It was the first time Shikako arrived in the Land of Hot Springs right in the middle of the Jashinists summoning their god. (Shikako supposed it was the last time, too, since Shikako had just split herself into an infinite number of Shikakos and the whole idea was that Shikako wasn’t going to be bouncing through space and time anymore since she would already be wherever she was potentially going. Or something. Even for Shikako, this whole alternate universe travel thing could get confusing.)
But seriously! Hadn’t this whole mess started in the first place because of Jashinists summoning their god? It was a little galling to be facing the exact same problem that Shikako had tried to fix to at the start all over again at the very end – and this time she definitely couldn’t use the same solution.
It wasn’t completely the same, at least. The Jashinists had different sacrifices chained up, and Shikako was an unexpected addition to the middle of the temple floor just as everything went wonky with reality-warping shenanigans and Euclidean distance ceased to have much meaning. It was still that same offshoot of Seal Space where everything had gone wrong, though.
Up, down and side-to-side ceasing to have any meaning whatsoever was actually much less traumatic for Shikako, since she’d been spending so much time hanging out and mingling with Gelel. It had gotten to the point where she hardly noticed anymore when conventional reality just sort of gave up in the face of the gods.
The same could not be said of Jashin’s sacrifices. Sacrifices who, Shikako realized now that she was looking more closely, she recognized as a young Senju Tobirama and Uchiha Izuna, aged maybe 12 or 13. Tobirama’s breath hitched into gasping coughs in a way that Shikako remembered intimately from her own childhood attempts to inhale chakra infused air, and Izuna started bleeding from his eyes a bit.
It was easy, now, to slide into shadow state – this whole multiversal jaunt had really helped Shikako find the time to work on practicing that particular skill – and, since the entirety of a temple recently but zealously dedicated to Jashin has just been pulled into Seal Space, it was also easy to ignore conventional distances and simultaneously sweep both boys into shadow with her.
Even in Seal Space, looking out from inside the shadows had a comforting, muting effect on reality which was all to the good in the face of the sheer weirdness of space-time coming unglued. Shikako didn’t need it after all her brain-expanding experiences with Gelel, but it could only help the sacrifices, especially because Shikako could feel-sense-taste a seeping flow of malice and pain for no purpose but suffering and wrongness.
Jashin was coming.
Shikako wrapped her shadow self around Izuna and Tobirama a little more tightly and felt them relax a hair, even in their now non-physical state. It was difficult to talk in Seal Space, or at least it was when you were in a Seal Space pocket dimension created to welcome a hostile god into an unprepared world and you were also a shadow blanketed around two smaller shadows who weren’t familiar with being two dimensional, but it was probably worth the effort.
Hello, Shikako said-thought-felt-sang. Er. How are you doing today?
Oh, damnit. At least she hadn’t commented on the weather. Well, let it not be said that Shikako could consistently manage basic social skills like introducing herself with grace or dignity.
The shadows of Senju Tobirama and Uchiha Izuna vibrated with incredulousness at the inanity of that question. She suspected they could feel her embarrassment but whatever. It was fine. It was good, even, because the two were distracted from the feel-attack-agony of Jashin’s oncoming presence, and the less attention they paid to that the better off they were going to be. Shikako had definitely done that on purpose!
After a beat, Tobirama clumsily attempted to craft a reply. He wasn’t as coherent as Shikako, but it wasn’t bad for a first try.
Hello, Tobirama responded-thought-felt-hummed awkwardly. I am doing better now, thank you. How are you? His communication had undertone of bafflement and fear postponed by sheer surprise.
Izuna’s response was less understandable but somehow louder. What’s going on?/How/why/where are we?/I’m doing better now, too. Underlying Izuna’s words-thoughts-images was the startling idea of a shadow in the shape of a girl and Tobirama, Izuna’s feared and loathed rival, bombing at small talk in inappropriate situations in a way that Izuna had previously only ever seen Madara achieve before.
Shikako ignored that last bit with as much aplomb as she could muster, instead opting to give Izuna and Tobirama the answer to the who, what, why and how in the form of the mother of all information dumps, because at least this new method of communication was good for that:
I got really lost on the road of life, because malice-god-unnatural-JASHIN threw me off it when it tried to get on and I slammed the door on its fingers, she said-implied-sang, which was a horrible mix of metaphors but they understood anyway because she was more or less beaming her message directly into their minds. But I’m home now (I am home, this is home, it is, it is, and this will be enough I will make it enough (I am still lost)) – whoops, Shikako hadn’t intended to tell them all those details, this shadow talk was pretty difficult – and wrongness-Jashin-agony is trying to get in again. I can feel-sense-taste him-it-wrongness testing the edges of reality. Jashin’s monks wanted to open the way by sacrificing you two and creating a door to Outside/Not Home/Not Real. I-echo-of-Gelel-we pulled you into the shadows before they could complete the sacrifice and kill you. That’s where we are now, in Seal Space.
She hesitated, but there was no sparing her new allies. Jashin-hatred-spite is coming back now. I don’t know how to stop him-it again. Her communication-image-undertone implied that preventing Izuna and Tobirama’s deaths was a good start, though.
There was a pause while the younger ninja absorbed this, then Tobirama thought-sang-said How did you stop him-it-awfulness before? Already, Tobirama’s shadow speech was gaining clarity and volume. Shikako felt-heard-tasted a flicker of envy from Izuna for the speed of Tobirama’s improvement.
I made a seal-willpower-door-lock made from hope-willpower-life-me and told it-him Get-Out-You-Shall-Not-Pass-NO, but I can’t do it again because we’re on the wrong side of the lock-seal-door.
The wrong side? That was Tobirama again.
The Inside/Real Side/Home, Shikako explained-showed-sang-thought. The shadows of Tobirama and Izuna rippled with dismay and fear before settling again.
What do we do/fear/how stop Jashin? Izuna said-thought-mumbled. Can escape/go Outside/Not Home/Unreal? And beneath that was the offer to sacrifice their place in the real world in order to keep Jashin out, just as Shikako had done the first time. Tobirama’s shadow shivered but did not speak-sing-contradict Izuna.
I-me am not strong enough to keep Jashin-wrong-hurt out alone-single-person, Shikako thought-said-plotted-sang slowly. But you-two-ninja-allies and I-me together-us maybe can reach for help. Tobirama-shadow-younger is one of the greatest sensors-feelers in history with the widest range. Can you-Tobirama reach-feel Wind/Dead Wastes from here? Izuna-shadow-solid-person-fire-chakra will need to act as our anchor so we-Tobirama-me don’t get lost.
After that, things happened very quickly. In Seal Space, distance is an illusion, so once Tobirama locked onto the Dead Wastes with his sensor capabilities, Shikako brought them back to regular reality. Since time is also an illusion in Seal Space, she did it before Jashin fully manifested and then Shikako-Gelel-life-stars-studded-in-darkness-natural-energy waited until Jashin neared the surface of reality, and then clamped down on him like an alligator grabbing an unwary cow. The natural life energy that was Gelel-Shikako-stars shredded the fragment of unnatural-wrongness-hole-in-reality that was Jashin, then purified the energy and poured it back into the barren earth of the Dead Wastes.
Gelel’s garden grew the fastest Shikako had ever seen it, and the mental link she’d formed with Izuna in Seal Space pulled Shikako out of the Gelel-Shikako meld before she/they dissipated.
It was exhausting.
“Welcome to the Garden of Life from Death,” Shikako told the astonished Senju Tobirama and Uchiha Izuna. “It’s in Wind now.” Then she passed out.
After their savior’s dramatic collapse, Tobirama dove forward frantically to catch her before she hit the ground. He lowered her gently and then lifted her wrist to take her pulse. It was strong, if a little slow. Only then did Tobirama deign to acknowledge Izuna, who had clapped his hand onto his weapons pouch.
“I’m not going to hurt her,” Tobirama said, almost managing to conceal his offense at Izuna’s suspicion. “I wouldn’t leave my worst enemy to Jashin, much less the person or possible god who rescued us.”
“…yeah,” Izuna said reluctantly. “I know.” He pulled his empty hand back from his weapon pouch, and Tobirama started in surprise. “I wouldn’t leave my worst enemy to Jashin, either.”
The two enemy ninja looked at each other uncomfortably, but it was notable that Tobirama looked Izuna straight in the eyes.
“She said that there’s still some Jashinists out there,” Izuna said eventually. She hadn’t said that exactly, but somehow it had been conveyed over the course of their time as shadows.
“I sensed them too,” Tobirama agreed. “I think there’s one near the Fire Daimyo, a few in the Land of Rivers, and an especially powerful one somewhere in Iwa. I felt maybe half a dozen more, but not clearly enough to pinpoint their exact locations.”
Silence fell again.
This time Tobirama broke it. “I don’t know about the Uchiha Clan, but the Senju are not going to take my report seriously. They’re never going to believe how important it is for us to stop Jashin from getting in. Not until it’s too late.”
Izuna shook his head. “The Uchiha won’t, either.” He grimaced. “We’re going to have to do this ourselves.”
“Do this?” Tobirama asked.
“Hunt down the Jashinists,” Izuna said, as if it were obvious. It was obvious, actually.
“We’re two twelve-year-old shinobi who are barely old enough to fight in the war,” Tobirama pointed out, but he sounded thoughtful instead of condemning. “Infiltrating the daimyo’s court is going to be tough without any backup from our clans, and I don’t even know how we’re going to find the rest of them.”
Izuna shrugged. “We have to. We’ll figure it out. I’m sure she’ll help us when she wakes up.”
The two boys stared down at the body of the girl or possible god who had saved them, pulled them into the shadows, taught them a whole new way of thinking and speaking, and then dragged them halfway across the continent in order to devour a piece of an evil god and plant a garden.
“What’s her name, anyway?” Izuna asked.
And that was the start of the team that would one day be known and feared across the Elemental Nations as Team Bloodhound to their allies and the Dread Dogs to their enemies.