12 Apr 2020 4 Comments
Sakura left the streets of Konoha behind and set off for the for the woods outside the walls of the village. This errand for Tsunade was different. The instructions were scant, and the destination was at best dangerous. At worst…well…. She didn’t want to think about that….
She was going into the Forest of Death, after all.
Sakura made a quick excuse at the front gate, and once out of sight from prying eyes she unrolled Tsunade’s hastily scrawled note.
“Go west, beyond the F of D, to the old Senju shrine. Wait at the stone lantern for a delivery.”
What lantern? What shrine? She’d never once thought there was anything beyond the Forest of Death other than…death!
Sakura shook her head and pocketed the scroll. She trusted Tsunade, and if Tsunade thought she was capable of fulfilling this task, then she would do it. But still…Konoha’s Forest of Death was no trifling matter. It was a off-limits even to some shinobi as being too dangerous.
She followed the path away from the wall, down the wide main trail everyone took in and out. It was pleasant and safe, with birds chirping and light streaming through the glittering canopy. Konoha may be the Village Hidden in the Leaves, but even these lush woods hid more secrets than just the location of a shinobi village.
Somewhere far off the main trail lurked another deeper, darker woods. It wrapped around the village, concealing and protecting it, just as this bucolic woodland environment concealed the Forest of Death from curious young nins and unlucky civilians.
The Forest of Death was in fact two forests, one outside the wall and one inside. Generations before, it had been a single dark river of woodlands, rising and swelling and dipping over everything. But when Konoha was formally built and the ringed wall erected, it sliced through part of the woods, separating it forever from it’s larger body. Taming it, really.
The forest left inside the wall huddled beyond the rows of houses, skirted clan lands and loomed at the edge of the training pitches. It was shadowy and mysterious, and seemed to have a mind of its own. Which made it the perfect place for testing academy nins and newly formed teams.
Sakura remembered well its confusing turns, shifting landmarks and eerie pockets of dark trees. As well as the occasional glowing meadows, beckoning with mirage-like beauty through the trees. Young hot-headed nins would veer from the path and plunge toward it, certain of their course and heedless of their surroundings, chasing a clearing that always seemed just a little bit farther ahead.… Only to have the canopy close over them, cutting off the sunlight and making them even more hopelessly lost.
Add to that the traces of jutsus gone wrong and the occasional failed booby trap, and the forest contained real danger to those who weren’t careful or strayed too far from their team.
For academy-age nins, the woods inside the wall were the only ‘Forest of Death’ they knew. And it did seem like the most treacherous place in the world. But only until they ventured outside Konoha to take the Chunin exams….
That was when they got their first taste of what real danger was like. When their sensei led them out the gates and down a hidden path, and the verdure of Konoha’s woods faded away, swallowed up by the deep black woods hidden within. That was the real Forest of Death. And it had earned it’s name many, many times over.
After several turns of the trail, with Konoha’s red gates quite a distance behind her, Sakura knew she’d gone far enough. She could feel it. Though the path still felt lush and safe, she could sense the darkness out there, pressing in.
After the Chunin exam, Sakura and all the others who had passed that year were taught how to detect the jutsu and find the trail to the exam ground. The clues were there — a subtle overlap in the canopy or in the repeating lines of trunks — and Sakura immediately set about learning to see where the safe forest stopped and the deadly one might begin.
But as she got older, she realized she didn’t need to read the signs like everyone else. She could just feel it…. She didn’t know why. But eventually she discovered the back-of-the-neck nervousness wasn’t just because she was imagining what was to come when she was inside the Forest of Death. It was because she was already there. It was all around her. The safety of the path through to the village was an anomaly.
She felt it now. She knew the way in was somewhere in front her. She could feel it, almost pulling at her.
She faced the wall of repeating tree trunks, glanced at the green shell of leaves overhead. Nothing was amiss. She held up two fingers to break the concealment jutsu….
But this time, instead of closing her eyes and focusing with a strong swift “Kai” to release it, she breathed in and closed her eyes.
She let herself stretch out and feel past the green leaves, the warm sunlight and birdsong, to what was beyond it. This part where she stood was real, but somewhere, not far in front of her, just beyond the veil of jutsu was the worn path to the Chunin exam ground.
She thought of a grey line, like a thread. She held the picture in her mind, focused in on it. All she needed to do was find the one way in….
Sakura tightened, scanning hard through every sensation she was bombarded with. But it didn’t help. She couldn’t find it.
Chastising herself for wasting time on her ‘little game,’ Sakura sighed, let her shoulders slump and tipped her head to one side, relaxing the stiffness out of her neck. One day maybe she’d be good enough to see through these masterful jutsus created by nins who were clearly far more talented than her—
In that brief moment of soft focus, when her concentration relaxed from a single point to encompass the whole environment surrounding her, without any thought or effort…something shifted.
She felt it. She heard it.
Or rather, she heard nothing….
The birdsong died. The sunlight faded on her arms. Ahead of her in the darkness beyond her closed eyelids was a path. And she could feel it running to some unseen vastness beyond, just out of sight.
She couldn’t believe it! She’d found it! This was a milestone for her—
Sakura stepped forward to where the idea of a path hovered in her mind, a ghostly trail, just there, ahead of her….
But her first footfall cracked a twig—
She was instantly snapped back to the bright woods around Konoha. The sunlight was warm. The birdsong rushed in. She blinked. The area she’d thought was the path was completely covered with trees and shaggy forest undergrowth.
She frowned. She couldn’t see it. And the jutsu was convincing her mind that there was nothing there. She fought to hold the image of the grey trail in her mind, but she was losing it quickly.
“Kai,” she said firmly.
Slowly the forest shifted. The center of several trees dissolved revealing a grey trodden path, right where she’d seen it. The base of their trunks and canopies still remained, and Sakura knew that to any genin watching, it would have looked as if she walked into the treeline and disappeared.
But for her, she simply walked into the center of a tree. She stopped and looked up, marveling still at how realistic it seemed, even as she was standing inside the illusion of a trunk.
Then she’d crossed over. The birdsong and soft green woods were getting farther behind her. The trees were growing larger. The shadows deeper.
This path, in fact this whole part of the forest was well known to her. She’d been here many times, enough to wear off the nervous edge of her youth. There were kunai gouges in trees where impatient nins blew off steam with target practice. A lost holster was propped against a tree. Clan symbols were carved in deep slashes into the bark, probably by shinobi waiting for the start of the Chunin exams.
The Forest of Death had been the cause of many sleepless nights leading up to her Chunin exams. Every other year, Konoha’s forest was host to a three-day trial of endurance. Nins from all over came to compete. It was hard to even get your team through to that point. There was a written exam, then a team competency test to weed out the weaker candidates….
Unsurprisingly, Team 7 didn’t make it the first time.
But even with the extra year of training and preparation, Sakura was still plagued by ideas that she couldn’t reason away. The specter of abandoned traps or hidden jutsus that would ensnare you at the touch of on the wrong part of tree bark. Or the generations of people who had met their end there….
All of the stories from her academy days came back to haunt her. And most of them, unfortunately, rang with truth.
But she discovered that the terror of the unknown was, like all shinobi tricks, much worse than reality. Yes, foolish shinobi did die there. It earned it’s reputation. But if you were smart and read the signs around you, then you could survive it. The Forest of Death wasn’t nearly as treacherous as other humans were.
The path wound and dipped through bigger and bigger trees till it emptied out at a wall of huge trunks cordoned off behind a high chain-linked fence. The canopy here soared to dizzying heights.
The fence had ominous warning signs all over it. “Go back,” “Caution,” “Forest of—“ The rest of the sign had dropped off, rotting in the continual dampness of the shadows. Sakura laughed. She hooked her toe in the fence and hopped over in one bound. There were no chakra protections like on the village wall. But still, it felt different inside.
She landed on the forest floor with a soft thud and slowly straightened. Trunks raced skyward in dark columns, disappearing high among the limbs and leaf shadow.
There was no undergrowth, only flat, leaf-strewn ground. This was the Forest’s first trick. All Konoha nins knew that. They’d watch outsiders run straight in during the Chunin exam, thinking the fastest way was through the bottom lands. But they were in for a nasty surprise. The deeper they got, the more the roots closed in, until forward movement slowed to a crawl over one head-high root at a time. By then, the limb-racing Konoha nins were far gone.
Sakura looked ahead, deep into cavernous spaces between the trees, where grey faded to black. It was always eerily silent. She was curious to see if something would move back there this time.
Nothing did. Nothing ever did.
But the feeling was still the same. She resisted the urge to rub her neck.
Sakura knew she was alone. But these quiet woods weren’t empty. She felt it on her skin, on the prickling of hairs on her neck. As if just her presence there was vibrating a giant spider’s web of entangled living connections…. But perhaps this was just another trick….
Sakura tore her eyes away and refocused on her task. She may not have to worry about other nins, but she did have to stay alert. She could still die out here, and no one would know until it was too late.
Checking her direction, Sakura curled back the hair that hand fallen out of her braid and set off. She pushed chakra to her feet and ran up the enormous trunk. Halfway up the tree she hopped sideways out onto the first big branch. It was flat on top, stable, and nearly as wide as one of Konoha’s alleys. She ran quietly, trying not to so much as rattle a leaf as she moved in case she triggered a trap.
The Forest of Death was nothing like the woods inside the village. Even the ancient Nara forest didn’t compare. The trees here were enormous, with limbs were so wide that when Sakura ran down the center, she couldn’t see the ground.
She stayed suspended on the mid-level branches, racing down one limb then leaping to the next on an extended network of living pathways. Soaring high above her, the leafy canopy occasionally peppered the branch with dappled light. Below her was darkness.
The limbs rose and fell smoothly, and traversing them was like running over waves. If the branch was younger and still reaching upward to the light, then the dry bark on top would crunch slightly under foot.
But most limbs were much older. The sheer weight of them pulled the ends downward, and their dark wet bark was soft and soundless underfoot. Sakura stayed on these. Deep green moss clung to the sides of these branches and edged the tops in bright green stripes of new growth. This was where the moss was thinnest, so the paths were easiest to pick out. It meant that this part of the forest was still regularly used.
It also meant she hadn’t gone nearly far enough.
She checked her bearings and continued heading west.
Even though Sakura had run these high trails dozens of times, she was never at ease in the Forest of Death. Years before, she had unwittingly discovered one of its secrets.
Before the Chunin exam, Kakashi instructed them on how to stay alive in the forest. The middle branches offered the best protection from attack from above or below. In a pinch, ‘up’ might be a way out, but ‘down’ never was.
He drilled them with that dire warning: Stay in the trees. The forest floor was where you met your death.
As usual, he never bothered with an explanation. But this time, Sakura discovered Kakashi wasn’t just scaring them.
There were bodies down there, hidden among the maze-like tangle of roots. Long dead shinobi who were lost to the one fate that awaited anything left behind in these woods: to be consumed by it.
It was no flight of her imagination, no matter how much she might have wished it to be. Encountering a skeleton of a foreign nin, the rags of his former fatigues still clinging to his bones, was shocking enough to a young nin on a training mission. But the image stayed with her, haunting her for many nights after her return to the safety of Konoha’s ringed walls.
He was half propped in the crook of an enormous root, as if waiting for his team to come back for him. The fragments of skull and jaw, arm and leg bones that were still visible through the rotting leaf litter were crazed with fungus. The once-white bones had turned to a lacework of black and green. He was disappearing into the forest floor. In fact, Sakura would never have seen him had it not been for the one jarring addition to his body: A sturdy glowing green sapling shooting up from the open claw that had been man’s rib cage.
There were no saplings down there. Where the mass of roots didn’t cover, the ground was reduced to spongey pockets of dead leaves and mushrooms. New growth was starved of light and systematically choked out. If any plant was to make it, it had to find a different source of sustenance.
But here, in the decaying corpse of a human, a lone sapling had found enough vitality to propel it upward toward the light. Tender young leaves fluttered like flags above the dead nin’s chest, a shock of neon green among the black columns of trunks.
Young Sakura crept away, rejoining her team in the limbs above her, but not before seeing other snatches of brilliant green among the shadowy trees. That could only mean more dead bodies. Shuddering involuntarily, Sakura set her sights on the limb above her and told herself not to look down.
Dead bodies didn’t bother her as much now. She had seen plenty. Caused a few. And from her scientific background as a medic, she understood fully that death was an integral part of the life cycle of such an ancient complicated ecosystem.
But she still didn’t look down.
This place hadn’t always been known as the Forest of Death. Once it had been a forest of the living as well. Long before the age of hidden shinobi villages, generations of people had called this forest home.
The history of all the years before the village of Konoha came into existence was summed up into a few tidy paragraphs on the first page of their academy history book. The rest of the chapters were filled with well-documented tales of Konoha’s long and illustrious span as a shinobi village. But the years before the village was founded were as shadowy as the forest itself.
Before the wall had been built, the forest was home to several large clans. They clashed with nearby farming clans, after those families dammed up the wide river that snaked through their fields, which restricted access to the resource. In response, the forest clans tightened their control over the only trade road to the farmlands, which was through their woods. Both sides demanded access, and neither would yield. The clans were equally matched, and generations of warfare might have gone on indefinitely if not for the encroaching threat of outside forces that prompted a final, lasting truce. And thus, the village of Konoha was born.
As part of the pact, the forest clans agreed to move to the more expansive farmlands, where a cluster of buildings had already sprung up along the riverbank. Soon after, the great ringed wall was erected. It cut through a few of the largest clan holdings, diminishing their lands and leaving several cherished buildings on the outside, abandoned to the forest that would serve as cover for the newly made village.
The textbook said all the clans were happy move to the village inside the wall, but she always wondered if that were true. She knew for a fact that Tsunade’s family, the ancient Senju clan, lost all their land to the forest in the founding pact.
This part of Senju history was memorized by all Konoha school children, shinobi and civilian alike. The Senju were the most powerful clan at the time, and because they had sacrificed the most for peace, the reins of Konoha were passed to them. It seemed destiny had chosen them for this role. The head of the clan would become the first leader of the new village, a distant precursor to the Kage seat, and they would hold the reins of power for countless more generations.
That was the end of the first page. The rest of the textbook was filled with a detail-rich history of Konoha’s conquests and accomplishments. And the forest outside the village was never mentioned again.
But she always wondered when she came across an out of place bit of wood or a pile of stones, did someone live here? There was never a satisfactory answer. She had never once seen any evidence of habitation….
Glancing off to the side, Sakura saw something grey looming below her that, for a moment, looked like a structure. But on closer inspection it was just the hull of a long-dead tree.
She sighed and kept moving. The sun was slipping behind clouds.
Maybe she’d try to find the western boundary, but that was another task that was easier said than done. The Forest of Death had no boundaries. Or rather, they were always changing.
The problem was the Forest of Death seemed to have a mind of its own. As if by being left outside the village walls it had grown wild and unruly. It moved, refusing to stay in its prescribed borders. Like an ancient dragon coiled around the the village, the forest occasionally shifted, stretched out and reordered itself. No one knew why. But markers that had been there were suddenly gone.
There was no guarantee she’d find her destination by nightfall. Or it might be beyond the next tree….
She kept going towards the westerly light, but she was growing more concerned that she’d lost track of time. The light was quickly fading. She sped up, going in the direction she still believed was west. But the grey was closing in.
On the next branch, Sakura slowed to a stop. She was no longer able to determine direction in the half light.
A fine mist floated down, cooling her face and catching in tiny droplets on her arms. She wiped back her dampening forehead and looked at her hand just to be sure. Rain…even though none was called for today….
She shook her head. Apparently the forest was capable of creating its own weather too. She plunked her hands on her hips and took in her surroundings as a light fog materialized around her. Wispy clouds caught in the canopy, blurring out the treetops. Beneath her, black shadows were replaced with a soup of gray. Both the tree behind her and the trees ahead were enveloped. Sakura’s branch floated apart from the rest of the forest.
The mist was thickening, and a steady drizzle was setting in. She sighed, slicked her hair back, and decided to find a place to wait it out.
Spongey moss carpeted the top of the branch and thick fringes of mature ferns hung down the sides, bobbing their tips with the drips of water. There were no trails here. Sakura decided she must be the first human to run these branches in years.
Each limb was its own suspended world. Sakura marveled for a moment at a spider darting under a leaf away from raindrops the same size as its body. This creature would live out its life here in the air. The tree limb was the only ground it would ever know.
She stepped around him, careful not to jostle the fern he was hiding beneath, and walked slowly down the branch. Her feet sank in with each step. The drizzle was soft all around her. Other limbs and trunks were no more than ghostly shapes in the fog. A wave of rain pattered down from the canopy, gaining strength as it approached.
Sakura saw an especially large tree and made her way over, hoping for a dry spot. She hopped from one wet limb to the next, careful not to put too much force into it and slip in the wet moss.
Standing in the dry area next to the trunk, she pushed the wet strands back from her face and brushed the rain off her dampening shoulders.
At the edge of her vision something flitted through the limbs below. Sakura watched the space for movement and listened for birdsong.
Birds were not a common sight in the Forest of Death. It was as if they too sensed the dangerous nature of the place. But if a bird was brave enough to fly in and out, then she might be close to the border.
Concentrating hard, listening past the drumbeat of rain for a melody of birdsong, or any other sound, she let her hand come to rest on the deeply grooved bark—
The tree suddenly hummed beneath her fingers.
Horrified, Sakura yanked back her hand. She looked from her fingertips to the tree, and back. It didn’t feel like an abandoned trap. More like she’d connected her chakra to it
She didn’t do that, did she? Somehow leave her chakra exposed and read the life force of a…a tree? Was such a thing even possible?
She looked back at the tree, squinting skeptically as she inspected it, then slowly pressed her hand to the bark again. But this time, she focused her attention on the tree, isolating it in her mind as a single living form, just like she would a human….
She pushed harder, digging her fingers down into the ridges of bark till it hurt. Still nothing.
It was just a tree.
She shook her head and laughed at herself. She was glad no one had been around to see that. She’d been out here too long. The Forest was starting to play tricks on her.
As quickly as it came, the mist was receding. The patter of drops was rolling away, until all that was left was a cleansing breeze. Even a little light started to break through, and Sakura was relieved to find it wasn’t as late as she thought.
She glanced down again, looking for the bird. However something entirely different caught her eye.
The out-of-place silhouette of a jagged fence edge jutted out from where it had been almost completely absorbed into the trunk of a tree. There rest had fallen over and was covered with leaf litter. Sakura was cautiously hopeful that this was the western edge….
She descended, dropping from limb to limb in great downward leaps, scanning around for the telltale signs of jutsu. There were none. No protective jutsus were applied this far out. The trees on either side of the fence were just as imposing…which meant this part of the forest had moved on its own.
She landed on the dark ground with a muffled thud. She was alone, but she rose as slowly and carefully as if she were in an enemy camp.
The forest floor was teeming with secrets. There was death here, and life, as her younger days had proved. But Sakura was aware of a new fear as she moved slowly toward the fence fragment, sliding over the roots as if trying not to wake slumbering giants.
The canopy was so far away that no direct sunlight shone down. It was just deepening layers of shadow. Sakura was confronted with a suffocating feeling of being lost too far from the light, of being abandoned in the darkness, like one of those poor hapless nins. Left behind to rot in a land that was utterly unfamiliar.
A shiver ran up her spine. For the first time she admitted to herself that this would be a terrible place to die. Alone and forgotten. Not even a shaft of light for a lifeline.
The feelings were so quickly permeating that Sakura was surprised at just how relieved she was to spy another remnant of broken fence. She breathed in, as if the sight of it brought a rush of fresh air.
From here, ‘west’ could mean anything. So, with renewed purpose, she started to track the edge of the fence, following the wire fragments from one tree to the next, until she came to a large trunk with a roll of fencing nailed to it. The bark had curled over the edges of the top half, and the bottom had disappeared between the roots. She walked up the spine of the root to inspect the fence, when she stepped around the trunk and saw her prize.
There, standing as perfectly in the center of a patch of ground as if the trees had eased back to make room, was a very old stone lantern.
Sakura slid down the back of the root and walked towards it.
The lantern rose from the leafy ground in a single pillar of gray stone. Thick, deep green moss softened the decoratively carved roof, draping off the edges in feathery tendrils. The empty hole where a light would sit was half full of cobwebs.
The lantern still managed to glow slightly as the pale stone gave off the only reflected light in the cavernous darkness of the forest floor.
Sakura walked around it once. Twice. She scanned the woods, then circled the lantern a third time, looking for any clues she might have missed. But no concealment jutsu, no hidden message or secret delivery revealed itself.
The longer she waited, the more foolish she began to feel. It was clear no one had been here for years. Maybe decades. There was no reason to think someone would just stroll up now, at the exact moment she happened to be standing there.
She decided if there was a shrine out here, perhaps she should go to it instead of waiting here. Alone.
She turned to go, but it dawned on her that from where she stood, the trees clearly formed a ringed wall around the lantern. There was no path in or out.
Just a lone grey lantern, forgotten in the mouldering leaves at the bottom of the dark woods. She scanned the trees, but there was no trace of concealment jutsu. The Forest of Death ran away from her at all sides.
This place…the darkness, the isolation…. The utter abandonment of a lightless lamp in the middle of a graveyard of bodies….
Sakura told herself not to panic, to focus on her task, but the gnawing despair at being lost out here was beginning to creep in…. Her heart began to pound, cold sweat pricked her brow. She gripped the top of the lantern, sinking her fingers into the moss just to feel some sensation on her numbing fingertips—
Light shot through the canopy suddenly and shone down into a distant part of the forest. It shimmered beyond the farthest outlines of trunks.
Sakura was never so happy to see sunlight. She was certain it looked very much like an opening in the woods. Maybe big enough for a building. Possibly even a shrine.
Sakura squinted for a better view. Hand on the lantern, she moved her head side to side and stood on her toes, trying to get a better glimpse of the sun-streaked area as it shifted behind the trunks.
It must be the shrine.
Sakura left the lantern behind, stepped out of the circle and pushed back into the forest, eyes locked on the glowing green as if it would disappear if she dared look away.
She scrambled past one tree, then another, still watching it, going farther and deeper, growing more certain—
But the wind shifted, the clouds moved, and the sunlight faded. And Sakura was suddenly alone again. The lantern was nowhere to be seen.
Soundlessly, she turned in a circle, feeling sickeningly exposed to the deepening shadows—
Only when she came slowly around again did she see something an anomaly. Several paces ahead of her was a single flat stone, half-buried by roots.
She didn’t run. She didn’t move. Not at first. She looked around, waiting, watching, feeling for any sign. Any trick of the light. Then, carefully she made her way over.
Before she’d even reached it she could see another broken stone, and farther beyond it was another. All flat, some tilted, some buried. Scattered in what might have been a path long ago.
She followed it, looking hard at each next stone, alert to tricks. The stones were getting closer together, divided only by roots. Proving that the path was here before the trees were. She continued on, until stones coalesced into a uninterrupted path. This was the ancient habitation she’d been looking for. But now she doubted it was leading some kind of shrine. The stones were half buried in dirt and stuck out like teeth, making it impossible for anyone to walk on them. Sakura was sure she was the first one here for centuries—
A soft clank rattled through the woods — a single forlorn tone of metal knocking against metal — even though there was never a breeze this far down. It rang out again, sounding faintly like a bell…or a door swinging loose on its hinges.
Sakura turned past an enormous trunk and suddenly, as if pulling back a curtain, a clearing appeared ahead of her. And this time it was no mirage.
There, in a pool of verdant green and sunlight, was a structure. The ancient Senju shrine….
Except it looked more like a sunken ship than a building.
Sakura stood on the last paver, a giant fieldstone at the threshold of the grounds, then stepped down onto a disintegrating cobblestone walkway that led to the heap of a building.
Jagged wood beams jutted out the front. A once-elaborate steep-pitched roof sagged nearly to the ground in the back. The side walls had collapsed, but the front corner of the roof was still propped up on the remains of its ceiling beams. Into that tentlike space, someone had fashioned a door.
The soft clanging sounded again. Sakura saw that in fact there was a bell, suspended from one of the giant splinters of wood that shot out the front like a bow. A twisted scrap of metal was wired inside, a repair that gave it a ghost of its former sound.
The same light breeze that swayed the bell revealed a thread of smoke from an unseen fire off the back of the hovel.
Sakura approached cautiously. Someone was here, waiting for Tsunade’s request. She couldn’t imagine what old hermit would want to live out here, puttering away in this relic—
A floor board groaned. A shadow moved from under the jumble of walls and half-caved in roof. Sakura stopped.
From beneath the makeshift doorway a form was slowly moving forward into the light. A little old woman stepped out from under the fallen beam.
Sakura blinked frozen in shocked. The round little woman looked just as surprised to see her. But she didn’t stop, only continued to move towards Sakura, eyes fixed on her face.
The woman looked old, older than the building. Her skin was translucent, fine veins spiderwebbing beneath the surface, her eyes milky with age. Her hair, which was the same color as her impossibly pale skin, was swept up into two girlish top knots. They drifted back and forth on her head as she moved. A fraying sash was threaded through to catch the rest of her hair, but it escaped anyway in wisps around her face.
She wore a very old kimono that was not hers, as it draped and folded over itself at the waist and kept falling down her arms. She didn’t seem to notice though. She was completely focused on Sakura, moving slowly and deliberately toward her, the kimono dragging behind her.
“Come closer child,” she said. Her voice was pleasant, like a little old grandmother.
Sakura hung there for a moment, deciding that it was probably alright for her to be here, even though she’d been told to stop at the lamp. Tsunade knew this place, and she must have known who the contact was…so it was probably okay. Hopefully.
She stepped farther down the path, then bowed saying “The Hokage of Konoha sent me to—“
“So she sent her student instead….”
Sakura had her confirmation, but she was a little confused. How did she know Sakura was her student…er…or rather, former student? Had they spoken—? Or was she actually expecting Tsunade?
Sakura smiled gently. Maybe the little woman didn’t realize how important Tsunade was now. She couldn’t just leave her office to traipse out to the Forest of Death whenever she felt like it.
Sakura slipped the rolled note from her pocket and held it out as proof, bowing her head over it in a show of courtesy to her elder.
The woman laughed, girlish and soft, and batted it away. “Oh no need for that! I know why you’re here.” The woman was already turning slowly away. “Follow me, I’ll get what she needs.” The kimono trailed on the ground behind her.
Sakura followed her at a respectful distance…but it was not so far away that she couldn’t peek inside.
Where the light streamed through some obvious holes in the roof, plants were pinned to the angled roof beams for drying. Little jars with peeling labels were stacked several deep on crooked shelves that might have once been for holding scrolls.
Sakura inched forward to see around the painted panel that doubled as a door.
At the front corner of the collapsed room, a tiny cooking fire sparked and belched smoke. A fat little pot hung over it, filled to the brim with fistfuls of mushrooms and dried herb, looked very much like the one Sakura had seen in Tsunade’s office. The bubbling broth spit out onto the fire, making it occasionally cough up puffs of steam. The fire was small, barely big enough for the pot, and Sakura wondered if woman lived here…. The fire did not seem big enough to heat the place—
There was a crash from the opposite corner of the fireplace, and the woman laughed softly and scolded herself for being so clumsy as to catch her sleeve on something. Sakura thought that it was amazing the whole place hadn’t collapsed around her already.
The woman stooped to gather up the rolling bottles, nuts and shells that scattered down the uneven floorboards. She replaced them back into a chaotic system of organization that no one else would understand. Then she continued on, perusing her collection and adding things to the white sack that hung from her wrist. She clinked bottles and rattled their contents, opened stoppers and sniffed, tested the dryness of leaves hanging above her, before plucking a few and dropping them into the bag.
She spoke to herself as she moved, carrying on a one-person conversation about plants and medicines and techniques. She asked herself questions, answered them, then paused, laughed and corrected herself.
It was a little unnerving to Sakura that she actually did know some of the terms the old woman was babbling about. There were the odd ingredients for medicines, and yes, some Sakura admitted were useful in extreme survival situations. But others were known far and wide to be myths.
There were also healing ‘spells,’ as the woman kept repeating to herself while she shook a bottle of broken antler tips. It sounded vaguely like some of Tsunade’s chakra healing techniques. But her pattering speech was so disjointed Sakura couldn’t make out exactly what she meant. These healing techniques — if that’s what they were — couldn’t possibly be performed together, or even by a single person. Sakura wasn’t even sure these techniques were from Konoha, as they involved using elements that were found no where near their forest-bound village.
The woman disappeared behind the doorway, knocking around down the wall closest to Sakura. In the center, a table was covered baskets and pots and bowls, all filled with branches and mushrooms and just about every kind of plant that could be scavenged from a forest environment. At one end, there were rows and rows of bottles, some empty but most filled. They were corked, covered in wax and sealed. Little water stained labels hung from their necks, and Sakura would have dearly liked to know what they said…but they were unreadable, know matter how much she squinted. It was written in a language she didn’t know. Long swooping letters tumbled down the paper, in a style that might have been a precursor to their modern script—
She tipped her head, wondering just how old the ingredients in those bottles were…the ink-black bottle that still fizzed little bubbles, the purple one with crystals forming at the bottom, or the amber liquid with blossoms frozen in time— Sakura leaned in closer….
At the moss-covered edge of the roof, woodland insects crept past droplets of dew to get a closer look at the young interloper— When something crashed against the wall beside the door, sending the drops showering off the roof and the insects darting away.
Sakura jumped too before calling into the darkness, “A-Are you ok…?”
The woman didn’t answer, but she was already trundling back toward the damp doorway. Sakura quickly backed out to a respectable distance from the door.
When she came back out into the light, she was focused intently on Sakura and holding out a bag.
“Is— Is this for me?“
The woman smiled and offered it again. But when Sakura stepped forward to take it, the woman grabbed her forearm with a surprisingly strong grip. She looked deeply up into Sakura’s face, inspecting it.
Her old eyes had come alive. They darted across her face as if reading it. She squeezed Sakura’s arm and watched her eyes, then her mouth, then eyes again.
She studying her as if looking for something.
Sakura understood immediately. This woman was reading her chakra somehow, but not in any way Sakura knew. However she knew this battery of examination like a checklist. Tsunade made her memorize it:
Grip hard and flood the body with chakra. Gauge the expressions of pain: pupil dilation, intake of breath, spike of fever, rise in pulse. Repeat if necessary. The anomaly will always reveal itself.
Sakura was confused. She was proficient at reading chakra — an “expert” Tsunade would say, who was an expert herself at it. But Sakura couldn’t figure this out. There was no discernible chakra exchange taking place. Still, the woman wouldn’t let go.
“Hmmm, yes….” She pulled her down a little, and peered into her eyes, “I see….” Sakura instinctively began to turn her face away, wishing the woman would just let go.
But she was locked onto her arm, and Sakura was starting to get concerned, that maybe this was all a mistake. And maybe she should have stayed at the lantern like Tsunade asked…. And she was just realizing that the woman’s grip was slightly clammy, like everything else out here, and that she’d like to pull away and stop the intense scrutiny, but the woman only drew her closer, gripped harder and looked more deeply up into her eyes, even as Sakura tried to lean away the discomfort was reaching a fever pitch in her ears that was alarming, like a faint buzzing that was everywhere now, filling the clearing with an oppressive sound as if thousands of chirping crickets were about to bear down on them both—
The bag lurched suddenly in her hand.
The woman released her, attention shifting completely to the bag. She laughed at it in childlike surprise.
Sakura looked at it in surprise too— apparently there was something alive in there.
She blinked, realizing the sound was gone. As if it had never happened. Ribbons of sunlight splashed peacefully over the heap of a building. Little butterflies floated up with glittering dust motes. But there was no deafening noise. And no crickets.
Sakura looked to the woman to see if she heard it. Or if she caused it, as Sakura was beginning to suspect…. And perhaps the noise was a distraction to hide the exchange….
The woman just smiled blithely. She seemed far to old to be that crafty
“Yes, you certainly are Tsunade’s student. I can see it now.” Her gaze had lost its scrutiny. Her opaque eyes moved over Sakura’s whole face as if she couldn’t really see it, making Sakura wonder if the only thing she saw was pink hair. Unique, yes, but not really anything special. Except that it would be the only thing even a half-blind woman could see.
Sakura sighed inwardly, feeling fatigued by this whole strange experience. She was ready to get back to Konoha, where things made sense. She moved to bow and make an excuse to leave—
“Be careful!” The woman patted Sakura’s hand, making the bag bounce up and down. She continued in her pleasant sing-song voice. “In the wrong hands, those are deadly poisonous!” Sakura eyed the bag nervously.
A rosy glow had spread over the little woman’s pale cheeks. She was humming when she turned to glide slowly back down the path. “Only a skilled healer can use those,” she said over her shoulder before stopping suddenly. “Or a poison master!” Her shoulders bounced as she laughed at her own joke.
Sakura shook her head, befuddled by the joke, this place, all of it. She bowed properly and respectfully. She was still an old grandmother of the Senju clan, even if she was a little batty, living out her days alone in the woods.
“Hurry back! Tsuna-chan will be expecting those. Best to not keep her waiting….” Her melodic voice was drifting away, and when Sakura raised her head, the woman was already moving back into the shadow of the old building, disappearing under the wet wood. Her kimono left a shining streak through the water drops on the stones.
Sakura wondered why Tsunade left one of her clan elders like this so far out in the woods, but Sakura caught the sun slanting through the trees. The woman was right, it was time to go back. She didn’t want to get caught in here after dark.
No matter how confident she was as a shinobi, being trapped in the Forest of Death after dark was one of her nightmares.