It was the pungent, coppery smell of fresh blood that made him finally decide to pay attention.
Gaara had been ordered to stay in this hotel room, so here he would stay. He typically didn’t care about such orders. However, it sounded like it was going badly outside, and he wasn’t going to help unless forced to.
There was one other person in the dingy room, a boy only a bit younger than himself. Sensing his stare, the boy turned away from the door and met his gaze, something most people wouldn’t do.
Still, he was accustomed to being looked at directly by the boy, his pale pupil-less eyes seemingly unfocused, unmoving. It had surprised Gaara the first time, he’d thought the boy was blind.
The boy gestured with his head to the cracked and beaten door, barely held together by the many nails hammered through it by the hotel’s owner.
“They’re losing.” The touch of fear in Miyasato’s voice disgusted him. The boy was a weakling — Gaara could tell when he’d first met the Land of Wind’s only prince. Usually, weaklings weren’t worth the effort it would take to kill them, but there was something about Miyasato that bothered him.
Ignoring Miyasato, Gaara returned to studying the mold patch on the wall across the room. Miyasato shrugged and turned back toward the door, “I was sure the smell of blood would have riled you up.”
The muscles in Gaara’s face stiffened imperceptibly, the only indication he’d heard Miyasato. When he’d tried to kill the weakling, he’d been stopped by his father, but there was no one to stop him now.
Gaara felt the sand in his gourd shift restlessly. It was hungry for the boy’s blood.
Miyasato stood abruptly, backing away from the door. A second later, it exploded inward, shards of rotten wood flying across the room. Gaara stared at the cloud of dust the door had kicked up as it hit the ground, the doorway obscured behind it.
Three men stepped through the cloud, one coughing hard. There was panic and urgency in their eyes, though their faces were resolved. As the men’s eyes passed over him, Gaara twitched.
“There he is,” one of the men said, coughing as he held himself up with the door frame. Blood poured down his left arm from a wound in his shoulder. The other two, who seemed to be in better shape, grabbed Miyasato. The boy tried to fight back. Gaara didn’t move as the two men overpowered Miyasato in a matter of moments, and bound his hands together. A sack was jammed over his head, and the men began hauling him toward the door.
“What about the other kid?”
The wounded man had finally stopped coughing. He’d torn a strip of cloth from his shirt, which he was struggling to wrap around his shoulder. Barely sparing Gaara a glance, the man returned his focus to his profusely bleeding wound.
“Worthless, let’s go.”
They had ignored him.
Gripping Miyasato’s shoulder tightly, one popped their head out into the hotel corridor.
“Is the coast—”
Hearing his friend begin to speak, the man turned around. A spike of sand jutted from the forehead of his companion, the tip of the spear only an inch from his face. Before he could react, or even so much as scream, it darted forward.
Gaara’s stared apathetically at the two bodies as they collasped to the floor in the open doorway. The sand tendril waved idly through the air over his shoulder, extending from the head of the large sand gourd strapped to his back.
“No! Stop! What are you-!?”
Gaara narrowed his eyes as the last one, the man with a bleeding shoulder, tried to flee. He didn’t make it far. Immediately tripping over the outstretched arm of his dead companion, the man lost his balance. With a flick of his finger, Gaara commanded the sand forward. A pike formed beneath the man, and a split second later, it was driven through his chest by his own weight as he fell.
Miyasato had managed to wiggle his hands from the hastily tied rope and pulled the sack off his head. Standing up, he brushed what sand wasn’t caked in blood off his clothes.
Gaara said nothing as Miyasato returned to his bed, similarly dilapidated, and sat down.
The room was silent for several minutes. The sounds of fighting downstairs quieting and the pools of blood beneath the three dead men slowly growing.
“Thank you, Gaara.”
Gaara looked away, ignoring him.
Kazekage Tower, Sunagakure, Land of Wind, EN.
Soft footsteps reverberated across the sandy surfaces as Rasa made his way through the corridor of cells, both occupied and empty. As he neared a little commotion at the end of it, he took off his triangular hat. He only wore it for special occasions, as it hindered his ability to see.
“Rasa-sama,” came from the grim-looking man in the Suna Jōnin attire – dark brown pants and shirt, sandals to match, and a sand-colored vest. As if trying to match his dull and unappealing visage, his face was perpetually in a scowl.
“Captain. I take it that the prisoner is in the cell?” The guard nodded, and he continued. “Have you happened to extract anything from him yet?”
“Unfortunately not, sir. His time in the desert took a toll on his wits. He won’t stop babbling nonsense.”
Sighing heavily, Rasa stroked his temples in thought. “If that goes on, we won’t get anything of use from him. I will talk with the perpetrator. The fool is lucky the guards saved him after running into Gaara at full speed.”
Bowing slightly, the man commanded the stationed guards to open the reinforced steel door, ushering the leader of Suna into almost blinding darkness. Only a few rays of light from the iron-barred opening in the wall illuminated the space. In the center of the room sat the culprit and a Suna interrogator at a plain wooden table, locked in a one-sided discussion.
“I’ll ask you one more time: are you a Kumo Spy? We found your headband.”
The two were a stark contrast, a collected Jōnin, and a ragged man in a ruined and tattered robe, sunburnt skin littered all over his exposed flesh. Hunched, he muttered something barely heard.
“Rasa-sama,” came from the interrogator as he noticed Rasa and stood.
The interrogator continued as he walked up to Rasa, “We’ve been taking turns interrogating the man for the past hour, no torture due to his condition.”
At that, the Shinobi deflated, his voice full of frustration. “Nothing on the case, sir, he won’t answer any of our questions, as if deaf or out of touch with reality. But he won’t stop talking of-”
“T-the stone, they have it…” came from the captive, his form spastically jolting in apparent pain.
“I see, I’ll take it from here.” As Rasa dismissed the Jōnin, he placed his hat on the table and took the seat across from the man. His posture was ramrod straight, exuding regality, and strength.
Alone with the culprit, Rasa carefully examined his face, riddled with baked flesh. Though his injuries were serious and repulsive to look at, what caught his eye was the haunted, ghostly stare. A man of war, he was accustomed to facing death on the battlefield, often bearing witness to a man drawing his final breath, their life flickering out. And although his victims were numerous, he could still see their faces. The same eyes of the dead he saw every night were the same that stared at him now.
Cautiously trying to make eye contact, he addressed the man. “The deserts are not kind to the unprepared. What made you suffer it so?”
As his shaking slowed a little, the prisoner lifted his head, staring at something past the four walls. “It came from the shadows…”
Rasa listened intently.
“They chased me… claws, leaving no marks…steps, lacking footprints…” Locking eyes for the first time with Rasa, his shaky voice came forth, “They have the stone.”
“What stone? Who attacked you?”
At that, the man’s eyes rushed to a dark corner of the room; the blank expression on his face turning to one of terror. “They’re still here, they’re never going to let me go! Not till what I saw dies with me…”
“Tell me who attacked you, and we will help you.”
From terror to total despair, he looked back again at Rasa.
“You don’t get it; they’ve got the stone! They’re coming for me!” He shouted, his eyes darting all around the room. “I can hear them breathe!”
“Calm down, sir-”
The man tried to spring from his chair violently, but his restraints prevented him. “NO! NO! GET AWAY FROM ME, I BEG OF YOU!”
Rasa folded his hands in front of his face as he carefully studied the man.
“You have to help me!” The man screamed frantically, causing Rasa to wince a bit at the pitch. The tell-tale sound of insanity was creeping into the prisoner’s voice.
Rasa felt frustration bubbling inside him.
“You said someone is chasing you. Who?” He demanded, bringing the frenzied man’s attention back to him.
“The shadows. They are here, in this room. ”
Rasa sighed deeply and was about to ask another question when the cell door opened, revealing Baki holding a scroll in his outstretched hand.
“It’s an urgent message from the Daimyō, Rasa-sama,” Baki explained.
Standing, Rasa looked down at the man who had returned to mumbling incoherently under his breath. Shaking his head, he picked up his hat and walked around the table. Accepting the scroll from his second-in-command, he checked the seal. It was indeed the Daimyō’s, and intact.
“Have the prisoner escorted to the Kumo Embassy and make sure he gets there safely,” Rasa ordered as he broke the seal and unfurled the scroll.
Baki nodded and kept the door open for Rasa, who had stopped as he read the scroll. A moment passed, and Rasa rolled it back up.
“Also, send Gaara and Sasori to my office right away.”
Although he had memorized the contents, Rasa still unfurled the scroll again. He scanned over it for anything he might have missed, but there was nothing more. He sighed as he rolled it back up, and placed it in a locked drawer in his desk.
Folding his hands on the desk in front of him, Rasa stared at the heavy wooden double doors on the other side of his office. The room around him wasn’t as extravegant as one might expect for his rank as Kazekage. The few decorations there were pre-dated his appointment to the position, and he’d just never removed them.
The desk was relatively new. He’d bought it a few days after he took up the post, and althought it weighed a ton and was carved and polished, it was very simple and minimal.
It didn’t bother him. He didn’t want to enjoy being in his office, and when he was here, he wasn’t paying attention to the decorations or lack thereof anyway.
The large double doors swung open. He blinked, and smiled as he greeted the red-headed Puppeteer Captain, who bowed in an exaggerated fashion in reply.
Moving to one of the two chairs in front of Rasa’s desk, Sasori sat down.
Both turned toward the doorway as they sensed the familiar fear that seemed to haunt Gaara’s every step. The low level of killing intent the Jinchuriki steadily released didn’t bother either of them, although it caused most to feel uneasy around the boy.
Gaara walked over to a corner in the room, ignoring Rasa and Sasori. Rasa gazed at Gaara for a moment, and shook his head as he sighed quietly. Sasori offered him a sympathetic shrug. A moment of silence passed, and Baki entered. He closed the doors Gaara hadn’t bothered to close and hurried over to the only other available chair in the room. He noticed Gaara in the corner, but he didn’t look at him.
“Sorry for being late,” Baki apologized as he kicked Sasori’s weak attempt to block access to the chair with his leg.
“So, what’s going on?” Sasori asked cheerfully as he propped his feet up on Rasa’s desk, causing the Kazekage to scowl. Sasori pretended to have not noticed, and pulled out a kunai that he began fiddling with.
Rasa shook his head, letting it go, “I received an urgent message from the Daimyō. He wishes for me to be in Kazedama in three days.”
Sasori leaned back in his chair, causing the wooden legs to squeak. Tossing the kunai in the air, he caught it between his fingers, inches from his own face. Baki glanced at him, clearly annoyed by the redhead’s showboating.
“Isn’t it the prince’s eighth birthday in three days?” Sasori asked, slamming the chair back down.
Rasa nodded, “Yes. I am to bring Gaara and two teams of Elite with me.”
Sasori whistled in surprise, “Seems a little overkill for a birthday party, don’t you think? The prince is one of the most heavily guarded people in the Land of Wind, and for something like a birthday party, the security will be even higher. I’ve heard he hasn’t even been seen in public for years.”
“Whatever is going on, the Daimyō did not explain it in his summons. I’m certain that he will explain it when we arrive.”
Sasori raised an eyebrow at Rasa’s choice of words before tapping his chin. “If we’re bringing short, dark, and broody over there,” he said as he jutted a thumb toward Gaara, “Then we will need to bring the seals, we got enough for two teams, you, and me. Chiyo-san made some more a few weeks ago.”
The killing intent rolling off Gaara spiked slightly, but none of them acknowledged it.
“Yes. I don’t know how long we’ll stay, so tell the teams to bring stealth gear and long-term supplies. However, we will enter the capital in plain sight.”
“Cool, I’ll get the boys together then,” Sasori replied. Before anything more could be said, he vanished in a swirl of sand. The chair he’d been leaning back in fell the rest of the way and crashed to the floor.
Baki rolled his eyes before turning to Rasa.
“I’m assuming I’ll be in charge while you’re away?” He inquired, and Rasa nodded.
“Yes, but don’t announce the visit to Kazedama until tomorrow. You can tell Temari and Kankurō right away, however.”
Outside Kazedama, Land of Wind, EN.
Although Rasa hadn’t been alive to see it, the Land of Wind had once been a thriving paradise. Everyone had wanted to live here. With its peaceful breezes and winds, it had been well deserving of its name. Numerous clans had made their home here during the Warring Clans Era, including his own. Families had come and gone since before there were records. Though some like the Uchiha and Hyūga had been around longer than the oldest scrolls kept track.
However, over centuries, the Land of Wind had slowly withered and dried out. Sand had risen from underneath the fertile ground, choking out the trees and verdure. The winds had turned sharp and violent, whipping up massive sandstorms.
Clans had been forced to relocate as the water dried up, and the beasts of prey fled to better lands.
It was a story his father had told him.
Rasa chuckled. Somehow, despite the land’s uninhabitable state after the end of the Warring Clans Era, the Land of Wind’s forefathers had decided this barren wasteland was the place to build their country. Not much had changed in the eighty-odd years since the Wind Country had been founded. The desert was as barren and lifeless as it had always been. The hot sun beat down relentlessly on those that were brave, stupid, or unlucky enough to live here.
Though, if he was forced to express a benefit of his country’s unforgiving terrain, he would say it weeded out the weak from the strong very quickly. That was why the Suna Shinobi Academy’s final test was to survive two weeks alone in the desert.
Most survived, having grown up in the hot, ruthless wasteland their whole life. However, the bodies of those who did not were returned to their families to be buried.
He did wish the desert was more hospitable to roads though. The shifting surface made it difficult to build anything permanent. Of course, for Shinobi, roads were dangerous to travel on. It made them predictable, and were often the longer route. If traveling across the desert unaided, it only took a Jōnin three days to travel from Suna to Kazedama.
No, the best use of them would be for civilian travel. It would reduce the number of civilian deaths and meaningless search missions that never resulted in bodies being found.
Some roads had been built despite the odds, of course. The two finest examples being the hundreds of roads constructed throughout the Land of Wind’s many cities, and the Silk Road, which had taken three years to finish. It stretched for hundreds of miles across the country, beginning in Kazedama and ending in Dango City.
As he crested yet another sand dune, the Silk Road came into view to the south. Several small dots traveled along its surface, some larger than others as civilians pulled carts behind them.
Periodic cleaning of the sandstone brick surface of the Silk Road was a typical D-rank mission for the Shinobi Genin of the cities and villages along the road. Fortunately, not something he’d ever had to do personally. Suna was in the opposite direction of the Silk Road.
Turning toward the east, Rasa smiled as he saw the Land of Wind’s beautiful capital, Kazedama. It had been a long time. He snapped his fingers and leaped off the sand dune. Shinobi followed closely behind. Gaara lingered for a few moments, staring at the Shinobi below with an unreadable expression. He vanished in a swirl of sand, and appeared near the group at the base of the dune.
It was only a half mile walk to reach the dead-end of a sandstone brick road. The unfinished beginnings of the road to Suna.
Rasa raised an eyebrow as he noticed the numerous buildings, shops, and homes built outside Kazedama’s towering walls. The city had not been designed to be the capitol when it was first constructed, and it seemed it had finally begun to overflow. Homes had been constructed along the outside to accommodate the ever-growing population.
As Rasa and his Shinobi walked toward the entrance gate civilians moved to the roadside. His white Kazekage robes made them stand out from other Shinobi, but it was Gaara’s killing intent that caused those nearby to look around as they began to feel uneasy, trying to discover the cause.
Gaara’s reputation preceded him. Not a word was spoken, but people began pushing each other in their hurry to escape, not wanting to risk drawing attention to themselves by speaking. Sasori discretely signaled to the Elite team, and four of the Shinobi dropped back to and encircled Gaara. Surrounding Gaara wasn’t a brilliant idea at the best of times, but luckily today Gaara didn’t seem to care.
The large gate into the inner part of the city loomed above, although there were hardly any shadows. The sun was at its highest point, and the heat was at its worst.
Rasa saw one of the gate guards hurriedly enter a non-descript two story building near the entrance. A moment later, a Kunoichi with dirty blonde hair exited and began walking toward them.
“Kanade!” Sasori shouted, beaming the approaching Kunoichi one of his trademarked grins. The Kunoichi groaned, and Rasa shook his head in amusment at Sasori’s antics.
“Sasori… why didn’t I realize you’d be coming?” She replied, reluctantly shaking the Puppeteer Captain’s hand.
“Did you miss me?” Sasori inquired, his tone hopeful.
Sasori pretended to have not heard her and continued on, unperturbed, “You’re here to lead us to the palace, right?”
Kanade nodded, “Hai. First, I need to make sure that you have the Jinchūriki under control?”
Gaara returned Kanade’s distrustful stare with a blank stare of his own. He didn’t react visibly react as she released killing intent just slightly greater than he was. Gaara felt the sand in his gourd shift. Was she going to fight him?
Rasa glanced over his shoulder and noticed the concerning expression on Gaara’s face. Slipping a seal tag from his back pouch, he deliberately moved it through Gaara’s line of sight before handing it to Kanade. The killing intent emenating from his son dropped drastically as he saw the sealing tag.
Turning her gaze away from the red-headed Jinchūriki, Kanade observed the tag skeptically. She wasn’t a professional in seals or even that knowledgeable, but she knew what it was.
“No, Ma’am, we all have one.” Hori, one of the Elite Shinobi closest to her, answered, holding up an identical seal.
Kanade’s eyes narrowed, clearly uncertain. She glanced between Hori, Gaara, Rasa, and the seal in her hands a few times before finally handing the seal back to Rasa, who pocketed it. Rasa could tell the Kunoichi’s gut feeling was probably being overridden by orders from the Daimyō. He couldn’t blame her; he also believed that bringing Gaara here was a bad idea, but orders were orders.
The trip from the gates to the palace took only a few minutes, mostly due to Gaara’s presence clearing any street they were on within moments. He made a few inquiries as to the specifics of the situation as they walked, but Kanade only told him that the Daimyō wished to speak with him about it personally.
So, he admired the city as they walked toward the palace. It had changed since he was last here, more than half a decade ago now. The buildings were different, redesigned, taller. Rasa was surprised to see a Shinobi-only restaurant on the top floor of a building nearby, a wide entrance balcony stretching looming over the street below.
Palace guards opened the gates as they arrived, and the group began climbing the many steps to the grand palace. A beautifully decorated courtyard, filled with plant not native to Land of Wind, gave way to another set of stairs that ended at a large set of doors
Despite the doors easily dwarfing her by several times her height, Kanade pushed them open with apparent ease and stepped aside.
Rasa smiled as he saw the Daimyo. The ornate throne upon which he sat glistened in the sunlight streaming from the windows at the top of the throne room, reflecting off the hard gold.
The Daimyō stood, and Rasa frowned as he saw several things that instantly concerned him.
“Rasa, my friend, thank you for coming at such short notice.”
The Daimyō’s bandaged arm was held up by a sling. The slight slip as he had stood, one of his guards steadying him. Anger rose in Rasa’s chest as his eyes narrowed, his shoulders tense. Someone had attacked the Daimyō.
Raising his hand, the Daimyō stopped him a split second before he’d been about to speed across the throne room.
“I’m fine, don’t worry about me.”
The group came to a stop at the base of the small flight of stairs bordering the throne. The Daimyō made his way down.
“Welcome to the Capital, Rasa. It’s good to have you back. Our great city rejoices and all that.”
Rasa smiled laconically, “I’m sure the city doesn’t care, Torio.”
Torio grinned, the happiness on his face uncharasistic of a man of his stature. “Yeah, you’re right. It probably doesn’t.”
Coming together in an awkward hug, Rasa did his best not to brush against Torio’s bandaged arm.
“What happened?” Rasa asked as soon as they separated. Torio laughed.
“Always right to the point, but don’t worry about it right now, we’ll discuss it later. You and I both know I’ve survived worse than this.” Torio said as he gestured to his arm.
Rasa nodded in agreement, “Nevertheless, I am concerned.”
“Of course, of course. As I said before, thank you for coming on such short notice. You made it just in time for Miyasato’s birthday tonight.”
Accepting that he would have to wait for his answers, Rasa moved on.
“This is my youngest son, Gaara.” He said as he step aside. Gaara turned to the Daimyo, his blank expression unchanged. Rasa’s hand hovered near his pouch, ready to draw the seal if necessary.
“I’m glad to finally meet you, Gaara of the Sand.”
Torio wasn’t bothered by Gaara’s disrespect, and Rasa gestured to the other redhead in the room.
“This is Sasori of the Red Sands, and Captain of the Puppeteers.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Sasori-san,” Torio said kindly, returning the Captain’s deep bow with a slight nod of his head.
“The feeling is mutual, Torio-sama,” Sasori replied with uncharacteristic respect. “How is your son? I’m unsure as to the truth of the rumors I have heard, but has he really never left this palace?”
Gaara glanced toward the Daimyō briefly.
Torio shook his head, almost sadly. “No, he has not. He can’t leave for his own safety, although I doubt he’d have any desire to leave even if I let him.”
“Will we be meeting him?” Sasori inquired.
Torio nodded, smiling, “Of course, he’ll be here shortly.”