Prologue: Zodiac Edit
The still, narrow eyes watched silently from the dense bush surrounding the jungle temple. Had the owner of the eyes been unwary, they might not have noticed the thick walls and traps surrounding the perimeter. But these eyes were trained to notice everything.
The traps would be simple enough to avoid. All but the most novice of martial artists could avoid the walls with ease. However, he was neither novice, nor a trained martial artist.
The outward appearance he put out was military. US Marine, more than likely, due to the tattoo on his left arm which bore the presence of his infantry logo, and the words 'semper fi' in gothic font underneath.
But if this man was military once, he no longer was. Otherwise, his very presence in that jungle would be considered a waste of time. He drew his attention back to the wall. The method he would use on getting over the wall would all depend upon whether or not his orders entailed a less... noticeable presence.
"Nutcracker to Rat King," he spoke over the two-way radio he carried with him. "Come in, Rat King."
"Rat King here, Nutcracker. Candyland objective?"
"Objective one reached, Rat King. Objective Two, Plan A is attemptable." Plan 'A' was the simple code they had used for a simple back door entrance. Quick in, quick out. They didn't want to be seen if they could get away with it.
"Secure Candyland ASAP, Nutcracker," The Rat King replied indifferently. 'Nutcracker' smiled. This meant it didn't matter how they took over Candyland, as long as their main objective was reached.
Within moments, Nutcracker, and his suite of retired soldiers and mercenaries were on their way.
The life of a simple priest was known to be... well... simple. Wake up in the morning, worship Nature, God, Buddha, Amaterasu Ohmikami, Fei Liang, or whatever your particular sect worshipped, then move on to breakfast. But then, what usually followed was simply thanking Nature, God, Buddha, Amaterasu Ohmikami, Fei Liang, or... well, you got the picture.
In fact, very few priests did anything other than worship who he was supposed to worship, study, and devote his life to the worshipee.
Fortunately, Pi Sang, was one of those few priests. In fact, he was quite sure that if he were one of the OTHER priests, who could do nothing but worship and study... He quite literally would have lost his mind.
Still, being in a jungle temple, miles away from the closest trace of civilization, which happened to be Pingkiang, in the Wan Fou Shan mountain range of the Kiangsi province in Southeastern China was not Pi's idea of a fun life.
Still, he did get his yearly sabbaticals every now and then, and BOY, did he have a hell of a time painting the town red. He'd gone to a local airfield and arranged for passage to Europe, and found he rather enjoyed Monte Carlo. The Casinos were everything he needed to spice up his dull life in the priesthood.
But then, his sect wasn't exactly your ordinary sect, either. Very few priests were ever allowed into the sect, and those who were welcomed in, were not welcomed because of the level of religious devotion they had.
It was their loyalty and fighting ability.
Pi Sang was the head Priest of the Temple of the Goat. Leading a grand total of four other priests, making five of them once all added up. Their job?
Protect the Shawl with their lives.
The Shawl itself was nothing much to look at. A simple bundle of poorly knit cloth, with the simple image of a goat's horns on the side. One wouldn't expect to need five people to protect a thing that would be dumped out with the trash at the next garbage day in the city...
But the Shawl had a secret. A secret that only the five priests at the temple, and the grand council in Qinghai knew of.
Or so he thought.
"Master Pi," one of the young priests said, coming up to the elder.
"Yes, what is it?" Pi was quick to lose his temper. It came from his days when he was younger. Quick, arrogant and impatient.
"Master, we have guests," the priest said, not losing eye contact.
Pi's eyes opened wide. "Guests?"
The younger priest nodded.
Pi sighed. "Very well," he said. "You know what to do."
And with that, the younger priest made his exit. Within moments, the entire temple knew of the uninvited guests... and the guests knew they had been uncovered.
"Sir!" one of Nutcracker's men called. "We've been--"
"If you say we've been discovered, I'll rip off your testicles and shove them down your left nostril," Nutcracker himself replied, shooting a menacing gaze back to the one who had spoken. "I know already, you idiot. You think they're ringing those bells because it's time to mambo?"
The man shied back and kept his head low.
"All right!" Nutcracker yelled. "Plan A has been compromised, we move to Plan B." He took a semiautomatic pistol from his belt-holster and pulled back the hammer. "Terminate any and all complications!"
With that, one of Nutcracker's men ran up to the wall and planted a small box at the base. Once he was far enough away, the wall blew in, shedding dirt and stone over the occupants.
"Locate the objective!" he cried. "Bring it to me!"
Pi Sang hugged the wall with all of his strength. Explosives! They had used explosives on them!
Trained martial artists, they were. All of them were at least sixth degree, but against guns and explosives?!
Pi looked down into the yard and saw one of the younger priests crushed by a piece of flying wall. One dead, four to go.
Pi swore at himself. No, not four to go. The four of them had to protect the Shawl, they HAD to. If they didn't it meant...
He released the wall and turned toward the fray. Three of the younger priests had already jumped into the yard, and were already engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the intruders.
Pi jumped down only to see one of them get the top of their head blown away by the weapon of the nearest intruder.
Fool! Idiot! He could have disarmed him with ease, there was no way he could have been so careless!
But he was. Pi growled and jumped at the man with a fury never met before. Within moments, he was without his weapon, and fell to the ground with a broken neck.
Pi turned to the next, but paused almost immediately.
Something wasn't right.
He looked toward the ruin of the wall, and frowned. The other two priests were holding up okay, ripping through the intruders like they were mere annoyances, but there was something...
The glowing ball almost escaped Pi Sang's notice entirely. In fact, had he been a second later in his movements, he was almost sure it was have hit him, nearly nailing him against the wall and killing him.
How on Earth? It had been a ki-ball, that was certain. Pi Sang had heard of them, certainly. Even seen one or two, on occasion, but that was only by some of the Council Members in Qinghai, or someone with one of the Twelve Idols.
But then... what did he just see? Certainly the Council wasn't attacking. They would not stoop so low as to use guns, and certainly wouldn't kill their own people in a simple test. Which left two possible options.
Either it was a martial artist of such training and caliber that he or she had mastered throwing a ki-ball, or... someone with one of the Twelve Idols.
The first was absurd. Anyone with that level of training certainly wouldn't resort to guns, explosives, or... mercenaries with little combat training.
Which could only mean the second. They had one of the Twelve Idols, which could only mean...
The Shawl! He had to get to the Shawl!
Turning quickly toward the inner temple, Pi Sang ran. He had to get to the Shawl before they did. What would he do then, however? The only possible option would be to find his way to Qinghai. Of course, he could catch a train to Xining at the closest town, only a half-days journey, and find his way into the mountains later. It would have to work, otherwise--
The noise of the gunshot was loud, it nearly deafened Pi Sang, but as he tumbled end of end, his main concern wasn't the sound, nor was it the splitting pain he felt in his shoulder. His bone was shattered, that much was certain, but... how was that gunshot so close?
He clamped one hand on his shoulder and rose to his knees, looking toward the direction he had been running from.
Sure enough, a man stood there. A large man, wearing a tight fitting camouflage tank-top. His muscles bulged from beneath, and his army-issue fatigues did little to hide the man's apparent background.
"The Shawl, old man," the man said, in perfect Mandarin.
Pi Sang backed up a step, his eyes scanning the man. How had--
Then he had seen it. He had seen it, and disbelief riddled the old Priest's senses.
The man in front of him placed his gun back in the holster. "Yeah," he said, fiddling with the striped bracelets on is wrists. Also, around his ankles were a matching pair of anklets. "You know what these are, don't you?"
"The... Tiger," Pi stammered. "How...?"
"Come on, Old Man. You think it was hard? Honestly, those guys in Korea couldn't guard their Grandmother."
"You know not of what you're doing!" Pi exclaimed. "You cannot know what you will bring upon us!"
"Oh, it's not me that will be bringing it," the man said. "I just work for the guy."
The bracelets, Pi Sang thought to himself. It was true. The Tiger's Den in Korea had been destroyed, their Idols taken... which happened to be the set of bracelets and anklets the stranger was wearing. That particular Idol granted speed beyond anything. Anyone found wearing them could outrun an airplane. But... that didn't explain the ki-ball... unless...
"The... Dragon?" Pi Sang asked meekly.
The man scoffed. "Naw, not yet," he said. "But we do have the Monkey. That would have been Kelly."
"No," Pi said, the colour draining from his face. Still, if they hadn't gotten the Dragon yet.
"Now," the man continued. "The Shawl, old man."
Pi Sang weighed his options. Could he outrun a man wearing the Tiger's Idol, or... would he succumb to the man's wishes and give in to death?
Either way would bring death... Just one quicker than the other, but with the first option, there was still a CHANCE.
He looked around meekly. The woman with the Idol of the Rooster almost certainly stood outside of the temple walls. Did they have more Idols? Could they have more than six? The Monkey was in Japan, but the Dragon was still in China. Had they reached that far east yet? Could they already have gotten the Idols in North America and Europe?
Pi Sang took a deep breath. He had to try.
Clutching at his shoulder, Pi Sang took flight, jumping high over the temple walls.
Nutcracker shook his head sadly. "Idiot," he cursed, ready to give chase to the old man that jumped over the wall. He could easily take his time, it hardly mattered. After all, the old man would be easy to find. In fact, he'd probably slip into a coma and die from blood loss alone. It was much too far to the closest city.
"Ahh, screw it," he said, then turned around. All the other priests were dead, no problem. He looked around the temple and located a small building at the center of the yard. Doubtless, that was where the Shawl was kept.
He stepped into the building and smiled at the old cloth sitting at the center of the altar. He reached over and picked it up--
"--In Japan, that's where they brought it!"
He dropped it almost instantly, then blinked at it.
Interesting. That had been his bosses voice... and face. He could have sworn... That meant that the Shawl was meant for the positive. The Yin. The Male. But its purpose...
Nutcracker smiled. That was obvious.
Lifting it with his boot, he dropped it into a small pack and picked up his radio, stepping out into the yard once again. All his men stood there, staring at Nutcracker. From the corner of his eye, he saw Kelly poke her head into the courtyard, winking at him.
"Nutcracker to Rat King. Candyland secure," he said over the radio.
"Have you lost any toys, Nutcracker?"
"One, but the toy is damaged."
"Good work, Nutcracker. Retrieve the sheep and clean up Candyland. I want you out of Kiangsi ASAP."
Little more than five minutes later, the temple was no more than a charred spot on the map of China.
Pi Sang sighed, and stared toward the sky, thanking whoever was in charge up there profusely.
It had been most grueling the first twelve hours after his escape. Not having use of his arm and the constant bleeding had slowed him down considerably. In fact, he had almost died.
But after twelve hours of running on pure adrenaline, he stumbled across the civilized world.
It was merely a farm. A simple farm, and he frantically ran and knocked on the door, begging for medical attention from whoever was home...
Unfortunately, the twilight had been at it's peak, and nobody answered. Pi Sang fell into unconsciousness at their doorstep.
Two days later, he had woken, his arm patched up and laying in a hospital bed. It didn't take him long to figure out where he was, and what he had to do.
From then, it was a day's ride on the train, and then another five days following the trail between Xining and the area around Mount Quanjing, where the Council was known to have their central meetings.
And so, there he stood, in the open-roofed auditorium. Kind of an amphitheater of sorts, with countless stone seats all around him. He stood in the center of the room, surrounded by no less than fifteen people. Twelve of which were the people who made up the backbone of the council. The other three were simply guards and those who presided over the meetings.
"You speak truth, Pi Sang?" One of the council members asked.
Pi Sang nodded. "My word is my life."
He received a collective sigh from around the council. "If this is true," another said. "That means they have at least three."
"Or more," another said.
Another collective silence.
"Pi Sang," the man at the zenith of the room spoke. "You may now leave, thank you for surviving to tell us the story of this grave news."
Pi Sang nodded his head and bowed out of the room, making his way out.
A moment after he left, the Council continued to speak.
"The Tiger and Goat," One said. "That is two more than we have known about."
"The others are still secure, however. They may not know of the location of them."
"With the Shawl of the Goat, they are almost assured the locations of the last six Idols."
"Then I see only one possible option," another said.
"And that is?"
"We must collect the final six before they have a chance... And we must fight against them!"
"Impossible!" another exclaimed. "Pure heresy! Those in our bloodline are forbidden to use any of the Idols! We would forfeit our honour AND our souls by that action! By the Gods, we barely know where the other Idols are!"
"We have no choice!"
"Actually, we do," one of the non-council said. "Those in our number, those of our tribe are forbidden to use any of the idols."
"You tell us things we already know," another said. "Get to the point."
"There may be one we can trust to watch over the one Idol we have in our possession... and who we may trust to collect the final five."
"How may we trust anyone outside of our tribe, save the priests? And even then, the priests were no match for the man wearing the Tiger's Idol!"
"The person I speak of is cursed by Jusenkyo," he continued. "By the Nyannichuan."
There was a collective silence around the council.
The one who spoke lowered his hood and looked upon the council. "He may be trusted," the man said. "And he is stronger than any single idol by itself, that much has been proven by his overtaking of the One with the Monkey Idol."
"Still, they have SIX Idols, Prince Herb," another Councilman spoke. "Surely he is not that strong!"
Herb smirked at the councilman. "Indeed he may be. He defeated me not long ago, and soon after saved my life. That should speak on his trustworthiness, and to further announce his strength... He was also able to best the Phoenix-God."
Chatter took place all over the room almost instantly. Cries of disbelief and heresy, cries of rebuttal against Prince Herb's statement, and general cries against the very fact that one who is half-female could protect anything!
But then... the Dragon Idol could give him an ideal start. A very ideal start. But no, it would have been tricky. The Dragon Idol was a Negative force. Meant for the female of the species, he would have to be female. If the ones who have been stealing the Idols knew the secret of Jusenkyo, then they knew the man's weakness.
"Enough!" the man at the zenith cried. "This man, who is he?"
Herb closed his eyes. "Ranma Saotome of Japan."
The man nodded. "Then this is what shall be done. We shall send the Dragon Idol to this Ranma Saotome, only when we can be assured of his ability to protect the Idol shall we bestow upon him the task of searching for the other Idols."
"How shall we test him?"
The man looked at Herb. "You shall watch him."
"So what the heck is it?" Ranma asked, picking the small plaster idol out of the box. Small foam peanuts littered the floor all around. "And if it's so important, why did they send it through general post?"
"Don't be foolish, boy. Obviously to cease suspicions!" Genma said, scolding his son. "Well, what's the deal, Tendo?"
"It says here," Soun began, holding the small paper in front of him. "To whom it may concern-- it has recently come to our attention that within your household reside several martial artists of exceptional caliber. We thusly request your assistance in a problem that has been plaguing our sect for quite some time."
"Sect? This is from some cult?" Ranma scoffed.
Unfettered, Soun continued. "The Dragon Idol, although it looks relatively new, has been in existence for well over two thousand years. It, and the eleven others of its kind have been protected by our kind for nearly half that time. It has come to our attention that another of its kind was recently found in your possession, given to you as a gift by the priests of Monkey Mountain."
"Hey, wasn't that where we got the battle suit?" Ranma asked, wincing in memory of the... thing that Akane had been so attached to.
Soun nodded. "Indeed," he said, continuing. "Over the past year, six of the twelve total pieces have been stolen by a person or persons unknown. The only description we have is a man, possibly American military, or ex-military, wearing the Idol of the Tiger."
"Tiger?... Wait, so they want us to protect this thing from this military guy?"
"We beg of you, please watch over the idol as if your life depends upon it, as it more than likely does. And whatever you do, be careful in the handling of it. It has a mind of its own."
"If it's anything like Akane's battle suit, then are we sure we even want it here?" Ranma asked.
Genma whapped his son across the back of his said. "Of course, boy! It's the sacred duty of any martial artist to protect those who need it, trouble or not!"
"Oh, sure," Ranma shot back. "That's why you gave the Battle Suit away to the secondhand shop?"
Soun read to the bottom of the page and sighed. "It's not even signed."
Ranma turned the idol over in his hands and examined it closely.
The idol itself looked like no more than painted pottery. A swirling oriental dragon sitting upon a cloud. In fact, it looked more second rate than ancient. Ranma turned it over in his hands, to look at the bottom. It wasn't flat, as he expected, but rather had two feet protruding out from the bottom, and a third protrusion, the cloud, to rest upon.
All in all, it looked second rate, but there was something more unusual about it than that... and Ranma just couldn't place his finger on it.
"I say we leave it in the Dojo for now," Genma said. "On the shrine, perhaps."
"Why not just lay a sign out front saying, 'Free Magic Idol!'?" Ranma quipped. "It'd be like laying out the red carpet for whoever wants this thing."
"It's not confirmed yet that the people who are after it even KNOW of it's location, boy!" Genma shot back. "Chances are they don't, and may never know."
"You just want it in an easy to reach location so you can sell it whenever you get the chance, Pop!"
"Ranma! Don't you speak to your Father in such a negligent tone!" Genma shouted.
"And what, may I ask, is the problem *now*?" A fourth, distinctly female voice asked from the doorway.
Nabiki removed her shoes and walked into the room, dropping her schoolbag beside the door.
"Hi Nabiki," Ranma said, eyeing his father warily. "Nothing important, just some idol we're supposed to protect."
Nabiki's eyebrow rose appraisingly at the mention of the word 'idol'. Idols usually meant fame, which meant cash, which meant Nabiki was happy. "Oh?" she feigned disinterest. "What kind of idol?"
"It comes from a sect in China," Soun said, breaking in to the conversation. "Apparently there are eleven other pieces to complete the whole, although not much more information was given. It's of relation to the suit we got from Monkey Mountain."
Nabiki's eyebrow raised even further. She knew all too well of the fiasco with the Battle Suit. In fact, she had found the whole situation a generous distraction from her day-to-day life. Although her life was exciting to a point, Ranma's presence gave it that... spontaneity she so longed for.
Of course, she didn't love him. As far as Nabiki understood, she was incapable of romantic love. The only love she was able to feel, or let herself feel was familial in nature. That's the only level she could let it go to... And Ranma himself lay within that area.
"And the argument?" Nabiki asked.
Ranma sighed. "Pop here wants to leave the idol out for the world to see--"
"I merely mentioned that to place it upon the shrine in the Dojo--"
"Shove it, old man!" Ranma said. "If there are people after this, then--"
Nabiki didn't hear the rest. People were after the idol, then? How interesting... That could only mean one thing... it was valuable. If people were after it, then that meant it was VERY valuable.
"I agree fully with Ranma," Nabiki said, stabbing her finger into the air for effect. "The shrine is not a wise place to keep it! In fact, I don't think it should be kept in any place easily accessible, or likely, either!"
Soun blinked. "Nabiki...?" he began.
"Therefore, being a daughter of the Tendo School of Anything-Goes Martial Arts, I shall do the duty that has been required of me and... assist in the stealth mission for the idol!"
Ranma's eyes crossed almost immediately. Was Nabiki serious? She couldn't...
Genma just stared at Nabiki, his facial expression a mixture of shock and confusion.
Soun, however... bought it hook, line and sinker. "Oh, Nabiki! I'm so proud of you, daughter! Finally taking to your roots within the Dojo."
Needless to say, Nabiki got to keep the idol with her.
"Let's see now," Nabiki said, talking to herself. "Paint job is good quality... no colouring outside the lines on this one."
She kept a monocle around for just such an occasion, which were admittedly not that often... For the occasion that she'd have to appraise jewelry, or pottery.
In this case, it was the latter.
She had brought the idol up to her room for further study or maybe a little more after a few drinks..., but after her original appraisal, had figured it wouldn't be worth much, therefore... there had to be a hidden worth buried within it.
Besides the fact that it looked like a bad knock-off of a toy dragon, there had been nothing else wrong with it. The paint job was perfect, in fact... you almost could swear the dragon itself was real, and that it was merely frozen in place on a white rock that just happened to be shaped as a cloud.
But it had been simple to determine that the dragon itself was made of ceramic. The sound of it hitting the floor was enough to prove that. Strangely enough, however, it hadn't broken.
But still... Even as Nabiki examined the thing closely with her monocle, she could swear there was something funny about the idol, even though her examinations hadn't shown anything out of the ordinary.
Nabiki yawned and looked out the window. The thing couldn't be worth anything, she thought as she stared out into the night, and it was already getting late. She got up and flipped the lights in her room off and lay down in her bed.
It wasn't until then that she realized what was so funny about the Idol.
The eyes... glowed.
No, they didn't move, or show any forms of life whatsoever, but the moment she noticed the eyes glowed, she flicked her light switch back on. She took a close look at the idol, paying close attention to the eyes. They glowed in the dark, and to an extent... glowed in the light. It just wasn't as noticeable.
She reached out to touch the dragon's eyes with her finger, half expecting to feel some form of heat. After all, light did shed heat, no matter what the source. It seemed conceivable that this... idol, did--
She paused in shock as her finger grew closer to the eye. It glowed deep red when she was nearly touching it. She withdrew her hand and watched the eyeball intently. It lightened its shade back to a dull yellow.
Experimentally, she reached for the other eyeball with her other hand, expecting something similar to happen.
And something did. It began to glow a dark blue, in opposite contrast to the deep red of the other eye.
Nabiki leaned back for a moment, staring at the idol. If one eye glowed blue, and the other red... then what would happen if she approached both at the same time?
Nabiki raised both of her hands to either side of the idol, reaching closer and closer to the beady eyes of the dragon. Soon, each eye began glowing deep red and blue, the colour strengthening as she drew nearer.
Finally, she cupped the idol with her hands, and pressed her thumbs onto the eyes. She expected nothing to happen.
But she hadn't expected the unexpected.
Nabiki let out a wild shriek as the world erupted in a flash of painful light.