Chapter 2: Confusion and Terror, Heralds of Chaos
Haruno Sakura was absolutely certain that she had never felt such raw, unvarnished terror before.
She continued to turn her head every which way, trying in vain to find their mysterious assailant before he did something else, something even worse than that giant snake he had summoned earlier.
It just didn't make any sense! When she had decided to prove a point to herself and enter the Chuunin exam, she had never in her worst nightmares believed she would be so thoroughly outmatched, outmanoeuvred, and trapped in this situation, with no escape in sight. She looked over her shoulder, and saw Sasuke-kun leap from a branch, which broke just as his weight left it.
Even Sasuke-kun is running scared, she thought. And Naruto is stuck out in the forest again, doing Kami knows what. She almost slipped and fell from the branch in front of her, as her chakra began to run low. She pulled four kunai, a shuriken, an exploding tag, and some wire from her pouch, and began to pull a hasty trap together as they ran.
If only Naruto were here, he and Sasuke-kun would come up with something and outwit this Jounin, just like they did against Zabuza. For it was becoming increasingly clear to her that this was no Genin. He was so far beyond their level it was no longer a remotely funny matter. But Sasuke-kun and Naruto… they can do anything together!
This line of thought began to lead her down a depressing path. I've never been any use on this team. It's always me in the background, me always relying on my team-mates to save me. I was always…
Suddenly another great snake loomed in the path before them, and Sakura only escaped being swallowed by a sliver of skin. The snake-like man (or was it woman?) on the snake's head began laughing in high, cruel tones.
"Ku ku ku, did you think you were going to escape me that way? Hmm?" the attacker as his snake took a bite out of the tree branch where Sasuke had just been standing. "You're not entertaining me enough, Sasuke-kun. Good prey always tries to evade the predator by weaving a tricky path, not this pathetic line we've been running. Or have you already lost your mind? Collapsed gibbering in terror? Let fear completely take over? Good, good! Then you won't mind if my pet here has a snack, do you?" and the snake suddenly turned and lunged in a frozen Sakura's direction.
She felt an arm, Sasuke-kun's arm, encircle her waist and she found herself being transported away. Just in time too, for the snake had taken a huge bite out of the tree, which was beginning to give way.
Oh, how did she ever get so unlucky?
He wasn't quite sure yet, but he suspected that he had made a huge mistake while activating the hook seal. For one thing, the sky wasn't quite right, and his body felt weird and cumbersome. His chakra also felt different, but that wasn't his priority right now, he supposed.
That was strange. He was pretty sure that the last of his old blue-and-orange jumpsuits had been destroyed eighteen months ago, in circumstances which Ero-sennin had still refused to explain to him. And yet he was wearing one right now. And the world seemed to have changed perspective overnight: everything seemed to be larger than before. And the trees looked rather different too, almost as if he'd gone into the Forest of Death again. And the sky wasn't quite right…
Genjutsu! He gritted his teeth. He knew he shouldn't have come out here alone today, and now someone, probably one of those Akatsuki bastards, had put him under an illusion! Damn it all to hell!
Well, there was nothing to do for it but fight his way out. He brought his palms together in a seal, and performed that manoeuvre which seemed from another lifetime now, to remove the hold of this genjutsu.
Yet nothing changed, nothing so much as wavered. Who had put him under such a powerful genjutsu? It didn't even seem to respond in anyway to his efforts, and that was impossible as far as he was concerned. He put his hands together, and tried again. And again. And…
Only his reflexes, honed from a lifetime of running from Iruka-sensei, saved him in time, as he rolled away from his assailant, and turned to find a huge snake staring him in the eye. There was something familiar about this scenario…
The snake lunged again as Naruto leaped up into the trees. Looking down on the snake, he noted that this specimen was too large to be natural. This meant summoned snakes. And there was only one snake summoner Naruto knew of in this world…
Orochimaru! A white-hot rage began to boil within him, but he pressed it down with some difficulty. Now was not the time to let his anger take control of him. There were too many consequences to letting his anger free rein, and besides, there was still the small matter of a snake to take care of. He began to gather swirling chakra in his palm… and found to his surprise, that he could not control the flows of chakra! He was confused, but he didn't have much time to indulge himself as the summon sniffed him out, and once again lunged directly at him. This was getting annoying, and the only time he could remember fighting a snake this size was in his first, and so far only, Chuunin exam.
Wait. The snake he fought then and this snake were eerily similar. It was the same snake in fact! What kind of illusion was this anyway? Retreading an old path he had lived, and relived in his nightmares? But already, things were different, he thought, as he tried to once again form a Rasengan surreptitiously. He failed again, and again, before he had another brain wave.
He formed his hands into a familiar cross-shaped seal and with a puff of smoke, two clones appeared beside him, and began to swirl the emitted chakra. As the Rasengan formed itself, the clones immediately scattered to different points surrounding the snake, and at an unspoken command, they leaped unto the snake with screams and kunai forward.
The snake predictably lunged at one of the clones, who managed to throw a kunai into the snake's mouth before being dispelled. The other clone immediately paused and formed a seal. A hidden explosive tag on the kunai the other clone had thrown immediately exploded. As the snake whirled and flailed about in pain and confusion, the real Naruto leapt upon its head with a cry.
"Rasengan" (Spiral Sphere)
The snake's head seemed to implode, as pieces of flesh, bone, and other things Naruto didn't want to think about flew from the snake's carcass. He landed a few feet away from the thrashing snake, and watched in morbid fascination as everything seemed to come to a head, before the snake suddenly stopped moving, and fell crashing down. Naruto immediately turned away and started heading unerringly east of his current position, where he judged that Orochimaru was.
Orochimaru was not enjoying himself very much.
Oh sure, it was pleasing to feel the terror palpably oozing from the two pre-pubescent teenagers currently leading him a merry chase around this little patch of forest. And he supposed that the Uchiha boy being this weak meant that he would not have much trouble convincing him to join Otogakure, or to take him over when the time came, but this was ridiculous. He didn't want an incredibly weak body which could barely take any punishment for himself, and so far, the rookie genius was not assuring him in that regard. Perhaps if he took him anyway, he could take some time to weed out that weakness, and turn him into a vessel worthy of Orochimaru's life-force…
His musings were rudely cut short by a hail of kunai racing for him. As he substituted himself with a mud clone, he turned in his new position to observe the person who had so rudely interrupted him.
This single word was said with a surprising amount of malice, in Sasuke's opinion, especially if he wasn't hallucinating and it was actually the dobe's voice he was hearing.
He took a deep, cleansing breath and turned to Naruto's direction. For it was indeed Naruto, though his eyes bespoke a deep fury at odds with the situation. Granted, the Kusa-nin (Orochimaru?) was trying to kill him and Sakura, but the way Naruto was glaring, one would think he had a long history with their assailant.
A sudden flood of shame threatened to overwhelm him. He was an Uchiha, dammit! The best of the best! A superior shinobi! And here he was, cowering like a child behind a tree-bough, waiting for someone to come save him from the bogey-man. Like he hadn't gained any strength at all since the last time. Like he was still a naïve seven year-old, still blindly hanging on to his beloved nii-san's every word. Like the weakling he had been, who had let his entire clan die, because he wasn't strong enough! Sasuke felt his jaw clench, and his fists curl up in anger, as he mentally flailed himself. Even now, he could hear Itachi's mocking voice, telling him to run away, taunting his weakness, hounding him with his cutting words.
"Oi Sasuke, I didn't take you for a scaredy-cat! What are you doing hiding there? Come out, and let's give this snake bastard what-for!" This, of course, was Naruto, screaming his defiance to the world. Yet he saw the hand signals Naruto had surprisingly remembered, and prepared to launch a hastily-put together trap. Yes, he was an Uchiha. He was strong. He would not fail here. He still had places to go, people to kill, and no second-rate snake summoner would stop him!
Even as these thoughts went through the raven-haired shinobi's mind, he felt a burning sensation behind his eyes, and exulted in the instinctive knowledge that his Sharingan was evolving. Yes, he held the infinite power of the ultimate doujutsu, he could not, would not allow himself to lose here.
And then a hand cut his airflow off, muffling him.
Naruto was really regretting his decision at the moment. He wiped a stream of blood from his upper brow, and shifted the arm nursing his torso. He was quite sure they were at least two cracked ribs there.
Across him stood his errant team-mates, both of them not looking a day over 12. Gods but this was a realistic genjutsu. There was Sasuke, still looking as though he had never been other than the friend/rival/brother he still longed for, though looking a bit worse for wear. And Sakura-chan, miraculously returned to childhood relatively. And with that same deadly punch too. His brow still hadn't stopped bleeding.
"What were you trying to pull just now, dobe? Another second and I could have killed you by mistake!" hissed Sasuke, who still had the imprints of his fingers over his face. "Couldn't you have, I don't know, spoken first or something?"
"Yeah, Naruto, you really should use your head more often. We are in a dangerous situation as it is-" She never got to say more as Naruto cut her off.
"Yeah, dangerous situation. Trust me, you don't know the half of it, Sakura-chan. Even if we had Kakashi-sensei here, and we worked as a team, we still wouldn't be able to defeat that guy. Not yet, anyway. That guy was Orochimaru, one of the Legendary Sannin. The best we could do was escape for the moment. The … entertainment … I set up for him should hold him for a while we run away." This last statement punctuated by a grim smile. "ANBU should be heading in here soon. They might get lucky and kill him, but most likely the only people who can face him, other than the Sandaime, aren't in town." Or more precisely, either spying at a hot springs or gambling their life away, most likely, Naruto added to himself. Ero-sennin would never change, no matter the incarnation he was in this illusion. He was probably sneaking to peek on the hot-springs when he was a toddler. And as for Tsunade-no-baachan, the less said, the better.
He was broken out of his reverie by Sasuke, who was shaking out a roll of wire "-long will he be delayed, Naruto?" The raven-haired genius was seemingly broken of his panic when Naruto spirited him away. Now he was setting a rushed three-step trap with the wire and his last set of kunai. "Hmm? Or did someone switch off your brain, dobe? Remember, we're in the middle of a situation here."
"Hold that trap, Sasuke. We need to leave here first of all, get to the river, maybe stock up on water and fish, but get far, far away from here. He's faster than us, and he can certainly sense us from over there if he concentrates. Give or take a minute, he should be free in five minutes or so. We should -" his flow of thought was interrupted by the flow of information from his newly disrupted clones. All eight of them, telling him that Orochimaru was after them, and with a vengeance. "He's free from the trap! Let's go everyone, no time for explanations!" He leapt from his perch, heading due east, where he knew the tower ought to be. Not five leaps however, he suddenly found himself crashing to the forest floor.
He'd run straight into the snake bastard's fist. And it hurt. A lot.
"You didn't think your pathetic clones could hold me for long, did you, Naruto-kun?" the Hebi-Sennin practically purred. "There is no place to run, and no place to hide now, hmm?"
A/N: Everyone, I have a new beta! The most Distinguished Leviticus Lied has graciously accepted to beta my piddling story. Any errors are solely of my own creation. And read her story, 'Lies'. Even if you don't like slash (like me), it's still a pretty good story on its own.