"Naruto" is the intellectual property of Kishimoto Masashi. "Slayers" is the creation of Kanzaka Hajime.

Warning: This story has spoilers for certain content of Slayers, NEXT, and TRY. (Spoilers for NEXT and TRY in this chapter.)

Note: It took me a month and a half to write instead of a week and a half like I wanted but here it is! I hope you enjoy it.

Updates: 1) bob (an anonymous reviewer) pointed out something and I realized that I forgot to mention that Lina's parents were retired in this chapter – Chapter 3 mentioned it previously, 2) some grammar fixes

A Different Voice

Chapter 6: Shock! Rebirth of the Dragon Slave!

Posted: 8/31/2007

Updated: 8/31/2007, 9/1/2007

Lina Inverse was not born into a special family. Her parents were an average sorceress and an average swordsman – retired from their days of questing – in a land full of adventurers. Lina did not receive any sort of special education. Her parents gave her some instruction but her family did not have any special techniques or magical items passed down through the generations. And Lina had never been considered a prodigy, especially compared to her sister.

Luna Inverse – only three years older than Lina – seemed to have been born under an auspicious star. Luna prospered at everything she put her hand to. She considered magic too easy so she took up sword fighting instead. By the time she was ten, her skill with a sword surpassed their father's. Luna quickly gained a reputation and fighters from far and wide came to challenger her. They all lost and she continued to improve.

Lina envied her sister. The younger Inverse showed some talent for magic but nothing to compare to her sister's genius. Between Luna's sword and the handful of spells she did use – mostly support spells such as Astral Vine – she was able to defeat fighters, sorcerers, and demons alike.

Then when Luna was twelve, she became the Knight of Ceipheed. When Lina's older sister was chosen by the god of their world to house one of his remaining fragments, sibling rivalry changed into something completely different. Luna no longer needed mundane human magic. A normal sword in her hands became something much greater. And if she had ever bothered to find one of the legendary blades such as the Sword of Light then even the Greater Mazoku would have feared her.

Lina decided to become the opposite of her sister. Rather than a swordswoman blessed by the gods, she would develop into a sorceress steeped in black magic. And so Lina did what she did best. She read and studied and learned everything about Mazoku that she could. There were a fairly large number of sorcerers that could cast the Dragon Slave but few took the time to study the details intimately. So when Lina found a fragment of an ancient text that seemed to hint at a Mazoku even more powerful than the Mazoku Lord Shabranigdo, she had knowledge that most sorcerers lacked and she was able to create a new spell to call upon the power of the Lord of Nightmares. And she called it the Giga Slave.

Many people saw Lina Inverse as an irresistible destructive force. The truth is that Lina won her battles through a combination of knowledge, luck, and determination.

Without her in-depth studies of black magic she would never have known about the Lord of Nightmares and would have been killed by Shabranigdo.

Without her luck she would never have met Gourry Gabriev, the owner of the Sword of Light, or her other companions.

Without her determination to always win she would never have been able to face down Shabranigdo or Dark Star or any of the other Mazoku that had attempted to destroy the world.

Lina never set out to save the world. Luna was far better qualified for such heroic deeds but to add insult to injury Lina's older sister spent most of her time working as a waitress. So Lina was the Inverse sister who was dragged into world-threatening situations again and again. She complained and fought against her destiny every time but at some point her determination always took over and she walked straight into confrontations to make the stoutest hearts quail.

And Lina won each time.

Haruno Sakura was not born into a special family. Her parents were average ninja in the largest of the hidden villages. Sakura did not receive any sort of special education. She started attending the ninja academy at the age of six along with so many other children. Her parents gave her some instruction but her family did not have any special techniques or a Bloodline Limit passed down through the generations. And Sakura had never been considered an exceptional kunoichi, especially compared to her best friend.

Yamanaka Ino was everything that Sakura wanted to be: strong, confident, and smart. Ino was able to make friends easily and she excelled in the academy – in both the kunoichi-specific classes and the general ones. Coming from one of the more prominent clans in Konoha, Ino had better stamina and chakra than most of the female ninja-to-be. Ino's father was a well-known jounin and spent as much time as he could helping Ino train.

Ignoring the most obvious reasons, being from a clan made far more difference in the ninja academy than it should have. Intentionally or not most teachers paid more attention to students from a clan. Some of the instructors tried to curry favor that way, especially with the children that would some day be leaders of their clans. Other instructors had better – if perhaps still flawed – motives. After all, the young clan members had a background proven to produce effective ninja and given their family training they tended to learn better and faster. The teachers at the academy knew that most of the students would fail to become genin so they gave special care to those most likely to succeed.

Ino was Sakura's first friend at the academy and it hurt when they began fighting over Sasuke. Sakura did not think that she would ever catch up to Ino's physical skills so she selected an alternate path. She read and studied and learned everything about being a kunoichi that she could. Her written test grades had been higher than anyone else's in the class, she had a theoretical understanding beyond chuunin levels, and she developed a degree of chakra control unheard of in an academy student.

Like Lina, Sakura had a vast store of knowledge.

Also like Lina, Sakura had a large amount of luck. Of the nine students that graduated from the academy that year Naruto and Sakura were the only two not from one of Konoha's clans. Naruto was a special case and his scores balanced Sasuke's. Sakura's assignment to Team Seven was not luck of the draw – real luck is more subtle than that. Team Seven was designed as a traditional battle team with taijutsu, ninjutsu, and genjutsu specialists and Sakura's test scores tagged as the latter; and Kakashi thought that a team with two one-sided relationships would be perfect for the bell test.

And Sakura was determined. But Sakura's resolve was not to win against any enemy, it was to catch Sasuke's interest.

Sakura had never been determined to become strong. She thought that it was out of her reach. Women did not naturally have less chakra than men – thanks to her lineage Hyuuga Hinata had far more chakra than most of the boys that had graduated – but they did tend to have less stamina which was needed to manipulated chakra. Even a legendary kunoichi such as Tsunade was better known for medical techniques than for ability in battle.

The biggest difference between Sakura's and Lina's attitudes came from the difference between chakra and magic. Chakra required physical abilities that Sakura would always be second-rate in compared to Sasuke and Naruto. Lina had never had that problem. Because magic was a purely mental discipline.


"Mother wants her… alive," Gaara said as he walked toward the stream – and toward Sakura.

Sakura had no clue who the boy's mother was, of course, but some demon-possessing ninja stating that he wanted her alive was not appealing in the slightest.

I couldn't agree more, Lina commented dryly.

The red-haired boy stopped before reaching the flowing water. He made a quick hand seal. The ground beneath Sakura's feet shivered. The land between Gaara and the stream exploded. Grey rocks that had lined the bank flew into the air. A wave of sand poured out of the earth and created a bridge spanning the brook. The Sand shinobi began calming walking across the bridge formed of sand. "The rest of you will die," he said. His bland face contrasted with the threat present in his voice.

Naruto stiffened as the human and demonic killing intent radiated from Gaara.

The members of Team Ten shuddered but Gai's students did not seem to be affected.

At least this situation isn't as bad as that snake woman, Sakura thought. Even with the Mazoku, he's not putting out as much killing intent. And there are nine… well, eight of us. The pink-haired girl glanced down at Sasuke's sleeping form. Can you wake him up?

I only have enough magic for one more spell, the sorceress answered. We have to choose very carefully. Lina paused briefly. And we don't know how Sasuke will react either, she added hesitantly.

Sakura sighed in frustration.

"Gaara!" the other male Sand ninja called out. He and the kunoichi of the Suna team had not moved past the last tree on that side of the stream. "Don't-" The girl beside him slapped her hand over his mouth and whispered something to him. Sakura noted that the kunoichi looked upset.

Neji jumped from the tree he had been standing in and touched down lightly between the shore and his teammates. Inadvertently or not, this placed him much closer to Gaara than any of the other Leaf genin. Lee was frowning at the redheaded Sand ninja. His face had been cleaned of most of the blood that had leaked from his broken nose. Tenten dropped some medical supplies to the ground and drew two handfuls of shuriken. "Such threats will not frighten Konoha ninja," Neji said haughtily, crossing his arms over his chest.

Gaara continued his slow crossing.

Sakura noticed Shikamaru shift his stance. He had a sour expression on his face. "Maybe running away would be a better choice," he muttered.

Naruto frowned at the lazy genin.

Ino looked torn between berating Shikamaru for his suggestion and agreeing with him. Her blue eyes darted between the unconscious Sasuke and the approaching Suna ninja.

"I'm all for it if our team can really get away," Sakura said. She had seen the speed both Naruto and Sasuke displayed when Mazoku energy was flowing through their bodies. Gaara's leisurely pace did not make her think he would be any slower. Fighting him now with the other Leaf ninja was better than facing him later as Team Seven alone.

Naruto turned toward the pink-haired kunoichi with a disappointed expression on his face. "We can't run!" he protested.

Rocks shifted and crunched against each other beneath Gaara's feet as he stepped off the bridge. His teammates still had not moved forward, apparently content to watch from behind as the short redhead faced eight other genin.

Those two are acting really strange, Sakura internally observed. The two Suna ninja did seem a little nervous yet they were not moving to support their teammate.

That's bothering me also, Lina responded.

The bridge arching over the stream collapsed. The sparkling water turned into a muddy mess as the sand slapped into it.

"I'm nearly out of… spiritual energy," Sakura said quietly to her blond teammate.

Shikamaru overheard her comment and raised an eyebrow.

Sakura's tongue had slipped to some extent. She knew that Shikamaru would be curious about her phrasing because there were very few genin that could run out of spiritual energy before they ran out of stamina. But saying 'spiritual energy' was far better than saying 'magic' as she almost had. I should have said 'chakra' instead, she berated herself.

Our secrets aren't the most pressing issue at the moment, Lina chided her.

Sakura noticed Lee looking in her direction. She glanced at him quizzically but his eyes moved away as he looked at Naruto, Sasuke, and Team Ten. He nodded to himself and bent down. He fiddled for several seconds with something underneath the leg warmers that he wore and then removed some weights that had been strapped around his legs. Sakura could have sworn that the ground dimpled underneath the weights as he set them down.

"Leave this one to me," Neji said, momentarily turning his attention toward Team Seven and Team Ten. Naruto growled in response.

Gaara stared at Neji. The two genin stood a little over a meter apart. Neji's feet were on grass but where Gaara stood was mostly small stones. They both appeared calm despite the murderous aura coming from the shorter ninja. Neji had quite a bit more height than the redhead but Gaara's presence drew the eyes of the gathered Leaf ninja.

"You are strong," the Suna shinobi said. "Your eyes hold hatred similar to mine. Has your family tried to kill you also? Do you want to kill them?" Gaara's eyes widened as he continued, causing the skin above his nose to wrinkle. His mouth formed a twisted smile. "Do you want to see their blood flowing like a river?" The kanji for 'Love' tattooed above his left eye seemed to stand out further the more his expression changed.

Oh, joy. Not only does he have a Mazoku sealed in him but he's psychotic as well, Lina sarcastically thought.

"This isn't good," Shikamaru said.

"There's an understatement," Sakura muttered.

The Sand shinobi's words surprisingly did have an effect on the Hyuuga genin. He flinched – ever so slightly – and his arms dropped to his sides. Neji scowled faintly and brought his hands back up and slid his right leg backward, taking a loose stance. The palm of his left hand was stretched toward Gaara and his right hand hung loosely at his side. Veins around his pale eyes bulged.

Extra blood vessels around the eyes? Another doujutsu like the Sharingan? Sakura wondered. It was very strange if so because the normal arteries and veins of the eye were behind the eyeball not between the skull and skin of the face.

"Your chakra… what are you?" Neji said in a puzzled tone.

Gaara's hands came together in a Tiger seal and more sand exploded from the ground around him. Sakura had to duck to avoid one of the rocks that had been dislodged from the stream's bank by the eruption.

The sand spread forward like a wave around the redhead. Neji's hand intercepted the first spike of sand and it dropped to the forest floor, unmoving, as the chakra that animated it was either eliminated or nullified. Sand closed in on Neji from several directions but the Hyuuga boy danced gracefully between the attacks. As he dodged, he struck out with the flats of his hands and again sand fell lifelessly.

Can you tell how he is affecting the Sand boy's technique? Lina asked.

No, Sakura replied. Is that the Hyuuga style? she asked herself. She had seen Hinata spar during the academy but family techniques were never used there; just as she had never seen Sasuke perform a Katon jutsu until they were together on a team. They had been graded strictly on academy style and jutsu. The rules were in place to provide a level playing field. It also hid the clan techniques from the rest of the students.

"How is he doing that?" Ino said, voicing Sakura's and Lina's question aloud.

Shikamaru sighed. "The Hyuuga Gentle Fist works by expelling chakra from the palms," the Nara boy explained. "The Juuken is normally used to damage an opponent's organs and chakra coils but it obviously has uses against chakra manifestations as well." Sakura raised an eyebrow at hearing the description. Ino also stared at her teammate in surprise. Shikamaru grumbled under his breath at seeing their reactions.

Sounds a little bit like Amelia's Vis Farank spell, Lina murmured mentally. Except chakra damages the body instead of the spirit.

Gaara stood still, arms at his side and hands curved like claws, grinning madly as he watching Neji battle with the sand. The dark-haired Hyuuga thrust a palm into the sand between them and dashed through the gap created. Neji quickly reached the Suna genin and attacked him directly for the first time. Sand instantly poured from the gourd on Gaara's back and intercepted Neji's strike. This time the sand did not fall to the ground. It stayed in mid-air between Gaara's chest and Neji's hand. Additional sand came from the gourd and reached toward Neji. The Konoha shinobi was put back on the defensive, barely able to defend himself from the swift sand.

"Looks like another arrogant ass needs help," Naruto said with a grin. Naruto formed the hand seal he used most often.

"Wait!" Sakura said sharply, catching Naruto's attention. "Those three surely know how to work together."

Tenten jumped into the air and released her shuriken. The six projectiles flashed toward the Suna ninja. Part of the stream of sand that was attacking Neji diverted to block the throwing stars. Gaara glared at the bun-haired kunoichi as she landed back on the ground.

"If we charge in without a plan we'll just get in their way," Shikamaru added.

Naruto huffed and folded his arms across his chest.

Gaara's sand finally caught Neji's left hand. The redhead smiled more widely as the sand snaked up the Hyuuga's arm. Then Lee disappeared from his current position and the next Sakura knew he was delivering an axe kick through the sand near Neji's arm. The forceful blow scattered grains of sand and Neji slipped free from the sand's grasp. The two boys leapt away from Gaara. The redhead's smile turned to a frown at Neji's escape.

"You're moving slow," Neji complained to his teammate, even though Lee had just displayed a speed faster than any other genin that Sakura had seen.

"Sorry, I used the Lotus earlier," the green-clad shinobi replied. Lee winced slightly. "It will be a while before I fully recover."

"His defense can't be perfect."

I agree with Neji about that, Lina internally said, but the question is: how do we find his weakness?

"Let's see how long he can keep it up," Tenten said. The kunoichi pulled a scroll off her belt. She opened the scroll and twirled it into the air around her like a ribbon. She released the end of the scroll she held but it somehow remained in the air, spinning about her body. Tenten's hands blurred and she touched the scroll in various places. Each time her palm struck the paper a weapon appeared in a puff of smoke and the black-haired girl flung the summoned weapon at Gaara. Flails, shuriken, scythes, kunai… Tenten threw all manner of weapons at the Suna shinobi and each one embedded in his wall of sand.

Lee and Neji – apparently ignoring any possibility of a badly aimed throw by their teammate – charged back toward Gaara and attacked him from two other angles. Neji stepped onto the stream, somehow maintaining his footing atop the water – Sakura made a mental note to find out how later – and attacked from behind the red-haired genin from Wind Country.

Lee's punches and kicks were able to penetrate the sand that defended Gaara but not with enough strength to strike the redhead. He darted in and out of range as he struck and then dodged the sand that tried to catch him. Neji had even less success as his slower speed forced him to be more defensive and his Gentle Fist style did not have the power of Lee's blows.

As the attacks on Gaara continued his sand formed a more complete barrier around him, looking more and more like a thick tan egg shell. From what Sakura could see the boy's expression was becoming more frustrated, a fierce scowl replacing his earlier vicious smirk.

It's a question of who will run out of stamina or chakra first, Sakura decided. But if that guy is anything like Naruto… Her green eyes flickered to her blond teammate for a moment.

Tenten was the first to stop attacking, having run out of weapons from her scroll. The bun-haired kunoichi backed off slightly as she worked at rolling up her large weapon scroll and continued observing the fight.

"He's not moving at all," Shikamaru said. "No hand seals. My Kagemane won't stop him from using his sand." The young Nara looked at Sakura. "Can you put him to sleep?"

"If I can get close enough," Lina answered in Sakura's place. She watched the continued efforts of Gai's students to get through Gaara's shield of sand. "But I have to actually touch him."

"Since he's staying in one place, what if I use the Shintenshin?" Ino asked.

"No!" Shikamaru and Sakura both said loudly.

"You don't know how the chakra in that sand would affect your jutsu," Ino's black-haired teammate said.

Sakura was more concerned about what exactly would happen if Ino did manage to enter the mind of a demon host. But telling the Leaf ninja present about the Mazoku could lead to awkward questions about Sasuke and Naruto.

"And with the water at his back Chouji can't easily use the Nikudan Sensha." Shikamaru sighed. "We should retreat and find a better area for this fight."

The pink-haired kunoichi looked at Naruto. The blond had a mulish look on his face. "Getting everyone to retreat in a coordinated way isn't going to be easy," Sakura said. "We could end up in a worse situation."

Shikamaru breathed a sigh of annoyance again in response.

"Enough!" shouted Gaara. His demonic presence increased, causing Sakura's throat to involuntarily tighten. The sand that had laid unmoving since Neji's first attack began to stir again. The grains moved slowly at first but quickly built up speed.

"Lee! Get out of there!" Tenten yelled.

The taijutsu specialist back flipped just in time to avoid a whip of sand that tried to wrap around him from behind. Lee breathed heavily and sweat ran down his face.

Neji jumped over Gaara and landed next to Lee. "This is getting us nowhere," the tall Hyuuga boy said, his tone betraying little of the frustration that Sakura thought he must be feeling.

The sand gathered around the red-haired Suna ninja and mixed with the sand from his gourd, clumps of it hanging in the air as if dangling from invisible strings. "Give me the sorceress!" he demanded, his voice sounding lower pitched and rougher than previously. Sakura saw his teammates scramble backwards into the woods.

'Sorceress?' Lina questioned. That's odd; we haven't used any magic since he arrived.

Another mystery, Sakura thought in irritation, just what we need.

Whatever the other genin standing around thought of Gaara's speech, Naruto reacted almost instantly. "Not going to happen! Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" A dozen shadow clones popped into being.

Sakura grabbed the real Naruto's sleeve before she lost track of him. "Stay here," she told him as the clones charged toward Gaara. "You need to carry Sasuke if we run." Naruto frowned as he turned his attention to their prone teammate but nodded in acceptance.

The blond's group of bunshin attacked with kicks and punches that did little to the sand surrounding Gaara. The shadow clones were swiftly reduced in number as tendrils of sand wrapped around and squeezed them.

"Freeze Arrow!"

Sakura's head whipped around to gawk at Ino. The blonde girl stood with her left side facing Gaara and her arms positioned as though she were drawing back on a bow. Faint blue light glinted along the outline of the nonexistent bow in her left hand and the string held taunt in her right. An arctic blue arrow appeared and Ino released the imaginary bowstring. The bow disappeared instantly as the icy arrow flew forward.

The spell intercepted a line of sand snaking toward the last Naruto clone. A length of sand was immediately encased in ice and it fell to the rocky shore, the ice cracking slightly on impact. The clone jumped backward, landing near Sakura and the real Naruto.

What just happened? the pink-haired kunoichi thought in surprise.

That's a less powerful version of the spell, Lina mused. I haven't used it in years.

But how?! Sakura's question earned her a mental shrug.

Ino stared at her hands in confusion.

Gaara's hands slipped into a Tiger seal again and Sakura felt his power begin to rise once more. The feeling of Mazoku chakra continued to increase as the sand gathered even more closely around the redhead. Rather than the egg-shaped shield that the sand had formed before it became a perfect sphere around the Suna shinobi.

Whatever he's about to do is going to be bad, Lina voiced her opinion.

Everyone is in danger because of us, Sakura thought, her distress over the situation increasing.

I know.

"Now's our best chance to leave," Shikamaru said. He glanced toward Sakura to see her response.

We need to stop what he's doing right now, Lina said. His power is increasing.

I know! But exactly how do you propose we stop him? the pink-haired genin tartly questioned.

That's the part I haven't figured out yet, Lina answered with a grin.

Sakura ground her teeth in annoyance. The sorceress had a strange way of fighting. Even against the snake woman earlier she had never really thought about whether she could win or not, she had only thought about how. The only time she had faltered was when her final spell had failed.

There's nothing strange about it, Lina refuted. Finding the how is the real battle.

The young Haruno felt her lips quirk upward into a small smile. The thought was liberating even if it did seem foolish. For a moment Sakura forgot her worries about demons and the possibility of dying during the 'exam' that they were taking. For a moment she fully focused her thoughts on simply defeating the opponent in front of her. But before she could devise and evaluate any plans something else occurred: the minds of Sakura and Lina merged.

It only lasted a matter of seconds but in that brief time a hundred thoughts flew through their combined intellect: what was happening to her, the Mazoku energy in Naruto and Sasuke, the presence of Xelloss, the failure of Lina's black magic, how to defeat Gaara. The world around her seemed to freeze as the questions that had been plaguing the minds of the two girls were analyzed at a lightning pace.

She knew that this had happened several times before. Once in Wave Country when yelling at two boys who had eaten too much, once when Naruto had been about to fall onto a mass of icy shards, and once when a Sound ninja had threatened to kill Sasuke. She understood now that when Lina's and Sakura's thoughts were similar enough that they somehow became one. It was rare, however, because Lina was more confident and aggressive than Sakura and Sakura was more concerned with things that Lina considered trivialities.

This time their minds were closer than before and the effect was far stronger. She could tell that this was an even more unusual event due to Lina's uncharacteristic uncertainty – despite how the sorceress had tried to cover it up – from the failure of the Dragon Slave.

She could also feel the minds of the two girls, still separate entities though currently joined. And she could feel them slowly mixing together, parts from one spilling over into the other. Neither girl would like that and they would likely instinctively shield their minds to prevent this from happening again.

Her mind turned to more urgent matters. As with many events that had occurred around Lina, Mazoku seemed to be at the heart of what was happening around Sakura.

Having both Sakura's and Lina's knowledge as well as their memories allowed her to more fully understand what they had witnessed. She already knew that Naruto's chakra somehow mixed with the Mazoku's energy. What she now realized was that it happened all the time, though at a nearly unnoticeable level. She could feel it this very moment. Gaara was the same, though the proportion of Mazoku energy was currently much higher in the redhead.

Sasuke's case was different. From what Lina and Sakura had felt she knew that his chakra was not mixing with Xelloss' power at all. Instead it was as if Sasuke's chakra had been replaced entirely by the Mazoku's energy when the marks had covered his body. She wondered what did happen to Sasuke's chakra. Was it consumed by the process that brought the Mazoku energy to him? She suspected that the only one who would know was Xelloss and asking him – assuming she encountered him – would probably be an exercise in futility.

Sensing Xelloss' presence had further confused Lina about why her black magic had failed. They had been constantly on the move or fighting since her attempted Dragon Slave and Lina had taken little time to think about it. The possible reasons why black magic would fail were, in fact, quite limited.

The most obvious possibility was if Shabranigdo was ruined – completely and utterly destroyed. She remembered Lina experiencing such a situation before – the spells calling on the power of Chaos Dragon Garv and Hellmaster Fibrizo no longer worked. The thought that Ruby Eye could be gone was astonishing to the extent that Lina had difficulty believing it could be possible, even though Lina had memories of destroying one of the other Mazoku Lords. If it were true then there was nothing to be done at the moment; she would have to create new spells drawing power from the Mazoku that still existed, which would take a large amount of time and research.

Shabranigdo could have denied Lina's call for power. That was also something that the sorceress had experienced. Dark Star had once not allowed her to use his power; but that had only occurred because Lina had been battling Dark Star himself at that time. It seemed unlikely that Shabranigdo would prevent Lina from casting a Dragon Slave considering that he had never done so, even after Lina had ruined one of his fragments. Alternatively, the Mazoku could be disallowing all black magic but that seemed even less likely. Either way, walking up to Shabranigdo and asking for his permission was not an option.

There could be a barrier in place that prevented the casting of black magic. Humans were not capable of creating such a thing but the Mazoku and the Shinzoku were. It would go a long way toward explaining why sorcery was nearly unknown in the land where Sakura was born – much like how magic knowledge and ability had nearly died out in the lands outside the Mazoku Barrier in Lina's time. That would also be a problem that could not be solved quickly, if at all.

The last idea that came to her mind was that this world might not be the same as the world where Lina had lived. The only way to call upon a Mazoku in another world was to have an item attuned to that Mazoku, such as the Demon Blood Talismans which were attuned to the four Mazoku Lords.

She was now reassessing the assumptions that Lina had made ever since her awakening. Lina had been born in the Red World, where Ruby Eye Shabranigdo had fought Flare Dragon Ceipheed. Lina had naturally assumed that she was still in her own world. But the Hokage had not shown any familiarity with the history that Lina had described to him. No one in Sakura's memory had ever spoken of Shabranigdo. Furthermore, Lina had not noticed due to her familiarity but Sakura had thought that Xelloss' power felt alien even compared to the other Mazoku they had encountered. If this was not the Ceipheed's World then Xelloss was an Outsider here.

The question remained: which world was this?

From Lina's knowledge she knew that there were four worlds – four universes. They were vastly different but still similar in many ways – the existence of humans, Mazoku, and Shinzoku in each of them being the largest similarity. Through various experiences, Lina had learned some things about the other three worlds.

Most of what Lina knew came from Sirius, a Shinzoku from the Black World. He had described his home as a world with 'high technology' and 'spaceships.' Having Sakura's memories allowed her to understand what he meant better than Lina ever had. Sakura's world had the idea of traveling through space but was far from developing that level of technology. There were also odd gaps even compared to the low levels of technology in the Red World. Cannons and guns were rare in Lina's world but non-existent here. Besides the discrepancy in technology, there were almost no gods or demons in the Black World after Dark Star's destruction. This world certainly was not the Black World.

Lina's knowledge gave her less information about the White and Blue Worlds. Sirius had said the White World was 'full of liars' and the Blue World was 'relatively peaceful.' The land of Sakura's birth could hardly be called peaceful but 'full of liars?' She had thought that the deceptions she had encountered were because Lina and Sakura were around ninja. What if the level of deceit went beyond that? What if the Mazoku in this world focused more on deception than in Lina's? If this was the White World then the Mazoku Lord here was Hakumu-ou, literally White Fog but more commonly called Death Fog. And according to Sakura's education white was the color traditional associated with death in the Elemental Nations.

All the pieces seemed to fit together. And there was a way to test it, possibly eliminating Gaara at the same time. Lina had summoned the power of Death Fog before as part of a spell that called upon all four of the Mazoku Lords. She had the Chaos Words she needed. Altering a spell to use Death Fog's power instead of Ruby Eye's was a trivial matter.

In her present state the chant was unnecessary. She did not need to worry about control – between Sakura's natural control of her own spirit and Lina's experience there would be no problems – but she was low on power and would need to keep the spell relatively small. As the Chaos Words flowed through her mind, her time sense began to return to normal. The genin around her were moving again – Gai's students slowly backing away from the sphere of sand surrounding Gaara, Shikamaru opening his mouth to call for a retreat, and Naruto's fist clenching in impotent anger.

Her spell connected with the most powerful Mazoku in this world and its power flowed back to her. Power that she had felt before.

She felt a grin form on her face. The greatest of the demons are the Tailed Beasts. And the greatest of the Bijuu is the Kyuubi. Sakura had it right all along, she realized. Sealed inside Naruto was not a priest or a general or even a Greater Mazoku as Lina had been thinking but a Mazoku Lord instead.


When the Kyuubi – Death Fog – felt the spell's call, he was pleasantly surprised. Pleasantly in the sense of knowing that massive devastation was about to occur. The call contained a type of pledge: a request for power and an oath to use that power for destruction.

This type of sorcery was not something that could be blocked by the seal that the Kyuubi was contained by and he eagerly let his energy flow back through the link created by the sorcerer – sorceress, he corrected himself.

The link was not simply a conduit of power. It also allowed him to see into the sorceress' mind to a degree. As the Kyuubi touched the mind of the sorceress he was able to determine that she was highly experienced in black magic. There was something more, however, not just the remnants of kuro majutsu. Her mind and soul had also been touched by his own master, his creator, his mother.

Death Fog could not feel fear any more than he could experience love or happiness. So perhaps the best word to describe what he felt would be… anticipation.


As the Mazoku's energy filled the red sphere in her hands, she idly wondered why a nine-tailed fox would be associated with fog of all things. A question for another day, she reflected.

The level of power was such that even her perfectly formed containment spell did not trap all of the energy. Streamers of red energy leaked from the spherical shell, not doing her any harm but ruffling her clothes and causing her long pink hair to lift as if being blown back by a strong breeze.

Her spell caught the attention of the Leaf ninja. Naruto was the first to react. Whether it was because of his connection to the Kyuubi or some other instinct for danger, the blond opened his mouth and shouted: "Run!"

The crimson light shining from her spell reached a nearly blinding level, though a part of the spell protected her own eyes from the glare. The only things left to do were to say the spell's name and throw it at her target. Having just been invented though, the spell did not have a name. No reason to break a tradition, she decided. She thrust her hands toward Gaara's position and roared out a phrase that no one present would forget.

"Dragon Slave!"

The Konoha genin were moving away quickly when she released the spell. The crimson ball of energy that was the strongest spell in black magic flew from her hands, trailed by thick spirals of red sparks.

The spell impacted with the sand surrounding the Suna ninja and then began its unstoppable expansion.

Sakura stumbled, feeling completely drained. The kunoichi stared in horror at the approaching surface of the red sphere that was destroying all it touched as it grew. She felt an arm wrap around her waist and she was suddenly airborne, moving away from the source of destruction.

It was difficult for Sakura to think of anything else but the Dragon Slave as she watched the spell's effect. The perfect globe, filled with energy that ripped everything apart, continued to enlarge even as it exceeded a hundred meters in diameter.

Sakura knew that the spell was powerful based on Lina's description. She knew it affected a large area. Somehow, hearing about it and actually seeing it were completely different.

The pink-haired girl felt a little giddy as she thought of the feeling of power she had experienced while holding the black magic spell. She now understood just how powerful she could become from learning sorcery. Of all the ninja that they had studied in the academy – the present and past Kage from the various hidden villages, the infamous missing-nin, the shinobi that otherwise became well known for their strength – the only female had been Tsunade of the Densetsu no Sannin. It was difficult to believe that a kunoichi could compete with her male counterparts when there was such a disparity in the higher ranks. But now Sakura had first-hand experience.

Definitely on the small side, not even half a kilometer across, Lina said. We'll do better next time. The sorceress cackled internally.

Sakura was ignoring Lina for the moment, her attention focused elsewhere. She could no longer feel the power of the Mazoku sealed inside Gaara. She winced slightly as she realized that he was probably dead.

If we're lucky, Lina murmured. If we're really lucky the Mazoku will have been damaged significantly also.

"You have got to teach me that," Naruto said in awe.

With a gasp Sakura finally noticed her position, awkwardly slung across Naruto's right shoulder. The blond-haired genin was looking over his other shoulder as he leapt away from the battle scene. "Sasuke-kun!" she cried but instantly spotted the black-haired Uchiha being carried in the arms of another Naruto.

Sakura felt a thrill run through her as she did every time she looked at Sasuke's handsome visage. At least her union with Lina had not changed her liking for the black-eyed boy.

Please, spare me from another rant about the perfection of 'Sasuke-kun,' Lina grumbled.

Sakura frowned at Lina's comments. It would have saved so much trouble if Lina's opinion of Sasuke had been changed. Oh, well, she thought with a sigh, guess I can't have everything.

Naruto landed from his latest jump with a thump that shifted Sakura's position on his shoulder. Her vision now consisted of mostly the ground and Naruto's back.

"You can put me down now," Sakura said just before realizing that the blond was already lowering her to the ground. The kunoichi of Team Seven tried to stand immediately but she wobbled and fell on her rump.

"Are you okay?" one Naruto asked.

"What happened to your hair?" the Naruto who was carrying Sasuke questioned.

"My hair?" Sakura reached behind her and pulled a handful of strands around to look at. Her ordinarily pink hair was bleach white. Sakura's eyes widened in shock.

That's because we're completely out of magic, Lina told her. Nothing permanent.

"I'm out of spiritual energy," Sakura relayed to Naruto. Both copies of the boy gave a nod of understanding.

Best thing would be to eat something.

Sakura groaned in annoyance but then heard her stomach growl. She blushed faintly and chuckled. "I guess we should take a break."

The Naruto carrying Sasuke lowered the Uchiha boy to the ground and promptly popped into a cloud of smoke. The other Naruto sat down and began digging in one of his pouches for the remainder of his lunch.

Sakura copied him and pulled out one of her small bentou.

"What about Sasuke?"

"You'll have to keep carrying him," Sakura answered. "I can't cast any spells right now. Not even to wake up Sasuke-kun," she finished with disappointment evident in her voice.

Naruto unwrapped a sandwich. He glanced back at the way they had come and then turned toward Sakura. His squinting eyes seemed to be curved upward even more than normal and he covered his mouth with one hand as he snickered. "What do you think the other teams are doing right now?"

Sakura rolled her eyes as Lina laughed in the back of her mind.


Temari was displeased to say the least.

The second exam had started off easy. Her youngest brother had been acting normal – for him – which meant that the first team they encountered quickly became crushed lumps of flesh and bone. Better yet they had gotten a Heaven scroll. They could have easily been at the tower and finished in another hour.

Then Kankurou had decided to reason with Gaara. Sometimes she wondered if the puppeteer had any survival instinct at all. She had been forced to get involved in the argument to keep Gaara calm. It had seemed to work but then he had taken off in a completely random direction, ignoring both her and Kankurou.

When they had come across a small crowd of Leaf genin she had worried again about Gaara getting too excited from battle.

Temari was very determined not to think about why her brother or the monster inside of him wanted a girl alive.

Gaara had fought defensively as he usually did but amazingly enough the Konoha ninja were skilled enough to keep themselves alive. But Gaara or Shukaku – it did not really matter which – had gotten agitated as the fight dragged on. When he had started talking in a deeper voice and his sand began drawing inward, she and Kankurou had decided to get some more distance. A kilometer would have been nice but was unfortunately impractical.

Which brought her to now.

Gaara inside his spherical cocoon, almost certainly happily chatting away about blood and death. And the little pink-haired girl holding a blindingly bright red ball of fire that was about the size of her head.

Temari was not surprised when the Leaf kunoichi threw the fiery sphere at her brother. She was not even surprised when crimson globe began expanding after it crashed into Gaara's sand. She was surprised when she and Kankurou were forced to leap farther away into the dense forest to avoid the raging jutsu.

Unlike what she expected, the jutsu was not accompanied by a massive roar of flames. The ground under her feet shook violently and she could hear the earth breaking from the force of the explosion. But the most pronounced sound was a whine that grew in pitch and volume as the destruction spread.

Fire had little effect on Gaara's defenses but Temari had no idea what would happen to him inside that thing.

A dark form flew out of the red dome, passed between Kankurou and herself, and crashed into one of the giant trees behind her with a sharp crack.

Temari turned to look and saw the blackened form of her youngest brother imbedded deeply in the trunk of the tree. "Gaara!" she said in astonishment. The blonde kunoichi and her other brother darted closer to check on their youngest sibling.

Black grains of sand drifted away from Gaara's face, arms, and legs as he struggled out of the indented side of the tree. The gourd that was normally on the redhead's back had dissolved and cushioned his impact. His clothes were nearly ruined; the legs of his trousers in tatters, gaping holes in his shirt, and his sandals and sash completely missing.

"Looks like his sand saved him," Kankurou whispered.

Maybe her brother had some instincts after all if he was being cautious about getting Gaara's attention at the moment. "But where is the rest of it?" Temari asked quietly.

Gaara stumbled away from the tree, the sand that had been his gourd following him sluggishly. The black sand that had been covering him did not move at all but even including it, the bulk of the sand that Gaara always carried with him was missing. Temari looked back at the bubble of angry red energy that was now beginning to shrink.

Kankurou followed her line of vision. "You think it destroyed even that blood-soaked sand?" he asked in a strangled voice. "I am so not messing with that chick again."

A small groan brought Temari's attention back to Gaara. The red-haired shinobi's eyes were closed and he was holding one hand against his head, near his tattoo of the kanji 'Ai.' Gaara opened his green eyes – which looked almost black due to the red light still shining from the strange technique – for a moment then they rolled back into his head and the short ninja collapsed onto the forest floor.

Temari took a step toward Gaara's body but some of the remaining sand curled around him protectively.

Kankurou grunted. "What do we do now?" the puppeteer asked.

Gaara being unconscious was far better than him being asleep but this was still a frustrating situation. Being the eldest, Temari was hypothetically the team leader in the absence of their jounin sensei. She was far from certain that they could move Gaara safely which left them with little choice. "We wait."

"And what if that pink-haired chick comes looking for us?" Kankurou's face paint usually made his smirking face more fearsome; now it only served to make his nervousness more apparent.

Temari glared at her brother. The harsh red light faded completely, returning the forest to its natural greens and browns. She could not see the stream – or whatever was left of it – from her position but the sunlight visible in that direction told her that a large number of trees had been destroyed.

The blonde kunoichi pulled her giant fan from behind her back and opened it. Temari rested one end of the fan on the ground but kept both her hands on the handle so she could react quickly. If she saw so much as a squirrel move, it was going to get a Kamaitachi sent in its direction.


When Naruto shouted "Run!" Maito Gai's three students swiftly came to the conclusion that it was good advice.

For Lee it was a combination of his utmost faith in Sakura – having seen some of her passionate techniques already – and his trust that her teammate Naruto knew more than he did. Neji was moving at the same time, the Hyuuga Byakugan eyes being able to see the burning fires held within the cute girl's hands better than his own. Tenten, who was so youthfully observant from her training with weapons, was following the two boys an instant later.

Lee and his teammates were jumping away when the girl with the lovely pale rose hair attacked with a cry of "Dragon Slave!" Sakura's jutsu screamed shrilly as it flew from her dainty hands. Lee stopped for a moment to watch it blossom into a magnificent display of strength when it struck the sand shielding the ninja they had been fighting. He continued to gaze in round-eyed amazement as the flames exploded boundlessly from their source.

The green-clad noted the other Leaf genin departing and Naruto cleverly carrying both of his teammates. Lee bounded off again as the blazing wall advanced.

Lee briefly mourned the loss of his weights but he knew that replacements would be easy enough to obtain. And he would certainly have an inspiring story to tell Gai when they finished the exam.

Lee found his teammates positioned safely – for the moment at least – in the limbs of a majestic tree.

"What the hell is that?!" Tenten asked, her voice filled with the righteous desire to learn.

"I… don't know." Lee's rival Neji was always so calm and collected even as he faced the uncertainties of life. "I've never seen anything like that Suna shinobi or that girl's jutsu."

Just as the life-giving sun must always set, the product of the beautiful girl's skill began to dwindle. "Yosh!" Lee shouted excitedly at the imagery. "Sakura-san has defeated a difficult foe!"

Tenten made a feline sound of vexation. "How did a kunoichi younger than me learn something like that?" Her raven hair glistened in the ruby light that shone from the dying blaze. The weapons expert's right hand rose to her mouth and she delicately nibbled on her nail of her thumb.

"Tenten! Gai-sensei will be overflowing with joy to learn that you have found a worthy rival!"

The kunoichi look startled for a second. "Don't you dare tell him anything of the sort!" she protested due to her bashful nature.

"Your fires of youth will surely reach new heights, Tenten!" Lee exclaimed.

"In case you have forgotten," Neji said as he once again displayed the voice of reason, "we're still in the middle of the exam and need to capture a Heaven scroll." After one last long glance at the location where they had valiantly fought, he deactivated his Bloodline Limit.

"Sakura-san and the others are safe?" Lee asked.

Neji exhaled brusquely. "The other two Konoha teams are farther away than we are." The Hyuuga boy paused to gather his thoughts. "That sand user is incapacitated and his team isn't moving."

"He survived such an attack?" Lee said in admiration. "Truly a singular adversary."

Neji turned to the north and beckoned to Lee and Tenten. "Come on, I don't want to waste any more time. There's another team wandering nearby."

"They can't have missed that little light show," Tenten stated. "Do you think they'll run away or come to investigate?" she asked.

"Looked like they were arguing to me."


Lee smiled widely as he followed Neji. It occurred to him that the strongest Leaf genin was not a member of his team, after all. It would be more difficult than he initially realized to impress the extraordinary Haruno Sakura but giving up was one thing that Gai had never taught him.


Shikamaru's mind raced to find a way out of the situation. The largest problem was that there had been too many surprises already. He hated surprises; they showed that there were unknown variables at work.

The jutsu that the Suna ninja – Gaara was his name according to Kabuto's information – was like nothing he had ever heard of, perhaps it was a Kekkei Genkai. Shikamaru had seen several potential ways to defeat the red-haired shinobi but he had waited too long to implement them. The way the sand was being used had altered and Gaara's defense was stronger now than it had been initially.

The Nara boy's thoughts were derailed again as his blonde teammate created an icy blue bow and arrow from thin air. She did not use any hand seals, just some odd motions with her hands and a yell of 'Freeze Arrow.' Why was she using Eigo words to announce her jutsu? How could she be using a Hyouton to begin with? That would imply that she had affinities with both Water and Wind. Why was it so similar to the techniques that Sakura had used to incapacitate Sasuke?

When the sand-manipulating ninja enclosed himself completely in a spherical shell Shikamaru decided that it was time to move. "Now's our best chance to leave," he said.

Sakura stood there looking slightly nervous as she had since the fight began. Naruto looked rebellious as he often did but if Shikamaru could convince Sakura to move then he was sure that Naruto would follow.

Shikamaru understood why Team Seven would be reluctant to flee. Retreats were often messy and the Sand shinobi had very clearly stated his intention was to capture Sakura. They would be in trouble if Gaara managed to cut them off from the other Leaf genin, especially with one of their team members comatose.

But with the Suna shinobi apparently ignoring his surroundings, Shikamaru thought that there was a high probability that the Konoha genin could find a better place to fight. Somewhere that would allow Chouji to use his family's Human Bullet Tank technique for one – the 'Nikuman Sensha' as Ino derogatorily called it gave his best friend a strength and momentum that Gaara would find difficult to counter.

An irritated expression crossed Sakura's face. Just as suddenly, the pink-haired girl was grinning. Then her whole body language changed. The changes may have been subtle but they were numerous and obvious to a skilled observer such as Shikamaru. He had seen it happen before, when she had attacked Sasuke, but this time it was more dramatic. It was almost as if a completely different person was now standing where Sakura had been.

Shikamaru opened his mouth to ask Sakura if she had thought of something but closed it again as she cupped her hands at chest level in front of her. A bright mote of red light appeared between her palms. It grew quickly and crimson energy spilled from the orb, curling around the pink-haired girl's body and lifting her hair. One of the tendrils of red light brushed across his arm and he shuddered at the sensation. Shikamaru could feel the power but there was also a malevolence that reminded him of the aura that Gaara possessed.

The kunoichi of Team Seven pulled her hands and the glowing red ball to the side of her body but her attention never left the sphere of sand.

Shikamaru had never seen Sakura smirk before. During written exams she had a quiet confidence but that was completely unlike the ferocious glee on her face now.

"Run!" shouted Naruto.

Shikamaru motioned to Chouji with a hand signal and the Akimichi boy scooped up Ino, who was distracted with staring at her rival. Team Ten ran from the battle, though not under the conditions that Shikamaru had expected.

"Dragon Slave!"

A loud rumble like an avalanche and a light that made it seem as though a small red sun had been born encouraged Shikamaru and Chouji to put a good amount of distance between themselves and their previous location. Ino complained the entire time.

They finally stopped and Chouji sat Ino down. The blonde kunoichi slapped Chouji's hand as he let her go and muttered something about his 'meaty arms.' She stopped ranting when she caught sight of the crimson dome that had engulfed part of the landscape.

"I guess they can take care of themselves, huh?" Chouji asked. If the question had come from Ino it would have been in a very sarcastic tone but the large boy's voice contained only admiration.

"At least this one was smaller than the other," Ino mumbled.

Shikamaru was certain that was what his female teammate had said. There was no doubt in his mind that those were the words that had come from her mouth. He just could not put them in a proper context. He was not sure that he wanted to think about it too much. Something strange was going on between Ino and Sakura and it was bound to be…

"Troublesome," Shikamaru said in a low voice.


Kakashi sat in one of the 'waiting rooms' of the tower in the center of the Forest of Death. There were several comfortable couches and a half-dozen recliners, one of which he occupied. There was a large bay window which looked out over a portion of the forest. The floor he was on was just slightly above the tops of the trees. A large bank of monitors showed real-time pictures of several positions around the tower as well as a few locations deep in the forest – places like the bridges where battles often occurred during the war games that were occasionally held.

There were a number of such rooms in the tower. Each of the nations that had sent genin for the exam had been assigned such a room – a place for the jounin instructors to wait. This particular room was the largest but then Konoha did have the most teams competing.

Sarutobi Asuma, Yuuhi Kurenai, Maito Gai, and a pair jounin that Kakashi was only vaguely familiar with were present.

Kakashi reached the bottom of the page that he was reading and flipped to the next. He let a blush cross his face. Any random jounin was skilled enough to notice instantly and Kurenai was no exception. The woman gave a pointed sniff. Teasing people was half of the reason that he read his books in public.

All in all, it should have been a fairly relaxing room. There was naturally some nervousness due to the fact that their genin teams were in a potentially dangerous situation and that the jounin sensei could not do anything to help them. Kakashi believed that his team would not have any problems, however. They had performed admirably in Land of the Waves and the exam could hardly be more dangerous than that battle had been.

No, the real problem was not the danger his students were in, it was Gai.

The green-clad jounin was continually pacing. Every thirty minutes he would begin crying about his 'cute little students' and the terrible perils that they were facing. After a minute of bawling his eyes out, the taijutsu master would then begin jumping around and shouting about how their 'powers of youth' would see them through any tribulation.

Every thirty minutes.

On the dot.

Kakashi had no intention of staying in this room the entire time but it was going to be a long five days if Gai kept this up.

It was slightly over two and a half hours since the exam had started and Gai had just ended his last bout of hyperactivity. The silver-haired jounin glanced at the clock on the wall. Twenty-five more minutes until he did it again.

Kakashi noticed Kurenai staring at him and he decided to return her attention, though in as lazy a manner as he could.

"Do you really think your students will do well in this exam?" the female jounin asked.

"Why wouldn't they?" Kakashi retorted.

Kurenai shook her head in an exasperated manner. "I saw their testing scores. There's so much disparity in your team."

"It was called 'balance' when the team composition was determined," said the sensei of Team Seven blandly.

The red-eyed woman sitting across from him snorted.

"Yes!" Gai exclaimed. "Even my team was said by some to be doomed to failure but they have shown how brightly their youth burns!"

Kakashi suppressed a twitch of surprise. It was unusual for him and Gai to be on the same side of an argument.

"But you waited a year before putting your team into the chuunin exams," Kurenai pointed out.

Gai rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "That is true."

"And I believe the inequality to be greater in your team, Kakashi. Haruno's class ranking was not bad but she and Uzumaki had the lowest practical scores of all the genin that passed." The instructor of Team Eight narrowed her ruby eyes at Kakashi. "I hope that you've been giving them decent training."

The silver-haired man shifted his gaze back to the book in his hands.

Kakashi suspected that Kurenai was more concerned about Sakura than Naruto. She was always ready to start an argument any time she thought that one of the genin kunoichi was not being given the same consideration as her teammates. Sakura probably brought out that protective nature even more given that his pink-haired student had been classified by the academy as a promising genjutsu user.

Kakashi was not about to waste time worrying about Sakura out of all his genin. It was a toss-up as to which one of his students was the strongest. Sasuke was the most skilled in taijutsu, Sakura was essentially a ninjutsu expert, and Naruto's shadow clones made up for a lot of his deficits.

The biggest problem in his team was their mental states not their fighting abilities. And Kakashi thought that Sakura was the most stable even considering her surprising revelations.

"Based on what I recall reading, Uzumaki badly needed more hand-to-hand combat instruction and Haruno had no assistance in developing her aptitude for genjutsu," stated Kurenai.

Kakashi wondered just why so many people wanted to peg his team members as tai, nin, and genjutsu. If they had to be categorized, he probably would have said that they were all ninjutsu types – Sakura already had an extremely wide range of spells, Sasuke would likely start copying every jutsu he encountered, and Naruto had the most potential given the Kyuubi's chakra in addition to his own.

"I did give Sakura a scroll on Narakumi no Jutsu," Kakashi said.

The answer seemed to infuriate Kurenai given the way she started glaring at him.

This was one reason why Kakashi had never had a steady relationship with a woman. He seemed to rile them up without intending to. Kakashi glanced at Asuma, mutely appealing for his help, but the cigarette-smoking jounin just grinned back.

"You-" Kurenai's next sentence was interrupted by the entire tower shaking for several seconds.

"An earthquake?" Asuma wondered aloud.

All the jounin in the room were on alert now. If it was some type of attack they were ready to spring into action. One of the other jounin in the room moved toward the door.

"Look!" Gai said, pointing out the window. Kakashi, Asuma, and Kurenai stood to get a better view.

Several kilometers southeast of the tower an enormous hemisphere of red energy was growing, becoming visible over the tops of the trees.

"I can't feel any chakra signature," Asuma muttered. "An illusion?"

Kurenai shook her head.

The light from the dome was nearly as bright as the sun. The other jounin used their hands to shield their vision. Kakashi closed his right eye and raised his hitai-ate to reveal his Sharingan eye; the glare would not affect his borrowed Bloodline Limit. Kakashi idly noted that there was no shockwave accompanying the strange explosion – the surrounding trees were not being pushed away by displaced air. Most of the jounin's attention was on the chakra that was fueling the jutsu. Massive coils of black energy – like Kakashi had only seen once before in his life – roiled within the dome, obviously attempting to escape their confinement but held in place by some barrier that his red eye could not see.

The trees of the Forest of Death were larger than most of the trees elsewhere in Fire Country, many of them reaching nearly a hundred meters tall. But the demonically-fueled technique more than doubled the height of the surrounding woods.

Kakashi did not know whether it was the result of something Naruto or Sakura did or if they had found some way to combine their powers but he was definitely going to have a talk with them when they finished the exam.

The silver-haired jounin surreptitiously lowered his forehead protector back in place and opened his normal eye, turning it toward his book.

The room remained silent as the red light coming through the window faded.

A pair of sandals holding a woman's feet entered Kakashi's down-turned line of sight. One of the feet tapped impatiently against the floor and he reluctantly looked up at Kurenai.

"I don't suppose you thought to take a look with that eye of yours," the female jounin said sarcastically.

"Ah," Kakashi said ambiguously.

Gai clenched his fists and pressed them against his forehead. "Kakashi!" he cried. "Your attitude is too hip!"

Kakashi wondered if he could distract them and escape. After all, he really did not want to explain that some genin had managed to tap into that much demonic chakra. "I think I should speak with Hokage-sama first."

"I think we should come with you," Kurenai responded, causing Kakashi to sigh.


After eating and relaxing for half an hour Sakura felt better. In a very short discussion she and Naruto agreed that they were getting attacked regardless of whether they stayed in one place or moved about, so they decided to continue moving toward the tower. Resting longer was somewhat appealing but Lina told her that restoring her spiritual energy would take either copious amounts of food or days of rest.

The temporarily white-haired girl checked Sasuke's condition again. The black-haired boy's eyes were moving under his closed eyelids but no amount of jostling awakened him.

Once Sakura was ready to resume their trek Naruto made a single shadow clone. The bunshin picked Sasuke up in a fireman's carry, the larger boy draped across the blond's shoulders. The real Naruto then insisted on carrying Sakura herself.

Sakura objected for a few minutes but her short teammate was adamant and she was still feeling tired. Then they quarreled about exactly how she was to be carried. She finally agreed to be piggy-backed which was embarrassing but less so than being held bridal style as Naruto initially suggested.

They stayed mostly on the forest floor, Naruto jogging along and making small jumps over the roots that he could not easily go around. The orange-clad genin was getting better at cushioning his landings but Sakura thought her back could still feel one particularly jarring impact.

In an amazing contrast to the previous leg of their journey, Team Seven did not see the slightest trace of other ninja as they made their way. At Sakura's prompting, Naruto made another Kage Bunshin and set it to scouting ahead. They continued traveling northwest, loosely parallel to the stream they had been at earlier.

The other surprise was that Naruto stayed mostly silent during the trip. He occasionally asked if she needed to rest a while or if she needed to drink something. The blond was not being annoying for a change, he was simply being nice.

Sakura could almost admit to herself that his attention was… sweet. She felt Lina grinning at her and she tried to mentally push the sorceress away.

"So..." Naruto said in a casual voice that was not at all normal for the energetic blond.


Naruto lightly hopped over a long, thin root that meandered about a foot above the ground. Sakura looked back and watched the clone carrying Sasuke go through similar motions. The little light that filtered through the green canopy above was beginning to fade and she was worried about Naruto's occasional bouts of clumsiness.


"What is it, Naruto?" Sakura asked, curious as to what her blond teammate was reluctant to say.

"How did you make that big explosion?"

Sakura looked down at Naruto's messy blond hair and blinked. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously and her fingers twitched. The arms that were loosely wrapped around his neck tightened. "Is that why you're acting so considerate?" she growled.

"Gack… Saku… cha… air…" Naruto gasped out between labored breaths.

"Don't think you can get the secrets of the universe from me so easily," the kunoichi said haughtily as she focused on her efforts to throttle the blond nuisance. Naruto being nice? What was I thinking? The only time he's nice is when he wants something.

You're exaggerating, Lina said but Sakura did not bother to respond.

Naruto took another staggering step. He let go of Sakura's right leg and raised his arm and to point ahead and upward. "Tower," he croaked out.

"Tower?" Sakura halted her strangling of Naruto and he noisily filled his lungs. Through an opening in the canopy of leaves she could see the top of a tall building. "Finally," the kunoichi said in relief.

Naruto set Sakura down and gave her a sheepish smile. "I do want you to teach me that 'Dragu Slave' jutsu," he said, having a little trouble pronouncing the name of the spell. Sakura gave him a frosty glare. "But it's not like that's the only reason I had!"

Sakura turned away from the blond and walked past him. Naruto pouted and kicked at the ground. The clone carrying Sasuke shook its head and spoke up, "Man, you really screwed up."

"Oh, shut up," Naruto snapped in reply. The blond genin and his bunshin trotted after Sakura. "Come on, Sakura-chan," he said pleadingly. "Don't be mad."

The white-haired girl continued to ignore Naruto as she strode forward. Another half-hour of walking brought them to the edge of the forest around the tower. The sun was sinking rapidly behind the tall trees and shadow now covered more of the ground than light did.

Naruto's scouting clone bounded up to Team Seven. "No one else around on this side," it reported. The bunshin looked at Sakura who had her arms crossed and her lips pressed into a thin line. "You did something stupid, didn't you?" it accused the real Naruto.

"Even your clones are smarter than you are," Sakura said acidly. Lina snickered internally at the comment.

"Everybody's picking on me," Naruto grumbled. "You said nobody on this side?"

"Yeah, a little farther north there's some traps," the copy of Naruto answered. "One of them almost took off my leg!" the clone said while pointing down. Naruto and the clone looked at the chakra-composed leg. "Well, you know what I mean. Anyway, this side is clear." The bunshin popped into wisps of smoke.

"Well, you heard him! Let's go!"

"Keep your voice down," Sakura said in a more reasonable tone. She drew her kunai and a handful of shuriken and walked out into the open. I can't wait for this test to be over, she privately groused.

Same here, Lina commented. I think we ran into more than our share of the twenty-five other teams out there.

At least they weren't all enemies, Sakura thought with a giggle that made Naruto cock his head in confusion behind her back.

No overly powerful genin attacked at the last second. No team jumped out into the open to challenge them before Sakura reached a pair of doors with an intact tag and pushed them open. No demon-possessed ninja appeared as she walked through with Naruto and his Sasuke-bearing clone on her heels.

Sakura breathed a sigh of relief as she let the doors swing shut. She returned the kunai and throwing stars to their respective holsters.

Naruto's clone laid Sasuke down on the floor. It pressed its index and middle fingers against the unconscious boy's carotid artery in his neck. "His pulse is still steady," the bunshin said before puffing away.

He'll sleep like a rock for at least several more hours, Lina stated.

"Now what?" Naruto asked as he looked around the empty room. His eyes landed on a framed piece of parchment with writing on it. "'If you lack heaven, seek wisdom…'" the blond-haired genin quoted. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Looks like Hokage-sama wrote it," Sakura said as she noticed the three kanji for 'Sandaime' written at the end. "I guess the only thing left to do is open the scrolls." Sakura opened her belt pouch and withdrew the Earth scroll.

Naruto crouched down and reached into Sasuke's shirt, retrieving their original Heaven scroll. "So we open them now?"

Sakura shrugged but pulled open the scroll she held and Naruto copied her. The inside was a complex seal surrounding the kanji for 'Person.'

White smoke swirled out of the seal.

"Yikes!" Naruto yelped and tossed the Heaven scroll down.

Naruto's shout made Sakura jump and the Earth scroll joined its partner on the floor. "Did it injure you?" Sakura demanded, her green eyes darting around the room. Her reaction made her realized just how badly her nerves were frayed. A kunai was in her left hand again.

"No," her blond teammate said as he blushed with embarrassment. "It just surprised me."

The smoke from the two scrolls spiraled together and a hazy human form appeared within the cloud.

"A summoning," Sakura whispered.

Naruto positioned himself in front of Sasuke and raised his hands into the cross-like seal for his Kage Bunshin.

The smoke cleared to reveal their academy teacher Iruka.

Sakura slumped to her knees and let herself relax, letting out a sigh of gratitude.

"Hey, you three. I'm amazed you finished already," Iruka said. The chuunin blinked at seeing Sakura's white hair and then frowned as he realized that Sasuke lay unmoving. "Are you okay? What happened?"

"First this guy with one of those weird breathing things over his mouth blindsided me!" Naruto exclaimed. "But we chased him off!"

Sakura rolled her eyes. It's his own fault for asking, she thought. Now he's going to have to listen to Naruto for the next half-hour.

This might be amusing to hear, Lina said.

Iruka had a tolerant look on his face but Sakura wondered how long that would last.

"Then this creepy – you wouldn't believe how creepy – lady and her snakes attacked us!" The blond boy's voice was growing louder if anything as he continued. Sakura guessed that trying to stay quiet all day had been taxing on her teammate and now he was making up for it. "One her monster snakes ate me but I got out!"

Ate him? Sakura thought in surprise.

I wonder exactly how he got out?

The kunoichi's nose wrinkled in distaste. I don't want to know.

Iruka was looking much more worried than he had initially. The academy instructor opened his mouth but did not immediately find an opportunity to interrupt Naruto.

"Then Sakura-chan scared an even bigger snake away!"

He would have to mention that, Lina privately complained.

I thought you were finding this amusing, Sakura replied mockingly.

"And then Sasuke was knocked out and this Sound team attacked us! Me and Sakura-chan took care of them! And then this guy that controlled sand…" Naruto paused for a moment. Sakura supposed that the blond was unsure exactly what to say about that fight.

"Woah," Iruka said, taking the opening Naruto's silence provided. "Calm down, Naruto. You don't have to tell me everything right now." Naruto rubbed the back of his head and nodded. "There was a woman controlling the snakes of the forest?" he asked, his face filled with confusion.

"No, she was summoning them," Sakura answered.

The confusion on the chuunin's face was replaced by something like dread. "But the snake summoning scroll…" Iruka began but he trailed off.

"She bit Sasuke and there's some sort of seal on his neck now," Sakura added, finally having a chance to give what she felt to be the most important piece of information.

Iruka quickly stepped to Sasuke's side and bent over to look at the black-haired genin's neck. When he straightened, his expression was grim. "I've only heard…" The chuunin once again failed to complete his sentence. "I'm supposed to talk a little bit about being a chuunin but this requires immediate attention."

"What's wrong with Sasuke?" Naruto asked.

Iruka hesitated. "Kakashi can explain later." The pony-tailed man picked up Sasuke and headed toward a corner of the room where a set of stairs led upward. "Has he been asleep since then?"

Sakura and Naruto followed the older ninja. "No," Sakura answered, "he woke up but…" Now it was the kunoichi's turn to fall silent.

"He wasn't acting normal," Naruto supplied.

"Well, at least he'll probably live," Iruka said quietly. He was still quite audible to Sakura.

"What do you mean 'he'll probably live'?" Sakura shrieked.

"This is a very serious matter," Iruka responded. "I'm sure there will be a lot of questions for you two," he said as he led them from the room.


Kabuto was unsurprised to find Orochimaru awaiting him when he and his team entered the tower. The sannin did not look happy but that merely made his smile that much more firm. The grey-haired genin pushed the glasses that were constantly slipped down his nose back into place.

Orochimaru flicked his head and Akadou and Tsurugi left for the inner part of the tower, leaving Kabuto alone with the leader of the newly-founded Sound village. "I did not expect you to return so soon," the yellow-eyed man said.

Kabuto lifted his hands as he shrugged his shoulders. "Sasuke's team finished the test," he said. He left unsaid that they probably would not have reached the tower yet without his unseen assistance. Keeping a path clear for them had not been difficult but doing so without raising their suspicions or those of his own team had taken a slight effort.

A flick of his wrist brought a card to the genin's hand and he offered it to Orochimaru. "If we had better coordination I might have gained more information. But it seems I was left out regarding a Sound team sent to attack Sasuke and the others."

"There was no point in you knowing about those pieces of trash," Orochimaru said. He took at the card from Kabuto's hand and his irate visage changed to an eerie grin as he looked at it. "He activated the Cursed Seal so soon?" The sannin's tongue ran across his upper lip. "Marvelous."

"Team Seven did have a little encounter with Gaara of the Desert," Kabuto added as an aside.

Orochimaru shot the grey-haired boy an intense glare. "Sasuke was not injured, was he?"

Considering his reaction, it seemed as though the snake summoner had not noticed anything unusual, which suited Kabuto perfectly. "Oh, no. He's just fine," Kabuto answered flippantly.

The sannin studied Kabuto for a few seconds. "If you want to sabotage my plans you'll have to act soon," he said as he smirked at the genin. Orochimaru then vanished, leaving behind a few wisps of white smoke.

Kabuto adjusted his glasses again. Unfortunately for the sannin, his plans had begun long ago.


"What do you mean?" Iruka demanded. "Where are they?!"

The exam proctor – one of many that were handling the records for the second exam – backed away slightly from the angry academy instructor. "There was some sort of large explosion and they went to investigate, I believe."

Sakura felt a bead of sweat slide down her face. Iruka had decided that they should find Kakashi or one of the other elite jounin but it turned out that they had all left the tower about three hours ago.

"What are we supposed to do since Kakashi-sensei isn't around?" Naruto asked.

Iruka sighed. "I'll take Sasuke to the infirmary. You two don't need any attention, right?" Getting a pair of nods in response, he continued. "There's a cafeteria in the middle of the third floor. Oh! And Room 307 is set aside for you to rest in." The pony-tailed chuunin left, carrying Sasuke. Sakura's eyes trailed after them until Iruka turned a corner and disappeared from view.

You can check on him later, Lina said. We need to find that cafeteria!

"Congratulations on passing!" the exam proctor said. "You didn't break the record but five hours, twenty-two minutes is a great time for this exam. You were the first team to complete."

"Yeah!" Naruto shouted and thrust a fist into the air. "We're amazing!"

The chuunin chuckled in response.

Sakura's stomach rumbled, making her blush lightly.

"Okay!" Lina said loudly. "Time to eat!" The sorceress strode toward the stairway to the third flood with Naruto following.

"Don't get into any fights with the other teams!" the exam proctor advised as they ascended the stairs.

The cafeteria was easily found. The room held about two dozen round tables big enough for three or four people and a long buffet counter along one wall. Two Konoha genin wearing glasses and black masks over their faces sat at one of the tables drinking coffee. Aside from the cooks and waiters, the rest of the room was unoccupied.

Naruto sniffed at the air. "I smell ramen," he whispered.

The food smelled delicious and caused Sakura's stomach to growl again. "I didn't bring much money," Sakura grumbled, thinking of how much food she needed to eat according to Lina.

One of the cooks overheard her comment. "Don't worry about that," he said jovially. "The food is free for exam participants."

"Free?" Lina and Naruto asked.

"That's right, it's all paid for by the hidden villages that sent participants." The cook felt a chill run down his spine as a strange glint entered the eyes of the two members of Team Seven.


The Hokage closed the folder in front of him. Sighing deeply, he leaned his elbows on the surface of his desk and pushed his hands together. "If you have any other news, I certainly hope it's not more of this sort."

The Sandaime's guest, a man with long white hair and a reddish-brown stripe running downward from both of his eyes, scratched the back of his neck. "There's a few rumors about Orochimaru moving around in Rice Field Country but I haven't been able to pick up anything definitely."

Sarutobi closed his eyes for a moment as he thought of his renegade ex-student.

"So," the other man said, "you got any news for me?"

"Hmm…" The Hokage pondered briefly. There was no doubt in Sarutobi's mind about what the man standing on the other side of his desk wanted to do now that he had dumped his information in the Hokage's lap. There was, however, an issue that he might be able to provide unique assistance with. "There is an interesting team that graduated this year: Uchiha Sasuke, Uzumaki Naruto, and Haruno Sakura. Kakashi is the team leader."

"Haruno?" the white-haired man said inquisitively. "I think I met her father once. Kakashi must have his hands full with Naruto and the last Uchiha." He began to chuckle. "Is he just as stuck up as the rest of his clan?"

"Jiraiya," Sarutobi said in a serious tone. "Sakura knows sorcery."

A silence followed the Hokage's declaration. "How is that possible?" Jiraiya asked after several seconds.

Sarutobi answered with a shrug. "She claims to have memories from a previous life, though we have no corroborating evidence. You might be able to discover something that we missed if you talk to her."

Jiraiya frowned uncertainly. "The brat wasn't very secretive in general but when it came to his sorcery… For all I know, he might have had 'memories' like that." He snorted skeptically. "So how did you find out, anyway? Is she sloppy or did she just not care who knew about her sorcery?"

"Their first C-rank mission turned into an A-rank," the Sandaime said blandly. "Momochi Zabuza and an accomplice attacked them."

The Toad Hermit roared with laughter. "Encountering one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist during a C-rank mission. Naruto must have the same sort of luck that his father did."

The corners of Sarutobi's mouth twitched upward. "There are certain similarities."

Jiraiya snapped his fingers. "Now I remember. Haruno Sakura. I've heard that name before. 'The Bandit Killer.'"

"What?" the older ninja said in a startled tone.

"Must be some sort of coincidence but-" A knock at the door interrupted the sannin. He glanced backward briefly before moving to the side of the room and disappearing from sight.

The Hokage took the folder on top of his desk and put it into a drawer. He pushed the drawer closed and activated its security seal. "Come in!" he called loudly.

Kakashi, Gai, Kurenai, and Asuma entered the room. Kakashi looked like his usual lazy self but the other three jounin seemed quite focused.

"So, to what do I owe the privilege of seeing my top jounin instructors while their teams are participating in the chuunin exams?" Sarutobi asked without a bit of detectable sarcasm.

Kakashi shifted from one foot to the other. Kurenai cleared her throat and the silver-haired jounin sighed. "There was an explosion in the forest earlier," he said.

Seeing Kakashi's reluctance, the Hokage decided to slow the conversation. The other jounin were a bit too high-strung at the moment and they might react badly to whatever Kakashi would reveal. He began digging through the various pieces of paper in the pockets of his robe, looking for his pipe. "Yes, I had several ANBU report it. Apparently it was quite visible from the rooftops."

"Is that all you know about it?" Kurenai asked as respectfully as she could manage.

Sarutobi found his pipe and placed it on the desk. Next, he began to search for his tobacco. "There was quite a bit of argument about what exactly it was. Most of the ANBU believed it to be a genjutsu. I sent a pair to investigate the site but…" He found the tin of tobacco and lightly packed his pipe. "Regardless of what it was, any interference with a chuunin exam must be handled with care."

"My eternal rival Kakashi caught a glimpse," Gai said significantly, "but has chosen to remain silent until he spoke to you."

Sarutobi found his matches a bit more quickly than he expected but that let him take the time to light his pipe and take a few contented puffs. "Is that so?" he enquired, wondering what the silver-haired jounin had seen.

Kakashi had apparently caught on to the Sandaime's delaying tactics. "It all started this morning," the tall jounin said, "when I was frying an egg for breakfast. I wanted to cook it sunny-side up but I accidentally broke the yolk."

The flabbergasted expressions on the other jounin nearly made the old ninja laugh aloud. Sarutobi preferred subtle distractions but he had to admit that Kakashi's ridiculous tales were often quite effective.

As Kakashi continued to describe his morning mishaps – currently telling how he dropped his toast and it landed butter-side down – a messenger burst into the room. "Your pardon, Hokage-sama," the messenger said, "but it is an emergency. Anko-sama has reported that Orochimaru has entered the chuunin exam under disguise and is in the Forest of Death." The gathered jounin were some of the best in the village and rarely showed emotion unintentionally but they all stiffened at that announcement. "She asks that you meet her at the tower."

The Hokage stood. "We will discuss the explosion later," he said firmly.

"It could be something that Orochimaru did," Kurenai protested.

Kakashi shook his head slightly.

"That may be," Sarutobi said, "but it is no longer the most critical problem. Anko must have a reason for suggesting a meeting at the tower."

"Well," said a voice from a seemingly unoccupied part of the room. Jiraiya faded back into view. "If you need fast transport then you're in luck," the Toad Sennin said with a grin.


"You should see that crater!"

Temari rolled her eyes at Kankurou's exclamation. "You've described it to me quite well, I would think." She was beginning to get annoyed by her brother's obsession with the destruction left behind by the Konoha genin.

"I've never heard of anything like it!" he said excitedly. "The ground isn't burned, it's just gone!" Kankurou had discussed switching places with his puppet but currently he was using it to keep himself propped upright.

Temari was likewise leaning against a tree, having decided an hour ago that she should rest as much as possible while waiting for Gaara to awaken. "I swear, you keep going on and on about it. It's like you have a crush on that pink-haired girl."

"I do not!" Kankurou protested.

Temari switched the hand holding her fan and flexed her now-free right hand to help restore the feeling after having it clamped on the battle fan for the last half-hour. Temari saw Gaara's leg convulse, the first movement she had seen from him since he fell unconscious. "Shh," she said in an urgent whisper, her attention now on her youngest brother.

His sand circled his body as he pushed himself into a kneeling position. The redhead slowly stood. Grains of sand drifted from the ground, collecting on the right side of his body.

The blonde kunoichi cursed. She closed her fan in an attempt to look less threatening to the monster that Gaara was transforming into.

By the time Gaara was completely erect, half of his body had been hidden by a mass of sand that changed him appearance from human to demonic. The young shinobi finally opened his eyes. His left eye still showed its normal green but the other had become a star-shaped pupil within a yellow iris surrounded by black.

"Aw, crap! Not now!" Kankurou shouted, drawing Gaara's attention to him. The puppet user sweated under the scrutiny of the younger shinobi. "Uh, I mean: whatever you want to do is fine," he said and waved his hands.

Gaara growled and thrust his deformed right hand at the puppeteer. His arm elongated and crashed into Kankurou, sending him slamming into a tree trunk. Kankurou grunted in pain. The claw wrapped around the Sand shinobi and dug into the bark of the tree. The arm of sand between Gaara and Kankurou detached from the claw and retracted, the end reforming into another claw. "Silence," he said in a voice deeper than normal. "I will not put up with your foolishness any longer."

"Gaara?" Temari asked nervously. She fell silent when the yellow eye of the Ichibi landed on her.

"Where is the sorceress?" Gaara asked in a snarl.

"She's long gone," Temari said. He had referred to the pink-haired girl as a 'sorceress' earlier also. "She may be at the tower by now." The blonde saw no reason to not be honest with the partially-transformed boy. Even if it was futile to try to calm him down, she would be patient and watch for an opportunity. It was a major part of her assigned duties, after all.

"Then I will search her out once more," the redhead promised and he moved toward the area where they had fought.

Temari watched him go for a moment and then dashed to her other bother's side. "You okay?" she asked quietly.

"More or less," Kankurou responded. "I think he cracked a couple of ribs." His eyes flicked in the direction that Gaara had gone. "You better follow him. The mission-"

"Is already screwed up," the Suna kunoichi finished. "You aren't exactly in good condition."

Kankurou tried to shrug but his arms were pinned tightly to his sides. His fingers, however, were still free below the sand holding him in place. He wiggled them and his puppet, Karasu, was unwrapped from its bandages and it stood up. "I can defend myself well enough."

Temari nodded in understanding. Then she smirked at her brother. "You'd better. You've the one carrying the scrolls." Kankurou snorted and Temari gave him a little wave before she jumped after Gaara.

The kunoichi found her youngest brother on all fours and sniffing at the ground like an animal. The sun had set a half-hour earlier but a full moon gave her more than enough light to see the terrain. Gaara was at the edge of a crater that she estimated to be nearly three hundred meters in diameter. The hole dug in the landscape was slowly filling with water from the flowing stream.

Temari was no stranger to techniques that devastated large areas but even her summoning technique could not match the sheer destruction she saw here.

She imagined that Gaara would howl when he lifted his head but the possessed shinobi simply began making massive leaps, setting a pace that Temari was hard-pressed to match. Once he reached the trees, Gaara used his claw-like right arm to propel himself even faster by adding Bijuu-powered swings to his jumps.

Temari fell behind as her brother accelerated but she had no problem in following him. Gaara was making a bee-line for the center of the forest.


"Ramen!" The cook began laughing maniacally. He took the chef's hat from his head and kicked it across the room. He continued to laugh as he pulled his long apron up and over his head. "More ramen!" he shouted like a battle cry as he dashed through the doorway leading to the kitchen.

Lina heard a crash that was a mix of breaking china and clanging metal that ended with the tinkle of silverware. "What's his problem?" she asked aloud. The sorceress busied herself with using a toothpick to work at a bit of chicken that had become stuck in her teeth.

Naruto slurped the last of the broth from his bowl and set the now-empty dish on top of one of the stacks on their table. "No idea," the blond-haired genin replied. Plates and a very large number of bowls filled most of the available on the table.

It could be the multiple dozen bowls of ramen that Naruto ate, Sakura said mentally. Or perhaps it was the additional dozen that you ate because you took one every time Naruto offered to get more, she snidely added.

Whatever, Lina thought with a shrug. It tasted good.

I'm surprised you can tell what anything tastes like at the speed you eat!

Ah, that's a skill that I developed during my partnership with Naga, the sorceress said. Whoever ate the least had to pick up the check.

Sakura was silent for a few moments. Isn't that backwards?

Not for us! The offending piece of chicken was finally dislodged and promptly swallowed.

Sakura shook her head as she took control of her body. She still had no idea how the sorceress could eat so much food at one time. Giving Lina free reign was beneficial in this instance at least. She was already feeling more energetic and her hair now had a slight pink tinge to it. "Let's go find Sasuke-kun," she said to Naruto.

The blond made a grimace but he stood along with her. "I guess even the bastard needs someone to look after him."

Sakura shot the shorter boy a frown. "Don't call him that," she snapped as she walked out of the dining room.

Naruto shrugged with one shoulder. "I don't like how he was acting," was the explanation he gave.

"I'm not sure how much control he had over himself," Sakura said quietly.

"Yeah," Naruto said in a matching voice. He looked at his feet as they walked along.

Sakura wondered how much channeling a Mazoku's power affected the person. It was not something that she had thought about directly during her earlier merging with Lina.

The power itself wouldn't, Lina told her. But Naruto must have the consciousness of the Mazoku sealed inside him also. As for Sasuke… with Xelloss involved there's no telling what's going on.

A week ago Sakura would have probably been pleased to see the limits of Lina's knowledge. The sorceress seemed to know everything at times. Now she was too concerned about Sasuke to be so petty.

Sakura and Naruto returned to the second floor of the tower and followed the signs on the walls to the infirmary. The kunoichi noticed that there were fewer chuunin around and those that they did come across all seemed to be in a hurry. The medical staff was still present but they seemed tense.

The room Sasuke lay in was a typically austere hospital room painted white. A monitor beside his bed showed that the black-haired boy had a steady, if somewhat slow, heartbeat.

Sakura walked to the side of the bed. Sasuke's hitai-ate had been removed and his dark hair messily framed his face. She pushed some of his hair away to more fully observe the sleeping boy's appearance. Even in sleep Sasuke's face did not soften; it maintained its handsome and proud profile. Sakura sat down on a chair within reaching distance and stared worriedly at Sasuke.

How much longer will he be asleep? Sakura absently wondered.

He fought the Sleeping spell pretty hard, Lina said. But even with that I wouldn't expect him to wake up for another hour or two.

Naruto leaned against a wall. His gaze shifted around constantly, for the most part avoiding Sakura and Sasuke. She could tell that the hyperactive genin was trying his best to be patient and non-intrusive. Her face changed to a small smile.

We need to talk to Naruto about Death Fog soon, Lina said, causing Sakura to cringe.

The kunoichi knew that Lina was right. Between Sasuke, Gaara, and the Dragon Slave sooner or later she would get into a discussion that revealed just how much she knew about Mazoku.

"I know about the Kyuubi," Sakura blurted out.

Naruto's fidgeting stopped as he utterly froze in-place.

I didn't mean that soon, Lina muttered internally.

Sakura winced as she thought about what she had just said. She had intended to be less direct but how was she supposed to talk to a person with a demon sealed inside him?

Sakura saw Naruto's Adam's apple bob as he swallowed. "When… when did you find out?" he asked as focused his sight on the floor.

"Wave Country," she answered. Naruto looked up in surprise. "Well, a few days after we returned is when I found out that it was the Kyuubi."

A mixture of emotions passed over the blond's face, confusion and fear prominent. "You've known that long? You haven't said anything."

Sakura shrugged uncomfortably. "At first I was afraid." Naruto flinched. "It isn't every day that you find out that a demon that killed so many people is sealed inside a friend."

"Friend?" Naruto said in a croak. "You think of us as friends?"

"Of course I do!" Sakura said angrily. "Aren't we teammates that look after each other like Kakashi-sensei taught us?"

Naruto look back down at his feet. "It's the first time you've said so," he said with a quiver in his voice. Sakura looked away in embarrassment as Naruto wiped across his eyes with his sleeve. "Who?" her blond teammate said, pulling her attention back. "Who told you? Kakashi-sensei? Does Sasuke know?"

"I'm pretty sure he doesn't. I only know because I've had experience with demons," Sakura said, "in my previous life. I felt it when you used the Kyuubi's power on Tazuna's bridge though I didn't know it was the Kyuubi until Hokage-sama told me."

"The Kyuubi's power?" Naruto asked confusedly.

"Yes, I've felt you use it several times now. Like earlier today when we were fighting that snake woman."

"Oh," the blond genin said. "So that's what it was."

He didn't even know what he was doing, Lina murmured.

"That Sand ninja Gaara had a demon inside him also," Sakura said. She decided not to mention Sasuke's situation to the blond just like she would not tell Sasuke and the Kyuubi.

Naruto stared at her in astonishment. "He's like me?"

"I wouldn't say that." Sakura gave him a small smile. "He was talking about wanting to kill his family. You're nothing like that."

Naruto was silent for a handful of seconds, a blank look on his face. He turned his head away from Sakura. "No, I was like that once," he said much to Sakura's shock. "Everyone ignored me and acted as if I didn't exist. I hated everyone in return. The last few years in the academy were different, though. I was saved from that way of life. Iruka-sensei was nice."

Sakura had to wonder about Naruto's definition of 'nice.' She remembered Iruka shouting at Naruto in almost every class.

"Shikamaru and Chouji didn't mind if I hung around them," Naruto continued. "Kiba joined us 'cuz he likes getting in trouble. Sasuke didn't treat me any differently than he did the rest of the class." He paused for a second and looked at Sakura, giving her a bright grin with his blue eyes unusually open. "And there was you, of course."

"Me?" Sakura sputtered. "I probably yelled at you more than Iruka-sensei did."

Naruto shrugged and his eyes returned to their normal squint. "Yeah, but you only yelled because of things I did." His right hand hovered over his belly. "Not because of something I didn't understand."

Sakura tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up without any friends or family. His was not a self-imposed isolation from society like Sasuke's. Sasuke had been fairly independent and withdrawn even before his family was killed; how much worse would it have been someone like Naruto who had a very extroverted nature?

The kunoichi felt a rush of compassion for her teammate, much like what she had experienced the day that teams had been assigned. Once again, she had been underestimating how many problems the boisterous Hokage-wannabe had experienced. "When did you find out about the Kyuubi?" she asked.

Before Naruto could respond the door to the room was thrown open and Kakashi strode into the room. "There you are," the jounin said. "I need to talk to the two of you. But first…" His visible eye trained on Sasuke's inert form. The silver-haired man walked closer and bent down to look at Sasuke's neck. He sighed deeply at seeing the seal. "We'll have to do something about this Cursed Seal."

"Cursed Seal?" Sakura said curiously.

"One of Orochimaru's experiments."

"Orochimaru? One of the Legendary Three?"

Legendary Three? Lina questioned.

Three famous ninja from Konoha: Tsunade, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru, Sakura answered. None of them live in the village now and Orochimaru is a missing-nin but they're considered the strongest of their generation.

"Is that the snake lady's name?" asked Naruto.

"He's not a lady," Kakashi said as he rolled his eye. "He took the appearance of a Grass ninja that was supposed to be in the exam."

"I might be able to give you some information about that Cursed Seal that you don't know," Lina said.

"I haven't personally seen an active Cursed Seal but we already know much about them." Kakashi's glanced at Naruto and then back at Lina. "Unless you know of a counter-seal, we can discuss the details later."

Lina shook her head and Kakashi picked up Sasuke.

"With Orochimaru around everyone is on edge. It would probably be best if you went to your room and stayed there."

Sakura opened her mouth to protest but Kakashi sent a slight glare in her direction.

"I'll bring Sasuke there as soon as I've taken care of the Cursed Seal," the jounin instructor said.

Kakashi left as quickly as he had entered, leaving Sakura and Naruto alone.

"Man, he's always telling us what to do!" Naruto complained as he stuffed his hands in his orange jacket.

Sakura snorted and nearly started giggling at his reaction. "He is our sensei," she said while grinning at the shorter shinobi.

Naruto grumbled as he exited the room. Sakura stood and followed him. Kakashi's arrival had shattered the serious attitude that Naruto had been displaying during their conversation. He was shouting about how they should hurry up and start the next exam so that he could become a chuunin and be a step closer to Hokage.

Sakura shook her head and she trailed after the blond that she was coming to realize was as enigmatic as Sasuke.


Temari had barely been able to keep Gaara in sight during his run toward the tower. She was sweating heavily from the abnormal exertion she was placing on her legs. She was definitely going to take a nice long soak in a hot spring when this exam ended. Assuming she was still alive. The blonde shook her head to remove the morbid thought and continued her chase.

Gaara landed for a moment in a small clearing. Temari noted that he could have easily have remained in the trees but he did not seem to be willing to veer in the slightest from his path. Before he could launch himself away an explosion occurred, obscuring him from Temari's view. At the same time a net was launched from one of the nearby trees, catching the area where Gaara had been.

Three boys jumped out of their hiding places, surrounding the ninja who had fallen into their trap. Their positions marked a triangle surrounding their target with one placed directly to the rear.

"We got him!" one of them shouted.

As Temari neared, she was about to make out the Leaf forehead protectors that the shinobi were wearing.

The smoke from what she guessed had been an explosive tag cleared, showing Gaara's misshaped form underneath the net.

"What the hell is he?" another one of the Konoha genin asked.

"Sabaku Kyuu," Gaara growled as he thrust his unequal arms outward. Sand burst from the ground and wrapped around the two ninja in front of him.

The ninja behind Gaara threw a handful of shuriken. More sand gathered behind the Suna ninja and blocked the projectiles. The sand formed a more solid shape and gained blue vein-like markings on its surface. Gaara's newly-formed tail lashed out, unhindered by the net he was covered by, and stabbed through the chest of the Leaf genin.

"Sabaku Sousou." The sand encasing the other two members of the ill-fated team constricted and blood splattered the ground after their short screams.

Temari sighed, knowing that there was no way to calm down Gaara after he had transformed to this extent. As Gaara ripped apart the netting that had not done much to impeded him, she pulled her canteen from the pouch at her waist. She opened the metal water bottle and poured its contents over her hand. A small object wrapped in a plastic bag dropped into her hand and she screwed the lid back on her canteen.

Radios and similar were not allowed for this exam but the Village Hidden in the Sand had recently developed special canteens that foiled any jutsu known, only the water within was detectable. It was believed that they would even fool the doujutsu of Konoha though they had yet to truly test it.

The device that Temari now held was a rather simple transmitter, though it had a decent range for such devices. The Suna kunoichi turned two knobs, one for the frequency and the other to set the code that would be sent. Pushing the sole button on the transmitter, she activated the device. Temari then ripped the bag open, let the device drop to the ground, and placed the empty plastic in her belt pouch.

Konoha might detect and locate the radio but there was nothing to directly connect it to her team. Even if the mission was falling apart, she was determined to do everything professionally.

Temari took off again, following the monster that she had trouble thinking of as her youngest brother.


Naruto opened the door to Room 307 and immediately stopped.

Sakura looked around him and into the room. She blinked in confusion. The kunoichi had expected a simple room with enough space for three futon and an adjoining bathroom. Instead the room looked like a wide-open field of grass and flowers. There was a set of tall white marble plinths surrounding a black wrought-iron table with a glass top. Matching chairs with plush cushions completed the scenery. And a strangely-dressed man with purple hair sat at the table, calming sipping from a cup.

"Crap," said Lina.

Genjutsu? Sakura wondered. She quickly made a hand seal. "Kai," she said quietly as she momentarily disrupted the flow of her chakra. The scene in front of her did not change in the slightest.

Don't bother, Lina thought sourly.

The man looked up – or so his body language indicated, his narrowed eyes made it difficult to tell – and he called out cheerful: "Lina-chan! So nice to see you again."

Who is that? Sakura thought frantically. How does he know your name?

"'Lina-chan?'" Naruto said with a frown.

Let me handle this, the sorceress told Sakura. For a moment, Lina seriously considered slamming the door shut. It was unlikely in the extreme that he would provide any useful information. On the other hand, if she did not talk to him he would probably start following her around and pestering her until she did. The sorceress sighed as she entered the room. "Xelloss," she said with a nod to the purple-haired Mazoku.

That's Xelloss? Sakura asked. I expected someone more… evil looking.

The Mazoku wore a pair of baggy, black pants and a tan long-sleeved shirt. A black shawl covered the upper half of his shirt and a matching cloak covering his back. A wooden, slightly crooked staff with a red orb at the top lay propped against the table.

Lina snorted. He's the most deceptive being I've ever encountered. Be careful when we're around him; he wasn't called 'The Trickster Priest' by other Mazoku for nothing.

Naruto hesitantly came into the room, glancing between Lina and Xelloss. "Who is he?" he asked. The door swung shut with a creak and disappeared the instant it fully closed. The blond genin stood rooted in place and looked around warily.

Lina ignored the theatrics and pointed at Xelloss. "I'll give you the simple version. Xelloss is a powerful demon. You shouldn't trust him at all, Naruto." Lina sat down at the table. She kept her eyes on Xelloss but noticed Naruto stiffen.

The General-Priest held a hand over the location of a human's heart. "You wound me, Lina-chan," he said piteously.

"I wish," Lina muttered.

"He's a demon?" Naruto asked incredulously. "Then why are you sitting with him?" The blond shinobi took a fighting stance but continued to watch Lina in confusion.

Normally I would agree with Naruto – what a thought – but I want to know about the Cursed Seal, Sakura said.

Don't worry, I'll ask him about it, Lina said. "Well, he's not going to attack us," Lina said in answer to Naruto. Xelloss smiled at her. "He's not the type for head-on confrontations."

"I have a lovely tea from Saillune," the Mazoku said as a porcelain teapot appeared in his hand. He sat it and a cup in front of Lina. "Or perhaps you would prefer a Zefielian wine?" This time it was a bottle of red liquid that Xelloss was suddenly holding.

Naruto walked closer to the table, looking bewildered.

Lina waved away the offered drinks. "Go ahead and sit down," she said to Naruto. "Xelloss isn't… exactly… an enemy."

"What sweet words of praise!"

"And there is a slim chance he'll be helpful," the sorceress said.

Naruto reluctant lowered himself into one of the chairs. "He called you 'Lina.' Did he know you in your previous life?"

Xelloss looked at Naruto. "Well, I must say that he's smarter than the last blond you had following you around."

Anger surged through Lina's mind but she quickly smothered it. "Don't talk about him like that," she said, wondering whether it was Gourry or Naruto that she was defending. "What are you doing here? This is the White World not Shabranigdo's."

Xelloss beamed at Lina's question and clapped his hands together. "I knew you had figured it out!"

Cursed Seal! Sakura impatiently prompted again.

"And another thing, I want you to explain this Cursed Seal thing that was put on my friend," Lina said.

"Between your knowledge and what the ninja know, you should be able to understand well enough," the Mazoku said with a shrug.

"Wait," Naruto interrupted. "What does he have to do with Sasuke's craziness?"

"Because it is my power that Sasuke-kun is using," Xelloss told the blond shinobi. "The 'craziness' is just a side-effect. It will go away as he gains better control."

Is he telling the truth? Sakura desperately asked.

I have no idea, Lina responded with sympathy. "What do you get out of it?" she inquired of the Mazoku.

Xelloss gave the sorceress his usual smile. "That is a secret!" he said as he waggled his index finger at her.

Lina had been prepared for that answer but she could feel Sakura's annoyance building as Xelloss refused to give them any information. Try dealing with answers like that for over two years, she thought, and then you'll understand why I hate that saying.

You said it was like a black magic spell, Sakura said. What do Mazoku get from giving their power to humans that way?

Mazoku feed on negative human emotions, Lina answered. Experiencing and even witnessing the effects of black magic tends to cause a lot of fear, pain, and anger.

Could Xelloss be using the Cursed Seal for the same reasons then?

Maybe, Lina admitted. But I've never known Xelloss to offer his power for black magic either. She let out a sigh. "Okay, back to my original question. Why are you here? What do you want?" the sorceress asked sharply.

The Mazoku's purple eyes cracked open for a moment. "What do I want?" he repeated. His face returned to its normal expression. "How much do you remember?"

"I remember enough… Rezo, Fibrizo, Dark Star." Lina's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Why are you asking me something like that? Do you have something to do with… my 'rebirth' here?"

Xelloss looked appropriately shocked, which meant nothing. "Me? Of course not, Lina. You've done this to yourself."

"You said you didn't remember much about your past," Naruto said. "But you were talking about demons earlier and now…" The blond-haired boy frowned thoughtfully.

"I didn't want to discuss the experiences I had with demons and such," Lina said. "Especially given your… situation." Naruto flinched slightly at Lina's words. "Sorry, Naruto. There are some things that are hard to discuss." The blond shinobi nodded.

"That's right!" Xelloss exclaimed as if suddenly remembering something. Lina did not buy the act for a second. "Naruto-kun is the vessel of Death Fog! Quite interesting seals these ninja have developed. Wouldn't you agree, Lina?"

Naruto frowned at the Mazoku. "'Death Fog?'"

"One of the names for the Kyuubi," Lina explained. "You're still avoiding my questions, Xelloss."

"Let me tell you a bedtime story," Xelloss said. "Once upon a time there was a sorceress named Lina Inverse who came to the attention of the Mazoku – you would call them 'greater demons,' Naruto-kun." The blue-eyed boy growled in response. "The most powerful of the Mazoku gathered together and said: perhaps this sorceress can be our tool."

Sakura shuddered in her mind, being reminded of what Zabuza had said about ninja being tools.

"A wise and handsome Mazoku – the hero of our tale – was sent to guide her," Xelloss proclaimed. "The result was not only the destruction of the rebel Garv but also the destruction of the Mazoku who thought he was in control."

You destroyed a rebellious Mazoku?

Don't misunderstand. Just because he was a rebel doesn't mean he was on the side of humanity or anything like that, Lina said.

"The Mazoku were then worried but they told themselves that Fibrizo had pushed too hard, that their tool was still useful."

Naruto was frowning fiercely at Xelloss as the Mazoku continued.

"The hero was given another task: use the sorceress to destroy Valgarv, the last Mazoku loyal to Garv. He was triumphant, naturally, but with an unexpected consequence: one of the four most powerful Mazoku known was ruined. The Mazoku decided that the tool was better left alone."

Xelloss shifted in his seat and propped his head up with an arm, elbow resting on the table. "I lost track of you for a while after that," he said. "The barrier had been destroyed and there was a whole new world for us to explore and conquer. You had returned to your home land and your little group of adventurers had mostly broken apart."

This I don't remember, Lina thought.

So you don't know if he's lying or not, Sakura stated.


"Then you all suddenly reappeared. At the North Pole, no less. You destroyed Grawshellar and the trapped fragment of Shabranigdo."

For a moment Lina had an image in her mind, a memory of standing on a white frozen plain before a huge black castle that was partially encased in ice. Gourry stood beside her, wielding a sword made of some sort of lavender metal. Amelia – her dark hair looking longer than Lina's other memories showed – was next to Naga; the latter still wearing her black bikini-like outfit despite the setting. Zelgadiss stood on Amelia's other side with as little of his bluish rock-like skin showing as possible. The priestess Sylphiel was standing slightly behind Gourry, hands raised and glowing with power as she chanted.

Then the memory was gone. Lina was certain that she had not imagined it but the recollection had been strangely weak.

"I have my suspicions but I don't suppose you'd like to tell me why you did that?" Xelloss hardly gave Lina time to answer before he began again. "No? Well, the Mazoku finally concluded that their tool had to be destroyed. The hero was sent out once more, this time to find another of Shabranigdo's sealed fragments. When he succeeded… the war began."

"War?" Naruto asked breathlessly.

Lina found herself unconsciously gripping the edge of the table.

"Yes," Xelloss said in a pleased tone. "Mazoku swarmed across the land. Countless humans were killed but the tool survived each attempt to destroy her. Until she was finally cornered. It seemed that all would go as the Mazoku desired." The purple-haired Mazoku's smile remained in place. "Then the Dragons arrived. Though the Shinzoku lost one of their own in that battle, the Mazoku also lost one of their leaders as well as the awakened fragment of Shabranigdo. With Dolphin ruined, my master," unexpectedly Xelloss gave the word a harsh sarcastic edge, "Zelas-Metallium was the last of the Greater Mazoku. She was forced to retreat but she conceived of a plan to rebuild the Mazoku's strength: the hero would travel to the Black World and bring back the Dark Star weapons. If they could be changed from their original forms and their minds suppressed as they had been then it should be possible to change them into something more akin to the Greater Mazoku of the Red World. So the hero went forth… but he found something in the Black World that he had not known he was looking for."

Here it comes, Lina said to herself.

What? Sakura asked.

The important part, the sorceress answered. Everything he's said so far… I'd like to know more but it's useless in our current circumstances.

Lina's attention was fully on Xelloss but Naruto was caught up in the story. "What did he find?" the blond asked.

Xelloss' purple eyes opened wide. "Freedom," he said. "I found that I was outside my master's influence, no longer bound to her will, free to do as I wanted for the first time in my existence. I do not believe that a human would be able to understand."

Lina shivered. Xelloss had always been difficult to understand, he was a Mazoku doing the will of the Beastmaster but he had always used unorthodox methods compared to other Mazoku. She could only speculate as to how much more tricky he would be now that he was choosing his own goals.

"The Black World did not suit me, however. So here I am."

"And you expect me to believe that my being here is a coincidence?" Lina asked.

"I never said that," Xelloss replied. "I simply said that it was your doing."

"Yet you've found me just a few months after I cast a spell for the first time."

The Mazoku shrugged. "You aren't very subtle, Lina-chan. Your black magic would have drawn me to you if nothing else. Speaking of which, what do you plan to do about Gaara?"


"Yes. Even if the Shukaku is the weakest of the Tailed Beasts, he is still one of this world's analogues of the Greater Mazoku." Xelloss typical smile was back in place. "Surely you didn't think that your little Dragon Slave would kill his host." He gave a tut of disapproval. "They're coming for you, Lina. You need to be ready."

He didn't die? Sakura whispered in terror.

"And how am I supposed to handle him?" Lina asked irritably. "Unless you have my Demon Blood Talismans." Xelloss shook his head. "Or one of the Dark Star weapons hidden under your cloak, I don't know how to quickly increase my power."

"I'm sure you'll find a way," Xelloss said. He snapped his fingers and everything vanished in a burst of darkness.

Lina's vision returned to her suddenly. She and Naruto were in a small room, sitting on two wooden chairs. There were a pair of desks along one of the walls and a small round table in a corner.

So it was an illusion, Sakura thought.

The sorceress sighed and rubbed her forehead. What are we going to do?

We still have to wait for Kakashi-sensei, Sakura said. We would probably just waste time if we went around looking for him. And I doubt anyone else would believe us.

"Don't worry, Sakura-chan!" Naruto said brightly. "You beat him once, you can do it again! And I'll be there to protect you too!" Despite his cheerful voice, Lina could see the worry on his face.

Lina studied the blond momentarily and then crossed her arms. She could not increase her power quickly but Naruto might be a different story. "There's no way to teach you any useful magic in a couple of hours. But there's something else we can try."

Naruto shuddered at the sinister smile he was given by the girl with pale pink hair.

"Let's talk about the Kyuubi."


Kabuto found Orochimaru in a dark, unoccupied room in one of the lower-level basements of the tower.

The Snake Sannin looked inordinately pleased with himself and Kabuto could only assume that everything regarding the Uchiha boy was going as Orochimaru desired. The news that the grinning grey-haired boy was about to give would change the sannin's expression. "There's a problem," he said as he decided to drag out the dialogue.

"What sort of problem?" Orochimaru asked, his slanted eyes narrowing.

"It seems that Sabaku no Gaara has begun his transformation ahead of schedule."

"'Ahead of schedule?'" Orochimaru hissed. "If the Ichibi is discovered before the final exams the whole plan will be ruined!"

"I'm afraid it may be too late," Kabuto said, earning him a glare from the older ninja. "Gaara is likely rampaging through the forest as we speak. He's bound to attract attention."

"Where is he right now?"

An inhuman roar echoed through the room, diminished but not completely silenced by the layers of wood and stone between it and the surface.

"I would guess that he's just outside the tower," the grey-haired boy said.

Orochimaru's glare intensified. "What is the status of the Sound forces?" he spat out in inquiry.

"They have been filtering into the village and woods in small numbers as per your orders." Kabuto absently adjusted his glasses. "Approximately half are in position now. The Sound Four are also nearby."

Orochimaru beat against the wall with a closed fist.

"Order the invasion to begin. And have the Four standing by for my personal orders."

Kabuto nodded.

"And if I find out that this is your doing, I'll have your head."

Kabuto bowed in acknowledgement. Orochimaru vanished, leaving the smiling genin alone until he too disappeared.

End of Chapter 6



Oberon re. "Hmm... as far as I know there's only 3 reasons why black magic failed. 1) the Mazaoku has revoked the right of humans to call upon their power. … 2) There's a Divine barrier that keeps people from using black magic just as there was a mazoku barrier that kept people from using Divine magic back in Lina's time. 3) this is not Shabragdingdo's world." – I had not thought of your #1 exactly, so I added it as an aside. Thanks.

Kiba-and-Sakura-4ever re. "So far we've had alot of things from lina herself involved, Does sakura have anything special we're going to lead up to? Basically this whole thing is about Lina, and sakura is just learning what's going on." – I forgot to copy the reply I sent. Meh. To some extent the story is about Sakura getting dragged into a mess because of Lina. Whether Sakura is special or not… you'll have to judge that. I'm not sure that Lina is special aside from her experience. And Lina really has no clue what's going on yet, she just knows more about Mazoku/demons. Sakura has done some explaining also though perhaps I haven't emphasized it as much.

zenihua re. "well, even though i have yet to watch slayers, im terribly eager for the next chapter." – Glad to hear that you're enjoying it. If anything is really confusing, let me know. There are definitely things I purposely haven't covered yet but I don't want to leave readers such as yourself out.

Tombadgerlock re. "Yes! Xellos is coming in next chapter :-) Cool. this is quite good overall, though i hope it won't diverge too much into the slayer anime." – I think it's as much into Slayers as it will get. Slayers background but not the Slayers setting if that makes sense. How did you know Xelloss was coming?! Oo I must have dropped a hint without realizing it.

Violet re. "If you need any spells can I help?I have ideas!" – I'll certainly let you know if I find myself needing some new spells.

Mayumi Crescent Moon re. "is the real sakura always going to be so weak and annoying? she keeps being mean to naruto and chasing after sasuke. Sakura is my fav character but shes annoying in this fic"Pi facefaults. Okay, that was unexpected. Sakura is weak? She's not throwing fireballs around yet but her abilities have been vital in every battle so far. Even the super prodigy Sasuke couldn't hold up against Orochimaru's killing intent initially. They're in life-and-death situations and Sakura's not going to ignore Lina's abilities just to prove that she can beat another ninja – I was tempted to write Sakura vs. the Sound team but three-on-one is a bit much for her yet. Sakura would trounce Ino one-on-one as she is now. As if that fight will happen. Hehe. As for being mean to Naruto and chasing Sasuke… I'm trying to have her act similarly to how she did in the manga there. Personalities don't change quickly without something really drastic occurring. 'Mean' is going a bit far, though. She finds him exasperating at times but she is concerned about him as a teammate – in the previous chapter she checked on his injuries several times and cheered internally when he helped against the Sound ninja. Thanks for this review though, it helped kick me back into gear.

I received a couple of somewhat critical assessments this time, which I don't mind at all. They haven't changed my plans much (they spawned perhaps an additional paragraph in this chapter) but continue sending them. It's highly unlikely to alter the major plots but I am open to making changes.


I hope you enjoyed the chuunin exams.

Credit where credit is due. Neji's Gentle Fist vs. Gaara's sand here was influenced by Legendary Legacy's "The Pride of Suna" Chapter 11. I can't even remember now how I first imagined that fight. I had decided shortly after starting this fanfic who would be present for the first cast of the Dragon Slave though.

The whole Sakura/Lina fusion thing is a little cheesy, I know. I can only say in my defense that I have been building up to it and it is a one-time thing.

Most of the details about Luna are made up. She is the Ceipheed Knight – whatever that entails – and she does work as a waitress and for those who haven't seen TRY she deliberately stuck Lina with the responsibility of saving the world in at least one instance.

Anything about the White and Blue Worlds is also made up. The Dark Star weapons seen in Slayers were originally sentient space ships called Lost Ships. For more information about the Black World, you can watch "Lost Universe" which is set long before the events in the Slayers series (much of the LU anime is badly-written filler though – blarg).

I've seen at least one source try to connect each of the Mazoku Lords with a specific element. Ruby Eye/Red World/Flare Dragon certainly has a Fire theme but Dark Star/Black World/Night Dragon doesn't seem to connect with Earth nearly as well. Death Fog would be Water and Chaotic Blue (Japanese is 'Blue Sky') would be Air if the associations hold true. For this fanfic, at least, I'm ignoring that theory. The essence of a Mazoku Lord is destruction, pure and simple.

White is the traditional color for death in Japan.

Mazoku energy is black in all cases. The true forms of Mazoku don't appear often in Slayers but often enough to prove it in my mind. So no random colors for different Bijuu chakra. It is visible by Sharingan and Byakugan when it is in the physical plane.

The Dragon Slave sometimes has a shockwave accompanying it and sometimes doesn't, like in the third movie or in NEXT when a section of Saillune gets eaten by the boosted Dragon Slave. I wanted it to be very different from any fire jutsu so no shockwave.

Being unconscious is not at all the same thing as being asleep – at least from a medical point of view.

Lighting + Kagemane. I didn't make use of it here but what a nasty combination. I'm going to have to be more careful about when I team up Sakura and Shikamaru.

I downloaded a clip showing Tenten's technique but sitting in one place in mid-air is about as stupid as you can get so I changed it a little.

Sasuke is asleep for an entire chapter! Pi bangs his head against his desk. I tried to find a way around it but other things took precedence.

Xelloss' story… who knows, maybe I'll write a pure Slayers fanfic at some point. The sword I described Gourry holding in Lina's memory is supposed to be the Blast Sword from the novels.

bentou – lunchbox
doujutsu – eye technique
nikuman – abbreviation for nikumanjuu, steamed meat bun
Katon – fire release
Hyouton – ice release
Juuken – Gentle Fist
Byakugan – White Eyes
Densetsu no Sannin – Three Ninja of Legend
Kekkei Genkai – Bloodline Limit
Eigo – English language
futon – Japanese bedroll

Kamaitachi no Jutsu – Sickle Weasel (literally), cutting wind technique – note: not Temari's summoning technique despite the name
Nikudan Sensha – Human Bullet Tank
Magen: Narakumi no Jutsu – Demonic Illusion: Hell Viewing Technique
Sabaku Kyuu – Desert Coffin
Sabaku Sousou – Desert Funeral
Kai – Genjutsu Kai, Illusion Technique Cancel

Hakumu-ou – Japanese title for Death Fog, literally 'White Fog-king'

Astral Vine – shamanistic spirit spell, imbues a weapon with spiritual energy so that it can damage Mazoku and block minor spells
Vis Farank – shamanistic spirit spell, Amelia's original spell which imbues the caster's fists with spiritual energy that is expelled when a punch is landed
Dragon Slave – black magic spell, Sakura's/Lina's altered version that draws power from Mazoku Lord Death Fog 'Kyuubi' (true name unknown) to annihilate a very large area – new chant: you'll have to wait for the next chapter!


Neji almost smirked at the approaching redheaded Sand shinobi. But as a Hyuuga he was beyond such things of course. "Such threats will not frighten Konoha ninja," he said.

"Hey! Where did Shikamaru and the others go?" questioned a loud, blond ninja.

"Ino-pig's team scuttled off like roaches."

Neji managed not to scowl using his superior Hyuuga emotional control. But why, oh, why were the fates mocking him?


Kakashi wondered if he could distract them and escape. There was one fool-proof distraction that he knew and now might be just the time to use it.

"Look! A three-headed monkey!"


"Even your clones are smarter than you are," Sakura said acidly.

"Everyone's a critic," Naruto grumbled. "I tell ya, I don't get no respect."