Chapter 16

The enemies were drawing closer now, pouring through the village streets like a flood from a broken dam. In the heart of the village, the villagers of the Land of Waves prepared to make their stand, surrounded from all sides by fire and foes and the ocean itself. Theirs was no organized defence: Crying children and civilians were running mindlessly in every direction amidst screams and panicked shouting, while others huddled in corners and sobbed quietly to themselves.

“Get up!” cried Tazuna, trying desperately to make himself heard. “Get up you bloody cowards! Build those barricades, use everything you have! Gato’s savages are almost here!”

But there were some in that body of civilians, who stood stoically amidst the milling chaos. A backbone of old men, for the most part, made resolute by desperate courage. They alone seemed ready to offer resistance, as they alone remembered the last time there was a flood. As the enemy closed in on them others rallied around them, for even the most cowardly cats may find courage, when the water is pouring in from all sides and they have nowhere left to run.

Inari grabbed one of the villagers by his sleeve. “Giichi-san! Do you still have your hunting crossbow? Come help defend the barricades!” No sooner had he dragged one civilian over to the defence of the village or he moved on to the next, until finally a fighting force was starting to form.

“He’s inspiring them,” Tsunami said with quiet wonder, as she placed another wooden box upon the makeshift wall that closed off the narrow street. “My son is growing up to be a leader.”

You mean he’s shaming them, Naruto thought, as he added another scroll’s worth of stakes and caltrops to the barricades. Inari had strapped an old frying pan on his head as a makeshift helmet, which made him look even more ridiculous than usual despite the crossbow in his hands and the stubborn look in his eyes. They’re ashamed that he has more courage than them despite being only a kid. The women and elderly had joined in as well, badgering the men to get up and help with the defence, and soon most of the village was grabbing weapons or pulling furniture from their houses to add to the barricades. We can do this. We can-

“Naruto! What do you think you’re doing?” Naruto jolted upright, an instinctive reaction instilled in him through years of being caught dozing off during academy classes under Iruka-sensei. But when he turned around, in place of his former teacher he found a furious kunoichi looming over him.
“Ah… Sakura? Uhm, I’m helping with the defence? I mean, my clones are harassing the enemy like I said, but it would be needlessly dangerous to use my real body so I thought-“

We’re using our real bodies out there,” she bit out. “You can’t just sit here safely with the civilians while we’re out risking our lives!” Naruto was about to protest that her complaint was illogical – there was no reason for him to risk his life just because they were unable to use shadow clones – but Sakura did not giving him the chance. “Look!” she said, pointing her finger at the approaching enemy. “Look at what your clones are doing!”

His eyes moved to the place she was indicating. In the distance, he could make out familiar looking figures clad in the black and green of Konoha. They were standing on rooftops or hunkered down in the street, peppering the enemy with kunai and shuriken, but they were attacking from too far away and their scattered attacks had almost no effect in slowing the enemy. He winced as he watched the thugs and bandits make an aggressive push forwards, only for his clones to hurriedly move out of the way.

“It’s almost like they’re afraid,” Naruto said, confusedly. “But they’re clones. There’s no risk to them, they can’t ever really die, so why-”

“It’s because they are clones of you, Naruto!” She stopped gesturing with her arms and crossed them instead. “Look, fear isn’t rational; it’s not something you can just turn off at will. If you create clones when you’re too scared to fight the enemy yourself, they’re going to be afraid, too!”

“Ah,” said Naruto. “Oh. Yeah, I guess that makes sense.”

She scowled at him, her face more scrunched up and angry than he had ever seen it before. “Well? What are you waiting for? Go!

Naruto was running towards the battle even before he was even aware of having made a decision. I guess, somehow, she’s just that much scarier than they are.

After half a minute of running up walls and bounding over rooftops he landed besides two of his startled identical twins. Naruto could see the problem clearly now: Their slouched posture, their hesitant movement and the furtive look in their eyes all told the same story.

Do I look that way to Sakura, too? No wonder she yells at me so much…

“What are you staring at me like that for?” he said with sudden anger. “Don’t you useless bastards know we’ve got a village to protect?” When he received only blank looks in reply, he kneeled and laid down a scroll from his pouch, spreading it out on the thatched roof and channelling chakra into it to manifest a dozen kunai, each with an explosive tag wrapped around the handle. He pointed to the clone on his left. “Take these and bury them in the ground before the barricades without being seen, then pull back.” He shifted his attention to the clone on his right. “And you: Go and tell the rest of us to circle around the enemy, make it look like we’re gonna leave but get ready to attack ‘em in the rear when I say so.”

The second shadow clone gave him an uncertain look. “Why not just…”

“I said go!” At last the clones ran off and did as they were told. He did not dare dispel them the way they were now, and there was no time to argue with enemies so close to the barricades. It seemed that the most drunk and brazen bandits had died or broken after the initial charge, but now the surviving rogues had gotten wise to their tricks and kept further apart, skirting around the edges of buildings to avoid getting hit by shuriken while edging ever closer to the vulnerable villagers in the centre.

Seeing their way clear of opposition, at first the bandits seemed to suspect a trap, but then one of the clones used the transformation technique to show Naruto’s wounded and broken body falling from the rooftops. With a victorious roar the bandits charged through the central street en-masse. The villagers threw harpoons and loosed what crossbow bolts they had as the bandits neared the barricade, but the scattered attacks did far too little to break their charge. Cries of dismay rose up from the villager’s ranks as the bandits closed in, and Naruto could see several of them start to waver and flee. Right when the thugs reached the barricades, Naruto activated the buried tags with a hand sign, and the ground beneath the attackers exploded in a cloud of dirt and dust even as the rest of the clones attacked them from the rear.

The real Naruto created two more clones and cast the seals for the body-flicker technique. “My turn…”

The world blurred around them, and then Naruto and his clones were in the centre of the enemy group, their swords cutting into silhouettes as they fought within the cloud of dust that now covered the street. It took mere seconds for the enemy to break and scatter, fleeing to the coastline under a hail of shuriken. Naruto watched them all go with bloody sword in hand, only six identical blond ninjas left standing in the blood-slicked street amidst the wrangled corpses and severed limbs of his enemies.

One by one his clones dispelled themselves. The memories hit him each in turn, in distinct bursts at first, and then so fast it all blurred together. Seconds, minutes, quarters of hours or however long his clones had lived – he felt the cut of his sword biting home, another missing, the shock of a blow reverberating through his bones, blood spurting over him and leaving a foul sensation on his skin even where he himself was clean. Countless screams echoed through his head, his own as well as his enemies’, accompanied by a smell that penetrated his nostrils and filled his lungs, choking him like a foul poison that clogged his six remembered throats.

Falling to his knees amidst the bodies he had slain, Naruto finally heaved up his last meal.

-o-

Uchiha Sasuke had always believed in being the best. It was not simple arrogance, as so many assumed. Rather it was a philosophy, one that his father and his clan had instilled in him from the moment he was able to understand spoken words. “Never forget that you are an Uchiha,” his father had told him over and over, but it had taken Sasuke a long time to understand what he truly meant.

All power demands sacrifice. In order to gain something, you had to surrender something else in return: That was the fundamental teaching which Uchiha Madara had imparted to them during the Founding of the Leaf. If you wanted to be strong, you had to pay a price in time spent training and thus sacrifice a portion of your life. If you wished to be wise, you had to read books and study ancient scrolls of forgotten lore. If you wanted to be free you would have to risk war. And if you wanted to be the best, then you needed to set high standards all your life, and so the price you paid was happiness.

That was the sacrifice Sasuke had set out to make, in exchange for the power to avenge his fallen clan.

So why was it that he could not stop shaking?

He drew his chakra-forged chokutō from the wooden scabbard on his belt and assumed his practiced combat stance. His right hand held the blade as steady as he could, while his left pointed slightly forward, ready to grab for any enemy that came too close. The mindless enemy hordes came at him all at once, screaming their defiance, and Sasuke gave them his answer: His blade flashed out and carved off the first foe’s arm with chakra-enhanced strength, and even before the man’s scream of rage could turn to one of agony his blade was already moving to the next. One slash went through a bandit’s belly; the next went clean through the throat of another. All his opponents were blending together by now, reduced to a single amorphous whole – a singular obstacle to be defeated.

He ducked beneath their primitive weapons with contemptuous ease – perhaps it was the Sharingan that slowed their movements, or else it was the chakra that raged through his body, but the end result was the same. He grabbed one man and tossed him into another before impaling both, then pulled out his blade and finished off the others. The blood spilled over him as they died, but to the Uchiha it might as well have been the cool ocean spray on his face. Their lives and deaths meant nothing to him.

And still his hands kept shaking. He wanted to cut off those treacherous hands, to burn them with the Black Flames and cast them into oblivion for their impudence, but he needed them still. The bandits were regrouping now, finding some semblance of courage in their numbers, and while he was distracted by his trembling they had managed to surround him entirely. It made no difference.

“Come on, then!” he cried. “Come and die if you value your lives so little, but stop wasting my time!”

They hesitated at the sight of him, covered as he was in blood and surrounded by corpses, but those bandits who were too intoxicated to feel fear pressed on regardless, and when the first few charged the others followed in their wake. As they closed in on Sasuke from every side he channelled chakra to his feet, and held it until the last possible moment. Right before they reached him the chakra exploded from his feet and he flew upwards, time seeming to slow as new chakra flared to life within him until he almost floated in the air. Then he formed the tiger seal and focussed on the very concept of Fire.

Burn…

The chakra poured from his mouth as a roiling flame, blazing heat washing over the bandits and swallowing them whole as the firestorm consumed all in its path. Sasuke landed in the midst of the circle of fire, the screams of his enemies now torturously loud in his ears. The stench of bubbling fat and burning flesh was worse than anything he had ever smelled before.

Just stop and fall already…

Right then a giant of a man burst forth from the flames, his black beard on fire and his great belly a mess of burnt clothes and blackened flesh, and he charged at Sasuke with nought but his bare hands. Sasuke’s sword flashed towards the man’s heart, but a tremor in his hand threw off his aim: The blade pierced his chest, lodged itself between two ribs and remained stuck. Blind panic tore through his focus, and all he could think was to try and pull the blade free, but the brute barrelled into him and closed his meaty hands around Sasuke’s throat, lifting him off his feet. As Sasuke gasped for breath he looked into the man’s black eyes and saw his death.

He kicked wildly at the bandit, trying vainly to dislodge the sword or push the thick hands from his neck, but he could not breathe or think and all strength was being squeezed out of him. At last he managed a blind kick to the groin and the ground reappeared beneath his feet, but before he could suck in even a single breath something struck his head and he flew backwards. His back collided against a wall, and the last of his air was taken from him. Before him a grim silhouette stood wrapped in darkness, surrounded by black fire. The ground swayed with the giant’s every step, seeming to shake and spin as Sasuke’s death drew ever closer.

No. I am… Uchiha. I… still have to…

The shadow loomed over him, growing ever larger, and then toppled and crashed into the ground. Something had sprouted from the back of his head, but it was hard to make out what. The next moment a figure was bending over Sasuke, a strange girl with an unusually large forehead, and he tried to brush her off but he no longer had the strength for that. The next he knew he was being pulled away, carried off to some unknown fate. None of it mattered anymore.

A civilian… I was almost killed by an unarmed… civilian.

-o-

Zōri peeked around the corner of the building he stood behind, sword in hand. Ahead of him, the barricades that the villagers hid behind were only a hundred paces away. Zōri had managed to stay clear of the battle so far – there was a reason the lanky rogue samurai had stayed alive all this time – but he knew that if the battle turned sour Gato would blame him for it, and he did not savour that prospect at all.

“I think those two ninja kids went away to lick their wounds,” he said to his comrade. “Now’s our chance, Waraji. If you take the right, I’ll take the left, and we storm them together. Are you ready?”

When no response was forthcoming, he turned around and let out a dismayed groan. “Waraji!”

The other samurai turned to Zōri, a neutral expression in his one remaining eye. His bare chest was covered in blood from a dozen corpses that he had cut apart with his sword, the remnants of which now littered the ground around him. “What? I got bored waiting.”

“We’re in the middle of a battle, and you’re going to stop to cut apart-” he gestured towards the remains of the wall he had been standing next to “-a bunch of wood and random corpses?”

The big man shrugged. “I like cutting things, Zōri.”

“Yes, I… I know you do, Waraji. I know you do.”  Zōri’s companion was not strictly speaking stupid, but his single-mindedness could be extremely grating at times. Even so he might have been a model samurai, dedicated and loyal to a fault, but the proctors who had evaluated his performance for the Wave Daimyo’s forces found their sensibilities offended by his little peculiarities. It was not long before Zōri realized that he too had no future within those cramped cells and narrow halls, and so he had persuaded Waraji to come with him in search of their fortunes. They had found it together, in the form of Gato.

“Listen, Waraji,” he said. “Gato trusted us with his mission, and you know we don’t want to disappoint Gato. So we’re going to be focussing our cutting skills on those villagers over there now, all right?”

Waraji nodded. “As you say, Zōri.”

“Good. Now, you charge the barricade from the right while I go from the left, and together we’ll-”

A loud explosion interrupted his instructions, followed by a whole series of thunderous blasts that shook the ground and caused nearby buildings to shudder. “Oh, now what is it?”

Panicked screams were coming from the centre, and then half of their forces were running through the streets in their direction and away from the barricades. Realizing that their army was about to rout entirely, Zōri acted quickly: He channelled chakra to his blade, focussed his thoughts on the very notion of cutting, of making whole things come apart, and slashed downward. Blue light flickered outwards in a straight line, slicing deep into the dirt street in front of the fleeing men and causing mud and dust to explode upward like a solid wall. The hired muscle came to a sudden halt, some staring at the samurai with frightful eyes, while others stumbled and slipped on the muddy soil.

“Waraji,” he said calmly, “if they try to flee again, cut them the way I just cut the ground.” The one-eyed man grinned eagerly, and Zōri could see in the eyes of the troops that the threat had the desired effect.

He walked up to and addressed the nearest of the runners. “Where did you think you were going? Are you going to tell me that you’re afraid of a handful of villagers armed with pointy sticks?”

“It’s that blond ninja boy,” the wiry man said with a slurred voice full of fear and alcohol. “He’s done split himself into a dozen bodies an’, an’ he’s everywhere now! Exploding the streets with his magical papers! The boy’s a daemon, a daemon I’m tellin’ you!”

Zōri sighed. Flaring his chakra, he grabbed hold of the man’s coat and lifted him off his feet for the others to watch. “Listen. Don’t worry about the boy, we’ll deal with him. You focus on the villagers. Agreed?”

“Ah… ah… yes!”

“Good.” He dropped the man without a second glance. “Waraji?”

“I got it.” He grinned again. “You take the left, me the right.”

“That’s right. The rest of you, wait and charge on our command.”

Flaring his chakra once more, he turned the corner and dashed to the far side of the street, running towards the barricades at an angle. A volley of scattered crossbow bolts and harpoons clattered harmlessly behind him, unable to track his speed. He ducked behind a porch and looked for his partner across the street as yet more bolts and missiles impacted his wooden cover with dull repetitive thuds.

“Waraji, you see him yet?”

Crouching on the other side of the street his partner pointed upwards, where a hail of shuriken fell upon them from the rooftops in reply. These were aimed far more accurately than those of the villagers, but their swords still deflected them easily. The boy’s taking us lightly. Above them, a group of identical blond ninjas clad in black and green was bounding from rooftop to rooftop, flinging projectiles as they leaped. There were only three of them; the rest was spread out across the village fighting everywhere at once. We need to take all of them out at the same time, or they’ll just create more of themselves.

One of the clones sent a kunai flying towards him, an explosive tag wrapped around the handle and sizzling with chakra. With chakra-enhanced reflexes Zōri turned and slid the point of his sword through the ring on the knife’s pommel, and then spun and flung the projectile back at the enemy. The explosion shattered the rooftops, taking out one of the clones even as the other two leaped away from the blast.

“Waraji, now!”

The two men channelled chakra to their swords and struck together as one. Twin blades of chakra flashed out in crescent arcs, meeting their opponents in mid-air and slicing them into nothingness before they could form so much as a single seal.

“The barricade!” he cried out. Two more sword strokes cut the air before them in horizontal slices, and then the makeshift wall exploded in a cloud of dust and debris. He turned back to the hired muscle huddled in the street behind them. “Well, what are you all waiting for? Let’s go get them!”

The ragged fighters roared in unison as they charged past Zōri and Waraji, and fell upon the panicked villagers. The two samurai strode into the swirling melee side by side, a lone beacon of silence amongst the screams of fighting and dying men. Some of the villagers tried to face their blades with primitive weapons or borrowed ninja tools, while others cowered in fear or pled for mercy. One came at them with an oar and was cut apart for his troubles. None of it made any difference: Zōri and Waraji were as wolves among lambs, striking down all who stood in their path. The fires gripping the village drew ever closer, until finally the two warriors were surrounded by a maelstrom of fire and death.

Something whistled towards Zōri and he only barely twisted away in time as a quarrel landed between him and Waraji. Standing in the very centre of the village’s defensive forces, a frightened boy wearing a pan as a helmet was desperately trying to reload his empty crossbow. Waraji barked out a laugh at the sight, but Zōri was distracted by a faint hissing sound, and he turned to investigate. Stuck in the dirt behind them, the explosive tag attached to the quarrel went off.

Whether it was his swift reactions or the shockwave that did it he never knew, but Zōri went flying face first into the dirt, the taste of copper in his mouth and cool mud on his face. As he wiped his eyes clear of grime, he became aware of another shape lying in the dirt next to him. His partner’s mangled and smoking body lay there, his neck twisted in an impossible direction, his lifeless eyes staring at nothing.

“Waraji!” His hand groped around and found his sword even as his eyes looked for the boy, who was still struggling to reload his crossbow. “You’ll pay for that!” Flaring his chakra he launched himself forward, stumbling and nearly slipping on the bloody ground as he went. His blade slashed across the child’s stomach once, and that was enough. The boy stared down stupidly as his tiny guts spilled onto the ground like wet noodles, and then he fell over, clutching his belly and screaming.

Zōri was distantly aware of another scream behind him, but before he could react something sharp and cold pierced his back, and he only barely managed to twist around and pull himself free from the knife. There was a young woman standing in front of him, with long black hair and a red shirt – the same woman whose house he and Waraji had ransacked just a few weeks earlier, he dimly recalled.

She made to stab him again, but his sword was already heading for her chest and the blade went straight through her. She fell on top of him, and pain lanced through his back as they both hit the ground. The woman hefted her kunai again, and he grabbed her by the wrists to stop her, but he no longer had the strength to hold her back. With terrible slowness the knife plunged into his chest, and the searing pain that came in its wake was like nothing Zōri had ever felt before. Only when it had entered all the way to the hilt did the woman slump over, blood trickling from her mouth. It was too late. Zōri could do nothing but watch as the world slowly grew darker around him, and the pain faded into nothingness.

Damn…

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