Clash in the Snow Country: Legacy Version
Chapter 31: History of Snow
(Author's Note) At the end of the previous chapter, I proclaimed that the ending to the flashback and Doto's backstory would blow your minds. Time to find out if I succeeded or not and if it was all worth the wait.
So grab a cookie, a glass of milk and get comfortable! Enjoy!
They say a thousand mile journey begins with a single step. For Doto, that first step began with the coming morning. He did not sleep that night; his energy seemed to be bountiful enough without rest. Once he had made his decision to take this country, once he had allowed his internal ranting to run its course – a feat that had taken several hours – he finally managed to calm himself and begin thinking rationally.
Namely: Where to begin?
Organizing a coup d'etat was hardly a topic you talked about over a cup of tea. It had to be organized with precision. Adept planning and timing. And of course, who to trust. Doto spent the remainder of the night contemplating who to gather. Once upon a time, Mikata might have been first on that list, even for what he was planning. Once upon a time, Doto believed their bond was so great he could have told her anything and it would be held in absolute confidence.
But those times were gone, and they were not coming back. So then if not Mikata, whom? Yacho was dead, but while they had become close during the era of war, Doto was unsure if the man would have supported him even if he had survived. He thought about the various ministers that he and his brother met with during all those political meetings. He thought about the common guards on the castle grounds. Many had looked up to Doto and he knew this. But he did not know the men behind the armor.
If the sudden darkness had snapped Doto out of his mental stupor, it was the coming dawn that allowed him to regain his clarity. There was one person, he realized, that he could call upon. One person who had been there from the beginning that could be counted on. And not even for the logical reasons. But it was those illogical ones that made this individual perfect.
So with the coming of a new day, Doto set out immediately. He made it out of the palace with no interference. If the castle staff had any idea what had happened between their leaders, they gave no indication. Doto left the grandiose Kazahana Castle and ended up directly into the wilderness surrounding it. It was snowing lightly that day, but Doto hardly noticed it. Such minor specks were hardly worth his attention. Even the coldness of his homeland seemed to have no affect on his person, and not because he was used to it.
Through the surrounding landscape, through the snow and into the forest beyond where his sister-in-law had died, Doto walked. Keeping a steady pace, he kept going straight. Just straight. Taking no detours. Walking over fallen trees, tracking through the mud, never once altering his path. Set on the goal, he continued moving forward, everything else around him meaningless.
Finally, after four hours of trekking, Doto came across a large pond; nearly a lake, in truth. There was a small stream to the northwest that feed into the pond, giving just enough of a current to prevent the lake from freezing over, save for the times winter's touch was particularly fierce.
It was here he came to a stop, having no means to cross. He just stood there waiting, not moving from his spot. For an entire hour he just stood there, watching, waiting.
That's when it happened.
I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday. The pond began swirling in on itself, like a whirlpool. The currents strengthened and accumulated, moving swiftly. Faster and faster, the waters rushed. And from the midst of this vortex, a hand erupted.
As far as the country and its people were concerned, and even including my own San Eihei, I had met this creature after I had come to power. A necessary deception. But just as the truth was that I first met her during my childhood all those years ago, it was not after I came to power that I recruited this person.
It was before.
Doto continued watching in silence as that hand became a fully-grown arm. And with that arm came a body, with the head emerging moments later. The rest of the body soon followed.
Akufu. The Enigma.
She had changed a bit since Doto had first seen her all those years ago. She was still short on stature, barely coming up to Doto's chest. A thick white cloak covered her person, preventing any direct confirmation on her attire, but Doto could see glimpses here and there suggesting thick woolen garments. Seemed even a witch wasn't immune to the harshness of the cold. The only noticeable differences were all on the face. There were far more wrinkles on her face now, and she was missing two teeth for some reason.
"Well done," Akufu complimented from her spot on top of the lake. She began walking forward towards Doto. "Ya are to be commended; not even your fabled Eternal Maelstrom was able to track me down."
"I didn't. You came to me all those years ago. I remembered what you said to me. I knew all I needed to do was make myself known and you would come to me," Doto clarified. He didn't add that he had anticipated doing this once a day every day until it worked, but the fact Akufu had come to him this quickly confirmed his suspicions beyond any doubt. The fact that Akufu had come out to meet him this quickly showed that she had an active interest in him. She had probably been watching him ever since that day outside of Yukigakure, monitoring, watching. Just waiting for the day that Doto would step forward to accept the destiny she had prophesized all those years ago.
"So why come to me?" Akufu asked with a dramatic flair about her. "Are ya here to collect the bounty on my head? Perhaps ya seek an escape from the life ya have lead?"
A toothy grin appeared on that old face. "Or perhaps revenge?"
"I am here to recruit you," Doto answered firmly. "I will be the Daimyo of this Country. And you will help me take it."
"Ah," Akufu said. She gave a nod of approval. "So ya have decided to accept what destiny has laid before ya."
"Aren't ya worried, Commander-in-Chief? Those words I spoke to ya in your youth. Perhaps I cast a genjutsu, twisted you into my plaything for my own ends? Fouling up the relationship between you and your dear brother?"
"I don't care," Doto answered, standing his ground with no change in his demeanor or stance. "If this is what destiny says I will do, I accept. If I am twisted into your puppet, I embrace it. I am done with the way things are and will make it my own. This," He made a fist in front of her. "Is my decision."
"Kya heh heh. Good for ya, Doto. But what does that have to do with me?" She held out her arms. "What can an old crone like me possibly offer to help ya with? Ya don't even know anything about me."
"Then tell me," Doto snapped.
Akufu looked quite amused by the order. "Just like that?"
She gave that shrilled laugh of hers again. "Never could resist a charming young man. I am Youba Akufu. The name I was born and raised with. I hail from the Earth Country. Iwagakure, to be exact." She looked him right in the eye, no doubt in response to this revelation. "Yes, I was a shinobi of the Rock. Instilled with devotion and loyalty to the Tsuchikage. 'When the Tsuchikage gives an order, the Iwa-nin do so without hesitation, even if it means death,'" she quoted with full mockery, giving a chuckle. "And in line to be the next head of its Mujun clan."
I knew of Iwagakure's Mujun Clan. Everyone in the shinobi world had heard of it at some point. Said to be touched by the Gods themselves and instilled with the power to see the future. A trait that was rare to appear, but the entire clan devoted themselves to harnessing it.
Most clans in today's world had just two distinctions: shinobi and civilian. Those that entered service for their villages and those that just served the needs of the clan itself. The Mujun held a third; that of the monk. It was the monks that led their clan's dedication to deciphering the future, committing almost all their time to meditation in order to pierce the future. It was rumored that the head monk served as a spiritual advisor to the Tsuchikage, and often used what they knew of the future to help with the running of the village.
It was hard to say how accurate the Mujun clan's predictions were; Iwagakure kept a tight lid on it for obvious reasons. But I always felt that if it was truly that great, Iwagakure would have used it as their trump card, steamrolling all opposition and crushing them into dust.
And it went without saying that they had yet to do so; the Third Shinobi War was just the latest example of this.
"It didn't take long for me to realize that a futile search into the threads of destiny was a waste of time," Akufu went on. She gave a shrug. "Or perhaps more accurately put, to serve at the whims of the Tsuchikage and their delusions of grandeur. So I left. No more than a knee high. The Snow Country seemed an ideal choice, especially considering the original Kagirinai Kachuu was just establishing it. New people from all over converging here. Very easy to get lost in a crowd. Thought about entering the Academy, masquerading as a shinobi of the Snow, but I left soon enough. Felt that the life of a 'witch' was far more fitting." She clenched a fist in front of her face for emphasis.
"What are you after?" Doto demanded. All this sweet talk about backstories was just stalling the issue; time to get to the heart of the matter.
Never mind the obvious implication of it.
"Are you here out of some misguided 'vision'? That your destiny can be realized by scaring the populace from behind the scenes, manipulating us like a spider dangling flies in a web?"
"Vision?" Akufu let out a coarse laugh, echoing throughout the woods.
"Oh yes. It is vision that brought me here. But not some future predicting hogwash."
That had been an eye opener; a member of a future-predicting clan who flat out considered their ability bull.
"And that vision," Akufu pointed directly at Doto. "Is you, my dear Daimyo."
Doto merely narrowed his eyes. Here it comes, the heart of the matter.
"You, Kazahana Doto, possess vision. And I'm not talking about stupid future predicting crap. I'm referring to how one can see opportunities, grasp them… and then mold them into something grand! To reach out with your own hands and make something ordinary extraordinary!"
"And your prophecy about me all those years ago has nothing to do with it," Doto said sarcastically.
Akufu gave that laugh again. "Of course!" she agreed immediately. "Absolutely nothing!
"Fate. Future Telling. Destiny. Each and every one of those concepts is as bogus as the idea of spring coming to this country! The future is not one set road that must be traveled! The future is ALWAYS in motion, always changing! The future is fluid, changing itself with every day, every hour, every MINUTE we go about our lives! Not one person is bound to so-called 'fate' because the power to make your own choices is the only true power to those that go by the word 'Human!'"
She seemed to be on a tangent now. Talking more to herself than to Doto. Still, Doto waited.
Akufu pointed right at him. "Yes, I made a prediction about you years ago from the Mujun's god-given gifts! A prediction that had no way of forcing you to do anything! A truth that stands even as we speak! Only NOW, when you come to accept it, when you CHOOSE to embrace this possibility of that future does my measly prediction has any meaning whatsoever! YOU, Kazahana Doto, make this 'prediction' a reality, NOT the other way around!"
She stopped allowing herself to calm down. "And that is why I show myself to ya. Because ya are here fully understanding that. That ya are here of your own choice, of your own free will. Ready to carve out a future unparalleled to not just the Snow Country, but to those of the Five Great Villages. Through your own hands and desire." She looked directly into his eyes as she spoke the next words.
"Fueled by your own vision of the future. And no one else's. Because YA possess a grand vision that I could never hope to match, but one I would yearn to be a part of. And that is why I would follow ya."
"No ambition to be top dog yourself?" Doto asked bluntly.
Instead of laughing, that same smirk reappeared. "If ya wish me to be the 'bad guy', you hardly need me to confirm it for ya. Humans are creatures of habit. We thrive on the ability to see patterns and bend them to our advantage, be it basic hunting skills or looking for a weakness in an opponent's strategy. Ya hardly need me to confirm that the illness that struck your father down originates from the Earth Country." Her face now became passive, lacking familiar facial expressions up until now. "The place I just admitted I hail from."
She now began pacing and Doto was oddly reminded of his old tutor.
A woman of mid-twenties who seemed to be made out of wood, always standing up straight with poise and a stern look in her eyes. Never changing in her routine or mannerisms.
"Your brother will become the leader of this country," the tutor said in that same monotone as she paced in the room. "And you will be there when that happens. Whether behind the scenes, or by his side, it is your task to keep the head of this country safe. Not just from outside threats, but external threats as well."
Pacing at exactly thirteen steps, stop, pace the other way. The exact same way his tutor had done…
"Or the fact that your mother threw herself out the window?" She looked at Doto as she held up a hand. It glowed black and an eerily ghostly head sprouted from it, shrieking in madness. "Ya can believe I have the skill to genjutsu a person MAD to the extent they would throw themselves off a balcony."
Akufu put her hand down. "Or the fact that your brother's Water Country wife died as a result of drowning kilometers away from the nearest water?" This time, she gave her shrilled laugh. "What is snow but frozen water?" She nudged her head towards the lake that she had emerged from. "And for one that lives in water, forming a water prison from snow to drown an unwitting pawn is child's play."
Doto raised an eyebrow.
"Ya see? Ya hardly need me to confirm what ya already have thought on. Each of these facts appears unrelated on their own, but it's the human perception that can make them out to be so much more. Because once you see the pattern… ya can form these conclusions on your own."
Suddenly there was a puff of smoke around her and when it disappeared, Doto involuntarily took a step back, gritting his teeth.
"Like the idea," Namikaze Minato spoke now. A wicked smile appeared on his face, far more fitting that of a psychopath than the legendary Yellow Flash. "That I could have been the one to have met you when delivering the body of Yacho. That I had met Sousetsu previously and worked out beforehand to get Snow to leave your alliance with Rock to support the Leaf and that little show was all for your benefit until you messed it up by rallying all that support against the Yellow Flash. And by default, your brother."
The tongue appeared, licking around the lips like a deadly predator. "Or that I arranged all of that by exposing Snow's little weapon transports under the guise of humanity supplies to your enemies, therefore directly bringing the war front to Snow and making it the immediate focal point at the time? The best way for a secret to be exposed is for it to be told."
It was in that moment when it hit me, that the light had dawned on what I should have seen. Because in many ways, she was hitting the nail on the head. Everything she had listed had occurred to me before coming here. Even back when I first met her in that maelstrom, the possibility she could be molding me, spelling me into her pawn onto a destiny she wrote out, was known to me. None of what she said surprised me…
… but the one aspect she was deliberately neglecting was what slapped me hard. An option I SHOULD have seen when it first cropped up its ugly head.
The henge around Minato dispersed, with Akufu reappearing. She held out her arms, as if surrendering. "So if ya wish to blame me for all your misfortunes, ya are certainly within your own power to do so. Because humans possess the power of choice." She pointed at Doto again. "Ya can choose to believe I manipulated ya like a puppet on strings; ya can choose that this is all your own free will. Just as ya can choose to walk away back to your brother's side… or even choose to try strike me down… if ya think ya can manage.
"So, Doto, choose."
But the choice was already made. I had made my choice the second I had left the palace. And we both knew it. What she was talking about wasn't about what was to be done, but a question of structure: Would I do her bidding… or would she do mine?
And just as I chose to seek this woman out, just as I chose that my actions were the result of my own free will through my own life's experiences… and just how I chose to take that step forward towards a future I would make.
Doto didn't even hesitate for five seconds. Once she had said those words, he took his step forward coming close to this old devil of a woman. And then he held out his hand, waiting.
Akufu's grin returned to her face full force as she lowered her arms… and then clasped Doto's hand with her own. The deal was sealed.
But that didn't mean that I was going to leave without getting the upper hand back. For this to work, I had to get back on top, show her her place and that the one in the lead was ME.
"Tell me something," Doto said as they withdrew their hands. "You claim that your name is, and always has been, Youba Akufu."
"Yet you claim to be of Iwagakure's Mujun clan. So shouldn't your name be Mujun Akufu if you were truly born with the same name you have now?"
Akufu gave a thoughtful look. "Why, yes. I should."
"One more thing," Doto went on. "I happen to know a bit of the Mujun clan. That happens when you're allies with the Hidden Rock Village for nearly a decade of war." He reached up with his hand, putting his right thumb and index finger right underneath his eyes. "The Mujun clan are known for having tattoos that reach from the bottom of their eyes…" His eye dropped down, trailing his face to the bottom of his jawline. "…to here. Each clansman carries them, with distinct colors showing each branch of their clan members belong to: Red for Monks, Black for Shinobi and White for Civilian. It is symbolic of a trail of tears as they generally foretell sad, bloody futures that would leave the clan founders crying, hence why the rest of the clan mimics the tradition."
Putting his hand back down to his said, he continued. "And yet, your own face is visibly lacking of these tattoos."
Akufu put a hand to her chin. "Ya know… I knew I forgot something."
"So tell me, witch, how much of all that storytelling and destiny mumbo jumbo is actually true?"
The old woman chuckled in her throat. "Why, my dear Daimyo… it is ALL true."
"Even the lies?"
"Especially the lies."
And so it was done. I had my first confederate to help me overthrow my brother. A witch straight out of legend who may or may not have been responsible for all this anyway. Destiny, if it truly exists, has an ugly sense of humor when someone like this can be considered the most trustworthy asset.
I returned to the Kazahana Palace immediately after. When I returned, there were boundless rumors and gossip about. The palace staff, servants, soldiers and more were all wondering if something had happened. All I said was that my brother and I had an argument last night, and that I had taken a walk to cool my head. I assured everyone that I had been in the wrong, and then made a loud public apology to Sousetsu in front of everyone. I did not go into specifics – lest I indirectly make all the gossip worse – but I gave a general 'apology' that seemed to ease everyone around. And my brother, for what it's worth, just put a hand on my shoulder and nodded.
Part of me wondered if Sousetsu was playing along, wanting to see my true intentions. But his public image was my weapon. As long as I appeared subedited, I would keep everyone, including him, in the dark. So that even if Sousetsu knew, he would be powerless to do anything. Not without risking his own reputation and public opinion. I just had to pretend to play the loyal brother. As Sousetsu himself put it in our youth, "if we don't get caught, we won't get caught". His stance on hiding things from our father would now serve me in undermining Sousetsu himself.
There was plenty for me to do even with that masquerade. I didn't need to do things publicly. Not yet. With my first recruit down, plans began forming. There were two pieces I needed. I needed to first increase my own assets, people, foundation, and resources of my own. And the second was to decrease my brother's. This would not be just to gather a bunch of people and strike. Oh no. Just as Sousetsu had whittled down what was mine and ground it into dust, I would do the same. I would destroy his foundation, remove those loyal to him, leave him isolated and alone until it came time to bury him.
So of those two options, I chose to gain a control of an asset. An asset that would give me an edge before my coup, and to give Snow a reason. The sooner I got my hands on it and made it mine, then the more powerful it would become in the times ahead.
The day went without a hitch. Akufu herself had accompanied Doto back home, often disguising herself as a random person here and there, her trademark 'ya' letting him know when she was close by, lurking throughout the shadows and people, just waiting for orders. But Doto had something else in mind to go after next, and when he told her, she was visibly shocked by the idea.
So upon the next morning, Doto left to conduct an inspection of Yukigakure, stating that the village required an in-depth look by his professional eye in order to change back from war to peace. In reality, Doto had a much more personal interest.
After an hour of bureaucratic posturing, Doto made his way to his real goal:
Doto knew that Akufu was here, somewhere in the Snow Village. Shadowing him. He had brought her specifically because he needed her input, both on the man and what he had invented. Kaigen's wife was still at the Academy, but Akufu would be on the lookout in case she should return early.
With a polite knock, a mere 'come in' was heard. Entering, Doto saw that the house was a complete pigsty. Clothes, discarded equipment, even the furniture was overturned. And yet, it was still bore the semblance of an ordinary home. The clothes were dropped in piles that suggested some order: dirty clothes in one spot, quick dress clothes in another and clean clothes laid out on a multi-armed statue, each arm carrying one type of article. Each of the shinobi equipment, from kunai to smoke bombs to random pieces of metal, all looked like they had been tested on, as if everything was in the middle of an experiment. And the overturned furniture? Covered with table sheets and sporting potted plants.
A few minutes later, Kaigen himself walked in. Fresh from a shower, he only wore a towel around his waist, while carrying a second one to dry his face. Once he realized who his guest was, he immediately straightened up with a salute, the towel flying from his hand.
Thankfully the other towel remained in place; Doto did not need that image.
"Doto-sama! I didn't realize you would be gracing me – "
"Your wife must be very understanding and accommodating," Doto cut him off. Small talk was always a good way to ease tensions.
"She is a true gem," Kaigen agreed. He put his hands on his hips and gave a laugh. "As long as I keep our kitchen, bedroom and one of the bathrooms clean as a fiddle, she doesn't care what I do with the rest of the house!"
Doto didn't even want to try and figure out how that relationship worked. So he got to the point. "I wish to discuss business with you, Kaigen."
The man may have been a slob and quite eccentric, but he was still a shinobi of the Snow and knew when to be professional, such as being in the presence of a superior. His composure straightened immediately, and his posture fit that of a fully trained ANBU. "Of course. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Your armor," Doto said, gesturing to the side of the house to one of the many equipment leftovers in the corner. "I wish to see it realized."
Kaigen raised an eyebrow, looking immensely delighted. "Really? Most people laugh as soon as they see the kitchen sink amongst it."
"As long as it works, that's all that matters," Doto said. "You could have it run by cow manure and I wouldn't bat an eye." Kaigen was about to make a response, then abruptly gave a thoughtful look, clearly contemplating Doto's words.
Oh bother, he really is considering it. Moving on, Doto continued. "There is naturally a thing you should be aware of: all properties and rights to the Chakra Armor will be mine now. Including all the secrets you've invested into its design."
Kaigen broke out of his train of thought, looking back at Doto. He waited, knowing there was more.
"And in exchange, you will have access to more resources than you had previously. Full funding, as much space and lab work as you need. Time off from your shinobi duties as you deem necessary. Even assistants from the village and beyond if you wish it. As well as a sustainable payment equivalent to an A-Ranked mission… with more bonuses depending on your success."
Kaigen's expression betrayed no hint to what he was thinking; he could be blown away by the offer, or downright suspicious. Doto did not know, but he wasn't concerned. He was being completely sincere. He had no ulterior motive. True, it was the Chakra Armor that interested him, not the man, but there was no need for deception here when honest and straightforward methods would be more effective.
And in time, Doto hoped that Kaigen would join his confederates. But for now, his work on the Chakra Armor was what was important. And Doto had the resources to use. For now.
Finally, Kaigen gave a shrug. "Why not? That all seems fair enough." He offered his hand. "I'm at your disposal, Doto-sama."
Doto suppressed a grin as he shook the man's hand, telling him to start within two days and that he would clear everything with Mikata.
And so I had laid the foundation for my next step. I had secured my asset. An ace in the hole for when the time came. At the time, I had no idea if Kaigen himself would prove to be an asset or a hindrance, but the prospect of his invention was too great to ignore. I didn't tell him this, but I fully intended to work alongside him when he got started. I intended to know this Chakra Armor inside and out so I could take it to new heights on the off chance Kaigen couldn't.
Akufu found the entire idea of chakra armor laughable. The fact that it looked like an overgrown child's broken toy glued together certainly didn't help. Still, I arranged for Kaigen to have a training exercise with his genin team in order to see it for the 'first' time. Akufu watched from the shadows and once it was done, she was immediately impressed with the implications. A good thing, considering we were running on a time limit.
As my brother had promised, he began reorganizing military personal into mundane jobs. So every day, my resources, my money, dwindled. Sousetsu was overseeing everything to the point that I was all but out of my job as Commander-in-Chief, even as 'Head' of the Daimyo Guard. It was a gamble; I could find myself without the promised support for Kaigen without warning, but it was one I was willing to take.
After all, I was planning on seizing power from my brother. My entire life was hinging on this gamble and how well I could stack the deck in my favor. And I was determined to win.
Since I had just increased my own 'deck', it was time to move to my second step… and start decreasing Sousetsu's.
It was two days later. Doto stood in the back corner of his brother's throne room. The wall on either side was lined with samurai, their weapons held almost in a ceremonial fashion, though the looks on their faces showed nothing but pity and disdain. Sousetsu himself sat upon his throne, with Mikata at his right side and the Secretary of State on his left.
Rumors were springing to life about Mikata and his brother. Many, especially those that served within the palace, began noticing how much closer Mikata was working with the Daimyo and not his brother. Whatever they thought about this, they wisely kept to themselves. Especially in light of the current situation.
The doors opened and in walked three people. Two of them were Mikata's Saati Koukennin, each of them bearing the emblem of their order: A golden insignia of a steel fist.
In between them was the Sergeant at Arms, Doto's old trainer from the early days. Pushing close to sixty now, the old man had never been officially promoted, but his respect had always been high. He had more or less been in charge of castle security during the war. Due to his age, he was doing more of the paperwork and management and less of the physical duties these days. The old man had also served as Koyuki's babysitter for when her father was too busy.
"Shinmei Tsuyoshi," Sousetsu announced from his position in a solemn voice. "You are called here on the charge of stealing from the treasury, accumulating what amounts close to 20,000 ryo."
"It's a mistake. I assure you," the sergeant protested. "I have done no such thing!"
Sousetsu just looked sad as he held out a hand. The secretary reluctantly handed Sousetsu a scroll. The Daimyo opened it. "Is it not true that you were the last seen within the treasury?"
"Well… yes… I was called for my pension negations…" the sergeant answered.
"And that you had a disagreement with the Financial Minister?"
"He said that I was retiring five years earlier than what my office should allow," the sergeant insisted. He rubbed his left side. "My injures from the war are becoming too troublesome. I can't do my job anymore. And being physically unfit for duty due to injuries caused from the job is a valid claim under my profession's terms as stated under the 'Disabilities and Physical Ailments' clause. He said there simply wasn't the money to support me right now, but welcomed me to come back in three years, assuring me things would be stabilized by then."
"And all the money found stashed in your room?" Sousetsu asked quietly.
The sergeant looked more nervous now. "That's my… secret stash. Little savings here and there from over the years. A personal bonus. But I assure you, that's all it was! I have no idea where all that extra money came from! I saved a lot, but not THAT much!"
Sousetsu rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the secretary of state. "Then by all means, please, enlighten me. What happened?"
All eyes focused on the nervous old man in the room. No one was enjoying this. The sergeant's service was paramount, his integrity high and his dedication to his work unquestionable.
Several minutes went by and the sergeant offered nothing. Obviously having no idea what to do. He seemed to age a decade on the spot.
Finally, Sousetsu spoke. "Then I'm afraid I have no choice. I realize that transitioning out of war into times of peace results in many cutbacks. We all feel the weight as we adjust our economy and our country back. And that makes it hard for many of us. But stealing for ourselves to secure our own personal future is not something I can condone." He closed his eyes, folding his hands together.
"Shinmei Tsuyoshi. You are hereby relieved of your post, effective immediately. All your assets will be compensated and returned to the state, and all benefits will be retracted." Sousetsu's face softened. "The best I can do for you is assure you a place in a civilian job of your own choosing. Hopefully that'll get you a reasonable income for your remaining years."
The old man just looked on in dismay, not pointing out how his old war wounds would keep him from doing any job effectively. Never mind his age. What should have been a bountiful retirement after forty years of service was now replaced with a dead end job just to support himself with the bare essentials.
The Snow Ninja led the old man out, who said nothing as he left. The atmosphere of the room was just as bad as it had been during the war filled with gloom that hung over their heads. Slowly the soldiers all filed out, not one of them looking at each other. The Secretary of State just shook his head and clenched his fist before leaving himself. Only Mikata seemed to be her usual self (usual in these recent days anyway) as she left Sousetsu's side to attend to her own business.
That just left the two brothers.
"This is most regrettable," Doto said as Sousetsu walked forward to him. "But if you truly intend to dissolve the military, this will only be the first step."
"Never say that," Sousetsu shot back. "No one should be forced out with all his friend's backs turned to him. Nor am I depriving our service men and women from what they have earned."
"Semantics, I'm afraid, brother," Doto answered. "Justify as you will, but the fact is that if you hadn't administrated this, the budget would have been able to accommodate him. Instead, we find ourselves in this ugly situation because you are diminishing the military, and its funding, day by day."
The elder brother turned to face him directly. "And the fact that he had a private meeting with you prior to this visit to the treasury?"
"I am still the head of the military," Doto answered smoothly. "For now. His injuries are a cause for concern and I need to check on him." He hardened his own gaze. "And before you accuse me of underhanded tactics for your own vision of the future, let me remind you I have an airtight alibi. I was visiting the medical station outside the palace and making an inspection on their supplies. And this was a set inspection set up months ago, not a surprise inspection at the convenient last minute. Their entire staff can vouch for me during the time of this unfortunate incident."
Sousetsu said nothing, quite possibly because Doto had cleared his alibi with Sousetsu prior to this hearing. Having nothing more to say, the Daimyo turned and left the throne room looked rather bitter with himself.
And I was being completely sincere. My alibi was rock solid.
It had all been Akufu's doing, not mine. Under my direction, naturally.
It wasn't even set up as some misguided test for my brother. A way to make him realize how horribly wrong this direction was. At this point, I wouldn't have changed my plans even if my brother did revise his decision to abolish the military. My path was set and it would come to fruition one way or another.
It was about removing Sousetsu's support. Demolishing those loyal to him and casting them away. It was during this that opportunity hit me. I still held a position of power. All that money going back to the 'state', I had a hand in. Through some clever talking – and a touch of Akufu's machinations – most of that money the sergeant had accumulated would find its way to my private reserve. In order to fulfill my ambition, I would need that money for later.
Did I feel sympathy for the old man, my first trainer? Of course I did. What I did was sympathetic. Far better than the alternative of having him stay and be part of a power struggle with torn loyalties. I ensured that he was given an assistant management position in a retail store and made arrangements for the man's immediate family to move and help support him.
That was the best I could offer him. The best and only sympathy I could give him. But guilt? I felt not one shred of it. For I knew that if I did not do this, the future would be far worse under my brother.
And so I had removed support for my brother and increased my personal financial standing. Truly, a case of killing two birds with one kunai.
For it was only the beginning.
For the next few weeks, Doto kept a low profile. No hidden machinations or manipulations to destabilize Sousetsu. Not only to avoid creating suspicion in any observant onlooker, but also to be allowed to fully devote himself to the Chakra Armor project, his brother's systematic decrease of the military giving him a further 'excuse' to invest in other activities. Creating a workshop in the lower recesses of the palace, they used the old armory that they had been pranked on as kids, one of the first things that had gone under his brother's new policy. A fitting place.
Doto believed in the potential of this armor, and was determined to fully understand everything about it. Kaigen was quite ingenious with the base concepts but lacked a certain grasp of fundamentals to truly make his armor both productive and effective in both looks and functionality. Doto didn't fault Kaigen in this area, as it was his 'outside the box' thinking that allowed him to craft this in the first place. It simply meant that Kaigen wouldn't be able to take the chakra armor beyond its initial concept.
But that didn't change the fact that he had laid the groundwork and that Doto was more than capable of taking it to the next step. Something both of them grasped almost immediately. And Doto had to admit – only to himself, naturally – that those few weeks of their collaborated efforts were, to use the most rudimentary term, fun. He was enjoying himself. He enjoyed the brainstorming between him and Kaigen. He enjoyed how both of them could go over the concepts and then go through the experimentation on getting them to work, or coming up with new ideas when something failed.
It was perhaps the first time Doto truly understood his brother's fascination with trinkets. And Doto wasn't blinded to this, having come to the realization by the end of their first day of work. But there were two critical factors that made his efforts different. The first was that he was carefully moderating their budget and what resources they had to work with. In a way, that was its own unique challenge: creating the most efficient means through the least amount of material possible.
And the second difference was that he had an 'alarm clock' set up. An external source to snap him back to reality and his goal, on the off chance he did become too invested in what he was doing.
Akufu, naturally. While he wasn't taking any active steps to further his goal, that didn't mean she wasn't. Under his orders, she had gone to the Water Country. For the next part in his goal, he would require outside help. Like the rest of the world, Snow wasn't privy to the inner workings of the Water Country and the Kiri-nin that served it. The fact that there were old grudges that had accumulated into the two states becoming wartime enemies was exactly what Doto was looking for.
So during those weeks where Doto worked with Kaigen, Akufu was off in the Water Country, analyzing the situation on his behalf. He had expected her to be gone for a month for the necessary reconnaissance. She had returned a week earlier with the information he sought.
It seemed that the entire Water Country was rife with chaos. Close to the end of the war, something had happened to their Fourth Mizukage. It seemed there had been some accident that had claimed the life of the Kage, with rumors ranging from an assassination attempt from another Main Village (Leaf being the prime suspect to pay back Mist for leaving their alliance at the end of the war) to some sort of mishap with a Biju itself. Akufu had reported that an entire legion of Mist Ninja were dedicating themselves to ensure no information left the country and thus prevent the rest of the world from learning what was going on.
That was amazing in its own right. All the more so when the entire Water Country was on the verge of all out civil war. Whatever had happened to its prized Mizukage, not even the inhabitants of the country were getting direct answers. So people started forming their own answers. There were already a dozen factions springing up and looking to take control of the situation. The only reason it hadn't erupted into civil war was because the Water Country was still feeling the ramifications of war and trying to recover, so no one was looking for the violence to start again.
But if some solution to the power struggle didn't appear soon, more fighting for Kirigakure and those it protected was inevitable.
In actuality, this just made my goal far easier. With Kirigakure shattered, I wouldn't have to deal with a Mizukage in a vastly superior position to my own, never mind the ill history between us. Getting the cooperation of one of the lesser factions would be far easier and more doable.
I'll admit, part of me wondered if Akufu had had a hand in this too. The situation was too ideal for me, the timing too convenient. But I dismissed the notion almost as soon as it arrived. Akufu may be crafty and manipulative, but even she was not infallible. There was no doubt in my mind that the magnitude was well beyond her range of abilities. I'm sure she would have me believe otherwise, that she helped craft this to further prove her own usefulness and superiority. And she did give more than one 'subtle' hint to it.
But I didn't buy it. The world was a big place, and we were hardly the only ones scheming out there. It was not so small that the influences of a handful of individuals could send it all into disarray.
The only amount of truth from her was that she had to perform some small duty to ensure a meeting with the individual that she had come into contact with. After reviewing her findings and the person in question, I agreed.
After telling his brother that he was making a small trip to try and regain his inner writer in preparation for when the military was no more, Doto made his way to the Water Country on a private vessel. Halfway to the Water country, he met up with Akufu, who was handling a small boat that would take them the rest of the way. Paying the privateers, the two of them continued on to the Water Country, with Akufu disguising herself as a normal member of Yukigakure rather than herself.
They came within a kilometer of the Water Country's shores and several Kiri-nin already began emerging around them from within the roaring waves of the ocean. Akufu quickly produced a document for them to inspect, verifying that they had a meeting with this individual. It also helped that these particular Mist shinobi were supportive of the one they sought (and that was no coincidence) and allowed them to land without a hassle.
The meeting place was a small fishing village along the shoreline here. Both parties were interested in meeting quickly lest someone else suspect what was going on. Making their way to the village and the house in question, they opened up the door, only to have a pair of kunai whip out, each at their throats before they could blink.
I'll admit it. I felt a twinge of fear. For a moment, a brief moment, I thought I had been completely played by Akufu. That I had trusted her too far and walked into her trap for own ambitions. It was only thanks to the last month of scheming that had turned my face naturally impassive. Maintaining a calm serenity about me outwardly. It probably saved my life.
The light revealed their 'greeter' as a young slender woman in about her twenties. She had piercing green eyes, with her auburn hair styled into a herringbone pattern that went down all the way to the ankles. She wore a dark blue dress that fell just below her knees that was kept open on the front right side to show off her leg, which revealed mesh armor underneath. The dress only covered up the upper part of her arms and the underside of her breasts. She wore high-heeled sandals.
"That's enough, cousin," came a voice from deeper inside the house. The woman looked back and withdrew her kunai. She walked backwards, never taking her eyes off the two. As she moved back, the second figure approached, standing side by side with their 'greeter'.
This woman wore a long flowing kimono that covered her arms entirely, decorated with stars, making it seem like it had been woven from the purest night itself. She wore Kirigakure's striped leg warmers and basic sandals on her feet. Her black hair extended down to her waistline, and was styled in a vigorous pattern of a cross between a star and a kunai, which also served as her personal sigil. Her face was oval shaped and carried about it a passive gaze with steady blue eyes that seemed uncharacteristic of her homeland. And Doto was sure that it was a front to put others off guard and at ease. She had a long slender blade across her back.
"Allow me some proper introductions," the woman went on, her tone honey-cut, fitting with her prim and proper demeanor. "I am Gitou Hasaki. And this," she gestured the earlier woman. "Is my favorite cousin and self-appointed bodyguard, Terumi Mei."
Gitou Hasaki. One of the contenders for the now vacant position of Mizukage. She was said to be the successor of the late Kuriarare Kushimaru of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist. Word had it that her ability with the sword was inferior to her predecessor. So to compensate, Hasaki coated the Nuibari with various poisons, earning her the nickname Poison Blade. A leading commander for Kirigakure during the war, she had shown exemplary leadership skills and cunning, which had earned her a fast track record of promotions on the battlefield, one of the fastest in the Hidden Mist Village's history.
It was also believed that Hasaki had no qualms about using that same cunning against her own countrymen. And when you hail from the 'Bloody Mist' village and they are saying you are going too far, you know something's wrong there. A popular rumor was that she had disposed of potential rivals, including Kushimaru himself, in order to ensure her fast track to the top. There was no official proof or Hasaki would be on the nuke-nin list for sure. But that reputation was her main obstacle for her bid for Mizukage.
Which, given what they were all about to do, gave a lot of credence to Hasaki's dubious reputation.
"Please forgive my overprotective cousin," Hasaki went on. "But she has personal motivations for a change in government in her favor."
Mei shoot a disapproving look at Hasaki but said nothing in contrast. Doto merely gave a single nod. "Understandable. And with this joint venture, we both will get what we want."
A honey-coated smile appeared on the swordswoman's face. "And just what do we want?"
"Call it a mutual exchange of benefits," Doto replied. "A temporary standing with one another until we get what we what."
"Only temporary?" Mei spat out, speaking for the first time. Clearly, she did not approve of this alliance.
"For now," Doto agreed. "There's little point in acknowledging there is bad blood between our countries. Something that won't change anytime soon. Perhaps this small coalition between us will open the doors to rectifying that, but for now, it's important to focus on our immediate needs. It will be all for nothing to talk about grand alliances if we both fail to acquire that which we need now."
He snapped his fingers before either woman could intercede. Akufu took a step forward and whipped out a scroll, unraveling it. There was a puff of smoke as a briefcase appeared, which Akufu caught expertly. There was clicking sound as the briefcase opened, revealing that it was filled with money.
Most of this had been Shinmei Tsuyoshi's benefits. And now it would be used to benefit the future of the government and the country it led instead of a single man.
"I imagine a large increase to your funds will be immensely helpful to your cause," Doto went on. "Weapons. Food. People's personal loyalties. All of these and more can be bought by money. And the more you have, the more you gain."
"We could just kill you and take it," Hasaki said offhandedly. There was no change in her composure or tone. She had that same sweet grace when talking about the future, and not so subtly murdering for her personal benefit.
Doto held his ground. Much like when he recruited Akufu, he needed to stand firm. Keep the situation in his control. "Of course. But that would be a short-term benefit to a long-term loss. You would gain these funds now, but lose out on more such funds in the future."
A small chuckle escaped Hasaki's mouth. "And what do you want in exchange?" Mei just tapped a finger against her shoulder, as if waiting for an order.
"Usage of your followers," Doto said. "There's an old saying: 'Where's there's smoke, there's fire.' There is about to be much smoke within the Snow. And when people chase down that smoke to its source, they will encounter a blazing fire." Doto hardened his gaze, staring at Hasaki right in the eye. "And when the people need the fire under control, they will turn to me to put it out."
"And in order to ensure this works, you want to control that fire," Mei observed, crossing her arms over her chest.
"The fire is already in place within my homeland," Doto said, referring to Sousetsu's decision to dismantle the military. But they didn't need to know that anymore than he needed to know the Water Country's finer details. "And will spread regardless of what I do. I will merely see to it that it spreads how I want and keep it under my control."
"Through the usage of our Mist Ninja," Mei commented harshly.
This time Doto didn't say anything; he just inclined his head and waited. Both had said their parts; he had placed the offer on the table. Now it was their turn.
"I will accept your offer," Hasaki said after a few moments. "On one condition: I will require several of your own confederates to set my own 'fires' within the Water Country." She raised a single finger in their direction. "In exchange for this, you will have complete authority over the Mist Ninja for as long as they remain within your borders. They will go where you say, for as long as you say… and set as many 'fires' as you say."
"Cousin," Mei spat out. Clearly, she was thinking that she would have to do the necessary work of spreading the 'fires' within the Snow Country. And despite being a favorite cousin, Mei thought that this union was a bad one. Perhaps because of their countries' histories, perhaps because she still blamed Snow for Funsui's death, or perhaps simply that the bond between the two cousins – if they were truly cousins at all – wasn't as strong as Hasaki wanted him to believe. Doto had no way of knowing.
"We will discuss this later," Hasaki assured her. Mei held her stance for a few moments and then relaxed. The Mist Swordswoman looked at Doto anew. "Your answer?" she asked, offering her hand.
Doto shot a look at Akufu, who just gave a nod of consent as she closed the briefcase. Taking a step forward, he clasped Hasaki's hand in a firm grip while Akufu walked forward and gave the briefcase to Mei, who accepted it without comment.
I had secured what I needed. The pieces were in place, the foundation set. It was time to get to work.
With the support of Hasaki's faction, I began my work in earnest. Every day, my brother dismantled the military, and my own power. Time was short.
So we began. In the coming weeks, I sowed my seeds among the line, ready for my rise to power. More and more people who had chosen a career in the military were forced into civilian work due to my brother's edicts. Through my own manipulations, I ensured most of these individuals were put into an occupation they wouldn't like. Men who had sworn to the country and trained as samurai now found themselves doing domesticated work such as clearing snow and other natural hazards. Trainers and drill instructors were using their talents for fishing and learning how to cut their catches, rather than hone the skills of new generations of service men and women. Officers who had taken on the responsibilities for supplies were now expected to frame houses in the bitter cold. Their pay, working conditions and benefits, all of these suffered as well.
Some of these men adapted well. That was to be expected. If I went and made them all miserable, even the young children would begin to notice something was wrong. But the rest were discontent. It didn't take them long to begin voicing those concerns, questioning why they were doing such menial jobs instead of serving the country they had pledged their lives to.
And Akufu moved in. Like a shadow moving in a forest, she found these people. Masquerading with one disguise or another, pretending to be like them, further planting ideas in their heads. I even suspected she might have resorted to blackmail or the like to "persuade" some of them. And all with the same message:
"Sousetsu is destroying this country."
The fact that this was all officially my brother's decree helped support that notion further. Indeed, during that time, he had gone back to his tinkering. He was more careful this time, not driving the treasury into nothing like he had done prior to the war. But the image was enough. Akufu and I spread that information like a virus, planting rumors and gossip all around the country. People from their private homes to the pubs began to notice that their Daimyo was spending more time on 'useless doodads' and less time actually governing the country.
As part of my plan, we did not bring up my name. It was too soon for that. More importantly, it would be something the people would need to conclude for themselves in order for me to have any merit. Coming to the throne would just be a lot of hassle if the population didn't believe for themselves I was the better option.
That's where the Mist Ninja would come in.
During those weeks, Yukigakure was deliberately left alone. With Mikata now leading the village in times of peace and helping the village rebuild, my brother saw no intention to focus on its eventual dissolution at this time. It was a smart move, really and another reminder that while my brother's biggest fault was his lack of concern for consequences, it was very easy to forget that he was a calculating man, able to see angles with a plan down the road.
Yukigakure was also critical to my plans. It had been the ninja, after all, who had kept Snow safe and protected during the war. Just as the shinobi did in other countries. It was no disrespect to other armed forces out there, but the shinobi were the ones best in the game and they all knew it.
Of course, the flip side of the argument was that the shinobi had also started the last war in the first place, so there was that…
Nevertheless, the point remained: for me to control Snow, I would have to control Yukigakure.
It was early in the morning. The commotion sprung Doto out of his bed. Half-dressed, he went to check what was going on, to see security – both shinobi and samurai alike – running around in turmoil.
There had been attacks during the night. One involved the bombing of a hotel within the southern lands of the country in a village that served as a waypoint for the coastal towns to the major cities of Snow. The attack had completely scorched the lobby along with part of the cleanup crew, killing all five of them and threatening the structure of the building. The second was more to the northeast, where one of Snow's twenty-three local lords had his villa. He had been butchered in his sleep, his bed covered in blood and the head missing.
Hasaki's Mist ninja, naturally. Doto had been given command over three of them. He had told them the general areas in which to make their strikes, but the targets would be completely up to their own discretion. That would prevent any astute observers from noticing any sort of pattern, least of all one pointing to Doto himself.
The man held no doubt that the freedom to choose targets would be in Hasaki's personal favor. This was as much for her self-profit as it was his own, so choosing targets that would advance Hasaki's standing for the position of Mizukage only made sense. He knew rumors said that this local lord had black market connections and would often exploit the Water Country for his own gain. Taking out a parasite that fed upon their land would no doubt elevate Hasaki's standing among her own countrymen, both shinobi and otherwise.
If the hotel bombing also helped Hasaki's scheming, Doto had no way of knowing. Not that it mattered.
Within an hour the entire Kazahana Palace was stirring about due to the other set of orders that Doto had issued with his collaborators: To leave just enough of a trail to indicate that this had been the work of Mist ninja.
The reactions from everyone else upon hearing this from the report seemed to sap away several years of their lives. As Akufu had bragged, all one needed to do was provide some pieces and the human mind would decipher the pattern. Mist Ninja had been old war enemies, and distance concerns existed even before the war. The loss of Funsui only made matters worse between our two states. Mist's own strange behavior during the war years only helped fuel that. Why had they chosen to help the Leaf in the first place, why did they abandon their alliance at the end of the war, and what was going on within the Water Country that they had to close their borders with an information blackout?
No one, not even me, knew the answers to these questions. And those unknowns only fueled the paranoia, especially when one samurai guard noted that the attacks here were not unlike the Sand assassination of the Wood Country official. The events that had led to a war… were now playing out here in Snow too.
Sousetsu took immediate action, ordering Yukigakure to be deployed, for guards to be doubled and appropriate measures be taken, such as trying to identify which of these Mist ninja were responsible… and especially if they were acting alone or with the blessing of their village.
I 'volunteered' to head to Yukigakure to coordinate, feeling my expertise would be useful in identifying our assailants. Nods and approvals were voiced as I headed out.
Of course, my actual intentions for Yukigakure were much different. Just as the attacks were furthering Hasaki's goals, it was time to start advancing mine.
A carriage was prepared in a flash to take Doto to Yukigakure. Along with the samurai driver, it also held a member of the Ice Guard. After the war, that organization only had three members left due to all the losses with no replacement for Mikata as its head. Replacements for it had been postponed in favor of Yukigakure focusing on other areas of the village. While few in number now, the Ice Guard remained determined to protect the royal family in light of the latest developments, fearing that the Commander-in-Chief would be a natural target for those Kiri-nin. Doto appreciated the efficiency and dedication, unneeded as it was. Not that he actually voiced that; their efforts fit his appearance perfectly.
Arriving at Yukigakure, Doto spent two hours at Weather Control with Mikata and a number of other high-ranking shinobi, trying to identify their attackers, if they were acting on their own accord and looking over intel to see if any other countries were making any curious moves.
Once the meeting closed without any conclusions, Doto left to head to his real goal. Kaigen. He had made his decision to start his recruitments with that man. He felt that he had grown to know the man in their work on the Chakra Armor very well and could convince him to take the next step. Once Kaigen was convinced, Doto would have the ninja convince his wife Emi to join, giving Doto a presence in the Academy, an eye and ear to spot any potential new talent that he could mold.
As he approached the house, he realized he heard strange noises coming from it. Not that strange; anything was uncommon from that household and most of it was due to Kaigen's experimentations. This was different. It wasn't the sound of tinkering; it sounded more like things being broken. And it also sounded like ruffians were inside, not a man and his wife. Doto's hand swiftly went down to the katana at his left hip, having worn it only as a formality since he had specifically ordered those Mist Ninja to leave the Snow Village alone.
I'll admit, in that moment, I wondered if Hasaki had played me. That she had sent an agent to start weeding out Yuki-nin that were a threat to Kirigakure, despite our agreement. An even darker corner of my mind even suggested I was walking into an ambush set up by her.
Readying to use his blade if need be, he crept up to the house. There he could hear the voices far more clearly now.
'Not that way moron!'
'Shut up, this is how Sensei did it!'
'Don't do that! That's how - !'
The next words were cut off as a small explosion was heard. Doto saw through a window that smoke was filling up the living room. Shoving the front door open, Doto gazed at the sight as the smoke escaped through the entryway. In the landfill that passed for a living room only in name were three teenagers on the brink of adulthood. The entire room was no longer the case of organized chaos of an eccentric builder, but the truest definition of a mess. In one corner of the room was a burning… something that served as the cause of the smoke.
Now that Doto had gotten a better look, he saw that the three teenagers were Kaigen's genin team. Nadare, Fubuki and Mizore.
Doto couldn't recall the last time he had seen them, but each of them had aged considerably since then, and not just in the physical sense either. They held themselves like full adults twice their age, sporting signs of war veterans. Doto recall that genin had been forced on the front lines as well, and imagined these three would have been part of the home guard responsible for the country and hidden village… if only because the majority of those sent to the frontlines never came back.
As the smoke cleared through the home's openings, Doto could get a more refined look at the three genin. Each of them was covered in grease, oil and some burn marks, most likely from that explosion. In between them were various pieces of the Chakra Armor, which looked like they had been to the dump and back.
"What's going on?" the large man inquired, his eyes surveying the site anew. "Where is Kaigen?"
At the mention of the name, each of the teenagers looked nervous, avoiding each other's eyes. A small chill went down Doto's spine. He saw the large boy's eyes begin to water, the girl's head turning to avoid his gaze. Only the other one, holding his gaze firm, looked Doto in the eye. Doto was experienced enough to know it was false bravado, that he was as distraught as his teammates. He merely tried to hide it.
As a shinobi should.
"… we don't know," the boy began explaining. "Yesterday… there was… Sensei… he didn't mean it…"
That chill was getting colder with every word.
"… he tried something new… and… his wife… Emi-sensei… she was caught in it… it… she…" Finally the young man's facade faltered and he looked away, unable to say anymore.
But it was enough for Doto to put it together.
Doto knew that recently, Kaigen was constantly hinting about a new breakthrough, something to push his creation to his ideal dream. Based on what these children said, something must have gone wrong. Deadly wrong, and Emi paid the ultimate price for it. Doto intended to turn around and raise the village alarm. Kaigen had obviously fled, trying to run away from his grief. With a day's head start, Kaigen couldn't have gone too far. He couldn't lose the man, not now. Not when things were finally about to begin. It was those muffled cries that made him pause, glancing over his shoulder to the three young ninja.
The grief they were feeling said a lot about their admiration and respect for their sensei. And the devastation they were feeling was clearly signs of inferiority and abandonment. That their sensei would just leave without a word… and the knowledge that they lacked the skill to see his dream realized.
I should have just left them. Their skills were below my notice, and it was apparent from their efforts that they lacked their master's understanding of this chakra armor. Heck, while their sensei's loss was tragic, it was hardly a mortal blow. They would still have their respective families, still have the support of Yukigakure and its benefits. At least until my brother turned his eyes upon the Ninja Village. My plans would require top operatives; ninja who excelled in the village's understanding, to be able to inspire those to follow around them and utilize my designs to their utmost potential.
By all accounts, I should have just left them and moved on to other potential recruits. Yet something stayed my hand. To this day, I'm still not sure why. Perhaps because I felt a debt to Kaigen and handle his charges. Perhaps it's because I saw something in these three that would make them great. Perhaps even the thought of taking these three and honing them under my own tutelage for my plans in the future. A chance to create three weapons in my own image without going through all those annoying starting points.
So I took them. I guided them. I told them to come with me, that we would find their sensei together despite already scheming how to keep them under my wing on the slim chance we did find Kaigen. From the lessons I had learned from the old sergeant, I taught them their skills. From our times together brainstorming, I taught them about the chakra armor. And from my own upbringings, I taught them the value of serving the head of the state, that the government was ultimately the most important thing to the country and the responsibility that came with it.
A position I would make mine.
Using these three as my public face within the Village Hidden Within the Snow, I expanded my recruitment efforts. They moved like shadows, finding out which shinobi were more vocal to me than others. Which ninja were worried about the state of affairs. Akufu, naturally, shadowed them from their own shadows, making her own observations and judgment calls on the matter.
I handled other areas. Lords that were becoming discontent, military personnel looking for a change or were unhappy with the direction Sousetsu was going. Even local businesses who were being affected by the changing times, be it Sousetsu's decrees or my own machinations behind the scenes.
Of course, Sousetsu was not stupid and no longer the child from our old days. He still intended to dissolve the military and bring Snow into an entirely new era, but he also recognized that the signs were building up against him due his decrees and inability to handle his people's pleas, such as in the case of the Mist attacks, which were steadily increasing.
So he became more subtle, using those attacks as excuses for cutbacks, rearranging and reassigning men and women as needed to deal with the problems while making it look like he was creating new jobs. He was even known for hiring some outside help, most notably from Kumogakure itself, playing on their common heritage through our mother's side.
I naturally used these to my own benefit, increasing my purse among other things. But while Sousetsu's efforts were slowing down, they were by no means ending. I was gaining time, but there was so much to do, so many times I wondered if I would have my ideal conditions, or if my brother would force my hand prematurely. Confronting my brother, as sad as it may sound, no longer hindered me. The prospect of failure, that all my efforts, all my beliefs, could fail because of one miscalculation, was far more damning.
And I would not allow failure to come. Not now, not ever.
Of course, the ironic thing was who hadn't ever uttered those words? Rock certainly hadn't entered the Third Shinobi War with the intention of losing.
One must be aware of the possibility of failure in order to see every possibility ahead of them, yet if one were to dwell on it too long, then that possibility could be all consuming, like a sharp pain, sapping you of all your strength and will until all that remained was a withered husk, dead in all but name, no better than common dust on the windowsill that is so casually swept away without a moment's thought.
It is a prospect that plagues every human… and how so very often, I wished to the depths of my soul… that I was no longer human…
Even to this day, Doto preferred to walk directly to his destination. Travel by carriage or other means he would use when time was an issue, but he always felt that going on his own two feet carried a certain amount of weight to it. He also enjoyed seeing the land around him, a constant reminder that everything would be under his rule soon. And just what it meant.
He had seen this land through the best and worst during both Snow's high times and its utter devastation in the war. This was his country, paid for and defended in blood. It always made him feel… alive, just simply walking through the Snow Country, to see what was all truly Snow.
Today was no different in that regard, though his destination certainly was. It had been four months since he had actively recruited those three young ones into his fold. After a month of training them under his tutelage, he actively confided in them. Telling them what his goal was and how he intended to acquire it. Due to how much he had invested in the trio, he knew there was no chance of betrayal. No fear of exposure because of them. Each of them had simply nodded in silence. No arguing, no disbelief. Just acceptance.
Exactly what his subjects needed to be. Mind your leader. Do what his will is, for his will is the will of the country.
Naturally, Doto had not told them all of his machinations. They did not know he was behind the Mist attacks that plagued the country, nor that he was in cahoots with a witch straight out of legend. There was no need for them to know about it. That was Doto's burden… and his challenge to keep it all going.
As a result of all their efforts, Doto's confederates had grown. Now numbering slightly more than a hundred. Only thirteen of those were Snow ninja. The rest were a mixed lot, including out of work samurai and merchants whose businesses had been failing. And about twenty of them were all construction workers, which his ninja confederates found a curious choice. Why recruit them when he was looking for manpower and economic elements?
The answer to that was today's destination: Family Snow Tech.
Located within the northern recesses of the country at the base of a small mountain chain, Family Snow Tech was one of Snow's most memorable locations, though not necessarily important. It was a family-run industry that produced the Ice Kunai, kunai with sealing tags that resulted in a massive number of icicles exploding outward wherever the kunai hit. Resting at the base of one of these mountains, they used the mountain's height to their advantage, planting their icicle fields all the way up. The higher it was, the colder it was, which meant the stronger and more powerful their weapons would be.
During the early years of the war, their business had boomed, growing to nearly three times what it had been. But their luck had run out when Snow entered the war itself. The process for making the icicles was a long process, and in times of peace, they could afford to take that time. With war, where demand for such weapons was high, they couldn't meet the new quotas, nearly losing all the expansion efforts they had gained earlier. And now with his brother's careful dismantling of the Snow Country's armed forces, they were on the brink of bankruptcy.
Which meant it was perfect for the taking for Doto's plans.
Doto was greeted at the entrance by Family Snow Tech's owner, the eldest son of the family. His grandparents had started this industry back when the Eternal Maelstrom first established Yukigakure, and the family had passed ownership down the line ever since. Doto would now be purchasing those rights that would allow the family to relocate comfortably with a new life, while promising to keep what staff remained on payroll, being assured they were all hard workers who would do everything they could.
As the man left, the shadows swirled and Akufu appeared, clapping in open mockery. "Congratulations, Daimyo-sama. Ya have just purchased a crumbling company attached to a frostbitten mountain. Can total victory be far behind?"
Pretense or genuine confusion over his motives? Doto didn't know.
"There's only so much I can do in a secluded portion of the palace," Doto replied, completely ignoring the jab at him. He walked over to the desk and began brushing it off. "I need more space, more resources, and most importantly, to be able to work on my projects more openly."
Akufu gave a nod. "Yes, I'm sure the fact that you're building things in secret with a newly-acquired esteemed company will never reach your brother's eyes."
"As far as my brother is concerned, I am merely trying to keep an honored company afloat," Doto answered, not bothering to look at her as he pulled out a bag and began placing items on the desk. "It's no secret that he and I differ on his future plans for the military. So there's nothing to be suspicious of. I'm just taking over to ensure Snow Country Tech will continue for future generations."
"My, that's an imaginative name change for this place," the witch said. There was a clear air of contempt about all this, which prompted her next statement. "And in reality?"
Finally looking over his shoulder towards, he picked up one of the items he placed on the desk for her to see.
The model dragon he had acquired from his childhood.
Akufu's reaction was immediate. She began laughing that strange crackling laugh of hers. She was laughing so hard, she actually held her stomach and kneeled over. Doto merely waited for her to run out of breath until she managed to straighten up again. "Oh, so we are here to build you a personal dragon?"
"Believe me, if we could, I would," Doto declared. His fascination with dragons had never waned. He'd had less time for it, but all that admiration he held for the creatures still grasped him as surely as it had when he was ten years old. "But alas, no. But my old friend is the key to what we will be achieving."
Curiosity came over the wrinkled woman's face. "And that is?"
Putting the dragon down, Doto picked up a large rolled-up paper and opened it up for Akufu to see.
In his grasp were the blueprints for a blimp.
After investigating Kaigen's home to discover what happened, I found a new set of blueprints on various flight machines. It seems that he had been researching Soragakure and its iconic flight tools as the next part of his research. And that those experiments had been what caused the accident.
I do not know what went wrong with his own approach, but the analysis of his work was spot on. It seemed such a waste to just let it go. I spent a week going over his research until I came up with my own designs for this war blimp.
Which is why I sought out a place with ideal resources and location in order to construct it, ultimately selecting Family Snow Tech.
The pieces were in place. The Mist Ninja were wreaking havoc, stalling the military disarmament. My resources grew, and my numbers began to swell. Rumors about Sousetsu's ineptitude on handling the government became more and more bold.
One year later, three years after the war had ended, when my niece was but five years old to my 32 years of age, the time finally came.
And yet, it came one month before I wanted it. One final reminder on why I could not underestimate my brother, or believe he would be blind to the changing affairs of the country.
Doto was making his way back towards the castle at all haste, towards his brother's throne room. Nearly all of his sources within the castle had confirmed the news about what Sousetsu had done.
The Ice Guard had been disbanded.
Shoving the doors open with violent fury, Doto walked towards his brother. Sousetsu sat on his throne, clearly having expected this response. His expression was one of chiseled stone, firm and unyielding.
It confirmed the internal suspicion in Doto's mind about the immediate implications of this move.
His brother was ready to disband Yukigakure.
"Brother, what is the meaning of this?" Doto demanded. The entire throne room was empty. Not even honorary samurai guards at the door or even servants to do the action.
"I knew you'd come," Sousetsu replied from his throne. "But even as my Commander-in-Chief, I have the right to choose and dismiss my own personal guard as I see fit."
"Then at least REPLACE them!" Doto threw his arm out in disgust. "We have terrorists operating within our shores! This sort of move will make you the ideal target! After all the attempts during the war, there's no way Mist won't capitalize on this!"
"Then it's good to know that the Water Daimyo thinks differently," Sousetsu declared. The leader of the country reached into his robes and withdrew a document, tossing it at his brother. Doto caught it and read it.
"The Water Daimyo is officially apologizing and ensuring all Kiri-nin will be removed from our borders?" Doto read aloud. Hasaki lately had hinted as much, but she promised to confirm it first. If this was true…
"It seems whatever was troubling the Water Country is finally settling down, and they're getting their act together. I wouldn't be surprised if a new Mizukage has been appointed."
The phrase was far too suggestive. Did Sousetsu know? Surely he suspected. Before Doto could offer anything himself, Sousetsu quietly grabbed the arms of his throne. Closing his eyes, he spoke. "Brother, I know we have not seen eye to eye as of late. And that I have done many things you don't approve of. Some of which were wrong of me."
That was a snide way saying how he stole his bride. Asshole.
"But it's over with. With the Mist problems finally resolved, it's time to take this country to its new future. As of now, I am relieving you of your command and position as Snow military Commander-in-Chief. I expect you to make a public announcement of your resignation tomorrow morning." He at least opened his eyes and he looked like he was about to cry. "And that's my final say on the matter. Please… brother… just embrace your new life. Do something with it. Now please leave… I have a meeting waiting for me outside."
I very nearly blew my lid right there. I wanted to yell the truth at him, shove it in his face and jam my katana down his slimy throat.
Doto just threw the document to thefloor and stomped off. He was about to reach the door when it swung open, revealing four travelers in tattered cloaks. Normally Doto wouldn't have paid them any mind since his brother did have a meeting for whatever reason, but it caught his eyes nonetheless as they walked on, the throne room doors closing on him.
Their strides told him they were shinobi. HIGHLY trained shinobi… and not from the Hidden Snow Village.
Just what was his brother scheming?
Walking down the hallway towards his old room, he spoke seemingly to the wall. "Is it true?"
"Afraid so," came a voice from the 'wall'. More accurately, his right hand using her special talents to follow him. Given the topic Sousetsu had called Doto for, Doto had felt a real need for his second shadow. And after their discussion, it had been oh-so-tempting to have her just work her magic and eliminate his brother right there.
But a move like that would be entirely counterproductive to the eventual fallout and questions that would naturally arise after a Daimyo was removed. Turning a corner that led to his old room, his shadow continued. "According to our friend, the chaos in the Water Country is finally coming under control," Akufu's voice continued as Doto entered the old room. It served merely as his office these days rather than his old bedroom, though small things like his childhood bookcase still remained. "And a new Daimyo has been chosen, one with an actual backbone. He's coming down hard on all Mist Ninja and their personal agendas in order to get Kirigakure back on track. Hasaki and her followers will have no choice but to return immediately to help secure their own positions, lest they be declared nuke-nin. And it goes without saying that there's nothing we can offer them to compensate for that loss."
Doto walked over to the window and glanced out at the yard, looking at the personnel below. The castle's staff was only a third of what it had been before Sousetsu had implanted his new policies on the military. Most of the guards now were low-ranking retainers, who just barely qualified to be considered samurai. The rest, being the officers, were battle-hardened veterans… and all on Doto's side. He wanted to spend at least another month seeding out the riffraff with his own followers, but it seems his hand was to be forced.
Coincidence? Conspiracy against him? Pure random chance on bad timing? It didn't matter; these were the facts. "Anything else?"
"Yes. Hasaki tells me that they will be pulling out first thing in the morning. And as a gesture of good faith on our working relationship these past few years, she will allow you to coordinate her men one last time for tonight. She advises you to take full advantage of her generosity."
The implication was clear enough, and Doto would do just that.
"Then spread the word. We make our move. Tonight."
"And the Sandaime Kagirinai Kachuu?"
That was the sole reason why Doto wasn't ready and wanted more preparation time. Sousetsu, popularity support, the armed forces… all those were easy. The only true threat to his scheme now was her. He had fought side by side with her. He knew how skilled and deadly she was.
That would be his trump card. "Leave her to me."
Snow was in a state of constant change during these last few years. One brother trying to disband the military, one brother trying salvage it. Each of us to their own end. And now, three years after the end of the war. Three years of us scheming against each other. Three years of letting Mist Ninja tear open old wounds and form new ones while manipulating the public to my good graces. It was finally time to act.
Popularity was largely in my own favor. The people still remembered how Sousetsu nearly bankrupted Snow with his constant doodads and gizmos at the expense of funding for the Country he was to govern. The fact he was disbanding the military and straining the fragile economy with the constant unemployment during a time of renegade terrorists certainly didn't help his cause. Mikata, however, remained a stout support for my brother, and her public approval resulted in Sousetsu retaining some of his popularity as opposed to a nose-diving spiral into the ground.
During this time, I was more popular than my elder brother. The people still remembered I was the leading force during the war that kept our country stable and safe. They were also very much aware of how I was constantly against my brother's disarmament polices. However, as they saw, a double-edged sword can cut into the user as easily as the foe. The only reason my support wasn't near majority was because after three years of 'failing' to deal with the Kiri-nin terrorists, they were beginning to doubt me as well, calling me 'past my prime'. A few pockets were even suggesting an entirely new leader should come to power. Many of the local lords were fond of this idea, but the most prominent name called was Mikata herself, with many citing that while my brother and I bickered, she actually stuck to her job to deal with the situation.
Certainly not an unreasonable stance, truth be told.
So while the circumstances weren't as ideal as I would like, it was time to throw the dice and make the call. As my last favor from my Mist confederates, they spread out all over the shores of the Snow Country. To the public, it seemed like advanced scouts for an invasion. A ruse that my own faction encouraged to the masses. Taking authority into her own hands, Mikata acted accordingly, declaring a state of emergency and mobilizing Snow. At my encouragement, her core and most loyal followers, the Saati Koukennin, were dispatched to all corners of the country, a vanguard against any early aggression and ready to coordinate any defense no matter where Mist would decide to strike.
But in truth, all that was merely a ploy to draw Mikata's key followers away from her and Yukigakure for the night. Those 30 Guardians would be impossible to win over, so I needed them removed from the picture. Initially with each of the Guardians scattered and isolated, I was to have them ambushed and eliminated as a result, but thanks to circumstances forcing my hand sooner than I planned, I did not have the necessary manpower to eradicate them as I had hoped, so merely removing them from the scene would have to suffice. The most I could do was encourage my Mist shinobi allies to kill the Guardians, but with the situation in their homeland stable, they were no longer willing to risk open confrontation. They would distract, but that was all.
So it would have to be enough. But Mikata herself could not simply be stalled or sent away. She was a problem that was to be dealt with now and not allowed to continue. Mei herself had offered to eliminate Mikata, holding a grudge against the Snow user from the war. Hasaki also offered her own talents, saying that if she took the head of Snow's leader, it would secure her position for the next Mizukage. Even Akufu volunteered to do it, proclaiming it would be her utmost act of loyalty to me.
I turned them all down. Mikata was mine.
With the new crisis on the horizon, Yukigakure's leader was already on her way to the capital itself. What was normally a two-day journey between Yukigakure and the Capital, Mikata was clearing in a flash, a testament to her prowess. Exerting that much effort would make one wonder if she would exhaust herself upon arriving, in case any attack did come, but it wasn't anything a few soldier pills wouldn't be able to handle. Doto hadn't even pondered the possibility of trying to do just that; make her run and exhaust her to the point of uselessness.
Because he had no need to. He knew what was needed and was able to gain a far more practical advantage; Mikata would no doubt be taking the most direct route to get to Kazahana Castle. So he waited at a place of his choosing. A kilometer away from the palace, on top of a snow-covered hill that allowed an ideal vantage point to see all around them, with the setting sun offering the perfect metaphor for what was about to happen.
Leaning against a lone tree that decorated this hilltop, Doto glanced over at the distance. He was dressed in his usual attire, though he had a long winter cloak concealing most of his upper body, but his katana at his side was visibly shown, still within its sheath. Mikata landed in front of him moments later. "Doto," she said as her posture straightened up, ready to act.
"Mikata," he greeted simply, nudging his head towards the castle. "My brother is already there, as are a contingent of shinobi that I personally pulled from recent areas."
It was pointless to make the small talk, yet I felt compelled.
"Intelligence has determined that the Mist Ninja gathering at our shores are nothing but a feint."
By my hand. As will what happen next. To Capital, my brother… and you.
"They intend to strike the Capital itself," Mikata supplied.
So close, Mikata. SO close.
"There is one other matter we must attend to before heading to the palace," Doto said. He walked slowly towards her. He kept his sword sheathed, not even attempting to draw it. Both of them knew if it came to a battle between the two, Mikata would crush him in the time it would take to simply grasp his blade. She knew this too, which was why she made no move. Merely waited.
So Doto came to a stop right in front of her. He held up his hands to show they were empty, then put them together as if to pray… then uttered one word.
The effect was immediate as Mikata's eyes flew open, as if she were waking up from a deep sleep. Her senses were composing themselves, her mind was flooded with new information storming in on her as she tried to make sense of it. That was all Doto needed.
For that one moment was all Doto needed to grab his blade and thrust it through Mikata's chest, right into the heart.
She had been innocent.
Tanomoshii Mikata. Childhood friend. Protégé of Dobei Mamori who headed the former Ice Guard. Lover to me, War Hero of Snow and Sandaime Kagirinai Kachuu of the Village Hidden in the Snow… had been innocent all along.
Ensnared in Genjutsu.
It should have been obvious. I had known her since childhood; the way she acted, her loyalty, her feelings towards me and my own in return. The abrupt change in her nature, the sudden focus on my brother despite all the connections we had formed. Her turning her back on our marriage, finding constant means to delay it before finally ending it... all signs pointing to the obvious.
Mikata had been genjutsued, illusions erected on her mind to change her into something else. And the culprit? One as obvious as the situation itself should have been to me.
That witch had been right that day when we had reunited. 'Humans are creatures of habit. We thrive on the ability to see patterns and bend them to our advantage, be it basic hunting skills or looking for a weakness in an opponent's strategy.' During her little speech to me, she had conceded to the possibility that she had manipulated key people around my life: my father's death, my mother's death. That she had been my tutor, that she killed Funsui, impersonated Konoha's legendary hero, directly responsible for bringing Snow into the war and subtle hints that she could also be in cahoots with Sousetsu… of all those examples, there had been one person close to me that she DID NOT entertain the possibility of toying with.
And that was because she actually HAD done it. Somehow, someway, Akufu had done it. She had managed to put one of Snow's most renowned shinobi in history under her control, mind-wiping her to break ties with me and throw herself into Sousetsu's arms. I will probably never know if she truly had a hand in other events and people's lives, but at the very least, she had wormed her way into Mikata. Probably the very night I proposed to her nearly six years ago to make sure it didn't happen and keep me on the path of clashing with my brother.
Akufu's choice of words upon our encounter also gave snide hints to this without being flat out in my face about it. "Ya see? You hardly need me to confirm what ya already have thought on. Each of these facts appears unrelated on their own, but it's the human perception that can make them out to be so much more. Because once you see the pattern… ya can form these conclusions on your own."
The pattern being that she had been manipulating all those around me… seeing that the pattern should include Mikata as well… and the direct conclusion from it. Manipulation. She had even thrown out a line that seemed to indicate one thing, but in truth, told much more.
"Ya can believe I have the skill to genjutsu a person MAD to the extent they would throw themselves off a balcony."
Flat out admitting she had the skill with genjutsu to radically change a person. Put it together with the pattern of important people possibly under her influence and only one conclusion could be reached: Akufu had toyed with Mikata's mind, enslaving it with her genjutsu.
As I had done that day. Upon my meeting with Akufu where we cemented our alliance, I made the connection myself, realized that the last three years was the result of outside influence. That Mikata had never cheated on me… only forced to do so while imprisoned in her own mind.
I knew… and yet I did not act on it. I did not turn on this witch that had done it, tried to kill her or even save Mikata. During all these years of planning to overthrow my brother, not once I had entertained the idea of removing the genjutsu. It wasn't even fear of thinking she might side with my brother and try to stop me. Truthfully… I don't know what Mikata would have done had she been in her right mind. Would she have tried to stop me from doing this? Would she have joined me? I do not know. My gut tells me no, because the man she swore loyalty towards… the man that she had pledged herself to… both of these men were no longer the same ones she had known.
I killed Mikata that day for one and only one reason: Because I had moved past her. I no longer needed this woman in my life… no longer WANTED this woman in my life. And I had not in years, since the day I made my alliance with Akufu, after realizing the truth… the truth that I was not the same man Mikata had fallen in love with.
So I killed her.
I can still see the shocked expression on her face as she looked at my katana in her chest. How things must have appeared from her perspective, one moment accepting my proposal… and then the next seeing her fiancé stab her in the chest, with the realization of years missing from her life. Her pleading eyes looking at me, desperate for an answer, ANY answer.
I said nothing. All I gave her was yanking my blade out of her chest, swinging it horizontally and severing her head in one motion, her head landing in the snow at my feet. As I watched her body fall, I felt no shame in what I had done.
It is such a quiet thing to fall… but outright thunderous to those who can see it.
For that was what was going on. With the sun descended and the night starting, it started. Entire sections of Kazahana Castle exploded, buildings and portions of the wall alike. Fires sprung out all over, rubble from the explosions flew all over, much of it crushing man and beast that were caught unawares. Then fires from the heavens themselves seem to come down on the Castle. Many portions of the castle's tower exploded as something emerged from the sky above.
Doto's blimp; Ironwill.
The war blimp, having been completed only days ago, hovered over the burning Kazahana Castle, like a spider descending on a trapped fly within its web, its drooling mouth hungering. But even that wasn't the most terrifying aspect of what was happening. It was when much of the castle personnel, people who had worked together, lived together, who had joked, ate, shared and supported one another…
… began killing one another. The opening explosions, even the Ironwill itself was nothing more than an attention-getter, designed to draw all eyes to them… and once that happened, their own fellows acted, swiftly closing their eyes.
The Snow Ninja present, along with nearly all seasoned, hardened veterans, began killing those that remained. The remainder of the guards, while larger in number, were no match for them anymore than wheat was a match for a farmer hacking it away. Other staff, such as servants and cooks, weren't targeted, but no attempt was made to help them, creating more than a few casualties in the crossfire.
Some of the higher-ranking members tried to send out cries for help, but quickly realized how futile it was. The presence of the Yuki-nin aiding in this attack cast suspicion on the others, making them wonder how much, if any, of Yukigakure could be called upon. And even if they could be trusted because of the possible Kiri invasion, Yukigakure's strength was scattered all over the country, and Yukigakure itself was two days away for normal people. Any from there that would have tried found themselves unable to move with the absence of their leader. A leader who would never be coming back, as it were.
As the violence streaked out, Doto walked in silence through the main gate. To even the most hard-willed, determined men, anyone in Doto's position would have felt remorse and regret here, no matter what justifications or rationalizations he had come up with. This had been Doto's home; a place he had grown up in; no… a place in which he had spent the majority of his life. A place he had sought to protect in almost a decade of war, spilling his own blood to keep this place safe… and now, by his hand, it would be wiped off the map.
And something new would rise in its place. But that didn't change the fact that that one moment… that one moment when he walked through the gates and saw the carnage he had ushered… that one moment gave him pause, all of it dawning on him, just what it meant he was doing.
Something I had told myself I was ready for. Something I had MOLDED myself to be ready for… and yet in that one moment, I faltered. Not even when I slew Mikata had I done so.
But a moment was merely that, a moment. One tiny glimpse of time. And I was moving again.
Doto moved through it all; the screams, the pleading, the violence. He ignored all of it. His personal battle, his time… was not out here. The explosions, timing, and his followers all acted on his accord. Emergency and contingency plans were working against the ill-fated defenders, making them predictable and vulnerable.
It also meant that his brother, the Daimyo, would have been herded to his throne room, supposedly the safest place of the Castle. And it was, for Doto's orders were to not touch the throne room, merely to ensure no one got in, and no one got out.
Save for him.
Walking through the familiar paths, none of it was familiar as the most notable decoration was the slain bodies of the protectors, sprawled out like leaves of autumn, as red was the most prominent color now. He came to the throne room doors, and with a fierce shove, pushed both giant oak doors open. They swung open with loud creaks as Doto entered. He noted that the lights were still on in here as the doors closed behind him. He walked through the room, images of past meetings flooding his mind. Meetings of economy, meetings of how to approach other countries and their rulers. And especially all those years of war meetings for the future of the country. Almost as if it were yesterday, he could envision all the various people sitting in this room, talking, arguing. While their means may have been different, all of them had been united in their common goal of keeping Snow safe and running.
The memories fled as he approached the throne itself. And it was empty. With the room deserted, there was nowhere to hide. Doto would admit to his private thoughts that he would have been delighted to see Sousetsu's terrified form, huddled in a corner with dark realization on how foolish it was to force the armed forces of his country to disband in a world that was cruel.
But of course, Sousetsu was not doing so. Doto was disappointed, but not surprised. He knew that as the years had shaped him, so had they shaped Sousetsu. He was not the type to panic and lose his head even as a crisis slapped him in the face. He knew exactly where his brother was as he approached the throne. A few feet from it, the entire thing moved.
The Daimyo's bunker. The last of last resorts. Hidden by the throne itself and something only the Daimyo was supposed to know how to operate. The throne covered the entrance to where the Daimyo could take refuge in. Even I didn't know how to work it, how to enter this last place. It had been built when the castle had first been constructed and was said that it could withstand even a direct attack from a Biju itself.
Doto watched in silence as the entire throne slid around, revealing a hole in the floor, and from it, his brother emerged. Sousetsu was dressed fine as he always was; not even his glasses were askew. It wasn't even a stance of overwhelming shock and realization sitting in. It was grim acceptance.
"So it has come to this," Sousetsu said, walking out entirely as the throne slid back into place, masking the entrance as before.
"Yes." That was all Doto said. He could feel his time had come, he had seen this very image in his dreams, playing in his mind hundreds of times over. And despite that, what Sousetsu said next completely unnerved him.
"It took you long enough, Doto."
Doto gave a dismissive wave. "Nii-san, don't pretend that you've seen this coming - "
"Because you haven't been subtly recruiting people for the last few years? That you haven't helped with my disbandment policies by influencing them to make sure former troops end up in uncomfortable positions so they would be loyal to you? Or that you personally took in your former partner's students and used them to spread your influence within Yukigakure, all of which are assaulting the castle as we speak? Or perhaps you are referring to the fact that you bought Family Snow Tech in order to build that war blimp over our heads?"
I froze. There was no other word to describe it as I heard my brother list off all my allies. I had been uncertain before, panicked even, during the war, heartbroken when Mikata had left me before I knew the truth. But never once, in my entire life, had I been so utterly speechless like this. The closest would have to have been when Sousetsu offered me the position of Commander-in-Chief, unknowingly fulfilling the second part of the prophecy.
And now… perhaps reality was telling me… maybe it wasn't unknowingly that Sousetsu had done so. The very real possibility… that I was moving according to HIS designs, not mine. And he sealed that possibility with his next words.
"Do you not realize what being the Daimyo means?"
It meant that he was on top of everything; controlled everything. Everything that went on in this country was at Sousetsu's fingertips, no matter how unpopular he might be. He had access to everything, had the power to call in anyone, use resources anyway he saw fit. He had the power…
… because he was the Daimyo.
"Surely you must have realized that by announcing Yukigakure's disbandment, I was forcing your hand to act on my timetable," Sousetsu continued. There was a softness in his voice, borderline pity. "Even a child would have figured it out."
To Doto, it suddenly seemed chillier in the throne room. "Then… this is where your counterattack begins? More forces to come out…?"
Sousetsu gave a shrug. "No. Of course not. I want you to succeed."
HOW MANY PUNCHES TO THE GUT COULD ONE TAKE!?
Sousetsu took advantage of his younger brother's stunned silence. "Doto. I allowed your machinations to go unchallenged because it is in line with my own goal: To abolish the monarchy."
That finally snapped Doto out of his stupor. "… WHAT?" Where did that come from?
"Personally, I didn't want to do it this way," Sousetsu said, taking a seat within his throne. "I didn't want violence and loss of life to oversee this transition. So I tried to pull a 'bloodless revolution.'"
Doto repeated the words and it clicked. "The Festival of Lights debacle."
"That's right. I wanted to make it seem like I was a fool, throwing away money to the point that the nation would collapse. Economic disaster. A crisis to be sure, but it would be far better than letting things get out of control like they would now. I was willing to accept my people and history branding me as a 'useless tinker' who wasted the country's resources if it meant bringing about the end." He paused, giving a smile.
Even then, it was hard to believe we were having this discussion at all given all the fighting that was going on. But Sousetsu didn't seem to care… and to be honest, at the time, neither did I. This was about us. In a way, it brought us closer than we had been in nearly a decade… and I think we both knew it. One final moment of bonding before this had to be finished.
And the fact that we could do so under such conditions where our subordinates were dying for our respective ideals while we merrily chatted… proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that one of us had to go.
"But of course, like the old days, you pulled my bacon out of the fire. I didn't expect you to be able to maneuver things through the military like you did to counteract my efforts. I wanted to try again."
"Your reputation at tinkering," Doto supplied. "You started the rumors. You deliberately let yourself be seen so people would start talking."
"That's right. I figured if I made a big hassle over it, not even your efforts of reorganizing the military funds would be able to stop me." He closed his eyes and Doto thought he was ready to cry. "But things happened so fast… Mother's death… the Third Shinobi War…"
I dared. I dared to ask the question I had come to all those years ago. "Did you do it? Did you arrange…?"
Sousetsu gave Doto a long hard look. "… no. I did not. For the longest time, I thought you did."
I believed him. I'm not sure what it was, but I believed him. With the confession on the table, the idea that Mother would be set up by him seemed to have vanished. Akufu was the most likely suspect… but now that I think about it, I wonder if Mother realized the truth, that she had first seen what her two children were growing into… what we were about to do…
… perhaps she simply couldn't deal with it… and really did decide to end things herself.
Doto could feel his chest compress at the thought, that he and his brother could have driven their own mother to their death. If it really was true, that was one death he was not prepared for, one he hadn't taken into account. "So you had to halt your schemes due to the war."
"Modify, but yes," Sousetsu agreed. "I initially thought I could use the war to start anew. It was two major villages against three minor ones. History, however, has shown us how quickly war could spread, and I wasn't willing to gamble the country's entire fate on it. And it did escalate. Once the Leaf entered the war, I abandoned my ambitions."
"The war came first."
Then Sousetsu said something to catch Doto off guard. Again. "Actually, you came first."
Doto didn't hide his surprise. "Me?" Realization sunk in. "You mean…"
The elder brother gave a single nod. "Yes. I wondered if you could actually be my successor. Converting Snow into a military dictatorship would work for my plans. Just look at the Iron Country and how its head of state is its highest ranking general. On the surface, it would appear the same, but everything would be different. I could have lived with that."
"If you had said something then, perhaps all this would have been as smooth as you had hoped," Doto supplied.
Sousetsu gave another nod of agreement. "Yes, and many times, I seriously considered it. But it was war. That had to be our first attention, not personal goals and ideology."
"Didn't stop us from butting heads on how we should go about it," Doto recalled, such as the infamous opening debate on whether they should side with Leaf or Rock.
"No, I suppose it didn't. Not until it became obvious who was going to end the war that I decided to make my move. Severing all our alliances, I was sincere that Snow was to start fresh and take its chances. That's why I started dissolving the military. I was tempted to just do away with it in one act and let the pieces fall where they were." He gave a sad smile as he shook his head. "But after almost a decade of war, the people had suffered enough. I needed to do things slowly. And this time, I knew I couldn't let you hinder my plans. So I went over your head. When I first saw your intentions to overthrow…" He didn't finish, but it was obvious what he was about to say.
That he was prepared for his 'bloodless revolution' to become bloody. "Be as little as possible," Doto picked up. "You dwindled your own allies, stamped on your own image. So when the time came, it - "
"It would be a small conflict, limited to just the castle here, yes. That was my hope," the elder brother confirmed. "And so far, it's working."
Doto didn't need to argue with that. Because it was working. But who would come out on top, that was not yet apparent. So he asked the question he burning in his throat. "Why, Sousetsu? Why do this?"
I can still remember my brother's gaze. Hard. Steady. He didn't blink, he didn't turn away. He just looked at me. It was like an ancient man, looking through the depths of time, and merely accepting what he saw, no matter how much of it turned his stomach. And then, and only then, did he finally speak.
"Because I never wanted to be Daimyo in the first place."
"Do you remember my 11th birthday party?"
"… of course. You successfully negotiated with the Earth Daimyo, accomplishing something our country hadn't acquired in decades. Father and Mother all felt you deserved it." Doto paused for a slight moment and then continued. "As did I."
"I didn't." Sousetsu put a hand to his head, as if shouting out a memory. "It may have appeared that way, even to the Earth delegates, but I was a bundle of nerves the entire time. All those eyes staring on me. My nerves felt like they were on fire. It felt like mountain after mountain was being piled on top of me. I could barely breathe. I only held it together because our parents were there, supporting me.
"It was on the trip home that I realized how much I didn't want to go through that again. Even now, those same feelings threaten to consume me. I was much happier in the old days, just goofing off. Letting my inventions drive me, encouraging your creativity."
"Why didn't you say anything?" Doto pressed. "If not to me, at least to mother and father - "
"I did," Sousetsu cut in. "Several times. I told them I wasn't ready, that I couldn't do it. They gave me the same thing each time: That the government and the people were both necessary for the country to survive. And I knew no other way. That was how things had gone; rulers of the countries were all determined by birth, with the heirs inheriting power regardless of whether they want to or not, regardless of whether they're capable of not." He closed his eyes, breathing out to compose himself. "And I was too weak to fight back without seeing another option." He opened his eyes and looked at Doto.
"Until you did it."
I had a sneaking suspicion of what he was referring to.
"I offered you the position of Commander-in-Chief. I was sincere then, in case you're wondering. I felt I couldn't leave what fate had lain before me, so I thought I could lessen the burden if I shared the responsibility. But you ran off. That stunned me, and made me realize the obvious: Why not just refuse?"
He gave a laugh. It was hollow and deprived of warmth. "You ran away, and in the end chose whether to accept the position or not. Such a simple action, yet it honestly never occurred to me. But it shows, Doto, that you weren't as brainwashed as I was by our teachings, that you could open your eyes to other options. That's why I felt I wasn't worthy of being a Daimyo. The day I became the Daimyo was the first time I realized I did have a choice. That was when I implemented my bloodless revolution, trying to bankrupt us by the time of the Festival of Lights."
"And what would have happened if you had succeeded, brother?"
"Then I would have done what should had been done long ago: Given power to the People. Give them the right to choose their leaders. Allow individuals who are prepared for it to take responsibility and power, instead of those claiming it simply because they were born to do so. Had my scheme worked, I would have guided their hands under the guise of atoning, making it so the people would realize they had to choose their own leaders. A democracy."
Democracy. A thing mentioned only in story books. An ideal dream that all those stories always showed; just a dream. No system was perfect, not even the noble ones. Perhaps ESPECIALLY the noble-guided ones.
"As I said, as my plans went awry, I was tempted to modify my goals," Sousetsu continued. "You taking over as a military dictatorship may not have been what I wanted, but I felt the change would be enough to become what I wanted. That you had a sound enough head on your shoulders to ensure you wouldn't just let anyone replace you given how much you thought of the people." He gave a shrug. "In my darkest moments, I was even tempted to let a foreign power conquer us, just so I could go and be done with it."
"I can't say I would have," Doto spoke up. "My only thought during those years of war was how to keep the Government strong, even if it meant the people would be paying the price."
"I know. And that's why I abandoned that." Sousetsu held up a hand. "I know, you had the right idea. You were looking out for the whole, saving it with the sacrifices of the few. But just because I could understand it, doesn't mean I approved it."
"So you decided to just do away with pretense, abandoning everything and demolishing the military by direct means." Doto felt his own second wind returning. That his justifications in doing so were right if his brother had overlooked something so basic. "Did you think even a democracy would allow this country to survive even if you demolished the military? The war should have shown you how easy and carefree the Major Nations would take advantage of the minor ones and how even the smallest incidents can create war."
Sousetsu waited and gave a low chuckle in his throat. "Please, Doto, just because I don't want this job doesn't mean I don't know how to do it. I need to dismantle the military for what's to come. Just like the government. For something new to come in…" He reached into his sleeve and took out a piece of paper. "…the old must first go out."
"… so you intend to paper cut them to death?" Doto pressed, not amused.
"Hardly. It's something I invented. I call it gunpowder."
Even now, I snort at that statement. Such little powder that could reshape the world. Please. Like that would ever happen.
"It won't be the era of the samurai or even the shinobi," Sousetsu went on. "It'll be the era of the soldier. With the new weapon designs I have for gunpowder, we could train in a month an entire battalion of soldiers, what would take years of effort and training for either a samurai or shinobi."
All the talk about gunpowder, how Sousetsu had the foresight after all and that he was playing all this like a pro was finally pushing Doto to the limit. "So, you had it all planned out! From start to finish! I suppose you taking Mikata in as your new wife was part of some grand scheme too!?"
I don't know why I said that. I knew what had happened… maybe I just wanted to get it off my chest. Maybe I was just wanted to lash out at him, show him I was just as informed as he was. But either way, the reaction I got was not one I expected. My elder brother's facial features fell. A downcast look, all the energy he had just moments ago gone, a shell of his former self. Until, at least he spoke.
"… if there is any sin I have committed during all this time that is unpardonable, it is that," Sousetsu confessed, staring at the ground. "When she first came to me… I was in shock. I knew of you two's plans… and I couldn't believe that she would suggest such a thing to me. I told her that whatever bodyguard plan she had in mind was unneeded and slammed the door in her face. I wanted to believe that was the intention rather than what she was actually proposing."
He seemed to grow weaker with every word. "… but then… when Funsui died… and she came… I couldn't say no. It may have been a political marriage, but the two of us were making a life together, we were making our marriage move beyond political to affection. And when she passed… it was like I had a hole in my heart that wouldn't heal… and I was desperate to fill it again." A single tear appeared in the elder brother's right eye. "… and I couldn't say 'no'. Not again. I knew it was wrong, I knew I should have been stronger…" He wiped his face. "But you cannot possibly imagine what it is like to lose your other half, Doto. It turns you, tears you in ways you can never believe possible. It was my weakness that destroyed what you had, brother, and for that I am more sorry than I can ever say. If I could undo one mistake in my life, it would be that."
The Daimyo looked directly into Doto's eyes as he let that sink in. "Even over the opportunity to avoid becoming the Daimyo in the first place… it is Mikata's advances I would undo given the chance."
I believed him. For what it's worth, I believed Sousetsu's words at that moment.
Before Doto could say anything else in that, they heard sounds of battle. And it was coming closer. "And so it ends," Sousetsu said, readjusting his position in his throne. "The fighting will end soon. Your forces will succeed. I'm sorry, brother, but I must make one more unpardonable sin."
Doto gave a dismissive wave, while lowering his other hand to his katana. "This blade slew Mikata… and now it'll claim you."
For the first time, genuine shock came over the elder brother's face. He seemed weaker. His face was desperate to scream out a denial, but that quickly fled as realization quietly seeped in. "… then it seems my sin is not unpardonable after all. But know what is about to happen… it was never personal against you."
Doto thumbed his katana out of its sheath. "You don't have the forces to…"
I trailed off right then, forgetting to draw my weapon as comprehension slammed me in the face with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. There WAS someone among Sousetsu's side that I realized could do the deed my brother was indicating. One that was skilled enough to do what was needed, even amongst everything I had gathered. Something we had just touched on moments ago why this world was so dangerous and why a strong military presence was required.
The Leaf Ninja. My brother had brought the Leaf Ninja here… to kill me. To make me the one responsible for all this and throw the blame off him.
I should have seen it.
Doto turned his head towards the door, but his hand was frozen at his side, unable to move and defend himself. A moment later, the doors opened and in came a series of individuals.
Rouga Nadare. Kakuyoku Fubuki. Fukukuma Mizore. At their feet was little Koyuki herself, clearly frightened. For the first time, Sousetsu's face faltered and panic began to enter. "Koyuki!"
The little girl broke out of her captors' arms - or more accurately, they let her go - as she ran across the throne room. Doto didn't even try to stop his brother as he got off his throne. His daughter threw herself into his arms, wailing. Doto did nothing to hinder this. This was something his brother should have done, not this whole democracy plot he had been ranting about earlier.
A small kindness, nothing more.
Holding his daughter, the Daimyo glanced over his child's shoulder and gave a look of pure wrath. "Don't even have the decency to leave the child out of this, brother?"
Doto didn't answer him. Several things came to mind to say, from that his brother deserved this, that no one was innocent including his own niece, to even extending a merciful hand to his niece. That was actually closer to his intentions; he had assigned one of his ninja to acquire the girl and take her out of here. He had wanted to use her as the new symbol for his era. A cute face like that would have been splendid, not to mention the perfect imagery: The daughter atoning for the crimes of her father.
Nadare, however, answered first by walking over to towards the two. He said no words, but his stance carried more impact than anything he could have said. His walk was full of purpose, and his face iron cast. "Decency. Says the one that is trying to demolish this country, Daimyo-sama," Nadare said at last. "This is what the ninja think about you wanting to disband Yukigakure."
Swinging his leg around, he slammed his knee directly into Sousetsu's face. The impact crushed the man's face, breaking the grip between father and daughter. Sousetsu went rolling across the ground, only coming to a stop at the base of his throne, giving a cry of pain with blood flowing through his nose.
"Papa!" Koyuki cried out, tears flowing down her face as she tried to move towards her father. But Doto reached out, placing a hand on her shoulder. Koyuki looked over at him.
Even now, I could see those eyes. I saw them in my dreams, a fleeting look, pleading, desperate for my help. A child looking at a familiar face, one of a family member, to stop the madness before here.
I said nothing to her. Because there was nothing to say. Let the actions speak for themselves.
For I felt no need to assure her.
Fubuki and Mizore walked over, on either side of Sousetsu, a wicked grin on her face. "Those Leaf ANBU were a handful. They gave us more trouble than all your staff put together."
"This is what happens when you side with the enemy and against your own countrymen," Mizore said, cracking his knuckles.
With those words, all three of them began assaulting my brother while he lay helpless. They didn't limit themselves. Punches. Kicks. Kunai. They struck him over and over. The child lost her voice, her knees giving out as she fell, watching all this horror play out in front of her eyes. As for me? I was mesmerized; not by what was happening to my brother, but those three. The first ones under my own tutelage.
These three had been so passionate. I can still remember them within Kaigen's home after that accident, trying to piece together his Chakra Armor, devastated that they could not accomplish their task, failing at their sensei's legacy. I had molded these three under my wing, teaching them, guiding them to what they had become now.
Individuals who could beat a helpless man and feel no remorse over their actions. And why should they? They were operating on their task, against the man that threatened their existence. Not allowing emotions to sway their duty, no matter how amoral it may seem to the casual viewer. Even a child.
Exactly how the ninja SHOULD operate.
And I couldn't have been prouder.
That's when it happened. From seemingly the shadows themselves, a flicker of hellish light, dancing in the palm of a hand. Time seemed to freeze as our eyes drew towards this new light, which spawned into a full grown man, dressed as an ANBU, lightning itself dancing in his hand, a beautiful yet deadly light.
"THE LEAF NINJA! THEY'RE NOT ALL DEAD!"
I don't know who shouted that. Perhaps it was one of my ninja… maybe it was even me. Perhaps even Sousetsu, or even little Koyuki.
Doto felt himself unable to move, fear clutching him by the throat. He saw the man's eyes… one of them normal, the other one a glaring red eye, spinning around at an accelerated rate. The Sharingan, no doubt using its properties to cast genjutsu. Even the backwaters of the world knew of those eyes. Though why this one only had one Sharingan, he had no idea and it really didn't matter. One was enough. Doto cursed himself for letting his guard down. He saw the man charging directly at him, that electrified hand clearly aiming for Doto's own throat. Doto was powerless to stop it, and Nadare, Mizore and Fubuki nowhere near ready to try and intercept.
It was the small cry that did it.
The ANBU's entrance had startled the child, snapping her out of her stupor. The ANBU's eyes glanced at the child, as if seeing her for the first time. Doto could practically picture the man's indecision; he had the perfect shot, a few more seconds and he could kill Doto, end this madness in the Snow Country… at the potential cost of an innocent child, covered by three Yuki-nin.
Doto didn't even have time to consider using Koyuki as possible leverage against the Leaf Ninja because his assailant made the decision and chose the second option. The ANBU darted to the other side, bypassing Doto by about half a foot and directly towards the child. By this time, Nadare and the others were trying to intercept.
That's when the electricity in the man's hand exploded into a blinding ball of light. It sounded as if a thousand birds were chirping all at once, making the people of the Snow cover their ears in a vain attempt to drown out the sound. When the blinding light and noise died down, Doto looked up, seeing Koyuki in the ANBU's arms. She was crying out for her father as the ANBU darted towards the throne room doors, kicking them open with such ferocity. In that moment, Doto saw it.
Around Koyuki's neck was something that hadn't been there prior. A small necklace with a single crystal in the shape of a hexagon.
I know for certain that my niece had not been wearing that before. Something like that would have stood out from the start. It only took me a moment to realize that my brother must have slipped it on his daughter in the moments that they had embraced. That little crystal was all it took to confirm that I did not know everything about my brother's schemes over the years. And the weight of what that crystal meant, even I could not have fathomed in that one moment.
"After him!" Nadare shouted. "The idiot is dead already!" Doto said nothing as he watched his three shinobi chasing after the Konoha ANBU and his niece. Alone, one of them wouldn't be enough for such a foe, but together with a child as a liability, the ANBU would be screwed. But all Doto could find himself doing was thinking on that little necklace. It made Doto remember their childhood, with how Sousetsu would constantly -
"… shove off the consequences, not giving proper consideration to my actions." Doto looked over his shoulder, seeing Sousetsu trying to pick himself up. So, not dead after all. But given the beating his three underlings had inflicted upon him, it was easy to assume that Sousetsu had died under the onslaught. There was little doubt the child had certainly thought so.
Pushing himself up with his arms and getting to a knee, Sousetsu continued. "… that's what you were thinking, wasn't it, little brother?" He gave a grunt of pain before placing a foot firmly on the floor and pushing himself to his feet. "Really now, I know you think low of me… but do you really think you're the only one who's changed or taken life's lessons to heart?"
Doto gave his brother his full attention. "You mean…?"
A low chuckle escaped the Daimyo's mouth. "… come on, it's obvious, isn't it? Did you really think I would… set my plans in motion for a new government… and not give it the means to support itself? What would I gain… if I set up a new system… but it lacked the necessary foundation to support itself in the coming years. It's simple logic, dear brother."
Sousetsu broke out in an expression of pure delight. "… it's called the Hex Crystal, brother. Ironic. It would be the key to your dreams and cementing your power for your own ambitions… but your forces will never catch the Konoha-nin. And your own downfall will begin. Your new dream wouldn't even last out the year."
"The work I am doing will bring wealth to this country! I realize I made some grave oversights, brother, but rest assured, they are for a reason! When this plan comes through, Snow will have everything it needs and more! Wealth, renewed life… spring!"
"So that's what you meant…" Doto replied, feeling his chest grow heavier. Each word that Sousetsu spoke was like thrusting a weight on top of the younger brother's chest, forcing him to concede he had been blind to Sousetsu's own gambits, not being nearly as clever as Doto had assumed he had been. Doto was about to counter, if only to regain some sense of standing.
But someone beat him to it.
"Really, Daimyo-sama, your ignorance only shows the one who has failed to grasp his opponent in this battle of wits." Both men looked over to the corner. Springing to life from the shadows in the corner, a wrinkled old woman appeared, cackling that laugh of hers.
And perhaps for the first time, Sousetsu looked terrified.
"Kya heh heh," Akufu laughed, taking full form as she walked into the room. "Ya should never assume your opponent has revealed their pieces from the get-go, never mind revealing your own hand prematurely."
"… you… im-impossible…" He turned white, which admittedly, didn't take much considering the sorry state he was in from his beating as he turned to his brother. "You… you couldn't have - "
"Akufu," Doto confirmed. This was delightful, knowing that Sousetsu hadn't known all of his secrets as he had bragged. Without looking at his accomplice, he continued. "I thought I ordered you to eliminate those Konoha-nin specifically so they wouldn't turn into a wild card for this."
The implication hit Sousetsu with the force of a sledgehammer as what little strength he had left gave out, falling to his knees. Between that and his beating, Doto was relatively sure his brother had just shattered his kneecaps.
The Enigma of Snow inclined her head. "My apologies. They reacted sooner than I anticipated and I had to track them down amidst the fighting. The first three fell easily enough, but as you've seen, that last one was in a league of his own." Her gaze settled on Sousetsu. "Since he is Hatake Kakashi, apprentice to the Leaf's Yellow Flash himself."
Sousetsu looked like he had been punched; clearly, he hadn't expected anyone to realize it.
Doto himself was equally surprised, but he feigned a look of confidence. "Yes, I recognized him from the single Sharingan eye." Kakashi might not be as well known as his sensei, but the young man had also gained his own reputation during the war. "That certainly explains the trouble he's caused. But now that we know the name, even if he does manage to escape, we'll be able to track him down. And find your little girl as a result."
To that, Sousetsu let out a curse. One that Doto could not recall hearing from his elder brother's mouth. Indeed, he couldn't recall Sousetsu swearing at any point in his life.
Now it was time to finish this. He walked over to his brother as Sousetsu tried to pick himself up. As Doto closed in, Sousetsu drew out a kunai. Probably one that Nadare and the others had used. He tried to stab at his younger brother, but Doto batted it away like it was a toy. And in Sousetsu's hands, it might as well have been. He reached out, clasping the elder man by the throat. Throwing his arm back, he tossed his brother through the air where he hit his own throne, slumping into it. The pain of his other injuries accumulated into one brief shout of agony.
A fitting picture, given Sousetsu's confession of harboring resentment against his position. Broken and bleeding in the Daimyo's seat.
It was time. Time to do what he needed. He walked over, reaching for the katana at his side, ready to do what he had come to do.
"Wait." Both brothers looked over, seeing Akufu walk over. "Allow me, Daimyo-sama."
I had not pictured nor planned anyone else to fell my brother save for my own hand. Unlike with Mikata, it was merely because as instigator of this revolt, the responsibility should be mine. However, seeing my brother's pure terror at the Snow Witch made me reconsider. I nodded my approval.
Akufu walked forward towards Sousetsu, who was currently trying to sit up straight despite his injuries. Standing a few meters away from the throne, she tossed off her gloves and brought her wrinkled hands to her mouth, biting down on both of her thumbs. She then made a series of seals, ten in all. Doto recognized some of the seals in accordance with the Kuchiyose no Jutsu, while the others were completely foreign to Doto. After the sequence, Akufu slammed both her hands down on the ground and a familiar black spider-web of runes appeared, only to fade shortly after.
However, no creature appeared. Or even an item summoning. It was something else entirely. A black hole was opening directly above Sousetsu. It truly looked like a black hole, as sucking winds came from it. Pieces of the room began flying upwards towards the hole, while Sousetsu desperately tried to keep ahold of his throne.
That's when they all saw it.
In that black hole was a drooling, hungry mouth. Filled to the rim with razor sharp teeth.
It was so familiar, the desperate plea of wanting the help from his younger brother. At that moment, they weren't bitter hostile opponents with the future of the state and its people between them, in a war of clashing ideals and means.
In that single moment, they were once again the close brothers they had been since childhood.
Which was why when Sousetsu finally lost his grip and started flying towards that mouth in the hole… that Doto appeared, grabbing the edge of the throne for support as he clasped his brother's hand.
"Doto…" The tone in the elder's voice was one of heartwarming, genuinely touched… with the faint hope that maybe… just maybe… there was a chance for them to be the way they had been.
At least until Sousetsu saw that Doto kept increasing the pressure on his grip. Sousetsu's facial features fell as comprehension drew on while his hand was getting more and more crushed by Doto's iron grip.
"Good bye… nii-san."
So in the end… I decided… it had to be by my hand after all. Anything else would be unacceptable.
Doto continued crushing Sousetsu's hand in his grip… until Sousetsu's hand was so completely crushed that it slipped out. Sousetsu gave out a terrified shriek as he was sucked upwards towards that waiting mouth above, hungrily awaiting…
… a moment later, it slammed closed, and Sousetsu was no more.
His brother's blood fell down, hitting Doto, as did other remains of the now former Daimyo. The black hole thing began closing upon the consumption. The sight of what happened seemed to cleanse Doto, officially confirming that the person he had once been was dead… and now a new Doto, the new Daimyo of the new Snow Country, was born. He felt as if he had reached enlightenment, for this was the way to deal with those who dared to defy him.
Total annihilation. Butchering those who did not know their place.
"And now it is done," Akufu spoke up as that black hole closed up entirely. She got down on one knee, placing a hand against her chest. "My Lord Daimyo-sama."
Hearing that felt so… GOOD.
He looked up at the spot on the ceiling where that entity had been, allowing himself to bask in Akufu's acknowledgement. "What was that thing?"
She answered with one simple sentence. One I would never forget.
"We all have our debts to pay, Doto-sama."
What she meant by that, I will never know. Nor, frankly, did I care. Because Sousetsu was dead. Daimyo of fourteen years, widower, father of one, was dead. I had won. It was exhilarating, I had never felt more alive than in that moment. It was like an addiction, the taste of victory. I wanted, NEEDED, more. I craved more. To grind people under my heel and make them mine. It had not been an easy road, and any pretense to this was simply idiotic.
Which is why I gave no thought to what Akufu was implying, for the past or even for the future. There were only two things going through my mind.
I. Had. Won.
I wanted more.
It was over. Doto and his second shadow stood on top of the palace walls, looking down at the blazing inferno that was consuming stone, wood, and flesh below. Bodies lingered everywhere, a few of which were Doto's own supporters. And in light of Sousetsu's intention to let this coup follow through, it made perfect sense. People who were, by definition, expendable, littered the ground. For a moment, the two ringleaders just watched everything being devoured by the ever-growing flames.
"You've won, Daimyo-sama." Akufu stood at his side, just slightly behind him, a posture she had adopted several times throughout their work together. "Your brother is dead, the Ninja stand with ye, and the Country is yours." She put a hand across her chest and inclined her head. "As I am yours to command."
Doto didn't respond right away to that, his eyes reflecting the fire dancing before them both. A slight wind roared over, fluttering their clothes a bit and bringing a momentary chill to both of them.
"No. Not yet."
Akufu stood up from her posture. "Nay?"
"This is merely the first step," Doto elaborated, keeping his gaze upon the castle. He was holding a small woolen bag in his right hand, something special he had reserved for this very moment. "I have the country, but now the real work begins. Rebuilding, consulting our strength, having the people's wills behind me." His eyes narrowed, seeing his own supporters cheering in the carnage, drunk on their own victory. That was fine, they had earned it. "And there are, naturally, external dangers. Ones we must be prepared for."
"Ye are referring to Hasaki, no doubt," Akufu offered. There was a glint in her eye, like that of a hungry predator spotting an easy kill. "She knows too much. Information that can be used against us. It will be my honor to eliminate - "
Doto cut her off with a simple snort. "Perhaps in the future, but our Mist confederates are only one avenue among many that need to be handled. And by the same manner we used with her: Money."
"I imagine a large increase to your funds will be immensely helpful to your cause. Weapons. Food. People's personal loyalties. All of these and more can be bought by money. And the more you have, the more you gain."
Those words had been true back then… they still held true now. And the last bit of my late brother's legacy would be the answer to all my problems.
"Sousetsu was right about one thing: I was blind to his own growth," Doto announced. He made sure to avoid seeing Akufu's reaction to that statement; he simply did not need it. "I thought he would be so inept in his plans for changing this country that he had forgotten all about the consequences. That he was still the boy of our childhood, I could not - would not…" he immediately clarified. "See the man he had become.
"He had not implemented his own plans without a means to secure them. He has a fortune hidden. A private reserve he intended to use to build this democratic fairy tale of his."
Akufu raised an eyebrow. "If that be true, then perhaps we shouldn't have - "
"Worry not." Doto was beginning to enjoy cutting her off. "Leaving him alive would only have caused trouble; the longer he remained, the more people would be inspired to act on his behalf." He blew out his nose, still mad at himself for missing this. "But he left all we needed to find it; his daughter now wears a necklace with the 'Hex Crystal.' That is the key to Sousetsu's fortune. Those are enough clues for me to triangulate where the treasure is."
"Your three lackeys should still be on Hatake's trail," Akufu summed up. "It should not take them long to get the girl."
"Indeed. Sousetsu's fortune will finance my goals for the future."
The man gave a nod, still refusing to look at her. "Yes, but first we must secure our foundation. First thing tomorrow morning, I will be meeting with Snow's local lords."
The old woman barked up her odd laugh. "What, not going to lead by your own will?"
Doto's quick admission clearly caught the Witch off guard.
"Sousetsu's big mistake was trying to do everything himself," Doto continued, his cape fluttering in the wind. "No matter how grand, ideal, or even perfect a leader is, one man cannot handle the mantle alone. You require those below you to handle matters. No one can see all the angles and options before them, no matter how much time they devote to it." He closed his eyes, the next part harder to admit than he wanted.
"So I require those that will see angles I do not… and those that will tell me when I am wrong. No matter how much I dislike it."
"Wise words. But will you actually adhere to opinions that are not of your own?" she asked, point blank. "Or will you merely strike down those that you tell you something you don't want to hear?"
This time, Doto gave no response. Largely because he had no response. He knew that he must be willing to listen to others, resist any attempt to disregard opposing viewpoints or he would be no better than Sousetsu. The ultimate decision would ultimately be his; that would be his right. It would be his task to make sure he gave the right decision… even if he, himself, hated it. A group of 'Yes-Men' like his brother had and Doto's reign would go down in flames as surely as Sousetsu's had.
So Akufu spoke up. "While I don't disagree with your assessments, Daimyo-sama, the fact of the matter is that the other countries will still need to be tended to. Word of your ascent to power will spread. It makes it a ripe and tempting target to make sure the Snow Country utterly collapses. If ye do not do something, someone else will."
"… yes." Doto agreed.
"What shall we do?"
"Diplomacy." There was no other answer to give. "I will be sending envoys and restoring diplomatic relations with other countries. I believe I can work out a mutual arrangement with the Water Country through Hasaki." Akufu's scowl made it clear she wanted nothing more to do with that Mist swordswoman. "But my immediate focus will be the Earth Country and Iwagakure."
Akufu's scowl changed to one of an approving look.
"It was a mistake to cast off that alliance," Doto went on. "I stand by that as I did when Sousetsu severed it. We need to show the world we are still involved in the affairs of the world, not simply an isolated backwater country ruled by an element." His gaze darkened. "We will become involved, whether the rest of the Countries and Villages like it or not… but they will like it."
"And why should they like it?"
Without turning around, he merely let his cloak open up, revealing his armor. "Because we will offer something the rest of the world lacks. Technology."
"Shouldn't that remain as Snow's ace in the hole?"
"Make no mistake, Akufu. We will keep the best items for ourselves. The fact of the matter is, we have nothing else to offer for my ambitions. With the repercussions of war still fresh, shinobi will be looking for anything to make up for the losses. New talent, new shinobi, new jutsu. We will offer them something they'd never had before: New tech. We will introduce the age of Technological Shinobi, offering up new possibilities never seen before."
At this point, he reached into his bag and took something out. Sousetsu's paper that was the key to the 'era of the soldier'. The man looked at the paper in his left hand. "Sousetsu, admittedly, had the right idea with it." He looked at the gunpowder formula. "But it won't be from this scrap of paper." He tossed it into the air, watching it flutter through the air towards the flames. Already, it was starting to crumple and burn.
Era of the Soldier. Gunpowder? Bah! Like that would ever happen!
"For the Technological Shinobi will change this world," Doto continued, watching Sousetsu's work burn along with everything else. "And change will come when Snow topples the Five Great Countries and crushes the Great Villages under our heels, scattering their dust to the wind."
"Oh yes." Akufu held up her arms and shook her head. She spoke in a softer voice, clearly in mockery. "Like we've never had that before!"
"We haven't," Doto said. "The Great Nations need to go. Just look at the past war: one little incident with one of those damned Villages was enough to send the world into chaos. A conflict that didn't even have anything to do with us!" Anger flared on his face, hotter than all the fire raging around them.
"Their pride causes inferiority among their lessers! Their greed causes poverty for those they take under their wing! Selfish, arrogant, with their Kages obtaining God-Complexes, so consumed by their own power! Their power corrupts and takes the world down with them. We had a fresh reminder of it during our Third Shinobi War." His empty fist clenched hard. "And that war is named as such because three times now, the Great Nations tear the world apart out of pettiness and need to establish dominance, completely ignorant of everyone else suffering just to stay alive. Well, no more… now, they shall be thrown off… and get a taste of what they force the Minor Villages to endure."
Akufu had said nothing during my little tangent. No mockery, no flattery. No serenity, fabricated or otherwise. She just listened.
Because I suspect… that's exactly what she wanted me to do.
After a minute of silence, Akufu finally did speak. "If ye truly intend to do this, then we must make Yukigakure stronger than it ever was," Akufu said. "And not to be the sour apple, but under your guidance, Yukigakure reached its peak during the last war, higher than even Bansou when he first established the Village Hidden in the Snow.
"And foremost, it will require a new Kagirinai Kachuu, one that can surpass all the others. So who shall this new leader be?"
"Me, of course," Doto answered immediately. "It is my right; just as I took the position of Daimyo from my brother, I slew Mikata. As such, I inherit her responsibilities."
"Yes, ye aren't greedy in your ambitions at all." There was dry sarcasm in her voice. She gave a helpless shrug. "Already the Daimyo of a country, what's running the Shinobi Village on top of them?"
"Don't mock me." There was an edge on his voice. A warning. "I'm fully aware that attempting to do both will only undermine my efforts. Even with ninjutsu, I could not be in two places at once." He held up a hand, then promptly put up two fingers. "That's why I will have two 'overseers' in Yukigakure to act as my hands for them."
"And those will be?"
"Do you really have to ask? The first will be you, Akufu. You will be my lead coordinator, my voice and ears in the village. Which means, of course, as far as the public is concerned, you'll be my acting Kagirinai Kachuu in my place… if not in earnest."
This time there was no doubt; there was a glint in Akufu's eyes. Something she wanted. And as long as she did her job, I couldn't care less if this was manipulation on her part.
"And the second, Daimyo-sama?" Akufu prompted.
"Loyalty," he answered. He clutched the bag he was holding tighter, continuing to sweep his gaze to watch the carnage below. By now, his subordinates had resorted to damage control, putting out the fires and salvaging what could be salvaged. "If there's one thing I have learned during these past few years of plotting, it is that loyalty is the one and only trait they need. Shinobi have always been willing to do what is needed, to put aside their own personal feelings for the mission and greater goals. In the days to come, that will become even more essential." He reached into the bag and took out Mikata's Saati Koukennin golden emblem of the steel fist.
"You will be my head… and those Yuki-nin who are absolutely loyal to me will be my body. A standard to which the Ninja of the Snow shall act and aspire. My Loyalists."
I can still remember. She turned to leave to carry out my will and whatever her own hidden agenda was. It was that hidden agenda that was the real reason why I was having her serve as my stand-in for Yukigakure: Akufu would forever be my reminder to not let down my guard. That even those closest to me could and would stab me in the back. A lesson that I must never forget.
I would suffer her treachery because treachery requires no mistakes. A principle to live by.
"Wait. You will not reveal yourself yet. Because there is something you need to understand." For the first time, he turned and looked at her, his face swelling in anger as he held up Mikata's insignia, crushing it so hard it broke apart.
"If you EVER pull a stunt like that again, I WILL KILL YOU."
Suffer her treachery… sure… but not silently and not subverted to her will. Oh no, she would be the underling and I always made sure she damn well knew it. Akufu would get away with what she did to Mikata… but not an INCH more on anything else.
Akufu's response was to flinch from his unexpected anger at her. But she regained her composure and put on a grin. "My dear Doto… I would have it no other way."
Both of them recognized the deliberate lack of an honorific
With those words, Akufu disappeared, returning to her place in the shadows. There would be a time to reveal her proper to both the Country and the Village she would oversee, but it would not be now. Years later, perhaps. For now, she was better served to be working from her shadows… put in her place as it were.
Sure that he was alone, he reached into his bag one final time and took out two items.
His novel, Flight of Dragons, and his dragon statue. Both precious mementos from his childhood.
"And with this," he said, tossing both of them into the inferno below. "The Doto of old is dead… and the Doto of the New… is born. As is my era."
It was then I finally allowed what I needed. The first - and the last - time since I began my crusade to take this country.
I let all my tears flow out of me. Because from that point onward, I would have no tears to shed, because I would have no regrets to force tears. I would do what I must because I had the vision for what was needed. It would be hard, but I would succeed.
It should have been easy, in all honesty. Sousetsu's reputation worked against him, as the vast majority of the country still saw him as a childish ruler more interested in his own trinkets than in governing. And I was a war hero. I certainly had my naysayers, but I put on a public stance that showed I was willing to listen to those that disagreed with me if nothing else. That set the right impression to many.
I presented Mikata's head to the people, telling them sweet words about her treachery, conspiring with my brother to bring ruin to this country, justifying my actions to my ascension to power. One must always have a scapegoat when you are doing things that are against socially accepted morals. I did not show anything of my brother; instead I allowed imagination to rule their minds: had he died fighting to the bitter end? Had Sousetsu begged and pleaded for mercy while kissing my feet? Had he been in on my plot and accepted it as a willing sacrifice?
All these rumors and more spread throughout the Snow Country, each of them wondering what had been my brother's final fate. I encouraged it, with no need to tell them the truth. The stories, theories they would tell would only fuel the fire, becoming grander and grander to the point where the truth would seem like an utter disappointment.
So I let them decide for themselves what happened to my dear brother. I knew the truth; I was the only one who needed to know the truth.
And yet, despite all my hard work and efforts, during these last ten years under my rule, things did not go as smoothly as I wanted.
The first was obvious: those blasted Saati Koukennin. As expected, the Mist lured out Mikata's chief supporters, but felt no inclination to risk themselves to eliminate those men and women. As soon as they heard my proclamations, they began an espionage campaign. Trying to discredit me, sabotaging my efforts at every chance they could. They worked in small cells, usually only two or three at a time. What made them different from other would-be rebel organizations was that they did not attempt to gather support from the population. There were attacks on me and my person, but never any public damnations, no cry to rally support.
In effort, it was more effective that way. They could do what they deemed necessary, even if it meant civilians being caught in the crossfire. It was a shame, really, as with other shinobi, they had been molded into my image, following my ideas. They had put their emotions aside for their goal. Exactly as shinobi should.
It was a pity they had to be slain. A true shame. I could always use more pawns.
The next was Hatake himself. My three students, who would later adopt the name San Eihei when they stopped one of the Guardian's assassination attempts on me, continued to track Hatake for years, looking for any lead they could on Koyuki. But it was as if she had vanished into thin air. She was not in Konohagakure, nor any other ideal place such as with the Fire Daimyo in their Capital. Nadare even once suggested that Hatake had killed the girl, intending to produce a replacement - ie: a suitably trained Leaf Ninja in her appearance - to later act against me, but I rebuked that notion immediately. The idea that Hatake had simply slit her throat and buried the body was absurd. Leaf was too kindhearted for that option, plus having saved the girl in the first place, it would be counterproductive.
As such, without Koyuki and her Hex Crystal, I could not gain access to my brother's fortune. It took me three years of hardcore searching, but I did at last find it. I tried several times to force the lock open, but to no avail. Perhaps my brother's tinkering had paid off in ways I had not foreseen. And so, that treasure sat, untouched in my poor starving country.
And poor starving country was an adequate analogy for the Snow Country. As I assumed the Daimyo's seat, I assumed its debts and allegations. The world still held a bitter regard for Snow's abandonment during the final battles of the Third Shinobi War, resentment that would not be easily swayed. I had some successes. I worked a cold truce with the Water Country. I managed to reopen friendly relations with Iwagakure. No small feat there, given how we deserted them, but due to Leaf's repercussions, they were thankful for any support, anything to regain their lost standing. As were we. And several nations and villages did take up our line of Chakra Armor. A few minor villages such as Grass and Rock itself were our biggest investors, eagerly taking it up as children did with new toys.
Still, it was not enough. The other nations turned a blind eye to us, wanting nothing to do with us. They dismissed our Chakra Armor technology, convinced we were con artists. That if we had such things, surely we would have used them in the war. Iwagakure being a sponsor of us did not come across as a powerful benefactor, but a third rate power trying to loudly cry 'We are still on top'.
As the old saying went, 'the louder the bark, the weaker the bite'. And that is how the world saw Rock… as they did us.
Meaning, of course, that Snow was not much more financially stable than it had been in the years preceding my rule. People who had hoped that my rise to power would change that became disheartened and discouraged. It was ultimately why the people could not be trusted with the fate of the country. My efforts weren't as fruitful as everyone would have liked, but we weren't in poverty either. Rebuilding had begun, jobs were coming. People may have lived in ill housing, but everyone was warm and had at least two meals a day. It was hardly ideal, but it was better than what they had. I often pointed out my own palace lacked many creature comforts as their own homes did.
Of course, they all knew this. I made sure they did… but it was easy to see their point. Through the war, my strife with my brother and now this, it had been almost a decade of constant demands of sacrifice on their parts. They were simply tired and wanting to go back to peace and prosperity, fed up with always having to sacrifice with little in return.
And when I introduced Akufu officially… that was the turning point. People began to openly voice their complaints and dissatisfaction, going as far as to say things had been better with Sousetsu, that I was just a ruthless tyrant consumed with my own power, or - my personal favorite - bewitched by the Witch of the Snow. Even cries that Koyuki was still alive and that she should assume power.
I held strong. I knew everything that went on in the country and Yukigakure was in my grasp. I controlled the ninja, and therefore, I controlled the country. Like the rest of the population, many of the ninja had been horrified at my actions, but thanks to the portion that had supported me in my coup, they were able to prevent any discord, or worse, civil war. The fact that I had Mikata's head was enough to convince them that I had taken down their leader and strongest and by basic sense, I had earned the position. Many were disgruntled with me… but they obeyed.
I struggled hard over these long years. I put up with the people's complaints, which became more numerous, prompting me to create my Hell Asylum in order to show them the error of their ways and what happened when you opposed me. I spent years swaying and earning the allegiance of Snow's local lords. I sacrificed much to make the other countries happy, earning what support I could to ensure Snow's safety.
And during my personal time, I honed myself. Not just executive skills needed to rule, but my own person. I spent time improving the Chakra Armor. With Kaigen gone, no one knew more about it than I did and I was determined to see it stayed that way. Its incorporation into Yukigakure was met with resistance, but once the other shinobi saw what it could do, they began soaking it up like water. It only took three years for the entire village to become completely centered around the use of the Chakra Armor, as if the Eternal Maelstrom had stated the tradition himself.
And this is why we would succeed against the Great Nations when the time came… because the Shinobi of the Snow would adapt. We would evolve. We would meet the future and change with it, becoming something new, while those hotheads remain static, unchanging in their mindset. That would be their ultimate undoing.
So when the last Saati Koukennin finally fell… things FINALLY started going my way! Public outcries became less and less. We were slowly but surely becoming more financially stable. Creature comforts were few, but they were returning. The cries and support for Sousetsu all but disappeared, though cries for Koyuki still lingered. That was bearable. Yukigakure was flourishing, becoming stronger than ever. Not just with the Chakra Armor, but in mind, body, spirit, and determination. Breakthroughs like my train earned me much-needed popular support.
Ten years. Ten long, hard, grueling years… and finally, the pieces for my ambitions were in place! At long last, we had come to the point where we would overthrow the Five Great Nations. I would show no mercy, not even to Iwagakure, our allies of old. If I went easy on one, it would show weakness to everyone else. Iwagakure, the Village Hidden in the Rocks, was far from innocent, so it would be divine retribution.
The Five Villages started all this… they will all disappear together.
And to see it all… lost, to these three punks? To mere CHILDREN? I had watched the past day, seeing my efforts crumbling because of three little Leaf brats!
I will not stand for this! I care not if my body is beaten and broken! I care not if the treasure was some stupid heat generator! It will take a few more years, maybe even another ten, but I will not be beaten! Not here, not now!
My body was shutting down on me, but I forced myself up. I can see the children looking at me, their eyes as fierce as birds of prey. Not believing I was any threat, but not lowering their guard either. Each of them were beat up, more exhausted on account of fighting my underlings.
This will be the final bout… and I will emerge victorious! I will not be done in by three little brats! ESPECIALLY NOT THE FOX BOY AND HIS DIRTY MOUTH!
I will win. Because I AM THE DAIMYO! I AM THE KAGIRINAI KACHUU! I AM THE SNOW COUNTRY AND YUKIGAKURE ALL ROLLED INTO ONE!
I WILL NOT LOSE…
… BECAUSE I AM THE HEAD OF THE GOVERNMENT!
Next Chapter: Doto's Final Stand
(Been while since we had one of these, hasn't it?)
In a room bereft of light, Doto sits in a chair, looking at a fireplace.
O my Blessed Mother
I will do what must be done
By my right and widely trusted will
Doto stands up and walks towards the fireplace.
Holy Father, would you
Look at me with pride or disdain
For what must be done for this fallen land?
Doto's gaze turns towards the ceiling
So tell me, my mother
Why I see them standing there,
mocking laughter mixed with joyous gleam?
Smoke raises from the fireplace, assuming the forms of Sousetsu and Mikata embracing each other
I feel it, the contempt!
Hot and bitter as sun's hateful glare
is scorching now across this failing land!
The forms of Sousetsu and Mikata pointing and laughing before the smoke breaks apart into thin air, to be placed by roaring flames.
An all-consuming fire!
The fire jumps up higher, threatening to consume the very room itself.
This burning, consuming flame
is turning me to Death!
Doto falls to his knees as images of his parents appear on either side of him, with looks of stern judgment
Why am I at fault?!
His mother's gaze hardens.
Why are they not to blame?
His father shook his head.
It is the wretch
That is the man behind the throne
Both his parents just look on.
It is my FAULT!
For in this plan...
As one, both of them point to the fireplace.
... oh why couldn't things
have only stayed the same!?
At that, their images burst apart as the flames dance higher, consuming the two images.
So tell me, my Mother,
what shall I do in light of this?
In the flames, Mikata appears, destroying her own shinobi headband.
What else can I do for to save my soul?
Destroy my brother, cast him into the depths of hell
Joining her in the flames came Sousetsu with the Kazahana Palace before it promptly collapses.
Or is this burden mine to bear alone?
At that, the images disappeared when the door opened, revealing the Witch herself.
It is time, my lord. Give the word.
Doto looks at her and gives no hesitation.
Proceed. We strike tonight.
The witch leaves as Doto resumes his gaze to the fireplace.
Hellfire, my fire, the time has finally come
It's me or the fire!
Images of Doto appeared over a map of the Snow Country, contrasting Sousetsu and Mikata's embrace.
It's me or all shall burn!
All the images were immediately burnt up, leaving nothing left.
Mother have mercy on them
Father have mercy on me
Doto falls to his knees as the flames die down to normal.
But it will be done and they shall roast
Doto punches the floor with his right hand, shattering it.
"So be it."
And done! Finally! You know, sometimes I just write on knowing my page count continues to climb but going with it anyway. This… was not one of those times. Due to working two jobs, I worked on this chapter in segments. Sometimes just paragraphs at a time. With chapters like this, I follow my outlines more than anything and as such, didn't realize how much I had written until I completed it. Whoops!
More importantly, Doto's tale comes to an end. Make of it what you will, but there are two aspects of this I'm hoping do come across. The first is that no one is born evil, and the second is that no one becomes evil overnight. Doto is a complete and utter monster in the movie and I wanted to show the slow process on how he could become such and still have humble beginnings. Even understandable motives. So if I succeeded in that, then all this was worth it.
If the Naruto and Nadare fight was the more difficult fight in this story, the most difficult character was Sousetsu. Namely… what to do with him? He's already dead by the point in the movie, so we don't get any first-hand characterization of him. What we do get are second-hand sources that aren't the most credible.
We have Koyuki's memory of course… as a five year old child, still new to the world. There's Sandayuu, of course, but through his own admission, he was on the bottom of the food chain, not exactly one privy to the head of the state and the inner workings. Then there's the brutal tyrant Doto… and anything he says should be taken with a grain of salt at best. Sousetsu didn't hide a wealth of treasure, now did he?
In the end, it was what the actors said that gave me what I needed. That regardless who Sousetsu actually was, saint, manipulator, demon or savior… the world remembers him as a useless tinker who wasted away his Country's resources on personal goodies.
So I went with that and that came up with the idea of what if Sousetsu didn't want to be Daimyo, and instead just be an inventor? I followed that train of thought and the result is what you just read.
Doto isn't ready or willing to go down just yet, so we've got that and a bit more cleaning up to do before we can call this story complete. The good news is I'm not any aiming for anything big; the last few chapters are going to be regular length and far more manageable. So wish me luck with these! Until next time!
Also, Chuuten is still on the to do list. As always I will begin work on it when Ninja Clash is done. Both are part of the Legacy Series, so need to finish one part before going to the next. I can only thank you all for your continued patience.
Mujun - Contradiction
I do not own Naruto. It belongs to Masashi Kishimoto. Hellfire is property of Disney. Also, any jutsu that Tellemicus created that are used in this story belongs to him. Big thanks to Paintball-Gamer for beta reading this!