Date: September 29, 2016
The final battle against the Ghoul continues, as desperate efforts are made to both destroy the creature it has become, and to put to rest the sphere of death being fuelled by the torment and rage of corrupted ghosts.
"Blood Red Sandman - All Good Things"
Dead Sands - Northern Desert [Land of Wind]
There is enormous sphere of death, the essence of the end of life, weaponized and growing. The monster the Ghoul has become, the massive form the Dead King has taken up, has been turned to glass by Itami in her dragon form in a dive-bombing charge, but miles-long lengths of earth and stone and sand rise up from the desert in an attempt to attack her even as the thing as the center of it all crystallizes, and is no longer able to control its deadly jutsu…
And that jutsu is still growing, because it is being fed and controlled not by a being in this world, but by phantoms in the next.
Those huge tendrils have seized up, unable to finish attacking Itami or to interrupt Meimei, thanks the Earth-based body being paralyzed and immobilized by Sousa's Lightning Release. The undead monsters all around have collapsed or are in the process of doing so, no longer controlled, but the sickness of unlife is spreading to everyone injured by them. It will be difficult to treat them even if they get them back to Sunagakure in time to try.
But there's still a chance, if that giant sphere of annihilation presently aimed on a direct course to Sunagakure, never reaches its target. The sphere has yet to be fired. How can it be stopped though? Who can stop it? What is allowing it to continue to build when the one who made it is no longer controlling it?
Presently, Meimei is using a forbidden technique of her Clan, an ability of her Kekkei Genkai that she is the first to live long enough to achieve. It spells the end of her life when the clocks ticking in her eyes complete their circle. When she completes her second circuit of the planet, vanishing beyond one horizon and appearing from the opposite, she is more light than flesh. She had to abandon her mass, her body, any chance of becoming a person again, to achieve this state… To be the first human to move so close to the speed of light.
She punches through the crystallized Dead King, trying to radiate light throughout the structure, to find where the core of the monster is, the 'true Ghoul' that is the anchor for all these forces, all these monsters, and the sphere of swirling black and green that grows and grows before its frozen gaping jaws.
But it's a very big monster. And if she's going to find the true Ghoul before time runs out… She'll have to move even faster.
And Sousa and Itami will have to figure out what to do about that overwhelming globe of power before it reaches critical mass.
The sky is dark, and snow is falling in the desert all around. The air hurts to touch from how cold it is. The fight has been long, and exhausting. And still more is expected of those assembled. The alternative is the end of everything.
"Wasn't enough…" Itami remarked to herself. She almost felt some uncertainty well up within her, but she shook it off to find more solutions to this issue instead. Besides, there was a light in that mass that was growing. Almost difficult to see at times, but it was present. "I'm going to toss up the earth around here!" She called out as she took to the ground and dug her claws in deep to separate a piece of it out. One massive chunk of earth, but there would be more where that came from as she proceeded to throw it forward and followed that up with more pieces of earth, hoping in some way that she can slow its movement up.
Well, these are some quite intriguing developments. Who knew Onohara-san had such a peculiar capability? But then, the knight pieces are known for their capacity to disrupt the game with their unique, unimpaired movements. Sousa observes Meimei's actions as she pierces through the massive bulk over and over and induces a motive. She's looking for a vital spot (although 'vital' is an ironically inappropriate term under the circumstances). Well, perhaps Sousa can clear things up a little, literally. Slowly drawing in a deep breath, Sousa begins sending electrical energy into the atmosphere again, but this time, he spreads it out much more, preparing a series of lesser lightning strikes along the length of the creature. Crude though the resulting glass may be, it may be transparent enough to reveal something useful when Meimei's light shines through it.
Not fast enough. Still not fast enough. Out of the 60 seconds she had, she has used 30. Onohara Meimei knows what she's doing. Or rather, what she is sacrificing. And she also knows what she's sacrificing herself for. She has accepted she is going to die. But the reason she clings to her consciousness, her awareness, her semblance of form as she shoots around the planet, over and over, moving faster adn faster and faster, is not to preserve her sense of self… But because she has to keep her movements DIRECTED.
She slams through the glassified monster, sending rays of light bouncing and refracting, and then comes out the other side. She no longer even has the mass necessary to physically damage the monster's form. She just finds herself zipping and weaving between molecules, dodging atoms, breaking down and reforming the shining figure that naught but a silhouette of a woman now, and then somehow navigating her way out of the labyrinth of glass and into open air. And then she must dodge and evade the whole way around the world, so she can do it all again. It requires reaction time, perception powers, and endurance beyond that of a human body. She gave up that human body, so that what mental processes she has left could function closer to the light speed she is attempting to obtain.
But which each circuit, each impact, each passage through the glassy labyrinth, both her consciousness and the energy she has left to expend become ever more tenuous, and ever more weakened.
She can not aim this maneuver. She needed the monster to stay in one place, and the others succeeed in fulfilling that request so far, but that didn't MATTER when she couldn't HIT it accurately.
Light travels in a straight line until it hits something. At least according to most theories. But she's hitting so much stuff the closer she comes to being pure light, that she can't even go in a straight line from Point A to Point B.
There has to be another way! …Even as she completes her tenth circuit of the planet, her tenth streak of light shooting through the dark desert, a laser that others see only briefly as a searing after-image on their retinas, before she has vanished and appeared yet again. And she still has to go faster.
The lightning strikes that come down, if successful, may damage the huge glass structure enough to expose what she's looking for. And the dome of earth Itami is erecting, the huge dragon tearing up the earth and making a barrier, gives Meimei an idea as well. On the next pass, likely her last, given there are only 20 seconds left on her jutsu, it's time to make an all-or-nothing combat.
The huge earth dome that Itami forms becomes a sort of ramp with its sloped sides… A barrier, which might, assuming the sphere of death has physical substance instead of just passing through matter and killing any living thing it touches as is completely possible, serve as an obstacle to the destruction of the Hidden Sand. It appears it may have even given Meimei an idea in what fleeting vestiges of a mind remains to her. Though what, exactly, has yet to be seen, Sousa blasting away at the crystallized monster, hopefully exposing a weak point eventually, or at least reducing the amount of glass Meimei has to navigate through as she approaches something more like raw radiance than a human being, should hopefully yield a benefit no matter how small or how large.
The sphere continues to swell, now larger than the monster that produced it, being fed by the screaming ghosts that swirl around it, the spirits of everyone and everything that has ever died. Tormented by the nightmare of a breach in the planes that is leaking the malice of the living into the eternal rest of the dead, they no longer view things as they would, as they should…
And inside of that mountain of glass and dead-flesh-turned-to-sand, two figures are standing, unseen by the eyes of the living. A man in desert clothing nearly two centuries out of date, and a little girl holding his hand. Misu Yane, the man who would become the Ghoul, and then Hone Nai, and then the Dead King. His soul, or spirit, already separated from his monstrous body by his defeat at the hands of the Three-Tails Jinchuuriki, is not the one doing all this. His 'self' stands separate, watching, waiting to see how it all ends… If what was set in motion comes to pass, or if the ninja of the Hidden Sand save the world for another day.
But more and more insistently, his little sister tugs at his hand.
"Yane onii-chan. It's time to go."
Yane looks at the dragon that is Itami, the woman whom he had loved and admired from afar, but been unable to confess his feelings to because he knew what he looked like, what he had done, and that she could not love him in return. That he didn't deserve it.
He looks at the man named Sousa whom he had wanted so badly to be a friend. A confidante. A comrade. He'd been unable to reach him. Unable to pierce the barrier of clinical professionalism. Was the fault with Yane for not finding a way? Or for even trying in the first place?
Yane can't really see Meimei anymore, except as a streak of increasingly dim light zipping around the planet. But he remembers her. How she protected and nurtured the children at the academy. Risu, Minako, Misayo… He never knew her as well as he wished.
The others have already left. Ruri, Rinako, Kara, and Shemri. He betrayed them in order to set this situation up. Hoping they could be the ones to kill him if he kidnapped the Three-Tails Jinchuuriki's sister.
All it did was free his lingering human self and free his monster side to take full control.
The Hidden Sand, the people of the Land of Wind, and others all over the world he has met while he has traveled. As Hone Nai, and as the Ghoul, he wronged them all so much.
So he needs to see this through to the end. To find out whether they succeed in spite of him, or if his crimes go even further by ending all life in the world. He won't be able to accept whatever happens when he leaves here if he doesn't know.
"Not yet, Sanko-chan." Yane says. "Just a little bit longer."
Itami wasn't as focused on the battle as she should be. She could only think about tearing the earth apart, setting up the barrier around the mass that continued to grow. Piece after piece was being set up in the hopes of encircling it. She doubts it'd slow it down all that much, but sometimes the smallest amount of effort can produce great results.
As she circled back around, seeing the end of her work within sight, she flew inside the freshly created dome and utilized the momentum she had to curl up and roll around it. She needed to gather enough energy back for this attack to be effective, but once she got rolling, it was going to be hard to stop.
The human brain is a marvelously capable device that can at the same time be maddeningly irrational. Taking the current circumstances into prudent consideration, it's quite obvious that stopping this monstrosity is the only viable course for surviving any significant length of time from now, and thus all faculties should be dedicated toward this goal. Yet the instinct to flee from overwhelming peril, a quite useful feature under many circumstances, is interfering with operating on that premise. In Sousa's case, it also doesn't help that the unnatural chill pervading the area is one his body has experienced before, and it led to literal (if only clinical and temporary) death. The survival heuristics of Sousa's brain are flailing to run down a short-sighted path that ends in the certain failure of their purpose.
Fortunately, Sousa's neural pathways have been trained to mitigate such problems. Even as the untamable wilds of the unconscious are jangling with panic, other parts of his mind are still mechanically crunching numbers and processing incoming sensory data. His fingers continue weaving the electromagnetic tapestry in the sky, even taking into account their involuntary quivering. Finally, he reaches upward and sends sparks from each of his fingertips. A symphony of light sweeps through the air above the sand leviathan, peppering it with lightning strikes.
Meimei goes faster. Faster, and faster, and faster. 15 seconds when she comes back around this time. She spends 3 more navigating through the mountain of glass as Sousa's jutsu tears it apart, striking multiple sites, spreading the effect across this gigantic 'single target', in order to save her a few precious moments of energy. If she doesn't find it quickly, she won't have the energy remaining to land a killing blow… As much as one can land a killing blow on something that has died twice over.
Ten seconds. She can't make another circuit. She is going as fast as she is going to. As close to pure light as she can get while still retaining the tiniest shred of self. Right now, that speck of awareness has only one goal. 'Find the remains of the Dead King, the core that serves as its anchor to this world, and then detonate with all the Chakra remaining to her right in its face.'
That's her big plan. Go super nova in the face of a monster that dies when exposed to significant quantities of light.
As desperate final plans go, it's not the worst.
But that won't take care of the attack, will it? And that's where Itami comes in, as the laser beam that was once Meimei reflects from chunk of falling glass to chunk of falling glass, bouncing this way and that in a dazzling display, trying to find the one critical piece that can end the threat of the Dead King forever.
This beam of light follows that final directive… Even though the woman who started it is already gone from this world.
Yane watches intently, wanting to silently root for Itami, but Sousa, for Meimei, but knowing that in his heart of hearts, on some level, he agreed with what he used to think when he was the Ghoul. The world is full of such horror, such hardship, such evil. As much as people like to paint humans as inherently good, nothing could be further from the truth. Humans are selfish. They are cruel, wicked, malicious… They have to be TAUGHT to not be awful to each other, and then held in check by social conditioning, laws, and threat of force. No one starts off good.
And no one is ever truly, to the core of their self, willing to stick with it if they had the means to do whatever they wanted with zero consequences. That's why absolute power corrupts absolutely.
So is there 'good' in the world? Self-serving good, but good nonetheless?
Sure. But it is outweighed by human wickedness. So, Yane can not truly root for those he is leaving behind. Because he knows that the cycle will just continue if they win. But he also no longer feels as he once did: that he WANTS the world to end. Now, he is content to join the flow, and see where it takes him. To not try to shape the destiny of everything, and instead be a witness, and an observer, to where it all leads. To see if humans will get the chance to try to change, or if the decision made to pull the plug will be the end.
"Yane onee-san…" Sanko says again, pulling more urgently on her big brother's hand.
"Just a few seconds more—" Yane protests, pulling against the force he can feel yanking on his soul just as urgently. But then he feels something land on his shoulder.
Something very definite, and final.
IT IS TIME TO LEAVE NOW, MISU YANE. a voice like the tombs of giants slamming closed deep beneath the earth states without room for debate.
Even so, Yane is not intimidated as another would be by the skeletal hand on his soul's shoulder. He already knows Death very well. He turns to look at the entity, and says, "I need to know how it ends."
Death guides Yane away, leading the ancient man to where he belongs now. SHE WILL TELL YOU WHEN SHE JOINS US. ONOHARA MEIMEI WILL BE ALONG SHORTLY.
Then ghoul, ghost, and reaper, are fading into the darkness, finally visible, if only for a moment, to Itami and Sousa. But only if they look. And they might be a bit too preoccupied.
Especially when the sapient laser that was once Meimei finds a shredded husk of mummified flesh mixed with sand half-sticking-out of one of the glass fragments that Sousa just created by blasting it free from the rest of the mountainous monster. Already smoldering from the light produced by Sousa's jutsu, but not yet destroyed.
And Itami still has to dispose of that enormous sphere that threatens annihilation.
The moment of truth, the moment to lie. The moment to live, and the moment to die. The moment to fight.
Itami had built up all the energy she needed to cast herself into the midst of that dark mass to see to it that it was destroyed. She understood the dangers of it and could even see the results of what the light had produced, but she wanted to be certain, to be sure. She had to know that this would be the end and so, with that in mind, she launched herself forward to deal one last blow. It is as she approached that she caught the image of the Ghoul or…is that who it was? No, that was…someone else. She didn't understand at this time, but maybe she would later. Maybe… For now, her village and land were in danger and this darkness could not be permitted to continue.
Every part of her body could feel the fear in this moment, something that penetrated deeper than surface level, beyond physical, beyond mental, something much greater. She could feel it within the very depths of herself, a dread the likes of which she had never encountered, but this light brought her hope and comfort in this time and she pressed forward to commit herself to the blow to destroy this strange being and send it away from the world.
Sousa does, in fact, look. He wants to be certain his efforts are having results, after all. And results there seem to be, as Sousa catches a glimpse of Death departing with his charges. "Farewell, Misu Yane-san," Sousa murmurs. "It seems you are finally going to keep your long-delayed appointment."
So, that's all well and good, but it doesn't seem things are quite over yet. Spotting the dark chunk within one of the huge glass fragments, Sousa leaps over and draws a simple device from his robe — a small metal rod with wire wrapped around it. Loosing the wire, Sousa charges it with lightning chakra and makes the rod spin wildly as an electromagnetic motor. The wire glows brightly and vibrates in midair until it looks like a ribbon of solid light. The ribbon then curves into the glass fragment, carving it away to further expose its mummified contents.
Half of the former Onohara reaching the remains of the Ghoul is due to that last command recorded in her Chakra. The other half is Sousa exposing the withered carcass and drawing the 'attention' of that Chakra towards it. The moment the laser makes contact, it erupts into a flare of light that turns the artificial night into artificial day. The sky switches from pitch-black to blinding white.
Light penetrates everything, piercing glass, stone, flesh, making it possible to see the world clearly even through one's eyelids, to have the impression of one's own skull through one's skin. And the mountain of glass becomes a prism of enormous beauty and scale, if only anyone could stand to look at it without going blind.
All that Meimei was, all that she had left to give for this world, expended in an instant that seems to last an enternity.
And then she is gone. And then, hopefully, the Dead King or the Ghoul or whatever it was at the end, is also gone.
She leaves behind an adopted daughter, students, a Village, and many friends.
But at least they'll live.
Following a trail of light formed by Sousa, Meimei's latent Chakra is guided to its target. The undead remains that have always had to be remain covered up, protected, shielded from even something as trivial as a candle's flame, finally face a brilliance that they have been denied for so long.
And in the end, as the monstrous creature ceases to move, and just becomes earth and glass and sand, the ancient remains that turn to dust and crumble away, do so with no roar, no scream, no final condemnation.
Just a sigh, like an old man realizing something right before he goes to sleep for the final time. 'Aaaah…'
And then there is no more Ghoul. And even when Meimei's light is gone, the night does not return, for it is now morning. The air will warm eventually, but even now, the deathly cold is gone. It's just normal freezing cold, like one finds in the desert at late hours. Not the most pleasant, but better than a chill that almost physically bites at one's skin, trying to chew it away with frost a bit at a time.
It's a new day. The sun rises on a world that has not died. Not yet.
The reaper may have guided Yane away. May be bringing Meimei to join him. But one final message is whispered into Itami's ear, in the rich baritone that was the 'real' voice of Nai, that he used when he wasn't feigning being a raspy, weakened husk… Even if that was ironically closer to what he was.
The voice and the message, are simple, if not very cryptic. It will be years before the meaning becomes clear, if ever.
But it must be important for Yane to have slipped free of Death's very CERTAIN grasp on someone who has strayed too long, to pass it along.
"Take care of her for me."
And then the sun is spilling across the desert landscape, across the carnage and destruction, across the survivors and the dead and those who might yet be saved.
And the Blood Red Sandman, the Leather Apron, Smiling Jack, the Ghoul of the Desert, the Dead King, and so many other grandiose titles, applied to someone who was a slave to a hunger and fear he could not control and who chose at the end to expose his true nature and invite his own destruction to finally end the pain he caused others…
…Finally comes to a close.
He sits in a library now, or something like one. Somewhere else. Somewhere removed. His whole family has greeted him, reunited with him, but now, he waits at a table, surrounded by books. His youngest sister sits with him, swinging her legs and smiling at her big brother. The Reaper bears the form of a scholarly man in a robe, hands folded, waiting patiently in a simple wicker chair.
There is a fourth place set out at the table, tea waiting, steam rising from the spectral cup.
SO WHAT HAVE YOU CONCLUDED FROM ALL THIS, MISU YANE? Death asks.
The librarian looks up from his book, and ponders for a moment. He thinks about all he has been through. Everyone he has met. All he has done, and all he left incomplete.
And then he says, "I'm not sure I'd change anything if I had to do it over again. I might not have gotten to meet the same people if I didn't wind up like that. And I think it was important that I met them. For me and for them. Even if it wasn't always the right way, it wasn't just me deciding the fate of the world. I was not the story teller, and they are writing their own endings for their own tales." Yane closes the book and adds on. "That said, I wouldn't mind going back someday. I still have a daughter expecting me to come see her."
Death tilts his head and says, THAT WILL NOT BE POSSIBLE, UNFORTUNATELY. YOU AND THE OTHERS WHO HAVE PROLONGED THEIR TIME TOO FAR ARE GOING TO FADE FROM THE WORLD ONE BY ONE. YOUR 'DAUGHTER' WILL HAVE TO FIND HER OWN WAY, JUST AS ALL MORTALS MUST. YOU CAN NOT AUTHOR HER STORY AS WELL.
Yane thinks about that, for a moment entertaining notions of trying to cheat Death once more. But then he looks at the smiling face of Misu Sanko, seated across from him. And he smiles back. "Well, that's alright then."
Then he folds his hands and waits for their final companion to join them.
When Itami dove into the swirling sphere of death and destruction, something happened she probably didn't expect, but might have been willing to endure if it meant saving everyone. She died. She died amidst a howling tempest of screaming souls, her body taken from the world, and deposited… In a big blank white space. No, wait, there might be shelves. And a table. And a little girl, and an older man, and a man of indeterminate age with eyes that are empty holes who seems to see and know far too much when he looks at Itami.
She is not in her dragon form. She is just herself. And she is dead.
Death squints at Itami and says, YOU ARE THE SECOND KAGE OF THE HIDDEN SAND TO COME TO YOUR APPOINTMENT EARLY. I SUPPOSE YOU ARE NOT KAGE YET. BUT IT IS REMARKABLE THE HAVOC THAT A FALSE IMMORTAL CAN CAUSE WITH MY SCHEDULE BOOK. The reaper looks to those at the table, and then back to Itami.
NO. NO BARGAIN FOR YOU. TELL SOUSA THAT THE RETURNING OF MISU YANE TO ME HAS PAID FOR BOTH YOUR DEBT AND HIS. GO BACK TO FULFILL YOUR OWN DESTINY. THE PLACE AT THIS TABLE IS NOT FOR YOU.
Then, Death smiles hideously, emptily, in a way that is not meant to be menacing, but to a mortal life definitely is because of its reminder of The End.
When Itami awakes next, it will be in the desert, heavily damage, chill with the death she just suffered, the temporary ending of her biological processes. And no sign of the sphere that she took the full force of to save the whole world a premature demise.
For her, Sousa, and every living thing, the balance has been restored. And the debts owed to Death have been set to zero.
'Take care of her…' Itami felt she thought, but she actually spoke. The white flash washed over her and when it cleared, she was in a library. 'Didn't think I'd make it back to Suna so quickly,' she spoke, though she started to notice some strangeness in the environment. This isn't Suna's library. It became ever more obvious when the visage of Death loomed before her. 'I'm not a dragon.' It should have become painfully clear by that point and it did, minus the pain. She felt none. As Death speaks, she retracts, still able to feel some form of discomfort with what was just spoken to her. 'No bargain, understood. Wait, what debt?'
As she starts to feel the world of the dead peel away, she makes note to say, 'I'll try to look after her!' before darkness overcame her and the light of day met the lids of her eyes. She took a deep breath and then another. "I just died…" She said unbelievably, but that's not the worst of her troubles. "What debt was he talking about?" Aaaand there goes the pain, "Nevermind, nevermind that. I'm in too much pain to think now…" She did at least raise up from the ground and steady herself. "Time to go back home. I'm certain I won't be sleeping well for a while."
Is it over?
…A primarily academic question, as it would be extremely difficult to do anything more if it is not over. -.-;
Thankfully, the answer does appear to be 'yes'. Sousa makes his way over to Itami in time to hear her talking about dieing. "Ah, really…we shall have to compare notes later," he says wryly. Well, partly wry, but he is going to debrief her on her experience when they have a chance. Rare data is rare. Offering Itami a shoulder to lean on, Sousa nods. "Home is indeed a quite desirable goal at this moment."
Onohara Meimei, purple haired, violet eyed, paled skinned, in the black robe and hood she so often wears… Short legs striding down a long hallway, a corridor of light stretching out behind her. Too far to walk back. She traveled too far to get here. She told Sousa to look after Risu, and tell her that Meimei loved her. But even though she sacrificed herself to help everyone, even though she did all she could knowing what the consequences would be, she still feels… Regret. Regret that she won't get to see Risu grow up.
To see Minako and Misayo again. To thank Sousa for allowing a foreigner like her to become part of his Village even knowing she was a fugitive in her own country. To chat with Itami like they used to, about plans for the Village, the holidays coming up, what might make the academy better for the students… To maybe find some sign of her old Clan. Reconnect with family if they were still around. So much left behind. But most of all, she misses Risu. The little orphan girl whose name was given to her by Meimei herself when she adopted her.
But she pauses in the hallway when she sees Itami going down it in the opposite direction, falling quickly, gone before Meimei can fully turn to look. Then she faces forwards again, and finds herself looking at a table with three people setting at it. Well, two people and a psychopomp representing death. She takes her time looking around the library as she approaches, not wanting to hurry things along. Just taking in everything in her life that she got to experience.
Not focusing on the regrets, but what she LEARNED. Maybe that's the symbolism of bringing her to a library. Learning.
She puts her hand on the back of a high-backed chair, and looks down at the cup of tea steaming there. Then, she sighs and says, "I guess what I learned… Is that a parent or a teacher… Either way, eventually the children will have to experience things for themselves, and just hope that we raised them properly, so that they can make the right choices." She looks across to Death. She has no life to go back to anymore. Not even remains to bury. She'll be scattered and traveling across the universe in fragments for the rest of eternity. Spreading out and seeing every star in the sky.
Sometimes known as Hibiki Yoko, but born Onohara Meimei, the short ninja pulls out the chair and asks, "Do you mind if I join you?"
Yane watches as Itami appears and then is sent home. Relief fills him. He doesn't want Itami to join him yet. She has so much more to contribute and experience. Her promise with him he acknowledges with a smile before adjusting his eyeglasses and waving, even as the Watanabe fades from the afterlife.
Then Meimei arrives moments later, approaches, and asks to join them.
Sanko says without hesitation, "Please do!"
Death says, THIS SEAT IS FOR YOU, FOR AS LONG AS YOU WISH.
Yane looks to the woman who finally ended him, destroyed his last anchor to the world, and smiles. Then he says, "I had such a hard time socializing. But for the longest time, I wanted to ask you if you had read any good books lately. Well…" He sets down the book in his hands, and asks, "It appears I have time now. Have you read any good books lately?"