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Chapter 3: Proof of Good Will

Ranma stood by the doorway of the tavern, absently keeping an eye on the patrons within. The weeks since his arrival had not been particularly happy ones. Growing up on the road with his father had been lonely. The only friends he had as a child had been Uchan, and Ryouga (sorta). Both had been too short for an attention-starved young boy. The last year he had stayed at the Tendos had been hectic, weird, dangerous, weird, active, and weird but Ranma considered it almost Heaven. He had friends that stayed around for more than a few days, powerful martial artists wandered in and taught him new styles and techniques (although he doubted that's what they had in mind), many girls vied for his attention (he didn’t know what to do with them, but the attention was very nice), and he’d been reunited with many old friends from the past (who would have thunk Uchan was a girl?). Then suddenly he had nothing. Not even that honorless piece of filth he called his Pop. It was almost as bad as those times he’d been stuck in his girl form.

Worse this city he was in, maybe this whole world, sucked. Oh sure they had lots of guys throwing magic around...but little else. He’d looked around at some training centers, watched hidden as the elite guards practice their art, and had come to a conclusion. They were pathetic. Even Akane or Kunou would seem to be a fighting god to these people. They all used weapons...poorly. Oh sure they could give each other a challenge but even the mediocre clods back home in the Kendo club were better than the best he’d seen so far.

He had doubled his training regime, working harder than he ever had in the past. New katas, imagining new techniques for situations he’d probably never be in. Ranma Saotome would not get soft, or let his advancement in the Art suffer just because he was stuck in a world that had no concept of real martial arts. No way.

He had the time. Employment as a bouncer was easy work. A pressure point here, a glare there and instant peace. During most of the evening when he worked he was imaging different techniques he could practice either later that night or in the morning. The tavern was also a good place to get information. They apparently had no idea how good his hearing was and he had already learned of an underground movement, as well as a few other juicy tidbits of information. Apparently the city was the Capital the Tarldet Plains, a city called Arcadia which in turn was a province of a larger country called the Western Empire, the rather corrupt remains of an expansionist empire. The city he was in stank of decadence, there were no controls on drugs, meaning that a good portion of the population spent most of their time in a drug-induced haze. Heck, a few of the bar's patrons were staring in a stupor at the empty air in front of them. Many times a city guardsman had come into the bar to create trouble, only to be slipped several gold and given a few drinks. From what he had heard this was likely the most harmless of the corruption around him. Listening to events on a larger scale there were rumors that the Emperor had been considering taking up the conqueror's mantle again, but was waiting for the right moment. Whatever. Politics didn’t interest him. Getting home did.

This led to his interest in magic. It got him here it should be able to get him home. Unfortunately, he had achieved a bit of notoriety in the mage circles, so directly requesting help was out of the question. He had learned a bit about the different types of magic available in the world he now inhabited. He had also learned of the places such magic could be found. Since the Western Empire seemed hostile to him, he figured he might more easily gain aid elsewhere.

Looking around he noted that his target had just seated himself at his usual table, and decided to put into play the plan he had come up with earlier. He was no Nabiki but it seemed straightforward enough.

Ranma casually walked over to the mature gentleman who had just sat down at a table in the corner. The importance, or at least wealth, of this individual was displayed by the hulking brute of a man that stood alertly behind him in a guard position. “Greetings. May I have a seat?” Ranma paid close attention to politeness. The last two people he had approached had been so offended by his blunt approach they had immediately left and not come back. This fellow was the last one he knew of who fit his needs.

“I really don’t have time for chitchat right now. I’m getting my caravan ready for travel in two days and I really need to hurry. Besides it looks like you’re needed for your job,” he said with a slight hint of amused condescension. As he had been speaking the man’s attention had been drawn to the scene of one of the tavern’s drunker patrons raising his mug over his head in preparation of smashing in the back of the head of one of his fellow patrons.

“Don’t worry on my account. I have plenty of time to talk to you.” As Ranma calmly stated this, he flicked his wrist behind him, sending a spoon flying across the room to imbed itself through both sides of the metal tankard. Incidentally soaking the hostile tavern drinker who still had the drink raised above him. Shocked at his sudden shower he took a look at his tankard, the spoon through it, and the bouncer’s back and wisely decided to leave well enough alone. He wasn’t drunk enough to mess with a magic user, even one hard up enough to be working as a bouncer.

“Ah, perhaps I can make a little time for you,” stated the gentleman with considerably more respect in his voice. His bodyguard, however, was looking on with much more hostility and wariness than he had demonstrated before. Ranma didn’t care, it wasn’t his problem.

“I have been thinking of leaving this town, but I don’t know much about the area. You have a caravan ready to leave for...er...was it Timiro or the Eastern Territory?”

“Ha, it’s Timiro my friend. Still want to go? The rates for passengers are 100 gold. Or do you have something else in mind.”

“Er, well,” Ranma fumbled, his concentration slightly thrown by his own verbal slip. “Something else. Heh, heh...er... I heard you have a need for guards, for your caravan. I’m interested in that position, until we reach one of the larger cities of...er...Timiro.” Ranma had his hand positioned nervously on the back of his neck and was sweating bullets. Give him the clarity and focus of battle. Talking was for people like Nabika. Heck, even Pops negotiated okay...for a lying honorless bastard.

“If you can handle a sword anywhere near as well as you can a spoon we’ll be happy to have you on our journey. I will, of course, need to speak with the tavern keeper, but as long as he’s been satisfied with your services you will be a welcome addition. The wages are 5 gold per week, food and lodging, what little there is while on the road are included. Agreed?”

“Sword...yeah, of course, got a sword, I mean, am good with a sword,” Ranma said chuckling nervously. He hated lying, he’d have to get a sword tonight. Ranma quickly got up and backed away toward his position at the door.

“I’ll see you in two days at first light by the Eastern gate, ask for the merchant Grayson. Goodnight.”

The brutish man scowled as Ranma left the table. “I don’t trust him. He’s too good to be true. And that bumbling shy boy routine is also too convenient. I think it might just be a clever mask to put us off our guard. Someone might suspect who we really are and he could be their response.”

"You might be correct in your suspicions. We’ll take precautions. The first one being that barmaid draping herself over our reluctant bouncer. Call her over, she may have something useful.”

When the barmaid arrived the merchant ordered a drink and a light meal. While chatting and flirting in a light-hearted manner, Grayson politely mentioned that she had something on her shoulder and kindly plucked a long black hair that had been lying there. A moment later he wrapped up the conversation and asked to talk to the tavern keep.

Later that night Grayson and the large man retired to their room. Bringing out a shallow silver bowl, he filled it with water. Gazing into the bowl, he chanted a few phrases while burning the hair retrieved earlier that night. After some moments the surface of the water shimmered and an image formed of a black-clothed girl with several strands of red hair poking from a black cowl and mask. The two men looked at each other in confusion. Something was not right. Their look of confusion was replaced with one of intense interest soon after.

Ranma-chan hopped from rooftop to rooftop. She kept a careful eye towards the skies, several weeks earlier she had been surprised to see one of the mages of a guard patrol take to the air and fly above his earthbound cohorts. It’s the things you didn’t know that usually got you Ranma-chan had found. She merely regarded it as a healthy learning experience. It didn’t really worry her. Herb flew...sortta, as did Tarou and Saffron. Mid-air combat was a Saotome specialty. It just wasn’t usually quite that high.

When she reached his target, she only hesitated long enough to quickly scan the grounds for anything new. She had been here in male form earlier and knew the layout and probable guard location already. She leaped up to an outside window twenty feet up and while holding onto the bricks with her fingers and toes, used her other hand the remove the inner window frame from the outer window frame. The only sound heard was a short sharp snapping sound. Still holding the window she leaped inside, replacing the window loosely behind her. Looking around she noted with approval that she was in a well-furnished office. With a small smile of satisfaction and a shake of her head, she tsked as she saw the large metal safe in the wall. There were a few squiggles engraved on the metal but the owner seemed a little overconfident. Well, she wasn’t here to rob the owner’s safe, she had other plans.

Walking forward on silent feet she quickly opened the door. Complacency was replaced by surprise as she saw a guardsman coming down the corridor with a drawn flaming sword. Upon seeing a figure opening the door the guard pointed his sword at it and barked out a word. Instantly a large fireball shot forth, screaming down upon her. Her aura had had just started to turn blue when the fireball hit her crossed arms.

The guard was just congratulating himself on an easy victory when the smoke cleared. Standing with her legs braced, arms crossed, and a very visible blue battle aura was a very pissed off looking redhead. Her clothes were scorched with holes burned through in several places, but except for this and various black smudges on the skin, she looked overly healthy for his tastes. The last thing the guard saw was a lithe form blurring toward him and an icy coldness when the aura touched him.

It's very hard to maintain the icy calm necessary for the Dragon Ascending Defeat and still be angry, but Ranma-chan was. She wasn't angry at the guard…much, mostly she was mad at herself. She kept telling herself to be careful, expect the unexpected, and then casually strolled into a completely unexpected situation. She fingered the hilt of her new sword and wondered if every bozo she'd meet in this world would be casting fireballs at her. She might as well have stayed on Mount Pheonix.

Walking down the corridor she halted as she heard the patter of many feet coming her way. She wouldn't be surprised this time. Indeed, Ranma-chan wasn't surprised when fifteen guardsmen came around the corner. She had knocked eight of them unconscious before most could even ready their weapons. When one the people in the rear held up a necklace, pointed at her and she found herself firmly affixed to the ground…that did surprise her. Before she had readjusted her tactics to suit her stationary position one guard scraped his sword on her forearm giving her a nasty cut. Unfortunately for him a moment later he joined his fellows in sleep.

Ranma-chan looked at her feet, looked at her one remaining opponent, and thought quickly. Pulling out the sword (which burst into flame upon leaving the scabbard) she brought the blade down with great force on the ground next to her right foot. Her gasp of delight as she found her foot free (albeit, with a chunk of the floor attached to her feet) turned into a groan of dismay as she found the sword now firmly attached to the ground. Meanwhile, the remaining guard had fearfully backed away and was pointing with an innocuous ring he wore on his hand. Guessing what might be coming her way she readied her aura and her arms blurred in a circular pattern before her. Sure enough out of the ring sprang a sphere of fire bearing straight at her. Upon reaching her aura and moving hands the fireball seemed to instantly be shredded and a huge horizontal wind tunnel formed in front of her.

Ranma-chan, although feeling a huge force upon her, still had one foot stuck to the floor. The difficult part wasn't bracing herself against the wind, it was balancing on one foot to prevent it being reattached to the ground. When the wind died down she noted that her adversary was no longer before her. She also noted the wall and a good portion of the ceiling was no longer before her as well. Upon looking around her she saw only the few that had been stuck to the floor or blown into the magic effect were still with her.

Grunting in satisfaction she used a conveniently place body to keep her free foot from touching the magically enhanced floor, while another borrowed sword freed her other foot. Jumping out of the area she continued down the newly renovated corridor and through the hole in the wall. Beyond the wall lay a hole in the floor through which she passed with a sprightly jump.

Finally got here, Ranma-chan muttered to herself as she looked around. Surrounding her were the most pathetic group of people she had ever laid eyes on. Dressed in rags, those that were dressed, about fifty people stood in cages.

"Please, help us," cried out one of the braver souls.

Ranma-chan nodded began to shatter the locks of the cages with chi enhanced blows as she walked down the aisle. The people gathered behind as she moved until she came to the end of the cages.

Turning to face the released captives she drew in a breath and gathered her courage for a speech she had already said several times in the last few weeks. "Who among you are familiar with the streets of this city?" Upon finding a volunteer, Ranma-chan pulled out a map with directions written on it. "This is a map to a location in the city where you can find temporary hiding and shelter. The people here should also be able to smuggle you out of the city, or even the country if you feel it's necessary. There should be several carriages in the next room, set them up and ride to this location. I suggest you use as few as possible to avoid attention."

"Thank you, but why are you helping us?" asked the same brave woman who had first asked for help.

"It's a martial artist's duty to help those weaker than himself. Besides, slavery is just plain evil." The woman looked puzzled, as if this didn't explain anything and seemed to be mouthing the words 'martial artist' or maybe 'artist of war' as if she had never heard of such a thing.

At that moment Ranma-chan felt the floor pieces come loose from her feet, and she gratefully stepped off of them. She did not consider high heels very manly even if she was otherwise short in girl form. The crowd around her seemed more startled at her suddenly shrinking several inches than her spectacular arrival.

"Does she seem shorter to you?" a whisper was heard.

"Hey! Who're calling short," Ranma-chan cried out indignantly.

"Now don't bother the powerful sorceress. It's obviously that time of month," a second whisper was heard.

"Hey! Who're calling a girl?" only a confused silence met this remark.

Not being sure exactly what they were talking about, she used this distraction to galvanize the crowd into moving. This rescue was a lot noisier than she had expected and she knew the night watchmen and city guards would need to be distracted away from these people's rendezvous.

Once the people were underway she headed back upstairs to pick up the flaming sword from the rubble and continued on to the office she had originally snuck into. Upon reaching it she paused for a moment and then said to herself, "Why not? If you can't steal from slavers, who can you steal from?"

She gathered her chi and sent her fist smashing into the safe.

When she regained consciousness she found herself firmly embedded in the wall opposite the safe. There wasn't much left of the room except kindling. Note to self: strange engraved squiggles on safe=pain. From past experience with unconsciousness, she estimated she had lost only a few minutes. Prying herself out of the Ranma-chan shaped hole she collapsed and dragged herself on hands and knees to the now open safe. Damned if she had suffered through all that for nothing, she grabbed the few pieces of jewelry, gems and coins and tucked them into subspace.

This momentary breather was enough for Ranma-chan to get her second wind back. This was fortunate, because after that explosion nothing short of blowing up a guard post would be enough of a distraction. She'd have to keep moving in order to maintain the guard’s attention yet avoid any unknown magical traps.

It was going to be a very long night.

The two men looked down at the bowl, then sideways at each other, then down at the bowl again.

Finally, the huge man spoke, "Okay I'll grant you it's pretty unlikely he ...er she, was a Western Empire spy."

"If that was our bouncer he seems to be marginally competent enough to be one of our guards."

After another moment of silence, the pair broke into hearty laughter.

An exhausted Ranma-chan dragged herself to the tavern the just before dawn. Just before she was about to enter she noticed a group of six disreputable appearing fellows standing before her and the door. "Oh what now!" she sighed in a tired voice.

"We think you've been stealing. You don't have permission from the guild to steal. You can either give us everything you took tonight and forty percent of all future hauls or we'll take it anyway and place you in a world of hurt," grumbled the apparent leader of the group.

After a moment of silence, Ranma-chan stated in a conversational tone of voice, "You know the difference between Nabiki and you?" At their puzzled glances, she continued, "I don't hit girls, and you ain't anywhere near being my sister-in-law."

The next morning a half dozen paralyzed thugs were found standing in a fierce intimidating manner outside the tavern.

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