A/N: Two months late, time flies when procrastinating. Hopefully, you all can forgive me for that dumb rant that I posted in the last time. Will not be repeating that anytime soon...Well, hope you all enjoy the chapter!

Just a small note to enhance your reading experience...if you got the Naruto soundtrack 'Orochimaru-Fight!' play it till the end of the section when you see (1), and 'An Extremely Dangerous Technique' from the second Naruto movie at (2). (3) 'Heavy Violence' and (4) 'Need to be Strong'. Those tracks should be bringing out the scenes in later in the chapter. :p

Another thing, Orochimaru is one sick pedo. Enough said.

Edit: As of 29/05/07, the chapter has been checked and assumed free of errors. Credit goes to Itallia for helping me.


Scribble...

Morino Ibiki watched them as a hawk would. He had already briefed the new batch of examiners on the importance of weeding out those unable to perform the simple task of intelligence gathering, so he need not be that watchful. But just because he could do so and let the task to the others, doesn't mean he should.

Scribble...

He watched as another tried to inconspicuously peek at his neighbor's test sheet. Genin, Leaf, and just a teenager...possibly no older than fourteen springs. It was probably the boy's first Chuunin Exam.

Ibiki earned that rank on a blasted mountain path two years younger, tired, numb and very much bloodied. It was not long before temporary status became pretty much permanent once the 2nd Earth-Fire Succession War devolved from a savage blitz by both sides to a meat grinder conflict that raged across the inhospitable border lands of blasted earth and rotting corpses. Memories from that time threatened to resurface, long since suppressed, but Ibiki squashed them down ruthlessly like he was trained to do.

He brought a leather-gloved hand to his chin, stroking it once, running the fabric down the scars that receded to the bottom of his chin.

As much as their Genin prided themselves on their combat skill, their subtlety often left more to be desired and it was no different this year. Relative peace, while enjoyable, had made them lax. Taking note of the seat numbers of the soon to be disqualified Genin, he crossed out the numbers on his sheet. It had been the third time the boy had been caught cheating.

"No. 27, 28, 29, fail. Leave the room now."

As usual, he caught sight of the slight twitch of surprise from their faces, their facial muscles quickly clenching at the notion that they had failed in the first phase. Protest rose in their eyes, burning with indignant anger backed by childish ignorance.

"Why?!"

"What-?!"

"You're not ready." Was all he said, but it was that which was unsaid that was powerful. 'You're not going to survive as a ninja, at your level.'

The ensuing yaps of protest made it all the clearer about the maturity of the hopeful would-be shinobi.

Shinobi followed their orders to the letter, without exceptions. Those that did not were, quite simply put, trash.

( I I I )

"Genin...Chuunin...Jounin, these were but empty titles. People thought of shinobi as tools, pre-manufactured weapons that were identical in every aspect in respect to fashioned steel that sliced human flesh than fodder meat. They thought of a rank as indicative of the quality of a shinobi, as one would with steel. This was not true. What defined a shinobi was not rank, but rather, the deeds and acts he had done to earn his rank. No two shinobi were ever the same in manner or in their method. True, we were weapons, but we were forged differently to the extent that one shinobi may not be shinobi in relation to another. Our minds, bodies and techniques in their own right, are unique, being striking additions to the base weapon that could be loosely defined as a shinobi.

Common belief was that once a ninja is worthy of the title Jounin, he would be at the height of his power. While this is true in a certain respect as a sign of a shinobi that had matured into a weapon of distinction, learning all that he needs to know to be perfect, it was not as important as it would seems. The reason for this is quite simple.

For a shinobi to mature and take shape into weapon of sterling efficiency, there must be a beginning. No matter how good a weapon is in its finality, it can still be broken because of a weak foundation.

Then would the most important phase of a ninja's growth lie in his Genin days, the very foundation of a shinobi, where only mere silvers of the true weapon that he could become be seen? However, it was not so much as important what a Genin did than what he was capable of. No, because Genin, as a rule, are almost always universally inadequate, often more in manner and mindset than in physical abilities. While importance lies somewhat close to the Genin days of any shinobi, Genin do not experience the intensity and surrealism that upper tier combat often brings.

No, the true crux of every shinobi would be when they were more than Genin but not yet Chuunin, armed with everything a master could impart to them, and the time came for them to take the next step and become a true Chuunin so that the last vestiges of a child would be stripped away to form the beginnings of a weapon…a shinobi. For they must unleash themselves, in a show of primal energy, as like a blacksmith forging a smoldering blade, to survive, and knowledge alone was never enough." – Excerpt from the Annals of the Shinobi, amended and revised in the fourth year of His Most Beneficent reign of Lord Sandaime Hokage.

( I I I )

The Savant

Written by legacyZero

( I I I )

The paper on his table was filled with penciled answers to questions both familiar and foreign to him. Setting down his pencil, he looked around. Everywhere he looked, there always seemed to be an examiner, whose discerning eyes scoured the room for any hints of foul play. He shivered when he felt eyes, boring through the back of his skull. Tilting his gaze backwards, he caught the terrible cerulean gaze of the boy from Suna. Even now, they held the same intensity he saw in them a few days prior. A small dust devil, the size of a hand, swirled precariously on his table. Breaking off eye contact, Naruto resumed his observations.

All around, he saw the other candidates in various states of distress or concentration, but all of them were united in the singular act of scribbling down what they thought were the correct answers to the test.

Or that was what it seemed to be.

It was subterfuge in its simplest form. Behind the never-ending pitch-noise of countless sharpened heads of lead meeting poor quality paper, he heard the wraith-like whisperings of jutsu, felt the docile chakra that ebbed in the air as it leaked from the human body. It was like a symphony, he imagined. Every technique and method used signified an instrument, adding its own tune to the overall chaotic order of perception and sense, blending into the background and yet at the same time making itself heard clearly.

He watched as Sasuke's onyx-coloured eyes shift to bright crimson, while his writing hand (which he was sure, was quite still the moment before) burst into a frenzy of activity. Removing his ghostly gaze on the Uchiha, he glanced upon Yamanaka Ino as she formed a seal before going limp, only to straighten herself moments later to fill up the empty blanks she had harbored since the beginning of the exam.

As much as he would like to point out that they were cheating, he supposed that there wasn't any rule against the act itself, only penalties for being caught cheating. Still, the questions weren't overtly difficult and could be completed with enough effort invested on their part.

After all, the shift of trajectory of a kunai thrown from a height with the force of a low-level taijutsu user, accounting aerodynamic variables, was quite simple to determine, right?

Time past quickly in his eyes, and soon, Ibiki took his place in front of the classroom once more.

"All right!" Ibiki boomed, clapping his hands which glowed a ghostly blue to many an observant eye, gaining the attention of a whole cohort of child-monsters with a thunderclap that tore through the dismally silent room.

"You've come thus far, and thus I shall reveal the tenth and final question to this test. Answer this question right, and you shall advance to the next phase, one step closer to achieving Chuunin." He said this with the calmness of a indulging adult, as if explaining a simple fact to a ignorant child, "Answer it wanting however, and I swear, by my authority as chief proctor of this exam, that you'll stayGenin until the day your last breath leaves your body."

As the words made it painfully clear through the nightmare-haze that enveloped the minds of many, the weak and the lost broke. "But there are others who have taken the exam before and are here!"

Ibiki smiled and it was not kind. "That's too bad. It's my rules this year."

He spread his arms, addressing and mocking his audience with cold comfort at the same time, "Of course, choice is the greatest thing that people can have and I'm not going to deprive you of that. You can choose to leave now and come back next year. After all, what is one year in comparison to the eternal shame of staying as a Genin forever?"

"I...give up!" A boy, somewhere in the mess of Genin, exclaimed loudly, voice visibly cracked for all its loudness, the sound of his chair scrapping the ground as he stood up and left. The disgruntled murmurs of his two teammates were heard as they too left the room.

As they left, a silence descended upon them, and slowly, one by one, hands rose up in resignation. Morino Ibiki watched all of this with impassivity, black eyes unwavering as the room thinned, leaving behind only those certain of their capability.

As the last of those who heeded his words to leave left, Ibiki regarded the remainder with a cool look, enjoying the nervous twitches as time wore down what little composure the Genin had left. He figured that he should drop the ball now. They were only Genin, after all.

His next words caused pandemonium to ensue.

"Congratulations, you all have passed the first test."

( I I I )

When Mitarashi Anko crashed through the window and into the room with the velocity of a hyper condensed ball of energy, she was happy to note that half the candidates have been promptly disqualified. Adding that amount to the ones that remained from a separate test conducted in another room, half of the total participants failed from the first test alone. It was more than she expected but nonetheless, she predicted that another half of that number will be cut down rather nicely in short order.

After threatening the Genin not-so-subtly into getting to the next venue for the exam as fast as humanly possible, she turned to roll up the introduction banner that she used earlier in her entrance, happily humming a particularly catchy tune that had been on the radio for the past week, which was oddly enough called 'Blood on Steel, Death by Kunai'.

"Ahem." A not-too-subtle cough to her immediate right made her turn to the source. Upon seeing the still present and imposing form of a certain Interrogations Master, she promptly clasped her hands with glee, a mischievous sparkle dancing in her eyes as if she suddenly remembered something particularly useful to her for the present moment.

"Ibiki-chan, you're treating me to dango later!" She proclaimed sweetly in a way that only a throughout bred kunoichi could, "You lost your bet!"

Ibiki twitched at the suffix, wondering how he managed to be acquainted to the buxom woman. While he did have a bet of sorts running between the feisty Special Jounin and himself, honoring such a dubious and loosely made deal was something that he was, at best, reluctant to do. Especially when it involved a week's worth of dango that would be devoured in a day by a certain purple-haired kunoichi who shall not be named.

"Of course..." He drawled in a way that was not unlike to his prior performance with the Genin, "I'll be glad to uphold my end of the bargain but..."

He pointed to the clearly broken window which was damaged during Anko's rather flashy entrance. "You destroyed public property, property that had been loaned to us for the exam, and in turn, are liable for it. The total cost of repair is the equivalent to a week's supply of dango...by your standard I might add."

Her jaw dropped and her smile was completely wiped off her face by his words. Her honey brown eyes narrowed, expressing genuine hurt (along with crazed anger) at his apparent attempt to get out of the deal, "That is so low of you. Tell me that you so did not do that."

"You shouldn't have destroyed the window either. Windows aren't that cheap, you know, Suna has been rather...late in delivering their glass," Ibiki smirked, "Five servings. Take it or leave it." He said in finality, and the while feeling rather pleased with himself.

Upon hearing this ultimatum, Anko quickly shut up and cut her losses. After all, she would still be getting free dango...albeit a little lesser than she would have liked.

"Fine." She sulked as she left the room, with banner in tow, leaving behind an amused looking Ibiki. The remaining proctors stared at him as if he were crazy.

Crazy which by the way, he was.

( I I I )

Hyuuga Hinata let out the breath she had been unconsciously holding ever since she realized that she had survived through the grinder that had been Morino Ibiki's test of psychological perseverance. She got a bit depressed when she realized that the only reason why she managed to not get her team disqualified because she was too indecisive to do otherwise.

"All right!" Inuzuka Kiba punched up a fist into the air, "That first test was a piece of cake! Right, Akamaru?" The white puppy barked out a response, earning itself a pleasant massage across its ribs.

Looking at the dog and master, she allowed herself a wistful smile. Sometimes, she really wished that the enthusiasm Kiba surrounded himself in rubbed off her. She could really use some of it at the moment...

"Hinata." A soft, but stern voice spoke from behind her, one that she recognized as Aburame Shino, the other link within their three man cell. "Remember what Kurenai-sensei said to us before. Believe in yourself. Self doubt is a hindrance when there's no reason for it."

She tilted her head down at that point, her cheeks burning when she realized that he was complimenting her.

"I-I suppose..." She stuttered softly as she always did, a small smile finding itself to her lips. Shino nodded slightly in affirmation before he resumed walking in relative silence.

They were now walking towards the training fields where the next phase of the exam would start. Near them were the various teams that had passed the first test, but one that stirred her interest was the mismatched trio of white, green and pink. The reason for her interest soon made itself known as she recognized her cousin Neji, wearing an ever present frown on his face.

Not a second later, she found his ire-like gaze on her, as if judging her against things that only he knew. It took an eternity later before he lowered down his head slightly in a gesture of servitude, as was demanded from all Branch members upon meeting those of the Main House. But she knew that action had contained no servitude, only smoldering fires of defiance and willfulness that refused to lie down and die. Cousin Neji had been always like that, ever since he was assigned to guard her and her sister, Hanabi. Sometimes, she worried about him, often wondering what had made his eyes so cold to the world...

Acting with the same quickness as his previous action had been, her cosuin had already lifted his head and resumed to follow his team, never paying her a second glance. Though they were heading for the same destination, they were many ways to reach it. It just so happened that the street they were walking in was the only route from the Academy before it split off into a four way junction. Still, that alone gave her enough time to observe the teammates of her cousin. She always wondered what Neji's team was like. Secretly, Hinata watched as the green clad one with a heinous bowl-cut suddenly bounced towards her cousin, waving his hands animatedly and shouting something that contained curious phrases which sounded suspiciously like "Explosion of Youth" or "Flames of Passion". Before she finally lost sight of them as they turned at the junction, she thought she saw a vein twitch up in her cousin's usually placid face as the green clad boy jumped around him in excitable animation.

It must've been an illusion of the light, right?

With the distraction finally gone, her mind naturally picked up from where her worries had left off. Despite her belief in her teammate's words, Hinata found herself loosing that small scrap of confidence. 'Would I make through this next time?', she found herself wondering despairingly.

So lost in her thoughts was she that she nearly bumped into Shino when he suddenly stopped. Suppressing her gasp of surprise, Hinata felt her heart sink in dread as she took in the sight of the majestic forest before her, with minuscule fences feebly containing what that could not be contained.

"We're here." The Aburame said, punctuating an elated whoop from Kiba and an ever-worsening look of worry from Hinata.

They had arrived.

( I I I )

"Ok, you brats! Gather over here!" A certain purple-haired examiner yelled out to a large group of Genin.

The 'brats' did not look pleased at being called as such but did as she ordered. After all, one could afford to bear such indignities when their future was on the line...in more ways than one. Still, that did not deter a too-smart-for-his-own-good Genin, to make a rude gesture when her back was turned.

A few seconds and one kunai later, said Genin wasn't feeling too smart. It drew blood as it sliced the upper-most surface of his cheek, before embedding itself into the ground quite some distance away.

"I saw that." She said lightly in a playful tone, "Now try doing it in front of my face." She was now not so much as smiling as she was grinning savagely, her voice somehow turning the rather peaceful surroundings into a cold looming doom.

The Genin whimpered.

"No?" She asked innocently, "I thought so." As quickly as it had come, the suffocating tightness vanished from the air and she returned to smiling her half-lidded smiles, showing off the pearly whites of her teeth. "Let's us continue."

From within the loose mass of Genin, Hyuuga Neji watched all of this with veiled interest. The way the proctor, Mitarashi Anko, handled herself before in the classroom made him almost snort in disgust. The thought of how one...as loud as she was succeeding as a shinobi was beyond him. However, beneath the exterior of a loud idiot, he noticed that there was something insidious about her, something that existed on the very borders of perception. Yes, the Byakugan had made him open his eyes in so many ways but here, he very much relied on the ways of reading body language to see fully with clarity. And it wasn't until just now that he realized the primal truth behind Mitarashi Anko; The slight narrowing of her eyes when he saw the tell tale signs of anger flicker, her muscles clenching and tightening like that of a snake ready to strike, the speed of her hands and dexterity of her fingers as she drew and threw a kunai in the time it took to blink an eye.

No, he realized, amending his opinion with slight chagrin, luck had nothing to do with it. Mitarashi Anko was Jounin based on the simple and natural fact that she was a snake.

This only served to reinforce his belief that that nothing was as it seemed, especially in the world of shinobi. He removed his attention from the examiner, who was now explaining the rules and the test.

Just as he did earlier during the exam, he observed the remaining teams that existed on this side of the vast testing grounds. He knew that there were others beside they, who were stationed at a different sector perimeter of the fencing. It was a acceptable variable because he could not do anything about it. However, to not even judge the competition when possible was akin to asking for a kunai in the skull. Such information became even more vital with the start of real combat, for he knew just as well as any veteran of the exams that death came just as easily as it was dealt in the cover of shadows. The forest before him, or what that he could see beyond the fence, was massive, and the undergrowth itself was grotesquely uneven and thick, all of which were adequately fulfilling the aspect of determining favorable and disadvantageous terrain.

As one of the more brilliant minds of strategy had said in a time ages past, 'To win in battle, one must understand the terrain, the enemy and yourself. '

He fulfilled the other two conditions but he did not know his opponents, plural or otherwise. While he did not want and preferred not to fight Konoha shinobi at this stage, making it to the third phase of the exam would render that null seeing that it would become a free-for-all, disregarding the village of origin. Though the second phase was undeniably more dangerous, it was also easier in a way; it allowed the use of trickery and deceit more freely than in the set matches, the two most important things that a shinobi could do barring Ninjutus and Taijutsu.

He quickly skimmed over those he had judged to be of no threat to him, before his eye landed upon the fabled Uchiha of Team 7. The others of his team were insignificant, registering in his mind as an over-anxious girl with pink gum for her hair, and a blonde in orange that succeeded well at not making himself concealable. The Uchiha himself seemed carry himself with an air of boredom about him. It was to be expected really. He too, felt the monotony of the trials, but unlike the Uchiha, he would not be making the mistake of underestimating anybody though he would judge accordingly their worth through these eyes of his.

It was going to be the cause of the second instance that he was going to admit that things were not as they seemed in the not so distant future.

( I I I )

"-and that's it. If there are no questions, please sign the death liability forms which are currently being distributed. Failure to sign would result in immediate forfeiture to the exam entirely."

Nara Shikamaru tried to stifle his yawn. Reviewing and repeating in his mind what the 'friendly' proctor had said before, he had come to realize a few rather blunt truths.

The first, they had three days to reach the centre of the rather uninviting terrain that was mildly called a forest at best, and a death-trap at worst. And judging from the time given to traverse said death-trap, which was only five by five kilometers at best, there had to be something that, theoretically (for he could not see anything from his side of the forest that could make a team of fully fit ninja, albeit Genin, but still, take three days just to cover five kilometers in distance), would sufficiently slow them down. The young Nara had a sinking feeling that it was going to be a unknown variable that he, in time, would hate to find out first hand.

The second was that they had a fifty percent chance to pass. It was odds which were good at first glance but taking into account of all the rather intimidating faces that had seen through Morino Ibiki's farce of a test, the odds were leaning to the other fifty. After the so-called weeding of the candidates, no longer did he see in ample quantities the anxious faces of Genin but rather the impassive masks of shinobi. While looks meant nothing in terms of actual ability, it did not bode well for them regardless.

The third and probably most dire truth, in hindsight, was that he realized how utterly unprepared they were for the Chuunin Exam. Out of all the Konoha teams, they were the weakest from looks alone. Sure, Team 8 looked a little lost, but they had Aburame Shino. While Shikamaru didn't know the other boy very well, he knew enough to know that he was someone that could look out for himself and his team.

The same cannot be said however, for him and Team 10.

It also looked like another troublesome day ahead of him. He tried to stifle a groan but failed, his off-hand comment catching the ire of ever irritable Ino. "Man, this is so troublesome."

A rather concentrated area of his right shoulder exploded in pain and he yelped in surprise.

"OW!"

He turned to look at the culprit, the rather lovely and troublesome Yamanaka Ino, who still held out her hand, straightened to the degree that it would generate a rather nice slap on the shoulder or face should it be used in that way. He frowned severely at the girl which was largely ignored by her.

"Oh, would you just stop saying that?! Seriously, could you take this a little more seriously?" She screeched in a way that did little to comfort his ears, as she started to touch her hair, stroking it once before flipping it back. It was something that he noticed Ino would only do when she was nervous. Or extremely annoyed and bored. Now that he thought about it, her voice was a bit off, revealing itself as a slight wobble in her tone that was just not there before.

It took him a few seconds to realize something that only served to fuel the simmering migraine that threatened to split across his sleep-deprived consciousness.

Ino was, for a lack of a better term, afraid. Despite all her protestations and denials if asked- and he knew she would if confronted with the question since he knew for a fact that girls have their pride, Ino especially so-, she was caught unprepared for the Chuunin exams. He knew she was since she had often badgered Asuma for early dismissals to pretty up for the Uchiha during the first few weeks of utter monotony. Not much could be said about him either, since he too wanted more time to enjoy his favored pastime.

Ino, at the moment, was still quietly ranting at him. He ignored it with the ease of having being nagged at since...well, ever. Still, that did not excuse her rather caustic manner towards him to conceal that fear, regardless of her need to retain some sense of normalcy. Honestly, girls were so troublesome...

He looked to his left. As expected, Chouji was munching on chips drawn from the ever present plastic bag in his hands. It was the only constant that Shikamaru found comfort in at this point in time, oddly enough. As if responding to his look, Chouji turned his head, eyes squeezed tight as he smiled.

"Neh...Shikamaru...do you want one?" He offered Shikamaru his bag.

There was only one chip left. Chouji never did offer him the last chip before.

The realization did not do anything to soothe the butterflies that suddenly died in his stomach.

( I I I )

Ever waiting, he was.

All his life he had been waiting, sometimes shortly, sometimes he waited for days on end. Still, if it was one thing he could be certain about himself it was that he excelled in waiting. He had often heard from the sand, in the whispers of the wind, that people called him a hunter, a stalker of sorts. Of course, it was not in his hearing else they became the next unfortunates to disprove the general consensus. Regardless, he could be patient when he wanted to be. Which wasn't often.

This time was no different. He felt the impatience rising within and soothed himself with the promise of blood that was to flow soon. He could wait when the inevitable hunt was about to begin. The thought of Uzumaki Naruto crossed his mind as he considered and weighed those who were worthy to feed his existence. The thought died a second later as he realized that the blonde was no prey like the others before him. He too was like him, a hunter in the flesh.

However, between the two, he of the shifting sands was the better of the two. The only that remained to cement that fact was to engage the blonde and perhaps...savor the moment. Again, he felt his blood rise in anticipation and once again, as he did numerous times before, calmed it down with the virtue of patience. His blood still hissed, but it was more subdued than before, turning its attention to the more immediate hunt. While he waited for that glorious time to come, he could sate his hunger with appetizers that mattered little more than insects to him. His blood and Mother agreed and cheered, as they always did.

Sabaku no Gaara licked his lips, watching intently as Mitarashi Anko unsealed the ward on the fence gate. An annoying woman to be sure, but he saw her for what she truly was, a snake. Despite being a more powerful a predator than she, Gaara knew better than tempt the ire of people he could not kill, and thus gave her the rare privilege of not being listed as a prey. Still, with her exemption, Mother would be displaced, thus others would have to take her place.

Looking at the crowd around him, he allowed himself a smile. There was so much prey that could satisfy him.

After all, what fun was there to be had when he claimed the strongest that Gaia had to offer?

( I I I )

It had been a day, or so they thought, since they entered the Forest of Death, so-named by a rather enthusiastic Mitarashi Anko. It had not comforted them much but nether did the eerie silence of the forest. Three days had seemed to be an awfully long time for time to transverse five standard kilometers of heavy forest.

But like everything shinobi do, there was always a reason why three days had been the time limit for this test. They found out an hour later, or what had seemed like an hour to them.

Time was a concept that was foreign to this place. Ever since they entered this labyrinth of lofty and verdant trees, oversized through the application of chakra, their senses have been distorted to the point of disorientation. Compasses failed to work, their needles changing directions every second. The very nature of the forest shifted on a whim, often placid at times while stifling at others, making it difficult for them all to get what rest they could from short fifteen minute breaks, timed by the steady drip of dew that fell from the dark canopy above. .

Still, it seemed that not all fared better than they had with the mysterious distortion of the five senses. It was by a stroke of luck that they had stumbled across a team from Iwa, not too long ago.

There was no fight, no grand confrontation for superiority and the right to advance as there was no need to even fight in the first place. They all felt the abnormal change of flow with the chakra within their bodies and acted accordingly, slowing their heartbeats (and thus the amount they were affected by chakra) to the point where it was just enough to facilitate thought and movement. They dared not to use chakra if they did not need to. And the result of failure to do so was blatantly shown right before them. Sakura gasped as if seeing a terrible sight when she saw their humbled forms, her normally emerald eyes erupting into an unearthly bright golden before she willed them into dormancy.

Their opponents' bodies were a twitching mess as pallid chakra flowed from their hands, faces and mouths, as if it bled through an open wound not visible through the human eye. They were still alive however, that was obvious enough, though it was unlikely that they would remain alive for long.

It was an end that Team 7 hoped not to have.

Moving as he always did, Sasuke had proceeded to search the bags of the Iwa-nins for the scroll that the other team was sure to have. They possessed, quite conveniently he had to say, the scroll of Earth which they needed to compliment their scroll of Heaven. They relieved them their scroll and moved on. It was a good sign, if one thought selfishly, that others were having a set of problems which was greater than theirs.

The loss of their usual control over chakra was disconcerting for them all, but it had affected Sakura the most, it seemed.

Since the time they entered the forest, it had been the fourth time that Sakura had lost control over her chakra, which manifested in the golden irises that she, just moments ago, had; her eyes had returned to their normal shade after a while, the gold hue fading as if forced and deliberate. It was obvious that she was slowly but surely getting tired from exerting control over her errant chakra, if she was not already at that point. Then as if rekindled, the green in her eyes died again, giving birth once more to amber.

Sakura sighed softly. It was had been the fifth time that her eyes changed, to view the world beneath the one that everyone saw. She did not bother to change it back.

The boys noticed this but did not comment; they mostly left Sakura to her own devices and expected her to ask for help should she need it. Or rather, Sasuke did not wish to intervene unless there was a direct threat to her immediate health. He did not wish to admit it but even if Sakura had asked for his help concerning her 'condition', he would have done no better than she did. It was a fact. His understanding of Genjutsu was...rudimentary at best, lacking at worst. And it was a fact that he did not enjoy.

They continued on for a bit until they came to a small clearing; a blessing considering that most of what that had seen in the forest had been uneven top-soil squashed between the massive buttresses of trees and vapid stretches of black undergrowth.

"We should rest for now." Naruto said, and for the first time since his teammates could remember, wore a burdened expression on his usually blank façade. Neither of the other two disagreed. Time within the forest had not been kind to him, even if it did not encroach onto him like it did to Sakura.

As Naruto went to gather deadwood for a small fire, Sasuke saw the pink-haired member of their team kneel down, her eyes screwed shut and features straining in concentrating. A sudden emptiness radiated from one of the nearby trees, a hole, that left him unable to detect anything from that direction. A second, third and fourth 'hole' were soon made, effectively covering all directions around the clearing.

Sasuke felt a sudden tingle on his skin as the last 'hole' was erected, something that was distinctively different from the ninjutsu that Sakura used seconds prior, "Genjutsu?" He asked the girl who seemed, for the lack of a better term, drained. The disorienting effect that the jutsu produced, coupled with the inherent anomaly of the forest, made him a little woozy.

Sakura nodded tiredly, but proudly. "Partially correct. It's a hybrid mix of ninjutsu and genjutsu. It'll keep us hidden from enemies but with the amount of interference going on, I don't think that would be a problem." She dusted her hands off before slumping against a stump, "You'll feel strange for a while but there are no side-effects that I know of being this close to an anchor-point."

The gold in her eyes had dissipated again, he noted. "Kakashi has taught you well." Sasuke found himself saying. He vaguely realized that it was the closest thing to a compliment he had given to someone since...ever. The girl flushed nicely, despite her lethargy.

"Well, despite his looks, he's not bad at teaching than I thought." She said, cheeks blushing before her expression darkened slightly. "Still...he only taught me the basics; I'm going to have to create most of the jutsu I'll be using in the future. Isn't that what Kakashi-sensei told you as well, in regards to your ninjutsu?"

Sasuke gave a slight nod. During his free time, he had been busy developing jutsu of his own...without much success. Despite his understanding in the basic theory of why it would help him to create rather than copy, Sasuke found that the techniques found in his family archives and scrolls were more powerful than the paltry ones that he could create. In that sense, he found that copying was far more economical that simply creating a new technique from scratch. It was especially so when he had the entirety of his clan's archives at his fingertips.

The process was different and far more difficult than the ones who dabbled in ninjutsu. One did not simply copy existing Genjutsu and use them. Copying only would cost more chakra to use but more importantly, it lacked the power that the original user would have had if he or she used it instead because of the lack of 'meaning' behind it. General genjutsu which made use of ordinary 'triggers' lacked the emotional weight to intensify the experience, resulting in weak and pitiful attempts to break the will of trained killers. It might have worked on the vast majority of civilians, but against a shinobi, especially one who excelled at such arts, such cheap tricks were more than often the cause of death for many novice Genjutsu users over the course of history. However, creating your own technique presented another set of problems, one of the main problems was the risk of trapping yourself within the unfinished illusion.

In a way...Sakura was better than he was, or at least, going to be. In that sense, anyway; Sasuke was fairly certain that he could beat her fairly easily.

Still, to think that Sakura had reached a level where she was ready to create her own techniques revolving around such risky premises, however simplistic, was indication of how much she had evolved from the little girl Sasuke had seen in the classroom. He knew that the girl had received up a measure of training from their Jounin-sensei but the extent of it was unknown until now. Despite her lacking in combat ability, Sakura was now an equal among the three of them; none of them knew Genjutsu intimately like she did in the team. Nor were they able to produce anything to the effect of the technique she had done earlier; Sasuke was sure that, even Naruto, who seemed to possess some level of understanding in the Illusionary arts, was unable to replicate it. Though it was obvious that Sakura presently lacked offense in her chosen field, it was at times like these that showed her potential.

He didn't realize that he was clenching his fist so hard that his nails drew blood from his palm.

It was only when Sakura alerted him to it that he knew he was bleeding. "Sasuke-kun, you're bleeding!" She gushed, not unlike the times when she wanted to catch his attention.

Sasuke simply smiled grimly to himself. 'Heh, to think that I was considering Sakura, of all people, as a rival...'

( I I I )

Setting up a small fire was easy. It was only when he realized that the smoke produced would endanger their location that he decided against it. But then when Sakura pointed out that they could not smell the smoke because of the barrier she had put up and the forest's ability to hinder any attempts to use chakra, he felt something burn in his cheeks that Iruka would have described as embarrassment.

Sometimes, he found to his immense annoyance, he failed to notice the obvious.

They sat around the miniature fire, wordless save from the occasional question from Sakura who seemed to be happy for no apparent reason. The meal itself was a silent affair, with a brief question being directed at the tanto that Sasuke brought along. The Uchiha merely explained with a sentence, "I needed a weapon, and a kunai wasn't good enough." He unsheathed it, allowing the blade to be viewed by them. It had no hint of smear on it, despite not shining like new blades did. And if one felt closely enough, they would feel the ghost-wisp signs of chakra about the blade, chained and waiting.

Digging through his pouch, Naruto produced a small bottle filled with pellets.

"What are those?" Sakura asked, "I never seen pills of that colour before..."

"These," Naruto said, "are soldier pills. They will help us fight off fatigue."

Soldier pills, though he had never seen them before, did more than that. It was said to be a product unique to the Fire Country, or more specifically, Konohagakure. The Akimichi, apart from being famed for their monstrous strength drawn from the sheer energy of fat, were renowned for their skills as chemists and nutritionists. The invention of the soldier pill was testament to that. Being able to restore stamina within minutes of ingestion, it was the staple of any experienced shinobi worth his salt in physically demanding missions. The only downside that it had was that it could not be taken multiple times in a short span of time to boost the effect, which was not a much of a disadvantage considering.

Sakura, having tried all the medicine that Naruto had given her and finding them to be more beneficial than not, decided to trust the legitimacy of his claims. She took a pill from the bottle and chewed on it before swallowing. Her eyes bugled out slightly when the taste kicked in.

"Ack, it tastes like crap." Sakura coughed out, "Why didn't you tell me before I took it?"

"Ï thought it tasted fine." Naruto replied, before offering the bottle to Sasuke.

While Sasuke would rather die than accept, he grudgingly acknowledged the potency of Naruto's skills in medicine, and at this point, he had gone too far to refuse anything he could use to keep himself going.

A little voice in the back of his head told him that he was going to need that energy for later.

( I I I )

They walked for a long time, moving towards what seemed to be the centre of the forest where they were supposed to be after three days. So far, all they heard were the faint sounds of fighting that died down quickly. It left them all edgy and cautious. They did not want to risk losing one or both their scrolls if they met a superior opponent. They finally cleared the thick foliage to emerge at a small stream flowing from a waterfall. Immediately, they had better than they could remember ever since they entered the forest, as if a great oppressing pressure had been lifted up from their shoulders. Perhaps, it seemed that the influence of the forest only extended as far as there were trees to hide the sky.

Naruto suddenly stopped.

"What's wrong?" The Uchiha asked, noticing the blonde's lack of movement.

"Someone is here." He murmured, eyes frowning as he scanned the area before he pointed in front of him. "There."

Following the direction of the finger, they saw a tall lithe figure standing across the river in a clearing that was obviously not occupied moments before, dressed too ubiquitously to be identified as male or female.

"Why, hello there..." The stranger hissed, a long tongue exiting from its mouth. "I don't suppose you're willing to give up your scrolls are you?" As things stood, all of them doubted very much that he or she just wanted their scrolls. The killer intent they felt was proof of that.

Sasuke frowned, withdrawing his tanto from its scabbard. "I don't think so."

( I I I )

(1)

Despite the amusement that came from seeing his former washed-out apprentice again, Orochimaru was getting impatient. He had spent a long time trying to track down Uchiha Sasuke within the man-made labyrinth that was the Forest of Death. True, it had been ingenious of the genjutsu's creator to have tied it to the life force of the trees themselves, making it very hard indeed to dispel its effects once within in the effective radius. But such tricks did not deter one who had been crowned as one of the three greatest shinobi to be born within the last five decades.

Imagine his joy when his target suddenly popped out from the woods.

Even now, he could see the sheer potential that the Uchiha had as a container. Chakra that felt soft and pliable, bones that did not creak with age, all these appealed to him but only one thing about the boy made him want him so.

Orochimaru smiled gleefully as the Uchiha survivor charged towards him, wielding that pitiful stick of steel against his Kusanagi. Such audacity, such naivety! The power of the Sharingan would be his! Today was but a beginning to that eventual end. Even though the boy moved painfully slow, he let him close up the gap till he could feel the chakra flowing within the boy's body.

The boy swung his weapon arm, missing by a wide margin as he let his blade hit unfulfilling air. Orochimaru smirked, readying his own blade in a counterstroke, before he heard a brief murmur of activation. The blade which had looked so ordinary before shimmered with chakra, glowing white hot in the blink of an eye.

"Katon."

Widening his eyes in surprise, Orochimaru jumped back, feeling the heat of a thousand suns bearing upon him. The very air before him had been immolated, which burned and sustained its fires with the fusion of oxygen and chakra. The fire itself died quickly though its effect was clear enough. He knew that his mask had partially melted off from the heat, and he could feel the stinging tinge of a burn despite having avoided the fire altogether.

He watched as the Uchiha readied his blade in a stance once more, but this time, he paid no heed to how the boy stood. He was more interested in the little parlor trick that the boy had done. He focused on his weapon hand, watching as a steady and almost invisible stream of chakra flowed to the hilt from the hand before moving on to the blade, which hungrily devoured it until there was no trace left of it till the time came when it would be unleashed.

Such lovely ingenuity! He will not be underestimating the younger Uchiha again anytime soon.

His smile only widened as one of the Uchiha's teammates, an insignificant excuse of a blonde insect, sent bunshin at him in an Academy-grade fashion. From afar he could hand-seals fluttering between both their hands as they made a poor attempt at intimidation. Orochimaru resisted a laugh, no bunshin could do jutsu. At best, they were idle threats made by the greenest of Genin and the death of fools at worst. It almost reminded him of Jiraiya's dumb antics back then, flashy but no less harmless.

It wasn't until a large shadow was cast over him that he began to worry.

( I I I )

(2)

He watched as the stranger, who wore a face was not his at all, smiled before his expression faltered beneath the shadows of his Suiton creations. The water dragons bore down on with vengeful fury onto the over confident stranger, who would no doubt be crushed by the combine weight of the water enforced by the bonds of chakra woven within it.

Naruto did not miss a beat when he saw the man perform a kawarimi to appear outside the killing zone of his technique. He watched as his kage-bunshin summon up another dragon from the river before 'puffing' after reaching its limits.

He signaled to Sasuke to renew his attack again, who stood with nonchalance within his sight, just as Naruto was in his. No mercy would be spared to the stranger, just as one would not pardon a hyena bearing its teeth.

The Uchiha complied with his command and began pushing his advantage against the man with his comparatively shorter blade. It, as Naruto had witnessed moments before, was a weapon to fear. No longer did a blade have to dig into flesh in order to wound. What it did by the virtue of its sharp edges, it accomplished with the brimming energy of chakra. The blade spat out a voluminous plume of flames in intervals, forcing the taller and lithe stranger to back away lest he found himself burned to a crispy cinder.

He glanced to his side, seeing Sakura look upon the fight with nervous energy. The Genjutsu user did nothing, for at the moment, she had nothing that could help the Uchiha out. Her talents lied with the subtle manipulation of the senses, and combat itself as a counter to her ways seeing that it heightened the senses rather than dull them.

A hand-seal later, several clones flanked him before rushing off to aid the Uchiha in his melee. The original blonde, however, did not join the other boy in his sword-knife fight. There was something strange about their opponent that he could just not put his finger on...

( I I I )

(1)

"Katon." The Uchiha whispered, his blade glowing white-hot before it unleashed itself.

Another wave of heat passed over him, setting ablaze the boulder behind him. Orochimaru, despite his earlier confidence, was tiring of the resistance that the boy had been putting up. Regardless of the length advantage of the Kusanagi had over the Uchiha's nameless dagger, the boy had held his ground with that thrice damned blade that kept lighting the air into liquid fire.

It was time, the Snake Sannin decided, to stop playing around.

He let off his killing intent, focusing the entirety that immense pressure onto the boy. Uchiha Sasuke froze and Orochimaru felt the corners of his lips tug into a smile, his previous disposition coming back slowly. He brought his face closer to the boy, clearly enjoying the situation greatly.

"Do you feel that, boy? I'm no Genin to be toyed and thrown around," He hissed, as he circled the Uchiha, "This power that I have at my disposal...power that will help you kill Itachi."

At the mention of his brother, Sasuke narrowed his eyes, which sublimed to the red hue of the Sharingan. "Power? What power do I see? Merely cheap jutsu guised in the form of power." Despite his words, there remained a small doubt that pleased the Snake Sannin to no end.

He smiled to himself, happy that he planted the first seeds of his plans into the young mind of the last Uchiha loyal to Konoha. His mood did not last however, as more bunshin- no, he corrected, Kage-Bunshin, approached them with intent.

Blonde replicas given temporary flesh and form; that was all they were. But the fact that they could use jutsu was surprising in itself. It was known that even trying to perform most rudimentary of techniques tended to overload the fragile ley-lines within a clone, causing it to disappear. Still, such a thing was not enough to dissuade him from charging towards the clones. Though his Kusanagi had been turned away by the chakra-fires of his future container, there was no such chance of it being denied now as it cleaved through clone after clone.

Still, he had to give them credit for trying so hard. A few of them managed to get off a Katon technique, and what a technique it was. The black winding scars marked the earth, where the stream and land met were testament to the strength behind the jutsu. He had never seen clones perform such exhaustive techniques and still have enough for a second go.

However, despite their excellent performance, not one of the Kage-Bunshin survived, but it was to be expected, he supposed. No matter how fast they tried to perform a technique, clones were only good so long as they remained unharmed.

Looking around, he noted that while the rest of his little team was still comfortable on the other side of the stream, Sasuke was no where to be found. A sudden shift in the air around him told him of what he needed to know. He could even smell the ozone oozing from the blade after repetitive use of it abilities.

"That's awfully dumb of you, Sasuke-kun." He chided uncaring of the blade that was going for his throat. A gigantic snake burst up from the ground beneath, the impact of the resulting debris flinging the Uchiha backwards into the forest behind him. A thud announced to the world that the Uchiha wasn't going to get up anytime soon.

He jumped onto the head of his summoned snake before hissing out a string that no one could understand. Several more snake emerged from the shadowy depths of the forest behind him, their size a marked scale smaller but no less cyclopean.

It was time to crush some insects.

( I I I )

(4)

He had made a mistake.

He should have known better than to underestimate a lone opponent.

And now, they were paying for it. The Uchiha had been knocked out of commission and was now being tended to by Sakura, which left only him to face this menacing enemy. Not that it would help if Sakura was able to aid him, animal summons were resilient to the mind-wrapping effects of Genjutsu.

He had summoned up a total of twenty five enhanced clones, five to a 'team', each one fully capable of independent thought. There were seven snakes, not including the one that the stranger was using as a steed. Sending the command to his clones to take up their positions, Naruto observed the other side quietly.

The stranger regarded all his clones and their formation with joy, his yellow serpentine eyes glazed over with unsuppressed glee. Without warning, the menacing snakes surged forward, their jaws wide open to swallow up anything that stood in their way. Almost immediately, his 'army' retaliated with lethal force.

"Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu"

"Suiton: Suiryuudan no Jutsu!"

In a scene of total anarchy that lasted seconds where fire turned flesh into pitiful reminders of life and once docile water crushed bone, Naruto found himself apathetic to the scenes of death surrounding him. On one side, his clones were dispatching a weakened snake with nothing but kunai and surgical strikes into every one of the summon's weak points, and on the other, a team of clones 'died' as they were crushed under the dead-weight of the beast they had slain. Despite the firepower his clones had put out, there were summons which survived the initial onslaught to deliver their counterattack. So, far, the combined might of his Kage-Bunshin had evened the odds in this chaotic yet orderly battle and were clearing up on the last remaining snakes. Still, he had used up half his chakra to create the clones, and a substantial amount to maintain their forms during battle.

He had little more than half that number remaining now; approximately three teams were available to him. He left one team to protect Sakura and the Uchiha. But before he could do anything, the massive snake slithered forward to a point, where he could take stock of his opponent as he did to him.

"Ah, such an admirable fight. I suppose you aren't all that useless, whiskered-boy." The figure on the remaining snake said.

Naruto did not respond, but he commanded his 'guards' to flank his sides in a forward attack position. He did not need to say anything. Words were superfluous at this point.

His silence was not appreciated. "Rude, aren't you?" The man behind the mask frowned. "I suppose it does not matter since you are going to die anyway." It was then, Naruto realized, the figure unleashed the full force that he was holding back before.

All the plan, strategies and hope he had vanished the second the man's aura descended upon him. "...I...concede defeat. Do what you what with our scrolls but spare our lives."

The man laughed at that. "Scrolls? I have no need for them." The monster licked his lips. "Sasuke-kun, on the other hand..."

For the first time he remembered, Naruto felt despair. It was not a feeling that was pleasant, nor was it welcomed. Gathering his wits, he began to think. For all his power, there had to be a weakness...Naruto held no illusions that he could defeat this monster with his current abilities but he had a measure of confidence that he could buy enough time for them to escape into the relatively safe confines of the forest and it's veil of influence.

Within his list of conventional techniques, he had found no answer. But within his vast knowledge of forbidden techniques, there was one which suited this task perfectly.

There were many risky variables and what-ifs that could happen but it was the only plan that would work.

(4)

Naruto, in that instant, decided to risk it.

Several clones charged at the snake, and a few were swept aside by the powerful swish of its tail. But that did not deter the others as they called up the elements of fire and water to vanquish their foe.

The stranger had long since leapt from the head of his pet and went straight for him, brandishing his sword in an unspoken promise to cleave his flesh. Naruto simply stood still, as if waiting for death to come. When he was within sword-reach, his opponent yelled in delight. "Now die!"

He dodged at the last moment, his outline glowing bright crimson, bringing a red fist up for a punch which could have shattered bones if it connected. The man fell to the side, as if understanding the danger of such a hit striking him. He stretched his arm towards the blonde, revealing several snakes sprung out to bite the boy.

Naruto shrugged them off, grabbing hold of their tails and pulled them off.

"I got you." was all he said before clones broke through the ground, tackling the man to the ground, simultaneously locking his limbs in place. Four clones then appeared, forming a square around the flailing mass of bodies. Jumping away had been the signal for the clones to begin their work, who then conjured a pyramid of the blackest fire to engulf them all.

( I I I )

(1)

She had watched as the insanely strong shinobi ripped through Naruto's defenses with ease. Not even Zabuza had done so and was the strongest they had ever faced. Still, it was a stroke of luck that the boy managed to imprison the man with an unknown jutsu.

He appeared in front of her, arms bloodied and body bruised. "You're injured!" He collapsed. "Naruto!"

The fallen boy grabbed her arm, making the girl gasp in surprise.

"He's after Sasuke..." He muttered, tired from the earlier battle, "We do not have much time left...the barrier will break soon."

"What can we do?" She started helplessly, her eyes alternating from the unconscious form of the Uchiha and Naruto. "We can't win!"

Naruto remained silent for a moment, still clutching onto her wrist. She found herself getting more uncomfortable with his touch.

"Hey, what are-" Her words were cut short as Naruto's hand glowed blue, letting off a surge of chakra that found no other outlet than her body.

Within the span of a second, she found herself drowning in the grand awareness that linked a genuine clone to its creator. Information, techniques, combat stances, everything and nothing she knew about streamed into her mind as one big incomprehensible chunk. She had understood the theory of the Kage-Bunshin but never did she experience having one in her control. It was more overwhelming than she had thought, especially so when she was controlling a clone not of her own making. She also knew that there were so many unknown factors that presented themselves with attaching control of one's clones to another. Even the feedback alone was enough to kill her if it went wrong. It was suffice to say that she was scared beyond her wits.

She screwed her eyes shut as the foreign feeling dimmed, as if awaiting a great spike of pain to come after that. Sakura blinked when the expected pain did not come.

"I've transferred general control of the clones to you, severing the maintenance link in the process, to your benefit." He said, ignoring the look of astonishment from the girl, "Use them as you see fit. I've a plan but I need time." Reaching into his pouch, he took out his bottle of soldier pills and popped one into his mouth. "My Kage-Bunshin should have enough strength within them to serve that end at least." With that, the boy stood up and disappeared from her sight, leaving her with five clones with more chakra than she could have imagined at her finger tips.

'What are your orders, Mistress?' The clones chorused as one. The girl clutched her head as a headache threatened to emerge. Giving the group a glance, they looked light to her but within she could see the sheer amount of chakra invested into their forms, each one containing more reserves than she had presently. The connection between her and them was disorientating...more so than the forest had done.

Focusing her thoughts, she spoke unsteadily. "Erm...I'm new at this so..."

'We have no time left,' They pointed to the barrier which began to crack. The clones that were maintaining it seemed fatigued, but it was clear that they would vanish soon and with them, the barrier which has kept the monster in check till now. 'We have enough intelligence to understand you. Give us a command now.' The clones, like their creator, were straight to the point, she thought, annoyed.

Dragging the Uchiha towards the edge of the forest, she performed a Genjutsu upon his immediate area with hopes that their opponent would not notice the body and proceed through her and the clones.

She transformed into a splitting image of Sasuke. If it was an opponent that even Naruto and Sasuke-kun could not handle, what made her think that she could by herself? If she could delay her opponent and forced him to deal with each of them one by one, in fear of harming the original, then using the henge would be her best option. She hoped that Naruto would be finished before it came to her turn.

"Henge yourselves to Sasuke-kun please." She ordered, "It should buy enough time for us if we do it that way."

The clones assented to her, and transformed.

The nearby clones 'poofed' into smoke, their chakra all but finished fueling the barrier. A figure rushed towards them the second the barrier dissipated. The clones prepared to engage, a furry of information and tactics flowing from them to Sakura's mind, causing her to momentarily buckle from the mental overload.

But in no time at all, without a single jutsu being used, the clones disappeared. Where there was once a quiet chatter within the corner of her mind, there was silence. Fear crept up to her stomach, seeing nothing and sensing nothing.

"Checkmate, my boy..." The stranger whispered, his voice dangerously close to her ear.

She tried to scream as deep fangs pierced her neck.

( I I I )

"Checkmate, my boy..." He murmured gently as he dispatched the last clone from existence. Before him, was the last and only 'Sasuke' left. It did not take his genius to figure out that it was the real one this time. Trying to bite clones that were ready to blast you with fire was not pleasant in the least.

Orochimaru grinned, extending his neck and bit down forcefully on Sasuke's neck. He let the 'gift' within his blood extend into the body of another. It left a passing sting for him but the experience would certainly be an ear-shattering one for the receiver.

He smiled, his task done. Now all he had to do was wait-

A great whirlwind of air caused him to turn, bestowing his view upon a sight that caused him to screech. He knew that technique the boy holding. He did not dare to believe it.

"You caused us a bit of trouble. Disappear." Uzumaki Naruto said, his eyes glowing with a faint crimson.

Orochimaru howled his disbelief. He would not be undone so easily!

The blonde brought his arm forward.

There was a great explosion of light and then...nothing.

( I I I )

He woke up feeling groggy.

Uchiha Sasuke did not comprehend the situation, and that in itself was a cause for worry. But his worry heightened when he awoke to find a battle scarred area. He saw Sakura's limp form nearby, shivering and shaking slightly. He frowned; he had found Sakura, but there was no sign of Naruto at all. The tranquil sound of the flowing stream was a irony, considering the amount of holes, patches of blackened earth and the presence of several and severely maimed snake corpses.

Massive snake corpses, he corrected.

Quickly, he moved towards the girl, pressing a pair of fingers on her neck to check for a pulse. He gave a sigh when he felt a beat, but frowned when he saw two punctured holes. It was then he noticed something on the girl's neck, three dots with their tails extending outwards in clockwise, just under the holes themselves. He noticed how warm her skin was. Putting his hand on her forehead, he instantly regretted it and recoiled. The uncomfortable heat radiating from her forehead was all he needed to know that something was terribly wrong.

Medicine was not his expertise; Uzumaki Naruto had filled out that role admirably...that is, until he was mysteriously unavailable.

"Oh shit." He eloquently said.

Suddenly, every contingency he had planned and expected for since...ever, was just shot to Hell.


A/N: Done for now. Spelling errors and other writer mistakes are to be expected, and hopefully included in your review so I know what to change ASAP. (No beta, as usual) To be honest, the chapter was long...the ending fight had exhausted me to the core, literally. It was supposed to be capped at two thousand and well...let's just say that it expanded.

I should really start to write shorter chapters...

Still, I hoped you all like the cliffhanger. I got a feeling that nobody had ever made Sakura take the curse seal before this chapter...I think. Still, I will cover the second part of the Forest of Death to the end of the Preliminaries in the next chapter. Always, if you liked this chapter, review! And if you don't, well, give constructive criticism. Private Message me if you got any question and queries pertaining to the story and I will answer to be the best of my ability depending on the nature of the question. p

Till next time

legacyZero