Hello everyone! Thank you for your patience. I know my updates are slow and irregular, but we are quickly approaching the end of the first part of this fic – so know at the very least we will make it that far! I hope you all enjoy the ride, and thank you for your precious reviews.
Sai crouched low on the back of his painted bird, coal eyes scanning the Village Hidden in the Leaves from high in the sky. From this elevation he could see the entire city – from the crumbled Hokage rock to the pockets of fire still burning throughout the streets – and the sights filled him with an undulating feeling deep within his stomach which he did not understand and could only describe as 'red'.
Sai had only just been able to escape the confrontation between Naruto and Sasuke unscathed. This wasn't the first time he'd been present when the ex-teammates squared off against one another, and he knew from experience it would probably not be the last. Today felt different though. Sasuke felt different, at least as much as Sai was adept at feeling things about people. Usually he thought of the missing-nin and lost comrade of team 7 as a generally level-headed individual whose goals in life were driven by confusing emotions, and although Sasuke walked a path of revenge, it was a path that logically made sense to Sai. The artist tended to think about people in simple terms (a characteristic he'd been working on for years but often fell back on in times of stress), and Sasuke's simple desire was revenge.
Today the emotions around him were far too complicated. Sasuke did not appear to be here today seeking revenge, and heading an assault on his old village was a move which Sai could not understand from a logical perspective. It did nothing to move him closer to destroying the much-hated and sought-after brother, Itachi.
This meant the move was related to something other than his prime directive. Probably a defensive move, if Sai was a guessing man (which he wasn't). As a person who preferred answers to questions, Sai had recused himself from the fight and gone in search of the one person who seemed likely to be responsible for the surging web around him. It was with these thoughts in mind that Sai's practiced eyes saw a bobbing head of pink hair through the light smoke which blanketed the city below.
On the ground, Ino's weight on Sakura's shoulder slipped and the foul-mouthed blonde sank further to her knees. Coughs wrecked the girl's body, but the sounds were small in comparison to the booming shockwave which has assaulted them moments before. Sakura, for a lagging second, paid her friend no mind. Her eyes remained glued to the silhouettes of Gamabunta and Manda in the distance; so enraptured was the girl's attention that it was only when Ino fell completely to the ground that she was pulled from the myriad of emotions which were steadily building in her chest and back into the moment.
"Ino!" Sakura gasped, dropping into a crouch with fluttering fingers. Neji remained stoic next to them, his eyes veined with the signature byakugan.
"Someone is approaching from above," he stated matter-of-factly, drawing a kunai from his thigh holster. Sakura's hands glowed a soft green as she pressed her palms surely into Ino's chest, her eyes unseeing. A small stream of red sprang forth from the blonde kunoichi's lips as another cough shuddered from her body. Neji's weaponed fist lowered suddenly as Sai dropped delicately to the ground in front of the group, waving with a light smile as if it were just a regular day.
Between Sakura and Ino the situation was growing dire. Ino had inhaled more smoke than Sakura initially surmised; her terminal air pathways were completely destroyed and her deeper airways were swollen and spasming. Soot and dirt had collected in her lungs, and the fluid which would usually clean them away had nowhere to go and was slowly collecting. The girl's face grew a light shade of red as she had increasing difficulty bringing oxygen into her body. Sakura attempted to create a bypass with chakra which would allow the girl to breathe, but without addressing the fluid filling her lungs it was ineffective. "I need another medic." she spoke with eerie calmness – a trait learned through countless experiences in the operating room. Someone needed to intubate the girl and provide oxygen while Sakura manually repaired the air pathways and removed the fluid from the lungs. Without help Ino would suffocate in a matter of minutes as either her airways collapsed or her lungs filled.
In one delicate movement Sai unclipped a blank scroll from his hip and flung it open in the air. A long line of wet paint smeared the parchment as it unraveled, the brush in Sai's hand seeming to appear from nowhere. He drew quickly and with precision, and in a moment's time a rudimentary dooly appeared with a puff of smoke at his side. "There is a rendezvous point being established two blocks from here. A small medical team is there attending to some of the injured townspeople. They should have supplies." He kicked one of the handles out from under the dooly and let it fall to the ground face-up; Neji had already moved to Ino's head and laced his rough hands under her shoulders. The girl coughed weakly – a wet sound.
He and Sakura moved her to the stretcher, and like a well-oiled machine the group trotted carefully through the streets. Sai led the way, his face expressionless but the mind beneath swirling with feelings of frustration. To him, Ino's condition was nothing more than an inconvenience. He had hoped to find Sakura alone – or even better, in the company of one Kabuto Yakushi. As they ran along he caught the green of her eyes straying back to the city center where a great battle was no doubt playing out, and he wondered if she felt a similar frustration. "Sasuke is there," the coal-eyed man said enticingly.
Sakura's eyes immediately hardened and snapped back to the situation in front of her. "I know."
They arrived at the rendezvous point a few minutes later. It was a sectioned off portion of city street filled with panicked citizens and quietly moving, goal-directed shinobi. Several khaki tents had been erected, the largest of which bore a red cross on the flaps and had two ANBU posted out front. There were several other ANBU guards patrolling the perimeter of the temporary camp; some were clearing debris, others kept watch atop lightly smoking buildings. The ground was covered in ash and chunks of broken rock – Sakura watched a small child attempting to pull a broken doll out from under a particularly large boulder, and she felt her heart in her throat. It was a little girl covered in dirt and blood, and no one seemed to be paying her any attention at all. Where were her parents? Were they okay? These thoughts flashed through Sakura's mind before she pushed them away – this was not the time to get choked up in the misery of war.
The group had encountered very little resistance when moving through the camp – Ino's quickly darkening skin and blood-splattered chin ensured that most people all but jumped out of the way as they jogged towards the medical tent. The ANBU were no different. The sight of Neji Hyuuga and Sakura Haruno was enough motivation for the two guards to quickly step out of their way (something Neji would no doubt berate them for later, but at that moment was a blessing) and the group burst through the flaps of the tent with little ceremony.
Inside was a completely different atmosphere from the disarray of the rest of the camp. Sakura felt a swell of pride for the Konoha medical community; the temporary facility was clean and quiet with cots lining the walls and staff from the hospital working skillfully to assist the patients in need. She must have looked quite a sight in comparison to her staff – blood soaked and caked in dust, with what would later be described as a crazed look in her eyes as she mechanically deposited Ino in one of the cots and began barking orders to her staff with practiced ease.
Some semblance of control began to return to the situation for Sakura. Inside this medical tent she was the senior authority – it was the best situation possible to be able to offer something of substance. The woes of Sasuke's attack, the confusion about Kabuto's fate, and the frustration at her lack of autonomy in the system faded to the background as Ino was quickly intubated and one of the attending nurses began providing a steady flow of oxygen. From there, Sakura was free to repair the tissues of the lungs and remove any dangerous particulates. The minutes went by quickly, no one in the room seeming to notice them as they limped by. The color began to return to Ino's face.
Neji and Sai fell to the background, having little to provide. One nurse clipped Neji's shoulder as she hurried by with a tray of steel instruments which glinted in the harsh light of the tent. Her apologies were fleeting, but the look she gave the Hyuuga over her shoulder suggested he should find a way to make himself useful or get out of the way.
It was not a look Neji Hyuuga was used to receiving.
The two men watched Sakura for another fleeting moment before reaching an unspoken agreement and exiting the tent. They stood together outside in what would have between anyone else been an awkward silence, but for these two was simply a moment of shared disinterest in the other's presence. Neji broke away first, the two ANBU from outside the medical tent approaching him with a stiff salute.
"Hyuuga-san," barked one of them behind a beaver mask. "We could use your assistance with securing a perimeter."
Neji fell into the familiar stance of a soldier. "What are your orders?"
"Alpha team is engaged in battle at the city-center. Bravo is out scouting the surrounding streets for noncombatants and straggling enemies alike. We're getting things organized here."
Sai watched with relative indifference from his spot outside of the medical tent. Neji sent an almost imperceptible glance in that direction, and at first Sai thought he was seeking some form of approval from him. He realized immediately that the Hyuuga prodigy was looking directly through him and thinking of the girl inside. "I can keep an eye on Sakura-san," he offered politely. "It is unlikely she will be keen on leaving this place any time soon."
Neji hesitated, and then inclined his head slightly. Sai kept his expression neutral as the man walked away with the ANBU detail, but inside he mind was already reeling with plans on how to get Sakura away from this place and down to the city center. He knew Sasuke's untimely arrival could not be coincidental. The likelihood that it had nothing to do with Kabuto Yakushi was extremely low, and Sakura was the person who had had the most exposure to the missing-nin in question.
He was unsure how, but Sai felt certain that a reunion for Team 7 would provide him with some of the answers he was looking for.
Of course, getting Sakura away from the medical tent wouldn't be easy. She was a healer, after all. Sai had barely finished this thought when the flaps to the tent swung open and Sakura stepped out, her hair in a messy bun and her face spotted with beads of sweat. Her glowing emerald eyes immediately found him, and the girl levied a hand on her hip and fixed him with a heated stare. "Ino's fine," she offered, wiping her brow and smearing some of the soot there. "Now, take me to Naruto and Sasuke."
Well… that was easier than expected.
Sakura and Sai made it to the center of the village atop painted wings. They watched from above, wind whipping their hair as waves of chakra energy spilled all around them. Sakura's face was pinched in consternation. On the ground Naruto and Sasuke were locked in an epic battle – friend and foe, one and the same. Sakura felt oddly separate from them in her perch atop Sai's creation, but in many ways it was the natural order that she should be. These moments had never really had a place for her.
She could feel it in the blood on Naruto's face – in the tears which streaked through the red and the deep pleading look in his eyes. She could see it in the strength of Sasuke's movements, where there was no hesitation and yet so much emotion expressed in his withholding. She felt like an intruder.
Sai watched the emotions play across her face with genuine interest. "Why do you not go to them?" he half-yelled over the winds after a full minute had passed. Sakura had her fist clenched into her chest, and her brows had drawn together into a thick line.
"I'm so selfish," she said suddenly, just when the man thought she might not answer at all. She turned her face to him fully, and her dirty features were lit by the glow of chakras emanating from her friends below. There was water building in her red-rimmed eyes. "I'm afraid." It was hard to hear over the sounds of conflict. Sai did not move to respond, simply staring from behind coal eyes. "Not of death," she laughed, "but of not belonging. Still!" Sakura's voice was loud and filled with self-deprecating humor. "How selfish is that? Thinking about myself at a time like this…"
This was the first time Sai thought he might actually understand what it meant to find another human beautiful. It wasn't her physical features or any kind of sexual energy, but rather the openness of her shame. He felt as if he were seeing himself mirrored in her. Sai knew what it was like to feel selfish and ugly inside, and seeing it in someone else was beautiful. Maybe that's what love was – seeing the worst of yourself in someone else and forgiving them for it. In that sense you could also forgive yourself.
It was a strange and quick impression of her which prompted Sai to say, "It doesn't matter if you belong. Make a place for yourself, until it feels like you do." He leaned in close, his eyes wide as he gripped the girl's shoulder and jerked her face towards his. Their noses almost touched. "You define your own experience."
And then Sai shoved her, and Sakura toppled backwards off of the bird.
He didn't know exactly why he did it. Sai watched the girl fall, wondering at himself. If Sakura Haruno felt that she did not belong in a Team 7 battle, what did he have to offer? Still, the artist had done his due diligence in bringing her here. What happened next would be up to the original members of the squad; with that in mind Sai willed his jutsu to fly away. Until he knew what would transpire it was best to stay out of the way and provide support from above for the real champions of this beautiful disaster.
Back with Sakura, mid fall, a sense of panic was gripping the girl as she toppled through the air with little grace. Her hair and clothes whipped around violently, particulates in the air stinging her skin as her body caught speed. She could see the heads of Gamabunta and Manda (with the significantly smaller heads of her old teammates perched atop) approaching quickly as she fell through low-hanging clouds. They seemed to separate for her, revealing the scene below. Gamabunta the toad had his massive dosu blade drawn, its glinting steel buried deep in the Konohagakurean earth and his clawed hand appeared to be wrenching it from the soil. Manda's scaled body had slithered around the toad's lower half and up around his free arm, rendering the appendage immobile.
Sakura righted herself. An aerial entrance to a battle was a bit showy for her, but landing a high fall was a skill any shinobi above the genin level could do with relative ease. She angled her chest forward and moved her body into a crescent shape; this slowed the rate of her fall considerably and gave the girl moderate control over where she would land.
The violet light of chidori glowed in Sasuke's hand. Bubbling red-orange chakra rolled off of Naruto in waves. As she hurtled closer to the ground Sakura could see a deep cut above the blonde's brow. It wept crimson freely over the boy's blue eyes and down his cheeks. His whisker markings had widened substantially, but her friend appeared to be maintaining relative control over the demon within him. Sakura's eyes swept over to Sasuke. He remained unchanged, except for the slight spread of black flame from the curse mark on his neck.
The visage of Sasuke Uchiha filled Sakura with a mix of feelings she couldn't process all at once. They came like waves – first happiness, then anger. Disgust followed by sadness, all at once. And then the feelings melded together into one emotion that she associated specifically with her old teammate, and the tears which sprang to her eyes were involuntary.
Naruto and Sasuke began to charge each other. Gamabunta struggled under the weight of the constricting snake, unable to pull his weapon from the ground. It must have been embedded deep in the bedrock beneath the city.
Sakura angled herself to land at the base of the blade, where large cracks spider-veined out into the earth. She willed a powerful burst of chakra to her hands and feet, twisting at the last moment so that she would touch the ground feet-first. Her appendages tingled with spiritual energy. In an upright position the girl dropped the last fifty feet of her plummet like a bullet, and when she hit the ground soil sprayed up around her as if a bomb had been detonated. She burrowed into the surface, the force of her impact so great that she sank five feet. In one sure movement the girl brought her fists up and over, using her leftover momentum to strike the earth with every ounce of strength she possessed.
The resulting explosion sent massive chunks of rock spraying through the air as if they were nothing more than autumnal leaves. To an outside viewer it would appear as if a great earthquake was shaking the entire village center: what merchant stalls hadn't already been crushed by the great beast summons crumbled in on themselves and blew away in the hot earthy wind. Gamabunta's short blade sprang free from the ground, and the giant toad stumbled backwards at the sudden release.
Standing at the center of a large crater, Sakura shielded her eyes as the dust began to settle.
"Ehh…? What's this?" Gamabunta boomed, catching his footing in a defensive stance and using the sudden free leverage of his arm to hurl Manda away. The great snake hissed as Gamabunta slashed at him with the dosu blade, releasing the grip on the toad's legs and quickly evading. "Looks like I owe your friend one, Naruto." The two summons faced off against each other.
Naruto was regarding Sakura from his place atop Gamabunta's head. His mouth was set in a serious slant, and the usual jovial glitter in his eyes was replaced with something sharp and painful. "Sakura… I'm glad you're here." She could see the pointed incisors poking out from behind the boy's lips and knew he was having a hard time keeping the Kyuubi at bay. "Together we're bringing Sasuke home, today!" Naruto raised a shaking fist in his abandoned friend's direction – it was bloody and the ends of his fingers were mangled into the beginning of claws. "You hear that Sasuke!?"
The man in question appeared unperturbed, standing coolly atop Manda and somehow managing to regard neither of his old teammates. "I am not here for you," Sasuke offered in his usual bored tone; beneath it Sakura thought she heard just the slightest amount of strain. "This village took something I need and I'm here to take it back."
Sakura's eyes flashed. Was he talking about Kabuto? Had it all been true?
Before she could stop herself Sakura was yelling. "Sasuke-kun," the honorific fell out on impulse and she immediately regretted using it. "Is it true that you're moving against Orochimaru?!"
His head swiveled in her direction lazily. There was a look on contempt on his face which reminded her of their youth, and she wished she could slap it off. "How many times do I have to say it…" He reached down to the holster at his leg and removed a kunai, swinging it around on his forefinger with practiced chagrin. "This doesn't," he caught this knife by the grip and held it menacingly in front of him, "concern," the weapon raised, "you."
Sasuke let the kunai fly free, hurling it in Sakura's direction. It wasn't the first time he'd thrown a weapon at her with intention, and it probably wouldn't be the last. Sakura danced to the side, paused, and jumped out of the way as a second kunai hidden in the shadow of the first embedded itself where she had been standing a moment before. She heard Naruto call her name in a light panic. Frustrated, the girl brought her thumb to her lip and bit viciously, palm slamming to the ground with a summoning technique.
"Lady Katsuyu!" Sakura called, and the great puff of white smoke which followed saw her hurtling through the air atop her master's familiar. A moment later Sakura stood on equal ground with her old team, chest heaving angry breaths as she pinned Sasuke with a hurt stare.
The massive slug undulated under Sakura's feet. "Sakura-san," it cooed happily, before starting at the situation it was in. "How can I be of assistance?"
Sakura's eyes never left Sasuke. His hand was now resting on the hilt of his sword, the black flame of the cursed seal appearing to have spread slightly over his exposed porcelain skin. "Send one of your divisions to inform Tsunade-sama that Sasuke Uchiha has been spotted and is engaged at the village center. Request reinforcements. We are going to capture him."
Sasuke rolled his eyes imperceptively as the girl continued. "Send some other divisions to help with the wounded around the city."
"Yes, Sakura-san," Katsuyu purred. The slug hesitated a moment, before speaking in what was meant to be a quiet voice but which was in reality booming and heard by all around. "Lady… your chakra supplies are fairly low. It will be difficult for me to maintain multiple divisions and assist you in this battle."
She saw the edge of Sasuke's lip tick in amusement. "Don't worry!" the man called out, "we won't be here long."
"Sasuke!" Naruto roared in frustration. In the moment of distraction caused by Katsuyu's arrival to the battle he had summoned a clone and formed rasengan. Now the blonde was launching through the air at top speed, hot orange chakra trailing off of him. At the same moment Gamabunta jumped high in the air, his dosu blade raised to strike Manda's relatively exposed body. Sasuke ripped his immaculate sword from the holster on his back, lightly pushing himself off of the snake's scaled head and aiming to meet Naruto mid-flight.
The Uchiha easily dodged Naruto's rasengan, shifting his body to the side and letting the blonde barrel passed him. He brought his sword down brutally across his old friend's back, and quickly the clone popped and disappeared. Already three more Naruto's were attacking. Each one looked more like Kyuubi than the last.
Sakura wanted to cry and beg them to stop, but she pushed down the impulse and resolutely brandished a handful of shuriken from her side. She unleashed them into the air at Sasuke's back, watching as he dodged them at the last moment while in the middle of pushing another clone away. He shot her an angry look over his shoulder, and just as the real Naruto was coming in to strike with a second rasengan the Uchiha shuddered out of their vision and reappeared behind Sakura with his sword raised.
He didn't say anything. He was a cruel man, and he simply swiped at her with the intention to kill. Sakura was too fast; she dropped to her hands and kicked a chakra-enhanced foot out under his legs. Sasuke jumped over it, but she was already up and swinging at him with everything she had.
She missed, but Sasuke landed a few feet away from her on relatively unsure feet. "Katsuyu!" Sakura screeched, watching as a small division of the slug appeared in midair above the boy and began spitting acid at him. He dodged two of three squirts, but the last attack clipped the man's left arm with a sickening splash. Immediately the smell of roasting flesh could be sensed by all around.
"You bitch!" Sasuke yelled, some of his cool demeanor slipping. More of the black flame was moving over his face, He went to summon chidori, but suddenly Naruto was there with two tails waving in the air behind him. He tackled the boy ferociously, and the two went colliding off of the side of Katsuyu. Sakura sprinted after the two, refusing to be left behind this time. She sent wave after wave of shuriken after them, weaving the weapons around Naruto's enraged body and aiming to impale Sasuke. For a ludicrous moment Sakura thought maybe they could win this fight – if Sasuke couldn't put his full focus on either one of them then maybe it would be different than all the other times. She was stronger now. She was stronger…
Sasuke's chidori smashed Naruto in the stomach and sent the boy flying off. A trail of blood splashed through the air after him, leaving a pit in Sakura's stomach as she watched it hang in the air for a timeless moment.
They were still falling for a instant more, and then Sasuke was on the ground and his sword was raised and his was flipping away menacingly. Sakura landed less gracefully, her eyes trailing after Naruto. She righted herself, ripping out a kunai and brandishing it in front of her chest as if she were still a child. Sasuke stood fifteen feet away, and he watched her darkly before sheathing his weapon and taking a few languid steps forward. "I don't particularly care about killing you," he said after a moment, the seal on his skin receding a bit. "I didn't come here to fight with either of you."
"You started a fight the moment you attacked this village," she replied stoically. Boys weren't the only ones allowed to keep their voices even and their faces still. "Why are you even here?" and there was the emotion, just beyond the edge of her words. "What do you have to gain from this?"
Sasuke didn't appear as if he intended to answer, and so she pressed on. "Is this about Orochimaru and the sealing technique? Is it true that you're on the run from him?"
"I'm not on the run."
Sakura's hands were shaking with the intensity of her grip, She was afraid the metal might break the skin of her palms. "We can help you defeat him…" there was a pleading tone in her voice. "If Orochimaru is weak now, we can use the sealing technique on him. I can do it. I created it, I can-"
Sasuke's interest appeared piqued. He looked up, an angry set to his jaw. "You?" he hissed in a way which made his demeanor before seem downright friendly in comparison. "You created the seal?!" Sasuke's eyes were suddenly wide and crazed. His mouth opened into a terrifying grimace. "You betrayed me…" he crooned. "You've been working against me all along… with him?"
For the first time Sakura realized how unhinged Sasuke had truly become. His eyes glinted, and a small amount of spittle sprayed through the air with his words. The girl found herself slowly backing away. "No…" she said weakly, but she knew he couldn't hear her through the rage. "I was trying to help you."
Sasuke's eyes blackened. A small but growing lump pulsated from beneath the tunic over his back. The immense spiritual pressure in the area was enough to buckle Sakura's knees and bring a cold sweat to her skin, but she pulled herself together enough to stumble away before turning tail and breaking into a full run. What was this? She'd read reports of Sasuke's transformations before, but this was her first time actually experiencing the deranged, full-on fury of it. The only thing her mind was telling her was that she had to get away. "Katsuyu!" she screamed, stumbling a little as she raced towards the slug. It undulated a bit, apparently having been distracted with fulfilling her other orders. Sakura sprang forward and landed on the slug's wet skin, pulling herself up in a frenzy until she made it to the top of the familiar's head. "Where's Naruto?!"
Gamabunta was busy attempting to pin down and restrain Manda. He looked up at the shrill panic in the girl's voice, but this proved to be a mistake as the snake dislodged him and bit viciously at the toad's forearm. He cried out in surprise and anger. "We have to get Naruto!" Sakura was pleading, screaming, knowing that this truly wasn't her place and that she would die if she stayed. She hated herself for thinking it, but knew it to be true.
And then Sasuke appeared behind her, hovering on a fleshy wing with purple lips and black eyes. Sakura stared over her shoulder at him in horror, unable to move herself. "I'm going to kill you and Yakushi," he said simply, holding a clawed hand forward and forming chidori as if it were nothing more than a party trick.
A single hot tear fell down the girl's cheek.
"Sakura!" A soft but panicked voice floated down through the air and offered her a sliver a hope. Sakura's emerald eyes swung around, watching as Sai descended from the clouds in a rush. "Come!"
She did not need to be told twice. With chakra enhanced feet the girl sprinted forward, throwing herself into the air with all of her might. She reached out with the soft hands of a healer as Sai raced towards her; she saw in his eyes something she'd never seen before. They were only a few feet away from each other when the crackling blue-purple light of chidori lit his pale features. It was fear. The artist's expression pinched, and before Sakura really understood what was happening Sasuke was next to her and smashing her face with a closed-fist chidori which immediately singed her skin and sent her flying with intense speed away from the battle-ground.
Sakura arched through the air. She could feel it rushing passed her at an alarming rate – it pulled at her clothes and her hair, and at the sagging skin of her face. Without warning the girl crashed through the wall of a building – a grain silo – before shooting through the other side like a bullet. The pain was immense, spreading out from her back in agonizing waves. She tried to send chakra there. She tried to probe her face. Sakura felt a bit of terror when she realized, through a haze of pain-induced half-consciousness, that the left side of her face was likely destroyed. The terror doubled as her eyes lulled down and she realized that she had been knocked completely out of the city and was flying over the surrounding forest.
Sakura attempted to call on her chakra reserves in order to begin healing herself. The fall was going to do a lot of damage, and she'd already taken plenty. But she was on her fifth-wave of energy at this point, having used her resources to the point of exhaustion. It was all she could do to keep her face from crumbling.
She was losing speed and she was losing consciousness.
Quickly, and with much force, the girl's body broke the canopy of the forest and immediately slammed into and through the base of a fat oak tree. It exploded into splinters, and Sakura tumbled backwards like a doll. She took down several thin saplings before finally rolling to a stop, her body limp in a small crater of dirt and mud. Her arm hinged awkwardly behind her, and for a moment the entire forest was quiet. A stream of sunlight was shining lazily on the ground in front of her, and the girl watched it with unfocused eyes. And then she coughed weakly, a bit of blood splattering from her lips. Her eyes slid shut.