A/N: Sorry for the long wait. Details in my profile.

Jiraiya felt the snake's chakra even before it came into view and immediately started the required seal sequence. After years of warring with Orochimaru, he had learned that most snakes could defeat toads of similar chakra costs, though, as with all rules, there were still exceptions. If the female pipsqueak (Moegi?) was correct, Jiraiya knew which of the toads would easily handle this task.

There was a weak structural point in the snake's back at the juncture of the three necks, just as the underside of the that point was reinforced with bones. Indeed, the entire belly of the beast was fortified in much the same manner, thereby countering the typical strategy for dealing with snakes, namely attacking from below.

It was no surprise that Orochimaru kept this particular snake a secret, only summoning it when there was very little probability of having its characteristics spread out. Indeed, not even the Hokage knew of this snake's existence.

Jiraiya, however, was among the select few aware of this abnormality, and he made the most of his knowledge. The toad he summoned in mid-air broke the cloud cover as soon as it formed, its unusual body density fighting air resistance to reach much higher terminal velocity than might be expected of anything its size.

The snake was caught by surprise, unprepared for anyone who knew of its weakness, and was instead was caught flat-footed while it reinforced its abdomen with chakra.

As soon as it noticed the threat, it attempted to flip over, moving some chakra to cover it's back as it moved. However, it had overlooked the toad's speed of descent, and was crushed before it could dispel itself.
Jiraiya winced as the snake's heads flopped down to crush three districts of adjoining buildings: he had expected Orochimaru's Summons to be more self-serving than the behaviour implied.

Perhaps the snake was simply too slow, having its thoughts spread over three brains. Nevertheless, the deed was done and there were more important matters than to consider. Jiraiya thanked the toad before dispelling it.

Jiraiya left the experience behind him with a swiftness achievable only through experience and hurried to Konohamaru's previous location. Hopefully, the brats would heed the need for them to clear themselves from the fighting grounds; they would serve as distractions rather than witnesses.

There was also the matter of their insistence to see the Hokage. Konohamaru should know better than any other Academy students that a Hokage's role during wartime crises was quite different than during peaceful times: gone was the grandfatherly leader, replaced by a grim-faced commander tasked with coordinating the entire village's resources.

Yet none of the Academy students were in sight by the time he dropped back in on the site of his previous encounter with the Sandaime's grandson.

"Damn," Jiraiya muttered under his breath. The only recourse left was to track down the civilians, which turned out a more arduous task than the Sannin would have believed at the outset.

While the tracks were usually clear, they blurred every so often, or forked over to an impasse in most branches. The deceptions were benign, amateurish, yet it still took the legendary ninja nearly a full minute before he caught up to the three children. What the maneuvers lacked in quality, the Konohamaru Corps compensated with quantity.

Thus, Jiraiya felt no shame when he dropped down in front of the three children with a stern face, arms crossed for further intimidation. His audience cringed and shriveled back, as he expected, yet the Sannin wasn't done just yet. For nearly two minutes he hollered on, unchallenged in his exposition regarding the importance of following orders and applying common sense to analyze situations, until Konohamaru had had enough.

"What do you mean, using our common sense? Why don't you use yours, stupid old man! Jiji is in danger, and all you can do is yell at us?"

"Sensei -in danger? Pfft! You obviously don't know him that well if you think he can't fight. He may look old -in fact, he is old- but trust me when I say that he can still fight."

"Baka! I know he's the strongest ninja in the village. I know that. Of course I know that! He's still the Hokage, ain't he? But there were all these signs of something bad going on before the invasion, and then the statue cracked when we were getting into the shelters."

Despite his boisterous proclamation, Jiraiya had felt uneasy about the Sandaime ever since the start of the invasion. Thus, he decided not to disregard premonitions as he usually would. Instead, he led the trio on a merry stroll across the battlefield that Konoha had become.

On the way to meet the venerable Hokage, Jiraiya veered off once for a team of Konoha Chunins that was about to be overcome by the invaders' brutal tactics. One Oto Jonin with a second-stage release of the curse mark forced a wall of sound to surround the Chunins while two of her compatriots lit the jutsu with a modified Katon: Ryuuka no Jutsu. The last member of the squad, one Suna Chunin, was preparing the Fuuton: Atsugai.

The Chunins had no chance of escaping from the inferno that was about to materialize, especially not with the pressure generated from the unknown Sound jutsu and the stationary Fire.

Therefore, Jiraiya took it upon himself to disrupt the invaders' plan. First he threw a shuriken towards the Suna Chunin's mouth. It was a weak shot, one that the target easily evaded; yet, it served its purpose.
While the offensive jutsu was delayed in its release, Jiraiya blurred past the Chunin to drive a kunai through the Katon user's chest, killing him instantly. The bearer of the cursed mark proved more skillful, managing to evade the first kunai thrust as well as the follow-up kick. In doing so, however, he liberated the Konoha Chunins from their prison of raging fires.

Once the three Chunins leapt out of the still-crackling whirlwind, Jiraiya considered his current task completed -after all, he sought to fulfill a much larger goal. With a final blow to his opponent, one that knocked the Jonin out of his released stage, Jiraiya bounded back to the Academy students. The entire exchange had lasted two heartbeats. However, getting the Konohamaru Corps out of their stupor and back onto their course, lasted twice as long.

The next unchartered stop was distinctly less pleasant. Jiraiya stumbled onto the sight as he vaulted above a crumbling wall, neatly sidestepping the shower of bricks. There were four Suna Jonins fighting against two Konoha Jonin, the other two squad members having already fallen.

As before, two were pulling the Jonin with a powerful vacuum, presumably generated by some coordinated Wind jutsu. Swaying with the movement was not an option, as a barricade of Earth spikes awaited them. Yet the pull was strong enough that they could not move away, and were forced to bat away the water jutsu thrown by the fourth Suna Jonin.

Before Jiraiya could intervene, more spikes suddenly jutted out from underground. As expected of ones of such rank rank, both Konoha Jonins managed to flip safely with the thrust. Their stamina was however insufficient to compensate for the vacuum pulling them toward the Earth jutsu. The best they could manage was to control their tumbling to land with their feet against the deadly barricade.

However, they had forgotten about one member of their opposing squad, and the latter took the opportunity to form water whips that reached out, ensnaring their hands, leaving them dangling in the air. The two Fuuton users took note of the development, immediately ceasing their jutsu and replacing it with a jointly-created Kaze no Yaiba.

Jiraiya watched on with fury as the duo was slaughtered even as he took care to shield the pre-Genins from the spectacle with his body. In the previous fights of the day he'd kept it impersonal -they were merely soldiers, pawns hired to crush his hometown.

Keeping his perspective had been easy. After all, he was a veteran from the last shinobi world war, and as such had seen worse committed before him. Even today, some of the more zealous Oto ninjas had done much more despicable acts of unnecessary cruelty. Yet these were children behind him, not even anointed into the military ranks, not even fully educated in the basic world of ninja.

In a war, prodigies constantly stumbled onto battlefields. One must therefore always be prepared to slay whoever one faced, regardless of age and gender; just as one may not afford the distraction of delaying kills until said child was no longer within sight. Yet this was not such a battlefield: the terrain was a village! It was this distinction that drove Jiraiya's anger beyond the brim, and it was the presence of the three children behind him that broke the pent-up emotions of seeing his home village destroyed, the familiar landscape ruined.

Before he could think better of it, his finger were already locked in the final Ram seal of the Kuchiyose no Jutsu.

Normally, Jiraiya would limit himself to the smaller combat toads in the clan -tough warriors even without their armor, more than sufficient to defeat most Chunin in one-on-one matches when Jiraiya himself was not available. Yet he was rather incensed by the callousness of the invaders and his animosity bled into the jutsu. Rather then summoning Gama and his friend Hiki, one Great Fire Toad appeared. Hikigaeru wasn't fully-grown yet, standing only at three-stories tall rather than ten, yet his sheer size was still sufficient to cow the Suna ninjas into a moment of indecision.

That moment was all it took for Hikigaeru to envelop all four Jonins with the white flames that only its species could conjure, the resulting heat being such that some even dared compare it against the netherworldly Amaterasu in intensity -only those who hadn't witnessed the all-consuming black flames, of course, yet even the existence of an uninformed comparison was telling. The four victims were instantly incinerated as plasma danced and licked at them, leaving naught but cinders swirling in the wake of the blinding streak of white. One breath was all that Hikigaeru took, and one breath was all that it required.

Jiraiya took a moment to recompose himself. He couldn't help the Sandaime if he spent all of his energy fighting grunts, and he would definitely need to keep his calm if he were to face whoever it was that could cause trouble for the Sandaime. A moment later, he reopened his eyes and thanked Hikigaeru before dispelling it with a puff of smoke. Haste would be required if they were to reach the Sandaime in time. Jiraiya returned his attention on the children behind him.

"All right, let's head to the Kage box. Hold on tight."

As soon as he felt tiny arms latch onto the sealing scrolll all Sages carried, Jiraiya disappeared with a burst of speed. Not yet ten paces later, however, he was forced to a halt when a dragonfly burst through the wall in front of him, sending the remaining structure tumbling down in the process.

Jiraiya recognized the insect as a mid-level Summons from Suna ninjas and as such knew of its Fuuton abilities, having seen their destructive potential in the last war. Izumo and Kotetsu trailed the insect by scant meters, and Jiraiya could deduce from their panicked frenzy that they knew the deadly jutsu about to set off. Thus, he summoned a Toad tongue-first to snatch the insect in mid-flight and gobble it before it could release the grenade Fuuton blast of their species.

Jiraiya departed once again before his charges had even come to terms with the abrupt interruption, much less registered the danger they had been in, and even before a short thanks by the pair of Chunin could be heard, air whooshed past once again and the environment blurred away into a nauseating stream of colors. Yet the three children held on, not out of necessity but from cold resolve.

This was no time to set one's own comfort before the self-appointed mission, especially not when the unpleasant experience would drastically reduce their travel time. After all, they would need this level of speed in their career and it could only help to become accustomed to its side-effects as soon as possible. As it was, they were starting to overcome their initial shock already.

The world suddenly lurched and spun out of control, gyrating madly until the Genins noticed that they weren't holding onto the Sannin anymore. Yet the world didn't aright itself even then. If anything, their sense of balance grew worse by the second, even with their eyes closed and hands protecting the ears.

A few moments later, their senses tilted back into axis. The sight that greeted them was rather unusual: a Toad and a Bat were clashing blades faster than their eyes could follow, and Jiraiya kept throwing Katon jutsu left and right, presumably attempting to hit some elusive target who managed to stay out of sight.

And then one Katon: Goukakyu no Jutsu exploded from a collision with a wall of air, parting to reveal a hidden Oto Jonin. Before the flames could disperse from the impact, and the opponent could reassume the invisible cloak, Jiraiya created a swamp underneath, one that swallowed the Jonin while he was busy quenching the flames on his body.

The Sannin turned his attention onto the summon, his initial target having been restrained. The fight was slowly spiraling towards the Bat's advantage. Though Jiraiya typically thanked his summons before dispelling them, there was no way to do so safely in the current circumstances.

Indeed, he had summoned a deaf Toad to counter the effects of the bat's debilitating cries, and thus he couldn't simply thank the Toad with words while its attention was trained on the Bat. Therefore he dispelled it wordlessly even as he threw Katon Goukakyu no jutsu through the Toad's previous location. The Bat resumed emitting its high-pitched song as soon as his opponent disappeared. Yet this was exactly what Jiraiya had counted on: the C-ranked jutsu was strengthened by the sound waves, and the resulting fire burned through the Bat's vocal chords nearly upon the jutsu's activation.

Without spending the effort of facing the imprisoned Oto Jonin, Jiraiya threw a shuriken backwards even as he marched to collect the Konohamaru Corps. There was no time to waste, and they had been distracted far longer than expected already. The Konoha ninjas lying in a pool of blood were ignored much to the Sannin's regret -nothing could be done anymore, not without a medic-nin at hand. Ichiraku's was left to burn, though Jiraiya noted with relief that the owners of the ramen stand seemed to have already escaped.

With the newfound focus, the quartet reached the Kage box in time to see the Hokage complete a jutsu. The particular sequence used sent chills up Jiraiya's spine: Snake, Boar, Ram, Rabbit, Dog, Rat, Bird, Horse and Snake, followed by palms clapping together after he grabbed Orochimaru's arm. There was no other jutsu with this particular combination, none from any of the many foreign lands Jiraiya had scoured and none to his knowledge from Hi no Kuni. Only Minato Namikaze had ever used it before, and then only in the sole case where even the Yondaime Hokage had no other recourse.

Why, then, was the Sandaime using the Shiki Fuujin?

The Hokage panted. He'd tried burning Orochimaru's minions only for them to reform from the ashes, and burying them with a Doton: Yumi Noma. The latter tactic had allowed him to engage Orochimaru in a brief weapons match. He may no longer have the stamina or the speed he'd possessed in his youth, but he'd developed an ability to read opponents, and the wisdom of experience. These aspects gave him enough confidence to charge in head-on, and his assumptions were vindicated. He'd held his own for the first few exchanges, each combatant testing the waters before diving in fully. However, just as he and Enma were gaining a decisive advantage over Orochimaru with his Kusanagi sword, the cadavers clawed their way back to the surface. The covert strike was evaded by sheer luck, as he'd been busy dodging Orochimaru's increasingly desperate struggles.

From there on, however, it was clear that Orochimaru now held the upper hand. As soon as the Hokage recovered from his surprise, he'd had to twist out of a Sen'eijashu, an acid stream, and then yet another set of Shadow Snake Hands. The Hokage was thankful Orochimaru no longer had enough chakra left to perform a Summoning, as the match would have definitely been lost if Manda were to appear. Nevertheless, Sarutobi was quickly running out of options to remove the minions from the fight. Physically damaging them wouldn't be of any use until Orochimaru was defeated, and not even the A-rank Swamp could hold them down long enough to deal a fatal blow.

Sarutobi Hiruzen was busy enough trying to devise methods to dispose of either Orochimaru or his minions that he almost missed the opening. Almost. At the last moment, though, he noticed a gap in Orochimaru's defense, and both of the jutsu creations were aligned on the other side. The Hokage forced himself to throw Enma away towards the minion while forming handseals at a frenetic pace. He completed the sequence in time to emprison both minions in a Kongou Rouheki before Orochimaru's sword thrust pierced his shoulder.

This injury was also part of the opening the Hokage saw, however. He now used his hand to break Orochimaru's elbow to force the latter to release his weapon. Once this was accomplished, the Sandaime did not waste time to remove the sword to use against its wielder. Not only would this action be impossible, as the sword responded to Orochimaru's very chakra, but it would waste the precious surprise he now held over Orochimaru. Instead, Sarutobi Hiruzen, Sandaime Hokage of Konoha, corkscrewed his entire body, using his shoulder to slash Kusanagi into Orochimaru. The Snake Sannin managed to sidestep within the eyeblink it took for his ex-sensei to complete the motion, such that the blade missed his heart. Nevertheless, Sarutobi's calculations proved true, and the blade still sank into Orochimaru's chest and tore through the right lung.
Both legendary ninjas, of status such that their very names had become household expressions throughout the Elemental Nations, fell listlessly; Orochimaru with eyes wide in shock and blood trickling through his lips, and the Sandaime with the Kusanagi still embedded in his shoulder. And then, the Sannin's facial muscles twitched and contorted until they settled into a rictus of a smile.

"Kukuku! Sarutobi-sensei; who'd have thought? You do have what it takes, after all. Too bad, though, that the one wound you have is a fatal one. Oh, did I forget to mention? I've coated the blade with such a poison that not even Tsunade-hime can heal you, even if she did try. Me on, the other hand..."

Orochimaru forced himself to a sitting position before he opened his mouth wide open much as his minions did earlier. Sarutobi Hiruzen was rooted to his spot, utterly transfixed by the sight. Instead of spawning a snake as usual, two pale hands emerged, as white as ivory and glistening with some thick liquid, and grabbed one side of the mouth each. They pushed against each other, and the mouth opened even wider before shredding into two halves. The tear extended further down the body to reveal two clothed arms. A short while later, Orochimaru stood amid the gore and discarded clothes, physically intact.

"Kukuku! Body shedding is quite the useful ability, wouldn't you agree Sarutobi-sensei?"

When all seemed lost, the Sandaime recalled another time when an enemy of Konoha seemed invincible, one who marched through any and all jutsu thrown its way without breaking stride or even taking any damage. Back then, a hope had been sparked when the Yondaime Hokage had buckled down and derived overnight an impossible seal array -the master seal of legend, if the whispered sayings were to be believed, one with power enough to subjugate the entire world.

Though the Sandaime was no match for the sheer brilliance of one Minato Namikaze even with the aid of extra years of study on a pre-existing system, the Sandaime did decipher enough of the overall structure from the schematics to note one important restriction: it could only be applied to otherwise immortal creatures, ones who required naught but chakra to sustain themselves.

Though the Sandiame's seal knowledge coulnd't hope to match the sheer brilliance of the Yondaime Hokage's, even with all the extra years, that time spent had shed some light on the mechanics. Namely, the seal itself could only work on chakra constructs, or creatures that could sustain themselves infinitely and immortally as long as they had chakra. It was for this very reason that anyone knowledgeable enough who had seen the seal held no interest in selling the information to the highest bidder: what use could it be when its only targets were Bijuu? Yet here was Orochimaru, who had in his bid for immortality created an artificial system to which the seal could be applied. The Hokage would have chuckled at the irony, were it not for the formidable problems inherent with using the Yondaime's solution.

It was a monster of a seal, complex beyond anything the Sandaime had ever seen during his long tenure. Yet unlike the other original contribution by the Yondaime, the one behind the signature Hiraishin no Jutsu, each element studied so far seemed familiar when taken individually, and the overall architecture was a standard 8-way topology rather than unorthodox runes criss-crossing three-fold space as found in the tightly-guarded seals powering the Hiraishin. Indeed, the main reason the Hiraishin had yet to be duplicated laid not in the secrecy surrounding the underlying seals, but rather in the complete lack of precedence. No other seal had ever shown compatible geometry, and the vast majority of the symbols had never before been used in Fuuinjutsu, even simple as they were.

His lesser-known masterpiece, on the other hand, was built upon conventional tools, the symbols blessedly familiar to the Sandaime. Even Orochimaru's Juuinjutsu involved more groundbreaking research in basic runes than that of either the Shiki Fuujin or the Hakke no Fuuin Shiki. No, the problem lay instead in untangling the recognizable cells from each other without disturbing the overall matrix. Even without the novel connections between the cells, the sheer depth of the murky waters was quite effective a deterrent for anyone (hopefully, someone such as Orochimaru) wishing a casual understanding of the seal.

As a testament to the younger leader's genius, both of Konoha's resident Sealmasters poking and prodding the monstrous enigma over twelve years had yet to completely elucidate even half of its spread. Their combined efforts were however sufficient to locate most of the general-purpose units as well as a few (three, to be exact) of the more specialized ones. Luckily for the Sandaime, one of these was the recently-deciphered interface to the Hakke no Fuuin Shiki, and it was similar enough to the conduit linking batteries to converters that the Hokage recognized its basic structure. It was designed to trap Bijuu chakra within, to pull in whichever parts were still outside, to create a vacuum of sorts. Or rather, so it would seem at first brush. This was one of the most heavily scrutinized portions of the seal, and also paradoxically the least understood of all the studied elements. There were no jinchuuriki seals in Konoha for comparison, yet even so, even conservative Homura was convinced this had to be a stroke of genius. This was the reason both Homura and Koharu sided with him against popular opinion to allow Naruto as normal a childhood as possible under the circumstances. This was also one element he would have to modify were he to trap Orochimaru within himself.

Bijuu were creatures of pure chakra, while Orochimaru was flesh and blood which happened to produce chakra. In addition, the soul of the Bijuu were dark, much darker than even Orochimaru's twisted essence, as if forged in the blood of the fallen and tainted by the very passage of time. That change would have to be accounted for as well. And finally, perhaps most importantly, there was no baby to receive the transfusion; no one even nearby to receive the chakra/soul/spirit that the Shinigami would rip out. An inanimate object would have been the preferred choice, as whomever received the gift would die from chakra autoimmunity -something that not even iijutsu had ever truly cured in the sparse instances where it had been rumored to arise.

The only hope for survival would be to have a tolerant chakra body (such as that developed between womb-mates), a compatible chakra receiver (typically very closely related family members) or an undeveloped chakra network (found only in babies less than one full day old). Since none of the three options were available, the next best choice would have been an inanimate object. However, the power of the seal array was such that only living beings could contain it, and carry it to their deaths. Otherwise, Orochimaru would be free to waltz out of whichever container was chosen as soon as its integrity was challenged. No, concluded Sarutobi Hiruzen, the only possible choice was a human. Himself.

Which he was very reluctant to enact, because it would cause another complication, a paradox he had no taste to test. He would surely die of chakra poisoning even before the Sealing was complete. However, the Shinigami also required the life of the caster to complete the Sealing. If he died before the Shinigami completed the ritual, would Orochimaru die as well or simply be released to travel back to his body? It was in times such as these that the Sandaime truly appreciated the work of his successor/predecessor: how could any one man complete and document the design entirely from scratch within one short night, and still retain enough lucidity of mind to apply the titanic seal on the Kyuubi? Though the symbols were standard, the weave connecting them certainly wasn't. Now that the Sandaime had to attempt a similar feat even on the miniscule portions using a system he'd studied over an entire decade, he wished for more time, more help with the task at hand.

Yet surely Orochimaru would not be so kind as to allow him enough respite to trudge through the esoteric markings in his mind to devise ways to simplify it enough such that he would not require himself as the target. The Sannin was readying himself even now, and his fingers were once more ready to contort through the seals of whichever jutsu he would unleash. Sarutobi watched with trepidation. After all, given his well-known goal of learning all the jutsus in the world, surely he'd have already amassed a sizable collection by now. And then, while reflecting on Orochimaru's lust for ever more techniques, the Sandaime saw a way to make the Sealing work, to remove the edge from Orochimaru. Even better, the modifications required by this latest development were quite minor.

Instead of killing Orochimaru, he would simply remove the soul-chakra of the Sannin's arms and seal them inside his own body. Since they had no consciousness on their own, it would be quite safe even if they were to wander out, and Orochimaru would never again be able to perform jutsu requiring handseals -or use his hands for any other purpose, not without a soul component to the chakra. Just as a perfectly healthy body could not survive without a soul, Orochimaru's hands would not last long without his soul-chakra, regardless of whichever regeneration jutsu the Sannin had invented or expropriated during his exile. Now, if only the Hokage could have a few moments to devise the modified seal array, the jutsu would be ready.

And eyes wide with disbelief, the Sandaime watched as Orochimaru went through the sequence of the Mandara no Jin, that special jutsu Orochimaru devised to drown his opponents beneath a tidal wave of summoned snakes. The Hokage watched two more seals just to make sure this wasn't some novel invention, but concluded that the Sannin was severely underestimating his ex-sensei. This would work to the Hokage's advantage: while the snakes were quite dangerous and his customary tactic of striking from behind an adamantine barrier was unavailable at the moment, the jutsu would hide the Sandaime from the Sannin for a brief moment between jutsu activation and full release. That brief window proved more than sufficient for the Hokage to sink into the earth while leaving a mud-clone behind when Orochimaru spouted the roiling wall of reptiles. The Hokage finalized his design once safely tucked underground and cleared out the old Seal array from his mind -it wouldn't do to have gone through all that trouble only to attempt sealing a Bijuu by mistake!

The only variable left to bind would be tagging his renegade student with the seal array. The Hokage faced Orochimaru to address this issue, his visage somber with resolve. "Orochimaru," intoned Sarutobi, "your madness stops now. I will defeat you!"

His bluff delivered, the Sandaime started the handseal sequence. The Sannin would be unlikely to grasp the true motive of the suicidal move even should he recognize the jutsu: whereas Orochimaru himself would go for the kill, especially if he were to lose his own life in the process, the Hokage was wise enough to choose the more conservative option when necessary. And thus, Orochimaru hadn't expected the Sandaime to grab onto his hand when the nukenin blocked the Hokage's palm thrust.

"Kukuku! Sarutobi-sensei, are you so weak that you need to grab me to keep standing?"

Sarutobi Hiruzen kept his head bowed for a heartbeat longer before showing his smirk to the rogue ninja. "You never were very careful when it came to Konoha citizens, were you?"

Orochimaru tried to jump backwards, but it was already too late by then. The Hokage clapped his free hand on top of the one holding the Sannin and the Shinigami flickered into Orochimaru's view behind the aged leader, hand already extended through the Sandaime's body. A frantic drop backwards freed his forearm from the grip, yet the Sandaime's fingertips were still in contact with Orochimaru's clothes. The Shinigami grabbed onto both arms at once with one ethereal hand, and Orochimaru fell no longer.

The most intense pain Orochimaru could imagine washed over his entire body. The most intense pain, burning and agonizing; and the most complete numbing all at once, as if it suddenly didn't matter anymore, as if the world suddenly stopped existing. When Orochimaru could focus once more, could force himself back to the present, he saw the Shinigami pulling out his arms. Though he wasn't present at the time, having already defected a few years prior*, Orochimaru was well aware of the Yondaime's exploits when faced with the Kyuubi's excursion into Konoha. He was therefore aware as such of the significance of the sight in front of him; knew of the very real possibility of being slain by his ex-teacher despite the immortality jutsu he'd developed.

He tried to retract his limbs before it was too late, bucked with the energy of a cornered animal to prevent having any more of his soul yanked out. Yet the towering Death God did not seem to notice his efforts. Instead, the Shinigami unsheathed the dagger between its teeth even as it peeled more of Orochimaru's soul-chakra away from the Sannin's body. Orochimaru was now positively frantic, even attempting to cut the Shinigami's wrist with the Kusanagi sword using his tongue, only to see the legendary blade pass through the ethereal mass without disrupting the proceedings. And then, the Shinigami completed its job and severed his arms. Orochimaru passed out.

It seemed that the fight ended in but an eyeblink. The Sandaime completed the required sequence for the Shiki Fuujin, and both combatants fell down. The creations Orochimaru had presumably unleashed stopped writhing within the Kongou Rouheki of King Enma, settling down into a pile of grey ashes and green goo that dissolved a crater in the roof. Orochimaru twitched twice after falling down before staying unnaturally immobile. Black and brown pulsed from his veins until the entire arms were discolored. The Sandaime, on the other hand, looked perfectly healthy, staying face-down on top of the Snake Sannin as if in peaceful sleep, or merely with chakra exhasution. Yet Jiraiya knew better.

The Shiki Fuuin invoked the power of the Shinigami itself to perform the sealing. His cursory glance at the web of runes Minato had devised revealed nothing of the secrets housed therein. Indeed, the one conclusion Jiraiya had drawn from a direct observation of the sealing array was that it somehow managed to eclipse even Tsunade's most detailed diagram of the entire human body's known metabolic pathways. Scary indeed, especially when taking into account that the map he'd seen was the condensed version.

However, Jiraiya wasn't without any guide to the jutsu's characteristics. In addition to the seal array and verbal description of the process, Minato Namikaze had left two other pieces of documentation. One was kept safely with the Toads in Mount Myobokuzan, as per the late Hokage's wishes, but the other was kept on Jiraiya's person at all times, hidden within the scroll on his back.

Thus, Jiraiya knew from the latter manuscript that what the Sandaime attempted was possible in theory: the Yondaime Hokage had compartmentalized the runes into cells for future adaptation should a Fuuinjutsu master ever wish to do so. The information was sparse, since there was not enough time to document the seal properly. Indeed, its very presence spoke of the Yondaime's skill and speed. Nevertheless, it was still more than sufficient for the Toad Sannin to understand that the jutsu would result in the Sandaime's immediate clinical death. After all, the Shinigami dealt solely with death, and was much too powerful and single-minded to negotiate any other type of agreement. Thus, one contract would invariably lead to one death. The Yondaime's notes were very clear on this point, just as it mentioned how the transaction would complete as soon as the jutsu was released.

The Shiki Fuujin would capture the target by drawing upon the caster's soul, while the once-compounded Shishou Fuuin was somehow twisted and warped into a Hakke no Fuuin Shiki to interact with both the otherworldly nature imposed by the Shiki Fuujin and the physical nature of the vessel. Such a wholly unnatural arrangement requires exorbitant compensation for stability, however, and the caster is forced to relinquish life-force to complete the jutsu: one life exchanged for one soul sealed.

Which, judging by Orochimaru's listless body, should have been the case. Why, then, were both duellists still breathing?

Jiraiya was about to approach further when he caught sight of an ANBU hidden nearby. To even a Kage-level ninja performing a cursory examination of the environment, Yamato would have been well-hidden. Jiraiya, however, was the stealth-specialist Sannin. As such, he was also able to detect the other four ANBU hidden in the vicinity. This would imply that the barrier was sufficiently well-formed to deter the Hokage's own black-ops protection squad from interfering with the fight.

Jiraiya took a second glance at the barrier jutsu. He had conjectured it to be a standard fire-based barrier, one that should have been dissolved by most water-based keys. Yet a more thorough examination revealed that no less than four elements were involved with its formation: fire, water, earth and air. The standard lessons in ANBU only taught neutral keys, and the advanced course dealt solely with single-element systems. If one were to show extreme potential as Kakashi had, one would be enrolled in the specialist program wherein two-element barriers were covered and the solution for specific cases of three-element seals were listed. It took a Fuuinjutsu Master's skill to unravel standard three-system locks. A talented Sealmaster could still unlock a four-element configuration if the missing element were water. Yet lightning was absent, not water, and Jiraiya doubted even the Sandaime could have managed to derive the proper counter-seal in time.

Fortunately, Jiraiya was much better versed in the Sealing arts than his sensei. He unrolled the ever-present scroll on his back and started drawing squiggles on the paper even before it landed. By the time the sheet fell to the roof below, Jiraiya had covered the entire spread with symbols and lines save for five circles in the middle of the page. The Toad Sannin concentrated to create the Gogyou Fuuin in his right hand. Once the purple lights flickered into existence, he braced his wrist with his left hand and touched the empty spots on the paper with his glowing fingers.

The ink wriggled and slithered on the paper until the entirety of the seal left the scroll to reside on the tip of Jiraiya's fingers. The Sannin took a moment to make eye-contact with the ANBU captain. The latter nodded: Jiraiya would be spent from cracking the barrier. The task of dealing with Orochimaru's four guards would fall to the ANBU, while the children behind him would rush the Hokage to the hospital. Jiraiya and Yamato alike frowned on assigning the more difficult task to pre-Genin ninja candidates, yet no alternative could be extracted from the current situation: the ANBU would have their hands full subduing Orochimaru's personal escort.

Jiraiya shook his head -he wouldn't help anyone by stalling further, not when no other solution existed. He retracted his hand to thrust it toward the barrier fingers first. The purple wall crackled and shimmered until stress lines stretched outward from the point of contact to cover the entire barrier. Jiraiya focused in on the base Gogyou Fuuin once more, eyebrows creasing from the effort. The black markings turned to unlock the last resistance offered by the barrier with the drilling action. Jiraiya provided the final push, and the barrier collapsed on itself.

The effect was instantaneous: purple splinters shrieked through the air, showering Konoha and Oto nins alike with indiscriminate ferocity. Indeed, two of the five ANBU stationed nearby were knocked unconscious by the backlash, while Orochimaru's guards were forced to shield themselves with the remaining triangular barrier. It took Yamato's distinctive Mokuton jutsu to protect both Jiraiya and his charges while the two remaining ANBU operatives broke from their cover to seek shelter from the purple sleet slinking death and injury from above.

The four Oto nins moved as one to protect their fallen leader, and the triangular barriers melded together to form a pyramid, protecting Orochimaru and the Sandaime Hokage both from the falling doom. Once the bulk of the precipitation had already rained down, the quartet took their leader and sped away, leaving the Sandaime where he laid without a second glance. Though the Konoha soldiers knew not, Orochimaru had been very specific -in the unlikely event that their special barrier were to fall, they were to escape immediately with their leader and ignore all other directives unless given by Orochimaru. As there were no clauses indicating any actions to be taken should the Sandaime survive the encounter, they obeyed his implicit order. After all, they were well aware of their leader's ego, and finishing a job for him would most probably be interpreted as a slight to his abilities.

The Konoha nins, however, were unaware of all these considerations. They were merely grateful that their leader was left unharmed by Orochimaru's forces. ANBU Captain Yamato released his Mokuton jutsu as soon as it was safe, preferring to leave the scene in pursuit of Orochimaru's minions. One of the guards turned back and opened his mouth wide open. Yamato tensed his body in anticipation of some form of poison. Yet what spewed forth was neither acid nor poison mist, but a gigantic net of some white substance.

The space in-between the strands were however large enough for the ANBU Captain to slip through. The next one sent backwards was much tighter, yet the Captain's distinctive Mokuton jutsu easily took care of the silk strands slung through the air. Such had been expected by Orochimaru's guards, however, and the kunoichi's genjutsu melded seamlessly with the ninjutsu cast earlier. It was but child's play to shake free, especially after practicing under one Yuuhi Kurenai's jutsu, yet it was long enough for the next net to web him akimbo. By the time he slipped free of his restraints courtesy of a substitution with a Mokuton Bunshin, Orochimaru's squad had disappeared from view.

Yamato was tempted to track them down -the traces left behind were certainly more than sufficient for one of his abilities- yet he acknowledged the retreat as successful. He would serve the village better by applying his skills to regroup and recuperate than by wasting his time on a chase. He shot the departing party one last glance, memorizing the features of all five ninjas as well as the unusual jutsu two of them had shown so far. Should they ever pick up the trail later on, such knowledge could prove invaluable to the tracking party.

Currently, though, Yamato held up his hand, halting all three ANBU subordinates from further action. "They have fled too far. We will be of more use helping the village repelling the other invaders. First, though, we should somehow announce that Orochimaru had been impersonating the Kazekage. It is possible Suna will cease their attacks if this is news for them."

Danzou stroked his chin thoughtfully. It seemed Konoha had come out on top of this skirmish, though much was left in rubbles and more still would have to be destroyed to avoid compromising the integrity of the village -enemies of Konoha could have easily slipped in variable numbers of poisons or booby-traps during the invasion. Worse still, the Sandaime Hokage had sacrificed himself to preserve the village. Danzou may dislike Sarutobi Hiruzen, yet even Danzou recognized the ninja's prowess on the battlefield, even old and withered as the Sandaime was.

Where most ninjas would be faced with a dismal picture, however, Danzou saw an opportunity. Danzou smiled, although it appeared like a grimace to any watching.

*A/N: I understand that Orochimaru fled Konoha after the Kyuubi incident in canon. However, I had already committed myself to this interpretation, and will stick to it rather than change every mention.

A/N2: Thanks for RamenKnight for pointing out layout issues. I've restored the paragraphs as quickly as I could.