Author's Note: This chapter is dedicated to all my readers! Thank you SO much! Knowing there are a few people waiting for this helped me write faster, haha. I hope you will enjoy this chapter as well!

Disclaimer: Naruto is not mine and never will be.


~ Please adjust the story-width to 3/4 or 1/2. It might be easier to read!


Chapter Two


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With a low grunt, Minato Namikaze heaved himself out of the wreckage wearily, leaving behind a large indent in the unfortunate log that had broken his fall.

Judging by the familiar feeling of emptiness in his chest, he was quite certain that once again, his chakra had been sealed.

Nevertheless, he glanced up at the sky just to make sure, and then sighed in resignation. His fears had been confirmed. The moon was already returning to its original crimson hue.

Based on its appearance, he must have been unconscious for a good ten, or even twenty minutes.

But regardless of how much time had passed, the fact remained that the eclipse—or Transition as it was commonly called, had ended. This was the reason why he could no longer use chakra, which in turn, also meant that he was unable to perform his signature transportation jutsu.

In other words, he was now stranded in the most treacherous part of the wilderness.

The blonde-haired Guardian silently cursed his ill luck. Great. Just great, he thought cynically.

The last time this happened to him had been years ago, and even then he hadn't been this far away from the Village. Without chakra, it was going to take him at least three weeks before he could make it back on foot.

Elder-sama was definitely going to laugh at him for this. That is, if he managed to return alive.

Minato cautiously surveyed his surroundings before deciding there was no immediate danger. As he cataloged his injuries (thankfully only a few nasty bruises), he recounted the events that led to his meeting with the unknown woman.

Attacking her had been a mistake, and he felt deeply regretful.

The moment he had teleported into the forest with his team, a pack of Hounds had separated him from the others in a clever ambush. Forced to fight for his life, he managed to eliminate all but two, who cowardly fled into the treetops.

He had come across the female while chasing after the runaway beasts.

She was sitting on the ground motionlessly, suspiciously, just beyond the edge of the crater left by his Rasengan. Not expecting to find a fellow human this close to the Nest, he had assumed she was one of them and did not hesitate to attack her.

Surprisingly, the woman was able to dodge all of his blades, which had forced him to move closer to retrieve them. However, his anger had spiked through the roof when he saw her clearly for the first time. The creature was terribly mistaken if it thought it could trick him by taking the form of such a lovely young woman.

But then she had surprised him by actually talking to him, and that was when he knew she was real. After all, it was common knowledge that one of the few things the parasites couldn't mimic were human speech patterns.

He didn't know what she was doing all the way out here, but it definitely meant that her arrival to the Chasm was a recent one. If he was right, then she was the first new arrival he had encountered in a very long time.

Unfortunately, Minato harbored no illusions that she was still alive.

Before losing consciousness, he remembered hearing her shouts echo through the forest, and that was how he knew she had drawn the Hounds away from him. It was a terribly stupid yet brave thing to do. Hounds were notorious for their voracious appetites... especially when it came to human females.

Once latched onto a female's scent, nothing short of death would be able to stop them.

Whoever she was, this woman had essentially sacrificed herself to save him, and he would never be able to thank her for it.

The thought of another life lost deepened his foul mood, and he was unaware that a look of rage had spread across his handsome features.

Like everyone else in the Village, Minato was extremely protective of females. How could he not be—when more than half of their women had disappeared, thanks to those damned beasts?

With new determination filling his eyes, the blonde expertly withdrew a long, slightly curved blade from its worn leather sheath at his side. In the dim light, the obsidian metal gleamed dangerously.

This sword was forged from a rare material that could slice through anything, and he never left the Village without it.

Chakra or no chakra, Village Law dictated that he needed to hunt down those creatures and kill them immediately. If he didn't, the likelihood of them tracking his scent back to the Village was far too great. An image, no, a memory of a vicious bloodbath appeared in his mind's eye, and his heart ached with sorrow.

He had sworn never to let anything like that happen again. As one of the elite Guardians of the Village, he would shed blood to keep that promise.

.

Ultimately, it didn't take him very long to find the Hounds. Moving swiftly through the woods, he easily followed the trail of destruction those things had created in their rampage.

The trail ended at a steep drop, and both creatures were standing at the very edge with their fleshy backs facing him. Snarling and howling in a fit of wild hunger, they sniffed the air and clawed furiously at the dirt; like starving beasts who sensed a morsel just beyond reach.

This time, it was he who ambushed them.

The slaughter was quick and efficient; exactly how he liked it. In two sweeping motions, his blade cleanly severed their heads from their fleshy torsos. Thick black blood with a slightly blue sheen spurted from their necks and splattered across the ground, and the stench of it – like rotting flesh – quickly filled the air.

Minato absently nudged one of the still-twitching carcasses with the tip of his boot, careful to avoid stepping into the blue-black gore. Having completed his duty, the fire that burned in his chest had reduced to a low simmer.

However, he was curious. What had distracted these creatures so much that they hadn't smelled his arrival?

Looking over the edge of the cliff, it wasn't long before he found his answer.

On a craggy outcrop far below him, a crumpled figure stained with blood lay motionless among the shadows.

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"Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely." – Edna Vincent Millay


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She waited for him underneath her favorite tree, shaded by elegant, willowy branches that were densely covered in delicate pink flowers.

There was a subtle aroma in the air, reminiscent of the freshest floral perfume mixed with just a hint of sunshine. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, savoring the scent.

It had taken her all morning to choose what to wear, and she hoped he would like the simple white sun-dress that swirled at her knees as much as she did. Her rose pink hair tumbled down her back in gently curled waves. Although she normally wore it in a braid, today was a special day.

After all, they were having their first date and she wanted to look extra nice for him.

Hands that were both delicate yet deadly tightened nervously around the handle of a wooden picnic basket. Preparing his favorite dishes from scratch had been time-consuming, and she fervently hoped he would arrive before the food went cold.

Thinking about him made her cheeks flush and her heart swell with affectionate longing. He was already late, but since she had waited so long for him to finally ask her out, she could afford to wait a little longer for him to arrive.

Sure enough, it wasn't long before she spotted a tall figure moving slowly in the distance, and her pulse quickened in anticipation. He was finally here!

But as the figure drew closer, the wide grin that easily spread across her face slowly diminished before disappearing altogether, replaced by a small frown.

She was mistaken. The man coming towards her wasn't the one she waited for. She recognized who it was, yes, but it only added to her confusion.

As the Hokage's apprentice, she knew that this particular person should have left on a mission to Sand yesterday morning. As a matter of fact, she had watched him depart through the Village gate with her own two eyes.

So what was he doing here instead?

There wasn't much time to ponder before the unexpected visitor finally reached her.

Standing several feet away, his face was strangely downcast and his whole body seemed to tremble with suppressed emotion. She instantly knew something was wrong, and his name fell from her lips in a tone tinged with worry.

Upon hearing her voice, he looked up, and she was taken aback by the hollowness in his eyes.

"I'm sorry, Sakura." he whispered flatly.

She opened her mouth to ask him what he meant by that, but his hand had already darted forward. There was a sickeningly loud squelch. And just like that—her world stopped turning.

The basket slipped from her slack fingers and upended over the ground.

To her credit, she didn't fall. Yet. Stumbling back a step, her widened eyes dropped to stare uncomprehendingly at the gaping wound carved into her chest. Dark red liquid trickled down the front of her dress in warm rivulets, dripping silently to the ground. The shock was so great it took her a moment before she finally understood what happened.

But it was too late.

The pain was like nothing she had ever experienced. It was all-encompassing, as if someone had rigged each of her nerve endings to detonate at the same time. She couldn't breathe, she couldn't scream. Moreover, the agony of the wound was nothing compared to the agony of betrayal. Her heart bled, both physically and figuratively.

She had always prided herself in being strong, but this was just simply too much. Against the inescapable onslaught, her mind bent, then fractured into a thousand pieces.

.

With a strangled cry, Sakura jerked awake, an expression of abject terror twisting her features almost unrecognizable.

Unfocused green eyes were glassy with horror, staring without seeing at a random point somewhere in the distance. As the seconds ticked by, they slowly returned to awareness.

Covered in a cold sweat, the pink-haired woman realized her heart was beating so rapidly she was afraid it would burst. It took her several minutes of deep breathing to finally calm down. The dream had been so realistic that her chest ached with a phantom pain, and she fought the urge to rub it.

It was only a nightmare, she tried convincing herself. None of that was real.

How could it possibly be real when she was lying here and very much alive? The woman she had embodied in that dream had died.

The nightmare had shaken her to the core, and naturally, she struggled to forget it. Luck was fortunately on her side.

Like most dreams, the second she awoke it had begun fading into the gray ether of her subconscious. Within moments it was gone; leaving her with only an inexplicable feeling of unease.

Her thoughts quickly turned towards the most pressing matter at hand, which was the nausea-inducing pain that was being transmitted to her brain from various parts of her body. A sudden wave of disorientation sent dark spots flying across her vision, and her stomach churned in misery.

What the hell happened?

The last thing she recalled was feeling strangely free as she flew towards a red moon glowing high in the sky. Wait, that didn't sound quite right.

… Ah yes, it was starting to come back now. She hadn't been flying at all.

Instead, she recalled plummeting through the air after tumbling off the edge of a cliff, thanks to those damned frog monsters. It certainly explained why her body felt like a few gorillas had used her as their personal punching bag.

Someone must have found her, otherwise she wouldn't be lying on a hard, bumpy surface in what appeared to be a dimly lit cave.

It was a rather small cave, she observed, with a musty smell and enough room for only a few people. The ceiling was fairly smooth in comparison to the walls, and was about eight feet up from the uneven stone floor. There was a large crevasse in the wall to her left, which she assumed was the entrance. Other than a small lantern that glowed feebly in the corner, the cave was pretty much empty.

There was no sign of her savior in sight.

Sakura shifted uncomfortably beneath the heavy white cloak that had been draped over her body. Absently noting the pattern of red flames embroidered on the hem, she pushed the cloth aside and sat up slowly, stifling a yelp as a searing pain announced the presence of a rib injury. In the dim light, she stared aghast at her numerous bruises and lacerations.

This is becoming far too familiar, she thought to herself miserably.

Someone had worked hard to patch her up while she laid unconscious, and all of her wounds were covered in some kind of amber substance, which she assumed was medicine. Whoever it was had done a good job because nothing appeared inflamed.

However, what worried her the most was her leg. From the knee down, the bloated limb was purple and blue, and looked positively ghastly. She was afraid to touch it, let alone put weight on it.

The pink-haired woman heaved a tired sigh, unsure of what to do.

She was hungry and thirsty, and desperately in need of some painkillers. She wondered how long she had been unconscious, and whether she should leave now or wait for someone to return.

…Assuming she hadn't been abandoned, of course.

While deciding her next plan of action, the distinct sound of rocks sliding against one another suddenly reached her ears. Startled from her thoughts, her eyes landed on a large cylindrical crack that was slowly appearing on a section of the stone floor.

The scraping noise continued, and under her wary gaze the crack became increasingly apparent. She quickly realized what was happening when a large chunk of rock was pushed up from the ground and eased to the side, revealing a dark hole big enough for a person to fit through.

A bulky green pack was shoved through the hole, followed by a small burlap sack that bulged at the seams.

Lastly, a head of spiky blonde hair poked through the opening. Upon catching sight of her sitting there and looking very much awake, the newcomer froze for a split-second before pulling himself up the rest of the way.

Sakura watched as he slid the rock back over the hole, the seams blending so effortlessly that it was no wonder she had missed it the first time.

Her eyes were riveted to the strange man who was now sitting on his heels, watching her with cautious blue eyes. She recognized that hair, that face, and definitely that dark green flak jacket. He was the same man who had attacked her with his blades in the woods.

The realization brought a flood of red-hot anger surging through her veins... that quickly fizzled out seconds later. She simply didn't have the energy to be angry right now.

"Who are you, and why did you attack me?" she demanded instead.

At her words, the man grimaced and offered her an apologetic smile.

"My name is Minato. I apologize for attacking you, but I thought you were one of the enemy. Thank you for drawing the Hounds away from me. I owe you my life." He spoke in a smooth and even voice that sounded slightly rehearsed, but the tone he used was appropriately contrite.

Sakura glared at him suspiciously for a few moments, but ultimately decided to give him the benefit of a doubt. His apology had sounded genuine enough, and there was no reason to be angry if the attack had been an honest mistake.

"I'm Sakura. You're welcome." She replied curtly. The pain was intense and she wasn't in a talkative mood.

The man seemed to understand because he didn't say anything. Turning to his pack, he pulled out a small bottle filled with tiny white pills.

"Pain-killers." He said simply, and hid a smile at the look of hunger that crossed her face.

Grabbing a flask of water, he slowly crossed over to where she sat and handed it to her, as well as two of the white pills. Sakura accepted the items from him cautiously. Just because he apologized didn't mean he wasn't still dangerous.

Sniffing the contents of the flask for signs of foul-play, she bravely popped the pills into her mouth downed it with several long gulps. The cool water was extremely refreshing on her throat and she tried not to drink too much at once.

The man named Minato busied himself by taking the liberty to inspect her wounds. He had taken out a small container of the amber medicine and was reapplying it to some of her deeper injuries. Aware of her suspicious eyes on him, he made sure his movements were slow and non-threatening.

The pain-killers were starting to work, but she hissed in discomfort when he touched her swollen leg.

"…You don't know it, but it's already looking much better." he commented offhandedly as he examined the blue and purple limb.

Sakura pondered the revelation with a frown. "How long have I been out?" she finally asked.

"Three days. You were hurt quite badly."

"…Where are we?"

"A safe-house, seven miles from where you fell."

"Oh. What happened to those… things. The ones that were chasing me?"

He raised a golden eyebrow. "You mean the Hounds? I killed them."

"...So that's what they're called? Hounds? They don't look anything like them."

Minato paused in his ministrations and sat back thoughtfully. "I suppose we call them Hounds because of their ability to track smells; not because of what they look like. Besides, dogs don't exist in this world."

She stared at him incredulously. "Care to repeat that again?"

The man had the gall to chuckle at her shocked expression. He had a nice laugh, she mused absently, before clamping down on the thought and discarding it.

"I'm sure you've noticed by now that this is a different world." His face suddenly turned quite serious. "We call it the Chasm, and many of us believe it is the afterlife."

She paled at his words, and her hands instinctively curled into uneasy fists. "Are you trying to tell me that… we're dead?" she asked disbelievingly, and her recent nightmare suddenly rose to the forefront of her mind.

He noticed her pallor and chose his next words carefully. "It depends on what you mean by 'dead', he explained. "While many of us do remember some events from a previous life, we are also alive right now. So in that sense, we aren't truly dead."

She nodded at his explanation, but still appeared uncertain.

Minato gave her a small smile and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "It will be a lot to take in, but if you're willing to listen, I'll do my best to explain everything to you."

.


.

It really was a lot to take in, Sakura mused a few hours later.

The blonde had been very patient; doing his best to thoroughly answer her every question. Right now, he was on the other side of the cave roasting some kind of meat over a dark green flame. She noticed that the flame did not give off smoke nor shadow.

From what he told her, this world was even stranger then she had originally believed.

She learned that humans were a small minority in a land primarily inhabited by a vicious race of monsters. Minato had referred to those monsters as parasites, and she had been afraid to ask him why due to the intense look of hatred that had crossed his face.

Quickly recalling the strange green glow that healed her previous injuries, she had changed the subject by asking him about that, instead.

He had appeared mildly surprised before gazing at her with new respect in his eyes. "It looks like you were probably a healer before you came here," he deduced, "Your body must have instinctively healed itself when you were injured."

He went on to explain that the eclipse she had seen was known as the Transition, and it occurred once every sixty days. During that time, those who had the ability to use chakra gained access to it once more. Unfortunately, it only lasted for sixty minutes. When those sixty minutes were up, their chakra was once again re-sealed until the next Transition.

She found the entire concept extremely odd, but it was no stranger than anything else she had encountered so far.

The phenomenon definitely explained why her current wounds hadn't healed themselves, and she concluded that her fall from the cliff must have taken place after the Transition had ended; when her chakra had already been sealed. Whatever the case, she was still immensely grateful to be alive.

Now if only she could get her memory back, things would be so much easier.

Right now, she felt like a stray leaf blowing in a turbulent wind. Even if this place was truly the afterlife (which she stubbornly refused to accept until there was further evidence), having an identity to fall back on would lessen much of her anxiety.

A skewer of meat was suddenly thrust in front of her nose, and she was jolted from her morose reflections. Lifting her eyes, she saw the blonde crouched beside her.

"I wouldn't think too hard if I were you," he admonished gently, "If you're wondering about your memories, you should just let them be. You might get bits and pieces now and then, but it's unlikely they'll ever return completely."

She accepted the meat from him with a small frown. "How did you know what I was thinking about?"

He shrugged. "I've been in your shoes before." he responded enigmatically, before moving away to finish roasting the meat.

Her stomach rumbled at the prospect of food, and she was just about to take a bite when she suddenly noticed that the fragrant morsel had a tail attached. And four legs. Her hunger pangs instantly vanished and she turned slightly green. Glancing across the cave, she saw Minato eating the same food—tail and all—with a nonchalant expression on his face.

Sighing in resignation, she hesitantly raised the meat back to her lips. It was very possible that dinner tonight was a lizard, but what was that saying again? Oh, right. Beggars can't be choosers. Considering she owned literally nothing except for the clothes on her back, she fit that criteria close enough.

Sakura bravely put the head of the roasted lizard into her mouth and bit down slowly, trying her best to ignore the crisp-sounding crunch. Green eyes widened as an explosion of delicious flavor danced across her taste buds, and she quickly took a second bite, chewing enthusiastically.

Lost in her meal, she didn't notice that the blonde had stopped eating to watch her, an amused and thoughtful expression on his face.

.

When the meal was over and the leftovers stored, Minato stretched out on a gray blanket he had brought with him earlier. The lantern sat on the floor between them, and Sakura drowsily watched the soft light flicker from where she lay.

It shocked her that she was feeling so comfortable around a stranger she had just met, but she wisely chalked it up to her desperate need for human interaction following weeks of miserable isolation. Besides, he had cared for her injuries, and he didn't quite seem like the psychotic-murderer type. She was going to keep trusting her instincts on this one.

A lazy and comfortable silence filled the air.

Warm and content, and high on painkillers, she was feeling quite sleepy when Minato suddenly shifted to face her, propping his head up with one hand.

"Sakura-san. That place we first met in the woods. Is that where you lived?"

At the sound of his voice, she blinked the drowsiness from her eyes and looked over at him.

"That's a good question," she mused, "I almost forgot about it myself, but no. I was chasing a man through the forest and he just happened to lead me there."

He visibly tensed at her words and sat up. "Where did you meet this man and what did he look like?"

She noticed the change in his demeanor with curiosity.

"He approached me at my camp in another part of the woods," she recounted slowly, "He had long brown hair and was wearing some sort of red armor. I tried to talk to him, but he didn't say a single word to me before taking off."

As she spoke, a storm seemed to descend upon the man's face. His eyes darkened and she suddenly recalled how dangerous he had appeared during their initial meeting.

After a moment, he spoke again. "Sakura-san. That man you were chasing was probably not a man at all. I have my theories as to why he left you alone, but please try to avoid him the next time you see him."

She nodded slowly, her expression slightly aghast. "So you're saying…"

The look on his face was dead serious. "Yes. Do you remember the creatures I told you about? Some of the more powerful ones have the ability to shift into human form. It is a very effective method of camouflage that they use to hunt prey."

"Thanks for the warning." she muttered gratefully, suddenly feeling lucky to be alive. "But if he was one of those creatures, why did he run away from me?"

The blonde stared pensively at the shadows flickering on the wall. "It must have been the Transition," he said at last. "The ones who can shape-shift are intelligent, and they know that during the eclipse, many of us become infinitely more powerful. It probably assumed you could use chakra and decided not to engage you in a fight it might not win."

His explanation made sense, and both of them lapsed into silence once more.

Sakura was now wide-awake and feeling quite uneasy. She fiddled with a lock of tangled pink hair, absently picking at the dried blood and dirt crusting the strands together. She couldn't stop thinking about what he said earlier, about this nightmarish world being the afterlife.

If he was right, she wondered if she had committed some kind of horrible sin in her previous life, and was now being punished for it. What had he called this place again? Ah, yes...the Chasm. It sure sounded like it could be the official name of hell.

Something else crossed her mind, and she raised her head to look at the blonde once more. "...Minato-san, you are the first person I've seen since I arrived here. What were you doing by yourself in the woods?" she inquired.

At the sound of her using his name for the very first time, the man's blue eyes suddenly locked onto her own, flaring with a hidden intensity that made it difficult for her to maintain eye-contact. Her cheeks grew warm and she silently cursed the attractiveness of his face.

To both her relief and mortification, the corner of his lips slowly tilted upwards, and the blonde thankfully shifted his eyes back to the shadows playing on the wall.

"I wasn't actually alone, at least not at first," he responded casually. "In our society, I am what is known as a Guardian, and our duty is to protect the Village. My unit was tasked with a reconnaissance mission to find the location of the Nest. That is the reason I was in the forest."

She mulled over the new terminology thoughtfully. The word "Guardian" was fairly self-explanatory, and she guessed he was some kind of soldier. But what exactly was the Nest? She voiced the question aloud, and then almost wished she hadn't when a shadow reappeared across his features. Apparently, this was a touchy subject for him.

"The Nest is the source of our misery." he answered darkly. "We have reason to believe that the parasites live together in one central location, where they eat and breed under one ruler. Imagine a colony of ants, or a hive of bees. That is why we refer to it as the Nest."

"...I see. So where are your teammates?"

"I assume they must have returned to the Village. They're probably wondering what happened to me."

Sakura nodded again, satisfied by his answers. For some reason, her thoughts drifted to the gaping hole she had seen in the side of the mountain, and its strangely smooth edges that had appeared too perfect to be natural. It was only a few days ago since she saw it, but it felt like even longer had passed.

A part of her wondered if what she had seen could be the Nest her new companion spoke of, and she decided to ask him about it when she had more energy. Right now, her brain was fogging up again, and she needed time to digest all of the new information.

Nothing escaped the blonde's sharp eyes and he easily observed the barely-concealed fatigue on her face. For some reason the sight of it bothered him.

"Sakura-san, please get some rest," he suggested politely. "Tomorrow morning, we'll see if your leg is ready for travel. If it is then we should leave for the safety of the Village immediately. We have a long way to go, so the sooner we leave the better."

She nodded sleepily. Pulling the white cloak up to shield her face, she buried her nose into the thick fabric, inhaling deeply. It smelled nice, she mused, like the sharp clean wind that accompanied a swift summer storm. In spite of her troubled thoughts, it wasn't long before her breathing evened out, and she drifted into an uneasy slumber.

.

Minato had laid down as well, but he could not sleep.

His mind continued to churn rapidly. The man she described had sounded extremely familiar to him, which was the reason why he had immediately known it wasn't truly a man.

There was only one brown-haired, red-armored person that he knew of, and that person would never step foot outside of the Village without his trusted adviser.

This was serious news that needed to be reported immediately, and the Elder was not going to be pleased that a dangerous copy of himself was running about in the wild.

The blonde-haired Guardian gingerly rubbed his aching temples and fought the urge to sigh.

In spite of his best efforts to appear strong, sometimes he felt like he was getting too old for this. He had arrived in the Chasm over twenty years ago, but it had never become any easier.

In this world, each day was a deadly game of survival that more people lost then won. He had seen countless people die, including the previous Elder. However, the concept of aging did not exist in this reality, which meant that those who could avoid being killed were technically able to live for an eternity.

In fact, Minato himself looked exactly the same now as when he had first awoken here all those years ago.

It was both a blessing and a curse.

While there were plenty of survivors who enjoyed the prospect of eternal life, others like himself felt it was more of a punishment. After all, what was the point of living forever if it was a life of fear and suffering?

The woman beside him suddenly shifted in her sleep, drawing his attention back to her. The rise and fall of her chest was slow and even, and pale eyelashes fluttered gently as she dreamed.

With her long rosy hair and refreshingly feminine features, she was the loveliest thing he had seen in a very long time.

It had been extremely difficult to take care of her wounds, mostly because of the inappropriate temptation that seized him whenever he touched her. Even now, his heart-beat quickened as he recalled the silky feel of her smooth skin beneath his calloused fingertips. Forced to take off her dress in order to check for wounds, the sight of her unclothed form had caused his pants to become uncomfortably tight, much to his shame.

Minato knew it had been far too long since he last had a woman, but the situation could not be helped. In the Village, women were far outnumbered by men, which meant that most of them took multiple lovers at the same time. Even the unattractive ones. In fact, it had become common for a woman to have two, or even three husbands.

Because of the extreme gender skew, finding a woman was an extremely difficult task for many men. Nevertheless, that was not the real reason for his temporary abstinence. Highly intelligent and perceptive, he knew that many women would not pass up the chance to have him due to his power and good looks.

However, the truth was that he had no interest in bedding women who already catered to multiple men. Neither was he interested in pursing a romantic relationship. There was only one woman he truly wanted, and she was unavailable to him.

Sakura didn't know it yet, but if they made it back to the Village, he had a feeling her pretty face and wide green eyes was going to be the source of a lot of trouble.

Tonight, he had purposely withheld information from her because he hadn't wanted to overwhelm her. She would find out the rest soon enough, as long as she kept herself alive.

.


.

With a gasp, Sakura jerked awake. The lantern was out, and the cave had been plunged into a darkness so thick that it smothered.

She didn't know why, but instincts had awoken her. A sense of dark foreboding slithered around in her chest, making the fine hairs on the back of her neck tingle alarmingly.

"Minato." she hissed softly, unsure if he was there or not.

Something shuffled in the dark, followed by the sound of a match striking against rock.

A small yellow flame burst into existence, and she breathed out a sigh of relief as he re-lit the lantern. However, the relief faded as she watched him swiftly tug on his boots and reach for the rest of his gear.

"What's going on?" she asked in bewilderment.

Judging by the deep frown etched on his face, the man clearly knew something she didn't.

However, he didn't get the chance to speak because a muffled screech had resounded through the air. To her ears, it sounded like a mutated cross between a lion and a hawk. A second later, something powerful rammed into the top of the cave with a heavy boom; sending dust and small chunks of rock raining down on the two occupants inside.

She nearly jumped in surprise, and beside her, Minato muttered something that sounded like a curse.

Eyes watering from the dust, she raised the cloak to shield against the falling debris.

The man beside her had his narrowed eyes trained on the forming cracks in the ceiling, and there was a deep furrow between his brows. "We're being attacked by a higher level parasite." he explained in a tightly controlled voice. "It must have caught my scent when I left to get supplies earlier."

She frowned at the foreboding news. "Can we try to fight it?"

He shook his head. "Not unless you wish to die. A monster of this level can only be killed using chakra."

Nodding grimly at the revelation, she tried to stand up, but her still-weakened body refused to cooperate. Before she could try again, Minato was suddenly beside her. He slipped a strong arm around her waist and easily hauled her to her feet.

He didn't let go, and so she took that as permission to use him for support. His powerful muscles felt like solid rock beneath her fingertips.

Glancing up at him through dust coated lashes, she couldn't help but notice how calm and focused he appeared.

The thing outside screeched again, and the cave shuddered once more under the force of a second blow, then a third. As the blows became continuous, she realized that it was only a matter of time before the cave was breached.

The man supporting her was thinking the same thing. Ignoring the concealed entrance in the floor she knew was there, he quickly shuffled them over to a section of the wall. Placing his left hand on the rocky surface, he felt around for a secret switch.

Moments later, there was a small click, followed by a grinding noise. Sakura watched in mild surprise as part of the wall slid open to reveal a narrow doorway, and the dark tunnel beyond.

Above them, there was an ear-splitting rumble that sounded like a crack of thunder.

Reacting swiftly, Minato heaved them both to the side, just in time to save them from being fatally crushed by an avalanche of falling rock. He had twisted his body so that he took the brunt of the impact. A cloud of dust billowed into the air.

Ignoring her injuries, Sakura coughed and quickly struggled to her feet, not wanting to crush the man that cushioned her fall for longer than necessary. The lantern had disappeared beneath the rocks, but strangely enough, she could still see.

Glancing up, she saw that pale white light streamed into the cave from a massive hole in the ceiling.

Unfortunately, light wasn't the only thing coming in.

She didn't know what it was, but the writhing mass of flesh-colored tentacles that squirmed through the opening must have escaped from someone's worst nightmares.

There were too many to count, and they were attached to a body outside the cave that she hoped to never have to see.

Thick as her wrist and dripping in some kind of foul-smelling mucus, each of the flailing appendages were tipped with a long black claw that appeared razor sharp. Like earthworms, their segmented bodies contracted and pulsed with each sinuous movement.

Frozen in place by morbid curiosity, she watched as the serpentine limbs began fanning across the ceiling of the cave, digging their claws into the stony surface to stay attached. Similar to an octopus exploring its new lair, they probed at each crevice meticulously, as if searching for something…

Someone jerked roughly on her arm, and she tore her eyes away from the gruesome sight to see Minato watching her. The fierce intensity on his face made his eyes glow like twin blue flames, rendering her back to reality.

"Sakura, you go on ahead. I'll catch up." he ordered harshly. In his right hand, he gripped a gleaming black sword that shimmered in spite of the dim light.

Realizing what he was planning to do, she immediately opened her mouth to protest. However, he silenced her with a sharp glare that made her spike with anger. The blonde knew he was being rude, but the current situation was so urgent he simply could not take disobedience for an answer.

She was going to hate him for this, but time was running out.

In a movement so swift that she barely felt him touch her, Sakura found herself unexpectedly shoved through the secret doorway he had opened in the wall. Landing on her back with a pained oomph, her head smacked against the ground, causing an explosion of white stars to dance across her vision.

Disoriented from the fall, she cursed and blinked rapidly, and suddenly found that she could not see a thing. There was no light coming in because the opening she had fallen through had completely disappeared.

With growing dread, she realized that Minato had sealed it behind her.

A tiny part of her was flattered that he had obviously done this to protect her, but another, much bigger part was screaming furious obscenities.

That bastard! How dare he do this?!

Feeling a small bubble of hysteria rise in her chest, she roughly groped the rocky tunnel wall with both hands, searching for some kind of lever or switch that would open the door from this side.

However, her frantic movements revealed nothing, and after many minutes she allowed herself to slump tiredly to the floor.

All was silent, except for the sounds of her own heavy breathing.

She couldn't hear anything from the other side of the wall, which made her extremely nervous. Although she hadn't known Minato for very long, the man had already made a deep impression on her. She hoped the damned bastard would stay alive.

Feeling strangely calm, Sakura cautiously stood up.

He had told her to go ahead, and so she would. There was no other option.

Unable to see in the darkness, she began slowly feeling her way down the tunnel.

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...To be continued.


- To everyone who reviewed: THANK YOU! I hope this chapter answered most of your questions!

- Lori – If you were creeped out by the first chapter, then I succeeded in my intentions!

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~ Thanks for reading! Reviews are appreciated! :)

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