Chapter Thirty-One: Specter
"Hey – go find out what's wrong."
Naruto jerked his head in a gesture for his shadow clone to follow Sasuke, who stood a few meters away, having quietly requested for the blonde ninja's presence. Sasuke's dark eyes instantly pierced through bright blue, brows furrowing steeply as he shook his head, scowl deepening.
"Leave the clone," Sasuke elaborated firmly, "Have it take over your Sage Meditations. Sakura wants to speak to you."
Naruto's brow quirked – curiosity and confusion instantly spiked. For Sakura and Sasuke to specifically ask for him, in person – when a clone would have been just as effective in communication – caused a sense of unease to begin churning uncomfortably in the pit of his stomach. Nodding, Naruto stood up from his seat in the middle of the room, wordlessly requesting that his shadow clone take his place in maintaining Sennin Mode to continue with diligently watching over the distant progression of Takeru, Daisuke, and Isamu while they searched the ancient palace for an entrance into the mysterious Throne Room.
Naruto followed Sasuke into the farthest room of their temporary base of operations, the area smothered in darkness where the main lanterns couldn't reach. Sakura was leaning against the far wall; her arms were wrapped around her raised knees and her green irises were trained on the floor, brows creased with concentration. Sasuke took a seat beside her, his left arm knocking against her right shoulder and causing the kunoichi to inhale sharply, attention focusing rapidly as she snapped her gaze to Sasuke, and then Naruto, before a relieved sigh escaped her lips.
It seemed she was still on edge from earlier and Naruto mentally recalled her sudden, terrified episode with a more cautious frown as he took a seat across from his Leaf comrades.
"…What's going on?"
The petite hands resting on Sakura's knees curled and uncurled apprehensively. Sakura bit her bottom lip, breathing in and out, long and deep, for several seconds before determinedly looking at Naruto with such intensity and seriousness that he felt the unease in his abdomen increase tenfold.
"Do you remember when Sasuke and I told you about Kaya-san?" Her response was even – steady – and her fingers were no longer fidgeting; instead, they were clamped tightly around her knees in a firm grip.
"…Yeah," Naruto's reply was slow and unsure as he glanced between Sasuke and Sakura – the former was glaring heatedly at the ground and the latter's gaze was still transfixed intently on him, "…Dai was hiding her from us – because of her condition…"
"Do you remember that condition, Naruto?"
His confusion intensified upon hearing the urgency in Sakura's tone of voice, "You said she was touched by that Creature and…something about her going insane," He shook his head, "Why are we talking about this?"
"Naruto…" Sakura paused, bit her lip, eyes flicking left, right, then shutting tight, before slowly blinking open and giving him one of the most agonized looks he had seen her express since first arriving in Bird Country, "…In the stairwell – when you all had been trying to save me and Akemi – something happened."
Bewildered, Naruto looked at Sasuke to find the Uchiha's eyes had closed, his brows steepened and his lips forming a fierce scowl, "…What is it?" Impatience running thin, he focused his attention back to Sakura, "What happened?"
Sakura swallowed, "…I was…" She flinched, bringing one hand to her right temple while shooting the other hand to Sasuke's knee; her eyes squeezing shut as she mentally battled something that Naruto couldn't comprehend, "…I…I was…"
"Sakura was touched." Sasuke's voice was curt, low and upset, but his attention was on Sakura as he placed a gentle hand on the one she gripped atop his knee, providing a physical anchor for her as she breathed in deep and shaky, gaining back bearings that Naruto was still utterly confused of.
"…Touched?" He blinked, turning the word over in his head slowly. Touch was physical contact but, in this circumstance, the word held a different meaning – a heavier meaning. When realization finally clicked in his befuddled mind Naruto's blue eyes snapped upwards to stare at Sakura – wide and disbelieving – his hands, which rested on his thighs, clenched tightly into the fabric of his pants until his knuckles turned white. He darted his stare between his teammates critically, mouth opening before pausing his voice, completely stunned as he regarded them. He let out a long exhale; his entire body shuddering as he internally grasped the severity of Sasuke's words.
"…You're joking, right?" Naruto whispered, a shaky laugh leaving his lips as he continued to glance between his teammates, "No. This can't be happening…It can't!"
Sakura sadly held his distraught expression, slowly holding out her left arm and pulling up the hem of her sleeve to reveal the black-brown splotches that decorated across her pale skin, "Naruto…"
"No!" Naruto's abrupt snarl was ferocious as he glared at her marred arm and then at Sasuke, "So what? She touched you; but it doesn't mean anything!" He shook his head, "You're okay, Sakura-chan! You're safe!"
"She'll fall to insanity, Naruto," Sasuke explained bluntly, expression cold, "Accept it."
"Shut up, you bastard!" The blonde hissed, blinking rapidly as he darted his attention back to Sakura, "W-Why aren't you healing yourself? Why aren't you figuring out what's wrong so you can fix it?"
"…It's difficult to concentrate, Naruto," Sakura's response was soft and fatigued, "I keep hearing voices and I'm experiencing complex hallucinations; it's taking a considerable amount of control to separate what's real and what's being conjured by my paranoia. My chakra is behaving too irregularly to be able to manipulate medical ninjutsu properly. I'm doing my best to hypothesize a way to cure this, but it might take a while."
"How long?" Naruto pressed – pleaded – glaring at the marks that trailed up her bare arm, "What can I do? How much time do you have? If we stop The Curse will it go away? Will killing the Creature help? What do we do?" He was in a panic and Sakura immediately shuffled forward and curled her arms around him, embracing him tightly, allowing him to bury his nose into the crook of her neck as his body shook with anxious tremors – the sudden revelation of her situation was putting him in a frenzied shock.
"We didn't get to you fast enough, Sakura-chan," He whispered into her hair, gripping her tighter with sorrow, "I'm…I'm so sorry. Damn it."
"It's not your fault, Naruto," She replied quietly, running her fingers through his blonde hair to help calm him, "I'll be okay."
"What can we do?" He asked, his blue eyes blinking over her shoulder to connect with dark onyx – Sasuke watched them in silence, though his own eyes were unfocused with inward turmoil.
"…I'm going to be honest, Naruto," Her voice was softer, hesitant; "…I want you to not worry about me. I want you to put all your energy into figuring out The Curse because, very soon, I won't be able to provide any kind of help. You and Sasuke need to take over for me when I become completely useless to the investigation," He was already shaking his head wildly with disagreement into her shoulder, "Naruto, solving this mystery will be the only way to help me. I don't think I have long."
"How can you be so sure?" Naruto argued, "Maybe we have plenty of time to get you back to normal!"
He felt Sakura's body tremble, her hands clenching tightly around his shoulders and through his hair, "Because…" He voice was softer, edged with fear, "Because as I hold you now, I see shadows crawling across the ceiling…I-I feel fingers brushing up my leg…And I hear whispers in my left ear." Naruto instantly pulled away from her, blue eyes angrily darting to the ceiling, her leg, her left side with the intent to save her from what was scaring her – only to find nothing. He looked back at Sakura and watched as she flinched away from her left, holding her breath as a tremor rocked her frame, right hand shooting up to the back of her neck and reassuringly rubbing the area.
"It's getting worse," Her voice was weakened and she shuffled back to her previous seat, leaning her right shoulder against Sasuke, as if leaning away from some invisible force in the unoccupied space of her left side. The Uchiha instantly curled his left arm around her frame in a silent form of protection.
"…So what are we supposed to do?" Naruto's question was soft, staring down at Sakura's mottled arm unseeingly; mind in chaos, "You can't ask us to watch you…to watch you…deteriorate from the person we know."
"You have to," Her response was firm, "Because we can't risk my unpredictable behavior putting you, and Sasuke, and the entire group in danger. If you have to, you'll do to me what they had to do to Kaya-san. Tie me up and lock me up."
"…Don't talk like that," Naruto whispered, shaking his head, "It's not right."
"I know this isn't easy, Naruto," Sakura breathed out heavily, "But the mission's changed and now we have to act accordingly. If I become an enemy then you do what you have to–"
"It won't come to that, Sakura," Sasuke scowled.
She frowned, "I'm taking into consideration every single scenario."
"It won't come to that," Naruto repeated strongly, agreeing with Sasuke, "So don't think about it."
Sakura rolled her green eyes, "You two." She sighed, "That aside, all of my research is back at the house. Today's observations are in a small notebook in my pack. My main notes are in the filing cabinet in the study. Use those to cross reference everything. Hopefully, whatever they find in the Throne Room can help–"
Sasuke and Sakura looked up and Naruto twisted his body to regard his shadow clone. Sennin-mode, gold irises were wide with alarm as the doppelganger looked between the three curious Leaf shinobi.
"What happened?" Naruto questioned, brows furrowed.
"Trouble," His clone's response was breathless, "Dai and his team – the chakra around them just spiked. They're being attacked."
Sakura's arms were crossed protectively against her chest; her hands tightly gripping her biceps as she watched Naruto quickly explain the situation to the rest of the group a few yards away. His expression was grim, recalling the rise of natural energy his clone had felt, originating from the center of the palace, swirling ominously around the distressed chakra signatures of Daisuke, Isamu, and Takeru.
She hoped to Kami that they were okay.
Raiden had started pacing, and Shin and Kasumi stood nearest to the main doorway that led to the hallway, discussing possible alternatives in handling the situation. Akio and Souta were leaning against the far wall, restlessly fidgeting with their weapons in silent readiness to aid their comrades, and Akemi was still blissfully unconscious from exhaustion.
'…They can't be saved…'
Emerald irises slid to the paper partition leading to the veranda, disdainfully eyeing the shadow of the Creature as it kept its silent vigil over their group. Its body was twisted to face her own distant position, away from the rest of her companions, undoubtedly keeping aware of her particular presence.
'…Unless you come with us…'
Sakura closed her eyes, actively trying to keep the whispers in her head from overtaking her thoughts. The temptations they were feeding her – to give herself up for her friends' safety – left the kunoichi feeling both helpless and afraid.
Should she give herself up? For the others – for her friends? For her family?
"Don't give yourself up to them. Even if you do – your friends will still die. It's not worth it."
Her entire body stiffened as the light, lilting voice echoed softly – almost timidly – behind her. Shoulders coiling tightly with tension Sakura slowly blinked, opening her eyes and carefully twisting her head over her left shoulder to gaze at the empty, dark room behind her.
A dim, white-lit entity stood several yards away, dark eyes staring at her penetratingly as a soft frown tugged low on pale lips. Her dark hair was kempt, held back by a simple white ribbon. Her white dress was immaculate and clean, wispy in her ethereal glow. One of her tiny hands was braced against the wall and the other was clutched against her chest, curled into a loose fist. Her stance looked…wary – self-conscious.
'The ghost…' She thought, a shiver crawling slowly up her spine as the terrifying whispers intensified in response to her single acknowledgement.
'You're going crazy, aren't you?'
'You're seeing things, aren't you?'
'You're hearing things, aren't you?'
'Aren't you? Aren't you? Aren't you?'
"She's getting stronger…" The ghost-child's voice broke through the hissing murmurs inside her mind, her tone thoughtful and troubled, "Her poison works fast. And I'm getting much weaker." As if to emphasize the point, the pale hand leaning against the wall, clenched tightly as her brows creased with discomfort and struggle, "Sakura-san…" She stepped closer, dark eyes pleading, "…I need you to follow me."
The request startled the Leaf kunoichi – the mere behavior the entity was exhibiting was far from the blood-thirsty Little Girl she had encountered beforehand, "…Follow you? Why? Where?" She twisted her body to face the ghost more fully, "…Are you even real?" Sakura flinched upon asking the question, the voices in her head returning.
'Is she real?'
'Maybe she isn't real?'
'Can you tell the difference?'
'Are you losing your mind yet?'
The apparition's features softened with sadness, "I'm real and I'm not real, you can say. But I don't have much time. My strength is waning and I must show you an important piece to the puzzle – something that can help you with this…curse."
Confused, Sakura stepped forward, "…Amaya…"
The child tilted her head to the side, ebony hair falling over one shoulder, brows furrowed with puzzlement before softening into an expression of saddened comprehension, "…That isn't my name…"
Something brushed lightly against her right elbow and Sakura's body jumped with startle as she hastily twisted around, instantly focusing on Sasuke, who stood in front of her. His dark eyes blinked down at her calmly, wary of her reaction and frowning at the anxiety that flooded her expression. His gaze briefly flickered behind her in bewilderment, inwardly wondering what she had been looking at in the darkness. His attention refocused on Sakura as she also looked back, her pink brows furrowing – as if she expected something to be there.
"…More hallucinations," She muttered in response, though her statement was distractedly expressed. She shook her head before meeting her gaze with Sasuke's, "So, what's the plan?"
His dark eyes searched hers, questioning, before he sighed – knowing that she wasn't going to share with him any of her inner turmoil, "…Naruto, Shin, and I are going after them. Raiden and Kasumi will stay here to watch over the rest of the group."
"Oh." She breathed out, looking up and placing her hand against his chest, mechanically adjusting the flaps of his flak-jacket, "I want you three to be careful."
Sasuke reached out and grasped her hand, not oblivious to the slight flinch she displayed from the simple contact, "Do you want me to stay? Say it, and I will."
Sakura paused, looking up at Sasuke with gratitude – that he would willingly and readily offer her that comfort. But she shook her head – she felt better if Naruto had Sasuke beside him. Raiden, Kasumi, and the protective ofudas were enough to keep her peace of mind. And…
"You must follow me, Sakura-san…"
…She couldn't have Sasuke's protective sights on her. There were things she had to do…
"Go, Sasuke-kun. Keep Naruto out of trouble. Watch each other's backs."
"Are you sure?"
She smiled, reaching up to caress his cheek, "I'll meditate – I'll analyze our research before my condition worsens. I'll keep myself busy. And I'm not alone," She nodded her head towards the rest of the group that would be staying with her, "I'll be fine."
Naruto chose that moment to join them, a stack of ofudas in his left hand and a grim expression on his whiskered features. Sakura instantly reached out her free hand and grasped his arm, smiling up at the blonde with weakened assurance.
"We'll return soon," His blue eyes switched to Sasuke, "Ready?"
Sakura's fingers instantly tightened on Sasuke's vest and Naruto's sleeve, halting them, "For now, we don't tell anyone else about what's happened to me. I don't think I'm far gone enough to attack them, but I don't want to cause panic either."
Naruto and Sasuke frowned but slowly nodded their heads in silent agreement, "Alright."
"Stay together," She urged, her grip squeezing a final time before releasing them, "Be careful."
"We will," Naruto grinned, his blue eyes connecting meaningfully with green, "You too, Sakura-chan."
The two slowly walked away – Naruto with a small, hesitant wave and Sasuke lingering for several seconds before following with a slightly reluctant step. She watched as Shin and Sasuke began to plaster several wards onto their bodies before closing her eyes with resignation.
"We will work quickly," Sakura opened her eyes and shifted her head to the left, spotting the ghost-child standing expectantly beside her, her petite hand pointing towards the far wall, "She will want to play soon – and she will be vicious."
The ancient structure suddenly quaked and Sakura grabbed the broken shoji at her right to keep steady. Her eyes snapped towards Naruto and Sasuke, watching just in time as the Uchiha gave her a fleeting glance, before disappearing through the far entry, his body bordered in protective chakra armor.
Another tremor shook the building and Sakura regarded the apparition warily, "Who do you mean?"
The apparition's replying smile was somber, "The one named Amaya."
The Creature suddenly chuckled behind the shoji-partition and the ghost-child's dark eyes slid towards the looming shadow, her frown deepening. Sakura followed her gaze, utterly bewildered.
'What is going on?'
Isamu sighed tiredly, lifting his right arm and wiping the sweat from his brow. His left hand was slick, loosely gripping the hilt of his ronin double-bladed sword. Grey-blue eyes watched as Takeru raised his dual hand-axes and impacted the sharp, steel blades against the steadily obliterated floor. They had already broken through the first three-foot layer of wood, entered the structural gap that insulated the floors, and were finally hacking away at the wood that was the Throne Room's ceiling.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
The Rain Jounin briefly looked up into the gaping hole that led back to the second-level room, the sounds of the Corpses continuing their pounding was less noisy with their furthered descent.
Daisuke held up his axe, high above his head, before swinging it down with muscled force, causing wood to splinter apart beneath him, effectively recapturing Isamu's attention.
"You know, do we even have a plan for when we reach the Throne Room?"
"Exploration," Daisuke responded readily, out of breath as he swung his axe again, "Reconnaissance."
"And if it's a hostile environment?" Isamu questioned wearily.
"We'll use the chakra armor," Daisuke grunted, "It'll be fine."
Isamu was far from convinced, "I don't know guys…"
"Will you just shut up and help?" Takeru growled, brows creased steeply with irritation.
Isamu frowned, suddenly feeling uneasy as he looked at their current surroundings. The break between levels was only seven or eight feet high and was reinforced by evenly-spaced support beams. The darkness around them was disconcerting, lit only by the meager chakra-lantern that he and his team brought with them. The space was a little damp, held together by wood and stone.
Something didn't feel right.
Isamu's attention refocused on his two comrades. Daisuke had crouched, pulling at the splintered planks of wood with his brute strength, effectively causing the hole to widen, which led into disturbing blackness below.
"See anything?" Takeru asked, handing out ofudas and distractedly activating their chakra armor.
Daisuke leaned forward, brows furrowed as he looked through the gaping space, blindly reaching for the lantern and lowering it into the chasm for better lighting, "…It's…"
Isamu watched as the Bird Chuunin tensed, the hand braced against the floor clenching into a tight fist. Curiosity spiked, Takeru and Isamu scrambled forward on hands and knees, peering into the darkness with a twist of fear in their abdomens.
Isamu's breathing hitched, "Is that…"
"Shit," Takeru cursed, "Fucking shit."
Grey-blue eyes narrowed against the darkness of the Throne Room's mysterious abyss. Isamu swiped his blonde bangs from his face as his focus flitted along the expansive space, eyeing the glowing-blue crystals that jutted from the floor, providing dimmed luminosity to the area. In the middle of the room, roughly forty-five feet below, something dark and red was pooled thickly in a large basin. When Takeru shifted, a piece of splintered wood detached and fell towards the mass of crimson – disappearing with a ripple.
"…Blood?" Isamu whispered.
"Look," Takeru hissed, "By the door!"
Three pairs of eyes darted northward from their position, hearts pounding painfully in their chest as they comprehended just what was blocking the doorway that prevented Sakura's initial entry.
"What the fuck is going on?" Takeru muttered, running a hand through his slicked-back hair, "Just what the FUCK is going on?"
"Bodies," Daisuke murmured sadly, and Isamu took deep breaths to keep himself from retching, "…A pile of bodies. They look like they were trying to…escape."
Isamu ran a shaky hand over his face, daring another glance at the horrid scene displayed below him. There were hundreds of bodies, obstructing the doorway, piled several feet high and twisted in gruesome expressions of retreat and agony. The odor of death was even beginning to reach their higher perch. Beneath the heap of decaying flesh and bones, splatters of desiccated blood were smeared in heavy rivulets along the wooden floors. On the doors itself, handprints of scarlet decorated the aged wood, plainly drawing out the desperation of the owners' fear.
'They didn't want to play…'
The three men froze as the soft, delicate voice echoed in the large room. Their eyes were instantly drawn to the opposite side of the mound of cadavers, where the chairs of authority were positioned, regarding the tiny corpse-child as she swung her legs carelessly, a grin spreading on her pale face as she looked up to acknowledge them.
Her gray skin was mottled, losing its porcelain perfection with red streaks, dried on her cheeks, from bloodied tears. Her usually kempt hair was slightly frizzed, and her dress was ripped and frayed at the hem. However, she still looked positively frightening – dark irises taking the entirety of her eyes, leaving them pitch black and gleaming evilly.
"…We need to get out of here," Isamu whispered, already moving backwards as he watched the jutted crystals burn brighter, illuminating several stone slabs scattered across the room, where arbitrary cadavers were chained – as if experimented on…or ritualized.
Her giggle was amused, voice layered with several other voices – men, women, boys, and girls – as she stood from her seat, the crystals brightening and causing the shadows to elongate around her. The building suddenly quaked and Daisuke cursed, hand gripping his axe tightly with wariness.
"Get back," He muttered, urgent, "Fall back!"
Takeru swore as a the pool of blood below them began to bubble before shooting up in a spike of red liquid and causing the floor to shatter and explode feet away. Isamu scrambled backwards looking up at the solid, yet still-dripping obstruction that almost impaled them, his heart jumping in his chest as the Little Girl casually stepped away, from behind the spike, only meters away.
"So fast," He breathed.
Another giggle and the Little Girl grinned with blood-stained teeth, moving towards them intently on bare feet, 'You're in my playground now. And you won't survive.'
Gripping his ronin double-bladed sword, Isamu crouched in preparation, with Dai and Takeru flanking his sides, "…Fuck."
Sakura's fingers flexed – twitched – gripping the hem of her shirt as her green eyes darted around the narrow room of their temporary base. Kasumi and Raiden were in one corner, mapping out possible escape routes and alternatives – especially with half of their group missing and exploring the lower levels of the palace. The ancient structure shook again and Sakura's fingers clenched, frowning with the mere knowledge that she was separated from Naruto and Sasuke.
Exhaling slowly, she shifted her attention to Souta, Akio, and Akemi. The boys were speaking in low tones, gripping their weapons with restless anxiety – their eyes shifted warily when the building quaked and they both scowled, clearly not liking their inactiveness when most of their comrades were battling the dangerous and unknown. Akemi was still resting, eyes closed and body slumped against her brother's, still fatigued from their nightmare in the underground levels. Sakura's hands curled a fraction tighter around the fabric of her shirt as she recalled the horrific memory.
Sakura winced at the sound, eyes snapping towards the Creature – its shadow looming across the shoji door on the opposite side of the room. Her shoulders tightened, regarding the silent frame that had not moved from its spot since when she first regained consciousness, gasping for breath as screams had echoed in her haze-filled mind, effectively forcing her from sleep. Her right hand released her shirt and gripped her left wrist, feeling a sharp pain travel up the limb and shudder throughout her entire body. She bit her bottom lip, focusing on the pain of that single spot than what was wracking throughout her very bones.
Something shifted fleetingly against the back of her neck and below her right ear. Sakura tightened her shoulders and repressed a whimper. The Creature chuckled – knowing and dark.
"It seems her poison is not only fast, but powerful as well. We must work quickly, Sakura-san."
Sakura's jaw clenched and she twisted her head to the left, finding the ghost-child standing beside her, back straight, hands neatly folded together, and her dark eyes blinking up at her expectantly. The kunoichi sucked in a breath, glancing to her right to find that none of her companions were aware of the extra person in their presence. Akio and Souta were facing her – in clear viewing range of the apparition – but they seemed completely oblivious to her presence.
"They cannot see me."
"Why?" Sakura whispered, keeping her voice low to not gain their attention – she couldn't having them questioning her sanity so soon, "Why can I see you?"
"Because it is you who I am actively communicating with," She replied calmly.
"Then why me?" Her brows furrowed with frustration, "I'm an outsider to this whole mess. Why does everyone want me?"
"You are special in a unique way," The child answered softly; "They seek a unique factor – a unique factor that you happen to carry."
"What factor is that?" Sakura pressed – pleaded.
"Your body. Your chakra. Your mind."
"…My knowledge…?" Sakura questioned, trying to piece the puzzles together.
"…Essentially." The apparition tilted her head thoughtfully, "There have been other candidates. But you were the primechoice."
"Other candidates?" Sakura blinked.
The ghost-child suddenly flickered and she frowned, holding up her pale hand and noticing the increasing transparency of her form. She turned her head to acknowledge Sakura firmly.
"I am running out of time. If you want to put a stop to this never-ending torment, then you must follow me. Now."
"…Why should I trust you?" Sakura eyed the child warily, not ignorant to the possibility that she could be falling into a trap.
The specter's expression was grim, "If you allow this chaos to continue, Amaya's destruction will not end. It will spread and it will consume everything in complete and utter darkness."
The condemning tone of her voice, for such a small child, caused Sakura's heart to clench with apprehension.
What did she, and her team, really get themselves involved with?
Another pain shot up her left arm and Sakura flinched, the grip on her wrist tightening as if to suppress it at that one point. Again, the Creature chuckled and pink brows furrowed with irritation. With the little time she had left to freely search for answers, before insanity eventually took over, Sakura felt an overwhelming amount of determination fill her body.
She would not be idle. She would not give up. She would not give in.
"…Where are we going?"
"The Room of Records. West Corridor. One floor below us."
She stepped away from the wall Sakura was leaning against and flickered, within seconds, to the darkest end of their refuge – the area where she had revealed to Sasuke of her condition. A pale hand reached out, hovering over the shoji and the wards plastered against it.
"Exiting through here will be easiest."
Jerking her head in acquiesce, Sakura swallowed before shifting her attention to her preoccupied companions. She couldn't tell them her plans – they'd tie her up and deem her crazy within seconds – and she couldn't just leave without being noticed.
She exhaled softly, inconspicuously moving her hands into a series of hand signs, "…Forgive me. Yume Toransu no Jutsu."
It took an amazing amount of effort to control her chakra, manipulating it towards her green irises and containing it in that one area for several seconds; she cleared her throat, "Hey, guys."
Four pairs of eyes focused on her – Akemi still oblivious in slumber – and Sakura released the chakra, casting the high-ranking Genjutsu instantaneously on Raiden, Kasumi, Akio, and Souta once their stares connected with her own. The four froze, lost in a trance-like short-term illusory world, standing in the same room but interacting with an invented version of Sakura, one who was simply asking for a bottle of water. Sakura shuddered from the strain of her chaotic chakra networks, performing a few more hand signs and watching as a replica of herself appeared in a puff of smoke.
"I have another minute before they're released from the jutsu," She explained to her clone, "You will stay here in my place and reactivate the wards once I leave the protected perimeter."
"…Would you like me to go instead?" The clone inquired flippantly, and Sakura couldn't help but feel that it was a question of her subconscious – send the clone and stay safe in the process.
Sakura shook her head, "…I need to do this myself. Besides, I don't have enough control over my chakra to make a clone that can withstand the Corpses. If you disappear, I'd have to start over–"
"Better than dying," The clone sighed, "You disappear and that's it. No starting over. Send me."
"Your clone must stay," The apparition declared, "Its capabilities will not be enough to stay tangible for the journey. You will need a fair amount of chakra – not a meager fraction given to a copy."
The doppelganger scowled, glaring at the glowing specter, before shrugging her shoulders, "Fine. Suit yourself." She met Sakura's green eyes critically, "Be careful – for their sake."
Sasuke and Naruto.
"…Right." She closed her eyes, processing the fact that she was arguing with herself – was this a physical display of what was going on in her head? Doubting herself? Fighting herself?
"…If anything, it means you're still aware of your choices and decisions," Her clone crossed her arms over her chest, "It means you're not insane…yet."
Shaking her head, Sakura left her clone and approached the shoji door that the ghost-child had indicated, watching as her ethereal form disappeared easily, through the paper partition. She glanced over her shoulder, giving one last glance towards her companions, before pressing a hand to the wooden frame. Slowly, she began to add pressure, sliding it to the right and feeling resistance from both the age and strength of the ofuda-barrier – the slips of paper began to glow blue with protest.
"You have half a second to slip through before we lose the sealing power completely," Her clone warned from several feet away.
Sakura nodded, already aware of the fact, and with a sharp exhale, she pushed the shoji opened, flinching as the ofudas brightened with objection, before slipping into the next room and shutting the partition with a snap. Her clone's muffled voice instantly reinforced the seals and suddenly Sakura couldn't help but feel completely and helplessly alone.
She looked around the room. It was similar to the one she and her teammates had been residing in, with overturned furniture disintegrated with age, and multiple shoji doors that hung of their rails. Without the guiding light of lanterns, Sakura blinked her sights, adjusting to the disconcerting darkness, and instantly spotting the ghost-child in the middle of the room.
Sakura stiffened, shifting her attention to her left, where the North Hall was, watching the dark shadows of the Corpses move disjointedly towards where the others were staying, oblivious to her presence. Nonetheless, she reached into her back pouch and removed an ofuda, plastering it to her stomach and activating it with a whisper.
It was going to be difficult to maintain the chakra armor when her normal reserves were already becoming a little problematic to control.
"The Corpses are being drawn to your other companions. This will make it more beneficial for you to sneak by them." The transparent form walked towards the entry that led to the North Hall, her gaze beseeching, "We must go."
Sakura moved to follow, removing a kunai from her thigh holster for extra protection. She took a calming breath, willing her heart to settle from its painful pounding against her chest. As she put a hand to the handle, her attention refocused on the spirit beside her, brow quirking with curiosity.
"…Who are you, exactly? Why are you doing this?"
The apparition looked at her, features softening into a subtle sadness before she closed her eyes, "…I am doing this because I want this curse to end. All I wish…is to rest in peace."
Sakura's heart clenched upon seeing her tired expression. However, the kunoichi's unease was still present – she hadn't shared her name. Before Sakura could inquire again, the quiet specter stepped through the wall and out of sight – a silent request to continue moving. Sighing, Sakura steeled herself, lips pulled into a frown, her brows creased, and her hand tightening on the shoji.
Sasuke grunted as his Kusanagi severed through three different necks, heads flying and blood splattering gruesomely around him. Behind him, Naruto was watching his blind spot, effortlessly calling up a Rasenshuriken and hurling it down the South Hall. The blonde was instructed to stay close to Sasuke – his Kyuubi chakra made him incapable of utilizing the chakra armor – which meant he had to stay within the Uchiha's radius to be efficiently protected.
Shin was a few yards ahead of them, using his katana with deadly precision. They were currently on the second level, and needed to get to the North Hall where their comrades' fluctuating chakras were emitting with distress.
"Fucking bastards," Naruto growled, his voice more roughened than usual; even the punches he threw towards an oncoming Corpse delivered more force than was necessary.
Sasuke already knew the reasons for his best friend's irritable behavior – relatedly, Sasuke charged chidori into the blade of his weapon, feeling satisfaction as he cut down his enemies with more contempt then previous times before.
In the past few days, he found this new breed of adversary to be a nuisance – a problem that he was helping to solve – a mission.
Now – now it was fucking personal.
"We're supposed to protect her," Naruto muttered, self-deprecating, "We were supposed to prevent this from happening," He grunted, stabbing a kunai into three consecutive cadavers, "We can't just watch Sakura-chan become…not herself." He shook his head, "We find whoever's responsible – the creepy girl, that damned shadow creature – whoever, and we do whatever it takes to get her back to normal. If they don't damn well cooperate, Kami help them, I'll–" He exhaled sharply, his words not enough to convey the acts running through his mind, but his intentions were clear.
The building shook again and Shin threw his katana in a wide arc, pushing back the front wave of Corpses, before looking over his shoulder to regard the two Leaf ninja.
"How is their chakra, Naruto-san?"
"Still spiked," He answered, brows furrowed as Sasuke decapitated three Corpses moving to intercept the focused blonde, "…They're…running?" He sounded unsure, closing his golden eyes to better concentrate, and wordlessly trusting Sasuke to cover him, "They're heading towards us."
Shin frowned, pushing back the second wave in front of him with a Wind Jutsu before edging several more meters forward where the South and East Halls met. He stared searchingly down the East Wing with confusion, "I do not see any sign of them, Naruto-san."
Sasuke swiftly shifted on his feel, impaling a Corpse through the abdomen as it reached for Naruto's back, "Hurry up, dobe." His concentration on his chakra armor was becoming difficult to hold with the prolonged time of keeping it erected.
"…I think," He opened his eyes, blonde brows furrowed, "I think they're beneath us."
Shin blinked, "Beneath–?"
A strange, feminine, high-pitched scream suddenly sounded and the three men flinched before pressing their palms to their ears to muffle the noise. Naruto and Sasuke quickly ran forward to convene with Shin, their eyes immediately drawn to the East Hall and the way the ground began to shift, like a wave, heading towards them, the Corpses on top falling in different directions from loss of balance.
Sasuke, Naruto, and Shin quickly shuffled backwards with wariness; their feet positioned and ready to dart down the South Hall to retreat, only for the shifting floorboard to stop its strange movement – before a massive red-black spike broke through from below, splintering the wood and towering over them, barely breaking through, into the third floor above.
"What the hell is that?" Naruto whispered, leaning closer to inspect the dripping red object, only to be stopped by Sasuke's grip on his upper arm.
"It's not good," Shin replied, concern obviously laced in his statement.
Shin's frown deepened, and before Sasuke or Naruto could question the noise, the older male was already running forward, carefully moving beyond the obstruction and searching the backside of the spike where the muffled sound had originated. The Leaf ninja followed after him with caution.
Suspended, several feet up, pinned at his biceps and shoulders by smaller spikes, hung Makoto Daisuke. Naruto's and Sasuke's eyes widened and Shin moved forward, dark-grey eyes flicking desperately in search of a resolution to bring him down.
"Shi–Shin…" His voice was weakened, blood dripping down his chin and Sasuke's sights settled on his left abdomen, where another small spike held him in place, "The o-others. S-Save T-Takeru…and I-Isa…"
"Don't talk, Dai," Shin heeded, smooth features creased with evident worry, "We'll get you down. Hold on – don't go to sleep!"
"Cover me, Sasuke."
The Uchiha glanced at Naruto, who was analyzing the situation, before nodding his head, turning his back and crouching low in preparation of the horde of Corpses who were beginning to regain their earlier misbalance.
"Tajuu Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"
A fleeting glance over his shoulder and Sasuke could see Naruto using his clones as a human ladder, standing feet on shoulders, before harshly removing the spikes from Daisuke's body. When the Bird Chuunin was safely returned to the floor, Shin was instantly at his side and looking over his injuries. Naruto was quick to kick open an adjacent door of the hall, helping Shin and Dai inside the room before making sure that the space was completely enclosed.
"Stay here," Naruto instructed, handing Shin more wards to barricade the room; "Sasuke and I will find Takeru and Isamu. Get Dai healed and, when you have a chance, get back to the others."
"We'll see you in a bit," He finished firmly and, with a final glance at Shin, left the room, closing the door tightly behind him. Frowning, Naruto cracked his knuckles before returning to the Uchiha's side.
"Makoto?" Sasuke asked before executing a powerful fire jutsu.
"I don't know, it looked pretty bad, but he's conscious at least," Naruto replied honestly, "Shin's got him and we have two more missing comrades to worry about."
"Beneath us?" The Uchiha confirmed from Naruto's earlier observations.
Naruto nodded, blonde brows furrowed with resolve as a Rasengan formed in his outstretched palm; with a grunt, he threw his hand downward, blasting apart the wooden floor, beside the massive spike, with ease, allowing the two Leaf shinobi to land in the insulation space with chakra-enforced cushioning. They both stood from their crouches and Naruto punched a tight fist into his open palm, "Let's go hunting."
Sakura crouched low, using the darkness to her advantage as she darted in and out of opened doorways and blended into the shadows of every crevice or corner she could find. The horde of Corpses had lessened and she could only assume that they were in pursuit of the others – whether it was Daisuke's team or Sasuke's team, she wasn't sure – but it did make it easier for her to sneak around without trouble.
Three Corpses walked aimlessly ahead, oblivious to her presence. Gripping her kunai knife tighter, Sakura held her breath and sprinted forward. With the first one, she jumped forward, stabbing the blade straight through the back of its skull and catching its body before it fell to the ground, before severing its nerves with her chakra scalpel. With the second, she ran at a crouch, grabbing its head and twisting its neck with a crack, before giving it the same chakra scalpel treatment as the last. The last one, she stealthily crept up behind, extended her wrist-blade with a shring and decapitated its head, arms, and legs with composed calculation.
Another glance around and Sakura carefully crept towards the staircase. The door was already opened and upon peering it, the sounds of hissing whispers and groaning were coming from the lower levels.
"One floor down," Sakura recalled softly.
The ghost-child had already disappeared, simply stating that she would be waiting in front of the room she was supposed to search through. Not having her there was both a relief to Sakura and a bit of a distress to her. The idea of being completely alone brought her back to the nightmare and terror of her first few hours in the Rain Border Village, before Daisuke had saved her. It made it plainly obvious that she was no longer in the presence of Sasuke and Naruto, also. But the relief – it mostly centered on the fact that she wasn't insane yet.
Because she couldn't help but question – was this ghost-child really there to communicate with her? Or was she just a figment of her deteriorating imagination?
She shuffled down the winding South-East Staircase one level, grabbing the railing when the building shook once again. The frequent quaking was really beginning to concern her.
Sakura entered the third level of the palace interior warily, green eyes darting through the darkness before following the Southern Hall, remembering that the Records Room was in the West Wing. Another few Corpses stood in the way of her destination and Sakura was quick to incapacitate them, reveling that her chakra-enhanced strength was available to her – unlike when she had been trapped in the underground levels.
A shiver crawled up her spine from the memory.
When she turned the South-West corner, the ghost-child's white glowing form stood a few yards down the hall, in front of a shoji that was slightly ajar. She turned towards her, dark eyes unblinking as she patiently awaited the Leaf kunoichi's arrival.
"…This is the place?" Sakura questioned softly when she reached the apparition. She was responded with a short nod before the child turned and disappeared through the entryway.
Swallowing, Sakura slowly opened the shoji, kunai ready to defend and protect if something jumped out at her. She was greeted by a dark room, scattered with furniture – mostly toppled shelves – and a mess of degenerated parchment and papers.
"What you are looking for is a red, leather-bound tome. Very simple. Very small. Very old."
"…Do you know exactly where it is?" Sakura questioned, impatience and frustration rising as she crouched down to inspect ancient scriptures and scrolls.
"Then how do you know what to look for?" Sakura exhaled sharply, "How do you know it's here?"
"…It belonged to Amaya."
Sakura dropped a useless, faded scroll before standing up again, "That doesn't exactly answer my–"
'What are you up to, Haruno Sakura?'
The kunoichi stiffened. She twisted her body slowly – cautiously – shoulders coiling painfully and her arm spiking with discomfort when she found the Creature, standing in the corner of the room, surrounded by shadow, and pale face twisted into a sinister grin.
"…You tricked me," Sakura felt a whirlwind of emotions erupt within her – terror, stupidity, frustration, anger. Was it the ghost who played tricks? Was it her own mind that was playing tricks?
"No," The apparition appeared beside her, "…She does not see me either. Only you. You must find the tome, Sakura-san."
Sakura frowned, "I don't think I can when she's here."
"How?" Sakura snarled, "I can't be touch–" She paused, brows furrowing slightly before she deliberately pocketed her drawn kunai into her belt, "I don't seem to have that limitation anymore – considering I've already been touched by you." She stepped forward, knuckles cracking as her fists began to glow bright blue; "Now I'll get the satisfaction of breaking you with my own two hands."
"However, the more you touch her the worse your condition will become, Sakura-san," The ghost-child warned.
Sakura removed her leather gloves from her back pouch, slipping them tight, onto her bare hands, with a dark grin, "If it means taking her out – it might just be worth it."
A/N: Ahh! I updated! So sorry guys for the long wait. Things have been a little hectic lately. So, to stay updated with me and all other updates follow me on Tumblr. You can also ask me questions relating to the story if you're confused and I'll answer without giving too much away. And, I'd like to get to know my readers, because seriously guys, without you, this story wouldn't be where it is right now! Thanks so much for your patience and continued support! I LOVE YOU!
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and Company. Only the Plot and Original Characters.
If you haven't already! Check out the Original Character Profiles on my Wordpress Blog. It'll help with names and faces to follow through the story!
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Questions I hope YOU can answer in a Review!
Who is your favorite Original Character? Why?
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Do you think the ghost-girl is really there or a figment of Sakura's imagination?
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Next Chapter: Chapter Thirty-Two: Sacrifice
Next Update: I'll aim for a week!
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