"Ha ha! We're alive," said Ryoga from somewhere to Ranma's left. "Take that, demon! Hibiki one, demon none. Ha ha!"
Ranma would have said something but he really didn't feel the urge. He was rather too busy dealing with the fact that it felt like someone had tried to suck his eyeballs out with a straw and then moved on to tap-dancing on his brain when that didn't work.
"Damn it," said Mousse from somewhere to Ranma's right. "This is all your fault, Saotome."
Ranma craned his neck around so he could face the Amazon, wincing at the way the light played on his eyes as he did so. "What?" he asked. "It's not like I summoned the damn thing."
"I never got caught up in crap like this before I met you," he snapped back at Ranma as he ran his hands over the ground near him, probably looking for his glasses. "So it's all your fault."
"You're an idiot."
"Where the hell are we?"
Ranma turned to face Ryoga, still not getting up. "We're . . . " he looked around. "That's actually a damn good question. Hey, Mousse, you recognise . . . actually, forget it." Asking Mousse, without his glasses, where they were was really just a painfully stupid idea. Ranma blamed it on spending too much time with Ryoga.
He hopped to his feet and took a detailed look at the terrain around him. It sure as hell wasn't the valley they'd been fighting that monster in, that much was for sure. Less barren rock and more trees and wildlife. It would probably have been quite pleasant if he'd not been too busy being baffled over how he'd got there.
"Weren't we in a quarry?" asked Mousse.
"Lost again," said Ryoga with a growl. "And I don't even have my pack with me this time."
Ranma cracked his neck, trying to work the kinks out, before he spoke up. "Well," he said. "We might as well have a look around and see if we can find any landmarks. We can't have gotten far, right?"
"Might want to do something about the demon gunk on your arm first, Ranma," said Ryoga. "It kinda stinks."
"Like I didn't know that."
Famous last words, those. "We can't have gotten far, right?" Ranma really should have remembered that logic had absolutely nothing to do with the world he lived in as a martial artist. They were absolutely nowhere near where they had fought the demon. Not even close. He hadn't spotted a single landmark that even remotely resembled anything he'd seen as they tracked the demon to the site of the battle.
"Are you . . . lost, Ranma?" asked Ryoga.
"Laugh it up, pig-boy," said Ranma. "But if I'm lost how the hell are you going to find your way home? Moron."
"I have been patient and taken your insults for too long, Ranma! Now you shall die!"
"Will you two please shut up?" snapped Mousse. "We have more important things to worry about."
Ranma looked at him askance. "Since when do you not jump at the chance to chuck pointy, metal things at me?" he asked. "I remember you beating up a little kid because he looked like me."
Course, that kid had been him, just de-aged with those damned magic mushrooms, but whatever.
"Since we got sucked into a demon's . . . whatever the hell that black stuff was," said Mousse. "It seems a little more important."
"Man, you need to lighten up. We've went up against way worse things than this and laughed it off in the end."
"Is that Hokkaido? It looks sorta like Hokkaido."
"What?" asked Ranma. Huh, looked like they'd been following Ryoga while they were arguing. Now, if that didn't have bad idea written all over it . . . "Uh, what? That looks nothing like Hokkaido."
"It looks like Hokkaido," said Ryoga. "At least it looks like one of the Hokkaidos I've been to."
"Ryoga, you think everywhere is Hokkaido," said Ranma.
Ranma wasn't sure what to make of the place to be honest. It looked too big to be a village but the road leading up to it didn't look like anything he'd ever seen in a town or city; it was more of a dirt trail than a road and there wasn't any sign of any cars or trucks or anything. And the place was walled. Nowhere in the modern world bothered with city walls.
"Recognise this place, Mousse?" asked Ranma finally. "Looks sorta like a bigger Joketsuzoku."
"Nowhere I've ever seen before."
"Well, let's check it out then. Ryoga, follow me."
"Well, I can see TV aerials," said Ryoga. "So they've got technology and stuff."
"No cars, though," said Ranma. "Modern places are always full of cars and motorbikes and stuff."
"That doesn't seem a bad thing to me," said Mousse. "I hate those things."
Ranma grunted by way of reply as another guy in some sort of light armour passed them by. He was wearing the same sort of headband-type thing as all the others had worn too. Village militia, maybe?
"Lot of fighters around here," said Ryoga. "Even Nerima doesn't have this many martial artists hanging around."
"Joketsuzoku does," said Mousse. "But everyone knows at least some martial arts in Joketsuzoku. You're not given a choice."
"Man, I hope this place isn't another Joketsuzoku," griped Ranma. "I don't need anymore crazy wives or fiancees or fangirls or stalkers."
A guy walking past Ranma stopped and stared at him for a moment before shaking his head and walking away rapidly muttering to himself about lucky bastards and not knowing he had it made or something, Whatever.
"Don't insult my darling Shampoo!"
A woman walking past them immediately hurried her steps and made a quick getaway.
"Do you have any idea how stupid that sounded?"
"It's hardly my fault that barbarians such as yourself cannot understand my language."
Ranma left Mousse to seethe in a pit of angst as he eyed their surroundings. It was a weird sort of place. Mostly modern in look but without a lot of the trappings you saw in the modern world. No cars was the obvious one but there was a lot less electricity poles and stuff too. It was weird. That wasn't really all that important though.
It was the fighters that concerned him. There were way too many for a place even remotely connected to the modern world of technology. You just didn't see that many martial artists, ones that were actual fighters and not just practitioners of some crazy tea ceremony or whatever, unless you got away from the influence of the modern world. It didn't happen, people were just too obsessed with crap like television and computers to take martial arts seriously. And the ones who did deal with crime and defence and stuff just used guns. That was the way of the modern world. Who needs to be able to fire energy blasts out of their hands when they can just shoot someone? It was obvious which was cooler, but most people couldn't be bothered.
He really didn't want to spend any more time in some crazy Joketsuzoku or Musk wannabe village than he absolutely had to. It never ended well for him.
"So where the hell are we, Ranma?" asked Ryoga.
Ranma tapped his chin thoughtfully and let the moment drag out before replying. "Dunno," he said.
The slap he got across the back of his head from Ryoga as reward for that almost buckled his knees. Damn pig-boy.
"Hey, you two morons, come over here," called Mousse from where he was stood on the other side of the road. "There's something you should see here."
Ranma sauntered over and took a glance over Mousse's shoulder at what he was pointing at down the row of buildings and for just a moment was speechless. Just for a moment of course. "Wow," he said. "And they say I have a big ego."
"What?" asked Ryoga as he joined them and saw the enormous faces carved into the side of a mountain. "Whoa. Is this America?"
"Not unless Americans suddenly turned into Japanese people," drawled Ranma. "Even you can tell the difference, right?"
"Shut up, Ranma."
"Saotome, Hibiki, please, stop arguing for a moment and think," said Mousse. "This is big. We'd have heard of it. Where the hell are we?"
"That's what we're here to find out. Come on, I'm going to find someone to eavesdrop on."
"So," said Ranma. "Konoha. Ring any bells?"
Ryoga and Mousse both shook their heads.
"Well, that's just great," said Ranma. "Real helpful. You guys are about as much use as a plastic sword."
"I don't hear you offering up any suggestions, Ranma," growled Ryoga.
"At least I did something by figuring out the name of the place," fired back Ranma. "All you've done is wander around like some little kid lost."
Ryoga bared his fangs at Ranma but before he could do anything else a woman walked past wearing an outfit that covered everything and concealed nothing made up of bandages which shut the pig-boy up quite handily as his face turned bright red and pinched his nose shut to stop it erupting in a fountain of blood.
"Who the hell wears clothes made out of bandages," muttered Ryoga as he kept his nose from erupting.
"Someone who wants to defeat idiots like you without even having to actually do anything."
"Hibiki, Saotome, this really isn't the time," said Mousse nervously. "I don't like the way those masked guys are looking at us."
"Stop being such a wuss," said Ryoga. "We just kicked a demon's ass."
"Oh, yes, I feel like a great champion right now, what with being lost in the middle of nowhere."
"And when someone from Joketsuzoku calls a place the middle of nowhere you know it really is the middle of nowhere."
"Oh, shut up, Saotome."
The sound of laughter and shouting interrupted them before an orange blur shot past, cackling like a hyena, followed by a crowd of pink-haired men who looked distinctly less than pleased with life.
"Wow, it's just like home," said Mousse. "A bunch of people chasing a loudmouth."
"Laugh it up, Mousse," said Ranma, arms clasped behind his head in a nonchalant pose. "I'm not the one being stalked by pre-teen fangirls here."
"Shut up, Saotome. That's all your fault anyway."
"Yeah, yeah. What isn't?"
The group came charging by again but this time the kid was missing. Huh. Sneaky little brat. Ranma liked him already.
"You have tormented me for the last time, Ranma! Prepare to die!"
"Ryoga, you're a moron."
"Ranma, prepare to die!"
A good fight was just what the doctor ordered as far as Ranma was concerned. All the crap about being utterly lost and not recognising anything could all be left aside when he was fighting. Ryoga swung his umbrella around in an attack but Ranma simply leaned back underneath the swing before popping back up and catching Ryoga with a blast of punches to the chest that staggered P-chan back a couple of steps.
"This really isn't a good idea."
Ranma took to the skies next, leaping over Ryoga's attack, and landing a flying kick to Ryoga's face before pushing off with his other leg and landing in a crouch on top of a nearby fence. Another leap carried him away as Ryoga smashed through the fence with his umbrella trying to get at Ranma.
Before anything else could happen they were surrounded by men and women in animal masks
"Umm, hey," said Ranma, scratching at the base of his pigtail.
"This is all your fault, Saotome."
"You will cease this at once."
Ryoga was seething and for a moment Ranma was seriously worried that Ryoga was going to take that umbrella of his and start knocking masked weirdos about but he eventually settled for a disdainful snort and hefting the umbrella over his shoulder. Probably a good thing. Ranma didn't know how good these guys were but there was an awful lot of martial artists in the village who'd probably take exception to him beating up their cops or whatever these weirdos were.
"You got me arrested."
"You got me arrested. Cologne is going to kill me."
"I swear, if it wasn't for these handcuffs," said Ranma. "Ah, the hell with it."
Handcuffs weren't going to stop him from kicking Mousse in the head. Course, the leg shackles they applied after that did the job well enough, but some sacrifices just had to be made.
"Man, you look like you fell face-first into a lawnmower," said Ranma. The man's expression managed, somehow, to become even less friendly. "Uh. Did I say that out loud?"
The tall, scarred man nodded at Ranma.
The man stared down at Ranma. Well, glowered was more like it. Ranma fidgeted. He didn't like being tied down, damn leg shackles and handcuffs, and he didn't like silence much either. He wished the guy would just tell him what he was after but he just kept glowering at him as if he was some piece of dirt he'd found on his shoe.
"What?" blurted Ranma finally. "If you're that pissed about the fence, I'll fix it, man."
"My name is Morino Ibiki," said the man. Ibiki. "I am head of the interrogation and torture division of Konoha ANBU."
Ranma twitched. Torture? Oh hell no. First sign of hot pokers and he was breaking loose. Diplomacy be damned. No-one was inserting anything into any of his orifices.
Ibiki said nothing more after that, just maintaining a steady gaze, and Ranma found himself fidgeting again in short order. Dammit. He hated it when people just sat and stared at him. "What do do you want?" he asked finally.
"Why don't you tell me?" he asked. "I'm sure you have some ideas."
Ranma bit back a remark about plastic surgery. "Me to pay for the broken fence?" he asked. "I dunno. Hey, where are Ryoga and Mousse anyway?"
"Similar accommodations to you," replied Ibiki. "I'll get around to them soon enough. In your position, I would worry about myself."
Ranma squirmed. "Man, I wouldn't want to be someone who'd committed a real crime around here," he said.
"Oh, but you have," said Ibiki. That got Ranma's attention. "You entered the village without permission. Tsk, tsk."
"This is worse than Joketsuzoku."
"You wear no hitai-ate," he continued, ignoring Ranma. "And then you start a brawl in the middle of our territory like a rank amateur. It really doesn't make a great deal of sense unless you have a death wish."
"I really have no idea what you're talking about."
"Really?" he asked. "That's interesting. Are you claiming to not be a ninja, despite your obvious abilities?"
"The only ninja I know is a crazy transvestite," said Ranma. "It's not something I try to emulate."
"You're remarkably flippant for someone in your position," he said. "We'll see how long that lasts when we get down to serious business."
"Serious business? Dude, you so much as touch a hot poker and I'm breaking out."
"This isn't the sort of place you just break out of. Now, who trained you? Who sent you here?"
"Uh, my pop trained me. And a demon sent me here."
That probably wasn't the thing to say, Ranma realised the moment the words left his mouth. Ibiki didn't exactly tense up but Ranma felt the energy in the room shift just that little bit.
"Uh, not voluntarily," added Ranma. "Umm. I killed it and it sent me here or something. I don't know. Magic is stupid like that. It just does stuff for the hell of it."
"You killed it and it sent you here. These events would seem contradictory to me."
"It's the truth."
Ibiki stared at him till he started squirming in his seat. "Now, let's talk about your training," he said. "You say that your father trained you. Where is he from? Who trained him?"
"Uh," said Ranma. "Tokyo, I think. Pop doesn't talk much about when he was a kid."
"Tokyo," said Ibiki. "Where is it? Which nation?"
Ibiki frowned, which wasn't exactly a pretty sight. All that scar tissue. Brr. "And where is that, this Japan you claim your father hails from?" he asked. "Which nations does it border."
"It's an island nation," said Ranma. "I suppose China would be the closest thing to a neighbour. You know, China, big country near Russia and India? One of the oldest civilisations in the world? Man, even I know this stuff and I'm about the worst student ever."
"And your father's trainer?"
"Oh, that's the old letch," said Ranma. Ibiki seemed to perk up for a moment at that. "Yeah. Happosai. Biggest pervert in all the world, bar none. Heard of him?"
"I think I've heard enough."
"You're letting me go?"
Ibiki rose to his feet and left the room. His minions followed. Well, that could have went better.
"They're either completely insane or they're telling the truth," said Ibiki. "Possibly both."
"Not genjutsu then?"
"Not unless it's so good that even a Hyuuga couldn't make it out," replied Ibiki with a deep frown. "It's possible."
"But unlikely," said Sarutobi, turning away from the window he had been looking out of. "Such a thing would be entirely beyond the skill of all but the greatest genjutsu masters and they would not create agents who inserted themselves in such a crude manner."
"Their story is entirely unbelievable. We should perform further tests. Hold them for observation."
"I don't think so. They haven't committed any crime that would warrant such treatment and I think, perhaps, that we could find a place for them here in the village."
"You, sir, you must be joking! You have no idea if they're safe to trust or not. Even in the best case they have no reason to feel any loyalty towards this village."
"Then we shall give them reasons, the same as we do for any ninja who lives here. We shall treat them fairly, as one of us, the same as any other, should they accept the offer, and we shall see how they respond to that."
"And if they betray us?"
"Then they will be treated as any other missing-nin," said Sarutobi. "I won't let fear of betrayal control me, Ibiki.
"As you wish, sir."
"The Hokage wants to see you and your friends," said Ibiki. "Ah, you might want to be a little more polite with him than you were with me."
One of Ibiki's masked minions unlocked his shackles and cuffs but Ranma kept his eyes firmly fixed on the far more dangerous Ibiki all the while. "You know," he said. "The service here is lousy: no tip for you."
"I'll get over it."
"Oh, man, you're a 'wise, old' martial arts master are you?" asked Ranma when he saw the Hokage.
"I'm old," replied the Hokage from behind his desk. "But I think a wise man would have found another successor by now. Why do you ask?"
"Because wise, old martial arts masters are always - always - nuts," said Ranma. "Either that or perverted."
"Cologne isn't nuts or perverted," said Mousse.
"Cologne teaches random strangers the secret techniques of her tribe for personal amusement," said Ranma. "How normal is that?"
"You're remarkably cheerful for people who have been under Ibiki," said the Hokage. "I must admit, I'm impressed."
"Ah, he's a big teddy bear," said Ranma. "Just, uh, don't tell him I said that, yeah?"
"Of course, of course," chuckled the Hokage. "Now, I called you here for a reason. From what Ibiki has told me, you are quite thoroughly lost with no way home, yes?"
"I always get back eventually," said Ryoga. Then he scratched the back of his head and gave them a sheepish grin. "Might take a while, though."
"Ah, perhaps," said the Hokage. "But we have no Japan or Tokyo on our maps, nor do we have a Joketsuzoku or China in any of our records, and they are comprehensive."
Ranma blinked. "Uh," he said. "No China? How the hell could you miss China?"
"We have no record of it."
"But it's just about the biggest country in the world!" said Ranma. "And it should be right next door, more or less."
"And yet we have no record of it," said Sarutobi. "Not even rumours from travellers. You are the first to ever mention it."
The three looked at each other, each looking equally baffled. "So where the hell are we?" asked Ryoga finally.
"The Land of Fire" said the Hokage. "Specifically, the Hidden Village of Konoha."
"Is that near Hokkaido?"
"Ryoga, shut up. Please. Hokkaido is part of Japan."
"Your situation seems rather perilous from my perspective," said the Hokage. "You have no supplies, no friends, no allies, no way home, nothing beyond the clothes on your back and the items in your hands."
"And you've got just the offer for us."
"You appear to be be possessed of some martial skill," said the Hokage. "You may not be a ninja, yet, and we do not normally take on over-aged students of any sort, but I believe we could make an exception in these circumstances. It would be cruel to cut you loose in an alien world so far from home and I endeavour to be cruel only when absolutely necessary."
"And you're doing this out of the goodness of your heart," said Ranma. "Yeah, right. Pull the other one. It has bells on."
"You would of course be expected to serve as all ninja are," said Sarutobi. "With your life. We expect loyalty. But serving here is not without its benefits, young man. We place far fewer strictures upon the private lives of our people than the other villages and do not indulge in the less pleasant rituals that many of our rivals do."
"Who said we're going to sign up with anyone?" asked Ryoga. "I'm no damned sneaky ninja. Now, Ranma . . . "
"Make no mistake, you will not be able to remain unaligned for long once you start attracting attention," said the Hokage. "There are many who would try to use you. Eventually one would succeed. Skilled as you appear to be, you are clearly not wise to the ways of the ninja world."
"And you think that we might as well let you to be the one to use us."
Sarutobi smiled. "Ah, but I won't use you," he said. "No more than I use any of the ninja who serve Konoha. I won't send you to your deaths on a whim or use you to do the unpleasant missions I'd rather my ninja not sully their hands with or any of the other things that could happen to you. You will simply be another team on the roster. No more, no less."
"And what do we get out of it?"
"The closest thing to safety you will find in this world being who you are," replied the Hokage. "And training, of course. You will have access to the same training resources as any of our ninja and we have a rather obvious interest in ensuring that you are as strong as possible."
Now, that tempted Ranma. New techniques. Always a good thing in his eyes. He traded looks with Ryoga and Mousse and then they huddled together.
"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," said Ranma.
"I dunno," said Ranma with a shrug. "It's from one of those foreign films Kasumi watches sometimes. I think it means we're lost and stuck where we're lost. Pretty much fits. Unless you've got some magic shoes up those sleeves of yours, duck-boy?"
"You're insane, Saotome. Completely insane."
"I don't want to be a damn ninja," said Ryoga. "Sneaky bastards."
"You seemed to get on well enough with Konatsu."
"Yeah, he's that alright."
"Konatsu's a boy?"
Ranma just stared at Ryoga as the fanged boy turned green. "I don't want to know, do I?" he asked.
Ryoga just shook his head.
"I've heard of some magics that could explain this," said Mousse, interrupting before Ranma could say something that would probably have started a fight. "The tribe has encountered several artefacts that transport people between worlds or through time."
"That'd explain a few things. How do we get back?"
"Without the artefacts? We don't, not unless you learned magic while I wasn't looking."
"We have to get back," snapped Ryoga. "I can't leave Akari like this."
"If you've got any ideas, I'm listening," said Ranma. "I wasn't exactly planning on leaving forever when we went after that demon either."
"We always find a way."
"Yeah, well, for now I think this is as good an offer as we're going to get," said Ranma. "We'll have food to eat, a place to sleep, and get some training while we're at it. All for the cost of what? Fighting for them? That's cake. We do that stuff all the time anyway."
"Ninja don't fight like we do. I don't want to be some sort of killer for hire."
Ranma looked at the Hokage, who was happily sat behind his desk puffing away on his pipe, as he waited for their reply. "I reckon we don't have a choice," said Ranma. "I believe the old guy. This ain't a nice place to be. We're going to have to do what it takes to survive till we can find a way home."
"Why the hell do you believe him? He might be another Happosai for all we know."
Ranma shrugged, "He seems okay," he said. "And what's the worst that could happen? If they're messing us about, we can just leave. It's not like they could stop us if we worked together."
Ryoga, reluctantly, after a few moments' thought, nodded. As did Mousse. They separated again.
"Okay, old man," said Ranma. "We'll take you up on that offer."