Halftime

By Aaron Ziegler
spanner@visi.com

Chapter 20: Wartime

The next day, everyone gathered at the center of the village. Shampoo had been restored by Nabiki (obviously, Ranma couldn't do it; it was uncertain which prospect unnerved him more: approaching Shampoo in cat form before applying the cure, or having to deal with a naked, extremely grateful human Shampoo afterwards), and was determined to be at the front lines when the fighting began. She had been as startled as Mousse had when she learned that Ayla was one of the founders of the Joketsuzoku, and felt honored to help them fight their war.

Mousse himself was in a pickle. The moment the spell had been broken, his obsessive love for Shampoo had come crashing back. Yet, his budding romance with Lucca was still fresh in his mind. For the first time in his life, Mousse's devotion to Shampoo was slipping. Overhearing his half-crazed mutterings regarding Lucca and Shampoo, Kunou, no stranger to multiple loves (or obsessions, as the case may be), had offered sympathetic (if overbearing and impractical) advice to the torn boy. Mousse ungraciously responded with a barrage of blunt hidden weapons that left the arrogant upperclassman in a crumpled heap.

Lucca, for her part, felt cheated, and perhaps justifiably so. The romance was just as fresh in her mind, and Shampoo's reintrusion onto the scene was most unwelcome. Where Lucca had before been indifferent to Shampoo, confident that she could win Mousse over eventually, now she had become openly hostile to the Chinese Amazon. Shampoo, never one to back down from a challenge, met Lucca's hostility with smug confidence.

"Fire girl never turn Mousse's stupid head," Shampoo informed Lucca, when she first noticed Lucca's anger. "Mousse always faithful to Shampoo, when not under spell." For her own part, Shampoo wasn't entirely certain that that was true. Mousse stared with disturbing regularity at both Lucca and herself, and Shampoo had the uncomfortable suspicion that it had nothing to do with his phenomenally poor vision. Leaving nothing to chance, Shampoo occasionally engaged in an activity which, to the untrained eye, might resemble flirting with Mousse. Of course, she would never actually flirt with Mousse. 'I'm just getting back at Lucca,' she told herself firmly, 'she has no right to be angry with me. SHE didn't spend the last several days as a cat! I care nothing for Mousse. Ranma is my husband. Mousse is weak, stupid--a NOTHING.' But no matter how she tried to convince herself, some part of Shampoo's mind envisioned a future without Mousse doting on her, and dreaded the thought.

Ukyou, to a lesser extent, also felt cheated. For a brief, but wonderful, time, she had had Ranma all to herself (even if he had been stuck as a girl, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown). Now, once again, she had to share him with both Shampoo and Akane. The whole situation had put her into a rather bad mood, and she was looking forward to taking out her aggression on the Jusenkyo armies in the coming struggle.

Ryoga had much less trouble adjusting. While enchanted, he had still felt that Ranma (or Ranko) was standing between himself and Akane. If he had ever stopped to wonder how she could have been standing between them, he might have found himself at a loss. But the truth was, Ryoga most often acted according to impulse, rarely stopping to think whether a course of action was sensible or not. So, when he returned to normal, it was business as usual for Ryoga, with only a small mental footnote to remind him that, for some reason, he had thought Ranma was a girl for several days.

Nabiki had been cleared of her wrongdoing by Magus, who was now perfectly willing to return the dreamstone box he had removed from the Epoch. He claimed that he had sabotaged the vehicle in another attempt to persuade them from trying to destroy Lavos, a quest he still considered foolhardy. However, he did deny ever having flown the Epoch anywhere, which left the mystery partly unsolved. 'And so will it remain, if I have any say in the matter,' thought Cologne.

But there was another matter that concerned Cologne even more than preserving the secret of her unauthorized time travel. Once freed from Magus's spell, she had recognized it as a subtle and insidious type of hypnotic suggestion--the most efficient types of mental control are those that set the mind against itself. Whoever had cast the spell had merely added a few minor details to the memories of all the victims, and left it to the victims' own minds to work out how the new knowledge could be possible. Cologne felt it imperative to learn the identity of the sorcerer who had enchanted the town. Who had enchanted HER.

Akane and Ranma, of course, had their own happy reunion. The moment the spell had been broken, Akane had realized how rotten her treatment of Ranma had been, however unintentional. She had found Ranma, just as she had been applying hot water to herself to finally return to normal after having used Magus's vial. At first, Ranma had been overjoyed to be on speaking terms with his fiancee once more. After a few minutes of conversation, however, Ranma had begun to realize how dangerously close to commitment the words he had hysterically spoken the day before had brought him. His first mistake was probably when he began to plead insanity.

Akane had dropped her tenderness like a rock. "Insanity?!? What do you mean by that?"

Ranma's second mistake, was to have answered that question.

"RANMA YOU JERK!!!"

Ranma's third mistake was failing to dodge Akane's mallet.

So, as Ranma and the others made plans for the coming struggle, he and Akane were once again not on speaking terms. Still, Ranma was almost relieved. As far as he was concerned, everything was back to normal. Such as normal was.

It had been agreed that most of them would help the Joketsuzoku warriors in the main battle, but a group of seven would try to infiltrate the heart of the enemy camp and take down the Sorcerer of Jusenkyo himself. Those seven were to be the most powerful fighters and magic-users of the group: Cologne, Ranma, Lucca, Magus, Robo (in robot form, this time), Frog, and Ayla. Nabiki, not really suited for combat, had volunteered to put her minor medical training to work aiding the wounded in the struggle to come.

* * * * * *

A few hours later, Akane was scanning the horizon, looking for some sign of the huge army they were about to fight. Ayla had provided a few more details regarding their tactical situation. As she had mentioned, the Joketsuzoku were in dire straits. For quite some time now, Ayla's crafty strategies had been abandoned in favor of merely trying to halt the enemy's assault, and without a great deal of success. Each day, the Jusenkyo armies would battle the Joketsuzoku from dawn until dusk, and at dusk the Jusenkyo had inevitably gained a few miles of territory. It was Ayla's hope that the new additions to the army would be enough to shatter the oncoming foes, or at the very least, confuse them long enough for the special strike force to take out their leader, the Sorcerer of Jusenkyo.

There. Akane could just barely pick out a few tiny, black dots on the far horizon. The few dots became hundreds, and then thousands, until it seemed that there was a solid mass of foes approaching.

Abruptly, Akane realized that her allies had begun to move towards the oncoming mass. Not wanting to be left behind (though not particularly eager to move ahead), Akane marched with them. All too soon, the opposing armies collided.

A fierce looking warrior with a spear charged at Akane. Akane stepped sideways, grabbed the spear, and swung the spearman into a group of Jusenkyo-cursed wolf-soldiers that were approaching from the left. Continuing the motion, Akane's leg whirled around to impact a sword-bearing warrior, knocking him senseless. A spear drove towards Akane's head. She casually ducked it, lashing out at its owner with a fist while kicking backwards at a warrior who had tried to sneak up behind her. The spearman collapsed bonelessly, while the warrior gasped for breath. Before he could draw one, however, Akane had grabbed him and thrown him at a group of three that had chosen just the wrong moment to strike.

Akane was granted a moment to breathe, and she almost laughed. These guys were pathetic. They were no more difficult than the hordes of boys that she used to have to fight every morning before school. Akane scowled a moment at the memory. That moron Kunou had declared that no one would be allowed to date Akane unless they were able to defeat her in battle. So, naturally, hundreds of Akane's hormone-crazed classmates made the attempt. Daily. All at once. It had eventually led Akane to hate boys with a passion. It had only stopped when Ranma publicly beat the stuffing out of Kunou for the first time. "At least the pervert was good for something," Akane muttered darkly. "Yipe!" Akane barely moved in time to avoid a vicious stroke from a scimitar. 'Better keep my mind on the fight,' she thought. 'There's one important difference between these guys and the boys at school: These guys are trying to kill me.'

* * * * * *

Ryoga yearned to come to Akane's aid, but everywhere he turned were enemy warriors, generally trying to poke various sharp objects into him. It rapidly became clear to Ryoga that he was going to have to rescue himself before he could do anything to help Akane. Ryoga's massive umbrella swept through the enemies like an iron bar through tissue paper, giving Ryoga the chance to unwrap several bandanas from his head. He twirled them until their whirling edges were as keen as razors, and launched them at a number of foes. The bandanas cut through weapons, shields, and the occasional limb with ease. Ryoga took a few more bandanas from his head to prepare for the next assault. (It is uncertain how many bandanas Ryoga is actually wearing at any given moment, and it is unknown whether even Ryoga knows for sure. One thing is certain, however. Ryoga always has enough bandanas to last through any given battle while still leaving at least one on his head.)

* * * * * *

Bonbouri met skull with a sickening crunch. Shampoo pulled the balloon-like mace free and whirled to meet her next opponent. 'This was what it truly means to be an Amazon,' she thought exuberantly as she parried a descending sword. 'The battle rush, enemies dropping before your skill... If only Ranma were here to watch me fight!'

The corner of Shampoo's eye caught sight of Ukyou. The spatula-wielding girl threw a spread of throwing spatulas, and each found its mark in a vital, but decidedly non-lethal, area of the opponents body. Three dropped to the ground, clutching at a knee or ankle, and one dropped his weapon as a sharpened spatula thunked into his wrist. Shampoo smirked and asked, "Spatula girl no have stomach for to kill?"

Ukyou smirked in return, "Anyone can kill, Shampoo. It takes true skill to cripple without killing." Ukyou paused to slam her combat spatula into the face of an attacker. "Besides, this is more efficient. Kill, and you stop one fighter. Cripple, and you stop three." Ukyou gestured and Shampoo turned to look. Two Jusenkyo soldiers had stopped fighting to drag a wounded comrade to safety. Certainly they would be back, but probably not before the battle was decided.

Shampoo turned away from Ukyou's smug look. "What she know, anyway?" Shampoo grumbled to herself petulantly. Still, as Shampoo continued to fight, her bonbouri crushed fewer skulls, and more legs.

* * * * * *

Crono and Kunou were fighting back to back (to their mutual disgust). "Your skill with the blade is almost passable," sneered Kunou. "You might almost be a match for the mighty Blue Thunder."

Cleaving a few opponents as he spoke, Crono answered that he was already more than a match for the 'mighty' Blue Thunder, sword-on-sword. Kunou barked a short laugh as he jerked his bloodied bokken free of its latest unlucky target. "Surely you jest? Were it not for your foul magicks, I would long since have claimed your cowardly hide."

Failing to hide his irritation, Crono responded that he had beaten Kunou to a pulp many times without using any magic at all. "Mere flukes," Kunou retorted. "A true warrior would not be afraid to acknowledge his betters." Crono fought the urge to turn that last statement back on Kunou, and began steadfastly to ignore the arrogant kendo champion.

* * * * * *

"Just like old times, eh Saotome?" asked Soun, fist connecting with a jaw. "Watch your left."

Genma kicked to the left and felt flesh and bone yield to his strike, "Thanks Tendo. Remember when the Master stiffed us with the bill at that seedy joint in Kyoto? Behind you."

Soun grabbed the spearman that was approaching from behind and threw him over his shoulder. "Exactly what I was thinking, Saotome. Except that those men didn't have swords and spears. Just dull knives and chopsticks. Together?"

"Of course." The two of them leapt into the air with a dual jump kick, simultaneously striking an unlucky spearman. "Yes, those were the days."

"What?" asked Soun, somewhat incredulously.

"Not good days, mind. Just the days."

"Of course," Soun answered, relaxing.

* * * * * *

Mousse's heart wasn't really in the battle. Whenever anyone would get too close, he would fire up his Hypno Wave for a few moments until he had a space to himself again. But even considering the device's effectiveness, the enemy seemed very reluctant to approach Mousse. Perhaps it was because he didn't seem quite sane.

"Shampoo, my darling, I love you!" he muttered. "But Lucca. What about Lucca?" Mousse flung out an arm, and a heavy chain lashed out and wrapped around an archer who had decided to aim a shot at the nearly immobile master of hidden weapons. Mousse reeled him in, grabbed him by the neck and snarled, "Which one should I choose?!?" The terrified archer, understanding not a word, merely soiled his trousers in response. Losing interest, Mousse swung the man around and around on his chain, finally flinging him into the air. The archer landed with a 'thud' atop a few of his fellow soldiers. Suddenly, Mousse caught a flash of purple out of the corner of his eye. "Shampoo!" he shouted, suddenly terrified for his love's life. "How dare you try to harm my Shampoo!?" Mousse leapt to his feet, half a dozen swords suddenly sprouting fanlike from each sleeve, and began to run towards the vaguely purple haze that he recognized as Shampoo. A few of the wiser warriors moved out of Mousse's way, while a few others fainted. The particularly stupid ones (not recognizing berserker-like obsession when they saw it), tried to stop Mousse, generally joining their fainted comrades on the ground, except in smaller chunks.

* * * * * *

Miss Hinako grunted as she pulled her eight-year-old body up onto a ridge. She peered out over the battlefield. 'Much better,' she thought. 'Even better than the Tendo roof. I have to remember that in the future: it's much easier to zap delinquents from the high ground.' She flipped out her 5 Yen coin and aimed it at the bulk of the attacking force. "Happo-5-Yen-Satsu!" she cried. The beam of light stabbed into the closely packed soldiers. Within seconds, Miss Hinako was nearing her capacity. She adjusted her aim, and executed her 'Coin-Return' technique, carving a hole in the enemy ranks until her energy was depleted again. The teacher proceeded to take an incredible toll on the Jusenkyo fighting force. 'This is too easy,' Miss Hinako thought with a smirk, aiming her coin once again.

Thunk. White-hot pain raced up and down the disciplinarian's arm, and the coin dropped from her limp fingers. Miss Hinako yelped and stared at her left hand, which, for some reason, had an arrow stuck through it. Another arrow appeared in her right shoulder, and Miss Hinako suddenly realized a major drawback to her chosen position. It left her exposed. Frantically, she scrambled to climb down from the ridge. Unfortunately, her injuries made climbing difficult, and she lost her grip. With a brief cry, the teacher plummeted to the ground a dozen feet below her. Her head impacted the hard earth, and Miss Hinako blacked out.

Fortunately, this did not go unnoticed. "Miss Hinako's gonna need your special touch, Marle," Nabiki noted as she wrapped a bandage around the arm of a wounded Amazon. Marle nodded, pausing only long enough to use 'Cure1' on one of the relatively few male warriors fighting on their side.

Marle crouched by Miss Hinako's side. She wasn't too badly wounded, actually--it had looked much worse than it actually was. But she needed to be moved, that was certain. The Jusenkyo archers had apparently decided that Miss Hinako was one that they particularly wanted out of the picture, and were sending a steady hail of arrows their way. She carefully grasped the child-like woman under the arms--and then collapsed, choking, as a lucky arrow found its mark in her throat.

Crono shrieked Marle's name, and desperately began to hack his way free of his present opposition to get to her. To his surprise, Kunou began to cover for him. "Tend to them," Kunou ordered. "By my honor, none shall hinder you in your errand of mercy."

Freed for the moment from opponents, Crono ran breathlessly to Marle's side. She was near death, Crono was certain, so the time for subtlety had passed. He carefully worked the arrow free, and chanted the word 'Life'. Marle was bathed in a golden beam of light, just as Nabiki had under 'Life2', but when the light dimmed, she was still wounded, and she was still unconscious. She was, however, no longer in danger of dying. At least, if Crono could get her to safety. Crono quickly gathered the two fallen figures and dragged them away.

* * * * * *

The tide was turning, and for the worse. Mousse had somehow tripped and knocked himself silly while trying to reach Shampoo. She and Ukyou were now standing over Mousse, fighting desperately to keep him safe. There was no sign of Ryoga. Either he had fallen in battle, or (more likely) had just gotten lost. Soun and Genma, for their part, were beginning to tire. Worse, they had run out of old stories to amuse one another with, and were fighting in grim silence. Kunou, for his part, was fighting like a man possessed, but without Crono's assistance would not be likely to last. Kunou himself grimly realized this, and cursed his dependence on the honorless cur. Nevertheless, he was willing to die before allowing any to pass. The only one who hadn't slowed or tired was Akane--the only one with any experience fighting alone against large numbers of semi-skilled fighters. The pile of unconscious bodies growing around her was incredible, to say the least. Even Shampoo, chest heaving as the Jusenkyo continued their onslaught, was impressed by Akane's skill. But it was obvious that even Akane couldn't hold out forever.

It was time for the second wave to strike.

The battlefield grew silent for a moment, as a staccato rhythm filled the air. The Kielowitz Intermillennial Martial Arts Marching Band marched to its drummers' steady cadence, flanked on either side by hundreds of Amazon reinforcements. The band stopped and raised its instruments.

Moments later, the volatile harmonies of 'Dischord' lashed into the enemy forces, blasting a sizable hole into their ranks. At the same time, the Amazon reinforcements rushed forward to aid and relieve the first wave. The marching band struck again and again, each time incapacitating scores of Jusenkyo warriors. It was too soon to tell whether or not the tide had turned again, but the Jusenkyo were in for a much more challenging fight than they had imagined.

* * * * * *

Ayla and her strike force had timed their arrival at the cursed training ground to correspond with the attack of the second wave. From their concealed position, Ranma gazed with open loathing at the hundreds of cursed springs. Most of the springs were, as yet, inoperative, as nothing had drowned in them yet. Ranma was somewhat disappointed to learn that there was no Spring of the Drowned Man at this point in history.

There was much activity around the springs. At a few springs, there were reluctant solders lined up to curse themselves, thereby gaining the abilities that the drowned animal in each had to offer. The longest line was at the Spring of the Drowned Wolf, which was evidently a favored shape for a fighter to take.

Suddenly, their attention was drawn to a commotion near a group of buildings that had been set up a distance away from the springs themselves. A struggling man was being dragged towards the buildings by several warriors to the springs. He was babbling something in semi-coherent Chinese. The soldiers stopped in front of a particularly elaborately decorated hut. One stepped forward and tapped at the door. He then knelt before the door, as did the other soldiers with him (dragging the prisoner to his knees as well). The door opened, and the lead soldier announced something to whoever was inside. The distance was too great to make it out, but the response came in a booming voice that was easily distinguishable. It was also in clearly spoken Japanese, and a voice with which several members of the raiding party were all too familiar. "A tailor?!? You offer me a tailor? What need have we for tailors before the world is at our feet?"

"Is Dalton!" whispered Ayla fiercely, with no small amount of surprise.

"The Sorcerer of Jusenkyo is Dalton?" asked Lucca. "What's he doing here? Why didn't you tell us?"

"Ayla not know," Ayla responded. "Not see Sorcerer before."

"Who's Dalton?" asked Ranma.

"A fool," answered Magus. "He was the chief lackey of my late, unlamented mother. A formidable magic-user, however, and an accomplished artificer."

"Artificer?" Ranma asked.

"He made golems," Robo explained.

"Golems?" Ranma asked, no less confused.

"Quiet!" snapped Cologne. "I want to hear what they are saying."

The lead soldier prostrated himself, begging forgiveness. The prisoner looked desperately hopeful. The voice boomed again, apparently disgusted. "I need blacksmiths, fletchers, and warriors! I need lethal beasts! When the Jusenkyo rule supreme, then I will worry about tailors."

The lead soldier babbled a few moments more. "Oh, very well," sighed the voice. The prisoner's desperate hope slid away. "You can use personality spring number twenty-nine." The prisoner screamed, evidently begging for mercy. But it was to no avail, as the soldiers dragged him away, evidently intending to create a Spring of the Drowned Tailor.

Finally, Dalton himself stepped into view. He was a tall, arrogant-looking man with long amber hair. An eyepatch covered one eye, but the other gazed upon the scene before him with distinct amusement. He was dressed in a tan uniform, with leather boots, and a matching tan cape flowed freely from his shoulders. As he strode out of his hut another soldier appeared and spoke to him.

"Idiot!" Dalton snarled, striking the man across the face. The man threw himself to Dalton's feet. "Can't you even figure out how to drown a shark? Just cover its gills, or something. I will have my navy!"

The soldier pulled himself to his feet and ran to do his master's bidding. Dalton shook his head, and muttered something inaudible. Then, he cocked his head, as though listening to an invisible voice. Cologne suddenly felt uneasy. "I think we should attack, while we still have the advantage of surprise. It appears as though the Sorcerer of Jusenkyo consults with spirits."

Ayla seemed about to nod her agreement, when Dalton abruptly gestured at their hiding spot. The boulders behind which they had been hiding crumbled into powder, and each of the seven invaders found themselves lifted into the air, floating within a column of orange light. Cologne prodded the inside surface of her column with her staff, and found it to possess an unyielding surface. Lucca blasted away at her confinement with her fire magic, but with no better effect. It seemed that the barriers were secure against both physical and magical attacks.

Dalton swaggered unhurriedly to where the seven were trapped. He stopped and regarded them with interest. "I was wondering when you were going to arrive." He studied them, one by one. "The inventor. The frog-man. The metal golem. The primitive. And, of course, the Prophet." Dalton sneered at Magus. "My dear, departed Queen's pet Prophet. How I've longed to see you suffer for your interference."

Magus's lip curled in a sneer of his own. "You were never more than Queen Zeal's lackey, Dalton. And you certainly never possessed power like this."

Dalton laughed. "Oh, but many things have changed, Prophet. The Queen is dead, and now I alone possess the power of Lavos."

"Thou art a fool to seek to control th' power of Lavos," Frog exclaimed.

Dalton nodded indulgently. "Truly I would be a fool to try to control Lavos's power. Zeal herself was a fool to think that Lavos could be used as a mere power source. No, I have chosen another approach." Dalton swept back his cape and stood with fists on hips. "A partnership..."

Several pairs of eyes stared at Dalton in disbelief. He laughed again. "Yes, Lavos is no mere power source. Lavos is a creature, the same as you or I. Yet Lavos is as far beyond men as men are beyond slugs. Why, you may ask, would such a creature forge a partnership?" Dalton's eyes narrowed. "Because even Lavos is not indestructible, as I'm sure you know. When you destroyed the Lavos on our world, the agony of its demise was transmitted across time and space. This Lavos felt it's cousin's death, and decided to avoid a similar fate."

Dalton's eyes focused on three of the prisoners. "Primitive. Frog-man. Golem. You recall our little skirmish aboard my 'Aero- Dalton Imperial', do you not?"

"'Epoch'!" the three corrected in unison. Dalton ignored them.

"When I attempted to summon my Golem Boss to finish you off, I was instead pulled into my own teleportation portal, as I'm sure you remember. It was this Lavos who had pulled me in. It had decided to obtain a higher-level life form from our world to try to determine the cause of its cousin's death. It summoned me to it's underground lair, and we conversed at some length. It was disappointed to realize that I had existed some fourteen thousand years too early to have witnessed it's cousin's demise--it seems that even Lavos's formidable awareness is incapable of spanning interstellar distances with any degree of accuracy. Fortunately, I was able to retain Lavos's favor by the simple fact that I knew who the murderers were."

Dalton grinned malevolently. "And so it was that Lavos and I found that our short-term goals meshed rather nicely: We both wanted revenge. On you."

"Why, exactly, are you explaining all of this?" Lucca asked, curiously.

The Sorcerer swept back his cape and laughed dramatically. "Why, it is the time-honored tradition of megalomaniacal villains throughout history--both our histories--to explain their plans to their enemies before executing them. The reason is simple: revenge is ever so much sweeter when the victim knows all, yet remains helpless to do anything about it." Dalton abruptly glared at his prisoners. "Besides, we're still two short. I need to do something to pass the time while my minions deliver the Swordsman and the Princess to me. Hmmm, what next..."

Dalton fished for a moment in one of his pockets, finally withdrawing a tiny book. The title, visible to only a few of the prisoners, was 'The Megalomaniac's Handy Guide to Classical Villainy'. "Let's see now... Ah, yes. I need to explain how I'm going to kill you." Dalton clapped the book shut and grinned. "Well, it seems to me that it would be much more fun to allow you to imagine the details on your own. But I will tell you this much: I have to leave at least a few pieces from each of you. Lavos has decided to incorporate you into its genetic structure, and I see no reason to deny its desire." Dalton raised an eyebrow. "This Lavos may well be the first of its kind to incorporate creatures capable of killing a Lavos. You should be honored."

"You'll never get away with this, you fiend!" shouted Ranma.

Dalton was ecstatic. He whipped out his Handy Guide again, along with a pen, and checked off a box on the last page. "Wonderful! I've almost completed my collection of heroic cliches!" Dalton gazed at Ranma and Cologne, apparently taking real notice of them for the first time. "I don't know you. Perhaps I'll let you live, for now. I only have three cliches to go." Dalton studied them a moment longer. "No, I'm going to have too much fun killing you. I don't have to leave any pieces of you, after all." Dalton laughed again.

Cologne stared at him with a piercing gaze. "Laugh while you may. My great-granddaughter and the other Joketsuzoku will be victorious."

Suddenly Dalton was interested. "You are Ayla, then?"

"Me Ayla!" Ayla snarled.

Dalton blinked. Then he laughed harder than ever. "Oh, what delicious irony! That I brought my greatest obstacle onto myself! Though I cannot be entirely blamed. Lavos had little control over your transport here, which is why you were spread through time as you were. Fortunately, most of you did end up in one era, and, as I predicted, found your way to me."

Dalton bowed to Ayla, still grinning. "You have my respect, Primitive. Your mind is evidently not primitive in the least. You made a worthy opponent indeed. But the war will soon be over, and your precious Joketsuzoku will be crushed." Cologne snorted, once again drawing Dalton's eye. "You doubt me? Perhaps you hold your own experience from the future as evidence? The future means nothing. Lavos taught me many things about time and space. History is often malleable. That you come from a future where the Joketsuzoku won means little to me."

Then Dalton's grin widened, as he swept his arm back in a gesture which included the whole settlement. "Besides, all of this means nothing to me. I could care less whether the Joketsuzoku win or lose. If the Jusenkyo are slaughtered to a one, it does not matter in the least. Lavos will not let me die. I have ensured my usefulness to it."

Magus snorted. "Unlikely," he uttered.

"You forget," reminded Dalton, "even Lavos is mortal. Even after absorbing you into itself, there is still the possibility that this world might produce beings capable of destroying it. I will prevent that possibility. In exchange, Lavos will grant me the gift that Queen Zeal died trying to attain: immortality."

Dalton paused. "How, you might ask, do I intend to preserve Lavos's life?" Dalton smiled, slowly. "Belthasar was truly a mechanical genius. He made so many wonderful toys: the Blackbird, my own personal air fortress; the Black Omen, Queen Zeal's undersea city; the Aero-Dalton Imperial-"

"Epoch!"

Dalton blithely continued, "but the simplest of his creations was also the greatest: the Mammon Machine. A machine actually capable of draining power from Lavos. Not a significant portion of its power, mind, but more than enough to lift continents into the sky. With Balthasar's death, the knowledge of how to build a Mammon Machine was lost. But I knew just enough to build a machine designed to do the opposite--to transfer energy into Lavos. The Dalton Energy Engine Mark I!"

"So you are the one who was feeding power to Lavos!" Lucca exclaimed.

A satisfied grin spread across Dalton's face. "And so my victory is confirmed. The only way you could have known is if my machine were still running in the future. And the only way my machine would still be running is if I were still alive; I designed it to self-destruct upon my demise. I am immortal!"

"Your immortality gains you nothing," Magus mentioned dryly. "Lavos will leave this planet a charred, lifeless wreck. You have been betrayed."

"You believe you know the mind of Lavos so well," Dalton chuckled. "I am quite aware of Lavos's life cycle, thank you. Lavos itself taught me. The truth is, I care no more for the welfare of this planet than I do for that of the Jusenkyo. After this planet has been reduced to a charred ruin, I will accompany one of its spawn to a new planet. I shall bargain with that one as I have this, and so will exist until the end of time itself."

"But, why?" asked Ranma.

"Hmmm?" asked Dalton. "What do you mean, 'Why?'"

"Why live forever if all you're gonna do is hop from world to world all the time? What's the point?"

Dalton seemed to falter. "I will be immortal! I will outlive all other beings, including Lavos itself! That's the point!"

"But what are you gonna DO with your life?"

Dalton seemed utterly unable to answer that question. "I, er, well... I haven't really decided. It's not important!" Dalton glared at Ranma. "I grow tired of you. You ask too many questions." Dalton raised his arm dramatically and addressed all seven prisoners. "I think it's time to give you a taste of what is to come. Besides, I'm getting bored."

Dalton gestured, and Ranma was lifted through the walls of his prison to hover through the air, still wrapped in a bubble of magical confinement. He was brought to a stop above a pit in the ground, no more than twelve feet in depth. Dalton shouted over his shoulder, "Revenge plan five!" and a group of Jusenkyo minions dragged a large crate to the edge of the pit. They tilted the crate onto its side, and nearly a dozen angry wolves tumbled into the pit, where they immediately began to shuffle around, snarling and jumping at the martial artist hovering above them.

"This is the death I had in store for Crono," Dalton explained. "An especially tragic demise, I should say." Dalton chuckled to himself, as if enjoying a private joke. Those remaining imprisoned glanced at one another, unable to see the significance. "I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise," Dalton added when he noted their confusion.

Frog, in the meantime, had discovered something. The dreamstone blade of his Masamune could pass through the magical walls of his prison without resistance, though it left no lasting mark. Frog slammed his sword into the barrier until the hilt brought it to a stop. The blade now extended into Lucca's neighboring prison. Now, each of their prisons had a small breach through which magic could be cast. "Quickly," Frog whispered, "whilst Dalton is distracted! We must strike!"

Lucca nodded and chanted, "Flare!" while Frog uttered, "Water2!"

Dalton was about to carry out Ranma's execution. "And so, without further ado-" Dalton suddenly felt a magical buildup, and hastily erected a magical shield. He was just in time. Abruptly, the area around him was flooded with water and fire. Safely protected within his magical bubble, Dalton gestured, and a medium-sized boulder flew into the air and zipped between Lucca and Frog's prisons, slamming into the Masamune. At the same time, Dalton dropped Frog's barrier just long enough for the sword to be torn free from his grasp and knocked away. He then reerected the barrier, safely separating Frog from his formidable blade.

"Nicely played," he murmured. "But futile. Now where were we..." Dalton regarded Ranma once more. To his satisfaction, Dalton noted that Ranma had dropped his facade of stubborn resistance, and now seemed absolutely terrified. Dalton nodded with satisfaction. "Ah, yes. Let the entertainment beg-"

"Your lordship!" a breathless soldier interrupted. Evidently, Dalton preferred his subjects to speak to him in his own language.

Dalton scowled. "What is it! I'm about to execute someone!"

"I humbly beg your forgiveness, my lord," the soldier whimpered, groveling at his master's feet, "But your army is in full retreat!"

"WHAT?" demanded Dalton.

"Th-they attacked us with music! We couldn't stop it! Our army was cut to pieces!"

Dalton scowled. "Hmph. It seems that I'll have to step up my plans a bit. A pity. I was so hoping that the others could be here to witness the Golem's death. Revenge plan two!"

"No!" shouted Lucca.

Dalton smirked as he levitated Robo out of his confinement, stripping the white robe off of his metal frame. Several of his minions had gathered around a nearby pool, one at the edge of the mass of cursed springs. One of the minions carried a massive axe. "With your help, Golem, I will amass an invincible army of metal soldiers, each as strong as ten men, and able to be repaired from almost any injury. Your energy weapons will be a nice bonus, as well."

Robo's eyes glinted with amusement. "You will have to wait a long time, if you expect me to drown. I have little need of air."

Dalton chuckled. "I know more about machinery than you might think, Golem. Let us see how long you last with water flooding your circuitry, shall we?" Dalton gestured, and the soldier with the axe swung it into Robo's torso.

Robo jerked with pain for a moment before he managed to shut down the pain centers associated with his new wound. The wound itself was an ugly gash in his upper left chest plate. Several bundles of wiring had been cut, causing electrical sparks to play across the machinery of Robo's inner workings. He also found that he was no longer capable of lifting his left arm. "Very clever," Robo noted.

"And now: the Spring of the Drowned Metal Golem!" announced Dalton, dropping Robo into the pool. The results were not quite what he expected.

Robo screamed a very feminine scream as the pain returned with doubled force. As a human, the axe wound was quite obviously mortal. "Oh, perfect," muttered Dalton. "The Golem's already enchanted. I have no need of a Spring of the Drowned Girl! Can anything else possibly go wrong?"

Dalton winced as Ranma's piercing, terrified shriek cut through the air. "Oh, shut up!" Dalton snapped, waving his hand. Ranma dropped into the pit.

By this time, Robo had stopped screaming, and was merely staring with horror at the gash in her chest. Her face was grey, and it was obvious that she was in shock. Impatiently, Dalton levitated Robo out of the pool and stared at her in concentration, channeling some of the power Lavos granted him into a spell he had only used once or twice before. The spell finished, and Robo returned to robot form. "There, much better! No more curse. Now I can drown you properly." Robo merely gazed at him dully. His robot form was not capable of being in shock, but he had lost a lot of power due to his loss of blood in his female form.

It is rarely a good idea to do two things at once. Dalton was a busy murderer, and so had little time to reflect on a few things. Most importantly, he had never really stopped to consider why Ranma had suddenly begun to panic. Admittedly, Dalton did not know Ranma well, and may merely have assumed that the boy's bluster had finally run out. In truth, it was because Ranma had finally found something to be truly terrified of.

When Frog and Lucca launched their desperate and futile strike against the Sorcerer of Jusenkyo, Lucca's magical fire mingled with Frog's magical water, and a good portion of the resultant magical hot water drained into the pit Dalton had been standing by. As a result, Ranma was the first to see why Crono's death was to be so tragic, and was thus driven to the edge of sanity by his fear. For when Dalton released him, Ranma fell into a pit occupied by Crono's eleven cats.

Ranma's fear took him well past the edge of sanity.

"Meow," said Ranma.

Afterword:

I was forced to work with my Dark Id a few times this chapter (after all, war ain't pretty), and so this segment of Halftime ended up a bit bloodier than usual (and certainly bloodier than most Ranma 1/2 episodes). Of course, the body count is nowhere near that of Chrono Trigger (or any RPG, for that matter), where the characters slay animals, people, and machines on a regular basis. Of course, those enemies merely fade away bloodlessly when killed.

As for Dalton, I tried to make him absurdly melodramatic, in the style of Dalton from Chrono Trigger. That Dalton was constantly making wide, exaggerated gestures and dramatically ominous threats. However, he was also meant to be humorous in his melodrama, occasionally doing silly things in the midst of his evil (for instance, at one point during the game, he doesn't like the background music and demands that it be changed to something more sinister).

Chrono Trigger Tip #20:

Should I kill Magus when I meet him on the snowy outcropping in 12,000 A.D.?

Well, there are pros and cons.

The pros:
Frog will be returned to human form at the end of the game. He turns out to be quite a hunk, and Lucca practically drools over him. Also, it makes it slightly easier to form parties with six rather than seven characters, and, I believe, your characters gather experience slightly faster with less people to divide it up amongst. For those justice freaks out there, Magus has a lot to answer for. He's done a lot of wrong, and imprisoning him is impossible. The death penalty, then? It's your choice.

The cons:
Magus is just kewl. He's gotta kewl weapon, and kewl magic, and he's gotta whole buncha kewl quotes. A more substantial reason? Magus is a powerful all-purpose fighter. His magic's not as powerful as Lucca's, and his physical attacks aren't as powerful as Ayla's, but he's still definitely above average in both departments. Plus, without him, you can't use the Blue and Black Rocks, which allow Magus to join in certain powerful (not to mention kewl) Triple Techs. If you're Mindlessly Obsessive, then you wouldn't even contemplate killing him. If you do that, how will you get his levels and other stats up to 99?

In my opinion? It's worth killing him once, just to see Frog return to normal. Most of the time, though, Magus is just too fun a character to let go to waste like that.

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