Another chapter is here!

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"I hope those guys can hold on until we get there," the first Naruto clone said as he bound through the trees towards where the other two Chuunin were supposed to be.

He was being followed by the second clone, who was rather to the point in his response. "I don't hear anything further ahead so either they've managed to come out okay or we were too slow. Either way we should hurry… really hoping it's not the second option though."

The two clones that were dispatched to investigate the status of their mission teammates were kept relatively updated with the original's progress because of all the dispelled clones that were having their memories spread around. And, because they were created relatively early in the battle, they also held a bulk of the original's chakra that had yet to be returned. This afforded them a little more leeway in how they could handle the situation, whether engaging in combat, acting as a distraction, or creating Shadow Clones of their own to dispel and transfer the memories should the need to do so arise.

However, they were not expecting to be attacked by plumes of some kind of gas bound into a serpentine form that was dense enough to be seen. The surprising sight was enough to briefly give them pause before the pair split to the left and right with chakra-powered hops. The slithering, sinuous mass of gas split into two and gave chase.

"I think that might be poison," the second clone said as he dodged the lunging gas that branched out into four tendrils. They didn't seem to be autonomous so they had to be controlled by someone.

"Obviously!" the first clone said as he molded and gathered wind-chakra into his palms while avoiding his own winding set. "I'm going to scatter it to thin it out! Hold your breath and charge in!"

However, as if triggered by their words, the gaseous poison bound into serpentine forms abruptly halted before they could touch the pair. Then they were reeled back, swallowing themselves like a vacuum was on the other end. The clones took the opportunity to chase them to the other end and see that one behind the attack was actually Okei.

"Apologies…uh… Uzumaki," he said in a strained voice. He was kneeling on the ground with one chakra-coated hand hovering over a small scroll like they carried in their flak jackets, and the purplish gas was sinking into the sealing script at the center of the array there. His other arm was being shrouded in medical-chakra as Hayase worked to heal the damage that looked fairly bad, what with bone sticking out of it and all. "We didn't know how many… agh… were left."

"What happened?" asked the first clone.

Hayase jerked his head over to where two large figures were half buried in the ground, dead to the world like fallen logs. "These bozos attacked us without warning. We tried getting answers out of them, but the sheer stupid made questioning a pain, and when we tried to regroup they cut us off and slugged Okei with a mean punch. One solid hit did this to his arm, so we decided to take them out the same way we do the larger Honey Badgers—covering their faces with poison while restricting their movements. They could only hold their breath for so long."

His squinted eyes turned to the pair. "What happened on your end? Were you attacked?"

The clones gave them a brief report as more information filed in until they abruptly started glowing as the final spare clone dispelled itself. The first Naruto clone looked down at the film of chakra covering him. "We should disperse if these two are okay. That should send the excess chakra and memories back to the original."

The second clone stopped him. "The sudden rush might throw him off if he's still in the middle of fighting Mizuki though. Just create a clone and then disperse it. The memories should go to all of us and the flux won't be great enough to throw off the balance of yang-to-normal chakra… I think."

"Sounds good enough." The first clone popped a single clone into existence and dispersed it just as quickly. "In hindsight, we really should have tested how this works with pre-existing Shadow Clones, huh?"

The second shrugged. "Maybe we should have found a way to store it all at once without the need for doing it like this…" He tapped his chin in thought. "Actually, can you store Shadow Clones as they are in a scroll? I know that some techniques can be—"

"You know that's kind of weird talking to yourselves like that, right?" Hayase pointed out as he continued working on the other Chuunin's arm. "If the original you is still fighting then go where you're needed. We'll be along in a bit."

[0-0-0]

The taste of copper permeated Mizuki's mouth as he spat to the side, leaving a mix of blood and saliva on the ground. Then he took a deep breath to numb the pain and gather his thoughts to figure out what just happened. One minute he was advancing, the next he was aching and hearing the brat making demands. The fact that, yes, he lost in a contest of power and speed to some kid that didn't even manage to graduate under normal circumstances took a moment to register.

That shouldn't be possible. He could still feel the wellspring of power within him from the potion he took. The amount of chakra leaking out of his body was so potent that his muscles and senses were heightened as a mere side-effect. It didn't make sense for Naruto to be strong enough to keep up with him without using the Nine-Tailed Fox's power. He has to be lying.

Blinking away the spots in his eyes, he noted his head hurt as he looked at the boy in the distance that stood in a relaxed stance. His cerulean eyes had a mild golden tint to them that somehow gave the impression that he felt no fear or need for concern. That was insulting in every sense of the word, giving birth to anger within him that drove strength into his body.

Wiping the remaining blood away from his mouth, Mizuki staggered onto his feet and covered up the nervousness he felt with bravado. "Not bad, brat. I actually felt that."

"Then it's a good thing I didn't go all-out," he said back, a cruel calmness to his voice as the chakra coming from him flared for a moment and thickened somewhat. "You're frailer than you look in that state and I don't want to kill you since you're the last one alive that can answer my questions."

"We'll see who's frail when I get my hands on you!" Mizuki poured chakra into his legs for an explosion of movement, only for him to feel pain again on the side of his head like someone took a hammer to it. The world blinked for a moment as he twirled on his grounded leg and then regained his balance and sense of awareness. Right in time for his feet to be swept from underneath him as Naruto went from a low leg-sweep to a rising kick into his abdomen that stole Mizuki's breath.

This can't be happening, he thought as he fell to his knees in pain while struggling for breath. Looking up, he met with the disinterested eyes of the boy again that was mocking him and the strength he had attained through the knowledge of Lord Orochimaru, who recognized his drive and potential. It infuriated Mizuki even further. He swung his fist in an attempt to knock the perceived smug off boy's face with all his might.

Naruto wordlessly deflected it with his forearm. Then he thrust his opposing knee out in a flash towards Mizuki's broad and exposed chest. It hit hard enough to knock him backwards with a pained sound escaping his lips.

This can't be happening, he thought again as he reconsidered his options in a hurry. He could try genjutsu and then attacking him from behind. But first he needed to get away. So he sank earth-chakra into the ground and began to slip below the surface—

"Not this time."

—only for a comparatively small hand to grabbed him by the hair and fling him through the air, into another tree that broke under his weight and momentum and crashed down on him. He managed to push the heavy trunk off of him just in time to hear the tagged kunai burying itself into the bark. It detonated a half-second later as he tried to get away from the explosion with a hurried Body Flicker.

Fire and force engulfed him for a moment. Trails of smoke wafted from Mizuki's body as he was thrown off his feet by the tail-end of the explosion, hitting the ground some distance away from the blasting site. He looked up as charred splinters rained down to see Naruto walking towards him in a deceptively slow-pace.

"Ready to talk yet?" he asked plainly, throwing four yellow-rimmed tagged kunai around Mizuki. A fifth appeared in his hand and when it received chakra the other four formed a film around the man to act as a makeshift prison. "At this point, it's clear you simply can't win. Tell me where Kabuto is and I'll settle for leaving you locked away rather than dragging this out further."

Mizuki gritted his teeth at the thought that the brat wasn't even taking him seriously. He pounded at the film of chakra to no avail. Trapped and toyed with by the former failure of his class, Mizuki's anger peaked at that point and he tugged on the power within.

In response, his muscles swelled further. Orange fur began to cover his flesh, lined with black stripes. His fingernails sharpened to claws, his teeth stretched into fangs, and his face became bestial as more tiger features set in. Thrumming with power Mizuki roared, chakra lacing his very voice to the extent that the resulting sound wave tore the tags of the kunai apart and freed him.

"Now who can't win?" he said with a sneer as he towered over the comparatively tiny shinobi, on his knees and holding his ears. "I'm going to rip you to shreds!"

[0-0-0]

Owwww, Naruto thought as he uncovered his ears and rose to his feet. The force of the roar had made his ears ring to the point that his brain itself trembled, taking away one of his sharpened senses. He made a mental note to work on that as Mizuki, whose frame had grown even larger and feral, lunged for him like a… well, tiger, obviously.

He was slow. Even slower than before. Naruto managed to get around the blow easily as Mizuki brought his clawed hand onto the ground. The packed earth shattered fairly deeply to create a crater as a result.

He swapped speed for strength then? Naruto mused as he reached into his shuriken pouch and flung a handful of them at the very large target. Mizuki didn't bother trying to block them as he went after the younger shinobi again. Just as well, they didn't even pierce his skin or graze the flesh that was taut against corded muscles. Okay, I'll just treat it like the battle with Gaara when he was partially-transformed.

Dashing forward and sliding under the incoming arm, Naruto reached into his pouch. He pulled out a pair of concussive tags to use as knuckledusters and rammed his fists Mizuki's torso before firing them off. The recoil of released kinetic force from the tags made his arms buckle as the slips of paper tore themselves to shreds, but the yang-chakra reinforced his body from any further damage as the directed shockwave did its work.

Mizuki, who was already aerial from his lunge, was thrown back forcibly. Blood left his mouth as the force shot through the corded muscle beneath his skin to hammer organs and rattle bones. Yet, he managed to dig into the ground with his claws and upturned a trench as he slid to a stop.

Naruto brought his hands around to his pouch for another pair while doing a mental count of how many he had left for that approach. He had four tags of that nature remaining, with the rest being the explosive variety. As long as he avoided hitting the heart or head, he should manage to avoid killing him—at least that was the plan before Mizuki rose to his feet looking no worse than before as the point of impact steamed. "You can heal quickly too?"

The dark chuckle that the tiger-man made pretty much answered that question while he patted the area down. Then he roared again, loud enough to be heard around the woodlands. The fierce scream blanked-out Naruto's vision as it assailed his senses until he covered his ears. In that space of time, Mizuki crossed the distance and was getting ready to drive his claws into the younger shinobi's skull.

The pull of a Substitution saved him as one of the clones took his place, a spiraling sphere of chakra in its hand. It twisted its body underneath the surprise assault and delivered the rising Rasengan into Mizuki's torso, right where the concussive tags had gone off. The spiraling mass of chakra dug into the strengthened flesh, grinding against it fiercely while the clone pushed as hard as it could to send Mizuki spiraling into the air, screaming.

The first clone dispersed itself. Memories flooded the original of its return and the plan it formulated with the second clone, which broke from cover to run over to just under the point of launch. He ran towards it and then leapt into its cupped hands. The moment his foot touched down it threw him as hard as it could, strength bolstered by the yang-chakra that had permeated it. Then the second clone dispersed as well.

Naruto ended up rising next to Mizuki with both his arms chambered and fingers laced. The excess yang-chakra from the two clones swelled the aura he wore around himself to the point of being a few inches thick. He gathered and condensed it all onto his fists and slammed down into Mizuki's unprotected back.

The golden hammer-blow flared as contact sent the tiger-man rocketing right back down to earth. The impact shook and upturned the ground, throwing up a cloud of dirt. It slowly rained back down as Naruto eventually landed at the rim of the crater that formed with Mizuki at the center.

Please don't get up again, Naruto thought. His muscles began to ache as the last of the yang-chakra burned out from the assault, but it was tolerable. He would be beyond sore in the morning though.

Mizuki started moving, pushing himself off the ground. His body began to steam, accelerated healing at work… and then his bulging muscles began to shrivel and wilt. His skin darkened and wrinkled as though he was being desiccated to the point of mummification before he barely managed to flip onto his back.

"Ahhhaaa…" His voice came out as a dry rasp. "Wh-what's happening…?"

Naruto had no clue whatsoever, but it looked bad. Fortunately, the other two that were slower than his yang-empowered clones arrived. He turned to the only healer of the group and asked, "Can you see about him? He's the only one left and he knows something."

Hayase complied, leaning down over the wheezing and frail-looking man Mizuki had become. Medical-chakra shrouded his hands. He held them over Mizuki's chest and began his work.

Okei walked up next to Naruto and adjusted his glasses with his good hand. "What did you do to him?"

"I just hit him hard," Naruto said. "He had transformed himself into this tiger-man form and it made him hard to hurt, plus he kept healing himself. I just needed him to stay down."

"The damage done to this guy is mostly internal," Hayase said. "His chakra network has basically torn itself to shreds from the inside out and his body is deteriorating on a cellular level. You don't get that kind of damage from brute force. It's more than likely they were forced over their limit and were constantly straining to keep themselves together until they just couldn't anymore, probably from the transformation and healing you mentioned."

A dry wheeze left Mizuki's mouth as he tried to raise himself up but couldn't.

"Don't bother," Hayase told him bluntly. He didn't have a reason to show sympathy given what transpired. "The more physical activity you try, the faster your body breaks down. As it is, you've only got minutes to live at best, and that's only because I'm barely slowing it down. We're too far away from anyone skilled enough to save you."

Hearing that, Naruto approached Mizuki before he could pass away to get answers. "Tell me where Kabuto wanted you to take me and what he's planning!"

"N-Never…" he muttered weakly.

Naruto scowled. Even on his deathbed he was being spiteful. But before he could say anything else to try and get Mizuki to talk, Okei placed a hand on his shoulder and led Naruto a few steps away from the dying man to talk.

"Tell me, what sort of man is this person?" he asked quietly.

"What do you mean?"

"Your clones gave us a brief report on him and why he came, but they didn't go into what sort of man he is. From just now I could gather that he is quite a spiteful individual, but that can be used to our advantage providing we know the angle to approach."

"...He wants power?" Naruto offered after some thought. "Like a lot of it. To the point he betrayed the village and then came after me just because someone else promised it to him. Does that help?"

"The ambitious-type… I can work with that. Stay here."

Naruto watched as the older Chuunin walked over to where Mizuki was and crouched down to whisper to him. Whatever was being said was below what he could hear, leaving Naruto to simply stand there and focus on molding more chakra from his spiritual and physical energy while he waited. His awareness snapped back to the other pair of Chuunin when the light of the healing died minutes later.

Mizuki… wasn't moving and his eyes were closed. He was gone. Hayase unraveled one of the scrolls meant for storing human corpses and proceeded to enclose the dead body inside of it.

Okei watched for a moment longer and then approached Naruto. "Do you have a way of contacting the village as soon as possible?"

"I can summon a Messenger Toad." They had a direct line to the village from what he knew. Naruto began the hand-seals and partitioning off the appropriate amount of chakra for the summoning when he received a nod telling him to go ahead. "What did he tell you?"

"A prison break was executed by agents of the Hidden Sound, with himself being the sole one pulled aside for capturing you. It was done in the middle of the night over a day ago, which is plenty of time for them to scatter out. I'm not certain if the village is aware, but the information needs to reach the Hokage as soon as possible."

Naruto slammed his hand onto the ground. Sealing script etched itself onto the grass. A red toad with blue marking around its eyes and a pair of goggles appeared in a puff of smoke.

"Kosuke, reporting for duty," the toad said. "You got a message you want delivered?"

"I need you to deliver this, along with a storage scroll, to the Hokage as soon as possible," Okei said as he set down a scroll and started jotting down the information on it. "It is of the absolute importance that it reaches his eyes only as we suspect there is an infiltrator."

"What will we do next?" Naruto asked. The mission had clearly gone awry.

"We're heading back to the village as quickly and carefully as possible," Hayase said, coming over with the scroll carrying Mizuki's corpse. "With the prisoners of war and other inmates freed, the number of hostile shinobi wandering around the Land of Fire could number hundreds. And since none of us are Trackers or Sensors, the best thing we can do is get you back inside the village walls where this won't happen again."

"I guess that—" Naruto froze at that moment as realization set in. Kabuto had sent Mizuki after him. Leaving aside that meant someone had to leak where he was going for his mission, having so many prisoners getting out meant they'd have to send out everyone capable of tracking and sensing available—and that likely included Karin. "That bastard!"

Naruto pulled out the sealing slip that contained Byakko's mask and popped it out. Using the same gash he made for the summoning to unlock the mask, he summoned forth the white tiger. Byakko came to a stop behind him as he looked over to Okei after the toad disappeared in a puff of smoke to take the shortcut back to the village. "Where'd Kabuto want him to take me?"

Okei shook his head in response to the question as he rose to his full height. "Telling you would be the same as doing the job for him."

"You don't understand, I think they're going after another Sensor by doing all of this to lure them out and grab them. If the village already knows about the escapees then they've probably sent her ahead."

"Then we'll have to send another message," he said. "If she's already in the field and your reasoning is valid, they'll assemble a retrieval team and bring her back to the village."

That didn't help rid Naruto of the underlying anger and unease that he felt. Karin was terrified of going back and for good reason. Just the thought of the things Kabuto did during the Invasion was enough to get his blood-boiling, but when he thought of her going through that after finally getting a chance to start over, he could barely keep himself from shaking with rage.

Byakko craned its head towards him at sensing the rising anger through their spiritual link. 'Are they enemies?'

Naruto shook his head as he mounted the tiger, soundlessly responding back through the link. 'Karin's in trouble. I don't know how to find her.'

The white tiger turned to the east. 'She is that way, but far.'

Naruto perked up at that. 'How do you know that?'

'The spiritual link from her last use is faint and non-active. But the connection is how we identify those of Uzumaki Blood and remember them. Through that I can find her.'

'That's good news.' Naruto gave the other two a side-glance while they were discussing something in a hushed tone. He doubted that they'd be onboard with the plan forming in his head and Byakko would be weighed down by them anyway. He turned his attention back to Byakko and asked, 'Can you reach her before burning through your reserves?'

'Most likely at full-speed. It depends on terrain between us.'

That made sense. It boasted its capability was speed when Karin had summoned it the first time, so running was what it was good at. Though, given how things became a blur after a certain point, he'd have to leave the steering to Byakko and anchor himself down.

Naruto realized he would probably get in trouble for this, abandoning these two to save her. But Karin was being hunted and didn't even realize it. The thought of losing the first family he had… the first girl who told him that she cared for him that way… he couldn't do it.

'Just don't abandon me, or I won't have anything left.' That was all she asked of him when he saw her after everything that happened. It was a simple wish that he promised he would live up to. Nothing would be worth it if he couldn't keep that promise and save her when the chance to do so was there.

His resolve solidified. Even if he got into trouble, he could live with the consequences of that. As long as she remained alive and out of that bastard's hands. Anchoring himself with chakra, he gave the order. 'Run as fast as you can to her.'

Byakko crouched low and its muscles tensed. The other two took notice of the sudden change. But before they could even get words out it was too late. The white tiger exploded into motion, upturning the ground beneath its feet as it became a white blur.

I wish I kept my goggles, Naruto thought as the rushing air whipped at him violently, threatening to tear him from his mount if he hadn't anchored himself. They were moving faster than he'd ever done so before, to the point that the blinding wind even threatened to crush his eyes if he didn't squint them. But he didn't have Byakko slow down in the slightest.

Instead, he lowered his riding posture until he was hugging Byakko as tightly as he could while they sped off into the night…