Chapter 45: Ghosts and Curses
"This lead of yours had better pan out, Tenten." Anko's tone wasn't more than idly threatening. Mostly she just sounded annoyed as she slapped her arm, pulping another of the countless biting flies that emerged from every willow bole and rotting log, swarming in the still, hot air.
Tenten, who was taking a turn poling the long, narrow boat they had rented through this particular stretch of swamp, shrugged. "Nothing else we looked into produced any results, and you agreed to come here," she reminded the Hokage's wife.
The trail of Senju Tsunade had been five years cold when they picked it up, and no one in the last city she'd lived in had a clue where she'd gone. As Kakashi had guessed, some of them had good reason to find out. Tsunade hadn't run out of money five years earlier and her accounts still had untouched millions in them, but she'd left some sizeable bills unpaid. Tenten believed the frightened banker Anko had interrogated when he said he'd looked for Tsunade and come up dry.
With that trail exhausted, Tenten needed to introduce the information she'd gotten from Sasori and Deidara, but couldn't afford to have questions asked about the source. So the same evening that Anko and Kakashi had admitted defeat, Tenten had parted from the group long enough to track down the most disreputable information broker in the city. Then she'd killed him and his bodyguards and burned his offices to the ground.
Tenten had never killed for the sake of expediency before; it had always been for a mission or in self-defense. But Neji was more important than her scruples. When she slipped back into their hotel with a few soot stains on her gear and the blaze still burning several blocks over she'd faced some pointed questions, but her answers quickly deflected any suspicions.
"I could tell the information broker knew something as soon as I mentioned Tsunade's name," Tenten told the others bleakly, "but he refused to sell. I didn't understand why until I killed his bodyguards and started breaking fingers." She held out the journal Konan had given her. "Ironically, he was afraid of how a Leaf shinobi would react to his possession of this."
"What is it?"
"I didn't have time to read it, but according to him it was a journal penned by Jiraiya of the Sannin; a man who knew Senju Tsunade better than anyone."
Tenten handed the book to Ko, who activated his byakugan. One of the lesser known uses of the dojutsu was the ability to read very quickly, since a Hyuuga wasn't limited by having to move his or her eyes across a page. Ko flipped through the pages rapidly, taking everything in. "This is Jiraiya-sama's handwriting," he confirmed. "I've seen it before in the village archives. Give me some time to take in what he's written about."
"By that point the little toad was practically eager to help me. He gave me something else," Tenten continued. She passed on the story of the 'Ghost of the Marshes' and the map Deidara had made for her.
"There are plenty of healers out there," Anko objected, "and peasant tales grow with each retelling. We don't know that this is Tsunade."
Tenten sighed. "Do we have any better leads? I would have saved the broker for you to question, but unfortunately my face is a bit too public these days; I had to kill him before I left."
"Maybe it's nothing," Ko had said later in the evening, "but Jiraiya-sama does mention a base he and Tsunade set up in the Land of Rice while they were organizing a local militia to launch guerilla attacks across the border into the Land of Rain during the Second War. It sounds like it was in the same region as the Ghost sightings."
"Orochi told me about that period of the war. He was on a different assignment." Anko smiled thinly. "He infiltrated three different camps of Hanzo's army during the same period and poisoned their field kitchens."
"So do we agree this is a lead worth following?" Tenten had asked. The answer had been yes, which led them into the marshes of the Land of Rice in search of clues about Tsunade.
It was close to sunset when Tenten, Anko, Kurenai, Sakura, Kakashi and Ko reached the tiny fishing village deep in the marshes that had been one of the more recent locations where the 'Ghost of the Marshes' had reportedly effected a miraculous cure. It was the third village they'd visited in the region, and Anko wasn't the only one feeling time working against them. Each day that passed was one day closer to Neji dying from the Boil Release particles eating away at his body.
In the first two villages they'd encountered those the 'Ghost' had helped, a mother who had bled uncontrollably following a complex birthing, and a young boy whose leg had been mangled by a fallen tree. Both of them were pictures of health, but their healing had happened long enough ago that Sakura couldn't tell them one way or another if the 'Ghost' was a medical ninja.
Leaving their boat behind at the docks of the fishing village, the shinobi fanned out. Tenten encountered the same suspicion she had in the other villages, a combination of distrust of outsiders, wariness of shinobi and a guarded respect for the 'Ghost' that made people close-mouthed. Eventually Tenten got annoyed enough to give Kurenai a subtle signal. The raven-haired woman slipped a simple hypnosis genjutsu into the mind of the fishwife they'd been interrogating, and her eyes went glassy. "Who did the Ghost of the Marshes heal here?" Tenten asked again.
"Toba, the old fisherman," the woman murmured in a dull voice, pointing behind Tenten. She turned to see an island across the channel that was dotted with mossy gravestones.
"He's visiting a grave?"
"Under one," the fishwife replied. "The Ghost cured his tumors right enough, but that didn't do anything about the gator that got him four months later."
Tenten swore under her breath. Kurenai released the genjutsu and followed Tenten as she stalked away. The two of them headed for the village inn, where they met up with the others. Anko and Kakashi arrived next and Ko drifted in with Sakura last. They all wore varying looks of discouraged irritation.
"So this recipient of a miracle cure went and got eaten by an overgrown lizard, apparently," Kakashi observed in the place of a silently fuming Anko, "and just getting that tidbit was like pulling teeth."
"These people have little reason to trust outsiders, I think," Kurenai mused. Then she glanced at Sakura. "Would exhuming the fisherman's body be worthwhile?"
Sakura shook her head. "No, I already asked Ko to take a peek."
"These villagers don't embalm their dead or use caskets," the Hyuuga elaborated. "They just wrap the body in a white cloth and put it in the ground. There's nothing left but worm-eaten bones."
"So this was another wasted trip," Anko growled.
"Not entirely," Sakura disagreed. "The fisherman's illness was very different from what we've seen so far. An experienced midwife could have saved the woman with the birthing complications, and a traveling chirurgeon or even a good blacksmith could have handled the boy's leg. Toba's tumors are a different story."
"This village doesn't have a physician," Sakura explained, "but the herbalist who tends to their minor ills is surprisingly knowledgeable. She knew as soon as the fisherman came to her that he was beyond her skill, but she examined him anyways. She described his illness to me in enough detail that I can guess what it was. I could have cured that kind of cancer, but I can count on one hand the number of people I know of outside of Konohagakure who could have done it, and they're all court physicians to daimyos, not swamp hermits."
"So you're saying the Ghost is Tsunade?" Anko demanded.
Sakura shook her head. "I can't say that with certainty, Anko; we won't know until we track down the Ghost. All I'm telling you is the number of people the Ghost could be just dropped significantly."
"Then we continue," Anko replied. "Can we make it to the next village by tomorrow?"
Ko shook his head. "I can't see the next settlement from here, which means we need daylight to set out. We won't save any time getting lost in the swamps in the dark."
Anko sighed. "All right then. What passes for an inn here isn't much to look at, but we can get some sleep and a hot meal, and set out at dawn."
The inn's village fare wasn't particularly exciting, but the fish stew was hot and filling. Haruno Sakura had retired to her room after dinner, declining to linger in the common room with the others. Like everywhere else, strangers stared at her in this swamp village. Her scars and shaved head made the looks ranging from pity to disgust a constant wherever she went, and being a spectacle got old fast.
Sakura had run a razor over her scalp to remove the growth of stubble since the last village and was about to go to sleep when someone knocked at her door. When she opened it she was surprised to see Tenten outside. "Can I help you?"
"May I come in?" Tenten asked, and Sakura stepped aside to allow the brunette entry, closing the door behind her.
"Is something wrong?" Sakura inquired, slipping easily into the mindset of professional evaluation that was one of a medic's first lessons. Tenten seemed preoccupied, even fidgety as she looked around the room.
"I don't know," Tenten said at last. "Between everything back in the village and the pace of this trip I didn't notice at first, but… I'm late."
Seeing the way Tenten's hand was pressed to her stomach, and the traces of worry and fear hiding behind her eyes, Sakura didn't need to ask for clarification. "How late are we talking?"
"More than two weeks now; we've been running almost constantly, but still…"
"Sit down," Sakura instructed her, and Tenten sat on the edge of the room's only bed. Irregular cycles were a fact of life for kunoichi given their levels of physical exertion, but that was outside the norm. Leaning over her, Sakura rested a hand on Tenten's forearm against the skin and closed her eyes. A direct delving of the womb was out of the question of course, but there were subtler signs. A civilian physician would need blood or urine and chemical testing supplies to get an answer, but for a medical ninja of Sakura's skill there were simpler options.
Threading a miniscule amount of her own chakra through Tenten's skin, Sakura was struck once again as she had over the last several years by how difficult that simple procedure had become. The first time she'd used a diagnostic jutsu on Tenten it had been simple, but Tenten's own chakra was denser now, far stronger than it had been. Seeing Tenten walk into her medical tent carrying Neji and sheathed in armor of animate stone had actually explained a few things that had bothered Sakura; powerful elemental chakra blunted most medical probes.
Still, Sakura had treated stronger shinobi including the Hokage himself; it wasn't a matter of forcing the probe through but harmonizing her own chakra's frequency to the patient's. Medical ninjutsu was rarely a matter of brute force. Exquisite control was the hallmark of the discipline, which made it somewhat ironic that the mother of modern medical ninjutsu had also pioneered a technique that produced unparalleled physical strength.
Once the chakra probe was below the skin, it was the work of seconds to hunt through the welter of sensations for the specific 'feel' of a few particular hormones that only had one purpose. When she found them, Sakura dissolved the probe and opened her eyes.
"Well?" Tenten asked quietly.
Sakura nodded. "You're pregnant," she confirmed. Considering the current hormone levels and doing some quick math in her head, the medic realized that the child would have been conceived just days before the attack on the Hokage's tower. She watched tears glisten in Tenten's eyes, and her friend's shoulders tremble. Her training for dealing with upset patients focused on remaining calm and saying something soothing, but Tenten was her friend too, and she wordlessly hugged the distraught brunette.
"I can't lose him, Sakura," Tenten said in a shaky voice.
"We'll find a cure, Tenten. You have to keep believing that." Sakura leaned back to examine her friend critically. "I assume you're going to ignore your doctor's advice if I tell you to get out of this pestilential swamp and go home?"
"I have to see this through, Sakura. I can't walk away."
Sakura sighed. "You were instrumental in making sure this expedition happened, Tenten, but what can you do at this point that someone else on this team can't?"
"Convince Senju Tsunade to come back to Konohagakure," Tenten replied evenly. "If – when – we do find her, I have to be there to try. I can't just go home and wait to find out if Neji will die or not." She paused. "Please don't tell any of the others about this. Especially Ko."
Sakura looked at Tenten searchingly for a moment before nodding. "On one condition: when your chakra control starts slipping, you have to go home. You know that, right?"
Tenten sighed. "Yes. All right."
"Okay. Well you should get some rest and I need to go shopping," Sakura said, getting up and heading for the door.
"What for?" Tenten inquired.
"Well, if you don't want Ko to know that you're pregnant I need to make another trip to that herbalist while he's asleep. I didn't bring along the right medicines and vitamins for an expecting mother," Sakura informed Tenten lightly.
"Sakura, I… thank you."
"Don't mention it."
When Sakura left the inn, the warm night air hit her face like a wet blanket. Shaking her head slightly, the medic set off down the creaking dock towards the herbalist's store. The humidity made her scars ache, a constant low-grade discomfort that was impossible to escape in places like these swamps. Sometimes Sakura swore she could feel Naruto's spiteful chakra burning inside the scars still, a decade after he'd given them to her. She'd developed a reputation since for being stony-faced most of the time, but that was just because moving her face made the scars ache worse. Things like smiling were an effort she only went to for friends.
The irony of her current situation was not lost on Sakura; here she was, part of the team desperately searching for a cure for the man who had violated and disfigured her. If it had been Naruto alone who was stricken she wouldn't have lifted a finger to save him, Hokage and medical ethics be damned. But Naruto wasn't the only one who was ill. Hyuuga Neji, a good man and the husband of one of the few friends she had who didn't pity her, was dying too. So here she was looking for a woman she'd never met who'd taught her more than any other teacher she'd had.
Part of Sakura was almost afraid of finding Tsunade. Some of it was fear that the Sannin would take her measure and find her wanting. But there was also fear that the legend she'd looked up to might be less impressive when they finally found her. Tsunade's story had inspired Sakura to keep going in those horrible months recovering from Naruto's attack on her. The Sannin had lost far more than she and kept going. Of course, she'd learned a lot in the last few months that tarnished that girlishly idealistic image. Her sensei had eventually broken under the strain of loss and abandoned her village. Tsunade had become known outside the village as a violent drunk and 'the Legendary Sucker' at gambling tables more than as a healer.
Sakura put those thoughts aside as she neared the healer's hut. The flickering light of a kerosene torch burned inside, and Sakura was relieved to see that the proprietress wasn't asleep yet. She heard voices inside the shop, and briefly wondered who else was shopping for medicine at this hour. She knocked on the edge of the doorway as a courtesy before brushing the hanging canvas that served as a door aside.
The herbalist was sitting on her stool behind the counter of rough-hewn wood, an old woman with snow-white hair in a thick braid that fell down her back, wearing a dress of simple brown homespun cloth and a white apron with countless pockets. She was talking with a younger woman with dark hair worn loose past her shoulders that was starting to go gray at the bangs. Sakura estimated the customer to be in her late thirties or early forties. She wore a black kimono with a mesh shirt underneath visible at the plunging neckline. Her sandals were heeled, but Sakura could see they were sturdy as well and probably had steel plates in the sole.
The body language of the pair suggested familiarity with one another, and both looked up when Sakura entered. The proprietress' gaze had the same sympathy for her appearance that Sakura had gotten on her first visit. The other woman's reaction was more interesting. Wariness and evaluation, followed by a hint of surprise at the way Sakura looked, but no sense of pity at all.
"Ah, hello again dearie," the herbalist greeted Sakura. "What brings you back so soon?"
Sakura bowed respectfully to the old healer. "We're leaving in the morning, and I need some supplies before we go."
"This is the young woman I was telling you about," the proprietress told her other customers Sakura picked up a few herbs and a small bottle of pills from the stock of imported medicines. It was from Konohagakure and had the manufacturer's seal.
"Searching for the Ghost of the Marshes, yes," the woman in the black kimono observed neutrally in a pleasantly melodic voice.
"You have an opinion on that, I assume? Everyone else I've talked to does." Gathering the last of her purchases Sakura headed to the counter.
"People in these marshes rely on the Ghost because they don't have other options. You're outsiders, though. You must have better options than hoping to run across a swamp hermit."
Sakura shrugged. She didn't feel the need to explain herself to a stranger. As she handed over the ryo for her purchases, Sakura got a glimpse of the contents of the other woman's basket and blinked in surprise. She wasn't shopping for cooking herbs apparently. Most were medicinal, some were frankly dangerous if administered in the wrong doses, and a few were ingredients for poisons. It was the sprigs of deathrattle that really shocked her, though. It was the ingredient in one of Konohagakure's deadliest poisons, but to Sakura's knowledge no one outside the village's medical corps knew how to distill the essence properly to make it fast-acting enough for combat.
Sakura looked back up at the stranger's face, and it clicked. People changed a lot in three decades, so there were differences from the old Academy picture, but the resemblance was there. "Kato Shizune," Sakura murmured in disbelief.
Shizune's reaction was perfect, nothing but polite puzzlement. The old herbalist ruined it, however. "Oh, you two know each other? Why didn't you say so, dear?"
"We don't," Shizune sighed, and Sakura saw a dangerous level of readiness enter the other woman's stance. Sakura had to duck when Shizune spat a tiny senbon in her face. The needle grazed Sakura's cheek in spite of her attempt at evasion. The minute cut burned fiercely, and Sakura recognized the sensation of a rather unpleasant paralytic. She had to redirect a considerable amount of chakra to neutralizing the compound before it spread through her blood.
"I'm from Konohagakure," Sakura told the other woman, fishing her hitai-ate out of her pouch.
"I don't care," Shizune replied, not hesitating at the sight of the familiar symbol. Her chest swelled before she exhaled a rapidly expanding cloud of pale green gas. Swearing under her breath Sakura leapt away from it. The gas touched her left hand before she got away, and her skin went numb where it was exposed. The old herbalist slumped over her counter, out cold.
"Damn it, will you just listen to me for one second?"
"Don't try to follow me," was Shizune's only reply. She disappeared out the door in a blur while Sakura was cut off from that exit by the green gas. Before it reached her Sakura drove a fist into the wall behind her and dove out the hole the blow created. Rolling a safe distance away Sakura looked around and glimpsed a dark shape disappearing into the trees past the edge of the village.
Sakura tore her radio from her pouch and thumbed it on as she sprinted to the end of the street and then jumped up into the trees with one powerful leap, determined to keep the other woman in her sights. "Kakashi, Kato Shizune is here! She's fleeing into the swamps. I'm in pursuit," she called out to her former sensei, who was on first watch.
Sakura heard him shouting at someone on the other end. "Don't chase her by yourself Sakura," Kakashi replied. "It's too dangerous."
Where was this concern for my well-being when I was your genin, sensei? Sakura seethed. I wasn't valuable to the village back then, I guess. "Losing her in this kami forsaken swamp is dangerous for my patient," Sakura shot back. "Just hurry up."
Stuffing the radio back in her pouch, Sakura paused on a tree branch to listen. For several seconds all she heard was croaking frogs, droning insects and swamp gas bubbling up from below the stagnant water. Then she heard the faint scrape of a shinobi sandal on tree bark, and she was off, jumping between tree branches with moonlight as her only guide.
Urgency and adrenaline sang in Tenten's veins as the silver and shadow of the moonlit swamp blurred around her. Kakashi, Anko, Kurenai and Ko matched her pace, faces grim and set. Kakashi's dogs ranged ahead of them, their yips and barks sounding above the drone of frogs and insects. The tiny pug nin-dog keeping pace with Kakashi called out directions and they followed, chasing the scent trails of Sakura and another woman who had to be Kato Shizune.
They had barely entered the swamp when they encountered the first exhausted trap, a set of empty kunai launchers and a tree that looked like a pincushion. Swearing, Kakashi had thumbed his radio back on. "Sakura, report."
"I'm fine, sensei. She's telegraphing the locations of the traps with her path."
"Catch up with me," she countered, and then the radio went silent.
They'd been running for ten minutes when a flash of light ahead of them was followed by the rumble of an explosion. When they got to the site they found a tree reduced to splinters and a smoldering stump.
"Sakura!" Kakashi called out.
"I'm fine," was the disgusted reply from a mossy hummock below them. Sakura was there, looking a bit singed and picking pieces of wood from her skin and healing the wounds with a touch. "She set that one on a tree next to the one she used. She'll have more of them set up; she had to have trapped this route some time ago."
Kakashi growled something profane under his breath about reckless medics and then signaled Pakkun. They resumed their pursuit, the dogs following Shizune's scent. Several times they had to cross stretches of murky water, but the nin-dogs never lost the trail. Unlike ordinary tracker dogs, they could both reason and use their chakra to boost the sensitivity of their noses and follow even airborne scent trails.
The third such expanse of tranquil water, however, hid an entirely new kind of trap. The mirror-smooth surface exploded upward under their feet, and dozens of slugs bigger than the nin-dogs attacked en masse. Tenten dodged the first one to fling itself at her. The second brushed her arm before she twisted past it. Hissing alerted her to the fact that the slime trail left behind was acidic and eating through her shirt. Tenten tore the sleeve off at the shoulder and discarded it, then pegged the next slug to fling itself at her with a trio of kunai, nailing the slimy thing to a tree.
Around Tenten, battle raged. Fire roared as Kakashi roasted half a dozen of the things with a wide-area ninjutsu. Sakura had lifted a half-submerged tree trunk from its resting place and was whacking slugs halfway to the border with it, a manic grin on her face. Kurenai had faded from sight entirely, while Ko was simply evading the creatures' clumsy lunges and striking them from range with compressed chakra blasts. One of Anko's arms had turned into a waist-thick purple-scaled snake that was swallowing slugs whole without a seeming care for their acidity.
Anko's snake seemed to anger the slugs, and most of them converged on her. "Anko, drop!" Kakashi barked. Anko released the chakra holding her on the surface of the water and plunged down into it. A sheet of flame washed over the area the instant her head sank below the surface, and the Hokage's wife surfaced a moment later amid a sea of slowly sinking burnt slug corpses.
"Those were Tsunade's summons," Anko growled, wringing some of the water from her now-drooping ponytail. "We're on the right track."
"We may have difficulty following it, however," Kakashi replied. The nin-dogs hadn't fared as well as the shinobi. Most of them were sporting acid burns as they limped to shore. "I have to send them back."
"Go ahead," Ko spoke up immediately. "That kind of trap has to be triggered from nearby. She was well hidden, but I see her now. Follow me." Kakashi released the summoned dogs in a puff of smoke, and they resumed their race through the swamp, following Ko now, who was able to lead them around the next half dozen mechanical traps.
The group ran for hours, leaping between the branches of trees where there was nothing but water. They couldn't catch up to Shizune, but neither did Ko lose sight of her. Gradually the swamps gave way to higher ground and in the distance Tenten could see mountains that constituted the border between the Lands of Rice and Rain silhouetted against the starry sky.
Ko stopped abruptly at the bottom of a narrow forested valley leading up into the foothills, just stared at it for a moment. "I… don't believe I've ever seen that many traps in one place before," he commented. "I can't count them all."
"Can you follow the path she took?" Tenten asked.
Ko shook his head. "She's blocked that way behind her." He studied the island for a moment longer. "We could try to go around, or given time I could probably disarm enough of them to proceed, but I can't see the far side of the thicket and I doubt she's stopping."
"No time for that," Anko said immediately. "Ko, Tenten, circle around through the hills to the left. Kakashi, Kurenai, swing wide to the right. Sakura, stay with me." The purple haired kunoichi smiled unpleasantly and cracked her knuckles. "She's not getting away; it's time for the siege breaker."
Glancing over her shoulder as she and Ko ran up the ridgeline above the forest and followed it along the edge of the forest Tenten recognized the hand signs of the summoning jutsu, but Anko didn't bite her thumb. Instead, she drew a kunai and sliced deeply into the back of her forearm. Blood poured down around her hand as she slammed her palm down onto the ground. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"
The cloud of smoke was massive, towering above the trees and blotting out the moon. Even from a distance Tenten could hear great scales rubbing against each other and the loud cracks of trees falling on impact with massive, sinuous coils.
"WHO SSSUMMONSSS ME?"A great voice demanded from above the treetops.
"Ouroboros-sama, I am Orochimaru's mate," Anko shouted back.
The smoke of the summoning cleared enough that Tenten could make out the titanic form looming above Anko. Ouroboros was a cobra as tall as the Hokage's tower, with purple scales reflecting the moonlight. His eyes had black sclera and slit pupils the same shade as his scales. His hood was spread, and the pattern underneath it was… wrong somehow. Tenten averted her eyes from it with a shudder, sensing that looking at it for too long would do nothing good for her mental health.
The house-sized head dipped down, a forked tongue thicker than Anko's waist darting forth. The very tips danced over the wound on her arm, tasting the blood, and she didn't flinch from the contact.
"YESSS. THE MATE OF THE CONTRACT HOLDER. I REMEMBER. THE BLOOD PRICE ISSS PAID. WHAT AID SSSEEK YOU?"
Anko never looked away from the giant snake as Sakura, who appeared rather intimidated by Ouroboros, started healing the bleeding gash on Anko's arm. "My quarry flees from me up the valley and surrounds herself with traps. I need her alive!"
Ouroboros' head rose up to take in the tree-filled valley. Recessed pits between his eyes and nostrils flared wide. "I SSSEE YOU, LITTLE KUNOICHI," he hissed. The ground itself shook when he moved, crashing through the trees without slowing down. Dozens of traps went off every second; explosives, kunai and shuriken launchers, acid sprays, rigged deadfalls and more were equally ineffective, bouncing off of Ouroboros' armored scales.
Tenten watched the giant snake's progress with morbid fascination. She'd always known academically that Orochimaru held the most powerful summoning contract in the Elemental Nations, but the summoning of Manda or any of his direct descendants hadn't been performed in her lifetime. Ouroboros was impressive enough, and his father Manda – whom only Orochimaru had ever dared summon – was even larger. The giant toads that Jiraiya of the Sannin had once summoned were said to be quite nearly as formidable, but that summoning scroll had been lost to Konohagakure when he died.
Tenten and Ko had to push themselves hard to keep up with Ouroboros' progress. For all that he was plowing through stands of fully grown trees, the giant cobra was fast. When they were high enough up in the hills that the trees started to thin out, Ko pointed to the tree line. "There she is."
Tenten caught sight of Shizune a moment later, sprinting out of the forest and up into the hills. She was heading for a pass that appeared to be too narrow for Ouroboros to navigate, and she was well ahead of Tenten and Ko. On the other side of the valley Kakashi and Kurenai was on the opposing ridgeline, also too far behind to engage.
Then Ouroboros burst from the forest. Lowering his head closer to the ground the giant snake started slithering faster, eating up ground at a terrifying pace. He caught up with Shizune fifty meters short of the pass and looped his massive body around where she stood, his wide hood rearing up and blocking the pass. "THE SSSUMMONER WANTSSS YOU ALIVE," Ouroboros informed the med-nin, "HOW INTACT ISSS UP TO YOU." Shizune tried to jump out of his coils, but he batted her down with the tip of his tail and she landed hard. Tenten winced at the impact, and Shizune was slow enough to struggle to her feet that they caught up.
Tenten and Ko dropped into the circle surrounded by Ouroboros' body from one side while Kakashi and Kurenai entered from the other while Sakura and Anko appeared from behind; having caught up simply by running down the trail of destruction Ouroboros had left. Shizune was on her feet, but she was battered from the twin impacts.
Taking in the odds against her, a mixed look of disgust and resignation crossed Shizune's face. "Damn it," she muttered, dropping her kunai and raising her hands in surrender. Kakashi stepped up behind her, roughly frisking her and divesting her of a stash of kunai, senbon, poisons and knives that far exceeded a standard medic's kit. Ko joined him, relieving Shizune of a few more tools hidden inside the lining of her garment.
Kakashi bound Shizune's hands and forced her to her knees before gesturing for the others to join them. Anko took the lead, squatting in front of Shizune and favoring her with an unfriendly smile. "That was quite a chase," she commented. "What's the matter Kato Shizune, don't recognize your own village's emblem after three decades? I know Sakura here identified herself."
Shizune spared Sakura only a brief glance, her dark eyes meeting Anko's gaze levelly. "I left that name and that village behind a long time ago."
Anko shook her head. "That's not how it works, Kato. You swore an oath when you left the Academy, remember? That's not something you walk away from." Unnoticed by the others, Tenten shifted uncomfortably at the mention. She'd broken that oath more times than she could count.
Shizune shrugged, wincing as Kakashi's grip on her shoulder tightened. "I found a different calling; someone who needed me more than Konohagakure."
"Yes, let's talk about that," Anko replied. "Where is Senju Tsunade?"
Shizune's expression became mulish and she said nothing.
Anko sighed. "Look, we didn't come here to fight."
Shizune glanced up at Ouroboros. "You could have fooled me."
"You made this pursuit necessary, but that's beside the point. We're here because Senju Tsunade's skills are needed back in Konohagakure. That's all."
Shizune looked at Anko squarely. "You're out of luck, then. Tsunade-sama passed away years ago."
She's lying, Tenten told herself, fighting to breathe through the sudden tightness in her chest. She has to be.
Anko snorted skeptically. "That's a likely story. You won't mind taking us to her burial site then, to verify that?"
Shizune's eyes narrowed. "So you can desecrate sensei's grave? I won't."
"Fine," Anko replied, rising to her feet. "Ko, would that operations base that Jiraiya and Tsunade founded happen to be in these mountains?"
The branch Hyuuga nodded. "It is; we should be able to reach it within a day or so."
"Kakashi; bring her. Let's head up there and see if we find the grave of a Sannin," Anko said with a sidelong look at Shizune. The med-nin didn't react openly, but Tenten thought she sensed dismay as Kakashi hauled her to her feet.
"Ouroboros-sama, my deepest thanks for your aid," Anko addressed the giant cobra looming over them.
Ouroboros dipped his head in acknowledgement. "MATE OF OROCHIMARU, YOU SSSEEK THE HOLDER OF THE SSSUMMONING CONTRACT OF SSSLUGSSS, DO YOU NOT?"
"We do," Anko replied.
Ouroboros hissed thoughtfully. "LONG HASSS MY TRIBE HELD ENMITY FOR THE SSSLUGSSS. I WILL INFORM MANDA OF YOUR QUESSST. IF YOU FACE KATSSSUYU IN BATTLE, CALL TO HIM; IF HE DOES NOT ANSWER, I SSSHALL."
"I am honored, Ouroboros-sama," Anko said with surprise. "I shall do as you instruct." Ouroboros vanished back to his realm. The others set out ahead through the pass.
Tenten caught up with Anko and Ko. "Shouldn't we have just told Shizune what we need from Tsunade? She might be willing to help us if she understood."
Anko shook her head. "It's clear from her actions that she's gone rogue and no longer holds loyalty to Konohagakure. We have to treat her as a missing-nin. She gets no sensitive information. If this mountain base doesn't have any clues we'll hole up there long enough to interrogate her."
Tenten digested that, and while she couldn't refute the logic, it still bothered her. "What happens if we do find Tsunade with her apprentice as our prisoner?"
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Anko replied. "Maybe she'll be more reasonable. Or maybe we'll have to take both of them back to Konohagakure in chains. I wasn't expecting Ouroboros' offer, but that does make things simpler if we have to fight Tsunade. Either way, I will have a cure for Naruto."
Tenten didn't say anything further, only examining Anko from the corner of her eye as they ran up into the mountains. Love really is blind. How do you do it Anko? How do you love Naruto knowing what he is? Or do you just not see it?
The next day found Tenten, Anko and their allies high in the mountains that formed the border between the Lands of Rain and Rice. Shizune sullenly trudged along with them under Kakashi's watchful eye. A few hours after setting out from their overnight camp they had passed above the tree line, and now nothing but bare rock, ice and snow surrounded them. Anko had traded in her mesh shirt and leggings for warmer clothes, and her trench coat was closed tightly. Kurenai had left her signature wraps in her pack and donned a standard jounin's uniform and flak jacket for warmth. Tenten's only concession to the cold was a leather jacket and a pair of fingerless gloves.
"You're all going to die up here." The words came as they made their way through a wide cleft between two peaks, sheer rocks walls looming high above them.
Tenten blinked in surprise at the statement from Shizune, who hadn't spoken two words since her capture. Anko gave the medic a cynical look. "Oh? Is your deceased master going to kill us?"
Shizune glared back. "There are other dangers in these mountains, hunter."
Anko shrugged. "A bunch of rag-tag guerillas survived up here for years with one of Hanzo's armies hunting them. If they survived, so can we."
Shizune gave Anko a wintry smile. "Funny you should mention them…"
Deafening explosions reported from the cliff walls above them, and Tenten looked up to see tons of rock falling towards them on both sides. Praying that the stone beneath her feet and the cliffs above were more or less connected, she formed hand signs. "Doton: Hinansho [Shelter]!"
Tenten's chakra flashed through the rock at the speed of thought, and below the falling boulders the cliff faces deformed. Thick rock spikes shot up and out at intersecting angles, forming sturdy baskets that caught the debris before it reached the ground to crush them.
Panting for breath after the sudden exertion, Tenten looked up to see archers emerging from beneath rock-colored camouflage blankets in hidden nooks on the cliff faces. They fired as one, and more than a dozen arrows headed straight for her.
"Lady Tenten!" Ko tackled her from the side, and the arrows whizzed through the space she had occupied. They hit the ground hard but didn't stay still, rolling away as more arrows clattered off of the rocks. Tenten heard Ko grunt in pain and saw an arrow driven deep into his shoulder. Incensed, she filled her hands with shuriken and returned fire at the snipers with deadly accuracy. Men in gray and white mountain camouflage fell from their perches.
Several of the archers abruptly changed sides as Kuranei filled their heads with illusions, opening fire on their compatriots in a genjutsu haze. Several of the archers retreated back into their nooks but found no sanctuary as Anko angrily hurled tagged kunai after them. Tenten was about to warn Anko about destabilizing the cliffs any further, but the words died in her throat when the tags produced not explosions but swarms of small and highly venomous snakes. Tenten winced at the screams that emerged from those hiding places.
High on the cliffs, above where the archers had hidden, a loud grating of rock on rock preceded the fall of a massive boulder that shook the ground when it landed and started rolling down the cleft towards them. Behind it, soldiers armed with a mix of swords, axes and nagitana emerged from hiding, following in the boulder's wake.
Tenten started mustering her chakra to deflect the boulder, but Sakura stepped up, throwing an arm out in front of her. "Save your strength," the scarred medic murmured. "I've got this." She took off at a sprint towards the boulder, leaping high in the air as she approached it. There was a flash of light when Sakura's gloved fist struck the massive rock, and a pressure wave from the impact shivered down the cleft in both directions. Cracks flashed across the boulder's surface and it crumbled, its momentum stilled. The back side exploded into a cloud of fast-moving shrapnel that peppered the troops advancing on them and felled dozens. The rest fell back in disarray.
"Tenten, the prisoner!" Anko shouted, and she whirled to see Kakashi under assault by a dozen more of the ragged guerillas who had ambushed them. Three were already on the ground and Kakashi's merrily chirping Chidori was slicing through the rest, but Shizune had gotten free of her restraints and fled while he was occupied. She was already out of throwing range, and more of the guerilla soldiers were emerging from hiding to cover her escape.
Oh no you don't, Tenten vowed silently, her sympathy for Shizune having vanished with the ambush, replaced by anger at the attempt on her life and the life of the child she now knew she carried. She snatched up a longbow and quiver from one of the dead archers and sprinted up the cliff until she had a clear vantage point. She nocked and let fly. Her aim was true, and Shizune fell with an arrow clean through her calf.
Tenten had to give the older medic credit; she didn't cry out. Shizune snapped the arrow's head off and yanked it out of the bleeding wound, her hands glowing green as she moved to heal it. Eyes narrowed, Tenten fired again and the second arrow pierced Shizune's right palm, nailing it to the rock behind her. A third shot did the same to her left hand when she reached for the previous arrow, pinning her to the ground. That wound did draw a pained cry from the medic.
Some of the guerillas moved to help Shizune, but Tenten started putting shafts through eyes and armpits, each shot sending another corpse to the ground. The guerillas ran out of nerve before she ran out of arrows, and they broke and fled when Anko and Kakashi dispatched the last of the ambush squad and moved in. Tenten lightly leapt down from the cliff and joined them.
Shizune's face was pale from pain and blood loss when Tenten approached. "So what did that accomplish beyond getting a lot of men killed?" Tenten demanded of Shizune as the adrenaline from the battle faded.
"Konohagakure has hurt sensei for the last time," Shizune replied in a voice tight with pain. "We won't let that place harm her again."
"Oh, so Tsunade's not dead now?" Anko demanded. "No matter; Sakura, patch her up. We're on the right track."
"You're all going to die up here," Shizune repeated.
"Who's going to do us in, hmm? You? That routed bunch of wanna-be soldiers?" Anko demanded.
"No. Him." Shizune's last word was punctuated by a THUD like another boulder falling behind them.
Standing in a dispersing cloud of rock dust from his leap down into the cleft was a massive man with wild, spiky orange hair and angry red eyes. He was taller than Kakashi and thickly muscled. He wore no shirt or jacket in spite of the cold mountain air, and he was barefoot. Loose gray trousers were his only garment, and he was unarmed. He walked down the cleft deliberately, his footsteps audible in the sudden silence.
"Juugo! They're here to take Tsunade away!" Shizune yelled. Kakashi knocked her out with a blow to the head, but it was too late.
Juugo's eyes zeroed in on the medic's bleeding, crumpled form. His face twisted into a rictus of hatred, and he transformed before their eyes. He had already been almost two and a half meters tall, but now he swelled to more than twice that height, his skin darkening from pale peach to a brownish-gray with a dark stripe down the center of his face. His eyes became midnight black with pale yellow irises. Most disturbingly, his flesh distorted, his hide producing spiked armor all over his body, his feet twisting into bladed talons. His hands turned into a pair of huge battleaxes while two more limbs grew from his shoulder blades, clawed hands with webbing in between the fingers so they almost resembled wings.
"Oh you have got to be kidding me." The words were Anko's, but they perfectly summed up Tenten's feelings. A roar tinged with rage and madness issued forth from Juugo's lips and he charged them.