Unless I get 169-B and 170-A done in the next eleven days, this will probably be my last post for 2022. Happy holidays everyone- whatever those might be- and I'll see you all next year.
Sealkeeper: He Who Binds
Chapter 168-A "Big Guns"
Patron Release 2022.12.04
To be fair, the collection of people in his head should have been Naruto's first thought when it came to finding something to do. It was something he could have done in Konoha before leaving and would have saved him a trip to Yu no Kuni.
Then again, the trip to Yu no Kuni had taken time and that was sort of the idea. Didn't he have projects he was working on? He couldn't remember. He was pretty sure the last project he had was the seals for the railway. He'd also copied the seal he made for Inoichi and modified it slightly for Shizune's team for their own armor project. Beyond that, he didn't think he had anything left. He'd have to go through his journals at some point to see if he had written down anything that needed his future attention.
Should keep him busy during a train ride back to Nami, at least.
Of course, he may not have thought of using his seal to reach out to everybody- partially because Mai was often in there speaking with the others and she was probably still angry at him- if Tsunami hadn't reached out to him through it. Normally he didn't hear what went on in his head- which was a strange thought, actually- unless he was purposefully paying attention but Biju had always been able to communicate with him through the seal.
Seeing as Karura really liked Tsunami- she also really liked Kushina and Temari, was it something about 'mothers' that drew the raccoon in?- she had been happy to catch his attention on her behalf and a quick meeting of the minds- literally- later Naruto had something to do.
Well, two things.
Helping Orochimaru pick out his- her?- new body shouldn't actually take that long, they'd always had good taste, but it was something to do and it had the benefit of putting him somewhere Mai would both be assured of his safety and reasonably certain that he couldn't get into too much trouble.
Plus he needed to bring up that…horrible…idea he'd had and hope Orochimaru smacked him upside the head until he came back to his senses. Unfortunately she'd probably love the idea not just because it was his- though that alone was good enough for pretty much anything when it came to the Snake Sennin- but because the two of them usually thought along the same wavelengths.
He dutifully ignored what that could mean for his own mental health if he was comparable to Orochimaru.
Naruto was fond of the woman- when she was a woman- don't get him wrong, but she was hardly a shining example of peak sanity.
Not that the Wolves were all that sane either.
Was that because of him or simply one of the reasons they related to him so well? Then again, it seemed all Shinobi suffered- not that they would ever describe it that way, of course- some level of insanity either picked up during the course of their occupation or the driving purpose behind becoming a Shinobi in the first place.
Orochimaru just took the concept to a whole new level. Shinobi may have been insane by civilian standards but Orochimaru was insane by Shinobi standards and that was usually a very high mark to reach.
Of course, that did very little to assure him she would be reasonable and tell him his idea was just going to create unmitigated chaos and was a horrible plan if he wanted to keep an army of Wolves from descending upon the world and attempting to make him emperor or something.
…..Now that he thought about it, that's probably exactly what they would do and Orochimaru would not only know about it but be more than happy to assist them.
Maybe he should just keep his idea to himself, in that case, he didn't need to find himself responsible for the entire world-
…..Even if Konoha's new conflict with Iwa was providing an incredibly tempting opportunity.
Much like his departure, Tsukuyomi's return to Hanahime was without fanfare or attention which was made only easier by the fact that he utilized the underground train a majority of Nami's populace didn't even know existed in the first place.
Slipping back into his own country silently was made easier than ever and the journey had taken far less time than it would have by carriage. Orochimaru had really outdone himself with that gift. Naruto tried not to spend too much time pondering how Orochimaru had managed it though maybe he should at least put someone on figuring out what consequences might arise from it so they could be prepared to mitigate them.
Orochimaru never was one to consider the cost or consequences of his actions, he was always much more focused on the results. And, to be fair, Orochimaru was very good at providing results. So long as those results didn't come at the cost of his Wolves or any of their allies, well, Naruto couldn't honestly say he cared about the price either.
The train he'd just used, for instance, was probably worth much more than whatever Orochimaru spent to obtain it and whatever Naruto was going to have to spend to keep it.
He did have to question why the entrance was located in the back of a Yakitori stand, though. Surely there were more appropriate locations.
Giving a startled young woman- an employee, judging by the apron- a reassuring smile as he slipped from the secret entrance and into the storeroom, he made his way out of the back door and into the small alleyway behind the permanent stand.
His palace- which he still didn't think of as his quite as much as he had the old apartment- wasn't too far from here though it would involve moving through one of the busier parts of Hanahime.
Fortunately the people here never actually saw their Daimyo which meant the only people who did recognize him would know better than to make a scene. Anonymity certainly had its perks some days, as today's journey reminded him, but he still had rto wonder;
Why the hell hadn't they just built the station under the palace?
"Inari-chan, dear, I have a lot of work to do, what did you need?" The woman in charge of Tsukuyomi's palace trailed behind her son as he led her by the hand towards the town that was quickly becoming a city. A second question found its way to her tongue as she wondered aloud; "And shouldn't you be at the academy right now? Did they cancel class today?"
"Yeah, sure, it was canceled." He agreed quickly. "Come on, this is important."
"What's so important, Inari-chan? I have an entire palace I'm supposed to be managing at the moment." She loved him, she really did, but sometimes she wondered if he understood what it meant to actually work at something. Between Tsunami and Tazuna they'd managed to ensure he was always provided for so he hadn't had to find his own work and if he went out fishing and brought something back it was great but they were hardly going to go hungry if he didn't.
Maybe they should have given him more responsibilities over the years, not just to help him understand but also to let him feel as though he was contributing to the household. Perhaps that dark funk he'd gotten himself into after Kaiza wouldn't have happened if he felt like his family had needed him.
"It's a surprise, mom, just trust me."
She exhaled a long-suffering sigh. Maybe she hadn't been spending much time with him lately, but that was hardly different from before. With him in the academy he was gone most of the day anyway and she often returned in time for dinner so she didn't know what could have him acting like this. "Is this going to take long, Inari-chan? If we're going to be gone awhile I need to let someone know so they can oversee my duties."
"It won't take long," He assured her. "It'll just take a moment or two."
Not quite satisfied by that answer, Tsunami frowned and glanced back at the palace only to stumble as she realized Tsukuyomi himself was making his way towards the main entrance. Cursing in her head for the poor timing she regained her footing and dragged her son to a stop.
"I'm sorry, Inari-chan, I really need to get back to the palace. I'm sure you can show me whatever it was in a bit, can't you?"
He opened his mouth to reply but was cut off as the roar of an explosion tore through the air.
Tsunami's attention was immediately captured, pulling her gaze back to what used to be the palace. It was still there, mostly, but the walls of the lower two floors had sustained major damage and already flickering orange flames greedily devoured everything they could at speeds that simply weren't normal.
Even without any expertise in that area, she could tell that the entire structure would soon collapse from the weight of the upper floors.
The second she spent staring at it- desperately trying to understand what had just happened- felt like an eternity. A tugging at her arm ended that eternity, the voice of her son reaching her ears over the crackling flames and the shouts from Wolf and civilian alike as they scrambled around the wreckage.
"Come on, mom, we need to get out of here!" He gave her arm another tug, dragging her half a meter or so as she stumbled to maintain her balance.
"Go?! We have to go help them, Inari!" She tugged her arm back. "We can't leave them like this."
"We're not going to get another chance, mom. We have to go. Now." She blinked in surprise at his tone. A glance at his face showed….very little. It was hard, like when he'd tried to be strong just after Kaiza's execution. It was a forced expressionlessness that never had suited him. Tsunami had little time to dwell on it, however, as her attention was soon caught by Itana and several of the other servant girls standing near the edge of the forest, laden with bulging packs and waiting anxiously as they stared in her direction.
Not in her direction.
And, suddenly, it all made sense.
Terrible, awful sense. She recoiled, almost unwilling- unable- to believe the conclusion she'd come to.
"Inari-" It came out as a whisper, forced out of her chest no matter how much she would have preferred to keep it buried deep within. "What have you done?!"
"What I had to." He tried to pull her towards the forest again and she resisted. His next attempt was much stronger and Tsunami could instantly recognize the influence of Chakra from her time training with Tayuya and Temari, both of whom had been within the palace when she left just minutes before. She countered almost instinctively, pumping what Chakra she'd cultivated into her body so that for a moment she was stronger than he was.
She couldn't maintain that long, but a moment was all she needed to free herself from his grip.
"No," She shook her head. "No, there's nothing about this that you had to do, Inari. What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that we traded one Gato for another, just foreigners coming in and stealing what's rightfully ours. Thinking they have a right to rule over the people who have lived here all their lives." Inari grit his teeth in frustration. This was supposed to be quick and easy, why wasn't she coming with him? "The sort of people who make slaves out of Nami's daughters and keep them locked away in the palace to serve them."
"Tsukuyomi and the Wolves saved those girls," Was her immediate refute. "From families willing to sell them." She waved one hand in the direction of Itana and her group. "And have you been hearing about it from them? I oversee all the girls in the palace, Itana and her friends are fed, clothed, provided shelter, and they don't actually do anything. And are you going to try to deny all the other good they've done for Nami? How much we've grown and lives have improved now that we have people like Hana looking out for its best interests because they want to see it flourish?"
"They want to see it flourish because that means they can take even more! Why don't you see that? They laid in wait with Gato, pretending to be something they weren't, and when the opportunity arrived they cut off his head! All they're doing now is fattening us up so there'll be more for them to feast on when they slaughter us!"
Tsunami found herself shaking her head in denial, unable to come to terms with the fact that her son could actually believe the filth spewing from his mouth. She worked with the Wolves every. Damn. Day. She knew they were people just like them- well, they were Shinobi so they were a little odd but she'd gotten used to their quirks for the most part- and she damn well knew Hana had been installed to ensure Nami would be taken care of even as the House of Wolves turned their attention elsewhere- which was exactly what they were doing!
While she may not be at every meeting of Naruto's inner circle- and, to be fair, neither was Naruto, actually- she did receive updates after the ones she missed and was well aware that before this latest conflict between Iwa and Konoha the Wolves had been working on projects in Yu no Kuni- where Mai currently was- and had even been contemplating some of the islands around the Kanashii Ocean for new outposts.
Tsunami was also privy to the knowledge that a majority of what the Wolves were doing these days was specifically to keep them occupied and out of trouble for Tsukuyomi's peace of mind. He could easily let them run wild here in Nami and no one could stop him but he was looking outwards for things to give them because he had absolutely no intention of harming Nami no Kuni.
Of course he didn't, why would he harm the country pulling in the funding he needed to support the massive family that was the House of Wolves? To Tsukuyomi and the Wolves, family was everything. For that reason alone she was absolutely confident that Nami was safe from the Wolves and that those Wolves would do everything in their power to keep it safe from everyone else, too.
Maybe her close working relationship gave her a better position to see all this from but there was no way someone from the outside couldn't see the fact that the Wolves wanted Nami to prosper because they were a part of Nami- so how could Inari have possibly misread the whole situation so badly? Was someone else giving him these absurd ideas?
"I don't know where you're getting these ideas, Inari, but you're wrong. Very wrong." She shook her head again. "And, even if you weren't, there's still no excuse for what you've done. There were civilians in that palace, people who have lived in Nami their whole lives. Apparently that's what's most important to you."
"They're working with Wolves." He spat. "They're traitors."
She reared back and glared down at him. "I'm working with the Wolves, Inari, and those men and women are public servants working for the betterment of Nami no Kuni- their home. If doing so under the rule of Tsukuyomi allows them to reach those goals then that's what they'll do and they'll do it happily because they. Love. Nami."
"No! Just….no." Her shoulders slumped under a sudden weight and she looked from the burning palace- a palace she had spent months making sure was ready for Tsukuyomi to inhabit- to the group of nervous servants and back to her son. "I love you, Inari, but I can't just stand aside while you try to undo all the hard work we've put into healing our home. Go. Leave with Itana and the others and never, ever, look back." Her gaze pierced through his eyes and into his soul. "Because if you even think to step foot into Nami after this the Wolves will kill you and I won't be able to do anything to save you."
"Go." He stood, rooted, and she snapped. "Go! Run! Get the hell out of here, Inari!"
For another second he hesitated before he spun around and dashed away to join up with the servant girls and the three academy students she'd seen him with the other day. Tsunami forced herself to tear her attention away from them, desperately praying they were already fleeing as she started back towards the palace but unable to bring herself to look.
Wolves were still swarming over the palace, charging into the flames and returning with whatever they could rescue from the lower floors while others on the upper floors remained tossing things from the windows to groups on the palace grounds.
Red hair caught her attention as she recognized Tayuya standing guard over Tsukuyomi who had been knocked back by the initial blast. From where Tsunami was he looked fine and his displeased expression only seemed to support that- he only ever had that particular scowl when he thought the Wolves were being too protective of him. Shizune at his side but doing nothing made that even more obvious but that didn't stop Gaara or the two Akatsuki defectors from joining Tayuya in her guard.
Tsunade had commandeered Shizune's team and was working on those injured during the blast- mostly civilians working in the public offices- while a woman who looked very much like her had practically wrapped herself around Naruto's back, unwilling to let him go.
She had the strangest suspicion that she was looking at Orochimaru but she couldn't explain why she had that feeling.
All in all, it looked like things were under control or as under control as they could be given the situation. Still, there had to be something she could do to help.
And something she could do to distract herself from thoughts of her son.
Well, she hadn't expected this when she had woken up this morning, that was for sure. Making sure she was standing well out of the way of the Wolves, Temari maintained a firm but gentle grip on a terrified Hinata Usagi so she wouldn't bolt away into Nami's forests. Karura would be absolutely heartbroken should that happen and Temari was rather fond of the sometimes absent-minded raccoon. Probably something to do with the fact that they shared a son….or the same husband. Who could really say?
And, ignoring the heartbreak, Karura would likely blame her for losing the rabbit she was taking care of to prove her abilities to Tsukuyomi. Losing the fluffy little thing was sure to have her failing- personally she thought the only reason Naruto wouldn't make an exception due to the palace being blown up was simply because then he could say the matter was closed and done with and wouldn't have to entrust any human lives to Karura's care. She couldn't really fault him for that, either- and Temari really didn't want to be the one blamed for Karura failing a task given to her by Tsukuyomi.
That was without factoring in the fact that Karura was a Biju, too. Temari wouldn't want the blame from another woman- Shizune or Guren, for instance- but to have a Biju with a grudge against her? There was absolutely no way she wanted anything to do with that, thank you.
Of course, right now that was one of the furthest things from her mind. With Gaara jumping out of the window before her, Temari hadn't hesitated to leave the palace as soon as the flames had begun and she'd wasted no time in distancing herself from the disaster. It wasn't like Naruto needed anyone else hovering around him- apparently he was just returning, he had some absolutely amazing timing- and she was hardly going to be able to protect him with a rabbit so she'd made sure she was close enough to be called upon if necessary but would otherwise not run the risk of impeding anyone doing actual work.
And it was because of that she had been close enough to notice the mistress of the palace and the woman's son have some sort of argument. She wasn't quite close enough to make out exactly what they were saying but it was obvious both were upset and she was able to make out enough to have a pretty good idea what was going on. Her suspicions only grew when the boy turned and ran to join up with a group including servants from the palace- servants who immediately fled from the palace carrying bulging packs that had to have been prepared ahead of time.
There really was only one conclusion that could be drawn.
Teal eyes narrowed and a scowl tugged at her lips. She didn't know why and she didn't particularly care, there was no excuse for what had been done. She glanced back over to Naruto, still surrounded by Wolves and the others he'd drawn to him over the years, and her scowl softened.
There was also no reason to trouble him with this, she decided, especially if it would end up casting doubt on Tsunami's trustworthiness. She watched the woman rush back to the palace and immediately take charge of the other servants, directing them to aid the Wolves in rescuing everything they could from the palace before it collapsed. No, she was still loyal but she was also a mother and Temari couldn't imagine she would turn her son in for what he- and, from the looks of it, his friends- had done.
That just meant Temari would have to take care of it herself, though perhaps the aid of a few Wolves wouldn't hurt.
'Let them run for a while,' She thought, her fingers gently stroking Hinata Usagi's fur to calm the creature. 'That's the only way they'll make for a half-decent hunt.'
She was confident there'd be no shortage of volunteers vying for the chance to go on a hunt, either, especially if she told the Wolves they were hunting the person behind this 'attack'. On second thought, perhaps she would save that for after the group had been decided. Otherwise she'd be forced to bring the entirety of the House of Wolves with her.
Keigo's already impressive scowl was only enhanced by the soot that brought out the contours of his face. The half-burnt uniform certainly didn't serve to make him any more approachable, either, and that was just fine by him. Considering how little time they'd been given the Wolves had managed to rescue an impressive amount of the upper floors.
The lower floors, where the initial explosion had originated, had been more or less a complete wash though he was proud to be able to say they had managed to get everybody out. Perhaps not entirely whole, but definitely still alive. That was a win as far as he was concerned.
Unfortunately the whole situation was still a loss. A major loss. They had obviously been far too lax if someone managed to set this up right under their noses and what made it even worse was that Tsukuyomi had just returned from Yu no Kuni. If the explosion had happened just a minute later he would have been in the center of it.
Sure, no one had died from the explosion of the resulting fire but that had not been easy to achieve and Shizune's team- the medical half of it, including the woman herself- was still working hard to keep the fatalities at zero. The fact that Tsukuyomi was very nearly in that same position as one of the casualties was completely unacceptable.
And to top it all off they were missing bodies.
The rubble around him shifted as one of the Wolves continued searching their section but that area had been checked five times already. All of it had. There were no remains and yet the headcount for palace occupants was still short. They'd even tracked down those who hadn't shown up for work today or who had finished and left earlier in the day. Everyone else was accounted for.
Except four. The public workers were easily the group with the best records- though many of those had been lost on the lower floors- and that group had been quickly accounted for. The Wolves, likewise, could say with absolute certainty that they weren't missing anyone because they all knew each other, mask or not. Tsukuyomi's guests were fine, thankfully, and the Daimyo himself hadn't quite reached the building when it had gone up in flames.
That just left one group.
Tsunami was still trying to organize the servants she oversaw and find somewhere to house them temporarily so they didn't have names yet but Keigo knew it had to be a group of servants missing and considering the lack of bodies he was confident in saying they were behind this, too.
He just couldn't figure out how. Their access within the building would allow them to arrange things, of that there was no doubt, but where had they managed to get any sort of explosive device? How had they set it off without getting caught in the blast? None of them had any Shinobi training as far as anybody knew so what had they used to achieve this?
….Did they have help?
Four servants was no big loss but if there were others here in Nami willing to actively work against Tsukuyomi then they had a massive problem and Naruto wasn't going to be safe here until it was solved. He might not think anything of it but Keigo, the Wolves, and his inner circle certainly did. They were going to have to move him somewhere safer for the time being. Ta no Kuni in one of the Oto outposts, back to Yu no Kuni, hell even Konoha would be preferable at the moment.
They just couldn't have him here if they couldn't keep him safe.
He was sure Naruto would be less than pleased to hear that, though, so he was going to have to get the big guns-
They needed Amaterasu.
There were, Naruto decided, far worse places to be. To be perfectly fair, there probably weren't many places that could be considered better. Orochimaru had assured him that her current body was an exact copy of Tsunade's, after all, and there were few men in the world who would not give anything to find themselves pressed between those legendary…assets.
Mostly Naruto just found himself thankful that he was currently able to breathe. For a while there that had been more than a little difficult and he remained pretty well convinced he had passed out once or twice from a lack of oxygen already.
Not that he could actually find it in him to complain- he was, in fact, a man- and Orochimaru was certainly due some Naruto time. Actually, Orochimaru was due for quite a lot of Naruto time. The other Orochimaru- Omaru- may have received some with his clone- assuming Mikoto gave her a chance- but this Orochimaru had gone without since he'd taken Sasuke's body. That had been…quite some time ago, he was sure. Naruto couldn't actually say how long it had been, he'd never really been good at keeping track of the passing time. His calendars could attest to that and things had only gotten worse after that month of utilizing three clones at once. When every day was three days, well, linear time became much less convincing.
Orochimaru's arms tightened again, pushing him deeper into the valley of her new breasts as the rest of her wrapped around him like a clingy octopus. He didn't think Aksishi could manage a tighter grasp even with her coils.
"I'm not going anywhere, Orochimaru." He tried to assure her. "You don't have to anchor me down."
"We almost lost you!" She briefly tightened her grip, which would have been impressive if he wasn't more focused on trying to breathe. "I almost lost you."
"They weren't targeting me." He rolled his eyes despite the fact that she wouldn't see it.
"We don't know that!"
"Well, let's put it this way, then- if they were targeting me we don't have anything to worry about because they're obviously very bad at it."
"That's not the point, if someone's trying to hurt you I have to make sure you stay safe!"
"...Is that just a complicated way of saying you're planning on staying with me all night? Because it's for my 'safety'?"
"...Maybe." He didn't have to see her face to know she was pouting. He rolled his eyes again.
"I figured you'd want to stay with me to break in your new body but if it's just for my safety I guess I don't have to go through the trouble…"
She released him immediately but even if he'd wanted to make a run for it he was quickly pinned to the bed by a weight pressing down on his hips.
In that case, it was probably a good thing he didn't have any desire to escape at all.
He didn't protest when his clothing was torn from his body but that was mostly because his lips were already occupied. When he did manage to break away for air minutes later he only managed to ask "So we are breaking you in today, then?" before she went back to trying to suck out his soul.
Perhaps Mikoto wasn't the only Succubus after all.
Sealkeeper: He Who Binds
Chapter 168-B "Blue Sails"
Patron Release 2022.12.12
Not for the first time- and certainly not for the last- Naruto found himself wondering just why the hell anyone thought he was the one in charge.
"I still think you're all overreacting." He commented as he was pushed into the train car. "They couldn't have known I was on my way back to Nami so it was just a coincidence. This wasn't a targeted attack." He paused in movement and in his speech, earning a more forceful push from Hana. "Well, it could have been targeted but they weren't targeting me. I don't know why you're all so worried."
Granted, his palace had just been burnt to the ground but Naruto secretly thought that was a good thing. Rebuilding it was a project that could keep his Wolves occupied for months and with the attack he could increase security to keep them busy that way, too.
He didn't think anything too important had been lost in the fire, considering the contents of his- and every member of his council? Circle? He probably needed to give them a name. Scratch that, he needed to get someone else to give them a name- office had been safely retrieved. Everything else was, for the most part, replaceable.
Well, excluding the records from the lower floors where the explosion had occurred. Those weren't replaceable and Naruto didn't think they had any duplicate records stashed anywhere which was definitely something to rectify going forward. The only silver lining there was that the majority of those lost records were only from after Gato had been removed so they hadn't lost too much. It would be a lot of work to reestablish it- and perhaps more than a little mediation- but new records could be created and, hopefully, maintained more safely in the future.
That wasn't really a Wolf job, either, they preferred physical tasks- such as rebuilding the palace- and the people of Hanahime, while more accepting of the rather extended royal house, could still be somewhat nervous when dealing with the masked Shinobi. No, that was definitely a job for the people on Hana's side. Speaking of which;
"Hana, don't forget to increase hiring for civil administrative work. We may lose some of your existing people who are spooked and we'll need more anyway to investigate the lost records. I don't know if your current team can manage current issues while revisiting all the work they've done- at least, not in a timely manner. More people should help keep things operating smoothly."
"Someone just blew up a building you were almost within," She all but growled. "No part of that is "safe" or "okay" or "acceptable" by any stretch!" Fully within the car she directed her force more downwards until he was seated. He didn't offer much resistance, probably because he knew she'd just recruit Shizune for help and he'd end up spending his spontaneous journey bound. "And stop worrying about my job when someone very nearly killed you!"
"But they didn't." Was his argument. Personally, he thought it was a pretty good one. Hana's answering growl- and she did, in fact, growl this time- told him she disagreed- strongly.
"Don't. Move." She ordered before turning and exiting the train car. Hana wasn't even gone a minute before she returned with Tayuya, Temari, and….Guren? Naruto blinked in surprise. How long had she been back in Nami?
The Oto Kunoichi obviously recognized the question on his face and provided an answer freely. "I received a summon from Orochimaru last night." She explained. "He said something about wanting more security for you after an incident."
"She." He idly corrected, not sure if Guren had a chance to meet with the Snake Sennin between being summoned and now. "And I thought I had you up at the Yu no Kuni outpost."
She gave a shrug as she was directed by Hana to sit beside him. "Not much going on at that outpost right now. Mostly it's been serving as Mikoto's den but she ran off hunting down Anko some time ago and I have no idea where either of them actually is."
That was news to him, he wondered how that hadn't come up at all. Then again, he'd been a bit busy traveling so perhaps no one had been given the opportunity to inform him. He did remember not having seen Anko but that was before his trip with Katsuri and Akishi and that was a rather long time for Anko to just be…gone.
The Inuzuka heiress rolled her eyes. "I'll send a team out to track them down."
"I'm mostly concerned with Anko but I have a feeling you'll probably find them together. Thanks."
"It's fine." Tayuya was placed on his other side and Hana turned her attention to Temari. "I don't want him getting up until he's across the border at the very least."
Temari understood exactly what she was getting at and happily straddled Naruto's lap, grinning down at him.
"Not that I don't appreciate the company," He stretched up to give Temari a quick kiss. "But I am a little concerned you can't even trust me to stay in the carriage of a moving train." Tayuya's pout was erased when he leaned over to give her a kiss too. "And I still don't see why I need to leave, either. Just set up a guard for me here in Hanahime and I'll be more than fine."
"We did set up a guard here in Hanahime,'' was Hana's counter as she gestured towards the three women she'd brought. "You're currently kissing them. And now your guard will escort you somewhere more secure. Somewhere you won't be blown up."
Naruto raised a brow. "In that case, why Yu no Kuni? I could hide in Konoha or Oni no Kuni just as easily."
"Oni no-?" Shaking her head, Hana dismissed it. She didn't know what he'd been up to over there and she probably didn't want to know. "You're not going to Konoha because we don't want to antagonize the Hokage when we already have someone trying to kill you-" She cut off his protest before it could leave his lips. "Orochimaru and Mai agree this may have been an assassination attempt so we're treating it as such- and I have no idea what you've been up to in Oni or what we have to work with there. Yu no Kuni is our best bet for keeping you safe."
"Okay." Hana frowned, her eyes narrowing, and knew there was more than simple acceptance. She was right. "...But why the palace of Yu no Kuni? Wouldn't the secret outpost be a better choice?"
"Oh, that's easy. We're putting you in the palace so Mai can keep an eye on you."
Seriously, who thought he was in charge around here?
One would think that Orochimaru, the man who desired to learn everything in the world, would keep meticulous records that were well organized and allowed one to quickly find whatever they wanted to know. Zetsu was discovering that wasn't the case, not at all.
Or, if it was, it certainly didn't apply to the outpost he was currently in. Hadn't been in the last two, either. With that sort of record building against him, Zetsu was starting to think all of the outposts were similarly lacking and disorganized. Well, there could still be one primary location where Orochimaru kept all his information in a more orderly state and it was just these secondary labs and outposts where the Snake Sage couldn't be bothered to put in the same sort of effort- he was only in these locations sporadically, if the plant-man recalled correctly, so that wasn't all that unlikely- leaving the libraries and offices as little more than disjointed piles of notes only relevant to the most recent experiments conducted or research pursued at the given location.
That also assumed these were Orochimaru's notes at all, too. The man had more than enough underlings that it was entirely possible he'd never stepped foot into some of his own laboratories. For those shut down for whatever reason- either discovery or colossal failures that threatened the structural integrity, Zetsu would bet- it was all but guaranteed he never would. It was a strange thought to Zetsu but he tended to find most of the things humans did strange anyway and for as insane as Orochimaru was there was no doubting he was still human.
For the moment, anyway. When it came to that serpent there was really no certainty he would remain that way. Zetsu might even be able to admire that trait if Orochimaru didn't currently serve as an obstacle- both minor and unknowing as that might be- to his own ambitions.
And it's not like Zetsu could just go ask someone for the information he needed, no, that would be too easy. For some reason no one- no one at all- spoke of what he was searching for either. It was absurd considering just how important it was. How could they go about with their little tests and theories when they- or some of them- were sitting on something like that.
No, this was proving much more difficult and costing him entirely too much time as of late- time he really couldn't spare.
He needed to find them and soon.
The response from Iroh had been less than enthusiastic, Mai thought, but it had been understanding. That was, perhaps, a better result than she had been expecting. After all, the Fire Daimyo didn't actually know her and it was no secret to Mai- or any member of the House of Wolves- that the Daimyo didn't entirely trust them.
To be fair, it was a wise stance to take.
Still, he had accepted the fact that Mai- or Amaterasu, rather- was moving a group of Wolves across southern Hi no Kuni to help shore up the defenses along the western border. With Hi no Kuni Samurai pulled back to secure central Hi no Kuni- the capital, in particular- and a Majority of Konoha's available forces up north to meet Iwa forces- the rest of them either in Konoha to maintain a level of security for the village or continuing to run missions to ensure a steady income for the village- the south-west lands of Hi no Kuni was rather lacking.
Iroh had obviously seen this- possibly when she mentioned that she would be moving forces to fill that gap or maybe he'd been aware beforehand- and was willing to accept the concentrated presence of an organized House of Wolves force in his land if it meant keeping others from taking advantage of the Konoha-Iwa conflict as a potent distraction.
As word reached them that Kumogakure had joined the battlefield- a rather unorthodox move that Mai couldn't honestly claim to understand the reasoning behind-she knew Iroh would only become more grateful that he wouldn't need to leave portions of his country entirely undefended if he wanted to relocate his forces to the northern border.
That would be a solid move if he was anticipating Kumo coming down through Shimo no Kuni and Yu no Kuni to attack the rest of Hi no Kuni from the north but Mai, currently sat in Yu no Kuni's capital and indirectly in control of the entire country, knew there were no Kumo Shinobi coming down that way.
Which did beg the question of what they were playing at.
It was not entirely impossible that they had joined in on a whim, a flash of lightning striking in an instant and then leaving only a rumble of thunder, as the impulsiveness of individual Kumo Shinobi was as infamous as Iwa's stubbornness and it would only take one Kumogakure Shinobi of sufficient rank and influence to incite other SHinobi to join in on the conflict that had erupted in north-western Hi no KUni.
But, at the same time, it was very unlikely. The rigid military structure of Kumo was designed specifically to keep those impulsive individuals in check until it was time to direct that drive towards an objective. The most important ability for any would-be Raikage was being able to control their forces with an iron grip because it was an absolute necessity to keep their village together. The discipline required to direct lightning was not innate to any person, it had to be trained and cultivated and, like any skill, it could still fall short of its practitioners' needs.
That's typically when the lightning ended up striking out but that didn't actually tell her what was going on in this case. Could Kumo really just be lashing out because they'd grown restless or were they up to something more? If Mai could see the opportunities presented by the Iwa-Konoha conflict she was certain the military minds of Kumogakure could see them too.
Would they really be able to resist them? She didn't think so, but she also didn't have anything to go off of except suspicion. For the time being she was going to have to wait until they either made a move- assuming there was a move to be made- or until she had more information on Kumo's movies.
Though, to be perfectly honest, Mai found she didn't much care.
Kumo wasn't her concern, not at the moment, and until it did something that might put the House of Wolves in danger it would remain that way. Of course, she still had to be aware of what they were up to so she could anticipate issues and have plans ready to go but that was a burden shared by most of Naruto's council. Or, at least, the more serious members. Sai, Keigo, Katsuri, and herself, mostly. Hana was always willing to offer input and assist them but her main focus remained on Nami- as it should- and Orochimaru could be a valuable, if fickle, resource.
What Mai couldn't have anticipated, however, was that Tsukuyomi's palace in Hanahime- well, just outside it- would be attacked. She also hadn't been able to anticipate the fact that Naruto would be there when it happened as most of her agents were among the WOlves she'd sent to Hi no Kuni or had been left in Nami to help Hana. Naruto had already shown he knew exactly who her favorites- those who were as loyal to her as they were to him- were and he tended to make a point to never utilize them for himself.
Whether that was to keep her from making use of their position to keep a better eye on him or because he wanted to make sure they remained available for her use elsewhere she actually couldn't say. Normally her opinion on that matter shifted depending on how frustrated she was with him at any given moment.
Either way, it meant she didn't know where he had gone or that he had been on his way back to Nami at all until she heard that there had been a violent explosion on the lower levels- moments before he'd reached the building.
She had not been pleased to hear that and while she did realize it was beyond unlikely he'd been specifically targeted for this attack- both because no one knew where he was and because if they were targeting him they were doing a really, really bad job of it- she'd jumped on the chance to call it an attempted assassination and ordered Hana and the others to get him out of Nami and back into Yu no Kuni.
She had been pleasantly surprised when Orochimaru- once again a woman- had backed her up in the 'belief' that Naruto was in danger. Mai was slightly less surprised when she learned it was because she'd used that narrative to justify 'protecting' Nami's Daimyo throughout the night. Still, it suited her purposes well enough and meant Naruto was on his way back to Nami where Mai could keep an eye on him and, with any luck, keep him out of trouble.
Not that she had much hope for that, trouble seemed dangerously obsessed with her lord.
Explosions ripped through her ranks with the whistle of Kunai and the sizzle of lit explosive notes. The Iwa Shinobi reacted instantly, throwing up earthen shelters for cover or slipping into the soft ground of the Hi no Kuni forest.
The Suna forces she'd recruited were not quite so fortunate. Lacking the defensive capabilities of Doton and at the front of the group they were hit first and the hardest. Those that survived the initial wave of attacks were simply lucky, either in that they were far enough away to escape unscathed or because they were close enough to Iwa Shinobi that they had likewise been covered by their earthen structures.
The former found themselves joining their fallen comrades with the second volley.
"I need eyes, damnit!" Kurotsuchi yelled over the blasts and the roaring flames that had begun devouring the trees around them. "Who the hell is it?!" Her scouts hadn't detected anything which was beyond worrying. Sure, they had been on the move- and not slowly- but they had been cautious and her scouting team could feel anything larger than a dog if it so much as landed on a tree and could feel just about anything that was directly on the earth.
So unless these fuckers could fly there should have been some sort of sign.
The other possibility, of course, was that their assailants were so skilled that her scouts simply couldn't detect them but that seemed very unlikely. Who the hell would be out here with that level of skill when the main conflict was up north? That didn't make any sense.
…Unless that group of Chūnin had another member they missed who managed to get word to someone she realized, growing worried. That would mean Konoha would more than likely be aware of what they were doing and that wasn't good at all. But how likely was that, really? They were still quite a distance from Konoha and it would take time to redirect Shinobi skilled enough to slip by her scouts completely undetected. Well, it took time if they didn't already have that sort of force in reserve. Were they holding back up north and just matching Iwa? That alone would imply they were expecting something like this which meant they could have been walking right into a trap this whole time.
There wouldn't be any movement for her scouts to feel through their Doton if they had already been here waiting! It suddenly made perfect sense- mostly.
She still didn't know how they had been found out in the first place.
"Who is it?!" She repeated as the third volley blasted away chunks of their cover. She could see Iwa Shinobi to either side of her trying to fan out with their Doton so they could reposition and get a better angle on their assailants but so far they'd been matched. She would have to thin the lines significantly in order to get around them, which was bad, and it also suggested that it was not a small group they'd run into, either, which was even worse.
The echoes of the blasts had yet to die when the sounds of blade and flesh reached her ears. It was only for a moment, though, because a sea of flame quickly drowned those out too.
A figure slipped behind her cover, moving with speed she could only barely keep up with, and immediately went after the Shinobi who had constructed the Doton shelter.
She recognized them immediately.
'Of course it would be them.' Teeth threatened to crack from the pressure of her frustration. Kurotsuchi hadn't planned on the Wolves- hadn't even considered it- and neither had the Tsuchikage as far as she was aware. Until this moment she had completely forgotten about their existence at all. And why wouldn't she? They weren't a part of Hi no Kuni. They weren't Konoha. They didn't cross Nami no Kuni on their path towards Kagayaku Machi.
As far as they were concerned the House of Wolves had been a non-factor.
But perhaps the Fire Daimyo had been more proactive than they had expected, reaching out to allies before he was even in any danger. After his response to the Wolves taking the initiative to prepare for Suna's invasion attempt- which was accepting but far from pleased and more than a little suspicious- it seemed to the Earth Daimyo that his contemporary would hesitate to invite the House of Wolves to aid him. It made sense, why would the Fire Daimyo admit to and show his weakness? More, why would he then trust the House of Wolves to cover that weakness?
After their actions in Nami- the actions that won them Nami- he should have known the danger that posed.
And yet it seemed to be working out for him.
She allowed herself to fall back into a half-step as she spun around and darted away, keen on placing distance between herself and the attacking Wolves. Glad that she was dressed similarly to her forces, she took a moment to observe the situation.
Fire was the first thing to catch her attention because it was everywhere. Obviously caring little for the forests of the allied country, the Wolves were being exceedingly liberal with Katon Jutsu- she thought she vaguely recognized that from their study of Suna's failed invasion and it was, perhaps, the only Jutsu the Wolves were known to use- which made it slightly difficult to keep track of their attackers.
The next thing she realized was that there really weren't all that many Wolves, not when compared to her own forces. Three dozen, maybe, but no more. And yet it felt like they were under attack from a much larger force, something no doubt helped by the confusion and the raging fires.
She could only take so much comfort from that fact, though, because at a glance she could recognize that the Wolves were on the same level as Iwa's best. If rumors were to be believed, they were the equivalent of Konoha's ANBU which was, quite frankly, a terrifying thing to consider when Nami was supposed to be a minor country without a village.
Of course those same rumors hinted that the Wolves were Konoha ANBU or, at least, had been at some point before Tsukuyomi had seduced them over into his own services. That, if true, was probably more frightening not because of the Wolves but because there'd been someone capable of subverting the loyalty of so many highly-trained Shinobi away from a major village.
Was it just something about Konoha and her people that facilitated it or was it something that could be turned against their own forces if he looked towards Iwa for new Wolves?
And he would need new Wolves if Kurotsuchi had anything to say about it.
Her foot slammed into the ground as she reached a more comfortable distance and a raised earthen path trailed to where she had been only a second before like a tiny spine of mountain ridges before exploding into jagged spikes just under the Wolf who was occupied with one of her men.
-But not soon enough.
Over the sound of battle and the hungry flames greedily devouring the forest around them it wasn't really possible to hear anything else.
Even so, she could have sworn she heard the ripping of flesh as the Wolve's entire right arm was shaved away nearly to his shoulder. She had to give credit where it was due when he reached down to remove a smaller spike from his thigh and immediately charged right back into the fray using it like a dagger without the slightest bit of hesitation.
That was the sort of stubbornness an Iwa Kunoichi could appreciate.
As the rest of her forces found their bearings- or found themselves relieved of their duty as Iwa Shinobi permanently- they began acting in sync to defend and protect, molding the very earth at their feet into protective structures that served as platforms for their comrades to launch their own attacks.
And the Wolves, while stubborn enough, showed they weren't stupid when they slipped back into the forests as if they had never been there. She didn't know how many they had managed to wound or kill but they hadn't left anyone behind.
In fact, the only thing they had left in their wake- ignoring the bodies of proud Iwa Shinobi- was the raging inferno that had resulted from their Katon techniques.
An inferno, Kurotsuchi realized, she was going to have to take the time to get under control so they could continue pushing towards Kagayaku Machi. Time the Wolves could use to regroup and ready themselves for another attack.
Black eyes narrowed, reflecting the orange hues of the flame.
Stubborn and resourceful, that was dangerous. She was starting to understand just how much trouble the House of Wolves could be.
It certainly explained why Kiri was nothing but ash and rubble at the moment.
Akatsuchi had no idea how much his thoughts resembled those of his Hi no Kuni reflection when Genma had first been faced with Iwa's forces. But his thoughts had nothing to do with Konoha, not really.
No, he was much more concerned with the sudden unexpected appearance of Kumogakure Shinobi on the battlefield. That had…not been planned. Or expected. Or even been a vague possibility to consider. Kumo and Konoha were not allies- had never been allies- and there was no chance that they would come to Konoha's aid.
And they hadn't. Instead they'd come in as an entirely separate part of the war attacking both Konoha and Iwa.
It didn't make any sense at all. Why would Kumo act out against both of them at the same time? There was no benefit to the strategy that Akatsuchi could comprehend- and maybe, for his mental wellbeing, he didn't want to be able to comprehend it- and there was something decidedly off about the Kumo forces who had attacked.
Most notably their numbers.
Iwa had halved the forces they were willing to commit to this and sent one portion to draw attention while the other flanked.
Konoha had sent everything they could spare without risking their own protection and daily operations to meet with Iwa's distractionary forces and attempt to uproot them from the surrounding minor villages.
That all made perfect sense to Akatsuchi. He even knew Konoha would have been watching for a second force which is why it had been planned to draw out the conflict for so long and allow Kurotsuchi to try drawing support from Suna. Konoha would end up dropping its guard in areas with no conflict after failing to find anything for a while, allowing what they had been looking for to sneak past them.
In theory, at least, but he didn't think Kurotsuchi had been discovered quite yet so they would have to continue with that plan until something did end up going wrong.
Or until they exceeded. With how strange the situation was becoming, maybe it wasn't all that unlikely that their plan would actually go through as expected. Of course, with his luck Akatsuchi also figured that the situation would end up changing so drastically from their original plans that when Kurotsuchi's part went off without a hitch it would probably cause more issues than anything else but he'd have to wait and see.
So that accounted for Konoha and Iwa but Kumo? Kumo had brought even less than Iwa to the conflict- was it a war yet? He felt like someone should have officially declared it a war by now- and yet was trying to take on both Konoha and Iwa. They also didn't have the home benefit of Konoha or the easy retreats Iwa's Doton gave them.
In fact, the only thing Kumo had going for them- beyond the unexpected entrance- was coverage near Taki's border where Iwa had been too occupied by Taki's attempts to regain control over their capital and protect their Daimyo to notice Kumo's approach. Taki was, perhaps unknowingly, shielding them from direct attack by Iwa forces but did nothing to block anything from Konoha.
It had drawn some of Konoha's attention off from Akatsuchi, though, which made it more likely that they would remain entrenched here until Kurotsuchi's forces managed to strike at Hi no Kuni's heart- the Fire Daimyo.
Hopefully cutting them off from their wallet would have Konoha's Will of Fire dampened before his half-cousin continued north to join the conflict properly.
Hmm, now that he thought about it, Kumo's addition had an additional benefit, too. If they joined on the west border they could push Konoha towards the Kumo forces. Even if they wanted to retreat because they weren't receiving financial support they wouldn't be able to avoid Kumo forces and Iwa wouldn't have to track them down as they moved in to secure Hi no Kuni.
He still had a bad feeling about everything, though, and he just couldn't shake it.
They were missing something.
Dark blue sails caught the wind and proudly displayed the yellow clouds of Kumogakure. There was no point in trying to hide who they were, by the time they were seen it would be too late.
While the option to join with Iwa's attempt certainly had merit, Ay had seen a much better opportunity. One that didn't involve trying to go against the financial might that was the Hi no Kuni - Nami no Kuni alliance. He might not care for it but he understood the sort of strength money could offer, especially on a global scale where logistics made and broke entire armies.
So they wouldn't even attempt it.
Hi no Kuni controlled vast swaths of the southern half of the continent through physical occupation and alliances so Kumogakure would just have to expand Kiminari no Kuni influence across the northern portions.
And it just so happens that Tsuchi no Kuni would be an excellent place to start. It was rather fortunate their forces were currently occupied with conflicts outside their home country. By the time Iwa realized what was going on they would have no hope of disengaging from Konoha and reaching their village before Kumo had established control.
From the deck of the lead vessel Ay took a deep breath of the salty air of the Gaisu Bay and grinned.
The smell of salt always reminded him of war.
He loved it.
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