Sealkeeper: He Who Binds

Chapter 170-A "Fortress"

Patron Release 2022.12.28

Inline with the guerilla tactics they were employing, Akatsuchi's eastern forces had been cut into a handful of separate groups sprinkled through Kusa and Taki. It was much easier for them to slip away and hide when you weren't worrying about the entirety of their forces needing to retreat at once and the various groups could all launch attacks separately or coordinate with their neighbors for the best results. It meant Konoha's superior numbers were kept at bay but sufficiently engaged to keep them from pulling away until Kurotsuchi had finished her objectives and came to assist them.

Those smaller groups, likewise, were separated into even smaller pieces made up of a squad or two each within a given area. It simply made it easier for them to hide their camps, though most of their shelters tended to be in small caves beneath the earth whenever they could find a place to move the excess dirt.

Unfortunately not all the squads were so fortunate and some of them found themselves dealing with soil or terrain that otherwise blocked them from being able to use that strategy to its fullest.

Deployed on the border of Taki and Hi no Kuni, right next to the south-western river was one such area, the ground not being all that good for their preferred cave and a cave not being good for the area. Not only could messing with the soil so close to the river cause flooding they would have to deal with, the behavior of the river in response to their actions might tip off some of the local Shinobi more familiar with the area and give them away.

And if they were going to be discovered anyway, it was best that they had all their options open if they needed to make an escape. Limiting themselves to a single area underground where they could be targeted was just poor planning.

Instead, this group of Iwa Shinobi had just gone for a camp near the river, throwing up low walls of earth as a majority of their shelter and covering themselves with canvas tents. It was simple but comfortable and the walls helped shield the light from their small fires. Most of Konoha's attention was on the Kusa front anyway, they figured, and Taki was busy near their capital to the east while Kumo was even further east dealing mainly with Konoha and any Iwa Shinobi who moved up into the battlegrounds that had once been Hi no Kuni farmland.

No, back here on the border they were actually quite safe compared to their comrades so not being able to hide beneath the shelter of the earth wasn't too much of a hardship.

Or that's what they'd thought.

A scream pierced the air and caught the attention of the entire Iwa camp. Jumping up from their rest beside their fires, a few of them were just quick enough to see a man dragged into the night beyond the flickering light, his face scrunched up in terror.

Had a Taki patrol stumbled upon them, then? It didn't explain the man's expression but they hardly had time to waste pondering it. One of the closer Iwa Shinobi let loose a low-level Katon Jutsu, taking advantage of the fact that their comrade was prone and thus well out of the way of being hit by it.

What the light revealed should have been left well alone in the darkness, it had no business being seen by man. Mangled flesh of bleached white oozed black ichor from putrid sores and feted wounds. Extra limbs- terribly misshapen and malformed- burst from seemingly random places over its body, the additions a glossy black with patches of molting scales and wicked claws.

A mouth full of teeth- all different shapes and sizes- stained a mixture of yellows and the rusty brown of dried blood grinned back at them while the golden eyes staring right into their souls reflected the light of the fire.

And there- there was something writhing just beneath the skin, and it was hard to tell if it was trying to escape the confines of its flesh or was merely attempting to settle more comfortably.

"...What in the hell?" The Shinobi who muttered those words didn't have long to ponder on his question as the darkness around their camp gave birth to a dozen more eyes of gold just beyond the light of the Katon Jutsu.

For the middle of summer, everything suddenly felt very, very cold.

It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say the Wolves guarding the southern lands of Hi no Kuni were successfully pushing Kurotsuchi's Iwa forces north towards the greater conflict. That was mostly because Kurotsuchi's forces- or, most of them- were trying to head in that direction anyway.

The Wolves would have preferred to push Iwa directly west, back into Kawa, so that they were out of Hi no Kuni territory and wouldn't be able to join up with the rest of their comrades. Iwa had separated their forces for maneuverability and the opportunity to flank Konoha, allowing them to come back together as a united front wasn't going to do Konoha any good and so the Wolves would have liked to avoid that.

So far they hadn't had much of a choice. WIth Iwa well aware of their presence and needing to ensure the small teams that were breaking off to make a run for Kagayaku Machi were stopped, all the Wolves had managed to do was slow Iwa's southern forces by nipping at their heels.

Well, maybe that wasn't giving them enough credit. Iwa had been slowed significantly by their actions and wearing them down now would make things easier down the line even if they did manage to meet up with their comrades. So regardless of the outcome the Wolves were doing worthwhile work.

They would have preferred to be doing more but even they had to recognize the limitations imposed by the sheer difference in manpower. They may have been superior Shinobi but they were greatly outnumbered by the Iwa Shinobi who were able to sacrifice some of their own in order to buy time for the majority of their forces to continue north.

Trying to cut them off brough mild success but Kurotsuchi had been quick to redirect forces to the east as soon as she realized the Wolves were no longer behind them. There simply weren't enough Wolves to create a perimeter around all the Iwa Shinobi and their priority was to ensure the southern areas of Hi no Kuni- including Kagayaku Machi- were safe from Iwagakure forces.

If that meant allowing them to make their way to the main theater of the conflict, so be it. They would just have to make sure they were too worn out to be effective so that Konoha had a chance to eliminate them before they could become a threat.

The Wolves had already sent out a runner so Konoha would know Iwa forces were coming up from the south, that should give them enough advance notice that they could thin them out before they were flanked and force the remainder to retreat to areas held by friendly forces rather than setting up a new, independent front that Konoha would have to worry about.

Things weren't optimal but they were going well enough for the Wolves to consider this operation a success. Pushing Iwa forces closer to the western border as they moved northwards helped with that too, even if it presented the opportunity for Iwa to slip back into the minor countries and bolster their fronts in Kusa and Taki. That would always be better than allowing them to flank Konoha as far as the Wolves were concerned.

"High-Captain!" One of the Wolves called, catching the attention of High-Captain Yuto- the only survivor of the Yamanaka bombing all those months ago. "There's a contingent of Hi no Kuni Samurai up ahead."

Yuto gave a nod. "Any sign of Iwa?"

"Not yet, but they have to be getting tired again. We'll be there when they start to falter."

Both human and Wolf, Tsukuyomi's children were well suited to persistence hunting and were making ample use of it against Kurotsuchi's southern forces. When the Wolves retreated to tend whatever wounds they had the Iwa Shinobi charged onwards to put some distance between them. The Wolves would proceed to catch up and follow them until their injuries caused them to slow down- the perfect opportunity to strike again. This had repeated for the last week and while the Wolves were starting to get a bit run down the Iwagakure Shinobi had to be exhausted.

"I'll liaison with their commander and see if they've got eyes on the Iwa Shinobi, if they've managed to slip through without being seen they may be further ahead than we expected." Which meant they were pushing themselves even harder. A last ditch attempt, maybe? Or perhaps they'd finally cut to the west hoping for a chance to recover. In that case it was possible they had missed the trail and Iwa was behind them. They would have to double back soon to make sure they didn't head towards Kagayaku Machi again.

"Understood, sir."

As the Wolf spread his instructions to their siblings, Yuto continued forward until the standards of the Hi no Kuni Samurai were easily seen. The borders of Hi no Kuni were mostly forests but as they drew closer to Tanzaku Gai those forests thinned out into grassy fields. Up near Ame those woods would thicken again and create a boundary that continued east towards Konoha and joined up with the more heavily forested eastern Hi no Kuni.

The Samurai here had established a camp- or perhaps a command post- a little ways off from the forest to ensure their sentries had an unbroken view in all directions. A good idea considering they were on the lookout for Shinobi, setting up in the forest would have been a bad idea, even if it did give the Samurai cover.

Cover, after all, was for Shinobi. Samurai were more than happy to stand out in the open and force their opponents into the same. Shinobi were the shadows and Samurai the lanterns that exposed them- assuming a blade didn't slip into their armor first. It was a delicate sort of balance the two warrior types had in this world.

Holding a hand over his head to help the Samurai see him as he exited the woods, Yuto made his way directly to the camp at an easy pace so they would have time to identify him and report to their superiors. By the time he reached the sentries- stopping a good six meters away while they rested their hands on the blades at their sides- a higher ranking officer was already present.

"Hail, Wolf, what brings you and yours to these parts?"

"Hunting, Samurai. We've chased a rather large herd of rocks up from the south. Seems they were trying to migrate towards Kagayaku Machi." The officer translated just as quickly as Yuto spoke and tensed at the information, obviously displeased to learn Iwa was doing anything in the direction of the capital.

"Were they now? That's most troubling. Are you sure none of the herd was…separated?"

"Fairly, it's been slowing us down to chase stragglers back to their herd." The Samurai made no mention of the fact that wolves would usually go after prey separated from the pack, either accepting it as an inclusion in the quasi-coded manner of speech or understanding that the Wolves' primary focus was ensuring the Iwa Shinobi couldn't make their way deeper into Hi no Kuni. "Should we assume you and yours haven't seen them come this way?"

"Not if they stuck to the woods." Was the officer's answer. "We can't risk ours patrolling in there, it's too easy to get separated and picked off." H\e gestured to the plains around him. "At least like this we can make sure they don't progress further into Hi no Kuni, as long as we can maintain this front they can play in the trees for all I care."

Understandable, the Daimyo's forces were never meant to maintain a permanent border around Hi no Kuni. It took too long to train them for that and the civilian militias they took charge of in times of crisis were better suited to guarding towns and villages, tangible boundaries they could easily define and fortify against aggressors. Sniffing out Shinobi wasn't something civilians knew how to do and there simply weren't enough Samurai to cover the area that needed guarding.

Yuto gave a nod. "Sensible. We can rest assured they didn't head east, then, though we should have caught up to them by now."

The officer caught on immediately. "Are they speeding up or do you think they doubled back on you?"

"Not sure yet and I'm loath to split up who I have. It's taking all of us to match their number so having half of us face them is just asking for them to be able to start turning things around."

Nodding, the officer gestured for him to enter the camp. "A delicate position, I don't envy you. We'll check with some of our returned scouts for anything that might help you decide on a course of action."


Shouting from the north caught their attention and immediately put a stop to the niceties. Sharing a look for less than a second, the two charged off to see what the disturbance was only to stop short at the edge of the camp as they watched Iwa Shinobi pour forth from the forest.

But Iwa was not coming towards them, nor did it look like they were trying to get around the Hi no Kuni Samurai. In fact, from what the two could tell the Iwa Shinobi had absolutely no idea there were Hi no Kuni forces anywhere nearby.

And that was because their attention was focused on a much more immediate threat.

The twisted, gnarled things that tore through the forests without disturbing the trees very much resembled them, albeit long dead trees that had bleached in the sun like bone. And yet these still seemed to be producing sap, a viscous black liquid from which strands of shadow spiraled off like smoke from smoldering embers.

But in the end, these were obviously not the trees- or even spirits of trees- awakening to drive trespassers from Hi no Kuni. Something that couldn't have been made more evident by the fact that those…things continued to charge towards loyal Hi no Kuni Samurai with drooling mouths, bloodthirsty grins, and madness swirling in the molten gold pools of their eyes.

"Shit-!" After a second to come to terms with what he was seeing, the Samurai officer sprung to action. "To arms! To arms! Enemies to the north!" The Samurai in the camp behind them scrambled into readiness while Yuto gave three sharp whistles to call the Wolves. His siblings, already geared up, managed to reach the camp at around the same time as the Samurai finished strapping on their armor and grabbing whatever weapons they could get their hands on.

It seemed a decently sized force, the Samurai and the Wolves Mai had charged with defending southern Hi no Kuni, but that misconception only lasted a few precious moments as dozens of the monsters were drawn to the sounds of the camp.

Even as the Wolves began using their most favored Katon Jutsu and the orange flames splashed across bleached flesh Yuto had to wonder-

How in the hell did one fight a forest that did not burn?

Secrecy was its own sort of security but it had hardly been the only protection left in place for something so critical as the Deep Cells. For the most part, it was considered suicide to descend into the cells without the presence of Orochimaru who had pacts and dealings with some of the beings inside so no one- no one who knew that which was contained by them, that is- was too worried by the thought of someone managing to get into the cells.

After all, those within the Deep Cells jealously guarded their domain and Jirobo could hardly think of a better defense for the Deep Cells than the Deep Cells themselves.

But that did not mean they assumed anything when it came to them. Anything at all. When the guards posted at the outpost failed to check in at the scheduled time Orochimaru's newest overseer immediately dropped his projects and gathered every Oto Shinobi he could locate to investigate.

What he found was, arguably, the worst case it possibly could be. Not only was the outpost slaughtered- which could be the case of anyone trying to get in- but the inhabitants were spilling forth from the depths and into the light of day freely. He didn't know what had changed but it couldn't be good and, most importantly, it needed to be stopped.

He couldn't actually do that, not by himself or with the Oto forces he'd rounded up, but he could stem the tide while they sent for the only one who had a chance at succeeding-

They needed Orochimaru.

"And so I've struck a…deal…of sorts with…them….which will see the greater Shinobi villages scrambling to respond and will do doubt bring the Jinchuriki to the forefront as they try to find some way to hold back my…altered…clones." Explained the white half of Zetsu. His other side continued. "And failing that, they should serve as an excellent reminder to the elemental nations as to the true costs of war. That will be an effective deterrent in the meantime as we secure the Biju for your original plan, Pein-Sama."

From his position on the right thumb of the Gedō Mazō, Pein frowned. Fortunately the high collar of his cloak kept that from being too obvious though he was sure Konan could tell just by the way he held his weight. She really did know him all too well.

"You sought out…them….in Orochimaru's Deep Cells?" He sought clarification, giving away no sign of the fact that he'd never even heard of such beings or even whispers of Orochimaru's most hidden secret. Again, Konan would know. She'd been there with him since the beginning. Since before that, even. She and Yahiko had brought him into the fold, after all. If any one of them held seniority it was Konan.

"I did." Black started this time before switching over. "It seemed like a good time to start..accelerating things a bit. We don't know about the one and three tails still-" Black Zetsu spoke up again to add; "Tsukuyomi seems to have gone to ground, though I hear his palace was recently attacked in Hanahime. That will probably have him out of sight for a while, either for his safety or because he's decided to use it to cover whatever he's working on at the moment." White continued with his original thought. "But the others are bound to come out of the woodwork when the villages realize how difficult it is to destroy beings that aren't entirely of this world."

Pein and Konan shared a look. This was a rather large deviation from the plan and they really didn't like not having all the details to account for any complications that might crop up and affect everything they had been working on for decades. Still, Akatsuki hadn't been able to do much without Pein's direct intervention so maybe a few changes to the plan were needed.

"Very well," Pein eventually decided aloud. "We'll fit this into our existing plans and use it to cover our movements." His attention briefly swept over their remaining members. Hidan, Kakuzu, Zetsu, Kisame, and Konan. At this point if they lost any more they would be in trouble, it wasn't like he could replace their rings or that there was a multitude of S-Ranked Shinobi willing to work with Akatsuki. "Everyone, keep an eye out for Jinchuriki being drawn out to battle Zetsu's…new friends. We'll need to react in force for every one of them, we can't risk attempting captures with only two members anymore. Even if they do take notice of our actions they should be too preoccupied with their little war and Zetsu's additions."

"Any questions?" Silence greeted him, though perhaps Hidan's grin spoke well enough. The conflict between Kumo, Iwa, and Konoha was enough to have him happy but the addition of Zetsu's monsters was sure to see pain and death spread over the elemental nations. That was right up the Jashinist's alley."

Kakuzu didn't seem entirely pleased but he'd also been around long enough to know better than to voice any dissent. There was a good chance he'd end up being the next one lost and probably not to combat .He'd managed to survive for far too long for that. No, he'd probably slip away for better opportunities before too long now. Pein would have to make sure Zetsu knew to keep an eye on him to recover his ring in that case.

Though they could probably just pay him for it if it came down to that.

Kisame was the second most likely, his recent behavior being rather strange. He had to be careful with that, though, because strange was an apt descriptor for Shinobi in general, S-ranked Shinobi especially, Nuke-nin, and members of Akatsuki alike. The man was mostly shark, something that needed ample consideration before one tried to label his behavior as 'strange'.

For all Pein knew, Kisame had reached an age where he had the urge to head into the ocean and mate with the other sharks or had already done that and was leaving often to check on his spawn. Who could really say?

Really, they probably didn't want to know.

"Very well, you are all dismissed."

The members not physically present wavered in place and then vanished, their connection cut, and Pein was left with only Konana at his side just as they had started all those years ago.

And, something told him, the same way they would probably end. A gnawing doubt told him it would not be in victory, not when things seemed to be spiraling so far out of his control.

Even his eyes couldn't see everything and Pein was starting to worry about what might lurk in the shadows of his vision. The beings of Orochiamru's Deep Cells indeed, there was obviously much that had escaped his sight if such things could exist.

And if they could- what else was out there?

Mai really wished she could believe the Wolves would joke about something like this. That the report in her hands wasn't true at all, which was much easier to believe than the reality of the situation.

Monsters in Hi no Kuni? And of course the Wolves ended up running into them somehow. She was sure they got that bit of luck from their father. She took a moment to enjoy- and be grateful of- the fact that Naruto was safely within the palace here in Yu no Kuni. Otherwise, she was sure, he would have been the one to run into these things rather than the Wolves she'd sent to guard southern Hi no Kuni.

Actually, it was probably a miracle the monsters hadn't been seen here considering Naruto's luck. Was someone else in the palace lucky enough to cancel out the misfortune that loved to follow in his shadow? If that was the case, he'd never be leaving here again if she had any say in the matter.

She'd move all current residents to one wing- so she didn't accidentally remove whoever had the luck she needed- and fill the rest of the palace with his lovers if that's what it took to keep him safe and satisfied. Normally not a consideration when keeping someone safe, she would have to make sure he didn't grow restless or dissatisfied with whatever work she could keep him occupied with.

Otherwise he'd just wander off and that misfortune would be after him like, well, probably like a horny Anko…after him. That was quite fitting, really, because everyone knew Anko was trouble.

And like trouble, she was rather taken by Mai's lord.

But while comparing Anko to imaginary personifications of misfortune was entertaining, Mai did find herself with much more important things she needed to focus on. She'd already passed on the news- through the seal- to High-Captain Keigo, Sai, and the others so that no one was blindsided by this…absurdly unexpected development but that still left her having to figure out what the hell to do about it.

Yuto's report- Naruto's seal templates were the best, being able to tie Wolves into the network before sending them out was a major tactical advantage- spoke of tree-like beings who, despite looking like dead wood, did not easily burn. Mai wasn't even sure where you started problem solving for that beyond issuing all the Wolves axes to better hack them apart.

…That wasn't a bad idea, actually. She made a note in the margins of the report so she didn't forget it. After all, who the hell wanted to cut down a tree with a Kunai? Or even a Tanto, for that matter. Yuto had mentioned that the Samurai even had some initial difficulty cutting through with their larger blades until they utilized their own Chakra manipulation to increase the cutting power of their steel. And from the sounds of it, the monsters weren't that large. Most had been roughly the size of the Wolves and there had only been a few exceptions- bloated, glutenous things that devoured the fallen on both sides and seemed to erupt with rot and pestilence, like some mutated colony of fungi Orochimaru might have been behind- which went to show just how tough these things were.

Hi no Kuni Samurai, like most others, used only the finest Tetsu no Kuni steel and it should have had absolutely no trouble passing through a branch the size of an arm even without the Jutsu- for lack of a better word- that was so often employed with them.

That was probably something to look into as well, Infusing Chakra into their blades without having to acquire Chakra Metal for all of the Wolves? That would be damn useful.

Those thoughts branched off in two other directions. The larger swords of the Samurai made her think of the Seven Swordsmen- the closest Shinobi equivalent- which progressed naturally to their own, Kisame. He was off doing Akatsuki things at the moment but that only caused her train of thought to go even further.

Akatsuki. Mikoto had plenty of reports for Akatsuki and most were of people rather than activities simply because they'd still been organizing back when she was most active with them.

And one of those people, if Mai recalled, was described quite clearly as being part- and a rather large part, at that- plant.

Well, Mikoto had called him a walking houseplant but the idea was the same. Could there be any relation? She was going to have to get her hands on those reports again and, if possible, question the woman directly.

And it wouldn't be a bad idea to get in contact with Kisame, either. He was currently among the S-Rank organization and may have heard something that would give them a better idea of what they were dealing with-

Assuming it was Akatsuki at all.

She'd just have to find a way to actually get in contact with him because she was fairly certain he didn't have access to the seal. Maybe she could borrow one of Orochimarus' snake summons to track the man down?

Mai blinked and barely resisted slamming her head into her desk. While the godling was off..somewhere- she'd never actually asked, figuring she probably didn't want to know-...the other snakes were still here in the palace. In different forms, maybe, but perhaps they could be used to get some of…Aū's children…to seek out the shark-man.

That was still weird to think about but if she had access- secondary, tertiary, or less- to a god and his servants she might as well make use of it. Right?

And then there was the second line of thought she could follow-


Who better to consult about monstrous horrors no one else had ever seen before? If something was a blight against humanity there was a good chance he knew about it.

Or had a hand in it.

Possibly both. Usually both.

But, before any of that, she needed to see to the absolute, number one priority-

She was going to need more security here in Yu no Kuni for Naruto's protection. A lot more. More security and more protection. Mai needed to turn this comfortable palace into a veritable fortress- granted, a fortress with all the comforts of a palace- to ensure nothing could reach Naruto here.

It would also serve as a bastion for their forces outside of Nami- which Keigo should be organizing just in case they needed to protect their little island from the creatures- and the headquarters of Naruto's most trusted advisors and loyal servants, but all that was just a bonus from protecting their lord in the end.

Of course, if this was going to be a fortress and they may be stuck here for the foreseeable future, well, Mai could use some physical comfort and she would feel much better knowing Tsume was nice and safe. She'd have to send an invitation for another Yu no Kuni vacation to the woman.

Then, once Tsume and Naruto were both safe, comfortable, and in sight, Mai could worry about figuring everything else out.

She should probably just go ahead and order the axes now, though, that was easy enough.

Sealkeeper: He Who Binds

Chapter 170-B "Borrow the Sun"

Patron Release 2023.01.04

"Monsters?" He asked, for a man in direct contact with a god he didn't seem readily open to the idea of other absurdities in the world. Or maybe, Mai thought, Lord Tsukuyomi simply had his fill of them and the idea of having to deal with more was distasteful. "My children are fighting monsters in the Hi no Kuni forests? As in bedtime you-better-behave-or-they'll-eat-you monsters?"

"I'd say they're more in line with Orochimaru-was-having-a-bad-day-at-the-lab, sort of monsters, but yes. Monsters." He looked amused for a second at her description before scowling.

"Creeping shadows indeed. Telling me to prepare for horrific abominations would have done more good." Groused the Daimyo of Nami no Kuni.

"Would it have?"

"Of course!" He folded his arms and added with a mumble; "I would have packed you all up and we would have taken over Umi no Kuni. Turned the whole place into a godsbedamned fortress."

Umi? Mai considered it. That really wasn't a bad idea at all if the only goal was keeping the Wolves away from danger. They could really make the island defensible and Orochimaru would finally have a use for that aquatic Shinobi project he'd been working on.

Ganju had waxed on for a page and a half about it in one of his reports. Apparently he didn't see the benefit at the time. They could be damn useful in defending an island against, well, the entire world.

Of course Orochimaru didn't really have many island outposts that Mai knew of- though she was sure he had at least one just to complete the set- and did most of his dealings on solid ground, so why he thought he'd ever need them would remain a mystery.

Honestly, she was pretty sure it was just because he could.

"And then we could have just set the rest of the world on fire and come back after we were sure they were all dead."

…..Was it bad that she didn't completely disagree with the idea?

Orochimaru's golden eyes peered down curiously at the exhausted runner at her feet. Either someone had been very intent on stopping her in her duties or she'd gone through quite a bit before being sent off with a message for her Kage.

The Snake Sage couldn't say she recognized this one- though, to be fair, she couldn't remember half the names or faces of her Shinobi as it was, let alone remembering both- but the worn Kunoichi seemed to be able to identify her- or maybe just trusted whatever Wolf they had asked for directions?- so there was a high probability she'd been around long enough to have gone through at least a few of Orochimaru's latest bodyswaps.

Really, that was quite an accomplishment. Most of Orochimaru's Shinobi didn't make it two years and few tended to make it further than four. As Orochimaru usually liked to spend as much time as he could in each body, that meant most of his Shinobi never saw even one swap.

Granted, this one could have started back when she was in her last female body, just before Sasuke, and that wasn't too long ago. This body was similar enough that she could have gone off that alone to recognize her.

Or maybe this was just as far as she'd managed to get before she'd collapsed. Entirely likely going by the deep claw marks and a myriad of burns Orochimaru could recognize as from being too close to an explosive note. Normally those were on a fixed timer so it looked like either whatever they were thrown at had come closer or someone was being naughty and making field modifications to the Fuinjutsu. Risky, that, but depending on the situation- and one's know-how- it could also have rather large payoffs.

Assuming you didn't somehow rip apart space and time right where you were standing, that is.

"Oro-chimaru-sama," They managed to get out between gasps of breath. One hand dug into their top and withdrew a small scroll but they didn't have the strength to hold it up to her afterwards.

Frowning slightly at the inconvenience- both the real inconvenience of having to stoop down and the already imagined inconvenience of whatever was contained in the scroll that resulted in her messenger looking like this- she retrieved the scroll. The writing was sloppy, hurried, and the message almost painfully short.

But that just lent it more weight.

"Breech. Deep Cells. Escaping."

The seal of Overseer Jirobo was stamped at the bottom with little care, most of the impression being so light that no ink had made it onto the paper. But what was there was enough for Orochimaru to recognize and she wasn't about to hold anything against him if he was currently seeing to the Deep Cells.

There were two ways to receive carte blanche from Orochimaru when it came to your Otogakure duties- be doing it for her beloved prince or be taking emergency action at the Tetsu no Kuni base. You could get away with anything so long as it served those purposes. You could get just about anything as a reward if you were successful, too.

Failing the first was unacceptable, failing the second, well, you were already dead so it didn't much matter.

Sparing a glance to Sasuke resting in a bed nearby, Orochimaru shook her head. Figuring out how he survived- and just how much it had cost him to hang onto his mind like that- would have to wait until later.

She needed to figure out why her pacts had been violated and what they were playing at.

Briefly she wondered if she could ask Naruto to borrow the sun, surely that could clear away even the darkest shadows of the Deep Cells.

When Ay-Sama had informed them they were going to war, the Shinobi of Kumogakure were overjoyed. Kumo may have fought their wars the same way they ran their village- with strict military discipline- but things became just a little more lax in the chaos of the battlefield.

That meant for Kumo Shinobi, war was one of the best chances they had to cut loose.

Their Raikage's plans were ambitious but seemed realistic enough that they could be reasonably accomplished. The Shinobi of the Clouds thought they knew what they were getting into.

They were wrong.

Nothing could have prepared them for the monsters that dragged themselves out of the darkness that night and a solid campaign had been a living nightmare ever since.

The first morning, when the monsters retreated before the light of the sun crested the horizon, they had been foolish enough to think that light- or at least the light of the sun- could drive them away. It gave them a period of safety to rest and recover and it gave them a glimmer of hope that no matter what happened in the night, they would be fine if they just hung on until daybreak.

And after the second night, when the mountains began to glow from the sun hidden behind them, the Kumogakure Shinobi believed their woes to be at an end, if only for a matter of hours.

But the monsters did not retreat.

Instead, just as the Kumo Shinobi were starting to feel relief, the monsters redoubled their efforts and it felt like more joined in the fray with the imminent dawn. A final push? No, because Kumo didn't manage to drive them off until nearly noon.

The light of the sun didn't drive them off the previous day, they had simply retreated and made it look like they couldn't stand the morning. And they had done it so they could catch Kumo by surprise the second day. That was forethought. It was planned.

Either someone was controlling the monsters or these things could think and that was a terrifying prospect. As resistant and fast as these things were- Chuunin were using Raiton Chakra to speed up their reflexes just in hopes of matching them and if these things had nerves the Raiton Jutsu poured into them sure as hell didn't seem to disrupt them.- it was a very different thing to fight them as beasts than as intelligent opponents.

Beasts were predictable, they could be outmaneuvered by anyone observant and clever enough. Intelligent people could too, but they could also detect your intentions and even turn them back at you, trapping you in whatever web of plans and traps you may have weaved in hopes of snaring them.

It was a completely different game and Kumo had made the mistake of assuming those things to be mere beasts initially. Plenty of their comrades had ended up paying for that.

And, worse, between the two attacks their element of surprise had been lost- Iwa knew they were here. Of course, Iwa was also having to deal with these things too, so at least it gave them a little wiggle room if they managed to slide past Tsuchi no Kuni's home guard.

But for the last two days, there hadn't been anything. No sign of a single monster during the day or night. Nothing seemed to be following their path towards Iwagakure either. It was like the monsters had just ceased to exist. They hadn't existed before the attacks, though, and not a single Kumo Shinobi on Tsuchi soil thought the things were really gone.

It was now just a matter of when they attacked and whether or not Kumo would be ready.

Fighting one expected foe was fine but being caught between two was quickly wearing down Kumo's forces. If they could at least take Iwa first- and no doubt Iwa would be hoping to keep them at bay and as fodder to catch the attention of the monsters outside their walls- they could set up propper fortifications and only have to worry about one enemy.

Even if they were monsters, it would be a much more manageable position.

It was still the general consensus that they'd rather be fighting Iwagakure anyway, at least they weren't trying to eat them. And if they were, well, those Kumo Shinobi were already dead. More than could be said about those the monsters managed to sink their claws into and drag away.

Stone erupted from beneath the camp, shards as sharp as Kunai exploding in all directions and peppering the Kaminari natives with earthen flak. A few lucky hits put down their recipients for good but most of the injuries were only mildly irritating. No, the dangerous part was that the Iwagakure scouts could now use that stone embedded in the Kumo Shinobi to keep track of them on the battlefield. Avoiding the next attacks was going to be difficult but Kumo's numbers would see them scattering back to the cover of their rocks soon enough.

Memories of monsters would be temporarily forgotten amidst the adrenaline and chaos of the fight, Iwa trying desperately to push back the invaders while trying to recall their own invasion forces currently trying the same thing in other countries and Kumo steadily earning ground as they pushed towards Iwagakure.

But when the monsters returned it wouldn't be in their memories.

Beto's black eyes watched critically as the forces he'd taken charge of for their latest foray into Hi no Kuni hobbled back into the relative safety of Kusa's borders. There were enough caves carved out beneath those rolling green hills that his Shinobi should have little trouble slipping away and vanishing into them to get some rest and see to their wounds.

Iwa's eastern forces weren't supposed to be directly engaging anyone from Hi no Kuni- Konoha Shinobi or the Fire Daimyo's Samurai- directly but Konoha's attention had to remain on them while Kurotsuchi and the southern forces accomplished their objectives.

She was late, but something had to go wrong with this plan and obviously Kumo's self-invitation wasn't quite enough to satisfy the humors of fate. Or maybe it was better for Kurotsuchi's forces to remain out of the frontline until the Kumo situation cleared up and this would turn out for the best. It wasn't Beto's place to say either way.

Unfortunately they couldn't just hide along the border and wait for their comrades to join them from the other side of Konoha because even Leaf Nin weren't stupid enough to head into enemy territory where they knew Iwa Shinobi were waiting and capable of ambushing them when they were sticking to the minor countries surrounding Hi no Kuni.

So long as Iwa was sticking to the border countries, Konoha Shinobi were likely to leave them be. They would come to Taki's aid, of course, but once the capital was secure they would retreat again to focus on Kumo.

Which was another reason Beto had to make sure Konoha remained engaged with Iwa. Kumo was going after both of them which meant Konoha would be more than happy to let the Cloud Shinobi keep them busy in the minor countries surrounding Hi no Kuni. They wouldn't even have to engage with Iwa and that put them in a position to notice Kurotsuchi's movements.

Because Kumo didn't know about Iwa's plan- probably- and was probably not going to be taking actions specifically to distract Konoha from figuring it out. If anything, Kumo would probably end up engaging Iwa's southern forces if they spotted them and that would both keep them from being able to strike at Konoha Shinobi directly and would bring their attention to Iwa's attempted flank, allowing them to reposition themselves to something more defensible.

And if Kumo was busy attacking Kurotsuchi Konoha didn't have to worry about where Kumo was located because they would be right there with the Iwa Shinobi they were making sure weren't to their flank.

Hell, Konoha could then ignore the eastern forces entirely- as hypothetically they would still be laying low in the surrounding countries along the border- and help Kumo against Kurotsuchi by flanking her forces.

So Beto was left having to stick his neck out from the safety of their secured cover to provoke Konoha Shinobi and keep them focused on the fact that Iwa's eastern forces were still an active threat even if they were out of sight for the most part.

At first that wasn't too bad, but Konoha Shinobi were crafty buggers and had started developing ways to hinder Iwa's effectiveness. They were very nearly succeeding in pushing Iwa into having to fight Konoha shinobi the way Konoha Shinobi fought. He would be impressed at the effectiveness if it wasn't so godsbedamned annoying.

And as effective as it was to get Iwa to fight them the way they wanted to fight- lighting everything on fire was a very Konoha move but damn if it wasn't fucking working for them- having Iwa in that position was also a very effective way to inflict losses they really couldn't afford when playing for time.

To be perfectly honest, Beto and his Shinobi had been more or less fucked in this last skirmish and it had only been a bit of good fortune for them- and very bad for Konoha- that gave them the opportunity to sneak away and learn from this.

The last of his Shinobi made it past the border marking and into the cover provided by smoldering husks that had been trees just a few days ago- he was mildly surprised they were somehow still burning from the inside- and black eyes returned to confirm that the Konoha Shinobi were still busy.

He didn't know where they came from or what their purpose was but those creatures were at least good for a distraction. He couldn't actually hold it against Konoha for focusing on them immediately and dismissing Iwa without hesitation, either, because even he could admit that those things were a much greater threat than a bunch of injured Iwa Shinobi.

But he could hold Konoha's techniques against them. Why in the ever-loving fuck did they have a technique to multiply Kunai with lit explosive notes when they were already the country with the most explosive notes in the world?

…And how the hell did they get a hold of it for the Bakuha Butai?

Tsume had been surprised but not at all displeased to receive an invitation to join Mai in Yu no Kuni again. With Hana gone and Kiba training with his team- mostly Shino because Ino was often busy these days and Kurenai was…somewhere. Kiba didn't actually know but had mentioned that "the crazy snake lady" took her, so probably with Anko wherever that was- and some of the retired shinobi around the compound so she was again reduced to having nothing but clan matters to keep her busy throughout the day.

Those had increased exponentially as of late, with her clan trying to better integrate themselves better with Konoha as a whole and all, but she'd noticed that the other Inuzuka were also taking upon themselves more responsibility too so her workload hadn't actually increased that much.

For both of those things, she was fairly certain credit belonged to Naruto who came in and scared the ever-loving shit out from five of the most well-respected members of the clan. That had lit a fire under their tails and it rapidly spread to everyone else too.

As had tales of Naruto which were quickly changing to depict him as some great demon hiding as a human to assist those he had contracted with- namely Mai as of the last iterations of the rumors she had heard- and was rapidly becoming a boogeyman of the clan.

If it wasn't so stupid she might actually be impressed. Still, she couldn't exactly argue against results and her clan was becoming more and more sufficient without her involvement. Most of her new work was just going over reports and making sure people weren't stepping on each other's paws with their projects.

And it had the added benefit of her just mentioning asking for Naruto's opinion when she was mediating disputes to see quick resolutions. That one actually stung a bit. Why the hell was she, the head of the Inuzuka, having to threaten members of the pack that couldn't get along with a goddamn Genin of all things?

If anything they should have been wary of earning her ire.

But it did work and it did make things easier for her, so she didn't have much of a choice but to let it slide for the most part. Mostly because the little bastard wasn't actually in Konoha for her to express her displeasure at.

Well, not that she was in Konoha either. No, with the clan mostly able to look after itself and having charged the five Inuzuka Naruto had scared the most- why was it he'd gotten to decide what was now more or less her council?- with seeing to disputes and the like in her absence she'd been more than happy to accept Mai's invitation and the carriage that had been sent with it.

She could have just made her way on foot- it would have been faster and Tsume wasn't that out of practice as a Kunoichi- but she figured it was rude to not take the provided carriage that had been arranged and, well, she was also happy to take advantage of a few days of peace and quiet as they made their way north.

Besides, a Konoha Kunoichi headed towards the northern border of Hi no Kuni? In the direction of Kumo, who had engaged Konoha forces to the west? That was probably a bad choice, it might give people the wrong idea.

She was glad she'd taken those few days to rest between dealing with her family- extended as all clans were- and arriving in Yu no Kuni because things here were a bit….hectic.

The palace she'd been brought too first- the Daimyo's palace in the capital, if she wasn't mistaken, but Tsume had dealt with the Wolves long enough to know better than to ask- had Wolves and servants alike scrambling to complete tasks and, if Tsume was understanding things correctly, it looked like they were fortifying the palace for war.

Not necessarily a bad idea given Kaminari was to the north and they sat between them and Hi no Kuni, but Tsume couldn't recall the rest of the capital she'd passed through doing anything similar. Sure, things were a little tense with a war close by but nothing had spread to the vacation capital of the world and she was sure the workers at the resorts were doing everything they could to take their patrons' minds off the troubles just a minor country or two away.

She didn't know how well they were succeeding but she was sure they were trying.

No one in the palace, however, was trying to disguise the fact that they were turning it into a fortress and using their Nami no Kuni connections to ship vast quantities of supplies to be held in reserve should war reach their doorstep. Really, it was as if they were expecting a siege.

As Tsume was currently there, she hoped they were wrong.

Well, currently in Yu no Kuni. She'd only been in the palace for two days while Mai tried to clear her schedule when she found herself accompanying the young woman up north to what she learned was a recently constructed Wolf outpost.

She wasn't aware the Wolves had any outposts but it came at little surprise that Orochimaru did and had been more than happy to sacrifice one of his old ones to be used as the basis of a new den for the Wolves.

And it came at some surprise who they were meeting in that outpost- Hoshigaki Kisame.

The S-Rank former- she thought it was former, anyway, did they retain that title so long as they possessed their legendary weapons or did they lose it when they left Kiri?- Kiri no Shinobigatana Shichinin Shū member and infamous Daimyo-Slayer was probably one of the last people she expected Mai to deal with, mostly due to the young woman's close relationship with the Daimyo of Nami no Kuni.

A known Daimyo-Slayer was typically not trusted anywhere near another Daimyo or their council ever again for good reason. The Daimyo made up the backbone of the Elemental Nations and for a Shinobi to threaten that by slaying one of them showed the world that there wasn't anything they wouldn't do, regardless of the global consequences.

That was not the sort of person you wanted near other word leaders.

But Mai didn't seem bothered by that fact as she sat at a desk close to a room that smelled heavily of sex and proceeded to question the shark-man about some sort of tree-monsters the Wolves were encountering.

Tsume briefly wondered if she'd fallen asleep in the carriage and hadn't yet made it to Yu no Kuni.

"Uh, yeah, those are Zetsu." Kisame blinked, surprised the Wolves already knew when Akatsuki had only just been informed about the new addition to their arsenal. "Well, were Zetsu, I think." The shark shook his head. "It sounded like he did something to his clones, something to do with, uh, 'Deep Cells' Orochimaru has somewhere and whatever the things that were in them are."

Mai frowned at the explanation, obviously displeased by what she was hearing. Whether that was because it was indeed Akatsuki behind these things or because Orochimaru was somehow involved remained to be seen.

"It looks like I will have to be getting into contact with Orochimaru about these things, then." She shook her head and returned her attention from her thoughts to the present. "Thank you, Kisame, is there anything about them you can share with us? My Wolves report that they seem to be rather durable and setting fire to them proved difficult."

"Fire?" Kisame whistled. "That would have been my first suggestion when you described them as trees. I don't know, Zetsu really didn't announce any sort of weakness and I don't know any of his specifically. He is a plant though, mostly, I think, so you could try like a weedkiller or something and see if that affects them." He gave a helpless shrug. "Otherwise I guess the weakness would be on the side of whatever's modified them, so you'd have to know about whatever's been kept in those Deep Cells. Sounded nasty, whatever they are."

And coming from a walking, talking shark who was a wanted criminal by most of the world that was saying something. Only Orochimaru stating the same was likely to hold more weight and considering the man- er, woman- had these things in the 'Deep Cells' maybe Orochimaru was of the same opinion.

Not a comforting thought.

"I had been afraid of that. We'll get the Wolves weapons better suited to hacking away at them and look into your suggestion of some sort of poison harmful to plants while I try to get ahold of Orochimaru."

"Sorry I couldn't tell you more, I don't think Pein and Zetsu really trust those of us who remain all that much and having lost Sasori, Deidara, Orochimaru, and Tobi, well, I think they're starting to wonder who's going to leave them next."

Mai leaned back into her chair with a sigh as she waved off his apology. "It's fine, Kisame, I had been hopeful you may have heard something but I really didn't expect them to have revealed any weaknesses so openly to you. It's obvious whatever they are, they're a very recent development and most of you were kept in the dark about it."

The shark shuffled slightly, uncomfortable, before offering an opinion he hoped was helpful. "Well, I could be wrong, but it didn't seem like Pein knew about it, either, and he's supposed to be the leader of the organization. I don't think he was all that pleased, to be honest, knowing he was going to have to adjust existing plans to fit something like this."

"Oh? So Zetsu was acting on his own, then? Maybe there's something about it he wanted to keep from Pein….." Mai trailed off before shaking her head clear of the thought. It was just speculation at this point, there was no value in it until they had more details to go over. "Regardless, thank you for the information Kisame."

"'Course, always happy to help friends of Tobi. Say, uh, did you need me to return to doing Akatsuki things? I don't think they'll be sharing anything important with us if even Pein isn't fully in the loop and I'd rather not be anywhere close if Zetsu and Pein end up competing for leadership of Akatsuki."

A brow rose. "I thought you liked fighting…?"

"I like fighting people," He explained. "Not mutant plant-monsters infused with something Orochimaru's had their hands in or gods."

That was fair.

Mai took a moment to contemplate it. Kisame hadn't had that much to send back to them previously and based on what she was learning now that might not have been his fault. While part of her argued it was better to have someone in the organization who could give them early warning about what they were up to, another part of her wanted to compile their assets before they could lose them.

And if things were getting volatile in Akatsuki they could very well end up losing Kisame. He may not have been any good as a spy- or at navigating- but he was an S-Rank Shinobi with absolutely massive Chakra reserves. That was the sort of asset they might end up needing if they found themselves fully involved in the building war or needed to hold against these newly-made monsters.

When it came down to it, knowing he could be placed outside wherever Naruto was staying to help defend him won out. Akatsuki was falling apart anyway and soon it would just be dangerous individuals who used to be a part of it that they needed to look out for.

Besides, Kisame really was shit at being a spy. It was a miracle he'd not been outed.

Maybe because he was so shit he'd never actually uncovered anything that could get him outed. He'd just sort of…been there.

"No, there's no point in sending you back anymore. You're more useful on the battlefield than as a spy, anyway." She answered. "We'll either have you in Nami or here in Yu no Kuni, did you have a preference?"

He rubbed his chin for a moment, thinking, before offering a shrug. "Either's fine, I guess, though I guess I have to be more careful about being seen here in Yu no Kuni, yeah? It's probably easier if I just head back to Nami. Sasori and Deidara are there anyway, aren't they?"

"They are." She wasn't sure how she felt about having a third of Akatsuki grouped together back in Nami but it was better than having them grouped around Naruto. Sure, they could make good bodyguards but she wasn't sure she trusted them enough for that. "The palace was recently destroyed but I'm sure the Wolves have already managed to put together suitable accommodations to house Tsukuyomi so you'll probably be there in his absence."

"Sure, that's fine." Kisame gave another shrug. "I guess if the palace was destroyed there you probably have him at the Yu no Kuni palace? I didn't see him here."

"Yes, he's there- for now. We'll see how long I can keep him there before he wanders off and trouble catches up to him."

"Yeah," Laughed Kisame. "That boy sure knows how to find trouble. Still, never thought someone named after a fishcake could be so goddamn scary."

Tsume blinked, her attention caught, and she replayed the last minute of conversation in her head.

No, it couldn't have been-


Naruto was in the Yu no Kuni palace- she was sure she'd passed him in the hallway at one point- and his name could be taken like that while Mai was apparently trying to keep Tsukuyomi in the same place to keep him out of trouble. But Tsukuyomi didn't get in trouble, Naruto got into trouble by all accounts Tsume had heard and Kisame was supposedly talking about the Lord of Wolves. Or, Mai was talking about the Lord of Wolves and Kisame was talking about Naruto and their conversation continued without issue because-

Because Naruto was Tsukuyomi.

It all made sudden, perfect sense- beyond Hana's suggestion that she marry the young man, which suddenly made even less- and Tsume had a sudden urge to smack herself for not realizing it sooner.

No wonder he'd managed to terrorize her clan, it wasn't some Genin but the Daimyo who had reduced Kirigakure to rubble!

"...Mai?" Tsume groaned, interrupting the two. "Please tell me I'm drawing stupid conclusions?"

A sudden understanding flashed in Mai's black eyes as she realized what Tsume had only just now learned and a slight dusting of pink spread over her cheekbones in embarrassment. .

Kisame just looked confused. "What conclusions?"

"Is Naruto Tsukuyomi?"

Before Mai could find a more tactful answer Kisame beat her to it. "Of course he is, who else is stupid powerful and has the Wolves at his beck and call?"

Mai shot her an apologetic look. She should have brought her in on that secret a long time ago.

"...You told the walking fish-finger before me?"

"To be fair," Mai offered. "The walking fish-finger learned when Naruto tossed him and Zabuza around before burning Kirigakure to the ground. We couldn't exactly keep that quiet."

"Hey!" The walking fish-finger happened to take offense to that. "The name's Kisame."

"Kisame might find himself sent back to Akatsuki if he doesn't behave and let the adults talk." Was Mai's counter. The shark-man drew into himself at the threat.

"No, no. I'll be good."

It was still astonishing to see just how easily Mai could get S-Ranked Rogue Shinobi- some of the most dangerous and feared individuals in the world- to cow before her.

And it was equally astonishing to Tsume just how wet watching it made her.

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Until I next have your attention, I remain,