April 28, Yondaime Year 5
Katsuko slept long and deep, and didn’t dream. Her bunshin woke her before dawn, silent sentries in gleaming armor. They faded back to guard the perimeter as Katsuko struggled out of her bedroll.
Genma was already awake and in uniform, poring over the maps by the light of a glowstick. His mask hung at his belt. He glanced at her and nodded, freshly shaven and much more alert than anyone had any right to be at four in the morning. Katsuko gave him a dead-eyed look and a tired attempt at a salute.
Raidou was up and moving, running through kata because both he and the lieutenant were morning people. It was like a disease.
Ryouma, reassuringly, was still asleep, sprawled across his blankets like an ad for skintight tanktops. Katsuko magnanimously decided to leave him be. People who didn’t willingly wake up before the roosters had to stick together.
Kakashi was a blanket-covered lump on the ground. As she watched, he shifted to pull the covers up higher over his head. Conscious, and apparently hating every moment of it. Maybe he and Ryouma could form a club with her, if he and Ryouma didn’t strangle each other first.
“I hate everything,” Katsuko croaked, by way of greeting.
“Exercise will help!” said Raidou, because his soul was one of the things he’d signed away before joining ANBU.
“I’ll help your face,” Katsuko muttered. “Into a tree.”
The extremely offensive level of cheer in Raidou’s voice increased. “That’d count. Five minutes, then I’m turfing everyone out of bed.”
“There’s no light,” Kakashi said. He sounded like Katsuko felt: mutinous, with a side of promised future stabbing.
Genma, because his sense of timing was precise and malicious, chose that moment to enter the conversation. “Since when do ninja need light in order to function? The first kanji in ANBU is ‘darkness’.”
Katsuko shuffled over to Ryouma’s sleeping form and crouched down by his head. “Get up,” she said, and poked him in the shoulder. ”I need you to help me hide the lieutenant’s body.”
Ryouma twitched and burrowed his head against his arm. His dark lashes fluttered against his cheekbones for an instant before he opened his eyes and looked up at her, blinking. “Wha’—? What happened to him?”
Katsuko shoved aside admiring his face for later, when there wasn’t something more pressing at hand. “The lieutenant’s fine,” she informed Ryouma. “But he won’t be soon. Because I’m going to knife him. He’s a morning person.”
“And now he knows your nefarious plans,” Genma said, without looking over from his maps. “He’s also a poisons expert. Want breakfast?”
Before Katsuko could reply to that, Kakashi lifted his head enough to show a sliver of one glaring eye in the shadow of his blankets. “There are three minutes left and you are talking through them.”
“Buttercup!” Katsuko said, brightening. Kakashi’s irritation never failed to put a shine on everything. Even mornings. “Glad you could join us.”
“I need coffee before I deal with any of you,” Ryouma said, with the conviction of a drowning man grasping for the only plank he saw. He scrambled out of his blankets, catching himself on one hand as he got up.
Katsuko debated the merits of standing up and decided that it was better to remain where she was. The world was much more tolerable this close to the ground. Maybe it had something to do with gravity and the inexorable force it exerted on anything with mass, dragging it down. The fact that even magnets could resist gravity was inconsequential; this was where she was meant to be.
An indeterminate amount of time later, familiar footsteps startled her out of her light doze. She blinked and looked up at Raidou, who’d come over with a cup of steaming hot coffee. He put it down on the ground in front her, just out of arm’s reach. “Rise and shine, Ueno. You might get to murder something today.”
So close, yet so far. Katsuko stared at the coffee. Then she stared up at Raidou. “What have I ever done to you?”
“You want that list alphabetically or chronologically?”
Katsuko conceded the point with ill grace and struggled back to consciousness to retrieve her coffee. Then, because she was an adult with adult responsibilities, she stood up and went to wake the last member of her team.
The only visible part of Kakashi was his ruffled grey hair. The rest of him was curled up warm and comfortable under the covers, sleeping while Katsuko suffered in the cold morning air.
“So,” she said, coming to a stop next to his bedroll.
Kakashi didn’t move, but his voice issued out very low and very threatening from the depths of his blankets. “Consider your next move carefully, Ueno.”
Katsuko took a sip of her coffee. “‘Careful’ is my middle name, tulip. You might wanna get up before Namiashi-taichou comes over and starts talking about sleep schedules and punctuality, though. He’s got slides.”
Kakashi reached one hand out from his blankets, laid it deliberately down on the dewy grass next to Katsuko’s bare feet, and electrocuted her. A spark of pain traveled up her spine and locked her muscles for a brief instant; the hairs on her legs and arms tingled. Katsuko hissed in outrage and jumped back. She didn’t let go of her coffee cup, though.
“You giant bag of donkey dicks,” Katsuko said. “Now our hair is going to look the same.”
Kakashi rose in a tide of blankets and wrath and bed hair, leveling a look at Katsuko like he was only barely resisting the urge to beat her to death with her own skeleton. A dark bruise he hadn’t had the day before was barely visible over his mask. He stalked past her, blankets wrapped around his shoulders, and headed in the direction of the stream.
Katsuko stared after Kakashi, took a moment to process the image of him sweeping past like royalty in a blanket-cape, and waited until he was out of earshot to laugh so hard she nearly hurt her jaw.
The unexpected jolt of chakra caught Genma’s attention away from plotting a course for the day. In the firelight, Katsuko’s hair was a wild crown of recently shocked strands. “That’s a good look for you, Ueno,” he said. “You remind me of those fancy crested cranes at the Fire Daimyou’s tea garden.”
Katsuko stopped laughing, swiveling her head towards him to show a blank, expressionless face. It was creepy as hell, and she held the stare for just long enough to be actually worrisome. “Caw, caw,” she said abruptly, then burst into another fit of cackling laughter.
For someone who professed to hate morning, she seemed remarkably on top of her game. Or at least, certainly back to her normal self already. The same could not be said for Kakashi, who had looked rather the worse for wear as he stomped off wrapped in his blankets.
Ryouma returned from his morning ablutions looking fresher faced, with his dark hair wet and slicked back after what Genma presumed was a dunk in the stream. He helped himself to coffee and wandered over towards Katsuko. “S’there a reason Kakashi’s wearing his bedding?” he asked.
“He’s the blanket king,” Katsuko explained. She left Ryouma with that to ponder and went to confer with a pair of her clones.
Raidou, who had resumed doing kata, barely gave her a glance as she passed by. After a week and a half of training with her, Genma was getting the idea that she was just always like that. If she ever made linear sense, he probably ought to challenge her for a password or check her for fever.
“I’m startin’ to think it’s a good thing we don’t have regular team sleepovers,” Ryouma said. He took a long, appreciative drink. “Good coffee, though. Where’re we going today?” He came to peer over Genma’s shoulder at the map.
“You’re welcome,” Genma said. “Sumatora beans. I picked them up on my last mission down south.” He moved the lightstick to illuminate the map better and traced a path over the contour lines with a finger. “I figured we’d take a route that hugs this stream northwest for a bit, then cut up and over when we get closer to Isegawa province. But you used to operate in this area, right? Got any advice?”
Ryouma crouched next to Genma, cradling his gently steaming cup of coffee in one hand as he frowned at the map. After a moment, he extended a finger and traced another water line, following it along till it met their spring-fed stream. “I dunno if this one has a name—we called it Hell Creek—but we want to cross before we meet it,” he said. “There’s white-water when it joins our stream here. Too deep to ford, too rough to chakra-walk. We’ll know before we hit it, though.”
Genma nodded. “Then maybe if we cross here?” he asked, pointing to a place on the map where the contour lines were closely spaced. “Looks steep, but that means it won’t be swampy.”
Ryouma sipped his coffee as he studied the map, then traced a quick line from Genma’s finger up toward Hayama, the town where the most recent disappearance had taken place. “There should be a ravine we can follow most of the way without skylining ourselves,” he said. “Might set us up for an ambush if it is bandits, but we could probably use the exercise.”
“And we might find out where they’re hiding and stage a little ambush of our own,” Genma agreed. “If I were a bandit, I’d probably think about setting up base somewhere near these old quarries.” He circled his finger around a cluster of mine symbols at elevation above the town. “Intel said some of these are still active mines, but a lot of them are closed. Know anything about them?”
Ryouma shook his head. “There was some fighting there, but I was never involved.” He swallowed another mouthful of coffee. “Were any of the missing people miners?”
“That’s a good point,” Genma said. “I don’t think so, but let me check.” He pulled out a small, sealed notebook, pressed his thumb and fingers against metal plates on its covers, and pulsed chakra through his palm. Static ruffled the leaves of the book slightly as the unsealing jutsu activated. Inside the book, in coded script, were Genma’s notes.
“Looks like… Two,” he said, reading. “One was a retired miner—I don’t think he counts. And one was currently a miner, but he disappeared after a night out on the town, not in the mines.” He snapped the book closed. “So I guess that’s a dead end.”
“We’re going to have to do detectiving, aren’t we,” Ryouma groaned.
From much too close for comfort, Kakashi said, “For all our sakes, please don’t.”
Genma snapped his head around, and Ryouma tensed.
Kakashi stood right behind them, his chakra presence dimmed to almost nothing. Evidently he’d learned the trick of suppressing the beacon of his ANBU tattoo, too.
Genma gave him a flat look. “The point of the jutsu in your tattoo is so that your teammates know where the hell you are, Hatake.”
“I’m here,” Kakashi said. Like Ryouma, he looked freshly scrubbed and put together. “My teammates are clingy for elite soldiers.”
“Stop wasting chakra on proving you don’t want to be part of this team,” Genma said. “It’s a safety feature.”
“It’s invasive,” Kakashi countered, but he let the shield drop. The tiny pilot light that marked him as ANBU sparked back to life, but the remainder of his blue-white chakra field remained almost undetectable.
“Thank you.” Genma stood up, studying Kakashi in the growing grey light of dawn. “Your face is swollen on the left,” he said, eying the edge of a bruise cresting above Kakashi’s mask.
If Kakashi wanted it worked on, he was going to have to ask.
And there were the judgmental eyebrows.
The lieutenant, Kakashi was learning, had more than a little nanny goat in him. Kakashi shrugged loosely. “Your hair has a leaf in it.”
Genma gave him a long, silent look.
“I thought we were finding things,” Kakashi said.
Genma held out his empty coffee cup. “Go find me a refill.”
Idly, Kakashi wondered what would happen if he said no. But there was an ocean’s difference between deflecting an observation and refusing a direct order, and he’d never done the latter without a life-or-death reason. He took the cup. “Lieutenant.”
“Hatake,” Genma said levelly.
Ryouma was still crouched over the spread map—which presumably had the advantage of being pictographic if you ignored the place names—but his eyes were on Kakashi, dark and measuring. “There’s cold pheasant wrapped in leaves by the coffee-pot, if you’re hungry.”
Kakashi wasn’t generally a breakfast man, but they had miles left to run and protein never hurt. He nodded once and went in search of coffee.
“Making friends?” Raidou said quietly, when Kakashi passed him.
“It’s what I do,” Kakashi said, eyeing Raidou’s calloused knuckles. No bruises, not even a faint reddening. The fingerless ANBU gloves covered his forearms, but Raidou moved like nothing ached, easy and fluid. “You promised you’d take responsibility with the lieutenant. Minus ten captain points.”
“Complaining before 5am,” Raidou tossed back. “Minus thirty underling points.”
“Don’t co-opt my system,” Kakashi said, examining the simmering coffee in the collapsible pot suspended over the fire. It looked dark and bitter, and smelled like roasted earth. He’d never quite understood the appeal.
Raidou completed the final kata of asa no kurayami no byoutaisou, which was a pattern-dance Kakashi had always privately thought of as Greet The Lack Of Dawn With Calisthenics, and flipped onto his hands. He lowered himself into a series of straight-body pushups. “You’ll want sugar in that.”
Kakashi wrinkled his nose, but dropped in single dose from one of the paper sugar packets someone—probably Genma—had left in a helpful pile on a rock.
“Half a point for adequate waitering,” Raidou said, between slow breaths.
“Minus everything ever for intellectual theft,” Kakashi said, taking a leaf-wrapped parcel of pheasant. He returned the coffee to Genma, who accepted it with a wordless nod and didn’t break from his quiet conference with Ryouma. Still ‘detectiving’.
Katsuko’s oppressive chakra pulled Kakashi’s attention left. She’d returned from her clone errand, and obviously stopped by the stream on her way back. Her hair was damp and wild, and her bare shoulders glistened with water droplets she hadn’t bothered to dry off. She leaned against the broad trunk of a tree, tipped her head back, and, judging by the way her chakra instantly quieted and begun to respool itself, slipped into a trance.
Seemed like everyone had a morning routine.
If Kakashi had been in Konoha, he’d be heading to the Stone right about now. On a solo mission, he’d already have struck camp and left.
Feeling restless, he settled on a fallen tree and made himself eat.
That lasted for all of three minutes, then Katsuko broke her meditation like a snapped wire, wandered over, and dropped down in front of him. “‘Sup.”
Kakashi gave her a wary look. “Yes?”
She propped her chin on her hand and studied him with open curiosity. “Still hate us?” she asked. “You’re more talkative today.”
If Katsuko had any underneaths beneath her underneath, Kakashi thought, it was only because she hadn’t had the chance to yell about them. He’d met more subtle hammers.
“It’s early,” he said, after a long moment. “I haven’t finished charging my contempt yet.”
“Take your time, sweetness.” She grinned like a jackal.
He did not get her pet names, unless they were just an easy avenue to getting under his skin.
Of course they were an easy avenue to getting under his skin.
“I should pack,” he said, and left her cackling as he went to re-don his armor and put his gear back into order.
Genma and Ryouma’s meeting broke up before he’d finished buckling his chestplate. Genma went to confer with Raidou. Ryouma quenched the fire, packed up the leftover dishes, and vanished every trace of the fire pit with an earth jutsu that swallowed it entirely. Katsuko made her clones pack her gear, which surprised exactly no one.
In relatively short time, all signs of a camp were gone, and five soldiers stood ready in black and bone and, for some, bed hair. Katsuko’s clones ranged around them like chatty magpies.
“Anyone who hasn’t already can get limber on the move,” Raidou said, voice cut sharper by the expressionless curve of his mask. “Any concerns before we go?”
“All right, then,” Raidou said, and lit out.
The team fell into line on his heels, finding their places with relative smoothness. As they hit the edge of the clearing, Katsuko waved a hand, banished her clones—and immediately stumbled over a tree root with a choking sound.
Genma and Ryouma’s heads snapped around. “Ueno?” said Genma, concerned.
Very carefully, Katsuko closed a mental box around the memory of Kakashi and Raidou’s spar from last night. Then she put it in the furthest corner of a mental shelf in a mental closet and shut the door. Her entire squad was waiting for her response, and the image of Kakashi and the captain grappling with each other like determined octopuses wouldn’t do anything to help her regain her equilibrium.
“Everything’s fine,” Katsuko said, waving Genma off. She needed to sit down, but if she did that she wouldn’t stand up again for a good while. Already it was an effort not to break into howling laughter. “Just got hit with five memories at once. Let’s keep going.”
“Anything noteworthy?” Genma asked, as the team started off again.
“Stink badger burrow,” Katsuko said, thinking fast. She didn’t know if Raidou and Kakashi wanted the rest of the team to learn about their spar. “I’d rather not talk about that.”
Kakashi’s lion-dog mask gave nothing away, but Katsuko thought she detected the slightest hint of surprise in the way his posture changed. She couldn’t decide whether or not to be offended. Did he think she’d tell the entire team and laugh about it?
“If you molest forest critters, you deserve anything you get.” Raidou’s mild tone told Katsuko he wasn’t the slightest bit convinced by her explanation.
Genma laughed. “Is ‘stink badger’ Hatake’s new code name?”
Well, there went all her efforts to be discreet.
Ryouma had been listening with curiosity. He turned to look at Katsuko and Kakashi, the slightest hint of suspicion entering his voice. “Does the fraternization rule not apply to clones?”
Katsuko let her voice reach desert levels of dryness. “Neither I nor my clones would endanger Hatake’s virtue in any way.”
“Neither you nor your clones would ever get the chance,” Kakashi said. Spoilsport.
Raidou brought Ryouma up to speed. “Hatake and I sparred last night after everyone turned in. As far as I know, clones were not involved past some minor voyeurism.”
“Ah,” Ryouma said. “That kind of sparring.”
Katsuko snickered at that for the next two miles.
They followed a stream northwest, running along its grassy bank before cutting across to a rocky ravine. Katsuko kept quiet, more focused on enjoying the calm before they reached their destination than engaging in conversation. They stopped for a water break once, took care of the necessities, and moved on.
It was high noon when the team crested a hill and saw the cluster of houses and buildings that marked the first village, Hayama. Rice fields stood between a river and the carefully maintained earth-and-timber wall that encircled the community. It should have been bustling this time of day, but only a few small figures hurried through the streets.
Raidou led the team around the town walls in a quick search of the surrounding area. No sign of bandits near the river or in the forest, but the woods of Isegawa Province were old; even the shadows had weight here. Katsuko squinted, trying to see the sun through the thick branches woven overhead. A few birds sang out. Something furry and rodentlike scurried up a tree trunk. Besides that, not nearly enough wildlife for a forest this large.
Unsettled, Katsuko stuck close to the group as they made their way through the town itself. Everywhere she looked she saw locked doors, boarded up windows. Even the houses seemed to be holding their breath.
There was a small shrine for the missing set up in the town square. Katsuko spent a few quiet moments studying the pictures of the lost, the offerings set at the shrine’s base and the curl of smoke that rose from the lit incense sticks.
Kakashi turned in a slow circle, mask tilting as he caught the weak breeze, and said quietly, “It smells wrong here.”
Genma’s head turned sharply at that. “Wrong how?”
Kakashi pulled his ANBU mask to one side, trying to chase the scent. His eye was closed, head tipped back as he frowned. “I don’t know,” he admitted, which only reaffirmed that something was very, very wrong. “It’s— chemical? Like metal and… almost like sulfur. You can’t smell that?”
Katsuko breathed in deep. The faint aftertaste of copper lingered at the back of her throat, tinged with musk and mildew. It smelled like something you’d find underneath a rock, where the damp and dark had been given free rein.
Genma lifted his mask a little. “Kind of… volcanic?”
Ryouma was further down the street, knocking on doors. When the first one didn’t open, he moved on to the next. There had to be someone in this town willing to answer questions for them.
Raidou, being Raidou, completely ignored the unease that permeated the air. He pulled his mask aside and cupped his hands around his mouth, voice raised in a battlefield roar. “KONOHA FORCES. THE DAIMYOU SENT US. IS ANYONE HOME?”
Katsuko rubbed the back of her neck and sighed in utter resignation. “Subtle, taichou.”
“But successful!” Ryouma said, rejoining the group. A shuttered window across the street had cracked open a bare inch.
Raidou readjusted his mask and jerked his chin, motioning towards the house the window belonged to. Katsuko fell in line as the team followed him, wondering vaguely what the owner might make of five highly armed individuals wearing festival masks knocking on their door.
There was a flicker of movement behind the cracked shutter as they approached; something rattled inside the house. At least someone was alive in there, Ryouma thought. Or something.
But when Raidou’s fist thumped against the door, anxious feet scuffed over wooden floorboards, and the latch jiggled and turned. The door eased open a hair—opening inward, Ryouma noticed; easier to barricade, but also easier to break down. He couldn’t see the villager on the other side.
“You’re Konoha?” It was a woman’s voice, hoarse, tight with fear.
“Born and raised.” Raidou edged closer to the gap in the door and turned, baring his left shoulder and its unmistakable scarlet spiral. His voice gentled, warm and smoky in its baritone depths. “We’re here to help.”
Another voice whispered urgently on the other side of the door. Ryouma caught only the rise and fall, the hiss of sibilants, and a harsh warning: Oneesan, ANBU…
“Stand back,” the first woman said at last, raw-voiced.
Genma and Raidou glanced at each other and stepped back, out of the thin shade cast by the overhanging eaves. The door cracked wider, revealing a sliver of a dark-haired woman in the figured green kimono of a prosperous peasant. She was in her late twenties, but her face was haggard with grief and fear. A younger woman hovered behind her shoulder, gripping a straight-bladed knife half-drawn from its sharkskin sheath. Their eyes darted from one mask to another, found tattooed shoulders, empty hands. It wasn’t until they found Katsuko, slouching deliberately at Raidou’s elbow, that they began to relax.
“Are you here to find Hiroshi?” the first woman demanded.
“Morita Hiroshi?” Genma asked.
The woman’s knuckles whitened on the doorframe. She jerked her head.
“We’re here to try to find out what happened to him and the others, yes, ma’am.”
Her breath hitched in something like a sob. The younger woman rammed the knife home in its sheath—Katsuko flinched for the blade’s ill-treatment—and tucked it into her obi, then reached out to catch at her sister’s shoulders and draw her back into the house. “Oneesan, you knew, you had to know— He wouldn’t have left you like that—”
She threw a fleeting glance over her shoulder at the ANBU. Genma looked to Raidou again. Raidou shrugged, and ducked his head under the lintel to follow.
They kept their boots on, though even Ryouma felt uneasy about stepping on the polished wooden floors. The house was small but neat and clean, built in the old style with one main room with a raised floor and sliding paper doors opening, presumably, onto bedrooms and a kitchen. A little girl crouched in a corner behind a wooden chest, clutching a rag doll to her chest and staring wide-eyed at the intruders. Ryouma wished he could slide his mask off and give her a smile. He wiggled his fingers at her instead, in a tiny wave. She gulped, and hugged her doll closer.
The younger woman eased her sister down onto a cushion on the floor and stayed crouching by her, staring up at the ANBU. “My oneesan is Morita Fumiyo, Hiroshi’s wife. I’m Tanaka Ayako. Will you—Would you care for tea?”
“Thank you, no,” Raidou said. He settled down across from her, on his knees. Genma knelt at his side, while the others folded up behind them. There wasn’t quite enough room; Ryouma and Kakashi’s shoulders jostled, and Katsuko accidentally kneed Ryouma in the thigh. This room hadn’t been built for so many occupants, or at least not so many large men and one sharp-jointed woman, and Raidou had left the village women plenty of space.
He said quietly, “Can you tell us about Hiroshi?”
Fumiyo covered her mouth with her hands and blinked hard against the tears. “He— He was only going to the shrine,” she said thickly. “In the woods, the one to the god in the waterfall. It was after dinner, but he liked to walk at dusk, he said it cleared his thoughts after the day’s business. He’s a silk-buyer, you know,” she added, straightening a little in pride. “Last year was bad, but this year will be better, he said. In a year or two he’ll be able to set up his own weaving shop, instead of just buying the raw silk and selling it on to the traders. He was so full of plans, he was going to make this village prosper—He wouldn’t just have left, he couldn’t have!”
Ryouma’s knuckles ached, clenched on his knees. He bit the inside of his cheek and looked away from the little girl, clinging to her doll as if the strength of her grip could bring her father back.
“He sounds like a good man,” Genma said. “Did he visit the shrine regularly? At the same time each day?”
“Most days.” She caught her breath, wiped her eyes with a handkerchief her sister pressed into her hand. “If he didn’t have to go back to the office after dinner, he liked to go to the shrine instead. He was praying for a good season… He took Miki-chan sometimes, but she had a cold that day, I couldn’t let her leave.”
“Was there anyone he owed money to?” Raidou asked. “Anyone he was in conflict with? I know he wasn’t the only one to go missing—”
“Eight from this village,” Genma murmured.
“—But I want to cover all the bases,” Raidou concluded.
Hiroshi’s wife—widow?—was shaking her head. “He owed money, of course, but Kobayashi-san’s a good man, he knows what it takes to build up a business like this, and Hiroshi was making all his payments anyway. Some of the villagers owe Hiroshi money, because he lent it to them to buy this year’s silkworms, but he never asks for payment until after the season is over. And there isn’t anyone who dislikes him. He’s the kindest man in the village! When Tadayuki-obaasan’s roof washed away in the winter rains he was up there the next day with the men from the village, thatching it again, and he paid for the rice straw himself!”
“Did he have anything in common with any of the others who have gone missing?” Genma asked.
Fumiyo pressed the handkerchief to her mouth again and sank back, shaking her head. She was clearly too caught up in grief for her husband to spare thought for the others. Her sister Ayako wrapped an arm around her shoulders and said defiantly, “He didn’t run off with any of them, and none of them killed him. Something in the woods got all of them. And it’s not eight. It’s twelve, now. There’s a woman dead and her family gone missing from their home yesterday. Within the village walls.” Her dark eyes burned. “Will you find them?”
“We’ll find answers,” Raidou said. It wasn’t the promise she’d asked for, but maybe it was as close as he thought he could come. “Can you show us the house where the family disappeared?”
From the back of the room the little girl said, cold and clear, “I can.”
She was on her feet, hugging her elbows, the doll laid carefully down behind her. Her mother made an anguished noise that broke on a sob. Miki’s chin trembled, but she said, “I know where it is. I’ll show you. And you’ll kill whoever took my daddy.”
Raidou said quietly, “Yes.” He got to his feet and stood looking down. “We’ll keep her safe, ma’am,” he said.
Ryouma’s throat hurt. Miki was older than he’d been—maybe seven or eight, not five—but he remembered that bottled-up desperation, standing at the gate for hours and searching every face that came in, begging every shinobi he saw for weeks if anyone had seen or heard of Kondo Ryuu. Konoha was at war then, though, and he hadn’t had ANBU to send looking for his father.
They’d do better for Miki.
He pushed to his feet. “I’ll look after her,” he said.
“I’ll look after her,” Ayako said sharply, over the sound of Fumiyo’s muffled sobs. “She’s my niece.”
In the corner of Raidou’s vision, Ryouma’s broad shoulders stiffened. “Then we’ll protect you both.” His mask turned to Raidou. “Should we leave someone here for Fumiyo-san?”
Are you volunteering? Raidou almost said, but he didn’t want to spend more time playing people-shuffle under this grief-soaked roof than he truly had to.
“We’ll be quick,” he said. “Ayako-san, if you’d lead the way?”
The door creaked as Katsuko made her escape followed by Kakashi and, after a hesitation, Ryouma. Genma stepped aside, waiting. Ayako squeezed her sister’s shoulder, then held out a hand to her niece. Miki hurried to take it, stopping for the briefest of moments to brush a kiss over her mother’s wet cheek. At the touch, Fumiyo straightened up, eyes red and wrecked, but her tears slowed.
“I’ll have dinner ready when you get back,” she said firmly, scrubbing the handkerchief over her face.
“There’s rice in the cooker,” Miki said, and tugged Ayako out the door.
Genma nodded to the widow and followed them on silent feet. Raidou took an extra half-second to bow. “Thank you for your help,” he said.
“Hiroshi believes in Konoha,” Fumiyo said. She rose to her feet in a sweep of skirts and turned away to the kitchen.
Believed, Raidou thought, and followed his team outside.
The town was still quiet and deserted, but there were flickers of movement behind more than one set of shutters. The hairs on the back of Raidou’s neck prickled with the weight of watching eyes.
Miki slipped free of Ayako’s hold and grabbed Ryouma’s hand, to the obvious disapproval of her aunt, pulling him north. “It’s this way.”
Ryouma curled his fingers carefully around the girl’s, dwarfing her hand. It took only one of his long strides for every three of hers. “There were four people who lived there?”
“Fujiyama Yuna-san and her family,” Miki said.
“Wife, husband, and twin girls,” Ayako said, walking uncomfortably between Raidou and Katsuko. Genma had dropped back, as was his norm. Kakashi had swung slightly ahead, mask tilted into the breeze again.
“How old were the girls?” Raidou asked.
“That’s the youngest yet,” Genma said quietly, behind him.
Three pattern-breaks in one attack. A woman slain, a man taken from his own home within the village, and youngsters stolen with him. What the hell was going on?
Moving at the speed of Miki’s short-legged trot, it took fifteen minutes to cross the village and hike the low slope up to the Fujiyama home. It was another traditional building, nestled between flowering fruit trees and backed right up to the looming village wall. The nearest gate was—west, easily a half mile away.
“Rat, check the gate for forced entry,” Raidou said, jerking a thumb at it. “And the wall between there and here, too. See if anyone scaled it.”
“On it,” Katsuko said, and darted off in a flare of chakra. Sparks glimmered in the footsteps she left behind in the muddy ground, quickly fading. She was ramped up.
“Ayako-san, stay close to Miki-san and the guy in the ram mask,” Raidou said. Miki’s narrow shoulders straightened in pride at the more adult suffix, making his mouth tug. “Hound, front and center. Let’s put your lightfoot trick to use.”
Kakashi snorted quietly, but it took him barely a flickering eyeblink to get up to the front door, which opened with a creak when he pressed a palm to it. Broken lock?
“Hasegawa-san said the side window was smashed in,” Ayako said, as if she’d read his mind. She’d stepped close to Ryouma, hugging herself. “He broke through the door, but it was already too late.”
Kakashi stepped forward, then went briefly still.
Raidou put a hand on his sword-hilt. “Problem?”
“Smells like blood,” Kakashi said, and vanished inside.
Miki’s knuckles turned white as she tightened her grip on Ryouma’s hand. Ayako stepped even closer to them both, until her shoulder brushed Ryouma’s bare biceps. She closed her hand protectively over Miki’s shoulder.
Katsuko was already halfway back to them, running along the top of the wall. Genma took off to one side, vanishing around the side of the building to investigate the shattered window.
Wind rustled through the fruit trees, carrying the scent of fresh blossoms.
The door creaked.
And then Kakashi was back, standing in front of Ryouma and Raidou a half-second before Katsuko landed. Something about him looked wrong. It took Raidou a heartbeat to realize the long, white fingers normally left visible by the fingerless ANBU gloves were red.
“They didn’t take the girls,” Kakashi said.
“But Hasegawa only found Yuna-san,” Ayako said, staring at Kakashi’s hands in pale horror.
“They’re under the floor,” Kakashi said.
Katsuko’s voice was like a lead slab. “The gate’s intact, but the village wall has claw marks.”
“What, exactly, killed the girls?” Raidou said.
Kakashi looked at him. “Something with teeth.”
The girls were underneath the floor.
“Hound,” Katsuko said, calmly. “Show me where you found them?”
Kakashi looked at her, something in her voice giving him pause, but turned and went back into the house at Raidou’s short nod. Katsuko followed, stepping over the threshold as the stench of dried blood curled out to greet her.
Fujiyama’s house had been neatly kept, before the fight that had ravaged the walls and floors. The bookshelves and tables that had been untouched were precisely arranged and free of dust. Near the back of the house, Kakashi had pulled up a section of the ruined tatami. He’d left a crimson handprint on the small part of the weave that hadn’t already been stained with blood. Katsuko moved closer, sinking into a crouch by the edge of the matting, and looked.
Fujiyama’s daughters had been very small, but whatever killed them was savage. Their bodies weren’t… whole. Lifting them out with only her hands would be difficult.
There were blankets in the back room’s closet. Katsuko chose one at random—red fabric, cherry-blossom pattern, hand-stitched and sewn—and spread it out next to the pulled-up tatami.
No clones for this. The girls deserved someone real to take care of their bodies.
Very carefully, Katsuko reached into the space underneath the floor and began picking up the pieces of the Fujiyama daughters. She could tell them apart by their clothes; one was wearing a blue sundress, the other a yellow tunic. She started to place them next to each other on the blanket, her hands gentle as she could manage.
The last time something like this had happened, she’d been thirteen. She’d been forced to watch as the bodies were bricked up behind the walls; when there was no more space, the dead had been buried beneath the floor. No one deserved to be trapped like that.
Footsteps. Katsuko glanced up as Kakashi knelt beside her, his mask as blank as ever. She shifted over to give him space as he reached into the hole underneath the tatami and started to help her with the grim task.
When Kakashi and Katsuko were done, she folded the blanket carefully around the Fujiyama girls and picked them up, cradling them against her chest. The family shrine was near the entranceway; she set her sad little bundle down on the floor in front of the incense holders and plaques, then stepped back and turned to face Kakashi.
Kakashi looked at her for a moment, level. Quietly, he said, “Your chakra’s surging.” For once, there was no judgment in his voice.
There was blood on Katsuko’s hands, her uniform. Red streaked across her chestplate from where she’d held the Fujiyama daughters. She inclined her head at Kakashi in a nod and closed her eyes, reaching for her chakra.
It was difficult, searching for the quiet core of herself. Her chakra seethed like a wounded beast, volatile and angry. Katsuko pulled calm around her center like a shield, waging war to regain her serenity.
When her chakra was again leashed and mastered, Katsuko opened her eyes. Behind her, she could feel Raidou’s presence entering the house. There was a pause as he took in the scene, then his calloused hand settled on the back of her neck.
“Ram’s taking the civilians back,” he told her and Kakashi. “Tanuki’s tracking drag marks outside the window; looks like the husband might have been pulled straight up the wall.” Then in a softer voice he asked Katsuko, “Got a lock on it?”
Katsuko let herself lean back against his hand for a moment before she straightened. “Under control, captain.”
Raidou tightened his grip briefly, then let his hand drop. “Good job.” He lifted his voice again. “Hound, find anything else?”
Kakashi had completely focused elsewhere during Raidou and Katsuko’s conversation. Now he looked back at them. “That scent’s all over. The blood masks it, but it’s here. The woman fought—most of the blood around the house is hers. There’s only a few droplets from the husband, by the bed. Whatever injury he took was tiny.”
“You’re sure that’s his blood?”
Kakashi’s voice held no trace of doubt. “It smells different.”
Katsuko tilted her head at that. She’d known Kakashi’s sense of smell was good, but she’d thought the rumors about him being part bloodhound had been based on wild fantasy. “What else can you tell from the scent?”
He shrugged one shoulder. “Not much. But that lock wouldn’t have been hard to pick, and it still smashed the window instead. It surprised the mother, but I think she tried to hide the children—her body fell next to them.”
“But it still found them,” Raidou said. “And didn’t eat them. Summons?”
“Regular shinobi would have been more subtle, and wasted less chakra,” Kakashi said. “But neither really makes sense. Shinobi don’t steal random civilians.”
Some shinobi did steal random civilians, but that had no bearing on the current mission.
“Something with teeth and claws that scaled the walls and didn’t bother with the gates,” Katsuko mused, remembering the deep scrapes she’d seen on the earth-and-timber barricade. “Didn’t bother with the door, either. Smart enough to find two little girls hidden underneath the tatami, and a reason for taking the husband alive but leaving the wife’s body behind.” She glanced over at the broken window. “We’re looking at at least sub-human intelligence, but whatever it is definitely isn’t human.”
Genma chose that moment to come back from scouting, joining them inside the house. “There were at least two attackers, non-human,” he reported, confirming Katsuko’s theory. “The tracks look like something you’d see in the Forest of Death. They’re definitely not from any animal I’ve ever seen.”
Ryouma hadn’t come back yet. The creeping feeling that it had been a bad idea to split up the team only increased. Katsuko crossed over to the doorway, leaning out to look up and down the street.
She turned back to Raidou, keeping the worry out of her voice.
“What are your orders, taichou?”
Genma followed Raidou’s gaze to the still, shrouded bundles in front of the shrine. A shockingly small hand peeked out from under one edge of the gaily embroidered blanket, pale and blood-stained.
“Find Ram,” Raidou said, voice low and full of steel. “Follow that trail, massacre anything with teeth, and see if there’s anything left to bring home. Sound good?”
“We should leave a clone or two here to safeguard the village, in case whatever it is has friends,” Genma said. “It’s clearly escalating its attacks.”
Raidou nodded. “One for each of us,” he said. As he lifted his hands into the Ram seal, he turned to Katsuko. “Rat, ten?”
Her chakra flared even brighter for an instant as she cast the jutsu, and then there were ten identical Rat-masked ANBU in a cluster behind her, eerily silent and intent. At a flick of her hand, they headed for the door, each pausing briefly to glance at the sad offering by the shrine.
Genma, Kakashi, and Raidou each called up a single clone of their own. “We should station them at even intervals along the wall,” Genma said. “Since the invaders don’t seem to bother with the gates.”
Kakashi’s clone vanished out the door without a word, blurring past Katsuko’s clones. Raidou’s clone in hot pursuit muttered a muffled, “Use your words.” Katsuko’s clones followed, ranging out across the village to take up the perimeter positions Genma’d suggested.
Even with just the four of them and Genma’s clone remaining in the house, the atmosphere was oppressive. Genma looked around, taking in gouges in the flooring, overturned furniture, tears in paper screens. “Does that look like a fresh scorch mark to you?” he asked, pointing to a darkened section along the edge of one pale wooden chest.
“Looks like,” Katsuko said. “Hound should go smell it to make sure.”
Kakashi stopped mid-step—evidently already on his way to investigate the mark—turning his masked face directly towards her. Genma could guess at the death glare he was leveling at her from behind the dark eyeholes.
She’d sounded dead serious. Was this her macabre way of lightening the tension?
“It was a Katon jutsu,” Ryouma said, appearing in the doorframe. “Fujimaya Yuna was a Konoha genin. Retired after the war.” As he stepped across the threshold and surveyed the grisly scene, a slow tension crept over his shoulders. “I left a clone with the Morita family.”
“Good. We’ve set twelve clones along the walls,” Genma said. “What about the husband, was he a retired ninja, too?”
Ryouma shook his head. “Farmer. I’m guessing they met during the war.” He crouched down next to the bodies, and Katsuko took a step towards him, hand up as if to halt him. He’d already turned the flap of the blanket back before she could speak. After a moment, he folded the blanket down again, taking care to cover the small hand that Genma had seen earlier. “Her body’s at the Buddhist temple,” he said, tight voiced. “The funeral is tomorrow.”
“Take the daughters there, too,” Genma told his clone. It went to gather the bodies, carefully cradling them so that the blanket revealed nothing of what it contained.
Katsuko’s head turned sharply towards him, but Raidou intervened. “The sooner we get on the trail, the better chance we have of recovering Fujiyama-san.”
“Captain’s right,” Genma said. “We’ve got a good trail to follow right now, as long as it doesn’t rain.” He glanced at the rookies, who were as tense and focused as Katsuko. Eager to deal justice to whatever had slain this family. “Hatake and I will take point and track, if that’s alright with you, captain. We may be able to pick up a chakra signature, if there is one.”
The captain nodded. “Radios on.”
Kakashi moved. Out of the red house, past the burdened clone, straight up the tall wall made of earth and lumber. It narrowed sharply at the top, barely as wide as a woman’s wrist. Easy enough for a ninja to stand on.
The lieutenant joined him a second later, ponytail whipping like a flag in the breeze. “Claw marks there,” he said, tipping his chin towards long pale gashes ripped across the wood. “Drag marks further into the woods.”
Kakashi crouched on the wall’s edge, but the raw copper reek from his hands covered anything subtler. He scowled, worked a quick jutsu, and yanked the water out of the blood. A gritty residue stayed behind; he slapped it away from his hands and armor. The scent would still linger, but it wouldn’t overpower.
Steel-mold-sulfur curled up from the claw marks.
“Got it.” He buckled his radio collar into place, slipped the earbud in, and glanced aside. “Do you need me to stay at your pace?”
“Don’t get too far ahead,” Genma said.
That was something.
Kakashi brushed his fingertips over his tattoo and threw himself off the wall. This side of the village backed straight up into heavy forest, with blue mountains cutting up into the pale sky just a few short miles away. There were three more villages scattered close by, clustered around the larger town of Mizudera like beads on a coiled string. But that could wait for later. For now—
A broken branch with fresh-dried sap.
Scrapes over bark at head height.
Either these things were really tall, or they moved through the trees as easily as they ran over ground. Dried red-brown droplets on a bruised leaf caught his attention. The husband’s blood again.
He followed the trail for a mile, to make sure it stayed true, and found himself up in the canopy just as often as he was near the ground. They were heading due north, towards the mountains, and they could definitely climb.
Behind him, three moving chakra signatures were rendered nearly invisible in the noise of Katsuko’s hornet swarm. Kakashi thumbed his radio-comm open, waited for the static hiss, and said, “Catch up.”
A half-second later, Genma landed on his branch. “I don’t see any outlying trails.”
“Me neither,” Kakashi said. He picked his next words carefully. “How many legs are you counting?”
Behind the mask, Genma’s eyes were just a fraction wider than usual. “Ten or twelve,” he said. “You get the same thing?”
“Six apiece,” Kakashi said. “And they’re not small.”
“Like I said, something you’d see in the Forest of Death. But those don’t forage into villages.”
“Because we walled them in,” Kakashi said.
“We also kill them!” Raidou yelled up from the ground, ignoring radios entirely. The feedback screech made everyone wince. “Why have we stopped?”
“We’ve all been running missions in Fire Country since we were kids,” Genma said, swinging easily out of the tree and landing between Katsuko and Ryouma, who stepped aside for him. “Have any of you ever seen anything like this?”
Ryouma shook his dark head. “Ran into some giant spiders near Oitatezawa once, but they didn’t hunt people. Just hung out in the woods with their webs and ate anyone who came along.”
“Closest I’ve got is when a bear in the Forest of Death tried to eat me,” Katsuko said, with a tone that said the memory mildly amused her. “Mutated wildlife with a taste for human. Best to find the main burrow and raze it.”
Except people weren’t being eaten.
Theft always had a purpose, especially when it was live bodies.
“We should keep moving,” Kakashi said.
“Agreed,” said Raidou.
The trail stayed warm for almost five miles, cutting a knife-straight path through the ancient trees. The mountains loomed closer and the air grew colder. It had smelled like northerly rain when they’d set off yesterday; Kakashi hoped Genma wasn’t actually accurate with his weather suggestions. Six-legged beasts with claws, fangs, and career goals were enough of a challenge for one day.
Given that thought, he wasn’t at all surprised when the first droplet hit his mask.
He was surprised when the trail split, the less heavily burdened tracks peeling abruptly away to the left, while the creature carrying Fujiyama’s deadweight stayed true. He paused, but Genma was already following the second set of tracks.
“I’ll chase this one,” the lieutenant said. “Stay with those.”
“Rat, go with him,” Raidou ordered.
Splitting up didn’t seem like a very good—
There was no warning. Twisted, steely chakra bust out from two sides at once, and two black-armored bodies leaping in tandem. One slammed into Raidou’s back, taking him down. The other went straight for Katsuko with a hissing screech. It twisted around her alarmed strike, and buried long fangs directly into her bare shoulder.
Ryouma’s hands found the seals without thought. Ten seals, two heartbeats, and there was reddish-black chakra roiling around his fingers and a triple-jointed, spike-armored leg within reach. He slammed his palms against the inside of the highest joint and shoved chakra through, and the leg—
Dust crumbled against his palms, but no liquid ooze of dissolving muscle. The thing twisted its plate-armored head, wrenching Katsuko’s body by the shoulder like a child’s broken toy. She made a raw, animal noise of rage and pain and sliced at its neck with her kodachi, but the steel only skidded, striking sparks. Snarling, she shortened her grip and stabbed at an eye.
The thing made a weird, whining hiss and released her, lashing its head around to bite at the blade. Steel screamed under strain, and snapped.
And now there was moisture leaking between Ryouma’s fingers, the thick reek of decay bubbling into the air. The leg lurched. The beast dropped the sword-shards and slewed its head around, one punctured eye leaking fluid, the other glaring yellow fire.
Blue lightning punched through its thorax. It screeched, six spiked legs skittering in its death throes, and something whistled over Ryouma’s head so close that it raked through his hair. He cut the jutsu and lurched back, grabbing Katsuko by the straps of her armor, and saw what he hadn’t before: a curved, segmented tail and a bulbous sting dripping fluid. A stray spatter struck his shoulder, and the skin went numb.
White-hearted fire boiled drizzle out of the air, smeared a dazzling bar across Ryouma’s sight, and hit the second beast square on its armored abdomen. It screeched and reared back on two sets of legs, raking a third pair through the rain. Beneath it, bloody from neck to knees, Raidou surged up with a black sword unsheathed. He didn’t try to cut; he simply rammed the blade between two overlapping plates of the carapace, high on its underbelly. The beast screeched again and climbed higher, trying to free a second set of legs to tear at him. He planted his knee in the muddy ground and threw his weight behind the blade, and the beast toppled backward like a tree falling. Its legs waved wildly in the air.
Genma slipped out of the trees with a kunai in each hand, crouched behind the thrashing head, and drove both kunai haft-deep into the blazing yellow eyes. The flailing legs curled over its belly, and were still.
In the rain-spattered silence, Raidou said distinctly, “Fucking ow.” He straightened painfully, eyed the black-bladed sword protruding from the beast’s belly, and visibly decided not to withdraw it yet. Instead, he looked around for his team. “Everyone okay?”
Ryouma wasn’t sure he’d ever catch his breath again. “Paralytic,” he said. “In their tails. That’s how they got most of those people without a fight.” He rubbed his numbed shoulder with a filthy hand, and looked down at Katsuko.
Her shoulder wasn’t as bad as he’d feared—not the chewed mess a mammal would have left, but two deep puncture wounds, torn ragged at the edges and bleeding freely. She ignored them completely. She was holding the hilt of her shattered kodachi, and he could hear the glower in her voice. “Damn thing broke my sword.”
Kakashi made a thin noise of disgust, pulled a medkit out of one of his hip pouches, and came over to clamp a thick wad of gauze over her shoulder. His right hand, Ryouma noticed, was burned clean, and smoking slightly. “You’re lucky nothing else is broken,” he said. Katsuko’s breath huffed out in what might have been a laugh, or a groan.
Genma was back on his feet, scrubbing his fluid-soaked hands with an alcohol wipe. “Ram, did you get tagged with the poison? What’s your status, Moon?” He dropped the wipe on the armored carcass, pulled out a second one, and began circling Raidou as he scrubbed, as if cataloguing injuries.
It would be a long list. Raidou’s back wasn’t actually the sheet of blood Ryouma’d first imagined, but there were ribbons of red soaking into the bone-colored armor, and the stiff covering fabric of the armor itself hung in shreds over ceramic plate where the beast’s claws and teeth had ripped it away. The backs of his arms were bloody, too, where he’d protected his neck, and there were long gouges down the backs of his thighs.
Raidou craned his neck, trying to see. “You can tell that better than me. Everything still attached that should be?”
Adrenaline, Ryouma decided. He wasn’t feeling the pain yet. That, or Team Six’s new captain was as crazy as he accused the rest of them of being.
“You’re a mess,” Genma said critically, “but I don’t see bone. I need to deal with this bleeding.” He tossed the second alcohol wipe aside and dug into his medkit with clean hands for pressure dressings, which he slapped on Raidou’s legs before straightening to inspect his back and arms. “Need your vest off. I’ll help. Ram, I still need an answer from you. Are you poisoned?”
“Just numb,” Ryouma said. “The stinger didn’t get me, just spattered.” He rubbed his shoulder again, and self-consciously dropped his hand. His gloves were a lacy patchwork of reinforced fabric, organics rotted away up to the hook-and-loop fasteners marking the detachment point at the wrist; the steel backplates dangled by ooze-covered threads. He ripped them off, wincing at the noise, and tucked them in a waistpouch.
Katsuko cleared her throat. “Ram, Hound, thanks for getting that thing off me.” She nodded at the beast that had savaged her shoulder. “Good thing it had squishy bits.”
“Stop moving,” Kakashi said, and swapped out blood-soaked gauze for clean. He gave the wound a sharp poke through the gauze. “Can you feel that?”
She yowled like an angry cat and thumped the hilt of her broken kodachi on the ground.
“No venom in the teeth,” Kakashi concluded.
Kakashi was doing more for Katsuko than Ryouma could right now, with his reeking hands a sure guarantee of blood-poisoning. Ryouma took a few steps to inspect the nearest carcass instead. Kakashi’s Raikiri had ripped a fist-sized hole straight through the beast’s chest, shredding whatever inner organs lay in its path. Katsuko was right about the soft tissue beneath the almost impenetrable armor; Ryouma’s Naizou Tokasu would have worked, if he’d dared to aim without fear of hitting one of his teammates.
There were two more sets of narrow, slit-pupiled eyes, behind and slightly above the bulbous large ones that Katsuko and Genma had stabbed. Nearly a 360-degree range of vision, though the first set would provide most of its depth perception. It had fangs like a snake, but an ant’s graspers on either side of its jaws. Further back, its jaws were bladed with teeth like a saw. The legs were similar, barbed with spikes and capped with claws; this one still had shreds of tree bark wedged in the crevices of its armor. It looked like a wolfhound had mated with a scorpion, and the offspring had been kicked out of hell.
Behind him, Kakashi said quietly, “These aren’t the creatures we were hunting.”
“Too big to go through the window,” Ryouma said. “No hands, or—or pincers, or whatever, to carry people.” He bent the last leg on the left side backward, and stared at the liquid slough of rot that had eaten through the joint and into the abdomen.
On a man of equivalent mass, that much chakra should have dissolved the entire pelvis by now. On an animal, the rot would proceed far slower, without a greater boost of his own chakra to send it surging along. The Human Flesh Melt technique infected its victim’s chakra, spreading through chakra channels like sepsis through blood; the more powerful the victim’s chakra, the faster it spread.
The jutsu had taken a long time—too long—to eat through the beast’s unnaturally thick carapace. But once it reached flesh, it had raged unfettered. Under the leg-joint, inside the abdomen, the carapace held nothing but a dark, reeking pool of rot.
Ryouma dropped the leg with a slosh.
“This isn’t wildlife,” he said. He drew a shallow breath. “What d’you know about demons?”
“Kill ‘em dead before they raze your village to the ground,” Raidou said, wincing as Genma did something vengeful to his shoulder blade. “Unless they’ve got more’n one tail, in which case, hope the Hokage has a plan.”
Kakashi’s shoulders stiffened.
Katsuko had been staring at Ryouma, but now her masked face turned slowly around to Raidou. Behind the shadowy eyeholes, he saw her give a slow blink.
“If that’s what we’re up against, we got off light, “ Genma said, breaking the silence. “These things had chakra, but it wasn’t anything like the Fox. Hound, how’s Rat’s shoulder?”
“Holding,” said Kakashi. “The bleeding’s slowing.”
“Keep pressure on it,” Genma instructed. “Rat, you feeling light-headed at all?”
“Functional,” Katsuko said, which could mean anything from perfectly fine to I’ve got at least one working limb left. “No dizziness or nausea. More worried about whether there’s bigger versions of those things.” She glared at the corpses, one oozing out, the other gently smoking from Genma’s fire jutsu. The slow-pattering rain hissed on the scorched flesh.
Raidou pushed himself carefully to his feet, ignoring Genma’s irritated sound, and grabbed his sword. He had to plant a foot on the scorpion-dog’s corpse to wrench the blade free. Yellowish-orange fluid trailed after it, metal-smelling. “We need to move clear. Ram, bury these bodies deep. Hound, get Rat up—” Katsuko was already shoving upright, but Kakashi’s hand on her elbow steadied her. “Tanuki, you can patch me when we’re not sitting right on a bull’s-eye.”
“These aren’t shallow wounds. At least let me get a pressure dressing on your shoulder before you move around so much,” Genma said.
Raidou had to take his word for it. All he could feel was the dull, distant ache of something slightly wrong, and the warmth of seeping blood. “Bandage fast.”
Ryouma grunted, cracked his knuckles with a splinter-shot sound, and started an earth jutsu that siphoned moist dirt away from beneath the bodies. They sank slowly. With Kakashi’s help, Katsuko found the broken pieces of her kodachi and dropped them back into the sheath, plugging them in place with the remainder of the hilt. She looped a strand of wire around the hand-guard and tied it to the sheath, making a weapon that looked whole. Raidou hoped she’d be able to get the blade reforged.
“Okay,” said Genma, when he’d finished playing with Raidou’s shoulder. “Move carefully. And tell me if you feel dizzy.”
“Not my first scratch,” Raidou said, and lifted his voice. “Ram, you’re on perimeter guard. Hound—”
“I’m okay, taichou,” Katsuko interrupted. She’d taken over clamping gauze to her shoulder.
Kakashi shrugged. “Perimeter or scout?”
“Scout,” Raidou said, after a second’s debate. “Find out where the hell those things came from, and if there are others. Don’t get caught.”
The dry tilt of Kakashi’s mask suggested Raidou was being just a tiny bit stupid. He saluted and vanished.
“Does it annoy anyone else when he does that?” Raidou asked.
“I’d be lying if I said no,” said Genma dryly.
“I think it’s just a character flaw,” Katsuko said. “Like his sarcasm.”
“At least he saluted this time,” Ryouma pointed out. He pushed the edge of his mask up with the back of his wrist, snatching a few quick breaths of unmuffled air—he had to be strangling on the rot-scent dousing his hands; Raidou could smell it from here—then he ran through the seals again, filling his palms with chakra the color of old blood, and vanished into the trees.
In theory, Raidou knew that Ryouma could hold that jutsu at a low-level simmer for hours, primed like an exploding tag, but it still looked tiring.
“There’s a spot that way,” Genma said, nodding his head to the right, well away from where both trails led, and the directions the demon-dog-things had attacked them from. “Rat, stay close.”
Katsuko nodded and fell into step on Raidou’s left. The gauze covering her shoulder was soaked in red, and sticky crimson trails stained her chestplate, overlaying the dried blood from the Fujiyama girls. But there wasn’t a flood and she hadn’t fallen, so—
“Big production for a little scrape, Rat,” Raidou said.
Katsuko shrugged her good shoulder, unruffled. “When I do things, captain, I do them all the way.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Raidou said.
Genma’s chosen spot was a giant fallen tree, where the towering uprooted base made a shelter from the rain they could tuck against and defend. Anything attacking would have to come from the front, the right side, or above—a route that became markedly more difficult when Ryouma’s chakra signature flickered close and settled on the trunk above them, like a watchful hawk.
Raidou had barely knelt down again before Genma was pulling his vest off, cutting him out of his black underpinnings, and doing something highly painful with alcohol.
“Ow,” Raidou tried, but it came out more like owaaargh.
“Sorry,” Genma said, unrepentant. “You need a painkiller?”
“I can help, lieutenant,” Katsuko said, before Raidou could answer, which probably translated to I’d really like to torture my captain with alcohol wipes, too.
“No,” Raidou told Genma. And to Katsuko: “No.”
“You can help by keeping pressure on your own wound,” Genma told her.
Katsuko sighed, but complied.
“You know,” Genma said to Raidou, “I hear dodging is a good strategy. Can you feel your fingertips?”
“Yep,” Raidou said, after clenching both hands to be sure. “You realize they attacked without warning, right? Like, oh, let’s say, ninja.”
“I do,” Genma said. “They had chakra. A lot of chakra.”
Familiar coolness washed over Raidou’s back as the first touch of healing jutsu began; he felt flesh and muscle twitch, pulling back into place. It was—still really gross, actually.
“Bet there’s a main nest,” Katsuko said thoughtfully.
“Scorpions don’t live in groups,” Raidou said, breathing out between his teeth.
“But dogs do,” Genma said. “And those two were clearly hunting together.”
“Point,” said Raidou.
His thoughts derailed slightly when Genma did something that burned and ached and rippled all at once, but then it eased and the healing chakra slipped out of his back, leaving a workable looseness behind. Raidou flexed his shoulders tentatively, but stopped when Genma hissed at him.
“Would you let me bandage it before you start trying to reopen the wounds?”
Touchy, Raidou didn’t say. Genma bound his arms, wrapped a complicated crisscross around his chest and back that covered the shoulder gashes and would, in theory, still let him move, and finished with the backs of his thighs, which was slightly more intimate than Raidou had planned to get with his lieutenant on a first mission, but needs must.
“Done?” Raidou asked.
“Done,” Genma said. “Rat, let me get a look at you.”
Katsuko came forward and bared her shoulder, standing with careful nonchalance while Genma poked, cleaned, and bathed her lacerated skin in a healer’s green glow. It was field medicine, not the bone-deep healing a full-blown medic could do, but they wouldn’t bleed out between now and home.
While they worked at that, Raidou snapped a scroll open and pulled out one of his back-up uniforms. He stripped, re-dressed, sealed the bloodied rags back into the scroll, and stowed it away again—you never knew what the Quartermaster could save. Then, carefully, he stretched.
Stiff, and slightly awkward in the tight bandages, but not bad. His blood was still up; he wouldn’t feel the real hurt until later.
He could work with that.
“Ram, any sign?” he said, keying his mic.
Ryouma’s voice came pitched low through the earbud, fringed with static. “None.” He paused, then: “Rain’s getting harder.”
It was building to a full shower outside of their shelter, bruising leaves and stirring the dirt to mud. Advantage: it’d cover their scent and trail. Disadvantage: everything else.
Genma tied the last knot on the flesh-colored bandage wrapped around Katsuko’s shoulder, swabbed away the wet black handprint Ryouma had left on her opposite shoulder strap, and began packing up his supplies. “Blood pills for both of you,” he said, flicking two dark red pills into their hands. “And half a liter of water each.”
“Water won’t be a problem,” Raidou said, lifting his mask and cracking the pill between his teeth. Copper and bitter salt spilled across his tongue. He drowned the taste with his canteen.
Katsuko copied him.
“Hound incoming,” Ryouma warned, a bare half beat before Kakashi landed soundlessly in the middle of the group, making Raidou jerk with surprise and almost crack his head on a tree-root.
Kakashi paused. “Sorry?”
“No, you’re not,” said Katsuko, with a cracked laugh.
Kakashi shrugged one lean wet shoulder. “Found more trails. They go into the mountains.”
“How many?” Genma asked.
“I was up to fifteen before the rain got bad. There are probably more.” Kakashi pushed his mask aside, raking soaked hair back. “And there might be a slight problem.”
“More of a problem than twenty plus demons,” Raidou said mildly.
“Some of the tracks are big,” Kakashi said. “And there are signs for mines up ahead.”
In the delicate silence that followed, the hiss of falling rain grew louder.
“My love for this day just keeps increasing,” Raidou said.
Genma ducked under as much shelter as the fallen tree’s tangled roots would provide and unfurled his map of the area, while Raidou keyed his mic and called Ryouma down to join them. A subtle flare of chakra announced the creation of a clone—too subtle to detect from more than a few meters away, Genma hoped—and Ryouma swung down, landing lightly on his feet next to Katsuko. The rot-chakra was gone—evidently he’d dropped the jutsu when he found nothing to use it on—but the faint aroma of decay lingered.
“I see two working mines several kilometers to the north-east,” Genma said, showing them the map, “and one defunct one half a klick away, directly north from our position. We’re here.” He stabbed a finger at a portion of the map where contour lines indicated a small natural valley. “If these things are in the mines, they’re probably in the abandoned one, or there would have been reports from the miners.”
Freaking out about the fact they were facing demons could wait.
“It’d be suicide to face these things down in their own nest,” Katsuko said. She rubbed her injured shoulder, rotating it a few times to flex the bandages. “Let’s blow it up instead.”
“Gets my vote,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma shoved his mask off to one side, revealing a concerned scowl. “Fire bothered the one that Shira— sorry, Tanuki hit,” he said, “but it didn’t kill it. You’re gonna need a big explosion.”
“We can seal them in, maybe,” Genma said, studying the map again. “Assuming they’re in this mine, it looks like there’s a main shaft, a relief shaft, and a side tunnel. If we hit all three of the entrances with exploding tags and strong earth jutsu, we could trap them.”
Kakashi crouched next to Genma, careful not to drip on the map. “If they’re mine-creatures, they can dig,” he said with a frown. “That wouldn’t hold them forever.” His glance strayed back to the place they’d been attacked. “Maybe long enough to get a sealing team down here, though.”
“Maybe you’ll get your wish and see the Hokage out here after all, taichou,” Ryouma said.
Raidou flicked a glance at Kakashi. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“There’s one other problem,” Genma said.
“The people,” Ryouma finished for him.
“The people,” Genma agreed. “If these things are responsible for the abductions, then where are the bodies?”
“They’re not just eating them, or they would have taken Yuna-san and the girls,” Kakashi said. “They’re picking and choosing. When they attacked us, they went straight for the captain and Ueno.”
“Chakra,” Katsuko said. “Our chakra signatures. Mine and the captain’s are the strongest.”
“That’s true,” Genma said. “If they’re attracted to strong chakra, could be they were after Yuna-san and not her husband, but when she fought back, they took him instead.” He frowned and pushed his mask off as well. “Even if they’re going after individuals with stronger chakra, though, it doesn’t explain what they’re doing with the people they’ve taken. Or if there’s any chance they’re still alive.”
“Sure felt like it was trying to kill me,” Raidou said, rubbing his shoulder. “Or at least bring me down hard.”
“Yeah, you were lucky,” Genma said. “Your armor saved your spine.”
Raidou’s lips thinned at the thought.
“We should get closer to the mines,” Kakashi said. “If the people taken have strong natural chakra, we might be able to pick it up.”
“And those bug-dogs will pick up on ours,” Ryouma said. He scrubbed a gloveless and not-quite-clean hand through his hair. “Katsuko, how good are you at suppressing?”
“I can completely conceal my chakra, if it’s necessary,” Katsuko said.
Genma nodded. “We’ll all have to, at least until we know they’ve sensed us. But a clone can’t. I guess using clones is out.”
“Hm,” Katsuko said, sounding disappointed.
“Once they’ve sensed us—if they do—you can make all the bunshin you want. We’ll probably need them,” Genma said. “Assuming that works for you,” he added, looking at Raidou.
“Might be useful for a diversion if we need it,” Raidou agreed.
Ryouma rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “So, swords only work on ‘em if you manage to stab a vulnerable part. Fire hurts ‘em but doesn’t kill. Kakashi’s jutsu’ll go through. So will mine, but it needs contact and takes a while. I’ve got a jutsu that’ll kill ‘em from a distance, but it won’t do more than one at once and I can’t manage more than six shots, even with soldier pills.” He looked around the ring of faces. “We got anything else up our sleeves?”
“Poison gas, maybe,” Genma said. “I don’t have a lot of it, but I can rig it to an exploding tag. And there are always other jutsu. I’ve got a couple of metal jutsu that might work, but one of them requires direct contact.” He looked at Raidou. “What do you want to do, taichou? Recon for now, verify the map of the mine entrances is accurate, and hope they’re in there?”
There was a phrase for that particular lieutenant trick of asking a question and heavily hinting the right answer. It was called ‘managing up’. Raidou had never seen it from this side before, and he wasn’t sure he liked it.
Still, a decent captain knew when to get the hell out of the way and let his team loose.
He nodded once. “We’ll start with that: recon, see if we can find survivors, and go from there. Hound, how many Raikiri can you do in a day?”
“Four,” said Kakashi. “But if the bugs cluster, I can hit more than one with the same attack.”
“And with soldier pills?”
“Maybe six, but I wouldn’t be standing afterwards.”
“Let’s try and keep collapsing to a minimum,” Raidou said. “Same for you, Ram. Save your chakra where you can.”
Ryouma snorted. “What, you’re not looking forward to the task of hauling my ass back?”
Raidou opened his mouth to say—something, but Ryouma had already caught himself; his crooked smile slipped away, replaced by the approximate game face of a professional shinobi. He yanked a kunai out and used the point to begin scraping the foul mess of black and yellow gunk from beneath his nails. “Sure. Guess we’re in it for the long haul.”
Katsuko glanced at him, then at Raidou, and shrugged, returning to the map. “Since the scorpion-dogs feed on chakra, I could act as bait if things go south. We do need a backup plan if they detect us, right?”
“Level the mountain,” Raidou said, dusting his bloody hands off and climbing to his feet. “There’s enough firepower here to do that, even without explosives. Tanuki and I can carry home whoever faints.”
Four heads turned to look at Kakashi, who colored. “It was one time,” he said.
“Twice, if you count Trials,” Genma said mildly. He looked at Raidou and Katsuko. “How are you feeling now? Blood pills kicking in?”
“Yep, no problems,” said Raidou. “Rat?”
“Back to badass, captain,” Katsuko said, straight-faced, and offered him a tiny, deadly fist to tap.
He bumped knuckles with her and put his mask back on. “Then let’s go.”
It was a good two miles to the end of the trail Kakashi had abandoned in favor of returning to his team. From what Raidou could tell, the rain had sluiced everything clean. But Kakashi crouched and studied the ground, and Genma’s mask tilted thoughtfully. Both of them looked north.
“Abandoned mine?” Raidou said.
“It’s heading the right way,” Genma said.
Kakashi stood, blurred slightly in the silver halo of rain, and vanished. He was back a few seconds later. “Chakra signatures ahead—feels like bugs.”
“How many?” Genma asked.
“I counted twenty-two,” Kakashi said. “Could be more deeper.”
Ryouma glanced back. “How about behind?”
“Does your ass have teeth marks?” Kakashi inquired.
Dark brown eyes gave Kakashi a flat look through the rain-soaked mask. “I can strip down now and let you check,” Ryouma said. “Or you could answer my question.”
“Boundaries, boys,” Katsuko said cheerfully, and drew her unbroken katana.
“There’s nothing behind,” Kakashi said.
Genma pulled out his map for the briefest of moments, shielding it from the rain. “If we skirt away from this path and cut northwest, we should get to the accessory shaft.”
Kakashi’s masked face turned silently, looking at Raidou.
Raidou flicked the ANBU hand-sign for scout ahead, and was not at all surprised when Kakashi nodded and vanished. Someone had been studying. Also gratifying was the response from Ryouma, who signed Katsuko’s bastardized version of and me?
Close guard, Raidou signed.
Ryouma nodded and slipped to one side, taking Raidou’s left. Katsuko was his mirror image on Raidou’s right. Genma took point, following on Kakashi’s heels. Which left the old familiarity of rear guard for Raidou.
He could barely see his team through the grey curtain of rain, which was only getting heavier. He couldn’t feel their chakra at all; even Katsuko’s was hammered down and clenched tight, drawn out of the sensing world. The only glimmer that gave them away was the ANBU spark, three close and one distant.
The radio hissed quietly. “Found the entrance,” Kakashi said. “There’s a two-bug guard. And—I think I can feel people.”
Raidou thumbed his mic. “How far down?”
“Hold there, we’ll come to you.”
A low breath hissed between Katsuko’s teeth, muffled by the mask; anticipation of a good fight. Ryouma’s hands flexed, and Raidou thought he saw the younger man pull a silver-steel tube of soldier pills from one hip pouch and tuck it into the front of his armor. Genma didn’t react; he just ran a little faster.
They found Kakashi balanced high in a ragged tree overlooking a deep, rock-sheltered crack carved into the side of the mountain’s slouching foothills. The mine entrance was too shadowed to see, but a weatherworn sign hung at a crazy angle from a broken tree, proclaiming “DANGER: ABANDONED MINE”, so Raidou figured they were close.
The eight-foot-long molted husk draped in the mud looked promising, too.
Quietly, they scaled the tree, settling in among the thick branches like a flock of bedraggled magpies. Raidou crouched next to Kakashi. “Guards?” he murmured.
Kakashi flicked two fingers towards the entrance. “Just inside. They feel big.”
“Big big?” Katsuko demanded, with a thread of bloodthirsty glee in her voice.
“Forest of Death big,” Kakashi said.
“Maybe we can draw them out,” Genma said softly. “And one of us can slip inside for recon.”
“You’d have to draw all of them out,” Kakashi said.
“I could do that,” Katsuko said. “Taichou, can I do that?”
Ryouma was on the branch beneath them. His mask tipped up, worry sleeting through his voice. “Do you want help?”
The two of them together would make a viable team. They were both fast, his jutsu was deadly, her chakra would distract anything breathing. But twenty-five demon-bugs running through the forest wasn’t Raidou’s idea of a good time.
Neither was leaving thirty-four villagers to die in a hole in the ground.
“How many people can you feel, Hound?” Raidou asked, signaling wait to Katsuko and Ryouma.
Kakashi’s voice turned distant. “Ten, maybe. Some are very faint.”
“Tanuki?” Raidou asked.
Genma leaned forward. “Same,” he said, after a moment. “They’re a long way down.”
Raidou tapped his fingers against wet bark, thinking. They had a duty to save lives where they could, but he had a duty not to kill his team for a hopeless mission.
Are you here to find Hiroshi?
“Use clones for this entrance, Rat,” Raidou said, making his mind up. “Pull the demons out, then get around to the relief shaft and do the same. Ram, stay on her back. Kill as many as you can. I’m going to trap the main entrance. Hound, if you see a route inside, take it. Tanuki, I want you on his six. We’re going to try and free the villagers. If anything goes wrong, get out and we’ll bring down the mountain.”
“On it,” Katsuko said, and launched out of the tree. Ryouma followed, a silent presence at her back. They cut through the bleak downpour with single-minded purpose.
A stand of rocks lay hidden by a cluster of young saplings a few hundred feet from the mine. Katsuko perched on the tallest boulder while Ryouma crouched beside her, rain streaming off his bare shoulders and mask. She brushed her fingers over the hilt of her mother’s broken kodachi and allowed herself a small, vicious smile.
Ryouma stared apprehensively through the trees at the mine entrance, then glanced at her. “So, uh. Are you fighting, or are you running?”
Katsuko chortled. “Are you kidding? I’m gonna run like a…” she searched for a proper simile and gave up. “A running thing. You with me?”
Ryouma let out a small huff of amusement. “I can run. But— if you distract ‘em, I can kill ‘em.” He hesitated, then shrugged one shoulder and reached into the front of his chestplate. He pulled out a soldier pill vial and unscrewed the cap, tipping his mask back. His long throat worked for a moment as he dry-swallowed a pill. His gaze drifted back to the mine entrance as he screwed the cap back on. “I’ve got six shots, and I’ll need to gather chakra in between ‘em. I need a straight shot, too, five meters or less. Think you can distract ‘em without getting in the way?”
“Done and done,” Katsuko said. “I carry twice the normal amount of explosion tags. I’ll see if I can crack those carapaces open for you.”
Ryouma looked up, surprise written clear in the line of his shoulders. Eventually, people would learn to stop doubting her altruism. “That’d be helpful. If I can touch flesh, it’ll save a lot of chakra.”
“That’s me,” Katsuko said. “Helpful.” She sank down on her haunches and sketched a semicircle on the stone between them with one finger. “After we pull the bugs out from this entrance, I’m going to stay on the ground while I lead them around to the relief shaft. I’ll focus on the largest ones for you to take out. Sound good?”
He scruffled one long-fingered hand over the back of his head, through his wet hair. “If you’d focus on the smaller, quicker ones, that’d be better, actually. Hit the leg-joints if you can. The big ones won’t dodge as fast, and crippled ones won’t dodge at all.” He nodded at Katsuko’s bandaged shoulder, voice turning a shade rueful. “I’d rather not make their acquaintance the way you did.”
Katsuko chuckled. “Alright. World’s most vicious game of tag with the smaller, bitey demons it is, then. Anything else?”
Ryouma met her gaze. “Yeah. I meant what I said about not getting in the way. If I hit you, I can’t save you.”
She held his stare for a moment and nodded. “Got it. Your jutsu aims for chakra; any chance it could be transferred back to me if you hit a clone by accident?”
“Uh…” Ryouma said, hedging. “I’m… not sure. Chakra goes back to you when the clone pops, right? So— better be careful.”
“Right.” Well, it wasn’t like Katsuko had joined ANBU to run easy missions. “Then let’s party.”
Ryouma cracked his knuckles and straightened. “Remind me to show you a real party when we get back to Konoha. Guess this’ll do for now.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Katsuko said, and hurtled off the rock. She hit the ground in a sprint, Ryouma keeping pace with her. The wind whipped past as they arrowed towards the mine.
Suppressing her chakra always felt like smothering the ocean behind concrete walls. It was a relief when they closed the distance and Katsuko could finally release the iron grip she had on her coils. Her chakra roared outwards through the barrier of her skin with a nearly audible snap. Deep beneath the earth, more than a dozen alien signatures flared in response.
She flew through the seals for her bunshin, heart pounding. Energy coalesced into ten clones, then fifteen, then twenty. Her copies closed around her and Ryouma like a wolf pack on the hunt, hands snapping up in sync to catch the packets of explosive tags Katsuko tossed at them.
Ryouma cast a quick look around at the clones and gave Katsuko a nod. As the mouth of the tunnel loomed up before them, he stopped and raced through his own seal sequence. He slid into his battle stance, leveling his right palm straight ahead with his left hand supporting the opposite elbow. Katsuko felt the surging pressure of his chakra gather itself in his right hand, a red haze around his fingers that made all of her instincts scream danger. He spoke through gritted teeth. “I’ll take the first one.”
Katsuko stared into the darkness of the mine, remembering how very small the Fujiyama girls had been in her arms. She curled her fingers around the hilt of her katana. “Make it hurt,” she said.
An unearthly screech echoed down the tunnel at them. The demons came boiling out of the shadows, feet scuttling over the ground and maws bristling open. Light shone off of lacquer-black carapaces and gleaming eyes.
The first demon to reach them was almost the same size as the scouts they’d encountered in the forest. The barbed scorpion tail arched towards Ryouma, but the fanged mouth and claws went for him first.
Ryouma waited until the demon was about five meters away before firing. Red chakra sizzled through the air and hit the beast dead-on. It managed half a pained shriek before crumpling like used paper, hitting the ground with the unforgettable sound of liquefied organs sloshing.
Katsuko crowed in delight and threw a hand up. Her clones saw the signal and shot past her, meeting the wave of demons with steel and fire.