The four towers of the village were simple and effective constructions. Unlike the wooden homes surrounding them, they were built in stone. Heavy boulders had been carved from the mountains that encased the valley. The rough stones had been laboriously transported to the village, then shaped and polished. Despite the ample supply, it was a costly and lengthy process, but it had seemed worthwhile for their intended use: An observation post for the town soldiers, a storage of weapons and explosives and a stronghold in case of spreading fire or an attack. Most villagers regarded the towers as a point of pride for the small town.
The man hiding in the shadows beneath one of the structures regarded it with an anticipatory sense of malice, before his eyes darted to the pale spill of light that had barely touched the tip of the tower. Like most of the other uninvited guests of the village, he was dressed in dirtied rags and mostly resembled a harmless beggar - except for his eyes. They were small, protruding and glossy - as if he was high on some sort of substance - giving him a slight resemblance to small mammals. Tiny jerks of his head and shoulders as another figure stepped into the shadows beside him made the likeness to a squirrel or mouse all the greater. "You're early. Is it done?"
The newcomer was tall, thin to the point of looking unhealthy, with dulled eyes so pale blue they seemed colorless. A heavily drawling accent swallowed several consonants before the words even escaped his lips. "Shou' star' anytime now- Ther'."
They both turned to look northwest where a flickering glow painted the sky just above the rooftops. 'Squirrel' smirked and followed the line of the houses to another towering structure in the distance further north. Shadows slowly crawled along the stones, discernible even in the pre-dawn dimness. Shifting south, they both found the last tower - and waited. A long moment of silence passed. 'Squirrel's eyes flickered to the single guard left on watch a dozen yards above them. Any moment, the man would take another round of the circular wooden platform, as he did every few minutes, spot the flames and strike the alarm."Where is he? Damn Hairu! I knew we shouldn't have trusted him with something this big! Idiot, idiot, idiot!"
'Drawl' lifted his head and studied the platform as approaching steps made the floorboards creak. "[badword] him. Korvu'll have awh hide if we don't keep wi' tha' plan. Blow it. I'll deal."
'Squirrel' twisted around as 'Drawl' slipped into the shades. His hands formed signs with jittery movements and the frozen earth in front of him twisted furiously. With a rumble, a crack split open the ground and rushed towards the foundation of the tower. Stones groaned, then slit from their places.
Like a game of 'Jenga', the stones of the tower came tumbling down.
It had not been Furuichi's night so far.
In fact, it hadn't been his night since he had been rotated to the remote mountain-village and put on night-shift for badmouthing the Captain, a gloomy-looking midget of a kid. ".. just tossin' them ranks at everyone these days.. what's so wrong with me, eh? I'd make a better Captain than him anyway. Not that anything ever happens 'round here.."
, he muttered to himself and rubbed his arms.
To make things even worse, he was stuck at the damn guard-tower, which meant hours on end standing in the freezing wind that came in from the lake, without any company but the hourly patrol that passed by. He'd even been assigned to the southern tower, the one just on the village-edge that was turned out towards the water. ".. white-haired devil could at least switch up the guards once in a while. Doesn't even have a drink with us, always glaring at that ring when he thinks we ain't looking.."
He'd never admit to it, but there was something positively creepy about the one-eyed Onoda. Nothing he could put his finger on, but it still made his skin crawl every time he was near him. Shrugging his shoulders, he yawned and turned to do his little patrol - 'the treadmill-walk', the other guards called it - just as a distant rumble made a vibration run all the way from the ground to the wood under his feet. Images of avalanches made parts of his anatomy make a painful withdrawal as far back into his body as possible. Making a choked sound, he hurried around the platform. It wasn't the cloud of dust rising where the western tower had been that caught his attention, but the flames that had started at the northeastern tower. As he watched, a flickering spark jumped to the roof of a nearby house and caught on.
Fire. Even in a village surrounded by water, everyone feared fire. Wooden houses stacked too close together, for protection against the harsh winds, had turned the village into a firetrap.
Furuichi's mind ran in panicked circles a long moment before he tore himself from the sight of the flames and spun. He had one task in situations like this. Rushing to the center of the platform, he never noticed the figure that bounded over the wooden railing, nor the knife that cut into his back just as his hand closed on the rope dangling from the large bell.
A lone, melodic chime echoed across the village seconds before the storm reached the walls.
She was beginning to despise the sight of scarlet snow.
A dead man's eyes stared blindly at her, his face twisted in an expression of pure shock and disbelief. Blood had splattered his cheek, clung in frozen droplets to his eyelashes and had turned the snow around him into something that had a faint resemblance with strawberry-flavored shaved ice. Amaya knew with a sudden striking certainty that she would never be able to eat that particular desert again.
None of the gore took away from the mans beauty, the polished look some young men are lucky to keep a few years past their teenage prime. However, no amount of beauty could deter from the fist-sized hole in the man-boys chest. She could see the blood-soaked emblem of Yukigakure through the wound.
A trail of pure carnage had made it unnecessary to track Korvo and his troupe of madmen with the Kanjitsu as they advanced through the streets of the village, ending with the grand finale of the square her men now surged through. So far, she had counted fifteen dead, two of them missing nins. Surprisingly, few villagers seemed to have been roused by the noise. Amaya had briefly considered having her men wake the villagers, but it would prove time-consuming and only create more chaos in the streets. Besides, with the storm she sensed was just moments away from baring down on the village, the towns-people would have nowhere to go. For now, their own homes were the safest place for them. The thick walls had turned out to be a small blessing."Commander!"
Turning, she found one soldier looking into the shadows between a heavy wagon and the wall of a house. Moving to his side, she followed his eyes and saw the shivering figure squeezed into the small space. The girl was sobbing, her shoulders shaking. Amaya caught the ripe stench of human waste and wrinkled her nose. Some of the corpses in the square had been disemboweled, but with the girl, the familiar smell seemed to be of more natural causes.
Damnit. She didn't have time for this.
Amaya eyed the whimpering girl, then the corpses. Most of them had the white insignia on their backs, but a few were dressed in what she'd expect of villagers. Had they awoken because of the noise? That didn't seem right. Their position suggested some sort of purpose, and if so, she needed to know what had happened here.
She'd have to make time.
Kneeling down, she made her voice soft, but didn't attempt to get any closer to the girl. "It's alright. They're gone. You'll be alright. What happened?"
Wide eyes of some muddy brown met her own over the edge of a pair of arms that had been slung around the girls knees, dragging them to her chest."... I-I.. I was in the latrine and they grabbed me. Theygrabbedmeandhe-"
Amaya resisted the urge to reach out and shake the girl out of the mounting panic-attack."Breathe. Slowly. What happened then?""H-he m-made me s-scream."
The girls teeth chattered so hard that it was difficult to understand her words. "Why?"
The girl looked at her with obvious confusion. "Why did he make you scream?""..h-he wanted t-the mayor.. t-talk to the m-mayor and t-then.."
The girls eyes shied away from Amaya and found the corpse that wore no insignia. The man was one of those that had been cut open. Furthermore, his head lay a few yards from his body. The girls jaw slowly dropped, eyes widening and glazing over. Amaya knew the look and felt a sharp tug at her chest. She would get nothing else out of the young woman.
Pushing to her feet, Amaya's thoughts raced as she pieced the information together. She was halfway across the square before it occurred to her that she never asked the girls name. A wave of exhaustion and sadness made her stop. She had known that it would be difficult. The year she had spent with the Kioku, far away from anything, had changed her dramatically from what she had been, how she had thought and felt. But knowing and feeling where very different things. To imagine - to know - that just a year earlier, she might have laughed at the girls vulnerability made her stomach twist painfully.
She shoved the thought, and the pain, into a distant and dark corner of her mind. There was no time now. There might never be enough time to reflect on what she had been, and how she had come to be like that.
Korvu had snatched the girl as leverage and used her to call out the mayor, and some of his people - that would explain the bodies that she hadn't been able to account for - then killed them, which meant that she had been right. It was all just a distraction, a show to make them focus their attention while.. What?
Focusing chakra on her eyes, she activated the Kanjitsu. Almost immediately, the distant chakra signature returned and assaulted her mind with memories she thought she had put behind her.
And just as quickly, it was gone again.He isn't there. It isn't real. It's just your mind playing tricks. Forget it!
She closed her eyes, repeating the thought over and over while her mind searched for the criminals and her fellow Kioku. One of the smaller groups had split up, leaving four of them to roam around alo- no wait, there was one missing. Three. Where was..? She caught only the slightest hint of a chakra-signature before it faded.
Someone had managed to take out one of the criminals. Could it be that..No! Focus! It just means that someone got lucky! It has nothing to do with Mya-
The ground rumbled. The north-eastern tower was engulfed in crackling flames. At the same time, the grinding of stones made her twist and look west, just in time to see another towering structure crumble. A soldier behind her - who should have been watching her back - gasped. Turning, with the intention to snap him back to his duty, she couldn't help but draw a sharp breath herself. The tip of the northern tower had been bathed in the descending rays of sunlight. Now, shadows crawled over the structure, covering the grey stones so completely that the structure stood out against the backdrop of the brightening sky above.Damnit! Damn them all to hell! He's been planning this all along!
Somehow, Korvo had known about the village. How else could he know the layout of the village, the way to infiltrate the town and take down their defenses? There was only one explanation that made sense: It hadn't been a coincidence that they had reached it in time to get there before she could catch up. He'd fooled her into thinking she had been in control, that she had been chasing them like a hound after panicked prey, while he had been moving in the exact direction he wanted all along. Damn him!
Utter panic was about to break out, and she would either have to try and control it, and attempt to save as many villagers as possible, or direct her men into the hunt for Yuudai Korvo. She had no doubt he and the missing nins would use the chaos to slip away. And she had only minutes to decide what to do.
She was not an inexperienced commander, or strategist, but this was far beyond her own abilities. She could see the fire spreading from house to house, transforming what had been the supposed shelter from the storm to certain death. Further in, she could see the chakra-signatures of Korvo's group expanding in bursts as they clashed with the village guards - and won. Nao and Hiroko were too far away for contact, Hiroko absorbed in his own battle against the criminals that had gone for the winter storage. Nao seemed to be focusing on the houses around the flaming tower. She didn't even have to consider to know that he was trying to save as many of the sleeping villagers from the fire as possible.
She needed help, and she had only one place left to turn to.
Chakra poured into the crystal within her. A deep red slowly seeped into the amber glow of her right eye, until it pulsed just as scarlet as the nearby snow. Voices, more voices than she would ever be able to count, even if she had a decade, flooded into her ears. Sights, sounds, tastes and feelings bombarded her senses. Her mind was ripped open and filled with memories. For just a fraction of a second, she stared back across countless centuries. Balancing on the edge of oblivion, she dug her mental nails into her own mind, her own sense of who she was, and channeled everything else into the jewel that encased her heart, focusing one single question into the cacophony.
How do I get to Yuudai Korvo without sacrificing the villagers?
It took only seconds, but she felt years older when she finally blinked and focused on the snowflakes that drifted through the air. They were coming rapidly now and the wind had picked up speed. It took her another moment to find the one person that was both the essential, and - though she hoped to be proven wrong - the possible weak link in what she needed to do.
Large eyes in a heart-shaped face were already wide with fear and confusion as she grabbed hold of her arm. She had to shout to be heard over the howling wind."Mey Li! Take charge of the men. Evacuate the villagers to the base of the southern tower. Raise the tents in shelter of the walls and use them for the wounded!"
The young woman looked utterly stunned for a moment, then purpose slowly crept into her features. A second later, she frowned and shouted back at Amaya."What about you?"
Amaya felt her lips curl in a cruel smile, one she hadn't known she could still form."I'm going after Korvu!"
Without giving Mey Li time to reply, she turned and raced down the narrow street that would lead her to the battle.