A Village Hidden in Hope
The Sand Spirit: Part V
The slave quarters, years earlier…
"You're doing it wrong," Naruto said.
"You're explaining it wrong," Anakin said, trying to adjust his stance.
"Ok, see, when they try to stab you in the neck, you're supposed to block like this and have your hand like this so you can grab the knife away from them. Try it."
"Don't really stab me, ok?" Anakin said.
"It's not even a real knife!" Naruto complained, flipping the piece of duraplast they were practicing with. Naruto had even dulled the edges so Shmi-mama-sama wouldn't complain.
"If you poke me in the eye with it, I'll still be blind," Anakin argued.
"Fine," Naruto said, muttering 'scaredy-cat' under his breath.
Naruto lunged in with the fake knife again, and this time Anakin did the block mostly right. He managed to deflect the knife away from his neck but ended up getting poked in the stomach. Apparently, he was supposed to step forward and push back after he had control of his attacker's arm, but Naruto had forgotten to mention that part until Anakin was sitting on the ground rubbing his sore midriff.
"Ah! Training the younger sibling?" a voice called.
The boys turned to look. A rather well-fed humanoid male was coming through the slave quarters towards the empty lot they were practicing in. The humanoid had a half-dozen armed and armored guards with him, and one battle droid trailing behind like a spider. Anakin thought this was probably the source of the tense, sick feeling he'd had all morning.
"What's it to you, mister?" Naruto asked with a scowl.
"To me? Oh, well, nothing really, but to my boss, it's somewhat important," the man said. "He sent me out to this charming ghetto to inspect some merchandise he was considering purchasing. Come here, boy," he said, pointing at Anakin.
Naruto growled and it wasn't a human sound.
"You've got to run this by Watto," Anakin said, backing up.
"Oh, I already have," the man said, cheerfully holding up a data pad crawling with Watto's signature. "Now come here."
Anakin felt Naruto tensing, and the air around him was getting red. Anakin was afraid to look him in the eye.
"Don't do anything," Anakin warned Naruto. All the guards had their blasters not-so-subtly trained on the orange-clad boy, but he probably wasn't even there anymore. "Just don't do anything," Anakin repeated.
Anakin walked up to the man, stopping just out of reach. The man grabbed his shoulder and started to pull him closer, but suddenly Naruto was standing in the narrow space between them, with a knife pressed to the fat man's throat. The guards were just starting to realize their charge was in danger when Naruto spoke.
"I don't know what Watto thinks he's thinking, but you better think about how dead you're going to be if you mess with my little brother."
"Perhaps just a scan," the man said, still sounding annoyingly cheerful, but a nervous edge was creeping in.
"It's fine!" Anakin said.
Naruto nodded, and vanished in a puff of smoke.
The man let go of Anakin and let him step back. The man took a metal wand that was linked to his data pad by a cord and waved it over Anakin.
"Hmmm, controller intact, no parasites, slightly underweight, prepubescent human male, hmmmm, no other alterations or cybernetics, hmmmmm, no stress injuries or recent skeletal fractures. You're a light-use slave, I take it?"
"I work in a junkyard," Anakin said, not liking the leer he was getting. "I do salvage and reprogramming."
"And who trained you to do that?"
"Nobody, I'm just good at it."
"Your owner says you fly a pod racer too," the man mumbled, rolling his eyes.
"I do!" Anakin said. "I finished third in the Eisley open, and I made Watto a lot of money, so he isn't going to sell me, so why don't you leave and stop wasting everyone's time?"
"A human that races pods and a human that fights battle droids in the pits," the man said. "They sure grow some interesting things in this dump. Well, I suppose I'll be seeing you."
"Not if you've got the brains you were born with," Naruto said, from behind the oversized man this time. The guards were again startled and rushed to aim at him.
"It's not really up to me," the still-nameless man said. "You're dealing with Boroka the Hutt now."
Watto looked up and down the street, more than a little nervous. There were a few lazy, overpaid security guards leaning against the wall at the end of the block. They were barely competent enough to keep the Jawas out of the neighborhood. They'd be no help at all if Boroka came after him.
He pressed his hand to the panel and typed in his code. The door opened, and he hurried in.
His small house was very clean, and when he checked the preserver, he found the Skywalker woman had left his prepared dinner and morning meal inside. He had gotten out of the habit of checking his food for poison. He'd done it for a full year after he'd made her cook for him, but it seemed like she wasn't going to carry out a revenge scheme on her former owners' behalf. Tonight he checked.
Boroka had noticed him and that meant all kinds of evil was headed his way. Boroka was no Jabba, but as Hutts went, he was still terrible.
For the first time, he wished he hadn't won the Skywalkers, despite the fact that they'd tripled the amount of money he made off his junkyard business, and their strange relative Naruto had won thousands of credits for him in the pits.
That would all change with them gone. Watto knew Naruto was saving up to buy his two slaves out of bondage, but Watto thought Anakin and his mother would probably still remain in his employ. He'd have to pay them a salary, but the Skywalkers had few connections and it would be a long time before they got enough money to be completely independent. Boroka would take them, though. He'd have to start over again.
Watto had enough money to buy new slaves, but he didn't really know how to train them. And training would take years and they probably still wouldn't be as useful as the boy and his mother. All his luck was leaving him.
And then there was Naruto to deal with. The boy could tear battle droids to shreds. If Boroka didn't get him, that human would. Watto tried to think of something else, something more cheerful. After all, if you think of the devil, he appears. He pulled a data pad off a shelf and tried to find something to bet on.
There was a scraping sound above him and Watto looked up. Naruto was crouching on the ceiling above him. The boy was dragging a knife across the adobe. He just watched him. He didn't say anything. Watto decided he had to talk first. He tried not to sound scared.
"What you want, human?" he asked. "Shouldn't you be home …sleeping or something?"
"You're going to sell them," Naruto growled.
His eyes had turned red, and Watto had seen him in enough fights to know that was a bad sign.
"I haven't sold anything," Watto said. "But when a Hutt says they are interested, you have to pay them attention. You know that. They are not happy to hear no."
"You can't sell them," Naruto said, stalking forward.
He didn't leap from the shelf; he stalked straight down the wall, as if gravity had no effect on him.
"If I tell the Hutt I won't sell, he will have me killed; my property will go to auction. The Hutt will get them anyway."
"So sell them to me," Naruto said.
"So what, you get them, and Boroka has me killed in revenge? That won't work, either," Watto said, "Unless you've got enough saved up to get me off this planet, and out of Hutt space."
The human frowned, the color fading from his eyes. "How much do you need?" he asked.
"I'd need at least 100,000 credits, and that doesn't even count my shop. But I doubt you could get even that much before I have to give the Hutt an answer. You'd have to steal a freight ship or find a dragon pearl. It won't happen."
The human frowned, and his face wrinkled up. Watto knew enough about humans to know their faces scrunched when they thought hard.
"Maybe if you disappeared for a while, the Hutt would lose interest," Watto suggested. "They want the Skywalkers to get to you, yes? If you go, there is no problem."
"But how long?" Naruto said. "And the Hutt might still want Anakin cause he's a good pilot."
The human went back to making a thinking-face. "Promise," he said finally.
"What?" the toydarian asked
"Promise you won't sell them until when I get back."
"Back from where?" Watto asked.
"I'll get one of those pearl things," Naruto said. "I just need to find a dragon."
"You'd be better off trying to steal a freighter."
"Wouldn't work--I don't get all that machine stuff. But one time I killed a giant snake. Well, it ate me and I blew it up from the inside. But it was big, and like a dragon, kind of. Do Kyrat dragons really breathe fire?"
Watto blew a bunch of air out his nose. It was the toydarian equivalent of a sigh. "I can promise only one week, human," Watto said. "Boroka the Hutt has no mercy, but he respects a higher offer. The date is set. It's the best I can do."
Naruto nodded and then vanished in a puff of smoke.
Watto went around his house, checking all the door and windows. They were locked and sealed. He went to his bed and set his blaster on the mattress next to him. The room still seemed too big and dark and filled with too many places for enemies to hide. Eventually he pulled the blankets up over his head.
"Anakin, where do dragons live?" Naruto asked as he picked through a box of scrap gear that Anakin kept in the corner of his room.
Anakin had been forced to share the space with Naruto for about a year now, but he still considered it his and not theirs. Of course, if Boroka bought them, it wouldn't be anyone's. Boroka's compound was halfway around the planet. Not only would Anakin be separated from his friends and all things familiar, but he had heard Boroka didn't allow his slaves any sort of privacy or free time. Compared to Boroka, Watto was a saint.
Anakin knew it was stupid, but he blamed Naruto. All Naruto wanted to do was help, and for a while Anakin had let himself hope. Naruto fought hard, and he'd saved up all that money, and they had been so close…
But the money was gone, and the price of freedom had shot up so high they'd never be able to pay it.
"What?" Anakin snapped.
"Where do dragons live?" Naruto asked again. "The kind with pearls inside."
"Most of the hunters look for them around the Jundland Wastes, but they haven't found any recently, as far as I've heard. Why do you want to know?"
Once in a while, a big hunting party would come through Mos Espa before heading out into the Wastes. Anakin had seen them leave, but he couldn't remember any coming back. They could've been too embarrassed by failure to show their faces, but Anakin had a feeling that most of them were still out there, dead.
"Watto said if I could bring him a dragon pearl, he'd let you guys go, since it's worth more than the Hutt's offer," Naruto said. "He said he wouldn't sell you guys for at least a week."
"A week?" Anakin asked, as his chest clenched.
Naruto nodded. "Yeah, so I've got to find a dragon pretty quick."
"You can't just walk into the desert and find one!" Anakin said. "It's not that easy. There's no way you could even find one in a week. And you'd still have to kill it! The ones with pearls are a hundred feet long. You'd need a concussion torpedo! You aren't going to take it out with one of your little knives."
"You don't know how big of a thing I can kill," Naruto said, waving a hand dismissively. "I find one, kill it, and come back here, no problem."
"You'll die out there!" Anakin said. "You don't remember the last time you were in the open desert? You'll die of thirst or just get lost and cook to death. Hunting a dragon is a stupid idea."
"Not stupid, just crazy," Naruto said. "Besides, if I'm gone, Boroka might not want you anymore."
Anakin felt his anger melt into shame. He hadn't really thought Naruto would follow them if Boroka was their new owner. They weren't really his family, and Boroka would make Naruto a slave if he could. He wondered how far Naruto would follow them. Naruto did call Shmi mama even though she wasn't. He tried to imagine what would happen if Boroka bought them and Naruto did follow them.
Anakin felt like he'd been slapped, and then the floor went out of under him. He blinked up at Naruto, who had dropped to his knees at his side and was shouting "Are you ok?" as the room went dark.
Anakin blinked and saw his hands were bound together, and felt a control collar on his neck. His skin still stung from the shock it had delivered. He looked up. He was near the floor of the stadium, more so Naruto could see him than the other way around. Naruto was tearing up battle droids with his bare hands, his eyes an inhuman red. And more red light was oozing from his skin. Naruto had to use that awful, unclean power, because if he didn't, Boroka would kill Anakin, the way he had killed Shmi the last time Naruto failed.
Anakin sat up with a gasp, and cracked heads with Naruto. Naruto whined about his nose, though Anakin had seen the boy punched in the face by a Gamorrean and grin afterwards. Anakin stumbled to his feet and away from him. His head spun. He knew what he just dreamed, just saw could not have been real, but it felt real. It felt hopeless and inescapable.
"What's wrong?" Naruto asked. "Do you need water? Are you heat-stroked?"
He knew it wasn't real, but he was sure it was still somehow Naruto's fault.
"Go away!" Anakin shrieked.
"What?" Naruto asked.
"Go away!" Anakin repeated. "Go back to the desert! Go back where you came from! Just go away!"
"Yeah, I'm going," Naruto said. "I'll come back when I got a dragon pearl."
"Just go!" Anakin said.
Naruto left, looking confused.
Anakin didn't know if what he'd seen was real, but it felt like it. Maybe he was just having heat stroke, but even if it was just a hallucination, it might still happen. It would be just like what happened to Shreevok and his family. That might even have been where Boroka got the idea.
If Naruto had just bought them out first, before he helped the Wookies…
Anakin bit his lip. If they hadn't helped Shreevok then and there, he and his family would have been tortured or killed. It was the right thing to do, and it was stupid and selfish to blame Naruto now. It was even more stupid to send him off on a suicide mission over some stupid dream that was probably heat stroke anyway.
Anakin ran out to tell Naruto not to go into the desert, that they would figure another way out of this.
By the time he got outside, there was no sign of him.
Naruto had goggles this time, and a wide straw hat, and of course, gallons of bottled water. He wished he knew more about sealing or water jutsu, as the bottles were pretty heavy. He'd tried to figure out how to make seals on his own. He tried to figure out a lot of things on his own. During the past year on this strange planet with two suns, he hadn't come up with much. But he had a lot of practice with the jutsu he already knew.
"Kage Bunshin!" he called.
There was a momentary whiteout as the desert around him filled with smoke. Hundreds of clones spread out across the desert, running out into the Wastes. They ran until their chakra ran out or until sand people shot them. A couple were killed in rock slides. One was even dragged into a pit by a tentacle. None of the clones managed to find death by dragon, though. He didn't know how it worked, but when a clone was dispelled, everything it had learned or seen went straight into his brain. He marked off locations on the map as they explored and were destroyed.
Shreevok had helped him make a map on canvas, since he still couldn't get computers to agree with him. He paused to look at it again. The map wasn't drawn to scale. The Wastes were taking up most of the center, with the rest of the planet depicted smaller and off to the side. Landmarks were drawn out big and obvious. It was a very good map.
Shreevok had wanted to go with him, too. The big furry guy had gotten a job as a bouncer at a dive bar over in the Mos Eisley spaceport. Naruto had borrowed Anakin's droid head to ask the wookie for help with directions, since Anakin had gotten mad and screamy, and Naruto didn't want Shmi to know what he was doing since she would worry. Shreevok was all ready to quit his job and follow Naruto in the open desert. It took Naruto forever to convince him not to do that, since his family needed him, but nobody had ever done anything like that for Naruto before.
The first two days passed without much luck, so he decided to follow a caravan of Tuskens out across the wastes. Maybe a dragon would try to eat them, and Naruto could kill it.
According to some old guy at the Broken Glass cantina, sand people were supposed to go out and kill a dragon in some sort of adulthood ritual, but Naruto wasn't sure he believed that. He'd seen dozens of sand people and no dragons at all. Plus, he couldn't picture a sand person killing a dragon with just a gafi stick and the slow-moving oversized goat creatures they rode around on.
He didn't have much to do with the sand people. They sometimes shrieked and took pot shots at him with gafi sticks, but they did that to everyone who wasn't another sand person. Naruto liked them for their lack of prejudice. Still, he didn't want them to know he was following. He spent a day-and-a-half on their tails, but no dragon came rushing out to eat them. They did get in a fight with a pair of sand people from another tribe or something, but the smaller group turned tail and ran when they saw they weren't going to miraculously take out a caravan with five times their number. The fight didn't bring a dragon running. After that, Naruto gave up on them. He made another bunch of clones and sent them out randomly again.
It was the seventh day when one of his clones saw evidence of a dragon in a weird, bowl-shaped rock formation. It dispelled itself, and Naruto and the others converged on its location. The first sun had set by the time he got to the bowl. It didn't look too promising, but as he got closer, he saw a Bantha skull sticking out of the sand. There were huge teeth marks in the bone. Beyond it he saw the dragon.
It was bigger than the snake that had swallowed him in the forest of death, maybe even bigger than the one that freaky he-she Grass ninja was riding on. The fight with that creature was a blur in Naruto's mind, even right after it happened. He wasn't sure how he had managed to pin its head down and stop it from eating Sasuke, but he thought the Fox had something to do with it.
Naruto didn't really have a plan, but with no one around to see his clones, he supposed he could try just about everything and see what worked.
He ran through the seals and a clone appeared to his right. He held out a blaster rifle and the clone took it with a grin. When he created a clone, it had all the weapons Naruto carried, but cloned blasters never worked. He could use them to club people but they wouldn't fire.
The clone darted out across the sand. The dragon didn't stir as the clone crept up to it, and aimed the blaster at one of the sleeping creature's eyes. He stood in awe for a moment, and felt a bit sad. It must've taken the dragon a thousand years to grow this big, and he was going to kill it for a couple of stupid rocks. He had to do it, though; he'd picked this path and he didn't have time to go back and learn to steal spacecraft. The clone pulled the trigger.
To say the dragon woke up mad was underselling it. Its roar was loud enough to burst the clone, and the blaster fell into the sand. The real Naruto winced as he absorbed the clone's memory. He had seen into the creature's mouth, and its teeth were longer than his legs.
For a moment, Naruto contemplated returning to Mos Espa for backup, but there wasn't time. He gulped and made a few more clones. He had no intention of killing this giant reptile from the inside.
Tre'gne'gnash had almost finished scouting the east side of the burned spire cliff when he heard the dragon roar. He was sure they could hear it all the way back at the camp, but took the click-com from his belt, and rapped the code back to the camp. The sentry on duty clicked back, confirming that he had heard and was spreading the warning.
Tre clutched the half-meter dragon claw that he wore in his belt. He'd found it in the wastes on his warrior's quest. He had found no dragon to fight, not even a small one, but when he ran out of water and was forced to return, he had found the claw in the sand, in a footprint not twenty feet from where he had slept that day. The Tusken elders had taken it as a sign of blessing, and though he was technically not a warrior, he was considered an adult, and allowed to remain with the tribe.
The dragon roared again, and Tre moved toward it, scaling the cliff and moving toward the half-gourd rock formation, from which the cries echoed. He got to the top just in time to see the dragon rear back on its hindmost legs. It was the largest dragon he had ever seen. It bellowed and snapped at an orange-and-tan thing that was clinging to its massive head.
The dragon tossed its head and the orange-and-tan thing flew off. It twisted back around and snapped the thing out of the air, but it burst apart as smoke between the creature's teeth. Dozens more of the orange-and-tan creatures were crawling up the dragon's side, swarming like ants.
Tre took out a set of binoculars that he had taken from a dead outlander. He held them to his goggles. He got them adjusted, and saw that it was not a swarm of insects clinging to the dragon, but outlanders. The alien creatures stuck to the beast's skin and stabbed it with small triangular knives.
From time to time, outlanders would come into the desert on their unholy floating metal slabs. They would search for dragons and try to kill them with blasters and bombs. The warriors of the tribe got rid of such vermin when they could, but it didn't seem to convince other outlanders not to come. Tre picked up his click-com again and signaled the tribe. Either the dragon would kill the outlanders, or the tribe would kill them as they fled. They would not leave the desert.
It was not as easy as it looked on paper. That was for damn sure.
Naruto leapt off the side of the dragon as it rolled again. Most of his clones managed to jump clear as well, but five held on too long and were crushed. As soon as the dragon righted itself, they swarmed again.
Naruto and his clones had been tearing at the creature for the better part of an hour, but the results were not impressive. Naruto's knives were getting very dull, and the dragon was covered in hundreds of little wounds, which probably were the equivalent of paper cuts. He supposed it might eventually bleed to death or get an infection, but not before the day was up.
For the thousandth time, Naruto wished Kakashi had taught him some offensive jutsu. That lightning blade that his sensei had accidently run through Haku's chest in Wave country would've done the dragon serious harm. He frowned as his imaginary self stabbed his arm into the dragon's side. His arm went in up to the shoulder, and stuck. Then the dragon rolled over and crushed him. Maybe he was better off without the chidori.
Maybe if he could drive it crazy enough, he could convince it to run off a cliff, but he'd have to get it up the cliff to begin with. Or maybe he could get one of his clones to crawl down its throat and try to chop it up from the inside. He looked over at the nearest clone and tried to communicate the idea. The clone pretended it couldn't hear him. Naruto glared.
He was still thinking when blaster fire started raining down around him. For a second, he hoped it was Shreevok or somebody come to back him up, but when he looked over, he saw the cliffs around them were swarming with Tuskens, taking shots at him with their gafi sticks. The shots were hitting the dragon too, but it didn't seem to notice them, or at least Naruto and his clones were closer, so it blamed the new pain on them.
The gafi blasts weren't doing much more to the dragon than the small knife wounds were, but when the clones got hit, they vanished. Naruto made the seals again and whipped up a new batch of clones, but he was already feeling tired, and this last batch had him scraping the bottom of his reserves.
The dragon's tail came whipping around and Naruto pushed chakra into his legs to leap over it. He just barely made it over, but while he was in the air, the shot from a gafi stick found him.
Pain went from one side of his body to the other, and he landed badly. The dragon noticed injured prey and tried to step on him, but Naruto's clones snatched him out of the way, tossing him from one to the other to get him clear. The last clone in the chain to catch him was hit by blaster fire, and he was dropped painfully in the sand. Naruto rolled down the dune he was on. He got out of the line of sight of the dragon and the Tuskens, but with so many of his clones being killed so regularly, he still knew pretty much everything that was going on.
He pressed his hand to his side. The shot had hit him right below the ribs. It hadn't cauterized completely, and blood was dribbling out. It hurt a lot when he took a breath, but he could still breathe. That probably meant his lungs were alright.
"Only fried my guts," Naruto gasped. "No big deal."
He ran his hand over the other side of his body, and that came away bloody, too. It was a through-and-through.
"Ok, maybe it's a big deal."
I can fix it if you sit still for a bit, a voice in the back of his head said.
"I can't right now, Fox. I've got to kill that dragon."
No you don't. You could just go back to that filthy little village and kill everyone who opposes you. You could kill that fat worm, Boroka, and that strange blue creature, and free the dream wanderer and his mother. You have power enough to rule this place.
"If I just start killing them, they'll hurt the Skywalkers," Naruto said as he stuck a bandage over one side of the blaster hole. He wondered if you could see light through it. He decided the pain was making him loopy. "They've got those computer bombs in them, and don't pretend you know how to get those out. I know you don't."
If you stopped trying to be a hero and acted like a shinobi, you could have whatever you wanted. Killing is what you were meant to do.
"If you're so fond of killing, why don't you give me a hand with this dragon?" Naruto said.
What's in it for me?
"You get to kill something really, really big," Naruto said. "And I'll be out here till it's dead or I am. So make with the chakra or make your peace with the gods."
Naruto wondered if the Fox was really going to give him any. He usually didn't ask for it, not after that jutsu had gone so wrong and trapped him here, but it still leaked out sometimes when he was hurt or mad. He knew the Fox hated him and would probably be happy if he lost the Skywalkers. But he would rather die than fail and he knew the Fox didn't want to die. Speaking of death, he felt his last clone dispel.
"Come on, already!" Naruto said.
A moment before it was crushed, the clone had seen the dragon coming toward the sand dune Naruto was hiding behind. Naruto got to his feet and pulled a knife. His legs were wobbly and he almost lost his balance on the loose sand as the dragon's shadow fell over him and he was forced to crane his neck up to see its head. It roared and lunged.
Naruto was leaping when the Fox's chakra hit him. He almost blasted off the ground. The dragon got a mouth full of sand, and a kicked-up wave of loose grains spilled over Naruto's head as he landed. He kicked his way free of the impromptu grave and looked around for the dragon. It had frozen, mere feet away.
In the dragon's eyes, Naruto could see his reflection glowing red. He roared at the dragon. It flinched back.
The sound echoed through the suddenly silent desert.
He couldn't find a knife, so he clawed at the dragon's face with his hands, and strips of flesh went flying. It roared and snapped at him. He jammed his claws into its skin and crawled up past its eyes. The dragon swiped at him with its own claws but he dodged, moving to the back of its neck. It thrashed more desperately than it had against his entire army of clones. It even managed to roll on top of him, but he held on, and when it righted itself, he was still there.
Naruto found its spine and started digging. He wasn't an expert in anatomy of alien dragons, but he figured if it had a spine, it probably had a spinal cord in there, and most things didn't live very long without them. The Fox's chakra gave him the strength he needed to dig through the hide and muscle and crack the bone.
The dragon was going completely insane. It reared up on its hind legs and flipped over backwards, slamming its full weight onto the tiny human on its back. It wasn't enough.
Naruto's hands found the slick rubbery cord, barely bigger around than his wrist. He ripped through it.
The thrashing actually got worse for a few minutes. Later, Naruto learned this was because the dragon actually had other nerve centers in its body, miniature brains that helped with local reflexes, just because the brain was so far away. But with the actual brain cut off, there was no hope of recovery.
He went to the beast's side. Using his claws, he ripped it open, boiling hot guts spilling out around him. His mind struggled to remember what the old hunters at the bar had told him. The pearls would be in the gizzard. He waded in. He found a bunch of melon-sized round things in there and stuffed them into his empty weapons pouches. They were so gory he didn't know for sure what they were.
Naruto crawled out of under the creature. He shook off sand and blood, and looked back at the dragon. It was upside down with its tongue hanging out. The tongue was still twitching weakly, and the creature was still blinking. It wasn't dead yet. It was just suffering.
Again, Naruto felt sorry for the huge thing. As he felt that, he felt the Fox's chakra draining away, and realized the job still wasn't finished.
"More!" he said to the Fox.
He felt grumbling in the back of his head, but the chakra surged.
He crawled up onto the dragon and went to work on its exposed throat, ripping and tearing as blood fountained up around him. The head finally came loose. He lifted it and howled. The demon chakra warped his voice until even the dragon's bellows sounded more human than he did. The chakra drained away, and his limbs shook so badly he dropped the head, and barely managed not to crush himself with it. He could hear roaring in his ears, and at first he thought it was an echo, but then he looked up.
On the cliffs, the Tuskens were howling back.
"Oh yeah, them."
Anakin sat behind the desk, sorting slightly-damaged processor cores. Watto hovered by the com link. Three days ago they had received a very garbled broadcast. It sounded like Naruto's voice, but the static was so bad, it was hard to be sure. Three very clear phrases made it through, though.
"-fssssss….sts…..got dragon…sssssts….be there soon…bzzzzzzt….Jawas giving me a ride…"
So Watto, despite his fear of death by Hutt, had put off the sale of Shmi and Anakin, until Naruto got back. Boroka was not happy, but he hadn't sent anyone to put a gun to Watto's head to demand a signature on a sales receipt.
Anakin felt a tug in the back of his head and put down the processors. He walked up to the com and adjusted the frequency dials. As he went through the channels, he got an incoming signal. A moment later, a blurry image appeared on the screen.
It was Naruto's face, almost masked by filth. On his right there was a Jawa, clicking and muttering in what Anakin figured was an unhappy way.
"Hey! Watto, I got your pearl, so you bring the contract and everything to the main gate. We'll be there in another hour," Naruto declared.
His teeth were a glaring white amidst the dirt that hid his features.
"You….human, you got a pearl?" Watto asked. "From a dragon?"
"Yup!" Naruto said, picking up a large, round filthy thing and waving it in front of the screen. Anakin though it was more likely that Naruto was returning with a dragon's kidney stone, but didn't say anything aloud. "Oh, yeah! And bring a couple hundred gallons of water and that explosive-implant-remover thing, too. Bye!"
"Wait, what?" Watto asked.
The screen had already gone blank.
"What's he mean, he needs water?" Watto asked.
"I don't know," Anakin said.
"You think he really has a pearl?" Watto asked.
Anakin didn't. "Maybe."
"Right, right. We close early today. Go get your mother and meet me at the gate," Watto said. "And don't say anything to anyone. Boroka might hear."
Anakin nodded and rushed off.
The group settled a short distance from the gate, waiting under the scorching suns. Anakin had used a few thousand credits from Naruto's prize fighting account to order three 500-gallon tubs of water. The tubs were covered, of course, so Anakin, Shmi, Watto, and the slave contract agent settled on them to watch the horizon.
The slave contract agent's droid kept up a stream of passive-aggressive comments that let them all know it was not enjoying the sun. The agent was a reptilian Girs'k and didn't seem to mind the heat, and its rudimentary external eardrums left it immune to the droid's high, whining tones.
Anakin felt like they had been waiting forever watching the horizon. He wished something would come along to break up the monotony. He heard the thrum of repulsors and turned.
A barge left the city gates and lumbered towards them, kicking up dust before parking between them and the city. An entire side of the barge opened up, revealing Boroka the Hutt. He was reclining on a dais, surrounded by guards, servants, and data screens.
"The exalted Lord Boroka wishes to know what you are doing out here," a fat servant called from the Hutt's side as the huge, worm-like creature stuffed a snail the size of a watermelon into its mouth.
"We are just making a delivery," Watto called.
"Not planning to run?" the fat slave asked.
"Do I look like someone who runs?" Watto said, kicking his stumpy legs against the side of the tank he sat on.
"His mightiness Lord Boroka heard you had a higher offer for your slaves, Watto," the servant said. "He came to see if someone really offered you a pearl."
Anakin's stomach did a little flip. If they had heard that much, they must know what Naruto had asked for and when he was arriving, or at least when he said he was arriving. Anakin looked over at the Hutt's barge again. It wasn't exactly bristling with weapons, but Watto had nothing but a little holdout blaster and two human slaves. Anakin did have one of Naruto's knives on him, but he couldn't throw it hard enough to injure a Hutt. Anakin looked over at Watto, wondering what he would say. The toydarian didn't really have a choice.
"A pearl was offered," Watto said. "We wait to see if it will show up."
"How long have you been waiting, eh?" the servant said.
Anakin saw Watto look down at his data pad, fiddling with it as if he were trying to figure out the time. Anakin felt like the longer he was quiet, the worse it would get.
"You sliced our comm," Anakin shouted. "Shouldn't you know?"
Watto glared at Anakin, but didn't contradict him.
"Your slave needs to learn some manners," the servant said.
Watto shrugged. "He won't be my problem much longer."
The Hutt belched something. The servant translated.
"Boroka has increased his generous bid to 170,000 credits. I suggest you accept it and reality. There is no pearl coming."
"Then why are you out here wasting credits on a last-minute trip?" Anakin asked.
"Slave, I will-"
"THERE!" Shmi interrupted. It was probably the first time she had ever interrupted anyone in her life.
A line of black dots was cresting the edge of the dune sea.
"And this part is on the vid!" the glowing, transparent Naruto announced. The…hollow-gram pointed and another ghostly blue figure appeared, and then another and then another. Dozens of men marched along with what looked like spears in their hands. The men's heads were wrapped in layers of brown cloth, except for wire goggles and some sort of breather mask. Behind the men marched a row of creatures that looked like a cross between elephants and goats. Behind the strange animals came a huge rhomboid building, rolling along on caterpillar treads. On top of the building was the dragon's head, still covered in leathery flesh. Atop the dragon's head rode a small figure, whose features were mostly hidden by a crust of bloody sand and gore. Despite the filth, Jiraiya recognized the small figure's grin.
The large number of Tuskens marching towards the city brought an equally large number of armed men through the city gates. Some were in the security force, others just wanted to protect their property. Speeders were lining up and men with blasters were peeking over the walls. Tuskens didn't have anywhere near the fire power those planning to defend the city did. Coming out of the desert like this was pretty much a suicide run…if it was an attack. The Jawa sand crawler that was accompanying them with a dragon head strapped to the top gave them enough to think about that they didn't immediately open fire.
One of the Tuskens at the front of the group came forward, and shrieked and warbled at the top of his lungs. Those lined up on the walls exchanged looks.
"Did anyone catch that?" someone yelled in basic.
The Girs'k's droid buzzed thoughtfully for a moment. "Maybe!" it said.
Everyone turned toward it expectantly.
"My Tusken isn't very good," the Droid said. "But whose is? From what I can decipher, that little goo-covered biped has been declared the killer of the sand spirit, and the demon of a thousand shadows. They will not make war against his people. They will not spill the blood of his women or children. They will not speak against him to the gods. They will not slaughter his Bantha or take from his water traps. They will not…something about his Jawa. They will not place curses upon his shoes. They will not…well they just keep going on like that, you get the idea."
Naruto stood up and waved. "It's cool! They're with me!"
No one in the militia seemed impressed by that statement.
"They gave me a ride back. They're just here to get some water for these big furry guys, and then they'll go back to yelling angry things in the desert. Ani! You brought the water, right?" Naruto called.
"What do you think these are?" Anakin said, waving at the tubs.
Naruto hopped down off the top of the Jawas' crawler, landing with a cloud of dust upon the road. He marched up to Watto, and the small toydarian could see the red in the boy's eyes. Naruto waved him off the tub of water, grabbed the edge and dragged it over to the Tuskens and their Bantha. He popped off the lid and one of the huge, furry quadrupeds lowered its head to drink. He came back for the next tub. Anakin heard men on the wall behind him trying to guess how much the tubs weighed. When that task was done, he marched back up to Watto.
Naruto reached into the beaten, filthy sack at his side and pulled out a dragon's pearl. He used his sleeve to wipe the goo off it. It was blue and reflected the light of the two suns no matter how it was held. Anakin figured it had to be worth at least a million credits.
"I picked you out this one, 'cause it looks like your head."
Watto for a long moment was too stupefied to respond. He pointed at the contract agent, and finally managed to wave him over.
"For this, them" Watto muttered, gesturing vaguely at Shmi and Anakin. He seemed unable to look away from the pearl.
The contract agent looked at the pearl as well, but he managed, with the aid of his droid, to fill out the necessary forms. The droid removed the implants. It stung like crazy, but one second Anakin was having a huge needle jammed in his chest, and the next he was free. Shmi swooned when her controller was removed, but Naruto steadied her before she fell. He left a gooey, bloody handprint on her dress.
Naruto tossed the pearl to Watto, who, after a tense moment of fumbling, managed to catch it. The toydarian gazed, enraptured, at the pearl, then suddenly tensed as he felt envious eyes upon him. He was surrounded on all sides by people who would gladly and easily kill him for his new treasure.
"Hey…Naruto," the toydarian said, addressing the human by his name for the first time. "How about…you get me to a ship off this planet, and I throw in my shop on this deal?"
"Deal," Naruto said.
"And he had four other pearls in his bag," Shmi said. "He gave one to the sand people and one to the Jawa. The other two he sold."
"And those jewels-"
"Pearls," she corrected.
"Those pearls were enough to buy all this?!" Jiraiya exclaimed.
"Not all of this, no," she said. "But it was enough to get things moving. We used what money we had to buy out as many other slaves as we could, and they worked with us, to get more money, to buy passage home if they still had somewhere to go, or to buy out other slaves."
"And this movement caught on this quickly?"
"When you are owned, freedom cannot come too quickly," she said. "We did eventually get some outside help."
The foot steps were almost inaudible, and were Jiraiya not trained as a ninja he would not have noticed them at all. He glanced over his shoulder at the shadow spilling down the steps; it was a being as large as he was. He'd have said man, based on the walk, except there were a lot of large bipedal things walking around that he wouldn't call men. He supposed it could have been a tall, narrow-hipped panda bear coming down the steps.
It turned out to be a man, human, and at first glance Jiraiya thought he might have been a Hyuga. The man had long dark hair with a little gray in it, and pale flowing clothes, but the man had a beard and a faint smile on his face, not to mention hazel irises and pupils.
"Shmi," the stranger greeted in a mild voice. "How are you today?"
"Well," she said, getting up to exchange bows. "And yourself?"
"Well enough," he said. "We arrived in system earlier than expected, but not early enough, it seems."
She nodded. "Let me introduce you. Ero-sennin, this is Jedi Master Qui-gon Jinn. Qui-gon Jinn, this is Ero-sennnin."
"My name is Jiraiya! Seriously, what has the brat been telling you about me?"
"He simply said your penchant for debauchery would make a Hutt blush," the Jedi said.
Jiraiya decided he'd have to get himself invited to a Hutt bash. They sounded like they knew how to party.
"Is Ani with you?" Shim asked.
"He insisted he had to do some maintenance on his fighter, so he's still aboard the Iruka. He should be down later today," Qui-gon said.
"Does his fighter truly need maintenance?" Shmi asked.
"I see," she said, sounding both disappointed and concerned. "Any word on Naruto?"
"The situation on Gretskin has grown complicated. I don't know how long he'll be delayed," Qui-gon said.
"I suppose there is nothing we can do about such things," she said. "We've only just arrived at the museum. Would you like to accompany us on a tour? You could explain all those Force things I pretend to understand."
"Certainly I will," the Jedi said. "If three is not a crowd?"
Jiraiya just shrugged. There was something strained between Shmi and Qui-gon. He supposed they might be exes, but that didn't seem quite right.
They wandered through the halls, which held assorted relics of the village's history, half-melted machines, stained clothes, assorted paintings and sculptures, as well as more of the three dimensional hollow-gram projections, though Naruto wasn't featured in these, and the recorded voices spoke a language Jiraiya didn't know.
"So how did you meet Naruto?" Jiraiya asked the Jedi.
"I was conducting some research on the women's side of the Tattooine hot-springs-"
"What?" Jiraiya interrupted.
"By which I mean the ship I was traveling on was damaged in a battle, and we were forced to land on Tattooine for repairs…"
Author's note: Sorry this took forever. I blame porcupines. The next chapter features more Jedi than you can shake a stick at. Stay tuned.