April 28, Yondaime year 5, in the Fire Country capital, Hikouto
The Daimyo’s palace was on fire.
Sirens wailed on all sides of the city, warning of the battle that had spilled onto the streets. Bucket brigades struggled to form effective barriers against the flames sparked by fire and lightning jutsu, hoping to hold out just one second longer until more help could come. The elegant courtyard that led to the steps of the palace was now a shattered ruin, pock-marked and scarred. Great cliffs rose up through the curtain walls, and chasms drained the ponds and streams once stocked with koi. War had passed through here, and left fury in its wake.
Asuma tripped on a broken chunk of statuary and barely avoided catching himself on his face. His whole right arm was numb from the shoulder down, lacerated to the broken bones, oozing fluids from a charring burn he wasn’t looking at too closely. The rest of him was only marginally better. And underneath it all the bone-deep pain of chakra exhaustion, a serpent wound around his lungs and coiled behind his eyes that told him all he needed was sleep.
He wanted to sleep. He couldn’t sleep. He was already asleep and this was a vicious, unending nightmare. He coughed and spat out soot and dust, and kept his eyes away from the blood already clotting between his fingers.
He couldn’t sense Chiriku’s chakra anymore.
Every ligament and tendon in his body screamed in protest as he staggered back to his feet and into the palace, trying to be more careful of his footing—if he fell again, he wasn’t so sure he could get back up. Around him the Daimyou’s civilian guard fought to contain the raging fire, swirling around him but never quite touching, almost as if they were in separate worlds. He choked and coughed on the black smoke filling the rooms as he fought his way through.
The worst of the fire was here, in the greeting hall, where the night had exploded in violence, an angry boil that couldn’t wait for the open sky before bursting open. Past the singed tapestries and broken furniture, down the stairs to the Daimyou’s safe room, the smoke became thinner, the air colder. Chiriku had gone back to ensure the Daimyou and his family remained safe, leaving Asuma and the other four to turn back the tide of civil war. The monk should have been safe down here; the danger had been outside, among his brothers. Why couldn’t Asuma sense his chakra?
Another turn in the corridor led him to the answer: easily forty corpses littered the tiled floors, beaten and bloodied until, in some cases, one would be hard-pressed to find a face. Nearly all of them appeared to be wearing the uniforms of the Daimyou’s palace guard. Asuma picked his way through the carnage, bracing himself against the wall with his good hand, until he came to the reinforced door that barred the way to the Daimyou.
“Asuma,” Chiriku greeted, the words rattling thickly in his chest. He lay propped against the foot of the door, his robes black from blood and fire. The broken shaft of a spear protruded from his chest. Asuma could feel the tiny flame of his chakra now, but it was weak and struggling.
Asuma was no medic. He couldn’t do more than the most basic of field dressings, but even that required the use of both hands, and he only had one. And more importantly he knew death when he saw it. No medic in the Daimyou’s palace could save Chiriku from this. That the monk was still alive was testament to his will… but a strong will could only get you so far.
He dropped to his knees next to his friend, reaching out to take Chiriku’s grimy hand in his own. “How…?” he rasped, hardly able to form the words. These were all civilian guards, none of them a match for Chiriku’s skill. How could he have been so overpowered that he’d been forced to call on Kannon’s thousand fists? And barely won at that?
The other man’s eyes shifted, looking toward one of the mangled bodies closest to him. “Masaki,” he replied, and after a moment Asuma was able to pick out which body he meant. Masaki, unidentifiable but for the Twelve’s emblem wrapped around the remains of his waist. Asuma had thought him burned to a crisp in his allies’ limelight jutsu. He must have circled back to lead another assault while the remaining Twelve slaughtered each other. Asuma’s grip tightened on the dying man’s hand.
Even in death Kazuma outmaneuvers us, he thought.
Chiriku took a shallow, bubbly breath, and visibly fought the urge to cough. Fresh blood dribbled down his chin. “They are safe,” he said, and Asuma knew he meant the Daimyou. “Kazuma…?”
Unheard pleas echoed in his memory, mixed with brittle grey bone and the spray of arterial blood. “Dead,” Asuma replied.
“All dead. Just us.”
Astoundingly, heartbreakingly, Chiriku smiled. “Pray with me,” he said. “Our brothers’ souls still need guidance.”
Asuma prayed with him. The words didn’t come naturally; despite Chiriku’s best efforts, the spiritual path of Buddhism had never resonated with Asuma. He’d thought it was for Chiriku’s peace of mind that he’d learned the sutras, but he should have known better than to worry. Here Chiriku was on his deathbed, and his only thoughts were for the souls of the men who had killed him.
Chiriku only made it through the first line of the chant before his voice faltered, breathing labored and wet. By the second, his breathing had ceased. By the fourth, his tear-spotted hand had gone limp.
Asuma went through the prayer twice, even though he didn’t believe in them. But someone had to be there to say the words that would usher Chiriku’s soul to the Pure Land. It might as well be him.