Preview – Chapter 50

Chapter 50 – The Puppet

Sakura blinked into the darkness. 

She took a few steps forward, hands grasping air in front of her, feet shuffling— But a stone caught her toe and she stumbled onto one knee.

She leaned forward and felt out the rocks around her, seeing it in her mind’s the same way she did when she walked through Konoha’s streets with her eyes closed. 

“Pretend it’s just like the game,” she said, just to hear her voice in the emptiness. It was raspy from fear, and she noticed it did not echo. The words just fell flat against the darkness.

Her hands roamed over ground around her, cataloguing every chunk of rock she could reach. Some fit in her hand, some came up to her knees. A few were as big as a house. 

Chiyo’s chakra tether at her back vibrated slightly, as if urging her to stand again. 

Another time, Sakura might have marveled that chakra could be used that way…she clearly had not been taught that in Konoha. But perhaps they didn’t know it to teach it. Perhaps it was a technique Chiyo refined only to manipulate and not to heal, as she was supposed to be known for— She clearly had other plans for each of them in the cave.

The blue-silver thread vibrated again, this time more insistent.

After a final sweep of her hand over the grit-covered ground, Sakura cautiously stood. She found the clearest path and began moving, though toward what she didn’t know.

She got about ten paces and was feeling more confident about her surroundings, mapping it in her mind, trying to understand what she was supposed to do in the darkness. But her thoughts distracted her, and in the next step her foot snagged on a much larger stone. 

She tumbled over it, landing knees first on the flat side of an enormous tilted boulder and skidded forward. She caught herself with her hands— but her fingers slid off the edge of rock and reached into…nothingness….

Images flashed through her mind in rapid-fire succession: A crumbling stone. Herself sliding over it. The bottoms of her shoes tumbling last as she disappeared forever…. 

Sakura yanked her hands back. Grit slid away from her and poured silently off the edge. Before she could stop herself, she opened her eyes—

But she met only oppressive darkness. 

Black seemed to coat her eyes. She blinked hard and fast, but it never changed. Her heart immediately began pounding, and the hopeless feeling crashed back down on her again, threatening to drown her—

She crushed her eyes shut and scrambled back up the boulder, holding on to the crumbling edge until she shimmied back over, slid down a flat side  and collapsed. 

Hunched over, she rocked slightly to the sound of her breathing until she began to calm down again.

This time, she vowed to herself she’d keep her eyes closed. Her life depended on it.

“It’s just a game,” she said out loud, just to hear something else in the darkness other than the blood rushing in her ears. “Just a game….”

Her head fell back against the stone. Pretending it was a game wasn’t making her feel better this time.

She ran her hand down the flat boulder she leaned against. It sat flush with the ground, as if it were an ancient building block. Her hand stopped. This was familiar to her, like it had happened before— 

A long buried memory swept through her….

She was with Katsuro, in a soft blue night that seemed welcoming compared to where she was now. They were climbing to a partially destroyed temple, over boulders the size of houses. She had nearly slid off one into oblivion when he caught her. 

That was a terrifying ordeal too. But she wasn’t alone then. Not like now.

Her chin crumpled, but no tears came.

She never let herself think about those times…about him. Bitter anger at Katsuro mingled with her own shame at ever trusting him. She had locked him away in a part of her memory where she would never have to see it again. She told herself it was gone. Just as he was gone.

But images of him came sliding back anyway, without any effort. And she discovered that it did make her feel a little better, a little less alone.

She saw him in the temple, encouraging her. Then his hooded face, fiercely dedicated to getting her home. She remembered him wreathed with smiles, standing among golden barley fields, lounging beneath a summer tree, watching her among the cherry blossoms….

There were more memories, she could feel them surfacing, tugging on her heart. But she pushed them away. 

Because in the end, it all ran to the same terrible place. 

The image of little Mei’s home, exploding into the night like a fireball, would be forever burned into her mind. He had betrayed her. It had cost the grandparents their lives. And he never came back. Never came to see if she or Mei even survived.

So maybe…she was wrong about the happy memories of him. Maybe she had been alone then too. And she just couldn’t see it then….

Sakura grit her teeth, chiding herself for letting these images haunt her. Not at a time when she needed to focus.

She pushed it all away, sweeping the memories back into the darkness of her mind like dust from her legs, then pounded a fist into the ground, welcoming the anger in to fill up the hole of despair that was opening inside her. 

If I can survive that, then I’ll figure a way out through this too.

Sakura ran her hand down the smooth wall, tracing her fingers where it met the floor at an almost perfect right angle. It did remind her of those ancient stones from temple. They were tumbled everywhere on the mountainside, looking very much like boulders…except for where they had flat sides…flat sides that felt like ground….

She ran her fingers down the edge of the rock, reminding herself this wasn’t natural landscape. She wasn’t on a mountainside. Or in a desert cavern.

She was in a space inside of Gaara. That meant someone made it…. 

And if someone made this, then what if someone had also blown it apart?

Chiyo’s words came back. ‘Shatter the seal.’ ‘Rebuild him.’

Sakura sat forward, considering what Chiyo had said. 

Had someone shattered him? Was this what I’m was supposed to do? Rebuild Gaara? Was the Kage just some kind of puppet too? It was Sasori and Chiyo’s specialty after all—

Human or puppet, the first thing she needed to do was determine what she was working with. In shinobi terms, she needed to identify the mission parameters. In healing terms, she needed to isolate the problem.

She needed to find out what this place was.  

Sakura stood and turned, placing her hands on the large stone she’d been leaning against. She didn’t have a plan other than to push the rock off the ledge and see how far it fell. 

Feet sliding on the ground, Sakura pushed and pushed. The chakra tether vibrated behind her, interested, apparently, in what she was doing. 

She thought she felt it give, so she pushed extra chakra behind it — into it — and imagined the boulder filling up with green chakra…. 

Just then, she felt it give way under her fingers. 

Sakura huffed with satisfaction and kept pushing. Slowly, slowly it moved.

She got it to what she thought was the edge, then with one great shove knocked it over. She jumped back, expecting it to drop into the bottomless darkness. But there was no great crashing of rocks below her, no blow-back of wind.

Sakura swiped her foot in arcs, just to make sure it had actually gone over. But her toe kept finding ground far past where the edge should have been. In fact, there was much more ground here than she thought there was before.

She frowned into the darkness, considering this new information.

Stepping back, she found a small rock with a flat side to it, then scooted out to the new edge. 

This time, she didn’t chuck it over. Instead, keeping one hand firmly on flat ground, with the other hand she pushed the rock over the side. She expected to feel it fall away from her grasp—

But it didn’t leave her hand. Or rather, it didn’t fall. She pressed her fingers against the smooth top and felt it under her hand, reuniting with the slab and almost melting back together. 

Eyes still closed, she shook her head at the strangeness of this place.  

Sakura pushed another rock over the edge, and then a third. Both melted back in with no gaps in between. She kept working, counting her steps as she added each new chunk of stone. By the time she stopped, had nearly doubled the size of the ground she was one. 

She sat at the edge, wondering what it could all mean, and idly slipped another small rock over the edge, waiting for it to smooth together under her hand.

But something new had happened. Beneath her fingers, a long shallow groove appeared where none had been before. 

She scooted across the stone and followed the straight channel away from her with her fingers, until it ran into another groove that hadn’t been there before. 

She examined the intersection with her fingertips. Each one ran away at perfect angles. 

It was like the stones were remembering their previous form….

She sat back again, imagining it her mind, while keeping her eyes firmly closed… These weren’t just smooth stones, they were building blocks. This was a structure.  

Sakura nodded to herself. They were not following the rules of the natural world. They did not behave like stone and granite and desert-hewn rocks. 

This was the language of chakra.

If these rocks were charged with chakra, then they would call out to themselves. They would want to reunite, like drops of water all rolling back together. She didn’t have to instruct it how to merge together, she had just to get them close enough. The energy would do the rest.

Rebuild. Now she thought she understood.

It was clear normal rules didn’t apply here. She didn’t have to use brute strength, instead she used her chakra with the utmost efficiency. She moved boulders with ease now, no matter the size, without ever getting tired.

She pushed them together with her chakra and encouraged them to knit back together, just like she would a human body. And, like a healing body, the stones mended themselves back together.

But these were not living things. 

And although they felt like the temple blocks she remembered from that dark hillside long ago, these stones were not completely of nature. These were made by human hands. She could feel the trace of design every time a piece slipped back together. 

Her own chakra was part of that design now, as if she too were a builder in the legacy of this place. Each stone glowed faintly green in her mind, as if she were reclaiming land.

She had a feeling the trace of her chakra would linger here long after she was gone.

Sakura stood again, more sure of herself. She slid stones around, pushing her chakra into them until she detected the edges, then listened when it could go no farther. Then she moved them to the next edge. 

For the first time, she understood what Iruka meant in her old academy lessons about pushing your chakra into object. She had tried for months to try to get her chakra to be ‘absorbed’ into her particular weapon the way the other students were trained to do. It never worked, until she began working on the human body. Then it was so easy, as if she could feel all of it at once.

These stones…it felt the same as a body…. 

She wondered how far she could go here. 

Biting her lip, Sakura put her hands flat on the ground, the way she would if she were healing a patient. She let her chakra stretch out in all directions.

Her surroundings absorbed it like a sponge. She could see everything around her. Or rather, feel everything around her. A rippling green network floated in her mind, just like it did when she held her hands over a body, feeling for an injury.

Sakura leaned down again, anxious to see how vast this place was, trying to feel out her surroundings and map it out in her head like she did Konoha’s golden roads. 

She plunged more green light into the flat top of a boulder. This time, she opened her eyes a crack. She could only make out the pale outlines of the rocks around her, glowing dimly in the darkness. She closed her eyes again. Bright green pathways everywhere. 

The rocks were all connected, like a net that had been blown wide apart. It must have been enormous, larger than a building. Her chakra only touched the top of it, but she felt the grey outlines of rocks far, far below her, going down indefinitely.

Flooding her energy into the space, she also sensed the single line of silver-blue chakra running away from her back and up into the darkness above her. 

It looked so thin, like a single spider’s web glistening there with energy. Sakura opened her eyes. At the top, she could see it. A pinprick of light, like a far off star.

Sakura knew Chiyo’s chakra strand wasn’t a lifeline. It was more like a leash making sure she did the job. 

She felt it pushing her hands to get back to work. 

She repeated Chiyo’s words. Rebuild. Maybe if she did that, then that old woman would let her out….

So Sakura worked and worked. It felt like days or weeks…or even months. Time had no meaning. She did not rest, only moved with the soft hum of someone else’s power at her back. She didn’t stop.

It was not like building in reality. The blocks moved where she told them, without resistance. They were not light, and she had the sense that for someone else, they might be impossible to move. But for her, it was a task that her chakra was perfectly suited to.

The chakra at her back hung limp most of the time. Chiyo was no longer guiding her, it seemed, only monitoring her. Making sure she finished the task.

Sakura sat back on the flat ground beside a newly smoothed edge. The ground was a huge expanse now, big and flat. 

She stretched out her energy, feeling it roll away from her as far as it could go. Most of the layer she was on had been smoothed back together. But beneath her, she felt so many more blocks…. Piles and piles of them, going down in layers. It might be years before she finished—

She sighed, letting green chakra tendrils drop down into the darkness, not expecting to find bottom. Or find anything, really—

Far below, almost completely concealed by broken stones, a faint, red light glimmered once, then disappeared. 

Sakura was so startled she opened her eyes expecting to see it. But there was nothing but blackness below her.

She closed her eyes, relaxed, and focused her chakra on the area for several long minutes. But it was gone. 

She was just deciding that it was a figment of her imagination, when it flickered again, far to one side, under another mountain of broken rocks.

This must be it! This must be why I’m here! This must be Gaara’s life force, stuck down here somehow—

Chiyo’s chakra strands seemed to radiate that yes, this was what she was meant to do, and they pushed her limbs in that direction.

Sakura climbed off the edge and down onto the pile of rocks beneath her. She pulled more stones away, throwing them behind her. Some reconnected and their flat sides melted back together, but most piled up, broken edge to broken edge.

Sakura didn’t care. She was desperate to get to the source of that light. It was so small, so frail, and kept guttering out, only to reappear someplace else…. Whatever it was, it appeared to be dying….

She dug faster. It should have cut her knees and broken her nails down to the quick with how fast she was grabbing them, throwing them over her shoulder. But it didn’t. She was only energy here. She had no physical body to injure.

The flickering light was constantly moving beyond her. 

But still she dug. If it was Gaara, then she wasn’t giving up. She didn’t understand how his life force had wound up here, buried under rocks.  But she’d made it this far, and if she could find him — save him — then she would.

It was like a race. As she dug, her green light reached ahead of her, pushing through the crack in the stones. The little red light stayed just out of her reach. She was getting closer though….

Without her human body or the outside world to distract her attention or muffle her energy, Sakura became keenly aware of how powerful her chakra was. 

She could feel every vibration, every grain of sand around her, as if it was an extension of herself. So she could feel the energy of something else alive in this vast expanse of emptiness like it was a beacon. 

Even if it wasn’t Gaara, she would have dug for it anyway, motivated by the idea of freeing some other living thing that was trapped down here. Glad to not be alone in this oppressive darkness—

She was almost upon it, the living thing that was the deep red color of Gaara’s hair, of blood. 

It felt familiar, and she decided she must be remembering it from the fight they had in Konoha. It felt like Gaara did then—

She dug faster, her chakra spinning out farther and farther, in increasingly smaller tendrils, beyond rocks and into crevices where it disappeared toward what must be the source. 

Finally, a single tendril of green chakra slipped over the last boulder—

It found the little fragment of red chakra, floating there like it was waiting. In her mind’s eye, Sakura nudged her green energy forward to reach it, touch it, and maybe reassure it that it was ok, it was safe now. The tip of her green light connected with the little red flame—

But a blast of heat exploded back at her, as if a fire had suddenly found a new fuel source. 

Sakura was knocked back onto one of the mountains of rocks she piled behind and instinctively jerked her chakra back.

But the strand didn’t retract.

The end that had connected tingled slightly, as if the energy she let gently flow had suddenly been suctioned out. 

Sakura went very still. 

None of this was right. This wasn’t healing chakra. And it wasn’t the tight cords of energy that controlled the puppets, like Chiyo’s or Sasori’s. In fact, it didn’t feel human at all….

All around her, the network of green chakra strands quietly went flat against the broken stones. The thin tendrils of green hung in the darkness, an extension of Sakura, waiting, watching….

Like a scared animal, the flame was moving cautiously, peeking out from behind the boulder, going in and out of her vision as if watching her as well, sizing her up….

The flame drifted closed to her chakra, licking at it, testing it. It drew more chakra from the end and grew brighter, but not like a normal flame. There was no yellow flash at its core. Instead it deepened in intensity, the center of it going black….

But that taste of energy changed everything. Where it latched onto that single strand it didn’t want to let go.

Sakura let a little green chakra travel back down the tendril…. 

In the darkness, that tip of her chakra thread was stark white. It had been drained of her life force, and was now just a conduit for raw energy. 

Cold rattled through Sakura. How was such a thing even possible?

But this was what it wanted. She was certain of it. She was connected to it, like she could understand its thoughts….

It shifted and suddenly Sakura felt the energy attached to the end of her chakra. It was dark, heavy and old. Very old. She heard it growl in the darkness, even smelled it. It was the smell of sulphur and blood and death

Then she felt the energy in front of her, heard it shift and growl in the darkness, even smelled it. It was the smell of sulphur and blood and death

Sakura’s mouth went dry. This was not the life force of the quiet Kage she’d encountered in the woods. 

Whatever it was, it was not human or animal or even one of Sasori’s gruesome puppets…. And it was never a ‘flame’ at all. 

This was the monster that taken control of Gaara that day in Konoha. 

It was a predator. It had been waiting for her in the darkness, luring her in…. 

And she’d made a terrible, terrible mistake—

The red flame leapt for her chakra, and Sakura was powerless to stop it.