Another chapter is here!

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The Hokage, Hiruzen Sarutobi, sat with his pipe tucked into the corner of his mouth as he listened to a copy of the audio recording of the various masks capabilities. His mind raced at the implications and revelations, from Kushina and Mito's involvement to the presence of the Death God. That one in particular caught his interest.

"If what the Reaper spoke was accurate, this could be the key to stopping Orochimaru once and for all," he said as the recording ended and swiveled his chair around to the front, shifting his view from the window to the living room of his home where his students were. Jiraiya was leaning against the wall opposite of Tsunade, who was seated on his couch. "What are your thoughts, Tsunade? Jiraiya?"

"You think it's real?" Tsunade asked, skepticism thick in her voice. She had the blood of Uzumaki within her too, and her grandmother was the caretaker of the masks before, so she had a right to know these things as well. Not to mention they could be the key to allowing the First and Second to return to their eternal rest. "For all we know, those masks could have just been exaggerating."

"It's not something we can know without testing, but it wouldn't hurt to have some faith, Princess," Jiraiya said in response. "It's at least a better solution than nothing if it pans out."

Sarutobi exhaled a thin string of smoke as he watched her brows fold into a glare. Her anger was palpable, but both of them knew for a fact that it wasn't directed at them. She had been seething under the surface since Jiraiya brought her the news of the First and Second personally.

Tsunade loved her grandfather and granduncle. To have them brought back as mindless killing machines was something that she'd taken hard. More so considering her enforced sobriety. So, while she wanted Orochimaru dead and them put to rest, she wanted an absolute solution rather than relying on faith, and that meant proof.

Fortunately, Sarutobi believed that he had some form of proof. "One of the techniques that Minato perfected and came to me with was a means by which you could summon the God of Death and imprison one's soul within its belly. I didn't know how he came up with the concept of the technique. In fact, I was wary of it given how Orochimaru had dabbled in immortality, and I labeled it a forbidden technique. However, had Jiraiya not arrived in the village when he did, I had intended to use it as my final card to deal with Orochimaru should the need arise."

Being sealed within the Death God's stomach with Orochimaru would serve as penitence for not ending his life before he warped his soul to such an extent and threatened the village. It wouldn't be the best solution now, given what they knew, but it would still have bought them more time. Still, if Kushina knew of the masks and what they were capable of, then it was very likely that the technique was one of the Uzumaki clan—a method of harnessing the mask's power for a single technique.

Tsunade took his words at value at least, which was what he set out to do by revealing that information. "Okay, assuming it might work, we don't know the amount of chakra needed for them to function. If those kids put them on and don't meet the requirements, they won't get a second chance and there goes the last people capable of using them."

"It seems Tsuda-san came up with her own theory on creating a means by which it could be feasible," Sarutobi said, holding up the woman's written report and request. He passed it over to Jiraiya. "See for yourself."

"It sounds like she's making assumptions based on the layers requiring a set amount of chakra to activate, multiplied by the number of layers," Jiraiya said as he skimmed it. "It's sound in theory, if she can precisely predict a base number to know the amount needed. And she also proposed a seal that would be fixed onto the body, storing Yang chakra similar to the prototype slips she gave to Naruto over a longer period of time. It would require human-testing before it would be allowed though, and she needs express permission from the acting Hokage."

Sarutobi took a drag from his pipe and exhaled. "I told her that I would consider it once I found a reference that would be liable not to cause anyone lasting harm."

"Well, off the top of my head, the only things that I can think of that would be viable are the Cursed Seal, the seal on Naruto's stomach, and the seal on Princess' head," Jiraiya said. "The first is out because we still don't know all the mechanics of how Orochimaru worked with it, otherwise we'd be removing them from the kids now. Though we could bring her in on that one and maybe she could use what she learned in that regard. And while Naruto's is holding the fox, which is composed of Yang chakra from what we can tell, it's chakra is corrupted enough to where the trace amounts in his chakra network makes the masks reject it unless he purifies it. Not to mention whatever mental hang-ups he'd have after his last mission."

"Didn't your Sage training teach how to deal with such things?" Sarutobi inquired. "Quieting the mind and such?"

"Certain parts of it, yeah. But it takes time to learn," Jiraiya pointed out. "And as for the Princess here, she's been sketchy on the details of how hers work in particular. But, given that it requires chakra control well-beyond what the average shinobi is capable of at the moment, I'm not inclined to think Naruto would be capable. Karin-chan might be able to though."

Sarutobi had planned on placing her into Shizune's course as a student, if only because it would be a waste not to with her being stuck in the village for the time being. He looked over to Tsunade. "Your thoughts?"

Tsunade shook her head. "I designed my seal specifically for someone who doesn't have an ability like hers. There's no telling how the two would interact with one another without testing, and even then there's still a number of other risks. In a worst-case scenario that doesn't kill her, she may lose her inherent ability and that would be a waste from a purely medical standpoint since you'd be taking away the ability to save the living for the dead."

"That just leaves you then," Jiraiya said. "You're descended from their clan by your grandmother's side and the Senju are also distant relatives of the Uzumaki. Your claim would be pretty strong."

She glared at him again. "Jiraiya, you heard that last part. I am the last person in this world who wouldn't be tempted to raise someone from the grave if the opportunity for a perfect resurrection was in front of me. Even if the only cost would be my own life."

"Don't say that." Jiraiya's demeanor changed, and his voice grew harsher. "Neither Dan nor Nawaki would want to hear that."

Her glare turned venomous at the mention of those two, and Sarutobi suspected it was only by the thinnest margin that she didn't leap up to try and bash in his skull.

"The point," she said through clenched teeth, "I'm making is that your brat is the most-suited for it and there's no telling how many years it'll be before he's capable of doing that—if ever. Rather than staking their lives on relics of a clan that's all but gone, you need to find another way."

Sarutobi didn't think she was exactly wrong. It wasn't fair to place so much on the shoulders of those two, but it was still a chance to deal with Orochimaru once and for all. "Regardless, there's still another matter to discuss. Jiraiya… you can't keep delaying it."

Jiraiya sucked in a sharp breath, his chest expanding and tension threading his body. "I can't take the hat yet. Orochimaru is still out there."

"I am not long for this world, Jiraiya," Sarutobi told him. "I would rather spend my remaining time with my son and grandson, knowing that I have left a suitable candidate in the position."

"I know, Sensei." The Toad Sage sighed. "I thought that I had closure when Orochimaru was dead, and that I was ready. But he's still out there, more dangerous than ever. If I take the hat, I won't be able to leave the village to chase him down or train Naruto to deal with Akatsuki."

"There are many who would welcome you to the position right now. But the longer you take, the more people will doubt that you have the determination and desire to watch over and protect them," Sarutobi warned him. "I suspect even now there are others who oppose my desire and will move against you in the shadows…"

[-oOo-]

Danzo Shimura was patient as he sat within one of his underground bases located within the Leaf, a hand on his cane and back straight while flanked by two of his Root-trained Anbu. He was awaiting the arrival of the men he'd sent out in response to a message that he received earlier in the morning from one of his contacts. It was a message requesting a meeting with Orochimaru, who had revived himself and sought an alliance to kill Hiruzen and Jiraiya.

In the grand scheme of things, Orochimaru had been the greatest failure to ever come out of Root. Those trained within Root were supposed to be loyal to him, who was in turn loyal to the village that he had served since shortly after its founding. With his brilliance, much good could have been done in service to their village. Alas, now he haunted them.

I should have had him killed the moment Hiruzen cited that he had become too power-hungry, he thought to himself as he recalled the meeting to determine the Fourth Hokage at the time. If he'd looked closer, Danzo would have seen the signs earlier that Orochimaru couldn't be trusted. But he always felt he could use the madman a little more, giving him just a little more space to act on his own accord.

Never again would he make that mistake. Especially after he had the audacity to resurrect the Second Hokage—whom Danzo and Hiruzen had served under—as a weapon against the village he died to protect. That was unforgivable, spitting in the face of self-sacrifice that encompassed what a shinobi should be.

Naturally, the contact had to be terminated after they obtained the proposed meeting place and arranged it. They couldn't risk having such a vulnerable spot in their network. But at the very least, if his men succeeded where the others failed, then that was good enough to warrant the sacrifice.

The doors to the chamber opened with the arrival of Fu and Torune, two of his most-valued agents. They took their place before him and kneeled. Using his Sharingan, he inspected them subtly for any influences of foreign chakra or signs of mind control. It never hurt to be cautious after all.

Aside from the injuries beneath their bandages that they kept hidden away, there were no traces. "Report."

"The meeting was also an ambush, it seems," Fu said. "They used some kind of technique to masquerade others under the appearance of Orochimaru and Kabuto Yakushi even with our measures. And when we set out to eliminate them, they exploded into thousands of serpents and we were beset by some of his troops bearing Cursed Seals or humanoid animal forms. We managed to eliminate them, but a number of ours died in the process and most of us were bitten and treated for poisoning."

Though his face remained an impassive, stony mask, he couldn't help but have his fingers tighten around his cane at the fact that both of the traitors to Root had eluded death once more. However, his men were not to blame. They had performed their tasks as expected, to the best of their abilities, and he couldn't afford needless deaths at the moment.

"Ensure that all of their injuries are properly seen to, as well as your own," he said as he rose from his seat, towering over the kneeling shinobi. "I want them ready to move the moment we find another trace of either of the traitors. They cannot be allowed to threaten the village further."

"Yes, sir," they replied in unison as he turned to leave. There was nothing further to discuss.

As Danzo made his way to the exit of the base, his thoughts drifted to that meeting to determine the Fourth Hokage again and the position itself. Hiruzen wouldn't live much longer. Danzo could see it every time they met, how he struggled to keep himself sitting straight to maintain the image of vigil. If not for Tsunade, masquerading as that new aide of his under a Transformation that he could easily peer through with his implanted Sharingan, he suspected that his elderly teammate would have already been on death's door.

Though the death of his childhood friend would be unpleasant, Hiruzen was fortunate as it was to have lived as long as he had when no Hokage before him had such luxury. But his long life and this fragile peace had dulled his understanding of what it meant to be a shinobi and made him soft. It was a mercy that he would die in his bed while clinging to his naïve ideals, rather than seeing them crushed as the village burned.

The issue was his successor. To become the new Hokage, one needed to be elected with the consent of the Fire Daimyo, fostering goodwill between them to prevent a situation like what happened to the previous Wind Daimyo. However, many people had their disagreements with his methods that were known, so Danzo was unlikely to attain the position using that method. Even if he used Kotoamasukami to sway them, if they suspected that mind control was involved, then there were a number of ways to check for the influence of it within the village.

The only way it would properly work was if it was made clear that Hiruzen's softness was weakening the village. The failed Invasion would have been a potential avenue for that. However, with Jiraiya's public actions during that Invasion attempt, he was the most likely candidate.

Leaving aside his more deplorable habits, Jiraiya was a somewhat capable shinobi if Danzo had to admit. Far more than someone who ran away from their duty like Tsunade, though her medical skills were still valued. He managed an independent spy network that was exceedingly difficult to pin down or infiltrate, had secured an alliance with the Toads to the Hidden Leaf village, and had numerous war accomplishments to his name.

Most importantly, he had been active in his attempts to kill Orochimaru and was one of the few that Danzo suspected would eventually prevail. That was part of the reason he preferred the man to keep doing that, as it would solve both of his problems. However, Hiruzen's misguided teachings have poisoned his mind, and many of the same issues born of the master's idealism would resurface during the student's tenure.

Not to mention, Hiruzen had at least acknowledged the need for Danzo's skills until the Uchiha had to be purged. He'd even spared him after the admittedly hasty assassination attempt on his life a decade or so back, perhaps due to their shared history. However, Danzo suspected he would receive no such courtesy from the Toad Sage and the man would not heed his advice, very likely leading the village to ruin.

Fortunately, Jiraiya was hesitant to take the position until Orochimaru was dealt with. Despite there being other candidates, Hiruzen would stubbornly hold onto the position of Hokage until his choice consented or died. So Danzo had more time to plan out how to ensure their village retained its strength and became great again.

But first he had to find where Orochimaru had slithered off to. And he would. Even if he had to comb every inch of the continent.

[-oOo-]

Orochimaru laid down flat on a surgery table, an IV drip attached to his arm to keep his body hydrated in preparation for the Body Modification surgery. It would be some time before he could transition into Sasuke's body, and ensuring that his current one didn't die before then took priority now that news of his survival had reached both of the old fools in the Leaf. The island laboratory he was in now was secure at least, since it was only known to him and his most promising protégé, Kabuto.

"I really do wish you would stop struggling, Anko-chan," he said to himself as her chakra continued to resist being overtaken within him. Part of what made it possible to exchange bodies with a host involved compatibility, and the Cursed Seal's function as a secondary chakra source also carried traces of his own that would make it easier to overwrite should he need to use the body. That allowed him to easily supplant the soul and make his own dominate.

However, while Anko's body was compatible, she hadn't used her Cursed Seal since he'd given it to her and thus it was taking time to overwrite hers entirely. Made worse was the fact that he was attempting to do so using the little chakra of his own he'd reabsorbed from the other Cursed Seal holders in his other base, stripping the prisoners of them to become a little more whole. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that his current state was akin to a snake that had devoured particularly large prey, leaving him to rest as he digested it.

The door to the room opened as Kabuto approached. He had a tray of medical tools at his disposal in preparation for the modifications.

"The plan went as expected on both ends, Lord Orochimaru," Kabuto reported. "Both of the Hokage are within the Sealed Hall and Danzo's men have been infected. Once the cells finish propagating and overwriting their own, they'll be ready for use and we can proceed to Phase 2."

"Excellent," Orochimaru said to that. "And what of our most prominent sleeper in the village?"

He'd have to remember to thank Sasori for that technique. Granted, he'd modified the current version more to his liking, only breaking the seal temporarily when a signal was sent out by one of Kabuto's relay serpents. But it served well for the purposes of having their remaining spies within the village stay undetected. And what better spy was one that didn't know they were a spy at all until needed?

"They remain undetected," he reported. "The relay serpent will have their next report soon, though I am still working on attaining the information they requested. The necessary samples are proving difficult to sort through and use Impure World Resurrection on, given how they were buried and the rate of decomposition. But I suspect everything will be ready before long."

A slight hum left Orochimaru's mouth in satisfaction at the development. Soon all the pieces would be in place, and this time he would make sure that the Leaf village was destroyed. Not just by overwhelming force, but by poisoning the very roots hidden in the dark and rotting it from the inside out…