Excerpt from "Dream of the Earthbound" chapter
Ryoga stared forward over the smooth,
unbroken, pristine soil of the lot. The terrain showed
none of the common signs of his training, no craters
from the Breaking Point, no half-submerged objects from
the Graveyard Shift. Certainly none of the massive
blasted excavations caused by the Chain of Despair combo.
"Would you be proud, Akane?" he murmured.
"I haven't used the Shi Shi Hokodan at all since
we talked. I'm not sure it's helping me feel better,
at least, not that part. But knowing you care so much
— that does help. I promise, I won't fail you
With a deep breath and a frown of concentration,
he dropped once more to his knees and braced his palms
against the ground. For a long moment, nothing discernable
happened. Then, with a grumble and a growl, the earth
shuddered, convulsed, and disgorged a large, ragged
chunk of concrete. Ryoga stayed where he was for another
minute, recovering from the exertion of this twist on
the Graveyard Shift. Making the ground swallow that
thing whole had been easy enough. Operating the technique
in reverse… well, he didn't think he'd have it
ready to unleash in a match any time soon.
Especially not with what he could see
of his target even at this distance. Ryoga stood and
walked over to the chunk of cement, taking in all the
details that hadn't been discernable from far away.
The black coating he'd applied to the entire surface
of the object was still the predominant color, but there
were numerous areas of bright gray showing, some in
huge patches, others in scratches or streaks. Each
one of those places represented damage done to the concrete
from the disgorgement technique, an overall level of
damage that would translate to critical injury if this
were used against a person. Ryoga snorted and shook
his head. "If I wanted that, I'd just use
the original like it was designed for." And he
certainly wouldn't be using this variant to give himself
unlimited passage through the earth anytime soon. His
overall toughness might protect him, but he had no intention
of popping out of the earth without his pants in the
middle of a challenge match.
The Lost Boy let out a sigh. He could
see lots of possibilities for this variation, but so
far all the good ones required a level of control that
remained very far off. It didn't help that this training
seemed to exhaust him more quickly than anything he'd
done in years. Ryoga wasn't used to limiting his training
to less than three hours a day. Heck, he hadn't caved
like that during either the Shi Shi Hokodan or the Bakkusai
Tenketsu regimens, no matter how much suffering either
Those memories, particularly the second
set, led his thoughts circling back to something he'd
been trying to avoid. Ryoga shook his head, pulled
out his black permanent marker, and began coloring over
the fresh gouges on his target. Better to focus on
what was before him right now, rather than brood about
Amazons and their threats against Akane. He couldn't
do anything about that right now, so he needed to focus
on what he could do. He needed to train, train hard
and improve himself and reach true mastery and understanding
of these principles as quickly as possible. It was
still a long ways down the road, but the ultimate goal
he'd set his sights on deserved every ounce of effort
he could put toward it.
With the concrete once again completely
blacked out, Ryoga retreated half the length of the
vacant lot and concentrated again. By now it was becoming
a strain even to make the ground perform the initial,
unaltered Graveyard Shift. Then again, perhaps having
less energy could work in his favor. Perhaps it would
be easier to reach the level of control he needed when
he wasn't working with his full strength. Once the
rock was completely submerged to the six inches he'd
chosen for a target depth and the ground was once more
smooth and unblemished, Ryoga took a moment to rest.
He didn't let his concentration falter, but for the
moment he wasn't expending any of his flagging reserves.
"I suggest you leave it there,
The unexpected voice, as dry as the
air of a long-sealed tomb and about as welcome, shattered
Ryoga's focus. He lurched to his feet and spun around,
gaping in dismay at the sight before him. Less than
ten feet away, standing — at least, he guessed
she was standing — on the boundary wall of the
lot was Matriarch Cologne. Blast it all, he thought
he'd be safe here from any prying eyes that knew him
and would report his progress back to Ranma! "Old
woman, what are you doing in Osaka?!"
Cologne didn't bother to roll her eyes,
chuckle, sigh, or in any other way make light of the
usual confusion. "This is Nerima, boy. What's
your third mistake?"
"What? My third…?"
Ryoga let the question trail away into meaninglessness.
No doubt she was just trying to mess with his head.
"Never mind your questions, I've got one of my
own! Is it true that you and Shampoo had some kind
of potion delivered out here from China, that'll turn
Akane or Ukyo into cats just like a one-use Jusenkyo
"It's a powder, not a potion;
a one-use curse is exactly what it is; my great-granddaughter
did it without consulting me; she intends to use the
Instant Sloth variety on Akane rather than Instant Cat;
she will only go to such a length if it proves necessary;
and she chose this as a deterrent from either of them
using her own curse against her. Ukyo Kuonji resorted
to that tactic in a battle with my Shampoo, and received
her repayment four days ago. Akane Tendo has not yet
done so, at least not since Shampoo exchanged curses,
and therefore remains unchanged."
Ryoga's hands clenched into fists.
His teeth glinted in the morning as he snarled, "You
tell your Shampoo to stay away from Akane!"
In the blink of an eye Cologne crossed
the distance separating them and gave him a painful
thwap. "Weren't you listening, boy? I said as
plainly as day that Akane is only at risk if she first
engages in dishonorable, unfair, unworthy tactics!
Or do you think it's perfectly all right for someone
to win a victory through such a method, as long as it's
Akane Tendo who is doing it?"
"Like Shampoo wouldn't provoke
her into it if she wanted to get justification to do
it afterward," Ryoga grumbled back, forcing himself
to use a milder tone. He wasn't mollified in the slightest,
but for now it seemed wise to let discretion prove the
better part of valor.
"Bah. Surely even a love-blinded
fool like you can give my great-granddaughter the barest
minimum of credit. Even if you think she would resort
to such tactics in a heartbeat if it were only a question
of her own desires, you must know that she doesn't want
to look bad to her beloved husband."
Ryoga snorted. "Like he'd care.
That jerk has never once let himself see how great Akane
really is, how she deserves to be treated. He'd probably
just laugh if Shampoo did that, at least if she used
the Sloth stuff rather than the Cat." He forced
the glare away from his face, replacing it with a mask
of determination. "But I'm not like that, I won't
just sit back and let Shampoo or Ranma or anyone treat
her like that! I'll fight your great-granddaughter
if it comes to that, old woman. I'm sure you'll see
her again before I will, so make sure she knows."
Cologne's eyes narrowed. "Are
you sure you want that, boy? Want me to tell my great-granddaughter
that Ryoga Hibiki has declared she can't even defend
herself from those who would turn her curse against
her? Excuse me, not everyone, merely the one person
who's always been willing to do just that?" She
hesitated for a moment, teetering on the edge of two
very different rebukes. It would be easy enough to
let her anger rise into flames, the anger Ryoga's unthinking
Akane-can-do-no-wrong attitude had sparked even in one
as controlled as her. Easy enough to remind him that
taking this tone was a very bad idea when they hadn't
yet received, let alone passed along, the Nannichuan
that Shampoo had ordered for him.
Ryoga took a half step backward, feeling
a surge of anxiety mix with his anger as for a second
the Matriarch's eyes seemed to burn. Then, in the instant
of an eyeblink, that was gone, and suddenly the ancient
figure in front of him was more recognizably an old
woman than he could ever remember seeing. A woman old
almost beyond his concept of the term, worn and shrunken
"Do you really believe that, Ryoga
Hibiki?" Cologne asked quietly, staring at him
with a gaze that Ryoga found it impossible to hold for
long. "That Akane Tendo can do no wrong? That
no matter what she does, it's okay because she's the
one doing it? That she must always be shielded from
the consequences of her actions? That my great-granddaughter's
plan, one designed to teach empathy and understanding
of what a curse victim goes through, is such a horrible
travesty? That Akane must never, ever suffer any such
inconvenience, no matter how many times she takes
advantage of the true curse Shampoo bears?" She
paused for a few moments, regarding him. "Well,
do you?" she snapped.
"…No," Ryoga was forced
to admit, in a small, grudging voice. "But that
doesn't mean it's all right for Shampoo to just drop
something like that on her out of the blue! At least
she needs to tell Akane why she would do it, heck, even
give Akane the chance to deliberately use one of those
powders herself to figure out what it's like!"
"She has already requested that
my son-in-law give all those details to Akane Tendo,
that she would have fair warning." Cologne paused
for another moment, scrutinizing Ryoga even more closely.
He seemed to be experiencing a mixture of relief, doubt,
and concern. If there was any anger at the thought
that Ukyo Kuonji had received no such consideration,
she couldn't find it. Truth be told, she wasn't surprised.
At least this reaction was better than some he might
have made. "Perhaps if Miss Tendo is so kind and
sweet, such an all-around treasure as you believe, she'll
come up with the idea herself to try out a curse."
Ryoga was already shaking his head.
"Yeah, right, like Ranma will manage to explain
any of this good enough for her to really understand.
She'll be lucky if he only insults her enough to ruin
half her day." That thought sparked another.
"Um… Granny?" he asked tentatively.
"I'd do a much better job than Ranma, I'm sure
of it. Do you think you could lead me back to the Tendo
"Perhaps. Right now I have more
important things to discuss with you," she replied.
Besides, if Ranma knew what was good for him he would
already have communicated these things to Akane.
"Can't they wait?" he asked
piteously. "I haven't seen her in so long…
I finally made it back to her home the other day, but
she was in the dojo training and I missed her then!
When I heard about what Shampoo was going to do, I got
so mad I ran out to find her and warn her to back off,
and of course I got lost right away…" he
stumbled to a halt as he realized that, although it
certainly was a tragic story designed to raise pity
in the heart of the average listener, he might have
been better off omitting certain details when he was
telling it to Cologne. "Er… I mean…"
"So you learned of this at the
Tendo home," Cologne said, giving him a long, careful
look. It sent chills running up and down Ryoga's spine,
even though somehow the fear didn't seem to be directed
toward himself. "Do you think Nabiki Tendo was
deliberately trying to run you off, by using such a
Ryoga made a disgusted sound. "If
she didn't want me around, all she'd have to do is splash
me, grab me, and throw me up into the sky. It'd take
me another week just to find hot water, probably."
At least, without the soap Kasumi had given him. "I
figure she was just getting a few more kicks, by hitting
me where it hurt." He waited a few moments, seeing
if Cologne would reply. She remained thoughtfully silent,
showing no signs of ire at his previous unfortunate
choice of words. He gulped, and asked again, "So…
could you please lead me over to the Tendo place? We
can talk afterward, if you want."
"Ryoga, it's ten a.m. on a Tuesday,"
the Matriarch stated flatly. "Akane is in the
middle of class right now. Trust me, boy, you've got
nothing better to do right now than listen to one last
lesson from me."
The Lost Boy glared up at the sun,
as if it were one of the long line of conspirators who'd
worked against him over the years. It declined to shift
through an eighty degree arc to suit his convenience,
and so he sighed and said, "All right. What did
you want to talk about?" His brow creasing ever
so slightly, he added, "And what did you mean,
the last lesson?"
Cologne opted to open with actions
rather than words. She turned away from Ryoga to gaze
across the expanse of the lot. Extending her staff
and placing the knobby end on the ground, the Matriarch
closed her eyes and concentrated. For a long moment
nothing visible happened… and then, slowly and
smoothly, the blackened chunk of concrete rose from
the depths of the earth.
"You're actually going to help
me with this?" Ryoga breathed, uncertain as to
why he'd receive such a stroke of fortune. Even from
this distance, he could see that this time the concrete
hadn't suffered any large gouges or scrapes. "I…
I would really appreciate it."
"Don't misunderstand me,"
Cologne returned in a tone that brooked no argument.
"And don't jump the gun either, boy. Take a closer
look." Ryoga's eyes bulged as the broken slab
suddenly levitated into the air and floated over toward
them. The sight was in no way comparable to what the
Tendo family had witnessed when Cologne unleashed the
Fist of the Ice Bear, but Ryoga had been in Sapporo
at the time. To him, the sight of eighty pounds of
solid mass floating through the air was daunting enough.
As the concrete settled down at his feet and Cologne
gestured for him to examine it, he pushed aside his
trepidation and complied.
From this distance, he could see that
the chunk hadn't come through undamaged after all.
There were numerous small scratches and nicks speckled
over the block, though none were large enough to detect
at the original distance. "Um, what did you want
me to see?" he asked, unsure what the old woman's
point could be. "That's about a dozen times better
than I was doing."
"It's also the best I can do with
three centuries of experience under my belt," Cologne
retorted. "My personal style is Air, not Earth.
In my youth I knew a master of that school, and he could
have brought that thing out of the ground larger and
stronger than when it went in, by mixing the soil and
stone of the earth itself into the concrete."
"Whoah," Ryoga breathed,
glimpsing vistas he hadn't yet dreamed of.
Cologne's staff against his head brought
him back to reality, though the Matriarch used just
enough force to regain his attention, not to actually
dish out pain. "As Matriarch of the Chinese Amazons,
I have at least heard of all major techniques and styles
that our people collected or developed over three thousand
years. I've learned as many as my personal limits allow.
But with the elemental styles, it is impossible for
anyone to master more than one of them, because of the
nature of chi in general and the human aura in particular."
"So you know some stuff about
what I'm trying to learn, but you can't teach me anything
really big," Ryoga said. "I still don't get
why you thought that was so important. Even whatever
you do know and can pass on to me would be a lot of
"Boy, what we have here is a failure
to communicate," Cologne pronounced. "I want
you to think back to the one lesson I taught you directly."
"The Breaking Point," he
said. "That's an earth technique, isn't it?"
It was something he'd been suspecting lately, a suspicion
that had moved closer and closer to certainty with all
his recent training in the Graveyard Shift and its potential
variations. Cologne certainly hadn't taught it like
that, hadn't said any of the things he'd learned for
the Graveyard Shift about focusing his own strength
and self into the rock he was trying to affect. Then
again, he could understand why the Amazons taught the
Bakkusai Tenketsu like they did; his training for the
Graveyard Shift hadn't had any kind of secondary physical
"Ah, you do remember. Now draw
your mind back just a bit… not quite as far back
as the training itself, think of your battle with my
son-in-law and its aftermath. I haven't forgotten,"
Cologne said quietly, ominously, dangerously. "I
remember all too well the image of you charging him
with your finger outstretched, as if to trigger his
own bloody exploding death. I recall a piglet squealing
in fury when I revealed that the earth's body is the
only one the technique affects."
Ryoga said nothing in reply. Cologne
didn't allow him to get away with silence forever, though.
"Have you forgotten, Ryoga? Do you still resent
that the move doesn't do everything you assumed it did?"
"No," he muttered, and fell
silent once more.
"Do you hold a grudge at me for
letting you think what you did?"
"No. But…" he struggled
for a few more moments, not sure that what he was about
to say was true. Cologne merely stared at him, letting
the silence stretch until he continued, "But I
would like to know why."
"Certainly," Cologne returned
in a silky smooth voice that immediately made Ryoga
certain he shouldn't have asked. "It was a test.
Much like the one I set for my son-in-law, when I shared
with him the secret of the Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken.
That is, those two situations are similar in my motivations
and goals, that each time I was laying a challenge before
a talented young warrior to see how he fared."
She pinned him with the most intense stare Ryoga had
experienced in a long time. "Ranma passed. You
Ryoga hung his head. "Yeah, I
guess I can see that," he said quietly. The mistakes
that Ranma had forced him to acknowledge weren't the
only ones he'd faced up to since that fight. "For
what it's worth, I'm sorry. I am still glad of the
gift you gave me, though."
"It is the last such gift you
will receive from the Chinese Amazons," Cologne
pronounced. In the privacy of her own mind, she continued,
'Unless you go to truly heroic lengths to overcome
the poor start you made.' Frankly, his reaction
to the most recent twist of this conversation was more
than she'd hoped for, offering the barest glimmer of
light to Cologne that he might be redeemable for her
purposes after all, that a few years of work might see
him worthy of the kind of trust she'd like to be able
to place in him.
Perhaps she could lay a little more
groundwork for that possible redemption now. "Remember
what I said a while ago about my people collecting styles,
secrets, and techniques? It's one of the higher-honored
positions in our society. We owe a great debt to the
ones who carry out that task, who travel over the world
seeking new or forgotten elements of the Art, arcane
lore, artifacts too dangerous to allow ordinary people
to get their hands on them, that sort of thing. I believed
it would be a good fit for you, Ryoga. That it would
work well for everyone to take you back to the village,
give you a few years of stability to grow and find a
girl or two who were a good match for you, then let
you go forth as a family to stumble over knowledge and
artifacts for a greater, worthwhile purpose."
Ryoga wasn't sure just what to think
of that. No end to his journeys… but companionship
along them? He shook his head, forcefully discarding
the idea since it obviously wasn't an option any longer.
Wanting to change the subject to one less painful, not
to mention less personal, he replied, "You said
you tested me and Ranma both. Is that what you're planning
for him and Shampoo?"
"I'm not making any plans that
detailed for their future together," Cologne replied.
"If you want to know whether I think it's a good
choice for them, then the answer is yes. But they will
find their own way together as they learn new things
and grow stronger, whether that's in our home village,
abroad as they journey, here in Japan if we decide to
found a new outpost of the Joketsuzoku in Nerima, or
perhaps some path that they'll chart all on their own."
"Maybe you ought to tell Ranma
that," Ryoga suggested. Anything that got the
pigtailed paragon of pride away from Akane for good
sounded good to him. "If he's really got that
kind of freedom and choices waiting for him with Shampoo,
I don't think he knows it yet."
"All in good time," Cologne
replied. "That's something that should develop
naturally, as he and Shampoo talk about their hopes
and dreams for the future. Too much interference on
my part will only be counterproductive."
Ryoga blinked in mild disorientation,
caught off-guard by this attitude. 'Maybe I've spent
too much time around Akane's and Ranma's dads.'
"I generally only step in when
I know there's something real to be gained," the
Matriarch continued briskly, moving the conversation
back to the point she'd originally intended to make.
"Such as not allowing my son-in-law to lose a valuable
rival and sometime-ally to a preventable training accident."
"Huh? What's that supposed to
Cologne gestured first toward the block
of concrete, then to the ground in general. "I
mean I may not have any real strength in the Earth style,
which you must know by now is what you're stumbling
and groping toward, but I know enough of the secrets
of chi and the human body's use of it to know just how
close to the edge you were walking." She braced
the tip of her staff against the ground and vaulted
to its head, the better to look him in the eye. "Without
proper training, without the oversight of a true master
of the style, you can injure or kill yourself by pushing
too far too fast. It's true of all four elemental schools,
and in fact it's the case for any set of techniques
at this level. You're taking your first true steps
up to the next stage of mastery, when you begin to understand
the force of life itself, when you learn things that
can extend your lifespan immeasurably and give you strength
enough to shake the world around you."
Impossibly the Matriarch's gaze intensified.
Ryoga would have taken a step back if he wasn't paralyzed
like a bird by the gaze of a snake (with the small but
crucial difference that this 'snake' was working in
the bird's best interests). "Do you understand
me now? For your own sake, don't rush into this. There's
no-one to guide you, Ryoga, by Chinese Amazon law and
the choices you yourself made, I can't give you more
than this. You're on your own, in a situation where
there's no shame in taking baby steps. Quite the opposite
in fact; it would be a shame indeed if Ranma lost one
of his most valuable comrades." Cologne paused
for emphasis, then said, "If Akane lost her most
"A-Akane," he managed through
a mouth dry as cotton. "I… I wanted to teach
her these things too, once I mastered them enough."
"If you're willing to hear an
old woman's words of wisdom, then let me suggest you
hold off on that for at least five years," Cologne
returned. "That should give you time enough to
learn what you need, let you teach her without putting
her at risk." 'Hopefully it will also be long
enough for her to get over losing Ranma to Shampoo,
move past the bitterness and sorrow, and grow to be
a better person because of it.'