The power burned within her chest; a fire that danced with every beat of her heart.
Sarada reveled in it.
She knew, in an abstract sort of way, what force of power the Sharingan could bring to bear. But she hadn't seen it, hadn't lived it. This, Sarada knew, was power. She beckoned and it answered her call. Her mother was looking up at her with wide eyes even as she kept Mitsuki alive with hands of crystalline green. Bolt had gone limp in her embrace, jerking awake every few moments with a look of wild fear and bloodlust in his blue eyes, before falling unconscious in her arms once more.
Kinshiki flew. He had an ability much akin to the Hyūga: the ability to expel chakra from his tenketsu. Perhaps, Sarada thought, it was the other way around. The Hyūga had their ability. Either way, it didn't matter. Kinshiki expelled gusts of wind that carried him safely from levitating rock to rock. It was how he had managed to return from the void of space, Sarada thought, after her mother had sent him into orbit.
Sarada raised a firm hand and the Heavenly Jeweled Spear leapt to do her bidding. For the first time, Sarada saw a glimmer of fear in the ogre's eyes as he beheld the spectral spear that she held aloft with her telekinesis. Like the fist of a wrathful god, she brought down the full might of her power atop Kinshiki. The alien was too slow to dodge. He raised his hands aloft, conjuring a shield, and grunted under the strain as Sarada began to crush the life from him.
First Mitsuki, then Bolt? Kinshiki had been either brave beyond measure or a blind fool to think she would ever allow her first and greatest friends to be taken from her.
For that... he would suffer.
Bolt stirred, again, and lightning danced across his skin. He drew in slow and even breaths and Sarada could see the fire of his chakra being stoked to life once again. "Rest, Bolt," she commanded him. "I can finish him."
Bolt looked up at her with glassy eyes. "Just... in case," he whispered. He managed to stay awake for a handful of moments before falling unconscious again.
With a thought, Sarada willed her Susano'o to act. Its fingers twitched, barely perceptible to the naked eye, and the Heavenly Jeweled Spear heeded her call. It spun, a quick, bird-like motion that reminded her of Bolt, and she casted a wall of force forward. Kinshiki stared up at her with some unreadable emotion that he struggled to suppress— only, he wasn't looking at her... he was looking at her spear.
Kinshiki leapt with great bounds, clearing mounds of rubble and cavernous crevices that her mother had created with her preternatural kick. Sarada commanded another wave of force to slam into the alien she had all but sentenced to death for his transgressions. Kinshiki narrowly avoided it and her telekinesis burrowed into the earth for hundreds of paces. The ogre grunted, favoring his mangled side, and raised his remaining good arm. A javelin of crimson energy coalesced in the palm of his hand and Sarada barely had time to process the act before the head of the javelin was no more than a handful of feet from her chest.
Sarada's eyes widened and she forced the projectile from her Susano'o before hastily shoring up its defenses. Bolt had been their vanguard and Sarada had dangerously underestimated their enemy's speed and strength. Sometimes she forgot just why people had dubbed Bolt the "Thunder God." It was times like these that reminded her why. Inhuman opponents with inhuman capabilities.
Bolt gasped and shuddered awake in her arms. His blue eyes looked up at her, then to the repaired thatching of her Susano'o, and finally fell on Kinshiki who, Sarada noticed, was creating another javelin while he hastily and narrowly evaded her continued attempts to crush him like a cockroach beneath the fist of God.
This time, however, she knew what was coming.
Sarada reached out in preparation. No doubt Kinshiki would put more force into his next throw in an attempt to breach her defenses. Sarada would not allow that to happen. Kinshiki moved and, like smoke slipping through her fingers, the javelin evaded her grasp. Sarada sucked in a breath a moment too late as she realized what was about to happen.
The head of the javelin burst through the chestplate of her Susano'o and into the hollow chest cavity where she and Bolt were ensconced. Sarada saw a flash of gleaming red and waited for a pain that never came. She watched in wonder as wispy spectral serpents danced around her, cloaking her, catching the javelin fast in its armor.
"Mitsuki!" Sarada exclaimed, expelling the javelin, repairing her construct, and summoning her friend and mother to her all in a single thought.
Mitsuki looked pale— which alarmed her, considering his normal pallor— and tried to smile at her. It came off as more of a grimace. "He's strong," he said.
"Too fast," Bolt added weakly.
Her mother approached him, her pink hair limp and damp with sweat. She, too, was feeling the exhaustion. When she approached with raised hands clad in the green of the Mystic Palm, Bolt waved her away. Sarada swung the Heavenly Jeweled Spear at Kinshiki. The ogre dodged it but was caught in the secondary wave of force she projected in its wake.
Sakura fussed over Bolt before he drove her away with a shock of electricity and then looked up at her. "Do you trust me?" he asked.
Sarada looked down, into those blue eyes that she had fancied when she was a girl because they reminded her of the Seventh, and saw the curtains of cold steel draw back and reveal the boy within. Sarada saw exhaustion and fear— the fear of death, but not his own.
That alone convinced her to nod.
Sarada knew exactly how exhausted Bolt was because he brought his hands together, weaving hand seals that shinobi of their caliber had long since forgone for all but the most exacting of techniques or the most dire of circumstances. The her-that-thought-like-Bolt told Sarada that it was both that drove him to weave the long chain of seals. His hands rested on his chest, palms facing together and thumbs laying atop pinkies in the seal of the Monkey— traditionally the seal of Lightning Style— and he looked up at her.
"Don't fight it," Bolt said, drawing himself up. "I only have enough energy for once."
Bolt raised a single hand to her jaw, his thumb grazing her cheek, before his hand slid around to the back of her neck and his fingers dug into her flesh. Outside, Kinshiki twirled, creating a handful of javelins that hung aloft in the air. Bolt whispered, words so soft she had to read them from his lips with her Sharingan, intoning meaning and power to the technique as lightning arced up his arm and into her neck.
"Bioelectric Possession Technique!"
Sarada hissed a sharp breath through her teeth as she felt the cold-hot bite of lightning. Then came the pitiful probe of Bolt's chakra, testing the waters, and every fiber of Sarada's being tensed as she prepared to defend herself. From what, she didn't know, only that something primal and animal told her to buck the invading presence from her body.
Then Sarada remembered her conviction. She forced herself to relax, for her defenses to fall, and let Bolt in.
A low hum rang in her ears and all the world seemed to slow. Kinshiki, lips pulled back into a snarl as he prepared to hurl a javelin, slowed to an almost glacial pace. Sarada's heart beat a furious rhythm in her throat. Out of the corner of her eye, something blue-white shimmered into existence. Another Bolt, standing tall and straight and free from the exhaustion and wounds she knew to mar the one she held in her arms, appeared before her.
Sarada blinked owlishly at him. He smiled in return, giving her a mocking bow. "Welcome," Bolt said. "To the realm of the Thunder God."
Kinshiki began to move forward, the muscles of his arm bulging as he prepared to hurl another javelin. Her mother and Mitsuki began to call to her but Sarada couldn't understand them. Their lips pursed, forming the beginnings of words, but by the time they had completed the second sound Sarada had forgotten the first.
"What... is this?" Sarada asked, awed.
Bolt preened. Of course he did. "This," he gestured grandly all around them. "Is my magnum opus." Then he frowned. "Well, one of them, anyway. Is it really a great work when there are multiple counts?"
"This is how you see the world in Thunder God Mode," Sarada deduced, ignoring the pomp.
Bolt seemed to deflate slightly. "What you're experiencing now is but a trifling amount of power compared to the genuine article," he sniffed. "I have merely elevated your thought process to a more civilized level. The Fourth Raikage— his true claim to fame, in my opinion— and the Third Tsuchikage did something similar during the Fourth War. I've merely... improved upon it."
Outside, Mitsuki began to pour his Sage Transformation energy into her Susano'o, reinforcing its defenses, while her mother moved to stand guard before her and Bolt to defend them bodily. The javelin left Kinshiki's hand wreathed in a nova of compressed air. Still, it moved achingly slowly. Sarada felt like she could track its path through the air easily even without her Sharingan.
Sarada could see how addicting this kind of power could be. To have all the time in the world to watch your enemy, to plan your next move, plotting every step needed to take someone apart piece by piece. And it was but "a trifling amount of power?" Sarada scoffed. Then she recalled the name she had read from his lips.
"In truth," Bolt continued smugly. "It was meant to be a union of powers. To grant the greatest of my speed short of Thunder God Mode itself to any one of my followers, enhancing their natural abilities. Could you imagine it? Tetsu, all his strength and power and swordsmanship, augmented by my speed? He would be unstoppable."
Then a feeling like ice chilled her spine. She had not voiced her thoughts aloud. Bolt took a step forward, lips slowly parting in an animal grin. "Surface thoughts only, Sarada," he informed her with great pleasure. "Brains are quite tricky. How else do you think I'm talking to you right now?" He quirked an eyebrow at her and smiled something boyish. "Just don't think of anything embarrassing."
And, of course, because Bolt had brought her attention to it, her mind immediately wandered to what she would most want him to not see. Moments of weakness. Feelings of affection— for her family, her friends, him. Her taking a shower that morning before the battle. More private, intimate moments.
Bolt laughed and Sarada felt she would die of mortal embarrassment. She stuffed those thoughts in a box and promptly buried them deep within the recesses of her mind.
Fortunately, Bolt sombered. His image flickered, like static, and Sarada felt the world begin to speed up just a fraction of its pace. "It seems I have underestimated how strong I was," he grumbled. "If we die because of my gloating—"
"—If we die because of your gloating, Bolt," Sarada told him sweetly. "I'll find you in Naraka and kill you again myself."
It was meant to be dry and witty but Sarada could feel the way Bolt recoiled from her words. If his image could blanch, she was sure it would have. He smiled weakly. "If we die because of my gloating, you have my permission," he returned weakly. "Now, let's finish this up."
Sarada nodded and, with a thought, deftly plucked the javelin from the air before it could reach them. Unlike her body, slow and sluggish, the power of her Sharingan kept pace with her mind. Waves of force slammed into Kinshiki at her considerably augmented speed of thought. The ogre did his level best to avoid her attacks but, unlike before, Sarada could tell he was fighting a losing battle. She circled him, ensnared him, boxed him in, a wall of force on all sides and then she clenched.
Kinshiki fought valiantly. He held off a wall with both legs, one arm, shouldered another, and pushed up with the dome of his head against another. She could feel his strength, inhuman and vastly more powerful than her own, straining against her power. But, in this endeavor, Sarada's will was as iron. She was Hokage to the whole of the world now. Their lives were in her hands. Lives that Kinshiki and his ilk had tried to extinguish. Worse, they had tried to take her mother, Bolt, and Mitsuki from her. That... could not be allowed.
Kinshiki began to scream. It began slowly, low and bass, before rising in pitch and desperation as he began losing the battle. Sarada pushed and pushed and pushed, determined to squeeze until there was nothing left but dust, and Kinshiki curled into himself under the pressure.
That was when things went pear-shaped.
A blur of orange-gold trailed through the sky. With Bolt augmenting her senses, Sarada could see that it was the Seventh. He had four arms— two of flesh and blood, the others of chakra— desperately wrangling with a sphere of dense chakra.
A shiver worked its way up her spine and then the world came rushing back with all its speed and danger. Naruto sailed through the air so quickly that Sarada could barely follow his path. In the distance, where the wreckage of her mother's kick lay, he fell, and a pillar of fire erupted skyward.
Sarada cast a quick glance down to see that Bolt had exhausted his remaining strength and was barely clinging to consciousness. Overhead, Sarada saw the purple of her father's Susano'o as he gave chase.
Her stomach dropped into her boots as she saw that her father was chasing Momoshiki. The prince of the invaders looked down at her with scorn and derision as he raised a hand. Lightning arced all around him, wrist-thick, and tainted with a malice that was a perversion of the element she had spent so much time fighting against under the command of Bolt.
Idly, she had a strange vision of suddenly hurling Bolt out of the safety of her Susano'o and into the path of destruction in hopes of him being able to wrest control of the attack from the pale alien. In Bolt's condition, she very much doubted he would be up to the task. He couldn't save them this time.
Mitsuki hissed, hoarse with panic, and all around them spectral green serpents bubbled into existence. Her Susano'o wore them like a shroud, easily accepting and incorporating the chakra of one of the few people Sarada truly trusted. Sarada saw her father's face contort with black rage as Momoshiki unleashed his attack.
Sarada pushed more chakra into her Susano'o and prayed.
The wave of lightning washed over them, larger than any swell of the ocean, and Sarada screamed as they were all thrown to the ground. The impact jarred her and Sarada reached out with the power of the Heavenly Jeweled Spear to stabilize them before they could be hurled far. When she peeled open her eyes, she found that the combination of her and Mitsuki's armor had held. A few stray arcs of lightning danced across the fiery skin of her Susano'o, hissing dangerously. Bolt thrust a hand forth and the lightning heeded his call as it came to him, obediently, like a faithful hound. Bolt shuddered and sighed as he took the lightning into his body.
"Well," Mitsuki smiled innocently. "We're alive! How about that?"
Sarada smiled wryly at the dry wit. Bolt ignored the both of them, skittering forward, eyes once more focused on the battlefield. Outside, her father and the Seventh had recovered and stood opposite of Momoshiki and Kinshiki. The alien prince looked down at the warrior with something akin to disappointment and Kinshiki had his head lowered in shame. Behind the two of them, an alien boy and girl— twins— stood at the ready, their hands tightly clutched and fingers interwoven. They, unlike the others, appeared as exhausted as Sarada herself felt.
Momoshiki turned his gaze on her father and his features turned mocking before he said something. Sarada couldn't read his lips at such a distance even with her Sharingan. The prince gestured to Kinshiki and the four of them were lifted into the air where they hung aloft for a moment before departing.
Then Sarada realized what had happened. They had won. "We won!" she exclaimed.
Bolt turned to face her, barely able to stand, and Sarada withered under his disapproving eyes. "But what did we lose?" he asked her.
Sarada didn't know.
Aihana Ōhara trembled in boots that were two sizes much too large for her small feet. The armor she wore— taken because she would rather have the armor and not need it rather than need it and not have it— dwarfed her small frame. In the chill of the morning, the steel was icy to the touch. Then again, it was always cold in the Land of Frost. For all the good it would do, the armor weighed her down more than anything. Worse, her hands shook uncontrollably. She could hardly hold a kunai, let alone form hand seals. She was more likely to hurt herself than the enemy.
Aihana was afraid. Desperately, terribly afraid, struck dumb and cold with terror.
She was twelve and she was going to war.
In her world of madness, the only thing that consoled her was that she was not the only one afraid. Her teammates— dare she say friends— were as terrified as she was, even if they would never say it aloud. Shiho hadn't made a single baudy joke, crude comment, or flirted with anyone in days. Aihana had been mortally embarrassed by her behavior. Now she would give anything to hear a lewd joke slip past her fear. Goumaru had been uncharacteristically quiet, no longer nervously rattling off odd tidbits of knowledge or facts about their station in the Land of Frost. He hid behind his round glasses, eyes wide, looking for enemies in every shadow. Their jōnin teacher— a grizzled man whom Aihana would swear before the Sage of Six Paths himself had no more than five facial expressions and a vocabulary of twelve words— even appeared tense, coiled with a nervous energy.
Aihana had been lucky to be placed on a team under a real teacher instead of being sent to the genin corps with the rest of the ninja in her peer group that hadn't qualified for the Hidden Waterfall's academy. In truth, she thought— she knew— the only reason she wasn't among the rest of the rank and file was because her mother and father could not— would not— stand the embarrassment of having an Ōhara serve among the commoners. "The failures," the ghost of her father whispered in her ear. "The weaklings," her mother added.
"You," her eldest sister, Ayaka, sneered.
Aihana was the second youngest of seven sisters, the least talented, and she hated each and every one of their guts. Still, she would kiss their boots and hug them close if they were there with her. She might not ever see them again.
"H-Hey," Shiho whispered. Aihana startled. She hadn't realized she had been staring. Her teammate's cheeks colored and she cleared her throat to cover the quiver in her voice. "You okay?"
Aihana nodded jerkily. She couldn't get her lips to form the words.
"Good. That's good," Shiho nodded just as jerkily. She paused, lips pursed. There had always been a slightly awkward disconnect between Aihana and her teammates. She was the replacement. The third member of their squad had been killed by a rogue explosion during an operation of the former Revolution. Aihana had never had the courage to ask the older girl about who she had replaced.
Shiho smiled and leaned forward, more sultry and promising than the expression should be on a fourteen-year-old. "Do you think they're cute?" the older girl asked.
"C-Cute?" Aihana stuttered questioningly.
Shiho nodded. "The aliens," she said. "Do you think they'll be cute? Like in the stories and stuff."
Aihana blinked up owlishly at her. Her fear made her incapable of answering and her mortification made her cheeks warm.
Shiho smiled, just a little bit wider, and leaned closer. "You know? Cute green guys..." she wiggled her eyebrows. "Or girls, if that's your thing," she added playfully, tracing the top of the breastplate with a long, pale finger. "Maybe blue? With a fringe on their heads, like in that game?"
Goumaru coughed awkwardly, his cheeks dark and ruddy. "Actually," he said, pushing his glasses back into place with a single finger. "It's highly unlikely that the invaders will resemble us at all. They evolved on a completely different planet with a completely different ecosystem. There's so many variables to account for that could change the way life evolved there. Gravity, atmospheric composition, presence of liquid water, abundance of the essential elements for life, and..."
Shiho laughed prettily as their friend rambled off what knowledge he had about the theories of alien life. Aihana smiled and felt a bit of her fear thaw and melt away just a little bit.
"Furthermore," Goumaru said, puffing up as he really got going. "Even if they did resemble us enough for physical attraction to be possible, there's no possible way our two species could ever crossbreed. Why, if we could, it would have immense— and quite frankly disturbing— implications about the origin of life as we know it, and..."
"Don't ruin my fantasies, Gou," Shiho chided him before smiling wickedly. "If you knew half the things I was attracted to, you would be... immensely disturbed," the older girl parroted his words back.
Goumaru turned a brilliant shade of crimson and Shiho threw her head back and laughed. Aihana hid her face in her hands. Why her, she thought, catching a few of the older ninja looking at them strangely.
A door on the far side of the warehouse opened and the laughter— and whatever noise, however small— died. Aihana shivered as the chill of the Land of Frost seeped in and clawed its way up her spine. She hated the miserable, dry cold of the country. The other ninja from around the world seemed to share her sentiment. All except for the faceless soldiers of the Empire, garbed in their uniform armor and wicked Gauntlets.
Aihana found her eyes following the figures that entered the warehouse. Their faces were infamous, seen only on news broadcasts and in bingo books: Hikari Yagami and Tetsu Uzumaki.
Hikari possessed a tense, military no-nonsense aura about her. She walked with steady, measured steps and stood with a disciplined, rigid posture. It made Aihana stand straighter. Tetsu followed her, a second shadow, so massive that he loomed head-and-shoulders— and quite a bit more— over every other man and woman in the room. She had never seen a person so big. Behind them was an old man with wrinkled, scarred skin, half his body covered in bandages, and a younger man, handsome, with sharp, aristocratic features and a charming smile. Aihana knew the both of them were part of the Akatsuki but couldn't recall their names.
"He's beautiful," Shiho whispered, hearts in her eyes as she gazed longingly at the young man. He seemed to see them, his head on a swivel, and his gaze came to rest upon them. He favored them with a small smile and her friend swooned.
Hikari spoke. Her voice was low and gravelly, grave and somber. "In approximately fifteen minutes from now, the attack will begin," she informed them briskly, glancing at a timepiece on her wrist. "The Ōtsutsuki will emerge from a portal at the previously defined entrance zone. You here will be among the fourteenth battlegroup to engage them. If the enemy commander has not been sighted before you engage, keep a wary eye on the portal. Under no circumstance are you to attack the Ōtsutsuki lieutenants. Tetsu and I, as well as our team, will handle them."
Aihana couldn't breathe. Her breath was caught in her chest and she couldn't make her lungs work.
It was happening.
The hall was so quiet that her ears rang in the silence.
"You all have your orders," Hikari continued. "Fight hard, fight smart, and we'll survive and emerge victorious. For the Empire!"
"For the Empire!" the soldiers chanted back, thunderous, the only ones capable of speaking.
Hikari nodded gravely. "Dismissed," she intoned.
Aihana continued to tremble.
Hikari clenched her fists, enjoying the sensation of the leather of her gloves straining under her strength. It wouldn't do to be seen fidgeting. She had long ago been forced to suppress all emotion in the face of death. Loath as she was to rely on her lessons from the Mist, they helped her now in the face of an equally terrifying foe. Beside her, Tetsu ran a whetstone along the blade of a katana with inhuman precision and a sharp eye.
The seconds felt, at once, both too long and too quick. The army at her back, an equal amalgamation of ninja from around the world and the forces Bolt had maintained control of, shifted from foot-to-foot in the age old "hurry up and wait" that had plagued armies since time immemorial.
Hikari straightened as the air began to shimmer as if with heat though she knew, according to Bolt, that there was little heat involved. "Ready!" she bellowed, sinking into a defensive stance. Tetsu held a sword before him with both hands and there was a dull roar of steel against steel as weapons were drawn.
The portal opened with a sound not unlike the pop of a bubble. The first face to peek through reared back with a scream as Hikari threw a fistful of needles into their eyes. There was a momentary cheer from the men, rallying to her, at seeing the feared invaders bleed.
Then the inundation began in earnest. Dozens of Ōtsutsuki rushed past their fallen brother-in-arms, weapons drawn, chakra flaring. They would have been quick, perhaps, to anyone else's eyes, but Hikari had, from a young age, borne witness to the birth of the Thunder God. To her eyes, they provided just enough of a challenge to not bore her.
A wall of fire cascaded forward from the lips of one invader who the others seemed to look to for guidance. Hikari spat a wave of water forth that extinguished the flames and left the battlefield partially marred by steam. That, it seemed, had been a mistake, for the Ōtsutsuki immediately surged forward with renewed vigor and roared battlecries. Hikari grit her teeth and remembered: the Byakugan. She had, long ago, forgotten that it was possible to fight against the All-Seeing White Eye, not with it.
Hikari reached out with the sixth sense she had developed in order to control blood. It was far, far easier to feel the water in the air than it was to feel blood in the veins. It was simple, then, to take control of the steam, turn it scalding with a bit of Lightning Style chakra, and sear the skin of her enemies. There were screams and grunts of pain but the Ōtsutsuki were relentless and continued forward. Hikari dispelled the steam, granting her men their vision back, and the battle was renewed.
A crescent of chakra, so powerful that it was blindingly white to the eye, cascaded forward. There was a cry of alarm that rippled through the ranks of the Ōtsutsuki that was suddenly silenced as the Flash cut them down. Tetsu marched forward, every inch the unstoppable force, the Seversword in one hand, the Needlesword in the other. He deftly lifted the thin blade of the Needlesword, aiming it forward, and the Flash he unleashed was a beam of energy that speared through the chest of the commander of the first wave of invaders.
The clamor of combat waned and then grew as the next wave of invaders rushed through the portal. The dead rapidly grew in number, corpses stacked atop corpses, forcing Hikari to watch her footing lest she trip over a limb or slip on gore-slick skin. The second battlegroup arrived, as planned, and relieved the survivors of the first.
The fighting wasn't hard, but it was tedious. Hikari lost herself in the haze of combat. The sun continued to rise, hanging high in the sky, and appeared a fiery orange through the clouds of smoke that rose from the battlefield.
They were pushed back.
The Ōtsutsuki were relentless in a way that Hikari had only seen in people that had been broken under the harsh yoke of an even harsher master. Whatever force drove them, they would prefer to face death than to face it. No matter how many they killed, the Ōtsutsuki kept coming. One would die, from great effort and loss of life by those under her command, only to be replaced by two more. Her men were haggard and gaunt, empty with exhaustion, with glassy eyes that saw without truly seeing.
The Ōtsutsuki secured the area surrounding the portal and began to set up a crude but secure base of operations. Hikari sounded the order to retreat to the second line of defense and she and Tetsu harried the attackers as they gave chase to give their men the time they needed. She kept a watchful eye on the portal, the hunter within always looking for its prey. Her trap had been laid and she had but wait for the enemy lieutenant to show himself to spring it. With any luck, the battle would end, quick and decisive, with minimal loss of life on their part.
Bolt had entrusted her with the safeguarding of his dream. The Land of Frost had become the beating heart of the Empire and Hikari would not willingly allow it to fall into enemy hands.
The longer the battle raged, the more losses her men suffered. This war was the war to end all wars. It was not a war of politics, or religion, or ideology, or resources, but a war of survival. If they lost, their entire species would be extinguished. Even children, far too young and innocent, had been enlisted in the defense of their world, and it made something in her cold, dead heart ache as she saw the faces grow younger and younger as the later battlegroups began to fight.
Hikari felt a chill erupt across her skin as she beat down an Ōtsutsuki, broke his guard, and crushed his skull with her bare hands. Something had shifted among the enemy. A renewed sense of hope, a second wind. Her eyes flew to the portal and saw the enemy commander set foot upon the battlefield. It was strange, Hikari thought, that even across peoples, leaders could be recognized but with a single glance. The way they held themselves, the way they moved, the people they surrounded themselves with.
Hikari recognized the man from the brief description Sasuke Uchiha had given of the Ōtsutsuki. He had the build of a man built for endurance, not strength, tall and lithe, with well-muscled arms. He was garbed in a sea-blue robe of silk, an embroidered centipede wrapping from the hem to its collar. In his hands was an oddly crude bag of fabric, perhaps burlap, that looked more like it would hold grain than weapons. On his back, however, rested a longbow, and Hikari wondered why he came armed with the bag and not the bow.
Hikari dispatched another invader, eyes still on the enemy commander, and Tetsu unleashed another Flash that killed dozens of Ōtsutsuki in a single blow. The ranks of the enemy rippled as the commander marched forward. They straightened and bowed, barking their respect. Hikari didn't know what was said, but she could deduce: rank and name. Then that would make him... "Tawara?" she murmured the name under her breath.
Both sides, human and alien, shifted, forming a ring, their leaders finding their opposite number, and the fighting slowed as all eyes fell on them. Hikari flung several fistfuls of needles at Tawara and, in the same moment, Tetsu unleashed a Flash from the opposite side of the invader's guard.
The most curious thing happened.
Hikari's eyes widened as Tawara's silken robe seemed to stretch and grow, fabric forming from seemingly thin air, and the hem of the robe reared up, blocked her needles, and smothered the Flash.
She couldn't recall every hearing about a cloth manipulation technique.
The silk that had been destroyed by Tetsu's attack and eroded by the toxins of her needles was severed from the body of the robes and the threads of the cloth disintegrated before her eyes.
Well, Hikari thought, at least it would be an interesting battle to the death.
Mei coughed harshly as she struggled to catch her breath. She despised her body's insistent reminder that she was not as young as she once was. Even when she had been in her prime, before the Fourth War, she was not as young as the average Kage that rose to that esteemed office. Then again, she had, after all, risen to power after organizing, leading, and fighting a civil war against a genocidal blood purist that was more than a decade her junior.
The reminder of Yagura left a bad taste in her mouth.
Then again, Mei thought, smiling as she watched Kagura gracefully cut down an Ōtsutsuki that had rushed towards her, perhaps some good had come of the late Fourth Mizukage. His grandson, after all, was the hope of the Hidden Mist.
Mei inhaled deeply, holding her breath, and when she exhaled, a bank of corrosive vapor escaped her lips. Carefully, she directed it further into the ranks of the invaders and away from her allies. Much more intensive on her reserves of chakra, but necessary given the lack of enclosed spaces with which to trap the Ōtsutsuki. Their skin bubbled and popped, bursting with pustules of ichor, melting the flesh from the bone. A gust of Wind Style blew her technique away, scattering it to the winds, and Mei scowled.
The Ōtsutsuki fought like no enemy she had fought before. They needed no hand seals, no mnemonic chants, and their techniques were as varied as they were powerful. There seemed to be no formal, organized techniques, but rather brute manipulation of the elements in their rawest forms. Each seemed capable of using any of the basic elements but, thankfully, few seemed to possess the capability to use a bloodline.
Mei didn't want to think about the possibility of one of the Ōtsutsuki, with more chakra in their pinky than she had in her entire body, being able to use Vapor Style. Or, she thought darkly, Dust Style.
The day was not even done and already there had been such senseless loss of life. The bays of the Land of Water ran red with blood. It angered some primal love for her country that the waters they so celebrated were tainted once more by war.
The one light in the darkness was the young princess of the Uzumaki family.
Himawari threw herself against the ranks of the invaders gleefully, lips parted in the barest ghost of a smile and a fire burning in her eyes that spoke of bloodlust and glorious combat. She enjoyed the bloodshed, Mei realized, even if, perhaps, subconsciously. Himawari Uzumaki may have loathed war, but the animal inside her— inside them all— took pleasure in it. Perhaps bloodshed was too strong of a word; Himawari was a warrior, and like all warriors, she enjoyed the plying of her trade. Mei knew the girl took no pleasure in death and the taking of lives.
It was a startling realization for her. Mei could vividly recall meeting the girl's father, so long ago, with the same blue eyes and scarred cheeks, every bit the Sage, but not a bloodthirsty bone in his body.
It also made her feel old, which irritated her to no end, seeing Naruto's daughter a woman grown when the man himself had been no more than a child, a teenager, when Mei met him.
Mei spat a gout of molten rock over a pack of invaders that had been looking to flank Himawari. The young Sage briefly took note of the changing battlefield before hurling herself back at her enemies, a whirlwind of the Gentle Fist that killed with but a single touch. In the beginning, she had shied away from mortal blows, leaving them crippled and to be finished by their allies. Now, as the fighting raged on, she reaped lives like grain, averting her eyes, no doubt suppressing her horror at the deaths she had sowed. Mei knew it would hit the girl hard after the battle ended.
The portal rippled and a boy stepped through. Mei paused at the unusual sight. Nearly all of the Ōtsutsuki she had seen so far had been mature and timeless in a way that spoke of years endured beyond what man had been meant to see. The boy was the first invader she had seen that looked anything other than what he was: a teenager in war.
And yet, he was one of the few Ōtsutsuki that they could put a name, a face, and a few abilities to: Issun. According to Sasuke, the boy could alter his size with alarming speed, and though his volume increased and decreased, there seemed to be no change to his mass.
Still, it was fortunate that Issun was their opponent. Mei was well equipped to deal with larger enemies. Both her bloodlines could easily deal great amounts of damage to a large, unwieldy foe, and Kagura and Himawari were both masters of close quarters combat to deal with him when he was in a smaller, quicker form.
Mei felt the fire of hope blossom in her chest. For the first time since the battle began, she thought that they had a chance— a real chance— at victory.
Issun drew an alarmingly odd sword. It was long and thin and lacked crossguards. The pommel was the widest part of the sword, growing thinner as it traveled, and the blade tapered to an infinitesimally sharp point. It resembled a needle more than a sword and that alarmed Mei more than anything else. Any Mist ninja, after all, would recognize the infamous Needlesword on sight. But Mei knew that particular blade was in possession of the Akatsuki. Still, she would be careful.
Steeling herself, Mei drew in a breath, the chakra kneaded in her lungs, white hot and burning, and she spat out a wave of orange-white liquid stone that caused the air to shimmer with heat. It sloshed overhead, causing the Ōtsutsuki to look up in alarm, erecting barriers and leaping to safety.
Issun looked up, took a step back, grew so large his figure partially obscured the sun, took a single massive step forward and over the magma, and then shrunk back to his original size and found himself standing among the ranks of the defenders and not a dozen paces from Mei herself.
The entire movement had taken but a moment.
The men standing closest to her gawked in terrified awe. Issun lunged forward with his needle and stabbed them through the chest before they could recover their wits. Kagura surged forward, brandishing his blade, and caught the next stab before it could take a Mist ninja's life. Mei felt a fierce pride blossom in her chest at her student's ability. She inhaled sharply, kneading the chakra in her lungs once more, and pushed and compressed and crushed until her chakra was bursting at the seems. Snapping her head forward, Mei spat lances of pressurized water that could cut steel as easily as paper.
Kagura, a son of the Mist, easily danced between the attacks, trusting her not to hit him, but Issun was forced to shrink his size down to less than a hand's breadth. Mei paused and the invader rapidly grew, taller than before, and leapt forward. Before she could so much as blink, Issun had shrunk back down, even smaller, until he was no larger than the hilt of a brush. He maintained his speed, rocketing forward, and held his needle before him.
The air hissed as he cut through it.
It was at that moment that Himawari came charging forward, a roared battle cry escaping her lips, and she put herself between Issun and them. Himawari caught the thrust on her guard, both arms folded protectively across her chest, and there was a dull boom as she was rocked back. Issun grew, leaping back and crossing the distance in the blink of an eye, and Mei's eyes widened as she saw the damage that had been done. Himawari was a Sage, like her father before her, and arguably more attuned with nature, if one were to believe the rumors. And, like all Sages, Mei knew they were resistant to all but the most destructive of forces.
There was a small gash in the girl's forearm, but the puncture ran deep. It wept blood, dark and red, and Himawari herself looked at her wound as if she didn't believe her eyes. With a scowl, Himawari pressed a finger to her wound and tongues of fire licked at her skin, cauterizing it with a sizzle of flesh and blood.
Mei wondered just how powerful the girl's Fire Style actually was, to burn through even Sage Mode. Everyone always looked to the older sibling, the brother, with fear of his mastery of Lightning Style. Perhaps they ought to be watching the sister as well...
Issun looked surprised that she was still standing in that boyish way where expectations were denied and petulantly raged over. Quickly, before the battle could resume, Mei pursed her lips and blew a wisp of corrosive mist across the back of the girl's neck.
It did nothing.
Mei nodded, a plan forming, and she looked to Kagura, who had seen her experiment. Himawari lunged forward in the strangely graceful way that all Gentle Fist users fought and Mei gestured for Kagura to remain with her as he brandished his sword. She nodded to him, forming hand seals, and his eyes widened as he understood. They had spent much of their time, in the past few weeks, planning how they would defeat the Ōtsutsuki.
Kagura began his part of their technique, water bubbling at their feet, and even more began to flow inland from the bay. It reared up, forming a sphere, and then split into two great bodies of water. Mei exhaled, directing her mist forward, and the two spheres closed around it, trapping it, creating a layer of noxious gas that had been powerful enough to melt the bones of Madara's Susano'o.
The two spheres of water collided together with a wet clap, sealing the gas within, and forming a prison for the four combatants. Himawari and Issun looked away from their battle, momentarily distracted, and Mei kept a close eye on the invader as he realized what had happened. She saw it, there, briefly, an impulse to grow and break through the walls of the prison. She had no doubt the boy could, in his larger form.
But that would mean braving the gas. Mei smiled. She was interested to see how he fared against a technique that even Madara Uchiha, for all his power, had failed to block entirely. She shuddered, remembering the man's cold, dead eyes, red as blood, looking down at her and the other Kage as if they were less than filth.
"Don't think about him," she whispered to herself, breath shallow and fast. "Focus."
Issun grew, stopping short of breaking the prison, and lunged forward. He dropped into a roll, shrinking, and deftly darted between Himawari's legs as she thrust a fist forward. Kagura stepped up as Issun grew back to his normal size, continuing his charge, and Issun wore a small smile of triumph as he shrunk to the size of a needle as the two clashed. Mei, having seen the damage to Sage Mode, panicked. She leaned forward, hastily spitting a fist of water forth, and knocked Kagura from the invader's path before the blow could land.
She wasn't quite fast enough.
Mei's stomach fell into her boots as Issun exploded through the soft tissue of Kagura's left arm. He grunted in pain, face contorting, but kept his hand on the hilt of his sword and flung a retaliatory slash. Issun landed on the flat of the blade and leapt. The resulting force shattered the blade causing Kagura to gasp in surprise.
Mei let a bank of corrosive mist escape her lips that caused the invader to falter and halt his attack.
Above them, Himawari loosed a warcry. In her hands she held a massive Rasengan, larger than she was tall, and the air filled with the infamous whir of metal dragged across stone. Mei jumped away as Naruto's daughter brought the attack down atop Issun. There was an explosion of light and pressure that forced her to take a knee and shield her eyes as shards of stone and whips of sand were kicked up in the explosion.
Mei sucked in a breath, ready to unleash either of her bloodlines, and Himawari rolled forward to join them before turning and assuming a defensive stance. Opposite them, on the far side of the water prison, Issun stood, once more his normal size, looking harried and bruised, but otherwise unharmed.
"He punctured my Rasengan!" Himawari growled angrily, inching forward.
"What's the plan?" Kagura asked, favoring his arm, having drawn his second— and last— sword. Mei wished he had the Twinswords. A swordsman of his calibur needed a worthy weapon. If she survived, perhaps she would show him the last gift of the Three-Tails.
"I have an idea," Himawari said softly, never taking her eyes off of their enemy. "But I need to get close. And he can't be going too fast. I'm not that good at it yet..."
Mei looked to Kagura. He nodded. "We'll slow him down," Mei said. "Be ready to get in close."
Himawari took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Mei was alarmed and inched forward. She kept a wary eye on their opponent, ready to intervene at a moment's notice.
Then something... odd happened. That was the only word Mei had for it. As all masters of Water Style do, she kept that sense for ambient water always open. It was useful to know if you walked over an underground aquifer, or the density of water vapor in the air. Mei had learned to ignore what her senses told her unless she was actively using them. So when she felt the water vapor in the air around Himawari shudder, as if the water itself could be cold, she took note. Curious, Mei reached out and tried to seize control of the ambient water.
In fact, it seemed as if all the water vapor in a nebulous foot-and-a-half radius around the girl had become inert. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Himawari opened her eyes and exhaled a slow, deep breath. "Sage Art..." she breathed. Issun quirked his head, confused, as if trying to decipher a particularly fascinating puzzle. "Avatar of Harmony..."
Mei's eyes widened as the markings of Sagehood on the girl's face shifted and changed. They grew, encompassing the whole of her eyes, keeping the same shape, and more appeared, seemingly emerging from the scars on her cheeks. An encircled dot, reminiscent of an eye, appeared on her forehead. The pigmentation lightened, from orange to a yellow as beautiful as the flower of her namesake.
It was the eyes that awed Mei. Gone was the oblong pupils, shirking their bestial nature, returning to a more human form, and the gold of her irides became even more brilliant. They, and the markings of Sagehood, glowed softly with an inner light, as if the flame of a candle flickered beneath her skin.
There was something otherworldly about Himawari now that Mei could sense but it evaded both thought and word. She seemed to be immovable, inviolable, as sure and steady as the stone itself, unwavering in the face of the tide that beat against it.
This, Mei thought, was what it meant to be a Sage.
Himawari lunged forward and Mei could mentally trace the path she had taken by the way the water in the air was returned to her control. Mei darted after her, blowing a corrosive mist forth to cut off half the arena. Kagura stayed close to her, defending her, transmitting his slashes through the water vapor in the air. He too, it seemed, was able to sense what Himawari had done, what she had become.
Issun realized something was amiss and went on the defensive for once, dodging Himawari by a fair margin, avoiding the half of the arena she had covered in mist, and dodging Kagura's slashes. Mei created another bank of corrosive mist, boxing the invader in, and spat a dome of molten rock over the top of him. She wasn't too worried about Naruto's little girl. A Sage could handle it.
Issun had nowhere to go but through Himawari unless he wanted to have the flesh melted from his bones. He didn't have much time to think about it, either, unless he wanted to find out how much lava burns hurt. Quite a lot, as Mei had discovered in her youth. Issun leapt forward, not going through Himawari but trying to fly over her shoulders. When he reached the apex of the jump, just over her head, within the range of control Mei had sensed earlier, the air hummed and shimmered. Without so much as moving a muscle, Issun was sent flying, tumbling across the ground and narrowly avoiding the corrosive mist. He rose slowly, returned to his original size, favoring his stomach with one hand and clutching at his mouth with another. When the hand came away, it was coated in flecks of red.
Himawari smiled viciously, victoriously, and with her new eyes, she appeared every bit the goddess of combat she had become.
Issun stood, wiping his bloodied lips, fire burning anew in his eyes. He assumed a stance, needle held before him, and there was a flash of silver. Himawari flinched as if struck and jerked away as the blade of the invader's sword shot forward like a beam of light. It struck her, glancing, continuing forward, and Mei gasped. She looked down, finding her dress wet with blood, and a probing hand dumbly pawed at the blade in her belly.
"Mei!" Kagura gasped in horror. He rushed towards her and then his eyes drifted past her shoulders and widened.
Mei turned, gritting her teeth in pain, and saw that the extended blade had pierced the water prison and released the gas behind her and her allies. She whimpered in pain as Issun withdrew his sword, ignoring Himawari's impassioned warcries as she hurled herself at him, and focused on keeping the gas away from Kagura and Naruto's daughter.
Kagura kneeled next to her, sword held aloft with one hand to defend them if attacked, trying to stem the bleeding with the other. Mei felt cold and light, and eventually the pain lessened and disappeared altogether. Not a good sign, she knew. Kagura looked more and more afraid. Ahead of them, Issun continued to flee from Himawari's assault as the gas slowly drained from the water prison.
She was going to die, Mei realized. Surprisingly, she wasn't all that worried. The chemical cocktail her brain was being bathed in must have been messing with her more than she thought. "Kagura, listen," Mei said, reaching up to cup the boy's cheek. "Listen to me. You're the Mizukage now. You have to— you have to protect our people, alright?"
Kagura looked down at her with tearful eyes full of fear. He couldn't get a word out.
"It'll be okay," Mei promised him. "You can do it. I know you can."
Kagura shook his head. "No, I— I can't," he said. "I'm not ready. First Chōjūrō, now you, I— I can't."
The water prison broke, erupting into a spray of raindrops. Issun grew, tall as a mountain, and used his size to step forward and gain momentum. Then he was small, small as a thimble, heading towards her and Kagura, trying to deal the final blow. Himawari screamed something, an inarticulate fury, and threw herself between them. The air around her shimmered, white-blue with chakra, pinpricks of whirring light that grew larger as they spun. The air was filled with countless tiny Rasengans, a storm of light and pressure that followed the girl like a shadow, and when she crossed Issun's path, the dull roar of the battlefield was silenced by the resulting deafening explosion.
Kagura sobbed over her, mourning the loss of another teacher, but Mei smiled as the dust settled and Issun was revealed to be bloodied and clinging to life. Himawari was breathing hard, the markings of the Sage near her eyes fading, and Issun fled the field with haste.
With the last of her strength, Mei reached up and cupped Kagura's cheek. "Listen to me, Kagura," she gasped. "Below my office, in the tunnels, there is a passageway. You'll know it when you see it. Go there, follow it, and take what you find to make your sword. You'll be a good Mizukage. I know it."
Himawari skidded to her knees as she knelt above her, pale with fear for her, and Mei smiled at the girl. Naruto should be proud. Kagura cried in that way men foolishly did, struggling under the weight of their emotions, afraid to let the tears free, afraid of letting the world see his grief. Those who minded didn't matter, and those who matter wouldn't mind it. Mei let her hand fall.
Mei gazed across the battlefield, vision darkening, smiling proudly as she saw the invading army panic as their leader was defeated. Her men charged forward, bloody and empty with exhaustion, reeling from the loss of friends and comrades, but determined and victorious.
She could rest easy.
Hikari hurled her fist forward and threw a stone the size of her skull at Tawara. The robe reared up, blocking it, and its fabric rippled as it absorbed the impact of the projectile. She growled in frustration, hastily leaping away as Tawara turned the strange bag on her and unleashed a torrent of fire upon her.
The bag was some kind of enchanted tool, Hikari had deduced, capable of either producing or replicating anything that had been placed within. Mercifully, it did not seem to be capable of performing the same feat with chakra-based attacks. She could only pale at the thought of the invader unleashing Tetsu's various Flashes with impunity.
Tawara was annoying more than anything else. Neither Hikari nor Tetsu had managed to get close enough to him to actually trade blows. They were not in danger of being defeated, for neither the robe nor the bag had come close to hurting them, but Hikari was rapidly burning through her chakra. Soon she would have to tap into her Strength of a Hundred seal. She was reluctant to do so, and even more reluctant to use the trap she had lain earlier after slaying the footsoldiers of the Ōtsutsuki. She wouldn't use it until she was sure it would kill Tawara.
Tetsu unleashed a great towering Flash of fire, tongues of white-orange flames licking at the blue silk, burning it away only for it to be replaced by more and more cloth, a seemingly endless supply, an inexhaustible defense.
Tawara had yet to draw the bow from his back, either. That worried Hikari most of all. A trump card or an ultimate technique, perhaps? Either way, she was betting that the real battle had yet to begin.
Hikari sucked in a breath and jerked her head skyward. She spat a wave of water that erupted into fine dewdrops that rained down upon the battlefield, wetting the cloth of the robe, and she continued pouring chakra into the technique until it was soaked. Tetsu saw what she was doing and exchanged his swords for the repaired Thunderswords. Together, the two of them unleashed a thunderstorm of lightning upon Tawara, arcs of it crackling across the conductive water, searing the threadbare fabric until it was ash. Tawara ensconced himself within the billowing barrier of his robe, creating more and more material between him and them, and Hikari grit her teeth as her chakra waned and waned under the constant drain of sustaining the technique.
How could Tawara possibly continue to regenerate his robe? Surely it must be a costly technique? Was he simply that much more powerful than them? Hikari didn't think so, she hoped. The war was already lost if the elite of the Ōtsutsuki were simply categorically that much more powerful than them.
Hikari gasped and was forced to stop lest she drop from chakra exhaustion. Angrily, she tapped the power of her seal, shivering as it crawled across her skin, a fiery orange-red brand. She felt the sum of the years of her chakra greet her, an ocean that could not be exhausted except by extraordinary, inhuman means. Guaranteed or not, it was time to spring her gambit.
Hikari reached out, grasping for water. She found it, and more, and then dug even deeper, even smaller. Blood, cooling and curdled, more of it than she could fathom, coated the ground of the battlefield. It resisted her control, slipping through her fingers, half-water, half-metal, stronger than both. Hikari called to the water, poured her chakra into it, made it bow to her will, commanded it to rise up and do her bidding.
The ocean of her chakra began to drain, lessened by the extraordinary demands she had placed upon it, made doubly costly by the strange alien quality of the blood. It was similar to human blood, in a way, but also different in ways that Hikari could not begin to consciously explain. Still, it called to her, an echo of familiarity, and that was enough.
To blood she called, and blood answered. It rose up, a terrible wave of gore and death, and the warriors of both sides cried out in alarm and fear. It came underfoot, spearing through her enemies, and Hikari tore from them their lifeblood and added it to her arsenal, all of it crashing down upon Tawara and his inexhaustible defense.
Tetsu raised the Uzumaki's Bloodsword high, grasped in both hands, unleashed successive waves of Flashes that grew stronger and stronger as he hacked and slashed through an ocean of cloth. Her sea of blood parted, allowing the attacks to pass, burrowing ever deeper as she hunted for the thrum of a heartbeat she could sense at the very center of the billowing robe.
Hikari pulled at the pulsing lifeblood, trying to tear it from its owner, but it resisted, a struggle between life and death that all creatures of flesh and blood fought. It was a desperate resistance, pained, one that caused the folds of the robes to slow. Together, the two of them made grim progress, digging deeper, drawing closer and closer to their foe.
The robes parted, revealing to Hikari a pale and gaunt Tawara, grim-faced, holding his bow aloft.
An arrow was nocked, aimed at her, and loosed.
It shot forward like a bolt of lightning, too fast for anyone but the Thunder God to dodge, and Hikari pulled at her own blood and threw herself to the side, moving in a way that no human could imitate.
It was not enough.
The arrow curved, following her like a hound, refusing to be denied its quarry.
Hikari's eyes widened and she called the blood to her, all of it, knowing in her gut that to be hit by the arrow would mean certain death. Blood surrounded her, embraced her, kept her safe.
The explosion was deafening and so bright that there was no difference between having her eyes closed or open. All Hikari saw was white.
Pain blossomed beneath her skin, white-hot and agonizing, as if she had been flayed and salted. Gasping, Hikari opened her eyes, blurry and blind to the world, feeling her life slipping away. She reeled, calling for her chakra, pouring it into her broken body, forcing the blood to flow through her veins and her lungs to draw breath. Bones grew whole, fibers of muscle wove together, and skin regrew, angry and pink and sensitive to the touch.
A roar echoed in her ears and Hikari realized it was not from her wounds. Her vision cleared, pulses of healing chakra giving her back her light, and Tetsu stood guard before her body, Bloodsword carving a furious swath through limp and sluggish robes. The cloth would whip at him, drawing blood, flaying flesh, but Tetsu was a man possessed, not feeling a whisper of pain, determined to cut through his enemy's defenses and wet his blade with their blood.
Hikari croaked, trying to call out a warning, and the folds of the robes parted once more, revealing Tawara within, bow drawn, and he unleashed another arrow. On the brink of death, everything seemed to move more slowly. Perhaps, Hikari thought, this was how Bolt saw the whole of the world. So slow, so helpless to speed it up. Tetsu charged forward with a roar and the arrow was loosed. He caught it on the flat of his blade, slick with blue-white chakra, a Flash forming. The arrow carried with it an unstoppable force, driving Tetsu back, and Hikari looked away for what little good it would do as another explosion rocked the battlefield.
Tetsu was alive, barely, blood weeping from his skin in so many places that she couldn't see his color beneath the crimson. He kneeled, broken, Bloodsword clutched in his fist. Hikari grunted and struggled to rise. She had to heal him, get Tetsu back in the fight, and together they could last just a little bit longer, exhaust Tawara, and kill him when his guard was down. She couldn't lose. She wouldn't. Bolt had entrusted them— entrusted her— with the defense of his dream. Hikari refused to be defeated here.
Her right arm felt all the heavier for the death mask held within the storage seal contained. Ice settled in her belly. What would happen if she were to die? Would it be lost? Would Bolt die, trapped within his mask, doomed to an eternity of darkness because there were none that would know to seek him?
Hikari would not allow that to pass.
She managed to crawl a few feet before she stopped, seeing Tawara emerge from his sea of robes, bow held high and alighted on her.
Truth, as Hikari had come to know, often really was stranger than fiction.
A young girl, who couldn't have been more than twelve or thirteen, green in the ways of war and pale with fear, was her savior. She made a clone, slapped their hands together, and the clone ran away. As they parted, a net of wispy rose-colored chakra was drawn between them.
The arrow was loosed, fast as lightning, and it struck the barrier the girl had made between Hikari and certain death. The barrier distended, stretched beyond its capabilities, but it held fast, the arrow unable to pierce, and Hikari saw that it was, indeed, a bolt of lightning.
The girl wailed and Hikari could feel the veritable exodus of her chakra as the life drained from her to sustain the technique. Hikari lashed out, her hand gripping the girl's ankle like a vice, and the Strength of a Hundred seal flowed from her body to the girl's. Hikari poured more and more of her chakra into the girl and the girl poured the chakra into the technique. With a roared cry, the girl lunged forward and the barrier snapped back into place, elastic as if made of rubber.
The arrow was shot back at its wielder and Tawara looked at it dumbly as if he couldn't believe his eyes.
The resounding explosion was as powerful as the first two and infinitely more satisfying. When the dust cleared, there was not a single strand of fiber remaining, nor did Hikari see either the bag or bow. All that remained was a charred, dessicated corpse and a blackened crater.
The clone dissipated and the girl collapsed. Hikari could feel her trembling through her grip on the girl's ankle. With effort, she released her. The girl turned tearful green eyes full of pain and fear on Hikari. With a sniff, the girl rubbed at her eyes and ran her fingers through red-brown hair that clung to pale skin wet with sweat. Hikari saw that she wore the headband of the Hidden Waterfall around her neck and thought it was ironic that she, a member of the Akatsuki, would be saved by not a supporter of the Empire, but by their once enemy.
"P-Please," the girl begged. "My- my friends! They're hurt, and- and it would take t-too long to get to the medics a-and you're a—"
"Help me walk," Hikari commanded the girl. "Tetsu first, then your friends."
The girl nodded eagerly and darted forward, her tiny arms wrapped around Hikari's waist, helping her limp to Tetsu. He had fallen unconscious, cold and pale from loss of blood, with more wounds than Hikari could count, but he had somehow survived the worst of the explosion. Perhaps by using the Bloodsword's unique abilities to dampen the power of the blast? Either way, Tetsu's powerful Yang chakra needed only the barest stoking for it to begin healing its body, and within a few moments, Hikari had ensured he would not perish of his injuries.
The girl was eager to drag Hikari to her friends. She babbled, incapable of silence, her words meaning nothing as her young mind struggled to cope with the horrors of war. Hikari pitied the girl. She had always regretted having to raise her hand against children. It hit a little too close to home for her. Hikari would not wish what she had survived under the Mist upon any child.
Compassion drove her to calm the girl. Hikari rested a hand on her shoulder, trying to impart the comfort of human touch. "What's your name?" she asked.
The girl looked up at her with wide, wild eyes. "A-Aihana Ōhara, ma'am," she murmured.
"You're very brave, Aihana," Hikari told her. "Not many people have the courage to do what you did."
Aihana blushed prettily. "I'm not brave, not really," she whispered. "I was so scared I couldn't even fight. My friends had to protect me. It was only after they... after they..."
The girl swallowed thickly and silent tears ran down her cheek. "I'll save your friends, Aihana, don't worry," Hikari found herself promising. She wondered if this was what motherly affection felt like. "You saved my life. I won't forget that."
Aihana smiled a small smile and nodded, tugging her forward faster.
Hikari tasted something sour on her tongue as Aihana led her to a small bastion of ninja that had formed a defensive formation around crude barriers of stone. Her men were beaten and bloodied, with hollow, empty eyes, and Hikari had not even noticed that the Ōtsutsuki had fallen into disarray and retreated after the death of Tawara. In the center of the formation the wounded were laid.
Aihana abandoned her and ran to her friends' side. Hikari warily approached and knew with but a glance that the oldest among the three, their jōnin teacher, was dead, and Hikari was many things, but even she could not raise the dead.
Her friends, though, were within her power to save. A tall, chubby teenager with large, round glasses that were missing their lenses and a thin young woman that smiled in her sleep and wore an altered Waterfall uniform that revealed a bit too much skin. The boy was pocked with cuts and burns and the girl had been struck down by a single bolt of lightning that charred her skin and left a unique scar that resembled crackling electricity.
Hikari smiled, small and fond, remembering that Bolt had a scar much the same on his back from when he had first begun to learn the Lightning Armor technique from Eiji. Wordlessly, she kneeled and placed a hand upon each of her patients. The crystalline green energy of the Mystic Palm flowed from her fingertips and brought a little light to the darkness of the battlefield.
"W-Will they be okay?" Aihana demanded quickly, a hunger in her green eyes that was older than her years.
Hikari nodded. "They will live," she said. Hikari turned her focus on the boy's eyes and healed them of their nearsightedness. He was old enough that the alteration wouldn't hinder his eyes' growth and it was the least she could do since his teammate had saved her and Tetsu.
Aihana broke down, sobbing in great heaves, clutching at her knees and rocking back and forth. The older ninja looked at her with pity and a woman from the Hidden Leaf came forward and held her, whispering soothing reassurances in the girl's ear.
Cheers rang out across the battlefield as Hikari moved on to healing other wounded ninja that had fought for her. She only managed a handful more before she could go no farther and sunk into the dark of sleep. Chakra she had, but the mind and body were unwilling.
Sarada felt as if she were in a dream. The world seemed a blur, watery and blurry like a half-finished painting. Reports came to her, as was expected, and she performed her duty as the One Shadow robotically. She read intel from scouts, signed documents, and issued orders, but none of it was of her conscious mind.
Now, as she stood among the ruins of the Leaf once more, she felt the dream-like quality all the more strongly.
One of the Ōtsutsuki lieutenants had never even led her men into battle. The Hidden Stone, led by the not-so-reformed Kurotsuchi, had easily vanquished their attackers. Instead, according to survivors, a hauntingly beautiful and untouchable woman with a bow of chakra had launched a surprise attack on the lightly defended city; Hashinau-uk, goddess of the hunt, according to her father. No one— not even Shikamaru Nara— had foreseen the Ōtsutsuki's ruthlessness, their willingness to cast aside an entire army simply for the chance to hurt them.
Hashinau had swept aside their rearguard, found the shelters, and killed every man, woman, and child.
The losses were devastating. The city had hardly been damaged, save for the path of destruction Hashinau had taken to reach the shelters. Most of it, in fact, remained standing and undamaged. A miracle, given how many attacks it had endured over the past decade.
But the losses. Oh, the losses.
Sarada wept silent tears for the dead woman laid before her. Hinata had been a second mother, a light in the darkness, bright and full of life and love and happiness. She had doted on Sarada like a second daughter. Sarada had many happy memories of days spent at the Uzumaki household, play-fighting with Bolt and watching over Himawari while her mother was at the hospital and her father was away. It was there that she and Bolt bonded, two kindred souls starved of paternal affection finding their equal and refusing to let the other's light be snuffed out.
Hanabi and Hiashi had been laid next to Hinata in death, and though Sarada hadn't known them as well, Bolt and Himawari had told her much of their aunt who acted more the cool older sibling and their stern but doting grandfather. The entirety of the Uzumaki's extended family had been extinguished in a single day.
Worse, Naruto and Himawari were there. Sarada thought of herself as strong but even she broke under the weight of seeing her childhood hero and her best friend drown in grief. The former Seventh Hokage was blank, eyes empty, and he shed not even a single tear. He saw with unseeing eyes as he gazed upon his wife, the woman he loved, the mother of his children, so overcome with sorrow that Sarada doubted he was even conscious of the world around him. Her father hovered near his shoulder, distraught, wanting to comfort his best friend but not knowing how. Her mother cried, her face in her hands, alternating between sobbing and hugging Naruto painfully close.
Himawari wore her heart on her sleeve, as always, baring the full force of her grief to the world. The two old toads had shown up, somehow, sometime, and had found their way to her shoulders, alternating between comforting her and trying to get some sort of reaction from Naruto.
There was a commotion among the crowd that drew Sarada back to the world and away from the dream. Ninja and workers parted, full of fear and pity in equal measure, and Bolt appeared, frantic with wide, wild eyes. He looked to her, meeting her eyes for a moment, and then to her feet where his gaze froze.
Sarada didn't know if she could watch. Her body froze, refusing to obey her command to turn and look away, so she was forced to watch as the deathblow was dealt. Bolt staggered forward as if struck, blue eyes even wider and swimming with disbelief, his lips parted ever so slightly in a silent gasp. His hand found his heart, grasping at it, and his face contorted in shock, as if he couldn't comprehend the pain he felt, that he could feel loss. This was the Thunder God brought low, made human again.
Sarada took a step forward, hand raised, to provide whatever futile comfort she could, to shelter him from the pain of losing a mother. Himawari whirled around, knocking the two toads from her shoulders, and rushed to her brother. She threw her arms around his shoulders, hugging him tight, burrowing her face in his neck as she continued to sob.
Bolt froze, as if unaccustomed to human touch, and then wrapped his arms around his sister, embracing her and holding her close. He hid his face in Himawari's hair, hiding from the world and its many watchful eyes that bore witness to the death of the matriarch of the Uzumaki family and the princess of the Hyūga clan.
All the world seemed to grow quiet and solemn in respect for the grief of the family that had produced so many influential world leaders.
The sound of his children crying— and it was indeed children, Sarada realized, as Bolt's shoulders rose and fell— stirred Naruto from his stupor. Tears welled in his eyes and fell down scarred cheeks as he tore his gaze from his dead wife and found Bolt and Himawari embracing. In a flash he was at their side, scooping the both of them into his arms, and then Bolt stiffened. Naruto hesitated. For a moment, Sarada thought he would explode at the touch, in grief over his mother's death and rage at the man that should have been his father but never truly was.
Sarada's throat swelled and fresh tears spilled from her eyes as Bolt tentatively removed an arm from his sister and pulled his father closer. All hesitation vanished from Naruto and the broken Uzumaki family cried all the harder for it, desperately trying to hold each other above the crashing waves of their grief.
From among the crowd, Sarada could see the grieved faces of the Hyūga clan, survivors of the attack, scouts returning from the field, and warriors returning home. One by one, they knelt, muttering prayers to their dead, and bowing their heads in respect to the Uzumaki family and their loss.
Sarada didn't even notice her own mother and father join her. Her mother wrapped her in a hug, whispering that she loved her over and over, as if Sarada would disappear at any moment, and even her father bowed slightly to wrap his arm around her and press his forehead to hers.
Tragedy had befallen Sarada and the people she cared for.
She would never forget who was responsible.
Sarada peeked over the arms of her mother and father, resolving to keeping an eye on the Uzumaki family, and caught Bolt's gaze as he removed his face from his sister's hair.
She saw Naraka in his blue eyes and knew that he, too, would not forget.
The Ōtsutsuki had angered the Thunder God.
They would not be pleased that they had.
Sorry this chapter is so late... I kinda say that everytime nowadays. Anyway, it was longer and edited more than usual, which will be a recurring theme as we go forward for at least a little bit until I hit my stride with this arc. The good news is that while this chapter was being edited I started writing the next chapter, so it's already 2.3k words towards completion!
A big thank you to my betas, StampedingYak90 and HeroToAllTheVillains, who made this chapter better than I could have alone.
Also, it has come to my attention (thanks RedK-1234) that this story now has a TV Tropes page! Pretty cool in my opinion, as TV Trope pages and fan art are kinda the hallmark of "you made it" in the fanfic world. If you'd like to add to it, feel free.
Tawara and his items are based on the fairytale "My Lord Bag of Rice," in which the hero slays a giant centipede to rescue a dragon princess and is rewarded with several items of mystical properties. Issun is based one the myth of the One-Inch Boy, who takes advantage of the pressure = force/area law of physics. I was inspired by Because Science's video "Is Ant-Man Secretly the Most Powerful Avenger?" It's a pretty fascinating theory, which I encourage you guys to watch if you're interested in that kind of thing.