A/N: I'm back! Life is getting pretty hectic for me, but Rise of the Uchiha is reaching the final showdown and I refuse to let it die out. This is the final chapter covering events in the Forest of Death. Most of it is a battle between Otogakure and Sandstorm, but we also discover the truth behind the dead Uchiha squad whom Naruto's team found strung up in the Forest. Next time we'll begin the Preliminaries, and with all of the injuries sustained so far in Deidara's twisted Forest, the final Tournament lineup is anyone's guess. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto

Chapter 39

Dosu of Otogakure was a cold-blooded killer, an assassin in every sense of the word. For him, killing wasn't about emotion, it was just the job – and he was good at his job. With his teammates, Kin and Zaku, Dosu went into the hard-to-reach places and took out the tricky targets. Otogakure might be a small village, but its income had almost doubled in the time Dosu had been on active duty, thanks to powerful individuals with murder to be done and pockets deep enough to pay for it.

Emotions are anathema to the hired killer, so Dosu tried to keep a level head. He could kill without mercy and analyze the worst of situations logically – almost nothing could break his cool. If there was one thing that Dosu truly hated, however, one thing that really got under his skin, it was feeling weak.

In Orochimaru's main base, Dosu could count on two hands the number of shinobi he needed to fear. Orochimaru himself, of course, and Kabuto. Then there were Orochimaru's Curse Seal-bearing bodyguards, any one of whom could take down Dosu's entire team without breaking a sweat. Add in the recently healed Kimimaro and the mysterious hooded kunoichi everyone in Oto had been talking about, and that was pretty much it.

But here, in these Chuunin Exams, it seemed every other team was packed with super-powered freaks. Jinchuuriki and armored monsters and masked men with magical swords… a simple assassin barely stood a chance!

But that wasn't the attitude that had brought Dosu this far. When the odds seemed impossible, you evened them… usually by killing someone. You didn't have to be stronger than someone to kill him. You didn't have even have to be a better shinobi. You just needed to find that one weak point, that one chink in the armor that your mark never dreamed existed, and strike first… that was the key to successful assassination.

The other key was, whenever possible, to make sure others did your dirty work. The perfect kill was one in which Dosu never lifted a finger.

Dosu shifted impatiently, waiting for his teammates to finish their preparations. Kin and Zaku were in the middle of casting a complex two-person genjutsu on two weak genin teams from Kumo. It had been difficult to convince Zaku to keep them alive, but Dosu had guessed they might come in handy. The six unconscious genin were laid out inside a sealing circle, while Kin crafted a genjutsu and drew on Zaku's chakra to enhance the effect.

This was Kin's ultimate genjutsu, requiring two full hours of the utmost concentration. It relied on her affinity for sound-based genjutsu, implanting commands deep within the victims' subconscious minds and associating them with different sounds from Kin's bells. With adequate preparation, Kin could implant a trigger in someone's mind without her victim even knowing something was wrong.

The genjutsu was invaluable in setting up scapegoats for the team's murders. Why bother killing a minor village leader directly, for example, when you could hypnotize his wife into slitting his throat as he slept? That had been a particularly neat murder, several years ago in Grass Country. The sound that had triggered the murder was the bell in the village church tower, ringing to mark midnight – an elegant and untraceable crime.

There were limits to the commands Kin could implant, of course, but they were determined only by her chakra control and her imagination, both of which were excellent.

Without warning, the sealing line around the Kiri genin flared bright red, and Kin and Zaku slumped down into the grass with weary sighs.

"That was a bitch," Kin gasped. "Never conditioned six at once before. Thanks for the extra juice, Zaku."

Zaku buried his face in his hands, wheezing. "Don't mention it… seriously, though. Why do we need all six of them again, Dosu? Kami, why do we need any of them at all? The three of us are more than enough for those Sandstorm saps."

Dosu reflected, not for the first time, that it was a good thing he was the brains of the operation.

"You talk a big game," he snarled, "but do you really want us to take on those armored beasts by ourselves?! Suna doesn't mess around, and you can bet they sent their best. There could be a crack jounin squad in those body suits, and no one would know. Trust me, Zaku… my plan is better."

"Whatever you say, boss," Kin offered, hoping to avoid a fight between Dosu and his brash subordinate. "Just give us a few hours to recover, and we can get this show on the road. Those Suna teams won't know what hit them."

The thought mollified Dosu somewhat. Even outnumbered and possibly outgunned, Otogakure's assassination squad would get the job done. It was what they did.

oOoOo

Although the three Sandstorm trios had entered the Forest of Death separately, it had taken less than three hours to find each other again. Shino always kept his teammates tagged with a few kikai bugs, and Kiba's nose kept his team from running into any powerful enemies while they reconnected with the others.

After Sandstorm gathered, they put Shikamaru's primary plan into action. It involved finding the Tower at the center of the Forest, which didn't take long, thanks to the range of scouting techniques they had at their disposal. The teams moved quickly, trusting to their superior firepower to keep them safe.

Once they reached the Tower, the nine genin of Sandstorm went to work creating the strongest fortifications they could. As Shikamaru said, wandering around the booby-trapped Forest randomly could lead to success, but it could also lead them into an ambush – and no matter how weak the enemy might be, an ambush greatly increased the chances of Deidara's clay going boom. Much better if they set the ambush, in a location that other teams had to reach sooner or later – the Tower.

Working together, Sandstorm was capable of creating some serious fortifications. The core of the defense, predictably, was Gaara's sand, but hardened and shaped into a maze, with walls reaching twelve feet in the air, that completely encircled the Tower. Any team wanting to reach the Tower door had to either enter the maze or blow it up, and any jutsu with enough firepower to even put a dent in Gaara's hardened sand would also ignite Deidara's explosive clay.

The moment a team entered Gaara's maze, however, they would be at Sandstorm's mercy. There were hundreds of tactical options corresponding to their different abilities, including collapsing sections of the maze, flooding them with Crow's poison gas, or flushing them out with the concentrated fury of Temari's Wind jutsu. Best of all, the thick sandstone walls muffled the sounds of battle, so Deidara's pets weren't attracted to anything happening inside.

Shino, Kiba, and Sakura constantly patrolled outside the maze, waiting for new victims to fall into their clutches. Gaara's Third Eye provided them with a sentry even further outside their range, which wasn't vulnerable to counter-attack or ambush.

The strategy worked well for the first two days, during which Sandstorm captured three over-eager teams with almost no trouble. Two Iwa teams, confident to a fault, had pushed for the Tower and tried to tunnel under the maze. Choji had been waiting for them, and even if Earth was not his best skill, his chakra reserves allowed him to blast them aboveground with one overloaded Earth jutsu. A more wary Kumo team approached several hours after that - they saw the maze and were too smart to enter it. Unfortunately for them, Kiba and Shino already had them flanked. When the luckless genin turned to deal with what they thought was the threat, a volley of Sakura's paralytic senbon took them out with ease.

Now Sandstorm had four Earth scrolls and two Heaven Scrolls – just one more Heaven Scroll and they could leave the Forest all together. But no strategy is flawless, and few battle plans survive any prolonged contact with the enemy. The genin of Sandstorm were about to find that out for themselves.

"There's a team coming," Gaara reported, in the center of the maze with Ino and Shikamaru. The three of them were Sandstorm's "command center," since Gaara had his Third Eye technique, Ino could communicate mentally with the other members, and Shikamaru had… well, his brain. Together, the three of them were best suited to respond to changing situations and relay the appropriate orders to the other members of the team, who were positioned strategically both inside and outside of the maze.

"It looks like Kumo nin," Gaara reported, "and they're not making any attempt at stealth. They'll pass by Kiba in seconds – seems like they know we're here, and they don't care they're outnumbered."

"Something's up," Shikamaru cautioned. "This smells like some kind of trap, and I think we should respond fast. Tell Sakura's group to engage them before they can reach the maze."

The only non-human present saluted Shikamaru and disappeared in a flash. Temari's favorite summons, Kamatari the sickle weasel, was the perfect messenger – swift, silent, and deadly in a pinch. He'd reach Sakura without anyone seeing more than a silver glint flashing by.

Ino frowned, her forehead wrinkling the way it did when she was thinking hard. "You think they've found some way to circumvent the maze?"

"No…" Shikamaru said. "I think there are more where these guys came from. Let's move – my instincts tell me it would be a mistake to hang back in the maze and let whoever's in charge of this attack dictate the pace of battle."

"Fair enough," Gaara agreed. "I wouldn't mind getting out of this damned cocoon. It's starting to feel a bit claustrophobic, for all it's my own technique."

oOoOo

Sakura had been expecting orders from Shikamaru, so she wasn't surprised when Kamatari appeared next to her with a puff of wind and a sound like leaves rustling. "Engage?" she asked.

"You got it, sweet cheeks," the weasel replied with a leer – Kamatari took great pride in his vulgarity and sexism, like many professional soldiers of an older generation. Sakura often considered turning him into a pincushion, but kept returning to the conclusion that he wasn't worth the effort. "Shadowlord says not to let them reach the maze."

Sakura snorted. "Still going with the nicknames, huh? That hasn't gotten old?"

"Please - codenames. Nicknames are for kiddies; codenames are for covert ops. What are you going to do if someone recognizes the names of the missing heirs to Konoha's clans? Besides, you're just mad 'cause yours isn't as cool as Shikamaru's. Good luck with the encroaching bad guys, Bubblegum!" Kamatari disappeared with a wicked chuckle, leaving Sakura still searching for a comeback.

Sakura took off after the Kumo genin, trusting that Kiba would block them before they reached the maze. She and Kiba would trap their opponents in a pincer, with Shino flanking to provide long-range support if necessary.

The Kumo team had actually managed to make it within a stone's throw of the maze before Sakura caught up with them. Kiba stood between them and the entrance, knees bent in a powerful taijutsu stance, shark-fin blades extending from the armor covering his forearms and shins.

"Welcome to the party," Kiba called out, his voice distorted by the matte-black visor covering his face. "We've got a right weird bunch here. They haven't said a word, not to negotiate or beg or even banter. Their eyes are dilated – might be drugged."

"Seriously?" Sakura approached the trio cautiously, paralytic senbon gripped in her right hand. As a medic nin, she was best suited to figuring out what they were dealing with.

"Stay back, Bubblegum!" Shino's voice rang out. Sakura grimaced. Of them all, only Shino actually used the codenames, and he did so without the utmost gravity. Somehow, that only made it worse.

"Don't call me that!" she insisted, but Shino ignored her.

"If they've been drugged or placed under a genjutsu, it follows that they must have been sent by another team. I'm inclined to believe these are disposable pawns, sent either to distract us or attempt to take out a few of our number with a single self-destructive attack."

Kiba caught his breath and jumped backward, staring at the silent Kumo genin. "Their chakra is spiking!" he yelled.

There was barely time to react, as the enemy shinobi actually began glowing and crackling with energy. Sakura and her teammates sprang away with chakra-assisted leaps, but she doubted they would be able to clear the blast radius in time. The explosion was blinding and deafening, and Sakura closed her eyes unwillingly, wondering if her armor stood a chance of turning aside the raw force that would follow.

But no shockwave sent her flying through the air, no superheated air forced its way through the chinks in her armor to scald her flesh. Sakura opened her eyes and immediately saw the reason why – the area where the Kumo genin had been standing was now enclosed by a small version of Gaara's ultimate defense. The section of the maze closest to them was gone, having been redeployed to protect Sakura's team from the explosion.

Gaara, Shikamaru, and Ino appeared, explaining the source of Sakura's deliverance. Ino stood next to a fallen Kiba, and offered him a hand up.

"Good timing," Kiba said, managing to sound nonchalant.

Ino shrugged. "We thought so."

Temari's voice, shrill and urgent, echoed from further out in the Forest, carried by a modified Wind jutsu. "More coming! Three of them, from different directions – one south, one north, one east."

"I'll take east," Gaara replied, raising his voice so it would carry far. "Kankurou, take the others! The rest of you – figure out who the hell is behind this. We can't contain many more explosions!"

Gaara's Ultimate Defense dissolved into its normal form and sped off with Gaara riding it like a surfer without a board, searching out the latest suicidal genin. Kankurou, wherever he was, sent out two of his puppets to trap the last two attackers. Sakura winced – explosions this powerful would probably cripple those puppets permanently, even though their interiors were reinforced with hardened steel plates. Kankurou was going to be one pissed puppeteer after this.

There were a few long seconds of silence, followed by a trio of muffled sounds like a battery of cannons firing somewhere far away. Sakura let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding. The explosions had been contained; they were safe, for now.

At least, that was what Sakura thought until Kiba barreled into her, shoving her aside just as an exploding tag detonated in between them. Without their armor, Kiba and Sakura would have died. As it was, they were merely knocked off their feet by the force of the blast.

"Where the hell did that come from?!" Kiba cried.

"Up here, dipshits!"

They looked up, astonished, to meet a bizarre sight: three shinobi attached to some kind of flying apparatus – like a hang-glider, but with a large enough frame to fit three. The glider was pointed directly down, and the three shinobi – Oto nin, from their forehead protectors – dove at full speed toward the Sandstorm genin.

"They meant to separate us from Gaara, if the first explosion didn't kill us," Sakura said to Kiba as she jumped to her feet. "But why go this far? We're supposed to be allies!"

"No clue," Kiba said, activating the blades concealed in his armor, "but now's not exactly the time to worry about it. They seem to want a fight, so let's give them one."

One of the attacking shinobi completed a series of seals and held out his hands, palms up, towards Sakura. "Decapitating Soundwaves!" A rapidly rotating column of sound shot towards her, which Sakura barely managed to dodge. Before the glider crashed into the ground, the Oto shinobi jumped free, somersaulting through the air and landing gracefully in a triangle formation.

Sakura recognized the trio as the Oto team that had caused trouble before the First Exam – something about the pride of Otogakure. Apparently they didn't care much about alliances, or maybe their superiors hadn't told everyone in their village about the upcoming joint invasion.

The leader of the Oto genin attacked Kiba directly, and the two began a taijutsu battle that was as graceful as it was vicious. Kiba fought with the modified battle style of a Suna skirmisher, and even though it wasn't as familiar to him as the techniques of his clan, he easily held his own against his opponent.

"Leaving two for me, huh?" Sakura yelled to Kiba, trying to attract the attention of the remaining two – a boy and a girl, both of whom wore superior smirks.

"Nice try, honey," said the enemy kunoichi, "but we're from Oto. We can hear your teammates lurking out there in the trees."

"In that case," said Ino, emerging from behind a nearby tree, "there's no need to draw this out." She pulled her segmented metal whips from their holsters, cracking them a few times with a look of expectation. The male shinobi whirled around suddenly, shooting concentrated soundwaves from his palms in time to knock aside the two arrows that Shino had fired from cover.

"Sneaky," Zaku crowed, "but not sneaky enough!"

Sakura launched a volley of senbon, but the Oto kunoichi blocked them with a volley of her own. That was the moment when Choji's Earth-style technique activated, turning the ground underneath their feet into quicksand. For all their supposedly superior hearing, the technique caught the Oto team by surprise – they sank to their knees, and were trapped when the quicksand hardened.

Choji rose up out of the ground, where he had been hiding with the use of a jutsu Jiraiya had taught him many years ago. "All right there, Kiba?"

Kiba, who had been trapped in the quicksand along with his opponent, said a bad word.

By the time Gaara and Kankurou returned to the clearing, the rest of Sandstorm was assembled in a loose ring around their would-be assassins. "You're from Oto?" Shikamaru demanded incredulously. "Why did you attack us? And how did you expect that sloppy strategy to work?"

The Oto team kept their mouths shut, faces frozen in expressionless masks. Shikamaru sighed. "Troublesome fools. Ino, do you mind?"

"Not at all," the Yamanaka prodigy replied. It was a risk to use her clan techniques in enemy territory, but her teammates should be able to sense if anyone else was close by, and the information contained in their prisoners' heads might be useful.

A few minutes sufficed to extract everything of value that Dosu's team knew. "As far as I can tell, this is just a case of ambition and stupidity," Ino reported. "They know about the invasion, but the leader – Dosu – doesn't care. They sensed us setting up a trap around the Tower and wanted to teach us a lesson… a fatal one."

Gaara spoke up for the first time, his tone extremely grim. "So they knowingly attempted to assassinate their allies, and sacrificed six innocent foreign genin to do it?"

Ino nodded shortly. Gaara turned to Dosu's team, actually shaking with rage. When he spoke, however, his tone was measured and cold. "I do not judge you for trying to kill us – these are the Chuunin Exams, after all, and it would seem suspicious to avoid attacking any particular team. But you sacrificed innocents in a poorly conceived murder attempt, during an Exam that is secondary to our shared objective. I'm tempted to kill you, but I don't want to soil my hands with your filthy blood. Ino… finish this."

"Right." It was the work of a moment for her to erase their memories of the past few days. It was a bit of a rush job, and Ino guessed that Dosu and his team would be short a few IQ points when they woke up – not that she would lose much sleep over that.

"One last thing," Gaara said. He sent his sand to each of the unconscious genin in turn, delivering swift, crippling blows to their ears. "They can't repeat their mistakes if they're deaf. Trash like these three don't deserve to be called shinobi."

Some of the members of Sandstorm felt a flash of pity as they looked at the broken, defeated forms in front of them, but they only had to remind themselves of the six genin from Kumo, murdered in cold blood, to cut off their sympathy at the roots.

"Not to detract from this melancholy moment or anything," Kankurou ventured, "but these punks have three scrolls, one Heaven and two Earth."

"Good," Temari spat. "Let's take them and get the hell out of this place."

But it was not to be that easy. Shino and Kiba stiffened at the same time, turning to face the woods due west of them. "Danger closing fast!" Kiba whispered. "They're strong!"

"I agree with Kiba's assessment," Shino said, an undertone of worry clearly audible in his voice. "My colonies register massive spikes in chakra levels."

"Just three of them?" Kankurou asked, twitching his chakra strings to bring forth Crow, his favorite puppet. "How dangerous can they be?"

Sakura could have slapped Kankurou for tempting fate. Sure enough, when three Otogakure shinobi appeared in the clearing, the level of killing intent that accompanied them was enough to raise the hairs on her neck. Sakura recognized these shinobi, too – it was the team with the pale Oto-nin who had faced off against the Hokage's heir. Kimimaro was his name, she remembered. Next to him were a shifty-looking fellow with white hair and glasses, and a short figure whose face was entirely obscured by a hood drawn low.

"You had every right to kill them if you wanted," Kimimaro began abruptly, eyes blazing with righteous fury. "But you called them trash."

How did he know that? Sakura wondered. Did he have super-hearing too?

"You took their hearing, turning them from proud shinobi into broken beggars – a far crueler punishment than a clean death. You spat on their pride as shinobi of Otogakure. And all the while, you pretend like you're the civilized ones. Like they were ants to step on. I will not stand aside and let the honor of Oto be so stained!"

"If they are examples of Oto's so-called honor, then I don't think much of it," Gaara replied coolly. "Do you also wish to fight? Let me remind you, we have more important things awaiting us. Take your comrades' scrolls along with my apology, and let us both advance to the next stage of this foolish Exam."

"Only one of us will advance," Kimimaro declared. "Dosu and his teammates are fools, but they are of Oto. No one, ally or not, will get away with treating them this way. You shall die for your arrogance."

One of the other Oto shinobi, the one whose face was covered by a thick hood, tried to speak up. "Kimimaro-"

"Silence!" barked the pale-skinned shinobi. "You will not dissuade me. Fight or not, I don't care – but I will see these trash rotting in the ground."

His teammate shrugged and fell silent, evidently not prepared to take the disagreement further.

Shikamaru took several steps forward, so that he stood between Gaara and Kimimaro. "Gaara… take Kankurou and Temari and go. Activate your scrolls and leave this Forest."

Every member of Sandstorm turned to stare at the Nara genius. "If that was meant to be a joke," Gaara said quietly, "it wasn't very funny."

"I'm not joking. If this guy thinks he can take on all of us, then he's either crazy or he's packing some serious firepower. I'm inclined to believe the latter. We can't afford to risk you here – with the six of us, we still have a number advantage, and we don't have to worry about your safety."

Gaara said nothing, obviously not convinced.

"Damn it, Gaara," Shikamaru spat, "I'm supposed to be Sandstorm's tactician! If you don't listen to me, then I might as well slit my throat now and have done with it. You have a responsibility to the entire village, not just to us!"

"Go on, Gaara," Kiba added after a moment. "We can handle these clowns."

Gaara's gaze wavered, and landed after a second on Sakura. He hesitated, and something caught in her throat. Was he waiting to hear what she said?

"Go on," she said, barely loud enough to be heard. "We can't always fight together. Having your team reach the next round is all that's important… remember?"

She was referring to their invasion plan, which hinged on Gaara unleashing his demon inside the arena to target Konoha's jinchuuriki – the same Uchiha Naruto who was the subject of so many rumors lately. Gaara was their best bet to take him out of the fight from the very start.

Gaara acquiesced at last. "All right, but if any of you get yourselves killed, I'll… I'll bring you back to life and kill you again!"

"Such a touching scene," sneered the third member of the Oto team, the slender, bespectacled young man. "Die here or die later… make your choice, and stop wasting our time."

Gaara didn't deign to respond, instead departing for the Tower with his siblings close behind. Kankurou did take a second to flash a rude hand sign at the obnoxious Oto shinobi, however.

"You talk big," Sakura said, zeroing in on Glasses. "Want to back that up?"

He held up his hands, which sprouted a covering of glowing green chakra. "My pleasure, princess."

oOoOo

Hinata wanted to kill Kimimaro. His prickly side always pissed her off, as did his devotion to the pride of Otogakure. Now she had to fight her allies, all because Dosu and his idiot teammates thought they belonged in the big leagues.

At least they got what was coming to them, Hinata reflected. Without their hearing, they'll never be effective shinobi again. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

The old Hinata could never have regarded such horrific injuries with satisfaction – but then that was the point. The old Hinata had been quick to pity, quick to sympathize, even if it was with her enemies.

But Hinata didn't have that luxury anymore. The hope of her village rested on her shoulders, which meant she had to be strong enough to bear that weight. She had to cast aside all emotions that didn't help her reach her goal, and hammer out weaknesses with ruthless precision in order to turn herself into the tool her village needed. They needed a warrior who didn't allow emotions to get in the way. They needed an avenger, who could be swift, merciless, and even cruel.

It was that last part which had given Hinata trouble – but more than a year training under the Legendary Sannin had pushed her past that mental block. Considering the nature of one of her teachers, it wasn't that hard to understand. Orochimaru could have instilled a bloodthirsty streak in a nun. And then, of course, there was her new Curse Seal… the effects it had on her body were nothing compared to the effects on her mind. Hesitation, weakness, compassion – Hinata had discarded them all like clothes she'd outgrown.

Thus, while Hinata regretted the need to fight the two Sandstorm genin currently facing her, she wasn't about to hold back. And the darkest part of her soul, which had sprung forth with a vengeance under Orochimaru's tutelage, felt a rush of pure exhilaration at the prospect of battle. The Curse Seal etched in her forehead called out to her, promising power and demanding to be used.

Hinata gathered her will, determined to resist – the last time she had answered that call, she had killed three people in as many seconds. Not that she felt much remorse over Uchiha Genji, the brute who had once assaulted her in the streets of Konoha, but these Sandstorm genin did not deserve to meet such a fate.

As Hinata struggled to exert mastery over the seductive call of her Curse Seal, a part of her whispered, I am a monster. The words echoed in her mind over and over in her mind, to the point where they lost all meaning. Hinata knew they were important, but she couldn't remember how they were supposed to make her feel.

"Why do you wear your hood like that? Are you disfigured or something?" demanded the Sandstorm genin on the left, in a harsh, masculine growl.

Hinata couldn't help laughing. "Says the man in the suit of armor. I'll pull up my hood when you take off that visor."

Hinata's second opponent, probably female judging by her smaller stature and graceful movement, readied two whips made of segmented metal. "I guess we're all a bit antisocial," said the Sandstorm kunoichi, "which explains why we're trying to kill each other when we could all leave this Forest right now."

Hinata shrugged. "You're not wrong. Try telling that to Kimimaro, though – he's a bit prickly when it comes to village pride. I can't make any promises, but I'll try to make sure he leaves your teammates alive."

The larger Sandstorm genin laughed scornfully. Hinata decided that she would think of him as Gruff, like his voice, and label his partner Girly. "You've got a brass set of balls, don't you?" Gruff demanded. "You should worry about us killing you!"

"Come on, then... make my day."

Judging from the blades protruding from his armor, Gruff was probably a close-quarters fighter. That was fine with Hinata. She charged him first, palming a kunai with each hand. She thought he seemed a bit surprised when she was able to keep up with his speed, but honestly, he wasn't nearly as quick as Orochimaru.

Hidden by her hood, Hinata's byakugan was also activated, which allowed her to see the mechanisms controlling dozens of blades within her opponent's armor. He appeared to be manipulating them with chakra, and no doubt the unpredictability of his attacks gave him a significant edge against any taijutsu user who couldn't see the blades moving before they actually extended out of the armor. It was just Gruff's bad luck to be fighting a Hyuuga.

It was also thanks to Hinata's byakugan that she did not get skewered by the whip that lashed at her from behind. Her other opponent apparently wasn't content to wait her turn. Those two whips were a danger to enemy and ally alike, but Gruff's armor rendered him invulnerable to his teammate's attack – it was a deadly combination.

Hinata dodged and weaved, avoiding Gruff's blades and Girly's whips. She got in a few attacks of her own, leaving several long scratches across Gruff's breastplate with her kunai. The number of scratches increased steadily, but she never came close to penetrating the metallic armor.

"What in Kami's name are you doing?" Gruff demanded, extremely annoyed at how easily Hinata was avoiding his combination attacks. "You're twistier than an eel, but you can't imagine you'll beat me with just kunai. Have you missed that I'm wearing armor?"

Hinata bent backwards at the waist, so that Girly's whip-strike missed her by mere inches and cracked harmlessly against Gruff's armored torso.

"My teacher is a fuuinjutsu master," Hinata said matter-of-factly. "Did you know it's possible to etch basic seals into hard surfaces like rock or metal?"

She dodged left to avoid a pass from her opponent's bladed knee, then launched a palm strike directly at the heart of the elaborate design she'd painstakingly scratched into her opponent's breastplate.

"Oh, sh-"

"Release!" Hinata barked, triggering the basic Blast Seal that had been one of the first fuuinjutsu techniques Jiraiya had taught her. He maintained that she was the best student he'd ever had, because she possessed the chakra control and the incredible attention to detail demanded by fuuinjutsu.

The concussive force from Hinata's technique originated on the surface of her opponent's armor and shot through it, blasting Gruff across the clearing like a rag doll. Hinata smirked, remembering when she had first tried out this technique on Kimimaro. He still bore the scars on his chest.

The seals etched into the visor kept Hinata from being able to see Gruff's face, but she was willing to bet he was unconscious. The human body was not designed to function well after abuse like that.

"No!" the anguished cry echoed off nearby trees, and Hinata turned to face her remaining opponent.

"You'll pay for that, bitch!" Girly snarled. There was an ominous click, and then her whips ignited with different kinds of chakra – one fire, and one lightning.

Hinata felt a grin stretch unbidden across her face.

"Now we're talking."

oOoOo

Kabuto was good – faster than Temari, better in hand-to-hand than Kiba, and far more practiced with medical ninjutsu than Sakura. She couldn't even begin to understand, let alone replicate the way he balanced the precision of the chakra scalpel technique with the raw force necessary to make it an effective weapon. All she knew was that if he landed any more direct hits, her Sandstorm armor would peel apart like a cheap tin can.

Her initial strategy of hemming him in with Shino's arrows while she engaged in close-quarters combat was not going to cut it this time. Not even her poisons had worked, and gaping wounds apparently only qualified as slight and short-lived nuisances to Kabuto. Sakura was growing tired of watching him heal in front of her eyes – not only was the regeneration technique crushing her pride as a medic nin, it was also damn frustrating.

The conclusion was clear – it was time to up her game. Sakura bit her thumb and invoked the Summoning Jutsu.

"You called?" The voice was dry as desert sand, sibilant as death itself. It belonged to a deathstalker scorpion no larger than Sakura's hand, which appeared in a puff of smoke on Sakura's shoulder. The scorpion elder had a mottled yellow and black body, with malevolent red eyes. His name was Obikiri.

"I did, Honored Elder," Sakura said, keeping her tone as respectful as possible. The last time the elder of the Ninja Scorpion clan had accused her of a lack of respect, Sakura had spent fourteen hours immobilized by a venom that burned like fire in her veins. "I humbly request your aid in this battle."

"What for?" the ancient scorpion demanded irritably. "He doesn't look that tough."

Sakura had to agree that Kabuto's appearance didn't exactly strike fear into one's heart – but then, that was probably the point. A shinobi who looked unassuming was far more likely to be underestimated than one who advertised his power openly. She remained tactfully silent.

"I'll inject you with Ambrosia Venom," Obikiri grumbled, "but I'm not fighting. Summon Yakitori. She has far more patience for this kind of nonsense than I."

"Thank you, Honored Elder." Sakura performed another Summoning Jutsu. Nothing happened – at least, that was how it looked to a casual observer.

"Yes, yes, very well," the scorpion muttered impatiently. "Let's get this over with."

Sakura felt a sharp stinging sensation in her neck, followed by a rush of euphoria that obliterated everything else. Not just the pain, but the memory of pain, the very idea that pain existed – all ceased to exist for Sakura. There was only the beautiful liquid power rushing through her veins, courtesy of the Ninja Scorpion clan.

"I'll leave you to your games," Obikiri said, as if a life-and-death struggle were nothing more than a child's flight of fancy. Perhaps it was, from the perspective of a creature that had seen generations pass by like so many days and nights. He disappeared with a world-weary sigh.

The world came into focus, as if up until this moment Sakura had been wearing blurry goggles and only now had them removed. Time slowed down, each second stretching out with infinite possibility. Obikiri's Ambrosia Venom, which Sakura had only experienced once before, removed the ability to feel pain and supercharged one's reflexes, at the cost of shortening one's lifespan.

For a limited period of time Sakura would become a berserker; faster, stronger, and utterly impervious to pain. An inability to feel pain was not, of course, the same as being immune to injury… but Sakura had an answer for that as well.

She signaled to Shino with a shrill whistle, and formed the hand seals for a jutsu that she had created herself, with a little help from Granny Chiyo. The technique essentially created chakra strings, with one twist. They were capable of channeling chakra between people, and they didn't require conscious manipulation to do their work. Not only that, but they were part of an automatic healing jutsu that triggered whenever Sakura suffered any harm. It worked somewhat like she imagined Kabuto's technique did, except that Sakura couldn't control her jutsu. It would automatically suck chakra from her partner to heal any and all injuries, and it wouldn't stop until either Sakura was healed or there was no more chakra to drain – resulting in the death of her partner, who in this case would be Shino.

Shino circled around, distracting Kabuto with one of his Hailstorm Arrows. The rapidly multiplying cloud of arrows sealed into the first arrow didn't have a prayer of incapacitating the Oto shinobi, but they distracted him long enough for Sakura to complete her technique, and for Shino to anchor her chakra strings within his own body.

Sakura's preparations were complete – now to make Kabuto regret picking a fight with Sandstorm.

Kabuto was roughly fifty meters away, the trees behind him riddled with Shino's arrows. Sakura crossed the distance in a flash, her first supersonic punch catching him in the stomach. Multiple cracks resounded, testifying to at least three broken ribs.

The Oto nin cursed viciously, eyes widening in surprise and pain. "You have no bloodline, no clan techniques," he hissed. "How did you do that?!"

Sakura's analytical mind processed Kabuto's words and concluded that somehow, the Oto nin knew who she was. She filed that information away for later examination, but at the moment it seemed unimportant, paling in comparison to the glorious power spurring her to fight, to maim, to kill. Sakura's vision gained a yellowish tinge, which was a sign that the venom was just reaching full potency. She put on another burst of speed, determined to take Kabuto out of the fight as quickly as possible.

Even moving twice as fast as usual, Sakura could not simply attack straight on. Kabuto's chakra scalpel was still a threat, and Sakura's healing abilities were not up to reattaching a severed arm. Kabuto also revealed a surprising level of dexterity by forming one-handed seals that sent a swarm of semi-corporeal snakes streaking through the air to try and snare Sakura's limbs.

But Sakura was not to be deterred by such tricks. She was Death's avatar, equal parts speed and fury and implacable focus. Sakura shredded snake after snake while dancing around Kabuto, darting in for quick strikes and leaping back, throwing handfuls of poisoned senbon to prevent counterattacks.

Kabuto wasn't fast enough to dodge all of her attacks, and soon had a collection of deep gashes across his arms and torso. Any one of them should have pumped enough poison into his system to kill him, but his mysterious regeneration jutsu was apparently still going strong. The gashes themselves only lasted seconds before closing up. Sakura would cheerfully have sacrificed a limb to know the secret of that jutsu.

Enough flitting around like a mosquito. Sakura charged head-on, practically inviting a counter-thrust from Kabuto's chakra scalpel. He obliged, launching a straight jab that would rupture her heart if it connected. Sakura drew on all of her venom-aided speed and turned sideways, taking Kabuto's attack through the side of her stomach rather than her heart. The scalpel cut through armor, flesh, and organs with horrifying ease.

But Sakura had planned on this, and the complete lack of pain meant that nothing distracted her from stabbing both of Kabuto's arms with oversized senbon. She kept turning until her back was to Kabuto, and pulled forward, extending his arms via the stakes anchored in his flesh. From a distance, it probably looked like he was hugging her from behind – a grotesque mockery of intimacy.

Sakura could feel the rush of chakra pulsing through her modified chakra strings, which meant her medical jutsu was working. The cut through her stomach was healing at an accelerated pace, drawing on chakra taken from Shino's body.

For any normal shinobi this type of transfer would kill the donor before healing such extensive damage, but Shino could limit the damage to his own body by drawing on the chakra of his insect colonies. Choji and Gaara were also ideal partners for this jutsu, since they both possessed chakra far in excess of normal shinobi, though for different reasons.

This was Sakura's ultimate healing jutsu, and while it didn't come close to equaling Kabuto's, it was enough for her strategy to work. Kabuto was now off-balance, unable to move his arms, and completely at the mercy of Sakura's temporarily superior strength.

"Now, Shino!" Sakura shouted, aware of the precise direction of her teammate because she could sense the chakra strings connecting him to her.

An eerie, high-pitched whistle split the air, raising the hair on Sakura's neck briefly. It grew louder and louder until it was upon her – there was no time to dodge, even if she'd wanted to. An arrow fully a meter long – Shino called it a Whistler, and it relied on an advanced Wind Seal worked into the shaft to achieve incredible speeds – slammed through Kabuto's torso and carried through to stab Sakura in the gut. The two of them were skewered like two pieces of meat, neither able to move an inch.

Kabuto opened his mouth to speak, but only blood came out.

"Just wait, asshole," Sakura spat, sensing the slight vibrations from the ground beneath her feet. "That's nothing compared to what happens next."

Since Sakura was just as trapped as Kabuto, she couldn't turn around to take in the alarming sight of a giant rust-red scorpion emerging from the earth behind Kabuto, burrowing through rock and packed dirt as easily as it tunneled through the desert sand of Suna. Sakura did, however, hear Kabuto's agonized whimper when the scorpion's stinger, almost as long as the blade of a katana, stabbed him in the neck, at the top of the spinal cord.

Sakura chopped off the end of the arrow that bound her to Kabuto, drawing deeply on Shino's chakra reserves to expel the arrowhead embedded in her gut and close the gaping wound. The damage wasn't likely to be lethal to her or Shino, but they would both be in bad shape for at least a week after this fight – a decent trade, Sakura knew, if they managed to live out the day.

Finally, Sakura was able to turn around and see her handiwork. The unkillable Kabuto, the veritable cockroach of the shinobi world, had foot-long senbon through his arms and an arrow shaft thick as a javelin through his torso. Towering over him was a Ninja Scorpion of enormous size, which was currently pumping as much paralytic venom as it could into Kabuto's system. Kabuto was frozen stiff, his face locked in a rictus of pain and shock.

"Thanks for the help, Yakitori!" Sakura waved cheerfully to the giant scorpion. Yakitori was much easier to get along with than Elder Obikiri – all she asked was a good fight, and some raw meat when opportunity arose. She was also sneaky as hell, usually answering summons by appearing underground, where she'd wait in order to catch enemies unawares.

"This human is strange," the scorpion replied, and the breathy, feminine voice sounded quite odd coming from such a hulking, deadly creature. "I've expended enough venom to overload the nervous systems of ten woolly mammoths, yet he's still alive."

"But he is immobilized, right?" Sakura confirmed.

"Oh yes. I can't keep wasting venom indefinitely, but your little friend won't so much as twitch while I've got him like this. I can give you at least an hour."

Sakura let out a sigh of relief. She had been beginning to think that Kabuto was truly immortal. But now he was at their mercy, and keeping him alive might serve her purposes better than killing him.

"Shino, could you keep an eye on him, please?"

Her unflappable partner appeared by her side, the Sandstorm armor even more effective than his usual high-collared jackets at hiding his expression. Nothing in his bearing showed that he was currently dealing with chakra depletion that would have killed a lesser shinobi.

"Affirmative. I… feel compelled to congratulate you. That was an inspired strategy, though I did not enjoy the necessity of shooting you in the back. I assume you're going to use his life as a bargaining chip to convince his teammates to cease hostilities?"

"You assume correctly," Sakura said, as brightly as she could given the circumstances. "Back in a flash. You just make sure this bastard doesn't move a muscle. If he so much as twitches, well... he shouldn't be able to make too much trouble without his head."

oOoOo

Shikamaru did not see this fight ending well. Without a doubt, Kimimaro was the strongest Oto shinobi entered in the Exams, and probably one of the strongest shinobi, period. Shikamaru and Choji were no slouches, but both were unable to use the majority of their clan techniques, in case the Uchiha had some way of monitoring fights occurring near the Tower.

At first, the two friends were able to hold their own. Kimimaro's bone swords, though freaky and intimidating as hell, were not hard enough to penetrate their Sandstorm armor with anything less than a point-blank thrust.

Things looked even brighter when Choji drew on his enormous chakra reserves to increase the weight and power of his armor. The next time Kimimaro closed with him, Choji met his opponent's bone sword with his armored fist. The crack of shattering bone was music to Shikamaru's ears – even sweeter was the look of astonishment on the enemy shinobi's pale face.

"I have never met an attack capable of withstanding my technique, let alone breaking it, Kimimaro admitted. "I commend you."

But there was no time to pat themselves on the back, because Kimimaro chose that moment to transform into a monster. Black lines zigzagged alarmingly across his skin, and then his skin itself began to change, becoming rough and leathery and turning dark. He even sprouted a tail, for heaven's sake, and sharp ridges of bone jutted out of his skin to make him look like some kind of dinosaur.

Shikamaru's mind was working on overdrive, but there simply wasn't time! There were doubtless ways to neutralize Kimimaro's kekkei genkai – there must be – but Shikamaru couldn't think of one as he dodged frantically to avoid the carpet of sharp spikes shooting up from the earth. Shikamaru's armor had built-in Seals with attacks channeling all five Elements, but he couldn't think of a single combination that would stand against the full might of Kimimaro's kekkei genkai. Shikamaru could gamble and use his Shadow Possession, but he had the sneaking suspicion that with his Curse Seal activated, Kimimaro wouldn't stay trapped. Perhaps for the first time since his parents had been killed before his eyes, Shikamaru felt helpless.

Kimimaro in his new form was mind-bogglingly fast, but that wasn't what determined the course of the battle. Instead, it was his ability to change the terrain according to his will. Shikamaru was hesitant to take to the trees, owing to the growing number of Deidara's creatures waiting there, but the ground belonged to Kimimaro. Bone spikes grew and shifted and hunted Shikamaru like a dog.

He managed to evade them for a few minutes more, long enough to meet up with Choji and launch a desperate dual attack against the monster that Kimimaro had become. Shikamaru activated seals built into his armor, which triggered elemental jutsu in both of his palms, wreathing them in shrouds of flame and lightning. At his side, Choji diverted all of his speed and power into a single attack. They let out twin cries of rage and launched themselves at Kimimaro.

Kimimaro's tail caught Shikamaru full across the chest, knocking him yards away. Bones sprouted like tree roots around him, anchoring his hands and feet – and then spikes shot upward from the ground, piercing Shikamaru's armor and driving through his wrists and ankles. It was more painful than anything Shikamaru had ever experienced, but it paled in comparison to the agony of knowing that he could do nothing except watch Choji fight on alone.

Choji and Kimimaro met with a tremendous crash. Choji's armored fist stopped short, inches from Kimimaro's face, but unable to close the distance. Kimimaro crouched before Choji, a lance of bone sprouting from his arm and extending a full yard out of Choji's back. Kimimaro straightened, lifting the impaled Akimichi with his weapon so that his feet dangled impotently in midair.

Shikamaru only realized he was screaming when he bit his tongue and his mouth filled with the coppery taste of blood.

Kimimaro tossed Choji aside like so much trash. Then he rounded on Shikamaru, advancing with the slow, measured pace of a deadly predator. "You brought this upon yourself," Kimimaro growled, raising his arm to deliver the final blow.

"STOP!" Sakura's desperate cry brought Kimimaro to a halt. The pink-haired kunoichi stood at the edge of the boneyard, arms outstretched.

"You wish to beg for your teammate's life?" Kimimaro asked in a bored tone.

"Not to beg," Sakura corrected in a voice like ice. "To bargain. Harm another of my friends, and your teammate with the glasses dies soon after."

"You're bluffing," Kimimaro laughed. "Kabuto would never lose to the likes of you."

"See for yourself," Sakura declared, gesturing to where her fight had taken place. It was over fifty yards away, but Kabuto's limp form was clearly visible, as were Shino and the outline of the giant scorpion keeping Kabuto paralyzed. "Your teammate is one hell of a medic, but he doesn't have the combat skill to go with it. So, here's the only question that matters: is the life of your comrade worth the lives of mine?"

"You know the answer to that question, Kimimaro!" another voice chimed in. Shikamaru craned his head as far as he was able, watching the third member of Kimimaro's team approaching. Behind the hooded kunoichi, Ino and Kiba were laid out next to each other on the ground, unconscious or dead. Shikamaru hoped with all his might that his teammates were still alive, and cursed himself for being too weak to help them.

If Sakura got them out of this situation alive, Shikamaru promised himself, he would never let a situation like this happen again. He would be smart enough to stop it. He would be strong enough. Never… never again.

"Orochimaru needs Kabuto alive more than he needs these Suna fools dead," the Oto kunoichi said, approaching Kimimaro fearlessly and getting right up in his face. "Cut a deal, Kimimaro."

Kimimaro literally shook with rage, but Shikamaru knew the threat had passed when the Oto shinobi morphed back into his human self. The makeshift boneyard disappeared as well, even the bones that had kept Shikamaru pinned to the earth like an insect on a card. Without the bones keeping his wounds closed, the blood began to flow in earnest, and Shikamaru struggled to stay conscious.

"So how does this work?" the mystery kunoichi asked Sakura, keeping an appraising eye on Kimimaro. "I, for one, wouldn't be all that miffed if you chopped Kabuto up into little pieces, but my partner here would take that as an excuse to start fighting all over again. It's in everyone's best interests to avoid that."

"Here's what happens," Sakura said, using the Body-Flicker jutsu to appear next to Choji and then Shikamaru. She picked them up, armor and all, without any apparent effort. His brain fogged from trauma and blood loss, Shikamaru found himself wondering where she'd gotten the strength. There was something hovering at the edge of his consciousness, but he couldn't make it stay still…

"I take my teammates over to the Tower," Sakura continued. "You stay right the hell where you are – don't move, don't speak, don't even breathe. My scorpion friend will remain right where she is, and believe me, that stinger is more than capable of carving your friend into little slices before you can reach him. After we activate our scrolls and leave the Forest, the scorpion will disappear. At that point, you can build a bonfire and roast marshmallows, for all I care. Agreed?"

"Agreed," Kimimaro snapped. "Get out of my sight."

"With pleasure," Sakura said, jumping away. She moved faster than she normally did, even with two shinobi larger than she was slung over her shoulders. Shikamaru's vision was almost completely black by now, but he heard Sakura's shrill cry, and Shino's answering shout.

He forced himself to keep his eyes open until he saw Shino dragging Ino and Kiba by means of a hastily contrived rope harness. Sakura joined Shino, and in seconds all six remaining Sandstorm members were at the entrance to the Tower.

"Ack-" Shikamaru's throat was too dry for speech. He swallowed, and tried again. "Ga- Gaara's going to be pissed…"

Sakura made a soothing sound, glad that Shikamaru couldn't see the brittle rage in her eyes. "You just rest, Shikamaru."

"This isn't over, Suna scum!" Kimimaro called out from across the clearing.

Sakura and Shino opened two Earth scrolls and two Heaven scrolls, and the ensuing cloud of smoke blocked the Oto shinobi from view. "You bet your ass this isn't over!" Sakura yelled. "The only question left is which of us gets the pleasure of killing you. Your bones won't protect you forever, you pasty freak!"

Something that Sakura said sparked a thought in Shikamaru's addled brain.

Bones… Sakura… that's it!

He needed to tell her his realization, but before he could, darkness swept in and obliterated all thought.

oOoOo

After the scorpion disappeared, Hinata and Kimimaro were alone in the clearing. Without the giant stinger keeping him upright, Kabuto fell flat on his face, the vestiges of the scorpion's poison still immobilizing him.

Hinata let out a scathing peal of laughter that reminded Kimimaro just a little of his master. "I will treasure the memories of this Exam forever," Hinata declared. "How many times has Kabuto gotten his ass kicked so far? I've lost count. I'm not sure if I like the scorpion better, or the time Kabuto got run through by a former Hokage he summoned."

"I will admit, Kabuto has proven to be something of a disappointment," Kimimaro said tightly. "After this mission is over and we return to Grass Country, I will strongly recommend that Orochimaru rethink his reliance on him."

They both knew why Kabuto was too valuable to kill now – he was the only one capable of reproducing Orochimaru's modified Curse Seal. Without him alive and well when the Invasion started, the Sealed shinobi of Konoha would be forced to fight their liberators or risk retribution from the Uchiha. So while Hinata viewed Kabuto about the same as she would a rabid dog, she needed him.

"Don't worry about those Sandstorm kids," Hinata said after a moment. "Honestly, they didn't do anything wrong. Dosu and his goons were a disgrace to Orochimaru's name, and you know it."

Kimimaro growled. "Don't push your luck, student of the Sannin. Those arrogant fools will still die by my hand. If not during the Tournament, then after."

Hinata shrugged. "Whatever you say, 'Maro. Come on, let's collect the cockroach and get out of here. I don't know about you, but I've had about all I can stand of this Forest. Deidara's creatures are getting restless, too."

With Kabuto still locked in rigor mortis, Kimimaro and Hinata activated their own scrolls in the shadow of the Tower entrance. Moments later they were gone, and silence reigned in the Forest of Death.

End of Part 6