Inside the fortress known as the Village Hidden in the Mist there was an inner sanctum, and within that sanctum stood a throne of cold stone. On that seat of power sat a man called Yagura, whose appearance might be confused for that of a young boy. In truth he was the Eternal Mizukage, whose body had not aged since he had become host to the fearsome three-tailed leviathan of the sea. He had discarded his conical Mizukage headdress onto the ground before him, revealing a mop of uneven hazel-brown hair and a scar running down his left eye. In place of his official white robes of office he wore his own grey shirt over a suit of mesh-armour, as well as a moss-green wrap around his shoulders with a matching apron. Across his lap lay a dark wooden staff with vicious hooks on either end, a green flower dangling from the top to add just a touch of elegance to the weapon. If his appearance did not match what was expected of a Mizukage, then this was only a testament to his vast power: “I do not need to play by your rules, not while I have one of the nine great daemons under my control,” that is what those clothes said.
To Yagura’s right stood his close advisor and second in command, Terumī Mei. Her twin bloodline abilities made her one of the most powerful ninja in the Mist, as well as making her essential in keeping what remained of the Land of Water’s ‘noble’ bloodline clans under control. A tall, slender woman in her thirties, she was clearly not above using her beauty as a weapon: Her roughly styled long auburn hair might be deemed exotic, and her green eyes certainly had a seductive quality to them, but though her long blue dress was revealing it only revealed a suit of armour underneath. If no obvious weapons were visible, then that was only because her body itself was an instrument of death.
The third person in the room was a boy by the name of Chōjūrō, whose awkward posture and ill-fitting grey outfit made him look almost younger than the Mizukage himself, despite being in his late teens. The leather holster on his back normally carried the great sword Hiramekarei, which resembled a flounder fish in shape and which he now clutched in his trembling fists by its twin handles. If the sword had not been proof enough, the fact that he had his teeth filed into points clearly identified him as one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist, who were intended to serve as Yagura’s bodyguard.
The three ninja waited there in silence, kept company in their vigil by the muted sounds of violence coming through the thick iron door. There were muffled screams and panicked shouts, explosions which caused the very stone they stood on to rumble, and scattered reports of teleporting men in black cloaks that raised more questions than they answered. Ao had not given them telepathic updates for a while now, which meant that he had most likely been slain by the attackers – unless of course he was one of the traitors after all. Yagura silently resolved to either avenge him or execute him, depending.
“We should assist our shinobi in battle,” Mei said once more. “If we join up with the Anbu and add our combined strength to the defensive forces, we can-”
“No, Mei.” Yagura sighed wearily. For being his closest advisor she could be so dense, sometimes. “We’ve been over this. A mere handful of invaders cannot hope to defeat our entire army, which means they are here to assassinate me. To fight them in person is to entirely miss the point of having a fortress and an army in the first place.” He paused in his explanation as another explosion rocked the stone chamber, causing motes of dust to pour down from the ceiling. The enemy seemed to be coming closer now. “No, we’ll let them wear themselves out fighting their way through our standing forces. Should they manage to break into this chamber, only then shall we fight the enemy ourselves.”
Of course, this strategy would be even more effective if Yagura had more than two bodyguards to protect him, but the fact of the matter was that he simply could not trust anyone else not to betray him at a critical moment. He knew what sort of things people whispered about him behind his back, but it could hardly be called paranoia at this point, not when all his fears were validated by past experiences. What was even the point of having the world’s seven greatest swordsmen as your bodyguard, when all they ever did was try to assassinate the very person they were supposed to protect?
He was shaken from his reverie by the clamour of steel striking steel, followed by a screeching sound that caused Mei to clasp her hands over her ears while Chōjūrō merely quavered on his trembling legs. Yagura’s eyes narrowed as he regarded the gate: Something was cutting straight through the thick metal door from the other side. There was another scream of tortured metal, and this time a giant cleaver could be seen poking through the steel gate. A third and fourth blow followed, and finally a great chunk of metal was carved out and hurled onto the floor. A gust of cold wind followed in its wake, an icy chill that cut straight to the bone and covered the entire stone chamber in a pale white sheen.
Mei looked around the room in alarm, her composure visibly shaken as white flakes began drifting down from the ceiling above them. “Is that… snow? How is that even possible?”
“It’s the ice-release bloodline ability,” Yagura replied. “A pesky remnant of the Yuki clan which I had thought exterminated long ago.” He brushed off some of the frost that had begun to cling to his green clothing with an irritated gesture, though his eyes never left the gate before him. “Unfortunately, it seems that I was entirely too optimistic in that regard.”
“If it’s any consolation, they almost were, and you would have succeeded entirely if not for me.” Through the hole in the door stepped a tall, muscular man with short black hair. His thin eyebrows came together in a perpetual scowl, his brown eyes held a dangerous glint, and the bandages covering his skin suggested a lifetime of poorly-healed injuries. His voice was a low growl. “It’s been a long time, Mizukage-sama. Too long, if you ask me.”
Yagura rose up in his seat, his casual demeanour instantly forgotten. “Momochi Zabuza, I should have realized you were behind this insurgency. You and your little band of traitors… I seem to recall that I sent you fleeing with your tail tucked between your legs the last time you tried to usurp my rule. What makes you think this time will be any different?”
An androgynous teen stepped through the wounded gate, taking position next to Zabuza. Yagura decided to think of him as male, though it was hard to tell through the hunter-ninja garb and mask he wore. When the boy spoke it was with a gentle tone that defied what you would expect of a shinobi: “The reason this time is different is because master Zabuza does not fight alone. My name is Haku, and I am the needle that shall weave his dream into the fabric of reality.” A cold wind wafted off of him as he spoke, and Yagura resolved then and there not to underestimate this child.
Zabuza inclined his head towards the androgynous child. “As you can see, I found some useful things along the road since last we met, and I’ve grown stronger because of it… unlike you, it seems.” He turned his gaze to the teenager standing to the left of the Mizukage. “The Seven Swordsmen of the Mist were once the most feared formation in the entire world – a group of elite ninjas that could take on any opponent and expect to win. But now, all that remains is this one boy who is too scared to even hold his own sword? What a pathetic sight. It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for leaving you.”
“I’m not scared,” Chōjūrō loudly protested. “I am trembling with anticipation! As the last remaining member of the Seven Swordsmen, it falls to me to protect the Mizukage and defeat you, Zabuza-san!”
Yagura silenced the boy with an annoyed glance, then turned his attention back to Zabuza. “Did you have something worthwhile to discuss, or are you merely here to waste my time?”
“I just wanted to ask you something.” Momochi Zabuza’s mouth seemed to twitch beneath the bandages that covered his face. “During your reign, the Village came to be known across the world as the Bloody Mist for its practice of forcing academy students to kill their own comrades, in order to become what you call true ninja. Including myself and Hoshigaki Kisame, there are now more former members of the Seven Swordsmen opposing you than defending you as a result. There’s also the six-tails daemon host Utakata, who left the Village and killed the hunter-ninja that you sent after him, not to mention that boy Suigetsu who defected a while earlier, and of course my Haku…” Zabuza was definitely smirking, now. “Do you ever wonder, Mizukage-sama, if perhaps your rule has been less than entirely free of flaws?”
“And I suppose you imagine you could do better?” Yagura crossed his arms and glared at the two traitors. “Are you too young to remember what it was like before I created peace and order in this land? Do you think you were better off when any clan head could declare themselves Kage and wage their own wars? Back when bloodthirsty savages such as the ‘noble’ Kaguya clan raped and murdered entire villages as they pleased, with no organised military force to stop their accursed bloodline abilities?”
Another set of footsteps could be heard as a third shape appeared in the opening of the gate, this one even more formidable than Zabuza: “I mostly remember that you instructed me to kill my own comrades rather than allow them to be captured, and I remember the way you commended me for killing my superior Suikazan Fuguki because he was selling information to the enemy. That’s another Swordsman who betrayed you, incidentally.” The figure stepped into the light, revealing a man with blue hair styled upright and blue-grey skin, with gill-like markings under his eyes lending him the distinct appearance of a shark. He wore a black cloak with the red cloud emblem of the mysterious mercenary organization known as Akatsuki, but his pointed teeth and the gigantic scaled sword slung over his shoulder all identified him as a former member of the Seven. There was a hungry undertone to his amused voice; a tremor that enforced the danger which radiated from every aspect of his being. “Ever since the first time I was forced to kill a comrade, I have known that this world is full of lies and deceit. Even so, now that I’ve returned here, I find myself wanting to kill someone from my own Village, one last time.”
“Hoshigaki Kisame. It seems my enemies have found each other,” Yagura said icily, gripping his staff until his knuckles went white. No, he had not been paranoid after all. “I will not let myself be lectured by common outlaws! You traitors are all the same: You dream of acquiring ever greater power, but you have no conception whatsoever of what to do with it. Like animals, it is simply your instinct to challenge whoever is in charge, and so it falls to me to maintain order by cutting you down.” He stood up from his throne and advanced towards the enemy, his two bodyguards falling in lockstep beside him. “If either of you were to take over, the Village would descend into chaos and infighting on the instant. Only I am strong enough to rule!”
And with those words, the battle began.
Zabuza gave the signal, and in response Haku turned and raised a vast barrier of ice over the damaged gate, while at the same time Zabuza created three water clones and sent them out to fight Yagura in close combat. On the other side of the room Terumī Mei leaped into the air and unleashed her Lava technique, a deadly torrent of molten rock spewing from her mouth at Zabuza and his two allies in a wide area. Just as agreed beforehand Kisame called forth a tidal wave to counter the fearsome attack, while Haku formed a dome of ice around the three of them for additional protection. The double-layered defence held against the devastating attack, but only just, and the air turned to steam even as a cascade of searing rocks collapsed all around them. Zabuza wasted no time in repurposing the vapour into his Hidden Mist technique, seeking to hide his original body from view by controlling the density of the fog.
Out of the mist the boy Chōjūrō came charging recklessly, his great sword in his hands and a battle cry on his lips as he headed straight for Zabuza. He was stopped short as Kisame interposed himself between them, blocking the unwieldy flounder-sword with his own Samehada in a clash of screeching metal. As he shoved the boy backwards with his massive strength, the blue-skinned man grinned voraciously. “Chōjūrō, was it? I like to test myself against my fellow Swordsmen, to see if they are worthy of being a member of the Seven. So, please show me what you can do!”
Terumī Mei rushed to intervene with panick on her face, but she was called back by Yagura. “Don’t be a fool, Mei! Hoshigaki Kisame is their strongest warrior, while Chōjūrō is our weakest. Having them face off is to our advantage.” He turned his attention to the teenager. “Chōjūrō, your mission is to delay the enemy for as long as possible, even at the cost of your life. Can you do this for me?”
The boy gripped his sword until his knuckles whitened, his arms trembling with exertion as Kisame’s blade pushed down on his with inexorable force. “Yes sir! I will try not to disappoint!”
At that moment Zabuza’s clones burst through the fog to attack Yagura, giant swords swinging at him from three different directions, but the Mizukage slipped underneath and between the massive cleavers as though they stood still. In the same movement he brought his hooked staff up and into the first clone’s groin, causing Zabuza’s clone to break down into its liquid base. Yagura’s staff continued its arc unabated as the water from the dispelled clone trailed behind it like an afterimage, and when the staff stopped short the water blasted his next target in the chest and destroyed it. The third clone moved to attack him from behind, but the Mizukage simply hooked the bottom part of his staff behind the clone’s ankle, tripping him up. In one smooth motion he brought the larger hook at the top down onto his opponent’s skull and exploded the clone into another shower of water.
Zabuza twitched as the memories of being dismantled so easily caught up with him, the blow between his legs being especially ignominious, but he stuck with his strategy and summoned a new group of clones to fight his foe. He had known Yagura would not be easy to defeat, but even so it was difficult not to underestimate the tiny Mizukage with his high-pitched voice and his pointy stick. He glanced over his shoulder to where Haku faced off against Mei. It seemed both of them were hesitant to fight each other, which made for a nice change from his minion being the only soft-hearted one: Apparently the Tyrant of the Bloody Mist also had to deal with weak-hearted foolishness in his ranks. Who knew?
Mei was desperately trying to move past Haku, but was blocked at every turn as the boy kept teleporting in front of her using his ice-mirror technique. “Get out of my way,” she cried. “I don’t want to hurt you!”
“Please do not resent me,” Haku said softly. “I will defeat anyone who stands against my master, no matter who it is or which methods I must use.” With those words he stepped through one of his ice mirrors and reappeared behind her, throwing a volley of needles which she only narrowly avoided, before vanishing into his mirror once more. Mei was forced to use her lava-release to destroy the mirrors one by one, taking them down with carefully aimed globs of molten rock. The mist was making Haku’s misdirection tactics even more effective than usual, Zabuza was pleased to note, and as long as those two kept each other busy it might make up for Kisame wasting his time duelling with that boy Chōjūrō.
No sooner did he think that or a massive burst of chakra appeared from out of the mist to strike Kisame, the radiant energy clearly visible even through the fog. The shark-man’s feet skidded over the stone floor as he was shoved backwards, but his sword had parried the blow and soon the attack was absorbed into the weapon. Kisame laughed wildly, mocking his opponent. In response the teenager produced a massive chakra-hammer from his sword, striking the floor in front of Kisame and shattering the ground with a deafening explosion of sound and shrapnel. The shark-man disappeared in a storm of chakra, dust and broken rock.
Zabuza’s attention was forced back to his own fight as a new wave of memories struck him. Yagura was still twirling and dancing around like a marionette, taking out a water-clone with each movement of his staff, long whips of water streaming from his weapon and lashing at anything within reach. Realizing that his chakra would run out before his opponent’s at this rate, the original Zabuza formed the necessary seals to send a stream of pressurised water spiralling towards the Mizukage. In response, Yagura extended one arm and formed a reflective disc of water in front of him, which he tilted with the tip of his staff. When the attack struck the disk it continued at an angle, and collided with Haku in mid-air. Zabuza cursed silently as his minion was propelled across the room by his own technique.
At that moment Kisame burst out of the ground behind Yagura and aimed a savage blow at the back of his head with his great sword, but the Mizukage dodged the attack without so much as looking backwards. Not one to be discouraged, Kisame proceeded to expel a ludicrous amount of water from his mouth, creating a veritable tidal wave that threatened to sweep everyone in the sanctum away with it. All the ninja in the room leaped upwards and landed on the surface of the water that now filled the stone chamber. The waves that had been created were already starting to abate.
“Kisame, you fool,” Yagura said. “We are all water ninja here; reshaping the battlefield gives you no advantage.”
The shark-man grinned ferociously. “Is that so? Well, there’s water ninja and then there’s water ninja, as you’re about to find out!” He bit his thumb and, placing his palms on the water’s surface, summoned a dozen ravenous white sharks within the newly created lake. The sharks rushed forward with murderous intent, and Yagura and Mei both hastily executed a series of backward jumps to stay out of their reach. At the same time, the sound of rapid splashes behind Zabuza alerted him to the fact that Chōjūrō was about to attack his real body. He only narrowly dodged the deadly lance of chakra that shot from the flounder-sword, blinded as he was by his own mist. Before either of them could do anything else, a clone of Kisame appeared underneath Chōjūrō, and the boy gave a shriek as the water vanished beneath his feet and he was pulled under. The sharks were upon him in an instant and soon the water was stained red with blood.
“Chōjūrō!” Terumī Mei’s voice was joined by the roar of a gigantic water dragon, which appeared from out of nowhere and dove into the water where the boy had fallen, crushing Kisame’s clone instantly. When the serpent emerged again it had Chōjūrō’s body clutched in its watery jaw, which it gently deposited onto the throne which still peeked out over the rising water’s surface. The water dragon dissipated as Mei switched to her second bloodline ability and blew a vast cloud of acidic vapour from her mouth in Zabuza’s direction. Fortunately Haku had come up with a counter for that as well, and Zabuza immediately used the body-flicker technique to move close to the Mizukage while Kisame simply dove underwater. He smirked at Mei’s frustrated expression.
You can’t prevent the mist from injuring your precious Mizukage as well this way… now you have no choice but to cancel your technique. As long as I have my Haku, all of your petty tricks are worthless!
Unfortunately Yagura was now able to attack his original body, and Zabuza found himself having to defend against a constant flurry of light but extremely rapid blows. With each movement of Yagura’s staff coils of water sprung up from the surface and struck at Zabuza from every direction. Having access to all his chakra made his movements much more fluid, but even so he suffered several blows and nicks from the Mizukage’s hooked staff. At the other side of the room Kisame suddenly leaped out of the water, his blue-grey skin covered in terrible burn wounds. Lifeless sharks floated upwards all across the lake, and the burning sensation from where the water lapped onto Zabuza’s sandaled feet told him all he needed to know: She made the water itself acidic! So much for Kisame’s battlefield advantage…
But Kisame was nothing if not persistent. He leaped at and pressured Mei with his Samehada, forcing her to rely on elemental techniques to stave him off, but that was not a battle she could hope to win: Every time he defended himself against an elemental technique his sword drained that much more of her chakra. You cannot outlast Kisame. He does not relent, he does not stop. He hounds you and eats away at your chakra until you can no longer run, and then he cuts apart your body for the fun of it. The look in Yagura’s eyes showed that he knew it as well, and Zabuza permitted himself a wry smile. You’re losing, Yagura… even if you defeat me you’re still going to die here. Victory is so close now I can taste it!
Right then Haku appeared behind Yagura, bloodied but not defeated, and with a series of hand seals he turned the surface of the water into ice. There was a brief, sweet moment of panic in Yagura’s eyes as he stumbled, and then ice spikes erupted from the frozen water and stabbed at him from a dozen directions. The tiny Mizukage somehow managed to twist in mid-air to avoid the worst of it, but it was too little and far too late: Bringing his executioner’s blade down with both hands, Zabuza shattered his enemy’s staff and drove the Mizukage’s small body straight through the thin layer of ice and down into the water below. Zabuza reached out with his left hand, and the gushing water rushed in to capture the wounded and bleeding Kage in an impenetrable prison.
“Well done, Haku. Well done.” Zabuza briefly grinned at his exhausted-looking minion, before turning his attention back to his captive. The boy-Mizukage was attempting to break the bubble of pressurized water from the inside, a look of consternation on his face as each of his techniques failed him in turn. Zabuza glanced towards the only other fight that was still going on, the intense focus required to maintain the orb of water little more than a distraction to him. It seemed Kisame had switched to launching water techniques at Chōjūrō’s still form, forcing Mei to block his attacks with her own water techniques rather than dodge. Soon she would be out of chakra and then she would fall as well. Satisfied that the battle was as good as won, Zabuza permitted himself to gloat at his enemy.
“Look how far you’ve fallen, Yagura. Your allies are dead or dying at the hands of your own people, and you’re slowly drowning inside your own Village’s technique – all because you insisted on treating your followers as enemies instead of friends.” Zabuza had intended to laugh at and mock his foe, but instead his mood soured as painful memories resurfaced. “You’re going to pay for every time you humiliated me, for hunting me like an animal and for making me live like a beggar… and for forcing me to kill my only childhood friend.” He stared down at his former master, feeling a strange sense of emptiness where he thought there should be joy. At last he managed a cold smile. “You’re going to die here, Yagura. Once you’re dead I’ll take your place as Mizukage, and then I’ll erase you from history until it’s like you never even existed. You’ll be nothing, and I’ll be everything you never were… It’ll be the ultimate revenge.”
For the briefest moment Zabuza thought he could make out a flash of chakra, and then the orb of water exploded. A vast cloud of water droplets filled the air, adding to the lingering mist and obscuring all vision. It was all Zabuza could do to bring up his sword in defence before something heavy struck it and sent him hurtling backwards. He landed some distance away, the water sloshing and surging beneath his feet. As he looked around he saw that Mei had formed a massive whirlpool that swallowed Kisame whole, but that was not what had broken the water prison: There was a silhouette standing in the mist where Yagura had been, though it did not look quite human anymore. The monstrous creature bore a grey tail, merciless claws, and was coated in a layer of mucus-like chakra. An aura of pure malice wafted from the figure, cutting straight to the bone like a bitter wind, and for the first time that day Zabuza felt the sharp tinge of fear.
So it’s true after all… and here I was hoping that all the talk of him being a daemon host was just another legend.
The creature charged at him like a whirling ball of claws and spines, and it was all Zabuza could do to form water clones to distract the creature. The monstrous Mizukage took them apart in a flurry of claw swipes, destroying them faster than he could create them. Haku coated the monster in a thick barrier of ice, but Yagura shattered it with a contemptuous swipe of his shrimp-like tail. Haku formed ice mirrors to teleport around him and attack from all sides, but Yagura tore them apart with a shockwave of raw chakra that sent the boy bouncing over the water like a skipping stone.
There was a voice then, like the roar of an ocean in a storm, and it took a moment for Zabuza to realize it was Yagura speaking to him. “A water prison and water clones… I see, so you really were intent on wasting my time from the start. Congratulations, you have succeeded in robbing me of one hour of my life with your nonsense. That is as close as anyone has ever come to killing me. Now that you have accomplished your objective, I am going to insist that you die and leave me in peace.”
Just as Yagura was about to charge Zabuza once more, the burned and blistered figure of Kisame leaped out of the water and drained the creature’s chakra cloak with a single slash of his infamous sword. For the first time since his transformation the monstrous Mizukage recoiled, his features looking more human than before. Kisame followed up by forming a number of hand seals, and a dozen luminous blue sharks leaped out of the water intending to devour Yagura, but before they could reach him they were torn apart by another shockwave; a tempest of water and pure force pushing out in all directions. Zabuza was forced to raise his sword to defend himself, and even then he felt himself being pushed back by the waves that were created, so great was the pressure.
When the waves subsided Yagura was standing there in the eye of the storm, having grown even more monstrous. His skin was now entirely covered by grey scales and mucous slime, spikes jutting out of his body at random intervals, and his torso seemed to be protected by the makings of a turtle’s shell. The number of scaled, shrimp-like tails now equalled two.
Without warning, a massive blast of water burst out of the creature’s mouth to strike at Kisame. The shark-man blocked the attack with his sword, but no sooner had he absorbed the attack or Yagura appeared before him and kicked him across the room, sword and all. Kisame hit the stone wall with a sickening crunch, both his sword and body remaining stuck to the wall: Where Yagura had kicked the sword, coral had appeared, and the stone-like growths were spreading to cover his entire body faster than the shark-man could snap them off. Soon, Kisame disappeared under a mountain of coral, and with him Zabuza’s only remaining chance of victory dissipated.
Yagura turned to regard him, and Zabuza found himself taking an involuntary step backwards. The daemon-child’s right eye had closed shut, and his left eye was now a bestial yellow with a crimson pupil. When it spoke the scaled and twisted mouth moved mechanically, as if it took conscious effort to manipulate each individual muscle. “Now it… just you. Please die… quickly…”
Zabuza grinned weakly as he pulled down the bandages that covered his face, and bit his right thumb until a drop of blood appeared. “It seems you leave me no choice… I was hoping to take you out myself, but it looks like I need to call in reinforcements after all.” He formed the hand seals of the new technique he had been taught: Boar, Dog, Bird, Monkey and Ram, in that order.
He slammed his hands down onto the surface of the water, and darkness flooded the room.
Terumī Mei had just barely managed to stave of Kisame Hoshigaki’s savage onslaught, trapping him inside of an acidic whirlpool, when suddenly she sensed a surge of malevolent chakra. She realized in shock that Yagura had been forced to unleash the power of the Three-tailed Beast, and Kisame had used that distraction to escape. Mei collapsed in exhaustion almost immediately after, kneeling on the water’s surface and breathing heavily. Her mastery of elemental techniques was perfect, as evidenced by her use of the lava- and boil-release bloodline abilities, yet even so the constant use of high-level techniques had all but depleted her chakra reserves. Right when it looked like the Mizukage was about to defeat the intruders single-handedly, Zabuza had placed his hands on the water’s surface and a sphere of pure darkness had appeared around him. Not smoke, not a pitch-black material, just… darkness.
She spared a glance towards the stone throne where Chōjūrō still lay. She did not know whether or not he was even alive, but she could not afford to check, not when the Mizukage was fighting in his two-tailed state. In truth, Mei did not know what would happen if the Mizukage reached his three-tailed form, but it could not possibly be good. After a moment Mei stood up on trembling legs, readying herself to intervene if necessary, to do what she could with what little chakra she had remaining. She brushed her impractically long red hair out of her face with a clammy hand, sweat and water having drenched her from top to toe, and swore to herself – not for the first time – to cut it off if she survived this battle.
It was then that the darkness receded, the absence of light vanishing into nothingness as if it had never been there at all. What remained was a young man, his handsome face accented with pronounced tear-troughs and framed by bangs of jet-black hair. His black-and-red Akatsuki cloak was opened to mid-chest, and he had his left arm casually draped over the button. He must have come straight from the battle against the rest of the Mist’s forces, yet he did not look at all as if he had been fighting, and she feared for the state of their army if he could afford to look this calm. As for his eyes… Mei immediately lowered her gaze, her breath caught in her throat when she realized just who it was whose form she had been admiring: The man who had, at age sixteen, singlehandedly slaughtered his entire clan.
The young man idly brushed his raven hair out of his face he took in his surroundings with crimson eyes, cursed eyes that she dare not look upon for fear of falling under his spell. He blinked slowly, as if adjusting to the light, before settling his gaze on the person who had summoned him. “We are running out of time, Zabuza-san. Your methods are too inefficient. Go help Kisame out of that coral; I will take care of matters here.” The former Swordsman obeyed reluctantly, but did not question his new orders.
Without warning, the monstrous form of the Mizukage spat a volley of water projectiles at his new opponent. When they reached him the Uchiha seemed to flicker out of existence, the attacks bypassing him completely, only for him to reappear behind Yagura. The darkness manifested itself once more, raw blackness enveloping both warriors until an unseen explosion sent the daemon host hurtling out of the shadows and across the room. A dozen blazing shuriken trailed him, and the projectiles struck the beast’s mucous coat with a painful hiss. A low and wordless moan of fury escaped from the mouth of the beast – the monstrous creature Mei had to remind herself was the Mizukage – and then Yagura went charging headlong at his unseen opponent.
The darkness shattered into pieces when struck, shards of blackness taking the form of crows and flying off in every direction, leaving the daemon-host to shake its head in confusion. The crows cawed in their hundreds as they circled the beast, before launching themselves at him like black shuriken. Each crow exploded upon impact, and each thunderous blast sent a spray of ichor and torn scales flying in every direction while the creature howled in pain. A final explosion unlike any of the others blinded Mei with its intensity, and as the water around the daemon blasted outwards she realized with onrushing panic and dismay that the final transformation had occurred.
The Mizukage was entirely gone now, consumed whole by the daemon within. A monstrous turtle’s shell covered thick red cords of muscle bulging underneath, the four heavyset limbs it crawled on were covered in grey scales and slime, and its twisted horns had grown to fully encapsulate the Mizukage’s face. All three shrimp-like tails extended from its rear, swishing this way and that like a cornered animal. The daemon’s one visible eye, yellow and red, stared at its enemy with a strange apprehension.
“AT LAST I HAVE REGAINED MY FREEDOM: FOR THIS YOU HAVE MY GRATITUDE, HUMAN. NOW I, ISOBU, THE THREE-TAILED LEVIATHAN OF THE SEA, SHALL RECLAIM MY –”
The monster’s voice halted, and for a moment it was as though time itself had frozen. Uchiha Itachi was standing right in front of the creature as if he had always been there and reality had only now caught up with the fact. In his hand a sword had manifested, jet black and covered with runes, and he thrust the arcane weapon into the beast’s belly in an almost perfunctory fashion. The instant it touched the creature’s chakra, the seals inscribed upon the blade flared into life with power and the daemon’s grotesque form seemed to be drawn into it. In less than a second the three-tails was gone, swallowed whole by the ornate weapon, and then the blade too vanished into nothingness once more.
The Mizukage had vanished, sealed away along with the daemon, and only his conical headgear remained where he had left it behind, drifting on the water at the base of his throne. She stared at the scene numbly; unable to wrap her mind around what had just happened, left with no idea as to what she was supposed to think or feel or what would happen next.
Uchiha Itachi turned to his bandaged companion, who had just freed Kisame. “Come, Zabuza-san,” he said, sounding as calm as he had at the start. “It is time for you to claim your prize, as promised.”
Zabuza hesitated for a fraction of a second, but then his eyes showed an anticipatory glint and walked over to where the ceremonial headdress drifted with long and powerful strides. “I could have waited an eternity for this…” He picked up the Mizukage’s conical hat and raised it above him with both hands, placing it on his own head as though crowning himself. “Now, at long last, the future of this country shall belong to me!”
“Congratulations,” Itachi said dispassionately. “You have finally achieved your ambition, overthrowing the tyrant who has plagued the Hidden Mist for so long.” He calmly regarded Momochi Zabuza. “The late Mizukage was right about one thing, however: You are not fit to rule this country.”
Zabuza instantly twirled around and intercepted Kisame’s incoming blade with his own, as if he had been waiting for it to happen. As their gigantic swords clashed in a shower of sparks the shark-faced man grinned with the same battle-hungry expression he had shown before. “I did say I wanted to test myself against the Seven Swordsmen, didn’t I? You are the one they call the Daemon of the Mist, considered skilled even amongst the strongest generation of the Seven. With a reputation like that, I hope you won’t disappoint me, Zabuza-san!”
The boy Haku immediately moved to intervene, but a sidelong glance from Uchiha Itachi rooted him in place. The child stood frozen on the water’s surface, his whole body trembling soundlessly, and Mei felt a sharp pang of sympathy as she realized just how badly the boy ached to help his master.
Zabuza’s face twisted into a vicious expression as he circled his opponent. “I knew this was going to happen when I joined up with you. No matter, Yagura is still dead. All that’s left for me to do is finish you off, and then my ambition shall finally be fulfilled. I will be Mizukage!” With those words the duel began in full, and the two Swordsmen disappeared in a storm of water and frenzied fighting.
“Terumī Mei.” She halted at the sound of Uchiha Itachi’s voice, having started to form hand seals even without knowing who she should attack. His baleful crimson eyes never left Haku’s even as he spoke. “As close advisor to the former Mizukage and bearer of no less than two noble bloodlines, you are ideally positioned to take up the mantle of Mizukage. This transition could be a calm and peaceful one. Moreover, I believe you would be a wiser and more benevolent ruler than your predecessor. You could improve the lives of millions and help make this world less painful to look upon. If you agree to rule peacefully, then from now on Akatsuki shall leave the Mist in peace as well. Does this proposition appeal to you?”
She did her best not to show shock, despite the growing panic which threatened to overwhelm her senses. She would never have admitted her doubts while Yagura was still alive, but his transformation during the battle had forced her to acknowledge the treasonous thoughts that had always lurked in the back of her mind. If I’m going to intervene, I have to do it now while they’re fighting each other. But if his offer is genuine, then that’s the best outcome I could have hoped for, isn’t it? A chance to finally right all the wrongs in the Village, which is all I ever wanted…
When she replied she put as much ice into her voice as she could manage. “And why should the Hidden Mist cooperate with Akatsuki? You have just shown how untrustworthy you are: How do I know you don’t seek to make use of us, intending to betray us at earliest opportunity as you have with Zabuza?”
There was a cascade of water where the two Swordsmen’s techniques clashed, each casting the same water-style techniques and breaking them against each other with equal strength. However, every time it looked like Kisame might be hit, he simply absorbed the attack with his sword and added the chakra to his own. Zabuza had no such luxury and quickly realized he had no choice but to fight in melee. The sound of their massive blades clashing echoed throughout the stone chamber.
Itachi seemed to consider her question. “Trust is a peculiar concept. For every person on the planet, there are circumstances where they will act in your best interests, as well as situations in which they would seek to destroy you. Do you call it betrayal if a friend chooses to protect his family over your own? What we mean by ‘trust’, then, is a form of understanding: An acceptance of another person’s actions and intentions, so that we may take their preferences into account and ensure a lasting cooperation.”
At that moment Haku’s shuddering accelerated, and for a moment Mei thought the child would break free, but then the pressure radiating from those crimson eyes increased in intensity and the boy collapsed with a small and pitiful gasp. She hurried to catch the boy before he could drown in the water. Itachi turned to regard her now, though she still did not dare meet his gaze as he spoke.
“As he stated earlier, Zabuza was perfectly aware of our intentions, and yet he went along with our plan regardless because he hoped to betray us first. Since we both acted in accordance with this common understanding, it cannot truly be called a ‘betrayal’ at all – Akatsuki simply acted consistently with our desire for peace, just as announced beforehand. Simply put, the fact that you now possess greater knowledge of Akatsuki’s methods and motives makes it more attractive for you to deal with us, not less.”
Mei was still trying to gather her senses when a sudden surge of dread overcame her, and as she turned to look for the cause she saw that a cloud of malevolent purple chakra had formed around Momochi Zabuza, shrouding him like a daemonic cloak. As she stared in shock, Zabuza deflected his opponent’s blade and kicked the blue-skinned man across the room with impossible strength. The next instant he was behind Itachi, and before she could react he had cut the young man in half with his great cleaver. No sooner did his blade cut his foe or there was an explosion, blindingly bright and deafeningly loud, and Zabuza was hurled across the water with half his flesh burned and torn off by the blast.
A murder of crows appeared out of nowhere shortly after, conjoining in the centre of the room like a dark cloud, changing and twisting until it took on the form of a man. Soon Uchiha Itachi stood before her once more, whole and uninjured, still gazing at her with the same level expression. “…don’t you think that’s true, Terumī Mei? I would very much like to hear your opinion.”
She finally released the hand seal she had been holding, her arms falling limply along her sides. Her jaw slowly worked as Hoshigaki Kisame walked over to where Zabuza floated in the water and, still grinning, finished him off with savage blows of his great sword. The scales running along the blade did not cut, but rather rent his opponent apart in great bloody chunks, and the weapon almost seemed to shudder with delight as it lapped up the lingering chakra shroud in the process. Soon there was nothing left to be recognized of the former Swordsman, yet still the monstrous man kept on hacking away with glee.
This is Akatsuki? I can’t fight these people, not by myself – that’s madness. Her gaze went from one black-clad foe to the other, and then towards the two boys lying still besides her. At last a feeling of cold steel settled in her spine, and she walked over to where Chōjūrō lay, carrying Haku with her as she did so. She knelt beside the young Swordsman and checked his injuries, silently breathing a sigh of relief as she confirmed that he would live. “Fine,” she said at last. “I will do as you ask, on one condition: This boy, Haku, stays with me. You will not take him back with you. If you refuse…” She met his eyes. “I’ll kill you.”
Silence reigned in that stone room as Uchiha Itachi’s crimson eyes bored into hers, gazing into her very essence as he weighed her words and will. Mei dreaded to think what would happen if he called her bluff, but there was no going back on her words now. At last, the barest hint of a smile appeared on the young man’s face. “I suppose this is proof that I chose correctly. There is no sense in complaining if I get exactly what I asked for, after all. Very well, then: I accept your terms.”
She nodded, her muscles slowly unclenching as she realized she was not about to die. “Then it is settled. I will rule Kirigakure as Fifth Mizukage, and the Mist shall take no hostile action against Akatsuki during my reign. However, if you should ever return to this place…” She looked at the two members of Akatsuki, her expression cold and hard. “Know that we will be ready for you. Leave, and never come back.”
The Uchiha inclined his head politely. “I wish you the best of luck with your new position, Terumī Mei.” He turned. “Come, Kisame. We are done here.” The shark-man gave her an inappropriately cheery wave, and then the two of them vanished into nothingness, leaving behind only devastation and change.