50 - The Puppet

From Chapter 49: Chiyo's far-away voice echoed down through the darkness. It was clear and unforgiving. "Get to work. It's the only reason I let you live."

Sakura blinked into the darkness.

She took a few steps forward, hands grasping air in front of her, feet shuffling— But a stone caught her toe and she stumbled to one knee.

Leaning forward, she felt out the rocks around her, seeing it in her mind's eye the same way she did when she walked through Konoha's streets with her eyes closed.

"Just pretend it's like the game," she said aloud, if only to hear any sound in the emptiness. "It's only a game." Her voice, raspy from fear, was swallowed by the darkness. It did not echo back.

Sakura stretched her hands out over the ground around her, cataloging every chunk of rock she could reach. Some fit in her hand, some came up to her knees. Others stretched away from her without edges, apparently much, much bigger than she was.

Chiyo's chakra tether at her back vibrated slightly, urging her to stand again.

Another time, Sakura might have marveled that chakra could be used that way…she clearly had not been taught that in Konoha. But perhaps they didn't know it to teach it. Perhaps it was a technique Chiyo refined only to manipulate and not to heal, as she was supposed to be known for— The old woman clearly had other plans for each of them in the cave—

Chiyo's silvery-blue threads vibrated again, this time more insistent.

After a final sweep of her hand over the grit-covered ground, Sakura cautiously stood. She found the clearest path and began moving, though toward what she didn't know.

She got about ten paces and was feeling more confident about her surroundings, mapping it in her mind, trying to understand what she was supposed to do in the darkness. But her thoughts distracted her, and in the next step her foot snagged on a much larger stone.

She tumbled over it, landing knees first on the flat side of an enormous tilted boulder and skidded forward. She caught herself with her hands— but her fingers slid off the edge of the rock and reached into…nothingness….

Images flashed rapid-fire through her mind: A crumbling stone. Herself sliding over it. The bottoms of her shoes tumbling into darkness as she disappeared forever….

Sakura yanked her hands back. Grit slid away from her and poured silently off the edge. Before she could stop herself, she opened her eyes—

But she met only oppressive darkness.

Black seemed to coat her eyes. She blinked hard and fast, but it never changed. Her heart immediately began pounding, and the hopeless feeling crashed back down on her again, threatening to drown her—

She crushed her eyes shut and scrambled back up the boulder, holding on to the crumbling edge until she shimmied back over, slid down a flat side and collapsed.

Hunched over, she rocked slightly to the sound of her breathing until she began to calm.

This time, she vowed to herself, she'd keep her eyes closed. Her life depended on it.

"Just a game," she repeated to herself to drown out the sound of blood rushing in her ears. "Just a game…."

Her head fell back against the stone, and she ran her hand down the flat boulder she leaned against. It sat flush with the ground, as if it were an ancient building block. Her hand stopped. This was familiar to her, like it had happened before—

A long buried memory swept through her….

She was with Katsuro, in a soft blue night that seemed welcoming compared to where she was now. They were climbing up a starlit mountainside to a partially destroyed temple, scrambling over boulders the size of houses. She had nearly slid off one into oblivion when he caught her.

That was a terrifying ordeal too. But she wasn't alone then. Not like now….

Her chin crumpled, but no tears came.

She never let herself think about those times…about him. Bitter anger at Katsuro mingled with her own shame at ever trusting him. She had locked him away in a part of her memory where she would never have to see him again. She told herself those memories was gone. Just as he was gone.

But images of him came sliding back anyway, without any effort. And she discovered that it did make her feel a little better, a little less alone.

She saw him in the temple, encouraging her. Then his hooded face, fiercely dedicated to getting her home. She remembered him wreathed with smiles, standing among golden barley fields, lounging beneath a summer tree, watching her among the cherry blossoms….

There were more memories, she could feel them surfacing, tugging on her heart. But she pushed them away.

Because in the end, it all ran to the same terrible place.

The image of little Mei's home, exploding into the night like a fireball, would be forever burned into her mind. He had betrayed her. It had cost the grandparents their lives. And he never came back. Never came to see if she or Mei even survived.

So maybe…she was wrong about the happy memories of him. Maybe she had been alone then too. And she just couldn't see it then….

Sakura grit her teeth, chiding herself for letting these images haunt her. Not at a time when she needed to focus.

She pushed it all away, sweeping the memories back into the dark corners of her mind as she swept the dust from her legs. She pounded a fist into the ground, welcoming the anger in to fill up the hole of despair that was opening inside her.

Sakura ran her hand down the smooth wall, tracing her fingers where it met the floor at an almost perfect right angle. It did remind her of those ancient stones from the temple. They had tumbled everywhere on that mountainside and looked exactly like natural boulders…except for where they had flat sides…flat sides that felt like ground….

She ran her fingers down the edge of the rock. This wasn't a natural landscape. She wasn't on a mountainside. Or in a desert cavern….

She was in a space inside of Gaara. That meant someone made it….

And if someone made this, then what if someone had also blown it apart?

Chiyo's words came back. 'Shatter the seal.' 'Rebuild him.'

Sakura sat forward, considering what Chiyo had said.

Had someone shattered him? Is this what I'm was supposed to do? Rebuild Gaara? That makes no sense—

She shook her head, clearing her mind of the confusing order. She was looking at the problem from the wrong end. From the outcome. But she needed to start from the beginning. She needed to rely on her shinobi training.

She stood and breathed out. For the first time since she'd been thrown in there, Sakura felt like she had a little bit of control.

The first thing she needed to do was determine what she was working with. In shinobi terms, she needed to identify the mission parameters.

Forget about Gaara. Forget about Chiyo's orders. I need to find out just how big this place is.

Sakura turned and placed her hands on the large stone she'd been leaning against. She didn't have a plan other than to push the rock off the ledge and see how far it fell.

Feet sliding on the ground, Sakura pushed and pushed. Chiyo's chakra tether vibrated behind her, interested, apparently, in what she was doing.

She thought she felt the rock move, so she pushed extra chakra behind it — into it — and imagined the boulder filling up with her green light—

Just then, she felt it give way under her fingers.

Sakura huffed with satisfaction and kept pushing. Slowly, slowly it moved.

She got it to what she thought was the edge, then with one last great shove knocked it over. She jumped back, listening for the explosion of force as it dropped off into the darkness. But there was no great crashing of rocks below her, no blow-back of wind.

Sakura swiped her foot in arcs, just to make sure it had actually gone over. But her toe kept finding ground far past where the edge should have been. In fact, there was much more ground here than she thought there was before.

She frowned into the darkness, considering this new information.

Stepping back, she found a small rock with a flat side to it, then scooted out to the new edge.

This time, she didn't chuck it over. Instead, keeping one hand firmly on flat ground, with the other hand she pushed the rock over the side. She expected to feel it drop away from her grasp—

But it didn't leave her hand. Or rather, it didn't fall. She pressed her palm against the smooth top. Eyes still closed, Sakura could feel the rock reuniting with the slab under her fingers, almost melting back together.

She shook her head at the strangeness of this place.

Sakura pushed another rock over the edge, and then a third. Both melted back in with no gaps in between. She kept working, counting her steps as she added each new chunk of stone.

Not all of them worked, but most did. It was like repairing a giant shattered vase….

By the time she stopped, had nearly doubled the size of the ground she was on.

She sat at the edge, wondering what it could all mean, and idly slipped another small rock over the edge, waiting for it to smooth together under her hand.

But something new had happened. Beneath her fingers, a long shallow groove appeared where none had been before.

She scooted across the stone and followed the straight channel away from her with her fingers, until it ran into another groove that hadn't been there before.

She examined the intersection with her fingertips. Each one ran away at perfect angles. It was like the fractured stone remembered its previous form.

She sat back again, eyes still firmly shut, and pictured it her mind.

These aren't just stones, they are building blocks. This isn't just ground…this was a whole structure.

Sakura sat back in amazement, understanding it now. Whatever had been built here did not follow the rules of the natural world. It had been built using chakra.

If these rocks were charged with chakra, then they would call out to themselves. They would want to reunite, like drops of water all rolling back together. She didn't have to instruct it how to merge together, she had just to get them close enough. The energy would do the rest.

Brute strength didn't work here. The boulders only moved when she pushed her chakra into them. They moved with ease now, no matter the size, and she wasn't even tired.

The stones simply knit themselves back together…. It was as if she had healed the blocks themselves.

Rebuild. Maybe this was what Chiyo meant.

Sakura stood again, more sure of herself. She slid stones around, pushing her chakra into them until she detected the edges, and felt out when it could go no farther. Then she moved on to the next edge.

For the first time, she understood what Iruka meant in her old academy lessons about pushing chakra into object. She had tried for months to try to get her chakra to be 'absorbed' into her particular weapon the way the other students were trained to do. Hers only wrapped around it. It never worked until she began working on the human body. Then it was so easy, it was as if she could feel all of it at once.

These stones…it felt the same as healing a body….

She wondered how far she could go here.

Biting her lip, Sakura put her hands flat on the ground, the way she would if she were healing someone. She let her chakra flow out from her like water. A thin coating pooled in a green circle around her then rolled away from her in all directions.

Her surroundings absorbed it like a sponge. She could see everything, feel everything around her. A rippling green glow floated in her mind, returning information about this place, just like it did when she held her glowing hands over a patient and felt out an injury.

Sakura tried to expand her awareness further, and plunged more green light out across the tops of the flat stones. It seeped into the grooves and clung to the fractured edges.

This time, she opened her eyes a crack. Pale outlines of the rocks were barely visible in the darkness. She closed her eyes again. Bright green pathways lit up everywhere.

The rocks were all connected, like a net that had been blown wide apart. It must have been enormous, larger than a building she'd ever seen. Her chakra only touched the top of it, but she felt the shadow of boulders far, far below her, going down indefinitely.

Flooding her energy into the space, she also sensed the single line of pale blue chakra running away from her back and up into the darkness above.

It looked so thin, like a single spider's web glistening with energy. Sakura opened her eyes. This time, at the top of the dark space, she could see it….

There was a pinprick of light, like a far off star.

That was where Chiyo pushed her through. Now, only that single line connected her to the outside world.

Sakura knew Chiyo's chakra strand wasn't a lifeline. It was more like a leash making sure she did the job. She felt it pushing her to get back to work.

She repeated Chiyo's words. Rebuild. Maybe if she did that, then the old woman would let her out….

So Sakura worked and worked. It felt like days or weeks…or even months. Time had no meaning. She did not rest, she did not stop. She only moved with the soft hum of someone else's power at her back.

Chiyo's tether hung limp most of the time now. The woman was no longer guiding her, it seemed, only monitoring her. Making sure she finished the task.

Sakura sat back on the flat ground beside a newly smoothed edge. The surface area was a huge expanse, big and flat.

Above her, below her and all around her were more islands of broken stone. Some floating apart. Some connected by mountains of tumbled, broken rocks. It was like whatever was here had frozen at the moment it exploded.

She stretched out her energy, letting it roll away from her, and relaxed. The chakra ran down to small rivulets, and then, as if responding to her thoughts about exploring, twisted out of the grooves and lifted up, becoming delicate twining vines.

It felt so natural, a beautiful extension of herself. She marveled at it. Maybe this terrible experience had unlocked another form of her chakra….

A tentative, grateful smile broke over her face. She never opened her eyes, but she could see it all in the darkness. She could feel the change as it was happening.

The pool of green chakra was changing around her, morphing, becoming a beautiful tangle of roots and vines. It was like she sat at the base of a giant tree, held there, protected.

She relaxed and let her breath unfold, and as she did, fine green tendrils stretched outward from her her body. The wrapped down her arms and unfurled from her open hands.

Like the watery nature of her chakra, the tendrils rolled away from her with barely a suggestion. They twisted and turned, reached and explored. Little green leaves unfurled here and there. The vines were gently moving across the boulders, like little emissaries, each returning information to her.

She felt humbled. She didn't know chakra could be this beautiful. She felt connected and in harmony with something greater, a timeless chakra force.

This strange place suddenly reminded her of the Forest of Death. Everything around her felt alive. It was here long before her and would continue on long after she was gone.

And it was as if her energy was responding to this ancient place, and giving her the power to help. Right now, it was lending her its strength.

Sakura mentally glanced over her shoulder. The pale chakra tethers attached or her back were still limp. But Sakura already knew that answer before she turned: Chiyo didn't know.

Her own chakra was keeping its power hidden from the old woman. Sakura smiled. It was moving through her to help her survive

Sakura breathed out again, more sure of herself. The green tendrils stretched outward, exploring even farther. She didn't feel as afraid, or alone in this space. For the first time since she'd been thrown in there, she thought she might be able to make it out—

Sakura stretched out and let the tendrils go as far as they could. They dropped down through empty space, reached another landing of broken rocks, and then kept going.

Most of the surface she was on had been smoothed back together. But beneath her, she felt so many more blocks…. Piles and piles of them, going down in layers. It might be years before she finished—

She didn't expect to find bottom. Or find anything, really— At the moment she was more curious about just how far this new chakra form could go. Something inside her told her it could go on indefinitely— Just as her watery chakra form did.

Chiyo's strands were still silent at her back, so she stole a little more time to let her chakra vines explore farther….

Sakura listened as they crawled down over the stones and sank deeper and deeper, like roots disappearing beneath an abandoned temple. The farthest tips were so far away they were just a pale green glow, like a single firefly calling out in a universe of darkness—

As if answering, a faint red light glimmered from the bottom of the black chasm, then disappeared.

It was like someone had tried to strike a match, but failed.

Sakura was so startled she opened her eyes expecting to see it. There was nothing but darkness below her.

She closed her eyes, relaxed, and focused her twining vines on that area for several long minutes. But it was gone.

She was just deciding that it was a figment of her imagination, when it flickered again, far to another side, under another mountain of broken rocks. Like another match being struck….

This must be it! This must be why I'm here! This must be Gaara's life force, stuck down here somehow—

Chiyo's chakra strands vibrated at her back for the first time in what felt like hours and seemed to radiate that yes, this was what she was meant to do. They pushed her in that direction.

Sakura climbed to the edge. The big roping roots that had encircled her dissolved back into her until only the green vines remained, radiating out from her hands. She used them as a guide, and dropped down through the emptiness onto the pile of rocks beneath her.

But if Gaara was trapped down here, hurt and alone….

She clawed more stones away, throwing them behind her. Some reconnected and their flat sides melted back together, but most piled up, broken edge to broken edge.

Sakura didn't care. She was desperate to get to that little red flame. It was so small, so frail, and kept guttering out, only to reappear someplace else, beneath another pile of rocks…. Whatever it was, it appeared to be dying….

She dug faster. It should have cut her knees and broken her nails down to the quick with how fast she was grabbing them and throwing them over her shoulder. But it didn't. She was only energy here. She had no physical body to injure.

The flickering light was constantly moving beyond her.

But still she dug. If it was Gaara, then she wasn't giving up. She didn't understand how his life force had wound up there, buried under rocks. But she'd made it this far, and if she could find him — save him — then she would.

It was like a race. As she dug, her green tendrils reached far ahead of her, pushing through the crack in the stones. The little red flame flickered just out of her reach. She was getting closer though….

Without her human body or the outside world to distract her attention or muffle her energy, Sakura became keenly aware of how powerful her chakra was.

She could feel every vibration, every grain of sand around her, as if it was an extension of herself. So she could feel the energy of something else alive in this vast expanse of emptiness like it was a beacon.

Even if it wasn't Gaara, she would have dug for it anyway, motivated by the idea of freeing another living thing that was trapped down here. Glad to not be alone in this dark prison—

She was almost upon it, the scrap of light that was the deep red color of Gaara's hair, of blood, of living energy.

She dug faster, her chakra spinning out farther and farther, winding down from her arms and tumbling over her hands. It spun itself into increasingly smaller tendrils and shot over rocks and into crevices where it disappeared toward where the fragment of energy was buried.

Finally, a single green tendril slipped over the last boulder—

It found a scrap of red chakra, floating there like a flame without a candle. It was very still, hovering in the pocket of darkness as if it was waiting for her.

In her mind's eye, Sakura nudged her chakra forward to reach it, touch it, and reassure it that it was ok, it was safe now. She would share her energy and pull it to safety, just like coaxing a patient back from the brink of death.

The tip of her green vine connected with the little red flame—

But a blast of heat exploded back at her, as if a wildfire had suddenly found a new fuel source.

Knocked back onto one of the mountains of rocks she piled behind her, Sakura instinctively jerked her chakra back.

But the vine didn't retract.

Where her chakra had connected it was freezing and numb. It felt like the energy had been sucked out of it—

Sakura went very still. None of this is right.

All around her, the network of green chakra tendrils quietly flattened themselves against the broken stones. They were now an extension of Sakura's wariness. The waited in the darkness with her while she tried to figure out what it was….

It doesn't feel like any chakra I've ever experienced. It almost doesn't even feel human—

Like a scared animal, the flame was moving cautiously, peeking out from behind the boulder, going in and out of her vision as if watching her as well, sizing her up….

But it still had not let go of her chakra. The flame drifted closer, licked at it again, and flared with new energy—

Sakura winced and grabbed her arm. This time, it pierced her energy, carving it away in icy stabs.

It pulled back finally, and Sakura saw beyond the flame: The end of her chakra tendril had been emptied out. It was just a colorless strand, shining silver at the edges. Gone was her luminous green life force. Now it was just a conduit for raw energy.

Pure terror rattled through Sakura. How was such a thing even possible?

She sent a shot of green light back down the tendril, hoping to jolt it free.

But the flame stirred with anticipation, thirsting for more. This was exactly what it wanted. She knew it. She could feel it through that single point of contact. It had one desire: To consume.

It surged forward, siphoning off the new green light. Sakura grit her teeth. The cold raced farther up the tendril, and she knew that below the flame, more of her chakra vine had turned silvery and colorless.

The flame doubled in size, exploding with blood-red light. It was almost black at its core.

Just then it growled at her, snarling in her mind through their shared chakra connection. Sakura shook her head, trying to force it out— When a smell coated the inside of her nose and mouth. It was the rotting smell of sulphur…of blood…of death

Sakura gasped. She knew this. She'd smelled it before….

This was not Gaara. This was not the life force of the quiet Kage she'd encountered in the woods. This was not human or animal or even a puppet…. And it was never a 'flame' at all.

This was the monster that had controlled Gaara years earlier in Konoha. The one that had attacked her.

It was a predator. It was waiting in the darkness, luring her in…. As if somehow it remembered her….

It roared up through the chakra connection in answer. It knew exactly who she was.

Sakura pulled back on the vine again, desperate to get away. She'd made a terrible, terrible mistake—

The malevolent energy crawled over rocks and leapt for the still-green part of her chakra tendril. Sakura was powerless to stop it.

Hands shaking, she clung to her chakra, trying again and again to pull it back. But the creature held on even tighter, jerking her back and pulling her to her knees. It was a nightmarish game of tug-of-war; she couldn't let go.

Her shinobi training was useless now. This was chakra against chakra. She'd never been trained for this. Never heard of it. So she raced back through her med-nin training for anything that might help—

A memory flashed through Sakura's panic-addled mind. An image of the words, "Order of Operations for Effective Chakra Control," written across a hospital classroom chalkboard. Below it was a list of six steps all chakra work could be processed through.

It all seemed so ridiculously simple at the time. Now he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. But she re-gripped her chakra vine, and started down the list.

1. Analyze the whole patient.

Sakura tried to still her ragged breathing. A monster, made of energy, that devoured other people's energy. She never heard of anything like that. But now that it had discovered hers, she knew it was never going to let her go.

2. Isolate the problem.

She couldn't stop the creature. So she had to stop her chakra, any way she could. If she didn't cut it off now, the one thing that made her energy so different — that it flowed without stopping — would end up killing her.

3. Make a diagnosis.

So then…she needed to treat this just like an amputation on a battlefield. She had to cut off what could no longer be saved—

The creature pulled at her again, tearing off more of her energy. It was getting so much more powerful. Sakura ignored the stabs of icy pain….

4. Determine the solution.

She needed a tool, something to to sever her chakra…. She'd seen a weapon once, wielded by a foreign nin at a jonin trial. It was a whip made of many pieces, each end studded with razors. That's what she needed right now.

She didn't know if it could be done. But if Chiyo and Sasori could restring skeletons and distort their own chakra enough to control them, then maybe she could transform hers too. She would have to if she wanted to survive.

5. Prepare the supplies.

Another freezing blast lashed her and dragged her closer to the edge. The pain was doubling each time. Her confidence was crumbling. Time was running out.

She forced herself to focus. She told herself she was simply the attending medic. The chakra was the patient.

Her left hand maintained its iron grip on the single, taut chakra vine.

Her right hand twisted at the wrist and shot out five new strands of green chakra.

Vibrant little looping vines raced out from her fingertips. Seeing the glowing tendrils, Sakura's chin crumpled. Her chakra had flowed and flowed without stopping. And when she needed it most, it had even given her a new gift. This delicate new form that looked like life itself. And now she had to destroy it.

She knew, just by looking at them, those beautiful extensions of herself would not be enough to save her. If she had any hope of surviving, she'd have to create a monstrous abomination of her own energy.

The vine shooting from her left hand trembled as the monster lunged at her again.

Choking back a sob, Sakura swung her right hand in an arc. As she did, she closed her eyes and imagined the tendrils turning into ropes of green steel, as solid and stiff as Chiyo's….

She opened her eyes, and what she saw broke her heart. It worked.

Five slender ropes now stretched from her hand. Only the little flecks of leaves remained from its previous form, dotting them here and there. She jerked her wrist again to whip them together, forcing the ropes to twist over and over each other, until only the tip splayed apart.

With every ounce of strength she had, Sakura forced another blast of chakra down the ropes. She imagined razors glinting from the ends.

Green leaves sprouted, but they instantly hardened into cruel shards of metal. The remaining leaves did the same, running back down the rope, until the whole thing was studded with fragments as sharp as kunai blades.

It was a weapon of ultimate cruelty, worthy of someone like Chiyo. It was sharp enough to sever her own dying energy.

The monster's growled filled up the cavern. The monster pulled her bodily forward, her whole chakra surging like a magnet toward the edge— The silver-white of emptied chakra was racing up the remaining vine where it inhaled more and more of her— It was growing more powerful every minute. And it knew it.

But it let go suddenly. Sakura's strained muscles had a moment of reprieve….

She knew this was the end. There was no more space left between her knees and the broken ledge. There was no more time to be terrified or hate herself for what she had to do. The next tug on her chakra would drag her over the edge, to her death.

The monster lunged—

6. Act swiftly.

Sakura ripped her right hand downward. Her chakra whip sliced through the air—

The whip tore viciously through the taut green vine, severing it in one blow. The explosion of energy blasted Sakura backwards, hurling her halfway up the pile of rocks behind her. She slid down, screaming in agony, curling in on herself like she'd cut off her own arm.

The severed remains of her chakra, still green and full of life, writhed and snapped up into the air before disappearing over the edge.

Gasping, clutching her left side, nearly blind from the pain, Sakura scooted to the edge. She had to make sure it worked.

Her chakra was still falling, but now it was as hard and solid as a piece of driftwood. Stripped of its life force and cut off from it maker, the prong of solid silver energy clattered back down the rocks. It tumbled directly toward the ball of flames at the bottom of the hole. From above, it looked almost like a campfire among the rocks.

Red flames rose up, higher and higher, jumping toward the falling chakra. In one gulp, the silver prong disappeared into the heart of the flames.

Sakura had enough time to blink before the flame exploded into a bonfire. Dark red light ricocheted off the rocks. It exploded again, taking up even more space and raging higher. But this time it turned into a burning amorphous shape.

Sakura watched in horror as legs and arms sprouted out underneath it. It rose up unsteadily, swaying back and forth like a burning table, about to collapse. But it shuddered suddenly, flush with new power. Sparks shot upward. Red energy like lava spilled down the rocks around it.

The energy creature lurched in Sakura's direction, as if smelling her. Finding her, a growl rumbled deep from its body, coming up through a black hole that had just then formed at the front of it. The hole grew until it was a wide, inhaling mouth. It roared at her again, and Sakura knew in her bones that if it caught her it would devour her completely. It wouldn't let her get away again.

Pain still banging in her head, Sakura shoved herself back from the edge. All around her, her chakra vines were flat and limp on the ground. Only the ropes from her hand still looked full of life.

She pulled all her chakra back. The ropes form from her right hand were reabsorbed instantly. The vines, however, moved slowly. The little tendrils had shriveled back. The delicate leaves were withered and curled. As they returned to her, they wrapped and coiled in on themselves. By the time they reached her body, they had twisted into long ropes, the same as the ones she'd shot from her fingers. The plant-like shapes had disintegrated and blown away like dead autumn leaves.

Sakura shook her head, willing away tears that wouldn't fall. She knew she'd done something awful. She knew there would be a cost.

But she still didn't realize how hollow she'd feel inside. A cold weight was settling into the place where her chakra sprang from, the place that always felt flowing and alive. The more chakra she reabsorbed, the more she felt it.

Sakura pulled the rest of the energy back to her core as fast as she could, ignoring the cold that was sinking its tendrils into her body, her soul—

There was no time for grief.

I've got to put some space between myself and that monster.

She stood slowly, relying on her good side, turned to the mountain of boulders behind her and started climbing. It was slow and painful and she had to stop every few steps and pant and clutch her throbbing arm.

Thankfully, Chiyo's chakra strings finally vibrated to life at her back. They gave her an added boost as she climbed, helping her leap from pile to pile. Sakura leaned into the tethers, using them to compensate for the pain still raking up her left side.

Sakura was high above, at a flat ledge, before she dared to stop and turn around. When she did, she realized her eyes were open. The red flame created its own light. And, of course, it wasn't a fire at all.

She saw it clearly. It was the monster that Gaara once was. It circled the bottom of the dark hole, snarling up at her when it sensed her attention.

It wanted her. She could feel it singing in her blood, just like she did that day in the forest outside Konoha.

She shook her head at how foolish she'd been. It was trapped down here. And I…I freed it.

Sakura grit her teeth and jerked on Chiyo's tethers. "No more," she said to the strands, knowing somehow that Chiyo would hear her. "I want out—"

The strands were taut and vibrated as if they were listening, but they didn't move to lift her out.

Sakura yanked again and yelled up at the pinprick of light, "Let me out! Now!"

As if answering her, the the pale blue chakra strands suddenly went slack around her. They hung from her back and draped over her arms.

Sakura swore and shoved the lifeless tethers behind her.

She was a puppet without strings. She could not leave her stage. She was forced to act it out, to survive if she could. But she would get no more help from Chiyo.

I'm trapped between two monsters.

Sakura turned back to the bigger threat below her. She had to make sure there was no other fragment of this creature lurking in the darkness.

She put her fingers on the ground to stretch out her chakra—

A tight network of chakra ropes shot from her fingers and covered the ground exactly where she saw them.

Gone were the delicate green vines. Instead, a perfect green net of tightly twisted ropes radiated down from her hands, looking exactly like the strings of a puppet master.

Sakura blew out a ragged breath and tried not weep. She knew, deep down, whatever line she'd crossed to survive, she could not go back. Her chakra would not form those beautiful vines again.

She smothered her regret. If she made it out, there would be plenty of time to cry for the parts of herself she'd destroyed later.

Sakura let her awareness expand with the net of chakra and tried to ignore just how similar it was to the techniques used by Chiyo and Sasori.

After a few seconds, she exhaled. There were no others. The creature raging and circling beneath her was the only one. So she was safe up there, for the moment.

Sakura pulled the energy ropes back to her hands, then rolled her neck and shoulders, trying to push back the banging pain from her left side that had restarted from being used.

She took an inventory of her situation now…. She didn't know where Gaara was. She didn't know where she was. But she knew she was trapped here, with this monster.

Chiyo's plan became painfully clear. This was what the old woman wanted.

It was never about saving the Sand Kage. It was never about Sakura healing him in her place.

Chiyo wanted this unholy power that was tied to Gaara.

She rethought everything that had happened so far, trying to warp her mind like Chiyo's to see if there was anything else she might learn.

How far would someone like her go to get what she wanted?

The hollowed out humans, the shattered seal, the rebuilding….

Sakura gasped.

Perhaps Gaara was nothing more than a sophisticated puppet. And for whatever power that was stored inside him, maybe it needed a new source of energy…. Sakura had a feeling it was her.

The bitter truth crashed down on her. She was never going to get out of there. It was never even an option.

The fear, the pain, and now this final realization…it was her undoing. Sakura bit back a sob. She pressed her fingers to her mouth, trying to keep it in, but her hands were beginning to shake uncontrollably.

Phantom pain from the severed chakra exploded again, amplified by her sudden emotion. It seared through her, bringing her to her knees and stealing her breath. She clutched her side and curled over, dropped her forehead to the ground. She sobbed tearless cries into the darkness.

It's hopeless. There's no way out. There's no scenario where I survive this. And I still don't know what Chiyo wants me to even do!

She stayed there, curled against the ground. Pale blue chakra strands pooled in loops around her, all connecting to her back. She looked like an abandoned puppet, forgotten in the vast, unending blackness—

Just then, a voice echoed from her past. It speared towards her out of the darkness of her memories.

"She knows what she wants…." The voice was soft, but growing louder. "She knows what she wants…."

Sakura wasn't sure if it was her own mind or the memory speaking to her…but she knew who's voice it was.

She raised up slowly, and the memory raced in as if he was standing right in front of her. Katsuro.

"They know who they are. They know what they want. And they are going to tear you apart."

Sakura shook her head, mentally answering.

But this is different from back then. It's not like fighting thugs, or shinobis. Or even puppets. This is a monster. How do you fight that? I barely got away before. I won't be so lucky the next time—

But the memory answered her, Katsuro's voice almost snarling through her mind, "No one is coming to save you…."

She sat back on her heels, knees still folded underneath her and blinked numbly at the ground.

It was as if Katsuro was right there, leaning over her, yelling into her face, raging at her, trying to break through.

"You have to save yourself!"

She pictured him stepping back and watching her, arms folded, brown eyes challenging her, waiting to see what she was going to do….

Great. Now I'm hallucinating…. She closed her eyes, not wanting to hear any more. This isn't real. I'm alone. Her chin crumpled. I'm alone, and there's no way out—

Katsuro's voice returned, right next to her ear. It was soft as it had been all the nights they'd spent in the temple, talking till the fell asleep, side by side….

"Do what you have to do to get out. Just survive…. That's all that matters…."

Her eyes flew open. It was so close, so gentle, she expected him to be there. But of course he wasn't.

She looked down at her body. It must be the energy, unlocking the pieces of herself that she'd locked up inside. It knew what she needed to hear. It brought him back to her.

She scrubbed her left hand down her face— then realized the pain on that side had softened to a dull throb. Persistent, but manageable.

Katsuro was right. It didn't matter what Chiyo wanted. All that mattered was that she survive. Any way she could.

This wasn't the first time she'd faced a situation she was completely unprepared for, that seemed utterly hopeless. She'd survived being captured by Itachi…maybe she could do it again….

Sakura stood. She shoved Chiyo's useless chakra tethers behind her, squared her shoulders and looked down at the glowing red light.

The creature had grown a little larger. It still couldn't climb the rubble, but eventually, it would be able to get to her and her energy. She knew this somehow, deep down—

A chill rippled through her. Because it had swallowed a piece of her, she knew what it wanted and it did too.

It bellowed up at her, blasting her with heat, confirming it. It was growing slowly, feeding on her energy. And it would eventually be strong enough to reach her.

Sakura settled her hands on her hips. Steely determination crept up her spine. She had to fight it. Any way she could. She couldn't give up. Not yet. She had to survive.

As if satisfied, the boy in her memory nodded once before leaving her side, then faded back into darkness….

Sakura watched the snarling, raging beast below her. She had to find a way to wall it off somehow.

She moved chunks around from the rubble pile, pushing them together the way she had done at the upper levels. But only a few merged back together.

Down this far, the blocks had been blasted into mush smaller, more fragmented chunks. As if this was the source of the explosion that had blown everything apart. Reassembling it would be like putting a puzzle back together. It could take her years….

There had to be another way.

Sakura shot green chakra ropes down into the boulders, both hating and grateful for how efficient they were now. There was no hesitation, no exploring. They were strands of steel now, just like Chiyo's. They ran through everything, never stopping, slipping over edges, pouring through the rocks in endlessly uncoiling threads. It was like once her chakra was unleashed, there was no stopping it from running anywhere it wanted.

She frowned at her hands, at the nets of chakra — truly hating how similar they looked to Chiyo's now — but she continued, plunging the ropes farther and farther into the darkness.

Slowly, structures began to rise out of the nothingness in her mind, outlined in green light.

There's something here…. A building or…a tower. It's so old….

Sakura tipped her head, as if listening for it, as if she couldn't believe what she was feeling out.

Traces of chakra littered the surface of the blocks. Streaks and smears, as if hundreds of people had passed through here, trying to move these pieces around. It was confusing—

How could so many different signatures be here? Just how old is this place?

But an even more ancient energy was scattered across the blocks. She had to tune out all the other chakra just to feel it. But it was there. Pale silver smudges were still visible at the edges, like deteriorated fingerprints.

This was where someone put the first blocks together. Someone who intuitively controlled chakra…. Someone like me….

She looked around the black emptiness, realizing now it was not truly empty. She had only been seeing it through the lens of fear before, relying on her eyes. But chakra didn't need to be "seen" to exist.

She remembering Chiyo's invisible chakra threads in the cavern, jumping from torch to torch. The energy was still connected, Sakura just couldn't see it. But Chiyo could feel it….

Sakura closed her eyes and turned her face to the whole expanse, taking it all in with her energy, instead of her eyes….

Once she started seeing the silver fingerprints, she saw them everywhere. They were scattered around her like dying stars, going off every direction into the distance. The structure had been exploded far into the void. But the fragments still shined with chakra. They still remembered….

This whole place is an interconnected web….

She had to look at this like Chiyo would, not like a healer, but like a puppet master. And whoever built this place, must have known how to use chakra this way too. They controlled objects that seemingly couldn't be controlled by chakra, that weren't living things. Like stone blocks—

The monster growled loudly from below her. It attempted a scrambling climb before sliding back down the rocks.

Sakura directed her sharpened awareness down at it. She didn't open her eyes. Instead she scanned its energy, wondering if it was somehow connected to the person who built this place….

There were no traces of other chakra on it. Only burning red flames. It roared at her, sensing her as well, and blasted a plume of toxic energy at her.

It remembered her. Sakura felt it. And, like examining the chakra of a patient, she felt beyond the most recent scrapes and went back down through its history.

It remembered more than her. It remembered death…centuries and centuries of it. Until if felt like it was made of death itself.

Just like she felt life, she could feel death in it. More black and yawning than the void they were in now. It was an unending tunnel. And this monstrous form was just the mouth of it.

Sakura shuddered, the green net radiating from her hands wavered for a moment.

The beast circled, watching her like prey, wanting her more than ever now. It wouldn't be long before it was strong enough to hang on. If it got a hold of her, it would drain her dry. She knew it in her core. It responded by snarling up at her, launching another roll of malicious energy up the mountains of rocks—

Chiyo's chakra strings at her back vibrated subtly. They'd noticed she'd stopped working.

Sakura breathed out, calming herself.

If she had to rebuild this place, then she'd do it. If she had to use what she'd gleaned from Chiyo's skills, then she would. She'd do whatever she had to do to survive. She'd have to use every resource she could.

Chiyo was right. For a healer, nothing was sacred. Nothing was off-limits. All of it was at her disposal.

Sakura ground her teeth, hating the idea. But she discarded her feelings. She didn't care if she was doing exactly what Chiyo said. If she didn't, then she'd die.

Sakura breathed in and out, in and out. She let the chakra swirl deep inside her, welling it up there, imagining it like a vast ocean inside her. All of it at her command to use.

She closed her hands and opened them again. This time, chakra tumbled out like water through flood gates. More of the green net exploded from her hands, spreading wider and farther than before, shooting everywhere.

When Sakura finally opened her eyes, they shone a luminous green, giving off their own light in the darkness.

Below her, the monster looked up, suddenly curious. The chakra strands dragging on the ground behind her radiated slightly too.

Sakura knew she was being observed.

She breathed again. If she was going to do understand the depth of what she was working with, then it required secrecy.

Sakura suddenly lashed out at the monster, yelling at it and kicking rocks down at creature dodged and rages, blasting out more waves of molten energy.

Then she flared the chakra at her palms, making them glow brightly, hiding her expanding chakra strings behind the explosion of energy at her fingertips.

The outbursts made her slim chakra cords harder to detect among the blurred lines of energy pulsating around her. When she felt she was safe from Chiyo's observation, she started again.

Sakura held her hands out over the ground and shot down chakra ropes like a true puppet master. She let the strands go where they wanted. They raced through the blocks, searching…searching…. Until they picked out the shattered pieces of an ancient network.

Sakura closed her eyes and breathed again, feeling it all. She had done it. She had found order among the chaos.

She let the cords begin to rebuild. She sank her chakra into the stones, just like the first builder must have done. She encouraged like to call out to like. And deep within the mountains of rubble, the blocks began to slip back together.

She moved quietly, slowly, hiding her actions beneath the cover of broken rocks. She pulled only the biggest ones together first.

She was beginning to sense that some chunks had an inside and some had an outside. The fragments of outside pieces were rugged and rough hewn. But the pieces from the inside had been blasted to melting, like they had lined the inside of a furnace.

She ran her chakra across the surface where two inside pieces reconnected. The jagged edges fused into an impenetrable seal.

Sakura marveled at it. This was a masterful chakra work. Unlike anything she'd ever seen.

It used the same healing ability she had, but it not for healing. It was only for containing— It was as if the builder had retooled the healing techniques, not to save lives, but to capture them.

This was the true origin of chakra control. It made her lessons from academy seem like child's play. This was where the healing capacity of chakra split off from the deep control of the puppet master's techniques. This was where they went different ways.

Sakura moved around the piles of rocks, kicking them down to keep the creature where she wanted it.

While it was distracted, and while the chakra flaring at her fingertips shielded her from Chiyo's perceptive gaze, Sakura began to rebuild the old walls.

Deep inside the avalanche she carefully shifted fragments of blocks, letting the rubble hide what she was doing.

Chiyo must have been satisfied that Sakura was working again. Her chakra tethers faded almost to nothing, just filaments the color of a sky Sakura might not ever see again.

Sakura glanced over her shoulder at the limp blue chakra strands. She was glad to see that Chiyo didn't care. Left alone, her mind raced. She had energy, cords and a building…. Perhaps she could make a trap, not for one, but for two monsters….

Sakura started working on a new plan….

Beneath the cover of fallen rocks, Sakura worked, finding the missing pieces, pushing them together, then letting them do the rest of the work. Using her chakra, she stacked one repaired block on top of the other, rebuilding the structure.

The blocks were enormous. They all merged back together almost perfectly. Almost. Her chakra detected only the slightest pinpricks of space still remaining. Tiny openings criss-crossed through the blocks, coming together directly at the center. Sakura's eyes narrowed while she thought it out, then suddenly went wide.

"There's no way," she whispered. "It couldn't be—"

The monster suddenly snarled and tried to climb again. Sakura lashed out at it, kicking more boulders down. She raged at the beast and struggled against Chiyo's strands. She wanted both of her captors to think she was losing it. It was all a distraction.

While the beast snapped and growled at the falling rocks, Sakura returned to deciphering the puzzle of these stones.

She gently twisted her wrist and shot a single thread of chakra down one of the holes. It was like threading a needle. It was only wide enough for the thinnest, strongest chakra. There wasn't room for anything else.

At the centermost point, she let her chakra split in two. It hurtled down both shafts, traveling at a perfect right angle to the other one. Both threads came out of their respective sides, lining up perfectly at opening of another hole in another enormous square block.

A triumphant smile curved her mouth. She was right.

The blocks were strung together like a puppet. It was more than just a building. It was an interlocking corral, bound by chakra. It was unbreakable.

This was a vessel for containing monsters. Whoever built it must have been a genius. Sakura knew what she had to do now.

She widened her stance, planted her feet firmly, then ripped forward another handful of Chiyo's tether. The extra length pooled around her feet.

Good. The old woman doesn't suspect a thing.

Holding Chiyo's tether firmly, Sakura pulled more of her own unending energy from her her core and ran it down her fingers.

Her fingertips danced like a trained puppet master. Like Chiyo and Sasori's did.

Sakura sent her chakra net to fan out over everything. The thickest ropes dragged the broken blocks together while the thinner strands shot through the centers. They wove back and forth, tying the blocks together as it climbed.

She pulled out more and more, going and going until she didn't think she had more to give. But still there were more blocks. And her green energy continued to pour out. The farther the network stretched, the more rocks she found. She pushed farther and farther down in the vast space, until the she reached what must have been at one time the ground.

Her chakra connected to itself around the base. This was the original design. She had unlocked it. She relaxed her shoulders and dared a slow, long exhale.

The beast swiveled its head, looking around slowly. It sensed something had changed. It roared up at Sakura.

And for the first time she saw what Gaara had been. The yellow eyes, that feral look. That smell of sulphur and blood and death worked its way into her nose again, even when she shouldn't be able to smell anything down here.

It remembered…. It remembered what it did to her in Konoha. It remembered how her skin tasted, how her muscles were crushed under the bloody sand. It remembered just how much it wanted to choke the life out of her….

Sakura's fingers started shaking. She saw it it saw. She knew what it wanted.

It wasn't going to let her get away this time.

It bellowed up at her and shook the void. It rattled through Sakura's core, causing her to loose her footing for a moment. She clenched her fists, forcing them to stop trembling.

She wasn't done yet. She had to get the monster into the very center—

It stared at her, growling softly. It breathed in, tasting her chakra in the air around it. Drool stretching from its vicious teeth. It wanted her.

Lunging upward again, it climbed the rocks in scattered leaps. This time it didn't slip.

Fear twisted in Sakura's gut. Her knees felt like they were collapsing underneath her. Her mind screamed to run. But she forced herself to stay. She had to focus—

It galloped toward her. She shut her eyes.

"It's just like the game," she whispered. Then she lifted her arms….

A vast net of chakra rose up all around her. Like a fisherman hauling in his catch, Sakura pulled up complete walls out of the piles of rubble.

They shot up in enormous panels, binding themselves together as she pulled. They formed a circle around the beast. Sakura controlled the vast movements with mere flicks of her fingers, as if she'd been taught by Sasori himself.

It was easy. Effortless. She saw energy and the form it took. She didn't need to see it with her eyes. She could feel it, see it in her mind.

The creature was scrambling up the side. It no longer wanted to devour only her…. It wanted out to roam the land and destroy everything.

She ground her teeth at the thought. She would die before she let that happen.

When one of the walls came even with her, she hopped onto the ledge and rocketed upwards with it. As she pulled the walls higher and higher, the monster barreled up the sides, chasing after her.

Suddenly, it looked past her, focusing was on the opening where the walls narrowed but did not touch.

Sakura realized the vulnerability at the same moment the creature did. If it could get past her, it could still get out— The structure needed a top. Right now, it was still just a holding pen. The monster was so strong if it got close enough, it could climb over.

The thought dropped like lead through her. It would be all over then.

Sakura made a split-second decision. Giving up precious space between her and the beast, Sakura stopped pulling upward and instead pushed her chakra ropes back down the sides of the walls. The top of each segment collapsed and bent inward like puppets' elbows.

The beast tore up the wall toward her. Just steps were left till it was out, leaping over the broken ledge, and upon her, ripping her to pieces—

Sakura jerked all the ropes together and flung herself backwards onto another ledge, praying it would work. She kept her eyes crushed shut in case it didn't.

Claws screamed against the stone. Great blasts of breath scalded her bare legs, her hands—

She slammed into the ground, green chakra ropes bunched at her chest, fingers knotted so tightly over them they were white. She waited for the end—

But the teeth and claws ripping her to shreds never came.

She cracked her eyes open…. There was only flat ground around her. No monster. Her arms sagged, she half-sobbed, barely believing she was still alive. It worked. The pieces of wall met in the middle to form a dome, then sealed themselves together. The surface rattled terribly, but the beast couldn't break free. She'd done it.

Sakura wanted to weep with joy. But she couldn't let go of the cords. Not yet.

Through her chakra network, she felt it beating against the walls, the roof. It raged and burned, but it couldn't get out. Instead it turned its scalding heat on the walls and melted the interior into one shining glaze.

This was what she'd detected earlier. The smooth inside, the rough outside. She was right. It wasn't just a building, it was a vessel.

The creature was sealed in. Not in the way shinobis did it, with scrolls and contracts and jutsus. But literally, like a potter in the civilian district, she sealed it into a pot. And she was standing on the lid.

It roared, shaking the whole thing, but she felt it through the chakra that wrapped in a net around the structure. He'd never break out. It only seeped out energy in a gently radiating way. Like heat from a closed kiln.

It was completely solid on the outside too, except for two small holes where her chakra slipped down into the interlocking channels. Her chakra ropes were holding him in, and her body, her grip on the chakra, was effectively the knot.

Panting, she looked up at the pinprick of light at the top of the black void. She was higher now. She stood in a single ray of light. She turned her face toward it.

She didn't feel triumphant. Not even close. She was more terrified than ever. Because now came the most delicate part.

She fought the feeling that she was abandoned in this dark hole. But it was beginning to swamp her again. If Chiyo figured out that she'd been successful, that she'd contained the beast, then she would cut her strings. The light ray would close off and she would be lost to the darkness. Forgotten. Forever.

Because Sakura had used Chiyo's chakra to contain the beast too. And if the old woman found out, if she severed her connection to Sakura too soon….

Sakura gulped, hands trembling. She couldn't think about that.

Because this moment was everything she'd been secretly working for….

From the instant Sakura began channeling her chakra down through the center of the blocks, she was pulling Chiyo's energy down with her.

She knew Chiyo would never let her go, never let her out. And once she found out the beast was contained, she knew Chiyo was going to abandon her down there. But Sakura had other plans. She was going to use Chiyo's chakra to pull herself out.

Using her own unique skill, the ability to coat anything with her chakra, Sakura covered Chiyos's steely strands like a tube. Each time she kicked rubble down at the demon, she pulled a little more of Chiyo's chakra down with her.

And each time, she lifted the smallest fibers of Chiyo's chakra and wove it with her own.

The same way she formed whip ends on her chakra, with razors and blades, Sakura had embedded her chakra with sharp edges, like little shards of broken glass. It nicked Chiyo's chakra rope as it passed, lifting up tiny fibers and weaving it into her own chakra.

Sakura didn't know if Chiyo would notice. The old woman was so much more experienced, Sakura could only hope she didn't. But each time she went into a supposed panic and flung more rocks down at the beast, she was yanking down more and more of Chiyo's strands too. They pooled on the ground around her, like thread unspooled from its bobbin.

When she had a big enough pile, Sakura carefully slid little pieces of Chiyo's energy into the rocks, lodging it in the darkness between the boulders with her own chakra.

It was delicate, painstaking work. Sakura had to get enough anchored deep enough that it would not slither out if Chiyo pulled back. And yet, she still had to leave it limp and piled on the ground, so Chiyo would believe it was just a tangled pile. Sakura hoped that Chiyo would believe she had become frantic and maybe was much less adept at chakra control than Chiyo believed.

It was, in fact, the opposite.

Under pressure, Sakura began using her chakra in ways she never knew were possible.

While she trapped the monster, built up a stockpile of Chiyo's ropes, Sakura was also sending her own chakra crawling back up the strands, toward the one spot of light where Chiyo controlled her. Where her physical body still existed.

Sakura never looked back, never let on what she was doing. She just let her chakra go thinner than she ever imagined she could make it, and let it rise up the strands coming out of her back.

Sakura's energy was nothing more than a nearly transparent coating on top of Chiyo's, like starlight glittering along the surface.

Only when she'd trapped the beast completely did she let herself turn around. She looked up, opened her eyes and focused on the light. The strings glistened in the thin ray.

Sakura took a breath, ignored the knot in her gut, and began moving her fingers so subtly, it looked as if just the tips were twitching. But at her feet, the coils of Chiyo's pale blue string, hidden by the brilliant green of Sakura's hands, were beginning to move. They were sliding, rolling away from her feet and slipping down, down into the holes and disappearing. They were being pulled in deeper by Sakura's green ropes which were already threaded through the blocks.

The "ground" beneath her rattled. The beast was lashing out at its container. Perhaps it could feel the difference.

Sakura felt Chiyo's ropes running away from behind her, speeding up, slipping faster and faster down into shafts around the containment vessel. In front, she focused on the chakra that glistened upwards. She looked up at the tiny dot of light—

If this didn't work, then she knew she'd never see the light again. She'd be abandoned down here, like a body left behind in the Forest of Death—

Sakura swallowed hard and pushed it out of her mind.

She closed her eyes, breathed in, and thinned her chakra so much it was transparent. It was a nothing more than a sheen of dust clinging on the surface, a powder-coating of sand attracted to Chiyo's energetic string.

It was moving closer and closer to the light….

Chiyo realized the struggle must be over. She slowly began to pull her cord back, testing to see if Sakura was still attached.

Sakura held as still as possible. Her coating of energy wasn't to the top yet. But it was close.

Chiyo pulled more, tugging insistently on Sakura's back and shifting the strings at her feet slightly.

Sakura quelled her nerves. She was almost there. She could feel it through her chakra— It was remembering the light on her skin, the air in her lungs. It was so close—

Just then, the lid rattled beneath her feet. The beast was throwing itself at it, trying to break free. Sakura caught herself, but the next jolt sent her careening to her knees. She threw her hands out to catch herself. An innocent, involuntary movement—

But the green glow around her hands was suddenly extinguished.

Sakura snapped her head up, eyes painfully wide. Chiyo could see it now — she was sure she could — the trap that Sakura had set for her.

Desperation tore at her. She still wasn't close enough to the surface. She tried to buy herself a little more time and flared the green light at her hands again, all around her—

But the monster threw itself at the container with all its might, over and over. The blocks rattled, split apart at the seams then crashed back together, again and again. Sakura groaned at the strain on her chakra.

She saw it in her mind, the cracks between the blocks, only strung together with her green cords. If the blocks cam far enough apart, the beast's malicious chakra would seep through and rip them apart.

She felt it through the boulders, reading their history like feeling out a broken bone on a human. This was how it happened before. The beast already knew it could do it again—

Sakura couldn't look up, couldn't see if Chiyo had discovered. She had to focus everything she had on just holding those cords. She was on her hands and knees, pleading with her own energy to hold on….

Her chakra was stretching dangerously thin. She crushed her eyes and funneled more energy to the unraveling threads— But the beast sensed her weakness and lunged again.

The boulders separated, like a puppet coming unstrung.

Sakura was dragged backwards by her chakra. Piles of Chiyo's pale blue cords shot away behind her, sucked down into the holes. She tried to grab one of Chiyo's ropes, but it ripped through her hand so fast it would have left burns if it had been her physical body.

She couldn't stop it, any of it. The expanding boulders dragged her back until she was nearly on top of the holes, pulling in more of her chakra till there was no more left to give.

On her hands and knees, pinned to the ground, Sakura was holding the whole container shut with her net of green chakra.

The remainder of Chiyo's ropes were gone too, pulled down into the holes. The pale blue strands were taut where they connected at her back, taut where they ran down her arms and merged with her own chakra.

Sakura was so close to the outside world now she wanted to weep. She glanced up—

The pale blue tethers vibrated once in surprise…then anger—

Chiyo knew—

Sakura's energy reached the opening to the surface. It was like bursting through the surface after too long under water. Sensations rushed in—

She saw her physical body kneeling over Gaara. It was the same position her energy body was in, kneeling on the rocks in the dark.

Her face was frozen in shock, at the moment Chiyo pushed her into the void. It was a mirror of the desperation she was in now. That all hope was lost.

The scene unfolding around her physical body told Sakura everything she needed to know. Her gamble had failed.

In the cavern, Chiyo rose above her back. Hands raised, she controlled Sakura's body like a puppet. She looked down into the void. Sakura's face still glowed in that single shaft of light.

Pinned to the floor, she pleaded softly, "No, please, no—"

Chiyo's face was wreathed in smug satisfaction. She pulled the fingers on one hand into a fist…and the hole in the black sky above Sakura began to slowly close.

"No!"

Chiyo twisted her hand cruelly. In one swift movement she wrenched away the strings that connected her to Sakura's body. The tethers in Chiyo's hand bounced free. Sakura's lifeless body fell forward onto Gaara.

In the darkness, Sakura pitched forward too.

Opening her fingertips, Sakura flung the last remnants of her chakra upward. If she could get even a fragment of herself back to the real world, then maybe she wouldn't be lost forever, abandoned to the darkness, consumed by a monster—

But it was too late.

The last ray of light closed on Sakura's desperate face, the darkness stealing across her green eyes like the closing of a door.


In the dusty cavern, Chiyo laughed softly.

"Well she certainly was different, I'll give her that. Just not powerful enough," she said with undisguised glee. Her voice warbled like a bird, echoing off the walls of the cave. She stopped and thought for moment before adding with a girlish giggle. "Just like the Slug Princess!"

Chiyo pushed a foot into Sakura's dusty back, trying to kick her off Gaara's mid-section where she had collapsed. But she wouldn't move. Her body was heavy as lead.

There was a hollow rattling across the destroyed cavern. A knocking, as if joints were moving.

Chiyo glanced up, her giddy expression replaced with razor-sharp awareness. "How are you not dead yet?"

Sasori turned his puppet head with a slow ratcheting sound. His human heart was still pinned to the wall with Chiyo's vicious looking dagger. He watched the scene with interest, tipping his head to get a better look. A slow smile curved up the corners of his beautiful mouth—

When he looked back at Chiyo, new life had come back to his face. Pink spots appeared on his cheeks and a light had returned to his eyes.

"So this," he said around wheezing breaths, "this was your plan all along, old woman? You were just going to use the Leaf girl as the power source?"

Chiyo ignored him, rocking the girl's lifeless body with her foot.

"And getting revenge on the Leaf Kage was just a long ago was that? 50 years? And you're still not over it?" Sasori's laugh echoed across the cavern. "Who cares? It was just some old woman anyway!

Chiyo's stopped pushing for a second, rage taking over. "The Slug Princess killed my teacher! I will never forgive her. I will strike at her any way I can! So, yes. It was just 'a bonus.' If a medic can be one thing, it's efficient. I'm sure Tsunade would appreciate how beautifully it all worked out in my favor."

Chiyo bent back over to push Sakura, but Sasori kept talking, interrupting her concentration.

"So…now you have the beast and its power source, all in one vessel. That was a lucky break. I didn't think you had it in you, old woman, to make a gamble like that." Sasori laughed, dragging out the flattery. "I have to admit, it's pretty crafty. Even I didn't see that coming."

Chiyo was smug. Her eyes glittered as she stopped to gloat for a moment. "That's because I saw what you could never see! That I could use her. Even from the beginning. Medics have a value that way. When all else fails, medics' bodies are already trained to be conduits." Her smile turned cruel as she added, in a patronizing tone, "I doubt a puppet could understand."

Sasori started to speak again, but a deep wheeze rattled through him. He focused on his breathing, watching the small bellows below his heart move up and down, up and down.

Chiyo was still struggling with Sakura's body. It didn't want to move. Chiyo huffed, then spread her fingers wide to plunge her chakra into the girl and throw her to the side.

Sasori cleared his throat. "But she almost had you, didn't she, old woman? All that talk about how unique and powerful she was. Was it true? Or just to get her off guard?"

Chiyo shook her head, considering his words. Silvery-blue dots glowed at her at her fingertips, but they went no further.

"No," she said slowly, looking up at the cavern ceiling, thinking. "She may be the best healer of her generation. Maybe even several. Who knows what her future might have held had she lived longer." She refocused back on Sasori, with a toothy smile. "But she wasn't powerful enough to take down me!"

Chiyo formed the net within her hands. He face glowed with pale blue light, making it cold and cruel. She stretched her hands back and forth, growing the net till it glistened like cobwebs between her fingers.

"She told me everything I needed to know. Couldn't keep her mouth shut! She didn't know how to use her own power. So her destiny was always to be used by someone more powerful than her: Me!"

She raised her hands over Sakura's back, the web dripping off her hands, stretching downwards—

Sasori's laughter echoed around the cavern. "YOU?! You were never powerful!"

Chiyo stopped, chakra hanging in mid-air, face twisting with growing rage. He sneered at her, pleased that he had her full attention.

"You only ever stole power. Stealing it, hiding it in people. Always pulling strings. But you lost everything in the end, didn't you? Even Mother and Father." He laughed again, his face beautiful and mean. "And now you think you will get a new puppet out of the Kage? You are old," he dragged the word out, taunting her. "You are fading faster than you even know. Look at you! You can't even move one girl without relying on your power—"

Chiyo was shaking with rage. The chakra strands hanging from her hands trembled.

She snarled up at him, "You are a hinged jaw nailed to a wall that won't stop yammering! I am still standing! Everyone else has fallen before me! The girl, the beast, the weak kage, you and your toys…. I have brought them all down!"

Chiyo raised her hands, summoning her chakra back to pale blue points on her fingertips, then shot them out in two single steel cages, just to prove she could—

"And using her to feed the beast, then reseal him was always my plan. I have a kage and his power." She straightened her shoulders and looked up at him, voice firm and strong. Triumph danced in her eyes. "I have a whole nation at my feet! I've never been more powerful in my life—"

Wisps of smoke curled up from Sakura's back. Four black dots burned themselves through the fabric of her vest. Then suddenly four ribbons of green energy exploded from her back, arcing like streams of water directly at Chiyo. They hit her with a force that sent her stumbling back.

Chiyo was aghast. Arms still raised, she looked down to see the four plumes of energy burning holes through her sand-colored tunic and connecting to her middle. The watery nature of the green chakra turned at once solid and hard, like the old woman's own steel ropes. It latched onto her blue chakra and began pulling it out. Even the lights at her fingers dimmed.

Chiyo watched in growing horror as her own chakra moved into the center of the green chakra, like being sucked down a straw. It traveled back toward the girl's still-lifeless body where she was slung over Gaara—

But that body that was beginning to move. It rose up on hands and knees, then stood, moving stiffly.

Chiyo fumed at her back. "How did you do it, you little upstart— How did you get out?"

Sasori howled with laughter. "She didn't get out! She's beaten you at your own game, old woman!"

The girl's body moved mechanically as she turned to face Chiyo. The chakra moved with her, never disconnecting. It shifted from her back to her front so that it simply moved through her center, as if her body was only a channel. A conduit…. The girl's head hung down as if asleep. Her eyes and mouth were as lifeless as Sasori's Mother puppet.

Chiyo's face went pale as she realized what she was seeing….

Sakura's body swayed to the side. Behind her, in the center of Gaara's stomach was the gaping hole, opened much wider than it had been before. And inside, like looking at a reflection in the water, stood Sakura. Her eyes glowed bright green in the darkness. Her own chakra ran upwards to operate her body.

Chiyo staggered back a step, truly horrified, feeling the true scope of what Sakura had done.

The girl had turned her own body into a puppet. She was both puppet and puppet master. And she was controlling Chiyo now.


In the moment when the light snuffed out, Sakura flung her chakra up towards that dying star. Just like Chiyo had when she lit the lights around the cavern. There was so little of it left, it was invisible. Just shreds of spider's silk, carried by the wind.

But she hoped, she guessed…and if she was right, then maybe there was a chance—

The light closed off on her, but Sakura didn't move. She kept her eyes focused on the spot where it had been. She let her awareness spread out and out, until it filled up the space.

She willed anything that was out there that was hers to come back to her—

It worked.

Out of the dark ceiling shot a single thread of radiant green. It was grew brighter and brighter, renewing and turning stronger the closer it got to her.

"Like calls out to like," she whispered in the darkness. Chiyo had unwittingly given her the key to her survival. Chakra always called out to itself. And for her chakra, which was so like water, that pull was even stronger.

She flung as much as she could and her chakra ran on its own. It found her body. She didn't have to tell it what to do. It knew it was home. It connected.

Sakura held her hands up and let the chakra behind her connect in to the single strand. She wove her chakra around it, reaching higher and higher. Strands from her fingers braided themselves around it. She would never let go now.

The thickening rope climbed higher and higher, forcing the hole in Gaara's stomach to open back up.

She expected Chiyo to see her green light flaring at the edges of her body, where it had collapsed over Gaara. But the old woman was too busy arguing with Sasori to notice.

"Medics' bodies are already trained to be conduits…."

Sakura grinned in the darkness, the green light pooling in the dips in her cheeks, in half-moons at the bottom of her eyes.

Chiyo was right. And that same strategy she'd used to control Sakura's physical body, was about to be used against her.

Sakura had a vast network of Chiyo's chakra behind her, encased within her own, and wrapped down through the building blocks. It was anchored there. Once the old woman's chakra felt the pull and reconnected, it would never let go.

The beast was strong enough that it did in fact require two sets of living chakra to contain it. Or, as Sakura correctly guessed, one full set of sacrificed chakra.

Sasori and Chiyo's conversation confirmed it. She was to be the sacrifice.

Chiyo had cut off Sakura from her body. She was going to abandon her there. That was the plan all along. Now the old woman was just waiting for her own chakra to return to her. She was smug in her victory, even stopping to bicker with Sasori.

Sasori was roaring with laughter and then hurling insults at her. All the while burning up his remaining breaths. She could hear the bellows between outbursts, working hard and harder to keep air flowing.

She wasn't sure if he knew what he was doing or not, but he was buying her time. And she was grateful for it.

Sakura's chakra reached her physical body in a stream as fine as mist. She didn't have to tell it what to do or where to go. Mist was just another form of water. And like water, it only wanted to flow back together again.

Instantly, her chakra sang in her veins, vibrating like it was one whole network. Reenergized from her physical body, her chakra surged down to where she was pinned, shot out her back and raced down the blocks to hold the beast in.

She pulled up on the net of chakra, gripped it in her hand, pulling it tight. The beast roared and raged, but it was growing muffled. Then it was gone. All that remained was the warm heat radiating from the floor. She could feel the blocks resealing beneath her.

Sakura breathed deeply. Above her, Sasori was yelling something, and Chiyo was yelling back. Sakura didn't care.

The hole opened wider, streaks of dim light filtered down. Something was blocking the opening, and she guessed it was her physical body. Never taking her eyes away from her goal, she stood carefully so as to not draw attention to herself and lifted herself up into the light.

Hands in front of her, eyes focused on the hole, Sakura twisted her chakra where it attached to her body, as if unscrewing a lid. It was Gaara's seal mark, she was forcing it back open. The hole grew wider. She could see a sliver of light, the ceiling of the cavern.

Whatever argument they were having had ceased. Chiyo was growling about her plan, and Sakura could feel what she was planning. Chiyo's pale blue chakra was being called to leave. It was going to reseal Gaara's body and leave her behind.

It was now or never—

Sakura shot four streams of fluid energy through her physical body. A move like that would have killed a living person. But she was still so far away she barely felt it. She forced her chakra through, burning four channels through her body and out the back, and hooked them into Chiyo.

If she lived, she reasoned to herself, then healing catastrophic chakra burns would be a small price to pay.

Her body was her puppet. She controlled it like Sasori did his. Like Chiyo had controlled her. Like the builder had constructed the vessel she stood on. She'd learned from all of them. And now she'd use those lessons to save her own life.

Sakura grit her teeth. She jerked her fingers like a claw, digging into Chiyo until she the water turn to ropes and she felt both bodies under her control.

It wasn't elegant. It wasn't secretive. Sakura wasn't that adept. But it worked.

She twisted her wrists and slowly raised her hands…. Sakura's physical body stood up. She looked like Mother, head hanging over, face concealed.

In the darkness, Sakura shifted her feet and moved her arms. On the surface, her body moved with her, planting her feet in a Konoha fighting stance. With one arm, she swung around behind her and held Chiyo's cords taut. With her other arm, she held the other strings tight.

She had completel control of the chakra cords running through her center. Chakra burned her hand and her forearm, but it didn't matter. Right now, it was just another body.

Chiyo stared down, horrified at the cords connecting them.

The two chakras — Chiyo's steely blue energy wrapped inside of Sakura's watery green one — effectively became a loop, running through Sakura's empty physical body.

Sakura moved her arms and began cycling Chiyos blue energy out of her back and down toward the hole.

Her energy body was a mirror of her physical one. Both stood in a fighting stance. Both were a conduit for energy now. Chiyo could not escape her—

But Chiyo wasn't done yet. She snapped her wrists, and her chakra turned to chains. Sakura gasped at the pain this time. It hurt both her physical and energy bodies. Even her watery energy wrapping around it couldn't make it stop.

Chiyo smiled toothily as Sakura was forced to pulled each link of the chain deeper into herself, knowing it was tearing apart her flesh and ripping through her energy.

Sakura continued, hand over fist, pulling it toward her. She gasped more audibly with each pull. But she wouldn't stop.

Sasori laughed again, wheezing. "You underestimated her! For all your talk, old woman, you didn't see what was right in front of your face—"

She scowled. "Shut-up you—" But Chiyo stopped with a gasp. "You knew! That's why you were blathering on!"

"Of course I knew!"

She snarled at the shattered boy. "I should have killed you in the cradle—"

"I would help anyone tear you down, old woman," Sasori sneered back. "And the fact that it's a girl with no training and raw talent, who beat you after a lifetime of scheming…that makes it even better." He stopped, remembering, "And a girl who is also your lifelong enemy's apprentice?!" He hooted with laughter, but it turned immediately to a wheezing cough.

In her mind's eye, Sakura moved up the chain while they talked. It felt like forever. The closer she got, the more pain she felt. In her arms, in her stomach. But it was the pain of a living body.

Perhaps Sasori was buying her more time now. She didn't know. She had to focus on pulling herself up, and shutting out the pain that was starting to bang in her head.

"Your legacy ends here," Sasori said, gasping. "And I'm so glad I got to see it."

Chiyo's eyes darkened. Something Sasori said really got to her. Sakura could feel it in the chains. They vibrated with anger, their energy flickering for a moment.

And then Sakura was suddenly slammed back into her physical body. Like flowing water, the last part was a rush of reconnected energy, all blending back into one.

There was air in her lungs, her lip was bleeding and explosions of pain were erupting all over her body where she was chained through with someone else's chakra. She was a living puppet now.

The cloak of her watery chakra was getting thinner, it was no longer protecting her. It was wearing out. The water was running out.

Chiyo was stunned as she watched Sakura slip back into herself. She gripped the ice-blue chakra chains tight and pulled them back from her as if she were the rock trying to drag her over the edge.

Chiyo let her awareness expand to discover what Sakura already knew. What she'd already planned.

Sakura smirked at her as she watched the answers crash of Chiyo's face.

Their two energies were not just threaded through her body. They were wrapped in a loop around the container. They were both sealing the monster in.

Sakura took a shallow breath, ignoring the fire in her lungs, and rasped. "This is a tug-of-war that only one of will win." Sakura dared a smile in spite of the pain. "And we both know which one has an unlimited supply of chakra…."

Chiyo scowled at her.

And Sakura, with her green energy wrapped completely around Chiyo's, even through her center, could tell exactly how much the old woman had left.

It wasn't enough to save her.

"I could have just ripped the chakra out and thrown you down the hole, you know. Then the beast would have done all the rest of the work." Sakura pulled a length of pale blue chakra through her stomach, and stopped to gasp at the pain. "But if I did that, then you would die. And I may have become many things today, but I'm still a Leaf shinobi." Her energy brightened a fraction as she declared it. "I will never be a cold-blooded killer like you."

Chiyo's face was ashen. Every bit of attention was focused on her chakra.

"And perhaps if I left you with some energy inside, then you could be brought to justice."

Chiyo smirked and shook her head. "Always the medic," she panted as she pulled back on the chains. "Even now, trying to determine how to save a life." She laughed bitterly. "That's what got you here in the first place."

Sakura held her firmly. Pale and sweating now, Chiyo still didn't let go of the chains. Sakura sensed there was more—

"Tsunade's too weak to tell you so I will… It's the secret that all good medics know. Those who live long enough—" Her voice was a growl. "You don't hold life in your hands. Only death. Spare one today, kill one tomorrow. The one you heal today, will try to kill you tomorrow. It never ends. You will have to kill them all to survive."

Chiyo's hand slipped a chain, but she regripped firmly.

Sakura felt it for a trick, but it seemed there was none. The woman's energy was beginning to fade.

Chiyo repeated more emphatically, "You never get to chose who lives. Only who dies!"

Sakura wanted to laugh, but was afraid it would hurt too much. "That's ridiculous! I've never heard anyone say that—"

Life flooded back into Chiyo with her rage, burning spots on her cheeks. "Tsunade did that when she killed our teacher! How do you think she got her skills? She ripped them out of her body!" Her voice was shaky, reliving some painful memory. "Broke her body, poured our teacher's power into herself, then left an empty husk behind."

Chiyo's face was twisted with rage at the memories.

"I was there! I saw her do it! Ask her, she won't deny it!"

Sakura stared at her. She was still holding the chains, still in pain, but she was listening. She knew they had a history. And Sakura, in fact, knew next to nothing about Tsunade's past—

"Why do you think I killed her precious love," she snarled. "To make her pay!" She annunciated every word and punctuated it with vicious laugh.

Sakura blinked. She didn't know what Chiyo was talking about. But gone was the giggling, daft, harmless little old lady. Sakura realized it had been an act all along.

"But you. You— " Chiyo continued, voice dripping with cruelty. "A girl who can hold me and that at bay. A girl who is too stupid to conceal her power, just handed it over to me. And a teacher who's still too meek to educate you on the what your real value is— What real power looks like, in the hands of a true master—"

Chiyo's words hit their mark. Sakura flushed with anger, but she refused to speak, refused to take the bait. The old woman was right. Sakura had made mistakes. But she was also running out of energy.

Sakura kept her anger in check. She decided she wouldn't lash out. She wouldn't kill her or be spurred to act out of anger. Instead she would let fate do that job—

Chiyo narrowed her gaze on Sakura, appraising her. The strain was making her tremble. Sweat pricked at her brow.

"You never asked me what my specialty was." She spoke softly, conserving her remaining energy. "You only assumed it was puppets. It wasn't. It was poison."

A dangerous smile wreathed Chiyo's face. It made Sakura's hair stand up on the back of her neck.

"And I've saved my best for last." Chiyo looked like she was finally victorious. "I've poisoned you, you will never detect it. You will never know it's coming. And when you finally figure it out it will be too late."

Sakura watched her warily, but immediately discounted it. She ran back through their interactions. There was no way. There was no time. And she had never detected anything.

Chiyo's hands trembled. Her face was turning ashen, her lips fading to purple. The beast, sensing a shift in energy, rattled from its container in a last attempt to break free.

"I know what you're doing," Chiyo wheezed. "I don't even have to feel it. I know how your mind works. You know, as do I, that we both cannot live. And that I am already failing…."

Sakura watched her, not speaking, not blinking. It was true, Sakura was just waiting her out.

Chiyo tipped her chin up defiantly. "So I choose my own death. Upstart girl, you will not take that from me. But it will be worth it…."

Smile fixed in place, Chiyo looked straight into Sakura's eyes as she opened her hands. The chains ripped from Chiyo and ran through Sakura faster and faster, searing pain all the way down through Sakura's energy and back into the hole.

Sakura grimaced at the pain, but she let go too. She lifted her hands and let her chakra do what it did best. Which was nothing at all.

Every ounce of her chakra turned to water and began flowing backwards, up into her body as the heavy silver chains of energy fell down, down, down—

It was over in an instant. Chiyo's life force was sucked into the container. When there was none left, the seal on Gaara's stomach immediately closed up. Sakura's energy slammed back to her like another body colliding with hers.

She felt the fullness of every bit of her physical body in one blow, every tissue and cell, every breath and every pain.

Chiyo's body toppled over like a dead tree. Back on the ground, eyes staring up. Sakura was stunned to see her chest still moved with the shallowest of breaths.

Sakura went over to her. The woman was in pain, gasping. But there was still light in her eyes. Sakura was horrified and impressed. She must have been incredibly formidable to still be alive, after she let all her life energy flow out of her.

"Sakura of the Leaf," Chiyo rasped.

Sakura leaned in to listen, wondering if, at the end, Chiyo had some message to pass on. Sakura was not so heartless as to deny an old woman her last wish—

Chiyo's eyes locked on hers. Her hand gripped her forearm, clawing around it in the last ebb of strength—

"You are my student now."

The light in her eyes flickered out.


Author's Notes: It's Christmas where I live, so here's a little gift from me to you! Check my site (link in bio) for extended notes. Stay healthy and safe! Xoxo

Chapter notes

• "The Puppet" at first refers to Sakura being Chiyo's puppet, then flipping it to be her own body as the puppet, and then Chiyo. The puppet ends up operating the puppet master by the end. Chiyo and Sasori have ideas about control — through puppets — and Sakura turns that on its head by using their own skills against them. First with Sasori, then with Chiyo.

• There are a lot of themes in this chapter — themes of darkness and abandonment, with some of Sakura's deepest fears being exposed; themes of natural energy versus human-made containment of that energy; themes of ancient and hidden power, which open up questions about who was powerful enough to build these structures, and for what end. All these answers will point Sakura straight to one jinchuriki. ;)

• Sakura is allowing herself to think of Katsuro again (yay!), in a way that she hadn't for a long, long time. Which is bittersweet, because she still doesn't know what's happened to Katsuro (*sob*)…. More on this to come….

• Sakura levels up so many times during this chapter. She pushes her own chakra to take on a new form to get her out. She rebuilds an ancient structure that apparently many people were unable to do before her. But she uses her intuition and ability to follow the pathways of the original builder. Then she becomes a better puppet master than Chiyo by using her own body as her puppet. Then she takes out Chiyo and uses her to permanently reseal the creature that's a threat to them all. Sakura's innate ability to take what's around her and make it her own to survive really shines through her.

• The shadow side to all these gains is that Sakura has had to give up parts of herself. She's had to make herself more like Chiyo. She's knows it's to survive, but that doesn't mean there won't be long-term fallout from those choices. So much more to come!