Oasis, chapter 1: The Dead of Night
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto
World: Armageddon AU
Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
And face it all together.
The thick trunk of a tree she'd been hiding behind only half a second ago exploded in a brilliant wave of splinters, leaves, and burning debris. Ino wondered if the end of her ponytail had been singed in the conflagration, but pushed the thought out of her mind as she concentrated on getting the hell out of there.
Two... No, three, she counted in her head as she jumped over felled trees and boulders. Three flaring chakra signatures gave chase through the dense forest behind her. She hoped they wouldn't throw any more exploding kunai at her. When the ground several feet in front of her erupted in a whirlwind of dirt and mulch, she skidded and attempted a sharp turn to the right. She lost her balance just long enough to stumble and fall. She was back up in a flash, but the lost time would cost her.
So much for wishing...
She sensed the blow before it landed and reached for the chakra blades at her sides to block it. Just in time, too, because the enemy would have cleaved her head in half with his scimitar. Ino grunted with the effort of her counterattack, but after a suspended moment of impasse she managed to dart backwards to safety. Feverish eyes leaking blood and pus zeroed in on her while his companions drew up from the sides. Ino wasted no time, her depleted chakra reserves be damned.
The incoming enemies jerked as her technique overrode their nervous systems and forced them to turn on Ino's original attacker. Together, they impaled him with their swords through the chest. He gurgled, black blood dribbling from his mouth and fresh wound before his swollen body slumped to the ground. The other two snarled and raged, but were helpless to stop themselves as Ino made them turn their blades on each other next—a double kill.
Her shoulders slumped and she steadied herself against a nearby tree, trying to catch her breath and ignore the encroaching pain from chakra exhaustion. Black blood puddled beneath her fallen attackers and spread over the grass, smoking as it merged with the earth. The attackers themselves suffered a number of lacerations across their bodies, cracked and weeping more black blood. They bore no visible hitai-ate, which was almost worse than knowing who she'd just killed. Ino looked away from the grisly scene. Even after all this time she still could not abide the sight of it.
After a moment's rest, she extended her senses in a wide sweep of the area just to make sure there weren't more of them on the way. She detected nothing, but that was no guarantee that there wouldn't be more coming eventually, even if it was getting close to dawn. They had a way of tracking their own, living or dead.
Not that the distinction really matters, she thought.
Taking a steadying breath, Ino wiped the sweat and grime from her brow and holstered her chakra blades. She set off to the west.
Under the light of the stars above, he shone like a pearlescent wraith, a ghostly lord descended from on high—or perhaps risen from the depths of hell, in his case. It didn't matter either way; this place was hell now, too. For someone like Kimimaro, who'd danced with demons and carried their mark, he should have felt right at home.
But not like this. Everything about this was wrong. He should have died long ago, released from this debilitating disease and finally at peace. It seemed that his former mentor would not allow him even that much. He clenched a fist and paused in his slow trek through a thinning bosque. No matter how far he travelled or what he saw, he could not seem to outrun his past. It defined him and scarred him. It was all he had left, and he hated that the most.
Telltale whistling was his only warning before he shot a hand out and caught the projectile with practised ease. Bringing it close to his face for closer inspection, pale green eyes narrowed at the offending senbon. These bastards had a tendency to sneak up on him...
"You're not one of them."
Kimimaro lowered the senbon and looked up at the feminine voice. A young woman, perhaps of an age with him, stood several yards away. Her blonde ponytail billowed in the night wind, and she looked worse for wear. When she took a step toward him, he tensed.
"You're not one of them," she said again, the wonderment clear in her tone.
"Neither are you," he said. His own voice sounded cracked and foreign to his ears. It had been ages since he'd last spoken out loud.
This seemed to snap her out of whatever daze she'd been in and she nodded. Again, she approached him. He watched, unsure what to make of this unexpected turn of events. When was the last time he'd seen a person who wasn't one of them?
When she drew up only several feet from him, they got a better look at each other. She wore a green flak vest over black and purple combat garb. A ninja, clearly, but he saw no hitai-ate or other mark of affiliation. She was covered in a thin layer of grime and some minor surface abrasions, but nothing serious. He immediately guessed that she was low on chakra, which would explain the hunch in her posture and drooping eyelids. Most striking was the endless blue of her eyes as they absorbed the pale moonlight above.
He promptly turned around and began walking the other way.
"W-Wait!" she called to him.
He stopped and turned to regard her, expression devoid of emotion. "Why?"
Blue eyes blinked, perhaps at a loss for any reasonable explanation. He was about to turn around again when she spoke.
"Please. It's been so long since...since I met anyone who wasn't infected," she stammered. "Just wait, please."
Ah, so she was lonely. Judging by her current condition, she wasn't the type to last long solo. In his experience, kunoichi were never good solo players on the battlefield. Even Tayuya, who'd been decently formidable, was nothing special at the end of the day. She hadn't even been able to put up a fight when he'd decided to kill her.
"Why are you alone?" she asked.
"Why are you?" he shot back.
This seemed to make her angry. "Look, I didn't mean to intrude or anything, but you really have no idea how long I've been looking for someone who's not afflicted. I just wanted..." she trailed off.
"I don't have time for this," he said, turning away from her once more.
Kimimaro half expected her to call out to him again, but she didn't. Unperturbed, he continued on his path, back the way he came. It would be dawn in a couple of hours and those things would calm down, so as long as he was careful he should have no problems. After ten minutes of walking, he turned back once—just to make sure that girl hadn't followed him. No one was there.
It was only a split second after he turned around to resume his vespertine journey that the attack came. Twin daggers, cross-wielded like scissors, meant to decapitate him in one blow. Unfortunately for his attacker, rusted steel was no match for chakra-enhanced bone. Elongated spikes protruded from Kimimaro's chest, breaking skin and weeping a bit of blood upon their exit. The attacker's blades crunched against bone, and the steel whined before splitting altogether. Not to be deterred, the attacked jumped back and commenced a round of hand seals.
Kimimaro counted five of them in total. All had the same vacant eyes, oozing black wounds, and tattered shinobi garb. Green eyes narrowed slightly at the odds.
I need to make this swift and clean.
Resolved, he reached for his upper arm. Bone pierced the skin, grinding as he pulled it out slowly but surely. It only took a few moments for his entire humerus to emerge and stiffen into a deadly sharp blade. Crouching low for added momentum, he sprang into action. The five infected shinobi attacked in unison. The ground rumbled with the makings of a nasty earth jutsu, but the pale warrior was undeterred. He jumped with the aid of chakra, narrowly avoiding a giant finger of rock that suddenly burst forth from the earth and reached for the sky.
He brought his arm back and slashed mercilessly at the nearest diseased attacker. His throat opened up and spewed black blood. Kimimaro twisted just enough to avoid getting sprayed. Landing with barely a sound, he wasted no time in launching upwards again and ramming his bone blade into the next nameless enemy, piercing her heart. The attacker sputtered and sank to his knees. Kimimaro noticed that she wore a Mist hitai-ate, but thought little of it. To him, they were all as good as dead anyway.
The remaining three took his moment of stillness to jump him. One sent a razor sharp gust of wind after him, which he leapt out of the way to avoid. The other two were waiting for him, striking with a spear and a katana just as he landed. Kimimaro managed to release bones all over his body in time to block the katana, but the spear gouged his shoulder and caused him to take a compensating step backward. He gritted his teeth and reached for the spear, tugging it and its wielder along with it. Using the enhanced strength inherited from his dead clan, he flung the spear wielder at the one holding the katana, sending them both crashing into the ground. With his good hand, Kimimaro pointed his fingers at the pair and released a barrage of bone bullets. They fell still almost instantly.
Several breaths passed as he surveyed the damage briefly. Unbidden, his lungs chose that time to act up and a coughing spasm barrelled into him with the force of a stampede. Kimimaro sank to one knee and tried to muffle the sound with a hand. Pain bloomed in his chest, and he willed the attack to pass. The hand covering his mouth suddenly felt wet and warm with blood, but he could do nothing about it. Not caring that his shoulder was injured, he leaned some of his weight on his wounded arm and ignored the pain.
Finally, after several minutes of torture, the coughing subsided. A little reluctantly, he raised up his hand and examined the bright red sheen covering his palm and fingers. A grimace twisted his features at the sight, and he immediately wiped the mess on the grass. Moonlight made it shine, as though phosphorescent.
There's no honor in this, he thought to himself.
A few things happened in that moment. He heard the foreign voice in his head—yes, that's not my voice—and then he registered the warning. A slight rush of wind behind him confirmed it. Without even thinking, Kimimaro spun on his heel and thrust out a hand, the radius extending out of his palm in a cruel point. The incoming enemy staggered, impaled by the bone as empty, glazed eyes stared back at him, unseeing. Had his throat not been raw from his earlier coughing fit, Kimimaro may have made an audible sound of disgust as he detached himself from his bone spike and stepped carefully away from the corpse. Shortly thereafter, the sound of running footsteps drew his attention. It was that girl again.
"You're all right," she said, drawing up next to him. "I wasn't sure if you'd hear me in time."
Icy green eyes studied her, suspicious. "Hear you?"
She inclined her head as if to see him better, her expression guarded. "I have the ability to communicate telepathically. I sensed that last one closing in separately from the others and warned you when it didn't look like you were going to react."
Kimimaro honestly did not know how to respond to that. What she was saying was absurd. He'd never heard of anyone, shinobi or otherwise, with such an ability. He narrowed his eyes at her. There was only one way to find out.
"You're saying you can hear everything I'm thinking," he thought to himself.
They watched each other under the light of the moon for a long time, sizing each other up. With the state of world, he supposed this should not have been surprising. It did not escape Kimimaro's notice that her eyes zeroed in on his shoulder injury. It was no matter; he was sure he could easily overpower her if she tried to attack him. He'd been through far worse and made it out mostly intact before.
"Why did you follow me?" he said, ignoring her rather obvious observation.
"I wasn't exactly following you; I was originally going this way too."
"Well then," Kimimaro said, turning away from her. "Don't let me stop you." He began to walk again.
"Wait!" She ran around him and cut off his escape. "Where are you going?"
He was beginning to grow irritated. "That's none of your business."
It seemed that she was growing irritated as well. "Look, you obviously know what it's like out there," she said, gesturing the world around them. "Those things... The 'Infected'... That's what we started calling them. Out here with no cover, we're sitting ducks. That was only a scouting group, but the larger forces wander in packs of hundreds, maybe more. They're not something one person can handle alone."
"Then I hope for your sake that you don't encounter a pack," he said dismissively before attempting to sidestep her.
She moved to cut him off once more. "I could say the same for you. In fact, it's in both our interests to travel together. Two shinobi are better than one."
He wasn't exactly surprised that she'd suggested this. Someone like her, a kunoichi probably too weak to fight off those creatures alone, would inevitably seek strong allies. The last thing he needed was baggage tagging along. In any case, he preferred solitude these days. "I don't think so."
He tried to move past her again, and again she blocked him. Fed up with this, Kimimaro lifted a hand between them, making sure he had her attention, then slowly forced out a fresh bone blade. Her blue eyes widened in apprehension and fear, but she remained steadfastly rooted to the spot. Blinking, she returned her gaze to his.
"I know what you're thinking. You think that I'm unfit as a shinobi, that I'll be a burden."
"I already know you can read minds; there's no need to prove that again," he said unkindly.
She ignored the slight. "Well, you're wrong. My clan specializes in mind manipulation. I can control sentient beings, which is great when large groups of the Infected attack. I'm also trained as a medic nin," she added, indicating his wounded shoulder. "That kind of injury is a piece of cake for me."
Kimimaro frowned. She seemed hell bent on getting him to give in. Still, none of this really mattered to him. He was more than capable of taking care of himself. His misery wanted no company.
"Not interested." He pushed his hand and, consequently, the sharp bone it bore, forward for emphasis.
"W-Wait," she said. "I... I'm an excellent sensor type, so I know where they are and where they're coming from. That's not something most shinobi can do."
At this Kimimaro paused and surveyed her once more. A sensor type? He supposed he could believe it if she'd noticed that last enemy when he hadn't. Then again, maybe she'd just seen him with her eyes alone. He'd had his back turned, which was why he hadn't noticed until it was almost too late.
You wouldn't have noticed at all if she hadn't intervened, a small voice taunted him from the back of his mind.
"You can sense them," he said slowly.
Her eyes brightened a little at his show of interest. "Yes, absolutely. I can tell their numbers and proximity from miles away."
He thought about this for a moment. To be able to tell where the Infected were, their strength, and in what direction they were headed would be an invaluable advantage to have. He found himself believing her proclamation; there was no way she would have made it this long without such a useful ability. It would be so easy for him to turn her away and wander unwittingly into an army of the Infected. The end would come for him then, but it would be a vile way to go. Great shinobi were meant to die in the throes of combat, fighting to the death with their best moves and falling against a worthy opponent. If he had no future left to him, at least he could die with dignity.
"All right," he said, withdrawing his bone blade. "But don't expect me to act as your guardian."
She looked torn between relief that he'd relented and anger at his blatant underestimation. "Fine, but the same goes for you."
He just looked at her like she was crazy. Okay, obviously she didn't know who he was or what he was capable of, but she could not honestly think that he would need to rely on her for protection, right? He was about to say something to that when she spoke again.
"I'm Ino, by the way."
"Ino," he repeated. Deciding that was probably enough of an introduction, he started to make his way past her once more. Whatever she thought about him didn't matter at all anyway. He wouldn't concern himself with her other than to gauge their surroundings.
"You haven't told me your name," she said, falling into step beside him.
He spared her a glance out of the corner of his eye. She stared straight ahead, her expression hard and steely. The sudden difference in her struck him, as though she was hiding something. After a moment he returned his focus to the path ahead of them. Behind them, the sun was beginning to peek out over the eastern horizon. Another night had ended, but the threat of ambush and disembowelment by the Infected would not abate even in the coming morning. Not completely, at least.
"Kimimaro," he said finally.
"Kimimaro," she repeated, the same way he'd repeated her name previously. "Let's find a place to take cover for tonight."
Stealing another discreet glance at her, he found himself thinking how out of place she was walking next to him. After so many weeks of wandering alone and in silence with only the Infected to keep him company whenever they decided to jump him, he'd all but given up on the idea that there were any survivors. And yet, here they were.
"Yeah," he finally said.
They didn't speak again as the sun illuminated the path before them, and they left the dead of night behind.
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