Somewhere in the Land of Storms, EN.
Gaara looked up through the trees’ dense boughs, the stormy sky barely visible among the billowing leaves. Raindrops hit his face, but he didn’t notice them.
The strain from the last few days had forced him to forsake his Genjutsu, and his sand armor was in full, sopping wet display. He would have been wise to abandon it days ago, but he stubbornly refused.
His decision cost him precious Chakra, and the sand tendrils attached to his shoulders probably didn’t help either. While he would have liked to move faster, Gaara refused to leave Naruto or his armor behind.
He only had to make it through this wretched country, and he could recover in safety. The battle with the Eight-Tails Jinchūriki had left him severely depleted, and he’d tunneled for miles to escape shortly after. If not for the demon’s Chakra, he would have long since collapsed from sheer exhaustion.
It irritated Gaara that he was so often forced to rely on its power. He despised giving it control over him, but it was hard to find the point where he ended, and it started. So intertwined was he with the cause of his perpetual misery.
Despite the hatred he felt for it, its power saved him from his first assassin, the day his life changed. He’d been too young to comprehend, too young to realize that his father no longer wanted him.
The civilians had always scorned him, kept their children away from him, loathed the sight of him, and spoke in hushed voices as they scrambled to get away from him. The more daring ones would shout obscenities and throw rocks. He was never physically harmed, the sand shielding him. But it couldn’t defend him against their words, their disdain and hate.
He’d come to despise them in turn, all of them. Yet his father held a special place in his twisted black heart. He now knew the truth. He knew now what his father had done.
Out of his siblings, he’d been thought the most compatible with the demon, and his fate was sealed. He was made a weapon, shaped to kill with ruthless abandon before he’d even been born. He was what his father wanted him to be. And then when he was only five, his father had changed his mind!
A tendril smashed clean through a nearby tree trunk, chips of wood shooting off a storm.
The demon had enough influence to protect him the first time his father had tried to have him killed. He hadn’t known to resist its control, and even if he had, he would have let it wreak havoc. Innumerable assassins followed shortly thereafter. They died one by one to a helpless specter; a mere child too naive to understand what was happening.
He had been innocent! Despite the blood staining his hands. Kankurō wouldn’t have stared at him with fear in his eyes back then, and Temari would have seen it wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t always been a weapon!
Gaara threw his hand toward yet another tree. Sand rushed from his gourd and bored a hole through the center of the tree trunk.
His father had kept them separate. He hadn’t known of his siblings’ existence for years. Before that fateful night, only one person had mattered to him, had cared for him. His uncle, Yashamaru, had been the only one to watch over him and care for him. He’d taught Gaara the meaning of love.
Another sand tendril lashed through the rain, colliding with the nearest tree trunk. The living wood exploded under the blow. Gaara stumbled, unprepared for the toll the technique had taken. He caught himself on a low-dangling branch, struggling to steady his breath. Mud and rainwater surged skyward as the tree crashed to the ground with an unsatisfying squelch.
He hadn’t bothered anybody that day, having long since given up trying to talk to anyone. He had sat alone on a roof, away from the villagers who scorned him.
The sand had reacted first. It always did. The explosion from sealing-tags attached to kunai was deflected, and as Gaara had turned to see his attacker, he had begged to be left alone. A wave of shuriken had been his only answer.
Prior to that day, the sand had acted purely of its own accord. Only wanting to be left alone, he had commanded it, urging it on and demanding the Shinobi’s death. Fatally wounded, the Shinobi had collapsed to the ground. Gaara had ripped away his assassin’s white mask, the joy of the kill surging through him.
The face of his Uncle had looked at him in pain, tightly gripping the gaping wound in his side where Gaara’s sand had struck him. Yashamaru then told him everything as he lay dying: His father’s true intentions, his mother’s love and regret, his brother and sister’s existence.
As Gaara had stared at Yashamaru in shock, his uncle had looked at him with sympathy and regret in his eyes. “Please die,” had been his uncle’s last words.
Gaara trekked through the mud underneath the casuarina trees, taking out his anger on the puddles in his path. He was too exhausted for anything more.
Pouring chakra into the tags covering his chest, Yashamaru had smiled wistfully at Gaara as sand rushed to surround his nephew. The blast of a hundred exploding tags had thrown Gaara from the roof, the sand shielding him from harm.
The seal holding back the demon had shattered, Gaara’s own raging emotions making it easy for it to break through. Gaara had been consumed by it, his body disappearing beneath sand as the demon had taken shape, towering over Sunagakure. Gaara had watched happily, yet screaming his hatred through tears as the gigantic form of the demon crushed everything in sight.
His father ended up defeating the demon, forcing it to retreat into the seal on Gaara’s stomach. Not even the sand had come to his defense as Shinobi surrounded him. A seemingly endless number of seals had been applied to his skin, and he was restrained in shimmering chains. He was hauled in front of his father and thrown to the ground. There had been no recognition in the Kazekage’s eyes.
Gaara growled in anger as the branch he leaned on gave out. He’d crushed it under his fingers. He should have killed me then!
Every step was draining, and Gaara struggled to continue walking. He had to rest, meditate and regain his Chakra. He couldn’t go on.
His cursory look revealed a tree a bit farther ahead, large enough to ward off at least some of the rain, and he made toward it. Sand tendrils waved idly through the air, pulling Naruto’s unconscious form after Gaara. They were hardly holding together under the weight of the downpour.
Gaara hated rain.
Half a dozen paces from the tree, Gaara paused as something pricked the back of his skull. A familiar voice whispered in his ears, sounding almost zealous.
You’ve been found.
He poured what little Chakra he had left into his senses, but there was nothing. The rain roared in his ears, every splash deafening. The only Chakra signature he could sense was Naruto, floating limply in his sand tendrils.
They will take you back and lock you away forever. Gaara didn’t need to hear the rest of the demon’s words. He already knew what it would say. He could feel it pressing against him, eager to break free. There was no reason to believe it was lying about pursuers. Its mastery of Chakra far surpassed his own. Still, he didn’t trust it and refused to give up control. It shrieked in outrage.
Gaara gripped his head with one hand, steadying himself against the casuarina tree with the other. He could not stay here. He had to move on. It was no doubt Suna Elite; it wouldn’t care about anything else.
He took a lurching step forward, slipping slightly in the mud—one step further, faster this time, and then again. Chakra poured through him, and he kicked off the ground, the tendrils pulling Naruto’s motionless form after him. Landing in a squat on a sturdy limb, Gaara propelled himself through the trees.
The poignant laughter of the demon was impossible to ignore. It would demand repayment for the Chakra he had taken, but it was a price he was willing to pay. He would not be taken back to Suna to be locked away in a cell. There wasn’t time.
Before Naruto, he would have accepted his fate. It wouldn’t have mattered to him whether he was decaying in a cell or aimlessly roaming dark alleyways. Either way, he couldn’t die, he couldn’t rid himself of this pitiful existence. So, he continued living, keeping the demon contained for the sake of his brother and sister.
They were all that mattered to him, and he had seen them die. The unforgettable sight of a world on fire, of god-like creatures laying waste to cities eerily like his own, were etched into his eyes. The anguished cries of thousands rang in his ears.
He hadn’t cared for the Prince when he’d met him in the Daimyō’s Palace, but the demon had. From the second Gaara had set eyes on the pale-skinned boy, it had shrieked for his blood, and refused to be silenced.
Thrice he tried to appease its constant demands, and three times he was stopped, once by the Daimyō, once by his father, and once by himself. He first thought Naruto had been the one to show him the other world, but he had come to doubt that.
As punishment, he had been forced to enter his cell and stay there for over a week. He had gladly entered, needing to meditate on what he had seen. Once released, there were only questions and the same steadfast conviction. The gods were coming; there was no denying it. It was the only thing that had shown clear through the mayhem and carnage.
He’d begun following the pale Prince, and it was soon clear that what Gaara had seen, Naruto had not. Something else had shown it to him, and in doing so, protected Naruto. He was not the only one following the boy, and Gaara was forced to satisfy the demon’s lust for blood. The headband-less Shinobi were easy prey, but there was more to it.
Gaara was guarding what was his. He had been unable to control himself when the Kumo Shinobi had attacked, their goal clear. A fury had consumed him, and it hadn’t faded until every last one lay dead.
Naruto had been harmed during the attack, and the Eight-tails had come searching for Naruto. Nowhere was safe in Suna from another Jinchūriki. His only choice had been to run away in the mayhem of Kumo’s attack and find somewhere to wait for Naruto to wake up.
Shuriken sliced through raindrops, the sound almost imperceptible, but Gaara had been waiting for it. The blatant attack was only a distraction, and he didn’t look behind him. Sand tendrils grew from his back and casually batted the shuriken aside. He grimaced. The sand moved more slowly than usual, the rain taking its toll.
There was dry sand in his gourd, but it wouldn’t last long.
Chakra roared through Gaara’s body, enhancing his speed. Water flowed from his hair as he rushed through the trees. He still couldn’t sense the Shinobi pursuing him, but that didn’t last for long. Two of the Suna Elite emerged from thin air on a branch in front of him. It had been timed with skilled perfection, Gaara already flying through the air, unable to dodge.
The sand reacted on its own, spewing from the head of his gourd and creating a barrier between him and the Suna Elite. It was a fruitless endeavor, and Gaara started molding Chakra. As he approached the branch, the Shinobi revealed seal tags in the palms of their hands.
Gaara hated the Elder that had created those seals. The tags fed on his Chakra and his Chakra alone. If one were applied to his skin, he would lose consciousness. What’s more, the seals acted as a deterrent to his sand.
He ducked under the Shinobi’s fists as they punched through the hastily erected sand barrier. He shot between them, rebounding off the branch. Gaara rolled in mid-air, his arms outstretched, Chakra surging through the sand in his gourd. The Shinobi had never been aiming for him.
With hands guarded by seals, the Suna Elite punched through the tendrils holding Naruto. No longer sustained by his Chakra, the sand holding the unconscious Prince fell apart. His Jutsu sprung to life, the last hand seal complete. Sand poured from the gourd strapped to his back, stretching into a thick singular tendril that whipped through the air. Two spikes shot through the rain, propelled by his make-shift slingshot.
The enormous amount of Chakra he had used dramatically increased the spikes’ speed, countering the weight of the water within the sand. The Suna Elite were unprepared for the attack, focusing on grabbing hold of Naruto.
Gaara’s attack found its marks, and the two Shinobi lurched forward. Naruto plummeted toward the forest floor. His long hair streamed behind him, revealing the blindfold covering his eyes. Sand streaked through the rain as he commanded it to catch Naruto.
Gaara hit the ground, hard, and skidded across the mud. The spontaneous slide was abruptly ended by the base of a lonely aspen tree. Gaara groaned, half-buried in the soggy ground. The pain was immense, but without his sand armor, it would have been much worse. He struggled to his knees, almost collapsing from the effort. The Suna Elite were no doubt all around him, watching. If he showed even a fraction of weakness, they would strike.
He got to his feet and folded his arms in front of him. His side throbbed painfully, a broken rib maybe. Sand crept across the mud, holding Naruto’s limp body. The simple manipulation of his sand was beyond exhausting, but he refused to let it show.
He had to rest and regain his strength. The Chakra he’d stolen from the demon would be enough to escape, but only if he was careful. It wouldn’t readily give up more without its demands for Naruto’s death being met, and he nearly too weak to fight it.
Tendrils bowed out of the shoulders of his armor, uniting with the sand bearing Naruto. Gaara sensed the surge of Chakra a split second too late, and the sand was far too slow. Furthermore, the wind blade had been released at close range.
The sand armor bore the brunt of the attack again. But Gaara was nonetheless hurled through the rain, the Jutsu slamming him against yet another tree. Naruto hit the ground a foot below as Gaara invariably lost control over his Chakra.
Gaara groaned as he slumped to the ground, his sand armor cracked and on the edge of falling away. If his ribs had not been broken before, they were now. Gaara forced himself to stand, anger welling up in his chest, drowning out the pain. He took an unsteady step towards Naruto, his legs shaky.
“No!” Dropping from the trees above, the Suna Elite barely spared Gaara a glance as he threw Naruto over his shoulder. In a burst of speed, he vanished into the heavy rain.
A cold rage surged through Gaara, a deep growl building in his throat. He didn’t care that the demon was urging him forward, laughing maniacally as he gave in to its power. So much power. Sand roared to life, swirling around him as he struggled to control it. His hair whipped wildly about his face, the demon’s power radiating from his body in waves.
They wouldn’t take Naruto away from him!
“Ryūsa Bakuryū!” The gourd strapped to his back disintegrated, returning to sand and joining the roaring cyclone. Sand burrowed into the ground, disappearing beneath the mud. For a second, the woods were deathly calm, as if holding their breath.
“Grah!” Gaara heaved an invisible boulder into the sky with one hand. Tendrils exploded skyward, uprooting trees in every direction, flinging mud and dirt. A dozen Shinobi revealed themselves, leaping back in the air to avoid being crushed.
Gaara’s eyes darted from Shinobi to Shinobi, looking for the one carrying Naruto. The Suna Elite didn’t give him a chance, however. He snarled at the four Shinobi that appeared out of thin air, surrounding him on all sides.
Sand spikes erupted from under the feet of the Suna Elite. In unison, the Shinobi twisted out of the way, narrowly dodging the sand. Before Gaara could redirect it, the Shinobi punched through the sand. The seals in their fists ate the Chakra inside just enough for it give way. Gaara jumped into the air, the Shinobi in close pursuit.
His blood boiled underneath his skin, his eyes darting back and forth as he kept track of the Shinobi’s hands.
The Suna Elite reached for his legs with outstretched arms, the sealing tags hidden in their palms. Sand raced past the Shinobi, forming a barrier beneath Gaara in mid-air. It didn’t stop the Shinobi for long, but it gave Gaara a platform with which to escape. Kicking off, he flipped through the rain. Mud and rainwater splashed as he landed as far away as he could. Grimacing, Gaara threw his hands toward the Suna Elite, commanding the sand.
The wet sand was much too slow to catch the Shinobi off guard, each disappearing in a burst of speed inches from the ground. Gaara’s eyes widened as a scarcely noticeable Chakra signature descended on him from above. He threw himself to the side, rolling through the mud to avoid being sealed yet again.
Covered in mud and soaking wet, Gaara reached for the Shinobi and motioned as if chucking a small rock into the air. Sand exploded from beneath the Shinobi’s feet, but yet again, it failed to reach its mark. Hopping back, the Shinobi faded into the heavy downpour.
Gaara forced himself to one knee, his sand armor growing heavier with each passing second. The sand moved of its own accord, erecting a barrier between him and a wind sphere he hadn’t sensed. He stumbled through the mud, almost collapsing as the sand drew heavily on his Chakra.
The demon was holding back its power, demanding freedom in return, and while Gaara wasn’t quite drained yet, he soon would be. The Suna Elite would steadily wear him down and seal him before the demon even had a chance to emerge.
Gaara looked up, his gaze found the signature he hardly felt. The Shinobi carrying Naruto was crouched in a branch a hundred paces away, beyond the destruction Gaara had caused. It was an obvious trap, but he didn’t care.
“Give him back!” Sand whirled to life once again, though it was much less powerful than before. What little Chakra he had left faded fast, but it didn’t matter. He trudged toward the Shinobi, the sand batting away shuriken and kunai chucked at him through the rain. Before he’d even made it halfway, a wind javelin crashed into his sand. Gaara sank to his knees, the sand draining him of all he had left.
He was beaten, and the Suna Elite knew it. Gaara stared at the eight Shinobi as they surrounded him, appearing in sudden bursts of speed. He could feel the hunger of the seals they held, just feet from his skin. His defiance faltered, his shoulders slumped as his head dropped to his chest. There was nothing he could do. His Chakra was strained beyond its limit, and what little sand he had left was too taxing to use. The demon’s laughter mocked him as it uttered empty promises in his ears.
Let me come out and play, Gaara. It whispered, its voice tinged with sadistic excitement. Would you lose to such pathetic weaklings?
It pressed against the barrier between them, challenging his resolve. He was everything that was left, the seal’s defenses long since eroded. He had only to give up, and the demon would be released.
You’re finally free… do you really want to be dragged back?
Gaara did not respond. He couldn’t block out its voice, but he could keep it contained. The demon howled as the Suna Elite approached cautiously. He didn’t want to go back to Suna, but what choice did he have? Should he free it, Gaara had no doubt it would kill every last one of the Suna Elite. But it wouldn’t stop there. Once he gave up control, he couldn’t take it back. It would kill Naruto, and he would be powerless to stop it.
Gaara stared at Naruto through the rain, ignoring the Shinobi around him. He would let the Suna Elite seal him. Naruto would be safe from him then. The demon’s scream was deafening, but Gaara didn’t care about its anger. He didn’t care what his father would do to him.
The Shinobi carrying Naruto slouched, a black spike extending from the front of his chest. He reeled for a split second on the branch and pitched forward. Naruto plunged through the air after the Shinobi, flailing like a useless corpse. Gaara reached for Naruto, commanding the sand to catch the Prince.
It was a futile endeavor. The sand was much too heavy, drenched beyond use, and Gaara had no Chakra left with which to sustain it. He watched with wide eyes as Naruto plummeted toward the ground. The Shinobi who’d carried him not a second before was closer to the ground, the odd black spike nowhere to be seen.
Naruto righted himself in mid-air. It was as though unseen strings attached to his limbs had drawn taut. His feet touched the back of the Suna Elite, and a split second later, Naruto and the Shinobi hit the ground. The splash of a body striking a large muddy puddle caught the attention of a few Suna Elite, although many did not turn. Naruto stood on the back of the dead Shinobi, his face hidden beneath his wet hair.
One Suna Elite started signaling, ordering his companions hiding in the trees to capture Naruto. Gaara grinned, and several Suna Elite tensed.
He’s woken up.
Naruto raised his head, revealing the drenched blindfold covering his eyes. Gaara’s excitement was soon forgotten as Naruto tore off the blindfold and threw it aside. An odd, silvery black mass covered the left half of Naruto’s face, obscuring one of his eyes and the left side of his mouth. The black mass spread over Naruto’s left arm and leg in seconds, staying under his clothes. Where Naruto’s pale eye would have been, a yellow one opened, perfectly round and lacking any visible sclerae or pupil.
Gaara felt the demon stir as Naruto met his gaze. The left side of Naruto’s face smiled, though the right did not. Sharp teeth formed in the dark mass, displaying an almost boyish grin.
Gaara kicked off the ground with what little Chakra he had left, narrowly avoiding the Shinobi reaching for the back of his neck. A sand spike exploded out of the mud of its own accord, but it was too slow once again. He landed on his side almost twenty paces from the Suna Elite, a miserable distance, but all he could manage. He slid over the mud for another few feet before regaining traction and got to his feet unsteadily.
Gaara’s head pounded, and it took everything he had to resist as the demon tore at him for control. Its enraged screams drowned out all else. He fell to one knee, tightly clutching his head with both hands.
What is happening?! Gaara groaned in anguish. Tension built in his skull as the demon fought against him, unwilling to back down. Every muscle spasmed painfully, rebelling against him. His spine drew stiff, and his head snapped back. The rain poured from above, splattering his face.
Gaara grit his teeth, refusing to yield to the demon. Through sheer force of will, he fought back control of his body and forced open his eyes.
He was alone in the middle of the devastation his Jutsu had wrought. The Suna Elite had left him, their attention entirely on Naruto. He would have imagined somebody would have sealed him, but he was conscious. A barely visible battle raged between the fallen casuarina trees.
Naruto sprang into the rain, twisting between a shuriken hailstorm and plummeting toward a Suna Elite. A dark thin blade extended from within the palm of his left hand, made of the same mass that covered half of his body. The Shinobi ducked, and Naruto hit the ground and rolled, dodging a kick to his head.
The Suna Elite were not pulling punches, and the reason was clear. Three Shinobi lay dead in the mud that he could see, their blood already mingling with murky puddles.
Rolling to his feet, Naruto threw himself through the air with a fluency and grace he’d never shown before. The black blade clashed against tanto as Naruto swung for the Shinobi’s neck. Intending to take advantage of Naruto’s inability to dodge, the Shinobi struck with the kunai in his other hand.
Naruto countered with a kick, breaking the Shinobi’s grasp. Whistling through the rain, the Shinobi was forced to leap into the air to avoid Naruto’s peculiar blade. It retracted back into the black mass covering Naruto’s arm as he snatched the kunai out of mid-air. He ducked under the wind blade the Shinobi cast, letting it destroy the trunk of a fallen tree behind him. Chunks of wood and bark scattered as he jumped into the air after the Shinobi, kunai in hand.
It was over within moments, despite the Shinobi’s companions’ efforts to come to his aid. Each Jutsu seemed to just miss Naruto as he weaved between them. The Shinobi dropped to his knees as a black spike receded into Naruto’s palm.
Naruto glanced over his shoulder, his long hair moving to the side as he met Gaara’s eyes. Understanding hit Gaara as the black mass smirked. There was no life in Naruto’s one visible eye, because he was still asleep. Whatever it was, it was controlling Naruto… and the demon loathed it.
Gaara curled up, no longer able to hold back his cries. Pain engulfed him as the demon’s Chakra surged through his body. It was like being burned alive, unable to escape the flames. Gaara punched the ground, again and again, cratering it with every Chakra-enhanced blow.
The heavy rainstorm posed no challenge to the demon’s power. Sand crashed into Gaara from all directions, streaking through the air as it raced to reinforce his sand armor. With each passing second, his body grew increasingly twisted.
His head snapped up, his right eye transformed, revealing the demon within him. His sclera had turned to black, the iris yellow, and the pupil morphed to resemble a black four-pointed star, enclosed by four dark dots. The demon roared, one eye blazing with rage as it glared at Naruto. Its hunger for death saturated the air, the pressure alone enough to kill a man where he stood.
Gaara looked through his own eyes, a distant bystander, helpless. The demon had taken control.
Wind spheres exploded forth from his mouth in rapid succession as the demon masterfully manipulated Wind Chakra. Gaara tried to fight against it, but his efforts were as fruitful as the barren desert. He could only watch as Naruto jumped from tree to tree, dodging behind the fallen logs to avoid being hit.
What is controlling you, Naruto? Gaara wondered. Naruto flipped over another sphere from the seemingly endless barrage and hit the ground running. He sprinted toward Gaara, weaving between the wind spheres with that same idiosyncratic fluidity. As if his body was little more than water itself.
Sensing the concentration of Chakra in the ground, Gaara doubled his efforts to regain control. The demon laughed, casually batting him aside. Even though he was trapped in his own mind, the force of the blow left him stunned.
Naruto shot across the fallen trees toward Gaara’s body and into the trap the demon had set. His face, no longer his own, grinned maniacally. Half a hundred sand spikes exploded from the uneven mud and dark puddles with ridiculous speed. Naruto wove between them all without hesitation.
Gaara relished the demon’s outrage at the failure of its attack. It didn’t know, or perhaps it did and hadn’t cared to remember. Regardless, it didn’t matter now. The gap between Naruto and the demon’s twisted form grew smaller with each passing second. The dark mass on Naruto’s face no longer grinning, his pale pupil-less eye wide open.
It was nearly impossible to take a Byakugan-user by surprise.
Chakra built in Gaara’s throat, taking shape in the form of a powerful wind sphere. He could tell the demon intended to release it at point-blank and blow Naruto to bits. However, it didn’t get the opportunity. On his next step, Naruto blurred and vanished.
Something touched Gaara’s brow, and everything went dark.
Kumo Command Tent, Tsukinomiyako Mountain Range, Land of Wind, EN.
The vast command tent bustled with activity and scattered talk among the many Captains present. They had all been called in to give reports on the military’s health following the attack on Suna, and the last Shinobi had just finished giving his report moments earlier. Conversation slowly began as they waited for their commander.
Darui sat at the head of the sizable oval table, upon which lay a gigantic map depicting the entire Land of Wind in detail. His hands were folded, barely touching his shaved chin, his eyes closed as he listened to the conversations.
As he suspected, many of his men believed the attack would start another Great Ninja War. It was possible, he confessed, but he didn’t care. Should Suna declare war, Kumo would finally have an excuse to crush the deplorable sand dwellers. If the Land of Fire interfered, then all the better.
The cause for his worry remained the Stone of Legends. How long had Suna had it? Was there a concealed force of Kekkai Genkai users stored away, waiting to be revealed in the next war? He doubted it, but it was possible. The monks would have had to conspire with Suna, which seemed rather unlikely given what he knew about them. However, if a few monks had escaped with the stone, they would have been desperate.
Darui smirked, imagining the pain the monks must have felt as they broke their sacred oaths and let their artifact be tarnished to create superior humans. He would have to stay alert for such a possibility, he supposed, but for now, it made more sense that the Daimyō had been keeping the stone for himself.
The conversations died out as he got to his feet, his mens’ attention on him. He ignored them as he carefully observed the map. Iwata’s report had been the first to mention the Stone of Legend in almost four decades. How could the stone have simply disappeared without a trace for so long only to pop up in the current Daimyō’s possession? More confusing, why wouldn’t he have shared its power with his own Shinobi?
Darui felt like laughing as he finally realized the answer. It had been staring him in the face. The Daimyō was a monk. He must have been a young boy when Kumo attacked his temple. He’d kept the stone hidden for so many years because he mistakenly believed it contained his god.
The last relics of ROOT had caught the scent of the stone’s trail because the Daimyō had paid for and attended the senile old monk’s funeral.
The flap covering the entry was pushed aside, and Darui glanced up to see one of his RAIKOU admitting a scout. His captains moved out of the way, letting the Shinobi approach the table.
He waited for the scout to bow and begin his report.
“Darui-sama.” The Shinobi’s name was Toujou if Darui recalled correctly. “Three teams of Suna Elite entered into the Land of Storms not two days ago. I believe they’re pursuing the One-Tail Jinchūriki.”
The whispered conversation began again in earnest, but Darui ignored it and gestured for Toujou to continue. The Jinchūriki and the Prince had vanished without a hint of where they had gone. He would have assumed the Prince was back with his father, or nearly there.
In fact, he’d been plotting an attack on the Land of Wind’s capitol for the last two days. But, if the One-Tails Jinchūriki had gone rogue, that changed everything.
“I trailed them as far into the Land of Storms as I could, but they evaded me when I was forced to hide from a Samurai patrol.”
Darui nodded pensively, his attention on the map where the Land of Wind met the Land of Storms. Toujou bowed after a moment of hesitation and began to back away. He paused as Darui gestured for him to stay. The hushed conversation was now in full force, the captains discussing various ideas as to what to do and reasons for the Jinchūriki’s defection.
He vaguely caught snippets—some of his men suggesting that the army be used to box in the Land of Storms. After all, somebody said, the One-Tail Jinchūriki seemed to be fleeing toward the Land of Grass, a notoriously neutral land.
There wasn’t a guarantee that the Jinchūriki still had the Prince, but Darui saw no reason for the boy to have abandoned him. He trusted Killer Bee’s report of the Jinchūriki’s attachment to the Prince.
Based on Kumo’s knowledge of One-Tail’s current host, Gaara had quite possibly kidnapped the Prince to get back at his father.
What to do… Darui wondered, his fingers lightly drumming the table. Boxing in the Land of Storms was a tempting idea, but he lacked the men, and he couldn’t risk their lives so recklessly. The Arashishogun would not take kindly to Shinobi patrolling his borders.
Although Samurai were primitive warriors senselessly clutching to ancient teachings, they were still annoying. If possible, he would prefer not to be forced to justify the loss of men in battles against enraged Samurai.
Besides, the One-tail Jinchūriki could easily slip by unnoticed in the chaos.
Darui didn’t throw out the idea entirely, however. With minimal risk, he might be able to drive the Jinchūriki into the Land of Grass and closer to Kumo. He needed to intervene with Suna before they regained control over their Bijū.
It’s a race—me against the Kazekage. Darui grinned. He liked his chances.
Raising his head, he waited for the talk to fade.
“I want six teams, led by Toujou, to go to the last place he saw the Suna Shinobi and pursue them into the Land of Storms,” Darui began. Toujou bowed deeply, understanding the depth of the responsibility he had been given.
“Try to avoid the Samurai as much as you can, but if it comes down to it, I want them dealt with quickly. Do not waste time on long, pointless battles.”
One of his Captains spoke up, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “The Arashishogun will not be pleased.”
Darui waved the concern aside. “I would rather we avoid involving the Arashishogun, but we have allowed the Samurai to live simply because they would take too much effort to eradicate. If they get in our way, then that is their mistake.”
The Captain nodded, and Darui returned to Toujou.
“Your main goal is to capture the Prince, but if that is not easily possible, then pressure the One-Tail toward the Land of Grass. Do not engage him.”
“How are we to capture the One-Tail, Darui-sama?” The question came from a Captain near the entrance, and Darui resisted the urge to glare at the man. “Lord Bee returned to Kumo yesterday.”
Darui sighed softly, mastering his irritation. “Based on Toujou’s report and what Lord Bee told me of his fight with the Jinchūriki, I believe the boy has gone rogue and kidnapped the Prince to get at his father.”
He could tell the idea hadn’t occurred to the man from the look on his face. “I’m willing to wager that should he be put under enough pressure, he will abandon the Prince.”
Darui straightened, rolling his shoulders as he popped his neck. “I couldn’t care less about what happens to the Jinchūriki afterward.”
Many low conversations arose around the tent, as he had wanted and encouraged on many occasions. Unlike other commanders in Kumo, he let his men strategize and suggest plans of their own. Often, something he missed was pointed out to him. As he had anticipated, a Captain, this one new to his regiment, spoke up.
“Why are we bothering to capture the Prince? Could we not move on Kazedama as initially planned? Suna is still recovering from our attack.”
Darui shook his head. “By now, the Daimyō is aware his son is missing. Most likely, he’s distraught, and should we come knocking without his son in tow, he is likely to kill himself to protect the stone.”
There wasn’t any need to share the realization he’d made about the Daimyō’s actual past. His reasoning was sound regardless, the Daimyō was still a monk at his core, and without his care for his son in conflict with his oath, he would happily die to protect his god.
Noburi, one of his best Captains, finished Darui’s thoughts. “If the Daimyō dies, the secret of the Stone of Legend’s location dies with him.”
Darui nodded, noting the expressions on his men’s faces. “We cannot risk that. We will march on Kazedama only when we have the Prince in hand.”
There were no disagreements, and Darui clapped his hands with an air of finality.
“Have the camp ready to move by tomorrow. We will march on the Land of Grass and weave a web around the whole country.”