Disclaimer (which from a legal standpoint isn't worth squat, but since everyone else does it far from me the thought to want to break with tradition):

None of the characters, situations, or locations belongs to me, bla bla bla… The only thing I get out of this is the satisfaction that I might have entertained a few people.

And before I forget, my good friend Borat Sagdiyev wants to add something. "If readers not like or not review, and if fic not success, Dumbledork will be execute." "Thank you, Borat. I don't think the readers care, but it was a nice thought. And now, on with the show."

CHAPTER 1

Everyone was frozen in place except for the giant who, with a mighty stomp, caused a heavy earthquake that threw everyone to the ground and created a large fissure starting at his foot and continuing for several kilometers. All the people present were shocked when they saw the very large fissure that now marred the landscape. Not taking time to check if the knights were injured or not Ranma made good use of the general confusion and as the dust that had yet to settle he had the perfect cover to run over to the girl, grab her and sprinted away from those ruthless killers. When he got back to Kasumi he grabbed her too and ran away at top speed, leaving a dust cloud in his wake.

Only when the village was no longer in sight did he stop and let go of the two girls.

Taking a closer look at the grime covered, shivering girl, Ranma's heart went out to her. She had just seen her world crumble and was in dire need of comforting. He vowed then and there that he'd do everything in his power to make her feel better. He didn't know what losing one's family felt like, but he knew about loneliness, having grown up with only his father as a constant presence, being tortured in the name of martial arts training, and feeling miserable quite often. No way would he let this sweet little girl experience something similar.

"Who… who are you?" Rydia asked after she had recovered from her surprise.

"A friend," Ranma smiled at her. "Don't worry. I got you away from those evil men who wanted to kill you. You're safe now."

The greenette relaxed a bit but didn't put her guard down until she saw Kasumi smiling at her. Some considered Kasumi's smile to be one of the most powerful weapons in the world. One of her serene smiles directed at anyone in Nerima was generally enough to stop any fight. And once again it had worked like a charm. Her frowns, however, were even more dangerous, but they were so rare that most considered them a myth. But that was mostly because everyone who had ever been on the receiving end of one of her disapproving frowns was too ashamed to talk about the experience; they knew that they probably deserved it.

Having had time to collect herself, everything that had happened that day hit the young girl with full force and she started to cry. Kasumi took the kid in her arms and gently pat her on the back. "There, there. Just let it all out. You'll feel much better afterwards."

Kasumi's calming tone didn't miss its intended purpose and after several minutes of soothing words the tears stopped flowing until the young girl was only sobbing. Kasumi kneeled down and looked into her sad eyes. "Now, why don't you tell us your name? I am Kasumi Tendo and this is Ranma Saotome."

Ranma winked at the girl and she gave him a small smile. "I… I am Rydia, and I live in this village. I'm 12 years old."

'Cute' was the first thought that came to Ranma's mind. 'She'll break many a boy's heart once she's older'. His smile disappeared from his face as he thought about the traumatic experience that the poor girl had just gone through. 'Bastards! How could they do something like that to this poor child'?

"Well, Rydia, that's a very pretty name," Kasumi smiled at her. "Why don't you tell us what happened? And maybe you could give us more information about that giant we saw?"

Rydia hesitated at first, but these strangers hadn't given her any reason to distrust them. She knew in her heart that she could trust them; and they had saved her life after all. If they were evil people they would have let the soldiers kill her. Deciding to follow her heart she answered with a timid nod, still a little bit intimidated by the pair. "His name is Titan. His kind is known under many different names: 'call', 'summon', 'guardian force', 'esper', and some more I don't remember. They live in a different dimension, but the people from my village can summon them when we need their help. Almost everyone in the village has that ability. Titan is my personal guardian. Every time a new summoner is born one of the summons automatically becomes its guardian. Titan is mine, like the Mist Dragon was my mother's."

She had to pause for a bit after mentioning her mother. It still hurt so much to think about what had happened to her, and it probably would for a very long time. However, she decided to dismiss those depressing thoughts for the moment; she'd grieve at a later time, when she was far away from the soldiers and could safely do so. And telling Ranma and Kasumi about her magic would distract her from her sorrow. "It's a miracle I was even able to summon him. I shouldn't have enough mana to do that."

Both Nerimans were patiently listening to the young girl's tale, and although there was a lot he didn't understand, Ranma imagined his rivals' reactions if he used Titan in a fight against them. Boy, would they crap their pants. He's never before heard of 'mana' and wondered what it was.

"What is mana?" The pigtailed boy asked and Kasumi nodded; she had never heard that word before either.

Rydia blinked. She had never met people who didn't know what mana was, but then she had to admit that she hadn't met many foreigners in her life. Her parents rarely let her leave the village alone and she'd never been further than to Damcyan Castle. So, as far as she knew, there might have been countries without magic users. She just shrugged and explained what she knew. "Mana is a kind of energy that flows through our bodies and allows us to use magic. People with large mana reserves can use more spells or a higher level of spells than people with small mana reserves."

She looked the two strange people with suspicion in her eyes. "How come you have never heard of mana?"

"Well, we're not really from around here, you know," Ranma chuckled nervously. "And that's putting it lightly," he mumbled under his breath.

"What was that?" The green haired girl inquired.

"What Ranma is trying to say is that we're from another world or another dimension," Kasumi intervened.

"SERIOUSLY?" Rydia shouted in surprise.

The brunette nodded. "I think it would be best to explain how we got here and why we're so interested in these summons. We met one of them an hour ago."

This excited the greenette even more. "Really? Which one of them?"

"He called himself Ifrit," Kasumi answered. "And it's because of him that we got stranded here."

"I know him and have even met him a few times, but I don't have a summoning contract with him yet, but some of the other villagers did though. I know that he is very proud and hotheaded."

"I noticed," Ranma grumbled.

"How did you meet him?" Rydia wanted to know. "And what does he have to do with you being here?"

"EVERYTHING!" Ranma shouted in anger, frightening the young girl.

"RANMA! Calm down!" Kasumi ordered and Ranma complied immediately. "She then turned back to Rydia. "Don't mind him. He's a little bit stressed out at the moment. He's usually a veryy nice person." Then she sighed. "A very annoying man named Happosai had a summoning scroll. I don't know where he got it from, but he used it to summon Ifrit. Well, Ifrit was not amused and took offense at being ordered around by a person who didn't have a valid contract. He killed Happosai and disappeared in a portal. Unfortunately, the portal created a powerful vortex that sucked us in. We lost consciousness I think, and when we came to we were outside this village. And we have no idea how we can get back hope. Maybe one of the summons could help us."

Rydia didn't know what to make of this story. That was the first time she ever heard of a summoning scroll, or that a summoner was killed by a summon. As far as she knew summoning couldn't be learned. You were born with the gift. "I understand. I would gladly ask Titan, but unfortunately I don't have the mana to summon him. I don't even know how I was able to summon him when I was attacked by those two evil men. And Chocobo, my other summon, doesn't speak. "

"Don't you have an idea who could help us get home, Rydia?" Ranma asked.

The young girl though about it and shook her head. "Sorry, but I don't know anyone." She thought about it some more and then an idea came to her. "Well, I don't know anyone personally, but maybe you could travel to Mysidia and ask the people there. The magical academy and the magical library are both situated in Mysida, and there's probably no other place where you can learn more about magic. Unfortunately I don't know where it is or how to get there. All I can tell you is that you'll have to cross the ocean to get there."

"Is there a town around here where we could ask?" Kasumi inquired.

"Yes there is," Rydia confirmed. "The desert town of Kaipo."

"Well then, let's go!" Ranma vigorously raised his fist as he tried to lighten the mood and keep his companions from worrying too much.

"Me… me too?" Rydia timidly asked.

"Well, of course," Kasumi huffed. How could the child even ask. "We can't leave you here all alone. What if the soldiers come back to finish the job? And what kind of monsters would we be if we abandoned a child. No, you're coming with us. We'll take you to your nearest relatives. Don't worry. Ranma is very strong. He'll make sure that nothing happens to us."

"But... But I don't have any family left that could take me in. Everyone I knew lived here. I'm sorry to be a burden," she apologized and the tears started to flow.

Kasumi kneeled and hugged the girl. "I'm so sorry. No one should have to suffer that much. And you're not a burden. We'd be glad to have you with us. Any place is better than here and it's always more pleasant and safe to travel in a group. Ranma, you agree with me, don't you?"

"Absolutely. Of course you'll come with us. We won't abandon you."

Rydia was relieved. She looked at the destroyed village one last time, prayed for the souls of the departed, and left with Ranma and Kasumi.

Ranma had considered giving the poor villagers a proper burial, but Kasumi disagreed. The pigtailed listened to her arguments and had to admit that she was right. It was more important to get Rydia to safety in case the assassins returned to finish the job. And they didn't want to put an innocent little girl in danger.

On the way to Kaipo the trio was exchanging information about their respective worlds, and while Rydia was very interested in the technological wonders that existed on Earth the Nerimans wanted to learn more about magic.

To Ranma magic sounded a lot like ki. Just like ki it flows through the body and can be used for various purposes. And if it really was similar he had no doubt he could master it real fast. He may have had some bad experiences with various magical and cursed artifacts, but he was never one to refuse learning new techniques that could give him the edge in a fight.

"Magic really seems to have a lot of importance in this world," Kasumi mused. "It's very rare where we come from and I've never met a real mage before."

"Oh yes, it is," the greenette confirmed. "Magic is used all the time and almost everyone can use at least a little bit of it. But most people aren't either very talented or they don't have the patience and determination, or are too lazy to put some serious effort into improving their talents. You see, learning and mastering magic takes a lot of time, and only few mages learn more than the most basic spells. And there are also the people who might become great mages but prefer the fighting arts to the arcane arts."

Ranma's eyes lit up at once after hearing that. Fighters meant new techniques to learn. He couldn't wait to meet some of them. Maybe this fiasco had some good points after all. But getting home was still his priority, although the opportunity to learn some new moves was a nice bonus. He was sure that all the fiancées, rivals, and other idiots were probably already missing their fiancé/cash cow/scapegoat and tearing down the neighborhood in search of Kasumi and him. Thinking about it he wondered why he did want to get home at all. Oh, right, there was Kasumi to consider, and he was not his father. He was not a coward who ran away from his responsibilities or ditched them on someone else. And maybe this new adventure far away from the usual nuisances would give him the much needed reprieve to come up with some ideas to solve his problems.

As they were walking through the grassy plain Rydia opened up some more and regaled her travel companions with stories about life in the village and magic. Ranma and Kasumi were very attentive listeners and really fascinated by the subject. After hearing more about the magic of this world Ranma's lingering doubts were completely set at rest. There were magical artifacts in this world too, but most of them had benign effects. They were so engrossed by the native girl's tales that they didn't notice the trap they were walking into until it was sprung. A large group of strange little demons jumped out of concealment and surrounded the trio.

Ranma, however, was experienced enough that his danger sense kicked in as soon as the creatures appeared. He immediately pushed both girls to the floor and took up a defensive stance. "Stay down! We're under attack!"

The young martial artist was quite surprised when he saw what their attackers looked like since he had never seen creatures like those. The trio was surrounded by about 14-15 very short, two legged humanoid things wearing green colored smurf hats, at least that's what they reminded him of, green shirts, and brown trousers. All of them were wielding curved daggers. However, the two things that stood out most about them were their very long noses and elfin ears that poked through holes in their hats. He had no idea what they were, but unfortunately for the poor Goblins he mistook them for demons. They didn't look like much, but the martial artist knew from experience not to judge a book by its cover as Happosai and Cologne had the habit of proving on a regular basis; and this was especially true with demons.

He didn't know much about the infernal beings, but he had met some supernatural creatures during his stay with the Tendos, albeit most of them had been rather harmless and mostly mischievous. He'd never had to deal with real demons before, but he had met demon hunters on his training journey and so he knew that they really existed… and that they were very dangerous. And the malice that showed in the beady eyes of the creatures in front of him was all the proof he needed to confirm the veracity of the stories he'd heard. These weren't his rivals looking for a friendly (or not so friendly) spar, but deadly enemies that killed without remorse and wouldn't stop until their bloodlust had been satiated. He knew that there would probably be no quarter asked or given. He would have to kill them if he wanted to protect the girls.

"Looka here, boys," one of the creatures said. "Dinner is served. And they look really tasty…. Especially the girls. Probably very tender too. It's been what? Two weeks since we last had some human flesh; and the meat was rather stringy too. Now these on the other hand… mmmm, delicious."

While the demons were openly drooling and joking, sure of their numerical superiority Ranma had not been idle; before the enemies could react he was already on them and had hit one of the denizens of Hell with a full strength punch to the face, tearing the head off and killing the creature on the spot. This surprised the pigtailed fighter as demons were supposed to be notoriously hard to kill and very resilient. Not looking a gift horse in the mouth he jumped with a flying kick at another one of the creatures, favoring speed over power since he knew now how week they were. The creature had been just as surprised as the rest of them and didn't even have the time to protect itself, not expecting such a quick reaction from their prey. The kick wouldn't even have fazed Ryoga, but these little critters definitely didn't have the Lost Boy's toughness and it was sent flying into a tree at full velocity and wouldn't be getting up.

Rydia had also attacked in the meantime, proving that she knew a thing or two about fighting and if the three frozen creatures were any indication, she was really good with magic.

Ranma and Rydia managed to kill two more demons each before the critters managed to mount even a semblance of defense, Ranma with his fists and Rydia with a lightning spell. Only 8 of the creatures remained, and they were obviously not very happy campers if their angry snarls were any indication.

"They are weak for demons, don't you think?" Ranma asked his young companion.

"Those aren't demons," the greenette explained, "but Goblins. Very nasty creatures that love to kill and have a taste for human flesh, but they are only really dangerous in groups."

"I see. Well, let's finish them off. I have no plans to end up in anyone's cooking pot today."

And before Rydia had time to answer he was off again and had kicked one of the now named creatures sideways in the head, and if the cracking noise was any indication, also broken its neck. But the other Goblins had recovered enough to launch an attack of their own. Two of them went for Rydia, who was protecting Kasumi, while three others attacked Ranma simultaneously.

Rydia just had time enough for one more spell before the two remaining Goblins were on her and Kasumi. She blasted the one in front of her with a lightning bolt, but couldn't prevent the other one from attacking the defenseless brunette. The frightened ponytailed girl looked at the ugly creature in shock, but just before the blade connected she subconsciously evaded the deadly blow by a hair's breadth and retaliated with a punch to the monster's long nose. If the cracking noise and the now bent nose weren't signs enough, the loud curses and shouts of pain coming from the creature proved without a doubt that the blow must have hurt a lot.

The monster ran away all the while insulting Kasumi for disfiguring him. It didn't get far however since an ice spell quickly ended its life and its pain at the same time. Kasumi was the first one surprised by her actions. She had thought that her martial arts reflexes had left her a long time ago, ever since she had stopped practicing the family art. She hadn't been a very diligent student, but her father had insisted that all of his daughters learnt at least enough to protect themselves successfully. And she was happy to see that her hard work had not been in vain.

Ranma couldn't believe his eyes. He had witnessed the whole action and was really impressed by the brunette. She wasn't on Akane's level of course, but the precise and well placed attack, without using too much force, showed him that she could become a very good martial artist.

But he had his own enemies to take care of and couldn't let himself get distracted too much. A fighter who lost his focus in a battle was as good as dead. But it was obvious that the gentle girl had at least learned more than just basic martial arts and knew how to protect herself. A novice couldn't have used such an advanced attack.

Concentrating fully on the fight once again, even if he didn't really need it against such pathetic monsters, he had no trouble evading all of their attacks. But he granted them extra point for their tenacity. They attacked him relentlessly from all sides and he even had to block some punches, but their blows were so weak he barely felt them. He grabbed one of them by its throat and crushed its windpipe before throwing the lifeless body to the floor. However, this moment of inattention was what the Goblin that had stayed out of the attack had been waiting for. The pigtailed boy heard one of the creatures shout "GOBLIN PUNCH!" before his as the only thing the pigtailed boy heard before his body was subjected to several hundred punches. The blows barely stung since he was used to much more powerful attacks, but the surprise attack distracted him enough for a knife strike to penetrate his defenses and stab him in the leg.

Ranma cried out in pain, but the wound wasn't serious enough to take him out of the fight, and before the Goblin could finish the job the martial artist's retaliatory punch squished it like a bug. With its death only one enemy remained as the one who used the special attack had been fried with a lightning bolt in the meantime. The martial artist saw the fear in the creature's eyes but he didn't show any mercy. Barely slowed by the knife wound he grabbed the monster with both hands and broke it like a twig.

Ranma thought back to the fight and his actions. He had killed the goblins without remorse even after he was told that he wasn't fighting demons. And he felt no remorse. The monsters had had every intention of killing them and he acted in self defense. He knew that he wouldn't have forgiven himself if the girls had come to harm because of moral dilemmas. He knew through his conversations with Rydia that this was a cruel and merciless world with a kill or be killed mentality. But the people didn't have a choice if they wanted to avoid being overrun by the vicious monsters that roamed the world. And when he saw the young summoner fight he realized that she had been in battles before… and had killed if her lack of remorse was any indication. He had killed before, of course. But when he had been on the road with his father and they didn't have anything to eat, he had been forced more than once to hunt for food. And if he rationalized this fight he knew that he had done the right thing. With this group dead there would be less people killed.

Meanwhile, Rydia had joined him and cast a cure spell to heal the wound much to Ranma's and Kasumi's surprise. Especially Kasumi was entranced by the white spell and hoped that she could learn it too. That would really be a very useful skill to have back home and much cheaper than the huge quantity of bandages and band aids she needed to buy regularly to treat Ranma's frequent injuries. The pigtailed boy on the other hand was more interested in the versatility of magic; it could be used to attack, heal, and even summon monsters… and maybe even to cure his curse? He'd have to ask in Mysidia.

"WOW! That was great, Rydia," Ranma praised the young girl. "I'm very impressed. You are really strong. And your healing spell is really neat. I could have used someone like you after some of the fights I had."

"It was nothing," she humbly dismissed the praise, but her blushing face told another story. After all, Cure was such a simple spell and she had never been praised for something so basic, except by her mother when she had cast her first spell.

He then turned to Kasumi and stared at her like she was an interesting exhibit in a museum, much to the elder girl's discomfort. Fearing some form of rebuttal she was surprised to see him grin at her. "You really surprised me there, Kasumi. That was an excellently executed evasive action and punch. Where did you learn that?"

Kasumi looked down at her feet, finding the view very interesting. "I guess those were the last remnants from my father's martial arts lessons. Before my mother died my father trained the three of us. I was never as enthusiastic as Akane, but father insisted that all of us had to be at least good enough to protect ourselves from muggers and even martial artists. After my mother died I had other obligations, and since father didn't care any longer I stopped practicing altogether.

"Well, I think you did great. And I hope you'll start practicing again. This fight showed me that I can't protect you all the time, although I'll still do my best. And if you apply yourself you can easily surpass your sister. It's sad but it's the truth.

Kasumi shook her head. Ranma must have been joking. There's no way she could reach Akane's level, or at least not anytime soon.

While the two recent arrivals into this world were talking Rydia had sneaked away to go through the Goblins' pockets and to check the bushes around them. When the Nerimans noticed Rydia's absence they started panicking, but calmed down when they saw what the summoner was doing. "What are you doing?" Ranma asked, outraged by the girl's actions.

"Huh?" She asked confused, not understanding why the pigtailed boy would reprimand her.

"Stealing from the dead is not a very honorable action," Kasumi explained.

"Ah, I understand what you mean. But they are dead. They don't need the money, but we do. We need to buy a lot of things in town. Everyone does it. My mama used to say 'to the victor belong the spoils'. And they'd have done the same thing after killing us."

Ranma couldn't deny the veracity of that statement. They had nothing to their name but the clothes they were wearing, and since looting the dead didn't seem to faze Rydia at all, he realized once again how truly different this world was from his own.

"YES!" Rydia enthusiastically shouted. "Look what I've found?" She ran over to her new traveling companions and showed them the item. The thing looked rather unimpressive, but then, they didn't know much about this strange and unpredictable new world any the unidentified object might be more precious than they thought. It resembled an ofuda, but had the word 'tent' inscribed on its surface.

"What is it, Rydia?" Kasumi wanted to know.

"You don't have things like these in your world?" She asked and was surprised when they answered in the negative, but then she remembered that they had told her that magic was not very common in their world. "This is a magical seal. These seals are used to magically store large and cumbersome objects, and to make them easier to transport. Additionally the weight is reduced to almost nothing. This particular one contains a magical tent. The tents are vital to any group of adventurers since they increase the mana recovery rate and speed up the healing rate of injuries. If we use one of these our magic reserves replenish and our wounds heal at much faster pace than if we simply slept on the ground. They aren't very expensive, but we need to save as much money as possible if we want to survive. Oh, and take these." She handed both Kasumi and Ranma a dagger "I know they are low quality and rusty, but those were the only weapons I could find. If you have no use for them or prefer a different kind of weapon you can buy some in Kaipo. Their weapons shop has a rather large selection and you will probably find something you like"

"I don't need a weapon. As you can see I easily defeated those Goblin creatures without. My fists are my weapons."

"The Goblins are probably the weakest monsters that exist. They are only dangerous in groups. But what if we meet monsters with diamond hard skin, magical armor or that are poisonous to the touch. They can only be killed with magic or magical weapons. Every adventurer uses weapons or keeps them just in case."

Ranma and Kasumi nodded and Ranma once again saw the wisdom in the young girl's words. Once again he was reminded that they were not in Nerima and that the usual rules didn't apply. And in this hostile environment he'd better use every tool at his disposal to increase their chance of survival until they found a way home. Ranma had not much experience with daggers, but it was a versatile weapon and he was sure he could develop some dagger specific katas. It wasn't all that different from a combat knife, and even if Anything Goes relied mainly on unarmed combat Genma had at least given the pigtailed boy rudimentary training in all kinds of weapons. He'd get rid of the dagger as soon as he found a weapon he was comfortable with.

"I've also found some money. It's not a fortune but we can probably afford some protective equipment and better weapons for you. There were also some various potions and other useful items in their backpacks that might come in handy. But we should hurry up. At our current speed we'll need four more hours to arrive and I want to be in a safe place before it gets too dark and the more dangerous monsters come out."

Both Nerimans diligently followed the young girl. Ranma was reluctant at first since he was the better fighter and it should have been up to him to lead the group, but he was impressed by the girl's determination and adult behavior. But then, living in a world where you had to live in constant fear of becoming the next snack of a gigantic monster probably made the kids probably mature faster. Just as admirable was the fact that she hadn't become an emotional wreck after her mother's death, but had decided to make the murderers pay. Vengefulness and hate were not feelings Ranma would consider as healthy, but he was sure that with time the young girl would calm down a bit; and it was at least better than moping and turning into an emotional wreck, like Mr. Tendo had done after his wife's death. He pitied the young girl; he still had his two parents, and although they'd never win the parent of the year award he loved them nonetheless. Rydia was all alone in the world now. Except for Kasumi and him she had no one and it was Ranma's firm intention to protect her to the best of his abilities.

The pigtailed boy wasn't vengeful by nature but he completely agreed with Rydia; Baron needed to be stopped. But that was not his fight. His goal was to find a way home for both Kasumi's and his sake. He wouldn't be looking for trouble and let someone else play the hero for a change, but the problem was that trouble always seemed to find him. He had already suffered so many hardships in his short life, and how was he supposed to solve other people's problems if he wasn't even able to solve his own. But he knew that those were idle words and that he would help if he saw people in trouble.

Then he thought about Kasumi again and was still surprised by how well the brunette was taking all of this. He'd really expected her to go to pieces and be homesick from the get go, but she was holding up and even seemed to enjoy herself. He looked over to the girl, who was having a lively conversation with Rydia, and was perplexed to see the happiness she was radiating. He had never seen her so 'alive' in all the time he'd known her, except when she was listening to his stories. It was easy to see that she was obviously enjoying the adventure. She even giggled from time to time, something he'd rarely seen her do before.

Well, maybe they could explore the world for a bit. After all, they weren't really in a hurry and it would take some time for them to get home anyway. The only drawback was that their families were probably very worried or might even think they were dead. But with no swift means to return home there was nothing they could do anyway. Well, the pigtailed boy decided to stop worrying about it and enjoy his newfound freedom for a bit. Nerima would still be standing when they returned, or so he hoped.

The plains were slowly giving way to the desert as the lush vegetation receded to make way for plants that were better adapted to an arid climate. Just then the party stumbled upon a group of seven large monsters; two Desert Sahagin, three Flying Eyes and two Hundlegs. The Desert Sahagin is a red skinned, over two meter tall 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' lookalike. The Flying Eyes is a one meter fifty large butterfly with a wingspan of about two meters and has a very long proboscis, but what immediately catches the eye however are the large spots on the top part of each of its wings. Finally, the Hundlegs is a three meter long, brown-green centipede. The creatures hadn't seen them arrive, and in order to avoid an unnecessary and probably useless battle the trio tried to sneak past them. Unfortunately, Rydia stumbled over a stone and the noise had been loud enough to alert them of the party's presence. The monsters immediately turned around to check out the disturbance and attacked as soon as they had identified the intruders. Rydia had had just enough time to ready a spell. Ranma, dagger in hand, stood protectively in front of Kasumi. The monsters blindly launched a straight forward attack, not bothering with tactics.

Rydia's lightning bolt fried one of the butterflies and Ranma eviscerated one of the centipedes with his dagger. Before the remaining monsters reached them, Ranma had grabbed both girls and jumped over the incoming stampede. While still in the air he kicked one of the humanoid monsters in the neck with enough power to strike it down. After he had landed again he put both girls behind him and attacked once again. The monsters didn't even have time to turn around before there was a loud shriek and the second centipede fell down dead due to a well placed dagger strike in the belly. Unfortunately, the monsters were faster than Ranma had expected and, while he was still pulling his weapon out of the centipede, the remaining three monsters had almost reached Kasumi and Rydia, who they had identified as the weaker targets.

Ranma pursued the monsters, but realized that he wouldn't be fast enough to keep them away from the girls. And indeed, the beasts had reached the girls just as the pigtailed boy was catching up to them. Rydia didn't lose her cool and killed the remaining butterfly with an ice blast while the other two creatures attacked Kasumi. The brunette successfully blocked the butterfly's bite with her weapon, but unfortunately, this left her flank wide open, giving the Desert Sahagin a free shot. When Ranma saw this he got really desperate and jumped over the Sahagin's head, taking the blow that had been aimed at the older girl. The creature's claws were strong enough to leave some very deep gashes in the martial artist's back. The deep wound was bleeding abundantly and, knowing that he would lose consciousness soon due to excessive blood loss, the martial artist pulled all stops and bisected his attacker with a Kijin Raishuu Dan. Just as his eyes closed he saw Rydia's ice spell kill the last Flying Eyes.

As the summoner was about to run over to Ranma and Kasumi to heal the pigtailed boy, she saw a crying Kasumi cradling the teenager in her arms. "This is my fault," she cried. "If only I'd been stronger this wouldn't have happened. I guess the people are right. I really am only good for housework. If only I could heal people like Rydia; at least I would be good for something."

As Kasumi was bawling her eyes out she didn't notice that the hand she used to stem the blood flow with was glowing in a soothing white light and that Ranma's wound was rapidly closing up.

Rydia's eyes opened wide when she saw Kasumi heal Ranma and got very excited. "Look! Your right hand!" She shouted enthusiastically.

The startled girl did as she was told and was quite surprised when she noticed the halo of light encasing her hand slowly die out. When she removed her hand she only found pristine skin where the wound used to be. "What…? How…? I don't understand," she stammered.

"You just used magic, silly." The greenette enthusiastically shook Kasumi's hand. "Congratulations. You are a white mage."

Kasumi's tears dried up and were replaced by a radiant grin. Maybe she wasn't useless after all. Maybe she could finally be of some help to Ranma and not just a useless accessory or the victim of the week. Her younger sister already filled that last role well enough, she bitterly reflected. She really loved her sisters, but was exasperated by Nabiki's mercenary tendencies and Akane's temper tantrums. Maybe now was her time to shine and find her own place in the world… and she liked it. She vowed that things would change once she got home. She would assert herself and no longer accept the ungrateful role of a housekeeper she had taken on after her mother's death. Maybe she could continue her studies and even become a doctor. She'd always liked medicine and it might even give her the opportunity to use her newfound magical talent to help people and maybe even change the world for the better. But she was getting ahead of herself. First she needed to learn to control her new powers. Before she could get up Ranma had hugged and congratulated her too.

"You did it, Kasumi. You used magic." Doing some katas with his previously injured leg he was pleasantly surprised by the lack of pain. "It doesn't even hurt anymore. Thank you."

This meant a lot to the ponytailed girl as Ranma rarely praised anyone. In fact she was surprised by his complete lack of jealousy Ranma exhibited. More than once she had heard the martial artist's jealous and angry rants after having been defeated by a new move. But so far he had always won the rematch.

Ranma himself was a little surprised that he didn't feel even a little bit jealous, but then Kasumi deserved it. It was good to see her happy, and the pigtailed boy was sure that he'd learn some magic too. And the girl was much too likeable to be jealous of; and he liked to see her happy.

The brunette had so many questions and didn't give the summoner the chance to answer even one of them before she assaulted her with the next. "Rydia, do you think I might learn more spells? Maybe even some of the attack spells you used? And what about Ranma? Can he learn magic too? Oooh, I'm so excited. I want to learn more."

Kasumi was acting like a kid on a sugar high much to Ranma's surprise. This was a side of Kasumi he had never seen before, and he wondered if this carefree version of the eldest Tendo daughter was in fact the real Kasumi. Ever since he had started telling her about his adventures whenever they had been alone in the kitchen he had noticed that she couldn't maintain her 'yamato nadeshiko' mask all of the time, but that from time to time her real self manifested itself. He had to admit that he really liked this carefree version. He had always thought that the older girl had resigned herself to live the boring life of a housekeeper, but it seemed like he had been wrong. Seeing her like that he finally understood how unhappy and hopeless she must have been, a thing the both of them had in common. Ho vowed then and there that he would do anything in his power to make sure that Kasumi would never again have to give up her freedom.

Rydia had to laugh at the older girl's enthusiasm. "Calm down; calm down. Cure is the first and easiest spell a white mage learns, so you'll probably learn some more very soon. I'm more surprised that you managed to cast a spell without any previous instruction. You must be a natural. But I don't know if you'll be able to use black magic. Everyone is different. White magic is probably your primary magical specialization. And I don't see why Ranma shouldn't be able to learn magic too. But we should continue on our way. If you like I'll tell you more while we're walking. Oh, and before I forget, there's one monster we should avoid at all costs: the sand worm. It's the toughest creature in the desert and without some proper protective gear and decent weapons it will be very difficult to kill. My advice is to run away as soon as we see one."

Both Nerimans nodded their heads. Running away was something Ranma abhorred, but Rydia knew the region better than he did, and he would be a fool to disregard her point of view. And then there was Kasumi. The girl was courageous, no doubt about it, and even if she knew some magic now she was no fighter. His first priority was to protect the girls, and if that included running away from a fight, so be it.

As they resumed their trip to Kaipo they were attacked by a few more groups of monsters, but the poor creatures didn't stand a chance against the trio who had slowly learnt to work together as a cohesive team and were now successfully protecting each other's backs. Ranma and Kasumi had also seen Chocobo in action, the only summon Rydia could control at the moment. Chocobos are big birds and the primary mounts in Rydia's world. And their claws pack quite a wallop if the shredded monsters were any indication, but then the summon was not your standard Chocobo.

They also found some more items in the vicinity of the monsters; objects that had probably belonged to some unfortunate travelers who had either been killed or had run away in a panic. Their stash of useful and salable items had now grown to a decent size with a nice assortment of various potions, two tent seals, a few rusty daggers and, much to Rydia's joy, a Goblin stone which granted her the ability to summon a Goblin. Not the strongest summon by far, but strong enough to kill weak monsters. The best part was it didn't require much mana to summon and that the young summoner could easily control it.

They had also encountered one of the infamous sand worms and even Ranma had been intimidated by the monstrous sight. The sand worm is a four to five meter long green worm with ugly purple protrusions growing from its body. However, the most frightening feature of the monster is the large, intimidating maw filled with very long and very pointy teeth dripping saliva. Rydia's description really hadn't done it justice. Ranma knew that the summoner had told him to run away, but he had to try at least one attack before he did so. No one was invulnerable and that was also true for monsters. The pigtailed boy attacked it with a swift attack, but the dagger broke on contact, and his punches were just as ineffective as the rubbery skin absorbed the impact force completely. Noticing Kasumi's panicked look the teenager decided to swallow his pride and he did the sensible thing. He followed Rydia's advice, grabbed both girls and ran away. But he vowed that once he had a good weapon the creature would bite the dust. He ran for a while and after making sure that they'd shaken off the worm he put the girls down and they resumed their journey to Kaipo.

"That was a close one." The martial artist remarked. "I wonder what that thing is made of. I had the impression I was punching a rubber tire. You were right, Rydia. I need a weapon. We all do. And once in town I'll try and find something more durable than these crappy daggers."

The rest of the journey was rather uneventful if one does not take the occasional ambush into account. Thankfully, they hadn't been attacked by another sand worm. They were relieved when they saw the town in the distance: Ranma, because he was hungry and wanted to fill his stomach, and Rydia and Kasumi because they were spent and out of mana. Kasumi had to use her heal spell a few more times after, and she was completely spent. While Rydia had enough mana to cast many, the brunette was not so lucky. The greenette reassured the older girl that it was just a matter of practice, but didn't mention that their recent fights already increased her mana capacity dramatically. She thought it would be a nice surprise to let the girl discover it for herself. If she had to take a guess she'd say that new white mage's reserves should have at least quadrupled.

When they saw the town in the distance they were relieved. The girls were panting heavily, but Ranma was proud of them. They hadn't complained even once, but Ranma was sure that it must have been a gruesome experience for them. He was used to hard training and harsh weather conditions, but the scorching desert heat must have been a very trying experience for the two girls. Rydia was still very young after all and Kasumi had probably never been in the desert before. Thank God they had found some watering holes along the road and some of the monsters had food on them or else the girls would have collapsed by now. He was sure of that.

When the group was but 500 meters away from Kaipo they were stopped by a group of six men wearing armor and pointing their swords at them. The man in front, obviously the leader, was wearing ornate green armor while the five men flanking him were wearing plain red.

"Halt! The leader ordered. "By order of His Majesty, the King of Baron, hand over the summoner! The summoners of Mist have been declared enemies of the crown and every last one of them is to be executed. Refusal to comply will be considered an act of treason and the offenders will suffer the same fate."

That didn't sit well with Ranma. Rydia was under his protection and he couldn't imagine the young girl having done anything to offend the king. Something smelled fishy, and Ranma was determined to find out the reason behind this genocide. Fighting and dying in a war was one thing, but destroying a peaceful and isolated village was another matter altogether. The king of Baron reminded him a lot of some of the worst dictators in his world, and especially Adolf Hitler, and he'd rather die than strike a deal with someone like that. No! Rydia was his friend and he'd do everything in his power to spare her from the fate that befell her fellow villagers.

"Forget it. I'll never hand her over. Haven't you done enough already? You've destroyed her whole village… and killed all of her loved ones without asking them to surrender or giving quarter. You are monsters, your king is an evil bastard, and I'll protect this innocent child from you with everything I got."

"How dare you insult His Majesty? His Majesty has his reasons and we do as we are told," the general answered. "His orders are clear and it's not up to us to question them. Since you won't hand her over willingly, and obviously rebel against the kingdom, we'll have to take her by force. You brought this upon yourselves and now you have to suffer the consequences. You are hereby declared enemies of the state and the sentence is death. MEN! ATTACK!"

The five soldiers complied, and in perfect military synchronization they attacked the most dangerous opponent. Ranma easily evaded all of their sword strikes and retaliated with punches and kicks that were hard enough to send them sprawling to the floor, but not hard enough to deal any permanent damage. They were humans after all, and he was reluctant to do any permanent damage. He had to admit that they'd been well trained and knew how to work well in a unit and how to use a sword, but they weren't fast enough to hit him. Even Kuno would probably manage to defeat a group of two or three of them in a duel.

Too tired to fight, Rydia and Kasumi were watching the one-sided battle and cheering for the martial artist.

The men were rapidly losing their cool. Their elusive, smirking target was playing with them. The taunts and scathing comments didn't help either. But then, making enemies lose their cool was one of Ranma's favorite strategies and he was damn good at it. An angry opponent is more likely to make mistakes than a cool and collected one. And once again it seemed to work like a charm. Unfortunately for the pigtailed martial artist he was used to the morons in Nerima and thus had miscalculated the soldiers' reaction.

Instead of letting his men attack blindly in hopes that a blow might connect, the general was experienced enough to see what the enemy was trying to accomplish and ordered his battered and heavily bruised soldiers back to discuss and develop a new strategy. Ranma was arrogantly waiting for them to finish since he was confident in his abilities to defeat them effortlessly. And as the six men attacked once again he was simply waiting with his arms crossed. But much to his shock the men didn't react as he had predicted. At first they all ran towards him, but shortly before they had reached his position they split up. Four were attacking him, but the other two were charging at Kasumi and Rydia with drawn swords, making their intentions all too clear. Thankfully, the young summoner was able to block the weakened soldier's strike with her rod and she retaliated immediately by jamming her weapon into his right eye, killing him on the spot. The brown haired girl on the other hand was not so lucky; the soldier blocked her clumsy dagger strike and drove his sword to the hilt through her belly. She dropped like a sack of potatoes.

"NOOOOO!" Ranma's anguished scream could probably be heard kilometers away. "You bastard! How could you attack a non combatant? What kinds of people are you?"

The attackers didn't show any remorse and the general simply shrugged. "We are soldiers of Baron," the general explained in a cold and detached tone. "We have our orders and we follow them. Any threat to the kingdom is to be eliminated."

That cold and inhuman statement was enough to drive the pigtailed boy into a berserker rage. Without thinking twice about it he slaughtered the four soldiers surrounding him in less than 5 seconds, leaving but shattered and bloody corpses behind.

While the general had been talking to Ranma, Rydia had snuck up to Kasumi's assassin who was about to pull his blade out of the body and knocked him down with a well placed blow to his cranium. She immediately took the brunette's wrist and was very relieved to feel a pulse; it was very weak, but steady. She quickly pulled the sword out of the bleeding wound and poured a hi-potion into Kasumi's mouth, saving the girl's life.

Ranma had been so lost in his anger and grief that he didn't notice the summoner's prompt action. The young girls punch hadn't been very hard and the soldiers recovered a few seconds later. But the blow had hurt him a lot. He rubbed the bump on his head and was clearly still out of it or he would have immediately focused back on the battle. When the martial artist noticed the movement next to Kasumi, his attention switched from the general to the grunt and his killer intent could be felt by everyone present. Kasumi's attacker was afraid and shaking in his pants. The coward asked for mercy, but it was too late for him to repent for his sins. "Moko Takabisha" was the last sound he heard in his life before he was consumed by the attack. Meanwhile, the general had run away, leaving his men to their fate.

Since the danger was gone he looked over to the girls, tears flowing in heavy streams down his cheeks. He looked at Kasumi and couldn't believe his eyes when he saw that the young woman was slowly getting up. There was so much blood on the floor, and logically, the girl should have died. The tears of sorrow immediately changed into tears of joy and Ranma ran over to the girls and took Kasumi into his arms. He hugged her with an intensity that would make Shampoo jealous. "You're alive! You're alive!"

"I managed to save her," Rydia reassured the boy, as he let go and sagged to the floor in relief.

"Thank God," he whispered as the tears continued to flow.

He stood up and then it was the summoner's turn to be subjected to a hug. "Thank you for saving her life. I don't know what I would have done if she had died."

The greenette blushed fiercely, but hugged the pigtailed boy back. She had rarely felt so safe and protected in her whole life. This feeling increased when Kasumi embraced the two of them and it ended in a group hug. The three of them had one thought going through their minds, 'I could get used to this' as they were one step closer to healing their emotional wounds. Ranma, who had led a hard and traumatic life so far was finally learning what love and acceptance was; Kasumi, who had felt abandoned and lost ever since her mother had died could finally open up again and show her true feelings; Rydia, who had suffered a severe emotional trauma just a few hours earlier, felt like she was part of a loving family again.

But all too soon they let go of each other after this emotional rollercoaster and Ranma could reflect back to what had just happened. He had killed… in cold blood. He could have easily knocked them out, but in his rage he deliberately took their lives. He had wanted to hurt them for killing one of his most precious friends in the world. But much to his surprise it wasn't the taking of human lives that had shocked him, but his complete lack of remorse. He had killed and didn't feel sorry at all. They deserved it. They were inhuman and cold killing machines who didn't give a damn about the lives they were destroying. But they probably had families too. Their kids would grow up without a father. They had probably been following orders. But then, that was the argument most of the Nazi criminals used during the Nuremberg Trials after World War Two.

No, these men had hardly been innocent soldiers following orders. They had enjoyed their job; he had seen it in their eyes. They weren't emotionless killers. No, they clearly enjoyed killing if their manic grins were any indication. He had done the right thing. These men would never kill innocents again. He also thought back to Rydia's actions. Her attacker had suffered a gruesome fate and the young girl hadn't even bat an eye, like killing wasn't anything special. But was it because the soldiers had been sent by Baron or because killing in general didn't matter at all? Fact is that Rydia seemed to have supported the shock quite well. He had to admit that she really was a tough cookie.

And thinking back to the fight it had been his fault that Kasumi had been attacked at all. If he had taken the fight seriously from the beginning and not been so cocky no one would have been hurt but the soldiers. He had to constantly remind himself of the fact that he was not in Nerima any longer. Looking back to his fights back home he had to admit that a lot of problems could have been avoided if he hadn't been such an arrogant ass all of the time. He had to let go of that kind of attitude, if not for himself than at least for the sake of his traveling companions. In this unforgiving environment showing mercy could mean death. And he loved life too much to let himself get killed.

He would never become a coldblooded killer like these soldiers who had no regard for human life at all, but he wouldn't pull his punches any longer. And the same was true for Nerima. When he got back he'd deal with his problems, all of them; rivals as well as fiancées. He was so tired of all that crap, and if need be he'd go as far as taking away their ability to ever fight again. He deserved some happiness in life too.

While Ranma was thinking about his life in general he saw that Rydia was once again busy looting the bodies and seemed to have fun doing it. Well, the pigtailed boy was still feeling a bit uncomfortable stealing from the dead, but Rydia was right; they needed the loot, and he had to admit that so far the summoner had found some very interesting and useful items.

The soldiers hadn't been rich by any means, or at least didn't have much money on them, but the well crafted armor and sharp swords would probably fetch a good a price. Enough money to get some decent equipment, at least. Ranma switched his rusty dagger for one of the swords, and he nodded in approval after he had given a few practice swings. The blade was really well balanced, but he would still exchange the broadsword for a katana in a heartbeat.

After Rydia had finished Ranma called both girls over to him. "I'm sorry," He apologized. "If I hadn't been so cocky and arrogant and hadn't played with the soldiers all of this could have been avoided. It's entirely my fault and I promise you that I'll do everything in my power to prevent something like that from ever happening again. I give you my word that I'll protect you to the best of my abilities and I won't be showing mercy to inhuman scum like that. Your safety comes first. And if I have to kill to ensure that nothing happens to you, so be it. I care for the both of you and I couldn't handle losing even one of you. I don't know why, but it's the first time in my life, ever since I left home with my father, that I've felt so comfortable in the presence of other people. I know it sounds corny and mushy, but in my opinion that's what having a family must feel like."

The girls grinned at him. "We're feeling the same," they answered in almost complete unison and had another group hug.

Ranma was sweating up a storm since he was the pack horse of the group and had to carry the quite substantial loot they had 'liberated' from the dead soldiers and was very happy when they reached Kaipo a few minutes later.

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Meanwhile, Cecil was in trouble. When the dark knight had come to after the earthquake Kain was gone and he couldn't find the dragoon everywhere. Hoping that his friend was safe he tried to go back to Baron, but discovered to his dismay that the entrance to the cave was completely blocked by rocks and dirt. Titan's earthquake attack must have caused the landslide. Since he couldn't clear the way into the cave and as the mountains were much to steep to climb over without some good equipment he had no other choice but to travel to Damcyan and try and find a ship that could take him to a port town near Baron. He had a report to deliver after all and he knew that the King was not a very patient man. Unfortunately, the previous fights had already been taxing and crossing the desert alone was not without its dangers and so he tried to avoid monster attacks as much as possible by sneaking past them. He was mostly successful, but it slowed down his traveling speed considerably. He still had to fight a few monsters here and here, but he hadn't too much trouble killing them. He was getting very tired, however. All that fighting had taxed his stamina and he had trouble keeping his eyes open.

"Damn monsters!" Cecil ranted as he carefully wiped his sword off with a piece cloth and kicked the Hundlegs' corpse in anger. "Lately, their numbers have been increasing and no one knows why. I hope that the problem will be dealt with soon. Ah well, there's not much I can do but grin and bare. Complaining doesn't help. I should stay focused on my mission and deliver this report as fast as possible."

He had just avoided a group of monsters when a group of soldiers approached. He recognized the unit and immediately relaxed. As he was preparing to greet them he was shocked when they drew their weapons.

Not understanding what would warrant such a hostile act he waited for an explanation, which was to come very soon.

"Cecil! Finally we've found you," the general said.

"Wait! What is the meaning of this? The king…" the dark knight tried to explain, but the general didn't give him the chance.

"I am here on the king's orders. You were to exterminate each and every summoner in the village, yet you let a little girl get away. That's insubordination and treason."

"What?" Cecil incredulously shouted. "You've been spying on us? Since when?"

"Of course we have. Suspected traitors can't be trusted after all. We've been following you ever since you left the castle. And sparing the girl was completely useless. As we talk our comrades should already have dealt with her. Not finishing her off was the confirmation Seneschal Baigan and His Majesty needed. Our orders are to kill you if you should betray the kingdom. I'm sorry it had to come to this, but orders are orders. MEN! KILL HIM!"

Thankfully Cecil's instructors had been the best the kingdom had to offer and he had been learning all the ins and outs of the soldiering business from them ever since he was little. He may have been exhausted but he was an elite soldier and very skilled with the sword. Still, three against one was unfair, but when the general saw that his men were unable to defeat the young man he entered the fray. Too bad for him, his soldiers had already been killed by the time he reached Cecil. But the dark knight had clearly reached his limits and was heavily panting. The general was so confident in his physical superiority over the exhausted soldier that he completely forgot to take to take Cecil's determination into account. Cecil knew he couldn't afford to lose here. He had to get back to his love whatever may come, even if they might not have a happy future together. The kingdom could go and screw itself. He had served the king loyally for all those years, but ever since Baigan had become the king's his right-hand man things had been changing… and for the worse. The king who'd never have attacked another kingdom before had become bloodthirsty and cruel. Gone were the peaceful times and Cecil had trouble recognizing the man he had sworn his loyalty to. There was definitely something wrong with the kingdom and he intended to find out what; well, after he had dealt with the current crisis of course. He decided to take a very risky and potentially deadly gamble since he had barely enough energy for one last action and would pass out very soon. He feigned letting down his guard, leaving an easy opening for his opponent to exploit, and just moments before the blow would connect he sidestepped it and swiftly decapitated his opponent with a quick strike. The dark knight fell to his knees as he tried to recover his breath. This last action had taken the rest out of him and he barely had enough energy left to crawl over to his backpack and take out a tent seal. With his last ounce of energy he activated the seal and climbed into the tent, falling asleep a few moments later.

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Kaipo was unlike any town that Kasumi and Ranma had seen before. For a desert town it didn't really resemble the oases shown on TV, but looked more like the typical medieval European town; the kind you can see in historic or fantasy films or role-playing games like Dragon Quest. The most striking thing however was the extensive network of irrigation canals that were spread throughout the town and which distributed the water to the houses and actually reminded Ranma a little bit of Stormwind, a town in one of Daisuke's favorite RPGs, although Kaipo was much smaller and less crowded with a lot of space between the houses. Palm trees could be seen here and there and offered some very welcome shade to the exhausted travelers who were happy to get out of the hot sunrays. Rydia had been here a few times before and showed her new friends around. The town was much like most of the others in this world and had the obligatory weapons and armor shops, an item shop, an inn and the local branch of the Hunters Guild.

Their first stop was the weapons shop where they hoped to get rid of their loot for a good price and earn some much needed money. Good equipment didn't come cheap after all and in this violent world one should be prepared for every eventuality. Since neither Ranma nor Rydia had much experience with shopping they let Kasumi do all of the talking. Much to their surprise Kasumi did extremely well and it was easy to see that haggling was an art she was well versed in. But then, the ponytailed girl had never told anyone that she was a master of martial arts haggling, so the pigtailed boy's surprise could be excused. Ranma had always been very proud of how easy it was for him to swindle ice cream dealers out of an extra scoop in his girl from, but the brunette was putting his best efforts to shame. While 'Ranko' usually used her bodily charms to get what she wanted Kasumi was much more subtle and less direct. She charmed the salesman with witty banter and her usual serene attitude that he'd become putty in her hands. He probably would have sold his soul to her if she had asked. In the end the girl had managed to obtain a tidy sum for everything, even the crap, and while the shopkeeper was reluctant at first to buy the armor and swords since it was never good for one's health to run afoul of a powerful nation like Baron, but in the end Kasumi was able to convince him to accept the items.

Ranma mentally applauded and hoped that the young woman would agree to teach him. Now there was a non martial arts related skill that could be extremely useful. And if there was one thing Ranma loved more than food or a good fight it was learning useful new skills.

Deciding to make use of the still dazed state of the shopkeeper the group examined the selection on display, but they weren't impressed at all. The shop only sold some basic, non enchanted weapons, much to Rydia's disappointment who had hoped to find at least one or two uncommon or rare items, but it was not like there wouldn't be other occasions to find some better equipment, and the simple weapons were still of a better make than most of the stuff they got from their enemies.

Kasumi bought a staff and a bow. The staff was really the best weapon for a white mage since it boosted the effectiveness of white magic spells, much like the rod did for black magic spells, and Ranma promised to teach her some katas for it. The bow didn't really surprise Ranma since he knew that Kasumi had practiced kyudo at school and had even participated in the national high school championship once, but since she hadn't really practiced all that much after finishing high school she knew that was in for some heavy training if she wanted to get her old form back.

Rydia chose a simple but well-balanced dagger, but was a little bit disappointed when she couldn't find an upgrade for her old rod.

Ranma on the other hand had a different problem. He had met many weapons specialists on his long training journey and was trained by many of them. His father had insisted that he should learn at least the basics of armed combat, although Anything Goes was an unarmed martial arts school. Genma's reason was that an unarmed fighter needed to know the ins and outs of weapons if he wanted to be able to defend against them. After all, what better way to counter a weapon user than to use the weaknesses of his chosen weapon against him? Therefore he was proficient with many weapons but master of none. He looked around but nothing really appealed to him. One weapon especially seemed rather stupid: two swords connected by a chain. The name tag identified them as sword-chucks and he wondered what moron had the idea for such a stupid weapon. He shook his head at the stupidity of some people. His personal preference was fist weapons since they really complimented his fighting style. He had extensive experience with gauntlets, brass knuckles, tekko, or katars, but was disappointed that he couldn't find any among the available choices, not until his eyes fell on a claw which had a strong resemblance to the neko-te, a ninja weapon he knew very well in thanks to some training he got from a rogue shinobi he had met when he was younger, and he was confident that he could rapidly master this variation of the Japanese weapon. He took a pair and handed them to Kasumi who was waiting for him to finish. After another round of haggling and in the process getting a nice discount the group was off to the armor shop.

Thanks to Kasumi's bargaining talent they had a large sum left and could afford some protective gear. Rydia didn't expect to find any high class equipment if the weapons shop was an indication, but she was pleasantly surprised to see that the shop was well stocked and for both genders. Kasumi and Rydia bought robes and some spare sets of underwear, as well as leather caps and iron rings. Ranma got himself several boxer shorts and a few tee shirts but refused to by any armor since it would reduce his movement rate, but the girls convinced to wear at least a leather cap and an iron ring.

"Why don't we buy several rings?" The pigtailed boy asked the summoner. "If they work as well as advertised they could really boost our protection even more."

As Rydia was still thinking about how to answer the question, the shopkeeper was already explaining. "It doesn't work like that. The effects don't stack. So, wearing ten iron rings isn't any more effective than only wearing one. But it is possible to wear two differently enchanted rings, but only one on each hand. Anymore and the spells could backfire and seriously harm the wearer."

Ranma had had too many bad run-ins with magical items for him to dismiss a warning like that. After getting some more information about the different kinds of armor and magical accessories the group left and Rydia led the two otherworlders to the Hunters Guild.

"Let's register at the guild now," the green-haired girl suggested. "Afterwards we will stock up on potions and other items we might need."

"Here's the Hunters Guild I told you about," the young girl told her new friends when they had arrived in front of the large building. "Becoming hunters is the best way for us to earn money. Members are paid for every monster they kill. The stronger and more resilient the monster is, the better the reward will be. I've dreamed of becoming a member for several years, but my mother was against it, telling me all the time I was too young. But since she's gone now I'll have to rely on myself, and there isn't much I can do to earn money except for killing monsters. Traveling with you has been fun so far and I hope that we can stay together for a long time."

"You can stay with us as long as you want," Kasumi reassured the younger girl. "Oh, and could you tell us more about the guild before we decide?"

"No problem," Rydia answered. "The annual membership fee is very low and the guild only takes 5% of the reward money to pay for its services. We'll need all the money we can get if we want to reach Mysidia. We are lucky that the monsters in this part of the world aren't very strong. But I've heard of some regions where the monsters are much stronger and we wouldn't probably survive as we are now. Becoming a hunter is also a great way to get stronger. So, what do you say? Do we join?"

"What do you think, Ranma? The ponytailed girl asked. "It sounds like a good deal."

Ranma nodded. "Sure. Let's do it!"

Rydia had been appointed as the official spokesperson for the group since she knew the most about the guild and with her in the lead they entered the house. They were greeted by a nondescript, middle-aged man who was sitting behind a nice, wooden desk. "Welcome to the Hunters Guild. I am Garan and I'm in charge of this branch of the Guild. How can I help you?"

"Hello," Rydia answered very politely. "We'd like to apply for a membership, but we'd like to have more information before we do. I hope that won't be a problem."

"Not at all. I'll be glad to answer every question you might have. After all, that's part of my job. Fire away."

Ranma and Kasumi asked most of the questions, of course and indeed, Garan was able to answer them all and was more thorough than Rydia whose information had been spotty in parts, since most of it had come from books and hunters that had visited her village. In fact, she was quite surprised that there was so much she didn't know yet. The question and answer session lasted for about half an hour and it was quite enlightening. Monster hunting paid a lot better than manual labor and there were not that many people doing it. The main reason was the death rate for hunters, but Garan reassured them that the ones killed were generally overconfident or badly prepared loners. Hunters who were well equipped and prepared and especially those who traveled in groups had an excellent chance of survival.

"A hunter's most important weapons are experience and knowledge." Garan explained. "The only way to get the first one is through fighting, but the second one can be either obtained through fighting or the monster book." He then handed one to each of the applicants to give them the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the 'Hunter's Best Friend' as it is often called. Rydia knew what it was of course, already having seen hunters use it, but she could refrain from giggling when she saw the surprised looks on Ranma's and Kasumi's faces when they realized what exactly the book was capable of. Kasumi in particular was astonished by the gadget which reminded her eerily of the Pokédex the trainers used in Pokémon, a videogame she used to play when she was younger.

"This magical monster book," Garan continued, "is the hunter's most prized tool and only fools don't keep it with them at all times. As you can see, this tome has quite extensive information on every monster ever encountered by hunters since the creation of the books. Another useful feature is its self-updating function. Every time a hunter learns new facts about a monster the information is automatically added to the monster's entry in every book in circulation. The book lists the average stats of the monsters, names and effects of their attacks, and keeps count of the number of monsters killed. The book is keyed into its owner's magical signature so that no one can steal or temper with it, and the owner is also the only person who can open it. Whenever a hunter dies, without any chance for resurrection, his book is automatically teleported back to the guild. Whenever a hunter turns his book in at a guild house, the guild will tally the kills and calculate the amount of money earned. It's an ingenuous and foolproof system."

"And what happens if a group of hunters kills a monster? Who is the kill credited to?" Kasumi wanted to know."

"I knew I'd forgotten something," Garan apologized. "Well splitting up a kill is impossible, of course. Now, I suppose that you'll travel and fight as a group, right?"

Seeing the trio nod he continued. "In that case you have to appoint a leader and get registered as a group. If you do that the leader's book will be the only one to list all of your kills. And whenever you come to a guild house the money will be split evenly between you. That's the best and fairest way we came up with to avoid having the frontline fighters get credited with all the kills while the healers don't get anything."

The party considered everything they'd heard and as they really couldn't find any downsides they immediately signed up and got registered as a group. They paid the membership fee and Garan handed each of them the basic hunter kit consisting of the magical book, which they had already received, a sturdy backpack and some simple wilderness survival tools.

They went to the potions shop and after buying a wide selection of potions, remedies, and herbs, and seeing that it was already quite late, they decided to call it a night.

They entered the inn and since they had more than enough money left they everyone got their own room.

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Sometime later that evening Kasumi was brushing her hair before going to bed, when she heard a barely audible knock. Wondering who it could be at such a late hour she opened the door and was very surprised to see Ranma standing there, fidgeting a lot. It was quite obvious to the brunette that the pigtailed boy was feeling very uncomfortable about something.

"Ranma? Is there a problem?" She asked in a concerned tone, and was startled when the teenager flinched, but immediately started fidgeting again. "Why don't you come in and tell me what wrong?"

The boy nodded jerkily and followed Kasumi inside. The Tendo daughter was now really concerned. Ranma was usually very self-confident, and many would call him even arrogant, but he could back it up. No, seeing him in this state happened rarely, and then only if he wanted to be forgiven for having done something stupid. But Kasumi had no idea what he could have possibly done wrong. But she was determined to find out.

"Please take a seat," she told him, and he diligently accepted the offer and sat down in a chair.

Ranma didn't wait for the young girl to ask him questions, and after having collected himself he said, "I'm sorry."

Kasumi blinked... once… twice, but recovered her wits very quickly. "You're sorry? Whatever for?" She was genuinely intrigued now.

The pigtailed teen inhaled deeply before he explained. "It's my fault we got sent here. If I hadn't angered the old…"

Before he could finish the sentence Kasumi interrupted him sharply. "NO! Don't you ever say it's your fault! Yes, you're partly responsible, but so am I."

Ranma stared at her as if she had grown a second head, not believing her in the slightest, and before he could object she continued. "I know you. You want to take the blame once again, since that's what's usually expected from you by your and my family. But if you haven't noticed by now, I'm not Akane. I don't blame you for everything that goes wrong. And this time it's clearly partly my fault. I decided to stay and watch the fight instead of hiding inside the house with the others. If you hadn't tried to save me from being sucked into the portal you would probably have gotten away. If you want to put the blame on someone, put it on Happosai. It's his stupidity that started all this mess. And since we can't turn back the clock anyway, we should look ahead and try and find a way back home."

She paused for a while to catch her breath, before she continued. "And it's not like I haven't been enjoying our little adventure so far. I feel alive for the first time in years. In fact, I should thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in one of your famous adventures. And I don't plan to be the damsel in distress. I want to pull my weight and contribute to the team."

She smiled when she saw that her heartfelt speech had managed to calm Ranma down. In fact, the teenager was staring at Kasumi with his mouth wide open. It was obvious that he had expected her to scold him for his blunder and maybe even tell him to leave and that she never wanted to see him again. Kasumi shook her head sadly. She didn't think she would have survived even a fraction of all the crap Ranma had been put through during his long training journey. She was determined to help him in any way she could and to show him that there were still decent people in the world; and she didn't count the martial artist's usual entourage among them.

Ranma slowly got up and embraced the older teen. "Thank you, Kasumi. You can't imagine how much that means to me. I'm sure that now that we've cleared that matter I can rest easily. He wished the brunette a good night and left the room.

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The following day, after a good night's sleep and a copious breakfast they left the inn in search of someone who might be able to tell them how to get to Mysidia. They asked around, but no one could help them much. The most helpful piece of advice they got was to travel to Damcyan Castle and ask King Richard for help. The castle was built near the sea after all and had a small but busy port attached to it. It was mostly used by local fishermen, but merchant ships were a common sight too, since it was one of the very few ports on the continent and the nearest one to Kaipo.

After buying some food and water and checking that they had everything they needed they left the town in direction of the Underground Waterway, a tunnel that led straight to Damcyan. On their way they were attacked by another sand worm, much to Ranma's delight who wanted to try out his new claws. And what better opponent than the one whose brother or cousin caused him to run away from a fight the previous day. Being well rested and having had a very filling breakfast, not to mention decent weapons and equipment, the group was much more confident in their abilities to defeat the critter. Before the girls could take out their weapons Ranma was already attacking the huge creature, a confident smirk gracing his face.

Well, revenge wasn't the only thing on Ranma's mind. Having seen Ryoga often enough infuse his bandannas and belt with ki, as well as Kuno doing the same with his bokken, it was easy enough for the pigtailed boy to figure out the trick, theoretically at least. With all the crap he had to live through in Nerima lately he didn't have time to refine the technique yet, but this was an excellent opportunity to try it out using his new claws. He concentrated and let his ki flow from his arms into the claws, delighted that it seemed to work. He launched at the monster with his claws extended and shouted "Kachu Tenchu Amaguriken". The girls only saw a blur and two seconds later all that was left of the pesky creature was Swiss cheese.

The girls, as well as Ranma himself, were speechless. The young martial artist was staring at his hands. He hadn't expected his improvised attack to be that effective. But then, in his defense, it should be pointed out that he didn't know that the claw was a weapon specifically developed for the monks of Fabul, who were expert ki users, and therefore used those kind of attacks too. "WOW! That worked better than I expected. Did you see that?" He asked the girls who were staring at him in astonishment. They were really surprised that the monster which had been impervious to Ranma's best barehanded punches had been so easily skewered by Ranma's new attack.

"How did you do that?" The young girl was surprised. "That didn't look like a magical attack to me."

"That's a ki technique my rivals back home use quite a lot. It's very effective as you can see."

"I'll say," she answered in awe. "I've never heard of ki before. Do you think I could learn that?"

"Eh? Probably." He shrugged his shoulders. "But I must tell you it won't be easy and take a lot of practice and dedication before you reach that level. Years of practice in fact. But if you're really determined to learn it would be best to start with some basic exercises and work our way up. You'll see, we'll make a great hand-to-hand fighter out of you."

Her eyes lit up, much like Ranma's always did when a new technique was mentioned. "WOW! I could really learn how to fight like you. Teach me, please." She enthusiastically jumped up and down.

"Okay, okay." Ranma placated the greenette, but he had to laugh at seeing her eagerness and thought about the level Akane could achieve if she ever showed that much enthusiasm. Thinking about his fiancée immediately sobered him up. No, he was sure that the youngest Tendo would never become as good a martial artist as Shampoo or his rivals; she lacked their dedication to the art. Running a few laps every morning and breaking cinder blocks was barely enough to let her keep her current level. If she let go of her pride and jealousy and accepted her numerous shortcomings and limitations she could become a great martial artist, but at the moment that didn't seem likely. Rydia however remembered Ranma of his younger self; always eager to learn new techniques.

"And in exchange you could teach us more about magic. I want to learn more spells," Kasumi offered. The cure spell alone was a godsend and she could do a lot of good with it back home. She already imagined the look on Dr. Tofu's face once he saw her use magic. Boy, would he be surprised.

"I'm sorry, but I can't," she answered, sounding remorseful, before entering her 'teaching mode' as Ranma called it. "You see, there are two ways to learn magic: one theoretical, the other practical. Reading scrolls and books as well as study the mechanics of a spell is the safest, but also the slowest, most boring, and most time intensive one. Scholars generally know a lot about the workings of magic, but are generally rather weak. They might know a lot of powerful spells, but generally lack the mana to cast them efficiently. That is the most extreme example of course, since some of the most famous mages have been scholars. Generally, this method is chosen by people who are afraid to put their lives in danger or don't want to exhaust themselves through physical activity. They rarely come up with new spells, but are incredibly good at coming up with variations or more powerful versions of existing spells.

The other way is through practice. I think that Kasumi is a very good example of this, since she has never learnt how to use magic but cast a spell simply by willing her mana to do what she wanted. This had the additional effect to show us what school she has the best affinity for. The most important fact you have to remember is that practicing magic is a creative process; and yes, there are universal spells. A good example would be the simple 'cure' spell every white mage knows, but there are also more unique spells that are much rarer. Each experiences fighting mage knows some of those. Those spells are usually devised in times of great distress or mortal danger, when the brain is working at full capacity to find a way to overcome the crisis. The mage is about to die and doesn't know a spell that could help him survive. His mind might come up with a completely original spell that could even revolutionize magic as we know it, just so he can live to see another day.

This way has some additional advantages too. The more spells a mage casts, the faster his mana reserves grow. And a larger mana reservoir means more spells, in quantity as well as in power. Add to that the bounties for the dead monsters as well as getting stronger physically, there aren't really any drawbacks… well, except for the possibility of getting killed, of course."

After the longwinded explanation that the greenette later confessed having mostly recited from memory, after having heard it from her parent more than once, Ranma and Kasumi needed a few minutes to process everything they'd just heard.

The Nerimans were astonished of course. Magic did exist in their world as the Jusenkyo curses, love potions and other magical artifacts and supernatural creatures proved on a regular basis, but they wondered where all the magic users were; not the stage magicians of course, but the real mages like Rydia. Magic didn't seem to be all that difficult to learn after all. They came up with two theories however: either everyone had the latent ability to use magic, but no one knew about it, or Kasumi had gained the ability as a consequence of the magical incident that had brought them here. The latter was the more plausible theory and Ranma hoped that it applied to him too.

"All of that is just so fascinating," Kasumi gushed. "Do you think we could learn more about magic in Mysidia?" Kasumi sounded almost desperate. Ranma had never seen the brunette get that worked up over something. It was obvious to him that she really wanted to learn everything she could about magic.

"Probably." The summoner answered. "The magical academy and library are located there. If THEY don't have the information in their archives then it probably doesn't exist."

While the two girls were talking Ranma was trying to cast a spell, but his frustration at his lack of progress grew over time. He had memorized the gist of Rydia's explanation, but couldn't access his magic. Maybe he didn't have any magic. His frustration turned into depression, and he was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn't think about the most obvious solution, which was asking Rydia

Very soon they arrived at a large cave that led into a mountain. "This is the entrance to the Underground Waterway. Castle Damcyan is on the other side," the summoner explained.

As the girls were about to enter Ranma stopped them. "We should check our equipment before we enter. We don't know what we'll find inside and it never hurts to be prepared for the worst."

The two girls couldn't fault his logic and agreed. They made a quick inventory of all the stuff in their backpacks and when they were satisfied that everything was as and where it should be they cautiously entered the cave. They were surprised to see an elderly man blocking the passage, all the while muttering to himself. The stranger had his back turned to them which made a more precise determination of his age impossible.

He turned around to face the group and the pigtailed boy realized that he had been right. The man WAS old. He looked to be in his late sixties, early seventies, had a long and shaggy white beard, wild white hair and, strangely enough, wore pink tinted glasses and pink robes. Physically he was obviously past his prime and Ranma could clearly see the signs of old age on him. However, the strange aura he exuded told a different story. Ranma had never felt anything like it, but since this was a world of magic he guessed that it had to be his magical aura. It felt… heavy, if Ranma had to describe it, but not menacing. It was tightly controlled, which was a sign of experience. In fact, the old man reminded him of Cologne and Happosai to a certain extent, except that he wasn't a shriveled gnome and had yet to annoy him. Ranma had no doubt that he could easily beat the mage in front of him in a fistfight, but having seen the damage Rydia could inflict with her low level spells he was aware that the old man's spells would probably kill him in one hit.

While Ranma was lost in his thoughts, the old man analyzed the trio that had just entered the cave. Nodding his head as if he had just mentally come to a conclusion he fixed his gaze on Ranma. "You… I can feel that you're very strong. I need your assistance."

Not expecting to be addressed in such a way Ranma was caught flatfooted and his brain needed some time to come up with a fitting answer. "Erm… yeah, if we can help, sure," he stammered, but he rapidly got his focus back when he saw the desperate look in the stranger's eyes. "What's wrong?"

"I must get to Damcyan to reclaim my daughter. She was deceived by a wicked bard! We must hurry, for I sense an ill omen!" He then pointed at Rydia. "And that girl… is she a summoner? Perfect! She can help too. A giant monster lurks in the lake ahead. That devil even withstands magic. I think we can defeat it together, and then I can finally be on my way.

"That should be fine," Kasumi answered. "We're headed that way too. But could you give us your name first?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. Where are my manners? It's just that I'm so angry at the moment… I am the sage Tellah."

***BESTIARY***

GOBLIN: the Goblin is probably the weakest monster that exists, but should never be underestimated since it's very rare to see one of them alone. If you do see an isolated specimen you shouldn't approach it for any reason; chances are it's merely a bait to lure careless travellers into a trap. Goblins are very vicious creatures and never show their victims even a shred of mercy. They are anthropophagous and indiscriminately slaughter men, women and children, but especially love the tender meat of women and children. However, they are generally not a threat to seasoned adventurers.

DESERT SAHAGIN: the Desert Sahagin is a more than two meter tall, carnivorous monster. It consumes any meat it finds, even carrion. The Sahagin is generally a purely aquatic creature, except for the Desert Sahagin which is a distant cousin that adapted to the arid desert climate at one point of its evolution. Strangely enough it still resembles its aquatic cousin, but its skin doesn't dry out if it isn't kept moist and is perfectly capable to survive even the hottest temperatures. Solitary Desert Sahagin are easy to kill, even for a beginning adventurer, but beware of groups.

HUNDLEGS: the Hundlegs is a three meter large and one meter wide centipede. The creature is an insectivore, but doesn't mean it isn't dangerous. Hundlegs are territorial creatures and attack at once if they feel threatened, and especially if they protect their young. If you encounter Hundlegs and don't want to fight them, you should calmly walk away and avoid any threatening gestures. In most cases they won't attack. In a fight they are fearless and fight to the death. Their exoskeleton is very tough and it takes some work to crack it.

SAND WORM: the Sand Worm is the most dangerous predator of the desert around Kaipo. This monster generally is a solitary creature and you should avoid it at all costs if you're not confident in your fighting skills. The rubbery skin of this critter is very tough and it can only be hurt with magical attacks and slashing or piercing weapons. Blunt weapons and barehanded blows don't even faze it. You can always try, but don't expect the Hunters Guild to pay for your funeral. We sponsor adventurers, not suicidal morons.

AUTHOR'S NOTES:

As you can see I almost completely rewrote the chapter for several reasons. One reason is that I wasn't quite happy with it. It somehow felt rushed and incomplete. Another reason is that Kasumi was still too bland and boring. That's why I decided to add a lot more background information on the young woman. We learn practically nothing about her in the manga and I want to rectify that in this fic. Kasumi is an incredibly fun character to write since she's practically a blank slate and it's therefore easy to invent an interesting past for her. Kasumi won't be a damsel in distress in this story. I'm going to turn her into quite a capable fighter that can kick ass and give the group access to some useful skills.

Another thing I want to add is that the bestiary entries are of course completely fake and not supported by any canon information. They are just so much fun to write that I've decided to add them to each chapter.

Posted 2009/05/13

Revision posted 2009/09/13