Another chapter is here!
Ancient wood cracked and splintered. Thriving canopies that obscured the sky collapsed. The verdant growth and fertile soil that surrounded the Village Hidden in the Leaves was being upturned and crushed without care.
A grand, serpentine Wood Dragon roared loud enough to shake the very air. Announcing its presence to all within the distance, it was joined by a choir of three others. Each head of the quartet was large enough to carve out a massive gorge, yet all of them were connected to a central body composed to countless vines and stems wrapped around bark—a multiheaded abomination.
The engine of destruction that had been erected by the First Hokage's revenant was moving southeast in order to overrun the village. There would be nothing more disheartening to those who fought tooth and nail for the village's sake to know that it would be toppled and trampled underfoot by the very same person who'd helped establish it. That was why Orochimaru had set him loose to do so.
The fact that they had several minutes at best before it reached the village walls was only because the Sealed Hall was established far enough away to prevent any of the dangerous items that had been stored there from damaging the village should they go off. The Second Hokage's foresight at work. Had they been allowed to escape and get closer with the village unaware, then the village itself would have been ground-zero for its arrival and the casualty count would be immeasurable.
It was the only consolation Jiraiya could find as he twisted his body, avoiding a wooden stake that would have gouged out his heart as it shot forward like a thrown spear. Fabric ripped, a tear in his clothes from where it had narrowly missed. But he managed to bring up his right-hand, cradling a spiraling sphere of chakra in its palm, and violently smashed it into the Wood Clone that stood in his way. The clone broke to pieces, no longer hindering his advance to reach the two revenants that stood at the base where the heads met on the central body.
But where one was destroyed another was born as the supple bark split open like a womb and pushed it out of the abomination. There was a trade off to the fact that it could create so many. They were simplistic creations, watered-down facsimiles of the revenant that could only attack the enemy in front of them whilst the original controlled the abomination. But simplistic was enough to get the job done as they extended their arms that warped and shot out sinuous sylvan spears.
The Toad Sage clicked his tongue, mentally counting the seconds as he threaded the strands of his hair with partitioned chakra. Strengthening, lengthening, manipulating them until they wove around his body to form a cocoon that was as hard as steel. The wooden spears scraped themselves raw as they tried to crush him when piercing his makeshift armor failed, weaving around the white hair like serpents, only to then be severed by wind-infused blades and a lightning-wreathed kunai.
Taking to the front, Asuma and Kakashi both dismissed their attacks in order to suck in deep breaths of air, one laced with wind chakra and one kneaded with fire chakra. Then they exhaled as one. Roaring, wind-fed flames devoured the backside of the sylvan dragon, blackening it as the Wood Clones were reduced to scattered ashes as the stream of fire seared the air on its way down to the revenants.
Meeting their efforts were Shadow Clones of the Second Hokage, with two of them forming a separate set of hand seals before releasing their own collaboration technique of wind and water. A whirling surge met the rushing flames before they could completely cross the distance and the intense heat met the deluge. A violent hiss gave birth to thick, billowing clouds of steam that expanded until the hot winds whipped at their clothes and obstructed their view. Then a third clone broke through the veil from above, hands chambered as lightning cracked between clenched fists.
Jiraiya's white mane unwove as they were thrown like a flurry of arrows, allowing him to leap back while the other two broke to the sides. It proved to be the right call, to avoid rather than entrust that his steel-like hairs would shield him against that nature of attack. The arrow-shaped lightning chakra constructs were all aimed for the space where their hearts had been and pierced through the broad bark that had already begun to shed and replace its charred surface.
That same clone followed up by forming a large sphere of water as he fell and held it out in their direction. The surface undulated wildly before serpentine heads shot out towards them, a set of aquatic tendrils whose ends split apart to reveal fangs that were congealed enough to tear into stone. They came lashing out for the three, driving themselves into the sylvan footing and tearing out chunks as they continued to give chase after them, leaving no time for hand-seals or rest.
"Dynamic Entry!" Might Guy then made his appearance with a diving kick that crushed the maws of one of the aquatic beasts, his nunchaku drawn for use against the others as they whipped around to try and ensnare him, along with another unit of Wood Clones from beyond the veil of thinning steam. But in a whirl of strikes from the Twin Fangs and a burst of speed that parted the steam, he tore through them all in an instant, including the Shadow Clones. "The path is clear."
"Then do it now!" Jiraiya ordered. At the prompt, Kurenai abruptly shot up from behind the two revenants and into the air. One kunoichi became a dozen, flinging more than a hundred kunai down on them that had explosive tags attached. A bombardment that would reduce them both to oblivion for a time.
The Second Hokage brought his hands up to counter, water spiraling in the palms before turning into a raging torrent that swept up to the sky and overwhelmed the rain of kunai and copies all at once. There wasn't a body to be found among them before his hands abruptly ended bound behind his back, his head forced to face the sky, and brought to his knees. The First Hokage's revenant was likewise bound at the hands, straining to move as something invisible held him in place.
Empty space behind them was abruptly filled as Kurenai reappeared where she'd first emerged, the external Genjutsu shrouding her from sight melting away to reveal both her and flashing steel that glinted in the light. Wires were bound around the revenants, reinforced with chakra and pulled taut within her hands. She extended her chakra through her feet, subverting that of the First Hokage in a small section and then phased both hands into the surface of the dragon before leaving the wires inside as she pulled away. "Now, Asuma!"
Wind chakra compressed in the soles of Asuma's feet rocketed him forward faster than eyes could track. In an instant he crossed the distance and cut through the two revenants in passing, leaving their bodies to break open as Kurenai threw hastily-drawn sealing tags into the openings and Jiraiya prepared to activate them. By forcing the tags within their bodies as they reformed and then having them activate, they could hopefully render them immobilized internally with no way of them removing it by themselves.
Of course, his optimism of being able to end things there died when Kakashi shouted, "Get back now. He's going to explode!"
Given it was insight granted by the Sharingan, Kurenai leapt back with a Body Flicker to put as much distance as possible between them. Her black hair expanded at an explosive rate as she landed next to Asuma and wrapped both of them up as it hardened, adding to their defenses. It was probably all that saved them as the Second Hokage exploded with a thunderous detonation that swallowed up the empty space between them and sent the cocoon flying over the edge to where the broken trees laid in ruin. But it was safe to say that their attempt had failed.
Four more Shadow Clones of the Second Hokage sprang into existence as the pair reformed. Now each one was a ticking time bomb that contained a fraction of the Second Hokage's chakra capacity, likely with the amount of chakra translating to the strength of the explosion. And since the Second Hokage would never run out of chakra, he could make more of them whenever they were destroyed with no consequence.
If the First Hokage had been turned into the architect of an engine of destruction, capable of unleashing numerous Wood Clones that could release countless fast and flexible wooden spears, then the Second Hokage became the source of an endless supply of suicide bombers. One of them alone could bring an army to ruin within minutes. Together, they could wipe the Leaf Village off the map.
As the Shadow Clones began to move towards them, the sound of slicing air reached Jiraiya's ears from behind. Instinct drove him to move, to dodge, even as the series of colorless waves passed above where his head had been and into the Shadow Clone barrage that was intent on self-destructing. They cut into the clones, dissipating them into nothingness as the colorless wave was dyed with the chakra composing them and then boomeranged back past the group who looked to see the three waiting vessels.
The Northern and Southern Monks floated in the air in the distance, one hand held in front of their masks in prayer, while the black-robed Reaper hovered in front of them with its scythe perched across its shoulders and hand near the base ready to swing again. The Monks then crossed their staffs across one another and sealing script etched itself beneath the abomination before violet light erupted to form a massive barrier that encapsulated it, locking away everything within it. The Leaf shinobi were then forced out of the barrier, the very space itself rejecting them.
Landing onto the rocky outcropping to the left of it, Jiraiya watched the abomination lash against the barrier with every head it could until a translucent ribbon reached out to touch his mind and Karin's voice echoed within. "I've informed the Third Hokage of what I've felt going on. He's begun an evacuation of that section of the village while getting ready to mobilize a number of shinobi for the suppression of the First and Second."
"Good to know," he said as the sylvan abomination continued to thrash against the barrier, joined by high-pressure water streams that tried to punch through it and wooden spikes from clones that continued to be birthed. The cracks that were starting to show within the barrier were patched right away as the two Monks continued to repair it, streamers flowing from their staffs into it. The Reaper also let loose another series of vacuum waves that cut into the different clones and robbed them of their chakra, dispersing them before feeding it to the Monks to fuel their efforts in a cycle that bought them precious time.
But Jiraiya doubted it would hold up for long. The thing was too big and Orochimaru was controlling the revenants, reveling through their eyes at the mayhem. If he didn't have a way out of such circumstances, then he wouldn't be as big of a threat as he was. Indeed, storm clouds began to form at the ceiling of the barrier with abrupt haste and let loose a downpour of rain cascaded down the sides.
"That rain… it's washing away the chakra holding up the barrier from the inside out," Karin warned, even as the Reaper began to cut away at the clouds, only for them to quickly reform. "Both of the Hokage and the clones are using the technique and the Reaper won't be able to get rid of them. The barrier won't last long at this rate."
"We're going to have to burn this thing to the ground all at once if we're going to have a chance of getting out of this with the village intact," Jiraiya said as he clasped his hands together and began concentrating while they still had a reprieve, knowing that he couldn't delay it any longer. He had to call out the Toad Sages if he was going to deal with this thing. "Be a dear and pass on a message to the Old Man for me, will you?"
"They're starting to mobilize now," Karin said, the Priestess hovering behind her. Dozens of translucent ribbons flowed out from her construct body and steadily faded until they vanished just short of the walls, becoming intangible and invisible until the ends neared their target and the chakra composing them solidified once more.
"Good," the Toad Sage answered. "And how's the Princess coming along?"
"She's on her way now." Rubbing her temples to quell the pounding in her skull, Karin teetered on the edge of mental exhaustion and alertness as she stretched her Mind's Eye to its limits. Locating individuals amidst the crowd with the necessary chakra based on how their bodies dyed it and adding them to the connections she had with the Divine Priestess, on top of using the spiritual link to relay instructions for assisting on the battlefront to the Divine Priests, was taxing. But it was necessary right now.
Shaking her head, she then felt out the Third Hokage's chakra and the ribbon tethered to it. Their minds connected. "Hokage-sama, I haven't been able to find the person you wanted me to. I can't tell if they're missing or dead, I'm afraid."
"That's unfortunate, but I understand," he answered. "What of the others?"
"The Akimichi and Naras are moving in for the suppression." She felt the movement of their chakra types, even if she didn't know their faces. Techniques dyed chakra and those of the Akimichi and Nara clan were as day and night due to how yang and yin chakra were the roots of their techniques from what she felt. "The Earth and Fire specialists splitting up into three groups as well."
'Child, my strength wanes,' the Priestess warned through their spiritual link. Her ribbons had been extended in too many numbers for her to maintain the same level of functionality. She needed more chakra.
"Forgive me, but the Priestess is running low on chakra due to the number of ribbons I've extended," Karin said after making her report. Unlike the others, who the Reaper could keep fueled and strengthened, the Priestess was too far from them. Thankfully, she had access to the chakra that had been taken from her for the surgery and stored away. She just needed time.
"You've done enough," the Hokage said. "The Yamanaka are getting set up as we speak. They'll be able to relay information between the divisions now that everyone is getting into position. Rest for now."
She didn't refute him as the ribbons began to dissipate. In the first place she was just filling in the gaps until the main forces finished their sortie, given the abruptness of all of this and how unprepared they were. It was the least she could do in lieu of the sacrifice made on their behalf. Once the last of the ribbons was gone, the Priestess was reduced to her mask and set down for on the seal that housed the remainder of her stored away chakra.
Karin then closed her eyes and breathed out a shuddering breath as the different chakra signatures that flittered within the scope of her consciousness, colors and textures clashing, swelling, and sputtering out, shrank onto the undead First and Second Hokage. Orochimaru's chakra signature was there, anchored into them intricately enough that she couldn't see a method of separating them. It was like a thread that stretched across a vast distance, far enough that it was easily out of her range. Not a trace of Anko's could be felt within what she could feel.
Nothing can be done about that now, Karin told herself. Depressed. She sighed softly and then tried to sense if there was anything else about them that could be used to help. Leaving aside the fact that they should be dead, how their chakra was being replenished went against the norm too.
There was no molding of spiritual and physical energy, but rather it was like when the reservoir of chakra within them was emptied out it was instantly topped off by a larger source. What that source could be was lost on her, since a corpse shouldn't be able to provide the physical aspect of chakra. She supposed a soul would provide the spiritual aspect since it was essentially what provided the body its consciousness, but it was almost like an automated process.
The color of their chakra never changed to where she doubted it could be theirs either, not that she had a reference for their chakra from when they were alive. There was never an excess or shortage. Never a deviation or fluctuation that naturally followed human error. Maybe it was due to the nature of the technique itself that brought them back, but Karin couldn't say for certain since the ritual itself wasn't known within the memories she'd gleamed.
Then she shifted her focus back to other chakra signatures of importance. She could feel Sakura's chakra signature was located in the hospital, now cleared top-to-bottom for any trace of explosive tags given its importance. Shizune was with her at the moment. Tsunade was now proceeding to the battlefield to assist against the First and Second Hokage as well.
As for Naruto, he was closer now and that was honestly a relief. When she felt how faint his chakra signature was at first, a wisp that flickered faintly and teetered past the outskirts of the village, she had been on the verge of having a panic attack. But soon he was going to be with her again, safe and sound.
She sprung up as Naruto's chakra signature reached the opposite side of the door, rushing to reach the room. To reach her. The thought made her feel so happy that the moment the door opened she grabbed hold of him with open arms and brought him into a hug. "I was so worried about you!"
"Sorry," he told her softly.
"It's fine now," Karin said, holding him against her and feeling the warmth of his flesh for the first time since they'd parted. She didn't want to let him go, but when she tightened her grip his back tensed as though recoiling in pain. So she pulled back and looked over his body, where she spotted the blood on his clothes. "You're hurt."
"It's not my blood," he assured her, catching her hand as it reached down for the stain on his clothing. His cerulean eyes were folded in, never meeting her own as he looked off to the side. "Karin, do you still have that chakra that they took from you before they removed the Cursed Seal?"
"It's over there…" She was slightly taken aback by the sudden shift in his tone as he created a Shadow Clone that took hold of Suzaku's mask as he wandered over to where the chakra was stored away. "I saved most of it in case it was needed, since the Reaper can siphon off chakra and pass it around. Given that the First and Second Hokage have a seemingly infinite amount, it could keep the other Divine Priests functioning perpetually."
She tried to go over to him, but the clone obstructed her path and shook his head. The original went over to take the chakra for himself, which was fine as far as she cared. What worried her was the fact that he wouldn't meet her eyes. "Naruto, did I do something wrong?"
"That's not it," the clone told her, his fingers brushing her cheek as he looked to where she'd been struck before by the twins. The bruise had been numbed to the point where she could barely feel his touch there.
Karin abruptly felt self-conscious when she took in her own appearance. Even though an imperfect replacement set of glasses had been provided to her, she'd spent most of her time focused on getting through the memories of the twins and then sending out the ribbons to get in touch with everyone. She didn't stop to think that he would mind her appearance—the bruise, split lip, and grime from the chase and fight covering her clothes.
"Give me a minute and I can fix myself," she told him, backing away and starting to dust herself off. Healing up her lip and bruise would take a bit longer, but she could do so relatively hastily if she borrowed some of the chakra once Naruto was done topping himself off with it.
"That's not it," the clone said, stepping forward to keep in step with her. Like he didn't want her out of arms' reach. "You got hurt, while I've barely got a scratch on me. You, the others, everyone else… it's not right."
Karin couldn't help but feel, perhaps ashamedly, relief that it wasn't her appearance he had an issue with. Naruto was just concerned about everyone else's wellbeing. "But that's not your fault. None of this is."
It was Kabuto's fault first and foremost. Leaving him alive was what led up to all, from Anko's capture for resurrecting Orochimaru to ruining Naruto's birthday. It was meant to be a day of celebration for him and now it was tainted even further by all of this—the loss of the Uchiha, who Naruto and Sakura were attached to, their guests being injured, his kidnapping, etc.
The memory of today would stick no matter what. But Karin knew she could make it right the next time. They just had to get through this first, and then they could go from there together. And, as if to punctuate that thought, a delicate, intimate sensation was placed upon her lips.
It was a kiss from Naruto to her. Instantly her mind came to a grinding halt. The fact that it was a Shadow Clone didn't register so much as the fact that he was pressing his lips against hers, taking the initiative and catching her off-guard. The soft feel of his kiss swept her mind away beneath the feverish heat that began to swallow her up from the point where they were joined.
Flustered, her face took on the hue to her hair as the blood raced in time to her pounding heart as he pulled away. The phantom sensation of the kiss lingered until he embraced her tightly with all his strength, as if he didn't want to let her go even if the world tried to pull them apart. And then, with a tremor in his voice, he said five words that would shatter her world. "Karin, thank you for everything."
Karin felt like she'd been stabbed in the gut the moment she heard those words. She had heard them all before months ago during the last crisis the village faced, along with the kiss and the embrace that she'd given the clone back then. They had been to both express her feelings and distract him before she took Byakko and ran away.
Chains burst from her body to impale the clone holding her at bay and then reached out to bind the original. But it was too late as the God of Death's mask slipped onto his face. In the end, she could only hate that she didn't see it coming as he collapsed onto the ground right before her eyes.
Because, even if he loved her, he loved this village and the people within it just as much—if not more. It didn't matter if it was one person being injured or hundreds dying, he wouldn't sit back and do nothing from the sidelines no matter how much she begged. He would sacrifice everything for their safety.
Even if it meant leaving her alone.
The moment the mask touched his face, Naruto felt the world around him splinter like fracturing glass as his perspective on the world was challenged. Then it shattered. And he was left plunging into darkness.
No sound reached his ears. No light graced his eyes. No air touched his skin. No taste found his tongue. No smell reached his nose. An empty void deprived of the ordinary senses, leaving only his consciousness as—
"…I'm going to go put an end to this once and for all."
—a memory rippled within the void above him, growing distant. Left behind as he continued to fall. One of many that followed as he watched the life he lived before now be left behind as he continued to plunge deeper and deeper.
He bore witness to his vow on Hinata's blood during the Chuunin Exams, the death of Haku that set the path he wanted to walk as a shinobi, the betrayal of Mizuki that lead to the reveal about housing the Nine-Tailed Fox. Meeting Teuchi and Ayame for the first time. Meeting the Third Hokage for the first time. Memories that were impactful, moments that defined his life were playing out and growing distant, until everything went black…
"Naruto, from now on, you're going to face a lot of pain and hardship. But be true to yourself. Have a dream and have the confidence to make that dream come true."
Words from someone he couldn't know. With eyes closed and too young to see, there was no vision. And with infant ears only a handful of them registered. But, he could tell they were the words of someone not long for this world, desperately trying to say so much in so little time.
His hand moved as he tried to reach for that memory, only for it to slip from his fingers as he felt a heavy pressure slam into him from behind. Like he'd fallen into the water from up high enough that it was solid. It rattled his consciousness and shook apart the foundation that formed who he was as more memories came.
A great beast releasing a blast, only to be deflected and form a waterfall before it was forced to heel. A pact between two clans in the hope of peace. A war raging, lives lost endlessly despite the misery it brings. A continuing cycle.
Unlike before, where they'd been crystal clear, these memories were jumbled. Foggy. Fragmented. His mind could barely perceive a fleeting moment with any solidity as his ego began to breakdown and dissolve like salt submerged into water.
Is this death? Naruto wondered as lifetimes he couldn't fully grasp were passing by. More and more of his body had vanished. He tried to resist, but there was nothing he could do. There would be nothing left at this rate. Am I dying without being able to help the others?
Naruto continued to vanish. Disappearing more and more as even those memories grew distant—
"Asura… I… entrust the future of this world to you and your descendants…"
—until everything stopped as that single statement reverberated throughout the depths. A single memory that was unusually clear. A crystallized desire that would persist no matter how much time passed. Born of a promise to uphold an idea.
Ninshu must not fade from the future of this world. The moment that uncannily familiar thought crossed his fading mind, he came face-to-face with an ethereal figure made of chakra.
Nothing but an outline and a pair of unwavering eyes that held that same idea and refused to let it fade away no matter how much time passed. The figure reached out and touched Naruto's forehead, and a jolt ran though his mind before he was shunted back up. Within seconds he breached the surface of wherever it was he'd fallen and gasped, taking the cold air into his lungs.
"W-What… what that…?" Naruto murmured, trembling as he rose to his feet. He was whole once more. Looking around to see that he was at the tree-line of a dark forest of some kind, behind him was a shadow-cast corridor of trees that seemed to stretch so far back that even the ghost flames that loitered in two neat rows to form a path couldn't cast enough light to reveal what was at the end of it.
And in front of him was a woman sitting in a field, alone. She was curled up next to a small altar with candles surrounding it. Long red hair obscuring her downcast face. Hair that he had only seen in pictures to this day.
Naruto sucked in a sharp breath. His feet moved him forward, drawn to her. He got close enough to hear that she was mumbling as well. Something about wanting to see someone desperately.
That voice... It was one within the fragments of his memories. One of the first that ever reached his ears when he was too young to process it. Hearing it brought tears to his eyes as he uttered the words he never thought he would. "M-Mom…?"
Red hair shifted as the woman looked up to reveal that she had violet eyes. Eyes that went wide when she spotted him. Her breathing hitched as she rose to her feet. "Na… Naruto?"
He swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded. "Y-Yeah. That's me."
She ran over to him, coming to a stop within mere inches before falling to her knees. Lithe hands reached out slowly for his face… only to stop before coming into contact. As if she was hesitating out of fear that she was dreaming. Or that the reality was more terrifying.
Even so, she braved it. A tender touch to his cheek left tears to well up in the corners of her eyes. Instinct gave way to her embracing him wholeheartedly, feeling the warmth that painted his soul against her body. "You're really Naruto, aren't you?"
He nodded and asked her the same. "And… and you're my mom, aren't you?"
"My little Naruto." Her voice came out hoarse, hands holding him even tighter until the soft, safe embrace coaxed him into wrapping his arms around her back and returning the embrace. "How did you get here?"
"I'm not sure," he admitted. "I was falling… and my memories were playing out right before my eyes. Memories that weren't exactly mine, but they felt familiar… Then there was someone who pushed me out and I ended up on a path here."
"That shouldn't have happened unless…" Kushina pulled back as realization dawned on her face. "You're still alive?"
"I… think so?" He didn't feel dead, but he wasn't sure how that was supposed to feel given what just happened. Then he looked around the field but found it devoid of any other presence. A lonely place that held no one else. Had she been here since the day he was born? "Where are we?"
"This is Purgatory, Naruto." Kushina looked behind him to see the path there. The yellow ghost lights flickered. "Did you put on the God of Death's mask?"
"Yeah," he answered. "We found the Temple and learned about what the masks could do. Not just me, but another girl from our clan named Karin. We learned about you and Mito. Then some things happened, so I put on the mask and wound up here."
Frowning, Kushina looked back to him. Then to the ground, tightening her hold on him for just a moment. Then she forced herself to pull away, turned him around, and started to push him out. "You need to go back the way you came, while the path is still there."
"But I don't understand," he said, turning around and bracing himself so he couldn't be pushed anymore. "What's going on!?"
"Naruto, in order for the mask to work it uses your chakra to open the path to this plane and shunts your soul here," she explained. "At the same time, it also calls the God of Death here so that you can converse with it. It passes judgement on your motives and then, if you pass, it becomes one with you and then the mask pulls you back into your body for a time. Do you understand?"
"You mean, it's like a Reverse Summoning and a Summoning all in one?"
"That's close enough," she said. "But the fact that it's not here and you saw those memories means that something went very wrong. And if the process isn't complete then it won't automatically return you to your body. So you need to go back while you can, before whatever chakra is keeping the bridge from your body to this plane dries up and you'll be stuck here."
In other words, it was only half-done at best. If the mask wasn't removed it would continue to drain away the chakra being pumped into his body until there was nothing left. Then his organs would fail, his body would die, and the bridge would close. He would be trapped in Purgatory.
Still, even knowing that, Naruto shook his head. "The First and Second Hokage, they've been raised from the dead. Now they're attacking the village. That's why I can't stop now!"
Kushina's eyes folded in at that. "What do you mean?"
He explained it as best he could and as fast as he could. About how they were raised from the dead and being forced to attack the village, as well as how people were likely getting hurt even now. That was why he put on the mask and why he needed to have the God of Death to stop them.
In the end, Kushina looked torn between pushing him to go back down the path and his words. This was, after all, her son. Her baby boy who she only had minutes to hold in her arms before she died. It had been more than a decade since she ended up here, tethered by her regret to see him grow while waiting to be reunited with Minato. She didn't want him to remain long enough for the path back to his body to close, not when he still had a full life to live.
But, even so, she was also a kunoichi of the village. The wife of the Fourth Hokage. Death didn't change that.
She kneeled again and looked him in the eyes. "Naruto, most people don't get a second chance. Are you sure this is what you want? No matter the cost?"
Naruto could only imagine Karin right now, standing over his body. But he could also imagine Kakashi and Jiraiya fighting. He could imagine Sakura being in the hospital, and the others who were being hurt even as they spoke. "I still have to do this, no matter what."
"…You really do take after your father, don't you?" She sounded both happy and sad as she muttered those words, rubbing his hair. Then she reached down to his abdomen and closed her eyes. "Then I'll fill in that gap."
"You can do that?" he asked.
"Your father sealed away a part of my chakra inside of you that night. Since I helped him make the seal's design and you're still tethered to your body for the time being, I can pull it out from here and use that to summon the God of Death here, though…"
She trailed off, not finishing what she was going to say before Naruto felt a stirring in the pit of his stomach. Like a gaping hole opening up as the seal appeared on top of his clothes. He felt a lot pressure pushing against it, threatening to leap out until her hand pressed against it. Then the rattling of chains could be faintly heard before the pressure faded and her hand sank inside of him for a moment.
"This feels weird," Naruto admitted, having no clue what was happening.
"I know, but put up with it for just a little longer. Your father and I were meticulous when it came to this seal and circumventing it without getting rid of the safeguards he put into place or the key isn't easy…" After a moment of silence, she opened her eyes and then changed the topic. "You said you met a girl from my clan, didn't you? Are you close?"
He blushed as he scratched his cheek at the question. "You… could say that."
Seeing his expression brought a smile to her face. "What's she like? She's not weird, is she?"
"No, she's great." He thought about all the time they'd spent together. It brought a feeling of happiness to his chest. "Her hair is like yours and she can also make chains from her chakra or heal people who bite her, and she's really good at making Seals. She's taught me a lot and helped me become a Chuunin too."
"That's absolutely wonderful," Kushina told him before she pulled her hand back out. A vibrant sphere of pure yellow chakra was in her grasp. Guiding it to her chest, it came to rest inside of her. Then she began making hand-seals as the seal on his stomach faded away once more.
"…Naruto, you have a dream, don't you?" Kushina asked as she made the Snake, Boar, and Ram seals. The first three in the set. "One that you're striving for no matter what?"
"I wanted to be the Hokage, so that everyone would know and respect me," he told her, rubbing the back of his head. "I don't think anyone took me seriously until the Chuunin Exams though, and I didn't think it would be so hard being a shinobi…"
"It was the same for me," she told him as she formed the next set of seals. Rabbit, Dog, and Rat. "So many people laughed at me for it when I was a child, and I got so angry. I had lost my home and even Mito passed away after I had to have the Nine-Tailed Fox sealed inside of me. I wanted to take it with me when I died so that you didn't have to be burdened with it, but your father felt that you would need that power someday."
"Why?" Naruto asked. He'd been left alone his entire life because of it, until months ago. Why did his father choose to burden him with it instead?
"The night you were born, a masked man with a Sharingan attacked us and set it free, controlling it to destroy the village," Kushina explained as the third set followed. Bird, Horse, and Snake. "He felt that you might need it someday and had faith that you would be able to control it."
"Is that so?" Naruto reached down where the seal had been. Did his father really think he could do such a thing?
Kushina stopped with the hand-seals and looked him in the eyes. "Seeing you like this was something that wasn't supposed to happen, but I don't regret having the chance to see you grown-up like this. I'm happy that I'll be able to tell Minato his son followed in his footsteps when I see him again."
A cold, heavy weight fell in Naruto's chest when she said that. His heart fell into his stomach. Those were parting words, the same as before. Only this time, he felt those words meant she was going someplace even further than the plane between life and death. Somewhere he wouldn't be able to follow. "Mom…"
Then she clapped her hands together as if in prayer. The chakra she'd taken into her was burned away, offered up to something distant. Immediately afterwards, an overpowering and primal fear that left Naruto paralyzed came crashing down upon them.
The light was snuffed out and a deathly chill rolled in at the arrival of a being dressed in a white kimono that eclipsed the edges of his vision. Purple skin was framed by red horns and long white hair that had grown uncontrollably to the extent of meshing seamlessly with its clothes. Jagged, black teeth were bared, serpent's tongue slithering out. And with a tanto in one hand and the other wrapped in what looked to be prayer beads, its yellow eyes peered down at the very tiny humans beneath it.
What happened next would haunt his nightmares for years to come as Kushina voiced why she summoned it in place of Naruto, to bridge the gap where his own efforts had fail. It adhered to her request, but not without a steep price extracted from her in his place. And there was only one thing the dead had to pay with.
But for Kushina, it was enough. So long as it ensured her son could fulfill his goal and reunite with her husband once more. It had to be enough.
That was why Naruto still embraced Death's outstretched hand through the burning tears in his eyes as it granted his request for power…