Hey, no I'm not dead. It's just, well... I got busy.
Anyway, here we go: the final story arc! An epic tale of character growth and bloody war for you to enjoy with the fate of everything on the balance!
Since it has been a time, I have made a resume of the situation.
Previously on Echoes: the heroes are scattered around the multiverse once more. After suffering a mental breakdown, a brief descent into villainy, and losing most of his powers, Kazama is now trapped in the Road to Ninja universe, mistaken for his counterpart, Menma. His only true ally in this strange world is Madara Uchiha... but can they truly work together and escape?
Chibaku, Karasu, and Haku, after defeating the first member of Teikoku, have been defeated and captured. Orochimaru now holds them in his lair, as helpless hostages and guinea pigs. But the trio has more allies than they think.
Naruko, Sasuke, the Dark Wolf, and a comatose Konan have been trapped in a world where Zetsu rules the land, tracked by his monstrous children. Their only hope is to reach safe bastions of humanity in Kumo's mountains. But can they truly defeat an enemy whose resources are only matched by his cruel intelligence?
Meanwhile, the Warlord plots destruction, while his underlings plan his demise behind his back...
An Eye for an Eye
Kazama couldn't believe he let himself get dragged in this mess.
"Come on, Menma," Neji shouted, "Teach us!"
"This is ridiculous," the blonde replied, "I refuse."
"You wanted to make it up for almost killing us, remember?" Sasuke pointed out. "This is your chance."
Kazama winced. Truth to be told, the last training session went almost as poorly as the blonde's last meeting with his old friends, back when he had rampaged through Konoha. Nobody had been killed this time, but Sasuke and co had gotten the beatings of their lifetimes.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised, Kazama thought, They're still only at the level they had been in when I left my original world, while my ordeals made me stronger.
Unfortunately, Kazama's techniques and very instincts were oriented toward lethal damage. He had fought to kill or be killed for so long he found it harder to incapacitate an opponent rather than straight-up murdering him.
Upon seeing the boys' expecting glances, the Arashi gave up and taught them the hand seal sequence. "The Advanced Henge is a matter of control and focus, but there's a deceptively fair amount of power behind it too. You need to control the flow and-"
"Yeah, yeah, we get it," Neji said, "The real question is… does it really hold under force?"
"For the thousandth time, yes it does," Kazama snapped, "It's not Tsunade's technique, but if you do as I tell you the girls won't dispel it with the usual methods."
"The only problem is, how do we distract Hinata?" Kiba asked. "She'll notice the deception with the Byakugan the second we enter the hot spring."
"I've got a Kage Bunshin under a henge, disguised as Menma," Shino said, which surprised the dimension traveler a bit. He guessed that without their insects constantly draining their chakra, an Aburame must have a good deal of power in their bodies. Given that this warped version of the teen was constantly spraying himself with insecticide, there was a pretty good chance that the kikaichu in his body were at a record low if it wasn't zero in the first place. "It has already lured her outside Konoha. It will keep her occupied for a while, at least until she uses the Byakugan, but by then the operation will be over."
"Wonderful idea!" Sasuke grinned, before glancing at Kazama. "You sure you don't wanna come? It's like denying the gates of heaven."
"No thanks, I've no interest into using a Henge to take a woman's shape so I can enter the Kunoichi's hot spring," Kazama repeated for the thousandth time in the day .
That was more Chibaku's thing anyways.
Beside, I'm pretty sure you're all going to die when you get caught. Even Jiraiya barely survived peeping on Tsunade. "I've better things to do." Like daydreaming.
"Your loss," Sasuke sighed, disappointed, before glancing at the rest of the male members of the Konoha 12. "Alright, guys, this is the moment of truth. Time to start Operation Piece of Heaven."
Kazama watched the group walk toward the women's hot spring, and couldn't suppress a sigh. This world was driving him nuts faster than Amatsu-Mikaboshi ever did. Using a shunshin to reach a nearby rooftop, the ninja observed the sprawling cityscape of Konoha. It was pretty loud and lively metropolis in the afternoon.
But where there were buildings, Kazama could only see ruins. Where there were people, he could only see skeletons. Where there were shops, he could only see the fires he started.
In short, when he glanced at Konoha, Kazama could only think of his rampage.
Glancing at the Hokage Monument, the wanderer wondered what the stone faces of the Village's former leaders were seeing. Was the Shodai enjoying watching the city he helped create, or did he see a warped vision of his ideals? If the Nidaime was alive, would he appreciate what Konoha had become, or condemn it?
Kazama approached the edge of the roof and glanced down. For a ninja like him, the fall wouldn't kill him, but he was sorely tempted to try.
After what he had done, he wondered if he could face his friends again, or if he even should.
His reverie was interrupted by the sound of someone teleporting nearby. "Kazama-san," Obito Uchiha whispered, "You missed your therapy, again."
The Amekage shrugged, glancing sideways at the one-eyed Jonin. "I was occupied."
"I cannot force you to dedicate yourself to therapy," the ninja said, "It's a two-way road. But, please, try to keep our appointments. It will be better for you in the long run."
The blonde doubted it. Obito was a fine psychologist, and at least had the decency of calling him Kazama instead of Menma, but like everyone else he couldn't believe this was all a case of mistaken identity. "I'm just not fit for therapy."
"Yet your latest session yielded good results," Obito continued, "Your attraction to older women is obviously an attempt at making up for lack of maternal attention in your youth, while your frontal conflict with male authority figures is a subtle, subconscious attempt at escaping your father's shadow. Understanding your issues is the first step toward solving them."
The Uchiha handed Kazama a missive, which the blonde absentmindedly grabbed and read. Frowning, he threw it away. "I refuse."
"You're like a hedgehog, Kazama-sama: when someone gets too close to you, your retreat into yourself out of fear of being hurt." The Uchiha crossed his arms. "You have refused to live under the same roof as your parents, and I can understand your reluctance, but team building exercises are an excellent way to rebuild a stable, fulfilling relationship with them. Beside… it's a personal demand from the Hokage. Surely, it would be wise of you to accept."
Obito gave Kazama a kind smile. "I too suffered a depression, back when I lost my eye. But I overcame it with the help of my family and friends. Now I'm married to my childhood sweetheart, and the happiest man in the world. The same can happen to you. But you have to make an effort, and you have to bury the hatchet with your family."
With these words, the man vanished.
Shrugging, Kazama decided to return to his apartment, jumping from roof to roof. Once he reached his home, he noticed someone was waiting for him at the door. Using a shunshin to manifest next to her, the ninja locked eyes with his teammate. "Sakura," he asked softly, "Is there a problem?"
The kunoichi briefly squealed, surprised by the young man's sudden appearance, but quickly corrected her expression… or rather tried to. Much to her obvious discomfort, she couldn't repress the light blush on her cheeks. "Menma, I… have something to give you," she said, handing him a letter. "Here."
Kazama tentatively grabbed the item, and quickly smelled the perfume coming from it. Oh my god, no… "Is this what I think it is?"
"I couldn't find the strength to say it out loud, so I thought I should write it," she admitted with an embarrassed smile, "I know it's outdated and… a little awkward… but I had to try."
Kazama did his best to keep a straight face, struggling to find the words. "Sakura, I-"
"No," the kunoichi cut in, "I don't want to hear your answer. Not now. Just… just read it okay? Afterward… whatever you decide, I will understand. But… just read it okay?"
Kazama nodded with a large amount of guilt, since he already knew his answer. "Then… have a nice day," Sakura whispered, before quickly walking away.
Once she was out of sight, Kazama sighed and put the letter in his pockets so he could read it later, even though there was only possible answer for it. The ninja turned to his apartment's door.
Which was unlocked.
Tensing, Kazama inhaled sharply and slowly opened it. Light was coming from the kitchen. Tightening his fists, the blonde closed the apartment's door behind and entered the room, ready to face any ambush.
Instead, he found his roommate reading a small red book.
"So?" Madara asked, relaxing in a chair. "Did your date go well?"
Kazama snorted, before sitting on the kitchen's table. "It wasn't a date."
"Haruno obviously wished it was one," the Uchiha pointed out, chuckling at Kazama's frown. "The Sharingan allows me to pick-up body language. I can read people like open books… or at least better than this book."
"Sakura mistakes me for someone else," Kazama replied sullenly, letting the man's odd comment about the book go over his head, "So does Hinata, my parents, and everyone else. This is just a deception."
"Did you lie to them?" Madara asked. "As far as I remember, you always told them the truth. They simply did not believe it. You are not deceiving anyone, they're deceiving themselves."
"Because they're happy to see Menma back?"
"Because it's easier than admitting Menma might be dead or worse. Besides, the fact you are a world traveling, alternate-dimension version of their friend sounds very deluded." The Uchiha's Sharingan glanced at his student. "Do you intend to try your chance with the girl?"
"I already have Izanami, remember? It would be cheating."
"You do realize we might finish our days here for all we know right? Maybe it is time to move on. Still, I applaud your sense of duty."
Kazama clenched his fists. He didn't particularly appreciate the thought of spending his life here. For countless reasons, chief among them the fact his family was fighting alone while they were trapped there. "The people I met in this world… I killed many of them. When I look in their eyes, it's like watching my crimes embodied."
"They are not the people you hated and killed. In fact, I doubt they are real at all."
The fallen hero raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"Kazama," the Uchiha lord started, his posture becoming slightly less relaxed, "There is something wrong with this world. Very wrong."
"I noticed," Kazama replied, "It's too perfect, and too freaking odd."
"It's worse than you think," Madara whispered, handing his student his book, "Read it."
Kazama grabbed opened it. He frowned, then moved to the next page, then the next.
Every single page of this book was blank.
"I checked half the books in Konoha. They're blank. The newspapers too. And when I ask the locals, they see nothing wrong with it."
Kazama blinked. "Is this a joke?"
"No. And that's just the tip of the iceberg." Madara joined his hands. "I visited the other villages. Or rather, I tried. I found nothing. Konoha is the only single city on the entire continent I visited after days of travels. Humanity outside the red walls around us consists of randomly placed small villages whose occupants are near identical to every other town's. Even their names were the same when I asked."
Kazama's jaw dropped. "That's insane," he replied, "I heard the others talk about Iwa, about Chuunin Exams-"
"Hence, why I thought at first the hidden villages were simply located elsewhere," Madara cut in, "So I asked people if they could locate Iwa on a map. As it turned out, although they knew what Iwa was, they were unable to locate it on a map or describe it or its Shinobi. Even old veterans that should know this information were puzzled."
The blonde placed the book on his apartment's table. "If this is true…"
"There are other things you must know," the Uchiha lord continued. "I asked a librarian about Konoha's history in this world. In short, nothing ever went wrong. Konoha won all three Shinobi wars without a single casualty. Since its opponents do not even exist, it isn't that surprising. The Uchiha founded Konoha peacefully alongside the Senju. Sakumo Hatake's choice to save his comrades turned out to be for the greater good and he died of natural causes acclaimed as a hero. Orochimaru didn't turn traitor, there never was a Suna-Oto invasion, Sarutobi died of old age in his sleep, Danzo is a kind pacifist, you graduated on your first try, there never was a Hyuuga incident nor a Uchiha Massacre, and Akatsuki are respected mercenaries instead of criminals. The crime rate approaches zero and the economy is booming. I could go on, but you get the message."
"What's your hypothesis?"
"The most likely explanation is that this world is a powerful Genjutsu. At least, it would explain the many inconstancies and why no one except us noticed them."
"No Genjutsu could replicate an entire world."
"No Genjutsu we know. It might take a Genjutsu master eons above my level, but it could be some kind of all-powerful illusion. In fact, I thought of creating a jutsu of this magnitude, the Infinite Tsukuyomi, and do I need to remind you what Shisui did to your friend Kitsune? It might be hard to believe, but my theory is possible."
Kazama cracked his fingers. "This is too much, even for a Genjutsu. The people I met all have memories and… feelings. Plus you are seeing the exact same things as I am, even with your sharingan. I can't believe they're fake."
"Be it real or fake, this world is simply wrong," Madara whispered. "I have yet to find my counterpart in this world and for all we know he might be dead, or not even exist. As for this Menma, no one has any idea what happened to him. Don't you find it strange the counterparts we have in this world just happened to be missing right when we arrived?"
"I'm getting a headache at trying to figure it out," Kazama whispered. " I've been asked to go on a routine patrol with my parents tomorrow. I'll use the opportunity to look around. Maybe I'll find something interesting."
"I finished repairing your armor, so you would be best advised to wear it," Madara whispered, "I have the feeling you might need it sooner than you-"
Someone knocked at the door. Loudly.
"Were you waiting for a friend to visit?" Madara asked wearily, exchanging a glance with his student. The blonde shook his head, rose up, and reached the apartment's door. He opened it, expecting to see Sakura, his father, or in the worst case scenario, Hinata.
He found no one. All he found was a red scroll laying on the ground. Wondering if it was another message from Sakura, Kazama carefully opened it.
"Meet me at the top of the Hokage Monument at midnight, copycat. We've got to talk. Alone.
See you soon,
He was sick of being detained all the time.
It would have been better if this cell hadn't been designed to drive him and his co-prisoners mad. The room was large, fifty meters square, with three white walls, a huge reinforced door of some alloy he couldn't recognize, an unbreakable mirror as the fourth wall, a chamber pot, and lamps on the ceiling constantly providing light.
And that was it. No table, no window, nothing.
Chibaku, Karasu and Haku had been trapped there for who knows how long. Their crushing defeat still in mind, they had awakened there, stripped of their weapons, their skin covered with seals suppressing their chakra, and forced to wear white, bland clothes, and left to wander in this room. They didn't even have someone bring them food: seals marked on the floor summoned their meals and drinks every so often.
In short, they were Orochimaru's lab rats.
Chibaku glanced at Karasu and Haku. The former was observing the metal door with incredible concentration, the latter meditating in a corner. Chibaku glared at the mirror. "How long will you watch us, freak?"
"You are most interesting subjects of observation," a mocking voice resonated through the room. "Especially you. The seals I put on your body, by interfering with your chakra network, prevent you from accessing your arsenal. Yet the primary functions of your artificial body, from movement to the maintenance of your vitals, have been undisturbed. I briefly considered vivisecting you to discover how you work, but mechanics never really interested me. I moved to biology, chemistry, and psychology a long time ago."
Although Chibaku had failed to break the mirror, his strength reduced by Orochimaru's seals, he had grown certain the bastard was watching them on the other side delighted in annoying his prisoners. "What do you hope to gain by keeping us prisoners?"
"I want to understand you." The scientist chuckled. "Ever since I discovered the multiverse, I have grown fascinated with it. What makes you you? Why are you different from my late student? Where, if not when, did you diverge from him? Do you result from the deviation of a guideline, or are you the guideline and my student a deviation? So many questions.
"I have calculated, by analyzing data gathered from my compatriots, Naruto Uzumaki had a ninety percent chance of failing his Genin graduation, with widely different results. Sometimes, one or more of his teachers attempted to kill him. In my case, I appeared before him to offer him power. With him, my alliance with Suna results in my victory over Konoha, the capture of Sasuke, and my eventual domination of the ninja world. But what made you deviate from this path? Would you have accepted my offer had I appeared before you instead of my former partner? Did I even consider making an offer?"
"You're driving me mad, and not only because you wear my late brother's body like a suit," Karasu cut in, "Why don't you just kill us and get it over with?"
"What would I gain by taking such actions? I just want to learn." Orochimaru snorted. "You are my second most interesting specimen. A living Uchiha and a jinchuuriki. The possibilities are endless. The Nidaime theorized emotions affected the development of the Sharingan, but what if it was simply external stimuli? Will isolation evolve your Sharingan to a new, undiscovered stage? If I lobotomize you correctly, will your Sharingan regress due to loss of emotions?"
"You're a psycho. It's all about power for you."
"It's all about knowledge. I simply wish to discover the sleeping potential hiding inside mankind, to help it transcend its feeble limitations and achieve perfection." The voice fell silent for a moment. "An urgent matter needs my full attention. We will continue this conversation later."
Or never, Chibaku thought. He glanced at Haku. "What are you doing?"
"Meditating," Haku said, her eyes moving to Chibaku's finger. "Still no idea how it works?"
Chibaku glanced at Deidara's ring. If only he knew how to activate it, they would have escaped already. "I cannot remove it without cutting my finger," he admitted. "It fused with it. I think it did in order to gain access to my chakra network. My theory is that it's a device for opening a portal on its own once chakra is used to activate it. It's like their Relay, only smaller."
But during the fight with Orochimaru and his teammate, Chibaku had tried to open a portal of his own back to Kazama, and failed spectacularly. So there was a hole in his theory. Maybe it needed a genetic imprint, or another element?
"I have been thinking, why would they let you keep it?" Haku said. "I think it's because it allows them to know where you are. I'm pretty sure this is how they located us the first time around."
"Deidara knew about us," Chibaku told her, "They might expect our friends to attempt busting us out. What's really puzzling me is, why didn't they torture or extract info from us? They probably have a Yamanaka or two in their employ able to crack our minds open, and finish us off once they know everything they need."
"That's simple," Karasu said, drawing his teammates' attention. "We're both bargaining chips and baits."
The Uchiha glanced at the mirror. "Teikoku is a goddamn empire with limitless resources, but their understanding of the multiverse and traveling is faulty at best. Just look at their Relay: it takes weeks to build, it's expensive, and it can be destroyed pretty easily. On the other hand, Kazama can summon an army with just a thought."
It suddenly clicked in Chibaku's head. "It was never about us," he realized, "It was always about Kazama. Either they hope to ensure his cooperation by threatening to kill us, or they intend to use us as bait to trap him."
Karasu didn't answer. Instead, he kept glancing at the mirror. "Karasu?" Haku asked.
The name drew the Uchiha out of his reverie. "Sorry," he trailed off, "It's just… look at my reflection."
Chibaku did so. He had to admit the picture wasn't pretty. Although Karasu was barely fifteen, he looked worn between his lost eye and bruises. Had he not known his real age, the puppeteer would have mistaken his friend for an adult.
His teammates weren't in such a good shape either. The puppeteer's robotic body had lost its original polished edges in favor of worn-out metal. As for Haku, while undoubtedly beautiful, it was obvious a lifetime of fighting for her life had taken its toll.
"I'm not even eighteen, but I feel like I'm fifty inside," Karasu admitted, his head leaning against the mirror and his reflection. "All of my life, I have fought. First against Konoha's mistrust, then my brother, then against Iwa's enemies… then the Sound-nin, Madara, and now Teikoku. I don't believe I ever got to truly rest. Every time I had a home to enjoy, I never got to enjoy it for long."
Chibaku sighed. "You're never this moody usually."
"I'm tired of all this shit," the Uchiha admitted. "I know I'm more likely to die before I even reach adulthood, but… if I get out of this mess alive, I would like to have a nice house where I could spend the rest of my days daydreaming like Shikamaru."
"Karasu-san," Haku whispered softly, "I promise you, everything will be alright. No matter how dark the future seems, no matter how unfair life can be, you must never let hope die. When it does, it's over."
"I know, it's just I can't shake off this feeling." The Uchiha shrugged, with an obviously forced smile. "I'm an optimist at heart, but sometimes events challenge my resolve."
Chibaku was about to comfort him, when his keen senses noticed an odd event. The floor briefly shook, just a bit, but it vibrated. Then a second quake followed, this time strong enough to make the walls tremble.
"What's happening?" Haku asked, rising up to her feet.
"It's either an earthquake," Chibaku said, glancing at the metal door, "Or the cavalry arrived, at long last."
When the door was propelled to the other side of the room, he realized his second guess had been correct.
Two people entered the jail… or rather, a teen and its mount did. The first was another Naruto Uzumaki with dark clothes, looked partially transformed, and donning a childish grin revealing his slightly long canines. The latter was a small dragon whose fur was red-orange, and who carried a staff with his long tail.
Haku couldn't suppress a large smile. "Inari! Kitsune!"
"Miss us?" the Feral Gale asked, before glancing at Chibaku and Karasu. "Guys, admit it, riding a dragon is freaking awesome. Say hello to the nice people, my faithful steed."
"Technically, I'm not a dragon, I just have the shape of one," Kitsune pointed out, "It's nice to see you all once more, even under such circumstances."
"It's good to see you as well," Karasu said, before frowning. "There's only the two of you?"
"We brought reinforcements," Kitsune replied, "We'll explain what's going on later. We've got to free Izanami and Yugito before the enemy arrives."
"Wait, what?" Chibaku asked. "We aren't the only prisoners? The hell is going on? How do you even knew where were we?"
"Later," Inari warned, "I'll remove your seals on the way. Let's go!"
"Looks like the bait worked," Kabuto noted, "But the wrong fish took it."
Orochimaru frowned. His Sharingan glanced at the countless screens surrounding the duo, each of them linked to a camera across his HQ. Outside the fortress, what appeared to be a small squad of elite ninjas had engaged his Oto-nins in battle. Among the attackers, he recognized a female version of the Jinchuuriki of the Ichibi, surrounded by a ring of sand, Minato Namikaze, striking and vanishing like thunder, that insufferable Killer B, and the treacherous Kakuzu.
Inside, his prisoners were running amok, backed up by two intruders. According to their course, they intended to free the other two captives. But their progress was far too fast for Orochimaru's liking. "They know how my HQ is layered ," he noted, "They haven't made any detour. Somehow, they gained access to my base's plans."
"You believe someone leaked information to the other side?" Kabuto asked, raising an eyebrow. "The Warlord?"
"He's insane enough for that, but my gut tells me it isn't him," the possessed Uchiha replied as he watched the group speed past another set of cameras. No matter how many they passed, the newcomers were always leading the group. Clearly one of them was far more familiar with the layout of the base than they had anticipated. "Whoever it is, it doesn't matter. We've got to push them back. Can your ace get rid of the troublemakers outside before they can damage my fortress' walls? My men just finished repainting them last week."
"Do I need to remind you my pet won the Fourth Shinobi War single-handily?" Kabuto mocked. "Of course he can deal with three ninjas, no matter how strong they are."
"I don't doubt it," Orochimaru said, before putting his Teikoku ring to his lips and muttering to it. "Wrong fish took the bait. Five to seven Shinobi to deal with. Too dangerous to take any risk. Need back-up fast."
"I do not want to sound arrogant, but this group is nothing extraordinary," Kabuto noted, "We beat half of them without any trouble. They aren't ninjas. They're a bunch of misfits."
"These misfits, as you call them, managed to defeat Deidara, and from what Mei said, they could fight Pain to a standstill," Orochimaru replied. "Last time I underestimated someone it cost me two arms. So no, I'm not going to give them the slightest chance of turning the tide around. Beside, considering how badly we ring users get along, we sorely need team-building exercises."
Kabuto glanced at the screens. The prisoners had found the jail where Yugito Nii and Mikoto Uchiha were detained. Given how much time had passed, he had to admit that this group of children was slightly faster than expected. "Who did you call, may I ask?"
The Uchiha smirked. "Uzu's Blood Princess."
"I don't want to sound ungrateful," Izanami said, "But could you please hurry up? I'm pretty sure our captors aren't going to take this jailbreak attempt well."
Chibaku attempted to smash the chakra chains holding both women, without avail. "I ain't got a clue how to get rid of them," he said, glancing at Inari. "Maybe you can use a seal to destroy these restrains?"
"How are you even alive?" Yugito frowned at the newcomer. "The Shinigami had completely mulched your head the last time anyone saw you."
"Shinigami?" Several of the others blinked at the seemingly non caring Naruto as he inspected the red chains.
"Long story." Izanami shivered, recalling her fight with the monster.
"Life and death are surprisingly vague states and concepts when dealing with gods. That being said, I assure you that I do not want to go through such an experience again." Inari absently replied absently while his frown deepened and clicked his teeth in annoyance. "These things won't budge, and I'm nowhere near good enough with seals to manage something this complex quickly. If I knew how this 'Warlord' made them in the first place, I might have improvised something, but they are clearly more twisted and different than your standard chakra chain. Hell, this shit's more messed up than demonic chakra."
"Stand back," Kitsune cut in, "I think I have an idea."
The Feral Gale obeyed, and the hybrid approached the chakra chains restraining Yugito. Much to the Jinchuuriki's surprise, he grabbed them and focused. The chakra chains twisted, before turning into raw, formless power the monk quickly absorbed. The Nibi's vessel landed to the ground, nodding to her friend. "Thank you."
Ah… my head… Matatabi's voice resonated through Yugito's skull, nothing more than a weakened whisper. Kitten… I feel dizzy… did we have a party last night?
It's a long story.
The monk nodded, before moving to Izanami's restrains. Yugito quickly glanced at the rest of the group. "Good to see you all again," she said, "But we will rejoice later. First, how did you even get here?"
"I cannot explain until we are out of the base," Inari explained with his eyes darting to several specific locations, "Orochimaru's cameras might catch our conversations and trust me, the less Teikoku learns of our resources, the better. Once we're out…"
"Yeah, I can't wait to see the sun again," Izanami noted once freed. She glanced at Kitsune. "I was never good at saying thank you, but… thank you."
The monk grunted, before being brought to his knees, holding his stomach. His animal maw twisted in a grimace of pain. "Kitsune, what's happening?" Yugito asked, worried for her friend.
"Devouring this chakra is like drinking acid." Kitsune ground his teeth, getting back to his feet as Chibaku patted his back softly to try and soothe the tension. "Samehada can't even digest it."
"What's wrong with that chakra?" Izanami asked. "It's Uzumaki chakra, you shouldn't have any trouble absorbing it."
"It's not Uzumaki chakra… or rather, not any longer." Kitsune growled. "It looks like the Kyuubi's chakra, but it's different. Poisoned."
"We'll solve that mystery later," Yugito cut in. "Let's get out of here first."
Inari frowned and his eyes darted to the side. "And with those magic words…"
"Well, well, well… we can't let you do that, can we?"
Fuck, Yugito thought, as two enemies walked in sight. Double fuck.
"So, you've finally made it," Orochimaru hissed through Sasuke's voice, "After so much trouble, you managed to get out… only for your dashing escape attempt to be thwarted at the last second. It's almost sad, really."
"Sorry ladies and gentlemen," Kabuto Yakushi said mirthfully, his body covered by black robes, "I hoped we could have all gotten along fine, but you seem intent on being difficult."
Each of the seven members of the Arashi clan adopted a fighting stance. "Kazama-san made you the leader in his absence, Yugito-san," Haku reminded the Nibi's vessel, "What are your orders?"
Her eyes briefly moved to the rest of the room. It was extremely large and vast, but the statues of Bijuu present didn't leave much space and too much cover for a long-range battle. Focusing back on her enemies, Yugito quickly formed a plan.
Haku, Chibaku and Karasu already fought them, so their feedback would be appreciated, the Jinchuuriki thought. Inari synergizes well with Chibaku and Karasu, plus he's one of our stronger fighters. The rest of us are most close to mid range specialists, and Kabuto seems the most vulnerable to close combat…
"Karasu, Chibaku, Inari, take down Orochimaru," she commanded, "The rest of us, we engage Kabuto."
"Yeah, we're seven against two," Inari said, "We've got the advantage there."
Chibaku glared at him. "Did you have to say it?" he snarled. "You just jinxed us!"
Right afterward, the puppeteer was proven right. Space twisted into a portal behind the mad scientists, allowing not one, but two people to walk out.
"On the contrary." The fox grinned without shame, a small glint flashed in his eyes. "When against people like those two, I'd much rather know what cards they are playing with before the fight starts rather than during it."
The first newcomer was a samurai, clad in a red and black armor covering almost every inch of his body. Its edges were sharp, and the horned, crimson helmet covered the man's mouth and nose, leaving his piercing black eyes exposed. Yugito could see the scars and burns surrounding them.
However, the most shocking thing about this man wasn't his armor, or the long sheathed sword he carried attached to his belt. It was the cloak going down from his shoulders to his ankles.
Much to Yugito's astonishment, this wasn't truly a cloak. It was dozens of forehead protectors sewn together. She could see the symbols of Kumo, Iwa, Konoha, and dozens of other nations among them. It was both a collection of trophies and a warning for challengers, that this man had fought across the entire world.
The second person that walked out of the portal was also clad in red, but her appearance couldn't be more opposed to the samurai's. It was a petite woman wearing an elegant, rich crimson kimono covered with orange spiral symbols. The attire was kept together by a black belt, and it was obvious the woman had carefully arranged her kimono to flaunt her voluptuous body. She was carrying a small black fan, her face hidden behind it. She wore a ring with the kanji 'fire' around her finger.
"I do hope this is important," the woman complained with a tone of absolute boredom. "I was about to enjoy my daily spa."
Yugito was certain she had heard this voice somewhere before, but couldn't put a name on it. Izanami, however, obviously recognized the newcomer and paled considerably.
"Allow me to deal with this problem, Oujo-sama," the samurai said sternly. "They will die in time for your archery session."
"I wonder if there are a few pretty boys worth sparing among them," the woman whispered, lowering her fan to glance at the group, revealing long red hair and shining, slit red eyes.
Yugito's eyes widened upon recognizing the newcomer's face, as did the rest of the group .
The woman's eyes glanced at group with disinterest, only barely pausing at the eerily similar gaze of Inari's slit eyes. Then she spotted Izanami. While the Uchiha's stoic expression crumbled into utter shock, the red princess' gaze now reflected only cold anger. "Mifune," she whispered to her samurai retainer.
"Kick their asses, but spare this one. In one piece if possible."
"In one piece. Duly noted. Your will shall be done."
Before Yugito could utter orders, the swordsman was at Izanami's throat, and the first explosions resonated through the room.
Carrying Konan on her back, Naruko struggled to walk. She glanced at the Dark Wolf, who had no trouble carrying Sasuke herself. "Are we there yet?"
"Once we get out of this forest, the mountain's base will be in sight," the samurai replied with a cold, emotionless tone. Yet, the way she was glancing at Sasuke, Naruko could see both worry and exhaustion in her eyes.
Not that Naruko felt any better. She struggled to even stay awake, having only been able to sleep a few hours in the past couple of days. Every time the group had attempted to rest, Zetsu's goons had either launched assaults, or been close enough for Sasuke to decide they should start fleeing again.
Konan was still comatose, and although Naruko had done her best, she was no medic. She could bandage her wounds, but she couldn't wake her up.
As for Sasuke, when he had collapsed a few hours ago, his eyes bleeding profusely, she worried he had suffered internal injuries. Instead, he had simply fallen unconscious from both exhaustion and chakra loss. The group had been forced to keep traveling on foot.
"Accelerate." The Dark Wolf's words snapped Naruko out of her reverie. "If we don't reach the mountains by nightfall, we are all dead. We are in no condition to fight Zetsu's offsprings right now."
Naruko wanted to disagree, but even with her nearly limitless endurance, she knew she had reached her end. "I will try."
The Dark Wolf sent her an odd glance, before focusing her attention back on the trees surrounding them. "It's strange," she whispered. "Back when I was your age, my master often led us on long walks. It's odd to see a carbon copy of myself in the same situation."
The Dark Wolf's face briefly gave into an awkward smile, which surprised Naruko. However, the smile quickly turned back into a sullen expression. "I'm too tired," the samurai said, "Just forget what I said."
The group fell silent once more, until Naruko couldn't hold it anymore and decided to break the ice. "Your master… how was he?"
The samurai seemed to briefly consider whether answering or not. However, after a short silence, the Dark Wolf reached a decision. "He was a noble, honorable man. He believed in me. He was the only one who ever did."
Before Naruko could press further, the Dark Wolf switched subjects. "We are almost out. Stay alert."
Five minutes later, they exited the forest.
What welcomed them was a large, seemingly endless field of roses. Naruko couldn't help but gasp at the sight. After so much hardship, it was a refreshing change. In the distance, she could see the mountains.
And the smoke.
"No!" The Dark Wolf hissed, as she noticed the smokes and fires covering the mountains. "This… how? They were supposed to be a stronghold!"
Naruko paled, horrified, upon realizing they had walked for so long, all for nothing.
"This… we have been tricked." The Dark Wolf gently placed Sasuke to the ground, before unsheathing her blades. "Naruko, prepare yourself. They trapped us."
"Wood Release," a low-pitched voice snarled, "Demon Roots."
A dozen, black roots erupted from the ground, each of them the size of a fully grown oak tree trunk. Almost instantly, they swung wildly and attempted to crush the group.
Naruko, her instincts taking over, grabbed Konan and leapt away, while the Dark Wolf merrily cut the monstrous plant construct in order to shield Sasuke. Once the young girl out of the plant's range, Naruko placed her friend to the ground, and adopted a fighting stance.
Slowly, hundreds of white Zetsu emerged from the ground, surrounding the group entirely. Others emerged from the forest's trees, and Naruko realized horrified they have been observing them all along. But in spite of the overwhelming number advantage, the creatures stood there, keeping a respectful distance between the and their foes. "Why aren't they attacking?" Naruko wondered.
"Because they haven't been ordered to," the Dark Wolf replied ominously.
"Canny as ever," the Red Zetsu noted, as he emerged from the ground, a short distance away from both kunoichi. "Do you enjoy the stage? Even with my Mokuton, it was hard to give birth to so many roses in only a few hours. I wanted a perfect, beautiful setting for our final battle."
"How did you do that?" the Dark Wolf snapped, briefly glancing at the mountain. "You shouldn't be able to climb these mountains!"
"Why do you think I allied myself with Teikoku to begin with?" The monster shrugged. "You never really understood the value of having friends, wolf pup. When you've got a problem, friends are there to solve it. The Warlord was most happy to help me put down my rebel cattle."
"So we never had any chance at escaping," Naruko realized grimly. "You led us on a wild goose chase."
Zetsu glanced at her, showing its fangs. The young girl realized it was a twisted, sick grin. "Indeed. I scheduled my attacks to prevent you from resting, while pushing your Uchiha friend to his limits. It took me only a glance at his Susanoo to realize he did not have the Eternal Sharingan. All I had to do was to press him, until he wasted his precious eyes away, robbing you of your best fighter, or at the very least his sight."
"We'll find another refuge," the Dark Wolf snarled, "You can't possibly have destroyed every single pocket of resis-"
"This world is mine, wolf pup. From the highest mountain, to the deepest cave. The four of you are the only humans I haven't conquered… yet. I don't own the land. I am the land itself!"
He crossed his arms. "We both know the only reason you haven't attacked me yet is that you fear to leave your wounded unprotected… and that you're too tired to be guaranteed to win. Fighting you myself will spare my children that your blades would otherwise kill, and besides… it's personal."
The Dark Wolf cracked her shoulders. "Your arrogance will be your undoing."
"It's not arrogance when you can back up your claims," Zetsu said, joining his fingers. "Wood Release: Hidden in Petals!"
The wind blew, and thousands of rose petals suddenly flew into a dense storm, clouding Naruko's view and hiding the Red Zetsu.
One second later, his foot impacted on the back of Naruko's head, almost knocking her out. Holding her ground, the Kunoichi stumbled around, as Zetsu prepared to hit her again with a roundhouse kick. Forming a Rasenyari , she attempted to impale Zetsu, only for him to move out of the way.
The Dark Wolf charged, swinging her blades at her enemy. The metal only cut petals, and Zetsu, now nothing more than a crimson blur, circled his enemy and attempted to punch her. Parrying the blow with her forearm, the samurai swiftly beheaded the beast, only for him to explode into roots, petals and leaves. "A plant clone," the Dark Wolf noted.
Naruko felt a powerful killing intent, coming from her left. Lowering herself, she dodged an incoming blow to her neck, and retaliated by kicking her opponent. Zetsu grunted and exploited Naruko's brief loss of momentum to grapple her shirt. Pulling Naruko closer, he proceeded to punch her under the breasts, making her cough.
Grunting in pain, the young kunoichi attempted to kick her foe, who easily dodged. The Dark Wolf rushed to help, pushing Zetsu back with a swing. "Flank him," she commanded.
Combining their efforts, both kunoichi attempted to hit Zetsu, who dodged all of their blows. Although he showed impressive agility and reflexes, Naruko could see he struggled to keep up the pace. If his foes hadn't been so tired, he would have been hit once or twice at least by now.
After a time, Zetsu kicked the Dark Wolf's face, making her lips drip blood, before exploiting the brief opening to leap backward, vanishing among petals. "Wood Release," he snarled, "Red Rose Explosion!"
Waving her katana into a circular motion, the Dark Wolf produced a powerful wind strong enough to push the petals away from her team. One second later, each of them exploded in countless bursts of crimson fire. Some of the flowers started burning as a result.
"That's all you can do?" The Dark Wolf glared at Zetsu, who stood only a dozen meters away from them. "Your cowardly strategy and pitiful mind game won't be enough for you to win!"
"You fool. Breaking your spirit was only my secondary objective. My main goal was to lure you to this exact field." Zetsu extended his arms. "We have been fighting for years, and as much as I hate to admit it, you always had the edge. No more. For I have crafted a technique so powerful I shall prevail, once and for all."
The monstrous humanoid roared like a feral animal.
"Prepare for a vision of hell itself! Corrupted Sage Mode!"
He hadn't lied. What followed was a true vision from hell.
Zetsu doubled in size, but this was by far the most harmless change. His arms turned into long, black tendrils the length of small houses. Black thorns grew all over the monster's body, shaping an armor over his skin. Yellow, sick inhuman eyes opened on his shoulders and ankles. His skin went from red to purple, and a large, green eye opened in the center of his forehead. Finally, a second mouth grew on his torso, its sharpened yellow fangs dripping with venom. The beast hissed with its twin maws, releasing a haunting screech.
Naruko was too horrified to react when one of the monster's tendrils swung at her like a whip and hit her in the chest. The sheer power behind the blow tossed her a few meters backward, and Naruko crashed back-first onto the ground, pain surging through her body.
The Dark Wolf charged, weapons raised, but the monster vanished in a purple blur. The next second, the samurai suffered the same fate as Naruko, but before she could even land, Zetsu grabbed her ankles with his tendrils and tossed her around like a rag doll.
The Genin rose to her feet, spitting blood. Feeling lucky the blow hadn't connected with any vital, she immediately prepared to fight once more, gazing at the monster. The Dark Wolf valiantly tried to strike back by cutting the monster's pseudo-arms, but it moved out of her swords' way with incredible agility and speed. Naruko realized, much to her horror, her eyes could barely keep up with its movements.
What worried her the most, however, was the flower field.
The roses were rotting.
Sage Mode is about using Senjutsu to power-up your attacks, Kurama noted with disgust. But instead of reaching harmony with nature and achieving balance, Zetsu is draining the area dry of life and uses it as… as fuel.
Grinding her teeth, Naruko formed a Rasengan and charged. Hopping the monster was too preoccupied by the Dark Wolf to notice her, she attempted to smash the spiraling orb onto its back.
The creature moved like a dancer, gracefully dodged, and hit Naruko's leg with a kick so powerful the bone shattered in a sickening cracking noise.
Naruko wanted to scream in pain, but Zetsu didn't let her. His tendril-arm swirled around her throat and turned the genin into an improvised projectile, tossing her right at the Dark Wolf's face. The surprised samurai managed to dodge, but left herself open to attack. Using this to his advantage, Zetsu's arms sprung and swirled around the samurai's hands.
Naruko, having just hit the ground, could only stare as the monster grinned at his helpless nemesis, who couldn't move her hands enough for her katana to free her."You're like iron, wolf pup," Zetsu mocked. "You would rather break than bend."
The tendrils twisted, breaking both of the Dark Wolf's hands with a loud, sickening noise.
The samurai didn't scream, but Naruko could see her struggle against the urge to do so. The Dark Wolf's weapons slid from her helpless fingers, dropping to the ground. With ease, Zetsu then proceeded to lift her above the ground."You have no idea how much joy I find in this moment," he taunted with both of his mouths,"My greatest foe at my mercy, helpless and defeated."
The Dark Wolf glared at him, blood still dripping from her lips and bruises covering her face.
"You are beautiful when you're broken, do you know that?" He mocked, glancing at Sasuke next. "I saw the way you carried him. Did he catch your fancy? He is pretty handsome for your kind, I admit it. Such a dashing rogue, almost sacrificing himself so you could run away from my children, how could one not admire him?"
"Shut up," the samurai snarled.
"But you know it's not possible, don't you?" Zetsu taunted. "You're a lone wolf. You can't let him get close. You can't let anyone get close. Or else, when they die, you will feel pain. Just like what happened when your old master died. That's why you are so cold and wrathful, because if you begin to care, you begin to suffer. I wonder… how much will you care when I kill him?"
Naruko noticed a glint in the Dark Wolf's eyes.
Tears. Of shame or fear the Genin couldn't say, but the samurai was struggling against the urge to cry.
Unfortunately, Zetsu noticed it too. "Oh by Madara, you actually are crying," he mocked, his dozen eyes all glancing at his prey. "If I knew threatening this boy was enough to reduce you to tears, I would have killed him already. In fact, I believe I shall do that right now."
Naruko, clenching her jaw, moved her hands and joined them, beginning a hand seal sequence. When she was almost over…
Naruko grimaced as the Dark Wolf was tossed on her, interrupting the technique. A huge shadow covered her, as the monster towered above his defeated foes.
"Nothing smells better than false hope," Zetsu mocked, his arms swirling around both girls' neck, " That's why man is my favorite animal: you're the only species in the world that can feel true despair. "
Zetsu started choking both girls, its tendrils slowly increasing their pressure and crushing their throats. The monster's lower maw opened, revealing a growing, green sphere of pure chakra. Naruko, in her half-unconscious state, briefly mistook it for a Bijudama.
"Farewell," Zetsu hissed, "Your friends are next. Carry this pain into the next world, wolf pup!"
As the green sphere's light intensified, Naruko's sight began failing her. The call of sleep grew too strong for her, and all she managed to hear before falling into unconsciousness were two single words.
"Shinra Tensei!" someone shouted.
Wood Release: Demon Roots, A-Rank: by using the Mokuton, the user increase the size of underground tree roots and directs them to crush their opponents.
Wood Release: Rose Field, C-Rank: by using the Mokuton, the user is able to grow a field of flowers out of nowhere.
Wood Release: Hidden in Petals, C-Rank: the user mentally controls flower petals and organizes them into a cloud, reducing their opponent's visibility. The technique can also be used as camouflage to launch surprise strikes.
Wood Release: Plant Clone, B-Rank: an advanced variant of the Wood Clone. The user creates a double out of vegetal elements, from leaves to roots. The resulting clone is faster and more durable than the average clone.
Wood Release: Red Rose Explosion, B-Rank: the user, after using the Hidden in Petals technique, cause the petals to spontaneously explode in fire, incinerating their victims.
Corrupted Sage Mode, Kinjutsu: the ultimate, and most repulsive, Senjutsu technique ever devised. The Corrupted Sage Mode is a variant of the usual Sage Mode where, instead of blending natural chakra with human chakra upon staying immobile, burns out nearby Senjutsu the same way an engine does with gasoline. Instead of gaining animal traits, the user achieves a monstrous form better fit for battling, growing limbs, organs, and natural defenses like venomous fangs. The benefits of the Corrupted Sage Mode are much greater than the normal Sage Mode: the user's strength, agility, reflexes and endurance are multiplied tenfold, his ninjutsu is greatly enhanced, his chakra reserves are constantly replenished, and he gains access to Corrupted Sage Arts.
However, the downsides are what makes it a kinjutsu: by draining an area's Senjutsu to sustains itself, prolonged use of the mode results in irreversible damage to the land, making it sterile and destroying nearby lifeforms. Besides, upon draining an area dry, the user regains his original shape: the Corrupted Sage Mode burns brighter than the normal Sage Mode, but burns out faster.
Corrupted Sage Art: Natural Sphere, kinjutsu: by gathering natural chakra into a sphere, a Corrupted Sage creates an artificial replica of a Bijudama. The power of the sphere depends on the size.
A/N: thanks ABitterPill and Third Fang for betaing, and you readers for supporting this story.
If anyone has watched the Road to Ninja movie, then I think you have an idea why this world is so inconsistent. The origin of the world is different in Echoes, but it's a heaven for its creator and creator alone.
Some of you will not be happy for the Feral Gale/Inari's return and I understand your reserves, but, well, this is the final arc: every single character will appear and every single lingering plot threat will be solved. Beside, how the FG managed to return at all is a pretty important matter that will be explained later.
The design of Mifune's armor was inspired by Gundam 00's Masurao.
The Corrupted Sage Mode was an idea I wanted to implement for a time. I think it kinda fits Zetsu's viral nature: instead of achieving coexistence with the world like a normal Sage, he consumes its resources and then repeat the process, like a parasite moving from host to host. The Corrupted Sage Mode's design was partly inspired from Zargon the Returner and Father Llymic from D&D's Elder Evils. Google them to see their wonderful pictures. Also, if you want to write apocalyptic stories, Elder Evils is just a must read.
As I said, the final arc will not only be kick ass battles, although every good guy is going to get awesome moments, but also huge character growth: from the Dark Wolf to Sasuke to Naruko, everyone will mature and get an emotional closure by the end of the story.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the chapter, there won't be another until some time. I think I might be able to finish the story before 2015, but I've got exams in May. Afterward, my writing speed should be sensibly increased.
Also, Property Damage is the next story going to be updated, next chapter is two thirds done.
Would you kindly review?
PS: some readers apparently misread: no Naruko doesn't have, and will never have, a Rinnegan. It's just someone showed up to save everybody.