Author's Notes: FINALLY this chapter is done! (soo sorry for the delay, I ended up rewriting this several times before getting it right, plus some majorly crappy stuff happened in the real world) Thank you everyone who has reviewed/fav'd/encouraged/followed/been patient with this story! I seriously appreciate you readers ^_^ One more chapter to go with this story before it's done!

Ch. 11: The Blood of the Sinner

The sun shone with all the brilliance of molten gold as it made its nightly descent over the snow-capped peaks of the mountains. The sky had given way to the soft hues of eventide, and the forest had become muted and transformed by the encroaching shadows. The failing sunlight filtered through the thick branches of the trees, and the patches that managed to touch the earth shrank at each passing moment. It was only a matter of time before those last rays were consumed by the night.

For Kakashi, the beauty of twilight was a terrible reminder the precious time he had lost. His thigh was bothering him more than he would like to admit, and he had improvised with a little mud and a tourniquet to help staunch the wound inflicted by Akiyuki's earth-jutsu. Marshland had given way to firm soil but the terrain made little difference to affect his gait. He tried his best to ignore the wound as he chased Pakkun through the dense underbrush. Kakashi could ignore pain, but he cannot ignore how each step seemed to take more effort than the last.

Kakashi noticed how Pakkun was slowing for his benefit-a fact that made Kakashi clench his jaw with frustration. He had wasted too much chakra battling Akiyuki and he had little to spare for when he confronted Kanzaka Masao and his strange power. Kakashi had to learn more of what he was about to face.

"Pakkun! What do you know of that-" Kakashi struggled to find the right words to describe the presence that had bolstered Akiyuki's chakra, and failed. "That thing?"

Pakkun glanced behind before replying with a grunt. "Hmph. Don't really know what to call it. I can tell that it was once an entity like myself, but of a much darker sort. It died a very long time ago. That means it's soul is somehow sealed away from entering the realm of the dead."

Kakashi frowned under his mask. He had heard tales of malevolent summons that were frequently used before the existence of the Shinobi Alliance. He had also heard through hushed whispers, of the pacts ancient shinobi made to those spirits in order to entreat their favor. What those whispers revealed was enough to turn the stomach of a battle-hardened veteran such as himself. 'Perhaps,' Kakashi thought, ''demon'' is the best word to describe it.' "If it is as you say," Kakashi pressed Pakkun. "Would breaking the seal destroy it?"

"How should I know!?" Pakkun retorted. "I stay clear away from things like ghosts! For all I know, releasing it would just make it more dangerous. I think-STOP!"

The little ninkin skidded to an abrupt halt and Kakashi had to dig his heels into the soft earth before he could trample his companion. "What is it?" Kakashi asked.

"Do you feel that?" Pakkun whispered. The nostrils in his prominent nose flared nervously. The ninkin stood staring up the trail but did not make a move to continue. Kakashi could clearly see the whites of pug's eyes.

Then abruptly Kakashi's skin prickled as he felt it too; It was as if an invisible cloak had blanketed his heart in an attempt to snuff the light from his soul. A sickeningly familiar odor permeated the pine forest, the unmistakable smell of death. Something was awakening. Something terrible was about to be unleashed. And it could only be the demon.

"This is no fight for you," Kakashi said as he brushed past Pakkun. All of his hurts were forgotten, now easily pushed aside. Ahead was an evil from the dark legends of the past and he needed every ounce of his reserves at the ready to face it.

The little pug was grateful for Kakashi to allow for him an honorable way out of the fight. Pakkun was exhausted and could do nothing to aid against such a foe. "Good luck, Boss. I'll not be too far off." Doubtless Pakkun wanted to be a witness to whatever befell Kakashi for the benefit of the other the ninkin.

Kakashi's feet were running before he head the last of the ninkin's words. He pushed away thought and the throbbing pain in his thigh until his mind focused with razor-sharp clarity at the task ahead.

He ran, and the smell grew stronger.

Urami's eyes bored through the dust like twin fireflies as it followed Masao's command. Iruka sat transfixed in horrified fascination as the demon towered above him. The rotting head -which was as long as Iruka was tall, became less transparent as Urami solidified into something frighteningly real. A foul odor filled the room, it was the putrid rot of opened graves.

'Move you idiot! MOVE!' a faraway voice screamed inside Iruka's head, but his body refused to budge. The terrible aura of the demon brought forth horrors of the Nine Tails attack back to life, and Iruka was once again a boy that had lost everything on that fateful night. Every muscle in his body quivered with the instinct to flee-but still Iruka could not move.

Masao cackled from the other end of the building, a dry reedy sound. Urami echoed the old man's delight with a grin filled with fangs that could easily rip a human in two. The sickly-sweet odor worsened when Urami opened it's muzzle to reveal rows of cracked teeth dripping with ruined flesh. The smell pressed against every pore in Iruka's body and filled him with revulsion. Iruka tried to recoil but could only manage a slight shift in his weight. The thatch under his knees rustled and in an instant Urami struck with blinding speed.

All that Iruka could remember in that next moment was the ground erupting beneath his feet. Whether it was ingrained shinobi reflexes or blind instinct that saved his life, Iruka could not say, but he felt cold air brush by his face before he scrambled to get away. The earth trembled under the blow, which was powerful enough to drive into the very foundation of the building. Dust billowed from the floor to envelope the room.

Iruka crouched under a large wooden roofing beam and pressed a hand to his mouth to filter his breathing. His eyes searched frantically for a way to escape, but he could find through the dust save for the open roof. Climbing the walls without chakra would make him and easy target, and with the roof debris all other openings would undoubtedly be blocked. Iruka was trapped inside the shrine with a madman and a monster .

"Games are useless with me!" Masao roared, his voice rang with the power of the demon. Iruka flinched as a log flew over his head to smash into the floor. He could judge by its range that Masao had no inkling of Iruka's whereabouts.

Iruka reached for a short bamboo pole resting on the floor. 'I am not as helpless as you think,' Iruka willed his grip not to tremble as he held it close to his chest, and he exhaled a shaky breath to help steel his resolve. His mother and father both gave their lives to save their son, and Iruka was no longer a helpless child. 'I survived the Kyuubi attack, and I can survive this!'

Those thoughts took only moments to race through Iruka's head. He held his makeshift spear ready as his other hand groped the floor for something to distract his enemy's attention. Iruka drew back his foot with a sharp hiss as tendrils of smoke curled around his hiding place. The smoke twisted about aimlessly as if it were the fingers of a blind man. Iruka found a small stone and he immediately tossed it overhead in an awkward throw. It clattered noisily among the wreckage. The smoke started at the noise then disappeared into the dust to investigate.

Iruka braced himself and waited three heartbeats before breaking his cover. He lunged over his hiding place and ran heedless of the rubble stabbing into his bare feet. From somewhere behind Urami yowled for falling for the chuunin's ploy, but Iruka had only eyes for Masao.

The old man made no effort to defend himself as Iruka pulled back the weapon to drive it deep into his chest-and Iruka's thrust jarred to a halt. The end of his spear stuck into the blade of Masao's ancient kunai. Masao had countered the attack faster than Iruka could blink. Iruka threw all his weight behind the spear to drive the razor-edge of the kunai backwards into the old man's face. The kunai held steady with impossible strength.

Masao tilted his face at Iruka, a sneer pulled at his lips. "Do you think to outsmart me?" Dark chakra gathered into the weapon. Iruka could not make himself move away from those eyes that gleamed like gold in the failing light. The end of bamboo pole cracked "I fought in the great shinobi wars!" Masao roared. "I am no fool, boy!"

The bamboo pole exploded in Iruka's hands before the dark chakra hit, and when it did Iruka was thrown off his feet and into the air. Expecting Urami to strike his mouth opened to scream-and then pain exploded up his left side as he slammed against the wall with enough force to bounce. The air in his lungs escaped with a sharp gasp and his eyes went wide and unseeing in reflex.

Iruka sensed his body failing. He focused briefly on his enemies as he fell; Urami floated above Kanzaka Masao and triumph gloated in both sets of golden eyes. A small whimper escaped Iruka's lips. He was going to die, and there was nothing he could do to prevent that certainty.

Iruka could not muster the strength to move as the floor rushed to meet his face.

Kakashi had leaped into the trees shortly after leaving Pakkun. High above the ground he caught sight of an unnatural fog rolling gently across the forest floor, seeming come from the same direction as the terrible scent.

Recalling Akiyuki's fog summon, Kakashi was apprehensive at first but he soon caught on to what it was. It was dust, and through his mask it tasted musty and reeked of neglect. There was serious activity ahead and Kakashi's scalp crawled from the malevolent aura. He no longer needed a trail to pinpoint Iruka's location.

Kakashi lowered his Hitate-ate to help shield his natural eye and pressed on. As much as he loathed to slacken his pace he did not want to yet waste his limited use of the Sharingan. It was his only advantage against Kanzaka Masao's demon.

He abruptly broke into a wide clearing choked with dust. The appalling smell was enough to make Kakashi wrinkle his nose with disgust, and he kept in mind to stay upwind of it. Without cover the copy-nin now had to rely on accuracy and speed to surprise his enemies.

The Sharingan pierced through the murk and the silhouette of a large building emerged. In one swift motion Kakashi yanked his last kunai free and sped into the gloom.

Iruka lay unable to move on the ground. He had waited for what seemed like an eternity for Urami to deliver the final blow, but nothing other than an eerie silence greeted his anticipation. Iruka tasted blood in his mouth and more bubbled under his nose. He could not understand why he was still alive.

It took great effort to rise from the floor-it was pure agony to do so. The physical strain Iruka had endured had left his body thirsting for its sealed chakra reserves. Every muscle quivered at the sensation of tiny pinpricks crawling beneath his skin, and the base of his skull pounded as it were about to split in two. Iruka knew that the interrupted chakra flows were weakening him as much as his other injuries.

His vision swam before it could settle on Urami's rotting head hovering dutifully above its master. Masao watched Iruka with a strangely guarded expression as the chuunin braced a hand against the wall. Iruka's left shoulder made an ominous creak inside a dislocated joint, and Iruka winced but then did his best to not allow the pain show on his face. He managed to stand, but had to lean against the wall before he could stagger. Not once did Iruka break eye contact with Masao.

Masao impassively returned the stare. Both he and Urami had observed Iruka's progress with neither a twitch or a sound. An air of tension seemed to be about them as they waited for Iruka to do-what? Iruka could not comprehend, then a chilling thought made the breath catch in his throat. Urami was a creature that fed on despair and there was little sport in killing a helpless victim in one easy stroke. Perhaps they wanted to toy with Iruka more.

Iruka steeled himself away from those thoughts. He could not give into despair as long as he was able to breathe, and he refused to die cowering on the floor. He will make his last stand as a shinobi that will not give his enemies the satisfaction of seeing his fear.

Iruka pushed away a strand of his loose hair as a show of defiance. The back of his right hand glistened red as it brushed under his nose that continued to drip blood onto his naked chest. Iruka wearily kept an eye on his unmoving adversaries and stretched his bloodied hand along the wall. A desperate urge had taken hold of him to seek out a weapon; and perhaps Masao would amuse himself by allowing his captive the luxury of another bamboo stick. Iruka did not care if the protection would only be an illusion.

His hand groped blindly for something to grasp, and finding nothing propped against the smooth wall Iruka tentatively shuffled to his right to broaden his search. At the moment Iruka moved Urami's bulging yellow eyes flared with a warning hiss.

Iruka started at the sound before his hand passed through a deep depression in the wall. Iruka stumbled, and instinctively craned his neck to see what he had encountered.

It was the altar that held the statue of Urami. Iruka had not realized that he had been thrown so close to the tiny shrine, and he was immediately struck by the oddity of its appearance.

Aside from the spilled fruit offerings and spent incense sticks the altar looked as clean as if it had been freshly scrubbed. Iruka could see no evidence of the roof's collapse inside the altar; not even a loose pebble or a speck of dust invaded its domain. It was all a clear sign to him that the area was sealed inside a barrier. Iruka specialized in barrier seals and understood that such a high-level jutsu able to withstand such destruction would only be used to protect something incredibly valuable…and it could only be one thing.

Iruka glanced at the small statue depicting Urami as it once lived: a white monster with the sleek body of a feline and the head of a feral dog. The porcelain features of the demon were fixed into a snarl over tiny fangs tipped with red paint. It was exactly as Iruka remembered from his strange dream-all but for a few dark spots of color that stained the pristine white of the glaze. The rust-colored marks came uncomfortably close to resembling dried blood. Iruka tore his eyes back to Masao and Urami, both were now apprehensively watching his movements.

The blood ritual Masao had performed as a child surfaced in Iruka's memory and its significance struck him like a thunderbolt. The altar itself was the reason why Masao had not attacked; it was too dangerous to risk wielding Urami so close to the heart of the shrine-and around that fragile source of power.

Iruka had to be sure and he risked twitching his right foot as if he meant to step closer to the shrine. The ghostly form of Urami recoiled and Masao's eyes creased to betray his worry. Iruka had been right-but surely he himself would not be a threat with a powerful barrier in place.


'I'm also connected to Urami!' Iruka recalled the ancient kunai hovering over the statue as it dripped the mingled blood of his ancestor Hashibara Yasunori. The statue had to be the key to destroying Masao's link with Urami. Without any hesitation Iruka lurched to thrust his good arm into altar. His skin tingled with an icy chill inside the barrier. But before Iruka could grasp the statue everything seemed to happen at once.

Urami howled with rage. "Get away from that!" Masao shrieked and flung the ancient kunai. Iruka dropped in time for the weapon to bounce off the invisible barrier and he acted on reflex to dive after it-forgetting to take into account the state of his weakened body, and too late Iruka realized that fumbling for the kunai had been a fatal mistake. The weapon brushed against his fingertips before his stomach painfully hit the ground, and for a moment he gaped as it clattered away. Then the reek of decay assaulted Iruka's nose and he felt the cold shadow of death loom above.

Not wanting the demon to be the last thing he glimpsed in this world, Iruka squeezed his eyes shut and unconsciously curled into a himself. He thought of his last sight of Konoha- his beloved village enveloped by the clear summer night and with lights twinkling in the far off distance-now all an unreachable beacon of hope. He will never see his home again.

Iruka's injured arm was wrenched free and a ragged scream tore from his throat. He was only vaguely aware of being dragged, of his backside scraping against the ground before he was lifted into the air. The pain was unbearable, his dislocated shoulder felt as if it was about to be ripped from the joint. He was going to be torn apart limb from limb.

His scream was drowned by an explosion that consumed everything into pandemonium. Iruka's eyes opened but focused on nothing. The unearthly shrieks of the demon rang in his ears as the world spun in a nauseating blur of motion with a dark figure as the sole center of the chaos. His head snapped into a jarring halt and Iruka gasped when his forehead hit something pliable. The dark figure was now smothering him, and Iruka kicked feebly to get away-but his naked heels only skidded across the ruined floorboards. The pressure tightened with enough force to squeeze the breath from his lungs.

"Be still!"

The gruff voice made Iruka freeze and his heart skip a beat. He blinked, and saw that he was pressed against the rough cloth of a flak vest. Iruka dared not believe his ears, and he dared not hope. He lifted his eyes…

It was Kakashi.

The familiar press of the copy-nin's body was something Iruka did not think that he would ever feel again. Kakashi was alive! Iruka wanted to weep with relief, but instead his parched throat struggled to say the other man's name. "Ka-"

"Don't speak!" Kakashi hissed. He held Iruka tight against his chest, his gaze fixed on a faraway point to where Masao and the demon laid hidden by the thick dust. Iruka then registered how Kakashi's appearance. The silver hair hung limp without its usual luster, and his pale skin had taken a sickly pallor with dark circles framing his eyes to give him wasted look. It was all a frightening sign of chakra depletion taking its toll, Kakashi had been pushed to his limits battling the combined powers of Masao and Akiyuki. Iruka could not imagine the sight he himself made in comparison.

Kakashi bent his head to whisper faintly into Iruka's ear. "They can't see us just yet." The Sharingan swept briefly over Iruka's battered form-one glance was all that Kakashi needed to take in Iruka's condition. "I'm going to release one of the major seals blocking your chakra. They will sense you the moment it's gone, and when it is I want you to run."

"No!" Iruka struggled against Kakashi's grip. He recognized the grim determination that was set in the other man's face; Kakashi expected to die in order to buy him time to escape. Iruka would not have it, not now or ever. "I have to stay. I must reach that statue!"

"Statue?" The Sharingan swiveled to peer through the dust. "That's the seal?" Kakashi said incredulously when he spotted the altar. Iruka could understand his misgivings. An enemy would not typically flaunt his weakness out in the open.

"It's inside a barrier," Iruka's explanation came out in a rush as he tried pry himself out from Kakashi's arms, but he may as well have tried to move the Hokage monument. He felt as weak as a newborn. "It's sealed by a blood jutsu, but I can break through!"

"You're hardly in any condition to fight!" Kakashi snapped as he scooped an arm under Iruka's knees in order to change their location. He deftly leaped about on silent feet to avoid the tendrils of Urami's smoke that crept through the ground and in the air. A primal growl from Urami rumbled inside the building.

"Murderers! The lot of you!" Masao cried from somewhere in the dust. The snap of breaking wood resounded as if the demon were venting its frustration on whatever was nearby. Urami's thrashing, fueled by Masao's temper only intensified the choking dust. "You killed my Jiro! Both of you will PAY!"

Iruka clung to Kakashi as he was carried. He pressed his face into the filthy flak vest to help muffle his words. He did not want his desperation to give away their position. "I did it before I fell," Iruka's voice trembled, he was now pleading. Kakashi had to see reason! "You will just get yourself killed and Masao will never stop hunting for me. This is the only way to end it!"

Kakashi landed on a broken beam jutting from the wall. His feet did not disturb a single pebble as he crouched on his perch with Iruka's legs dangling over his knees. Urami had ceased his thrashing and the dust was beginning to settle. Kakashi's face set as if he had reached a decision. "What do you have in mind?"

Iruka craned his neck to scan the ruins of the shrine. His eyes flickered to where the old man and his demon were undoubtedly guarding the altar. "I will need a distraction."

Kakashi hesitated, and then his gloved hand shifted to grip the base of the chuunin's skull. Iruka went rigid the moment Kakashi's chakra penetrated the seal Jiro had made. Like the torrents of a river freed from a dam, Iruka's chakra surged violently throughout his body and his eyes rolled to the back of his head in a breathless gasp. The unleashing of his chakra was an ecstasy that bordered on pain. Colors seemed to become more vibrant and the smells more sharp. It felt wonderful to feel alive again.

Kakashi bounced off the beam to land a fair distance from the walls upon a mound of roof thatching. Iruka slipped from Kakashi's arms and found that he was only a little unsteady on his feet. His injuries continued to hamper him, but with the aid of his newfound energy Iruka was now able to push the sensations away. The dust whorled violently around the two shinobi. It was their only warning before Urami's yellow eyes appeared as its grisly head surged through with a roar of triumph.

Kakashi roughly pushed Iruka aside and produced his last kunai. He surprised both Iruka and Urami by darting around the demon to head straight for Masao hiding in the dust. Urami jerked it's attention away from Iruka, suddenly uncertain of whom it should attack. The survival of its host won through and it turned follow.

Almost immediately Iruka heard Urami's jaws snapping at empty air as it chased the elusive copy-nin. Iruka wanted nothing more than to aid Kakashi but understood that the jounin had the upper hand as long as he retained his use of the Sharingan. With a heavy heart, Iruka made for the altar by keeping close to the wall, knowing that he would eventually stumble upon it. Iruka used as much stealth as he could manage without losing speed.

"No! Get away!" Masao cried, and Iruka heard the sound of cracking wood followed by a rush of Urami's malevolent chakra.

"Almost had me that time!" Kakashi jeered from somewhere faraway. "What a mess! You really should think about giving your pet more obedience training." The copy-nin clucked his tongue in mock disapproval. "Perhaps you could teach it to dig a grave for your friend Akiyuki back at the swamp?"

The goad had the desired effect. Both Masao and Urami cried out and Iruka heard the sound of more wood breaking in Kakashi's direction-opposite from Iruka's position. "Damn you!" Iruka could easily envision the spittle that flew out with the words. Masao had completely lost his mind with rage. "I will tear out that cursed eye! I will blind you!"

Iruka quickened his pace. So intent was his concentration that he almost missed the glimmer of metal on the ground sticking out from the rubble. Iruka paused long enough to inspect it with his foot, and underneath the mess he discovered the kunai that had nearly cost him his life.

It was the same ancient kunai his ancestor had thrown to cripple a defenseless child, and the very one Masao had in turn used to curse the Hashibara bloodline. Iruka snatched the kunai and tucked it into a pocket sewn in the hem of his trousers. Feeling a little more at ease with a weapon again he continued in his search and soon discovered the depression marking the altar.

Iruka wasted no time plunging his good arm into the barrier to seize the little statue of a living Urami. It was roughly the size of a small teapot and surprisingly heavy. The tingling sensation of the barrier jutsu could not compare to the unnatural cold of the statue; it felt like a solid chunk of ice almost cold enough to burn. Iruka's first impulse after pulling it free was to smash it into the ground but the evil power emanating from it made him hesitate to throw it away.

It was in that moment of indecision when a drop of blood fell over the right side of the statue's face. Iruka had not noticed during all the confusion that his nose was still bleeding. The splash of blood staining the snowy likeness of the demon gave it an even more savage appearance. Iruka gasped and nearly dropped the statue in surprise as the spot of blood began to smoke and sizzle into the porcelain like a volatile acid. "My blood?" he asked himself. 'No, the blood of the Hashibara!'

The earsplitting scream of a wounded beast pierced the air. Iruka looked up in time to see Kakashi racing at him with streams of dust trailing from his limbs. Iruka had the presence of mind to hug the statue as the copy-nin hooked an arm around his middle to haul him out of the way-just before Urami plowed into the altar and right through the wall. The shrine shook from the impact and dust billowed from the gaping hole like a living thing making good its escape.

"Urami-sama!" Masao wailed and gestured wildly from his wheelchair to beckon the demon inside. Urami did not heed the command and floated outside the hole howling and clawing at its face where Iruka's blood had hit the little statue. The demon tossed its head about in a vain attempt to shake off the agony of bubbling flesh that spat wisps of smoke into the air.

Masao was breathing hard, his withered body strained at the effort of wielding the maddened demon. His golden eyes swept across the ruins of the shrine- which was no longer shrouded by dust-and immediately fell upon two figures sprawled on the ground, a few paces away. Masao let out a crow of delight and wheeled himself around the rubble to reach for the fallen Konoha shinobi.

The back of Kakashi's armored vest had been ripped to shreds under the backlash of Urami's attack. The copy-nin had used himself to shield Iruka's unprotected body, and he now laid stunned on top of Iruka with a gash bleeding above his brow.

Iruka heard Masao cackling and he struggled to roll Kakashi off his back. The bulk of Kakashi's weight had settled on Iruka's bad shoulder, and his grip around the chuunin remained tight even in his unconscious state. Both of Iruka's arms were trapped against the floor around the cursed statue, which burned like cold fire against his skin.

Attracted by Masao's laughter Urami floated back into the shrine to gain strength from its host. The bubbling wounds had ceased festering and the additional injuries gave the demon a more fearsome appearance. Half of the rotted flesh around its muzzle had melted away, and exposed bone glistened around rows of sharp teeth. What was left of Urami's face pulled into a terrible parody of a grin.

Iruka saw Masao's features take on a cruel gleam, and it reminded him of a child about to pull the wings off a butterfly. It was the most horrible expression Iruka had ever seen on a human face. Panic born from sheer desperation gave way to a surge of adrenaline and Iruka shifted Kakashi enough to give his elbow enough room to jab the jounin painfully in the ribs.

Kakashi awoke with a grunt and in an instant he rolled to his feet and dragged Iruka out and away from Masao. "Now!" Kakashi cried as he turned weaponless to face Urami, his arms stretched wide as a blockade.

Iruka pulled the statue to his face and swiped it under his nose to smear blood across its length. Urami screamed as its transparent body began to bubble and spew, and among the putrid stench of rot came the addition of burning flesh. Kakashi took a step back in alarm as Urami thrashed about like snake-coiling and uncoiling about itself as it writhed heedlessly against whatever lay in its path. The hollow shell of the shrine shuddered from the abuse and rained debris from the remaining walls.

The statue continued to burn in Iruka's hand but refused to crack. Iruka felt hostile eyes upon him and looked to see Masao glaring with unspeakable hate. Masao reached into his grey robes to withdraw the ancient kunai-and then the ugly expression softened with confusion when he discovered his most prized possession missing…and Iruka was reminded of what he had tucked inside the hem of his trousers.

Masao's eyes widened with horror the moment Iruka whipped the kunai free to raise it high above his head. A shriek of despair was all Masao could do when Iruka stabbed down with all his might, right into the body of the statue and through his blood. The kunai easily pierced the porcelain and the statue flew apart into shards that were as delicate as eggshells.

The tip of the kunai made a dull sound as it broke something that had hid for countless eons inside the statue of the demon. Iruka found that he had hit a fragment of a jawbone. It was dark with age and held a few scraps of dried flesh clinging to vicious teeth. The fragment was no bigger than Iruka's fist, and he had only a brief glimpse of Urami's earthly remains before it began to crumble away.

A hitch-pitched mewling sound resonated in Urami's throat as it ceased in its death throes as its smoky body began to drift apart in all directions. The light in its golden eyes grew dim before it was snuffed out. The last sound the demon made was almost a whimper as the gates of death closed over the malevolent ghost, forever sealing Urami and its power away from the living world.

Masao gave a wheeze before he toppled from his wheelchair. "No! no no no!" he sobbed into the floor. After a moment he tilted his face on Iruka who sat a few paces out from his reach, and madness consumed the old man. Masao dragged himself forward to reach Iruka's hunched back, his useless legs trailing behind. His dark eyes-now that of an ordinary man-burned with a feverish intent to strangle Iruka with his bare hands alone.

Iruka rose purposefully from the floor and slowly turned to face Masao, the ancient kunai held ready in his fist.

Masao froze at the expression on the young man's face. Shadowed by the failing twilight, the brown eyes that he had once compared to Minako now promised his death. Masao could only compare that gaze to that of Hashibara Yasunori's contempt. All of the lives Kanzaka Masao had cut short-all of the blood he had spilled to fuel his power-had amounted to nothing. He was right back to that moment before he sold his soul to Urami-and for the first time since that fateful night, Masao was afraid.

Kakashi watched with baited breath as the spectacle unfolded before him. Years of battle and a lifetime of violence made him fully aware of what would happen next. It was Iruka's right to slay the murderer of his family, and Kakashi would not deny him that vengeance.

Iruka stared down at his defeated enemy. He recalled Tohru's terrible weapon made from the blood of countless Hashibara clansmen-little Shizu manipulated for murder-Minako's terrible death-and of his grandfather Torichi who had been forced to flee his clan to live in fear and hiding. Unforgivable was hardly a word to describe what Iruka felt; Masao had made it his lifelong quest to execute all from the Hashibara bloodline and had taken from Iruka family that he had never known existed-family that Iruka never had the chance to be a part of. The loss was almost unbearable, and it made Iruka feel alone in a way that he never had before. Without realizing what he was doing, Iruka's lips pulled into a snarl.

For a long time Kakashi watched the emotions play on Iruka's face, and then he closed the distance between them to reach for the trembling fist. He took care to avoid the kunai as his thumb brushed over the chuunin's knuckles in a gentle caress. Kakashi would stand by Iruka's side, no matter what path he chose.

The kunai clattered noisily on the floor. It had slipped from Iruka's grasp. Kakashi's uncovered eye blinked as Iruka exhaled a shuddering breath. "I never wanted to be a part of this war." Iruka said quietly in a voice that was weary and almost void of emotion. His fist opened to allow Kakashi's fingers to intertwine, and he then regarded the pathetic man cowering before his feet. "And I do not want any more of his blood on my hands." Iruka pulled free from Kakashi to turn away, now refusing to acknowledge the sight of his former adversary. "In time only the villagers will remember your name, but only as a monster to frighten their children to bed." The flat tone Iruka spoke held a note of finality. "You will not be mourned Masao, and I can only pity you for that."

Masao laid utterly stunned, and he could only watch incredulously as Iruka began to make his way for the broken section of wall to the open air outside. "Y-You coward!" Masao sputtered when he finally found his voice. Drool flew past his lips as he screamed "FINISH ME!"

Kakashi plucked the ancient kunai off the floor and studied the razor-sharp blade. Masao quailed under jounin's merciless expression and became silent. Kakashi's uncovered eye appeared bemused as he glanced over his shoulder. 'A man who can show mercy even to his enemies.' Kakashi spun the kunai in his hand before driving it point-first into the floor, positioning it over half an arm's reach from the old man. It was far more than what the old bastard deserved, but he had a feeling that Iruka would not want even Masao to suffer without an easy way out.

Iruka marched with his face stubbornly set into a stoic expression, heedless of the rocky terrain that stabbed into his feet. Kakashi easily caught up to his pace and the jounin unzipped the ruined flak vest to drape it around the Iruka's bare shoulders. The evening had taken a chill that had little to do with the weather. Together they walked away from the echoing screams of Masao cursing them from inside his prison. Kakashi put a comforting arm around Iruka, and Iruka leaned into the offered warmth but did not raise a hand to wipe away the tears that streamed silently down his face.

The warm glow of the sun had long since disappeared behind the mountain range. A few stars shone faintly in the vast indigo of the clear summer sky, and more tiny pinpoints flickered into existence as if emboldened by those first hesitant few. The night was a world of shadows, and darkness a thing to be feared-but soon more stars than any mere human could count will be unveiled, and then the darkness would seem as if it existed just so they could shine brighter.

End of Chapter 11