Author's Notes: Been working, and trying out other things. Started branching out, working on a few Harry Potter fics, but gonna keep trucking with this one.
DISCLAIMER: I don't own Naruto.
Broken Seals, Second Chances
Chapter 17 The Second Stage
Naruto could only stare in awe at the expansive ruin spread out before them. The twenty-first ANBU Training Grounds was a jumbled mass of destroyed buildings, cracked pavement, and generalized destruction. To top it all off, much of the ruins were becoming overgrown, the forest reclaiming the land.
Inu and Neko stood at the front of the group, their masks hiding their faces as always. Inu stepped forward. "Those of you here are being given a chance. A chance to prove that you have what it takes to be a leader, to be given more responsibility in your respective Village's Shinobi ranks."
Neko stepped forward then. "This is the twenty-first ANBU Training Ground, which is also known as, simply, The Ruins. Years ago, during the last great war, a good portion of Konoha was destroyed. What you see before you, these ruins, are a part of that destruction. We ANBU use them as a way to train for those occasions when we must fight in countries and areas that are war-torn, like Rain country, where ruins like these are prevalent."
Inu took over again. "These are what you are searching for," he said, motioning behind him, where three bound hostages where sitting, leaning against each other."There are nine groups of hostages somewhere out there. They are being guarded by shinobi with orders to kill anyone who gets too close. You will need to rescue the hostages, and get them to the Command Center, which is located at the far side of the training ground."
Neko finished the speech."You will have three days to complete your mission. Any team at the end of three days without a group of hostages safely rescued will be removed from the next phase of the exam. That means at least half of you will be removed without question. Now, while out there, you will be effectively cut off from us. There is no leaving the test early, or quitting halfway through."
Someone wearing a Kiri hitai-ate raised their hand. "What happens if all the hostages are rescued, but not secured? Are we allowed to fight other teams for the right to take them in?" a feminine voice asked. Inu simply nodded, but Neko elaborated.
"Yes you may. This exam is meant to simulate a real-life mission, so lethal force is authorized." There were murmurs in the crowd. Lethal force was authorized? "Yes, you all heard me correctly. You are allowed to kill your opponents. This is by far the deadliest portion of any Chūnin exam. As Inu said when we met you yesterday, we once proctored an exam where ninety-six participants went into this stage, and less than a dozen came out to advance. Of the eighty-seven that didn't advance, sixty-five were dead. That should tell you how serious this whole thing is."
One candidate wearing a Ame hitai-ate sneered. "Figures. All those shinobi out there are Leaf nin, right? So that means the Leaf nin in this exam are gonna get off easy."
Inu began laughing. Neko, who realized he would be laughing for a few moments, sighed. "That's where you are wrong. The shinobi guarding the hostages are all inmates from the prisons in Konoha, Suna, and Kiri. Each one holds no loyalty to the villages, and would gladly kill any of you on sight. The hostages are also inmates, and under a sedation seal that will last exactly three days and sixteen hours, so as not to put any innocent life at risk. Well, except your own."
Inu turned to Neko, his laughter subsided. "But, most of our candidates have killed in the line of duty. Can we really say they are innocent?" Neko simply shrugged.
Sakura raised her hand next. "What's preventing those inmates from just running?"
"A specialized seal. If any of the inmates move beyond a certain point, the seal activates, sending a massive electrical charge to their brains. It fries their gray matter right inside their skulls, though sometimes, it does make their heads pop," Inu said, and though his mask covered his face, everyone knew he was undoubtedly laughing. Sakura looked queasy, and Anko put a hand on her shoulder to steady her.
The teams all moved to various points along the perimeter of the training grounds. Each was provided with a map showing the location of the Command Center. When Naruto's team saw the map, their eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. The training ground was huge, nearly 15 square kilometers of overgrown ruins.
Shikamaru sighed. He really didn't want to be there. Chōji was complaining, too. "Three days, without food? What am I gonna do? That's gonna take forever, and I'll probably die of starvation."
Ino growled at the portly shinobi. "We could get slaughtered out there, die, for real, and you're worried about food? Use that survival training from the academy, jeez. There's fifteen square miles of ruins out there. There's gotta be a few mushrooms, some edible plants. We'll be fine, Chōji."
Kiba glanced at his teammates. "Ok, listen up, cause I gotta plan! While we wait for the signal, Shino, you tag someone from each team with your bugs. That way we can keep tabs on their locations. Once we start, Hinata, you use your Byakugan to try and find the nearest group of hostages. We'll move there, take out the guards, and make our way to the Command Center. Easy as pie.
"Um, we-well, so-some... um, pies a-a-are very h-ha-hard t-t-t-to make... well, um, pro-properly," Hinata stammered, blushing that she'd spoken up like that. Shino put his hand on her shoulder and nodded his head.
"Hinata-san is correct. This is a live-fire mission simulation. We will need to be constantly vigilant, not only for other teams, but also for the possibility of those guards going rogue and just roaming around killing others."
Kiba crossed his arms and stood there thinking. "Well, I hadn't thought of that."
Naruto grinned."This is gonna be fun. I'll bet we'll be done in no time," he said, as he went through his inventory. He had ramen, an extra shirt and some shorts, just in case, and two spare equipment pouches. At the bottom of his bag was a small pouch of food for the small fox riding in his pocket.
Anko and Sakura were doing the same thing, going through their equipment. Both had their rations, which Naruto refused to carry, calling them tasteless garbage not fit for prisoners, and spare clothing. Anko also carried a spare equipment pouch, while Sakura carried a first aid kit with her.
"Ready, girls? Then lets do this!" the blonde yelled as the signal to begin went off.
A few feet into the ruins, the team felt themselves pass through a barrier, the ward line leaving a tangible sensation on their skin. "Wow... what was that? Couldn't see a thing, but I could sure as hell feel that," Naruto muttered, glancing around as he did so.
Sakura nodded. "This training ground doesn't have a way to keep anyone in, like a fence. That barrier must be their first security line. I can imagine that anything passing through it without some sort of identifier would get stuck inside until the duration of the barrier expires, or until it's dropped."
Anko nodded. "Iruka mentioned that there was a branch of fūinjutsu that dealt with barrier arts. Makes sense that there's someone with that skill set in ANBU, though this particular barrier is probably linked to those seals Neko-san mentioned."
The area they were standing in was once, it appeared, a paved road. There were overturned carts and food-stands that had long ago started rotting, and huge hunks of building, laying everywhere. There was some undergrowth, and the broken shells of the buildings gave way to forest the farther west they moved, towards the command center that served as their goal.
"Ok, first order of business, marching order. I'll take rearguard. I can drop a clone every twenty yards or so. If anyone tries to sneak up on us from the back, my clones can pop, and I'll know right away."
Anko nodded. "Right. Sakura and I, we'll take a dual point formation. I'll cover one side, and Sakura, you cover the other. Our fields of cover should overlap at the middle. We need to focus on finding the closest group of hostages, and getting them to the command center as soon as possible." Naruto and Sakura nodded, and the trio quickly moved deeper into the Ruins of old Konoha.
Sakura saw it first. They'd been traveling for several hours, hunting for a group of hostages, when they came upon a clearing. There were signs of a fight, and though there was no blood, there were several crushed corpses wearing Amegakure hitai-ate lying around. Several of them had traces of sand on them. "What happened here? This, this is just brutal."
Naruto knelt down, his hands running through the sand. "I think I know. Remember that red-headed kid, the one from Suna? I think he might have done this."
The two girls shivered. Naruto got back to his feet, and the trio moved on. They were just getting into the trees, when a tendril of sand wrapped around Naruto's leg, dragging him back into the clearing. Anko and Sakura looked back at Naruto's sudden shout, only to find him dangling ten feet in the air by his ankle, while the red-head in question shouted at him, madness in his eyes.
"Uzumaki! I told you I would find you, and now I have. Mother was disappointed in me. All I had to give her was these fools. Their blood wasn't enough for her! She wants you and nothing else will suffice! Now, prepare to die!" the Suna-nin screamed as he threw Naruto into a tree, the blonde's back impacting hard enough to crack the trunk.
Not leaving time to feel the pain, Naruto quickly jumped to his feet. A tendril of sand whipped toward his head, and Naruto was hard pressed to dodge. Naruto growled, and called out to Kyūbi with his mind.
'Hey! A little help here would be nice!' The little fox, which was riding on Sakura's shoulder at the moment, opened an eye and turned toward him.
There was a red flash of light, and Naruto felt the rush as the Kyūbi's chakra filled him. This only served to excite the Suna Genin more and more. Naruto charged the red-head, sidestepping a spear of sand that lanced out in an attempt to impale him. Naruto slashed, his claws coated in the fiery, red chakra.
Gaara raised his sand shield, confident in his perfect defense. He was not expecting the sudden gouges in his shield, or the angry red eyes glaring at him through the missing sections of his barrier. It excited him even more, the look in his foe's eyes. His grin spread across his face like a madman's.
"Yes! More, Uzumaki! Give me more! Let me use you to prove that my existence is absolute! Your death will elevate me, and I will never fade!"
Naruto growled again. "Aww, shut up, you psychopath! I'm tired of hearing your mouth!" he cried as he charged forward again, voice feral and claws leading the way.
"Come then, container of the Nine-Tails! Prove that your life means something to the world!"
There was no more banter then. There was only battle. Naruto slashed again and again at the sand shield that protected Gaara. Laughing maniacally, Gaara simply lashed out with tendrils and bullets of sand. It seemed the battle would never end, would only continue on forever.
Naruto snarled, and called out to the Kyūbi again. 'More! Give me more!' The small fox lifted his head this time, and barked.
'Are you sure?'
'Yes, just do it!' Naruto felt the sudden rush of power as he was once again filled with the chakra of the fox. There was a flash, and Naruto stood there, staring at the red-head, a wicked grin spread across his face.
Sakura was worried. Before, whenever the blonde used the Fox's power, there was a shapeless shroud around him, like an angry red aura. This time, it was different. It had shape, it was defined. She could clearly see the pair of tails whipping back and forth behind him, and wondered just what Naruto had done.
Anko was filled with a mix of emotions. She was scared, because her boyfriend was using a power that was inherently tainted, if not exactly evil. She didn't want him to lose himself. On the other hand, she was excited. She could taste the raw power he was channeling, and it was having an effect on her.
Naruto stood stock still, his eyes boring into the red-head. "Gaara of the Sand. I'm gonna give you a single chance to get away with your life. If you do not take it, I will end the current Kazekage's bloodline, starting with you!"
Gaara felt a wave of aggression and blood lust run through his frame, stronger than anything he'd ever experienced before. "UZUMAKI!" he growled as sand poured out of his gourd. It wrapped around the boy, engulfing his relatively small frame. There was a maniacal glint in his eye as the sand wrapped around him, forming a shell. A few moments later, Naruto made a face of revulsion at what he saw when the shell opened.
Gaara's face was half covered with what appeared to be a monstrous tanuki's head. His arms and legs were massive, and ended in what could only be very sharp claws, all made of sand. One massive tail sprouted from his backside, waving through the air menacingly.
The vicious looking thing grinned, drool oozing from his smirking mouth. "Come Uzumaki! Come to your death!"
Temari had always prided herself on being a strong, independent kunoichi. When she saw her brother transform so quickly, a process which usually took several minutes to complete, her nerve broke. She reached into a pouch, and pulled out a set of seal tags. "Kankuro, we've got to use these now! If we don't, and he goes out of control, he'll ruin the entire plan!"
Kankuro shook his head. He'd always prided himself on his ability to get out of any situation."No fucking way! I'm not that stupid! We go out there now, and either Gaara wipes us out, or that Uzumaki kid blows us apart. I mean did you see him blast through Gaara's defenses?"
Temari paused, ready to leap out and plaster the seals on her youngest brother's head. "What do you suggest we do then?" she asked, honestly feeling scared from the amount of power charging the air.
Kankuro grinned, and shrugged his shoulders. "What else? We wait for Gaara to wipe this kid off the face of the planet, then go out there once he's calmed himself down. I mean, the runt doesn't stand a chance, if Gaara's gone into his partial."
Temari nodded, and slipped the seals back into her pouch. "Fine, but at the first sign that Gaara might lose, we hit him with the seals, and drag him off to another part of the Ruins."
Gaara whipped his arm forward, and smiled in grim satisfaction when his claws cut across the boy's arms. He spared a glance at the tips of his finger's hoping to finally see the blood that his mother so desperately craved. He saw nothing, and an angry snarl escaped his lips. "Why! Why won't you bleed! Mother is demanding your blood! She craves it, desires it, and Mother will get what she wants! Bleed, you insignificant rodent! Bleed!"
Naruto jumped back as a wave of sand threatened to bury him where he stood. He'd already witnessed what could happen if he got wrapped in that, if the sudden disappearance of several boulders and chunks of concrete were any indication. Another wave of sand spilled towards him, and Naruto leaped into the air. "'Katon: Hōsenka no Jutsu!'" he called as he moved his hands through several seals. Several balls of flame erupted from his pursed lips, each impacting the body of Gaara. The fireballs were so hot, they immediately caused the sand around them to turn to glass.
Not one to waste an opportunity, Naruto leaped forward, and planted a solid kick to his opponents face, knocking Gaara backwards several feet. His face was bleeding, but the grin never left it. "Is that all you have, Uzumaki?" he mocked as he slammed his fist into the sections of his torso that had been superheated into glass. Naruto watched as the sections fell off, only to be swallowed by the sand at his feet and ground up to be returned to the body. Gaara grinned, a twisted smile that sent shivers down the spines of the people watching.
"Now do you see, Uzumaki? Now do you understand? There is nothing you can do to stop me, or defeat me! I am all but invincible! No, I am invincible!" The horrendous creature roared before drawing in a massive amount of air. "You may enjoy this! 'Fūton: Mugen Sajin Daitoppa!'"
Naruto could only watch as several mouths opened up along the surfaces of Gaara's body. At the same time, they all unleashed a blast of wind and sand that blew Naruto into a fallen-down wall, and shredded much of the vegetation in the area.
The fox on Sakura's shoulders watched the battle with a keen interest. He knew that Shukaku's hosts had a weak point while they were in the partial transformation, but it had been so long since he'd had to fight one of them. He wasn't quite sure where it was anymore. He watched as the creature performed a powerful Fūton technique, then watched as Naruto summoned a clone and combined a Fūton and a Katon technique to create a cluster of white-hot fireballs that seemed to boil the water out of the air around them. The fox watched as the boy, Gaara pulled his tail out of the way and instead batted the fireballs with his arm instead. Then it hit the small fox-demon. 'That's it! The tail! The weak point, it has something to do with the tail!'
The Kyūbi watched closer now, studying the tail of the tanuki. It took several moments, where in Naruto was thrown backwards by a ball of solid air that the tanuki spit at him, before he saw it. At the base of the tanuki's tail, there was a crack. It seemed the sand shell was thin there, in order to give the tail the flexibility it was displaying. The Kyūbi called out to Naruto.
'Boy, I'm not much in the mood for dying out here, so I guess I'll give you a hand. The red head has a weak spot. It's at the base of his tail. I'm betting a powerful enough attack there would weaken him enough for you to finish him off.'
Naruto didn't respond, but there was a nod of his head as he focused on his opponent. Studying him carefully, he began moving around the battlefield as quickly as he could, rebounding off various objects that littered the clearing. It took a moment, but it suddenly became very clear. Gaara's new form was powerful, that was not being questioned, but it was slow. Naruto smirked, and pulled out his sword, channeling the Kyūbi's chakra through it. In a matter of moments, the fiery red blade he once used so effectively against the monster wolf, Duzell, was once again burning in his hands. The blonde took a moment to admire his handiwork, before charging the abomination in front of him.
Gaara fought hard, doing the best he could to make the blonde bleed, but his aura was so powerful, it deflected a majority of the sand that the red head relied so heavily on. For the first time in his life, a sense of panic welled up in the Ichibi jinchūriki's chest. They two combatants broke apart, and surveyed each other. Gaara's left side was crippled, his sand appendage removed and refusing to regenerate. There were minor gashes all over his torso, and the distinct taste of blood in his mouth. Naruto was nearly as banged up. By channeling his shroud into his sword, it weakened his own defenses. He was sporting a bloody lip, and his left leg was twisted around in an awkward position. He too was covered in minor cuts.
"Gaara! Give up! I'm giving you one more chance! Get out! I don't want to kill you, but I will if I have to!"
Gaara felt his mother, heard her words in is mind. "Mother has sampled your blood, and she craves more! Mother will not be denied!" he cried as he dashed forward. Naruto raised his sword to strike, but was stopped, as a paper tag plastered itself to the tanuki's head.
Gaara stumbled, as two more tags hit him from opposite sides. With a grunt, the sand poured off the boy's body and back into the gourd. Naruto released the shroud, and felt the chakra drain away, before sheathing his sword.
Two figures emerged from the trees, their hands held out where they could be seen. "Hey, we don't want any trouble! We're just coming to collect Gaara. He's out of control, but those seal tags will keep him subdued long enough for us to get him out of here," Kankuro told them, while Temari lifted the red-head onto her fan, which floated in the air behind her.
Naruto glared at the trio as they made a hasty retreat. Once they were out of sight, he turned and grinned at this teammates. "Hey, I won," he grunted before slumping to the ground, totally exhausted.
Anko and Sakura shook their heads, and picked the blonde up, and moved deeper into the trees, looking for a place to make camp.
AN: Translation for Gaara's attack here.
'Fūton: Mugen Sajin Daitoppa = Wind Release: Infinite Sand Cloud Great Devastation