Black Cat

Ellen Kuhfeld

As Ranma screamed and fell to the ground, Akane and Shampoo shook off their surprise and attacked – Akane to the right, Shampoo to the left. From behind there was another scream, a very angry one, and Ranma-neko leaped forward as well. Suddenly the strange Postal creature was surrounded, with bonbori coming from one side, a mallet from another, and sharp, sharp claws from the front.

Postal leaned to one side and avoided the mallet; but moved into Shampoo's range and was struck high and low with bonbori. Since they were coming from opposite directions, this flipped her legs from beneath her, and she fell hard on her left side. Ranma's claws raked across her side, gouging pieces out of her hip. Even as Postal landed, the pieces of hip were slithering across the street towards her; once they got close, they jumped through the air and rejoined their mistress. Shampoo's bonbori had broken Postal's right arm – but even before she landed, it straightened out, and was good again. Postal leaped into the air and counterattacked, throwing razor-sharp postcards, trying to break past Shampoo to claim the crystal floating in midair. This time, Ranma's claws took the lower portion of a leg off, and both Shampoo and Akane missed their strikes; but they dodged the postcards, having had experience with Ryoga's bandannas.

"Monster not alive!" Shampoo shouted. "Just mailbox somebody use alchemy on! No ki at all!" And she drove back in, throwing one bonbori at the creature's stomach, then when it doubled over, getting its head with a two-handed swipe of the other. Postal's head was ripped off, hit the wall of a drugstore above the display window, and bounced into the street – then flew up, rejoined the neck, and healed back in place.

Postal had somehow managed to avoid every strike of the mallet. A blue-green aura shimmered around Akane. "Postal no baka!" she howled, and swung again. She missed, but drove the transformed postbox towards Ranma-neko. Ranma took off Postal's left hand, and it bounced on the street – but this time, Akane was ready. "Try this then!" she bellowed as her mallet came down on the returning hand.

The creature screamed. "Aaiiiii – postal postal POSTAL!" and the 'hand' turned into a carved-off slice of postbox. It stopped scuttling back to its mistress, and lay motionless in the street. Akane and Shampoo looked at it. Ranma kept on attacking.

Now that they knew the trick, Shampoo concentrated on driving the creature towards Ranma-neko while Akane played whack-a-mole with the severed bits. In less than ten seconds, Postal lay on the ground whimpering "postal postal postal …" with no arms and legs at all. Shampoo smashed her bonbori into its face, and while its vision was obscured, Akane delivered a tremendous blow to the black star on its bosom. And the 'woman' transformed into a tattered remnant of a postbox, lying silent and leaking letters. The crystal hovered in the air. Ranma-neko prowled around the box, looking for her enemy, hoping for more of a fight. Akane stood panting, then sat with a loud "whoooff" on the curb, going slack as a berserk often does after the fight. Her mallet disappeared.

Ranma-neko looked around. Enemy gone – and that lap looked familiar. She trotted over, butted her shoulder up against Akane's side, and curled on her lap, purring. Akane put her arms around Ranma and slumped against her. Shampoo stowed away her bonbori with a look of fierce satisfaction, then looked about. Not much property damage, and all the bystanders had gotten out of range as quickly as they could. A good, swift battle.

In the street, a withered seed-pod emerged from the side of the postbox, fell to the ground, and broke open. A dark mist emerged, took spectral form for a moment, then dissipated.

"Quickly!" said a woman's voice. "Put the crystal gently against her chest. It's the only way to save her."

Nobody was there, but the voice came from the direction of a nearby Toyota; and Shampoo saw the glint of eyes beneath. She leaped into the air, twisted as she flew over the car, and came down nearly horizontal, toes and left hand taking the impact while her right hand swept beneath the car. There was a startled yowl, and Shampoo found herself holding a black cat by the scruff of its neck – a black cat with a golden crescent moon on its forehead.

"Aiyah," Shampoo said. "Moon on forehead? Amazon legend say Moon Cat belong to Goddess, able talk. You talk, tell me use crystal? Tell more!" She shook the cat gently. The cat sweatdropped.

Quickly, the black cat decided. "Take the crystal, hold it against your friend's chest over her heart, and she'll re-absorb it. Those creatures capture people's soul essences and take them to their master for use in evil spells. If your friend doesn't get hers back, she'll die!"

Shampoo knew cats. This animal was speaking truth. She brought the crystal to Ranma and Akane. Akane scratched Ranma-neko's shoulder; she purred, and rolled to show her tummy and chest. Shampoo put the crystal over her heart. It sank slowly into Ranma, who stilled and stretched, and spoke. "Akane? I'm so tired …" and fell asleep.

"She'll be fine after a couple hours' rest," the cat said. "Now could you put me down?"

"Only if Cat-san promise not run away. We need talk."

"Let's talk somewhere else. People are already coming back to see what happened. Pretty soon the police will be here. Would you enjoy telling policemen why you were beating up a mailbox?" The cat smirked. This issue had come up in her life before.

Shampoo set the cat down. "Akane tired. Put Ranma on Shampoo's back, you take cat. We get moving." Akane lifted Ranma onto Shampoo; Ranma wriggled a bit closer, then went thoroughly back to sleep with her arms snugged around Shampoo's shoulders. Akane took the cat and they headed away, dodging around gawkers and pedestrians, avoiding a line towards Nerima just in case somebody was paying notice. After ten minutes and several kilometers of jinking down side-streets and leaping the occasional wall or roof, they found a small park and settled on a bench. Shampoo set Ranma down, then she and Akane sat either side of her. Ranma leaned against Akane and gave a delicate snore. The black cat jumped into Shampoo's lap.

"You know this monster, Cat-san?" Shampoo asked. "This first time we meet one."

"The monster is called a daimohn. They've been showing up for a week or two now in Juuban – I'm advisor to a group that's battling them. I must say, I've never seen one taken down as fast as you three did."

"Monster stupid, get in fight with Amazons. Amazon womens too, too good fighters."

"The red-haired girl," the cat said. "How could she keep fighting? Once a daimohn takes somebody's heart crystal, they collapse."

"Ranma has two souls," Akane said, "human and cat. The monster got her human soul. That upset the cat soul, and it's a deadly fighter." A pleased and surprised expression crossed the cat's face.

"Look," said the cat, "I think we should try working together. My name is Luna, but I'm only an advisor. I have to check with my Princess first. Is there some way I can get in touch with you?"

"Visit Cat Café in Nerima – is one place we meet. Can make at 9 in evening tomorrow?"

"I'll be there. Even if we don't team up, there are things you should know."

"Is good. Shampoo will be seeing you then, Shampoo my name. This Akane, and sleeping one is Ranma. We shield-sisters."

The cat bowed to each in turn, as much as a cat could bow, and jumped lightly to the ground. She looked back over her shoulder. "Until tomorrow," she said as she walked off at a dignified pace.

As Luna headed towards a street-corner, Shampoo spoke quietly to Akane. "Take care of Ranma, and Shampoo clothes," she said. Once the black cat was out of sight, Shampoo darted to a water-fountain, splashed herself, and shrank into her cursed form. She scampered towards the corner Luna had gone around.

Akane gathered the clothes, settled herself and Ranma a bit more comfortably, and relaxed. This wasn't how she'd visualized a quiet afternoon in the park with Ranma, but it wasn't bad, not bad at all. Then her eyes widened a bit, and a grin started up. "Whoa! This time, I saved Ranma! Yatta!" Not bad? Her day was complete!

She looked around. It was a small park – a couple benches, a flowerbed, and several trees. This late in the year only the chrysanthemums were blooming, but they made a bright display. The trees had leaves of yellow, bronze, and red. A few early-fallen leaves rattled across the pavement in the breeze. The air was brisk, and Luna had said "a couple hours". Akane sorted out Shampoo's clothes, and draped them unobtrusively over Ranma and herself to keep that little extra bit of warmth. Then she smiled down at the smaller girl whose head was in her lap.

I guess I've come to terms with the curse, she thought. I love Ranma either way. But I can hardly wait until we're married, and Ranma can be a man for me. On the bench, Ranma's nostrils twitched. But in girl form, the message wasn't urgent enough to rouse her.


"Amazons?" Rei said. "Where do we get Amazons in Japan?"

"The girl who said it was the tallest one, the one with purple hair," Luna replied. "She looked Chinese, and had a Mandarin accent."

Ami fiddled with the Mercury computer. She read a bit, then looked up. "The original Amazons were nomads on the steppes of Asia. We get the stories from the Greeks, but horse nomads could have made it to western China easily enough. There are mountains, so they probably wouldn't have gone further east. And there are still rumors coming out of Qinghai province."

"That might account for one Amazon," Luna said. "But the middle girl was pure Japanese. And the small girl had red hair. I don't have the faintest idea where she came from."

Usagi snagged another cookie from the diminishing pile. "They took out a daimohn," she said through a mouthful of crumbs. "Worry about the details later."

"That was the fastest daimohn I've seen," Luna noted. "It had the redhead's heart crystal five seconds after the seed activated. And it was jumping around and throwing razor-sharp postcards."

"I wish we could have been there, but we had a daimohn of our own," Minako said. "It's a good thing the Mercury computer said there might be trouble in Shinjuku ward. That way we at least had Luna there as an observer."

"We weren't needed. Those three girls said they'd never seen a daimohn before, but they'd figured out how to fight it in ten seconds, and beaten it in another ten. I've never seen anything like it. Those girls were fast."

"Were they powerful?" Makoto asked with raised eyebrow. "Did they have special attacks?"

"It all happened so fast … I don't know. I'd guess they don't have as much power as we do, but they're a lot faster. The tall one with purple hair, her name was Shampoo, was using a pair of Chinese maces. The second had black hair and looked kind of like Ami, and she had a glowing mallet. They said her name was Akane. And the redhead, she was barehanded. But she was slicing off pieces of daimohn like she had razor claws a foot long."

"Wait a minute," Ami said as she continued taking notes. "The redhead was fighting? But I thought the daimohn had her heart crystal?"

"The redhead's name was Ranma, and Akane said she had two souls – Cat, and Human. And maybe the daimohn took the human soul, but that just got the Cat mad. When we returned the heart crystal she started talking, then went to sleep. While she was fighting, she was just hissing and snarling."

"Cat soul?" asked Artemis.

"I didn't get many details," admitted Luna. "I wanted to check with the Princess before I said too much. So I set up a meeting tomorrow. It's in Nerima. Guess where."

"Ano?" Artemis said.

"The Cat Café."

"I approve," Artemis said.

"And I approve too," Usagi agreed, showing a hint of Princess Serenity. "Luna and Artemis, go meet with these Amazons. Give them communicators so they can get in touch with you. But they're awfully free with information, so don't tell them about the Senshi."

"I've already mentioned Juuban. They'll probably guess. The Chinese girl took one look at me and knew I was a moon cat."

"They can guess. Just don't let them know."

"Yes, my liege."

Serenity added, "Could you do a fire-reading on them, Rei?" Then Usagi took the last cookie. "I'll read your manga while you're doing it."

"Just one minute there, odango atama!" Rei flared.

"Awww, Rei …."

Outside the window, a small pink cat turned to leave. It would be a long walk back to Nerima.


When Ranma awoke, she didn't remember the fight. "It was great!" Akane enthused. "Shampoo drove it towards you, you sliced it in chunks, and I finished off the chunks with my mallet. It was over in half a minute."

"I hope I was wrong about it bein' Tsubasa …"

"A talking moon cat named Luna told us it was something called a daimohn, and daimohns steal souls. But when it got your human soul, the cat took over."

"Talkin' moon cats? Akane, that's weird even for Nerima. And this's Shinjuku. Where do we get talkin' moon cats in Japan?"

"Juuban, apparently."

Ranma sat up, looked around. It was coming on towards sunset, and the lights were lit. "Hey, it's just the two of us. Not that I'm complainin', mind you, but where'd Shampoo go? It's evening. How long have I been out?"

"Notice the extra layer of clothing helping keep us warm? She's in her cursed form, following the moon cat. She left me to take care of you and her clothing. The moon cat said you'd need a few hours sleep. You've been out of it maybe two and a half hours, so she was right."

Ranma kissed Akane on the cheek. "Thanks for watchin' over me. It's gettin' late, we'd better head for the Cat Café and then on home." They gathered up Shampoo's clothing into a neat bundle, and jogged off towards Nerima.


"Tadaima!" Ranma announced as she took off her shoes and stepped into slippers. Nobody welcomed her. The house was dimly lit.

In the living room she found Soun and a half-full bottle of sake. "Where is everybody else, Tendo-san?" she inquired.

"Nobody here …" came the slurred plaint. "They took Genma away. Kasumi and Nabiki went over to the Kuno place. Akane's been gone all day. You've been gone all day." The Tendo patriarch went into a fit of tears that seemed all the more sincere for their lack of theatrics.

Ranma sat next to him on the sofa. "Now, Tendo-ojisan, I'm back. Akane should be here soon, because she was chasing me. Kasumi and Nabiki probably don't plan on moving to the Kuno mansion tonight. Oyaji, well, I'm letting him cool down a bit. Nerima is too hot for him. But I've arranged things once he reaches China, so he'll be back in a few weeks."

Soun reached for the bottle with a tearful smile. "I hope everybody gets back soon. I don't like being alone. It's been years since Kimiko left me …." He threw back a shot of sake, and looked sadly at the portrait in the family shrine.

Ranma really didn't know what to do. So she sat beside the Tendo patriarch, and said nothing. He don't want to be alone, Ranma thought. I can do that. She reached out to the gentle side of her Cat, and began purring quietly. Maybe this will help?

The door slammed open, and two sets of eyes turned towards it. Akane came stomping in, the volume of the stomps dropping as she changed into slippers. "Ranma! You were catting around with Shampoo all day!"

"Now Akane, didn't I buy you ice cream? An' I let you beat on the pieces I sliced off that monster. Don't let's make a fuss, because I don't think your father is up to a fuss."

Akane shifted gears instantly, as she hurried to her father's side. "Oh, Daddy, what's wrong?" She saw her father looking at the shrine.

"Everybody went away," Soun said mournfully.

"Kasumi and Nabiki are over at Kuno's," Ranma said quietly.

"We're home now, Daddy. But it's time for you to go to bed." Akane got her shoulder under her father's arm, and began helping him towards his room. "Be useful," she said to Ranma. "Get daddy a cold compress."

Ranma brought the compress to the door of Soun's room. Akane took it, and closed the door. "I'll talk with you later!" she said to Ranma. From inside Ranma could hear her voice, low and soothing. Akane began to sing a children's lullaby. After perhaps ten minutes, she came out and quietly slid the door shut behind her.

"Mother used to sing me to sleep with that song," she said with a gleam of tears in her eyes.

"I never realized how much my father means to him, how much you three mean to him," Ranma said.

They went quietly upstairs to Akane's room.

"This pretendin'-to-fight thing isn't as much fun as I thought it would be."

Akane nodded. "We better keep it up until we're married, or they'll throw some ridiculous circus of a wedding. But after that, we should let them know. I think daddy wants grandchildren just as bad as your mother, even if he isn't as noisy about it."

"Heck, Akane, we can't have children while we're still in school!"

"Well, I know that, silly! But we can give them a bit more hope for the future."

They were silent for a while, as the two comforted each other with their presence. The stillness was broken by a gentle cry of "tadaima" from downstairs. Kasumi and Nabiki were home.

Ranma and Akane went downstairs to shush the sisters. They were both cheerful, and smelled very interesting – Kasumi of food, sweat, and just a bit of lust, Nabiki of roses and just a bit of lust.

"My!" said Ranma with a smirk. "Are you glad to see me, or is that afterglow?" Kasumi smiled, and laughed the purest laugh they'd ever heard from her. Nabiki blushed faintly.

They all went upstairs to Nabiki's room for a quiet talk.

"Daddy was really depressed tonight, with an empty house," Akane began.

"We can't let the parents find out we're gettin' married," Ranma continued. "They'd put on a circus. But we'll let 'em know once it's done. It might make 'em all feel better for the future, an' that'll make life easier on everybody."

"Speaking of empty houses, how did you two do over at the Kunos' tonight?" Akane looked at her sisters.

"Slaving over a hot griddle," Kasumi said. "And Tachi-kun has moved me to blunted metal knives." She giggled. "Once I've had more practice, I think I'll challenge Ukyo to a cook-off."

Ranma and Akane looked at each other. Have we created a monster?

Nabiki held her hands in a minimizing gesture. "Oh, just a bit of planning and plotting. What were you two doing?"

"We fought something called a daimohn, and met a talking cat. And Ranma doesn't remember a bit of it."

"It's a pity – the way Akane tells it, that was quite a battle. We were just comin' out of the ice cream shop when I was jumped by a rogue mailbox. The next thing I remember was wakin' up a bit before sunset." Ranma pouted. "You're gonna have to come with us from now on, Nabiki. Next time, I want a video. I can't let the Cat get all the fun."


After breakfast the next day, Kasumi gave Ranma a letter from America. "This came in yesterday's mail while you were out."

It was one of those fold-over air letters. Ranma slit the flaps with a careful claw, and unfolded the paper. "It's from Bjorn-sensei," she said. "He and Mao are comin' to Tokyo. He wants to evaluate Akane, and Mao will be his translator. She's one of the were-cats from Bjorn's club."

Ranma smiled nostalgically. "When the moon rose and all the Weres turned, Mao scared me into the neko-ken. There musta been a dozen were-cats in the club, an' Mao was the closest. That's what got Bjorn-sensei interested in trainin' me. A month later, I was okay with cats and got a chance to apologize to Mao. Bjorn's a wise old bear, and I got a lot to thank him for. Maybe he can smooth Akane's path some, too."

"This is the fellow I talked with on the phone?" Nabiki asked.

"Yep. You'll like him. An' I'm lookin' forward to seein' him meet Cologne. They're both Elders, in their own ways, and heirs to thousands of years of martial tradition. Never met two people more sure of themselves. Gonna be a clash of titans. Cologne likes rules, and Bjorn doesn't."

Soun frowned at Ranma. "Does this mean my little girl is going to grow claws?"

"Naw. Bjorn's interested in that mallet of hers. I got claws 'cause of the Cat. Akane'll prob'ly get better control over her mallet."

"I think we all want to meet him," Kasumi said. "I'm going to cook a fine dinner for him. And maybe, if Tachi-kun and I are trained enough by then, we can cook him a dinner too."

Ranma's thoughts quirked into a grin. She's sayin' we. It's weird, Kasumi and me havin' the same pet name for Kuno. Aloud, she said "The first dinner you cooked with Tachi-kun was a good beginnin'. I'll be glad to help you eat one you think is up to your standards."

Kasumi looked at her father and smiled sweetly. "You'll like our cooking, daddy. You better come too."

Akane and Ranma worked on homework that morning, and Nabiki on homework and the household accounts. After lunch, Nabiki and Akane stayed home to keep Soun company. Kasumi did the dishes, then went over to Kuno's. Ranma spoke with Akane. "I gotta get a debriefing from Shampoo," she told Akane. "You told me what you saw, now I want to hear what she saw. I should be back in a couple hours. Then we can go over in the evening, after dinner. I wanna meet that cat. Take care o' your father."

Akane nodded. "Until we get Genma back, we shouldn't leave father alone. It's hard to believe your father is actually good for something, but there you have it."

"I s'pose family honor should be insulted, but we do gotta get used to bein' honest with each other…"

Akane spread her hands and shrugged. The left side of her mouth quirked upwards for an instant. They winked at each other, then Ranma was out the door.


That evening, Ranma and Akane reached the Cat Café around 8 p.m. Cologne and Shampoo were finishing up the evening rush; they settled the newcomers in a booth, brought tea, and continued their work. They were busier than usual, because Mousse was nowhere to be seen. In a free moment, Cologne plopped down on the bench next to them. "Either of you want a job as waitress?" she asked half-seriously.

Ranma had worked at the Cat Café during the Phoenix Pill affair, and considered the question more than half-seriously. When Cologne was back to the kitchen, she said, "I dunno, Akane. We don't have much money. Maybe we could earn enough for a bit of a honeymoon? Cologne would have to advance our salary, but she trusts us these days."

"We only have two weeks. Let's talk with her after this meeting with Luna."

Ranma sighed, cradled her hands, and leaned her chin on them. "M'birthday's a week after this comin' Friday. We'll have to get out of school that day, go down to the City Offices, and do the paperwork. I found oyaji's signed permission for me in his stuff, and Nabiki found your permission in the family papers. Got your hanko ready?"

"Yep," Akane said. "Ready to go. That certificate is going to get stamped to a fare-thee-well." She leaned forward towards Ranma, chin on hands, and fluttered her lashes at her. "But I'd feel better if we could get a religious ceremony too."

"There's a priest in Okayama who's done well by me so far. Maybe we can arrange something. Maybe we can even get the parents in on the ceremony, as long as they don't know ahead of time what's going to happen." They sat quietly, chins on hands, smiling at one another.

Shampoo came over and sat with them for a moment. "Aiyah!" she said. "Busy day. Do what great-grandmother said – come help waitress with me!" The restaurant was getting ready to close, so Ranma got up and started cleaning tables. After a moment, Akane did too.

They'd finished the dishes, hung up the 'Closed' sign, and lowered the shades. It was 9 pm, and as Shampoo went to lock the door she heard a scratching noise. She opened the door instead, and saw Luna on the sidewalk. "Come in, Luna-san, Amazons glad to see you."

Luna walked in, followed by a white Moon Cat. Shampoo gestured to Cologne. "Honored moon cats, this my great-grandmother Cologne, Matriarch of the Amazons. Honored Matriarch, this black cat named Luna, moon cat who help us yesterday."

Luna bowed respectfully. She indicated her companion with a paw. "Honored Amazons, my companion is Artemis, also an advisor in the battle against the daimohns."

Cologne hopped down from her stick, knelt by Artemis. "The chief deity of the Amazons is Artemis, goddess of the moon. Might you be related?"

But before Artemis could say anything, Cologne's eyes swiveled to the door. So did Ranma's. They had a very bad feeling. A fat blue-grey cat walked in, and brought the feeling with it.

"Kwan Yin, mother of mercy!" Cologne said as she moved into a guarding stance. Ranma was down on all fours, hissing. Ranma and the new cat crouched low in their forequarters and circled slowly around one another with frowns, watching carefully for any suspicious moves.

Artemis brushed his forehead with the back of a paw and looked heavenward. "Just what we need!"

Luna jumped between Ranma and the blue-grey cat. "You, Rhett Butler! You behave yourself!" She turned to Ranma. "His dramatic entrances can be somewhat – overdone." And she frowned at the white cat. "Be polite, Artemis."

The grey cat sat, and smirked at Ranma. Ranma raised her forequarters, and looked down her nose at him. Then she turned her back on him, shrugged her shoulders, and rejoined the others by the table.

Luna sighed. "The grey cat is Rhett Butler. He's one of the Seven Great Youma. Despite that, he's never harmed people that I know of; and he's saved my tail several times, once literally. He's appointed himself my bodyguard. He understands speech. I think he can talk, but I've never caught him at it." She looked at Rhett Butler. He sat there with 'who, me?' written all over him.

Cologne collected herself. "Ah, I am remiss. As host to this meeting, I should offer refreshments. Honorable cats, is there anything you would like?"

"A bit of tuna would be welcome," Artemis said.

"I like tuna also," Luna added, "but Rhett Butler prefers liver."

"Shampoo, would you join me in the kitchen? Cookies for our human contingent, and their tea is going cold. A pitcher of ice water, and some cups and bowls, too."

Soon they returned, and for a short while there was the happy sound of eating. But a cup of tea went astray, and soaked Ranma. "Uff da!" he said in a low and disgusted voice. "When I'm comfortable bein' a guy, cold water chases me. Now I'm gettin' comfortable bein' a gal, and the hot water starts in." Fortunately, he was wearing his Chinese silks, so he could adjust the waist for comfort.

"Uff da?" Cologne asked. "I know at least ten languages, but that isn't from any of them."

"In Minnesotan, it means 'Why me, Kami-sama, why me?' Kinda."

Luna and Artemis were looking at Ranma in astonishment. "You're a magical girl?"

Ranma winced. "I'm a guy, mostly! It's a Jusenkyo curse. Cold water turns me into a girl, hot water into a guy again. But I was born a guy."

Cologne drew her authority as Matriarch about her. "This is getting out of control. With monsters showing up, we don't have time for that. I'll introduce the Amazon contingent, then you, Luna-san, can introduce yourself and your friends."

She pointed to Ranma. "This is Saotome Ranma. When he was young, he learned the Neko-ken. This gave him the soul of a cat, a berserker rage, and long, sharp claws. Later, when he was near my Amazon village in China, he fell into the Pools of Sorrow. This gave him the ability to turn into a girl with the application of cold water. As Matriarch of the Amazons, I'd not call that a curse. Recently, his cat and human souls learned cooperation. He's one of the best martial artists on Earth today."

She nodded to Akane. "She is Tendo Akane, Ranma's fiancée and a powerful martial artist in her own right. She, too, is a berserk. In her case, this manifests as a glowing mallet filled with ki-force."

"And this is my great-granddaughter Shampoo, best warrior of her generation from our village. She's learned enough hidden-weapons style to carry several bonbori, a sword, and a few other weapons even when she seems unarmed." Shampoo produced a sword, then made it vanish again. "She, too, fell into the Pools of Sorrow."

"The three of them are newly joined as shield-sisters. As you have seen, honored Luna, they make a formidable team."

"I am three hundred years old, heir to three thousand years of Amazon tradition and learning, and a fair fighter myself."

"That's all very well," Artemis muttered, "but I've been around for over ten thousand years."

Luna whacked him with her tail. "And you slept through most of them."

"Honored Matriarch," Luna said, "Artemis and I were advisors to the Queen of the Moon Kingdom, ten thousand years ago. When the Kingdom fell, we were sent into a deep slumber, to awaken when the Princess of the Moon was reborn. We're not warriors – we served during peace. We do have the equivalent of your hidden-weapons technique, however." Luna flipped in the air, and a small communicator fell on the table beneath her. She batted it over to Cologne with her paw. "This will let us contact one another."

"When the Princess re-awakened, we were faced with an invasion of youma trying to conquer the earth. We beat them back, defeated them and their mistress, and sealed them away. Rhett Butler was one of the most powerful youma. But he took a liking to me, and since he didn't fight against us, he wasn't sealed away with the others. He's like Ranma – he has two souls, two bodies, and a berserker rage with claws. One of his souls is cat, the other youma. His other body is much larger, a terrifying combination of human and cat."

Cologne lifted the communicator, turned it over, opened it up. "What's on the other end of the communicator?" she asked. "There has to be more than three cats. Who defeated the youma? What other warriors does your princess command?"

"I'm sorry," Luna said. "My princess ordered me not to say. She thinks you're a bit too open with information."

Cologne innocent. "Your princess? That would be Usagi, would it not?"

Ranma chirped up. "Does Ami really look like Akane?"

Artemis and Luna sat there blank-faced. Rhett Butler took another bite of liver. Of the three, Rhett Butler carried off nonchalance the best.

"We're warriors," Cologne said dryly. "When danger appears, and a possible alliance, we investigate. Our youth have been taught the ways of war. Your princess and her court have not. Your security is very weak.

"Now, honored cats, shall we speak freely? Or would you rather return to the Azabu Hikawa Shrine, so your princess can speak for herself?"