Between the Daimohn and the Deep Blue Sea

Ellen Kuhfeld

Saturday morning they gathered in the dojo, Ranma in Chinese silks and Akane in her yellow gi. Cologne and Mao wore their everyday clothes. Bjorn had on his tunic, and there were two rather nondescript junior-high schoolgirls in nondescript clothing. It was hard to remember exactly what they looked like, or what they were wearing. They were accompanied by a black cat and a blue-grey tomcat of impressive size and ominous aura. Soun was there as Master of the dojo; and Kasumi, as mistress of the household, had brought tea, rice balls, and a tray of pickled vegetables. Nabiki had thought the whole thing through, decided there was an unacceptable likelihood of chaos, and gone over to the Kuno mansion for the day. Kasumi planned to go there too, after everybody had their noon meal.

Happosai had gotten wind of the occasion and was also present. He'd looked the schoolgirls over, and left them unmolested. Who knew what might be hiding behind an "I'm hard to remember" aura? He sensed large amounts of female ki, and that was good; but there was a deep reservoir of mana in there too. He didn't fool with mana.

They were introducing themselves around when the challenge bell rang. Muttering, Soun opened the door and stared into a white expanse of gi, with a necklace of dojo signs. He raised his eyes, and saw a large face, with large eyes and lips, no hair on top, and a small black moustache. He lowered his eyes, and saw a black belt.

"I'm the Dojo Destroyer," the man rumbled, "and I'm here to see if your dojo is worthy. I challenge you for your sign." Then he looked inside. A momentary flash of surprise crossed his face when he saw Bjorn, who was every bit as large as he was.

Soun spread his hands. "Destroyer-san, you arrive at a busy time. We are evaluating the two heirs to the dojo today. There are two masters, and two grandmasters, present. You would not fit our schedule. Could you perhaps come another day?"

"Are you Tendo-sensei?" the Destroyer asked. "The sign at your gate says 'To defeat owner in savage combat, use rear door'. It does not say 'To defeat owner sometime next week…'. A true martial artist is ready at all times."

Soun looked at the giant, and said, "One moment, please."

He motioned Bjorn, Happosai, and Cologne into a huddle. They discussed the situation for a moment. Happosai said "I've heard of this Destroyer. He uses the dojo signs he's already taken as weapons and shields."

Cologne provided an English translation for Bjorn, who smacked his right fist into his left hand. He said "This will be an excellent test," and the huddle broke up.

Soun spoke. "Honorable Destroyer, there is a simple way to meet both our schedule and yours. Before you battle one of the masters, you must first defeat the two heirs to the dojo. They were about to undergo testing, and you shall be the test."

The dojo destroyer shook with laughter. The signs about his neck, and the quiver of signs stowed upon his back, rattled in merriment. "I see teenage girls. Bring them on."

Bjorn took Ranma by her shoulder. "This isn't a test of your power," he said. "We both know you can take him. I want to test your control. Take away his signs without harming the man, the signs, or his clothing." Mao translated for the crowd and the Destroyer.

Ranma and the Destroyer moved to the center of the dojo, while everybody else moved back to the walls. Rhett Butler jumped to the ceiling-beams, and Luna moved near the door for an easy exit if necessary. Akane had heard the sneer in the Destroyer's voice when he said "teenage girls", and she was quietly pumping up her anger. A pale-green aura began to shimmer about her.

When Ami, the shorter of the two schoolgirls, saw this she took out a small computer and began recording the energies in the dojo.

As referee, Soun dropped his hand, said "begin", and got rapidly out of the way.

Ranma stood, watching the Destroyer. The Destroyer watched back, massive and stolid. His right hand flicked out and a sign was spinning through the air at Ranma, who batted it to one side. Both of the Destroyer's hands moved, and two signs came spinning at Ranma. Again they were batted aside; and the schoolgirl – Ami – noticed they'd all landed in the same neat pile. She was studying the fight, not watching it.

"Yo, Destroyer-chan," Ranma called out. "I'm s'posed ta take your signs. It's no fun if you give 'em to me." A chain of signs came whipping through the air in response, with the Destroyer holding one end in his hands. Ranma blurred into motion, ducked under the chain and close to the Destroyer, and used her claws to snip the rope. The signs went flying, landed on the growing pile, and the Destroyer was left with the one sign in his hands. Ranma decided, as long as she was in close quarters, to punch the man in the belly. That's not harmin' him, she thought. Just tellin' him to be careful.

She sank her fist in, and met an inch of flab underlain with solid muscle. Both of the Destroyer's fists were coming down at her now, and he hadn't even made a sound. So Ranma kept on ducking, rolled past the Destroyer's left side, and snipped the quiver of signs off with a quick swipe of her claws as she leaped past. Then she did a flip-and-kick that knocked it over onto the pile of signs, and found herself balanced on one hand on the Destroyer's head. The man swung at her with the sign that was still in his hands, but she pushed off over its path and the sign hit him in the head instead.

She had most of his signs, now; he was down to perhaps three in each hand, which he was using like war-fans to attack, block, and distract. He gave an occasional grunt, but it was more of a quiet kiai than of any exhaustion or effort.

That guy got a lot of muscle, Ranma thought. Might damage somethin' if I tried to pry the signs outta his hands. So she jumped into the air, rebounded from a ceiling beam, and angled over to the remnants of the morning snack. She grabbed a handful of chopsticks. Then she began bouncing around the room again, and whenever she had a clear shot, she threw a chopstick at one of the Destroyer's shiatsu points. Learned somethin' fightin' Prince Kirin an' his chopsticks, she thought. Soon enough the signs fell from the Destroyer's nerveless hands, and in a quick flurry of hand-and-foot strikes, Ranma kicked them over to the pile.

Soun called a halt to the combat. "Ranma has completed the assigned task."

Ranma bowed. "Destroyer-san, I am fortunate I was told not to harm you. You are so strong and hard, it would have been wasted effort." The destroyer bowed back, with a dyspeptic look on his face. He went over to reclaim his signs, but Ranma was there first. "You came to take our sign," she said. "If we can take your signs, that's just as fair." The Destroyer growled under his breath, but returned to the center of the dojo. Ranma poked the counteracting points so the Destroyer could fight again, then began to pick up the stray chopsticks to get them safely out from underfoot.

Now it was Akane's turn. "Teach him respect for teenage girls," Bjorn said. "But don't damage him too badly." When that was translated, the Destroyer snarled and got into a more aggressive stance.

Akane rushed forward, and hit the Destroyer with a strong kick. But the Destroyer wasn't just his signs, any more than Akane was just her mallet. He was surprisingly fast and agile, and nearly as tough as Ryoga. There was a quick flurry of blows back-and-forth, and Akane flew backwards into the wall with a crash. The Destroyer smirked at her, then made the mistake of saying, "Sorry about that, little girl."

Akane rose to her feet, and kept on rising. It was the finest aura attack she'd ever made, more frightening than her father's demon-head and tall enough to scrape the ceiling of the dojo. She held a monstrous hammer, and swung it with terrible power at the Destroyer. The Destroyer gathered his energies, and manifested a sign-shield of ki. He held it high, and blocked the onrush of the giant hammer.

But after all, Akane was only her true size. So while the Destroyer was blocking the image of a hammer, she closed in below his block, and hit him a powerful blow in the midriff with the real mallet. He doubled over, and she got him on the head with her return blow. Then she leaped above him, and drove him through the floorboards with her third hit.

She reared back, and was about to hit him again when Ranma cried out "No, Akane! No! You'll kill him!" Akane stood, breathing heavily, then collapsed to her knees as the mallet vanished. Soun called an end to the bout, and he and Ranma rushed to Akane's side to support her. With their help she stood, wobbled, then shrugged off their help. Her berserk had evaporated, but she still had enough anger to sustain her.

She bowed to the Dojo Destroyer, then turned her back to him and went over to the food, poured a cup of tea, and drank it down. "Phewwwww," she blew out her breath.

"We're going to have to work with Akane," Bjorn said. "She came too close to doing permanent damage to the fellow." Ranma nodded. Ami, off against the wall, was working the keys of her computer furiously.

Bjorn helped lift the Dojo Destroyer out of the hole in the floor, dusted him off, plucked slivers out of his gi.

Soun approached the two. "I'm sorry, Destroyer-san, but you simply do not qualify," he said. "We'll keep our sign, thank you, and the ones you brought with you as well."

Steaming, the Destroyer turned and stomped towards the door. Luna was in his path, and he moved to kick her. But as his foot came forward, it was suddenly nailed to the floor by a fish skeleton, driven tail-first.

The Destroyer yelped, and looked up to see where the skeleton had come from. Rhett Butler posed on the rafters, then jumped down and stalked forward, a sour expression on his face. As he walked he grew, and stood, until the Destroyer was facing an eight-foot-tall demon cat. The cat wrapped one huge paw around the Destroyer's neck, and with the claws on the other, sliced his black belt off. Then he released the Destroyer's neck, bent down, and grinned toothily in his face.

"Destroyer-kohei," Happosai said, "I believe your belt has just been revoked. A true martial artist does not kick small animals out of frustration."

The Destroyer looked around. The demon cat was before him. Ranma and Akane had just beaten him, and Akane looked like she wanted another go. Cologne and Happosai were radiating battle aura, Soun was doing his Demon Head, and Bjorn had gone bear. Even the schoolgirls against the wall were frightening – the short one was glowing a pale blue and radiating cold, while electricity crackled around the taller.

Bjorn twisted his head to one side so the Destroyer could see his teeth more clearly, and roared. The Destroyer blanched, backed out the door, and left quietly, limping. "And don't slam the gate!" Soun added.

Happosai looked at the pile of signs. "Soun, m'boy, if you restore all those signs to their proper dojos, it will really boost the reputation of Anything Goes. And it wouldn't hurt if you carried the Dojo Destroyer's belt with you." For once, Soun had no objection to following Happosai's instructions.

And then Happosai looked over at the schoolgirls. I wonder if silky darlings from a magic girl are worth the risk? he thought. And decided to find out some time when he wasn't quite as – surrounded.

Demon cat and grizzly sized each other up. Ranma jumped between the two. "Don't you dare!" she yelled. "We still need the dojo! You can fight some other time!" Bjorn and Rhett Butler shrugged, and returned to their less-intimidating forms.

Bjorn raised his eyebrow at Ranma. "You did say he had two forms," he said. "I wasn't expecting quite that much of a difference. But he didn't act very berserk."

"Neither did you," Ranma commented. "And a good thing, too!"

Rhett Butler walked over to a quivering Luna and began licking her cheek to comfort her. Ranma began to stroke her fur, then lay on the floor and curled around Luna and Rhett as she continued to stroke. Between the two of them, they got her calmed down.


Shampoo stood outside the Crown Game Center, in the Azabu-Juuban section of Minato ward, with butterflies in her stomach. She was more alone than usual, in a land that was still foreign to her, and about to meet famous warrior-women. Perhaps she would fight monsters with them. The monsters were okay – she'd fought enough monsters to be comfortable with that – but working with a strange team had her nervous. However good a warrior she might be, she was still young, and far too eager to please.

She took a deep breath, centered herself, and pushed the door open. She entered.

It was Saturday morning. The walls were lined with game machines – beeping, making explosive noises and flashing lights. Each machine had at least one teen playing, and often two or three watching. This was a chaos of a different stripe. But she came of a restaurant background, so she searched for the island of calm. She knew there had to be one somewhere, else the place would go out of business.

It was a handsome, twentysomething boy in an apron, with light-brown hair, standing behind the counter. "Shampoo supposed to meet Usagi here this morning," she said to him. "She here?"

He smiled at her. "She's not here yet. But her friends, Rei and Minako, are at the race-driving game." He pointed. The girls seated at the machine saw him pointing, and waved. Shampoo smiled her thanks to the boy, and went over to join them. Now that they'd been pointed out, she recognized them from the time she'd spied on the shrine.

"Nihao, Rei, nihao, Minako. What you doing?"

They held up coins. "You're Shampoo? Glad to meet you. We're playing the racing game while we wait for Usagi to show up."

"How that go?"

"We'll show you." The girls each put a coin in the slot. A light counted down, and when it reached green they pressed down on the foot controls. On the screen, a red race-car and a yellow one began to move around a track. The images sped up, scenery blurring by at greater and greater speed, until finally the red car – the one driven by Rei – spun out and crashed, and 'Game Over' came on the screen.

Rei simmered a bit, and muttered under her breath, then reached into her purse and pulled out a small rectangle of paper. "Rin, pyou, tou, sha, kai, jin, retsu, sai, zen. Akuryou taisan!" she said as she worked her hands through intricate gestures. She slapped the paper onto the game machine.

Nothing happened, and Minako laughed. "Just because you lost doesn't mean the machine is evil. Remember, 'a loss is better than never'." They stuck their tongues out at each other.

Shampoo smiled to herself. These girls were so young!

"Game look fun, but Shampoo not drive car. Is game with bicycles?" They looked around the arcade, and settled on a motorcycle game as the best compromise. Soon Shampoo and Minako were racing; and after a few practice games, Shampoo was winning easily. "Shampoo deliver take-out on bicycle," she said. "Used to obstacles."

After the fifth race was won, a voice came from behind. "Ah, Miss, may I race beside you?" Shampoo turned her head to the voice. It belonged to a tall short-haired blonde about her own age, in brown jacket and green plaid slacks. Minako and Rei were drooling, with hearts in their eyes. Shampoo looked hard, with both normal vision and ki-sight. "Minako and Rei like girls?" she asked.

"What?" Minako and Rei said in unison, blushing lightly. "He's HOT!"

"Is girl," Shampoo replied.

The tall blonde winked at her. "I never said I was a boy."

Shampoo smiled back. "Shampoo know several cross-dresser. Is fine, long as they not try fool me. Want race, then?"

"Ten'oh Haruka at your service," the boyish girl said. Minako vacated one of the faux motorcycles, and Haruka took it. They put coins in the machine, the light counted down, and Shampoo was off. She looked to the side; Haruka was just sitting at the controls, arms folded. "What?" Haruka said. "I'm just giving you a handicap."

"Shampoo not handicapped."

Haruka looked at the game, startled to see how far ahead Shampoo was. She took the controls and began to race, seriously. And she lost, seriously. She lost the second race. And she was winning the third race when Shampoo did something with the obstacles that had her soaring overhead to victory. Haruka slumped, head down, arms hanging by her side. "Complete defeat."

"Not true, you do pretty well. Maybe tomboy have good game sense? Shampoo shield-sister to two tomboys, they good that way. But Shampoo master Amazon Bicycle-fu. Tomboy up against too too hard challenge."

A girl Shampoo recognized as Usagi came running in the door, carrying an ice-cream cone. "Hi, Rei, Mina! Sorry I'm late!" She tripped as she ran towards them, and the cone flew into the air. Shampoo reached up, caught it casually, and gave it back to Usagi once she'd stood. Usagi blushed and put one hand to the back of her head.

"Nice shot," Rei said as she stuck her tongue out at Usagi.

"Nice ice cream," Usagi retorted as she stuck her tongue in Rei's general direction, then stroked it over the ice cream. She smiled in sweet caloric bliss.

Rei grumped. First she'd lost the racing game, now she'd lost the tongue war. It wasn't her day. But the kami gave her a consolation prize: after Usagi finished the ice cream, she noticed Haruka. Her eyes filled with stars and hearts, and she began to breathe heavily.

Rei leaned near Usagi's ear, and whispered, "He's a girl." Usagi's smile wilted. "Rei, you're so mean!"

Another girl entered, with teal hair, a violin-case, and a womanly outfit in the same colors as Haruka. "Sorry to keep you waiting," she said.

"Oh, I've had the most fascinating time." Haruka indicated Shampoo with her hand. "This is Shampoo. She beat me three times in a row on the racing game."

The girl with the violin raised her brows. "I've never heard you say that before!"

"She has good reflexes," Haruka said. "Usagi there tripped and her ice-cream cone went flying. Shampoo caught it – and made it look easy. Their act is called 'Team Odango'."

Shampoo and Usagi looked at each other, and began to stalk towards the newcomers.

"Come, Michiru," Haruka said. "I think our presence elsewhere has been requested." Michiru took Haruka's arm, and the two walked companionably out of the arcade.

"Hmpf!" Minako said. "Not only is he a girl, he's already taken. Well, a grape on the vine is worth two in the bush."

Nobody could think of a good reply to that, so the four decided to go to the shrine where they could talk in peace, without the clanging and hooting of the games and the ears of the players.

As they came up the long stairs and into the courtyard, a white cat was waiting for them. "Nihao, Artemis!" Shampoo said.

Artemis brushed up against her leg. "Hello, Shampoo!" Then he raised his face to the other girls and said "We're the only ones here. Talking's okay."

Shampoo lifted Artemis to her shoulder and they rubbed cheeks. "You three magic girls, have two forms," she said. "Shampoo magic girl too. We meet each other other forms? Artemis maybe like meet Shampoo again, too. Go inside to kitchen or bath?"

They went to the kitchen, puzzling a little – it had more room. The cats had told the Senshi that Ranma changed between boy and girl, and that Shampoo had another form. What would it be? "Shampoo not able talk in other form. Warm water bring me back," she said; and held her hand under the cold-water faucet. Suddenly her empty clothes fluttered down to the floor, changing as they fell to an Amazon battle-costume. But they weren't quite empty; a small lump stirred beneath, and a young white cat with pinky-lavender markings emerged from the neckline. She looked at Artemis. "Mihao!"

Artemis looked at the Chinese sex-kitten, and got throbbing hearts in his eyes. Shampoo sweatdropped. The three senshi whopped themselves in the back of their heads.

Shampoo-neko leaped onto the counter, batted at the hot-water tap until it was running, and dipped her paw into the stream. Suddenly there was a naked Shampoo-human kneeling on the counter. But she didn't look like the Shampoo-human that'd come to the shrine with the other girls.

"What the heck?" "Who are you?" "What's going on?"

Shampoo got down, and began dressing. "Disguise pen too too slow – much quicker drop disguise. In fight, speed important, so Shampoo come here in disguise. Fight monster, drop disguise first. That way girls and Senshi seen with different Shampoo, people not connect them."

After that, the senshi all transformed. Shampoo hit each of them with a Nerf bonbori before they were halfway done, to demonstrate the advantages of speed. Then they went out in the yard, where Venus used her Love-me Chain to gather in dry wood, and stacked it in a pile. Mars ignited it with a Flame Sniper. And Moon produced a package of marshmallows, which they proceeded to toast. Introductions among warriors are usually silly, formal, or dead serious; the girls had gone with silly. Shortly after they'd gotten the fire going, they'd all changed into their everyday forms (which included a disguise for Shampoo). And Rei had gotten hot chocolate from the Shrine kitchen, while Minako dug out a picnic blanket for them to sit on.

Shampoo was curious, so while they were toasting, she asked "Why sailor girls take so long change form? Why take so long get first attack off?"

Usagi looked at Minako, who looked at Rei, who put her hand behind her head. "Eheh, eheh … we were wondering that ourselves. So we had Mercury check it on her computer. See, magic is powerful and dangerous. So it's kept under lock and key. The key to opening it up for use is the little dance we have to do, and the speech. Mercury could explain it better. She says the more experience we get, the faster we'll be able to do it. Eventually, we won't need the dance at all. We're a lot faster with the second shot."

"Shampoo see. Just like young warrior take longer recognize situation and draw sword."

"I think that's right. Mercury said something about the magic being 'peace-bonded'."

"Shampoo know peace-bond. Show good-will, keep from hurting innocents with hasty action. Make sense now. Shampoo trained, use bonbori or sword or body as weapon, no peace-bond. Shampoo fast. But not sure kill monster by self – last time, took all three Amazon sisters. So we meet monster, Shampoo keep it too too busy while you unlock magic, then you come hit it hard. Sound good?"

Minako, Rei, and Usagi smiled and nodded 'yes'.

"Shampoo have another question. Why naked transformation?"

The three all blushed, in their different ways. Usagi was embarrassed, Rei looked a bit angry, and while Minako was blushing, it was a knowing blush. "To keep the men on our side?" she said with a giggle. Usagi and Rei blushed even more. Then Minako added, "And to distract the men that aren't on our side."

Rei snapped, "Which is so very useful, since most of our foes are female?"

"See, it works!" Minako said smugly. Rei stamped her foot, and Usagi hid her blushes behind a screen of hands.

Minako looked over at a reddening Usagi. "Usagi-chan," she cooed, "Have you ever seen Tuxedo Mask transform?"

Usagi pulled the blanket over her head and began muttering "perverts, perverts, I'm surrounded by perverts…" as the other three girls laughed.

The conversation was interrupted by the smell of burning marshmallow. They got back to the serious business of toasted sugar-puffs. Then they cleaned up the yard, put away the cups and the blanket, and headed down the stairs again for some serious shopping, Artemis riding on Minako's shoulder.

"How we find monsters?" Shampoo asked.

"They usually find us," Usagi said. "Can't have a quiet day shopping, or a peaceful date without monsters, mutter mutter growl…"

"Shampoo understand. Monsters always find shield-sister Ranma, too.

A while later they were strolling along the street beside a concrete-lined drainage canal, dry at this time of year, when they heard a scream and a commotion from an auto-tuning shop just ahead. A strange lavender woman with wheels came dashing out and leaped into the canal.

"Monster!" Shampoo yelled as she dropped her disguise and ran forward, then jumped over the fence at the edge of the canal. She landed just in time to take out one of the monster's wheels with her sword. It spun, crashed into the wall, and sat up holding its head. "This is too dangerous," it said. "I'm glad I was wearing a helmet."

But by then, Shampoo was upon it, and a helmet wasn't going to save its head. Shampoo lopped it off. Like the last daimohn, its head came rolling back to rejoin the body, and the real fight began. Shampoo could see it had a Pure Heart Crystal – she was not about to let it get away. Every time it turned and started to run she'd cut a tire, or smash a foot, and the daimohn was too busy repairing itself to have much luck hurting her back.

Sailor Venus appeared at the fence. "Venus love-me chain!" she shouted, and a chain of stars whirled out to wrap themselves around the daimohn. "Flame sniper!" "Moon spiral heart attack!" Sailor Moon yelled, and with a cry of "Lovely!" the chained and scorched daimohn was blasted to nothingness by a giant pink heart. In its place was a battered, upended car.

Shampoo caught the Pure Heart Crystal, held it gently. A withered seed-pod fell inside the car, cracked, and a wisp of smoke escaped.

Two more girls in sailor suits appeared beside her. "Give us that," the blonde in the blue-and-white seifuku with the gold bow said.

"Not yours," Shampoo replied as she tossed the crystal to Sailor Moon. "Get crystal back to rightful owner!" she cried. Sailor Moon turned to head towards the shop the daimohn had come from. Venus and Mars leaped into the canal to stand beside Shampoo.

Shampoo looked at the new girls skeptically. "Why you want crystal?"

"To see if it's a Talisman," the blonde said.

This sounded less and less good. "What you do with Talisman?"

"There are three talismans. If we get them all, we can join them to create the Holy Grail and save the world from the coming Darkness."

"And what happen to people crystal come from? This not 'collect them all' game. This serious to them."

"Losing three lives to save the world – it's regrettable, but necessary."

"That death-magic. Cannot save world with death-magic. Amazons ruthless, but not that ruthless. We not let you do this."

By now, the Amazon and the sailor-girl with the yellow bow were in each others' faces, and very intense. "How do you plan to stop us?"

Shampoo pulled one bonbori from stuff-space, and caressed its head. "With this. With Amazon sisters. Has to be better way."

The tall blonde flipped backwards, raising her hand. "World Sha*…" she began to say, only to collapse to the ground as Shampoo leaped after her and clouted her on the head.

"Deep Submerge!"

A huge wave crashed down upon Shampoo, Venus, and Mars. When it receded, Venus and Mars were down, coughing, trying to stand up. Where Shampoo had been there were only empty clothes. The other new sailor girl, the one with teal hair, picked the tall blonde up and leaped out of the canal with her.

Sailor Moon reappeared at the railing above. "He's okay! I got his Heart Crystal back to him …" then trailed off as she saw Venus and Mars staggering to their feet. "What happened?"

Venus coughed up a bit more water. "Those two sailor girls, the ones that've been showing up at our other fights, they didn't like it when Shampoo told them they couldn't have the crystal."

Artemis leaped onto Sailor Moon's shoulder, whispered in her ear. "Shampoo's okay. She's trailing those two girls in her cat form. But don't say anything loud, they may still be in earshot."

Venus and Mars picked up Shampoo's clothes and jumped up next to Sailor Moon. Artemis motioned them in, told them what had happened. "Moon," he whispered, "maybe you should stay here with the man we saved. Take the clothes, and try to get them dry. Venus, go back to the Crown Game Center. And Mars, go back to the shrine. When Shampoo tries to get back in touch, those are the three places she's likely to go. When she shows up, we can use our communicators and all get together.

"Get to it!" Moon said, and the three senshi split up to go their separate ways.


Genma-panda padded down a game trail. It had been a day since he escaped the Amazon village, and he was hungry enough to eat raccoon chow. It wasn't a good year for bamboo – and bamboo was so low in calories, he'd have to spend all his time eating. No time left over for travel. He wanted to keep moving away from the Amazon village.

The trail was on the side of a valley. A rushing mountain stream flowed below – he could always hear it, and sometimes see it through the trees. Occasionally it widened out into quiet pools. He'd seen fishermen casting nets into the pools.

He wondered how much they'd caught. He'd eaten enough of Kasumi's food in his panda form to know he could happily digest fish. Pandas were bears, after all, even if most of them acted like herbivores. A cold mountain stream might not let him change his form – but he could get drink from it, and maybe food.

As the day wore on, he dozed and watched the fishermen. In mid-afternoon they headed away from the stream with their catch, and he quietly followed. Pandas like the evening and the night; his time would come.

They reached a small, impoverished village. The women were outside, working around a single firepit, and children played. When the men arrived with their baskets of fish, everybody set down their other work, took up knives, and began gutting, skinning, and decapitating the catch. They ran sharpened sticks through the filets, then hung them from a wooden frame over the fire to dry and smoke. The offal was thrown into a pigpen to a great uproar of squealing and crowding. Then they sat around the fire, dished up wooden bowls of some kind of stew, and ate. They were talking, but Genma couldn't understand a word.

After the last flicker of candlelight had died down in the huts, Genma crept into the village. He grabbed one of the sticks, pulled the fish off, and ate them. Then he took half a dozen more for later reference, and silently left.

As the waning moon rose, he was going down the trail again, happily carrying several meals' worth of fish. In a few more days, the Amazons wouldn't stand a chance of finding him. Then he could find civilization, hot water, and perhaps transportation. Things were looking up. So was Genma.

But looking up, he wasn't watching the trail as carefully as he ought. Suddenly it gave way beneath him, and he fell with a great crackling and rustling and thrashing of branches into a deep pit. A tiger pit. He shook himself, and climbed to his feet – then heard a rumbling growl nearby, and saw slitted eyes and the gleam of fangs. Large eyes. Large fangs.

And me covered with fish, he thought. I'm too old to learn the neko-ken!