Author's Note: New chapters every Tuesday AND Friday.
WILL OF STONE
CHAPTER ONE: "A Seething Heart"
Haruno Sakura looked down through the infrared binoculars at the walls of the distant laboratory, bored to death.
"I knew I should've brought more cookies," Chouji complained from the tree next to her.
"You brought a whole damn backpack of cookies," laughed Sakura. "Did you finish it already?"
"Ino ate half of them."
"I did not," insisted Ino. "What time is it? I've been sitting on my ass in this tree all night."
"And you'll keep sitting on it," declared Sarutobi Asuma. "This is an official and totally serious C-rank mission!"
Asuma's admonition was rather undermined by the fact that he, himself, was busy smoking a cigarette. The Leaf jounin had gone through an entire pack of the finest tobacco product in the span of the last few hours. The rising smoke might have given away their position, if anyone was watching.
It was the easiest mission that Sakura had ever been on in her life. She'd literally spent the entire night sitting in a tree and staring at the featureless metal walls of Konoha's Honjo Laboratory. They were supposed to keep track if anyone came in or out of the laboratory... but of course nobody had. At least chasing cats or cleaning streets required moving about. Ino went to pee three times just to stretch her legs and break up the monotony. Sometime past midnight Chouji fell asleep against a tree branch, before Asuma slapped him upside the head. Sakura could hardly blame him; she was half asleep herself.
As quiet as a graveyard.
She said as much to Asuma. "You could set up a video camera, you know, and get a better view. Why does Tsunade-sensei want us to spy on Konoha's own damn building, anyway?"
Asuma grinned. "Well, first of all, Sakura, you need to practice working together with your new teammates. The Iwa chuunin exam is only a month away, and I'd rather Team Asuma not... flunk out."
"Again, you mean."
"Right. Plus, the Hokage specifically requested you for this mission."
"I'm sure she'll tell you when the time is right."
That was interesting, though only mildly so. Honjo Laboratory was Konoha's most important scientific research facility. A number of secretive technologies were developed there, many of them quite dangerous—that was the reason it was based in the Forest of Death, instead of inside Konoha proper. But if Tsunade-sensei wants me to see Honjo Laboratory, why can't she give me a tour? Sakura could not quite fathom the logic.
"I wish Tsunade-sensei would give me a real mission," Sakura complained. "I haven't been anywhere since I become her apprentice, you know that?"
That was four months ago, and Sakura had gotten far stronger under the Fifth Hokage's rigorous training. But still Tsunade-sensei refused to send her on any serious missions. No real fighting. No real danger. No real stakes. This very mission, in fact, was the furthest Sakura had been away from Konoha, and she'd gotten no further than the edge of the Forest of Death. How do I prove myself, if all I'm doing is chasing cats and looking through binoculars?
Asuma shrugged. "Tsunade wants to make sure you're ready."
"I am ready," she insisted.
Honjo Laboratory exploded.
The explosion was so large that Sakura did not need the binoculars to see it. A wreath of flame covered the Forest of Death, sending plumes of smoke billowing into the night sky. Only a burning crater remained where the metal building had once stood.
"What the fuck?" Ino screamed.
An accident, Sakura thought. But in the next heartbeat she knew that she was wrong. The explosion was too large, too directed to be unplanned. No… this is...
"Bad news," said Asuma.
Trench knives were in his hands, pulsing with deadly blue-white chakra; his cigarette forgotten.
"Look!" said Sakura. Through the binoculars, she could see three shadowy figures running toward the laboratory. She could see their cloaks. Swirling red clouds over black, flapping as they ran.
Akatsuki was breaking into Honjo Laboratory.
"Code Red!" Asuma was shouting into his radio. "I repeat, Code Red!"
He hardly needed to explain the situation to headquarters. Even from inside Konoha itself the huge explosion must have been visible. No doubt teams of reinforcements were mobilizing to Honjo Laboratory as they spoke. The only question was… would the reinforcements get there in time? Or would they be too far away? If they arrived too slowly, the Akatsuki terrorists would be able to escape.
The only backup in the area was Team Asuma itself.
Asuma had come to the same conclusion. "They're going for the Annihilation Heart," he whispered, almost to himself. "Shit!" He spun to look at the genin. "Stay back, all three of you!"
"But—" started Sakura.
"Stay back! That's an order!"
Asuma leaped from their tree, running into the Forest of Death, toward the smoking laboratory. The Akatsuki terrorists had already disappeared inside. Fire from the explosion was spreading everywhere. Wild tongues of flame leapt from trunk to trunk, lighting up trees like chandeliers in the dark.
"What the hell's happening?" cried Chouji, holding his hands to his face.
More explosions came from the lab—from below the surface. From what Sakura knew about Honjo Laboratory, most of the facility was actually underground, with only a small portion visible above. Sakura watched with wide eyes, with tense muscles and a pounding heart. The easiest mission of her life had suddenly turned into something very different. If only she could see what was happening—but Asuma had ordered her to stay back. Honjo Laboratory was one of the most secure facilities in Konoha, with strong defenses and guards. If Akatsuki was successfully breaking into the lab, they must have carefully planned their strike.
And they must be very strong.
Suddenly the young kunoichi was conscious of the weight of the forehead protector she wore, and all that it represented: the symbol of her hidden ninja village, the swirling leaf of Konoha. The cold metal of the headplate pressed her skin through the cloth. This is it, she thought. This is my chance to prove my strength to Tsunade-sensei.
"Look!" said Chouji. "There's a… thing."
It was a most apt description. The thing was rising slowly from the ground in front of Honjo Laboratory.
"What the hell is that?" asked Ino.
The top of the thing cracked apart, splitting down the center, and the two halves opened up like the jaws of a gigantic Venus flytrap. Inside the jaws Sakura saw the grinning head and upper chest of a man. The man-thing's body was split down the middle, half black and half white, grotesquely misshapen. Then the rest of the thing surfaced, relatively normal—with arms and legs—wrapped in the black and red cloak of Akatsuki.
Some kind of Akatsuki freak, thought Sakura.
The thing grinned.
And began to walk toward the laboratory entrance.
"Damnit!" cursed Sakura.
Asuma had already gone inside the lab to chase the three Akatsuki terrorists they'd spied before. There was no way to warn him about the fourth terrorist, this strange plant-thing that was stalking him from behind. If things went badly Asuma would be ambushed from two sides, like meat in a sandwich, and probably finished. But what could Sakura do to help? I trained for this, she thought. I am the apprentice of Senju Tsunade the Fifth Hokage, the student of Hatake Kakashi the Perfect Ninja, the daughter of Haruno Arashi the Demonslayer.
I am a kunoichi of Konoha.
For the rest of her life, Sakura would never forget the decision she made then. It would haunt her every day for as long as she lived... and yet, for all that, it happened in a single heartbeat. And she didn't hesitate.
She leaped off the tree.
"Sakura!" cried Ino. "Asuma-sensei ordered us to stay back!"
"We've got to fight, damnit! We can't do nothing!"
She ran into the Forest of Death. Behind her Ino made a noise of disgust, but followed anyway. As did Chouji. The three genin plunged into the smoke and fire, heading toward the ruins of Honjo Laboratory.
Honjo Laboratory was a wreck of twisted metal. Through the flames and the pouring smoke, Sakura spotted dozens of dead corpses. Scientists, staff, shinobi, their bodies sprawled in pools of blood. They had been murdered by Akatsuki either in the initial explosion or afterwards, as the three Akatsuki terrorists fought their way inside. Sakura didn't know how many levels Honjo Laboratory had, but the underground complex must have been vast. The sounds of fierce fighting were still coming from below. Which way had Asuma gone? She didn't know, and there was no time to look for him. Only the Akatsuki plant-thing before them mattered, his body a dark shadow against the burning flames. She needed to distract him.
Sakura threw a clutch of kunai at the Akatsuki creature.
They sank deep into his back, like thunking into wood.
He turned, and laughed.
"Oh, my god," whispered Ino.
The thing had not even noticed her attack. "Pretty leaf-nin girl," he hissed. "So youre the one… I sssmelled…"
"Who the hell are you?" Sakura demanded.
"Dont be offended. You smelled very nisse." He licked his lips and laughed. His tongue was forked, like a snake's, and when he spread his arms, long, black thorns grew out from his palms. The thorn-swords were hideous in appearance, twisted and dripping smoking venom. The man-thing stalked toward them.
"Chouji, now!" Sakura shouted.
Akimichi Chouji leaped forward, his pudgy body spinning into his clan's Human Bullet Tank secret jutsu. Chouji had become a human-sized wrecking ball, using chakra to propel himself into a powerful and deadly spinning roll. At the same time, Sakura stretched out her palm toward the Akatsuki thing.
"Binding!" It was her best genjutsu, the strongest jutsu that Tsunade-sensei had taught her.
The thing froze in mid-step as his muscles locked up, immobilized by Sakura's illusion attack on his nervous system. He was helpless to dodge as the rolling Chouji hit him with enough force to break down a steel wall…
… except that he didn't.
Instead Chouji's Human Bullet Tank spun against the thing's body without any effect. Sakura was stunned. What kind of freak is this? In the next instant the Akatsuki shinobi had broken through Sakura's genjutsu and slashed at Chouji with his poisoned thorn sword. The force of the slash ripped through Chouji's chakra-expanded abdomen and sent him flying backwards, right into Ino and hurling them both against a burning tree.
"Shit!" Sakura cried, running over to her teammates' side. Chouji was moaning, holding his side, but Ino had been knocked unconscious. She was crumpled on the ground like a dead mouse.
"Let me introduce myself," the plant-thing laughed. "I am Zetsu, the second-in-command of Akatsuki. And you should not be out of your bed so late, little girl."
"You'll never get away with this!"
"Oh, but we already have."
It was not Zetsu's voice. Instead it was the voice of another man—a voice like a killer beast, predatory, vastly self-assured. The man was climbing out of the wreckage of Honjo Laboratory, two others following closely at his heels.
The original three Akatsuki terrorists. They wore the red and black cloaks of Akatsuki but, unexpectedly, they were also masked. Behind the black cloth that covered their faces Sakura could only see their eyes… slitted eyes glowing golden, like burning flames.
Those eyes, she recognized in shock. Only one clan in the world has those eyes.
Could it be?
The man who had spoken to her was truly massive, at least two meters in height, and built like a freight train. In his hand he wielded a katana blade, unsheathed and white-hot with smoking heat. The two other masked shinobi flanked him on either side. One of them was holding a large metal suitcase, open on hinges. There was some sort of scrollwork along the inside of the case, and in the center, a very bright, glowing thing which shimmered and throbbed and pulsed. Like a seething heart. A crystal. Sakura had never seen anything like it in her life.
"Iss that the Annihilation Heart?" asked Zetsu.
"Yes," said the masked leader. "We have upheld our end of the bargain with Akatsuki. Now you must uphold yours."
Zetsu laughed. "Of courssse."
The leader was staring at Sakura with his burning eyes. "I see you… Haruno Sakura."
She stepped back warily, gripping her kunai. "Do I know you?"
"You will." His voice changed; amused now, almost wicked. "I've heard so much about you, Sakura. You are just as beautiful as they said." The man shifted his stance, pointing the point of his smoking katana at her chest. His eyes were torches of burning gold. "But are you as strong?"
Behind him, the remains of Honjo Laboratory suddenly exploded outward, spraying rubble everywhere. A giant red-furred gorilla had burst onto the surface. And atop the shoulders of the gorilla stood a man holding two glowing trench knives.
Sarutobi Asuma grinned. "Why don't you pick on someone your own size, Sougon?"
The masked leader laughed. "Oh, did you guess my clan? And here I was wearing a mask." He shrugged. "Now I'll just have to kill you all."
Everything happened at once.
Asuma's gorilla roared and charged the four Akatsuki terrorists. The man-thing Zetsu leaped to meet him, a maze of slicing black thorns growing from his body, wrapping around the gorilla, engaging Asuma himself in hand-to-hand combat. The two masked shinobi behind the Sougon leader turned and ran away from the fighting, deeper into the forest, escaping. And the Sougon leader himself—
He charged at Sakura.
And swung his burning sword down on her head.
Sakura brought up her twin kunai to deflect the blow. The blade of the katana met the edges of her two kunai with a jarring ring, the sheer physical strength of the swing forcing her to skid backward. She stumbled backward, hitting the tree behind her.
"Too slow, Sakura," laughed the masked Sougon. "Too weak."
She tried to counterattack with an earth jutsu. "Earth Release: Sinister Spikes!" It was one of the jutsu Tsunade-sensei had taught her to practice her earth elemental affinity. Huge earthen spikes shot out from the ground in a line, straight for the masked ninja.
Sakura thought he would have to dodge the attack, giving her room to maneuver, but instead his eyes only burned—inflamed with golden power.
"Bakudan," he said.
It was a bomb indeed—a bomb that materialized out of thin air, a bomb made of nothing but superheated molecules, creating a rapid explosion at the source. Her Sinister Spikes were destroyed in a great golden explosion of heat. He used his eyes to blow up my attack. That was the terrifying bloodline power of the Sougon clan of Iwa, Sakura knew.
The power to control heat with their eyes.
"Too disappointing," said the man.
Finally, Sakura realized just how out of her league she was.
Asuma was a decorated jounin, one of the strongest shinobi in Konoha. But Ino and Chouji were totally useless. It was only Asuma and her, against these freaks. These are S-rank shinobi, and I'm just a genin. There was no way that they could win. What could she do? Where were the reinforcements from Konoha, why hadn't they arrived yet? She had made a terrible mistake leading Ino and Chouji into this death trap.
The masked Sougon leader came at her again, moving like lightning, his katana a blur of deadly fire. Sakura could barely even see his attacks, much less dodge them. In seconds she found herself on her back, the enemy standing over her. A slash came for her head—
—and Asuma's gorilla suddenly slammed its fist down on the masked Sougon. This time the masked ninja had to dodge away. Yet he counterattacked at the same time, cutting with his sword deep into Asuma's flank. Asuma grunted, falling to one knee, blood gushing down his side.
"Sakura!" Asuma shouted. "Run, get the hell out of here!"
She picked up the unconscious Ino in her arms and ran into the forest, trying to get back to Konoha. The Forest of Death had become an inferno. Orange flames slithered up ravaged trees, consuming everything in their wake. The smell of smoke filled Sakura's mouth. Now she could hear distant shouts, the sounds of explosions. A series of jutsu lit up the night sky above Honjo Laboratory.
Finally, the reinforcements from Konoha had arrived.
Sakura could not see them, but she could see their work. Zetsu's black thorns erupted from the ground in every direction, shooting up into the air, black thorns spiraling in a great twisting web. At the same time a gigantic white banyan tree burst out above the canopy, ten stories high, the branches hard and white as polished bone. The web of black thorns wrapped around the tree like a thousand chains, trying to constrict it, slice it apart. The tree fought back, branches sprouting out as fast as they could be cut. There was an ear splitting hissing and screeching, and the earth shook.
That's Yamato's jutsu, she knew. The leader of ANBU Squad 1 had arrived, among other leaf-nin teams.
The trunk of the white banyan tree glowed red for a split second, like it was being superheated from the inside. Then it violently exploded.
A second later the trunkless crown of the tree also detonated, exploding like an over-pressurized furnace. The roaring shockwave was so massive that it blasted Sakura forward in the air, though she was nowhere close to the source. She almost dropped Ino, but managed to catch herself on the hanging branches of a nearby tree. Then she was running away as fast as she could, jumping from tree to tree. She did not stop until she had run out of breath. Then she looked back.
A tall white stump jutted up from the earth, like a dead statue with its body cut off. Above it, where the tree had been, there was a haze of shimmering steam the color of gold…
The air in front of her exploded.
The attack just narrowly missed. She staggered back, looking about her frantically. She saw him just in time. The hulking Sougon leader stood on a burning branch above her, his bloody katana in one hand, his palm outstretched in the other. Evidently the Sougon leader had decided to chase her. She could see the inflamed network of blood vessels coiled around his golden pupils.
"Don't you have some escaping to do?" she shouted at him.
He laughed. "I'm taking the scenic detour."
"Oh, believe me, if I meant to kill you, you would already be dead."
His eyes shimmered gold—
Sakura leapt to the side. The branch she had been standing on exploded. The man's eyes glowed again. She dodged the explosion again. Again. Over and over, forcing her to run for her life. Sakura knew the man was toying with her. He can kill me whenever he wants. She was cornered, and Ino's deadweight was slowing her down. What could she do to turn the tide?
"Sakura! Stay back!"
It was Yamato, the ANBU Captain. Two other members of his elite ANBU Squad 1 followed him. Pug, the wisecracking young shinobi. And Rhino, a fierce bull of a man. The three ANBU fell upon the masked Sougon shinobi as one, attacking with precision and power.
Yet even they were not enough. The mysterious Sougon leader beat them all back, his katana a whirling blur of fire and ice. A chain of Bakudan explosions forced the three ANBU away from him. Rhino cried out in pain as one Bakudan blast seared his leg. Yamato had disappeared beneath a haze of smoke. Fire was everywhere.
Sakura could see only Pug in the confusion of the battle. Pug ran toward her, his carved ANBU mask flashing red in the forest flames. A bulldog with its teeth bared. "You shouldn't be here. This guy is an S-rank enemy. Come with me!"
He was too late.
When they tried to run the air exploded around them, trapping them, forcing them down into a small clearing. Something hit Sakura hard in the chest. She flew back into a tree trunk and cried out in pain, falling, crashing to the forest floor. Ino had tumbled from her arms. On her hands and knees in the dirt, dazed, Sakura could barely manage to raise her head to see her attacker. The man was silhouetted black against the burning forest.
He stretched out the palm of his hand toward her, and then his eyes were golden flames.
"Bakudan," the man said.
The explosion was blinding.
But Sakura was not dead.
She had been shoved to the side at the last moment.
Instead it was the ANBU Pug that exploded. Pug's body erupted in an inferno of golden flame, a bloody storm of skin and limbs and guts. What remained of Pug's head rolled into Sakura's hands. The ANBU mask had shattered in the heat. Half the young ANBU's face remained, the flesh burned off, unrecognizable except for one deep blue eye.
"Pug!" Sakura screamed.
The masked Sougon laughed. "That's one ape down." He stepped toward Sakura.
Sakura threw a kunai at him, weakly, clumsily. The man swatted it away with the back of his hand, like a fly. "You stupid ape. Do you think those little daggers can hurt me?" Sakura flung more kunai anyway. The man laughed. "You disappoint me, Haruno Sakura. You're far too weak to challenge me. And to think I thought you might be the one."
"Fuck you!" Sakura screamed.
"Well, if you insist."
Just then Yamato and Rhino returned. They leapt into the clearing to defend Sakura, throwing deadly jutsu at the masked Sougon. And not just them; more leaf-nins were arriving by the second, a whole squadron of them, the bulk of the reinforcements from Konoha. And this time the Sougon leader knew that he was outmatched. An inferno of fire exploded around his body, covering his tracks.
When the smoke cleared, the mysterious shinobi was gone.
Sakura leaned back against the tree, exhausted, gasping for air and clutching her stinging ribs. Her entire body was covered in blood and guts from the exploded Pug. Thick hot blood washed over her, spraying all over her arms and body and face. Pug's decapitated head was in her hands, somehow. Pug's one remaining eye was still open, bright robin blue, frozen, staring blankly at the night sky.
He looked so young.
"Fuck!" Rhino shouted in rage and pain. "That Sougon bastard—he—"
"He's gone," said Yamato in a flat voice, his face hidden behind his ANBU mask.
More leaf-nins streamed into the clearing. Among them was the ANBU Saint, also of Squad 1. Saint was holding half of a blasted metal case, torn in half at the hinges. The glowing crystal Sakura had seen before was gone, obviously stolen away. The battle was over and the attackers had escaped.
"Sakura!" a voice cried.
It was Chouji, carrying the bloody, limp body of Sarutobi Asuma in his arms.
"Asuma-sensei—he got hit by that Bakudan thing, he's hurt bad—we've got to get him to the hospital right away, or…"
My god, Sakura thought. The easiest mission in her life had gone to complete shit in what seemed like only minutes. The attack on Honjo Laboratory. The escape of the Akatsuki terrorists. Asuma-sama's critical injuries. And the ANBU Pug… he'd died saving her life. Pug had been blown to smithereens by a masked shinobi far more powerful than her. Because she'd thought she was strong, strong enough be the hero and save the day, but all she was good for was being rescued by a better man, once again.
Stay back, Asuma-sama had told her. That's an order!
"I'm sorry," Sakura whispered.
The ANBU stared at her. The other leaf-nins stared at her. Chouji looked away.
None of them said anything.
Next: CHAPTER TWO: "In the Looking Glass"