Deep in the woodland area around the Hidden Village of the Leaf, Keitaro and Negi sat on their makeshift camp. Sleeping beside them was the young boy they took, lying down on Negi's cloak. They were far away from the Hidden Leaf Village, bearing northeast off the main road, deep enough that all patches of the forest looked nearly identical to each other. Twilight faded an hour ago, and the high branches covered the night sky almost entirely. The stars and moon barely provided any light.
The main source of illumination was the campfire, created from broken branches Keitaro had gathered with Negi providing the flame. Being a mage all he did was snap his fingers, and created a steady fire that was big and strong enough to warm the makeshift campsite, filling the air with the mild smell of burnt wood and leaves.
"We have a few rations for all of us that will last the night at least," Negi said, sprawling through his magical backpack, which was a nifty magical tool he used to carry many of his tools of the trade.
"Good enough," Keitaro replied with his form still as he sat in a meditative position, his expression carved in stone.
"Yeah," the young mage nodded. "I'm pretty sure we'll be out of the forest by tomorrow. If we aren't, you can always hunt for food."
Negi looked at Keitaro with a raised eyebrow. "Maybe we'll run into the Senshi, and we can all have tea and scones."
"Probably," the samurai replied, before his expression changed, and he abruptly opened his eyes. "Wait, what?"
The young mage shook his head. "Alright, Keitaro, what is it? You've been sitting there with the same expression on your face since we stopped by here."
"I'm expanding my senses over unknown territory," the older man said. "I want to make sure we have an early warning if they come for us."
"You are expecting them to follow."
Keitaro gave a wan smile. "After what we have been through, you wouldn't begrudge me of taking a few precautions."
"No, of course not," Negi said and looked at his friend then towards the blonde boy, frowning. He took a moment before he said, "To be fair, we were rash. What if we had kidnapped a boy from his parents?"
"If he had parents, they would be with him, defending him," the samurai said.
"That's an assumption," the mage said.
"Do you doubt it?"
"No… but this isn't a war zone, Keitaro," Negi looked at him. "We kidnapped a boy from its village. This is different. Plus with the demon inside him… it raises a few questions on the boy's value to the village."
Keitaro frowned. He stared at the still figure of the boy for a moment, and then said, "You think he is raised to be a weapon?"
"Possible," Negi replied. "And if he was…"
"We have just stirred a hornet's nest," Keitaro finished.
Negi smiled weakly. "Quite."
Keitaro shook his head. "You know, Negi… I think I've been cursed the day I met you."
"Oh no, Keitaro, you're not blaming this on me," Negi replied. "You flew to me. If anything, meeting you cursed me."
"Cursed? You were assigned to a class of young nubile students who all but adore you, while I ran an all-girl's dorm… which is worse than it sounds."
"It is also that dorm where you met your wife, Keitaro, who adored you," Negi smiled.
"Quite the opposite, actually," Keitaro countered. "I adored her. And we only married after... well, after a whole lot of misunderstanding, launches to the air, and a very dominant older sister-in-law."
The two chuckled, honest smiles appearing between them. Good memories of their life always seemed to encourage them to move forward, even at the darkest days of the war with the Senshi. It had done its job here as well.
"We should move once daylight shows. Move farther from the village to dissuade pursuers," Keitaro stated.
"Are we dropping him anywhere?" Negi asked.
"I don't know yet. If it were up to me, I'd want him with us. That way… they won't be able to find him."
Negi was about to reply when Keitaro suddenly cut the air between them with his hand. The mage frowned, and looked at him. "What?"
The samurai placed his finger between his lips, and closed his eyes for a minute, before it fluttered open as he frowned. He looked towards the kid and said in a soft voice, "I know you're awake, kid."
Negi blinked as he spotted the boy stiffen at Keitaro's words. The blonde slowly sat up, and looked at them, his eyes washed with suspicion. He covered himself with his arms and legs, pushing back towards the tree trunk.
"W-who are you?" he asked.
Negi answered first in a calm, friendly tone. "I'm Springfield, Negi."
"Aoyama Keitaro," the samurai replied with a slightly stiff nod.
The boy looked at them for a moment, then around the forest, surprised. "Where did you take me?"
"Far from the bad people," the mage replied. "Are you hungry? I have a few energy bars. It may not taste good but if you're hungry…"
"I'm not hungry!" the boy declared. He didn't even finish when his stomach suddenly rumbled.
Keitaro and Negi looked at each other, smiling slightly. The mage shook his head, and grabbed a bar and offered it to the boy. The blonde looked at it suspiciously before swiping it with his arm, and retreated back to the tree. He opened the wrapper easily, and began eating, his eyes misting.
"It's… good," he muttered.
Negi smiled and took a ration bar for himself, and threw another to Keitaro. The samurai's hands caught the bar immediately. Though his face was still, his eyes seemed to blaze with fire Negi recognized.
"You're a scrawny kid," Keitaro said. "Don't your parents feed you?"
The boy finished his bar, frowning. "I don't have any parents."
Keitaro winced. "Sorry," he said, then frowned. After a moment, he looked up towards the kid, and said, "Hey, kid. Catch!" He flicked his bar towards the blonde in an underhand throw.
The boy caught the bar, a smile ghosting his face before it settled on its neutral expression. "T-thanks."
"No problem. You need it more than I do," Keitaro gave a small smile. "What's your name kid?"
"Um… Uzumaki Naruto."
"Nice to meet you, Naruto-kun," the mage smiled. "How would you like to come with us?"
"What he means kid is we're taking you with us," Keitaro said.
"Wha-what? No! I can't. I have to go back!" Naruto exclaimed.
"You're kidding, right?" Keitaro mumbled, standing up. "Did you remember what they were doing to you, kid?"
"I'm… I'm fine now, right?" the boy mumbled.
"That's not the point," the samurai sighed. "I can't allow you to go back to that godforsaken place."
"Bu-but it's my home! The old man will be worried… and Iruka-sensei will be worried!"
"I'm pretty sure they will understand," Negi said. "Would they want to see you beaten up by a crowd? Would they want to see you hurt in any way?"
"Well… no. But that's not… I mean…"
The wind shifted slightly blowing stronger towards the left. Keitaro suddenly felt his senses tingling. Something was coming, fast. Without any warning, he suddenly stepped in front of Negi and Naruto, his reverse-edged sword slicing through the air. The sound of metal ringing against metal echoed through the night air, and five sharp objects fell from the air, stabbing the ground around them.
Kunai, Keitaro thought automatically. They're here.
The poor kid blinked as he spotted the dangerously sharp weapons around him. "Wha… wha…"
"Negi!" Keitaro growled.
The mage nodded, took Naruto, still confused, dazed, and cradled him to his side. He called on his staff with a flick of a wrist, the backpack strapped on its length. With his staff and bag at one hand and Naruto secured on the other, he pushed the ground and lifted off, and flew towards darkness of the forest.
Keitaro sliced his sword horizontally in the air, pushing his ki to form a short yet sharp wind that drew up dirt from the ground and threw it towards the fire, killing its flames. The darkness swallowed everything as he broke to a run.
Negi flew between the enormous trees in almost complete darkness. It was difficult. The flight was abrupt and unprepared, and it wasted a lot of energy just to maintain it. He would have to land soon, and prep a better escape, but with the moon and stars barely providing any light, he couldn't risk on just landing anywhere.
At least Naruto was calm. The young boy seemed awed by the brief flight, keeping his sentences to single words, and those words to monosyllables.
For a minute, Negi descended gradually, keeping his eye on the ground. He would need to take a risk, and land somewhere; hopefully that somewhere was an empty patch of land and far from the enemy.
He didn't need to worry. Keitaro's voice suddenly rang through the darkness, near his position.
"Negi! I'm here!"
Negi turned sharply, the wind flitting sharply on his cheek as he felt his legs hit the solid open ground as he landed. Almost in complete darkness, he could barely see his partner move in a defensive position to receive them.
"Wa… wow!" Naruto exclaimed, almost breathless as they landed. "That was so cool!"
Negi smiled, and manipulated his staff to move the backpack strap towards a receiving shoulder. He heard metal ringing and saw sparks from the corner of his eyes, telling him that Keitaro was now defending them from another onslaught of sharp deadly objects. He even heard Naruto gasp as one of those knives stabbed the nearest tree trunk.
"Anytime now, mage!" Keitaro said through gritted teeth.
"Oh quiet you." Negi hurried and placed the other strap on his other shoulder. With the bag secured on his back, he called the boy. "Naruto-kun, come here!"
The boy obeyed without question, his face expressing fear. Negi couldn't blame him. He secured the staff between the boy's legs, and instructed, "Grip it here with your hands. It won't throw you off, but don't let go of it!"
"Wait, whAAAA…!" and the staff suddenly flew upwards, beyond the tallest branches and leaves.
Negi watched his staff and boy swallowed up to the sky, and shook his head. "I have to apologize to him."
Keitaro smirked, his white teeth exaggerated in the darkness. "He seemed to have enjoyed it." Then, his expression turned grave. There was a rush of air around them along with sparks, and more kunai fell to the ground.
"Where are they?" Negi asked towards his friend.
"About a few meters around us. Above and level-ground. No idea on the numbers… some are hiding their presences well," Keitaro replied.
"I suppose the village had a few decent ninjas." Negi closed his eyes, and raised his hand. He felt for a focus, which was a ring that Evangeline had given him back in Mahora, and gathered mana around it. "Rastel Maskil Magister," the mage began to chant his release key in a slight whisper.
Magic was an art of using mana as base energy. Unlike ki, though, applications of magic were very specific, and because of that, it took three steps to ensure proper usage. One was the gathering of mana around a focus like his father's staff or Evangeline's ring. Two was speaking a unique release key to start forming the mana. The last step required a chant to call the elements, fuse with the mana energy, and release it.
All mages follow the three steps strictly, because if one misses a step, at most, nothing happens. The best defense against a mage about to cast a spell is to attack him whilst he or she was still chanting. That was why most mages formed partnerships with others. As they began to cast their spells, their partner defends them from attacks.
The mage ignored the whole world around him – Keitaro's grunts as he moved with speed to intercept projectiles thrown at them, the ringing sound of steel meeting steel, and even the ambient noise of the forest as he began his chant in Latin. He just concentrated on one thing – his spell.
"Thirty spirits of light, converge. Magic Archer, simultaneous burst, thirty arrows of light."
Negi opened his eyes, and declared towards Keitaro, "Close your eyes," and diverted the arrows of light upwards, converging to one spot, and exploding into a mini-sun.
There was surprised scream in the air and groans of pain from anyone unprepared, or at least had his or her eyes open as they suffered temporary blindness. It bought the mage and his partner time to escape.
"Come on," Negi muttered, offering his arms towards Keitaro.
Keitaro shook his head. "No."
"Don't be stubborn Aoyama," Negi growled. "I can't leave the kid alone with my staff flying around. Just buck up, let me carry you out."
"They followed us…"
Negi rolled his eyes. "Apparently, the kid is valuable to them. We knew the possibility existed, Keitaro. Let's go!"
"Do you think they'll leave us alone? That they will leave the kid alone?"
"Then we take him with us. Now, come on!"
Keitaro looked at Negi. "Will you be able to get us out of this Universe while on the run?"
Negi frowned. To create the spell, he had to find a solid leyline, create a Circle of Magic, which meant preparation and maybe even small ritual to be sure. He wouldn't have done all of that if they were being chased.
"Then the more reason I have to stay behind," the samurai muttered. He looked at the mage, and said, "You catch up with the kid."
"And what in the world are you going to do?"
"Make sure they will think twice before chasing us," Keitaro said. He looked around them, and frowned. "Get out of here, Negi. They are regrouping."
"Damn it, Keitaro," Negi muttered. He bent his knees slightly, and gave the older man a glare. "I'm doing this under protest."
"Noted," Keitaro winked.
Negi sighed, and jumped up, willing his mana to call the Wind and lift him up, letting him fly away from the place. The last thing he heard from his friend as he climbed up towards the dark blanket of leaves was some bravado, urging his enemies at him.
Negi broke through a few branches and saw the beautiful night sky. Stars twinkled in the black velvet, the moon half-formed as it shone down its pale silver light over the dense forest down below. Bearing on his right was the Hidden Leaf Village, now well lit with electrical lights and still.
Negi found Naruto a little on his left, the boy's eyes wide gripping the staff so hard the mage thought he might have broke through the wood. With a little urge of the wind, Negi drifted towards the boy, surprising him even more.
"Wha… you're flying!" Naruto declared.
"You are too, you know," Negi replied.
"Yeah… but…" the boy looked pensive. "You'll look better with a cape."
Negi laughed. "I left my cloak down there, thanks to you."
"Oh… I'm sorry…"
The mage shook his head. "Its fine, Naruto-kun. Let's go."
"Where's your friend?"
The mage frowned, and shook his head. "He stayed behind to buy us some time." And probably do something reckless, he thought afterwards.
Naruto looked down, around the forest. He frowned. "Will he be okay?"
Negi looked below as well, with worry tracing his eyes. Keitaro was a swordsman whom he believed would end in a poem or song. However, his skills weren't perfect. The man was a battle-hardened soldier, and while he always had a good head between his shoulders, his reckless would be something of a death of him.
Though Keitaro had a point – if they wanted the boy badly, there could a be a chance they'd never be left alone. However, though, it still didn't make him any less hasty. In the end, it was a matter of trust.
"Don't worry. Keitaro's strongest when he's protecting his friends."
Keitaro watched his friend swallowed by darkness, not unlike the kid riding the mage's staff. He then faced onward, feeling the presence of multiple attackers around him – less human, more animalistic. He heard inhuman growls and the snapping of jaws. He could barely see their snouts, sharp canines and wild eyes with the light around him, yet it was enough to paint the picture.
He swung his sword around him, the light reflecting on the curve of his reverse-edged blade before it stopped parallel to his head, his hands holding the sword's hilt. He gave the dogs a smirk.
"Come on. Don't bore me now."
None of the dogs came forward. They were just there to ensure he wouldn't escape, Keitaro thought. That meant the attackers were coming at him from around. A pincer attack. The question now was… where would they attack from first?
"Above," he whispered to himself. He felt the presences coming from the sky, bearing down at him. He cut the air in a circle as he pumped ki to his legs and sword, spinning in place. "Ougi… Hyakuretsu Ōkazan!"
Multiple attackers, kunai at hand, came at him as his ki flashed to a thousand pink little blades, sharpening as they left the blunt edge of his blade. The small pink blades encircled around Keitaro and his ki exploded outwards, striking the attackers, and pushing them away at the same time.
Before he could get a breather, he suddenly noticed a large ki burst coming from below. The ground began to ripple, like still water when a stone thrown to its surface, as a gloved hand popped out, breaking from the surface. Keitaro jumped, hoping to avoid it, but it came too fast for him. The hand caught his ankle, and pulled him down.
He automatically responded by pushing ki towards his arm as he stabbed his sword downward. That dissuaded the subterranean attacker, letting go of his ankle as the blade broke the surface. Nearby, a man popped from the surface of the ground, his wiry silver hair protruding from his head, reflecting little light coming from the darkness. He threw some kunai and throwing stars at the samurai.
Deflecting those, Keitaro was about to move to the offensive, when he felt another strong ki burst from his right. Unbelievably, a group of snakes, mouths open, came at him, hissing as they passed. He barely dodged the attack, with at least three snakes hitting and biting at his right arm. He felt fire explode as their fangs sank in, followed by numbness.
"Nice one, Mitarashi…" the silver-haired man muttered, loud enough for Keitaro to pick it up. "Hope you didn't just dose him with something lethal."
"Of course not Hatake…" a female voice from the shadows called. "Though I did want something a bit stronger…"
Keitaro gritted his teeth, with his free hand, grabbed the offending snakes by their tails, and forced them out of his numb arm. His fingers were unresponsive. They loosened their grip on the hilt of his sword. It fell to the earth.
Another group flew down before he could even think of grabbing his fallen blade with his other hand. They wore white robes, had pale faces and long black hair. Keitaro blinked, and wondered for a moment if it was the poison now circulating around his system, but he could have sworn these people had no pupils.
"Take him down," the one called Hatake ordered. "Non-lethal."
"Yes, sir," the pale-faced cronies replied, and without a second pause, charged at Keitaro.
The samurai gritted his teeth. This looked bad. He was disarmed, his dominant arm completely numb and useless. He was left with only his left arm and two feet to defend him. Five opponents surrounded him, and they weren't amateurs.
His left fist flashed, hitting the nearer of the five, and his left foot flashed behind him to hit the next one. Keitaro couldn't stop the third one bearing through his defenses. The attacker pushed ki through his index finger and hit a nerve point in Keitaro's extended left thigh. The leg went numb.
They know how to disable the body using ki, the samurai thought. They were dangerous. Gritting his teeth, Keitaro pushed through more ki to the numb leg to force it moving again. Last thing he needed was another limb locked while he was in battle. He punched through the fourth attacker, a woman this time, and swept her off her feet. The fifth came, also a woman, though she was faster, and hit Keitaro with three successive stabs on the side.
He growled out in pain, and forced his left leg at her, but her attack debilitated him that the kick had no strength. Pushing more ki towards his body, he tried to move his sluggish body into defense to no avail. They struck him, fast and mercilessly hard, each strike robbing him of his strength, speed, and conviction.
The last attack got him on the gut, making Keitaro feel like emptying his stomach. He fell to the hard cold ground on his knees and hand. He suffered a bit of vertigo and confusion as he noticed shadows around him. He stole a look upwards to see the man with silver-hair looking down at him.
"He has a strong chakra capacity," a voice, unemotional and thoughtful, said from Hatake's right, hidden in the shadows. "We may not be able to keep him still until we lock him safely."
Hatake seemed to ponder over this, and looked at the fallen samurai. "You're not going to give us trouble now, are you?"
Keitaro found it peculiar that the man, Hatake, sounded a bit too cheery. Too tired to reply, he just glared at him as a means of reply.
"Thought not…" Hatake moved away, out of Keitaro's line of sight. "Aburame."
"Yes sir," the robot-like voice replied.
Keitaro felt small needles swim all over his body. He also suddenly felt himself growing from tired to exhaustion. Hunger faded. Pain faded. He could hear more voices around him, feminine and masculine, though faded to the background. His vision began to shrink into a tunnel, the darkness spreading around slowly. With a sigh, he relaxed his body, as everything turned black.