Ranma was propped up against the wall of his dingy rented room making notes on a technique scroll when she felt the communications technique go pop. From what Hitomi had told her that meant that either she'd been killed, which really wouldn't be good, or she'd been forced into a battle with another ninja strong enough that she hadn't been able to concentrate to maintain the link.
She didn't much care for either of those options to say the least. Hitomi was an annoying nag with a foul temper and a terrible attitude towards pretty much everything, but Ranma didn't want her dead. Well, not normally. And if she'd ran into some hard-case that could really run her hard then that meant things had got out of hand and the mission could be all kinds of buggered.
So, it was bad either way. Either Hitomi had shuffled off the mortal coil, possibly along with Mousse, or she was fighting for her life against someone pretty strong who shouldn't be there. And those were bad options.
There wasn't supposed to be a ninja guarding that caravan. It was supposed to be a bog-standard train with a few merchants looking to trade and some hired swords of dubious competence to guard. Nothing special. Nothing that could threaten even an idiot like Mousse of a harridan like Hitomi.
It was supposed to be a straight in and out job. They just had to grab the guy leading it and spirit him off somewhere for a spot of persuasion. Worst case, they might had had to call back to Konoha for a specialist in making people talk about things they didn't want to talk about, but that was it.
So, what the hell had happened? Was it a setup? The guy had been a hell of a lot more worried about that bastard Orochimaru than her, so it could be. He could have led her up the garden path and blown the whole thing for them.
Why the hell had she trusted his word? Just because he'd looked like he might, maybe, not like the whole wretched gratuitous evil bit that Orochimaru went in for? She wasn't going to be able to look herself in the mirror if she got someone else killed by Orochimaru because she'd made the wrong choice.
She put down the scroll and stood up. She was going to have to go and save them. If you wanted something done right, you had to do it yourself. There was no two ways about it. She couldn't just sit there and wait and wonder while Mousse and Hitomi went off and got themselves killed or something.
But there was a 'but'. If she went stomping off to beat the bad guys and save his team, who'd be in the village to make sure things didn't get blown to bits? She wasn't hanging around bored out of his skull doing nothing without reason and that reason could go up in smoke very quickly if he she off to play the hero.
Well . . . there was Ryoga. He could maybe cover things, if he could get there in time. Or at all. Okay, that wasn't even worth considering. If Ryoga ran off on his own he'd probably end up on Mars. And Ranma wasn't sure that even Ryoga would survive that.
Damn it, damn it, damn it. She hated it. She hated not knowing what to do and know there was a problem and not being able to do anything about it. And she really, really hated the way Ryoga was looking at her as if he was the biggest idiot on Earth with those piggy little eyes.
So, in an act of great maturity and wisdom, Ranma kicked the wall. Hard. And put her foot through it. Given that the wall was concrete and that she wasn't wearing any shoes or, you know, using proper 'breaking things time' technique that kinda hurt. A lot.
"Stop laughing, bacon bits. We've got a problem."
Yeah, pull the other one, said Ryoga's look. It's got bells on. Amazing how much a look on a piggy little moron's face could say when their normal expression was slack-jawed idiocy. Well, okay, that was a little bit uncharitable. Just idiocy. Not slack-jawed idiocy.
"Hitomi's link just went away. She's in trouble."
That got Ryoga's attention. He blinked and rolled onto his feet with the sort of non-grace that he could only ever manage when in his cursed form.
"I suppose she can take care of herself, though. And Mousse would never, ever let us live it down if we screwed this up by running off to save him. Can you imagine it?"
Judging by Ryoga's shudder he could indeed imagine it and it held about as much appeal for him as it did for Ranma, which was to say only slightly more than Akane's cooking held.
But that didn't mean they couldn't do anything. They were staying back to keep the mayor honest and, well, that looked like a bit of a lost cause if Hitomi had been ambushed. A lot of a lost cause, in fact. Perhaps they should do something about that.
"What do you think, P-chan? Should we go visit out friend, the mayor, and see what he has to say for himself? I think we've got some unfinished business to tidy up there. A few things to discuss."
Ryoga wasn't hard to read and he sure as hell wasn't unpredictable. He was more than happy to go along with that plan. Of course he was. Ryoga was always ready to go smash something up and this promised to bring plenty of that.
So, she grabbed him up, deposited him on her shoulder, and hopped out the window into the ceiling of the building across and set about her way. It was only a couple of miles to the mayor's place so it wouldn't take her more than a couple of minutes to get there at a sensible pace.
Not that Ranma was really planning on sticking to a sensible place as she tapped into enough wind ki to move like the, well, wind. It was kinda fun but she wasn't sure Ryoga appreciated it judging by the way he was clinging on to her dress by the skin of his teeth. Ah, well. Any sensible person would enjoy the speed of it. And, quicker she was moving, the more she had to think about that and not about the whole thing with Hitomi and Mousse.
More than being fun it might have been necessary. She had no idea what was going on with the mayor and she had given her word that she'd get him out of town in one piece. If he hadn't tried to screw them over for Orochimaru, then she had to go help. If he had, well, she was going to have to chastise him anyway. Might as well get it over with.
It was, possibly, not wise to blaze off at such speeds but it wasn't like she hadn't already shown off a few moves that weren't exactly normal for your random wanderer. She just had to bet that would cover the ludicrous speed bit enough to not give the game away too badly. With the way the town was full of fighters looking to make a bit of cash by taking part in a war against super-powered ninja she kinda figured it probably wouldn't stand out that badly.
The buildings of the village flashed by in no time at all, their passing marked only by the very, very few people who managed to spot her well enough to give her a strange look as she passed, and she was soon into the forest that separated the village from the mayor's house. From there it was a matter of bouncing from tree to tree to eat up the yards as she moved towards her target.
And the target came into view soon enough. The mayor's house looked much as it had the other night, except for one little thing. The front door. It wasn't there. Someone had smashed the thing off its rails and left it hanging off the frame.
Ranma supposed that meant the mayor hadn't done the dirty on them after all. That came as a relief. He hadn't seemed like such a bad guy for someone who was working for Orochimaru and it would have left a real bad taste in Ranma's mouth if he'd turned out to be just another wretched minion.
But, he was in trouble. And Ranma had promised to get him and his wife out of the place safely. There was no time to stand around thinking about things like some sort of idiot.
Almost immediately after entering the house Ranma found the first signs of struggle: long slashes along the walls, as if someone had cut them with a very sharp sword, lined with blood and, at the end of the entrance hall, an armoured man slumped against the far wall with blood pooling beneath him. It was the guard she'd seen during her infiltration and he was quite dead.
But he hadn't gone down without a fight. To each side of him there was a corpse. She didn't recognise them but they looked like the sort that could have been plucked out of one of the local watering holes ready to do just about anything for a few coins in their pocket.
She leaned down next to the body and closed his eyes. "Sorry I didn't get here sooner, man," she said very quietly. "I'll try and make sure they don't get away with this."
There wasn't anything else she could do for him and there was the mayor to think about still. She had to go. Still, it took her a moment to look away and do so. What a crappy way to go: rushed, beaten, and killed by a bunch of stupid thugs. She wouldn't wish that on anyone.
The sound of movement reached her ears. Movement and muffled laughter. It wasn't far away by the sound of it. Down the corridor and in the room that had looked like it was the main living area to her when she was sneaking around playing ninja the other night. Well, that made things easier. If she knew where they were, she knew where to make her entrance.
A wooden internal wall was never going to pose much of a challenge for her. She picked out where the various bodies in the room where with a little listening through the thin wall and then she took a deep breath and smashed through it with a punch.
On the other side she found Kentaro and a gang of thugs frozen in the middle of whatever they'd been doing when she made her entrance staring at her with generally blank looks of utter shock on their faces. Well, the gang was looking at her like that. Kentaro was just leering at her through his scars.
But what really got her attention were the bloodied bodies lying on the ground at the other side of the room where she had made her entrance. They were a mess but she still recognised them straight away. The mayor and his wife. Her blood ran cold as she realised that she was entirely too late.
The thug standing immediately over them was blown away in instant as Ranma leapt across the room and slammed him through the wall with a roundhouse kick to the chest. That seemed to act as a trigger for another of the bastards who was stood behind where she'd landed who promptly came charging at her with some sort of weapon in hand. She didn't even bother to look behind to him as she lashed out with a kick that caved in his chest.
That seemed to make the rest of them think twice about rushing her as she knelt down and checked the two battered bodies. There was nothing to find in the wife. No breathing. No pulse. She was dead and gone. Ranma sighed and moved over. It took a moment to find it, but the mayor still had a pulse. It was weak and thready but it was there and while there was life there was hope.
A very quiet groan drew Ranma's attention. Alive and still conscious. "Just wait a second," she said. "I'll get you out of here."
With a rattling groan he reached out to her. Under the circumstances she could hardly pull away, even if she was surrounded by murdering bastards who'd love to see her leave an opening, so she took his hand. His grip was terribly weak, barely there at all, and she had to lean in close to hear what he had to say.
Ranma looked away to the side. To the mayor's obviously dead wife. Oh, man. "She's fine," she said finally. "I'll get you both out. Just you see. All you have to do is hold on for a few moments and I'll get you to help."
The reply was quiet and came between pained gasps but it didn't lose any power for that. "Not stupid."
Ranma hung her head. She'd never felt so low in all her life.
The mayor's grip tightened but it was still painfully weak. "Get them. For her. For me."
"Hey, man. You're going to be fine. You just hold on for a little longer."
He coughed up some blood in a way that might have been a laugh if he wasn't so messed up. "Get them."
"I'm not joking. You'll be-"
He'd stopped breathing. There was nothing she could do. Nothing at all. A bit of mouth to mouth wasn't going to cover what had been done to him by those bastards. Even if she got him breathing again, his body would just stop without proper doctors to fix him up and he looked way too delicate for that to work in the first place.
Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it. She'd promised. She'd promised.
"Aw, look," said one of the bandits. "The little girl is crying. Do you think we should give her a hug?"
If there'd ever been a sound that grated on Ranma more than the laughter that followed that, she couldn't think of it. That stupid sniggering was insulting her and the dead man and woman she was crouched between. A dead couple that she'd sworn to protect.
It felt like she was going to burn up from the sheer anger pumping through her. The bastards were talking, still, but she couldn't hear them over the sound of her own heart thumping in her chest. Just looking at them standing there smiling and laughing and acting like they'd accomplished something made her want to crush them.
It would be so easy to get up and just rip them limb from limb and be done with them. Just a few quick movements, a little tip and tear, and it'd all be over and done with. What could they do about it? Absolutely nothing. They were insects. Weaklings. There was barely a trace of strength in any of them.
No. No, she would have control. Berserker rages were not the Saotome way. There were questions that needed to be answered and corpses were no use to anyone. It took a lot longer than it normally would for her to calm her racing heart but within a few moments she'd slipped into the soul of ice and it was suddenly a whole lot easier to think.
"So, you betrayed us," said Ranma as she uncoiled and came back to a standing position. "Why? You were supposed to be Hitomi's friend."
The mocking laughter of the thugs washed over her like the irrelevant nonsense it was. "More of a business partner," said Kentaro. "And I got a better offer. She'd understand."
"You're working for Orochimaru."
Kentaro shrugged. "Money's money," he said. "I was offered enough to be able to strike out on my own again. I'd be a fool to turn it down and you were easy."
Ranma looked at the bodies of the mayor and his wife. "That was a mistake."
"Yeah, it was, wasn't it? You should have known what would happen."
"That, too," said Ranma. "But the real mistake was you sticking around so I could catch you. That was the last mistake any of you will ever make."
"I count eleven of us and only one of you," said a thug with a particularly ripe set of teeth. "You think you can take all of us?"
"I know I can," I said Ranma. "And there are two, not one."
"I only see you and a piglet."
If there was one thing Ryoga could be relied on for, it was knowing when his cue to start wrecking things was up. The look on the face of the mouthy thug as Ryoga spat a ball of green energy at him made for quite the picture. The impact of the attack was considerably less pretty but no less satisfying.
And that was Ranma's own cue to swing into action. She crossed the room with a couple of quick steps and, before Kentaro could even think about reacting, she slammed him through the wall of the room and the external wall behind that with a kick.
"Ryoga, you take care of these morons. I'll deal with ugly there."
The last thing she saw as she stepped through the Kentaro-shaped hole in the wall was one if the thugs slamming his sword down onto Ryoga's back with a triumphant roar. That triumph turned to horror quite quickly when the sword shattered against Ryoga's less than yielding flesh. What a piece of crap. He must have bought it from a local scrapyard.
Kentaro was back on his feet by the time Ranma had exited the building to meet him. He was tougher than he looked, she guessed, because she'd figured on him being floored by that one. And boy did that frown make those scars even uglier.
He charged at her with his cleaver held high over his head ready to bring down in a crushing stroke. To a normal person it would have been quite the intimidating sight what with the size and appearance of Kentaro. Ranma simply stepped inside his reach and slammed her fist into his liver. He went down like a puppet that'd had its strings cut.
Ranma stepped back and watched as Kentaro writhed and wretched and swore when he managed to stop doing the others for a moment. Being hit in the liver was never much fun and she hadn't held anything back for this guy. Not for a betrayer and a murderer. He deserved everything he got as far as she was concerned.
She had to give him some credit, though. He got back up. It took him a minute to get himself back together but he did it. Most people who weren't like her or Ryoga wouldn't. There was a fear there in his eyes that hadn't been there before, even when she'd been kicking his minions about, but he still got up and still lifted his weapon back into a ready position.
"Bitch," he forced out between pained breaths. "I'll kill you."
"No. No, you won't."
He came charging at her again, the moron, but this time Ranma let it all go. No more soul of ice. She channelled all of her anger, all of her frustration, all of her grief, into a single punch that met his blade in a coruscating blur of colour.
And the blow tore right through the sword and into the man behind the weapon. Kentaro howled as Ranma's fist pulverised his ribcage and crushed his lung but that was cut off quickly as his lung collapsed underneath the strike.
Ranma didn't pay him a second look as she returned to the house to find Ryoga. He was dead. His body just needed a few moments to catch up. There were more important things to worry about than that trash now that he was dead. There was no way that Ryoga blasting holes in the building with his shi shi hokodans hadn't been noticed by someone and they had to figure out what to do next.