A/N: Due to the INSANE trouble I've had reaching a conclusion to my last chapter, I've decided to release a SINGLE character driven chapter at least once a week, as opposed to the single gigantic chapter I've yet to find a conclusion to. It should be much easier for me and more rewarding for the reader. Granted, your feedback may say otherwise.


Strength of a Sage

Chapter Three: A Red Dawn

They flickered into existence like the flames of a candle, thirteen individuals appearing in the recesses of a secluded cavern. Their prismatic, translucent forms alighted the Gedō Mazō, an enigmatic and withered goliath statue that sat unmoving, its hands raised before a demonic maw, bone-like fingers splayed – which doubled conveniently as perches for the congregated coterie.

They were a diverse group, varying in size, shape, race, religion, and nationality— the only semblance tying them together being dark blue cloaks dotted with red clouds.

Atop the monstrosity's brow, one of the elusive individuals stood, gazing down upon the others with unblinking, piercing steel-blue eyes – the sole discernible feature among his tall stature. Behind him, head bowed subserviently, was the unmistakable form of young woman, who remained statuesque other than the occasional glare throw at those gathering below.

"It's been so long!" One exuberant orange-masked shinobi squealed excitedly. "Leader-sama! Are we finally getting a mission? Oooh – I can't wait!"

None of the others seemed to share in this one individual's joy.

"Yo! Boss-san!" One of the slouching images barked angrily. It was a particularly lanky frame with a large double bladed scythe hung from its shoulder, recognized as the former Yugakure shinobi Hidan. "What's the meaning of dragging me away from my prayers? This had better be important!"

"By prayers, would you happen to mean cutting yourself, Zombie-kun?" The Monster of the Hidden Mist, Hoshigaki Kisame, bit from his perch across the open palms.

"I don't know why you tolerate the presence of some of these children," murmured the feminine projection behind the identified leader, glowering in contempt at the disrespectful banger.

Leader ignored all of them.

"Has it been confirmed?" He boomed deeply, his voice, echoing throughout the cave, just as cold as his gaze.

One of the characters, stunted and humpbacked – Sasori – addressed the question. "It hasn't. My contacts in Konoha have informed me that nothing of the Jinchuuriki's body remained. The corpse was burned and the ashes were scattered. While I have eye witnesses, nothing can be confirmed."

"What the hell are we even talking about?" Hidan interrupted rudely, picking at the wax in his ear disinterestedly.

"The Kyuubi Jinchuuriki, Uzumaki Naruto, was pronounced deceased upon returning from a mission," The plant-like entity Zetsu explained to the ill-informed matter-of-factly. "However, as Sasori-san stated, the body was burned before any positive identification was made."

"So that means the brat could still be alive," a young man – Deidara – spoke up from the left of the boulder-like Sasori. "I wouldn't be surprised. Konoha's clever that way. Hn."

"Clever like a fox!" Came a quip from the masked hologram next to him, laughing out loud at his own joke until Deidara whopped him on the arm. "Ow! That hurt Deidara-senpai!"

"Then keep quiet, Tobi-baka!" Deidara bit back while his disguised cohort dramatically massaged his deadened limb.

Sasori grumbled, annoyed by his two appointed sinjas' antics, while the others willfully ignored them.

"And if it is true that the Kyuubi is no longer in this world, then just who do we have to thank for this grand set back, Leader-sama?" The "Bright King," Yukyuzan Anji, spoke, his bear-like body seated lazily atop his assigned finger as he absently toyed with the gigantic bead necklace around his thick neck.

"Uchiha Sasuke…" was the simple answer.

All eyes immediately turned on the stoic Uchiha Itachi, who seemingly remained unaffected by the insight.

"That's very interesting news. Wouldn't you say, Itachi-san?" Kisame chuckled, grinning devilishly at his long time partner.

Itachi chose to remain impassive and unreadable.

"And what's become of this Sasuke?" Anji pressed the Leader, though he didn't take his gaze from the lone Uchiha among them. At the question, Itachi seemed to glance in the larger man's direction, but it fled just as soon as it came.

"He has sought out Orochimaru."

"Orochimaru? The Konoha Sannin? Wasn't he your partner Sasori-sempai?" Deidara questioned, though the jest was apparent.

Sasori of the Red Sand's dark hood seemed to deepen, and something slithered beneath the navy cloth threateningly. Deidara gulped nervously and immediately diverted his gaze.

"I had no idea there even was another Uchiha," Hidan yawned. "Why the bid deal?"

"You really don't have any smarts, do you?" One Kagura cackled, reigning in over the group. "Orochimaru is in possession of an unknown jutsu allowing him to take over the body of another shinobi. He already tried to take over our little Itachi."

"But he failed," Sasori grumbled. "And he fled like a coward."

"And yet the snake has finally got what he was after. This may upgrade him from a nuisance to an actual threat," Zennyo Kagura, the other of the only two women among the group, mused, earning a cackle from Kisame.

"Eh? He'll never be anything more than a pesky belly-crawler."

"Says the ugly-ass fish," retorted Hidan, mockingly sticking out a long tongue and waving a middle finger at the Monster of the Hidden Mist.

"I wonder what Samehada would think of Zombie flesh," Kisame japed, his toothy grin belying the killing intent he exuded.

"And I wonder if Jashin-sama has ever had seafood."

"Is this why we don't have many meetings?" Tobi whispered to Deidara, who shushed him.

Any stirring hostilities were quickly quelled, however, as a wave of killing intent crashed down upon them like an avalanche. Any verbal quarrels were silenced and all attention was returned to the Leader, who appeared to be radiating an ominous energy from his ethereal silhouette. For the likes of most of them, it felt like he could crush them with only his merciless stare.

"Akasuna no Sasori…" he addressed the shortest of the gathering, "you possess the most extensive intelligence network of those among us. I will leave the whereabouts of Orochimaru to you. We've allowed his continued existence for long enough. Zetsu, you are to assist them as needed."

"With pleasure," Sasori growled, his grudge against the white serpent showing through. "Deidara… Tobi… meet me in Hakone. We'll travel into Oto from there. Do not keep me waiting."

"Hai, Sasori-senpai," Deidara nodded, and disappeared with a 'Hn.'

"Hai!" Tobe cheered exuberantly, waving his arms in the air. "See you later everyone! Let's do this again soon!"

As he faded away, Kisame couldn't help but sigh in relief. "That Tobi sure is loud."

"Zennyo Kagura," The leader turned his attention to the tall woman. "Continue with your current objectives: the Yonbi and the Gobi."

"Of course," Kagura blew a kiss and vanished.

"Yukyuzan Anji," Leader addressed the Bright King. "You and Hidan will take over their search for the Sanbi."

"What?" Hidan bellowed incredulously. "You would team me up with the monk-bastard again! His presence is an affront to Jashin-sama!"

"Hidan," Anji spoke evenly, causing the scythe-wielder to flinch. "Remember what happened last time."

Hidan grumbled angrily, but withdrew his protestation, his form starting to evaporate. "Yeah, yeah. I'll meet you in Kagoshima. We'll start there."

Anji bowed once more before the Akatsuki leader and followed Hidan's example, waning away with a shimmer.

" Hoshigaki Kisame… Uchiha Itachi… the capture of the Kyuubi no Yoko was your responsibility. Since, for now, you are without task, you and your sinja will seek out the Hachibi."

"Wasn't he the last on the list?" Kisame asked, his curiosity peaked.

"Yes. He is an especially dangerous individual. Confront him with extreme caution."

"Riiight," Kisame nodded, amused by the vague description provided. "And what of this little Kyuubi situation?"

"I'll see to that matter personally," Leader said with finality, before he and his escort dissipated.

With only the two of them left, Kisame looked to his partner, who was abnormally quiet. He never spoke much, but Itachi usually had at least an insult or two for Hidan and Deidara prepared. But, today, there was something going on in the Uchiha's black eyes that Kisame couldn't read.

"Are you okay with all of this, Itachi-san?"

Itachi looked to him, seemed to regard his query for a moment, before the odd glimmer in his ebony eyes was gone and he turned away once again.

"We have our orders," the Uchiha finally spoke before vanishing. Kisame sighed in exasperation, suddenly deciding that working with someone like Tobi wouldn't be so bad.