Incantations

- Part One -

A Little Warriness and a Dash of Rage

::

It all started about a month ago.

The day was passing by like normal, customers coming and going as Sakura both manned the check-out desk and cleaned and restocked her shop. It was a little past midday, nearing her closing time, when a man she didn't recognize walked in, the bell over the door chiming softly and alerting her to his arrival. She glanced up from her list of salves she would need to make new batches of with a smile, faltering for only a moment at the sight of the unfamiliar face before she greeted him politely.

"Welcome! Can I help you find anything, sir?"

He looked to her and Sakura scrutinized him from behind her friendly smile, inwardly surprised that she didn't recognize him, and tapped her pencil to her notepad as she nudged a small jar back into place. The man was silent for a moment, face blank before he offered her a smile in return, running his hand through his hair - part of his dark, blue-black locks pulled up in a topknot while his bangs were swept back, spiked up slightly with some framing his face - golden eyes glinting and observant as he glanced around her shop.

"Thank you, miss. I'm just browsing for now."

Sakura nodded with another smile, moving towards her counter in the back of the store and calling to him as she tucked her pencil behind her ear. "Just let me know if you need help with anything!"

Now, Sakura had been living in Miyako for no more than two years, but she had an excellent memory and could at least recognize most of the residents of the city, from either faces she saw in her shop or faces she passed in the market. Sure, there were tourists that passed through occasionally. But they mostly visited the upper district and she barely saw new people in her humble, little apothecary.

She had a nice business and loyal customers that swore by her all-natural, healing salves and herbal mixes, her small shop filled with jars of lotions and ointments that had different medicinal purposes, bottles of dried herbs for teas that could cure or treat damn-near anything, assorted charms - sweet smelling plants and herbs entwined and easily hung near doors and beds - that ward off a variety of evil spirits, lovely crystals for all sorts of ailments, and vibrant plants that filled the empty spaces and we're often bought to brighten homes.

A less expensive alternative to buying pricey spells from a local wizard.

Okay, so maybe a few of her regular customers suspected her of being a witch, but no one knew for sure and Sakura was perfectly happy keeping it that way, practiced in suppressing her magic when she was around others. There was a nasty stigma against witches in the city and she kept a relatively low profile, just enough magic slipped into her mixes and salves and charms to boost the already-present natural healing abilities of the ingredients. And maybe she occasionally added in a little extra of her own healing magic when she shook hands with an unwell customer after their purchase, the energy lingering in their system long enough to help the unsuspecting person as the week passed.

Sakura just really enjoyed helping people.

But this stranger didn't seem ill or uneasy, so she kept an eye on him as he browsed around, reaching up to play with her necklace absent-mindedly. She ran her fingers over the metal blossoms of the plum tree branch, the charm resting horizontally on her collarbone and connected on either end to the gold chain around her neck. Sakura dropped her hand to the counter when a different customer approached, an older woman she recognized as the local butcher's wife, three tins of herbal tea in her arms.

Sakura smiled, recognizing the label as the one for her mix for headaches and migraines, and chatted with the woman as she rang her purchase up, gaze occasionally drifting over to the man, her view obstructed by a potted plant on one of the display tables of crystal prisms and clusters.

"Restocking already? Seems like you were here barely two weeks ago, Mrs. Kagawa!"

The older woman laughed, inspecting one of the good-luck charms on display at the counter. "I ran out faster than I anticipated! My eldest is getting married and I've been in such a flurry helping her get things ready, I end up drinking a cup at least thrice a day for the headaches. Your tea always helps and I sleep through the night like a baby."

Sakura chuckled, watching the stranger inspect the shelf of incense out of the corner of her eye. Wrapping the tins up in paper and tying the bundle with some twine as Mrs. Kagawa searched through her purse for exact change, the pinkette let a little of her magic seep into the package, settling amongst the dried herbs in the tins.

"Try sweetening it with some honey, that should help a little more with the headaches." Sakura suggested, dropping the money in with the rest of today's profits before handing the woman's purchase over. Mrs. Kagawa smiled widely at her, missing the way Sakura's fingertips glowed a soft green for a moment when their hands touched, and nodded, thanking her as she headed out.

The butcher's wife had been the only other person in the shop besides Sakura and the stranger and, now that she was gone, the pinkette was that much more aware of his presence. She turned, sparing him a glance as he examined the crystals behind him, and slipped through the door to the back of her shop. She passed the stairs that led to the upper floor where she lived and grabbed more wrapping paper from her storeroom, pausing to pull her shoulder blade-length, pink hair up into a quick bun and smoothing out her apron before returning to the front of the building, just as the stranger approached the check-out counter.

Sakura smiled and deposited the bundle of plain, tan wrapping paper under the desk, glancing towards the can of herbal tea for good dreams in his hand.

"I hope you found everything okay, sir." She greeted, smile in place as she held back her frown at the sight of the black gloves on his hands, catching a glimpse of some sort of rune or sigil stitched into the palm of one. The rest of his outfit was pretty simple - a long, black coat buttoned up over a plane grey shirt, black trousers, and worn boots. He nodded, golden eyes unthreatening but not necessarily very kind (they were more curious and keen, very observant and obviously picking up fine details of his surroundings), and turned his attention to the cluster of succulents next to the good luck charms, trailing a gloved finger over the rim of the pot.

"Yes, thank you. You have a very lovely shop, Miss..?" He trailed off, eyes traveling back up to her face curiously.

"Sakura," She replied with a smile, tying the twine around his wrapped purchase as she told him his total before continuing, "And, I hope you don't mind me asking, but I don't think I've seen you around here before. Are you new to Miyako, Mister..?"

His smile was even and unassuming as he handed her the money, one hand dropping into the pocket of his long coat as she gathered his change.

"Kazeo. Yes, I'm fairly new to the city. I was exploring today when I'm afraid I got a little lost, but, fortunately, I happened upon your shop."

Sakura quirked an eyebrow at this reveal but felt her face warm slightly as he continued, her smile widening.

"I'm certainly glad I found you rather than my way home," Kazeo said, gloved hand brushing hers when he reached for the package, "Your merchandise is both charming and incredibly useful; I'll have to stop by again some time."

She laughed, clasping his hand between hers as she handed him his change and letting some lucky energy drift over the cloth - a little something to help him find his way home quicker. "Well, you're welcome back anytime, Kazeo."

Dropping his hand, she stepped around the counter and walked him to the front door, holding it open and gesturing down the street. "If walk down this way and take a right at the carpenter's - the shop down there with the blue door - and keep going straight, you'll end up back on the main square of the upper shopping district. That should help you get your bearings and you can take a tram from there to just about anywhere in the city."

Sakura turned to him and clasped her hands behind her back, rocking on her heels as she smiled up at the tall man. "Tell the driver your street name and he'll let you know which stop to get off on that's the closest to your destination. I'm sure, by then, you'll be back in familiar territory."

Kazeo smiled kindly back down at her as he inclined his head with a small nod, thanking her politely and promising to visit again before setting off down the street. Sakura sent him a wave and turned back to her building, locking the door behind her as she closed the shop. It didn't take long to refill shelves and water the plants, pausing in the middle of her cleaning as she frowned down at the odd pile of black dust she'd gathered - dirt? Or maybe soot? Had one of the blacksmiths come in earlier that day? - before simply depositing it in the trash and fixing her displays one last time.

::

True to his word, Kazeo visited again later that week - and at least twice every week after for a month straight.

He stopped by around the same time every visit, staying and browsing the store until she closed up shop and always buying a single item. There were rarely any other customers around since it was so late and he usually had her undivided attention. After the second week, she was more than happy to have him hang around the back counter and chat with her, sure that he'd become well accustomed to the layout of her store and her stock after spending so much time browsing the unchanging displays.

She quickly grew to look forward to his visits, eventually comfortable enough around Kazeo to invite him into the backroom after she closed the shop for the day for a quick snack and cup of tea as they chatted about their lives. He was charming and witty and interesting and, after one particular week where he visited every day, he left her with a gift, gently pressed into the palm of her hand as he left with his bundle of dried sage and sweetpea.

She blinked down at the small, metal blossom in her hand, smiling as she recognized it as her namesake. There was a strong magnetic energy coming from the metal - black and shiny and very lovely - and she took it up to her bedroom after she cleaned up the shop, grinning when it stuck to the metal frame of her mirror.

Sakura was just changing out of her work clothes when she glanced out the window of her bedroom, easily spotting Kazeo down on the street, walking back from the direction of his usual path home. She thought for a moment that maybe he'd forgotten something and was about to head back downstairs to meet him when he stopped just down the street from her shop but still within her line of sight.

After a moment, a man, too far away for her to see his face clearly but easily able to spot his red hair, walked out of one of the buildings on the other side of the street. He paused in front of Kazeo, his head turning towards her shop briefly before the pair walked down the street and disappeared around a corner.

Odd.

Another new stranger - at least, she thought so since she couldn't really see his face well.

Kazeo had never mentioned other friends in the city or much of a family and, from her understanding, he lived alone. Perhaps this red-haired man was a new companion of his?

Shrugging to herself, Sakura continued to get ready for bed, sending the metallic flower a fond smile.

::

Sakura had the next day off, her shop closed as it always was on Saturdays, and she traveled to the main market to do a little grocery shopping. It was a bustling, busy day and she smiled and greeted familiar faces, making a mental note to head up to the big shopping district to splurge on herself a little. She was picking out fresh fruit when a conversation over at a baker's booth caught her attention, head inclining slightly in the direction as she listened in.

"Another wizard vanished?" An older man asked his companion, examining a loaf of bread, "That's a shame. Their kind are dropping like flies around Miyako."

The other man nodded, arms crossed and expression pitying. "Not just here. Apparently a lot of the other cities are losing their spell-sellers and mages. Heard a wizard up in the capital city went missing last month."

The first man gave a low whistle and Sakura frowned to herself, setting an apple down in her basket. True, over the past few months (almost a year she realized with a sinking feeling), wizards and sorcerers were going missing - vanishing without a trace and leaving behind ransacked shops and lairs. There had been rumors of civillians getting caught in the middle of whatever conflict that was going on in the midst of the magical community - though Sakura had her suspicions that these 'civillians' were secret witches, much like herself. Two wizards in Miyako had fallen to the same fate and, while Sakura was very careful about keeping her witch secret to herself, she was worried that she'd end up the same. She'd taken precautions, of course, a few warding barriers over her home and quick spell at the ready in case she needed to make a speedy exit.

Sakura moved on, paying for her produce before traveling down the street to the fishmonger, pausing when she cause the sight of red hair out of the corner of her eye. She turned, quickly spotting the man she'd seen with Kazeo the day before passing by. This close, she could get a better look at him - a lovely face with sharp features and tanned skin and pretty, soft brown eyes with a heavy-lidded, dreamy gaze - and she found him... oddly familiar, though she couldn't quite place where she's seen him before.

He was dressed simply - a loose, wide-collared white shirt and black pants tucked into knee-high boots, the light catching on gold stitching on the seams of the pantlegs, and a long black cloak billowing out behind him. He glanced her way very briefly, looking a little surprised when he realized she was looking at him, before continuing down the busy street, no falter in his step. Sakura looked around, wondering if Kazeo was nearby as well.

With no sight of the taller man, she followed after the red-head, intending to introduce herself to whom she hoped was Kazeo's friend. Excusing herself as she passed through the crowd, she clutched her basket close and just barely spotted the man turning down an alleyway and disappearing around the corner.

Only, when she turned the same corner, she was met with an empty alley, an overturned trash can and a couple sidedoors to the surrounding buildings being the only things of note. Sakura frowned to herself and crossed her arms, one hand firmly holding the handle of her basket. Where did he go?

Feeling a little uneasy, she raised her free hand to fiddle with the gold branch of her necklace, turning to head back to the market-

Only to stumble backwards as she walked into a person standing directly behind her, bumping into their chest.

"Oh! Excuse me." She quickly apologized, stepping back as she glanced up after making sure she hadn't dropped any of her groceries. Her eyebrows furrowed as she was met with another unfamiliar face, the new stranger straightening his glasses as he smiled at her.

"No, no. Excuse me, miss. I shouldn't have stopped so close behind you."

Sakura fought back her frown as she looked him over - simple traveling clothes, dark jacket with what looked like a serpent embroidered in purple thread stitched into the lefthand cuff, large circle-lense glasses, and silver hair pulled back in a ponytail - and resisted the urge to take another step back, feeling a little more nervous now as she glanced over his shoulder toward the crowd of shoppers in the street. He was still blocking her path...

"C-can I help you?" She asked hesitantly, hand still on her necklace as she ran her fingers over the metal blooms reassuringly.

"I'm sorry," He replied, holding up his hand to reveal what looked suspiciously like her coinpurse, "But I think you dropped this. I didn't mean to startle you."

She blinked in surprise, her hand dropping to the pocket sewn into her dress - a simple, comfortable, ankle-length gown with a dark grey bodice and lighter grey sleeves and matching skirt, white, embroidered flowers scattered around the bottom of the skirt - and indeed finding it empty.

"O-oh! Thank you, sir. I hadn't even noticed..." She trailed off, reaching up to take it back only to frown when the stranger moved his hand slightly further out of reach for a moment.

He chuckled at her glower, eyeing the empty alley behind her before offering the small floral-printed purse again, his hand brushing hers much longer than necessary. She shuddered at his touch, dark energy just dripping from his skin, and quickly snatched her coinpurse back, shoving it into her pocket and recoiling when he took a step closer towards her.

"You should be a little more careful, miss." He replied with an unsettling smile. "A less honest man would have kept it for himself."

His hand raised towards her face, a knuckle of his forefinger brushing her chin as his gaze narrowed and his smile widened.

Glaring hard up at him, Sakura gathered magic to her hand still in her pocket, ready to force the creepy man back at a moment's notice, emerald gaze steady and angry. His hand tensed slightly and he leaned forward a little and Sakura had a sinking suspicion that he was going to grab her chin when, suddenly, she heard a child cry and something grabbed her leg through the skirt of her dress.

The man took a quick step back in surprise and Sakura glanced down to find a young boy clinging to her, small hands clutching the fabric of her dress as he cried and sniffled.

She glanced up to find the silver-haired man glaring down at the child before looking back up at her, his glasses glinting and his hand dropping to his side, fingers flexing. Eyes narrowing, she quickly crouched down and tried to calm the boy, shushing him gently as she ran her hand through his short, brown hair.

"What's wrong, sweetie? Are you lost?"

The boy gave another sniffle, his crying lessening as he looked up at her with teary, brown eyes. "I-I can't find my m-mommy..."

She gave him a gentle smile and pet his hair soothingly, letting the tiniest bit of calming energy seep into his scalp.

"Don't worry, I'll help you find her. Where was the last place you saw your mother, can you remember?"

The child nodded and rubbed his nose with the back of his hand, explaining through his hiccups and sniffles that he'd last seen his mother picking fresh berries from a fruit stand.

When Sakura glanced up again, the silver-haired man had vanished and, inwardly, she breathed a sigh of relief. Smiling down at the boy, she pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of her dress and wiped the tears from his forlorn, brown eyes before taking his hand and standing.

"We'll find her, sweetie. Which way did you come from?"

The pair had only been walking through the bustling street for a couple minutes when the boy tugged gently on the fabric of her dress, beckoning for her to crouch down to his eye-level. Sakura moved them to the side and a little more out of the way of the crowd of shoppers, and bent down, question dying on her lips when the boy moved close to whisper in her ear.

"Take a different path home, miss, and be safe. He's watching."

Bewildered, Sakura was just about to question the boy further when he suddenly pressed a peck to her cheek and ran off into the crowd. She made a sound of surprise and jumped up, calling after him as she searched through the passing crowd.

"H-hey, wait!" She pushed her way through the shoppers, earning a few questioning glances, but quickly lost sight of the boy. Confused and a little on edge, Sakura offered passersby quick apologies and moved out of the way, glancing down the street to try and spot the kid. With no luck, she huffed and frowned and shoved her hand into the pocket of her dress, slightly relieved to find that her small purse was still in its place.

Clutching her basket of groceries close, Sakura sent another wary glance down either side of the street, heart skipping a beat when she swore she saw a flash of silver hair amongst the crowd. She thought back to the boy's foreboding warning and decided to take heed of his advice. Another quick look around and she stepped back into the crowd, heading further down the street and away from her usual route back home.

She moved with the natural current of the shoppers before ducking into a shop, the smell of baked goods meeting her in the doorway. Resisting the urge to glance over her shoulder to check if she was indeed being followed, Sakura approached the girl restocking the display of fresh pastries, smiling when she recognized her as a frequent customer of her own shop.

"Miss Kanako?"

The younger girl glanced up in surprise at being addressed but quickly grinned as she recognized Sakura, setting her tray of muffins down on top of the display. "Oh! Miss Sakura! How may I help you?"

"I'd like to purchase one of those lemon tarts," She gestured towards one of the desserts in a different display before offering the girl a sheepish smile, "And make an odd request."

Moments later, the tart wrapped up in a small box and resting amongst her groceries, Sakura was led through the kitchen in the back of the bakery to the rear exit. Kanako had, of course, been initially curious when Sakura asked if she could be allowed to exit through the back, but was quick to agree when the pinkette admitted that she'd been approached by a suspicious stranger and was afraid that she was being followed. Sometimes honesty was the way to go. Eager to help, Kanako hurriedly led her through the bakery, ignoring her mother's questioning look and opening the back door before wishing Sakura a safe trip home.

The exit opened into an alleyway, just big enough for a horse-drawn wagon to pass though to deliver supplies, and Sakura thanked the girl quickly, promising a free tin of tea of her choosing the next time she visited her apothecary. Once she was alone, Sakura glanced around to make sure the coast was clear and scurried further down the alley, pausing in front of a small puddle amongst the cobblestones.

She crouched down to view her reflection in the water before reaching into the side of her knee-high boot, fingers brushing her right calf. Sakura pulled her hawthorn wand from its hiding place in her boot alongside her leg, the fluorite cluster nestled in the twisted, wooden 'cage' at the tip of the wand glowing both soft green and pale blue. She tapped the tip of her wand to her reflection in the puddle, standing and stepping back once the spell had been cast and an identical Sakura began to form from the water.

The new Sakura slowly stood, bangs hanging over most of her face and hiding the vacant, glassy look in her eyes. The real Sakura gave the clone an order to head northeast towards upper districts of Miyako, traveling for at least thirty minutes before finding a safe place to dispell and return to water. Better safe than sorry.

The clone gave a curt nod before turning and heading down the alleyway and towards the street while Sakura glanced down at her clothes, chewing on her lip. The spell-clone was a perfect double and would be able to hold a decent enough conversation if anyone happened to stop it, but she should really use some sort of disguise before heading home herself. Sakura frowned - she'd never been the best at keeping disguising spells going for too long - before tapping the tip of her glowing wand to her free palm. Passing her hand over her hair, she nodded to her herself when it turned a dark shade of brown before doing the same to her dress, changing the greys to dark reds. Simple enough, but it'll do for now.

Eyes were tricky to conceal and she really didn't want to mess with hiding her irises so, instead, she quickly restyled her momentarily-brown hair, enough locks framing her face and draped over her eyes to hide her features well enough without looking odd. Nodding to herself once more, Sakura slipped her wand back into her boot, the spell over the shoe quickly wrapping around the hawthorn wand and keeping it comfortably in its own hidden 'pocket'.

Turning down the opposite way the clone had gone, Sakura hurried down the alley and made her way home.

::

It couldn't have been more than fifteen minutes later when she turned onto her home street and felt a sudden pop in the edge of her awareness, signaling that her clone had been dispelled. Ears ringing slightly, she jumped in surprise, clutching her basket close before quickly moving down the street to her shop. The journey home had been uneventful and she hadn't felt anyone following her, but the sudden dispelling of her clone certainly had her on edge.

Gritting her teeth, brief glimpses of the clone's last sights rushed through her mind, but the faces were fuzzy and concealed by a powerful glamour and Sakura rushed into her home, quickly locking her door behind her before depositing her groceries in her kitchen and running upstairs to her bedroom. The quick disguise spell dissipating and allowing her hair and dress to revert back to their original colors, she emptied her pockets and tossed her small purse onto her bed as she made sure the windows were sealed and did a sweep of the building.

She had just finished bolting her backdoor when there was a sudden shift, the feeling of her magical barriers being shredded and shattered hitting her subconscious with an icy chill. Sakura spun around, expecting to see an evil presence behind her - the barriers protecting her home could only have been broken that suddenly from the inside - but found nothing, the room eerily silent as a shiver ran down her spine.

Something was definitely wrong.

She panicked for a moment before scrambling for her wand again. There was something inside her home - she knew it, she could feel it - and she needed to find it now.

The fluorite crystal glowing it's mix of blue and green, Sakura drew a circle in the air in front of her, the glow leaving a lingering trail, before slicing vertically through it, calling the name of her familiar.

"Daughter of Milady Katsuyu, Lady Shiori!"

She held out her hand the moment she exclaimed the title, a puff of smoke appearing above her open palm before a weight fell into her hand. When the smoke cleared, a slightly large (about the size of a grapefruit), white and pale-green striped slug rested in her palm. It looked up at her, feelers swaying gently, and Sakura held her hand closer, looking a little uneasy.

"Mistress Sakura, how may I be of assistance to you?"

Shiori's voice rang gently in her mind, communicating telepathically through their bond. Sakura smiled weakly down at her slug companion, quickly moving to the center of the shop. It wasn't often that she summoned Shiori - only for really difficult or important spells - though the slug did occasionally pop in to visit her, much to Sakura's delight. She was a very magical creature, after all, and from a powerful bloodline (her mother was practically ethereal and resided in a magical forest inaccessible to most humans and magical folk alike) and the pinkette had been incredibly lucky to earn the chance to contract her as her familiar. The slug was by no means obligated to hang around Sakura 24/7 and, instead, would come when summoned - though she was certainly welcomed in Sakura's abode.

"There's something in my home," Sakura answered, hand gripping her wand as she glanced around nervously, "It broke my barriers and I can sense it's presence, but I can't pinpoint it's exact location."

Shiori nodded in understanding, moving up Sakura's arm to rest on her shoulder, her body comfortably cool against her neck. The slug was silent for a moment and Sakura knew she was focusing on her awareness, a tingling at the back of her head as she felt Shiori expand the range of her search. She held her breath, inclining her head slightly when the slug shifted, her voice drifting through her mind.

"Upstairs. Keep your wand at the ready, Mistress Sakura. I sense an evil presence."

Nodding, she hurried up the stairs and followed Shiori's directions, finding herself standing in her bedroom once more. She faced her bed, wand raised as she glanced around cautiously.

"There," came the familiar's voice, "I feel it leaking from the purse."

Sakura's gaze dropped to her coinpurse still sitting unassumingly on her bed and, with a quick flick of her wand, made the clasps snap open. There was no reaction at first but, as Shiori tensed on her shoulder, there was a sudden, angry hiss.

Out of her purse slithered a black snake, the serpent coiling on her bed and hissing up at her as it's violet eyes glowed menacingly.

"A spying serpent," Shiori warily thought into her mind, "Someone sent it to track you, Mistress."

The snake gave another hiss and Sakura stepped forward carefully, jumping when the creature suddenly shuddered and seemed to melt, deforming into a vile-looking, purple liquid that ate through her bedding with an acidic hiss.

She cursed under her breath, quickly waving her wand to dissipate any lingering aftershocks of the nasty spell. Her mourning over her ruined bedsheets were cut short when her gaze fell on the open purse, her eyes narrowing.

"How did that even get into my-!" She gasped, realization hitting her as she remembered the silver-haired man in the alley who had returned her purse to her. "That creep! I knew there was something off about him!"

Shiori shifted slightly on her shoulder and Sakura reached up to run a gentle finger over her body, sighing to herself before offering the slug a smile. "Thank you, Lady Shiori. I'll need your aide in getting my barriers back up quickly. I-"

Sakura froze, cut off by the sound of a muffled knock from the front door below. Heart thudding in her ears, she gently asked the slug to move more behind her neck to stay better hidden before quickly grabbing a cloak from her closet, swinging it onto her shoulders and hiding her wand in the large sleeves.

Tense and wary, she made her way downstairs, frowning at the silhouette on the other side of the shop's door, the sun casting just enough light as it was beginning to set. Sakura approached carefully, hoping that it was one of her neighbors, or perhaps Kazeo, and not that creep from the alley.

She'd only made it halfway into her shop when she saw the lock on the door turn and heard a soft click, breath catching as she stopped midstep. Everything was still for a moment before the door slowly swung open, the bell chiming pleasantly, and darkness leaked into her home.

Sakura could still see the light of dusk behind the intruder, but an oppressing fog, cold and dark and overwhelming, seeped into the shop. She was incredibly thankful of the two pairs of gas lamps by the door and near the back counter, the soft light managing to break through the dark. Staring at the cloaked stranger, Sakura's fingers twitched as she clutched her hidden wand, ready to protect herself at a moment's notice.

The intruder took two large strides forward, the door slamming shut behind them as they reached up to pull back their hood, revealing inky-black hair and snow-pale skin. Cunning yellow eyes with slitted pupils landed on Sakura for a moment before they - he? - glanced away uncaringly, looking around her shop with a less than impressed look.

"So this is where he's been lurking lately?" He said, sneering as his eyes roved over her merchandise and shelves. "It doesn't really seem his style. Simple, unassuming, boring - but it does reek of scorpion..."

Sakura frowned as he continued to ignore her, her gaze wary and pinned to the strange man as he meandered around her shop with a bored expression. When his eyes finally landed on her again, she felt a chill shoot up her spine.

"And an equally simple, human shopkeep. How quaint."

Her eyes narrowed as anger bubbled up in her and Shiori whispered into mind to stay on guard and wait for an opening. So, she continued to watch the intruder warily as he spoke aloud to himself, his expression turning a little curious.

"I don't know why he's interested in this charming-" the word was dripping with sarcasm, "-place. But," He muttered before raising his hand to point at her, "He actually bothered to put up guarding barriers, so you must be of some importance to him."

Sakura tensed and frowned harder in her confusion before inwardly realizing that he'd mistaken her barriers as someone else's work. She tried to suppress her grin as she clutched her hidden wand and pushed her magic through it.

He didn't know she was a witch - she still had the element of surprise.

His hand began to glow a similar shade of purple as the acid-snake and she finally spoke, aiming to buy herself some time as she gathered energy while still keeping her magic concealed from the man.

"Who the hell are you?"

He seemed a little surprised - probably because she wasn't cowering in fear - before he scoffed, sneering at her again. "That is no concern of yours, girl. Now, tell me. Where is that thieving scorpion."

It was more of a demand than a question but Sakura simply growled in reply, Shiori shifting uneasily behind her neck. "I don't know who the hell you're talking about. Get out of my shop before I make you."

His face split in a wide grin, though his golden eyes remained unamused, a pair of purple snakes appearing from the wide sleeve of his cloak as they wound around his raised hand. "Don't make me ask again, girl. You do not want to make me angry."

Sakura was aware of Shiori suddenly gasping in her mind but, before the slug could speak, the door to her shop suddenly burst open and the energy in the building began to crackle and shimmer, something shifting out of the corner of her eye.

Both occupants looked to the door, Sakura's eyes widening as she realized it was Kazeo standing in the entrance, his golden gaze falling on the serpentine stranger who regarded him with a slightly annoyed look. Kazeo was silent, however, and the intruder was quick to speak, his twin snakes hissing in warning.

"I'm a little insulted that you'd send one of your toys to face me, rather than yourself, Sasori."

What?

Sakura's eyes darted between the two men, jumping when she caught a glimmer on the edge of her vision and something shimmering and black shot past her. More of the shifting black poured forth from every nook and cranny in her shop and she almost thought it to be some sort of liquid until she heard how it rolled and skittered across the wooden floorboards, like sand sliding down a dune.

She quickly realized it was the same black dust she had been finding and cleaning up around her home for the past month.

More of the black sand poured from Kazeo's sleeves, the mounds growing and drifting through the air as it all gathered around him. With so much in one place, Sakura was able to detect the distinct smell of iron, but her mind was buzzing with too many questions for her to really focus.

What was going on?

"Leave the girl be," said Kazeo finally as he raised a hand, the iron sand floating around his wrist, "She is not involved in our dispute."

The intruder sneered and quickly raised his own arm, one of the serpents shooting forward and morphing into a beam of pure, wicked, purple energy. The attack glanced off the quick shield formed by the black sand and the black-haired man shot another beam, this time landing a blow to Kazeo's face.

"She became involved the moment you stepped foot in this tacky shop and decided to protect a lowly human."

Sakura held back a scream when the bolt hit and she looked to Kazeo, half-expecting part of his face to be burned off but, instead, there was a shimmer of broken glamour falling from him and his features became oddly... wooden.

His hard, gold eyes took on a more glassy, lifeless look and there was a gaping hole in his cheek, splintered and broken wood where there should have been skin and blood.

She stared in confusion.

What the hell.

Arm still raised, the iron sand around him morphed into sharp spikes, quickly shooting forward and aiming for the stranger. They were deflected, some bursting into sand while others were forced into different directions. Sakura ducked out of the way as one shot past her, hitting one of her tea tin displays and sending busted containers and herbs flying. She shouted in surprise, gaze stopping on the destroyed incense display across the room before the intruder shot another pair of energy bolts at Kazeo, who quickly dodged out of the way.

One hit a table of potted plants and the other shattered her window, scattering dirt and glass. The two men exchanged a few more blows as they darted and dodged around her shop and Sakura took cover behind the check-out counter, shrieking when an energy bolt burst through the wood next to her and splintered the panelling.

She glanced over the marble counter top, eyes wide in horror at her ruined shop before anger began to bubble in her stomach. Sakura rolled out from behind the counter when a deflected sand spike impacted the wall above her, hand gripping her wand as she intended to end this fight.

Only, she froze when the serpent-welding man raised his hand towards her, golden eyes flickered to her before back to Shizeo. She quickly concealed her wand inside her sleeve again and prayed he hadn't noticed.

"I'm tiring of playing with your toy, Sasori. Show yourself or I'll obliterate the girl."

He looked angry and annoyed and fired a warning shot at Sakura, the bolt whizzing past her ear and striking the wall next to her head.

Her breath hitched and Kazeo's blank, broken, wooden face turned towards her, his hands lowering robotically. It was quiet in the shop besides the sizzling of where the energy attacks had hit and the shifting of the iron sand. The stranger's hand began to glow purple again in warning.

And, then, there was a soft click to Sakura's right.

She glanced over her shoulder in confusion, watching as the door to the back of her store opened and there stood the red-haired man from the market, his black cloak hiding the rest of his form. Behind him was definitely not the rest of her home, but he quickly closed the door before she could get a good look at the unfamiliar room, his half-lidded eyes falling on the sneering man as he walked past and stood in front of her.

He looked like he was about to address the black-haired man when Sakura interrupted him, unable to keep quiet any longer.

"Who are you and how the hell did you get into my home?!"

The redhead glanced over his shoulder at her, expression slightly apologetic but also vaguely annoyed, and his lips parted, only for the serpentine man to interrupt, both of his arms raised and a snake coiled around either wrist, hands dripping with burning purple energy.

"There you are, you thieving warlock. Now, return what you took from me before I really get angry."

Sakura glanced around her destroyed shop and something in her snapped, her rage bubbling and roiling through her chest. Like hell she was going to let this fight continue.

"ENOUGH!"

There was a sudden snap and crackle in the air as Sakura stopped concealing her magic, a sudden gust sweeping through the shop before gathering around her. It blew around her ankles and both men turned to watch her in shock, her cloak and the skirt of her dress billowing and ruffling from the wind and her pink hair fluttering as she glared angrily at the two. She raised her arm and pointed her wand at the black-haired man, who's surprised gaze dropped from her face to her shoulder, Shiori moving out from her hiding place behind her neck. His eyes narrowed before he grinned, the crystal at the end of Sakura's wand glowing dazzlingly as broken plants and jars and herbs began to float and levitate from their ruined shelves as her magic crackled in the air.

"So Tsunade did take on an apprentice, how interesting."

Sakura's eyes narrowed at the man's words - he knew her teacher? - before she used the pair's surprise to her advantage and flicked her wand, the front door to her shop swinging open and a huge gust of air blowing through the building, gathering up the iron sand as well as a few broken bottles and plants. The two men, as well as the now immobile Kazeo, were forcibly thrown out into the night and onto the street and Sakura raced forward, anger still boiling in her gut as she ignored their shouts. Another wave of her wand and the door quickly shut, her glowing hand slamming against the wood. There was a burst of white light from under her palm and, using the energy Shiori was offering, she quickly raised her barriers again, barring the men from her home.

Heart thudding and breathing shaky, Sakura held back her scream of frustration as she looked over her ruined shop, an opaque shimmer covering the destroyed window, and she resisted the urge to go out onto the street and give those assholes a good pummeling. Crouching, she examined a shattered crystal and let her shoulders sag before she finally noticed Shiori's soft voice ringing urgently through her mind.

Glancing to the slug, she offered her a weak smile, hand still clutching her wand tightly. "S-sorry, Lady Shiori. What were you saying?"

Shiori's voice was hushed and perturbed in her mind and she couldn't seem to sit still on Sakura's shoulder, inching closer to her.

"Those serpents were from the Ryūchi Cave. Only a very powerful, dark mage or wizard would be able to summon them." Sakura stiffened slightly and her smile fell, her stomach dropping as the slug continued.

"You need to leave now, Mistress Sakura."

She hesitated, emerald gaze darting to the sealed door as she swore she could hear the sounds of a continued battle out on the street, before she nodded, hurrying to the back of her shop. Sakura reached into the cupboard next to the kitchen sink and grabbed the pack she'd filled with traveling essentials, immensely glad that she'd prepared that hasty retreat spell months in advance, and pulled the crystal orb from inside the bag.

Stepping towards the back door, she stopped and faced the inside of her home, back to the locked exit as she held the crystal ball delicately in her hand. Raising the orb, she tapped her wand against it three times, her magic entwining with Shiori's energy as the slug helped her focus. The magic quickly seeped through the rest of the building, from the ruined shop to the rooms up the stairs, the gas lamps dimming and many glowing, pulsing branches of light shot across the floorboards, stemming from under her feet.

Her dress began to flutter again in the breeze drifting around her legs and the clear crystal ball began to float, glowing a soft pink. Eyes closed as she concentrated, Sakura let out a soft breath, whispered words of containment echoing through her home as she let her free hand drop to her side. She felt the ground shift beneath her feet and felt a tug in her chest, her surroundings morphing and twisting as she cast her spell.

Within moments, her home was absorbed into the crystal ball, a miniature, exact replica - or, rather, the actual contents, now minimized - of the interior of the building visible in the orb. Around her was an empty room, bare walls and floors with a few weeds bursting through the floorboards and a layer of dust coating everything that was left (which was barely anything at all). It was unsettlingly silent in her former home, stripped of all of its prior contents and, tapping the floating crystal ball once more, Sakura reached behind her to unlock the backdoor. The orb shrank down to the size of a marble and she quickly caught it as it dropped, tucking it into the pocket of her dress.

Her barriers would break down in moments and she quickly flung the door open and hurried out into the back alleyway, not sparing the desolate building a second glance. With her home in her pocket, Sakura reached up to the plum branch charm of her necklace and gave it a sharp tug. The chain snapped and shattered into golden dust and she slid her hawthorn wand back into her boot before slinging her pack onto her shoulder, tying her hair up and pulling the hood of her cloak over her head. She tossed the charm up and, while midair, it instantly grew several sizes, losing its gold sheen and the smell of plum blossoms drifting through the alleyway.

Catching her plum tree broomstick - a simple branch identical to the charm, with blooming plum blossoms and a sizeable length clear of outstretching branches - in one hand, she quickly sat astride it, expression grim and angered at having to leave. The enchanted wood of the branch was comfortable to rest on and, moments later, her feet left the ground and she darted up into the night sky.

She was silent for a few moments, nervously glancing around as she flew, half-expecting to be attacked in midair. After several minutes, it looked like she was safe and she relaxed a little.

"Lady Shiori," Sakura whispered to the slug still perched next to her neck, "It's going to be a long flight; you can return to the Shikkotsu Forest if you desire."

The city passed by below her and Sakura pulled her cloak tighter as the cold night air blew around her, her way lighted by the moon. The young familiar shifted closer, feelers gently nudging the skin of her neck.

"I will stay with you until we find our new home and you are safe, Mistress Sakura," came Shiori's gentle voice, and Sakura couldn't hold back her smile at the slug's words.

The pinkette inclined her head slightly and gave her companion and soft nuzzle, hands gripping her branch broom as she flew through the night sky.

"Thank you, Lady Shiori." Her smile fell slightly and she bit her lower lip, adjusting her grip on the branch. "And, when we find a place to rest, I would like you to contact Tsunade and ask her what she knows about a dark mage that wields snakes from the Ryūchi Cave. I have a bad feeling about that creep and it sounded like he knew her..."

Shiori was quick to agree to her request, a peaceful aura drifting from her small body and helping Sakura relax as she flew over farmers' fields and countryside. The pair fell silent and Sakura's mind buzzed with questions and accusations, her anger still rolling in the pit of her stomach.

'A dark mage and a mysterious warlock, huh? Here's hoping I won't be seeing either of them again any time soon.

Unfortunately, Sakura always had the worst luck when it came to wishes like that.

::

notes: happy sasosaku month! This is gonna be a relatively short fic, probably only a couple more chapters. obviously a little inspired by howls moving castle u u

I've got a lot of stuff to update and I'm slowly getting stuff together, including a fic that I'm writing the entirety of and is already at like 12k words but I've momentarily lost muse for

hope you enjoyed, please leave a review!