Hidden Depths 1 - The Vacation Duty Trap
The years of hard work were paying off in spades.
Fresh off the celebration with Naruto, Kakashi-Sensei and and more bowls of ramen than she cared to admit, Sakura Haruno nevertheless all but skipped up to the door lady Tsunade's office. Her first assignment as a Jonin, the highest rank there was... It had to be a really tough assignment. Sakura couldn't wait.
She knocked politely, and schooled her features, businesslike, not giggly little school girl. Unbidden the memory of her interview with Kakashi-Sensei on their first day as team seven stabbed her in the pride.
Upon entering, she was a bit taken aback to see Tenten and Ino within. The rivalry between herself and the blonde had relaxed into more friendly terms in the last couple years, but it still flared now and then. Tenten looked like she was revving for a fight.
"Ah, good," Lady Tsunade began. "Now that every one's here, I want to give the three of you a joint assignment."
The shock registered on Ino's face. Sakura agreed silently. The pair were medical ninja primarily, support staff usually. Tenten was a weapons expert. What kind of mission would require such a crazy complement of skills?
"I have a diplomatic missive here, for the Kingdom of the Crescent Moon," Lady Tsunade hefted a small, sealed scroll. "You are to place it in the hands of their foreign vice-minister directly."
"Is that all?" Tenten asked confused. The scroll was marked with a very low-level diplomatic seal.
"Yes, it is. A squad of Gennin could finish this mission in less than a week," Lady Tsunade said a bit firmly, then her tone softened and she smiled. "I expect you three to take a month. Do I make myself understood?"
The three young women grinned. It was a vacation reward, and they all knew it.
A scant four days of fast traveling, and the trio arrived in the tropical kingdom. Sakura's relationship with their royal family meant that they sped through the red tape, and delivered their packet in record time. That left over three weeks before they were expected back home, and they had a generous expense account to party with.
By day, they soaked up sun, by night they danced and partied without care. A few rather odd adventures ensued (among them rescuing Ino from a tattoo parlor after she'd had a bit too much, distinguishing marks are a bad idea for kunoichi.).
The three leaf girls were enjoying a relaxing day at the rented bungalow when a knock came at the door. It was a grim faced man in the livery of the royal palace, and he bore a Konoha messenger hawk on his wrist. The bird obediently hopped to Sakura's proffered arm and the man left.
The bird's message capsule was undisturbed. Sakura broke the seal and extracted a rolled parchment.
'Sakura,' it read in Shizune's quick handwriting. 'Sorry to interrupt your vacation, but we have an emergency. A courier was ambushed as she passed through the Crescent Moon kingdom en route home. She was carrying details of an invasion plot that might unbalance most of the world. All we know is that before she died, she managed to send us word that she'd hidden the information in a water-tight box and sunk it off the southern tip of the main island. You three are the only Leaf ninja in the area. Get that box and get it home, fast. -Shi'
Tenten had been reading over her shoulder. "Time go to work then..." She ran back to the room and returned with one of the scrolls she always carried.
"I HAD planned to use this stuff on a dive trip, but... " She unfurled it with flick of her wrist and the disappearing paper resolved into three sets of masks, protective booties and gloves, and a small stack of re-breather canisters.
Over the next few days, the trio sectored off and searched the seas around the southern tip of the island. The re-breathers were small, and only held enough oxygen for a relatively short stint at the relatively shallow bottom, but they covered it quickly.
On the fourth day of the search, Sakura spotted an odd angle of something poking out of the silt at the bottom. It was a box. Just as she reached for it however, something clamped onto her left wrist and swung her around violently.
She searched frantically and spied a woman in a skin-tight diving suit with no breathing gear whatsoever directing an odd hand sign at her. The woman's lower face was covered by a strange ripple in the water. Another distortion flickered straight and nearly rigid from her extended left hand. It felt like an iron pole, latched around Sakura's arm.
On the woman's brow, rode the headband of a shinobi, but it wasn't a mark Sakura knew, a jagged line over the outline of a shark.
The time spent observing her attacker cost. Another flick of... oh no, she was controlling the WATER... lashed out like a snake and Sakura's mask and re-breather fell to the sea floor.
Bringing her left foot up, Sakura's hand flashed to the brace of kunai strapped there and with deadly accuracy cast all three... into a shied of water that absorbed their progress and then dropped them, spinning down as well.
Ino lounged in the rented boat. One of the trio of Leaf kunoichi was always topside, with the stack of extra re-breathers. Ino had drawn the short straw this morning and so she lay out and worked on her tan some more.
She was glad of a mission and all, but this was just so BORING! Maybe she'd been hanging around Skiamaru too long after all...
A ripple of water and a gentle rocking of the boat brought her out of her doze. Tenten had popped up along side and was swapping her spent gear for fresh.
Something wasn't right. "Tenten? Weren't you just up here?"
The other girl blinked. "About ten minutes ago... Why?"
Ino's eyes flashed with sudden worry. "Because Sakura hasn't been up since before you went down last time."
Tenten dismissed this "Oh,don't worry about her, that girl's part fish. Still, I'll go look for her, which area was she covering?"
Ino consulted the grid map. "Sector 16-B. About thirty feet straight that way."
"Got it. After this, can we swap? I'm starting to grow gi...GAH!"
Tenten was abruptly gone.
Ino lunged across the boat, but there was no sign of her friend, barely a ripple on the surface.
The roar of a diverted waterfall swung the leaf ninja back around. A column of water arced up, high overheard, disappearing into the bright sun, Ino whirled around as it bent, and a human figure emerged from it's end.
The attacker made a casting motion from the pool of water cupped...around... her hand and three long knives of water lanced through the blue sky straight for Ino's unprotected back....
Something that bit like steel closed around Tenten's foot and violently hauled her beneath the surface.
Calmly not panicking, she fitted her fresh re-breather to her lips and purged the exchange. Solid ice encased her right leg from nearly her knee down.
'An ambush?!,' she thought. 'Ice in tropical waters? And doesn't ice float? What the hell...' then she saw that the anomalous icicle was attached to a boulder half the size of their rented boat, sinking through the azure water. 'Someone loves their melodrama...'
Shaking her head to clear it, Tenten began chipping at the enclosing ice as her leg went numb form cold. Air wasn't an issue, yet. Tenten had been focusing on her breath control for a couple years now, ever since that mission to the Sand village had brought her face to face with that shark-like member of the Akatsuki and she'd nearly drowned. 'At least we know why Sakura went missing, I hope she's all right...'
A loud splash caught her eye and she saw Ino angling sharply downward, holding her arm and swimming for all she was worth.
Sudden motion caught her eye. Tenten whirled the other way as best she could and spied another woman swimming nearby... No, not swimming, being PROPELLED through the water. The woman wore, of all things, silk and leather, and on her forehead rode the headband of a ninja, with the mark of a shark beneath waves. Her hand gesturing to the killing ice, causing it to grow, and climb ever higher up Tenten's leg.
'Well... Think you have the advantage on your home turf, eh? Think I'm unarmed and at your mercy? Surprise, sister!'
Tenten was a weapons specialist. In special scrolls, she could store any object and summon it simply by reading the characters written on the chakra-infused paper. The greatest shinobi weapon masters, however, needed no such scrolls. The paper was but a crutch for those who had not trained in the true way of summoning the inanimate.
Tenten might not have the finest chakra control. She might not be a mistress of genjutsu, she might not be the hardcore training enthusiast like her friend Rock Lee or a gifted prodigy like Neji... But she had something they did not.
Damn near perfect recall.
Symbols flashed before her mind's eye, hundreds of characters written in a language older than the ninja arts, her hands came together in a hand-sign of their own accord and then, the last symbol flashed before her her.
Her arms swept wide in a perfect cast and a BARRAGE of kunai knives flashed into being before her, speeding to their target. First three, then six more, then a dozen. As long as the symbol blazed in her mind, more of the deadly rain would come. Black metal death raced to the strange water kunoichi and tore her body asunder.
There was no blood.
Tenten could see plainly INTO her attacker's midriff and, there was no blood. The edges of her torn flesh glowed blue-green, like the soft light of tropical ripples at night. And the edges of the wounds knit together.
Her eyes widened in shock.
'THAT,' she cursed,the symbol falling from her, 'is SO not fair.'
Sakura's lungs burned.
Despite all her training, her limit was upon her and soon, something would give. She tugged futilely on the chakra-infused water clamped around her arm...no good. It may as well have been made of iron.
Something in her oxygen-starved brain lurched at that. Something about... the water...the infusion of....
...and there it was. The answer.
Sakura couldn't reach her attacker because of the rigidity of the water being used to hold her at bay, but if it held her at bay, then obviously it held the other kunoichi off as well. Simple, If she could just make use of it...
Focusing all her chakra control into her right arm, Sakura wrapped her hand around the shaft of iron water. At first, it felt hard and smooth, but soon it began to shift, covering and swallowing her other wrist.
PERFECT. As good a grip as she could ask for...
The muscles in her core heaved and using her own chakra to help hold herself steady, Sakura pivoted.
Her attacker's eyes went wide as the other girl figured out what was about to happen, but she couldn't stop it. Caught in her own attack she could either release Sakura, or go along for the ride.
Spinning completely round and round, Sakura built momentum. Finally, she launched herself laterally.
The strange kunoichi and Sakura hurtled across the seabed like a bola, Each swung on arc after arc by the inertia of the other, until finally, a large outcropping of rock rose before them. Sakura timed her swing and used all the chakra she had left to launch herself straight up. It shifted their path through the water and her foe struck solid stone full on.
Ino dove forward. She landed on the prow of the rented boat and spun, releasing all six shuriken she held. The woman on the column of water neatly dodged them and unleashed another torrent of watery knives.
Leaping back the way she'd come, Ino lunged and grabbed a re-breather and her pouch of ninja tools on the way past. She was rapidly running out of boat and was NOT going into the drink unprepared.
Her detour cost her though. One of the knives flashed by and her arm screamed in sudden pain. A slim, neat slash across her upper right bicep sheeted blood.
Ino screamed with the sudden pain. It felt deep. Maybe dangerously so. Already she felt her arm numbing.
From her pouch Ino whipped out one of her special sembon needles. It looked like any other ninja dart, expect this one was a bit different. Written in minuscule engraving along it was a series of characters Tenten had spent hours piecing together.
With a grin, she sent it sailing at her opponent, who had been prepping a strike of her own. The dart hit the tip of one of the target's water knives and did exactly what it was designed to do. It shattered into thousands of fine barbed shrapnel, all of which continued to fly at their target only barely slower than the original dart.
The airborne water ninja screamed as her face was lacerated by hundreds of tiny cuts. "FINE BITCH!" she roared "You want to play rough! Let's do it!!" With a violent gesture of her left hand, another column of water sprang up, quick as a striking serpent.
The second geyser crashed down with the force of an avalanche. It rent the boat to splinters and smashed Ino to a bloody pulp.
...or it would have, if the twisting form of Ino hadn't abruptly dissolved into one of the boat's emergency oars.
Far below the surface, and angling away, Ino heard the woman's scream. "There's only one place you can be, and now you're MINE!"
Her attacker crashed into the waves after her, but Ino was ready. Her re-breather was not only clenched between her teeth, it was secured there with a bit of strapping from her kit. This was going to be dangerous, but it was till her best shot.
The woman closed with deadly speed, a ripple of water forming over her lower face. 'It must be allowing her to breathe,' Ino thought detached, ready, her hands shot forward, fingers and thumbs forming the shape of the Ino's third eye, the eye of the mind... Aimed directly at the on rushing kunoichi...
And abruptly, she was Ame, strike leader of the Hidden Depths Village. She felt Ame's anger at the wound still stinging her face, she knew their orders to recover the intercepted plans, she knew...
Oh no. She knew what had happened to Sakura, and that her friend may well be dead already.
With a snarl of anger, Ino crushed Ame's mental resistance, her fury giving her a cold strength she never knew she possessed. She plowed into Ame's body, taking full control. Ruthlessly, she dismantled all of Ame's jutsu. The knives dissolved, the rocketing column of water ceased and fell to nothing...
...and the protective air-filtering bubble slipped away.
She felt Ame's rage turn to fear and then terror as Ino forced her to open her mouth, preparing to take a deep, final breath.
Sakura felt it as the clamp finally slackened and dissolved around her arm.
She had to choose, she could make a break for the surface and air, but if her attacker recovered, she'd never make it. The other girl was dazed but already stirring, and through it all, that strange breathing bubble on her lower face remained intact.
No, she had to make sure the other kunoichi was down for the count. But Sakura was unarmed now. All her tools gone, and her chakra and oxygen nearly spent.
Lunging forward, Sakura clamped both hands around the girl's head. Her strong right hand slicing cleanly through the bubble and clamping over the girl's nose and moth, her left grabbing the top of her head putting the strange girl totally at Sakura's mercy.
Using her head as a pivot point, the leaf Jonin snapped her legs around the other ninja's midsection, clamping her calves up into the woman's diaphragm.
The woman's eyes flew open at once and she panicked. Bucking and tossing wildly, kicking up a cloud of silt from the seabed just inches below them and still to far away and too unyielding to provide any leverage.
Still Sakura squeezed. Her face red from the strain and her lips clamped tight against the release of air, some still dribbling out here and there as the precious reserve exhausted itself.
An eruption of bubbles escaped the hunter-turned-prey. Her eyes wide as dinner plates as she clawed at the water to no avail. She writhed like a serpent and still the weakened and nearly dead leaf Jonin clung on.
Somewhere along the line, this had changed. It was no longer a struggle to subdue, it was something else, something worse. The writhing, the power, the anger... something deep within Sakura sang with it all, something she'd long suppressed called out to finish it, to kill the girl and to watch her eyes as it happened...
With a sickening, wretched lurch, the unknown kunoichi paused in her struggles. Her chest heaved spasmodically, and then she went slowly limp.
The dark voice within Sakura crowed. The rest of her sat, stunned.
The girl was dead.
And Sakura, who had never yet taken a life in anything but open combat, had taken this battle far beyond that.
Woodenly, she tried and failed to unlock her legs from the girl's midsection.
Sakura was a murderer.
Tenten sank and considered. The odd water ninja before here seemed perfectly willing to let her continue.
So she was tethered by ice (binding both her legs now) to a large boulder and her air supply was extremely limited. The person engineering this ridiculously overwrought trap could apparently control water in all it's forms. She was generating the ice, she jetted around on a long column of water, and her very body seemed to be able to become liquid at command.
Well, shoot. This was going to be tough.
Neji was always preaching the merits of lateral thinking in combat tactics, time to try some. In her spot, Tenten couldn't really use taijutsu. Her opponent would have to come within arms reach. Bladed rangeed weaponry was not effective. What did that leave....
Paper bombs, other explosives? Fuses wouldn't burn. On top of that the shock wave would be magnified by the water....
'Ok, let's see the mermaid phase through THAT. Downside though, it'd kill me too. ' Where could she find protection from...her eyes fell on the boulder. She'd have laughed if she could...
'That's right, girly,' Yuki of the Hidden Depths thought to herself. 'Waste your time and effort. This trap is perfect. Nothing you can do. Just waste that pathetic little air bottle on trying to find a way out and soon, it'll be all over.'
Tenten threw all her weight forward. The ice held of course, the kunoichi in leather was constantly adding more.
Back and forth, Tenten thrashed. She waved her arms, she shifted her hips, anything she could to claw a few more degrees of rotation... and then the point of no return. The boulder began to tip over.
'What the blazes is she doing?' Yuki wondered. If THIS was the best the leaf could come up with, the Umikage could stop worrying about them now and save herself...
The boulder completely hid the leaf Jonin from view.
Furiously, Tenten ran through mental characters once again. Not the ones for more kunai, but a different set, a much longer one. The final symbol blazed in her mind's eye and with a muffled pop, the object appeared. A metal sphere, a foot in diameter. It came into being above and between the two ninja and sank between them.
A sphere dropped into Yuki's view.
It was completely unmarked as it sank, until it finally rotated far enough for her to see the string that vanished into a small aperture, and the cartoon drawing of the leaf girl flashing a hand-sign that had nothing to do with ninjutsu.
The string led off behind the boulder.
In that crystalline moment, Yuki saw past her target, to where her sister, Ame begin to convulse as the blond leaf girl left her to die. This was not the simple ambush they'd hoped for, they'd been out maneuvered and over-powered form the beginning.
Quitting the field, Yuki focused every iota of control she had and rocketed away, snagging Ame's wrist as she passed and hauling the water from her sister's lungs as she sped away.
The blast shattered the ice holding Tenten to the rock, and she instantly bobbed upwards. Her re-breather was nearly empty by now, but still she scanned the area around her for...
A giant's palm smacked into Sakura from behind. Light flared and the last frantic grip on her pent up breath gave out.
The water poured into her mouth and down her throat. It burned, but within moments, even that had faded.
She sank, coming to rest within sight of ...of the other girl. The open and starring glassy eyes seemed to laugh in silent accusation.
'At least,' Sakura thought as her vision dimmed 'I'll have company....'
Tenten knifed through the water.
Ahead, her friend was dying.
Twenty feet, ten, five... Tenten lunged forward and seized a handful of Sakura's hair down close the scalp. With a great have and a powerful scissor sweep of both legs, she launched herself from the sea floor.
She powered to the surface. Open air was her friend's only hope, the re-breather wheezed and clicked empty. She spat it out with a mental curse and continued to kick for all she was worth.
Her lungs began to burn as the strain mounted, but finally, Tenten broke the surface, hauling Sakura up behind her, keeping her face out of the water.
Sakura wasn't breathing.
Ino popped out of the water a moment later and between them,the two girls hauled the inert form of their friend onto the dubious safety of some of the boat's debris.
"Breathe for her!" Ino barked, already the green energy of healing chakra flowed around Ino's hands as she pressed them to Sakura's chest, trying to clear the girl's lungs.
Tenten cleared Sakura's mouth and nose as best she could, tilted the girl's head back and pressed their lips together. Sakura's chest rose, but only slightly.
"There's a blockage somewhere!" Tenten reported as she tried again.
Ino shifted her hands slightly, worry etched in her eyes. Sakura was so still, so cold. Ino's healing felt so tenuous... her friend was dying.
Something in Ino's chest lurched. No. No, it was not going to happen. She would save her, save her friend.
The green fire blazed forth suddenly, and Sakura convulsed. A choking, frothing plume of water erupted from her mouth.
Her green eyes fluttered open, as if surprised to be functional, and tears welled. Slowly, Sakura curled into a ball, and began to cry.
Ino cried out in joy and collapsed atop her friend, her own tears streaming. Tenten just sat back on her haunches, relieved.
The sealed box sat on Tsunade's desk. The three new Jonin standing at attention as Shizune fumbled with the unlocking jutsu.
Finally, the box fell open.
A single shinobi headband fell to the desk with a clunk. Engraved upon it was the shark beneath waves.
A note was affixed to it's backing. It read simply "Stand proud upon the land, the Hidden Depths shall soon rise and our great wave will turn your granite to shifting sands, and sweep you beneath our tide."
Tsunade watched Sakura steadily. Something bothered the girl, she could tell. Sakura refused to make eye contact with anyone. She spoke only when spoken to, and her replies were brief.
Sakura was obviously in pain.
Hours later, the three Jonin sat at a yakitori stand Tenten favored. Various morsels of chicken cooked before them as they all sat quietly. Finally, Ino gave up. "OK, out with it. What's eating you?" she demanded of Sakura.
"Uh huh," Tenten replied. "Come on, you damn near died girl. We know it's not something you just shrug off but still..."
"It's not that. It...I... Look, just leave it all right? I'll see you two later. I need to be alone right now." Dropping a few bills on the bar, Sakura left.
"Let her go," Ino said, grabbing Tenten's wrist as she made to follow. "Trust me, whatever it is, she'll tell us when she's ready."
"You still didn't tell them," Shizune accused Tsunade.
"Tell them what? We still don't know for sure. The girls' nerves are frayed nigh unto breaking, but they're the only ones who have faced these Hidden Depth ninja and survived. I'm not going to add to their pain right now."
"They'll hear it elsewhere, you know that."
The filth Hokage's fist smacked into her desk, damaging the surface. "No one else knows. I hate this as much as you do, but... it's what we have to do."
"This pace always smells of dead fish..." Ame complained weakly. She'd only been allowed out of bed the day before, still weak form her near death at the hands of the Leaf kunoichi.
Yuki glared at her twin.
The figure striding before them took no notice. It was an honor when the Umikage had asked the twin ninja to accompany her to the facility. Ame's flippancy risked annoying their leader.
The Umikage was a mystery, even to her ninja. Her form was concealed beneath both formal robes, and an almost armor-like encasing skin of thick, opaque water. The fluid glowed with the green of healing chakra, but it would be a mistake to assume that the Umikage was wounded. She was the deadliest person in all the seas.
The room into which they entered was crowded with tanks of all sorts. Many held fish or other denizens of the seas. Some, held people, both living and dead. In one, the corpse of Kana, the third member of their squad, drifted listlessly. Her dead eyes still open and starring.
Ame and Yuki averted their gazes.
The Umikage paused before a bank of computer terminals, an elderly woman sat hunched over the central console.
"How go the efforts?" The Umikage's odd, rippling voice came from the glowing water shell. "Will the courier fulfill our purpose?"
"She will indeed, my lady," the scientist gestured to the central tank, where floated a figure tethered by a breathing mask. "We await only a sample of the life waters to begin the re-programming."
The Umikage lifted one hand, and a few drops of her shell drizzled into a containment dish at the scientist's elbow. "Make her mine, doctor. We must accelerate our plans. Use the rest of the water to revive young Kana, as well. I perceive a great purpose in her..."
"At once Lady Umikage."
"Can't we just kill the leaf girl? Slowly?" Ame asked angrily. "For what they did to Kana, and me..."
"Patience daughter, patience..." The shrouded form soothed. "Soon we will deal the Leaf a far greater blow than any mere revenge killing. They think their courier was killed... it will be the perfect cover for our friend here. Won't it my dear?" The Umikage reached a hand to stroke the tank's outer wall.
Within the tank, Hinata Hyuga tried to shy away, tried to hide, tried to scream, and felt it all ebb slowly away.
-END, Hidden Depths 1