Title: Dreaming of Sunshine

Summary: Life as a ninja. It starts with confusion and terror and doesn't get any better from there. OC Self-insert.

AN: Yeah, I know this one took a while. I got stuck, and it expanded in weird places and I don't even know.

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Chapter 69

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Let's follow the sun until the shadows fade

Cross the desert till we find our place

Think of where you're going not where you've come from

Just lift your eyes and follow the sun

~ Evermore; Follow The Sun

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"Wake up!"

I rolled to my feet, disorientated, but hands going for my kunai automatically. I felt gritty and tired- that brief nap had not nearly been long enough – but snapped to awareness sharply at the tone of Naruto's voice.

There was only a brief moment to assess the situation; incoming enemies, one of the Gelel warriors (Fugai?) and at least two squads of golems, too close, I could hear the music that seemed to mean Gelel, before there was a rush of chakra and an ear splitting howl.

Compressed air blasted at us, slamming into our little camp. Naruto took the worst of it, standing defensively between us and them. He was thrown back, slamming violently into the ground. I was just caught in the edges of the attack, but even being clipped by it was bad enough. I was spun around, tripping with more vertigo than the physical reality should have induced.

Like Dosu's Melody Arm, I thought. Not that it helped. This was… not good.

We'd handled Temujin and his three okay, but that had been with the element of surprise on our side and in broad daylight. Twice that number without visuals would be a different prospect. Being a Nara didn't give us any special abilities to see in the dark, and without light we couldn't even use our shadow jutsu.

I squeezed my eyes shut against the nausea – it was too dark to see, anyway – and focused on my chakra sense. The kunai I threw clattered against metal but I doubted the hit had done much damage. With the golems being what they were, minor damage alone wouldn't be enough anyway, we'd have to find some way to restrain them or destroy them.

The golems were spreading out, clearly intending to circle around and trap us. I didn't know if they could see in the dark, or if they sensed in some other way. They'd clearly been able to navigate well enough to find us.

"Where is it?" A voice snarled out of the darkness. Yes, that was Fugai. We'd done what we could to lay false trails and shake them off – keeping to the tree tops, running up a river or two – but clearly it hadn't been enough.

She might have been talking about the mine – their ultimate goal – but there was no reason to believe that we would know its location. And we hadn't seriously countered them in any way, not enough to send that kind of force after us. So that meant that she was asking after the book, and that it was even more important than I had thought. And I had the inkling that it was very important indeed.

"What are you talking about?" Naruto shouted back. He sounded woozy, and I could hear the short shuffling steps he was taking as he staggered.

There was no response, just another dizzying howl that sent us scrambling back, then a sense of movement as they closed the gap too us. I yelped as something slammed into me – staff? Mace? They had all carried maces last time – and rolled across the ground. Just because I could vaguely tell where they were, didn't mean I knew what they were doing or how to fight them. Then again, the others didn't have even that advantage. Shikamaru cursed, and I knew he was thinking about retreat, but there wasn't going to be anywhere to retreat to.

"You thought you could run from me?" Fugai snarled. "Come on, children! Let me see your 'power'." She howled, this attack a more focused blast of air. I felt the ground heave, and a scatter of dirt and rocks across my side as particles were thrown into the air. A rock the size of a fist clipped my shoulder; another hit I hadn't been able to see coming.

This wasn't going to work.

"That's all this is about for you, isn't it?" Naruto snarled, sounding angry. "Power? You don't even care about all the people that you've hurt."

"Sacrifices for the cause," Fugai tossed back.

"Shadow Clone Jutsu!" Naruto cried, and the sound of scuffling intensified exponentially. There was too much noise to pick targets out by sound. I knocked into one of the clones and was nearly belted for it.

"'Kako! Throw up a flare!" Shikamaru ordered.

That would give us a few seconds of light, but it would utterly destroy any kind of night vision we currently had going. A few seconds might not have been enough.

My hand went for my pouch and tags automatically, then paused and redirected. I couldn't form a lasting flare, taking something unstable and forcing it to hold, but I didn't need to because someone else had already done it.

I pulled the thin cylinder from the inner pocket of my jacket and activated it.

Zshooom

The legendary Sword of the Thunder God. Also useful as a torch, I thought with a hint of amusement.

There was a split seconds pause, as everyone adjusted to the change in situation, the steady thrum of the lightsaber almost blinding after the sheer darkness of before. I swung it, and the shadows danced, slicing the blade easily into the heavy armour of the nearest golem.

"Good thinking," Shikamaru said, and the shadows at our feet roiled.

"That's more like it!" One of the Naruto's crowed gleefully, leaping forward. His fist impacted with a heavy thud, leaving a nice dent in its wake.

I wasn't exactly trained at kenjutsu, but I was familiar with kunai use and fighting in general, so I could improvise. If I focused the lightsaber to a cutting edge, rather than to shock, its ability to slice easily through the golems more than made up for my own inexperience with using it.

The fact that Shikamaru was basically setting them up for me to take out also probably had something to do with it.

Fugai, from what I could make out in between focusing on my own opponents, was being occupied by Naruto. Her fighting style was rough and crude – much like his actually – but she had the speed and reflexes to make it work. Every time she drew in breath for one of those terrible howls, Naruto was up in her face, making her twist around and swallow it back down.

"People are only strong when they have something precious to protect," he quoted at her. "You think that just finding some stones is going to make you better?"

She laughed derisively. "You know nothing. Those stones are the foundation for our utopia. With them, no one will be able to stop us."

"I'll stop you!" Naruto said. He didn't shout it, just said it with a sort of quiet determination that was much more compelling. Blue chakra started gathering in his hand and a clone stepped forward to help him mold the Rasengan.

I twisted, carving through the chest of a golem that was held in place by Shikamaru's shadows. The pieces fell apart, the light fading from its eyes and leaving it inert. Another one struggled, Shadow Stitching Jutsu piercing both hands and feet and pinning it in place, and I swung again, barely feeling the resistance against my blade.

Naruto slammed the Rasengan into Fugai, drilling through her chest plate with a wail of rending metal, and she was thrown backwards into the dirt.

I lifted the lightsaber higher, letting the light still and illuminate the clearing cleanly. Shikamaru was kneeling behind me, one knee in the dirt, but his hands were clasped firmly in a rat seal and I could hardly argue with his results. The place looked like a mass grave, with the massive, toppled bodies everywhere, rent apart in ways that weren't always clean. There were the ones I had hacked apart with the lightsaber, the ones Naruto and his clones and simply pummeled out of shape, and at least one that had been punctured repeatedly with Shadow Stitching Jutsu until the life faded from it.

There were two of them left, and I hoped with the death of their leader, that they would retreat.

Shadows rippled across Fugai's body, and for a second I thought it was just an illusion – the light from the Sword of the Thunder God wasn't completely even, it was still compressed lightning – but her hand twitched, curling in the dirt and tensing so hard a shudder rocked across her entire body. Then her skin rippled and bulged, muscles underneath shifting beyond what was human, her entire structure reshaping itself.

The song that I equated with Gelel surged, not louder exactly but more present, maybe changing in tempo, in pitch, something, so I couldn't help but notice.

When she stood, she looked like a wolf. Well, not completely. Half way. A half wolf. A werewolf. Damn it.

"Hey!" Naruto objected. "That's- You work for Orochimaru!" It wasn't much of a leap to equate her transformation with the curse seal, or with whatever potion that Mizuki had cooked up, but I wasn't sure it was actually an accurate assumption.

"The only one I serve is Haido-sama!" Fugai snarled back at him. "He's the one who will lead us into a new era! He is our lord, our master, and I will not let you foil his plans!"

"And I won't let you hurt any more people!" Naruto shouted back, launching himself at her.

She breathed in again and this time when she howled the whole world seemed to toss like the sea in a storm. It was vertigo, but there was no genjutsu to cancel and I staggered and fell, unable to stay upright. My ears were ringing in more ways than one, and the lightsaber dropped from my nerveless fingers, plunging us back into darkness. I retched, trying to frantically scrabble for it, trying to get the light we needed back. The night seemed so much darker now, after having been illuminated, heavy and oppressive.

Where is it? Where is it?

My fingers raked up dirt and only dirt. I was having trouble telling up from down, my mouth tasted of sour stomach acid, there were still enemies about, and I couldn't find our light.

I gathered chakra to my hand, enough to give a blue ghostly light. It wasn't much, just enough to throw outlines into focus, and I scanned the ground. There!

I reached out –

- and a heavy armored foot slammed down on my hand, targeting the light. Pain surged up my arm like fire and a high pitched whine escaped my mouth. I tugged futilely as my hand was ground down into the dirt, something cracking ominously, but it was stuck. The pain was disrupting my chakra, and without my hand I couldn't form seals anyway. Instead, I curled forwards, over it – just in time to miss the end of the staff that plunged into the ground where my head had been – my other hand bracing against the ground and kicked upwards, foot clanging into a metal chin. I kicked again, levering the golem up and back just enough to pull my hand free and rolled out of the way.

I panted, cradling my hand to my chest. Adrenaline roared furious in my veins, battling the spikey waves of pain. Naruto and Fugai's chakra were closely intertwined, and Shikamaru's was moving unpredictably to my left with the last of the golems, so there would be no immediate help from them. I needed to get the light back.

Truthfully, I was more worried about Shikamaru than I was about Naruto. Naruto might have been impulsive and hot headed, but there was no denying he was good in a fight. Even, or maybe especially, when things were stacked against him. Even with that disastrous fight with Kimimaro still fresh in my memory, I did trust that Naruto could handle what was thrown at him better than the two of us could.

I flexed my fingers, then forced them into handsigns. "Earth Release; Earth Style Wall," I called, even though I couldn't hear my own voice. The ground I targeted – right underneath my opponents feet – churned, suddenly malleable with chakra. I pulled it up, not hardened enough to lift the golem but not strong enough to punch through what was effectively solid metal either, instead settling around it's legs and lower torso like a perfect mould.

I could feel through the chakra resonation – and vibrations in the ground – as it hacked away at the rock and knew that it wouldn't hold long. I scrambled around it, a messy graceless stumble, and swept my unharmed hand over the ground until I found what I had dropped.

The sudden light of the lightsaber activating made my eyes water, but I hardly paused, coming up swinging. I struck awkwardly, but my lightning blade carved into it as easily as it had before. I braced my other hand on the handle, ignoring the thrum of pain it caused, and pulled upwards, shearing the thing in two.

Its chakra spluttered out, and it collapsed, lifeless.

I didn't have time to pause, turning to help Shikamaru. He'd done a good job binding it down with ninja wire, and now that we had light again his shadow jutsu were back in play. But like me he was clearly having trouble keeping steady on his feet, which wasn't an advantage in a fight.

I helped finish off Shikamaru's golem with a grunt, wavering slightly.

"Okay?" Shikamaru mouthed. Or maybe he said it but I couldn't hear.

I nodded, breathing deeply. We weren't done yet.

We closed the gap between us and them, bringing the remaining fight into clearer light. Naruto looked awful, dirty and beaten with a trail of blood leaking from his mouth. I hoped it was a 'sliced my cheek on my teeth' injury and not a more serious 'internal bleeding' one. Fugai slammed into him, all animalistic fury, throwing him back at us.

I moved sideways, letting him tumble across the ground, and slashed out with the lightsaber. Lightning gathered along the side and lanced out, whipping through the air at her. It was a more powerful version of Striking Bolt, simple but effective and it homed in on her metal armour with great alacrity.

She staggered under it and I swung again. Beside me, Naruto rolled to his feet, rubbing the blood off his chin with the back of his hand and grinned. There was something so fierce and pleased about the expression that I felt an answering smirk steal across my face.

Let's finish this, then.

Naruto clapped his hands together and multiplied. I spared an idle thought to wonder how many clones he had running around, but dismissed it. It wasn't relevant right now.

Naruto clapped his hands together. "Shadow Clone Kunai Barrage!" His voice sounded a little muffled to me, but it meant I was getting my hearing back.

The kunai rattled against the metal of her armour, some of them finding chinks, but Fugai just snarled, low and vicious. It was hard to read any emotion but 'pissed off' on her muzzle. She charged forward, unwilling to retreat, with a blur of speed that was faster than I expected.

It wasn't enough, though, because neither Shikamaru nor I were still occupied with other fights. And getting into close quarters with a Nara was just asking for trouble.

I couldn't make hand seals while holding the lightsaber, but I'd had more than enough practicing at activating my shadow without them. Actually paralyzing her in the jutsu might have been a different story, but Shikamaru was right there, joining his shadow up on the other side.

"Rasengan!" Naruto cried, slamming his attack into her.

I felt the reflected force, pushing me back, but held in place. If she'd recovered once, she'd recover again, and we didn't need to go through this again. So instead of simply being thrown backwards, the Rasengan ground into her, the screech of warping metal giving way to something softer and more disturbing.

She sagged into our hold, body reverting out of its transformation. Her eyes were still open though, and her chest – however ruined – still struggled to draw in air.

"I will," she wheezed, "kill you. For Haido-sama."

She shouldn't have still been alive, let along talking. And her chakra was still humming strongly, bound up in the music of the Gelel. In fact… it looked like her wound was healing. Not as fast as Naruto's had when he had been bursting with Kyuubi's chakra, but still at a visible pace.

Another few minutes and she would be fully recovered. That wasn't good. If she could just keep going, if she was effectively immortal, we were in a whole lot of trouble. We couldn't keep fighting her. Eventually we'd just… run out of steam.

It would depend if her energy was infinite or depletable. The Sound Four had only been able to hold their transformations for so long, but I was wary about drawing too many parallels when the causes weren't the same. Who knew how these stones worked.

The stones…

The curses seals were seals, fully integrated into the individual, but the stones were merely objects. Could it be as simple as removing it from her person?

"What's that guy good for anyway?" Naruto complained.

Keep her talking, I thought encouragingly. It would give us more information, and more time to work out what to do.

"A person like you will never understand," Fugai hissed back.

She wasn't carrying anything obvious like Temujin's sword, and for it to have transformed her, she probably needed to be in contact with it. It could be in her armour somewhere, though if it was, it wasn't showcased.

I caught Shikamaru's eye, trying to convey that I was about to do something and that he'd have to hold the Shadow Possession himself. That shouldn't be a problem unless she was able to transform again, or he ran out of time.

I already knew that the stones resonated with my chakra, so the easiest way to find where she was hiding it would simply be to diffuse chakra around her until it caused a reaction. Yes, it would probably send a signal, but it was unlikely to be more than what the fighting had already given.

I disengaged my shadow from her feet and started climbing it up, covering her legs. It wasn't the solid restriction of the Shadow Neckbind Jutsu, and it wouldn't actually do any damage, but it was sufficient for my purposes.

There was no reaction as my chakra wound around her torso, or down her arms, and I actually thought that my assumption was wrong and it wasn't going to work. Then I covered her neck and a clear strong note rang out from the base of her throat.

Bingo.

I cut my jutsu and walked forward until I was close enough to clasp my hand around her neck. There was no telltale bump or bulge beneath the skin, the way there should have been if the stone was inset there. I let a diagnostic jutsu seep into her skin but found that there was no evidence of pressure on the trachea or blood vessels either. Yet the stone was there, I could feel it as my chakra brushed against it. It was there, yet not, almost as if it had no physical presence at all.

"What are you doing?" Fugai demanded, sounding spooked. And no wonder, she had to know where the stone was and what it did for her. If I removed it, she would be powerless. Well, I amended, right now she would probably be dead without it to heal the damage she had sustained.

I hesitated at that thought, stepping back.

It wasn't that I couldn't. I was fully aware that I could. But was it necessary? It was one thing, in the heat of the moment, to do everything that you needed to stop an enemy. It was very different to make a considered, rational decision to kill someone you had already stopped.

I didn't really want to be the kind of person that made that call easily, when there were other options available.

The sun was – finally – starting to come up, bathing everything in grey pre-dawn light. It was enough to see by, anyway, so I flicked off my lightsaber and tucked it away.

"You should surrender," I said quietly. "You are out numbered and out matched. Your regeneration abilities are strong, but not unbeatable, especially if your power source is removed. But you can surrender-"

"I will die before being powerless like that again!" Fugai snapped before I'd even finished. Her face was twisted with rage.

There was a surge in the music, beating out a tempo like a war drum, and light began to glow at the base of her throat, seeping through her skin.

Shit.

I didn't know what it would do, but it was clearly an attack. The options were to try and dodge, which would involve Shikamaru letting her go, but we couldn't even predict where would be safe or what kind of attack it would be, or to shut it down in the half a second before it went off.

I was closest. I was the only one that could react in time.

My hand went for my kunai, plunging into her throat and ripping upwards through the skin. My other fingers curved in beneath it, plucking the glowing stone straight out of her.

A short, fear filled scream ripped out of her, choking off almost instantly. The chakra faded from her body, and her injuries stopped their rapid repairs.

I sighed and stepped back.

She stood there for a second longer, before Shikamaru stopped his jutsu and she just kind of … toppled gracelessly to the ground.

"All that for this, huh?" I said. I stroked my fingers over the stone absently, listening to it sing. It was cool and dry, despite the fact that it should have been covered in blood and fluids.

"It doesn't seem like much," Naruto agreed.

Shikamaru didn't say anything, and I glanced over to him. He was staring back, something vague and unreadable on his face. He looked uncomfortable.

I straightened, tried to see what was wrong, then caught myself. There was an obvious explanation lying at my feet. Had Shikamaru ever killed anyone? I … didn't actually know. That probably made me a terrible sister. Not during the exams, and although people had died on our last mission, Tayuya had survived. By rights, the answer should be 'no'. He hadn't exactly been responsible here either, but even being present was probably disturbing.

Sometimes I forgot that the other teams weren't like us, they didn't have missions like our missions.

"We should pack up," I said instead.

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We passed the border with no complications, deciding to head onwards to the sites of attack, rather than try to find an outpost.

The coastline of Land of Wind was the most densely populated part of the entire region. There were shipping ports and fishing villages and other sea going businesses. The land in general was slightly more habitable too, a rockier, sandstone vista, with intimidating cliff faces and gullies. While there were villages further in the desert – Hidden Sand most importantly – they were in general fewer and less prosperous. If Haido's people had attacked here like they had in Land of Rivers, they could actually severely damage the nation.

Even the capital was down here, though it was much further along the coast than the attacks were to take place, and much more likely to be able to defend from an offensive.

The sun was well and truly up by the time we closed in on the first town, and even with chakra temperature regulation I was uncomfortably overheated. It was surprising how dramatically the conditions changed with less than a days travel.

"Looks like we're too late," Shikamaru commented lowly, as we halted on a high cliff with a good vantage point. Already we could see too much smoke spiraling in the air and too much movement.

"Maybe not," I mused. "It looks like Hidden Sand has already arrived." Either they had an outpost nearby with excellent response times, this wasn't the first attack, or they'd already been in the area.

Regardless, it meant we were walking into a firefight and not a massacre. It was more dangerous, perhaps, but more promising at the same time.

Naruto didn't pause, just launched himself forward, rocketing towards the village. Shika and I exchanged a look and followed.

The closer I got, the more I could see. It looked like we were only just arriving after the fight had started. There was a huge metal ship - the same design as the stronghold – hovering just offshore, likely having only just disembarked its soldiers onto land. Even as we watched, it fired cannons, dull hollow booms with rising smoke clouds. They would have devastated the shore, but never made it that far. The sand of the beach rose up, thick and fast, forming an impenetrable wall that they slapped against.

There were two or three squads of Sand ninja fighting, and there was a familiar looking puppet dancing through the chaos, though I couldn't spot the wielder. Much more visible was the white and purple of Temari's fan, and we angled ourselves towards her in order to make contact. Or Shikamaru and I did, Naruto simply entered the fray, splitting off shadow clones as he went.

"What are you doing here?" Temari demanding, heaving her fan in an arc. "I thought I told you not to get into trouble again."

"I dunno," Shikamaru said casually, hands folding into a rat seal and shadow spiraling outwards. "It kinda looks to me like you're the one in trouble. Thought we could help."

Temari barked a laugh. "You think Gaara needs help in the desert?"

Watching the way the coast line seemed to move, sand hovering above the waves and advancing outwards, ensnaring the ship and relentlessly dragging it ashore… made it clear that it wasn't Gaara that needed the help.

I was suddenly, extremely glad that we had faced Gaara on our turf and not his. In the desert, with effectively an infinite supply of sand and an infinite supply of chakra, his only limits were his frail mortal body.

It was a bit breathtaking to realize the sheer scope of that.

Kazekage.

Maybe he wasn't yet. And right now those limits were a lot lower than they could be, but with time and experience… he could make the whole desert bend to his will. Every dune a soldier, every grain of sand a weapon; how could anyone fight that?

I turned back to the fighting going on around us, sending my shadow out. The thing about having so many people in one place like this was that it made catching them easy. The tricky part was determining which ones you possessed and which ones you let move freely.

If there had been any stronger opponents like Fugai, it would have been a different story. But they were all Golems and it wasn't like Hidden Sand didn't know how to fight puppets. The usual method of 'attack the puppeteer' wouldn't work, of course, but they weren't on completely unfamiliar ground.

By the time we had finished, Gaara had beached the ship, dragging it ruthlessly and inevitably ashore. It disgorged another, greater, load of Golems, and a tall figure flickering with lightning that had to be one of the warriors.

Ranke?

Then the Golems were on us, and I fell into playing backup for a kenjutsu using Sand ninja. With so many bodies on the battlefield and not much time to pause and look around, it was hard to keep track of everything.

It was impossible to miss some of Gaara's fight, though, as sand rose up in giant waves, spinning and spiraling. The flicker-flash of Ranke's lightning techniques was just as distracting, creating momentary blindness if you were looking the wrong way.

Just from what I could see, I thought that Ranke might have been stronger than Fugai – or rather, better at combating ninja. There were definitely different techniques going on there, and the fact that she was fighting Gaara without being immediately annihilated had to mean something.

Belatedly, I realized that we should really tell them about the stones. The middle of combat wasn't exactly the best time for information sharing, but if the only way to stop the Gelel warriors permanently was to remove the stones-

The ground surged, sand whipping through the air and slamming down like a tsunami where Ranke had been standing. There was a brief crescendo of sound, as though it was gathering energy for one final burst, then fluttered out into silence, leaving only the fainter notes of the Golems. Which told me that I was getting better at distinguishing this, wasn't I?

Or, you could just crush them, I thought. That seems like it works too. Whether he'd actually crushed the stone, or merely 'just' reduced Ranke to such pulp that it wasn't actually connected to her anymore – and wasn't that a thought – it seemed like Gaara's favored tactics were pretty much right on cue to deal with these guys.

"By the gods," the ninja next to me breathed. I wasn't sure if it was in awe or in fear or a mixture of both.

Probably both.

After that it didn't take long to sweep up the rest of the Golems. Almost literally as Gaara proved.

"Chizuru!" Temari ordered, closing her fan and flipping it easily up onto her back. "Take Asano and scout the area. See if there were any other shore parties we missed. Mahana, wrap everything up here so we're ready to move out."

The named ninja – I presumed – snapped out affirmative replies and darted off to do as they were told. It was… interesting that Temari seemed to be in charge here, given that she, like me, was nominally a Genin. Gaara, I could see no one wanting to argue with, but Temari wasn't nearly so intimidating.

It wasn't that I doubted her skills, exactly, but several of the other ninja were wearing Sand style Chunin vests.

We shuffled out of the way, regrouping to the side. Shikamaru was slouching, hands tucked into his pockets, but didn't look much more ruffled than usual. Naruto was Naruto. Apart from the grime, you could hardly tell they'd been fighting. Next to them I felt supremely battered.

"So," Temari said, stopping in front of us and cocking her hip.

"So," Shikamaru echoed.

"You're not seriously going to play the 'it was a social visit' card, are you?" Kankurou cut in, walking up to us, his puppet rewrapped and settled on his back. Gaara arrived shortly after, sweeping in with a swirl of sand. "No one is going to buy it."

Naruto chuckled, scratching the back of his neck nervously. "Ah, we're not really supposed to be here," he admitted. "But we found out these guys were going to attack, so we came to give you a warning."

"The thought is appreciated," Temari said dryly. "But you're several days too late."

"Our mission was in the Land of Rivers," Shikamaru clarified. "We ran into these guys after they'd attacked a village there. It's … pretty bad." He gave a quick but thorough run through of the situation.

"Well, shit," Kankurou summed up. "We thought it was Hidden Mist at first, but it didn't fit." Mist was the only one of the shinobi villages that really did any of their attacking by sea, so yeah, I could see the initial assumption.

"They're from further away than that," I said. "They're not from the Elemental Nations at all. They're looking for the mine that produces those crystals; that gives them that power."

I spread our map out, flat on the ground. A curl of sand wound over the edges, holding it flat so it didn't roll back up and I spared a quick smile for Gaara.

"They're working off an old map, pre-Hidden Village," I said vaguely. "There used to be an old trade route through here." There'd been major cities, by the look of the map, which had probably affected the locations that Haido had dropped his men and stronghold. He might have assumed that, even if the cities themselves hadn't lasted, the resources that had made them ideal locations to build in the first place would have remained.

"That's where they attacked," Temari noted, crouching down beside me. She tapped the circles I'd drawn.

"Right," I said. "Well, where they were planning to attack anyway. We confirmed a few, but the stronghold was moving in this direction so they likely started at the far end." I shook off the thought as irrelevant. "Anyway. This is where they're looking, but I don't think it was on the trade route itself."

If you went to all the trouble of never mentioning the location of the mine, you probably didn't sell stones out of the door. Yeah, if I had time to read the rest of the book, I could probably do more than make educated guesses, but I didn't. Then again, Haido had read it and this was the best he had. I wouldn't presume to think he was an idiot.

"Given the other landmarks… I think it's more likely to be up here somewhere." I circled another area with my finger.

"There's nothing there," Kankurou said instantly. "That's the Dead Wastes."

"Dead Wastes?" I repeated blankly. It wasn't a name I was familiar with at all.

He shrugged. "What it sounds like, man. The whole area is completely dead. There's no water, no shelter; nothing grows there and nothing lives. They say if you leave a corpse there it won't even rot."

"That's… interesting," I said with a frown, considering the map again. It was possible he meant that a body would simply dehydrate and mummify, but that wouldn't be unusual by the standards of the desert, surely?

"So no one lives there at all?" Shikamaru asked. "No one explores it?"

"No," Temari agreed. "It's avoided." She looked thoughtful too. It helped explain how something could remain a secret if it was in an area that people simply wouldn't go. "It's still a big area though."

"Then let's go!" Naruto declared. "We'll find this stupid mine before anyone else gets hurt!"

I chewed on my lower lip, considering. The mine wasn't really our goal, except in terms of keeping it out of their hands. "What's the status on the outposts?" I asked. "Have your clones reached it yet?" They ought to have, if they'd been moving quickly. Land of Rivers wasn't that wide, and we'd come further in the other direction than they'd had to travel.

"Huh?" Naruto blinked in surprise. "My clones? Oh, right." He looked like he was mentally shifting gears, attention focusing from one topic to another. "Yeah, they got to the outpost. But Hayama-taicho said they can't leave the outpost to help!"

"What did he say exactly?" I asked patiently. I hadn't expected they would mount an attack, given the current focus on maintaining border patrols, but a flat 'nothing' was a bit… extreme. At the very least I would have expected an extraction team for us.

"Um, that they had to look after the border first, in case they decided to go to Land of Fire. And that they weren't supposed to be in Land of Rivers anyway. But they were going to send a message to Baa-chan to see what she wanted to do. And that we should stay out of trouble…"

Well, it was a bit late for that.

It would probably take a few days or more for anything to happen, either way. Messages had to be passed, decisions had to be made, ninja had to be found and deployed. And they weren't even directly attacking Fire Country, so the level of priority wasn't as high as the mess with Cloud. There'd probably be messages to Hidden Valley, which would take even more time…

We'd already seen the amount of damage that these guys could do in a few days.

I didn't really want to see more villages destroyed.

"Okay…" I said slowly. "What about Hidden Sand?"

"We're defending the coast," Kankurou said. "But we can't exactly take the fight to them out there. We can't fight them until they come close to shore, and we never know where that going to be."

"Unless we do…" Temari mused. "If the mine is their goal, then all we have to do is defend that instead of the whole coastline. They won't bother attacking the villages when their real objective is so close at hand."

I wasn't so sure about that, if they were using the villagers to power their equipment, but it would still be less than what it currently was.

"And," she continued, staring down at the map. "If the location is so obvious, they're likely going to discover it very shortly. It's better if we're there first."

And wasn't that an ominous thought.

"We'll go," Gaara rasped in agreement. "Mahana will continue the patrol."

"Awesome! Let's go!" Naruto cheered, pointing off into the distance. Then he paused and looked around. "Wait. Which direction are we going?"