It was, Ranma reflected as she was smashed back through the tree, a really lousy way to find out that not all ninja were as weak as they'd seemed at first. Or at least a really painful way, she reflected, as she slammed to a halt against the large boulder that had been being the tree.
Mocking laughter followed in her wake. "Come, come, Ranma," said the enemy ninja. "I came here to see your potential. Surely you have more to offer than this?"
Ranma bounced back onto her feet. "Bring it on," she said. "I've been just waiting for a decent fight to come along."
And to think, it had all started because Ryoga had got lost.
"Where the hell has that idiot got to?" asked Mousse suddenly, disturbing Ranma from her attempt to locate any convenient brats in the area. "I can't see him anywhere."
"You can't see anything anywhere."
Ranma quickly danced out of the way of the spiked chains sent her way - and looking at the way they pulverised the tree they did get a hit on, it was a damn good thing she did - while she scanned the area herself. "Huh," she said with a thoughtful frown on her face. "Looks like you're right about something for a change. The lost boy's living up to his name."
"Saotome, you are quite possibly the most infuriating human being to ever draw breath," said Mousse. "How you survived long enough to learn any martial arts is absolutely beyond me."
"Aww, I love you, too, Mousse."
The inarticulate snarl of pure, frothing rage that Ranma got in response to that drew a grin from her. There was nothing that wasn't pure entertainment about winding these pillocks up and watching them dance.
But there were more important things to be doing that trying to inspire Mousse to have a stroke or something in a fit of rage. "I'll go see if I can find the idiot," said Ranma. "You hold the fort, yeah?"
"What are you talking about? Hold the fort?"
"You'll only slow me down, duck-boy," said Ranma, sticking her tongue at Mousse for extra infuriation. "And we can't both go running off or we'll all end up as lost as ol' bacon-breath is. Hey, it's not like anyone here can actually threaten me."
Ranma didn't hang around to see Mousse's response to that, but she was sure it was truly hilarious in its sheer magnitude of rage. Mousse always did throw good tantrums, though not in the same league as Ryoga's. No-one could throw a temper tantrum like P-chan could. They were seriously something to behold, and she always got a good fight out of them.
Ryoga was lost. Really, really lost. Nothing new, really, but he'd been sticking with Ranma and Mousse so well since he wound up in ninja-world that he'd gotten used to knowing where he was and where he was going, so it came as a bit of a nasty surprise to find himself in the middle of a random chunk of forest with not a soul in sight and no idea where he was or how to get back to his irritating team-mates.
It wasn't that he was scared or anything - hell no - but it wasn't exactly something he appreciated. He always felt a fool when he got lost like that, it was just incredibly humiliating to not even to find your own way around like a normal person, and it was even worse when Ranma was involved. That bastard couldn't help but prod and mock till he felt like he was going to explode if he didn't crush Saotome skull.
And it wouldn't help much with the exam. He'd never live it down if it was his fault they failed the damn thing when these stupid little ninja kiddies went on and passed it. Never. Ranma'd make sure of that. It'd be as bad as losing to Mousse or, even worse, losing to that Kuno moron. Either of them.
What a minute, what was that? There was . . . a flash of movement at the very edge of his vision. Oh, yeah. Ryoga cracked his knuckles and rolled his neck. A fight sounded about right to him. Good way to work off some frustration, and a good way to send up a 'Ryoga's here' signal to Ranma.
"You might as well come out," said Ryoga, hefting his umbrella up into a guard position. "I know you're there."
Laughter rang out. "Oh, very impressive," said a female voice from the trees behind Ryoga. He was facing it in a heartbeat. "Very, very impressive."
Ryoga frowned. Okay, he knew ninja got a bit freaky, but he'd never seen one with half the skin on their face hanging off before. She didn't even seem to be in pain . . . and there was another face beneath. "What the hell are you?" barked Ryoga, settling into a ready posture. This one was giving him the creeps.
"I am Orochimaru," said the woman, slithering her inhumanly long tongue out to flick through the air in front of her face. "Have you not heard of me, Ryoga? I was under the impression that I was rather the infamous criminal in these parts."
"Never heard of you."
"Ah, my old student is keeping secrets then," said the woman with an air of sadness about that rang about as true as Ranma's conscience. "Such a terrible thing for a student to show her master such disrespect, don't you think?"
"Not if they're an infamous criminal."
"Ah, you wound me."
A wide grin spread over the woman's face. "Oh, please do," she said. "I wish to see your potential, Ryoga. All of it. Don't hold back, or you'll die."
A bare heartbeat later, Ryoga was slamming his umbrella down onto the spot where the freaky woman had been stood with all the strength he could muster. She wasn't there. Before he could move to react a fist crashed into his left temple with enough force to shatter a good-sized boulder. It was enough to snap his head back a centimetre or two and draw a grunt of surprise from him. The follow up strikes, seeming to come from all sides at once, actually managed to drive him back a step or two.
Ryoga growled. There was no way he was letting some two-faced weirdo beat him like that! What would Ranma say?
And so he attacked, pressing forward with another mighty swing of his umbrella. It connected with nothing but air as the woman jumped back out of range with a mocking smile on her face. It was just like Ranma. Just like. She spat poisonous words at him, she danced around his attacks, and then she mocked him with every inch of her body language.
Ryoga roared, and hurled himself forward with as much speed and power as he could manage. He saw the girl's eyes widen fractionally and then he saw a smile spread across her face. And then she moved. One second she was in font of him, the next . . . he almost fell as stumbled in his effort to turn on his heel mid-movement.
"Strength," said Orochimaru. "Yes, plenty of strength. If I didn't know better, I'd wonder if you were of Tsunade's line. Perhaps a bastard?"
Okay, that was it. Even Ranma didn't insult his mother! Ryoga let loose a wild war-cry and charged. The woman leaned back out of the way of his wild umbrella swing but his other fist slammed into her chest and catapulted her back into a tree. Ryoga followed up immediately landed another punch, a left hook, that twisted her head around before slamming his umbrella down onto the top of her skull.
And then she exploded in a shower of mud.
Ryoga just stared at the brown puddle that had been left behind. What the hell? Since when did people turn to mud when you crushed their skull? Was it some sort of freaky ninja thing? Even those Musk weirdos didn't pull anything like that.
Ryoga couldn't even begin to hold firm in the face of the wind that took hold of him after he heard those words being spat out. He was in the air, chest ablaze with pain from the initial impact of the attack, and slamming through tree after tree with no control over his flight beyond trying to protect his head as best he could from the blows he was taking. There was not a damned thing he could do about, and he hated every second of it.
Eventually he came to a crashing halt as the winds dissipated, slamming into the unyielding ground and then skidding along till he slammed into the base of a particularly large tree, which listed alarmingly at the impact. It felt like he'd been kicked in the ribs by a mecha, and a damned big one. Everything hurt, even through the breaking point conditioning, and he hadn't even managed to land a hit on his opponent.
He got up anyway. He wasn't done yet.
"Considerable damage tolerance, too," said Orochimaru with a nod. "I must admit I am impressed. Most are reduced to little more than a smear on the ground when I use that technique."
"I'm not done yet, you bastard."
"Of course not," said Orochimaru. "You would be unworthy if you were."
"Shi shi hokodan!"
The ball of green energy flew true from Ryoga's cupped hands and blasted forth with great speed. For a moment Ryoga thought he'd done it - who could dodge one of those? - but Orochimaru simply leaned back and watched as it flew past to blow a tree to splinters. Damn it.
"An interesting technique. No hand seals, considerable power, and it appears to be of a useful range. Very interesting."
Ryoga snarled. "Shi shi hokodan!"
But this this time he followed it up. He flipped his umbrella open and sent it spinning through the air towards Orochimaru. Sure, having an umbrella spin at you wouldn't normally be all that impressive, but Ryoga's umbrella weighed several tons and had razor-tipped spokes. And he didn't stop at that. The bastard was quick - maybe not Ranma or Cologne quick, but quick - so he charged in, fists blazing with green energy. He was going to get this woman even if it killed him.
The energy blast passed harmlessly by to destroy a tree once again, and the umbrella was dodged handily, but that left her wide open for Ryoga's fists. A left hook twisted her head around, a right hook twisted it right back, and he kept on going, pressing forward with punch after punch as he battered Orochimaru backwards. He almost felt like cheering himself on as he landed the strikes; it was about time he managed to get some decent hits in.
Eventually he pressed Orochimaru back up against a tree and then with one mighty swing he smashed the woman through it and catapulted her back into the forest. There, that should do it. If she was a Ranma-type fighter, then hits like that should put her down.
And then a giant snake exploded forth from where he'd sent the woman flying. A snake with the woman stood atop its head, arms folded over her chest and a smirk on her face. The only mark from his attacks was the fact that the skin which had been hanging off one side of her face was now gone entirely, revealing a face that was not feminine in the slightest. Hell, nothing about her looked feminine now. It was a man. He really didn't understand how that worked. Another Jusenkyo victim?
The snake lunged down at Ryoga, mouth opened wide to swallow him whole, but he leaped away to safety atop a branch of a nearby tree. The snake lunged upwards again but he didn't dodge this time - that was Ranma's style, not his - he simply pushed his arms upwards and stopped the beast in its tracks with a grunt of exertion as his muscles strained under the impact.
But this left him wide open for Orochimaru who promptly smashed him off his perch with a lunging punch that sent Ryoga spinning through the air before he slammed face-first into the ground. Before he could back to his feet a boot caught his ribs, right where that wind attack had hit, and sent him skidding back along the ground.
It felt like his side was on fire, and the attack didn't stop there. Orochimaru struck again and again at the same weakened spot till Ryoga could barely breathe, never mind stand to fight.
"You have strength," said Orochimaru. "Such strength! But you lack subtlety. They say only death can cure a fool, but if you wish to grow strong enough to reach my level you must prove that wrong. But now, now I have other affairs to attend to. Shunmin."
Immediately, it felt as if someone had attached ten ton anvils to Ryoga's eyelids. He knew it was a genjutsu, knew it, but he didn't have the strength to fight if off and soon his eyes closed and he was asleep.
"Where is that moron?"
Irritation was the order of the day as Ranma searched for Ryoga. Her first thought had been to follow the sounds of fighting, but there was fighting everywhere and she would never find Ryoga if she checked each and every single scrap she picked up on along the way. So, with the easy way out, she was stuck with the old-fashioned outwards spiral search pattern. Joy.
It was a pain in the neck, and the moron was going to get some serious stick when she found him.
Mousse was angry. This really wasn't anything new. He always ended up angry when he had to deal with Saotome. It was just tiresome. Why did he always let that little shit get under his skin? He knew the insults were going to fly whenever he spent more than about two minutes, so why did he always, without fail, let it get to him? How long would it take for him to learn to ignore the insults?
Oh, yeah, about as long as it took for Saotome to learn to keep his hands off Shampoo.
So enthralled with his internal dialogue was Mousse that he didn't even realise there was someone approaching him till a swarm of snakes came flying towards his back with their fangs bared. If it wasn't for the hissing as they moved towards him, he'd have been done for. As it was the spiked chains he launched from his sleeves tore the damned things to bloody pieces before they wrapped around the man who had tried to attack him.
A man who promptly dissolved into a puddle of mud as the spikes made contact with his flesh. A replacement! Mousse moved quickly and managed to dodge the foot that would have just about taken his head off by the skin of his teeth as he leaped away to perch atop a nearby tree-stump.
From there, he was able to take a good luck at the man who had attacked him . . . and he didn't look all that human. The skin was just too pale, the eyes too snake-like, and, gods, the tongue. No, he looked like a Musk. Very much so, except with snake heritage instead of a wolf or a tiger.
And then he spat a sword at Mousse. Bit of a surprise. Mousse had thought he was a master of hidden weapons but he'd sure as hell never kept a sword in his mouth before, that was for sure. It came as even more of a surprise when the sword sheared right through the chains he fired off to block it. His dodge was frantic and only just carried him clear of the attack in time. As it was, he ended up with a wide gash carved in the left shoulder of his robes.
Before Mousse could react, the man was inside his personal space staring down at the sleeves of his robes. "Fascinating seal-work," he said. "Fascinating. No-one mentioned a seal-master on my old student's team."
The half-dozen shuriken Mousse launched at the man hit only air as he simply vanished to re-appear back where he'd started. His eyes narrowed in thought. That wasn't physical movement.
"Ah, but I haven't introduced myself, have I?" asked the man. "Forgive my poor manners. I am Orochimaru."
"That's nice," said Mousse, and then he filled the air with steel, all heading towards where the man was stood.
The weapons didn't even come near him, he summoned an earthen wall seemingly out of nowhere in a flash, but that was hardly the only avenue of attack Mousse was making use of. He was already leaping down at the man from a tree behind him, steel talons firmly attached to his feet, as the wall sprang into existence.
And he made contact too. The talons dug deep into the body of the target, sinking into flesh and muscle in a most satisfying way. Mousse had won. Then the body simply dissolved into a puddle of mud, which Mousse promptly fell into face-first. When he looked up, he saw the man perched atop the wall he had summoned.
"You didn't think you could defeat me so easily, did you, child?" he asked. "I would expect more intelligence than that from a seal-master."
"The arrogant army will lose the battle for sure," fired back Mousse, leaping back to his feet and shrugging off the grogginess of his face-first impact.
"Arrogance is believing that you, a mere genin, can defeat one such as I."
Mousse's reply was to stab a kunai into the wall. A kunai with a particularly large explosive tag attached to it. And then he leaped backwards out of the way just before the wall was blown to rubble in a roar and a flash of light. As Orochimaru fell to the ground, Mousse launched a vast number of explosive-tagged kunai his way before backing off into the trees to observe.
Orochimaru opened his mouth wide and with a disgusting hacking sound a snake came flying out of his mouth. And then another, and another, and another. They just kept multiplying till he was entirely concealed by the snakes flooding out his of his mouth, all of which heading immediately for the kunai Mousse had launched and began swallowing them. Each kunai promptly exploded, but for every snake that was killed another two would takes it place.
Mousse knew when he was out of his league and turned to make a hasty exit.
"Going somewhere, Mousse? But we were just starting!"
And received a punch in his face that smashed him back into the clearing for his trouble. Well, he thought, this was just turning out to be a truly brilliant day. He'd gone from laughing at the little kiddy ninja to being beat up the Musk-reject from hell. Wonderful Brilliant.
There was no more time for thought after that. Just fighting instinct, dodging and blocking as the snake-man fell upon him in a fury of blows. Mousse was thrown on the defensive immediately and just couldn't get back off it. The man was quick, strong, skilled, and he just didn't move right. The tells, the body language that even the most skilled of martial artists had, they just weren't there or not in a way he could recognise. The man really wasn't human.
And then the snakes started to come out again.
Ryoga was sprawled out unconscious in the middle of a patch of utter devastation. It looked like someone had fired off a hiryu shoten ha with Ryoga as the target and the forest was basically destroyed for a good hundred metres around where he had fallen. Hell, hell, hell.
Wait a minute . . . was he snoring? That stupid, bacon-breathed, dim-witted Kuno! What sort of brain-dead fool fell asleep in the middle of a fight?
Answer: one who was weak against genjutsu. Brilliant, and she didn't know how to dispel a genjutsu that had been put on someone else yet either. Well, not the way you're supposed to do it either. She'd just have to it the old-fashioned way: with violence.
Ryoga grunted and turned over away from Ranma as her foot made high-speed contact with his ribs. "Dammit, Ryoga," growled Ranma. Another kick, this time to his left kidney, and this time he sort of shuffled away from her. "Wake up, moron." Another kick, another move away. Okay, that wasn't working. Time for a new approach. "Happosai is stealing Akane's panties and groping her."
Ryoga promptly leaped to his feet with a roar and an explosion of ultra-heavy ki before wildly charging off into the forest without so much as a by your leave or even a glance to Ranma.
"Moron," said Ranma "You are the single greatest moron who has ever lived, Ryoga."
There was no point in trying to track him down if he was rampaging around the forest in a blind rage. Time to get back to Mousse and see if he'd managed to get beaten up, too. Ryoga'd find 'em himself sooner or later. Probably later.
Ranma arrived just in time to see the over-sized snake coiled around Mousse's body bite down into the Amazon's neck. He wavered for a moment, as the snake uncoiled and slid away into the forest, and then Mousse fell. Shit. Ranma found that her mouth was dry. Was he - no, his chest was still moving. It was shallow, but still moving. So she just had to get rid of this guy and then try to . . . hell, suck the poison out of the wound, or something. She didn't know what, but she'd do something.
But first she had to get rid of the freaky, snake guy.
Ranma didn't hold back one bit. She launched herself at the back of the guy with every bit of speed she could muster, every bit of what the katchuu tenshin amaguriken training had given her, and attacked with devastating speed, throwing hundreds of punches so quickly that that they would have blurred into a single strike to any onlooker, the strikes repeatedly landing with the crunching thud of breaking and splintering bones, and smashed the man away and into the forest.
Ranma wasn't taking any chances though. Before the man could bounce back to his feet, Ranma crossed the clearing in a bound and slammed a powerful leaping kick into the face of the bastard. From there it was a simple matter for Ranma to land and spin on his heel to land another sweeping roundhouse kick into the exposed throat of the foreign ninja in what had to be a killing strike.
Hey, it wasn't nice, but if he was going to have giant snakes biting chunks out of Mousse, then what did he expect?
Ranma left the still body behind and quickly hopped over to Mousse. He didn't look too good at all. His skin had gone real pale and he was covered in sweat. Hells, hells, hells. The wound was coming up nasty-looking, too. Lots of pus. She was just leaning over to try and suck the poison out when she was interrupted by a noise behind her.
Ranma twisted around to see the man rising to his feet in a way that could be regarded as totally unnatural. He moved, pulled himself up, without any apparent physical movement on his part . . . as if he was a puppet being pulled back to its feet. "My, my," he said. "I was under the impression that you were a naïve child, not a killer."
"You did try and kill one one of my team-mates."
"Tch, if he is too weak to survive on his own, then he is trash," said Orochimaru. "That is the ninja way."
"Only trash I'm seeing here is you."
"Oh, such a sharp tongue. You wound me, Ranma Saotome."
And with that remark hanging in the air between them Ranma darted forward once more, determined to inflict even more damage to end this encounter quickly, and she made contact once more with a rapid-fire series of crushing strikes that smashed the foreign ninja's body and slammed him back into a large tree.
But before she could even think of triumph, the body dissolved into a puddle of mud. Ranma whirled around, but was only quick enough to see the fist heading for her face just in time to receive it.
And that was how Ranma found herself in the position she did: facing some sort of weirdo who was no more genin than she was a whale in human form.
"So, before I kick your arse," said Ranma, "what's your name? You know, something to remember you by.
He laughed. "I am Orochimaru," he said. "I wonder, will your confidence be as misplaced as that of your team-mates?"
"They're side-shows," said Ranma. "I'm the main event."
Ranma crossed the space between herself and Orochimaru in a flash and unleashed another rapid-fire series of right-handed punches at Orochimaru's head. None of them connected as Orochimaru leaned to the side and allowed them to pass by, but the roundhouse kick Ranma whipped around in follow-up caught him flush on the jaw and hurled him into the air.
She leaped into the air after him, looking to take advantage of her aerial prowess and strike a finishing blow, but instead of the look of worry or anger or fear she expected to see on his face she saw amusement. His jaw sagged open and then out came his tongue and out and out. It whipped out at tremendous speed and wrapped itself around her chest, binding her arms to the side of her body, before she could think never mind react and do something to block the attack.
And then, before she could bring her strength to bear and break the hold, she found herself whipping through the air at an alarming speed. She just had time to wonder what the hell sort of training gave you a tongue like that before she slammed face-first through an especially large tree and found herself flying free, and groggy, as the tongue receded back towards its owner.
Ranma twisted desperately in mid-air and managed to land in a crouch, one hand slamming into the ground to support herself, but she had not so much as a moment to regroup before she had to leap away again out of the way of a trio of kunai that were slicing their way through the air towards her.
"Such speed," said Orochimaru. "You are a most interesting sort of genin . . . but I wonder is your mind as strong as your body?"
Ranma wasn't given the time to fire her insult of choice back as Orochimaru's gaze trapped hers and she found herself in a world of trouble. She saw it as clearly as she saw the world before her: tooth and steel tearing through her body, blood pouring from too many wounds to count, as life drained out of her. She felt the pain and the fear and the futile rage as Orochimaru stood over her, watching her die, still with that arrogant smirk on his face.
She saw it all. She saw it dozens of times, in dozens of different ways. Kunai slitting her throat, snakes crushing her chest and leaving her to drown in her own blood, techniques beyond her imagination tearing her to shreds before she even had time to realise she was in danger. More ways to die than she could count ran through her mind in full technicolour, each more gruesome than the last.
And she shrugged it off. "You'll have to do better 'n that," she said with a forced but still cocky smirk. "You sure as hell ain't scarier 'n Saffron blowing mountains up to try and get me."
"Well, we'll just have to see about that," said Orochimaru, his smirk matching Ranma's for arrogance. "Won't we?"
Ranma's response was immediate and blindingly quick. No time to hold back with Mousse dying of poison just over there. "Kijin raishū dan."
Orochimaru reacted quickly, shifting his body to the side in a dodge, but it wasn't quite enough and the blade sheared through his right arm at the shoulder. Ranma followed in with a leaping quick that caught him in the chest and knocked him down onto his back before lashing out with another rising kick that caught him on the point of his jaw and slammed him back to land on the ground.
Seeing the arrogant look wiped off his face made Ranma grin as she drove her fist down in a powerful strike aimed at his heart. She connected with nothing but dirt as Orochimaru, and his amputated arm sank into the ground.
With a hiss of frustration, Ranma whirled around to try and find the man before he could attack or counter or whatever the hell he did, but not quick enough. And somehow his arm was re-attached. Great, another one like Saffron. This was going to take extreme measures to win.
But before she could act he complete a jutsu. "Kisei haji."
Hands erupted from the soil beneath Ranma's feet and latched on to her legs. Immediately, she tensed her leg muscles and pulled away, or at least tried to, but she was unable to break the grip. "What the hell is this?"
"A lot of people have died in this place . . . a lot of ninja . . . their spirits do not rest easy," said Orochimaru. "This is my way of . . . honouring them."
Ranma tensed her muscles and pulled with all the strength she could muster. Several of the hands fell away or simply broke, but she could see Orochimaru forming hand-seals at a rapid pace. It wasn't going to be enough.
It was like being hit with a wrecking ball. A wrecking ball being thrown by a dozen Ryogas, all of them hopped up on righteous anger. The force of the attack simply blew her away, along with a large chunk of the forest around her, in the sort of colossal maelstrom of destruction that Ranma would struggle to match with a hiryu shoten ha. And she was too battered to defend herself from the debris that was hurtling through the air with her,
By the time she landed, crashing to the ground in an ungainly heap, she felt as if she'd been sliced to ribbons.
"Ah, I seem to have tapped the limits of your abilities. Such a shame . . . I was expecting more."
Ranma gritted her teeth and manage to struggle to her feet, assuming a wavering stance. "I'm not done yet."
Orochimaru's smirk grew. "Ah, you have drive," he said. "Perhaps I should give you a seal, so I can see how that far that drive takes you-"
A kunai slammed down into the ground between the two.
"Stay the hell away from him, you bastard."
Ranma'd never been so happy to see Anko in, well, ever. She just needed a couple of minutes to catch her breath and then she'd shove this guy's tricks down his throat with a helping of kunai.