Chapter 7: Battletech
The explosion tore through the deceptive peace of the Forest of Death with a sound beyond sound. The ear could not register it; it was felt in the bones, in the gut. It resonated in the heart and brain and shook the sky. The great trees, each towering almost a hundred meters into the sky and as thick around as a house, bent like saplings. Cracks ran up their massive trunks with a series of sharp reports that would have been deafening in their own right if the explosion had not erased all sound. Splinters the size of pitchforks went flying on the wave of force, and a cloud of sawdust formed an expanding hemisphere as the closest trees were shattered and torn apart.
In the deafened silence that followed, an avalanche of leaves tumbled from the sky; the canopy for a half kilometre in all directions suddenly emptied. Naked branches twisted into the air all around the crater. The echo of the sound rumbled across the forest like distant thunder. All across the training ground for the second stage of the Chunin Exam, rookies and veterans alike paused; in some cases battles halted with startled abruptness in mid blow, as the force of the explosion announced a large battle across the land.
Nearly fifty metres beneath what had once been the surface, the girl had landed on one knee. Her long pink hair floated in the air above her, playing through the heat distortion rising from the steaming ground. Her sword was buried point-first in the exact centre of the hemisphere she had created. The surface of the newly dug crater was unnaturally smooth, like someone had polished the bedrock to a mirror gloss. Streams of loose soil began to fall from the lip down into the cavity as the ground nearby discovered it was no longer supported on one side. The sound of it tumbling was unnaturally audible in the silence following that titanic blast.
A squelching sound added to the crumbling soil as a form at the very edge of the crater lost cohesion. For a moment it had looked like a woman’s figure: the skin had been burned away by some unimaginable force, bones and organs exposed as nearly half the body facing the impact point had been scoured clean away. Then it became nothing more than a collapsing puddle of mud.
“I’ll admit to being impressed.” A voice came from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, floating on the air as Sakura rose to her feet and balanced her sword on one shoulder. “You destroyed a lot of rocks and trees. But did you really think such a straightforward attack had a chance of harming me?”
“Not really,” she said. “I just wanted to get your attention.”
“You have it. But then, it seems I have no other choice. Both of your friends seem to have been vapourised by that technique.” She smirked, and then the air beside her rippled. In a flash of pink light, two figures appeared. Both tumbled as they appeared fifty meters in the air, obviously caught completely by surprise. Sasuke managed to land on his feet, bending his knees only slightly to absorb the impact. Naruto landed on his face.
Not that this seemed to bother him. He rose first to his knees then to his feet, his motions slow as he stared around the crater and the shattered woodland beyond it. “Woah…” he breathed. “What happened? Who did this?”
“Sakura…” Sasuke’s voice was more shocked than awed.
A body emerged from the ground and stood along the side of the crater, canted at a slight angle in casual defiance of gravity. Loose soil drifted between her feet. She smiled. “I had not expected three such interesting flowers among the weeds this year. A brat with the jutsu of the Fourth Hokage, a girl with strength to rival the Slug Princess… and, of course, the last Uchiha.”
“Naruto, look out!” Sasuke yelled. His eyes had turned red, and he flung himself sideways as a hundred hands burst from the ground of the crater, filling it from edge to edge. Naruto managed to react just before the field of hands could grab him. Both boys landed a couple of paces from the edge of the crater.
The girl had dozens of them clamped onto her legs and hips. More still grasped her sword and tugged at it, only for the blade to not move so much as an inch. The woman standing on the side of the crater smiled, and her hands flashed through a half dozen seals before rubbing a line of blood across her arm. “Kuchiyose no Jutsu: Writhing Snake Pit!”
A snake emerged from the sleeve of each hand; each had the head of a great python. They hissed and writhed and struck with unnatural speed, some wrapping around limbs and others biting down on torso and neck.
“How disappointing,” the woman on the crater wall said.
“Sasuke,” Sakura said, still calm. “Light it up.”
Sasuke was already halfway through the seals when she spoke. “Katon: Grand Fireball!” He breathed over the tips of his pointed fingers and a giant ball of flame erupted from him, filling the crater end to end. He continued to exhale and the ball of flame persisted for a handful of seconds before vanishing into a cloud of steam and smoke. The grass and torn roots at the edge of the crater were smouldering and charred black; here and there a small flame still burned. The girl stood unharmed in the centre of the crater. A field of pink hexagons floated entirely around her body, some dimmer than others. The field seemed to flare and then vanish, leaving only the slightest distortion in the air.
Of the hands, snakes, and other woman, no trace remained.
“Kage bunshin no jutsu!” Chakra smoke vanished into the air as a dozen Narutos leapt into the underbrush and onto the remnants of the great trees. “You think you can get away from us that easy?” The small army ran up the trunk of one of the trees towards a remaining branch; the bark had been stripped and the branch was shattered into splinters at the end, but that didn’t slow down the boy as he threw a dozen kunai into it. There was a hiss as the attached explosive tags activated.
The explosion seemed almost anticlimactic after the earlier blast. The burning fragments of branch and treetop flew in all directions. Out of the destruction a body flashed, clothes rippling as the woman began to make hand seals. Her eyes widened as a figure appeared behind her with a flicker of motion.
The great blade moved five times. Head detached from body, limbs went in all directions. A wet splat filled the air. Mud slathered down the remains of a half dozen great trees.
“A substitution?” Sasuke asked. His red eyes moved back and forth, the two magatama shapes in each seeming to spin as he tried to see the entire area at once.
The girl landed next to him. “This one won’t be as hard to pin down as Zabuza,” she said. Then her hand grabbed his shoulder and both flickered again before appearing standing on the side of the great tree the Naruto army inhabited. They appeared in the middle of his formation. The boy instinctively turned outward.
“Where is he?” Naruto asked.
Sakura spun her blade in one hand, reversing her grip. She thrust it backwards under the gap formed by her shoulder. The tree crunched and a sickening wet sound emerged. With a cry she tore the great blade free, sending a body hurling from its tip into the air. The woman shape dissolved again.
Sasuke didn’t even look at it. He planted his feet on either side of the gash Sakura had formed and took a deep breath, hand seals forming so fast they were a blur. “Katon: Hidden Leaf Style Chimney!” He breathed fire into the wounded tree.
Instantly it was ablaze, the wood inside igniting into a conflagration. The core went up faster than the outside, turning the entire towering ruin into a single blazing chimney. Great clouds of black smoke poured out of the torn top of the tree and from the smoke emerged a figure flying upward.
A dozen Narutos followed him up into the air, leaping from the burning collapsing remains their perch. Six leapt from the shoulders of their fellows. Three linked hands with their twins and tossed them skyward. Orochimaru frowned as the trio of shadow clones reached him. A second of furious motion later and he was alone with only smoke.
“It’s the real one!” Sasuke shouted. He was falling backward away from the devastation he caused as the great tree imploded. He almost seemed to be floating. Yet his eyes never left Orochimaru.
“Got you,” Sakura said with a grin. “Ars magica;” She was falling backward too, but her hands released her great blade which seemed to float behind her as the two fell. “De schola caeli; fulgur repetitur!” As her hands move a half dozen mandalas formed around her. Then another set, in front of and smaller than that, and a third in front of and smaller still. There was a brief spark, growing larger in each mandala.
Orochimaru’s arms flashed. A high pitched whine filled the air. Sunlight glittered off something around him. Kunai appeared in his hands, fanned between his fingers.
Lightning filled the air. It flew in defiance of all reason into the sky, forming burning afterimages in the eyes of everyone who saw.
“Fuuton: Lightning Rod Defence!”
To an eye that could glimpse between seconds, what happened next was obvious. The lightning flared up into the sky, but the ninja wire Orochimaru had released was guided by invisible air currents into its path. Even as it did, the kunai he threw slammed into a series of trees all around him with a series of staccato crunches. The lightning, suddenly finding a new path of least resistance, flashed down the wires into the trees. The wood exploded. Blackened chips flew in all directions.
Eyes less capable of such feats would have just seen a blur of motion and the blinding flare of lightning, followed almost instantly by a series of explosions that obscured all vision.
“Did we get him?” Naruto said with a gasp. Wood chips fell around him like rain. Sasuke managed to tuck into a roll, landing on both feet and one hand. The other held a kunai. Sakura seemed to have slowed, drifting to a rest on the ground like a feather. Her hand snapped out and caught her great blade; she shifted it up above her in a guard position.
“No.” Sakura was still smiling, but her voice was serious. “Bastards like this never go down in one round.”
There was a metallic screech as Orochimaru settled one foot on the web of ninja wire he had created. He smirked down at the three of them. No need for disguises or obfuscation now, it seemed. He wore his true face. Or was that his old face? It was so hard to say these days. He laughed.
“Magnificent!” He clapped. “All three of you have greatly exceeded my expectations.” His lips pulled back from his teeth. “Even the obnoxious brat is doing so well. I guess he truly is the one the Fourth Hokage trusted with his legacy.”
“The Fourth…” Naruto said.
“Don’t listen to him, Naruto,” Sakura said. “His words are more poisonous than his summons.”
“And you, girl,” Orochimaru said to her. “Frankly amazing. Where has that old man been hiding you all this time? Some sort of trump card he placed on Sasuke’s team to protect against me?” He touched his heart theatrically and threw one hand to the side. “I’m touched. Right here. Frankly, I didn’t think sensei had it in him to be so underhanded.” He looked back down. “He was always so obsessed with honour and loyalty that I didn’t think he would betray his precious allies by putting a ringer in the Chunin Exam. I’ll have to compliment him before he… passes on.”
“Does this guy ever shut up?” Sasuke asked, never taking those precious Sharingan eyes off his foe. Orochimaru stared into them. Still only two marks per eye, nothing like his older brother’s mature power. Baby eyes. But oh-so-delicious. He licked his lips.
“That’s the great thing about his obsession with his own voice,” Sakura said. She shifted her stance and pointed her blade at him. “He talked long enough for me to recover every bit of energy I spent. Naruto, now!”
Orochimaru’s footing slipped slightly as his net of wire moved. His eyes flashed to the anchor point only to see each one being held up by a grinning blond brat. Behind them a pair of other clones stood. With a great collective cry of “Don’t underestimate me!” the Narutos flung his kunai back at him. The ones behind the throwing clones made hand seals. “Kage Kunai no Jutsu!”
Orochimaru’s eyes narrowed as he saw only a handful of the newly multiplied kunai were aimed towards him. An observer could see the instant he realised that not only had the kunai multiplied by the clone jutsu, but also the wires as well. They formed a net around him, preventing him from dodging. Orochimaru smirked.
The Fourth’s brat obviously didn’t understand that those kunai and wires were Orochimaru’s territory. “Fuuton: Flowing Chakra Wires!” He hopped up, tucking his legs and the rest of his body into a ball as the wire filled the air. Then his air release captured the wire with his chakra flow and the weapons began to spin back in their orbits, lashing out in all directions.
The shattered treetops filled with loud pops and the brief clouds of chakra smoke as dozens of Narutos exploded under the onslaught. Trails of smoke traced through the air as cloned kunai and wires vapourised without their master to control them. In a second no Naruto stood in the trees.
“Katon: Phoenix Flower Jutsu!”
Orochimaru’s eyes snapped down as Sasuke blew a double handful of small flaming balls at him. They reached him as he was falling towards the earth and suddenly began expanding in all directions. “They’re feeding on my chakra!” he hissed as the balls expanded rapidly in all directions, with him at the exact center of the overlapping area. The fire release ate the wind release from his technique, and the flailing wires began to whip about randomly.
“Suiton: Flowing Water Whips.” Orochimaru’s hands moved too fast to see and he spat, a long line of water forming from his lips. The water twisted around him in a spiral, slapping the globes of fire out of the air and leaving trails of steam in their wake.
“Ars Psionica; Magnetokinesis!“
Sakura appeared above him, one hand stretched down. The whine of his wires shrieked as they bent suddenly downward and inward. Even as the last of the fireballs was destroyed, the wire cut through his water whip as if it wasn’t even there. His arms couldn’t move fast enough to cast another ninjutsu and his mouth was busy so his tongue could not come into play.
Blood showered out from the suddenly compacted ball of wire. Flesh was sliced through with hardly more resistance than the water had shown. Scales drifted out like sakura petals.
“Almost,” Orochimaru sneered. From his sleeves, his collar and every other gap in his clothes a great colony of snakes had emerged. Their bodies had absorbed the force of the wire spinning around him. Sakura only smirked.
Orochimaru looked down to see Naruto sprinting and leaping over the crater. In his hand was a compact sphere of spiraling chakra so intense that even the untrained could have perceived it. The kunai at the ends of the wires were pounding down into the ground around him and Orochimaru’s body, protected by ablative snakes or not, was rocketing down towards him in their wake.
“RASENGAN!” Naruto roared, driving his hand up. Orochimaru’s tongue shot out and caught the boy’s hand behind the wrist. He twisted the sphere to the side, close enough that he could feel his hair drawn up in its wake and several follicles painfully ripped free.
That was when Sasuke stepped off Naruto’s back and thrust his fist straight at Orochimaru’s face. There was a shriek of a thousand birds and a symphony of high pitched snaps as the wires parted before the intense chakra of his jutsu.
Orochimaru’s body seemed to melt, and then he shot backwards. His feet and arms flopped bonelessly as his torso and head twisted and deflated in ways no human body was ever meant to move. Somehow he found the smallest hole in the twisted tangle of wire engulfing him and squeezed out of it like a worm. The bundle snapped and flew in all directions and Sasuke was forced to throw up his arms in defence.
He crashed into Naruto and both of them landed in the crater in an undignified heap. Blood welled from a number of surface-level cuts along their arms and faces. Sasuke rolled out of Naruto’s grasp and tried to stand up, only to slump to one knee. His breathing was coming in short, sharp bursts – not quite hyperventilating but close – and sweat dripped down his body in waves, mingling with his blood. His arm was shaking uncontrollably, and he looked down at his palm in consternation.
“Damn… is two still my limit?” he said with a groan.
Naruto was also panting as he stood up slowly behind Sasuke. But stand he did. Two Rasengan and who knew how many shadow clones, and he was still standing. The boy truly did have monstrous chakra. Perhaps literally. Orochimaru wouldn’t have put it past the Fourth to find some secret of allowing the boy to safely siphon off the power of the nine-tailed fox. Still, both boys were obviously running low on chakra after spending it like water for the last minute.
Even as he watched, both boys groaned and staggered as a new wave of fatigue spread over them. Orochimaru’s eyes narrowed. They also seemed to slow somehow. It was like the speed of their movement, so freakishly fast for genin, had suddenly dropped to half.
The girl, Sakura, however, looked fresh as a rose. She walked past the boys towards the bundle of wires and ran a finger along the blood. She looked down at it, a scarlet stain on her pink-and-black body suit. Then she looked at Orochimaru.
Orochimaru stood on the lip of the crater, his arms crossed and a smirk on his face. He followed her gaze and reached up with one hand, running his thumb over the tiny cut there. He held up the thumb; the dots of blood were barely visible. He laughed.
“All that, and you managed one scratch.” He grinned. “You must be feeling disappointed. After such a beautiful speech and all.” He extended his tongue and licked his thumb clean, then dragged it across the wound and erased it. “See? All gone.” His tone was teasing.
“Damnit,” Naruto staggered forward but dropped to his knee instead of taking a step. “What is this freak made of?”
“Snakes, mostly.” Sakura never took her eyes off Orochimaru, but he got the distinct impression she was evaluating her two companions somehow. “You two better get out of here now. It looks like my mahoujutsu ran out, and you’re both experiencing the side effects of Magna Festina on top of that.”
“My body feels like lead,” Sasuke said with a growl.
“Fascinating,” Orochimaru said, stroking his chin and cheek with two fingers. “Mahoujutsu, you call it? Some sort of time-space jutsu, I believe.” The girl’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t be so surprised. I figured it out the moment those two appeared on the battlefield again. Their surprise and shock was obvious. They didn’t see you unleash that freakish strength at all, did they?” He allowed a predatory satisfaction to suffuse his face. “When you leapt upward to deliver that blow, I saw one of your mandalas form beneath you and cover all three of you. You obviously wanted me to think it was behind your sudden surge of strength, but I saw both boys vanish a fraction of a second before your sword came down. How does it work? Do you reverse summon them to a safe location and call them back a few instants later like a yo-yo, or…” He looked at the boy’s shocked expressions. “No, they didn’t go ‘somewhere’ at all, did they? They went somewhen.” He laughed with genuine glee. “You pushed them forward in time until after your technique destroyed the landscape. Marvelous. I haven’t seen the like in all my years. To weaponise time itself!
“And that’s how they were performing so far above their level, wasn’t it? Your mahoujutsu can obviously affect others. So you accelerated their local temporal field? Oh dear, oh my, you accelerated everything about them. Their speed, reflexes, perceptions and fast twitch muscle response. Even their blood flow, of course.” He extended a hand towards her. “Except their chakra. For some reason you can’t accelerate that. Still, it’s a magnificent jutsu. The ability to turn mere genin into jounin-level combatants, even for a minute, is truly…
“Useless.” His throat convulsed and a snake rose from between his lips. From its fanged maw he caught the hilt of his Kusanagi and drew it. The blade seemed to gleam especially bright in the sunlight and scattered fires. Behind him a tree collapsed as the fire spread. “What a useless waste of jutsu. To rely on the strength of others? To spread your own power around with nothing to gain from it? Truly, in your heart you are a Leaf nin. Such wasted potential.”
“It looks like you’re ready to get serious.” Sakura grinned and licked the blood off her finger in a pathetic imitation of his intimidation tactic. “Which is good, because I’m now ready to finish this.
“Sasuke, you are still his target. Get out of here. Naruto, your mission has changed to protect Sasuke at any cost. When I say run, neither of you argue, just run!”
“But Sakura!” Naruto was struggling to his feet. Sasuke had returned to his, but looked wary and uneasy.
“No arguments!” Sakura grabbed the long hilt of her blade with both hands. “Don’t worry about me. Or have you failed to notice that the only one not injured here is me?”
“She’s right, Naruto,” Sasuke said with obvious reluctance. “Without her mahoujutsu, we’ll only get in her way.”
“Sasuke…” Naruto looked between the two, obviously torn. “Sakura…”
“RUN!” Sakura roared. Sasuke sprinted. Naruto hesitated. “I told you to RUN!”
Orochimaru smirked and performed a perfect hand-seal-free Shunshin. He appeared after the brief surge of pseudo-motion right in Sasuke’s path. Then he flung himself to the side. The air screamed as a shaft passed through where his head had been an instant before. The shaft buried itself into a tree. No, it passed through the tree like it was mist. A great crack filled the air and a circular hole near a meter wide appeared in the tree. And the tree beyond that.
And a house-sized stone beyond that.
Sasuke and Naruto fled into the forest, but Orochimaru let them. He could always track them down later. His attention was entirely on the girl standing back at the crater. Her sword had vanished and in its place she held a bow that was taller than she was. Her stance was a textbook perfect image of a post-release archery stance you could find in any number of samurai training manuals.
“Hey asshole! I’m your opponent!” As she lowered the great bow, the weapon seemed to fold and rearrange itself until she was again holding her sword. “And don’t be thinking my Interfectis Gladio Dei Victoriae is limited to melee range. I had to think a long time about how to use my… how did you put it… ‘freakish strength’ at a distance as well.”
Sakura’s grin turned abruptly vicious. “So come on, you hateful body-stealing piece of shit.” Her eyes had widened and her pupils had shrunk. There was something feral about her. “Let’s both stop holding back and fight like proper freaks, shall we?”
“Very well.” Orochimaru adopted a bukijutsu stance. “But such a waste, to kill so promising of a new technique. I promise, I’ll take great care to dissect your body when you are dead.”
It opened with a rain of kunai and shuriken, forcing Kabuto’s team to scatter still further apart. Kabuto slipped and backstepped away from the kunoichi’s annoyingly accurate throws before finding cover behind a large root. The hiss of an explosive tag warned him of what was next, and he was already in the tree before his cover vanished in a rolling cloud of splinters and sawdust.
A quick glance showed both of the boys had descended to ground level. Rock Lee – so much the mirror image of his sensei Might Guy – was engaging Tsurugi, while the Hyuuga boy had landed next to Yoroi. Kabuto resisted the urge to make a sound of annoyance.
Whoever had planned this had planned well. Was that girl Sakura really on to all of them?
Tsurugi moved into taijutsu range of the green-clad Rock, lashing out with a palm thrust. The boy knocked it aside almost contemptuously and drove a knee into Tsurugi’s stomach. The man folded over like a towel. The boy grabbed the back of his neck and spun him around before smashing him into a tree.
Yoroi engaged the Hyuuga more cautiously. He well knew the reputation of the clan and their devastating Gentle Fist. It was a vicious technique that looked deceptively peaceful, thus its ironic name. In reality it concentrated and emitted chakra from the ninja’s striking hands and targeted internal organs by disrupting the opponents chakra network.
Without the chakra sight of the Hyuuga clan, few could hope to do anything but waste chakra by forcing it into the opponent’s body. With that sight, however, even a gentle tap or a soft caress became potentially lethal. Kabuto could use his chakra scalpels to imitate some of that destructive property by severing ligaments and arteries with a touch, but his technique had taken him over a decade of intense anatomical studies to perfect and even then was just a crude imitation that wasted twice as much chakra for half as much effect.
Yoroi managed to weave around Neji’s blows with the grace of a snake for the first brief exchange. Then he lost his balance on the slippery moss and pinwheeled his arms for balance. The Hyuuga moved in ruthlessly… only for his wrist to be caught. Yoroi’s expression at this distance was impossible to make out behind his dark glasses and long black mask, but he chuckled in triumph. “You can’t use your gentle fist without chakra, and my grip can suck you-“
His voice cut off into an incoherent scream, and his hand jerked away from the boy’s wrist. His arm dropped limply to his side. He coughed and collapsed to one knee.
“Yes, I could see your modifications in your fingertips and palm. Crude compared to some of the work I have seen, but it perhaps would have been enough to cripple my Gentle Fist.” The boy adopted a new stance. “Of course, I can expel chakra from any of my tenketsu on demand. So it was only just a matter of striking between the chakra absorbing points on our hands. Also-” he struck again, driving both palms into the man’s stomach. Yoroi coughed, a wet stain appearing on his mask, and his body flew off into the forest. “-I have two hands.”
The fight on the other side of the clearing seemed for a moment to be going better: Tsurugi cried out in triumph as he grabbed the arm holding him and his body dislocated all its joints. He twisted his body around Rock Lee’s like a constrictor, obviously intent on immobilising and crushing the boy.
Rock Lee just leapt straight up and slammed Tsurugi’s head into an overhead limb. The modified ninja’s body went limp and fell off the boy, crashing into the underbrush. Lee landed with barely a flex of his knees to absorb the impact.
“In deference to your using taijutsu – even if a bizarre variant – in our struggle, I did not kill you.” Rock Lee turned his attention to Neji. “And you, Neji?”
“He’ll live,” Neji said. “But he won’t be using that chakra-stealing trick again without extensive surgery.” He shrugged. “Torture and interrogation will want him alive, after all.”
So Kabuto was alone. He moved as silently through the canopy as he could. In the distance a titanic explosion filled the air, for a moment obliterating sound. Kabuto moved quickly in its wake as the three genin froze.
The girl didn’t hesitate. She stepped off the branch and plummeted. At the same time a fan of kunai left her fingers. There was a whine of wire as she slowed her fall and a hiss as the tags ignited.
Kabuto tucked his arms in and twisted his body, cutting air resistance as he plummeted out of the series of explosions. He managed to catch himself on the side of a tree and slide down into the open.
The girl landed behind Neji and Lee, who had taken up a screening posture. “You can not escape my Byakugan,” Neji explained. “I followed every movement you took up there. Evasion is impossible and deception is useless.”
“Can’t blame a man for trying,” Kabuto said with false cheer. Internally he was annoyed. Those eyes would, indeed, be a terrible burden to him. He was planning on using the corpse puppet technique to replace himself and get away but even if he killed and controlled one of his useless teammate’s bodies, that would not be an option until he disabled the Hyuuga.
“Listen, I really do have no idea why you think I’m some kind of traitor.” He held up his hands in a pleading gesture, palms open to show he carried no weapons. “I can understand friendly competition between fellow Leaf nin, but isn’t this going a little far?” He glanced at Lee. “And thank you for not killing my team. You guys are scary kids.”
“Do not think you can deceive me, the Young Green Beast, with your honeyed words and serpent’s tongue!” Lee flowed around into a new stance, low and wide. A good stance for evasion. “I have seen what you are capable of, and I won’t be caught off guard! That would bring shame to my sensei, and my friend!”
“Okay.” Kabuto shrugged, keeping his hands up. “I surrender.”
Rock Lee seemed taken aback by that. Even the Hyuuga frowned. Kabuto raised his hands over his head and spread them. He even lowered himself onto his knees. The consternation on their faces was amusing, but he kept a smirk or grin off his face. He just tried to look amiable and intimidated.
“Listen, I don’t know what proof you have,” he said. “But I know Konoha well enough to say they’re not going to throw me into a cell on the say so of a handful of genin.” From the looks Lee and the Hyuuga were sharing, he guessed they had almost no proof at all. Just accusations. Kabuto allowed himself a small smile. The truth was even if worst came to worst and he was carted off to the tender mercies of T&I, he would count on his own ability to talk his way out.
For one thing, he had friends in high places. Shimura Danzo still thought Kabuto was his creature, after all. In fact, he thought all three of the members of his team were Root plants. The man was almost as obsessed with the Uchiha as Orochimaru was, and when Kabuto had talked to him before the Chunin Exams, Danzo had ended the conversation thinking it was his plan to track down and test the Uchiha boy and provide him with subtle help throughout.
With great reluctance, the Hyuuga approached him. The veins around his eyes were bulging grotesquely. Obviously he didn’t trust Kabuto’s pose. Well, he shouldn’t. Once he was within a certain distance, those fancy eyes of his would not matter. Kabuto trusted his speed enough that even if the boy saw the attack coming from the moment the chakra gathered in Kabuto’s stomach, he could mold the chakra, send it to his hands, strike, cut the carotid artery and retreat before the boy could even move. It didn’t matter how good your vision was if your body simply could not react in time.
The fact was, Kabuto might live on Danzo’s sufference, but he was not the old man’s creature. He belonged to Orochimaru, body and soul. The fact that these three had defeated Orochimaru’s Sound ninja before cornering Kabuto told him that something was terribly wrong.
He had every reason to go along peacefully, but he could not. Some instinct, honed in more infiltration and assassination missions than he could comfortably count, was telling him something was wrong. It was too neat, too well-executed. His support was being folded up; his allies eliminated in ruthless sequence. Worse, something told him that he was not even the true target here.
And there was that explosion.
“So, just because I’m curious, how did you guys figure out how to defeat us so easily?” Kabuto asked. “I mean, I couldn’t imagine a worse matchup for the three of us than you guys. It was almost… surgical.”
Neji gazed at him. He had stopped one pace out of Kabuto’s optimal range. At this distance, it would be a toss up whether Kabuto could reach him before he could react. The tension in the air between them grew thick, almost liquid. Kabuto could feel a bead of sweat working down his forehead. He was not afraid of these ninja. He was looking beyond them, to whoever his true enemy could be.
The Third Hokage? Danzo, finally cutting him loose in some scheme? Whoever had modified that girl, Sakura? That was a frightening thing to contemplate. Kabuto was perhaps the foremost expert on body modification in the entire elemental continent. Both Lord Orochimaru and Danzo counted on his expertise to decipher and replicate the secrets of the surgeries that the various Hidden Villages employed on their ninja. Yet he had never seen anything like the Haruno girl. It surprised and alarmed him.
“I can see the question under your question,” Neji said with a dry disdain. “But to answer your true question, the one who came up with our plan was not Haruno.” He shifted his feet slightly forward and stood in that zone between victory and defeat. All of Kabuto’s attention focused on that zone.
It was imperative he take out Neji before he could fight back. He needed to get away. He had a feeling the true target was not him. It was Orochimaru! Somehow, their plan had been betrayed. Not even Kabuto knew it all, but it was the only explanation for such a neat package.
That meant he needed to kill these genin and find Orochimaru before the trap closed shut on him. He’d have one chance to take out the genius Hyuuga before this turned into a protracted brawl that would waste precious time. His mind focused on the distance between them as Neji shifted forward slowly into his range and-
Chakra built up, transferred to his hand in a split-second. His chakra scalpel formed. He thrust his hand against the boy’s-
His body didn’t move. His eyes widened and his eyes rolled in his socket. What happened? He couldn’t move his body at all! Neji smirked. Kabuto’s eyes rolled down. Was his shadow darker and longer than normal?
“Shadow possession complete.”
The bushes parted and two new figures entered the clearing. One was the blonde girl, Yamanaka Ino. Her companion was the Akimichi clan heir, Choji. That left only one possibility for his captor.
“The infamous Ino-Shika-Cho formation,” Kabuto said aloud.
“Yes.” Neji moved around to his back and placed two fingers against the back of his neck and two against the curve of his spine at the small of his back. “You were so invested on efficiently executing my murder that you lost your situational awareness. You could not conceive of mere genin being a threat to you, no matter their numbers or tactics, so when you failed to sense the presence of any jounin-level fighters in the area you focused on the only one who could possibly harm you.
“Of course, in an open fight I would probably be no match for you. In addition to your superior speed and taijutsu, you are a master of medical chakra to the point where you can even replicate the effects of my Gentle Fist, cutting my body from the inside with your chakra scalpels. Like you just tried.
“But your true ability is not even that. With your knowledge and chakra control, you can force your cells to regenerate at an accelerated rate. Even if we were to destroy your organs or crush your limbs, you could recover from the injury almost instantly. Of course, none of that matters if I seal all your tenketsu points and prevent you from using so much as a drop of chakra.”
Kabuto’s eyes rolled to make out the boy standing behind him. “An exceptionally neat trap. But you can’t harm me while the shadow possession jutsu is in place without harming the boy using it.”
“And you think the moment it releases you can test your reaction speed against mine?” Neji asked.
“Normally, this is the point where the Yamanaka in the formation would use her mind body switch to take control of me,” Kabuto said, looking at the girl who was walking up to him. “To ensure my body comes along in docile compliance until you have me in a sealed chamber in T&I.” He stared at the girl, who was smiling at him. “And yet, you haven’t.”
“You assume we’re here to capture you,” Ino said. She drew a kunai and stepped in next to him, placing the edge against his throat. “And why would I ever want to be in that filthy mind of yours?”
There was a set of thumps to his left. Kabuto rolled his eyes that way and saw Rock Lee unwrapping another set of fuinjutsu-covered weights from his right leg and casually tossed them aside. They smashed into the ground and made small craters. Lee flexed and punched at the air for a bit, his limbs moving so fast that even Kabuto’s trained vision was having difficulty keeping up.
“Hurry up, will you?” Shikamaru’s voice came from the underbrush. “This guy’s strength is immense. I can’t hold him forever.”
“Right!” Rock Lee vanished and appeared in mirror position to Ino. Like her, he held a kunai at Kabuto’s throat. He also held a second kunai against the inside of Kabuto’s elbow.
Kabuto rolled his eyes around the clearing again. It was a neat trap. As soon as Shikamaru released his jutsu, Ino and Rock Lee could strike, crippling his arm and carving out his throat. Kabuto would lose control over the hand he had a chakra scalpel already formed in and face a mortal injury at the same time. He would be forced to choose between regenerating the damage to his throat or forming another scalpel to fight with. All at the same time, Neji would begin to seal his tenketsu. He shifted his attention out. He could see Tenten had set up a series of spring traps with explosive tag-affixed shuriken all set to go at once. And even the Akimichi boy looked frightened but determined.
A trap within a trap within a trap. Kabuto released a breath.
“Release,” Shikamaru said.
The air filled with blood.
Kankuro could hardly believe his eyes. The fools kept crawling out of the woods in this mockery of an exam. First those three idiots from Rain, and now this little Leaf ninja. The girl looked more like a pampered princess than a proper kunoichi. Worse yet, she was egging on Gaara’s bloodlust by defying him.
Somehow she was still alive. Gaara’s sand swirled around her, coming in from all directions. Yet every time, a simple slap of her palm or a thrust of her fingers caused the sand to lose all animation and crash to the ground in a wave. So far, she hadn’t moved from her position and none of Gaara’s probing attacks had come close to her.
Yet Gaara had far more in his arsenal than just a few waves of sand. Much worse things were coming unless they stopped this.
“Temari, we have to keep Gaara from escalating,” Kankuro whispered to her. She glanced at him, then back to the fight. This battle was nothing but a risk for them at this point. She knew as well as he that passing the exam was not their mission. It was solely to keep Gaara under control until the true attack on the Leaf Village could begin.
Truthfully, Kankuro didn’t know what Lord Kazekage expected him or Temari to do. If he was counting on the fact that the two of them were Gaara’s older siblings to give them some special control over the walking weapon, he was going to be disappointed. Gaara cared about nothing except death and power.
“How is she even doing this?” Kankuro asked.
“Don’t you know anything?” Temari replied in a low hiss. “The girl is a Hyuuga. Her eyes are special and allow her to see and control chakra at an unparalleled level. Her Gentle Fist can disrupt the chakra of anyone she touches.” She inclined her head slightly. “Her jutsu must be severing Gaara’s control of the sand.”
“If this keeps up, she’ll push him too much,” he said.
“You’re forgetting how dangerous he is,” Temari said. “Just disrupting his sand won’t save her. After all, he can always just create more.”
As if prompted by her words, the girl suddenly broke into a sprint directly towards Gaara. Gaara reacted by holding up both hands and turning the clearing into a sandstorm.
Somehow the girl was keeping one step ahead. Her hands lashed out, knocking aside every tendril of sand that came close. Gaara was obviously through playing, as he snarled and drew both hands up sharply. A wave of sand erupted from the soil in front of her.
Which she ran up. Which each step a geyser of sand erupted around her legs, but it all fell away from her without getting a grip. Was she really using her Gentle Fist through her feet? The soles of the feet were the single least chakra active position on the body.
Her final step brought her over the wave and then she was airborne, tucking in her legs and arms. Her parabola would bring her right down on Gaara. The boy’s eyes narrowed and his red hair fluttered in an unseen breeze. With a negligent gesture the sand rose up all around her, forming a sphere.
The front of the sphere exploded outward, sending sand blasting towards Gaara – only for it to halt in mid air and turn straight back. The girl’s eyes narrowed and she slapped at it again, but each time the effect lessened. Every blow sent the sand flying, but it reversed course faster and faster.
“Of course,” Temari said with a smirk. “This fight is over.”
Kankuro glanced at her and then back at the girl. Then he realised what was happening: the girl’s Gentle Fist could disrupt the chakra in Gaara’s sand, but nothing prevented him from using his jutsu to simply reinvest it with chakra again. Further, the closer she got to him, the less and less time and energy it took Gaara to reassert control. As she was plummeting towards him, she was falling to her own death.
The girl’s hands blurred and flashed faster and faster. She spun as she fell, and began to lash out with legs as well as hands, driving the sand away from her. Finally she landed in a crouch before Gaara, who stared down at her with faint disdain. Her fingers curled into a strange position and she thrust her palm at his stomach, but a wave of sand caught her wrist, holding the hand bare centimetres away from him.
“Ah. It seems that despite my training, I have not mastered that jutsu yet,” the girl said. “And it appears this close to you, even normal chakra disruption is not sufficient to overcome your control.”
“You are very calm for someone about to die,” Gaara said, now less agitated with his promised bloodshed literally within reach.
“I wished to test the limits of my ability,” she said in polite reply. “It appears that as I am, I could not defeat you on my own.” She smiled genially. “And I see you have gathered enough sand for your attack.”
Above the girl, a cloud of sand rolled and writhed. Gaara stared down at her, his arms spread to the sides as if preparing for an embrace. “No matter if you temporarily disrupt my control,” he explained. “The sheer weight of my sand will crush you and bury you right here.”
With a casual lowering of his arms, the entire cloud fell on her. From the bushes a voice cried out. The girl’s squad, no doubt. Like typical idiot Leaf nin, they wasted the element of surprise with emotional reaction to a friend’s death. Kankuro idly wondered if Gaara would be satisfied with the death of the one girl, and leave her team to be taken out by Temari and himself.
If so, Kankuro would have to kill them. He didn’t want Crow’s secrets getting out before their mission reached its climax. At least he would make their death quick and painless, unlike Gaara.
“Crush,” Gaara said, pushing his hands down. “Crush and squeeze.” The ground beneath his great pile of sand cracked and soil went spurting out from the edges. “Die. Die! DIIIIIE!”
“You bastard!” A boy erupted from the brush and ran forward. He wore a fur-trimmed hooded jacket. His expression was bestial, his features almost animal. His fingers curled into claws. “Tsuga!”
Gaara didn’t even look as the boy spun into a spiraling attack. His body blurred into a buzzsaw-like shape, trailing chakra smoke behind him in a visible trail. He drilled at Gaara, only to be deflected high and wide by a wall of sand. He came down from above, with the same effect. The boy bounced off the forest floor and trees, rebounding towards Gaara but never coming within arm’s reach of him as the sand moved to deflect each time. He did manage to leave great holes and divots carved out wherever he bounced, a testament to the destructive power of the jutsu.
Finally the boy lost momentum and slid to a stop on all fours. “Dammit,” he growled. “You monster! Let Hinata go!” A quivering shape concealed in the boy’s jacket stuck its head out and barked. It was a puppy.
Kankuro almost felt like slapping his face. Who brought a pet to a ninja tournament?
Gaara’s head turned slowly towards the boy. His neck strained as he moved. “The girl is already doomed, and when I have crushed her body into paste, you will join her.” He grinned, exposing his teeth viciously. “Your blood will mix with hers in my sand, and you can be together forever if you wish.” His eyes narrowed.
The air around him blurred and there was a series of small popping sounds. When the cloud passed there were dozens of small spheres of sand floating around his head. “Insects,” Gaara said.
“You’re good, to be able to sense my kikaichu beetles.” A boy rose from concealment. His dark glasses and the tall collar that concealed the lower half of his face made his expression difficult to read, and his tone was dry. “A most impressive defence. Even my beetles can’t devour the chakra faster than you can replace it.”
“Insects and dogs,” Gaara grated, his voice rasping. “Vermin and gutter trash, is this what you send at me?” He turned his attention to the new arrival. “Why throw away your lives for this fool? Your existence will end here because you could not abandon the weak to their fates.”
“Shino!” the feral boy cried. “We have to get Hinata out of there!”
“And yet we have no plan,” Shino responded, adjusting his glasses. “Defeating an opponent of this calibre may be beyond us.”
“I won’t accept that!”
“Is that all you have to justify yourself?” Gaara asked in a dull monotone. “Worthless declarations? You are beneath me, but mother demands blood and yours will suffice.” He extended a hand towards each of them. “You will both die, now.”
The sand exploded. Gaara flinched. Kankuro cried out. The blast sent sand flying in all directions. Temari shouted something he couldn’t hear. In the centre of the explosion a vortex of light had formed, spinning tightly in place. The spiral blasted suddenly outward. Gaara held up one hand in front of his face.
Sand flew off his fingers and arm, great clouds of it losing cohesion and falling from his body. As Gaara stared in shock, the spiral slowed to a stop, revealing the girl crouched before him, one hand held high and the other low. Her clothing was torn and ripped, but her body looked completely unharmed.
“How did she survive that much pressure!?” Kankuro yelled.
“You are within the range of my divination,” Hinata said. “Eight Trigrams: Sixty Four Palms!”
The girl flowed forward, her short purple-black hair waving in her wake. Her hands snaked out, each time driving a single finger into Gaara’s body. “Eight palms!” He cried out and screamed as the blows rained down on him relentlessly. “Sixteen palms!” His body was lifted off his feet as she called the count. “Thirty two palms!” In a final burst of speed her fingers danced over his body and one last thrust sent him flying backwards into the underbrush. “Sixty-four palms!”
“Gaara!” Temari cried.
“No way, she actually struck him?”
“Shino, quickly!” Hinata cried. “Before he has a chance to recover! Swarm him!”
“Yes!” The boy in the glasses raised both hands and a dark cloud emerged from his sleeves.
“Kankuro, we have to defend Gaara,” Temari said in a tone between disbelief and command.
“Right,” Kankuro grabbed Crow off his back. Temari had already unlimbered her giant fan to aid with her wind release.
“Kiba, distract them!”
“Right!” The feral boy slid into place between the two Sand Nin and the rest of his squad. “Come on Akamaru, time to show them what we’re made of.” The puppy in his jacket barked in agreement and leapt out of his clothes. The boy snapped his fingers, sending a small black pill into the air. The puppy caught it between his teeth as he descended.
With a roar the dog’s white fur turned blood red. The boy grinned viciously and made a hand seal. “Akamaru, Man Beast Clone!” There was a burst of chakra smoke and then there were two of the boy standing between them and the rapidly dispersing cloud of insects.
“Temari, take out that guy with the glasses!” Kankuro spun Crow out of its protective wrappings. The puppet emerged from its cocoon and settled into a combat stance. It was still wrapped in the false covering that made it look exactly like him. “You’re not the only one who can be in two places at once,” he sneered through the puppet’s lips.
“Right!” Temari jumped backward and ran up one of the great trunks. As she moved, she unfolded her fan and spun it through the air. It began to float, and she bounced from the tree onto the fan. She crouched and the fan began to fly over the confrontation below.
“I won’t let you,” Kiba roared and jumped. His clone crouched and held up his hands like a platform.
Kankuro ran forward, his fingers deftly pulling the chakra strings that propelled Crow in his wake. “I’m your opponent!” he said and flung Crow up and forward. He intercepted the boy just as his clone threw him into the air. For a moment the bestial boy and Crow exchanged blows in mid-air. Kankuro kept his expression neutral, even faked a bit of a worried frown as he dodged away from the rush of the Beast Clone. He twisted his fingers just so and-
Kiba bounced away from Crow just as a quartet of spikes erupted from the floating puppet’s shoulders and elbows. He landed behind his clone with a grin. “Surprised?” Kiba rubbed his thumb under his nose. “I don’t know what that thing is, but it sure doesn’t smell human. And the stink of your poison was impossible to miss.”
Kankuro hissed and allowed Crow to fall to the ground. He’d wasted one of his trump cards by underestimating the kid’s sense of smell. That was okay, he had more tricks than that inexperienced runt could possibly luck his way through.
Still, he had accomplished his task. Even now, Temari was dropping down towards Shino. He didn’t know what those bugs of his did, but Temari would blow them out of the air with her wind release.
“Ah!” Hinata fell to one knee, steadying herself with one hand on the ground. “It appears that is my limit. My chakra… I expended too much.”
“You rest,” Kiba said as he and his clone shifted their position to keep themselves between her and Kankuro or Crow. “We have this.”
“Agreed, you did more than enough,” Shino said in an exacting tone.
“You’re in enough trouble without looking to her,” Temari said. She swung her fan in a wide arc. Shino guarded his face with his arms and staggered backward. His cloud of bugs was scattered back in a wave, losing cohesion and sending insects flowing in all directions. The brush around him was stripped of all leaves and flowers as the tornado force winds tore them free.
“A bad match. Nonetheless, I have no choice but to fight you,” Shino said.
“It’s okay.” Hinata said with a smile. “Help is on the way.”
“Mother… mother…” Gaara’s voice came out of the woods. He staggered into the clearing, clenching his hand over his tattoo. “I can’t feel mother, I can’t…” His eyes widened. “No! NO! I won’t permit it!”
As if to punctuate his words, a tremendous boom filled the air, shaking trees, ground and bone.
Orochimaru deflected another arrow to the side, the shaft scraping along the length of Kusanagi for an instant before flying sideways into the ground. He substituted himself away as this arrow, like many of the others, exploded in a shockwave of pink light and shrapnel. He had almost been caught by the first of those explosions.
Even as he landed atop another branch, the girl was already upon him. It was fascinating. If she had been fast before, now she was truly well beyond that. Her body seemed to exist in multiple places at once, leaving a trail of images in her wake. Yet each image was acting at the same time, often overlapping. It was like someone had filmed her actions and then cut up the frame and displayed them all at once. Some variant of her time/space acceleration jutsu, no doubt.
She came in from his right, her blade shifting with a whir of pulleys and gears back into its massive sword shape as she drove it towards him. He had learned in the first exchange not to try and match power with her. Her strength rivaled Tsunade’s, and her swordsmanship was much better than his. He used Kusanagi less as a defence and more as a delay. He could blunt her attack just enough to respond with Shunshin or Kamiwari as the case demanded.
He projected himself down and to the side, glancing over his shoulder as the log he had prepared was torn to shreds by her sudden flurry of blows. The great tree upon which he had been standing also broke apart, logs the size of train cars flying in all directions as her sword carved the trunk apart with neat lines. Normally a weapon that size had to be wielded with some care lest it get entangled in the environment or get pulled around by its own momentum. Yet Sakura wielded it with one hand as if it weighed no more than a feather. It passed through air, wood and stone with equal ease, not even slowing down.
Worse, she didn’t even have to be touching it to wield it against him. Even as he thought, she launched herself at him. Her hand cocked back and then forward, sending the blade spinning at him. He shifted sideways, allowing the blade to cut a great gouge where his foot had been a moment ago. She landed in front of him, fists and legs flying in a flurry that it took all his concentration to avoid. Even then, he barely had time to react as the weapon reversed its momentum in an instant and spun back to come down through his skull.
His body twisted and snaked to the side. The blade passed so close to his cheek he could feel the kiss of its side against the tiny hairs. It continued down, ripping the shoulder and sleeve off his garment.
Then her fist plowed into his chest with bone-crushing force and he was flying away. His hands convulsed open. A branch a metre across snapped off the tree as he went through it. He continued down, cracking smaller limbs and underbrush apart as his body tore a path through the woods. He landed on his feet, managing to twist himself and use chakra to halt his skid within a hand’s breadth of slamming full force into another tree. The Kusanagi sword had vanished into the forest.
“Damn,” he said. “You are a fast one.” His eyes snapped up. She was falling towards the ground, her weapon configured in bow form again. Behind her a mandala of light formed as she began to chant rapidly. Then another behind that, smaller but filled with denser script and formulas, and a third again behind that.
“Kuchiyose: Gojuu Rashomon!” he called, slamming his palm into the ground even as the mandalas surged forward, collapsing on the tip of the girl’s arrow before she released it.
Three great red spiked Torii gates with an iron devil mask door sealing the opening appeared before Orochimaru. An instant later, the first shuddered and exploded. A blast of fire surged around the second gate, and Orochimaru knelt in the space between the second and third as the fires rapidly turned everywhere else into an inferno.
Reacting on instinct, he flung himself away from the second Rashomon and appeared on the top of the third as a series of slashes flowed through the metal devil’s mask like it wasn’t even there. The gate fell apart and the girl walked through the collapsing pieces, the flames rising about and caressing her body like the flames of hell. Her head snapped up and in the stark shadows cast by the flames her green eyes glowed with an internal light. Her hair waved behind her like a cape. The remains of the two Rashomon dispelled into smoke that was indistinguishable from the smoke of the battlefield.
“To destroy my Rashomon with such ease is no easy feat,” Orochimaru observed. “Your jutsu is remarkable.”
“You haven’t seen the half of it,” she replied. She bounced up and landed on the final gate, balancing with one foot stop on of the great spikes. Orochimaru smirked at her, which caused the girl to raise an eyebrow. “I don’t know why you’re so happy. So far, you’ve done nothing but stay alive. I’m the only one who has landed any blows in this fight.”
“Your time and space jutsu is impressive, and your weapons and gear are exceptional, but you could never defeat me.” He grinned. “Why, you ask? I can read your moves. Oh, you have an exceptional command of the mechanics of combat and you use your weapons and jutsu well, but all of it is technical knowledge.” He chuckled. “It’s like facing a genius academy student, one who thinks that because they scored perfectly on all their tests that they are qualified to fight a real battle. All your vaunted technical perfection and immaculate forms are useless, because you lack the thing which separates us:
Rashomon dispelled. The girl was off guard for a fraction of an instant. He gestured and released a wave of snakes that covered her head to toe. They plummeted together and landed among the burning forest. The girl flexed and her sword spun around without her holding it, chopping her free of the swarm. Orochimaru made rapid hand signs and gestured to the ground, a dozen spikes of stone erupting from it to impale her. She fell into a defensive stance, smacking the stone spears away with perfect form that shattered the rock with contemptuous ease.
And then Kusanagi flew out of the flames.
Give her credit, she almost dodged it. But Orochimaru had timed his attack too perfectly. He had studied her moves, deciphered her defences. He knew the exact stance she would use to defend against his earth spears, and had positioned Kusanagi to take advantage. When she saw she would not move out of the way, her wrist came up and a field of overlapping hexagons formed between her and the blade. For a moment the blade of Kusanagi slowed, sparks blooming from its tip as the light shields grew brighter and brighter… before shattering. The sword drove straight through the jewel beneath, which shattered with a crack, and then through her wrist.
She gasped as the blade halted halfway between her wrist and her torso. For a moment relief showed. Then Orochimaru made a hand seal and the blade tripled in length. It emerged from her back in a spray of blood. Her mouth dropped and her body stiffened. It had gone perfectly through her heart.
“As you can see, all the practice and training in the world is no match for the raw experience of actual combat.” He chuckled. “I allowed you to think you had the upper hand. I have experience with losing battles. Oh yes, even I have been forced to flee and concede. In fact, the battle where I earned the name Sannin was nothing more than a stalling action. I became a legend just for the act of surviving a greater opponent.” He circled her as she collapsed to one knee.
“Ino…” she moaned for some reason.
“Perhaps in time you would have been a true peer. Perhaps your unique power could have been a threat to me, even destroyed me, if you had been in a real life or death battle even once in your life.” He leaned down. “But you failed, and you will die knowing you failed.”
She coughed out a small splash of blood. “If you think this will kill me…” she said.
“Maybe not. I wouldn’t put it past you to have some other trick.” He stepped back. “But I suppose you were right. I do like to hear myself talk, and every moment Sasuke gets farther away. Stalling for time?” Orochimaru pulled up the sleeve on his left arm. “Too bad. Because before this fight even started I dispatched one of my summons to follow the boys. Even now, it has them in its sight. And, of course, you are not the only one skilled in time space jutsu.”
“Orochimaru!” she roared, lifting her great blade with one hand.
“Gyaku Kuchiyose no Jutsu.”
Orochimaru briefly indulged in fantasising about what her expression would look like as she swung that lethal sword through the dispersing smoke of his reverse summoning jutsu. It distracted him from the hellish instant of the transition. He hated the feeling of it, the hateful presence of non-existence that seemed to tug at his very being every time he allowed this to happen. It made him understand why Manda was so hard to please whenever he was dragged through this nightmare void.
He arrived above the head of the tiny snake upon which the reverse summoning seal had been carefully arranged. The burst of smoke and noise attracted the attention of the two boys. Naruto was already turned to face him but Orochimaru frowned and backhanded him away. Without his time space acceleration he was no threat, and Orochimaru was finished playing games. Sasuke stumbled to a halt and turned, trying to bring up his arms into a tiger seal, but it was obvious his chakra was exhausted.
“Now, Sasuke, let me finish what I came here for!” He could hear a great noise behind him as something began to crash through the forest on a beeline to him, obviously smashing through trees and obstacles in its way. But it was far too late. He had calculated her maximum speed and allowed himself plenty of time to finish his hand signs and send his neck stretching out like a twisting viper.
Sasuke tried to dodge but it was useless. A tiny adjustment to his aim and Orochimaru’s fangs pierced his neck. There was a flat, lifeless quality to Sasuke’s chakra. Due to exhaustion? Strange-
Behind him, the girl arrived with a roar. He quickly turned his attention away from the convulsing Uchiha to her.
“Orochimaru! Stop it!” she yelled.
“Too late,” he said. “Now, Sasuke is mine. If he survives, of course.”
Ino stared as blood erupted from her wrist. The genin in the clearing shouted in shock and terror. A fraction of a second later her chest suddenly convulsed and a geyser of blood came from the front and back of her body, right above and behind the heart.
“My heart…” she said numbly.
Perhaps it was shock or concern, but somehow Shikamaru lost concentration on his shadow possession jutsu. Neji was already moving, abandoning his position at Kabuto’s back to reach for the toppling body. Only Rock Lee was left to guard him.
In a flurry of movement that Ino couldn’t follow, Lee was pulled off his feet and sent flying into Neji. All three of the genin toppled into a heap. Kabuto threw himself to the side as kunai filled the air. He passed by Choji, casually slapping the boy on the thigh as he passed.
Choji screamed and fell, his leg no longer supporting him.
“Ino! Choji!” Shikamaru burst from the underbrush.
Tenten was throwing shuriken in a fury but Kabuto was just too fast, dodging from cover to cover and finally vanishing out of her effective range. She cursed and pulled out her scroll, rolling it quickly down to a large symbol surrounded by sealing glyphs.
“No!” Neji said. “Don’t use that, Tenten!”
“But he’s getting away!”
“The chances of you getting a certain kill strike at this range are too low.” Neji had extricated himself from the pile of genin. Blood was smeared down his immaculate outfit. Rock Lee rolled himself away, staring at Ino in horror. “He’s not our priority anymore. Help is on the way, and they can flush him out.”
“Ino! What has happened to Ino?” Rock Lee shouted. Neji pushed him and Shikamaru gently away.
“It’s her heart,” he said. “Look after Choji. Kabuto severed most of the muscles in his thigh. He’ll need treatment for internal bleeding and blood pills.”
“Right,” Shikamaru seemed to come back to himself now that he had something to do. He ran over to Choji and began to minister his wound.
“My heart, what happened to my heart?” Ino cried.
In the control room, the infuriatingly calm Sakura glanced away from the display, and blinked as if the answer was the most obvious thing in the world. “It got split in two by a sword.”
“My heart got split in two!” Ino shouted, rounding on the other girl. “My heart got split in TWO!?”
“Oh stop crying, you big baby,” Sakura Prime said as she leaned over her shoulder to examine the control board she had set up in some haste. “You have, like, three spares now.”
“I happen to be very attached to that heart,” Ino said with a growl. She pointed down. “I’ve had that heart since I was a child!”
The absurdity of the statement struck her a moment later and she laughed nervously. “This is just too bizarre,” Ino said as she stared at the monitor showing her various vitals. Aside from a brief drop in blood pressure, everything looked fine. “I can survive being stabbed through the heart now?” she said in an unbelieving tone. “What kind of monster did you turn me into with that ring?”
“Hey, don’t use that word.”
“Yes.” Sakura frowned and looked away. “It’s a terrible word, a thought-destroying word. There are no such things as monsters, Ino. Just people. Monster is a word people use to justify mindless hatred… or wallowing in their own depravity.” She smirked. “Trust me, nothing in the elemental countries is worse than the horrors plain old normal humans can do to each other every day. So I’ll kindly ask you not to refer to yourself or anyone else as a monster again.”
“Someone has a complex…” Ino muttered.
Neji had his hands over the hole in Ino’s body’s chest and leaned down over her. He came close to her meatspace ears. “Sakura,” he whispered. “Can you hear me?”
Sakura reached out and touched one of the controls on the board. Ino frowned at her as she spoke, her voice coming out barely audibly from Ino’s lips. “Yes.”
“What do I do about this?” he asked.
“Pretend to know some medical jutsu,” Sakura said after a moment’s thought. “You did emergency damage control and put Ino into a coma until she can recover. That should give long enough for her self-repair function to clean up the injury.” She looked at Ino. “We don’t want her walking around with a fatal injury in her chest for all to see right now.”
“And when they ask me to heal Choji as well?”
“Say you only started training and do not think you want to risk it for a non-fatal injury.”
“I suppose that should be enough.”
Sakura turned to Ino. “Come on, you might as well watch the rest of this play out.” Ino considered telling her to leave her alone, but that was a pointless request as long as she was trapped in Sakura’s skull. She carefully removed the ‘haptic suit’ that apparently translated all her movements to the ‘computer’ that was currently running her body. It worked, but it was definitely a mind trip (and not the nice Yamanaka-approved one!) to be moving her body without getting any sort of physical sensation. It was going to take a while to get used to all the displays Sakura had set up for her to monitor her physical condition with.
Sakura Prime waved at her from the doorway. Apparently they had been forced to put in actual connections between the ‘rooms’ in this strange genjutsu realm. The various incarnations of Sakura could just will themselves between the ‘simulation spaces’ as they wanted, but that method didn’t work for Ino for some reason.
The journey from what Ino had begun to think of as ‘her room’ to the room she called the ‘command centre’ was short. They emerged from a newly-installed door into the crowd of Sakuras. Seven of them (eight with the one that arrived with Ino), all looking up at the main display screen. On it, Orochimaru was ranting. Ino felt… well, something run cold in her. It couldn’t be her blood, for obvious reasons.
“I still can’t believe you confronted a Sannin, of your own free will.”
“Somebody had to do it,” Sakura Prime said with a shrug.
Ino looked around. From here, it was obvious what had caused the sympathetic damage to her own heart (no matter what Sakura said, Ino was not forgiving her for that, among a host of other things). The blade was still buried through Sakura’s body like a skewer at a dango shop. She had freed her wrist through the simple expedient of pulling it sideways and slicing the hand almost off.
Even as she watched, the Sakura in the real world was rapidly chanting a healing mahoujutsu that repaired the damage to her arm. Ino only wished the healing worked both ways as well. Watching one of her hands flopping around on a flap of skin would have been nauseating, if she had had a stomach. It disturbed her in ways that she did not think possible just this morning, when her greatest concerns were properly blended makeup and proving herself worthy of being a chunin.
Stick yourself in the freaky genjutsu universe, she thought. Discover an all-new horrifying existential crisis around every corner!
“A medical jutsu on top of everything,” Orochimaru was saying to Sakura. “Fire release, lightning release, medical and time space jutsu. You are a little prodigy. Too bad it availed you not a bit.” He gestured towards Sasuke. “I don’t know how you discovered my plan, but it’s over now. I win.”
“You really think so?” Sakura said in the real world. Her hand reached out and grabbed the hilt of the sword that was sticking through her heart (Ino was never letting that go) and began to remove it inch by inch. “I’m still standing here.”
“Yes, and I am impressed that you could survive my attack. But I think we both know how a second round would go between us. It would be a shame to kill you before you reached your potential.” He smiled, a fake and mocking expression. “But if you want to keep your team together so badly, why don’t you come with Sasuke when he seeks me out for power? It would be interesting to… study you.”
“Five, four, three, two, one…” Aaron counted down along with a display on the wall. “And that’s it. Time to pull the rug out from under him.”
“Oh, this is going to be good,” Sakura Prime said.
In the real world, Sakura began to laugh. Orochimaru frowned. “Oh man,” Sakura said, still steadily drawing out the sword. “You really do think you won this.” She grinned, blood dribbling down her jaw. “It’s too amusing. Hey, Orochimaru, you’re a terrible ninja. You know that?”
“Oh, do tell.” He smirked. “Trying to buy time?” He gestured and the blade sank back through Sakura’s chest. She didn’t so much as blink. His expression grew more intense.
“What made you think, from everything that has happened so far, that I would ever let your nasty teeth within biting distance of Sasuke?” Sakura said with a dreamy smile.
“What?” Orochimaru turned his head back to Sasuke. Except Sasuke was not writhing anymore. He wore an expression identical to Sakura’s. He wiggled his fingers in a mocking wave.
Then he vanished into a cloud of rainbow sparks. A small grey egg-shaped device clattered to the ground where he had been.
One of the Sakuras gasped and shuddered. “Ugh. Sasuke’s form sucks,” she said.
Orochimaru stared, then whipped around back towards Sakura. His expression was furious. “A shadow clone?” He gestured and the sword twisted in Sakura’s body. Ino winced even if Sakura wouldn’t. She hoped Neji was a better actor than she thought, to conceal all this extra damage. “You replaced him with a clone?”
“A Phantom, actually.” Sakura pointed at a dreamily smiling Naruto. “Just like Naruto here.” With a dramatic snap of her fingers, the other Phantom vanished as well.
“No… that’s not possible!” Orochimaru snarled. For some reason, he was clutching at his heart and sweating. “I was watching through the entire fight. My summons were spying the entire time. You couldn’t have substituted Sasuke after he fled the fight.”
“Fled the fight?” Sakura giggled and gripped the blade with both hands. With a wrench she pulled it entirely free and shoved it into the earth. She leaned over the weapon, pressing down on it with all her weight. It seemed to shudder in place but didn’t move. “Orochimaru, Orochimaru, Orochimaru. What makes you think I substituted Naruto and Sasuke when they ran from the fight?”
Realisation began to cross the sannin’s face.
“I told you: I never had any intention of letting you anywhere in biting distance of Sasuke. I didn’t replace Naruto and Sasuke during the fight.
“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”
Thirty Five Minutes Before
Give or Take
“Waa-hoo!” Naruto couldn’t keep the cry inside. His body felt like it was floating. He was flying. He was light as a feather. The world was like a dream. He moved so fast, so sure. His feet couldn’t seem to misstep. His arms seemed to know what to do without even being told. The world had become hyper-sharp, like every sense had been cleaned up and enhanced. He even saw some of the branches and leaves in his path bend away before he touched them, as if there was an invisible force pushing harm away.
Which there was.
And it was amazing.
“Quiet, you idiot,” Sasuke said. “Don’t you know what it means to be a ninja?” Yet despite his harsh words, even Sasuke couldn’t keep the smirk off his face. Even he was amazed by the sudden grace and haste with which his body moved. Even he was impressed by how sharp his senses had become, how effortless his movement felt. It was like having a Sharingan for his entire body.
Naruto wasn’t certain how he knew this. He felt… a connection between them. It was like Sasuke’s emotions were open to him, and Naruto’s were open to Sasuke. It was honestly a little frightening, but also exhilarating. Whatever mahoujutsu Sakura had used on them, it had strengthened some bond between them that Naruto hadn’t realised was even there.
“Let him have his fun, Sasuke,” Sakura said as she bounced from tree to tree between them. “It doesn’t matter.” Her easy grace was the same as always, and Naruto was beginning to wonder if Sakura felt this incredible all the time. No wonder she always had a dreamy smile on her face.
“At the moment, there is a zone of absolute silence extended out from us about six metres. So long as both of you remain in that distance from me, nothing we say or do can be heard.”
“Really?” Naruto would have doubted that before now, but he was beginning to think Sakura could do practically anything she said.
“It’s not perfect. No sound can come in either.” She smirked. “But I don’t need to hear to guide us.” She shrugged. “I also, of course, used an illusion to conceal us visually, and a non-detection effect for any esoteric search methods. Right now, neither of you can be sensed with a huge variety of senses.”
“Hmn. Useful,” Sasuke said.
Sakura smiled at him. “It’s very important that neither of you be located by anyone right now.”
“All right!” Naruto said. “With your jutsu and our awesome skills, we’ll blow through this test!”
“I have no doubt,” Sakura said softly. “But you have a bigger mission.”
“Bigger mission?” Sasuke asked. Naruto could feel his confusion and flash of suspicion. Sasuke had never quite gotten over his idea that Sakura was some sort of plant specifically trying to protect him.
“Someone decided to be a hero even when I explicitly told her not to.” Sakura frowned. “And I can’t divert any more resources to her. Looks like you two are it.”
“Us?” Naruto said, sharing a confused look with Sasuke. They both felt a mix of eagerness and wariness.
“Yeah, sorry guys. You’re on your own for this one.” She reached out and tapped both their shoulders in mid leap. Mandalas formed around them. “Ars magica; magicae ludum de meta scholam muto; mora magna festina.”
“What was that?” Sasuke asked.
“Something that should trigger once the fighting starts,” Sakura said. “But be careful. It lasts exactly one minute and I can’t extend that by any means. Once it wears off, it will eat up your stamina like you just used a massive jutsu. So be careful with your chakra, because if you don’t have enough stamina left it will eat up your body in replacement.”
“Sakura?” Naruto looked at her. “What are you talking about? You sound like you won’t be there when we get to… this mission?”
“Nope. Sorry. I need all my concentration somewhere else right about… now.”
And as Naruto watched Sakura’s body dissolved into a cloud of rainbow light. The only thing left behind was a single eye floating through the air, completely detached from any body. The green eye winked at them… somehow, and then it too vanished.
Naruto’s confusion was put aside as he heard a sudden heart-wrenching scream up ahead. He put on a final burst of speed and leapt into the clearing, Sasuke a step behind, as somewhere across the forest a huge explosion rung across the landscape.
“Impossible,” Orochimaru said in a sibilant hiss. “You can’t have used clones to deceive me.” He laughed and winced. “I felt the fire, I felt the power of the blows, their jutsu…”
“You felt what I wanted you to feel,” Sakura said. “It’s not called speciem perfectam; the Perfect Illusion for nothing. As for the fire jutsu, chidori, rasengan and the clones? All me. Ignem magica, caeli magica, tempestatibus magica… the list goes on. I can create an almost perfect fake of a lot of jutsu with a bit of time to think how I’d do it, and I had a lot of time.”
“You brat…” Orochimaru suddenly fell to one knee. “What… what did you do to me?”
“I’m sorry,” Sakura said. “Is this the point in the story where the ninja goes off on a long rant about how perfect and undefeatable their master plan and their exotic jutsu is, then explains exactly how it works to their victim?” Sakura held a hand to her chest and light drifted out of it as the wound closed. “Pardon me if I don’t want to be caught monologuing.”
“Boo!” A number of Sakuras threw popcorn at the screen, much like they had when she had said the line about “thirty-five minutes ago”. (Ino thought it was closer to twenty-eight minutes by the clocks she had been watching, but she guessed Sakura was allowed a little exaggeration.)
“Who even decided that instance would be the one doing this fight?” Sakura Scienca said with a sigh.
“We diced for it.” Aaron explained. “Besides, I have to have a little fun if I can’t go full shounen battle manga cliché.”
“Cliché?” Ino asked.
“The part where the fight stops so everyone can explain their fancy superpowers,” Aaron explained. He nodded towards the main screen. “Like Orochimaru there. He’s growing very desperate to know exactly what I did to him. His body is breaking down on him and he can’t even tell why. There’s no foreign chakra in his body, no poisons, nothing he would ever be familiar with.”
“What did you do to him?”
“They’re called nanites,” Scienca said with a smirk. “Microscopic machines, each barely a nanometre across. Each is programmed to deconstruct its surroundings and build more of itself. The primary building material is carbon, which just happens to be a primary building block of the human body. Even now, they’re burning through Orochimaru’s body, breaking down cells and enzymes into components to build more of themselves. Faster and faster, an exponential cycle of destruction.
“In time, his entire body will be broken down into a slurry of nanoscopic machines.”
Ino starred in awed horror. “That’s inhuman!”
Scienca frowned at her. “You have no idea what that man has done.” She turned to the screen. “When he bit into ‘Sasuke’s’ neck, he broke into a nanohive, a device that stores millions of nanites ready to deploy. They spread into his body from there.” Her grin was vicious. “It’s a good thing we knew exactly where he was going to break the skin with that cursed seal jutsu of his.”
“Wait… wait…” Ino held up her hand and rubbed her temple with the other. “If… if those things eat carbon to make more of themselves, and bodies are made up of carbon… aren’t all living things made up of carbon? Won’t they spread from Orochimaru into the entire forest and devour everything?”
Scienca snorted. “Do you take me for an idiot?” She laced her fingers together and cracked her knuckles all at once. “These ones are programmed to only attack a very specific target. They only will break down material with a unique targeting signature.”
Then Ino understood. “That blood you licked off your finger earlier in the fight.” She looked at the girl aghast. “You consumed his blood so you could target his DNA!?”
“That’s right,” Aaron said. “All that elaborate fighting, the entire first half of the battle? Nothing but a dog and pony show so we could do a single injury and get one drop of his blood. After that? He was already dead.”
In the real world, Sakura crouched down as Orochimaru fell to his hands and knees. “I will tell you the name of what’s going to kill you, Orochimaru. I call it… SnakeDie.”
Aaron smacked his face.
“You… you little brat…” Orochimaru’s normally pale face had begun to take on a darker complexion, but nothing healthy. Patches of necrotic black had begun to spread across his cheeks and hands. Twisting spirals of veiny corruption extended from them, meeting and growing as Ino watched in horrified fascination. “You think you outsmarted me? Me! You can’t kill me with this jutsu! I will survive it!”
“You know, Orochimaru,” Sakura said in the sweetest voice. “I have no doubt you could, if you had the time. But for you…” She glanced up. “Time. Is. Up.”
“Anko, step back.”
“But Lord Hokage…”
The woman pulled herself back, obviously reluctantly. Ino wondered where their proctor had come from. Or why the Hokage was with her. Or Hinata’s father? And about a dozen ANBU black ops ninja forming a circle around the struggling Sannin.
“Orochimaru. So it is you.” The Hokage was wearing an armored outfit with a helmet emblazoned with the Leaf of Konoha. “I had hardly believed my ears.”
“Hahah…” Orochimaru gasped and forced himself to his feet. “So… so this is the way it is, I suppose?” He threw his head back and laughed, a sound which descended into harsh coughing. “In front of the failure and the old man both, how humiliating.” He looked over his shoulder at Sakura, who had leapt back to a safe distance.
“Well played, girl.” His smile was ghastly, his lips blackened, his hair falling out. “If your… SnakeDie jutsu doesn’t finish me, they will while I fight it off. And you as well, though I can’t imagine you have any chakra left after such a display.”
He turned to face the Hokage. “Well then, who shall it be? The castoff who wants revenge? The old man who failed to kill me last time? Or will you have your ANBU minions murder me while you watch?”
“Lord Hokage, allow me!” the proctor said as she stepped forward. “This is my responsibility, as the proctor of the second exam and… his former student.”
“Come now, Anko,” Orochimaru said and then coughed into his hand. He looked at the black lump in his palm before tossing it away in disgust. “Did I not give you power undreamed of?”
“You gave me nothing but pain, you bastard snake,” she spat. “I’ve been waiting ten years to finish you off. I’ve been readying myself for it!”
“Not as well as certain others, it appears.” He held up one hand and gestured her forward. “Though I think you will find that you have… bigger issues to deal with.”
“Orochimaru!” the Hokage called.
And behind him, the forest erupted as a giant brown figure emerged, towering over the treetops like a behemoth.
“At last! Free! I’m free! Free to destroy!”
Aaron cursed. “Damnit, Naruto, you had one job!”