Fish Bird (魚鳥）
Chapter Twenty-Two: Too close
She moved around the cavern restlessly, her eyes moving to the ceiling and then to the floor muttering to herself as the demons lined up behind her as a solid stack of shadows.
"Not quite yet," she murmured. "Not quite yet, we don't want to give the game away too quickly do we? No, that wouldn't be any fun."
From his position on the floor all that Sasuke could see of her were her thin ghostly legs as she walked past his head, too preoccupied with whatever it was she was planning to notice that he was slowly making an attempt to break the binding jutsu that was currently gluing him to the floor.
It was slow progress. Mostly because he could only use chakra in one arm and gathering all his energy there was proving more and more difficult by the minute as the black rods inserted into the rest of his body radiated blinding waves of pain. He bit down on his tongue to stop himself from crying out, tears stinging his eyes as he counted an increasing intensity with every twenty seconds.
Dimly it occurred to him that if she noticed she would probably kill him or worse, strip him of his chakra again. He shuddered remembering the last time she had done that. In his mind he pictured Her as she had been, the skeleton corpse he had found in a sealed tomb.
Why he hadn't realized then that releasing her would have been a monumentally stupid idea?
In his arrogance and naivety Sasuke had thought that whatever he had freed he would be able to control, and the cost had not seemed that high. His chakra in exchange for Itachi's life, a temporary bond between them to be severed on his death?
It seemed almost too good to be true and as his brother had died at his feet, an expression of surprise etched over the remnants of his handsome face he realized that it was. She had become too powerful too quickly, shaking off the spells that had bound her to a weak form; he had felt the pull of her becoming stronger and stronger.
Her labored excuse of needing more time had grown rapidly thinner and thinner as he noticed that she no longer walked in his shadow but roamed forth foraging for 'food'.
One day she had chanced upon a small settlement and had then proceed to devour the villagers…whole.
As Sasuke had walked through the village after her, determined to put an end to her the site of the brutal, violent, senseless bloodshed had turned his stomach.
He who had spent his formative years under the study of Orochimaru, only to watch him be consumed effortlessly by her as well.
In the little village carrion had been strewn across the dirt paths like confetti, the heavy smell of entrails permeating the air like a dark clinging mist, whilst blood had dripped from the little huts as a gruesome substitute for paint.
Every here and there he had seen evidence in the ground of a struggle, as if she had played with her food before eating it, a cat toying with a mouse before its inevitable demise.
Sasuke opened his eyes again, the pain was much more bearable now as his veins flooded with a cool determination to break free, no matter what the cost to his own body.
"Whom shall I send?" she asked, looking about her at the line of heads craning at her from the floor to the ceiling.
"Do we choose stealth?" She pointed to a slimy creature, skeletally thin with huge protruding eyes and tiny needle like teeth. It made a soft gulbing sound of pleasure at these words.
"Do we choose brute force?" Another demon came pouncing forwards from the shadows swiping aggressively at its tiny brethren whom scarpered at the sight of it. The huge demon's jagged teeth clacked together in its obscenely ugly face, whilst its eyes whirled round and round as if on stalks.
She paused for a moment and then beckoned at something right at the back of the cavern, before saying "Or, shall we choose my favourite?"
Sasuke couldn't see what it was that she had summoned forwards but noted that the other demons had scarpered away from it, even the huge bestial summon she had just called forward quickly moved to get out of the way of whatever it was she had just called into view. He had decided however that he did not care for her little exhibition; she was probably only doing it to frighten him, flex her muscles, impress him even.
Right now, his main priority was to free himself from this bind which felt as if every one of his vertebra were cemented to the floor. He took a calming breath in, closed his eyes and willed his heart to stop beating wildly in his chest. Slowly, achingly slowly he began to unpick himself from the full body bind, hoping to god she was too preoccupied to sense the chakra buildup in his arm as the black rods sent waves of pain throughout his body once again.
When Sasuke had eventually found her in the grandest house of the little village, she was sitting in the chair of the village elder. A beautiful hand crafted chair made from bamboo and cypress, intricately designed so that the wood had taken on the characteristic of a willow tree.
She no longer looked like a wizened corpse resurrected by forbidden jutsu and old magic, she looked youthful and vibrant instead. Her skin silky and pale, long dark hair that fell across her shoulders and the small of her back like the night sky, her face heart shaped with a pouting mouth. She would have been impossibly beautiful if it had not been for the remnants of her last meal smeared bloodily across her dark lips. It was then she had looked at his surprised face with her sparkling violet eyes and laughed at him.
"What's the matter Sasuke? Don't you like it?" she had asked getting up from the chair and swishing that length of hair behind her like an obsidian curtain. She had dressed herself in the clothes of a shrine maiden and seemed to take great delight in his surprise.
"I thought you'd prefer me like this." she had told him sweetly, walking towards him on slender feet and slipping her arms around his neck and smiling up at him. There was something so dangerous about her eyes he had thought, some malevolent force just behind the irises, dancing seductively on the tip of her tongue. Up close he could smell the blood beneath her nails and feel the scream of her victims reverberating within her cool flesh, his fingers had reached up to curl about her wrists either side of his neck.
She had no pulse he perceived.
"I do prefer you like this," he'd said softly, despite it being an outright lie and yet not daring to look away as he saw her smile grow wider.
"Think of what we could do together," she had murmured against his ear. "Everything would be ours for the taking. We'd have no-one to fear and no-one to stop us."
Her breasts were small and firm he noted as she had pressed her body up against his, drawing his hands around her waist as he entwined his fingers in her hair. He had leaned down to kiss her, her mouth was slightly parted and expectant like a newly flowered rose after a storm, he had seen the passion in her eyes and had felt the tension in the air. He had made the choice then, throwing a stone into a mountain that had started an avalanche, and in one swift movement took his katana to her bare flesh.
As Sasuke's legs became unbound he desperately began to work on freeing his other arm, every second he took doing this increased the chances of discovery.
Beads of sweat began to form on his forehead as he forced himself to lie perfectly flat, overhead one of the creatures stepped over him, brushing his face with a monstrous talon so that the hooked end dug into his cheek drawing blood. Still he made no sound and didn't move a muscle, only listened desperately for a clue to her movements, she was still talking to the favoured one Sasuke presumed, the hustle and bustle of things all around him as they prepared to move out shielded his attempts at freedom from being noticed.
Something behind him snorted loudly, and he felt his gut turn to ice. He'd cut his damn arm off if he had to as 'the thing' dripped past his left shoulder, a disgusting oily smell clouding his nostrils and causing his skin to crawl. With a spiraling sense of urgency he gathered his chakra into a fine blade and sliced through the last tendons of the bind. Finally! His arm was free. A jolt of excitement sizzled throughout his body. He turned his attention back to where she was standing, in amongst the throng of demonic heads and scaled skin. If he could just…
He tensed himself to spring, a fireball would have been perfect right about now, but it required chakra to gather in his chest and mouth and that was an impossibility these chakra-absorbing rods in his body.
Sasuke felt vulnerable, as if he were about to wage war in nothing but his bare skin. Nothing to protect him except his wit and his senses, and he only had one arm to work with if he was attacking her.
But enough was enough, this had gone on for far too long now was the time to bring the roof down, literally.
Sasuke had always been one to play games. How she had howled with rage as he had sliced the katana into her belly, she had still been at only a fraction of her real strength and even with impaired chakra flow Sasuke was a formidable opponent.
He hadn't realized however that with each fallen victim she became that much stronger, feeding from fear and despair she had indulged gluttonously. Purposely playing with each and everyone of her quarry, their screams of dread and pleas for mercy had increased her strength exponentially. That had been the first fight in which she had summoned her demons to her, and they had clustered about her as if protecting their mother, which, he supposed she was.
As the rain had began to fall Sasuke had been savagely attacked on all sides by the dark hoard, but he had pressed on, not caring if he lived or died so long as he defeated her.
Long talons had ripped at his arms and jagged teeth had aimed for his jugular, whilst she had stood on a mound of bloodied earth. Hair like black paint plastered against her skin, eyes wicked and malicious as she laughed at him whilst nursing the deep gash he had given her on her abdomen.
She didn't have the common decency to bleed, he had noticed. Instead the blood had seemed to drop out of her, heavy and clotted like thick honey as if it were already coagulated inside of her.
As he had fought on against impossible odds, he realized she was being careful not to let them kill him, he didn't care what the reason was but it did provide him with an ace.
The demons had fallen on him endlessly, each wave attacking with renewed strength. As he threw one to the ground and had turned in one fluid movement to behead the one behind him, another two seamlessly took their place.
Sasuke was many things, arrogant, selfish and prideful, but he wasn't stupid, this was a battle he could not directly win. So he had feinted and played defeat itself.
Sinking to his knees he had admitted the inevitability of his fate and had surrendering to the helplessness of the never-ending hoard.
Oh, and how she had gloated, almost screaming in pleasure. Her small feet 'pit-pattering' over to him in the darkness as she had prepared to unhinge her jaw and swallow him whole.
/Calm down, now is not the moment to panic./
Sasuke had waited, waited carefully; dread creeping steadily through his veins as he felt her stoop over him. He waited despite his brain and senses screaming at him to run, that he was a fool, that it he would die. He stayed motionless as if carved from marble, not daring to move until it was almost too late and then lunged for the katana and drove it forcefully upwards.
Sasuke had been showered with hot and sticky blood, but he didn't care as he was too absorbed by her horrible scream. A truly gut wrenching cry that had sent the birds flapping from the trees in terror all around them and had seemed to send jolts of snapping electricity across his skin. He had stabbed the katana four times through her chest and had turned to run as she had fallen with a heavy 'slump' to the ground, crumbling like sand under water.
The demons had pursued him out of the remains of the village, across the wilderness and through the forest, he had hoped she was dead, that he had killed her, but he knew that he had not. He had only weakened her for a while but had failed to stop the inevitable, something he needed to do now before anymore time was lost.
Like black lightening Sasuke got to his feet, gathering all of his energy in one hand and slamming his fist into the wall, directly to her left. The rock split with an ear-shattering CRACK and the cavern shook ferociously, large pieces of the ceiling plummeting down onto the floor.
He heard her shriek, as huge boulders crashed to the ground and the demons leapt squealing in all directions, some too slowly to avoid being crushed beneath the rock avalanche – to be pulverized with a satisfying 'squish'.
Sasuke pressed himself as close to the wall as possible with both his arms over his head, trying to protect himself from what appeared to be the world tearing itself apart around him like tissue paper. Dust clouded his eyes and he began to cough, the tumultuous amount of noise around him blocked off his hearing and his sense of touch, and as he staggered backwards narrowly missing a huge boulder that smashed inches away from where he had just been standing.
Now was the time to make an escape. But even as he flung himself forwards into the fray something picked him up roughly by his collar and threw him aggressively back into the hard merciless rock. Sasuke's skull cracked and he felt as if he would shatter with pain as his teeth clamped down agonizingly on his tongue. He gave a low moan and was thrown to the floor, his hands pinned behind his back and forced into a kneeling position.
As the dust cleared and the blood from his head wound dripped down the bridge of his nose and the back of his neck, he sensed her move towards him and when he looked up he was filled with the elated knowledge that he had hurt her.
Her skin was hanging loosely from one side of her face so it revealed the bone of the skull underneath her right eyelid, and her lips seemed to be pulled almost completely from her face.
"You piece of shit," she spat, quivering with rage as she grabbed his neck in her cold icy hands, "You will have the pleasure of watching what happens this time." And she slapped him hard across the face with the back of her hand so he felt the red marks left by her fingers burning into the skin.
"Incarcerate him so he can see." She told whatever it was that was holding him down.
Sasuke tried to twist around to escape, to overpower his opponent, to fling himself at her, but the cold hands kept him firmly in place. Methodically they pushed his head forwards and then dragged him backwards by his dark matted hair.
"Let go!" he hollered but the grip was merciless. Sasuke felt something slide over his foot, climbing steadily up his leg and across his pelvis, making its way up to his chest, neck and face.
"No! Let go of me!" He continued to yell, his fingers digging into the ones knotted in his hair that were pulling so violently it felt as if his scalp may rip away entirely.
He looked down at the whatever-it-was creeping across his body and with dread perceived it to be part of the cavern itself. Rock under some jutsu made to bubble and flow like water so that it melded around him, drawing him into the rock even as he watched it. Wildly he swung out, but strands shot out from the wall behind him like the strings of a spider's web, ensnaring him, making it impossible to move. The rock was now sliding across his Adam's apple, over his chin and poking at the recesses of his mouth. Oh god, how was he going to breathe? Would he suffocate?
It was only then that pressure was released on his head and it was at last that Sasuke could finally see his captor standing in front of him, and as he looked he felt a dark wave of panic crash over him. The dark, expressionless eyes of his brother stared back at him as the rock swallowed him into the wall, like a tomb.
Sasuke didn't know why he bothered to say it out loud, they were words that no one could hear as the rock caged him in total darkness. He felt fear and dread claw ruthlessly at his insides as the rock pressed as a suffocating mask across his face.
There was no way to warn Naruto or the others.
He was trapped.
"Hey Naruto, Naruto! … Naruto? Naruto be careful!"
"We are climbing across a vertical drop!" Naruto snapped, "What the hell do you think I'm doing? I'm not about to try to slide down it!"
Stress had made them irritable Shikamaru thought as he pressed his body against the rock edge, in his mind he thanked whoever it was that had taught him to compress chakra into his fingertips and feet so that he didn't just go tumbling off the precipice and into a cold oblivion.
Once Shikamaru knew, instead of a gaping great hole in the earth there had been a lift that had descended into the perilous depths of the world in the cold persuit of compressed carbon.
Who the hell likes diamonds this much! He found himself wondering, staring down into the depths of the hole as if were the hungry mouth of a restless Sea-Monster.
On the circular hewn walls around the gaping void there was evidence of rusting machinery where the lift had once run. He imagined the miners lowering themselves to their death on one fateful day, the lift cable snapping either by chance or malicious intent and the counter balance ripping straight through the metal wire.
That would be a dreadful way to die, he thought plummeting to your death for jewelry. Would there be anything left of you after the impact? Just a mess of blood and bones in no particular recognizable order? The sort of crime scene when dental records need to be carefully examined in order to identify the victim. He closed his eyes and gently knocked his head against the nearest rock, sometimes having an overactive imagination was not a good thing.
Mentally he pulled himself back from the brink and shouldered the makeshift bomb higher up his back. Focus please; don't think about anything else but the mission in hand.
/Especially don't think about the likelihood that you're all about to die!/
"Neji?" He called out, "Do you see anything?"
"Nothing." The Nin called from somewhere in front of him; from the sounds of it Neji had effortlessly (typically) conversed the hole and was waiting patiently for them on the other side, safe (as far as it was possible to be) on solid ground.
"Why don't we have any night vision goggles?" Kiba asked from directly behind him. He was sitting astride Akamaru, his large dog jumping from protruding rock outcrop to protruding rock outcrop, holding a lighted torch in one hand and in Shikamaru's opinion looked disgustingly untroubled by the thousand foot drop beneath them.
Damn himself for being afraid of heights, he had never liked them.
"Because we don't." Shikamaru ground out from his back molars, his voice sounded tense and terse exactly portraying how he was feeling.
"If we have the equipment to make a Bomb," Kiba continued to narrate. "We should have the equipment to make night vision goggles, I can't see in the dark, I don't think Neji can either. Can you Naruto?"
"I'm possessed by the demon fox," Naruto shouted irritably at him, some way in front of Shikamaru now. "Not the demon owl!"
"There you see," Kiba concluded triumphantly as if he had made some irrefutable point. "Night vision goggles would have come in really handy right about now, I could have looked like a proper ninja, not some twat on a mutt carrying a lighted stick."
He patted his dog fondly on the head, "No offense Akamaru."
Shikamaru would have liked to respond with something along the lines of: Foxes are nocturnal you dolt and so no different from normal then? But the rock he was hanging from was unstable; he could feel it shaking slightly beneath his splayed fingers.
If the stupid thing gave way he was going to fall, and if he fell, he wasn't sure he could see well enough to grab hold of something else.
Shikamaru's palms began to sweat profusely.
"Maru," he heard Naruto call out his pet name, that could only mean he was worried. "You're almost across."
Shikamaru steadied his heartbeat, tensed his arm muscles and flung himself onto the next decent purchase. The bomb weighed heavily on his back, dragging him down further than he had expected to fall so that his fingers almost missed the rock he had been aiming for, he gave a surprised yell and felt the whole world swing unsteadily beneath him. His purchase was precarious to say the least, and despite his chakra giving him extra grip he could still feel himself slipping. He needed to get to the ledge now.
Drawing a kunai from his pocket he rammed it into the rock face using it to haul himself upwards, adrenaline rushing in his ears and flowing through his veins like a narcotic. He heard Naruto and Kiba yell, but he was only conscious of himself as he used his arms and feet to propel himself to the ledge, jumping across at least six feet of utter unimaginable blackness. Sweeping clean across that sickening drop.
He landed after what seemed an endless age with his arms outstretched on the hard rock of the shelf but then to his horror slid unstoppably backwards, the heavy dead weight of the bomb determinedly dragging him backwards towards the pit.
Down, down, down, into the deep.
The damn thing was determined to kill him he could feel it.
/Bad Karma. Bad Karma. Bad Karma. Bad Karma. Bad Karma. Bad Karma. Bad Karma. Bad Karma…../
Hard fingernails dug painfully into his arm, hauling him away from that dread sucking feeling. He had never been so glad to feel Naruto's solid weight ramming into his noise as he grabbed any part of Shikamaru's body that he could, taking him away from that soul-sucking drop.
They both staggered forwards, foreheads sweaty, caked in dirt and shaking uncontrollably.
"T-thanks." He managed to get out. He didn't dare look behind him.
"You okay?" Naruto asked concerned, behind him they all heard the place on the rock face where Shikamaru had been holding onto for dear life just seconds ago, tumble down the vertical drop into oblivion.
Shikamaru gave him a swift nod, feeling his stomach plummet with the falling debris.
"Is the bomb okay?" Neji asked, in a typical Neji manner.
/Priorities first I understand, but you can at least pretend to be concerned!/
Shikamaru gave him the finger, and he saw Neji give one of his rare smiles. A moment later Kiba and Akamaru joined them, taking a jaw dropping eight-foot leap with apparent ease.
"You pansy," Kiba said jokingly, sliding effortlessly from the giant dog's back, clapping his friend jovially on the arm. Shikamaru gave him his best don't-fuck-with-me-you-son-of-a-bitch look and noticed an odd acrid smell lingering about his friend's skin. He frowned, decided it was nothing and told them they had to press on.
"We're approaching the Devil's Mouth." He said, pulling a map from out of one of his many pockets.
"The Devil's what?"
"This mountain range, the subterranean river, it all connects to the ocean. Down here there's a cavern that connects to a deep part of the tunnels, but it's only uncovered when the tide is out. We should be fine if we can place the bomb here, it'll be in the deepest part of the cave system we can reach, but we have to get in and out before the water gets in. If we blow this place apart not only will it collapse but it'll also be flooded."
They all nodded silently, looking apprehensive at the idea of the extra pressure of time. It wasn't something that anyone was going to welcome in with open arms.
"I have some luminescent vials," Shikamaru continued handing a small glass bottle to each of them. "I doubt the torch will do us much good in the damp tunnels. I want you to try avoid using chakra if at all possible, it seems to draw the demons straight to us."
"So…the plan is?" Kiba asked hesitatingly.
"Get in, plant the bomb and get out." Shikamaru said grimly. "Nothing else, we don't have time for anything else. We barely have time as it is."
"Well let's get to it then." Neji said efficiently, leading the way.
Shikamaru stole a glance at Naruto, his friend's face was apprehensive and slightly drawn. He looked pensive as if fighting some internal struggle within his head. Shikamaru thought he knew what it was he was thinking.
"There is nothing you can do," he murmured barely above whisper. "He made his choice, you can't die for him Naruto. None of us are going to let you."
Naruto's cornflower blue eyes slid to his, his shoulders were slightly slumped as if in gentle defeat but his wide generous mouth was firm, a sigh that he had resolutely made up his mind.
"I'm not going to put you in danger for Sasuke," he said quietly so not even Kiba could hear. "This is too important, for everyone's sake."
Shikamaru wanted to say 'Good!' but sensed tactfully that that probably wasn't the appropriate response. So instead he cleared his throat and clapped Naruto on the back and then behind him. He had expected Kiba to come bouncing forwards, some silly pep talk spiraling disastrously from the tip of his tongue. But instead his friend looked blank and distant, his face curiously void of all emotions.
Perhaps the idea of the task ahead was getting to him?
"Alright," Shikamaru said straightening his collar and straightening his back so that the bomb didn't weigh so heavily across his shoulders. "Lets go do this."
The further they pressed the damper the tunnel system became. The constant drip, drip, drip from the ceiling had long extinguished Kiba's torch, now he padded quietly behind Shikamaru, luminescent vial strapped to his belt as Akamaru moved silently in his long shadow.
"You can hear the water beneath us." He muttered quietly to Shikamaru; as a huge gurgle rippled through the rock beneath them, like a monster stirring from a deep slumber. "You sure the tide isn't coming in? Absolutely a hundred percent positive?"
In the darkness Shikamaru crossed his eyes, he was developing a stress tick high on his forehead
"Lets put it like this," he said in what he regarded to be tones of the upmost patience. "If it was in, I'd seriously recommend you rapidly evolve gills."
"Some ninja can breathe underwater." Naruto interjected turning round to look at the two of them. "Kisame, he could breathe underwater I think."
"Yeah, but wasn't he half a sea urchin?" Kiba asked genuinely confused.
"I think you mean a half shark." Shikamaru corrected him, looking at his friend puzzled as if he were mentally deficient. "And no, no, no he wasn't! But there may be jutsu taught in Kirigagure that may enable a person to breathe underwater, it would make sense. Unfortunately I've never read anything about a jutsu like that, probably because countries protect certain techniques from ever…"
"Shut up!" Neji interjected swiftly startling the rest of them; he was standing several feet in front with a luminescent vial strapped to his wrist so that he could use his arm to guide a small pathway of light.
"We are not alone here."
"Have they found us?" Naruto asked, there was a thick transparent note of panic in his voice.
"No, but they are close." Neji said darkly, his Bayakugan was activated as it had been for the past hour. He seemed deeply apprehensive.
"How many?" Shikamaru asked closing his own eyes as he said it, trying to reach out and sense the other things in the darkness with them. The answer seemed superfluous, Neji might not have been able to round the number to the nearest ten, but the answer was still a lot.
They carried on in silence from then on, each of them feeling the mounting pressure as they descended down and down into the depths of the tunnels. Shikamaru found himself staring at Naruto's broad back for most of the journey, his mind sorting through different scenarios and conclusions to their mission. In most scenarios the outcome seemed bleak, but he predicted that if they were careful and if everything went to plan they had a decent enough chance of surviving. However, he knew from the experience of being around Naruto and Kiba almost constantly for the past five years that things never went to plan when it involved those two. The bane of his life, but his two best friends.
This had all started on a routine mission as well, information gathering, nothing special. They had finished early and he and Kiba had been playing a much loved game of theirs 'who can tease Naruto the longest before he chases you up a tree' and then…Sasuke.
Shikamaru sighed, if only they had never found Sasuke he thought wistfully. If only Naruto had somehow leapt to the rational conclusion that leaving the Nin in a pile of his own blood was probably best for all parties involved. Even in his head that sounded heartless. He sighed. But if all this could have been avoided then surely…?
Naruto was Naruto, he had always loved Sasuke and Shikamaru suspected he always would do. In whatever capacity Sasuke desired of Naruto to reciprocate that love, Naruto would do it that was simply part who he was. Obsessed! Unhealthily so! He wanted to give his friend a shake, to tell him to wake up! That it would only end in heartache and more pain. But it wasn't any good, like a parent he had to realize that some mistakes you simply have to watch being made without interfering, even if they made them over and over again. He couldn't physically stop Naruto from loving Sasuke, bar erasing his memory. All he could do was advise, be his friend and provide him with a shoulder to cry on.
His thoughts of Naruto spiraled to thoughts of Kiba and Hinata, and then to thoughts of himself and Ino, he let his mind fall into a tedious tone. He thought passively of the growing wetness of the tunnel, the way drips kept sliding down his neck sticking uncomfortably to the skin beneath his collar, and how the muscles of his back ached uncomfortably. He thought about one foot being placed in front of the other, not slipping, and that he hoped Ino was far, far, far away from the mountain right now…
In those monotonous moments, he didn't register that it was all going to hell.
As they approached the Devil's Mouth it went wrong. This was another hole in the endless landscape of rock, only it was smooth edged this time from where the water from the ocean had risen daily out of it's mouth only to descend again into its jet-black depths in its daily ritual. Here there was no evidence of man made machinery, as if the original settlers had realized this place was far too dangerous and had turned promptly back.
From beneath their feet deep-rumbling sounds kept erupting out of the hole like a bubbling volcano. Naruto and Kiba eyed it warily, as Shikamaru tightening the straps on his rucksack motioned that they had to go across it in order to plant the bomb.
They all looked at him as if he was mad.
"Are you serious?" Kiba mouthed at him. "Are you trying to get us all killed?"
Shikamaru fixed him with a stern look, swiping his thumb across his forehead in a curiously Naruto like fashion. He turned and looked at Neji whom nodded at him, took one look at the width of the hole, judged the run up and took it.
There was something about Neji Hyuuga that made everything look effortless. He sailed in a graceful arc over the gaping whole and landed neatly on the other side of it, motioning for the rest of them to follow suite.
He gave Kiba a smile of 'Look Neji can do it, you pussy' and thought his friend might try to drop-kick him into the depths of the hole in reciprocation. Shaking such theories off and penning it down to love rivalry and jealously, Shikamaru steadied himself. He told himself not to think about the drop again when he felt fingers curl around his elbow and stole a glance to his immediate left to see Naruto give him a deft wink.
"Together?" He mouthed and Shikamaru silently thanked him.
It was only when Kiba jumped that the real problems began, as he got mid jump a clap of thunder rolled around the tunnel. Except there was no such thing as underground thunder, and with a cold suck of air and an ear shattering 'WHOOSH' water came bursting out of the Devil's Mouth.
It caught Kiba directly, slamming him into the smooth wall of the tunnel and dragging him down under the water. He lost his grip totally, sliding quickly down into the bottomless depths, sliding, as far as Shikamaru was concerned towards hell. They fought to get to him, water flying at them this way and that, stinging their eyes with salt and slapping them hard across the face, pushing them backwards away from their friend with unrelenting force. Akamaru howled, desperate to claw his way towards his Master, despite the force of the water pushing him away.
"KIBA!" Shikamaru heard himself yell above the noise, coughing as the salt water drove into his mouth and throat. He saw Kiba lash out trying to find something to hold onto, as the water seemed to curl around his waist like a fist and drag him under. At this rate he was either going to drown or be pulled down into the Devil's Mouth completely, and both he and Naruto suddenly knew at the same time what Kiba was going to do before he did it.
There was a huge burst of chakra from within the water, a massive blue light exploding through the walls of the tunnel as Kiba shot himself from out of the fray. He came twisting out of the gurgling geyser, absolutely no control over what direction he flew in, just as long as it was out. He slammed hard into the ceiling of the low tunnel a few meters away and slumped to the floor, they could see a long gash across his forehead that sent blood sluicing down his face.
"You idiot!" Shikamaru heard Neji screaming as Naruto ran towards his fallen friend, actively shouldering the jounnin out of the way in order to get to Kiba.
"For fuck sakes," he heard the Kitsune yelling straight back at him. "What the hell was he supposed to do?"
Shikamaru didn't have time to hear the argument that was about to spiral from Kiba's particular choice of actions, life saving or not, they were now presented with a huge problem. From behind them the Devil's Mouth gave another almighty roar, water spewing from the depths like foamy thunder.
"We need to go!" he shouted, grabbing Kiba's dazed form from his slumped position on the floor and hauling him forwards.
"Come on go, they know we're here. Run!"
Kiba stumbled after his best friend; he looked dazed, blood dripping thickly into his eyes as he pressed forwards. Akamaru running loyally behind him, muzzle pressed reassuringly into Kiba's side as they went.
"Naruto, to me!" Shikamaru yelled, motioning for the Kitsune to take up the position directly in front of him. He had a suspicion, and he wasn't about to let Naruto out of his sight.
"Can you hear them?" Kiba asked; his eyes filled with fear as he said it. Shikamaru didn't bother to turn round; he just redoubled his efforts to keep going and ignore the sickening sound of the things coming after them. It was impossible to think they could be gaining up on them so fast, was it? Or were they descending on them from out of the walls? He thought he could make out the snake-like silhouettes of arms reaching out at them as they raced past.
"Neji!" he shouted pulling Kiba close to him as his friend staggered almost drunkardly to the left, that knock to the head had seemed to of seriously disorientated him. "Which way do we go?"
"Left!" Neji called back in response pointing to a fork in the tunnels ahead of them. "There doesn't seem to be anything down there yet!"
As they ran down the long tunnel with the steady rush of water streaming after them, it occurred to Shikamaru slightly too late that the tunnel to their left was a trap. It was showed a suspicious lack of activity for a group of four Nin that had just let the proverbial firework out of the box.
Mind you, genjutsu is tricky like that. One minute you're running across the floor and the next second you're waist deep in solid rock and stuck to the ceiling.
He could hear Kiba yelling for Akamaru to run somewhere behind his left ear but took no notice, all his attention was focused Naruto. He knew specifically, as if it were tattooed across his brain that he must protect him. He could feel the weight of the bomb dragging him head first towards an endless plummet, as if the universe had been ripped open beneath their heads and was just daring them to fall into it.
"We can break free!" Neji told them, as bodiless heads leered up at them from the darkness, snaking towards them with insatiable mouths.
"On three? One…t-"
"Three!" Shikamaru shouted over-riding Neji's countdown; he was sure he could sense something coming towards them, something big. He drove his kunai into the top of his hand, the pain recoiling him into reality and he fell face first into the hard stone.
"Naruto!" He yelled, but his friend was already lying next to him looking as dazed and dirty as ever, as was Kiba… in fact the only one who wasn't was…
A terrible blood curdling scream shattered the darkness around them, a huge demon with a bestial face stood leaning over Neji, it's mouth wide open. It had been careful, just carful enough to stand far enough away from the Nin so not to be within the range of his gentle fist technique. Not that that mattered now because it seemed as if Neji….
Beside him Shikamaru heard Naruto shout words he never heard, he just saw the whatever-it-was spit some sort of liquid straight into Neji's eyes. There was crimson pouring from around Neji's face as if he were crying blood, the skin bubbling horribly. It had spat …acid at him, Shikamaru thought. Naruto had already got to his feet and Kiba was stumbling after him as Naruto filled the tunnel with shadow clones, yelling at the top of his voice for the demon to leave Neji the hell alone!
They had been drawn, Shikamaru realized with a clawing sense of panic as he looked round, into a dead end. The route they should have taken lay to their right, penetrating even deeper into the mountain, but the likelihood of them getting to that now… Especially considering that Neji probably couldn't see anymore…It was worse then the time Gaara had crushed Lee's legs.
"Wash it out of his eyes, get him to stand up. Support him if you have to, we need to get out of here!"
In the distance he could hear the angry roar of water rushing towards them, they had very little time it seemed, and every second wasted the ever-dwindling widow of escape narrowed.
"You son of a bitch, we're not leaving you." Shikamaru heard Kiba bark aggressively at Neji. "You can ride on Akamaru, he'll keep you safe and you still might be able to help us. You are a ninja aren't you?"
The mass of Naruto's shadow clones met the advancing hoard, in the pale light given from their luminescent vials he could see hundreds of pairs of eyes looking at them from out of the darkness. Gnashing teeth, long spider like hands, talons, and even some eyeless faces with gaping mouths.
He pulled a kunai from his Chuunin jacket, wishing for a larger object with which to defend himself with, but he knew that skill and cunning were unlikely to win a battle where the enemy overwhelms you with countless numbers. They were fighting a veritable swarm.
Naruto attacked with Kiba and Akamaru at his flank, Neji hanging onto the dog's back for dear life. Shikamaru bought up the rear; it was his duty to protect the bomb, to protect the people fleeing the mountains and above all to protect Konoha. They could detonate it here after all. They were probably deep enough to cause significant impact and close enough to the ocean to cause flooding if the worst came to the worst. It was a sacrifice all of them would be willing to make.
Shikamaru saw his friends drive back the hoard; the sheer force of their massed chakra attacks combined seemed to startle the demons. Naruto whether he cared to admit it or not always did brilliantly under pressure, and even now as he slammed into the fray with his shadow clones protecting him from all sides he cut great swathes in their numbers. Kiba was similar, what he lacked in finesse he made up for with raw power. His clan had a simple strategy: When the enemy attacks be ready and defeat them with superior power, superior stamina, and bring with you a partner that is loyal and in step with your every move.
Shikamaru saw Kiba beating a monstrous demon back, his friend evening daring to flash Shikamaru one of his trademark roguish smiles when he felt himself grabbed from around the knees and pushed forwards. Waiting there to meet him was a blackened face with red eyes and needle like teeth, and yet another to his left jumping for his neck, and swiping for his jugular with unnaturally serrated talons.
He threw himself to the ground, rolling first to the left and then to the right as the demon stabbed at him, its sharp talons sending sparks flying from the rock as it missed. He kicked out, catching the one with red eyes in the face causing it to squeal in pain. The other ran at him again, and he swerved to avoid it. He was slightly too slow this time as it caught his shoulder. Pain sizzled through him like lightening but it only served to sharpen his senses, he threw a handful of Shuriken at it and watched it leapt to avoid them. It landed clumsily unsure of its footing and he seized the moment. Throwing himself at it he pinned it to the ground and in one swift movement slit its throat, blood gargling up into his face as he went through a main artery.
The sudden rush of noise behind him warned him that the other one was up again, and spinning round he met it head on. As it collided with him, the impact throwing them both backwards he caught it with a blow to the torso so it slammed against the wall and he threw the bloody kunai straight through its head. As smooth as breathing his slid his hands back into the pockets of his jacket and withdrew another Kunai, other hand primed with chakra, ready to meet anything directly. From the corner of his eye he saw the other three Nin move to combine attacks; this would cut through the demons he thought, elated.
Then the unthinkable happened.
It only took a nanosecond, too fast for the naked eye to perceive. Kiba and Akamaru faltered, part of an unbreakable team something went wrong, something had been miscalculated, the move was not right. Kiba was flung in a sudden outburst of chakra away from Akamaru, and Akamaru yelping, skidded into the fray with Neji on his back.
They were pounced upon immediately by the demons, hundreds of them it seemed. A never-ending black mountain writhing about in the tunnel, a predator with thousands of eyes and teeth and an insatiable appetite. Kiba howling angrily, a massive burst of chakra from him and Naruto combined plunged forwards. The attack parted the demons like the red sea. Sensing the anger of their quarry, the deadly menace in Kiba's eyes they ran, and the two of them dragged Akamaru out… but Neji…Neji was gone.
A cold panic gripped Shikamaru; he realized then what had happened.
"We have to go after him!" Naruto was saying as Kiba put his arms around Akamaru's neck, nuzzling his dog's ear.
"He might not be dead, we can still save him."
Kiba nodded getting to his feet and holding out his hand to Naruto, "We can make a quick push, I have some blood tablets we can take in my pocket. If we do it quickly we may be in with a good chance." He turned round to see Shikamaru advancing rapidly, his skin and clothes splattered with demon blood. "You with us Maru?"
"Get the hell away from him."
There was complete silence. There wasn't a trace of amusement or fondness on Shikamaru's face, and in the ghostly light of their vials he seemed almost ethereal and intangibly powerful.
"What's gotten into you?" Kiba asked, thoroughly perplexed as Shikamaru forced himself in between them. He shouldered Naruto away from him, kunai in his right hand pointed at Kiba and his left on Naruto chest as if he feared for Naruto to get any closer to their friend.
"Shikamaru!" Naruto shouted, "What the hell? We don't have time for this! Neji…"
"Neji is dead, and if we're not careful we're all going to be in the next five minutes."
Naruto blinked at him, "What are you talking about?"
"When has Kiba Inuzuka ever mucked up a move with Akamaru, Naruto? When? In all the time you've known him has he ever so much as been a hair out of synch with that dog?"
He heard Naruto let out a quick exhalation of breath behind him and he watched as Kiba's eyes widened in horror.
"I'm not a doppelganger!" Kiba shouted at Shikamaru, trembling from head to toe in rage. "You think I did that on purpose to kill Neji?"
"Yes." It was a statement that left no margin for error.
Kiba snorted derisively and threw his arms into the air, "You've gone mad then if that's what you think happened." He looked past Shikamaru and straight into Naruto's cornflower blue eyes, "The more time we waste standing here, the less likely Neji is to still be alive."
"Don't go with him Naruto, he'll kill you."
"Fuck sake's Maru, don't say that!"
"It's not right, you're not him. Kiba doesn't make mistakes like that, not with Akamaru."
Kiba narrowed his eyes then at Shikamaru; it was the first time he'd ever looked at him without any warmth or friendship in them.
"Do what you like, I'm going after him."
"You're not going anywhere, move and I'll kill you."
"Shikamaru," Naruto murmured, pressing torso against his friend's back. "How do we know? It looks like Kiba, it smells like Kiba. It talks and walks like Kiba!"
"Because I am Kiba you dunderhead!"
Shikamaru licked his dry lips; his legs tensed and ready to spring, his mind reeling through calculations and endless possibilities. He felt it in his gut that something was wrong, that dark feeling that was never wrong. His brown eyes were narrowed and Naruto didn't doubt for a second when he said he'd kill Kiba if he moved that he mean it.
"There's a jutsu," he said bringing his left hand forwards, palm open towards Kiba's face. "One that will show you if a person is possessed or not."
"Then do it!"
"We don't have time! Neji could be…"
"So you won't?"
"We are just pissing about here, when Neji has been…"
"You see he won't Naruto?" Shikamaru said gravely glancing back at the kitsune. "That's not suspicious at all is it?"
Naruto too had drawn a kunai; his beautiful normally sunny face was tense and uncharacteristically grim.
"Kiba," he said in a quiet undertone, "Kiba please, prove him wrong."
"There's nothing to prove!" Kiba spat so angry he almost stamped his foot in rage, "I refuse to be subjected to this test. I haven't done anything wrong! I don't see anyone putting you in a brain scanner Shikamaru every time you make a mistake!"
"Kiba!" Shikamaru shouted, there was a rumbling din rising and surging through the tunnels, they could all hear it coming. "Don't make me do this, I will kill you."
"I am your friend," Kiba yelled back at him there were tears of frustration in his amber eyes; he seemed completely oblivious to everything around him but Shikamaru and Naruto. "How can you do this to me? How can you doubt me? I am your friend!"
They all moved simultaneously as a wave of saltwater rushed down the tunnel hitting them full blast with an impact like a rampaging bull. Naruto made for Kiba as if to force him into the jutsu whilst Kiba, in a motion that could have been interpreted for a lunge forwards or simply being forced over by the wall of water that had impacted onto the back of his legs was met full on by Shikamaru. They tumbled into each other; best friends suddenly pitted against one another as fearsome enemies, both going down into the water.
Visibility all but vanished under the surf as they were enclosed in foam and dirty water, the salt stinging their eyes as they fought each other in a tangle of limbs. Kiba threw Shikamaru bodily off him, and then made to swing with both hands interlocked at his head, Shikamaru dodged, slipping to his knees in the now foot deep water and rammed the Kunai with all his force into Kiba's shoulder. There was a noise of the blade ripping through muscle and scraping bone as Kiba threw himself back away from the knife-edge. He leant to one side like an injured animal, his other hand grasping at his injury whilst his other arm lay motionless at his side. His eyes were dark and furious, but there was also something else that Shikamaru couldn't make out, something in there that just didn't belong. Something…evil?
"Naruto, pin him down and I can perform the jutsu."
He braced himself, waiting for the familiar blur of yellow to whizz past him but nothing happened.
Fear reared up in Shikamaru like an ugly snake, never quite taking his eyes from Kiba he turned slowly to look behind him. He saw Naruto standing in the churning water, his hand to his neck as he removed a long metal dart from his skin. Some feet away Akamaru's skin floated on the water's surface like an absurd costume cast aside after a fancy dress ball and something was stepping out it, gathering its limbs and preparing to jump. Something that was no creature he had ever seen before.
Shikamaru saw Naruto's eyes lose focus, an expression of surprise still etched across his face as his body went limp, crashing into the water like a rag doll. The 'thing' standing in the remains of Kiba's dog leapt at Naruto, it seemed to be made only of smoke and darkness bound into a physical frame as it dragged him through the floor, through solid stone and suddenly, they were both gone.
The water lapped against the stone, bubbling slightly over the place where Naruto had just been. For a moment the silence stretched, but then in the distance Shikamaru could hear the rumbling of another wave racing towards them. He saw the expression change on Kiba's face, something not human was controlling his friend's body, there was something so unnatural about his eyes he didn't know why he hadn't seen it earlier. Without a backwards glance he ran away from Kiba, into the darkness. And like a monstrous shadow, Kiba pursued.
A/N: I am not quite sure how this got to be such a long chapter!