Date: November 14, 2014
Atsuro and Kenta are sent to a remote mountain outpost to deal with a sudden illness.
Poster's note: foul language filtered in obvious places.
"The Spores of Deceit"
Mount Sougan, Land of Fire
Within this mountainous region of the Land of Fire, Mount Sougan is one of Konoha's secret weapons. Unless you want to go over the mountains themselves, navigating through this region is done by taking one of three roads. All three are visible from the Leaf outpost at Mount Sougan. Since the threat of the Silence first appeared, the outpost has been manned by rotating teams of Leaf nin twenty-four hours a day, ensuring that any suspicious movements in this whole region are recorded and reported to Konoha via carrier pigeon.
Unfortunately, something has gone seriously wrong. The last report from the outpost was a plea for help, reporting a sudden and serious illness. Only a single member of the team manning the post is still up and able, and in trying to keep the rest of the team alive, he hasn't been able to investigate the source of the illness or actually keep watch over the roads.
Over the past couple of days, Atsuro, Kenta, and Taizen have journeyed through the Land of Fire, and finally find themselves on Mount Sougan itself. Despite the high altitude, the air is fairly warm and wet — only at the very peak of the mountain does the vegetation appear sparse. The rest of the mountain abounds with healthy green plants of all sizes. From a distance, it looks as if the mountain is covered in a thick green rug, being so dense with life. But as the team approaches the foot of the mountain, Atsuro leads them around to a large fallen tree. The hole left behind is filled by a leafy shrub.
Atsuro turns around to speak to Kenta. "The path I'm about to show you is super secret. And the existence of the outpost is kinda secret too." He puts a finger to his lips, then turns around and picks up the shrub. It looks light, and from how easily Atsuro picked it up, it must not even have been properly rooted in the ground. In the forest beyond, there's a narrow pathway where the plantlife has been pushed back just enough to allow access.
Kenta had no more idea that the outpost existed than anyone else in Konoha, except for those of sufficient rank like Atsuro and Taizen. The mission details had enough information for him to figure out to bring a large selection of medicine with him, but he remained doubtful throughout the journey. It's not that he didn't believe Atsuro about the existence of the secret outpost. It's mainly that they're heading into such a secluded location that Kenta could barely imagine meeting a community of people out there. Even Shadewood Village was built in a location with a few relatively known trails nearby.
"I understand," Kenta whispers back to Atsuro when the older shinobi shows him the tree. He stays back to watch curiously while Atsuro picks the whole thing up to reveal a narrow path hidden behind it. An impressed expression appears on Kenta's face. He would never have noticed the strangeness of the tree without being shown.
Once they're beyond the fallen tree, Atsuro turns around and replaces the shrub. "Clever, eh?" he says, "Some of the best were used to make this trail. It's not easy to make this sort of thing when you have to keep it perfectly secret. I don't even really know what the deal with that is. I feels like a real live bush — maybe it is, and they just have some way of keeping it alive even when it isn't rooted?" He shrugs.
The trail leads very gradually up the side of the mountain. There are a few places where the ninja have to climb up steps of weathered stone, but mostly they just pad over soft moss, walking up the slightest of slopes. The trip up the mountain is a long one, but not very strenuous at all. The foliage seems to do an excellent job of concealing the path from the outside world. Looking out from the mountain shows little more than a wall of green, except in a few places where small windows in the foliage allow them to glimpse at the road and surrounding mountains.
After another hour of walking, the path turns a sudden corner and faces them up against a sheer rocky wall. "Uh, lemme see…" Atsuro sidles past Taizen and Kenta, up to the wall. He puts his fingers in a crevice in the rocks, then starts to pull. Part of the rock comes free, allowing just enough room for a person to pass through and a whiff of stale air to escape.
"Maybe the first Hokage helped create the trail. She can use wood style, so I bet that something like this won't be hard for her. There's also a clan that can manipulate plant life in other ways," Kenta suggests quietly. He follows after Atsuro and Taizen without any major problems, despite the large pack strapped to his back. He does have to stop every so often to free it from entanglement by the surrounding branches and shrubs, but it's not enough to slow him down. Kenta has a strong constitution even though he's overall strength isn't much to brag about.
"We're going -through- the mountains?" Kenta whispers when he sees the sheer rock wall at the end of the path and the way that Atsuro creates another opening. The young medic-nin shifts his weight uncomfortably. He has no problems with large caves, buildings and wide underground tunnels. What concerns him is the possibility that they'll have to squeeze through some very tight spaces, which is another matter all together.
"It's been around for years," says Atsuro, "So I guess she /could/ have something to do with it. I dunno. Germ, /I/ only learned about it because I'm a jounin scout. They keep pretty much everything about this place on a need-to-know basis." He grins, "Congratulations, Mr. Need-to-Know." Since he's bringing up the rear, he's in a good position to help untangle Kenta's gear.
"Not /through/ so much," Atsuro reassures Kenta, "Just a little detour." Just like the rest of the path, it's hard to tell what in the cave is natural and what's a carefully planned and crafted feature. Even when Atsuro pulls the rock back into place behind them, tiny cracks all through the ceiling and walls let in just barely the light needed to make the cave interior visible enough. "I think they found some natural tunnels way back when, so they just used 'em," Atsuro explains. He holds out a hand to Kenta. He and Taizen have the benefit of enhanced eyes, after all. Whatever Kenta does with the offer, Atsuro will lead them further into the caves.
Their footsteps echo softly against the rough stone floor. Then Atsuro stops. He sniffs the air a couple times. "Do you smell something weird?" If Kenta tries, he'll catch a whiff of something with a distinctive and pungent scent — somewhere between sickly sweet and acidic. Interestingly, it's a scent that would be familiar to a mednin, one that's typically associated with a family of poisonous molds.
Kenta isn't too proud to reach for Atsuro's hand. He doesn't know the way and its potential dangers well, so he's completely reliant on the older shinobi to keep him safe. At least the path is much more open than he expected and there's even light filtering down. Those facts causes the tension to each out of Kenta's body bit by bit, although it doesn't cause him to lose his alertness. Carelessness isn't a trait that a medic-nin, or shinobi in general, should foster.
"I feel like I'm learning too many village secrets, Atsuro-senpai. These shouldn't be things that a mere Chuunin like I should be aware of," Kenta says in a disturbed voice. "What if something happens and I get captured by enemies? They might end up finding out things from me that they shouldn't know. I—" The young medic-nin suddenly stops at the same time that Atsuro does. He sniffs the air and his fingers tighten slightly on Atsuro's hand. "Ummm… that doesn't seem good…"
Kenta pulls his hand free from Atsuro and reaches back to rummage around the medical pouch strapped to his waist underneath the backpack. He retrieves two stiff surgical masks and one made of gauze. He straps one of the stiff mask on and gives the other to Atsuro. "We all need to put these one. The air's not safe to breath. There's poison mold spores in the air. The only mask I have that'll work for a ninken is a gauze mask, so Taizen-senpai will have to use that one." Kenta tries to fit the gauze mask onto Taizen. "This one isn't as good. Spores can still get through to some degree, so I need you to take shallow breaths, Taizen-senpai."
It takes Atsuro a couple steps to adjust for the being attached to someone with shorter legs, but soon enough he's taking shorter strides to help Kenta keep up. "You say that about everything," he teases, "It's true that I always choose you when I need a mednin, but that's because I know you're good. And, you wouldn't be on these missions if the administration didn't trust you. You've got a solid track record."
It comes as something of a surprise that the smell could actually be dangerous, but Atsuro quickly puts the mask. Taizen sits still until Kenta has his own mask on. "I understand," says Taizen, his voice slightly muffled by the mask. "See? Now imagine if we'd decided you couldn't be trusted with these secrets." Atsuro claps Kenta lightly on the shoulder before holding out his hand again.
They continue down the tunnels of the cave, their steps echoing in the darkness while Taizen's claws click softly against the rock. And yet, with Atsuro in the lead, Kenta following him, and Taizen brining up the rear, the sound of human footsteps can be heard somewhere behind them.
Kenta makes an undecipherable noise in his throat. "The spores won't have killed you. It'll probably just make you very sick for a while. I wonder if that's what happened to the people in the outpost. Maybe they became exposed to the mold multiple times and it built up to such a degree that almost everyone started suffering severe symptoms. The sooner we get there, the sooner I can find out what exactly happened," Kenta says through his own mask. His voice is naturally soft, so it sounds even more muffled than Taizen's. "I wonder where the mold's growing. It's too hard to see much in here. Mold is very hard to remove once it spreads enough…" The young medic-nin goes silent to nurse his worries and concentrate on his footing. There's always the possibility that the mold is the work of enemies, unlikely as that is. He keeps his eyes and ears perked for anything that's out of the place. The darkness and echoes make it difficult to be sure of anything.
"See?" says Atsuro, "So smart." There's a short pause as he considers what Kenta has said about the mold. "Maybe," he says, "The outpost isn't attached to these caves, but it's close by. And people are coming through here regularly. What if someone stepped on some and carried it in on their shoe or something?" The footsteps from behind can be heard once again. "I thought it was just the echoes…" Atsuro says quietly, "But I think there's somebody else in this cave. There's no way that we can try and smell around here safely?" He pauses, "And would you pass me a sword from Tai's vest?"
"I don't think you should try tracking with your nose. You're probably more sensitive than the people at the outpost," Kenta whispers even more softly than before. He leans very close to Atsuro to make sure that the comment is heard before he pulls back again. The young medic-nin tries to draw a sword quietly from Taizen's vest, but he couldn't do it nearly as well as the older shinobi can. He winces at the soft scraping sound, but is relieved that at least he didn't bang the steel against the tunnel walls. Kenta steps closer to Atsuro again to hand off the sword and whisper one more thing. "I'm going to try something else to check if we're being followed."
Kenta glances over his shoulder to see whether he can make out anything in the darkness. Then, he starts making hand seals. At the conclusion of the sequence, he sends out a wave of medical chakra in all directions. The wave of chakra is too weak to be felt by anyone without the correct sensitivity or training, but Kenta has the latter. He furrows his brows as he tries to read the "echoes" of the chakra wave as it bounces off all the life forms within range and brings returns with the imprint of their biosignatures. There's Atsuro and Taizen… some hardy plants and insects… mold…
Atsuro makes some kind of mouth-noise in his mask which sounds like a grumble. But the muffling isn't so bad that Kenta can't make out a "thanks," as Atsuro accepts the sword, carefully pulling the blade away so that he doesn't risk hurting Kenta. Then he stays silent as Kenta does whatever he does to try and find the other person lurking in the darkness, only his breathing softly echoes out of the mask.
There's Atsuro and Taizen… some hardy plants and insects… mold… And another human. This person is an adult, probably fifty meters behind them. They're not moving right now, and instead are pressed against the wall, probably watching and listening to see what Atsuro and Kenta do next.
Kenta's eyes narrow when he confirms that there actually -is- someone following the small group. He doesn't know how well sound is carrying down the tunnel, so he leans down slightly to whisper his findings into Taizen's ear. It'll be easier for Taizen to reach Atsuro's ear than Kenta himself, since the ninken is actually longer in the body than the medic-nin is even on tip toes. Now the question is whether the spy is friend or foe and what they should do about the guy. Kenta figures that the most experienced shinobi in the group should make that call. Just in case, Kenta slips a defensive tag out of a pocket and holds it at ready in his left hand.
Taizen lifts his head and Atsuro leans in to get the information whispered to him. It's too dim for hand signals to be effective, and he can't speak without the risk of giving their position away. He takes a couple of seconds to settle on a course of action, kneeling down beside Kenta. He whispers to him as quietly as the mask allows. "Can you keep tracking them while we sneak over that way? I'll lead, you squeeze twice if they do something." He stands up again, then squeezes past Kenta and Taizen, reaching a hand back for Kenta again before they start to stalk towards the mysterious cave-dweller.
Kenta nods swiftly to indicate that he understands what to do. The Chuunin keeps a firm hold of his tag in his right hand and creeps after Atsuro. He's not quite as sneaky, so he spends a lot of concentration figuring out where to put his feet on the uneven ground. It's moments like this when Kenta wishes he has more training at stealth without the use of smoke screens and the like. At the same time, the medic-nin also have to keep track of the spy in the dark with the gentle pulses of medical chakra that he sends out like sonar. He holds on lightly to Atsuro's hand with his right one, making sure not to grip so hard that he'll hamper the Jounin's movements if he lags behind or trip over something.
Fortunately for Kenta, Atsuro moves slowly. Partly because he remembers the lessons learned from earlier in the hand-holding, and partly because he's trying to stay stealthy. The mysterious person in the cave remains still as they get closer and closer. But when they've closed about half the distance, the mysterious person starts to move. From what Kenta can tell of the movements, they're done at a reasonably leisurely pace — this person isn't panicking and probably thinks the team is no longer on the alert. Instead, the person walks over to another chamber of the cave which is nearby and bends down for a moment, then gets up again and starts heading back in the direction they came from.
When Kenta feels the person's position shift, he starts to squeeze on Atsuro's hand, but realizes that it won't be enough to convey all the information required. He tries to think of what else he can do besides speak up and possibility give him away. At that point, he nearly smacks himself for forgetting that he's been studying the Yamanka hidenjutsu from his cousins for quite a while now. Kenta trains his eyes on Atsuro's back and lifts his left hand to perform a specialized seal. The motion crushes the tag that he's holding, but doesn't damage it beyond usability.
A thread of chakra nudges Atsuro's mind. The sensation is similar to the one that the Jounin experienced previously during a mind body switch, but not quite the same. «Atsuro-senpai» Kenta's voice suddenly echoes inside the older shinobi's head. «The person's moving around now. He walked into one of the natural cave chambers and stopped for a second. He might have put something down or set a trap. Now it seems like he's heading back…»
As soon as Kenta squeezes Atsuro stops, almost freezing entirely, and Taizen stops behind them too. They just stand there for a moment, waiting to see what method Kenta will decide on to communicate to them what's happening. Kenta's chosen method comes as something of a surprise to Atsuro. His hand squeezes back a little as Kenta starts to talk to him, but he quickly loosens up, not wanting to hurt Kenta.
Hoping that Kenta can receive as well as send, he thinks out words in his mind. «Okay.» It's hesitant at first, and he's clearly not sure about talking like this. «Keep tracking him, let me know where he's going. We'll see if we can follow him.» He starts walking again, slightly faster, but still somewhat slow for Kenta's sake and so as not to alert the prey now that they're closing in. «Oh, and try and remember where he knelt down. We should check that spot out too.»
«I understand, Atsuro-senpai. Please be careful when you check the spot where he stopped. If it's a trap, it might be a very dangerous one. We won't know what to defend against until we get closer and that could be too late.» Kenta breathes deeply through his surgical mask and lowers his left hand. He shakes the tag to try to remove some of the creases on it. As they keep moving along, Kenta continues to send out the pulses of medical chakra. There's a part of him that worries whether they'll be felt, but the spy isn't reacting so far, so the young Chuunin assumes that at least it's not a sensor-nin that's shadowing them. «I can't talk to Taizen-senpai and you at the same time. I'm not skilled enough yet. Can you do something to let him know that he'll need to be extra alert as we get close to the spot?»
«I will,» Atsuro thinks to Kenta, «Let's see if we can figure out where this guy went first. Whatever he did there will probably still be there when we get around to it. Sounds like this guy won't though.» Carefully tucking the sword under one arm, he holds a hand up and uses it to make a couple of gestures visible to those behind him, and probably especially visible to Taizen, who can see fairly well in the dim lighting of the cave. «Tai's got it.»
Ahead of them, the mysterious person seems to be going well down one of the side-tunnels. There's not really any indication of where he's going, but Kenta is able to track his movements enough that they should be able to find the tunnel in question. The stranger still moves at a relatively slow pace, so it seems he's not noticing Kenta's tracking yet. The team is gaining on him, but he seems to be getting closer and closer to the canopy of plant life that Kenta would be able to sense above the ceiling of the cave. If he actually exits the cave, he may actually be lost in among all the other life.
«I think he's heading for an exit, Atsuro-senpai! We might have to move a little quicker if we want to catch him before he reaches it. My technique has a very limited range, so I won't be able to figure out where he is once he loses himself in the forest and get far enough away from us. You'll need a sensor-nin to find him once that happens» Kenta's mental voice sounds extremely concerned about that outcome. It's almost sheer luck and attentiveness that they even figured out that they were being spied on. This is probably their only chance to figure out the reason. «Do you think that you'll be able to track him by scent once we're out of the tunnels and away from the mold? I don't know how much of the stuff is clinging to us right now.»
«I might be able to,» Atsuro thinks, «But I'd rather not risk it.» After a few adjustments to his speed, he and Kenta are now keeping the greatest pace they can sustain without tripping all over one another or the floor of the cave. Taizen follows right behind. If Kenta continues to sense for this other person, he'll notice that they've started to run too, no doubt hearing loud footsteps coming straight for him. Atsuro and Kenta enter a section of cave where things are quite a bit less dim — they're close to the entrance. In fact, they can see the entrance, a large hole with bright sunlight pouring in, with the silhouette of a man. «Get him!» Atsuro's hand dips down to his equipment pouch and he pulls out a handful of shuriken. Somehow, he's able to toss them at the escaping man without flinging his sword away too.
Kenta's breath is hot under the surgical mask as he runs after the spy with Atsuro and Taizen at his side. He expels a gusty sigh of relief when they burst out into sunshine again and can see the fleeing man by sight alone. His technique isn't intended for long range sensing and some of the reliability of what he learned from the chakra echoes were a bit suspect. At Atsuro's mental command, Kenta slips his right hand into a shuriken holder and yanks out three of them. He sends them spinning through the air towards the spy, trying to aim at the legs or some other part of the body that would disable rather than cause serious injury.
Thock thock thock thock thock thock. Either Kenta and Atsuro have great aim, or this poor person has terrible luck. Six shuriken sink deep into the flesh of his legs and he tumbles forward into the forest outside. Atsuro leads Kenta and Taizen outside. After their eyes adjust to the brightness, they see the man trying to crawl away, desperately pulling at the ground with his arms and letting his useless legs drag behind him. "Nope." Atsuro walks over and brings a foot down on the man's back, pressing him heavily so that he can't move.
Now that they can see him in the light, he's simply a man in his twenties with short brown hair. His face is currently against the ground, but from here they can see that he's wearing a mask. "Search him for now," Atsuro suggests to Kenta. "Once we're sure he's not dangerous, we can flip him over and figure out what his deal is."
"Understood, Atsuro-senpai." Now that they don't need to keep silent, Kenta drops the thread of chakra between him and Atsuro that allows them to communicate telepathically. He jogs over and kneels next to the spy. The young medic-nin leaves the shuriken buried in the flesh of their prisoner's legs, since yanking them out will probably just cause more bleeding. He starts to pat down the young man's body to search for anything that'll clue them in on why the guy was spying on them. Not only that, but also tags, weapons or anything that needs to be taken away from their safety. Kenta warily watches their prisoner's hands, in case the young man tries to form any seals or suddenly bring out a hidden kunai during the body search.
Kenta's search doesn't actually reveal anything out of the unusual, with one small exception. In the man's equipment pouch is a forehead protector. One with a Leaf insignia on it. Atsuro raises an eyebrow. "Hopefully we haven't just embedded a bunch of metal blades in a fellow leaf ninja," he says, "But it's a little suspicious you'd only keep it there, bub. You should have it somewhere visible."
Once Kenta's done, Atsuro kneels down and flips the man onto his back, now grabbing his hands to make sure he doesn't try anything. The man hasn't said anything yet, and is only swallowing occasionally as he waits to see what they'll do next. "We just want to know what you're doing here," says Atsuro, "We're not going to hurt you." After a meaningful pause he adds, "Not anymore, at least."
Kenta stands up with the forehead protector dangling from his right hand. "He could have killed a Leaf shinobi and took this, Atsuro-senpai. Didn't the mission report say that only one shinobi is still healthy enough to send out a message? If this is the shinobi, he won't be sneaking around like this, would he? Since he should know that we're coming already?" The young medic-nin holds the forehead protector over their prisoner's face. His voice is somberly serious when he addresses the prisoner directly. "If this really yours? I'm the medic-nin sent by the village. Answer Atsuro-senpai's questions honestly and I'll heal your injuries if you're an ally or at least not a threat."
Atsuro nods. "If he was really a Leaf nin, there'd be no reason to have it like that." He turns to face the man. "This part of a disguise or something? Maybe a trophy?" The man stops struggling under Atsuro's hold over him for a moment and says through the mask. "It's mine. I'm a Leaf nin. I work at the outpost here!" Atsuro shakes his head. "Follicle. The only people who should be here are Leaf nin. There's no reason for you to be hiding it, and there's no reason for you to be going off the regular path. And just what's in the cave that would be useful if you were really here to work at the outpost?" The man takes a couple shaky breaths, then says, "I really do work at the outpost. Take me there and they'll recognize me!"
Kenta furrows his brows and looks up at Atsuro. "He might be telling the truth. Maybe he thinks that we're bandits… But we won't know for sure unless we bring him with us and get his identify verified… or disproven." Kenta pockets the Leaf headband and pulls a roll of gauze from his medical pouch. It's not as strong as rope, but should work well enough as binding material if he uses several layers. "Hold out your hands. I'm going to tie them up. Just so you know, I may be a medic-nin, but I also know plenty of medical jutsu that has some pretty bad effects on the human body." Kenta's not very good at being threatening, but this is something that might be helped by his naturally inclination to act all grim and serious in situations like these.
"You think we're bandits?" Atsuro asks the man, rolling his eye upward to direct attention to his own forehead protector. "I… I don't." Atsuro flips the man over then holds out the man's hands for him so that Kenta can tie him up. "You don't wanna bud off a mednin," says Atsuro with a grin. The more they scare the guy now, the less likely he'll be to give them trouble down the line.
Once the guy is tied up, Atsuro gets off him. "I wanna go check out what he did in the cave. I dunno if we can trust him to tell us the truth on that one." He looks to Taizen. "Keep an eye on this guy. Don't let him move an inch." Then he heads back to the mouth of the cave and holds out a hand for Kenta. "Lead the way. Just… you know, from behind me."
"Don't think you can run away with Taizen-senpai watching you either. He and Atsuro-senpai are two of Konoha's strongest Jounin. Taizen-senpai is alike an army on his own," Kenta warns before he turns away from their prisoner. Secretly, the young medic-nin is relieved that there isn't any struggling, since he doesn't actually want to carry out any of his threats. He blows out a long breath and follows after Atsuro.
"Umm… leading from behind… ok," Kenta murmurs as he takes Atsuro's hand. With their spy taken care of, he doesn't bother using telepathy to communicate with the older shinobi after they re-enter the passage through the cliff. He simply keeps his voice low to prevent too much echoing. "It wasn't too far from this exit. We have to keep following the main, man-made portion of the tunnel pass three of the natural side branches. Head into the fourth one, about… ummm… fifteen feet in and that should be close to the spot where he kneeled earlier."
"That's a bit of an exaggeration," Atsuro whispers to Kenta once they're out of earshot of the captured man. He nods while there's still enough light for it to be readily visible, then delves into the cave, his hand reached behind him to keep Kenta safely in tow. Once again they move through the dark tunnels, Atsuro navigating with his enhanced vision while Kenta tells them where their target is. After a few minutes, they come to the spot Kenta has recalled and stop. "I think I do see something there," says Atsuro, "But I can't really make out what it is. You don't happen to have a light?"
"Not one that'll last very long and I have only a limited supply. I brought a lot of medicine and medical equipment with me," Kenta says from a small frown on his face. He tugs a small chemical glow stick out of a side pocket on his backpack and hands it to Atsuro. The older shinobi would be familiar with it, since Kenta used something similar during a previous mission where they had to travel through a much darker cavern system. "I've been trying to save them, since you can see so well in the dark. Bend it slowly at the middle until you hear a pop. That's the inner seal giving away. Then, shake it to mix up the chemicals inside. It'll give off light for about an hour."
"Me too," says Atsuro, "I usually just carry some matches around." He accepts the glow stick from Kenta and bends it until it snaps a few times, then holds it up as it starts to glow. The faint green light is enough to illuminate a small wooden crate with the top off. Inside the crate are numerous small vials with cork stoppers. About a third of them are empty, while the remaining ones contain a yellowish-gray powder, which Kenta will recognize as the mold they smelled earlier. A small number of the vials are marked with a piece of string tied around the necks. "I have a feeling we just figured out what's causing the sicknesses," says Atsuro, "Any idea what this stuff is?"
"Our Leaf shinobi must not be a Leaf shinobi after all," Kenta says gravely. He pulls out one the vials and holds it to the glow stick to get a better look. The ghastly green light makes it difficult to make out some of the powder's attributes, but the smell alone has Kenta forming hypothesis. "I think this is either dried up poisonous mold or the spores. With how heavily the tunnel smelled of mold, it was probably spread around to grow. These vials might be the source. I won't be able to tell exactly what type of mold it is until I do more research. If this is what's causing the sickness, studying this might also give me enough information to create a cure for the afflicted. We have to get to the outpost as soon as possible, Atsuro-senpai. And we better lock up that liar."
"Seems not," says Atsuro, "That's probably why he had the forehead protector out of sight — less likely to blow his cover when he's somewhere a Leaf nin shouldn't be. Even if he is, he's got some explaining to do." He bends down slightly to get a better look at the mold. "And whatever he's doing it, however he's getting it, I think this stuff plays into it somehow. He said the others at the outpost would recognize him. If they actually do, I think it's probably fair to say he's either a traitor or a spy and he's poisoning them. Is it safe to take that box back to the surface with us?"
Kenta nods his head at Atsuro. "It'll be better if we do take it with us. The more samples we have, the more likely I'll be able to find a way to counter this stuff. It's also possible that the vials contain different strains of the mold or different substances all together. We might just have to come back for it if we leave it now. I'm also afraid that someone else might come take it." The young medic-nin looks in the direction of the exit with a scowl on his face. "Spy or traitor, who knows what type of people he's working for. We'll have to be extra careful escorting him to the outpost. He could have allies hidden all over the place. It's a good thing that you'll be able to take off the surgical mask when we're outside again. You and Taizen-senpai can keep smelling for danger."
First handing the glow stick back to Kenta, Atsuro picks up the box. "That glow stick have enough time left for you to make it back to Tai and… our other friend there? Probably not too good if I end up dropping this." They head out of the cave again, where Taizen is still watching guard over the mysterious man. "Okay," says Atsuro cheerfully, "I'm guessing there's a second route to the outpost around here somewhere, but I think we should just go in the usual entrance."
Setting the box aside for a moment, he picks up the man and drapes him over Taizen's back. "Sorry, buddy, you're stuck with him for now," he says, patting Taizen a couple of times on the head. "I will be find," Taizen promises. "Okay then. Onwards to the outpost!"
Kenta shakes the glow stick a little and watches the glowing swirls of chemicals inside. "This'll last a good while longer. No worries, Atsuro-senpai." He follows Atsuro back to the others, slipping a kunai out of a sheath when they reach the place where Taizen was left guarding the prisoner. "Just in case," Kenta tells Atsuro under his breath. He keeps a tight hold on the weapon and watches their prisoner like a hawk. Since the glow stick is already releasing its light away, Kenta keeps it in his other hand and holds it up high while they head back into the underground tunnels yet again. Atsuro and Taizen can still see well in the dark, but Kenta doesn't have anyone's hand to hold onto now. Plus, he needs to be on alert for escape attempts by the prisoner.
Atsuro chuckles softly. "I think you're more alert for an escape attempt than Tai is." In any case, the prisoner is wise enough not to try and escape under these circumstances. Atsuro leads the way through the tunnel along the route they were originally taking, then they come to an exit once more. From there, they spend about ten more minutes walking steadily on a narrow forest trail until they finally reach the outpost.
Kenta could be forgiven for thinking that they've simply come to another cave, since they've hit a similar cliff wall. But when Atsuro pulls the boulder aside this time, they see a far better lit cave beyond, with steps leading upwards carved into the stone. "Beyond the forest," Atsuro calls in. A voice replies, "I see the fields." Atsuro gestures for Kenta to enter, then he and Taizen follow behind.
The stairs lead up into a small chamber which connects to a corridor. On each side of this corridor are a number of doorways carved out of the stone. The individual rooms of the outpost are cramped, but there does seem to be quite a few of them. A lanky, black-haired Leaf nin is waiting for them above. "Atsuro-senpai," he says, bowing, "Thank god you've made it. The situation here is desperate. I've got seven other ninja here, and they're all — " He stops abruptly as he sees the man on Taizen's back. "Gaidoku! What happened? Why aren't you in your room?"
Kenta bows politely to the guard. He had taken off his mask once they left the caves for good and it had left some faintly red marks on his face. "Akiyama Kenta. I'm the medic-nin assigned to look into the situation along with Atsuro-senpai," he says, introducing himself. The young man glances over at the injured man draped over Taizen's back. "His name is Gaidoku? From the way that you're reacting, I bet that he's actually supposed to be overcome with the same illness that struck down everyone else except for you. Atsuro-senpai, Taizen-senpai and I found him following us and trying to spy on our movements while we were traveling through the secret tunnels. He was also handling some items, possibly a poisonous mold that's causing the illness itself…" Kenta lets his voice trail off, so that the guard can form an independent conclusion.
"Thank you for coming, Akiyama-senpai." The guard bows deeply to Kenta. "My name is Den. We do have a mednin here, but if anything, he's in even worse condition than the others. It's been a tough couple of weeks." He looks to Gaidoku again. "Yes," he says, "Uh… um… I don't know why he would have been in the tunnels or what he'd be doing with the mold. But I can confirm that he's just as sick as everyone else. The symptoms are, er — uh, not to tell you when you're so much more knowledgeable than me — but he couldn't fake an alternating fever and chills could he? I mean, the other symptoms are fatigue and headaches, and I certainly can't — can't, erm… diagnose that."
Before Den can say anything else, Gaidoku speaks up. "What was I doing in the tunnels? Try escaping you, Den. You don't think I noticed that you were the only one who wasn't getting sick? Well, I found your box of poison and I took it. But then these idiots attacked me, and here we are!" Den's eyes grow wide. "Poisoning you? I-I-I-I… I don't know what you mean! I don't know why I didn't get sick!"
Things just seem to get messier. Kenta glances at Atsuro and meets the older shinobi's eyes. It's clear that he's skeptical about Gaidoku's performance, but it's one person's words against the other. His eyes shift towards Gaidoku and then to Den with wariness in his gaze. "Atsuro-senpai, I think we better all go inside. We're not going to learn more out here and it seems like it'll be a good idea to ask some more questions. Someone's not being completely truthful here." The young medic-nin turns fully to the guard. "Den-san, if you have nothing to hide, I'm sure that you'll agree with us that it's best to do a thorough investigation and find out what the truth of the matter is."
Atsuro nods in agreement with Kenta. "Let's go inside," he says. Den eyes Gaidoku nervously, then salutes and starts walking down the corridor. They pass by a number of rooms with curtains drawn across the doorways. "These are for sleeping," Den explains, "Two people to a room." But instead they walk throuh the corridor until it opens into a larger room. Unlike other areas, this one has had more done to it than simple cutting out of stone. A stove and racks for spices and dried foods have been installed here, and there's a large table with a number of chairs. There's also six Leaf nin lying in bedrolls on the floor, all with flushed, sweat-dampened skin, in varying states of consciousness. "This is the common room," says Den, "But I've had to keep everyone here just to be able to take care of them all." He points to another, narrower corridor leading out of the room. "And that leads to the observation post. Usually there's one or two people in there at a time, but I can only man it for an hour or two a day now…" He turns to face the ninja team. "Uh… how would you like to start your investigation?" Atsuro turns around, glancing to Gaidoku, who's still draped over Taizen. "I'll put him aside for now," says Atsuro. He leads Taizen over to an empty corner of the room and pulls the man off, onto the floor. By now, Gaidoku is only semi-conscious and probably doesn't have the capacity to escape the bandages that bind him.
Despite the urgency of finding out exactly who is the spy, if there is one, Kenta is instantly drawn to the sick men. He jogs over to the worst looking of the bunch and kneels down to inspect the man. His pack comes off his back and medical equipment comes out. Before Den even finishes speaking to Atsuro, Kenta had already snapped on a pair of gloves, so that he can safely use a tongue compressor to check the inside of his patient's mouth. He also peels back the man's lids to check pupil dilation, body temperature, foulness of breath and more. It's only after he finishes the more basic diagnostic tests that the Kenta sets aside the tools and gently lies a hand on the sick man's forehead while he sends pulses of chakra within the ailing body to perform a ninjutsu based diagnostic.
As Den has suggested, the unfortunate ninja here suffer from alternating chills and fever. If one of the more lucid ones is asked, they'll complain of tiredness and headaches. Kenta's diagnostic technique gives far more information than this though. By the time Kenta's finished, he should have a pretty clear idea that the sickness has been caused by the very mold they've been carrying around in those vials. "Gaidoku also had the same symptoms," Den says after a moment, "Um, is it possible that the disease can cause… delusions or paranoia or something…? Er, uh, not that I want to accuse him of anything, but I can't imagine why he would have snuck out."
"Well, this is definitely caused by poisonous mold," Kenta pronounces. He stands up and walks over to the crate of vials to frown at the contents. "Since this is the poisonous mold we have, it must be -this- one that caused the illness. I'll run some tests on the contents later to come up with a treatment plan. In the meanwhile, we can't do much for the men besides keep them hydrated and their temperatures down." He turns to look at Den. "Den-san, are you sure that this Gaidoku was suffering from the illness? Was there anything in the way he acted that indicated he was just pretending? He's much too healthy right now to have suffered from the same type of poison, unless he took some kind of antidote afterwards." Kenta looks over his shoulder at Atsuro. "I think we should conduct a search of his room."
"I, uh… wasn't really looking for indications that he was faking. But it seemed like he was really sweating, and he went through the same changes in temperature, just like everyone else." Den glances nervously in Gaidoku's direction for a moment, then back to Kenta. "Other than that, I don't really know. I'm sorry, Akiyama-senpai." Atsuro, who's been leaning against the wall up until now, gives a nod to Kenta as the youner man catches his eye. "I think we should," he agrees, looking to Den. "Uh," says Den, "First room on the right. Gaidoku's bed is on the left as you enter the room. Mine is on the right." Atsuro pushes off the wall. "All right. Taizen, keep an eye on Gaidoku." He mouths something briefly to the dog, keeping his mouth out of Den's sight. "Let's see if we can find anything, Kenta."
"There are medicines that can cause people to sweat and increase body temperature. Even large amounts of some chilies can do the same," Kenta points out. Then, he catches Atsuro's eyes and nods slightly. He has an idea what the older shinobi probably asked Taizen to do while they're investigating the rooms. The medic-nin slings his pack across his back again and falls into step behind Atsuro. "I think your sense of smell will come very handy, Atsuro-senpai. Please pay attention to anything herbal or chemically based and doesn't smell like a common household item," he says softly when he's at his senpai's side.
With Kenta in tow, Atsuro steps a short ways into the corridor, then turns and pulls open the curtain of Den and Gaidoku's room. As one might expect from temporary housing at an outpost in the mountains, it's very basic. It's a narrow room, deep but not wide. There are two cots, one on either side of the door, and neither look particularly inviting with only very basic mattresses — it seems they're mostly there to act as a surface for a bedroll. At the foot of each cot is a wooden trunk. "I think I do smell it," Atsuro says, "It's very faint, but some of that mold is in here somewhere…" He walks over to Gaidoku's trunk and opens it up. Inside are a few changes of clothes, a pack of playing cards, some spare kunai and shuriken, and a half-empty bottle of sake. Atsuro takes a moment to search the trunk for a false compartment, but shakes his head. "Nothing here. I guess that's a bit too obvious."
He sniffs the air again. "Weird. It's actually really hard to pinpoint where it is…" He kneels down by Gaidoku's cot and pulls up the mattress. "Wait. There we go…" He sniffs again, then points to one corner of the mattress. "The scent is coming from here. Maybe he kept a bottle under the mattress and got rid of it once he knew that we'd be coming." He frowns. "Actually, I think I smell more of it. No wonder it was so hard to find; it's coming from two places." He keeps sniffing at the air and lets the scent lead him over to Den's trunk. "…huh." He kneels down and slowly opens the trunk. "Huuuuh." Right on top of everything is a bottle of mold, identical to the ones in the crate they found.
Kenta sniffs the air slightly and wrinkles his nose. "I don't smell anything, but there must be mold spores in here. Probably the other rooms too." The young medic-nin takes out the surgery mask that he had on earlier and snaps it back into place. "Just in case. I'm sorry, Atsuro-senpai, but we need your nose too much right now. There might be something else in here that's too important to risk missing."
Kenta folds his arms across his chest while he paces back and forth between Gaidoku's bed and Den's trunk to compare the two sources of mold found. "It's kind of inconclusive. The vial in Den-san's trunk could have been planted there. He won't want us to check the rooms otherwise. On the other hand, he could have known that we'd find it and he can claim that it's that Gaidoku put it in. I wish that there's a good way to tell who's lying. Great Aunt would have been able to read it from their mind, but I'm not nearly that good yet. I can barely hold a link open between myself and one other person to pass simple communications."
Letting out a long sigh, Atsuro produces his mask once more and fixes it to his face. "It does kinda point to Den," he says after taking a few experimental breaths. "But it's a little too obvious, isn't it? Besides, Gaidoku was the one we found skulking around in the cave. Den was exactly where he should have been. Maybe if we — hey, what's this?" He kneels down on the floor and points to a small piece of string, tied in a loop. It's right beside Gaidoku's cot. "Must have falled out when I moved the mattress," he concludes. "Anyway. Den did say Gaidoku was showing the symptoms, right? Maybe we can get to the bottom of this if you examine him?"
Letting out a long sigh, Atsuro produces his mask once more and fixes it to his face. "It does kinda point to Den," he says after taking a few experimental breaths. "But it's a little too obvious, isn't it? Besides, Gaidoku was the one we found skulking around in the cave. Den was exactly where he should have been. Maybe if we — hey, what's this?" He kneels down on the floor and points to a small piece of string, tied in a loop. It's right beside Gaidoku's cot. "Must have falled out when I moved the mattress," he concludes. "Anyway. Den did say Gaidoku was showing the symptoms, right? Maybe we can get to the bottom of this if you examine him?" (repose)
Kenta nods at Atsuro. "That's going to be my next step. It should probably some clues to whether he really was sick or not. If he wasn't sick, he could have been faking it while he gathered evidence like he claimed. Or he could have faked it because he's the culprit. Either way, we need more concrete proof from other sources too. It's very tricky when dealing with spies. Remember that policeman that tried to get the secret documents from your office? We only managed to figure out that it's him because he makes some mistakes and got sloppy." The young medic-nin idly walks over to the loop of string on the ground and picks it up. He also looks curiously at the mattress that the string fell from.
"In that case, maybe you can check him to see if he has some way to resist poison too," Atsuro suggests, "I mean, if Den's poisoning everyone, there doesn't seem to be a reason to leave Gaidoku alone. Unless maybe there's something about how the mold was used, but I think that might be getting ahead of the investigation." He gazes intently at the loop, even as Kenta picks it up and examines it. "It looks familiar," he says as he stands up straight and starts to walk out of the room, "Have we seen loops of string somewhere recently?"
Kenta turns the string over and over in his hands. It also looks familiar to him, but he can't tell why… until he finally can. "I think that this matches the string tied around some of the vials." Kenta holds it out to Atsuro, so that the older shinobi can have a better look at it. "I'm going to need to check those vials again when we get back to the main room. I don't remember if the strings were the same around all the vials or if they're different. If there are different types, then this" The young medic-nin wiggles the loop of string. "might be a reminder of what the contents of the vial do. It's possible that some vials contains poison and some contains an antidote. That would explain how Gaidoku could have been sick and suddenly isn't anymore."
Atsuro leans forward to examine the string more carefully. He attempts to give it a sniff, but nothing reaches him through the mask. "If it came from Gaidoku's bed, that kinda puts him back in the running for the true culprit, doesn't it?" He straightens up and starts heading for the hallway. "But I think you're onto something. When we first saw those bottles, I figured the string was there as a sort of label or something. I think we need to see if there's some difference between the tied vials and the other ones." He glances back to Den's trunk. "I wonder if the string came from that vial? We didn't find any other vials in here, so maybe they belong together."
"You said the vial in the trunk smelled like the mold. If this string came from the trunk, it might have dropped on the bed my accident before it was put in the trunk. That would suggest that the vial was at the bed first, especially with that stain there…" Kenta scowls and shakes his head. He pockets the piece of string. "Let's go back, Atsuro-senpai. I don't think that we should mention what we found yet. Maybe you can ask some subtly probing questions while I examine Den and Gaidoku. Hopefully, one of them slip up some more and we can combine that with my findings to come up with the right answers."
"So it's probably Gaidoku's," Atsuro concludes, "Anyway. Let's do what you said. Hopefully between what you find out about Gaidoku and Den, and what you find in the vials, the truth will come into focus." He smiles and rubs his chin, "Hm, wasn't that a nice turn of phrase just now?" He heads out into the hallway, then back to the common room. Den stands up straight once he sees them coming out of the room. "Atsuro-senpai, Akiyama-senpai. D-did you find anything?" Atsuro pauses, then answers, "No, not really. Can I ask you a few questions?"
Kenta catches Atsuro's eyes and silently walks over to the unconscious Gaidoku. He takes out some equipment from his medical pouch to give the bound man the same checkup that he had given the poison victims earlier. Since Gaidoku's unconscious, the responses are a little different, but not enough that Kenta won't be able to detect minor abnormalities that could be signs of recovery from poisoning. After the mundane tests, the young medic-nin places his hand on Gaidoku's forehead and closes his eyes while he send medical chakra into his target's body for additional diagnostics.
Interestingly enough, Gaidoku does show signs of having been recently ill with the same mold-caused sickness as the others. Somehow, though, he's well on his way to recovery. While there was some variation among the ninja here in response to the illness, Gaidoku is an outlier by far. It simply hasn't taken the same toll on his body as the others'. Meanwhile, Atsuro's questioning of Den is audible. "So Gaidoku disappeared just today? Did you notice anything different about him the last time you saw him?"
Kenta's findings definitely puts one more nail in Gaidoku's coffin, at least to Kenta himself. He frowns and stays connected to the unconscious man a little longer to see if there's anything else that he can find out. Eventually, the young medic-nin gets up and wanders over to the crate that holds the vials. He carefully starts pulling the vials out one by one to check the way that they're stoppered and what type of string is tied around each. The lighting's also much better inside the outpost than it was in the cave, so he holds the vials up to the light to have a better look at the contents to see whether they really do all contain the same substances.
Further examination shows that Gaidoku was last exposed to the mold at roughly the same time as the others. This, of course, only makes his sudden recovery seem stranger. As for the vials, the majority of them have no string. All of them are securely stoppered and the contents have the same appearance and scent of the mold. When held up to the light, though, there is a very slight difference in their colour. The vials with string contain mold that is just a shade darker when held up to the light.
Kenta glances over to where Atsuro is keeping Den's attention. He takes one vial of each type of mold and tip toes back out of the room again, but not before he gestures to Taizen to keep an eye on Gaidoku. Kenta returns to the sleeping quarters and clears out the table. He removes some of the medical equipment that he brought in his pack, most notably a microscope, some neatly bound scrolls and several bottles of chemical indicators. Then, he starts testing the two varieties of mold to determine their exact properties. It's difficult without a fully stocked laboratory, so he probably won't be able to find out everything without hours of work. The young medic-nin hopes that the differences are pronounced enough for him to determine the most important attributes first.
Taizen gives Kenta a little nod and sits down near Gaidoku. And Den doesn't seem to notice Kenta sneak out of the room, apparently too distracted by Atsuro's questions. "The days leading up to the outbreak? I-I don't really remember… they seemed just like normal days. I don't remember anything out of the ordinary…" Once Kenta manages to examine the mold, he discovers something very interesting. The two vials do indeed contain different strains of the mold. They're closely related, but judging by the reactions of Kenta's reagents, the one in the vial produces significantly less of certain chemicals.
Kenta performs the tests twice just to make sure. When they confirm the results, he caps what remains of the two specimens of mold and runs the information through his head while he cleans off the equipment that he used. He takes his time repacking everything before he walks back to the main room. "The results are in, Atsuro-senpai. It seems pretty clear that Gaidoku-san was the culprit. He took a strain of the mold that's less toxic than the type that was given to the other men, but is still closely related enough to produce the exact symtoms… at first." He looks over to the unconscious spy with disgust in his expression. "What should we do with him, Atsuro-senpai? It's going to be hard to carry him back to Konoha with us."
The second test, fortunately, gives the same results as the first. Gaidoku must be the culprit. Something Atsuro agrees with when Kenta explains the situation to him. "In other words, he's been giving everyone else the real stuff, and then taking a little bit of the weaker stuff, just so he doesn't look suspicious. Then he leaves Den out to make it look like it's him." He claps Den on the shoulder, causing the other man to jump. "Looks like you're in the clear!" he says cheerfully. Then he turns back to Kenta. "Do I detect a hint of bloodlust? Don't worry, I can take him back. We'll clear out of here as soon as you've got the others back in good health, then we'll escort Gaidoku back to Konoha. I'm sure he'll enjoy the trip."
"He really miscalculated though. He shouldn't have left Den-san here well enough to send a message to Konoha. I bet that he planned to make himself look like the hero, so that he'll get promoted and maybe given more control of what goes on in this area. Then, he would probably have used the position to sneak dangerous individuals through this area under everyone else's noses." Kenta shakes his head, again with an expression of disgust on his face. "I'll clean and bind his wounds, but I won't heal to them. I don't want him to try to run off. It should take me a few days to get the rest of the men well enough that we can leave." The young medic-nin turns to Den. "They won't be fully recovered for longer than that, but I'll mix up medicine and show you how to take care of them until they're fit for duty again."