Ranma leaned aside and watched as Hitomi's hand whistled past his face before he stuck a light punch into her gut. Then he frowned at seeing the way that light punch knocked the air out of her lungs. Didn't these ninja do any proper endurance training? He'd have to find some props to train that. There was no way he could let someone training under him get away with being that soft. His pop would hunt him down and use that damned cradle of hell technique on him, even if he was on the other side of a demon's curse.
She didn't let that stop her, though. A deep breath out of the way and she was back on the offensive. Ranma twisted sharply at the waist to allow the first strike to pass by and then again in the opposite direction for the next. Her hand-speed wasn't bad, really. Nowhere near his, of course, but she was pretty swift and her movements were nice and precise with real intent to strike and do damage behind them. She wasn't entirely hopeless. Just soft.
His thoughts were interrupted by a knee heading towards his crotch at high speed. He quickly put his thigh in the way, rendering the attack useless, but he appreciated the thought. An attack like that proved she wasn't stuck in the routine of the forms she'd been taught and could adapt and fight dirty. She really needed to hit harder, though. He'd barely even felt that. Yeah, he was definitely going to put her through some serious conditioning.
With a growl, she jumped backwards, her hands flashing through a series of hand seals in quick sequence as her chest inflated. A moment later the space where Ranma had been stood was filled with fire.
"Ha, that'll teach you to underestimate me."
Ranma prodded her in the back of the head.
"Gods damn you, how did you get so fast?"
Ranma shrugged. "I'm just awesome," he said with a cocksure grin. "No getting around it."
Hitomi opened her mouth, probably to throw some bile his way as most did when he proved how much stronger he was than them, but she was cut short by Hanabi. "She is clearly deficient," she said. "Why are you wasting your time on this traitor?"
Hitomi was behind Hanabi before the younger girl had time to realise she was moving. Ah, to see a student picking up your tricks, it made Ranma so proud. "Do you think that you can get away with insulting me because you're main house?" she snarled into her cousin's ear. "Daddy isn't here to save you now, brat. You don't even know how the seal works."
"Of-of course I do."
"Of course you don't. Or did you think I wouldn't know that the secret to the seal is only taught to the declared clan heir?" Hitomi looked positively gleeful. Hanabi didn't. Probably thinking of what Hitomi's father was famous for. "Tut, tut. Not so confident now, are you?"
"That's enough," said Ranma. "You've made your point, Hitomi. And, Hanabi, you might want to not insult her if you can't hold your own."
The glare Hanabi shot him would have probably been fearsome if she wasn't such a half-pint. That sort of thing just didn't work when it looked more cute than intimidating. Didn't stop her from trying, though.
Ranma switched his attention to Hitomi. "You're not entirely useless," he said. "You need to toughen up and work on your strength, though. Dunno what your pop taught you but you're kinda soft and you don't hit hard enough for anything but the jyuuken to work for you and I can't teach you that."
"Yeah, and there's something missing in your jyuuken. Don't know the style well enough to tell you what it is but it's definitely not right. Can't teach you that, though. Have to work on some proper martial arts."
"You are the most annoying person in the Land of Fire."
"Yeah, yeah, I hear that a lot. Hmm, don't suppose you know where I could find a pack of wolves?"
Hitomi went very pale. Hanabi looked between them with a quizzical look on her face. "Wolves?"
"I don't want to know."
"Oh, there's nothing like having a pack of wolves on your heel to work on your toughness. Speed, too, but definitely toughness till they can't catch you."
"You're mad. Completely insane."
Ranma frowned and folded his arms over his chest, "It's good training! Tch, a martial artist's life is fraught with peril. You don't expect to get stronger from slapping away at each other in a dojo, do you?"
If he'd realised just how much he looked and sounded like Genma at that point, Ranma would have probably went looking for a tanto.
"Feh. If you don't like it, go back to the Hyuuga and take what they're offering. No skin off my nose."
She shut up.
The boulder exploded in a spectacularly large shower of rubble the moment Ryoga's finger made contact with its surface, but Ryoga frowned. He hadn't felt a damned thing but the tap of rock on flesh from the impacts. Might as well have been trying to beat Ranma in a race or trying to beat Kasumi in a cooking competition for all he'd got out of that. It was just a total void.
According to that scroll he was supposed to be feeling the earth or something gobbledegook sounding like that. Didn't make much sense to him, but he hadn't thought much of having boulders bounced off his face, either, and that had worked out pretty well in the end, so he went along with it; wandered on down to a training ground, and starting to smash things with the breaking point to see if he could make it all work.
He prodded another boulder and concreted as he watched it explode. Nothing. Got about as much of that as Mousse got out of his eyes without a pair of jam jar lenses over his eyes. Frustration rose up in his gut, and Ryoga had never been one to deny himself a release for that. He clenched his fist and with a roar he slammed it down to the ground, blasting up a massive cloud of dust that swept over and obscured the entire training ground.
When the smoke cleared he found himself waist-deep in a wide crater that was testament to just how frustrated he felt, but he didn't feel any better.
"Whoa there, you might want to watch the property damage, Ryoga. They charge you if you do too much, you know. Cheap bastards."
Ryoga whirled around, fists clenched, but stopped when he saw who it was. "What do you want, Fudo?"
"Hey, now, is that any way to talk to your honoured sensei?"
"Who said you were honoured?"
"Yeah, you're one of Anko's alright. Wouldn't know how to show respect to your seniors if the Kyuubi itself forced the idea into your skull. Bet you can drink your own weight in sake and just walk away too."
Ryoga scowled. "Do you want something?"
"Not exactly big on the patience, are you?" asked Fudo as he scooped up the scroll Ryoga had dropped nearby. "Huh, elemental training. Bit young for that, aren't you? Don't normally see teenagers with these scrolls."
Ryoga gritted his teeth and started to count down from ten. The bastard would just use some crazy technique to get away if he tried to smash him anyway.
"Well, you're doing it all wrong. You can't just run around smashing things with some crazy technique if you want to make this work. Well, you can, but it won't do much. I suppose if you like smashing things-"
Ryoga grabbed Fudo by his armoured vest and hoisted him into the air. "Do you have something useful to say?"
"Oh, my, Ryoga, are you going to hurt little ol' me? It's not very nice to attack someone who's offering help, you know. Doesn't make friends or influence people . . . not in a good way, at least."
Ryoga dropped him. "If you've got training that'll help me beat Ranma, I'm all ears."
"Ah, no. Really, Ryoga, you need to learn how to put a bit more heart into asking people for help. Threatening to brain them doesn't help, you know."
Ryoga ground his teeth. "Please."
"Right, well, then. Wasn't so hard, was it? As one earth-type to another, I don't see any reason why I can't pass on the trick to getting started. I'm not big on the whole bit with people thinking it only really counts if you teach it all to yourself."
Ryoga listened attentively. Anything to beat Ranma. Anything.
"Put your hand on the ground and close your eyes. Just don't say anything, don't move, don't get angry or frustrated. Let it all go. It's not important."
Ryoga felt Fudo kneel down next to him.
"Now, you know how to meditate, right? Of course you do, big bad martial artist that you are. It's like that. Just concentrate on my voice and let the world slip away. Focus on my voice."
Ryoga did so. It took a while but he did so. The words were mostly nonsense, some sort of ninja bedtime story about a guy who could create forests and created the modern world, but it was just background drivel as he cleared his mind.
"Yes, that's it," said Fudo, almost jarring Ryoga out of his trance. "You've got the right state. Now, the soil beneath your fingers. The grass brushing against your skin. Focus on that, on the energy within it, the energy running through it, the chakra of the earth. It's there, just waiting, all you have to do is touch it."
Ryoga breathed deeply and tried to reach out. To the slow rhythm of his breathing he pulled a small trickle of ki out from the core at the centre of his being and threaded it through his body till it was nestling in the tips of his fingers, and then he allowed it to quietly dribble out into the ground he was resting atop.
For a moment, frustration almost set in again. He couldn't feel a nything. But then, there it was, at the edge of his senses: a small flicker of . . . something, of ki. He grasped onto that flicker greedily and put all of his power into drawing this flicker to him and making it his.
Then the world exploded into stark relief. The lines of energy that were woven through the soil and everything on up were clearly visible to him. It almost took his breath away, seeing the energy that made the world up.
But then it faded away. He saw the world as it was through human eyes. He'd opened his eyes at some point and he saw the world in the colour it normally was. But he could still feel it, the ki of the earth, and where it ran beneath Fudo's feet.
He couldn't help himself. He just had to try and put what he'd just discovered to good use and test it out. He pulled his ki free and blasted it into the lines beneath. A second later the ground underneath Fudo exploded upwards in a rapidly growing miniature mountain full of jagged edges.
"Man, that would have hurt," said Fudo from behind Ryoga. "Not very nice, kid."
Ryoga's grin was fierce.
"So you want to play? Come on, show me what you got."
Ryoga laughed as he ran through the hand seals and the earth around him erupted. He loved it.
"So what are you going to do about Neiji?" Hanabi pronounced that last word as if it were some sort of foul curse.
"Me?" asked Ranma as he slid around Hanabi's lunging strike and snagged her ankle to send her crashing to the ground in a heap. "She's your sister. Shouldn't you be doing something?"
Hanabi glared up at him. "Like what?" she snapped. "He'd just beat me bloody, too, and he'd get away with it because he's strong."
Ranma doubted that. It was one thing to let your ninja daughter getting beaten half to death slide, it was another to let your seven year old daughter getting beaten half to death slide. And there was no way in hell Ranma would let that little brat of a supposed prodigy get away with it, either. "Don't have to go at him in a fight to get revenge," he said. "There are all sorts of things you could do."
"Like what? Dye all his clothes pinks?" snarled Hanabi. "He's a genius ninja. I'm not going to be able to get him with anything."
"Tch, you're supposed to be a student of Anything Goes. Have some imagination. You don't think those precious eyes are invulnerable, do you?"
Ranma figured he'd hit a sore spot with that one; the kunai that came flying at his face was kind of a giveaway. Sheesh, some people just didn't have any self control. Hanabi came flying at him, all fists and feet as she tried to land a hit on him. Ranma used it as training. Even with a little kid there was some challenge to be had from avoiding all their attacks without moving your feet. Not much, but some.
"You know, taking out your temper on me isn't going to work, right?" said Ranma. "I'm not going to let you hit me unless you earn it."
Hanabi snarled and would have probably went at him some more if they hadn't been interrupted by a horrible, wailing scream. A scream that was approaching them. "What?" said Hanabi, looking stunned.
"Tch, what a wimp."
Hitomi burst into the clearing, eyes wild, with chunks of meat so raw it was dripping blood tied to her robes. The once-white robes were stained red and more than one of the lumps of meat strapped to her looked as if something had taken a chunk of them. She stopped and stared at Ranma for a moment, eyes not even remotely friendly, but the sound of barking soon set her to running again and she passed the pair of Ranma and Hanabi in a blur as a pack of baying wolves barrelled into the clearing.
"Are you going to make me do that?" asked Hanabi in a very small voice as the wolves hurtled past her, tongues lolling.
"Eh? Well, yes. Of course. It's good training."
Hanabi's eyes went very, very large and she made a sort of dismayed little squeaking sound in the back of her throat as she stared at Ranma.
"Not for a couple of years, though," he said with a thoughtful expression on his face. "Need to toughen you up a little first. Maybe start with something smaller. Say, how do you like foxes?"
Hanabi just stared.
"Feh, not the time anyway. Come on, try to hit me some more. It's endurance training at least."
She didn't move.
Ranma sighed and quickly knocked Hanabi on her backside with a kick to the chest. "Pay attention," he said. "Or I'll just leave you and go do my own training."
He quickly snatched the shuriken that was thrown his way out of the air and hurled it back to deflect the follow-up kunai away to the side. Now that was what he was talking about. If she wanted to get revenge on Neji, she'd need to get strong and she'd need to learn to keep fighting no matter what.
Form the image you wish to force onto your target in your mind, crystallise every last detail of your illusion, and then attach it to your target's chakra coils. It all sounded so simple in the basic steps. Mousse had thought he'd be up and genjutsuing within a few hours when he'd first skimmed the scroll, but then he'd started reading the scroll in detail and practising on the monkey he'd acquired and it had all fallen apart.
Form the image in your mind? Crystallise it? It sounded so easy, but he'd quickly discovered that it really wasn't. It was difficult enough to create the image in the first place, even more difficult to maintain it, and damned near impossible to keep it up while actually executing the technique. How do you keep a mental image crisp and clear right down to the smallest smell when you're also performing a complicated technique with umpteen handseals?
He knew it had to be possible, there were plenty of people who could actually use these techniques, but he just wasn't getting it. Maybe it was just practice? He pulled out another banana and quickly pealed and deposited it ready. The damned monkey sniffed the air in curiosity and turned away from the peel it was playing with to stare at the newly revealed fruit with a look of desire in its eyes.
Mousse ignored the monkey and closed his eyes to form the image in his mind. No, that isn't a piece of delicious fruit. It's an inedible lump of plastic, you stupid monkey, he pressed into his mind. Don't eat it. It's not food. He brought that mental image into stark focus with every detail he could manage and then, with half a dozen hand seals, he forced it upon the monkey.
And then he opened his eyes to see the results. The monkey was staring at him with a quizzical look on its face, the banana half eaten in its hands. Had it worked? It looked like it had! It had stopped eating!
The monkey went back to its meal.
Mousse closed his eyes and took a deep breath as frustration surged within him. He'd mastered Hidden Weapons, a school that virtually no other could manage more than the bare basics in, so why couldn't he master this? It was ridiculous! He was better than some flunky struggling to master some bare basics, he knew that, so why couldn't he manage it?
Something soft and wet slapped against his face and stuck. He was almost afraid to open his eyes, but when he did so he found a . . a banana peel sliding its way down across his glasses. And the damned monkey was laughing at him.
"I always wondered what Saotome would be like with an animal curse," said Mousse, plucking a kunai from his sleeve as he spoke. "Now I know. Die!"
"You're not really going to do this, are you?" asked Hitomi. "I know you're a lunatic and like your freakish training techniques, but this is insane even by your standards."
Ranma eyed the girl. "Well, I wouldn't expect someone so weak to understand real training," he said. "Look at you. You look like you've been in a fight with a grandmaster and you've only been chased by a pack of wolves."
The glare might have been entertaining if her face wasn't all puffy and turning alarming shades of yellow and purple from when she'd ran face-first into a tree when trying to escape the wolves. "Oh, I understand plenty," she said. "You're a mad sadist who plays at being a stupid little boy. What else is there?"
"Feh, you wouldn't have lasted five minutes with my pop training you. He had me doing this when I was five."
"You're lying . . . right? That's a line of bullshit?"
Ranma said nothing in reply. He waved his arms up and down, making sure the bamboo wings he'd attached to them were firmly in place. Wouldn't do to try and fly off the edge of a cliff with wings that just fell off. That'd be a real embarrassing way to get your face planted in the mud at the bottom.
"Just so you know, when you go splat, I'm not scraping what's left of you off the ground," said Hitomi. "I'll just leave you there."
"Eh, it's only a few hundred feet. I knocked Ryoga off a cliff higher 'n this when we had that duel after he learned the breaking point. Heh, good times. Should 'a seen the look on his face when I used all that momentum to punch him into the dirt."
"So where's the brat gone?"
"Said she wasn't going to watch me commit suicide. No faith, you people."
"Hey, if the shoe fits."
Ranma shook his head. He'd show them. There was no way he was going to fail like he was some Ryoga-type idiot. A quick few steps back set him up for the run-up and then he hurtled forward and launched himself into oblivion.
For a few moments he thought he'd done it. He was gliding through the air, wind beneath his wings, and it felt good. But the euphoria barely had time to set in before he started to slip downwards. Immediately, he began to flap his arms to try and get some lift, and he tried to feel the ki of the wind like the scroll said, but there wasn't even a flicker.
"Oh . . . shit."
No matter how frantically he flapped his arms, no matter how much of his strength and speed he put into it, it didn't buy him anything and the ground grew closer and closer with every passing moment. The wind didn't feel quite so good whistling past him going down as it did going up, that was for sure.
And coming to a halt as he slammed into the ground face-first really didn't feel good. Was like taking a direct hit from Ryoga and his damned umbrella of doom. Ranma decided to stop and take a moment to stop seeing stars.
"Hey, you dead?"
Ranma pulled his head out of the ground. "Ha, like something so weak could kill me!"
He quickly ran up the cliff and set up for another attempt. He wasn't giving up that easily, no way.
Split focus. That was the key. Split your focus so you can maintain the mental image and execute the actual technique upon the victim. He'd had a hard time managing that with two unfamiliar pieces of work, but doing it with Hidden Weapons and the mental image part had been a fruitful sort of training.
Now, the battered looking monkey, shooting him foul looks as it was, was going to suffer his illusionary wrath! Yes, it was! That damned Saotome wannabe was going to suffer its rightful fate and be defeated by the power of his Amazon self. He peeled the banana and deposited it ready. The monkey wasn't so quick to move this time, probably rightfully wary of pissing off the person who had taught it a righteous lesson in not pissing off the guy with an infinite supply of weaponry up his sleeves.
The mental image came to him quickly this time. The banana was a lie, it was not fruit, it was not edible, it would not taste good, it did not smell good - that was the image he built within his mind as he performed his technique, slowly sinking it into the monkey's undeveloped chakra coils as it sniffed the air.
And it didn't move to take it. The infernal creature stopped sniffing and turned its back on the fruit with a quiet ook. Mousse couldn't, and didn't care to, restrain the whoop of joy that welled up within him. Success! Finally!
"You really don't have to do this, you know."
"I've got it this time," said Ranma, around the considerable swelling marring his speech. "I felt something that last time."
He needed to be stronger. Orochimaru had shown him that. He couldn't give up just because the training was hurting a little. That was the way of the coward, of the weak, and he couldn't afford to be either. He was Ranma Saotome and he had to be strong if was going to win the rematch.
And so he leaped into oblivion once more, because there was no other option worth considering.
The attempt started out much the same as the previous ones. He took a powerful leap, reaching a high apex, and then started to drop as he flapped his arms to try and stall his fall while trying to feel the energy of the wind.
But this time there was a difference. The small spark he fancied that he'd felt at the end of his last attempt showed up again and he latched onto it greedily, feeding his own ki into linking to it. And the world became his oyster. It was but a simple matter to feed the wind beneath his wings and enter a controlled flight.
And the sound of his delighted laughter filled the area. He loved it. Anything Goes was an aerial school and to learn this, to actually fly, or glide at least, was absolutely the best thing he'd ever learned.