Another chapter is here!
Sakon pressed on as fast as he could to make up for lost time. The Anbu that held them at bay had been a right pain in the ass, and he could still feel where that blade of hers managed to bite into his skin and numb his body. If not for the Cursed Mark, it might have been fatal.
Running alongside of him, Jirobo asked, "What happened to Tayuya?"
"Don't know." He had sent her ahead because she was slowing them down, but with her Cursed Mark she should have been able to keep pace with the fleeing women and at least stall them. But, aside from the battle-damage that marred the landscape, there was no trace of her. "I think they managed to take her out."
"What do we do?" Jirobo asked.
"Stick with the plan," he said. "Lead them to Kidomaru's trap, corner them, and break every bone in their bodies to keep them from running again."
"But if they managed to slip away…" The rotund teen trailed off. There was no need for him to finish. Kabuto had openly questioned their usefulness after their failure to stop the Hokage and Toad Geezer from killing Orochimaru with their own barrier. Losing track of the one that could be used in lieu of them to bring him back would just give Kabuto a reason to kill them all—or wake Kimimaro to do the job.
Sakon gritted his teeth beneath his painted lips at the thought. "Keep them in sight and attack from a distance," he ordered. "Make sure that they go the way we need them to, but stay far enough away so that whatever happened to Tayuya doesn't happen again."
Jirobo nodded his head as black triangles from his Cursed Mark began crawling across his skin like ivy, matching the encroaching lines that covered Sakon's as their speed hastened.
"They've caught up with us!" Karin said from her position on Anko's back. The older kunoichi was much faster than Karin and that made a world of difference if they were going to escape, so neither contested it. "And they've activated their Cursed Marks!"
"I see them!" Anko said. She supposed it was just hopeful wishing they'd lose the pair if she ran as hard as she could, but the Cursed Mark seemed to be the bane of her existence in every sense of the word as the stout one slammed his hand onto the ground, making jagged stone teeth erupt from the ground. She darted around them and redoubled her pace to keep the distance between them from shrinking.
They wouldn't last at this rate. They had to get out from the open and off the ground before one of those earth-techniques got lucky and hit them. That was why, when the trees came into view, Anko considered it a blessing that marked the halfway point between them and safety. "Do you sense any chakra within the forest ahead?"
"No!" Karin replied. "I don't sense anything there!"
"Good, now hold your breath and close your eyes!" She reached into her pocket with one hand and tossed a small sphere bundled in paper over her shoulder, a string connected to it. A yellowish fume billowed out when she pulled it, creating a veil of smoke mixed with irritants that would sting the lungs and eyes to obscure them from sight and buy time.
From there she bound upwards, ascending the trunks to gain higher ground among the trees. The thick branches offered enough support that she could navigate them with ease. "Are they still following us?"
"I think you caught them in it. They've stopped chasing us, at least for now."
"Good." Anko wiped her face with her sleeve to clear it of sweat as she contemplated their next move. She could keep going, hoping that they could use that time to get enough distance… and then what? Getting to the village would be best, but even at full-speed they matched her with their Cursed Marks. Stamina could only be replaced with chakra for so long before she no longer had the physical energy to convert it.
Then her ears picked up the familiar sound of metal cutting through the air. In a single, practiced motion, she lashed out with a shuriken towards it, and the clash of metal signaled that it intercepted a kunai that had been sent towards them. "I thought you said you didn't sense any chakra!"
"I didn't!" Karin claimed as more flew in from different angles, only to be intercepted with shuriken. "I still don't!"
"Hop down then," Anko said as she came to a stop on the dense limb of one particularly hardy tree and crouched down to let Karin dismount her. That freed her up to handle any more surprise attacks and she held shuriken between her fingers, ready to be thrown at the next flurry of projectiles.
But nothing came as they stood there, leaving them both unnerved. Anko sharpened her eyes and ears with chakra, looking for any sign of their assailant. It was only then that she noticed the gossamer-thin strands of spider-silk threading through the whole forest and a lack of animal noise.
"Look out!" Karin abruptly said as she threw herself forward, pushing both herself and Anko from where they'd been. A loud 'thunk' could be heard as a golden arrow embedded itself deeply into the trunk, following a path where her legs would have been shot through from the momentum. Karin then looked in the direction it came from. "That was the sniper from before. I felt his chakra just now, but it's gone. He must be suppressing it as he moves around."
Anko's grip on the shuriken tightened as she realized too late that they'd fallen into a trap. "Damn, all this time they've been herding us."
"What do we do then?" Karin asked. "The other two are moving now. They'll catch us if we sit still."
She gazed off into the darkness for a moment before sighing exasperatedly and rubbing the back of her neck. "We're already inside so I guess we have to break through it. The traps can be managed, but if we stand around we'll be sniped or caught by the other two. Follow me and tell me the moment you feel any chakra."
Karin struggled to keep up with Anko as the older kunoichi went ahead of her in great bound, intentionally making herself a target for the traps that could get in their way. Streaks and flashes of metal flittered in the darkness towards her, only to be deflected. That left Karin free to act as a sensor, which allowed her to get a feel for just how dire the situation was.
Anko's chakra reserves were largely stable, and she was expending the minimal amount to keep going. But it didn't change the fact that she had little over a third of what they started with when they began to flee from their pursuers. And when Karin factored in how they'd been running around all day to round up the escaped prisoners, there had to be a limit to how many more times she could mold chakra to replace what had been lost.
In contrast, the two that were chasing them were at the top of their game. Their Cursed Marks weren't active anymore, but they didn't need them to be. They'd already lured them into the spider's parlor and now they only had to wait until Karin and Anko had been cornered. They'd struggled to deal with just one of them, and that was only because Karin had managed to catch the flutist off-guard with her Chakra Chains. It wasn't likely to happen again, and she only had so much chakra left given that she was tired as well.
And then there was the sniper, who snapped to her attention the moment his chakra system flared to life and his Cursed Mark followed. He formed the construct bow from his mouth, followed by an arrow that he took aim with. She could make out that he was going for Anko just before he loosed the shot.
"Jump up!" Karin said in warning. Anko did so and the arrow whizzed by, aimed to tear her legs from under her again. It wasn't meant to be a killing shot, which didn't make sense to Karin. If they were trying to capture her, killing the person keeping her alive would be the most efficient way of doing it. So why weren't they aiming to kill?
There has to be more to it, Karin reasoned in a moment of thought. Even before she wrapped the chains around the other one, the flutist had the chance to kill Anko by simply caving in her chest with her strengthened fist, rather than knock the wind out of her and try to kick her around. Given how quickly they'd worked to kill the Anbu Officers accompanying them, the only logical reason would be… if they intended to take them both alive. "I think they're after you too."
"What makes you think that?" Anko asked without looking back.
"They haven't been trying to kill you. Not as much as they did the Anbu that were with us. But I can't figure out why they're just aiming to cripple instead of kill."
"… It's probably because I used to be one of Orochimaru's students," she said after a pregnant pause. "If there's any other reason, I can't think of it."
The reveal nearly caused Karin to stumble upon the moss-encrusted tree branch she landed on. "Wait, what?"
"I used to be one of his students before he turned traitor and received a Cursed Mark like them. Only mine was sealed like yours thanks to the Hokage. That's part of the reason he made me your overseer, so I'd be able to help you get through with it. The question is why they're coming after me now of all times."
"I thought you were just being mean to me because I was a…" Even now she didn't want to finish that statement, given she was trying to distance herself from the label and the stigma it entailed.
Anko looked back and gave her an annoyed look. "I'm not being mean, I'm being strict. And that's because I'm trying to make things better for you in the long-run. If you go through half of what I went through then you'll be facing a lot of hate for what Orochimaru has done."
"What you went through?" She adjusted her glasses as she took in the facts and brought them to a logical conclusion. "They thought you were the same as me. You weren't, but they didn't see it that way, did they?"
"The people who matter to me never thought that, but the fact that the man I once trained under had turned into the greatest traitor in the Leaf's history and marked me are still inescapable facts." She deflected another kunai with her own as she continued. "The first few years after his defection were especially hard, but even though things got better I still get the occasional looks. I'm going to have to live with it for the rest of my life."
"And so will I," Karin realized. "That's what you're trying to tell me."
She nodded. "Remember, I told you before all it takes is getting just one wrong person in power to think you're not as loyal as you should be and your life becomes even harder than it already is. I speak from personal experience and that's why I'm strict. I'm trying to train you to follow orders to the letter since anything less than perfect will cast suspicion on you."
"You could have explained it like that the first-time," Karin said. "I thought you had it out for me since the day we met."
"Leaving aside that I don't like talking about anything dealing with my past unless it's relevant, I shouldn't have to. It would have defeated the purpose of teaching you. Besides, not everyone is going to be straightforward with you. Even if they only want what's best for you."
Karin said nothing to that, instead focusing on the sniper, who was no longer suppressing his chakra. Instead, he was pumping it through all the threads. Only by trailing the flow with her Mind's Eye did she notice the funneling walls of webbing, woven of silk and reinforced by chakra to cut off all the other paths of escape. "The sniper has cut off the paths to the side and the other two chasing us are suddenly moving faster."
"They're boxing us in now."
"That's not all." She picked up what looked to be a large bundle that seemed to drink in the offered chakra, stirring life inside of it above their heads. Something was coming out. "Something's falling above us!"
Anko looked up as Karin did, where they registered hundreds of spiders the size of their fists descending. Using hand-seals to mold her chakra into the appropriate technique, the older kunoichi breathed out a stream of fire that spread above them like an umbrella as it pushed upwards. Swallowed by the scorching blaze, cinders left behind rained down as they continued running.
The web of chakra that permeated the canopy kept lengthening and hatching more cocoons housing newborn spiders, even when they tried to avoid them. Spinning lines of silk reinforced with their chakra to tighten the net that they were in, by the time Anko and Karin arrived at what would be the exit of the forest it had been completely covered in a wall of webbing. They were trapped.
"Damn," Anko said as the spiders closed in further, dotting the webbing that covered their surroundings and the canopy. The two who had been chasing them so far blocked the way they came in, and standing on the web just beneath the canopy was the six-armed sniper. She passed a pair of kunai to Karin. "I'll distract them. Make a break for it if you find an opening."
Karin took them, but didn't find the thought of ditching her overseer to save herself as appealing as she would have maybe a day or so before. Even so, fighting against these odds was impossible for them alone or together. Even if she had the chakra to restrain all of them with her Chakra Chains, it didn't take care of the fact that there were hundreds of spiders and a sniper waiting to fire down on them from above.
Despair weighed upon when she thought that this was how she was going to be dragged back, losing a second chance at a new life. But then hope sparked upon sensing a familiar pair of chakra signatures entering her range at an inhumanly-swift pace. She didn't know how Naruto found her, but she knew it was him.
"THE WEBS ARE REINFORCED WITH CHAKRA!" Karin yelled at the top of her lungs as he neared, unwilling to let him run into it blindly. "USE WIND CHAKRA TO BREAK THROUGH IT!"
There was a spike of wind-chakra in response, swirling around the speeding signatures. Then Byakko violently tore through the wall of webbing and came to an abrupt stop, displacing the wind-chakra in the form of a squall. The rushing wall of air smashed the spiders threatening to descend upon them and battered the three that sought to capture them with enough force that it blew them off their feet and deeper into the forest.
"Get on!" Naruto ordered from atop Byakko. Both of the kunoichi did so, not bothering with questions. Then, as abruptly as they appeared, Byakko shot out of the way it came and towards freedom.
"You came for me," Karin said as she embraced Naruto from behind and laid her head on his back, grateful for the fact that he showed up right when they needed him the most. "You really came for me!"
"I did promise I wouldn't abandon you," he said in a weary tone. "I figured when I got attacked you did too, so I had Byakko track you down."
Karin's head snapped up in alarm at that. She took notice that his chakra levels weren't all that high after that little stunt. Not to mentioned he looked as exhausted as they were. "Did Kabuto come after you too?"
He nodded. "He sent Mizuki, who explained he broke him out with the rest of the prisoners. I managed to beat him and send a message to the Old Man, but it took a lot of chakra to get from the Land of Honey to here in such a short time. Byakko won't be able to last much longer either."
"Pull over," Karin said. "There should be enough time for me to replenish Byakko's chakra reserves enough to get a little closer to the village before they catch up."
Naruto nodded and Byakko slowed to a crawl before lowering itself so that the three could climb down. Then Byakko returned to its sealed form and Karin began convert her remaining chakra into yang chakra, in order to fill the mask. Before she could, Anko abruptly flung a kunai close to her feet and Karin nearly dropped the mask in surprise.
That was when she noticed that a white snake had been impaled upon it. The kunai had burrowed into the brain, killing it for certain before it could sink its fangs into her. However, an abnormal amount of blood bubbled from the wound, spilling out and spreading over the ground like ink.
Karin backed away as she felt Kabuto's chakra stemming from it, turning the spilled blood into sealing script before releasing a burst of white smoke that heralded a summoning. The smoke cleared with the passing of a night breeze that rolled through the grass around them. There was now a pale-skinned young man where the serpent had been, whose white-hair swayed as he stood there and took in his surroundings.
His emerald eyes lingered on the three for a moment before he spoke. "So they failed like he expected. I suppose I'll have to bring all three of you in myself to repay the debt I owe to Lord Orochimaru."
Those same eyes locked onto Karin's and fear shot up her spine. Her instincts were screaming that he was dangerous, and that they had to escape while they could. But before she could move or react, he was in front of her with his palm on her abdomen.
"Starting with you," he said. Then there was a hot flash of pain in her stomach that rippled through her body and robbed her of the ability to breathe. A sound that her brain registered as being similar to a twig being broken in half followed as he pulled his hand away.
Karin's eyes remained fixed on her stomach, where something white was now sticking out of it. Strength fled from her body. She fell to her knees and Byakko's mask slipped through her fingers before the pain of being impaled registered and she fell down screaming.