The scene Ranma took in when he arrived at the Valley of the End brought him to a quick stop. Orochimaru. He was there. For a moment Ranma's mind came to a grinding halt as the simple feelings that monster inspired washed over him. Hate was there - rage, too - and a certain sense of anticipation and excitement at finally getting there, but so was a tiny little bit of fear underneath it all. He wasn't ready to fight Orochimaru personally. He wasn't stupid enough to not see that. Certainly not when he was already banged up from taking on one of the minion crowd. This guy was serious business, as strong as anyone Ranma had ever fought, and not so one dimensional as a Saffron who could be beaten with a bit of quick thinking and luck.
The valley was smashed to bits. The statues at the end of the valley, the Shodai and some Uchiha, were pitted and holed where techniques had smashed chunks out of them and the rest was no better. The sides of the valley cratered to a ridiculous degree and the whole place was flooded, water everywhere, and Ranma knew it hadn't been like that the last time he'd passed through the place. There'd been a serious battle. Massive ki attacks and all the rest of it thrown everywhere.
But, there was more. Sasuke, the mission target he had to remind himself forcibly, was slumped against the side of the valley with cursed seal marks running all over his face. Had he joined Orochimaru? Either way, he looked like someone had beaten the hell out of him. Those cursed seal marks were blending in with the blood that was dripping down his face from the long cut that had been drawn across his forehead through his hitai-ate. And his clothes bore the sort of charring that Ranma was very familiar with: the kid had been beaten to a pulp with ki attacks.
That, again, paled next to the other sight in the scene. Naruto, trapped in Orochimaru's grasp, held aloft by his throat, atop one of the statues, his previously orange jacket largely stained red and his blond hair matted with his own blood. Ranma couldn't see all of it, Naruto's back was turned to him, but he looked in bad shape. The poor kid must have tried to keep Orochimaru from taking Sasuke and taken a hell of a pounding in the process.
Seeing that jarred Ranma back into life as rage spilled all over what nerves he'd been feeling and wiped them away. Naruto was a annoying and loud and not very clever, but he didn't even come close to deserving that sort of treatment. He was a decent kid as they went. He'd tried to do the right thing and he'd stood up for Hinata when he had no great reason to be all that bothered about her. Ranma wouldn't forget that any time soon.
"Ah, Ranma," said Orochimaru. "I didn't expect to see you here. I thought you were off playing games with my shinobi. It's good to see you again."
And there was Orochimaru talking calmly like he was some old acquaintance that he was surprised and pleased to see again. Ranma could feel his blood boiling as tinges of red crept in at the corners of his vision. How could this bastard talk to him so casually? He didn't even seem bothered by the fact that one of his arms was hanging limp and broken at his side, as if Anko's last move had been pointless.
But he didn't have many options to attack with Orochimaru holding Naruto like that. Anything he did would be easily turned away simply by moving Naruto into the way and hurting the kid even worse than he already was. Ranma wanted to get Orochimaru, he really, really did, but he didn't want to make himself as bad as the bastard doing it.
"Let him go, you bastard," he said. "He's only a kid."
What little of an eyebrow Orochimaru had rose. "Such sickening weakness," he said. "I had hoped my student would have taught you better than that."
Ranma's lip curled into a snarl. "She taught me better than to be like you."
"An unfortunate mistake on her part," replied Orochimaru. "Perhaps she would still be alive if she had taught you strength."
Deep breath. Soul of ice. He had to pick his moment. He had to find the right spot at the right time. He couldn't just go charging in against this guy, not with the strain of his last battle still echoing through his body. Not while he still had Naruto as a human shield.
"If you care so much about this stupid child, you may have him."
Orochimaru hurled Naruto down to Ranma. The kid was heavier than he looked, midget that he was, but Ranma caught him still. He looked even worse up close than he had at a distance. Orochimaru had beaten him till he looked more like raw meat than a teenage boy. Every bit of flesh Ranma could see was bruised or bleeding and only the kid's still breathing made him think that he was even alive.
"You want revenge," said Orochimaru with a smirk. "You want to destroy me. I can see it in your face and feel it in the air, but do you want it enough to leave the boy to his fate? He won't last long without medical attention now. I've seen to that. Make your choice."
For a moment Ranma truly had no idea what to do. The kid needed help. Orochimaru needed stopping. Sasuke needed taking back to Konoha. He couldn't do all of those. He had to choose. Again, he really wished he knew some damned medical techniques so he could make the kid not look like a vaguely ambulatory corpse.
And then there was clarity. Naruto stirred, weakly, and with a gasp he spoke from where he was nestled in Ranma's arms. "Hey, hey," he said. "I'll be fine. Beat this bastard and bring Sasuke back."
He still wasn't entirely sure - the kid looked bad - but Naruto had a look in his eye that Ranma didn't really want to argue with. Who was he to argue with someone who wanted to push themselves beyond their limit in a fight? He'd done it enough times, picking fights with people no-one thought he could possibly beat, and he'd made it through fine. Mostly. Okay, this quite wasn't the same thing, or at all really, but the kid was making his choice. Hopefully he knew what he was doing.
Orochimaru broke Ranma from those thoughts. "Such heroic nonsense," he said in a voice that dripped with disdain. "You would be better advised to withdraw and prepare for more favourable circumstances."
Ranma executed a quick shunshin to carry him a reasonable distance from Orochimaru and Sasuke and the rest, to a spot away from the wrecked part of the valley and towards where some trees were still left standing. He gently lowered Naruto, trying to put him down without jostling him, and left him in the shade of one of the trees.
"Excellent shunshin," said Orochimaru from behind Ranma who froze at feeling the bastard's presence no more than a few inches behind him at his unguarded back. "Good distance. Excellent speed. Little wasted energy. Your technique is acceptable."
"Glad you approve."
A moment passed. Ranma took a breath. And then he attacked. Orochimaru's smirk never wavered as he parried the chop Ranma aimed at his neck with his good arm, but it did drop, Ranma thought in the moment where he could still see it, when he followed that by shifting his footing and lashing out with a roundhouse kick that connected with the side of Orochimaru's head that he would have defended with his helpfully crippled arm.
That blow sent Orochimaru cartwheeling through the air back the way he came and Ranma followed, happy to direct the fight away from the mauled Naruto, back into the valley proper. Orochimaru quickly managed to pull himself out of the uncontrolled flight and came skidding to a halt atop the lake that had begun to form in the valley, but Ranma followed and didn't give him so much as a second to recover.
There was something deeply therapeutic about punching Orochimaru in the face and watching his smirk waver underneath the impact. Ranma could seriously endorse it as a way to work off some tension. So he did it again and again and again. Orochimaru was a good fighter but up-close with only one arm there was only ever going to be one winner.
It didn't seem that the attacks were doing over much damage as Ranma pressed Orochimaru back with a blurring series of punches to the head and body of his enemy, but a fight where the opponent was on the backfoot and he was on the initiative was a fight where victory would come sooner or later regardless. You can't lose to someone who's taking all the blows and not offering much in return.
Eventually Orochimaru was backed up from the water onto what was left of the solid ground, high enough that the water hadn't completely covered it, and Ranma shifted his ki as he stepped on to that ground to follow. Standing on soil didn't require the same manipulations as standing on water.
And he blinked in dull surprise as his foot plunged straight through the soil and into water below. Genjutsu! He had just enough time to realise that before he became a she and Orochimaru's fist send her slamming back across the valley to bounce off the stone barrier with a meaty thud.
Dark spots danced in front of Ranma's vision as her head bounced back amidst a cloud of chipped stone and dust. But she was still with it enough to duck out of the way before Orochimaru's kusanagi stabbed through the space her head had been occupying a heartbeat earlier. The valley gave way like it was made of sand rather than stone and the sword carved a long line through it before the blade shrank back to its normal length in Orochimaru's mouth before he swallowed it back down.
She had to admit that was a neat trick. A sword that could extend and shrink to whatever length you needed? Very, very handy. The swallowing part was still creepy as hell though.
Ranma shook her head to clear the cobwebs. He hadn't hit her hard enough to leave her punchy. She had to keep her mind on the fight and on winning. There was no room for second-best efforts against an opponent like Orochimaru. She had to wipe that smirk off his face for good.
Said smirk held firm as she kicked off away from the wall and towards her opponent. Two steps forward and she aimed a vacuum blade at his throat. Another two steps and she'd aimed more to each side of him to cut off the easy escape routes. That got Orochimaru's attention alright. With left and right cut off and forward or back just changing when the attack would hit him his only options were up or down.
Orochimaru chose up, leaping over the attack, which was exactly what Ranma had been hoping for. She immediately kicked off from the water she'd been sprinting across and met him in mid-air.
"Moko Kaimon Ha."
When Ryu Kumon had hit her with that technique - a powerful kick designed to tear through a guard and defeat an opponent through sheer brute force - it had knocked her out cold and left her that way for several minutes. If she was lucky, it'd have the same effect on his bastard. Orochimaru's eyes bulged in surprise as his attempt to parry the strike aside was, hopefully painfully, smashed aside and the heel of Ranma's foot slammed into his jaw and snapped his head back with a loud crack.
The impact of that strike separated them as Orochimaru was catapulted back down towards the dirt and Ranma kicked off to climb higher into the air. Watching him crash down and flop limply on to the soil was satisfying, but Ranma wasn't done. She whipped her arms through the air and with a shout she fired off one of her most powerful offensive techniques.
"Saidaikyu Kijin Raishu Dan."
The air around Ranma rippled and distorted as numerous vacuum blades poured forth from her unleashing of the final technique of the yamsenken school upon Orochimaru. It was as good a 'you die now' technique as she knew of. She'd survived the hit, herself, when it had been used against her, but if he was already hurt then it'd leave him vulnerable for a real finisher.
Dirt and water were churned up in massive quantities as the blades tore into the ground around her target, but they didn't hit it. A moment before the vacuum blades started to rain down on him, Orochimaru sank into the dirt and vanished out of the target zone.
That really pissed Ranma off. Not only had her trap just been neutered in a single trick, but now she had no idea where her enemy had disappeared to and that left him with the initiative. He would dictate the terms of the next exchange unless she rumbled him.
Well, there was one thing she could do. Ranma closed her eyes and concentrated, focusing her danger sense as best she could, to try and anticipate the attack that would be coming her way. It was more passive than she liked being in a fight but it was a skill like any other and she'd had it drilled into her by her pop well enough to use.
It saved her. Focusing on her danger sense brought that warning twinge on just that moment earlier than it would have appeared otherwise. Enough for her to leap away before Orochimaru's kusanagi burst up from the beneath the water she'd been standing atop and through the space she'd been occupying. She would have been impaled if she'd been even fractionally slower to react.
But she didn't get far into her leap to safety before she was intercepted. A tongue, ridiculously, snapped through the air and caught her around the midsection. Before she could react to do something about the ridiculous attack that was being aimed her way she was being hurled around in a slingshot manoeuvre that sent her hurtling, fast, too fast, through the air back downwards.
She bounced off the valley wall again. Harder. Much harder. It felt like half the wall was smashed free with her impact and rained down on her as she stumbled and fell to her knees in front of the impact zone. The dark spots were a hell of a lot bigger the second time around and they were starting to join together before she gave her head a shake to clear the cobwebs.
Many more hits like that and she'd lose, she knew it. She was already hurt and worn down from fighting Kimimaro and Orochimaru was a much worse opponent than that guy even an arm down. Getting slammed around was just going to lead to her day ending really, really badly. And she couldn't allow herself to fail in this one. How could she look herself in the eye again if she failed after all those promises to avenge Anko?
There were a whole range of techniques she could use to attack Orochimaru and try to turn things back around and she ran through them, umisenken through hiryu shoten ha and on to the wind techniques she'd learned from Anko's scroll, but she had to quickly drop those ideas in favour of a quick game of 'dodge the sword that's being wielded by a giant tongue'.
If there'd been any doubt that Orochimaru was the biggest weirdo of them all, that was very much killed off by his using his tongue as a replacement for his useless arm. Even by Nerima standards that was truly bizarre. But a quick ki blast fired over her shoulder bought her time to run up the valley wall and put some distance between her and her opponent so that she could consider her options.
When you needed to kill someone quick the yamasenken was a pretty good choice of tools, but you needed to set the scene before you could use it. She needed to get Orochimaru into position or get into a position where he'd not see it coming and, well, she had a neat little trick for pulling that one off. Should have brought it our earlier really.
A quickly executed kaze bunshin no jutsu created half a dozen copies of Ranma who were promptly sent off to act as a fairly ineffectual but very distracting opening move. Orochimaru made predictably short work of them, but that was enough time bought for Ranma to slip into the umisenken and initiate stage two of the plan.
The umisenken doesn't make you invisible. It blends you into your surroundings and nullifies the danger sense all martial artists have. The closest it comes to actual invisibility is making it difficult to focus on someone using it if you don't know the tricks of the technique. Combined with very high speed movement it could make it very difficult for an opponent to realise they were under attack before it was too late. But Ranma didn't want to risk the high speed part of the technique as, from the range, she didn't think she'd reach Orochimaru before she became rather more detectable.
That was why she deployed another technique she'd been working on to go with the umisenken. A simple variant of the basic ninja techniques that Anko had showed them to start with that took the principles of the bunshin and the henge techniques, combined with the inversion of the umisenken, and, hopefully, made her really invisible.
Orochimaru had a curious look on his face as he leapt back away from where he'd been standing atop the water that had filled much of the valley and on to one of the few bodies of land that hadn't been completed covered by the after-effects of whatever Naruto and Sasuke had done. Ranma edged in slowly, ever so slowly, to avoid leaving even a single ripple as she crossed the water between him and her. She couldn't make a single sound or leave behind even a single trace of her presence. She had to be truly invisible. She was nothing. You can't see nothing.
And it worked. It was slow and nerve-wracking, but she made it to the same body of land that Orochimaru had perched himself atop without him looking any the wiser as to what was going on. She could barely even believe it herself, if she was being honest, but it might just have worked as she crept up on Orochimaru's bad side.
But then he lashed out and caught her a side kick that landed just below her ribs and knocked the air out of her in a great gasp. She moved to dodge away but he twisted around and caught her across the temple with his fist and that blow took her balance away complete for a moment. Long enough for him to crash a palm strike into her chest and that sent her staggering back until her back collided with a half-destroyed tree.
"An excellent technique," said Orochimaru. "My compliments, but you failed to account for the elements. You still disturbed the air and sent vibrations thought the ground with your footsteps. It was quite easily defeated and will be until you deal with those flaws."
Ranma shook her head and tried to get her bearings back as Orochimaru hawked up his sword, but it didn't work. Her chest was burning. Her vision blurred. Her legs felt rubbery. He'd done something to her with that last hit. She didn't know what it was but it felt like she was disconnected from her body aside from the dull sensations of exertion and the pain of her wounds.
"It's almost a shame to kill you now, before you reach your potential, but I have no time for young heroes questing for vengeance. You're such a troublesome lot."
He had his sword in hand. It would only be a moment before Orochimaru ran her through and she needed to move. But she couldn't. Her legs didn't respond beyond a spastic twitch in her thigh muscles. She was going to die before she could even make a real start on avenging Anko and she was going to die at the hands of the same bastard who'd killed Anko. That was despair, right there, but she couldn't even throw off a shi shi hokodan to get something useful out of because her body just wouldn't respond.
It wouldn't be long. Orochimaru had his sword levelled at her. Just a twitch from him to make it extend and that would be the end. Everything was moving nice and slow, the adrenaline at work, so she could take in all the details of how screwed she was, but because of whatever Orochimaru had done to her she couldn't do anything about it. It was maddening.
Orochimaru made a flicking sort of gesture with his good arm. Ranma closed her eyes as the sword began to extend. But there was no impact. Not on flesh. The sound of steel colliding with steel filled her ears.
Ranma opened her eyes. It was Ryoga. She'd recognise him anywhere even from behind. He'd blocked the attack with his own sword.
"Stop being so weak, Ranma," he growled. "This is embarrassing."
She blinked. And then she growled. "Shut up, P-chan," she said. "Some of us had to fight a real opponent before he even got here."
Anger welled up in Ranma and she'd have sent some bile Ryoga's way, but she was interrupted by a brace of kunai slapping down into the ground where Orochimaru had been stood a moment before.
"I must agree with Hibiki," said Mousse from his perch atop a tree. "You're embarrassing us with this weak performance."
"Ah, the entertainment has arrived," said Orochimaru. "I was wondering when you would find your way here."
Ryoga charged in with his usual level of subtlety, going for the 'I'll just smash right through' school of swordsmanship, and it did force Orochimaru into a retreat. Ranma supposed that having only one working arm didn't make it any easier to deal with Ryoga on a rampage and it wasn't like Ryoga was going to stop going for the beating the crap out of things approach any time soon.
Then Mousse joined the battle with a pair of scimitars in hand and that turned it into a two-on-one scrap which really sent Orochimaru into retreat. Ranma was left on her own as her ever annoying team mates drove the battle off elsewhere and that left her with not a lot to do except contemplate the joys of failure and try to figure out how she was going to get around whatever Orochimaru had done to her with that last hit.
And that was when the bruised and battered face of Naruto appeared in front of her. Very, very close in front of her. Uncomfortably close. "Hey, hey," he said. Close enough that Ranma could feel his breath on her face as he spoke. At least he brushed his teeth. "You okay."
How the hell was he up and about? He'd looked like he'd been hit by a truck, repeatedly, and then chucked out of a aeroplane all of about ten minutes ago. People didn't heal that quickly unless they had some sort of superpower and Ranma really, really doubted that Naruto, of all people, had picked up something as delicate as even a basic medical techniques never mind one good enough to regenerate himself from a beating like that.
Naruto poked her on the forehead. "He only hit you a few times," he said. "Come on. We gotta do something."
Ranma grit her teeth and forced herself to get up. The world swayed around her for a moment as she reached her feet, but it eventually righted itself. It still burned, a little, after that, but it was receding. And there was no way in hell she was going to let Naruto be up and about and fighting when she was down. She'd never, ever, ever live it down.
She reached her feet just in time to see Ryoga go from taking a swing at Orochimaru to hurtling away from him and into one of the valley walls without anything obvious happening in between. Orochimaru hadn't done anything, but there was a glint of steel in the air. Ninja wire. Kabuto.
The bastard traitor wasn't hard to spot. He wasn't trying to hide himself, at all, just stood there on top of one of the statues with that smug little smile on his face. Well, she would wipe that off quickly enough.
The hand seals took no time to execute at all. "Kaze dangan no jutsu."
Ranma spat forth a triplet of wind bullets, each expanding to roughly the side of her head as they left her mouth, that screamed towards Kabuto at great speed. He didn't so much as twitch a muscle in the direction of dodging, but it didn't make a lot of difference as the bullets sliced through Kabuto without any actual impact.
A bunshin, then. Ranma ducked immediately, instinctively, just in time to see Kabuto's hand, glowing with tightly controlled ki pass through the space her upper body had been occupying. She then slammed her elbow up in a carefully placed strike that caught Kabuto square in the crotch and sent him reeling backwards, wheezing, in pain.
Any further move was cut off as Naruto hurtled past her towards Kabuto with a hand full of swirling blue energy and an expression of deepest loathing on his face. Kabuto's attempt to dodge was clumsy, to be generous, and the attack slammed into the side of his ribs and blasted him clear. Rasengan. Sounded like a nice move. Looked like a nice move. Kabuto sure as hell didn't look like he'd be back in the fight any time soon as he sank into the earth to make a quick getaway.
"He can heal," said Naruto. "Watch out."
Was there anyone in the whole stupid world who didn't have a trick to shrug off everything she did to them? It was getting tiresome. Ranma was beginning to think that the only way to win a fight with a ninja was to tear pieces off them so that they couldn't just hit the magic 'I'm not hurt, really' button to make it all pointless. Very, very irritating.
But he couldn't see Kabuto and there was an Orochimaru just over there having his way with Mousse that really needed to be dealt with. Ranma quickly shifted her attention and launched a ball of red and black ki Orochimaru's way: enough to keep him from slicing Mousse's head in two at the nose level as it forced him to shift his footing away to avoid the attack.
She would have done more but her attention was rather grabbed by the dirt shifting and then erupting upwards as a body exploded up from beneath the ground and into view. Tall and pale wearing clothes that were tattered and stained with blood, it was Kimimaro. And behind him others were appearing. The rest of the Sound Four who'd made it out of the invasion pulled their way free of the dirt behind him.
"You guys again?" asked Ranma. "Don't you ever get bored?"
Flippant as she tried to be, it was a little bit on the worrying side to see Kimimaro again. The others weren't a great concern to her, but that guy had been hard enough to beat the first time. If he pulled out that cursed seal again and all those weird techniques, she was going to be in bad shape to take on Orochimaru and Kabuto.
"Hey, hey," said Naruto. He was squinting at the new arrivals. "They don't look right."
Naruto wasn't wrong. There was no intelligence in those eyes. They were completely dull and lifeless. Kimimaro's body language wasn't right, either. He didn't hold himself as he had. There'd been confidence, arrogance, in Kimimaro but Ranma couldn't see any of that in him there. His body language was, well, it was nothing. There was no life in him. Nothing to be read.
Something was wrong, but she'd have to figure it out as she went. They wouldn't stand around waiting for long. Naruto wouldn't stand a chance against Kimimaro, Ranma was sure of that much, so she'd have to take him. But would he do any better against the others? She didn't know. It didn't matter, though, in the end. He'd just have to do his best and hopefully his healing would carry him through.
"The one with white hair is mine," said Ranma. "You take the others."
Naruto gulped, slightly, and then he nodded and pulled at his hitai-ate in a nervous sort of gesture. "Sure," he said. "I can do that."
Ranma hadn't waited to hear that response. She flew across the turf to close the distance between herself and Kimimaro and attacked. He'd barely even raised his arms to defend himself as she slammed a two-handed series of punches into his ribs that folded him over. From there it was easy to snap his head back up with a right-handed uppercut that left him stunned and defenceless.
"Dokuja Tanketsu Sho."
The yamasenken strike tore into Kimimaro's chest. Ranma had hoped that, weakened by being killed once, he wouldn't be able to shrug if off as he had before. Some hope. Her fist crunched to a halt against his sternum and ribs just as it had before. No fatal damage, though the force of the strike smashed the Oto-nin from his feet and send him skidding backwards several feet off the turf and onto the water where he kicked up a small wave as he skimmed the surface before coming to a halt in a crouch atop the surface.
"Why won't you just die?"
This bastard had seriously pissed her off the last time. Having him show up again when she was sure - sure - that she'd left him dead was enough to set her lip curling in a way that would have made most people who knew her head for the hills. Or, given how well the hills stood up some times, several miles past them and away.
Hundreds of Narutos popped into existence around them as Ranma attacked Kimimaro again. The old swarm attack. Good luck to the kid. Ranma slammed into Kimimaro and opened up with a series pf high-speed punches that had the Oto-nin's head bouncing around like a balloon on a windy day. She doubted it would accomplish much, but it made her feel better and would keep the guy off balance while she came up with a better plan.
He'd been dead. She was sure of that - she'd checked - so how the hell could he be up and about and annoying her again? How do you kill someone who doesn't stay dead? She could rip him in two and he'd probably not be a threat without legs to move on, but that'd be a trick with someone who could grow new bones and make them hard enough to shrug off the yamsenken at will.
But he was slow. His reflexes weren't so fast any more. Ranma was moving in and out and striking him at will. It was, well, it was easy. Fantastic as she was, she hadn't improved that much between leaving him behind as a corpse and him showing up again. Something really wasn't right.
Blue energy streaked through the air around them as Naruto and his clones opened up on their opponents with ki blasts. They probably wouldn't last too long under that bombardment unless they were a lot stronger than they'd been the last time Ranma saw them in action. Time to step her game up if she didn't want to be the last one finished.
That was when she noticed that Kimimaro's skin wasn't growing back. As she was delivering her damage and knocking patches clear, it was staying cleared. It had grown back before. Now the patches of white bone revealed by her attacks were staying revealed.
Ranma quickly ducked underneath a wide punch and grabbed on to Kimimaro's arm to force him to ground. Grappling wasn't her speciality, but she knew enough and could work a joint lock well enough to force a man down. It didn't work. He didn't comply. She forced him to his knees through simple force but he kept struggling even when his shoulder snapped out of its socket.
The attempt had failed, but she'd got enough. She released him and hopped back slightly out of range. No pulse. He wasn't somehow alive at all.
"Zombies," said Ranma. "Wonderful."
How do you fight zombies? Well, she didn't really know. Decapitation? That normally worked on monsters. On everything really. His bones would make that a bit difficult but it seemed like the best idea. She couldn't afford to waste any more time on this. It was an obvious distraction. Divide and conquer. Basic tactics.
It was time for a new trick. His bones probably wouldn't be as strong now that he was dead and couldn't do anything to fix damage done and hold off attacks, so she could use things that wouldn't have had a chance of working before.
Her chance came when the walking corpse that had been Kimimaro attempted to punch her on the jaw. She saw it coming from a mile away - whoever was controlling him wasn't doing a great job of it - and was able to easily shift to the side and let his momentum carry him by.
Ranma hadn't used the technique before, not in actual combat, and it took her a moment longer to pull it off than it should have. Forcing the wind into a coherent shape in her hand, sharpening it, and setting it to vibrate as it needed to took more effort than she expected it to. But she was able to form the wind blade. And her target was still in range.
The flesh on Kimimaro's neck parted easily under the blade and some blood spurted out from there up Ranma's arm. Bone chips sprayed from the impact zone as the blade whirred away.
Kimimaro jerked away and leapt back before she could cut through. Still, it worked. She could see the chunk she'd gouged out from the right side of his neck. Some of the frustration just drifted away. She just needed to hit him harder next time. More force behind the blade, more ki in it, and it'd work.
But she needed to do it quickly. There was no time for being distracted by this decoy.
So, she charged. Kimimaro raised a hand and fired the bones of his finger-tips at her. She leapt high into the air, easily passing over those, and landed directly front of him. He tried to stop her with a straight punch, bone blade in hand, but she parried that aside. That took him off-balance and she easily evaded his attempt at a follow-up by simply ducking underneath it, which left his already gouged neck open.
Sawing through his neck wasn't exactly pleasant, but, as she put the full weight of her ki behind the attack, it was at least quick. Mostly. Kimimaro's body fell, in two pieces, and Ranma stepped away, quickly wiping the blood off her face as best she could, before turning back to other things.
And she had to move quickly straight away. Ryoga overreached with a swing at Orochimaru and that left him wide open for Orochimaru to smack his sword out of his hand. And that left Ryoga wide open for, well, it was a good thing that Ranma landed that drop-kick to Orochimaru's chest when she did.
Orochimaru bounced back to his feet atop the water and came to a halt beneath the waterfall that rested between the two now very battered looking statues. He didn't even have so much as a bruise on him. Nothing beyond then ruined left arm that Anko had left him with at the end of the last battle. It made Ranma want to kill something.
She looked around. The same couldn't be said of them. Mousse's white robes were stained red with blood - his own, judging by how pale he was, though he was on his feet and ready to fight - and Ryoga had a collection of slashes in his shirt that would have been bleeding if his skin didn't have the consistency of Akane's last attempt at a pudding. Naruto still looked like he'd been on the wrong end of a traffic accident, too.
And there was Kabuto stood atop one of the statues again smirking and unmarked. It was damned unfair. Anko had stabbed him where the sun doesn't shine before it had all gone wrong. How could he be looking so cocky? More importantly, Sasuke was with him. By choice, maybe. Kabuto was propping him up but he wasn't really in shape to argue either way.
"Such a disappointment," said Orochimaru. "Your vengeance is nothing but a damp squib. Whatever will your sensei think of you?"
Ranma stifled a snarl and held her ground. As much as Orochimaru's mocking tone grated on her it was obvious bait. So obvious that even Ryoga didn't take it. Who would-
"SHUT UP, YOU BASTARD!"
Naruto charged past with a shout, but he didn't get more than a step past Ranma before she snapped him by the back of his ridiculously bright coat and dragged him back.
"Don't take the madman's bait, Naruto," she said. "It won't end well if you do."
He growled but held his ground. A little bit of a relief. She didn't really want to see the kid, obnoxious as he could be, charge off and get sliced and diced. Again.
Orochimaru smiled at her. "My, my", he said. "How interesting. Do you think you can protect him from me?"
For a moment the only sounds were those of distant birds chirping. No-one moved but Ranma could feel it coming. She tensed, concentrated her ki, focused her danger sense. Whatever he was going to do, she'd be ready for it.
And then he moved. In a flicker he crossed the space separating them, heading for the gap, towards Naruto, but Ranma saw it. She saw it. And her reflexes were equal. As he came into range she lashed out with the most powerful side kick she could manage. Straight into his chest. He went careening back the way he'd came and she felt more than a little bit better.
The birds were closer. The birds were right there. Kakashi leapt out from the waterfall - where had he come from? - with electricity arcing around his arm in a blinding light show. Orochimaru twisted round to face him, but it was too late. Far too late.
That was how Orochimaru died. Too slow. Too surprised. Unable to defend himself. He died with Kakashi's hand shoved through his chest and with his eyes on Kabuto, his minion, who did nothing to help him.
It was a hell of an anti-climax. Ranma'd thought it would end with some titanic battle and some quick thinking to unlock his opponent's weakness and turn their strength against them, like Herb, like Saffron, but instead he'd played distraction while someone else sneaked in and played assassin.
Kabuto vanished in a flicker, leaves falling to the ground where he'd been standing, before Naruto could reach. Sasuke vanished with him, still not moving.
Naruto slammed his hand down in frustration and the head of the statue he was stood atop exploded into bitty pieces. Probably not the smartest thing he'd ever done.
Ranma wasn't paying overly much attention to the details of Naruto's angst, though. She was quite focused on Orochimaru. He'd reverted, with his death, and the body had shrivelled in size as it returned to being a small, round-faced girl. He was dead.
Orochimaru was dead. All the time, months, she'd spent obsessing over avenging Anko and making up for the whole mess during the invasion and he'd just up and died just like that. She'd expected to be happy or at least relieved when he went, but instead she just felt numb. The bastard still managed to ruin everyone's day in death.