After my not-so-graceful fall, we raced into the forest. Even though we left at mid-afternoon, it might as well have been nightfall. It was even darker and scarier on the inside as it was on the outside. It felt like I was in the middle of Halloweentown.
“This place gives me the heebie-jeebies,” Mae admitted.
“It’s certainly creepy,” I agreed.
“Hold up, guys,” Leda called.
Mae and I skidded to a halt. “What’s up?”
Leda jabbed her thumb towards the nearby trees. “Gotta take a deuce.”
“A what?” Mae asked.
Leda rolled her eyes. “Gotta lay a Stanley Steamer.”
“What are you steaming?”
“Oh, fuckin’ hell. I got to take a massive shit. You happy now?” Leda was exacerbated.
“We’re not even ten minutes into this thing,” I complained. “Why didn’t you go before we started?”
Leda threw her arms up in annoyance. “Well, excuse me if I didn’t want to interrupt your moving speech with my backed up plumbing.”
“That’s disgusting.” Mae didn’t like when Leda talked like a dirty pirate.
“Whatever. I’ll be right back, nature calls,” she sang. Before we could counter, she was gone.
I shrugged at Mae. Got to go when you got to go, right?
What should have only took minutes, stretched from five to ten to more.
“What’s taking her so long?” I asked, just as concerned as Mae.
“I don’t know. What if she got lost?” Mae bit her nails with nervousness. “I hope she’s alright.”
“Why don’t we split up and search the premises. You go that way and I’ll go this way and we will meet up at this tree,” I directed and walked off. Mae’s mouth formed a tight line, but didn’t say anything.
Together we searched our area for the loud mouth, but it was no use. She was nowhere to be found. We were worn out already from walking around in circles and it’s only been the first hour.
I sighed. “And I work so hard to keep Leda out of trouble, too.”
“Yeah… okay,” Mae mumbled in a tone that sounded condescending.
I didn’t understand the sudden attitude. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. It’s just that I don’t agree with you.” She folded her arms in a defensive pose. As if I was the one accusing her of something.
“And what part of what I just said do you not agree with?” I stared at her with narrow eyes.
“You working hard,” she retorted.
It felt like a slap in the face by my own teammate. “Are you accusing me of being a slacker?”
“I’m just saying you don’t know what hard work is, not truly,” Mae shrugged.
I thought my jaw was going to fall to the ground, leaving me as a jawless goon. “I think I know more than anyone what hard work is.” My voice tinged with spice. It was heated, scorching as the words left my lips.
Mae’s temper was rising as well. Whatever feelings she had been repressing was ready to be released. “You have no clue what it’s like to work hard. You don’t know the pressures of being the protégée in the family. The amount of criticism I constantly get for not being perfect. How much I have to fucking train and study day in and day out.”
I was taken aback by her angered tone. She was never one to raise her voice, let alone curse.
“And do you want to know how I’m congratulated for my hard work? A pat on the back, a fucking pat on the back. I wasn’t born a fucking genius, you know. No one ever acknowledges the work it takes to be a genius. My family treats me like an outsider, like a piece of filth, unless I won something or aced something else.”
“Well, sorry,” I spat. “At least you have a family. You have someone to go home to. I have no one.”
“So what?” she countered. “Sasuke and Naruto don’t have families either and you don’t see them getting special treatment like you do. And all you do is show up and say a few nice words, “protect” a few people from petty fights, kiss a few asses and everyone is head over heels for you. What do Kakashi, Sensei, the Hokage, Kiba— everyone see in you to treat you like you’re all-worthy?”
“Is this what this is all about? You’re jealous of Kiba and I’s friendship?”
Her face turned red, whether from rage or embarrassment was uncertain. “This is about everyone. You get praised for doing nothing. You even become a shinobi without finishing school nor performing an in-class final exam. The Hokage practically threw the position at you; you didn’t earn it. I studied for the exam for weeks and all the Hokage said was that I got the highest grade, whoopty-doo. While you got praised for being a hero and how you will win the hearts of others and for what? How is it fair that while others struggle, everything has been handed to you on a gold platter?”
“How dare you—”
“It’s because they feel bad for you.” She answered her own question. “The poor girl that lost her memory was pampered with food, shelter and praised for the smallest things.”
“You have no idea what I had to go through.” My voice was trembling. I could barely think clearly. “Awakening in a storm, soaked, clueless of what I am or where I was. The number of attempts it took just to walk. I couldn’t even fucking talk! Do you know how frustrating it is to want to say something and you can’t? I had to do hand signals or write in a pad just to ask a person if they want to get food with me. I had nothing, I had no one.”
“Boo-fucking-hoo. People have had worse. People have suffered way more and still did everything everyone else had to do. They got no shortcuts.”
“Because starting from square one is a shortcut.” The words spilled out like venom. “Being in a new place, with strange people, being with myself— a practical stranger. Not understanding the things I know and the things I don’t know. Having vivid, grueling nightmares that wake me up screaming, crying at times, and begging them to stop. I train every day, every fucking day. To become stronger, to become more confident in myself— who I doubt a lot of the time may I add. But all I have to live for is my future. I want to save people from the pain that I have to endure every god forsaken day. If that isn’t hard work, then you’re right, I don’t have a clue what hard work is.”
Mae was about to retaliate, but I cut her short.
“And for being such a genius, it doesn’t take one to know that it was pretty hurtful of you to give those “easy” answers to Kiba. What kind of teammate are you? He isn’t even on your team!”
“I was going to give you the answers, too,” she muttered.
“Bullshit. All you care about is creating a reason for Kiba to talk to you. And I still had the audacity to be happy for you, even when you threw Leda and myself under the bus! If Kiba didn’t help me, I would have rose my hand and we wouldn’t even be here right now. Doesn’t that faze you?”
“Fuck you, Quorra,” she struggled to say. Her lips were trembling.
“No, fuck you, Mae. Do you know what? I think this is all because you are jealous Kiba talks to me while he ignores you. You can’t stand it.” The words stung Mae, but I didn’t have the passion nor sympathy to take the words back.
“While you stand here bickering about your problems, I’m going to find Leda, my teammate,” I declared and took off before Mae could reply.
I soon came to realize that I was alone. Very alone in a very dark forest.
“Curse Mae and her stupidity. How could she believe all those things,” I mumbled to myself.
The more times I repeated the argument, the more Mae’s words started to made sense. I struggled every day, becoming stronger, wiser – or so I thought. Did people really hand everything over on a gold platter? Did they just feel bad for me? Kakashi saving me, the Hokage granting me my wish of coming a shinobi, Kiba becoming my friend— Team Seven liking me. Was it all just an act of pity?
I tried to shake the hurtful thoughts out of my mind. It was no time to be thinking irrationally, not when I had to be on high-alert. My life here was in constant danger, but the thought lingered like an insect stuck in a spider’s web. It kicked and squirmed to be freed, but it was trapped in silver thread. Its faith was being devoured by an eight-legged carnivore.
Suddenly, a creature came into view as I skidded to a halt. It was perched on a fallen log, eating something. Its back was facing me, but it seemed to be a type of monkey or primate. The animal wasn’t too big, roughly knee-height. The fur was black and long but stuck out at odd directions like the little guy was suffering from a case of bed head.
Monkeys are generally harmless, I thought. They keep to themselves unless agitated.
I walked backwards to give the primate its space. A branch snapped loudly under my foot, alerting the hairy fellow. The animal’s head snapped towards my direction and I was horrified to learn that this was not any ordinary primate. Two demonic black eyes glared at me with a third on the forehead, not synchronizing with the other two. The third eye, the evil eye, had a black sclera but a white pupil, the negative imagine of the norm. It looked mad, erratic, like a hornet’s nest, looking in all directions, not able to force on a single point. Long, dark lashes empathized the dark, eeriness all the more.
Primates were indeed omnivores, eating both plants and meat, but focus their diet on plants and fruits since they do not tend to hunt. This monkey was indulging on something fresh and it wasn’t fruit. The neck of a deer was teared open, in its human-like hands. Its esophagus and tendons bleed in a thick syrup. The poor prey’s eyes were wide and lifeless, but it wasn’t dead. Its thin, boney legs kicked, trying to desperately escape. Moaning left the animal’s mouth, a mix of groans and gurgles as its voice box was ripped out. This wasn’t an infant deer, either. It wasn’t the runt of the pack or a deer who got lost from its mother. This was a full-grown buck with a massive rack that branched and stretched wider than my arm span.
To take down a deer that size, a predator would need agility, size, power— none of what the small monkey seemed to possess.
But I was wrong, I was way wrong as it stared at me with vengeance. The creature was angered by my interruption of his exquisite dinner— or was it just a snack?
The beast growled at me as the strip of muscle in his sharp jaws contracted, the cells still communicating to each other – sending electrical shocks, praying to move.
Seeing the fresh red blood made my stomach churn. Blood dribbled down its neck, staining his pearly white, red. The fur around the mouth and neck were matted with guts, blood and who knew what else.
As delightful has his dinner must have been, he was preoccupied with something else, something far more enjoyable. The creature thrust his head upwards and let out a horrendous screech. He pounded his chest, angrily— desperate for attention.
He signaled for his family and friends as many, many more started to appear. In the trees, they came— all with three eyes and black fur. These; however, were much larger and more aggressive looking than the first. That one was only the baby! The adults stood at waist height, maybe even taller. They also shared something else with the original monkey, they shared the same look as if I was their next victim.
“Fuck,” I cursed and sprinted away at top speed. Hordes of these fowl, uncanny creatures came speeding behind.
Their battle cries rung violently in my ears, becoming louder, getting closer. Many took the trees, swinging and jumping, while other stuck to the grounds, proving to be just as fast.
I knew there was no way I could fight them all. I wasn’t stupid. The only way I could make it out of this thing alive was to miraculously lose them. How to do that, I did not know. My brain was barely functioning to move forward. Not tripping over a log or stone was already a miracle within itself.
The monkeys, or whatever they were, in the trees started to get ahead of me. Directly under them, I could clearly see why they were so incredibly fast. They didn’t exactly leap through the trees, they soared. A membrane of thin skin connected from the elbow to the hip, functioning as a wing as they glided.
Since when did primates have wings? I questioned in horror. They didn’t teach you that in evolutionary class!
I suddenly, tragically, realize something that never crossed my mind. Just yards away and rapidly coming closer, was a cliff. A sheer drop that, based off the loud rushing waters, led directly into a river. It made the already bad situation that much worse.
Fuck. It was either death by three-eyed, freak-a-zoid monkey horde or by the rapids, which, knowing my luck, probably had alligators the size of mountains waiting for me. Whatever decision I made, I wanted to be certain of it.
I took a sharp right in hopes to lose some of them. Maybe that third eye fucks up their ability to make sharp turns, when I tripped on a root that camouflaged playfully behind tall grass. The unleveled grounded caused me to tumble. The sounds of screams warped in my ears as I rolled until I couldn’t roll anymore. Before I knew it, I was mid-air off the cliff I was desperately avoiding. The creatures were not stupid enough to follow as they perched at the cliff side and hollered. Many shook their fists and beat their chest.
I hit the water with such an impact, the shock and bitter cold froze my limbs. The waves took me under and before I knew it, I was welcomed with darkness.
The tranquil water brushed against me as the white loam caressed my skin. My eyes fluttered open to find myself washed ashore; my legs still emerged in the water. The raging river chewed me up and spat me out downstream, leaving me more lost than I was before.
Soaked, I pulled my body fully to shore. I patted my pockets to check my inventory and sighed with relief to find I wasn’t raided. No one seemed to have found me or they presumed I was dead. Either was possible as my skin had a blue hue; a result of being in frigid water for so long.
It suddenly hit me as I recalled why I was in the water in the first place. The bloodthirsty primates drove me off the cliff side into the rapids. In all honesty, I was lucky to be alive. Drowning would have been easy and who knew what festered in these waters.
Learning that I wasn’t knocked out for long as it wasn’t nightfall, I dragged my dripping-wet body solid, dry ground.
“Man, that sucked,” I complained, ringing out my hair. “If I ever run into those beasts again, I swear I will—”
My words were cut off by the sounds of someone else and I instinctively dove for cover, collecting leaves in my damp hair.
Peering through the brush, I realized the sound was not by one person but many. Two teams, six shinobi, faced off against each other. The group closest to me, I didn’t recognize. Their backs were towards me, but I could tell they were older and probably stronger. They faced a team that was from the sand village. A short boy with red hair and a large gourd on his back, stood by his two teammates with his arms crossed, irritated.
Gaara. My heart skipped an uncomfortable beat.
“Can you believe the nerve of these kids challenging us head on like this?” Spoke a man with poles strapped to his back.
“Yeah, they’re fools,” replied his teammate.
“Too bad kids. You should have picked your opponents better. Now you all are going to die.”
“I’ve heard enough out of you. Let’s make this quick. I don’t want to waste time on this guy.” Gaara spoke with such confidence that it stood out as cocky. To think that he was that self-assured intimidated me. The opponents growled in annoyance. They were underestimating the sand shinobi because of their age.
“Hey, Gaara. Doesn’t it make more sense to follow up on these punks and gather information first? I mean, if they have the same type of scroll as us, we are just fighting an unnecessary battle,” Kankuro questioned.
Gaara’s answer was quick and to the point. “I don’t care. They looked at me the wrong way, so they are going to die.”
“If you think you can kill us, then try it!” The leader of the opposing team yelled. He pulled the poles that were actually umbrellas out from his holster. The angered opponent threw his umbrellas up and they hovered in the sky. I never saw a weapon like this.
“Ninja art, senbon rain storm,” he yelled in his final hand pose. The umbrellas spun wildly as a rainstorm of needles sprayed. It was angrier than a bothered porcupine.
Up, down, left, right— there was nowhere to hide. My prior hiding spot left me exposed and I ended up diving to the nearest tree to avoid the livid quills. I dodged just in time to miss a senbon that was impaled the tree, inches from my face.
“There are no blind spots in this jutsu,” the man reassured as he directed the needles towards Gaara. A barrage of metal poured onto him.
Dirt was kicked up into the air and my sight of him was obscured. I couldn't help, but wonder the outcome. Is he alright? Why am I worried if he is okay?
The dirt cloud lifted to show another ungodly sight. A sand shell that was penetrated by thousands of needles, covering the red-haired boy. Gaara stood inside, untouched, and definitely maddened.
“A wall of sand?” the man was as clueless as I was.
“That’s right. It’s a defense mechanism,” Kankuro explained. “He carries around all that sand in the gourd he has on his back. When he’s attacked, he uses the power of his chakra to harden the sand. It’s a jutsu only Gaara can do and somehow it happens automatically.”
“Is that all you can do?” Gaara asked, insulted if the answer was true.
By the reaction of the wielder, I would say yes. “It can’t be,” the man spoke, flabbergasted. “Impossible.” He threw his hands into position once more and sent another barrage of needles at Gaara. The sand moved instantly.
Gaara wasn’t using a jutsu to move the sand. It’s like the sand is working instinctually. I thought. How can that be?
“A senbon rainstorm? I have a better idea. Let’s make it rain blood instead,” Gaara suggested. For the first time, he threw his hands into a triangular pose. “Sand coffin.” His animated sand wrapped around his enemy in an enlarged cocoon. The umbrellas that were mid-air moments before came crashing down like jousting sticks.
“I can’t move,” the shinobi said. “Let… let me go!” He was losing his breath as the sand suffocated him, like a serpent.
“All I have to do is cover your big mouth and you’ll be dead.” Gaara grabbed and unstuck one of the umbrellas and opened it like an actual umbrella. “But that would be too easy, too boring.”
With his free hand, he moved his hand, sending the man and sand mass into the air. Higher and higher he rose, struggling as the sand suffocated him.
Gaara had a look of pure rage, like it had been his life goal to take revenge on this guy. I had never seen that much hatred in a person before. It made James’ expressions when he talked about his hatred for shinobi, mediocre.
The man begged and pleaded for his life, but it was no use. Gaara had made his choice.
“Sand burial!” Gaara squeezed his hand together and the sand did the same. Squeezing the screaming shinobi with such force that he was pulverized. All that was left of him was, like Gaara promised, a rain of blood and sand.
I couldn’t believe what I just witnessed as the black blood/sand mixture slopped onto my shoulder. Even when it sprayed my face, I was too awestruck to close my eyes. How merciless. The dead’s teammates shivered uncontrollably.
Gaara causally tilted the umbrella, leaving him stain-free from the organ soup. “There wasn’t any pain. I crushed him with more force than necessary so it was over quickly. The corpse’s bitter tears flow and mingle with the endless sand, feeding the chaos within me. Making me stronger.”
“Just take the scroll. Go on,” the corpse’s teammate said, placing a Heaven scroll on the ground.
“Yes, take it. Please spare us!” cried the other.
Gaara was wordless as he flung the umbrella aside and threw both hands up. At that precise moment, arms of sand with actual sand hands, rose from the ground and wrapped around the two teammates. They screamed and panicked appropriately, but their cries will never be heard as the sand squeezed them into oblivion.
I was frozen by the sight. This wasn’t how shinobi were supposed to fight. They were to defend with honor, not have a killing spree. It was obvious his obsession with blood was no laughing matter.
Kankuro walked to the scroll, the only thing left from the deceased team. “We got lucky. It’s a Heaven scroll,” he picked it up and smiled. “Alright, let’s head to the tower.”
“It’s not… it’s still not enough for me.” Gaara’s black-trimmed eyes looked maniac.
“Come on. Gaara. Let’s just go,” Kankuro suggested.
“What are you scared, coward?” Gaara antagonized.
“Look, Gaara. I know this test is no problem for you, but it’s dangerous for Temari and I. One set of scrolls is good enough. It’s all we need to pass.”
Gaara didn’t like being pushed around. “Losers can’t tell me what to do.”
Kankuro’s patience had reached its limit. He grabbed a fistful of Gaara’s shirt. “Alright, that’s enough. Sometimes you have to listen to what your big brother says.”
“It’s too bad I don’t think of you as my big brother at all,” Gaara said, without any doubt in his voice. “If you get in my way, I will kill you.” He slapped Kankuro’s hand away and stuck out his hand once more, in a fighting stance.
“Wait, hold on.” Temari held her hand up defensively. “You don’t have to treat us like the enemy. Just do it for your sister… please?”
What in the world is he? I thought. To threaten enemies was one thing, but to threaten your teammates and family was something on a whole other playing field. Could something this cruel be from my nightmares? What does he have to do with me, if anything?
I almost turned around, left from where I came, but both the freight and my indecisiveness held me back. I promised myself that I would take any presentable leads to discover more of myself, and my past. If I ducked out now after such a promise, I would be a liar. And worse, I would be a coward. I needed to find out; I needed to talk to Gaara.
And my wish might come true sooner than I planned as a snake of sand slivered around my waist.