Harry stumbled as he was roughly pushed into the prison cell and crashed to the ground, sliding to a stop against the far wall next to the Ranma. Unlike Ranma however, he only had his hands bound in front of him with rope, so he was able to break his fall. Ranma was didn't have that luxury, having been hogtied with her hands bound behind her back and clasping her ankles, forcing her into a back bend. Her pigtail had been pulled tight and tied around her hands, forcing her to look straight up and put further strain on her back. She was gagged. The guards picked her up and threw her bodily into the cell, causing Ranma to grunt as she landed on her stomach. One of the guards threw two blankets into the cell before slamming the door shut behind them. The guards laughed as they walked off leaving the two alone in their cell.
Harry pushed himself up into a sitting position and drew his knees to his chest as he leaned back against the wall.
"Nice friends you've got."
Ranma grunted and rolled her eyes.
"I'm glad I trusted you to do all the talking. I would hate to have been mistreated or anything." Harry didn't try to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. Ranma just snorted in response. She rolled over so that she was on her side, facing Harry.
"hakedidfugginhahhouhmmmohf!" Ranma crossed her eyes and looked down at her nose.
"Oh, right." Harry scooted over to his friend and reached behind her head, untying the gag and pulling it free.
"Gahh…" She spat out the dirty bundle of cotton. "I HATE it when they do that."
"Does this happen often?"
Ranma shrugged as best she was able to in her current position. "It really depends on who finds you. Some patrols are nicer than others." She squirmed a little bit. "Can you get out of your ropes?"
Harry nodded. He concentrated briefly, sending a bit of magic into the rope. The rope suddenly changed into a snake. "Could you please unknot yourself?" Harry hissed at the snake in parsletongue. The snake nodded and rapidly uncoiled from his hands. Upon hitting the ground, the snake then reverted back to rope, coiled in a lose loop on the cell floor.
Ranma watched with interest. "Neat bit of magic."
"Much easier than having to use your teeth."
"Yeah. A gift from Voldemort. I have an affinity with snakes. It does make it easier to get out of certain types of bindings. Rope is a piece of cake, but metal takes a bit more concentration. It's helped me on a few occasions."
"Could you help me then?"
"One second." Harry crouched behind Ranma and banished the ropes, freeing her. Several seconds later, Ranma was up and wandering around the cell, examining the door and walls. The cell was small – it was a slight rectangle, only slightly longer than it was wide, made out of thick stone masonry, and had no furniture. There was a small hole in a back corner that, judging from the smell, had to be the latrine. It only took Ranma four paces to traverse from front to back, and three from side to side. After a cursory examination, she grabbed a blanket and spread it out, lying down on the floor as far from the latrine as possible, but not in the way of the heavy iron-bound wooden door.
"Make yourself at home – this is our room for the night."
"Fantastic. Where do we call for room service?"
Ranma grinned. "I usually don't. It isn't included in the price of the suite, and they charge you an arm and a leg for stuff."
Harry rolled his eyes, spreading his bedroll on the ground next to Ranma. "What next?"
"I don't know about you, but I'm going to sleep." Ranma closed her eyes and began to slow her breathing.
Harry spread out his blanket and lay down, staring at the ceiling. "Ranma?"
"So, what's so important about your last name, anyway?"
Ranma reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Do I have to talk about this now?"
"I'm bored. Either talk now or I'll curse you with a hex that will turn all your boogies into bats."
Ranma looked at him askance. "What's a boogie?"
"They are commonly referred to as boogers."
"Eww." Ranma wrinkled her nose as the image played out in her head.
"Yeah, not pleasant, I assure you." Harry rolled over and propped his head up on his left hand. So," Harry asked, "why did you abandon it?"
Ranma shrugged. "It was a matter of honor, really."
"I don't get it." Harry said. "How was honor tied to your name?
"Remember how I said I was engaged to multiple people?"
"Honor is a tricky concept in Japan. But, essentially it means that your actions can't make yourself or others look bad. Making others look bad brings shame upon them and lowers their standing."
"So how does that reconcile with being engaged to more than one person?"
"It didn't." Ranma rubbed her face. "It couldn't. I was screwed from the get go, but I tried to find a solution that minimized the loss of face to all parties involved. I was engaged to a Tendo as a contract between families before I was even born. My father arranged it with her father, and as such the Tendos had first claim to me. In order to appease their honor, I had to marry a Tendo." Ranma sighed.
"Then how could you have other fiancées if you were engaged before you were born?"
"That is where it gets complicated." Ranma rolled over and propped her head on her hand to look at Harry. "You see, my father was a greedy man who couldn't comprehend the consequences of his actions. He used me when I was an infant to gain what ever temporary benefit he could. By the time his actions caught up with him, I had to deal with the repercussions."
"My father instilled in me a strong sense of honor, even if he didn't have any himself. So, when he engaged me to multiple women, my honor demanded I find some way of appeasing everyone. The honor of the Tendo clan, the Saotome clan, and all the other families involved where wrapped up in who married Ranma. If I married anyone, I dishonored whoever didn't get to marry me, and if I married no one, I dishonored myself and everyone else. No matter which action I chose, the dishonor would be greater than any amount of honor I happened to preserve. It was the perfect trap."
"I got caught by the trap and paralyzed. I didn't want to marry anyone, but by rights, I was honor bound to marry a Tendo. I was sixteen at the time, remember." Ranma flopped back down onto the stone floor. "I couldn't bring myself to make any decisions, so I strung everyone out indefinitely. The one person who I could have or would have married died. In the end, Akane's death gave me a way out. I finally realized that honor really didn't matter to me anymore, because I lost the one thing I cared about. So, I abandoned the family name and asked to be taken off the clan register."
"I don't follow." Harry said.
"Oh, sorry, I keep forgetting that not everyone knows how the system works." Ranma raised her palms into the air. "There is the clan on one hand, and the individual on the other." She gestured with her hands, showing the balance between the two concepts. "The honor of the individual is reflective of the honor of the clan and vice versa, but not always. A truly honorable person among a clan of thieves might have his personal honor untarnished, but it will not reflect back on the clan and change the clan's honor. Again, the honor of the clan can be tarnished by the actions of an individual if the deed is heinous enough."
"That seems rather… confusing. At least, I'm confused."
"So was I. To make a long story short, I was damned if I did and damned if didn't." Ranma laughed, releasing a short bitter burst of sound. "Since I couldn't marry Akane, I still had to marry a Tendo to uphold the honor of my clan, and theirs. But doing so would sully the honor of all the other clans involved, including my family, the Saotome clan."
Harry just shook his head. "So it was the Saotome name causing the problems?"
"Mostly. There were other issues, too. But, being stuck like this," she pointed at her chest, "gave me an out. I took it, as it was the only option available to me. I abandoned the clan name and asked to be removed from the registry – in essence, it was like I was never born. Sure, it pissed off a lot of people, but it meant that everyone involved except me got to keep their honor intact."
"Yeah, but since I no longer had a family to worry about anymore, my family was more that willing to make sure I took the fall to preserve everyone else's precious honor." Ranma practically spat the last two words.
"What did they do?"
"My father tried to kill me. My mother almost succeeded." She pulled up the right side of her shirt and showed him a half-inch wide scar that started on her back just below her last rib and wrapped around to her front hip. "She got me with the family honor blade while I was fending off my father in a fight. She nearly gutted me. She managed to hit my liver and spleen, and it took me a long time to recover. I would have died if Ku Lon and a local doctor by the name of Tofu hadn't helped me. As far as my parents know, I did die that day."
Harry blinked and looked for words. "And I always thought my life had sucked."
Ranma sighed. "My actions had some far reaching consequences. First, because Akane died and I was no longer a part of the Saotome clan, our family's school of martial arts was effectively dead. There was no heir. My father didn't have a shred of honor or decency in his body, but he couldn't forgive the offense to his school. Before my parents tried to kill me, the school's Grand Master Happosai forbade me from practicing the 'Anything Goes' school of martial arts any longer."
"That's the guy's name."
"How could he keep you from practicing his school?"
"He was much, much better than I was at that time."
Ranma nodded. "There was no way I could win a confrontation with him, so I had to give up everything I had ever worked for in my life." Ranma stared at the ceiling for a bit. "It was a traumatic month for me. I lost my fiancée, my manhood, my livelihood, and my reason for living. I was going to commit suicide just so that everyone could finally be happy, but my parents beat me too it by slicing me open."
Harry pulled back his own sleeves, showing Ranma his own scars. "Rock bottom isn't the best place to be."
Ranma grinned sardonically. "No, no it isn't."
"Who pulled you out of it?" Harry asked quietly.
"My rivals. Ku Lon. Xian Pu." Ranma's thoughts turned inward briefly. "Who pulled you out of it?"
"Ron. Hermionie. Tonks." He shrugged. "Mostly, though, it was because of my daughter. She was a newborn, and my friends wouldn't let me leave her behind."
"Depressed people are pretty selfish, aren't they?"
Conversation died for a bit as they reflected on their own personal tragedies.
Harry pondered for a bit as the silence stretched. "You're still doing martial arts, though. Do you intend to re-claim your school?"
"Now I no longer care. I'm making my own school, free from the taint of either Happosai or my father."
The conversation died at that point. Harry just listened to Ranma breath, reflecting on her strength of character and processing the information from this latest insight into her life. The silence was not uncomfortable. Harry felt it was a necessary precaution, as both of them needed to carefully deal the difficult memories they had dragged up, digesting the feelings and rebuild their shields.
"Talking about my feelings ain't gonna help you into my pants, though." Ranma was grinning.
"Blow me." Harry grinned. "I'm not attracted to guys anyway, you dyke." Harry was amused. The response was so typical of his interactions with her – she always had to inject levity into an otherwise serious conversation. It also signified that she wouldn't talk anymore about it tonight. If he wanted any more information about her past, he'd have to bring it up later. He didn't mind though. With a bit of malicious glee, he hit Ranma with a silent bat boogey hex, smirking with satisfaction as she thrashed on the ground holding her nose.
"You shouldn't hold them in, Ranma. It just makes them squirm worse."
"FUG DOU, ARRY!"
Morning found the two prisoners bleary eyed and miserable. Ranma didn't sleep well because of the occasional bat that would worm its way out of her nostrils due to Harry's hex. Harry hadn't slept well because he'd been roughed up as pay back for the hex. Ranma hadn't been gentle, but she had been careful to make sure she didn't cause any lasting damage. She just made certain that he wouldn't be able to sleep comfortably. Served the bastard right.
Strangely though, she felt… good. She had bottled stuff up for so long, and now finally she had a friend who had suffered as much as she had and still come out okay. She knew they both had some real issues, and realized they would probably be better off as individuals if they sought professional help. But, hey, take things one step at a time, right?
The guards served them a breakfast of stale bread just before sunrise. A guard opened the door to their cell after they had eaten and took them to a bathing facility. Bound behind a heavy iron grill, the facility was little more than a short hallway that led to a square stone room with no doors, a low wooden stool, a bucket, and a trough of cold water with a drain in the floor. There were no dividers – the idea was not to provide privacy but rather allow the guards to ensure their charges couldn't escape. The guards provided a coarse but clean towel and a sliver of soap each. They calmly deposited the prisoners in the bathing room and walked to the other side of the grill, lowering the gate and standing rigidly on the other side.
Ranma stared at Harry with half-lidded eyes. "Keep your eyes front and you'll make it out of this with your genitalia attached."
Harry gulped and nodded. He turned and faced the guards, concentrating fully on keeping his eyes away from where he could hear Ranma undressing. The sounds of splashing and lathering quickly followed. It probably took Ranma no more than ten minutes to wash, but it felt like an eternity. He occupied his time by studying the walls and the guards. Their uniforms were simple tunics made of a dark cloth with a Chinese dragon embroidered on the back. Perhaps if he…
"I mean it Harry."
He snapped his head forward. So much for that idea. Soon enough Ranma tapped him on the shoulder and indicated it was his turn. The water was cold and the setting didn't encourage lingering. He soaped up, rinsed off, and dressed as quickly as possible. The cold bath did wake him up a bit, but he was still suffering from the poor night's sleep inflicted by Ranma.
When finished, the guards escorted them down the hall. Harry was surprised to find that rather than going back down towards the dungeon cell they had been housed in, they were led up to a long flight of stairs that climbed into the sunlight. They entered a small guard room before being escorted outside into the courtyard. Harry gawked as he took in the site of a grand Chinese style palace with immaculately manicured grounds.
Rather than the grand front entrance, the pair was escorted to a side gate, where they were led into the structure under a portcullis. Once through the entrance, the guards were switched. The palace guards looked just as animalistic as the previous ones, but their uniforms were a bit more ornamental in nature. Judging by the way Ranma eyed them though, Harry was sure they were just as effective in a fight regardless of how pretty they looked.
Walking single file with a guard between them, the pair was led to what Harry could only describe as a throne room. A three-tiered dais occupied the center of the hall, framed with elaborately embroidered silk hung from the ceiling. A man with yellow eyes and green shoulder pads sat on the dais, radiating power. He was flanked on either side by a very large, muscle-bound man with distinct tiger striping on his body, and a smaller man with a decidedly wolfish complexion. Harry looked over at Ranma who rolled her eyes.
The guards escorted them to the base of the dais and stopped. The two guards called out in stereo, "You are in the presence of the King of the Musk, Lord Herb. Show your respect!"
Ranma waved lazily at the man in the center. "Yo, Herbie."
Herb's left eye twitched.
The tiger stripped man stepped forward and growled, "I see you still have your death wish."
Ranma nodded. "Oh! Lime! Didn't see you there. How you doing, bud?"
Harry watched with growing trepidation as vein became clearly visible on Herb's head. The growling from the guards behind them and the two men flanking the lord of the Musk did little to re-assure him.
Herb rose from the throne and slowly walked towards Ranma, menace radiating off his body. He towered over her, nearly a foot taller than the red-head. "I should end your miserable existence."
Ranma smirked up at him. "You could try."
Herb's eyes narrowed. "You try my patience, wench."
"Yeah? Well, this hotel sucks. The room service was terrible. Don't even get me started about the bathrooms. Where's the manager? I want a refund."
"I'd forgotten how aggravating you are."
"I haven't had a good fight since arriving here, and frankly, I'm kind of bored." She shrugged, and gave an exaggerated yawn, closing her eyes and stretching her arms, blatantly disregarding the man in front of her.
Herb glared at her for a minute before turning to Harry.
"Who are you?" It wasn't a question, but rather a demand. Harry could tell that Herb fully expected Harry to tell him anything he wanted. Harry hadn't felt a gaze this used to controlling people since… well, since Voldemort, really. It was damn intimidating. And Harry hated people who tried to intimidate others.
"Harry." Harry smiled brightly.
"Why are you in my kingdom?"
Ranma jumped in. "We got lost on the way to way to Albuquerque. I think we took a wrong turn somewhere near…" She was interrupted by a blazing blue fist that went through her head.
At least, where her head had been a fraction a second ago.
Herb blinked and looked around, startled. He heard a "tsk, tsk" coming from behind him.
"Now Herb, is that anyway to treat a guest?" Ranma was still relaxed, unfazed by the Herb's attempt to flatten her.
Herb sniffed. "You've gotten better."
She nodded. "And you haven't."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Easy. Your lackeys aren't willing to fight you."
Herb snorted and brushed by Ranma as he returned to the dais. He didn't talk again until he sat down, carefully staring at Ranma. He pointed at Harry. "Who," he asked, "is the weakling?"
Harry bristled. Maybe he couldn't fight like these freaks of nature, but he had his own strength. Channeling a bit of his anger into his magic, he grinned in satisfaction as Herb was suddenly hauled into the air by his ankle, suspended twenty feet above the floor.
His guards gasped. To Herb's credit, he didn't squawk or shout. He hung in mid-air, calmly evaluating the situation.
"You do not use ki to do this." Again, not a question.
Herb nodded. He furrowed his brows in concentration. "Not ki… I sensed nothing… A mage, then? Quite unexpected."
Harry shrugged. "Not where I'm from."
"Will you release me?"
Ranma interrupted. "Only if you promise not to pummel him. Or have one of your lackeys do it."
Herb nodded. "Fine." Harry slowly lowered Herb to the ground by his throne.
Herb caught himself on a hand as he was lowered, righting himself and sitting on his throne. "What brings you to my kingdom?"
For a change, Ranma was completely serious. "Saffron."
The meeting was short. They briefly discussed Ranma's plans for the Phoenix Lord. Herb talked briefly about a proposition he had made to Ranma but didn't press the issue when she refused to answer. Before dismissing the pair, the Musk King bade them farewell and luck in their travels. Harry was confused – Ranma promised to explain when they left the palace.
They were led out of the palace grounds in the direction of they had been traveling before their capture. The guards didn't talk and didn't bother to answer questions, but Ranma wasn't terribly worried as her captors carried her belongings. She knew the Musk; if they were going to execute her, they wouldn't be going through the trouble of carrying all that stuff out to wherever they planned on dumping the bodies.
They were escorted for several hours until the guards stopped around mid-day. One of the escorts tossed Ranma's bag to her and handed Harry his shrunken backpack. Without ceremony, the guards turned around and followed their trail back, leaving the two standing in the middle of the woods. Ranma slung her pack over her shoulders began walking towards the mountains. Harry placed his shrunken belongings in his pocket and caught up.
"What proposition did Herb make?"
Ranma mimicked dry heaves. "He proposed to me."
"Yeah. As in marriage. He wanted me to be his queen." She shivered. "He's a creepy pervert."
"He knows I was a man. I think he finds that fact… titillating. I kicked his ass way back when and I still think he wants to get back at me for it. Since he probably couldn't beat me in a fight now..."
"So it's a power thing for him?"
She nodded. "Yeah. I think he just gets off on the idea that I'd have to be 'subservient' to him if I was Queen of the Musk. He also took great pleasure in telling me that one of my 'duties' would be to bear heirs. Having his children is wrong on so many levels I can't even begin to imagine it."
Harry stopped talking as Ranma picked up the pace. He could occasionally hear her muttering about "stupid dragon perverts" and "subservient my ass." Her muttering died down after a bit, though, and her pace slowed down as well. Harry enjoyed the opportunity to enjoy the woods and the companionship. The forests were much different than the woods he grew up with in England. The forest was composed of a weird mixture of hardwoods and conifers. There were elm trees here, something he had never seen. The mixed forest eventually gave way to a huge bamboo grove. About an hour into traversing the thicket, Ranma called a stop for lunch by a small stream.
Beyond the rustling of the leaves, there were very few sounds of wildlife in bamboo groves. It was serene. The ground was covered in a dense layer of beige leaves, further deadening the sound. Harry charmed some leaves into plates and a rock to put out a small smokeless fire. Putting on a tea kettle, he pulled out some food and plated it, passing it to Ranma.
"Ready for a magic lesson, Ranma?"
"Wha?" She was absent mindedly nibbling on a corner of the sandwich Harry had given her.
"Oh, right. Yeah." Ranma put down her plate and pulled out her wand.
Harry shook his head. "You won't need that today. Today is going to be a magic theory class."
"I should thank you really, as you are the inspiration for this particular bit theory." Ranma frowned.
"Before we can continue this lesson, we need to parse out a few definitions." Harry held up his fist and extended his fingers as he ticked off his points. "First, what is magic, and second, what is ki? Finally, how are they different, and how are they the same?"
Ranma shrugged. "You're the mage. You tell me what magic is."
"Humor me. I want your definition of magic."
"Hmmm…" Ranma looked lost in thought. "I guess… I'd say it's the ability for humans to control supernatural forces."
"Close, but I asked you to define 'magic,' not the art. What is 'magic'?"
"Well, I guess magic would be the supernatural agencies or forces of nature that surround us." Ranma made an off handed gesture towards Jusenkyo.
Harry nodded. "What gives rise to those forces, Ranma?"
She shrugged. "I have no clue."
Harry nodded again. "Neither do I, nor any one else. However, for the sake of argument, let us say that magic is the desire of all matter to manifest the impossible."
Ranma mulled that over in her head. "Magic is the desire to manifest the impossible?"
"Yes." Harry stated. "Magic makes the impossible commonplace. Magic could also be described in terms of mathematics, or more accurately, probability."
"Why probability?" Ranma asked.
"Probability best describes the infinite chance occurrences that reality consists of. Think about life, for example." Harry reached up and plucked a leaf from a nearby bamboo branch, handing it over to Ranma. "That leaf exists because life evolved from single cell organisms billions of years ago. What gave rise to life in the first place? God? Something else?"
Ranma dropped the leaf. "I have a hard time believing in a god. Not after all the chaos I've been through in my life."
Harry shrugged. "Regardless of what you believe, something impossible happened at the beginning of time. A universe was born from nothing. Stars formed and gave birth to planets. A bunch of chemicals arranged themselves into the precise sequence necessary to give rise to proto-life forms, which then desired to become life."
Harry swept his arms out, taking in the scenery around them. "The fact that we are even alive to walk through it is absurd. It is only a one out of a trillion chance that you were born at all. Over one-billion people had to have had sex only thirty of generations to make you possible. It is impossible. Something had to make this happen. Science can't quantify it. Even the best theoretical physicists have incorporated a fudge factor when trying to figure out why stuff happens. Magic is the fudge factor that makes all this," Harry pointed at a tree, "possible."
Ranma wrinkled her nose. "Eww. I knew my dad got around, but one billion people?"
Harry laughed before continuing. "So, let us believe that magic is the collective desire of everything to manifest the impossible. Do you see a problem with the theory?"
Ranma snorted. "Yeah! What if your desires suck? What decides which desires get fulfilled?"
Harry clapped enthusiastically. "Right in one! Just because an earthworm desires to rule the earth doesn't mean that it should. So, magic has to have either a control or safeguard. Magic does this through will. The worm might desire it, but unless its will is strong enough to bend the improbability of magic to serve its desires, it won't happen."
Ranma nodded. "Make sense."
"So, then to extrapolate, magic is the will to control the improbable. Do you find this agreeable?"
Ranma nodded. "Sure."
"This brings us to her second point." Harry continued. "In order to continue, we need to define ki. So, what is ki?"
"That's easy. Ki is spirit energy."
Harry shook his head. "I need a more precise definition that than."
Ranma grimaced. "All right, ki is the life force of all living matter."
"Given what we just agreed upon about magic, how is ki different?" Harry asked.
"Well…" Ranma shrugged and pointed at the small stone that was currently sprouting fire from its top, bringing the kettle water to a boil. "Something inanimate, like this rock, can't get it no matter how much it might want it, and something that has it can't get rid of it unless it dies."
"So it has to be living?"
"Yes." Ranma nodded.
"Given that ki is possessed only by living things, what does ki do for things that possess it?"
Ranma grumbled briefly about the necessity to do all so much thinking. "It… sustains you. It shows that you are alive, it makes you alive. It can be used to augment existing abilities or makes new ones possible."
"If we had to talk about ki in terms of probability, where would you place it?"
"I dunno." She shrugged, clearly frustrated. What's the point of this exercise again?"
Harry held up his hands to placate her. "Bear with me. In terms of probability, would you say that ki is matter of chance?"
Ranma frowned. "No. You either have it or you don't. Life begets life. Ki does not begin spontaneously. You might not be lucky enough to be born, but if you are born, you'll have ki."
"And what about controlling your ki?" Harry asked.
"Most things don't, or can't, even. You have to consciously work at it to manipulate it."
"Is the strength of one's ki determined by size?"
Ranma nodded. "By and large. It takes more life force to keep a larger object alive, so larger creatures tend to have more. Some single celled organisms can super-saturate with Ki, but it's really rare. If you work at it enough, anything can super-saturate with ki, though."
"One final question, then." Harry paused. "Would you call ki the will to live?"
Ranma frowned. "I… well…" She shrugged. "I guess. It's more complex than that, though."
Harry nodded impatiently. "I know. But I need to dumb it down to highlight what I believe is the difference between magic and ki." Harry picked up the stone. It wasn't hot, even though the top half of it was still on fire. "This rock is infused with the potential for magic." He returned the stone, flame up, to its place under the kettle. "Even though it is not animate, it might desire to become so. However, because it is not living, it has no ki, and no matter of will can change that. One is firmly grounded in reality, the second completely eschews it."
"Great, I guess." Ranma shrugged. "That seemed like an awful lot of effort just to say living stuff has ki and rocks don't."
Harry shook his head. "I think it's an important distinction for what comes next. Even though this rock might be able to do magic, it is unlikely to happen because it has no will. We needed to do that to figure out the interesting part - how do they interact with each other?"
"I'm sure you've got a theory." Ranma waited expectantly.
"I have some suspicions, but honestly, you're the one who's going to have to figure it out. You're the only person I know who can access both ki and magic."
Harry looked apologetic. "Sorry."
Ranma waved him off. "It's okay. So, what is your theory?"
"You made me think of it. If I hadn't cast a charm on this rock, why was the rock not spontaneously doing magic? What's preventing it from doing so? What's acting against it to keep it in check?"
Ranma mulled this over. "So you think something's keeping the rock from doing magic?"
Harry nodded. "Yes, I think so. I think that force is ki. Magic and ki are two forces in diametric opposition." Harry picked up a pebble and pressed it between his hands together as if in prayer. The pebble was trapped between his palms, fingers pointing to the sky. "On one side, the rock really wants to do magic, but on the other, something is pushing back and keeping the forces balanced, so in the end it is neutral. But," Harry paused and used the fingers of his right hand to push his left fingers back, "you exert a little will and suddenly magic becomes possible." He opened his hands and released a small bird into the air.
"Ying and yang. Opposites but equals." Ranma muttered, watched as the bird flew off in the direction they came. "But how does this balance magic? Magic has to exert an equal but opposite amount of force or otherwise it would quickly collapse."
"Magic takes will to manifest. Will is strongest in living creatures, and stronger still in sentient creatures. Consider magic and ki at the universal level. If you had a scale, the amount of inorganic matter floating through the universe vastly outweighs the amount of living matter. So, it acts like a universal weak force, like gravity. All things with mass have gravity, even if only an infinitesimal amount. The force might be weak on the small scale, but colossal on the wide scale."
"So, the entire universe depends on a weak force?"
"I think it depends on the interaction between forces. Magic might be analogous to gravity, but ki, on the other hand, must be an incredibly concentrated and powerful force on the small scale, but weak on the larger scale. It would probably be more like nuclear forces." Harry continued. "If you split an atom, it releases an incredible burst of energy. You can launch a rocket beyond earth's gravity with a relatively small amount of energy. But, gravity will have a much further reach than the explosion."
Ranma complained. "My head hurts. I thought you were going to teach me magic, not physics."
"They're related. The collective ki of all living creatures acts as a balance to the collective will of magic because it is so much more dense and… willful. Ki is will. Magic needs will to manifest. So, even though will makes manipulating magic possible, the relatively small scale of ki makes it difficult to overwhelm the force of magic. At the same time, because the force of magic is… dispersed, it can't concentrate enough to overwhelm ki."
"Interesting theory. So what exactly is today's lesson?"
Harry held up his hands, palm up. "Well, as I said earlier, magic is based on the desire to manifest the impossible. So, what happens if you have the most despicable desires possible, and a very strong will to accompany that?"
"Bad things, I take it."
"Right. Dark Magic. Magic is neutral, like ki. It is not good or evil. It is the desires of the person using it that determines what sort of possibilities you create. So, if you desire to gain power, control, hurt or kill other people, magic makes that possible. That's why the four curses I told you about are unforgivable."
"You said once that emotions affect the strength of your ki, right?"
"Well, emotions just make it easier to channel. Pure ki is stronger than emotionally charged ki."
"Another difference. Pure magic is strong but easily countered. Magic strengthened and shaped desire and emotions you use to power the spell. The emotion determines the characteristic of the spell, while the intensity of the desire determines the strength. Strong emotions, like hate, anger create very powerful, very destructive spells."
"What about love." Ranma asked?
"Love," Harry stated, "is the strongest magic of all."
Ranma started at Harry for a few seconds in complete silence. She promptly socked him in the jaw, knocking him to the ground. "WHY DIDN'T YOU JUST SAY THAT BEFORE ALL THIS GOBBLEDYGOOK?"
Harry stared up at her in shock, nursing his jaw. "Jeeze. When did you get so violent?"
Ranma looked ready to tear into him again. She opened her mouth to scream and promptly settled back on her heels. She reached a hand down and helped pull Harry to his feet. "I must be getting my period or something."
"You know, if you want to convince me you're really a guy, telling me about your periods is not the best way of doing it."
"Can it, would you?" Ranma muttered.
The kettle began to whistle above the flaming stone.
"Tea?" Harry offered.
The pair sipped their tea, not talking again until Ranma broke the silence. "Sorry. Sometimes theoretical crap really frustrates me. It helps, but you could have just explained it the easy way."
Harry grinned weakly. "Ah… Um… sorry? Guess I've been hanging around Hermione too long."
"The mousy hair girl, married to the red-head?"
"Oh. And I thought she was a nice girl."
Harry snorted. "She is. She's just passionate about understanding things."
Ranma nodded. "Yeah, I knew a person like that once. Except she liked to use the information to black mail me. Drove me batty."
Harry said nothing.
"Let me ask you a question, then. If magic and ki are diametrically opposed, does that mean it's a futile attempt to try and master both? Should I just be a martial artist, and should you just stick to being a mage?"
Harry pondered this for a bit. "I don't see why you couldn't master both. I just said the forces oppose each other. They create balance. Take us, for an example."
"What do you mean?"
"The first time we met in Slovakia. I hit you with magic that, had you been a normal person, would have incapacitated you. However, due to your abnormally high levels of ki, you were able to shrug them off."
"I'm pretty sure I could use magic to nullify your strongest attacks, as well. Balance." Harry shrugged. "You can physically kick my ass, but there are spells that could beat you before you even had a chance to fight. No matter how strong you are, you can't beat a Killing Curse."
"Remember the screaming portrait at the house when you were remodeling?"
"You couldn't tear it off the wall, no matter how strong you were, right?"
Again, Ranma nodded.
"The basic charm to do that is a simple charm that requires very little power. Some people who are barely magical can manage it. And yet, no amount of ki could overcome it."
Ranma looked like she sucked on something sour. She stood up and walked away from the stream, hands clasped behind her back.
Ranma sighed. "It's just…" She stopped. When she finally started talking again, Harry was shocked to see the amount of pain in her eyes. "I've been working all my life to be the strongest martial artist in the world. Now you're telling me that any idiot with a stick and enough willpower can beat me no matter how skilled I might be." Her face sagged. "It's a little hard to deal with having your worldview destroyed."
Harry stood up and walked over to her. "I'm in the same boat, Ranma."
She looked up at his face, noting the concern. "Yeah, I guess you are."
"But now that we know, we can correct the problem, right?" Harry tentatively placed a hand on her shoulder. She glanced at it but didn't say anything.
"We should get going." With that, she turned around, forcing Harry to drop his arm.
They marched for a few more hours before the bamboo thinned considerably. Mt. Phoenix loomed large in front of them.
"So, where are we going again?"
Ranma pointed to the top of the mountain. "Up there."
"All the way up?"
She nodded. While Ranma still seemed to be upset, as still hadn't talked since lunch beyond simple one or two word answers. The pair took off at an easy walk, heading for the foot of the mountain.
The hike was brutal. Harry was in much better shape now than he ever had been, but after six hours of climbing, it was about all he could do to go further. They were about halfway up the face of the mountain and night was approaching.
Ranma led them to a ravine on the slope that had a relatively small, flat clearing inside. "We'll camp here."
The two went about setting up camp rather quickly. Harry set up his tent with a flick of his wand. Ranma began setting hers up as well, but it would take her considerably longer since she had to unpack the poles necessary. Harry began prepping dinner, first summoning pots, pans, and cooking utensils. With a simple charm he summoned water and filled up the largest pot, setting it to boil. The vegetables peeled themselves while the chicken slowly shed its own skin with a slow strip-tease.
The preparations had the desired effect on Ranma. She watched the chicken carcass roll the skin off its thigh like a garter and snorted. She finally burst out laughing as she watched the now skinless chicken carcass slowly ease its way into the boiling water, acting like a delicate lady stepping into her bathtub.
She nodded. "Thanks."
Harry just nodded. "Wanna talk?"
"Yes and No." Ranma shrugged. She watched the chicken bathe in the pot, using a peeled carrot like luffa to scrub its own back.
"Let's start with the yes first, then."
Ranma closed her eyes. "It's just… Hard, ya know?" Salt and pepper hovered over the pot, gently seasoning the broth. The chicken seemed to enjoy the attention, rubbing the spices into its flesh. Ranma pointed at the simmering dinner. "That pretty indecent to watch, you know?"
Harry smirked. "I wanted to get you out of your funk."
"So, why is it hard?"
Ranma stared into the fire. "My whole life, I had a moron defining who I was and what I was supposed to be. Then, bit by bit, everything has been taken from me. First my ability to choose, then my identity, my gender, and now…" She made a fist. "The Art was all I had left of my former self. I know I'm strong, but now I realize that I have a glaring weakness. What if that gets taken from me, too?"
"It won't." Harry said.
"How do you know?"
"Because I'm here to help you."
They fell silent. The chicken tapped its right wing approximately where its wrist should have been, indicating that dinner was ready. Harry pulled out the plates. "What do you like – breasts, thighs, or legs?"
"I'll take the thigh, please." The chicken saluted her and promptly removed the request portion of meat and held it up to her plate. A generous portion of vegetables leapt from the pot as well into an artfully arrangement around the meat. Ranma snorted. She glanced down at her chest. "The irony of it all is, I was always a breast man, myself."
Harry nodded sagely. "Breasts are nice, but nothing beats a nice pair of thighs, though."
"I can't believe we're having this conversation."
Harry shrugged. "Why not?"
"I'm a girl, remember?"
"I thought you said you were I guy?"
"I am, and don't you forget it." Ranma attempted to look cross but failed.
"So, I can't shoot the shit with my pal about women?"
"It just seems… weird."
"Oh, and a gender-bending curse and a self-serving chicken is normal?"
Ranma smirked. "Okay. Point taken." She took a bite of chicken. "Good chicken." The now legless chicken attempted to bow but fell over into the stew. Ranma laughed. "Yeah, thighs are nice…"
The conversation devolved from there. By the time Ranma crawled into her tent, she was in a much better mood.
Ranma was already up and had packed away her tent well before sunrise. She was already mostly done cooking breakfast by the time Harry crawled out of his tent. The two ate a quick and silent breakfast and broke camp, continuing the hike.
"We should be there by noon."
"Lord Saffron, Lord Saffron!"
Saffron looked up from his reading to see an Imperial Guardsman swooping into his aviary. When the soldier made his report, the color drained from his face. He dropped his book and took to the air, heading for the audience chamber.
Harry and Ranma were marched down the carpet towards Saffron's throne, surrounded by a cadre of heavily armed guards. The walls of the hall were lined five deep with soldiers the length of the walkway, each soldier alert, armed with bows and weapons at ready. Nervous tension filled the air as the pair of humans marched towards the throne.
Harry took in his surroundings as best he could. The Phoenix people were certainly a surprise. Finding an entire race of winged humans that shouldn't exist was exciting, to put mildly. Besides the obvious avian influences like talons and wings, they seemed fairly normal and intelligent. They clearly had to be able to fly magically, as the wingspan was not enough to actually generate the necessary lift for a human to fly. Harry idly wondered if it would be better than flying on a broom, and what the top speed they could achieve in flight was. Hermione would have a field day with these people.
Ranma had walked calmly into the mountain and made no sudden movements, but hadn't slowed at all after identifying herself to the sentry. She had mentioned that Saffron might be expecting her. Nobody attempted to stop her entrance, but as they got closer to the audience chamber the number of guards had swelled.
Even though Ranma had told him what to expect, he had been caught off guard when the first soldier had swooped out of the air to confront them at the entrance to the mountain. The amount of panic that Ranma's name generated really put Harry on edge. Nervous people made stupid mistakes, and with the amount of weaponry present meant that there was a good likelihood that he could be on the pointy end of a sword.
Nothing ruined Harry's day faster than pointy things.
The Phoenix were at as much of a loss trying to figure out Harry as he was with them. He was observed carefully. They knew that Ranma was a danger to their people, having proved it before in a rather… violent fashion. Harry was an unknown, and as such, had to be treated as being equally dangerous as Ranma, if not more so.
The pair stopped ten paces from the throne. The person that Harry assumed was Saffron stood. He looked young and vibrant, almost like a teenager. His face was still soft, but Harry could see the hardness coming forth as he approached maturity. His plumage, if it could be called that, was shockingly white and highlighted with a brilliant crimson, giving him the appearance of a being of flame. From Ranma's discussions, that wasn't far from the truth.
"Saffron." Ranma bowed not taking his eyes of the young Phoenix in front of him. Ranma turned to Harry. "My companion, Harry Potter."
Harry bowed, mimicking Ranma's motions.
"Ranma." Saffron's statement was solemn, accompanied by a slight bow of the head. He regarded Harry coolly, giving the faintest nod of the head. "Harry Potter." He stepped away from the throne. His wings spread out until his wingspan was just over twelve feet. With a slight hop, he jumped off the ground and sailed lightly to the ground a few paces away from Ranma.
The wings vanished with a slight hiss. Harry noted that Saffron wasn't particularly tall, but he was certainly very regal.
"To what," Saffron began, "do I owe this distinct… pleasure?" His tone was pleasant. Harry, briefed on what had occurred the last time these two met, caught the uncertainty in the Phoenix's voice. The assembled guards did too, as there was nervous shifting around the hall.
"I came…" Ranma stood up straight, "because your transformation is due soon."
Saffron looked shocked. He nodded. "It is."
"I want…" Ranma shook her head. "I want to ensure that there is no repeat of the last attempt."
Harry could see the tension leave Saffron's body as he understood. "I… am sorry for my role in… past events." He seemed to struggle with words, settling for a simple, "I'm sorry."
Harry heard gasps from all around the room.
Ranma nodded. Harry noticed that her eyes seemed a little moist.
Saffron shifted his weight. "May I show you something?"
"Please," Saffron swept a hand to an opening past the throne room. "If you would follow me?"
The pair moved to follow, but the guards shifted nervously. Saffron looked at a white-winged female in the group. "They are free to move about, Kiima. Release them."
The warrior bowed. The ring of guards encircling the pair drifted away.
"Please," Saffron gestured again, "this way."
The walk was long. Saffron led them down a tunnel that led into the heart of the mountain. The few attempts at conversation were painfully awkward, so all three parties gave up after a few tries. They were finally led to a large chamber in the middle of the mountain. As they exited the tunnel, Harry saw two large statues, one of a dragon, and the other, a phoenix, attached to the wall above a large basin that was ringed on all sides by a short wall with an ornate mosaic of a rising phoenix in the middle. The statues themselves were easily fifty feet tall each, and the basin was about the size of an Olympic swimming pool. The room screamed grandeur.
Ranma stopped. "You rebuilt it?"
Saffron nodded. "I'd like to show you one more thing." He walked towards the basin. "This way." He walked to the wall and stepped over. There were steps on the opposite side of the wall. Saffron walked down until he was chest deep in the basin. Ranma followed.
"What am I looking fo…" She stopped at the top of the wall, stunned.
"Ranma, are you alright?" Harry caught up to her. He followed her gaze to the floor of the basin, where second mosaic was embedded in the floor. A picture of a beautiful dark-haired woman took up most of the floor of the pool. What looked like lettering or characters were embedded in retaining walls.
Harry turned to look at Ranma. Tears were streaming down her face. "Ranma?"
Harry looked back at the pool.
"She was beautiful."
Ranma nodded. She walked down the stairs to join Saffon in the pool. He was gently trailing his hands along the retaining wall, tracing each series of characters reverently, tears on his face as well. "Names of the Phoenix that died that day and subsequently."
"I'm sorry." Ranma choked out.
Saffron nodded. "Me too. Arrogance. Foolish pride." He let out a sigh. "It was not worth this many of my people. It was not worth the life of yours."
Ranma nodded. "No, it wasn't." She looked around. "This is very pretty. Why?"
Saffron looked around. "I wanted to be reminded of why I do this to remain… humble. My memories from that day are not as clear as I would like, but I know that I prevented you from saving your loved one out of spite. Those are not the actions of a compassionate ruler."
Ranma stepped up to him hesitantly. Her face was still wet with tears. "I was pretty dumb, too." She took one final look around. "How soon will you use this?"
"Not long now. We are gathering the necessary food for the transformation now."
Ranma's eyes widened. "You're not…"
Saffron shook his head. "Cows."
Ranma turned and walked up the stairs. Harry followed and Saffron brought up the rear. They left the chamber and headed to the tunnel.
"Thank you." Ranma whispered.
Saffron nodded. "It was the least I could do."
On the way back, Harry listened in fascination as Saffron described the transformation process. The un-cursed water from Jusenkyou, both in hot and cold varieties, would fuel Saffron's metamorphous into the phoenix lord.
"So the water is charged with magic, but has no curse yet?"
Harry rubbed his chin. "Do you think it would be possible to get a sample of both? Hot and cold?"
Saffron agreed, but asked, "To what purpose?"
"Research." He pointed at Ranma. "She stuck."
Saffron pursed his lips in thought. "I didn't realize. How long have you been… in this condition, Ranma?"
"Since that time."
Harry capped the hot water thermos and cast a preserving charm to keep the contents hot. He labeled the thermos and moved to the cold water tap, taking a liter sample of the cold water as well. Again, he cast a preservation charm and carefully labeled the thermos, and put both samples back into his bag.
Saffron called out from above, "Please vacate the pool and move as far away as possible. I will be flying down shortly, and the process will start with contact to the water."
Harry nodded and climbed out of the pool. He joined Ranma across the room as several Phoenix led cows down the stairs into the basin. Saffron turned the taps built into the statues on full blast, beginning to fill the basin with water. A few cows bellowed nervously.
Saffron swooped down, alighting on the mosaic of Akane. He waved to the pair. With the first contact with the water, sticky tendrils shot of his body, searching for the nearest source of food. The cows bellows were soon quieted.
Ranma pulled on Harry's sleeve. "Come on. We should go now."
Harry nodded, watching as the water rose and Saffron spun his cocoon.
Harry readied the portkey. "You okay?"
Ranma nodded. "Yeah." She looked up at the top of Mt. Phoenix, where steam could be seen pouring out a vent in the bath chamber Saffron was using. "Yeah, I think I am."
The wizard looked up from the portkey. "Hmm?"
Harry smiled. "Thank you for trusting me to see this." He held up the feather Saffron had given them before he transformed. "Ready?"