Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto, The Gamer or any other familiar characters.
Chapter 14 – The Cave.
"Then, after our knees gave up, we vomited and passed out. Right there and then, I knew he would be a proper sensei." Nobuo gulped down his sake and continued, "The next day I vomited on him, so he pushed me down the side of the fucking mountain. And then I passed out again."
Simultaneous gasps, spit-takes and a hearty laugh followed. Mine too; the stories about Haou-sensei's old, unbridled ways -to fling a genin down training ground twelve's pronounced defile- and his climb to near-mythical status always sparked nostalgia and laughs. His participation during the war was normally glossed over, though.
"Well, I found you passed out at the jonin training grounds three months ago, man," Musuo added half laughing. "So, nothing's changed that much."
Another round of laughing followed.
"I was on leave! And who are you to laugh, Shirasu?" Nobuo said, turning his head to me with a smirk and a reddened face, accusatory glance and all.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I found you a month ago passed out there too!" he answered. "And on a pool of your own vomit!"
More spit-takes. Maro choked on his own sake and everyone's eyes turned to me.
"Wait. You? Drunk?" Musuo's underlying disappointed tone was confusing.
"Drunk? No. I tried to fly and failed miserably," I answered shaking my head in disappointment, or, all joking apart, frustration. I wasn't that I couldn't fly, but that I couldn't control it.
I then realized everyone was still looking at me with various levels of surprise. "What? Oh." I always forget about my minor celebrity status among shinobi, and that the ANBU gossip machine preyed on all my achievements to later drip down to the regular jonin and so on. Whatever I did with my talents -and wasn't an ANBU secret as my summoning contract was until I could properly summon Ikatama or one of her siblings- would eventually be fed to the machine. By tomorrow, this would be chewed, digested and skewed beyond proper facts.
A twenty-nine-year-old guy, the only civilian of the group, was looking around with a cocked head, his gaze jumping from one to another. His eyes squinted. "Eh, yeah... what am I missing?"
Maro answered, "Kioshi here is known for his talent, but flying is believed to be impossible to anyone but a few."
"Yeah, he's a few." Ryoko added.
"Regardless," I said, taking a deep breath and wondering how to explain these difficulties to a non-shinobi. "There's a reason why we avoid jumping too much during a fight; you can't control yourself while airborne, you can't change your trajectory if needed. You can't hold unto air, there's nothing for your feet to attach to. Nothing to change your momentum. You wouldn't try it unless you knew what you were doing, so, naturally, no one really cares about jumping higher or farther than regular. Flying would be the same."
"But you can fly," Maro half-asked, half-stated.
I looked back at him. "I won't discuss shinobi concepts during your bachelor's party, Maro. You should be dead drunk by now, not talking about work."
A young couple getting married barely into their twenties wasn't something I would understand anytime soon. Sadako had been overjoyed, borderline euphoric when she broke the news a month ago. She was already twenty years old! That baffling notion somewhat diluted after remembering how much she had grown during the last nine years. She still wore her blonde hair long, she still called me chipmunk, but she had grown into a beautiful young woman, even gaining a little weight now that she wasn't taking missions and was dedicating herself fully to her work at the hospital. Even the scar on her neck and right ear had subsided.
Weddings were a simple thing in Kumo, particularly between shinobi, and not the exaggerated affairs held in the capital. A better word would be formal, from what Sadako explained to me. Tomorrow they would marry under the midday sun in a private ceremony, and Maro, her soon-to-be husband, was a bit nervous.
"C'mon man, tell us!"
"Yeah, I want to hear it," Takeru, the civilian, pressed. "Shinobi stories are always great for the kids."
"Okay, okay," I conceded.
I turned my face east toward my house. Even from here, a good twenty blocks away, I sensed old man Yataro's cane going through my door. Not that I was worried -he had an extra key- though the fact that it was past midnight was concerning.
I downed my sake and gathered my ideas. "Flying is not the problem. Control is." I extended my hand, palm upwards, and commanded three kunai from my pouch -shinobi overtly carried weapons even in civilian clothing- to float over it. "Levitating things is not that hard once you get used to it, it's a skill like any other." Their eyes were fixed on the blades. "But here's the catch: controlling kunai and not moving let's say your own weapons or hitai ate, or my vest while at it, is a proper challenge. Last thing you'll want is to fling a kunai one direction and fling you hitai ate back." There was a collective nodding of heads. "Not something you would've thought, right?
"On top of that, trying to control each object independently adds to the complexity. A shuriken is simple enough, just impart rotation and fling. Kunai and blades must be oriented. The more targets or the faster they move, the more things complicate." I levitated every single piece of cutlery over the table, revolving each spoon, fork and knife around at different speeds and directions. "There's order behind this seemingly chaotic mess. A pattern: each weapon is aimed at a specific location, yet they revolve around quickly enough to hopefully remain unpredictable.
"Now, imagine I'm the one in the center, floating in between all those blades. There's no surface to stop your rotation if you slip and, since I weight much more than a kunai, a lapse in control over the magnetic field holding me will either hurl me away or twirl me around. Normally both." I huffed. "And everything is too fucking fast to think."
"Man, that's way overly complicated," Takeru concluded after a pause. "I'm telling my kids I met a flying shinobi, though."
We all laughed.
"So, it's about chakra control," Maro ventured.
"No, not chakra control. It's concentration," I answered. I really wished the Gamer system would have shown me a 'Flying' skill or jutsu, yet it seemed to be just an extension of my own Magnet Release skill. "The human mind is limited. I can't think fast enough with so many objects around, so I'll have to train my muscle memory and reaction and not kill myself in the process." Floating my iron sand, though, was way simpler.
There was a short silence, and all were pensive.
"Shit, it's already past midnight," Nobuo said standing up from the cushion and downing his sake in one go.
Interesting enough, no shinobi really drank that much unless they were on a long leave, even with our high metabolisms. We could be considered permanently on-call.
I got up too and stretched my arms until I heard a popping sound. "Yeah, gotta finish my report for tomorrow."
"Thanks for coming, guys," Maro said. "I'll see you on Wednesday."
"No problem," Nobuo yelled back from the doorway. "And if you chicken out, just tell us and we'll figure a way to rescue you."
Maro lived on the middle-class part of Kumo, on the western section of the same valley my own house was. The differences were notorious, though: larger gardens, more colors, more stories, a much bigger market square and many more parks and green spaces. Kichiro and Suguna lived some blocks away.
I shunshined back to my little house.
"Hey, old man!" I greeted Yataro from the genkan as I removed my shoes. "What's got you here so late?"
"You don't have any food, Kioshi," he answered from the kitchen with his raspy voice.
"Yeah, sorry about that. I don't eat in very often."
The clutter over the otherwise-deserted short-legged table at the center of my living room caught my attention. There was an old-looking map unfurled over it, held open by a book and a candle holder.
"Why did you bring an old map of the Land of Earth?" I asked. I could tell it was obsolete, most of the borders had shifted one way or another since the founding of the villages. I sensed the old man coming from the kitchen and took hold of the steaming kettle he carried with my magnet release. I set it over the wooden coaster at the edge of the table.
"Sit down, Kioshi."
I turned to him and noticed his trembling hand and somber look. "Are you okay, gramps?" I'd never seen him so frail. So old. True, his hair was all silver now, his body frailer and losing its heftiness -he was 81 years old now- but he had always held a zest behind his rectitude. Now, it was gone.
"Sit down." He hobbled over to the big box over the counter at the back where I kept the tea and porcelain cups. "There's something we need to discuss."
I sat down on a cushion and watched him as he took the red tea caddy and two cups almost ceremoniously. I waited, suspense building up. Old man Yataro had always maintained a severe countenance, yet the lack of eye contact and his grim demeanor... The last time I had seen him like this was back when I maxed the Veiled Fist and returned the book to him with my own notes and diagrams scribbled in between the pages. Was it nostalgia?
He sat down across the table, slowly, thoughtful about his peg leg. He laid his cane down at his side and ever so slowly he began preparing the tea. He passed me a cup with both hands, then his eyes fixed on the map over the table for a full minute.
"My father always said that it was for the better, that before the villages, things were harsher. I believed him for a long time. Until the war." His voice was monotonous and his gaze, absent. "He died during the war.
"His childhood stories were always of travels and meeting new people. He never told me the worst, but my uncle did, and he never glossed over the details. They were both orphans and became brothers in all but blood at a young age, so you would've expected a tragic story. It was. How they barely scraped enough to eat during winter, how they used to run from the clans and their fights, hoping to survive another day. The stories consistently became darker: at some point, they realized they could fight and became mercenaries at thirteen."
Old man Yataro took a deep breath, his left hand going through his hair. "My mother died a year after my birth, she never got to see the founding of the village or the alliance of the clans. My father tried his best to raise my older brother and me while they worked to solidify the country and the treaties. On the nights he stayed with us, we used to ask for bedtime stories about his life."
After another deep breath, the old man took a moment to sip on his tea. I remained quiet.
"The story we always asked for, the one my father used to repeat to us over and over again before bed," the old man continued with his eyes lost on the map in front of us and a minute smirk, "was the story of how my uncle had just rose to be the right hand of the first Tsuchikage, and what drove him to become the second."
My jaw dropped. "The- the second Tsuchikage?"
"After the founding of Iwa and the relations between the clans were secure enough, my uncle set to find a place where, supposedly, Spirits had sent a gift. I was a young, impressionable kid. I believed the story just as my father spun it. But from what I could gather later on, both my father and my uncle had been traveling to the forgotten parts of the Land of Earth just before the funding of the village, when they overheard some rumors. Some years later, my uncle set to follow them."
The old man huffed and straightened; his eyes locked unto mine. "Whatever he found, he came back completely covered in bandages. But he came back. And from then on, everyone began calling him the Non-Person, capable of suppressing his own life force and chakra to the point all shinobi thought -even my father at first- he was an apparition. He was 24 at the time, already stronger than most with his dust release, which he only perfected afterward. With the first war, and I want to believe after my father's death, he closed off from the world."
I was stock-still, not able to utter a single word.
"I found it, kid. I worked out the location of that gift. There were letters, short letters between my father and my uncle as they traveled among the clans, and a small notebook where my father wrote what they had heard."
I shook my head in amazement. "What happened to you, then?" Whatever the old man wanted to say, his story didn't finish there. His demeanor betrayed him, and if there was a time to press on the issue, this was it.
He closed his eyes and his jaw tightened. He then stared directly at me. "I ran, Kioshi. I didn't have the talent my father or my brother had, nor the strength my uncle wielded. I was never a proper front-line shinobi and never made it past chunin. That Hozuki bastard killed my uncle, the only family I had left, and then the second war happened, just two decades after the first.
"Onoki sent us with a medic supply team to the frontlines. To die. We were used as bait, five medics and two supply-line teams. Sent to die, Kioshi! To draw an attack from Konoha's forces! Medics, old chunin most of us, to bait Orochimaru's spearhead!" He sneered to the point of almost yelling; his teeth bared with anger I could tell ran deep. "Three of us survived, and barely. I fried my chakra system and tore my right leg beyond repair. We didn't look back; Kumo took us in."
He remained silent for a long time, a silence I refused to break, his story echoing inside my head. Yataro's eyes then followed the kettle I kept afloat with my magnet release as I began to pour us more tea.
"You can do it, Kioshi," he said. "You can find that… gift."
He may land tonight.
Find the Gift.
I took my time putting the kettle down and sipping on my tea, trying to gather my thoughts.
"You'll have to cash in a few favors from Dodai… he'll give you a leave," Yataro said. His face relaxed, looking at the bare wall to the side with a nostalgic countenance.
Another full minute of silence followed, but his right hand still trembled.
"How have you been feeling, old man?"
"I... I feel old. I feel weak and dissociated." A lone tear fell from his now unfocused eyes. "My mind is breaking down, and it was all I had left."
"An extended leave for an unspecified amount of time. And to the Land of Earth."
I was sitting in Dodai's new office at the ANBU headquarters. He had to take control of the force in a more direct way after the Makino clan debacle. Truth be told, the even higher standard he held the ANBU to gave me some peace of mind; the force was getting noticeable stronger from what it had been some years ago.
"Yes," I answered. "It wouldn't take me no more than four weeks, I believe. It's a long way but-"
"It's not the time that bothers me, captain."
"Then what's the issue?"
With a jerk, his left foot struck one of his wooden desk's legs. A candleholder tilted sideways and dropped over the edge. I effortlessly held it aloft with my magnet release.
"That," he said, gesturing to the floating object. "I do not doubt your strength, but your ability to conceal it."
My eyes widened.
"Eight, you're the youngest captain the force has ever had, but you're still lacking in some areas. You aced every test and, from what the Commander says, you're strong. But you haven't trained for nor have the field experience required for this kind of mission. Understand that, with the death of Sarutobi and the failed invasion, much of the power Sand and Sound held is gone. The relations between the villages are strained. I bet Onoki is thinking how to capitalize on this, and even A-sama is considering making a move."
"A move? What move?"
"I'll deal with that," Dodai answered making a dismissing movement with his right hand. "Regardless, the issue remains. If you're captured or even identified, it could easily escalate into an international affair."
His lone eye focused on me for a while.
"I have to do this, Dodai-sama," I tried. "It's important for the old man."
"I know. He told you his story, didn't he? He was forbidden to." Dodai exhaled. "I'll allow it on one condition: you'll be going without Kumo's support. If you are exposed in any way, you'll be written off as a missing-nin, and we'll wash our hands of the subject. No permits, no clearance, no official statement written nor oral beyond what's said here. You'll be on forced leave."
It was my turn to exhale, but I nodded. "It makes sense."
"Good. Only the Commander and I will be aware of it."
I refrained from asking about the Raikage's involvement in this.
"Now," Dodai said, leaning back on his chair. "How's your training going?"
Beyond the official three-days-a-week training required of ANBU operatives when not on mission, my own training wasn't as fruitful as I would have liked. Dungeons forcefully closed themselves after twelve hours, and they would remain closed for a week before I could enter them again, and shadow clones weren't the cure-all I had hoped them to be.
Ten clones didn't mean ten-times-faster training, not when considering skill or stat leveling. It seemed that the higher a skill level, the more tedious the grinding became. I really missed the try-and-repeat grinding of low-level skills. Clone training was somewhat faster though, though I still had a long way to go to get my iron sand up to a decent combat level to be used against the likes of Akatsuki.
"It's going," I answered Dodai's question. "There's still a lot to do to, and from what you're implying, I've been neglecting other areas I shouldn't have. I'll talk to Six when I get back."
"What about your summons? Have you trained with them?"
"No. I still have a week to go until I can summon Ikatama."
"You know," Dodai added with a smirk. "They are calling you an Ayakashi summoner."
Now I leaned back into my seat. "I've heard. They've got a pool running, don't they?"
"Eig- What are you doing here, Shirasu?" Captain Three, now sporting his gray hair in a crew-cut, must have looked surprised behind his ochre lightning-bolt-marked mask, but at least he had caught his slip.
"ANBU-san," I greeted him.
"Are you on a mission?"
Just what I had wanted to avoid, and another confirmation that my stealth ability -figuratively, because my Stealth skill was maxed out- still needed some work around the practical edges.
I anticipated the local patrols would be following high-alert protocols ever since the land border was shut; I should have expected Three and his team would detect me some way or another here. I was a high-profile shinobi and all my movements outside Kumo, whether vacations or non-ANBU missions, were to be monitored. This mission though...
The simplest and most discreet route to the Land of Earth was on board a ship. They were abundant enough and weren't prone to shinobi scrutiny.
I had traveled to Kuwana port and had found a medium-sized merchant ship being cleaned of fouling in a dry dock, its captain now arguing with a local actuary. It was to transport iron ore pellets and other materials to the Land of Earth. With a crew of only fifty or so sailors, the ship was the best alternative to smugglers tracks and the control points along the roads and borders. I would just have to get off the ship before it made port, and I also would have to remain hidden in between the cargo and genjutsu any crewmember that came close. I wouldn't want them noticing me and informing the Land of Earth's port patrols.
I cursed under my breath but felt somewhat calmer the shinobi force was adhering to stricter protocols now. All to protect the Land of Lightning.
"Vacations," I answered.
For a second, I wondered how to inform a code-six-eight-five mission when there were to be no records nor permissions issued and I was wearing simple civilian clothes. I decided on using the same trick I had used so many times before.
'Code Six Eight Five. Off-the-record. Commander's eyes only.' The underhanded moving of the kunai Three carried felt like a second language to me now.
He faltered. Saki and Samaru turned their heads. Both were rising stars among the ANBU chunin rookies, two more examples of how Haou-sensei's teachings combined with hard work would yield high-quality operatives. Each had their quirks; Saki was extremely short-tempered, and Samaru was over-obsessed with big dogs and his facial hair. But they were strong.
"Whatever. Just don't go causing any trouble, Shirasu." He nodded in a serious way, though, like he understood the secrecy and the need to be discreet. They shunshined away.
Shrugging, but thankful he had trusted me, I walked down the docks to wait for the best opportunity to sneak into the ship.
Six days of sitting around at the far end of the ship's hold, using a simple genjutsu whenever the same old-looking grumpy sailor came down to check on the bulkheads, and only occasionally going up to the deck at nights to change the scenery when the skeleton crew manned the ship. Days of waves crashing -sometimes against the wooden hull, other against the forepeak- of sailors yelling or singing or scrambling up and down the masts and moving along the rigging, of the rocking of the ship -sometimes no more than a gentle sway that would help you sleep, a couple of nights a full-tilt rocking that churned my guts.
On the dawn of the seventh day, I finally got out of that ship. According to the map I had bought and that was now part of my main map on my HUD, I was about a mile away from the coast and even farther away from any human settlement. There were no other ships nearby, no name windows besides the crew's. So, amid the heavy mist and before the day crew woke up, I sneaked up to the deck and jumped into the calm ocean.
The Land of Earth's eastern shores were unlike those of the Land of Water. Where there were clear skies and loamy sands in Ikatama's island, here the sand was dark, grit and a heavy, cold mist lingered. The narrow shore ended abruptly into rocks and dirt; patches of long, deep-green grass and thorny bushes covered the area beyond, disappearing inland into the fog. Sunlight was merely a flaxen, diffuse gleam coming from between the clouded sky and offered little warmth.
After a deep breath and catching my spinning guts now that I was on firm land, I turned to the wavering water line and bit my thumb.
Boar, Dog, Bird, Monkey: 'Summoning Technique.'
I shook my head and blinked the stupor away. That had been a lot of chakra in one go. I turned my head around, looking for Ikatama's name window. I expected the telltale signs of smoke, or her tentacles towering out to sea.
"Ah, right on schedule, Kioshi." Ikatama's voice resounded inside my head, clear and crisp. She hummed. "We are not near your nesting grounds."
"Huh? Where are you?" I asked.
I froze. "What?"
"As I mentioned a moon-time ago, the complications you think are not so. You summoned a portion of myself into your skin and a portion of my soul into yours, as we ought to do to fulfill the contract. My attention is now here. This is why the sun-god chose us as companions."
I gazed at the lower right corner of my vision, where a small window blinked. I selected it.
- The chakra of a summoning creature has been combined into yours.
"Soul? You talk about souls as we talk about chakra." I remembered her words clearly. "You said my soul was of sand and wind, and you called me a half-soul."
"Ah, yes. The one before you accustomed to use the same term. You squander your soul on war against your equals, in a way we would never fathom."
"You can sense chakra? And what did you mean with half-soul?"
"Your kind does have limited senses, Kioshi of Kumogakure. Half-soul we mean your soul is unbalanced. Too much of one, less of the others." Her voice turned inquisitive. "I repeat my inquiry; why are we not on your nesting grounds? We are close to the depths of another, who's not enthusiastic about unannounced guests."
Her words grated my nerves. She was direct, but cryptic. "Another sibling?"
"My progenitor," she replied in my head. "You have yet to answer my question."
"We are in the western coast of the Land of Earth. I'm on a mission, a personal one."
"A mission? And alone? Whereas I had thought about instructing you in our ways and what you can learn from me and us and getting to know your nesting grounds, here you have summoned me to roam distant lands. Though that I appreciate, I urge you to start our bonding soon enough."
"Yeah, well... we're going to have a lot of time to talk, and I guessed you might like the trip." I turned my eyes inland. "I have a lot of ground to cover. A five-day trip, I think, going through dark woods, mountains and deserts into the Land of Earth's infamous Badlands. The weather won't be with us."
"Vegetation awaits us a full league ahead. Make haste."
"Can you see at all?" I asked.
"Through your skin and eyes, as my kind can by way of our soul."
I paled. "How can you see from my eyes?"
"By way of our soul."
That didn't help at all. "What can you see?" I pressed on as I commanded the Gamer's Menu to open.
"Whatever you can see and more, Kioshi," Ikatama answered in her melodic voice. "I must wonder why your voice is toned with befuddlement. An explanation is not easy."
"What can you see?"
"Your air, the soil and the water. Vegetation, creatures and rocks. All moving and swimming in your skies or lying still below it."
I breathed out, commanding the Menu window to close. I looked down at my hands. Those alabaster lines and symbols that first appeared on my skin when Ikatama marked me as a summoner were again visible, going up my arm. I assumed some had to be on my face too.
"And you can see through my skin?" I asked. Something clicked in my head. "Wait, how can see more? How can you see the forest ahead?" The map showed the beginning of a forest farther inland, but the thick mist obscured anything beyond half a mile.
"Our sensing of the world is intricate; our senses are superior. Your perception you call seeing we find deficient."
That was ambiguous enough. I shrugged it off and took the first step inland. "Too many risks to be using chakra, Ikatama. Relations are tense, and Iwa shinobi are more even more militant than us. We'll have to avoid patrols routes."
"You humans. So laggard, so patient, when your lives are but an ephemeral speck among the drift of the waves."
The sparce woodlands gave way to a darkened forest that covered miles into the center of the country, where the biting-cold ocean mist turned to humid, stale warmness. The gloomy weather, it seemed, was persistent and followed me; the sun was still obscured by the dark cloud blanket above.
The Old Yagi Woodlands.
Tall beech trees stood packed together, with their pallid bark covered in canker and white mildew, towering into the overcast. Thick vines and dead bindweed jumped from branch to branch and from tree to tree, blotching the upwards order of the forest. The ground was covered by yellow-green undergrowth so thick that one easily lost the sight of the soil underneath. Dead trees lay in between, rotting under the shadows and falling prey to rot and fungal conks, acting as makeshift bridges over the deep gaps and gullies that scarred the uneven terrain.
Every so often, big, old stone oaks stood guarding their own glades of peace. Wilted and infested by fungus and root rot, they offered no shelter against the grim ambience, but the air was less stale there. The tall branches were nest and home to a particularly large gray-white snout moth.
At the edge of one of those clearings I sat down to meditate when the first night came and the temperature began to drop.
Itakama had remained silent for most of the trip, only commenting on birds, trees -vegetation and weeds, as she called them- and my speed. But then, she began to talk.
"I remember, Kioshi, the story of how we came to be. Do you have a tale as such? Our last summoner had one, though incomplete and mythical. I disapprove of conjectures."
"About the creation of man? Evolution?"
"About your souls and how you came to gain them."
"Ah, chakra." I pondered for a moment, remembering the story of how chakra came to being in this world. "You mentioned otherworldly creatures, so I guess you know the gist of it." I hummed. "Years ago, I'm not really sure how many, a-"
"Do not speak, Kioshi, whisper, if it's of your liking. I can hear your inner voice if you project it to me."
"Oh." I relaxed my upper back and crossed my legs, getting into a meditative position. "Years ago," I began whispering Kaguya's tale as I closed my eyes.
Hours later, with the dawning sun lying low in the sky somewhere behind the mist and clouds, I stood up and shook away the moths that had landed on my hair and shoulders. "Time to go on," I whispered.
"You haven't feed yourself, Kioshi. Nor you properly slept."
"I don't need to sleep or eat, that's one of my peculiarities," I answered as I head into the forest. "You'll come to know I have many."
A pause. "Why did you stop at all?"
"To ease my mind. I can't stay alert for twenty-four hours straight, I get either overfocused and withdrawn or I get sidetracked. I've found I need time to turn my mind away from the world."
Ikatama hummed. "You cannot live with your own mind then, Kioshi," she said. "Your kind requires frequent sleep periods, yet you don't. And instead of pushing on, you remain still to gaze lengthily into the waves."
"It's not that I gaze into... waves. I calm my mind down enough to let it rest," I answered somewhat annoyed. "Mi mind gets overloaded, so I just let all my thoughts and feelings flow as quickly as they need to. Then my mind's eye clears, and I can meditate. Anyway, do you sleep at all?"
"Do not let the rapidity with which thoughts come and change deceive you into feeling that you think them all, Kioshi of Kumogakure. You're avoiding them." Ikatama's voice was still sweet and reverberant but had a hint of chide. "We sleep twice a moon cycle, at the depths where light is absent. We seldom feed."
I began walking again.
Contact Toxin detected!
I sighed and selected the blinking window.
Aconite toxin [Resisted].
- A strong toxin secreted by the Monkshood plant that provokes asphyxia and heart paralysis within two hours. Effects begin immediately.
Spotted Fever [Resisted].
- A tick-borne disease characterized by high fever, rash, and bite eschars on the affected areas. Effects add on time.
- The chakra of a summoning creature has been combined into yours.
Another one. Forests were dangerous places, and not because of big bad animals -though, adding chakra into the equation, I was half-scared I would run into those mutated animals from the dungeons- but because of these ever-present small threats.
I turned to the faint-green shrub I had stumbled upon, its blue-purple flowers had brushed against my uncovered hands. The Land of Earth's Monkshood plant was famous for its fast-acting toxin and its erratic sprouting and root afflictions, so I picked the flowers and unearthed the roots and sealed them all in my inventory. Tinctures were hard to come by back in Kumo, even in the black-market.
"Besides, I can't see in the dark," I commented.
"We'll show you how, eventually."
I hummed in wonder. That would be useful.
The ground this far into the forest was covered with jagged rocks, rotting leaves and mud that caked my boots; the foliage had grown thicker and the trees taller, wider, and more crooked, shutting out what little sunlight shone through the clouds. Some dead trunks lay on the forest floor, other just leaned over, threatening to collapse under the slightest breeze. The slopes were more pronounced, and ditches and gullies more abundant. Small streams and stagnant ponds covered what little bare soil could be seen, and the only sound around was that of a milliard insects and birds around.
I stopped and frowned. It was a difficult terrain, and the tree branches were not solid enough to travel shinobi-style. We couldn't continue this way; it would take too long.
I wasn't even halfway through this jungle, days away from the barren regions. The ANBU maps from the last war reported Iwa shinobi patrols routes crossing around the southern portion, and that was the best information I had at hand. My frown deepened.
"Ikatama, we're going to use a slightly different travel method," I informed her. "I'm going to need you to keep your eyes open for any indication of other people in the vicinity. I must not be detected."
With a breath, I summoned a portion of the red sands from my inventory and willed it to form a small platform in front of me. I'd never tried this outside the dungeons, and never for a long trip. The chakra usage was minimal, as with all my magnet release jutsu, but I was now afraid it would be enough to be detected by a patrol. It was easier than trying to lift myself and maneuver around, though.
I jumped on the platform and willed it to rise above the tree line, careful of my balance.
Cool, fresh air hit my nostrils, and I inhaled deeply. I took a glance around me; there were no name windows and no abnormal metal signatures. "Let's go."
We traveled just above the treetops, as fast as I was comfortable without using too much chakra to move the platform or to hold me to it, which meant about jogging speed.
By the end of the day, way away from the old shinobi-war patrol routes and with the sun falling behind the Sonoda Mountains on the horizon, its waning light painting the dense cloud cover orange, Ikatama's voice once again broke my thoughts.
"Swim higher, Kioshi of Kumogakure. Soar above the mounds so we can continue our travel in the dark. I will guide you if we risk grounding."
I conceded; it would have been difficult to follow the treetops at night over the hills and stony outcrops that dotted the area. Down, I knew, the dense forest was a construction of gnarled branches and old trees, moss and rusty foliage, rotten wood and decaying matter. It was no place to rest.
Willing the iron sand platform higher, I rose. The cold winds sharpened. I unsealed my winter coat. "Keep an eye out for others, Ikatama." I checked my map again.
Finally, the dark clouds dwindled. Below, the water ways flowed somewhat unobstructed now, and the sunlight reached the ground; the forest had thinned as it climbed the foot of the Sonoda Mountain Range: the barrier that marked the waning and end of the forest and the beginning of the Fukunaga Desert on the leeward side.
We flew above the range too, above the clouds and the peaks of an old mountain pass.
The desert opened to the west, an enormous plain dotted with pale weathered rocks, earth-yellow coarse sand and sparce dune-like formations, under a sun free from the cloud cover we had just left behind. This way of travel had proved way faster that what I had anticipated.
"We're dropping down for today, Ikatama," I whispered when the sun began to set. No name windows or signatures surrounded us. "Beyond the next mountain range on the horizon -the Land of Earth's central range- the Badlands begin, and we'll be close to Koba town. We'll have to be careful."
Ikatama's voice rumbled in my mind, "I feel your uneasiness. You must sleep."
We touched ground next to a shallow canyon, where sand filled most of the old riverbed and what would have been the riparian zone once. I slowly dug a small cave on the steep pale rock cliff -deserts could become freezing nightmares by nighttime.
I unsealed a bottle of water. "How are you holding, Ikatama?" I asked as I washed my face. "You've been with me for a long time."
"Half of my attention is with you, half in the depths of my hunting waters. We sleep little, we require little nourishment." Her voice was once again singsong. "I thank you, Kioshi. It had been countless turns of seasons since I experienced the dry-land. Its colors, its sounds, its life. Nothing and everything has changed. I see the effects of your people even at the depths, yet no trace tarnishes these grounds."
"I still have to take you home, to Kumogakure, up above its white cloud blanket where the sun shines down so heavily it hurts your eyes during summer, where the cool air embraces you during the day and the starlight sky calms you at night." I dropped down to the cave floor, sitting seiza. "We'll talk more tomorrow."
"Try to sleep, Kioshi."
"Tell me about your clan, Kioshi."
"I don't have a clan," I answered as we exited the small cave.
The first hints of sun light colored the cracked soil auburn. Temperatures were low, though not below the freezeline and would continue to rise. This was a cold desert, unlike the white sand dune system which covered much of the Land of Wind; temperatures would not climb that far, but the air was dry and the land was desiccated, barren of life except for a few thorny shrubs. I breathed in the cold air.
"Our last summoner was part of what you called a clan. Has the word changed its meaning?" Ikatama pressed on.
I began double checking my inventory, my status screens, my sensing range, and the clothes I was wearing. "If you mean 'an extended family with blood ties', then no, it hasn't changed that much. Though members of a clan hold closer ties between them and have some sort of political structure. More often than not, they also hold bloodlines."
"Do you have such family, then?"
"No. My father died some years ago. My mother before him."
I could somehow sense her inquisitiveness. "What?" I asked.
"The concept may escape my understanding, yet I feel curious and obliged to ask: do you possess such 'bloodline' ability?"
Oh. "Yes, I do," I answered truthfully. I felt that I could trust Ikatama, even more than Yugito. "The fact that I don't need to sleep or eat or drink is only the first part. I can control metal around me, or to be more precise, I control the magnetic fields around me. The sand we traveled on is made of iron oxides, the other you saw when we met, the black sand, is made of iron and steel, various types and grades of them."
"Your abilities are not common, then?"
I stopped inspecting my inventory and jumped over the cliff side, away from the ravine. I would call this area a plateau, since we were clearly way over sea level, but there was no real reason to; so far from civilization or any trade route, this flat desert was its own world, and it extended for more than sixty miles to the west, and more to the south and to the north. The mountain chain at the west end was barely visible.
"They are exceptional." I held back a lot of what I thought no one would understand: that I could perceive my body with frightening perfection, reduced to statistics, my health and afflictions to simple conditions, my interactions reduced to numbers. "I have hidden my abilities from everyone but a single friend, and even then, she knows only half of them. I'll ask the same of you. Whatever the enemy finds, it can be used against me."
"Our last summoner commanded freezing winds, back in the days were your settlements and your wars were insignificant to us. His, too, were uncommon."
"Freezing winds? Ice?" I asked, curious. "Your last summoner was a Yuki clan member."
"Yes, that was his name."
"Tell me about him. And tell me about your family too, Ikatama."
That same late afternoon, we crossed the central mountain range traveling on top of the sand platform. The sun hit hard and the air currents were dangerous, but we made good time. I knew now that we would have to slow down; a few hundred miles south, where the impassable mountains lost their height, a small town persisted in the valleys along a trade route that connected the eastern ports with the southern cities inland.
Land of Earth's Badlands.
The Central Badlands of the Land of Earth were just as the books depicted: an uneven great extension of nothingness, interrupted by thrust faults and long slot canyons. It was littered with unusual rocky formations: layered thin spires and domes protruded from the ground, exposed to the wind and the water, weathered by the years. Small streams, almost unnoticeable from above, ran between the cliffs from the south and east, heading north to an unknown somewhere that books never mentioned more than in passing. One day, I hoped, I would explore the northwestern parts of the Elemental Nations.
The ground had been once covered in ashes from a volcano to the southeast, but now the cracked soil had a brown-gray tint, covered in occasional ashen-white spots between the low, eroded cliffs. The remnants of ash -probably as acidic as the water flowing along the ravines- might just explain the lack of decent vegetational cover aside from some small shrubs and lonely trees.
As I slowly descended, I came near one of those trees. The badlands' acacia was famous for its dark-red bark and the odd off-white scars on its root collars. It was short, gnarled and had thin, almost needle-like green leaves. They, supposedly, flowered once a decade or so and their seeds had ritualistic value for the local tribes.
Speaking of which. "Ikatama, if you sense people, let me know," I whispered. "We'll continue on foot, we're close now."
Somewhere to the west, beyond the foot of a transverse ridge, there were, I hoped, vestiges of the old nomadic tribes that used to live in the area. And somewhere around, supposedly, was the 'gift'.
I sealed the sand back into my inventory and took a deep breath. Without much to plan or distract myself, I started running.
A few hours later, Ikatama's voice whispered inside my mind."Ahead, Kioshi. A small group, of small souls."
I squinted my eyes against the dusty wind. A stratified ridge was coming ahead. Ikatama, like me, could see -or rather sense- people regardless of line-of-sight interruptions.
The name windows appeared after a few minutes. I Observed each of them. Most were old, some older than old Yataro even, and all had names I had never heard before. Twenty of them; non-shinobi, low-leveled. These groups scattered around the vast badlands were the remnants of an ethnic tribe that predated and survived the coming of the shinobi clans and the villages afterward. Books always pointed them as natives that stayed away from the modern-world affairs. Semi-nomadic groups that had little to no contact with others and survived from small-scale hunting, gathering and trade, and traveled the western portion of the Badlands.
I stopped at the top of the ridge, from where I saw their settlement. Some tents, made from gnarled red wood and branches, were cluttered around a bigger one forming a semi-circle. Twenty-six people in total. Beyond, more ridges and hoodoos broke the wavy land, and, almost completely obscured by the haze, another tall mountain ridge stood at the far back.
I walked in their direction, trying to show myself as harmless as possible. A 35-year-old man -as his info window stated- noticed me first. He shouted something without taking his eyes off me, and three more people came out of the huts.
Their loose-fitting clothes caught my attention. Loose, light-colored robes, long-sleeved and going down below the knees where a pair of dark leather boots broke the color. They all had bluish headcloths that tied down the nose and covered their mouths. Some wore some trinkets made of some metal I couldn't identify -a sort of iron, I ventured- hanging from their sleeves and their necks.
I approached with my hands showing. "Hello. Do you speak Japanese?"
The four people, three men and a woman, looked at each other.
"Yes," one of the men said in a strange accent. "We speak." His Japanese was more palatal, the consonants had too much tongue.
"I need information," I said. "About an incident that happened decades ago around the area."
They exchanged a look between them and murmured something. The woman took a step forward and scanned me with her eyes.
"We need your help, first. You to help us," she said in broken Japanese.
My head turned sideways in wonder. "Fair enough." I nodded. None wore much metal. Only the woman carried an old knife under her robes. I could even sense the rust.
"The well. Come." She motioned me to follow her, just as the other men looked at me with, I guessed, trepidation and wonder. One ran up to the woman, and they whispered among themselves as we walked.
They guided me beyond their camp, just a five-minute walk. Behind a small ashen hill was indeed a well. An archaic one, medium sized, carved from gray pumice stone with a long coil of knotted rope and a red-wood bucket attached. My eyebrows rose, the surface had no signs of tool carving. In this world, that meant one thing: chakra.
The woman pointed at the well. "It's blocked." She struggled with the word.
I walked to the well and laid a hand on the rough stone. It was a deep well, easily a hundred feet deep. I could sense blockage almost down the bottom. The stone had fractured, and the narrow well shaft had become severely unaligned. Enough to prevent the red-wood bucket from reaching the water below.
I concentrated, focusing on the strange stone. The material might have come from the area, but I had felt none around. It took just small amount of chakra to permeate the ground around and a push, and the well was aligned again. A little more and the fracture was repaired shut, and even a bit more and the sediment that clogged the bottom few feet was pushed out.
I took a step back. "It had a fracture, probably from some ground shake recently," I said aloud. "It should be fine now," I added, looking back at the pair.
The man smiled -I ventured from the curve of his eyes- and they both bowed deeply. These wells must have been the only way to get safe-to-drink water around here.
"Come." The woman motioned me to follow her again.
They took me back to their camp, to the biggest tent that stood at the center. The man wandered away to a group of people that were staring at us as we walked, but the woman opened the leather curtain for me to enter.
It was dark, but I could clearly distinguish the old woman at the back of the hut, hunched seiza between a collection of hides and rugs, in front of a small, rough red wooden table with a lit incense stick. She was the oldest of all the people here.
"Oba, a warrior. He helped with the water. He has questions," the woman said, and, after another deep bow, she left the hut.
The old woman turned her head to me with a groan. "You would be 'ere," she said laggardly. "The bird lady bring you 'ere. You have questions." Her skin was sun kissed, not dark, but yellowish. She wasn't wearing a headcloth, so I could see her gray curled hair and her creased face. The old woman took a big breath through her chaffed lips and wrinkled her nose. "You a weapon man, you come ask about the light?"
Her Japanese was archaic, even broken. Her consonants were hard while her vowels slurred. Verbs lacked their conjugation, except for one out-of-place volition form.
Kame is the matriarch of the southern tribe of the Naka people. Little is known about her.
Relationship level: Neutral.
Her dark eyes were fixed on me. "About an event that happened about 80 years ago," I said. "Before the villages."
She shook her head and turned to gaze at the lonely incense stick and the smoke that rose from its tip. "Some go, but don't come back."
There was a moment of silence, only marked by the sound of our breathing. I hesitated, not knowing how to continue.
"We had a camp by the trees," she began to speak, closing her eyes. "We sit outside, my sister and I. We 'ear a whistling away and feel strong wind behind. Her birds fly away, and she try to catch." Her brows knitted together. "Then light, and shadows grow on the ground. I try to stand, but then come the first thunder, and wind shove I's to the ground. I cry for papa, look around for lady, the ground move. And I see wonder. The red leaves on fire, my face and skin burn." The old lady's eyes shot open; her chin trembled, but she continued, "Then come the second thunder and a second sun blind I. The shake throw I to the ground again. The trees fall, our tent fall. My skin hurt. I 'ear papa scream for I and sister. Fire and dust around." There were a few tears falling from her eyes. "Sister and papa die the day after. And I lonely then."
I listened with rapt attention to her every word, looking at her expression. I found myself sitting beside her, not knowing what to do with the sobbing old woman. She was another reminder of old-man Yataro and his struggle with age and what I ventured was some sort of illness. But mostly, a reminder of those that stayed isolated from the modern world.
They recognized me as a shinobi -a 'warrior'- yet there had been no fear in their eyes. Maybe only distrust. And they had immediately asked me to help fix their well, one that was unmistakably build by shinobi. How could these people survive under the pressure of the shinobi world, so isolated from wars, conflicts, and power struggles? Was this another of the unwritten rules of this world, to protect this people, to preserve their culture?
After a few minutes, the tears stopped and the old woman concluded, "No man come back."
But I knew of one that had returned, and my mind quickly figured what the gift had been.
It was the younger woman, the 'bird lady', that gave me concise directions. A two days' walk northeast, by one of the ravines that crossed the Badlands heading north, that turned out to be only a few hours' sprint.
When the sun began to set, by the cliff of a 30-foot-deep ravine, the signs became clear.
A huge section of the northern side, an area easily 200 feet in diameter, had collapsed and had formed an evident cracked depression on the ground. The border by the cliff side had toppled down into the ravine, leaving gray and reddish rocks damming the trickle of roseate-clear water into a big pond. Fractures and shock pressure contours covered the impacted cliff side and the ground over it; the out-of-place sharp rocks and the thin layer of reddish-yellow sand covered the soil: impact-related ejection.
It was not the size I was expecting from the old woman's tale, though. The detached rocks at the bottom of the ravine had a glossed, crystal hue, but where I anticipated a proportional crater there was only the big depression and the topple of a portion of the cliffside with the accompanying rock fall and landslide.
I jumped down after I noticed some out-of-place chunks of terrain down at the rockfall, almost at level of the dammed water. Between the rocks and the loose material, I found an entrance: a clearly chakra-dug tunnel going into the cliffside. With wonder, I put my hand against the surface. The tunnel went for about a hundred feet in and down, though it was caved in halfway through. At the end of it I sensed a chamber. A huge one, undoubtedly unnatural.
There was some metal too. Some sets of kunai, steel-toed boots and even a couple of hitai-ate, which, by the lack of name windows, could only mean dead bodies.
"Can you see anything?" I whispered.
"Nothing below or above," Ikatama answered, "no souls beyond."
A bit of earth manipulation and I cleared the caved corridor, packing the loose material at the walls. My heart accelerated.
I followed the tunnel in cautiously, as it dropped even farther. I came about the first corpse; desiccated and rusty, it didn't carry a hitai-ate nor a vest. 'Observe' gave little information. I didn't recognize its last name, nor could I figure out the cause of its death. It was lying face down into the earth and what clothes it had were tattered. Though it was too withered for an 80-or-so-year-old body.
I didn't wallow much and continued, sensing the ground around me when the light began to wane, and, soon enough, I reached the opening to the chamber.
One of my firsts rules in this world would be 'If it looks dangerous, it probably is.' Followed closely by 'Probe with a Shadow Clone'.
'Kage Bunshin no Jutsu.'
"A division of your soul, Kioshi of Kumogakure?" Ikatama berated me. "Not free of risks, and you are no gambling individual!"
"I recover the chakra back after they go away, don't worry. Are you with him too?" The clone lacked the alabaster lines I had on my skin.
"I'm in your body, where the contract was signed. What worries is the drift. Instability."
I shrugged. There would be another time to discuss that.
I took a step back, and the clone nodded. He unsealed one torch I had in my inventory -a simple metal stick with some chakra-infused burlap wrapped at the end, which I bought some years ago once I realized that igniting your own hand with fire-transformed chakra was much more difficult and less practical than I had anticipated.
A bit of fire chakra to charge it and the torch in my clone's hands lit brightly. He stepped inside. The orange light bounced off the crystal-like dark surfaces; the dome-shaped chamber, 100 feet wide and 30 tall, glowed eerily in response to the torch. The smoothness was unusual, or to be more precise, suggested this was man-made, or, better said, chakra-made.
We instinctively turned to where the metal signatures lay, and we saw the corpses. Two of them near the entrance where I stood. Bones that seemed too old, their clothes charred away and only vestiges of charcoal-black fabric remaining. Their hitai-ate were melted and warped beyond recognition. But they were just bones, no flesh nor skin, just the empty sockets of their skulls and blackened bones in fetal position next to the entrance.
My clone took a breath and kept walking, almost tiptoeing, surveying the area with hesitation. He reached the center and he turned to me. "There's something at the far end," he said loud enough for me to hear. He continued, glancing around as the light from the torch revealed the same glossy surface at the other end.
I nodded to myself and took a step inside, hesitantly at first but caught up to him as he reached the farthest wall.
Embedded into the packed material, was a... stone. A smooth and lustrous, bottle-green stone the size of a watermelon that looked translucent. My breath hitched, but nothing was happening. The stone seemed just that, a simple stone.
Ikatama just hummed in my mind.
"Is that it?" I asked out loud.
"It seems so," my clone answered. Keeping his eyes on the stone, he extended his hand to touch it. I took a step back.
"Well," he said after a second. "Nothing out of the ordinary, it's just like an ordinary river sto-"
Then there was darkness. All light went out and my clone's memories rushed into my head. My instincts screamed in the back of my mind. In a rush, I shunshined back to the entrance, only to stumble and fall to my knees. I couldn't feel my chakra, I realized, not even Ikatama's.
I tried to stand in the darkness, but I could sense nothing. Not the earth below me, not the metal around me, not the air I breathed. My limbs felt unnatural and a thousand pounds heavy. I realized my HUD was gone too.
"W-what?" I tried against the dark, just for a chill to climb up the back of my neck. That voice wasn't my own: every tonality, every vibration sounded crisp clear, free of any echo or resonance. I couldn't even hear my own breathing against the dark.
My stomach knotted and my back stiffened. This couldn't be happening, not when I couldn't check the palms of my hands.
There was suddenly a light, a deep-green glow at the far end that shone so bright against the dark that I instinctively tried to moved back.
I clenched my jaw against the fear, a feeling I'd so long forgotten that it had hit me like a hammer, and I turned away from the green glow, moving to where I remembered the entrance was. Dazed, I stumbled again when I tried to stand, and my palms and knees hit the floor again. An instant later, my blood rushed to my face, my hands and legs. A second later, it rushed to the top of my head, and another moment after, away to my back. My skin tingled, my muscles almost teared and my head struggled to remain stationary against the shifts of gravity.
The glowing stone shone brighter, but I still couldn't see my hands. I tried to straighten up and raise my head; there was nothing except darkness and the green glow at the far side. Was it moving? It was becoming difficult to breathe and to focus.
But I noticed the heat, the overwhelming burning sensation against my skin. I clung to it as it was a flare, and with the last of my strength I shakily stood up. The light glimmered green again, and another bright spot ignited to my right, followed by another to the far left. Quickly, green lights flashed and multiplied in the dark, above and below me, far away and close to my face.
Amazement replaced fear for a long second as I watched the scintillating green lights flare around me, surrounded by silence, hurting my eyes and burning my skin.
The light turned too intense; the darkness turned too hot. No, that strange voice rang in my head, Get out!
I fell again, my skin on fire, my eyes shut and my muscles tearing. Fire burned my lungs. Then darkness came again.
The pavement was slippery; it had rained that morning. I recognized this road and the tight downhill turn, I knew I would overtilt and scrape the brake lever. My brother would yell at me and I would apologize, but it wouldn't be enough. Another reason for him to leave me behind. I remember I had drunk myself to stupor that night. The curve never came.
"You should go home now." It wasn't the volume that startled me, but her rashness. I said nothing and stood up to put my clothes back on. I walked out to the dark street, angry at the world and myself. I shouldn't have called her back. That was her power play, the way she swayed our relationship for her gain. For all that it hurt, I would be ignoring her the coming days.
I found myself walking through my parents' garden under the dim moonlight, over dry grass that was in a desperate need of a trim and littered with cigarette butts, between the small pines and the old, neglected thornapple trees around which I used to play so many years before. I didn't wonder about the cold or about the icy wind on my face. I was looking for my father. My brother had gone off to live on his own and I already felt discarded. There was a voice in the air, a chilling, haunted murmur that I couldn't make out, but made me feel anxious.
Then people were walking past me. Strangers I didn't know, though I recognized the cramped avenue; swarming with cold-looking office workers and expensive vehicles parked over the sidewalk. An apparent frantic midday pace for those who didn't know our way of living, though we could recognize our calmness, faces chiseled by comfortable routine, minute smiles hidden behind boastful masks. But I had quit that job years ago. I looked down at my feet and my hands. They were not mine. I felt a sudden urge to run away.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
With a deep, frantic gasp, I woke. The cold breath of air felt like a welcoming gift, as if I could, for the first time in my life, breathe again.
I stirred and opened my eyes, and noticed the dim light. I looked to the side, the lit torch lay a few feet away, chakra still flowing through the metal and its faint warmth against my side. I realized I was naked on the ground of the cave, my skin felt reddened and warm. I propped up, feeling the cold stone under me, and looked at my hands. Nothing out of the ordinary, apart from a red hue over my field of vision, the blinking window at the lower right corner and a persistent humming sound.
I was disoriented, but despite the slight confusion, I blinked stupor away and took a deep breath; the Gamer's mind had begun working again. I selected the irritating window.
Low Health [Mild].
- Your health is low.
External Burns [Mild].
- Second degree burns on a large portion of your skin. This will affect your physical aptitudes.
Chakra depletion [Severe].
- Your chakra levels have dipped below five percent of your total capacity.
- Your chakra signature has been suppressed.
That explained the red hue at the edges of my vision.
It had felt like a dream. Everything, from the darkness, the green glow and the heat, to the inconsistent visions about my past life.
I shook my head again, clearing it from the miasma. I needed only to rest and recover. Why had my HUD disappeared, and why had I felt physical pain for the first time since that fight with Yugito?
I turned my head to the glowing stone, only to find it as it was before all this: greenish and inert.
The Glass Stone [Inactive]
The star-tipped imbalance.
Huh. Same as my clone had Observed. Only the 'Inactive' part was new.
Name: Kioshi Shirasu
Title: ANBU Captain of Kumogakure
Level 88 (48500/65300)
Chakra Control: 98%
Chakra exhaustion and low health, and judging by the redness of my skin, the other effects were very real too. I shuddered. The searing pain was a painful memory, one that I then knew would linger inside my mind for years to come, however glad I was for the Gamer's Mind for taking it away now.
The red hue and the faint alarm-like sound I was hearing was, I ventured, because of my low health or my depleted chakra. Being naked was uncomfortable though, mostly because of the 14-year-old body I still hadn't grown accustomed to.
I turned away from the stone and walked toward the exit of the cave, where I could -again- sense the metal on the dead bodies that lay next to it. I felt in control of myself again, alive again: the earth beneath and above me, the metal deep within the soil, the old weapons around, the stale, cold air of the cave. Everything felt new again.
At the other end of the tunnel, after my eyes acclimatized to the outside glowing sun, I unsealed some civilian clothes from my inventory -simple gray pants, a long-sleeve shirt and a pair of sandals- and dressed up, careful of my inflamed skin. Not that it hurt. Then I pondered on my situation.
Was that all? A strange otherworldly trap that burned its victims after, somehow, negating me of my Gamer's mechanics? Suddenly, the bandages the second tsuchikage had worn made sense, as did the state of the bodies inside the cavern.
The red hue was turning more a nuisance than a warning now, so I sat down at the entrance of the tunnel, away from the blistering sun of the Badlands.
Then I remembered something.
Between the first slots that contained weapons, iron sand and other supplies, some had the potions I'd been collecting. Most of them were already useless; the simplest only recovered 25 HP points and I only had a few. I shouldn't have hoarded them at low levels.
On the seventeenth slot were three elixirs.
Elixir of Recovery.
- A somewhat rare potion.
Boosts HP and Chakra recovery by 25%.
Uncorking the small vial, I downed the colorless liquid with a gulp. The small window at the bottom of my HUD blinked again.
I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders before calming my body, then I tried to focus on my chakra core.
My eyes shot open: I couldn't feel it at all.
I raised my reddened hand and frantically channeled chakra into it. It glowed purple as it usually did, but the feeling at my core -or the absence of one- was still there. I felt incomplete, almost naked.
The Status screen showed nothing out of the ordinary, so I selected the blinking window on the bottom right of my vision.
Elixir of Recovery [Temporary].
- HP and Chakra recovery boosted by 25%.
Low Health [Mild].
- Your health is low.
External Burns [Mild].
- Second degree burns on a large portion of your skin. This will affect your physical aptitudes.
Chakra depletion [Severe].
- Your chakra levels have dipped below five percent of your total capacity.
- Your chakra signature has been suppressed.
Chakra signature suppressed? Anxiously, I checked all the possible options of the Menu.
- Allows you to feel your body as a gamer's. Death upon reaching 0 HP, sleeping in a bed removes most negative status.
- Grants immunity to mind control, mind reading and mental manipulation. Ensures peaceful state of mind and grants immunity to phycological status and effects.
Old Soul: You have already lived a life, and some things are carried over.
- Protects your knowledge from third party intrusion. Grants +5 to INT and WIS at start, +100 Chakra points at start. 10% Faster Chakra and Chakra control growth. 1% bonus to Chakra each level up. Birthmarks or other physical conditions might be present.
- You have become an ideal medium for spiritual energy. All chakra transformation skills grow 15% faster. You're able to differentiate chakra signatures. "Signature Suppression" ability gained.
My breath hitched and my jaw clenched after reading that last line. I felt the veins in my neck pulse.
I closed my eyes. I knew what a completely suppressed chakra signature meant. Any chunin worth its salt could sense chakra to some level; they would sense the lack of it.
"God fucking d-" I shut my mouth and forced my tensed neck muscles to relax, letting the Gamer's Mind take the frustration away.
Fine, I had jumped without any consideration to a potentially hazardous situation once again. I exhaled a long, winding breath.
What had I been I expecting from this trip I couldn't tell, but obviously not something that would put a gigantic bullseye over my head: by gaining that ability to be untraceable when hiding, I had lost the ability to go unnoticed in a crowd.
The Gamer's Mind cleared the worst, yet the frustration was still there. This system was supposed to be a straightforward way to climb the shinobi ladder, a smooth way to get all-powerful, but it had been weeks since any of my advanced skills leveled up, even with all the back-breaking training I had put myself through. Even my stats had become stagnant and my chakra control had been fixed 98% for months. I was a step away from completing a combat-ready wind-enhanced rasengan!
I focused back on my breathing, then read the perk's description again; it said 'ability', so there should be a way to control it, I hoped.
First things first, though: recover enough chakra to summon Ikatama and ask her to reverse-summon me to the Land of Lightning.
After a few minutes of meditating and suppressing all the assaulting ideas about possible scenarios regarding the difficulties this new perk could bring, I went through the hand seals.
Boar, Dog, Bird, Monkey: 'Summoning Technique.'
Condition Gained: Chakra Marked.
"Ah. I was worried, Kioshi of Kumogakure. There's li-" Ikatamas deep singsong voice stumbled. "What means this? What have you done? And only had I just impressed upon you the gravity of dividing your soul!"
"No, Ikatama," I explained myself. "The green stone inside the cave did this... I believe it's not serious."
There was a long silence, then her booming voice came back. "I would not reprimand you, for this is not a mistake of your intellect but of your carelessness. A callow mind, unhardened by the waves." She hummed. "We of the deep know not much about the obscurities and ambiguities of your lives and intellect."
"Ikatama, I need to get home. I need to clear this up with the ANBU."
"I must feed and attend to my duties. I'll contact my brother."
Condition Lost: Chakra Marked.
I sat at the entrance of the cave, trying to no avail to get rid of the Suppressed Signature status. Not even keeping a minuscule amount of chakra swirling on my core fixed it, and I didn't believe it would help against any common jonin, let alone proper sensor. On the bright side, I hoped that the new perk might be just the thing I needed to finally reach 100% chakra control, and I would be able to, as it stated, tell people apart by their chakra signatures. Given I already could with the 'Observe' ability, I doubted it would be as useful as I once thought it would.
On the bright side, I took quite a handful of crimson sand from the deep clumps I could sense underground while I waited.
Four hours later, Ikahima summoned me back to the eastern coast of the Land of Lightning.
With the decision to discuss my condition with Reira, the village's only medic-nin famous for her knowledge on body-chakra interactions, I began the five-hour-long run back to Kumo.
I stopped a few miles short from the entrance. There was no protocol to follow for my situation: an ANBU agent in no dire need but with a potentially hazardous or a suspicious condition. Shinobi were paranoid, a requirement of the career.
Assuming that I wouldn't be able to fix my situation anytime soon, there were two possibilities: Dodai would keep me as an ANBU secret, away from the shinobi populace, or he would kick me out of ANBU until I got my signature back, or else my number would be exposed to any spy lurking around.
Either way, the ANBU would know. My kekkei genkai was prominent, my jutsu were well known; all ANBU knew my real identity -it was a common practice to remove your mask unless you were exceptionally reserved or the mission required anonymity, but, I hoped, not all regular shinobi knew I was an ANBU agent or, at least, only a few knew my number.
Decidedly, I walked the rest of the way and stopped near the end of the sinuous road at the beginning of the stone steps up to the village, on top of an outcrop away from view. I put on my black uniform, my mask and my gray ANBU vest. My chakra burst in code, conveying a simple message: "support needed." No urgency, just the code for shinobi to call the patrolling ANBU in case of non-serious suspicious activity that required their attention. The semi-translucent name windows moving atop the mountain valley that held Kumo's gate kept drifting, the jonin at the entrance didn't react, the merchants and families in line continued their climb up the steps.
Right, I had no signature they could sense. I waited an hour until the day's ANBU patrol got close enough to the entrance, close enough for my magnet release and my Observe passive to get a hold on them. I moved their kunai in a simple code: Six, Eight, Five, and then nudged them in my direction to guide them down the stairs where I was sitting.
They shunshined down from the gates and landed in front of me. They faltered and drew their weapons.
I raised my hands. "Ten, Thirty-two, Twenty… I can explain."
Thirty-two, an orange-haired Horiuchi that had inherited their kekkei genkai, and Twenty, Negai Fuse, who had an extraordinary aptitude for genjutsu and blades, the longer-than-usual handle of her ninjato evident. Twenty was a strong contender for the remaining position among the ten captains.
Ten's posture was tense, probably confused, being someone that relied so much on her exceptional sensing ability. I guessed that, to the other two, something felt wrong.
I lost myself for a few seconds, a new sensation creeping between my senses. Sarai's chakra was somehow… peculiar. It reminded me of the scent of strong black tea and both the feeling of the sun on my face and cold on my skin.
Intrusive genjutsu detected!
I immediately immobilized both ANBU. Ten, on the other hand, seemed to offer me the benefit of the doubt. In charge of today's ANBU patrols, she held full authority over the shinobi forces, even when dealing with invasion-level threats.
"Eight?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered. Slowly, I removed my ANBU mask. If they had been rookies, I would have kept it on. "Ten, it's a Six-Eight-Five. You'll have to get the Commander or Dodai here."
She glanced sideways at Thirty-two and turned to me again. I released my control over the other agents.
"Get the Commander," she ordered, and Thirty-two shunshined away.
Only thirty seconds later I sensed the Commander shunshin down to our location, followed by Thirty-two, Darui… and the Raikage himself. I cursed my luck.
"What's the meaning of-" the Raikage's thundering voice almost punctured my eardrums. His eyes had fixed on me the moment his feet had touched the ground, only to narrow a second later. "Who- Identify yourself! Who are you? What do you want? You better give me a good answer or I'll crush you right here and now!" His fists shook, and his cold, angry roar cut deep. His chakra began escalating.
"Raikage-sama," I answered apologetically, trying to diffuse the situation, "I'm captain Eight, Kioshi Shirasu. I can expl-"
"Then you better start talking or I swear I'll-"
"A-sama, you have to let him speak first." Darui said with a worried gaze, devoid of his usual languid demeanor.
It was the Commander that saved me from the Raikage's rage.
"Raikage-sama, we'll handle this," he said, his arms crossed in front of his chest, his voice hoarse as always behind his mask.
"I'll take him to the green cells," Ten said.
The Raikage nodded, though glaring at everyone. "Follow them, Commander. I want this one sorted out today." He turned around, the veins in his neck still bulging, but the electricity that had made his white hair stand subsided. He shunshined away. Darui followed him with a blank expression.
At the Commander's nod, Ten gestured me to follow her. I guessed the procedure from now on.
. . . . . . - - - . - . . . - . . - - - . - - . .
Yugito walked through the run-down 56th street. The waning moon shone bright, the air was cold and -thankfully- smelled clean. She didn't mind the dirt, though she was thankful for living in the neighborhood known to shinobi as ANBU corner, expensive as it was.
Iroka was right. She had said to look for the smiles, for the everyday happiness. Just as she had been doing with the bad things, those little sparks would fuel a fire. Yugito hoped she was correct, and in lieu of her shaky mind, she had persevered.
The walls had seemed to be closing in. There had been times she wanted to tear her hair out for things she couldn't really understand, times she wanted to scream against nothing in particular. When she had stopped eating, she worried.
Those feelings still lingered around, but Iroka had been right. The odd good day turned to an odd bad day a week. Those were still the hardest, though; when she questioned why and how, and why to her.
Kioshi was right in his own way, too. It was ingrained, and until she knew what and how, she would never grow out of it. She had just to push through the strangling dread that forced her head away whenever she tried to face it. Easier said than done, she had found.
A chill went up her spine, forcing her jaw to tighten and her eyes to shut. No, she thought. Not now.
She opened her eyes and resumed her stride, soon finding Kioshi sitting at his usual small table outside the tea shop; a kettle and a cup resting on top, a newspaper held in his hands and another folded beside. Two women, one noticeably pregnant under her winter cloak, were sitting at another small table at the back. A small kid played with a cat close to them, both chasing a big feather that floated in the wind.
Matatabi stirred inside, she could sense it too. Shoubee could have been right, but Yugito needed to see him with her own eyes.
"Hey, Yugito!" Kioshi turned his head to her and smiled.
She faltered. That tall boy -no, that young man- could be anyone, she reminded herself. Ignoring the pale blue lines that marked his face, she chose to be direct.
She approached him, forcing a smile. "If I were to tell you to try a genjutsu on me right now, which one would you pick?"
Kioshi's smile waned, but he nodded in understanding. "There's one I know you would love, but…" he answered, gesturing to the crimson sash around her hips.
Yugito nodded back. "What did you eat last time you returned from a mission starving?"
"I've never returned starving from anywhere, Yugito," he said.
She squinted. "If you were a king, what would your name be."
He smiled for a second; a smile reminiscent of old conversations. "Jeremy."
Her back loosened. "So, care to tell me what happened and where were you," she tried to say politely as she sat down on the chair across him. She could hear the women whispering on the other table, stealing glances at her. "You left again without warning! Also, what the hell are those on your face?"
Kioshi's left brow raised; his hand went to touch his brow. "What do you mean my face?"
"Sure, you want to start with that, well... you have bluish lines crossing your face." She felt annoyed. "Are those related to your non-existent signature?" Yugito leaned closer, studying him. He looked the same, he sounded the same, he even smelled the same, but his chakra wasn't there.
"Well, Ikahima is here," he explained casually, "I guess I get colored lines over my body when I summon them. Ikatama's are pale white."
Yugito's eyes snapped to the left, then to the right, looking for the so-called demons, a word she never liked and rarely used. "Aren't they Ayakashi? You know, from the ocean?"
"It turns out I can summon them into my body. And-" Kioshi frowned. "Really?"
"What?" asked Yugito.
"He… wants to talk to you," Kioshi said, blinking.
"He's inside your body, he speaks to you and wants to talk to me?"
"Yes. He says show your palm."
Yugito frowned. Her instincts had never failed her, but her trust had. This was Kioshi, her mind assured her. You've kept his secret, he knows yours.
With a defeated exhale, she showed him her hand, palm facing upwards. "You better-"
As Kisoshi's hand reached out to hers, a red-stripped thin tentacle sprung out and coiled around her wrist. She jumped to her feet and pulled her hand, but the tentacle's grasp was strong.
She forced herself to stop struggling and calm herself. She moved her free hand away from her kunai pouch and whatever chakra she had begun channeling she pushed it back.
Her chair had fell back, the two women were staring wide-eyed, the kid had run to her mother's side. The cat had fled, and the owner of the stand was eyeing the whole thing wearily. Kioshi had stood up, his own hand pulled back as if he had tried to tug the tentacle away.
"What the hell," he asked out loud, "Ikahima?" He was confused, too.
Then a voice rang inside Yugito's mind. Harsh, echoing and with deep undertones.
"The container. I feel the soul beneath. Primordial. Violent," the voice said in uneven cadence, accentuating the suffixes and extending the silences. "Do you wither? You, a soul of fire."
Yugito froze. She understood immediately what was about to happen. She had heard her half-whisper, half-roaring voice a handful of times, and the shifts of her chakra were unmistakable.
"Who are you?" Matatabi's voice rumbled.
"I am a body of the sea, now known as Ikahima." The voice was harsh, but the pronunciation was unsteady. "You, a hunted being. Part of a portent you are, of what will consume you. Consume us."
Matatabi's voice rumbled. "Ikahima-san, does your kind bring a portent?"
"Though we live free, they have imprisoned you. We can't converse with the one with three. You, creatures of soul created by circumstances now to be restored. The portent brings the sun-god to burn us, the tides to come so. It draws the end to all, the coming of the original one."
To Yugito's confusion, Matatabi kept talking.
"You know of our father," she said.
"Heed the advice given! Listen the words and my promise! Keep Kioshi of Kumogakure safe, and my soul in your vessel I'll maintain. Until you are free from your prison."
The rumbling voice and her burning wrist had Yugito trembling. An instant after, it was gone.
"Matatabi?" she tried asking inside her mind. "What was that?" But Matatabi didn't answer, she never did.
Yugito looked at Kioshi's confused expression. She followed his eyes to her left hand. A faint blue spot was now on her wrist where the tentacle had held her.
Before she could ask, Kioshi's marks faded away, just like hers.
This took a while. Your comments drove me to stitch together what I had written during the year and clean it up.
I wont be commenting on my personal life here anymore, it seems to bring me really bad luck.
Thank you all for the reviews and comments, they really lift me up.
If you spot any issues, please let me know.
Edit: Some corrections. Mostly the confusion between Signature Suppression and Chakra Suppression. My bad.