Location Unknown, Training Field just outside the Main Otogakure Base...
Allowing the blade to whistle by harmlessly, Sasuke smashed the dull side of his own sword against the attacker's temple, prompting the Oto ninja to crumple at his feet. Continuing the motion, Sasuke spun around to deflect a barrage of shuriken, leaving him open to an attack from a muscular Oto ninja wielding an Odachi. For a brief second it seemed as if the ambush would succeed, but his Sharingan swirled revealing several minor details before Sasuke exploded into action.
Dodging to the side to avoid the enemy's downward slash, he pivoted as his hand shot out to grasping the nape of his neck. A second later Sasuke channeled lightning chakra down his arm and into his enemy, before viciously sending the unprepared and unconscious Oto ninja crash face first into the ground. Sasuke had just enough time to take in his surroundings before he exploded back into action.
Movement was life.
Nowhere were those three simple words more evident than in the middle of a fight, whether between individuals or entire nations. For the last twenty minutes, they had also been the personal mantra of Uchiha Sasuke, as he methodically worked his way through the latest test from Orochimaru. The test, because apparently the infamous ninja felt it was the only proper way to gauge Sasuke's development, involved facing off against a thousand ninja at the same time.
So honestly, Sasuke had had little choice but to remain on the move; if he faltered even for a moment they could overwhelm him. Still, facing a thousand ninja solo proved less of a challenge than one might assume and amusingly the very thing that made the task seem impossible was the very source of their defeat. Because yes, numbers where the great equalizer, but it worked both ways: After a certain point, a group could become so large that they became a hindrance to each other.
A blur of motion in the corner of his eye allowed Sasuke to avoid a concentrated burst of water, and in one fluid motion plunged his blade into the ground flooding it with his lightning chakra unleashing a 'Chidori Nagashi'. Abruptly the earth exploded upwards in a hail of rock and high pitch screeching as a storm of blue-violet lightning erupted into existence, flinging itself outward in great arching bolts that struck brought down several of his opponents.
Their bodies danced in convulsions of agony until the attack abated and Sasuke dismissed them from his mind, knowing that after their seizures passed they would be incapable of movement for hours.
Instead, he turned his attention to a solitary figure attempting to face him alone, their gazes locked and Sasuke promptly unleashed a genjutsu. The Oto ninja promptly dropped to the ground screaming, convinced that a massive fireball from the sky had crashed to the earth thanks to the 'Magen: Jigoku Kōka no Jutsu'. Sasuke flicked his wrist absently, sending a shuriken coated with a paralytic poison flying, ensuring that the Oto nin would be no further threat should he manage to break the genjutsu.
Turning to face his next opponent, Sasuke swept his gaze across the battlefield, mildly surprised to discover that he was the only ninja remaining. As a fierce wind swirled across the plateau, the dark haired ninja remained motionless savoring the victory. Nevertheless, as his endorphins and adrenaline faded, Sasuke began to realize how unsettling the battle had actually been.
A ninja needed to remain constantly aware of their surroundings and their actions, because the minute you lost track of them you were vulnerable. This was what made the battle against those ninja so unsettling for Sasuke, because at some point he had lost his awareness to the flow of the conflict. Clearly Sasuke had all of them outclassed so there was no harm in this battle, but if it were to happen against Itachi or even Naruto (should it come to that), it would prove fatal.
Swearing that it would not happen a second time, Sasuke silently trekked across the field checking for traps as he went, before taking a seat on the back of a large Oto ninja. No sooner had he settled into place than his Sharingan faded and Sasuke nearly sagged in relief. Closing his eyes, Sasuke tried to remember when he had first noticed the pressure that accompanied the use of his Sharingan, but drew a blank.
Musing on it, Sasuke began to wonder how much worse the pressure would be if he had decided to kill Naruto three years ago and awakened the Mangekyō Sharingan. It was a pointless debate of course as he would never do such a thing - his brother would not define his path to power. Sasuke would forsake only what he decided to forsake and would deliver vengeance upon his brother in his own way.
Still, the thought of Itachi bearing such pain brought the ghost of a grin to his face.
Soon enough his amusement faded, and more immediate concerns found their way to the forefront of his thoughts, foremost among them the ordeal he had just completed. It was hardly the first test Orochimaru had set before him, such tests occurred like clockwork every few months. Nor was it the fact that Orochimaru had forced him to fight alone against a thousand ninja, even though that was an abrupt escalation.
No, the problem laid in the fact that this intense test of his combat ability had come months in advance of when it should have. There could be several explanations for why, but Sasuke had a suspicion that there was only one reason for this sudden change in testing patterns. Not that long ago Naruto and Sakura had turned up at their base in the Land of Grass, resulting in the loss of the base...and Sasuke was willing to bet Orochimaru had put his body under more strain during his fight against Naruto at the Tenchi Bridge than he had let on.
If that was true, and Sasuke sensed it was, then it meant the deadline for severing ties with Orochimaru had accelerated. Actually, the more he considered all the tidbits of information that he possessed, only strengthened Sasuke's conviction that it would no longer be possible too simply slip out of the grasp of the demented ninja. As much as he would have preferred putting off having to kill Orochimaru until after he settled his affairs with Itachi, it appeared that he had little choice now.
Decision made, his mind began formulating and discarding plans, attempting to calculate all the various factors needed to achieve his goal. His first priority would be to reestablish the Fūja Hōin, limiting the influence Orochimaru could exert over Sasuke. Then of course he would need to deal with Kabuto before he made his move, the silver-haired medic would prove highly dangerous to have around. Further thoughts about what exactly needed to be accomplished before assassinating Orochimaru were discarded by the nearly inaudible sound of grass shifting underfoot.
"Is that all of them?" Sasuke asked emotionlessly, careful to keep his gaze off the snake summoner.
"You didn't kill any of them." Orochimaru said with a tone full of cold humor. "You're still too soft."
"They're not the ones I want to kill." Sasuke said, finally looking up to met the man's gaze.
"Unless you throw away those emotions, you'll never kill Itachi." Orochimaru said dryly, even as his gold eyes flashed with anticipation.
"Even if he were to beg upon his knees, he is someone who will never receive my mercy." Sasuke intoned, standing slowly before sheathing his blade with a dramatic flourish. "I will watch the light go out of his eyes, and he will be revealed for what he truly is."
But first, Sasuke thought as he turned away, I need to strike down the viper before me.
Land of Bears...
"Hoshigakure, Hoshigakure, Hoshigakure!~" Tobi said in a sing-song tone.
"Do you have to do that?" Deidara asked with clear irritation.
"But Deidara-sempai, it's so boring!" The masked ninja pronounced, before bouncing on the balls of his feet like a little kid. "Maaa~ Hoshigakure is taking so long!"
"Don't be in a rush, yeah." Deidara said, letting out a breath rich with frustration. "Hoshigakure isn't going to be a push over, you know. If you knew anything you'd take things a bit more seriously."
"But I know, Deidara-sempai, I know!" Tobi interjected excitedly, waving his arms frantically. "Hoshigakure was founded a looooong time ago by a group of grumpy ninja from the Geki Clan, led by the super grumpy Geki Enjo! Neh, neh, he settled in Land of Bears cause they found this really powerful meteorite that made them like super-powerful. Totally making them part of the Four Emerging Powers, right, right?"
"That's pretty accurate, yeah." Deidara said in surprise. "Don't forget that Hoshi has gotten some serious attention from Suna and Iwa recently, yeah. So we have to make sure that we do this without linking Akatsuki to it."
"Boring~" Tobi sang in response, his shoulders slumping. "I totally wanted to show my awesome techniques off to everyone! Are you sure we have to be careful?"
"Yes." Deidara said tiredly. "Leader-sama would get angry otherwise, and he's already upset."
"Ah, right, right." Tobi said nodding rapidly in agreement.
Privately however, Madara could care less how upset 'Pain' became over such petty concerns. At times like this, the legendary ninja regretted ever creating such a dutifully obedient persona as 'Tobi'. Still, the role had its uses, and besides there were times where Madara could almost forget that he was anyone other than the ever cheerful and extremely eccentric subordinate 'Tobi'.
In his more introspective moments, which were very common for someone his age, he wondered if perhaps deciding to inhabit this body was a mistake. It often raised a very real concern about how much of the feared Uchiha Madara actually remained, and how much remained of the now dormant Uchiha Obito. Not that he had had much choice in the matter - his original body had given out thirty years prior during the tail end of the Third Shinobi World War.
Thankfully, before that he had found a young child of suitable nature and ability that he could use. Admittedly, there had been some resistance from Obito at first but eventually the young Uchiha had come around and Madara had been able to, take up residence, so to speak. Still, there were times where Madara could sense Obito stirring within the depths of his mind, but everything that made up Uchiha Obito slumbered deep within him, leaving Madara free to use the shattered body of the younger Uchiha to enact his own will until his plans bore fruit.
Shaking his musings off, Madara turned his attention back to the current task of infiltrating Hoshigakure.
"Hm, Hoshi's border security seems awful lax."
"They're complacent." Madara responded without thinking, only to immediately realize his mistake.
"Tobi..." Deidara asked after a moment of silence, both having come to an abrupt stop in the tree branches. "Do you even know what that word means?"
"Of course!" Tobi said, followed by a bout of childish giggling. "It means lazy right? Cause that's what Zetsu-sempai said it meant when I asked him when he said that to me earlier."
"Zetsu-san told you they were complacent?" Deidara asked, sounding curious. "Wait, I don't remember him telling us a whole lot about the village before we left, yeah."
"Well, I asked him a while back about the best place to get a snack. Ya know, cause the bases don't really have that much...anyway, he said they were totally complacent and that if I wanted a tasty snack it was the easiest spot around!"
"Right," Deidra said slowly, the look on his face a mixture between acceptance and disgust. "Tobi. From now on, don't ask him for snack suggestions."
"Why not?" Tobi asked, sounding confused.
"Just...don't, yeah?" Deidara said after a moment before they resumed their trek through the trees.
Satisfied that he had covered his slip, Madara turned his attention back to the point that Deidara had raised in the first place. Because they were getting close to Hoshigakure and they had yet to encounter any patrols or any kind of early warning system. Part of him idly wondered if Hoshi had finally created a version of the 'Kanchi Shisutemu Jutsu' that Konoha employed to monitor its borders, but his Sharingan failed to detect any kind of chakra that would form such a barrier technique.
Madara frowned, wondering what exactly Hoshigakure was thinking. What kind of ninja village relied solely on geographic location? Especially one considered a second-tier superpower and nearly as old as Konohagakure? Even the upstart village Otogakure, had more advanced protective systems than what Hoshi was employing within a few weeks of its formation!
Despite his growing anger, at such blatant disrespect for everything that he and Hirashima stood, Madara realized the only reason this shinobi village had failed to evolve. At some point Hoshigakure had begun to believe its own fanciful 'history', meaning that by now they truly believed that they blessed by the heavens and the oldest of the hidden villages.
Surprisingly rather than enraging Madara further, thinking about the fairy tail Hoshi called history made him laugh.
"What's so funny, yeah?" Deidara asked, sounding slightly less irritated than normal.
"Ah, ha, nothing Deidra-sempai," Tobi said waving his hands in front of him, before giggling like a child. "Just thinking about a naughty limerick Hidan-sempai told me once."
"Tobi." Deidara said after a protracted moment. "Don't make me afraid to be alone with you."
Tobi simply giggled even more in response.
Location Unknown, Main Otogakure Base...
Yakushi Kabuto returned to his lab without preamble, the only sign of his passage the sound of his footsteps as they echoed through the empty tunnel-like hallways that made up the base. Unlike the other hidden bases that made up Otogakure, only those that Orochimaru considered essential, or a given value of 'essential', ever accompanied them. Generally, 'essential' meant two squads made up of the most fanatical of Oto ninja guarded the parameter overseen by a 'Lieutenant' such as Guren or the late Kimimaro.
Despite the lack of numbers, the base was perhaps the most secure they possessed, because there was no loyalty like that of a fanatic. They would die before revealing any of the limited knowledge they possessed, and even if you could glean a location from them, they held nothing of value about its internal security. The only one who possessed all the secrets hidden within the shadowy corridors was Orochimaru, though naturally both Kabuto and Sasuke knew some as well.
Reaching a seemingly random section of wall, Kabuto paused long enough to apply his chakra to a hidden seal causing the stone material to become briefly transparent. Stepping through he emerged in the more public section of his lab, and though utilitarian in design, nearly every spare inch held medical equipment ranging from the mundane to the exotic. One entire wall held ceiling length shelves stacked full of jarred animals, books, scrolls, crates, and tool, another covered in medical charts, and in the recesses sat empty tanks that had once housed snake-like entities, and most uniquely a large blood-extracting machine.
Kabuto gave all of the items only a cursory glance, pausing just long enough to check a series of experiments, before crossing the room to another wall. Unlike the previous one that had been bare of anything noteworthy, this wall prominently displayed the fossilized remains of a humanoid skeleton. Kabuto paid it no attention, instead he simply reached to press a hidden latch, allowing the wall to swing open and reveal a steel door round at the corners, outlined with pop-rivets, set six inches above the floor.
Producing a small square key, Kabuto turned it in the lock plate and after a series of rattles as the deadbolts gave way, the door swung open. The lab beyond the hidden door was the direct opposite of the outer lab, made up of clean lines, a high ceiling illuminated to mimic sunlight on a comfortable spring day, and ambient music. As for the contents of the lab, on the left side was a metal desk containing a computer and other various items and tools, while a wall that contained another rounded steel door with a red light above it and a double-paned observation window had sectioned off the right side of the room.
"I need one of your exquisite corpse doll's...I believe it is time we part ways with Sasuke-kun."
Kabuto paused just within the entrance of his lab, studying his unexpected guest. Orochimaru stood motionless before the observation window, staring at what laid beyond it, his reflection revealing nothing of his inner thoughts. Still, Kabuto after almost a lifetime of working for the man, he knew the infamous ninja extremely well and it took no great leap of logic to realize just how eager Orochimaru was.
"I take it Sasuke-kun passed his latest test." Kabuto said, crossing the room to stand beside his master, staring at the object that held the attention of such a legendary ninja. Strapped to a metal table, with IVs' and other wires, laid a beautifully lean ten-year-old boy, with thick jet-black hair, and the face of a much younger Sasuke. It had been a large gamble to try cloning a new body, so many things could wrong even for a medical prodigy working with the pristine notes of a twisted genius like Orochimaru.
"Sasuke is superb, as always." Orochimaru rasped softly.
"I guess it was only a matter of time." Kabuto said after a moment. "Still, we should be grateful. Without his 'help' Project Chouka would have been nearly impossible."
"You've made a great deal of progress since my last visit." Orochimaru said at last, his tone raspy and strained. "Kukuku, it must have been frustrating for you."
"Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently." Kabuto responded with a faint smirk. "With your research notes and a pristine DNA sample, it was almost child's play. The hardest part was developing the proper method of enhanced cellular mitosis that would stably age the body to a suitable age, I lost several subjects of course, and slowly I began to form a hypothesis."
"And you've succeeded." Orochimaru said, his pitiless yellow eyes gleaming darkly in his reflection.
"Yes, Project Chouka is maturing satisfactorily." Kabuto said with pride at his accomplishment. "I chose this age as it would be most…pliable to your presence."
"Kukuku, always thinking ahead, that is a valuable skill."
"I have also taken the liberty of adding an additional ability." Kabuto said with deep satisfaction. "It was difficult to splice the DNA into the genetic sequence, but it was worth the effort."
"Oh? Exactly what ability will it have?"
"The Kōton Bloodline Limit."
"That should prove helpful indeed." Orochimaru said in amusement, giving Kabuto a sidelong glance. "However, you are avoiding the most obvious subject. We have no way of knowing the effects of merging those bloodline Limits into this artificial body. I could burn it up the instant I switch, or perhaps it will happen in the middle of a battle. It would be an ideal assassination method if one knew how desperate I would be with an accelerated deadline and how dangerous it would be in my weakened condition to attempt and assume control of Sasuke's body."
"Perhaps," Kabuto said, hiding exactly how unnerved he was by Orochimaru's words. "Chouka is a prototype. There are a lot of unknowns and guess work involved."
"Kukuku, how docile is it?" Orochimaru asked, his excitement starting to bleed through his tone.
"Functionally, it is brain dead." Kabuto said, smirking.
Ugh, this chapter took forever to write. I don't know why exactly, but I just couldn't seem to concentrate on any of the scenes - but to be honest, I am kinda happy with the end results. I'm sure someone will complain about Orochimaru's bit, but well, I honestly thought (way back when) that he would pull something like this. A clone of Sasuke? I mean, come on, this just seemed like the most obvious thing in the world for him to do.
Anyway, I also took this moment to clarify the Tobi/Madara/Obito mess. For the longest time, after 'Tobi' was revealed to be 'Madara' (but before the Twist!He'sReallyObito) I had the idea that Madara was going to turn out to be quasi-immortal by being some kind of parasitic demon that could only possess those with Uchiha blood. So, with all the wibbly-wobbly going on plot-wise, I decided to try and resolve the role/connection between Madara and Obito...
Also, it was just so much damn fun to write Tobi's dialogue
Anyway, that's pretty much all I got to say. Sorry it took so long, enjoy your Thanksgiving weekend.
Kōton (Steel Release): Seen in Naruto Shippūden 3: Inheritors of the Will of Fire, used by Hiruko. For more info check Narutopedia.
A Brief History of Hoshigakure:
During the time of the Warring States Period, when the land was swallowed with war and bloodshed among the countless clans of shinobi, a group of friends found a strange meteorite which they discovered granted them great power. Understanding that this was clearly a divine sign, they used their new found strength to gather the clans that filled their land and forge them into what would become Hoshigakure, and to ensure that the village never lost its way the leader took the title of 'Hoshikage' thus making Hoshigakure, and not Konohagkure, the true first Shinobi Village.