Date: September 27, 2010
A caravan escort of vital supplies for Sunagakure does not go according to plan, when the Ghoul of the Desert comes looking for a meal.
Desert - Land of Wind
It is approaching evening. A caravan bearing supplies from outlying villages and Konohagakure is making its way across the desert. It is not a ninja caravan, and thus it takes longer than three days to go from the Leaf Village to the Sand Village. However, the various wagons bearing crates and barrels and bundles of things are being GUARDEd by ninja, and thus it will be more or less safe from the greatly diminished bandits of the Land of Wind — hopefully, at least.
It is possible the bandits may be more desperate than ever for food, water, and other supplies. It is thus possible that they may attempt to attack the caravan. But right now, they are scattered, not organized, and out of the thousands of desert-dwelling miscreants that began the assault on Sunagakure, anywhere from dozens to a hundred may have survived. Not all the bandits participated in the siege, of course — but most of them did. So there is little threat in that area.
The wagon-drivers have decided to set up camp for the night, circling the wagons to provide a defensive barrier to any attacks from outside. A fire has been started up to provide warmth in the desert's night-time chill. The sky is more or less clear tonight, with stars strewn about the heavens, but there are some clouds in the distance. Not rain clouds, of course, but the morning may be a bit cooler than it would be without the cloud cover.
Somewhere in the darkness beyond the wagons, something hungry lurks.
Itami sought to personally come and see to it that these caravans would make it to Sunagakure. They were in desperate need of these caravans supplies and she couldn't risk them being lost to the elements or the people hiding within them. The trek was long, but relatively short compared to what the drivers had to endure to get to this land. There were risks on the way here, large crater, some traps still left over from the fight and weapons scattered about here and there that might pose a bit of a threat, but for the most part, things were clear.
There were ways around that particular part of the desert to arrive at Suna, even though they would be out of the way, but safety comes first. No need risking the lives of others for your own problems. She was still on her way to the caravans, just a short distance away. She could see the light from the fire, fairly faint compared to the rest of the desert, but it was a small beacon for her to follow and that was enough for her. She'd finally made it.
Meimei signed up as an Academy Instructor. Maybe the Academy Students have been 'tapped' as 'resources', and maybe it would be best if she was teaching them a crash-course in 'don't die', but apparently someone at the top thought it was a good idea to send the Onohara known as 'Hibiki Yoko' out to protect a caravan instead of training the students that had never known real combat before. To appearances, this was foolish. But Meimei understands. There are many lives in a Village. They can be used as resources when they are plentiful. And when the majority of the lives are in danger, steps must be taken to ensure that no more are lost. It is only when lives become few and far between that one must focus on preserving the smaller population. And right now, these supplies will save more lives than any one Student might. Or any two Students. Or three. Or six. Or a dozen… If they die, all Meimei can do is hope they die doing something worthwhile.
That's the kind of survivalist mentality that has been driven into her by her entire life's experiences. And now it is being confirmed as a reality by the actions of a Hidden Village. Running along behind Itami at a moderate pace, 'Yoko' saw the caravan and its campfire long ago. She has her goggles off. Or did. The starlight was more than enough to see by. But with the bright flames growing closer she has to pull down her tinted goggles over her purple eyes again. That or squint a lot.
Squinting gives her a headache. Looking behind her to see where the last member of the team is, Meimei makes sure he's not lagging behind. Then again, maybe he's running even with her and she has no reason to worry.
Takumi has been seeing a sharp increase in his workload lately, and this latest assignment is no different. As a combat medic, the caravan escort seemed like a natural choice for him, as he can help defend and then mend any injuries that occur due to misadventure or bandits. He hopes the mission will be mostly uneventful, and that he can concentrate mostly on being a lookout, or exuding a mysterious ninja aura. It isn't that he dislikes dealing with people, after all he is a medic, but he prefers things that are more structured and able to be dealt with quickly, such as objectives, and injuries.
Keeping pace with the other ninjas, but slightly behind them, Takumi zones out slightly while following Meimei, wonder how many breadboxes it would take to hide her, and wondering where she gets her goggles, as he is due for some new ones soon.
The wagon-drivers, the workers, and the craftsmen that accompany or are being transported by the wagons in this caravan are all settled inside the circle of covered wagons and desert-appropriate vehicles. There are some people on watch, but they are not ninja. Thus, when they see their escorts running towards them, they are relieved. One of the guards turns to the others and says loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to carry on the somewhat-quiet air of the desert at night, "Our escorts are here! Sunagakure sent them after all!" The people eating dinner quickly get up — or most of them at least — and come over to greet the Suna-nin team. "Finally!" one says. Another offers, "I was getting worried. Mako's not getting any better, you know. I hope they have someone who can magic the poison out of him."
As Itami leads the way and arrives at the wagons, the guard that noticed them originally moves everyone out of the way with hand gestures and 'Back, all. Make room.' But there does not appear to be a 'leader' of this caravan per se — not visible, at least. The three ninja will be greeted respectfully but in a friendly, almost… Relieved manner. Something must have gone wrong for them to be this glad to see the escort team.
Itami was happy to hear those words. It did her well to know that the caravan has gone unharmed. "Poison? Someone has been poisoned?" She inquires with a soft frown. Perhaps she was too quick to speak. "I…apologize. I do not have any healing abilities, but one of our own is a medical ninja. Perhaps he can help." She looks back to Takumi and steps aside to give him room to see the one who has been afflicted. "I am glad you have come along." She looks to Yoko and nods to her saying, "The same goes for you. I am appreciative of your services this evening."
Meimei/Yoko slows down as they reach the wagons, seeing someone silhouetted against the light of the camp fire. Even with nearly pitch-black goggles she can see fairly well. But she is unaware of Takumi's spacing out behind her and imagining her hiding in a breadbox. Maybe she could henge into one, but even SHE would make for a large breadbox! …Maybe!
"Poison, huh? From what, exactly?" she inquires. Pleasantries can come later. She acknowledges Itami's thanks with a nod of her head. The very short woman's head gesture may be missed thanks to her enveloping hood, but surely Itami will understand if she is more focused on the matter at hand than taking her hood off, nodding, then putting the hood back on!
She also scoots past the guard to get inside the wagon circle, if possible, leaving plenty of room for Takumi.
Takumi nods politely to those near him as he moves through the outer perimeter of the caravan. "Hmm, poison you say? I'm really more of a trauma doctor. My skill in poisons is not very encompassing. I'll see what I can do though if someone directs me to patient."
Takumi frowns inwardly, as this isn't the first time poisons have come up, but there has always been another medic to assist him in those situations. He has a few ideas that are modifications of his chakra healing, but is it acceptable to experiment on a person in a time of need? He thinks to himself that he will have to study up on techniques when he returns to the village hospital. Deep in thought about what he should do, Takumi retreats into his head as he follows the lead to the patient, if one is given.
The guard and the others in the area nod grimly to Itami's question, but brighten when she mentions having a Medical Ninja with them. "That's great!" one calls out. At Meimei's question, almost drowned out by the chattering amongst the caravaneers thanks to her being so small a microscope is needed to see her, but SOMEONE hears and responds, "A bite, we think." One man leads Takumi through to one of the wagons, even though he says he's not a specialist in poisons. They are aware that he might not be able to help… But surely he can do SOMETHING. Or so they will have to hope.
Lying on some bedding in one wagon, there is a rather large and strong-looking man. He has a blanket over him, and his eyes are half-open but seem to be staring at nothing. His breathing is shallow and erratic. The one who lead Takumi here says, "Like I said… We thought it was a bite of some kind. Snake maybe. But I've never heard of a snake bite like THIS before…" He grabs the bottom of the blanket and lifts it slowly, the smell of rotting flesh wafting out in a repellent wave. The man turns his head away, trying to breathe through his mouth instead of his nose and says, "Now we're thinking it might be spider bite. Brown Recluse maybe, due to the necrotization." Someone else standing nearby asks, "Nakedwhat?" The first man says, "No, necrotization. It means he's rotting." "Oh." The leg is indeed rotting. Right at the ankle, the flesh is blackened around the edges as the flesh curls up and rolls away from the wound, and the skin around THAT is greying. Blood and less pleasant substances leak from the wound that looks more like someone took a bite out of the ankle than simply bit it with fangs or mandibles. Further, there are CREATURES on the wound. Maggots and less desirable things. Very gross.
This is no snake bite. Spider bite? That would have to be one heck of a spider. So what is this then? What bit this man? The second caravaneer steps forward to say, "So you can cure Mako, right? He's our leader. Been running caravans through the desert for half a decade."
There have been crickets and various other insects chirping and making noises all around, while the ninja were headed here, and even now. The droning of cicadas has become such a background noise it is not even really something one is aware of anymore. Until it stops. Infact, all noise stops. All noise except for the campfire and the people around it, but while the ninja would likely be the first to notice, even the caravaneers will eventually realize that all wildlife in the area has just gone completely dead-silent.
Itami tried to figure out if she wanted to go and see the man and after going back and forth with herself, she finally resolved that she would go and observe what was making the man ill. Following after the guide who was leading Takumi over, she stayed to one side to continue to allow Takumi the room to observe while she tried to sneak a peak at what was going on. However, her nose caught wind of it before her eyes did and she winced as well as choked a little.
"Those spiders are a bit frequent, but…" She doesn't continue as she draws closer to look at the bite. "That…doesn't look like…" She clears her throat and sighs. "We have to get him aid quickly." Sunagakure isn't too far, but with a caravan it would take some time, but they can't leave him like this. While she's thinking of what actions to take, she almost didn't notice that everything fell silent. "…It's…odd." She looks up into the sky and then to the area around them. All she sees are wagons, but…"It's quiet."
Meimei stays away from the wagon with the injured man in it. She's not qualified to help with that. She'd be better off keeping an eye on things… And filching some of that ramen. It has been a long trip, okay. When she hears the noises from the wagon, she focuses her attention slightly in that direction, but the news they may need to leave immediately — or at least SOMEONE needs to leave immediately. One person can likely stay to guard the caravan, and that will hopefully be her. She is not really built for hauling around heavy sick guys with rotting legs.
When the sound fades out, she doesn't pick up on it immediately, but she does realize something is different. Frowning as she lowers the serving utensil back into the pot, she tries to put together what it is. Then Itami's comment makes her realize. "…Something's wrong." she mutters, loud enough to be heard by those nearby, but otherwise not too loud. She faces away from the fire, and looks out into the night. And then takes off her goggles. Everything jumps into immediate clarity. The blinding glow from behind her is filtered out as best she can, but it's still a distraction. She leaps up on top of a wagon, the height of her jump perhaps surprising next to her diminuitive stature.
Facing out into the desert, she looks very carefully for anything out of place… And if she sees nothing, she jumps to a different wagon to look in that direction instead.
Takumi looks over the injured man's leg, wondering what could have done it. "I've never seen a poison of this sort before. I'll do what I can, but as far as poisons I know, this is something else entirely." At this, the medic puts his palms on the prone figure. Using his diagnostic jutsu, he tries his best to detect what is wrong with the man, sending chakra pulses through the patient's network. He concentrates on his work, not noticing the world outside his immediate area at the moment. His main worry is that whatever made this wound is out there in the desert, and hopes that his skills are enough to balance out attrition.
Silence continues to reign, and the people at the campsite are alerted to the sudden dying-off of wildlife noises by Meimei and Itami. Takumi may be focusing on the injured man, but everyone else is keenly aware that nature itself has become as quiet as mud. Nothing except the campfire produces any noise. There is the suddenly excited breathing of frightened human beings, of course, and the noises of Meimei leaping from wagon to wagon. But other than that… Nothing.
Meimei would be the first to see it, thanks to her incredible, light-amplifying eyes. The ground out in the desert, quite distant, is shifting and moving. Like there's a lump of sand — or something under it — moving gradually towards the camp. Then the lump stops. A humanoid figure suddenly stands up from the lump, without disturbing the earth. Like it's MADE out of the earth. It has a few wild spikes of grey hair, flecked with dark spots, but mostly its scalp is bare. It has dark features all over, and appears to be quite thin… Emaciated, really. Its near-skeletal arms hang at its sides, and two eyes reflect the moonlight back at Meimei, seeming to make them glow. Exact facial features are unclear, other than that they resemble someone dead or near-to-such, rather than one living. It stands there and stares, obviously aware that Meimei is looking at it.
Then in one smooth motion it seems to hunch forward, huddle close to the ground, and vanish into the dirt. The sand mound reappears and begins moving forward. Faster this time.
Those not looking in that direction or not gifted with special senses would not see this disturbing sight. Instead they would see something else disturbing… The campfire, every few seconds, seems to crackling and move in one direction — as though there were a breeze or strong wind blowing it to the south. The sand mound is approaching from the north. There is no wind. If it were possible for the air-movement to be any more dead than it currently is, it would be hard to imagine it. It is heavy, clinging, suffocating almost. And yet there is the fire. Blowing to the south. With no wind.
Takumi's focus on the man in the wagon would reveal that he is not poisoned at all. He is infected with something. A disease… Or multiple diseases. And they've already spread well beyond his ankle. The symptoms just haven't become visible further up yet. It's a volatile infection, whatever it is, and there are far too many insects and creatures around the wound to have been born there between bite and present diagnosis.
It's almost like they were PLACED there… Or as though they came WITH the bite. The caravaneers may not be aware of what exactly is happening, but even they can feel now that there is a wave of cold coming at them in bursts. Not cold air. Just… Cold. A chill that affects the entire body. Side-effect of fear? It is unclear to them. But to the ninja paying attention, it would be quite evident what this is.
Waves of murder. Waves of Killing Intent.
The man in the wagon suddenly sits bolt upright, taking in a huge gasp of air, even as his mouth lies slack and his eyes are wide open, as though just awakening. Then, with his face inches from Takumi's, he SCREAMS at the top of his lungs, long and loud.
A mighty gust of invisible, unfelt wind, makes the campfire blow stronger than ever before. Then the flames go out. The caravaneers start to panic.
Itami is still at the moment. Still as the life around them as she continues to look across the area for something. She doesn't know what it is, but this feeling is just wrong. Only her hand lifts to rub her arm as if to rub out the cold that she's experiencing. Part of this motion has some merit as she does grow cold easily and despises it, but those are for other reasons. However, these chills of death are just as strong and loathed as this isn't the kind of chill one can just shun off physically.
A glance goes to the fire and then full attention as it begins to bend and crackle without anything to disturb it. What could possibly cause something like this? Frustrations rise within her and some fears. She didn't want any attacks to occur or anomalies, but here they are once again and right on cue.
When all goes dark upon the fire growing in strength and subsequently going out with nothing left, but a smoldering pile, Itami's blood begins to rush in her veins, her heart picking up speed. She can almost hear it beating, but that could be a side effect of her own fears. "Everyone, seek shelter. You don't want to be out here right now." She raises her voice and commands them with a stern tone. This isn't the time to panic.
Meimei is not prone to experiencing fear. Well, okay, that's a lie. She has lived with fear. Fear of identification. Fear of discovery. Fear of being hunted down like an animal and slaughted like the same. The fear of rejection, the fear of those bizarre earthquakes from a few weeks ago, and now fear of some bizarre scarecrow-like figure standing up from the sand and looking at her. She couldn't make out all the details. But she has seen something like that before. In Sunagakure's Puppet Shop. She assumed it was thus a Puppet. What else could it be?
Meimei remembers the zombies that attacked Sunagakure.
"…." She turns and starts to call out to the others of her discovery, but her throat clenches up. Her mouth is dry suddenly. She swallows a few times, closing her eyes to avoid being blinded with her face directed at the fire, and then manages to call out in a 'loud whisper', "Something's coming!" But that's all she gets out before the waves of Killing Intent hit her. She whips her head around to track where this Puppet or Zombie or whatever it is might be. She barely spots it. It's not where it was when she turned away. It's much, much closer. The fire reacting to waves of murderous desire behind her is barely acknowledged, even subconsciously. She just focuses on tracking this thing. Then all the light goes out, just as a loud SCREAM goes off somewhere near where Takumi was, last she saw.
"Wonderful," she mutters. Then she puts her hands together in a focusing seal, and begins to generate Chakra. She doesn't know what exactly she's up against, but she isn't going to be caught flat-footed. Not this time. Her uncovered eyes, now no longer dealing with any blinding lights, begin to become an even more vivid shade of purple as Chakra is sent to them. Now, even if light pops up from somewhere, it won't impede her as much. Because she is using the Eye of Night. An ability she had failed to unlock for years. It took the mad rush around Sunagakure, trying to save lives during the storm and the quakes to give her the motivation to use the power she had been accumulating. She had unlocked her birthright. And then she had spent the next week after the siege ended doing nothing but training how to use it even BETTER.
Nothing will escape her this night. If her enemy is part of the desert somehow… She might as well be the night itself. "Show yourself, monster!" she calls out, after Itami gives her instructions to everyone.
Takumi starts to fall backwards due to the sudden movement and screaming of his patient, but he manages to turn it into a stumbling egress from the wagon. Once he regains his balance, the sense of killing intent cannot be ignored. The man in the wagon needs help, but whatever wants to kill everyone needs to take priority. Healing a man is worthless if everyone is then killed instantly. The sudden movement from a lit environment to one of darkness as the fire goes out, coupled with the rather unseemly exit from the wagon disorients the medic.
Not knowing where the danger is coming from, Takumi quickly forms some hand signs and then spreads his arms out to his sides, sending an invisible wave of chakra through the area in an upgraded diagnostic technique. Concentrating on the sensations he recieves back, Takumi quickly discerns the locations of those near him by detecting their bio-signs. He also detects something else that confuses him enough to make him believe this is the threat. He can detect brain activity on a sentient level, but nothing else indicitive of life.
Takumi quickly orients himself toward the strange reading and prepares for what comes next.
When called out to, the mound of sand stops. The frightened caravaneers nonetheless do as they are told by Itami and get inside their wagons and anywhere else they feel might be safe. The screaming man, 'Mako', keeps on screaming and panicking, but he's screaming WORDS now. A jubble of words and gibberish, hysterical ranting, but it seems to indicate that what he is afraid of and possibly hallucinating about is the same thing that bit him originally. Very convenient that it coincides with some kind of… THING appearing and intending to kill everyone.
Right in the middle of the wagon circle, without the sand mound moving at all, another of those 'scarecrow' figures rises form the sand, near the extinguished campfire, smoke still trailing from the dying embers and heated wood. The figure turns its head towards Itami slowly, at an odd neck angle, chin to its chest practically. The zombie-like being rolls its head upwards along its shoulder on the disturbingly thin neck that supports its skull, and then stares at the Council Member with yellowed, dead eyes that have red irises and pupils. Not red like 'demonic evil'. Not even red like 'blood'. More red like 'dust and dirt and rust'. The red of ground-up stone, or of clay. This is a creature of the Earth, as unnatural as it may be.
And it's staring at Itami, with jagged, sharp, broken-looking teeth… More like fangs than the teeth one would find in a human skull. Unless those teeth had been filed. The creature stands and stares at Itami, and despite its withered features barely-visible in the darkness, with only the glow of the moon highlighting the creature's front half, it almost seems as though this monster… Recognizes Itami somehow? Or perhaps that is the imagination. It is not as though the stretched, dry flesh that is pulled back from the eye sockets and gums and so forth are very expressive. Mostly it just looks dead.
While that is going on, another of the figure rises from near the wagon with the injured man in hysterics. Unlike the one with the brain activity, neither of these two undead/earthen creatures is showing any signs of life — not even those of a dead thing with a functioning brain. Depending on how quick Takumi reacts, this duplicate of the Ghoul may be able to grab Mako by his ankles and start pulling him out of the wagon and towards the sand it arose from. If he goes down that hole, he probably won't be coming back out.
In front of Meimei, the sand pile remains stationary. It hasn't shifted enough to show that what's underneath it has gone anywhere. There's obviously still SOMETHING there… But what is it?
Itami looked around to make sure everyone had made it into their wagons and secured themselves inside. This feeling was growing stronger by the moment and she didn't want anyone to become a victim to it. There was already one that was victimized and his endless screaming continually sends a chill up her spine. Those were cries of true fear and he had every reason to be considering what happened to him. She couldn't make out what was being said all that well, but that was cast aside when this…thing rose up from the ground and stared her down with those eyes.
She looked back, seemingly confused. She couldn't read into any specific expression, the face was hidden, but even the eyes were too dead to determine anything more from this creature. The way it stared at her made her very uncomfortable and all she could do is stare back. It's only when she snaps out of this to go on the offensive and strike at this thing. Whatever it is. It's a threat and it has to be eliminated. Upon drawing close enough, she throws her leg forward to kick at the creature, hopefully to strike it again if she manages the follow up in the attack.
Meimei keeps on watching the sand pile in front of her. She can see far more clearly than the others in the dark. She can see that there are minute changes to the sand that indicate things moving AWAY from the pile… While something else stays right where it is. She can't see Chakra. But once quick glance behind her shows that the things rising up out of the desert are not quite the same as what is in front of her… Because they are still connected to the ground somehow. Their feet are merged with the dirt. Meaning…
'Are they still connected to this pile before me?' she wonders. She's not genius at Ninjutsu. She had to work hard for everything she has now. But she is willing to act upon an impulse, at least. And her impulse right now is to try to blast the hell out of that sand pile and let the others deal with the duplicates or whatever they are. She chooses to use a new jutsu of hers. She makes a series of handseals — Dragon, Tiger, Dragon, Serpent, Dragon, Ox, Tiger, Dragon, Serpent — and then her eyes widen and appear to go completely white as there is a small flare of light in front of her. Then… Nothing appears to happen.
Nothing except the desert below where she is standing starting to BURN and SMOKE as the sand CORRODES under the onslaught of gamma radiation. The particles are too small to be stopped by something like sand. They'd pass right through. Further, aside from the ground smoking and sizzling, there is no actual indication of what is being used to attack. It's invisible. Instantaneous. Deadly.
But will it be enough?
Also, Meimei yells, "Ganma Bakudan! (Gamma Bomb!)"
Takumi watches the area where he detected the strange bio-signs and slowly removes a kunai from his pouch, holding it in an overhand grip, ready to slash at anything that strikes him as needing slashing. The man in the wagon continues his screaming, causing the medic to turn partially around and yell words of encouragement and suppression.
As his vision sweeps over to the wagon, he notices some sort of creature partially inside the wagon, either making its way in or out. Whatever it is, Takumi is sure it is not supposed to be there, and makes a quick move, channeling chakra around his kunai and flinging it toward the creature.
The Earth Clones that so closesly resemble the real article slip back into the earth as though sucked into it by a powerful vacuum. They evade the attacks directed at them. The bright side of this is that Mako is left alone, though still freaking out as he tries to scramble back into the wagon and keep his leg from hanging over the edge where it can be grabbed and bitten again. Or worse.
But what REALLY seals the end of this conflict is when a massive build-up of Chakra is felt. The Ghoul of the Desert is not that sensitive to Chakra, but he can tell when blood flow is increasing. He can hear the rush of life's fluid as it is directly forcibly to the eyes — carrying Chakra in the process. He can feel enough of the Chakra to know that if this hits him, he may be injured enough to become vulnerable to the others. Would he die? He doubts it. He does not know if there is enough human left in him to die.
But he would rather not find out. So he dives deep. Deep. Deep into the earth, and does his very best not to be within range when the radiation wave hits. This turns out to be a good move on his part.
Remarkably, once he is gone… Once the waves of non-physical cold, and the pulses of death fade away… The fire starts to return to its previous lively state. Greatly diminished, but still burning. It is low, weak, struggling to burn… But at least there is light again.
The Ghoul is the earth. Meimei is the night. But the night only cloaks half the world at a given time. Meanwhile, anywhere there is earth… The Sandman can strike.