The Scorched Path
Summary: "Come revel in the woods with us," said the girl to the boy. The Herd has grown small, but they still hold to the old ways. The truth is visible to those who care to look. 70% Lovecraftian horror, 30% Naruto. One-shot.
When the last, mutilated fraction of the ninth part falls, Sakura's mother spends the whole night crying. Sakura's grandmother sits at her side in their ratty couch and comforts and comforts and comforts. Sakura herself stands by the hallway doorjamb, scared and not a little confused. Her mother is the sort of person who never cries. Or smiles. Or does any of those things that other kids' moms do. She looks more like one of those older ninja people that sometimes sit outside the veteran's home than a civilian baker. Only once before, when Sakura was very little, did she cry like this. The night all of Konoha calls the Disaster.
Her father approaches, silent in the way ninja usually are. He stands just behind Sakura and his presence is usually a relief. Not today. She looks up at him uncertainly, and he tries to smile. But she can see his eyes aren't doing that crinkly thing and his shoulders are as hunched with weariness as grandmother's.
"What really happened?" Her voice is hushed with unease.
"The last of the ninth has perished, leeched by the Seal," her father says somberly. "We have failed."
Sakura knows 'the ninth' from her grandmother's lessons – the last piece of The One With Ten Tails, the Unmaker, the Darkness in the Forest. She recites the names quietly to herself. Her grandmother has made her learn all of the names. She said there was much power in names and that if Sakura couldn't learn them quickly, she didn't deserve true knowledge. Her mother had agreed in that stern, quiet way she had and Sakura hadn't been allowed to witness any of the night-sacrifices or make any offerings until she could remember them all. There are some she isn't allowed to say out loud – the true names, grandmother calls them – what they are really called, those things that sing to people like Sakura's family.
"Is there nothing we can do?" she asks, although she knows very well that she herself is next to useless. Uninitiated, inexperienced. But she wants to help. Her parents have told her of the glory and the madness and the things in the dark. Sakura is a Haruno and this is what they do.
Her father glances at her. "I doubt it, but we cannot lose faith."
He means that literally, she knows. Losing faith is a dangerous thing for people like them. She nods as seriously as a nine-year-old can. She will not lose faith.
Nekmehanbezash! Sakura murmurs inaudibly to herself as she approaches the gates to the Academy. The name echoes in her in that peculiar way Their names do. Like the air in her lungs that breathes out the name vibrates inside of her. Watch over me, Ten-Tails, scorch my path with your truth.
It's a familiar prayer. She's made the same one every morning since she was seven. But she knows not to focus too hard on this sort of knowledge when she's not at home. Thinking too much about these things can make you wobbly. Make your pupils look as huge and dark as pools of oil. And people notice things like that. Even blind ones, like mother says most people are.
She goes to sit in her seat by the window, keeps her head down when Ami and the others start making comments. Her own anger scares her sometimes. It feels like she's lit from below somehow, like there is fire in the floor that climbs her legs like ladders and reaches up to nest in her throat. They think she's scared of them. She wants to know what their fear would taste like. It's a petty little daydream, she knows that, but at least it helps keep loneliness at bay.
Uzumaki Naruto bounces through the door and with him comes a scent of rot so strong it makes Sakura's head spin. She'd thrown up the first time he'd tried to talk to her and that other anger, the deep one, had welled up behind her eyes. His eyes had gone round, the sclera rolling white, and the pupils had widened and contracted. And then he'd turned tail to run, scything away like a rabbit escaping fire.
She had been relieved when she realized he had nobody to talk to. To tell… whatever he'd seen in her. He had slowly forgotten, apparently, that he'd ever been afraid. Maybe he'd convinced himself that he'd imagined something that couldn't possibly have been there. Her father says people do that. Especially when they're afraid.
Nakamura-sensei comes in, carrying a pile of books and looking as surly as ever. He's one of theirs. Even if he's not devoted to the Unmaker. There are many names to fall before, of course. Even if most of the families are gone.
Nakamura smiles at her and Sakura grins. It's nice to have one of their own as her teacher. It's nice to feel that other reflected back at her when she looks into his eyes.
An orgy is supposed to include sex. The books in the adult section of the library says so, anyway. Maybe they're only supposed to include sex, even. Not blood and flesh. That sounds a little silly to Sakura. A little boring.
The night is dark and her mother and father and grandmother are dancing. They're backlit by the bonfire and appear like silhouettes, like shadows to Sakura where she stands at the edge of the feast. She's yet to make her offering and thus she is not welcomed into the dance. It painful to be excluded from the communion, to feel but not truly touch or partake. To be unable to revel in the madness.
The feasts used to be much bigger than this. People crowding around, rows of sacrifices lined up and readied. Now there are only three people in the whole country to feast in honor of Nekmehanbezash. Disgrace, she has heard her grandmother mutter. They can't even feast in their home, as is traditional. But Fire Country has many deep forests that can hide almost anything from sight. Sakura is ten and as she stands there at the forest's edge, she is so hungry it feels like something in her stomach is tearing itself apart. The sort of deep hunger that gets into her mind and scores the inside of her skull with sharp claws. She watches the dancing with wide eyes.
Mother and father scream in sync. Grandmother cries. They dance faster. They tear at their flesh and Sakura sees her mother's fingernails gouge flesh from her stomach. Her mouth fills with saliva. Her heart beats against her ribs, like it wants to be let out. Like what grandmother is doing now, with the knife, slashing herself open. Her innards steam as they snake out of her, landing with a wet smack in a heap on moist grass. She dances on, tiredly, mouth wide open and entrails following in her wake like a rosy tail. They tear, of course. The smell is foul, but Sakura breathes it in when the wind carries it to her. There is something in the smell, something deeper.
Nekmehanbezash! She thinks, blindly, stupidly. It's in her head now. It's agony. Maddening, enlightening agony. Colors spin. She sees herself bite her wrist until it breaks. But she's outside herself too, even though she can't dance.
And there it is. The shadow. What remains. She sees it with her eyes closed. A thousand opened jaws, a fox-snout and a monkey-mouth and ten tails, like stripes of blood. The pressure in her head increases. Maybe she's dying. Maybe she's dead. Abnormally long cat-claws, horns like an ox. Molting snail-slime. Many heads, swiveling around and around and around. Eighteen eyes, placed haphazardly over distorted beastly features. Here an eye under an ear, here an eye in a paw. All of them spinning wildly. All of them waiting.
A glimpse of her father and mother, tearing at each other and kissing. Dancing, still. Her grandmother, eating of herself. Sakura knows she's drooling, can feel the slick down her chin. No, wait. Blood? Yes. Her wrist is badly broken. An open fracture, she hears Iruka-sensei's voice lecture. Sakura gnaws at bone. There is a distant pleasure, somewhere beyond the body. Deep in the mind. Satisfaction. Maybe her own, maybe another's.
The night is very long. And it is beautiful. Nekmehanbezash! thinks Sakura, delirious with pain and want and hunger and someone else's pleasure. Creature-pleasure. Old, old pleasure. Gratefulness. Pride. Or as close to it as her own fragile mind can translate. Her brain is on fire fire fire
Her parents are proud. They put foul-smelling ointment on her wrist and bandage it. They can't stop looking at each other, at her. Grandmother is dead, of course, and they take her apart together. Sakura weighs the flesh carefully when father has carved it and mother puts the pieces in plastic bags in the freezer. For future offerings.
Sakura feels like something has shifted. On the inside. There is a greater sense of presence there now. Something so sharp and bright it makes her woozy just to think thoughts with that part of her mind. Like she'll be electrocuted. Even though the ninth is gone, It is aware in some way. She hadn't expected that and she suspects that neither had her parents.
Next year, she'll dance. The thought fills her with such wild joy that her heart cramps in her chest. She'll dance for their glory and their ten tails will envelop her. Cleanse her. Rip the veil from her eyes, like they once did with mother and father.
"There is just the three of us now," mother says thoughtfully.
"Grandmother was old," says father, shrugging off his meat-coat. "It was her time."
Mother smiles softly, eyes glittering. A piece of her lip is missing, where her teeth has gnawed through. "And she will be honored for it. The One With Ten Tails will receive her gladly."
"Are we going to gather with the others?" Sakura asks. She's only ever heard of those gatherings, where their entire herd comes together in celebration. She knows how difficult they are to organize.
"Not yet. But soon we shall have no choice," mother says, still in that musing voice. She rises to take the kettle off the stove and pours them all bone-tea. The marrow of those already gone is good for getting the last of the madness out. "Our numbers have grown so small."
"We should recruit," her father says and takes a sip of tea.
"Under the noses of ninja?" Her mother snorts. "We would draw attention, whether we knew it or not."
Sakura frowns. She knows these are their ancestral lands, but she doesn't understand why they have to stay in the village. It seems odd and it's very inconvenient. She plays with the bandage around her wrist. She probably shouldn't have asked to go to the Academy. She'd felt lonely. Well, sort of. Apart would probably be a more accurate description. Her parents had indulged her, for some reason. There had once been a lot of children in their family, before Konoha. Now there was just her.
"Perhaps…" her father says and glances at Sakura. "Are there children in the Academy who would not be missed?"
"The vile tomb," Sakura says at once, her nose crinkling. Her parents exchange a drawn-out look.
"They are keeping an eye on him," says her mother, frowning. Sakura wants to question that. She's never felt anybody near him. But she shouldn't underestimate the jounin, she knows. They have ways, even without true knowledge.
Her father hums, a slime-slick glow flickering briefly in his eyes. "But nobody would have cause to suspect you of anything, even if you did approach him. A child making a friend."
"And," her mother says, so gently it's barely audible. "He would make for a brilliant sacrifice. Revenge. A return of the ninth seed, dead though it is."
Sakura makes a new friend. It's easy, though she has never been very good at it. He's lonely, he's bored and all he wants is someone to play with. The rot of Old things still clings to him, but it's less obvious now. The odor is fading. It makes Sakura relieved and it makes her want to cry. The dead seed is fading from the world and it will be eons before its second coming. She will be long dead by then. The sun will be long dead by then. She will never fall before the true glory.
"Sakura!" Naruto greets her and she smiles at his approach.
She has been making overtures, as her mother calls them. Smaller things. Aren't the skeletons in the biology lab kind of cool? Aren't movies with blood and death and screaming kind of fun? Isn't Suzume-sensei mean for not letting them try to dissect something more interesting than a frog?
That last one is the most recent overture. They're in the library, empty this time of day. Away from any windows, at Sakura's quiet insistence. Naruto has brought a rat with him. Fat and dead. He had been scared to touch dead things before, but she'd broken him of that habit.
"Do you got the scalpels?" Naruto asks. He looks a little wary as he glances at the rat, but Sakura throws an affectionate arm over his shoulders and that drains the vestiges of tension out of him.
Sakura wish she liked him less. She wished he wasn't her only friend in her age-group, because then she wouldn't have become attached. Even thinking it feels like a betrayal somehow, and there is a low thrum of electric discontent coming from the part of her mind that is no longer truly inside her head.
They start. Sakura cuts and Naruto, instead of looking away or leaning back, tips forward to watch. I dedicate this to you, Ten-Tails, she thinks as she cuts. She's so focused on her prayer that she almost fails to notice the look in Naruto's eyes. Wide pupils, a something-smile on his thin lips. An intensity, as more tiny organs are revealed and more rat flesh tears. She knows that look. She almost drops the scalpel in shock.
It can't be, she thinks numbly. Naruto looks up at her and how can she do anything but answer the madness-tinted gaze with an unfurling of her own darkness? It's instinctual. Tit for tat. Show me yours, I'll show you mine. Show me. SHOW ME.
A flash of pain lances through her skull, rattling her teeth and her eyes roll up in her head. She sees eternities of stars, twisting and contorting in an endless sea. There is pressure as something else looks out of her, as something burns through her optic nerves and scorches her eye sockets.
When Sakura comes back to herself, the rat is a mess of torn muscles and fluid-slicked fur. Naruto's hands are bloody and he's staring at them with a muddled, distant expression. There is a spot of blood on his cheek and she reaches over the table to wipe it off.
It's not dead. He absorbed it, she thinks and something cacophonous resounds in joy from the back of her mind. Her nose is bleeding. She smiles drunkenly at Naruto, who looks a little uncertain but smiles back anyway.
His teeth are tinted red.
Their plans change. Her parents are excited in a way they haven't been for years and that night is so bloody it will take days to clean up the basement. New facets to their faith are born and others discarded, all under the many eyes of the beast who is their patron.
"You have done well, Sakura," her father says and Sakura smiles. There is a sense of agreement, a whooshing in her ears that she translates to agreement, and her stomach flips with nausea even as her lips pull back in a wide grin. Her mother pats her on the cheek and almost smiles at her. Her mother who is so old that she remembers how things were before shinobi. Her mother who witnessed the birth of Hziulquoigmnzhah's children and saw the first blackening of the sky. There is a sense of time in her burning eyes, of very long days moving fast as clouds in a storm. She looks proud of Sakura and Sakura glows. Only partially in the metaphorical sense.
"Hezmeshtaloth-Nyttelphian-Geggoua," she says and Sakura's head spins like a carousel. The words – what? She forgets. It hurts. Sakura nods. Of course, anything. Even that ritual. They will bring him in and he will serve, as is his due.
She goes to the basement to prepare. The scent of blood is overpowering and she has to sit on the floor and shake for a while before the other-feeling runs through her. The mirror in the corner is shattered and the split reflection she staring back at her has three eyes. All of them pulled wide open and darkened by an oversized pupil. Her head feels like its floating several decimeters above her neck. Maybe it is.
She gets to work. The curved dagger, the old stones, the wooden posts. The cloth with symbols that hurt to look directly at. It was once touched by the Unmaker, her father has said. That's why holding it makes her nose flood with the smell of sun-warmed sewage and meadow-flowers.
Mmhm, she thinks vaguely. So it is. So it will be.
It is the best time of her life. She's dead. She's never been more alive. Naruto takes to what she has to teach like he's been waiting for someone to reach out to him with this knowledge. Iruka smiles at her now, probably because he likes that Naruto has made a friend. She smiles back and tries not to draw attention. Tells Naruto not to draw those pictures of dead animals, not to trace the outline of ancient symbols on his desk. Keep your head down, she tells him frequently, keep your head down or I won't be your friend anymore. It's the only thing that works, because staying out of sight and out of mind is so contrary to Naruto's nature.
She's given him the dagger and the cloth. He gives them back to her when the blood is so thickly clotted into the threads that he can no longer roll it up properly. Sakura wonders if Iruka knows what happened to the stray cat that used to visit their classroom. She has its bones, cleaned with acid and polished until they gleam under the basement lights.
"Let's go play in the forest," Naruto says after school and Sakura smiles. They're practicing for the autumn equinox. Hezmeshtaloth-Nyttelphian-Geggoua is difficult, and not just because of the pain. They'll open up the world that night. The forest will burn.
Naruto doesn't like pain. Nobody does, not even Sakura, though she's far more used to it. She's had to cajole him, threaten him, praise him for his courage for every broken bone and purpling bruise. The minor rituals require pain without madness and she hasn't yet told him what a luxury that is.
They go to play in the forest and Sakura teaches him the Enn symbol. There is the spilling of blood and the curve of the symbol itself, draw in the soil. But there is also the feeling, the internal rush of something cold snaking through your veins.
"I dream a lot," Naruto says suddenly, after they're done and resting by a tree. Sakura opens an eye to glance at him. He's pale and holding up his trembling fingers before his face. He flexes his hands slowly, probably trying to regain feeling.
He looks at her. "There is a hole in the world, in the sky," he says. "I'm a star as big as the sun. My light is so harsh it screams." His nose begins to bleed and Sakura, who had been listening carefully and with her breath lodged in her throat, hands him a napkin. The spell is broken. The faint carousel-tumbling that was beginning to distort her vision fades away.
"You'll be a whole lot of something, one day," she says, smiling. His blood has darkened into auburn. She'll remind him to be careful not to spill it in front of others.
There is a man perched on the windowsill. It's late at night and Sakura had been sleeping when the chime of warning came from within her. The man is backlit by the moon and his hair shines silver in its light.
"Hello, Sakura," he says. Sakura sits up in bed. This man is a jounin, she knows. Her father worked with him once.
"Hello, Hatake-san," she says. She's not scared. She's never scared, these days. Hasn't been since she learned to revel in the glory and the madness. "What are you doing in my window?"
He unfolds like a stick figure, his dark silhouette like thin lines when he steps inside her room. He's very tall, especially with his hair standing on end like that. She squints at him, tries to make out his face beyond the impression of his profile.
"I thought it was time we had a talk. About Naruto."
Sakura blinks. Now nervousness is bubbling low in her stomach. "In the middle of the night?"
"Maa, there's really no time better." He approaches the bed and his shadow grows on the wall behind him. "What exactly have you and he been doing in the forest?"
Her heart skips a beat. "Just playing, Hatake-san. The other kids don't like him much, so we go there to get away from them."
She sees his face now. A grim line hidden behind a mask. "You leave a lot of bones behind."
What can she say to that? Her heart contracts between one beat and the next, like something is squeezing it. Maybe something is. Slickness slides up behind her eyes, pushing against her eyeballs. It looks out through her and she struggles not to shake.
"Do you want to come?" something asks Hatake Kakashi using Haruno Sakura's voice. Human syntax, human intonation. Her throat burns. "Do you want to come with us to the forest?"
"Answer the question."
"I already told you. We play." Sakura smiles through her growing headache. "It's not some scary thing. We find bones of animals and make things out of them."
Kakashi face hovers there, in the darkness. His visible eye glints. "Is that so."
It's not a question, but Sakura answers anyway. Or something answers for her. "Yes. But if you don't believe me, you can come with us next time."
"I just might." He disappears out the window again.
Was that last part supposed to be a threat? Sakura wonders and giggles drunkenly when her eyes become her own again. Not much of a threat, to have more company for the equinox. Doors open then.
They don't play in the forest after that time. Naruto wants to, but Sakura explains that they have something special planned for this autumn and that they need to wait for a little while. They still go to her home and play. Her parents are pantomimes of other people's parents whenever Naruto is around: there are garden parties and games and getting scolded for missed homework. It goes on like a theater until the moon is high in the sky. Then they become Sakura's parents, the Last of the Teshmeghish Herd, and the night is filled with musings about the true nature of things. Naruto gets presents, sometimes physical and sometimes less so.
September comes and preparations begin for real. Naruto has the stones too, now. And he's learning how to use the wooden posts. He's much better at the practical things than he is at the memorization and written tests in the Academy. He understands on an instinctual level. His eyes gleam with the dead seed's knowledge, like all he needs is a little push for awareness to slot into place. It took Sakura a long time to learn to like the taste of certain things. It takes Naruto much less time. The way he rips into meat makes her think he should have been born with a wolf's fangs rather than stubby human teeth.
One night, when they're all sated and cleaned up, her parents sit them down around the cozy coffee table in the living room. They begin to talk, weaving the story of what will happen on the autumn equinox for both of their benefit.
"There will be great fire, of course. There will be tearing of flesh and ghadelan and the forest. Too long we have been waiting. Twenty-two, twenty-two, ahlmesh-ka. Remember to line up the sigils precisely; we will not get a second chance. Terkabatch, beshtouga, relmefhna, argohanbadan-delipnoyn-nejashinyoepketoah, thehwhalangga. Blood calls through blood. Draw down the stars. Rejoice!"
Her parents were always excellent storytellers. Look how her father's head warps, how his jaw breaks and reforms. Hear how her mother's voice double, triple, until it's an orchestra of cruel nonsense that ricochets off the living room walls. Sakura's head is vibrating. She has a concussion, probably. Naruto is crying, but it's red. His face is stuck in an expression, the corners of his lips drawn back to reveal the lower row of teeth. They hold hands. They rejoice together.
Only thanks to the glory she shares a mind with does Sakura know that Hatake is there. He follows their herd at a distance as they make their way deep into the forest. The trees here are thicker and bloated with chakra. The ground is mossy and deep enough to sink into when you walk over it. The sky is completely hidden by the full canopies, hovering above them like an impenetrable tapestry. The shadows are always deeper in here.
As they progress, more and more trees bear sigils of various kinds. Some of them call out to Sakura, makes her want to push herself into them or maybe throw up. Some were made so long ago that the bark has started growing into them again, rotting where living wood touch the ancient forms. The jounin should never have followed them in here. Chakra is nothing compared to their power.
They reach the meadow, in the midst of which traces of a fire could still be seen. This is the only place left in their home that is impenetrable from the outside and the only place in Fire Country where they can feast in the traditional manner. It couldn't be used too often, so they only make their way here once a year. A sense of pressure lingers over the whole field. Somewhere in the distance Sakura can hear long, deep sounds, like a one-note chorus of bassoons and contrabasses played underwater. It makes the ground vibrate, just slightly. Pebbles twitch in the short grass.
Her parents clean up the firewood that covers the altar while Naruto walks in a circle around the meadow, touching every tree that frames the area. Making sigils. Sakura is actually kind of impressed he can walk so steadily with his eyes rolled up in his head like that. She never learned how to do that.
"Sakura, get the jug," her mother calls and Sakura goes to retrieve the bag of materials. It's heavy, even when she enhances her muscles with chakra, and jingle-jangle slightly when she walks.
Her father looks up briefly from where he's setting up the wooden posts. "Pour it over."
Sakura takes the jug, easily as big as her head, and hefts it at an angle over the limestone altar. Slimy swamp-water pours out sluggishly, carrying with it bits of bone and dead flowers. Half a cat's skull tumbles out and clatters over a corner. When the liquid covers the whole surface, Sakura hefts the jug back down.
What had it been like, when this was still a swamp? Sakura can imagine the scent of mushy swamp-moss and tangled vines hanging overhead, can almost see the dotted lights from the lanterns set in every tree. The soft give of moist land, the dark pools of water and the things down below… It was so long ago, but her parents have a few books with sketches of what it had looked like.
"It's gonna be amazing," said Naruto, coming to stand at her side by the altar. His left eye is still rolled up, but she meets the right one with an anticipatory smile of her own. Her head is pounding but her heartbeat is lethargic, numbing her extremities into pin-pricks.
It begins with drums. Her father throws down the stones and the sound carries across the whole clearing. So deep it vibrates against your eardrums. Her mother begins to dance, sharp movements that speed up and slow down to the rhythm. Twists of her spine that should snap the vertebrae and possibly do. Sakura's fingers twitch and her legs itch to move. Naruto's eyes are widening, the sclera a thin line around the widening pupil.
Suddenly the two of them are dancing too. Maybe they have been for a while. It's always like that: waking up from a moment's inattention to find yourself elsewhere. Naruto is choking her with one hand. She is breaking his free arm. Someone comes down, someone not of the herd. Someone in the trees who is tall and shouldn't be here. He pulls at Naruto's shoulder, saying something that is just a blur in her mind. Hid eyes are mismatched but they are both wide open. His skin is paper-white. Sweating. Fear. Arousal? Dancing. Sakura feels her throat laugh, feels her voice twisting into something that tear her vocal cords like sandpaper.
Her parents are fucking. No, killing each other. Was there a difference? She swept past them, howling and drooling, her head on askew or not on at all. Her mother's mouth is red and dripping. Her father's hand is gone. Or not. She dances on, pressure increasing in the air until it takes physical strength just to move. Naruto is there and he is kissing the jounin. Haha. No. He is just eating his cheek and the man is screaming. Or not. But his mouth is open and his eyes are open and that mask is gone and the blood vessels in his sclera have burst. Eyes no longer mismatched. Red.
"Beshtouga!" cries her father from the ground and gores her mother with a rib. Or maybe the other way around. "Nekmehanbezash!"
Ancient symbols grow out of the ground, scorching into earth like lightning. The grass is on fire and the soles of her feet are gone. She walks on burned muscle. She walked on stars. She is eleven and a thousand. She is an answer to the oldest questions, where foreign moons rest. They are the doors and they are wide open. Fire snakes up her legs, frying nerve endings and muscle fiber. Her knees give out, her kneecaps popping when she hits the ground.
Naruto is there, on her, mouth around her shoulder. She rips chunks of hair from his scalp. She rips scalp from his scalp. The jounin is still pretty, she decides, even with a teeth-hole in his cheek. And his eyes are rolling and his shirt is gone. He's making fine lines over his chest that explode into gashes when the knife leaves his flesh. He's still struggling with the inevitable. Sakura knows what that looks like, recognizes the expression with a pang of nostalgia. She remembers like a far-off dream, wanting to be something else, someone else once upon a time. Remembered not wanting the constant horrible pain agony that is everywhere at every time always. Hahah. Funny nonsense.
They drag the jounin onto the altar. Rip off his clothes and some skin, maybe. She sees him through a haze. There are ten tentacles rising from the symbols, from holes in the earth. Enormous, as large as ten trees put together. They drip with mucous and just looking at them make Sakura's head explode on the inside. Make her sight whiten and her ears crackle like something behind her forehead is frying. She screams into the jounin's face until bloody spittle covers him. Her brain hurts because it's on fire.
The tentacles shake in the air, lashing around at the trees and undulating against one another. Mother and father scream hoarsely at them. They giant appendages drum against the earth. Or not. Earthquake The grass is still burning. Everything is burning, even the tails in the ground.
Naruto is there, crouching over the jounin's torso. He's babbling incomprehensibly. Face white with pain and smiling so widely she can see his molars. Stop. More. The jounin is saying something, still conscious, still himself like they aren't. It is awful. Disrespectful. She bites his ear off. Whose? Iron on her tongue. She's jealous. He should die a sacrifice. Nekmehanbezash! Kelbetapppgho! The stars are endless the sea is endless just let me die
She wakes up curled around Naruto. It's still dark, still night-time. They're both naked, covered in liquid. Muddy blood or reddish mud. She staggers up on her skinless feet, head still ringing. Her parents are locked together, ribcages opened and ribs entangled. She will miss them. But they are sleeping in the space between the spaces, received by The Nameless Crowd that has gone before them. They knew the end of this ritual and delighted in that knowledge.
On the altar is that jounin. Hatake. His legs are broken, but his chest is still rising faintly. She can't recall a sacrifice surviving a ritual like this ever before. Strong, then. Much stronger than any other they had privileged with ritual death. Maybe he could be one with them. Now the herd was just her and Naruto. It was too little. She is the Elder now, the priestess of worship.
She wakes the jounin up. "Hello."
He makes a noise when he comes back to himself. His brain hasn't fried, then. It hadn't boiled in its own juices the way hers once had. The way Naruto's did tonight. She touches his cheek. What is wrong with him? Maybe it's human madness. She's heard stories of people who could not receive true knowledge because they had a human madness inside them.
"What – are – you?" Hatake asks, breath coming out in small gasps.
"The herd." She pauses. "You were beautiful."
He's staring at her like he can't really hear when she's saying. Perhaps he can't, with his ear gone and all. A faint sort of regret rises up inside her, before something shatters that regret and reprimands her for the feeling. She breathes out slowly, offers apology and assurance of her devotion.
"You – demon -" the jounin gasped, gaze turning to the scorched earth below. Sakura laughs. Unbidden, tears come into her eyes. If only it were that simple.
"No demons," says Naruto coming up behind her. "I'd know."
"Kyuubi – ?" Hatake asks. Sakura hissed at the sound of the ninth's false name. Human indignity. The seed is nameless, part of the glory's whole.
Naruto makes a thoughtful sound. "Dead. Long dead."
"Demons don't – die."
"The ninth is not a demon," says Sakura and knocks the jounin out.
They drag him through the woods together, looking at each other. Sakura can feel him now, in the way she once felt mother and father. They're part of the same now. They share the same gospel madness, the same truth. They have pleased It, they have been speared with knowledge and power. They have been crushed and rebuilt together.
A green blur comes out of nowhere and suddenly Sakura is crashing into a tree. Their moment is broken. Naruto growls as he is ripped from their would-be sacrifice and thrown aside. The pain is nothing, of course, but a concussion so soon after such a big ritual takes a toll. Makes her cooked brain rattle.
"What happened?!" the man in a green jumpsuit roars. He's patting their sacrifice on the head. Hatake. The jounin signals something Sakura doesn't recognize, but it makes people in white masks drop down from the trees.
"On the ground, brats," says the one in front and Sakura almost laughs. But she drops to the ground. Hatake has many friends, it seems.
"By all the fucking spirits of the forest," says another masked person, coming back from their holyland with mother's and father's corpses. Sakura snarls. Desecration. They were meant to stay there, together. Be consumed together. Her head is pulsing with anger and more than anger.
Naruto snarls too, eyes flickering orange. It makes the masked people twitch and they begin surrounding him. Wary. He copies Sakura and drops to his knees, meeting her ignited eyes with deep fire of his own. Reality slips. Nekmehanbezash! The air tears between them, like the rip of transparent plastic sheeting, and the universe slushes out in the gap. It glitters, it swirls. It eats.
There are gasps and movement – and then blackness. But the rip is still there. Even as she slumps into her own head, falling into the pit of her own mind, she feels it. Her body can't smile but something else can smile for her. Such is the power of the Equinox. Delipnoyn-nejashinyoepketoah. Kelkhelangh. Make me be. Make us be.
Sakura wakes up in the white box of Konoha Prison. A warning is called out to her and she realizes groggily that they are watching her. Her legs and arms are separated and restrained. Her legs are healed, de-flayed, un-skinned. She holds in a giggle. Chakra thrums through the restraints and she knows she could tear them apart with true knowledge. It would be so easy, after the ritual. But she has learned patience and to asses a situation as a captive. She learned that in the Academy, ironically.
The metal door on the other side of the room opens. A big man comes through, scarred by human weaponry. His mouth is a thin line. He never takes his eyes off her and doesn't seem at all wary. An insult, if pride was a thing of hers. This man is an interrogator, she estimates as she looks him up and down.
"Haruno Sakura," he says. "Eleven years old. Height, 146 centimetres. Weight, 33 kilos. Terrible at the Academy forms but excellent at the academic aspects of the curriculum."
"What do you want?" says Sakura. He hits her. She doesn't dodge or turn her head to follow the movement of the slap. It doesn't even sting.
He looks at her for a long moment. She wonders who put those scars on him and if she could gift him several more, for a worthy cause.
"Used to pain?
"Very." Sakura says, eyelashes fluttering. Her eyeballs still ache and burn.
"Is that why you killed your parents?"
"If you examined them you would know they didn't die by outside force." They died by inside force. They didn't die at all. They were immortalized and made eternal, taken up into Ten-Tails' Herd. They will rest in an endless sea and old moons will light their way.
"The autopsy has not been completed." The interrogator looks down at his notes. "They have yet to be untangled."
Sakura smiles. The interrogator narrows his eyes. Opens his mouth to speak. And then there is an explosion somewhere above and outside, followed immediately by screaming. Rising in pitch, several voices intermingling. And then a man's laughter. The interrogator turns his head slightly and then turns back to her, as though suspecting that she is the cause. She's not, but –
"Hidan," she murmurs. She only knows him by the other sense, by the answering call in her blood at his presence. She couldn't name him if she saw him on the street, but his mental innards she knows as familiarly as she knows the scorched path of truth.
"A friend of yours?"
"An ally of the herd. Ne-Jashinyoepketoah brought him to the threshold and gave him eternal life."
A woman barges in through the door. Purple hair, mesh, overcoat. Her face is tense, hands tightened into fists.
"Ibiki, some wacko just took a bunch of Academy kids hostage," she says, barely sparing Sakura a glance. Inconsequential, Sakura can almost hear her think.
She doesn't need to ask to know what has happened. Nakamura. He must have called on Hidan, since the ones they worship are siblings. The Brothers Red and Yellow. A flush of power comes from somewhere above. She must be underground, because she recognizes Nakamura's possessed power. He's making the Seal in Yellow, she thinks. Sakura has never personally witnessed it, but she has heard the stories of its influence.
Her mouth twitches. She starts to laugh and she can't stop. The interrogator asks her something else, but she is gone gone gone. Through the rush of burning cold, through the haze of old things that inflame her retina, she hears snippets:
"Do you know -"
" – have – others?"
A smaller hand slaps her and she laughs. With one voice. Two voices. All voices vomit laughter out of her throat. She sees the woman's pale face, sees the wariness finally creep into scarred features. The woman takes a step back only to find that she can't, because there is something there. Like the air has turned solid. Sakura yanks her right hand free from her restraints and pulls open the door to the world. The universe rushes in, darkbluepurpleshining, a canvas painted in supernova pigments descending on the room.
The woman with the purple hair is consumed. Folding in on herself like a paper figure, arms eaten, legs eaten, screaming head bursting into red before it's sucked out of the world. Sakura comes back to herself, almost. She sees the man with the scars, looking around himself. Trying to find some way out. There are no ways out, ever. She learned that years ago. One of his arms are gone, blackened and crumbled on the floor, which is bleeding color and distorting like static interrupting a program on TV. Sakura is flung out of herself, eyes blank and wet, lungs squeezed into a vice. Her ears pop and crackle and she is so mad she is not even a person anymore. She is not a person, just a mess of impressions. Not a person, she is one with all. There is no all, there is just a distortion of nothing that something once cast illusion over.
The man grabs at her, tears her down from her restraints. His nose and ears are bleeding. He is starting to smile and Sakura grins with her whole face. Not a metaphor. The room disappears, or not. They float in a sea that is space or nothingness. There are Things here. She can feel them turn to look with their many eyes. Sakura ascends.
But then reality comes back. Reluctantly, reluctantly. The rip in the air shrieks as it closes, shattering the walls and crushing the floor tiles.
The silence is loud. The aftermath of natural disaster, where the world picks itself up and looks at its newly formed wounds. That's the sort of silence that oppresses the room. The interrogator called Ibiki sits with his back against a corner, staring into the air. The tiniest of smiles hitches the corner of his scarred lips and Sakura realizes that he has seen the truth. He walks in Their glory now; he is one with their growing herd.
She takes him by the hand. It's trembling. She looks up into his face and find dead eyes with things living inside them. She licks a streak of blood off his shoulder.
Hatake Kakashi was not sleeping when Konoha was unmade. He was lying in a hospital bed, trying not to see shapes in the shadows that crossed the ceiling. There was a song coming from somewhere behind him, but he knew that couldn't be right. There was no sound but the buzzing of hospital equipment and low conversations heard through the wall.
The things he had seen were burned into the forefront of his mind. He thought they might be burned directly into his skull, swimming in the brain-fluid that cushioned his self.
When there is a sound like a gong from somewhere up above, Kakashi isn't surprised. Someone has sounded the crisis alarm and he walks out of the hospital room as if to a homecoming. He knows what he will see before he opens the doors to the outside. He doesn't know how he knows, he doesn't want to know. The sky is no longer the sky. There are no clouds and there is no color. Not even blackness. Darkness that is more than darkness. The sun is pale as snow and shining so brightly it appears like a white disc suspended above.
People are screaming in fear, running mindlessly across the streets or trying to hide in any little crevice they can find. He can't blame them. The shinobi are not afraid, not properly, not yet. A Genjutsu, they're thinking. Or an unknown Ninjutsu, some others might whisper. Kakashi would have been right there with them. If not for the thing inside his eyeball. The Sharingan remembers all, you see. It looks directly at things and doesn't allow the shield of forgetfulness. There had been something in the clearing that night, with his sensei's kid and the civilian child. Something that had been more than something. With eyes and snouts and muscled, gleaming tentacles. And he remembers.
Kakashi stands and looks at his home: the streets are scorching hot. Wallpaper is curling against the walls. Metal pipes are flushing orange with the heat. Steps on the ceramic roof tiles sizzle in a way they shouldn't. There are tears in the air, spreading in lines like cracks in mirror-glass. Looking at them directly makes his ears pop. Kakashi stands and stares. The shinobi are getting ready and it won't be enough. Obito's eye is crying when Gai lands next to him. He looks concerned and Kakashi tries to tell him to leave. Leave Kakashi, leave Konoha or you'll leave the world. You may leave it regardless, because whatever is breaking through is some other kind of place that can't be called a world. Taking over. Consuming and unmaking.
"My friend," says Gai, clapping him on the shoulder. Kakashi realizes that he still looks normal on the outside to Gai. "If you are still injured, you should remain in the hospital! We will take care of whatever foul Genjutsu has snared our village."
And Kakashi, whose loyalty is his religion, meets Gai's gaze with his infested eye and twists. The light goes out of the other jounin's eyes and Kakashi wonders if he can even kill himself. Could he take a kunai and slit his own throat? He walks out into the street. There are Genma and Raidou, armed to the teeth and readying themselves for a fight. And Kakashi walks up to them with his Sharingan eye wide open and lets what has lay eggs inside eat them. His head hurts something terrible. It feels like something is growing in there, like knives reaching inwards and slicing his brain into fine ribbons.
"What are you doing?!" Kurenai shouts, coming to a stop with her fists raised. But she doesn't attack immediately. He knows why. Hurting a friend is the most difficult thing in the world.
"Gelmagoth?" says Kakashi. That isn't what he'd meant to say. He wants to apologize for something, but as he breaks Kurenai's slim neck, he can't remember for what. He drops her to the ground and looks at her face. She looks angry, brows drawn tight even in death. No. No!
Kakashi is the strongest of them all. They'll never know. He'll never know the truth of it. But Hatake Kakashi, whose loyalty is his religion, slows to a halt. He withdraws a kunai from the kunai pouch on his thigh. He looks at it as Konoha burns around him. He doesn't hear the shouting. There is some deep pain in him and he doesn't know why. There is something alien squirming between his ears, making him hurt in a way that is truly indescribable. Something deep inside him tells him that there is glory there, if he just rejects the human trappings and takes one step to the left, he will know the truth of things. He will lead a life like none other.
Hatake Kakashi kills himself with a jagged stroke across his own throat.
On this night, the autumn Equinox, Sakura is dancing with Naruto. Konoha isn't burning with literal fire, maybe. Naruto is orange and bleeding black blood. Their dance carries them over the rooftops and into the sky, where they hang like dolls on strings. The sun is flickering, collapsing into darkness only to reform a moment later. Streaks of light rise from every quarter of the world. Some are so far away that the streaks seem as thin as a hair, some close enough to form a beam before their eyes. Their light screams as it passes up into the heavens. The heavens scream back.
Hidan is there, laughing on a rooftop. She sees Ne-Jashinyoepketoah in his shadow, in his wide grin. His scythe purifies anybody who comes before him, as is proper for a worshipper of Jashin. His madness was always so perfect, so untroubled by human concerns. He was born for this, thinks Sakura and envies him the privilege of such purity. Nekmehanbezash, scorch my path. Lead me to truth.
The Hokage splits Hidan in two, as if he thinks that will help. But Sarutobi Hiruzen would have been amazing, had he been born to true knowledge. Had he ever stepped onto that path. She knows what was once whispered of his ancestors, why the Herd initially chose to settle in Fire Country. But as he is only a powerful human, he is nothing but a sacrifice. Hidan, with Ne-Jashinyoepketoah in his voice, preaches the truth to him as he slowly hacks him apart. Terkabatch, beshtouga. Thehwhalangga.
The seeds return. All of them. Naruto catches on fire and their dance slows. Looking at him hurts so badly it would make Sakura cry if she still could. They fall back to earth, where Ibiki is waiting, and Naruto burns faster. His skin is almost translucent, veins showing through like rivers in clouded glass. He looks at her. She sees blue light somewhere in those orange irises. She sees a different path they could have taken together. They could have graduated the Academy, worn Konoha headbands. Been teammates. It's nothing. To either of them. Would she hate if she could? Nekmehanbezash! She doesn't think. She delights in the sight of her best friend's dismantlement and reformation. She delights in the second coming of Ten-Tails.
He reaches for her hand and she takes it, though his skin is bubbling with heat. Ibiki is looking down at them, eyes wide with psychosis and confusion. Naruto presses a kiss to Sakura's mouth, maybe. Or he licks blood off her lips. He's grinning, he's being overtaken. He's disappearing in the unmaking of Konoha. He's being reborn in the making of a new Konoha, lit by truth.
Naruto dies in agony. Naruto lives forever in the glory of true knowledge.
It takes decades to reform Konoha in the true faith, but that is to be expected. The Hokage's robes fit Naruto's grown body perfectly and hide the things within. His claws are long or not there at all. His shadow warps constantly into impossible shapes that eat the light around him. His face is difficult to look at, a shining handsome man thousand eyes snout three rows of teeth. Tails. Yes, many.
Sakura has long since ceased being a person. Maybe. She has an impossibly long life ahead of her, and gospel to preach. There is a world out there waiting to be taught.
A/N: What do I do instead of my college assignments, you ask? Mesh Naruto and Lovecraft, naturally. I would appreciate any thoughts you have to share.