Hi, patient reader…very, very, very, VERY patient reader. Thanks for coming back, and profuse apologies for taking so long. It's been a combination of my life being crazy (borderline fucked-up) and me being lazy (not to mention easily-distracted, easily-discouraged), in all honesty about a 50/50 split. And after all this time, I wish I had something better to show for it than this poor and short offering but it kind of is what it is. I hope you enjoy it anyway and I'll try not to take so long for the next chapter.
A telltale flicker of unholy quickening in those ravenous eyes, gateways to oblivion, warned Haku and the host of shinobi spirits within him what was coming. The young ninja floated back, barely in time, as the pavement where he'd been standing cratered explosively under forces unseen. Barely an instant behind, the towering form of Krishenay Rahaman, the vessel for 108 Demons, surged after him far faster than any living thing on earth had ever moved. Haku's chakra, wielded by forty-seven ninja-lords, answered. The teenager coiled his legs and sprang back with equal speed as if to meet the monsters head-on but then shifted his substance into wind and passed effortlessly around them. Once clear, he reformed and twisted mid-air, both hands dancing through seals for separate jutsu, marveling at his new powers and the enormity of the gift Lord Hirai had given him.
Claws of ice erupted from the pavement to seize Rahaman while, overhead, the sullen, pregnant clouds yielded their lightning, gathering it in a swelling cascade from the outermost edges of the horizon before sending it lancing down in a single, massive, blinding shaft. For an eternity, the coruscating energies pulsed and poured earthward like god's vengeance as if to pierce the heart of the world, the brightness of it erasing all existence into a tapestry of white until gradually, the hellish paroxysm spent, it thinned and faded away.
Rising from a protective crouch, Haku cast his gaze through the drifts of smoke and smoldering rubble, with them the stench of char and ozone. For having destroyed Piazza Hirai, as well as the buildings adjacent to it, he supposed Kirigakure would forgive him, especially since the spirit of the august woman for which it had been named resided within his slender frame. Yet as he and his ninja ghosts had expected, though a thick-walled castle could not have withstood a bolt like that with even a single stone left standing, their enemy remained unscathed.
And even while the last of the debris settled, with bits of rocks and stone, some of it fused into glass, falling with desultory staccato clicks and clacks over the battlefield, and the sight of the Mizukage's former emissary, Krishenay Rahaman, emerging, grinning ghastly through the fumes, Haku frowned and chided himself for having held even the faintest hope that this might end easily.
The chunin sailed through space, feeling the warm air rush past his skin, thick with humidity. Bending his legs as the bough rushed up at him from the forest, Shikamaru landed on it adroitly then leaped again, using the power of his chakra to harness his momentum and send him hurtling on once again. Three bounds ahead of him, Kiba and Sakura lead the way, with Kiba keeping track of his ninja-hound Akamaru who raced parallel to them on the road beyond the timberline, following Naruto and Haku's scent. Chouji, an equal measure behind, brought up the rear.
No one living in those grey and fog-shrouded little shoreline fishing villages would pay much attention to a little puppy, Shikamaru supposed, allowing the four leaf-ninjas to remain well out of sight as they travelled concealed by the woods.
As leader, the black-haired shinobi couldn't help but note the good order in which they made their way and that the team was both disciplined (at the moment, anyway) and motivated. In the world of military strategy these were very good things. But he also couldn't help but note the way Kiba had kind of taken over, leading (if you could call it that) through sheer blind impetuousness, not exactly in a mutinous way but not shying from it either.
Shikamaru frowned in something like exasperation. Of course, Kiba didn't mean anything personal. He was only trying to accomplish the mission the way he thought best, and he wasn't the type to wait around, weigh options, discuss or explain things at much length even under normal circumstances. This time however, there seemed to be something more in play, something else brewing inside that shaggy-haired head.
When he thought about it, it had been clear enough from their very first conversation about rescuing Naruto the depth of Kiba's commitment. Only now did Shikamaru wonder if maybe that commitment might be too deep, making the genin act even more rashly and impulsively than usual.
Wincing, the chunin supposed he ought to be grateful. Without Kiba's quick action, ill-conceived as it was, they'd all still be on that ship, headed back to the Land of Waves and miles away from being in a position to even think about rescuing Naruto let alone hot on the wayward ninja's trail.
Jealous? he could hear his teammate, Ino's pointed, teasing voice prod, sharp as a skewer.
No, Shikamaru answered, rolling his eyes tiredly at the idea.
He'd never been jealous of Kiba or anyone really in his whole life. Besides, the days of childish, individual competition were officially over with as of the chunin exams. Real ninja responsible enough to go on important missions knew that success depended on teamwork. So if one member is stronger then it makes the whole team stronger.
Ino again: So I guess you're admitting that Kiba's stronger than you?
Shikamaru frowned at this troublesome tack his mind was taking. I told you, it doesn't matter, he answered. But every team has to be organized, especially ours, because if we're not, there's no way we'll make it back -.
The leaf-ninja's troublesome ruminations were brought to end as he suddenly sensed…something. What it was, Shikamaru wasn't entirely sure but he found himself looking off through the woods at his right. The others felt it too and dropped out the treetops one after another to pause.
"What IS that?" Sakura was the first to say against the arboreal quiet.
All four stared.
"Chakra," noted Kiba with a wary scowl, one pointed incisor bared. "The pressure's really intense too, weird. It's like there's only two but at the same time way more than two, both bigger than anything I've ever felt before and…and there's something not right about them, either of them."
Chouji grumbled, pointing out: "It's coming from the direction of Kirigakure."
Through the densely-leafed canopies the foursome could see the breaks widening in the mantle of clouds over the distant city, the winds swirling in strange patterns. Without warning, the leaden cloudscape came alive. Across the sky's vast hemisphere, blinding crackles of lightning shuddered across the gray, its fiery web-work surging together into one titanic shaft that, in the blink of an eye, struck down into the Hidden Mist Village. A boom of thunder sounded, shattering the quiet and shaking the earth with its primal, elemental roar, bowing the trees as if heralding the end of the world.
When, at last, the harsh light and the last of the reverberations had faded, the four young ninjas peeled their arms from around their heads, shook off the dusting of fallen leaves and twigs that had dropped over them then straightened hesitantly.
"W-what," gulped Chouji, wide-eyed in shock, "what the hell was THAT?"
"Jutsu," answered his friend in a measured tone. "It has to be. There's no way that was a natural event."
Sakura looked back and forth between them and wrung her fingers worriedly. "This couldn't," she began, "I mean, this couldn't have anything to do with Naruto, could it?"
Shikamaru frowned and crossed his arms. "Can't exactly say I'd be surprised. You?" he asked his team, remembering that Mari had warned them about an alliance of ninja clans planning revenge against the Mist Village; the crux of Naruto and Haku's mission – to stop them. That you'd find Naruto in the thick of it, where he always seemed to be, would make perfect sense.
The shinobi all returned knowing looks.
"Right," Shikamaru acknowledged. "Regardless, we'd better get going. The trail's not getting any fresher and we've still got a division of Water Country marines barely three hours behind us."
Kiba nodded gravely and at once leaped off, back into the trees to catch up with Akamaru. One after the other, the remaining leaf-ninjas followed after him.
As Shikamaru took his position he took a last, long look toward Kirigakure. Memories of another mission, a similar mission with a similar objective chilled him, and it hadn't been that long ago. Then, like now, he really hadn't had much idea of what he was getting into.
Naruto. Haku. Blood-gifted ninja clans, he thought, Water Country mounting an invasion. None of this is looking good.
Akamaru lead the team further inland through a patch of dank, low-lying forest, past a long-abandoned farmhouse to a crumbling barn overgrown with tangled vines. There he stopped at the stone remains of an equally long-abandoned well. The puppy circled it warily, sniffing all the while, then barked.
"Naruto…fell down a well?" Sakura supposed uncertainly once the whole team had gathered.
Kiba's face turned puzzled. The ninja backed up a few steps and took a sniff for himself. "It's Naruto and Haku for sure. They had lunch here," he reported, then followed his nose back to the well's uninviting opening and peered into its murky depths. "And then they went down."
Chouji leaned over the opening from the other side and looked into the black, a doubtful expression on his pudgy face. "Are you sure, Kiba? Maybe you're smelling things, like a…a smell hallucination or something."
"Look," Kiba argued, faltering only slightly, "I know what it looks like but I'm TELLING you they went DOWN!"
Shikamaru looked back and forth between the two. "It's not as if we have anything else to go on. Chouji, grab my feet; I'll take a look."
The bigger ninja looked at his friend, mildly surprised, but then gave a shrug as Shikamaru took out a flashlight from his pack and positioned himself on the lip of the well. Clearly despite his better judgment, Chouji took hold of Shikamaru's ankles with his strong, chakra-enhanced grip and lowered him down. After just a few seconds, the chunin's searching beam settled on something out of sight and he called up: "It's ok, Chouji, let go."
"Are you sure?" Chouji squawked in answer then, when his leader confirmed, complied.
As the chunin dropped from sight, the three ninjas and Akamaru listened for the crash of a splash then, when they didn't hear anything, looked and found Shikamaru's disembodied arm waving up at them from the darkness. "Come on, guys, it's ok," his laconic voice echoed, "there's a passage down here."
Soon after, the foursome found themselves threading along a tunnel of stone with Kiba and Akamaru again following Naruto and Haku's trail.
With his face awash in the flashlight's reflected glow, Shikamaru decided he'd been wrong to harbor any misgivings about Kiba. Without a doubt it was high time his classmate explored what he was really capable of. Reflexively, the chunin couldn't help but glance away, knowing that the assertion might apply equally to himself.
Considering that they were about to enter the Village Hidden in the Mist, a Kiba significantly stronger than he'd ever been before was probably a good thing to have on his side.
I'll just have to keep an eye on him, make sure he doesn't get carried away. A dog is a pack animal after all; I'll just have to remind him. A cagey smile crossed his face. He's just worried about Naruto and I guess I can't blame him. We all are…and not just 'cause Tsunade says he's important.
Looking down the tunnel into the black ahead he couldn't help but remember the strange yellow-headed ninja's crazy smile and crazier antics. We'll get you back, Naruto, he half-promised, half-thought.
And you too, Haku, why not? Shikamaru added, remembering his promise to Mari, even if I don't really know you.
As hard as we all tried to get Sasuke back, we failed; me most of all. Whatever comes our way this time, I can't let that happen again, no matter what.
His lips slanted. So many less troublesome professions in the world….
The Demon's Apprentice's hands flew through a series of seals as Rahaman counterattacked. Around and behind the ANBU-masked teenager, a city block extant since the dawn of the Mist Village evaporated under the power of the 108 Demon's chakra but the young shinobi had sidestepped, putting years of time and miles of space between them. There now in the middle of the ocean, far from where anyone might find themselves caught up in their struggle, his adversary was upon him in an instant.
Massive hands, within them almost unlimited supernatural power, closed around Haku's neck only to find empty air. Floating back atop the waves, the young ninja's hand shot forward, sending forth a tear though existence itself. Powerful as the jutsu was, Rahaman barely even had to counter and smothered the attack with the merest shrug of the terrible energy the monsters inside him commanded. The ocean waters below churned and boiled under the force, bowing out clear down to the silted floor, fathoms beneath where the two fought.
With the hem of his jade robe whipping in the wind, Haku circled, skirting the frothing pit, and called forth lightning which flashed in crackling fury, vanishing from sight at times to attack their target through dimensions unseen as they lashed at the 108 Demons but still Rahaman's defenses remained impregnable.
Tendrils of water and chakra, living extensions of the demons' corrupting will, erupted from the water, coiling and snapping after Haku, snaring his limbs despite his unearthly speed. Pain burned through the young shinobi as the tendrils latched on to feed on his chakra until the teenager's kekkei-genkai freed him. In an instant, the watery serpents froze to brittle ice and shattered as Haku burst free only to find himself pressed back as Rahaman leaped at him. Evading once again, The Demon's Apprentice battered the giant with tsunami-force waves then trapped it within glaciers harder than steel, cold as the depths of space. It only held for a moment before cracks appeared and the mountains of ice flew apart in an eruption of titanic shards.
Having used the time to prepare, Haku sent forth an onslaught – a vast army of summoned monsters, yokai and kaiju that owed blood allegiance to the ninja lord spirits within him yet, despite the sum of their efforts, the lone ninja and his host were again forced to flee.
Over a barren landscape a thousand years before they'd first confront each other in Kirigakure, the monstrous form of Krishenay Rahaman hunted Haku. Though the boy possessed jutsu undreamed of by any ninja living, one after another, they failed him. Taijutsu, even at his level, was impossible against an inhuman enemy whose defenses remained supernaturally adamant, genjutsu hopeless against one-hundred and eight minds all linked together in gestalt, ninjutsu, the manipulation of nature itself, useless against creatures whose unified power dwarfed anything ever seen in nature.
Across centuries of time they fought, their battle spanning continents; Rahaman pressing, Haku evading until finally, the elusive Demon's Apprentice found himself at last, hopelessly compassed. By and by, the demons had replicated themselves, overlapping their existences until their numbers were nearly infinite, enough to surround their quarry in space and even time – those foothills and shallows of time within the teenager's ability to negotiate. Rahaman had been sure, over the course of countless exchanges, to test and map the ninja's limits.
Of course, Haku and his ninja spirits apprehended grimly. It only made sense that, having resorted to the same hit-and-run tactic so many times that Rahaman, the Mizukage's former emissary and executioner, would find a way to counter it.
Effectively penned, shafts of the 108 Demons will lanced now at Haku from every angle, attacking from dimensions that could not be measured with bolts of pure dissolution. Zabuza's apprentice settled into a wary calm, letting his reactions flow naturally, transforming or maneuvering his body away from each oncoming thrust as they came until, inevitably, one found him, appearing out of the ether, too quickly to avoid. In carefully suppressed dismay, Haku watched as his clothing, the senbon beneath it, skin, muscle, bone, blood and organs across the left side of his chest burst open and went streaming off into space. Even with the control and discipline of four dozen ninja-lords and heroes buoying him, he could hardly contain the wrenching pain and purest shock that coursed now through his body – an excruciation beyond measure, dwarfing anything in his experience, rendering even the burning agonies of Kakashi's chidori to insignificance.
Beneath his ANBU mask, Haku grit his teeth as he fought to limit the disruption of his chakra network, the flow of natural and supernatural energies that kept Lord Hirai's jutsu in place, that gave him any chance at all of prevailing…or even of surviving another instant.
Abandoning all other jutsu to save that one, time and space snapped suddenly as the tethers he'd left, that anchored him back to Kirigakure, pulled him. As he went, another desperate, one-handed seal called out to his dissipating substance and Haku had to turn away from the nauseating spectacle as the rent fabric of his body pulled and knitted back together.
Appearing once again in the Hidden Mist Village, the ninja spun wildly over the still-smoking wreckage of Hirai Plaza, struck hard and went pin-wheeling limply over lightning-scorched and melted ruins. Pushing himself up, he teetered once and peered through the slits of his ANBU mask, knowing that Rahaman would be right there.
The monster masquerading as a man, terrible as any giant or ogre from folklore, and standing barely a stone's throw away, bellowed in the full, unrestrained ecstasy of their magnificent, unchallengeable power, the 108 Demons' triumph, and reached out demonstratively with their chakra, the fingers of which brushed the stratosphere.
Haku, barely able to stand, quieted his mind, open to any ideas from his inhabitants, mist-ninja legends all, but nothing came, nothing but a single thought that seeped through them like cold water through sand - was he, were they really ALL, beaten?
"An entertaining match," rumbled Rahaman as he approached, within him legions, "but we've taken the measure of you; you have nothing left to offer."
The cessation of motion, the sudden quiet of the battlefield - this doomed city of Kirigakure - closed around the Demon's Apprentice like a fist. In this silence, the teenager's heart thudded in his chest.
"You're right," Haku was forced to agree though he still could hardly believe it had come to this as the words drifted past his lips. "We surrender."
The blond ninja startled awake with the unbearable stench of sulfur flooding his nostrils. "EEAUGH!" he squawked, arms and legs flailing, then glared at the medical ninja hovering over him.
The squinty-eyed man leaned back, capped a glass vial with a smart flourish and returned it to its proper place in his medical kit.
"What was THAT?!"
"Smelling salts," he explained mildly. "You passed out."
Naruto sat up, propping himself on an elbow, and looked around dazedly at where he now found himself – a long, drab-colored tent with cots lined up along each wall and an aisle running down the center. From each of the pallets, Hirai-clan children, by their appearance, brothers, sisters and cousins of various ages sat or lay, most of them bandaged though none appeared really seriously hurt. Many looked back at him in wonder, gawking and pointing as they noticed the blond boy's awakening.
As the lingering smelling salts cleared the leaf-ninja's nose, a gentler stink of antiseptics and aged canvas seeped in to replace it, punctuated by the sharper acridity of smoke. The boy grimaced as he remembered the attack on Castle Hirai.
Hideo, that weird guy who'd been Lord Tsujita's bodyguard and who'd rescued him from whatever it was Grandpa Hirai had done to him, stood nearby, staring somberly into space along with another mist-ninja who waited with arms folded. Naruto rubbed his head as the initial jolt of his return to consciousness faded. "How long have I been out?" the boy asked seriously, his voice slow and raspy.
"Take it easy…about fifteen minutes," the caretaker explained. "All those shadow clones you summoned sucked your chakra dry." The medical ninja looked up at his ward full of children, many of them still alive thanks to the young leaf-ninja's efforts. "Thank you, by the way."
The genin grinned awkwardly at the unexpected praise but then his expression shifted sharply as he remembered and Naruto grabbed the medic's sleeve. "Hey, listen, I got to GO! I -!"
"Relax, would you?" the medic countered then frowned. "You really ought to get some rest and if was up to me you would, even if I had to have you strapped between two cots, but for some reason Lord Hirai wants you outta here. The sooner the better is what he said."
"I…he does?" Naruto blinked in astonishment. For some inexplicable reason, the idea that the man who'd gone to some lengths to imprison him was no longer interested stung slightly. The young ninja crossed his arms. "Oh…well," he granted, "ok then."
The medic handed him a cup of water and a pill.
Naruto regarded these skeptically. "What's this?"
"A cup of water and a pill," said the man with a smirk that faded under the boy's sour look. "No sense of humor, huh? THAT," he explained, "is a 'Hei Lung' or Black Dragon which is a compressed herbal and mineral compound often used as a soldier pill. It'll give you a good chakra boost but not for free. You'll crash later." The medic gathered his gear and made to rise. "You're not planning on operating any heavy machinery, are you?"
The blonde gave him a blank, blue-eyed look.
"Riiiiiight," the doctor remarked while Naruto gulped the pill down, then he cocked his head toward the awaiting sentry. "If you're feeling more-or-less ok now you're supposed to go with this guy."
Naruto looked up at the strange ninja. "What for?"
The expression on the medic's face before he left answered him: 'what, you expect me to know everything?'
Less than half an hour later, Naruto marched after his guide who led him into the still-smoldering ruins of one of Castle Hirai's courtyards. The boy chafed in his new vestments, feeling a bit uncomfortable in the blue and grey mist-ninja fatigues, minus the hitai-ate but complete with a high-collared armored vest, the mist-ninja had given him along with a full panoply of arms and gear that hung somewhat heavily on his shoulders and clung tightly to his waist. This wasn't the first time he'd had to wear an outfit like this but the genin missed the roomy and well broken-in orange jacket he was accustomed to…and his neck itched like crazy!
Hideo, silent as always, followed a pace or two behind.
In a far corner of the courtyard left miraculously untouched by the devastation, where the grass was still green and the flower beds still colorful with blooms, Lord Hirai, the Councilor of Kirigakure himself had set up a makeshift command post – an informal arrangement of simple tables and chairs set up atop a broad swath of overlapping rugs that had been rolled out over the grass.
Though the man seemed as strong and stern as ever, still very much in command, he had lost something of his former composure. His always-perfect mantle of impeccably-coiffed silver hair was slightly mussed now with strands out of place, telltale smudges of soot stained his fine clothes and his skin was patched here and there with crisp, white bandages and the oily gleam of freshly-applied unguents. More than that, there was something else more elusive and harder to explain - like an actor who'd slipped out of character.
The ninja-lord looked up and a wry grin creased his aged face. "Mr. Uzumaki," he greeted the yellow-haired teenager, "you look positively respectable." Even his tone had changed somewhat: still depreciating but less harsh, more winsome.
A boyish retort came at once to his lips but Naruto bit down on it.
"Ah, yes," Hirai read his mind but answered with a philosophical air, "I suppose it goes without saying what I look like."
There was kind of a lot Naruto wanted to say, to express, to ask, but words failed him. What could you say to someone whose home had been attacked, scores of his family killed, especially when your relationship was, at best, ambiguous? Cutting through the awkwardness of the moment, the young ninja settled on the one thing he didn't have to think about: "Are you gonna send me to Kirigakure like you said?" he asked with a scowl.
"Of course," the ninja-lord replied quickly, casually, then cast a discreet look toward the position of the sun. "You have to save your friend, Haku, don't you? If there's anything left of him to save," he offered with an equally careless cruelty then raised his hand to quiet Naruto's immediate objection. "Forgive me, I shouldn't have said that. Today's a day for surprises after all; perhaps he'll surprise me too. You're fire, he's ice, but you're both full of surprises." Lord Kisshomaru Hirai went to one of the tables, picked up an official-looking document and handed it to Naruto. "I only know bits and pieces of what's going on in my Mist Village," the near-centenarian explained simply. "These are travel papers. As long as any order still holds there these documents, bearing my seal and signature, will ensure your safe passage. You need only present them."
The teenager blinked at the old man's continuing generosity and tried not to be suspicious. "I…uh, thanks."
A strange, faint music rose just then and Naruto had to squint and look around a bit before he could discern the source. A bell, about the size of a teacup, that hung from a broken stanchion had begun to chime…all by itself. The boy looked up then at Lord Hirai in puzzlement only to find the patriarch staring at the bell with a grave expression on his face. Turning back to Naruto, he smiled tightly. "You should go. Follow me."
The young ninja fell in beside the old man as he started to walk, moving quickly to match the taller Hirai's brisk, long-legged strides, as they headed, apparently, toward an ornate fountain at the opposite corner of the courtyard.
"I'm sorry," Naruto blurted at last.
"For all this," he explained in an awkward but sincere sadness, gesturing at the destruction, "your castle and everything. I…a lot of people got hurt."
Hirai leveled an inscrutable glance down at him. "Thank you, young master. I appreciate your kind sentiments. Yes, this has been…quite a shock for me," he acknowledged, his voice begrudging and hesitant. "For my part I suppose I should have known better than to allow myself to become so complacent, so attached to a place, even if it is my home, or so fond of its people even though they are my flesh and blood."
Naruto stared for a moment, unsure he'd really heard the old man right. "W-what do you mean?"
The ninja sighed. "A great master of politics once said that it's best to inflict all your hurts at once so as to shock the object of your strategy into inaction and thereby achieve victory. I always thought that was sound wisdom and have practiced it myself…more than once. Now that I find myself on the receiving end of the tactic, I have a greater appreciation for the truth of it. Don't misunderstand me; I have no doubt whatsoever that it was not I for who this shock was intended, but Kirigakure itself. No, the Hirai Clan was clearly supposed to be annihilated as a component to a much larger plan. My adversary struck without warning and with a ruthlessness I, sadly, had not anticipated." The old man crackled with a caustic laugh. "For that, and being able to keep an operation of this magnitude from the attention of my spies, I can't help but be impressed. If the particulars were not what they were, I'd say she was to be congratulated."
"Wait…wait," said Naruto, goggle-eyed, "what are you saying? There was some reason for someone to do…to do all THIS, that makes it OK?!"
"'Ok' is a very subjective term but, my own personal feelings aside – of course. It's nothing I wouldn't do, nothing I haven't done before whether pursing personal vendettas in my younger days or the interests of the state in my later ones." He looked down at the young shinobi and gave him a charitable smile. "The ninja world is full of plots, intrigues, treasons and betrayals. War and slaughter are tools of our trade and there's no changing it. You will understand this one day," he raised a silver eyebrow then mused, "should you live so long."
The boy's jaw tightened instinctively, his fists balled.
"He's right, you know," intoned Hideo, his first words in quite a while. "My own clan, the Oda, were killed by the Mist Village in its earliest days. Their masters of the Water Style destroyed dams, changed the courses of rivers and drowned us all one night in our sleep. Why? – I don't know to this day but it hardly matters anymore. What's done is done." His eyes swiveled slowly toward Lord Hirai. "Unlike Lord Aramata's friend, I feel no pity at all for your or your clan. For yours to die by fire as mine did by water seems only natural, an expression of karma. If I still had the will of a living man I would not have helped you."
The young leaf-ninja shivered at Hideo's words, realizing only now what he truly was.
Hirai nodded. "It's a ghastly jutsu your master knows, to bring back the dead and all their grudges," he replied, his lip wrinkling slightly with distaste, but then added pointedly, "but I meant what I said."
"I will faithfully deliver your offer," said Hideo, turning his face to the way ahead. "I can do nothing else."
Naruto's yellow brows knitted. "Maybe this is your world," he muttered, "but it's not mine."
That sure smile returned to Lord Hirai's face. "Ha, no I'm sure it's not. But what do you think will happen when the world you prefer, the one that exists only within the confines of that blond head, collides with our reality?"
"Mine will win! And yours will change!" the young ninja snarled with clumsy ferocity then continued more softly but no less surely, "I know it will. It HAS to. I mean - who wants to live in a world like this, full of-of…death and smoke?"
Both the ninja-lord and the revenant looked down at the boy.
"You're very nearly charming…in your own way, young master," Hirai seemed to admit, though it was hard to tell. Before Naruto could make up his mind either way, the Councilor began again: "Because of the service you've done for me and for my clan, I had a thought to disabuse you of your illusions, to spare you the pain of finding out for yourself but never mind.
"Go on then," he said in farewell, gesturing at the fountain as they arrived at its wide, oval-shaped basin. "All you need do is jump in. My Mirror Gate jutsu will transport you to Kirigakure the same way I transported you and Haku here."
Naruto grimaced at being dismissed like this, 'bum-rushed' from a place he hadn't ever wanted to come to in the first place, but still stepped up onto the rim of the fountain with Hideo following suit and taking a place beside him. Hirai concentrated a moment, performed a series of seals, turned and began to walk away.
The genin looked down as the water in front of him darkened under the ninja-lord's spell.
"Hey, Grampa Hirai," Naruto called out suddenly and sharply to the Councilor's back, "if you really think I'm wrong then how come you're just letting me go? I mean, you…you know about me, right?" The blonde felt his throat tighten around the words as he alluded to something he'd never told anyone, that he'd only ever even touched on in the vaguest of terms with those very few he trusted most.
The Hirai patriarch paused but said nothing.
"Huh?!" Naruto prompted then waited, wondering in the tense silence that ensued if he'd gone too far.
"Are you going to stand there all day," answered Lord Hirai at last without turning, "or are you going to go save your friend?"
The young ninja dropped his gaze, unsure as usual at what the old man meant, turned back to the fountain then stepped off the rim of the basin into the pool. This time, he wasn't surprised in the least to find that water fathoms deep, its unknowable currents bearing him, he knew, right to Kirigakure.
It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles…
Sun Tzu – The Art of War
Shock rippled through the minds, spirits and chakra energies of the forty-seven ninja who shared Haku as the girlish teenager slipped off his zodiac mask and looked up into Rahaman's leering, grisly visage. The one-hundred and eight fleshes under that dead, stretched skin rippled with anticipation at the bounty they were about to receive.
Zabuza's former student canted his head and offered his porcelain neck, cool and flawless white on the surface with just a hint of the warmth and pulse of fragile life beneath. "Which of you will dine first?" he asked with a vulnerable smile.
A cheap tactic. Unforgivable really. The purpose of Haku's innocent-seeming query was transparent even to them and yet, though the 108 Demons had combined their bodies and minds in ways so thoroughly, so revoltingly intimately as to be unfathomable to the human mind, it had changed nothing at all about what they were at their cores – creatures of unholy, unappeasable appetite…and selfish. For an infinitesimal fraction of a second, the godlike power they'd fashioned for themselves faltered before temptation, separated them into one-hundred and eight distinct desires. It passed so quickly that it shouldn't have mattered. It passed so quickly that it wouldn't have, but the powers of the Hirai Clan's secret jutsu, though shaken, remained and so, for the present, within the borders of that infinitesimal fraction of a second spread, for Haku, an ocean of time and opportunity.
A smirk flashed as he pulled back his hand, fingers bladed, then struck. Like the sword of the divine, Haku's hand passed effortlessly through Ramahan's momentarily-disordered defenses, dead, decades-old skin, through armor, ichor, chitin, hide, shell, scale, hair, bone and flesh of the creatures within to wrap around the heart of the demon whose dedicated function served as the collective organism's spleen. The ninja crushed it to jelly then tore it free.
Spinning away to avoid any reflexive counterattacks, Haku's free hand worked through a series of seals to summon hundreds of carnivorous fish which swam in the air then vanished as they tracked the dead demon's fleeing energies through neighboring dimensions, across time and space then devoured them. For this one anyway, there would be no possibility for renewal.
With a gory rupture in its leather skin, the Mizukage's former emissary stood stock still for a moment then quivered. After another moment, the vessel shook, swelling and bubbling until, at last, that skin tore apart, disgorging its contents – a vast and unearthly horde of hellish monsters, fiends and shapes seen only in nightmares and never ever in the light of day.
Haku's face spread into a smile as he set his ANBU mask back into place. The fingers of both hands closed then around swords of ice that formed out of the air, each the length and breadth of his late master's famed zanbato. A relieved laugh escaped him, a laugh that echoed in his mind in forty-seven different tones and timbres raised in celebration.
"Well," he quipped, "I guess it's one-hundred and seven now…isn't it?"
Her captor gasped suddenly. The crippled, battle-scarred man's bulbous head canted back, his sightless eyes wide and gazing heavenward up into the lacquered beams of the quasi-phantasmal Coral Pavilion.
For a moment, quite unintended, Yashako felt a vestigial pang of concern for her former sensei. "Hey," she offered despite herself as she sat up, "are you alright? You're not strokin' out on me, are you?"
"He's…he's done it," 'The Manatee' muttered, hollowed by shock, his thick, stubby hands clutching at his cheeks, "the impossible."
The woman rolled her eyes sullenly. "NOW what are you babbling about?"
"He's done it. He's won. Haku is going to destroy the 108 Demons. I can see it: Kirigakure has a chance, broad, bright rivers of possibility outflowing from the present moment."
The kunoichi settled back, her muscle-clad shoulder blades coming to rest against one of the pavilions stout, orange columns. "So the string bean won, huh?" she offered snidely, "big fucking deal. Nothin' to cream your jeans over."
"Don't you understand?!" 'The Manatee' remonstrated as if she'd blasphemed against all that was holy. "For him to overcome a power like the 108 Demons was virtually impossible. Kirigakure was going to be destroyed; I saw it destroyed!"
The woman's face congealed with anger. "Sensei!" she barked, flinging her arm, "I know you got all these mystical powers and shit but you know what – you're a fucking idiot. Of course Kirigakure's gonna be destroyed if nobody even tries to save it; EVERYTHING'S impossible if nobody even fucking tries. That's why apathy is the greatest treason. You're a goddam jonin and you don't know THAT?" Yashako started to laugh, not cruelly but easily, and not at him but at herself. The sounds of it rolled and gonged through her pavilion prison. "You know, for a minute there – for a MINUTE – I actually bought into your bullshit: 'oh, we're all gonna die,' she piped in a cartoon's voice, clutching imaginary pearls, 'it's hopeless and there's nothing anyone can do!' And to think – I came to YOU for answers, HA! Kissame must'a cut off more than just your legs. Well, guess what – I'm going," she announced curtly then rose, collecting her twin ghost-head broadswords as she did. "I'm going to do what I should've done in the first place: my job, my duty! ME…not the Demon of the fucking Mist's fucking concubine! You wanna stop me – fine! Just kill me…please. Every second I stay here's a disgrace."
"Yashako?" said 'the Manatee' as the man's former student strode to the low railing beyond which the mirror-moat waters of the Choral Pavilion waited, the Mist Village on the opposite shore.
The swordswoman paused long enough to snarl: "What?"
For a moment, her former sensei seemed daunted by the question. "Be careful," he said softly at last. "Maybe I don't know everything after all, but I know this - it gets much worse before it gets better…no matter what The Demon's Apprentice has accomplished."
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