Ama no Zako


Learning Phase: Realm of Hungry Ghosts



"We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated."

- Maya Angelou

Six: Strength and Weakness

The living left behind stand before the mass grave of their fellow comrades. They are solemn. They are still. Hearts that love deeply burn with searing hatred. Just like the spinning wheels in crimson eyes, the moment is forever engraved in their minds.

White chrysanthemums are their last goodbye before they leave, an unsaid promise not yet said.

We will avenge you.

The wheel turns again and again on the same axel. And the cycle begins at every ending.


"Fear the Clan of a Thousand Skills, for they will destroy everything in their wake."


Grasp the image of water flowing steadily, gushing forth. Feel the spring bubbling from deep within. Observe how ripples form upon a pond's surface.

Imagine the ancient earth, still and thrumming with the potential for life. Feel the moist soil after rain, a seed sprouting out of that soil, one leaf, two leaves, taller and taller and taller…


Water and Earth collide and the small sapling grows and grows and grows. Branches and leaves and the lifeblood of all humans' races—

An eye cracks open to take a peek. A pause follows.

"Yes! Success! Yes-yes-yes!" a young boy cries out in surprised delight. He raises clenched fists into the air. He cannot contain his excitement as his dark eyes shine with profound emotion. He is victorious!

The boy of ten summers circles his latest accomplishment with pride. He looks around his surroundings for anyone to boast to and his celebratory mood deflates, as all he is greeted with is the babbling brook nearby, the rustling of foliage and the occasional birdcall. Not a person in sight.

He sighs, before turning to his left to acknowledge the sudden arrival. "Kawarama?"

"Brother." His younger brother is dressed in mission gear. Only seven and already taking dangerous missions with the adults, he thinks to himself.

"When are you leaving?"

"Sunset. The new dam near the western border," – Kawarama absent-mindedly touches the cross-shaped scar on his right cheek—"The Elders were getting worried about lasting through winter this year. Our crops didn't have a good yield."

"That's true," he agrees easily. "Lord Mori also demanded more rice this year for his daughter's marriage. If he keeps this up we're going to starve."

"Brother! Father will be angry if you keep speaking ill of the Lord."

The brother in question rubs his neck sheepishly. "I'm just telling the truth. Why are we even fighting for this lord if we're not his vassals? Why can't Lord Mori and that Ryuzo lord make up and we can all live another day?"

"Because the Uchiha support the Ryuzo family," Kawarama answers blandly.

"But why?"

"…Because the Ryuzo killed the Fire Emperor Asahito."

He shrugs. "That was hundreds of years ago. Did you know, the Uchiha clan say that the Mori killed the Emperor? "

"Once again, treasonous words you speak, brother," his words are serious, but Kawarama is smiling slightly as if amused by his older brother's radical contemplations. He blinks, recalling why he is here in the first place. His brother's easy-going nature always had a strange power to muddle his thoughts away from duty.

"By the way, check this out!" the muddling brother intervenes before Kawarama has the chance to speak. He is gesturing excitedly slightly towards the ground. "Let me introduce you to the Hashirama sapling! Can you see the beauty of its slender form, the glossy leaves, and—oh? Oh! This!"

"What is it?" he humors his older brother.

Hashirama grins. "It must be the flowering variety!"

This time, Kawarama relaxes a little more and laughs freely. "Congratulations. I think it's about twenty centimetres taller than last time. Maybe you should gift it to Father when you see him now."


"Father is calling for you. Something about passing on a message."

Hashirama hesitates, wanting to appreciate his small triumph for a while longer.

A hand pats his shoulder. Kawarama is smiling again, though it seems much emptier than a year ago, before he started going on so many missions. "You'll get scolded again if you're late. I'll see you in a week."

He does not see him alive ever again. Those are the last words Kawarama speaks to him.




How did come to this?

Sitting in the seiza position in his home Senju Butsuma reads the encoded message, going over and over the hurried scrawl. He cannot afford to waste any time resting at home. It is the last message of a team recently killed in a confrontation they did not expect to happen so soon. The Uchiha has begun to encroach onto the buffer territory.

He had ordered for that team to do the same. Butsuma wryly eyes the name spelt out in blood.

Uchiha Madara. That Uchiha Tajima's spawn.

He had taken out some of the brightest Senju shinobi. Now, he adds more to the body count. This team had been one he personally trained. The youngest, Senju Mitsuma was extremely apt in lightning jutsu, which was not common in their clan. His future no longer exists, and this boy leaves behind a younger sister.

They have no men to spare for official announcements. Hashirama will have to do. They trained together, after all.

Just in time, the screen is slid open and his eldest steps into the room. Butsuma feels a feeling of heaviness settle within in, wondering what he would do if one day it is one of his sons who send back a last message via hawk before fighting to their last breath.


"Sit down, Hashirama."

A parent must never die before their children. To ensure this, he will train them harder; he will mould them into capable survivors. That is the greatest love a parent could impart.




His palms are sweaty. That is not a good sign.

His heart is beating just as fast when he fights. Even worse, and it somehow manages to sink further into his chest when he peeks inside the small wooden hut and sees his younger cousin inside. She is sitting at a low table, mending her brother's clothes, a needle at hand and skilful.

She looks up, her eyes sharply darting to where he was trying to hide.

"Hashirama?" she asks.

He jumps from his spot, climbing in slowly through the window. He stays sitting on the ledge, unsure of what to do once he has been caught.

"Afternoon, Touka," he mumbles with false cheer.

Instantly suspicious, the girl frowns at him. "What is it? Have I been called for duty?"

She's always so serious about her duty. Hashirama shakes his head, slowly preparing himself.

"I'm sorry."

Touka stands up, walking closer to him with crossed arms. She sternly commands him. "Speak up—and sit up straight."

He doesn't listen to her and lowers his head in response. It is with a voice of great sadness that tells her the message meant for her.

"I'm so sorry, Touka. But…"

He continues gravely, hating to be the bearer of bad news. Something turns in his stomach as this is someone he trained with, someone he laughed with, someone who he might even call his friend. "Your brother, Mitsuma is dead."

There. I said it.

Deafening silence. He waits, suspended by a nervous breath. Hashirama watches Touka turn around to sit back down at the table, this time her back facing him instead.

"Is there a body?" her question is clipped and lacks the cries of sorrow he expects.

"No. The team found him, but—"

"—How did he die?"

Hashirama wavers between the truth and a not-quite truth.

"Tell me," –her voice becomes smaller, and she whispers the last word—"please."

He relents. "Ashes—they, they found his ashes."

His voices suspends in the atmosphere of sudden tension. He senses the calm before the storm.

"Uchiha fire!" she spits, suddenly angry. Her tone shifts to something vaguely urgent. "And his team? Tsuyama, Soushi? Soushi's a medic! They were only scouting, right?"

"The mission was classified. And…they were also killed in action." Hashirama watches at how her shoulders suddenly droop. He watches her as she clutches her brother's shirt tightly in her small hands.


"Thank you for telling me," she says quickly. "You may take your leave."

Disregarding her again, he who moves closer to his cousin. He sits down, his back leaning against hers and he is thinking, thinking, thinking of something to say.

Somehow, he is at a loss. The delayed grief strikes him into muteness. No words could bring the dead back to life.

So they sit in silence, until a quiet, strangled sob breaks it. He quietly sits there as Touka weeps whilst she continues mending her dead brother's shirt, the needle shaking in her fingers.

Hashirama weeps with her.




In times of war, there is no time to waste on grieving. The next week, both Hashirama and Touka are sent in a squad to join the guarding of a dam on the borderline of Senju and Uchiha land, the same one Kawarama had been sent to a week before.

They arrive too late.


"Don't look them in the eyes. They will set you on fire."

On the day Uchiha Azami turns twelve, she is gifted with a mission from one of the higher-up members of the clan. Apparently, it is part of a larger mission web crafted by the clan-head himself whilst in negotiation with their affiliated Lord, of the filthy rich Ryuzo clan.

The huge mess between these fanatical warring clans all started with the assassination of Lord Asahito ninety-two years ago. His two main vassal families, the Mori and Ryuzo began a power struggle that expanded and escalated until it became a full-scale war. The Uchiha and Senju sided with each opposite side, and officially declared war against each other despite prior battles and turf wars.

They are now fighting for the buffer territory in between them. It is a fertile piece of land, with plentiful rivers and lakes filled with fish. What makes it a metaphorical gold mine are the underground water springs, which turns everyone into pro-war activists.

This mission involves that prized water, ever since the Senju won a prior battle two months ago and dammed a river that ran through Uchiha and into Ryuzo territory. In retaliation, the Uchiha plans to set fire to major grain storehouses nearby whilst a larger force sneaks in to destroy the garrison near the dam and let the river flow again.

With her luck, she ends up with the decoy mission. They are deployed as two decoy squads of three made up of child soldiers younger than her and two slightly older, barely teenagers. Kozue is their assigned leader, the responsible adult that has the highest chance of making it back alive and is probably under orders to abandon them once the mission is accomplished.

Of course, they are dispensable.

Azami hisses in pain as a branch whips her in the face.

"Sorry." The boy in front of her apologises quietly.

She waves him off, embarrassed at her rookie mistake. "It's alright. My fault."

"Stay alert," Kozue murmurs behind her. She signals for the two teams to continue creeping forward, making sure that everyone is sticking to the shadows and blending into the mountain's forest as best as they can.

If they can make it through this mountain route, they can approach from behind the garrison and avoid the traps between Senju storehouse and the guarded entrance according to their latest intel, courtesy of the Hagoromo clan.

Who knows if we've been duped, Azami grimly thinks to herself. The sun is still at its zenith, and they only have a few hours left until dusk.

The forest is still noisy with birdcalls and the rustling of foliage. Kozue signals again once she checks the surroundings. Uphill spurt. Two by two. Reconvene at rocky outcrop near peak.

Gathering chakra into her legs, Azami waits until it is her turn before running up the nearest pine tree and soundlessly sprinting forward a few levels off the forest floor. She gazes at the person beside her, observing Kozue beside her with the most resolute look on her face she has ever seen. Casting her mind back, she has never taken a mission with Kozue before. Madara has…and so has Izuna. They are stronger than her so there is no question about it.

Azami ponders. Since Kozue who seems to be in her mid-twenties, has survived past the age where many are culled…how strong is she really?




Azami waits whilst crouching, her legs feeling sore from the long path in the mountains they took to avoid alerting the enemy. Funny, all they seem to have done today is sprint up a mountain stealthily and wait in the shadows stealthily.

Kozue sends out one of the older kids—the one who let go of a tree branch too early—to scout ahead before them with his Sharingan. They can never be too careful. One misstep, and this whole operation would fail. They have to make sure that the Hagoromo information is reliable and free from any foul play.

An hour later when he comes back, leaping down lightly from above. A bit later than they expect.

Everyone tenses.

"The White tiger of the west strikes lightning onto the earth," Kozue speaks clearly, a hand on her sword hilt.

"From the earth's ashes, the Vermilion bird of the south is reborn as fire," the boy replies back in code. The group collectively lets out a breath.

Azami slowly stands, holding a kunai behind her back with a relaxed countenance.

Kozue signals again, her face devoid of any emotion. Report.

"Foul—" is all he can say before Kozue appears before him, the blade of her katana swinging at him. He tries to step back, but a rain of kunai near his feet makes his step falter. It costs him his life. Her blade connects with the flesh of his neck, and a headless body falls to the ground.

Azami watches the spray of red fall to the ground, almost as if in slow motion. She is broken from her reverie as two members rush over to ensure the body will not move anymore. Who knows, he could have a new jutsu that let him regrow his head.

"All clear. Eliminated," a boy says shakily. His partner pats him on the shoulder, muttering something that she can't hear. Maybe the scout they had sent ahead had been their friend.

Flicking the blood off her sword, Kozue grasps the head by its hair to check the Senju insignia on his headband.

"Not good," the older woman sighs. "They might know we're here. The problem is we don't know Hisui's status for sure. He might have taken his pill."

Wide eyes stare back. The boy around Izuna's age rushes his words—the one who rushed forward to check right before—his eyes a little teary. "Hisui always follows protocol, he wouldn't have said anything...so, so…"

The team leader eyes him with the hardness of a veteran soldier. "Calm down, Itsuki. This shinobi here was under a genjutsu. It's highly probably that he was sent back by Hisui and he is incapacitated some—"

"Kozue, that Senju released a hawk!" Azami interrupts urgently, leading Kozue's gaze upwards by throwing a pebble near her feet at the bird taking flight from a branch above them. Luckily, the pebble clips its wing slightly and it falters in flight.

Kozue acts immediately, running up the nearest tree with scarlet eyes and the wheels of the Sharingan spinning. Stunned, Azami watches her grab the hawk's leg in mid-air. Any possible ensuing violent struggle from the Senju-trained bird ends when it looks into her eyes.

Amazing. Realising she is gaping, she shuts her mouth with a small click. The Sharingan is amazing.

Kozue unties the message on the obedient hawk's leg. Her eyes rove over the crumpled paper and she clicks her tongue in annoyance. "It's in code."

Wow. Azami really is seeing new sides to Kozue today. The tense Kozue's current demeanour strangely reminds her of their shady clan head.

"I can decipher it," Azami offers nervously. Code is just another puzzle that correlates to a certain pattern. And they knew what situation it had been when that Senji shinobi sneakily scrawled this message. If she places herself in his position, she had quite a good guess at what he wrote already. Kozue probably knows this as well.

The squad leader nods. "Get it done quickly. I will write a new message." Her Sharingan flashes again to memorise the slope of the scrawl, the ink, the way the paper is creased and how it had been tied before she hands it over to Azami.

She speaks with calmness, with the confidence of a person in charge. Her reliable charisma puts them at ease. "In the meantime, I want two of you scouting in the tress and two trying to sense any incoming ninja. We have a slight glitch in our plans. The dam attack squad haven't contacted us yet. Stay alert. That is all."

One misstep would mean certain death.




"There's been a message. Look. It's his hawk. That makes it the second time today."

"The first message warned the Uchiha are going to attack us—and the second one is saying that it will be… Kiso village in the East this sunset!"

"Are you sure?"

"It's his writing. And it's in our code—we've had sightings of a group of Uchiha there before as well. They were probably scouting the area prior to attack."

The area bustles with activity, with orders thrown around and the shifting of priorities.

"Kawarama, are you coming or staying?" One shinobi yells up at the makeshift tower on top of the dam wall.

A head pops out. "Staying."

"Alright then. The leader's really worried about Kiso village so some of us are leaving. We'll be taking most of the one stationed at the storehouses with us. Protect this place well, you hear me?"

"Yes, Sir!"




It is too quiet.

Sudden explosions and smoke rising in the air makes her take that statement back. Alert, Azami watches the fiery explosions at the garrison from the fields. Kozue and the rest have started.

Azami's job is simple: sneakily creep in from behind as the group attacks from another direction, rig these fields with special flammable wire and rig the main storehouses with exploding tags. Wait for the signal. Then set everything on fire.

So far, everything is going well. A bit too well, she thinks to herself as she finishes up under the cover of darkness. They are delayed by a few hours after sunset, but the encroaching night hides her better. Standing near the rice paddies, she stares how the waterway system is actually a bigger body of water than she'd originally thought.

Almost as an afterthought, she pulls out lightning conducting wire and hides it among the reeds, its end thoroughly in the water. It would turn deadly for anyone standing on the water—it is the Senju design's fault for having deeper irrigation channels and so much water.

Still, it's too quiet.

It is when she checks the storehouses (which strangely are unguarded—did their misdirection work?) that she finds a mouse. A heavily wounded Uchiha mouse, bleeding onto the haystack it was lying on. Their missing scout is right there, clinging onto life like a weed.

"Hisui?" Azami calls out cautiously. She freezes, remembering the most important greeting line. "The White tiger of the west strikes lightning onto the earth…

"You…"—he coughs—"From the earth's ashes…the Vermilion bird of the south is reborn…as fire." A pause, before she sees his Sharingan flash in the moonlight.

She rushes forward, her nerves calming down at once seeing someone worse-off. "Your injuries…did you seriously try to take them out like this just for the mission?"

The older boy runs a hand through his mussed hair, looking slightly affronted. "There were only a few shinobi. I was discovered, so I memorised their communication patterns and picked them off quickly so the nearby outpost wasn't alerted."

Azami bends down to examine his injuries. She notes the shoulder laceration, injured leg that could be broken and obvious signs of chakra depletion. Avoiding his eyes, she focuses on the wounds in front of her.

"No internal bleeding?"

Hisui shakes his head, dark eyes unfocused. He's lost a lot of blood from that shoulder wound.

She continues to talk, staring at the wood grains in the wall. "You can't walk on that leg. Everyone else is coming over here, so I think we should first get out of here. Any thoughts?"

He shakes his head again. "No. I can't. I'm a liability now. You have to kill me."

That is not an acceptable answer.

Azami kneels down next to him, lightly tapping his forehead but averting her eyes quickly. "That's not the answer to my question. If you're not able to help, try and keep conscious at least whilst I think something up. And no I'm not such a stickler for rules that I'll pre-emptively kill anyone too injured. "

He stills for a moment. Out of the blue, his left arm swipes her pouch from her. She lets him search through the bag, her mouth pulled taut and frowning.

"Looking for this?" She waves at him, an innocent white pill in her hand. Casting her eyes past him, she peers into the moonlit fields outside through the bamboo window. It wouldn't do to get hypnotized by his Sharingan, nor could she miss the signal to set everything on fire.

"I need that!" Hisui reaches out for it desperately, but she easily takes a step back. "My brother—Itsuki somehow took mine from my bag…and I've run out of kunai. Please. For this mission, to keep to the protocol, for the clan—just…let me take it, Azami."

No idea just how important this mission was. She shrugs, dropping the pill at her feet and stomping down on that little suicide tablet. "Fuck the clan."

In stunned silence, he stares at the powder underneath her sandals, and she grinds her foot harder, dispersing the powdery dust across the floor. "Fuck. Mission. Protocol," she snarls, bitterness and rage from years ago overtaking her previous calmness.

"Treasonous words you speak," Hisui murmurs, mournfully staring at the stain of dust underneath her deet.

"I don't care." Snatching him up by his collar, she glares at the clan minion. "Value your life more. Don't you think that by throwing your life away so easily is the same as spitting on the grave of someone who didn't want to die at all, but had no choice?"

Hisui clenches his jaw and he trembles in her grasp. "I…I…"

"Survive, you hare-brained clan minion. Survive, so you can see your brother again."

A tear runs down his cheek as he nods.


Azami looks outside again, but the signal hasn't come yet. That worries her slightly, but she resolves to stay rational and alert.

A bolt of lightning strikes. The signal.

"Let's go."


She quickly heaves the boy onto her back and breaks through the flimsy bamboo window as explosions splinter the small building into a burning mess.


The operation has officially started. Everything is on fire. But the three shinobi charging at her aren't Kozue and the rest. They are Senju, they are angry and they are going to kill her if she doesn't keep running.

Thankfully, boys Hisui's age are light to carry.


The lightning crackling across the night sky sends shivers up her spine. She has no idea what is happening, but Kozue has signalled her and she has to keep running.

"Don't fall off," Azami warns the boy on her back before she quickly runs through the handsigns for a fireball jutsu. Turning around at her pursuers, she quickly throws kunai after kunai as the chakra pools within her. Finally, she spits fire and pushes herself to run away faster. Faster-faster-FASTER—

The deafening explosions and the smell of something charred mean that the exploding tags on the kunai worked as intended.

Hisui gasps. "Behind—"

It's too late. Azami didn't realise that one of the pursuers had been fast enough. It's a Senju shinobi around Hisui's age, leaping forward towards them with a short sword reaching closer and his face frozen in the midst of a war cry.

At least

Her mother's face flashes in her mind, followed by a strange montage because she can see her baby sister Honami—oh sweet, sweet Honami, Jinrou, Shinsei, Kozue…Izuna.

Would they be sad?

Madara. What kind of face would he make if she died?

She tries to turn around so that she is the one in the trajectory of the sword, and not Hisui. I'm not fast enough—at this rate, both of us—

Lightning strikes again, and she has no idea whether it is actual thunder she is hearing or the beating of her heart.

Blood sprays in the air.




A red dawn finally casts light onto the world she wishes she'd never see.

She trips. She can't look down at the bodies. It's the battlefield, and corpse upon corpse lies in piles. She has to get up, to keep running but thousands of hands are pulling her back, the moans of the restless dead resounding and chilling.

Someone screams in the distance as she struggles, forever struggling.

Help me!

She tears herself free from the death grips, and she can hear the wild beating of her heart. Still beating, still alive.

Honami, I'll save you just wait! Please! I'll save you!

The enemy is everywhere. The ghost of Jinrou is screaming, screaming, screaming why didn't you save me? Why couldn't you save me?


She is screaming as she falls to her knees, and her hands are covered in blood. There is so much blood. Red. Red. The Red Sharingan stares back at her.

The corpse of her mother lies at his feet.

"You are weak," Uchiha Tsuze says as he strangle her sweet sister, her baby sister—he lifts her up.

Helpless. Helplessly she watches as his sword runs through Honami and throws her away like a rag doll.

Why. Why-why-why? WHY!

She gasps. Honami—No, not Honami. Not my sister.

The tomoe of the dreadful Sharingan spins, and all she can see is the black creature that emerges from his shadow. It reeks of insanity. Its eyes are empty. It is laughing.

"A success! A thousand maggot lives can summon this—rejoice!" It engulfs that hateful man in darkness.

Her neck is burning. Her ears are ringing. It hurts. It's burning—it HURTS!

"I'll let you run around with…and when…I'll rip it out of you." She can only hear bits and pieces of the chilling voice. "Test this out first."

The monster's hands are around her neck and she can't breathe, she can't breathe—

Now sleep.




Lightning strikes, and there is blood spraying everywhere. There is a large white tiger removing its fanged jaw from the bloodied Senju shinobi. From the sky, lightning rains down on the fields nearby. Everything is on fire.

She can hear Hisui gasping for air.

The smoke in the air makes Azami's eyes water, and her throat is parched. She blinks, and the tiger is still there, small sparks of lightning bouncing on its fur. Eyes the colour of ice gaze back at her, filled with a strange intelligence.

It turns its head behind, seeing something through the heavy smoke. This is it.

In that moment, Azami sees a goddess of death coming to take her to the next life.

Kozue emerges from the sea of fire and lightning, alone and covered in blood. The Sharingan looks eerie at a night burning in flames. Her sword has blood dripping down its edges.

The woman stops before them, smiling sadly. "The missions are a success. You two are the only ones alive."

Azami collapses to her knees. Hisui slides off her back, and she can hear his muffled screams of anguish.

Her heart is still beating, and her ears are ringing with the sound of deafening bells. She is alive.

She is alive, and she stands on a mountain of corpses.


End notes

And that's the end of the introductory arc! That took ages. This chapter was so hard to write-I kept rewriting it and re-planning it for some reason. The next arc is where things get exciting I think and it might be shorter than this one, to be honest. The story will pick up at a faster pace from now on.

- Azami's job is easier because Hisui had sneakily killed the storehouse guards and kept it under wraps. This boy is about 14, two years older than her and a much more skilled ninja than she is.

- The misdirection worked, and the Senju sent lots of people over to Kiso village which is in the opposite direction, it isn't apparent as it is in Azami's point of view, but Kozue had been briefed on what to write if they could intercept Senju communication.

- Not as many guards there because it's supposed to be a secret. Also, storehouses are really important so it's quite far away from where the Senju and Uchiha clans usually fight.

- The mission at getting back the dam, and attacking the storehouses were very well planned by Mr. Clan Head. He'd been stoking suspicions that the Uchiha would attack Kiso village (merchant town near the where the wind country should be) and spread a rumour before these two missions were to be accomplished.

- It's ironic how Azami preached to Hisui to live to see his brother Itsuki...but in the end everyone else on their decoy team dies except for Kozue. It's to be expected, because they are a decoy team. Obviously the two strongest in the team are Hisui and Kozue, I would say that they would usually take difficult 'elite' missions.

- Azami has never taken a mission with Kozue before. She's not that strong, haha. Interestingly, Hisui and Itsuki have, and so as Madara and Izuna.

- I wonder which character has a similar name to Hisui if you consider the generation gap? Hohoho.

Thoughts? Questions? I would love to hear.