Author's note:

In Fire Forged now has a blog, which can be found at infireforged dot wordpress dot com. There you will be able to find things like progress updates on the story and various lore and world-building posts reminiscent of the in character lore blurbs that are sometimes at the beginnings and ends of the chapters.

Readers should be cautioned that the story may turn fairly dark further in and does not pull its punches. Morality isn't always black and white, the heroes are not invincible and the child-soldiering world of Naruto can be less than pretty when viewed through the lens of unforgiving realism. Mature themes are present, including graphic violence and at times coarse language. Sex may happen, but will in such a case take place "off screen". Shipping may likewise also happen, but ships are not a focus of the story in any way, so don't count on it being a major theme. Listing the trigger warnings that don't apply might be easier than listing the ones that do.

That being said, it is not a complete dark-fest of induced audience apathy. Light-hearted moments of humanity can always be found even in the darkest of times, and there is after all always a light at the end of the tunnel.

I would like to take the time to thank my betas, both old and new, for their hard work and effort to make every tiny little piece of the story better. It may be horribly cliché to say such things, but the improvement that they bring is palpable—if you enjoy the story going forward, you owe a large part of that to (in no particular order): rovingpen, rusalka9, Z.Z., Jay-F, Virgo, loonyphoenix and Xelexya.

Enjoy reading! Certainly I have enjoyed writing.

It is my opinion that the rapidly changing political landscape has transformed the nature of warfare forever. Wars will no longer be fought by individual city states or minor alliances, they will be fought by nations commanding conscript armies that far surpass any we've seen before in terms of size, training and discipline. We must commit to a similarly unified organizational structure; only if we act as one will we be able to reach an agreement with the new government that will allow us to retain any semblance of political control and independence. Unfortunately, my lords, times have changed.

Uchiha Madara's first address to the summit hosted by the Uchiha and Senju clans that would later lead to the founding of Konoha.

Heroes don't exist. And if they did, I wouldn't be one of them.

Summer, 1021 AS (After the Sage)

When I woke, the sun was already shining in my face. Lying there, all tangled up in my bedsheets, it took a few sleepy moments staring at the angle of the sunlight before an ugly feeling began to form in my gut.

I turned in the bed and looked at my clock. A quarter to eight. It should have gone off more than an hour ago. The alarm must have broken. Again. I was going to be late. Again.


I tore up out of bed, already reaching for the clothes I'd dropped in a tangle yesterday. Beginning to pull them on, I half-jumped, half-staggered out of my room and down the corridor to the bathroom for an extremely abbreviated morning routine.

Half a minute later I stormed back to my room to grab my equipment belts and strap them on. One around my waist, one around my right thigh. Kunai, shuriken, regular scrolls, my scrolls, bandages, various other odds and ends I had no intention of sorting through right now.

I was a bit light on the scrolls, so I stomped over to the small workshop I had in the corner of the room to rummage around for a few that were done, nearly knocking over a few bottles of my homebrew chakra ink in my haste. I winced, forcing a bit of calm into my frantic search. Those were precious.

After a few moments, I stepped back. I had enough. No time to hide weapons on my body. The jounin examiner no doubt wouldn't appreciate a half-assed effort.

Pulling a hand through my hair, I miserably glanced about the room for a few more precious seconds. Anything I'd forgotten, anything I'd missed? Nothing caught my immediate attention.

I sped out the door and stormed down the hallway, right past my mom and dad who were taking their morning coffee in the kitchen. Dad grunted, sounding bemused, but his eyes didn't leave his newspaper. Mom just stared at me as I started firmly tying on my steel-studded sandals as fast as I could.

"In a hurry, dear?" she asked, frowning. "I thought you passed the examination yesterday." A faint smile touched her lips. "Top of the class, too."

My fingers slipped and I forced myself to slow down and pay attention to the knots. Much as I had to hurry, it wouldn't do to break my neck because of a loose sandal slipping off and sending me tumbling to my death at some inopportune time. Surely they wouldn't fail me if I was just a minute late...?

"I didn't pass the individual jounin trial yet, mum," I said and began tying my other sandal. "I'm first grade, remember? We qualify for having a jounin come and see if they want to be our sensei. So unless I want to be dumped into a lower grade team with a chuunin sensei-"

"Yes, yes..." my father said and waved a hand at me, his eyes not leaving his newspaper. "Ninja stuff. We know. Don't be home late."

I finished and stood up, staring at him for a timeless moment. My mother frowned, glancing between the two of us. Dad didn't look up. I wanted to tell him that I was fifteen now, that he should stop coddling me and not disapprove whenever I did something he didn't like. But I didn't have the time, right now.

"Yeah," I said instead. "Ninja stuff. See you later."

Without waiting for a reply, I opened the door and stepped outside.

Much of older downtown Konoha was tiered, walkways crisscrossing over the streets at lower levels, most of the higher levels being built into buildings that narrowed as they grew taller, sacrificing width to provide for the walkways. The apartment building my family lived in was one of those, meaning that stepping onto the walkway right outside and leaning on the railing had you looking right down at the street below. I'd always liked it; it provided for a pleasant feeling of vertical space.

There were also a lot of trees. Konoha was built in the middle of a very large forest, after all, and the First Hokage had been adamant that the city's origins show in its design. In the denser parts of the city, most of the ground was shaded a light, mottled green as bright sunlight penetrated the leaves above. When they said that Konoha was the village hidden in the leaves, they meant it.

Drawing chakra together and shaping it, I formed a hand seal and used the body flicker technique to get up to the nearest roof, causing the world to blur around me briefly as I sped upwards until the technique stopped me again. It provided near-instantaneous short-range travel, but it wasn't quite instant - even if sometimes it could sure look like it. If you blinked, it would be easy to mistake a person body flickering short distances for them simply vanishing and then reappearing somewhere else a moment later.

I glanced around the roof, feeling a little nervous that I might be stopped. I was a genin now, so I was technically authorized to travel on the rooftops unimpeded (this being by far the fastest way to get around the more densely populated parts of Konoha for any ninja). But I hadn't gotten my forehead protector marking my rank yet, so I hadn't really been formally promoted either. It was bending the rules a little, but it would have to do.

I started running along the roof, channeling chakra through my soles to latch on with my feet and give me solid footing. When I neared the five meter gap to the next building over, I expelled a tightly controlled burst of chakra out of my feet just as I jumped, giving me just enough of a boost to soar across the street instead of splatting on the walkways below. I landed running and laughed out loud; the feeling was exhilarating. I'd done this before, in class with instructors, but doing it on my own to actually get somewhere in a hurry was an entirely different feeling.

When I neared the campus of the Konoha Ninja Academy, I had to go back to running down on the streets. The area was flatter, culled of tall and tangled buildings and full of clear lines of sight. The enormous area dedicated to the education of Konoha's livelihood lay close to the center of Konoha, not too far from the Administration Building which housed the Council chambers and the Hokage tower.

The Hokage monument, too, was visible from campus; four huge faces of the previous and current Hokage carved into the mountain against which Konoha lay nestled. The view was quite spectacular. It was the one that was shown in most of the tourist brochures; pictures taken on sunny days, looking from the Fountain of Fire down the campus main street and straight onto the Administration Building with the Hokage monument as dramatic backdrop.

Very pretty, I was sure. I was too out of breath by now to really pay attention.

I was increasingly aware of time passing as I pelted down the streets past lower-year students who hadn't quite finished the year yet. When I finally arrived in the auditorium, the wall clock hanging outside the door was saying a minute to eight.

I put a hand on the door and took a moment to catch my breath.

"Thank the sage," I wheezed and brushed a lock of loose hair from my face. "I made it."

I waited a few more seconds just to get my breathing back under control before I opened the door and stepped inside. The lecture room was almost full. It could hold fifty people, and there were around forty in here. A row of people stood on the front podium; probably the prospective jounin team leaders.

I glanced around and found the girl I was looking for sitting halfway up, holding an empty seat beside her.

Yamanaka Ino. She was, like me and everybody else in here, a graduate from one of the first-grade classes. In addition to that, she was the sole heiress to the Yamanaka ninja clan, considered one of the most eligible young ninja in Konoha, scandalous darling of all the tabloids and rather pretty to boot. On top of all that, her clan trust meant she was very comfortable financially speaking.

She was also what passed for my best friend of nine years.

She grinned when she saw me and waved. I nodded and began making my way up the stairs at the side of the room. On the way up, I passed Naruto, who grinned and bobbed his head at me in greeting, his blonde hair shifting. I awkwardly smiled back. Uzumaki Naruto was friendly, strong, maybe a little silly, and wasn't known as the smartest of guys, but he came off all the better for it. He was well liked, I guess, if a bit of a mischievous prankster at times; decently indecent, if you would.

To his side sat his other half, Uchiha Izanami. She was pale, with long black hair and delicate features permanently set in a sour scowl. She glared at me as I passed, and I did my best to ignore her. Izanami glared at everyone, except maybe not Naruto, sometimes, and even when with him she did glare most of the time. I wasn't even sure her face was capable of doing anything but glaring or frowning; she'd been doing nothing else for so long that the ability must have completely disappeared.

If Ino was considered one of the most eligible ninja in Konoha, Izanami was without a doubt the most eligible, and also the one who was the farthest out of reach, if only because she would probably castrate anybody who even suggested anything of the sort, and people could tell that about her. Strangely enough, this only seemed to egg the attention on. People were absurd, sometimes. Maybe it was just that she was famous, and not just in Konoha or the Land of Fire, but internationally.

She was 'the last Uchiha', sole survivor of the Uchiha Massacre and Konoha's only remaining natural wielder of the Sharingan, as well as the little sister of the internationally notorious mass murderer Uchiha Itachi, who had carried out the Massacre. She was extremely talented, beautiful, smart (to hear others tell it, at least), and an absolutely horrible person. If I hadn't occasionally seen her accidentally look slightly human when she was with Naruto, I would have pegged her for a complete sociopath.

As it was, I only had her pegged as a near-complete sociopath.

I had been so shocked that I'd thrown up after my first full-contact bout with Izanami, back in the early days of first grade after I'd been entered due to my uncanny chakra control. It wasn't a good memory to be thinking about. She had trounced me so thoroughly within half a minute that I'd been left shaking for months after whenever I had to fight full-contact. She hadn't wounded me badly. Not physically, because that hadn't been allowed. But she'd done everything she could to make me taste defeat, to smear her unassailable superiority all over my face. And she was good. I did have to give her that.

Being completely honest with myself, I loathed that self-absorbed, condescending, ruthless, stuck-up, inhuman, emotionless, automaton bitch. How Naruto could even stand being around her all the time... I didn't understand it. Perhaps he did it out of pity. She had no other friends. I felt bad for her future teammate, whoever it would be. Teammate, singular, because I felt sure that she and Naruto were probably going to be on a team together; he was practically the only person I knew who didn't seem to mind her constant company.

I finally reached Ino and sat down beside her. She leaned in close to me.

"You're late!" she whispered.

"Am not. They haven't even started yet."

"They're about to. Soon. I think you're the last to arrive."

I frowned. "Don't rub it in."

"What took you so long?"

"Overslept," I replied shortly, faintly embarrassed.

She grinned. "You did look pretty tired yesterday, after all that testing."

"Completely crushed," I confirmed sheepishly. "What a day."

"You need to work on your stamina!" She hit me lightly on the shoulder, teasing. I took the blow in good humor; it was well deserved. Ino knew I despised taijutsu training and working out.

An amiable silence fell between us.

I took the time to grab a closer look at the jounin who stood lined up down front. Our instructor, Umino Iruka, stood in front of them, his back turned to the room as he discussed something with them. Of the rest, there were two whom I immediately recognized with a faint chill from fame alone.

One was Sarutobi Asuma, the son of the Third Hokage, who had once belonged to the Twelve Guardians, the Fire Daimyo's personal elite ninja guard. I would absolutely not mind being assigned to his team, that was for sure.

The other one I recognized was Hatake Kakashi of the Sharingan, Konoha's famous Copy Ninja, who was even more renowned than Sarutobi. As he was the only remaining Sharingan wielder in Konoha, one could say I had a pretty good idea as to who Izanami's assigned team leader would be. He was probably only here specifically to be her sensei.

I doubted I'd ever be assigned to someone like those two. I wasn't from an important clan and I had no bloodlines or special abilities to speak of. My gaze swept speculatively over the rest of the jounin, but I couldn't pick out any other familiar faces. Iruka exchanged a few last words with them, and turned around to face us.

"Students!" he called out. "Genin!"

A hush fell over the lecture room.

Iruka was beaming proudly as he looked out over his assembled students. "First of all, I would like to congratulate all forty-two of you on passing the exams yesterday. Not a single first-grade student failed this year."

There was a low murmur of thanks in response.

"You are here because you are the best Konoha has to offer!" Iruka continued. "You are here because-"

I sighed. It was the same spiel as always; he often went on about our virtues and our indomitable will of fire. Very inspiring the first few times you heard it, but there was so little variation that I quickly stopped paying my fullest attention, instead just keeping track of the general gist of what he was saying just in case anything new and relevant should pop up.

Ino yawned aside at me in an exaggerated fashion, her hand hiding it from the front of the room, and I grinned back in bemused half-agreement. At least Iruka seemed honestly proud, as if he really meant what he was saying.

Finally, he came to something interesting; I perked up.

"Assembled behind me are fourteen jounin, who will personally test you and your capabilities to determine whether they will agree to act as the leader of your team. If they do not agree, a chuunin leader will be chosen for your team instead. I will now call out the teams as they were finalized last night; please step forward when your name is called and follow your jounin out of the room when your entire team has joined you."

He drew out a scroll from his vest pocket and started reading out loud.

"Team one! Jounin, Takahara Yumi."

A woman stepped forward. As Iruka called out names, three students collected in front of her, and then left with her. Then team two was called out. Slowly, the room began emptying of students as jounin took their teams and led them out to be tested.

As more and more teams were called out, I began to fidget nervously. I started biting my nail, then noticed I was doing it and stopped. Ten seconds later I was at it again. I sat on my hands.

Ino noticed and smirked. "At least you have the excitement of not knowing which team you'll be on. I'm just gonna be on a team with Chouji and Shikamaru."

The tradition of putting Yamanaka, Nara and Akimichi ninja on the same teams went back generations. The three clan's signature abilities were highly complementary, and apparently the Administration went wholeheartedly in for the principle of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

I glanced at her. "Maybe I don't like excitement much."

Her eyes gleamed with humor. "Then you chose the wrong career."

I shrugged, conceding the point. Didn't mean I didn't have a bad case of butterflies. These were the people I'd probably be spending the next few years with. It was important who they were, and I wasn't getting a say. Of course I was nervous.

Team six finished being called up and Iruka called out, "Team Seven! Jounin: Hatake Kakashi."

I glanced up curiously. Kakashi had stepped forward.

"Haruno Sakura!" Iruka called.

"That's you!" Ino muttered excitedly. "You get Kakashi, damn you! I'm so envious!"

I sat frozen, barely even remembering to be stunned by the fact that they'd picked the Copy Ninja as my potential sensei. This could only mean one thing.

Oh no. No. They're just not going to do this to me.

Slowly, slightly in a daze as my mind raced aimlessly back and forth, achieving nothing, my body - bless the thing - acted for me on pure reflex. I stood up and started walking down the aisle to stand before Kakashi. Perhaps there was hope yet. Perhaps they wouldn't go with the obvious choice.

When I arrived, Iruka called out the next name. "Uzumaki Naruto!"

My shoulders sagged slightly.

I should have been happy, really. Naruto would be a great teammate, I was sure. Instead, I had to keep myself from wincing. This only hammered the fact in deeper, like a nail scraping against a raw nerve. Naruto came to stand beside me and shot me a grin. I just closed my eyes briefly, tension wracking my body. I noticed that I was holding my breath.

And Iruka called out the last name with a finality that sank the nail in as far as it would go. "Uchiha Izanami!"

And there it was.

I breathed out deeply, opening my eyes again. The tension left me, and I felt kind of empty. Almost floaty. It was an odd kind of release, knowing instead of suspecting that I was completely fucked. Uchiha Izanami was my genin teammate.

I heard her footsteps approaching from behind, and Kakashi spoke. "Let's go. We'll talk en route."

His voice was surprisingly normal for an internationally recognized ninja. I didn't know what I had been expecting. He turned and left. We followed in silence, and I began gathering my thoughts together again. No matter what, I had to be coherent now. It wasn't easy. I was worn out after weeks of preparation for the exams, as if I'd gathered all the energy I had together and spent it, and now I was being called upon to continue spending when what I really needed to do was recharge.

Better get used to it, I told myself.

In the hallway outside, Kakashi spoke again, turning his head slightly over his shoulder to look at us. "We're going to training ground seventeen, outside the city. But first, we'll catch a break somewhere and have a chat."

He had his hands in his pockets, his posture was slightly slouched and he shuffled more than walked. I wasn't falling for it. You didn't get to the place he was by being a lazy bum. But appearing to be a lazy bum, I reckoned, could actually have its advantages, cause enemies to underestimate you unconsciously. I was determined that I, at least, wouldn't be making that mistake.

We walked outside and found a nearby spot where a few wooden benches had been placed in the shade of a large oak. Kakashi leaned against the tree. Naruto promptly sat down on a bench, his bearing casual and at ease. Izanami didn't sit, but remained standing, her arms crossed, wearing one of her eternal frowns. I compromised, leaning myself on the edge of a bench and crossing my arms in turn.

I looked at Kakashi, who was peering at us and hadn't said anything yet. It gave me the time to study my potential sensei closer. He had white hair despite being at most middle-aged and wore a dark blue bandana which covered most of his face. He had his forehead protector on at an angle so it covered up his left eye. All that left ominously little of his face visible.

I knew that through some circumstance or other, he'd wound up with a transplanted Sharingan as his left eye during the Third Great Ninja War. The eye left him able to learn and make use of the techniques of his opponents even in the middle of combat, and had caused him to be of immense value to Konoha since the fall of the Uchiha clan.

The Sharingan wasn't just a tactical asset, but a strategic one. Users remembered the techniques they copied, and could write them down and teach them to others in time. The Uchiha Massacre had almost completely eliminated Konoha's unique advantage in that area. There was only Kakashi and Izanami left.

After a few awkward seconds, Kakashi clapped his hands together and rubbed them. "All right. I thought the higher-ups had given up on ever getting me to tutor a genin squad, but apparently there's still a single optimist left somewhere in the Administration. So we'll give it a try, why don't we?"

That... sounded a little ominous. I glanced at Izanami and Naruto. Their expressions hadn't changed much.

"For starters," Kakashi continued, "I thought we could introduce ourselves, get to know each other."

"We've been in the same class for eight years," Izanami said shortly. "And we all know you."

Kakashi glanced at her. "Okay. But that doesn't mean I know you." He tilted his head slightly at her. "Why don't you start? Tell us about yourself, what you like, dislike, what ambitions you have."

Izanami didn't react for a second, her face frozen. I averted my gaze to the ground and had to keep myself from smirking.

"I don't see what's so important about what I like or dislike," she said. "Eventually I'm going to kill Uchiha Itachi." She shrugged with her arms still crossed. "Not much else to it."

Kakashi stared at her for a long moment, his expression unreadable - and not just because of the mask. "Fair enough."

"Drama queen," Naruto muttered under his breath, loud enough for all to hear.

Izanami just glanced at him, rolling her eyes. He grinned shamelessly in response.

"Alright," Kakashi said and looked at Naruto. "You next."

Naruto frowned thoughtfully and bit his lip for a moment, then glanced around at all of us with a slight, self-conscious grin.

"I'm Uzumaki Naruto. I guess I'm not really that heavy on the ambitions. Life's a day to day thing, you know? I aim on getting by." He cleared his throat. "I like ramen-"

"You mean 'worship'," Izanami muttered under her breath. My eyes narrowed. Was that... a joke? Gods.

Naruto glanced at her. "I was talking, Izzie."

Izanami scowled at him, and my lip twitched.

"Okay..." Naruto continued. "I like ramen... uh. Probably a lot of other stuff too. Nothing's coming up right now. I hate homework and quizzes and chakra control exercises." He glanced significantly at Izanami who'd cleared her throat just then. "Even though I have to do them. A lot. I know."

Kakashi's eyes had narrowed thoughtfully at that, glancing between the two. "Okay," he said, and nodded at me.

Even though I'd had some time already to think, it caught me off guard. I hesitated.

Just keep it simple, down to earth, and truthful. Right.

"I'm Haruno Sakura. I want to... to..." I hesitated sheepishly. "This is going to sound stupid, but I really just want to help people out and... generally make the world better."

Kakashi just nodded frankly, to my surprise. I purposefully didn't look at Naruto and Izanami. I could just imagine Izanami's expression, and this was for Kakashi's benefit, anyway.

"I like... applied seal theory, and tests and quizzes," I continued quickly. "And I don't like sleeping in and wasting my time."

Very deep, Sakura.

Well, it would have to do.

"Good," Kakashi said. I wasn't sure if he was referring to me, or to the whole process in general. He looked the three of us over, almost curiously. "Izanami, Sakura. You two are the top ranking graduates, this year, with the same average. And Naruto, you're... well, you'd know what I'm talking about."

Naruto nodded in a clipped sort of way, looking a little uncomfortable for a brief moment.

I frowned. What's that all about?

"Let's just say I have every reason to be counting on the three of you not to disappoint me," Kakashi finished off. "Let's see how well you do surprise."

He disappeared, kicking up a few leaves.

It took me almost half a second to realize that he'd managed to prepare a body flicker without us realizing it. He hadn't moved a finger.

Izanami disappeared, too.

I darted to where Kakashi had been leaning against the tree. There were still traces of chakra that hadn't dissipated, where the technique had displaced air from in front of him to behind him in order to facilitate his movement. I could feel it on my skin. The direction... roughly... I turned and looked at a nearby rooftop.

It was one of the weaknesses of the standard body flicker technique, due to it being so expensive in chakra. If you knew it was being formed, it was easy to predict its trajectory and destination point if that was anywhere near you and use that to strike against your enemy as he appeared. Likewise, it was easy to follow for a short period, as long as you knew where its origin point was.

Naruto was already forming the hand seal. I did likewise, feeding the technique the necessary amount of chakra. I arrived a moment behind him.

Kakashi was waiting there, with Izanami. It had taken me maybe two or three seconds to follow along. Same for Naruto.

I got the sense that Kakashi was smirking ever so slightly, behind his mask. "Stragglers get the boot," he said, and disappeared again. This time I could see where he'd gone; another nearby rooftop.

By the time we'd arrived a second later, he was already gone again, running this time, jumping from the rooftop to a tree-branch and then down to the ground.

I followed as best I could, wind tearing at my hair as we traveled. It wasn't a question of perception, but simply raw speed. I had a sense he was taking it easy, but I was already tiring a little bit. I could feel how I hadn't really recovered all of my chakra and energy from my morning sprint. I had a feeling the rest of the day wouldn't be any better.

We zipped across Konoha, leaving the campus area behind in the first few minutes and returning to the rooftops where we had the clearest lines of sight. I did my best to conserve energy, skipping the difficult or downright impossible bits with body flickers and otherwise sticking just to running and jumping with regular chakra boosts. Occasionally I'd catch glances of Naruto and Izanami, out of the corner of my eye or up ahead of me.

Izanami was staying close on Kakashi's heels and was making it look almost easy, and Naruto was throwing out body flickers like they were candy and chakra was free. But I knew he had larger than usual chakra reserves - definitely the largest in class, I thought - and could probably afford to do that. Some people just got lucky that way. I was on the low end of the chakra pool, but conversely, at least my control was very good. When I body flickered, I did so efficiently, wasting as little chakra as I could possibly get away with.

I could only hope that it would be enough, for now. I renewed my effort, keeping up with the others.

I noticed with a small feeling of dread that we were indeed heading towards training ground seventeen outside the city, as Kakashi had mentioned. It was pretty far outside of the city, if I recalled the maps I'd seen correctly. I decided not to think too much about it, concentrating on the moment.

Step, jump, control your breath, body flicker, run, jump, turn, jump, land, breath, body flicker.

It was ceaseless. Just a long sequence of singular movement. I sank into it, just going with the flow, feeling my body as it slowly wore out, aches making themselves known, muscles starving for oxygen, chakra coils burning faintly as I strained to pull out the chakra I needed for every augmented movement and every body flicker.

We passed through an open gate in the seal-engraved walls encircling and shielding the city and out into the large, grassy area of cleared forest around the wall. We were outside of Konoha, now. We zipped across the cleared area, and onward into the forest proper. Training ground seventeen lay somewhere ahead of us.

I was falling behind, slowly but steadily. Kakashi was about two hundred meters ahead of me, glimpsed only sometimes through the trees. Izanami had fallen behind him as well, maybe a hundred and fifty meters ahead of me. Naruto was front runner now, still keeping up with Kakashi and from what I saw still blowing chakra on an excess of body flickers exactly like he had in the beginning.

Just how much chakra does he have...? I thought numbly.

We crossed the borders of the training ground, leaping over an electrified fence which was mostly just intended to keep out wild animals and common civilians. I was beginning to really wear out. I could feel it. I'd gone from the almost pleasant burning feeling of exhaustion you got from vigorous exercise to the stone-heavy aching feeling you got when you simply pushed yourself too far.

But we were almost there; the training ground was only so large. Kakashi had to stop sometime soon.

Just a little farther.

As we headed over the crest of a hill and down into a smaller valley, I could see a river up ahead, next to a small clearing. It was the only noticeable feature around. Half a kilometer, maybe. I could only hope.

I thought I maybe still had a bit of chakra to spare. It was hard to tell in the heat of the moment, but while it hurt when I drew on my chakra, it wasn't downright excruciating yet. I wasn't all empty. I ran for a hundred more meters, gathering myself, then went for a series of body flickers in quick succession, the forest whizzing past me in separate blurs. It brought me over the river and into the clearing proper. Kakashi was waiting in the middle of it, by a series of small wooden poles. Naruto was already there and Izanami arrived by them a few moments later.

I half-ran, half-staggered the rest of the way. When I finally arrived, I fell to my knees, heaving for breath. I didn't care if it was undignified. My throat tasted of metal and it almost hurt to breathe. Izanami, at least, looked rather out of breath as well, strands of hair plastered to her sweaty face. She didn't even bother removing them. I was a little surprised at that. She was supposed to be the one who was perfect at everything, wasn't she?

A glance at Naruto, however, shocked me slightly. He was red-faced, sure, and panting a little bit. But he was standing, and his limbs weren't shaking from exhaustion. He looked... exercised, not crushed.

I noticed that Kakashi was looking us over, once again. When his eye fell on Naruto, it narrowed slightly as if confirming some suspicion or prediction.

Something is going on there, I thought raggedly. But now is really not the time to wonder about it.

"So!" Kakashi began, after giving us a few moments. "That's it for the warm-up." He crossed his arms, and noted mildly while looking at me, "I believe I mentioned that stragglers would get the boot."

My breath caught. If anybody had been a straggler, it was me.

"It's good I was lying about that, isn't it?" he continued cheerfully.

...That bastard.

Yet I breathed freely again, fighting down a small spell of dizziness.

"I did want to see how far you were willing to push yourself, though," he went on. "Today, after all, has only just begun. Allow me to at least tell you, if you're feeling a little intimidated, that no team has ever passed my genin test before. Quite a few have tried, these past years."

I was too out of breath to feel offended or even terrified. Clearly, the man was insane. I didn't know who the optimist was, the one who Kakashi had theorized might exist in the Administration, but right now I wanted to kill that person.

"Someone's gotta be the first."

I glanced up. Naruto had spoken. He grinned faintly. "Might as well be us, I mean."

Kakashi looked at him. "Not the first. The last team which passed this test, as far as I am aware, was mine. And before that, it was the Sannin. I like to think of it as a tradition worth continuing."

Which meant Kakashi's team, which had been led by the Fourth Hokage, Namikaze Minato, before he became Hokage, and the team which had been led by the Third Hokage, Sarutobi Hiruzen, and had later become known as the three Sannin, who were arguably three of the most powerful ninja Konoha had ever produced.

I was beginning to feel a little out of my depth, here.

Naruto shrugged. "So we've just gotta top them, right?"

Kakashi blinked.

I stared at Naruto, aware that my mouth was hanging slightly open and not doing anything about it almost on purpose.

Right, yes, I thought. We're just gonna go ahead and top three of the most legendary ninja Konoha has ever produced. Right. Of course.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Izanami was looking at me. She noticed me noticing, shot me a small, cold glare, then looked back up at Kakashi. My mouth closed in a snap.

"Just tell us what the test is," she said shortly.

Kakashi, still staring at Naruto, who seemed oblivious to the reactions he was getting, tore his gaze away and glanced at Izanami.

"Right," he began. "It's actually very simple." He held up one hand. From it dangled two small, round bells. He glanced from them to us. "There are two bells. There are three of you. The person who doesn't get a bell, gets the boot."

My mouth fell slightly open again. I looked frantically between Naruto and Izanami. They were both sharing a meaningful glance. Then their gazes fell on me for a moment and Naruto's turned away, almost guiltily.

My stomach sank, and I slowly swallowed.



On the face of it, the nature of chakra seems fundamentally absurd.

The gulf between modern physics as we know them, and the so-called chakra sciences, has yet to close. While theories abound, some less far-flung than others, the general consensus is that something is going on in a baser level of reality than we have thus far managed to uncover empirically, and that nobody really knows what that something is, and that if any ninja do, then—as is common for their kind—they are keeping those secrets to themselves.

The five basic elemental chakra natures of fire, earth, wind, water and lightning have, as far as we know, no discovered basis in the laws of reality. Fire is simply the gaseous product of exothermic combustion. Earth is a mixture of common minerals. Wind is the flow of gases. Water is nothing but hydrogen and oxygen. Lightning is an electrical discharge.

Often, elements can produce effects that may seem intuitively sound to the layman, but are completely unrelated or unrealistic in actuality (winds that cut, lightning that grants penetrative power, and so forth). Note that this does not prevent them from working. The reason for this dissonance is not known, but seems, strange as it sounds, to correlate to commonly held preconceptions in society a thousand years ago, when these abilities first began to appear in the historical record (for more on this hypothesis, see this issue's article on p. 36, "The Sage: Myth or Messiah? A look at the origin of modern history").

There are further chakra sub-elements, consisting of mixtures of basic elements. Whether these are predetermined 'elements' or a fundamentally separate emergent phenomenon is not certain, since often certain bloodlines or other inherent abilities seem to be necessary for their use. The most famous example of this would be the First Hokage's bloodline-restricted element, the Wood element, purportedly combining earth and water.

It is not known whether there is a limit on how many distinct chakra sub-elements there truly are. It should be noted that there are rumored cases of different users combining the same two basic elements in different ways to produce two markedly different end results. There may be an endless variety, limited only by the imagination.

It is strange that we empirically know so little about how chakra-based abilities work in reality, even with plenty of access to the phenomena through hired ninja or proficient researchers. It is safe to say, though, that while much is known about chakra's workings within the context of its own domain, there is still a fundamental breakthrough waiting to happen that will unify the two separate realms.

This special issue is dedicated to exploring the strange contradictions and wonders of the world of chakra. Read on to find out more.

Yamagato Ando, "Editor-in-Chief's Introduction", p. 2, Science Illustrated Magazine Issue 97 - "The World of Chakra"

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