Project Naruto: Shinobi X.

Disclaimer: I do not own the Naruto world or characters. Those are the property of Masashi Kishimoto. The challenge I answer here is from devilzxknight86, with all due credit for the basic concept. Life may be hard, but look at the alternative.

Twenty-eighth Seal: Overcome.

Tsunade glared at the messages before her. One had been sent from Takigakure, and the other from Sunagakure, and neither carried good news. They had been sent by summon creatures, a much faster and more desperate method than the usual messengers, and a clear sign that things were not going well. Taking barely a moment to glance at the active-duty chart on the wall, the Godaime Hokage pressed a button on her desk and snapped orders into the intercom. "Shizune! I need a messenger hawk ready to go in five minutes, attuned to Maito Gai, and send for Team Ay immediately!"

She was already scrawling the message in a broad, clear hand, to redirect Team Gai towards Suna to reinforce Team Kakashi, while she went over what orders she'd give Ay and his team for this mission. These Akatsuki were really getting on her last nerve...

The iron sand the puppet controlled was a problem, Sakura realised quickly, and not one that was easy to overcome. She could feel the magnetic field that shaped it into the vast number of spears that then rained towards them by the pull on her arm's shoulder and knuckle plates, and was running her old school lessons on magnetism through her head. There were a number of ways to break up a magnetic field, but only a few of them were lasting... But the secret wasn't to attack the sand, she realised, but the puppet... Leaping upward, she clung to the wall of the passage as she signalled to Shikamaru, and the lazy strategist nodded, tapping on Temari's shoulder as the two dropped to the passage floor. Gaara's sand had grabbed at the iron sand, pinning it in place as best he could, even as Sasori lashed out with hidden blades at Kankuro and his puppets. Sakura crouched, pushing chakra into her legs at the same time as she poured it into her arm, the earth-aspected energies strengthening both the material, and the 'muscles' of twisted cable inside the artificial limb.

The opening was incredibly small, as Temari combined her wind scythe jutsu with a hasty flame-thrower technique from Shikamaru, directing the resulting super-heated fire at the mass of sand and powdered iron that hung between Gaara and the puppet Kazekage, fusing it into a single immovable lump, one that disrupted the magnetic fields with its very existence. Kankuro's puppets were being shattered as Sakura launched herself up the wall of the passage, charging towards the puppet from behind the massive lump of glass and steel as it fell, and struck... hard. Pushing more chakra into her fist, she slammed it into the centre of the puppet, right on top of the kanji on the chest, the character for 'iron', and scattering the pieces of the puppet far and wide. In doing so, however, she was scratched in several places by fragments of the now-broken construct, and the thin purple film on some of the sharper pieces entered her bloodstream. It hurt, it burned like nothing she'd ever experienced before, and all the strength she possessed fled her limbs as she fell to the sand below.

As the girl fell, to be caught by the now-puppetless Kankuro, who promptly fed her a broad-spectrum antidote, Sasori wasted half a moment regretting that he hadn't perfected his latest poisonous concoction, which would have rendered the antidote useless, before turning his attention to the remaining shinobi, and the gathering Suna ninja, equivalent to Konoha's ANBU, and pulled a scroll from his back, unravelling it with his left hand as he opened the right side of his chest. The scroll released a hundred puppets in red cloaks, and the opening in his torso released a similar number of chakra strings, and even as he called out "Performance of the Hundred Puppets!", Shikamaru's shadow stabbed into his own, freezing him to the spot before the strings could connect... allowing Kankuro to steal control of two puppets, armed with what looked like chains, and begin to confine the motionless marionettes.

"Hurry!" yelled the lazy strategist. "I can't hold him long, he's too strong!"

Deidara had seen enough. He'd been quietly working his clay... spiders or a bird, he still hadn't decided, until Sasori's hundred puppets were brought out. "Shit," he thought harshly, "that's a bad sign, and the Leader won't want to leave anything for questioning... Oh, well, it's Sasori, I never liked him much anyway."

The clay bird appeared, and he leaped onto its back, staying well above the fighting, and taking advantage of the momentary surprise to dash past both defenders and puppets alike, pulling out his 'big finisher' as he raced over Sasori's head, and activating it as he threw it over his shoulder...

To say the explosion was big, would have been like referring to the ocean as a little damp, or midday in Kaze no Kuni as a little warm. The detonation didn't just drive the very sand of the desert in waves, but also reached a sufficient temperature to turn it to glass, not a pure, clear glass such as Suna glass-blowers could produce, but the dirty, cracked and bubbled stuff that could be found after a lightning strike. Sasori and his puppets absorbed the shock-wave unprotected, consumed by the detonation's heat and force, and Gaara barely got a barrier of sand in place to protect those in the passage, one he had to continually replenish as the heat from the blast converted the sand into glass from the heat. By the time the destructive blast had finished, the passage into Suna had been sealed with a solid glass barrier some twenty feet thick, or there-abouts, and Deidara had gotten away. Of Sasori and his puppets, not a single trace would be found.

Kurenai gave up the genjutsu as a bad idea. It just wasn't working, as whatever kept this Hidan going in place of chakra pretty much ignored her attempts to connect her illusion techniques to it. On top of that, she and Shino were constantly forced to dodge the scythe that the missing-nin wielded with abandon. He didn't even seem to care about the depth of the blow, or where it struck. Struck by an inspiration, she poured most of her chakra into her next genjutsu, a simple illusion that had a unique trait, for all that it couldn't affect a large area... it didn't touch alter the senses of her target, but instead created an actual visual illusion, in this case, as she dodged the next scythe sweep by a extremely narrow margin (she actually felt the cloth of her right sleeve part, but the blade missed the skin), she created the image of blood on the scythe. On seeing this, the Akatsuki ninja immediately caught the scythe and quickly licked the blade... tasting nothing.

"Shino," the Konoha genjutsu mistress called out, "why do you think he did that?" On the fly analysis was more his strong suit than hers, and she would be a fool not to take advantage of that fact. Yuhi Kurenai was many things, but fool was decidedly not among them.

"The blood must be needed for something," the young Aburame said quietly. "Perhaps to form some kind of meta-physiological link between the 'donor' and the 'recipient', most likely through the use of whatever form of energy he uses instead of chakra. It isn't chakra or youki, both of which Hinata could sense, and I doubt it would be shen, or divine energy... but to get that effect we observed earlier. Hmm, I wonder... Kurenai-taichou, I have an idea."

Dodging a slash from the frustrated scythe-wielding maniac, the jonin kunoichi nodded, giving her subordinate the go-ahead, and Shino unleashed a massive wave of insects that swarmed the missing-nin as he flailed wildly with his scythe, and even as Shino began a set of hand-signs, Hidan burst from the cloud of kikaichu beetles and rushed the chunin, who brought out his own weapons and began a defensive dance as he bought time for his insects to return. No sooner had the kikaichu swarm returned than Hidan's scythe slipped past Shino's guard, tearing at his arm and drawing blood before Hidan leaped back, licking at the precious liquid, savouring the coppery tang that told him it was really blood, even as Shino dropped to one knee and clutched his arm, and the Akatsuki shinobi stepped back into his ritual circle as his flesh once again turned black, and the white lines over his bones, and the section of white over his face, appeared. As the strange man removed a collapsing blade from his robe, he laughed maniacally as Kurenai moved to help Shino.

"Prepare for the afterlife you little shit!" Hidan screamed, not wanting to prolong this ritual too much with the jonin still running loose, as he plunged the spike into his own heart.

Hinata had managed to pinpoint what was wrong with this man's chakra system. He didn't have any tenketsu! The chakra came from the cauldrons and simply circulated through a legion of extra-fine coils that resembled nothing so much as threads. That caused her a problem, as without tenketsu, her usual targets were gone, and with the way those threads kept shifting around, she was fairly certain they could replace and replicate themselves fast enough that the only really vulnerable points would be the hearts.

Kakuzu moved fast, knowing that a Hyuuga, even if she had some kind of henge to disguise her eyes, could well unravel the secrets behind his power, and charged at the girl. His assault was pure taijutsu, and he knew she was too green, too unschooled to withstand it, but at the same time he wasn't going to make the mistake of underestimating her, and he drove his leg forward in a snap kick of devastating force... that struck something hard and immovable.

Naruto stood before the missing-nin, his arms crossed before him, plated with bonemetal that extended up from his wrists, now receding back into his arms as the jinchuuriki released the chakra shaping the plates, with Kakuzu's foot at full extension resting on the cross. He swung both hands across and outward, severing the leg as the missing-nin jumped back, threads reaching out and reattaching the limb before he landed. Then two large bundles of the threads pushed up above the shoulders of the Akatsuki ninja, each bearing a mask representing some animal... The mouths of the masks dropped open as they aimed roughly at the Uzumaki couple as they stood before him, and as the red-mouthed mask seemed to gather fire in front of it, the brown-striped one fed earth, in the form of stone and dirt, into the flames, and Kakuzu unleashed a seal-less jutsu, even as Naruto and Hinata frantically raced through the hand-signs for their own jutsu.

"Yoton: Pyroclastic Wave!" the Akatsuki bounty-hunter roared, and a gout of super-heated lava shot towards the two Konoha ninja, where it met their answering defence.

"Suiton: Tidal Wall!" Hinata yelled, raising a massive wall of water that she sent coursing towards the lava stream, and Naruto plunged his hands into the water, calling out "Raiton: Static Separation!" as it passed.

The water, charged by lightning, continued to barrel towards Kakuzu, who raised a water wall of his own, disrupting the lava stream as it went, and turning to vapour on the way. The cloud settled around Kakuzu, as he dropped his water wall, seeing the near transparent fog as no threat, and the fire-mask opened its mouth again, and the fire gathered once more for the lava technique...

The explosion certainly took the man off-guard, a massive blast of flame that slammed the Akatsuki heart-thief to the ground even as the detonation consumed the two masks and the hearts behind them, although Kakuzu was fast enough to put himself in a reversed water-prison, preserving his life... for now. With the other masks ripped away from him, until he had the time to replace the missing hearts, he was the weakest he'd been in years. Glaring at the two chunin who'd brought him to this, he snarled out his question. "How?"

"Basic chemistry," Naruto answered. "You better believe I paid attention about how to make things explode. When you run the right electrical current through water or steam, you get two colourless gasses, very excitable ones, that will explode with the slightest spark... which you so thoughtfully supplied."

"You're still in over your heads, child," sneered the bounty-hunter. "If I can't capture you, I'll just have to kill you. According to my sources the Kyuubi, whichever one of you is carrying it, will regenerate in the next ten years or so. No big loss." He raised his hands and started a very potent jutsu. He hadn't needed hand-signs for decades, and now...

The first sign Hidan had that something was wrong, was the lack of bleeding in the boy... despite the blade piercing his heart, the boy wasn't reacting at all... except to burst into a swarm of insects surrounding a log as the real Shino emerged from the trees, startling the jonin woman. And the pain, while much of a rush as ever, wasn't fading, and he was starting to feel... cold? The injury wasn't healing, either... "Jashin?" the zealot asked, as blood gouted up his throat to pour from his mouth. "What's happening? Why have you forsaken me?"

The young Aburame spoke up. "I apologise if I worried you, Kurenai-taichou, but I needed to see if the signature of the source would have a negative feedback effect on the wielder of the jutsu. I had my kikaichu harvest some of his blood when they swarmed him, and they smeared it on his blade when I substituted for the bugs and the log. It seems that his jutsu sacrifices another's potential lifespan to extend his, but now... he just sacrificed himself, forever. The loop is constant now, and what would be recovered is taken away just as fast, leaving him with his original life-force... which, since Hinata-san told us he has no chakra of his own, is none. Still, if you would be so kind?"

Kurenai raised her hands and flickered them through the signs of a jutsu. "Katon: Phoenix Fire Storm!" In moments, there was nothing left of the Jashinist, and the two raced over to their team-mates.

"Suiton: Grand Deluge!" The massive outpouring of water, a veritable torrent on a primordial level, cascaded towards Kakuzu's opponents, and he turned towards his prize... only to hear a calm and collected young man's voice. "Doton: Shattered Ground!"

The earth beneath his feet rumbled and split, splintering into a deep pit that sucked away all the water, courtesy of that boy in the dark glasses, even now standing between Kakuzu and the jinchuuriki he'd been sent for, who was being woken by the Konoha jonin, and stared groggily at the Aburame and his beetles who even now buzzed around him. As the Akatsuki ninja fell, plummeting into water that was waist deep, the three members of Team Kurenai glanced at each other and nodded. There was one jutsu they all knew, and now they flickered through the hand-signs in perfect synchronisation.

Kakuzu was stepping up onto the surface of the water as they finished and unleashed the jutsu, with one foot still below the surface, and his threads emerging from every parting point in his body, absolutely drenched, and there was nothing he could do, as three voices called out as one. "Raiton: Lightning Spear!"

The roar of the thunder accompanying the lightning was deafening, the flare of three lightning bolts that blended as one washed the area in a light so bright everything was in some shade of white and all shadows were banished, and the scream of the one called Kakuzu was never heard at all...

The aftermath was a real drag, mused Shikamaru. It was going to take days, if not weeks, for the Sunagakure craftsmen to clear the passage enough for the Konoha diplomats to return home with their reports, although a messenger hawk would be dispatched to deliver a preliminary report. The arrival of Team Gai outside the glass barrier hadn't helped, either. It hadn't taken long for the Konoha back-up to find the gigantic glass 'flower' that had been left behind by the massive explosion, and crossing it had been a simple task... if a hot one. The midday sun in Kaze no Kuni heated the glass to a scorching temperature, nearly enough to burn their feet through their sandals. It was quickly determined that it would be far more efficent to simply carve out a new passage some distance from the glass, and the young Nara had been the one to suggest it. The Suna ninja council had stepped up and nominated a Godaime Kazekage... Gaara, of all people... but he'd turned down the position.

"I have not earned it," the Ichibi jinchuuriki had said. "I do not possess the skills or patience for it, nor the experience. Should I be offered the position of Rokudaime at some future time, perhaps I will feel differently, but for now, no."

The council had reluctantly released their plans for Gaara's ascension to the post, and had instead been persuaded to consider another, a man who was known for his neutral stance, but had refused to leave Gaara unburdened by some duty, and appointed his team to diplomatic duties, and when Team Kakashi had presented the scroll lifting the protocols against Suna ninja in Hi no Kuni, that was their first assignment. Kankuro was further ordered to follow up on the medi-puppet designs in the villlage with the best medic-nin in the Elemental Nations... Konoha.

Deidara was not looking forward to his report. Just a week ago, he'd thought this would be easy, and bragged and shot off his mouth, and now he was forced to tell everyone they'd failed... against a single jinchuuriki, even if said jinchuuriki had been backed up by several skilled, if unknown, ninja. As he spoke to the people still in the chamber, he looked around. Considering that the location of this stronghold was closer to Suna than to Taki, and that the other Akatsuki pair preferred walking, he was sure they would be here as projections, if nothing else, but the absence of Hidan and Kakuzu could be attributed to a number of causes, such as a close pursuit, so he didn't pay it much mind.

"This is troubling," said the leader, turning to the member who most resembled some kind of Venus fly-trap. "Zetsu, locate the other two. If they're having trouble with pursuers, assist them, and get the Nanabi back here at once."

Ay stared at the carnage that had been wrought inside Takigakure, great swaths of destruction and devastation. Many of the shinobi here had been killed, and those who remained were no friend to the green-haired girl, Fuu. The elders of the village were adamant, and the two biggest supporters of the Taki jinchuuriki were dead, at the hands of the two Akatsuki. His team had arrived mere minutes after the two Akatsuki had been dealt with, and there was little left to do but the clean-up. Fuu and the exhausted Team Kurenai had needed someone to watch over them as they rested. Naruto and Hinata had recovered the fastest, of course, although the green-haired jinchuuriki wasn't that far behind.

Killer Bee had whistled low at the accomplishments of the younger shinobi. "Dang, boy, you done kicked ass, I guess your first score is a pass," he'd rapped, prompting Yugito to jab his ribs with her fingertips. Naruto had merely nodded, and snuggled closer to Hinata.

The mass memorial for the fallen Taki ninja was the next day, and the elders had looked over the proposal of alliance with Konoha before rejecting it. "The monster is the source of the trouble we just went through," one particularly odious old woman said. "We have stricken it from our shinobi roster and it will be executed to ensure no-one ever uses it against us."

The four demon-touched Konoha shinobi nearly lost their tempers at that, but fortunately Ay came to the rescue. "If she isn't on your roster, she can't be one of your missing-nin, right?" he asked, nodding at his brother, who grinned and waved his hand behind him at Team Kurenai's chunin. "So if we just found a strange girl on our way to Konoha, and adopted her, then you couldn't call out anyone for her, unless you wanted to go up against the strongest Hidden Village in the Elemental Nations worth the name. Am I right?"

The elders nodded reluctantly. "That may be true, but first the jinchuuriki would have to escape our village's cells."

Kurenai had seen her two hanyou chunin sneak out, replaced quietly by two of Shino's bug clones under henge illusions to seem like the young couple, so she was somewhat expecting what happened next. A Taki shinobi stumbled into the chambers, shouting as he did.

"Honoured elders! The jinchuuriki's escaped! Two demons helped it, they broke through the doors and then they all went up the Great Tree, trying to escape along the branches to reach the outside!" The panic that commenced covered the re-entry of the two Uzumaki ninja, who switched with the bug clones, raising Kurenai's suspicions, even as one of the more level headed elders took charge.

"Enough! You!" He pointed at the new shinobi. "Escort these outsiders from the village, and make sure they leave Taki no Kuni. Everyone else, organise the search and pursuit teams." He paused and looked over at the shinobi who'd raised the alarm, the one he'd just tasked with removing the foreign ninja from his nation. "Which way did these demons go?"

The shinobi swallowed. "They were heading south, so they might have been heading for Hi no Kuni, but that might be a ruse. If the trail were to vanish, most trackers would keep going in an attempt to pick it up later, but if they instead go somewhere else? I couldn't say. I'm just a chunin sir."

"No matter," the elder snorted. "I doubt they'd actually be going to Konoha now. But those are the shorter branches, and from there they have easy access to such villages as Oto, Suna and Iwa. You have your task, chunin, perform it." With that, the elders swept out, ignoring the Konoha entourage as they trailed behind the chunin.

They managed to maintain the pretence long enough to be halfway to the border before Fuu dropped her henge of a non-descript Taki chunin, and Naruto filled them in on the events and the plan. "If their search parties are ahead of us, they can't find our tracks properly, so I sent a few clones along the branches with orders to disperse once they cleared the edge and left a bit of a trail towards Iwa. After that, Fuu henged so we could have them order her to escort us out, although that was a bit of a gamble, but the way they were treating us, I figured they wouldn't want strangers around while they dealt with their dirty laundry. Since they already removed her from their roster, that means she's free to choose where she wants to go."

Fuu herself put her own opinion in. "Konoha is as good as any and better than many," she said. "If they don't want me, then at least I'll get the chance to think about where to go."

"You're not going to like hearing this," Zetsu snarled at Pain. "Hidan and Kakuzu won't be coming back. They were beaten. Somehow they killed Hidan, and were able to make it stick. On top of that, they took down Kakuzu as well. Admittedly, they were both weakened somewhat by the assault on Taki to get the Nanabi, but dead is still dead."

The 'Leader' of the Akatsuki swore to himself. If it hadn't been for Tobi stumbling across the Rokubi jinchuuriki in Cha no Kuni, this would have been a massive problem. They couldn't seal the biju into the statue yet, as it needed the previous five biju to 'warm it up' to the point where the statue wouldn't simply explode, and each biju would take progressively longer to seal... Three days for the Ichibi, five for the Nibi, seven for the Sanbi and so on. But the whole situation was bad. Right now, Konoha had over half of the biju, a balance in power he thought he could use, were it not for a single glaring fact: Konoha had never started a war, despite their comparative power being greater than the other Great Hidden Villages, but they had a distressing tendency of finishing them. The only time in the past century that Konoha had been the aggressor had been the strikes of retribution for their fallen ally, Uzushiogakure.

It was looking more and more like the Akatsuki would have to strike at Konoha directly... and that would require time and planning...