Halftime

By Aaron Ziegler
spanner@visi.com

Chapter 15: Mark Time

Nabiki couldn't believe what she was hearing. She narrowed her eyes and said, "Let me get this straight. You're accusing me of using the time machine to obtain fabulous wealth, and then sabotaging it so that no one would be able to prevent me from using it to travel to the past to live out my days in unspeakable luxury?" Nabiki rolled her eyes as five heads solemnly nodded. "Well Ranko I could understand. She hasn't exactly been playing with a full deck lately." Ranko scowled at Nabiki for that. "But you can't honestly believe that anyone else would buy this insane theory of yours?"

As if on cue, Nabiki's father ran into the room, weeping. "Oh, the tragedy! My own flesh and blood, a traitor to humanity! Nabiki, how could you!"

"Calm down, Dad!" Akane sighed. "We don't know for sure that she did it. I mean, this would be a little low, even for Nabiki."

Tears flowing freely down his face, which was itself a mask of purest agony, Soun sobbed, "We can't...take that chance. Nabiki! Until this is sorted out, you are not to leave this house."

"But Daddy-"

"I'm sorry, Nabiki," Soun whimpered. "This is hurting me more than it hurts you."

"I don't believe this!" Nabiki, beginning to realize that her friends and father were serious, turned a desperate gaze onto Lucca. "Lucca, not you, too?"

Lucca nodded, not quite able to meet Nabiki's eyes. "It's only for a while. I don't think you did it, but this is too important to risk anything. I'm sorry."

Abruptly, Nabiki seemed to calm down. "Okay, then! You can count on me!"

This did little to assuage the suspicions of her inquisitors. "What's the trick, Nabiki?" Ranko asked, eyes narrowed.

"A trick? Moi? Surely you must be joking. I've just realized that this is all for the best, and you're all looking out for the interests of humankind."

"Riiight," said Ranko, but didn't protest further. Of course, she had a right to be suspicious. Nabiki had no intention of obeying this preposterous house arrest. She knew she was not guilty of the crimes she had been accused, but she did intend to find out who was. But by playing along for now, she might avoid ending up locked away where her investigations would be useless.

Speaking of investigations, Nabiki had a good idea where to start. Nabiki had no idea what motives he might have had for committing the crimes she was accused of, but Magus was the shadiest character in Nerima next to herself. And Nabiki had an edge on that angle. As far as the others knew, Magus had vanished into thin air days ago, but Nabiki knew that he was still in town. She wasn't sure where he was staying, or how he was hiding himself, but she did know of one other person who had seen Magus lately.

Fortunately, Nabiki's inquisitors were not so mistrustful as to assign her a guard. The moment she was alone again, Nabiki headed for her room. She picked up her phone and tapped in a number. A few rings later, a wimpy, pathetic voice answered, "Gosunguki residence. Hikaru speaking."

"Hey, Gos, Nabiki here."

Suspicion edged Gosunguki's voice. "Yes? What do you want?"

"Calm down. I just want some information-"

"I should have known!" Gosunguki ranted. "Every time I deal with you it comes back to haunt me."

"Now, now," Nabiki soothed. "I'm a friend, remember? I introduced you to a real black sorcerer--free of charge--and now you reward me with these baseless accusations? I'm hurt." This wasn't entirely true. Nabiki had been paid for introducing Magus to Gosunguki, just not by Gosunguki. Magus had promised and delivered the names of several brands of fertilizer that Dark Fruit tended to thrive on, in exchange for the names of everyone in town who might have some access to magical materials. Other than Cologne, Gosunguki seemed the best possibility. He was a miserable failure of a warlock, but he had accumulated a huge collection of spell components for his experiments. Nabiki continued, "Besides, I just want to know where he is, that's all."

Gosunguki hardly seemed soothed. "I don't know where he is," he snapped.

Nabiki's eyes narrowed. Sweetly, she responded, "C'mon, Gos, tell the truth. You know how I upset I get when people lie. I just might accidentally let Akane in on your little secret, hmmm?"

"What?" Gosunguki's voice squeaked. "You know about the memory-altering spell Magus and I were working on to make Akane like me? How did you find out?" Nabiki almost laughed out loud. Gosunguki was so easy to manipulate it was absolutely pathetic. Nabiki had, of course, known nothing of what Gosunguki and Magus were doing together. Gosunguki continued babbling, "No, don't tell me how you found out. I don't really want to know. But believe me, I don't know where he is! I don't even know if the spell worked! I blacked out before it was done, and Magus was gone. I haven't seen him since. Please don't tell Akane!"

"I'll think about it," Nabiki responded. "'Bye, now!" Before Gosunguki could protest, plead, or grovel further, Nabiki hung up. Keep 'em sweating. A good rule to remember in any bargaining situation.

All in all, Nabiki was disappointed. She had hoped that Gosunguki would know more about where Magus was hiding. Still, the news she had gotten was interesting. A memory-altering spell? Nabiki was starting to get a feel for the type of man Magus was, and she knew that he probably didn't care one bit about Gosunguki's crush on Akane. He would have used Gosunguki to get whatever he wanted, and then discarded him without a second thought. This spell, then, would seem to have been his goal. But what would he have used it for? Something for Ukyou, probably. He seemed to have a soft spot for her.

Then Nabiki had another thought. 'Has anyone been acting oddly lately, like their memory has been changed? Of course. Ranko. She thinks she's really a boy. But why? Revenge? I know that the two of them didn't exactly hit it off, but this seems like a rather petty way of getting back at her. There has to be more. And where does the Epoch fit into all this?' Nabiki shook her head. She needed more information before she stood a chance of solving this particular mystery.

* * * * * *

Kasumi was washing dishes when a knock came from the front door. She paused a moment to see if anyone else would answer it. The knocking came again. Kasumi sighed, and wiped her hands on a towel. A few strides brought the girl to the front door. She opened it to find a marching band of no fewer than fifty members on the other side, dressed smartly in uniforms of blue and red. She blinked. The marching band was still there, standing on a lawn still wet from the brief, but heavy, downpour of a few hours before. The director was standing directly in front of her. "May I help you?" Kasumi asked kindly.

The director gazed at the girl with cold, slate-grey eyes set in a harsh, angular face. "Is this the home of Soun Tendo, owner of the Anything-Goes Martial Arts Dojo?"

"Why, yes, it is." Kasumi studied the man before her. 'He seems like a nice enough fellow,' Kasumi thought, 'though perhaps not as nice as many of the people I know.' For Kasumi, a thought like that was tantamount to open dislike. Whoever this visitor was, Kasumi had come as close to hating him on sight as it was possible for her to come.

"I'd like to speak with him," the man continued. "Immediately."

"I'll fetch him. Father!" Kasumi called, turning around. She spotted him sitting at the Shogi board with Genma, the latter in panda form.

Without taking his eyes from the board, Soun answered, "What is it, Kasumi?"

"Father, there's a marching band on the front lawn, and the director wants to talk to you."

Soun's head turned, and Genma's paws moved like lightning, rearranging pieces on the board far faster than the eye could follow. Suddenly, Soun was at a clear strategic disadvantage. Soun didn't even notice. He was already striding toward the door. "A marching band, you say?" Kasumi stepped back, and Soun looked outside. The band was still there, standing at attention. The director was gazing at him with cold contempt. Unlike Kasumi, Soun had the ability to dislike a man on sight, and Soun could tell at a glance that this man was not one he'd come to like.

Nevertheless, Soun smiled warmly and said, "I'm Soun Tendo. We don't get many marching bands around here. What can I do for you?"

"You can get out," the director responded. "We require your Dojo for a base of operations."

Soun's eyes narrowed. "Who do you think you are? You can't just-"

Soun was cut off by an unexpected kick to the midsection. The kick sent him flying backwards onto the floor. As he lay wheezing on the floor, the director said, "I am Major Antonov Liedowitschiovski Zielioskowitz, supreme director of the Kielowitz International Martial Arts Marching Band. You may refer to me as the Director. And I do as I please. Now, you have a choice: Leave, or be removed."

By this time, Kasumi had decided that their visitors just might not be friendly. Unhurriedly, she walked upstairs to warn the others. The Director, if he even noticed her, paid no attention.

Disturbed by the commotion, Genma trundled forth to investigate. At the sight of Soun sprawled on the floor, a low growl began in his throat. The Director barely spared him a glance. "Your pet panda won't save you, Soun. I'm more than a match for any dumb animal. I suggest that you surrender."

Genma charged, and the Director lazily threw a punch. To his mild surprise, the panda easily evaded it, cuffing the man backwards with a powerful swing of his own. The Director picked himself off of the ground, and glared hatefully at Soun, who had stepped out onto the porch, Genma at his side. "Impressive," he snapped scornfully. "But even with a fighting panda at your side, fifty to two are not good odds."

"How 'bout fifty to ten?" called out a new voice. It was Ranko. She, Akane, Ryoga, Crono, Lucca, Marle, Robo, and Frog had come to stand behind Genma and Soun.

"I know it hardly seems fair," smirked Ryoga, cracking his knuckles, "but we'll try to go easy on you."

The Director stood arrow straight, narrowing his eyes at the new development. He was no fool. He had researched thoroughly before deciding the martial artists of the Tendo Dojo to be the greatest threat to his plans. Ranko and Akane, he knew, had overcome every danger yet presented to Soun's Dojo, and were probably the greatest threat. As for the one who had cracked his knuckles...the Director blinked in surprise. It was Ryoga Hibiki, the most infamous character in Kielowitz history! What Ryoga had been doing in Kielowitz the Director had never been able to determine, but the infuriating fellow had overcome every effort made by the Kielowitz military to detain him. He, too, was a formidable fighter. The rest of the fighters before him were unfamiliar. Many bore weapons, but the Director was confident in the ability of his minions to overwhelm them. He sneered at Soun and said, "Very well. I had hoped to avoid the messiness of direct combat, but my band could use the practice." He turned to his band. "Section leader Blattislov! Section leader Noranov! Section leader Troffimov! Attention!"

Three members of the band stepped forward. Blattislov was a squat, bulky man whose beady eyes glared out from a puffy face. He carried a bass drum nearly as large as he was. Noranov was a tall, willowy woman with the same sort of slate grey eyes possessed by her Director. She carried her trombone with the same leisurely grace one might expect to see in a hunting panther. Troffimov, for his part, bore a tenor saxophone. He was almost as tall as Noranov, but somewhat more muscular. A huge, awkward-looking red moustache was spread across his face under his blotchy red nose. His eyes were hidden behind dark sunglasses.

The Director barked some more commands. "Section leader Blattislov! Drum solo! Target: Akane Tendo. Section leader Noranov! Trombone solo! Target: Ryoga Hibiki! Section leader Troffimov! Saxophone solo! Target: Ranko Saotome! Second, third, and fourth chair trumpets! Converge on primary target: Soun Tendo. Everyone else, choose your targets at will." With each command, the Director had swung an ivory director's baton in a complex pattern, apparently providing additional commands in a more subtle coded manner (as well as pointing out each target as he or she was named). "Kielowitz International Martial Arts Marching Band, you may take the field in competition. Begin!"

Noranov, in uniformRyoga was the first to engage in combat. He remembered seeing the Kielowitz banner once before. He strained his mind, trying to remember where that tiny country had been. Somewhere between Zimbabwe and Ontario, of that he was certain. The officials there had seemed pushy and rude, and he had been eager to leave. Judging by the infantry, tanks, and light armor he had left in ruins, they had been just as eager to keep him there. This was the first he had seen of any marching band, though. Not that it mattered. He wasn't going to stand aside and let them march into Akane's home! Ryoga charged at the young woman the Director had named Noranov, drawing his umbrella as he ran. Noranov seemed pretty confident, but didn't look very tough. She wasn't nearly as muscular as Ryoga, and whatever anyone else might say, raw power was a major factor in a fight, especially when one possessed the raw power of Ryoga Hibiki.

"So, this is the great Ryoga Hibiki," Noranov grinned. "I'm not impressed. Well, c'mon, let's see what you're made of." Ryoga swung his umbrella at his opponent's head. The blow was aimed to knock the opponent silly, rather than cause any permanent harm. It was Ryoga's hope to finish this fight quickly, so that he would be able to help Akane deal with that drummer. Unfortunately, as even Ryoga might have guessed, the fight was not to be won that easily. With a clang of bamboo on metal, Noranov casually blocked Ryoga's umbrella with the edge of her horn. She then gasped, eyes widening as the umbrella's momentum pushed her back a few feet. She had learned an important lesson: Ryoga's umbrella was not a weapon to be blocked casually. Whatever the thing was made of, few were capable of lifting Ryoga's umbrella, let alone fighting with it, let alone swinging it with the careful precision Ryoga displayed. Noranov smiled slightly. Ryoga might have mass, but a nice way to counter mass was with velocity. "Brute force will never prevail against a master of Trombitsu," she admonished Ryoga with a grin. Noranov began to spin her instrument like a baton, faster and faster, until the trombone was a mere blur. Like lightning, she lashed out at her target. Ryoga was barely able to block in time, and in doing so was pushed back himself. 'Ha, this is going to be easy,' thought the grinning trombonist. Soon, the steady, rhythmic (and yet, rather absurd) sound of umbrella clashing against trombone filled the air.

As Ryoga engaged his opponent, Ranma carefully eyed the two remaining "soloists", who were purposefully advancing on Akane and herself. She called out to Akane, "Stay back, Akane! I can take 'em."

Akane was irritated. "Ranko, how many times do I have to tell you..." Akane put her mouth up to Ranma's ear. "I CAN FIGHT, TOO!!!" she screamed. With that, she jumped away from a stunned Ranma and prepared to charge Blattislov.

Ranma was irritated. "Stupid tomboy," she muttered darkly, trying to ignore the fierce ringing in her ears. "Just don't want her to get hurt, that's all. It's my responsibility as her fiancee-" Suddenly she stopped, her face taking on a pained expression. Fiancee. It was a topic she had yet to take up with Akane. Had she forgotten that Ranma was her fiancee? Though it hurt Ranma to the core of her being, she suspected that yes, she had forgotten. But as long as Ranma didn't ask, she could pretend that that, at least, was still sacred. Ranma's world was in a shambles, but she clung to every piece with a desperate tenacity. None of that mattered now. Whatever her gender, Ranma could still fight, and that was what was called for now.

Ranma turned to his opponent and assumed a wary fighting stance. "Well, c'mon, ya horn-playin' jerk! What're ya waitin' for!"

Troffimov began to swagger forward. "A mere slip of a girl is no match for the Terrible Troffimov, student of the formidable school of Saxophone Tai Chi," he sneered around his moustache.

Ranma's face heated with anger. "I'm a MAN!" she snarled, charging at the saxophonist, fist flying. Ranma fist found its mark--with a clang? Glancing downwards, Ranma could see that Troffimov had blocked her punch with his saxophone. Specifically, the bell of the saxophone. Ranma's hand was now thoroughly wedged in the bell. Ranma grunted, as she attempted to pull her fist free.

Troffimov seemed oblivious to Ranma's attempts to free herself, and was examining Ranma thoughtfully. "Hmmm, a man, you say? Well if you're not a woman," he paused, and poked at Ranma's chest for emphasis, "then you are an amazing facsimile."

"You pervert!" Ranma shrieked, swinging wildly with her other fist. Ranma, it seemed, was not at her best that day.

Troffimov caught the fist with his free hand. "Now, now," he tsked. "Name-calling is a childish way to fight. Allow me to demonstrate a finer method." Troffimov released Ranma's second fist, and unleashed a flurry of kicks and punches. Ranma tried to dodge. She was more than fast enough to do so, but Troffimov constantly jerked Ranma off balance by her trapped arm. As a result, Ranma took a nasty beating. Finally, though, Ranma was able to fall backwards, pulling Troffimov with her. She hooked the saxophonist with a leg and threw him over her head. With a distinct pop, and the unpleasant sensation that her arm had been ripped out of its socket, Ranma's hand popped free.

Ranma stood and rubbed her sore shoulder, ignoring, for the moment, the many other cuts and bruises Troffimov had just granted her. 'Not a great start,' Ranma thought ruefully. 'Still, if I can avoid getting trapped again, I should be able to handle him.'

Troffimov had landed badly, but was back on his feet. He had taken a new grip on his saxophone, and was now holding it like a sickle. Another quick glance revealed that the inside curvature of the saxophone was, in fact, edged like a sickle. 'I should be able to handle him, IF he doesn't have too many more surprises up his sleeves,' Ranma amended grimly. She and Troffimov began their duel in earnest.

Akane, for her part, was becoming very frustrated. Every time she tried to get close to Blattislov, the drummer would turn, constantly keeping his huge drum between them, thwarting her every attack. Blattislov, however, was free to fling his two large, heavy drum mallets at Akane. They would strike with the force of a punch, and then ricochet back into the waiting drummer's hands. Akane had taken many hits, and was bleeding from the corner of her mouth where her lip had been split by a nasty blow to the face. Akane knew that she had to do something. At the rate she was going, Akane was going to lose without ever throwing a punch. She had tried every way she could think of to get around Blattislov's drum...but what about over it? Grinning, Akane grabbed the ridged front of the bass drum, and began to climb.

Blattislov buckled for a moment under the added weight, his beady eyes narrowing. "Stupid girl. It takes more than that to overcome a fighter skilled in the arts of Drum-Fu." Blattislov began to somersault forward. Akane, still clinging to the front of the drum, found herself on the ground again, this time with a drum and drummer beginning to roll over her. Her legs were already painfully pinned. Fortunately, Blattislov's forward momentum gave Akane the leverage she needed to lift Blattislov, drum and all, into the air. Akane, though not nearly as strong as Ryoga, was certainly capable of that much. With a grunt, Akane heaved the drummer aside, where he landed in an awkward heap. She took the momentary respite to stand again. Her legs were numb, and just starting to throb with pain, but she felt confident she could manage. At least she hoped she could manage. Blattislov returned to the fight, a bit warier, but no less determined.

Soun and Genma were holding nine trumpeters at bay. It was fortunate for the two of them that none of the trumpeters fought with the skill exhibited by the three soloists. But nine to two were not good odds, especially when the two were constantly thrown off guard by the unfamiliar fighting style they faced. The stances the musicians assumed while attacking and blocking with their trumpets were bizarre, to say the least. That the trumpets were each tipped by an eight-inch bayonet-like blade did not help matters one iota.

Crono and his merry band were fighting with varying degrees of success. Their opponents were not fighting with lethal force, and so neither were they. This was awkward at times. A crossbow is not a weapon suited to hand-to-hand combat, and so Marle was forced to use it more or less as a bludgeon. Lucca had opted for a heavy, long-handled hammer (evidently one of her tools), and was cheerfully bashing her way through her opponents. Crono was easily holding his own, parrying instrumental attacks with careful swings and parries, but Frog was truly a wonder. The keen edge of the Masamune sliced through instrument after instrument like a knife through butter, Frog's expert skill leaving every musician unscratched. In most cases, the loss of instrument caused the holder to flee. Evidently, few members of the Kielowitz International Martial Arts Marching Band could fight without their instruments. Of Crono's friends, only Robo had been defeated. Robo had been in human form when the fight began, and now lay unconscious on the ground. Though she was learning fast, her martial arts training had not yet prepared her for a fight like this.

Regrettably, the Director had apparently decided that enough was enough. Raising his baton, he shouted, "Kielowitz International Marching Band! Attention!" Abruptly, every conscious member of the band froze and stood tall. The sudden loss of fighting partners threw the defending martial artists totally off balance for a moment. They merely stood, confused, as the Director continued, "Prepare for the Kielowitz Ultimate Harmonic Strike: Dischord! Horns up!" Every remaining instrument was lifted into position. "Play!"

An odd sort of music filled the air. It somehow seemed beautiful, soothing. Yet, the tune seemed somehow tainted. A jarring undercurrent rode on that lovely song. The undercurrent seemed to grab each of the marching band's opponents by the gut. Ranma could feel the tainted song growing stronger and stronger, more and more painful. Her head began to throb, and she managed to scream before darkness overwhelmed her.

* * * * * *

From her own vantage point from her room's window, Nabiki watched the scene below her in fascination. She, too, had heard the marching band's harmonic strike, yet was apparently unaffected--most likely because she was not at ground zero. Those who had been, however, were now unconscious and airborne, their bodies tossed like rag dolls away from the Tendo home in every direction. Nabiki sighed and fingered the spearhead hanging from her neck. 'Looks like Ranma and company have lost this round,' she thought. Tiredly, she turned to her sister, who had been watching the battle with her. Kasumi's eyes were wide. "C'mon, Kasumi. Looks like we'll be eating out tonight."

"Oh, my."

Afterword:

Ahh, finally something truly original. The Kielowitz International Martial Arts Marching Band is entirely a product of my own Dark Id. Any resemblance between it, its members, or its country of origin and any other marching bands, people, or countries is entirely coincidental.

Once again, we come across the First Victory Syndrome. Namely, the Kielowitz International Martial Arts Marching Band made the always-fatal mistake of defeating Ranma in their first clash with him/her and his/her friends. This means that said Marching Band is Toast. Oh, well, such is life. But don't let the fact that their end is assured prevent you from reading subsequent chapters.

Chrono Trigger Tip #15:

I can't get into Cyrus's Tomb. How do I destroy this weird ghost that's guarding the staircase?

You bastard! That's Cyrus's ghost! Hasn't he suffered enough!?!

Sheesh, sorry. Well, what do I do with the ghost, then?

*Muttering* It's just like you filthy barbarians...If you find something you don't understand, the first thing you try to do is hack it to bits...I don't even know why I bother to try to teach you thick-skulled, yoghurt-brained heaps of mindless muscle anything at all...

Look, I said I was sorry. Besides, it attacked me first, and none of my weapons could touch it!

Oh, so he's an 'IT' now, is he? Did you ever stop to consider HIS feelings on the subject, sitting and rotting for 400 years, still feeling guilty for leaving his best friend at Magus's mercy? It's enough to make anyone cranky, even without being reduced to an 'it' by some grotesque excuse for a 'hero', who only seems interested in carving his initials into your face!

Please, I'll make it up to him! What do I need to do?

Go back to the past, and work your way through Cyrus's Tomb to Cyrus's grave. Make sure Frog is in your party. He and Cyrus can have a touching reunion, and then Cyrus's spirit will be put to rest. Voila, no more ghost, and you didn't even have to chop it to bits.

Wait a sec. There's all these holes in the floor. How can I proceed?

Get the carpenter from the town south of Cyrus's Tomb to help you.

Some carpenter! He doesn't even have any tools!

You're right, he is a pathetic excuse for a carpenter. His descendant is even worse, but at least he has tools. Go to 1000 A.D., and ask the wife of the carpenter's descendant to borrow his tools, and then return with them to the past. The carpenter won't be able to think of any further excuse to avoid work, but he will charge you through the nose for his services.

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