Arashi Shikyo: Rain ninja, servant of the Water-lord
Garyu: highest feudal lord of the Water Country
Chizuru: the Water-lord's wife
Moritome: currently the highest ranking officer among the Heikou, now that the Elite are dead
Heikou: the swordsmen who act as guards for the city
the Elite: the most skillful Heikou, who act as both ambassadors and honor guard for Lord Garyu---or at least they did until they got whacked
Toru: Moritome's son; a Heikou swordsman. However, he's been revealed to possess chakra-molding abilities, despite the fact that the Heikou hate shinobi, and he has become instrumental in the kidnapping of Chizuru
Chapter 10: Fire and Water
The assassin crawled down the rough, sandstone wall, limbs crooked like spider legs, hands and feet soft and silent as a passing shadow. His eyes, trained to absorb minimal light to see in the dark, were fastened on the red head leaned against the wall ten feet below him. A thin line of sweat slid beneath the cover of his forehead protector, which bore the Leaf insignia. It trickled between his eyes, split over the bridge of his nose.
It took every ounce of his will to keep his breathing measured, so that it didn't rattle in his chest. He was dying, of a disease that made him spit blood when he overexerted himself, and he'd chosen this mission on purpose. He was tired of spitting blood, and he wanted his death to mean something.
He was going to die saving the world.
He was not really a Leaf ninja, of course, though he wore the flesh and genetic characteristics of a certain clan found only in Konoha. He was one of the Shokubai Clan, whose bloodline limit doomed them to live in the shadows and to die as the catalysts of war. They were shapeshifters---genuine shapeshifters, able to mimic the very genetic structure of those whose blood was injected into their own. They could never use the same jutsu as those they copied, however, owing to physical weakness. The Shokubai possessed incredible chakra control, but their bodies were weak and sickly. The entire clan suffered from a skin disease that rendered them permanently nocturnal, and they all had weak lungs. It was said of the Shokubai---when anything was said at all---that they were a people dying from the moment of birth. The best they could hope for was to die for a purpose.
His purpose was to kill Sabaku no Gaara. Or to die trying, and become a corpse identical to those of the clan he imitated. Even though he'd died, his body's shape would be perfect, so that no physical evidence could discern the truth. Neither Konoha nor the Sand knew of the Shokubai's existence, and they were never going to. Instead there would be suspicion, unease, and immediate investigation of why a Leaf shinobi had dared attack three Chuunin Exam participants returning peaceably to their homeland.
That was the Heikou method: foment chaos among the power, let them destroy themselves, and the world keeps its balance.
He swallowed hard round a lump in his throat. Swift as lightning, he drew one hand in to his chest and formed the Shinkuhana seal. Licked his seal-hand's two longest fingers, smearing them with the blood he'd been holding in his mouth. The other bloodline limit of the Shokubai was that they were able to see in the dark quite well. The only light here was a lone candle ready to fizzle out on a table in the corner, but he could see every rise and fall of Gaara's chest.
The bead of sweat on the end of his nose finally slid off and fell. Sucking in a sharp breath he jabbed his fingers downward, knowing he was going to have to outrace the droplet before it awoke his target.
Quick though he was, the droplet beat him, landing soundless in Gaara's nest of hair. Gaara's head snapped upward, and the next thing the assassin knew there was a horrid, stinging pain in his wrist. He attempted a swift withdrawal, jerking his arm back, only to realize that withdrawing was easy because he'd left his hand behind. It seemed to wave mockingly at him, suspended in the grip of Gaara's sand.
Then time slowed down, mired in pain. He was aware of his target's pale face upturned, of intense green eyes regarding him dispassionately. He was aware, in a flash of insight fleeting as a lightning-strike, that even with his near-perfect night vision he hadn't seen the thread-thin cloud of sand ring his wrist and close like a garrote, severing flesh and bone. He was aware of the sudden rush of blood from his head as blood spurted from the stump, speckling Gaara's skin.
He was aware of Gaara's red-flecked lips moving, pronouncing with cool detachment: "They should have told you; I never sleep."
Then his awareness was swallowed up in a brilliant, terrible wash of cold fire, swallowing him inside and out. The room was gone, his target was gone, and he was speeding toward death, falling into the white vortex of a death god's yawn.
OoO OoO OoO
"He died from a severed hand? Unbelievable."
The other two Sand Three had joined their brother in the small, dusty shed they'd claimed for the night. They had reached the city of Gairu, and instead of staying at one of the large city's inns they'd chosen a place on the outskirts again, far away from civilians. When wolves were chasing you, you didn't sleep among lambs.
Temari stood with her hands on her hips, frowning down at the body stretched out on the floor. She and Kankurou had been sleeping in a nearby alley at Gaara's request. He'd decided they should sleep separately to test his theory that the assassin was after him, specifically. It seemed he was right. Gaara stood beside her, a silent, heavy presence. By now he was probably so used to people trying to kill him that these assassination attempts hardly fazed him. It made her a bit sad, but also somewhat relieved that he was holding his own against these strange attacks.
Kankurou, who'd been squatting and examining the body, sank back onto his heels with a sigh and sat.
"This one didn't die because of anything Gaara did," he told them, rubbing his forehead with the back of one hand. "He killed the woman claiming to be ANBU with his sand, but this one is something else entirely."
"I used sand in this case to stop the jutsu he was about to use," Gaara intoned. "He made the seal with his left hand, so I cut it off."
Temari bent and picked up the severed hand, holding it gingerly between her thumb and forefinger. She wasn't a squeamish girl, but something this strange merited caution.
"There's blood on his index and middle fingers," she observed. "Odd---summoning techniques usually have it on the thumb . . ."
"I felt him die," Gaara murmured, still looking down at the corpse. "It was cold. Like someone had opened a freezer door. Like the woman in Kazeya Town. There must be a connection."
"I can't believe it," Temari said sharply, setting the hand down, leaning over and lifting one of the corpse's eyelids. "Could Konoha possibly be behind this? So soon after the Sand-Leaf treaty was signed?" What she really meant was: "I don't want to believe it."
If Gaara was right and this killer was from the same group as the last, it was another imposter. But from Kankurou's examination, and from what she could determine, the physical evidence seemed irrefutable.
The assassin was one of the Hyuuga. And thus far, they had no way of disproving it.
OoO OoO OoO
Somewhere in the Water Country
Sasuke drifted in and out of consciousness. In his more cognizant moments, he realized that he was being carried on some sort of thin stretcher, suspended between the shoulders of two men in blue. When he rolled his eyes back in his head, he could see that one of them wore a forehead protector bearing the Rain insignia. But rolling his eyes back made them close, and he couldn't get a clear glimpse of the man's face.
As he lay there he tightened his muscles without actually moving his limbs, testing the extent of the damage the poison was causing. Surprisingly, there wasn't much pain; only a pervasive, cold numbness in his extremities. His face was moistened with a thin sheen of mist, and he couldn't feel the tip of his nose. The swaying of the stretcher and the soft murmur of his captors' voices was sort of lulling.
But Sasuke was not someone who appreciated "lulling." The current weakness in his body disgusted him. His lips were parted, and he was drooling a little from one corner of his mouth, and that reminded him poignantly of the horrible, unshakeable weakness that fear of Itachi had once instilled in his limbs. He hated every reminder of that drooling, whimpering child lying on the floor at his brother's feet.
And now, with supreme effort through the fog the drug had rolled into his brain, he focused every bit of his concentration on listening.
"What if he dies?" asked the man at his feet.
"He won't," came the response from behind him, from the man at his head.
Shikyo. It was Shikyo. Sasuke's blood attempted to boil in anger, but the drug had made his circulation sluggish and his chest felt tight and strange.
"The drug may slow the spread of the Aoite toxin, but if you give him any more you'll kill him with an overdose," the other one argued.
Shikyo's footsteps never faltered. "The Mist are going to kill him anyway. Once they verify that he's Uchiha, they'll go to war. And you can wager they will take him apart to steal his bloodline's secrets, to ensure that they win. Our only task is to get him to them alive."
Sasuke was greatly bothered by this, of course, because the drugs were numbing his brain, not his emotions, and he was poignantly interested in what came next, but unfortunately his brain decided to go gray for a while again.
When the seductive languor melted away again, it was to the awareness that his feet had jounced slightly as the other man carrying him stepped over something on the ground. The stretcher swayed, then stopped moving. And Sasuke realized that his captors had stopped walking altogether.
Next he heard a woman's voice, low and cracked and old. "You're trying to start a war. Did you honestly think we'd let you saunter in and bring him to us?"
Rolling his eyes sideways, Sasuke was able to glimpse the newcomer around the back of his captor's head. She looked like she'd once been a tall woman, but age had bowed her back down to average height. Her hair was pulled back in a severe bun, from which wisps escaped and waved gently in the misty air. The lines at the corners of her mouth were deepened with resolve.
"I'm flattered you would deign to come in person, Mizukage-'baa-chan," Shikyo said tightly. Sasuke had the distinct impression that the Rain ninja wasn't flattered at all, and that they were fucked. But he had to give the man credit for balls of steel, because even in the face of the Mist Kage Shikyo kept talking. "But you know as well as I that your ability to kill the boy to avoid acknowledging the Leaf's presence here ends if he is borne across the physical borders of your Village." Shikyo nodded toward the forest ahead. "Besides, think what an asset the Sharingan be. The secrets of that bloodline that once made the Leaf so formidable. Don't you want it? I'm bringing it to you, gift-wrapped."
The old woman's lips pursed briefly. "Idiot. You're assuming, again, that I'm going to let you cross the borders. He has no consent from the Mist, and that is grounds for defensive measures. The Treaty of Water and Fire would be broken. And if we took the Sharingan, Konoha would go to war with us immediately, before we had time to research its secrets."
The mists began to rise around him, and Sasuke began to sink into them. His awareness of two things coalesced into realizations: one, his captors were lowering him to the ground, because there was going to be a fight, and two, there were things moving in the mist. Little things, like tiny moist insects, brushed the bare skin of his upper arms, his knees.
Looming in front of him, Shikyo's stocky form could be seen crouching into a wider stance, legs planted solidly on the spongy turf, the blue-black hair from his topknot cutting a stripe down the middle of his back. He reached both arms behind his head and drew, from the crisscrossed scabbards fastened there, two katana that gleamed a startling, brilliant blue along their double edges. Sasuke blinked, watching him lower the naked blades. The Genin was starting to feel very odd---less detached, somehow, and it hurt. The drug Shikyo had given him was apparently wearing off; a burning, tingling sensation was returning to his limbs. And it also seemed to be making him hallucinate, because he could see the things moving in the mist, gravitating through the air toward Shikyo's katana like trails of ants to spilled sugar. Little dots like insects, gathering round Shikyo's body.
"Arashi . . ." the other captor murmured, and it sounded like a warning. "You---"
Shikyo flashed forward, swift as a lightning strike. His arms swung out, then arced inward. Blades sang and sliced down, toward the Mist Kage. She stood complacent, watching them come. Too slow to move as they took her head.
OoO OoO OoO
The blow bit deep into his shoulder, slicing into bone. The seal Naruto had been forming never reached completion as the nerves in his right hand went dead. The impact of the strike caused the flashlight Shikyo had tucked into his belt to jounce free, hit the ground and roll, sputtering, through the water quickly flooding the filthy ground.
If he'd been an instant slower, Naruto would have lost an arm.
But his body reacted on its own.
There was no pain at first; the cut was wicked and precise. Skin parted like water around the unseen blade. It was the pressure he felt. Instinct dropped his stance, spun him on one foot, lashing out with the other to kick his enemy's feet out from under him. It was like kicking a tree trunk---his foot connected with the back of the man's knee and bounced off. Off-balance, he saved himself from falling by torqing the rest of the way around to his enemy's other side. Then the pain hit, white-hot, flesh and cloth ripped as the blade tore free. He bit back a scream, forced chakra to his feet, landed hard against the stone wall.
The flashlight, now submerged, cast confusing, wavered gleams off of the rounded stone walls, distorting Shikyo's silhouette and flashing in the sword above the dark blood sluiced along its edge. Except it wasn't Shikyo. Crouched horizontally against the tunnel's side, Naruto saw his face in profile. In the split-second before the water clouded he saw a much younger man, lean and tall, long brown hair bound back, the legs of his blue hakama tucked into knee-high boots. The water from his jutsu sloshed repeatedly against them, swirling round his ankles as it quickly filled the tunnel.
"Toru-san!" Naruto yelled, outraged.
The young samurai nodded brief assent, but offered no justification. Instead the waters at his feet lifted and surged. Naruto dodged a sudden, roiling burst of water, which fountained up from the floor and struck the wall where he'd been previously with such force that it sounded like waves crashing on the cliffs. The sound echoed, thunder-clap loud, through the tunnel; Naruto felt it vibrate right down to the roots in his molars. Gritting his teeth he skittered along the wall as the water changed direction and gave chase, hammering at him as if he were an errant nail. Instinct told him to find a safe vantage-point from which to lower his defenses somewhat in order to counterattack---it would probably take a minute for the nerves in his arm to repair themselves so that his fingers could form seals. The problem was, there weren't any safe points. Which, much as he hated to admit it, meant running away was a good idea.
Have to get out of here, he thought desperately. He knows this place too well; he's got the advantage.
He darted down the tunnel, running in an erratic pattern along the walls and ceiling to impair his enemy's aim. But the water kept shooting after him, missing him by only a hair's breadth each time. And each time it was getting more deadly---the spray from its impact right next to him on the stone stung where it struck his cheek. Raising his good hand to his face, he felt something warm and sticky, and a second later tasted metallic salt at the corner of his mouth. The water had cut him. Somehow, Toru's technique used chakra to focus water into blade-like form. Swiping at the blood, Naruto recalled the gouge marks he and Sasuke had seen in the courtyard pillars hours before, and realized now how they'd gotten there.
Just how many of the Heikou are part of the assassins' ring? he wondered.
But he dismissed the notion quickly as the deadly water shot toward him again. He felt a sudden, slight breeze to his right, indicating the presence of a perpendicular tunnel, and executed a sudden dive into it.
The spray behind him ripped the shirt from his back as it sped past.
His breath whistled in his lungs; he'd accidentally inhaled some water the first time Toru had used his attack. That had happened because the water was softer at first . . . Naruto's mind raced, trying to figure out what that meant.
He heard a distant splash as the attack in the previous tunnel fell short. Then came the faint splash of ninja footsteps approaching. He didn't even bother glancing back; he turned another right into a much smaller, narrower tunnel. This one was filthier, and made him feel somewhat claustrophobic. He couldn't even get through this one on all fours; its tight proximity forced him to wriggle on his belly like a worm, scraping up the elbows of his shirt along the rough stone.
Damnit, he thought, breathing hard. If I can't make seals it's too small in here for taijutsu.
He wasn't afraid so much as frustrated---a long-range fighter, he hated being in a space this confined. There was a light ahead, though, that told him he was getting close to freedom. A faint square of moonlight, criss-crossed by grating, like a beacon on the floor. Eagerly he wormed his way toward it; anything to get out of this hellish darkness.
Water slammed into him so hard it knocked him straight out of the tunnel, and into the wall of the one beyond.
The crown of Naruto's head hit stone straight-on. Pain flashed through his neck, black stars swallowed his vision . . .
. . . and then he was standing in a cave, in front of an enormous set of bars. Behind them lurked an even more enormous furry head.
"Eh? This again?" Naruto scratched his head, squinting up at the gargantuan pair of eyes, which in turn glared down at him.
LITTLE FOOL, the Kyuubi rumbled. YOU'RE GOING TO KILL US BOTH.
The Genin folded his arms, scowling. "I can't summon the Frog Boss down here---he's too big. So what good are you?"
The long, vulpine tongue snaked out briefly, ran across a row of shining fangs, then vanished again. MUCH AS I'D LOVE TO CRUNCH YOUR BONES, I CAN ALSO MAKE THEM KNIT. AND SEEING AS YOU'VE JUST MANAGED TO LET THAT STRUTTING SAMURAI BREAK OUR NECK, IT SEEMS YOU CAN'T DO THIS ALONE.
Naruto's hand flew to his throat. "I'm dying? That guy was that powerful?"
NO, YOU'RE JUST THAT STUPID.
He felt a peculiar warmth envelop his neck---warmth that was almost soothing, except it smelled like sulfur and dog-breath mixed together.
"Hey!" he barked, abruptly. "Don't call it our neck! You're inside me. You're just a visitor."
The Kyuubi laughed---a low, ugly sound. Sharp slivers of pain, short and intense as lightning-strikes, shot down Naruto's spine.
"Ow!" he bellowed. "What the he---"
The last word ended in a sickening gurgle as he opened his eyes and found himself lying on the moist, filthy sewer floor. His mouth was full of spit and blood. But a quick test of movement told him all he needed to know: his wounds were healed. Everything, even the cut on his cheek.
Toru was nowhere near caught up to him yet---it seemed the entire conversation with the Nine-Tails demon had taken place in the span of a heartbeat. Which made no real sense to Naruto, but then he'd never been one to demand that anything make sense. Plus being alive tended to make him not so picky. He was covered in sweat and shaking from the residue of pain, but now that he'd finally stopped moving something that had been confusing him earlier now resurfaced in his brain.
We left the flashlight behind quite a ways back. But until I got here, there was no light, and he's not even caught up enough to be able to see me. So how are his attacks so accurate?
Almost on cue, the water gathered from the floor around him and rose, undulating like a snake's head, above where he lay, distorting the light from the grate above into wavering shadows. Swearing under his breath, Naruto scrambled out from under it and darted up the wall. A split-second behind him, it hammered into the place on the floor where his body had been.
More specifically, hammered with concentrated precision into the places on the wall and floor where his blood had splattered from the previous attack.
That's IT, he thought, exultantly. That's how it kept finding me in the dark. It's a jutsu that targets the enemy's blood!
He wasn't bleeding any more, but his face and back were still wet with blood. As he ran up the wall, heading for the grating some fifty yards above, he tore off his shirt and swiped at his face and back with it. The water below was already beginning to gather for another attack; his best chance of making it to the grate and allow himself enough time to break through it was to confuse the jutsu by removing the blood.
The vertical tunnel was growing narrower toward the top, until he was having to duck as he ran up it. Below him, the water solidified and began its deadly rush.
Shit, shit I'm not going to make it.
The echo of the rush was deafening. There was nowhere to run but up, and he wasn't fast enough.
Then his infamous luck kicked in.
In a split-second, he saw a narrow tunnel perpendicular to his. Instinctively, he flung the bloodied shirt in his fist into it and kept sprinting.
The water was almost at his feet when it suddenly changed directions, chasing the shirt into the tunnel and no doubt plowing it into the rocky walls.
Naruto hit the grate at top speed, punching with all his might because he was only going to get one shot at this.
As it turned out, the grate hadn't been fastened very securely at all.
He burst upward into the cold night air a good ten feet, followed closely by the residual spray of the water jutsu. Had anyone been around to observe, they would have thought he'd just been shot from the mouth of a geyser.
He flailed a bit before landing, but the second he'd gotten his bearings he took off at a dead sprint again, heart pounding, up the side of a two-story building and into the shadow of its pagoda tier. There he crouched, blinking water out of his eyes, to figure out what to do next.
He wanted to go find Sasuke. But the assassins wanted Sasuke alive, and Kakashi might be able to find him first. And the Water-lord's life was definitely in danger---Naruto realized with a start that the longer he lingered here waiting for the cogs in his brain to finish grinding, the longer the helix-masked killers would have to torture Garyu-sama's location out of his wife.
Ero-Onna-sama it is, then, he decided with a grunt.
The trick was going to be finding her in this maze of a city.
OoO OoO OoO
The Hidden Village of Mist
"Oi," someone said softly, jolting Kakashi out of an uneasy sleep. Suppressing a groan, the Jounin rolled over despite the protests of his aching muscles. Since when had twenty-six begun to feel so old? Something paw-like poked at his shoulder, and he opened his eyes to find himself face to face with a concerned-looking Pakkun, peering down at him. Blearily, he remembered he'd summoned the ninja dog before lying down for some much-needed sleep. Then, when the guard had come in to empty the room's chamber pot, he'd used his Sharingan to hypnotize the man into believing Pakkun was a literal pile of shit.
"He dumped me into the plumbing system," Pakkun whispered, wrinkling his pug nose even further. "Had to swim for it. I also had to bathe real quick or the stench alone would've given me away." Pakkun no longer wore the kerchief on his back or his forehead protector. Apparently the smell hadn't washed out of those.
Kakashi scratched his head through matted, tousled white hair. "What have you found?"
The pug sank onto his haunches on the bed, frowning down at his paws. "I got back in here easy because the guard coming out of your room a minute ago was distracted. The Mist are under attack."
It never was content with rain; always had to pour.
"The assassins?" Kakashi hazarded a safe guess.
"No," Pakkun answered. "The Rain."
END OF CHAPTER 10
Yamisui: Umm . . . sorry it's been so long . . . I blame school and work. I was writing my Masters thesis, then my previous laptop died, taking my thesis with it. Then I had to rewrite the thing in a month, as well as keep up with my three part-time teaching jobs and somehow passing my last particle physics course. Then I got a job that was, at first, requiring me to commute two hours in each direction. Now I'm moved and settled in and have free time again. So yatta, productivity resumes. You can expect there won't be a year before the next chapter is posted.