Chapter 13

Hatake Kakashi quietly shifted his headband from his left eye to the right, letting the Sharingan take in the area without interference. Instantly the surrounding forest sprang into life, each living creature highlighted in accordance with the colour of its chakra, while the rest of the world was covered in a crimson sheen. Minute details that had been invisible to him before were now revealed with perfect clarity: The texture of the foliage that covered his path, faint erosion to the bark of each tree…

The massive tower that arose before him.

It was not quite as tall as the densely packed trees that sheltered it, or else he would have found it much sooner, but even so it was an impressive sight to behold. The lower half was a circular tower, expanding to form a broad upper storey of crimson rock with a thatched roof in the shape of a cone. All of that would have been normal enough, were it not for the countless long filaments that stretched towards the treetops in every direction, giving the impression of a bloated fly suspended from a great spider’s web.

Which raises the question: Is the spider at home, or away?

Kakashi’s informant had felt certain that Gato would be here this day, but it was obvious that the man was a mere thug and not somebody in the know. Still, the man had been terrified of what Gato would do to him once the Sharingan had done its work in extracting the truth, and that was usually a good sign.

Kakashi formed the necessary seals to create a shadow clone, and dispelled it just as quickly. His clones’ reply came not as a sudden shock, but rather a newfound awareness – certain knowledge of the day’s events from two new perspectives, as if their experiences were something he had always known but only just remembered. He closed his eyes in weariness as two days’ worth of mental exhaustion came with it.

He carefully brushed the foliage out of the way and crept closer, his footsteps silenced through the chakra which he expelled from the bottom of his feet, to spread his weight out over a wide area. Fluid like water, formless like air… Chakra enhanced his senses and would bolster his muscles at a moment’s notice. Strong as earth, fast as lightning and with a burning will of fire. That was what it meant to be a shinobi of Konoha, the Fourth Hokage had told him. It had been a long time since Kakashi’s days in the Anbu, but in that moment he was glad there were some things he could never forget.

He was but fifty paces away when he stopped moving, having spotted a body of water at the base of the tower and eying it with mistrust. It was not unusual for the fortresses of old to have a moat, and it was possible for rainwater to have collected there, but in this case its presence was just a little too convenient for somebody. A water ninja had created it there, most likely, to be used for their techniques.

Kakashi mentally readied his earth and lightning techniques. He inched closer, more slowly now.

Forty paces, and the water remained still.

Thirty paces.

Twenty paces.

He ducked and rolled forward, a sharp wind on the back of his neck as something large cut through the space where his head had been. No sound or smell; trained in silent killing: Former mist Anbu. Counter with earth. He twisted around in the midst of his roll and formed the Snake seal to send a chunk of rock bursting at his unseen opponent. Stone crashed into steel as the enemy raised his blade in defence.

Large weapon; unwieldy: Blocks own line of sight.

Kakashi dove towards the enemy’s blind spot, chakra blade already in hand and flickering with lightning as he drove it straight through the thick steel blade with a sound like a thousand chirping birds – only for his enemy to fall apart in a cascade of water.

Uses water clones; doesn’t take unnecessary risks: Jōnin level. Adjust strategy.

He sprang to his feet and dashed through the foliage, ducking underneath low hanging branches and running without a sound, circling the tower and turning his head to spot the next attack wherever it came from. But instead of a dozen enemies springing their ambush from every direction, all he found was a solitary figure standing on the water at the base of the tower. Something’s off. He forced himself to stop and take a closer look. His opponent stood there casually, giant cleaver held idly in one hand as he waited.

Massive frame; Giant sword: Former member of the Seven Swordsmen.

“Well, well, well,” Kakashi called out, stalling for time as he calmed his heart and forced his thoughts back in order. “If it isn’t Momochi Zabuza – or do you prefer The Demon of the Bloody Mist, these days?”

The man inclined his head slightly, and spoke with a deep, rumbling voice. “Hatake Kakashi, the second coming of the White Fang. I see your eye is as sharp as they say.”

To Kakashi’s Sharingan, the man’s every gesture exuded arrogance and pride. Taken together with his Black Book entry… His confidence stems from being larger and stronger than everyone else, resulting in an arrogance that borders on insecurity. I should try to keep this one talking. 

“I have to say I’m surprised to see you here, Zabuza-san. I didn’t think the likes of Gato could afford someone as skilled as you – and that to kill just one lousy little bridge builder. Or are you here as Gato’s bodyguard?” There was no reply. Kakashi shrugged and continued. “If it’s all the same to you I’d rather not fight you. Do you mind letting me pass? I’ll only take a quick look inside and won’t snoop.”

The man’s mouth was covered with bandages, but the minute twitches near the corner of his mouth were translated into a smug grin by the Sharingan. “Sorry. I’d hold you by the hand and take you right to Gato, but the runt still owes me some money.” He flickered through a string of hand seals and Kakashi tensed up, but nothing seemed to happen. Then a thick mist began to form all around the tower, coloured blue with chakra, and Kakashi cursed inwardly.

If Gato escapes through that mist, I’ll never be able to find him again!

He dashed towards Zabuza, whose outline was already becoming harder to make out in the mist. Before he could move even ten paces a spiralling lance of water shot out from the surface of the lake, and Kakashi had to slam his hands onto the ground and raise a wall of earth to block the attack. Another blow crashed into the newly-formed rampart, and Kakashi was forced to reinforce the wall with more chakra just to keep it standing.

He has the terrain advantage: his techniques cost less chakra than mine, which means he can afford to keep me pinned while Gato gets away. I’ve no choice but to press the attack.

He stood up and formed the seals for his next technique, even as another attack struck home and rumbled his fortification.

-o-

-Five minutes earlier-

“He’s here,” Haku said softly, as he watched the shadowy figure of Kakashi approach the ancient tower through the hemisphere of miniature ice mirrors arrayed before him. He was wearing his old Hunter-ninja outfit again, his elegant pink kimono having served its intended purpose over the past few days and now lying in a puddle on the floor. With one hand he picked up his white mask and lowered it onto his face, reducing the world to thin slits as a familiar coldness settled in his spine. It’s time.

There was no longer anything that needed to be said. Silently, Zabuza stood and drew his executioner’s blade, shouldering the massive weapon as though it weighed nothing. Equally silent, Haku walked over to the only ice mirror in the room large enough to carry him, and stepped through to do his duty.

He found himself in a distant place, one he had seen many times before yet strangely unfamiliar in the black of night. The evening was soft and gentle, illuminated by a pale sickle moon. He inhaled deeply. In the area around the peaceful wooden building in front of him, the scent of cooked fish still lingered.

He closed the frozen portal behind him, to save chakra.

As he stepped out of the treeline, he saw that the front door of the house had received some new repairs, but that would not stop Haku. Following the scent of cooked fish, he edged along the side of the building towards the kitchen windows, where he cautiously peered inside. The place had been cleaned fastidiously, yet even so he could tell that a group of people had eaten there recently. With his eyes closed, he could almost sense it: The sound of carefree laughter, the taste of good food in their mouths and the warmth of their happiness as well.

Pressing his right hand to the glass, he formed a seal with his left, and pushed his chakra inwards. Within the room a thin sheet of ice appeared, hovering silently besides the legless kitchen table. Outside, Haku formed a second mirror against the face of the wall, and stepping through it he entered the kitchen.

There was the faint sound of someone snoring behind the paper walls that separated the kitchen from the living space.

Moving silently, Haku crouched down next to the sliding door. With one hand, he carefully lifted it off the ground, and quietly slid it open with the other. The living room had been divided in several partitions, but it was easy to tell which housed the bridge builder through the sound of his snoring. There in the corner of the room, a silhouette could just barely be made out in the sparse moonlight that passed through the paper walls. The bed that lay closest to the bridge builder’s was empty: It seemed Hatake Kakashi had been forced to cancel his shadow clone technique after all, upon engaging with master Zabuza. Despite it being his own plan, Haku had felt almost certain that the infamous ninja would not let down his guard even in the midst of combat, but it seemed he had been wrong.

That left just one bed to cross before he could get to his target.

Naruto slept as messily as he behaved: Sprawled all over the bed and half across the floor, his arms and hair a tangled mess. Hesitating for just one moment, Haku stepped over the boy and continued onward. Behind him, he could hear him stir ever so slightly, but he did not seem to wake.

He’s probably just having another one of his dreams.

 The final bed was crossed as easily as the first, and then he was looking down at his target. The old bridge builder rested uneasily, his chest heaving up and down with the sound of each snore. Haku quietly drew a steel needle from his sleeve, and edged it towards the man’s throat. All he had to do was pierce the man’s jugular and it would be over, just as he had imagined.

And if anything gave it away, it was that simple fact: Plans never went exactly as imagined.

Haku flared his chakra and spun around, raising a wall of ice to block the incoming attack even as the genjutsu faded away all around him. Another powerful blow caused the wall to shudder, but his defence held. On the other side of the translucent ice, Haku could just barely make out a masked ninja with silver-grey hair.

So you kept your guard up, after all.

Haku formed several more seals and planted his hands on the ground to leave the man a final farewell present. Then he created another portal beneath his feet and fell through the hole even as he closed it behind him. As he dropped rear-first onto the dirty forest floor, he heard master Zabuza’s startled laugh behind him.

“I take it the obvious plan failed?”

Haku rose and dusted himself off. “Yes. It seems we’re going ahead with the complicated plan, after all.” He could not actually have justified trying anything truly convoluted without at least attempting something simple first. Fortunately, his failure meant that part one of the real plan had just succeeded.

“Good,” said Zabuza’s water clone as he shouldered his executioner’s blade and stepped out of the forested area to observe the house before them. “I liked that one better, anyway.”

-o-

The masked boy cast his final technique and sank into the ground like a ghost. In the place where he had stood, frozen stalagmites stabbed up through the floor and kept spreading, cutting through the walls and roof and finally managing to pierce Kakashi’s clone as well. The original Kakashi, who had been standing guard outside, watched it happen from both perspectives; watched as the long spears of ice split and pierced the building from every side until the entire structure rested upon no more than the ice itself. Finally the roof collapsed, groaning like a falling tree and shattering the building into pieces until only a ruined skeleton remained.

“My house,” Tazuna wailed. “My beautiful house! Those bloody savages ruined my house!”

“What was that?” Naruto’s eyes were wide with fear as he looked furtively around in every direction, the boy’s drowsiness replaced with manic energy from the adrenaline. “That… who just… what was that?”

Kakashi turned his attention back to the group of fearful genin and civilians. “That was the ice-release bloodline ability of the late Yuki clan, thought to have been wiped out in the Mist’s bloodline purges. As soon as my clone went after Gato, this boy must have seen his chance and teleported here with that strange space-time technique of his.” And if I hadn’t sensed him coming and moved everyone out of there in time, Tazuna would have lost a lot more than just his house.

Sakura gave him a frightened look. “Another clone? Sensei, I thought you didn’t have the chakra to keep that up?”

I don’t; that was the last one. “There’s no time,” he said instead. “We need to run, and get off this island while we still can.” He made his way through the forest with the others following close behind. They ran for not ten seconds before the mist started to thicken around them. Raising his forehead protector, his Sharingan confirmed his fears, for the mist shone blue with chakra. “Damn it all… He’s already here.”

A panicked voice spoke up. “Who’s here? Sensei, what’s happening?”

Kakashi half-expected it to be Inari, but found to his surprise that it was Sasuke who had spoken up: The Uchiha heir was shaking like a leaf, clutching a kunai in both hands. I suppose he’s only a child, after all. Kakashi said some words of encouragement that he did not truly feel.

For as long as he is paid to hunt us, Zabuza will never let us leave. Killing Gato is more important than ever, now.

-o-

Near the tower, Kakashi’s shadow clone stood up and formed the necessary seals, even as another attack struck home and shook his makeshift fortification. The timing on this will need to be perfect.

Right as he moved to attack, the memories of his fallen clone caught up with him, and the distraction nearly cost him his life. He ducked and rolled to the side, throwing up a new earth barrier even as a blast of water shattered the one he had just left behind, chunks of wet mud hurtling in every direction.

Zabuza is still in the same position – now’s the time.

Still holding his last seal, Kakashi pushed his chakra out and over the fortification, filling the area that Zabuza was standing in. He could hear his opponent curse as the illusion of blinding light took hold: The genjutsu was designed to resemble a flash tag, though unlike a flash tag it would not blind Kakashi as well. With luck, Zabuza would not be able to tell the difference in time.

With one hand he hurled several kunai with explosive tags over the barricade in Zabuza’s direction – the perfect memory of his enemy’s location guiding his aim – and leaped out while forming the seals for the body-flicker technique. Right as the explosions detonated the technique pulled him towards the lake where Zabuza had been forced to hide in the water for protection, and unleashed his Electric Storm technique. Caught between thundering explosions above him and electricity arcing through the lake below, Zabuza’s body was torn asunder and fell apart in a stream of water.

Another clone..?

Almost immediately a vortex of water shot out of the mist from the other side of the lake, and Kakashi was forced to copy the technique, forming the seals to send an identical vortex crashing against the first. Countless water droplets fell to the ground like rain as the two techniques broke apart between them. In the distance, hidden within the ever-thickening mist, the enemy glowed blue with unreleased chakra.

I can’t let this become a stamina battle. I have to end this now.

Kakashi leaped over the water, smashed through the tower gates with an earth technique and darted inside before the ancient timber had even collapsed onto the ground. He instantly dodged to the side as streaks of blue light came hurtling down the winding staircase, cutting deep into the stone near the entrance and showering him with dust and broken rock. At the top of the stairwell four heavily armoured samurai stood in a perfect defensive position to rain down attacks from on high, while behind him Kakashi could already hear Zabuza’s clone forcing his way in through the ruined doorway.

I don’t have time for this.

He turned and slammed his hands on the ground, blocking the exit with a wall of solid rock. Then he formed the tiger seal and filled his lungs with burning chakra, and spat a great ball of roiling fire up the stairwell. He chased the incandescent sphere up the stairs, leaping from railing to railing as the samurai desperately sought refuge from the blazing miniature sun, and then he was on top of them. They vainly tried to meet his blade with their own, but between his speed and the Sharingan they might as well have been standing still. His white tantō flashed this way and that, and the samurai collapsed around him, each with holes no larger than a pinprick where once a vital organ had been.

Below, the stone wall he had raised shattered with a mighty ringing blow. He hurriedly placed explosive tags in key locations within the stairwell, and as he ran to the very top the stairway collapsed in upon itself with a resounding crash. The gates to the upper level of the tower loomed up before him, undefended.

Now it’s just the two of us, Gato.

Another explosive tag reduced the massive wooden doors to splinters. His white tantō was held at the ready, his muscles burned with chakra, and his Sharingan defined the world in shades of red as he burst into the room like an unstoppable force of nature. He found himself inside a massive chamber with a floor of shattered crimson stones. Great stone pillars held up the thatched roof. A grey couch stood in the centre next to a hole where something heavy had carved a chunk out of the floor. Thin strands of pale moonlight came in through the top windows, covering the couch and the surrounding area in a coat of silver.

There was no one there.

Kakashi’s clone dispelled itself.

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