April 28, Yondaime Year 5
Genma and Kakashi took up positions on the craggy wall above the auxiliary mine shaft, clinging to slippery rock in the driving rain with the barest threads of chakra. They flattened into crevices, black and gray shadows nearly invisible against the rough limestone. From their vantage point, they saw every feint and strike as Katsuko’s two dozen clones dodged and weaved amongst the roused demons, slapping smoldering chakra tags to glistening, black, armored bodies.
Tags detonated, staggering the demons. Clones slashed apart by flailing demon limbs and tails erupted in a frightening illusion of spurting blood, before they collapsed into vapor. And one by one, Ryouma’s jutsu struck home. Katsuko or her clones would disable a demon, and Ryouma would surge forward, hands glowing with putrid light to liquefy it through whatever cracks the discharging tag had left in its shell.
Each time he ran in close it looked like certain death, but Katsuko and her clones were everywhere, providing enough distraction for Ryouma to get in and lay hands directly on the injured demons. Genma counted only three uses of Ryouma’s chakra-heavy version of the rot jutsu that could strike from a distance. Each one of those hits, though, was a spectacular victory, sending one of the larger soldier beasts careening to the ground with a sick slosh of decay.
The stench rising from the battlefield was overwhelming—acrid and acidic, sulfurous, bloody, and under it all, the reek of rotting flesh. Genma fought back a surge of bile in his throat, and at his side, Kakashi’s shoulders shuddered.
Eight of the demons lay dead near the mineshaft entrance. Katsuko’s clones had been reduced to half their original number. And Ryouma was slowing. He turned just in time to deflect a blow that would have split his shoulder open, as one of the bigger demons lunged at him. Katsuko flickered in from the side, hitting the demon’s left foreleg. Her katana sliced cleanly through the first joint, and the beast roared in pain, rearing up. Its tail arced down towards her unprotected back.
Genma threw out his hands, shoving chakra into them for a fire jutsu, but just before he could release it and reveal his position, one of Katsuko’s clones leapt in front of her, sacrificing itself to affix an exploding tag to the demon’s monstrous tail.
When it went off, chunks of flesh and stinging drops of venom sizzled against the wet stones. Katsuko howled a challenge to the demons, something unintelligible and visceral, and she and her clones started to run.
The remaining demons gave chase, with Ryouma herding them towards the side shaft, away from the pit they’d emerged from, and away from Raidou at the main entrance.
“Now,” Kakashi said, leaping down into the blackness.
Genma was half a heartbeat behind him.
The mineshaft angled sharply down, and the dirt floor was slippery with spilled blood and rot. Dying demons near the entrance shuddered and spasmed, groaning as their lives ebbed into pools of stink. Kakashi coughed, a strangled sound muffled by his double masks, and Genma’s throat closed reflexively on the miasma.
Deeper in, the sound of the rain grew faint, and the scent sharpened into something altogether more chemical and alive. Pale patches of bioluminescent fungus clung to the rough walls, casting a soft, eerie, aqua glow over the rocky surface. The marks of miners’ tools were overlain with smoother, more organic gouges where the demons had done their own tunneling.
There was only one direction to go: towards the faint human chakra signatures deep in the mines.
At every turn and junction they flattened against the walls, listening to sounds of movement from further in. Somewhere up ahead this side shaft would join the main one, and the auxiliary tunnel would angle in from above. They could only hope that their teammates had succeeded in drawing off most of the demons, as they worked their way silently deeper into the dark.
A brief static burst over Genma’s earpiece brought a syllable of Raidou’s voice, and then was gone, as they lost radio contact with their comrades on the surface. Kakashi turned his masked face towards Genma and flicked a hand sign in the dim light. The metal patches on the backs of his gloves gleamed faintly, outlining pale fingers. Continue forward. Five ahead.
Five human presences.
The path split, broadening to the right, narrowing to the left: Kakashi turned left. A small, blind chamber opened off from the tunnel. In it, bathed in the same fungal glow, were twelve bodies.
Seven were clearly beyond help. Bare, bloodstained bones rose from piles of gritty residue. Their rib cages looked like they had been exploded from the inside. But it was the living that were horrifying. Each body was swollen and bloated, lying unnaturally still. Only the slow, steady rasp of labored breathing, and the occasional twitch of their distended bellies, gave them away as still alive.
Genma dropped down to check a pulse on the nearest victim. She whimpered softly at his touch. Her eyes flicked open, but she couldn’t speak. Nerveless fingers fluttered faintly against the stone floor.
Kakashi, who was checking another of the living, drew a sharp breath when a wet sound burst from the other side of the chamber. Blood-stench filled the air, as a writhing, segmented thing pushed its way out of a dead man’s abdomen.
Genma didn’t see Kakashi move, but an instant later he was on top of it, slicing its still-soft body to ribbons with his tanto. When the demon hatchling was dead, Kakashi drew his blade back, then carefully slit the dead man’s throat, just to be sure.
Genma could hear nothing but his own breathing. He didn’t trust his voice, but it came, a whisper as loud as a curse. “We’ll have to kill them all.”
Kakashi had kind of figured that.
So much for the captain’s glorious rescue. He flicked blood and yellow slime from the tanto blade and went to the next breathing body, a teenage girl who was stick-thin everywhere except for the grossly pregnant belly. Something squirmed slowly beneath the stretched skin. It was hard to tell, but Kakashi thought she was maybe a year or two younger than he was.
He touched her hand. She opened her eyes.
On the battlefield, during the war, most shinobi carried letters for their loved ones. Sealed notes to be delivered with dog tags, if the shinobi fell. Sometimes, if that failed, or if the note was blown away with a limb or half a chest, a message could be dictated.
But this girl couldn’t talk, and there wasn’t time.
“I’m sorry,” Kakashi said. He memorized her face, and cut her throat.
The thing in her belly spasmed. He flipped the tanto and drove it in beneath her breastbone, cutting straight down. A bastardized hara-kiri, except it wasn’t her failure she was paying for. Yellow and black spurted from the wound, and the demon larva stopped moving.
Genma’s woman died the same way, without a word. Genma closed her eyes gently and shook blood off his kunai, moving to the next person. A middle-aged man who barely stirred.
Kakashi’s next was an older woman with paper-thin skin and hollow eyes. When he touched her, her whole body trembled, and tears spilled down her sunken cheeks. She was probably someone’s grandmother. He put a careful hand on her shoulder, and made it fast. Her larva didn’t get a chance to squirm.
Genma had his hand cupped gently around the last person’s cheek, whispering something soft and probably comforting into their ear. The person was tall, slim-limbed, and generally unremarkable, with a gender-blurring face like Katsuko’s. A handsome woman, a delicate man—Kakashi couldn’t tell. They died with the faint whistle of a severed windpipe, and the air in the tiny chamber became even less breathable when Genma gutted them.
And that was five.
Kakashi drew a slow breath through his mouth, trying to spare his nose, and expanded his senses. Two fast-moving ANBU sparks up above, leading a dozen twisted chakra signatures on a long chase. A third spark directly west, moving cautiously; Raidou at the main entrance. And further down, deeper into the mountain, five more human signatures. And more demons.
“There’s at least one more hatching chamber,” Kakashi said quietly. “You feel that?”
Genma’s mask tipped in a nod, blood droplets sliding off the rain-wet ceramic. “These looked like they’d been here a long time. We might find the ones taken yesterday in better shape. Maybe we can still save one or two.”
“Maybe,” Kakashi said.
There was almost nothing left of the bodies that had already been hatched from. It looked like a larva’s first newborn act was to turn around and eat the remains of its host; everything from knees to shoulders was just gone, except for bones. He tried to pull a shred of identification from what was left of the faces; something to carry home to the relatives that wondered.
Thirty-three people taken.
That was a lot of new demons to bulk whatever numbers were already there. How fast did the babies grow?
Well, there were five less now.
He left his tanto unsheathed and slipped out of the room, feeling Genma ghost up behind him. Even this close, the other man’s chakra signature was so clamped down Kakashi couldn’t sense it, but the ANBU spark was a constant, steady beacon.
Moving silently, they went deeper into the mountain.
They found a second nesting chamber, but it wasn’t the one they were looking for. The chakra signatures—both human and demon—were still remote, coming from what felt like at least another thirty to thirty-five degrees lower in the tunnels, when Kakashi froze, flashing a halt sign. He eased cautiously forward, edging along the damp rock wall with Genma at his back, then dropped to one knee.
Genma followed suit. “What is it?” he hissed.
“Dead,” Kakashi said, sniffing.
The whole mine smelled of decay and sulfur, and the blood that still spattered them, but Genma was beginning to learn that Kakashi’s nose operated on a more sensitive scale. The fungus patches were sparser here, leaving the caverns nearly black ahead of them. Genma shifted his tamped down chakra, sending a flicker to his eyes. The gloom brightened into a greyscale horror scene.
Nine bodies lay in various stages of decay—all with their torsos exploded and eaten away. Some still had flesh sloughing from their faces; others had nothing but hollow-eyed skulls grinning ghoulishly at the darkness.
Scuttling trails led away from the bodies, deeper into the mine. Evidently the larvae, when they had finished consuming their hosts, were able to move.
Something caught Genma’s eye to the left. “Hound, look.”
Wedged under an overhanging shelf of rock, a small, deformed demon lay unmoving. A sticky ooze flowed from one ruined eye in its dog-like face, and further down its body, its shell was split open, spilling a mass of entrails onto the dirt.
Had it died fighting its own kind? Or been used as food by the same larvae that consumed the humans?
Kakashi crouched next to the demon body, examining it curiously. It was impossible to know for certain, but if Genma had to guess, he’d have bet the killing blow had come from one of the larger demon’s razor-sharp legs.
Straightening, Kakashi went to each of the human bodies in turn, trying to find something identifying perhaps, but without dental analysis there was no hope of knowing more than basic sex based on pelvic bones. He looked at Genma and shook his head.
Genma nodded. Keep moving, he signed. Kakashi took point again as they pressed on.
They came to the junction with the main shaft. Cold, wet air moved through the corridor announcing the widening of the passage. There were signs of both the former miners here—hand carts, pick axes, and broken miners’ lamps—and the demons. An untidy pile of shed larval shells heaped up along one wall, pale and segmented like the thing that had pushed out of the man’s belly. There were eye coverings and the castings of mandibles on the cases, but the distinctive scorpion-like tail was evidently a feature only of the adults.
The shimmering sparks of three ANBU tattoos winked far above: Ryouma, Katsuko, and Raidou—weaving in and out of the angry tangle of chakra from the demons they were fighting. Another burst of static came over the headset as they managed to get in brief alignment with the outside world despite the thick rock overhead, but it was gone again before Genma could discern even a voice.
They went deeper, homing in on the humans in the mine. And the demons.
“Does that feel different to you?” Genma whispered, gesturing in the direction they were moving. “Heavier?”
“The ominous underground well of death and unnatural creatures?” Kakashi murmured back. “No, it feels lovely.”
Genma just looked at him. “That wasn’t what I was asking.”
There was a brief swell in the pressure of Kakashi’s chakra as he eased it open a fraction, extending his senses for a moment. “There’s something,” he agreed. “I can’t tell if it’s more demons, hatchlings, or something else.” He turned his masked face towards Genma. “If these things were sealed, it could be what’s left of the trap.”
Genma nodded and kept moving. There was no need to tell Kakashi to be careful.
They came to a fork in the tunnel where the path ran sharply downhill. An echoing sound of dripping water came from somewhere far below and to the right. It sounded like a deep shaft had opened up in the darkness.
They went left, towards the still-strong beacon of human chakra signatures.
The acrid smell of the demons grew stronger. Sounds of rustling movement echoed from several directions, disconcertingly hard to pinpoint.
Kakashi inched around a rocky bend, just out of Genma’s line of sight.
Behind Genma, there was a sharp crack, and a rumble of falling stone. He lurched away from the wall just as it came down. Dust filled the air, thick and choking. An unearthly hiss spilled into the chamber. Genma whirled, hands already limned with the beginnings of a fire jutsu, as snarling jaws snapped shut, raking his shoulder.
He released the jutsu, blinding himself and the creature with a fireball. The demon shrieked and reared back, but a second one surged past it, slashing straight through Genma’s vest with its sword-edged foreleg. Fabric coverings tore, reinforcing mesh gave way, ceramic plates cracked, and he felt the hot bite of a sawtooth blade against his skin.
Kakashi materialized at his back. Lightning crackled, filling the dark with ozone and birdsong.
A demon lunged at Genma, taking a face full of flame like it barely felt it. A massive weight hit him through the shoulder from above.
I’ve been stabbed, he thought distantly, as the sharp pain turned searing, surging through his body like a flash fire. Every muscle spasmed, and then went limp. His hands lost feeling, his feet went icy numb. His chest was wrapped in thick iron bands, and breath wouldn’t come.
Something jerked him into the air, and then he was falling.
Black bodies and too many spine-edged legs swarmed past Genma. Kakashi’s lightning reflected from chitinous armor, and another of the beasts screeched.
He couldn’t get his breath.
He couldn’t move.
Teeth sank into Genma’s shoulder, and dragged him down into the darkness.
A demon’s thorax dented and exploded as Kakashi punched his arm through it, splattering the mossy walls with sizzling chunks. He wrenched his hand back, letting the body fall. Three more demons surged up to take its place. The narrow corridor writhed with teeth, claws, and lethally arched tails. He couldn’t see Genma.
Better vision would help.
A thread of lightning and the Bird hand-sign melted the quartermaster’s black mesh, freeing the Sharingan. Blue lines of fate snapped together, tracing the path to the future. If he moved there, stabbed this way—
Yellow blood sprayed.
Kakashi vaulted over the twitching remains of shredded demon corpses, running up the smooth tunnel wall and across the ceiling. He clashed with two demons who’d had the exact same idea. They could chakra-walk. He ducked a poisonous stinger, shoved the fading remains of the Raikiri through a multi-eyed face—serrated jaws crumpled; a hissing scream burst into blood—and drew his tanto, pouring white chakra through it.
Genma’s chakra signal was wide open, unsuppressed, but growing fainter. The ANBU spark was buried in twisted, metal-tasting chakra patterns, vanishing deeper underground.
They were dragging him the opposite way from the civilians.
“Goddammit, Tanuki,” Kakashi panted, and beheaded a demon that tried to gut him.
Yet more roiled up, crawling over the walls. Most of them were small, half grown but wicked-fast. If he dodged this way, killed that one, followed Genma—
That one would poison him.
Bolted the other way, ripped through those three—
The fourth would drop and bite his spine out.
There were six avenues to Genma, and all of them ended badly. Kakashi backed up a step. Then another. The demons crowded forward, weirdly lit by the white chakra dancing over the tanto blade. One lunged; he cut it down. The next twisted around the blade and sank long teeth into his arm. Claws tore at his legs.
Kakashi ripped free and ran.
Around the corner, the broken tunnel forked, one side angling down. He shoved the tanto back into its low sheath, split his chakra into a clone, and sent it bolting like a banner-man down the other side. A visible chakra signal of come get me. The downward path tipped sharply to the right, spiraling around an awkward curve and abruptly into darkness. The walls were completely smooth, recently carved; the glow-fungus hadn’t had a chance to grow.
He hated mines.
A glimmer-seed of chakra was all he could risk. Kakashi let it spark into his palm, put his other hand on the wall, and moved as fast as he could. Hissings and clickings faded behind him, swallowed by the tunnels. He couldn’t feel anything from the surface. The civilian signatures were brighter, closer. Genma’s spark…
Kakashi focused, stretching his senses as much as he dared.
There, distant. Moving away.
Still alive, which was something. Probably about to be an egg-host. With that much chakra, they could give him twins.
That was not something Kakashi wanted to explain to the captain.
But the civilians were the mission. They were closer. The last hatchling chamber had been unguarded, and they had less time than Genma. If there was anything worth rescuing, Kakashi could send them out with clones, give the demons a chance to settle and disperse, then hunt for Genma.
Unless they just killed Genma.
Either way was a bad choice, and he only had two Raikiri left.
He pressed the collar-mic button with a blood-slick thumb. The team was too far above to get a transmission, but Genma might, even if he was too paralyzed to answer. “I’m going to find you,” Kakashi told the reeking blackness. “Just hold on, don’t die, and try not to get pregnant.”
Static hissed back at him.
Abandoning stealth for speed, Kakashi ran for the glimmering human signatures.
“Twenty-five,” Katsuko said, raw-throated, as the last horse-sized demon lurched on three legs against a tree and died there. She shook steaming yellow ichor off her blade and turned in a slow circle. “You think that’s it?”
“It’d better be.” Ryouma leaned against his own tree and considered collapsing like the dead demon. Dead demons. Twenty-five of them, if Katsuko was counting right—he sure as hell hadn’t been, playing Tag of the Damned. He hurt everywhere, except where spattering venom had numbed the skin. He stank even to himself. And if he wasn’t quite dangerously low on chakra, he was getting close. The flickering dark halo of his Nikutai Tokasu was beginning to sputter, and even the slight drain of maintenance pulled at his bones. He cut the jutsu with the Ram seal, severing the chakra flow, and his left knee tried to buckle.
Not paralyzed, he thought, prodding anxiously at the kneecap with one filthy hand while he clutched at rough bark with the other. There was no tear in the sodden fabric, though one scorpion-demon had got in a good slash on his right thigh. Only thick leg-bindings and sturdy boots had prevented another dog-sized one from severing the tendon at the back of his ankle. The weakness in his knee was just the old injury acting up again. Rain, and strain. He straightened with a grunt and looked for somewhere on his half-wrecked uniform to wipe his hands.
A rain-wet young leaf presented itself, bud-green but already nearly as broad as his mask. “You good?” Katsuko asked, flapping the leaf at him when he didn’t immediately take it. Napkin, he figured at last, and tried to wipe the worst of the black slime from his hands with it.
Katsuko had escaped spattering with slime, but she was liberally streaked with blood—both the demons’ sulfurous yellow and her own sticky red. There was a nasty, oozing cut on the outside of her right arm, between the high glove and the tail of her ANBU tattoo. No blood leaked through the flesh-colored bandages covering her other shoulder, but they were dirty where she’d rolled to avoid a demon’s driving stinger. A slice in the reinforced fabric over her collarbones exposed pale skin and a few beads of blood; the rain had rinsed the rest away. She’d have lost her head, there, if she’d been half a heartbeat slower.
He used the back of his wrist to shove his mask up, and grinned headily at her. “None of my insides are on my outsides. I’m good. An’ I think we’ve single-handedly—well, double-handedly—killed more demons than anybody but the Shodai Hokage. Think they’ll put us in the Bingo Book?”
“Hope not,” Katsuko said, and slugged him on the shoulder. “The world isn’t ready yet for hot messes like us.”
“And we don’t need foreign idiots challenging you both to battles once a month.” Raidou dropped out of the trees behind Katsuko, who didn’t even twitch: just took the canteen he handed her, tipped her mask to the side of her head, and guzzled. Raidou shoved his own mask up. He was a little pale still from blood-loss, but there was no noticeable hitch in his movements. “Collapsed two of the entrances,” he said. “Everything okay here?”
“We got everything that came out,” Ryouma said. He plucked another handful of dripping new leaves from the nearest shrub. Smaller than Katsuko’s massive offering, but they slid between his fingers better. “Hound and Tanuki make it underground?”
“Safe and gone. I can’t feel them anymore.” Raidou rolled one bandaged shoulder and added, dryer, “Occurs to me that we might’ve kept one chakra-sensor above ground.”
“Oh,” Ryouma said blankly. “Yeah, that—would have been a good idea.”
Katsuko laughed. “And that is why we’re not in the Bingo Book.”
Raidou snorted. “I’m going to trap the last entrance. Come on, geniuses.”
He didn’t take to the trees again, either out of consideration for their wounds or some belated care for his own, but he did set a steady pace. Ryouma let himself limp a little, but favoring his left knee just made his right thigh hurt worse. Hopefully Genma and Kakashi would have returned with all the missing villagers by the time they made it back to the mine, and Genma would still have enough chakra left for a little healing, and then they could have a picnic in the woods and sing campfire songs.
Or he could just fall over and go to sleep right now, maybe pillowed on one of the quietly rotting carcasses they passed…
This was actually going to be a problem, if anything else came boiling out of the mine before—or after—Kakashi and Genma brought the villagers up. He fingered the vial of soldier pills tucked into his chestplate. Two left, out of the three he’d started with. He didn’t need the calories, but the caffeine buzz would help, and the chemical chakra surge from one more pill should give him another two shots of the Naizou Tokasu at least. Nothing like a few nights’ good sleep and the steady thrum of his own chakra at full strength, but at least he probably wouldn’t start bleeding from the nose yet.
On the other hand, he was bleeding already. And he’d sort of promised Raidou he’d be smart.
He cleared his throat. “Either of you feelin’ up to a chakra transfer?”
Katsuko’s step faltered. She caught herself, but her shoulders were rigid beneath armor and bandages. “Not a good idea for me,” she said. “Captain?”
Raidou’s hand dropped gently on her less-injured shoulder. “I can do it. Why don’t you rig the entrances? You’re better at making things blow up than me, anyway.” He paused. “Don’t blow it until the other two are out.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Katsuko said seriously. “The lieutenant would be angry with me.”
“Heaven forefend,” Raidou said, and gave her a push. She jogged off through the rain, snickering. Raidou’s gaze followed her until she disappeared in the trees. Then he glanced back. “Okay, lightweight, let’s have you.”
Ryouma bit back automatic protests about how he’d used more chakra than anyone, even Katsuko with her demon-crippling bursts of wind and flame. He didn’t think his native chakra strength was all that much lower than Raidou’s, but maybe once you were used to Katsuko everyone was a lightweight. “How d’you want to do it?” he asked instead, pulling his mask off entirely and clipping it to his belt. “Chakra centers?”
Chakra centers were easiest, both pooling the greatest concentrations of chakra and opening more readily to receive or transmit. But the chakra centers were all core body points—crown of head, forehead, throat, heart, solar plexus, navel, groin—and while Raidou was fairly free with the backslaps and headlocks during training, he’d managed to avoid touching Ryouma at all off the practice field.
Hands could work, at a pinch, but Ryouma’s were still filthy. He tried wiping his palms on his wet trousers. It didn’t help.
“When we get home, you need to figure out a soap-bubble jutsu,” Raidou said. “Or steal one off Hound.” He pulled his mask off, too, and clipped it at his hip. “C’mere and duck, tall guy. We’ll do forehead to forehead.”
Ryouma’s wet hair made a clammy barrier between them. He pulled back self-consciously, lifting his hand to shove the rain-sodden forelock off his forehead, but Raidou caught his arm first. He raked Ryouma’s hair back with his free hand, then settled both palms on either side of Ryouma’s face and tugged him down a little to press damp skin to skin.
Raidou was warm. His chakra was warmer still, unfurling like a lotus, and opening to it was like drinking a fire that wouldn’t burn. And drinking fast. Raidou didn’t ease into the transfer with a widening trickle; it was open gates, floodwaters high, and Ryouma was unsteady and gasping when Raidou pulled back.
His vision blurred, speckled with stars. Raidou’s hands fell away, but one gripped his elbow reassuringly until he’d blinked the stars back and the borrowed chakra had begun to settle in his coils. It wasn’t the chemical burn of soldier pill chakra, weaker than it should have been, quickly used up, but it wasn’t quite his own yet either. Like borrowing another man’s well-used kunai, feeling the grooves other fingers had worn into the leather hilt-wrappings, sharpening away nicks and scratches he hadn’t put there.
Water chakra, he thought, and… Earth, maybe? The water was melding easier with his own water/fire than the earth, which felt a little like lumps in rice congee. He closed his eyes for a long breath, molding and releasing chakra, and it settled.
“Better?” Raidou asked.
Ryouma jerked a nod, and unclipped his mask from his belt. “Fine. Just… Been a while since I had to do that. Thanks.”
His breath rasped hard, echoing against the porcelain interior of his mask, and his skin felt hot and tight, almost feverish. That would settle, too. The excruciating awareness of Raidou’s body, strong and solid and so close to his, might take a little longer.
Raidou clapped him cheerfully on the shoulder. “I’ve got more if you need it. Now, let’s find our girl.”
Katsuko hurt everywhere. She’d mostly been able to ignore her bandaged shoulder, but now it was just one more annoying note in the symphony of aches caused by her wounds. At least the mask hid any pained grimaces she made. The blood streaked over her armor and skin hadn’t dried yet; she probably should be worried about demon ichor coming into contact with her open cuts, but that was a concern for after she’d blown up the mountain.
Well, not the whole mountain. Just the relevant parts of the mountain.
She slapped the last explosion tag from her emergency stash on the rocks above the tunnel entrance and stood up, pressing her palms to the small of her back as she stretched. The flicker of chakra caught her attention, and she turned to see Raidou and Ryouma coming out of the trees. She leapt down to the ground and met them halfway.
“Tags primed and ready to go,” Katsuko told Raidou.
Raidou nodded, crescent moon mask wet with rain. “Good job. Any sign of more critters?”
Katsuko shook her head. “None near the entrances.”
Ryouma stared down into the dark mouth of the cave. “How about lower down?” he asked, doubtfully. “I can’t sense anything. Not even Hound and the lieutenant. How deep does this mine go?”
“Tanuki has the map,” Raidou said, after a contemplative silence.
Katsuko coughed. “They’re still too deep into the mine for radio contact, right?”
Raidou tapped his throat-mic and hailed their two missing members, receiving only static in return. “Yep.” He looked into the darkness again. “Guess we wait.”
Ryouma sighed heavily. “Hate waiting,” he muttered. “Might as well do some wound-care now. Keep the lieutenant from yelling at us later.”
“Can’t have that,” Katsuko said dryly, but pitched in to help when Ryouma started bandaging his injured thigh. He returned the favor with the slice on her arm, tying off the bandages at her shoulder.
After another contemplative second staring at the mine entrance, Ryouma brightened up and started digging in his belt pouch. “Rat bars?”
Katsuko had her own rat bars, but food tasted better when you took it from someone else. “I’ll have one,” she said.
“Chocolate, right?” Ryouma dug a bar out of his stash and flipped it to her. “Captain, you’ve got Coconut or Peanut Butter Fudge.”
“Coconut,” Raidou said. “You can keep the sugar coma.”
Ryouma shoved his mask back and grinned, teeth white against his skin. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
Katsuko eyed them both and took a thoughtful bite out of her rat bar. A glance over her shoulder revealed that the mine entrance was still dark and empty. It had been hard enough fighting the demons out in the open, with room to dodge and clear lines of retreat. The demons were deadly at close range, and the narrow, twisted tunnels of the mine were their home territory.
How long had it been since Hatake and Shiranui descended?
She crammed the rest of the rat bar into her mouth and chewed. “How long have Hound and Tanuki been down there?”
“Just under an hour,” Raidou said immediately. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, restless. “We’ll give ‘em ten more minutes.”
Ten more minutes to emerge from the mountains with more than a dozen villagers, or what was left of the villagers. She still couldn’t sense Hatake’s and Shiranui’s signatures. Katsuko stared into the darkness of the mine and had to remind herself to blink.
Breath wouldn’t come. The demon’s venom burned through Genma’s body, convulsing every muscle as it paralyzed him. His chest ached with a desperate, unsatisfiable hunger for air. His heart raced, flooded with useless adrenaline. The demon’s teeth grated against his collarbone. Kakashi’s voice came tinnily over the earpiece: I’m going to find you. Just hold on.
Genma could feel the poison spread with every heartbeat. Feel the spasming in his diaphragm, the twitching of his limbs. For a dilated moment, consciousness ebbed, but as it did, a curious, detached calm took the place of panic. He was dying. The civilians the demons had paralyzed hadn’t died. They’d been breathing, though shallowly and laboriously. Why?
Memories from a chuunin lecture on natural poisons burbled up from nowhere: young vipers were more dangerous than adults when they bit, because they injected all their venom at once. To treat a snake bite without an antidote, force the body to metabolize the poison faster.
Genma shunted chakra to his heart and liver. He pushed his body temperature to climb until sweat was streaming from every pore. His heart pounded as if he’d been sprinting for miles. His chakra felt wildly out of control, surging in his struggling body. But slowly, faintly, he felt himself draw a shallow, ragged breath.
Then another, curling hotly against his mask.
It was working.
Maybe if he could move his hands, could form a seal…
There was still far too much venom in his system to allow it. But as long as he kept up the agonizing chakra burn, kept working to break down the venom, he could breathe.
The demon dragged him down a narrow, curving tunnel so tight Genma felt the walls catch at his sides. That same detached part of himself observed the direction they were moving, the demon scent of sulfur and decay, the cold seeping in through his wet clothes, making his artificially fevered body shiver. It wouldn’t be easy for Kakashi to find him here.
They emerged from the tunnel into what felt like a big chamber. The demon dragged Genma across a rough floor and dropped him, backing off. Something scuttled in the dark. Something huge, with a chakra presence that blossomed out of nowhere like a seething flood. The smell of demon was overwhelming—sharper and stronger and much more chemical than it had been before. Genma’s eyes teared reflexively. Animal panic flared at the back of his brain; every instinct screamed for him to run.
The big thing moved nearer, shaking the ground with its weight.
Genma poured chakra to his eyes, forcing the pupils to their widest, opening up channels of sight only a ninja could access. If there was any light at all, he’d be able to see. A few patches of fungus glowed weakly on the chamber ceiling, outlining dripping stalactites. Was this a natural cave connected to the mine?
A massive blackness blotted out the faint fungal lights.
Don’t get pregnant.
Genma wrenched himself into motion, arching his back and throwing himself away from the beast. A clawed leg slammed against his side. He thrashed away from it, barely in control of his movements. The monster lunged at him again, and he flailed away, rolling and heaving himself with shoulders and hips, dragging dead limbs.
Merciful Kannon, intercede for me.
He crashed against a wall, falling into a crumbling seam where the miners had blasted out some vein of precious ore. The monster’s razor-edged claws raked at his shoulders and legs, but it couldn’t reach him. There was a rocky bench here, like the one the dead demon in the first hatching chamber had been wedged under. Genma wriggled further under it, panting and breathless, seeing stars. Hot, sticky warmth slicked his skin under his breached armor. Distantly, he registered something like pain.
The monster clawed at the stone, hissing like a devil from the lowest pit of Hell.
Merciful Kannon, let me die before it digs me out.
Kakashi’s decoy clone died just before he found the second demon hatchery. He staggered, thrown by the abrupt memory of a poisonous stinger through the breastbone, and righted himself, shaking it off. The rancid smell of rotting meat and human waste guided him into a tiny, offset chamber, because disgusting flagposts were just the theme of the day.
This one was guarded.
Of course it was.
The mid-sized demon’s six eyes didn’t have eyelids that could widen, but it still looked plenty surprised when Kakashi cut it in half with a blazing tanto. Its steel-strong armor chipped the blade. He swore and kicked one smoking half of the corpse aside, splattering himself and the chamber with hot blood—and paused when someone whimpered.
He lifted his hand, brightening the glimmer of chakra.
Human bodies lay stacked against the walls like driftwood, chests and bellies ruptured open. The oldest were just brown bones arching out of insect-riddled slime, decayed beyond recognition. Some were more recent, bloated and swollen, skin splitting where it hadn’t been eaten away. They still had faces, mostly. That one had eyelashes.
And five intact bodies were still breathing.
Kakashi dropped down by an older man with a salted-pepper mustache, and knew immediately it was hopeless. The demon larva was huge, squirming beneath tight skin banded with stretch marks. The man had a day left at most, maybe hours. At his side, there was a body so fresh it was still bleeding sluggishly, with the same field-worker’s tan; they’d probably been taken together.
The living man’s eyes were closed, deeply sunken. He barely stirred when Kakashi laid the tanto across his throat and cut deep. A second downstroke killed the demon.
The next two, a middle-aged woman and a younger man, were just as far gone. Kakashi killed them as quickly and painlessly as possible, two strokes apiece, and moved on. There wasn’t time to linger.
The last two were a different story.
Kakashi hesitated over them, hunkered down on one knee. The first was a girl, maybe ten or eleven, with filthy brown pigtails and only a handspan curve tightening her belly beneath a torn checkered dress. The second was a full-grown man, black-haired and bearded, somewhere in his twenties, with a single fist-sized lump just above his navel. An egg, not yet hatched. A badly scabbed finger-length cut showed where something had sliced into him to lay it.
“Fujiyama-san?” Kakashi asked.
The man’s eyes flicked wide.
Perfect. A traumatized child and a widower with no family left to return him to. It would be kinder to kill them both.
But that wasn’t his choice to make.
“I’m from Konoha,” Kakashi said, shaping his hands into a single seal. “I’m here to get you out.”
He didn’t have the spare chakra to make two solid shadow clones; one would have to do. It fell into existence with a clear mission already stamped into the matrix that passed for a mind, and crouched down to gather the little girl up. She whimpered softly, eyelids flickering, but couldn’t move against the larva’s paralytic. Kakashi picked up the man and wrestled his limp dead-weight onto the clone’s back, lashing him into place. It wouldn’t be a comfortable ride, but it would do.
Three more illusory clones took a much tinier sliver of chakra, and might give this fractured rescue a chance of success.
“There are more ninja on the surface,” Kakashi said. “They’ll help you.”
Fujiyama drew a ragged breath and managed to slur out words. “M’ … f’mly?”
No matter how Kakashi said it, he’d still cripple the man, but at least the hurt could be fast and clean.
“They died,” Kakashi said.
Fujiyama’s face crumpled. Kakashi bit the inside of his lip with sharp canine teeth and jerked his head at the clone, which took off at a dead run. The three insubstantial clones followed, orbiting like defensive satellites. Their chakra bled a blue-white stain across the sensory world, too visible.
If they went fast enough, they might make it.
If they didn’t, they’d be a thirty-second distraction.
On his way out of the chamber, he brought his heel down hard on the remaining half of the demon’s carved head, cracking bone.
The tunnel was dark and silent. Kakashi paused, cut the light-jutsu, and pulled his emotions back beneath his skin, quieting rage and harp-string tension. Slowly, carefully, he let his chakra unfurl, senses expanding.
Below, there were more demons. He couldn’t get an accurate count on them; their signatures were a tangled rat’s nest. But buried down somewhere in the center, there was the faintest glint of an ANBU spark.
Okay, Shiranui, perhaps that tracker was useful.
He had no idea which branching set of tunnels would lead him to his teammate, but down seemed like the obvious choice. Kakashi pulled his chakra back, conserving what was left, and set off again. He considered one of the soldier pills rattling in the silver tube tucked into a belt-pouch, but the extra stress would be murder on already-strained chakra coils.
On the other hand, that was a lot of demons.
He freed a pill and tucked it between two back molars, ready to crack, just in case.
The tunnel spiraled down, smooth-sided and increasingly filled with a strong stink of sulfur and iron and dead things. A building sinus headache was starting to make his teeth ache. He took a left at one fork, based on the sharper incline; took a right at the next one, always moving down. Chakra signatures rippled closer, small but strong. Another right—
The tunnel dropped away.
Kakashi took a running step, and suddenly there was nothing to stand on. He twisted, grabbed for the wall, missed it by inches, and hurtled down into the empty dark.
Screaming did not actually help much.
Wind was his weakest affinity, but nothing else would work. He yanked up the first stolen jutsu he could think of, and forced his hands and a roughly accurate amount of chakra through it. A swirling dust devil grabbed him and slowed the fall, spinning the world into a dizzy kaleidoscope.
The narrow chute widened abruptly out, sound echoing off much more distant walls. He dropped another ten pounding heartbeats, and slammed down onto the hard, warm back of something living.
Pain shot through the side of his jaw where Raidou had punched him. The rest of his bones bowed and ached like he’d introduced them too quickly to slab concrete, but nothing snapped. The soldier pill crunched between his teeth, jolting a hot slap of raw energy into his coils. And somewhere up above, three illusory clones died.
That woke him up.
Dizzy, confused, and highly annoyed, Kakashi scrambled upright just as something giant whistled over his head, missing his hair by a breath. He threw himself sideways and found yet more plate-armor back beneath his feet. The same attack came again, slicing through the air. He ducked and it missed, but something viscous splattered onto his bare biceps, which went numb.
That was a tail?
He wrenched the Sharingan open. Beneath his feet, a lake’s worth of chakra lit up dark red and terrifying, outlining the inner shape of a much, much bigger demon.
Eggs, it occurred to him, needed something to lay them.
Buried beneath the—call it a mother-demon—Genma’s faint spark winked fitfully. At least Kakashi had found him. Saving him, on the other hand—
The tail lashed back. Kakashi yanked his scattered wits about him, poured his chakra into his hands, and met it with a Raikiri. The Sharingan gave him the extra millisecond he needed to slide around the sting, avoiding the poisoned tip. He slammed his fist through the joint at the base of the bulb, meeting steely resistance before something crunched and gave. The bulb shattered, splattering clear venom over his arm up to the shoulder, then sheared cleanly away.
The mother-demon gave a sawing screech that rolled around the cavern and made Kakashi’s head ring. He staggered as she bucked beneath him, yanked sideways by the awkward weight of his deadened arm. Lightning still burned at the fingertips, but he couldn’t feel it.
He grabbed his own arm at the elbow and slammed it straight down, burying the remains of the Raikiri in the mother’s back.
Plate-armor cracked, but didn’t break. He couldn’t get enough force behind it. He threw more chakra into the jutsu, until the birdsong was a scream, but he couldn’t feel his coils well enough to focus it. Streaks of blue lightning crackled across thick black chitinous plates, grounding uselessly into nothing.
The mother-demon twisted like a snake and flung him off. Smoking blood sprayed from her beheaded tail, smearing the cavern’s stone floor in oily yellow streaks. She screamed again, raging agony, and the crowded demon children echoed her.
In a second, she’d attack again.
Kakashi dragged himself off the floor, hammered a little more chakra down his arm, and poured a last breath of life into his jutsu. He couldn’t hurt her again, but she didn’t know that. She was smart enough to hide her chakra. Smart creatures knew what fear was.
The colossal head swung back around. Pincered jaws spread. Kakashi draw a breath and threw himself at her face, screaming his own stupid, violent challenge to the mother of monsters.
He got close enough to see blue lightning reflected in six liquid-yellow eyes, then the giant demon reared back, knocked him out of the air, and backed away. She scrambled up towards the ceiling, clawing into a tunnel much broader than the one Kakashi had fallen through. Soft earth and hunks of rock rained down as she clawed the sides, crushing smaller demons, filling the air with dust. In barely a moment, the bleeding tail tip vanished.
Chest heaving, Kakashi levered himself up to one knee, then to his feet, and looked at the wide circle of half-grown demons around him. Maybe thirty of them, none of them bigger than a mastiff.
He’d pushed it this far.
“Well?” he demanded, voice rasping.
It was probably the mother-demon’s retreat that had done it, not him, but there was something immensely gratifying about the way they slunk back into holes and tunnels, withdrawing from the dying circle of blue-white light. Their chakra signatures faded upwards, following the mother.
Towards the surface.
Where the others were.
“Crap,” Kakashi panted, and yanked up a quick water jutsu to sluice the venom away before staggering as fast as he could towards Genma’s spark. Technicolor afterimages from the Raikiri left red and white blotches across his regular vision, but the Sharingan had no problems picking out the weak human chakra signature trapped down in a bedrock seam.
Hidey-hole or demon larder? Either way, it was half-buried beneath chunks of fallen earth and slab-stone. Kakashi hit his knees and scrabbled one-handed to clear the rubble, tearing his fingertips on sharp stone edges.
“Tanuki?” he yelled, hauling a table-sized chunk aside. “Tanuki! You better not be dead or pregnant—”
A ratcheting cough echoed dully under the dust clouds.
Kakashi flung himself down on his belly, stretching down into the dark until his groping hand found the smooth ceramic of an arm-guard. He gripped a hand, feeling fever-hot fingers spasm fitfully, and followed the arm up to a shoulder, and then a shoulder-strap. As good an anchor as any. He grabbed it, set himself, and hauled.
Kakashi took an adrenaline-shivery breath, put more muscle into it, and tried again. This time, Genma jerked, slid an inch, caught on something, jerked again, and finally came free, slithering out of the ground like—nothing Kakashi wanted to think about. He pulled up twin seeds of chakra, lighting his hands with it for better vision.
Genma was covered in blood, all of it red.
“Goddammit, Shiranui,” Kakashi hissed, forgetting mask name protocol in the clanging panic of losing another teammate to a rockfall on a first mission. He yanked Genma’s mask off, half-expecting to see a crushed skull, leaking brain matter.
Yellow-brown eyes blinked up at him, two of them.
“D-did you just bluff a g-giant monster d-demon?” Genma stuttered at him, breathless and almost too quiet to hear.
“Maybe,” Kakashi said, relief sledge-hammering him so hard it actually made him dizzy. It vanished again when he got a good look at Genma’s face, slick with feverish sweat, flushed hectic-red over unhealthy corpse-white. One bare shoulder had what looked like a clotted stinger-wound; the other was ringed by bloody teeth marks. Genma’s chest-plate was buckled, soaked crimson from a slashed belly wound.
And he was clearly half-paralyzed.
Kakashi was not Rin. He couldn’t glue people back together again, especially not one-handed.
Could the others?
Not if the mother-demon ate them first.
He fumbled a blood-clotting field dressing out of his medkit, managed to get it open with his left hand, and slapped it over the belly gash—which, mercifully, didn’t seem to be the entrance wound for any demon eggs. Using his knee and some awkward leverage, he dragged Genma into a slewed seat, semi-upright, and held him there long enough to wrap the trailing ends of the bandage around Genma’s waist and anchor them tight. Genma made a pained sound, half-throttled.
“Sorry,” Kakashi muttered. “Can you swallow?”
“Prob’ly.” Genma’s throat clicked as he tried, and sort of succeeded. “Mmm… Maybe. You hurt bad?”
“No,” said Kakashi, who was upright and moving and therefore fine. “Take this.”
He pressed a soldier pill between Genma’s lips, and held a canteen to his mouth. It took two false starts, but Genma was able to get the pill and a gulp of water down without choking himself.
“Why are you so hot?” Kakashi demanded. “None of the civilians were.”
“Ch-chakra. Burning the v-venom out,” Genma managed, like self-inducing a high fever was a perfectly rational thing. The soldier pill hit his blanched coils in a bright wave Kakashi could feel, like a flash flood across a dry riverbed. Genma shut his eyes. “It’s… working. Kinda.”
In theory, he was the medic.
“Don’t roast your brain,” Kakashi said, and dumped the remains of the water canteen over Genma’s head, making him yelp.
They’d wasted too much time already. The demon-mother might already be at the surface. Kakashi stowed his canteen, clipped Genma’s mask onto the empty hook at his belt, and hauled Genma up onto his shoulders. It took an awkward piece of maneuvering, but he managed to get the lieutenant slung into a one-handed soldier’s carry, draped belly-down around Kakashi’s neck, held firmly there by one knee and one arm pulled together in front of Kakashi’s chest.
Heat spilled over Kakashi’s bare shoulders, and a slow trickle of blood rolled down his arm. Not his.
No, wait, maybe some of it was his.
“Ow,” said Genma faintly.
“Hang on,” Kakashi said, and scraped his remaining chakra up, funneling it down his legs. He took a deep breath and ran straight up the wall, then across the ceiling, following the demon-mother through her own escape tunnel.
Somewhere high above, there would be daylight, and help.
Ten minutes came and went without any sign of ruffled grey hair or a light brown ponytail, and Raidou lost patience.
“Screw it,” he said, starting for the tunnel entrance.
Katsuko’s back went rigid. “Taichou,” she said urgently.
Her sensing abilities were stronger than his. “What is it?”
Instead of answering, she simply stepped aside a half-second before a lean, blood-splattered body came hurtling up out of the tunnel. Kakashi skidded to a halt, almost sliding down on one knee, and turned. There was a body strapped to his back, and another cradled in his arms. Neither of them was Genma.
And Kakashi wasn’t breathing.
Not Kakashi, Raidou realized. A clone: one that wasn’t bothering to waste chakra on looking too real.
“Found the civilians,” it said.
A filth-smeared young girl who looked—pregnant? And a man with shocked-hollow eyes and tear tracks streaked down his cheeks. Ryouma stepped quickly forward, unbinding the man’s blanched-white hands, freeing his knees, and easing him carefully down from the clone’s back. Katsuko took the little girl, cradling her with gentle arms.
“This is all?” Raidou said, heart sinking.
“There were eight others, but they were too far gone,” the clone said, emotional as a plank. “We couldn’t save them.”
“Taichou,” Katsuko said again, with blank horror in her voice.
Raidou’s attention snapped to her, and then down to her gloved hand, which was curled over the little girl’s belly. Something beneath the girl’s ragged dress was moving, squirming slowly under Katsuko’s fingers.
“The hell is that?” Raidou demanded.
“There’s something here, too,” Ryouma said, easing the man’s shirt up to show a bulging lump sticking out just below an appendectomy-sized cut, recently scabbed. “This one’s not moving.”
“Egg,” whispered the man numbly.
“The demons have been laying young in them,” Kakashi’s clone said. “They hatch, get bigger, eat their way out.”
The girl whimpered very softly.
“Shh,” Katsuko said, smoothing sweat-dark strands of hair back from the girl’s forehead. “It’s okay. I’ve got you.”
“We’ve got a medic,” Ryouma said, with the careful steadiness of a man under high stress. “We’ll get it out.” He glanced over his shoulder, at the mouth of the cave. “They should be coming…”
“There was an ambush,” Kakashi’s clone said. “Tanuki was taken. Hound went to get him back.”
Raidou took a slow, deep breath. “How long ago?”
“Twenty minutes, give or take,” the clone said. “I’m still here, so he’s not dead yet.”
“How bad was the ambush?” Raidou said.
The clone was battered and blood-covered, streaked red across one arm and both legs, but it didn’t have anything inside to bleed with. It was easier on a caster to make an exact duplicate of himself, but most shinobi took the extra second to tweak appearances slightly, so as not to alarm their teammates. Kakashi must have only had the time, or the mental clarity, to make an identical carbon copy before he’d gone flying after Genma.
“Tanuki was paralyzed, and I think bitten,” the clone said. “Demons broke down one of the tunnel walls and dragged him off. Hound couldn’t get to him in time; there were too many demons. He had to escape. He’s not badly injured.”
Raidou was about as likely to trust the clone’s opinion on that as he was to trust Kakashi’s, which was not at all.
“He did kill several demons, though,” the clone added. “And found the civilians.”
“And sent them out with you,” Raidou finished, cursing himself for sending their only medic down into the dark. What the hell had he been thinking? “Fine, okay. Rat, call up some clones. I want them to take these two back into the woods, out of harm’s way. We’re going down after Tanuki and Hound.”
He’d expected five clones. Katsuko made twenty. They circled around the two injured civilians, lifting them gently, and vanished into the woods like a phalanx of armed, viciously protective nurses. A moment later, all trace of them was gone.
Ryouma got to his feet, scrubbing his palms down the outsides of his thighs, and looked at the clone. “Can you lead us back?”
“Yes—” the clone began, and stopped, masked face jerking towards the mountain.
“What?” Raidou said.
Then he felt it.
Katsuko’s chakra flared and twisted; she drew her unbroken katana and shoved crackling fire down the blade. Ryouma swore and flicked through rapid-fire seals, filling his palms with a deadly red glow. Raidou unsheathed his sword.
Beneath his feet, the ground trembled.
Something deep cracked, and a low rumbling filled the air, slowly getting louder. Trees began to shiver, then sway. Pebbles rattled across the ground. A cloud of earth exploded out of the tunnel, flying high into the air. The tunnel ceiling broke apart, coming down in chunks.
Rising like the wrath of gods, a chakra signature bigger than Katsuko’s could even hope to touch clawed its way to the surface.
A giant crack fissured across the side of the mountain.
“Move!” snapped Raidou.
They darted aside as a whole slab-section of rock and dirt sheared away from the mountainside, thundering down in a wet landslide. Immense black jaws pierced through, followed by an evil dart-shaped head. Long claws thrust out, caught ground, and the mountain birthed a monster.
“Guess I pissed something off,” the clone muttered, behind Raidou’s shoulder.
If that thing got loose, it wouldn’t stop at the village.
Katsuko was on his left; Ryouma was on the back right. Raidou turned to them, grabbing the first ideas that made sense. “Rat, fire. Distract it, blind it if you can. Ram, take another soldier pill. We’re going to need all the rot you can bring.” He sheathed his sword and funneled chakra into his hands. “We’re going to crack this thing and kill it.”
Raidou sounded like he believed it. Staring up at the thing heaving itself out of the mountain, Ryouma wasn’t sure he could. The Kyuubi had been bigger, but they’d had Sandaime and Yondaime and a whole village of shinobi to fight the Kyuubi, not three injured ANBU. And the long, segmented black-armored body kept coming out of the mountain, with a few tiny scorpion-demons scuttling out of the hole around it, ant-sized against this monstrosity.
His hands were shaking as he cut the rot jutsu and reached for his soldier pills. Both of them spilled out of the vial into his wet palm and rolled there, small and brown and innocent-looking. They immediately began to melt in the rain.
He’d taken three in a day before without ill effects. Three in an hour was dangerously close to the edge, but he was probably going to be dead in ten minutes anyway. He tossed both pills back, dropped the vial in the muddy shale, and set his hands together again.
Naizou Tokasu, the Internal Organs Flesh Melt, would serve no purpose here. His range was five meters at best, and they couldn’t hope to cripple this monster badly enough to give him a straight shot. He’d have to be fast, darting in and out, hitting with the Nikutai Tokasu wherever he could, and then letting the rot fester and spread while he found a new angle of attack…
And Katsuko was already running up the mountain slope.
“Shit,” Ryouma said, and sprinted after her.
Boulders and earth came crashing down as the monster’s tail whipped free of its hole. The segmented tail looked off somehow, foreshortened, but then the mountain moved under it, rock shackles reaching up to catch at its legs, to crush the claws. The monster shrieked and wrenched sideways, its free legs scuttling down the shale slope, splintering trees like twigs. Two of the rock shackles crumbled, but the third, snaring one of the hind legs, held firm.
“Rat, go!” Raidou shouted.
Katsuko sprang high into the air and fell like a meteor, blazing bright through the rain. The monster’s tail arched and swept to smash her out of the air, but came short. She landed high on its back, where a mammal’s shoulders would have been, and ran up an armored ridge to the hut-sized head. Pincher claws raked at her; she ducked low under their sweep and slashed the side of its face. Flame spilled like water over the brow ridges, and the monster screamed.
“Mid-back!” Katsuko shouted, crouching down as the hideous head slewed from side to side to shake her off. “The plate’s cracked!”
Ryouma had no breath to answer her. The little demons weren’t so little after all, most of them knee-high with stinger-armed tails arching above his waist, and they’d begun to pour down the mountain after their—leader? Queen? God? He kicked one aside, and it fell three meters down the mountain before it caught itself on two legs and sprang for him again.
Rock slabs slammed up out of the earth to strike it out of the air. Ryouma leapt up, hit the top of the furthest slab with one foot, and vaulted higher. He caught a protruding spike on the demon queen’s armored side and swung himself onto its back.
The tail swayed over him, huge, dripping. But that was blood, not venom; the stinger-bulb was gone, leaving a gaping wound at the end of the abbreviated tail. If he could get up there…
Too far from vital organs for a quick kill. Katsuko had said the armor plating was cracked. He hauled himself to his feet, anchoring his boots on the slick-wet carapace with chakra, and looked around. The injury was easy to spot: lightning-shot cracks rayed from a fist-sized hole in the plate near the segment of thorax and abdomen. He fed more chakra into his hands, brightening the dried-blood glow of the jutsu, and headed for the crack.
He didn’t make it.
The demon queen lurched like a ship at sea, ichor streaming from the ruins of two boulder-sized eyes. Katsuko darted around another swipe of the monster’s claws, her sword trailing an arc of fire through the rain. She glanced back just in time to see a mastiff-sized soldier demon scuttle up from the other side of the queen’s carapace to lunge at Ryouma.
Her heart leapt into her throat. “Tousaki!”
Ryouma’s hands glowed sickly-red as he spun around, meeting the soldier demon head-on. They collided in a tangle of limbs and bared teeth, the demon’s pincers scrabbling for purchase on Ryouma’s armor. The momentum knocked them off the queen’s armored back, sending them tumbling through the air. On the ground below, more of the queen’s children swarmed in a mass of gleaming black carapaces and clicking mandibles.
She didn’t see Ryouma land; one of the demon queen’s massive claws missed Katsuko by scant inches, whistling past her face to slam into the chitinous armor that protected the queen’s neck. Katsuko staggered at the impact, grabbing a spiked protrusion near the hinge of the queen’s jaw for balance. It was the work of a moment to leap up onto the rain-slick, massive forehead, reverse her grip on her katana, and stab the point of the burning blade deep into one yellow eye.
The world spun as the queen howled and thrashed her head, clawing at her own face in a desperate bid to dislodge Katsuko. Katsuko rolled down the back of the queen’s skull and landed at the base of the neck, where it would be harder for the queen to reach.
Mere seconds had passed since Ryouma had fallen. Katsuko sent chakra to her hands and feet to anchor herself against the queen’s thrashing, frantically scanning the ground below.
Ryouma and the soldier demon that had attacked him lay sprawled in the dirt, knocked apart by the force of their landing. More demons surrounded them in a loose ring, caught off-guard by the sudden descent. There was no red glow around Ryouma’s hands, but as Katsuko watched he stirred and lifted his head from the muddy ground. The soldier demon was moving, too, shaking rain off of itself like a dog.
Raidou’s voice roared into the silence. “Ram, don’t move!”
The words seemed to snap Ryouma out of his daze. His hands came up just as the ring of demons surrounding him surged forward. The earth beneath them cracked; a circular trench yawned open, leaving Ryouma safe on an island in the middle as it swallowed the wave of attacking demons.
Katsuko had only a second of relief. Movement out of the corner of her eye warned her in time to throw herself out of the way of the queen’s claws, skidding down the armored back in controlled freefall. Above her, the mountain trembled.
The trench around Ryouma slammed shut, crushing the demons it had caught in its maw. The soldier demon was the only one to escape, scrabbling out of the trench just as the ground sealed shut behind it. Mud and yellow blood bubbled up from the repaired seam in the earth.
No sign of Kakashi or the lieutenant yet, but Kakashi’s bunshin was still alive. All Katsuko had to do was buy her teammates time to get out of the mines. She gritted her teeth and readied herself for another run up the queen’s back.
As if summoned, a flash of silver armor darted towards Ryouma. Kakashi’s clone drew its tanto, running white chakra down the blade just as the soldier demon leapt at Ryouma. Ryouma’s hands were glowing again, the bloodclot-red of the rot jutsu lighting up his fingers, but it was the clone that reached the soldier demon first. The bunshin’s aim was true; yellow ichor spray followed the demon’s dying screech.
The shudder of the black-shelled carapace underneath her reminded Katsuko that she had her own problems to deal with. “Right,” she muttered, and broke into a sprint.
A shout from down below; Katsuko reached out with her senses, unwilling to risk glancing back over her shoulder. Ryouma’s chakra and the muted presence of Kakashi’s clone, racing for the queen. Further back, Raidou’s signature still shone strong.
The queen howled when Katsuko darted up the back of her neck. The damn bug had learned from the last time, lurching and bucking and thrashing too hard for Katsuko to do anything more than dodge and hang on for dear life with her chakra. Yellow ichor seeped out from self-inflicted cracks in the queen’s armor, a slippery trap just waiting to happen.
Kakashi’s clone’s presence flickered, then disappeared. Hopefully its owner was receiving its memories and not lying in tiny demon-chewed pieces in the mine.
Three things happened at once. The first was Raidou flickering in from the side, moving to intercept a few straggler demons still scuttling after Ryouma.
The second was the sickening lurch as the queen’s head slewed around, her attention caught by Raidou’s sudden movement.
The third, Katsuko was in the perfect position to see. The queen reared back, opening her jaws. Faster than Katsuko could react, a stream of green liquid shot from the queen’s mouth, arrowing in on Raidou’s small figure. He tried to dodge a second too late; his startled yell when the liquid hit him in the mask made Katsuko grit her teeth.
She sunk her katana hilt-deep in another of the queen’s eyes, planting her feet and yanking it out. Yellow blood fountained as the queen screamed.
For a thing with only half her vision left, the demon-queen was a good shot.
The liquid burned. Raidou ripped his mask off as it began to crumble, ceramic smearing under his fingertips. His armor smoked, coin-sized patches of cloth melting. Hot spots of pain ignited across his skin everywhere the spatter hit: shoulders, hands, scalp, eyelids.
Kumo had used chemical attacks during the war. The training came roaring back. He dodged hard, in case a second attack followed, and ripped through a half-dozen blind seals. Chakra yanked the rain into a broad sheet; it rose, swirled, and dropped on him like an upended bathtub, washing the acid away in a shock of cold-wet-ow-goddammit.
The distraction cost them. Rock shattered as the demon-queen tore her leg free from Raidou’s shackle jutsu. She reared up, long black body casting the mountain base in shadow, and snake-whipped her head from side to side. Katsuko clung desperately. Straw-colored blood flew as her sword claimed another eye. The demon-queen screamed and raked pincered claws over her own face, ignoring the damage she did to herself in the effort to get at her torturer.
A small body plummeted.
Raidou couldn’t tell if Katsuko had been knocked free, or if she’d jumped, but either way, she fell. And she landed hard.
Ryouma gave a wordless yell of rage, which would’ve been Raidou’s line, if Raidou could breathe. Three half-sized demons died in a crunching spray of rot and torn-off limbs, and then Ryouma was a fast-moving blur through the rain, streaking up one of the queen’s rain-slick legs and across the broad back, aiming for that tiny star-cracked target.
The demon-queen reared even higher, and let herself drop backwards.
It was like watching a tree fall in slow motion, except bigger, darker, and gut-wrenching. When she slammed down, the mountain danced. Giant cracks split through the bludgeoned earth, and the meticulously placed explosion tags finally detonated, bringing down the third entrance in a landslide of fire and wasted chakra. The queen’s tunnel shivered and collapsed, throwing rock splinters and dirt clods into the sodden air. The queen writhed on her back, thoroughly crushing anything trapped beneath her, and Raidou couldn’t feel Ryouma’s chakra signature.
Or see him anywhere.
Cold, crystal clarity trapped any panic Raidou might have felt under glass, locking it down deep into a problem he could attend to later, when he had time for nightmares. Right now, Katsuko was there and the queen was there, and he needed to deal with both.
He formed seals on the move. Chakra sunk into a new wave of jutsu as he bolted across treacherous ground, dodging demons and the queen’s thrashing tail, making for the slim, motionless body lying too close to the queen’s shadow. Katsuko still wasn’t getting up.
Raidou let the jutsu go.
Arms of black earth burst out of the ground, grabbing for the demon-queen. She screamed outrage as they wrapped around her six legs, breaking and reforming. One grabbed the base of her tail. Another snapped around her throat. Two more strangled her claws, choking the hinges and forcing the pincers open, splayed uselessly apart. The demon-queen fought furiously, bucking and jack-knifing, but she had less leverage on her back. Like an upended turtle, she couldn’t get the purchase to rip free. As long as Raidou had the chakra, he could hold her.
So, ten minutes. Thirty with a soldier pill.
He skidded to his knees next to Katsuko and ran forced-steady hands down her neck and armored back. Bone didn’t grate beneath his fingers. Nothing looked twisted. He turned her over, pulling her mask off.
And saw stars when her chakra blazed back to startled awareness, and her katana hilt thumped into the underside of his chin, clacking his teeth together.
Dazed brown eyes blinked at him from under a sheet of blood; the edge of her mask had gashed her forehead open. “Taichou?” she mumbled, and then winced. “Owwww.”
He didn’t have to ask what hurt. She’d held onto her sword, like every good ninja was trained to. But at the cost of not gutting herself on a truly crappy landing, she’d come down on her left side. The shoulder was hunched unnaturally high and pulled forward. When he touched the joint, she didn’t flinch, but when he ran his fingertips over her collarbone, something gave. She lurched upright and swore at him.
Snapped clavicle. To make a perfect matching set with her bitten, gashed shoulders.
“When we get home, I’m going to drill you on falls until you bleed,” he said tightly, and swept her off the ground, grabbing her elbow firmly to help stabilize the break.
“What? And break my other collarbone?” she said, flinging her good arm around his neck, naked sword blade pressed to his back. “Where’s Ram?”
Nowhere Raidou wanted to think about.
“Under her,” he said, and ducked as one of the queen’s legs thrashed free, raining dirt and stone down on them, before the earth jutsu managed to recapture the limb. “I need to get you out of here, then I can look for him.”
Katsuko sucked in a sharp breath, bloodless skin turning paler. But she only said, “Take my clones with you.”
On the edges of his senses, he could feel the twilight glimmers of her chakra getting closer—a dozen clones returning from the forest, where they’d left the remainder with the civilians.
Raidou made it halfway to them, carrying Katsuko, when the queen’s continuous scream went from furious to—something else entirely. A sawing, rising disharmonic that grew louder and louder, and tighter and tighter, until Raidou’s ears ached and his head rang. He looked back and saw the massive body arching off the ground, no longer fighting, just straining upwards, as if drawn by a taut wire.
Katsuko laughed suddenly, savage, and he felt it.
The demon-queen’s immense, steely chakra turning putrid. Yellow blood ran black, oozing out of the cracks between the giant armored plates. The thorax inflated as disgusting, gaseous pressure built up inside, straining the body beyond the point of no return.
Three feet of steel punched up between two interconnected stomach-plates, ripping across the join, and the queen burst.
A geyser of foul-smelling black fluid shot into the sky, mixed with colorful streaks of smeared flesh that had once probably belonged to organs. The entire thorax ripped open and flooded out, melting across the mountainside. The upstanding legs shuddered and twitched, still held by Raidou’s jutsu, and the broad jaws shivered with dying spasms.
Raidou clapped a hand over his mouth and nose. Katsuko gagged, retched, laughed, and punched her good hand into the air, sword blade scattering rain. “Awesome,” she shouted.
Somewhere in the middle of that, Ryouma was probably drowning.
“Set your clones on any demons still moving,” Raidou said, putting Katsuko down on an uprooted tree at the mountain’s edge, where the oncoming river wouldn’t get her. “I’ll be right back.”
“Don’t drown in the stuff, taichou,” Katsuko said, as her clones bolted past to wage war on the few remaining demons, which were mostly trying to run. “That would be a pain.”
Raidou was already turning to run; he tossed her an acknowledging wave over his shoulder, and went back up the mountain as fast as he could move. His jutsu was still active, holding the queen’s legs apart like a spread ribcage around the crater of her chest. He cancelled it and pulled the remaining chakra back. Most of the stone arms crumbled, splashing down into the oily lake of putrefaction, but a few stayed upright, anchoring the corpse.
Roughly in the center, Ryouma’s ANBU spark glinted faintly.
Raidou reached the edge of the black organ-slick, took his last breath of even slightly tolerable air, and stepped up, chakra-running across the rotted mess like he’d run across a swamp. Except uphill, through fumes. The rancid air actually stung against his burns, making his raw eyes tear and stream.
He found Ryouma clinging to an edge of shattered carapace, covered head to toe in black ooze, sinking inch-by-inch down into the bubbling soup of the queen’s remaining viscera. The ram mask was long gone, and he’d lost his sword.
“Nothing has ever been more disgusting than this,” Raidou informed him, gasping, and hauled him out by the armor straps.
Ryouma proved him wrong by hacking up a double lungful of yet more black. He’d breathed it.
Raidou’s nose officially quit. He thumped Ryouma hard between the shoulder blades, until the choking sounds ceased and Ryouma managed to draw a throttled breath, chest heaving. Raidou wrestled him into a soldier’s carry, wincing as warm fluid ran down over his shoulders and back, soaking into bandages, and turned around.
He didn’t run so much as skid his way out of the corpse, sliding down most of the mountain back to Katsuko. She took one look at them and let out a long, relieved breath, folding forward over her knees. It was a moment before she looked up with an unsteady smile. “Good job not drowning, taichou.”
“Tell him that,” Raidou said, dropping Ryouma carefully down next to her.
Ryouma couldn’t sit up. Katsuko had to brace him one-handed while Raidou called up enough chakra to rain a water jutsu down on all three of them, sluicing the worst of the slime away. He put his hand on Ryouma’s forehead. Chakra shivered weakly beneath his fingers, a pale ghost of what it should have been. Ryouma’s chest hitched in shallow, unproductive gasps.
“Deep breath,” Raidou said, and when Ryouma didn’t, Raidou sharpened the order. “Tousaki, slow it down and breathe.”
That hit the mark. Ryouma caught a breath and managed to hold it for a second, shaking with the effort, then let it out and drew another. It wasn’t slow, deep breathing, but it was better. When Ryouma had half a grip on it, Raidou took his own steadying breath and unfurled his chakra, letting it roll down his arm in a warm wave, pressing it into the chakra center directly above Ryouma’s eyes. He didn’t hammer it this time; couldn’t afford the risk of dropping Ryouma further into shock. He just let it wash down the slower filter of his arm, offering it at a speed Ryouma might be able to take.
Ryouma was full-on shaking now, but he drank the chakra in, clumsily at first, then hungrily. The bite was just starting to get sharp when Ryouma pulled his head back, and batted Raidou’s hand away. “Don’t…drain yourself,” he managed, before he doubled forward with deep, rattling chest-coughs, and spat another mouthful of black. “Ka’suko’s not hurt bad?”
Raidou didn’t know which Katsuko Ryouma was looking at, because the one he could see looked plenty bloody.
“Hi,” she said, with giddy relief at Ryouma’s elbow. “I broke every bone in my body and it hurts.”
Ryouma blinked at her once, as if she’d snuck up on him. “Me, too,” he said.
The rain was still coming down on them, plastering Ryouma’s hair flat and washing thin ribbons of red down Katsuko’s bone-china face. They’d be blue-lipped soon. Raidou fumbled a scroll out of his belt, broke it open, and found that he’d actually managed to grab a tent instead of the cloak he’d intended, but the tough oiled canvas might actually work better. He wrapped it around them, pressed his water canteen into Ryouma’s hand, and pulled Katsuko’s med-kit off her belt, dropping it pointedly into her lap.
“Drink and keep each other warm,” he ordered. “Ueno, staunch your forehead. Tousaki, when you’re steadier, help her get a sling on her arm, or have one of her clones do it. I’m going after Hatake and Shiranui.”
Five clones with yellow-soaked blades darted down from the mountain, making a pointed, wordless phalanx around him. The remaining seven were still hunting demon signatures.
“We’re going after Hatake and Shiranui,” Raidou corrected dryly.
“Tell ‘em off f’r lollygagging,” Ryouma mumbled.
“I’ll gag your lolly,” Katsuko said, digging into her med-kit.
If they still had their terrible senses of humor, they’d survive for ten minutes. Raidou jerked his head at the miniature clone army and went back up the mountain, extending his limited senses as far as they’d go. He wasn’t a sensor by nature; his chakra liked to stay close to his body, where he could use it to punch things. Small demons caught his attention, energy signatures like crushed tin foil against his mental teeth, but as fast as he noticed them, Katsuko’s clones killed them.
The third entrance was completely collapsed, blocked in with tumbled rock and unstable earth, and the hole the demon-queen had crawled out of was choked with slab-stones and smothered in rotten black intestines. But it still might give the easiest access to the inside tunnels, if he could crack it open again.
Raidou was trying to decide the best path across, when a sudden, violently familiar sensation erupted beneath the skin of the mountain, inspiring the reflex to dodge like hell.
He threw himself aside as Kakashi’s blue lightning burst out in a scream of angry birds and crackling ozone, and immediately fried part of the demon-queen corpse, which made the smell a thousand times worse. The Raikiri cut out with a fading sizzle, and—yep, there was the sound of someone throwing up.
Raidou’s nose would probably never work again. He couldn’t imagine what Kakashi’s was doing to him.
Still, at least Kakashi was alive to throw up. Raidou let out a relieved breath, staggered back upright with a clone’s help, and went to see if Genma was with him.
“Hey,” Katsuko said, after Raidou vanished up the mountain.
Ryouma was a warm presence at her side. The oilcloth tent wrapped around them rustled as he shifted. “Mm?”
Katsuko wiped rain out of her eyes and tugged their pseudo-blanket over her feet. Her toes felt like little, individual blocks of ice. “It’d probably really suck if the demon-queen had a demon-king, wouldn’t it?”
Ryouma considered this for a moment. “Yeah,” he decided. “We’d be dead. Good thing she was a single mom.”
Even Katsuko’s bones ached. Her collarbone flared up again, a high note of pain amidst the low-grade roar of all her other hurts. She gave up digging in her medkit for a moment and leaned her head against Ryouma’s arm, wadding up the oilcloth to serve as a makeshift barrier between them. He still smelled like all the corpses in the world, but the rain washed some of the stink away.
“I’m glad you’re not dead,” she said.
He made a soft, amused noise that ended in a ragged cough. “Me, too. I mean, I’m glad I’m not dead, and you’re not dead. When you fell…” He coughed again, a little forced. “Anyway. You’re pretty tough, aren’t you? I bet you bounced.”
Katsuko didn’t want to think about the fall. She didn’t want to think about anything except the rain, and also how nice it felt to use Ryouma’s arm as a pillow once her nose stopped working. “I fought the ground, and the ground only mostly won,” she agreed. “I’m tough as nails. Also, the next time you wrestle with a giant monster’s internal organs, tell me so I can take pictures. That was awesome.”
“Yeah?” he asked, surprised and pleased. “Felt pretty stupid when I was doing it.”
“Oh, it was,” Katsuko said, ignoring the insistent twinge of her collarbone. “It was so dumb I had a heart attack. I thought you got squashed like a bug by a bug. But it was also really, really cool.”
“And cool makes up for stupid, right?” He coughed again, and spat, and tipped his head back to take a long pull from Raidou’s canteen. “Promise me you’ll be my character witness when the Quartermaster tries to have me drawn and quartered for losing my mask.”
“I’ll tell him you left it in a demon’s small intestine,” Katsuko said, blinking rapidly to keep her eyes from sliding shut. “C’mon, help me get a sling on and I’ll help you with bandages.”
It took some maneuvering and a lot of cursing, but they managed to treat the worst of their wounds. Ryouma tied the ends of the sling around her neck and then wrapped the tent around them again, hunching a little bit from the cold.
“Y’know,” Katsuko said, huddling against him. “After this, we should take Kakashi and go out for drinks. Celebrate a little.”
Ryouma laughed, a little raw. “You better ask him. He turned me down once already.”
“We’ll both ask,” Katsuko decided. “We totally took down a demon today. That makes us the hottest people this side of the planet, after we shower. And we deserve to look at something pretty after this damn mission.”
He crooked his neck, a little stiffly, to look down at her. “D’you—?” He reconsidered. “Well, taichou didn’t say anything against looking.”
“Don’t I know it,” Katsuko said, smugly. She winked at him. “It’s okay. Your butt will always hold first place in my heart.”
Ryouma stared at her for a minute. Then he cracked a very slow, delighted grin. “Well. At least somebody on this team is appreciating it.”
“I’ve been appreciating it,” Katsuko said, pretending to be miffed. She sneezed, wincing when it jarred her collarbone, and peered in the direction of the mine. “How long has it been since taichou went up there?”
“I’m barely tracking this conversation,” Ryouma complained. “You expect me to track time?” He shifted just enough to follow Katsuko’s gaze up the mountain. Quietly, he said, “Don’t see him. Your clones are still with him, right?”
“Yeah. One of them would dispel itself if something went wrong.” Unease slithered up her spine, making her fingers twitch.
Ryouma squinted, glaring at the demon-queen’s rotted remains. “Damn thing’s in the way. Was the hole to the left, or above—?”
Lightning flared in the mountains. Katsuko started, hand automatically going for her sword before she stopped herself. She knew that signature.
“That was a Chidori,” she said. “Or a Raikiri. Whatever. Looks like taichou found Kakashi.” And with Kakashi, hopefully, was the lieutenant. She couldn’t feel any demonic chakra signatures close by, but the queen had collapsed a large part of the mountain with her backflip. Kakashi had probably had to punch his way out.
Ryouma breathed a huge sigh of relief, turning his head away to cough. “Knew he would. Or Kakashi’d find him. One of ‘em. What’s Kakashi lighting up?” He tried to crane around Katsuko to see, jostling her shoulder and accidentally pulling the tent loose from around their shoulders. The sudden movement made him sway dizzily. Katsuko grabbed him, letting out a strangled noise as her shoulder jarred.
“Dunno,” she grunted. “The mountain, probably. Would you sit still?”
Ryouma obeyed, sagging against her as he panted and shivered. “Hope it’s not more of those buggers. I thought we killed ‘em all. Was gonna brag.”
“‘f there are, it’s likely only little ones,” Katsuko said. “The queen’s was the biggest signature. My bunshin can take care of those.”
“So we can brag after all.” Ryouma tried to put his head on her shoulder and realized halfway that his neck couldn’t bend down that far. He rested his forehead on the crown of her head instead and mumbled into her hair, “Can’t wait to see Kakashi’s face… Mask. Stupid mask.”
“His mask is dumb,” Katsuko agreed, and reached up with her good hand to pat Ryouma’s cheek. “Especially when he wears his ANBU mask over it. So, so dumb. I bet he has a tan line.”
Drowsiness suffused Ryouma’s voice like warm honey. “Not just a tan line. Tan triangle.”
Katsuko snorted in semi-hysterical laughter and patted Ryouma’s face a little harder. “C’mon, don’t fall asleep on me. My bunshin’ll try to cop a feel if they have to carry you home.”
“Just don’t let the captain know,” Ryouma said, clearly on his way out. “He gets preachy. Jealous’d be a better look on him.” His shoulders stiffened an instant before he shook himself awake, sitting bolt upright. “I didn’t say that.”
“Say what?” Katsuko asked mildly. “I didn’t hear anything.” She tugged the tent up to her chin and pulled her knees up to her chest. She was going to have a talk with Raidou when they got back to Konoha. “No falling asleep. Want to play I Spy?”
Ryouma gave her a blank look. “I Spy?” After a moment, it clicked. “Oh! Uh.” He cast his gaze around. “Something… red.”
“Is it me?” Katsuko guessed.
His eyes narrowed. “Okay. Something blue.”
“Blue? There’s nothing blue here,” she said. “Unless you count our toes. Or our fingers. Or our lips and noses.”
“Forty-two,” he said, beaming. Then he blinked. “Wait, no, two lips each. Forty-four?”
“Man, I don’t know,” Katsuko said in abject despair. “I’m hungry.”
Ryouma leaned sideways, the bulky weight of his belt pouches digging into her hip. “Should have a rat bar or two left. You can have ‘em. I don’t want to eat anything ever again.”
“You and your rat bars were inside a giant bug’s spleen,” Katsuko said. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
A strangled snort escaped Ryouma, followed quickly by a shoulder-shaking cough. “Can’t say I blame you.” Wistfully, he added, “Think captain’d yell if we’re asleep when he gets back?”
“He’d kill us,” Katsuko said. “He’d say something about hypothermia or concussions, and then he’d kill us. Stay awake. I have to tell you about the awesome party we’re gonna have when we get back.”
“Mm?” Ryouma said encouragingly, and put his head down on hers again.
Katsuko sneezed and swiped the back of her hand across her nose. “First, we’re gonna dress up sexy. Well, you dress up sexy and I dress up sexier, because I’m always sexy. But wait— before that we’re gonna get takeout and eat it all. Then we’re gonna go to a club with good music and dance all night, and you’re gonna be my wingman.”
He murmured drowsily into her hair, “Like this plan. ‘m good at dressin’ up sexy. What’re you looking for?”
“They have to be not crazy,” Katsuko decided. “And they have to smell good. And have nice teeth.”
The tent rustled as he pulled back, squinting down at her skeptically. “Not that I have room to judge anyone on their smell, but how many ‘not crazies’ do you find in Konoha?”
“Hey,” Katsuko said placatingly. “You usually smell good. And being hot makes up for being crazy.” She rubbed her nose, then started when she felt the flare of familiar chakra signatures. She glanced up toward the mountain and grinned. “Taichou’s got the lieutenant and Kakashi. They’re coming back.”
Ryouma’s sigh seemed to empty all the remaining breath from his lungs. He slumped back. “Hope they enjoy the view.”
“They’d better,” Katsuko said, relief making her cheerful. “It’s hard work, being the conquering heroes. Think they’ll ask for our autographs?”
“Probably just make us do all the reports.” Ryouma straightened, letting out a thin noise of frustration as he peered up the mountain. “Can’t feel ‘em at all.”
“They’ll be here,” Katsuko said. “We’ll see ‘em soon. Any minute, now.”
They leaned against each other, letting the rain fill the silence, and waited for their team to emerge from the ruins of the mountain.
If there were worse smells in the world, Genma hadn’t encountered them yet. There wasn’t much to be said for being draped over the shoulders of a vomiting man, either. Kakashi had only one working arm, with his right still numbed from contact with the demon’s venom. He’d let go of Genma to perform the Raikiri, then again to tear his ANBU mask off and pull his inner mask down, when the putrid scent of decomposed and lightning-scorched demon shrouded them. Then the vomiting. Quick, efficient, soldierly vomiting, because as far as Kakashi and Genma knew, there were still plenty of enemies on the other side of that earthen wall who would love to take advantage of any weakness.
Not to mention more bastard demon bugs that could come scrabbling up out of the depths from behind to flank them. They were safe, for the moment, in a tiny, relatively level-floored chamber that tumbling stone had spared, but the steeply angled tunnel the queen had torn through the rock yawned behind them.
The only reason Genma hadn’t fallen when Kakashi stopped holding him in place was chakra—his own—sticking him to Kakashi’s armored back and shoulders. He thought about letting it go, but with his body still mostly paralyzed, there was no way he’d be able to control how he landed, and he already had plenty of bruises from several falls as they’d chased the giant demon out of the mine.
The last had been the worst. They’d been nearly at the top of the demon’s exit tunnel when what felt like a quake but was probably an earth jutsu had knocked Kakashi off his feet entirely, and Genma off Kakashi’s shoulders. The fall would have been fatal if they hadn’t both managed to throw chakra out like static shocks and anchor themselves to the walls as they tumbled down the near-vertical shaft.
After that, Genma stopped trying to metabolize the poison, and concentrated his chakra on staying on Kakashi’s back.
They’d been nearly to the exit once more when their last remaining escape routes caved in. A series of explosions that sounded like demolition tags at the mine entrance threw them to the shuddering ground. They’d barely had time to duck as huge slabs of stone shuddered down around them, sealing the borehole the queen demon had created.
Now there was just the tiny chamber, a lot of loose and unstable rock, the corpse of one of the smaller demons, and Kakashi’s lightning-vitrified hole to the outside world, just wide enough for a ninja to wriggle through. Cold, rain-filled wind blew in through the narrow opening, carrying with it the disgusting reek of rotting flesh.
Clearly Ryouma had been working hard.
The other thing, the notable thing, was the silence. No clang of steel against demon exoskeleton. No shouts. No jutsu. And no demon chakra.
Genma focused his senses on the unseen outside.
There—thank the mercies—an ANBU spark nearby, cloaked in unsuppressed autumn-leaf chakra: Raidou. And at a distance, Katsuko’s radiance close to Ryouma’s signature; barely a pilot light. Ryouma was in bad shape.
Kakashi wasn’t much better. He gave one last, miserable heave, wiped his face on his wrist, and pushed his masks back into place.
“You ‘kay?” Genma asked.
Kakashi grunted a non-answer and straightened up on shaking legs.
If Genma could just get his hands to work, to make seals— But there was no movement or feeling in his extremities at all, just a leaden ache deep in his shoulders and along his spine. And now, distantly, a queasy flurry in his stomach. That was the one good thing about being paralyzed, evidently—not enough muscular coordination to vomit. Maybe that was part of the poison, too. It wouldn’t do to have the egg hosts getting sick.
There was a sharp chakra flare from outside, loose flakes of stone tumbled down, and Kakashi raised a defensive hand. Raidou and four of Katsuko’s clones burst through Kakashi’s chidori hole, freshly enlarged. Two Katsuko clones immediately started dragging the small demon corpse out into the rain to make more room in the tiny chamber, while two more worked on shoring up the unstable entrance.
Raidou wasn’t wearing his mask, and his bandages were soaking wet with rain, dyed red where he’d bled through them. There were what looked like burns in a spatter pattern over his chest plate and bandaged shoulders, and his eyes were red and puffy. But he had all four limbs, a strong chakra presence, and he didn’t look like he was bleeding heavily…
Raidou returned the survey, sweeping a quick look over the pair of them and raising his eyebrows. “The hell happened to you two?”
“Lost at t-tag with sc-sc-scorp’ns.” Genma said hoarsely. Since he’d stopped trying to burn the venom out, the paralysis had crept back up his throat. “You?”
“We tagged harder,” Raidou said, immeasurably dry.
Kakashi cut in with a clipped report. “Tanuki was stung. He’s three-quarters paralyzed, but making headway with a chakra treatment. He also has a belly wound I couldn’t stitch. The big demon—”
“Is very dead,” Raidou finished for him. Genma felt the relieved sag in Kakashi’s shoulders, and he offered his own silent, fervent prayer of thanks.
“Rat’s clones are cleaning up the stragglers. What’s going on with your arm?” Raidou continued, gesturing at the lifeless hang of Kakashi’s right hand.
Kakashi glanced down at it and back up to Raidou. “Surface poison. It’s getting better. Ram and Rat?”
“Drained and battered, but hanging on. Rat’s got a broken collarbone. Ram’s going to be down for a while, but he’s still breathing. He used most of his chakra rotting the queen; I gave him a transfusion.” Raidou looked at Genma. “Looks like field-healing isn’t an option.”
“C-c’n put me down.” Genma said. “Don’t know how l-l-long this will last.” His throat felt like steel bands were wrapped around it, and breath still came shallowly, and with effort, but he’d managed to get some movement back when he’d needed it most. Maybe if he put all his resources back into metabolizing the venom… “Trying to burn it out. C-could try some drugs.” He paused for breath, studying Raidou for hidden injuries. “Is everyone stable?”
Stable might be all they could hope for.
Kakashi doubted it.
Raidou hesitated fractionally, then said, “Far as I can tell, no one’s actively dying, except maybe the civilians you sent out.”
At least they’d survived the trip to the surface.
“Civilians?” Genma rasped.
“Two,” said Raidou. “Rode one of Hound’s clones out. Rat’s clones are guarding them.”
“Only two?” Genma said.
“The rest were too far gone,” Kakashi said shortly, and hefted Genma into a better position. “We should get back to Rat and Ram.”
He wanted out of this mountain of perpetual rockslides.
Two of Katsuko’s clones slipped around Raidou, silent and sure-footed, and reached gloved hands out for Genma. Kakashi twitched reflexively back, unwilling to surrender an injured teammate, but then got a grip on himself. Clones didn’t tire, and they didn’t hurt. They’d jolt Genma less.
“Don’t worry, handsome,” said the first, easing Genma free.
“We’ve got the lieutenant,” said the second.
They went with the fore-and-aft carry, one taking Genma’s feet, the other looping her hands beneath his arms and locking them over his chest, so that he was sitting upright, with his back braced against her armored chestplate. He could see and breathe; they could move easily.
Without Genma’s weight on the back of his neck, Kakashi felt air-light.
Raidou gave him a hard look. “Planning to fall down again?”
“No,” said Kakashi. “You?”
The corner of Raidou’s mouth lifted. “Not yet.”
Genma’s maskless look was more doubtful. “Take a soldier pill,” he ordered.
Arguing would waste time, and he probably did need the energy, even if it would make the eventual crash harder. Kakashi hooked a second pill out of the silver steel tube, showed it to Genma, then made it vanish under his masks. It cracked bitterly between his teeth, but the flood of burning chakra made his shivering vision settle. He straightened his back.
“Now?” he asked.
Raidou nodded and stepped out into the rain, trailed by the burdened clones. Genma’s chakra signature was already flaring back up, burning hotter as he fought the paralysis. Kakashi followed them.
And paused once at the tunnel entrance as the renewed smell hit him, blossoming over the mountainside like a personal attack against the world’s gag reflex. The ground was black and oozing, a slow tide of slurry flowing gently downwards. And the mother-demon—
How had Ryouma done that?
It was like the civilians’ bare ribcages all over again, standing up from a gritty heap of collapsed rot. Except a thousand times bigger, and the queen had no actual bones, just an exploded outer shell fringed by the remains of someone’s rock jutsu. The head was the only thing still partially intact, but even the jaws were torn and three quarters of the eyes had been gouged out. Ryouma—with a little help—had managed to unzip her all over the landscape.
It was impressive, but also frustrating. Kakashi had been one hit away from bringing the mother down, before she’d numbed his arm. If he’d landed it…
Katsuko wouldn’t have broken bones, and Ryouma’s chakra wouldn’t be a pale shade of itself.
“Light a fire under it, Hound!” Raidou yelled back over one shoulder.
Kakashi shook himself, called up his chakra, and joined his team leaders in a slow, disgusting surf back down to level ground. Little pinpricks of light winked out on the edges of his ragged senses—lesser demons dying as Katsuko’s clones ran them down. Ten left, then five, then none.
Unless there was something bigger under that mountain, there was nothing left to deal with but the clean up.
Starting with Katsuko and Ryouma.
Kakashi came to a halt next to Genma and his carry-clones, and stared at the drenched, tent-wrapped, ghostly pale replacements of his teammates. The visible parts of Ryouma were grimed with a layer of reddish black, like he’d gone swimming in a lake of terrible choices. Katsuko’s maskless face was smeared with bloody streaks, the origin of which probably lay beneath the piece of gauze taped haphazardly to her forehead. The strap of a sling was just visible beneath the tent-blanket. They were both shivering fitfully.
And both grinning.
“Taichou, lieutenant,” Katsuko said, and looked at Kakashi. “Buttercup.”
Ryouma’s forehead creased. “Buttercup?”
“Too cliché?” Katsuko said, through chattering teeth. “What about sugar-lips?”
“My hero, maybe.” Ryouma tipped his head sideways, resting it against the top of Katsuko’s head, as if holding himself upright was just too tiring. “That was you who cracked her armor and took off her tail, wasn’t it? An’— What happened to the lieutenant?”
“He got stung,” Kakashi said, after a quick blink over hero. He glanced back at the mother-demon’s fallen body with a new eye, seeing the way the carapace had peeled open like flower petals, as if something had forced it from the inside… “Did you go through her back?”
“He wrestled with her intestines and won,” Katsuko said. “It was pretty hot.”
Ryouma knocked his jaw gently against her skull, which made them both wince, and lifted his head with effort. “She was falling over on me. It was that or lose the weak point in her armor.” He paused, and added: “I reconsidered that choice a lot when I was inside.”
Kakashi could imagine.
At least that Raikiri-crack had done something.
“Not to interrupt this moment of bonding,” Raidou said, helping Katsuko’s clones settle Genma carefully down onto a cloak spread over the mud. “But we need to pack up and get everyone out of here. Hound, check your teammates—Ram’s head, Rat’s collarbone. I want that break good and strapped.”
“Painkillers,” Genma croaked.
“For both of ‘em,” Raidou agreed. “Don’t give Ram any soldier pills. He’s tapped the limit.”
“The lieutenant—” Kakashi began.
“I’ve got him,” said Raidou firmly, already shucking Genma’s armor off and peeling stained bandages away from the slashed belly wound.
Genma hissed quietly. “B-blood pill,” he said, managing to slur and stutter at the same time. “For Ram, ‘an for m-me.”
Kakashi frowned. “Ram’s not bleeding.” At least, not anywhere obvious.
“C-clotting,” Genma said. “Soldier pills affect clotting. Could be b-bleeding inside. Blood pill’d help.” He took a raspy breath and added: “You said head injury. B-brain bleed?”
Ryouma’s eyes widened in alarm. Kakashi caught the underside of his jaw and tipped his face up into the meager grey light, leaning in to take a closer look.
“Pupils look even,” Kakashi said, and called up a firefly flurry of sparks around his fingertips, making blue-white lights pop brightly, then vanish. Ryouma blinked rapidly. Kakashi let him go. “Constricting and dilating normally, too.”
“Good,” Genma said. He paused for breath. “Blood pill, anyway.”
“You heard the lieutenant,” Kakashi told Ryouma, digging his good hand into his med-kit. He found the pill-container by its ridged, identifying marks, and handed it over to go with the canteen already resting on Ryouma’s lap.
Ryouma fumbled both with blackened, blue-nailed hands.
Katsuko caught the canteen with her good hand. Kakashi rescued his pills, freed one, and for purposes of expediency, pressed it to Ryouma’s mouth. Teeth scraped his fingertips, and the pill vanished. Katsuko offered the canteen, which Ryouma managed to steady and drink from.
Well, if it was a three-man operation for one pill, the journey back to the village was bound to be delightful.
Ryouma lowered the canteen with a sigh. “Blood tastes so much better than rot.”
“Join us in the cuddle pile, Hound,” Katsuko suggested brightly. “Ram needs to keep his body temperature up.”
“You just don’t want me to touch your shoulder,” Kakashi said, pulling the corner of the tent-blanket aside to see what kind of catastrophe had been made of Katsuko’s sling.
It wasn’t actually that bad. Clumsy, but serviceable. The solid ANBU chest plate was already doing a lot of good work to hold the bone in place, and the break didn’t look badly displaced. She was young. Young bones liked to greenstick fracture, not shatter.
Kakashi tightened the sling, pulling Katsuko’s hand up level with her heart and ignoring her thin sound of pain. He strapped another loop of bandage around her upper arm and passed it around her torso, anchoring her arm firmly in place. The knot gave him no problems; it was a poor ninja that didn’t know a dozen one-handed ties.
“What painkillers do you tolerate?” he asked her.
“I’m fine with a normal dose,” she said.
Morphine, then. All jounin—and most chuunin—carried pre-loaded syrettes in their kits. Kakashi found one, snapped the cap, and shot it into her thigh, where a demon claw had helpfully ripped through her black armor underpinning. The violent chakra roil startled him, and made everyone with usable muscle function tense. She took a slow breath through her nose and let it carefully, steadily out.
Not a needle fan, then.
“Same for you?” Kakashi asked Ryouma.
Ryouma hesitated, then shrugged the tent-blanket down just enough to bare one shoulder. “Half a dose, maybe.”
If Raidou was right, killing the mother-demon had taken three soldier pills’ worth of chakra rammed into one jutsu, all funneled through Ryouma’s coils. If he wasn’t feeling that now, he would be soon. Plus painkillers would help ease shock, and Ryouma wasn’t obviously concussed enough to worry about the effects of morphine throwing off an accurate head injury diagnosis.
“Okay,” Kakashi said, and gave him a full dose.
Ryouma twitched away with a thermal glare. “If I pass out from that, you’re carrying me.”
“I thought you never fainted?” Kakashi said, stowing both spent needles back into his belt-pouch. He caught Ryouma’s chin again and pulled the other man’s head slightly down, trying to get a look at whatever invisible head wound Genma and Raidou were so concerned about. There wasn’t anything immediately obvious. He ran a hand quickly over Ryouma’s head, searching for the—
Ryouma yanked away again, hair sticking up in offended spikes.
“You have a lump,” Kakashi informed him. “I don’t think it’s fatal.”
“I’d noticed that. Seeing as how I haven’t died yet,” Ryouma said coldly.
“Good job. Keep it up.” Kakashi patted him once on the bare shoulder and moved back to Katsuko, who still had bleeding wounds and what appeared to be a slight case of the giggles. She squirmed as he inspected a half-dozen scattered wounds that were mostly clotted and packed with grit. She’d picked up more bandages since the last time he’d seen her, notably around her right arm, which was wrapped from elbow to shoulder, obscuring her ANBU tattoo. Ryouma had his own new bandages, too, and likely his own cuts beneath the tent.
Not for the first time, Kakashi wished Rin was here. She would do this so much better.
One of Katsuko’s clones wasn’t nearly as good, but it still stepped forward with two hands and the ability to help. With its assistance, Kakashi managed to get everything cleaned and bandaged, and even swiped the blood off Katsuko’s face, to make her less of an obvious target.
By the time he was done, both she and Ryouma were heavy-lidded and slumped together, but they looked marginally less terrible.
Katsuko raised her head blearily. “Your arm?”
Kakashi glanced down at the deadweight of his right arm, still hanging at his side. He’d adjusted for it now. “Contact poison. It’s getting better.” He could almost feel his fingers, he thought. Or at least the tingling prickle that suggested they might reconnect soon. “Big demon’s stinger kind of… leaked when I took it off.”
Ryouma blinked once, slowly. “Took me about an hour to get feeling back in my shoulder. How much did you get?”
Kakashi thought back to the stinger-bulb rupturing, and the weirdly warm splash of a small keg’s worth of venom, before his arm had dropped off the sensory map. “All of it, I think.”
“Oh.” Ryouma squinted at him. “Wow. You’re lucky she only got your arm. Or—is that successful dodging, or not?” He winced, fumbled, and dragged a hand out of the tent, pressing the heel of his palm to the side of his head. “I told you only half a dose.”
“Try to enjoy the buzz,” Kakashi suggested, ignoring the other questions for everyone’s mental health. He pulled the tent more firmly around the narcotic twins, and turned back to Genma and Raidou. “I think we’re done here.”
“Here, too,” said Raidou, tying a final bandage into place around Genma’s left thigh. He’d worked his way down from the major damage to the lesser scrapes; that last had just been a palm-sized gash, where a demon’s leg or a vicious rock had caught a lucky hit.
At the end tally, Genma had one nasty belly wound, a bitten shoulder, a stabbed shoulder, and enough cuts, scrapes, and bruises to keep a decent medic busy for an afternoon.
Which was unfortunate, given that he was the medic.
Plus, paralysis and self-induced fever, neither of which Raidou was happy about. In theory, the first would wear off and the second was helping it do just that, but he wasn’t a fan of that glassy-eyed, wheat-colored expression in anyone with battle wounds.
Still, he’d gotten water, a blood pill, a second soldier pill, and a carefully modulated dose of painkillers into Genma, which would hold him for now, if the painkillers didn’t flatten his breathing too much. They’d had to use narcotics—anything from another family would attack the fever—but Raidou wasn’t happy about that in a paralyzed man, either.
There was a lot he wasn’t happy with today.
He tossed Genma’s crippled body armor to a clone, who caught it neatly. All twelve had returned from the mountain, which still left eight in the forest.
“Okay, you four,” Raidou said, picking clones at random. “We need a stretcher big enough for two people. Get sturdy branches. We’ll sling the tent between them.” Four clones nodded and sprinted towards the woods. “You two, put Tanuki between Ram and Rat—if he’s gonna be a space heater, we might as well put that to use.”
He expected Katsuko to pipe up about the cuddle pile again, but she seemed to be three-quarters asleep on Ryouma’s shoulder.
They might need that stretcher for three people.
Carefully, two clones lifted Genma and arranged him upright and braced between Ryouma and Katsuko, who winced and hissed at being moved. They huddled back against Genma like he was the one warm spark in a sea of frostbite when the re-shuffling was done.
“Hey, kids,” Genma managed. “D-doing okay?”
“Hush,” Katsuko told him grouchily, and buried her face against his bitten, bandaged shoulder.
Guilt chased over Ryouma’s expressive face. “Guess we didn’t draw off as many as we thought. Sorry, lieutenant.”
“No sorry,” Genma said firmly. “You did good.”
Katsuko gave an irritated little hiss, presumably because people were still talking around her. She slung her good arm across Genma and Ryouma both, drawing the tent closer around them, and locked her fingers around the edge of Ryouma’s chestplate. Ryouma looked briefly startled before his chakra-drained weariness caught back up with him, and he just slouched.
Three taken care of, Raidou moved onto the next thing.
“You,” he said, picking another clone. “Take a message to the clones guarding the civilians; bring them here. The rest of you I want back up on that mountain. Go as deep as you can, see if there’s anything else nasty lurking that we need to know about, and collapse the tunnels down on it. I want that last escape hole brought down, too. Whoever makes it back up, carve me a piece off that corpse. A fang or a pincer, or the head, if you can carry it. Something to take as proof back home.”
“Oooh,” said one of the clones, because Katsuko’s personality was alive and well. “The head, definitely the head.”
“Yes,” said a second.
En masse, they flocked away.
“Need anything from me?” Kakashi asked quietly.
Raidou turned. Of the entire team, Kakashi was the only one who’d managed to keep his ANBU mask on and his armor relatively intact, though he looked exactly like he’d been dropped down the inside of a mountain once or twice. That right arm was still hanging dead, and his visible skin was a mess of untended cuts—presumably from tangling with the demon queen, or whatever else he’d ricocheted off. But nothing was broken, bleeding out, or crippled.
“Stand still a second,” Raidou said, and crossed over to hook Kakashi’s lion-dog mask off.
Kakashi twitched, startled, but didn’t chakra-flick away or break Raidou’s wrist, so that was progress. Raidou pressed acid-burned fingertips to the younger man’s forehead, right above the closed Sharingan eye. Skin-to-skin, it was much easier to get an idea of what Kakashi’s chakra was doing.
It wasn’t as bad as he’d thought. Kakashi was down to reserves and soldier pills, but he was still a lot better than Ryouma.
“How many pills have you taken?” Raidou asked.
Kakashi pulled back. “Two.”
“In what timeframe?”
“Half an hour, maybe.”
That wasn’t too bad. “Can you make it back to the civilian village on your own feet?”
Beneath the thin black mask, Kakashi’s mouth opened.
“Don’t lie to me,” Raidou added, with the spine-straightening voice he’d learned from his mothers, who were both teachers and could spot deception blindfolded.
Kakashi closed his mouth, scowled, and opened it again. “I can make it.”
“All right, then.” Raidou gave him the mask back. “Let me take a look at your injuries.”
Tending Kakashi was a lot like trying to bandage a wet cat: awkward, squirmy, and filled with the knowledge that, at any moment, there could be claws. Or a tanto. But Raidou managed to clean bloodied skin and apply bandages where they were needed. He even strapped that paralyzed arm into an easily removed sling, to keep it out of the way.
Before he was even finished, Kakashi had the ANBU mask back on. “You should put some burn cream on your eyes, captain,” he said. “Before they get any worse.”
“That was the next thing on my list,” Raidou said, which was mostly true. It’d been somewhere on the list. He didn’t have burn cream in his kit, but Genma did, and didn’t mind giving it up. On the basis of being a good example, Raidou smeared it everywhere that ached, and stowed the remainder back.
The first set of clones returned shortly, carrying long, neatly trimmed branches between them. They were almost immediately followed by the group with the civilians, who were pale and rain-soaked, but didn’t seem to be in any worse shape than they’d been previously.
Two stretchers, Raidou realized, feeling like an idiot. They needed two.
Fortunately, the clones had brought enough branches for both, and Kakashi had a second tent sealed in a scroll. It took less than five minutes to get two decent stretchers assembled. The paralyzed civilians were easily tucked into one, bundled beneath cloaks and dosed with water and half a chakra pill each, to offset the demon drain. With the other stretcher waiting, Raidou went to Katsuko, who was ruffled and unhappy without the tent to shield her from the rain.
“Time to walk, Ueno,” Raidou told her. “Think you can manage, or do you need to ride?”
She gave him a look that suggested nothing was right with her world, and she thought it was his fault. “I can walk, taichou. But I’d prefer to be carried by servants.”
Raidou grinned and held a hand out to her. “In your next life, maybe.”
She grabbed his wrist, letting him grab hers back and haul her up. Then she startled him by sagging against his chestplate for a moment, shoulders hunching, head ducked down. Was she that tired?
Or had she been that worried for him, when the queen had nearly blinded him?
The team were watching them, but dammit, they’d both had near misses today. He wrapped a quick, careful arm around her thin shoulders, and lowered his head. “Gave me a heart attack when you fell, you know,” he murmured, just for her ears.
“Are you going to start talking about feelings?” she said.
Raidou snorted laughter, and let her go. “Not yet,” he said. “But I’ll owe you the raincheck.”
She straightened her shoulders, slipping back into the skin of a professional shinobi. “You’ll have to bribe me first. I accept alcohol and free ramen coupons.”
“Or we could not,” Raidou said.
She snickered, but her good elbow brushed against him as she went to wrangle her clones. It took a concerted effort by six of them to get Ryouma and Genma lifted into the second stretcher and semi-comfortably arranged so that no one’s pointy joints were grievously injuring anybody else. Raidou draped another cloak over them, and checked both foreheads—one too warm, the other too cold. Ryouma blinked hard, obviously clinging to consciousness by his fingernails.
“It’s three hours back to Hayama,” Raidou told them. “We’ll make the best time we can and get you both to a doctor. I’ll be keeping an eye, but watch each other, okay? If something goes wrong, or feels wrong, sing out.”
“Got any song in mind?” Ryouma said, with a drug-blurred grin. “Not sure my throat’s up to anything really melodic, but I could maybe manage ‘Bury Me Under The Sycamore Tree’…”
Genma gave a cracking, hoarse-voiced laugh and sang half a line, voice slipping and wavering. Raidou’s heart sank. That was why medics didn’t treat themselves, because they made themselves delirious.
He flipped the cloak back on Genma’s side, letting wind and the increasing rain do the work of an ice-pack, and crouched. Steady-voiced, he said, “You’re too hot, Tanuki. Bring it down.”
Genma’s eyelashes flicked raindrops as he blinked rapidly, then seemed to re-focus. “Yeah,” he rasped. “Not working great, anyway.”
But he hadn’t stuttered that time, so something was making a difference.
“You’re doing fine,” Raidou told him, squeezing one of the few uninjured spots on his right shoulder. He reached across, almost doing the same for Ryouma, then ruffled the filthy black hair instead. “You, too.”
Ryouma’s smile lifted, crooked. “I’ll watch him,” he promised.
In the distance, thunder rolled—and kept rolling as Kakashi’s tunnel collapsed in with a dull roar. Katsuko twitched as, presumably, clone memories dropped back into her head. She looked back at the mountain. Tiny figures scurried over the demon-queen’s corpse, drawn blades flashing in the fading evening light.
“There’s a few small demons in the tunnels,” Katsuko reported quietly. “Or there were. Couple of clones are going deeper to check the rest.”
Raidou nodded and straightened. “Take the left flank,” he said. “Hound, I want you on the right. Keep your senses open, in case there’s anything else in the woods. Clones, stretchers and one on-point.”
Despite injuries and weariness, the reaction was still seamless. Eight clones hefted the stretchers, moving with the synchronized pace that came naturally. The one remaining clone ran up ahead, taking point. Kakashi and Katsuko fell into their positions, chakra tightly coiled; Kakashi masked and light-footed, Katsuko watchful and fierce.
Raidou fell back to take the rear. He whistled softly, and the entire party ran.