Title: Across The Hallowed Ground (2/7)
Characters: Shisui, Itachi, and others.
Summary: In the wake of an attack on the Academy, an order was issued for all the students to evacuate to the countryside. One group never made it to their destination.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi.
Across The Hallowed Ground
Part II: Hunters
The sun was just beginning to dip below the tree line when Shisui woke. He blinked a few times to rid himself of the muddled traces of sleep, and took a quick survey of his surroundings. Through the resinous shadow, he could just barely make out the shapes of trees and rocks—though being twenty feet above the ground helped a bit.
After a moment to reorient, Shisui leapt out of the tree. He had walked most of the previous night and the following morning, taking the mountain path that the Third Year's instructor had mentioned, and had reached his limit around noon. It would be dawn before he needed sleep again. There was a small spring a little way back if he remembered correctly: a cool drink, something to eat, and then it was back on the trail.
He'd barely taken two steps when four dark shapes dropped out of the sky, and Shisui found himself surrounded.
"Hey kid," said one of the new arrivals. "Where're you going?"
The other three men moved in to tighten the circle, menace evident in their steps. Who were they? Bandits? Enemy troops? Definitely ninjas, but even in this grudging light, Shisui could tell that the four men wore no allegiant insignia. Could they be deserters? Missing-Nin?
Any way you sliced it, this was really bad news.
Thinking quickly, Shisui drew himself up and said calmly, "Back to my team. I snuck off for a nap, but now I got to get back before sensei comes looking for me."
He didn't expect that to fly, but his lie did manage to throw his stalkers long enough for him to grab two smoke bombs from his pouch and hurl them at the ground. Through the rising smoke, he launched himself forward, and tried to dart between two of the men, but one of them noticed him at the last minute and moved to block his path. Shisui ducked quickly before he could be grabbed, and drove a kunai into the man's side, right up between two ribs, grounding it in as far as he could. He rolled away as the shinobi heaved forward, retching in pain, and jumped immediately to his feet, ready to break into a run—
—but he wasn't fast enough. Shisui felt the breath choked out of him as his body was jerked roughly backward. One of the attackers had caught him by the back of his jacket. He picked Shisui up clean off the ground and slammed his head into a tree.
His temple hit the bark with a sickening crack. He blacked out.
When Shisui opened his eyes again, his hands and legs were tied. The side of his head ached something monstrous. He shook it tentatively, and the world seemed to reorient itself.
He was lying sideway on the ground, shrimped up against a tree with a gnarly root of some kind poking into his back. It was dark, though Shisui knew he couldn't have been out for very long. As his eyes adjusted, he saw his attackers sitting in a circle around a fire, eating dinner and speaking in low voices among themselves. None of them had yet noticed that he had regained consciousness. The smell of cooked food drifted into his nostrils, making his stomach twist.
He darted his eyes around for his belongings. His rucksack was sitting at one of the men's feet, his weapon pouch piled on top of it. They looked, for the most part, unmolested. Shisui gave his wrist an experimental turn, and felt the rope bite into his skin. The knot was sturdy, but simple—he would be able to undo it given time and motivation.
"What're we going to do with the brat?" one of the men said.
"Sell 'im," another grunted. "We're heading west. They do all sorts of kinjutsu experiments in Kusa, there's a pretty high demand for… live test subjects. Know what I mean?"
There was a loud chorus of laughter. Shisui bit his lip to force the dizziness away, and went back to work on his restraints with renewed fervor. Motivation didn't get much better than that.
At this point, Shisui became aware that one of the rogues was staring straight at him. He froze, spine stiffening as their eyes met over the crackling fire. The man's bare torso was wrapped in bandages, and Shisui realized that this must be the one had stabbed earlier during his attempted flight. He had a tattoo of a wolf on his neck done by someone who had some very weird notions about what wolves looked like. There was something in the man's beady eyes that made Shisui vaguely nervous.
"He's awake," the injured man said, jerking his head in Shisui's direction.
"So?" asked one of his companions.
"The little shit stabbed me," the first man grumbled. He brought his thumb to his lips and flicked out his tongue to lick it. "I gotta teach him a lesson."
The other man pulled a face. "Fuck you and your disgusting habits, man. Take him behind those trees if you're gonna do it, none of us here want to watch that shit."
What was that all about? What were they planning to do to him?
The man with the tattoo rose to his feet, moving in the slow, labored way of a person compressed by pain. He pulled out a knife, and made his way toward Shisui. Crap. He had to work faster to loosen the knot. Almost got it. Almost—
The knife sliced through the rope binding Shisui's ankles, narrowly missing his skin. The man was crouching over him, looking down at Shisui with that same fevered expression that suggested hunger. Up close, the skin of his face looked dark and leathery, marred by several streaks of whitish scars. Eyes black, twitchy like an epileptic rat.
"Stand up," he ordered. When Shisui failed to comply, the man pointed the knife in his face and repeated his command, voice low and loaded with malice. "Stand up."
Shisui struggled upright, stretching his legs a few times to shake out the numbness that had settled into the muscles. He had managed to undo most of the knot, but had to hold the coil of rope in place to avoid suspicion. The man walked him into the grove of trees, the knife held to Shisui's back. Maybe once they were far enough in the woods he could try to make a dash for it.
A hard, sudden shove between the shoulderblades sent Shisui tripping face-first into the duff. He barely had time to spit dead leaves out of his mouth when his captor was upon him, one large hand splayed over the back of his head to force him down. His breath felt hot on the back of Shisui's neck. Something was going to happen to him—be done to him—and he didn't know what but sheer panic rushed up his throat like surging vomit anyway. His face was still smushed to the ground and he could barely breathe, his nose crushed and suffused with the damp, loamy smell of the forest soil. He couldn't turn his head or move and he was going to die.
The rank gusts of breath were still on his neck, scattering strands of hair, and they were growing shallow and ragged in a way that made Shisui want to recoil, curl in on himself and get as far away as possible. And then his shirt was being lifted—the cold air made goosebumps mushroom wildly across his clammy skin, but not nearly as much as the rough palm that was sliding up his back, lingering nauseatingly at the indented spot just above his waist. Fingers tugged at the band of his shorts, blunt nails scraping his frightened skin. No one had ever touched him in this horrible way before. No one should be allowed. Something very bad was about to happen and he wanted to turn his head and throw up—
—and that was when Shisui remembered, through the suffocation and haze of panic, that his hands were free and that he'd been trained to fight. He drew in his elbow with all his strength and swung it backward in a blind arc.
Miraculously, it made contact: his attacker yelped and reared back instinctively, clutching his bleeding nose. Shisui twisted around, and taking aim, sent a vicious kick straight into the man's injured side. He scrambled way quickly, shrugged off the rope, and began clawing out seals as fast as he could. Snake. Ram. Boar.
The man had recovered and was rising to his feet. He wiped his mouth, and picked up the knife, a dark fury twisting his already-hideous visage into something terrible, demonic. Shisui's pulse was running sprints in his ears, faster, faster, he was running out of time. Monkey. Horse. Tige—
The fireball hit his assailant full in the face just as he was about to launch himself at Shisui. The man howled in unimaginable agony as the flame engulfed him, and continued to scream for a long time, the high-pitched sound almost inhuman, rending the stillness of the night. The fire went out almost immediately but his clothes and hair were still burning, the top of his head a crown of ashy, blackened wisps, aflame. One eye was welded shut, the other scorched and rolling into his skull, caked with mucus, mired in the sooty creases of the eyelids. Traumatized skin giving off a gut-souring stench—but now his screams of pain had drawn the attention of the other three. Voices sounded in the clearing, they were coming.
Sharp panic shot through Shisui's paralyzed mind. He had to get away but there was no way he could outrun them, no way to escape, and without thinking his fingers came together again in another seal and all he could think was, Away, away, get me away from here…
And suddenly his ears were filled with a whoosh of wind, and for a fleeting instant his body felt light and formless, melting into the air itself. When he was solid and anchored again, Shisui found himself thirty feet above the ground, and had to quickly grab the trunk of the tree to keep from falling to his death. His mind reeled with shock and triumph—he'd spent for-friggin'-ever practicing that technique, but it had never worked this well before.
Shisui braced his feet on the branch for purchase, and peered down at the three shinobi, clustered around the burnt man and shouting angrily at each other. The air still soaked in plumes of coagulated smoke. He drew back into the shadow. They were searching for him on the ground, but it was only a matter of time before his location was found out. He had to get out of here now.
His supplies. Without them, he had no hope of making this journey, and while he could do without most of the stuff, he couldn't part with his weapons or Hana's bracelet—the Seal. There was no other choice. He had to go back for them. Maybe he could pull it off. The distance wasn't that great…
Taking a deep breath, Shisui formed the seal, and narrowed all his thoughts into a small, dark corner of his mind. There was a roar of wind in his ears, freezing on his cheeks, and then his body slammed into the dusty ground with enough force to knock the breath out of his chest. With relief, Shisui realized that he'd just barely avoided rocketing straight into the campfire, which would have been nicely ironic. Definitely needed to work on his navigation, but no time for that—he dove for his rucksack, and struggled to pull the straps over his arms. He grabbed his weapon pouch, and looked up in time to see one of the rogues raising a kunai, taking aim…
The blade sliced through the air, nailing into the ground with a loud thud mere seconds after Shisui vanished from reality.
Shisui ran. One leap after another. Pop. Reappear. Pop. Reappear. Here for one moment and gone again, his blood singing a hungry, primitive chant with neither melody nor cadence.
He tried to keep up the jutsu for as long as he could, and when his strength bottomed out and he went sprawling in the dirt, picked himself up and kept on running, legs pistoning under him so rapidly the muscles screamed and threatened to tear. He flew blindly through the threadbare wood, cruel lashes of wind nipping his face, until his foot rammed into a protruding root and his body went tumbling, down and down a long slope stubbled with shrubs and jagged stones.
Luckily, a pile of mulch broke his fall. Shisui lay flat on his back in the sludge and tried to catch his breath, staring up into the sky above, where drab clouds gathered in tangled skeins across a moonless canopy. Dead leaves squelching with moisture. Branches everywhere. The air still as death: breath-puffs faint, ghostly white.
His heart still thumping, Shisui pulled his battered body to a sitting position. He listened warily, but the only sounds in the bitter dark were the distant cries of night birds. There was no telling where he was or how far he'd run, but it seemed that his former captors were not giving chase. Nevertheless, he crawled to a base of a large tree and tried to shield himself as best as possible in its embrace. His legs scraped and quaking—he was freezing, but couldn't risk starting a fire.
The shakes did not go away. Instead, they appeared to be getting worse by the moment, wracking his entire body. Fractured sobs were fighting their way up his throat, hot, humiliating tears streaming down his face. He scrubbed at his cheeks furiously, clawing his aching eyes in ineffectual swipes. Stop crying, idiot. Stop crying right now or I'll kill you. Get it under control.
He got it under control.
First, strap weapon pouch back on.
Then, check belongings to make sure nothing was missing.
He groped blindly through his rucksack, and only breathed easily again when he found everything still in its place. His fingers brushed the worn goatskin of the Living Seal, and he closed his grip upon it tightly, feeling a solid blockade lifting out of his chest. Couldn't lose this. It was more important than anything, than his life. He placed the Seal carefully back into its compartment, and felt something sharp poke his finger.
Hana's heirloom bracelet. Shisui pulled it out and dangled it in front of his face. "Hey, aren't you supposed to bring good luck?" he said mockingly. "Because I could really use some right now, you useless piece of crap."
Then he looked up into a pair of piercing amber eyes.
How the wolf—mountain dog?—had snuck up on him, Shisui had no idea, but that didn't change the fact that it was there, right there, long snout inches from his nose. He froze in shock, hands falling slack to his sides. It didn't even occur to him to draw a weapon.
Was this how he was going to die? Mauled to death by a friggin' wolf? This was so unfair. He'd come this far, gone through all kinds of horrible things, and now he was going to end up being premium canine chow. Some good luck charm.
The wolf hadn't moved from its position. It was still staring at him with those pale, glittering eyes, like it was assessing Shisui—only that was crazy and ridiculous and completely impossible. Then again, he wasn't even sure this animal was a wolf. Normal wolves, to his best knowledge, weren't pale blue. Or the size of a small tiger. Or faintly glowing at the edges.
Maybe I'm dreaming, Shisui thought frantically. Excessive amounts of adrenaline went to your brain and made you hallucinate. Obviously, he had gone temporarily insane. That probably happened a lot to people who'd narrowly escaped death.
The very, very blue wolf tilted its head, and took a small step forward. Shisui flinched—hallucination or not, it was still very big, and probably had correspondingly big teeth—but his terror changed to surprise when the great animal lowered its body and began licking the cuts and scrapes on his bare knees and calves. For a figment of imagination, it had a strangely realistic tongue, very wet and warm, a little rough on the skin. Scratchy. Huh.
After a moment, the wolf lifted its head, and applied itself to licking Shisui's face, running its warm tongue over all the scratches left by rocks and twigs, the throbbing bruise on the side of his head. This done, it dropped onto its powerful haunches and carefully placed its head on Shisui's shoulder, nudging his head lightly as though dropping an unsubtle hint.
It was as close to a comforting touch as he could remember receiving in days, so Shisui threw away the rest of his rationality and wrapped his tired arm around the wolf's neck, burying his face into its taut shoulder. Hallucinations had body heat? That was one for the book. He closed his eyes, let his breathing even out. The wolf made a rumbling noise in its throat, and nuzzled Shisui lightly with its wet nose, pressing in closer to shield his body from the iron cold.
The wind was picking up. It raked frosty fingers through the leaves, sending them twirling. A flash of lightning flared, and thunder could be heard trundling in the east. Imminent rain.
Shisui raised his fingers tentatively, and scratched the back of an alert ear. "So I know you're not real or anything," he whispered into warm fur. "But do you happen to know some place I can crash for the night without getting rained to death?"
The wolf made a low noise again, and lifted itself gracefully to its feet. It turned, and began to walk away. A sense of desolation overtook Shisui, but then the wolf looked at him over its shoulder and beckoned with its head. Evidently asking him to follow. This entire adventure was ill-advised enough without following supernatural manifestations into some unknown depth of these dark, sinister woods—but hey, what was one more act of insanity?
The air chilled steadily as they made their way through the dense trees. The wolf kept to a sure, unhurried pace. It seemed to know exactly where it was going, and felt no need to arrive there with any urgency, which was more than could be said for Shisui. Incorporeal beasts might not mind being rained on, but he certainly couldn't afford a spontaneous case of onset pneumonia.
After what seemed a very long while, the trees sparsed out. The scent of flowering briar filled Shisui's nose, sweet and powdery, and he gazed with awe at a huge camphor tree, soaring majestically up over him into the sky, the dome of its thick leaves roofing the entire clearing. The wolf trotted through the briar patch, and beckoned to Shisui again. Using its snout, it shifted aside a curtain of moss, revealing a hollow in the base of the great tree.
Gratefully, Shisui crawled forward, going as deeply as he could into the dark tunnel, which weirdly seemed to go on forever. The narrow corridor was suspiciously free of slime, carpeted with a thin layer of dry grass. The moss curtain rustled. The wolf had followed him into the tree hollow, which against all reason managed to accommodate its large frame with ease. It curled up near the entrance, and blinked at him with those large, glowing eyes.
I'm here. Don't be afraid.
My craziness is just beyond hope, Shisui thought, but dismissed the thought when exhaustion crested and shook him all over, sucking him under its sweep. Yawns threatening to shatter his jaw, he unpacked his camping blanket and wrapped it securely around himself. He settled down beside his otherworldly guardian, and curled in as close as he dared.
Outside, the storm was raging like nobody's business, rain pouring down in tiny waterfalls, pattering with increasing intensity. Shisui closed his eyes and fell asleep to that heavy, earth-steady rhythm, his dreams absent of nightmares.
Sunlight on his face, soft and gauzy, sieved through a thin green curtain. Birdsong. The air rain-washed and fresh, a clean, sharp scent like new winter, and for a moment Shisui had absolutely no idea where he was or how he had gotten there. He remembered being captured—a faint chill touched the back of his neck, which he ignored. Then he had escaped by virtue of pure awesomeness, and after that… there'd been a really big tree, and then this hollow where he'd evidently spent the night. Everything else was a blur.
When he was ready, Shisui parted the moss covering carefully and peeked outside. There was no one around. He stepped out into the sobering morning, and something at his feet caught his eyes.
A single pawprint was imprinted in the soft, damp earth. It was big enough to fit his entire foot.
Couldn't think about that now. If he did, he'd lose his mind for good.
It turned out to Shisui's relief that he wasn't as far from the main trail as he'd feared. By some stroke of luck or act of divine intervention or something, he had also gone in mostly the right direction. Despite the ordeal of the previous day, Shisui felt rested, full of renewed strength and confidence. The day was dewy and clear, deceptively gorgeous for October. From here, he'd have to be more careful, take advantage of daylight hours, walk nonstop until he reached his destination if he had to. Still, it was comforting to know that you had at least one card up your sleeve to get you out of a tight spot.
Mid-afternoon saw the end of the road. Shisui came down from the mountain, and found himself in a lush valley. About half a mile ahead, he smelled woodsmoke—cooking fires—and came upon a small encampment of what turned out to be refugees from the Fire Country. Happy to be among his countrymen again, he merged into the colony and weaved through the medley of tents, hoping against hope to find the First Year party among them, or at least someone who had seen them around.
Evening fell, and all the positive energy he had accumulated in the last two days seemed to fade with the sunlight. It took all the dignity he possessed not to fold up his arms and hide his head behind them. He compromised by placing his chin on top of them instead.
"What's your damage, kid? Looking at your long face's killing my appetite."
Shisui looked up sullenly into the face of the Leaf Chuunin he had sort of barnacled himself to in a bid to gather information. The young man—Benkei, his parents must have been in a mean mood—was part of the team charged with guarding the refugees. He was big and red-cheeked and extremely talky, which was good because it meant Benkei was very willing to dispense whatever insider's knowledge he possessed. Bad, because the insider's knowledge he possessed had nothing to do with Shisui's mission. Worse, because the man just couldn't take a hint.
"What'd you say your name was again?"
"What was that?"
"Hiroshi," Shisui said, lifting his head. "Sorry, just busy thinking."
Benkei shot him an amused look. "You do that a lot?" he said, and cackled like this was the height of grand comedy. Shisui wanted to bury his entire face.
"So you were saying something," he said deliberately. "Something about Kumo occupying some place? Where's that?"
"It's this little village on the edge of the county," said Benkei. "Just a couple miles from here, actually. Tiny place, maybe one-fifty in population tops, mostly civilians." His expression darkened abruptly. "I don't think too many of them made it out in time."
Shisui swallowed hard to get rid of the lump in his throat. "Why are those Kumo guys even staying there? Their village's losing, shouldn't they be trying to get out too?"
"They probably want that too," Benkei said cryptically. He took two roasted corns off the fire, and handed one to Shisui. "Kind of hard, though, with our ANBU pressing in from this front, and the forest to their back."
"What's wrong with the forest?"
"What's wrong with the forest? That's where it is."
Shisui blinked. "It?"
"The demon fox, of course."
"That's a real thing?"
Benkei stared at him in stark bafflement, clearly offended by Shisui's skepticism. "Excuse my language, but where the hell have you been, kiddo?"
"On the run."
"Are your parents shinobi?" Benkei asked.
"Uh, no," Shisui demurred. "My mom's dead, and my dad is a—fruit-seller."
One lie plus one truth and a half wasn't bad. His dad certainly talked about the virtues of fresh fruit in a balanced organic diet often enough to outsmarm a real salesman, anyway.
Benkei made a frustrated noise, like this was exactly the kind of thing he'd expect from a fruit-seller's son, which made Shisui feel a bit insulted on behalf of fruit-sellers everywhere.
"The demon fox is most certainly a real thing. Don't let any of the other guys hear what you just said, okay? Some of them still have friends and family out there fighting—and let me tell you, it's bad."
"How bad?" Shisui asked.
"Bad," Benkei said seriously. "It took out an entire district of our village on its first appearance, and then just—vanished. That's the worst thing: you just never know when it'll pop out of the ground again. It's only been three days, and the casualty—oh, and supposedly, it lives in the forest, so do you even have to ask why nobody dares to go in there?"
"Okay," Shisui mumbled. Like he had time to be worrying about this mythical mumbo-jumbo now. Why was he even talking to this guy? This was the epitome of stupid.
Benkei tilted his head to the sky, suddenly philosophical. "Half a decade of war, and just when things are starting to settle down, some demon comes along and goes on a rampage. I keep telling people, the gods must really hate ninjas, 'cause they sure don't seem to want us around."
Bet people just love hearing that, Shisui thought, and lifted his eyes to the sky as well. His mind held no demon-tinted thoughts. In this moment, the road felt endless, the distance unbreachable.
"Are you here by yourself or something?" Benkei asked, sounding perplexed. "Your father isn't accompanying you?"
"No," Shisui said blandly, gnawing on his roasted corn. "He wanted to stay behind to—man the family's shop. My old man's all into his job like that."
"People these days," Benkei muttered. He gave Shisui another skewer of corn, and a painfully earnest smile. "Well, you stick close to me, okay? It's really easy to get lost in all this madness. You don't want to get left behind, little buddy."
"Sure," Shisui said slowly. Strangers with this degree of earnestness made him super awkward.
Benkei jumped to his feet and wiped his hands on his pants. "I have to go patrol. Help yourself to the food, and then get some sleep. We're heading out early tomorrow."
Shisui nodded, and forced a reciprocating smile that felt more than a little wobbly. Oh, he was heading out early tomorrow alright. For a moment, he felt a bit sorry for Benkei, who would probably freak out a little when he found out that his new charge had disappeared on his watch. Hopefully he'd get over it—and not hold it against Shisui too much for making off with a good chunk of his rations.
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