Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto, The Gamer or any other familiar characters.
Chapter 13 – War Horse.
Mystic Palm increased by one.
I ignored the notification with a grunt.
"You can't follow them where they're going, kid." The Raikage's voice was stern as it always was but his hand rested fatherly on my right shoulder. His eyes, though: worry and a hint of pride.
My left arm dangled at my side mostly useless, the skin charred black by blue biju-empowered fire. Deep gashes crossed my torso and covered my right arm, now fortunately clotted by healing chakra. My right tibia was cracked and three of my ribs were broken, half my muscles were torn, my clothes were shredded, my vest severely burnt. I breathed laboriously.
Matatabi's chakra was poison for me, I had realized. Only the Mystic Palm closed those wounds, the gamer's body by itself hadn't began to deal with them until after I treated them with chakra. They also stung. It felt strange to feel pain, lingering pain, again. Faint as it was.
Rocks tumbled down the cliff from an exploding note I had thrown and missed at the beginning of the fight. The training grounds were in ruins. Blue fires still burned among the remains of the rocky outcrops, deep gashes from both my wind jutsu and Yugito's chakra-arms scarred the terrain. A third of the plateau threatened to crumble down to the cloud cover; the whole area would have to be stabilized to be usable again. Wisps of biju chakra still lingered in the air, making the hairs on my neck rise.
I reflected on what had just happened: it had been the most difficult fight of my career.
Her attacks had come relentless, with a zeal I never believed to be possible. I had to resort to all the feints and counters in the books, to all the jutsu I had in hand, from simple clones to exploding seals to wind-enhanced blades, only careful of not overdoing it. It had been barely enough.
Captain Two had a saying: 'experience outweighs blind rage', but, he explained, not in the way everyone presumed. Muscle memory and polished reactions, all honed from years of training and experience; they wouldn't be muffled by rage. A frenzied opponent would be just as dangerous as a calmed one, if not more. They simply wouldn't consciously plan.
I found it true. Yugito had countered my jutsu and blocked my attacks, she had weaved between my strikes and had dodged my projectiles. Those red chakra-arms had gone for the kill more than once, even if I hadn't.
When her red bubbling shroud had begun to turn black, I had had no choice but to use one of the suppression seals she had given me years ago. The sole presence of that chakra in such amount had almost forced me to use my iron sand, but the Demon Brother's chain had held. Barely.
I watched silently as B carried Yugito away, unaffected by the strands of biju chakra jumping from her skin to his. The deep cuts from the bladed chain steamed, her reddened skin was slowly regrowing. She still held her eyes closed, a grimace on her face. Pain. An arm broken in three places, a cut-off ear, a black, swollen eye, a deep gash on her leg, and her own vest almost completely burnt away, still stained dark red. At least whatever was left of her clothes - crimson sash included but prayer beds gone- covered her modesty. In between, the small paper with the chakra-restrictive seal rested on her skin above the navel, I had dared not to take it.
After her chakra cloak had receded and she had collapsed to the ground, and before B had taken her away, her obsidian eyes had fluttered open while I tried my best to heal her with my lackluster Mystic Palm. She had turned her face from the sun and gasped when it locked unto me. "Your arm-" she had stammered.
"We'll both be well by tomorrow," I had answered, focusing on the healing chakra I was conveying to her chest. "But right now, you're in pain."
Indeed, the Gamer system might had taken my pain away, but not hers. Though not where biju chakra still lingered nor had it taken the foreignness of a useless arm, but the worst of it it did.
For the time being, I concentrated back on the Mystic Palm and my charred arm. The small amount of biju chakra still inside my system countered and almost negated my natural regeneration.I was standing on fumes; my SP points were almost depleted, my Chakra was nearly gone and my HP was low. I had some small potions in my inventory, I remembered. I shouldn't be hoarding them even if the most basic, the smaller ones, were so uncommon.
I could sense the ANBU captains standing up the roof of the tea shop. The sun was still up in the sky, shining bright upon us. Shinobi duels never lasted long.
A's voice was stern, but it had hint of wonder. "That was quite the fight, Kioshi," he said. "There's no doubt you deserve your promotion."
You have received a new title!
Title: ANBU captain of Kumo.
10% faster Stat and Skill growth.
I looked at where B had just disappeared behind the mountain peak with conflicting feelings. I had made the promise long ago that I would protect her, and I had the nagging sense that I had failed her.
The Raikage turned to the Commander and captain Two, who had just shunshined to our side. "Take Kioshi to the hospital and have his arm checked. I want a report on Yugito's seal as soon as possible."
I shook my head, murmured an 'I'll be fine' and shunshined home.
The blinds were closed tight, the door was locked, and the unpleasant, warm lights were a mediocre replacement to the spring sunlight that shone outside.
The plump man was staring at me with an egotistical smile. Not to be confused with an arrogant or condescending smirk, but that particular elevated-chin grimace of powerful noblemen or, in this case, a thriving businessman.
Mabaru Kuwata was the owner of the three busiest hotels in Yugakure. As his bio stated, he had taken control of the family's company after his father had passed away and his uncle had relegated himself to adviser.
This was an unusual way to enjoy my week-long vacation, the only time of the year away from training, missions or worries, supposedly. I hadn't been able to convince Kichiro, Suguna, Sadako nor any of my fellow ANBU to join me, and Yugito couldn't leave the Land of Lightning. I was by myself and as luck had it, I found myself in between some peculiar circumstances.
Mabaru sat behind his bulky and luxurious hinoki desk, flaunting his expensive suit and his perfectly cared mustache, while I stood before him in civilian, everyday clothing. "First, I would like to express my gratitude for your prompt intervention," he said. "And secondly, I would like to offer you an agreement of sorts."
The deed he mentioned: I had prevented a middle-aged woman from getting stabbed in front of her family. The assailant -an aging man with some shinobi training from his level- had been carrying too many blades under his fancy apparel for someone leisurely approaching the lobby. Long story short, I had disarmed and subdued the subject when he tried to stab the woman. An impeccably dressed man, the clerk, had cordially thanked me and then upgraded my room from a low-cost, budget-driven, lonely-guy single to an opulent and over-the-top double suite. Yugakure's shinobi had arrested the man and the owner himself had then called me to his office.
I pondered on his words. 'No harm in listening.'
"I hire private security on a monthly basis, mostly chunin teams from Yugakure itself," Mabaru said after I nodded back at him. He poured two cups of some expensive-looking sake from a glass bottle he had over his desk. To the right, a sandstone water clock poured white-tinted water between containers; the relaxing sound did nothing to calm my feelings of apprehension. "This time I hired a two-person jonin squad from Kusa. Sensors. They should have arrived yesterday."
He motioned me to sit on one of the chairs in front of his desk. I did.
"I am an information broker, a middleman between businessmen and entrepreneurs. I connect people... and trade any information I come across," Mabaru continued. "My hotels offer neutral grounds for talks and diplomatic engagements between nations and factions, and these are difficult times for this part of the elemental nations. I'm expecting important envoys in the coming days, and important people always attract unsavory matters, you see. Whether they would come about is a matter of rising chance and the alignment of pieces set on an ever-changing board. Excruciating as it may be, I've been forced to always look deeper within clues and cues to find the truth behind any meeting, signed documents and those involved. Ah, but I believ-"
'Oh, not this.' "Excuse me, Mr. Kuwata," I interrupted him. "Ideas I might allow you your indulgences, but I care not for such language when discussing agreements."
I knew that type of talking, I had dealt with it while growing up in my old world: snobs from my father's side of the family, where speeches and discussions revolved not around the message but word embellishment. Big words thrown around, underlying meanings, insults dressed as compliments... one had to dig through bitter honey to find the actual subject of a conversation, if any. It was the talking of those pretending to be wise and shrewd, while an external listener would immediately recognize the sham.
Real business instead dealt with directness and strove to convey a message or idea unambiguously. Everyone had to take words at face value even if that meant some unintentional insulting statements. It was a way to make business, a way to make money. My uncle on my mother's side had instilled that lesson in me when I was just a child and I'd held it close to the heart ever since.
Mabaru eyed me with a blank expression. "Your words give you credit, Mr. Subu. There's more behind those mismatched eyes of yours than that aptitude for fighting I'd heard about after a certain event in Kusa some years ago."
I was mildly surprised with the implicit message: he knew who I really was. Being a high-profile asset to Kumo -and fearful of Danzo's schemes- I had been instructed to use a fake name whenever I went away from the village on non-shinobi business and away from any backup. It had taken me days to persuade the Raikage and the Commander to approve my solitary vacations.
I didn't bother much; he was probably informed about how I reduced the old guy in the lobby and made the connection. 'Note to self: don't use the magnet release so blatantly and hide my eyes.'
"I'll be direct then," Mabaru started again. "I'm asking for your help and your particular skill during the coming days to weed out any undesirable individuals and help the local force reduce them if needed. In exchange, I offer you safe heaven and the opportunity to work for me: there's always room for a talented collaborator. I might misplace a few coins afterwards, too," he added with a light smirk.
'Huh.' As a regular shinobi -meaning a shinobi bound to a shinobi village- I couldn't accept missions nor payments from anywhere else; I wasn't a missing-nin. But Mabaru didn't use the word hire and he wouldn't directly pay me. 'Smart.'
Nevertheless, I could read between the lines. He didn't just want help, he sought an associate, probably someone under a payroll. He was offering me a way into a part of the civilian business world I had no real interest in yet, however the information bit of his introduction had me both curious and concerned.
"You deal with information, Mr. Kuwata?" I asked.
"Yes. Not shinobi information, mind you, only business information. Though I tend to run into a lot of underhanded shinobi material and, oftentimes, someone comes asking." He gazed at me for a moment, poured himself another cup of sake and extended the other one for me.
I was a little worried about where his loyalties lay. However, I wasn't blind to the potential behind this unique situation.
"Mr. Kuwata, I'll help you, but I would adjust the conditions of our agreement if I may."
Resting his elbows over his desk and interlocking his fingers, Mabaru pressed his lips together and cocked his head slightly to the side, still with a sly smile. He motioned me to continue.
"Keep me out of your books and your exchanges. Perhaps I'll cash in a small favor if I'm ever in the need," I said. "All in all, if the worst is to happen, any respectable shinobi is expected to aid helpless civilians. Even during vacations." Mabaru was the kind of person you would like to owe you a favor, however small. Just knowing about his existence might prove beneficial in the future.
He smirked and nodded. "That's a fair trade, Mr. Subu. A small group of businessmen is expected to arrive tomorrow, trading tycoons from the Land of Fire. Another from Wind, the day after." He stood up and offered me his hand to shake. "Try not to be so inconspicuous. After all, a deterrent is preferable. For now, enjoy our hot springs. We'll have dinner at eight at the restaurant."
Got one foot on the platform.
Protect the tycoons.
A valuable contact.
Night came and the maître led me to a private booth past a pair of sliding paper doors.
A lacquered two-person low-table was set at the center, with two embroidered zaisu floor-chairs at each long side and a big, traditional-looking pendant-light hanging on top. The yellow light painted the walls and the tatami mats in pastel tones, accentuating the hanging rice paper scrolls adorning the room. The small sliding window at the opposite end overlooked the lush, humid gardens surrounding the hot springs, and beyond I could see, o better said, imagine, the green and the lulling aura they offered.
A moment after settling into the cushion, Mabaru entered the room and sat across me following a simple greeting. A waitress trailed behind him in and asked for our drinks with the customary well-practiced smile.
"I'll have a small bottle of sake and green tea, please," Mabaru said, "and Mr. Subu..."
"Black tea, please. Unsweetened."
We talked. I withheld any information about Kumo, ANBU or my personal life, which I feared painted me as a dry conversationalist and left me with almost nothing to talk about, but Mabaru didn't push nor seemed to care. He asked about books and about weather, and we talked about traveling and local history. He went long about his personal story and how his hotels were run, leaving quite a few gaps in between. I didn't press; I got the feeling he acknowledged we couldn't -or shouldn't- reveal much regarding our line of work or private lives.
Mabaru was, he explained to me, a close friend with the mayor of Yugakure. The village no longer had a Kage, something I figured out beforehand, but it had an authority figure, and, as he also detailed, one had to have a decent relationship with the authority figure of a village or city if one wanted to start a business with any resemblance of security for your investments.
His tale painted a new image I wouldn't have noticed myself, I realized. There were no courts to enforce legal contracts nor any anti-monopoly laws to avoid one-sided tugs of war, so the creation of a company had to involve a city and its mayor to avoid any inequitable tax and to enforce a middleman for negotiations. Else, the side which could pay the stronger missing-nin would always win...
I anticipated a big and fancy meal but was delighted to find a simple yet delicious one. It had been three months since I had anything to eat apart from tea and the ration bars I swallowed to avoid suspicion. Yugakure's vegetarian gastronomy bitterly reminded me of another of the many life pleasures I had forgone in this world, though I didn't particularly miss fine cuisine.
Our conversation extended for an hour and neither of us revealed anything of value.
The next afternoon, I sat at the restaurant's balcony overlooking the hotel's main entrance; a big, half-empty kettle of tea next to me. I didn't take long to notice a clump of name windows steadily approaching the hotel from the village. The delegation from the Land of Fire had arrived, and its entourage was all but remarkable.
Konoha's Team 10, complete with their sensei and all. I blinked.
From the original timeline, I assumed the Konoha invasion would've already happened; nevertheless, Shikamaru's details window pinpointed him as a genin.
It seemed I was mistaken... any event of that magnitude would have become public knowledge in Kumo quite fast, especially as it would have resonated within our ANBU's gossip machine for days. The force was well informed about international affairs and they all suspected something major would be happening between Wind and Fire. Not invasion-level serious though; no one could have predicted Orochimaru's interference.
I shouldn't be surprised that businessmen from the Land of Wind and the Land of Fire arranged a meeting in neutral grounds, they probably also knew something was bound to happen.
Their entourage checked themselves in and the team escorted them to their rooms. They all walked with the inquisitive gaze of shinobi alert to any danger. Asuma had even gazed at my direction once.
Trusting they would do their job and behave and sensing no abnormal metal signatures but keeping an eye for any, I finished my tea and headed down to the hot springs.
Steam rose from the hot waters, covering the area and mixing with the humid air, overflowing above the tall bamboo fencing and pouring slowly into the surrounding green woods, only to whirl and fade between the undergrowth. The gushing sound of a fountain near the entrance drowned what little noise from the nearby village seeped through the trees.
The Land of Fire's businessmen were within my metal sensing range -or their short tantos were- and their name windows were floating around the third floor of the building. They were given the rooms next to mine. The names of Ino and Choji floated nearby.
I lay in the water for quite a while, letting the warm water and the steam soothe my apprehensions and my anxious mind. The timeline of the manga already started, I realized: Konoha's clan heirs were already genin, Naruto had learned the truth about the fox by now... It was both alarming and amusing to know what was about to happen.
My musings were cut short, the wooden doors to the hot springs opened with a creak and the rest of Konoha's team 10 -Shikamaru and Asuma- came from the showers.
"Good afternoon," I greeted them as they sat into the hot water.
Asuma didn't greet back, he just stared at me as he leaned his back against the opposite edge of the pool. He took a cigarette from wherever and motioned with his hand a wordless 'do you mind.' He didn't wait for any confirmation, he lit it with a snap of his fingers and took a drag.
"You're a shinobi," he stated as he exhaled the smoke after a pause.
Shikamaru didn't miss his question and sat up to face me.
"I am, and you're Asuma Sarutobi," I answered Asuma.
He nodded. "You're the sensor Mr. Kuwata mentioned, I guess."
"Yes, I am. It's quite an honor to meet you."
"A shinobi?" Shikamaru interrupted, his squinting eyes betrayed the calm demeanor both held. "Who are you?"
"I'm here as a second line of defense, you could say."
His mouth was about to move again when Asuma's beat him to it. "It's not polite to ask another shinobi his name, Shikamaru."
"It's okay, I think," I interrupted whatever Shikamaru tried to say. "It's a fair question, more so when on a mission. Besides, a curious Nara will keep prying until they find an answer."
Asuma's laid-back head jumped back at my words, holding a focused and somewhat serious gaze. "You're not a local shinobi."
"No. I was on vacation and Mr. Kuwata asked me to keep an eye around. The Kusa sensor team he hired failed to show up and I have a particular set of skills that he thought would come in handy."
Asuma's eyes fixated on mine for a good while, eyeing my face, my hair.
His mind seemed to click after a couple of awkward minutes, his shoulders then loosened and his jaw relaxed. "You're the magnet-release kid from Kumo, the one who won the other chunin exam in Kusa some years ago," he stated, exhaling smoke nonchalantly into the air that mixed with the surrounding steam.
'Okay, note to self: definitely use a disguise next time.'
Asuma nodded with an elevated chin. "Yeah, you're definitely him, the one trained by the jin-, eh, you gave quite the impression."
That particular slip, not surprisingly, didn't go unnoticed by Shikamaru.
"By whom?" he asked.
Now, Yugito's and B's status wasn't a secret, and I had no doubt Konoha keet that information from the younger generation. However, I wasn't bound by any law, secrecy or obligation and, to be honest, Shikamaru could do with it.
"By Yugito Nii, one of Kumo's jinchuriki," I answered.
"We got wind of your win at the Kusa exams," Asuma said. "You were painted as a prodigy and Kumo's most promising genin. Even my father was impressed by what we heard w-"
Shikamaru didn't take Asuma's bait and pressed, "What's a jinchuriki?"
"A jinchuriki is someone who has one of the Biju sealed within them, to be used as weapons during war. Yugito Nii is the container of the two tails. She's my teacher."
Shikamaru's eyes widened to almost comical proportions. I didn't take my eyes off him, knowing quite well that Asuma's stern ones would be fixed on mine.
"Like the nine-tails?" Shikamaru asked nervously.
"Well, yes." I faked a bit of surprise. "Didn't they teach you that at the academy?"
Asuma, with his cigarette barely hanging from his mouth, perked up pale-faced. "Well, no. There's n-"
"There's more than one? And they are sealed into people?" Shikamaru pressed.
I smiled inwardly. Any information would help him, not only in understanding Naruto better but in preparing for the upcoming invasion and the conflicts to come.
"Well, yeah. There are nine biju, from the one-tailed tanuki to the nine-tailed fox. Your first kage handed them out to the big nations and Takigakure. Konoha kept the Kyubi."
"And they sealed them into people?" Shikamaru's pressing question was, I presumed, a way to avoid Asuma's obvious attempts to interrupt.
"Yes, into shinobi," I continued. "Some were active during the third wa-"
"Okay, that's enough." Asuma's stern voice begged no questions. "We're done here. Shikamaru, go review the mission." He stood up and walked to leave the hot springs, Shikamaru trudging behind, giving me a curious look as both left the hot springs.
It was later that night, after dinner, that team 10's genin came looking for me. I was sitting at one of the small round tables at the reception, leisurely sipping on hot tea and keeping an eye on any metal signature when I sensed theirs approach.
Shikamaru, a grumpy-looking Ino and a twitching Choji walked up to my table.
"Hey," Shikamaru greeted me. "I have a question."
"Oh, come on, Shika. Sensei let us walk around town and go to the hot springs and you de- oh, he has cute eyes." Ino's voice and shining golden hair somewhat reminded me of Yugito's.
"Shouldn't you present yourselves before asking a stranger a question?" I said looking up at them.
Choji faltered for a second but Shikamaru answered. "I'm Shikamaru Nara, he's Choji and that troublesome girl is Ino."
"Kioshi Shirasu. A pleasure." Asuma already figured out my identity, and I didn't care if the rest of team 10 knew my real name. I motioned to them to sit. "Must I assume you're here to continue our conversation, Nara?"
Ino quickly sat on the only other chair across. She sported a coy smile -in stark contrast to her teammates- and fluttered her eyelashes at me. "Yes, tell me. How old are you? Where are you from? Do you feel comfortable with someone who asks a lot of questions? Are you free tomorrow aftern-?"
"He's a chunin from Kumo." Shikamaru's answer was straightforward. No 'troublesome', no stutter, only steeled eyes. Ino's shoulder tensed, and she quickly put away her hands from over the table. Choji's took a nervous step back. "Listen, about jinchuriki and the tailed beasts... is it true? What else is there?"
I collected myself for a moment, blowing on my tea and musing about what I should tell them. Asuma was upstairs, pacing around before the businessmen's doors. Probably fearing the exact same thing that was happening.
"Well," I stared at each of them in the eyes. "I might as well start from the beginning since you clearly weren't taught this at the academy and your sensei was quite reluctant on you learning it. Information, for shinobi, could mean the difference between life and death. Keep in mind that there might be a reason why he behaved that way in the first place.
"There are nine of them, from the one-tailed raccoon to the nine-tailed fox. Hashirama Senju, your first kage, collected the last eight just after the shinobi villages were founded and handed them out to the other kages. He also revealed how to seal them into human beings to contain them. It is said it was a plead for peace between the nations, but we know for a fact he actually sold them."
I took a long, calmed sip from my cup of steaming tea, looking at the dumbstruck faces of both Ino and Choji. Shikamaru's wasn't far behind.
"The biju are now assumed to be all sealed into shinobi, though they can be sealed in objects as Suna did with the one tail before your Shodai," I continued. "A jinchuriki, as a person with a biju sealed within is known as, can become extremely powerful individuals. That is, of course, if they survive the sealing and manage to restrain and control the power of the biju inside them, which is, regrettably, less common than you might think. B, the eight tails jinchuriki, is known for having perfectly bonded with the eight tails. He's strong as his brother, the Raikage."
"S-Shodai-sama?" Choji's stammered after a while.
"The Shodai Hokage's wood release was also unique in that way: he could subdue the biju."
"Wait, you said the one tail was already sealed by Suna," Shikamaru half-asked.
"Yes. The Incarnation of the Sand, as he is called, attacked Suna quite a few times so they sealed him away in a teapot. That's the story, anyway."
"Why did it attack?" Shikamaru asked in a whisper. His and his teammate's faces were turning pale as milk, their eyes wide open, frozen in place.
"Ah, now that I don't know. What we do know is that he tried and succeeded in escaping afterward, and I guess none of us would be fond of being sealed away now, would we? So they sealed him back. The Ichibi rampaged over Suna whenever he broke out, commanding sweeping winds and the desert sands themselves at will." That last bit of information was a deliberate nudge. Maybe they would be able to recognize Gaara's condition during the upcoming invasion.
"Wait, that means- that- that the fox had attacked before and then it was sealed, and by Shodaime-sama?" Ino's pale face was stock-still and her voice trembled. She turned to Shikamaru. "W-what happened with Yondaime-sama then?'"
I had to give her credit for coming up with the precise idea and question they should've been making.
I shrugged my shoulders to the serious-looking Shikamaru. "I don't know. The nations are very tight-lipped regarding that type of incidents. Yours particularly."
"Maybe it escaped wherever it was sealed a-"
"Whoever, Nara, whoever. The first seal was developed by your Shodai's wife, Mito Uzumaki. Her clan was renowned for their sealing techniques." An almost inaudible 'Naruto' escaped Ino's lips. "She was the first jinchuriki. These are still only stories, but as far as they are told in Kumo, after the fight between Hashirama Senju and Madara Uchiha where the Uchiha summoned the Kyubi, Mito sealed the fox within herself. I don't believe Konoha would seal the fox away in a pot or something."
"Sasuke's clan?" Ino's blurt wasn't silent at all.
"Summoned?" Choji's nervous voice interrupted whatever Shikamaru tried to say.
"Allegedly, Madara Uchiha could control the Kyubi with his Sharingan..."
The silent pause that stretched for a full minute didn't feel uncomfortable. For me it was almost amusing. Choji was wide-eyed, Ino's hand covered her mouth. Shikamaru had a calculative expression, his eyes fixed on the small table between us.
He then stared at me. "How does a chunin know this? You don't look much older than us".
'Ah.' His logic mind finally seemed to click after processing all that information. First step: check the veracity of the source.
"I'm a jonin, Nara, and I'm training under the two-tails jinchuriki," I answered truthfully. "A pinch of salt, you know how it goes."
Another thirty seconds of silence, filled only by Choji's ravenous chewing. From where he got that bag of chips, I couldn't tell.
"At least the Kyubi is gone..." Ino's breathed out in obvious but misplaced relief.
"Gone?" I asked rhetorically on purpose. "No, a biju cannot be killed, they would just reform again some time after." There was a lot more I could say, but I was sure enough Shikamaru would figure things out in due time with the information I had given him. Ino would begin asking questions too. The ball was on their court now. "Listen, kids. Take this information as you will. For now, focus on your mission. If there's something every jonin in Kumo knows is the thin ice the relationships between the Land of Fire and the Land of Wind stand."
I nodded a goodbye, stood and began walking to my room.
"Nara," I said over my shoulder. "Few like the biju, fewer understand a jinchuriki. Don't judge them too harshly, they are not to blame. They seldom deserve what they got."
The sparkle in your eyes.
ANBU Mission – Search and Destroy.
45000 Exp, Standard payment.
The newfound respect in the force was something special. The youngest captain ever -at only twelve- and then I bested a biju-infused Yugito with non-lethal combat. Just two weeks after returning from Yugakure I got a green team and a mission. Not a routine one: this was the beginning of ANBU's movement into the northern coast towns to weed out whatever remained from Mist influence and the Makino clan's dealings, and to restore some sense of tranquility over the turbulence that was left behind.
'Movement, three subjects, nine o'clock, heading west.'
I gazed down at the narrow street, which at this late hour was supposed to be empty of any but the sporadic chunin patrol. As we predicted from the stakeouts, two people were walking down the scarcely illuminated street, though this time with a third one stumbling in between: a woman with a vacant stare and trembling features. They held her tightly by the arms and, and they walked past their usual spot. Bingo.
For eight days we'd been in this port town at the eastern corner of the Ice Coast, the northernmost shores of the peninsula. Our orders were simple enough: there was a leak here. Someone had been trading information, political and economic intelligence first, then shinobi information, and the force had tracked their footprints to this town. Between the iron crates from the newfound mines, the produce, grain, meat and miscellaneous petty contraband, somewhere, information about our shinobi -medical history, abilities, families, surnames, etc.- was being smuggled out and money was coming in.
The recently ordained -and permanent- chunin patrols hadn't found anything solid enough. We had.
Every night, right in between the patrols, the same two ordinary-looking individuals would walk down this frozen side-street. They would eat and drink at the same small, late-night parlor near the docks, and then would go back to a ledger's office at the back of the eastern side of town. Their night-shift routine might have been peaceful and straightforward, but their detail windows showed otherwise.
Just the day before, one of them had left a note behind a potted plant near the drinking parlor's bathroom door, a note that contained numbers we later found were coded ship names, dates and suspicious identifiers. The man that had recovered the note later that night was a ship captain, one that immediately secured a place on our list.
Their supervisor at the ledger's office, the rag-tag kid who slithered between people and crates and delivered letters to some shady-looking dock workers, and even the elderly cleaning lady that, curiously, lived in a commodious apartment close to the docks; they were all suspects the least, they were all on the list.
Both men were indeed the ones we were looking for, one a missing nin from Kiri and the other a regular from Sound, both chunin level. We could now add kidnapping to their charges.
We had our targets and finally were they moving away from their everyday routine. All that was left was to follow them to wherever they took the woman.
Name: Aina Negishi
Aina is the second cousin of a once influential woman in the Land of Water and was married to a known broker that resided in Kirigakure.
Relationship level: Bad.
Because human trafficking and slavery were so heavily penalized by the Raikage's office, few to none of such incidents were seen inland. Most of the few human trafficking accounts were sudden, brief incidents during which our northern port towns were used only as stop. The force had to keep a watchful eye on our port towns as any victim would be rapidly moved away. It also meant our shinobi had been granted the authority to inspect any suspicious ships on our waters, moored or not. The woman was most likely a passerby victim, being taken into town to wait for the next ship to carry her off to her final destination.
Both chunin ambled down the street and the woman, pale, catatonic and barely standing, was dragged along. The Mist chunin was carefully looking over his shoulders.
We moved on top of rooftops and among the shadows and the stale and freezing mist; the moonlight gleamed, lightening the humid air with an unnerving glow. Fourteen, a recruit with a knack for undercover work from his tutelage under captain Six -both were Fuse clan members- followed them closely, attentive to any suspicious movement that could imply their awareness.
They went into the southernmost part of town where the small, cramped blocks of houses scaled up and blended with the fore-runner crags of the steep mountain system. They stopped outside a rundown wooden house and gave the surroundings a quick glance before slipping through the rickety timber door.
Just by crouching on the ground a few houses away, hidden behind some frozen trash bags that lay beside a broken streetlight, I could sense the cave under that house, dug away like an improvised cellar.
I Observed each name window floating below, now a clump distinct from the floating windows around the neighborhood. The two chunin who had just entered, another chunin and a low-jonin-level missing-nin from Kiri, a high-level jonin from Ame, three common street thugs and two civilians: the woman and a shackled girl of fifteen.
If our mission were to kill the shinobi and rescue any casualties -in that order- I would be confident about going in by myself even. However, we were to capture whoever we could for interrogation, which in ANBU meant taking the chunin and below alive and, if possible, question the jonin before executing them on the spot.
Capture missions meant a far greater risk of innocents -or marks- dying in the fighting, and the threat of it turning into a hostage situation was certainly true. Even if I flooded that cave with paralytic gas, any toxin potent and fast enough to take down a jonin could easily kill a civilian. The high-level jonin was a huge detriment to a frontal assault, too. They tend to be violent and destructive when cornered, not caring about collateral damage.
There was no way of fully negating risk, I was painfully aware of that, but I trusted my team. Looking at these kids I sometimes forgot different worlds breed a different sort of people. They were tough as nails and had a good head over their shoulders despite their age. We were ANBU and, physically, I was the youngest of them.
That Ame jonin, however.
Name: Mariko Noda
Mariko used to be a regular jonin from Amegakure before turning missing-nin after Pein's coup. Considering herself street-smart but without any special aptitude for regular shinobi arts, Mariko chose to develop her skills around transnational theft and high-value burglary, rapidly making a name for herself owing to the unique set of skills she acquired.
Relationship level: Bad.
I signaled my team to regroup, and we moved a few blocks away.
"So," I began, crouching in an empty alley, "from their chakra-" and that was a good excuse for me to use "-there are two jonin, four chunin, some thugs and another shackled victim besides the woman down in a big cave underneath. They are all armed and there are some metal traps inside the house above. There seems to be no other way in or out."
"Course of action?" I asked my team.
"Well," Twenty-three muttered back. "We could always break into and deal with the jo-"
"We have to lure them out, captain," Fourteen whispered with a serious face. "They are boxed in tight and have hostages."
I scratched my neck in thought.
"We can wait for them to come out," Twenty-three said.
"But we don't know how long it will take for the jonin to come out, if ever, or if the hostages will be still alive afterward, or if they will fight their way our or try to negotiate their lives if we attack... The ones that just went will eventually go back to their shifts depending on their working hours, but that's it."
"Let's lure them out. We can fake a lost caravan to use as bait. We can even pay some civilians to mislead any sensor," Twenty-nine's chipped in in his modulated voice.
"There are no lost or loosely guarded merchants this far north, no one travels without an escort around these port towns," I answered. I did my research. "And if they haven't attacked any of the recent caravans, they won't be doing it now. They clearly aren't here to raid merchants."
"Then with competition. Let's 'kidnap' some civilians and make a big mess about it," Fourteen proposed. "They'll try to quell any new group that could bring unwanted attention."
Silence reigned for a few moments, interrupted only by the occasional whistle of the chilling coastward winds moving between the cramped houses. Various scenarios popped in my head.
"That's a good idea," I finally said. "That will force them to make the first move. Best-case scenario they'll look for and try to eliminate the new group, worst-case they'll try to move the hostages as soon as possible and lay low from any new forces the Raikage would send here." I scratched my chin. "In any case, it'll force them to make a move so we can react." There was still the risk that they might just kill the hostages and bolt away.
"That's the best we have," I concluded.
The chunin patrol identified a family for us to 'capture', a well-off couple and their teenage son. Under the cover of the night and transformed into everyday civilians, we 'kidnapped' them and 'robbed' their house, making sure we were sloppy. We wanted witnesses.
We moved them inside the basement of an unassuming building on the other side of town. They breathed out when they realized we were Kumo's ANBU, and we promised them they would be paid quite generously for their 'witting' cooperation.
The chunin patrol was made aware of our plan and acted accordingly. They carried out a short investigation and 'came empty-handed'. The kidnapping of a wealthy family by semi-competent, possible shinobi group: that was the story we wanted people to believe. While on their later patrols around the docks, they nonchalantly commented about contacting the Raikage to send an ANBU team.
Fourteen, who had been patrolling the area between the ledger's office, the small drinking parlor and the rundown house, informed us that the chunin from Sound had left the hideout with his companion back to the ledger's office, but had later rushed back after a few hours of work, most likely with the news. From then on, all our suspects on the list began moving on their toes, avoiding solitary places and looking over their shoulders every other minute.
I then gave the order to put more pressure in the pot: the chunin patrol 'investigated' the neighborhood around the hideout. It proved to be exactly the incentive needed.
Just past midnight, the three genin-level thugs left the house with the younger hostage in tow. A bit later and precisely as I anticipated from the movement of their name windows, the remaining chunin discreetly came out with the other woman. Slowly, both groups headed north, away from the docks and their hideout.
I signed the orders quickly: 'Twenty-three, follow group one, civilian priority, termination; Fourteen, follow group two, capture priority. Point A rendezvous. Proceed to patrol and enact second part after completion. Twenty-nine, with me.'
I was confident in my team. Fourteen was the best covert agent of the bunch and although he was a green chunin, his level was the highest. As a Fuse clan member, he would finish his mission. Twenty-three was a well-rounded agent, he could take three genin-level thugs that had almost no knowledge of chakra -I checked their info windows. They would wait for the best opportunity to coordinate their attacks.
They were to rendezvous a couple of blocks away and they would either come back to support us or move to the docks to begin detaining those on our list with backup from the local chunin patrol if they deemed the situation under control. The Sound and the Mist chunin at the ledger's office were to be captured -or eliminated- last.
As Fourteen and Twenty-three left to follow their marks, I took a quick look around the area and at our situation: a small house with a big cave underground and two jonin-level shinobi clad in armored vests and carrying kunai and shuriken. Well, I would exploit that advantage.
The Ame jonin was the biggest threat. Her info didn't mention much her combat capabilities or lack thereof, but she was the big fish. Regrettably, capturing a jonin was too risky, especially this far from the Kumo. A quick strike would be the best bet.
Twenty-nine was the strongest duelist of my team. He could take care of himself all right, despite the fact that he was missing some screws in his head: he was kind of a smart-ass and had a hint of pyromaniacal tendencies below the surface. Nothing he -or we- couldn't handle; the force was full of eccentric agents, but we all knew our quirks and limitation; were all professional. And strong; Twenty-nine was a heavy hitter.
We took our time assessing the situation. The surest way to go was straightforward enough.
The house itself was a simple wooden building as all the neighboring houses were. Quietly, we entered the house through the door. It followed the standard small, poor-house layout: a common room, a tiny kitchen and a bedroom at the back. The inside was filthy and unkept, clear signs of abandonment. There were no cushions, no lights, no decorations and no center table. The small fireplace to the far-right wall was blackened and empty.
The traps around proved easy to circumvent, as was the tripwire beside the trapdoor near the left corner of the bedroom. The name windows floated below the ground, stationary. In fact, the Ame jonin barely moved since the hostages were taken away. If it weren't for the Observe's passive not working on anything not alive -or not human for that matter, I guessed- I would have presumed she was already dead, or it was a diversion.
Speaking of which, aside from a katana and some tanto laying around, I couldn't sense or see anything out of the ordinary: no other name windows and no traps, neither any fake walls nor hidden tunnels.
If anything smelled like trap, this was it, but we were out of time. Fourteen and Twenty-three would be making their move soon, and I didn't want to risk the jonin hearing anything.
I looked up at Twenty-nine as we crouched beside the wooden trapdoor. 'No aberrant signatures. Enter, jonin at left. I'll go top-right. I'll genjutsu and hold, double on your opponent. Go for fast kill.' He nodded back. He understood this had to be taken as an assassination mission rather than a full-scale duel.
In a movement, I froze all the metal around in place us except for our own, opened the trapdoor and lunged down inside, immediately casting a swift genjutsu as I went through.
Another of my creations, a genjutsu that attacked the sense of touch or, to be more precise, numbed the body's proprioception feedback and caused a tingling buzz in muscles, bones and skin. 'A really uncomfortable thing,' Kichiro had described it, shuddering and almost convulsing, his eyes had struggled to remain focused.
Easy to dispel with little amounts of chakra -which meant it was useless during shinobi fights- but it was the swiftest area-of-effect genjutsu I had for unaware targets. It was the starting point of a much more complex genjutsu that was still in the works.
But the Gamer system immediately complained as we moved landed below.
As my feet touched the floor of the cave, I immediately lunged right toward my opponent only to see her shimmer out of existence. Shimmer. Her name window and her metal signature disappeared instantly, leaving only an after-image of her scarlet-tinted vest and lopsided grin on my confused mind.
'What the fuck.'
I looked back at our other enemy: the Kiri jonin stood immobile, held upright against the opposing cave wall by my magnet release pinning him by the vest, by my genjutsu and Twenty-nine's layered on top, and by the ANBU-grade tanto that pierced his guts and had impaled him into the wall. There was a kunai now buried in his temple. He still twitched. Twenty-nine was effective.
Six seconds passed while I glanced around the cave, my eyes darting around, wondering what had just happened and if the Ame jonin would appear again. Twenty-nine stood guard in place holding another tanto in front of him.
Once I was as certain as I could that the woman wasn't coming back, I approached the corner where she had stood. A coin-sized pile of whitish silt lay on the floor. Salt.
Clangs of bottles and clings of glasses and cups filled the atmosphere, saturated by the smoke of Twenty-two's pompous cigars and the smell of humidity that always, and I really meant always, permeated the ANBU headquarters' common room.
We were celebrating Ten's and my first missions as team captains. Mine took three whole weeks, but I wouldn't complain.
The Commander -still with his mask on, as some of we captains were- even invited old-man Yataro to the celebration. Judging by the prolonged conversation he and Dodai were engrossed in, sitting around a small table at a corner and with severe faces, I got the feeling they knew each other from way past. In any case there was a half-empty bottle of sake between them.
"Yeah, you're right!" I heard to my left. "Yo, Captain! You should try the summoning jutsu now!"
I downed down my saucer-like cup. "What?"
Twenty-nine's words were a tad slurred. "The summoning jutsu, the Commander said he gave you clearance to try it and-" Sixteen's hand clamped down his mouth.
I smirked. They were chunin, they had just entered the force and were already getting way too comfortable for my liking. But it was all right, all in all the force was meant to be a family and the majority already knew my real name behind my mask. My jutsu stood out.
I caught on what was implied pretty easily though. "You have a bet going, don't you?"
Kuraki -Captain Six- commented from behind me, "Yep, and bets are against you, Eight."
The Commander had given me a scroll containing the details of the summoning jutsu with my promotion, along with the authorization to try it and a warning pertaining the once-a-decade chance of a shinobi actually making contact with a summoning animal and returning home. Once a fucking decade.
The thing was simple enough: if you tried to summon something without a contract, you might be called by the creature you were connected to. 'Destiny,' the Commander called it. A rarely happening destiny. I guessed that's what happened to Jiraiya.
Kumo, in contrast to Konoha, held only a few contracts and none were as notorious as the snakes, slug or toads. There was one with a three-horned goat clan which wore Kumo's hitai-ate much like Kakashi's dogs wore Konoha's. Only five shinobi had ever signed that contract and all had been kunoichi; the last one a recently retired ANBU operative. The last guy that had tried to check his 'destiny' and was summoned away never came back; the guy before him can now summon messenger owls that answered to him only, and that happened decades ago.
A small chant of half-drunk ANBU agents was building up.
"You bet against me, didn't you, Twenty-nine?" I asked in a serious voice.
The chant ceased abruptly and Twenty-nine stammered back, wide eyed.
"You bet against your own captain? Didn't I guide you through those frigid shores you called frozen hellholes, through icy sea spray and freezing rain for an entire week near the Ice Coast?" I faked a stab through the heart. "Oh, how you disrespect your superiors!
"Shall I, captain Ten, feel personally attacked by such imprudence? Or say, captain Two, shall we teach the recruits the way things are done in the force?" I turned around to the now smiling crowd of young and old members, men and women, masked or bare faced, everyone with a full cup or bottle in hand. "Shall we, brothers and sisters, show them how we welcome recruits?"
A loud cheer rang among. The five recruits, clearly fearful, were held by the shoulders by older members, and Kichi Yasui, captain Five and one of the few captains not wearing a mask then, unsealed five small ceramic bottles of his own homemade moonshine.
The Gamer's Body processed alcohol as a B-class poison, which I was immune to already, but Kichi's was regarded as A-class. The Commander had been surprised I showed up the Monday after my initiation -which occurred just a month ago, as I had been deemed 'too young to drink' when I was recruited. Unbeknownst to the Commander, it had taken all my willpower not to fall asleep that night and meditate the freaking toxin away. The woozy feeling however had been another nice remembrance of my past life.
The recruits, mostly against their will, each downed a bottleful in between cheers, chants and yells and were left to stagger around the room. Even Dodai and the old man smirked as they watched over the ruckus.
"You're thinking on trying, aren't you?" the Commander's asked me in his gravelly voice as we captains watched the show with interest. The only other bet that I was aware of was if captain Nine would make a move on Sixteen and, judging by the amount of alcohol they both were drinking, it was only a matter of time.
"Yep," I answered the Commander, nodding.
Of course I was thinking about trying it. Maybe there weren't any summoning animal destined to me, but I found that unlikely given the circumstances of my 'birth' here. I would be summoned to some remote place, I would have to convince the leader of some animal clan to allow me to sign their contract, and I would do my best to befriend whoever I bonded with...
That summed it all, right?
'Fuck it, now's as good a time as any.' I bit my thumb and swiftly went through the hand seals.
Boar, Dog, Bird, Monkey, Ram: 'Summoning Technique.'
I felt a churn in my stomach that immediately encompassed my whole body. Then a pull.
With a popping sound, the sensation was gone and the gloomy common room of the ANBU's HQ was replaced by gleaming sunlight.
I sat up and squinted my eyes away from the light, then shook my head to clear my mind and forced my eyes open against the brightness. The ocean: the sound of the crashing waves hit my ears, the smell of sea-spray and humid grass surrounded me. I felt sandy mud and broad grass beneath my hands and the light of the sun heavy over me. The blue skies, clear of any clouds, contrasted to the murky but rather calmed ocean in front.
I removed my mask and stood up slowly, gazing at the world around me. The backshore ended abruptly into a narrow shoreline where the sandy soil covered by yellowish grass gave way to coarse sand. Small root-like things stuck out from the ground farther into the shoreline. Mangroves, I realized. Those were roots, indeed; I could see quite a few patches of those peculiar small trees along the coast, their intertwined root systems elevated from the soil. It was low tide.
A large expanse of marshes and small saltbushes extended inland behind me and climbed up into a broadleaf forest over some hills beyond.
I felt no metal around me, other than some deposits of metallic sand way underground, which I had found to be a common characteristic near ocean shorelines. Given the coffee-tinted spots around the water I was close to a river delta or there was a turbidity current below.
'Map, Elemental Nations.'
The general map placed me on a southern island on the eastern seas inside the Land of Water. I was in enemy territory. Regrettably, the global map I had showed biomes and borders, not human settlements. I knew I was far away from Mist -which was fortunately shown in the map- and from any man-made metal signatures, at least. No name windows in my range of vision neither.
With the first question crossed out, I now had to deal with the 'Who'.
Some bird singing in the background, a distant figure -a pelican- gliding over the waves farther seaward and a butter-colored butterfly that flattered to my left; those were the only creatures I could see around. Having proper names, a summon animal should have a name window, I hoped.
Without much else to do, I took off and sealed away my gray ANBU vest away along with my mask. Then I walked along the shoreline, in between the mangrove patches. The harsh sunlight and the salty breeze upon my face was a welcomed sensation, though I couldn't help thinking about the nightmare it would be to go back home. For the time being, I was going to bask in the sunshine, the sea breeze and the sounds of the waves crushing, while waiting for somethin, anything, to happen.
Half an hour of ambling along the shore later, having removed my shirt and boots and about half a mile away from where I appeared, a sloshing sound startled me. I turned around to face it.
A thing, a small, formless black blob of lustrous sludge that gleamed eerily under the sun was emerging, crawling ashore from the water. The dark slush, something between mud and liquid and no bigger than a small cat, bubbled and trashed against the crushing waves and the backrush, deforming and forming itself as it rolled slowly up the beach and away from the sea, small protuberances digging into the sand as it went.
It stopped some feet from the water line and began to spasm. Then, slowly at first, it began to grow, to swell. Suddenly, in a blink, it surged eight feet into the air.
With a hasty jump backwards, I went into a defensive position. I had already summoned a dozen kunai to float before me and I willed them to revolve around myself. Menacingly, I hoped; there was no name window above that thing.
The floating blob abruptly expanded to a lustrous, featureless pillar and, as fast as it grew, it shifted again. Multiple two-foot-long stalks shot out its base and dug quickly into the coarse sand below. At the same time, two lanky stems began slowly growing outwards from the top end, twisting unnaturally and bending several times as they did. The tips of those limbs then divided into short and likewise thin stems, which began moving, flexing and fluttering, sometimes sinking beneath the bubbling black surface only to be replaced by more -or fewer- of them. One always remained opposing the others: thumbs.
A single glob then grew upwards on the top of the construct, slowly swiveling with every inch it gained.
I stood before it, transfixed by such a bizarre display, a faint shudder crawling up and down my spine. The thing stopped growing, though its fingers remained locked in a continuous cycle of receding and emerging, its arms twisting and moving at awkward angles, while the stalks that held it upright stayed rigidly fixed into the sand. The grotesque figure of black towered silent before me, its imposing figure against the calmed wind which only rippled its glossy surface; if it weren't for the calming atmosphere and the gleaming sun, it might have been a horror movie.
I regained my composure too late for my liking.
"W-Who are you?" I asked, my voice coming out hoarse. Almost unwillingly, I realized, the black Iron Sand had come forth from my inventory and now hovered around me alongside the kunai.
The lustrous thing hunched forward, bending over at the middle of its too-large trunk. Its upper glob moved and faced me, as it was somehow staring at me. Attentively.
Its fingers ceased their incessant movement, then its left arm rose and turned in a jumbled way, the numerous joints flexing as it brought its hand upwards and close to the top glob as if it were a head. A single, thin finger then extended and touched what would have been its temple.
I regarded the figure's gesture with apprehension, but I inferred its meaning. I struggled to calm myself, taking deep breaths. I was fairly away from it, I told myself. Squinting my eyes, I focused on my own mind. There, in between my own verbalistic thoughts, I felt a deep and rather absent singsong voice, rife with undertones.
"-language clear to you?"
My muscles tensed. I stared wide-eyed at the creature before me. "What?"
"Notice: you're idling on our sacred island," the deep voice in my head pressed on, slightly reverberating and pausing for a second after certain words. "What brings a human half-soul to our sacred island, so close to our blessed depths where we hold our moots, so close to my hunting depths?"
I stood in silence, pondering, as the pitch-black creature remained motionless under the midday sun. Its posture, now showing an otherworldly attention on me, had my hair standing on end.
"Who are you?" I asked back, finally getting some grip on myself. The iron sands revolved around me, faster than before. Whoever or whatever this thing was, I knew I needed answers.
"As a being of honor, I must press on my inquiries, as I asked beforehand," the voice said.
"My name is Kioshi, I'm a shinobi from Kumogakure," I answered.
There was a small pause, then the voice asked again, "What brings a warmonger to my domain, as you are not passing through nor you command a vessel?"
I suppressed a shudder. "You haven't presented yourself," I tried.
I heard a grumble. "At your urging then. I will reveal myself, but will do so cautiously," the voice went on. "Your kind's reputation is that of deviousness with a penchant for destruction."
The creature in front of me suddenly lost its cohesion and collapsed. Bubbling, it shrunk back to a formless black sludge that began to be washed away by the waves, dissolving into the sea.
"But jump to no conclusions," the voice still spoke inside my mind. "I am neither a being of war not I harbor ill intents, and your soul, incomplete as it may be, bears no mark of shade. Regardless, caution is seldom unwise."
As the black glob disappeared into the sea, it finally dawned on me. I turned my head to the ocean and far into the waters I saw a name window slowly getting closer.
Name: Ikatama [As bestowed]
Ikatama is a respected elder of her kin and the progenitor of most. Known for her regal demeanor and intelligence -and an impatient curiosity- Ikatama is the custodian of their traditions and history.
Relationship level: Neutral.
"Ah, I can see you have found me. I am the elder of the moots and keeper of these waters down to the depths below, once called Ikatama by one of your kin." The voice in my head, her voice, was getting gradually clearer with every word, which got me even more on edge. "I must press on my original inquiry nevertheless: what brings you here?"
My head cocked to the side, sounding her name and full of questions and, obviously, trepidation. I didn't have many options though, only to answer. "I tried the summoning technique and was brought here by it."
A pause followed.
"Most atypical. Such hasn't happened in a hundred turns of seasons." Another pause. "Let's leave inquiries for later. I'm unable to properly address you and I cannot go any further into the dry-land without risking grounding. Come closer, Kioshi of Kumogakure, so we might have a suitable dialogue. Distance is ill-advised to our way of communicating."
"Are you-" My eyes squinted. "Are you reading my mind?"
"No. Such feat is impossible between beings of such dissimilar psyche," Ikatama's voice rang in my head. "Come closer. This effort is no simple thing."
I faltered. Could my 'destined' summoning animals be some ancient sea spirit or ayakashi monster? They existed in this world, as far as I could recall. Could I trust Ikatama? There was little to tell from her info window.
'In for a penny...' Channeling chakra to my feet, I took a step into the sea, maintaining the kunai and the black iron sand floating around me.
As I went over the waves -quite straightforward with a maxed-out water walking skill, although the waving surface churned my stomach- Ikatama's name window grew closer. Her voice then rang again in my mind. Crisper, clearer and melodic but still with those deep undertones and some reverberance that slightly grated my nerves.
"Ah, much easier indeed. It will get easier with time."
A small disturbance between the waves made me jump away, my eyes darting around, searching for an enemy.
Something broke the surface of the waves. A marble-white wedge-shaped figure emerged, slowly at first it, then the rest soared out of the waters: a slender tentacle, fifty feet tall that ended on that triangular figure and showing marks, scars and disk-like suckers along its side. It loomed over me, then the tip began coiling and uncoiling slowly, rhythmically, dripping and splashing salt water over me.
"Seasons have come and go since I last conversated with one of your kind." Her voice boomed in my mind again. "Fear not, for I reassure you I bear no maliciousness and therefore request of you to retract your weapons."
My eyes were still locked open, and I had to forcefully relax my jaw and my fists. I took a deep breath; there was little reason to fear. Whatever she was, she could have attacked me already. In spite of myself, I sealed the iron sand and the kunai back into my inventory.
Another tentacle, much the same as the first one, rose between the waves some distance away.
"Now we must wonder, why would the sun-god bond us together? There's no doubt about your soul, however a deeper inquiry ensues: what can we offer to each other?"
"I…" I once again forced a calming breath and shook my head clear of the amazement. I was drawing blanks, whether from a healthy -I tried to convince myself- dose of anxiety or genuine wonder over my situation, I couldn't tell. To be honest, a sort of giant squid was way away from anything I had thought about. But whenever in doubt and with someone trying to hold a civilized conversation -and once any foul play was convincingly discarded, I guessed- sincerity would always be the simplest way to go.
"I don't have a clue. I was summoned here and that's all I know."
Ikatama remained silent for a while, while I stood over the waves, looking at her coiling tentacles.
"What is you mission in this world?" she finally asked.
"To save this world from what's about to happen," I answered almost automatically.
"A commendable endeavor, but then, what is about to happen?"
I, again, hesitated. But then, again, I opted for sincerity.
"The end of the world," I answered.
"We have not seen the signs of the coming of the cold nor the douse of the sun-god. The lights have been silent…"
"The biju," I continued. "They are collecting them. They want to bring back the Ten-tails."
Ikatama hummed. "The tailed creatures, beings from the other-world. I have met the one-eyed that roamed the northern islands, he told me the story of his creation." Her towering tentacles coiled and uncoiled once again. "I believed him to be gone from this world..." She hummed, then continued after a pause. "I would not jump to conclusions. However, the foreboding of your warning bears weight, something we would do well not to leave unheeded. How have you come to this portent?"
"A dream. Dreams. They come and go, and I have found them true in all accounts so far," I answered almost instinctively. I had had that conversation in my mind for years, just to be on the safe side if someone picked up on my knowledge about this world's future.
"Ah," she almost instantly answered. "Those which humans have. Their prophetic value had been well-confirmed by our last summoner. Alas, they are beyond our understanding; such is the spasmodic nature of the world.
"You, Kioshi, whose soul is half of sand and wind, who carries the burden of things-to-come. The sun-god has bounded us, and therefore I shall ask you one thing in return: to carry my eyes over the dry-land. Long has passed since I saw and learned. In requite, we will show you how we see and sense, our way of living and what our last summoner taught us and what he came to know from us."
She finished her melodic words by uncoiling one of her giant tentacles, extending it down toward me. The tip stopped two feet from my chest.
Only then I could see in detail those marks over her creamy skin. Some were scared tissue, clearly the signs of old, already-healed wounds, however most were patterns: writings all over her skin in a pale off-white tint and in a language I couldn't comprehend.
With whatever confidence I still had, I extended my own hand and touched the tip of her limb. A thrilling sensation, much like static electricity, crawled up my arm to my back and chest. Thin, pearl-white and illegible marks followed behind, spreading up my arm and under my black ANBU shirt. As briefly as the feeling lasted, so the marks disappeared.
"By blood, I am now bound to you and you are bound to me. I'll be your protector, you'll be mine. I'll guide you below the boundless flood, you'll guide me through the drought. Until our souls disperse, or the sun-god turns red."
I was stunned and a bit abash but nodded anyway. "Thank you." A few moments of silence later, I ventured, "Does this mean I can summon you or should I sign a contract?"
"We have no use for parchment and little for written words. We keep our codices in our minds and on our skin, with our ink. The pact has been made as it was once before; offer some blood as it was custom, and I will answer. I would call you too if I find myself in the need too."
"Huh, okay. Wait, can I summon you out of the water? I would appreciate if you could summon me on the surface, too."
"Yes. You would summon a part of me into your own self, I cannot fully accompany you. The complexities you believe aren't such." Her singsong voice hummed out. "Time is of a premium, I must arrive at the northern edge of my hunting waters, for it is mating season." One of her tentacles retreated underwater, the other waved around and splashed water.
"What? Wait! I have a fuck-load of questions!" I tried. "I need to get home, too!"
"Where do you dwell, then?"
"The Land of Lightning." I then added in afterthought, "The northernmost mass of land of the continent, northeast of here."
"I will contact my brother who hunts those waters, expect a three-suns time." Her last tentacle coiled one last time and dipped quickly into the waters. "I bid you farewell, Kioshi," her silvery and husky voice was now so just as murky as it was at the beginning. Her name window began shrinking away. "Call me in a moon-time."
I was left wondering what all that had been about and how the hell was I going to return home. And how the Commander, the Raikage and Yugito would chew my head off, not necessarily in that order.
Light cloud rain drive on.
Contact your summoning animal.
One dark green and one dark yellow, both looking at me behind half-closed eyelids. The charcoal-black hair, still pointy and soon to need a cut, stood a top of a now darker skin tone. The sun over Kumo was unforgiving; in time, everyone ended up with a darker hue. The sight was unnerving and strange, too uncommon for me anywhere but in the bathroom mirror every other day.
"This is so fucking weird."
"Yep," he answered.
I was a kid, a tall kid, yes, but seeing myself as one still felt foreign, even nightmarish. It had been nine years since I woke up in this world -nine years already!- and that would place my mind at about thirty-three years old. Even if nobody in the force saw me as a child anymore, my body was as such.
Thirty-three, in a body of a thirteen-year-old boy.
"Well, we should try experimenting then," he continued.
"Don't you feel, I don't know, strange?" I asked. "You're going to disappear afterward."
"It doesn't feel strange. I'm you, we are... us?" the clone answered. "I'm an extension of our will, maybe? Yeah, no. It is too strange to put in words."
Strange indeed. "Is the HUD there?" I asked.
"Let's try this first."
'Taju Kage Bunshin no Jutsu.'
Requires Jinchuriki status.
"What?" the clone asked.
"It says I need to be a jinchuriki," I hummed.
"Well, that sorts its out."
"That's one thing off the list, yes," I admitted. "How's your chakra?"
"Half," the clone answered.
It made sense; shadow clones divided the user's current chakra. "Let's start from the beginning," I said. "First:"
A furious wind broke through the oak forest, uprooting trees, undergrowth and soil.
"Everything's in order," I said looking at the numbers on my HUD.
My clone followed my lead, and another stream of wind tore through the forest.
"Same here," the clone said. "I'm not regenerating chakra points, though. In fact, they are dropping," he added in with a raised eyebrow. He then sat down on the ground, cross-legged.
I shrugged. "That's to be expected. My maximum chakra is cut in half, and a clone can't regenerate it... yeah, that makes sense." Losing chakra was probably the system's way of limiting clone's duration. I hummed in thought.
Shadow clones were an ingenious and rather peculiar creation to say the least. No wonder Tobirama Senju was hailed as a genius. You channeled your chakra to your whole body, becoming aware of it in every inch of your skin and every single part of your body, and then you willed it to life. There was no better explanation.
Shadow Clone Technique Lvl. 1 (47%)
- A creation of Tobirama Senju, the Shadow Clone is considered the definitive clone technique. Clone duration increases with level.
Requirements: 3000 Chakra points.
Cost: Chakra pool division per clone.
Maximum number of clones: 10.
"Nope, nothing." The clone stood back up, looking down at and flexing his hands.
"How does your senses feel by the way?" I asked.
"We can try this," he nonchalantly answered. A second later, it poofed away with that characteristic sound and the smoke wisps I remembered from the anime.
I was hit by a wave of memories and my mind spun for a moment. It was bizarre, like watching oneself from the eyes of another.
Apart from that, being a clone felt as normal as you would expect. He -it, I?- saw, heard, smelled and sensed as well as me. He breathed like me. Chakra, however, had felt stagnant in the pitch of my stomach instead of whirling around the area.
I noticed my chakra points had climbed back up to almost full. 'Huh.'
'Kage bunshin no jutsu.'
Two clones popped to existence before me, my chakra reduced to about third.
"We should check the gamer mechanics first," one immediately began. "We have a HUD and all..."
"I can open the inventory," the other added. He summoned a kunai and waved it around with the magnet release.
I opened it from my end and indeed a kunai was missing from the five hundred thirty-six I had stored. I kept a perfect count of those.
"Wait a second," the first clone asked. "Was that immediate? Wouldn't that go against inform-"
"Don't," the second one said as he sealed the kunai back. "Don't start."
"He's right, please don't." I regarded our -my?- options. 'This is going to be confusing.'
A poof and a small stream of memories shook me. The first clone had just punched the second one out of existence and, based on his raised eyebrow and quickly blinking eyes, I figured he also received the memories. My chakra had immediately climbed to roughly two thirds.
"I got the memories, but not the chakra," the remaining clone stated with a cocked head. "Why didn't I get half his chakra?"
"Well, I got his chakra." I pondered for a second. "It makes sense. If a clone were to receive the chakra from any other clone, I could maintain one permanently as long as my chakra regeneration rate remains higher than his chakra loss rate..."
The remaining clone shrugged his shoulders and nodded. "Okay, let's call it the Law of Conservation of Chakra then."
I rummaged through the previous clones' memories. It was odd, but easier than I expected. Shadow clones did appear to have a chakra network, but anything that felt like a disruption to its chakra dispersed them.
"So, you get dispersed with a hard hit or, I could bet, anything that disrupts your chakra enough. Functionality first:"
'Kage Bunshin no jutsu'
Another clone popped to life to my left and my current chakra went down back to about a third of my maximum.
"Well, that means creating a clone doesn't use the other's chakra, just as any other jutsu," the first clone stated.
"Can you Observe?" I asked.
Both clones nodded in return.
"Can you access the maps?"
They nodded again.
"Can you store something new in the inventory, and can you summon it back?" I asked.
The first caught a dry leaf that was floating around. It then disappeared and showed up in my inventory. The second one summoned it to his hands.
"Shared inventory," he concluded. "Neat. Useful for stealing shit."
"Try storing me in it," the first clone said.
I did as with any object and tried to store him away, but he dispersed in a poof. I received his chakra and his memories.
"Yeah, the inventory still disrupts chakra."
I had tried once to store a full Rasengan only for it to destabilize and half-explode on my face, so no storing overpowered jutsu or wind-enhanced kunai beforehand. It also had turned out that I couldn't store living creatures, the gamer mechanics prohibited it. 'Cannot store living creatures' the pop-up window had stated when I tried to store a half-dead rat I once found.
"So, what do we do now?" the remaining clone asked.
"Train," I answered.
I turned my gaze to the surrounding forest. It was the last dungeon near the village -I had looked everywhere- a forest of tall oak trees, occasionally swept by strong, warm winds. It had been full of feathered wolf-like creatures way under my level and now very dead. It had been easy to clean and a decent place to train, though I had gotten minimal experience from them. How long would it be before the dungeon closes itself, if ever? I would have to find out along the way.
"The iron sands," I started talking more to myself than to my clone, which I guessed it was the same. "I need to grind up the iron sands, both black and crimson." I had a lot of them stored in my inventory. "I want to max out my wind release and grind earth release up to level sixty, as a minimum. I have to expand my jutsu list: come up with new genjutsu, complete the Flying Swallow..."
The basic jutsu -C and D rank- were already maxed out but my skills still had a long way to go. My Wind Release sat at level 79, my Earth Release at 48. My magnet release has been stuck at level 58 for months. ANBU training had me polishing most of my everyday skills, but not the ones I kept hidden, obviously. I've been neglecting my Magnet Release training, more so my iron sands.
"We have ideas for new jutsu, we should start there," the clone chipped in.
"I want to up my chakra control to perfection, the only way I can think of is to infuse the rasengan with wind or earth chakra. That would increase my chakra capacity as well. I should grind up my stats, Dexterity, Strength, Constitution... I'm the best duelist of the force mostly because of my magnet release, but I can't rely on it too much. Yugito and Captain Two are always pressing for a no-weapon, no-armor taijutsu match."
"Training against each other will be a plus, but we're gonna need a lot of kunai and shuriken, we go through them worse than black tea."
"I have the funds; I'll make a run if I need to," I said.
"True, but there isn't much I can do now," I conceded. I still had weeks to wait before summoning Ikatama or Ikahima -her brother- to train. Their mating season was beginning, something that happened every decade or so he had told me. "I still haven't found any S-class toxin to train our immunity with."
"I don't think we can train poison resistance with clones, anyway."
There was a small silence, followed by another poof. My clone had just created a new clone.
"Huh," the new clone said.
"Akatsuki," I began. "Let's review my plan." Two heads were better than one, right? Even though they were three and my own, I hoped. Notwithstanding, a meticulous planning was a losing preposition with so many out-of-control variables. It was nice to have someone to bounce ideas with, however.
"What plan?" one of the clones asked back. "We don't have any concrete plan; we don't have the power nor factual information on their whereabouts to deal with them just yet."
"Then let's review them," the other clone said. "First: Itachi."
"I am, or I should be, immune to his genjutsu. That's a lot out." I pondered on what I remembered from the manga. "The Amaterasu flames and his sealing sword..."
"We've thought about this before, so I'll push for the same wild idea: wind armor. Or something akin to the Raikage's lighting armor," one of the clones said. "It's our best bet aside from space-time ninjutsu."
"And we know we can't learn those in Kumo," the other clone concluded.
He wasn't wrong. Kumo's only seal master was a decrepit guy working on the T&I department. From what I'd heard, he was the one that sealed the Nibi into Yugito years ago and he didn't know a single shit about anything other than old-school container-like seals.
"Okay, that could counter the black flames." I scratched my chin. "I see no solution to the sealing sword, though. I just gotta be fast... and maybe not antagonize him."
"Earth counters water, but he'll not be easy to take down." One of the clones grew pensive for a second. "What about Ikatama and her family? Wouldn't they give us some advantage against Kisame?"
"Maybe," I answered. "But I can't confirm anything yet so let's avoid speculative theories. That chakra-eating sword of his is troublesome and I'm guessing I won't be able to seal it away in my inventory."
"Then we need to get strong."
"A monster in our own way."
"Okay, fair enough. Who's next? Deidara?" I asked.
"Oh, simple enough if we train lightning release. Besides, we still need to fly."
That's something I was still uncomfortable with. Willing metals to move was straightforward, a simple, everyday thing for me now. Willing metal that I wore, though, was another thing completely. I had tried once, it was extremely difficult to maintain control over acceleration, speed and rotation, or to face where I wanted to and control other metals. Doing so without flinging myself away too fast or spinning myself to a redout was nearly impossible. I shuddered at the memories.
"Deidara is a long-range bomber, usually flinging explosives from atop his clay birds," one clone stated. "We take that away and he's nothing. His gigantic suicide jutsu however..."
"Lightning release will be useful for his microscopic blood-bombs."
"One more thing to the list then." I went through the names in my head. "Sasori."
"Poisons are out. At least offensively."
"We train mass-killing jutsu to counter his one hundred puppets and improve our magnet release to counter the Third Kazekage puppet."
"He'll never see it coming," I concluded. "But anyway, that's Sakura's job, I hope."
"Chop his head off, separate it from the body and maybe seal it away," I concluded. Hidan was someone I didn't worry about too much. "I just have to avoid him getting my blood."
"Same principle," I said. "His main advantage also lies in his opponents not knowing about his kinjutsu."
"So, get powerful enough to counter his elemental jutsu and his thread minions," the other clone concluded. "There's a trend here."
"Hell, her paper jutsu will be a pain in the ass without oil," the first clone started. "We could learn some fire ninjutsu and try that, but she's a long-range specialist that'll be difficult to get close to."
The three of us went silent for a moment.
"She has that humongous paper technique up her sleeves..." I wondered aloud.
"Maybe Ikatama can help us," one of the clones chipped in. "She uses ink. Ink and paper. Maybe?"
"We can't answer that yet. Besides, she's always by Nagato's side."
"Nagato. That bastard will be difficult to bring down if Naruto doesn't do it." I wouldn't rely on cannon going just as I remembered. "I know the basics of his techniques from the manga: take out the reviving path, destroy or immobilize the others, deal with the-"
"The paths, we should prepare for each."
"I shouldn't get close to the soul-sucking one, but taijutsu counters the charka-sucking one," I began. "The iron sand... I don't infuse it with chakra to use it, so that's a thing to try," I added. "The summoning path is too fucking wild to stall with raw power, m-"
"Aren't those black receivers made from metal, though?"
I shrugged my shoulder in resignation. "I don't know. Look guys, let's stick with what we do know," I rebuked. "I have some advantages: Nagato can't hide from me, I'll know where he'll be controlling his paths from."
"And he's susceptible to non-ocular genjutsu. We'll need to come up with stronger ones." One of the cones beat me to it.
True; the toads' song was useful during Jiraiya's fight with Nagato's paths and most of my genjutsu affected the brain through the other senses.
"Wait," the other clone interrupted with a raised eyebrow and a serious look. "Aren't the paths technically dead? Couldn't we just seal them up in our inventory?"
My eyes widened, but it was short-lived. "Another theory we can't put to the test…"
"What about Obito?"
"I need to be fast to act before he can use Kamui, but even then, he could absorb me into his dimension and leave me there unless I can figure out how the reverse-summoning works and how I can give Ikatama a signal to summon me back."
It was a strange thing. I had wandered for three days and two nights around that deserted island, taking up the sun, exploring around and sleeping under the starlight before I was summoned to the eastern coast of the Land of Lightning peninsula. I had felt a faint but fairly prolonged tug on my chakra, right above the navel, and the same pearlescent patterns Ikatama imprinted on my skin had lit up for a second. The Gamer system had been quick to announce I was being summoned and asked me to accept it. It had taken thirty seconds -and some chakra from my part, too- for the jutsu to be completed, so it wasn't instantaneous.
I wished Ikahima had had more time to answer my questions.
"Aside from his Kamui, Obito shouldn't be a problem if I get the drop on him."
"Fuck that guy," I said.
"We have to end him fast. He's the artificer of this whole disaster, the puppeteer behind the puppeteers. We need to erase him from this world."
"I don't know if he can be killed," I added. "Naruto sealed him away with Kaguya in her own dimension."
"Do you realize how bizarre it is -and that's an understatement- to talk about dimension-hopping, soul-sealing and chakra beasts?"
"We are way past that."
"There are still too many ifs and no way to answer them," I concluded.
"We can always destroy the Rinnegan the first chance we get. That will prevent Madara getting resurrected, properly resurrected. That will remove Kaguya from the equation. We could take it for ourselves."
"But I still have to deal with Black Zetsu. If anything, he's a patient creature; he'll wait for another Uchiha to fall to their curse and the false story he engraved on their tablet," I answered. "Black Zetsu can simply start over again."
We pondered for a moment.
"I -we- have to train," I concluded.
"I miss music."
"Yugito's is not half bad."
"But that's no electric guitar."
"But it's something. I miss my computer the most."
As my clones started bickering, I tried to remind myself of the reason I was fighting this war. I felt an obligation, but I could have just as easily left everything as canon and had gone to explore this world. I had been given a choice. It was too late to turn back now.
There was so much to do, a lot to train and a lot to change -possibly- and I wouldn't make the mistake of assuming time was on my side. Everything seemed too hectic, too uncertain, even for a life with a reductionist and all-pervading Gamer System. And exempted from severe pain, both physical and psychological... or maybe because of it.
But I wouldn't succumb, at least in this world I had a calling.
"I'll figure something out," I said to myself while my clones chattered.
A few days before, during my way back to Kumo from my fortuitous trip to the Land of Water, the force had received the news about the failed Sand-Sound invasion on Konoha. Things had begun to move.
. . . . . . - . - . . - . - . - . . .
His ears were still ringing, he thought. He had to admit it, and the uneven clacking oh his wooden cane against the floor didn't help the scaling headache. It seemed like there was too much he had to admit lately.
"My ears are ringing." He winced. That helped nothing.
His eyes moved between the crammed sugi bookcases, searching for that outdated, yellowed map of the elemental nations -way older than himself, he realized rancorously. He found it to the left, beside other scrolls about obscure history, forbidden political ideas, traditional knotted veneer design and whatnot. The map was foxed and smudged but was still legible. He never got to make a copy.
"It's just for confirmation," he said to himself.
He'd memorized that map years ago, long before his brother died in the war. The signature on the bottom was a cruel reminder of his brother's face, one that still haunted his dreams, even when that face, he knew, was quite different to what it really once was. Age was tarnishing away his memories, too.
'Is it that I don't trust my memory anymore?' he asked himself.
He exhaled and groaned, turning his head sideways to relieve the built-up pressure. It had taken only five seconds of Yugito Nii's yelling to turn his pleasant Sunday afternoon with Sadako into a full-fledged headache of nightmarish proportions. Then they both had choired. He should have seen that coming. Sadako hadn't even said why she had come visit in the first place.
How could he have known that the boy would try the summoning technique right then and there and that no one would move an inch to stop him? Too self-driven, that kid, he believed; dismissing other's viewpoints unless they were in line with his goals and even swearing by confirmation bias while brushing aside its blatant impacts on his own mind. Yes, Kioshi would fling himself to death if it would confirm his own misconceptions.
He knew the kid was prone to sacrifice, as if that were a good thing on their line of work.
"His line of work."
He pushed the old tomes that littered his table aside, unfurled the map over and secured the ends with two candlesticks. It confirmed what he had already figured out: five hundred miles west of the lands of a now probably extinct group of nomads of some ancient lineage. It would be a long way, he realized. He'll make it, he thought.
It wasn't like he didn't know what the kid had been doing. Training, supposedly. But he knew that it didn't explain why his hair had been so much longer than it was that morning.
"It doesn't explain it," he repeated to himself.
Neither could it explain the kid's expertise and complex mind at his age. Even his approach to philosophical problems he found peculiar and oftentimes baffling.
He opened his worn notebook over the map. All the letters so precious to him, messages and even the comments noted all over his father's books were already transcribed along the pages. The last missive, which he had bought from a collector with the help of the local black-market supplier, had been the last clue. The last piece of the puzzle, the one that gave him the location.
He had to write it down.
Seeing his hand tremble as he held the pen felt harrowing and nerve wracking, but he couldn't rely on his memory anymore.
Anything non-canon seems to be filler, and verbal tenses in english are a pain in the ass.
This took a long to write and polish up; life's been hard, and it's been taxing my mental health heavily. Still can't find a serious job, and things are looking grim.
I think the next chapter will be on the shorter side, to at least try to update sooner.
Thank you all for your reviews and comments, sincerely.
Stay safe and stay strong.
Speak up if you spot a mistake or a typo.
Edit: Some fixes, typos and such. The next chapter is coming slowly, but is coming...