A/N: This chapter was written for the Sumigakure Halloween Event of 2016 prompt "Skeleton Army."
The clicking of bones is omnipresent, here. It's an uncomfortable sound, full of grating and crunches, and all the worse for the fact that the creatures creating them can never be seen all at once. Even if they were to gather together as closely as possible, the mist is too thick, and there are simply too many.
Breathing is optional for most of the population. It's not optional for their handlers, but that's no real surprise.
"Beautiful," Orochimaru-sama mutters, his eyes tracing over the bared, bleached bones of the army before him. He stands atop a small hill, gazing out over the skeleton hordes. No sinew connects them, and no muscle maneuvers them, but they move nonetheless.
Orochimaru-sama doesn't control them either.
"Thank you," he says after a moment. "Kimimaro. I did not expect…"
"Neither did I, Orochimaru-sama." Kimimaro is still, unnaturally so. His skin is greyed and his eyes are silvered-over, but there is intelligence there. He is no mindless walking corpse. He is more. "Will it be enough?"
Orochimaru-sama ghosts his way down the incline and weaves his way through the mindlessly shuffling human bones. "I should think so. At minimum, they will help."
A pale hand caresses the ulna of a passing person, the skin of one and the bone of the other only half a shade apart in color.
Leftovers, a spiteful part of Kimimaro's mind comments. Too weak to live.
Kimimaro ignores that part of his mind. He hadn't lived either, technically. He had only returned to life because Orochimaru-sama, in all his kindness, had willed it so.
"So very pretty," Orochimaru-sama murmurs again. "There's something terrifyingly pleasant about such a simple and deadly aesthetic, don't you agree?"
"I rarely concern myself with aesthetics, Orochimaru-sama." Kimimaro answers after only a second's thought. "I believe most people would be more inclined to consider the situation creepy, rather than attractive."
"Precisely my point, child." Orochimaru-sama jumps from the dried-out earth to the reaching branches of a dead tree, and gestures for Kimimaro to follow him. The swaying twigs are empty of leaves and dark against what can be seen of the painted-grey sky, scratching the heavens as they sway back and forth. "I see nothing attractive in dying, of course, but there's something beautiful in death and all its forms nonetheless."
Kimimaro's path to join his master is slow and leisurely, not quite the instant obedience he would have displayed when he was alive. The heart in his chest is cold and still, and he knows he's been stitched and stapled in too many places, pumped too full of chemicals and magic, long after it had stopped beating, to be fully human anymore. There was a calm in the afterlife that there isn't now that he's been dragged back, but… he doesn't mind, he thinks.
(There's a not-so-gentle clinking noise at the edge of his hearing, chains pulled taut and straining to hold back the beast that prefers humanity.)
(Juugo's life has never been simple, and he can't die as easily as Kimimaro can.)
"If you do not mind my asking, Orochimaru-sama…"
"What is the army for?"
Orochimaru-sama laughs, and it's lighter, breathier, than Kimimaro knows to be a good thing. This laugh is a signifier that someone is going to die, and Orochimaru-sama is going to enjoy it.
"Have you heard of the Devil's Plains, Kimimaro?"
Kimimaro cannot bring a person back from the dead, not fully. He can animate the skeletons, make them go through the motions with minimal input from himself, but he cannot bring back the soul or rebuild the rest of the body. What he can do, he thinks, is only good for war.
What Orochimaru-sama can do is also good for war, of course, but bringing the dead back almost completely is a little more versatile. Orochimaru-sama had ended a long-time feud in his lands by returning a dead princess to life, for instance. She'd taken the reins in the conflict, using her status as a walking corpse to her advantage in the superstitious lands she hailed from. Even amongst the harpies of the countryside and the Naga of the inner city, the undead were feared and respected.
Kimimaro was of the opinion that Tayuya-hime would not naturally be a very peaceful ruler, but she'd taken Orochimaru-sama's warnings to heart well enough that they didn't have to worry for at least a little while.
The mist still clung to them like a cloak, thick and cloying. Orochimaru-sama brushed it off; mist always clung to the undead, after all, and why would risen bones be any different? It helped hide the army as the skeletons hunched low to the ground, only choice bits of bleached joints rising into sight when patches thinned or wavered.
"Madara," Orochimaru-sama said with a light smile as they came to the edge of the Devil's Plains. "It's been a while."
The man standing across from them cannot be wholly human, Kimimaro is sure. Even if being undead himself had not given him an innate sense for these things, the man's appearance would have made it obvious. Black sclera and glowing red eyes were, somehow, the least of his appearance to make an impact. The cracks running through his skin were obvious, the rust-red feathers in his hair and sprouting from choice bits of skin eye-catching, the red armor with black smoke wafting off it a blaring signal to both sight and other senses.
The massive, scarred wings were a sign as well, honestly.
"Orochimaru," Madara says, and his voice is legion. "A pleasure."
The sarcasm is almost as obvious as the wings.
"I see you have one of your pretty little corpse puppets playing a role today." Madara sneers, glowing eyes tracking over to Kimimaro.
Kimimaro holds himself utterly still and quiet. He does not breathe. His chest does not shudder as his heart beats. His eyes do not blink.
He is as unmoving as his convictions as Orochimaru-sama laughs. "Kimimaro is a little more than a puppet, I should think. He's a very useful subordinate to have."
Kimimaro would smile if he were in private. Useful is one of the greatest praises he seeks from Madara.
Madara smoothly raises one eyebrow, flecked with grey-black-red-brown speckled feathers as it is. They are tiny, but even from this distance, Kimimaro can pick them out. "I am the ruler of the Devil's Plains, Orochimaru. Of what use can a single man be in your war against me and mine?"
Orochimaru's smile sharpens. "Why, the army he brings with him, of course."
It's Kimimaro's cue to have his skeleton army stand, rising from the mists, and… and his power catches more. On the other side of the battlefield-to-be, there are corpses strewn beneath the ground, old enough to have lost all flesh, yet fresh enough for the bones to be uncompromised, and what fragility they have is compensated for by Kimimaro's power. The tendrils of undeath grasp at them, pulling them up to climb into the open air for the first time since their deaths, humanoid forms with deceptively fragile-seeming wings clawing to the surface.
Madara spins to see the army behind him, and then turns to scowl at Kimimaro directly. "You would use mine own family's bodies against me?"
Orochimaru-sama answers for him. "All's fair in love and war, my dear, and this is most certainly war."
"You will see soon the error you have made in challenging me," Madara promises, and the feathers on his body seem to ripple and grow. His eyes glow yet more, and the bones of his face shift subtly, less obvious than the fangs and claws that grow in.
"You killed my Jiraiya," Orochimarup-sama reminds him, and his voice is devoid of all previous humor. "Ripped him apart and set him on fire in such a way that I cannot bring him back, for all my skills. That was your error, Madara, and you shall pay for it."
Kimimaro readies both his armies, and prepares for his battle against the man he once knew as the Devil himself.
(Madara isn't, of course, but rumors are rumors, and those had been particularly helpful ones that many of the lower classes had believed. As a street orphan, Kimimaro had believed more rumors than most, and it was only Orochimaru-sama saving him that had showed him, in cases like this, the difference between man and god.)