Another Chapter is here.
Sasuke struggled onto his feet as the others on top of Naruto's tiger creature stared down the transformed Sand shinobi. His mind was racing against the lethargy brought on by the exhaustion as the Sharingan went dormant from lack of chakra. What were they doing here?
He saw Sakura tense for a moment as she met with the inhuman eyes that seemed to regard their intrusion as a personal offense to its fun, mere seconds away from crushing the last of the Uchiha remaining within the Leaf. Then she held her hands together in a hand-seal before he could move. A blinding white light emerged and stole Sasuke's vision as the transformed shinobi howled.
"C'mon!" He felt something wrapping around his waist and pulling him along as his eyes still reeled from the blinding light. Judging from the speed of the motion, the sound, and the width of what was supporting him, he guessed that it was Naruto as the tiger sped away.
As the sharp, stinging pain that stabbed away at his eyes lessened, he forced them open to see that they were moving at a frantic pace on top of the tiger. The four legs seemed to eat the distance, covering vast space like a gale. He turned to his teammates and… a pug?
"What are you doing here?" he asked as the tiger leapt and landed at the bottom of an uneven slope.
Naruto turned his gaze sideways, briefly looking away from the path ahead to meet his black eyes with a cerulean pair. "Getting you away from that guy. You can't fight it."
Sasuke's jaw tensed as he gritted his teeth at that. He had been fighting it. He would have won had he been a little faster and had a little more chakra. Then he loosened his jaw as a thought occurred. "That technique wouldn't be enough to get away. I have to finish it."
"I bought us time," Sakura said. That technique was one of the simplest external genjutsu in the world, creating a flare of yin chakra that mimicked the brightness of the sun. It was nothing more than a distraction that could be done with flash bombs, but she didn't have any of those with her stolen supplies. "I followed up with an illusion on the surroundings after I blinded him."
"That's not what I meant," Sasuke said. "I mean that his sense of smell is heightened. He could track me by my blood the entire time. He'll be after us in seconds."
"I doubt he can keep up with Byakko."
Sasuke shook his head. "No, you're not getting it. He won't stop coming after us. How long until either your tiger runs out of chakra or we lead him back to the village? With his techniques, the casualty rate will jump through the roof if I don't stop him now."
As if to punctuate his point, a murderous howl filled the air. The ground trembled, split apart, and sank into itself. Sand erupted from below like it did during the match with Sasuke, only in greater amounts—closer to an eruption as the pressure sent broken trees and massive mounds of upturned earth into the air. Then they all dropped down along with sand that shaped and hardened itself into pointed clumps.
The white tiger stalled, dropped them low, and then curled around them as a makeshift shield while the world around them seemed to undergo a localized cataclysm. The ground shook endlessly as the constant weight dropping down bombarded the landscape, breaking the flora around it. It threw up massive clouds of dust that rolled outwards and threatened to choke them if they didn't hold their breaths.
A haunting silence peppered with the sound of crumbling wood followed, only broken by the light wind that carried the dust clouds upwards. Byakko, whose white fur was covered in so much dust that it masked the tiger as another stone, unfurled to reveal the four that it had been guarding were unharmed, if covered in earthen dust as well. They coughed and sneezed, struggling to breathe as they waved away the lingering dust.
"Oh no," Sakura said softly, a note of stomach-churning horror in her voice. Sasuke could see why. The sheer devastation behind that attack had decimated a good portion of the area they were in, while they could make out rising columns of dust in the distance. The worst hit places looked like massive craters from where the ground had sank in even before the impacts, the dirt and roots beneath it grounded into more sand and then removed violently.
"The others," Naruto said. "Did it reach them too?"
The pug shook itself violently to clean its fur and raised a paw. "I doubt it. We were going to circle around with Sasuke and make sure we lost the other guy before going back. They probably felt the tremors, but it looks like the majority of it was around us."
He breathed easier for a moment in relief. "Good."
"Like I said, he won't stop chasing me since I hurt him," Sasuke said. "Even if we run, he'll level area until he gets us. We can only run for so long until he catches us one way or another. I have to end it."
It was a fact he wholeheartedly backed, and not just because the thought of running sickened him. The wounded beast fought back. It was kill or be killed at this point. He had to do this.
Naruto's eyes met his narrowed pair and understanding passed on some level. That much Sasuke could tell. He reached into his pouch and pulled out a Soldier's Pill. "Take this. You're out of chakra."
Sasuke grabbed it and plopped it into his mouth. The burst of bitter taste as it went down was replaced by a burning sensation as the lean fat in his body was transmuted into chakra and the stimulants kicked in, pushing away the exhaustion. Invigorated, he turned towards the path they fled from and his legs tensed to kick off when his teammates stood in front of him.
"You're not going alone, especially when you can use only one arm," Sakura said before he could go. "We need to work together."
"You'll die if you get in the way again," Sasuke said.
"You would have died if we didn't the first time," she shot back heatedly. "We can't run, so we have to fight. But rushing in like you did before won't help either—we need to approach this with a plan."
"I can do this myself," he argued, his Sharingan once more flaring to life as he clenched his fist. "The Chidori is the only thing we have that can reliably penetrate his impervious defense, and I'm the only one that can do. All I need is one solid hit and—"
"You go alone and you'll die without accomplishing anything this time, kid," the pug said gruffly. "Kakashi sent me to have them get you specifically because it's not advisable for any of you to try and take him alone. I've been with him a long time, so I know the drawbacks to your Sharingan and Chidori is that they lose effectiveness the more the enemy is exposed to them. Kakashi already has enough to grieve over besides one of the first students he's taken on dying because he tried using the techniques he taught him futilely. Swallow your pride and act accordingly."
Sasuke felt a growl bubble up in his throat… but quelled it. The damn dog was right. Doing the same thing that doesn't work is just asking to be killed, and he couldn't avenge his clan if he died then and there.
Plus… these two would just come after him again like before and get themselves killed, unless they had some kind of plan. He couldn't let that happen, not because of him. Sasuke unclenched his fist and turned to his teammates. "Talk fast. We don't have a lot of time before he comes again."
Sakura nodded and got to talking while she applied First Aid to his arm to stop him from worsening it….
Gaara bounded forward in his pseudo-transformed state, sniffing the air in search of his prey with his narrowed nose now that the dust was no longer obstructing it. He hoped that they were still alive. It wouldn't be satisfying if he didn't grab them and wring the life out of them in an offering to Mother.
The smell of blood that he had been tracking thickened as he neared, still fresh and hot. That was good. Cold blood didn't feel right as it clogged between the grains of sand, forcing him to churn it until it was a fine powder. No, it had to be wet and moist, slipping in-between each grain and coating it with the rich smell. The thought of the Uchiha's and blonde brat's blood, the blood of the only two that had hurt him so far, saturating his sand was enough to make him shudder in maddening anticipation.
The jinchuuriki of the One-Tailed Raccoon leapt into the area that smelled the thickest and found the Uchiha and his companion standing over the girl that lay on the ground unconscious. He thrust both hands out at her and they both moved to intercept, bringing them right into his grasp. Gaara opted to crush them over his head immediately and savor the warm shower as his Mother demanded. They and the girl popped with a tightening of his grip, erupting into a plume of smoke each instead.
He coughed as his massive arms swept back and forth to clear it away, only for the world around him to have changed. The area that had been destroyed was now renewed, thick with trees once more. It was another external genjutsu, he could tell that much easily enough. "Come out and face me, you cowards!"
Footsteps thundered against the ground as dozens of clones of the blonde brat emerged from the trees, each brandishing a kunai in an attempt to swarm him. They flung them as one, unleashing a rain of steel from all directions upon his imposing frame. He wanted to scoff at the attempt—he couldn't count the number of times the assassins his father sent did that. A thought and expunge of chakra fired clumps of hardened sand out in all directions, knocking them askew and destroying the clones in en masse.
He raised his nose again in anticipation. The hardened clumps should have smashed their bones and let loose blood run free from the real bodies if they were nearby, even with the illusion. He smelled and heard nothing, despite the fact that their pained cries should be ringing out and the scent of the blood should be alluring him to where they laid. How was it possible that he missed all of them?
The sound of parting air reached his sharpened ears and he turned towards it, inhaling and exhaling to fire off an air bullet to intercept a tagged-kunai. The air ball expanded on contact with the tag and the explosion was kept at a distance. That's when a second onslaught of clones followed, each with tagged-kunai this time.
"You won't beat me with these cheap tricks!" He inhaled and used his Sandstorm Devastation technique, unleashing a squall from all around by rotation as he exhaled. The sand-and-chakra laced wind bellowed out and made the illusion waver as the chakra in his attack pushed away the surrounding yin chakra that acted as a canvas for the illusion, revealing the true blonde hiding behind his tiger construct all this time in the distance.
He smirked at the sight, only for the illusion to return and be filled with falling leaves this time. The blonde hopped onto the top of the tiger as it prepared to flee, but Gaara was quick to lunge after him before he could with his massive claws. He was almost within striking range when the number of leaves swelled and blocked his sight, a number of clones in the real one's place that held explosive-tags they immediately triggered.
Gaara leapt away before the explosions could consume him, only to wobble as he landed. He felt like the world was seesawing underneath his feet. His mind flashed back to the match as well and it clicked, causing him to roar in impotent rage as another onslaught of clones came in again.
This time they Body Flickered in-between the falling leaves, closing the distance faster than he could exhale a wind technique to blow them away. So he swung his arms, flailing to destroy them in a single strike. He was sloppy and sluggish with his balance compromised, and it created an opening as one of the clones he swatted was replaced with a substitution by the real Naruto before it exploded, two tags on his hands like knuckle-dusters.
Gaara twisted his body to swat at him, but he was gone with another substitution and attacked his backside with his fists. They didn't so much as break his Sand Armor and he smirked at the stupidity of the weakling. His sand encased his fists and held him fast. "Caught y—AHHH!"
The scream was birthed from the rupturing of the tags. They were concussive explosives, directed so that the shockwave directly impacted his organs beneath the surface of his armor and skin, barely padded out enough by the sand and charka in it to absorb it from forcing them out of his body. Instead, Gaara flew from the impact until he hit the ground and was on his hands and knees, spewing blood from his mouth.
He roared as he turned his wild eye towards the blonde to see him vanishing as the leaves fell over him again and swung his arm. Sand-made shuriken pelted the area, but there were no cries of pain or blood to say that he had hit. He rose to his feet and turned around in circles, trying to find them while nursing the pain from before. More kunai appeared as the leaves continued to fall in greater numbers, carrying with tags as they rained death from all directions and forced Gaara surround himself in a sand cocoon as the leaves continued to fall, until he was completely sealed within it.
A tired, aggravated breath escaped his mouth as the explosions went off outside the cocoon. His body hurt so much, but he couldn't catch them as the world continued to tilt around him. He couldn't keep this up at this rate. As much as it aggravated him otherwise, he couldn't waste anymore time by trying to use his hands to wring the life out of them—he'd settle for breaking the world around them again.
He touched the ground and prepared to upturn the earth once more for his Sand Cataclysm technique, only to notice that some of the leaves shifted beneath his hands. The chakra shell covering them vanished to reveal that they were explosive tags, sealed inside with him. He had just enough time to open a hole in the cocoon, and get halfway out before they exploded and caught him into the back.
The explosion robbed him of his sense of direction as he smacked his head against the earth. The world seesawed even more as he lay there, edging on the verge on unconsciousness, when he saw that the ground was opening up in the distance. A small pug emerged from beneath it, along with the pink-haired girl and the Uchiha. That's how they avoided his constant attacks.
The other two fled as the illusion dissipated and the Uchiha made hand-seals, a makeshift splint on the broken forearm. Then he held his hand low to the ground as it sparked to life with lightning that chirped like a thousand birds. With crimson eyes and spinning tomoe, he rushed forward.
"STAY BACK!" The cry came out before he realized it, pain wracking his body from the attacks. He took hold of his sand and threw it all forward, creating a wall of death by which he couldn't pass, only for the Uchiha to vanish and be replaced by the blonde brat that anchored four tagged kunai to the ground and held another up, creating a barrier that blocked the onrushing sand. The sound of innumerable chirping came from behind him, and he turned to be blinded by the blue and angry glare of the technique before he experienced unimaginable pain once more as it punched through his Sand Armor and into his stomach below.
Naruto watched tiredly, his hands aching from the backlash of using the concussive tags like that, as Sasuke panted while he pulled his good hand out and jumped away from his target. The Sand Armor slowly crumbled around Gaara, who stood there was his eyes and mouth wide open in agony. He must've passed out from the pain, explaining why his scream died so abruptly.
Naruto hated that it came to that. He hated that someone like him—someone with a monster sealed inside of him—had to be struck down like that. If they rushed him to the village, then maybe he would make it, but… they didn't have a choice if they were going to survive.
"It had to be done, kid," Pakkun said, as if sensing his distress. The pug had worked himself tired to dig the tunnel that the others had hid under while Naruto had been running around on Byakko. Likewise, Sakura had worked hard to keep up the different illusions, masking the tags as falling leaves that Naruto dropped over him while she also hid both him and Byakko from sight.
"Maybe…" He sighed. "Let's get him and the others back to the village now."
Naruto moved closer to him when he heard Gaara muttering something as he struggled to bring himself up to his knees. Did he force himself back into consciousness? He strained to move his hands together despite the fact that it clearly caused him pain to do so.
"Don't try and fight anymore," Naruto told him. "Between the poison and your injuries, you won't survive if you keep trying to."
"Never… to… you…" Gaara muttered as he clasped his hands together. "I will… never lose to…someone like you three!"
He made a final seal and then collapsed, leaving Naruto to wonder if he had committed suicide somehow. The thought was dispelled as a violent force was suddenly unleashed and he was thrown backwards while something massive took up the space where he and the others had once been, displacing them. Then he looked up…
And the primal fear of being at the base of a fully-released Tailed-Beast filled him with dread.