Author's note: Guess what! I finally managed to write something a little longer.
And this was what he told him on the second day he had been standing at the edge of the fields, his eyes ever fixed on that spot where her labored along his brothers and sisters.
Surely he wanted to fight other things than roots and soil, the man whispered as if sharing a secret. A young man like him certainly craved for his name to be known, for the infamy if not fame he had to offer.
He had complimented him on his strength, the hard tautness of his body, had appraisingly felt his flesh like those few in the village who owned cattle felt a cow’s udder before buying it or kneaded a stallion’s legs, searching for hidden injuries. Kakuzu remembered the touch, recalled calloused fingers digging into his arms. He could recollect the man cupping his pectoral muscle to assess its size with the same clarity he remembered his pale eyes and the black stubble of beard on his chin, those details possessing a vivacity most of his other memories lacked.
In his mind his sisters were tanned girls with large hands rough from work, their smiles and teeth crooked more often than not, while his brothers remained nondescript and always hungry, the older ones moaning silently under their blankets at night, the smell of their sweat never quite leaving him when they worked together, digging away at the soil with hoes and other, cruder instruments.
His mother he probably recalled best. Only fitting, because hers had most likely been the first or at least second face he had ever seen after the one of the hag they called midwife there.
A tall, hard woman she had been, all withered tits and saggy belly. Skin the same shade as his, obscured by a faded robe that must have once been bright with silken luminescence. Rings from some mineral hung from the lobes of her ears, the stone once a deep green like malachite, then, in a different light, almost translucent and bluish like jade. He did not know where she came from. Not from here, he had heard people say. But maybe that did not matter, because he also had no idea where she went after he left. Nowhere was the best guess he could make.
Yet it had been some kind of legend, that harsh-faced beauty showing up in this place where usually only forest spirits wandered. The story told like a tale of some nymph rising from a pond, of a thing that came to tread among them and thus became tainted and worn.
He did not remember his father, simply because there was nothing to remember. No one seemed to know who had blessed his mother with her endless row of children. A nymph, they said, I told you. Who knew how those things worked with them?
On the third day the stranger approached him again.
If he would come with him, he would never regret it. A man like him, wasted here, what a shame that would be, he coaxed.
There were things for him to learn, so why did he not follow? Things for him to see, men who did not have to hope for the earth to grant them with some pitiful harvest, people who rose like demons from the fire and like the tide with the waters, he cooed on the fourth, the sparse hair on his chin shaking with every spoken verse.
It was not until the fifth day that Kakuzu complied.
On the sixth day the man bled out both his promises and his life’s blood.
An apprentice, why not, another one told him with his hands still red. After all peasants were tough folk and so obedient. When his long fingers reached out for his upper arms, Kakuzu jerked away.
He left before his first master’s blood had fully clotted on the forest humus.
“Go” one of his sister’s told him, reading his intent. “Go, but don’t forget.” A strange pride shone in her face that did not usually show such emotions.
“Yes, that I will.” he said, exhaling mockery with ever breath, for she was a mud-splattered sea-thing’s child, something he still hoped he was not.
In fact he was an earth-thing he found out later, hardening his skin and thus turning it a deeper and more fertile looking black than the soil he had once tilled.
On his travels he met a demented woman, babbling under her breath while she cooked, the words just short of being recognizable. It was one of those half-dreamt memories he had, things he was never sure of if they had really happened or if they were almost-visions born of his consciousness in the small hours when he floated between wakefulness and sleep.
The villagers had asked him to stay at her house if he wanted to take shelter from the autumn drizzle that seemed to crawl into the hollow space of his armpits.
“That’s what travelers normally do” they told him.
He did not hear it at first. A nearly-rhythmic chanting as if the singer forgot some part of the melody, starting anew in odd cadences, fitting the sound together to some eerie not-song. When he found her, she leaned deeply over a pot, mixing poisonous ingredients with those fit for eating. Hemlock and mushrooms not quite lethal enough to kill, but only quite.
“Stop that!” he had told her, his voice loud and harsh in the room otherwise only filled by that strange murmuring. She had looked up then, fixed an old, intent gaze upon him. Slowly she opened her mouth, her wrinkled skin stretching taut over her face.
If he would touch her to shove her away or maybe not to do so, Kakuzu realized, he would only feel bone as if she was solely held together by sinew and that strangely warm, papery skin that would seem oddly alive beneath his fingers. Then she closed her mouth again, a thin thread of drool first expanding before it collapsed between her dry lips. She tried again and this time the arcane whispering from before became words.
“What does one like you know?” she asked with a voice that was surprisingly reasonable. She laughed then and resumed her chanting, something glittering like jade under her hair in the vicinity of her ear.
Her incantation followed Kakuzu even as he had fled.
Kakuzu believed in valuable things, for those where the things that lasted and therefore those that had a use. The fact that for the right goods you could acquire almost anything was a reliable calculation, a truth that was valid in all places at all times. The right currency for the right man. Gold for the greedy, leadership for the lost, war for the angry and peace for anyone else. The bought were people, whose motivation came not from some passion as fickle as time, but from rational assessment. He knew this for his own lust for fame was dying, replaced by that very same cynical detachment. So he listened, tried to find out with what to pay these days and often, yet not as often as he would one day but still, he would find his answers.
The first thing was a whisper. Fractions were forming, for war or peace or perhaps both. The same rumors he overheard everywhere, a thousand-voiced murmuring in the streets. The second was word of alliances formerly unthinkable of, the end of feuds thought unending, probably the start to new, even greater slaughter. The third time he inquired himself. What of those fractions? Did they need men? Yes, them and their families given that they were skilled in the arts of the shinobi.
The fourth time he was approached. He knew his name, yes, and also his profession. Nations were rising and at some point he would have to choose or be caught in the crossfire, so why not know? The Falls-country surly was as good a place as any, its village hidden beside a great river’s torrent where it fell deep into some valley’s maw.
“All well”, he answered, “but what of the gain.”
“Gain? “, the man asked. “Was surviving in a world where the free would soon be called outcasts not enough profit?”
His first partner in the village was also his last since he did not yet truly desire the death of his associates, even though he was never sure, if the same was true for the other man. Yet even if he might have possessed such wishes, he never acted upon them and so they hunted together, driving their human prey over rooftops, through alleys and other darker hidden pathways, catching up and finally cornering it. Yet this time his mission was to retrieve some scroll and so this was just what he did, searching and finding at last as the world under him exploded in an inferno of flames licking at the skies.
When it was over he did not see the corpse. “Top secret” his partner told him. “The existence of the village depended upon the fall of this one. Its secrets have to be kept.”
“But why this special care now?” Kakuzu asked. “The man is dead after all.”
His partner had laughed at that. “It was no man I killed” he said “but a monster.”
They did not trust each other yet, Kakuzu realized. The clans, who had once fought each other and the Falls-village’s council, were in fact in an easy-to-unbalance equilibrium, their great new alliances in fact always just one step from falling apart.
But he found that they trusted him, because he was without friend or kin here. A man whose word counted for nothing and who was therefore easy to dispose of, thus trustworthy, because it did not matter if he was not.
Takigakure was still weak and was likely to stay one of the minor nations, they told him. Better not to keep it that way, better to destabilize Konoha in the South especially with their borders with Iwa not yet decided upon. So he was sent away to kill that far-away village’s leader, dragging his own shattered body back with failure in his wake.
Takigakure was half a floating village and thus its vaults where not deep, but dark, the water pressing in from all directions. Sometimes when he strained his ears he could hear it flowing outside the small cell, unseen currents moving like great snake-like things, before they ran over the plateau’s edge, forming the waterfall that gave the village its name. Or probably it was the sound of the blood in its own veins, his pulse hammering the louder the more of the precious liquid he lost. Earth he had in this place, deeply rooted inside him for whatever good it did him while life’s water was leaving him all too quickly.
How could he rise with only water and earth, he asked himself, some half-memory resurfacing. Pale eyes and some seductive verses that were always short of being voiceless bobbing up and down in his consciousness like something dead dragged along by the river outside. How heal himself when he was obviously beyond just that?
Later he did not recall how he ever managed to take the first man by surprise when he opened the door of his cell, coming maybe to bind his wounds, perhaps to bring him his rations or death.
"To be killed by a dying man" he thought only dully aware of the force of another one’s kick that he blocked. That kind of joke that was so ironically funny that it was nothing to laugh about.
“Not a man, but a monster” he heard his team mate say. If there was no place for him as he was now, he simply would have to become something else.
The jutsu started with the seal for earth. The scroll had been smaller in his hands than he had remembered it, but also heavier, giving further testimony of his fading strength. The parchment felt oddly warm under his fingers. He imagined veins running just beneath its folds, delicate arteries cradled in its papery body, a very real heart beating at its center.
In his youth he had spend his days praying to the peasant’s little gods. Small neglected things, that sulked in damp shrines and holier ones living in the sky and under some great tree’s roots. Those of crop and rain, of healthy children and a girl’s tits. He had worshiped those spirits along with everybody else, hallowed them when his fingers were raw from work, stinging from a hundred tiny wounds. Some tired, humble mumbling to a thing that was so different from what he held now.
When he opened the scroll he had half expected it to hiss like a roused beast, certain that its prey would not escape it now. And it did devour him, about half a second after he had finished the jutsu, his body awaiting the results of what he had done, aching and taut with anticipation. The last seal had been the one for water and into the waters he was cast. The power he had unleashed threw him into the jade green torrent as it ripped him apart from the inside, dragged him down with malachite undercurrents before it engulfed him in its onyx depths. Kakuzu could feel something vital in him twist, tearing him to pieces in a flood the same color as a woman’s gems, but instead of being taken back into her womb, he was expelled from it again, just like he was now torn from being a man, tossed right into nothingness.
The river swell as it swallowed him, rising higher than ever before.
He woke lying on his back, the gushing water lapping at his feet like some pet willing its master into wakefulness. Slowly he tried to stand and found that he could. Then he began his long walk back to Takigakure.
He drank his former leader’s vermillion waters that night, cracked open their bones for their marrow and tore them free along with the sinew that normally held them together. Their fat and muscle he consumed, taking all of it into himself. He crawled into the last alveolus of their lungs, the thread curling into the tiny hollow spaces like a dog lying down to sleep, now warm, red and heavy. At last he also hooked it behind their aortas; cradling the tender organ before he yanked hard, tearing clean through sternum and flesh and all.
He did not know if he had ever been home after he left. Their hut would have been overgrown with honeysuckle wreathing down from the roof, growing from some window like out of a skull’s empty eye socket. The fields where he had once sweated would have been reclaimed by the jungle too, young trees and shrubs growing there instead of crops. It might have been another broken down house he had seen in an entirely different place, something that had reminded him of the place where he had once lived, but then again it might have been not.
He looked closer at the woman, searching for something in her face, that might indicate she was related to him, but found nothing for the face he hid now was different from the one he had worn as a boy.
“I have heard rumors” she told him as she approached him, whispering the words in his ear, her moist breath tickling over the shell of his ear. “The shinobi village’s elders killed, their body’s almost unrecognizable as such.” But that was added later with her hands on his chest, memories of a long gone assessing touch resurfacing as her finger slid along his nipple.
“I have heard the same” he answered. “And even stranger stories.” Her hand paused on his naked skin before it ran over one of the seams.
“An odd thing this is” she said with a voice that was both husky and high with some fake girlish tremolo. “Odder than most things I have seen and I’ve seen a lot. But even odder is the gossip I have heard lately. Talk of the waters rising, bearing a terrible face, tearing people apart with a hundred black arms and drowning both man and beast alike.” Later yet she reached for the mask that veiled his face, carefully pulling away the fabric, watching him intently.
“Not all that terrible” she said very softly, smiling a small forced smile as her eyes were full of shocked disgust and fear. The she kissed him, her painted lips barely touching his, her terror making the gesture strangely tender and chaste.
He let her go after they were done, even though she most likely knew who he was now. Not only that. He paid her too and a higher price than she had initially asked from him at that, because there might have been something of one of his sisters in her after all, a spark of those crooked smiles, which made their not all that crooked teeth glisten.
Then he went, forgetting a bit more or just overlaying old memories with new ones until they were not what they had been anymore. It was maybe not so different from looking at the world through a convex piece of glass, all things distorting into stubby shapes or looking up from the bottom of one of those forest ponds where he had once swum, the trees above rippling with the water.
The hut was now a heap of weathered wood, he did not delude himself about that fact. His siblings had probably long left to marry and live and die. Some of his sisters had probably succumbed to some sickness or had died wailing in childbed. Their lips had to be bloody from the knuckles of men they had thought they had loved by now or maybe they had all fallen asleep one night, never to wake. If some of the older girls possessed a stranger’s soft hands now, he simply would have to live with it.
The mask was a finely made thing, its porcelain almost translucent and petal-white.
“Yes, pretty it is” the shopkeeper told him “and very rare and thus expensive.”
“It does not matter” he answered. “Money I do not lack.”
When he was about to leave, he first noticed the dog lying in a corner of the small room. For half a second he looked at it intently and the animal seemed to look back, its grayish brown fur bristling. Then it pressed its tail between its legs and whined.
“Smart thing” he said as if to himself while the pale demon he still held in his hand exposed its ivory fangs in a snarl.
They came after him only once. It was a small team. Takigakure’s finest, ready to be wasted here. They had to be desperate, he realized, or fools like they had been all along, for those people were doomed trying to judge him. They would die in the process of dragging him back or in the attempt to kill him on sight. Yet it had been their decision and not his that had brought them here, where he came undone above them, engulfing them in the threat of his body, its darkness blotting out the sun with a thousand delicate fibers. For all he knew their deaths were in vain.
Later he came by a shrine, its lacquered wood gleaming in the sun. The air here was full of murmured words and the smell of rich oils. Gifts the spirit dwelling here was to be blessed with to buy its sympathy. It was a water deity they worshipped here, he soon found out. So he burned a few sticks of incense himself, greeting the god, but asking for nothing.
His second or third or maybe even fourth partner in Akatsuki had been a woman of extraordinary beauty. A siren that could turn her breath into the most toxic of poisons and break a man’s focus with the gentlest sway of her hips in battle. He was glad that her heart beat on in his chest, was glad to have kept something of her after she died.
The golem that he had given life with that particular heart was always the one he let out last, making it one of his treasures along with the memory of her hard-set mouth and her bathing in a dark lake in autumn, her body obscured from that spot where her breasts began to swell all the way down. He had other recollections from that time. Memories that did not usually swim in the light-filled layers of his consciousness, but were actually part of the deep aquifers of his mind. Places he revisited in the dark of the night, when he remembered them with fondness and lust, but not with love for his own heart still beat safely in body, clad in the most terrible mask he had been able to find.
His fifth partner stabbed himself laughingly with a pike before Kakuzu had a chance to carry out the deed himself. His god fed on the blood, he told him, ate the sacrifice he provided it with.
Making it a thing that needs to be pampered, Kakuzu wanted to say to him. A bloated, twisted thing that has long since been too fat too walk. Who would want such a sullen god that needed the prayer of its disciples? Who would ever pray to something that drank and consumed what it was fed instead of taking those things by itself like he did? A fact that made him not a god, but at least a juggernaut or some idolized image.
He contemplated if he should tell him those things, but held his tongue for the man’s anger would have been the first and only stele built in his name.