Disclaimer - This crossover story is not for profit. All characters within
are property of their respective owners.

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Ranma jumped out of the bus window as soon as the vehicle stopped.

"I've got to get some peace and quite or else that tower will be a pile of dust by the end of the day!"

They don't call it the Nerima wrecking crew for nothing. Unfortunately, Shampoo was riding on top of that same bus, and saw her prey leap from car to car toward Tokyo tower. Cologne had recieved news earlier in the week that Furinken High would be taking a field trip to the structure, and she wanted her granddaughter to learn more about modern Japanese culture. Or it could be fact that Ranma was going.

The pigtailed martial artist caught Ukyo in the side of his vision, and changed directions in the opposite direction over a busy intersection. In Nerima, or any other ward, this would have been taken with stride and the citizens would go about their business. This area of the metropolis was not used to sights of flying ultra powerful martial artists, sailor senshi, youma, energy beams, flying tree spaceships, giant robots with umbilical cables for a power source....

So, the driver in a red jeep did the next best thing that came to her mind, she vered sharply left and hit a hydrant. Water rocketed in the air as the pressure contained within found an outlet.

"Water!" Ranma found it difficult to change directions in midair without something to push against, and so went into the man made cold water geyser. "Why does this always happen to me!?" yelled out a female voice.

Shampoo jumped off a car in another direction to avoid the spray, but then continued her pursuit. Ukyo now joining the chase after seeing the water explode upward. Water and property damage equates to Ranma in the area, so she headed in that direction. The doors to the tower were crowded, and Ranma would definitely be caught if the he-turned-she waited. Jumping above the crowd, she proceeded to go from beam to beam to the observation deck. Shampoo and Ukyo were not trained in the aerial techniques of Anything Goes and weren't as confident in performing the same. So, they pouted and did the next best thing - beat each other up in the parking lot.

----- Up in the observation deck of the tower ----

Hikaru Shidou put a five yen piece in the lense. Leaning down to peer through the eye piece, she blinked once when she saw a pair of blue eyes looking back, yelped, and fell backward. Looking up from her seat on the ground, she tried to see who was the cause for her surprise. To her surprise again, the redhead that looked almost exactly like her, but with a shorter pigtail. Finally, the person was -outside- of the observatory and was climbing some of the bars outside of the window for one of the higher open ventation windows.

The redhead finally flipped in, and landed in front of Hikaru. Extending a hand, "Sorry about surprising you like that, you ok?"

Hikaru nodded and grasped the hand. The redhead pulled her up easily with a firm grip. "Thank you. That was a surprise though." Giving a short bow, "My name is Hikaru Shidou. I'm visiting here on a field trip with my class."

"Wow, what a coincidence, so is my class. My name is Ranma Saotome." Ranma looked around, and thankfully didn't see anyone from her school yet. "Let's find someplace out of the middle of the way here, I'm trying to avoid a few people."

"Is that why you were out there?" Hikaru asked. She was still trying to comprehend how Ranma could get from the bottom of the tower to the top without ropes.

"Hehe, kinda." Ranma turned, and plowed over two girls. One had blue hair and the other was blond with large circle glasses.

The blue haired girl recovered from her shock quickly, "HEY! Watch where you are going! I could have been injured and I wouldn't be able to participate in the upcoming tournament."

The blond stood up slowly, but without the hostile reaction. "Oh my. I'm sorry, I should have been more careful myself."

As the four were reorienting themselves, in another world known as Cephiro....

Princess Emerald strained under the concentration. She could see into the world known as Earth that was connected with Cephiro. However, her vision was blurred. She knew the three magic knights were in the same general vicinity, but she couldn't tell which ones to take to help save her world. The one in the blue hair and the one with glasses were definitely two of the three. However, the other two were very close in features. One side of her feelings said the one with the long pigtail was the magic knight, but the other also felt a strong power and feelings of confidence from the other girl. There was also some magic mingled, but of what nature the princess could not decern.

Her connection to the other world was starting to weaken, so she made the final decision.

Back in Tokyo Tower, a bright yellow light blared through the windows, forcing Ranma to shield her eyes and put her feet in a ready position, "What the!? Not here! I don't have time for these battles."

The other girls were speechless as they heard another voice, "Help me Magic Knights. Please save Cephiro!" A faded image of a young girl with flowing hair mouthed outside. Then, the image flashed out to be replaced with an aerial view high above another world, and of all things, a flying fish.

---------------

Ranma felt the familiar sensation of hanging in midair before beginning to plummet. However, she wasn't usually a few thousand feet in the air.

"Aaaaahhhhh!" A large fish with semitransparent wings was spotted below where the group of four would land somewhat softly. The two girls Ranma had plowed over in the observation deck bounced when they hit the fish, and by some miracle didn't go over the edge. Next, Hikaru landed on top of them. Ranma landed skillfully to their side and surveyed the area below.

"This definitely isn't Tokyo anymore."

The three other girls stood. The girl with the glasses, whom was still a total stranger to Ranma, noticed something else different. "I don't believe this may be Japan or anywhere close. I see floating mountains over there."

Hikaru, now beginning to show the effects of adreniline from the drop, and also being naturally high spirited, spun around to see where the others were looking, "Wherewherewhere! Letmesee!" When she finally saw the group of blue crystaline floating islands. "THIS IS SO COOL!"

The blue haired girl's jaw dropped, "How can you say that! We were just kidnapped by a fish!"

Ranma wasn't too worried, but felt the ping of a slight headache when she tried to grasp everything that was going on around him. So, she shrugged it off and sat down to ride it out. The other girls noticed and stood around, fidgeting and looking at the land below them.

As the ride glided in a slow spiral toward a sandy beach, Ranma stood up. When the altitude was about four stories from the soft sand, she jumped off.

Hikaru leaned over the edge, hand extended in a vain attempt to grab the redhead. "RANMA! No!"

To her amazement, Ranma landed on the sand and waved up the wide eyed girls. Hikaru clapped, "COOL!"

The blue haired girl, humphed, and crossed her arms. "Show off."

Their flying fish went down to the ground and roughly dumped the others off onto the ground. Brushing the sand out of their clothes and hair, the four looked around. As far as they could see, not a person or building could be seen. Nature dominated the area, with a calm breeze rustling the trees. Unknown to them, they were being watched from the top of a cliff overlooking the beach.

"How did you do that Ranma? I've never seen someone jump down that far!" Hikaru questioned the nervous martial artist.

"I'm the best at martial arts. I figured it was better than getting dumped like you three did," Ranma replied.

The blue haired girl fumed, "Hey! It's not like we planned to get dumped in the sand."

Waving his hands in the air, "Sorry, sorry! I didn't mean it like that!" Ranma took a step back instinctively, expecting to get a mallet in the head for his efforts. His was pleasently surprised when he didn't feel it coming.

"So, what do we do know?" the blond with glasses asked.

Hikaru clapped, "I know! Let's do introductions."

Ranma thought she saw for a brief instance cat ears on Hikaru but shrugged it off. She didn't want to even think about those things at a time like this.

"Introductions? We just got kidnapped and rode a fish of all things, and you want to give introductions?" the blue haired girl snapped.

"I think that is a wonderful idea. We may be here a while, so we may as well get to know eachother," the blond softly added.

Ranma started first, "My name is Ranma Saotome, heir to the Anything Goes Goes of Martial-"

She was cut off by the blue haired girl, "My name is Umi Ryuuzaki. I'm in the eighth grade."

"My name is Fuu Hououji. I too am in eighth grade."

"Hikaru Shidou! I'm fourteen years old! Eighth grade!"

The three other girls nearly fell over, "What?"

Ranma added in, "You look a lot younger than I thought. And I thought others thought I was young. You beat me in that department."

Umi turned to Ranma, "Just how old are you? You can't be much older than us."

"Actually, I'm almost seventeen. Jeez, you're almost as bad as Akane."

Umi growled, "What are you implying?"

Ranma tried to ignore Umi, but they all stopped when some rocks fell from the cliffside. Looking up, there was a young man in white flowing robes, and a staff that towered over his head. Ranma took a defensive stance in front of the other three. Mumbling under his breath, "Great, another short one. All the other shorties I've fought are good, so this guy probably is too if he's been watching the whole time without me noticing. Just hope he isn't a pervert like Happosai."

Master Mage Clef looked down on the four. Originally they were to meet in the foot hills, but here he would be able to watch over them in a safer position. The beast he had summoned informed him telepathically that four had arrived not three. Upon closer inspection, he could see that three were indeed the magic knights. The fourth didn't appear to be hostile, and more on the defense if anything, but a definite aura of will power surrounded the girl.

Clef muttered under his breath, "Perhaps it is good that the princess brought this extra person. Her will is definitely strong, and could help. She must have had a good reason. Surely she knew which were the Magic Knights, and picked another mage to help because of their young age."

Floating down, Clef approached the girls at a calm pace. "Welcome to Cephiro."

Ranma tensed, "Some welcome, we were kidnapped. Now send us back."

"I'm sorry. You see, Cephiro is in desparate need of help. High Priest Zagato imprisoned Princess Emeraulde, the one that brought you here to this world. Before she was imprisoned, this world was peaceful. Sprites, animals, people - they lived in harmony off the land. The princess supported the land through her prayers. Now, monsters are roaming the land freely and Zagato's minions terrorize the people. The Magic Knights are the only ones that can save us now and revive the Rune God. You three behind the girl in front are those three Magic Knights that can do it."

Hikaru whispered, "Magic Knights.... Rune God..."

Before Clef could speak, Ranma interrupted, "I am a martial artist, and it's the duty of a martial artist to protect the weak."

Hikaru also chimmed in, "I will also help those in need!"

Umi, not to be out done, was behind Clef. "How can we believe you?" Grabbing on to his robes, "You are just a kid yourself!"

That earned her a quick wack over the head with Clef's staff. Ranma was always wondering what it sounded like to not be on the receiving end of those things.

Umi broke in to try and get them out of anything before Fuu accepted, "I'm sorry, but we can not help. I believe that the problems of the people here should be solved by themselves."

"If we could, we wouldn't be needing your help," thinking, Clef added in, "Can you use magic?"

Hikaru shook her head in disappointment. Umi yelled out, "If we could, I would be home by now!"

Sighing, Clef knew of only one thing to do. They were here, so they would have to do to save this world. "Bestow Magic!"

The four were bathed in light and energy. Armor formed around them and their outfits changed appropriately. Clef nodded when he saw Ranma received the magic he had chosen for her. However, the three Magic Knights received different types.

"Wow!" Hikaru cheered. "Oh my..." Fuu examined the devices on their hands. Ranma touched down, "Nice trick, wha'd it do?" Umi was just speechless, "What... what was that?!"

As Umi took a step back, she tripped backward. A large ice spear streaked just over her head. Clef and the others whirred around at the attacker who stepped out of the bushes. Instead of one, two came out. A tall woman in a dark revealing outfit, and a staff with a large orb on the top. Beside her, a kid with a large green hat and red hair covering his eyes floated on a rock beside him. Clef knew them, as they used to be his students before Zagato's influence, "Alcyone and Ascot."

"Master Mage Clef, I'm surprised to have gotten the jump on you so easily. Zagato saw those four come into this world, and thought one of them may give us a little bit of trouble. I think it would be too easy to defeat this ignorant children, don't you think?" Alcyone proclaimed.

Ascot also snickered, "My friends have the place surrounded. I'm also wondering why Zagato thought it would be a challenge. At least I'll have some fun!"

Clef narrowed his eyes. It would be a tough battle, but he believed he could overpower them. However, fighting a battle and keeping the four safe would be nearly impossible. They had to escape. Edging closer to Ranma, but keeping his eyes on the two aggressors, Clef whispered, "I'm going to try to hold them off, while you three escape. Ranma, do you think you can divert their attention for a few seconds?"

Ranma grinned, "No problem, I'm not the best for noth'n." Charging forward, Clef nearly fainted.

"FOOL! CHARGING HEAD FIRST YOU'LL GET YOURSELF KILLED!" The diversion was already in motion, so Clef prayed the young girl would not lose her life so early. Raising his staff, "Creature Summon!" The gem on his staff glowed brightly, and a beast with a bird's head and wings, but a lion's body appeared. "Get on!"

Umi and Fuu jumped up, pulling a kicking Hikaru with them. "No! I want to help you!" Hikaru yelled.

Clef ignored her, worried more for Ranma. The martial artist was skillfully dodging some ice bolts from Alcyone, and was even putting the sorceress on the defensive. Hand to hand combat was not in the training manual for sorceress, so she flew back into the forest with Ranma following close behind, circling around to try to land a surprise assault. The sorceress then changed tactics in the denser underbrush, hoping her attacker wouldn't have room to avoid next attack.

"Ice Spear Attack!" At once, hundreds of ice shards rushed forward at Ranma.

"Kachuu Tenshin Amaguriken!" Ranma punched forward rapidly, knocking most of the projectiles to the side. Clef was wide eyed as he saw the aura of confidence growing around the martial artist. The power radiated protected her from the deadly impact of the shards.

All of Ranma's will was focused on destroying all of Alcyone's projectiles. Finally, Cephiro's power of will sent her into a euphoria of overconfidence never before felt. In the mist of the excitement, Ranma missed the attack from behind by Ascot's grub creature, another reason Alcyone decided to lure the martial artist into the small grove. It slammed into Ranma's completely undefended back, and knocked her unconscious. Fortunately, the added momentum carried her out of the grove tens of feet to slide past Clef to just in front of the bird beast. Clef motioned for the best to pick the unconscious girl and flee.

"Make it to the forest of silence for help. The person there will know what to do! Now go!"

The beast flew off, with Fuu and Umi trying to keep a struggling Hikaru from going over.

Turning toward the aggressors, with Ascot having two of his creatures moving to flank the mage.

Alcyone jumped up and summoned her flying ice unicorn to persue. Clef, in full battle mode, was ready. "Lightening Array, Come Forth!"

Around him, random shots lashed down. The creatures scrambled for cover, and Ascot rapidly made a retreat. Alcyone, being in the air with multiple lightening strikes was not so lucky. Millions of volts traversed through her tissues. If it wasn't for her enchanced mana training, she would have been instantly killed. Her creature was vaporized unfortunately, and she plummeted to the ground, tendrals of smoke wisping off her flesh.

Clef was ready for any attacks the younger one may send, so his senses were on full alert when a bolt came in from behind. A quick teleport spell moved him to the side, out of harms way of the near-fatal attack.

"Only one other knows that attack," turning slowly to face the new adversary, Clef gripped his staff tighter, his knuckles white. "Zagato."

"Very good master mage. I'm impressed you avoided my attack. Now you will die."

Clef needed to stall for only a few more seconds, then his next spell would be complete. "Wait. What is it you are after Zagato? Domination?"

"Ha! Don't be a fool. I am not after such petty things."

Clef smirked as his spell powerup was complete. His staff glowed white and he disappeared in a flash.

Zagato frowned, "You are smarter than I give you credit master mage. Next time I won't be so careless to allow you to teleport away." He faded out of the area to return to his mirror and observe the Magic Knights. Ascot also returned, leaving a barely moving Alcyone to find her own way back to the lair.

---------------

The four girls were flying through the air once more, but their ride was in a bigger hurry than the last. Clouds passed on either side and below, giving glimpses of a vast forest. Sparse patches of grass could be seen, but for the most part, the canopy of trees hid any details of what the forest contained.

Ranma slowly gained consciousness. A minor headache and bruises could be felt from whatever jumped her during the battle. 'They won't get me so easily next time. Wonder why didn't detect them?' As she opened her eyes, instead of the expected view of being on a beach, house, or a bed of some sort - a mile of altitude was greeted. "Ahhhhhhh!!"

"It appears our friend is awake," Fuu mentioned.

Hikaru peered over the side, "Ranma! You're ok!" The redhead waved down at the martial artist. After seeing Ranma fly several yards and land roughly on the sand, and still skid another three from the hit, she was justifiably concerned for the other redhead's health. Patting the half bird, half lion beast on the head, "Hey? Mind if we land to let Ranma ride?"

The bird beast nodded and chirped with Ranma still in it's beak. The jerk up and down removed any drowsiness the martial artist still had, but replaced with a slight dizzy spell.

As they descended, a castle of some sort could be made out appearing over the tree tops. Surrounding it, a large rectangular wall with no apparent gateway or inlet. The creature made two large flaps of its wings and settled down. The four jumped down and looked at their surroundings. Stretching her arms and rapidly healing back muscles, Ranma looked up at the large stone wall around the complex.

"Ryoga could make an entrance in no time, but guess jumping will have to do," Ranma mumbled. Turning, Ranma was wide eyed as the bird beast faded out. "Just great... just what else could go wrong."

The other three girls turned to see what Ranma was starring at. Fuu and Hikaru had concerned looks, but Umi took a more dramatic approach to displaying her thoughts - running around frantically flailing her arms. "No! How are we going to get back to Tokyo now!"

"I suppose we could try to see if there that person Clef mentioned that could help us is in the castle," Fuu mentioned.

Slapping her fist into her palm, Hikaru lightened up, "That's right! This has got to be the place, we didn't see any other buildings in this forest from above."

At a suggestion from Fuu, Hikaru knocked on the wall lightly. Ranma was preoccupied with another section and leaped to the top of the thirty foot wall.

Umi nearly fell over, "That's impossible! That wall is nearly five times taller than I am!!" Then she noticed the wall Hikaru had just touched disappeared to reveal a tunnel through the stone wall, "What is going on here? That's it, it's just a dream. How else could this be happening?" Pinching herself, then sagging her shoulders, "Guess not."

Fuu and Hikaru were speechless for a moment, trying to comprehend the two events at the same time. Looking back and forth between a smirking Ranma on top of the wall, and the tunnel, Hikaru clapped, "This is SOOOO cool!"

"Well, we may as well go in. We can't do anything else out here," Umi pointed out and lead the way in.

Going through the tunnel, the three failed to notice the moving mound of dirt following them. Ranma jumped down beside the girls, and also didn't notice.

Entering the castle through some large wooden doors, the girls cautiously entered. At first glance, the dust made it look like no one was home. However, the shutters and doors in good repair, with the occasional lit candle, hinting otherwise. Rounding a corner, candlelight cracked through a slightly open doorway. Hikaru entered beside Ranma, with Fuu and Umi close behind.

Papers were flying wildly into the air, the source hidden behind a chair at the only desk in the study. "Um, you wouldn't happen to be the person Clef said could help us? We are the magic knights," Umi called out to whoever was in the chair.

The papers stopped, and the chair turned. "Puu puu!"

Ranma almost started laughing, if it wasn't for the fact their 'help' that could get them back home was a marshmellow with ears. "No way. We're doomed."

As Hikaru took a step forward to pick up the cute marshmellow, when Ranma bolted forward to grab her by the arm. They rolled on the ground, just as a cage came down from the ceiling to trap Fuu and Umi. Getting up, Ranma checked to make sure Hikaru was ok.

Laughter was then heard from the doorway. Turning in a ready stance, Ranma watched as a blond woman in a red and gold outfit entered.

"I got you Mokona!"

The four intruders tear dropped as the woman completely ignored them, and continued her entrance.

"Now, what should I do to punish you-" she was then cut off by Ranma.

"Um, miss?"

The woman nearly jumped out of her skin. Looking over to the cage, she finally realized that Mokona was not the one trapped. "So it was you who was messing up my study all this time. I always thought this old place was haunted. Now, what should I do to punish you...."

As the their host rambled on, Ranma leaned over and mumbled in Hikaru's ear. "I'm not sure which was better, help from the marshmellow or her."

Hikaru smirked slightly. Umi was growing frustrated, especially when she was left in a cage being ignored.

"I'm sorry we barged in, but would you release us? We tried to find another way in, but Hikaru touched the wall and the wall opened. So then we came in to see if we could find some help."

The woman's eyes grew large at this information, "What did you say?" Leaping over to the cage, she put her hands on Umi's shoulders through the bars.

"Um, we need help?"

Shaking her head slightly, "No, before that."

"Um... The wall disappeared when Hikaru touched it?"

"Amazing, but you are so young." Letting her grip on Umi's shoulders, the woman gave a short bow, "Welcome magic knights. I am Presea, the master smith that master mage Clef sent you too."

The group then gave their names. "Hikaru Shidou." "Fuu Hououji." "Umi Ryuuzaki." "And I'm Ranma Saotome, sorry about this."

The door exploded inward in a shower of splinters. Behind the force, was a monster formed of what appeared to be rocks and dirt. Presea drew her sword and backed up, placing herself between the knights and the monster. Mokona meanwhile leaped behind Presea into Hikaru's arms.

Ranma had a better idea than sitting idle. Stepping in front of Presea and cracking her knuckles, "Finally, time for round two with these things. And I'm pissed."

Presea was about to protest when a blue aura became visible around the redhead. "Magic? But we are in the forest of silence? How is that possible?"

Hikaru also was wanting to help, but without knowing how to use magic, or without a weapon there wasn't much she could do. Remembering Fuu and Umi in the cage, "Presea, get Fuu and Umi out of the cage. Do you have weapons we could use?"

Reminded of the others, Presea circled the monster and jumped to pull a chain.

Ranma at this time ran at the monster and slipped easily under the monster's wild swing. Jumping straight up, a quick combo of kicks to the head scattered its face over the floor. On the decent, she decided to finish the job against the semisolid monster, "Kachuu Tenshin Amaguriken!" A line of powerful, ki reinforced punches was made straight down the center of the monster. Landing, Ranma turned dramaticly dusting her hands off just as her foe crumbled.

Presea's mouth was nearly on the ground. "Amazing, you may be the magic knights after all." Recomposing herself, she walked over to the door. "Follow me, we will get some weapons for you."

After they left, the pulverized dust and rocks began to slowly reassemble itself.

Walking down the hall the girls gave their introductions to the master smith. Presea asked the group, "I thought there were only three magic knights in the legend."

Fuu answered, "There are. Clef said that Ranma wasn't, but could be a help. He gave us all magic, including Ranma."

Before Presea could ask the martial artist how she used magic in the forest of silence, they arrived at a large wooden door with a large turn handle. Grinding it open, they stepped into a large armory.

"Nice. I know a certain Chinese amazon though that probably carries more than what you have in here though," Ranma commented.

Presea arched an eyebrow at the comment, thinking that Ranma's friend was probably a giant of some sort. Arching her arm up, "Pick any weapon you wish. On your way to the Spring of Eterna, you will need them."

Ranma 'humphed', muttering weapons are only a crutch.

Fuu was elated, "Thank you so much for providing weapons for free! I only wish my role playing games were this easy."

"Oh, but they aren't for free."

Ranma snickered, "Knew there had to be some sort of catch. I should introduce you to Nabiki."

Again, Presea ignored the side comment. "I'm just loaning them to you. When you travel to the Spring of Eterna, you will acquire the ore called escudo."

"Spring of Eterna? Escudo?" Fuu asked.

Leaning back on a large cannon, Presea explained, "In the legends, the three magic knights travel to the Spring of Eterna. There you will get an ore called escudo. From that ore, I will create weapons for you. These weapons will evolve as its user evolves mentally and in skill. Also, a weapon made from escudo is the key to reviving the rune god."

Umi spoke up, "Clef mentioned that before we were attacked, what is a rune god?"

Presea closed her eyes, "A rune god is a large powerful being. I do not know of the exact details, but you will know what it is when you find it." Reopening her eyes, "You will need to revive the rune god if you are to have a chance against Zagato to save Cephiro."

A growl was heard from the doorway. Whirling, the five were shocked to see the monster from before revived.

"Out of the way!" Presea motioned the girls to the right and fired a large cannon into the monster. The ball smashed into the abdomin of the monster, throwing it back. She then rushed forward to close the door. "Quickly! Choose your weapons before the door is broken down!"

"But there are so many!" Umi called out.

"Just close your eyes and concentrate - including you Ranma! I know you have some powers but just do it!" Presea narrowly avoided a rocky fist through the door.

Reluctantly, Ranma complied, and concentrated with the other girls. A second later, four weapons glided down from the walls. Hikaru was gifted with a light broadsword, Umi an agile rapier and Fuu a bow. Swordplay and archery, or magic were stressed more than martial arts, so Presea was surprised when Ranma received one of the weapons few in Cephiro could use effectively - a bow staff.

Pleased that her new armaments would complement her skills in the art, Ranma jumped immediately into the battle swing and quickly decimated the monster in an explosion of rock and dust. Knowing it would come back, Ranma turned, "Anyone have a clue on how to defeat this thing? Ki attacks would probably be just as useless."

"Ki?" the four others asked in unison.

Shaking her head, but before Ranma could answer the monster was back up.

"Kind of reminds me of mud," Fuu commented.

Twin lightbulbs went off in Hikaru's and Ranma's heads. "Water!"

Urgently, Hikaru asked, "Presea! Is there a lake around here?"

"Um, yes, in the courtyard."

Ranma didn't wait any longer. She saw the courtyard earlier through one of the hallway windows. "Follow me!"

The group wound its way through the dining room, and out into the open. Presea, Fuu and Umi took up stances by the water, while Ranma and Hikaru hid behind the pillars leading to the courtyard. Knodding in silent agreement, the two understood what to do.

As the monster passed and made its way toward the others by the water, Ranma and Hikaru cheered out and attacked, "MOVE OUT OF THE WAY!"

Hikaru swept at its upper body with a horizontal swipe and threw the monster off balance. Ranma then completed the combined assault with a powerful double kick to its back, following up with a leg sweep behind him with the staff. The added forward momentum toppled the monster into the lake, where it thrashed for some time before dissolving away.

Hikaru hugged Ranma, "Alright! We did it!"

The hug was totally unexpected by Ranma. "Heheh... ya."

Umi, Fuu and Presea rushed up. Presea congratulated their victory, "Good job. I feel confident that you will be able to reach the Spring of Eterna."

A bright light then emanated from Ranma's yellow glove, and the staff disappeared with a flash. Umi's, Hikaru's, and Fuu's weapons did the same. Seeing that they weren't acquainted with the enchanted storage gloves, Presea explained, "Don't worry. Your weapons are safely stored till you need them."

Ranma's stomach growled. "Would you have some food? I'm starving."

A round of face faults occurred. Presea recovered and nodded, "Of course. Would you four mind cleaning up first? I'll have a feast prepared in no time with Mokona's help."

After leading them to the bath, which was already hot. "Here you are. Magic can't be cast by people here, but a few objects can be enchanted before entering the forest like floating chairs, walls, or in this case, baths. Just come back to the courtyard when you are done. Ok?" Closing the door, Presea left the four girls.

Ranma was now suddenly nervous, and edging back toward the door - only to bump into Umi behind her. "Where are you going? After all that exercise you stink."

Trying to back around her, Umi firmly grabbed Ranma's hand. "I don't think so Ranma."

Smirking, she nodded to Fuu and Hikaru who got the idea. As one they converged on Ranma and successfully restrained the struggling redhead, but not wanting to hurt the girls her escape attempts weren't as forceful. A shirt was flinged off, followed by pants, then the under garment. Ranma by this time was wide eyed, and was frantically wondering what to do. Rearing back, the three magic knights threw Ranma up into the air in a graceful, but unstopable arc for the warm water. Water splashed up, and was still for a while.

The three girls outside didn't notice Ranma rise, and were more preoccupied with preparing themselves to clean up also in the large furo.

Meanwhile... underwater... 'Awe man! This sucks! And it always seems to happen in the baths!' Ranma was for one of the few times, not too happy to be reverted back from his female form. Turning his head, he scanned the area above for some sort of window, or escape route. Not seeing any through the gentle sways of the water, panic started to develop, and further ate his oxygen reserves. The moment soon arrived where he couldn't take it, and had to surface for air.

Ranma gasped out, and drew in air. He then noticed a bare stomache in front of him, glansing up, he saw Hikaru's face looking down in shock.

In the dining room, Presea was just finishing dinner setup and was carrying a stack of glass plates in.

"AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!"

BOOM

"Ow....."

Followed by several shattering plates on the floor.

Mokona barely dodged the falling cascade of dishes, and then followed a running Presea to the furo. When they arrived with sword at the ready, Presea was beyond confused. Umi was wrapping herself back up in a robe, heaving and clenching her fists in front of a shattered bath. Water was flowing out into the hallway, with Fuu trying to get up after being swept with the torrent. Hikaru was off to the side, looked shocked, and calmly wrapped herself up in one of the large towels and began to walk toward the shattered bath.

"What happened here?" Presea asked. Mokona hopped forward, and looked at the individual that Hikaru was examining. "Who's that?"

The individual twitched, and recovered. "Jeez... hits just as hard as Akane." Ranma then re-realized his situation, and dashed out of the room, grabbing his clothes on the way out.

Presea blinked once, having barely registered the blur that passed by. "Would someone just explain what is going on here?"

Hikaru snapped out of her trance, quickly clothed and ran out in the direction Ranma took off. Her look was one more of determination than fury. Umi was still fuming over the bath.

That left Fuu, "I.. I'm not sure what happened. One moment we had tossed Ranma into the bath, then when we were about to step in, this young man came out of the water. Umi then... uh... smashed him into the furo and into the floor..."

Presea walked over to Umi, "Come on, lets go find out what's going on. If that young man was Ranma, I'm sure she, or he will explain everything." Pausing, Presea thought out loud, "And then I'll have to figure out a way to punish you and Ranma for destroying my beautiful bathroom!"

In the dining room (and fully clothed), Ranma sat down, and ran his finger through his hair. 'Great, just great. Now they think I'm sort of pervert.'

Hikaru came up behind, puffing, "Ranma? You are Ranma right?"

Ranma was startled, and turned around to face her. "Uh... ya. Sorry about this." He looked down at the ground.

Taking a step forward, but in a soft voice, "What happened?"

Ranma still looked up, fidgeting in his chair, "Mind if we wait for the others ta get here?"

Hikaru nodded, and gave a reaffirming smile. Ranma saw the expression, and visibly relaxed his muscles. When Presea, Fuu and Umi, followed by a bouncing Mokona entered, his muscles tensed again.

The sound of cracking glass under Umi's tapping foot broke the silence. "Well? Who are you?"

Standing, Ranma gave a short bow. "I'm Ranma Saotome, the same girl you threw into the furo. Sorry."

Umi was still not convinced. "Sure you are. She had red hair, and I'm definitely sure she was a girl - and I definitely know you are not." A slight blush shown on her face at that last thought.

Hikaru spoke up before the insults could fly, "Please, let's let him, or her, explain."

The bunch sat at the table of uneaten food and focused their attention on Ranma.

"It's a long story."

"Well, start talking." Hikaru briefly gave Umi a look that silenced the interruption.

"Back home, I'm a guy. When I was about six, my pop took me on a ten year training trip. I never saw my mom during that time, and went through hell for the art. My pop was always saying the life of a martial artist is frought with peril, but I think he was just plain crazy," Ranma paused for a moment to collect his thoughts.

Presea sipped on some tea, and knodded her head understandably. "I see, that explains how you fought the monster so well."

Ranma smirked, but it quickly disappeared. "About a year or so ago, we came to this place called Jusenkyo. There, each of the pools is cursed. If you fall in a pool, you are cursed to take the form of whatever drowned in that pool. My pop fell into the spring of drown panda. So whenever my pop gets splashed with cold water, he turns into a panda. Hot water changes him back."

Fuu understood and finished, "And you fell into the spring of drowned girl right?"

"Yes."

"You should have not tried to get into the bath with us then if you are a guy! What kind of a pervert are you?!" Umi pounded on the table with the flat of her hand.

Hikaru shook her head, "No. Ranma didn't do anything wrong."

Umi's face was shocked at that comment.

Standing up, Hikaru walked over to Ranma, "Ranma, we should be the ones to apologize. You tried to get away, but we threw you into the bath. I still think you are a cool friend to have, even if you are cursed."

Presea and Fuu nodded and smiled. Umi did so last, but still retained the frown.

Ranma thought the questioning was over, was about to suggest they dig into the food, when Presea spoke up. "What was that light that was around you? I can understand your curse working here since it would be like an enchantment, but that light wasn't like that. You can't use magic in the forest of silence."

"Light... oh that! That was my battle aura."

"Battle aura?" The four girls said in quad stereo.

"You know what ki is?"

All shook their head negative. Sighing, Ranma gave his explanation, "Within all of us is our life force. I've trained to control it, and use it to help increase my speed, strength, and do some attacks."

"Cool! That fast punching you did was one of them?" Hikaru leaned forward interested in the topic.

"Yup. About a week ago, I learned a new one called the Hiryu Shoten Ha." Smirking confidently, "The pervert didn't know what hit him." Looking at the group in all seriousness, and scratching the back of his head, Ranma asked the group, "Um.... When can we eat?"

A round of face faults occurred, except for Hikaru. "Me too! I'm starving. We can talk about this stuff later."

As the group ate, Umi kept glaring up at Ranma between bites. Ranma didn't notice, and ate an increasingly fast rate. After dinner was over, the shadows grew increasingly dark, signaling night. Which brought up the topic of sleeping arrangements...

Leading the teens down the hall, Presea showed them a simple room with three beds. Mokona hopped in and bounced on the first one nearest to the door, followed by Hikaru, "I get this one!" She then hugged Mokona and sat down.

Umi and Fuu went in. While Fuu continued forward, Umi turned sharply, "Ranma is NOT staying in here. I don't trust him in here with us, and besides, he's a boy."

Ranma hid behind Presea, who only knodded in agreement, "But I don't have any other places, I was only expecting you three."

Ranma offered a suggestion, "I can just stay out in the courtyard. I don't mind, being on a trainin trip and all."

The decision made, Presea went out to help get some outside sleeping blankets, and closed the door to the magic knights' room behind her. The three girls changed into sleeping garments that were laid out on the bed. Hikaru fell asleep almost immediately, hugging Mokona.

"This certainly is strange, don't you think Umi?" Fuu looked over at the blue haired girl.

"I guess. Hikaru and Ranma get along, but I don't see why. He lied to us and saw us in the bath." Digging herself deeper into the covers, Umi whispered to herself and was overheard by Fuu.

"I know, I wish I was back in Tokyo also, but this world needs us. Hopefully tomorrow we can reach the Spring of Eterna safely. Hikaru and Ranma fight great as a team and I have faith in them." Fuu then closed her eyes.

Tossing restly in her bed, Umi looked up at the ceiling, "I guess you are right. But I still don't like him." Slowly, sleep claimed the last magic knight.

---------------

Later that night, in Zagato's Citadel...

Inouva walked in behind his lord and bowed, the high priest Zagato. "My lord, you called?"

Zagato didn't turn, and continued to look into the mirror, scanning the lands. "Plans are not going smoothly. The magic knights have entered the forest of silence."

Inouva stood, "The forest is full of monsters, it should be enough to finish them off. Besides, they were separated from master mage Clef and are lost without him."

Zagato frowned, "I don't believe our adversary would be so foolish Inouva. That fourth one that is with the magic knights is more skilled than we thought, and could be a threat." Turning to face his right hand man, "Inouva, I want you to send Lafarga to go into the forest to take care of the knights and this threat. Without magic, they will surely fall, and Lafarga should have the advantage."

Giving a short bow, "Yes my lord."

Inouva left to carry out the orders, and Zagato turned back to the mirror to continue his search. His eyebrows furrowed, thinking, 'Where are you Clef, you can not hide from me forever.'

---------------

Beneath a tree on the edge of the forest, Clef looked up at the stars, "I made it. I hope that Ranma can help the knights out of the forest." Sitting down, the mage laid his staff against the gnarled trunk of the tree. "Now I need to hope that they pass close to here, and I can guide them to the spring and teach them how to use their magic."

Although tired, Clef kept wide alert, scanning the dark depths of the forest for the monsters that made it so dangerous to trespassers.

---------------

The first rays of light crept over the wall, striking the wall across the courtyard. As the beams worked their way down, they crept toward a sleeping bundle on the ground. Hammering upon Ranma's closed eyes, his face crunched. Raising a hand to block the light, he gained consciousness fully. Sitting up, he stretched his arms and looked around at the courtyard, "Shoot, it wasn't a dream. May as well get in a workout."

As Ranma jumped into the air, he was oblivious to someone observing in one of the stone windows. Presea was impressed as the young man suddenly lept fifteen feet into the air, and began to throw several punches and kicks in rapid succession. He seemed to hang there, before gravity reasserted its authority.

Roughly ten minutes later, he gave a short pause and walked toward his makeshift bedding. Presea was curious to what he was digging for, and gave a small smirk when Ranma picked up the yellow ornamented glove. The armor swirled around him, and expanded to make up for the larger size of his male body. Patting himself down, Ranma thought for a second and brought out his weapon.

After another fifteen minutes of vigorous exercises and mock combat, Presea stepped out clapping. "That was great! Want to grab something to bite? The girls are still sleeping, perhaps we can talk before Mokona wakes them up."

Nodding, Ranma followed silently. Sitting down to the large variety of the youth dug in at the same furious rate Presea witnessed the night before. It still amazed her.

"You shouldn't do that... it... it's not healthy."

Ranma paused in midgulp, and looked up. "Muph." A bit of pear came out, and seeing it go over Presea's face Ranma turned red and rushed to wipe it off with a large towel. Presea struggled as Ranma's speed and strength threw her off balance, toppling them both over onto the floor.

Umi walked in through the door chasing after a retreating Mokona, "Come back here-WHA!?"

Ranma stood up quickly and backed away, waving his hands, "Sorry, its not what it looks like!"

Presea was quick to stop any further developments, "Umi, he was just trying to help me and I lost my balance."

Glaring at Ranma, "OK, but you better watch yourself. I don't trust you and who knows what you may be up to."

Stretching her arms wide and yawning, Hikaru walked in through the doorway to the dining area. Fuu was following silently close behind.

"Morning Ranma. Sorry you had to sleep outside, at least there was good weather," Hikaru cheered out. Walking around the long table, she sat beside him and began to eat.

The rest of breakfast was spent in silence until Fuu asked, "When do we leave for the Spring of Eterna? As soon as we can get escudo, we can save Cephiro to return back to Tokyo."

With a final burst of speed, Ranma finished breakfast - for everyone. "Well, time to go."

As he stood up, a splash of water from behind triggered the curse. Turning around, Ranma glared at a mischievous looking Mokona, trying to hide a dripping bucket of water behind him. "GET BACK HERE YOU!" Chasing the bouncing creature through the hallways, and then back through the dining room. Hikaru quickly joined in trying to stop Ranma from hurting Mokona. Fuu and Umi followed with nothing else more to do.

Mokona noticed all four following, and changed course for the exit. Ten minutes later, they were all deep in the forest. Ranma made her tenth jump at Mokona, who somehow had the uncanny ability to avoid a master martial artist.

Ranma landed and glared at Mokona, "Aright, I'll let you go this time but don't think you can do that again."

The white fuzz scrambled out of site behind Hikaru, who had her sword out and in a ready stance. "Um, I didn't mean to get that hostile. Um, guys... er... girls... what's wrong?" The little light that filtered from above was shadowed, and Ranma jumped out of the way just as a giant spiked fist smashed into the ground.

"Thanks for the warning!"

Umi clipped off a retort, "HEY! We were scared!"

Hikaru wasn't up to try and deal with a monster AND one of the Ranma-Umi squabbles that were making a regular occurrance. "Let's deal with this monster first!"

Ranma put on a more serious face but didn't summon her staff, and jumped at the monster. Dodging another punch, Ranma got inside the defenses and tripped out a leg, which Hikaru finished up with a swipe. The monster let off a howl and flashed out of existence.

"Now where are we?!" Umi asked.

Hikaru bent down to Mokona that returned, and was hiding behind her legs. Ranma simply glared for a bit and lightly poked Mokona, and softly threatened, "Better not be leading us to more water, I might have to break out a hair dryer on you next time I find one then you will be nothing but a fuzz beachball for my staff to bat."

Umi had another reason to be annoyed with Mokona, "What were you thinking leading us to a monster!"

Mokona simply smiled, and clomped down on Ranma's finger - or tried too when Ranma's reflexes kicked in not a moment too soon.

"Do you know where we are Mokona?" Hikaru politely asked after giving Ranma a little shooing to leave her furry friend alone. The said bundle in return was emitting a series of 'puu's. "You know how to get to the Spring of Eterna?" Mokona nodded.

Fuu leaned over behind Hikaru, "You can understand Mokona?"

"Yes! It was weird at first, but after a bit it just sort of happens!" Picking up Mokona, Hikaru held him in her arms. "Mokona knows the way." A short pause, "Where to?"

The red jewel on Mokona's head flared and shot a beam of light through a small gap in the trees. A repeat of several monsters continued to plague the group. Hikaru took the back, with Ranma at the front. Brute fist force wasn't able to kill the monsters that had hard shell coverings, so the martial artist was forced to summon the staff, which was very effective with its longer range in hitting vulnerable spots. Fuu and Umi had their weapons out, and made the occasional kill when the other two were hard pressed.

After killing another wave, Ranma leaned against a tree murmuring to herself, "This is getting old. I wanted training, but these things don't know how to fight. What is also weird they don't seem to flare my danger sense of sorts..."

A whoosh of air from above, but also more surprising to Ranma, is she sensed it coming and was safely out of range. The metal on the tips of the staff gleamed as she put it in a defensive stance. Where she was standing a second ago, a large metal sword was embedded and held by a large man. His face turned to face the group in red eyed, glowing stare.

Fuu broke the silence, "Um, sorry if we bothered you sir, we are just passing through. What is your name?"

The red eyes flared as he spoke, "Lafarga. You are to die."

"Stay back, he's out of your league. Let me handle him, you run with Mokona to the spring. I'll catch up later." Ranma's muscles twitched in anticipation.

"Ranma! We are in this together. I'm not going to let something happen to you." Hikaru joined his side.

Lafarga charged forward, and swept his sword forward at the ground. A shockwave tore through the ground in front of the two, and blew Hikaru backward into the other two knights. Ranma, with more experience in expecting special attacks had jumped high into the air.

"Hikaru!" Turning to face the attacker, "Aright, that does it - no one messes with Hikaru when I'm around!"

Angling her trajectory in ways only the Saotome school could perform, she bounced off a branch to land just in front of Lafarga. Weapon met weapon, and Lafarga's sword was deflected time and time again till their weapons locked. All of Ranma's strength as being poured into staying up, and she was still being forced to her knees. Also to her dismay, the superior metal of Lafarga's sword was cleaving slowly through the hardy wood of the staff.

Umi charged from the side with her rapier extended. Lafarga leaned back, and it passed just in front of his face. Ranma, now free of the struggle attempted to sweep Lafarga's feet out from under but met nothing but air.

A combined front was not something Lafarga could easily take on. His berserker state induced by the controlling curse left his tactical mind in place, and he retreated into the darkness.

"Whew, that was close." Umi breathed out. "I wonder who that was?"

"Probably one of High Priest Zagato's minions." Fuu mentioned. "At least were able to scare him off."

Ranma crossed her arms, smirking, "Yea guess I proved too much for him."

On the other side of the clearing, Lafarga burst out again - this time catching the group totally unprepared just as they had put away their weapons. The butt of his sword handle impacted with Hikaru's head, knocking her out and drawing some blood.

"Hikar-oh!" Fuu barely missed being decapitated - even though she didn't make a move. In front of her was a green haired youth that had deflected Lafarga's sword away. This was the last straw, and Lafarga retreated into the woods to find a more opportunistic time to defeat them. Patience was also a weapon in the arsenal of a warrior.

Ranma wanted to chase after the attacker, but thought the girls would be defenseless without him. The new arrival hadn't proved her trust yet either.

"Who are you pal?" Ranma quiped out.

Putting his sword tip into the dirt, the young man gave a short bow to Fuu and the other magic knights. "I'm Ferio, a hunter in these parts. Saw that character attacking you so I thought ta help you out. What you doing in the forest of silence anyhow? Even with your weapons it's no place for a bunch of ladies."

Ranma bristled at the 'ladies' comment, but let it slide. "Well, I don't need your help, I could have handled that guy just fine." Ranma then rushed over to Hikaru's body and held her up. The wound wasn't too bad, just looked worse than it appeared from the amount of blood. "Any of you have a bandage to help?"

Opening a small pouch on his belt, Ferio rummaged for a bandage. It quickly disappeared from his hands as Ranma tenderly put it in place.

"It looks like she may be ok. Well, now that I've introduced myself, what your names?" Ferio gestured to encompass the girls.

Fuu pulled Umi over to the side while Ranma was holding Hikaru, "I'm not sure we should trust him completely, but he did save us."

Umi added, "Do you think it would be ok for him to go with us? Afterall, everything other than Precia, Mokona and Clef has attacked us in this world. He might be planning to do the same."

Fuu's eyebrows lowered, "But we need help. Let's keep our guard up and let him follow." The other two knights nodded their agreement. "What do you think Ranma?"

Ranma, "Huh?"

Giving the redhead a hard rap on the head, Umi yelled out, "You weren't even listening!"

"Hey! Sorry! I was just... Arg, I give up." Ranma sat crosslegged on the ground. With the movement, Hikaru started to stir.

"Oh, my head. Where is everybody?"

Ranma leaned her head over Hikaru, "We're all here. Ferio over here helped me take care of our attacker after the sword guy got ya."

Hikaru gingerly stood, leaning on Ranma's shoulder. "Thank you so much Ferio. We are heading to the Spring of Eterna. I'm sure we could use your help on the way there."

"Hey, no problem. With four lovely ladies around," Ferio blinked once at Fuu who blushed and turned away slightly, "that would be my pleasure. I'll the perfect gentleman." Inwardly he thought, 'That was easy, now I can get out of this wretched forest.'

"Aright let's get going. We have a few hours till we have to turn in for the night," Hikaru said.

Ranma looked over, "You sure? I mean, that was a good hit the blue armored guy got in on you. He still might be around."

"I'll be OK." Hikaru put her hands on her hips, "Besides, like you said, he might be around and we need to get moving. You can watch me if that will make you happy."

Hikaru followed Mokona. Ranma nodded started following and kept a close eye on Hikaru. Fuu, Umi and Ferio followed behind, watching the shadows to the side. As the darkness of the woods started to grow, the group drew closer together. They only spoke in whispers, feeling hidden eyes follow them.

Umi was nervous and wanted to find someplace safe to sleep for the night. "Um, I don't really want to go any farther today. We should start looking for a place to sleep."

"Puu puu puu!"

Hikaru bent down and picked up Mokona. "You know a place? Where?"

Mokona shook his head, "Puu! Puupupuuuu."

Ferio didn't get the chance to examine the creature up close during their three hours of traveling and poked his finger at the jewel. "Hey, what is this thing? I've seen some weird things in my journeys but nothing like this."

Ranma snickered, "I wouldn't do that if I were you."

"Do what?" Ferio looked up.

Mokona, annoyed, opened wide and clomped down on the offending finger.

"Yeow!" He was quickly shaken off by Ferio and bounced off between some bushes.

"Told ya."

"Mokona, behave yourself," Hikaru walked in the direction Mokona instructed, and entered a large clearing. The red jewel on Mokona's head flared a large light to sweep the clearing. Ranma jumped over the bushes just as a some sort of egg out of Mother Goose's fair tales appeared - and she slammed into the side.

After sliding down the side, twitching, Ranma recovered when reaching the ground. "Say, what is this thing anyhow?"

"Puu puupuu puu!" Mokona leaped out and into the door of the egg.

"You have everything Mokona!" Hikaru rushed into the egg to check out the furnishings. Beds, bath, food - everything they could ever want was there.

Ranma narrowed her eyes, "Hey... wait a sec. I thought magic couldn't be used here."

Ferio shrugged beside her, "Beats me, but if we get a place to stay the night with food, I'm not going to complain."

Umi's face barged in between them, "What do you mean you are sleeping in there with us? You two are staying out here, who knows what sort of thoughts are going through your heads," Umi's eyes narrowed at Ranma specifically. "Besides, we girls need our beauty sleep."

Ferio, confused, scratched his head. "Um, why is Ranma out here then?"

Umi went into the egg, "Ask Ranma, I'm tired. Fuu? You coming?"

"Um, yes, in a moment," Fuu responded. Thinking for a moment, "Would you like something to eat? I'm sure we have something in the shelter for you two."

"Oh, thank you! Fuu was it?" Ferio smiled.

Turning so Ferio didn't see her blush, Fuu rushed in to get some food. However, Ranma did see her reaction, the slight tint to their auras, and looked between the two. A smile formed as the gears turned in her head.

Settling down, Ranma put her hands behind her head against a tree. "So, aren't you going to ask me something Ferio?"

Shocked out of his stupor, Ferio leaned on the opposite side of the tree truck, "Yea, why didn't blue let you into the shelter with them anyhow?"

"I'm cursed."

Ferio was quiet, so Ranma continued. "A year or so ago my pop and I visited this training ground in China. There I fell in a pool and was cursed to become a girl when splashed with cold water, and back to a guy when splashed with hot. Kind of annoying."

Ferio shrugged, not that anyone saw it though, "Heh, tough luck. What with all that's gone on in Cephiro lately, I'm surprised more stuff like that hasn't cropped up."

Fuu walked up at this time, carrying two baskets of fruit. "Here you go."

"Thanks Fuu, I'll see you tomorrow." Ferio said. Fuu gave a short bow, and scurried off to the shelter to join the other two girls and Mokona for the night.

Reaching over for a pear, Ferio bit into it. After swallowing, he asked, "Say, where's China anyhow? I've been to a lot of places on Cephiro and might want to avoid it."

Ranma, pausing between rapid grab 'n swallows, muffled "Oh, it's not in Cephiro, it's on Earth."

"Earth? Where's that?"

Ranma rolled her eyes, patience with explaining things wasn't her strong point. "From what I gathered, Cephiro is one world and Earth is another. Some Clef magic guy pulled us here from there. The other three are supposed to be magic knights or somethin. I just got pulled alone for the ride."

"Master Mage Clef?! Of the princess's court?" Ferio nearly choked.

"Yup."

Ferio's mind was reeling. Here were the magic knights from the story tales to save the land. It was all supposed to be a story, right? Or was the legend true now that the princess was in trouble, especially if that mage was involved. Was he here to help them fulfill that destiny? This was something he as going to have to mull over the night.

"Say Ranma, mind taking first watch? That guy might be coming back. You can wake me later when you get tired."

"Sure, I can do that."

Ferio made sure his sword was in easy reach, and closed his eyes to think - or sleep if it ever decided to claim him.

Ranma kept absolutely still, and appeared to be sleeping. Staying at the Tendo's and on the road with so many enemies - or fiances- you had to stay on alert. At the worst times when she did let her guard down, the worst would happen. Ranma was determined to not let that happen tonight. Other than staying up and keeping watch, Ranma's other half of the mind was playing Martial Arts Match Maker, but failing miserably as to what to do. Hip contest? Na... Dinner? No, out in the middle of nowhere. Amazon laws? Nope, they're not Amazons.

Three hours later, and still no ambush from their previous attacker, or luck in any ideas. So, Ranma decided to turn in and let Ferio take his turn at watch. Pushing on his shoulder, Ferio was surprisingly easy to wake up - and Ranma had to jump back to avoid a swipe of his sword.

"HEY! Watch it!" Ranma fumed.

A shoe hit him in the head from the shelter, "Keep it down out there!"

Grumbling, Ranma rubbed the impact spot, "Jeez..." Ranma then remembered Ferio, "Um, it's your turn."

"Right." Ferio then stood and leaned against the tree, arms crossed. He hadn't gotten a wink, but was just starting to doze off right before Ranma woke him. Needing some way to wake up, a quick walk around the campsite was decided.

On the other side of the shelter, Lafarga entered. Drawing his sword, he walked toward the shelter.

Ferio and Lafarga both turned the corner at the same time. Ferio was more surprised and hesitated a moment. It was just long enough for Lafarga to charge forward. A clang of metal met inches from Ferio's throat. Lafarga was winning the test of strength with his greater height advantage and brute strength, forcing Ferio to fall back.

"Ranma! Hel-" Ferio got off before being kneed in the gut, and then slammed back into the ground as an elbow rammed the back of his head.

Stepping over the unconscious body, Lafarga went to the doorway of the shelter and tried to open the door. The first few tries revealed it to be locked. Finally, he simply put all his strength into one big pull and ripped the door off with a screech of broken metal and wood. The girls inside woke. Fuu gasped on the realization of who their attacker was, seeing that they could be dead in moments before any of their armor could be summoned.

Without warning, the red tint in Lafarga's eyes disappeared, and he fell over on to his face. Said person was then stood on by Ranma, who crossed her arms in triumph. "Heh, get the sneak on me will ya? Sasuke was better at sneaking around than some brute like you and I still caught the ninja. Sides' I had to pay you back for what you did to Hikaru."

Hikaru's bandage was off, and all that was left of the wound was a dark red scab where the skin was broken. She jumped up, still in her gown and hugged Ranma, "Oh, I was so scared, thank you Ranma!"

Ranma was caught off guard, and tried her best to stay upright by bracing against the doorway. "Uh, no prob."

Fuu spoke, "Don't you think we should tie Mr. Attacker up?"

Hikaru and Ranma looked down at the figure they were standing, walking, and jumping on. "Oh, yea. Mokona, you have a chain or somethin?"

Making sure the chains were tight, they leaned the rouge swordsman against a tree. Ferio woke shortly after, with a slight ringing in the ears. He took over watch again, especially after being hounded for allowing the attacker through in the first place. A few hours later, the morning was greeted by tired and grumbling Ranma and Ferio. Fuu, Umi and Hikaru were active and ready to get on the way to the Spring of Eterna. Mokona was just plain hyperactive - no matter the time. The shelter was safely 'absorbed' by Mokona, and the decision of what to do with their prisoner was left.

"I say we just leave him. If we leave his legs undone he might be able to get back to where he came from," Ferio suggested.

"Ferio! How can you say such a thing!" Hikaru gasped. "He may be an enemy, but we can't be heartless. The monsters here will get him for sure."

Fuu pushed her glasses up, "She's right, but he might slow us down or even escape to attack us again."

"I'll just carry him, ok? If I was in my guy form it would be no problem." The other four looked at Ranma as if she grew a second head, "Hey? What I say?"

Umi crossed her arms, "There's no way you could carry him by yourself. He's got to be at least two hundred pounds, not counting his armor, and those ultra heavy chains!"

"Na, try carrying boulders while being chased by hungry wolves. That's tough. This will be a piece of cake. Mokona, you have some warm water?" Ranma looked down.

"Puuuuuuuuu" above Ranma's head where the red light from Mokona's jewel ended, a ball of water appeared, splashing over Ranma - and Lafarga who was next to him.

The attacker opened his eyes and started growling and flexing, but the chains held for the time being. Ferio leaned down in front of him, "Now that you are awake, just who are you anyway? Did Zagato send you?"

The red tint in Lafarga's eyes only intensified at the face to face confrontation, and the only struggled more and growled - till he was knocked out with a touch from Ranma.

"Hey! How'd you do that?" Ferio asked.

"Shiatsu point. One of the few I know, took me a while to find it. Kinda like touching touching certain nerves and making the body react," Ranma leaned down and loosened just enough of the chains to get a grip, and easily hefted the luggage, leaving only Lafarga's feet barely touching the ground. "Jeez this guy is tall."

"Wow! Awesome Ranma!" Hikaru said with wide eyes.

Umi shook her head, whispering under her breath, "Sure, give him a little more ego."

During the day, they had no problem getting through the monsters. Fuu and Umi felt more confident in their abilities as time grew on, and Ferio's master swordsmanship dealt with most. Ferio was even giving a few pointers to Umi and Hikaru. Umi was already skilled, she just needed a little confidence boost. Ranma, even with his baggage, was able to knock around the monsters enough to let the others kill them using the art of hostage clubbing martial arts (which also kept Lafarga knocked out as a side benefit).

Before noon, they came across -it-. A large field, with monsters, and a floating rock. Ranma was so engrossed in the scene, he didn't feel Lafarga start to come-to on his back. Putting the prisoner down, Ranma asked, "What in the world is that?!"

Ferio came up beside him, sword over his shoulder. "I hear that's the reason the forest is here."

Hikaru, behind the two guys, asked, "Did Zagato put it here?"

Looking over his shoulder, Ferio answered, "Na, that thing has been here as long as I can remember. It blocks magic, so even Zagato doesn't set foot in this place. Our attacker over there doesn't use magic, so there's a good bet he was sent by Zagato to get you - being the magic knights and all I'm sure he's not happy one bit you are here." Ferio then turned back to the scene before them.

Mokona hopped out into the open, Umi nearly passed out in fright. "Mokona!" Rushing out, she snagged Mokona before the monsters could sight the group. "What were you thinking rushing out like that? You don't expect us to go through them!?"

Mokona let out a simple 'puu'.

Ranma cracked his knuckles, "If I can get close enough, one pass with the chestnut fist would pulverize the thing. I'd need you guys to distract the monsters though."

Hikaru stepped up beside him, "I'm going with you. You won't make it by yourself out there without someone to watch your back."

As the group squabled over who would do what, Lafarga gained consciouness fully. The curse he was under was magnified from the influence of the stone in the clearing, amplifying his strength - but pushing him into a mindless berserker state. In one yell, the chains shattered spraying out and getting the attention of the others. It also gained the attention of the monsters in the clearing.

Ferio noticed, "Run! Ranma and Hikaru, take care of the rock. I'll take blondie. Fuu, Umi distract the monsters as much as you can." The others made some delayed steps, "NOW!" They broke into a dead sprint for their destinations. Both hands on his sword, Ferio faced Lafarga, "Time for round two, and I don't go down twice!"

Fuu ran beside Umi toward the right side, launching arrows to lure the pack in their direction. As the pack closed in, Umi swept in large arces to take out the tightly packed monsters. Still, the numbers were massive, and the two magic knights were forced to pull back else they would be surrounded.

Ranma had summoned his weapon, and being much faster than Hikaru was in sweeping around the monsters as if they weren't even there. Several disappeared from fatal high precision wounds he inflicted in his passing. Hikaru played cleanup with the stragglers.

Meanwhile, back at the starting point, the trees in the area were a wreck. Ferio was breathing heavily from dodging Lafarga who lunged and demolished the landscape. Ferio was trying to avoid killing the beserker, but his options were running out. Various cuts and blows with the flat of his blade had no effect.

As Ranma appoached the rock, he jumped into the air for the shattering move against the rock. Suddenly, within ten feet of the rock he hit a barriar and nearly mind numbing pain. In his yells that barely registered on his consciousness, he remembered Hikaru. "Stay back! It's too dangerous!"

Hikaru skidded to a stop at the pain filled yell. Fear gripped her heart at seeing Ranma wreathing in pain in mindair. "What do I do!? Ranma? RANMA!"

Ranma felt another pain building in his arms, viens were bulging, and sweat poring. Through another wave of pain, he forced his head down to look, and vision fading through the pain, he could see bone begin to poke through his joints. At this point, he wasn't even aware he was screaming.

Tears were streaming down Hikaru's face. "What can I do? Ranma needs me!" She couldn't get near, else she would be trapped. The energy from the rock was wrapping itself around Ranma, and she shuddered from when Ranma's body convulsed again. Gripping her sword as a spear, she charged forward, yelling and knowing she had to succeed or their trip to Cephiro - and Ranma's life - would end....

Hikaru woke to see Umi's smiling face, "You're awake."

Hikaru sat up, and looked around. She felt tired, but not injured. Remembering the rock, she frantically searched for Ranma, "Where's Ranma? What happened to the rock and the monsters?"

Behind her, a calm voice spoke, "You saved them, and Ranma is safe."

Turning, Hikaru gasped when she saw the person that greeted them at the beach. Master Mage Clef.

"Master Mage Clef!"

"Yes. We are still inside the forest of silence, but when I felt the powers of magic return to the forest, I came as quickly as I could. When you destroyed the rock with your sword, Ranma and the rest of the monsters were returned to normal. The energy wave that the rock released when you throughly destroyed the rock knocked both you and Ranma out."

Sitting on the root of the tree Hikaru was lieing beside, Clef pointed to the other members of the group. "Ferio over here was fighting one of the minions of Zagato, and losing. When you destroyed the rock, whoever he was fighting departed into the forest. I have been unable to locate him."

Changing his gaze to Fuu and Umi, "Fuu and Umi rushed to your side after they saw you collapse, and helped carry you here. This is where I met you all. I must say though, I was quite surprised to learn about Ranma's curse. Sadly, I can't do anything about it, since when I gave him magic, it meshed with it and made it permanent."

Ranma, came around the tree, "And I should pound you for it! Because of your mistake of pulling me here, I have to life with this curse for the rest of my life!"

"Yes, but you weren't having any luck for a cure on Earth before. Coming here, you at least now have magic at your disposal."

"Ranma!" Hikaru jumped up, and hugged Ranma. "You're ok!"

Ranma smirked, forgetting his anger with Clef, "Of course! I AM the best."

Clef coughed, getting everyone's attention. "Well, now that you all are awake, I can teach you something very important."

"What's that?" Ranma asked, obviously forgotten what they were about to do on the beach before they were ambushed.

"Magic."

Hikaru got stars in her eyes, "Magic, this is great."

Umi was skeptical to the claim, while Fuu remained quite. Ferio leaned back to watch the show.

Ranma was all for learning something new, "Great, when do we start?"

Clef walked to Fuu, "Fuu, it is your turn. Lean down please."

Placing his forefingers on Fuu's forehead, Clef spoke telepathically to Fuu. *Fuu, look into your heart. What do you feel?*

**I am looking deep, ah! I feel it. A power. It is growing within me, saying something.**

*That is your magic, can you feel it trying to come out?*

**Yes! I understand!**

Opening her eyes, Fuu stood and extended her outstretched hand toward Hikaru and Ferio. "Winds of healing!"

A cool, soothing feeling spread across their bodies. Ferio nearly fell over in surprise. He felt his arm fully healed, but no pain occured during the process. Also, he felt content and safe inside. Hikaru was energized, and stood straighter as strength returned to her muscles fully.

Clef nodded, and left Fuu. Fuu smiled widely at the results and watched who would get magic next - Umi.

Umi straightened her skirt and armor as Clef stepped up to her. "Umi, it's your turn."

Getting on one knee, Umi lefted her head to face Clef's. Again, he put his fingers on her head, *Umi, can you hear me?*

**Yes, I can hear you inside me.**

*Look deeper. In your mind, deeper into your heart where only you can go. What do you feel?**

**Oh! I can feel it! It feels wonderful. This is magic?**

*Grasp it, there are words with this power.*

**Thank you, I can feel the magic, waiting to come forth.**

The two opened their eyes. Umi stood, speechless as to what she had experienced. She knew it now not to be a hoax, and looked over with pride toward the next recepiant - Hikaru.

Clef motioned for Hikaru to step forward, "Hikaru, you are the last magic knight to receive magic, but you are all equally important."

Closing her eyes, Hikaru felt Clef's fingertips on her head. A voice then was heard, but not through the ears. **Look deep within yourself. In your heart, there is a power.**

*Yes, I can feel it. There are words. This feeling, I can't describe it. It has a warmth I've never felt before.*

**Good, this is your magic within you.**

Clef stepped back, and turned to Ranma. "Now it is your turn. Although you aren't a magic knight, you none the less here and have enormous amounts of skill to help them in their quest. Which makes it also your quest. Come here."

Ranma bent over instead of getting on his knees. Clef annoyed reached straight ahead to touch Ranma's forehead, and gasped. 'What confidence!'

**Ranma, can you hear me?**

*Yup. Whoa, this feeling thing was here the whole time and I never did find it. So this is magic right?*

Clef was surprised further, **Um, yes. It is. There are words that flow with this feeling, can you feel them?**

*Yup. Got it. This is easier than I thought. I feel kinda guilty though getting this without training though. Mind if I try it out?*

Clef stepped back, "Go ahead Ranma, just try to do it away from the others ok?"

Ranma rears his hands back, and concentrates the new power flowing through him. Pushing his hands slowly forward, two words came to mind to perform the final harnessing of the power, which came out as a soft whisper.

"Aura of Time."

The cloud of energy that was wrapping around his skin and clothing flowed out in the direction of the bushes. A bird in the berry bush screeched and jumped to take flight.

Umi and the others' eyes, except for Clef, grew wide. The bird was slowly flapping its wings, every movement slowed to impossible levels for the creature to remain in flight. Ranma smirked and moved his arms forward, releasing the spell. The bird resumed its flight at normal speed, not seeming to notice what it had just experienced.

"Very good Ranma. You are gifted with the magic of auras. For now, you may not have many magical spells but you'll gain more. After feeling your life strength aura on the beach, I gifted you with something that would enhance your already strong natural talent." Clef commented.

Ranma puffed up and crossed his arms in a cocky stance, getting a groan from Umi. "Great, here gets an even bigger ego. I did't think that was possible."

Clef smiled, "Umi, it is your turn. I would like you all to be familiar with your powers before we arrive at the legendary Spring of Eterna."

Umi closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Stepping forward to the place where Ranma once stood, she faced the tree and group of berry bushes. "Water... DRAGON!"

Starting drop, it expanded quickly and rushed at the tree. Ranma straightened up and tried to dodge as Umi gave a mental command the dragon brushed some water in the martial artist's direction.

"What'd you do that for!" Ranma screeched out. Ferio snickered, while Fuu tried to hide behind him just in case she started laughing too.

"Sorry Ranma, didn't know that was going to happen," Umi strode past the redhead.

Hikaru jumped forward, "Hey, its my turn!" Clef's eyes grew wider as he realized his error, and tried to stop the energized magic knight.

Umi's water dragon was a good size, enough to topple a tree. Hikaru's recent successes and showings from Ranma boosted her confidence, and her magic. Swirling around Hikaru's body, the flames intensified and flowed into a ball a few inches above her raised arm.

"Flaaaaammme AAARRROOOWWW!"

Throwing her arm down, the ball lengthened into a streak for the doomed tree. The flame engulfed the tree and continued onward into the grove igniting others. As Hikaru completed the spell, she straighted and clapped. Rushing to Ranma, "I did it! Our magic will surely be able to help us to save Cephiro."

Ranma's eye twitched, mouth agape. "What is it Ranma?" Ranma pointed behind Hikaru, who turned around and tear dropped at the site. The grove was on fire, and expanding into the rest of the forest. The target tree was blown clear through and nothing but a charred husk.

"Oops?"

Fuu stepped forward, "Perhaps I can help. My magic may be able to counteract the damage."

Clef, who was about to yell for Umi to dose the fire, whirled when he felt Fuu's magic taking shape. "NO!!!"

Hands at her sides, she swept them forward in wide arcs, "Sapphire whirlwind!" Piercing winds, laced with the greenish tint of magic swept through the forest. Gashes were cut into trunks, while the fire was intensified.

"Uhmm.... oh my," Fuu stepped back.

Clef didn't want any more damage to be done from something new, he didn't know and didn't want too know right now if Ferio had any magical trick of his own to add to the mix. "Umi! Use your water dragon spell again!"

Umi knodded, "Water dragon!" Larger this time, the dragon put out about half the raging fire. Umi though was tired from having to exert herself twice in a short amount of time. "I'll give it one more try."

"No, you gave your best but I feel it is time we move on," Clef let her support herself on his shoulder.

Hikaru was of a different mind, "We have to do something! It is our fault, and it is their homes!"

Fuu scanned the area, and realized what Hikaru was saying. Animals were running out of the forest, some a little singed from the flames. "If the forest catches fire, the animals won't have many places to go except out where the monsters are. They won't last long."

Ranma stood, "I might have a plan, but I don't know if it will work or make it worst. I'll need you all to try and get the animals clear." She rushed off toward the edge of the flames without another word.

Ferio snapped the rest out of their speechless state, "What are ya all waiting for? We have a job to do!"

"Umi, I need to do something. I'll need some room." Umi, a little more rested now, stepped back from Clef.

"Creature! I summon thee!" Clef's staff orb glowed, and a creature materialized out before the group. A large bird with golden flowing feathers, and long neck appeared. Clef spoke up to it, "I require assistance my friend! The animals in this forest need to be clear of the fire so we may put it out. This needs to be done quickly!"

Flapping up, the bird rose into the sky and let out a song. All the animals turned and looked up at the creature. The flowing notes drowned out the crackle of falling timber, and spoke into the minds of the animals. Turning toward the bird, they all followed as fast as they could.

Halfway toward the center of the flames, Ranma reached out with her magic and slowed the flames as best she could. Ending the spiral, she let go her hold on the magic and released the attack she had only used once prior against an opponent - Happosai.

"Hyruu shotan ha!"

The cold air generated by the soul of ice technique around her formed the spiraling column quickly. Winds picked up and sucked the air into the tornado. Flames died from the lack of oxygen as they were snuffed out by their own heat driving off the air.

The others watched as the column of swirling flames engulfed the forest and put the flames out.

Hikaru rushed forward as silence once again claimed the area. Batting away blackened dead branches, she rushed called out, "Ranma!"

In the center, a tired but ok redhead lifted her head. "Heya Hikaru! It worked!"

Hikaru hugged Ranma, "Thanks to you! I was so worried about you!"

Clef walked in and coughed into his fist, "Ehhem... we must be going now."

Ranma and Hikaru let each other go and followed the mage to join the other three on the edge. Their next destination, the Spring of Eterna.

-------------- -- Zagato's Citadel

Innova was still, quiet, and nervous. His lord was staring into the magic scrying mirror. While this was normal, Zagato's fists where clenched tightly with small drops of blood tapping on the stone floor. Two attacks had failed, with Lafarga returning exhausted and badly injured from internal injuries of cause unknown.

"Innova."

"Yes, Lord Zagato."

"Our little invaders have proven more skilled than we gave them credit for. Furthormore, they are gathering allies," Zagato paused and released his fists. "And we will use their ease of trust against them."

"What would you have me do?"

"Accompany Caldina and await the group at the citadel in the Forest of Silence. There, you will assist them against an attack by our illusionist. From there, I believe you know what to do." Zagato turned swiftly, and left a still bowing, but smiling, Innova.

--------------- --Unnamed village midway to Spring of Eterna

Ranma's stomach growled. The day had provided plenty of surprises, and Clef felt that speeding their travels would put the worst behind them. Especially with magic now free to be used in the Forest of Silence, Zagato was sure to follow.

Hikaru noticed the growling, and looked up at the angle of the sun. "Hey, what do you think we take a break and eat?"

Clef nodded, "Indeed. Mokona, would you mind if we had something to eat?"

Ranma tapped her foot impatiently till the food appeared - above her head. Crawling out of the moutain of food, "Come back here you! Dropping stuff on my head, water or food isn't nice!"

As the others sat down to eat around the clearing, Hikaru caught the fleeing Mokona. "Mokona, that wasn't nice..." She received a short puu, and she continued in a teasing voice. "But since Ranma doesn't seem to say thank you or picks on you so much, she probably deserves it."

Ranma's mouth was gaping, trying to find the words to combat Hikaru's claims. In the back of her head, several quick insults tried to come to front but failed as he couldn't see why he should hurt Hikaru in any way. Ranma hung her head and the final result came out as, "I'm sorry Mokona."

Hikaru smiled and patted Ranma's head with a light tap and cradled Mokona to her chest. "Good. Now, let's go eat!"

Ranma sighed and glarred at Mokona, who had a smug smile on his face. "Alright, but you better be good."

Fuu and Ferio were on the other side of the clearing, under a large tree for shade. They sat in silence on either side of the tree, eating their picks from the pile. Fuu was the first to gather the courage to speak, "So, um, Ferio, what is life like here in Cephiro for you?"

Ferio closed his eyes, "When do you mean? Before Zagato came or now?"

"I'd like to know about both please."

He took a deep breath, remembering, and trying to find a way to express himself in the right way. "Before it was paradise. I've always been a traveler, doing odd jobs with my sword. When times got tough, living off the land wasn't a problem and I enjoyed the quiet. Sure, some monsters were around like in the forest, but it was fairly safe. I was just looking for a way to get back at Zagato after he came and protect everyone in the land."

Looking to his side to glance at Fuu, Fuu blushed. Thoughts of her own knight protecting her deepened the blush further. Ferio didn't notice as by that time he went back to eating.

The awkward silence was broken when Clef came up. "Ahead is a small village. Be on your guard, but I don't think we will run into trouble. We will be leaving soon."

Clef walked to Umi, who was sulking against another tree. She didn't eat much and was rolling a small rock on the ground with the tip of her foot. "What is wrong Umi, you seem troubled?"

"It is nothing. I'll be fine, I just want to get out of here and go home," Umi sighed out. Clef wasn't satisfied with her response, as he could feel the something was troubling her.

"I would appreciate your company, may I sit with you? Perhaps you can tell me what is bothering you."

Umi nodded and sat, hugging her knees to her chest. Clef sat on a large dead log a short distance away. "I'm so alone and scared."

Clef leaned forward, but remained silent.

"Ever since we were taken from Tokyo, I've seen more things than I thought were possible. Ranma and his skills, this magic stuff, and a whole new world that I never knew existed. I wonder what my friends are doing back in Tokyo, and I wish I was there with them. Here, I don't have anything."

Clef could see how hard it was on the young girl's ego to tell him this. Around the others, he could tell she was putting on a stone face and attitude to cover something. "What makes you say that Umi?"

Umi turned her head in the direction of Ranma, "Over there, that's what."

This wasn't what Clef was expecting, "Explain, I'd like to help if there is anything I can do."

Umi turned her head back to Clef, "He is pushing the others away from me. Sure, he will help us in battle, but outside of that, he is ruining the team! I'm a magic knight, not him." Umi paused, "Just look at him! He is getting along great with Mokona, Hikaru, Ferio, Fuu while I'm over here."

"I'm here with you."

Clef stood and extended his hand to help Umi up. "Ranma and the others are working well together, but not in the way you think they are out to keep you out of the team." Umi stood up and dusted herself off, Clef continued, "It takes time to adapt. Don't worry about your friends in Tokyo, time has been paused for a short while when the princess brought you here. Now, you just need to concentrate on communicating with the others. Perhaps saying hello and working with Mokona and Ranma will help, I'll be there with you should things get out of hand."

Umi wiped a tear from her eyes that escaped, "Thank you Clef. I'll try. Knowing my friends in Tokyo are ok helped a lot. I just hope I can get to know the others better while I'm here."

"Well, should we be going? We should be able to reach the Spring of Eterna soon," Clef motioned with his hand in the direction of the village.

Umi knodded and went to get the others, with Clef close behind her. On the road once more, the group walked in silence. Umi, by suggestion from Clef, was carrying softly puuing Mokona. Ranma was the first to notice the village ahead, and took off ahead to check it out. Clef shook his head, mumbling about how some people never learn about jumping into things head first. Mokona shook herself loose from Umi and bounced after Ranma. Umi gave chase, resulting in the rest of the group also running to keep up.

In the village, Ranma wandering around. "Doesn't seem to be anyone home... maybe I should knock..." Just before she tapped on the door, a pitchfork stabbed at her head. Ducking, Ranma swept the feet out from her attacker and kicked up at the weapon. It flew up and stuck in the ground behind Ranma ten feet back.

"Now hold on here, I was just wondering if there was anyone here!" Ranma yelled out. "I wasn't looking for trouble or nothin."

Umi was panting and tried to catch her breath as she put her hand on Ranma's shoulder. Ranma heard her coming and so didn't turn to attack her, and kept her eyes on the villagers gathering. "I don't think they want us around here Ranma. We better go."

Ranma knodded, and backed off. The others grouped up with him, weapons at the ready. Ferio was especially nervous and whispered to the rest of the group, "This is weird, these people shouldn't be hostile."

"You know them Ferio?" Clef asked.

The group of villagers parted as a large burly man came through, with a wood axe slung over his shoulder. Pausing, he squinted at the group, frowning. "Hey! What are you doing here! You remember what I told you a year ago?"

Ferio smirked, and slung his sword over his shoulder, "Ya, I remember. I beat ya five times in a card game and you never paid up, so you kicked me out. Want another game? Double or nothing?"

"You bet!"

All villagers, magic knights, martial artist and mage present face vaulted.

--------------- -- Citadel in the Forest of Silence

Presea shivered in the doorway to the courtyard of the citadel.

"I suppose I should go inside and prepare for their arrival. I hope that Clef is with them."

Outside, Innova slipped out of the tree silently. Through the darkness, Caldina seemed to morph out of the solid stone wall.

"Here is where we will spring the trap. Yes, this pond should do nicely for our purposes. You know what to do Caldina..."

Lights danced throughout the area as magic energies warped the appearance of reality in the courtyard. "Right on sugar."

--------------- Morning at the village

"Thank you for your hospitality. We'll now be on our way."

Hikaru turned and caught back up with Ranma. As they treked forward, Ranma began to slow over the hour. Hikaru was concerned, and stopped him.

"What is wrong Ranma?"

"Something doesn't feel right ahead. I've been trying to figure out what it is, but this magic stuff is kinda new to me." Ranma closed his eyes, "Not sure what this feeling is. It doesn't feel like ki or something living. Compared with everything else I've felt this past day with magic, it just feels out of place."

Hikaru gripped his hand, "Come on. We'll face it together whatever it is. Besides, we have Clef with us now."

The main group was starting to grow farther away, but didn't seem to notice Ranma and Hikaru's absense. The feeling became stronger and Ranma's grip on Hikaru's hand became stronger.

"Ranma, you are starting to hurt my hand."

He immediately popped out of his trance and cradled the hand. "Sorry! Sorry! Are you alright?"

Hikaru gripped his shoulders, staring into Ranma's deep blue eyes. "Don't worry, we will make it. I don't know what it is you feel, but surely Clef would let us know if it is as bad as you think. If you don't have a clear head, you won't be able to relax. I know enough of martial arts to know you need a clear head to face a challenge."

Ranma's resolve solidfied faster than super quick drying cement. "You're right! I'm the best martial artist in the world... er... Cephiro... um... OUT THERE! I never lose! Now let's go find out what this thing is!"

Bending down with his back to Hikaru, Ranma motioned, "Get on. I'll take a shortcut. Besides, we need to catch up to the others."

Hikaru wrapped her arms around Ranma's neck and he firmly held her calves.

"YIPE!"

Her ride had leaped to one of the large branches halfway up a tree, and adjusted his grip to make sure Hikaru is ok. Smirking, "Alright, here we go!"

Her eyes closed tightly has Ranma jumped to the next tree. She could the branches whooshing by, never touching.

Ranma's voice soothed her between jumps, "It is ok. It is perfectly safe with me around. Open your eyes and enjoy the ride!"

Peeking an eye over his shoulder, Hikaru was amazed at ths rate they were traveling. The rest of the party was taking a winding way to their right around the dense trees. Looking ahead, she could see a pond, and noticed Ranma giving it a wide birth.

"Heh, not gonna get me this time Jusenkyo. Especially when I have passengers."

Smirking at the comment, Hikaru began to relax and enjoyed the ride. A small sparkly caught her eye ahead. "That must be it! The Spring of Eterna."

Ranma smirked, his feelings confirmed that this was the place. "Doesn't look that bad."

Rushing the expanse of land, Ranma's final jump ended them on a cliff overlooking the spring. He then set Hikaru down. "Alright, well, I wasn't expecting this - more water."

"It is a spring Ranma."

"Heh, guess you're right." Looking over the area and seeing or feeling anything else, "This is it. Well, want to get this over with?"

"What? We should wait for the others. They might be worried about us."

"Na, By the time they get here, we could be out with the escudo by then." Ranma gripped Hikaru's wrist and jumped.

"RANMA!"

As they splashed into the water, Ranma was surprised at the warmth, just enough to prevent a change. As they slowly sunk, he felt a force pulling him and Hikaru apart. He fought back, and then applied a little time barriar to protect them from whatever it was. It somehow worked, because almost immediately they emerged together in a large chamber.

"I wasn't expecting this," Ranma looked around.

"Neither was I," said a voice behind them.

Ranma and Hikaru whirled and faced the third arrival - that wasn't there - just some fog. It slowly condensed into one body of a human. Then colors formed out of the gray mass. The end result was short black hair, light blue dress, and black shoes.

Ranma was white as a sheet, "A-a-ak-kane!"

"You know her?" Hikaru asked.

He stepped back when Akane's fists clenched, "Whoa! Akane! It's not what you think!"

Akane ran forward with a speed Ranma had never witnessed in her before, and slammed him in the chest with a large wooden mallet. Blood spittle flew out of his mouth and he was tumbled onto the ground, totally unprepared for the attack.

He coughed once, and got up on his hands and knees. "Akane, please, stop. Listen to me..."

Again, Akane launched forward. Her momentum took a detour when Hikaru bodychecked her from the side, "Oh no you don't! You are not hurting Ranma like that again!" Drawing her sword from, Hikaru positioned herself between Akane and Ranma. The sword was struck from the side by another, forcing Hikaru to parry backward and to the right. Looking at the face of her attacker, her breath stopped, "Satoru!"

Ranma stood and surveyed the area. Akane was on the floor, but was motionless. Hikaru was backing off from an unknown attacker with a sword. Leaping forward, Ranma prepared to deliver the chestnut fist.

"No Ranma! He is my brother!"

Stumbling, Ranma tried to step around Satoru. In return for his troubles, the blade whipped around and drew a deep gash down Ranma's side. Whincing in pain, Ranma limped back to Hikaru. "That's gonna hurt in the morning... we just can't sit here and get killed. We can't exactly fight back though, especially since I don't hit girls - even uncute tomboys."

Hikaru scowled, "Even if they fight you?!"

"Well, look at yourself, your own brother is there with a sword for goodness sakes!"

Looking back at Akane, Ranma noticed she was standing back up. Hikaru blocked another downward swipe, and was locked in a struggle. While her back was totally wide open, Akane attacked.

"NO! Hikaru!" Ranma clenched his fists and concentrated, blood dripping freely from the wound on his side. Feeling out his magic aura, he tried to trap Akane without actually having to attack her. Surprisingly, it had now effect on her movement... "Unless this isn't really there! Gotcha! Katchu tenshin amaguriken!" Akane's form blurred, and turned into whisps mist.

Exhausted, Ranma fell over, the blood loss from the deep wound taking its toll. "Well, wake me when its over."

Hikaru glansed over when she heard the thump behind her. "Ranma!"

Satoru growled and broke from the struggle. Leaping over Hikaru by over ten feet, he pointed the sword down at Ranma's still form.

"No!" Matching trajectories, she dove between Ranma and the sword. Her eyes closed, waiting for the cold steel to pierce her back. It never came, and she opened one eye. Ranma was in front of her, floating in midair - as was she. "Ranma, we're safe!"

"Just let me sleep a little longer pop..."

"RANMA!"

"Wha!! Wait!! I'm awake! Not the pond again! Errr... oh. Hey Hikaru," looking down Ranma examined his midair state. "I could get used to this." The magic let up and both landed on their feet. "Guess I spoke too soon. What just happened?"

Hikaru hugged Ranma, "I was so afraid, I thought I had lost you. Now you aren't hurt. That may have been some sort of test." Pointing down the cave corridor where a glow was pulsing, "The escudo is probably down there."

Nodding to each other, they ran down and were surprised to see Umi and Fuu, with their gloves glowing. Fuu noticed their arrival first, "Hello! We just retrieved our escudo. We were worried about you two until Clef said you already entered the spring, so we came in after you."

"But... we went in before you!" Ranma was wondering how the two other knights got ahead of him.

"I don't know, but he might know."

"Enough of that, the escudo is waiting for you two," Umi said, pointing to the floating yellow and red crystals in the air above them.

"Oh yea." Reaching up, the escudo was absorbed into their wrist ornaments. After all the crystals were gone, a bright light enveloped the group. Their armor changed and covered their shoulders as they started to levitate into the air, then they teleported to the surface.

"That was way cool!" Hikaru exclamed as they touched back down on ground a small ways from the spring.

"Alright! Now I have cooler stuff than that old ghoul and freak of nature put together!"

A round of tear drops was present on everyone else but Ranma.

"Umm... Yes. Glad to have you back," Clef said from side, standing with Ferio.

"Hey, how did Fuu and Umi beat us to the escudo in there?" Ranma asked.

Clef shrugged his shoulders, "I don't know. The spring uses magic ages old that even I don't understand. Perhaps your skills interacted with it somehow. In any case though, everyone is safe and has what we needed. Now we must hurry back to Presea to fashion your weapons, then the real quest begins for the mashin."

Mokona hopped from the above cliff on top of Ranma's head, "Puu!" It quickly jumped into Hikaru's arms, puuing softly.

Ranma's eye twitched, "Just you wait marshmellow, I'll get you some day..."

Umi laughed, "Looks like you'll need to be faster than that Ranma. Ten Mokona, zero Ranma!"

"Ahh... shut up."

"Puu!!"

---------------

The sun opened the new day over the horizon, and was greeted by two youth exercising in the mist.

"Good job! Now, attack me low, but try to keep from over extending."

Hikaru swung with her sword, clipping the tops off the grass. Ranma blocked with his staff stopping the blade instantly.

"Ranma, like I said before. I'm not helpless. I know how to handle a sword just fine."

As the instruction continued - or lack thereof - Ranma and Hikaru jumped around the opening area.

Clef watched from the sidelines and commented during a momentary break, "You look fine to me."

Ranma glanced in Clef's direction, and noticed Ferio still napping in the tree. Kicking up a rock, he kicked it with pin point precision at the swordsman.

Hikaru was about to scold the action when she heard the sound of metal swiping the air. Looking up, she smirked when Ferio was still 'acting' like he was taking a nap with two halves of the rock in one hand. The sword was swinging down like a pendulum in his other arm.

"You know, you shouldn't pick fights you might not win Ranma," Ferio commented casually.

Ranma perked up at that, "Is that a challenge? If that's the case, I accept."

"Perhaps, but perhaps it wasn't. In any case, I need a little exercise." Jumping down, Ferio brushed the hair out of his eyes and readied his sword with both hands.

Clef came up behind a worried Hikaru, "Don't worry, they seem to know what they are doing. How about you run along and wake up Fuu, Umi and Mokona. We should be going soon now that you all have the escudo."

Ferio charged forward, and Ranma jumped up in anticipation. As Hikaru turned...

Deep within the earth, the energies that keep the land unchanging and still for countless millenia were loosing their grip. The physical stress on the rocks now, for the moment, had its chance and struck its blow upward.

A blast of earth blew up in front of Hikaru, blasting her back. Ferio lost his footing, and was trying to stay up as the ground felt like someone was repeatedly pulling a rug out from under him. During his time in the air, Ranma's brain took a second to register what just was happening to those on the ground.

The crack that had begun at Hikaru's feet snaked forward at the egg shaped shelter that still contained three occupants. Traveling under one of the legs, it split with one side of the crack jutting up and the other dipping slightly down. Enough of an angle was reached, and with the now fifteen second earthquake still rocking, it caused the shelter to fall over and roll toward the forest. It impacted a huge oak, which fell but still stopped the shelter. Finally, the earthquake stopped, enabling the outside travelers to regain their footing.

"Oh no! Ranma, hurry!" Hikaru gasped when she saw the status of the shelter and what could have happened during the ride it took for the occupants.

Hikaru ran to the side and tried to get to the entrance, which was trapped under the structure.

Ferio nodded with a frown on his face, "Stand back." Gathering his strength, he drew the sword back and swung up. Metal argued with metal with sparks and a high pitched scream. Still, it didn't go through. A second time was successful as Ferio skillfully drove the sword down the exact line. Breathing deeply, Ferio repeated the attack horizontally to make an 'L' shaped cut in the side.

Hikaru forced her steel sword into the opening and leveraged it. Ranma joined the two and the opening was widened enough for Hikaru's smaller frame to fit through.

Ranma rushed off, yelling behind him, "Go on in Hikaru, I'm going to go find some water to change so I can fit in."

Squeezing in, Hikaru sucked in her breath when she accidentally ran her hand over the sharp metal edges of the entrance. Blood dripped down her hand as she went in and searched.

Mokona was at the top of the pile, looking up at Hikaru and nudging a still hand that poked out of the pile of heavy, and splintered furniture.

Hefting up, she started throwing whatever she could away from where Umi and Fuu were buried. After tossing the top of a chest away, Fuu's face appeared with a small head wound dripping blood down the right cheek.

Ranma came in at this time and made short work of the rest of the chest that had the unconscious Fuu pinned. "Hurry, get her outside and I'll try and get to Umi, where ever she is in this pile."

Hikaru nodded with a tear escaping, and carried Fuu to the entrance. Ferio carefully guided Fuu out from the outside, making extra precautions with his shirt to cover the metal edges from hurting her further. Outside, Fuu was laid down to be treated to the best of Clef's and Ferio's abilities.

Hikaru turned back only to breath in a sharply at the site of Ranma ripping her shirt off. Not at the site of Ranma topless, but at the large amount of blood that was pooling where Umi lay. A sizable chunk of wood had gone deeply into her abdomen, but she was still conscious.

"Hikaru, Mokona, get over here! I need some help!"

Hikaru nodded and rushed to the side. "Ranma, can you use your time aura?" Hikaru asked.

"I don't know, I'll try..." concentrating, she extended it around Umi. When Hikaru rushed forward to try and help with the wounds while they were suspended, she too was caught in the aura and slowed down. "Darn..." Ranma breathed out and released her concentration on the spell.

"Hold down on the wound." Ranma jutted her hand out forcefully to Mokona, "Quickly, I need some medical supplies to clean her up and stop the bleeding, NOW!"

Mokona complied with a flash, and Ranma put to use the speed chestnut fist training gave her to save another other than herself in a fight with death.

Clef peaked over, "How is she?"

"We're working on it! She's hurt bad. We need Fuu, or someone that can give her some serious healing, or she won't make it through the day," Ranma half yelled.

Using a makeshift stretcher from the materials in the pile, they slid it under Umi and tied her to it. She slid through the exit without any problems, and Clef got his first look at the damage himself.

"This isn't good, and is beyond anything I can help with. Presea would be the only other that may be able to help, unless Fuu comes too."

Lifting his staff, "Creature! I summon thee!"

The head of the staff pulsed, and beamed out the form of the large bird the four had originally ridden to the citadel. "Hikaru, Mokona, Ranma, get on with Umi and Fuu. Hurry to the citadel where Presea can assist them."

The creature knelt low and assisted in getting the injured secured. As the creature soared over the trees with all the speed it could muster, Clef turned to Ferio, "There is nothing else we can do here, but start our journey for one of the mashin. That, and home that our friends reach Presea safely. Mokona can lead them from there."

"Mashin?" Ferio asked.

"I can explain on our way to the volcano..."

--------------- About an hour later, on the edge of the Forest of Silence

The creature was starting to slow, Ranma looked at Umi once more. "She won't make it much longer..."

Hikaru glanced up from Umi's pale face, "Look! There is the citadel!" She leaned forward excitedly, hopeful that her friends would be alright.

Murphy's Law took this chance to throw a kink into that thought, and a small blast streaked out of the forest to blow a hole in the creature's right wing. It screeched in pain, tipping violently to the side. Mokona and Fuu nearly pitched over, with Hikaru grasping her arm.

"Hikaru!" Ranma reached out futilely, grasping at air. She quickly latched back onto the creature, trying to keep Umi on without injuring her further. Sure, she could take a thousand foot drop, but Umi probably couldn't in her state.

The creature screeched in pain as it flapped roughly toward the citadel. Ranma looked behind, and saw to his relief Mokona had materialized a winged vehicle to guide them down.

As soon as the soft sand around the citadel's pond was near, Ranma softly cradled Umi and jumped. Bending his knees with the impact, the strands of blue hair that draped Umi's pale face weren't even disturbed. Rushing into the inner hallway, Ranma ducked a creature's swing and continued running to the bedroom the girls had stayed in previously.

"I don't have time for this, Presea! Where are you!"

Setting Umi down on the bed, he laid a blanket over her, hoping she would be ok while the invaders were being dealt with and Presea located.

Shadows down the hall danced from the light out for the library. "Gotcha." Ranma whispered under her breath.

Entering, the struggle that was hinted just ended. A stone creature was standing over Presea, and was about to deliver a finishing blow to her head.

"Not today!" Ranma's feet slammed into it's head, sending it diving into what was left of the bookshelves. It shattered into thousands of fine sand particles, and didn't appear to be reforming.

Scooping up Presea, Ranma rushed her down to the bedroom also. "Darn, there's three down, hopefully Hikaru is ok." Mentioning her name jarred Ranma's memory. "Hikaru! Oh no! She doesn't know about the monsters."

Sticking her head out the door, Ranma glanced both ways and saw the way was clear. A spare look at Presea and Umi showed Presea was just starting to stir. "She'll make it, whoever is doing this is gonna pay."

Going out the front door, Ranma skidded to a stop. Ahead a strange lady with an odd assortment of clothing accessories was facing off with Hikaru. Fuu was still unconscious behind Hikaru, laying against the stone wall.

Hikaru yelled, "That was a dirty trick, just leave us alone! My friend is injured and I need to get her to Presea."

"I'll do whatever it takes to avenge my friend Ascot and fulfill Zagato's orders deary. By the way, before I kill you, my name is Caldina," came a thick accent. The lady raised her hands and more of the sandstone monsters morphed out of the ground.

Hikaru glanced momentarily at Ranma and then back at her opponent. Unfortunately, the look wasn't missed by her opponent and Caldina disappeared into thin air. A laugh echoed in the air, and the monsters began to split into four different copies and engaged both Ranma and Hikaru.

Raising a hand above her head, flames crawled up the length of Hikaru's arm. "I won't let you win, FLAAAIIIR ARRROOOOWW!" Her hand came down, and a large blast of flame carved into the monsters and ground. The flames either blasted them apart, or to their surprise just passed right though.

Ranma dodged out of the way as the flame current started to dissipate. "Ryoga would have a heyday here. Guess I'll have to make up for his absence in tearing up the ground. Kachu tenshin amaguriken!" Blowing forward, Ranma's first opponent exploded in a cloud of sand. The next she went straight through and tripped up in surprise.

The sandstone golem gurgled out a growl, and kicked the downed martial artist into the stone wall. A familiar spiderweb of cracks appeared, "Ouch... kicks like Ryoga." Ranma began to slide down, and flipped to land on her feet. "So much for that idea.... shit."

Behind Hikaru, Caldina placed a knife to her throat. "If I had known that two of the magic knights were out for the count, I wouldn't have bothered putting together such an elaborate ruse. I think I'll finish you two redbirds off..."

Ranma closed her eyes as Hikaru stiffened, afraid to even move. Caldina's grin widened as the seconds ticked. The stone monsters rounded off their circle of Ranma, closing her in and separating her from Hikaru's dilemma. More morphed out of the ground, a gurgling laugh escaping their rocky shaped mouths.

Ranma wasn't sure if they were illusions or not, and even with the time aura. "Coward, a true martial artist does not use such cowardly moves like holding someone captive."

"Get over it red. A -warrior- of my caliber and beauty does what one must do to win."

Eyes still closed, Ranma tried to think out a way to save Hikaru. 'If only she was strong or fast as me to get away...'

At those thoughts, a spark ignited in her. Grasping desperately at the glimmer of hope, she concentrated and mummerred the spell.

"Aura of equilibrium."

Hikaru felt new strength rush through her form, and smirked when she knew in her heart Ranma was the one at the cause. She also knew, with dead certainty, she could do it. Confidence on a new level that she had never known blossomed.

"What was that you said red?" Caldina asked. A second later she was flying through the air at Ranma, a look of shock on her face from Hikaru's high powered, lightening fast throw.

Ranma bounded up with a yell, wisps of a blue battle aura flashing, "No one threatens Hikaru and gets away unscathed! Saotome shooting star kick!"

Caldina's face was one mixed of pain, surprise, and amazement as a blue flash from Ranma's leg connected with her abdomen. Changing direction ninety degrees, she went through a line of the sandstone golems, and continued through a crumbling section of the wall into the forest.

Ranma relaxed the spell, feeling an enormous drain, wobbling on her feet but not wanting her weakness to show, "Let's wax these guys."

Hikaru grinned and raised her sword to finish off the rest of the golems, but a multi beam blast came from atop the wall behind Ranma. Upon touching them, the dragon shaped darkness shafts enveloped the golems, dissolving them into nothingness.

"I'm sorry to be late."

Ranma twirled around, and toppled over from the slight dizzy spell, "Great, just what we need now. That kick and spell must have taken more out of me than I hoped too. Don't you creeps ever give up?"

The character was dressed in a dark, silver lined cloak. Shadow's concealed most of his face. "You are mistaken. I was sent by Princess Emerald to assist you, so I have no intention of fighting you. Throwing back his cloak, he winced slightly when the bright sunlight showed his face. "My name is Innova."

He floated down, and bowed to Ranma and Hikaru. Straightening back up, "Again, I apologize for not lending my assistance sooner. I just arrived as quickly as I could from Zagato's fortress, barely escaping after talking with the princess."

Ranma was skeptical, and stood, "Zagato's fortress eh? Then why didn't you rescue the princess then?"

Pulling his top robes up, Hikaru sucked in a tight breath when the gore that covered most of Innova's right side was revealed. He slowly put the robes back on. "I was attacked while I was trying to do that by Zagato himself. I have this curse that changes me into a monster, and this will slowly eat my body and mind. I want to save the princess so she can cure me, or at the very least get my revenge on Zagato."

Ranma shivered at the mention of the curse, especially one that could not be reversed temporarily by warm water. "Well, glad to have ya aboard... but don't expect me to get all friendly with you. You are a little suspicious in my opinion, no offense pal."

"None taken. May I suggest we get your friend in doors? She doesn't look too well to me," Innova motioned toward the unconscious Fuu, who was being nudged by Mokona.

"And the marshmallow makes an entrance! What were you doing the battle? Hiding I bet!" Ranma rushed over and tried to grab Mokona but didn't make it in time, and Hikaru assisted in picking up both of her companions. "I'll get you later marshmellow, mark my words as a Saotome! Now, I need to help Fuu."

Back in the guest room, they entered to find Presea softly glowing white, her hands hovering above Umi's wound. Quietly laying Fuu on the next bed, Ranma turned to watch the scene. A minute later, Presea stopped and stood.

"Thank you for bringing her her, a few more minutes and she would have been lost." Presea walked to Fuu and tried to repeat her magic. A second later she shook her head in disappointment. "I'm sorry, but there is nothing I can do. Her body is, for all purposes, well. All we can do is hope she comes out of it."

Ranma's and Hikaru's shoulders slumped, while Innova remained indifferent.

"Say, who's your friend there?" Presea pointed out.

"Oh, this is Innova. He said the princess sent him to help us. He took care of a few of those monsters outside after we did away with their leader," Hikaru introduced.

Presea nodded, "Welcome Innova. Well, did you get the escudo you two?"

"Yup." Ranma raised her hand, and formed her yellow crystal in the air. Innova raised an eyebrow for a moment, and let it back down, still silent.

"Good job. How about we head off to the creation chamber and get your weapons finished? We could be attacked at any moment, and I would feel safer if you had your weapons finished."

Presea stepped between the group, and tilled her head back. "Well, come on. This way."

The three nodded toward each other and followed to Presea's personal room.

While they waited for Presea outside in the hallway, the minutes ticked on. "Jeez, what a time to pick a time to change clothes and dressup. Girls..." Ranma grumbled.

Mokona popped out from behind Hikaru, and flung a bit of hot water at Ranma. "Hey!" The chase ensued down the hall. Innova was curious as to the transformation, and followed.

Presea opened the door, to find Hikaru staring down the hall, hands on her hips and looking a bit annoyed. "Hey, where's everyone?"

"Oh, they went down that way." Hikaru pointed down toward a narrow hallway that went to the center of the citadel. "Ranma and Mokona are having one of their usuals."

"I see, that's where we are headed. How do I look?" Presea posed, hand behind her head and twirled in the white robes.

"Beautiful! You going to create the weapons from escudo in those?" Hikaru lightly fingered the cloth, amazed at how smooth it felt.

"Yes, my will creates the weapons, and I take great pride and beauty in creating every weapon that has come from my creation chamber." Presea smiled, and went down the hall, seeming to float in the air as her steps became lighter and graceful.

---------------

In the forest, Caldina cracked open her eyes, breathing ragged and hunched over a tree root. Blood crept out of her mouth, and a large black bruise covered most over her left side. "Ascot, thank you for coming."

"Did those girls do this to you?" Ascot's fists clinched, and he then lifted Caldina up with a floating rock.

"Yes, but Innova is with them. I tried to finish them off for you Ascot, but they are stronger than I thought."

"We will get them, Alcyone has agreed to join forces with us. Zagato was indifferent to what we did, only wanting the knights to be destroyed."

Summoning a stingray creature, they got on and glided back to the fortress for some needed recuperation, and planning.

---------------

Entering the creation chamber, Ranma and Mokona were slumped in the creation chamber, leaning against each other exhausted after the chase. Ranma looked over his shoulder and glared at his newest arch-enemy. Hikaru walked up to Ranma and gave him a small pat on the head.

"Hey, what'd ya do that for?" Ranma rubbed the spot as if she had clobbered him with a brick.

"That was for picking on Mokona. Now get up. Presea needs our escudo."

Ranma perked up, and did a flip in the air when he stood, fully energized. "Alright, now something meaningful I can accomplish. Better than hanging with that," turning to look at Mokona, "marsh-", Hikaru tapped him on the head, "er... Mokona."

Lifting their arms with the red and yellow ornament gloves, they flared their respective colors. The escudo flowed out with the light and hovered high above their heads in the center of the chamber. Stepping back silently, Presea stepped forward in their place.

"This is where I live, and do my work. Forming weapons out of escudo is one of the most difficult things I can do, and I need absolute concentration. Now, everyone please be quiet while I perform the creation ritual." Presea stood still for a moment, gathering her will for the task, arms just slightly away from the sides of her lithe body.

Ranma held back the comment about how was she going to work without any tools, and in that outfit no less. Starting in a low sweep, Presea began to dance, seeming to come one with the environment and the air. The folds of her robe began to creep out and float, dancing in the air with Presea's movements but just as entrancing as a cobra dancing.

Ranma and Hikaru both mummerred softly under their breaths, "Beautiful."

The robes snaked their way around the crystals, causing them to pulsate with soft, soothing light and further adding to the beauty of the ritual. Ranma and Hikaru's hands came closer subconsciously, and touched. Neither had noticed the change, as they stared upward.

The cloth covered the crystals fully, while below two hands fully grasped hold of each other.

Presea's movements became more pronounced and she leaped in the air, defying gravity at times as she slowed in midair and softly touched down. Her face was calm, but showed depth of her concentration with her tightly closed eyes, thinking, 'The ritual is now done, not to see about lending some magical influence to the two love birds...'

Twirling again with a new vigor, she directed some of the creation magic intwined around the escudo toward the two. They moved closer together, still watching their swords floating in the chamber till their hands came together and intertwined. Twirling one last time, Presea came to a flowing stop in the center. The robes came back down, resting at her feet.

Her voice sang with beauty, Ranma and Hikaru still entranced by the ritual. "Finished. Ranma, Hikaru, please step forward to receive your weapons. Congratulations magic knights." Presea bowed and stepped back..

They released their hands, still not aware they were holding and reached up to grasped the hilts. Ranma's sword was a primarily yellow, with gold and red ornaments on the hilt. The blade was long, similar to a rapier, but slightly broader. Hikaru's sword was mainly red, but also had yellow and gold secondary colors complementing Ranma's. It was shorter, but broader still than Ranma's. The two knights stood for a moment, basking in the magic as the swords recognized their owners.

Pulling the weapons down fully, and turned to each other with broad smiles. Their weapons disappeared into their gloves, and they hugged in excitement.

"Ehhhmm...." Presea coughed into her hand.

The two separated, and caused a swish of air spinning Mokona that was standing next to them. Their faces were red as Hikaru's hair, and they were trying to look as interested in their ornamented hands, the ceiling or the floor.

Presea decided to save them the embarrassment from going any further glad she could be of help, "Anyone up for some dinner?"

---------------

Presea left the creation chamber first, followed by a redfaced Ranma and Hikaru. As Innova was passing Mokona by the doorway, the normally mild tempered guide of the magic knights seemed to have frowned, and let out a low "Puu..."

Innova glanced down, "Stupid creature, let me be."

Mokona continued to glare at him.

Innova turned, letting his cape smack into the side of Mokona roughly knocking it over.

Down the hallway, Ranma was looking to the side while fidgetting with his pigtail. Hikaru held her hands in front of her and concentrated intently on the stone floor.

Presea, feeling the tension in the air, "So, what all would you like to eat for dinner this evening?"

Ranma's stomache growled, echoing.

Hikaru giggled, "Sounds like about anything will do. I don't really mind what, but I am kind of curious to the local food. Surely it has to be a little different than earth's food."

Ranma grunted, "I'm not much for culture. A true martial artist will eat whenever he can, what he can."

"We'll see about that," Presea laughted, "I know a few spicy recipes. Cephiro isn't too big, but we do have some specialties. You up to the challenge you two?"

Ranma smacked his right fist into his left palm, "I'm heir to the school of Anything Goes Martial Arts, I accept any challenge. And I never loose."

"Hikaru?"

"Um... I don't know."

"Na, she probably couldn't take it. Innova on the other hand looks like he could use a little spice," Ranma blurted out.

A spark of competitive spirit flared in Hikaru's eyes, "Oh really, then I accept your challenge too. I'll show both you and Innova."

Thirty minutes later at the dinner table....

Ranma and Hikaru sat opposite Mokona and Innova, with Presea at the head of the table. The popery of aromas in the air hinted at the wide array of tastes they were about to encounter. Mokona continued to glare at Innova, who looked on with neutral look on his face.

"What is this?" Innova asked in monotone.

Presea clapped her hands, "This my friend is the crown jewels of my family recipes." Her hands rubbed in anticipation, "And also the challenge match between our two hero's before they leave on their journey to retrieve the first mashin tomorrow."

Ranma rubbed his hands in antipication, and his brain then caught up, "First mashin? I think I may have heard Clef mention that. Where is it?"

Hikaru filled one of the bowls with the thick soup. "Let's eat first Ranma. Then we can get down to business."

Presea knodded, "I agree. Dig in! If you don't finish everything on your plate, I'll consider you the loser."

Ranma shoveled in the first three spoonfuls, tears coming to his eyes. "Whoa...." He looked over to Hikaru, who was slightly sweating, but had already finished up half her plate. His brow furroughed in concentration, "Time to pick up the pace, Saotome Special Technique - Speeding Dine and Go!" His hands sped to amazing speeds, nearly rivalling the chestnut fist - he had to chew sometime.

Hikaru didn't increase her speed one bit, and actually smirked. Thirty seconds into the technique, Ranma realized the error of the technique - and the rules of the challenge. He had continueously piled on food, and ate already three times as much as Hikaru. She however just finished her plate. The lining of his stomache started to protest, and he couldn't shovel in another. Hands shaking, he hunched over the plate, not willing to give up in defeat. Rules were to finish all on the plate, not eat all on the table.

Placing a hand on Ranma's shoulder, "You ok?" Hikaru questioned.

Ranma's eyes watered, the signals his taste buds were sending now reaching their peak.

Water was placed in front of him, courtesy of Presea. "You need this?"

Ranma looked up at the water, but his pride kept him from accepting the help. This was a challenge, and Ranma Saotome never looses. He was determined to win without help. Moving the spoon to the plate he grabbed another scoop and shoveled it in. It burned against his lips, but he blocked out the pains of heat. The air around him became chilly, especially Hikaru sitting next to him.

*Soul of ice. Soul of ice. Soul of ice.*

Three more bites to go.

Hikaru shivered slightly and rubbed her hands together. Looking over to Ranma, she was surprised to see her breath cloud the more it brushed over his figure. "Ranma! Snap out of it!"

As entrenched into the soul of ice as he was, Ranma barely heard Hikaru's pleas for acknoledgement. As the last chunk of meat was swallowed, he slowly came out of the technique more commonly reserved for the hiruu shoten ha. "I did it!"

Hikaru stepped back at his outburst. "Wha.. what happened to you Ranma? I was worried."

Ranma smiled broadly, "Ah, don't worry about it. Just something called the soul of ice. But I didn't loose either." Glancing down at Hikaru's plate. "You didn't either, so looks like a tie."

A sigh of relief was heard from Presea now that she knew Ranma was ok. "Just let us know next time you try some of your weird techniques alright? I was about to try some of my healing on you."

Innova was silent across the table, more surprised by the minute of the skills, especially those not magical in nature, used by the martial artist.

Now that dinner was mostly finished, "So, what's this about the mashin again?" Ranma piped up.

"It is an item of extreme power. I don't know any more details other than there was one for each magic knight. Since Umi and Fuu are recovering, that leaves only Hikaru's mashin - in the volcano," Presea gestured toward the redhead.

"Hey, I remember seeing that. So, Ranma and I are going there tomorrow?"

Presea knodded, and was surprised when their visitor spoke up, she had almost completely forgotten about him.

"I would like to accompany you. I could be of assistance, especially if it will assist me in getting revenge on Zagato," Innova stood, and quickly bent over as if bowing. In reality, Mokona had kicked him in the shin.

Hikaru knodded, "I don't see why not, we could use all the help we can get. Besides, the sooner we get back, if Fuu and Umi have recovered we can go get theirs."

"I suppose," Ranma mumbled. He didn't feel comfortable at all around Innova. Standing, Ranma stretched, "Well, I'm gonna hit the sack. See ya in the morning!"

---------------- Late that night... ---

Ranma tossed in his bed, wide awake. Glansing out the window opening to the moon, he mummered, "Strange. The moon looks the same as on Earth. But yet I'm in a different world fighting for its survival."

On the other side of the wall, Hikaru was asleep, but still tossed in her bed. Beads of sweet formed on her head as images of the previous day's events raced through her head. Her breathing and restlessness finally calmed when Ranma's deep blue eyes appeared in the fog of her dreams.

Ranma slightly relaxed, and jumped out of bed. Putting on a new white, sleeveless shirt with black loose pants, he softly stepped out into the hallway. He was passing Hikaru's door and noticed Innova coming down the hall. His eyes bugged out, not wanting to give anyone the wrong idea. Glancing around, there was no place to hide but.... ah! The ceiling!

Innova paused slightly by Hikaru's door and seemed to sense something. Ranma held his breath, hanging spread eagle just a meter above Innova's cloaked figure. Ranma thought he heard Innova mumble something, holding some sort of glimmering object in his hand. Innova then continued around the corner into the courtyard. Waiting a moment to make sure he didn't return, Ranma waited before hopping down.

"Puuuuu!!" "AHHHH!"

Surprised, Ranma did a roundhouse - and throughly decimated Hikaru's poor defenseless door.

Hikaru, already slightly awake and on edge, screamed and instinctively reached for her gloved weapons. Putting it on, she turned to face the intruder. The figure was still in the doorway, but was unarmed.

"Who's there? You from Zagato?" Hikaru slid out of the bed, and opened her palm to summon her sword.

Ranma held his hands up defensively, "Nononono! It's me Ranma! I was surprised by the marshmellow and....", Ranma bowed his head, "I'm sorry for destroying the door."

Hikaru squinted, and now could make out Ranma's features. Another realization came, she was still clothed in just her nightgown. "Eeek!" Hikaru dived under the covers, while Ranma was clueless as to her actions.

"Hey, what's up?"

"Um, Ranma?"

"Mind leaving for a bit while I get dressed."

Ranma ran out, "Oh! Sorry!"

Outside in the courtyard, Ranma sat down on the grass, his thoughts in turmoil but didn't really center on one aspect of the past week to get a grasp on the situation.

Hikaru sat down beside him,but stayed silent. They sat watching the sun come up, neither one tired.

"Ranma!" A yell emanated from the hallway. Martial artist and magic knight jumped up and summoned their swords. Ranma's greater speed rushed around the corner and skidded to a stop as he met up with a slightly upset Presea.

"What?!" Ranma looked around, but a tingle in the back of his neck said to run.

Hikaru poked her head around the corner, and realized the situation. *Oh no! Presea's door!*

"What happened to my door," the craftswoman tapped her foot on the splinters. "What's more, what were you doing in Hikaru's room?"

Hikaru stepped up to his defense, "It was an accident. I startled him and he accidentally," she struggled for a word, "knocked it over?"

Presea simmered down slightly, and walked up to Ranma who was sweating profusely, "Ok, but that still doesn't mean you are off the hook. When you get back, you are going to fix it."

Ranma knodded, and decided now would be a good time to get while he was ahead. "Well, I think I... er.. we should get going. Right Hikaru?" She knodded.

Mokona launched out of the broken doorway, flinging water. Instant Ranma-chan.

"M O K O N A! Get back here you little marshmallow so I can roast ya!"

Hikaru took off after Ranma, waving, "See ya later Presea, we'll return as fast as we can!"

Presea gave a little chuckle at the scene, and turned to clean up the mess, "Good luck you two." About 5 minutes into cleaning, another thought came to her, "Hey, what happened to our visitor?"

"Right here."

Presea turned to see a fist lined with black, and she lost consciousness. Innova aimed a clear crystal at her body, and fired another energy blast through it. It turned black, and the body was not longer there. He turned down the hall toward the two injured magic knights.

Back in the Forest of Silence Ranma pursued his prey and was failing miserably. Mokona was more energetic for some reason and was leading them along wild paths, over stone, through a creek and doubling back a few times. Hikaru was worried at times she would lose site of the two a few times, but somehow caught up. The chase finally ended when Mokona jumped into Hikaru's arms for protection, which meant to Ranma hands off.

"Ah man.... there ya go. Running to Hikaru again. Why don't you stand up and fight uh?"

A blob of water appeard over Ranma - cold. "Ahhhh! That's cold!"

Hikaru was still catching her breath, but did manage a short laugh. She then remembered, "Hey, what happened to Innova? Thought he was right behind us."

Ranma looked around, and realized they were totally lost except for Mokona. "Just great. We probably totally lost him," glaring at Mokona, "and its your fault marshmellow."

Mokona grinned up at him, almost as if that was exactly what it intended, and jumped out of Hikaru's arms. Ranma didn't continue the chase due to a glare from Hikaru. "Well, I suppose we better get underway. Lead on marshmallow."

---------------

Hikaru and Ranma silently followed Mokona out of the Forest of Silence, but it was still only mid afternoon. Unhindered by monsters their pace was significantly increased.

"Hey marshmallow! Oh much further is this volcano?" Ranma called up ahead. Mokona turned and gave him a smile, then continued to bounce on ahead. "Somehow I feel that fuzz ball is trying to annoy me."

Hikaru gave a short laugh, "Ya think? I think it's cute sometimes."

"Cute? You call that cute?" Ranma threw his hands up in the air. "Mokona is about as uncute as a certain tomboy that I know."

His statement seemed to hurt Hikaru since her shoulders dropped slightly and she remained silent. Ranma's unease increased till he finally laid a hand on her shoulder, startling her out of her thoughts. "I'm sorry," Ranma said. "I just get so frustrated, I'm not even sure why I got pulled into this or even what these mashin are supposed to do. Although, the fighting pace hasn't changed and I still have as many enemies here as I do at home."

Over their travels, Hikaru caught a rough idea what life was back in the Nerima ward, Japan, but never the full story. Now seemed as good a time as ever to learn the full extent of Ranma's troubles - especially since he seemed to avoid the subject at times. "Just who would want to fight you? You are a good person," Hikaru stated the last sentence not as a complement, but as a fact.

Ranma cross his arms behind his back. "Well, first there was Kuno. I think he's totally nuts, going on about me being sorcerer and accusing me of hiding his pigtailed goddess."

Hikaru opened her mouth to ask the question when she was interrupted. "My girl side. Yup, and he's seen me change several times. His whole family is about like that. His sister is about the opposite, in love with my guy side but out to kill my girl side. Then there is their father, the principal of the school, has some sort of fetish with bowl cuts and not afraid to cut your hair when you aren't looking, then super gluing a wig to your scalp."

The dead seriousness in Ranma's voice, and the way he acted like it was a day to day fact of life scratched Furinken High off Hikaru's list of places to visit when they got out of this place.

Grabbing a tree branch that was in their way, Ranma tensed and snapped it off with ease, "No. That's just the beginning."

"Ryoga Hibiki. I consider him a good pal, but he is always out for my blood for no reason at all. I just goad the porker on during our fights, but he knows that's part of the Anything Goes style. Anything goes to win the . I do enjoy the challenge, but I wish he would give it a rest sometimes." Throwing the broken branch far to the right in frustration, "It's not like I gave him his bad sense of direction, or his curse, or asked him to follow me to Jusenkyo, or-"

A soft hand on Ranma's shoulder broke him out of his ramblings, "Ranma, I'll be there to support you. Perhaps if someone different explained to him your concerns he would think differently."

The reassuring words calmed him down, but realization dawned on him and his shoulders slumped, "But it wouldn't work, and would probably make things worse."

"Worse?"

Ranma fumbled around for words, realizing now that he hasn't told Hikaru the whole story about his fiances. "Um... my fiances?"

This stopped Hikaru in her tracks, "Fiance?"

"Plural. Three, with Kodachi as a wanna-be four."

"Do you love them?"

"I don't want to hurt them," Ranma whispered.

"That's no what I asked you Ranma."

Resuming their walk forward and Hikaru kept up beside him, Ranma started counting off on his finger. "First there is Ucchan. My pop took off with her family's okiyamaki cart as the doury when I was six or so. He left her behind. About a half a year ago she found me at Furinkan High. I didn't know she was a girl till we fought then. Up to that time I always thought she was my best pal - a guy - and I still consider her my best pal but not in the loving kind of way."

Hikaru remained silent for Ranma to continue. She wanted to hear the whole story before making any judgment.

"Next was the Chinese amazon Shampoo. I first met up with her after I was cursed at Jusenkyo. My pops, thinking with his stomach as always, ate the first prize of some contest she had just won. To deal with the problem and save our hides, I challenged her for first place. Naturally I won, but turns out that if a girl outsider beats an amazon, the amazon has to kill the outsider."

"Didn't you say she was your fiance though?"

"Yup. Later on in Japan she tracked me down, and I accidentally beat her as a guy. This changed things, and then she was bound by amazon law to marry me. After that things were just as bad as if she was trying to kill me, always drugging or trying to kill my other fiances with me getting caught in the middle. THEN, there is her curse where she turns into a c-c-ca... furry thing."

"Cat? What's so bad about that." Hikaru raised her eyebrows.

Ranma shivered, "Ya, those things. I don't really want to talk about it, lets just say I want to avoid those at all costs." Taking in a breath to calm his nerves, "SO, you could say Shampoo isn't really the best choice for a long term relationship. If only I could find a way to let her and Ukyo go back home without hurting their honor, things would be less crazy."

"You mentioned Kodachi, which makes three. What about the fourth?"

"Akane Tendo, an arranged marriage by our parents. You faced her in the Spring of Eterna. I don't really know what I was thinking around that tomboy. We would have those happy moments that would always get interrupted, or most the time we fought. Now that I've had time to think here in Cephiro, I don't think things probably would have worked out between us."

The two of them finally caught up with Mokona, and walked in silence. The vegetation was starting to give way to hardier grasses as the terrain changed to granite. Mokona started to pick up the pace, and like slowly boiling a frog, the two began to run without realizing it. Ahead, two figures were seen sitting at a campfire. One had a large staff, the other a sword.

Hikaru's eyes grew wide with recognition, "Clef and Ferio!"

Ranma leaned down in mid stride and picked up Hikaru. Picking up the speed to full, Hikaru's long pigtail flapped over Ranma's shoulder and he laid his full speed to the campsite. He skidded to a stop in front of the mage. "Yo! How's it going?"

Clef and Ferio had stood up.

"Glad you could come. I have grave news," Clef approached the two. By then, Ranma had let down Hikaru, who wasn't afraid by now of jumping through the air or of the scenery whizzing by while in Ranma's care.

Hikaru feared the worse, "What happened? Did Zagato murder the princess?"

Clef shook his head, "Far from that - Zagato wouldn't even think of doing such a thing. Instead, I believe something has happened to your friends, Fuu and Umi. I felt something that cut me off from sensing them entirely. I don't know where they are."

Ranma balled his fist, "Damn, that moron Zagato probably attacked them just after we left." He almost turned to run the entire journey back into the middle of the forest when Clef spoke.

"We must get to the mashin first, then we can consider saving your friends. Zagato is far to strong to consider approaching right now," Clef pointed to the volcano. "I can get us to the volcano, from there it will be up to Hikaru to awaken the mashin."

"Then what are we waiting for? Let's go!" Ranma was getting impatient.

Raising his staff above his head, "Creature! I summon thee!" The end glowed brightly, and a vortex swirled. From it, the same bird creature that the magic knights had ridden before emerged. It flapped its large wings twice before settling.

It lowered its head to allow Hikaru to carress its beak, "Hello! Nice to see you again. Would you take us to the volcano where the rune god is?"

The creature knodded twice, chirping. All four and Makona hopped on its back. Lifting off, dust and ash around them bellowed up in the sparce landscape. Turning, it flew close to the ground. Ranma loved the thrill of the ride, nearly standing in his excitement. This was what he strived for during his art - total freedom in the air. Hikaru was a little more frightened, and hung on to Ranma's shirt tightly. Before, they were high above the landscape and probably moving just as fast, but now the closeness of the ground and the turns around the towering rock pillars made it seem they were going much faster. Ferio simply closed his eyes tightly, he wasn't used to riding such creatures and preferred to get it over with. Clef observed their surroundings with a look of indifference - after 800 years backing him, this wasn't something new.

Hikaru eventually started to relax, and started to enjoy the ride along with Ranma. Before long, the bird creature glided down to a cave entrance.

Climbing down first, Clef started walking to the entrance, "We are here. The shrine is just inside."

As soon as the rest were down, Clef returned the creature to rest in his staff. The four ran inside, mostly to keep up with Hikaru and Ranma in their excitement.

Suddenly, the tunnel opened up to the internal expanse of the volcano. Around them, the outcropping dived into the depths - shrouded by fog or other gases. Directly in front of their platform, large metal doors ten stories high or more. Gold lined the edges.

"Whoa," Ranma looked around.

Approaching the doors, Hikaru reached out to touch the gold trim. All of a sudden, the doors cracked open and tendrals of fire reached out around Hikaru.

Ranma didn't waste a second, believing it to be a monster. He leaped to intercept Hikaru from being pulled in, "Oh no you don't! Let go of Hikaru now!"

Feeling the intense heat, he realized it wouldn't be best to grab Hikaru through the wreathing flames. His tactical mind put together what he did back in the forest when they were trying out their magic, and decided to try a variation.

"Hyruu shotan ha revised! Horizontal!" Ranma twisted his arms in a spiral, getting dangerously close to the heat. It didn't help that he was on a collision course with them. Angling his body, he flipped over Hikaru and rotated his body with the spiral to complete it.

Immediately, the source of the flamed was pushed back. The tornado propelled Ranma and Hikaru back. Inside, the source of the flames took note of the disturbance and examined this unknown factor protecting its magic knight - what it found interested it very much.

Hikaru had gone into a trance the moment the flames had touched her, and was broken out of it just as fast. "What happened?"

She then noticed that they were sailing toward one of the jutting pillars above a deep crevice - with nothing else around it but the hazy red pit. Ranma reached out to catch her, and pushed off the side of the pillar upward. He was already looking toward their next point, and bounced off it just as easily. Finally, they touched down on the ground beside Ferio and Clef. Ferio was wide eyed at Ranma's acrobatics and that strange attack that he pulled off against the flames.

Clef was wide eyed at Ranma interferring with the rune god - and him being successful in his attempt!

Before either could speak, the doors swung wide open. The same flames as before came out in greater numbers, angling around Clef and Ferio harmlessly. This time, they persued both Ranma and Hikaru.

Hikaru tried to dodge one, but one to her right caught her as she moved into it. She immediately fell into the trance once more. Ranma jumped straight up, and angled his body to barely miss another. Surprise dominated his expression he realized he was a gonner as four other tendrals of flame converged in on him with no way to escape. As he raised his arms to block and be severely burned, he tried to use his time aura to slow down their advance but again was shocked when it did no good.

His mind entered a fog the moment the flames touched.

Back on the ground Clef and Ferio watched. Ferio was about to take action when Clef put a hand on the swordsman's shoulder, shaking his head to not interfere.

As the door closed, the two were left alone with Mokona. "All we can do now is wait."

---------------

Hikaru found herself suspended in midair, violent and rapidly moving flames wrapped around her. Flares occasionally looped out from the walls, and the seemingly infinite flaming pit below her. Yet, she wasn't afraid.

"Young one," a voice echoed in the chamber. Hikaru turned toward it, face to face with a flaming head. It resembled a wolf, or lion - and for the briefest of moments she could see a resemblance to her family pet which was half dog, half wolf. Around it was a mane of flames. It wasn't the head, nor the mane that drew Hikaru's attention but was its eyes. They were narrow and cold as the flames licking around her were hot, and seemed to peer into the depths of her soul.

"You have weathered many enemies to come before me, why does thou wish to become a magic knight?"

The question reverberated in her heart, forcing it to spill forth its secrets. Even if she had wanted to lie, the magic of the entity in front of her force the truth. "I need to protect my friends and those around me. The people of Cephiro are suffering, and by protecting my friends I can protect them too."

Rayearth nodded its head, "If you should don my power, how would you perform these tasks?"

"The people that are destroying Cephiro are strong, and I admit I can not perform these tasks alone. Perhaps if I can help Fuu, Umi, Ranma, and the others with the power we can do more." Hikaru finished.

"We shall see young one," and with a pulse, Hikaru once again fell under the semiconscious spell and fell back, her eyes staring outward void of awareness.

On Hikaru's right about twenty meters, Ranma began to stir as he felt whatever was keeping his mind in the clouds lift. He tried to get into a battle stance, as he realized the flames were all around him, "Who is there?! Leave Hikaru alone and fight me!"

"I am not here to harm you or the other, I am Rayearth."

A chuckle could be heard, and the vision of Rayearth became visible. "You have a fire and determination that is unrivaled, and you would gladly put yourself in harms way to protect others."

Ranma remained silent, trying to move his body that was limp and unresponsive to his requests. Yet, he struggled to try different mediative techniques behind the scene to regain control.

"Why?" Rayearth asked.

This time Ranma frowned, "I don't want to hurt others, since they could be my friend. I only fight to train harder be stronger. 'Sides, it is the right thing to do."

Rayearth narrowed its eyes, "We shall see."

With this, Ranma and Hikaru were wrapped in flames more intense than before. While enveloped, they regained control of their bodies and were rushed toward the shrine doors that were just starting to open.

Side by side, they were deposited just outside. The enormous doors slammed shut, causing a few loose stalagmites to fall from the ceiling into the pit around them.

"So, I'm glad you could make it magic knight," a monotone male voice said in the haze.

It was cleared by a strange wind to reveal the white haired man from before in the citadel. Ranma and Hikaru recognized him, but this time they felt a distinct wrongness about the man.

"I'm afraid your quest ends here," Innova raised his right hand which contained a black crystal. It lanced out a beam, which Hikaru and Ranma easily dodged. It struck a boulder behind them, which disappeared.

"Hey! I thought you were our friend!" Ranma yelled out. Both him and Hikaru by now had summoned their swords, and were ready to defend or attack.

"Ally, ha! I was merely trying to infiltrate your little group," Innova tossed the crystal up and caught it. "My master Zagato does not wish to have the magic knights perform their duty according to the legend, and so it is my desire to see that his wishes are completed to the fullest."

Hikaru looked around and realization hit, "What have you done with Clef and Ferio?!"

The neutral face that Innova had before changed to a slight grin, "Done? I haven't harmed them if that is what you are asking."

Ranma eyed the dark crystal suspiciously, which Innova noticed.

"Yes, they are here."

Hikaru and Ranma had shocked expressions on their faces, not sure how to react to the proclamation. If true, Innova was effectively holding all the cards with their friends hostage.

"Along with your three other friends from the forest."

This was the last straw for Ranma, "You give that here!" He jumped at Innova, hoping to snatch the item back like he did with the phoenix pill from Cologne. Innova teleported out of the way, and reappeared on the other side of the chamber.

Hikaru noticed him reappearing, "Ranma! On the other side!"

She felt helpless as Ranma played a hopeless game of tag. Finally, Ranma landed next to her, panting. "The moron just won't sit still enough for me to get near."

Innova then appeared behind them, "I have you now." He then sent an energy blast into Hikaru's back, soliciting a howl of pain from her. Ranma swung his sword backward and low, aiming for Innova's legs where a hit wouldn't be fatal, but the space was empty. The compressed air from the swing was great enough to cause the rocks in the path of his swing to crack.

Tears of pain flowed from Hikaru's eyes, but she struggled to stand back up using her sword as support. Ranma rushed to her, examining the wound and found it had burned a good portion of the skin on her back.

Narrowing his eyes, he concentrated, "Aura of equilibrium." Immediately, he felt a burning pain on his back as the magic began to transfer Hikaru's injury partially to him. He also started to feel his energy start to drain.

Hikaru on the other hand felt renewed energy and reduced pain, and was able to breath much easier. Yet, she still felt her strength ebbing.

Innova laughed from the other side of the platform, "Touching, but it won't last forever. The blast not only burns the victim, but destroys them from the inside out."

Ranma growled and dashed to try and strike Innova, "I won't lose!" He continued to maintain the link with Hikaru, hoping to end the battle and hopefully break the Innova's spell on Hikaru quickly.

"Ranma, don't worry about me!" Hikaru cried out. "Save the others! Even if I'm gone, we need the other two mashin and Clef to save Cephiro!"

Fed up with Ranma's stubbornness, she positioned herself on the edge of the pit to get as close to the action as possible. Innova teleported to a point in front of her, but with his back turned.

"FLARE ARROW!" Hikaru unleashed the attack, then regretted it as she stumbled back. Her stomach lurched, bringing bile to her mouth that she barely contained.

Ranma swung out again and tried to grab for the crystal, missing both. "Hikaru! I'm not gonna lose any of you. Ranma Saotome never loses, especially when it counts." In his mind though, he was struggling to find a weakness in Innova's teleporting pattern.

One more miss, and he then spotted it. Just as Innova disappeared, the place where he appeared was a shifting of the dust on the stone pillar just before Innova materialized. "Gotcha."

Innova smirked and teleported one more time. Ranma noted the shifting of a pebble, he changed directions as fast as he could.

On the other side of the clearing, Hikaru knew it would be fruitless to change the martial artists mind. Instead of struggling to break the link, she concentrated on giving Ranma as much of her power through the equilibrium link as she could to save the others - even at the expense of her own life.

Just as Innova appeared, Ranma stabbed forward with a a sudden burst of speed. Shock was evident on Innova's face as his arm was impaled by the sword he was just avoiding a few seconds earlier.

"Kachu kenshin amaguriken!" Ranma repeatedly punched Innova in the face, his head jerking from side to side as flesh impacted flesh. At the end of the slavo, he quickly retrieved the crystal from the loosened grip.

Innova gasped out, "Zagato, I have failed." He then disappeared clutching his arm.

Ranma hopscotched the columns back to Hikaru, only to find her face down on the rocks. "Hikaru!"

Feeling the aura spell he had with her, he poured everything he had into it. Also laying a hand on her shoulder, he tried to channel his ki into her. "Don't leave me now! We won... we... won." Feeling Hikaru's breath start to taper, Ranma prepared to channel his all into her to revive her. "This may kill me, but it if it will save her..."

All of a sudden, the doors to the shrine blasted open. "STOP!"

Ranma was thrown back, with hardly any strength to withstand such a gust of wind.

"Magic knight and guardian, you have proven yourself." At this, flames came out to envelope Ranma, Hikaru and the crystal.

Ranma and Hikaru levitated, flames absorbing into their armor transforming them. Their swords also evolved, the handles expanding and the blades slightly longer.

Finally as they were touching down, the flames released the spell on the black crystal releasing the individuals trapped inside and healing everyone's wounds. Umi's and Fuu's armor also grew. As everyone - Ranma, Hikaru, Fuu, Umi, Clef, Presea and Ferio - they began to regain a feel for their surroundings they looked up at the shrine doors.

Inside, a huge shape came out of the flames. Clef pointed at it with his staff, "Rayearth, rune god of fire and heart!"

"Magic knight, you have proven yourself worthy of donning me. However the time is not right for you to wear me, until you become a true magic knight. You, guardian Ranma Saotome, you have proven yourself but have much to learn. I shall give you a gift, which will only come to fruition once you learn more about thyself and why you fight to gain strength."

At this, Rayearth dissolved into a beam of red, absorbed into Hikaru's chest piece. It did however leave behind a pulsing sphere of light, that was absorbed into Ranma's glove.

"Umi! Fuu! I was so worried about you!" Hikaru cried with happiness and hugged the shocked magic knights.

Ranma smirked and stood by Ferio and watched the girls bond. A stray thought occurred to him, "Hey, where is the marshmellow?"

A 'puu' was heard behind him, "Get back here you! Where were you during this whole thing?!"

Clef chuckled, glad the group was finally back together and they could begin their journey for the other mashin on the other side of Cephiro - the rune god Selece. He was also saddened, the group being brought one more step closer to their true confrontation.