Author's Note: Well. Been a while.

I'll have you know my slump in writing output is universal across all stories. Tough when going through college, you know. Priorities and all that. No sense in apologizing for something beyond my control. You also might have noticed that there's been no rewrite of the other older chapters as I said…oh well. It'll come when it comes.

Though graduate school begins soon, so we'll see how the workload for that beast goes. This year will be quite something; do you know that the day I graduate will be the day I can legally buy alcohol? So it's a doubly significant day. It should also tell you that I have plenty of years ahead of me.

So don't fret. Because I won't abandon my work.

Though the changes in the Naruto manga have been very interesting since the last update! Never thought Konoha would ever be destroyed…or that Naruto would utterly kick butt…or that Pain would nearly kill Hinata…or that Naruto would go past four tails…

o.o

Anyhow…

BEGIN!

xxxx

The Fourth Great Ninja War Begins; A Hokage Battle Royale!

xxxx

/109 Days after Naruto Entered Makai/

/Day 1 of the Fourth Great Shinobi War/

xxxx

Journal of Koga Ryoku

September 3rd, Year 78 of the Age of Nations

Today is the day.

Konoha has grown splendidly over the last seventy-eight years. Today the people of the village celebrate another glorious anniversary…oh how I wish that were the case. The people can only hunker down and prepare, for the drums of war continue to beat.

The Third Great Ninja War continues on, and there seems to be no sign of the fight ever ending. Iwa and Kumo press on; scattered battles throughout the Rain prevent us from managing a united front against our hated foes. Were it not for Suna's own aims along their own northern borders, the persistence of the Hidden Grass, the take-no-prisoners mentality of the Hidden Rain, and the various disputes occurring within the Earth Country that started three years ago (our intelligence is so damned faulty, it surprises me that we actually know where their country's bloody capital is), the Hidden Stone and the Hidden Cloud would have both managed to overwhelm us. As is, we're at an uneasy stalemate, barely holding the line due to the might of our elite shinobi. Over three years now since the war began, and it shows no signs of ending any time soon.

Now and then I hear word of the work of the Three Legendary Leafs. The Yellow Flash. The Metal Dragon. The Root ANBU under the command of my nephew Danzo. Ino-Shika-Cho. Just a few of the formidable 'faces' of Konoha, able to inspire steel in our spines and fear in our enemies. I am especially pleased with how Danzo and Orochimaru are performing…Danzo has shown himself to be as ruthless in battle as his father, my elder brother Kondo (may he rest in peace)…and time and time again, I can't help but shiver at the sight of Orochimaru's yellow eyes. It's as if my father was back and in the flesh. A shame he does not bear the distinctive bloodline of the Koga…but alas, any hopes of retaining that power faded away when, on the eve of Mitsuhide's battle with Iga Nagi, my eldest brother Hajime fled from the village…

Forgive me for rambling about family-related matters…but this war has hit the Koga the hardest, as it has with the Iga. The two founding clans…have been whittled down to almost nothing. Our last attempt at invading the Lightning Country ended in disaster, crippling so many…now, the only Iga capable of fighting is Tsunade of the Sannin.

I am on my deathbed…and even now, I only feel hatred. A pox on Iwa! A pox on Kumo! Such cowards for sneaking into our village on that day three years ago…to think that they, under the guise of a diplomatic mission, would attack the clan grounds of the Iga and the Koga. Not aiming for any weapon. Not going for political figures.

The children.

Those accursed, damned cowards! The youngest generations of the Iga and the Koga, wiped out in an explosive instant. Word had soon come regarding the invasion of the Fire Country by Iwa-nin and Kumo-nin. By that time, war was upon us…and there was little time to mourn.

My lungs quiver. I can feel blood in my throat as I shake with rage…but even I cannot help it. They had sought one thing and one thing only: to utterly ruin the founders of the Hidden Leaf Village.

And they succeeded.

Kondo is dead. I am dying. My dear grandson Orochimaru is the only one left of my line, ever since his parents – my precious son and his wife – perished in battle. Only Danzo's children, living for years now in the secure facilities of Ne, survived that horrific day. Reviving the Koga Clan now falls into the hands of my grandson and my nephew.

I only wish the same could be said for the Iga…for the youngest of the clan is Nawaki, the brother of Tsunade. The demands of war are so high…for he has been a Genin for one year now. To think we're sending 10-year-olds out to scout…and sabotage…and fight…

I have pleaded with the Sandaime Hokage so many times to let the youngest of the Iga remain here in Konoha. But the damned Council's tied his hands; all shinobi must serve. The most we can do to accommodate the current circumstances is to keep him within the Fire Country's borders. And I've seen little Nawaki, his passion, his desire to fight for the sake of the Leaf…were it not for the precarious position of the Iga Clan, he would make me proud. And yet, if he were to perish, the youngest of the Iga would be Tsunade herself; reviving the Iga would fall entirely to her.

my cry for justice seems so pathetic. But I cannot help but despair. The founding families…they are in danger of passing away.

I cannot help but wonder if this was destiny…if what began at the Valley of the End fated our clans, who once shared a bond as deep as blood, to splinter apart, to shatter…and pass away, like ashes in the winds.

father…why did you do it?

Why did you abandon Konoha?

Why did you abandon Nagi, your dearest friend?

Why did you abandon us?!

Why Koga Mitsuhide?! WHY?!

I CURSE YOU! I CURSE YOU WITH MY VERY LAST BREATH!

(The bottom of the page…is splattered with blood…)

xxxx

/North of Yosen, Rain Province/

"Geez brat, you need to loosen up."

Uzumaki Naruto refused the urge to tear off Hidan's head. "You took three hours."

"I have a specific ritual to follow!"

The urge was growing. "You complained while you were doing it."

"Never said I liked it. Does the line 'hurts like hell' mean anything to you?"

Getting hard to ignore the urge. "You laid on the ground for half an hour."

"His body serves as the channel by which I receive the souls of those whose blood comprises the seal."

"COULDN'T YOU HAVE JUST TAKEN THE SOULS MORE QUICKLY?!"

"DON'T YELL AT JASHIN-SAMA!"

"I like savoring my meal."

Uzumaki Naruto would've jumped off the nearest cliff if he weren't a Kage Bunshin, thus rendering him useless for the battle to come. But Hidan and Jashin were both nearly insufferable.

After the slaughter of the River Army encampment, Hidan had drawn blood from all of the corpses, crafting a concoction with his own blood (it seemed being a servant of Jashin had the benefit of having prodigious blood production capabilities…given all the blood Hidan had leaked). Shaping it in the symbol of Jashin, he had then sampled the concoction (which, of course, had elicited a reaction of disgust from Naruto) and promptly transformed into…well, Hidan. Covered in black-and-white paint in the image of a skeleton.

Freaky.

Needless to say, the whole 'ritual' had wasted precious time.

Enough time to make Naruto scowl at the sound of artillery. "Looks like it's begun."

Hidan chuckled, his blackened skin making him seem as a corpse. "Heh heh heh…more heathens to sacrifice!"

"Just keep your hands off of Konoha and her allies. That includes Suna, Ame, Taki, and Kusa."

"I'm no moron, dumbass!" snorted Hidan. "IwaKumoSawa Alliance only!"

The hills in front of the duo suddenly leveled off, leading towards a cliff edge…

And what they saw…could only be described as fertile ground for bloodshed.

They could see the western lip of the valley, upon which they saw the backs of numerous artillery units targeting sections of the small town beyond. Men in River Army uniforms scurried about, changing targets and scouting movements of their enemies. Several Sawa-nin stood in silence by the artillery units, serving as their stoic protectors from any shinobi that would attempt silencing the cannons. Within the town itself was a frenzy of activity, the stadium, nearby obstacle course, and surrounding buildings all caught up in the crossfire of shinobi combat. A steady mass of civilians were being escorted out of the stadium and the town itself by multiple units of River Army infantry, backed up by Kurohyougunsha and motorcycles. It was orderly as one could expect in a warzone…and given the number of daimyo and other VIPs, it seemed the shinobi forces were quite content on letting them move out without incident.

Probably some lords still left in that stadium though…

Uzumaki Naruto cracked his neck before turning to Hidan, the Jashinist priest staring hungrily at the men manning the artillery. "Ready?"

"Oh yeah…" Hidan gripped the Scepter of Jashin, an expression of near-rapture on his face. "You'll soon have a grand feast, Jashin-sama!"

"I would expect nothing less, my faithful servant."

Naruto knelt down, performing multiple hand signs. Showtime. "Katon; Hibashira no jutsu!" Palms to the ground.

Moments later, the nearest artillery unit exploded as fire erupted from the ground, tearing through it. Shocked soldiers and alert Sawa-nin turned-

"YAHOOOO!!!"

Only to pale at the sight of a man charging towards them, armed with a triple-bladed scythe and bearing skin burned black with fire. A veritable dead man, bleeding with every step…and yet that maddening grin was almost too much to look at.

"LET'S SHARE SOME EXQUISITE PAIN, YOU HEATHENS!"

xxxx

/Arena, Gouhou Coliseum, Yosen, River Country Territory: Rain Province/

"Ah. The Rinnegan. The Samsara Eye."

Harada Ieyasu frowned.

So did Sasuke, looking at Naruto with a quirked eyebrow. What the-? Sasuke had never even HEARD of this 'Samsara Eye'…and yet Naruto here…

"The first Bloodline Limit to ever exist, a collaborative effort between several of the tribes of Makai as an…offering of sorts, to appease the gods after repeated attacks upon Ningenkai aroused their anger. The first man to bear this doujutsu was the mythical Rikudou Sennin Hattori Hanzou, long regarded as the very first user of ninjutsu. However, the man's descendants were scattered to the winds during the Bloodline War that afflicted the world and began the Sengoku Jidai. What remained of that kekkei genkai has diluted over the years, to the point where only some facets of its powers are left here and there…though it seems you've got the real deal."

Everyone stared openly at Naruto, who had rattled off something as though it were a history lesson. And Naruto had HATED history (save for that regarding the Hokage) in the Academy.

Kiba's look of 'what the frick?!' said it all. "Uh…"

Konohamaru glanced at Asuma. "What did he just say?"

Naruto couldn't help but smirk. Man, Kurama was right! It IS fun to show off how much you know. Then again, it had been the Kyuubi-teme to insist that 'my host won't be a knuckle-dragging moron!'.

Stupid fox.

"Hmm. You know quite a bit. I had thought Oda-sama was the only one to know so much about the history of my bloodline…" Perhaps even more so. The origin of the Rinnegan was even beyond Oda Nobunaga's knowledge. He would have to consult him about this young one's words. "But yes. You are correct." Ieyasu cracked his knuckles. "The Sage of the Six Paths…called such because of the six stages of his doujutsu. The Chakra Path of blue…the Taijutsu Path of green…the Genjutsu Path of red…the Ninjutsu Path of yellow…the Senjutsu Path of white…and lastly, the True Path of violet." The Sawa-nin shifted into a defense stance. "Unlocking each Path is an arduous task, I will admit…but the two Paths that I walk…will be enough for this battle."

Sasuke couldn't help but sneer. How arrogant. Not that he was one to complain, but who cared, honestly? All of his questions to Naruto could wait until this joker was put down.

"KONOHA SENPUU!!!"

Like a green flash, Lee's right foot was roaring towards Ieyasu's head.

What followed…could only be described as poetry in motion.

Ieyasu calmly grabbed the incoming foot with his left hand, yanking it downward across his torso before delivering a vicious right uppercut to Lee's gut. Gai, from his position upon Lee's back, swiftly jabbed at the helmeted Sawa-nin. A tilt of the head allowed him to barely miss the Jonin's fist, allowing him to retract his fist from Lee's stomach and latch onto his spandex-clad chest. A shifting of the feet...followed by a spin as momentum built up…and both hands released the Taijutsu specialist as he went sailing end over end, managing to land on his feet by the rest of the group. "Nice recovery my student!"

"Ah, but Gai-sensei…he was able to react so quickly!" Lee scowled. Were they dealing with yet another vaunted 'genius'…?

"Perhaps…able to anticipate your actions, like the Sharingan?" muttered Asuma.

"In a sense." Ieyasu kept his multi-colored gaze upon the fifteen ninja gathered before him, even as the surrounding area raged with the sounds of clashing metal and screams. Chakra fluctuated wildly. "The Taijutsu Path…enables an innate understanding of the martial arts I gaze upon. I have seen many fighting styles throughout my young life…and I can perceive your weak points…your individual quirks…and with an instinctive knowledge of your fighting style, I can then respond as I wish."

Sasuke snorted. "A bastardized Sharingan, without any of the hard work involved." That was one of the irritating stereotypes of the Uchiha within Konoha; true, it was ridiculously simple to copy jutsu, techniques, and fighting styles. But what was the point if it was all reflex? The information may have been delivered straight into the mind, but it wasn't ingrained. It wasn't fully mastered (why else did he train day in and day out? Copying things had its own thrill, but what was the point if you hadn't mastered their intricacies?). Perhaps this was an inkling of what Lee had felt when he had exhibited the use of Gōken against Gaara at the Chuunin Exams? "It won't be enough against us."

"Perhaps. But you have other worries aside from me."

The chaos of the arena suddenly decided to intrude. A group of Iwa-nin and Kumo-nin decided to intervene.

Asuma scowled as he clenched his gauntlets, letting wind-chakra covered needles fly before moving with his trench knives. "Stick to long distance with that guy!"

Kurenai stepped forward, her multi-colored eyes of red glaring at Nobunaga's powerful assistant. Memories of the underhanded assassination attempt of Tsunade-sama drifted to the forefront of her mind. "Hinata! Kiba! Shino! Assist Asuma; take down as many of the enemy as you can…and don't die!"

"Hai, sensei!" instinctively replied the three Chunnin. Kiba chuckled as he and Akamaru flexed their claws. "Let's go Akamaru!" The puppy howled as the duo leapt towards the Iwa-nin, followed quietly by Shino and his kikaichu horde. Hinata quietly looked at the Kumo-nin, their eyes glaring at her. Hmm…it seems they still want my eyes. Perhaps some measure of comeuppance would be warranted? Their actions had led to the sacrifice of Neji's father; THAT was truly unforgiveable. Alas…her unit was heading towards the Iwa-nin. She wasn't foolish enough to charge against enemy ninja on her own. Glancing behind her with her Byakugan, Hinata offered a silent prayer for the blonde Jinchuriki. Be safe…Naruto-kun…

For there would be plenty of questions to ask after this was all over.

Konohamaru and Hanabi moved up to Asuma's flanks. "What do we do Asuma-sensei?"

"Stick close to me; other than that, try and do as much damage as you can without getting yourselves killed!" The Jonin adeptly ducked under a kunai lunge as he decapitated a Kumo Chuunin with the blade of wind chakra extending from his trench knife.

Konohamaru gulped.

Hanabi only blinked. So…this is it. Do or die time. Time to show her worth…and her family was here. Even if they would be busy fighting for their own lives…she would do good by the name of both Konoha and the Hyuga. "Sarutobi-san." She smirked as chakra circulated through her keirakukei. "Let's do it."

Meanwhile, Gai and Lee had taken a liking to hitting various enemy ninja. In the face. 'Dynamic Entry' indeed.

Zabuza and Haku gazed over at Naruto, who stood calmly several feet behind Sasuke, Sakura, and Sai. He really wanted to get a piece of the Rinnegan, but something told him that interfering with the reunion of Team 7 would be…unwarranted. Oh well, not like I won't get another chance. He could tell that Ieyasu would be a tough opponent…and would survive, barring an all-out attack that would (by necessity!) draw the attention of a Kage or two. "Oi brat, I'm gonna cut loose a little," snarled the swordsman as he hefted Kubikiri Houcho over his shoulder.

"Enjoy yourselves!" cheerily said Naruto as the two former denizens of the Mist leapt into battle, Zabuza swinging his blade with reckless abandon while Haku served as his faithful sentinel. "I've got catching up to do anyway…" His cerulean eyes gazed happily upon Sasuke and Sakura. How long had it been anyway? Too damn long…too bad it won't last.

Stupid Kyuubi-teme.

"Naruto…" muttered Sakura, emerald eyes wide. This was so…surreal. How…how was this happening? He just shows up, out of the blue…right as the Fourth Great Ninja War erupts, plunging them into chaos. The spiking chakra levels about her ran roughshod over her senses. "How are…you back?"

"Technically, I'm not. I'm only a Shadow Clone." Naruto kept his gaze on Harada Ieyasu, knowing that the Sawa-nin was ready to attack at a moment's notice. "Like I said, I'll talk more about it once things settle down…but I'm gonna hang back and stick with ninjutsu."

Sasuke chuckled as his hand brushed the handle of his katana. "Coward. Then again, I don't mind doing all the hard work."

Naruto smirked as his eyes fell upon Sai. "And you…" What had Kitsozo said his name was? "…Sai, right?"

"That is correct, Uzumaki. I would be most appreciative if you do not whine."

Naruto blinked, too confused to get angry. Now where did THAT come from? Naturally, he completely missed Sakura's facepalm. "Uh…okay…?"

"We can chat later," snapped Kurenai, her red eyes focused completely on their opponent, still keeping a few of her senses dedicated to their surroundings. "For now, we have an enemy to fight."

"Indeed you do," remarked Harada Ieyasu as he looked at his now-smaller group of opponents. At the forefront were Sasuke, Sakura, and Sai. Naruto and Kurenai both hung back, serving as the long-distance attackers.

Less opponents…but more room for them to maneuver. More leeway. A different sort of challenge at any rate.

But, like before, hardly an insurmountable one.

"HYAA!!!"

Sakura's fist caused the sod to split, forcing Ieyasu to leap away from the fissure that threatened to engulf him.

But Sasuke was already there, alongside twin beasts forged of ink; Ieyasu unsheathed a kodachi as he parried the Uchiha's katana, Rinnegan staring stoically into the swirling Sharingan.

The battle was joined.

xxxx

Elsewhere within Gouhou Coliseum, Joudo Chiriku palmed an enemy Sawa-nin in the chest before following up with a swift kick to the neck. The man's laryngeal prominence – known more colloquially as the Adam's apple – caved into his throat, prompting Senju Hashirama to cheer. "Nice one!"

Chiriku sighed as he kept his eyes open, the corridors within the Coliseum echoing with clashing steel and bullets. "We're in the clear…for the moment." He needed backup. Multiple kata ensued, before he finally settled on the Tori hand seal. "Ninpou; En'youkaika!" His black eyes glowed white as his spirit opened a connection to one of the many kami at the Temple of Fire. "Ninja Art; Theurgical Enlightenment!"

As always, there was the briefest sensation…of absolute nirvana, as his soul made contact with that of the kami.

The one he had in mind answered his call.

...WHY…DO YOU CALL…

I need your assistance in battle.

I…HAVE NO TIME…TO OFFER YOU…

I am now aware of the events surrounding your ancestral home…Makai.

WHO…REVEALED THIS…?

Kazama Arashi. Servant of the Hachibi.

That made the spirit recoil out of shock. WHY…?

The events in Makai are more interconnected with Ningenkai than you might be aware of…and at the moment, I am fighting alongside Uzumaki Naruto.

THE HOST…OF THE KYUUBI…

I need your assistance. Please.

Silence, as the kami prickled at his thoughts…plunging into his memory.

AH…I SEE…MY BRETHREN WILL BE MOST…ENLIGHTENED BY THIS KNOWLEDGE...OF CURRENT AFFAIRS…VERY WELL….I WILL GRANT YOU MY AID…

Chiriku nodded grimly as his chakra surged. I thank you, Gyatso of the Wind. His eyes glowed brightly, his senses returning to the events of the real world.

The summoning of the spirit and their subsequent merging had taken less than a second.

Just as a small fire team of River Army infantry rounded the corner, rifles at the ready. "Enemy target!"

Chiriku spread his arms out as the rifles fired...but the bullets went nowhere, buffeted by a shield of wind. With a brief flick of his arms, the projectiles ricocheted backward, shattering the skulls of the five soldiers.

"Ah, excellent!" exclaimed the Kajidaimyō. He could only relax as the monk surrounded him with a sphere of wind, allowing him to levitate above the ground. There really was no reason to worry; even though he was in a warzone, he had faith in his military. And if he were to die…well, sure, that wouldn't be peachy. But he had a successor, the chain of command was still intact back at the Fire Country's capital…so why worry? Might as well enjoy the spectacle of ninja performing otherworldly feats.

"Are you okay, Senju-sama?"

"Just fine, Chiriku-kun. Let's leave this cramped stadium; I'm certain to be nothing more than a big target at any rate."

The monk only nodded as he kept his fist clenched, manipulating his new powers over the air to keep Hashirama protected within a sphere of wind. Vaulting into the air, he manipulated an orb of wind beneath him, rocketing him through the corridors of the Coliseum with his charge in tow.

For those who managed to get a glimpse, it looked as if Chiriku were sitting in midair.

But despite the fanciful image…his mind was far from at ease.

Tsunade-sama…Jiraiya-sama…Asuma…Arashi-kun…be safe!

xxxx

/North of Gouhou Coliseum, Yosen, River Country Territory: Rain Province/

Tobokeru Jiraiya looked upon the Tsuchikage with a wistful grin. "So…Katame Nagato. Been a while."

The Rokudaime Tsuchikage snorted as he shed his robes and hat. A head bearing closely-shaved brown hair complemented the scar going across his right eye, his lone green eye glaring at the Toad Sage. Brown leather armor covered his shoulders, torso, thighs, and shins, overlapping the bodysuit of chainmail. Metal plates adorned his forearms, and the leather armor on his chest bore the kanji for 'Fortress'. "I have no need to reminisce over past battles and the failure of my nation. I have since become the Rokudaime Tsuchikage, and I am now renowned as the Iwa no Toride!"

"Ah, the Fortress of Iwa. Iwagakure has never once been invaded during your reign." Jiraiya knew full well that this man was not one to take lightly. Despite his 'Arashiphobia', Nagato was a wily veteran whose catalogue of Doton techniques rivaled (some say outmatched) those of the autonomous Yagami Clan, the same clan that the infamous Hiroto of Akatsuki had once belonged to. "But we're not at your home, and conditions are less than favorable for a one-on-one fight."

That was being awfully blunt.

Jiraiya calmly sidestepped the charge of an Iwa-nin, kicking the fool in the side before leaping above a spike of earth that merited a Rasengan to the chest of the one responsible.

Nagato himself merely grunted as he caved in the skull of a zealous Suna-nin. "Indeed. Though the sound of the River Army is becoming quite…favorable."

Bullets. Tank cannons. Artillery shells.

Jiraiya and Nagato were now to the north of Gouhou Coliseum, nearly outside of Yosen. Motorcycles growled as they carried soldiers alongside the Panther Tanks; explosive shells caused the emptied prefab buildings to crumble, forcing shinobi into the open…into the path of infantry rifles.

One rifleman couldn't hope to compare with even a well-trained Genin…but it only took one shot.

Even a Jonin would be hard-pressed to avoid bullets if they came as hail.

"But honestly, I would prefer to face you alone." Nagato performed various hand seals. "Doton; Iwatoride no jutsu!" He slammed his palms into the ground. "Earth Element; Stone Fortress!"

A veritable monolith arose, hollow…yet durable. The kanji for 'Earth' was etched proudly on the outer walls, telegraphing the presence and power of the Tsuchikage. One hundred yards high…and with forty square yards of room inside.

Jiraiya whistled out of appreciation, their forms shadowed in the innards of the pillar. "Impressive."

"This fortress will be your tomb; it will be marked as the resting place of Konoha's Toad Sage…the Gallant Jiraiya…" Katame Nagato shifted his feet, his form a mere silhouette in the darkness. "The place where the Hidden Stone unleashed a crippling blow against the Hidden Leaf!"

"Now you're talking my language," casually remarked Jiraiya. "I've always been a sucker for climactic battles…they make for good stories." Save for some of his personal genjutsu (and he was NO genjutsu specialist in the strictest sense), he had no access to his toad jutsu…though, if what Arashi said was true…hmm. I only hope I'm not pressed enough to have to find out.

"Doton; Kousotsu no jutsu!"

Jiraiya grimaced as rock seemed to crawl onto Nagato's form, attracted by his surging chakra. Earth Element…Armored Warrior. Damn it, he's going for the big guns. "Fuuton; Geirufoosu!" A massive gust was expelled from Jiraiya's gullet, slamming Nagato against the walls of his own fortress…but no worse for the wear. All but his eyes were covered by layers of hardy rock, reinforced by chakra and nigh impenetrable. "Suiton; Kaisuihadou!" Jiraiya leapt backward, using chakra to 'glue' his feet to the wall as he expelled a torrent of blue water.

Nagato was not one to be so easily done in. "Doton; Yuukoku!" Chakra surged into his feet. "Earth Element; Deep Ravine!" Cracks erupted along the ground, delving deep into the earth, eagerly draining away at the water Jiraiya had spawned. "Gale Force and Ocean Surge…how pitiful. Don't tell me this is all you have!" Nagato immediately soared into the air towards Jiraiya's position.

The Gama Sennin bit back a curse as he skipped 'backwards', both combatants now standing perfectly horizontal relative to the ground. Jiraiya weaved and ducked as best as he could, doing his best to avoid the rocky fists of the Tsuchikage. Out of desperation, he leapt back to the ground, knowing full well it would provide his enemy a golden opportunity.

One that would not be wasted. "Foolish Konoha-nin! Doton; Iwahyou no jutsu!" Fragments of the wall suddenly began to form into perfect spheres. "Earth Element; Rock Hail!"

Jiraiya yelped as he began rolling and sidestepping the bombardment, the total number of stones obscured by the dark. Gotta time this right!

Nagato pumped his legs, soaring downward towards Jiraiya as he reared a fist. The Toad Hermit barely managed to turn around – an odd, strangely visible glint in his eyes – as the Tsuchikage roared. "HYOOOOOO!"

CRASH!!!

A plume of dust erupted from the ground, further obscuring the events within the pillar. Katame Nagato quickly expelled a burst a chakra, forcing the dust to settle to the ground…and then his eyes fell upon an odd sight.

A toad. "Rrrrbt."

Katame Nagato's eyes narrowed. "A summoning?"

"Rrrrrrrrrbt."

The Rokudaime Tsuchikage frowned at that croaking sound. It was…oddly alluring. Too alluring. Hmm…either a summon…or an illusion…

The toad stared blankly.

Nagato growled. "Kai!"

The toad vanished.

A massive burst of chakra suddenly came into being behind him.

Nagato blanched as a palm wielding a Rasengan slammed into his back, boring into his armor and then his spine…and then his features darkened. As did the rest of him.

Jiraiya grimaced at the sight of mud wobbling and collapsing. A Tsuchi Bunshin…just my luck. Scratch Ninpou; Gamasaiminjutsu. Ninja Art; Toad Hypnotism…a rather rudimentary genjutsu, compared to some of the deadlier ones in existence. Would've been more effective in conjunction with some of the other toads…

Nagato calmly pulled himself out of one of the fissures, his gaze hidden in the shadow of the pillar. "Shall we continue?"

Jiraiya did not even need another moment to answer. "Of course."

xxxx

/Second Exam Grounds, Yosen, River Country Territory: Rain Province/

Hijikata Hanzou couldn't help but admire some of the work put into the 'obstacle course' (aka, part two of the cancelled Chuunin Exams).

It was clear from the outset that this obstacle course was far more challenging than anything a mere infantryman was expected to endure. 'More intense' indeed.

The starting point diverged into multiple paths through a whole field of tunnels, wooden poles, and hidden trapdoors. Seals etched into the ground would cause spike traps to spring, flames to erupt, walls to fall, shuriken to fly. The entire obstacle course burrowed into the ground, riddled with false directions and dead ends. Paths converged into choke points, and small arenas dotted the course; it was a veritable gauntlet, designed to test one's instincts and the ability of a leader to adequately allocate resources in the middle of battle. A way of testing Genin under pressure, to see if they could keep a clear head and act appropriately during the heat of the moment.

However, there was something to be said for simply plowing through all of the traps with sheer brute force.

"Suiton; Suisanshouuoudan no jutsu!"

A watery salamander crashed through a sprung wall of stone, opening the way for Hanzou to continue pursuing Fuuma Pein into the obstacle course.

The two suddenly stopped; they were inside an arena within the obstacle course, relatively isolated from the havoc engulfing Yosen on the surface.

Hanzou's dark eyes glared at his long-time opponent's pierced visage. "Do you really think that this move will end in your favor?"

Pein stared silently at his counterpart; the earthen arena was dimly lit by yellow light bulbs, with various observational equipment that would have relayed the events of the second exam to the people in the Gouhou Coliseum. Would have. Now…there were only the two rivals, in the midst of a new war's first bloody battle. It is with those thoughts that Pein replied, "You may be old enough to have let it slip by...but I have not forgotten about the nature of humanity."

Hanzou arched an eyebrow.

"This nature is one that I have known since I was young; that war will always exist. That which we seek to protect from unwarranted aggression can only be protected by force greater than the enemy's. But the consequence of such power is great indeed; the mere existence of that overwhelming force breeds hatred and resentment amongst those who feel oppressed by it…and the cycle of war continues onward." Pein flexed his fingers, his black cloak shrouding all but his head, hands, and feet. "It is…one of the weaknesses of humanity, I suppose. We can only do what we can to protect that which is within our grasp."

"And that is your reason? Because you feel that the IKS and the River Army will provide greater protection for the people of Amegakure and the rest of the Rain Country?"

"Yes." Pein retracted his hand into his cloak, unsheathing a black katana. "The people of Ame confirmed enough…out of respect for your desire for a safer Rain Country, I will offer you one chance to join me."

"I want no part of the River Army's world. It will only result in greater bloodshed!"

"So long as the IKS and the River Army keep the war away from Rain, I could care less." Pein raised his blade, aiming it at Hanzou's face. "You know well of my feelings on this matter; so long as Ame is protected and kept free for its people…the rest of the world could burn for all I care. As nothing more than a mere human, it's the best I can hope to achieve."

Hanzou frowned, his jaw grinding. The audacity of it all…and worst of all, if word of Pein's rebellion got back to Konoha…he had no clue how the Ame-nin would react. Would the former rebels simply get up and leave? Or would they continue the fight on Konoha's doorstep. "You've made your choice then…now LIVE WITH IT!" A flurry of kunai flew towards Pein. "Kunai kage bunshin no jutsu!" Now it was over one hundred.

Pein, holding tightly to his blade, performed one-handed seals with his other…for this was amongst his most used techniques. "Fuuton; Kazesekiryoku no jutsu!" Chakra swirled from his form, merging with the air…and a blast of wind deflected all of the projectiles, just as Hanzou came forward with twin kunai. The rebel leader grunted as he parried the kunai, leaping backward from the former head of Amegakure. "Tell me Hanzou, what was the motivation of your name? Did your parents think highly enough of your future to name you after the legendary Sage of the Six Paths? What would merit such a title?"

"I have lived as a ruler of Amegakure, trying my hardest to keep the people safe, to keep the nation of Rain stable!" Hanzou scowled as he leapt back, performing multiple hand signs. "I have traversed every corner of this country in my efforts to keep it safe, fighting war after war…I am well beneath the power of the ninja I was named after…but my ability was enough to make all assassination missions against me a fool's errand!" He knew where he was, most of all…and knew of the various underground rivers that ran through this region of the Rain Country. "Suiton; Hahonryū!" The ground rumbled and cracked; the tremors caused the entryways into the arena to collapse, even as water began to rocket into the room. "Water Element; Destructive Rapid Torrents."

Pein sighed as water began to feel the expanse. "Great is your power…but does it merit the title you carry? A true fool's errand is to boast without having what it takes to support it…" He slid his feet, letting his chakra surge. "That is why I will endeavor to remind you of the truth of my title: Fumetsu…Fuuma Pein the Undying. Tsuusan Shintou!"

Hanzou scowled as he sealed his headgear, switching over to an internal air supply. Total Osmosis…he's now absorbing oxygen from the water around him…

This battle would be tricky.

His headgear had a finite supply of air, but the battle would definitely be over before it emptied. All he had to do was make Pein breathe…all Pein would have to do is break his headgear.

Hanzou would have only a brief amount of time (any Ame-nin worth their salt was able to hold their breath whilst moving for a substantial duration) to break out of the arena to get some air.

Pein would begin to drown…unless his ability with Total Osmosis was so finely-tuned that he could extract oxygen from the water in his lungs…had he trained for that sort of thing?

Alas, such thoughts were secondary.

All they had to do was kill the other.

The two rivals charged.

xxxx

/Within Gouhou Coliseum, Yosen, River Country Territory: Rain Province/

Bachiatari Gaara probably looked quite odd to a random observer.

After all, it's not everyday you see the Godaime Kazekage moving and writhing with swift, concise movements…dodging slips of paper that seemed to zoom at him from various angles.

Judging by the bodies of Suna-nin and Kumo-nin that had been caught in the melee (perhaps in an attempt to aid their respective Kages?), the paper was razor-sharp…and the Kazekage's abilities were somehow just as deadly. Beige cylinders that had been hidden under his blue-and-white robes – tied to the Suna hitai-ate wrapped around his waist – had held copious amounts of sand. A far lesser volume than his old gourd, but enough for his current fighting style and his lesser amount of chakra.

Much of that sand was now hardened over his fists, forming spiked gauntlets. A diminutive cloud flew about him, shifting to block, ward, and cut away at the paper blizzard. It was certainly no absolute defense like his Shield of Sand had been, and the tax on his chakra was very noticeable…but he had learned to become quite efficient over the last few months.

But would it be enough?

"The loss of the demon within has been quite costly, hasn't it?"

Gaara's eyes narrowed, blood running down his cheek.

Out of the flurry of paper, some congealed together to form a face; chakra flourished through it, providing the color to form a human countenance rimmed by blue hair. The eyes of Kirigami Konan gazed quietly into Gaara's teal orbs. "It would have been intriguing to test my abilities against your 'absolute defense', as has been regaled to me by the forces of Iwa…sadly, you are at but a fraction of your strength."

"Strength can be lost, but it can also be gained in unforeseen ways." Gaara remained wary within the storm of paper whirling about him. The number of cuts in his uniform were annoying…but he had managed to avoid any death blows. "Your ability is intriguing on its own. A kekkei genkai?"

"It might be. It might not. I don't make a habit of unveiling facets of my power to enemies."

"Hmm." Gaara rolled to the side, avoiding a skewer of paper that had been coming from behind. He was not too proud to admit that the Shichidaime Raikage was beyond him. He had only been training under Gai-sensei and Lee-sensei for less than three months. But he needed a way to subdue her. Keep her occupied long enough to prevent her from wreaking havoc on allied shinobi.

Twin hands suddenly formed out of paper, levitating in midair by the Raikage's face. "Raiton; Denkikamisori no jutsu!" Following the hand signs, several dozen slips of paper crackled with electric chakra. "Lightning Element; Electric Razor!"

Gaara quickly leapt above the flurry of electrified paper, using chakra to stick to the ceiling. With a furious grunt, the Kazekage slammed his fists into the ceiling, causing a web of cracks to erupt...

Then it all crumbled.

The Godaime Kazekage quickly leapt backward as the ceiling collapsed upon the paper, burying it under the rubble. His teal orbs narrowed at the feel of circulating chakra beneath the debris. She's not done yet. Yet it would be enough to hold her off for some time.

Hopefully.

The Kazekage retreated, looking for opponents more suited to his talents.

Naught but a few minutes later, slips of paper began to slowly emerge from the rubble, coagulating into a serene face. "Hmm. He actually has the intelligence and fortitude to flee." Macho men so often overestimated the 'bravery' in making a last stand against those who would only annihilate you in an instant, particularly when nothing else was on the line. What courage was there in serving as a meat shield? To know your opponent would ultimately defeat you…and to then flee? Most would call it common cowardice.

Konan saw it as the mark of a smart leader.

He has potential, even without the Shukaku.

Perhaps Suna still had some strength left in it after all.

The Raikage remained silent as she willed herself out of the debris.

xxxx

"Given your taste for the theatric…your choice of venue is somewhat odd."

Oda Nobunaga chuckled as he tilted his head, as though amused by the words. "I'm afraid it's simpler than that: I'd prefer to finish you off myself than to let an errant bullet do it for me."

Iga Tsunade snorted. "How kind."

It was an old food court of sorts, built inside a large two-story building; the fabricated outlets in the walls had been laden with the trappings and stands of various restaurants. They were all now abandoned, food trays sitting haphazardly on the long tables. The faint smell of cooking grease lingered. Stairs led up to even more tables, all of them granted a grand view of the obstacle course.

An obstacle course that now served as the battleground for ninja of all nationalities.

"You certainly could have been just a little more patient. A lot of people were looking forward to the Chuunin Exams."

Nobunaga smiled as he readjusted his glasses. "As far as I'm concerned, these Exams are nothing more than a formality; a village can promote who it pleases without the say of anyone else. The prime draw for these Exams…was which military force would appear superior: the River Army…or shinobi."

Tsunade scowled. "Your precious River Army. You'd be willing to upend the Hidden Villages for this new method of warfare? It will only increase the casualties on all sides!"

"Monetarily, it is cheaper…and as heartless as it is, that is how the lords and businesses supporting me financially view it. You of all people should know that attaching a price tag to human life is an endeavor few wish to embark upon."

"Then why?"

"Because of a dream. A goal. A necessity." Nobunaga kept his eyes locked on the Hokage, the two circling the room in silence. Their gazes were ironclad, never wavering. "The engine of war would've advanced in such a manner despite this. The discovery of petroleum wells in the River Country, Fire Country, and Lightning Country allowed for oil to be looked as something more than a source of light. It hasn't even been two decades since the first automotive vehicles were created; now we have construction vehicles, and ships without a need for sails. That such technology would have military applications shouldn't be a surprise…Tsunade-dono."

Tsunade grimaced. He had a point; despite the rather expensive nature of most oil-powered equipment, it had streamlined construction by an amazing degree. Given Snow Country and River Country's technological advances, it wouldn't be long before the idea of automated agriculture caught on (something that some of the Council members were lobbying her for, to increase production; couldn't they at least wait until the geopolitical tension eased up?!). "I'm not so narrow-minded as to not see the benefits of such technology…but its applications in war are too harrowing. As horrific as shinobi combat is, the alternative is far worse."

"That's not what I've been hearing."

"WELL SCREW WHAT YOU'VE HEARD!"

Nobunaga chuckled at Tsunade's outburst. "My my, so angry. Still sore over the assassination attempt?"

"Among other things." A quick kick sent a table soaring towards Nobunaga.

Impulsively, his two hands became alight with a gray aura; Bunshitoukai met the table, splitting it in half as it passed by. The edges that had touched his hands were crumbling into dust even now.

"…you've confirmed it."

Nobunaga's brown eyes turned quietly towards Tsunade, a stern glare on her features. "Oh? What have I confirmed?"

"…just exactly who you are, Oda Nobunaga…or rather, Koga Nobunaga."

The leader of Sawagakure sneered, mocking the Hokage with a slow clap. "Bravo. We finally have a winner. I was surprised that my features didn't clue in you in sooner…then again, it has been a number of years since the Koga were of any importance in the Hidden Leaf."

"The white hair and brown eyes were present in over half of all Koga clansmen…but the use of Bunshitoukai…" Tsunade recalled the words of her grandfather's account of the battle with Mitsuhide. How, at the Valley of the End, before he could deliver the finishing blow, Mitsuhide's firstborn had intervened. "You're the descendant of Koga Hajime, aren't you?"

"The firstborn of Hajime's first child," amended Nobunaga. "As such, I bear the power that made Mitsuhide a feared adversary throughout the lands…though, such a power had to be kept under wraps if we were to avoid the wrath of the Shodai Hokage."

"My grandfather's journal is now the only record of the events of that battle…but he had resigned himself to letting people believe Mitsuhide had been killed." Iga Nagi had simply had enough of war. He had probably been content that Hajime had taken Mitsuhide away, never to appear in Konoha again. "His lone message to Mitsuhide was that he could go free with his son Hajime, provided he never rise against Konoha…it was the last favor he was willing to grant to his best friend."

Koga Nobunaga smiled wistfully. "Ah, the bond between the Iga and the Koga…deep as blood…though the incidents regarding both Mitsuhide and Orochimaru have done plenty to weaken that bond, hm?"

"Shut your mouth," snarled Tsunade. You have no clue about Orochimaru…about the THING he was! "The Koga served Konoha faithfully, despite the treachery of Mitsuhide and Orochimaru…but there are no longer any left in Konoha."

"And once you die, the Iga will be no more."

Tsunade's eyes narrowed. "You won't be killing me here. The IKS will be stopped…and your precious war will end!"

"On the contrary, Tsunade-dono…it would benefit the entire world if this war continued on for a rather long time. In the long run, at any rate."

"You're sick!"

Koga Nobunaga smirked. "I see no reason to enlighten you as to the why and how." If only she knew how the events in Makai were going at the moment…this war was being started for ulterior motives, true…but at this point in time, it was a NECESSITY that it continue. "A true shame that the Yondaime Hokage won't be around to aid you…though, without his interference, the war is sure to last longer."

Tsunade scowled.

"Wherever he's been for the last fifteen years…he's dead now."

xxxx

Kazama Arashi stared silently at the dead, not a scratch on him.

So it's begun.

As expected, the number of dead and dying were mostly River Army infantry. However, the number of casualties amongst Konoha-nin, Suna-nin, Ame-nin, Kusa-nin, and Taki-nin were…unexpectedly high. They were taking a bite out of the IKS forces, but the sheer ease with which a single bullet could kill in an instant…

It was slightly depressing. Part of him wanted to act as the Yondaime Hokage and aid Konoha and her allies. With Hiraishin, even the advanced weaponry would be hard-pressed to hit him…but no. He could not.

He had a higher calling.

With but a thought, Arashi's outer appearance rippled…and in place of his Konoha-nin apparel, he was clad in robes of gray, his back bearing the image of a white human skull wreathed in eight black tails. His golden yellow hair was held out of his eyes by a black headband, his cerulean eyes shimmering with a power not of this world. Nobunaga's ability would have been a lot more troublesome were I anything more than a spirit in physical form…oh well, time to get to work. Arashi reached for the white belt around his waist, where a kodachi and a golden bell were tied. "To all the departed…death's bell now tolls for you."

Little motes of light began to emerge from the corpses. Souls, cut from their physical forms. They would often wander before eventually winding up in the Netherworld: Gekai.

But…considering the affairs his master had to deal with…Arashi had to be far swifter with the transfer.

Arashi calmly opened his mouth, revealing a blue vortex that ended in a pinpoint of white; all of the souls were swiftly sucked in.

He stood stoically amongst the corpses, himself and the souls invisible to all.

His task done, Arashi moved on to the next portion of the killing fields.

xxxx

"Fourth or no Fourth, I do expect Konoha to live up to its reputation as 'elite of the elite' nonetheless. It should make this a war of attrition, which would be far more useful." Koga Nobunaga smiled at Tsunade's look of indignant rage. "Oh? Do you not like compliments?"

"This is all pointless…unneeded…WASTEFUL!" Tsunade kicked the ground, forcing Nobunaga to leap away from a deep fissure. "Looking forward to a war of attrition? Do you have any idea how INSULTING that is to me?!"

"I can gather."

"Tell me the truth…" Tsunade cracked her knuckles. "At least for the sake of the bond of the Iga and the Koga…if you don't want to say so anyway, then I'll beat it out of you."

Nobunaga chuckled. "Ah…that precious bond…it would have been for the better had your grandfather acceded to the wisdom of Mitsuhide. Perhaps we wouldn't even be having this discussion at all…as a matter of fact, I know we wouldn't. Do you know why?"

"…"

"This small world of ours…so segmented and fragmented. The First Great Shinobi War was the one that fully ushered in the fact that ninja are the dominant power…but even ninja alone would not be able to unite everyone underneath one banner. That sort of talent required raw power…leadership…and things could have gone so much farther had Iga Nagi not relented and backed down. Can you imagine the idea of a single nation?"

Tsunade snorted. "You don't know your history. Everyone knows that the Shodai Hokage wanted the people of the world to determine their own fate; the chaos of the Second Great Shinobi War was proof enough that some people will be content to fight and live with constant bloodshed." The Hokage's eyes narrowed. "Are you telling me that Mitsuhide intended to go even further?"

"Yes. That's partially why he and the Shodai fought at the Valley of the End; they disagreed about the future of Konoha. Mitsuhide had a vision of the entire world under the banner of one power: Konohagakure…Nagi was far less ambitious."

"And that is a bad thing? No one country can control the whole world, much less a single village!"

Nobunaga chuckled. "Your ignorance is really quite amusing…Mitsuhide, much like his descendant Orochimaru, was of a far higher standard than the rest of humanity."

You have no clue how close you are to the truth. Tsunade couldn't help but sneer, mirroring Nobunaga's smug expression. "Funny. Last I checked, they're both dead."

"And when does a man truly die? When their flesh rots? When their families move on? No…they only die when they are forgotten, when their ideas and dreams are lost for all time." Nobunaga paused in his never-ending stroll. "That is an ideal that has been espoused by Konoha since its inception: the Will of Fire, passed down from generation to generation. An admirable trait…but soon the world will know that the will of the Koga burns brighter and longer."

"And how would they know? The Koga of Konoha have all perished!"

Nobunaga smiled. Tsunade probably imagined that she knew things. How fun it would be…when he finally revealed the strings. "Can they truly be said to have been Koga? Can they truly be said to have been following the dreams of their ancestors? I would actually wager that Orochimaru embodied the ideals of the Koga more than anyone else in his generation."

"And what are those ideals? Never-ending war? Utter domination?"

"Yes to the last one…after all, what other way is there to ensure order? True peace?"

"A peace 'guaranteed' by threat of the sword is no true peace at all…and it'll never exist. Humanity doesn't deserve such perfection…no matter how much we may desire it."

"Ah, but one won't know until one tries, hm?" What a gutless woman! "You think you have an understanding of the limits of humanity, a clear view of their imperfections. But what is the point if you can't…mold them, correct them?"

Tsunade's mental alarms were suddenly tripped. "You sound…far too much like Orochimaru for my liking."

Nobunaga innocently shrugged. "Ah, did you ever really know who Orochimaru was? How far his plans stretched?"

More than you know. "What I do know is enough to make any person's skin crawl…"

Koga Nobunaga was silent. Both had stopped their endless walk, keeping a quiet gaze on each other.

Then…Nobunaga decided to end this little chat.

"A true shame about the Iga and the Koga…I truly do think they might have been able to see the light…but it seems that my father disagreed…"

Tsunade arched an eyebrow. "What are you talking about?"

"Ah, I'm referring to my father, Oda Shusen, the prior leader of Sawagakure…his opinion of Konoha was even more incendiary than mine…" Nobunaga's smiled widened. Imperceptibly. "It's quite a shame that he thought that retribution was warranted on both Iga and Koga…" Tsunade's confused expression made his smile wider…yet it was still so…maddeningly faint. "I'm sure it always mystified the people of Konoha at how…easily the Clan Grounds of the Iga and Koga were infiltrated…"

Tsunade's eyes widened.

"Inside job, hmm? Orochimaru was not watched so closely, even in those days…though it seems he was willing to give enough information to my father…" Nobunaga's smile was still imperceptible…though his glee was almost palpable. "I'm sure people must have wondered at how the security procedures were seen through so clearly."

what is he…? It couldn't be…was he saying…?

"Don't you wonder, sometimes?"

Tsunade's expression was clammy. He's not…he couldn't be….

"After that, a lot of measures were taken to ensure the survival of the two Founding Clans…"

He couldn't…he didn't…he DIDN'T…

"A shame they weren't thorough enough."

Tsunade's mind was roaring for her to attack now. But part of her wanted Nobunaga to continue…if only to give her a reason…

"My father's orders for that mission twenty years ago were quite specific…and to be honest, I relished the chance to carry out the will of my ancestors."

…to utterly…

"In retrospect, however, it seems like such a waste. I mean, the ones responsible were never even found…"

eviscerate him.

"Tsunade-dono."

Tsunade hadn't realized how tightly her fists had been clenched. Blood trickled between her fingers. "…what?"

Nobunaga's smile finally became visible….and it was so innocently serene. "Would you like to know the last words Nawaki-kun said before I killed him?"

I'm going to kill him.

"It was quite sweet…he said that he had promised you that he would become Hokage…"

I…will KILL HIM!

A horrific noise erupted from Tsunade's throat; a snarling growl, strangled by her throat. The killing intent was so enormous, smothering, all-consuming…

And yet Nobunaga's smile was still serene. "I wonder how Orochimaru reacted when Nawaki's body went home…?"

Tsunade's fist caved in his skull.

POOF!

A Kawarimi with a Kage bunshin.

Tsunade's chocolate eyes glared murderously over her shoulder, where Koga Nobunaga stood with a smirk on his face. "I…won't forgive you…"

"Fine by me. I suppose we can consider the bond between our clans officially broken?"

"WHAT BOND?!?!" howled Tsunade as she charged forward, fully intent on tearing Nobunaga apart.

With that cry, the last fibers of the tie between the Iga and the Koga…were cut. Finally…and forever.

xxxx

To be continued…

Next time…

The Onset of War! The Battle of Yosen Concludes!

xxxx

Author's Note: Well. I'm back. Hopefully for a while.

Hope the wait was worth it. With some REVELATIONS.

See you soon, and please review!