its slow arc.
     "Hundreds of soul-scarred people aren't my problem, P," he
said, and Pirotess knew that he wasn't trying to charm her any longer.
"This crew is.  A person like that can get others killed, and you know it.
Where did she come from, anyway?  The last I saw you was slipping
out the back of Moira's."  Pirotess smiled into her drink, then looked
up into Drake's brilliant green eyes.
     "Remember the outlander who started the night's festivities,
Drake?" she asked softly.  "Well, that sweet little red-head is him."
She enjoyed the play of emotions that skittered across Drake's face
before he clamped down.
     "I don't get it," he said finally.
     "Some sort of shape changing curse," she shrugged.  "I didn't
get the details, you understand."
     "And you brought him HERE?" Drake blurted.
     "He saved my hide back in the streets," she told him.  Drake
toyed with his goblet idly, swirling the dark red wine.
     "That's no reason to trust him," he frowned at last.
     "Drake," she chided gently.  "You know me better than that.  I
kept him close because I wanted to pump him, find out who put him on
to us in the first place.  At the docks I had to make a quick decision,
and I decided to bring him on board."
     "Her."
     "Yes, yes.  The fight with those marines was the real test,
however.  If he'd been some sort of spy, I'd have expected him to act
during the confusion."  Drake looked unconvinced.
     "Still ..."
     "I shall be careful, Drake," she sighed, draining her goblet.  The
wine left a warm trail down her throat, and she poured herself some
more.  "But I must admit, this boy ... girl, what have you ... he interests
me."  Drake sat forward, propping his chin in his hand and giving her a
lopsided grin.
     "Uh-oh," he said.  She cocked her head.
     "Yes?"
     "You've got that gleam in your eye, P," he said sadly.  "I know
that gleam.  "Interests" you, eh?"
     "That will do, Mr. Drake," she said a trifle coolly.  He just
grinned that roguish grin of his and stood smoothly.
     "Whatever you say, skipper," he said easily.  "Of course, if you
didn't have that silly rule about not sleeping with your crew, you could
get that gleam in your eye much more often."  She raised an eyebrow.
     "Are you volunteering, Drake?" she asked archly.  He planted
his hands flat on the desk and leaned over until he was staring into her
eyes from only inches away.
     "Ah, the perils I'll risk for this ship," he breathed.  His eyes
were alight with mischief but something else lurked in those verdant
green depths, something solemn and inviting, and she knew that now, as
before, the offer wasn't just a tease.  It was sincere, and all she had to
do was accept.
     But she'd drawn the line herself, and had only her own will to
keep it firm.
     "Go on, my pretty boy," she murmured, her lips curving into a
small smile.  "Go scratch your itch somewhere else.  The whole crew
will be in a lusty mood after that little set-to.  Perhaps the sultry Sonya
will give you a tumble, eh?"  And it wouldn't be the first time, she
added silently.  Drake sighed and straightened up, tossing his long hair
back with a practised gesture.
     "She won't fall for me," he grumbled.  "Apparently, I don't
have the smell of death on me or some such thing."
     "Then I suppose she'll just have to use you for sex and toss you
out when she's done," Pirotess purred, her voice syrupy with
amusement.  Drake threw his hands in the air.
     "Fine," he said.  "Have it your way.  What do you want me to
do about our guest?"
     "I'll handle Ranko," she promised.  Drake gave her a look at
that, and she sat back, lifting her goblet to her lips and crossing her legs
slowly.
     "Good-night, Mr. Drake," she said firmly.  He sighed.
     "Good-night, skip."  He went out, closing the door quietly
behind him, and Pirotess stared at the door vacantly for a time.
     Drake was usually pretty perceptive.  It bothered her that he
thought her judgement might not be sound in the matter of their young
guest.  Granted, Ranko did fascinate her, but if the shape-changing red-
head turned out to be a threat to the ship or her crew, Pirotess would
act to protect her people.
     No matter what.

***

     "It's really nothing," I said for what seemed like the hundredth
time.  The pushy little blonde was having none of that.
     "Shirt," she demanded again.
     "But other people were hurt worse," I protested weakly.  She
shook her head.
     "Listen," she said, her pert little mouth twisted into a stubborn
scowl. "The captain said that I was supposed to examine you and treat
your injuries, and I'm going to do just that.  I've taken care of everyone
else already."
     I could see that I wasn't going to win this argument.  Anyway,
my heart wasn't really in it.  I was feeling strangely empty after two
fights that night.  I knew I wasn't badly hurt, but the ship's doctor
wasn't going to just let it go.  I figured the sooner I got this over with,
the sooner I could get out of here, and began undoing my shirt.
     The doctor smiled cheerfully when she saw I was finally
cooperating.  She was petite, smaller than my girl form, and looked
quite young.  Her hair was a pale blonde that curled in around her
shoulders to frame her pixie-ish face, but was left long in the back.  Her
cheeks were dusted with freckles, and she wore wire-framed glasses
with slightly oval lenses.  These sat down at the end of her upturned
nose, and she looked over them constantly, making me wonder why
she bothered with them in the first place.
     She was wearing what looked like a white lab coat over a high-
necked blouse and long skirt, and she had a stethoscope slung around
her neck.  There were charts on the walls with points on the body
marked out carefully, and a skull perched on one narrow bookshelf.
This was a strange place, but there was no doubt that this girl was really
a doctor, not after I'd watched her patch up the previous patient.
     I undid my sash, then shrugged out of my shirt, sighing at the
slash in the sleeve.  It was dark where it had soaked up my blood, and
I regarded the much-repaired garment ruefully.  This was my favourite
shirt, but its days were numbered.  I sat there in my loose black pants
and the remains of my dark muscle shirt.  I'd torn off the lower part the
previous month to use as a mask against a dust storm, so now the shirt
ended only a few inches below my breasts.  The effect was radically
different than when I wore it as a guy.
     "Here," the blonde, whose name was Anne, said briskly.  She
took the shirt and sash and hung them on a coat rack behind her.
"Honestly, how can you go worrying about a shirt when you're still
bleeding?  Here, let me see."  I didn't remember getting the slash on my
upper arm, although the cut on my opposite forearm had come from an
arrow.  That one had stopped bleeding already, but this cut was deeper
and still seeping.  It hurt, but the pain was vague and distant.
     I thought it should worry me more that I didn't remember how
it had happened, or that I hadn't even bothered to clean the wound, but
it didn't.  I knew the signs by now.  I just had to let it ride.  After a
night's sleep, I'd probably feel more normal.
     Anne had a sure and gentle touch, and she probed the area
around the wound with her cool fingers, seeming to draw the pain
away.  She hmmmed and ahhhed for a few seconds, then lightly placed
her palm over the wound and closed her eyes.  I jerked as a warm
tingling sensation washed across my skin under her hand, and she
frowned.
     "Hold still," she murmured.  I did, staring at the hand.  The
sensation was not at all unpleasant, just unexpected.  Soon it died
away, and she let out a small sound of satisfaction, drawing her hand
away.
     I just stared.  The wound was completely gone; not even a scar
remained.
     Anne got a bottle of something from behind her, turning on her
wheeled stool.  She held a wad of cotton over the mouth of the bottle
and upended it, then swabbed the cool fluid on the narrow clotted
scratch on my other arm.  It stung a little, but once again she was
careful, cleaning the wound with gentle strokes.
     "The other one was deep, and I didn't want to have to worry
about infection," she murmured as she worked.  "But this one's nothing
much, I'll just clean and bandage it.  It'll be good as new in a day or
two."
     "Uh, thanks," I said.  She may have seemed like someone's
bratty little sister, but when she worked she was utterly professional.
True to her word, she smoothed a clean white bandage over the now
neat cut, then sat back.
     "There," she smiled warmly.  I started to stand, but she held her
hand out quickly.
     "Uh-uh, my friend.  I'm not done."  I blinked.
     "Geez, what now?" I asked.
     "Pants," she said.
     "Pardon?"
     "Pants," she repeated clearly.  "Off.  The captain wanted me to
check you over."
     "What for?" I asked, irritated.  Anne tilted her chin down,
gazing at me over her glasses again, her blue eyes gleaming with what
might have been amusement.
     "According to the captain, who is not given to exaggeration,"
she said gravely, "you fight like a madwoman."  I flushed at that.  I
hadn't expected anyone to really notice my state of mind in the middle
of all that.
     "Anyway," Anne continued, "she wanted me to examine you,
so I'm going to.  Pants."
     "You're really pushy, you know that?" I asked huffily.  She
already had my shirt, though, and I couldn't think of any really good
reason to refuse, so I stood and undid the drawstring of my pants, then
loosened the ties around the ankles and whipped them off.
     "Satisfied?" I asked as I handed them to her.  She smiled.
     "Well, you certainly are limber," she noted.  Then she had me
sit back on the padded bed as she looked me over.  She conjured a
light at the end of one fingertip and looked into my eyes while shining it
in, then having me follow it.  It was a weird mix of a normal medical
check-up and magic show.
     She palpitated muscles, then pulled my abbreviated shirt up to
expose my breasts.  I had no feminine modesty, and that didn't bother
me in the least, but then she put her stethoscope against my chest.  One
thing I'd noticed about breasts since I'd started having them from time
to time was that the things were bloody sensitive.  That stethoscope
was cold, and I jumped slightly.
     "Sorry," she murmured.  She took it and warmed it between
her hands, then replaced it.  "Better?"  It was, and I appreciated the
gesture.  My breasts still tingled oddly though, and I began to become
painfully aware of her hands on them.  They weren't just sensitive, they
also felt weird sometimes, and I didn't really want to explore that
avenue right at the moment.  Of course, I picked that moment to
remember Pirotess kissing me, her breasts pressing against mine, and
the delicate but delicious sensations that had evoked in my female
body.  I felt those stupid nipples starting to tighten and stick out, and I
desperately started thinking about baseball.  That usually worked for
the, uh, similar guy-type situation, but it didn't seem to be working here.
     "Sorry, is that still cold?" Anne asked.  I glanced quickly down
to meet her gaze, feeling a blush race all the way to my toes.  She didn't
seem to be making fun of me, though, so I just swallowed.
     "Nuh-no, it's fine," I lied.  She gave a little hmmph of
satisfaction, but her face was down at chest level and her warm breath
brushed across my bare breasts intimately.  I closed my eyes and
cursed silently, trying to swallow past the lump in my throat.
     "This was properly done," she said suddenly.  I opened my
eyes and glanced down to see what she was talking about.
     "Huh?" I asked intelligently.
     "These scars," she murmured, tracing her finger over three thin
white lines that led from my waist up to my breast, following the curve
before they trailed off just at the edge of the areole.  "And these."
Another two traced along my ribs on the opposite side, and I knew
there were a couple more on my back.  "Magically healed?"
     I thought about the autodoc systems that Jack had used to heal
me, and thought that DTF technology was close enough to magic for
me.  I nodded.
     "Not blade marks, though," she muttered, professional curiosity
apparently aroused.  I wondered what she'd say if I told her they'd
been made by demons.
     "Demons," I said.  She nodded as if that was a perfectly
reasonable thing to say.
     "These are troubled times," she sighed.  We sat there in silence
for a moment, then she sat up straight and looked me in the eye.
     "Well, you're in good shape physically," she said, "but I think
this would be a good time to discuss another matter."
     Like what?" I asked suspiciously.
     "Sexual mores."  I blinked.
     "Huh?" I asked, thinking that I must not have heard her right.
She sighed.
     "Ranko, your clothes and accent mark you as an outlander,"
she said with a small, gentle smile.  "Where are you from originally, if I
may ask?"  I paused.
     "Japan," I said finally.  She shrugged.
     "I don't know it, but I'd wager you're a far ways from home."
     "You'd win that bet," I said with a wry smile.  She nodded.
     "The point is, things are different here in the borderlands than
you are probably used to, and that includes things you might not have
considered."  I frowned, not sure I liked the sound of that.
     "Like what?" I asked suspiciously.  She laced her fingers
together and leaned back, chewing her lower lip thoughtfully.
     "Like I said, sexual mores," she said with a wry smile.  "I know
that things are very straightlaced in Gerhas and most of the territories
west, and attitudes are downright oppressive in Kynn.  People from the
west who end up here are usually shocked by how loose things are."
She paused, eyeing me carefully, and I was aware that my face was
hot.  I wasn't sure I wanted to know any more about this.  All I wanted
was to get to the wastelands, for heaven's sake.  Why couldn't my life
ever be easy?
     "I'm just passing through," I said, trying for casual but only
managing to sound ill at ease.  She chuckled.
     "Ranko, nothing gets the libido revved up like facing death and
surviving," she told me.  "I can feel that the engines are off, so we've
likely anchored in some hidden spot for repairs.  Right now, I'll bet you
anything that, except for those on watch, the crew are going at it like
crazed weasels."  I gaped at her, and she giggled again.
     "Oh, dear," she gasped behind one dainty hand.  "I was right.
You are shocked."
     "No," I protested stupidly, since I was.
     "Listen, hon," she sighed.  "The crew is mostly young and very
energetic, and when every fight might be your last people tend to seize
whatever moments of happiness they can.  And this is a VERY happy
bunch, believe me."  I had my hands between my knees and rubbed
them together nervously, glancing up at Anne.
     "Um, doesn't the captain mind?" I asked.  Anne shook her
head.
     "Oh, she's a royal bitch if things are let go, and everybody
knows it.  But as long as everyone's doing their job and the ship's
running smoothly, she doesn't care what they do in their free time.  The
crew respects that, believe me."
     "Huh," I said.  Well, it was her ship.  If that was the way she
wanted to run things, it was none of my business, right?
     "You're probably wondering why I'm bothering to tell you this,
right?" Anne asked, her eyes still looking faintly amused.
     "Actually, uh, kinda.  Yeah."
     "Simple," she smiled.  "You're a very attractive girl, and you're
going to have people propositioning you, men and women both."  My
expression must have been priceless, because I could see her fighting
not to laugh out loud.
     "Like I said, things are very loose in the borderlands," she
smiled.  "People often form groups of three or four, or occasionally
more, for a night of pleasure.  And amongst unattached people,
swapping of partners is common.  I wanted you to know beforehand, in
case you were uncomfortable ... which I can see that you are."
     "Doesn't this cause ... problems?" I asked, flustered.  I'd
thought it was frustrating enough being engaged to four girls at once.  In
this world, I'd have probably been considered normal!
     "You mean, jealousy, fights, that sort of thing?" she asked.
"Not very often, actually.  When it does, it isn't allowed to fester,
though.  The captain's smart about that, too.  For the most part, you
can always find a willing partner for the night, or sleep alone if that's
what you prefer.  You're new, though, and I'm certain there will be a
rush to be the first to ... shall we say, welcome you aboard."  Oh, that
was just marvellous.  I wondered if Pirotess had told anybody about
the curse yet.  That was sure to complicate things even further.
     "I'm really just trying to get somewhere," I said, a trifle
plaintively.  Anne nodded sympathetically.
     "Like I say, that's why we're having this little talk.  I can see
this casual approach to sex is unsettling to you, so I'm going to keep
you under wraps for the time being.  I'll spread the word that you're
nursing an injury and not ... capable.  Okay?"  I nodded, strangely
relieved.
     "Thanks," I muttered.  She smiled brightly.
     "No problem.  The local approach to sex and relationships can
really throw outlanders for a loop ... although some have been known
to, um, go native after being exposed to it."  She giggled again, only to
be interrupted by a knock on the door.  It opened and Pirotess stepped
inside.
     "Well, Anne, how are we doing?" she asked, nodding to me.
     "You heard about Loky?" Anne asked, swivelling to face her.
Pirotess nodded.
     "Yes.  Is he here?" she asked.
     "No, he claimed he'd rest better in his cabin," Anne grinned.  "I
think he just wanted Lissa to nurse him back to health, though."
     "And you, Ranko?" Pirotess asked.  "Are you well?"  I
nodded.
     "It was nothing, the doc took care of it," I told her.
     "Good.  Well, we're safe for the moment, and it is getting late.
We can talk more tomorrow.  There's just one thing I wanted to ask
you first, though."
     "What's that?" I asked, stifling a yawn.  She was right, it was
getting late, and I was beginning to feel it.
     "You came looking for me specifically tonight.  Why?  Who
told you I would chance a run to the wastelands?"  I blinked.  The
question seemed casual enough, but I had the feeling she was very
interested in the answer.  Fortunately for me, there was no reason to lie.
I've never been a very good liar.
     "There was this old guy," I said.  "Vessa-something.  Had one
leg.  I bought him a few drinks ..."
     "Vessallippa?" Pirotess asked, her eyes narrowed.  "The old
man told you I was the one to talk to about something like that?"  There
was definitely something dangerous behind her facade, and I frowned.
     "Well, not exactly," I said, remembering how it had gone.  "I'd
been asking around for a couple of days, and people always shut up
when I mentioned the wastelands, so I ... how did I put it?  Oh, yeah.  I
asked him if there was a ship that I could hire to do something maybe a
little bit risky, because I figured the reason folks wouldn't talk about the
wastelands was they were dangerous or something.  He asked what,
and I said I didn't want to say, but it would pay well, and after another
couple drinks he finally suggested that if I wanted to hire a good ship
and a tough, brave crew I should go to Moira's and talk to the dark elf.
So I did."  Pirotess pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head.
     "Old Vess," she sighed.  "He thinks he owes me a favour, and
keeps trying to send business my way.  And of course, by then you'd
picked up every royal spy in Trossik and you brought them straight to
me."
     "Um, yeah," I said, face warming at the memory.  "I'm real
sorry about that, too.  Now they think that you're a person who'd go
there, huh?"  She looked up at me with a thin smile.
     "Oh, but I am such a person," she said easily.  "And the fates
seem to have put you in my path.  I suppose I'll have to figure out what
to do about that."  I stifled another yawn, and her smile widened.
     "Tomorrow will be soon enough, however," she added.  "It is
late, and you could doubtless use some sleep."
     "At this point, it would be a bad idea to start poking into
cabins," Anne grinned, "since they're probably mostly occupied, and
full of soft sighs in the dark.  You can sleep in here tonight."  She
gestured to the three beds that lined one wall, and I nodded my thanks.
     "Get settled, why don't you?" Pirotess said.  "I need a word
with Anne."  They stepped out into the hall, and I slid off the examining
table and padded over to the beds.  I picked the one on the end and
pulled the covers back, sitting wearily on the firm mattress.  I was kind
of worn out, but with everything that had happened I was still keyed up,
and I knew that sleep wouldn't come easily.  Still, I stretched out on the
bed, letting some of the tension drain from my body.
     And promptly fell asleep.

***

     "So?" Pirotess asked softly.  Anne shrugged.
     "Usually, when I use my power on someone I can tell if they
have any magic.  She doesn't, although there was a strange magical
residue of some sort.  I checked her clothes when I handled them, and
didn't find any message orbs or anything strange.  She does have a
piece of crystal hanging around her neck, but I didn't feel anything from
it either.  She seems to be clean, Captain.  Do you really think she's a
spy?"  Pirotess shook her head.
     "No, but I have to be sure, Anne.  I didn't make it this far by
taking foolish chances."  Anne shrugged.
     "Whatever you say.  Drake seemed to think she was twitchy,
but she seemed fine to me.  A little reserved, and ..."  She smiled,
stifling a giggle.
     "Yes?" Pirotess asked.
     "She's kind of shy," Anne grinned.  "Blushes easily.  If she
stays around, that'll change, though.  Will she be staying, Captain?"
Pirotess shrugged gracefully.
     "It's too early to say, Anne.  But she'd fit right in around here,
wouldn't she?"  Anne agreed, then peered into the infirmary.
     "Well," she whispered.  "Look at this.  She's asleep already."
Pirotess leaned around the door frame and saw that the red-head was,
indeed, asleep, sprawled on one of the narrow beds along the wall.  In
repose she looked even younger and more vulnerable, and Pirotess
suppressed a sigh.  When word of her shape-changing ability got out,
she was going to be one popular girl ... or boy, depending.
     "Don't worry," Anne whispered.  "I'll keep tabs on her
tonight."  Pirotess nodded her thanks.
     "Just another day in the trenches, eh, Anne?"
     "Hey, Captain, at least it's never boring," Anne replied
cheerfully.
     "There is that, Anne," Pirotess replied.  "There is always that."

***

     I slept remarkably well, all things considered.  I did wake up at
one point through the night, sitting upright with cold sweat snaking
down my back and a scream caught in my throat, but that wasn't totally
unusual for me, and since I didn't remember the nightmare I counted
myself lucky and managed to fall back to sleep.
     The porthole was still covered when I woke, so I couldn't tell
how late it was.  I was just finishing dressing when Anne came in with a
tall guy that I recognized.
     "Good morning, Ranko," she beamed.  "How did you sleep?"
     "Fine," I lied.  Well, relatively speaking it had been fine, so I
didn't feel guilty about the lie.
     "Good," she replied.  "This is Drake, he's the ship's first
officer.  Apparently, you two have met."  Oh, yeah.  This was the guy
who'd caught me when I'd been pushed off the dock the previous
night.  He was dressed like many of the people I'd seen, in tight pants
with high boots and a loose white shirt.  A dark green sash was wound
tightly around his waist, and two swords that looked like katana were
sheathed on his left side.
     He had blonde hair that he wore parted in the middle and
pulled back loosely so it framed his face and grazed his shoulders.  It
was waist-length and thick, bound near the end of its length with several
turns of a black ribbon.  That hair looked like it belonged on a woman,
but somehow it didn't make him appear at all effeminate.  His features
were lean and angular, like his body, and I could tell by the way he
moved that he would be dangerous to fight against.
     I also figured that, with his looks, he was probably pretty
popular with the ladies.  I recalled that I was in girl form, and hoped
that he wasn't going to hit on me.
     In vain, as it turned out.
     "Ah, yes," he said, his green eyes sparkling.  "The lovely lady
who fell from the sky.  Aladair Perss Drake, at your service."  Then he
took my hand and, while I was still trying to shake, kissed the back of
it.  I tried not to jump out of my skin and resisted the urge to pound
him.  Barely.  I mean, he WAS the first officer, and I was still stuck on
this ship.
     Instead, I snatched my hand back and rubbed the back on my
shirt, glaring at him as Anne giggled.
     "Ranko Saotome," I said stiffly.  If he was at all surprised by
my reaction, he didn't show it.
     "Drake," Anne teased, "has your legendary charm finally
abandoned you?"
     "Ah, Annie, how cruel," he sighed.  "Don't you know the chase
is the most intriguing part?"  Anne was watching me, and I recalled our
talk from the previous night.  Well, the least I could do was make sure I
only had to fend off the female members of the crew.  Or mostly the
females, if I'd understood her right.
     "Say, doc," I broke in, "do you have any hot water?"  She
glanced at me over her glasses, perched precariously on the tip of her
nose, and nodded.
     "I was just going to make some tea," she said, moving over to a
desk half-hidden behind a folding screen.  "I'll make you some ..."
     "Actually, I just need some hot water," I said, following her.
She frowned as I picked up the kettle.  There was no hot plate, and I
wasn't sure how she'd heated the water, but that didn't matter.  It was
hot enough.
     "Well, I suppose ..." she began hesitantly, then stopped and
gaped when I upended the kettle over my head.  It was still half full
when I handed it back to her, and I noticed she looked even shorter
now.
     "Thanks," I grinned, enjoying the expression on her face.
     "So," Drake mused.  "It's true."  Anne whirled.
     "You knew about this?" she blurted.  He grinned back.
     "Oh, the captain mentioned something about it," he said
breezily.  Anne gave him a cute scowl and turned back to me, leaning
close and adjusting her glasses with one hand.
     "Now, that IS an interesting trick," she murmured, "and one
I've never seen before."  She poked my chest experimentally until I
cleared my throat.
     "Oh.  Sorry," she said sheepishly.  "But I'm curious ..."
     "I'm sure you are, Annie," Drake said, still grinning.  "But our
guest would probably like some breakfast, and then the captain wants
to talk to him, so I'm going to have to spirit him away, all right?"  Anne
scowled again, but Drake hurried me out the door before she could
make much of a protest.
     "We'll stop into the galley and grab something to eat, then we'll
catch up with the captain," he told me as I followed him down the
narrow corridor.  I tugged my damp shirt into place, something nagging
at me as I did so.  After a moment it finally hit me, and I stopped dead.
Drake glanced back over his shoulder and frowned.
     "What's the matter?" he asked.
     "My clothes," I muttered, running my hands over my shirt
carefully.
     "What about them?"
     "They're ... clean.  And ..."  I broke off, confused.  The slash in
my sleeve was gone, and there was no trace of the bloodstain.  Dry, the
blood would have blended fairly well with the dark shirt, which I
supposed was why I hadn't noticed right away.  But there was more.
The shirt had been much mended and a little frayed around the edges,
and now it wasn't.  Examining it closely, I could see that it was like
new.  The pants, too.  Drake chuckled.
     "Oh, that," he said.  "Yeah, the captain had it taken care of
while you slept.  A pretty simple spell, but a useful one for us active
types."  A spell, huh?  That made sense.  Surreptitiously, I ran my
fingers along the inside of my sash, checking for the secret pocket.  It
was still there, apparently unaffected by the nifty little spell.  Good
news.
     And the day got better.  Breakfast was simple but hot, and
there was lots of it.  I ate my fill and felt ready to take on anything,
which as far as I knew was going to be necessary.  Now that I'd had
some time to consider my situation, I wasn't sure how to proceed.  I
was on a fugitive airship with an amorous crew in the middle of
nowhere, and my prospects for getting to the wastelands were getting
worse.  I wanted to broach the subject with Pirotess, find out why
mention of the wastelands caused so much trouble and, more
importantly, if there was anyone she knew of who might be able to take
me there.
     People wandered in and out of the small galley while we were
eating, and most of them seemed surprised to see me.  Understandable,
I suppose, since I'd come on board as a girl.  I didn't recognize all of
them, but then the only time most of the crew had been together had
been during the fight, and I'd been ... preoccupied.
     Oh, come on, that irritating little inner voice mocked.
Preoccupied?  You can do better than that, kid.  You took a little ride
on the Black Rage Express, a train you've been hopping with alarming
regularity of late.  And when you're riding, you don't tend to sweat the
details, do you?  Like watching your back, for instance ...
     I scowled and bit my tongue.  So maybe I got carried away.
So what?  I had all this crap to carry around, and sometimes it got on
top of me, and I needed to let it out.  Fighting was a great way to do
that as far as I was concerned.  After all, I was still breathing, so I must
be doing something right.  And since thinking about it wouldn't change
anything, I was just going to stop thinking about it.
     Oh, good plan, the little voice muttered, but it was fading
already.  Usually the doubts only started making themselves heard
when things were quiet, so it would be a good idea for me to keep
busy.
     After breakfast, Drake took me on a short tour of the ship.
When we went up on deck the first thing I saw was that it was dark.
That was before I realized that I was looking, not at the sky, but at
rock.
     Drake crossed his arms and looked smug as I gaped.  The ship
seemed to be anchored in a huge cave of some sort, with daylight
clearly visible at the opening not far off one side.
     "We'll be safe here while we finish fixing the old girl," he said,
still looking amused.  "We've done this before, you see."  I just
nodded.
     There were lights strung up in the rigging, giving it a strange,
almost ghostly look.  There were people busy all around us, doing all
sorts of things most of which I couldn't figure out.  Two guys were
fixing the rail that had been broken in the previous day's battle, chatting
as they worked but sparing us a glance as we passed.
     "People are curious about you," Drake explained unnecessarily
as we walked toward the forward cabin.  "After all, you came on
board as a girl, but now you're a boy.  Gossip travels faster than
anything on a ship, Ranko.  I'm afraid you're going to be the centre of
attention for a while."
     "Swell," I grunted.  Just what I needed.
     We went into the cabin where a slender girl with long blue hair
was watching over things.  She wasn't the same girl who'd been at the
wheel yesterday, though.  She informed Drake that the captain had
gone below to check on repairs, and he motioned me to follow him as
he went down the nearby ladder.
     Once down, I glanced through an open door to see an
impressive sight.  The front of the ship consisted of several large
windows, and from that room a person would probably have a great
view of the sky and the earth below.  Right now, of course, all I could
see was rock.
     We went back down another narrow passage, then down some
stairs.  Then we walked a bit, then went down some more stairs,
headed towards the back of the ship.  Occasionally we had to squeeze
to the side to let someone get past, but it appeared that most of the
crew was busy upstairs.
     Finally we arrived at a large, hot room that I figured was near
the back of the ship.  Most of the room was taken up by two large
objects that looked like metal cylinders lying on their sides and half
buried in the deck.  They had all sorts of tubes and pipes and things
running into and out of them, and the room itself was filled with more
technical stuff than I'd seen in quite a while.
     We squeezed along one side of the room and caught sight of
some people near one of the cylinders.  Pirotess was there, talking with
an attractive girl with tanned skin and short, dishevelled hair.  She was
wearing baggy overalls open to the waist over a skimpy tank top and
had a smear of grease on one cheek.  Standing near them was another
girl, this one taller with long black hair and pale skin.  She was wearing
tight shorts and a man's white shirt, the shirt tied under her breasts to
reveal an expanse of taut belly and the sleeves rolled up to her elbows.
Despite her clothes and the slightly dingy atmosphere, she managed to
look cool and elegantly sexy.  She caught sight of us approaching, and
smiled, flipping her hair over her shoulder with the back of one hand.
     "Well, Drake," she said, her voice a sensuous purr that suited
her perfectly.  "Good morning."
     "Sonya," he said with a sigh, "do you have to keep stealing my
shirts?"  Her answering smile was full of sweet sin.
     "You popped half the buttons getting my blouse off, tiger," she
murmured.  "I couldn't leave your cabin naked, could I?"
     "Not without causing a riot," he conceded.
     "Anyway," she continued, "it smells like you."
     "I thought I lacked that smell of death you so long for, wench,"
he said with a wry smile.  She sniffed and stuck her delicately arched
nose in the air.
     "You'll do in a pinch," she informed him slyly.  He shook his
head.
     "Nice to know," he replied.  She shifted her gaze to me, and I
suddenly found it hard to swallow.  Being the focus of her attention was
unsettling, yet somehow exciting at the same time, and she smiled as if
she could sense my confusion.
     "Who's your friend?" she asked, and although the pitch of her
voice didn't change a shivery thrill raced down my spine.  Her deep
blue eyes swept over me with brazen interest, lingering on mine and
challenging me to object.
     I didn't.  Of course, that might have been because I could
hardly think at that moment.
     "Ranko Saotome," Drake answered for me, obviously familiar
with Sonya's affect on men.  "You may remember him from yesterday
... except then he was a she, and a red-head to boot."  Something
flickered in Sonya's eyes at that, and her focus on me intensified,
something I would have sworn until that moment was absolutely
impossible.
     "Really," she breathed, her voice playing at the nape of my
neck again like a caress.  "That was you?  How ... intriguing."  She
started towards me, and I wasn't at all surprised to see that her walk
was a slow, languorous strut.
     "Down, girl," Drake cautioned.  She pouted at him, shifting her
attention from me for a moment.
     "Drake," she said, drawing his name out teasingly.  "I'm sure
you have a lot to do.  Why don't you let me show our guest around the
ship?"  He laughed, reaching out to toy with the loose lacings at the
open throat of her shirt.
     "You're going to have to fight to get to the head of the line,
darlin' Sonya," he teased.  "Kimma and Melissa will both want to beat
you there, for starters."  She growled deep in her throat, a disturbingly
feline sound.
     "I can handle them," she said darkly.  Just then Pirotess looked
up from her discussion and caught sight of us.  She waved us over and I
felt a sudden sense of relief.  Drake started walking, but as I made to
follow Sonya stepped directly into my path.
     "Hi," she said with a sultry smile, catching my gaze and holding
it.  "I'm Sonya."
     "Uh, yeah," I said cleverly.  "I mean, uh, Drake said ..."
     "Any plans for later?" she asked, clasping her hands behind her
back and leaning in towards me, her full breasts perilously close to my
chest.  I blinked.
     "Ah, I don't ..."
     "Don't make any," she murmured huskily, "until you talk to me.
Okay?"  I nodded frantically, trying to extricate myself.  Since Sonya
showed no inclination to move and there wasn't much space, I was
forced to squeeze by her.  It seemed to me she made sure to brush
against me more than strictly necessary as I manoeuvred by her, but I
was a little too flustered to be sure.
     "Then it's a date," she purred as I finally managed to get by.  I
swallowed nervously.
     "A ... what?"
     "Don't forget," she smiled, winking and blowing me a kiss off
the first two fingers of her hand.  I ducked my head and trotted to catch
up to Drake.
     "You handled that well," he said, and although he wasn't
looking at me I could tell he was smirking.
     "Drop dead," I suggested blackly.  It had been a long time
since I'd had to deal with a situation like that, and apparently I hadn't
gotten any better at it.
     "I'd say three more hours," girl in the overalls was saying to
Pirotess as we came up.  "I'm still a little worried about that stabilizer,
though.  I've never worked on that system before, Captain."
     "The chief put his faith in you, Lou," Pirotess answered calmly.
"I'm certain the repair will hold."  A brilliant smile blossomed on Lou's
face, transforming her from merely pretty to beautiful.  In fact, there
seemed to be a lot of beautiful women on this ship.
     That thought was strangely disquieting, but I didn't take the
time to wonder why just then.  Pirotess turned to us, inclining her head
slightly.
     "Ah, Ranko.  You've turned back."  I wasn't sure what she
meant at first, until Drake laughed.
     "He poured hot water on his head," the first officer chuckled.
"It was something to see, skip."
     "Indeed," she said, seeming mildly amused herself.  "I trust you
slept well?"  I nodded.
     "Fine, thanks," I said, looking around at the strange machinery.
Lou had turned back to one of the large cylinders and was leaning into
an open panel, tinkering with something inside.  "This is really
something, Captain.  I've never been on one of these ships before.  It's
very, um, impressive."
     "Yes, it is," she said without a trace of modesty.  "That's
Lukish, by the way."
     "Lou," the girl clarified, not looking up from the panel as she
gave me an idle wave.
     "And I believe you've already met Sonya," Pirotess went on,
glancing over at her.  Sonya just cocked her head and smiled at us.  As
I turned back I thought for an instant that Pirotess looked almost
irritated.  Actually, maybe irritated isn't the best word, but her eyes
were slightly narrowed and her characteristic half-smile seemed a little
strained.  Maybe she disapproved of Sonya's flirting, although from
what Anne had told me the night before that seemed unlikely.  Her
expression smoothed out after a moment, though, and she turned to me.
     "Come up to my cabin, Ranko," she said.  "We need to talk."
Together the three of us made our way forward and climbed a narrow
flight of stairs, then wound around some more.  I was thoroughly lost by
the time we reached the captain's cabin.
     It turned out that her cabin was in the bow of the ship.  The
front wall was one large curved window from floor to ceiling, and if we
hadn't been in a cave the view likely would have been spectacular.  The
cabin was fairly roomy, unlike some of the small compartments we'd
passed through on our brief tour, but then being the captain had to have
some perqs, I supposed.  There was a large bed against one wall,
covered with soft pillows and partially obscured by gauzy curtains.
There were dark wood cabinets, a cluttered table, and a few paintings
on the walls, but I didn't get much of a chance to examine these as
Pirotess led us over to a desk.  She sat down behind it and motioned
me to take the chair in front.  Drake stood behind me.  I wondered if
that was deliberate, and figured it probably was.
     "Nice place," I said.  Pirotess gave me that enigmatic little smile
of hers again.
     "Thank-you," she replied.  "Well, Ranko.  Your first trip on an
airship is turning out to be quite an exciting one, and it's only just begun.
Would you care for some coffee?"  I'd never acquired a taste for
coffee, but it seemed only polite to accept.  She nodded, and a few
moments later there was a knock at the door.  Drake went over, and
when he came back he had a tray with cups and a sliver coffeepot on it.
I hadn't seen Pirotess do anything, but maybe she had a button hidden
under her desk.  Or maybe she just had her coffee at this time every
day, and the galley staff was well trained.  She poured some for the two
of us (but again, Drake was left out, taking up his post behind me) and
we sat back and drank.
     "Well," she said at last.  "Now that the pleasantries are over,
we should get down to the matter at hand."  I sipped the coffee to be
polite, and was pleasantly surprised by the taste.  It was wonderful,
unlike any I'd ever had before.
     "And what is that, exactly?" I asked, trying to act casual and
mostly succeeding.  I'd helped them fight, so I supposed that was in my
favour, but I was a stranger here.  The crew seemed pretty closely knit,
and from what I understood they were being chased by, if not the law,
at least someone pretty powerful.  I couldn't expect things to go too
smoothly.
     "As captain, the welfare of this ship and her crew are my
concern," Pirotess said, placing her elbows on the desk.  She laced her
fingers together and balanced her chin lightly on the backs of her hands,
regarding me gravely.  "So I have to ask myself, before we go any
further, whether or not you pose a threat to us."
     "You really think I'm a spy?" I asked.  She shook her head
slightly.
     "Actually, no," she replied.  "I'm fairly certain that you are what
you appear to be, a wandering outlander.  But you needn't be a spy to
endanger my ship, Ranko.  There could be people after you, for
instance.  Or you could be obsessed.  People who seek the forbidden
often are."
     "You mean the wastelands," I said flatly.  She inclined her head
without raising it from her hands.  The lights from the cabin gleamed
softly on her silver earrings as she did so, and I could see twin motes of
light dancing in the depths of her eyes.
     "Yes," she confirmed.  "And your unfamiliarity with the
borderlands could also prove dangerous.  On the other hand, you have
fought beside me twice now, and that is something I do not easily
dismiss.  And there is no place close by where I could put you off the
ship.  I am in something of a dilemma."
     "So what are you going to do, then?" I asked.  No sense in
beating around the bush, I figured.  She gazed into my eyes for a time,
not moving, just looking, and I wondered if she could see right down to
my soul.  I hoped not; there was some pretty ugly stuff way down
there.  Finally she sat up and sighed.
     "I have always trusted my instincts, Ranko," she said at last.
"And as they have always served me well, I am going to trust them in
this matter.  You see, I quite like you.  I think you have great potential.
And so I think you should remain with us for a few days, until we reach
our destination.  After that, well, we can see how things stand."  I
hadn't realized how tense I'd been until she said that and I began to
relax.  So my quest for passage to the wastelands would be delayed a
few days.  After all this time I could wait a few days longer, especially
since I had no choice.  And maybe I could use the time to find out
some information about the object of my quest, since up until now I'd
found out damned little.
     "I appreciate that, Captain Pirotess," I said.  She picked her
chin up off her hands and smiled.
     "You aren't part of my crew," she pointed out, "so it's just
Pirotess."  I nodded.
     "All right.  Um, can you tell me something?"
     "Well, that depends," she replied.  "What is it?"
     "Do you think it'll be possible for me to find passage to the
wastelands from our destination?"  Behind me, Drake made a faint
strangled sound, and Pirotess's eyes gleamed with amusement.
     "My dear Ranko," she murmured, "our destination IS the
wastelands."  I blinked very rapidly, trying to process this as the sound
of poorly muffled laughter came from behind me.
     "I don't get it," I said at last.  "I thought ... I mean, in the
tavern, you said ..."
     "Yes," she smiled.
     "And the old man ..."
     "Had you told him what you were really after, he never would
have sent you to us," she nodded.  "Yes."
     "So then ..." I stammered.  "I mean ... all along, you were going
there anyway?"
     "Exactly," Pirotess told me.  "Although I wasn't about to tell
you when we first met, I am one of the few captains who braves the
treacherous path to the wastelands ... quite in defiance of certain Royal
edicts, I might add.  So it appears you were lucky after all."  I just sat
there, stunned.  Lucky.  Well, why not?  I was about due for some
good luck for a change, wasn't I?  I'd ended up on a ship that would
take me right to the wastelands, and once there ...
     Well, one thing at a time.  For now, I was finally making
progress.
     "Of course," she continued with a sly look, "there is the small
matter of the fee for your passage."  I gaped at her.
     "Wh-what?" I blurted.  "But ... you're already going there!"
She cocked her head.
     "There are expenses to be covered," she pointed out mildly.
"And back at Moira's, you did indicate that you could pay.  I'll give
you a discount for your efforts in repelling the attack yesterday, of
course."
     "Why not just make him part of the crew for the time being,
skip?" Drake asked casually.  Pirotess smiled at him.
     "Oh, I don't think so, Mr. Drake," she said slowly.  "There are
certain ... advantages to being a paying passenger, after all."  I looked
from one to the other, confused.  Drake just stood there with a strange
look on his face, while Pirotess smiled sweetly at him, then turned to me
with a lazy glance that made me tingle.  Something was going on that I
wasn't quite getting, that much I was sure of.
     "Well," I said, fingering the hidden pocket in my sash, "how
much is this going to cost me?"  Pirotess leaned forward with her
characteristic lazy grace and placed one finger against the side of her
jaw.
     "Well, let me see," she said in a low, husky voice.  "How much
have you got?"
     And she smiled.

***

     As a paid passenger, I didn't have to work, which gave me
some time to wander the ship.  I might have volunteered to help
anyway, but I was pretty steamed at the way Pirotess had bled me dry
when she was going to the damned wastelands already.  And I seemed
to draw a fair amount of attention everywhere I went, so when Drake
told me to look around and keep out of the way while they got the ship
ready to go, I was happy to oblige.
     After so many months of maddeningly slow progress, I was
having trouble getting a handle on the sudden whirl of events.  Events
had suddenly accelerated recklessly, and I hadn't had much time to
absorb what was happening.
     I leaned on the rail near the rear cabin and looked around at the
constant activity.  Being in a big cave, there wasn't much else to look
at, truthfully.  In some ways, the Phantom Hawk was like an old sailing
ship.  It had masts and sails, although I didn't know enough about
sailing ships to know if they were set up the same way.  And, for that
matter, they had engines, so why did they need sails?
     There were still people climbing in the rigging, and on top of the
middle mast there was what I thought was called a crow's nest.  It was
enclosed with a glass dome, and anyone up there would have a pretty
incredible view.  I made a mental note to ask the captain if I could go
up there later.  Cats scared me; heights didn't.
     I watched the crew without being obvious about it, and realized
some of them were doing the same to me.  The crew was mostly on the
young side, and looked pretty happy to me.  This was a change from
the grim and desperate folk I'd seen in the small towns between Saeni
and the hilly region where I'd first started hearing rumours of the
wastelands.
     They were pretty talented fighters as a group, too.  During the
boarding attempt, they'd fought together well in close quarters,
supporting each other but not getting in the other guy's way, which is
harder than it sounds.  They seemed like a good group.
     Of course, I was beginning to suspect they were probably
pirates or smugglers or something like that.  After all, they knew where
to hide when the heat was on, and Pirotess had told me that going into
the wastelands was forbidden.  Well, I didn't much care what they
were.  From what I'd seen in my travels, the local governments weren't
all that great either.
     I watched a girl about my age come up from the hatchway near
the rear cabin and walk across the deck.  She had short dark hair
slicked back against her skull, and earrings in the shape of skulls, and
was wearing tight black pants that showed off her legs.  They were
worth showing off, too.  She caught me looking and grinned, winking at
me as she passed.  I flushed and turned back to the rail, suddenly
unsettled.
     No.  Not suddenly.  Now that I started thinking about it, I
could see exactly what it was that was nagging at me.  It was simple,
really, so simple that I hadn't consciously noticed it.
     I was noticing women.  I don't mean just seeing them, but
NOTICING them, the way a guy does.  And it was only now that it
had started again that I was really aware that I had gone a long time
without actually reacting to them.  I'd been in plenty of taverns and inns
and shops since I'd been here, and there had to have been some
attractive women along the way, but somehow after I'd left Nerima that
part of me had just ... shut down.
     And I hadn't really missed it.  At first, I suppose I was too busy
just taking things in, finding all the similarities and differences in each
world I travelled to, always hungry for more experiences to fill the void.
Then I'd ended up here through that broken link, and I'd had other
things on my mind, like the black robed assassins and my quest for an
escape route.  And during those days, if I thought of women I was most
likely to be haunted by the faces of the ones I'd known, the ones who
had died when my world ended, or the ones I'd left behind in that other
Nerima.  Those thoughts had always been sad ones, especially when
the face had been Akane's.  That never failed to bring a tight, throbbing
ache to my chest.
     But now things were starting to change.  I couldn't say for sure
when it had started, but it had come to a head the previous night.  Even
standing there at the rail, I could feel Pirotess against me, her body firm
and warm, and I could taste her mouth soft and hungry against mine.
Until that point, I had only vaguely been aware of her as a woman.  I'd
been more concerned with her fighting style, and with my musings about
trying to wheedle information about the wastelands out of her.  But after
that kiss, I couldn't look at her without seeing a cool yet sensual
woman.
     And it was as if that incident had opened a floodgate.  I
recalled my reactions to Anne's examination the previous night, or the
effortless way Sonya had gotten under my skin in the engine room.
Suddenly, I was painfully aware that I was on a ship full of beautiful
women, and if Anne was to be believed they were all curious about me.
Maybe more than curious.
     And that made me feel ... strange.  My gut tightened when I
thought about it, but the sensation wasn't totally unpleasant.  There was
excitement there, but it was tinged with guilt.  Because, of course, I was
here, thinking about how it had felt to kiss the lovely captain or
checking out the legs of some girl, and Akane was dead forever.  How
could I feel this way?  What kind of an asshole was I, anyway?
     I slammed my fists down on the rail, gritting my teeth until my
jaw ached.
     "You know, Kirry just fixed that rail," a voice said from behind
me.  "He'll be pretty mad if you break it again."
     "Hello, Anne," I said without turning around.  The ship's doctor
seemed the perceptive type to me, and I didn't want her to see my face
just then.  I struggled to control my breathing as she moved up next to
me and gazed out into the gloom of the cavern.
     "This is a nice bolt-hole, don't you think?  We've had to use it
before, of course, and over time we've set it up proper.  There are
niches out there containing emergency supplies and the like.  In a
dangerous world, Ranko, it always pays to be prepared."  I had the
idea that Anne somehow knew I'd needed a few moments to regain my
composure and had given it to me with her small talk.  It made me like
her even more.
     "Yeah, I guess it does," I replied, gratified that my voice was
steady and even.  "Tell me, Anne, do a lot of ships have hideaways like
this one?"  She glanced up at me over her glasses, her eyes sparkling.
     "If they don't, they should," she said with a smile.  "The skies
of the borderlands are hazardous at the best of times."
     "Pirates?" I asked casually.  Her smile widened a little, and I
saw she had dimples.
     "Among other things," she told me.  "The woman who carved
this little border kingdom out of the borderlands was a famous pirate,
after all.  They call her the Pirate Queen.  But there are plenty of other
dangers, too.  And soon, you may get to see some of them."  She
pushed off the rail and nudged me gently.
     "We'll be getting underway in a few minutes," she said.  "Let's
go get a good seat."  I wasn't sure what she was talking about, but I
was game.  The air out on deck was damp and cool, and I wouldn't
mind a chance to get inside.
     Anne led the way toward the forward cabin.  On the way the
dark-haired girl whose legs I'd been admiring earlier passed us.  She
stopped and smiled at me.
     "Hi," she said, her voice low and pleasantly husky.  "Ranko,
right?  I'm Kimma."
     "Kimma's one of our lookouts," Anne explained.
     "That's right," Kimma grinned.  "And there's my office."  She
pointed to the crow's nest at the top of the mast.  "Maybe you'd like to
see the view from up there?"  Her voice was light, teasing, but suddenly
I had a lump in my throat.  Her eyes were large and dark, with a tiny
black mole under the corner of the left one.  She had a nice face, open
and freshly sexy, like the girl next door, and I was tempted to say
something to keep the conversation going, at the same time as I felt a
simmering anger at myself for enjoying her attention.  Luckily, Anne
stepped in and kept me from having to figure out what to do.
     "If we're going to be navigating the Maze, Kimma, you won't
need any distractions up there," the petite doctor said, taking her
glasses off and polishing them with a red patterned cloth from her skirt
pocket.  "Anyway," she continued, holding them up to squint at the
lenses critically, "I'm going to show him the view from the lounge."
     "Pooh," Kimma said with a good-natured competitiveness.
"The view from upstairs is better.  Maybe later?"
     "Uh, yeah, maybe ..." I said weakly.  Kimma flashed me that
engaging grin again and gave us a jaunty wave as she dashed over to
the mast and began climbing with astonishing ease.  I watched her go,
the muscles of her long legs working smoothly under the tight pants ...
     "She does have nice legs," Anne remarked, following my gaze.
I started.
     "What?  I didn't ... I never ... I wasn't looking!" I blurted.
Anne gazed up at me innocently.
     "You weren't?  Goodness, why not?" she asked.  "Every other
healthy male on the ship was."  I felt my cheeks grow warm, and my
mouth opened and closed silently as I tried to think of something to say,
but Anne didn't seem to need an answer.  Instead, she motioned me to
follow and led the way through the door and into the forward cabin.
     I saw Pirotess and the girl with the long blue hair from
yesterday standing near the wheel.  Anne waved at them but didn't
stop, leading us down a narrow hall behind the wheelroom and down a
flight of steep stairs.  I followed silently, and soon we ended up in the
room I'd seen earlier with Drake.  There were padded couches along
the walls and matching chairs that could swivel.  I noticed that all the
furniture was fastened to the floor, though, which made sense on a ship,
even a flying one.  The front half of the room was glass, a large smooth
curve, and I realized that we must be over the captain's cabin.
     "Is it a good idea to have so much glass in the front of the
ship?" I asked.  Anne sat on one of the couches, and I sat in a chair
and swivelled to face her.  If she was surprised that I didn't sit beside
her on the couch she made no sign.
     "Oh, that's not glass," she said.  "It's much stronger.  And
there are armoured shutters that can be closed over it if need be."
     "Oh," I said.  Just then there was a thud, and a faint shudder.
     "That's the anchor coming in," Anne informed me.  "We're
moving."
     And we were.  It was quite something, watching the walls of
the cave slide by, the opening coming slowly into view.  The ship began
to move forward, a subtle throbbing like a distant heartbeat seeming to
fill the air.
     "Lou did a good job on the engines," Anne said.  "The chief'll
be pleased."
     "Chief?"
     "Our chief engineer.  He's taken Lou under his wing.  Says she
has a good aptitude for this sort of work.  You'll meet him later, when
we get where we're going."
     "Oh," I said.  I remembered those engines, remembered how
strange they looked.  This was a very weird place, where people rode
horses and fought with swords and magic but had flying ships with high-
tech engines.
     "Ah, here we go," Anne said.  We slid easily out of the cavern
entrance, and I braced myself for the crunch of an impact even thought
I knew there must be enough room for us to get through.  After all,
we'd gotten in, hadn't we?
     And we got out, too, without hitting anything.  There was an
overhang shielding the cavern entrance, and I wondered if it was even
visible in that shadow.  I supposed it likely wasn't, which would make it
a very handy hiding place.
     Then we were out of that shadow and turning, and my jaw fell
open.  Anne laughed with delight, watching my response.
     "You were below when we entered the Maze last night, so I
knew you hadn't seen it yet," she giggled.  "I'm sorry, but I just had to
see your reaction.  Even veteran aircrew are awed the first time they
see it."  I could see why.  We were in a narrow gorge, rock walls rising
steeply on both sides of us to a narrow band of blue sky far above.
Below, the vanished into darkness.  Ahead of us, the gorge opened out
somewhat, but there was another problem.
     Rocks.  Big, floating rocks.  Boulders, some as big as this ship,
just hung there in space like they'd been given a permission slip
excusing them from gravity.  We sailed past them slowly, some of the
rocks below, some above, and as I watched with eye-popping wonder
we came smoothly around a curve to reveal that those rocks were not
the exception, but the rule.  Ahead of us, more gorges split off from the
one we were in, and everywhere the rogue boulders floated serenely in
the air like islands.
     "What are they?" I asked finally, my voice sounding very small.
"What is this place?"
     "This is the Maze," Pirotess said from behind me.  "And those
rocks, Ranko, have a high concentration of gratite."  I sensed her
moving up to stand beside me, but I still couldn't tear my gaze away
from the surreal scene.
     "Gratite is what lets airships fly," Anne clarified.
     "I thought the engines did that," I said absently.  Pirotess
chuckled.
     "There have been airships for longer than we've had such
things," she said, crossing to sit beside Anne.
     "I thought you'd be at the helm," Anne said, and I thought her
tone was vaguely accusatory.
     "Melissa has done this many times," Pirotess replied lazily.
"She will do just fine without me looking over her shoulder.  Ah, the
benefits of having a well-seasoned crew."  I only half-listened to them
as I watched the scene unfolding before me.  The ship wound its way
through the snaking crevices in the rock, gliding around the floating
obstacles like a fish through water.  Occasionally, the ship would tilt
down or up, but mostly we stayed quite even.
     "She's doing quite a job," Anne admitted reluctantly.  Pirotess
nodded.
     "Yes, she has a sure touch, that one," she murmured.
     "That's what I hear," Anne retorted.
     "Now, Anne, no need to be catty," Pirotess chided, but that
cool amusement was still present in her voice.
     "It was a compliment," Anne grumbled.
     "What's the deal with all these gorges, anyhow?" I asked, not
particularly interested in any rivalry between Melissa and Anne.
     "Ah, yes.  The maze," Pirotess said.  "No one is quite sure how
it came to be, but the fact is that the huge mountain range that runs
through this area is riddled with these deep gorges.  They wander and
connect, and unless you know the way you'll certainly become lost.
There are literally hundreds of miles of pathways, and a great many
hazards as well.  Honest ships avoid this area like the plague."  I
glanced over at her.
     "Really?" I asked dryly.  She gave me that enigmatic smile of
hers that I was becoming so familiar with.
     "Oh, yes," she said.  "But for us, it can be a sanctuary from
marauding Royal Navy ships, and a place to hide or disappear.  I know
the ways of the Maze better than all but perhaps two other people alive
today."
     "And, of course, one must pass the Maze to reach the
wastelands," Anne pointed out.  Pirotess cocked her head.
     "Yes, there is that," she murmured.
     "Can't you just go over these mountains?" I asked.  Pirotess
shook her head.
     "They are very high," she said.  "The winds are deadly, even
for ships with engines.  And, of course, there are the dragons."  I sat up
abruptly.
     "Dragons?" I asked.  Pirotess smiled wryly at my reaction.
     "Oh, yes.  Fortunately, they are few and rarely venture down to
inhabited areas.  Dragons are territorial, though, and do not take kindly
to any who intrude on their space ... although they seem to have no
qualms about traffic down here."
     "Thank the gods," Anne muttered.  I was thinking of Baahnid,
and wondering if he was one of those dragons that hung out topside.
He did know about the wastelands, after all.  If so, would I end up
seeing him again?
     "So the wastelands are on the other side of the Maze?" I
asked.
     "Well, not just beyond," Pirotess said, glancing out the window.
I couldn't blame her; I didn't think it would be possible to get tired of
the view.  "We'll still have to pass Stormwall."
     "Um," I said.  "That sounds ... nasty."  Pirotess turned to me,
her eyes cool and appraising.
     "It is," she said.  "But we have taken its measure many times,
and shall do so again.  The journey is never routine, Ranko."
     "If it's so dangerous, why do you go?" I asked.  Pirotess and
Anne traded glances.
     "Ranko, what do you know about the wastelands?" Pirotess
asked slowly.  I shrugged.
     "Nothing, really," I said, realizing it was true.  "Just the odd
story.  It's a haunted place, cursed, land of despair, stuff like that."
     "Indeed," Pirotess breathed.  "You must have endured a great deal
to travel here from your homeland, risked danger and arrest just to get
there.  And yet you claim to know nothing of the hazards and rewards
of the wastelands?"  I braced one elbow on the padded arm of the
chair and propped my chin in my hand, looking at the cool and graceful
dark elf out of the corner of my eye.
     "Rewards?" I asked.  This was the first time anyone had
suggested to me there might actually be a reason to want to seek out
the wastelands rather than avoid them.
     "Secrets," Anne added.  I just shook my head, still not clear on
what they were talking about.
     "Those who dare the wastelands do so for a reason," Pirotess
said, leaning forward to fix me with her disconcertingly steady gaze.
"Things ... appear in the wastelands.  With neither rhyme nor reason,
they come, and no one knows how, or why."
     "What sort of things?" I asked, the skin on the back of my neck
prickling.  Something in Pirotess's voice seemed to speak directly to
the murky part of my mind, the part that hears a bump in the night and
immediately thinks of hunched forms with glowing eyes.
     "Statues.  Artifacts, strange objects.  I once heard a man claim
to have come across an entire ship with a steel hull lying on its side,
water still running from the keel.  And occasionally, great machines of
unknown purpose are found.  It was from one such that engines like
ours were first brought back to the borderlands."  I stared at her, not
knowing what to say.  In a way, that explained why there was such a
strange mixture of magic and machinery here, but ... but why?  What
WERE the wastelands really?
     "So people go out there, looking for a good find," I said slowly.
Pirotess smiled, but it was a humourless twist of her lips.
     "Those that slip past the Royal Navy Blockade to the north,
and find their way through the Maze, and manage to pass Stormwall,"
she said, her eyes glimmering with some dangerous and barely leashed
emotion.  "The wastes call to some, and whether the call is that of
potential riches, or of mysteries to be confronted and solved, or just of
the unknown to the strange and lonely and unwanted, they answer.
They have always answered.  For a long time, of course, they were left
to their own devices, called fool and mad and worse."
     "Until people started bringing things back with them," Anne
added.  She wasn't looking at us but instead was staring out the
window, almost seeming lost in thought.
     "Oh, yes," Pirotess murmured.  "Some of those things proved
useful.  And some of them could be reproduced, studied by wizards
and scholars and dwarven smiths.  Major discoveries are still rare, but
one such can make a person wealthy beyond belief."
     "For all the good it might do you," Anne said softly.
"Kennesson Trask was glare blind and half dead when he made the
edge of the wastes dragging the engine that ours are based on behind
his team.  His horses all died within days, and he himself was a raving
lunatic.  Nobody could ever get him to tell what had happened to him
out there, not until the day he died six years later.  He used to crouch in
his room and write "THE EYE THAT SEES THE EYE THAT
KNOWS" on everything in sight whenever there was a storm, and he
wouldn't go outside when the moon was full.  But his family set up a
company, and with the expertise of mages and dwarves and knowers
of obscure things, and the backing of a certain pirate who was looking
for a lever to move destiny, they managed to make engines.  And so
our world was changed."
     "Anne Trask," Pirotess said into the silence.  "Funny, I never
realized."  Anne smiled sadly.
     "It's a common enough name in the borderlands," she said
carelessly.  "And really, I have nothing to do with them these days."  I
just sat there, trying to take everything in.  Pirotess glanced at me.
     "Our very own pirate queen put those first engines to good
use," she told me.  "She used her sudden edge in speed and power to
defeat the smaller fleets of the warring tribes and unite the borderlands
under her rule, all those years ago.  Of course the secret of the engines
has spread, as secrets will, but by then she had carved out a kingdom
where there had been only anarchy."
     "All this because of the wastelands," I said numbly.
     "Because of what can be found there," Anne sighed.
     "Yes," Pirotess said softly.  "But wanderers do not always find
their discoveries to their liking.  Men and women have emerged from
the wastes changed, or mad, having seen things ... unspeakable things.
Unearthly things."  I decided this was the best opening I was going to
get, and plunged in.
     "Has anybody ever seen a city out there?" I asked, trying to
hide my eagerness.  Immediately I knew I'd made a mistake.  Anne's
head snapped around, her eyes wide with shock.  Pirotess's dusky skin
went an ashen shade of gray, and she sat back as if I'd hit her.
     "Phantom Saebol," she whispered.  "The City of the Dead."
Then she stood, looking down on me, eyes narrowed with anger and
her mouth set in a tight line.
     "You seek the City of the Dead."  Her tone was accusatory,
and I could only stare up at her in amazement.  "Well?  Do you deny
it?"
     "N-no," I stammered.  "But ..."  She whirled, her white hair
whipping out in a silken arc as she stalked toward the door.
     "I have duties to attend," she said stiffly.
     And then she was gone.
     "Pir ..."  I stood, not knowing if I should go after her, only to
find the decision taken from me as Anne grabbed my arm with both
hands.
     "Don't," she whispered, pulling with all her weight.  She
couldn't have stopped me if I'd wanted to go, but I was uncertain, and
let her hold me back.
     "Don't," she repeated, and I glared down at her, confused and
a little angry for no reason I could name.
     "What the hell was that about?" I asked.  Anne dropped her
hands and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.
     "Let's sit," she suggested.
     "Anne ..."
     "Sit, Ranko.  Sit, and I'll tell you."  She sat, and I followed suit,
once again facing her.  She was wearing a high-necked white blouse
with her long skirt, and she fiddled with the string tie at her throat for a
moment.
     "Listen," she began.  "Phantom Saebol, when it is spoken of at
all, is regarded as a myth buried deep within the haunted wastes.  The
wastes are dangerous enough themselves, of course, but nobody who
has gone into the depths of the wastelands seeking Saebol has ever
returned."  I rubbed my hands together idly, watching her eyes.
     "So why did my mentioning it upset Pirotess so much?" I asked
carefully.  Anne grimaced.
     "It has bad associations for her," she said finally.  "I really
prefer not to say any more about this, Ranko.  Of the crew, only Drake
and myself know about this, and I don't want to betray a confidence."
I opened my mouth to protest, and Anne rushed to speak before I
could.
     "Please, Ranko," she breathed.  "She only reacted that way
because you surprised her.  Hell, you surprised me, too.  And she hates
losing control that way, she really does.  Later, I'm sure she'll
apologize.  She's not angry at you, not really."  She didn't sound too
sure about that, but I wasn't about to argue.  I didn't think Anne would
tell me, and thinking about it I wasn't sure she should.  After all, it was
a secret between the three of them, right?  And I was just a guy hitching
a ride.
     "Okay," I said at last, and she relaxed visibly.  "I'll let it slide.
But can I expect this reaction every time I mention that city?"  Anne
gave me a sober stare.
     "Ranko," she said, "take a word of advice from me: don't
mention it.  To anybody.  If people know you're going to the
wastelands, they already have you pegged as a little eccentric.  But
Phantom Saebol is the heart of the dark, even to people willing to brave
the wastelands.  Most people are afraid to even mention it by name,
lest they call its regard upon themselves and be driven mad."  She sat
back, and I realized with some surprise that she wasn't going to ask me
why I was going there. Maybe, I thought, she's already written me off
as a lost cause.
     Or maybe she thinks she knows the answer.
     "Well," she said reluctantly, "I should get back to work."  She
stood and glanced at me, and for a few moments I thought she was
going to say something else.  But the moment passed, and she left with
a murmured good-bye, and I was alone.
 
***

     I spent the afternoon wandering the ship restlessly.  I went up
on deck for a while and stood at the rail, watching the immense stone
walls slide past as the ship wound its way through the twisted paths of
the Maze, not minding the cold.  The view took my mind off things, at
least for a while, and from time to time one of the crew stopped by to
chat.  They stuck to superficial topics, though, and I had the idea that
nobody would bring up either my past or my future unless I did first.
     I kind of liked that idea.  I wondered if many of the crew had
ended up here, fleeing unhappy pasts, re-inventing themselves as
scrappy airship sailors flying the unfriendly skies of the borderlands.  It
had a certain allure, I couldn't deny that.
 
 

 

++++++
 

     And this is where the first draft ended.