Jin crept under the hanging branches in the darkness, the mist pressing down, blotting out sound, scattering starlight. The willow trees above him looked like gaunt ghosts, their thin arms outstretched, casting shadows.
He knew the adults would be angry at him for being out this early. It was dangerous. So he’d left the village before anyone else had woken up, slipping silently into the cold night.
Reaching the top of the hill, Jin stood and found the belt knife’s handle strapped to his side, assuring himself it was still there. The river behind him hissed, the water rushing across the stones, or maybe that was the souls of the Shinobi beneath its surface. He squared his shoulders, ignoring his imagination.
The mists made him feel suspended, outside of time. He couldn’t see the ground beyond the base of the hill, hidden beneath layers of fog. Yet, even if there was no evidence of it, the sun was coming. He had to be back before then. His sister would notice him missing first, and he didn’t want her to cause a panic looking for him. No, the sooner he got back, the better. The adults would be angry with him, there was no doubt, but if he brought food… they would be forgiving.
As his finger traced the pattern engraved into the knife’s handle, Jin steeled his resolve and started walking. He tried to move as quietly as he could, watching the path ahead of him carefully. It was hard to remember his father’s every word, his teachings. The memories pained him, but he’d learned to ignore the pain. There was too much value in his parent’s memories to bury them.
Imeada had told him that he’d seen a pack of Yama kujira in the woods, but he hadn’t gone after them, as he was carrying a deer back at the time. That had been a few days ago, and the meat cleaned from the deer was running out. The adults would never admit it, afraid of scaring the children, but Jin knew.
They were running out of food. Imeada had gotten lucky with the deer. He wasn’t a hunter.
The yama kijura, or white-mustached pigs, were good eating… if you were a Shinobi, or even knew how to use chakra consistently. But the Mizukage’s attack on their village had wiped out all of the Shinobi, leaving few survivors. Ririi was a shell of what it had once been, and the Elder wasn’t eager for anyone to throw their lives away. Besides, Jin wasn’t a Shinobi, and while his chakra was unbound, he couldn’t control it.
He pushed his thoughts aside. If they weren’t willing to take risks, then none of them would survive. Jin refused to see his sister starve to death in front of him.
A low howl cut through the dark mist, seemingly coming from hundreds of paces deeper in the woods. Jin froze. He’d forgotten about the wolves.
Before the attack, wolves had never been a problem for the village, despite the island being covered in them. The Shinobi had effortlessly fended them all off, and the beasts had never been brave enough to return. That changed when the Mizukage’s men had laid waste to their village, leaving Shinobi dead on the battlefield.
Well, the wolves had come running.
Another wolf answered, farther out. It was a haunting sound, the very voice of the wilderness.
Wetting his lips, Jin got moving. He had the distinct feeling of being followed, stalked. He glanced over his shoulder, but only the white impenetrable mist met his gaze. Just walk, Jin… places to be.
Walk he did, though as silently as he could manage. Even then, he made more noise than he wanted too. The snap of a stick, every crunch of a leaf, sent tingles of fear up his spine. His eyes scanned the shifting surface of the mist around him, trying to glean any warning of an attack. Imeada had warned him the wolves weren’t slowed down by the fog, they could smell him.
He couldn’t let himself worry about that, though.
Abruptly, the mist parted to reveal a tree stump, the trunk of it laying on the ground next to it, half-buried in the mud. Jin’s eyes were drawn to the separation between the halves. The tree hadn’t been cut down by an axe, that much was obvious.
Jin had seen many like it, one of many that had taken a stray Jutsu during the attack. It was a frightening tribute to the power of the Shinobi.
It being here meant he was closer to the battlefield than he’d thought. Looking to his left, Jin could only see the wet, muddy ground for a dozen paces before it faded into white nothingness. His imagination supplemented the images for him, overlaying the gravestones he knew were just beyond the mist onto the white canvas.
I should turn back… I don’t have time to dawdle today… Jin thought, his hand once more reaching for the handle of his belt knife, fidgeting with its buckle. He hesitated for only a moment before swallowing on the hard knot that had risen in his throat and changing directions.
He wouldn’t dishonor his parents.
A few moments later, he broke free of the tree line, the hanging branches giving way to clear white fog above him. He was standing at the edge of the battlefield, and though he couldn’t see the shore, he could hear the loud crash of the waves. Before the attack, this had been the fish market. Traders from all across the Land of Water had come here to barter, buy, and sell their wares. Now, all that remained were a few burnt timbers of old homes and stalls poking out of the mud. Deep furrows and craters created by the Jutsu cast by the Shinobi left the once smooth ground disfigured. Filled now with swirling mist, the craters looked like lakes, tunnels, traps, bottomless. Unfathomable.
Jin wasn’t paying attention to the gruesome story the battlefield told. He’d seen it a hundred times. No, his eyes were scanning across the dozens of shoddy gravestones in sight, knowing that even more were beyond the edge of the mist. He’d helped make these stones, helped dig the holes for the Shinobi they marked.
He’d dug the hole for his parents by himself, refusing to let Kuramoto or Imeada help him. It had taken days as it needed to be wide enough for both of them to lie side by side. He’d watched as Kuramoto had shoveled dirt into the hole, watched as it covered his parent’s cold, lifeless, and bloody faces.
Shuffling forward, Jin tried to spot the mark he’d carved into his parent’s stone, its only distinguishing feature. He had never let Hikari near the battlefield, not even after all the bodies had been buried.
But he knew he would have to eventually, and he wanted her to see their parent’s grave.
Of course, Hikari knew the truth. But seeing it, with your own eyes, was different. Somehow worse than just knowing. With only knowing, one could lie to themselves, pretend. Jin wanted her to have that. It was childish, he knew, but she was still a child after all.
The wolves had stopped howling, and Jin realized he preferred them howling. At least then, he knew where they were, even if it did make his blood curdle. He couldn’t stay for much longer, so he picked up his pace. As he walked across the cold ground — the frosted grass crunching beneath his feet, his eyes searching — Jin noticed something move in this mist. His heart leaped into his throat. The curve of a cur’s back, its gray fur barely distinguishable against the fog, hunger filled eyes glinting in the shadows.
The wolves were here. Kami help him.
Jin realized he’d stopped moving, his legs locked by fear as he stared intensely into the darkness where he’d seen the creature. Move, idiot!
Moving slowly, Jin stayed low to the ground. He carefully checked the dirt in front of him multiple times before taking a step, continually glancing behind him. There was nothing, and he finally tore his eyes away, focusing on the path ahead of him. He needed to get out of the battlefield… there wouldn’t be any animals here other than the wolves.
He had the feeling he was being watched again and glanced over his shoulder. Nothing.
Jin froze. His left foot was an inch from touching the ground, his body suspended in the air by his outstretched fingers and back foot. His hands shook from the strain, the cold seeping in. Jin shot a look toward the voice.
“Raiton: Raiga!” The voice shouted, sounding irritated.
The mists illuminated for the briefest of moments, causing it to take on a bright blue hue, and Jin caught a few details. It was a Shinobi — headband proudly displaying his loyalty to the Mizukage, the symbol untouched, pristine — his arm outstretched as he pointed at something that Jin couldn’t see. Brilliant, deep blue lightning arched down the Shinobi’s arm, starting at his shoulder and instantly reaching his fingertip where it broke free. A wolf yelped in pain. Darkness and silence flooded back in, obscuring the Shinobi from view.
There are Shinobi on the island, Jin realized, his mind struggling to catch up with his eyes. He had to get back to the village right now. If the Shinobi had come back to Shikoku Island to see if there were any survivors… they would all be slaughtered. He had to warn them.
The Shinobi walked out of the mist, coming to a stop a mere dozen paces away. Jin didn’t breathe, his eyes locked on the Shinobi’s face. He was going to die. The Shinobi would see him eventually. Even as low to the ground as he was, he didn’t look like the gravestones. The pain in his fingers was long forgotten, replaced by a bone-deep cold.
The Shinobi’s night vision must have been ruined by the lightning bolt… because his eyes passed right over Jin.
Turning sharply, eyes narrowed, the Shinobi glared at the mist around him, paranoid. “The hell is with you damn wolves, I’m just gonna fry another one of ya’s.”
The Shinobi must have heard something Jin hadn’t, which meant the wolves were just out of sight. He couldn’t stay here, regardless of the wolves, the Shinobi would still sense him eventually.
Very, very carefully, Jin started to inch toward the gravestone behind him. He made it, the Shinobi never once turning toward him. Crouched behind the stone, his arms folded into his chest, Jin tried to think. His ears burned, the cold biting away at them, though he ignored that. He strained to hear the Shinobi’s footsteps, but there was nothing.
He had no way to know if the Shinobi had noticed him and was already moving toward him. But if he hadn’t, Jin might be able to get close enough to bury his knife in the Shinobi’s neck. It was a foolish plan, he knew, and would most likely result in the Shinobi blowing his head off as soon as he stood up.
Jin grit his teeth, trying to stop them from shaking as he rubbed his frozen hands. It would be worth it to protect Hikari.
Think, Jin, calm down, and use your head. That’s what his mother would tell him, but with every passing second, Jin became more terrified of even glancing up. Sure that he would find the Shinobi looming over him in the mist, a Jutsu prepared in their hands, ready to strike him down. He couldn’t wait any longer. His father had told him that Shinobi walked soundlessly, like ghosts. He would never hear the Shinobi coming.
No, he couldn’t wait, he had to assume the Shinobi didn’t know he was here. Carefully, ever so carefully, Jin shifted to his knees and grabbed the top of the gravestone. Pulling himself up, Jin peered over the edge.
A dozen paces away, his back facing Jin, was the Shinobi, crouched down in front of one of the many gravestones.
“I apologize, Harigae, that I can’t figure out which one is yours, but this one seemed as good as any.” The Shinobi said, and Jin forced himself to stay still as the Shinobi glanced to the side.
“I can’t stay long, duties and whatnot,” he paused, “and the damn wolves, but it’s a shame you had to die here.”
Jin barely restrained his snort, disgusted. He didn’t feel any sympathy for the Shinobi. He and his dead friend were both loyalists, following the Mizukage’s orders and murdering their own countrymen.
With a cursory glance to his right, Jin tried to commit all of the gravestone placements to memory, knowing that the stones were placed sporadically around the battlefield. After all, most of the graves had been dug right next to the Shinobi going into them. Moving the bodies had quickly grown tiring. Focused back on the Shinobi, Jin found the handle of his knife.
Jin knew that the Shinobi wouldn’t die instantly, even if everything went according to his hastily laid plan. He needed to get away, without dying, and warn the Elder. Every second he hesitated, the likelihood that the Shinobi would notice him grew.
If he failed, the Shinobi would chase after him, but as long as he was running away from the village… he had to hope it would throw them off the trail he’d made getting here. A foolish, idiotic hope.
Breathing in deliberately, slowly, so as to make as little noise as possible, Jin steeled his nerves, his cold fingers wrapped around the handle of his knife.
The Shinobi sighed, standing, and Jin faltered, crouching down behind the gravestone once more. A minute passed, and Jin heard nothing, his ears strained for even the slightest noise. The wolves were howling again, somewhere far away in the forest. Peeking over the top of the stone, Jin’s eyes widened as he saw nothing but swirling white fog. There weren’t even any footprints on the ground by the gravestone.
Panicked, Jin whirled around, raising his knife in front of him, expecting to find the Shinobi behind him.
Scrambling to his feet, Jin didn’t hesitate for any longer, taking off at a dead sprint through the mist in the opposite direction of the village… and Hikari. He tried to run on his toes, creating as little sound as he could, but his back itched regardless. He expected to feel a lightning bolt tear through his chest at any moment.
But he made it. A hundred paces, maybe more, and the Shinobi didn’t cast a Jutsu. No lightning bolt cut through the mist after him. He didn’t dare stop. Two hundred paces more, and he skid across the mud as he dug in his heels, seeing a light off to his left.
Jin recognized the color of the glow immediately, a campfire. It was obscured behind a small hill. It had to be the Loyalist Shinobi’s camp, and Jin sprinted toward it. The Shinobi would be heading this way, and he would undoubtedly see Jin’s tracks in the mud.
He had only begun to reach the bottom of the hill when his foot caught, and he tripped, barely catching himself before he face-planted in the mud. Jin grimaced as the puddle on the ground splashed loudly in his ears, but he didn’t move.
Someone must have heard him, he was so loud! Yet, somehow, his luck held.
Carefully pushing himself into a crouch, Jin turned back to see what he’d tripped over. It hadn’t felt like hard rock or a root.
Two lifeless eyes stared at him.
It was a Shinobi, his body buried halfway into the mud. Jin could tell the Shinobi had died recently, very recently, given the dark blood dripping from the Kunai buried in their neck. Cautiously inching closer, Jin ignored the Shinobi’s cold, lifeless gaze and examined the symbol on his headband.
It was the emblem of Kiri, of course. If it hadn’t been, Jin didn’t know what he would do. If other countries Shinobi were to be found dead in the Land of Water… Jin wasn’t sure what that even meant, but he was sure it would be terrible for his village.
No, thankfully, it was a Kiri Shinobi, and the slash through the symbol on the headband meant the dead man had been a rebel. Jin sat back, rubbing his shivering hands together as he attempted to understand what this meant.
Did the loyalist in the graveyard kill him? Jin wondered, quickly glancing at the fog behind him. Why was a rebel on Shikoku Island? All of our Shinobi are dead… did he not know that and thought we could help him? How could he not know?
With a burning desire for answers, Jin got to his feet and turned toward the campfire behind the hill. It only took him a moment to reach the base, and he pressed himself against it, crawling up the side. If he was wrong, and this was a rebel campsite, then his village would be saved, they could escape.
Upon cresting the small hill, the campfire coming into view, and Jin realized how foolish his hope had been. There wasn’t even a tent by the campfire, no bedrolls within the flame’s reach. Jin felt his night vision fading as he watched the dancing fire and looked away.
There had to be more than this, and Jin tried his father’s trick for seeing in the darkness without the aid of chakra. He let his focus relax and tried to view things from the periphery of his vision. There was something at the edge of the campfire light, and Jin crawled closer, slowly.
Two men were sitting on the ground, and Jin could tell they were both Shinobi instantly, each wearing a ninja headband. One of them was leaning against a tree to Jin’s right, seemingly sleeping, his head resting on his shoulder, his face angled away from Jin. He couldn’t tell if they were a rebel or loyalist without seeing their headband.
On the opposite side of the campfire from the sleeping Shinobi was the other Shinobi Jin had noticed. However, unlike the first, he was awake, his mouth gagged. The Shinobi’s hands were bound behind his back by silver handcuffs that glowed faintly in the dark. Jin’s eyes widened as their face caught the light, and his night vision was instantly ruined.
It was the Shinobi he’d found dead at the base of the hill… or the Shinobi’s identical twin brother. It didn’t matter. The man was clearly a prisoner, his eyes wild, darting around the small clearing as if trying to see some danger. Jin backed up. He didn’t want the prisoner to notice him and possibly try to cry for help.
The prisoner jerked as if trying to get to his feet. Jin gripped the handle of his knife tightly, shocked to realize he’d unbuckled it earlier. He could have easily lost it. However, he didn’t need it. The prisoner didn’t go anywhere, and Jin noticed the stone covering the Shinobi’s legs for the first time. A Jutsu.
Jin shot a glance at the sleeping Shinobi as he began to crawl backward. He was wasting his time; he needed to get back. As he slid across the ground, he could feel the wet mud seeping into his clothes, but he didn’t care. The damp cold was the last of his worries.
His foot hit something hard, and knowing that there were no trees or rocks behind him, Jin twisted around sharply. He tried to draw his knife at the same time, but it was stuck, pinned in its sheath because he was lying on it.
A Shinobi was crouched over his outstretched leg, watching him with a curious expression. Jin yanked the knife free, lurching forward as he tried to bury the blade in the Shinobi’s chest. Jin scarcely noticed the huge scythe strapped to the Shinobi’s back, a half-smoked cigarette in his mouth.
Of course, the Shinobi was far faster than him, casually reaching out and grabbing his wrist. Jin was forced to release the knife as the Shinobi twisted his hand painfully, and he fell back against the hill as the Shinobi lightly pushed him.
Jin screamed, but once again, the Shinobi was faster. Clamping a hand over Jin’s mouth, the Shinobi raised a finger to his lips, a look of amusement on his face.
Jin nodded fearfully, and the Shinobi retracted his hand. Jin didn’t try to scream again. Who would hear me anyway?
Taking the moment of tense silence to observe his captor, Jin saw that the Shinobi was of a lean build with just the right amount of bulk to avoid looking overly thin, his skin incredibly pale, almost gleaming in the mist. He wore standard navy blue shinobi pants that stopped just above his ankles, and a form-fitting black shirt, over which a strap ran from his right shoulder to his left hip. Presumably, what the large scythe on his back was attached to. His face was sharp and angular with little to no fat on it, and he had piercing golden-colored eyes.
However, Jin’s attention was drawn to the black Kiri tattoo on the Shinobi’s right cheek, a red slash running through it. He realized with a start that the red slash was a scar, a new one it seemed. On his left cheek, the Shinobi had another tattoo, a dancing orange flame.
None of that was as strange as the Shinobi’s hair, a wavy royal blue that was slicked upward, seemingly defying gravity.
“Who are you?” Jin whispered, his curiosity finally overpowering the terror he felt. But, he reasoned that if the Shinobi was going to kill him, he’d already be dead. He couldn’t see any headband on the Shinobi’s person, which meant they could be a loyalist, but something made Jin doubt that.
The Shinobi bowed his head slightly, in lieu of an actual bow.
“Wataru Ishioku, and you, young boy?” Wataru asked, raising an eyebrow at him expectantly as he tapped the end of his cigarette, breaking free a couple embers. The embers sizzled as they landed in a puddle of water by Wataru’s foot.
Jin swallowed the fear rising in his throat, attempting to figure out a way to escape. There was nowhere to go, however. Wataru blocked him from even getting to his feet, and he couldn’t just crawl away.
“Hmph. If I was going to kill you, boy, whatever your name is.” Wataru grunted, sending chills down Jin’s spine, his eyes darting to the large scythe’s blade. Wataru still had Jin’s knife in his hands, and he began twirling it through his fingers as if he’d practiced with it his entire life. The rotation was mesmerizing, terrifying, beautiful. The metal glinting in the fading moonlight.
“Don’t you think I would have already done it without bothering to ask you for your name?” Wataru whispered, catching the spinning blade between his knuckles and holding it out to Jin, handle first. Jin hesitantly reached out and took it. “Now, come on, speak up.”
“Jin Arashi.” With his father’s knife in his hand, Jin felt more confident, if only slightly.
Wataru grinned, “Jin Arashi, interesting. I’ve heard about your family’s bloodline.”
The blue-haired Shinobi looked thoughtful as he puffed on the butt of his cigarette, his eyes focused on something over Jin’s head, the campfire most likely.
“A very fascinating one, indeed. Not the strongest in the Elemental Nations, mind you, or even the Land of Water, but still. Powerful in its own right.”
Jin didn’t have time to even consider trying to get to his feet and bolting before Wataru once again fixed him with his amber-colored eyes. It felt like nails had been driven through his clothes, pinning him to the ground.
“You’re a survivor of the attack on Ririi Village, aren’t you?” Wataru asked, his voice barely above a whisper. Jin didn’t bother answering, instead slowly backing away from Wataru before fully flipping onto his back. Now finally facing the Shinobi, Jin felt more confident. He could fight from here, if only for a brief moment.
Despite Wataru’s seemingly harmless intentions, Jin didn’t trust him. He expected Wataru to stop him as he backed up another inch, but the blue-haired Shinobi didn’t seem to care, only taking another draw of his cigarette.
Risking a glance over his shoulder, Jin found that nothing had changed. Although he was in clear view on top of the small hill, the prisoner seemed to have not noticed him. Jin hid his disappointment. He’d hoped the prisoner would make some commotion that would give him a chance to escape.
Turning back to Wataru, Jin barely restrained himself from shouting in surprise as he found Wataru crouched on the hill next to him. The Shinobi had been entirely silent.
“I can’t let you go just yet, Jin Arashi,” Wataru whispered, turning just enough to look at Jin out of one eye. “You would give the fun away.”
The excitement in Wataru’s eyes was unsettling.
“What do you mean?” Jin whispered as loudly as he dared. He knew drawing the prisoner’s attention was pointless now, but he couldn’t help but try. Following Wataru’s gaze, Jin looked between the two Shinobi less than thirty paces away. Something was bothering him, but he couldn’t place his finger on it.
Looking back at Wataru, Jin found the Shinobi watching him, a grin on his thin lips. “Have you figured it out yet?”
Jin looked back at the campsite, and his breath caught. He wanted to slap himself for being an idiot. It was obvious. The Shinobi leaning against the tree, his chest wasn’t moving. He was sprawled unnaturally not because he was asleep, but because he was dead.
“Did you kill him?” Jin asked. Wataru nodded coolly, reaching up and tapping off the embers on the end of his cigarette, clearly unbothered by Jin’s accusation. Taking a deep breath of the smoke, Wataru expelled it into the mist before jutting his thumb over his shoulder.
“He killed the Shinobi you found on the ground over there.”
Jin’s eyes widened. Wataru had been following him the whole time?
“Coward’s move, really. The poor soul couldn’t fight back.” Wataru said, cupping the end of his cig to protect it from a slight breeze that rustled the branches above them. Jin couldn’t tell if the blue-haired man really felt any sympathy for the dead rebel or not. His confusion must have shown on his face because Wataru continued without him saying anything.
“That man you see over there, panicking out of his mind, is an illusion. There is nothing there.” Wataru said, casually gesturing to the prisoner frantically trying to break free of the stone covering his legs.
“Its a trap…” Jin guessed hesitantly, and Wataru nodded. “For the Loyalist in the graveyard?”
Wataru nodded again, taking yet another puff of his cigarette, the end burning brightly for a brief second before dying back down.
Jin was suddenly terrified to ask his next question, but he had to know.
“Are… are you a rebel?”
Wataru reached up and took the cigarette from his lips before burying it in the mud next to him, extinguishing it. Jin flinched more than he would have liked as Wataru stood, suddenly towering over him. The blade of the scythe hung frighteningly close to his face, so Jin backed up quickly, getting to his feet as well.
“No…” Wataru said after a moment of silence as if he’d pondered how to reply. “But, I’m not a loyalist either.” Wataru supplied before Jin could even process his response. Seeing the Shinobi pointing his finger at him, Jin recoiled, knowing the power of a Shinobi’s finger. As he scrambled backward, Jin cringed as Wataru looked at him, his expression a mixture of surprise and annoyance.
“Said I wasn’t going to kill you…” Wataru muttered, his tone irritated. Jin nodded slowly.
He did so, having tripped in his desperation to get away. The mud stuck to his clothes broke free, hitting the ground with painfully loud plops.
“If there are other survivors, tell them what’s coming,” Wataru said, his tone serious.
“What do you mean? What’s coming?” Jin asked quickly, and Wataru gestured toward the campfire.
“These loyalists were just scouts, more are following close behind.”
So he had been right. The Loyalists were returning to Shikoku Island, to finish the job, or take control of the island. It didn’t matter. They couldn’t stay.
“How long do we have?”
From the expression of surprise on Wataru’s face, Jin could tell the Shinobi had expected him to be terrified. He supposed that he should be, but being terrified wouldn’t help anything. Hikari was in danger, he had to be stronger.
Wataru shrugged before turning back toward the camp, “The Mizukage has decided to turn Shikoku Island into an outpost for his war efforts. I know he’s desperate to end this civil war of his, so you probably only have a few days.”
Jin bowed deeply, “Thank you, Wataru-san.”
The erratic-looking Shinobi waved off his attempt to thank him, his eyes locked on something across the campsite that Jin couldn’t see. Noticing that Wataru had the handle of his scythe in his hand, Jin tried to peer through the fading darkness and fog. However, he was only met with swirling mist, illuminated by the warm glow of the flames. The beginnings of sunlight streamed through the fog, making it seem like everything was glowing.
The sun would rise fully within the hour. He needed to get back, Hikari would notice him missing soon.
“I doubt our paths will ever cross again, Jin Arashi,” Wataru said, unhooking the scythe, twirling it through his fingers experimentally, effortlessly. Grinning at Jin, Wataru bowed his head slightly.
“I wish you the best of luck. May Kami watch over you.”
Then he vanished.
It wasn’t as if he’d run off into the mist, he was simply gone. There were no footprints, and Jin realized for the first time, that Wataru had never left any tracks in the mud. Gulping, Jin turned and sprinting down the hill.
Someone screamed from the campsite behind him, and then was silenced forever.
Jin didn’t try to be quiet this time, he just ran.