A Ranma Nibunnoichi Altaverse Fic

by Six String Samurai

Beyond Every Heaven: The Dreaming

"Would that She were one with the stars and the heavens, to make the world whole…"–an excerpt from the Book of Om.

Chapter One

The moonlit expanse of forest was quiet, but the air was pregnant with a sense of foreboding that had managed to extend to the small village just atop the hill to the south. It had been that way for three consecutive nights, though by the light of day, the feeling was somewhat diminished. It had begun on the last night of the harvest moon, when after the festival, one of the village girls went missing.

Of course, this lead to two days of frantic searching, groups of men organized by the village elders scoured every building, house and shop alike, but nothing was found. They then turned to the borders of the lake, and the edges of the forest, only to return empty handed. There was no sign of the girl, and no trace or indication of what had befallen the missing child.

On the third day, another child, the blacksmith's daughter, went to fetch water from the stream that fed the lake and failed to return. Again, it was as if the girl had disappeared without a trace.

The villagers were in an uproar, petitioning the elders to send for aid from the closest Watch branch office.

This is perhaps what brought two figures to the dirt road that skirted the edge of the forest, leading to the village proper. The smaller of the two was seated sidesaddle astride a mount darker than the night air and whose footfalls were but whispers against the packed earth. The other figure walked just ahead of the saddled beast, guiding it along with a firm grip on the leather reins. Leading the beast, the figure raised its hooded face to stare upward, judging by the gibbous moon hanging in the sky, it was a few hours past midnight. It had been a long day indeed.

Up ahead, just to one side of the small gate that barred the village at night, three watchmen were huddled around a small fire pit, two lost in a game of cards, and the third staring unabashed at the approaching strangers.

"Who goes there," called the lead guard, nudging his fellows, who hurriedly exchanged their card hands for a grip on the knives sheathed at their belts and pulled themselves away from the fire.

As the two strangers came into the circle of flickering firelight, the cloaked figure holding the mount's reins reached a free hand up and drew back its hood, revealing a shock of black hair that was pulled into a thick ponytail hung over one shoulder, beneath the rogue locks was the face of a young man, a bit weather worn, but it was clear enough to put his age at late teens, nothing more. He gave the men an easy smile as he did so, "Ah, sorry. I know it's really late, but the message seemed pretty urgent. I'm here from the Watch, name's Saotome."

Watch or not, the boy didn't seem like the type to be out at such an hour, not in the opinion of the three guards. And the leader made that clear, "Look, boy, it's not safe to be travelling around out there at night, not in this area. There's been, trouble, lately."

"Um, yeah, that's why I'm here, right?" The Saotome boy furrowed his brow. "Ah, I got it, you guys need the letter." Reaching into the folds of his heavy cloak, he scrounged around for a moment, before pulling out a folded parchment. Shaking it open, he peered at it in the dismal lighting, and then made an affirmative noise under his breath. "Yeah, this is gotta be it. Look, it's got the seal and everything right here at the bottom." He held the paper out to the guards. "See, it's legit, no problem."

The leader of the trio stepped forward to scan the paper, finding it to be exactly as the boy claimed, and couldn't really find any fault with it, or the very official looking seal scorched into the bottom corner of the parchment. But, if this kid was what the Watch was sending them, it just showed how little problems in the outskirts meant to the Council. It was like a slap in the face of all the hard work the village did. But, in the end, it wasn't really a matter that they could do anything about. Besides, even if the kid couldn't solve the problem, he would be in a better position to request more able help from the Watch, more so than any of the villagers.

While the guard was contemplating, the boy led the mount toward the gate intent on getting a little bit of rest before the real work began in the morning.

The other two guards moved to bar his passage.

The Saotome boy drew up short. "I don't really need an escort, but if ya could point the way to the local Inn, that would be great."

Folding the paper and slipping it inside a pouch at his hip, the lead guard turned to regard the two men, "Let the kid pass, it looks like the Watch sent him after all."

The two grumbled but acquiesced, more irritated at the interruption of their card game than anything else.

"Uh, yeah. So, about that Inn?"

Ranma found the Inn pretty much around where the guards had indicated, and a little less to his liking than he'd anticipated. It had taken a little doing, but after he'd gotten the proprietor to wake the stable hand, he'd managed to secure a decent spot for Haku in one of the foremost stalls. More than once in the past he'd regretted not being able to get moving as quickly as possible, and now took steps to assure easy departures.

His partner, on the other hand, had given him the usual troubles when it came to getting a place to sleep. At the moment, they were staying in one of the smaller rooms on the second floor, as his travel expenditures had been drastically cut this time around. Even with the door secured, and the window shutters drawn, the other Watcher refused to loosen the clasps on her robes, let alone doff the hood that wrapped her head in shadows far darker than black. That didn't prevent Ranma from catching sight of the single small round light within that always reminded him eerily of an unblinking eye. Shuddering to himself, he plopped down on the rock hard mattress of his small bed in the other corner of the room, intent on catching at least four or five good hours. "Get some rest, we got work ta do in the morning."

The bundle in the opposite bed made no answer, but the light within the folds of the hood seemed to dim, just a little.

Despite the shutters, shards of early morning sunlight eventually made their way into the dim room, creeping across the floor to settle directly on the face of the youngest A-Class Watcher in two generations, one Saotome Ranma. "Ah, geez, already that early?" He started to roll over to get away from the light, but grumbled and sat up to rub the crust from his eyes with his sleeve instead.

A quick glance to the other side of the room assured him that the other Watcher hadn't decided to go off on her own. But he could see that she'd been busy unpacking their stuff, and was in the process of sorting through a pile she'd dumped on her bed. Looking closer, it appeared she'd already sorted the gear from his saddle bag. Always digging in his stuff, sometimes Ranma wondered how he could stand being around her so often. It was like he didn't have any privacy any more. The way she wouldn't let him do any of the menial tasks, it was almost as if they were married, or something.

The young Watcher suppressed a shudder. The last thing he wanted was to be tied down by a serious commitment. "I'm gonna go see if I can't find us something to eat. Then we'd better get going." Ranma didn't even bother to see if the other Watcher was paying attention. If she'd gotten his gear out, she wasn't planning on doing anything by herself, not yet.

Leaving the room, Ranma made his way down to the first floor, and set about looking for the lady that ran the place or at least someone that could direct him toward some food.

He was in luck. Just as the pony-tailed youth rounded the bottom of the stair rail he all but knocked over a plainly dressed girl who'd been carting an armful of sheets and blankets. Bobbing a few apologies, he helped her gather the bits that the near miss had tumbled from her hands. "Sorry 'bout that." he said with extra sincerity in his voice.

"Um, that's okay, no harm done." The girl, maybe a year or two his younger, replied in kind.

"Ah, you work here?" Ranma asked with a note of hope in his voice.

The girl nodded back, clamping the wayward bundle of cloth down firmly with her chin. "Mhmm, my folks owe Miss Kana a few favors, so I help out now and then when it's a little busier."

"Great, uh, I mean, you wouldn't happen to know where I can get something to eat would you?"

The maid tilted her head in consideration atop the laundry. "It's still pretty early, so the cook won't have anything ready for another hour, maybe a little earlier since it's still Harvest."

"Thanks." Ranma nodded his appreciation.

"It's okay, but I've got to go, I need to get all this folded before it wrinkles too much." With that the brown haired girl made her way past Ranma and disappeared around the corner before he could ask anything more.

"Um, great. I guess I'll just see if the cook is around." Ranma mumbled to himself. Normally girls didn't just dash away from him like that. His stomach chose the time to make its own predicament known. "Yeah, yeah." Ranma flicked his ponytail over his shoulder resigned, setting off to continue his search for breakfast.

As it turned out, the maid had been fairly accurate in her estimation, and an hour and a half later found Ranma finishing off a bowl of steaming rice porridge and a handful of rolls. Likewise, his partner's bowl was now empty. They'd been in a rush the day before leaving the city to make up time lost to the late notification from Headquarters to get any real food for either lunch or dinner. Ranma knew he'd been starving, the other Watcher had, if anything, eaten even faster than he had. He could only hazard a guess, since he'd not actually seen her touch her food, having been wholeheartedly focused on devouring his own meal. Even so, when he'd looked up from his plate, hers was already empty, with only a few bread crumbs left to indicate there had been something there in the first place.

Frankly, sometimes she freaked him out a little. Not that he'd ever admit to it. He knew that more than enough regular people were somewhat, put off, by her appearance, let alone some of her more peculiar habits. In fact, Ranma was hard pressed to recall if anyone aside from the other Watchers had even seen her without her ever present hood. Not even all the Watchers had, for that matter.

But, he'd known her for a long time, even before they'd been trainees more than five years ago, back when she'd still been travelling around with her father. Now there was a man he held in as much regard as his own dad, which is to say, very little. When Ranma first met Ukyou, it had been just her and her dad, selling handmade crafts and food out of the back of the covered wagon she said her folks owned. At the time, Ranma hadn't bothered to ask where Ukyou's mother was, since he'd been out on the road with his own father for years by then. Ranma just assumed that Ukyou was doing the same thing. Back then, they'd played just like any other kids, and kept each other company for the week or so it took to get from the small village they'd met in to the capital. Ukyou's father was headed there to pick up better supplies for his wares, and to hawk to a large crowd. Likewise, though Ranma hadn't known it then, his father was looking to turn a profit on the other man's hard work.

In the end it turned out horribly for both men. Ranma and Ukyou spent the better part of a month fending for themselves on the outskirts of the city, while their fathers kept a cell warm in the provincial jail on charges of fraud and petty theft.

As for the present, Ranma and Ukyou got along well enough regardless of the past, or maybe because of it, Ranma wasn't sure, and he wasn't stupid enough to bring it up to find out either.

"That hit the spot." Ranma exclaimed contentedly. He turned toward the cloaked girl, "Looks like it's time to get this done with." He got up and walked over to his equipment splayed out on the mattress. Picking up one of the smaller pieces of the deep blue armor that was the hallmark of their profession, he let out a sigh as he began to don the various bits of field gear. "When I was in the kitchens, there was talk of another kid vanishing last night. That makes three, unless more happened while we were on the road. Did you pick up anything yet?"

"No, it's…still quiet," the soft rasp of words sliding out from within the hood informed.

"I figured as much," Ranma finished getting his armor on, and turned to check the straps and connections on his partners nearly identical set. "Do you do this on purpose? The left one's always too loose," the boy chided softly, tightening a leather strap just below her left shoulder guard.

Giving each other a final once over, the two Watchers packed away the rest of the gear and left the little room. Dressed as they were, Ranma needn't worry about any more villagers walking off in the middle of a conversation. All attention would be fixed firmly on the official sigil on his left breastplate; the three eyes of Om would confer all authority he would ever need. No one would deny the Triclops, not in a village this small.

As was their intent, the Watcher's inquiries in the village received little to no resistance, after all, they were there at the behest of the people themselves. However, the wall they ran into wasn't one of cooperation, but simply of lack of information. None of the villagers had seen or heard anything whatsoever regarding any of the three vanishings.

So far, all the two had been able to gather were that the missing kids were all female and around the same age, just grown into childbearing age. Of course, they had perfect descriptions and hobbies, likes, dislikes, favorite places…almost too much information on behalf of the girl's parents. Also, it seemed that all three were the single child of the household, the blacksmith's daughter, a farmer's daughter and a child of one of the waitresses in the small pub. The farmer's daughter had been the first to vanish on the night of the Harvest festival it turned out.

When that bit of news came up, Ranma interest was perked, and he began gathering more information on what exactly the Harvest entailed. As it turned out, the Harvest was an annual festival that had been observed in the lake area even prior to the village founding, some thirty years past. That in of itself wasn't unusual, and actually quite a common occurrence in local towns and villages in this part of the country. Most of the cities, however, had long ago eschewed such practices with the advance of the times.

The festival itself seemed a simple and harmless affair, more of an excuse to gather the town folk together for a few nights of dancing and merriment. Nothing untoward, or even really all that exciting seemed to have gone on; from all accounts there was just dancing, drinking, and possibly overeating. He'd even made specific mention on checking into any old practices, or harmless rites. Nothing had come to light.

It was as his partner had said, the place was quiet. This in turn only served to worry Ranma. He'd helped break apart a slave ring two years ago, and if the vanishings had been closer together, and not days apart, he'd have considered the possibility a little further. No, slavers would have abducted more than just three kids, and not just girls. This was definitely another sort of matter.

He'd also considered that the girls were just playing some sort of game, or maybe grown tired of country life and headed out to the nearest city, but from what he'd seen of Pranel so far, the little town was doing well for itself, and in a prime location near both available water and lumber. No, it was even weirder if three girls ran off together with a span of days in between.

There could've been bandits he supposed, which had been the consensus of the elders in the village as well.

Ranma flicked his ponytail in irritation as he left the last elder's house. "Damn, this is ridiculous." He made his way back toward the Inn near the center of the town where he'd meet back up with his partner to see if she'd turned up anything in her own search.

He found her waiting for him by the stables; she'd been waiting for a little while, and had decided to feed Haku. "Do we have anything yet?"

The B-Class Watcher turned away from Haku to address Ranma, who could just barely make out her pale lips at the very edge of the hood's shadow when she spoke, "The village is still quiet, but," she reached out a gloved hand, "I found this by the river." In the gloved palm something very tiny caught the light and sparkled. Looking closer, it appeared to be a scale of some kind, but too large for a fish.

"What do ya think it is?" Ranma asked, knowing he had to sometimes prompt the girl to keep explaining. He'd asked her once, why she always assumed he knew what she was thinking, but she'd only hidden herself further into her cloak and had refused to talk to him for the rest of the day. He knew girls were a little hard to figure out sometimes, but the two of them, well, they'd been friends for almost a lifetime, and he still was no closer to really understanding her.

"It's a scale," she replied obviously.

"Uh, yeah…I mean, any idea what it's from?"

The shadowed hood shook slowly from side to side. "I don't know. It's not quiet, like the town though." She spoke the last lightly, almost as if it were an afterthought.

"What!? Why didn't you say that in the first place," Ranma almost snatched the scale, or whatever it was right out of her hand. "Why are ya just carrying it around like this," he sounded almost upset, but didn't quite yell. "Gah, whatever. Just give me the damn thing, and maybe I can get a read on it." He grabbed the scale from her still outstretched hand. The hand with the glove on it. Shit, now he felt bad for nearly biting her head off over it. He tried to change the subject to divert the guilt that had sprung up. "The blacksmith girl was by the river, right? And this is the only one you found?"

"Yes, but further down the river, there was more noise. Toward the lake."

"Noise, huh…well it was the blacksmith's daughter. From the descriptions I gathered she was a pretty rough girl, kinda acted like a boy and all that. She must've got a few good hits in on whoever nabbed her. If she'd been grabbed from in the water, there'd be no signs of a struggle. It's pretty lucky you were able to get this scale."

Ranma got another nod for his deduction. Apparently she'd come up with a similar idea.

"Damn, if you picked up noise…probably means it wasn't just some kidnappers or bandits out for a good time. Ah," he scratched at his ponytail. "Guess the town's gonna need us after all. Let's get to the lake and see what's what."

The journey down to the lake was as uneventful as investigating the town had been. The two Watchers had taken the longer route, deciding to follow the bend of the river in case they would chance to stumble upon more evidence, or tracks that might have led off course from the lake. Regardless, they had no luck, even the reading Ranma had elicited from the scale turned up only muddled images, probably because the scale wasn't fresh, and thus the noise too faint.

By noon they'd reached the lakeshore, and Ranma was beginning to wish he'd brought Haku along. The walk wasn't bad in of itself, but taking the time to follow the meandering path of the river had been irksome to say the least, especially now, with nothing to show for it. Finding the scale had been a moment of chance, after all, the villagers had said they'd combed the place pretty thoroughly. It was their kids missing after all.

The Watchers stopped at the edge where the grass gave way to loose soil and small pebbles before falling away into the crystal clear water. Frankly, the view was breathtaking, and the clear lake stretched across for a good thousand meters in any given direction except to the west where the forest interdicted the waters. Far to the north, he could just barely make out the hazy edges of the Lomar mountains. The sky was as clear and calm as the lake, and he felt like he could see forever in the mirrored tableau of the sky in the waters. It was a peaceful place that didn't deserve the rude awakening that had been given. Ranma intended to do whatever he could to fix that.

The two waited, standing there unmoving for a few minutes more, getting a stronger feel for the land, and in the girl's case, stretching the limits of her senses for any sign of noise. But, it was quiet, just as it appeared.

"Ranma, there's nothing here."

"Hmm, I don't like it. There's gotta be something we're missing. A sign, I dunno." He picked up a small pebble and flung it out gracefully across the waters, where it skipped a handful of times before sinking beneath the surface with a soft plunk. "It's gotta be the lake, the forest was a bust on the way up here, you said so yerself."

"It's there," the hooded Watcher said tersely, which for her might as well have been a shout.

Her statement caught Ranma off guard and he jerked his arm as he made the toss, flinging the little rock in a high arc above the water where it struck something halfway out above the lake with a small tink.

"See," she pointed out, needlessly.

"Om's breath…," the curse slipped from Ranma's lips. He grabbed another couple of stones and hurled them hard through the midday air. All five consecutive throws met with the same end, the stones definitely were colliding with something above the lake, something big judging by the faint sound of impacts as he'd thrown the pebbles far apart from each other. "What's out there? It's too far up off the water to be a ship."

"It's being hidden from us."

"Yeah, no kidding. You sure there's no noise? Gotta be some with that, whatever it is, out there."

The girl just shook her head negatively. "It's possible that it's too far away."

"But, I mean, it's huge!" As if to demonstrate the fact, he chucked another rock as far off to one side of the center of the lake as he could, and it met with the same fate as the rest. "Look, gotta be the width of this part of the lake, or close to it." He was incredulous; there was no way something that big was of human manufacture. Ranma looked down at the water, then at their patches of armor. "Think the village will lend us a boat?"

Ranma shaded his eyes from the sun almost directly overhead. Fall was fast approaching, or so he'd been told. The weather however, seemed inclined to disagree and he was distinctly uncomfortable in his Watcher garb. His partner didn't appear to be any worse for wear, judging from how calmly she was sitting in on the seat opposite him, but then again he was the one doing all the rowing. Oh, they'd gotten a boat from the village easily enough, well, more like the short little pier on the lakeside, but it was probably a villager's boat.

No, the problem was that one of the oars appeared to be a bit shorter than the other for some unfathomable reason, making it really hard to keep the boat from drifting sharply to the left, or worse, start to go in circles. Admittedly, it had been a little funny at first, but when one was trying to get to the middle of a large body of water, going in circles near the shore was sort of counterproductive. Ranma refrained from uttering more useless curses.

Across from him, the faint blue glowing orb within the shadowed hood almost seemed to be fixing him with an intense gaze. Then he realized she was just focusing her attention on searching for any sign of noise.

An almost unbearable time later, Ranma found himself dropping the oars to catch the bundle of armor and cloth that was his partner as the boat jarred suddenly against whatever was in the middle of the lake. After steadying themselves, Ranma crawled over the bench, picking up one of the fallen oars to prod at what they'd struck. The oar met with the invisible barrier and he found it was completely vertical, flat like a wall. Not finding any noticeable effect to the oar on contact, he risked reaching a gloved hand out.

Not knowing any better he swore his hand was pressed against a block of cut stone, definitely an actual wall of some sort. "It goes down beneath the waterline," he checked stabbing with the oar. "We're this close…you still not gettin anything?"

"It's…quiet. Like nothing is there."

He slapped his hand against the barrier, hard enough to sting. "Yeah, not there. Agree with ya completely on that one."

"Maybe if we try the other side." She offered.

"Yeah, I'll row us right over and we can do that…maybe you've been out in the sun too long." Ranma scoffed, dropping his arm.

"The other side of the lake," she pointed her arm down along across the wall.

"Oh," Ranma tugged his ponytail, "Yeah, I knew that." He picked up the oars and struggled to get them around to a place where the wall might curve without saying anything else.

Another thirty minutes of fruitless searching and Ranma was ready to call it a day. "This is ridiculous. If this is just a damn box with no lid, I'm gonna be pissed. There's gotta be a better way to go about trying to get in. Dad could probably do it no sweat." Just the thought of his notorious father dropped Ranma's already poor mood right into the gutter.

Ranma's mood wasn't the only one to suffer, as he noticed his partner's 'eye' was steadily dimming. She'd been constantly searching for more noise, and it was very taxing, or so she'd once told him.

They managed to make half a circuit around the entirety of what they assumed to be the barrier in another hour; it was slightly larger than they'd first guessed back on shore. The results remained the same, an unbroken, possibly stone, wall, extending more than a hundred meters up from the surface of the water, and sinking down untold depths.

There was also the fact of the heat and sunlight bearing down on them. Whatever was at work here, it was very powerful to be bending the very fabric of nature around to maintain the illusion, or barrier, whatever it was. This close to a wall, especially one so high, there was no way the sun already descending toward the other shore of the lake would be seen, much less felt. The Watchers were at a loss.

The boat rocked as it struck something ahead in the water.

"What'd we hit?" Ranma looked over the edge and didn't see anything. Sticking the oar out toward the barrier, he found it hadn't changed. That meant the wall either curved here again, or the shape was no longer consistent. "Are you getting anything?"

"No," her voice was slightly weaker than usual.

Ranma stuck the oar down in front of the boat and didn't meet resistance till he was nearly touching the water. The barrier was horizontal on the water here!

"Hah! Look at this. Some kinda ground. Maybe we found an entrance. I knew we'd do it!" the Watcher was back in high spirits and almost found himself doing a little dance, but stopped when he remembered they were on a boat. Better to save the dancing for later, when they rescued the kids.

Ranma's hazard proved to be right, and after a little prodding around, they decided to climb out onto the barrier. Like the wall, the substance beneath their feet could be little else but stone, and they strode cautiously along the remaining two meters to where it should meet the wall, only to reach out into empty air. The wall wasn't barring the way, just as he'd hoped.

Even slower than before, he stepped forward, continuing to stretch his hand, until suddenly it disappeared from his view. "Ah!" He yanked his hand back, where it became visible once more, and felt a little stupider for it. "Right. Let's go see if anyone's home."

He wasn't sure exactly what he'd been expecting prior to sticking his neck through the barrier, but what he found himself looking at surely wasn't quite it. A fortress, an overgrown temple ruin, those things seemed likely, but a mostly open field strewn with crumbling statues wasn't it. As wide and big as the area inside the walls was the entirety of it stood several dozen meters below the level of the lake outside. It was too spacious and well lit to call it a pit or anything of the sort, maybe a kind of oversized open air amphitheatre. Really, he supposed there wasn't a name for this kind of structure, if there was, it certainly wasn't common knowledge.

Currently, the two found themselves standing on a wide ledge, with a waist height wooden rail at the edge, probably as a precaution against onlookers falling over the edge. The wood looked rotten and gnarled, but there was no way he would trust it to bear more weight than a passing butterfly.

There was no sign of anyone else in the immediate vicinity, and nothing moved within their line of sight. No bandits, no girls, just one big mystery.

They stood there for a little while, staring out across the sea of broken forms, human for the most part and all slightly larger than life. "There's a way down, over this way," the small voice broke Ranma out of his reverie and he turned to see his partner already heading toward a stone staircase that curved from the ledge down into the marble garden, which is what his mind had decided to dub the stone panorama.

As they walked among the towering forms, Ranma's mind was working overtime to identify the feeling he was getting from the place, mostly from the statues, but the whole ordeal was just too strange, in of itself. "Do these remind you of anything? I couldn't tell from above, but some of these guys look familiar, or maybe I'm just imagining it."

"It's the legends…this is where they live now."

"What are you talking about? The legends," Ranma trailed off as it clicked in his head and he realized she wasn't trying to be literal. He was starting to recognize some of the figures, not by their individual looks, but by the way they were posed, unmoving but yet part of some larger scene when taken in small groups. "It's all the old heroes, the stories...," the ponytailed Watcher began to recognize a few heroes and one or two of the old gods in particular. "This is, amazing."

He was about to start pointing out particular scenes, when a sharp cry interrupted him.

"The noise, it's here…strong, that way," the Watcher was clutching at her head, feebly gesturing toward the center of the structure with one shaky hand.

He'd seen it from above, a huge platform in the center of the marble garden; it was the only place where there'd been a suggestion of a building. "Let's go, the girls could be there."

They hurried, the statues passing like ancient stone goliaths, but the path was more or less clear.

Breaking past the last line of hulking legendary icons, the two Watchers found themselves at the base of the central platform, where there was indeed a small stone building, very reminiscent of the temples in the forgotten heart of their city. This one was multi-sided, almost but not quite completely circular, and of the same color stone as the platform it sprouted from, likely the reason it had been difficult to discern from the upper ledge.

The nearer they came to the actual platform, the more agitated Ranma's partner became, and the more worried Ranma grew. For it to be affecting her this much, the two of them might not be enough. But, turning back now would be like trying to stop a chick from hatching, it had already begun, and if the girls were here…if they were still alive. No, this time retreat wasn't an option. "It looks like there's only one entrance, but better to check and make sure. I don't like surprises."

"Yes, need to hurry."

Ranma couldn't agree more. He needed the both of them in fighting condition, especially now, with this many unknowns. "Stay on the right side of the doorway, I'll head around the back and circle around, if it's sealed, we'll head in when I get to the left side." He caught her nod in the corner of his eye as she slipped away toward the door, and he did likewise.

Momentarily, they were across from one another once more. He'd been right; there was only the one way in, or out of this little temple.

Signaling with his left hand, he unclasped the two thick sheathes strapped to either thigh, and slotted the twin halves together, eliciting a small click. Once it was secured together, Ranma slid a rod shaped handle from its place nestled at his lower back and attached it to the slotted end of the completed sheath, then drew the rectangular meter long blade from the confining leather with a pleasant rasp.

Across from him, the other Watcher likewise readied her blade.

Ranma risked a quick glance into the doorway, trying to gauge how many opponents they would be facing. The view was disheartening, to say the least.

Keeping his body flush to the wall, the Watcher mentally reviewed what he'd seen of the temple interior. He counted at least three figures gathered in the center of the thankfully tiny room. It was also sparsely decorated, and the floor was clear from the doorway to the far wall, meaning they'd have to rush in with nothing to provide cover. But, since the reverse was true, he didn't have to worry about any stragglers lying in wait. There was, however, one glaring problem. One of the occupants wasn't human. It looked like they'd found the owner of the scale.

Ranma let out a small breath, the leather wrap on the handle of his blade creaked as he gripped it harder. He'd had a suspicion before, when he'd first seen the scale, but actually running into a Naga, of all things, it didn't bode well. Giving his partner a quick hand signal, he indicated how many they'd be dealing with, and mouthed out the little obstacle they'd be contending with.

The single eye blazed brighter for a moment, then dimmed considerably. She was just as agitated as he felt.

This close, the noise was much stronger. Ranma noticed the other Watcher lean almost imperceptibly against the walls of the temple for support. They would have to be quick about it. Hopefully interrupting whatever Arte the Naga was working would do the trick; cancel out the worst of the effects.

"One, two, three…," he ticked off on his free hand, giving the signal to move in. The two watchers surged through the doorway, fanning out to come up behind the Naga's two companions, who began turning around at the sudden sound of footsteps.

Ranma caught his target square in the face with the pommel sending the man stumbling backward, clutching at his ruined nose. Even as his foe toppled, Ranma pressed forward, slamming the pommel into the man's gut, and in the same movement, arching up to connect with the underside of his jaw. The Watcher's movement only paused when the edge of his blade was pressed to the side of the Naga's neck.

Using his peripheral vision, he found his partner had nearly mirrored his actions, leaving the second brigand crumpled to the ground. The Naga, now in an unfortunate position of having two blades scissored around its neck, cut short the quiet flowing incantations it had been absorbed in just moments prior.

"All right, demon, where are the girls?" Ranma spared a glance to check that the Naga was unarmed.

The pale blue scales of the Naga caught the flickering light of the twin braziers in the room, running blue to orange between moments.

The Naga was scarcely a head shorter than either Watcher, and perhaps a little shorter than even that, since at the moment, the snake demon was resting on the coils of its lower half. Ranma noted this one was no exception to its species gender predominance, and was decidedly female. Something made all the more obvious by the Naga's choice to adhere to the race's predilection regarding matters of fashion, as the only bit resembling clothing were the lengths of embroidered cloth wrapped loosely around the her mid-section. On the other hand, the demon's ample chest was left quite bare, the scales there much smaller and softer in hue than the aqua blue that covered her shoulders and back beneath the loops and curls of viridian than spilled haphazardly down almost to her waist.

Apparently, Nagas could also sweat, and the Watcher forced himself to pull his eyes away from the twin glistening orbs, back up to his quarry's face which he could only catch in profile as the Naga was unable to turn her head due to the slight sharp pressure on either side of her neck.

"The girls, what have you done with them? Ranma was forced to repeat himself when the snake demon remained silent.

"Girls," the Naga's lilting voice pitched and rolled, making a question out of the statement.

"The girls from the village that ya kidnapped. They better be alive, if ya catch my drift." There was a rasping sound as Ranma drew the blade a little tighter against the Naga's neck. The pressure wasn't enough to break the scales, but it was enough to give the demon a clear message.

Despite the threat, the Naga didn't seem to be in any rush to comply, and a sharp breath from the other Watcher drew part of Ranma's attention toward where his partner was indicating with the elbow of her off hand. The Altar…

He could only guess at what the Naga had been attempting, but on the unblemished surface of stone in the center of the small temple, was a clay bowl half filled with a light pink liquid. It didn't look like blood, but he wouldn't have been surprised with the level of noise that had been created. Some of the stronger, older spells required blood or other such material components. Blood magic was as a whole, heavily discouraged by the higher echelons of the Watch. Not only was it all but forbidden, it carried a greater risk should something go wrong in the casting.

Aside from the bowl, there were several ampoules containing more of the fluid, a small metal circular effigy, and a large scroll half filled with warding script. From what Ranma could make out, the Naga had been in the process of setting up the ward she needed for the spell. Resting against the front of the altar was a leather satchel. It was propped open, and the Warder could see more components for casting nestled inside. Still, none of what he found was all that out of the ordinary, and he failed to see what had drawn such a reaction from his partner.

Two moans and grunts of pain from the ground gave Ranma a little more incentive to get his information. He had no idea if these were the only brigands working with the Naga, but he didn't want to stick around and see if the odds started tipping from his favor.

"We're goin back outside; we'll finish this out there."

As they led the Naga away from the downed men, she made a faint resistance, knowing that she couldn't get away with more, not when every breath reminded her of the sharp edges of steel at her throat.

"Let's try this again, we're looking to find three girls that went missing over the last few days, and all signs point to you bein the one that had something to do with it." Ranma informed the Naga once they'd gotten back out into the sunlight, and put a good bit of distance between themselves and the entrance to the temple. He'd gotten a good look at the two men they'd left behind and neither of the two possessed anything more threatening than a dagger, and in one man's case, a short sword. Neither of the two bore long range weapons of any sort, and their motley raiment attested that neither was anything other than a rogue bandit. Hardly a threat, but they kept the sliver of shadow at the front of the temple within sight just the same.

"I haven't any idea as to any girls," the Naga spoke up in that airy sibilant tone that bothered Ranma for some strange reason.

"Hmm, what's this then?" He asked, nodding toward the other Watcher. "Show our friend here what she dropped."

The Naga regarded the dry scale with questioning eyes, "What are you showing me this for?"

"Hah, still trying to deny it," Ranma trailed off as he mentally compared the scale in the Watcher's gloved hand, with the glistening, fresh tiny scales on his captive's, face.

"It's not the same at all," his partner summed up quite eloquently, as she brought the dry cracked scale up to compare it with the scales on the Naga. While the color was quite similar, the size was unmistakably different. What she held in her glove was far too large to belong anywhere on the slender body they'd captured. But, what were the odds?

Frowning, Ranma considered what this meant. Had they made a mistake? He shook his head.

Either way, the Naga had been messing with some kind of demonic ritual, and that was enough to warrant their intervention. Besides, he reasoned, who was to say she'd been working alone in the first place. "So this belongs to a friend of yers, that it? As long as we get the girls back, I don't care who it belongs to."

Ranma found his captive to be even less cooperative once the Watchers revealed the slight mistake they'd made. However, Ranma wouldn't budge certain that despite her claims to the contrary, the Naga had something to do with the disappearance of the village girls. He just couldn't prove it yet. "Fine, if you don't have the girls, what are you doing in these ruins anyway?"

He was alone with the demon for the moment, having sent the other Watcher to check on how the two in the temple were doing, and to relieve them of their weapons, which he should've done in the first place now that he'd thought about it. For his part, he'd bound the Naga's arms behind her back with cord from the pouch at his side. He hadn't really dealt personally with a Naga before, but as far as he could tell, she was weaponless. Not that there were a whole lot of places she could've hid a weapon on her nearly naked form.

"You don't know what you're saying, do you?" The Naga chose to remain impassive, despite the treatment she was being given, or perhaps because of it.

"What're you talking about? I'm askin you about this place."

"Hmph. That proves my point. You don't know what you're dealing with. I'm surprised you even made it in here in the first place," again, the Naga purposely seemed to slur her words.

"Just what is this place, if yer so set on making me out to be an idiot?"

"Mm, it has many names, but Porado Ceu, is the oldest," the Naga intoned.

"Yeah, that's great, but why's it in the middle of this lake? There's no way the villagers missed it this long."

The Naga continued, ignoring the interruption, "This place is very special, to all our people, but it has been sleeping, since ages past. Back before Om first gave us hope, Porado Ceu was the place through which She passed between the World and the Undying Land. It is the gathering place of all those who would live on in eternity," she cast her eyes out across the great forest of stone. "The ages do not seem to touch this place, for it has been moved out of Time. But, I'm trying to fix that. I can wake it up again."

"What are you talkin' about? If it's out of time, how'd we get in then?" Ranma was following her speech, as peppered with references as it was; they'd been things all the Watch members were required to study. But, old things, legends and myths. Most of it was only half-remembered in even the most ancient texts in the Watch archives.

The Naga rounded back on Ranma's earlier question, "No one found it before, because it wasn't here. Porado Ceu, it moves across the World, or maybe it's in all places at once. I've been following it for years you know, and you're wasting what little time there is left here."

"What, it's gonna up and move or something?"

"Yes, I suppose that's one way of thinking about it. I don't really know how it does it, but from the records I found, we wouldn't be making the trip with it. Which is why I have no time to spare on you. Untie me, so I can finish. If I can wake it, Porado Ceu probably won't move anymore."

"Probably, huh. You're not sure?"

"No, all I know for certain, is this place will vanish completely in by nightfall. Just let me finish the spells," her eyes widened imploringly as she spoke, almost hastily.

Ranma sighed, tapping the symbol on his chest, "I'm the last person that would let you mess around with this place."

The Naga looked away, muttering something under her breath.

"Hey, I don't need you trying anything funny," the Watcher reached out to cover her mouth, intending to muffle any chanting.

Unfortunately, the Naga hadn't been muttering a spell, and Ranma found himself grabbing the muzzle of the Naga's pure blood form, a massive blue-green snake that no longer bore any resemblance to the human form. The switch was almost instantaneous, and the Watcher cursed himself for being caught unaware. "Ukyou! Get out here, we've got a problem," he yelled at the top of his lungs for the other Watcher, grabbing the thrashing head with both arms as he did so.

The Naga had grown considerably, in strength as well as size, and the wiry Watcher was hard pressed to maintain his hold, having to resort to physically wrapping himself around the upper half of the transformed demon. Barely hanging on, he bit back sharp gasps of pain when the Naga decided the best way to dislodge the unwelcome rider was to hurl herself time and again into the stone platform, hoping to crush Ranma, or at least bludgeon him into submission.

"Uk-," Ranma felt his shoulder nearly pop out of socket after a particularly strong impact. "-kyo, I can't hold on all day!"

Back in the temple, Ukyou had just finished trussing up the two useless brigands, when Ranma's voice reached her. Not wasting time, she picked up her blade from where it had been resting against the altar, and bolted outside, only to find quite the sight before her eyes.

The Naga, that was the only explanation she could think of for the giant reptile writhing about across the temple courtyard, had wrapped itself around her partner, who was barely visible between the blue coils. Ranma appeared to have a tight grip of his own on the serpent's maw, but with the way his face was starting to match the shade of the demon's scales, that grip wouldn't hold out much longer.

Ukyou's breath sped up beneath the heavy mask she bore, and she readied the blade in her hands, throwing herself toward battle with a wordless cry. No one would get away with hurting what belonged to her!

The giant serpent must have been slightly startled by Ukyou's charge, because Ranma felt the coils surrounding him slacken ever so slightly, but it would have to be enough. Straining, he managed to get an arm free enough to use the flat of his blade as a lever, prying the largest of the coils away from him. He was almost free, just a little closer.

But, the Watchers actions didn't go unnoticed by his captor. Ranma gasped as the section he'd been prying at suddenly seized up, tighter than before. "Geh, damn it. Can't breathe," he gritted. Having gotten his sword arm free, he swung upward in a vain attempt to try and brain the serpent. He felt the coils twitch as his blade struck a telling blow, catching the snake in a soft spot under its jaw. "Heh, take that you stupi-," Ranma was forced to cut his crowing short as he was reintroduced rather suddenly to the ground by his irate foe.

Feeling the coils unwrap completely, the ponytailed Watcher rolled to his feet to try and get some distance so he could recover, but he found that plan forcibly aborted due to the massive tail whipping toward his midsection. "Whoah, watch it with that!" Ranma threw himself back down, pressed flat to avoid the strike. His hair ruffled from the pressure of the displaced air the tail had created. The Watcher tumbled away, hoping to get out of the way of any follow up strikes.

Popping up in a crouch, Ranma found that he needn't have worried, for the serpent's attention was focused primarily on Ukyou, who was darting back and forth, making little jabs with the edge of her blade. From his vantage point, he could tell that her strikes while quick were failing to do little more than nick the beast's scales. But, even the small blows were a sort of victory, as tiny rivulets of the Naga's blood were beginning to glisten in the waning light not that Ukyou wasn't paying for her efforts. Twice, before Ranma had the chance to maneuver himself into a better position, the Naga had lashed out with that heavily muscled tail, almost driving the breath completely out of his partner.

Furrowing his brow, Ranma finally saw the chance he was waiting for and lunged into the fray where he managed to keep to the serpent's blind side. Tensing his legs, he threw himself in a flying leap aimed at wrapping his arms around the Naga's neck. He didn't exactly relish the thought of a repeat performance, but their weapons just weren't getting through. As he landed, he scrambled for purchase on the slippery scales, in the end wrapping his legs around the snake's upper half, while hooking his arms up under where the Naga's jaw met the neckline, he twisted his grip into a semblance of a choke hold. This was ridiculous, he thought, as his foe began thrashing around wildly, quite against having its air flow violently cut.

The Naga whipped from side to side, flinging itself against the stone ground and thrashing this way and that eventually catching Ukyou with a glancing blow that sent the Watcher tumbling across the temple grounds. Still Ranma held on, grinding his arms into the softer flesh beneath the Naga's jaw. So caught up, he barely had time to brace himself for a hard impact, when the Naga crashed into the temple wall in a last ditch effort to free itself.

It appeared the temple was made of stern stuff, and merely shook slightly at the heavy impact. The Naga on the other hand, had rushed practically headlong into the side of the building, and Ranma found himself pinned heavily to the floor by the weight of the comatose serpent. "Ukyou…," he wiggled his arm in the general direction of his partner. Ranma tried pushing with his legs, but found they were immobile under the serpent's bulk. "Get this thing offa me."

A little bit later, the two were up and brushing themselves off. "Hey, you okay Ukyou? Looked like you took a nasty hit back there." Ranma frowned, moving close to inspect the girl's hip, which she appeared to be favoring.

Ukyou brushed his hands aside, "It's not bad." Her hood tilted to the side, "And your ribs?"

It was Ranma's turn to look away, "Bah, just bruised, nothin's broke. It'll be fine in the mornin." He fixed his gaze on the sleeping form of the Naga. "What do we do with these guys? That boat's not real big."

The female Watcher was about to answer when the two of them noticed something, odd, about the giant snake.

"Hey, is it just me, or is the snake shrinkin?"

Ukyou didn't respond, preferring instead to watch as the Naga did appear to be drawing in upon itself. In moments the snake girl appeared to be reversing the previously instantaneous transformation almost laboriously. What had taken the blink of an eye, now spanned a stomach churning minute as the transformation continued past the half snake form they'd initially seen, the scales eventually giving way to pale, almost milk white flesh, and the thick tail branching apart into long thin legs.

"Om's breath…she's a girl," Ranma summed up the transformation quite astutely.

Ukyou regarded her partner with a droll cant of her head, wondering not for the first time, how her partner had risen through the ranks with such apparent ease. He had a tendency to understate the obvious at times, which privately bothered her if she dwelled on it for too long.

Ranma may have been a little dense, but that didn't mean he wasn't in tune with his partner's moods, quite the opposite in fact. He alone could read her moods in the subtle shifts of her light, and even explain in certain terms to others what the Watcher might be feeling at any given time. However, that was the extent of his abilities. Ranma consistently failed to understand the reasons behind her shifts in temper, at least where he was concerned, and more often than not, caused her to grow upset with him, or other people for inexplicable reasons. Fortunately, those times only resulted in her ignoring him for random lengths of time. This to the ponytailed warder was almost worse than the scant few times she'd taken her anger out on him physically. Personally, he'd decided that she'd found out long ago, which of the two 'punishments' was more effective on him.

Ranma scratched the back of his head, "Well, it looks like she'll fit in the boat now. I don't think we can get all three of them in there at once though. We'll probably have ta make a second trip."

"Ranma," Ukyou ground out the words as she clutched at the sides of her head. "We, may not have…much…time." As she spoke the whole of the island seemed to shudder under their feet. "Gah," she choked out through gritted teeth. The noise had suddenly sprung up, increasing to near intolerable levels.

"Ukyou!" Ranma rushed to her side, putting an arm around her waist to steady the teetering girl. While he didn't have her senses, the tremor had been quite effective in its own right. Glancing worriedly from his partner to the pale girl crumpled by the shrine, he muttered several unseemly curses. Another tremor wracked the temple grounds, spurring him to action. Two trips were out of the question, but the Naga needed to be brought in. If the men could move of their own accord, so be it.

A/N: I've decided to repost the first chapter of this story as I've replaced and added a few scenes (roughly an extra thousand words) at the behest of my beta. Chapter two should be up with similar revisions quite soon. Thanks for reading, and feel free to drop me a line either via message or review with suggestions/quips on the story itelf, or ideas you as readers might like to see implemented. I make no promises, but if it's compelling enough, I am open to concessions.

As far as the AU is concerned, it is pretty much wholly an original world, but I'm not against crossovers with similar backgrounds, such as Zero no Tsukaima, Sisters of Wellber, or Nishi no Yoki Majou. Any other anime fantasy settings with limited to low magic are also welcome as a suggestion. But, please no requests for Lodoss War or Berserk. While I enjoy those particular series, I don't feel they fit in thematically with where I'll be taking the story.

Till next time,

- Six-string Samurai