Chapter One: Naruto's POV – Shadows and Stillness
I wake up to shadows and stillness with the only sound in the small cabin my own ragged breathing. For just a moment, and it's a very long moment, I'm five years old again, running blindly down some grimy alley hoping, desperately hoping, that I'm not found that maybe this time they'll just leave me alone. But then I remember where I am and the relief that brings is so great that it's almost frightening. I'm eighteen now, not five, and I haven't been helpless for a very, very long time.
A sigh escapes my lips and I force myself to think, to try and grasp the last fading strands of the dream that woke me. It's not easy and already I can feel the dream slipping away, little more than a patchwork tapestry of fragmented sights and sounds. Maybe its foolish, but I've always liked trying to remember my dreams, especially the bad ones. I learned pretty early on that running from your fears never ends well. At best they come back to haunt you. At worst they come back to haunt everyone else too.
Those are the only things that I can remember from my dream and even then, they're more impressions, feelings, if you like, than actual memories. It's like trying to remember a mission report from a couple of months back. You can't remember the words exactly but you remember the gist of things.
I need to get out of here, maybe go out on deck and get some air to clear my head. The trip back from the Land of Water to the Land of Fire isn't a short one, even in the best of weather, and this ship isn't exactly the best either. I've got maybe a week, maybe a week and a half if the weather turns bad again, before I'm back on dry land and another week or so after that before I'm back in Konoha. The trip itself wouldn't be so bad if there was just something to do. But what can you do on a ship in the middle of the ocean? Not much, that's what.
It takes me a couple of minutes to get dressed – a man needs to look his best, and really there are some pretty good looking women on board – and then I'm out on deck. There are a fair number of other people already out there, and I can't say I blame them. It's nighttime and out here, away from all the bright city lights, the sky really is beautiful. It's like one big, black carpet studded with little gems for stars. Beneath the sky, the ocean is just one dark, rolling mass of waves and foam, all of it whipped by a gale so sharp that it's almost painful, but not quite.
There aren't many things that can make me keep too quiet for long, but there's just something about the combination of the shadows and stars, the whisper of the waves against the hull, and the biting wind that calls for quiet. I don't know how long I stay out there staring out across the ocean, but by the time I stop spacing out my hands are so cold that I can barely feel them and there's hardly anyone else left on deck.
I'm about to head back to my cabin, when I see it. It's a thick black blob low against the horizon and for a moment I think I must be seeing things. It looks like an island, and a pretty big one at that, but that can't be right. I may not be a genius but I did take the time to learn my geography, if only so that the Old Hag would stop bothering me about it. And there is no way that island is supposed to be there. Either we're way, way off course or that island has come out of nowhere. Frankly, I'm inclined to believe that it's the former, but I've seen too many crazy jutsu to just dismiss the latter.
I catch sight of one of the crewmembers. Good, he should have some idea of what's going on. "Hey," I ask. "What's that?"
He follows gaze to the island and shrugs. "That's odd. We're not scheduled to stop anywhere till we reach the Land of Fire."
"Tell you what, how about you go ask the captain or somebody what's going on?" He looks a little hesitant so I press a couple of ryo into his hand to seal the deal.
"Yeah, sure thing. Stay here and I'll be back in a minute."
The crewmember heads off towards the bridge and I turn my eyes back to the island. There's a sense of uneasiness creeping over me now, and the darkness and the waves don't seem so peaceful anymore. Somehow there's a menace to them that I never noticed before, and the churning mass of water over the side seems almost sinister, the foam twisting into shapes that for some reason send a shiver down my spine.
That's when it happens.
The crewmember I'd spoken to before is halfway across the deck and the look on his face is something close to controlled panic. He's muttering to himself and I just know the news can't be good. He looks up at me and is about to speak when the whole ship shudders. The impact knocks him off his feet and I hear as well as feel the shriek of mangled metal as the ship hits something, something huge.
Lights go on all over the ship as people try to get a glimpse of whatever it is that we've hit. I run to the side of the ship and peer over into the water. There's nothing there, nothing that I can see anyway. For a second I wonder if maybe we're under attack. But who'd attack us out here? No ninja would attack so far from land and besides, I don't think there's anything of value on the ship anyway. And if they were after me, they'd have organised the hit on land where they could confirm the kill.
And then I see them. They're almost invisible against the pitch-black waves: amorphous misshapen things with matte black flesh that makes it impossible to tell just what shape they have as they drag themselves through the water toward the ship. One of them hits the hull with a thump and I glimpse a flash of claws and teeth, and slitted eyes before it begins to drag itself up toward the deck. Moments later there are two or three dozen other inky shapes alongside it and it takes everything I have not to scream when I finally catch a good look at one of them.
I'd glimpsed claws and teeth, and eyes before, and just assumed that they were all in the right places. But now, as one of them hauled itself up on to the deck I saw just how wrong I was. It had eyes alright, seven of them in fact, distributed unevenly across a gross, bloated, pulsing mass of black flesh. They spun crazily, looking in opposite directions, the slitted pupils a slash of black amidst a sea of pale amber. It reminds me of Orochimaru and for a moment I'm tempted to blame all of this on him. But he's been dead a long time, and even his creations bore some semblance, however weak, to the human form.
However there's nothing human about the teeth that jut crazily from the… the creature's black flesh, nothing human about the claws and talons that protrude from multi-jointed arms that bend and flex in ways nothing on earth should ever move. There's nothing sane or human either, about the scores of open mouths that line its flesh, each of them lined with dagger teeth, snapping and biting the empty air in warped staccato. Orochimaru might have been a crazy, evil, son of a bitch but even he wouldn't have had the guts to puts something like this creature together. I don't anyone who would.
The creature takes a step toward me and then another and almost faster than I can believe it lunges forward. I duck beneath an outstretch claw and leap away. I need to gather my thoughts, put together a plan…
The creature screams, a sound like a thousand nails being dragged across a chalkboard all at once, and I fall to my knees. To hell with a plan, I'll tear that thing to pieces with my bare hands.
More of the creatures pull themselves on to the deck and there's chaos, complete and utter chaos. In between dodging the damn thing's claws and teeth I see some of its creepy brethren grabbing passengers and leaping back over the side. They weren't killing them… interesting, and disturbing as all hell.
I try to keep it to hand-to-hand. A jutsu might sink the ship and who knows what else is down there if that's where these damn things are from. I have to give the creature points for toughness. It misses with one claw and I lash out, pulping one limb with a round house kick before severing another with a kunai. But it just keeps on coming, dragging the broken limbs along like it doesn't feel the pain. Maybe it doesn't.
Nothing for it then, I'll have to switch to jutsu. I can't use any of my flashier ones, so I'll stick with simple and effective. The chakra is swirling in my palm before I even finish the thought and I let myself smile. I've used this technique so many times I could do it in my sleep.
The sphere of glowing blue chakra hits with a wet thump and I have to force myself not to turn away as the creature's flesh comes apart in a spray of vile ichor and mangled ebony flesh. This time, the creature shrieks – I must have hurt it – and tries to get away, but I follow it, the glowing orb of chakra in my hand ripping through flesh and blood and bone as easily as if the creature was made of paper. It's not dead though, and it lashes out blindly, nearly taking my head off with one its wayward claws. My response isn't pretty. I shove more charka into the rasengan and the sphere of destruction widens, becomes a writhing sun of raw force five feet wide. The creature practically explodes and I turn away to see if I can deal with the others.
What I see is hardly reassuring. There had to be close to fifty or sixty of those freaky things on board and more of them appearing every second. Even I couldn't take all of them on at once. If there were other ninja around – Neji's kaiten would be useful here – then it wouldn't be so bad, but on my own, not a chance.
But maybe I've spoken too soon. Most of the passengers are running or screaming or dying, but there's someone else on board who seems to know a thing or two about staying alive. She's got blonde hair, a little darker than mine, as well as a good figure, and if we weren't in the middle of a life and death battle against the ugliest things I've seen this side of hell I'd probably be hitting on her. After all, there's something really sexy about a woman who isn't afraid to get her hands dirty, and by dirty I mean she just used a katana to cut one of those things in half.
Another one of the creature's closes in on her from behind and I open my mouth to shout a warning, only she doesn't need one. Without even turning, her hands form the seals for a fire jutsu and the creature bursts like someone's filled its gut with exploding tags. Her control is good, really good, because the ship hardly rocks at all from the blast – she's centred the technique almost perfectly on her opponent.
Our eyes meet for a moment before her gaze flicks over my shoulder. I bite back a curse. I've gotten careless, and even without turning I know that one of those creatures is behind me. I palm a kunai and roll out of the way, throwing it as I go. It catches the creature in one of its eyes and it roars, hardly impressed. But then, the kunai was never supposed to stop it. That job was up to the exploding tag hanging off it.
The creature hurtled back, smashing through the deck railing before it plummeted back into the ocean below. I give myself a moment to smirk. Exploding tags are one of the reasons I started looking into seals, that and the nine-tailed incarnation of pure malevolence I have inside me.
"Let me go!"
I turn and my eyes go wide. One of the crewmembers is brandishing a burning torch and flailing wildly at one of the creatures. That in itself wouldn't have been so bad – and really I could hardly blame him for trying to defend himself – were it not for the barrels of fuel stacked neatly no more than a few steps away from him.
"Put that out!" It's the other ninja and it's clear that she's reached the same conclusion I have. That guy is going to get us all killed and I, and presumably she, have no intention of dying just yet.
The crewmember turns, finally realising what he's waving around and where. He moves to extinguish the torch but the creature lurches forward, one claw lancing forward. The spiked limb pierces the man's leg and continues on, burying itself in one of the barrels of fuel. The acrid scent of fuel fills the air as the barrel's contents spill across the deck.
"My leg!" the crewmember screams, his breathing ragged, his eyes wild. "My leg!" And then on instinct he reaches down with both hands to try and stem the bleeding. And drops the torch… into the quickly spreading pool of fuel.
The effect is immediate and devastating. Before I can even think of what to do the barrels of fuel explode. A wave of heat rushes past, so hot that it's like my lungs are on fire and every breath is like trying to breathe through molten lava. The next thing I know I'm flying, falling, cursing, and there's a sound like the ending of the world as the ships splits in half and bits of wood and metal go flying everywhere.
I hit the water and the force of my fall drives the breath from my lungs. Water surrounds me and I kick and claw for the surface. I'm halfway there when something grabs my leg and I look down and find myself staring into seven slit eyes. I almost scream. Almost. At the last second I remember where I am and realise that opening my mouth would be a very, very bad idea. Instead I shove as much chakra into my legs as I can and kick, kick, kick at the creature grabbing my leg.
Finally the creature let's go and I'm free and I swim up for the surface with everything I've got. I just break the surface when I see something – a piece of debris, I guess – come flying through the air toward me. My lungs are on fire and my body feels like someone just took a sledgehammer to it. So it's no surprise at all when I'm just a fraction too slow to dodge.
The last thing I see before the darkness claims me is the bow of the ship jutting out of the water. Bathed in flames and moonlight, it seems almost like a skeletal claw straining for the sky. Then everything turns black and the world goes still.
X X X X
Standard Disclaimer: I neither own Naruto, nor am I making a dime off of this.
Well… that was certainly different. I don't normally write in first person, but I felt that given the content it was probably the best option. That said, I think the tone is certainly different from most of the other Naruto stuff that I've written (if anything it's closer to the tone of my Sailor Moon stories). I can definitely tell you that this story won't be sunshine and lollipops with kittens and puppies dancing around in a field of flowers. If you're wondering who the other ninja is, we'll get to that soon enough (in fact, her identity means that this story is technically an AU).
As always, keep in touch. I appreciate your feedback.