"Well, remind me to never be around when you go cat again, Saotome," said Mousse with a grimace. "I really don't want to find out whether it considers me an enemy or not the hard way."
Ranma just couldn't manage the usual smart-alec reply when he was surrounded by lumps of flesh and bone that had once been human beings. Somehow, it just didn't seem like the thing do do anymore.
"We've got a problem," said Mousse. "There's no time for you to get all broody over this. The girl's been kidnapped and they took Anko prisoner at the same time. We need to move quickly."
Ranma blinked. "They took the kid?" he asked, anger flaring up inside him. "And Anko?"
"Yeah," replied Mousse. "So save the moping for later. Frankly, I'm not inclined to care about some of this pack of jackals getting ripped apart, but if that's what makes you tick fine. Just save it till we've got Anko back."
"Mousse, you're a moron," said Ranma. "But you're right about one thing: we need to move quickly. Come on, where are the others?"
Mousse ended up leading Ranma to a hastily erected camp out past the outskirts of the village they'd been staying in. It looked some sort of refugee camp, the sort of thing you see on news reports from Africa, to Ranma. A pair of tired looking guards, one of whom had most of his face covered by bandages and the other had spatters of blood decorating his clothing, glared at the pair of them for a few seconds before waving them through. And so they entered.
It wasn't any prettier a sight from the inside than it had been from out. The guards were twitchy, jumping at even the slightest noise, and the caravan drivers, well, some of them looked fine but the younger ones had a dull sort of look in their eyes that was suggestive of a not terribly healthy mental state. It was the sort of thing that Ranma had seen in the eyes of a few people in the really, truly dirt poor villages that he'd passed through with his pop and they normally didn't last much longer after they got that look.
And that didn't even get into the sight of people carrying corpses, some of them horribly mutilated, into the largest tent and others carrying the wounded to another similarly large tent and the groans of pain that Ranma could make out above the background noise of the camp.
"Why are we even here?" asked Ranma. "We should be in the village with proper doctors and a hospital and stuff."
"The villagers are scared, Ranma. They don't want us there in case we get attacked again."
"But we defended them!"
Mousse shrugged, "Yeah, and?" he asked. "You know people, Ranma. They're scared, they're not thinking, and so they try to get rid of what they see as the source of the problem. We did bring the attack to them."
Mousse shrugged, "Come on," he said. "Ryoga's with Mr. Tanaka. We need to talk to them to figure out what comes next."
"Who's in charge of the guards now?"
"Uh, that would be us. Pretty much anyway. With Isamu and Anko gone we're next most senior, apparently."
They fall into silence then as Mousse lead Ranma to the tent that contained Ryoga and Mr. Tanaka. Ryoga was sat in the corner looking vaguely angry and somewhat singed around the edges, his umbrella laid out on the floor next to him, while Mr. Tanaka paced up and down the length of the tent, his expression alternating between stark fear and boiling rage within the few moments that Ranma spent observing him before his presence was noticed.
"Ranma," said Ryoga. "Never thought I'd be glad to see you."
"Ha. Same to you, lost boy. What's the story?"
"My daughter's been kidnapped by a psychotic mass-murdering bastard of a ninja," shouted Mr. Tanaka. "That's the damn story. Oh, and he took your sensei, too, just to round things off nicely. Can't forget killing half my guards, burning most of my caravans, and getting me banished from one of my favourite trade hubs either. It's been a real swell day all round."
Ranma blinked. "Uh."
"What happened, Saotome?" asked Mousse. "You don't go cat on a whim."
"Well, after that dick with the girly eyes blocked my ki, his little minions summoned up a giant c-c-feline to kill me. That's about where I stop remembering."
"I'm guessing that those little minions are the chunks of meat left where you were fighting."
"That'd be them," said Ranma. "And my ki's unblocked now so I'm good to go. We know where the bad guys have to lick their wounds?"
"This is all very nice," said Mr. Tanaka. "Heart-warming, even, but I want to know when we're going to get around to torturing that bastard we captured. I bet he'll know where the other roaches are hiding."
"We managed to grab one of the bandits before he could run away with the rest of the cowardly, dishonourable bastards," said Ryoga. "He's chained up in the tent next door with a couple of guards making sure he doesn't get too comfortable."
It was just one thing after another. First he got beat by some guy he should have been able to beat with one hand tied behind his back, then he went cat and discovered that his cat side was now completely, utterly not safe to be around, and then they had someone locked up waiting to torture him for information. Nerima had never looked so good as it did right then.
"So that's the plan, then?" asked Ranma. "We beat information out of this guy and then go crack some skulls?"
"Works for me," said Ryoga with a fanged grin. "Some payback sounds real good about now."
"Just let me have five minutes with him . . . he'll tell us what we need to know, I promise you that."
"That's really not a good idea, Mr. Tanaka," Ranma weighed in quickly. "You're not trained for this sort of thing."
"And you are? Oh, of course. You're ninja. Yes. Make the bastard scream."
"I hope you know what you're doing, Saotome," said Mousse as they entered the prison tent. "Because I sure as hell don't."
"Trust me," replied Ranma. "Just follow my lead. I've got it all figured out."
Mousse snorted but said nothing more.
"Hey, you guys," said Ranma to the guards who were standing over the very battered looking prisoner. "You can leave now. We'll take it from here."
"Give the bastard one for us."
And with that they were alone. Ranma took a moment to eye up the prisoner. He really didn't look like much but then that was rather inevitable considering the state of him. The guy looked he'd been fifteen rounds with Herb and then another fifteen with Saffron before having a little dust-up with Happosai for good measure. He was bruised, extensively, all across the visible areas of his body, and given that his shirt had been reduced to a few tatters of cloth that covered basically nothing that was saying something.
"You look like crap," said Mousse bluntly. "Ready to give up, yet?"
"Fuck you, ninja brat," coughed the man, bringing up blood as he did so. "I'm not telling you shit."
"You are aware that ninja are trained in torture, yes?" asked Ranma. "We won't just beat you like some thug who managed to pick up a nice sword and a respectable job along the way. We're ninja. We know to inflict maximum pain for minimum physical damage. And you, my rather unfortunate friend, have information regarding our captured sensei. It's a bad combination."
"Yeah, yeah," said the prisoner. "Pull the other one, it's got bells on. If you were really this big, bad, cold-arsed ninja then you would dump your sensei like so much garbage. She failed, kid. That gets your arse kicked out of ninja villages."
Mousse and Ranma looked at each other then back at the prisoner. "Not Konoha," said Mousse. "Discarding a valuable resource over something that may not even be their responsibility? How very stupid. Anko is a special jounin; ninja of that level don't grow on trees."
"So you're hippy ninja, then. Terrifying. Look, I'm shaking. Oh, wait, that's the muscle trauma from when certain fuckers who I intend to main horrible when I get out of here beat the hell out of me. Never mind."
"You're remarkably confident for someone facing a pair of ninja."
"Yeah, well, I find it hard to be scared of a couple of brats playing the hard man," he snapped back. "Come on, you expect me to believe that you're torturers just because you've got the right secret handshake?"
"No, but you could believe me because I'm going to take this kunai, heat it up till it's glowing red, and then use it to slice into your flesh in such a way that the heat cauterises the wound immediately so that you don't get to bleed out. Just think about that for a moment. There's really nothing to stop me from keeping that up for . . . oh, days, weeks, months even."
The man blinked and his eyes widened ever so slightly suddenly looked somewhat more nervous. "You wouldn't," he said, his voice wavering just enough for Ranma to pick it up "You're just a kid."
"A kid who's been under the hands of Konoha's head torturer," said Ranma with a forced grin of a most predatory sort. "Mousse here has too. We've picked up a few things . . . a few neat little tricks."
"Hmm," said Mousse with a nod. "Moreno Ibiki is an interesting sort of man. Have you ever heard of him? I hear he has quite the reputation."
The prisoner looked like he was about to soil himself. Yeah, he'd heard of Ibiki alright, not that Ranma really understood why people were so scared of ol' scarface. He was a big, old teddy bear. Really. And he'd keep telling himself that till the day he died.
"And we haven't had much of a chance to try these tricks out," continued Mousse. "It's been very disappointing. Then you just . . . fall into our hands. Makes you think that someone up there if looking out for you, doesn't it? Well, not you you, but you get what I'm saying."
"Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, it does," said Ranma. "And, hell, if we get bored, we can always call up Ryoga to keep things moving. He's just as eager to get into the fun stuff as we are. Bit too eager, really. Not sure you'd survive his attentions. He ain't good at subtle."
"No, he isn't," agreed Mousse with a nod. "Very much driven by his emotions is our team-mate. It would be a terrible shame if he were to break out friend here prematurely, but that's the risk you take."
"Yeah. It's not like anyone's gonna miss this guy."
"Indeed. Shall I get the kunai ready?"
"No!" barked the prisoner. "Okay, enough. I give, I give. You're a pair of proper little psychos and I give. I've had enough."
"A shame," said Mousse. "I was so looking forward to it."
"Can't have everything," said Ranma. "Now, prisoner, tell me where your base is, the defences, patrol patterns, everything. And tell me quickly. Oh, and don't forget: if you lie, you die."
And he did. He coughed his guts up so quickly that Ranma had to ask him to slow down so he could take it all in properly. It was pathetic really; they hadn't even had to do anything, maybe Ibiki was onto something after all. When it was done, Ranma and Mousse turned on their heels and left the tent without word.
"So, got the info?" asked one of the guards. "I didn't hear any screaming."
"What can I say?" asked Ranma. "I'm just that damn good."
"So can we deal with him properly now?" asked Mr. Tanaka with a most intent expression upon his features. "I want to see him swing."
Ranma shrugged. "Not my problem," he said. "Let him go, hang him, whatever. I'm a martial artist not a judge.
"It's not like you to be so cold-blooded, Saotome," said Mousse as they walked away from the tent. "I'm almost concerned."
"Not really feeling my usual wonderful self, right now," said Ranma. "And it's not like I haven't done the tour of the backwater villages before, Mousse. Bandits never get off light when they get caught. You should know that."
"Whatever then. Just don't go Anko on me."
It wasn't as if he could do anything about it anyway. What did Mousse expect? That he'd fight off every pissed-off guard in the camp to save some rotten bastard who made a living from murder, rape, and plunder? No, ta.
Anko came back too with not a whisper of motion. She could feel the shackles around her ankles and wrists and the presence of others in the room with her. It didn't take a genius to figure out what had happened. She'd either been captured or got really drunk and had a really kinky one-nighter, Somehow, she didn't think she'd be lucky enough for it to be the second of those two. She'd been so close to shedding that damned Hyuuga blood too. Ah, well, there'd be other times for that. She had to worry about getting away first,
"There's not point to that," said Hiro. "You can't fool these eyes by feigning sleep, my dear. It just doesn't work that way,"
"Ah, well, it was worth a try," said Anko, rolling till she was balanced in a crouch, though there was little she could about her arms with their being tied behind her back. Damned uncomfortable too. "Don't suppose you're going to give me a fair shot and untie me? I could really use a safe word right about now."
"Don't be silly," replied Hiro. "And don't even think about trying to use academy techniques to escape. Those cuffs are chakra reinforced and designed to hold even an Akimichi should I feel the need."
"Damn, all that for little, old me?" asked Anko. "You must be really paranoid."
"Or just not keen on the idea of finding out what Orochimaru's apprentice deems fair payback for a defeat."
"Snake-bastard's still fucking up my life ten years after he abandoned me. There's probably a lesson in that."
"Perhaps," said Hiro. "Really, it'd be best for all involved if you just gave up on the idea of escape. It simply isn't possible. Even if you freed yourself, even if you fought through my guards, I would simply defeat you again and then I'm afraid I'd be forced to stop protecting you."
"I knew this was coming."
"Well, you must understand," continued Hiro. "You killed a lot of good men today. That's made you very few friends among my people . . . and while you're worth a lot to me intact you're not worth so much that I'd risk splitting my forces over keeping you that way. I'm sure you understand. It's just business."
"What's next?" asked Anko. "Gonna threaten the brat to keep me in line? Not much further to fall really."
"Do I look foolish to believe that you, the apprentice of a monster far worse than I could ever be, would care one iota for the welfare of a child? No, I don't think so."
"Bastard, I can't wait for my team to catch up with you."
"Your students are impressive but one is already disabled," said Hiro, though Anko caught a flicker of uncertainty pass across his features before they smoothed out again. "I'm certain that we can deal with two genin."
"Yeah, you keep telling yourself that. Me, I'm just waiting for them to show up and kick your sorry arse from one end of the country to the other."
"Are you sure about this, Ranma?" asked Ryoga. "I mean, this guy beat you, and now you're talking about going up against him one on one most likely."
"Since when do you interfere with man-to-man duels?" asked Ranma without moving from his position laid out on the grass staring up at the sky. He just wasn't in the mood to scrap with Ryoga, for a change. It just didn't seem like the thing to do.
"That's not the point!" growled Ryoga. "This isn't a duel; this is a battle. We can't afford you losing."
"Well, if you can learn the umisenken in the next couple hours, feel free to join me," said Ranma. "Otherwise, I have to go alone. I don't need you guys blundering about when I'm trying to sneak around."
For a moment Ryoga looked as if he was going to give caving Ranma's skull in another go before he deflated. "How the hell is it even going to work?" he asked. "These guys have super eyes or something, how the hell can you sneak up on them?"
"It's all in the ki," said Ranma. "All in the ki. Get some rest, Ryoga. You're going to need it to lead the attack."
"Feh. Smashing up those idiot bandits won't be any challenge. You're the one taking the good parts."
"Yeah, yeah. You're about a subtle as an atom bomb, pig-boy, so how the hell do you think you'd sneak in to grab Aya and Anko without starting a war?"
"Shut up, Ranma."
Ryoga left Ranma to his thoughts not long after that, apparently convinced that Ranma knew what he was talking about or that his mind was set. Fine by Ranma. He was quite content to be left to his own devices just then. He needed to be absolutely focused for what he was about to do and that meant meditating and seeing if he could work some of the soreness out of his muscles.