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Blood in the Shadows[Sep. 4th, 2017|04:07 pm]

[Begins July 4, Yondaime Year 5, immediately after the end of Fire in the Mountains]

They left Hiraizumi before the festival ended. Kurenai spun a little bit of her magic with the innkeeper, allying any suspicion. (“We’ll be gone before dawn, to make good time on the road. Don’t trouble yourself with breakfast on our account.”) The kindly innkeeper had filled her hands with wrapped onigiri for the journey.

Ka-chan led them to the cut-short trail, but it was Kakashi, pinch-eyed and frustrated in the moonlight, who showed them the lack of footprints, or disturbed foliage, or any other trail sign.

Except for the scent Raidou couldn’t detect, and the collective cold prickle on their skin, there was nothing to say anything had been here. The forest was alive with night-song: the chirping insects and whooping snow-monkeys were downright raucous. Hayama, infested with scorpion-dog demons, had been deadly silent.

Genma crouched and swept his chakra out like a scythe. Kurenai, more delicately, did the same. Ryouma bent his dark head over the exact point the scent-trail ended, having Kakashi repeat a blow-by-blow account of what he’d sensed and when he’d sensed it.

Emphatically not a chakra-sensor, Raidou hung back and kept an eye on the surroundings, guarding his people while they sank through the world’s skin.

No one turned up anything new.

The next step was to run an organized grid-search around the village. Twice, Genma, Kurenai, and Kakashi swore they felt something, and Ryouma rousted what turned out to be a very surprised — and very annoyed — badger, but there were no more scent-trails.

More disturbingly, when they returned to the original spot, Kakashi reported the scent was gone.

“What about your dogs?” Ryouma asked.

Reluctantly, Kakashi shook his head. “I need to save the chakra.”

They were all tired and slightly frayed by this point, and Raidou was starting to reconsider the sense of pressing on, but bedding down in a village under scrutiny held even less appeal. Though, beyond the strangeness of it, there was no proof that the vanishing watchers were related to Tanigawa’s sake theft — or even a threat at all.

In the end, Raidou split off a dense shadow-clone — overbuilt enough to last a few days — and stationed it above the village, with instructions to destroy itself if anything notable happened. Thus freed, Team Six and Kurenai were able to press north, towards Tanigawa and their original objective.

They travelled through the night, twitchily alert. By dawn, they’d covered more than a third of the distance, and the ground was starting to rise steeply. A lavender horizon revealed distant snow-capped volcanoes that marked the border between Hotsprings Country and Frost Country. Kurenai, still struggling to keep up with an ANBU pace (though a week with them had improved her), was starting to lag, and Kakashi wasn’t much better. Genma was shadow-eyed, and Ryouma’s temper, always a reliable marker of how he felt, was turning snappish.

There’d been no more unseen eyes for the last dozen miles. Raidou called a halt before the sun had quite crested the horizon. A thick grove of evergreens bordering a clear, cold stream made a welcome campsite. Ryouma drew the short-straw — mostly because his sour mood was beginning to erode even Raidou’s patience — and found himself stationed in a tree to keep watch. Kurenai spread her bedroll and collapsed on it, only persuaded to get back up and care for her feet at Genma’s urging.

Kakashi, mechanically, did his share of camp chores, vanished two of the onigiri, and fell into his own bedroll. Genma made a small, well-banked campfire to heat tea-water over, drank one weary cup, and followed suit.

Blessed with stamina over chakra-sense, Raidou was less exhausted. He stretched well-used muscles, found a comfortable tree to lean against, and sat down to annotate his map and make coded mission-notes in a battered journal, marking times and locations of the strange not-sightings.

When he was done, he handed Ryouma up a steaming tin-mug of tea, which was accepted grumpily. A mutter drifted down. “Demons could’ve waited one night...”

The stuffed tanuki, Raidou noted, had survived the trip, migrating from Ryouma’s banished yukata to the shoulder-strap of his armor. He was using it for something like a pillow. The puzzle box had vanished into Kakashi’s gear.

“We’ll owe you the second half of a festival,” Raidou promised, and climbed back down to find his own sleep.

Three hours later, he traded watches with Ryouma. Three hours after that, Genma took over. He’d tied the dyed straw charms around his wrist, where they made bright lines of color against black underpinnings.

Just after midday, before Genma’s watch had ended, Kurenai and Kakashi clawed their way back to the land of the living. A campfire lunch restored everyone to better humor. Kurenai excused herself with dignity to wash up around a bend in the stream and change clothes. Raidou, Ryouma, and Genma splashed with rather less dignity. The water was ice-melt cold, but at least it woke them up.

Kakashi, blearily awake, vanished for ten minutes and returned with damp hair and a clean uniform.

They packed camp, warmed up, and set out into the golden afternoon sun. The road was steeper, but they made better time nonetheless.

By late evening, the path split and curved down into a green valley, marked by a peeling wooden sign that proclaimed, in slightly misshapen kanji: Tanigawa Village, where Sake is Best. Ryouma squinted at it. Genma murmured the translation to him.

In the valley’s heart, lantern light glimmered on a broad stream.
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