The Art of Appropriation
The Demons of the Mist
"Damn that's a big-ass sword!" Naruto exclaimed while tugging on Hinata's sleeve. He was absolutely overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the weapon, "Hey! Hey! I know what I want for my birthday now!"
"Naruto, is this really the time?" Shikamaru asked.
The blonde shook his head and returned to his regular fighting stance, "You're right. Sorry. We should focus. But still, can you imagine me with a badass weapon like that?"
Hinata raised a hand with a smile, "I could."
Asuma groaned and shook his head, feeling the unfortunate stab from behind mess up his epic standoff. "Way to kill the mood, guys. Facing off against a dangerous rogue ninja here," he called back to them.
After getting his team to cool off on their exclamations, the man in the beard returned to glaring back up at the enemy shinobi that they had managed to force out of hiding.
One and two. Though he should have shown equal concern to both, it was the big guy with the sword he was currently sweating bullets about. As they stood in their respective spots glaring back at each other, Asuma couldn't help but crack a smile at his luck for today.
Just a few weeks ago he had been fighting for his life against a swordsman with his own dangerous fighting style, who nearly killed him about five times during their engagement. Now, after several weeks of recuperation and a lot of trips to the training fields, the man began to wonder how he would fair against this one.
If anything else he was spot on about the next enemy being Jonin level. That was for sure.
"Did I get the name right?" Asuma asked, raising an eyebrow at the man a story or so above them, "Former member of the Seven Ninja Swordsman of the Mist, also known as the Demon of the Mist; Zabuza Momochi."
"Of course," the shinobi in question replied in a gruff tone, tilting his head as he stared down at the individual glaring back up at him with his hands in his pockets, "And if I'm not mistaken, you're Asuma Sarutobi of the Village Hidden in the Leaves; son of the Third Hokage and former member of the Twelve Guardian Ninja. Am I wrong?"
"Not at all," Asuma replied with a smirk. "In fact, I'm flattered that you know me so well. It shows that our titles actually carry merit."
Zabuza chuckled, "Indeed." He then locked his gaze onto Tazuna and the three kids surrounding him in the swastika formation. Disregarding the brats, he instead focused his complete and utter attention on his primary target while a dark shadow drifted over his eyes, "I apologize for the rude welcoming, but I'm afraid you're going to have to hand over the old man now…"
"No can do, pal," Asuma replied firmly with an unwavering stance. "As it so happens, it's currently my team's responsibility to protect Tazuna-san until construction on the bridge across the channel is completed. To simply 'hand him over' to you would be extremely detrimental to our mission and it would be awfully crass of me to just give him up when we're not even half way through finishing our assignment."
The swordsman grunted, turning around so that he was facing them properly, "Well that's a real shame, because as it turns out, it is my job to kill the old man and his entourage." The extra spit in his words had the three Genin tighten their formation, blades flashing when kunai were brought out in front of them. "Hmph, but it looks like I'm going to have to kill you and the brats first before I can get to him."
"You can try if you like," Asuma replied, his eyes momentarily glancing towards the Hunter Nin a branch down before looking back up at the rogue. Though it appeared he was completely cool about this whole thing, he was actually really on edge. A wrong move against this particular foe would mean instant death for all of them. Zabuza wasn't known for his use of the 'silent killing' technique for nothing. That massive clever he had was only a bonus. "But… you will fail; that I can promise you."
"I beg to differ. Unlike the Demon Brothers, you won't find me to be quite so lenient with my quarry," Zabuza replied calmly before glancing down at his masked subordinate hanging from the trunk below him. He nodded his head towards the kids, "I leave the tagalongs to you, Haku."
"Yes," the boy replied with a stiff nod, jumping down from the tree and landing just several meters out from Asuma and his troop. Absorbing the force of the landing in spectacular fashion, he then rose from the ground like a spawn from hell, which was kind of the impression Shikamaru and Hinata immediately got before Naruto shimmied forward a little.
"Don't let him through," the blonde said with an increasingly harsh glare.
"I wasn't planning to," Shikamaru replied tensely, forming his trademark hand seal. Tazuna backed up a little in response to their actions, the scent of an upcoming conflict growing thicker by the moment and choking up the atmosphere.
It wouldn't be the only thing choking the air for long.
Just as the kids and Asuma were preparing themselves for a showdown with the swordsman as his crony, a thick mist suddenly drifted onto the scene and began blanketing over the entire area. The forest around them began to fade away into white, just like the tree Zabuza was on and the lake far behind him. This gave the group little comfort as their range was reduced from fifty to about ten meters. That distance was slowly, but surely, shaved away by the second.
Hinata's Byakugan activated. Even with her perfect three-hundred and sixty degree eyesight in play, the mist proved to be quite the troublesome element for her to break. She squinted as she nervously glared through the shroud, "Th-This is bad…"
"Stay on your toes, guys," Asuma called back to them, pulling his hands out of his pockets and reaching behind him for his pouch. His trench knives flashed into view when he brought them into an offensive guard, his left hand extending out with his right cocked to the elbow. "We'll be fighting blind. Naruto, Shikamaru, keep your ears trained on your six. Hinata, I'm counting on you."
"Y-Yes!" the Hyuuga replied fretfully, glancing behind her, "S-Stay behind us, Tazuna-san."
"Oh, I'm not moving. Don't you worry about that," the old man chuckled, sweat dripping down his forehead.
Zabuza, still up in his tree and facing down the hard glare being thrown by Asuma, chuckled at his good fortune. "That's fine by me. It only makes my job easier." He crouched low and gripped the long handle of his clever. He kept his gaze trained on the team's leader, whom was facing down both him and Haku still standing in the clearing just out of effective dashing reach. "Relying on a bunch of snot-nosed brats for support? You're getting soft, Asuma Sarutobi."
"I wouldn't be so quick on the trigger, friend," the Jonin replied with a smug grin, despite the nervous perspiration he was giving off. "My kids are tough."
"So is mine," Zabuza countered, forming a one-handed hand seal from his perch. The moment he did so, an even thicker mist drifted in from off screen and within seconds, the entire tree sank into white, as did the swordsman. "I will make this quick. Kirigakure no Jutsu." And just like a phantom, he was gone.
Asuma gritted his teeth and dropped his glare onto the Hunter Nin, identified by his master as Haku. If there was an element he was going to have to remove from the equation first, it would have to be the kid. Whether or not Naruto and the others would be able to handle him was uncertain, but as long as he was able the Jonin was not going to take any chances. If he could get rid of the apparent subordinate now, he would then be able to concentrate on the big guy.
Unfortunately, just as he was lowering his fighting stance to make a move against the fake Hunter Nin, a loud whooshing sound in the background caught Asuma's attention. It was a strangely eerie sound; one that sent a cold chill shooting down your spine. It was just like when the group first had to duck when Zabuza threw his massive sword at the-
"Oh SHIT!" Asuma leapt forward just in time to have the back of his vest trimmed by the Executioner's Blade slashing through the wall of white from behind.
Spiraling through the air in mid-jump, barely managing to avoid having his body cleaved in two, the young Sarutobi looked back briefly to see the ghostly apparition of a nightmarish demon with horns burning through the thick of the fog. The fiend grinned at him cockily, just as the shinobi it was emanating from did.
Landing on one foot while continuing his retreat, Asuma chucked a barrage of shuriken in response to the attack. The wielder of the massive blade twirled his sword above his head, putting full momentum behind his swing which Zabuza then used to bat away the return effortlessly, scattering the projectiles and dissolving back into the mist from whence he'd come from.
"Your fight is with me. This is my game and you're going to be playing by MY rules."
The Jonin instructor of Team 10 chuckled when he heard the voice of his foe echo out all around him, taking a stand a safe distance away before reassuming a fighting stance. "I figured that this was how this was going to go down. You just love picking at your food, don't you Zabuza-kun?"
"Haha. Guilty. Unfortunately for you though, I don't have time to be playing around. Once I'm done with you, I'll take care of the bridge builder and collect the rest of my pay. That is… unless my boy doesn't dispose of them first."
Asuma circled on the spot a couple of times, hearing a twig snap behind him and forcing him to lock onto the source. It was a false relay, which had him sweating bullets and biting his teeth.
The man cursed to himself when he was unable to trace Zabuza's voice back to him, since it was being projected evenly throughout the area from where he was hiding. It was like the guy was everywhere, like he was part of the jutsu itself.
Demon of the Mist was a really fitting title.
Feeling the edge growing at basically searching blind from where he was, the Jonin kept his blades held up in a high guard. He vowed that the moment Zabuza poked his face into view, he was going to take him, no questions asked. Asuma wasn't going to let an opportunity to make good slip through.
He smirked uneasily, "First to the finish then?" Asuma asked while widening his stance, chakra suddenly starting to course through him at an accelerated rate as he filled the air with killing intent. The invisible blast that exploded off of his body reached out to the group on the defensive several meters out, telling them that their team leader had taken it up a gear.
It bewildered and terrified them.
Zabuza matched his opponent's ki with his own and let a chuckle ring out throughout the area, "As you wish."
A loud whoosh came around from behind, forcing Asuma to spin and intercept the massive clever when it came down right on top of him. His blades were thrown up just in time to stop the double-handed blow from the swordsman, sparks flying and a loud clang ringing out when their weapons met. Asuma grunted under the force when he struggled to halt the mammoth blade, which pinged against his headband at how close it came to breaking through.
"Well, fuck me," the man thought, a bead of sweat running down his nose. "What am I fighting, an elephant? This guy's strength is insane!"
Zabuza growled as he attempted to put his weight behind the hit, slamming his hand against the back of his blade to try and force it down. "Damn, he's a tough one. Not to mention sharp. He's the first shinobi to ever stop one of my full power swings from an ambush attack." Points needed to be given to this guy. Those tiny trench knives he was wielding were really high quality.
Asuma gritted his teeth as his eyes locked onto the equally intense glare of his opponent, seconds before pushing the massive sword away and squaring off with the cold killer. Upon seeing his attack stopped and feeling it effectively repelled, Zabuza grunted indignantly and backed away, his body starting to mold back into the mist.
Realizing his foe was running out on him again, the Team 10 leader dashed forward and took a swing at the dematerializing assassin, only to cut right through thin air.
"Damn it. I hate it when my opponents do that. It really pisses you off." Asuma could see this fight becoming less amusing the longer it was drawn out, which would be quite a long while by his watch. He nervously looked in the direction his team was currently holed up. "I'm sure Hinata will be able to see Zabuza coming at them should he suddenly decide to switch objectives and is decisive enough to take action. I'm also positive that Naruto can sense his movements too."
"I just hope they can handle things on their end."
Naruto, Shikamaru and Hinata glared across at their masked opponent, who hadn't even so much as moved a finger since dropping out of the tree to engage them. As confident as they had previously been facing off against that Zabuza guy and his mysterious crony in broad daylight, as soon as the mist fell around them and Asuma was chased off by his adversary, all confidence in their ability to handle the situation here started to drain away.
They had pretty much been left standing out in the open and staring back at an awfully creepy antagonist. Not only that, but the silence was also starting to make them all nervous.
"Okay, what the hell man?" Naruto finally snapped, lowering the kunai he was holding to glare across at the teen in the kimono. "Are you going to do something or not? You're starting to freak me out."
The masked individual said nothing and just glared back at them.
Shikamaru elbowed his teammate in the side, "Calm down. He's trying to psyche us out."
"Yeah… well, it's working," Naruto hissed, keeping one eye constantly trained on the enemy. "That mask is super creepy and he's just staring at us. How can anyone see out of those tiny eye holes anyway?" His curiosity was within reason. Nevertheless, before the group could begin answering any questions regarding their options or their opponent, the entire squad jumped when they unexpectedly saw the teen's arm move, silencing them from further discussion.
Together, they had no idea what he was planning. The guy was obviously working with Zabuza and that automatically labeled him as dangerous. What's more, he appeared to be quite close to their ages, maybe a couple of years older. The mask on his face also hid his real identity from view as well as his expressions, making it incredibly difficult for the three Genin to tell what he was thinking or what his intentions were.
His slow gesture of raising a hand towards them however was put to an end when he threw his arm out to his side and, all of a sudden, a cluster of senbon appeared between his fingers. The tiny blades flashed in whatever rays of light was able to break through the mist, alerting the trio and their client to the danger.
Tazuna backed up at the sight of the acupuncture weapons.
"Uhh… I should tell you guys. I really don't like injections," the old man chuckled nervously when he saw the boy start walking towards them at an excruciatingly slow pace. "I always hated them… even when I was a kid."
"Yeah. Well… I hate them too," Naruto replied straight out, nodding towards the piercing weapons in the boy's hand. "Those look like they hurt." He then leaned towards Shikamaru, who was looking as equally nervous as the rest of them, "Got any ideas?"
Shikamaru furrowed his brow, glancing behind him at the mist covering their backs before beginning to look around the obscured field. Though he vaguely remembered what the area looked like before the shroud fell upon it, the haunting whiteness of their surroundings still made his breakdown of the situation that much more difficult. In spite of the obstacles hampering his progress however, his mind powered on.
The Nara began making judgments on the effectiveness of their sight, and took their range, numbers, abilities, and their opponents into consideration. After which he then focused back on their approaching enemy and evaluated just how well they could make him out at this distance.
All the pieces seemed to fit into place and after thinking it over, he believed now was the perfect time to test his theory. Without a single word spoken, Shikamaru shimmied back, urging his companions to do so as well in time with their opponent's steps so that the distance between them remained the same.
"I have one," Shikamaru informed, smiling across at the blonde in order to convey the amount of confidence he had, "Let's just hope it works."
The jinchuriki and the Hyuuga next to him smirked, both of them immediately feeling reinvigorated by their friend's words and expressions. If there was anyone they could count on in an unfamiliar and mind numbing situation that called for a well thought-out plan, it was their resident strategist.
"We trust you, Shikamaru-kun," Hinata whispered, putting her faith in her teammate's hands.
"Alright then," the boy exclaimed under his breath before reaching over and tapping Naruto on the shoulder several times, using an obscured pattern so that their enemy didn't pick up on any notable details. Upon receiving the message in Morse code, Naruto did the same with Hinata, transmitting the exact same message while the three of them continued to move away from their target. It took the same amount of time for each of the two links to be made and once the chain was complete, the Nara spoke up again, "So… are we clear on the plan?"
"Yes!" the jinchuriki and kunoichi replied in unison, leaving Tazuna wallowing in the dark and wondering what the hell was going on.
Haku flicked several more senbon into his free hand when he saw their moods change and their resolve strengthen.
Whatever they were planning, he intended to stop them.
"Okay then. On my mark…" Shikamaru whispered, the three of them widening their stances for a springing start. It was upon setting themselves for an apparent dash forward that their opponent brought his senbon around to counter, which was all the signal the general of the squad needed to make his move.
The whistle was blown. "Fall back… NOW!" Shikamaru shouted, both he and Hinata spinning around and grabbing Tazuna by either arm. The old man let out a startled yelp as he was picked up off of his feet and pulled into the mist, the three of them disappearing in the blink of an eye.
The Hunter Nin in front of them abruptly stopped and jerked up in shock, having not expected them to just turn and vanish. Naruto on the other hand, remained behind in order to see their enemy's reaction. It was all part of the play.
Understandably, once he was satisfied at the reception, the blonde smirked at their startled opponent before waving and leaping back into the mist to rejoin his friends. Just as he was jumping backwards and vanishing into the fog however, the assassin reacted and leapt forward; chucking the senbon he was holding after them. The result was the needles puncturing the mist and hitting nothing but air.
They were gone.
"Drat," Haku cursed, his expression underneath his mask clearly reflecting his surprise. He lowered himself into a fighting stance with all intent to pursue, making double sure that the way ahead was clear. "Trying to lose me in the haze? Big mistake. This environment is as much my field as it is Zabuza-sama's. You can't escape me." He charged in, cutting through the wall of white like a knife as he gave chase to the targets he had now lost, but were soon to be found if he had anything to say about it.
He didn't follow a linear path in his chase either.
That would be too straightforward.
For his opponents to jump back the way they did so unexpectedly, Haku knew that they wouldn't be stupid enough to simply backpedal in a straight line. No. They were planning on losing him completely by keeping him at a distance, stalling, escaping, or ambushing him. Whatever it was they had concocted in those precious few minutes given to them, the masked assassin was confident he would be able to incise himself into their midst so as to disrupt their movements. If he could cut them off before they had a chance to regroup or arrange themselves accordingly, he could beat them.
They were not going to evade him forever.
Senbon flew into his hands as Haku took to the tree line. Instinctively, he positioned himself up in the branches and glared down at the field, using the higher ground to his advantage and his sharp eyesight to try and locate his prey.
No longer in the thick of it, the environment of the battlefield became that much clearer to him. Disregarding the sounds of battle taking place between Zabuza and his opponent closer to the lakeside, Haku instead focused all of his attention in searching out his own quarry. Though he could use his ears to track the team on ground level, he figured it was wiser to first get a bead on the situation before moving in.
It would all be over shortly either way.
Every shadow carried its own characteristics, but that was only a small bump in the road. The mist rolling across the landscape like a carpet thinned out with every breeze, making visibility either clearer or more obscured than before. It was these fluctuating patterns that allowed Haku the perfect windows for observation while also hiding his own presence from plain sight. If he couldn't see his enemy, then he was positive they couldn't see him either.
However, they did have that Hyuuga with them.
He'd learnt about them through his master. They had terrifying optic capabilities. That meant he had to be extra careful when tracking them.
Hell, there was a possibility that she was watching him right now and he didn't know it. But that was not going to stop him from fulfilling his task.
Suddenly, after several minutes of careful surveillance, Haku spotted them! Shadows clustered together in the middle of the clearing and shuffling slowly across the field. He knew it was them because he was able to recognize their individual silhouettes through the shroud, as well as hear their feet dragging along the grass.
Not to mention he could hear them breathing. Nervous breaths, dry, ragged, panicky; the distinct sounds of anxiety. The heat they were generating and the noise emanating from their throats was all Haku needed to confirm them as his intended targets.
"Good try… but it was all for naught," the young assassin thought to himself before flipping through a series of single-handed hand seals. Once the sequence was completed, a thick cloud of fog formed in the air behind him, which shortly thereafter transformed into a large ice mirror.
Playing this out as he normally would, the teen slowly backed into the glass and sank into his own reflection. The pane dissipated once the user was gone, carrying him through the air with the mist.
The entirety of Team 10 meanwhile slowly maneuvered themselves through the fog on rotation, Hinata's Byakugan leading them and providing them extra warning to anyone or anything wanting to get the drop on them.
Their intentions were simple.
If they could just get over to the woods on the other side of the field, then the team had a chance to make a stand against Zabuza's illusive colleague. There was plenty of cover in that setting, easy enough to mount a defense with trees at their backs. It was what Shikamaru intended to do. They just needed to be careful.
However, just as the group and Tazuna were coming to within sight of the forest poking through the white on the edge of the field, something in the air stopped them in their tracks. The entire group halted when a cold shift blew in from out of nowhere and choked up the area in front of them. The mist thickened and took shape, clouds forming and blocking their view before materializing into a large, rectangular mirror.
Just as the group began backing away from the strange object, Haku's image suddenly flickered into view, scaring the daylights out of them.
The masked shinobi flipped through single-handed hand seals, baffling the Genin at his speed and his ability to do so. The display stunned them to forget their position long enough for the assassin to make his move.
Haku finished in a single, specific seal, the expression on his face darkening instantly. "Forgive me," he murmured, his chakra spiking and enveloping the group in an icy cold sensation, "Sensatsu Suishō!"
In the blink of an eye, the moisture hanging in the air suddenly gathered, thickened, and formed into a tangible wall of water droplets. These droplets then mutated into long, solid ice needles, which came together to form a dome of inescapable death surrounding the four members of the group, perfectly arranged in the one spot. Before either of them could mount some sort of an effective response against their attacker, the dome of a thousand needles rained down upon them.
It was quick and painless.
The moment it was executed the attack was over, leaving the Genin of Team 10 and their client Tazuna standing in shock and resembling pincushions. With the damage being too much to overcome, their knees buckled before all of them fell flat over, leaving nothing but an empty clearing and a solemn Hunter Nin standing in his mirror. Once assured that they were down and out, Haku stepped out to confirm his kills.
"I'm sure you would have made fine shinobi one day," the boy murmured to himself while looking down at the four bodies. "But I'm afraid… that day will never come."
Even though he hated killing, it had to be done. Haku did everything he could while following his master's commands. He had no choice.
Of course, just as he was about to move on to inform Zabuza of his success, Haku got the shock of his life when all of a sudden all four of the collapsed individuals exploded into clouds of white smoke. One after the other they dispelled, revealing to the teen that he had hit nothing but doppelgangers. Decoys!
In his surprise the assassin backed away, seeing the hundreds of needles he had impaled the four without fail fall wastefully to the ground. This immediately put him on high alert and he began looking around him wildly.
"Impossible? They were copies?" Haku thought, spinning on his axis. "They weren't ordinary clones either. They were solid bodies of chakra, not something a single Genin should be able to perform to this degree. Did they each create one? Or was it just one person's clones' henged to look like the whole team?"
They had been indivisible from each other; perfect replicas of the originals.
In the midst of his searching of the battlefield, the teen quickly had to face a grim truth.
He'd messed up.
Haku had indeed considered the possibility that the group would have separated in the mist to try and throw him off their trail. But that tactic would have left the bridge builder defenseless or under-guarded, so that option was quickly crossed out. He had also considered the likelihood that they would have left one team member behind to confront him or to perhaps lure him away from the main objective. He had indeed been lured in, but not in the way he was expecting.
They tricked him into attacking fakes. That meant the real ones had to be hiding out in the mists. The only questions plaguing Haku's thoughts now though were when did they create the clones and who was the conjurer? It couldn't have been one of them. Clones like that were created through the splitting of one's own chakra into halves or quarters, depending on the number you wanted to produce.
The user would be effectively endangering themselves performing that technique.
Each of them had to have created one, otherwise that would have left only one of them with only a fifth of his or her chakra left.
"Or… maybe it's a signature technique," Haku considered wisely, his eyes coming around again in his search, "The user may have created many copies in order to force an attack and learn of my abilities. That means the real ones must still be nearby." He didn't have to look for very long when his eyes locked onto another collection of shadows poking through the mists. The sounds of their footsteps also drew him in.
Haku's eyes narrowed as senbon slipped in between his finger once again. "There!"
Whether they were copies or not, it didn't matter to him right now. They knew he was attacking, so if they were using clones to stall for time because they knew he was stronger than them, then all he had to do was wipe them out one group at a time until he found the real ones. If he shaved away at their defenses economically, then this farce of a hunt would let up soon enough. That's when he'll strike…
The next opportunity will present itself!
Using the mists to his advantage, Haku dashed around till he was certain he was out of sight of the Hyuuga, who was probably looking out for him. If this was the real group, he would have to be extra cautious and extra speedy to catch them off guard. Flipping through hand seals at a distance, the assassin produced the same jutsu again, a cloud of needles forming around the group of four before falling upon them in yet another deadly rain. Not expecting another attack so quickly the squad and the target was quickly felled before effectively dispelling.
Haku nodded. "Good. That's two."
He dashed through the mists again, using his highly trained eyes and ears to lead him to his next collection of targets without pause. His fleet-footedness also helped him in this area, allowing him to make his approaches silent and give him little to fear of a counter attack.
Upon dispelling one fake team, he would quickly break off and immediately move on to hunt down the next. The entire act to follow soon transformed into an incredibly repetitive string of engagements, where Haku continued to use an in-and-out pattern of advancing on the fake teams from blind spots, after which he would engage them, defeat them, and then move out once he was certain he had felled the imposters.
Oh sure, some of them put up a fight once they became weary of his intentions, but they were swiftly dealt with all the same.
Spinning around after another successful attack, Haku prepared to head towards the woods to rescan the area. He needed to narrow his enemies down lest they decide to get the drop on him.
However, before he could run off to a safe distance, he suddenly spotted a black shape of some sorts come shooting towards him across the ground. The length of shadow appeared to him like a spear, jutting out of the mists directly in front of him and charging him down like a wild animal. The ice user quickly responded to the attack by backpedalling as fast as he could from it. He flipped away when his footwork couldn't cut it, rapidly putting distance between him and the phantom hand on the floor intending to make a grab.
After several more flips, Haku slid to a stop, watching the length of shadow shudder to a halt just feet from him. Narrowing his gaze, the assassin looked up to see where this strange attack had come from.
"They weren't just keeping me at bay to study my movements, but they were also intending to capture me once they'd tired me out. What a clever bunch," Haku concluded with a smile, despite the amount of sweat he was shedding.
As irritating as this was supposed to be making him, the boy couldn't help but praise the team for how coordinated and functioning they were as a squad. It made him feel a little bit out of place where he was standing, seeing as that he was all on his own and it was three of them against him.
Still, he had Zabuza close by as his guiding hand and inspiration. He was the man's most desired weapon after all. That had to count for something, right?
Haku brought up a set of senbon, watching the shadow suddenly recede back into the fog. Taking his chance, he chased after it, making sure to hook around so as to not follow a direct line of attack. A predictable pattern was a death sentence for a shinobi. He wasn't going to conform to traditional movements. He needed to be more elusive in order to outwit these particular foes.
They were proving to be quite the troublesome game.
"This shadow must be emanating from one of the three. If I find this one and take him out, he will lead me to the rest," Haku concluded, dashing in once he was certain he'd closed the distance.
Sure enough, there he was. The user! A figure crouched on the ground in the middle of the clearing, with his teammates and the bridge builder behind them. The shadow retreated to him and formed at his feet, indicating that he had deactivated it.
This was his opening!
"Got you!" Haku thought loudly, ducking low and charging with senbon drawn. "Your first mistake."
He went for the caster of the shadow first. If there was one person he needed to defeat, it was the one orchestrating this entire circus. From the way he had been whispering instructions to his team from before, placing himself as the authoritative figure in the absence of their teacher, Haku knew that this was the one he had to take down first.
Seconds into his charge, the assassin burst from the mist like a shade, coming in low with his senbon held firm. The air in proximity cleared up enough for him to catch the shocked expression from Shikamaru, a split second before he chucked a barrage of senbon into him at extreme close range, peppering the boy's shoulders and neck with precise, piercing attacks.
"Ahh! Damn it!" Shikamaru cried out before all consciousness suddenly left him.
The Nara toppled just as Haku swiftly changed directions and spiraled towards the rest of the team. His movements were blinding and swift, almost like wind. They didn't stand a chance.
This fact became apparent when he forced his way into their ranks, cutting his way through their formation with clusters of needles.
"This fight is over," Haku thought confidently, driving his senbon into the chests of the two Genin, knocking them over and out of his way. "I wi-"
The blunder in his actions didn't make itself known until a split second later when all four members of the team he had initiated the 'final attack' against suddenly vanished, dispelling into puffs of white smoke. However, instead of disappearing completely like the clones had the many times before, they were instead replaced by tree logs, including a fourth from the Shikamaru double he had supposedly dispatched. The replaced bodies were each branded with a familiar paper and seal.
It only took Haku a moment's glance to realize his fatal error, his eyes widening in horror when he saw the telltale burns flickering off of the ends of the tags slapped across the falling stumps.
BOOM! The explosions that followed from the paper bombs going off at once shook the field and rattled the attacker. The Hunter Nin was battered around like a ragdoll by the fiery blasts of wind before being sent spinning out of the black cloud like a top. He bounced across the ground bonelessly a couple of times before inevitably rolling to a painful stop several meters away. With his clothes torn, mask cracked and skin burnt, Haku lay smoldering after stepping blindly into the well constructed trap, which effectively left him winded and wounded.
Shaking his head, the Hunter Nin pushed himself off of the ground with a groan. He struggled to his feet and, just as he was straightening up, the attack came.
The same one from before!
Kicking himself awake with a gasp, Haku jumped off of the ground from a bad angle, spinning across the clearing before landing on the toes of his left foot, striking a full arabesque. The attack came within inches of him, but there was still plenty of time to make an escape.
Not that it was easy though. He was still trying to regain his bearings and sense of balance from that collection of explosives going off.
His right hand flipping through hand seals, Haku pushed off of the ground and into the air. Moments before the spear of a shadow could snag his, Haku's body sunk into the pane of ice that suddenly formed in the mist above him. The shade he created with his body disappeared, as if his very presence was wiped off of the face of the earth.
He remained hovering above the ground entombed in his technique, panting from the sudden exertions of energy and maneuvers he had to perform to avoid the sneak attack.
"That was too close," Haku thought, looking up to see the shadow shudder to a halt before retracting as it had before.
The distance it was able to cover with the speed it possessed was extraordinary. Every time it appeared he was only able to avoid it by a hair. The man he was chasing after was definitely a dangerous customer.
"They're a lot sharper than I originally thought. My approach must be more indirect if I intend to trade blows with this team," Haku thought. He meditated on the matter, trying to figure out the best way out of this dead lock. All the while he kept his eyes trained on the fog ahead of him, where he had seen the attacks originate from and then retreat back into it.
He was dancing to their fiddle, which was something Haku intended to put a stop to. The longer this carried on, the more stamina he had shaved away.
"Did you get him?" Naruto asked, nudging Shikamaru in the shoulder after seeing his friend's shadow return. The answer to that question however was obvious.
The Nara lowered his head as a bead of sweat ran down his temple, "My kagemane wasn't fast enough. That guy is seriously quick." Their opponent was able to jump through the air from a bad position. If that wasn't elusive than Shikamaru had no idea what to think, "He's got a lot of room to move. It will be extremely difficult to run him down at this distance, especially if he's out in the open." This guy was as agile as he was perceptive, and aside from having a crazy ability to be able to perform ice release techniques like they were second nature, it made battling him even more treacherous.
"Can you corner him?"
"With that footwork? Not for a while," Shikamaru replied, keeping his hands locked in his trademark hand seal. "As long as he's got space and fuel to burn, he'll be able to dodge me all day. Damn… it's like trying to catch a fly with a chopstick." He looked up at his companion, whom he could see was also focusing strongly on the issues at hand. "You know this dance, what do you think?"
"His fighting style is really strange," Naruto pointed, his eyes glaring through the fog towards the panel of ice they could see hovering above the ground. "He's an out fighter for sure, but when he attacked my clones he approached them from their peripherals using high speed rotations to mask his hand movements. It's almost like he's dancing on air currents. The way he dodged your shadows too was also impressive. He's incredibly graceful when evading."
Shikamaru could agree on that observation. With the taijutsu aspect down, he moved on to the next point of concern. "On top of his agility he also knows how to move through this mist without hitting anything. He travels on the air by evaporating with the ice and reforming almost instantly wherever he wills himself. I'm telling you, this guy is something else," Shikamaru replied, the shadow at his feet starting to fluctuate in preparation for another shot. "We'll keep him running around for as long as we can. In that time I'll try and think of another way of trapping him."
"Can you reach him from where you are now? He's not moving," Naruto asked while pointing towards the light reflecting off of the frozen block.
The ice mirror was still suspended above the ground where it had been produced and hadn't moved since. It was clear Haku hadn't spotted them yet, so the most logical explanation here was that he was still looking for them from an advantageous position.
He was keeping himself elevated several meters off of the ground in order to survey the battlefield from all sides. The fact that he was keeping himself exposed was also perhaps an attempt to lure them out so he could engage them on his terms. This was what Shikamaru was trying to do with him but under his conditions. The problem being was that he was having a lot more trouble than he was expecting.
"No, I can't," Shikamaru replied while shaking his head in a clear response. "The sun is being blocked by the mist and the structure of that ice mirror he's using redirects the light and doesn't cast a shadow. I can't trap him if there's no shadow. As long as he remains elevated there's no way I can get to him." This had the Nara cursing over his inability to make his shadow tangible like his father could. If he could only just raise it off of the ground just a few meters, he might just be able to grab this guy. But he couldn't. "I bet he's figuring this out for himself right now."
"We haven't completely captured him in our rhythm yet. He's clearly played these kinds of games before. He keeps moving, makes calculated decisions and uses the open field like a weapon. So long as he has the advantage of instantaneous reaction and movement on open ground, we won't be able to get him," Shikamaru informed, furrowing his brow. "We need to slow him down."
"Or get your shadow to move fast enough to latch onto him," Naruto murmured.
They needed to take this guy alive. If there was anything Asuma had taught them, or the team had managed to learn for themselves from experience, was that information was the most important thing for a shinobi. If they could capture their opponent then there was a good chance that they would be able to learn more about the enemy, their numbers, and their hideouts. Naruto and Shikamaru knew this well and together began thinking up some way of taking out their target without killing him.
After watching him fight so far, Naruto was sure he would be able to fight him toe-to-toe. However, there were a couple of problems he had to contend with. One of them was the fact that the Genin wished he had a quick and easy way to immobilize his opponents like Shikamaru. Sure, he could duke it out with the guy, cut off his escape with clones, and try and pin him down, but that would only bring chaos to the field, much like his fight with Nai in the castle square which nearly leveled the entire area. Secondly, his knock-out wonder counters only worked against in-fighters or those who overshot their attacks. This Haku guy was a composed fighter and preferred fighting at long-range using low-risk, high reward tactics, and again, fighting to stop him using his abilities would take too long.
Shikamaru was also banging his head and trying to come up with a solution.
He could string his shadow across the field to make moving for their opponent more hazardous, but that stunt was pointless and would only end up wasting a lot of his energy. The guy was fast and had a keen eye too. He'd also be able to see through that trick easily.
The Nara then thought about using flash bombs to create more shadows and to strengthen the light to extend his range. It seemed like a solid idea, but if he was to ignite flares to increase his jutsu prowess it would only give away their positions, mainly his. He needed to fire off flashes above or behind him to direct his jutsu the way he wanted to and if their opponent was as sharp as he was he would be able to get around it. There was also the problem of vantage points, and their opponent was a full story above the ground.
He could take the option of confronting him head-on, but the possibility of getting slaughtered should he try to butt heads with a dude possessing Naruto's fighting talent was as high as it could possibly be. Their opponent was strong and well-versed in the art of close-combat; not exactly his area of expertise.
However, Shikamaru wasn't alone in this. He was working with Naruto and Hinata. They each contributed to the group and worked well as a unit to bring down obstacles that a single individual couldn't on their own. All they had to do was use what they already knew and, like against Asuma, bring this guy to a standstill.
The question was though, how were they going to be able to do that? Hinata had hidden and was protecting Tazuna from their enemies, leaving only Shikamaru and Naruto to deal with the Hunter Nin.
After a full minute of careful thinking, Shikamaru eventually clicked on an idea and looked over at his teammate. The boy clad in orange also turned to face him when he sensed something pop up on the Nara radar.
"How good is your chi control right now?" the boy asked curiously.
"Still tiring, but better," Naruto replied while raising an eyebrow, "Why?"
"Do you think you can deliver a package for me?"
If there was one thing Asuma hated the most it was being hunted.
Rule of thumb in shinobi combat was that if you were the first to make a quick getaway from your opponent in a stand-off, the one that was able to take to the shadows first and manage to keep their target in their sights had the immediate advantage. It was pretty damn difficult to hide from an opponent when you had no idea where their eyes were and how well they were able to see you.
Unless you had some sort of secret, instantaneous space-time ninjutsu, invisibility jutsu, or a particular type of shunshin that could get you from A to B along an untraceable path, then escape from this scenario was impossible. This was exactly the kind of situation Asuma found himself in as he circled repeatedly on the spot, keeping his eyes peeled for the slightest trace of movement through the fog surrounding him, as well as listening out for any sounds that could give away his ever illusive opponent's position.
The likelihood of that occurring with this adversary though was slim to none.
Feeling a chill on the back of his neck, Asuma leapt forward and spun around, looking just in time to see a massive gash appear in the ground where he had previously stood. He stumbled when he landed, a reaction which was quickly followed up by a cruel laugh echoing all around him.
"You're getting jumpy. Good. Don't trip yourself."
"No shit. If I lose track of his movements for even a second..." Asuma thought to himself while more sweat started to roll down his face. "I can't make any guesses against this guy. If I go after the wrong shadow, I might just end up having my head lopped off."
This was exactly the kind of spine tingling thought that gave him the much needed adrenaline boost to keep his senses alive when he suddenly heard the telltale sounds of metal whizzing through the air. Startled, the Jonin spun around once again, bringing his trench knives in front and barely managing to deflect the barrage of shuriken thrown at him by his opponent.
The projectiles scattered when they were battered away. The moment he did so, Asuma heard another heavy swing coming from behind and whirled around, taking the massive hit to the side with both blades blocking it. The loud clang rang out throughout the field, the impact causing the Jonin to skid several feet across before coming to a dead stop.
"You've got a mean swing," Asuma commented with a strained voice and a grin. "I don't see how you're able to lug that massive clever around wherever you go. It seems more like a hindrance than the perfect assassination tool. The noise it makes is way too noticeable."
Zabuza growled, digging his feet further in to try and force his opponent back. However, as much as he hated to admit it, the opponent he was currently crossing blades with was just as strong as he was. Asuma's size and build definitely spoke rugged toughness above everything else, which explained why he was able to tackle him head to head so easily.
The swordsman chuckled as sparks flew between them, "It's served me well these many years. Countless lives have been claimed by it in my hands alone, here… let me show you what I mean!" Zabuza exclaimed while disengaging from the grapple.
Asuma stumbled forward in shock before his opponent's blade suddenly slammed into his loosened guard a second time and sent him flying backwards.
While in midflight, the team leader holstered both of his trusted melee tools before flipping through hand seals. He was done in an instant. "Katon: Haisekishō!" Inhaling sharply, Asuma spewed a hot cloud of black ash from his mouth, which hit the ground and expanded outwards like a bomb.
It clogged the mist in darkness. Zabuza sliced out at the approaching wall of ash with his sword. He cut into it so that it parted around him instead of swallowing him up, but even with his best efforts the man was unable to fan away the smoke forever and within moments, was soon engulfed in fumes from all sides.
The swordsman's eyes shut tight as he tugged on the gauze wrappings around his mouth, stopping any of the particles from getting into his air passages.
He was gone in a flash.
"You think you can lose me in a smoke screen? Simpleton. I've been fighting blind this entire time and this is the best you can do? I'll gut you the instant your guard is down."
Asuma smirked when the trail of ash leaving his mouth ended, "Got you! Now it's time for you to duck and run!" With that, his teeth snapped together, the flints he had molded into them sparking.
The flash ignited the ash, a trail of fire following the smoke before detonating violently and filling the air with a massive explosion. The shockwave hit Asuma even at the distance he had managed to put between himself and the center of the cataclysm. The grass and ground was ripped to shreds, sending debris flying everywhere, whereas the mist was only partially separated thanks to the force of the blast. The natural element remained regardless of how devastating the jutsu was.
The Jonin shielded himself after watching his opponent disappear into the fire and dust. Once it cleared several seconds later though, revealing a scorched and ravaged earth, Asuma's immediate thought was that his job was done. Victory was his!
However, the absence of charred human remains had all hopes of a quick conquest over his enemy dissipate from his mind.
Approaching the crater formed by his attack, Asuma looked in and saw bits of shredded fabric lying around; most likely from the gauze and clothing the swordsman had been wearing. It was after collecting up one of the strips and feeling it between his fingers the Jonin quickly rounded on the mist still surrounding him.
"That was a neat trick; replacing yourself with a water clone."
Though he didn't receive an instantaneous reply it eventually came to him, much to Asuma's dismay.
"You don't sound surprised. Were you expecting a switch?"
"Sort of. You are a ninja formerly of Kirigakure and there's a high volume of water nearby. To be frank, it's not that surprising."
"Heh. So you can read your opponents after all," the phantom voice chuckled, moments before leveling out and becoming its usual, sinister self once again. "I have to admit… you're quite the impressive shinobi. You're physically strong, have keen insight, your senses are sharper than most, and you can move well despite your massive build. Even so, your constant dodging of my attacks is starting to piss me off."
"Well, it just lets me know that I'm doing my job right," Asuma replied with an amused ring in his voice.
This didn't strike a chord with the swordsman, but at least the banter was good. "Rest assured though, Sarutobi, your headless corpse will be lying dead at my feet soon enough."
"Duly noted," Asuma replied, twirling his trench knives in his hands before rotating on the spot. "He didn't escape the blast completely unscathed. He definitely caught some of it… which explains why he didn't come after me the instant I smoked him." The charred pieces of clothing were a dead giveaway.
Nevertheless, there was still the issue of him being alive.
As long as he was breathing, Zabuza Momochi was a problem for him.
Kirigakure shinobi were stubborn like that. They had this world-wide reputation of doggedly pursuing their targets until the job was either done or they were killed trying. The Demon Brothers from before were a perfect example.
But despite this quality found in a lot of Kiri ninja continuing to follow the old traditions of the former Bloody Mist, Zabuza's hit and run tactics were starting to become more predictable. Asuma's confidence grew with every miss his opponent had, which allowed him to get more and more used to the timing of the fight. There was definitely a significant gap between each of the assassin's attacks, which told the leader of team ten that his opponent had to exercise a hell of a lot of caution and concentration before advancing on a target.
Apparently Asuma wasn't the only one hampered by this element. Even its user was struggling. The fact that Zabuza had been able to use this technique successfully numerous times in the past to kill Jonin level ninja told the former guardian ninja that he was a more formidable prey item then most. He was still alive, a fact that Asuma could definitely feel proud of.
Perhaps, if he was lucky, he'd be able to mark this down in his journal of accomplishments once he got back home.
Unfortunately though, it would be a difficult march getting there. Zabuza was not only physically one of the strongest opponents he'd ever faced, he was also one of the most stubborn and difficult.
While backing down, Asuma heard a metallic clack behind him, causing him to spin around and strike out with his blades. He ducked at the same time, dodging the wide swing thrown by his noticeably burnt enemy. The massive blade flew right over the Konoha Jonin's head, a miss with a noticeably huge gap in it that allowed the leader of team ten the opportunity to counter. He dove straight at Zabuza from below after getting under the sword, ramming his trench knife into his stomach.
The Kiri ninja let out a strangled shout as he keeled over from the low blow, his innards spilling over his opponent's weapon driving like a stake into his torso.
Asuma grinned, "Stop attacking people from behind, you one-trick-pony. That shit's getting old."
The groaning Zabuza twitched as he hunched over the man's arms, gritting his teeth to bite against the pain. However, when it appeared his legs were about to give out, a smirk spread over his face and he looked up at the one he had attempted to behead, "One-trick-pony, am I?"
A chuckle filled his ears, alerting Asuma to instant and certain danger.
The Konoha Jonin's eyes widened and he looked up into the mist, where he saw the real Zabuza dematerialize out of the fog directly in front of him. There was a loud whooshing noise of a heavy object cutting through the air, followed shortly by a flash of light. The leader of team ten only had a split second to get out of the way, crouching low and pushing off of the ground with all the strength he could muster, but was hampered by the water clone he had still had his knife buried in holding him down.
In an instant, the massive clever the swordsman wielded cut through the copy and sliced straight across Asuma's chest. A combination of both water and blood was sprayed across the field, as the end of the mammoth weapon carved a nice scar right through the intended target's body.
Asuma choked in shock, stumbling back when his arm was finally relinquished by the dispelling clone before hitting the ground several feet behind him. Gasping in panic, he looked up to see his attacker drop his heavy blade to the floor and glare back at him, his chuckles filling the air in a haunting melody.
"You fell into my pattern. That was your mistake," Zabuza growled, straightening up with his sword held in a two-handed grip.
Grabbing the wound across his chest, Asuma quickly took score of the situation. Looking his opponent up and down, he could see that the rogue shinobi had his entire left side of his body burnt, but nothing that was too serious. His pant legging was shredded, his mask was a little bit dirtied, and he looked pretty much intact save for some bruises. As for him, the Konoha Jonin looked down at his vest to see it stained red with blood, obviously caused by the clever carving a nice path over his pectorals.
His breathing slowing, Asuma double-checked the damage and sighed in relief when he saw that no vital organs had been cut. It was a hell of a scratch though. It went much deeper than he would have preferred.
"This is definitely going to ruin my day."
Struggling back to his feet, Asuma took up his blades once again and dropped into his signature brawling stance. His knives clicked when they were held in position, his opponent also taking a stance and bringing his sword around. Just like before, the swordsman sunk into the mist.
"I'm going to pay you back for the flash burns," Zabuza stated, his eyes disappearing into the white of their environment. "I'm getting a little bit fed up with you evading me constantly. This stops right here, right now."
"Suit yourself," Asuma grunted.
It would take a little bit longer to find a good opening in his rhythm. But once he did, Asuma was certain he could take the pace. Even though he took a big hit right above the heart, he was still good. He could keep on going.
This was a waiting game, just like shogi. All he needed to do was position his pieces in the right spots and be patient…
Haku looked up from his mirror when he suddenly saw a shadow come strolling out of the mist. At first he thought it was his hidden attacker trying for another shot at him, but after the next few seconds as the figure drew ever closer, the boy was eventually able to get a good view of the one stepping out to confront him. Though he wasn't surprised by the person he saw, the assassin was still a little taken aback by the kid's boldness.
Clad in orange with a mop of bright, spiky yellow hair on top of his head, Naruto Uzumaki came out to meet the ice user face to face. He stopped when he was about ten meters away from him, a position that allowed him a comfortable spot to look up at the assassin still confined in ice.
Haku raised an eyebrow underneath his damage masked, "You orchestrated this?" he questioned flatly, figuring this boy to be the one responsible for all his troubles.
Naruto shook his head. "Not me. My friends did. I was just the shogi pieces."
"Ah. So you are the clone user."
The blonde grinned brightly, "Bingo."
"I have to say you're really something else; able to conjure up so many shadow clones and henge each of them to resemble your traveling companions so perfectly. I couldn't tell which ones were real and which ones were the fakes. You had me thrown."
"Thanks," Naruto chirped.
"You're also really fortunate to have such intuitive companions by your side to back you up. It appears, from my point of view, that I have been drawn into a fight being dictated by you three and on my own turf no less," Haku exclaimed, widening his stance and bringing his senbon into view. Naruto however didn't even flinch as he remained where he was with his hands in his pockets. "You plan on fighting me one on one? If that's the case, then please let me tell you that that is a very bad idea."
"I'm not worried."
"If there's one thing I'm confident in it's my ability to fight guys like you one on one," Naruto replied, bringing his hands up and putting them behind his head. He beamed up at his opponent. "You're really strong. I always love fighting guys who can give me a real challenge."
"So… you're breaking off from the strategy you and your friends had so carefully devised, just to duel with me?" Haku asked, lowering his throwing arm a little when he saw the Genin below nod his head enthusiastically. Raising an eyebrow, he gripped his senbon tightly once more, "Why? You've seen my speed. How can you be so confident?"
"Maybe it's because I'm cocky, or it's my nature… or I'm just a little strange that way," Naruto said with a shrug, removing his hands from his head and widening his feet a little. He began jumping on his toes, moving back and forth on the spot with his fists at his sides, preparing to run this guy through with his Blocking Fist.
For this kind of fight against an opponent as strong as him, he needed to take him on at his best.
"In any case, I just love fighting. I love it because it allows me to push myself to my limits and learn a lot more about the people I'm fighting against. When your life, your dreams and the things most important to you are hanging by a thread, that's when you are at your best! When you're at your strongest!"
Haku blinked, pausing for a moment as he watched the boy move about from side to side. While intrigued by his strange movements, he was more perplexed by his character and the words he spoke. Looking him in the eyes, the masked teen could see something else through the burning passion in his opponent's irises. It was something he was all too familiar with, something that allowed him to connect with the jinchuriki, even when few words had been expressed between them.
It was all in his expression.
A smile tugged on Haku's lips, "You're a very strange boy." He lowered his head with a keen air in his gestures. "You and I… may not be so different."
"Really?" Naruto grinned, finding a relaxed skipping rhythm with his footwork. "Why do you say that?"
"You don't just fight for the thrill of fighting, you fight because you have purpose," Haku said, putting his opponent in the spotlight. "It's fixed like the stars. You move forward not out of some selfish ambition or intent to cause harm; you fight because you have something to live for, something worth fighting for."
"You know it!" Naruto exclaimed, happy to be sharing this conversation with the Hunter Nin.
"Let me ask you something then; do you have people in your life important to you? People you would do anything for, even give your life to protect?"
"Of course," the jinchuriki replied without hesitation, moving his left hand out front and right to his chest while continuing to skip on the spot. A familiar glint appeared in his eyes, "I fight for my friends, the most important people in the world to me. They were the first people to acknowledge my existence, the first to acknowledge me for who I am as a person and not for what others saw me as. I'm able to keep on going because I know that they're waiting for me."
Haku nodded in understanding. "So it is true, you and I are the same…"
Not even missing a beat in that response, Naruto tilted his head at the assassin. "The same? Then…"
"I'm afraid that's a story for another time," Haku said evenly, keeping his eyes locked onto his target. "Though we are enemies, I am glad I was able to speak with you. But now it's time for me to complete my mission." He raised his free hand to form a hand seal, making the jinchuriki hop back a little. "Zabuza-sama gave me a task to do and I intend to see it through to the end. Makyō Hyōshō!"
Almost instantly, just as Naruto was putting up a guard to defend against what he assumed was an attack, ice mirrors began forming in the air all around him. Within seconds, the panes created out of the moisture in the air formed into a dome, comprising of about twenty-one floating mirrors. The jinchuriki's eyes darted around, looking from one block to the next, before locking onto his opponent still suspended in the one in front of him.
Haku's stance lowered, "I apologize in advance."
Blinking, Naruto let out a laugh and continued moving back and forth, balancing himself on his toes, "That's a good one. I didn't know you had a sense of humor."
"You are unconcerned?"
"I'm terrified," Naruto stated sincerely, shrugging at the masked Nin with a grin. "Why do you think I'm out here?"
Haku smiled, "Oh, sorry." They'd just been sharing a religious discussion on values only minutes ago. How could he forget? "You are a good man. Though I have no quarrel with you or any personal vendettas against your teammates, I will still defeat you. This is purely business."
"Well, if this is work, then you may as well do everything you can to make it enjoyable," the blonde exclaimed while cracking his neck to the side. His dancing was then taken to a whole new level. "Besides, this wouldn't be any fun if only one of us was serious." In an incredible twist, Naruto began moon-walking back and forth along the grass, getting a feel for his rhythm while baffling his opponent fixed in the reflective surface of his mirror. After moon-walking followed by a quick bit of shuffling, Naruto took his Blocking Fist stance, relaxing his muscles for a competition he was sure was going to be glorious.
Throwing several warm up punches, Naruto then dropped back into a wide orthodox stance and waved a hand towards the boy up above, "Come on!"
Haku nodded. Complying with the boy's request, in the blink of an eye the assassin's masked face flickered into all twenty-one of the ice mirrors, surrounding the grinning youngster on all sides.
Elsewhere in the Land of Wave…
While the whole shinobi routine was going down between Team 10 and the rogue ninjas out for Tazuna's life on their part of the island, unknown to the warring groups, beyond the mists concealing them from the prying eyes of the world, something else just as interesting was taking place further inland. Far outside of the fog where the sun was able to touch the forest canopy and floor, there was a strange disturbance in the air. The animals seemed to sense it and, in response to the electric sensation, scattered the moment they detected the danger as if it were the stench from a hunter.
Like a ripple on a pond's surface the atmosphere in the center of the peaceful clearing was suddenly racked by an otherworldly force. This force was so great in fact that it tore a hole in the fabric of reality, right in the middle of that very space. Time, matter and light suddenly converged around a single point like a whirlpool. Seconds later, the center of the calamity opened up in a rip, revealing a dark storm like world behind the canvas of this one.
It was a river of raw energy, from which it spewed out two unlikely travelers.
Kicking and screaming, a pair of young women was unexpectedly flung out of the vortex, as if the whirlwind of energy that was their conduit found them distasteful. They bounced across the hard ground before coming to a complete stop, one on their face and the other on top of that one's back.
The smaller of the two was lying beneath the more rambunctious looking one; a most hilarious sight.
Groaning, a young girl around 15 years of age with long brown hair, wearing a headband, a red and yellow traveling uniform, boots, pauldrons, a dark cape, and a satchel and short blade at her side, tried to push herself off of the damp grass. Her efforts were hampered however by the mistress laying on top of her, a tall, curvaceous and busty young woman with flowing dark hair, also wearing a black cape, pauldrons, a long sword, boots, and an incredibly revealing black leather outfit that didn't leave much to the imagination. It was an odd couple, and apparently the shorter of the two agreed as she was swatted on the back of the head by her drowsy companion and seethed angrily.
Growling out in anger, the girl being pressed under foot slammed a fist into the ground before digging her nails into it, taking chunks of earth with her, "God damn it, I hate time travel! That is the last time I'm ever listening to you, stupid Naga!"
The woman on top of the frustrated girl burst out into fits of obnoxious laughter in response to her outburst. It was a laugh so distinct that anyone would be able to pick it out from a crowd, as well as being startling enough to scare the shit out of several birds hiding in a nearby tree.
"Well, you shouldn't have provoked me my dear Lina! Now look where we are! Distraught, possibly traumatized, flushed, and lying in the mud in some desolate wasteland!" the woman laughed, sitting up and pulling herself off of her companion.
"Ugh, where are we anyway? This doesn't look like Turmoil."
"Perhaps we were flung further down the vortex then we thought. I mean, jumping in half-cock like that… something was bound to happen," Naga exclaimed, rising to her feet and dusting her legs down at the same time as her partner. They placed their hands on their hips and looked around them, absolutely bewildered by everything. "Hmm, these aren't any kinds of plants I've seen before," the buxom woman pointed while crinkling her nose. "The smell is different too."
"Great, so not only did we get lost in time but we were transported to a whole other country!" Lina fumed, slamming a fist into her open palm.
"Now don't you worry, Lina Inverse. It can't be all that bad," Naga giggled and gestured grandly to her person and then toward their surroundings, "We are still alive, aren't we?"
"Yeah, I guess you're right," the brown haired girl murmured while rubbing the back of her head. "But man… it still sucks." Kicking at the ground, Lina then turned towards her friend with a casual stare. "Anyway, so long as we have the amulet we have nothing to worry about. We should be able to get back to our own time as long as it's still got some juice left in it. Come on Naga, fork it over." She extended her hand expectantly.
The raven haired mistress she was addressing sighed in resignation and reached for her neck. Feeling around a bit, Naga's eyes widened when she was unable to grasp the telltale bronze of the chest piece. She then looked down and began searching her pouches and cape.
The sight of the sorceress now frantically feeling about her person had Lina's brow furrow. "Is there a problem?" the girl asked, teeth pressed together tightly.
Jolting back into reality, Naga let loose a nervous laugh before grinning down at the younger sorceress. "I uhh… I must have dropped it."
"Y-Yes… further umm… further back inside the vortex. Now you can't blame me for that, I couldn't help it! The whole thing was just undulating violently. I was barely able to keep myself composed. Who knows where it might have wound up," the woman exclaimed while folding her arms and looking away, as if the matter wasn't that concerning. That or, she was trying to abruptly change the subject and was failing miserably. "Anyway, there's no need to worry-"
"NO NEED TO WORRY!" Lina roared, lashing out at the woman with a punch whom quickly scampered away just in time to dodge. She then began running circles around the clearing, Naga's obnoxious laughter filling the air as the angry brunette pursued her. "YOU IDIOT! YOU MORON! YOU FOOL! NOW THANKS TO YOU, WE'RE BOTH STUCK HERE! What are we gonna do now? Huh? Tell me! WHAT ARE WE GONNA DO?!"
"AH-HAHAHAHAHA! Calm down, Lina Inverse!" Naga laughed, sprinting a figure-eight as Lina chased her down, brandishing her fangs and claws like a tiger, "It's not like it's the end of the world!"
"It will be for you when I'm done beating you into a bloody pulp!"
"You don't mean that! Come now, all you're doing is burning up precious calories you need to build up your incredibly flat chest!"
"THAT'S IT! YOU'RE DEAD!"
While it wasn't as dramatic or life-threatening as the Zabuza and Team 10 fight, it was still just as entertaining.
As the pair screamed and laughed each other out, one desiring nothing more than the pleasure of killing the older individual staying just out of arm's reach, the pair failed to notice a second rip in the world open up in the sky high above them. It appeared as a tear, revealing the same twisting vortex beyond the wall dividing this world from that, moments before a small jewel came flying out.
The amulet the pair were bickering over shot across the sky like a meteor, trailing fire before crashing far over the horizon, somewhere over the mountains on the mainland of the Shinobi Nations.
This eventuality, of all the twists in time to have taken place thus far, promised one more adventure for the pair and, unbeknownst to them, the group fighting a good fight not too far from where they'd made landfall…
Back at the lake…
Performing a jumping inside kick in an effort to dodge, Naruto barely avoided a cluster of senbon that came raining down at him from above. They impaled the ground, just like the hundreds of others that had missed their targets, while the jinchuriki landed safely in a crouching stance away from the center. He glared up from all fours, like a cat keeping low to avoid the eyes of its prey, as he glared up towards his opponent whom he could see flickering between mirrors.
Sweating a bit, the boy gritted his teeth when Haku once again multiplied and spread throughout all twenty one mirrors.
Naruto got back into a crouching stance and brought his hands around defenselessly, his eyes darting from panel to panel.
"I figured out the trick to this technique of his, but it's still a major pain in the ass," the jinchuriki thought, meaning it both figuratively and literally as he had taken more than his fair share of senbon to his backside. Top that off with several more piercing his shoulders, hide and arms, the boy was slowly transforming into a human porcupine right before everyone's eyes. "Those images of him in the mirrors aren't clones, they're his reflections. He's made it look like he's in several different places at once, but he's really just moving between the mirrors at high speed. Looks like I was right about him being an out fighter. He's fucking quick."
The truth was that this Haku guy was only in one mirror at any one time. Though this gave Naruto some comfort knowing that he wasn't battling an entire army of Hunter Nins, it wasn't like this thought gave him a solution to his problem. From his point of view, it was like he WAS taking on an army of Hunter Nins, even though it was just one on one. He couldn't see him, he couldn't get to any corner of the dome without being attacked, and the needles coming down at him came down in a storm. Not to mention the reflections all looked the same, so there was no way he could tell which one was which, even when his target shifted. They constantly changed yet remained indivisible depending on the user's current condition.
Growling in frustration, the boy yanked out the needles in his forearms and took a stance once again. When his vision went momentarily blurry, he shook himself back into focus, "His fighting style is very much like Hinata's. He's using pinpoint precision to bring down my body from the inside with these acupuncture needles. Forget exterior damage, he's targeting my vitals in a very specific order. That's seriously annoying…"
Had he ever fought against someone this tough before? Yes, but while Haku wasn't as physically strong as his last opponent, he was hundreds of times faster.
Clenching his fists, Naruto decided to do something about his situation. The course of the battle needed to be shifted now, lest he end up a bloated corpse covered in needles at the end of the day.
He'd been dancing around this circle and following his opponent's rhythm for all this time now. Naturally, he was fed up with it and decided right then and there to change his approach.
"Alright Naruto," the blonde exclaimed to himself, a smile appearing on his face as he shrugged away the pain of senbon in his back and shoulders, "You've been training all this time to catch up to speed like this. If you can follow him with your eyes then your body should be able to keep pace as well. Let's see how well you can rev your engine."
His toes were feeling good and his legs were in perfect condition.
Without warning, he changed up.
Cranking the metaphorical gear box in his body Naruto suddenly exploded into life, dashing straight towards the Haku in the mirror directly in front of him. He covered ground almost instantly, his right fist cocking back as he locked the enemy teenager in his sights. However, just as he was close to covering the empty space between them, the reflections once again came to life and chucked a barrage of senbon straight at him.
The jinchuriki backpedaled sharply and dodged left, avoiding the hail of needles. He sprinted at full speed, following the circumference of the ring and tossing shuriken at the Haku in the mirrors he could see running alongside him, jumping the gaps between panes one after the other.
The boy in the mask returned his shots with his acupuncture weapons blow for blow, with both opponents knocking each other's projectiles out of the air.
Ducking to avoid a senbon aimed for his head, Naruto returned with a kunai. The explosive tag wrapped around the handle unraveled and sparked, burying itself in the mirror he'd aimed for and detonating on impact. It blasted into the ice pane like TNT in a mineshaft. But just as it seemed like Naruto was able to land a good hit on his opponent's defenses, when the smoke cleared it soon revealed that the explosion didn't even scratch the surface.
It was unreal. What the hell was this ice made of? Condensed steel?
Furrowing his brow, Naruto then switched up and leapt back, throwing another hail of shuriken.
As if they were moving in slow motion, Haku knocked them all out of the air before his opponent had even landed, leaving the jinchuriki wide open for another wave. But Naruto wasn't going to make himself that easy a target to hit and immediately dashed off the moment he acquired a good enough foothold, avoiding a wall of senbon that peppered the ground around his previous position.
"Alright. Come on! Come on! Come out of that mirror! Attack me!" Naruto thought, watching carefully through his sharp eyes as he saw Haku leap across the dome above him in a blur and arrive in another mirror. The jinchuriki threw a kunai after him, but that was knocked out of the air and his opponent changed locations.
Though he was able to catch sight of the real one every once in a while, Haku was still projecting his reflection all over the place. It was irritating, like playing 'Where's Wally' and every single person in the crowd was Wally. "Even though I'm moving as fast as I can, I'm still only one target. No matter where I go he'll be able to see me and attack me."
Grinning, the blonde then formed his trademark hand seal and moved back to avoid another deadly shower from above.
"Let's see how you handle more of me. Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" the blonde thought, bursts of white smoke exploding all around him.
His doppelgangers immediately leapt out in all directions from the smoke along with him in an effort to confuse the attacker. It seemed like a good idea.
But almost instantly after scattering to the four winds, the platoon of shadow clones was cut down by Haku's blurred form moving between the mirrors at his ridiculous speed. The original saw him make his move through his peripherals as he rushed for the edge of the dome, watching the boy cut down his copies one after another before he himself was confronted by his ever elusive foe.
Naruto's eyes widened, "There you are!" His fist cocked to land a blow, but he was kicked in the chest and sent straight back down to the ground by the even faster moving boy, who once again disappeared into his mirrors.
When the blonde haired jinchuriki slammed into the ground, he looked up just in time to see his platoon of doppelgangers dispel into puffs of smoke. Some of them had been beaten into submission almost instantly, others slashed in the neck or the head, and others had been mercilessly peppered by needles. Panting for breath, Naruto thanked his lucky stars that all he got was a kick before gritting his teeth. He leapt to his feet and barreled out of the way at the last second when another shower of needles was sent flying at him from all directions.
Getting clipped in the shoulder in his dive, the boy yelped and tumbled across the ground, before coming to a crouching stop.
He hissed and glared over his wounded shoulder, "I saw him! Fuck! He was right there in front of me!" Naruto thought angrily before grinning. "Alright! Now we're getting somewhere! He stays in his mirrors and attacks me from a distance when there's only a single target, but when I create clones and provide a greater number of targets he can't concentrate enough to take them all out using senbon en masse or risk one of them getting out. You have to have a lot of concentration to land that many senbon to take out a live target. If this dome is stuffed to the brim with opponents, then he needs to attack them directly to take them out." This would be the key to his turnaround.
His shadow clones were quite durable when they were made to be and could take a punch just like the original. The only times they were actually dispelled were if they were hit with enough force to knock them out or kill them, were given instruction to dispel prematurely by the user as part of a greater strategy, or if their chakra lifespan came to an end. These were the most common ways Naruto's clones were dispatched.
The way Haku was able to beat them was what Naruto was able to pick up through his clones' collective memories. The boy struck at the vital organs and punctured them with dozens of needles to points all over the body that would immediately render a person immobile. He also had untraceable speed on his side. While speed like this would have normally meant that his attacks lacked power to deliver fast attacks, built up enough Haku was able to deliver a blow that felt like it had a lot of power behind it, when in actuality it was his speed giving him momentum and mass. It was simple physics.
Haku played to his strengths well.
But that was all about to change.
"His mirrors can't be destroyed through blunt force, so explosive tags and conventional attacks are out of the question," Naruto thought, leaping to the center of the dome when another hail of needles threatened to pin him down. Skidding to a stop in the middle, the instant he was in position he flipped through hand seals and dropped low, placing his right hand on the earth's surface. "Just follow the plan; lure him out of the mirrors! Iwa Bunshin no Jutsu!"
In an instant, the earth in front of him jutted out of the ground on all four sides, the head of one of the pillars being pulled up directly by his right hand. Bringing it over in a flowing motion, the jinchuriki shielded his form with four solid rock clones, all of them with their backs turned towards the fiend in the mirrors glaring down at them and arms hanging off of each other's shoulders. Soon enough, the doppelgangers were fully formed and Naruto was now crouching inside a shield formed by his friends.
"Not done yet!" the blonde thought, forming his cross-fingered hand seal again. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" The dome's floor filled with a collection of shadow clones. They took up positions and stared up at the Hunter Nin looking down at them from his various windows. Haku watched on curiously to see what his opponent was planning, and didn't have to wait long when the original hiding in the heart of his entourage eventually barked out his order, "Porcupine formation! NOW!"
With that, the entire platoon leapt back and piled up on the four earth clones. Back to back from top to bottom, the small force formed a dome of their own, kunai drawn and pointed in all directions. From the way it looked from a distance it was definitely a spiny animal of sorts, one that carried a lethal bite should a predator find interest in it.
This startled Haku at the sudden stroke of brilliance behind his opponent's tactic, which had the masked assassin scratching his head while bringing up another set of senbon to chuck down at his well-defended enemy.
"Are you sure it was your teammates who came up with the strategy from before?" the fake Hunter Nin asked, wondering if his question could reach him telepathically. When he received no response, he lowered himself into a stance. "In either case, you are also a really intelligent shinobi. I never would have thought you'd come up with something like this."
If neither one of them were using jutsu, head to head, Naruto clearly had the advantage in speed, decisiveness and raw physical power. It was only with this jutsu Haku felt he could fight evenly with this boy if not hold the advantage of overwhelming speed against him completely. As long as he kept fighting the way he was, he would be able to win.
But every second he stayed in this technique, holding up these mirrors, he was bleeding valuable chakra. He had to end this now or risk his jutsu failing him and leaving him at the mercy of either this boy, or his teammates still hiding in the mists.
Improved defense or not, a majority of his shield was comprised of bodies. Like all bodies, they all had weak points, no matter how hard you tried to cover them up.
"Once I've put you to sleep, I will go after your companions and complete my mission," Haku thought, a solemn shadow falling over him as his expression became one of disheartenment. "I'm sorry, but with this final barrage, this fight ends with my victory!"
In a flash, he began to move. His body zipped between the mirrors above the ball of clones from one reflection to the next. In the blink of an eye, senbon rained down upon the mass of copies from all sides, threatening to blanket them in a shower of death.
However, with so many opponents to hit, even with his speed, accuracy and timing, Haku knew he wouldn't be able to dismiss these adversaries with just a single wave. This point was proven as the clones shielded themselves and battered away the barrages of senbon with their kunai. When the first bombardment failed, Haku unleashed a second, zipping between mirrors and unleashing wave upon endless waves of needles. The attacks showered the field and the barrier of shadow clones, chipping away at their clothes, scarring them, scratching them, and soon enough, puncturing them.
It felt like an eternity later, but just as Haku was preparing a twenty-fifth rain of senbon, a couple of the clones finally gave up, collapsing from the formation with needles in their necks before dispelling entirely. This was the chink in the armor the assassin was looking for and, after one last shower of needles, Haku dropped down to ground level and began ramming into the formation directly with otherworldly precision. Crisscrossing the field at light speed, he moved in and out of his mirrors in a blur, forming a visible web from a bird's eye view as he cut into the defenders one after the other.
It was then, just as the clones were beginning to collapse and dispel from the insurmountable damage being inflicted upon them by their lightning fast opponent, the original Naruto decided to fire off his new technique.
Crouched low, his eyes peaking through the gaps of his remaining defenders, Naruto slid his hands along the ground, before rising up. Just as Yim showed him, he steadied his breathing, focused, and allowed the flow of his chi to circulate through his form with slow and calm hand movements. He got a feel for his center of gravity, slid around on his feet before eventually bringing his hands to his side, left hand hovering over the right.
Naruto glared ahead of him where, as if time seemed to slow down for him, he saw through the gap in his defense his opponent sink into a mirror, before flying out at what the blonde presumed to be his top speed. But, now that he was calm, relaxed, and focused without any distractions whatsoever, Naruto was literally able to crawl into Haku's realm of speed.
His hands began to vibrate. Immediately upon pumping chi into his hands, a steam-like formation began to manifest between Naruto's palms. The invisible energy he was able to grasp control of compressed itself in his grip. A grin appeared on his face once he was certain he'd gathered the right amount of power and, without missing a beat, released it all at once.
The boy let loose what everyone in range first thought was something equivalent to a shockwave of some sorts. But the blast, which traveled straight through his clones and stopped Haku dead in his tracks when he ran head-long into it, was immediately followed by a violent gust of wind that whipped at the ground and expanded outwards, taking out all intended targets and leaving everything else intact. It was a magnificent display of accuracy and control.
Haku was stunned.
The clones previously surrounding Naruto were dismissed at the advent of the technique, either crumbling or dispelling as smoke. The Hunter Nin on the other hand was sent spiraling backwards at the force of the winds.
He bounced across the ground like a ball many times before coming to a shuddering halt, his clothes ripped and his mask shattered. While lying on his front, the boy groaned and trembled as he pushed himself back up, his hair whipping in whatever breeze remained before his eyes locked onto his opponent now standing in the heart of the dissipating storm.
His counter landing successfully, Naruto smirked and glared across at his fallen foe, who struggled to get back to his feet.
Despite his efforts, Haku could not stop the blood running out of his mouth, shortly followed by him puking his guts out when he couldn't shake the dizziness also racking his consciousness. On top of having every fiber of his being screaming at him in utter agony, he was also discombobulated and nauseous.
"W-What was that jutsu?" Haku choked out, looking across at his standing foe through a hazy vision. "That was no wind release technique. Something else stopped me. It was like a typhoon just erupted from his very core with enough power to rip me to shreds. I was spared… but…"
Unfortunately, he wasn't left to dawn on the details of the technique for long. Realizing he was out in the open and no longer in the safety of his mirrors, Haku's eyes widened and he sprang to his feet. Ignoring the damage, he made an immediate B-line towards the nearest mirror in an attempt to fall back into his jutsu. However, just as he was coming up to one of the windows, an orange blur skidded to a stop directly in front of him.
Arms dangling down in front of him and feet shoulder-width apart, Naruto Uzumaki placed himself between his opponent and his only chance of salvation. This was where his leg training fully came into play.
The speed he used almost made it look like he teleported.
Haku freaked out and backpedaled, changing directions hastily and dashing towards another mirror. "NO!"
It was clear he was fast. Haku's own movements were almost instantaneous. But Naruto quickly made it known to all that, without any factors contributing to his strength, he was the faster. Once again the Hunter Nin's path was cut off by a grinning blonde haired jinchuriki; his arms dangling in front of him provocatively with his shoulders slouched and back hunched over. Although this lowered his posture significantly, in the terrified Haku's eyes it made him look gigantic.
The ice user fully realized in that moment that this was no ordinary shinobi he was fighting against. This one was moving like a demon!
"Can't run away!" Haku thought desperately, disappearing in a flash and sprinting right. If he couldn't escape by retreating, then he figured he could go around. He refused to admit defeat. His speed was unmatched. No opponent could beat him in his specialty. "I'll take your flanks and get back into-" In the midst of forming his strategy, a shadow fell over him once more when he found himself confronted by Naruto a third time.
The jinchuriki appeared directly in front of him, a deep scowl on his face and a piercing glare locked onto the frantic Hunter Nin.
Haku's eyes widened, "Y-You?!" Almost instantly, the teen found his gaze sinking into the blonde's glare, which cut him right to the bone. It was almost like he was being swallowed up by a monstrous beast; a creature from the blackest abyss that feared nothing and consumed everything in its path. Though Haku knew it in his heart and head that he'd fought against foes more gruesome in appearance and monstrous in power than this boy, he didn't know what to make of this strange sensation now overcoming him.
It was like his body was losing all will to continue fighting.
Feeling himself sinking and beginning to freeze up, Haku bit down hard and slapped himself awake. "Don't give up! Run! Keep running! FASTER!" He exploded into action, swiftly changing directions and going the other way at an even greater speed. "GET AWAY!"
But the chase continued. No matter which way he went, no matter where he turned or how hard he tried, Naruto kept either popping up in front of him or kept cutting him off. This happened not once, not twice, not three times, it happened repeatedly. To the left, to the right, backwards, forwards, over, under, the blonde haired boy kept getting in his way. Though Haku didn't know why, he felt that his opponent had gotten even faster than the speed he had been using before he decided to change tactics and curled up in that porcupine formation.
It appeared as though that when Naruto used that arrangement, he didn't just use it as a means to wait for an opportunity to pounce, he also used it to get a feel for his timing.
That had to be it!
He used his mirrors too many times to take out his clones, and now he was paying the price for his repetitive strategy.
Naruto had turned the tables on him.
Letting out a shout, Haku evaded right, dashing across at close to light speed in an effort to break off engagement with his pursuer. But just as he was moving to get around, Naruto appeared directly in front of him again at an even greater speed with a calmer expression in play. A horrified look came over the young assassin when he got a good look at Naruto's eyes for the twentieth time this round.
Those weren't the eyes of passion or whispers of a lonely past reflected in his gaze anymore. It was the eyes of a predator, a wolf, a tiger… a killer!
It was exactly the kind of effect Naruto was aiming for, all in order to demoralize his enemy and throw him off his game. It was no surprise that it was working, since this was the exact same technique of projecting killing intent that Nai used against him during their battle.
Senbon flying into his hand, Haku slid to a stop and responded to the blonde appearing in front of him with a stabbing right. "Enough running!" His attack came in swiftly, as fast as his dash. "I must strike now, while I have a chance!" His hand and senbon cut through the air like a blade, threatening to smite the boy down in one go.
The blonde side stepped and began falling back, dodging a series of slashes and stabbing motions being desperately mounted by his adversary. As impressive as his ferocity and display was, Naruto was able to see each of the attacks coming his way, and sure enough, he got a feel for his timing.
Naruto smirked, "Counter chance! NOW!" He stepped forward, reaching out and catching the boy's arm in a slipping grip. He twisted while he moved forward, his opponent unwittingly stepping towards him and ending up with his arm locked behind his back. In the same motion, the blonde tossed Haku over his shoulder, slamming him against the ground behind him face first with his arm locked up. Naruto then flipped and landed on the boy's back with his knee close to the neck, putting unwanted pressure on him.
"Jujitsu. You gotta love the stuff your teachers give you," Naruto grinned, keeping his opponent pinned beneath him. "Got yah!"
The instant he had him, Shikamaru's kagemane, which had been attached to his body the entire time, suddenly shot out and wrapped itself around Haku. The ice user froze up instantly, his body submitting to the paralysis technique and his expression becoming one of utter bewilderment.
It was over.
Naruto hopped off of his opponent and staggered back, watching as Haku was willed into a kneeling position with his hands locked behind him. It was with his decisive capture the 'fun-house-of-mirrors' technique faltered and melted away into the mist, moments before the pair was joined by the conjurer of the paralysis technique. Shikamaru marched out of the fog with a smile on his face and shadow still linking him to his opponent, with all intent on keeping him rooted where he was.
"Shadow Possession Jutsu successful," the Nara exclaimed, looking over at his friend. "Thanks a ton for stopping him."
"No problem," Naruto grinned, giving him a thumbs up.
Looking him over once, the previously pleased Shikamaru than appeared taken aback when he saw the state his teammate was really in. Forget the scuffs, bruises and the bleeding from the mouth; he was covered in acupuncture needles. "Damn, man. Are you gonna be alright? You look like hell."
"Huh?" The jinchuriki followed his companion's line of sight to his shoulders, to which he then jumped when he finally noticed the problem. "Oh, shit. I forgot about these." He then began the methodical and painstaking process of removing each individual senbon from his flesh, which earned a few yelps and curses from the normally invincible blonde.
While Naruto fussed over his injuries and Shikamaru kept his side tied down, Haku took his time looking between the two boys. Eyes darting from one individual to the next, he then looked over at the Nara to see him glaring down at him intently. "So this was all your doing? This plan?"
The Nara smirked at him, "That's right. You gave me quite a headache trying to catch you, mate. Thankfully I had my pal here to back me up." He heard another yelp from Naruto yanking the needles out of his ass, which were probably the most painful out of all the ones precariously placed all over his body. Nobody liked having injections in that spot. "It was tough going, but in the end all the pieces fell into place."
"So you were confident that your friend would be able to take me on directly without killing me? It seemed like a rather risky venture."
"He didn't do all the work," Shikamaru exclaimed, pointing at the shadow binding them together. "I fight better from a distance. Since I could see the whole thing from where I was, I was able to pull Naruto out of harm's way whenever things got too dangerous for him or couldn't see where he was going. I needed to keep tabs on his positions anyway till he had a hold over you. So in a way, I never left his side."
Haku smiled, "You are a most loyal friend and comrade. Each of you is always looking out for the other." He then glanced over at Naruto, brought near to tears from having to pull out so many barbs. "Is this one of the precious people you were talking about, Naruto?"
The jinchuriki looked at him with a blink. Processing the question quickly, he then nodded.
That was all the answer Haku needed before he turned his gaze towards the ground. "Then I have lost; both in this battle and in my conviction."
"Man, you have a really weird habit of attracting strange opponents, Naruto," Shikamaru chuckled while looking over at his teammate. "Are you sure you're not doing this on purpose?"
The boy in orange shrugged while shaking his head, "I swear, I have no idea what's going on."
"Well, in any case," Shikamaru began again before glaring off in the other direction, where he could hear Asuma and Zabuza's fight still going on. The sparks they could see in the mist, as well as the occasional blasts of fire, explosions, clangs and what not, told them that their duel was reaching its climax. Not wanting to concern their teacher, Shikamaru got Haku to stand up, turning him so that his teammate could bind his hands with rope. "We still have a report to make."
"Long gone, along with Tazuna," Shikamaru smiled, seeing Haku's gaze focused on the ground with a somber expression in play. Knowing full well that he was still listening, even in defeat and frozen in place by his shadow, the Nara addressed this next piece to him. "Don't even bother looking for them. You won't find your target here."
"I know that," Haku said, lightly smiling once more as his ears perked to those words. "You wouldn't have left him unattended or unguarded. A wise shinobi like you is truly a force to be reckoned with out on the battlefield, if not the most unlikely."
"Funny. Though I appreciate the compliments, aren't you supposed to be, like, our enemy?" Shikamaru asked, sounding a little bit amused. Honestly, this guy was way too friendly to be working with someone like Zabuza. What was his deal?
"I am. But consider me the better of the many you are likely to face in your future," Haku replied. His once happy gleam suddenly became downcast as a serious one took over, his eyes landing on the pair flanking him. The light in his cheeks was wiped away and quickly overcome by a look of dread and foreboding. "This is especially the case with your mission to this country. I'm afraid that we are not the only ones you should be concerned about."
This announcement did not sit too well with Naruto or Shikamaru. The two ragged teens looked across at one another, silently contemplating the meaning behind those words.
"Not the only ones?" the jinchuriki queried.
"There are more?" Shikamaru asked, looking across at their captive. "Who?
Haku frowned, "Devils from across the seas…"
Asuma was currently on his knees, glaring furiously at his foe also standing in place and spilling blood all over the grass.
The fight that had transpired between Asuma and Zabuza following the pair trading two of their best hits against each other became as violent as it was gory. Who knew that a battle between ninja using stealth and timing as their main elements could turn so ugly?
In the engagements to follow, Zabuza kept trading shots with his target, coming at him from every possible angle, swinging his massive clever. While he had managed to score some punishing blows, including two more across his opponent's chest, his shoulder, a massive gash across his back and legs, it didn't stop Asuma from moving. Oh no.
The guy fought back tooth and nail. Using Hien, the guardian ninja wound up slicing Zabuza's blade in two when he didn't expect the man to mold his element with his knives. From then on Zabuza started being extra careful with his attacks, but ended up getting cut up on his passes before eventually being set on fire by two Katon Jutsu his opponent was able to chuck on two separate occasions.
The battlefield they were currently using had become muddy and almost impossible to move in. This was all due to Zabuza becoming fed up with his foe continuously evading him, and after performing the dozens of hand seals required, dropped a Suiton: Suiryūdan no Jutsu right on top of his head. The attack had ripped apart the nearby trees and soaked the ground, but it was cut to ribbons when Asuma used an enlarged version of the Fūton: Kazekiri no Jutsu, and repelled it. This made moving for them on the terrain ridiculously tiresome and the whole battle turned into a brawl.
Asuma panted, his blades dropped in front of him. Spitting out blood from the last kick his foe managed to land on his ribs, he looked up to see Zabuza shaking where he was standing.
Aside from having part of his body burnt, the swordsman also had cuts crisscrossing his chest, back, two kunai lodged in his left arm and stopping him from using his clever to its full effectiveness, and a couple of kunai stuck in his left leg. It had been a real mess for both opponents.
"You really are a tough one," Zabuza chuckled painfully, staggering forward but instantly stopping on the first step, his knees nearly buckling under the strain. The rogue then realized that if he moved forward anymore and his limbs gave way, he wasn't getting up again. He was effectively grounded. "Fuck, I hate you so much right now."
"The feeling is mutual," Asuma grumbled back, reaching over and grabbing his trench knives. He groaned as he pulled them up, but couldn't find the strength to hold them. After blocking so many swings from that massive sword, his muscles just couldn't cut it anymore. "Dammit… come on, body! MOVE!"
Zabuza laughed out loud, "Can't get up huh? Perfect. I'll finish you off right here, right now!" He then cursed to himself when his legs failed to respond on his initial forward motion. "Just as soon as these damn things start working again!"
Asuma braced himself for the worst…
However, while the two of them stayed where they were, desperate to get some strength back into them, Zabuza suddenly became aware of a shadow on the ground shooting towards him from behind the wall of mist to his far left. The startled men leapt to their feet and moved away, the Kiri rogue slashing at the ground with his clever to help push him and jumped towards the lake. Asuma kept his distance as well, forming a triangle with his enemy on a separate point and the shadow taking the space on the far third.
Looking up, the team leader and his equally damaged foe saw Shikamaru, Naruto and Haku emerge from the shroud. The moment visibility of the trio became clear, Zabuza's eyes widened when he saw that his most valuable subordinate had been captured. The defeated expression on his face and the rope wrapped around him told the man everything he needed to know.
"Impossible," the swordsman blinked in shock. "Haku was beaten?" His legs jittered when his body threatened to give way from his sudden evasive maneuvers. The amount of chakra he'd spent holding up the hidden mist jutsu as well as throwing all those other attacks from before was starting to wear on him.
His stamina was running dry.
The teen saw his master's shocked gaze and closed his eyes, "I'm sorry… Zabuza-sama."
Asuma grinned, "You got him? Great job guys." He then blinked in puzzlement when he recounted their numbers. The picture they were presenting to him right now wasn't exactly complete. "Wait, where is Tazuna and Hinata? Are they alright?"
"They're safe, sensei," Naruto replied affirmatively, his eyes not leaving the wounded Zabuza, whom they could see standing on the edge of the lake with his only good arm holding his sword. "Hinata took Tazuna into the mist to hide. They won't come out until we give them the signal."
"Good," Asuma replied, turning back to face the now pissed off looking swordsman. "You guys hang onto that one. I'll finish things here with him." He saw the former Kirigakure shinobi glance in his direction, to which he returned his hostile stare with a serious one of his own. He gave him all the tells that he was going to end the man's life should he resist. "Surrender now, Zabuza Momochi. You've lost." It was sort of a bluff, since the former guardian ninja was also struggling to stay up after expending energy so heedlessly.
Zabuza growled, looking between his opponent and the kids standing further away. He saw Shikamaru move behind Haku, a hand on the now captive boy's shoulder and a kunai drawn. The sight irritated him beyond imagining, "Why should I?!"
"Please. I'd rather not have to kill you," Asuma replied, bringing his arms up into an offensive guard, just like before. He readied himself a charge.
"Heh, that's rich coming from a Konoha shinobi. I thought you guys were tougher than this," Zabuza spat, his feet dragging along the grass as he moved forward. "You value my life. Contemptible mercy at its finest…"
"Not really. It's just that you're a lot more valuable to us alive… and have you ever tried cleaning blood out of your shirt? It's fucking impossible," Asuma said with an amused chuckle, whereas Shikamaru and Naruto shook their heads at how cheesy that sounded.
Zabuza glared at his annoying target, "Don't sugarcoat this, you whelp. I am the Hidden Mist's finest and most merciless assassin, the Demon of the Mist Zabuza Momochi." He brought his blade up and spun it in a single-handed grip, before bringing it behind him as his free hand was formed into a hand-seal. "Don't test me. I will never surrender my sword to the likes of you."
"Don't!" Asuma shouted, stopping the man from acting irrationally. The former guardian's Hien activated as wind chakra was pumped into his trench knives. The energy blades extended to their fullest and hummed dangerously. "You're outnumbered and exhausted. You can't expect to fight all of us at once and win." He then nodded towards his team, "And don't forget… we have your student."
At their teacher's indirect order, Shikamaru brought his kunai up and held it at Haku's neck. Though Naruto intended to protest against this action, he felt it necessary if in order to sway their real enemy. This Zabuza guy was still dangerous even when injured. Surely he would throw in the towel in order to save his apprentice and companion.
The man chuckled when he saw Shikamaru bare a knife at Haku and shook his head at them. "Do you think I'm a weakling like you? Do you seriously believe that I will just give myself up to save the life of my subordinate; one who was trained to give up his own life to save mine?" He laughed loudly, surprising the two boys guarding their ever silent prisoner. "Haku is my weapon; a tool that I crafted from a young age to be used. I give him orders and he follows them. That is all."
"What?" Shikamaru growled.
Naruto's reaction was more unrestrained. The blonde haired boy marched forward and pointed at the smirking swordsman. "What the fuck are you talking about? Haku's not a tool! He's a human being!"
"Stupid brats. We are shinobi," Zabuza snapped back, glaring across at the team staring him down. The assassin made sure to keep both his eyes trained on the enemy standing on either flank. "It's what we shinobi do. We obey orders and execute instructions without hesitation. We are cold, calculating, and merciless assassins, meant to do the jobs that others can't or can't be seen doing. We are warriors, shadows, demons, dogs, tools… weapons. That is the road we shinobi walk."
"No!" Naruto shouted back, balling his hand into a fist, "That is the road YOU chose to walk! Not us!"
"Yeah! You heard me! A shinobi doesn't have to be what you or anyone else says they have to be! Shinobi can live however they want and make their own choices, because they are human," Naruto then pointed towards Shikamaru, then to Haku, and then to Asuma. "He's human, so is he, Hinata and Asuma-sensei as well! Yes, we are shinobi, but we are people too. We're just more extraordinary."
Haku looked up at Naruto in astonishment, both before and after he was addressed. Though he didn't know why, the assemblage of words that were spoken in contest to his master's appeared quite vivid as well as impressive. Haku was simply amazed to hear what Naruto had to say about shinobi and people up close. He could tell just from his tone alone that he valued life and treated others fairly. He did not discriminate between villager and shinobi, and was adamant in this belief. Hell, not only was he rocked by his statements but Zabuza was also stumped at his declarations.
Naruto's words were like a beautifully crafted katana. They were sublime.
"That's just boy talk," the swordsman snapped when he was finally able to rebound, his eyes narrowing, "Dreams and fantasy. What do you know? When I was your age, I'd already killed hundreds-!"
"What? Did you have a spas attack at a party or something? Or are you just counting the number of fish you caught at one time and gutted?" Naruto asked, placing his hands on his hips. "That's just petty. So what if you killed hundreds of people? That's what you did when you were a kid, not us." He then scratched the back of his head thoughtfully, "Although, now that you've brought it up, killing a hundred people when you were just a kid… that's actually really impressive."
"No kidding," Shikamaru murmured, gazing up in thought as well. "But who's keeping score anyway?"
"Don't make light of my skills, you brat!" Zabuza shouted, getting a little bit irked from their casual back and forth.
"Geez, alright. Sorry," Naruto replied hastily while giving the man a sheepish gaze. "Point is: we are all free to make our own choices. It's what makes us more flexible as warriors, as shinobi and as people; otherwise we'd just be mindless drones walking blindly into a shit storm."
When Naruto's grin was sent straight towards Zabuza, the swordsman's eyes shifted to Asuma, then to the mist behind the three kids, and then back to the ground. In the time that they were standing around, jabbing at each other and catching their breaths, the rogue began making plans for an appropriate escape. Accounting for his damage, the ground he needed to cover, his subordinate and the enemy surrounding him, he had to be extremely cautious if he was going to make a break for it.
That or… drown the place.
He was not going to be captured by a bunch of brats. Not here.
Still, the things the kid in front of him said and how he said it, with such powerful conviction…
He was a strong one. There was no doubt about that. He definitely had a strong spirit and a big heart. That was rare for a shinobi.
Nevertheless, his words seemed to strike a chord with the swordsman as he glanced up at the jinchuriki with a bit more interest than before. He could also see the astonished response in Haku, who was looking across at Naruto with admiration and a sparkle in his eyes.
"Hmph, you're an odd kid," Zabuza smirked, giving the blond his full and undivided attention. "You've also got quite a pair on yah. What's your name?"
"Naruto Uzumaki," the Genin grinned with his hands behind his head, "Fulltime pain in the ass and future Hokage."
"Well, you're right on the pain in ass part," Zabuza chuckled in a surprisingly friendlier tone, bringing his sword up to be held at his side. "While your arguments pack a wallop, I'm afraid it won't be enough to force me to surrender." He turned his gaze back to his previous foe, with Asuma still glaring across at him wearily. "I will not be defeated by you guys. I've come too far to stop now… but that doesn't mean I have to stick around."
Asuma recoiled in shock, seeing his opponent's eyes narrow.
"I will also be taking back what is mine, thank you!"
A loud clang rang out when Zabuza drove his weapon into the ground. He then followed up on that action by slapping his hands together into a single hand seal before flying through a long string of them, awing the kids at his speed.
His combination was so quick that Naruto and Shikamaru were barely able to follow him, but their instructor was able to read all eighteen signs. Registering to the danger, Asuma immediately dashed straight for his team, where Haku could be seen taking a deep gulp of air.
"GUYS! RUN! NOW!"
"Suiton: Daibakufu no Jutsu!" Zabuza roared, the lake behind him suddenly coming to life.
A ring of water sprang up behind the swordsman, leaving a noticeable gap behind the user large enough for him to easily squeeze through. The spinning vortex undulated violently, startling Naruto and Shikamaru at the amount of power they could see in it a split second before absolute chaos fell upon them.
Just moments after reaching his team and coming to shield them with a cross-arm block, his Hien glowing brightly, Asuma and his squad watched as a massive surge of water suddenly rose into the air several meters above the ground. It then streamed down towards the group in one big cascade, much like a gigantic waterfall but from the targets' points of view, it looked more like a massive wave than anything else.
Zabuza disappeared behind the wave as he unleashed the full power of his technique.
It crashed into the shore before scooping up all those in range. Asuma took the full power of the wall of water before all of them, Haku included, were inevitably swept away.
What felt like an eternity of torment passed as the whole of Team 10 was sent spiraling through the currents and whirlpools of the outrageous jutsu, which swallowed up the clearing and decimated everything in its path! The earth, grass, rocks and trees were ripped asunder as the wave tore across the field before slamming into the tree line at full power, where it eventually stopped as the trees broke it up.
Like that of a tsunami blasting into a beach, laying waste to everything in its path before sinking back into the ocean, the torrents of the jutsu eventually receded, leaving the three members of Team 10 coughing and retching on the ground beneath the shadow of the forest.
Gasping for air, Shikamaru crawled towards a nearby trunk as the shallow waves left them and he laid against it, coughing up water before groaning in agony. It felt like every muscle in his body had been hammered and minced. That was the sensation he was feeling right now, and it was constant.
"Dude! What… the… FUCK?!" the Nara yelled out, slamming a fist into the muddy ground before gesturing grandly to the absolute devastation of the plane in front of them. "What the fuck kind of jutsu was that? It was fucking massive!"
Asuma groaned out from where he was lying before looking weakly up at his student, "It was a Water Release: Great Waterfall Technique."
"Big-ass water jutsu, kid. Big-ass water jutsu," Asuma repeated several times before propping himself up on his elbows and panting raggedly. Thanks to his painstakingly long and bloody match with Zabuza, the Konoha Jonin had expended all of his chakra and strength, and as a result his body gave way. He hit the dirt face first, still coughing, still panting, and racked with damage.
All three of them were drenched, but thanks to the efforts of the team's leader taking the full force of the jutsu and cushioning the blow somewhat by cutting into it with his wind blades, not only was Asuma left in agonizing pain, but he had saved them all. So kudos to that.
At least the bath cleaned his clothes of the blood he'd shed from locking horns with the swordsman. That had to count for something, right?
"Fuck… that hurt like a son of a bitch," Asuma growled out while on the verge of crying. Man, you couldn't imagine the amount of pain he was in.
He learned an important lesson here today, one which he would take to heart.
Don't try to stop a fucking tsunami with a knife. That doesn't work.
"Great, now my uniform is soaked," the Jonin complained, picking at his vest and tattered shirt. "Look at me! I'm saturated!"
"Um. News flash," Naruto panted, using the trunk of another nearby tree to help pull his battered body back to its feet. He then glared down at his teacher and team leader, wanting to put an end to his bitching. "No shit!"
Taking in tremendous gulps of air after surviving a near drowning experience, the jinchuriki then surveyed the battlefield. The once colorful and peaceful area had, in one second flat, been reduced to a muddy swamp. It was a God damn wasteland now all thanks to their enemy, who they had believed to be on his last legs.
Once again however, Zabuza Momochi proved to the entire world and his enemies that he was indeed one stubborn bastard. The proof was in the pudding.
"Fuck me… that was the best water-ride EVER!" Naruto cheered weakly, pumping a fist into the air.
"Seriously?" Shikamaru threw his arms out before letting them flop to his sides limply, at the same time looking incredulously across at his teammate. "We nearly drowned and that is the best you can come up with?" The blonde stuck his tongue out and rubbed his head sheepishly.
"Hey!" Asuma said loudly, interrupting the pair's banter and grabbing his apprentices' attentions. He looked up at them respectively, now that they were finally on their feet. "Where's the prisoner?"
A good follow-up question too. That definitely got the dynamic duo jumpstarted.
Remembering that they'd had precious cargo with them, Naruto and Shikamaru began looking around the area for any signs of their defeated opponent. Following the primary trail left in the ground by the cascading waters tearing a direct path through the landscape, they tried to locate the body or the remains of the friendly Hunter Nin, who had also been caught in the rapids of the waterfall technique.
In their investigations, they were quickly presented with two possibilities as to what could have happened to him; one that he was dead and two that he had miraculously survived somehow. If he'd died then there was a good chance he was sleeping with the fishes now… literally. If he was alive, then… he had to be around here somewhere, probably choking on the same shit they were.
A guy who was bound in rope couldn't have gone far. Right?
That was their initial thought on the matter anyway…
Until the pair remembered that they didn't tie up his feet when they captured him.
Shikamaru's shadow possession jutsu saw to that filling.
Once they realized their blunder, the two Genin stood side by side and staring at the lake, no longer concealed by mist thanks to the absence of both Zabuza and Haku, with distraught and dejected expressions in full play. Now that the person they had captured was gone and that his students were left empty-handed and probably discouraged thanks to the lapse in attention toward an important aspect of their situation, Asuma couldn't help but laugh.
Naruto and Shikamaru ignored the man as he started bawling hysterically and just stood staring crushed at the ruined clearing. Amidst the hollers of their teacher and the silence of Death Valley, a fish flopped out of Naruto's jacket and landed in a pond at his feet with a muddy splash, causing his eyebrow to twitch.
While both he and his teammate stood slouched and miserable in front of their amused, badly wounded teacher, a squelching of feet off to the side drew their eyes to the woods, where they then saw Hinata and Tazuna come strolling out from their hiding place.
The old man and the kunoichi looked on in astonishment at the complete and utter destruction laid before them, before turning their attention towards the team slumped up against the trees.
"N-Naruto-kun?" Hinata murmured, gulping when she saw the downcast expressions of her two teammates. "Why are you all wet?"
TO BE CONTINUED…
Author's Note: Oh yeah! Another one cranked out. Hope you guys enjoyed it.
If any of you guys are curious as to the next two cameos, take a look on Google. I'm pretty sure you guys may have heard or seen that anime.
Until next time!