Chapter 1: Arrival
The mission had sounded simple enough on paper. Save a "princess", one up the boys. Add to that their destination was a tropical island. How could any of the girls pass up a chance mission like this? The approach to the island was met with the most dreadful storm the genin had ever seen. The blackest sky greeted their tiny boat, by hurling bolts of lighting at them like spears. The ocean came alive, as if furious at being disturbed from its slumber. While hurricane gales battered at the hull, the skipper wrestled with the wheel urging the girls to refuge in the cramped cabin below. Shivering with wet and cold, the four girls hugged their knees as the roaring waves had drowned out all other sounds. The last sound they heard was a splintering crack before darkness took hold of them.
The world seemed to be wobbling around her as Sakura's eyes fluttered open. The air was heavy with salt as sea gulls cried, circling above like vultures. Her heart jolted the rest of her body alert upon realizing her legs were still doused in ocean water. She was clinging to a piece of driftwood, miraculously floating not far from the coast of a beach. Fearing for her life, the girl paddled toward the shore. When her feet ran against rocky sand, she screamed with delight. Closer! She was almost there.
"Sakuraaa!" An all too familar voice cried out to her left. Ino was gonna make it, and Sakura had never been so happy to hear Ino-Pig's voice. Far off already on the sandy dune, Hinata sat on the ground hugging her knees. Meanwhile Ten Ten stood beside her waving with a relieved smile. When the girls were assembled, it was all they could do to not grab ahold of each other in joy. When they could have died they lived!
The scene was idylic, the island was completely unspoiled in its natural splendor. It was almost alien to behold a place devoid of human life and architecture. The weather was just right, warm but not too hot. Clear blue skies mirrored the ocean all around them. The beach itself was clean of all debris, save for the few pieces of boat that washed up along with the girls.
"What a pity," Ino said wistfully. "We should have brought our swimsuits..." Lady Tsunade had forbidden the girls from bringing anything frivolous, much their collective chargrin. She had expressly forbidden them from bringing swimsuits with scowl that made them shiver. The mission was too crucial to waste time playing around. "Too bad we couldn't get stranded like this with Sasuke-kun." She shot a challenging glance over to Sakura, while Hinata pushed at her fingers and Ten Ten stretched her arms out.
Sakura knew Ino meant it in jest, given the circumstances, and did her best to play it off that way. "Yeah right! You'd want him all to yourself!"
"Now now, Sasuke-kun is a growing boy," Ino shot back. "I wouldn't be so cruel as to deprive my future husband of his manly needs. Not like some girls." Ino laughed in a haughty way that made Sakura growl and grind her teeth. Even here Ino's arrogance reigned supreme!
"Meh, you can keep brooding boy," Ten Ten interjected. "I already have Neji for that..."
"You like Neji?" Sakura and Ino almost said in curious unison.
"He does have a certain maturity to him," said Sakura. Ino nodded in agreement.
Ten Ten gave Hinata a sultry wink, a gesture the shy girl didn't understand. "Hyugas are rather handsome, but I much prefer Lee-kun." Ten Ten crossed her arms as if in triumph, which made Sakura and Ino laugh all the harder.
"LEE? Ewww! No way! He's gross." It was inconcievable to either of them that any girl would lower themselves down to such a level. He was such an aggravating, limp wristed wuss!
"Lee has a way of surprising you. There's more to him than the surface. Even if you have to dig deep to find it."
"Remind me to bring a shovel the next time we meet," Sakura said while sticking her tounge out.
"Or a drill!" Ino added. With everyone laughing Hinata struggled to keep up with forced but well meaning giggles. "What about you Hinata-chan?" Ino asked the shy girl suddenly. "Who do you think is more handsome? Sasuke," Ino spoke his name rather musically. "Or Lee?" She said his name as if spitting out a bug.
"Or Neji?" Ten Ten added, which only caused Hinata to mutter and shuffle her feet ever more nervously.
"I...ah...I am not f-familar with Uchiha-san or Lee-san so...not that I dislike them! But I don't have those kinds of feelings for them..."
"Hinata's such a good girl," said Sakura. "Being from an important clan, she's probably gonna marry a famous prince or something someday huh?"
Ino clasped her hands together in a most darling fashion. "Ohh! That's so romantic! Are you betrothed Hina-chan?"
Hinata shook her head. "Not exactly, but...I wouldn't mind marrying...someone like the Hokage someday..." Hinata smiled a secret smile as her cheeks flushed. She knew her meaning even if the others didn't.
"Oh ho? Hinata-chan's got a thing for older men huh?" Ino said. Hinata immediately started sputtering and waving her arms around trying to deny it. Ino held up her hands as if trying to mellow out a child. "Hey, hey easy Hina, it's alright. Why don't we change the subject..."
Silence fell over the group and with it a sullen mood. The harshness of their situation was as inescapable as the sun's light. To try and break the mood, Sakura bent down to pull off her sandals and tossed them off to the side. Stepping into the sand with her bare feet she let the warmth of the earth well up and through her. It was little crazy maybe, but by connecting in this way it helped to ground her. She sauntered forward as the other girls watched. Gazing out into the sea, into the infinite blue, she brushed back her bangs as a breeze grazed her face. She tried to imagine that they were simply at the beach. A desolate beach with no shelter, or access to clean food, water, or people.
"We might be here for awhile." The words bore an uncomfortable weight, but it was not unbearable. Standing as tall and firm as she could manage she turned around to face her team. Ino's eyes were focused on the ground and she hugged herself as if to ward off a chill. Sakura hadn't seen Ino's lower lip quiver like that since they were small children. To think just a few hours ago she and Ino were bickering over who was team leader in this mission. It was all did together anymore. There was a small, secret spot in Sakura's heart that hoped that this misson would be their chance to smooth things out again. How she yearned to laugh and talk with Ino again, just like in the old days. But Ino could be so stubborn.
The threat of never going home again seemed to have sapped her of what stubborness she had. For Ino sank into the sand and slumped her shoulders.
It was easy to be worried for Hinata, just trying to talk to her seemed to frighten the poor girl. Though she fiddled with her fingers in nervous habit, she remained standing still. Even though her toes seemed to point inward with innocent poise, there was...not a calmness persay, but a sense of conviction. Hinata could be so delicate, and yet she was not down on the ground crying or shaking. She was no leader, but she was still standing. Sakura breathed a sigh of relief. There was more to Hinata that what she appeared to be. That gave Sakura courage. It felt like what few times she had been together with Hinata, she's had to look out for her like a big sister. A random thought occurred to her, didn't Hinata have a little sister? When they made it home, Sakura felt she'd have to get closer to the Hyuga heiress. When.
Ten Ten was even more unfamiliar to her than Hinata was, and taking the situation in her own way. Pacing back and forth, it made Sakura think of a lion in a cage. The two girls exchanged a long glance as if to size each other up. It was Ten Ten who broke away first. The unspoken vote was unanimous. We might be here a while, the words echoed in Sakura's thoughts. Truth be told, there was a part of her that wanted to be furious. To yell and scream in fury and stomp her feet at the unfairness of it all. To fall to her knees and sob until she was dry of tears. This she could not do. Would not. She was a kuniochi, not a helpless little girl. The others were counting on her to see them through this trial. So she gave them all reassuring smile.
"This spot seems as good as any. We'll make our base camp here." Sakura waited to see how the others would react. Ten Ten stood up attentively, while still somber Hinata regarded her with doe eyes. Only Ino remained unshaken from her forlorn stupor.
"How?" She grumbled on the verge of sobbing. "We don't even have any gear!" It was true. Their packs were aboard the boat that had brought them. All of their survival rations, water, rope, all their camping gear was lost in the wreck.
"We'll just have to make do with what we can find," said Sakura. Wilderness survival was just one of the many skills afforded to ninja. If they worked together they should be able to last awhile until help arrived. That didn't make the situation any less scary though. The boat that was bringing them to the island was supposed to be their HQ. They were to retrieve a young noble girl, and smuggle her off the island before the enemy could react. Simple and clean. The only real threat was supposed to be the kidnappers, a motley crew of small time wanna-be thugs playing at being pirates. The storm was an oversight that cost them dearly. The damn thing came out of nowhere. The weather was supposed to be clear for the whole week. Nevertheless it happened. It should have been planned for but wasn't. Now they were stuck on an uncharted island with no way of contacting anyone.
Maybe the Skipper was right about the island being cursed. The thought ran down Sakura's spine like an icy finger. "The Skipper!" Sakura turned and ran back down to the water's edge. The waves rolled in and out, bleching out the occasional bit of debris but no sign of the man who brought them here. No order was necessary for the rest of the girls to fan out along the beach, searching for the Skipper. He was not any kind of remarkable man. Just a simple fisherman who had never left the borders of his hometown. Someone who scraped by to provide for his wife and children. He was also the only one who relented when asked for passage to the island. Everyone else they asked shooed them away, telling the same story.
"Those kidnappers are insane," the Skipper had said. "That island is haunted. A terrible evil lurks beneath the surface of that place. No man, or woman for that matter has ever returned from it. Tis especially dangerous for young women, so the stories say." When the girls had prodded him the reasons why it was cursed, he scratched his head and looked over his shoulder. He spoke in a soft whisper that they all had to lean in close. "Tis the island of demon nymphs it is said. A vile Beast lives on the island. It steals the souls of pretty young maidens, not unlike yourselves, and turns them into demons. They go wild and crazy, paint themselves with blood and feast on the flesh of men. Cannibals! But that is not the only danger. Zukalaka Island is vast and full giant beasts. Even the plants are said to have a taste for human blood. No, I won't do it. I cannot in good conscience lead you to your death!" But the man was weak when the girls turned their charms on him. Sakura remembered, acting in accordance with her kunoichi training, there's nothing in this world a good man lives for than to help a pretty young girl in distress. All men yearn for such things, to be protectors. The four of them mewled like kittens, shaming him for his inaction. It was basic human instinct. They assured him that they would succeed in rescuing the "princess", for they were mighty Hidden Leaf ninja. The Skipper went from shaking his head to shaking all over, it was a wonder he didn't fall to his knees and beg to help them out in the end. There was a certain sense of uncleaness that came of manipulating the poor man in such a way. But a wise kunoichi doesn't relent, and uses all the tools she has at her disposal. Being as sweet as could be, the girls rewarded his effort with relieved smiles and compliments. How brave was their mighty captain, to risk such a quest to help four cute ninja out.
He is brave, Sakura insisted. All of them hoped he was ok.
The coastline went on and on for miles and miles in either direction circling the lush jungle. Sakura made the call early that they should stick together no matter what happened. The Skipper had to turn up, if they survived then so should he. The kunoichi broke into a run, their arms flung behind them like wings as they kicked up sand behind them. Ten Ten spotted him first, rolled up in ball and surrounded by timbers. He was hagrid and balding to begin with, dressed in little more than rags which now clung to his skin, the way his skin clung tight to his bones. Lying there unmoving, he could very well have been asleep. No breath passed from his lips, no pulse ran through his wrist. He had since grown pallid and cold as ice in the water's mocking embrace. The girls each shared a held breath, flinching away in terrible awe of the presense of death. Together they buried him further up on the beach, using a piece of splinter to mark the grave.
"S-shouldn't we say something?" Hinata said. The kuniochi circled the grave, their hands solemnly clasped in front of them. Sakura, Ino, and Ten Ten's families were not very pious. Traditional as Hinata's family was, prayer was fit in with the daily routine as a mechanical function. Practiced ritual for its own sake, because that's just what's been done for hundreds of generations. There was little comfort to be had in the grim face of death. But somehow, just posing the question seemed to give the group a sense of direction if not purpose. It wasn't much but it would have to be enough.
Sakura searched for the words to say and spoke slowly. "The skipper was kind enough to lead us here. He didn't have to but he did. He risked his life for us, knowing..." Her voice broke as tears ran down her cheeks. Ino openly cried into her hands as Hinata hugged her sides looking down between her sandals. Even Ten Ten swallowed hard, doing everything she could to at least look like a tough as nails kuniochi rather than a little girl. "...that there was danger ahead." Despite the idylic calm from the splash of waves, and the chime of palm leaves as wind passed through them, the girls were far from safe. The kidnappers were still out there somewhere, along with what ever other natural defenses the island had to offer. Sakura clenched her fists as she wiped the tears away. "His sacrifice won't be forgotten and won't be in vain," she vowed. "We will complete our mission. May he rest in peace."
Sakura, acting as she imagined one should, pressed her hands together and bowed her head in prayer. Hoping that whatever kami dwelled on the island, or whatever god the man revered would keep him safe. Ino continued to sob as she imitated her leader. Hinata, more practiced in ritual, fell to her knees to bow in reverence. Ten Ten offered a knowing nod but nothing more.
Not wanting to linger near the dead, the girls dashed away back to where they had landed. After all, Sakura had left her sandals behind. But when they returned to where they had landed, her sandals were gone. The kuniochi came skidding to a halt and drew their kunai in alarm. For in the place of the sandals a grisly effigy stood. A man's severed head sat atop a three pronged stick. Its eyes and mouth were sewn shut in thick leather x's. Stamped across its face was a bloody red footprint, with a slender wooden barb pierced through his nostril. The ears were also pierced in similar crude fashion, with tuffs of jade feathers dangling like earrings from its lobes. A wreath of still green leaves crowned the head. Its hair went sullied, save for the scalp which had been cut away leaving a terrible red gash. Hinata gasped covering her mouth in horror. Ino wanted to scream but some fearful instinct held her back, less whoever left the gruesome thing hear her. Ten Ten manuvered herself in such away to watch the kuniochi's flank. Sakura's whole body clentched up as she stared at the thing as if it a thousand miles away.
The kidnappers didn't do this, she realized. The men they were tracking were gang of village layabouts. This, this sacrilege was beyond brutal. Could it be the head of one of the kidnappers? Feathers of many colors dangled from tassels of the two prongs on either side of the head. They gave the effigy the semblance of desecrated wings. Whoever was responsible knew they were here. They were out there in jungle, waiting. As if to confirm her suspicions, heavy tribal drums echoed in the distance, blending in with the calls of birds and the howls of various beasts. A cruel melody as natural as any other living thing on the island.
"Talking drums," said Ten Ten as she gripped her kunai even tighter. "I read about it in a book. Primitive tribes would use them to communicate between villages." Sakura broke from her shock to turn and face the jungle. Compared to the bright and sunny beach, the forest was a titanic mass of thorns and darkness. A beast in of its own right, the palm trees seemed more like fangs awaiting tear them apart like the tender morsels they were. The savage drums thundered on like some terrible heart beat. The kuniochi knew they were standing upon a precipice. Somewhere in that emerald inferno a little girl was lost and alone, at the mercy of only god knows what. Sakura, Hinata, Ten Ten, and Ino were sworn to rescue her. There was no turning back now.
Chapter 2: Animal Laughter
More story and plot for now. The real fun begins soon, in the meantime let the tension build up. Inner Sakura is such a savage! I wonder what effect the island will have on her...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The tension in the air did not dissipate with the drums. The belly of the jungle was as monstrous as its maw. A circulatory system of green vines ensnared every boulder and tree. Thick, almost hairy ones dangled from branches like coils of rope. The jungle's breath smothered them with acrid heat. Rather than provide shade the twisting canopies trapped the cloying moisture, shrouding the forest in a foreboding green miasma. Particles of dust spores hung in the air, glimmering like fireflies. Each of the girls felt their noses rankle and sneezed a few times. The climb was uphill with trees in every direction. Here and there they stopped for breaks and to get their bearings. To avoid getting lost they maintained a forward position, hoping they'd eventually reach the other side of the island. They kept in formation running with supernatural speed. Their kunai were drawn in anticipation for battle. Whether it was along the ground or leaping from tree to tree, the kuniochi glided like birds. Let these natives just try and keep up with Hidden Leaf genin!
Of all the kinds of wildernesses in the world, a jungle was the epitome of the struggle of life and death. Everything was alive and interconnected to one another's life cycle. Everything was also trying to eat each other.
"Grah! Damn. These. Filthy. Bugs!" Ino swatted again and again at the horde of gnats clouding her face. Each little bastard was no larger that a dust mote, and were drawn in by Ino's perfumed hair and body. The other girls gave her a sharp look and hearty shhh! The lot of them were squatting low in the brush, but Ino sprang upright blustering. "As if anyone could hear me in this noise." The forest was alive with symphony of crickets, cidicas, and who knows what else. One unknown creature was grunting in a soft monotonous rhythm that eerily made Sakura think of an engine. Whatever it was, she just hoped it wasn't hungry. Birds of every color whistled blissful tunes, as if oblivious to the danger around them. Little monkeys gossiped amongst themselves, watching the invaders with dark feral eyes. A black and blue striped frog croaked as he hopped along, only to be snatched up and spit out again by a foolish snake. A wild boar dashed by snorting. The porker could have easily have been a hunter or the hunted. There was a sort of giant leathery worm, swollen to the size of a banana. It was suckling white pulp from one of the many giant vines. It was not alone either, similar such grubs slunk their way up trees, excreting a viscous lime fluid as they moved. The girls cringed at the very inappropriate shape the worms' bulb heads resembled. The girls were staying low, and out of sight; scanning the forest about them for any sign of pursuers. Sakura half anticipated their unknown enemy to spring out ground. She only hoped her team's bright outfits didn't give away their position. The brush surrounding them could only do so much. A finger brushed against the back of her neck causing her jerk forward, arching her back in alarm. Every hair on her head and neck must have stood on its end. Quickly she spun around, holding up her kunai to face whatever terror was there. It was only a curling little green vine. A totally innocent piece of foliage, nothing more. Ten Ten and Hinata were sheepishly staring out her. Irritated, she poked at the stupid thing with her finger and then sighed with relief. So silly, getting all jumpy over a stupid plant. Nevertheless she shifted further away from it, suspicious of the way it curled up on itself. With all the growling, hooting, barking and chirping the trees may well have been whispering to one another in some grotesque language.
They can whisper all they like, so long as the big cats don't come out to play, Sakura thought grimly. She snatched Ino by the back of her tunic pulled her back down into the brush. Sighing she waved her comrades to come in closer in a circle.
"The island is bigger than we thought," she started, unsure where to go with it. Indeed, they had been sprinting through the forest for what felt like hours. In that time they found more evidence of the natives' presence, yet no sign of either them or their target. Here and there were lone markers: carved poles embellished with feathers and red leather bands. Their sides were sharpened with fanged, serrated edges. All of the markers were capped with a jawless skull, stamped with a bloody footprint. The kuniochi had taken to kicking the fiendish things over where ever they had found them. The last thing they needed was anything else staring at them.
"That much is obvious!" Ino scoffed as she crossed her arms. "We've been wandering around forever! We should have just waited at the beach for rescue."
Hinata stirred, opening her mouth as if to say something supportive but no words came out and she retreated back into herself.
"We should at least build a base camp," Ten Ten said.
"We should try to get a lay of the land first," Sakura replied. "Besides, we're being followed." She substituted followed for 'tracked', to disarm the notion that they were being hunted.
Ten Ten shook her head. "Fine, we should gain some distance and then build a base camp. As rocky as this jungle is there's bound to be a cave somewhere."
"Ugh, don't remind me," Sakura shifted around so she sat on her legs. She grimaced as she massaged her aching feet. Running around in the woods with no shoes on was taking its toll. Luckily, if you could call it luck, even the occasional boulder was immersed in grassy moss, fungus and who knows what else. They were soft enough to stand on, but still absolutely revolting to touch. Her soft once dainty soles had been blackened by dirt, and grown sticky from sap residue. By channeling chakra to her feet as one does when walking up trees or water, helped to keep a buffer between her and the sharper rocks. It prevented deeper cuts, lessening them to scuffs and bruises, but it still hurt!
I hope they choke on them, she thought. Inside her mind she was shaking her fist at the heavens for allowing this travesty to happen. Who steals a shoe? I want names! There will be hell to pay if I get a blister! GRAH!!!
They decided to stick to the shadows and crouched along. Slinking forward on their tip toes until they reached a large pond. A crude watch tower stood at the foot of the water, a tripod of bamboo spikes with a long rope dangling from a flat wooden platform. More skulls, animal or otherwise hung from said platform, clinking like some perverse wind chime. No guards sat atop the platform, much to the girls' relief. The towering form was frightful to behold none the less. It stood out from the trees as an alien and spiteful monument. A grim reminder that they were not alone on the island. The water itself was still, a slick black mirror unbroken save for bits of water lilies. Ino was so thirsty her tongue was hanging out. Her face lit up at the prospect of water, any water would do! She moved down to the water's edge to take a small drink, but Ten Ten grabbed her by the arm to stop her.
"Would you lay..." Ino started when a crocodile's massive jaws lurched out of the water. With a shriek she was dragged back before the beast could snap its jaw down on her head. The massive lizard hissed at the intruders, before lazily slipping back into the water like a piece of driftwood. No one dared move out of primal fear. Ino gasped for air, still clinging a hold of Ten Ten for dear life. The team slowly made its way backwards, Hinata behind Ten Ten, Ten Ten pulling Ino along. Sakura somehow found herself standing as a buffer between her team and the black pond. All eyes watched for the crocodile's inevitable return. It was several minutes before Ino regained her composure just enough to stand on her own two feet. Still, her teeth were bared and her eyes wide with fear. The crocodile remained still in the water, its only movement the twitching of its eyes as it focused in on the kuniochi. They did not take their eyes off it until they were far enough away that they couldn't even see the pond or its watch tower.
"You're welcome by the way," Ten Ten folded her arms behind her head as she walked away.
"We'll get water somewhere else," Sakura said as she tried to pat Ino on the shoulder. But her rival jerked away at her touch. Ino stormed off after Ten Ten, to get as far away from the pond and Sakura as possible. Does she blame me for all of this? she couldn't help but wonder. Ino was so close by and yet was somehow farther away than ever. It seemed like nothing could bridge the gap growing between them. How could she expect to become a great ninja if she can't even manage a working relationship with her team? The forlorn daze on Sakura's face drew Hinata over to her side. She didn't say anything at first, standing there awkwardly sucking on one of her knuckles. But then she reached out and took Sakura by the hand.
"You can do it," she said like the coo of a dove. At first Sakura was dumbfounded, and then she shook her head and smirked. Here she was trying to play it cool and Hinata Hyuga of all people was trying to encourage her. Look at her playing the part of the big sister. She returned the favor with a gentle squeeze.
"Thank you, Hinata," said Sakura. Having done something to help, the shy girl beamed.
They came upon a massive tree, so great that even if the girls joined hands and stretched out their arms they would only cover about a quarter way around it. But it was not its size that stood out to them. This giant of a tree had had its bark peeled down to the smooth flat core. Etched upon that core and all around it were hundreds if not thousands of little red footprints, pressed with what the girls hoped was merely paint. Above the foot prints other crude figures stood out in black. Curvaceous and feminine bodies armed with bows or spears. Each girlish figure seemed to have a skirt of grass jutting out from their full hips. Near all of them had their little feet painted red. The figures were not idle either. The pictographs showed them chasing horned deer and wild pigs. Others were dancing while some figures sat cross legged, playing drums or flutes. What looked like little hunch backed dogs ran around at their masters' feet. A distinctive red, yellow, and white sun symbol spiraled in rhombus shape above the figures. Its magenta colored rays shot out in ten directions like arrow heads. To its left a gloomy moon peered down like byakugan eye. The little people danced and hunted atop the image of a monster of a snake, which served as a barrier between the footprints and the pictograph proper. The serpent was so long it coiled around the entire tree. Where the sun and moon shined, the great snake's head sat underneath, eating its tail and bringing the three symbols together in a savage trinity. Skinny vines had grown over the mural since. Every few inches they bloomed with tiny lavender flowers. Nestling upon said flowers were an flock of iridescent butterflies, whose wings were as purple as a twilit sky. The serene majesty of it all left the kuniochi wide eyed with awe.
"Pretty..." said Hinata astonished as she clasped her hands on her breast with wonder. One of the butterflies fluttered its way around her to land on Hinata's little nose. She giggled with childish delight as it bristled its head against her skin before rejoining its kin. "Like fairy kisses," she mused.
"Have you ever seen anything like it?" Ten Ten posed the question to no one in particular. Ino murmured no as she shook her head. Sakura let herself smile at this near-natural wonder if only for a moment. Somewhere in the brush behind them leaves were rustling, and an animal was bellowing a wolfish howl. A howl that shuttered like wicked snickering.
"We should keep moving," she said bringing her team out of their reverie. Perhaps the others did not look far enough above. Perhaps no one wanted to state the obvious and spoil the mood of the moment. Sakura certainly hated being the killjoy but it couldn't be helped. They were not in a safe place and it was best to keep moving as she said. The same people who created this mural, were the same people who hung severed limbs far, far above from the limbs of the tree. The emerald canopy provided the grisly trophy rack a most convincing camouflage. The sight of those heads, hands, and feet, made her want to keel over in terror. Instead she pretended like they weren't there, hoping the others didn't see the way she shivered. The other girls simply nodded to Sakura, keeping their eyes at eye level as they scurried off. A shape was squatting like monkey in the shadows of the neighboring tree. From its position and leafy decoration, it may as well have been just another piece of tree. But this shape could breathe. It squinted at the invaders with slanted green eyes, pushing its black bangs aside from its bowl cut hair. With the lonely lust of devildom, it licked its lips as it clambered through the intertwined branches above. Its hidden sisters soon followed.
The jagged terrain continued to fight the girls at every step. The downhill slope ended at a wall of dirt, spidery roots and rock. Determined to keep going forward, they vaulted up using the roots and vines as stepping stones. With the power of their ninjustu sticking to the surface was child's play. The wall was not terribly tall, but a fall from that height could have been fatal. Ten Ten had the bright idea to cut a coil of vine down from one of the trees. It was surprising pliant and springy yet tough enough that they each had to hack at it with their kunai. Using that as a rope, they tied a band around each other's waist. Ino made a snarky remark that now if one of them fell they'd all fall.
"What'd you come on this mission for if all you're going to do is complain?!" Sakura's patience was wearing thin. "And you wanted to be team captain, I don't hear you giving any suggestions."
"Oh I dunno, BOSS. I just had to see for myself how far behind you are as a ninja."
"What did you just say?!" Sakura ground her teeth, digging her heels into the ground lest she spring forward and smack that pig across the head. Ino always knew what buttons to push to make Sakura lose her temper.
"We've been following YOUR lead since we've left the village, and its just been one massive fuck up after another. You'd think with massive forehead of yours there'd be some brains in there. You certainly like to act like your hot to trot. Well I got news for you, you're not!" The figurative kunai was being turned in the back. Ha. Ha. Sakura's forehead was everyone's favorite joke. How dare she?! That's the price she paid for trusting Ino with her secrets as a child. 'Words just words. Words can't hurt you.' Such empty platitudes were lost in a seething blaze of rage. The battle rage, it came so easily to Sakura. It was like putting on a pair of gloves. A single spark was all it took for her fists to curl up. She couldn't think, she could only react. Her legs charged forward with a mind of their own, her fist cocked back, ready to launch square into Ino-Pig's stupid jaw.
"Shut up, just shut up!" Sakura meant it a warning. But Ino just kept on pushing at her.
"Make me!" she said as she lunged forward ready to bash her rival's head in.
They only had a split second to react. Hinata and Ten Ten dove in between their two teammates, grappling with them to keep them apart. The terror of the crocodile and the faceless headhunters, were as nothing to the raw hatred that had devoured their comrades.
"That's enough out of the both of you!" Ten Ten held back a snarling Ino. "Geeze I thought you two were friends."
Some vital part of Sakura reminded her that Hinata was an innocent. It took all of that little bit's strength to keep Sakura from striking her by mistake. Perhaps it was the pitiful way the shy Hyuga pleaded. "P-please don't fight any more. Please? I can't stand to watch this..." Sakura roared incoherently through Hinata, as if issuing a challenge to Ino from beyond a gulch.
"We were NEVER friends," Ino said with a venomous glare. "Don't you forget that Sakura. Yeah, I took pity on you. I protected you when everyone was picking on you. I TRUSTED you when no one else would. And look where it got me!" Ino broke away from Ten Ten's grip, turning away from her teammates and sniffling. Acting like she didn't care who saw her cry. "I don't wanna die. I don't want to die here Sakura. Not on this godforsaken rock. T-t-torn apart, or hungry. Never to see my home or family ever again. But most of all... I don't want to die because of you. You... Why couldn't you stop him?! Why couldn't you stop Sasuke?!" And there was the root of it. There at the epicenter, the black hole that ruptured the life they once shared. Sasuke. The reason they starting fighting each other in the first place. Sasuke, the beautiful boy who never once took an interest in either of them. Sasuke. The brooding boy who turned his back on the village, to follow the single most evil shinobi who ever lived. Not even the power of love could sway him, or bring him back. Time and again they had wounded each other over him, and in the end it was all for nothing.
Some much needed silence held the kuniochi for a time, save for the digestive grumblings of the jungle. Ino's sobs subsided and with it all the mad feelings faded away. Sakura looked to see the horror in Hinata's face. What am I doing? I'm acting like some kind of wild animal. The shame of it made Sakura fall to her knees. Ino mumbled to the others that she was fine now. That she was just frustrated by how hopeless their situation had become.
"It can't be helped now," Ino said bringing an end to her latest fight with Sakura. "I swear, this island is gonna drive us all crazy."
Beyond the wall they journeyed across a level section of woods. The long trek had finally begun to wind the girls. They came to a stop upon a massive cliff side overlooking yet more forest below. They had not even reached the middle of the island yet.
Not so far in the distance a lone hooked mountain jutted up from the earth like a fist. Cloud white smoke chugged its way out from the top of the mountain, marking it as an active volcano and renewing the girls' anxieties. Storm clouds had been gathering before the setting sun, which now set alight the sky with ephemeral gold. Under that golden sky the muggy air was hotter than ever. All four of them sat on the ground, their energy nearly spent. Their clothes were soaked with sweat and they were panting for air. Their faces were totally red from the humidity as they tried to fan themselves. Hinata had it the worst of all having brought her jacket with its mink trim. For most of the way she had tied it around her waist and now pulled it off and let it crumple off to the side.
"How are you doing Hinata-chan?" Sakura carefully watched the shy girl's tense reaction. She was always so quiet, but she wasn't by any means dumb. Still, Sakura felt obligated to dote on her. Just what went on inside that pretty head of hers?
"Ah! I'm fine! Really. I just wish that I, had a better outfit." Hinata's simple black t-shirt and capri pants were not only drab, but in this heat had to be unbearable.
"Don't you have anything to wear for warmer weather?" Sakura did her best to try and sound as motherly as possible, lest Hinata clam up from anxiety. "Not to be judgmental or anything! Really. But we are in a jungle and all. Don't you have like some short skirts, or spaghetti straps at home?"
Hinata chewed on her lower lip as she pinched at the hems of her shirt. She hadn't raised her head once while Sakura was talking at her. "I'm...I'm not allowed to have such things. Father feels they are inappropriate. The warmest clothes I do have are yukata, which aren't suited for missions." Sakura was taken aback. The Hyugas were an extremely traditional bunch, always wearing kimonos and such. But to not even be allowed something as simple as a skirt? Poor Hinata, she wasn't even allowed to express herself like a girl. "Father says being a ninja always comes first. That's why I have to always wear something practical." Part of Sakura wanted to snap and argue with her, but stopped herself. She'd already lost her temper once today, and once was too many. With Hinata's timid temperament she would probably just nodded along with whatever she could say, or worse shut down altogether. It must have been tough to be heir to such an important clan. Sakura couldn't even imagine holding herself back over the whims of her own dad. She realized how lucky she really was. How much freer she was in the way she spent her time. Hinata looked and acted as if she was always locked up in cage.
Sakura was aghast at seeing Hinata crumple in on herself even on something as simple as clothes. There was something familiar about the way she hung her head, it was almost like when Ino first befriended her. It was just like looking at her old self again. Before she found her footing. Sakura glanced over at Ino's frowning face and back to Hinata's misery. Despite their rivalry, if Ino had never reached out to Sakura, could she have ended up just like Hina was now? Ever impulsive she soon found herself scooching up closer to her shy teammate. With a soft, "Hey," and a caressing hand she helped Hinata lift her chin. Her eyes were off putting at first glance, but once you got use to them they had a unique beauty to them. Just like Hinata.
"I'll tell you what. Once we get back home, let's go shopping together. I'll help you find something nicer to wear."
Hinata was awestruck at such random kindness. "Eh? B-but! R-really? You really mean it?" The pleading way she asked wrenched Sakura's heart in a knot.
"Uh huh!" she pulled her hand away now, to give Hinata room to breathe.
"But what about..."
Sakura rolled her eyes. "Your papa doesn't need to know everything you do. You're a girl, you're allowed to have a life outside what he wants silly," Sakura compounded her statement by mussing up Hinata's hair. The shy girl didn't seem too flustered over it. "It'll be our secret." The mere mention of the concept of 'our', blew away all of Hinata's anxieties in a single excited gasp.
"Hey, don't make plans without me," Ten Ten was laying on her side and fanning herself with a palm leaf. "I know few cool spots we can hang out, away from prying eyes." She was looking right into Hinata's eyes as she said this. "I'd like to get to know you better. Both of you," she quickly added.
"That's a great idea!" Sakura's mind was popping with the possibilities. Eating ice cream together. Picking out fashionable outfits. Teasing cute guys just to brush them off again... "Doesn't that sound like it could be fun Hinata?"
"Mmm!" she politely nodded in agreement.
"I'll bet there's a fun girl buried deep inside of you that's just dying to bust out and go crazy," said Sakura.
"I'm not so s-sure about all that..." Hinata twiddled her fingers around, as if to ponder the idea.
"Cool. It's a date then," Ten Ten winked at Hinata in an unusual way. One that made Sakura's eyebrow rise up as if to say 'just what are your intentions here young man?'. Ten Ten merely replied with a cool as a cucumber grin. Hinata stared at both her team mates in sheer befuddlement.
Ino said nothing. The rift between her and Sakura was as deep and black as ever. She sat apart from the others while tugging at the collar of her tunic to keep cool; No doubt still lost in the shock of almost being eaten alive. Meanwhile Ten Ten was pulling her shirt over her head, revealing a skin tight sports bra underneath. There was no real shame in it as they were all girls. Nevertheless, Hinata flinched a little at the sudden sight of another girl's near naked skin. "We really should have built a base camp first," Ten Ten said while wiping the sweat from her brow. Night was coming, and all the unseen terrors of the wilderness were coming with it. "What are we going to do about water or food?"
Ugh, not you too. Sakura bit her lower lip and didn't answer right away. Already she had overestimated the island and now day was starting to give way. She blew up at Ino and nearly hit both her and Hinata over it. She sat with her legs spread out on the ground, her clothes were almost soaked with perspiration. She wished she'd worn her summer suit instead of her usual tunic. The way it showed off her belly button was meant to be more flirty than functional, but it might have helped to keep her cooler. Yet another oversight. Grah! She hit her fist on the ground. How could she had been so stupid. This mission was supposed to be a test to prove that her team was capable of acting on its own! That they had grown in skill and didn't need supervision any longer. She thought finding their target would have been as easy as rushing across the island. The bastards could be hiding the girl in a cave, but which one? The doubts began to pile on top of one another. What if the kidnappers left the island before they caught up with them? Just because their intel suggested they made their base here didn't mean they were going to wait around forever. Then there was that stupid volcano smoking up like a bomb just waiting to go off. Finally there was the savage wildlife, and the natives. The thought of them chilled her blood more than anything. The skipper spoke of demon nymphs. That strange mural only added to the mystery, and the drums. Those foreboding drums. Just who were these people? Sakura chided herself, as if the severed heads they kept finding weren't clear as crystal. A sinister thought suggested the absolute worst case scenario. What if those headhunters got the girl? What if we're caught? A hellish thought she quickly squashed down along side a entrepreneurial mosquito that landed on her arm.
"We'll start with a cave. That'll give us a good defensible positions and let us start a fire." Fire would keep animals away, but wouldn't ward off the headhunters (nor the kidnappers for that matter). If anything it would give away their position. "As for water..." They each had a small filtration unit in their packs. Said packs were at the bottom of the ocean. If only they had a pot, anything they could just boil water with. "We'll just have to make do until help arrives," the group groaned together. Drinking any untreated water meant risking infection from unknown diseases and parasites. If one of them were to fall ill...
Ten Ten let herself fall to the ground and lay in a bed of dead leaves. "What a disaster," she grumbled.
"Hey, I..." Sakura searched for something to say that might be comforting when a light went on in her head. Her arms scrambled about her tunic's pockets until she retrieved a single photograph. Her teammates scooching in to see the image of a cheerful little girl wearing a soft pink yukata, with a small white kitten cradled in her arms. Hikari Kamiya was daughter of some obscure noble from the Land of Honey. Her short hair and bright eyes were the color of chestnuts, whose calm demeanor was said to warm even the chilliest disposition. She was abducted for a pittance of a ransom. Worst still, they very men her father had hired to guard her were now her kidnappers. Fools that believed they could make a lot more and quickly by stealing her away. "She must be so scared," was all Sakura could muster.
"We...we can't let her down!" Hinata stammered out. Having a girl as shy as her show some determination seemed to set a light back into Ten Ten and Ino's eyes. It wasn't much but Sakura would take any scrap of hope they could get. It was a tangible goal for the moment. At this point they could assume nothing about their target. She had to be out there somewhere, and they weren't going to give up till they found her. When Sakura reached forward to grasp Hinata's hand, she didn't even realize she was doing it. The shy girl flinched for a moment in shock, unsure at first how to react. She looked up to see Sakura smiling and gave her one back in return. Their fingers intermingled and both girls squeezed gently, sharing in each other's warm touch and strength. Ten Ten added her hand into the mix, scooting in right up to Hinata so that their thighs were touching. Ino gave them all a odd look, a little embarrassed by this sudden burst of team spirit. She shrugged her shoulders and lay her hand on top of everyone else's, as was to be expected from her. Together they were strong. Bound by their hands and their hearts. For a moment they forgot their troubles and laughed at themselves.
Something inhuman joined in on their laughter, bringing the kuniochi to attention. Pawing up from the foliage came a pack of mutant looking dogs. The things had spotted fur and hunched over on black claws. All bore a hemp woven collar around their necks, embellished with red feathers.
"Hyenas?!" said Ten Ten. "What the hell are hyenas doing on an island?" The furry devils cackled at her question as they lunged forward. Sakura was the closest, her bare arms looked juicy and sweet as the beast clamped its teeth down on her bones. There was terrible crack and the hound whimpered, heaving the taste of splinters from its jaws. In a puff of smoke Sakura had switched places with a scrap of wood.
Thank you Kakashi-sensei. With their attackers confused, the kuniochi began their counter attack. Sakura spun around with a spinning heel kick, cutting through a hyena's meaty frame with a solid thunk. Coming around she followed it up with a solid punch that landed in the ribs, toppling the beast over.
Ino caught the gaze of one of the hyenas, with a flick of her fingers the beast's mind was captured, cutting their attacker's numbers down from six to five. Ten Ten and Hinata skidded into place covering her flanks. Two hyenas came at them each, while a third was circling around. Ten Ten hissed as she cut at the air with duel daggers. She cursed having lost her weapons scroll along with everything else. As fast as she was the hyena was on par. She drove back its first big bite with a slash across the nose. The beast drew back, changing tactics to a chain of quick nips in every direction. Forced onto defense, Ten Ten found it harder and harder to keep up, as the hyena bobbed it head up and down, in and out, aiming for her forearm only to just barely miss her shin. In close quarters combat the feral hyenas had the distinct advantage. Just one clean bite and it would be all over. Hinata did not fare much worse than Ten Ten, close quarters being her specialty. Her movements were fluid, leaving the beast unsure from what angle to attack. She matched the hound's snaps beat for beat, stepping in and around it in a in an almost rhythmic dance. Striking her target not with blades but with well placed finger tips. Barely feeling any real damage, the hyena continued to lash out at the girl mindlessly undeterred. Its jaws oozed from hunger. The sweet fragrance of Hinata's tender legs only made it all the hungrier.
With her opponent stunned, Sakura dashed backwards catching a glimpse of the hyena coming around to take Ino from behind. She did not see the fifth hyena lunge at her until it was right on top of her. The sneaky fiend sprang from the bushes and the two tumbled to the ground like lovers. In the confusion her kunai flew from Sakura's hand and beyond her reach. Her grip and her strength was all that came between her face, and the gruesome death kiss of the hyena. Though the size of a dog, the beast felt heavy as horse. It winced as the girl beneath it landed several desperate blows with her knees, but would not relent in its attack. Its hot breath reeked with the stench of the dead as drool poured onto Sakura's face. When it could not reach her face, it took to biting at her fingers. Sakura grit through the pain, refusing to let go with her right hand. She swung her left fist into the horror's head once, twice, three times. Over and over she struck. The beast would not relent. Its jaws clamped down on her palm releasing the flow of blood and searing pain.
With a terrified scream she struck again and again, blind with rage and instinct. If she was going to die here, she'd make the damn thing regret it. But then in an instant the weight was lifted off her chest. With a snarl and a snicker the hyena went tumbling over, with another hyena nipping and biting at its throat! Sakura struggled to bring her senses together, to make sense of what was happening. Of course, Ino! Ino had taken possession of one of the hyenas. Across the way the hyena that Sakura struck down had regrouped with its kin and was now trying to double team Hinata. Meanwhile Ten Ten had her hands full trying to hold off the other two. Quickly reacting she spotted the fallen kunai, snatching it as she ran forward. Lost in a frenzy against Ten Ten, the hyena did not notice Sakura upon her until her blade was stabbing it over and over. Sakura roared not caring where the blood sprayed. Perhaps shocked by the sheer brutality of the attack, the opposite hyena dashed aside from a counter strike from Ten Ten. It turned tail and fled back into the forest as fast it could.
The first hyena to attack Hinata's movements became slower and slower as each of its limbs went to sleep under the piercing strikes of the Hyuga. Seizing the opportunity, the second hyena nipped at Hinata's exposed ankle as she stepped wide in her form stance. Reacting to Hinata's cry, Ten Ten flung a kunai hitting the offending hyena square in the neck for its trouble. Hinata fell to the ground landing on her bum, so too did her initial attacker fall, utterly paralyzed. The other hyena, blood gushing from its wound, ran in a circle around the kuniochi, pausing to hopelessly try and paw the blade out of its neck. Sakura was still on her knees, her blade plunging into the twitching flesh of the hyena. Up and down she moved with mechanical precision, her eyes wide with malice. No matter how many times she pieced the beast's hide her fury was not satisfied. She found herself grinning, happy to be alive. To be the one doing the killing instead of being killed. The vile things weren't laughing now. Ten Ten was torn on who to rush to aid first, choosing to help Hinata.
"Let me see it, let me see," said Ten Ten.
"It's not bad," Hinata tried to sound reassuring. The gash around her ankle looked angry but there wasn't a flow of blood, the cut was not deep.
"Good thing you brought your jacket after all," Ten Ten said trying to force a smile. They'd need to cut it up for bandages. With Hina's arm around her shoulder, the two girls stood up. Hinata hissed from the pain as a small tear escaped her eye. Ino was still lost in a trance, the sound of the two hyenas scrapping was her entire world at present. The hyena that Sakura killed was long dead, but still she would not relent in her attacks. Kneeling over the animal bringing the kunai down like a sacrificial dagger, cackling as wildly as any hyena. "Sakura? Sakura! What the hell are you doing?!" said Ten Ten. Sakura didn't seem to hear her.
One of the dueling hyenas let out a final gurgling cry, as Ino swayed clutching her head. The battle was over, and it was the larger of the two, the one who bit Sakura emerged triumphant. The furry devil sneered at its foes growling and barking. It sat on its haunches along the edge of the cliff side, its head raised up in a parody of a noble beast. The hyena barked again and with a hiss Sakura twisted her head around to match its hate filled glare. Only now did she pull away her kunai from bruised and minced form that was once an offending hyena. Not even a twitch was left with in it as its blood pooled all around, staining the earth. The revulsion Ten Ten and Hinata felt at this desperate act of barbarity was strangely confounding. That they would feel sadness and pity for the thing that just seconds ago had tried to slaughter them. They held on to that sadness if only to remind them that they were still human. There was no pity in Sakura's eyes as she stood, with shoulders hunched she brandished her kunai in front of her. With her legs widening into a battle stance, the hyena alpha stood up at once on all fours. From the way it started cackling in between its barks, one might think the mindless beast was issuing a challenge.
Sakura bellowed in response as the two charged at one another. In a flicker of gestures one Sakura became three, circling their confused quarry not unlike it and its brethren had done.
"Sakura!" said Ino. The effects of the Mind Transfer jutsu left her disoriented and she struggled to keep her footing. She could but helplessly watch as her teammate continued to struggle against the animal. The hyena lashed out at one of the Sakuras, seeking to overpower her with its massive weight again. But the girl vanished into a puff of smoke, giving the real Sakura her chance to cut a bloody swipe against the beast's side. Yet the hyena yowled more out of wounded pride that of the flesh. A feeling of pride swelled in Sakura's chest. The wound was dribbling red, staining the animal's fur. Surely now it would turn tail and...
In the split seconds it took for her to pull back her blade, the hyena had swung its head around to clamp its jaws right around her kunai. Left and right it tugged and pulled, trying to rip the offending thing out away. Sakura dug her heels into the ground, holding on to the blade with both hands in a deadly game of tug of war. Her wounded hand blazed with a bloody fire. The blade was slipping.
"So...you're not as stupid as you look," said Sakura. The hyena turned its head back and forth as it chuckled. "But, you're still gonna lose. Now! While its distracted!" Her inner rage shrilled her voice, to which her teammates responded in instinct. The fire in her spirit spreading to them. Hinata nodded to Ten Ten who set her down to the ground. She and Ino flanked the beast who flailed under the barrage of fists, knees, and elbows. With one last jerk the hyena pulled away with kunai clutched in its teeth, causing Sakura to fall over. An effort that was too little too late. Ten Ten's blade added fresh wounds, swiping at the beast like a tiger. Dizzy from the loss of blood it tried to stumble away, skirting along the razor's edge of the cliff. Bits of dirt and debris tumbled miles downward into the green inferno below. A sweeping kick from Ino knocked the hyena off its legs, gasping for air it stood again unwilling to collapse. Rising to one knee Sakura stared down their beastly aggressor. Charging forward's with an athlete's fury, she leapt into the air to deliver a final thrusting kick. She landed with both feet into beast sending it tumbling over the cliff with a long mournful howl.
Victorious at last, Sakura rolled over on her back as her two teammates squatted beside her. All of them were gasping for breath.
"You, you're completely deranged you know that?" said Ten Ten with a smirk. Sakura confirmed her suspicions with a cheeky thumbs up.
"What were you thinking?!" Ino said. "How could you be so reckless? You..." she fidgeted where she sat, glaring this way and that way. "Look I'm sorry for what I said alright? I didn't mean it. So don't go doing anything crazy like that anymore. If you died, it...It would make poor Hinata cry. Hmrph." With that Ino reached out her hand to help Sakura up, which didn't come as a surprise to her. Same old Ino. With a happy 'mmm!' Sakura took both Ino and Ten Ten's hands and got up. The team now rushed over to help Hinata, while Ten Ten snatched up her shirt and Hinata's jacket.
"Don't think we forgot about you ok?" said Sakura. Hinata just shook her head.
"I am just grateful that everyone is ok," she said.
A dreadful howl, far more menacing and far larger than anything they had ever heard split the air. The earth itself trembled as it was followed by the pounding of what sounded like hooves.
"Aaargh! Now what?!" said Ino.
"Into the trees!" said Sakura. In flash the kuniochi parkoured up their trees. Hinata winced as she ran, leaning on Ten Ten for support. From the canopy above Sakura and the others took cover behind the main trunk, peeking out to watch as their new predicament unfolded. The thundering steps were followed by the grunting of heavy panting. Three behemoths crashed their way into area snapping, snarling. Cackling. What the hell? What the hell is that?! The girls all shared a lost breath as their mouths hung open in disbelief.
What appeared to be three hyenas came skidding to a halt to sniff over the area. If they were hyenas at all. These warg like giants were as large as destriers. All hulking muscle, fur and claws. These abominations laughed with a crazed humor straight from the blackest pits of hell. Like their dwarfed cousins, there were bound with hemp collars, embellished with spiky teeth and red feathers. The sides and their faces were painted with red and black war stripes: Sharp, serpentine zigzags, and spiraling suns. But the beasts had not come alone, they had riders. Here at last were the architects of the tree mural and the effigies. The riders were nearly naked, save for their outlandish masks and bands of bone jewelry. Their cocoa brown skin was marked with same war stripes they befitted to their mounts. All three warriors wore no covering over their petite breasts. The kuniochi cringed in embarrassment at the sight of such wild abandon. As if in a mockery of clothing, each girl wore a sort of string that ran down their left shoulder and across their youthful bodies. One could only guess them for a decorative kind of sash, for they woven with various circuitous shapes, and notched with wooden beads.
Girls. They're all girls, Sakura hugged the tree trunk tighter. Giant beasts and demon nymphs. The skipper's mythical warnings were coming to life. *That cannot be. There has to be some kind of rational explanation for this.*
The leader carried a feathered stone spear, her sisters each a short bow that looked as if they were carved right out of a tree branch. Her compatriots wore carved masks, each representing a different animal: An eagle, and a hyena. Yet both were painted in such a way, that the features eerily merged with that of a human's: with pouting lips and fierce battle stripes in red, magenta, and black. Both had slanted slits for eyes, giving their visage a permanent scowl. Their hair was hidden under a wig of long dried grass. Their leader's mask was strangest of all, being a helmet made from the skull of canine beast. Hyena or jaguar, it mattered little. A mane of green and red feathers flowed from the back of the leader's head. Her red painted jaw could be seen between the under bite of the skull. The girl threw her head back to squawk and shriek like some fiendish bird.
Sakura carefully watched as the lead savage leapt from her mount, landing in a squat with the grace of cat. The warrior jutted her spear out around her at invisible enemies, before clambering over to the slain hyena on her knuckles and toes. She stared at the pulped corpse for a time before trembling all over. No one dared make a sound, even the warg-hyenas held their breath, as their leader screamed at the sky with unspeakable fury. Her screaming masked as sob, as she ran her hands across the fur of the dead. She tried desperately to rouse the corpse, shaking it as if it were asleep. She scooted around to press her face into its own. All the while her cohorts scanned the area and trees above. Their arrows notched and aimed. It was no use, the jungle girl must of realized as she sprang up in anger. She tossed the spear aside, drawing her stone knife from its holster. Growing all the way, she scampered up the nearest tree to claw and stab at the shadows above. Sniffing at the air like a blood hound does, she could find no trace of the battle that had taken place here.
The kuniochi were gone.
Hyenas are allegedly matriarchal (the hard facts are more complex). Hmm...! I could find no information that suggests that hyenas don't howl like dogs and wolves do, even though they are more closely related to felines. In the earliest concepts of this project the Redfeet rode on giant wolves like Princess Mononoke. That concept has been done to death, so I gave them giant hyenas instead. Wolves are not terribly suited to such a humid climate, granted hyenas are more accustomed to arid lands. Anyway hyenas need more love. I'm straddling the line between style and substance. Goodness knows, there will be a great deal of straddling in the chapters to come...!
A/N: Gods bless Umberto Lenzi. Without his batshit vision this work would never have been possible. This fic is also available on Archive Of Our Own.
By night they settled in a cave from which flowed a creek. The gentle trickle of the water brought some relief, replicating the familiar sounds of a garden back home. One almost expected to hear the 'doink' from a deer scarer. It was a friendly noise, if only it could off set the dreadful black of night. The moon shut its eye in a horned crescent, while the stars hid under a blanket of clouds. The kunoichi inched their way through the abyss one foot at a time. Locked hand in hand they traveled along the rock wall deeper into the cave. Sakura led the chain, her uninjured hand held aloft a kunai at the ready.
There was a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. A tiny fire was flickering in an orange dot. The girls could smell the sharp twang of wood as it burned. There was little chance the keeper of the flame would be friendly. For all they knew they could have been walking straight into the savages' encampment. A cave would be fitting lair for those bestial girls. Another calculated risk, Sakura thought to herself sarcastically. Another consequence of the shipwreck was losing matches or even survival flint. Rubbing two sticks together proved futile and the night wasn't going to wait for them. Right now they needed fire, perhaps not for warmth, but to keep the larger beasts away. Sakura swallowed hard at the thought that they may have to fight for the right to the fire. Even kill if necessary.
They're already trying to kill us, she reminded herself. We're fighting in self defense. She stumbled when she went to set her foot down on ground that wasn't there. The chain behind her clung to the wall with a sudden and held breath. The kunoichi grasped for the worst of possibilities. Suppose they came to a bottomless chasm and they all fell in? Tumbling down into the black only to halt in the sudden and violent end. Their bones shattered upon the rocks. Their bodies cleaved through the jagged, fang like stalactites. Sakura probed around with her left foot for anything to step on. Her heart started to settle when she tapped her toes on hard ground again. Turned out that the cave veered off in two directions. One path went uphill from which the flow of water came. The other was steeper, the drop off a mere extra step on the road to the flickering flame.
"We'll be alright," said Sakura, saying so more for herself in addition to her team. "There's a steep drop off, but there's solid ground."
Ino dug her nails into Sakura's injured hand, "There better be!" Sakura winced a little to which Ino panicked and eased up. "Ah! Sorry about that." Hinata followed behind her, as Ten Ten took up the rear.
"How are you holding up Hinata?" said Sakura. Checking on her was becoming a regular ritual, and Sakura hoped her shy teammate wasn't resentful for it. They both sustained some pretty nasty wounds, and Hinata was still limping because of hers. Unfortunately they had to resort to cutting up Hinata's jacket for bandages. She looked like a child the way she hesitated, clutching the thing to her chest as if it were precious heirloom. Yet she did not even have to be asked, she thrust it in front of her team as an offering. Sakura remembered telling Hinata she help her pick out a new jacket, despite Hinata's embarrassed protests to the contrary.
"I'm alright," she didn't sound faint or exhausted. Good. Stay that way. Sakura felt her own forehead as if to make sure. No fever. No infections...for now. Whew! A low growl rumbled between them, luckily it was a mostly friendly one. "I am hungry though."
"Yeah if we could stop for some take out, that'd be great," said Ten Ten. Everyone offered a grave laugh before pressing on.
I won't die here. WE won't die here. I won't allow it!
As fierce as the camp fire burned it was little more than a candle in an ocean of darkness. A ring of stones held the flames in place as shadows danced around them on the floor. The chamber was but small room. Cracks in the wall suggested pathways deeper within but they were plugged up. Protruding from the cracks were yet more solid green vines, turned orange in the flash of the fire. The vine web clung to walls and the ceiling, curling around stalagtites as they did with branches outside. A grey brown boulder huddled in the corner. The only life here was a legion of those erectile grubs nestled upon the vines. The girls shuddered with gross embarrassment.
"Be sure to sleep with your legs crossed," said Ten Ten. The team groaned at that one.
Sakura eyed the walls as best she could. She could see no sign of the islanders: no cave paintings and no effigies. Only the fire pit. The quiet convenience of the fire set her instincts on edge. They were boxed in here, could it be some kind of elaborate trap?
"We'll rest here as much as we can. At least until morning," she said. Trap or not, they needed rest. "Ten Ten will take the first watch, then Ino, then me, then Hinata."
"Why do I have to take second watch? And what are we gonna do for food?" said Ino. Hinata sat by the fire and sighed as if to say 'here we go again'.
"Eat a dick," Ten Ten suggested sitting down next to Hinata. "We're surrounded by them."
"We may end up having to do just that," said Sakura as she settled down crosslegged. She scrunched up her face in the direction of one of the vile little things. Its tiny sucker lips oozed with shiny white fluid, to which Sakura gagged on her own tounge.
Ino stomped her foot on the ground at that smart mouth comment. Her eyes were flashing with anger, her fists clentched as tight as they could go. She looked like she wanted to yell again but was too exhausted to do. She paced around the room coming to a stop at the boulder in the corner.
"I hate this place! Stupid island! Stupid forest! Stupid rock!" Ino delivered a swift kick against the rock, to punish the island for putting her through such hell.
The boulder screamed. In a chain reaction, so did Ino. Then Sakura, Hinata and Ten Ten. The boulder changed shape bolting up right. The girls were on it in an instant, kicking and stomping the figure before it could scamper away. In the confusion it left behind its grey brown blanket. It fumbled with a gleaming knife that slipped from his hands under the blows.
"Argh! Crap! Just kill me! Just kill me quickly! Aaah!" said a man's voice. It was no boulder at all, just a man hiding under blanket.
"Wait a minute wait a minute!" said Sakura barring her companions' way. The screaming ended as the girls circled around the older man who lay curled up on the ground. The bastard was wreck. His peasant clothes were tattered and browned with mud. The man's head was a tangled bush of black hair. His eyes peeked out from the mess like a pair of beetles.
"Shit shit shit shit..." the man muttered in a raspy voice that had been smoked to oblivion. "Kill me if ya gotta, just don't hurt me no more! Dirty stinking savages. Have pity...!" This must have been the one who set the fire. At least it wasn't a headhunter trap. The kunoichi looked at one another, trying to wordlessly decide how to best approach the situation. Towering over the man, Sakura stepped forward.
"We're not with those...savages," said Sakura. She pondered for a less offensive term for the islanders, before realizing the sheer idiocy of such a thing in their situation. Those freaks were trying to cut her and her friends' heads off after all. And they sicced their hounds on us! Fuck them!
"Heh! A bunch of little girls show up out of no where, and you're not one of them? You think I'm stupid?" His eyes were desperate and afraid. They lit up quick enough at the sight of gleaming steel reflected in the fire light. He lunged forth on his belly in direction of his knife. His hand grasped for the hilt, but Ten Ten's heel came crashing down on it. He whimpered a petty string of 'fuck yous' as she scooped it up.
Sakura was getting impatient again. She got down on one knee to knock some sense into the man's head with her fist. "Cha!"
"Alright alright. Just stop hitting me! Please."
"You must be one of the men we're looking for," Sakura said as she cracked her knuckles.
"I don't know nothing about no kidnapping," the man offered.
"I didn't say anything about a kidnapping."
The oh crap look on the man's face was one for the ages. He shook in fear at the four very angry girls glaring down at his feeble form. With a deep gulp he knew he was screwed, as Sakura's fist came crashing down on his head again.
"You little weasel! You're one of the kidnappers aren't you?!" Sakura threw caution to the wind. She didn't care if any thing (or anyone) heard her. "You're the reason we're stuck here!"
"So what if I am? What the hell does it matter any more? We're all gonna die! Oh gods I don't wanna die." Sakura's fist was pulled back ready to strike again like a piston. Someone was suddenly holding her arm back. She turned to look and saw Hinata there.
"Wait, please stop. That's enough," she said. Sakura flinched trying to punch at the bastard regardless, but Hinata was hanging on to her arm. The girl was stronger than she looked. "Please Sakura. He can't hurt us anymore." Those alien eyes of hers were pleading. Sakura looked at the bastard who was sobbing for mercy. She grumbled, and took a deep breath to calm down. Hinata let go looking relieved.
"This is all fucked up..." The kidnapper sat across from the girls behind the fire. With everything calmed down, they were revealed that they were genin from Hidden Leaf; hired to track down and bring Hikari back to home. The man called himself Runi, who's entire life seemed to be a series of horrible decisions one after another. Out of fear of getting hit again, he relayed his sob story and what led him here. "It was all Lee's fault," he started. He pulled out small lumpy bag, rolling it over in his fingers. "See I had a bar tab to pay. Two tabs really. Ok four, just four! And the races, and the dice hall..."
"So you turned to kidnapping," Sakura, Ino, Ten Ten, and even Hinata glared at him with disbelieving cringe.
"Hey it's not like it was my first career choice! Yeah I owe some money big deal! So does everybody. I messed up real bad, I know it. You don't have to rub it in!"
"I'm about to rub your face against the wall," said Ino through grit teeth.
"Anyway, it was me, Lee, and some other guys we ran with around town. We weren't a gang or nothing, we just liked to get together and drink. Lee thought he was sooo great since he got a job guarding that bra...kid. He's the one you want. Or would have if... Anyway, one night at the docks this stranger met us. Little guy, really deep voice. I don't know how to explain it. It just sounded wrong. Wore a big brown cloak. He had his hood up so we couldn't even see his face. Wasn't wearing any shoes though. I remember that much. Lee did the talking. This guy, super creepy but he had bags like these. Pulls out a nugget, it was pure gold. Gold I tell yah. All we had to do was bring the girl to the island and we'd get gold."
"That's horrible!" Hinata said suddenly. "How could you do such a thing?"
The kidnapper winced, choosing his next words carefully. "I...I went through my bag, and it was gold. Big chunks of it. I swear to you it was really gold! Enough to pay back all those bastards. Or maybe just start over somewheres else. But when we got to the island..." He tossed the pouch across the way and Sakura caught it. She opened it to pour out the contents but there was no gold, just clods of dirt. "It all turned into dirt. Just like everything else in my life."
Sakura held up one of the pieces and it crumbled to dust in her finger tips. "Spare us your sob story," she warned. "What happened to Hikari?"
"We didn't hurt her none! I swears! That asshole Lee, kid really liked Lee for some reason. I dunno. Reminded her of her dead brother or somethin, I dunno. That's how we was able to lure her out to the docks. We we're 'lucky' we didn't get caught. Damn metsuke always giving us shit. Singling us out. Anyway, the kid wouldn't leave without her stupid cat so we had to bring it with us. And the damn thing wouldn't stop making noise. Anyways the island..." Runi stopped in cold reverence. "Nobody believed the stories. I thought it was bunch of bullshit to scare kids from going out at night. We even used to joke about it, 'yeah an island full of naked girls? Sign me up for that!' hee hee."
Sakura threw the pouch right into Runi's stupid face, hitting him square in the eye for his trouble. "We landed on the beach, and that cloaked fella was waiting for us. So were the Redfeet. They were hiding in the sand, sprung right out of the ground they did. That creepy bastard started laughing. She...she was one of them the whole time. Just one big disaster after another."
Sakura frowned, she could almost relate. Almost. It was bad enough to be stranded on a jungle island full of giant beasts and ravenous headhunters. But for such stupid reasons, to boot. If Hinata wasn't there she'd probably have clobbered this Runi by now. "What happened then? What happened to the girl?"
"Whadda think? Those bitches dragged her off when the killing started. Little devils probably cooked up her dinner by now." It was hard to tell what was more shocking. Hikari's potential fate or the callous way Runi described it. Hinata buried her face in her hands while Ten Ten hit the ground with her fist. Ino gasped in horror, as Sakura was taken aback.
"How the hell did you survive?"
"I ran. I ran until I could run no more. They shot arrows and threw spears at me. I caught one in the arm but it wasn't bad." He rubbed his arm where he wrapped the wound up with a rag. "I heard screams that would've chilled your blood. Then there were the drums. Oh god the drums. They'd go on for hours, just to remind you that they were there. Everywhere. No matter which way I went it was like they were getting closer and closer all the time. I ran and and ran till I found this cave. Been living off the worms ever since. They may not look good but they're very juicy. I tried cooking them but they get too rubbery. Still, they're better than nothing. Haven't got sick yet."
To demonstrate his point, he stood upright to pluck the little suckers from the wall. Unfortunately for the girls, they got a full view of a happy tent perched in Runi's pants. The way it twitched and pulsated made the kunoichi gag and groan in disgust.
"Heh heh, sorry bout that. It's probably the worms. I ain't never been this hard up before. It's been like this since I started eating them." Runi bundled as many of the things under his arm as if they were mere bananas.
"Congratulations," Ten Ten said with an incredulous sneer.
"Just sit down you pervert!" said Sakura. Runi ground his teeth with a pout before trying to "adjust" his manhood to a less compromising postion. Hinata shielded her eyes with an arm while the others hurled expletives.
"Oy! Keep it down would ya? You want the Redfeet to hear yah?" Now that he comfortable he sat back on the ground and bit into the "head" of the worm with a sickening crunch. Ino and Sakura alike went green in the face. They might have hurled if they had anything at all in their stomachs.
"Just who are the Redfeet?" said Sakura hoping to distract herself with conversation.
"You don't know either eh?" Runi said inbetween munches. "Beats me."
"You're from around here and don't you know anything?"
"Eh? I've only been on the island for like a week!"
Sakura hit her face with her palm. "That's not what I meant..."
"As far as I knew, the nymphs of the island were a myth. All things considered you probably don't wanna hear about it. Its not a very happy story."
"Try us," said Ten Ten. "Why call them Redfeet?"
"What else would they be? Bunch of little assholes is what they are. But any where they've been they like to leave little red foot prints on everything." Crunch. "Marking their turf I guess, hell knows why." Runi sucked the guts out of the worm in a tremendous slurp. "I knows they paint their feet all red. Like they stomped some poor fool's guts out or something. They're weird. What's even weirder is they all so young. Some of em as young as you. Almost thought you were them." Sakura frowned as she leaned back against rock wall. Still stumbling around in the dark it seems.
"There was one thing," said Runi wiping his mouth with his sleeve. "I mean, people disappear all the time right? Kids run away and stuff..."
"Or get kidnapped," Ino gave Runi a foul look.
"...You figure people make stuff up to explain when shit goes wrong. It's said the demons; the nymphs. Would come from the island. Some said they flew on broomsticks like witches. Others say they'd paddle out in canoes. Some even said they saw em swoop down from the sky. Turned theyselves into big black birds with nets. Snatch up anyone wandering after dark."
A laugh escaped from Ten Ten. "Was that before or after the flying saucers?" Runi just stared at her confused. "How many of them are there?" she asked more seriously.
"They're everywhere," was all Runi could think to say. The kunoichi found themselves huddling up a little closer together.
Runi rocked back and forth now, entirely spent. He muttered they should probably eat something before passing out against the wall. The girls shared a sigh of relief. Hopeless as he was, they felt safer now that Runi was asleep.
"What should we do?" Ino started. "Those...animals got her."
"Things didn't turn out as expected, for any of us," said Ten Ten. "I say we focus on staying alive until help arrives."
"You mean give up and go home," said Sakura. Assuming that's even an option.
"We barely managed to hold our own against their hounds. What happens when the rest of them show up on those big monsters? This wasn't supposed to be a death or glory mission Sakura. They wouldn't have sent us otherwise."
Death or glory, now there was a concept Sakura had never dreamed of emulating. That apocalyptic notion of Bushido. It always seemed so far away, something that wasn't going to happen for a long long time. With her training it was easy to forget how fragile she had once been, and still was. Being a ninja didn't make her invincible. It made her a target.
"Let's just sleep on it," Sakura's eyes were heavy from carrying the burden of the world. No one questioned that at least. The plan to keep watch slipped away however, as the girls huddled side by side and fell into sleep.
Rubbing the dust from her eyes Sakura awoke to near blackness. All but a few orange embers survived from the fire. Far off in the distance was the glimmer of daylight. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom she felt something heavy resting on her thighs. Something with long blonde hair and fountain of drool hanging off her lip. Oh the very least Ino wasn't too proud to sleep near her. Sakura eyed Runi, his dark shape still huddled across from them. How much of a hindrance he'd be remained to be seen. Hinata was clinging to Ten Ten, snug with her arms around her waist, and her head pressed deep into Ten Ten's chest. From the way Ten Ten's head was tilted away, she was probably unaware that Hina had glomped her. Sakura let out a quiet chuckle at the silliness of it all. The shy Hyuga resembled a little girl holding onto her big sister. In that way, Hinata reminded Sakura of Naruto for some reason.
I wonder how he's doing, Sakura never thought she'd live to see the day she'd miss that little dork. Ahh, but he wasn't as useless as he appeared was he? He could be such a child, yet he had a funny way of surprising you his talents. Just like Hinata did. A ridiculous thought occurred to her that almost made her burst out laughing. Maybe Naruto should ask Hinata out instead of dogging her all the time. Ha! Fat chance of that ever working out. She could just picture it, poor Hinata, would probably die of embarrassment. The sheer shame of getting approached by goof like that! Add to that Naruto would have to contend with the disapproval of the entire Hyuga clan. She could almost see him running for his life, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, scores of angry Hyugas in hot pursuit; Neji and Hinata's father at the head of the pack with steely faces and knives drawn! Run knucklehead! Run! Silly old Naruto, he'd would have to become Hokage to even think of having a chance with a girl at Hinata's level.
"Who knows?" she said to herself wistfully. After everything they'd had been through together, sometimes even she believed he could do it. Everyone should have the chance to chase their dreams and be happy after all. Shouldn't they?
The night had passed without incident, but their stone bed did them no favors. The girls shambled up slowly, stretching out their arms and yawning like cats. Every muscle was sore, when Sakura turned to stretch she felt a stab of pain in her back. Blasted island was eating them alive. All at once the girls' bellies rumbled followed by a collective grunt.
"Hey," Ten Ten gave Hinata a gentle poke in the forehead. "Good morning." It took a full ten seconds for Hinata's senses to realign before she recognized the akward situation she was in. With a yelp and roll she was beside herself sputtering.
"S-s-sorry! So sorry!" Hinata bobbed her head up and down in an exaggerated kowtow. Her eyes were spinning with anxious embarrassment. "It's just that...when I sleep I have a tendency to cling to...things."
Ten Ten held up her hands to making a soothing gesture. "Easy easy now. Don't over do it," she winced from a little back pain. "I'm just glad it was mutual."
Ino shrieked bringing everyone to attention. "Get it off! Get it off get it off get it off!" Sakura took hold of Ino's shoulders trying to keep her under control. All the while Ino's shirt was wriggling. She whimpered as the erect grub popped its head out from her collar. The tiny lips on its tip mouthed the air like it was yearning for a kiss. Ino and Sakura both shared a fed up scream that shook the whole cave.
Several crushed grubs and a less than desirable breakfast later, Sakura gathered the group to perform morning exercises. Runi hunched over moodily in the corner. "You're not thinking of going out there are you? With those things out there?" His eyes skittered across their young bodies as the girls stretched out their limbs in various poses. They were all too aware of the hunger in his eyes, and shunned him by looking anywhere but in his direction. They needed to be limber for the day ahead.
"Yes we are," said Sakura. "And you're leading the way."
"What?! Me? What did I do?"
"You've done enough! Besides I'm not leaving this island empty handed. You're sticking around till help arrives got it? After that we're turning you over to the authorties." She jabbed an accusing finger at Runi which he tried to brush off with a wave. "Unless you'd rather deal with the headhunters." That knocked all the color out the man's face. He stood up to shuffle in place anxiously, muttering to himself about his lot in life and his lack of smokes.
Sakura sat down across from Hinata, spreading her legs wide open. She put out her hands inviting Hina to come stretch with her. The shy girl murmured passively and nodded, taking her place on the other side while Sakura pressed the soles of her feet into Hinata's ankles. They gently pulled each other back and forth, taking turns bending over and back. No words were necessary, just a soft smile and little giggles. It felt good to work together, sharing in each other's time and company. Hinata's arms were as soft and smooth as a baby's. Not single patch of hair. Sakura compared her own grubby arms, feeling like a gorilla. The warmth from her hands mixed with Hinata's own. She could almost feel the bond between them spreading outward across their bodies. Their linked arms were a bridge, as was the link between Sakura's feet and Hina's legs. The energy being shared between them was weaving together, and Sakura had the sudden desire to see Hinata's bare feet. Her heart skipped a beat, excited at the speculation of looking them. Would they be as small and clean as the rest of Hinata seemed to be? Another alien thought pondered what it would be like to touch them. To hold them. To play with her little toes and tickle her until she wet herself. Sakura tried to catch Hinata's attention by looking her in the eyes as they went back and forth. But Hinata's eyes always shyly darted away. Physical intimacy was not enough to bridge the distance Hinata had between herself and the rest of the world. Sakura wanted to, no, needed to bridge that gap.
As she was pulling Hinata back up, Sakura cheekily let her hands slip into Hinata's, holding on now by the fingers. This wasn't planned on, yet Sakura suddenly wanted to see how Hinata would react. It wasn't Sakura's touch that made Hina jump, but Ten Ten coming around behind to push on the small of Hinata's back. For reasons she couldn't find, that disappointed Sakura.
"Ah it's alright," said Ten Ten to Hinata. "Come on, push a little further. I'll help. Streeetch..." Hinata grunted with cheerful encouragement, sucking air in to push herself farther.
"You can do it," Sakura found herself saying. "Almost there..." She squeezed Hina's fingers a little tighter, feeling little gooseprickles run up her arms when Hinata squeezed back. With a sigh of contentment she wished they could just stay like this. It was almost like holding hands with...
Sasuke? Sakura's thoughts froze in place, something was amiss here. A light went on in her head, as if she had forgotten something or was snapping back to attention from a daydream. She became aware of the mysterious surge of affections that had come over her. The longing she was feeling...towards another girl.
Take it easy. I'm just looking out for her. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. As if she needed to be convinced other wise. Not that there's anything wrong with that kind of thing! But... Sakura eyed Ten Ten who caught her gaze. She retorted with that signature smug and knowing smile that Sakura resented. That's not me, Sakura insisted to herself. Hinata said she liked the Hokage anyway. The two girls sat up and Sakura looked straight into Hinata's eyes. The shy girl regarded her with a look of confusion. The image of Naruto's idiot face under hat and cowl of the Kage popped into Sakura's head again, and she laughed out loud. The weird looks she got aside, it seemed to dispel her delinquent fervor for Hinata.
Stepping out of the cool damp of the cave was like stepping into an oven. It was back into the belly of the beast, and everyone was on the alert. Especially Runi, who twitched at every invisible insect croaking. Somewhere in the canopy a bird was caw cawing to its sisters. There was striped creature that looked like a cross between a deer and goat. Its horns spiraled upwards as it bent to drink from the cave's stream. It froze at the sight of the troop before fleeing for its life. The kunoichi scanned the trees for anything remotely human or out of the ordinary. No effigies had magically appeared in the night. Nor could they hear the cackle of hyenas, great or small. The sun lit the sky in an ordinary blue, but still hung in a morning lull.
Sakura stood ahead of the group with her hands on her hips, the rest waited. "Our first priority will be to gather more wood for the fire." A nearby bird cawed to its mate, who cawed back in response. Sakura turned to face the group. "If we could figure out a way to leave a marking. Something Hidden Leaf ninja would recognize but the headhunters wouldn't, then we..."
Doom doom doom doom... The kunoichi froze not unlike the doe from before. The dark drum beat began slowly from the right, keeping soft rhythm. It was joined by another drum from the left brush. Then another and another. With each drum the tempo increased, announcing the doom closing in on them on all sides. The cawing from before became piercing whoops, like howling of pups. The snickering whines of hyenas followed soon after. Yet there remained not a single sign of the Redfeet, nor their pet hounds.
The drums stopped. All was still. Ten Ten and Ino had to grab ahold of Runi's shoulders to keep him from bolting back into the cave. Hinata slid in closer behind Sakura's flank. The shy girl had already drawn her kunai, and regarded Sakura with that notorious stone cold look of the Hyuga clan. Sakura nodded in response, steeling herself with her own kunai. The two girls slid into battle stances awaiting an onslaught. The canopy above swayed in the breeze but nothing more came of it.
"Lemmie go!" said Runi. "They found us. Damn ninja. You little brats led them right here! You led them righ..." The twang of a bow string hummed somewhere above, and from that the sharp thwip of bone studded arrow. The arrow gutted Runi right through the throat who gurgled hopelessly as his knees buckled.
"Cover!" cried Sakura as she and Ten Ten rolled out of the way. Four more arrows struck into Runi, putting an end to him. It was not birds cowering in the tree tops, but wild Redfeet cloaked in leaves and feathers. The juvenile barbarians hissed and shrieked in fearsome mockery of predatory birds, loosing more arrows into the air. With their feathered tips they may well have unleashed a flock of hungry hatchings. The arrows were swift but the kunoichi were swifter. By channeling their chakra the ninja's speed and reaction time was enhanced. Together they zigzagged away from the projectiles. The Redfeet tried to keep up their aim. When they couldn't they shot in random directions trying to pinpoint where the ninja might dodge next. Faster and faster their prey began to move until only their silhouettes could be seen, dodging the arrows in a frenzied dance. The Redfeet hid their faces behind carved round masks. They each shared the same elongated and ghoulish look, with razor filled mouths and narrowed slits for eyes. Each of them were painted with swirls and stripes, black and red for war. Perched atop the branches their attacks became more desperate. One native managed to land an arrow into Sakura's left shoulder!
"Una! Moooona!" was the Redfoots' collective cheer. But the image of Sakura broke into a puff of smoke. An illusion! With a thundering roar Sakura was charging her way up the trunk of the tree. The jungle girl fumbled with her tasseled quiver to produce another arrow, but Sakura's fist came down with the force of a hammer. The mask was little protection, stunning the jungle girl, Sakura then followed up with an uppercut, launching the screaming savage out of the tree and into the ground. The villain collapsed with a bone crunching thud.
"Yes!" Sakura pumped her fist in the air with pride. Runi's death would not go un-answered! The barbarians hissed at their comrade's fall, turning all their bows onto Sakura. With a glib look and a yelp of "Oh crap!" Sakura dashed away again as the Redfoot arrows jammed into the tree trunk, turning it into an oversized pincusion. "Time to get out of here!"
"Una moona moona moona!" The Redfeet cried out, scrambling through the canopy in hot pursuit. They clambered over branches on all fours, leaping from canopy to canopy with a practiced ease. The kunoichi rushed along the ground with what they thought gave them the clear advantage. The jungle girls swang from vines, gleefully cackling at the thrill of the hunt. Sakura's team fell into formation, as slippery rocks and brambles began to bar their way. Tall grass hid the path ahead, buying the Redfeet more and more distance. The forest was their home, their ally, its natural features obstructed the kunoichi's way, but cut a clear path for the wild Redfeet.
Hinata tripped on root, fell on her palms, got up and kept going. Sakura looked back once to ensure she wasn't lost. Though Hinata kept up with the others, yet more Redfeet were swarming up the path behind them like army ants. Brandishing their spears, banging away on their little funnel drums and growling in their oooba dooba language, no doubt for blood.
"Where do we go now?" said Ino.
"Anywhere but here," said Sakura. Plans were useless now, where could they go? They couldn't just keep running forever. Hither came the heavy footfalls of a warg-hyena, its jaws slavering. It was a ghostly albino of its breed, with beedy, blood glass eyes. Its white paws stained were with blood; The rest of its coat matched its rider with zigzagging war stripes. This Redfoot bore the headdress of a jaguar pelt, her head was enclosed in its jaws. She wore no mask, but her face was hidden in shadow. Atop her head was plum of long streaming jade feathers, the rest of her pelt flowed like a small cape behind her. In one hand she brandished a notched club which she swung around her head as she whooped into the fray.
The Jaguar was closing in from the right, so the kunoichi veered off to the left. They skidded to a halt in front of a pair of snapping warg riders. It was two of the three riders that hunted them yesterday! Sakura turned on her heel to lead her team in the other direction. Gasping for air, there was no time to focus. All she could think was run. Run they did down a narrow and bramble laden path when the first dart struck. They did not hear the dart, but Hinata's cry of pain as she fell again. The three warg riders became four, stomping up from behind, joined by the skull capped jungle girl from yesterday. Ten Ten wheeled about to help Hinata back to her feet. Poking out of her thigh was needle barb, tipped with tuffs of fur like cotton.
"I can't...I can't feel my leg," Hinata clung onto Ten Ten's shoulder who shushed her. Another dart whizzed through the air, but Ten Ten saw it first, moving back as it flew pass the tip of her nose.
"They're in the trees!" said Ino. So they were. Smaller Redfeet in fact. Skinny little jungle brats taking pot shots at the ninja with blowguns. They squat or sat with their feet dangling down from branches, giggling at their victims as if this were all some game. More darts flew but none made their mark...yet.
"This way!" Sakura pointed, the others followed in whatever random direction she was leading. Can't let them box us in. If we're caught we're finished. A dart landed square in Sakura's shoulder. The stinging prick sent a shock through her whole body. There was no shadow clone to protect her this time. In truth, with all the running around and lack of proper food all the ninja were running out of energy. Her shoulder grew cold and heavy as a prickling sensation spread across her back and arm. Hinata was groaning all the way now, with each step agitating her previous injury. Yet still she would not give up trying to move forward.
The riders broke formation, coming in on both sides. The white warg and The Jaguar was right at the ninjas' backs. The Redfeet swung bolas over their heads, making ready to bring this chase to an end. The skull capped rider's bola flew at Ino's legs, wrapping uselessly around a tree. Seething with hate and frustration she screeched, taking up her spear again, ready to pierce. The Jaguar's bola connected with Ten Ten, bringing her down and Hinata with her. Sakura and Ino turned about to face their pursuers. Running was no longer an option. The Jaguar took up her club again, raising it in triumph. The four wargs ran in circles around the kunoichi before slowing to a trot, snapping and hissing in their direction, laughing like devils. Drums were tapping their way closer, and with them the rest of the swarm.
Cornered. Sakura raised her kunai despite the pain in her off hand and shoulder. Ino made ready a mystical hand gesture. Ten Ten tore at the bindings around her calves with her fingernails, while Hinata held herself up on one arm, brandishing a kunai in the other hand. The warrior of the hyena skull didn't even wait for the order. Eager to avenge her slain pets, she charged the kunoichi swinging her spear wildly. Sakura smirked at this. This one's all fury... She ran out to meet Skull Bitch catching her stick in her palms.
The Jaguar held up a fist and the incoming Redfeet stood down to watch. From the canopy jungle girls big and small chattered like monkeys. Even the drums halted at the Jaguar's command. Sakura matched Skull Bitch's angry shrieking with a bellow of her own. The two girls struggled over control of the spear, pulling this way and that to pull it out of the other's hands. The tribal peanut gallery began to grunt in a rhythmic chant, stamping their feet or the butt of their weapons against the ground or the trees. Were they trying to cheer on their warrior? Or merely for the sake of battle itself?
With so many eyes on them, Ino looked lost as she searched for a target for her mind transfer spell. At least twenty Redfeet had gathered, maybe more if one included the little ones. Those who were not masked all shared the same haircut: smooth black hair cropped to frame their fierce painted faces. Their dark slanted eyes followed the battle, sunken as if dazed or drunk. Something about the absolute uniformity of the tribe's matching gestures unnerved her. Perhaps it was a trick of the sun, but their eyes seemed to glow with fiery light.
When Hinata moved to try and cut Ten Ten's bindings, The Jaguar shouted an order. The natives eyes lit up and several darts rained down upon the two girls. Their eyes grew heavy as they struggled to stay awake. A futile gesture as they fell to the ground unmoving.
"No!" Ino cried out in terror, then gritting her teeth in the direction of the Jaguar, who was now smugly sitting atop her warg. It appeared that she was the leader of this warband. Ino worked her fingers as fast as she could to catch her in the Mind Transfer, but The Jaguar's fingers were quicker. Slamming her fist into her palm, she made her own style of seals. Serpentine vines sprang from the dirt, catching Ino by the wrists and pulling them apart. "No! No..." More vines sprouted from under her feet, wrapping up her calves, then her thighs. They snaked their way around her waist, then her breast. The damn things may have been thin as string, but were stronger than steel, aglow with the faintest magenta aura on the edges of perception. The Jaguar cut the air horizontally with her fist, and the bindings closed in on Ino, forcing her to stand straight. With her arms bound at her sides, she toppled over helplessly onto the ground. "Sakuraaa..." A dart landed right in Ino's neck, sweeping her off into unconciousness.
Skull Bitch would not give up her damn stick. But a few swift kicks to the shins made her wobble. Sakura swung her blade at her opponent's gut, but the nimble Redfoot retreated, tepidly holding her spear point in Sakura's direction. Sakura was still smiling, she could see the fearful tears welling up in the enemy's eyes.
"All fury. No skill..." she managed to pant out. Even winded and out numbered she felt like she could take on the world. Skull Bitch's stance was sloppy before, and grew worse from pain in her shins. Her eyes darted about for reenforcements but her fellows just sneered. She glared at Sakura with all the venom that she could muster. Even if the jungle girl didn't understand her words, she knew well Sakura's meaning.
"K-k-k..." said Skull Bitch, mouthing out a familar word. "KILL!" She tossed her spear aside and drew a stone dagger, mimicking Sakura's trained battle stance, while snapping her jaws. The warriors' grunt chant intensified as a drum beat was added to the rhythm. Faster and faster it beat like a taiko drum from a period picture. Sakura couldn't help but imagine herself as a noble samurai about to cut down a filthy ronin turned bandit. For a still moment they watched each other. Then the two girls charged, hard black steel clashed with sharpened stone. Each combatant swung their knife so quick it was hard to tell who was attacking and who was defending. Their weapons crackled as they struck one another. Skull Bitch had rather unkempt and long fingernails. She swiped at Sakura with her free hand looking like a mangy kitten trying to be a lion. The kunoichi bobbed and weaved out of the way of each swipe before returning a solid shot in the gut. With the wind knocked out of her, Skull Bitch toppled over, and the crowd cooed in awe. This was her only chance to gain the advantage. Sakura let go of her kunai to reach for Skull Bitch's helm of bone, if she could follow up with a few shots to the head she could finish her.
But Sakura's palms only slammed into Skull Bitch's. With shoulders squared they pushed at one another like wrestlers. The cold numb of the dart had crept up to Sakura's elbow, that whole section of arm may well have been air. If the enemy caught her breath she could quickly overpower Sakura. The ninja slammed her knee inbetween her opponent's legs, not quite as effective when done against a male, but still worth it. The bitch dug her claws into Sakura's hair, still maintaining her footing. Sakura risked a sweep of the leg, causing them both tumble down. Skull Bitch raised her knife on high bringing the point down at Sakura's face. The savage clambered on top of the ninja, bearing down on her with her full weight. Sakura couldn't worm away. The knife plunged into dirt, missing where Sakura's head had been just a hair of a second ago. When the Skull Bitch raised the knife again Sakura caught her by the wrist. With her free fist she struck the side of the enemy's skull helm, over and over. She could feel her cut hand grow wet again. The Skull Bitch hissed as her other hand went for Sakura's throat.
"Enough!" said The Jaguar, and all noise stopped, save for the struggling girls. In the strangest occurrence Sakura had even seen, the Skull Bitch's eyes began to glow. Her whole body twitched as if she was trying to jerk her knife down again but her body wouldn't obey. Some unseen force was coming over her. She roared and pouted, trying to break free until her voice faded away. She groaned with a slack jaw and drooled. Her eyes were dulled by a hellish magenta light. She didn't, or couldn't attack Sakura anymore. The savage arose puppet like, compelled by an unseen force to stand there at attention. Instinct told Sakura to scurry as far away from Skull Bitch as she could, as if her zombified condition was contagious. The savage's eyes still tracked Sakura's movements, just as the rest of the tribe's did.
With a wave of the Jaguar's hand, the Skull Bitch retreated to her hyena mount. The evil glow receded from her eyes and she grunted as she crossed her arms. Some Redfeet laughed at her. Sakura sat stupified for a moment or two, turning her head to see the Jaguar standing atop her mount. With a leap she landed cat like into a crouch. With panic Sakura scrambled to get her kunai back. The same vines that ensnared Ino, burst from the ground, seizing her by the ankles and wrists. Two more vines wrapped around her neck and waist, and yanked her flat against the ground. Sakura uselessly tried to flail and pull up the vines, but for what ones she managed to break, four more would sprout and take her place. It was futile, she lay sprawled out on her back in a x. Before long the Jaguar was circling her, twirling Sakura's own kunai on her finger.
I'm gonna die... Sakura felt her throat quiver. I'm going to die here. The Jaguar was wolf lean with a kingly grace in her near womanhood. She couldn't have been older than fifteen at most. A narrow thong loincloth dangled between her legs, with a belt fringed with claws. A fierce looking bone dagger hung off of her hip. Like the other Redfeet, she wore a string bead sash across her left breast. But across her right breast was a far grander sash, fashioned from the unmistakable golden fur of a tiger. The baldric was wreathed with leafy vines, an affirmation of the Jaguar's communion with the forest. The sash attached to a leather shoulder pad, spiked with what could only bones from a tiger, and edged with tuffs of white fur.
The Jaguar's headdress loomed over Sakura like a reaper's hood. Two glowing pink-red eyes were all that she could see of the Jaguar's face. The kunai was clenched tight in its fist, and slowly being pulled upwards. The Jaguar held the point out in preperation for stabbing. Sakura swallowed hard, preparing for her imminent death. With a flick of the wrist, the kunai was flung, and landed square in the ground just above Sakura's head. The ninja let out a scream regardless, to which the tribe snickered at.
"I thought you were a warrior," The Jaguar's voice was forlorn but soft and musical. She pulled away her hood revealing a beautiful girl beneath. A red bar was painted across her harsh green eyes, locked between a black line and a row of black dots. Three black dots ran vertically across the middle of her forehead, with the top one the biggest and the bottom the smallest. A tribal barb stick pierced through her nostrils, adding to the ferocity of her appearance. Framing her unblemished cheeks were black claws curling inward, while a red bar marked her lower lip and all the way down to her chin. The bangs on her left cheek were slightly longer than the ones on her right, and braided together by two woven bands forming an x. The smugness in her smile made Sakura want to kick her. "At least you seem to be a girl."
Sakura continued to strain against her bindings, as the Jaguar stood over her. The Redfeet were creeping in closer, shimming down from the trees and strutting across the jungle floor. The Jaguar lifted her foot to plant it square onto Sakura's face. The ninja girl cried out in revulsion, struggling to turn her face aside. But the Warchief would not let her escape. She dabbed her captive's forehead with her toes, forcing her to get a full wiff of the sweaty smell. Sakura could only whimper her despair. All around her were rows of painted legs and girl feet. Seemingly satisfied the Jaguar lifted up her femur club in triumph.
"Una! Moona," she declared with authoritative ceremony.
"Uuuna! Mooona!" The Redfeet chirped. Out of the rows of feet a familiar pair of blue sandals stood out. The feet that wore them bounded up to genuflect by her Warchief's side.
"Line up the captives side by side," said the Warchief. "Leaping Feather, you may have first claim, which ever one you desire most. This victory belongs to clan Jaguar." A statement that drew a hiss from Skull Bitch's direction, and a haughty giggle from all others. The Jaguar's minion was a dainty thing, close to size and shape as Sakura was. She wore a head band with a white-black feather jutting straight up from the back of her hair.
"Thank you sempai! Eek! Imeanwarchief!" The feathered minion bowed up and down with over eager reverence. Sakura turned up her nose at such blatant brown nosing, as best she could manage with a foot in her face anyhow.
The warchief stamped deeper into Sakura's cheeks, pushing her head into the dirt before pulling her foot back. The kunoichi glared up at her with a vengeance. The Jaguar retorted with a bemused expression, completely ignoring her lackey. She sat down, atop Sakura's waist and ran her hands across Sakura's belly, then her breasts. Whatever bewilderment cursed the ninja girl before, paled in comparison to this new travesty.
"S-s-stop!" Sakura said feeling ever so much more smaller. The Jaguar gave her captive's budding breasts a little squeeze, delighted in the way it made her squirm. On her right wrist, the Warchief bore many woven hemp bracelets. Be they bands of friendship or if they served some darker purpose was unknowable. But on her left was a single bracer; a deadly gauntlet of bone spikes. Fangs of the jaguar, mounted to the Jaguar's fist. The bitch carassed her way up Sakura's arms, taking hold of her hands. She brought her head low, her necklace of fang rattling, and rested her face onto Sakura's hyperventalting chest.
"A good heartbeat," said the Warchief.
"Let go of me you pervert!" The natives were all closing in around Sakura. Each of them laughing at her weakness and babbling, probed the full length of her body with their bare feet. Her bare skin recoiled with each set of toes that fondled her. "N-no! Nooo..." Ten Ten and Ino were laid out on her right, Hinata on her left. How lucky were they to be unconscious through out this nightmare. Like their leader, warriors pressed a foot on their faces and shouted in victory. Claiming the defeated as their own. Leaping Feather slipped off one of Sakura's sandals to "conquer" Hinata. Sakura felt a new surge of defiance boil up inside her. "Leave her alone you bastards!" This time the Redfeet laughed honestly and full. To spite their captive they turned their attentions over to the sleeping Hyuga. They tugged at the ninja girls clothes and hair, taking turns pushing their feet into the Hyuga girl's solemn face. Having done that, they returned again to torment Sakura. Her desperate screams only added to the savage's fervor.
Jaguar Fist's fingers pushed through the hem of Sakura's shorts, and under her panties. The final and furthest of violations made the ninja's blood run cold. All the strength of her outrage fled from her, as she wished she could just crawl into a ball. The Jaguar dipped her finger within, exhaling with mischievous ecstasy. She sat up and brought her finger back, choosing to lick the sticky sweet residue left behind. Such "examinations" of all the kunoichi were repeated, until the Redfeet's barbaric curiosity was satisfied.
"They are all girls, just as Needle Teeth predicted," said Leaping Feather.
"I some what expected more from warriors," said Jaguar Fist still straddling Sakura. "But then they have not yet been Purified." She reached out to stroke Sakura's cheek with the back of her hand, to which Sakura lashed out biting her captor's palm. But she missed by a hair's length. "Almost..." the Warchief teased. Her bladed fist now grasped the handle of her club, bringing high over her head. Sakura winced in wide eyed terror for the inevitable moment."Welcome home little sister," and with that Jaguar Fist stuck Sakura in the head. The ninja fell into darkness.
Enter Jaguar Fist! The mysterious leader of the Redfoot tribe? In many ways she mirrors San (and perhaps Lady Eboshi as well), but has grown into her own being since this project began. I think these differences will explain themselves as the story progresses. I always liked the design of Sokka's femur club and gifted Jaguar her own version of it. After all her objective was not to kill, but to capture. I also gave her Lain's unique hair braid/ponytail thing, mostly because I like the aesthetic. The image I have of her in my head wears it well. God I wish I could draw.
Chapter 4: Mountain of the Yuri Gods
Sakura faded in and out of consciousness, her body feeling limp but heavy. Her ankles and wrists were forced to carry her full weight, as she hung from a pole. Quartets of tall amazons carried such a pole on their shoulders, each had a kunoichi bound like deer freshly killed from the hunt.
Still alive...but why? Sakura's vision was fuzzy and her ears were still ringing from when the Warchief struck her in the face.
Damn it, damn it all to hell! A few tears wormed their way free. All of Sakura's efforts proved to be useless in the end. All across her body bruises ached, and the side of her head throbbed. Useless. I wasn't able to do anything, again. Now everyone would have to pay for her weakness. Ino at least must have come around by then as she could hear her wailing. With any luck Ten Ten and Hinata were only knocked out. Sakura shook her head to clear her vision. The Redfeet had gathered in a troop, marching single file uphill. The great white warg-hyena led the way, its grim rider solemn with determination. The other wargs flanked either side of line, ensuring nothing could break their ranks.
As the procession marched the drummers tap tap tapped a victorious melody. Leaping Feather, The Warchief's minion, led the polyphonic choir; All but the captives, the Warchief, and the skull capped bitch joined in. Jaguar Fist kept her stoicism, looking forward and watching for predators. Skull Bitch had her arms crossed, too busy grinding her teeth and feeling sorry for herself. Though the jungle girls' words were gibberish to the ninja, their feelings of triumph and the joys of conquest were unmistakable. Their little voices spoke as one, giving praise to themselves and perhaps their deeds. The song was strangely calming and reverent. A savage's prayer, but to what? The forest? Their gods? Sakura did not know or care to. As they droned on, some howled like wolves in tune with the witchy beat, while others squawked like birds. This was their world, a dark Eden where beasts reigned in divine anarchy. No foolish trespassers would be suffered lightly, indeed it seemed like such intrusions were welcomed. The Redfeet lived for the thrill of the hunt. The song ended with a jubilant cheer, followed by laughter and loose chatter, before The Jaguar grunted out an order, snapping the savages back into formation.
"Aye!" The girls exclaimed at once. The Jaguar grumbled a bit, embarrassed by her warriors happy go lucky attitude. She peeked over her shoulder at Sakura. There was somber look to the savage's stare, a curious sort of frown. It matched Sakura's own as the two girls eyes lingered on one another. What did the huntress have to be worried about? Perhaps in this glum exchange a sort of understanding was being conveyed, about the sheer absurdity they were both part of. But why bother reaching out to Sakura in such a manner at all? The ninja girl narrowed her brows to reinforce just how she felt about the Warchief and her sniveling pack hounds. The Jaguar turned away and didn't look back again.
The war party reached an open field, the last stretch before they reached the mountain ahead. Lines of white smoke trailed up from a hunk of forest along the foot of the mountain. Soon the kunoichi would arrive at the Redfoot village, and with that delivered to their untold doom. Sakura spied a pair of tiki faces, idols that marked the Redfoot's territory. Both were carved down from trees, with round hips and generous bosoms both. Like sentinels the idols squatted parallel from another, their legs brazenly spread open. A loincloth was carved into the image, which somehow only served to accentuate their feminine allure. An allure that was off put by each of their elongated scowls. The idols barred their massive jaws in perpetual hostility. Each of their foreheads were stamped with a bloody footprint. An inquisitive thought occurred to Sakura, if the Redfeet were the masters of the island, for what purpose did they construct these tokens? Some kind of barbaric art? She eyed the necklaces of skulls and black feathers that decorated each idol's neck. Alien terror swept through her, as they were not skulls of human origin surely, but were avian. The skulls of giant birds? No, something about their shape was eerily familiar. Like the familial connection one would find when comparing a chimpanzee's skeleton to a human's. A living reminder of just how close to beasts human beings really were, yet this was wrong. The skeletal feature was impossible, there was no common relation to man and bird, not to this extent.
A shadow flew by over head and a deadly silence came over the jungle girls. Arrows were notched and aimed upwards, as the shadow split into two. Sakura scrambled her brains trying to find a rational explanation for what she was seeing. It was just a pair of hawks circling overhead. Right? If only it were so. The twin figures were humanoid in shape. Any relation to humanity quickly ended there. The shadows drew closer to which the Redfeet fired off warning shots. These new beasts had the strapping muscle of men, but the heads of eagles. Crow black feathers covered their bodies, from their massive heads down to the misshapen talons they had for feet. With their great wings and a spear in their fists, they were a gruesome parody of avenging angels. The Redfeet were not alone on the island it seemed.
Closer and closer the feathered fiends swooped in, silently taunting their amazon rivals with their presence. Like the Redfeet, the only garb the things saw fit to wear were a simple thong. A Redfoot arrow struck the shoulder of one of the birdmen who bellowed back with unholy hatred, before scampering back into the further reaches of the sky. His comrade soon followed. Sakura was left wide eyed, shocked to the core at the eldritch sights and sounds. Every hair on her body stood on ends and few would surely turn white. The unknown, the hostile gruesomely hungry unknown. With those horrid talons Sakura could easily see a score of those things tearing her and the warrior to pieces.
"Scouts," someone muttered plaintively.
"Cowards," another snorted.
"Quicken pace," The Warchief ordered. The Redfeet broke into a trot, uncaring at the discomfort it caused their captives as they bounced around in their bindings. Sakura grit her teeth and bore through it, her thoughts full of worry for her comrades. Anxious though these fears were, they were far more comforting that the surreal abominations now terrorizing the sky. She was trapped in some horrible waking nightmare, and could only hope it would all be over soon.
The village sat atop a plateau, ringed by a crude palisade wall. To cement their natural place as part of the forest, the mysterious green vines clung to the walls like fingers. Ringed around that was a forest of stakes, effigies to match the one they found on the beach. Most of the heads had been picked clean of their flesh, leaving behind grinning skulls that were either carved or painted with tribal designs. Others had a pickled look to them and did not suffer the wrath of flies. These ones eyes and mouths were sewn shut. The blackened head of pig stuck out from the crowd as it was alive with legions of little winged terrors. Sakura decided that the swarm's insufferable buzzing was not so far removed from her captors' babbling. A pair of watch towers stood over the log wall, their archers shifted restlessly from where they sat. One of them blew upon a conch horn, whose mournful cry caused the ramshackle gate to lift. With its jagged bottom, Sakura was again reminded of a great beast opening wide its jaws to swallow her whole. Masked warriors patrolled the parapets, javelins and bows at the ready in case those dreadful birdmen were to attack. The war party was greeted by an eager rush of jungle girls; a naturalist tide of tan painted skin, smooth legs, budding breasts and bare nipples. There had to be hundreds of them at the very least!
We never stood a chance, Sakura realized, growing ever more abashed at the sight of so much naked flesh. Not with this many of them. The tall and the small savages regarded the captives with gleeful oddity. Hundreds of little hands reached out touch their warriors as they passed, as if to receive a portion of their glory through osmosis. But for Sakura and her friends, the savages were far more ruthless. They tugged at the kunoichi's hair and clothes, laughing and raving at the captives' predicament. A few spat at the ninja, one jungle girl rushed the procession to try and pry Ino's sandals off. A guard snapped at her, raising a club to chase her away. The mischievous bitch dived back into the throng snickering. It was all great fun of the natives. Someone even had the audacity to pinch Sakura in the butt. Another hand tried to pull her shorts down while another pair grabbed at the hem her panties. Her plaintive scream was mocked by hyena laughter as a little hand reached out to muffle Sakura. The jungle girl squealed in delight at the new found power she had over another, if only for a brief moment. The guards had their hands full trying to keep their tribe at bay. When pushing wasn't enough, the warriors toppled girls over on their behinds. That didn't stop them, they just got right back up and started grabbing again. Worse, savages in the back rows would actually trample over their fallen sisters for a chance to get a head of the pack, their painful screams lost in the cacophony of girlish rampage. Perhaps frustrated at their own people, the warriors turned their weapons on the crowd, battering back with their clubs and threatening with their spears. The giggling mass kept a wider berth after that. It was wonder there was any kind of order in this madhouse at all. Please let Hinata and the others sleep through this, Sakura prayed as hard as she could. If it was listened to at all, it was surely drowned out by the sinister chants of the amazon tribe.
Excited by the heroic return of their warriors, some villagers started to chant and clap their hands in time with one another. Their suddenly red eyes aglow with conformative haze. The babble and the laughter faded away as the tribe focused into a synchronized movement.
"Una!" a girl called out.
"Moona!" The throng called back. They repeated this chant three times, clapping in time with it. This odd term of theirs resembled "banzai" in its own coarse way.
It was then Sakura realized a unique feature to the Redfeet that she hadn't before. Though most of them had (apparently) naturally brown skin with green eyes and smooth black hair, there were many others whose hair and complexion was much lighter than their native counterparts. These girls were all from the same island...weren't they? The war party ignored the wild praise, pushing through the throngs of unclad girls and grass huts. A flock of chickens trotted past while pet hyenas slunk behind them. The village had the raunchy stink of a barn, despite being in open air. Sweat and refuse tinged at the kunoichi's senses, causing their whole bodies to shrivel up and gag. The bleating of cattle was heard in the distance, though went unseen. Further evidence of them were the occasional horned skull that decorated either banner poles, or the entrances to the Redfeet's hovels.
At the center of the village was a vast hut structure, a ring of posts that upheld a long continuous thatched roof. This great hut was situated as an open air dwelling, pottery littered the ground as the more skittish of the tribe squatted in the shadows, while small cook fires smoldered. There were girls nibbling at scraps of meat or sharpening stone tools against another. Couples of girls cuddled together in slung hammocks, looking over at the procession and whispering in each other's ears. An odd shiver ran through Sakura when one of the girls pressed the tip of her nose into her companion's cheek. There were no men. No elder women for that matter.
What kind of insane place was this? Nothing about the tribe's apparent structure made sense to Sakura. With so many young girls running around, could they have been runaways? A crazed if sad grin spread across her face. Maybe the all the girls rose up against the island's adults and killed them all. It's not like they all just sprung up out of the ground.
A cursed island, haunted by demon nymphs, the phantom memory of the Skipper reminded her.
"Shut up!" she muttered aloud. It isn't true. It isn't possible.
Sakura spied a random jungle girl who was watching her intently, whose face was decorated with bands of black dots with long sticks protruding from both her nostrils and the corners of her smile. Shyly she leaned up against a support post, then curled around to 'hide' behind it, drawing circles behind her with her toes. Her dark eyes sulked with bemusement. The spectacle of warriors taking captives was nothing new to her.
Masked warriors stalked the grounds like police men looking for trouble, their spears and stone clubs at the ready. The great hut gave way to an open court within its circle. At the center of that dirt ring, was a towering monument of some kind. It was a circular stone fire pit; caricatures of dancing jungle warriors were carved across its length. The unmistakable scales of a stone snake, coiled around the bas-relief, along with rows of grinning skulls. Within the pit wood was being laid out in tipi style, piled at the base of a ominous looking stone monolith. It was not much bigger than person and was smooth and square. Coiled atop the monolith were twin stone snakes. The snakes hunched up as they faced each other in eternal conflict, their shape giving the monolith the appearance of devilish horns. Sakura was an ordinary ninja girl, blessedly ignorant of the dark secrets of the occult. Yet some primal instinct within recognized the barbaric structure for what it was. It was no ordinary fire pit for cooking meat, but a sacrificial pyre for use in the most debauched of ceremonies! Was this to be their fate? To be burned alive at the stake as some cheap offering to primitive idols of rock and dirt?
Before the stone pyre was a different group of girls, hunched over and pale of skin. They wore no bone jewelry from what Sakura could tell, save for matching hemp collars and string bikini loincloths. What stuck out was that they were the only tribals she'd seen so far that had long hair. Some so long and scraggly it went down their back. Stranger still, despite their flat chests each of them wore a narrow bandeau top. Yet the warriors strutted about with their breasts bare. These strange ones function as slaves quickly became apparent given the armed guards screaming over them. The slave girls covered their heads with their hands in anxious anticipation of being clubbed. One of their number made the mistake of standing a little too straight, and was swiftly beaten down to the ground. She quickly scrambled back up into a squat and continued working. The slaves were being forced to erect four tall posts in view of the monolith.
Is that what they intend for us? Sakura shuddered at the awful possibilities. Four posts. Four captives. Maybe they intended to torture them first. Or maybe they would force the others to watch as each of their number was tied to that demonic obelisk. A gruesome image filled her mind; of Hinata, sweet innocent Hinata, screaming in vain as roaring flames ate her body, while the Redfeet danced around the blaze. Treacherous instincts whispered that being a slave might not be so bad. At least she'd be alive, and fed occasionally. Liar. Its not true. Shut up! Some would rather die than ever live their life as a slave. Sakura would have liked to believe that she that strong. Would she be able retain such confidence when it was her head on the chopping block? Or Ino's? What about poor Hinata? With a renewed burst of strength she tried to struggle against her bindings. There had to be a way out of this mess. There had to be!
The village was built along the side of a cliff. A rope bridge crossed over a shadowy chasm, binding the village to the volcano. Carved into the side of the mountain was a square stone stepped pyramid. It was at this point that the Warchief's albino mount trotted in a circle before coming to a halt. When she dismounted the other riders followed suit. Warriors from the village led the wargs away as the riders gathered around the Skull Bitch. It seemed she would be left behind, while the Warchief led the procession the rest of the way to the temple. Not for an instant did the Skull Bitch take her wrathful eyes off of Sakura, choosing to linger at the chasm's edge, to remind her that she was still there.
That one will be trouble. Sakura would sooner never see that asshole again, but wasn't about to press her luck. While the riders whispered among themselves, Sakura observed they each bore similar designs of tattoos, clan markings probably. There was no time to ponder such things, as she and her allies were dropped on the ground. The Redfeet moved quickly to secure the captives, binding their wrists from the front so that the ninja's arms were crossed. At least their ankles were relieved, though they still felt sore from the raw leather chafing. The savages encircled the kunoichi standing over them tall and proud. The Warchief put her hands on her hips, radiating power and fury.
"The free ride is over," she began without a hint of sarcasm. "I am Jaguar Fist, Warchief of the great Redfoot Tribe, and leader of the noble clan Jaguar. You are now prisoners of our clan. You do what we say when we say. Got it?" The ninja could but stare either meekly or with incredulity. It was Ten Ten who spoke up first. Sakura quickly wished it had been her instead.
"In a pig's eye!" Her defiance drew a haughty laugh from their captors. Jaguar Fist's un-amused glare was set in stone. Leaping Feather, ever eager to please her sempai, shook her finger to scold the captive ninja. She made Sakura think of a bookish tattletale.
"S-such disrespect will not be tolerated!" said she. Sakura and Ten Ten's combined glare was all it took for the little troll to inch backwards behind her mistress. "A-apologize to your Warchief!" Leaping Feather clung to Jaguar Fist's shoulder, whom for the most part tried to ignore her.
"Go to Hell!" said Sakura. The barbarians turned their sniggering towards their own now, Leaping Feather shrank back to hide the reddening of her face.
"So, you have some fire left in you after all," Jaguar Fist began in a tone of concession. "Nevertheless, you are beaten, subject only to the law of the club." She let her hand drift to where her femur club hung from her waist. The bone tip hooked into a moon shaped ball, carved intricately so. Studs of teeth lined the inner notch, while arcane leaves and vines were etched into the club's body. But since the etchings were painted over in red, the spiraling designs looked more akin to fresh cut wounds. The thing's hilt was tasseled with a wad of red and black feathers. Sakura could only pray that hilt's leather bindings and straps were not of human origin. "You will be presented to the Princess of the Sun. She will decide your fate." Who ever she was did not sound inviting in the slightest.
Sakura swept her eyes over her compatriots. Poor Ino was petrified, eyes wide and mad with fear. Hinata had retreated into herself with downcast eyes, looking miserable and utterly defeated. Only Ten Ten, and Sakura herself, had spirit enough to glare up at their captors. Yet when instinct needled at her to shout back at the Warchief, her jaw firmly held shut. She was not eager to receive another bludgeon from that awful club, nor risk any of her friends on her behalf for that matter. The Redfeet hoisted the kunoichi onto their feet. To motivate them forward, the savages threatened them with the tips of their feathered spears. A knowing nod was passed between Sakura and Ten Ten, an unspoken agreement that now was not the time to fight. All of them were exhausted, starved and thirsty. The humid jungle air pressed down on them sapping them of whatever strength they had. There was little other choice than to let this bizarre drama play out. At the very least they'd be out of the sun's glare.
The war party went across the ramshackle and creaking bridge, and up to the stove hot steps of the temple. Sakura yelped from the sizzling sensation, hopping from one toe to the other while the Redfeet shoved her along. Her walk was already made awkward enough from when the hem of her shorts were pulled down. Thankfully they still clung on just below her waist, not far enough to be revealing, though her tunic's length would offer some protection from such humiliation. She grit her teeth and shot another vengeful glare at the back of Leaping Feather. Sneaky little bitch, clomping around in her shoes, stretching them all out with her big, stupid feet!
If I ever get my hands on her I'll...! Sakura let out a great huff to try and calm herself down. It would do her no good to let her anger get out of control here. Those guards looked like they were just looking for an excuse to stab their captives to death. Despite having heads of stone and bone, the Redfeet had filed their spear tips down to sharp points. Patience was the kunoichi's only hope now, provided they weren't being led to an execution.
The temple was ensnared by great kraken like vines just like everything else in the forest. Sakura was beginning to wonder if it was all part of the same plant. Nah, that was impossible. As impossible as flying birdmen and giant hyena wargs anyway. Part of her hoped that much was not the case. They were in a jungle after all. Foliage is a normal part of the forest. There was no reason to get carried away. It was likely a trick of the wind, but out of the corner of her eye, Sakura might have sworn one of the vines was twitching. There was no wind either. Another limb was sliding up the stairs, but it was probably just a snake.
Atop the steps were a line of thick, but crumbling moss and vine covered pillars. Serpentine motifs were becoming a reoccurring theme what with them carved flat against the stone, zig zagging upwards in square spiral patterns. The pillars upheld a long stone roof, allowing some temporary relief from the sun. There was an unexpected sense of wonder that came from walking about the ruin. A shame it came to be inhabited by such evil. Sakura got the deliberate feeling that this brutish bunch weren't responsible for the its construction. The temple's glory days were long since past, and the forest had since reclaimed it. Now it was a haunt for wild beasts. Dangling from the ceiling like so many bats, were the dried up husks of tiny cocoons. There were thousands, perhaps even millions of them. A pair of purple butterflies dashed through the procession's line moving from shadow into the inter cut shafts of light. Somehow the little devils weren't as pretty as they were before, though they were no different from their cousins in the forest. Perhaps it was the dreadful ambiance of the temple, their tiny obsidian bodies appeared cruder, their limbs more spider like. Their incandescent wings no longer shimmered, but radiated a poisonous aura. Their metamorphosis was an ugly one, but no less awe inspiring.
The archway was great stone anaconda with feathered heads on either side. Embedded into the ground was a great stone wheel. Whatever meaning the squiggling pictographs meant within its rings were lost to time. All Sakura could make out was that the image pointed in all eight directions, with a impish skull cackling at the piece's center. Standing at either side of the archway were hastily constructed standards, clattering with antlers and horned skulls as the stitched pelts of jaguars slung from the top. Markers of the clan that ruled here. Lying in wait were a pair of jungle girls and pack of hyenas. They were lazing about on the ground, the hyenas panted while the girls fanned themselves with a palm leaf each. Upon seeing their Warchief the twin guards snapped to attention, slamming the butts of their spears into the ground. Their hyena companions sniggered at their pathetic attempt to look alert. Jaguar Fist shot her bewildered allies a warning glare but said nothing. The archway's guardians regarded the captives with indifference, too busy trying to look the part of mighty jungle warrior rather than like the oafish beach bums they were. Sakura forced a bemused smile at this exchange. It was wonder these morons hadn't been overrun by their avian enemies yet.
The great hall would have been pitch dark had it not been for the rows of open windows carved at the tops of the walls. Rows of candles melted into yellow blobs, and hanging skull lanterns helped further the illumination, yet only helped to enhance to creepy, half shadowed atmosphere of the courtroom. At the center of the room a great bowl shaped brazier smoldered in the twilight like a witch's cauldron. The hall was not empty either. The walls were lined with many pelts, trophies, each no doubt had a story to tell. Along side them were the skulls of beasts; many of whom had been refashioned, combined into ornamental medicine shields. The stone floors were covered with fur rugs that were soft and springy to the touch. It was like walking on the backside of behemoth. Relief flowed through Sakura's swollen soles as she padded across. Young women danced about the center brazier's flames, while the rest of the clan hunched over in the flickering shadows, softly pattering on drums, turning over rattling rainsticks, and blowing into flutes.
The Warchief held up her signature fist and called out "Una."
"Una. Moona," came the response from the clan. The dancers did not even have the decorative luxury of a loincloth. Their exposed genitalia was bereft of any unsightly hair. Each girl was painted all over in wild and square spiral colors: yellow, white, lavender, and even some blue in addition to the standard red and black. Each bore a hemp choker latched tight around their necks. Instead of song the dancers let their bone, shell, and wood bead jewelry jangle, blending in with the cool, trickling rhythm of the tribal backbeat. Their bare feet swept in semi circles across the fur floor. Tittering as they spun around on the balls of their feet, the dancers teased the warriors, coyly hiding their faces while swaying their generous hips from side to side. They ran the palms of their hands down their bare legs to show off how smooth and beautiful they were. Gracefully they rolled onto the floor, raising one leg up into the air, arching their ankles that the flat of their feet all faced the brazier's flame in a circle, as the dancers cooed with secretive delight. On both sides of the great hall were smaller archways that led into darkness and gods knew what else. Some members of the war party retreated into those abysmal halls. Others licked their lips, taking careful breaths to keep from being mesmerized by the dancers' flirtations. Only Jaguar Fist seemed completely unaffected by the dancers' charms.
The kunoichi were suddenly grabbed by the arms, though they needed little motivation to keep moving forward. The Redfeet were taking no chances however, and would not let their captives forget even for an instant who was master and who was slave here. Ino's exclamations of 'no' went ignored. Ten Ten scoffed and drug her feet. A startled whimper escaped from Hinata when she was grabbed. Sakura chose to begrudge her captors every step by struggling. At the far end of the room, atop a mound of steps was a simple stone bench laid out with the fur of a tiger. The head of massive mutant tiger roared in perpetual silence on the wall overhanging the throne. Carved into said wall, was row upon row of leering skulls. Behind the throne was once a smaller version of the ominous stone wheel outside, but the mounted tiger head had since covered it. Sitting parallel to that were twin tiki faces, each grinning stupidly while their hair erupted in fire.
Sitting cross legged upon the throne, with her hands folded in her lap, was a small girl. The kunoichi's eyes were drawn to her massive headdress, a Moctezumaian fan perched with thousands upon thousands of long blue green feathers, a grand spectacle in of itself. The crown framed her forehead with a woven band, bedazzled with fangs, beads of every color, and a carefully chosen piece of bone that was smoothed out to resemble a crescent moon as the centerpiece. The girl's face was hidden behind a skeletal mask of turquoise, her large brown eyes peeked out from the eye sockets with excitement. The skull mask had no jaw revealing the girl's, but did have long protruding fangs in place of teeth. A small white cape was tied around her slender neck, frayed with knotted tassels. Rows of pink and green, interlocked spiral squares were embroidered along the edges of the cape. It slung about her shoulders just far enough to hide her naked chest, which like all Redfeet was either painted or tattooed with tribal markings. A courageous looking sun symbol ringed the girl's belly button, perhaps to match the enigmatic stone wheel and its own eight pointed star? Her final garment was soft pink loincloth, tied up at her hips like a string bikini.
The music faded away as the dancers retreated, to lie at the foot of the Princess' throne. Already lounging beneath the royal seat, was a lanky girl painted white with the bones of skeleton. A stark contrast in of itself compared to all other natives. The only other color on her frail, brown frame was a bloody red hourglass against her stomach. She offered the festivities a cat like yawn revealing a mouth full needle sharp, filed teeth. Her long, smooth black hair, the first true Redfoot to be seen with such length, drooped over half her face exposing only a single baggy red eye. The rest of her face was tattooed with a chalky death's head. This one picked her nose without care who saw her, as the dancers gave her a wide berth. They were afraid to even touch her.
The kunoichi were forced to their knees before the child-like empress as the Warchief took her place at the Princess' right side.
"Behold Thi'Hali!," Jaguar Fist started, addressing all. "The most exalted Celestial Maiden, whose pure light is a beacon to all servants of the jungle gods! Within this vessel, the word of Thi'Hali is spoken! She is one with the tribe. To love her and adore her is to be blessed! It is she alone who is worthy to sit upon the Tiger Skin Throne. She alone who is both girl and divine! We glorify thee, we glorify thee, we bow as in ages past to glorify thee. Almighty Thi'Hali! Princess of the Sun!"
The Redfeet of clan Jaguar crept closer from the shadows, prostrate themselves before their living goddess. Even the guards manhandling the captives went to one knee, digging their nails into the ninjas' scalps, forcing them to bow along with the tribe.
"Ia' Thi'hali! Ia' Princess of the Sun," some cried aloud. "Ia' Ia'!" The savages heaved their bodies up then down, groveling flat on their bellies, their arms outstretched in total submission. For them the presence of this one girl was nor mere superstition but an absolute reality. Living proof of their faith. The ninja shuddered in grim awe in this mad display of barbarous piety.
"Ai yah...what...have we here?" spoke the Sun Princess, sounding as if she had been roused from sleep. "Jaguar-sempai. Did you make new friends?"
Jaguar Fist smiled, speaking almost soothingly for the first time. "My little divine, my warriors come seeking your blessing, and offer you these fine gifts for your continued benevolence."
"Silly old onee-chan," the young ruler's sweet voice was a cherubic melody. Even in this moment of despair, the kunoichi were put at ease from only her words. "Always so serious all the time. You're going to give yourself wrinkles if frown like that all the time." That caught the Warchief off guard, causing her of all people to sputter. None of the Redfeet dared to giggle at her short lived moment of vulnerability however. For surely their own lives would be cut short in response. Sakura and Ten Ten allowed themselves an underhanded smirk. Ino and Hinata were still caught in the grip of total fright.
"Your Highness..." Jaguar grumbled. "Not in front of company..." The Warchief turned her face away and crossed her arms while the Sun Princess hid a polite giggle behind her hand.
"I apologize for any discomfort you may have had in getting here," The Sun Princess now turned her attention on the kunoichi, who now were unsure what to make of her. "Life in the jungle can be a bit messy, and Redfoot warriors aren't known for their...umm...what's the word? Orderliness."
"Orderliness?" Sakura spoke out of turn, her voice the lull before the storm. "You greasy animals attacked us! You tried to kill us! We've done nothing to you and you hunted us down like dogs. How dare you look down upon us!"
Murmurs from the surrounding peanut gallery made Sakura wonder if even half these freaks even understood her. The Sun Princess made a mewling sound as if in deep contemplative thought. "Onee-chan got carried away in her hunting games again didn't she?" It wasn't an accusation or even a condemnation, which made Sakura all the more angry.
"This isn't a game! We're people damn it!"
"I beg to differ," the wretch with needles for teeth suddenly spoke, causing a collective chill to taint the room for a moment or two. None made an attempt to address her sass, and she spoke no more.
"Mind who you're talking to whelp," Jaguar Fist scolded back at Sakura.
"Make me, you overgrown turd!"
The genuflecting jungle girls had since raised their heads to gasp, taken aback by the brashness of the outlander's furious insult. Blood would surely be drawn. Jaguar Fist's eyes narrowed to her usual grimace, her eyes darting about for anyone else looking to challenge her. Only Sakura's eyes pierced through her. The Warchief's twitchy hand hovered over the hilt of her club, but she instead straightened herself and took a deep breath. Ten Ten and Hinata allowed themselves a confident smile at their team captain's subtle if minuscule victory. Only Ino remained petrified, mad with anxious terror.
"Why are you guys arguing?" The Sun Princess asked with genuine concern. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat before peeling of her skull mask and putting it aside. "We're all girls, so we should all get along right? Girls should always stick together."
All at once the kunoichi gasped, stupified by what they saw. For the Sun Princess was the girl from the photograph.
"H-Hikari? Hikari Kamiya?" Sakura was stunned. She and the other ninja were grateful to see that their charge was still alive. But their joy was ruined with the bitter realization of what had become of her. These vile Redfeet had twisted her from the sweet little girl in yukata, into some kind of primal demigod. Time in the jungle sun had browned the girl's once pure and pale skin, making her as dark as the natives. The savages had branded her little cheeks and chin with wavy lines and dots, gruesome fangs and serrated arrow tattoos; pierced her nostrils with a turquoise half ring, a moon shaped crescent to oppose the one bound to her forehead. Likewise three skinny wooden sticks stuck out from the corners of the girl's smile and from under her lip. Tuffs of feathers jutted out of Hikari's ear lobes, giving them the likeness of splendorous pink lillies. Most terrible of all, around Hikari's neck was a necklace of bones and red feathers, that ended in a tiny feline skull.
"Hikari was my old name," Hikari explained matter of fact like. "Onee-chan said I have a special destiny. Did you know the Sun is actually a Goddess? The Redfeet said She's a girl just like me. Onee-chan says that she's chosen me, and is going to come down from Heaven to live inside my body. So to prepare, everyone just calls me Thi'hali from now on...or Princess. It's a little confusing I know..." The girl twirled her finger through a loose lock of auburn hair as she bounced one thigh up and down impatiently. "I was worried that the sun would go out if that happened, but Onee-chan says not to worry. The sun will still shine. I was so relieved. I'd hate to inconvenience everyone like that. Everybody needs sunshine."
Words and thoughts failed Sakura and her friends as they scrambled to make sense of the situation. No...this, this can't be true. It was a trick, all a trick! It had to be. Hikari was young and impressionable, not to mention had already been through a terrifying ordeal what with being kidnapped in the first place. Sakura's inner and righteous anger feuded with the cosmic terror churning in her heart. These sneaky Redfeet had no right imposing their weird cult on an innocent like this.
"You villains!" Ten Ten decried ahead of Sakura.
"H-how could, how could this happen?" Hinata said completely aghast.
Ino shut her eyes and hummed to herself, a paper thin shield to block out the deranged world around her.
"Fiends!" Sakura swiveled all around to spit her curses at all the savages. "You devils, you're all devils!" Sakura's indignation only drew bemused gossip and hyena cackles. She desperately tried to reason with the girl on the throne. "Hikari, we came to rescue you." The tribe laughed uproariously at that, Hikari included. Even Jaguar Fist provided a smug grin. "You have to listen to me," Sakura tried to yell over the throng. "They're trying to trick you! They're just using you..." To what devious end, was beyond Sakura's frantic comprehension at present.
"Neh...? You were looking for me?" The Sun Princess mewled with faux guilt. "Then, I'm sorry for putting you through so much trouble. Still, I think things have turned out for the best."
"W-what?" Such an incredulous answer, how could any of this be for the best?
Hikari's eyes narrowed. "You're all still alive, and mostly unharmed. Tee hee. Everything happened just as Needle Teeth said it would."
"Yo..." murmured the creep painted as a skeleton, swishing her fingers in a faux salute.
"You don't have to worry about anything anymore." There was a mischievous glint in Hikari's once innocent eyes. "I'll be the one to make the rules for you from now on." With a tilt of her head, the kunoichi were rolled onto their backs. Helpless as turtles, the Redfeet pried off the ninjas' remaining sandals at the command of their little divine. "I want to see their feet," The Sun Princess slid to the edge of her seat, allowing her bare legs to dangle over the edge. Braided about her ankles were strands of embroidered string, tied across her bare feet like sandal straps, but the girl wore no sandals. The trinkets were plainly decorative, embellished with polished stones and cowrie shells.
Dragging their captives by the ankles, the Redfeet grappled with the kunoichi's squirming and kicking legs. Sakura managed to jam her heel into the gut of that rat Leaping Feather before she and the others ankles were rebound in rawhide bindings. The savage's eyes bugged out along with her breath as she rolled over on the ground clutching her belly. None of her jungle comrades went to help her, not even her precious sempai.
"If you insist in acting like pack animals you will be treated as such," Jaguar Fist said without a trace of irony. "Be grateful I don't brand you as a slave here and now cub," she said to Sakura specifically.
Sakura was the first to be 'given' to the Sun Princess. Hikari reached out with her hands to cradle Sakura's feet in her lap. The kunoichi uttered a fitful squeak as the little Princess ran her tiny, delicate fingers across Sakura's skin.
"What the hell? Wh-mmmph!" Sakura's words were cut off by a now very angry Leaping Feather, who pressed the length of her own foot across Sakura's mouth. The captors shifted the ninja girl's body that their Princess could get the best look at Sakura's feet. She brought her little nose close to them, so close that it nearly brushed the surface of Sakura's flesh, and in the strangest gesture made yet, Hikari took a deep breath, filling her nose with the pungent aroma of sweaty girl feet. The Sun Princess rocked back with a sigh of contentment before smelling the feet again, as one might a freshly baked fruit pie. Her weird game did not end there, she thrust her fingers between Sakura's toes, as if the two were pressing their hands together.
"I can feel the heat moving inside your body," she began. "Can you feel mine yet?" Her little hands clasped Sakura's feet tighter as the little Princess began to chant 'doki'. Doki. The sound of a heart beat. "I can feel the fire in your heart. But...it is lonely isn't it? There's warmth by my fire as well. Would you...join your flame to mine?" The natives sat wordless, perhaps in reverence of their divine idol. Sakura and the other ninja writhed where they lay, Sakura most of all, in confusion and discomfiture at being molested so. Even if she had an answer, she could not provide one with a native foot over her mouth. She tried to turn her head in a vain attempt to separate herself from this queer ritual, only to stare into the bleak and teary eyes of Hinata. No words were needed, and Sakura's previous shame was doubled as she was forced to watch Hinata cry on her behalf. A sorry sob at being robbed of all dignity and strength. To complete her exotic ritual, the Sun Princess sat in such a way to press her slightly smaller feet against Sakura's.
"It was the red string of destiny that led us here. Can you feel the Earth beneath your feet?" said Hikari. "Can you feel The Weave?" They lay like that for some time, Hikari seeming to bask in the warmth coming from Sakura's soles. Finally satisfied she folded her legs back into a crossed position, and Sakura was pulled away. She thought it strange that her heart was pounding so fast and that she needed to catch her breath. No real physical damage was done sure, but Sakura knew the ritual was intended to kowtow her. To humble her.
I will never surrender, she vowed.
Hinata was next, who stared with astonishment at her captors, shaking her head instead of pleading. Just seeing the bare skin of the natives was overwhelming for the shy girl as is. The Redfeet guards retorted with a shrug, mussing Hinata's hair despite her wails as their living goddess set about playing with her feet.
"I really like this one," said Hikari while admiring the clean and polished sheen of Hinata's creamy skin.
"She will be quite popular I think," Jaguar Fist said equally appeased. Her mouth was watering at the helpless cries of the Hyuga.
"Leave her alone you apes," came a vapid threat from Ten Ten, who like Sakura, soon found a foot planted across her mouth. Perhaps it was the thin veneer of civilization in her, that kept her from biting her smelly captor. She would not stoop to the level of her tormentors.
"Can I give her an anklet right now? Please oh please?" The Sun Princess flashed a most adorable pouty look at her jungle girl elder.
"Anonash tada mikaludah, zie bee matta din," Jaguar admonished her little disciple in the Redfeet's tongue. Hikari huffed her cheeks, billowing with disappointment. Whatever meaning this exchange held was lost on the ninja.
Hinata did all she could to try and calm herself down, to emulate the cool stoicism the Hyuga clan was famous for. She controlled her breathing slower and slower still, despite being touched against her will.
"You're doing just fine," Hikari told her with honest encouragement, before taking another deep whiff off of Hinata's toes. "Bare with it just a little longer..." Hikari's fingers danced across the instep of Hinata's feet, causing her to jolt with new desperation. She still cried out for release, but her cries turned to uncontrollable laughter.
"N-no...Please...Please stop, ah! Ahhh!" Hinata heaved left and right to no avail. The guards grip on her arms and ankles were iron clad.
"Look how much fun she's having! I think she likes it," Hikari's observation drew a sadistic laugh from the tribe, as Jaguar Fist placed a proud hand on her disciple's shoulder. The Sun Princess beamed.
Neither Sakura or Ten Ten could stand to see their Hinata so helpless in the hands of these crazed savages. Both of them looked away crestfallen at their own impotence, the inability to save their squirming teammate. Only Sakura questioned when she had started to think of Hinata as "her's".
The Sun Princess continued her examination of each of the ninja's feet. When she was done she suddenly leapt up on her feet. Superimposed atop her throne, she bashfully held her hands against her cheek. "Hyuehhh...they're all so precious! I just want to gobble them all up right now..." There was imagery Sakura and the others didn't want to imagine.
"Patience my little divine," said Jaguar Fist. "We have all the time in the world to...appreciate their physique."
"You can't expect us to believe you dragged us all the way here just to appreciate our 'physique'," said Ten Ten. Sakura really wished she'd keep that sharp tongue of her sheathed, before one of them got stabbed on a count of it.
No stab came, but a solid slap from Leaping Feather right across Ten Ten's cheek. "Silence!" the savage said trying to sound imposing. The tribal peanut gallery ooohed, anxious to see how this would play out next.
Ten Ten glared at the feathered fink before swishing her tounge around her mouth, as if to taste for blood. When there was none she smiled. "What was that? Insects bite harder than you."
Leaping Feather was beset with frustration, gritting her teeth and stomping one foot on the ground. The tribe's catty heckling was once again aimed at her. She even had the flushed cheeks to show for it. In a gesture meant to convey, 'I'll show you', she drew her stone knife. The savage rushed at Ten Ten, intending to stab downwards and...
"Stand down sister," the command from Jaguar Fist caught her wrist like crackling whip. With a growl she jerked her knife back into its holster, and stomped her way back to the dais to haunch behind her beloved sempai. Even the Sun Princess had laughed at her! Such shame!
"This has been so much fun. I wish we could keep playing," Though the torch light was still flickering all around, and the sun had not yet begun to descend, the air around Hikari seemed to grow darker. There was a subtle ripple, a warp almost like when heat rises in the far distance. The bloody glow in her eyes was an all too familiar sight the ninja were acquainted with. Seeing it displayed within Hikari was more frightening than all of the severed heads combined with the birdmen. "Still, a show of, fealty is necessary." The Sun Princess extended her leg out before the kunoichi's livid faces. Her own twisted in a most evil grin. "Fufufufu...You may each kiss my foot."
"What on Earth are you saying?!" Sakura, Ten Ten, Ino and Hinata all exclaimed.
"I...I...demand...obedience," Hikari spoke slowly at first, her words were slurring as her head wavered in the air. "Maybe I should make you all wear a leash. It would look cute on you, and maybe it would fix your attitude." The ninja looked around them at the gathering gloom, at all the glowing red, and very hungry eyes all aimed at them.
"What have you done to her Jaguar?" Sakura asked the Warchief, her courage entirely spent and in shambles. Jaguar Fist only gleamed in return.
The Sun Princess aped the role of a rosy kid, delivering a saccharine moan of vexation. "Big sister is such a meanie. Everyone else has been so nice to me. If you're nice to me I'll reward you... I'll even let you play with my feet."
"NO WAY IN HELL IS THAT HAPPENING EVER," said Hinata, Ino, Sakura, and Ten Ten. They were loud enough for the whole temple quiver. Birds and butterflies fled the area in alarm, while outside the villagers looked up at their sacred temple and pondered the noise and sudden tremor.
"Neh neh, they're sure full of themselves," said the one called Needle Teeth. Her tepid voice was like having a eel slathered across one's ears. "Still...not a bad thing. A re-...girl should be a bit cocky."
"But should also know when to submit," said Jaguar Fist. With a scowl and scoff she snapped her fingers. "Defy the will of the Princess at your own peril!"
Hauled up once more on their feet, the kunoichi were forced to bend over facing the Princess and her consorts. Warriors eagerly shuffled over to gather wooden paddles from the wall, before parading them before the bewildered ninja. Each of the paddles had holes across the surface, to cut down on wind resistance. It didn't take a genius to figure out what they were for.
"You'll want to keep your eyes on me. Like I said, I'll be the one to make the rules for you from now on." What a sickening sight, to be sneered at from some little trollop on a heathen's throne.
"Stay strong everyone. Don't give up," Sakura blurted out with all the defiance she had left, as the first of many swats slapped across her rear end. Mercifully the savages either didn't think to pull down their pants, or simply didn't care. All in all this was a show of force. "Hidden Leaf ninja don't surrender..."
Whack! One spank. Two. Three became six. The stinging ache was a feeling shared by the kunoichi, woven in a thread of shame.
"Again! Again!" Hikari cheered on her warriors who were delighted to obey. Whack! There went all of Ten Ten's acerbic wit, along with some spittle flying from her mouth. Whack! Whack! Behind her was Leaping Feather, ecstatic to take her revenge so soon.
"That's what you get for mouthing off to sempai," with both arms she battered up to strike at Ten Ten with all her might. WHACK! It took everything Ten Ten had to keep from buckling over on her knees. A few shed tears and a desperate moan seemed to be a smaller shame in comparison. A wave of guilt passed over Sakura, feeling that she should have received her teammate's punishment, if only to protect them, all of them.
"Punishment. Punishment..." One of the natives started a chant and was quickly joined by her sisters.
"Punishment! Punishment!" The sheer glee they got out of seeing others ground under their heels was too terrible for the ninja to contemplate. Sakura had been bullied in the past (as had Hinata, unknown to Sakura and the others), but never had it been so with an almost religious fervor. Most heartbreaking of all, Hikari clapped her hands joining in with the other Redfeet. Louder and louder they cried, "PUNISHMENT! PUNISHMENT!" The more the ninja girls were beaten, the more powerful the jungle girls became.
Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack! Sakura lost count after the twenty seventh smack. Ino was first to yelp, then Hinata. Ten Ten followed, somehow it was Sakura who held out the longest before her pride broke. A painful cry escaped her lips, a far more painful feeling than any slap on the butt.
"Enough," Needle Teeth sounded bored, gangly rising from the floor to slither behind the Princess' back. The punishment and chanting all stopped as the two whispered secrets in each other's ears, giggling to themselves. Jaguar Fist stood by as if frozen in place against her will, and ground her jaw. Though glad the spanking was over, the kunoichi awaited with trepidation what new hell was to be unleashed upon them.
"The sun is at its highest point. Thi'Hali demands to worshiped with a fire dance." The Sun Princess took one last leering look at her defeated captives, reveling in the power she had over them. "Take them away!" She cut at the air with a dramatic chop, and the entire clan rose up to drag the ninja out of the temple. Hikari settled back down into her seat with a Cheshire cat grin, watching the warriors as the ninja continued their struggle. "Nyaaa...I've always wanted to say something like that."