Chapter 25

“Welcome to the stage for the second test,” the examiner proclaimed to the contestants, indicating the humongous eldritch forest behind her. “Practice area forty-four, also known as the Forest… of Death!”

Naruto finally managed to worm his way through the gathered throng, only to find an irate Sakura waiting for him. “Where were you? We could have been disqualified!”

“I had a meeting with Ibiki,” he retorted. “My screams of anguish might’ve tipped you off.”

Sasuke shrugged. “Hey, if we let ourselves get distracted every time you scream like a little girl about something, we’d never get anything done.”

“The aim of this round is to fight for survival,” the examiner continued. “Each team will enter the forest through a different gate carrying a ‘heaven’ or ‘earth’ scroll. The goal is to reach the tower in the centre within the allotted time, carrying at least one of each scroll. Of course, that means at least half of you won’t make it – and probably more if you consider the poisonous plants and monsters, heh heh.”

Naruto motioned towards the scantily-clad examiner. “Who’s the crazy lady in the coat and fishnet?” Something about the look in her eyes was making his hairs stand on end.

“Her?” Sakura glanced at the examiner, also clearly unsettled. “She’s Mitarashi Anko. She was a student of Orochimaru, the Snake Sannin, before he left the Village. They say he drove her mad with his cruel experiments, then left her behind like trash. Nobody wanted anything to do with her because they were afraid she might be a spy, until the Third Hokage took pity on her and invited her into the Anbu.”

Naruto looked at the woman in a new light. So she’s one of Ibiki’s, huh? Somehow, that did nothing at all to reassure him.

“Anyone who wants to wuss out and quit the exam – for whatever bizarre reason – can open their scroll to alert the chūnin proctors.” The examiner, Anko, glanced at her notes. “There’s some more boring stuff in here, but eh, I guess that’s about it.”

“Hey!” Naruto stepped forward. “I detect a flaw in your test, lady: If we’re gonna fight each other to get the scrolls, how the heck is anyone supposed to call for help after losing theirs?”

The woman grinned savagely. “I’d say the losers have no right to call for help, since after all they’re the ones who lost and so they deserve to die…” Her grin turned into a sigh. “Buuut, what I should say instead is that the Hokage got the Hyūga to watch the teams with their Byakugan at all times, and the Anbu are at the ready to get anyone who is wounded to the tower’s hospital.” She glared at Naruto, as though he were personally responsible for this affront. “Anyone else have any smart questions?”

Nobody did.

“Then it’s time to head for your gates! Go, go, go!”

-o-

“Ok, point of order,” said Naruto, as he stared at the humongous trees rising up before them. “What the heck is with this place?” He had heard of the Forest in stories, of course, but to see it in person…

“It’s a high chakra density area,” Sakura explained. “Chakra tends to naturally group together in places like these, allowing the local flora and fauna to absorb it and grow larger and stronger than they otherwise could. You can think of the Forest as a… a natural valley, which gathers water from the mountaintops after each period of rain or snow, slowly filling until it eventually turns into a vast lake.”

“Ah,” said Naruto. “So uh, there really could be things like giant mutated chakra bears in there?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“At least tell me there won’t be any giant chakra mosquitoes.”

“No,” said Sakura, “but there are giant leaches that leap at you from the trees.”

Jumping tree leaches? That’s even worse!” Naruto groaned. “What about mutated chakra humans?”

“Those exist,” said Sasuke. “They’re called ninjas.”

“He’s right,” said Sakura. “Humans that lived in areas like these slowly evolved to use chakra consciously, as opposed to ordinary animals which only ever use it passively. Some scholars even say that the reason we grew intelligent in the first place was because it allowed us to use chakra better, by harnessing the power of our concentration and imagination. Although, that does raise the question of why most people are unable to become ninjas, despite the clear evolutionary advantage it offers…”

Naruto frowned. The official scholarly explanation had never quite satisfied him, though he had to admit it still made more sense than the old legend about ninjas gaining chakra by eating fruit from a forbidden tree. He still could not understand why most people never thought to respond with the most blatantly obvious question, of where the forbidden tree had come from then. Somehow, it was as if people almost had the right idea of trying to simplify reality as much as possible, but then instead of genuinely trying to simplify the world they invented a simple story instead. Like a runner in a race aiming merely to look good in front of others, unable to understand why he could never quite reach the finish line no matter how hard he tried.

“Enough with the academics,” said Sasuke. “The gates are opening: Let’s go.”

The team dashed through the metal gates and into the eldritch forest, day passing into night as the overarching forest canopy blocked out almost all light – and yet, through the miracle of chakra, the undergrowth was just as vibrant, with bright flowers radiating colours that warned danger. They leaped from humongous branches to massive fallen logs, defying gravity by running along the length of hanging trees; never daring to disturb what lurked in the shrubbery below by setting foot upon the ground.

“Hey, uh, where’re we going?” Naruto jumped from one giant tree branch to the next, furtively scanning his surroundings as he went. “Do we have some sort of plan?”

“We’re going away from here,” Sasuke answered without looking back. “There are people in this exam who know who we are and who I’d rather not meet. If you want a plan, feel free to come up with one.”

“Uh, okay,” said Naruto. “Wait, hold on.” The next branch shuddered under his weight as they came to a halt. “Stop. We can’t run through this place and discuss tactics at the same time, that’s just begging for us to run into… into…” A dark shape that he had thought to be merely another branch of the tree began to crawl up towards them. “Oh Kami.”

“It’s just a stick insect,” Sakura chided. “They’re perfectly harmless herbivores.”

“It’s a giant mutated chakra insect,” Naruto countered. “You have no idea what it does or does not eat!”

“For the love of…” Sasuke’s eyes flashed crimson, and the monstrous Nanafushi fell from the tree and crashed into the foliage below. “There. Now can we come up with a plan to pass this exam?”

“Uh, right,” said Naruto, still keeping a suspicious eye out for movement below. “I guess… I mean, our goal is to get an Earth scroll, right, but the Examiner didn’t say we had to fight for it. So we could just send shadow clones out to try and steal one, or maybe trade for one if we get another Heaven Scroll. Or, we could send shadow clones out to convince people we want to trade and then we attack them and take their scroll – or I guess we could head towards the tower and set up a trap there, or better yet we could send shadow clones to the tower to get trapped and then we ambush the trappers, or I guess I could tunnel underground with my new earth technique and then use shadow clones to-”

“Stop,” said Sasuke, rubbing his forehead with two fingers. “Is there any conceivable plan that does not start with you casting the shadow clone technique and sending them out to scout?”

That sounded like one of those philosophy things that were a lot harder to prove than to know the answer to. “I guess not?”

“Then start with doing that,” said Sasuke, “and we’ll figure out the rest in the meantime.”

“Okay,” said Naruto. “But uh, first I gotta do the one thing no shadow clone could possibly do for me.”

Sakura frowned. “What’s that?”

Naruto pointed behind him. “I gotta go take a wee.”

-o-

Sakura stared after Naruto as he disappeared to the other side of the tree, shaking her head. “Five minutes into the Forest of Death, and he has to go. I swear, only Naruto…”

“The only ninja who is afraid of the dark.” Sasuke sighed. “You know, of all the things in this world I can’t figure out, the greatest mystery has to be the fact that Naruto hasn’t managed to get himself killed yet.”

“He did.” Sasuke gave her a questioning look. “Back in the Land of Waves, when he was fighting in the ice and snow…” she swallowed. “I, I tried to save him, but I was… too late.” She looked at Sasuke, willing him to give her any sign of compassion or condemnation, anything to put her out of the misery of not knowing, but his gaze was inscrutable. “Kakashi-sensei, he, he did something to Naruto. It brought him back, but sometimes it’s almost as if…” She stopped. “I don’t know, Sasuke. I just don’t know anymore.”
Sasuke turned his head to stare at the spot where Naruto had disappeared into the foliage. “We’re going to have to protect him,” he said at last. “He’s never going to take care of himself over others, no matter what we say, and that makes it our responsibility – even if it means doing something he would never approve of.” His eyes narrowed. “You understand, don’t you, Sakura? Miracles only happen once.”

Sakura nodded mutely. Somehow, even hearing him say that much, just the fact that he now knew helped more than anything else in the world ever could. She brushed against his hand, and to her faint relief it did not shrink back from her touch. “We’ll do it together,” she whispered.

One way or another, they would get through it all.

A moment later Naruto stepped out of the bushes, relief giving way to confusion as his eyes fell upon their hands.

“Uh… did I miss something while I was gone?”

-o-

Naruto’s newly created clone leaped from tree to tree at high speed, considerably emboldened by the knowledge that his body could not truly die. Still, shadow clones did not always disappear immediately, and the sensation of being bodily torn asunder never grew any more pleasant – never mind being swallowed whole by a giant snake and slowly digested. In fact, since the snake’s body would be filled with hostile chakra, would his mind even be able to return to his original body at all? Would he disappear, or would he be trapped there forever, dying over and over for however long the snake lived?

The memories of another shadow clone struck him, and Naruto came to a halt upon a withered tree stump. It seemed the other clone had come across the Leaf team they met earlier that day and immediately dispelled itself – a decision Naruto could not fault. He did not like the look in that Hyūga’s eyes, and that other genin Lee just seemed crazy. His thoughts were disturbed a second later when his stump started rumbling and a dozen mutant chakra-voles burst forth, snapping at his feet even as he launched himself into the air once more. He glued his feet to the bark of the nearest tree, hoping to catch his breath, only to leap away again in panic as a nearby plant began to vomit poisonous spores.

I don’t care what Sakura says, he thought to himself, as he swore to never again set foot outside his apartment if he made it out of here alive. There’s no way humans could’ve ever lived in a place like this, absolutely no way!

He ran a while further, this time making sure to stick to the branches where he had relatively clear sight of the dense forest all around him, when a faint sound made him stop dead in his tracks. It was the one sound more frightening than even the worst plants and monsters here could make: That of Human speech. He slowly edged around the main body of his tree, clinging to the bark with his feet even as he used the transformation technique to bend the light around himself to blend in with the forest even further. Down far below, hidden among the foliage, two opposing groups of ninjas faced off.

“Gaara, listen,” said one. “There is no point in taking this any further: Let’s just grab their scroll and go.”

“Be quiet, Kankuro.” The monotone voice was almost dead of emotion. “I have heard enough of you.”

Naruto stared at the scene in shock. A young red-headed sand ninja with a large gourd on his back stood amidst a sea of scattered needles, staring down a team of rain ninjas with his arms crossed. The lead Rain ninja was on his knees, clutching his chest and trembling while the other two watched in horror.

“Please, you can have our scroll,” one of the Rain ninjas begged. “Just let us go!”

“That is not how we do things in the Hidden Sand,” said the boy, Gaara. “The penalty for attacking the Kazekage’s children is death – that is what happens when you attack someone stronger than you.”

“Be reasonable, Gaara,” the eldest sibling chided. Her sandy blond hair was tied up in no less than four pony tails, and just like the other Sand ninjas she was clad in black and carried a strange object on her back. “Remember what that examiner said? Intentional killing during the exam will not be tolerated.”

“Take a good look around,” said Gaara. Focusing chakra to his eyes, Naruto could barely make out a cloud of what looked like tiny dust specks surrounding the ninjas below him. “All around us my sand has saturated this area with chakra, forming a sphere that even the Leaf Byakugan cannot penetrate.” His eyes were still staring dead ahead, never leaving his beaten opponents. “Furthermore, you are minor ninjas of the Hidden Rain, a land that has been ravaged by the great powers during the Wars with no consequence or threat of retribution. No one will ever know or care to know what happened here.”

Suddenly the other two Rain ninja dropped to their knees as well, and the lead ninja started coughing up blood. Finally Naruto understood what was happening: Down their mouths and into their nostrils sand was being forced, eroding their lungs from the inside out. Motes of sand swarmed around them like a swarm of angry bees; stinging their eyes and bursting ear drums while slowly shaving off their skin. Their cries of agony and terror were smothered by wet and bloody coughs.

“Sorry, I tried,” the girl said with a wave of her hand, sounding not very apologetic at all. “Bye, bye.”

More sand fell upon them, crushing them, burying them, until finally the movement stopped. The sand retreated back to Gaara’s gourd, filling it anew. Of the Rain ninjas little was left but bloody bones.

The middle child, Kankuro, walked up to where their corpses lay and picked up the fallen scroll. “It’s another Earth scroll,” he grumbled. “Just our luck. Now we’re gonna have to fight a whole other team as well.”

“Cease your whining, Kankuro, it is disgraceful.” Gaara placed two fingers on his left eye and paused as if in thought. “My third eye has already located another team: Three Leaf ninjas and a dog. This will not take long.” He paused, as if realizing something. “And it seems I have missed one other thing…”

From out of nowhere a torrent of sand burst up around Naruto and crushed him instantly. He nearly fell off his branch as the forest shifted around him, and he flailed his arms to keep his balance. He knew right away which team Gaara meant, for it was one which he had been spying on for the past several minutes.

“Hey! Did you guys hear that?” That brash voice could only be Inuzuka Kiba, and beside him was –

“It’s- it’s N-Naruto-kun, over there.” Hinata.

A cloud of insects swarmed towards Naruto, and he was forced to drop down to the clearing where Team Eight stood waiting. Still more insects swarmed out of Shino’s long sleeves and hood as he prepared for a fight, and while Hinato looked horrified at the prospect of fighting Naruto, Kiba grinned with savage glee. “Lucky! We get to beat up on the biggest loser in the exam. This’ll be swift and sweet.”

“Hold on,” cried Naruto, “I’m not here to – ah!” He threw himself sideways as Kiba lunged for him, swiping at him with feral strength and speed. “I just wanna-!” A white dog appeared behind him, growling and snapping at his leg. Naruto leaped away at the last second and reached the nearest tree, running up the surface at breakneck speed before finally turning around to stare down at his opponents.

“Hah, he’s a slippery little runt,” Kiba said with a vicious grin. “This is gonna be fun. Hinata, use your Byakugan to keep an eye out for Sasuke, he’s gotta be around here somewhere. Shino, watch my back!”

“I just wanna talk!” Naruto tried again. “There’s a team of Sand ninjas heading this way, and they’re killing anyone they come across. You gotta get away from here before it’s too late!”

Hinata and Shino looked at each other uncertainly, but Kiba’s expression only twisted into one of even greater fury. “Trying to talk your way out of this? You think you’re so clever, don’t you – like we’re dumb enough to believe anything you say!” He reached in his pouch and drew forth two dark pills, one of which he fed to his dog while he swallowed the other himself. Soon after, the two began changing: His dog’s muscles shuddered and its fur turned crimson as it transformed into a monstrous hound. At the same time Kiba’s teeth grew into fangs, his fingernails extended into claws and the look in his eyes lost all semblance of reason. Master and beast were closer than ever, now.

“You gotta listen to me,” Naruto cried desperately, even as he struggled to find the right words to convince them. “Hinata-chan, tell him! Tell him I wouldn’t lie about something like this!” But even as he spoke those words, he remembered that he had suggested to Sasuke to do exactly that…

Hinata stared at her feet. “I… Kiba-kun, I don’t think-” Her pale eyes widened further. “W-wait, something is-”

“Enough!” cried Kiba. “Enough talking!” Both he and his hound made to charge Naruto when a torrent of sand crashed into the ground between them, bringing them to a halt. “What the – what is this?”

A single eye emerged from the swirling pile of sand and floated in mid-air, staring directly at Kiba. The sand rose up to form a socket around the eye, and then the socket became a head and shoulders. Arms and legs followed underneath, and at last Gaara’s form stood whole before them – right in the middle of the group of hostile ninjas as though he did not have a care in the world.

It took only a second for Kiba’s instincts to take over, and his clawed fist blurred and struck out at Gaara, exploding straight through the Sand ninja’s chest in a shower of sand. “What the hell?”

The sand closed around Kiba’s arm and the feral boy howled in pain as his arm was slowly crushed to a pulp. His monstrous hound snarled and lunged at the sand creature, but it was struck in the head and sent sprawling. The next moment Hinata was standing there, striking the flat of her palm against the sand and scattering it over the ground. Kiba fell to his knees, clutching his wounded arm and moaning in pain as she bent over him.

“K-Kiba-kun, are you-”

The sand rose up again, and this time Hinata was its target, grabbing her in a giant fist and slamming her into a humongous oak tree. A tiny gasp of pain escaped from her lips, and then her head slumped over, a stream of blood trickling from her mouth.

“Hinata-chan!” Naruto rushed to the scene, body-flickering next to Hinata and clawing at the sand with his bare hands, but it was like trying to clutch water. The sand seeped between his fingers, crawling over her skin as though he was not there. He tried to cover her eyes with his thumbs, but the sand moved up to her ears and he had to plug them with his pinkies, and then the sand was forcing its way into her nose and mouth and there was nothing he could do to stop her from choking to death on the sand.

It was just as he had foreseen – He had known something like this might happen and he had done nothing about it; Hinata was dying right in front of him and there was nothing he could do. Her fair skin was cracking from the sand’s pressure, blood trickled down her cheeks and it was all his fault…

There was a buzzing sound in Naruto’s ears as a black cloud descended on Hinata, covering her like a thick blanket. The insects were on the sand, draining it somehow, and the sand fell apart and crumbled onto the ground. Hinata dropped from the tree and fell into his arms, lighter than Tazuna had been.

Naruto turned around and found himself staring at Shino’s back. The boy’s arms were outstretched and from his long sleeves and hood a vast swarm of insects poured forth, buzzing angrily. In front of him, Gaara’s baleful eye hovered in the air, a new mass of sand already gathering as it stared at them both with murderous intent.

“Go,” said Shino.

Naruto hesitated. “But…”

“In times of conflict, individuals must band together for the good of the whole – that is what the word ‘friend’ means, remember? You need not be concerned about me. Why’s that? Because I am-”

A lance of sand shot out and burst straight through Shino’s skull, blasting out the back of his head and crashing against the tree behind Naruto. Shino’s body staggered, drooped, and fell apart: His skin cracked and pulsed as endless bugs burst forth from hidden cysts, his very flesh and clothes changing and transforming into a legion of furious and vengeful insects that descended upon the cloud of sand.

Still holding onto Hinata, Naruto joined up with Kiba, and they ran as fast as their legs could carry them.

A monster… I am lost in a forest of monsters…

-o-

“We gotta get out of here!” cried Naruto, his body still trembling from the remembered exertion. “We’ve got to quit while we still can – this is just too dangerous!” Somewhere out there, his clone and Kiba were still running with Hinata in his arms. He could only hope that they had found help by now.

Sasuke looked unconvinced. “We always knew this exam was going to be dangerous. The last round was fine and the next may be as well. If it is only the one lunatic and we know where he is, we can simply-”

“Oh, gimme a break! You only care about getting more combat experience for yourself, same as ever.” Naruto was pacing furiously within the cramped hollow beneath the roots of a gigantic tree under which they hid. After reporting on what his clone had seen, they had finally come to the conclusion that being hidden from enemy ninjas was more important than keeping away from the local plants and animals.

“Sasuke is not all wrong,” Sakura said softly. She was peering out from between the dangling roots of the great tree, on the lookout for any sign of hostiles. “Right now we are closer to the central tower than to the Forest’s boundaries, so turning back is not much safer. How about this: You keep scouting ahead with your shadow clones while we head straight for the tower. If we discover some weak opponents we’ll fight them, but if there’s any sign of that Sand ninja we open our own scroll and alert the proctors.”

Neither of them were quite satisfied with that plan, but Naruto had to admit it was a reasonable compromise.

“Fine,” Sasuke said eventually. “Let’s go.” Naruto brushed aside the curtain of dangling roots as he followed him out into the quiet glade, grateful for the scattered beams of sunlight which poured down from cracks in the forest canopy high above them. All around them leaves and plants were softly brushing against each other, whispering with what Naruto could only hope was the wind.

Sakura followed after them, squinting against the light. “It’s hard to see from here, but judging from the position of the sun, the central tower should be right over there. It shouldn’t take us too long at top speed, but we might need to go around any areas of dense vegetation so that we -”

The foliage behind them shattered into a thousand broken branches as something green came hurtling at them like a massive rolling boulder and the team leaped

Stop jump up down what left right is halt going give up on?

Naruto’s body twitched and flailed as it tried to move in a dozen directions at once, and then the green sphere smashed into the earth like a meteor and sent Naruto flying into the air, falling and bounding over the ground before coming to a halt with pain flaring in his limbs and chest. Through his dazed eyes the glade was a blur: The green shape which now resembled Chōji was chasing after Sakura who dodged his attacks with increasing desperation while Sasuke was just standing there, and then Chōji’s arm extended impossibly far and slammed straight into her chest.

As Sakura flew backwards and crashed into the ground, Naruto saw that a black shadow had grabbed hold of Sasuke’s feet, but that could not be right because shadows were only an absence of light and an absence of something could not grab people – which meant it was a Yin-release chakra technique and Naruto should do something about that but he could not quite remember –

Stop hold yield pause down go stand fall jump halt what

The shadow extended from Sasuke’s feet to grab Naruto as well, and that was when he remembered that Shadow Paralysis was a Nara Clan technique; they were up against Shikamaru’s team but it was too late to do anything about it. The shadow crawled up Naruto’s spine like icy fingers, freezing his limbs in place while Chōji grabbed hold of Sakura’s arms and pressed her face into the ground.

In front of them the bushes slowly parted as the leader behind this attack was finally revealed. Moving with deliberate slowness, Ino promenaded into the forest glade, and finished by twirling around with a flourish while her purple skirt and long blond hair flowed and danced along with the wind.

“Ta-da! Bet you didn’t see that one coming, did you, boys and forehead-girls?” Ino grinned widely, as though she was completely oblivious to the fact that they were in a place called the Forest of Death.

“Ino?” Sakura choked out, as she struggled against the considerable weight of Chōji virtually sitting on top of her. “How? Your mind sensing technique doesn’t–”

“–have enough range to track you all over the forest?” Ino finished cheerfully. “No. But I can read minds, Sakura darling, and your oversized brain is as open to me as those abysmal books of yours.” She bent over and flicked Sakura’s forehead with her finger, still grinning. “I already skimmed your thoughts at the start of the test, so I knew which scroll you had and what your starting position would be. From there it was just a matter of using my sensing ability to stalk you while avoiding those pesky shadow clones – and let me tell you, your Naruto’s chakra lights up the place like a bonfire. So then we waited for a chance to set up the perfect ambush, and bam, we pass the round! Brilliant plan, don’t you think?”

“All of that was my idea,” Shikamaru protested from his hiding spot in the foliage. Naruto could almost tell his location from the direction of his voice, now that Ino was no longer messing with his head. He tried to reach his pouch for a flash tag or form a hand seal, to do anything, but he was frozen in place.

“Yes,” said Ino, “but I told you to come up with it. It’s called leadership, Shika.”

“Just let it go, Shikamaru,” Chōji sighed. “It’s not worth it.”

“And now to find out where you keep your scroll,” Ino said with satisfaction. “Though, you’re not going to make it easy for me now that you know what I’m doing, are you Sakura? No, that’s okay, I have other options.” She strolled up to where Sasuke stood frozen, and pulled his lower lip down with one finger. “What do you say, Sasuke-kun? Will you tell me where the scroll is? Of course, you could always try and persuade me to let you keep it…” Her finger travelled down his lips to his chest and further below.

“For goodness sake Ino,” Shikamaru said with a groan. “Just get on with the plan! I can’t keep this technique up forever, you know.”

“Yes, yes.” Ino rolled her eyes theatrically, and gave Sasuke a last lingering look before moving on. She stopped in front of Naruto, standing far too close for comfort. “Fine, I’ll just take the knowledge from the dim one like we planned.” She began raising one hand towards Naruto’s forehead, but stopped mid-movement. Her hand stayed there and hovered, as though she had reached an invisible wall.

Chōji frowned. “What is it, Ino?”

“I don’t…” She inched her hand towards Naruto again, then drew it back as if she had burned herself on something hot. “I can’t…” Her eyes were vacant, mesmerized by some unseen wonder, and her lips moved as though singing a silent song. “It’s… terrible, and so beautiful, but I don’t understand…”

“Oh, for the love of…” Shikamaru groaned loudly. “You can admire his chakra later. We need to get the scroll and get out of here, before anyone notices us.”

“Right,” said Ino, still staring at Naruto with horrified fascination. “Right… I should probably…” Naruto suppressed his chakra as best he could, and this time when she reached for his forehead she managed to come close enough to touch him. “Okay,” she said, swallowing. “I’ll just, quickly…”

Naruto flared his chakra.

Ino’s mouth drooped open. For a second she stood there unmoving, unable to comprehend what was happening to her. Then she screamed. She clutched her fingers as though they were on fire, and she began rolling over the grass, her screams unlike anything human: The sound was torn from her lungs like steam from a broken pipe, ragged and hot and tearing her lungs asunder with their fury.

Ino!” Chōji half rose to help her, and that was all the opening Sakura needed: She elbowed him in the face, then turned and threw him on his back. Her hands formed a seal and lashed out with a watery whip at the foliage behind Naruto, eliciting a strangled scream. Suddenly the shadows withdrew and they were free again: Sasuke flicked through a different seal and lighting darted from his fingertips, striking Chōji in the chest and sending him sprawling onto the grass along with the now unconscious Ino. Foul smelling smoke arose from where the lightning burnt Chōji’s clothes and flesh, as Sakura dragged Shikamaru into the clearing with her watery tendril and dumped him alongside the others.

Team Seven stood there for a moment, taking in the sight of their defeated enemies as their breathing slowly returned to normal. Sasuke was the first to break the silence. “Well done there, Sakura. Good call to target Shikamaru first. Now, Naruto, would you mind explaining what the hell that was?”

“I inherited a special kind of chakra from my clan,” Naruto replied carefully. It was not strictly speaking a lie. “Now are you going to tell us what is up with your Sharingan, or what really happened to your clan?”

“No,” said Sasuke. “I suppose you can keep your secrets if I hold onto mine.” He nudged the fallen Shikamaru with his toe. “What’re we going to do with these guys?”

“We’ll place them in the hollow until the Anbu show up to take them to the hospital,” said Sakura. “If it was safe for us, it should be safe enough for them. I’ll look them over with my medical ninjutsu, but there’s not much else we can do.” She frowned as she kneeled down and set to work on checking Chōji and Ino. “You know, if I had any important secrets, I would want to share them with my friends.”

“If you knew any important secrets, you might think differently,” Sasuke said as he collected the Earth scroll from Shikamaru’s pouch. “I guess we just need to wrap up here, and then we’re good to go.”

A long shadow passed over the three of them, and the team stared up in bewilderment, blinking against the sun’s rays as they looked to see what kind of cloud could cast a shadow like that.

Flying high enough to rise above even the giant trees of the eldritch forest, a platform made entirely out of sand was racing towards the tower in the centre. On top of the platform, three Sand ninjas stood tall, surfing through the clouds as though the whole world belonged to them.

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