What? I actually managed to finish the two chapters within the eleven day window? It has to be the end of the world. I've also already started on 170-B, so not only did I get this out in time to be the last update of the year- for real this time- I'm technically ahead.

I think.

Regardless of those impossibilities, here's the next chapter to enjoy and I'll see you in 2023.

Sealkeeper: He Who Binds

Chapter 169-A "Decisions, Decisions"

Patron Release 2022.12.20

When Orochimaru had first heard of Naruto's idea- after a rather extended round of passionate reacquaintance- she had laughed. It was ridiculous.

And then she had thought about it.

It was ridiculous. It also had a very, very high probability of working. A scarily high probability. As in 'it was all but certain'. Naruto was the only person she would ever admit it to- though she hadn't- but she was honestly as terrified by the idea as she was excited. A functionally infinite army from a single Shinobi? An army who was all just as skilled as that one Shinobi and could be created just as quickly as she could prepare bodies for them?

Bodies, she later mused, that she could enhance?

It was madness. There was no word more apt for it.

She found herself falling in love with her Crimson Prince all over again as she turned the idea over in her head. He was the single greatest thing to ever happen to her, of that she had no doubt.

And now she had the opportunity of assembling him an army. Orochimaru would not be letting him down.

She would, however, be taking certain liberties with her work. All to improve the end results, of course. After all, if the bodies weren't technically alive there was really no risk in granting them her Ten no Juin or in mutating it into its second stage.

And if that meant it was possible for her to take over any of the bodies in an emergency? Well, they were just Kage-Bunshin in the end. She was sure Naruto would understand that she needed to dispel one in order to save her life.

He wouldn't even know it was a possibility- well, to be fair, he may suspect when he learned of the Juin- unless something happened and she needed to make use of it, so there was no harm done in having a contingency in place.


It didn't really matter, she was doing it regardless. And if Naruto ended up mad at her then she would take whatever punishment he seemed fit to lay upon her gladly if it meant she was still alive. Because as long as she was still alive she could still earn back his trust and his favor. She couldn't do that if she let herself die just to spare a Kage-Bunshin of one of his Wolves.

Though, now that she thought about it, Naruto already knew her Body-Swap technique. If she tweaked her seal a bit it could prep the bodies for inhabitation by either of them. That sounded like an even better backup to have on hand, especially at the numbers she expected to be working with.

She'd need to put more thought towards that and a couple of other things. DId she copy the bodies of the Wolves inhabiting them? Did she just make a single kind of body, easily identified as, well, maybe not disposable but as acceptable casualties so there was no confusion over who was real and who was a clone? How were they going to organize them? Name them? Keep track of them all?

Perhaps, Orochimaru mused, she needed a few more of herself to make sure this all went smoothly.

The only question with that was did she make more male Orochimaru to avoid more competition for Naruto's time- and to avoid…themselves?...being distracted- or did she take the opportunity to use some of those other bodies she really liked and set the groundwork for an absolutely fantastic orgy in the future?

Decisions, decisions.

Gods damn those Wolves, damn them all to the deepest pits of hell.

While Kurotsuchi's forces had been mostly able to fend off their brief attacks, the Wolves had been quite successful in stalling their march towards Kagayaku Machi for nearly a week. She shouldn't just be there already, she should have taken the damn city already.

As it stood, she hadn't even seen it.

She could only take so much satisfaction in the few Wolves they'd manage to pick off- she was sure they were dead, even if the Wolves had managed to snatch the bodies back when they retreated- when their plans were being so heavily disrupted.

So what options did she have?

Akatsuchi couldn't wait for her forever and the more time that passed the greater the chance Konoha would either discover what they were up to or somehow manage to drive Akatsuchi's forces further towards Tsuchi no Kuni. Neither was disastrous on their own but they would certainly make things much harder for them. And together? They would have been better off on a full frontal assault in that case. It would have saved them a lot of trouble even if it meant they didn't have allies in Suna or had removed the Konoha Shinobi there who could have been sent North to cause trouble.

The Shinobi still in Iwagakure could have defended against that small number of Konoha Shinobi without too much trouble, she thought, and it would have been good for them to see some action while everyone else was given the opportunity to march into Hi no Kuni.

What she needed was to get past the Wolves or, at the very least, meet up with Akatsuchi to support his forces where they were holding off near the entirety of Konoha. The leaf-nin probably thought they were just trying to tire them out, maybe exhaust some supplies a bit and feel them out, before commiting the rest of their forces there.

If Kurotsuchi broke off to join her half-cousin now they would even be partly correct, for all that would help. It wouldn't be the masterstroke originally planned, capturing Kagayaku Machi and the Fire Daimyo to hit Konoha where it would hurt- their pocketbooks- but they would still have the opportunity to eliminate a large portion of Konoha's forces now which would leave the rest of the conflict much less difficult.

There was certainly merit to the idea.

But if she could just get a small group through to Kagayaku Machi they could still sneak in and grab the Daimyo. Even if they didn't control the city the lack of a Daimyo would throw things into disarray and provide them with a powerful bargaining chip so long as they didn't accidently kill him. If they did that then they would probably have the rest of the world after their heads. A Shinobi killing a Daimyo was bad enough, but a village doing it? Their own Daimyo would turn on them in a heartbeat, worried for his own safety, and everyone else would just be glad for the opportunity to take what they could from Tsuchi no Kuni in the process of eliminating Iwagakure.

No, the Daimyo had to live, but he didn't have to be kept here in Hi no Kuni as they originally planned.

Which, in hindsight, wasn't the greatest idea, was it? Made it too easy for Konoha to try a rescue and that would put the Daimyo's life at risk if something went wrong. No, the better plan was to have a small group go in and snatch him. Bringing him to Iwa was probably a bad idea because they'd try to find him there first but they could hide him away in Kaze no Kuni with little issue.

She was sure the Kaze Daimyo would be happy to keep Iroh as a….guest…after the humiliation of the disastrous invasion his hidden village attempted and subsequent occupation of his lands by Konoha Shinobi. As long as he didn't kill him, that was fine with her. The man was too much of a coward to do anything physical, he'd probably just lock Iroh away in a dungeon and the quality of food supplied would be low but plentiful. A reduction of comforts, really, and not much else.

Mostly because going any further was a rather poor idea. There was always the chance the Fire Daimyo would end up back on his throne and even if his dominion was vastly reduced he'd be capable of harming Kaze no Kuni's Daimyo. He was only barely hanging onto his title as a Greater Daimyo as it was, Iroh in control of a Lesser Country Hi no Kuni would still be able to call on allies like Nami no Kuni for revenge.

And with Tsuchi no Kuni being untouchable, all his ire would be directed towards the target he could get to. Yes, knowing that would keep the Kaze Daimyo in line enough to serve their purposes.

The only problem was making that plan work.

If she went with it instead of heading north.

Kurotsuchi paused. Then she grinned.

Why not both?

Ever since he had arrived and taken over the Tsuchi-Hi front- or whatever the official name was in the reports he, thankfully, didn't have to fill out. Subordinates were great for that and he was too busy for paperwork- things had been wrong. Nothing added up or made sense and his attempts to figure out the cause had been unsuccessful.

Scouts send along the borders found nothing to explain Iwa's odd behavior, intelligence from Konoha couldn't give him any insight, and common sense told him that everything Iwa was currently doing couldn't possibly be to their benefit-

So why were they doing it?

And now he had the distinct pleasure of adding Kumo to that mix. Kumo, whose actions also didn't make any sense. Attacking both Iwa and Konoha? Making enemies with both on the battlefield? Even joining in the first place, Genma couldn't come up with a reason.

One major village making tactically questionable choices was one thing but two of them? And in the same conflict? There was something much bigger at play here but Genma didn't have a clue what it could be. His first instinct was to say that it couldn't be a coincidence. Iwa and Kumo had to be working together on this with a plan he couldn't understand simply because he didn't see all the parts.

Normally he'd trust his initial instinct, but there was something that made him hesitate.

Despite fighting with Kumo, there had yet to be a single loss of Konoha life. There had been casualties, sure, plenty of those, but as of yet no fatalities had been reported.

Kumo comes in with a small force, attacks two opposing sides of an existing conflict openly, and then proceeds to stick around as a participant without causing any permanent damage? That went beyond suspicious. In fact, if Genma didn't know better he'd have to say Kumo's entire presence here was more for show than anything else.

It was almost as if they were pretending to participate- not that it made any more sense when explained that way either. What could possibly be gained by faking being part of a war? Unless it was something political, something to push through- or block- some sort of policy back in Kumo? Emergency powers, even, might explain it, allowing Ay to take actions he'd otherwise have been able to. Or unable to do in a timely manner, as was often the case.

That was probably the first thing that came to mind that actually could serve as a rational explanation despite still seeming absurd.

But in that case, was Kumo avoiding fatalities in their skirmishes with Iwa too?

It certainly didn't look like it to Genma and he was getting a little tired of things not making sense.

When this was over he was retiring.

Black eyes swept over Tsuchi no Kuni, tracing the dips and rises of valleys and mountains equally rocky. This country had been aptly named, Ay decided, maybe they'd even keep it after it was under the control of Kaminari no Kuni.

Behind him he could hear his Shinobi breaking down their ships and using the material to start the construction of their first- but certainly not last- forward outpost. It was as symbolic as it was practical- there would be no going back.

After all, the strike of lightning could not be undone.

Not that a fortification of wood would provide much actual defense if Iwa Shinobi managed to get this close to it. Their Doton Jutsu would crash right through it with little trouble- one of the reasons Doton users were such a pain in the ass to deal with during war- but it would give troops a dry place to sleep and would store some of their supplies until they'd established supply lines using…commandeered….goods from the surrounding towns.

It would be a bit hard on the locals for a while but with any luck what they had brought with them would offset things enough to ensure his forces were properly fed without starving the people of Tsuchi no Kuni. That was preferable, really, because at some point the populace would be Kaminari no Kuni citizens and there were few ways to create hostilities during an occupation more expedient than by starving their families.

Ay didn't necessarily want to foster good will with these people- this was, after all, a hostile takeover- but by the same merit he had no desire to cause himself any additional problems by making enemies of the locals. That really wasn't to anyone's benefit.

Of course, that meant Kumo was on a very strict timeline for this. Logistics was the key to any campaign and right now they had nothing except what they had brought in with them. That wasn't the way to ensure success, not at all, but it was very much on purpose.

While starving locals was a good way to make enemies, making your forces know they only had a limited time to do a job before they went hungry was excellent motivation. Well, that's how Ay saw it anyway and he'd never had that not work.

Granted, he'd never actually tried it and all his advisors were ripping their hair out in frustration when he decided to go along with it against their best attempts to dissuade him. Still, he knew his men. He knew what would work to motivate them and get them to give their everything in this.

Whether that would be enough, well, that would just remain to be seen.

Besides, if it came down to it he'd risk alienating the locals if it meant his Shinobi were fed. It was just something he was hoping to reserve for emergencies. Plan Bs weren't something Ay liked to worry about- he preferred dealing with things in the moment because as he saw it, speculating with possibilities that didn't exist yet was a waste of time and energy- but when one completely ignored the logistics of war he didn't have much of a choice.

It would be like heading off on a mission with only one arm and not considering whether all of your equipment could be reached by that hand. Not considering things when you were so obviously handicapping yourself was just asking for problems.

Well, there was also the fact that his advisors had forced him to come up with something if he was forsaking traditional planning. As they claimed, they wanted him to at least have a general idea ready to be worked on before he went out so that he didn't have to come up with it when already on the field.

And it helped that his command structure now knew what he wanted done in the case of supply shortages should there be a breakdown in the chain of command or his Shinobi ended up cut off from the rest of his forces. Not that they wouldn't simply do whatever they needed to survive and get back to Kumo, it was just reassuring when they knew they weren't about to be court-martialed for actions that may have resulted in increased hostilities from the locals and any issues that had branched off from that and affected the war negatively.

Because when your culture was equal parts spontaneous commitment to action and rigorous military discipline you did end up running into those situations.

Ay did his best to avoid getting involved in that, though, it tended to have its roots too deep in Kumo politics and he couldn't stand Kumo politics.

No, all Ay really wanted to focus on were results in the moment. What had been the standing orders, what situation did they find themselves in, and what course of action had they deemed most prudent to resolve that situation while keeping in mind their objectives? As long as he could see why they had taken the actions they did he didn't stress what had actually resulted from them.

It pissed the Kumogakure council off something fierce.

Actually, everything about this pissed off the Kumo council but Ay could read the cards and knew he had to act quickly if he didn't want Kumo to be trapped in a disadvantaged position. Much like Ōnoki, he could see just how secure Konoha was growing in their power and influence and he recognized the limited amount of time he had to act before recent changes solidified permanently.

The limited time may have been measured in years but Ay wasn't one to put things off.

He also wasn't willing to take the risk of acting near the deadline and galvanizing the changes he was trying to avoid in the first place. Nothing brought people together like war, he knew that well enough.

Well, nothing separated them either but that was an entirely different matter.

Either way, he knew the sooner he acted the more unrest he could take advantage of. Get them before they settle.

Only, unlike Ōnoki who had decided to strike out directly against Konoha and Hi no Kuni, Ay had decided on a different approach.

He wasn't going to bring himself into direct competition with Konoha, instead he'd use this period of instability and rapid economic growth to keep them occupied so he could act elsewhere.

Let Hi no Kuni unify the southern continent, Ay would just take the north. After all, unlike Iwa, Kumo enjoyed a mostly neutral relationship with Konoha despite their past issues and he was confident that if he managed to acquire the countries above Hi no Kuni that the Fire Daimyo would be agreeable to non-aggression pacts for a decade or more to allow his own influence to settle into a fully unified Hi no Kuni.

Really, it would probably take somewhere like forty years for all those countries to actually be Hi no Kuni.

And while that happened Kumo's- rather, Kaminari no Kuni's- hold of their new countries would likewise remain unchallenged by their greatest competitor. It wasn't exactly an alliance or teamwork but in the end they both gained what they wanted.

The world was already split into five- four?- major superpowers, why not reduce that to two? And why not be one of them?

Some minor countries would be left alone by Kumo- and they would request the same of Konoha- to act as a buffer and boundary between the two superpowers but everyone knew good fences made good neighbors and he was sure they'd see the sense in that too.

Of course, for any of this to happen they had to remove some potential obstacles- namely Iwagakure. Not only did their actions against Hi no Kuni show that they would never stand for their rivals gaining such power but it provided the opportunity Kumo needed to start expanding.

Hi no Kuni had Kaze no Kuni by occupation and Mizu no Kuni- well, Kirigakure, but Mizu would follow eventually- by alliance which meant if Kumo and Kaminari no Kuni wanted any chance of establishing themselves as equal they would need Iwagakure and Tsuchi no Kuni.

Their conflict with Hi no Kuni had them distracted and vulnerable but that wasn't quite enough for Ay. Sure, he could have just attacked them and ignored the going-ons in northern Hi no Kuni but he wanted to be absolutely sure he had Iwa eyes far from home.

Joining in had certainly caught everybody's attention and kept it firmly in Hi no Kuni. It also meant they could keep those Iwa forces occupied even when they discovered what Kumo was up to. Bringing back troops was one thing, disengaging from two opponents? That was quite another and would delay them enough for Ay to have a solid hold in Tsuchi no Kuni.

And while being caught between two forces was usually a difficult position to defend- in this case between those Shinobi still in Iwagakure and those trying to return, in addition to whatever Samurai their Daimyo saw fit to provide from the capital assuming he didn't keep them for himself- Ay was confident that the full might of Kumo would manage in the limited time this opportunity presented.

He had, in fact, committed everything to this move. The only Shinobi left in Kumo was a bare-bones peacekeeping force.

Ay was banking on the fact that Konoha was a bit too tied up at the moment to go after his village in his absence and that Iroh would recognize that his new empire was in a precarious enough position without trying to overextend into another major country when the Shinobi of his Hidden Village were already stretched so thin.

If Kirigakure wasn't posted in Suna to relieve some of the Konoha Shinobi he might worry about them being sent to occupy Kaminari or even of just doing it of their own volition in an attempt to recoup their recent losses.

But with them busy in Kaze no Kuni and with the freed Konoha Shinobi rather occupied with Iwagakure and, well, Kumogakure now there wasn't really anyone to go after his village.


No one that came to mind, anyway.

Of course, that might change if Konoha caught on to the fact that his Shinobi sent to Hi no Kuni weren't actually trying to win against them. They had been given very, very strict orders that they were to engage with Konoha but under no circumstances was there to be a single Konoha death on their hands, even if it cost every Kumo Shinobi sent to keep Iwa's attention.

It was absolutely critical that Kumo was able to show Konoha that their only intention had been to catch Iwa on the back foot and that, in the end, no harm- or, at least, very little- had been done. He would need that good will to gain Konoha's cooperation for that non-aggression pact so both newly formed superpowers could solidify their holdings.

Konoha wasn't stupid, however, and they would realize something was wrong in short order. Whether they realized exactly what was going on or thought Kumo was trying to lure them into a false sense of security he couldn't say but he did need them to keep pushing back against his people. If Iwa learned that Konoha and Kumo weren't actually fighting- rather, killing each other. The fighting was a necessary component of the ruse- then he'd lose the element of surprise here in Tsuchi.

He'd much rather keep that for now, thank you.

Fortunately they wouldn't need it long so he was expecting things to go rather smoothly. Superior forces and the element of surprise were rather good for one's confidence.

And, really, what were the chances of anything going wrong when all the players on the board were busy with other things?

Anko cackled as she burst from the hotel window, Mikoto's black flames licking at the room behind her. Kin and her team had already made a break for it with what teams she'd been able to reach and persuade to join her in the attempt.

Everyone who had declined? Well, that wasn't any problem of theirs.

Soon it wouldn't be a problem for those teams, either, if they didn't get out of the building before Mikoto's Amaterasu cut them off from the rest of the world. Considering how the flames almost seemed to have a mind of their own, trailing across the floor they'd left to block doorways and seal exits, Kin was personally of the opinion that chances of that happening were rather slim.

Anko was just happy for the opportunity to cause some chaos and Mikoto-

Well, Mikoto was finding herself being turned on by the black flames.

Whether that was because she actually was a succubus or because she just so happened to be an Uchiha was completely unknown.

What they did know was that seven days was a long time for those flames to spread through Kumogakure.

Serves them right for trying to hold a team under the patronage of Tsukuyomi.

It wasn't until Zetsu had run through nearly all of Orochimaru's Ta no Kuni bases that he realized he was looking in the wrong area. His first assumption had been, logically, that something so incredibly important would be at the center of Orochimaru's attention and everything else would be built up around it. As a large majority of Orochimaru's outposts and operations occurred in Ta no Kuni where he had political capital with the Daimyo that had been the first place the plant-man looked.

He had forgotten to account for what he was seeking, however, because on reconsideration he realized that any sane person would want to be as far removed from such things as they possibly could be.

Orochimaru wasn't exactly sane- not even close on the best of days- but even he had enough common sense to put some distance between his regular things and something so impossibly dangerous.

So the isolated base in northern Tetsu no Kuni he'd found mention of in some of Orochimaru's records- records that seemed to be little more than pages and pages of names and serial numbers of deceased Oto Shinobi and captured enemies upon further investigation- became the next best place for his search.

And Zetsu had struck gold.

Well, perhaps not gold, but he'd found what he was looking for-

The entrance to the Deep Cells, one of Orochimaru's most closely guarded secrets.

Just not secret enough.

That shouldn't have been a surprise, not many things managed to remain a secret when faced with Zetsu.

But maybe this should have.

What was made plainly obvious as Zetsu descended, however, was the fact that these Deep Cells had been aptly named. He'd given up on trying to keep track of just how deep he was well over an hour ago when he was pretty sure he'd passed a hundred kilometers.

That shouldn't have even been possible and yet here he was- still going down.

It was…interesting…to see how Orochimaru had facilitated the journey. While the easy answer would be to have Doton users cut a continuous spiral staircase down into the earth, Orochimau had instead opted for a rectangular shaft with metal stairs bolted into the concrete walls.

And Zetsu rode down the middle of that shaft on a platform lowered by some sort of mechanized pulley system. It was much easier but only slightly faster than a comfortable jog down the stairs would have been.

It probably made all the difference going up again.

Of note was the fact that the surrounding stairs were broken into very distinct sections. Sections Zetsu was absolutely sure could be dropped from the wall without delay judging by the explosive notes already primed along the supports. Obviously Orochimaru was more worried about things coming up the tunnel than descending as he currently was.

Because of that he figured the platform he was on could be similarly dropped or, at the very least, the mechanism sabotaged to keep it from being pulled back up. Normally things like that would only be a concern for the everyday populace of the world considering Shinobi could utilize Chakra to stick to walls but somehow the concrete here didn't allow it.

That was…actually a little concerning, he could admit, because it meant Orochimaru found a way to nullify the use of Chakra. Even if it was only applicable in this situation at the moment, the man was as brilliant as he was mad, so there was no telling how he might adapt it in the future. That could be remarkably troublesome.

Personally Zetsu thought it was something added to the concrete because he couldn't see anything else, assuming there weren't seals plastered on the other, inaccessible side of the walls. That would be a rather elegant solution too, actually, though in the centuries Zetsu had worked in the shadows of this world he'd never encountered seals that performed such a function.

But that didn't mean they didn't exist in some form and if anyone was to rediscover and repurpose them it would be Orochimaru of the Sannin.

Zetsu just considered himself fortunate that Orochimaru didn't seem to have any way to tell if someone was descending down into the bowels of the Deep Cells- probably because he didn't suspect anyone would be leaving again if they did.

While it was hard to tell, Zetsu was almost certain it was yet another hour before he reached the bottom and the platform came to a rest a foot above the ground. The concrete that had covered everything else stopped and gave way to what appeared to be a natural cave formation, albeit adjusted to account for its purpose by Orochimaru.

He didn't know how "natural" it could really be even before Orochimaru reached it, though, because nothing here felt right at all. The small lantern mounted to the platform's railing only extended ten feet in any direction and the shadows at the edges of the flickering light seemed to ebb and flow like the tides. If he couldn't see the way his own shadow appeared on the ground he would assume that was due to the movement of the flame within the lantern but there was a distinct difference between his shadow and those in the room.

And he tried to ignore the way he could feel those shadows pull at his.

Zetsu wouldn't claim to think he was imagining things but he also knew better than to get distracted in a place like this.

It would end up being the last thing he did, of that he had no doubt.

Sealkeeper: He Who Binds

Chapter 169-B "No Going Back"

Patron Release 2022.12.25

It may have been a prison.


That time was long gone, as were any who could possibly remember.

Any except them.

Zetsu wasn't sure what they actually were, to be honest. Centuries of life and he'd never encountered anything even remotely close to them. From a being that had watched the birth of the Shinju and the rampage of the Juubi, back in the times where demons roamed the earth freely, that was a realization beyond concerning.

If Orochimaru had any idea as to their nature- which, admittedly, was actually not unlikely. That snake unearthed the damndest things and the spy in Zetsu could appreciate that- he'd not left anything where Zetsu had been able to find it. That may have been for the best, to keep people from seeking them out, but Zetsu did question the wisdom in not having the ability to make others aware of the potential dangers they presented.

Then again, it was well known that Orochimaru was seeking some form of immortality so maybe he just didn't think he'd ever need to truly share the existence of the Deep Cells or their inhabitants to the wider world.

If one considered his search for immortality as a method to ensure he could personally protect the world from them he actually came across as a rather heroic figure. After all, what was a bit of human experimentation when compared to…these?

Piercing eyes swirled in and out of existence, constantly hidden away by the shadows that cloaked them, while large grins filled with teeth of every shape and size all but salivated at his arrival. He could hear the scraping of flesh against stone and of scale over rusted metal mixing with warm, labored breathing and the soft gurgle of bubbling wounds that allowed black blood to run almost silently over concrete.

Almost, because the faint hissing as the acidic substance as it ate through its surrounding still made it to Zetsu's ears.

He had to wonder how this place was standing at all if they were capable of destroying it just by being and unless they were also repairing this place the only real answer was that Orochimaru was constantly maintaining it. That man was actually starting to look more like one of the good guys by the minute.

Still, bringing down crews to repair this place could not have been a simple endeavor and he probably lost most of the individuals who worked on the task either to the crawling darkness currently around him or to the madness that took root during the time they spent so deep beneath the earth. Zetsu couldn't say for certain which was a more merciful end.

Mostly because he couldn't guarantee that being taken by this darkness was in any way a 'quick' death. These things didn't see people often, he was sure, so they were likely very reluctant to give up their prizes to the sweet release of death with any expedience.

Perhaps the madness was more kind.

But it still begged the question- why was he being allowed to walk freely into the deepest parts of the deep cells?

Hefting the lantern he'd removed from the platform- it was, to his slight surprise, designed to come away easily, perhaps for this very purpose- up to head level his yellow eyes tried to see further into the darkness with no luck. The inky blackness wasn't so much a lack of light as it was a physical entity staying just out of reach from his lantern.

Driven from the light, maybe, Zetsu thought it was more likely just trying to lead him further down.

But that was fine, he thought as he continued walking along the sloped floor, passing twisted bars of destroyed prison cells and the crumbling remains of concrete walls. Because what he was searching for was at the bottom anyway.

Despite being Aū's high-Priest - which, for the most part, seemed to be more honorary than functional as far as he was aware- Naruto didn't actually speak to him all that much. He attributed that mostly to the fact that everything was going rather smoothly and Akishi had a handle on things as they currently were.

Aū's will was being carried out, progress was good, and there was nothing Naruto really needed to be doing at the moment. Even The Sun realized that- though Naruto really wished there was something that actually required his attention so he could feel like he was useful again.

So it was slightly surprising to the Daimyo of Nami no Kuni when his reading was interrupted in an empty room.

"Creeping shadows are waking." Spoke the voice he knew to be Aū, accompanied by the warmth he associated with his connection to the divine being.

'Creeping Shadows?' He questioned back.

"Something stirs them from the depths," The warmth of Aū faded with his voice. "They will claw their way into my light."

Well, that didn't sound like a good thing. With a frown Naruto marked his place in his book and set it aside. Aū might not have given him any explicit instructions- maybe there wasn't anything specific Aū could tell him to do in this situation, these 'creeping shadows' were obviously not of his domain and they were likely somewhere Aū's light didn't truly reach- but Naruto knew better than to ignore a warning from The Fucking Sun.

Making his way from the palace library he headed straight for the guest apartments Mai had commandeered for herself. He was fairly certain one of the rooms here was technically his but he still preferred to use the room he'd had set aside with Akishi. It may have been small but he thought it was comfortably cozy and it's not like he needed much room anyway.

Knocking on the door to her office he waited a beat before letting himself in. He thought it was a polite median between barging in and waiting to be invited even if he knew he was free to come and go as he pleased. The people here knew Mai as Amaterasu, after all, and it was best to maintain the image of her being in charge.

And, really, as far as Naruto was concerned she was in charge. Of the Wolves, that is.

Slipping into the room he found Mai, as expected, seated behind a large desk pouring over papers. There was a pair of Karura's who beamed at him from their position beside the desk but they remained where they were as they filled out papers for Mai to look at.

It was an…interesting…solution to transferring paperwork over long distances and it was close enough to instantaneous, he supposed. Maybe he should be working on ways to move physical objects through the seals. They should be capable of that, right?

He returned their smiles and allowed them to focus on their work while he took a seat across from his favorite Wolf and waited for her to have a moment. Aū's warning was vague and there wasn't much to go on at the moment so there was little point in interrupting Mai's work.

A few minutes later when she slid the papers she'd been looking at off to the side and leaned back with a sigh he stood up and moved around the desk to rest his hands on her shoulders. Copying what she used to do for him back when they first started, he slowly worked away the stress to her satisfied groans.

The two Karura shared salacious smiles and a giggle before neatly stacking the papers they'd been working on, curtseying to him, and dispelling themselves.

Mai didn't notice and Naruto took that to mean he was doing a good enough job at the moment.

"I could have used you an hour ago." She mumbled a bit later.

"You could have sent for me," He reminded her. "You also had two racoons here who I'm sure would have been more than happy to help."

"And give them permission to put their hands on me? I wouldn't have been able to retract that, you know. I'm surprised they manage to restrain themselves as it is."

"Karura likes to show her affection physically. If she doesn't think you'd appreciate it she'll do her best to maintain that distance because she does care."

One eye opened to look back up at him, a brow rising. "And why is that, I wonder? Maybe because I was in a relationship with her husband? You'd think that would make her less fond of me."

"Of course not, most of her best friends are in a relationship with her husband."

Her brow only went higher in silent question.

"Well, yes." Naruto grinned. "That is a bit strange." His hands found a particularly difficult knot. "But when has the House of Wolves ever been normal." Point to him, and not just because the knot melted away under his careful fingers.

"Besides, if you're not comfortable with Karura there are others who could assist you with both the paperwork and with relaxing afterwards."

"Aren't you sleeping with all of them?"

"I haven't slept with all the Wolves." Was his counter. "Or with Guren. I think she's still around here somewhere."

Mai's other eye opened. "I thought she and Katsuri were fighting over nurse outfits. Did nothing come of that?"

"Well, I wouldn't say nothing. Katsuri made use of her uniform and Shizune managed to get her hands on a few, probably through Orochimaru who pulled it out in Nami a few days ago. I think I saw Tsunade in one at some point, though I'm not sure if it was Orochimaru or Shizune who managed to make that happen."

"And Guren wasn't in one?"

"Oh, I'm sure she was in one at some point, I just didn't get to see it." He paused. "Or, assuming I did see it, I was otherwise distracted at the time."

"Because Shizune, Tsunade, Katsuri, and Orochimaru were in them?"

"...Probably. But I've only slept with two of them. I think."

She shook her head. "I still don't know how you can't keep track of those you've been with."

"Because Anko is regularly in my bed and she invites any woman with a pulse to join us. I wake up with more people in my bed than I go to sleep with when she's involved and don't get me started with Mikoto. I have to throw women at her just so I can escape."

"...How does throwing women at Mikoto count as you sleeping with them?" She would leave the matter of having to escape from the last Uchiha for a different day.

"Oh, yeah, because I used Orochimaru's body-transfer technique to move a Kage-Bunshin into a permanent physical body and sacrificed it to Mikoto in an attempt to satisfy her ravenous sexual appetite. Did I not mention that?"

And with that all the stress he'd managed to undo came back in full force.

"...You know what? I don't even want to know." She eventually decided. It just wasn't worth trying to keep track of the nonsense he managed to get up to. Why did she let him spend time with someone like Orochimaru? That was just asking for bullshit like this to happen.

"...So would this be a bad time to mention that a giant golden snake in the sun told me that there are, ah, creeping shadows stirring from the depths?"

The groan that escaped her lips had nothing to do with his hands on her shoulders.

Massive yellow eyes stared down at him above a crescent of crooked teeth. All around them dozens of smaller faces not dissimilar watched the proceedings with glee. Clicking and chittering filled the silence, teeth rattling against each other or claws and talons against the rocky floor, it was hard to tell.

The beings breathed or at least pretended to and their warm breath was rancid with decay as it washed over him. Otherwise the air down here was cold. Impossibly cold for how deep they had gone. So cold it burned.

It was not natural, Zetsu knew that much.

And the beings here, the beings here had no heat. Despite being able to release warm breath the plant parts of Zetsu couldn't detect any body heat. In fact, it didn't feel anything of their bodies at all. No shifting in weight, no movement from whatever clawed appendages clicked against their surroundings. There was nothing.

Nothing but sound. The sound of laughter and breathing, of teeth and claw, he could even hear them blink but there was no movement except to his eyes. Eyes he wasn't completely sure could be trusted anymore.

The lantern sat at his feet, set upon the uneven stone where it provided paltry illumination in the otherwise pitch black world of the Deep Cells. Orochimaru had been wise to hide this place but was it hiding something he stumbled upon or was it locking away some of his greatest mistakes? Zetsu did not think asking these things those questions was in his best interest.

And, really, it hardly mattered now. There was no going back.

"So, we have an accord?" The voice didn't actually reach his ears, instead vibrating deep in his chest and through his guts as if his own body was whispering to him. The being with a name Zetsu couldn't begin to comprehend- or even utter- continued to stare down at him and for just the briefest of moments one of Zetsu's golden eyes flashed a luminescent silver.

Grinning up at them with a mouth of pointed teeth, Zetsu gave a half-bow to the darkness, his eyes never leaving those that peered back.

"We do."

It had been a long shot, Yugao knew that, so she was not surprised that while Souji was headed back to Konoha to contact Kakashi her attempts to learn Naruto's location directly from the Wolves in Nami had not succeeded.

They were courteous, at least, and she could say that was more than she'd really expected. She didn't know if that was from Kakashi telling Naruto that she and her team wanted to help him or was from older orders pertaining to her and in fear of reopening wounds she didn't think she'd ever pursue that line of questioning.

Sometimes it was best to leave well enough alone.

But with nothing of importance to be gleaned from the populace- beyond the fact that someone had attacked Tsukuyomi's palace. The Wolves had declined her offer to help track down the asshat who had dared- and the Wolves more focused on repairing damages and maintaining Nami security there was nothing left for her team to do but wait to hear from Souji.

Well, she supposed she could try to get in contact with Hana while she was here. No one had ever specifically mentioned that the Inuzuka clan heiress was in Nami but when the city had been given the name 'Hanahime' and there were Inuzuka clan members openly going about their business with Ninken companions, well, it wasn't a huge stretch of the imagination to realize the young woman's clan business brought her here.

The Inuzuka allying themselves with the Imperial House of Wolves? It just fit too well to not be the case, really, and they should have been expecting that. Of course, with Hana having hinted at how important her clan business was and, you know, the fact that they'd named a damned city after her- more or less the trade capital of the world, even- Yugao figured Hana was pretty far up the ladder here in Nami. Pulling her away from her duties- or attempting to do so- wouldn't be to Nami's benefit and, thus, would not be to Naruto's benefit.

That was really the only thing keeping Yugao from even trying to meet with her friend.

Well that and the fact that Hana probably knew what she had done to those Wolves in Mizu no Kuni. With her working so closely with them the ANBU commander highly doubted Hana would be pleased about that, even if Yugao hadn't experienced any open hostility from the Wolves yet.

Wariness, yes, but that was more than understandable.

She was, after all, an ANBU commander present with her team in a foreign country and she'd hardly been invited. She supposed they were probably slightly more comfortable with the fact that she wasn't skulking around. Keeping herself- and her team- easily visible and clear in their intentions may have won them a few points with the Wolves tasked with ensuring Hanahime's security.

And, with any luck, Kakashi would have vouched for them too, so they would know Yugao's team were loyal to Tsukuyomi before Asuma even if the Nami Daimyo didn't necessarily want anything to do with them.

That was probably a long shot, really, but Yugao had to remain positive or she knew she'd fall into a downward spiral of despair and self-loathing and she wouldn't be any use to Tsukuyomi like that. If she wanted to make things right she needed to be completely functioning and at a level equal to the Wolves she'd taken from him.

Red hair in the corner of her eye immediately caught Yugao's attention and she turned her head for a better look. It was nearly the exact same shade and in a similar style but it only took a second to realize she wasn't looking at Naruto.

She did, however, remember him from the Chūnin exams and, more recently, reports about Naruto walking around Konoha. Sabaku no Gaara, Prince of Nami no Kuni. Naruto's 'son'.

If anyone who wasn't a Wolf was to know where he was, it would be him. Getting up from the patio table she'd been wasting time at, she made her way over with purposeful steps which immediately caught his attention. She did not forget that this was the young man Suna had banked their entire invasion on- the Jinchuriki of the Ichibi.

She made sure her hands were plainly visible and empty of everything except her coffee.

"Gaara-Sama?" She asked, stopping a few feet away. "Please excuse me, but I need your help if you can spare a moment."

He looked confused for a second- and briefly suspicious- but eventually nodded his consent.

"Thank you. My team and I are Konoha ANBU. The….Hokage…." She made sure her voice conveyed the distaste she had for her superior. "Has officially sent us out to locate the whereabouts of your father, Tsukuyomi-Sama, but it is our intention to formally swear our loyalty to him. The problem is, for his safety, no one is willing to direct us to him or aid us in getting into contact so we can meet him in a place of his choosing."

Gaara continued to frown as he listened. It sounded…bad….but he was aware that the woman was at least being very forthcoming about who she was and what her orders were. It didn't seem like she was trying to deceive him, in fact she seemed to be going to great lengths to make sure she remained as honest as possible.


"I'm sorry, I don't think that's possible after the recent…occurrences. Maybe if you had come before….." It wasn't really giving anything- even a promise that they would have helped before the palace was attacked- but it was as much as Gaara felt comfortable sharing if no one else was saying where his Tou-san was.

"I understand, we'll just have to keep trying." He gave a nod and moved to walk away when Jundo-Hime wriggled her way up out of his shirt to lean against his neck. Perhaps thinking they were farther away than they were- or that she was being more quiet than she really was- she made the comment;

"Like it would matter if they set up a meeting somewhere else, Mai's not going to let him out of her sight after the attack." Gaara paused mid-step, immediately recognizing the information Jundo had shared.

And suddenly things clicked for Yugao.

Gaara could hear the slight irritation in Yugao's voice as she made a connection she felt should have been more obvious. "Mai is Amaterasu." She nearly groaned. "Of course she is. She's been with him from the beginning, his right hand, who else would be named Amaterasu to his Tsukuyomi." It was just fortunate the two of them hadn't ended up separated like those two married siblings had. "And Amaterasu is in Yu no Kuni."

Gaara turned back to face Yugao and a sheepish Jundo tried to hide herself behind strands of his hair as she realized her mistake.

The ANBU commander looked more frustrated than victorious, he thought, and her next words explained why perfectly.

"We were just in Yu no Kuni, damnit!" She wasn't sure how they had missed him- or maybe he'd moved over to Yu no Kuni while they were on the way back from their search- but knowing she could have spent the last week or so enjoying a vacation at one of Yu no Kuni's resorts while pretending to search for Naruto was a bit irritating.

Schooling her features, Yugao sketched a quick bow to Gaara and whoever it was who had given her thoughts direction. Mai and a previously unknown Amaterasu being in the same place? The connection should have been obvious before. "Thank you for your assistance."

She headed back to her team to share the news while Gaara did his best to glance down at Jundo-Hime.

"Aha- whoops?" Was all she could really offer. Maybe she should go with that woman to Yu no Kuni? Tsukuyomi didn't seem to mind her company and it was probably best not to be here if the Wolves- or Orochimaru- learned that she'd helped to give away Naruto's whereabouts.

But that would mean leaving Gaara and Kabuto and she didn't think she could abandon her boys like that. She was just going to have to deal with anything that came up as it did. Fortunately she was Jundo-Hime and it was hard to stay mad at her.

She hoped.

The white Zetsu clones slipped through the base with little trouble. The original had already come through this way and there was only a small number of Oto Shinobi tasked with watching over the entrance in an attempt to avoid drawing too much attention to it. It wasn't as if they needed to do much, anyway, Orochimaru's deal with the stronger beings within the Deep Cells kept the others in line. The extra guards were just a precaution.

Or they were, so long as the old pacts were honored.

Unfortunately, Zetsu offered much better terms.

The Shinobi here would not live long enough to realize that.

Sagan wasn't a large town by any stretch. Located between two rivers on a small peninsula of Tsuchi no Kuni that trespassed into the Aisu Bay it got by mostly through fishing. There was little trade because Tsuchi no Kuni got a lot of its supplies from lands to the west or up from Kaze no Kuni caravans and the things that arrived by ship- usually after they stopped up in Yuki no Kuni- went further north to the river that reached the capital.

Stopping at Sagan wasn't really worth their time. Not that it didn't have the potential to be a great port city if it had been a bit closer to the coasts or had built up the infrastructure to support it. Instead Sagan was a bit more south, nestled between the two sea-fed rivers, and supported itself by river-fishing.

It kept them a little more safe from pirates, perhaps, but as the cold waters of the Aisu Bay had few storms there was little other reason not to take full advantage of the sea. The people of Sagan, however, were of Tsuchi no Kuni and were thus nothing if not stubborn. They had placed their town where it was and that's where it would stay. When they needed something they could head to Iwagakure or down along the border to a town in Taki and when they wanted new fishhooks a few of the young men would sail a bit east to Tetsu for their high-quality steel and be back within a week with little trouble.

No, Sagan was content to remain just as it was.

Unfortunately things were changing, whether they liked it or not, and one of those changes was the presence of Kumogakure Shinobi securing supply lines for their march on Iwagakure.

Nyūsei had been given five other Kumogakure Shinobi and orders to hold the town. Their landing base was a bit further north on the coast- near where trading vessels would make their way to reach the capital, in fact- so any supplies they could secure here could be sent back for storage or sent south directly to Kumogakure forces marching on Iwa. In other words, Ay wanted this town and so Nyūsei was to make sure it stayed his.

The people of Sagan had been…less than pleased but fortunately none of them were Shinobi. Well, one of the geezers had been a retired Shinobi but his retirement hadn't been voluntary and he was in no state to cause any real issues. But that didn't make Nyūsei's job any easier, because now he had to encourage the entire village to focus on gathering as much food as they could- which was probably not good for the long-term well being of the rivers- while ensuring none of them managed to get away to warn Iwagakure what was going on.

That last one was actually a bit easier, if only because the rate of Kumo's march should have them reaching Iwa before any civilian could get there. But somehow making the entire town secure supplies for an enemy occupation? A Tsuchi no Kuni town? And without harming them? That was very, very difficult and he was pretty sure whatever they did get would be poisoned or otherwise unusable.

Still, this was his job and he had a duty to fulfill.

He was not going to be the reason a large portion of Kumogakure Shinobi went hungry, thank you, that was not the sort of reputation you ever managed to escape.

He really hoped the people here realized he was just doing his job and that the more they cooperated the sooner he and his team could be out of their hair. That would make things easier for anyone involved but when you were dealing with rockheads, well, optimism for cooperation was pretty much wasted effort if they didn't want to cooperate. Nothing was going to convince them otherwise.

"Kahansū, Atai, let's go." Nyūsei called for two of his team. "Let's do one pass through the town before we relieve the others."

Even for a small town, six shinobi was not a lot to work with. Not when they had to keep anyone from leaving town. As it was, it took three of them to just maintain a perimeter which meant no one was actually overseeing the townsfolk as they fished. That could cause issues in the future but at the moment Nyūsei was just hoping that by keeping their distance the people of Sagan might be just a bit more agreeable.

A sort of "you provide supplies for us to send off and you don't even have to see us" sort of arrangement. He wasn't really banking on it but as long as they kept collecting their own food he could always take that to send on and the townspeople would just have to get more again. It was the same thing as far as he was concerned, it just seemed more polite to let them have the first portion and provide extra for Kumo. Maybe someone in town would have enough sense to recognize that and see that it would be happening no matter what.

Granted, that would probably increase the chances of them resisting in other ways, such as the poison he was sure would make its way in before too long, so maybe it was for the best they just resisted on the simple things.

The two grumbled as they finished off their breakfast but nonetheless dragged themselves from the warmth of their sleeping bags and rolled them out of the way so the night guard would have space to sleep in their little camp. They weren't foolish enough to try staying inside the town, that was just inviting assassination attempts and even a civilian could get lucky. Best not to chance it. Instead they'd set a small camp just south of the town, on the other side of where the rivers joined. A natural boundary seemed like a good idea to separate the two.

The three Kumo Shinobi walked over the mostly calm waters of the river with practiced ease and circled the outer buildings of the town until they reached one of two roads that lead into it. Skulking through the space between buildings was always an option but it was also something Nyūsei wanted to avoid. He wanted to be upfront about their purpose and what expectations the people could have. Sneaking around their village was only going to raise their hackles and cast suspicion and doubt on his men.

As he learned just moments later, that didn't really matter any longer.

"By the gods." Atai whispered, horrified. "What the hell happened?"

The bodies- if they could be called such anymore- had been completely ravaged and scattered about the streets with abandon. Blood didn't quite run through the dirt streets but it was close, even without the hungry earth lapping up everything it could.

"I didn't hear anything last night." Was Kahansū's observation. "How did it happen to so many without a sound?" That was a good point, someone had to have seen all of this, why hasn't there been any screams or shouts? And if the people hadn't already been dead when they were torn to pieces why hadn't they wailed in agony?

Nyūsei didn't have an answer for that, not one that made sense. A Genjutsu was the closest he could think of, keeping the sound from reaching his team's ears, but who would have done that and why? Was someone just trying to cause tension between Kumo and the people of Tsuchi even before the official occupation?

That was the only reason he could come up with for the village being attacked and his men being left alone-

His men!

"Kumu, Motageru, Uzukumaru!" He yelled out, praying for a response. His prayers were answered. Three exhausted Shinobi rushed over, abandoning their patrols, only to come to an immediate stop as they took notice of the town streets.

It seemed genuine enough to Nyūsei, his suspicions that it may have been his own men behind things was lessened significantly but his other questions remained unanswered.

What the hell was going on?

In the shadows of the early dawn golden eyes shone brightly and mouths of crooked teeth offered bloody grins.

Sagan - Sandstone

Nyūsei - Whey

Uzukumaru - Squat/Crouch Down

Motageru - Raise/Lift

Kumu - Pump/draw (as in water, I presume)

Kahansū (過半数) - majority

Atai () - Value

Both Kahansū and Atai show up for the word "Bulk". Intended as large numbers for trade, I'm sure. I picked them because looking up quasi-gym words for Kaminari names amuses me.

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Until I next have your attention, I remain,