Rain fell. It somehow managed to penetrate the forest canopy that was so thick that even the light struggled to find purchase and duck through the cracks of the leaves or slivers of space where limbs didn't completely overlap. Not that the light mattered – at the moment it was in the dead of the night and if the sun barely provided any light, the moon wouldn't lend any assistance at all.
The young kunoichi had traps set in case any predators in the area decided to make a meal of her, but she had no plans to be remaining in place for much longer. Sakishi was off scouting nearby in an attempt to gauge whether or not there were any opponents nearby. She'd considered summoning more snakes to help him, but that'd be like lighting a beacon for any sensor-nin that might be tracking her. As it stood, using a summon at all was a risky maneuver on her part, but she had to balance the scales somehow, so she may as well have an early warning system in place in addition to an ally to fight alongside.
She was a little surprised at how cooperative the snake was being, given his laziness, but she wasn't training with Anko right now so perhaps he recognized the gravity of the situation. If that were true, he hadn't volunteered the fact, but nonetheless, her summon had slunk off when Sakura told it she needed it to secure the area. The snake was taking a little longer than she anticipated though, and she had started to get nervous.
The field training was much more involved than the evaluations had been – for those all that Sakura had done was review varying scenarios and write up what her response would be – beyond that, all that was required of her was that she review an endless list of rules and regulations so that she could carry out her job effectively.
To be fair, the first half of the field certification hadn't been that bad. All that had consisted of was a run through a course, using the appropriate skills when specified. This, however, was much more difficult – and not just because she had been dumped into the Forest of Death. There were three squads in the Forest along with Sakura – two three person chūnin teams that had information on her and a two man jōnin team that had no particular orders other than incapacitate any team that stumbled onto them.
In the end, it was a bit like the Exams had been. Each individual unit in the Forest had a scroll on it – it was her job to obtain the scroll from each group in any way she could, whether it was through stealth and guile or by incapacitating her targets.
A soft rustle from above cued her to look up, and she saw a flash of Sakishi's patchy scales from in between the leaves. The summon's reluctance to descended and come down onto her branch was a sign that the snake had seen enemies, likely closing in to the vicinity. The pinkette did a quick check to make sure that her explosive tags were still in place and did the hand seals required to make a generic clone. Afterward, she retreated up the trunk of the tree, choosing another tree limb with better coverage.
'If I just leave it there, they're going to know it's a trap.'
Sakura moved the clone so that it was in a more obscure location, taking care to make sure its body language portrayed someone alert for threats. Satisfied that her clone was in place, she wormed a chakra thread along her branch and then slipped it onto Sakishi's limb and let it lie on the summon. They had a tap system worked out for situations such as these when communication was limited – when the time came for action or inaction. It was fairly rudimentary, so she couldn't go for anything too complex: retreat, attack, defend, hold, and search. That was the primary five tap system, though they'd improvised some other meanings when combining those four.
Once her thread she sent a signal – four taps follow by three taps. Hold and defend; Sakishi would lie in wait, only moving from the position if she were attacked. The thought occurred to her that they need a sign for "ruse" or "trick." That'd definitely be something they'd have to work on together, though hopefully working together itself would become natural enough to eliminate the need for more nuanced signals.
Faint sounds and hints of movement caught her attention – deeper in the Forest, a few trees down, a figure landed onto a branch that was only yards away from one of the ones she had tagged. The figured disappeared, followed by an explosion, and Sakura realized that the other shinobi had triggered the explosive tag before she'd even had the opportunity to decide whether or not she wanted to use it.
'Observant,' thought the kunoichi warily. She hoped that it wasn't the jōnin unit that had stumbled upon her – they weren't actively looking for anyone, but it was still possible. She shifted the clone in response. 'I'll have to be careful with it. If that shinobi saw that tag so easily, it's possibly they'll be able to realize that it's just a clone. If I use the tags, I'll have to do so in a way that leaves the clone at the center of them – create the illusion that it's the one that wants to hem them in. I need to figure out where the other two are.'
Her question was answered in part when another tag exploded off to the right of the first one. That whittled her remaining number down to three. A sinking feeling was beginning to form in the pit of Sakura's stomach. 'If this keeps going on, they'll overrun me without a fight.'
Sakura decided to risk tipping her hand with clone – she needed to break their momentum and get an advantageous angle; it was time to go on the offensive. She made her clone jerk back in a sharp retreat – not flashy enough to be completely overt but not stealthy enough to go unnoticed.
A rather large third figure took the bait and rushed the clone with a sword in hand. Sakura fully committed to the offense and signaled Sakishi to attack. The snake struck at high speed, faster than she'd ever seen it move. Its widened mouth closed around a shoulder of the kenjutsu user, and fangs disappeared into his flesh. Before their opponent could react, Sakishi wound his body around the hapless combatant in tight coils, restricting all movement and cutting off a chance of counterattack. Hopefully, she been clear when she told her summon earlier that she was fighting fellow village members, and that the goal wasn't to kill them.
While her summon was taking care of the kenjutsu user, one of his comrades landed on the crowded limb with the clone. As soon as he was planted down onto the limb, he quickly made a few seals and then spat out a katon jutsu at the clone, which was between the katon user and Sakishi. As a wall of orange flames rapidly engulfed the air, Sakura forced her clone to retreat backward even as Sakishi pulled its prey up to where the rest of the snake's body rested. She managed to keep it away from the fire as it unfurled, threatening to break her cover.
'Where are you?' she wondered as she tried to search for her third enemy, mind splintering into a thousand different directions as it juggled strategy and kept up with all of the elements in play. Movement flashed behind the clone before coming to a halt and glowing orange. Another identical glow caught her eye on the limb above, where Sakishi was currently still holding the kenjutsu user.
Sakura made a split second decision to let the her clone be caught in the explosion, sacrificing her ruse to see where the kunai with the tags on them came from before they exploded, taking only a cursory effort to give a single tap to Sakishi with her chakra thread to let her summon know it was time to retreat.
The ominous, telltale orange burn of the tags before explosion lit up the kunai enough so that Sakura could see the direction from which they were thrown. Even as the two kunai tags exploded, Sakura triggered the tag she'd placed underneath the same limb and sent it and the katon user plummeting to the ground below.
Post-explosions, the young kunoichi saw that her summon had indeed received the order of retreat and had vanished, presumably with its prey further up the giant tree. Evidently the third shinobi had noticed the same thing and elected to pursue the snake. 'Did they miss the third explosion? Or is this shinobi just worried about Sakishi hurting their teammate?'
She decided to pursue the last of her opponents – even if the shinobi proved to be a problem, she had Sakishi there to help her. Unfortunately, the visibility didn't make pursuit as she as she would've liked, and it was hard to keep an eye out for any possible trap while she focused on catching up with her opponent. She put the worry aside and reached for her shuriken. She attached a charka thread to three and threw them forward at the figure further up the trunk of the tree. The first of the three went wide and alerted the shinobi to her offensive.
Her opponent pivoted so that he was facing her but kept his momentum speeding up the tree while backpedaling. A quick block with a kunai deflected the other two of her shuriken, which she let go off course but steered them around behind the other shinobi. Moving quickly to prevent a counterattack, Sakura pulled on the threads and forced them to curve, bringing the shuriken back around. The threads found contact with the shinobi's legs and the momentum carried them around, the first one around his right and the last two around his right.
The young kunoichi yanked hard and her opponent found that backpedaling was no longer as simple as it had been. He tripped and with his lost footing, the hostile shinobi also fumbled with his chakra control; he slipped and subsequently fell, rapidly descending toward Sakura. She shifted, getting out of her enemy's path, but by the time she had, the shuriken had finished swinging around and found purchase in the other shinobi's leg – which then dissolved into smoke along with the rest of the body.
'Shit,' lamented the pinkette, eyes widening as a kunai flew toward her through the smoke. Whoever she was fighting had either just succeeded in pulling the trick she had sought to earlier or telegraphed her techniques in time to create the clone and evade her attack. A quick draw of her own kunai, and a swipe rendered her safe from the immediate danger of the kunai. 'If I can just get him to stay still for a second. Dammit, where is Sakishi?'
She'd been played – drawn out of her own zone of attack so that the other team could gain an advantage. The kunoichi just hoped that she'd caught them off guard with either Sakishi or that last explosion and removed one of their team from play.
As if to answer her, a sudden flare of light and a rush of heat materialized behind her. The kunoichi didn't even need to look back to realizet aht the katon user had caught back up. She needed an exit strategy. Sakura threw three kunai with threads attached, aiming for a limb of an adjacent tree and pushed off the trunk of the tree she was on, leaping off into the gap.
As she expected, the katon user was right behind her, ready to intercept. A tug on her threads sent her swinging away from the attacker, just out of reach. It was hard to keep a mental map of where all of the players in action were since they were all keeping up their vertical ascent. 'The one I was chasing is probably still on the same tree. But if that katon user hasn't –'
He'd already caught up – leaping from the tree with her kunai in it to the one she was on now. He was right behind her, but then she stopped the chakra flow that rooted her to the tree against the force of gravity and hit free-fall. The katon user was too shocked to do anything but move out of the way, which meant that she'd succeeded in creating an opportunity to attack.
As with the other shinobi, she threw out thread-bound shuriken to constrict around the katon user. Holding tight, she dragged her opponent off the tree along with her into fall. Her stomach knotted at feeling as nervous adrenaline continued to spike and flood her system.
'If I fall just a few feet over the wrong way…'
Three more seconds into the fall, she dispelled the thread she had used to snare her enemy, making sure that she still had a firm hold on the threads that were still attached to her kunai embedded in limb of the other tree.
A second later she was jerked violently as her body was abruptly ripped out of free-fall. When Sakura was sure her arm wasn't going to be rent off, the pinkette reached out with her feet to the trunk to gain footing. A cursory glance to check the surrounding was enough to see that the katon user had evidently not been able to accomplish the same. All three kunai were still lodged in the limb of the tree. When she'd been running earlier, she'd done so in a way that she would fall so that the threads would wrap around the limb. That way instead of pulling straight down on the kunai and ripping them out, they held firm so she didn't end up like the katon user.
The kunoichi hurried to over to her blades and dislodged each one before cautiously continuing on her ascent. She noted that during the fight that rain had stopped falling, though there was steady drip-dropping from where the precipitation had clung onto the trees and was snatched down by gravity. She was little surprised that it'd been so easy to keep her footing and remain anchored to the tree, with all the slipperiness. It had been a long time since she'd done any real shinobi work, and she hadn't been particularly experienced even back then.
Further up the tree, Sakura slowed when she saw a body draped over a limb of one of the nearby trees. In the dark, it was hard to make out, but the burly build seemed to match that of the kenjutsu user that Sakishi had snatched up.
She edged closer to see if there was anything she could gleam from the scene that would tell her whether or not her summon or the over enemy had been nearby. If Sakishi had just left the body there, there most likely scenario was that the last of the chūnin team had come across Sakishi and his teammate and rushed the snake. She was looking around the area for signs of disturbances when she whiffed the intrusive smell of smoke.
"That was a slick move," said a voice.
Sakura turned her head, looking around while she drew kunai. The limp ninja on the branch disappeared in smoke, and in its place stood the shinobi she had been chasing. 'Substitution justsu.'
The shinobi propped up against the back of the tree, the smell of smoke still pervasive in her nostrils. He continued, "With those wires, I mean. I didn't even see them. Not to mention that snake – at first, I thought it was just a resident of the forest, but that was a summon, wasn't it? The tags, though? A little exposed, unless that's what you were going for."
Sakura took a step forward only to for her foot to go straight through the bark of the limb she was walking on. She jerked back and looked down at the curious sight. The bark she'd stepped on had crumbled away to a fire burning inside of the limb.
The pinkette threw the kunai in her hand at the other shinobi, only for smoke to rise up in suck the blade out of the air.
"Won't do any good, I'm afraid," said the chūnin. "You see, I marked the area you're standing in in advance. That's the way my jutsu works – I mark an area, my enemy walks into it, and then they get themselves trapped and cooked alive. Of course, the limb burn all the way through and let you drop out of it, but if that happens, I'll be here waiting."
The visibility was still bad, and Sakura could see the fire burn with more and more vigor. Instead of rushing forward again, she tried leaping back only to find that escape wasn't possible that way either – smoke appeared and flung her back. When she landed, bark broke again, and the kunoichi had to react quickly in order to move out of the fire without being burnt, only finding secure footing again with pure luck. 'I need to test this for weaknesses.'
She drew her remaining shuriken and attached threads to each one and slung them around. She controlled them in all directions – only to find that each time they strayed too far, the smoke would send them back in. Except – her threads kept going. And when she paid attention, she could feel the shuriken still attached.
'Genjutsu. Of course, he was lying about his technique.' With that, the kunoichi almost dispelled the genjutsu, but an idea struck her. Assuming her opponent was still standing across from her, and that his image wasn't an illusion, the chūnin was vulnerable to a genjutsu of her own. She'd have to be quick with the hand seals because he'd still probably be on guard, since her attacks could leave the imposed perimeter of the genjutsu. It'd be a little bit of a reach to try to enact a genjutsu while she was still under the effects of one, but this way she'd have a clearer target.
Sakura released the threads she'd attached to the shuriken and ran through the hand seals, staring straight at her opponent. When she finished, it felt as though the jutsu had taken hold, though she couldn't really be sure, given that her own senses were muddled. She'd tried to make it as subtle as possible – just enough for the chūnin to think she was still standing in place so she could move around and get the drop on him.
The kunoichi focused and dispelled her opponent's genjutsu. The smell of smoke disappeared altogether, and below her was simply the limb of a tree – no sign of fire anywhere. Meanwhile, the shinobi was still standing in place as if nothing had happened and continued to remain that way when she walked toward him. A sharp blow sent him flying toward the trunk of the tree, where his body slumped.
When she was finished pilfering through the ninja tools in the chūnin's possession, she used some of his wire to bind him and pocketed everything else she had taken. She had found the scroll on him as well– the kunoichi supposed they'd let him have it because he was the genjutsu user and therefore the least likely to engage up close.
The only thing left to resolve was the location of Sakishi, assuming the snake had dealt with the shinobi it ambushed. The pinkette wondered if the chūnin lying on the limb before had been the actual person or if it had just been a clone made to look like the figure in question. Of course, it was possible that the genjutsu user had dealt with Sakishi and forced the snake to dispel.
A rustle in the leaves above her. She looked up to find the snake on a limb above her. Its tail came down, with the chūnin wrapped up in tow. When it finished its descent to her limb, Sakishi's tail unfurled and let the chūnin down.
She looked back up to the snake. "Are you alright? Not hurt or anything?"
The snake didn't give any sign as to whether or not there was any injury, but it did come down onto the limb with her, between her and the chūnin that it had deposited. She walked up the snake and put her hand on it, inspecting its body for any sign of harm. When she was satisfied that her summon was okay, she removed her hand and backed up.
"Thanks for the back up," said the young kunoichi. She still wasn't exactly sure how to deal with the snake. Sakishi never really emoted and if the snake could speak the human language, there was never really any sign that it could. "Um, if you need to go back, you can, but I'm still not quite done here."
When the snake didn't disappear into smoke, she chose to take that as a sign that everything was good to go so she proceeded to strip the other shinobi her summon had brought her of anything useful and then tie him up as well. It occurred to her that she was leaving he two bound and defenseless against and creatures that happened to be in the area. Not to mention that katon user, who had fallen to the ground earlier.
'But can I really afford to make things easier for hostile shinobi?' she wondered. 'They are fellow Konoha nin, though.'
She made a compromise of sorts. She left the two on the limb close enough together so that they could get to one another and get themselves free. The problem was the katon user, though. She could try to make it easier to the him to find his team, but that'd also draw the other two units in the area to her location, though with the explosions from earlier, it was quite possible that they were already on the way.
'I can't afford to waste anymore time on this,' thought the kunoichi. So instead, she carved a message on the bark for the other two to see that relayed the roundabout position of where their teammate fell. 'They'll be okay. Team 7 made it through this and none of us even made it to chūnin. They'll be fine.'
"Let's go, Sakishi," she said to her summon as she began to speed away from the area. In all likelihood, the jōnin team wouldn't do anything, given their lack of orders to hunt her down, but the chūnin team would probably seek to capitalize on any opportunity they could to take her down. If she'd taken care of things a little faster, maybe she would've had time to try and set another ambush site, but the recent exchange had taught her that she evidently wasn't so good at setting those up even when she actually had ample time to do so.
She kept running through the trees for a long time, doing everything she could think of to make sure her trail wasn't noticeable. Sakishi was surprisingly quick to keep up, slithering from branch to branch. The snake wasn't always able to intersect as readily as she was, which meant her summon had a lot more vertical movement than she needed as it traversed the limbs. The pinkette hoped Sakishi wasn't having too hard of a time keeping track of her, but slowing down wasn't really an option if she wanted make sure no one was tailing her.
She wasn't really sure how she was going to proceed even when she did finally feel comfortable enough to stop. The Forest of Death was pretty large, so it wasn't going to be an easy task to locate her targets, and she wasn't exactly sure how practical it would be to rely on Sakishi for that, much less how taxing it would be on the summon. It was actually probably easier to get the chūnin team to come pursue her – after she got her bearings, she would be able to draw their attention to her location and then hopefully staged a more carefully thought out ambush.
That still wouldn't solve the problem of the jōnin unit, though. She had considered earlier that perhaps she would try and pit teams against one another to make her job easier, but the young kunoichi still wasn't sure how exactly she could accomplish that or if the chūnin team would even fight the jōnin unit – it wasn't really clear what their orders were beyond taking her down.
And then, of course, was the fact that she was working on a time limit. One or two days was the amount of time she had until the test was over. Calm Waters would commence in a week, and she needed to pass this field certification now. There wouldn't be another chance for her to be cleared for the mission if she failed here.
The past few weeks had been exhausting, but she felt like she had made more progress in them than before – she was finally able to move away from foundational work and on to learning actual techniques and practices. Working on chakra threads and genjutsu construction with Ocelot had gone increasingly well. Using the threads was very nearly second nature now. She wasn't as proficient as Ocelot, of course – not as dexterous and she couldn't lift a person and yank them around without using their own momentum or hers against them like the operative could. However, this particular run-in with the chūnin team had boosted her confidence greatly, and she was a little proud of how effective it had been.
Obviously her own genjutsu use was effective as well, given her ability to snare the chūnin one while she was still under a genjutsu herself. The trick with the thread to see through the genjutsu had also been useful as well, though the pinkette was a little disappointed that she hadn't been able to see through the illusion before that. It was tempting to blame the error on the environment, but she knew that sort of lazy thinking wasn't likely to get her anywhere – she needed to be able to cope in any situation she came across.
Her time with Anko had been on mixed success. She still wasn't entirely in sync when working with the summons. Particularly, she was having a hard time developing techniques to be used alongside the snakes to serve split-second maneuvers. She had, however, managed to execute a lesser version of Hidden Shadow Snake Hands – she wasn't able to properly pull it off with more than three snakes yet without there being some confusion amongst the summons. Anko had said some of the problem was lack of experience – she had to construct techniques that meshed with the mentality of the snakes she summoned and then act in a way that they could read her intent. Despite that, Sakura couldn't help but feel that somehow she was executing the seals incorrectly somehow, which was something the pinkette rarely ever did – perhaps they worked differently with summoning? She knew summoning worked differently than most ninjutsu, but Anko hadn't mentioned anything about that.
'Well, she is prone to oversight, sometimes,' mused the young kunoichi. 'Doesn't matter. I can't keep getting distracted – I'm just going through all this to gather an inventory of my skills so I can set up the plan.'
In the end, she still wasn't strong enough to take on a squad head on, not in the same way the rest of Team 7 could. Maybe after she gained a little more experience summoning, or when it was easier to enact a genjutsu in the heat of battle rather than needing to corner the target first. She wished that she had a way to use the toxins that she been dealing with – weaponize it. The chakra venom in particular would be useful, but that was something that would have to wait until she talked to Anko again, preferably before she left for Mizu.
Fortunately, the Forest was an ideal place to make use of her threads. She normally suppressed the chakra enough so that the threads weren't visible, but even if she made a slip, they still wouldn't be easy to catch. That, combined with her ability to control weapons with them made it ideal for sneak attacks. Together with the maneuver she used earlier to swing from the limb, that meant that she could attack from any angle and have an edge when it came to mobility. If she could figure out how to properly make use of that ability without pulling her arm out of its socket, it would be a valuable skill.
Ocelot was always talking about fighting unconventionally; she would probably look down on some of the more blazon displays made by Sakura's teammates. Her ANBU mentor had also always emphasized putting the opponent off balance. Now that Sakura thought about it, her earlier strategy with the clone and the tags was a little too straightforward – too expected. She should have already had the threads prepared in advance before she chased after the genjutsu user. Then again, she probably shouldn't have pursued in the first place – or at the very least, not as openly as she did. Instead, she should tried to head the shinobi off or made another clone. It would be a line of thinking she'd have to keep in mind for the next encounter.
Either way, the pinkette had made up her mind to go ahead and take out the chūnin team next, and then deal with the jōnin unit. She'd set up another ambush site, using some of the tags she'd found on the two she and Sakishi had subdued. After she properly surveyed the area and set up the zone, she would summon a few other snakes to scout out the forest and find the jōnin unit. It would be nice if she could play the two units against one another, but she didn't have enough information, much less the location of the other groups, and it was possible that putting the two of them together would cause her more harm than good.
When she sent the snakes away, she would get the chūnin team's attention, if the summoning of the snakes didn't attract the attention she wanted, minus Sakishi. He would be busy in the immediate area looking out for the team that would come after her. This time rather than just having a perimeter set up for defense, it would be a well thought out zone with a plan already in mind – a planned entry site to funnel the other team through, planned lanes to traverse, and areas where she could strike without revealing herself.
With a plan in mind, Sakura set out to make her preparations. This time, when a team came for her, she would be ready.
Hey, thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this chapter and finally seeing Sakura in action. The fight turned out to be a little smoother than I intended, but unfortunately for Sakura, I'll make up for that with the next chūnin and/or jōnin fight.
Anyway, only two more planned chapters for this arc, and then we'll find ourselves in Mizu. As always, feel free to leave any comments, questions, or critiques (especially any typos I missed).
TeenageCrisis: I'm glad you've enjoyed some of it so far. And yeah, I think I expressed in an earlier note that I was worried that the narration was a bit too dry because of all the theory. Even I'm a bit weary of it all at this point. In part, it's because I wanted to make the training a bit more cerebral and really wanted to set her up working out the mechanics, I guess? That, and with how I set up the training it was a little hard to integrate much action. Hopefully I've broken up that monotony a little with this chapter, and there will be a lot more going on after this introductory arc. Anyway, I really appreciate the constructive feedback!
anatomize: You're absolutely right about the rule in question, but in that case, it was intentional because unless I missed something, the scene in Chapter 5 was a dialogue rather than a monologue. Sorry for the confusion - it was probably because I didn't put dialogue tags with every exchange. It's just that I've read a lot of books that rely on those end quotes and opening quotes to signal a change of speaker in order to not have to say "she said" or "he said" all the time. Anyway, thanks and I'm glad you've enjoyed some of the fic so far!