o o o RED BLOSSOM o o o
o o Chapter 8: Into The Mist o o
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Two figures slipped quietly down the slope beyond the walls of Mizutou in the hour before dawn, when the mist had come rolling in between the gaps in the southern cliffs and plunged the valleys into shadow. To Sakura, who was very tired, the ease with which they'd escaped the city was a great relief. Kakashi, however, seemed all the more grim for it. When Sakura remarked on it, his only response was, "It was too easily done. It must be what they want."
Sakura shook her head, bemused.
The downhill trek was long and slippery; the moisture in the air made the undergrowth slick and treacherous. The mist was also thickening steadily. Thanks to the wan light from the approaching sunrise Sakura could just make out Kakashi's lean figure hiking in front of her, but the landscape beyond was blurred and indistinct. They were descending into a valley between mountain walls---a valley so deep the low clouds pooled in it like a blue-gray sea. Here and there the tops of bamboo groves spiked upward from it, and dark green treetops rose in mounds above it like small islands. Sakura noticed that some of these were dotted with red.
"I guess even islands have autumn leaves," she observed.
Kakashi's eyes roamed the valley. "Those are flowers."
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Within the hour, they had hiked down into the thickest of the fog. By this point Kakashi had started hearing her feet stumble every three paces. He knew it wasn't the steepness of the place but the poison at work. He had made a point of asking her every half hour or so for a detailed description of how she felt, which he knew scared her but it couldn't be helped. He knew the symptoms of the Aoite toxin, and he was using her reaction to it as a gauge to measure just how much time they had. It was a clock---for both Sakura and Sasuke.
They were just one hour out of Mizutou when he'd first noted her balance was off.
'Disorientation, fever, shock, convulsions, then death,' he told himself grimly, listing the stages in his mind. 'We have one day.'
"Sakura, come here." Kakashi stopped on the slope and sank carefully into a crouch. She bumped into him and almost tripped. Fortunately, he caught her hands before she could somersault over him. "Get on."
Sakura obliged without protest. Kakashi stood up, shifting his shoulders to get her settled on his back. He could feel her heart beating, and knew from the pace that it was still within the normal, safe rhythm. If it sped up and stayed that way, she would die within an hour.
"Hold onto my neck," he ordered. He pulled his hitae ate up to uncover the Sharingan eye, which he'd concealed when they left Mizutou. He had the distinct premonition that he was going to need it.
Then he took off down the slope, using shinobi speed.
Moisture struck his face above the nose, but he didn't allow himself the luxury of squinting to keep it out. They were plunging down through the mist layer now at a breakneck pace. Kakashi's light footsteps alternately squelched in mud and rustled through wet grass. Then the landscape grew steeper, and the knee-deep greenery gave way to a slicker carpet of lime green moss. By this change Kakashi knew they were approaching the valley floor. At one point his foot landed with a splash and almost slid dangerously on a rock.
"A stream?" Sakura murmured behind him. "I hear water."
Kakashi could hear it as well, and felt slightly relieved because he knew exactly where they were.
"There's a waterfall to our right," he told her. "Mizutou is named for the ten waterfalls in this valley. This is the first of them."
After another minute or so, the water-song grew louder, and just as Kakashi had expected they soon plunged through the last layer of mist and into the dark green wood below. His footfalls finally landed on flat, springy turf, and to his right a small pool burbled glassily amid the screen of foliage. They'd reached the valley floor.
"Get a drink," Kakashi ordered softly, setting Sakura down beside the pool. "We'll be moving fast."
She threw him a brief, questioning glance, but then she seemed to realize the reason for his concern with haste. She blanched and turned to bend over the water. While she drank, Kakashi surveyed the forest ahead. Unlike in the Fire Country's forests, the Water Country's slender trees grew together in thickets. Ferns curled and stretched their tendrils across the ground, obscuring it from view. In short, there was an abundance of places where the Mist could have laid traps.
Somewhere off in the distant green darkness, a stick cracked. Then another. He tensed.
"I'm done," Sakura informed him, straightening and swiping water off her mouth.
As Kakashi knelt so she could climb back onto his back, she added, "I wonder how Sasuke and Naruto are doing."
Kakashi pressed his lips together grimly beneath the mask. As his subordinate's arms wrapped themselves trustingly over his shoulders, he rose to stand and pulled his hitae ate up from the Sharingan eye.
"Sakura," he said in a low voice, "from here on out, don't say anything. We're being watched."
He felt her nod. Satisfied, he started off into the trees. Vines trailing along the forest floor snagged at his feet. When they broke it was with the wet sound of tearing leaves.
It sounded like thunder to his ears.
After the third time he caught himself looking up at the green canopy above he shook his head; it was wishful thinking. The branches above were so entangled that traversing them in the manner of Konoha shinobi would be even slower than walking on the ground. He gritted his teeth.
'But every twig, every stem I break is a glaring sign to tell the Mist where I've passed.'
Another hour passed.
Then he came to realize all his stealth had been for nothing.
The shinobi trailing him were so well concealed Kakashi couldn't locate them at all. But he knew they were there the instant the mist began to creep in between the trees. Ordinarily, as far into the forest as he was the low clouds would not move swiftly at all, let alone penetrate some of the dense thickets he'd pushed his way through. But the increase of chill and damp in the air was so sudden Kakashi noticed it immediately. White ribbons of cloud slid past his body as he walked.
He would have preferred to stop and call out to the ones following him, to make his intentions known at once and to clear up the mystery of theirs. As a former member of ANBU, he was well aware of the disadvantage he was at not knowing their locations. However, if these were shinobi operating on their own, without the consent of the Mist Village, it would be best to put off confronting them until he was within sight of the actual village. In that case he could present direct evidence to the Mist of a conspiracy.
He drew in a deep breath. The first priority, at any rate, was to make it to the Mist alive.
"Konoha no Senpuu!" he shouted.
The surrounding wood was suddenly filled with the hiss of leaves, and the crackling thrash of branches. The gale-force wind spun the mist tendrils until they dispersed altogether amid the flying twigs and snapping vines. Kakashi had channeled a large amount of chakra into the jutsu, knowing if he didn't it wouldn't be effective as a diversionary tactic. Sakura's arms tightened convulsively as something shining whizzed past both their faces.
A shuriken. It had been deflected at the last second by the wind; otherwise it would have taken both their heads.
Kakashi was off like a bolt from a bow. Branches whipped past his face, snagged in his clothing. He immediately found sprinting along the ground to be out of the question; the undergrowth snared his ankles and thighs, snapping apart with bruising force as he surged forward against them. They were traps---living traps set by the Mist.
But he wasn't aware of the second shuriken hurtling toward him until it was too late. At the last instant he heard the deadly whistle of steel through air. And a harsh clang. Heart pounding, he glanced over one shoulder and saw two things: the first, that Sakura had just deflected the flying blade with a kunai in one hand. It was the only reason their heads weren't rolling across the forest floor. The second: their pursuers were gaining on them. Dark shapes came hurtling through the midst.
Once, again Kakashi's hand was being forced. Gathering chakra into his feet---precious chakra, which he'd been reserving for Chidori---he launched himself sideways in a ninety-degree flip, landed hard against the bark of a tree in a crouch, and then shot up the trunk.
Sakura's chin pressed into the hollow at the back of his neck to avoid being blinded by the branches. Sticks snapped off against Kakashi's shoulders, though he ran at a crouch. Above him, he could see the green canopy lightening. Then he burst through a haze of leaves, spraying gathered dew every which way.
He paused there, poised on the knife-point of the topmost branch. It swayed beneath him as a cold wind stirred the trees in the valley, swishing leaves all around him in a deafening sigh, like the forest awakening.
And in between the trees, roiling toward them from all directions, came the mist. Swift as the surging tides.
Kakashi's gut clenched.
From beneath him came the staccato snap of branches. He looked down.
Something shot up the trunk of the tree, making straight for his perch.
He sprang off the branch point and took off across the treetops.
From the very first step he took, the needles began to fly. He felt the light branch bend beneath the ball of his foot, ever so slightly. It was followed by a crackle from below, then the whine of silver points shooting upward in an absurd inverted rain.
They've rigged every large tree? The whole forest is a trap!
However, even as tension coursed hot through his veins, and needles rose in such volumes his very clothes were being shredded from his body in minute slivers, he remained cool-headed and clear-sighted.
More chakra. If I use more chakra, I can be even more light-footed. The traps have a limit to the amount of force required, or they'd go off with every breeze . . .
His legs were on fire. Countless scratches up his shins, and places in his knees where the needles had lodged and bled trickles down his calves. Kakashi was eminently grateful that he'd donned more durable breeches with inner armor in select places; otherwise he might have suffered a hit to the groin. But soon he had gathered enough surplus chakra in his feet so that the light branches scarcely moved.
Sure enough, after a few more paces the needles stopped, and he was able to lengthen his stride. Kakashi wanted to ask Sakura if she was all right, but dared not. She was still holding on to him tightly, and her breath wasn't erratic, so he was forced to content himself with that.
The ocean of trees had narrowed to a green river, which the Jounin was following northeast now. The cliffs closed in on either side to form a crescent-shaped canyon, which if followed to the point where it dead-ended should lead him to the Mist Village.
As he rounded the curve of the crescent, he finally caught sight of the falls at its end---a long, silver ribbon cascading from the higher peaks to below the tree line. The village, if memory served, lay at its base.
As he drew nearer to it, he noticed that the forest below had gone eerily quiet.
Periodic glances downward showed him that the forest floor was still engulfed in mist.
'Why have they stopped?' he wondered, highly uneasy. 'Why the converging mist, the charge, the needles . . . and then nothing?'
He soon realized why.
At first he'd attributed the numbness in his fingertips to the climate. The sun had finally climbed above the horizon line of the eastern cliffs, but the day was gray and gloomy, with a damp quality to the air that could chill even the hardiest traveler to the bone. Then he tried flexing his fingers and found they wouldn't obey him. Frowning, he brought his arms forward to regard his hands. He had been running in the shinobi manner, with arms held horizontal behind him; perhaps the position had tweaked a nerve . . .
He might have dismissed it as such. Save for the fact that when he looked down at his hands, his eyes couldn't seem to focus.
END OF CHAPTER 8