This chapter is dedicated to CyanideOreo, who drew me an amazing art that I can't link to anyone, and TriTrin5, who was incredible and fixed my butchered attempt at Sanskrit back in chapter four.
And, as always, to Silver Queen, without whom this story would not exist.
Sometimes, Karma missed the simpler times, when blood kin was all you could count on and everyone else was the enemy. Hunting could be a chilling job, but never a complicated one. A target was found and killed and everyone got to go home before supper.
Diplomacy had its moments, but she could really have done without the endless meetings. Nothing ever got decided without hemming and hawing until the sun set and everyone missed dinner.
Today was no different. Familiar faces were all gathered around a familiar table in a familiar tent. The setting sun was peeking through the opening, painting slices of light on the wood.
Karma and Dakini were playing a game that mostly involved kicking each other under the table and trying to look like they weren't. The topic of the day seemed to very technical and involved sealing. Neither of them were really needed for something like that.
(Perhaps this was the very essence of politics. Too many unnecessary people providing their opinions on something they didn't understand. No wonder assassins were so often involved.)
"If we used human hosts, we could proceed without delay," argued Tobirama. "There is a wealth of information about sealing chakra into people, in comparison to objects."
"I understand where you are coming from, brother," Hashirama said, "but unless we intend to keep all of the beasts, we must not use people. Satoshi-san, your clan keeps chakra stores. Do you have any insight on storage seal design?"
"I doubt ours would be of much use," said Satoshi. "Although precautions are always necessary when storing chakra, due to the tendency of any large concentrations of it gaining a measure of sentience, our personal stores are of moderate size and mostly meant for constant use and refill. A storage seal for a tailed beast would have to be designed with a different goal in mind."
"Exactly so," said Mito. "If it were a human host, their own chakra system would compensate for any fluctuation in the seal's chakra flow. If we intend to seal the beasts into static objects, however, the design must hold water. Otherwise we risk an… unfortunate accident."
"…The sage of six paths," Karma said idly, quite before realising she'd said it out loud. And then it seemed exactly the right thing to say. "Didn't he have those treasured tools? I think one of them was a pot that could seal away anything…"
"You mean Kohaku no Jōhei?" Hashirama said, eyes alight with interest.
"The Amber Purifying Pot… It would still fit only one beast," Tobirama said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Unless…"
"We could use it as reference to refine our own seals," Mito said, eyes distant in a way that suggested her mind was running through sealing spirals and symbols. "We wouldn't have to wonder if we got the chakra output right."
"Assuming we can find the thing," Madara said. "The tools have been lost for thousands of years. No one has records that old…"
There was a pause. As though of one mind, everyone turned to look at Satoshi. He blinked.
"We… might have? I suppose it's worth a look... but we'd have to go to Preta."
The meeting ended on a note of cautious optimism. Karma and Dakini left together, ambling vaguely towards the market district.
"I bet everyone back home will be overjoyed," said Karma in Sanskrit. "More outsiders. The novelty of seeing new faces will have worn off."
"Yeah," Dakini agreed. "I can understand how they feel, myself. Never thought I'd end up having to make nice with the meal. We're living in interesting times."
"Oh, don't say that, you'll jinx it. I'm sure everything will go fine. What could happen?"
"Karma, I'm pretty sure you said the worse jinx just now."
The morning of departure arrived crisp and bright. Sunlight was hesitantly considering the possibility of melting the ground frost and the last bite of the dying winter still lingered in the wind. But nature is brave and resilient, and plum trees were already blooming around the clearing of departure.
"And then there's this whole secrecy thing," Dakini said. "There are, what, five groups? Staggered throughout the day? Still strange. We used to just kill all witnesses."
"Yeah, gotta miss all that cold-blooded murder," Karma said wryly. "At least you and I get to go together. Poor Satoshi is stuck alone with the white-haired bastard."
There was a discreet cough. It was Hyuuga Hakkou, who still looked at Karma like he expected her to lunge for his neck at any moment. Fortunately, this translated into 'stiff and stoic', so Karma was reasonably sure no one took notice of anything unusual.
"Ah, Hakkou-san. I didn't know you were coming as well," Karma lied.
Translation: the plan will proceed as agreed, then?
"I have the best eyes in the clan for scouting missions," he said stiffly.
"Glad to have you along," Karma said, her lips curling in her best mild, polite smile. She intended to say something else that was polite and nice and meant absolutely nothing when someone shouted her name.
Madara was standing in the middle of the forest clearing. When he caught her eye, he lifted his hand and curled his fingers to his palm. Come see this.
"Good morning," she said, walking closer. His irritated look transformed into a smile.
It was easier to smile in return, these days. There weren't many people around Konoha who did not merely politely tolerate her existence.
"Likewise. I wanted to show you this."
"Hmm? Show me what?"
Madara stepped back and his hands flashed through seals. He bit into his thumb and slammed his palm on the ground. Lines of ink spread through the dirt. There was a puff of smoke.
A massive golden hawk appeared, easily twice the height of a tall man (i.e. Madara). Its feathers were sleek and longer than her forearm. It clawed at the ground and scowled fiercely at everyone around it. Karma couldn't tell if it was just the hawk's face or actual irritation.
Madara looked vaguely expectant. She beamed at him.
"That's amazing! Shall we travel by flight?" she said.
"Yes," Madara said. His eyes looked a little glazed, for some reason. "You… and your friend will travel with me on this one. The others will follow."
The hawk ruffled its feathers in what looked like dignified irritation. Madara gave it a look. There was an impression of past arguments, grudgingly lost and laboriously won.
(Karma wondered if it had been a staring contest. She entertained a brief mental image of Madara and the leader of hawks, the size of a mountain in her imagination, staring at each other and both trying not to blink.)
The hawk gave up, and sent Karma a blatant look of 'I did not sign up for this' while Madara climbed on its back. It was so long-suffering that she had to smother a smile.
Madara leaned down and offered his hand. "Shall we?"
Karma grinned and took it.
The land was far below and Konoha nothing but a tiny dot in the horizon. The world seemed very far away and not very important.
"How did you end up signing the hawk contract?" Karma asked, eventually.
Madara glanced at her and considered his reply carefully. 'Because you said you like flying' didn't seem like the right thing to say.
"It was… a whim, at the time," he conceded. "I happened to I remember that Uchiha are in possession of the hawk contract and thought that it might be useful to be able to fly."
This was technically true, if not the whole picture.
"Lucky," Karma sighed. "I wanted to sign our contract, but the crows only accept three people at a time."
"Yet they live amongst your people, from what I saw. Is that one of the terms of the contract?"
"If it is, no one remembers. The contract is kind of ancient, and no one ever reads through all of it, in case the parchment breaks into pieces. But still, there's a legend–"
She clicked her tongue, turned to her friend and chittered something in their private language. The other girl cocked her head and pursed her lips. She waved her hand horizontally, side to side. The answer to the question, whatever it was, apparently approached 'I don't know'.
Madara ignored a stab of irritation. There was so much the use of Sharingan could tell about what lay behind words, but you had to understand the words first.
"Would you like to hear the story?" Karma asked, turning back to Madara. "How we allegedly got the contract? It's probably not really a secret, since it's more of a fable than serious history..."
"I… yes. I would hear it."
"All right. A long time ago, somewhere in the northern lands…"
It was a bad winter, the kind that claws into the ground with withering cold and strangles even the roots that take refuge under the surface.
Animals, plants and people alike lost their lives, perished in the cold. Fishes froze in the water and sunk to the bottom of ponds and rivers. Pine trees lost their needles. People went blue with the cold and died in their sleep.
The clan of the crows had done well in the early days, feasting on the carcasses of the old and the sickly. But the winter grew colder and meaner and, when the weak were gone, began to claim the healthy and the hale. Eventually, carrion grew scarce. And then, there wasn't even that.
The leader of the crows, the great Yatagarasu-sama, watched as his kin became nothing but skin and bones, how their feathers lost their lustre and fell off, and he dreaded what would happen if spring did not come.
In contrast to everyone else, our ancestors were yet weathering the winter, for we were fewer then than we are now, and our supplies had lasted well. But others saw what we had, and wanted it for themselves. And though they were weakened by the winter, they were many and we were not.
Our clan head called the clan for a gathering, and they considered and they debated and they decided that we must change. We must not be the peaceful, harmless little clan who had bountiful lands and fertile soils. We must be the monsters instead, we must forever stain our own name with ashes and blood.
And so we did.
There was a battle between two clans of ninja, or possibly great bands of mercenaries. The details have been lost to history. We cared not who they were, we only cared that they were there. We went and we killed, and we wiped out all of them without anger and without pity, and so we brought blood and ruin and fear.
Although, that was a lie. We only killed most of them. Some we let go, so that they could tell what they saw, and so children learned to cry our name in their nightmares.
We became the horrors under the bed, the pitiless monsters of the moonless nights. We, the ogres. We, the demons.
We, the shinigami.
But for the crows, we brought life. After we left, they feasted upon our gift of carrion and lived on and grew strong again.
And Yatagarasu-sama looked at his kin, healthy and strong, and his heart swelled with joy, and he swore to repay his debt. They took off to find our ancestors, in a great murder of crows that darkened the skies, and the people below cried in fear of the end times.
For us, however, it was a beginning. Our clans forged a bond and signed it in blood, allegedly written by a quill made of a single black crow feather. Forever after we have shared our lives.
"I'm afraid most of our fables are like that," Karma said, smiling at the look on Madara's face. "It is said that our bond with the crows is characterised by 'consumption'. My kin devour lives, and the crows feed on the flesh that remains. Kind of morbid, isn't it?"
"From… one point of view, certainly," Madara said. He had the expression of someone who was slowly chewing a large bite into something more palatable. "But… it also shows how something wonderful can arise from the worst circumstances. A stranger might prove to be the most important person you ever met."
Madara looked deep in thought. Karma supposed it was understandable. He was probably still not used to a friendship that didn't involve decades' worth of obsession over the other person.
Hashirama's initial impression of the village of Preta had mixed up into a mess of colours and confusion, of music and lights and lively chatter.
And all of it was still there, of course, but the distilled memory was made mundane by the intrusion of reality: their welcome had worn off. The way the villagers avoided their visitors and whispered to each other in hushed voices once they passed… if Hashirama could have understood the language, this would have been very similar to his past experiences with other clans.
He smiled at a little girl he vaguely recalled from the party. She gave him a carefully measured look and skipped a little closer.
"You're back, mister."
"So I am."
"Why? Aren't you afraid we're gonna eat you?"
"Hardly. We are allies, after all. If I show you no trust, how can I expect any in return?"
The girl nodded solemnly. "You're brave. I like you."
A woman, presumably her mother, emerged from the crowd and hefted the girl in her arms. As she strode away, chastising her daughter in a foreign language, the little girl waved at Hashirama over her shoulder.
"I suppose these things take their time," Hashirama said sadly.
The visitors' quarters were in a separate wing of a building made of white stone and a lot of pillars. Inside, the rooms were fantastically bright: yellow-tiled floors and blue-painted walls and red fabric draped over furniture. There was an impression of aggressive cleanliness, as though the rooms had gone unused for a long time and had been scrubbed, dusted and aired very recently. The linens were spotless and smelled of soap and crisp air.
Mito flopped down on one of the strange, soft seats. She rubbed her temples and sighed. "…Still doesn't make any sense. I'd hoped, seeing it all close… but the mismatch is even worse."
"The chaos appears almost intentional," said Shikai. "As though they picked what they wanted from a larger pool of options."
"There should be a pattern," Mito said, biting her cheek in frustration. "It's like sealing. There are always patterns. If there aren't, there's a reason, and every time I ask they dodge the question. Why is it a secret? Why is it important?"
There was a silence. Hyuuga Hakkou shifted uncomfortably.
Somewhere outside, a crow croaked. It sounded like an ill omen.
Technically, the Samsara had the finest library in the entire continent. Possibly the entire world. They recorded everything from history and science to poetry and children's stories. There were scrolls, books, scraps of notes and illustrations, maps, charts and even books made of memory seals (full of inky shapes that wriggled on the page until you activated one of them). An entire wing of dictionaries and grammar books, detailing hundreds of long-lost languages.
However, because they recorded everything… finding any one specific obscure detail could become a frustrating exercise in patience. Brilliance and thoroughness do not always translate into efficiency. The researchers and scribes had often written things down as they occurred to them, so that careful charts of mechanical principles could have scribbles of Shakespeare written on their margins. Every now and then someone suggested that the filing system should be updated and inevitably gave up in disgust a month or two later.
Karma, Satoshi and several younger researchers had ventured into the section that contained all information that had to do with their new world. Half of the records there were about other clans and their abilities, and, most likely, priceless enough that many would be willing to wage war over them.
The rest of it was, to put it bluntly, exactly that. Everything else.
"The problem isn't a lack of clues," Satoshi said, dragging his hand through his hair. "More like the other way around. There are enough legends around these parts to fill an entire library. You'd think there was no room in the world for anything else than lost temples and ancient ruins and forgotten tombs. And I'm afraid our ancestors were less meticulous about writing down the local legends than they were about recording our memories. There is no order whatsoever. I should really look through these and come up with a proper filing system one of these days."
Satoshi pulled out a stash of papers tied together with string. A grey cloud of dust puffed in the air.
"Let's see… these are in Sanskrit… this in kanji… ah, yes. This I was afraid of. Do you recognise the script?"
Karma peered at the paper. "I think that might be old English. I'm not entirely sure."
Satoshi groaned. "So, we must do this the hard way. Samudaya, Nirodha, I need you two to sort these records based on language. The rest of you grab whatever you can read and look for clues. Any advice on how to narrow this down, Karma?"
Karma tried to think back. Her memories were the main reason she was involved, of course, but she felt a little silly treating an ordinary manga series as a legitimate source of information when she stood inside a building full of ancient texts.
"Well… I think the tools eventually ended up in Kumogakure. Maybe we should look into mentions of them in the Land of Lightning?"
"Good enough. Land of Lightning it is."
Dakini was lounging on a sofa, wondering if it was lunchtime soon, when her idle downtime was invaded by the sudden emerge of responsibilities.
"May I have a word, miss Dakini?"
Dakini blinked at Hyuuga Hakkou, who had appeared out of blue and now hovered by the doorway, looking uncomfortable and out of place. They had never spoken longer than three words strung together. She couldn't imagine why this should ever have be rectified.
"Me? How come?"
Hakkou grimaced ever so slightly. "I cannot seem to find miss Karma and, considering what I have to say, it would be unwise to approach anyone of… higher status. I should like to avoid unnecessary attention."
"Oh? This I gotta hear. What's eating you?"
"Lady Mito is… quite interested in finding out more about your clan. I believe she thinks there is something strange about your reluctance to explain your… apparent cultural disconnect. I fear it is not a good idea for her to keep looking, lest she find something else."
Hakkou looked mildly constipated. Dakini supposed he must be suffering from a case of conflicting loyalties. She could kind of relate, too, because this was going to suck.
She wished Karma was here. This was really so much more her sort of thing. Dakini liked to let loose and not think about every step so damn carefully. What was life, if you had to count every crumble of bread and wonder if it was the last? It was best to eat everything. Let someone else worry about the harvest and the trade.
Dakini thought about having someone fetch her friend and frowned. Why was it that she always thought about what Karma would do, how she would react?
Wasn't Dakini also a reincarnated person from a lost world? There had to be some wisdom she had gained from it, surely? Just because Karma had a better poker face didn't mean Dakini couldn't manage. And she was here, and Karma was off reading boring old papers, and Mito needed to be thrown off the scent. The sooner the better.
"Okay, so, what we do is that you go back and lie to her," Dakini said firmly. "Say something about, I don't know, whatever," she waved her hand dismissively. "It doesn't matter, we can come up with the details later."
Hakkou looked insulted. "The Hyuuga are loyal to Konoha," he said. "I merely informed you of a potential risk, as per our agreement. Are you asking me to break our oath?"
"Hey, I'm pretty sure your clan head lied for us once already," Dakini said. "'Sides, you know why no one can know about the… thing. You guys are pretty much preventing a war, keeping it to yourselves. Are you just hesitating 'cause you feel better about it if you can just keep silent and not really lie?"
Hakkou looked conflicted. One point for Dakini.
"I… I would prefer to consult the clan head first," Hakkou tried. He didn't sound very sure of himself. She almost had him.
(Just like the old times. Only she was providing Karma's side of the discussion, too. A bit like juggling with just one hand, really, but she was clearly doing great. She had got this.)
"Well, you're here and he's not," she said. "Clearly he trusted you enough to act in his stead. I mean, there was always the chance something went wrong, right?"
"I'm sure we can compensate you for the trouble," Dakini offered the final bait. Bribery was always a nice icing on any cake. "We make excellent linen. And silk. You'll need stuff for your new houses, right? And new kimono and, and more stuff. You'll get a discount."
Hakkou deflated a little. Dakini gave herself a mental pat in the back.
"I… Very well. What shall I tell her?"
Dakini pursed her lips, thinking. "Uh… so, basically we need to explain why it's a big fat secret why we wear top hats with sari and build a pyramid next to something white and shiny and churchy? Maybe you can tell her we grow weed?"
"…Weed. You want me to tell her your clan is… constantly sedated by narcotics?"
"Was it that bad?"
"Something more plausible would be appreciated."
Dakini considered. What was it that they'd been told of lies while growing up? The best ones were always based on truths? But the truth was, of course, that the Samsara could not be a sensible culture because they were not. And obviously, no one could know about their origins, ever. Maybe she could use that.
"We… came across the sea," she said. "Yes. There was another continent there, something something, a calamity or a war, and we were refugees from different places and pooled our strength together and sailed across. Something like that. Sound any better?"
Hakkou looked at her oddly. "That is a lie? Is the truth stranger?"
And, too late, Dakini realised her folly: she had spoken to Hakkou almost like to a fellow clansman. She should have presented the lie as the truth.
"Well, we are connected to death," she said, only half lying through her teeth. "But death and memories are pretty much the same thing, you know? The past is lost in death, and sometimes my clan can find it and preserve it. So we know loads about people who died ages ago. Can't tell that to lady Mito, right?"
Hakkou's eyes widened and he grabbed Dakini's shoulders in a desperate grip. "You can… find the lost memories of dead people?" he asked hoarsely. "Can you… talk with them at all?"
"Uh… yes?" Dakini squeaked without thinking, alarmed by the intensity in Hakkou's usually expressionless white eyes. It was disconcerting, like being glared at by a sheep. "Sometimes?"
"Please," Hakkou said, his voice hoarse with suppressed emotion. "My wife… she, she died in a battle just before the war ended. Can you… I mean, I understand there must be so many dead souls… but I was supposed to be there, and I wasn't… I want to know if she died angry, if she thought I had abandoned her…"
…Дерьмо, this was not going the way she wanted. Telling a spun version of the truth had been a very bad, no good, terrible idea. Why had she wanted to do this on her own, again? It was so much better not to be responsible for stuff.
Her clan was going to kill her. Or laugh their arses off.
"I, yes, I can try," she said, feeling a bead of cold sweat trail down her back. She'd made her bed and would have to lay in it, and if she was screaming inside, no one had to know. "But I really can't promise we can find any one specific memory. Uh, what's her name?"
"Kiku," Hakkou said hopefully. "She was good at calligraphy and hated pickled plums. Does that help?"
"Maybe," Dakini lied. She felt horrible. "Let… let me get back to you if I find anything."
It wasn't until a week later before Dakini managed to find Satoshi, walking home from the library and looking quite frazzled. He was covered in cobwebs and sneezed when he tried to greet her.
"Blast it," he sniffled. "Too much dust. Was there something you needed, वत्से?"
Dakini shuffled anxiously. "I… may have hecked up. Maybe. A little."
She told him about Hakkou and her lie.
"I see. Don't worry about it too much," Satoshi said, patting her shoulder. "We will be able to work with this. Considering the situation, you pulled through quite well."
"I… I did?"
"You still kept our secrets, didn't you?" Satoshi said and sighed. "So many lies. Truth is, I find myself missing the time before we had to deal with all these outsiders. I dislike all these plots and schemes. If we did not need the chakra, this hassle wouldn't be worth it."
"Oh, right, the plan," Dakini said. "The plan with the thing. The thing especially chosen for the plan. That thing. Did you find it?"
"We've a likely candidate, yes. A rather old temple in the outskirts of the Land of Lightning. We're sending in team of two to investigate tomorrow. Karma and Madara-san will be going. If you want to speak with her before they leave, I suggest you do it tonight."
Dakini let herself into Karma's house without knocking. The door was unlocked. All doors in the village of Preta were always left unlocked.
She found her friend in the bedroom, packing supplies.
"So, why are you going adventuring with the stalker, again?"
"Don't call him that, Dakini. I'm going because I can regenerate from wounds and resist genjutsu. Or, so I told Satoshi when I begged for his permission. If I had to read through the entire Dusty Old Tomes: the Series to find the place, I'm going to see what it's all about. Madara… sort of invited himself. Frankly, I have no idea why."
"Ugh," Dakini said, scrunching her nose. "I'll bet he volunteered when he heard you were going. Don't go kissy just because I'm not there to tell you it's a bad idea."
Karma laughed. "I'm not going to kiss him. If you're that worried, just come along. I'm sure I can talk Satoshi around."
"Can't," Dakini said miserably. "I tried to talk circles around the Hyuuga and only managed to talk myself into a corner. Turns out we are all mediums and can communicate with dead people, now. Hyuuga wants me to ask his wife if she hates him and I'm going to have to deal with it, since it's my fault."
Karma blinked. "I… kind of really want to hear that story. In detail."
"Once you get back, yeah? I'm sure I'll have made an even bigger ass of myself by then. Probably in front of the entire council. Good luck on the trip to the ancient crypt or whatever."
"I think you'll need luck more than I."
"I will, if you keep jinxing it."
The trip to the Land of Lightning took less than half a day on the back of a hawk. That was the easy part.
The hard part was finding the temple. They had a map and instructions, but a thousand years of nature going about its business had buried all signs of civilisation, past or present.
Literally buried, as it turned out. After three days of searching, they stumbled upon the remains of a broken statue half buried in a landslide.
"Think this is it?" Karma asked, peering at the stone face. It looked like it was judging her.
"The location matches," Madara said, looking around with a critical eye. Karma hoped he got more out of the landscape than she did. It was all very dull and rock-like to her. The statue was still giving her a stink-eye.
Eventually, they managed to clear an entrance. It was a hole in the ground, opening into total darkness. An air current blew out. It had the smell of centuries of disuse, which mostly amounted to 'stuffy'.
They tied a rope onto the root of a nearby tree and they descended into darkness. There was no light but what fell through the hole in the ceiling. It was silvery and bright and mostly only managed to make the darkness look more menacing.
What was visible told a tale of ancient craftsmanship. There were tall pillars, supporting a high, arched ceiling. The floor was covered in carved symbols.
Once they made it to the bottom, Madara spat a tongue of fire at the torch to light it. He lifted it to illuminate the nearest wall. The carvings seemed to depict a horned man surrounded by nine large animals.
"The tailed beasts," Karma said. "Look, that's the nine-tailed fox. And Shukaku."
"Then, that must be the Sage," Madara said. "I wonder which parts of the story are true."
"He must have existed," Karma said. "But I would be surprised if half of the stories of what he did are accurate."
They wandered around the hall. Each wall held a different carving. One was about a long-haired woman, a strange fruit and a monstrous tree. Another held an image of people, connected with threads of power. The third had two young men, fighting, leading their people to war. One was surrounded by a skeletal Susanoo. The other had six arms and three faces. Indra and Asura.
"Looks like there were people, followers of the sage, who didn't want his relics to be made into tools of war," Karma said, trying to see the shape of the carvings through the amorphous green vegetation that now covered much of the wall. "Look, there, a group of people walking away from the battle. I think they're holding onto… a pot? And a fan?"
"So the tools are here," said Madara. "Fitting, that we should reclaim them now, having made peace at long last."
"We should have brought Hashirama," Karma lamented. "The symbolism would have been charming."
"Yes. He was… busy. Very unfortunate," Madara lied.
In the next room was a pedestal, sitting on top of a stretch of stairs. On it was a golden statue wearing an unnerving grin. It glittered innocently in a convenient ray of sunlight that fell through a light well up in the ceiling.
"Why would there be a… a golden idol in such an open room?" Madara asked.
"It's obviously a trap. If we remove it, it'll trigger a pressure plate and collapse the walls."
"…I find that hard to believe."
"It's an ancient treasure temple with an idol on a pedestal. What else is going to happen?"
"Well, we have no need for that thing in the first place. Let's move on."
The next room was a long corridor. There were holes in the walls.
"Careful," Karma said. "I think those shoot darts or kunai. Or something sharp, anyway. It's pretty much expected of any self-respecting ancient treasure temple."
Madara raised a sceptical eyebrow. "This place is ancient. Would the trap even trigger anymore?"
"They usually build these places sturdy. Could be seals. Can you see any?"
Madara grouched down and wiped a batch of the floor clear of dust, tomoe whirling in his eyes. He brushed a finger against the stone. There was a spark of chakra, briefly illuminating a network of intricate seals.
"It seems you were right. I'm not sure it is feasible to disable this," he said. "Tampering with it could trigger the mechanism."
"It probably reacts to chakra, but there has to be a threshold. Otherwise it'd go off every time an errant animal gets lost in here."
"So, we might get through without trouble if we suppress our chakra?"
"Worth a try, right?"
As it turned out, the ancient trap designers were not too fond of witty intruders. In the middle of the corridor was a pressure plate that released the kunai anyway.
However, Madara's reflexes were even faster. He grabbed Karma's arm and pulled both of them down just in time. He lay down on his back and, for a while, both of them lay there side by side, waiting for the trap to run its course.
"Well, fancy meeting you here," Karma said, glancing to her side. "What brings you to a place like this?"
Madara snorted. After a while, the rain of kunai stopped.
The next room was completely empty. Its floor was made of large tiles with different kanji carved on them.
"What do you think of this one?" Madara asked.
"There's probably a safe path through, based on some sort of clever symbolism. If you step on the wrong tile, the floor falls off. Or spikes come in through the ceiling."
"Once again, that sounds strangely specific," Madara said. "But I'll take a look."
His eyes spun red and black. After half a minute or so, he groaned.
"There is indeed a safe path," he said. "It's made up of the symbols of ninshū. If we step on anything else, a seal mechanism… drops off the floor."
"Right? It's really quite obvious when you think about it."
"In what part of the world?"
They hopped from one tile to the other and managed to reach the other end of the room safely.
"At least there can't be anything worse than this," Madara said irritably.
"I don't know, there's still the giant rolling boulder to look forward to."
"Please tell me you're joking."
Five minutes later, they were running down a steeply descending hallway and easily keeping pace with the giant rolling boulder thundering down behind them.
"'Bound to happen', what do you mean this was bound to happen?"
"You've got to have a rolling boulder! It's how these things are done!"
"I hesitate to ask what they teach you in your clan, if all of this was obvious to you..."
"Maybe we should stop the rock? We don't know when the hallway ends. There could be a pit full of crocodiles."
"I'd hate to see that. Very well. On three. One. Two. Three."
They spun around and braced themselves. The rock hit their outstretched arms with a heavy thud and stopped. There was a silence.
"This had better be the last trap," Madara said irritably. "Or I will not be held responsible for my actions."
The treasured tools of the Sage of Six Paths were stored in what amounted to a glorified storeroom. It didn't match Madara's expectations, to say the least. After the elaborate, if occasionally bizarre, death traps, he had thought…
Well, he had imagined something more interesting than having to dig his way through a layer of cobwebs and dust. He made a face at the legendary Amber Purifying Pot.
Karma laughed. It was muffled in a way that suggested she was smothering it behind her palm again. He stole a quick glance at her.
Her eyes were warm, her smile real. She had let down her guard enough to let him see it. And if the price of it was suffering the occasional indignity, he paid it gladly.
His clan loved him and admired him, as much as they feared him and for him. It was a bond of blood, precious as much as it was taken for granted, because… well, of course, you had to care for your family. You had to.
The only real friend outside clan Madara had ever made, had ever earned, was Hashirama, but Madara had been young and idealistic and hopeful then. And it was Hashirama's nature to remember the best of you and insist that it was still there somewhere and dig and dig and dig until you had to help him just to get it over with, even if you knew it was a waste of effort.
Madara was well aware of what the bitter years and blood and loss had made of him. He had seen little reason to hide it from Karma. And because he hadn't cared, she had ended up seeing all of the ugly stains and jagged edges that Hashirama was so willing to ignore.
However, despite everything war had made him, despite everything he had made himself… He had still managed to earn that smile.
Perhaps Hashirama's optimism was justified. Perhaps there was hope for everyone, even foolish dreams.
"Well, we'd better haul this stuff back home," Karma said, dragging his attention back to the present. "Maybe we should find a shortcut? My respect for thousand year old architecture has suffered considerably in the last few hours. For some reason."
"Strange," Madara said. "So has mine."
She laughed. It was not a particularly melodic or musical sound, as far as Madara could tell, but it was open and straightforward in a way he wasn't used to. Everyone always walked on eggshells around him.
He wanted to kiss her and taste her breath. He wanted to wrap his arms around her and bury his hands in her hair. He wanted to press her against his chest, feel her warmth through their clothes.
He coughed, mouth strangely dry, and lifted the pot and slung it on his back.
They ended up making a new hole in the roof of the temple and climbed through. Sun was setting and painted the fields and forests in yellows and reds. Their trek through the temple had taken hours. Sliding down the landslide took a few seconds and landed them right where they had started. The doorway waited, open and dark like a maw.
"Wait," Madara said, lifting his hand. His sharingan spun slowly and took in every little detail others might have missed. Misplaced stones, bent grass and marks in the dust. Tiny things.
Either it was nothing, or someone who was very good at what they were doing.
"Someone was here after us."
"What? Are you sure?" Karma asked. She squinted, trying in vain to see what he did.
"The signs are old. I can't sense any chakra anymore."
"Mmh. It could have just been an animal," she said.
She didn't sound like she believed it. Neither did Madara. Both waited a few seconds, just in case someone picked this moment to spring an ambush. It seemed like that sort of day.
Nothing happened. They moved several large stones to cover the entrance and left, feeling uneasy.
The forest of Sarana was a holy place for the Samsara. So many people had died there, and consistently, over so many centuries that whatever veil separated the realms was somehow thinner. The forest was always close to death.
The trees were strange, too. Their branches always moved, whether there was a breeze or not, and sometimes seemed to reach out to the people that walked underneath.
The Samsara did not believe the souls of their ancestors were trapped within. Death was a freedom, a release, a new chance at… life, perhaps. Or something else.
But it was thought that the chakra drain at the moment of death, strong as it was, never quite managed to steal the very last spark of chakra. And if some remained, it may get trapped within the tree and be protected.
Chakra is half spiritual. Perhaps the remainder could hold onto an impression of personality. Perhaps it could want. Perhaps it could act.
Whether this was the truth or not, the ever persistent call of death was muffled in the forest. The subtle sense of wrongness the Samsara always felt was lost in the rustle of the leaves.
All of which also made the forest the best place to mope.
"Ancestors, I have fucked up," Dakini wailed, slumping down to sit between two moss-covered roots. She kind of wished the trees could listen to what she had to say, too, but she mostly just needed to vent it out.
"The entire council gave me the evil eye! I thought they were going to curse me right there, even though Satoshi told them it wasn't so bad and everything. I'd like to see them coming up with a lie on the spot! All they do is argue and eat lunch.
"And I don't want to lie to that guy. But I can't not. I have to protect the clan! The outsiders can't know the truth. But what if I make something up and he sees through me? Like I know anything about his wife!"
Dakini sighed and leaned against the tree trunk, her anxious energy spent The forest was already having an effect. Her agitation seemed to be leaching out of her, gently washed away.
After a while, she noticed she was feeling sleepy. And there were voices whispering to her, indistinct and distant. Funny. She hadn't noticed them before, but now they seemed obvious. Like they had been there all along and she just hadn't paid attention.
Her eyelids drooped. There was no harm resting a little, surely. She closed her eyes.
The words became clearer. One voice in particular stood out. A woman.
Dakini tried to concentrate. She felt like she could understand the words soon, if only…
I am Kiku, said the woman. You have spoken to my husband. Please, I must let him know…
Dakini's eyes flew open, sharp awareness returning as though she had been splashed with cold water. But the voice didn't disappear.
Oh, you have got to be kidding me, she thought. How am I ever going to explain this?
The next day, there was a minor commotion in the forest of Sarana. It involved a lot of people shaking their heads and arguing with hushed voices and generally looking like they had found something buried in their backyard and were unsure if it was a cache of gold or a landmine.
"Well, I must admit I did not see this coming," Satoshi said weakly. "I can only assume our ancestors never felt the need to linger behind after death."
"It's still kind of ridiculous it took us this long to notice," said Dakini. "Can I bring the Hyuuga, then? I mean, there's no real reason not to… I don't want to lie if I don't have to."
"I suppose there is no harm in that," said Satoshi. "Although, we should probably emphasize to him that we do not intend to provide a, shall we say, regular service…"
"Uh, okay," Dakini said, fidgeting. "I've never done this before, so… just wait there and listen. I'll try to repeat word for word."
Hakkou nodded, hands fisted in the fabric of his hakama. He was sitting in perfect seiza, apparently uncaring that the wet mulch under his knees was slowly being absorbed through the fabric.
Dakini closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. The forest rustled around her, and now that she knew to look… there were the voices of the dead. She waited, shifting through the echoes, looking for the woman. And –
You brought him!
"Yeah," Dakini said, then cracked open one eyelid. "No, wait, that wasn't her! That was me talking to her! Let's try again. Next time I'm speaking for her, okay?"
Hakkou nodded. His face looked a little strained. Dakini closed her eyes again. She got an impression of a faint, ghostly giggle.
"I did not suffer," Dakini said slowly, repeating word for word. "It was over quickly. I did not have time to blame anyone, let alone you… I wished I could have seen you one last time…"
All fairly standard material, as far as Dakini was concerned. Kiku's speech went on like that for a while. Regrets and sorrow and so on. Until it didn't, and wasn't.
"And anyway, even if you're in mourning, that's not an excuse not to eat properly!"
Dakini tried to keep up, as Kiku's tone grew less mournful and began to approach what might be described as 'nagging'.
"You eat way too many salty foods! It's bad for your blood pressure. Furthermore, if you do not get that rash looked at, I will find a way to haunt your dreams. That sort of thing may seem trivial next to all this business about peace and villages, but your… golden balls… will not thank you if you neglect…"
Dakini's voice went progressively quieter and finally tapered out entirely. Her ears burned. Hakkou's face was completely blank, as though frozen in time.
"My dear," he said. His voice was strained. "I will go to the doctor as soon as we get back to the village. However, I would rather not involve miss Dakini in this sort of topic..."
"There was also some stuff she said about a paste made of ginger and kombu," Dakini said, fidgeting. "Uh, sorry, this was me paraphrasing. I forgot how exactly it went. You talked over her and I got confused."
"I apologise," Hakkou said. He cleared his throat. "Shall we continue?"
It took almost half an hour for Kiku to be satisfied. Dakini could have done without any of the lurid descriptions of what exactly Kiku missed about the private part of their married life, but most of it was blessedly devoid of any further mentions of, well, the unmentionables.
But even that wasn't, strangely enough, the worst part.
Kiku spoke of the children they never had, but had wanted and talked about and worried over. That she had known their lives were likely to be cut short, but had still secretly wished to grow old with Hakkou and see strands of grey appear in his hair and watch the autumn leaves turn red while sitting next to him on their porch, both gnarled and bent with age. How she had loved to wash her husband's back before bathing, how she missed hearing the little hum he didn't know he made when he polished his kunai, how much she wished she could have had one more morning with him, woken in his arms to sunshine and birdsong.
This was private and intimate and Dakini wanted to hear none of it. It was so cosmically unfair that she had to listen in on it, simply because she had the ability.
"Will I see you again?" Hakkou finally asked.
"I think so," Dakini repeated. "I will wait for you in this place… but you must live out your life first. Live well, my love. Live gloriously."
"What is it like, the place where you wait?"
"A darkness all around me. Complete silence. But there is a campfire and I am warm. It is not so bad."
"I… I see. Then, until it is my time..."
"This is where we part."
Dakini looked away to let Hakkou swallow his grief in relative privacy. Silence filled the forest and stretched awkwardly. Neither could quite look each other in the eyes.
"I'm… just… going to try my best to forget this discussion," Dakini finally said.
"You really should get that rash looked at, though. I mean, doctors don't care about that stuff at all. It's just their job."
And oh, she felt like a coward and a lout, but if she didn't get to make light of something, she'd choke on the damned piece that seemed to have lodged itself in her throat.
Thankfully, Hakkou took the distraction for what it was. He coughed and nodded.
As soon as she felt it was appropriate, Dakini all but ran away.
She was not looking forward to telling this story to Karma.
It was almost time to begin the operation. All that remained was the ironing out of the details.
And, as it turned out, there were still so many details.
"I still think you and I should do it alone," Madara said. He had crossed his arms and looked not at all receptive to new ideas or suggestions.
"The problem isn't power," said Hashirama, doodling little shapes on the margins of the report in front of him. "With my wood and your eyes, I'm sure we could do it. We might also end up rearranging the landscape. A brand new valley is not inconspicuous. For the sake of the future, we need to at least attempt… discretion."
"Yes, let us attempt to catch the titanic chakra monsters without anyone noticing," Tobirama said throwing up his arms. "And here I thought founding Konoha was an insane plan. Clearly my standards were too low."
"But Konoha exists," Hashirama pointed out gently. Tobirama grimaced but didn't say anything.
"Unfortunately, better control of the battlefield means there are more moving parts in our plan," Hashirama continued. "To summarise, the Uzumaki and myself will bind the fox. Madara will use his sharingan to control it. We will then seal it into the Amber Purifying Pot. The Samsara will stand by, prepared to disrupt any of its attempts to use chakra-based attacks. Will this be dangerous for the rest of us?"
"Very likely," the military commander said. "We can take advantage of the non-linear rate of chakra absorption inherent to our blood limit. In theory, the fox should, by default, use such massive amounts of chakra that we would be able to drain a portion of it without killing everyone else in the area. However, we have rarely attempted to drain anything less than, well, everything. Everyone should be prepared to evacuate if chakra loss becomes critical."
"All of us have decent stores of chakra," Mito said. "But we must acknowledge the fact that we will be using them and cannot predict how quickly. I don't suppose we could borrow some of your clan's external chakra supplies, Satoshi?"
Satoshi coughed and averted his eyes. "Our chakra is… different. I doubt an outsider's system would appreciate it."
Under the table, he poked Karma's elbow. Change the topic.
"…Sorry to interrupt," she interrupted, looking like she wasn't at all sorry to do so, "but there is something I feel we have not taken into account. According to our, ah, sources, Ku- the fox is able to sense negative emotions. However we approach him, we can't expect to have the element of surprise."
"You are certain of this?"
"Well, our sources are not always precise… but they've been reasonably accurate, at least. We shouldn't just discard the possibility, anyway."
"True enough. In that case, we need to–"
The conversation and debate ran late, as they always did. Moon was high by the time everyone went their own ways. Karma looked up at its bleak light. Her breath puffed out in steam, dispersing in the cold night air.
The next day would bring changes, for good or ill.
The Samsara, in general, were not especially adept at sensing chakra. Karma had often wondered about that. A shark could smell a single drop of blood in the vast oceans. A hawk could see a tiny field mouse scurrying into its hole from miles above. Every decent ninja could sense the chakra of their opponent during a battle.
But while the Samsara needed chakra like any living thing needed air to breathe, they had no special skills to sense their prey.
However, that relative blindness did not, apparently, include the overwhelming presence of Kurama. She felt his chakra long before she saw him, a prickle against her skin and a faint terror in her mind. An impression of seething malevolence...
In that story long ago, Kurama had been described as a force of nature. The reality wasn't far off.
When they found him, Kurama was sleeping, sprawled on a hill that had previously been thick with forest (now prime-quality timber). He seemed unwilling to acknowledge the approaching party.
And yet, there was an impression of stillness before storm.
Their only warning was an irritated twitch of his ear.
Then, the ground trembled. The day became night, as a gigantic shadow covered the sun. Kurama loomed over the land like a malevolent god.
"Now!" someone screamed. Chakra chains shot through the air, glimmering white and thin like spider thread compared to Kurama.
But they held, trapping his limbs, trapping his maw. Kurama growled, the sound resonating inside the body like it was alive.
Somewhere behind him, wood began to grow over his tails, twining around them like vines.
And suddenly the air was thick with chakra, spilling around Kurama's teeth and the chains that held them together.
"Concentrate! As we planned!"
Automatically, Karma lifted her arms and wove her chakra through the technique. And though the pull of it was weak, so weak it could normally never have stolen anything but ambient chakra, unable to tear into the body of a person, it was enough.
Kurama's chakra swirled in the air, pulled away from him. It felt like burning, like the midday sun in the heart of a desert, and as corrosive as acid dripped in her veins. It made her feel like she could level mountains, like she was being scrubbed raw from the inside.
But the coldness inside her was stronger. The chakra became her own, sustaining her life against the pull of death. Her body healed.
Karma looked up to see that the plan was working. She thought she saw one big eye swivel to look at her kin.
And then, for whatever reason, he stopped thrashing, let the rest of his gathered chakra dissolve. He didn't even seem to care that all of his tails were wrapped up in Hashirama's wood. If one were inclined to believe such a thing, he appeared to be thinking.
Something in Karma's stomach twisted at the idea, pulling her innards into a worried knot.
He opened his jaws as much as he could, straining against the chains that held them closed. More of his black-red chakra coalesced, twirling and terrible–
And then everything went wrong all at once.
Kurama didn't try to concentrate chakra, didn't waste time gathering it. He bent down and roared. There was chakra in the voice, spent too quickly to lose, and it changed the sound until it became force. A shockwave shook the earth.
And the ground was made to break and split open, cracks on it spreading away in the shape of a circle, branching off and connecting.
The Uzumaki lost their footing, chakra chains flapping loose as they attempted to not fall into the newly created abyss, to preserve their lives and climb back to stable ground.
But the damage was done. The bindings were weakened, shattering like glass as Kurama trashed.
And, with the unerring wisdom of hindsight, Karma understood. They had taken into account his strength. They had underestimated his intelligence.
Time seemed content to crawl by, slowed by terror and the rush of adrenaline.
The decision was easy, forming somewhere in the back of her mind where careful thought had little say in matters. It was arrogant and stupid, to think she could do something where the others failed, but –
But she knew things they didn't, and some battles were won with words. Naruto was proof enough of that.
Karma broke formation and ran.
Kurama was busy tearing through Hashirama's wood and didn't notice when she grabbed onto his fur and climbed.
In what felt both like seconds and an eternity, she reached his head. He noticed her then, tilting his head and shaking and growling, but Karma had shaped chakra for a decade and her tendrils could not be dislodged or dissolved.
She climbed over his brow and jumped onto his muzzle.
She turned around and stared into eyes that were as big as she was tall.
She was calm. In this moment where she looked the beast in the eye, she had found that perfect poise again. The world was slow, its edges sharp and clear.
And then, for a few crucial moments, Kurama stood still.
(When you had their attention, their hearts and minds would follow… or so it was said. She thought the original parable might have involved testicles somewhere.)
"It's unfair to you, isn't it?" Karma said, intimately aware of the ticking seconds. Any moment the spell would break and he would attack. "All living things strive to exist. If only we weren't cursed to always claw away from the abyss…"
There was something hypnotising about Kurama's eyes, staring into her own. She could see her own image in their glossy surface. The abyss, looking back into her. She wondered what he saw.
"…I'm so sorry we did this to you."
And, briefly, she heard a voice in her head.
Whatever he wanted to say, she would never know. Before Kurama could say another word, Madara dropped down on his muzzle, eyes spinning in kaleidoscope.
Kurama's eyes glazed over. The abyss was gone.
They had won.
The valley was destroyed, broken trees and rocks piled up in tall heaps around deep wounds gouged into the bare rock. Kurama's massive form had hidden the mountains and the sky, and his absence left everyone blinking in the suddenly bright sunlight.
Then, someone cheered. Like an avalanche of noise, everyone else joined in. Backs were patted, wounds were dressed and everyone soon forgot their terror, as though the battle had been nothing but a nightmare, dissipating with the morning sun.
Karma was about to go back to her clan, when someone grabbed onto her upper arms, fingers biting into her flesh in a way that might have bruised if she was someone else.
"What was that?"
Madara looked like he couldn't decide if he was livid or impressed.
"We needed a distraction," Karma said calmly. "I thought I could provide one."
"I… yes, that is true," he said, sounding he had to drag the words out kicking and screaming. "I can't say that wasn't… impressive. Just don't do that sort of thing if I'm not there."
I will not be taking any orders from you, was what Karma wanted to say but didn't. She might have been inclined to feel more offended if he wasn't so obviously upset.
"I apologise for worrying you."
Madara made a frustrated noise and ran a hand through his hair. Then he wrapped his arms around her, crushing her against his chest. She patted him in the back, feeling increasingly awkward about the whole situation.
Dakini had said he'd been in a foul mood the last time Karma was in danger. She was glad she'd missed that.
Later that night, once everyone was safely back in the village of Preta, Tobirama sought Karma out in the crowd and asked to talk with her. She went with him, half out of curiosity and half… well, also curiosity.
"For the record, I don't like you," he said, once they had some privacy. "You are haughty and self-absorbed and dangerous. And you speak too much of things you do not understand."
"Fair enough," Karma said mildly. "I think you are smarmy and short-sighted and prejudiced. Was there something you wanted to say beyond insulting me?"
"But I dislike you less than I dislike Madara," he said, ignoring her previous comment. "The same goes for trust. And his pursuit of you makes me uneasy. If your courtship should end badly, we will all suffer."
There was a pause. Then, Karma burst into laughter. "'Courtship'? Of all things… you sound like Dakini!"
Tobirama raised an eyebrow. "He told my brother he intends to marry you."
Silence fell, as though sound was cut off by the blade of a guillotine. Colour drained from Karma's skin, leaving her pale as a sheet.
"He said what?"
Ahaha, I wonder if people are going to be upset with me? First I don't update for more than half a year and then I leave you all hanging here. But I feel I was very consistent with Karma's inability to notice Madara's feelings, so hopefully the end made sense at least. Tobirama is not very good with the delivery of news, is he?
The problem with writing Kurama is that he was supposed to be this personified natural disaster, but was consistently defeated by everyone and their mother. Literally. And I'm not confident about writing action in the first place.
Yatagarasu (八咫烏) = literal translation is "eight-span crow". In Japanese mythology, this three-legged crow represents the will of Heaven or divine intervention. It is also a symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation. He is less divine in this story, but still the leader of the crow summon clan and very powerful.
Дерьмо = basically, 'shit' in Russian. I'm not sure when in history this word was coined, so I'm just going to cross my fingers that Dakini from four centuries ago would have known and used it.
वत्से = 'vatse', or 'child', a word to be used when directly addressing a female child (as claimed in the online Sanskrit dictionary I used). Let's hope I'm less wrong this time around, ahaha. I see Satoshi as a person who lived to quite an old age, so he often calls the younger generation like this.
Speaking scientifically, there is a difference between 'precise' and 'accurate'. If you are basically right about something, you are 'accurate'. However, you may still not be 'precise'. Imagine a dartboard where all darts are more or less around the circle at the centre, but a little spread around it and missing the dead centre. This case is 'accurate but not precise'. Compare this to every dart hitting the exact same place… which is nowhere near the centre but approaches the edge or something. This is 'precise but not accurate'.
In hindsight, I should probably have stayed away from science technical speak.
Merry Christmas, regardless.