Chapter 81 - Elegy of the Sinner

Itachi the Prodigy. Itachi the Uchiha Clan Heir. Itachi the Traitor. Itachi the Kinslayer. Itachi the S-rank Missing-nin. Itachi the Spy. Itachi the Brother. Itachi the …

"Uchiha Itachi," Kabuto addressed him with a voice full of fascination when Itachi blew apart the cover to his hideout. For a second, Itachi wondered - as he often had to wonder - who or what was Kabuto calling out to exactly.

Pieces of snakes slid down Itachi's sword. With a flick of his wrist, all the slimy remains got splattered on the stone walls of the dimly lit cave. The sound made the hooded figure stir in the shadow and immediately, Itachi knew that Kabuto had already closed off his sight.

"I've got a coffin with your name on it." Itachi wondered how long it took for Kabuto to come up with that one, but at least he looked proud as he tilted his head, revealing his face behind the hood.

Pale and scaly skin that was a characteristic of Orochimaru's body modification now replaced Kabuto's old skin tone. A dull, glassy film covered his unfocused pupil, making him look even more bizarre and lifeless.

"Why so quiet? What happened to all your skills with words? You must know that Edo Tensei can only be released by its summoner." Without moving his eyes, Kabuto flicked his fingers, and a snake as thick as Itachi's waist burst through the ground, pouncing right at Itachi while baring its fang.

Itachi remained nimble with his feet, dodging the first strike with ease before the snake twisted its body and encircled him. A handful of shuriken danced around him, pulling the wires around the giant snake faster than normal eyes would see.

Itachi pulled the ninja wires taut, forcing the snake away from him. The metallic lines stretched against the snake's tough scales but were unable to break through the surface.

With an angry hiss, the gray snake writhed against the restraints. Just before the shuriken etched into the stone walls were about to be pulled loose, Itachi sent a jolt of lightning down the strings and the snake was blasted back in a surge of electricity.

Without stopping, Itachi gathered fire chakra in his throat and blew out a dozen Hōsenka fireballs, sending them into the hordes of snakes that emerged all around the cave. Stray fireballs crashed against the stone walls, breaking apart rocks as some debris fell on Kabuto.

"I'd be careful with your attacks if you don't want to accidentally kill me before Edo Tensei is released." Kabuto had the energy to complain as the fallen rocks cut into his shoulder.

"I doubt you'd die that easily," Itachi replied as he watched Kabuto's arm go limp and then regained its fleshy texture all in the span of a few seconds.

Snakes swarmed in the tight space, slithering over the burnt flesh and ashes of their predecessors without care. Despite being surrounded, Itachi could now feel more clearly that the greed and hunger these creatures had were not directed only towards him.

Even that little display of snake ninjutsu was merely an invitation, and it wasn't for Itachi who was already stuck in the game. No, it was an invitation - more like a show-off, screaming out 'I'm better than you' - for someone else.

A bubble of agitation was popped in the corner, where the snakes parted ways to reveal one of Kabuto's gray snakes biting into a smaller white snake. Its fang dug into the white serpent, quickly overpowering its victim before the smaller snake drew the last breath. However, before the gray snake could even raise its body with arrogance, a horde of white snakes zoomed past the air and tore it into pieces.

Orochimaru slipped out of the shadow, the snakes that materialized out of his sleeves were still swarming as they swallowed the remains of the gray snake.

"While much of research is about standing on the shoulders of those that came before, too much copying doesn't make you seem so innovative," Orochimaru said as the snakes in his sleeves quieted down and reshaped into his hand.

"Copying?" Kabuto laughed when he heard that. But the laughter quickly died down as Kabuto peeled the hood off of his head.

For a second, Itachi felt the rise in pressure as if all the energy in the cave converged towards the gray-haired man. Kabuto's skin seemed to ripple as the shapes of scales became more defined and reptile-like. A thick purple band appeared across his shielded eyes as white horns started to grow out of his head.

No doubt, this was senjutsu passed down from Ryūchi Cave, privy to only those who had gained favours of the Sage Snake and were worthy of the cruel power in both the mind and the body - criteria that weeded out even Orochimaru.

"Don't make me laugh, Orochimaru. I have already surpassed you." Kabuto spat out, but his tone quickly switched from contempt to mockery. "But I do revere you as my senior, so I don't mind sparing you Itachi's body as your new vessel."

Kabuto made it sound as if it was such mercy for him to spare Itachi's remains from the fate of Edo Tensei. But more than Itachi, it was Orochimaru's nerves that he was stepping on.

"I do love an Uchiha vessel, but I think you owe me more than that." There was a pause as Orochimaru observed Kabuto's current state, transformed by the Natural Energy that despite his numerous attempts in acquiring it, still precluded him.

But this was Orochimaru, who remained alive and kicking despite gathering hatred with his every action. Orochimaru stretched the corner of his lips as he mocked back, "Gluttony is not a desirable trait for predators like snakes. If they chew more than they can digest, maybe they'll even explode from the inside."

Kabuto's body suddenly tensed up as a wave of energy washed off of his body and rippled through the air, but it wasn't because of Orochimaru's words. Rather, Kabuto snapped his attention towards Itachi while ripping apart a genjutsu that was crawling over his skin.

Itachi didn't stick around when retribution followed in the form of the tumbling cave itself. Spikes of stones protruded out of the walls with a speed and agility that no normal Earth Release could reach. Despite his fast reaction using sharingan, a stone protrusion grazed past his thigh just before he could flicker away, leaving a bloodied claw mark.

The danger was far from over, as the ground caved inward the moment Itachi landed, latching onto him like quicksand. The fluidity of the earth presented a sharp contrast to the hardness of the material, binding Itachi with crushing pressure on his ankles.

"Itachi, it seems that you don't understand the situation. In Sage Mode, I sense everything, I feel everything, and I control everything in this cave. The genjutsu that you pride yourself on is like a badly painted mask, fake and useless from the start." Kabuto's words seemed to reverberate in the air as the entrance to the cave closed on his command, snuffing out the last bit of light that seeped through the cave.

Lightning gathered on Itachi's sword - a trick that he had learned from Maiko and Sasuke - as he swiped the blade across the ground. The explosive electricity bounced into the earth and forcibly shattered the restraining force, allowing Itachi to escape once more before rows of earth spikes could pierce him.

The flashing lightning lit up the cave for a second, catching Orochimaru as he popped up behind Kabuto from a slurry of mud. He opened his mouth and a sword flew out of his throat, right towards Kabuto's neck.

Kabuto shook his head as if he was mocking the useless attempt. In the blink of an eye, ash-coloured bones broke through his skin and clothes and skewered Orochimaru.

Orochimaru gagged as his neck was pierced through by a curving bone, but a horde of snakes continued to swarm out of his mouth, forming a shield of moving reptiles, distracting Kabuto enough for the Snake Sannin to melt into the ground and remerge in the distance.

For a brief second, Itachi and Orochimaru met each other's eyes and two things became clear.

One, the enemy of thy enemy was not thy friend. There was no teamwork, no comradeship between them whatsoever. Orochimaru thought of him as a tool and it was the same for Itachi. if Itachi were to be heavily injured, then Orochimaru would not save him, for his death meant nothing to Orochimaru other than a distraction to be used for his advantage.

Two, despite the power-up Kabuto was showing them, the use-or-be-used relationship between them would not be improved, not even a little. When the trust was unrealistic, then perhaps it was best not to expect it in the first place.

"How does it feel to watch me achieve things you can never do?" Kabuto said with haughtiness as the ashen bones retracted back into his body. The cape was all but a rag cloth now, so he pulled the fabric off, revealing his body covered in white scales.

"You collected talented, unusual shinobi around you, but you're too afraid to take their abilities. The purity of the samples, the inferiority of the abilities, those are all just excuses for your incompetence." If it were Itachi who was being taunted, he would just remain silent. But for Orochimaru who used to do the taunting, the silence was never an option.

"If that's all you can do after stealing all my research and experimental samples from Kimimaro, then …" The way Orochimaru feigned the pity in his voice was disturbing, "... only the unimaginative cover themselves up with the addition of inferior parts."

Bones protruded out of Kabuto's palm before he threw them toward Itachi and Orochimaru in quick succession. At the same time, the walls swelled up in an attempt to trap Itachi. Without a pause, Itachi blew out a fire dragon, letting the chain of flame curve around him and slap away converging rocks.

The orange flame burned in front of Itachi's eyes, lighting up his pupils just as half a dozen daggers made of bones broke through the blazing veils and cut into his body.

Itachi fumbled backwards as his body dispersed into a flock of crows. The birds cawed and screeched as they crossed the burning fire, adding even more cacophony to the echoing cave.

The crows flew towards Kabuto as their sharp beaks gleamed in the glow of the fire, weaving a pressuring scene where a blanket of black swirled and mingled together, ever-shifting, ever-changing. The flight of the birds stormed through Kabuto, some phased through his body like an afterimage, but others slashed open his skin with no mercy.

But the confusion never reached Kabuto, for he slapped his hand down to the ground and stood unflinching. The deep cuts made by the phantoms of crows looked as if they were being stitched back together, starting from the tissue just above the bones, to the muscle layer, and finally, the skin smoothed over as if nothing had ever happened.

A splash of blood painted the ground red as a piece of bone, now dyed with a crimson coating, landed next to Itachi's feet. The dagger of bone was spat out by the stone wall behind Itachi just as Kabuto shredded the veil of genjutsu Itachi used to hide his presence.

Soon, the metallic scent of the blood floated in the entire cave. Like a whiff of weakness, it attracted all kinds of predators.

"I told you many times that I can sense everything, Itachi. You won't be fooling me with your lacklustre genjutsu—" Kabuto's words were cut off, but not by Itachi. Instead, the Sword of Kusanagi pierced through the air and Itachi barely got the time to get out of the way as the blade zoomed past his face and stabbed into Kabuto.

Orochimaru pushed Kabuto back and slammed him into the wall. Quickly, the Snake Sannin followed up with a wave of piercing wind blades. Itachi ignored the blood dripping down his face and released a fire jutsu of his own.

Fire blazed up as it met the swirling wind and the resulting firestorm engulfed Kabuto, cutting into his body and searing his flesh.

Itachi spared Orochimaru a look full of warning, who returned a grin of nonchalance. If Itachi didn't get out of the way earlier, then he wouldn't mind letting the Sword of Kusanagi pierce them both.

Smoke crowded the stagnant air while the smell of burnt flesh mingled with the metallic taste. But to Itachi, the real mess here was the chakra signature left behind, dispersed around the entire cave, like how the spider web looked to the prey caught by its thread. There was no sense of direction, only a death trap where the predator could be lurking at every corner.

Four giant snakes rose from where Kabuto used to be. Their eyes glistened in the darkness before they dived down towards Itachi. With a roll to the side, Itachi narrowly avoided the fangs and the fallen debris that came from the wreckage.

Itachi clasped his fingers together and formed a hand seal. Soon, the mist started to rise from the ground, filling up the cave with an opaque layer of silk. Itachi let the chilling mist lick the wound on his arm, soaking in the blood that continued to flow down his skin.

The blend of Itachi's chakra and blood dyed the mist a tint of red, both obnoxious and intoxicating at the same time.

For a moment, the snakes looked lost as their senses got overwhelmed by Itachi's signature and scent that seemed to be everywhere all at once. Itachi used that moment to feel - to sense where the genjutsu that he layered in the mist would be ripped apart because Kabuto wouldn't stand for the mockery as Itachi continued to try for things that wouldn't work.

His genjutsu rippled … right behind him.

Itachi heard the movement of the water first before he turned and brought his sword down. His blade met little resistance when he sliced into Kabuto's torso because his flesh seemed to liquefy around Itachi's weapon.

"Orochimaru has a test subject - a boy from the Hōzuki Clan that can liquefy his body," Kabuto explained as he grabbed Itachi's sword and kicked forward. Just one strike sent Itachi back a few steps as he felt his arm going numb from the reverberating force. "Am I not doing Konoha a service by raiding Orochimaru's bases, even making disruptions that allow those poor human subjects to escape?"

"You speak as if you didn't do the same thing," Itachi replied, sending a batch of shuriken forward. If the ability came from the Hōzuki Clan, then that made things easier. Kabuto let the shuriken pass through him unharmed, only to see one with the sizzling electricity to be hidden in the shadows of another. Immediately, snakes swarmed out of his body to take the hit for him.

Fire chakra burned in Itachi's throat before he released it all in a giant fireball. A white snake broke out of the ground as well, biting into Kabuto, injecting a current of lightning through its fangs, preventing Kabuto from liquefying his body.

But at the last moment, the cave itself reacted to protect its master. Spikes of earth rose from Kabuto's feet, crushing Orochimaru's snake before they reformed into a shield in front of the fireball.

Itachi rushed in, determined to follow up with more attacks when Kabuto could still be tracked. "Sage Art: Hakugeki no Jutsu." Itachi heard Kabuto whispering from behind the shield before a glowing dragon flew to the air above, coiling around an orb clutched in its front claw.

The orb burned in Itachi's Sharingan, signifying a massive reservoir of energy. Instinct took over as Itachi halted his step and closed his eyes, just before the orb erupted in a blinding white light and a deafening noise.

For a second, Itachi felt as if his brain was being pounded in as pressure overwhelmed his senses. The darkness in his vision was a sharp contrast to every other sensation that assaulted his body.

Itachi felt the ground shaking, but he couldn't hear or see anything. Indecisiveness was fatal, so without any hesitation, he let the orange-red skeleton expand around him, alleviating the vibration in the air, just enough for the sound to be decipherable again.

"How long can you use your Mangekyou, after using it on your clansmen?" Blood clogged in Itachi's throat when he felt stone pillars punching into the Susanoo, but he still caught the noisy whispers from Kabuto.

Without answering a word, the orange giant slapped its bony finger down, but the feedback told Itachi that he didn't hit anything. Ignoring the rapidly depleting chakra in his body, Itachi thickened the bloody mist that had all been dissipated due to the earlier turmoil.

"I pity your stubbornness, really," Kabuto said again, his distorted voice barely reaching Itachi. "We're so similar, having to be so many things that in the end, we become no one."

Itachi took another swing with the Susanoo, only to come up empty again - no, not empty. It was the correct position, but Kabuto just reacted too fast, liquefying his body just before the hit could reach him.

"Those facades that you struggle to maintain, those identities that you force yourself to conform to even with your broken body, I was familiar with them too when I was still a spy for Konoha. But in the end, they took away everything I was, and I became nothing." The mass of liquid reconverged, forming coils of snakes that latched onto Susanoo's hand, pinning it in place as Itachi pulled back with force.

"Only by becoming stronger can you take back what is taken from you. Edo Tensei is the answer for you, Itachi. You'll be free from your disease and you'll be free from the demands of your past. You'll become one of my greatest Edo Tensei summons - second only to a singularity, but height above others—"

Itachi answered by releasing the pulling force on Susanoo's fist. The recoil sent the bony hand forward before crashing against the stone walls. Debris fell down all around Kabuto, bashing into his snakes and sealing his exits.

His body started to melt away, but a stream of lightning interrupted his movement, coming from the direction of Orochimaru as he crawled out of his old battered skin. Susanoo's other hand crashed down accordingly, punching Kabuto's body into a crater made on the ground.

The painful noises that ransacked Itachi's senses finally stopped, and Itachi couldn't help but spat out the mouthful of blood in his throat. The orange-red chakra shimmered around him before finally fading away. Without pausing, the mist carried away the blood splatters on the ground and absorbed the thick droplets of blood that rolled down Itachi's eyes.

Most things in this world followed the rule of conservation. As Itachi mixed more of his blood with the mist, diluting the bloody scent on himself and thickening the scent carried by the mist, there would inevitably be less left in his body to support his own circulation.

Likewise, the more Itachi tried to become something else - a traitor, a missing-nin, an unforgivable evil - the less of what made up of himself - of 'Itachi' - remained.

He used to think that the only way he could complete his objective - his only objective after giving up everything else … family, reputation, home, even his life - was to become a pure symbol of hate and revenge.

Itachi must become a shell, harbouring only what needed to be seen by others. Otherwise, the love and truth buried inside would leak out and destroy everything.

Perhaps Kabuto was right, Itachi was indeed struggling with regaining a sense of self, for it was so easy to slip into a mask, to be the perfect imitation of what he needed to become, even a 'brother'.

Huh, no wonder Maiko and Sasuke had a constant sense of insecurity towards him.

But as Kabuto decided to fill the void of oneself by taking others' powers and gaining a sense of superiority and control, Itachi chose something else.

Itachi chose to remain imperfect.

A dragon made of fire left Itachi's mouth, but it wasn't directed towards Kabuto who lay in the rubbles with broken bones all over his body. Instead, the fire dragon circled protectively over Kabuto, fending off Orochimaru who had opened his jaw wide, eager to swallow Kabuto when he was weakened.

"Itachi," Orochimaru hissed with a warning, his snake-like features stared at Itachi as if he would like to swallow him whole as well.

"I need him alive and be himself," Itachi replied without flinching, but with a flick of his wrist, the fire dragon turned and crashed into Kabuto without a stop. Despite that, all Itachi managed to burn was a layer of shed skin as the newly regenerated Kabuto slithered into the ground.

"You'll regret your arrogance, Itachi." Kabuto's voice echoed in the cave as if it was transmitted by every rock around them. The mist carrying Itachi's blood and chakra condensed into droplets of liquid on the surface of the cave, rolling down and hitting the ground, creating a rhythmic symphony.

He sensed the movement of the wall behind him through the layer of condensed water. A second later, the rocks protruded out, stabbing into Itachi from various directions. Itachi managed to dodge a few of them as lightning gathered on his blade. With a wide swing, Itachi broke the spike that was aiming for his face.

The electricity crackled in the air, painting the blood-tinted mist a pale hue of violet. But just then, a snake hidden in the tip of the broken earth pillar pounced forward, encircling Itachi's ankle before biting down.

What followed the initial pain was a numbing weakness. Itachi felt strength being lost in his foot as the snake dragged him down, rooting him in place for the next act, which arrived shortly when Kabuto morphed out of the stone pillar that Itachi dodged earlier.

A dagger of bone grew out of Kabuto's hand as he stabbed forward. "Game over, Itachi," Kabuto whispered as the tip of the ashen bone dug into Itachi's chest. Just then, surprise rose in Kabuto's face when a blade shot toward them.

Orochimaru's body was nearly bisected as Kabuto's giant snake snapped his jaw around his waist. Despite the injury, Orochimaru used the attack on Itachi and Kabuto, not to ambush Kabuto either, but to push the dagger of bone to the side, away from Itachi's heart.

Orochimaru didn't care to save Itachi's life unless Itachi's next action would amount to something that would greatly benefit him.

Despite the numbing sensation on his right leg, Itachi slid forward, catching the moment when Kabuto's stance was open and breaching into his space. Streams of wind chakra gathered on Itachi's shuriken, making a shrieking sound as the air currents clashed with each other.

Feeling the impending danger, Kabuto quickly stepped back to regain some distance between himself and Itachi. But the shuriken left Itachi's hand without an ounce of unsteadiness. It sounded as if the air was wailing when the wind-blade shuriken sliced across Kabuto's face, cutting deep into his eyes.

As Itachi had observed before, Kabuto's regeneration started from the inside, healing and regenerating the functions of the inner tissues before moving onto the surface-level skins. So, when Kabuto's eyeballs were shredded open, the regeneration would inevitably start with healing the optical machinery, before regenerating the ocular scale that covered his vision.

That moment of sight was inevitable.

Itachi let the ebony crow manifest from his collar. The crow cawed as its left eye swirled into Shisui's Mangekyou, adding to the sound of condensed water dripping down from the walls. The thick metallic scent in the air was still obnoxiously nauseating and the chilling sensation of the mist made his skin crawl.

But all the sensations, the touch, the smell, the sound … they all melted together as the blood-red Mangekyou swirled everything into one suffocating mess.

Kabuto knew exactly what Itachi wanted when the wind-infused shuriken shredded his eyes and made him feel enough pain that he wanted to blow up this entire cave just to bury Itachi inside.

Everybody wanted to see the light - to be bathed in light. But the light was never a path meant for Kabuto, so he dwelled in darkness and made sure that he would become the king in this blackened domain.

He thought he didn't need the sight - he had evolved above that - but when the scenery of the rocky cave lit in dim light arrived in his brain, not in the form of chakra signature, but as a map drawn by his optical nerves, he still felt a sense of longing as the unfamiliar sense returned to him.

Of course, what laid behind every shrub of luscious plants was always a venomous snake.

The pattern of Uchiha Shisui's Mangekyou carved in the crow's left eye made Kabuto want to turn around and avert his gaze immediately. But sight was often deceptive and Kabuto trusted his senjutsu much more.

The entire cave was under his control, telling him that Itachi was waiting for that moment of panic from Kabuto when he saw the famed Kotoamatsukami, ready to capture Kabuto in a Mangekyou technique of his own.

Yes, Kabuto knew that Kotoamatsukami was most likely a bluff by Itachi. Tobi warned about the possibility of such jutsu in Itachi's possession, telling him to be wary even though the transplanted Mangekyou would have a cooldown on the scale of years and reduced effects. But that was before the news of Kisame's traitorous allegiance - very much alive and wreaking havoc on the Zetsu army at the Kiri battlefront - reached him.

Kabuto thought that turning Kisame against Akatsuki was quite a miraculous move for Itachi. Daring too, for it contained a risk that contradicted Itachi's meticulous scheming. But with Kotoamatsukami, it all made sense.

The layer of genjutsu Itachi drawn up to hide his own presence was pitiful, like a terrible student who just couldn't understand that he wasn't improving. So Kabuto did what a teacher was meant to do, to teach a lesson.

Bones protruded out of Kabuto's back as a burst of Natural Energy shredded Itachi's disguise. Itachi widened his eyes in shock as the sea of bones stabbed into his flesh, but he quickly composed himself and refocused his right eye on Kabuto.

Even Kabuto had to be wary of Amaterasu, knowing that the black flame could incapacitate his body even without taking away his life. But instead of dodging, Kabuto had a different idea - a more interesting idea.

The cave twisted and turned, shifting around Kabuto and Itachi as the latter tried to follow his location with intense focus. But what landed in his pupil when the black flame erupted, was none other than Orochimaru.

"Itachi, you—" His old master cursed with indignation as his newly regenerated body, fresh after yet another shedding - what a loser that only runs away - was consumed by Amaterasu.

"Don't feel bad, he would have backstabbed you anyway." Kabuto spared a phrase to Itachi, who was coughing violently, a clear sign of his body breaking down after extensive Mangekyou usage.

The past was like a dagger, able to rip through the toughest disguise. Perhaps the outcome of this battle would have been different if Itachi didn't waste all his Mangekyou power on the reanimated Uchiha, using something as sacred as the Sword of Tostuka on pawns sent to wear him down.

But those who couldn't move beyond the past were meant to be discarded.

Finally, the brille regenerated, closing the only window Itachi had on defeating Kabuto.

Bukijutsu, Uchiha Fire Releases, lightning, wind, water … Itachi was indeed a genius, one with talents blessed by the Gods, only to be locked in a body mired down by disease and misfortune.

The more Itachi struggled using every attack he could think of, the more excited Kabuto got, just thinking about what a masterpiece he would have been when he was reborn using Edo Tensei.

So just give up and surrender your power to me. End your miserable life full of masks and lies, and let me take back what we deserved from Konoha - from the Shinobi world - for both of us.

It was like music to Kabuto's ear when blood spilled out of Itachi's chest as a stone pillar stabbed through his body. The bloody mist that Itachi put up earlier to disrupt his sensing was all but gone now as its owner lost the chakra to support the jutsu, so the metallic scent was particularly pungent as blood dyed the rocks red and pooled by Kabuto's feet.

"... You can't fill the void in you by taking things from others." As expected, even at his last moments, Itachi couldn't scrap his condescending tone. "Only values produced from accepting oneself won't be depleted by time—"

Kabuto dug his fingers into Itachi's eye sockets and pulled out the famed sharingan that made Itachi into who he was. To Itachi's credit, even with such world-shattering pain, he didn't scream.

"Itachi, you can say that because you were born with a prestigious bloodline, a name from a powerful clan, and talents that many could only dream of. You always have something to fall back to." Kabuto said as he crushed Itachi's sharingan in his hands.

He hoped that Itachi could hear the destruction of his own Kekkei Genkai before he crossed the doorstep of death so that he could understand what it felt to have everything being taken away from you despite already being born with nothing.

The radar in Kabuto's sense went off when he sensed something stirring in the corner. With a single thought in his head, the stones animated by his senjutsu moved to his will and trapped the white snake despite its resilient struggle.

"Surely, you don't plan to run again, Orochimaru," Kabuto said as the white snake dispersed into an aggregation of even smaller serpents. But before any of them could escape, Kabuto waved his hand and the stone floor swallowed up all the white snakes and sealed them into a ball. Kabuto crushed his hand into a fist and with a crunch, the orb of rock minced everything inside into a pile of mush

Ever since that spectacular failure at the Chunin Exam, Orochimaru had been hiding, stalling his research to not attract the attention of Konoha. It was as if he had been scarred by the god-sent power gathered by his old village - the Uchiha prodigies that survived, to be particular.

Kabuto used to think that Orochimaru was amounting to something great and that he would also witness that greatness by following him. He wasn't even disappointed when Orochimaru left him at the mercy of Konoha's confinement. But what truly disappointed him was Orochimaru's lack of ambition ever since.

Kabuto stared at the remains left in his cave. On the left was what was left of Orochimaru's flesh. On his right was a gift to Konoha that Kabuto wanted to send, adding to the masterpiece that he had already prepared.

Tobi would have told Kabuto to reanimate Itachi and reduce the chance of any hiccups, but he wasn't here and Kabuto was tired of being told what to do. He had a theory he wanted to prove, and Orochimaru was the only test subject that fit the criteria.

Kabuto pressed his fingers to the ground and the summoning array expanded accordingly. Along with the snakes, were his 'test subjects', mostly taken from Orochimaru's lairs. Those with curse marks would be used as the medium of binding until the energy was fully extracted. After the extraction, the weakened shinobi served as the perfect material for human sacrifice.

A system that maximized efficiency, which Kabuto was very proud of.

A human sacrifice, check. The tissue of the deceased, check. The energy from the curse marks to be used as the binding agent, check. Now, all that was left was to witness history.

"Edo Tensei," Kabuto slapped his hands onto the ground as an intricate array of black lines expanded from his palms. Accompanied by screams, pieces of paper materialized all around the Oto-nin before covering him in full, changing his figure into a completely different person.

When the result presented itself in front of Kabuto, he couldn't help but burst out laughing. He did it, he found the loophole, and now he had everything he ever wanted.

"Welcome back, Orochimaru, not the way you imagined, I gathered." Kabuto grinned and he hoped that the cruelty of his words cut as deep as it could.

"You …" Orochimaru was smart, he understood what had happened and exactly what loophole Kabuto exploited the moment his consciousness manifested. But before Orochimaru could curse out, Kabuto strengthened the control over the reanimated body and shut him up.

"That's no way to talk to your master, is it? Now that your soul belongs to me." Kabuto was there when he observed Orochimaru meddling with Edo Tensei. It was from that kinjutsu that Orochimaru understood the utility of the soul and became certain that immortality could be achieved by the preservation and transfer of the soul, regardless of the mortal body.

Orochimaru placed failsafe all over his followers using curse marks, each containing a tiny bit of him in the form of his chakra. But when Orochimaru was alive and his soul occupied a body, those fragments remained dormant. Only when someone combined Orochimaru's flesh with the piece hidden in the curse mark, the flesh could be stimulated to regenerate using the chakra of the marked host and the soul would be drawn to its new vessel.

By that logic, right after Orochimaru's main body was destroyed and before a new vessel would be produced, his soul was released from the body, unrooted by any mortal attachments, free to be drawn and descend on any new vessel with a beacon activated - whether that was his energy left behind in the curse mark, or the bindings of Edo Tensei.

"Why did you reanimate me through Edo Tensei? Without me planting more curse marks, you'll run out of binding agents for Edo Tensei," Orochimaru managed to ask as he struggled against Kabuto's control. Kabuto thought nothing of it, for he could easily squash Orochimaru's will with a flick of his fingers.

"Even without your curse marks, Hashirama cells are a suitable replacement, isn't that what you've discovered?" Kabuto indulged him as he declared his intentions. "I want to take everything you have and make it better, and now with my theory proven, I want you to watch as I do it."

The void can't be filled by taking from others? What a load of crap, Kabuto was feeling plenty fulfilled. He felt strong and unstoppable when he had so much control in his hands.

"I see." Orochimaru had the guts to laugh at him as if he was still a naive and lost child. Kabuto couldn't accept that, so he tightened his control, deciding to erase Orochimaru's sense of self.

But to his horror, he couldn't.

"I'm sorry to disappoint you, but who do you think you are?" Orochimaru's grin disappeared as he looked at Kabuto with contempt in his eyes. Kabuto tried over and over again, but every time he tried to latch onto the thread belonging to Orochimaru, the thread seemed to slip away from him, and his command fell off like a harmless scratch.

"It's impossible, my Edo Tensei held up even against past Kage who were legends during their time," Kabuto muttered as confusion settled on his mind. Could it be the special character of Orochimaru's soul? But Edo Tensei succeeded, binding him to this body. Did I make a mistake during the summoning? Impossible, my method was impeccable. Then …

"Every jutsu has its weakness," Orochimaru spared him a glance of pity just as the most likely answer arrived in Kabuto's brain. "It's my curse mark that you're using as the binding agent, Kabuto, and you expect it to bind me?"

"No! I made it my own when I took the energy from your curse mark. It belongs to me!" Kabuto shouted as rage filled his chest. Giant snakes rose from behind him as Kabuto willed them to attack Orochimaru, to dig their fangs into his body.

Orochimaru didn't even flinch when a snake punctured a hole through his waist. With a swing of his hand, snakes of his own flew out in a counterattack, arriving at Kabuto's face in the blink of an eye.

The walls of the cave moved to form a shield around Kabuto, narrowly warding off Orochimaru's snakes, but when his attention returned to Orochimaru, clouds of paper dust already filled in and regenerated most of his injuries as pieces of his own snakes lay by Orochimaru's feet, torn to pieces by a wind jutsu.

"The regeneration is a bit redundant for me, but the unlimited chakra is quite nice, so not too shabby," Orochimaru said as he examined his own body - cracked, ugly, merely a paper mache, but nevertheless immortal and without the restraints that a normal shinobi would have.

It was at that moment that Kabuto realized that Orochimaru would be endless and forever, serving as a constant reminder of Kabuto's mistakes and failures.

So long as Orochimaru exist in the body of an Edo Tensei, sealed or not, he would loom over Kabuto's memory, reminding him that Orochimaru bested the thing that was Kabuto's pride, his value, his power, his sense of control … and that thought sent a wave of fear and panic down Kabuto's spine.

So Kabuto clutched onto the last thing he had control over Orochimaru - his existence through Edo Tensei.

Kabuto was already on the first seal when he suddenly remembered the possibility of a genjutsu. Suspicion brewed in his mind as he let his senses expand with the help of senjutsu. But everything felt normal. Every one of his senses told him that Itachi was dead and this was reality. None of Itachi's normal genjutsu could have such an effect.

What about Tsukuyomi … But Kabuto was sure that Itachi never had the chance to establish any visual contact with him. Kotoamatsukami? No, Kabuto was so certain that his hostility towards Konoha did not change and he sure as hell didn't want to release all the Edo Tensei.

Furthermore, adding to the evidence with Kisame, if Itachi had Kotomatsukami before, then he would have used it against Orochimaru when he first summoned Edo Tensei during the Chunin Exam, instead of resorting to Tsukuyomi.

Sweat rolled down Kabuto's forehead, but Orochimaru was already turning away, not even bothering to take revenge on Kabuto as if he wasn't worth his attention.

I'm just going to release the Edo Tensei on Orochimaru, just him and no one else. Kabuto reminded himself as he formed each seal carefully, checking the sequence with all of his attention. Even then, it felt like a battle that took all his energy when he completed the commands.

Kabuto locked his eyes on Orochimaru's leaving figure, hoping to see his body fall down in a pile of paper dust. But instead, the world in front of him turned, swirling and melting until finally, the imprint of Itachi's Mangekyou cast a shadow in his eyes.

"No! Nooo!" Kabuto screamed in disbelief when he felt pain erupting on his right shoulder. One of Orochimaru's snakes charged at him and ripped off his entire arm. But Kabuto had no attention left for it, for a sword made of glowing red liquid pierced into his body.

Itachi could feel the rhythm of his own breathing when he stood in front of Kabuto.

The brille covering his eyes had yet to be regenerated, allowing Kabuto's pupil to reflect the glow of Itachi's Mangekyou while his left eye swirled in a slow but steady rhythm.

Tsukuyomi was the second genjutsu that Itachi cast successfully on Kabuto. The first one started the moment Kabuto regained his sight, making him believe that it was the crow with Shisui's Mangekyou that he saw, instead of Itachi.

From the beginning, Itachi knew that unlike any attempt of Tsukuyomi he had cast before, this one needed to be seamless and be stretched to its full potential in every aspect - to the point that the one trapped in the dream didn't even believe that he could possibly be asleep.

For that, Itachi studied Kabuto's usage of alternative senses all the while giving the impression that none of his genjutsu was worthy without the sharingan. Sound, smell, touch … Itachi set up everything so that his control could permeate every one of Kabuto's senses for that one brief moment.

When Kabuto's sight returned - one sense that Kabuto had yet to adjust and get used to - Itachi trapped him, from one illusion to another dream.

Itachi needed this Tsukuyomi to be perfect, even if he was not.

"Your Tsukuyomi is different this time," Itachi could hear Orochimaru chiming in the background, behind the veil of crows that gathered around him.

He allowed Orochimaru to be the observer of the world he fabricated for Kabuto, partially in an attempt to overload him with sensory stimuli to prevent any ambush, and partially because he had a feeling that Orochimaru would be interested.

He was correct, for Orochimaru watched on with intrigue, not showing any sign of wanting to attack Itachi in his vulnerable state.

"The full potential of Tsukuyomi is not to make one feel so much pain that it feels real, but to feel so real that it's painful," Itachi answered. He knew that all along, from the day of the Massacre, yet he suppressed the power of Tsukuyomi until this day.

Tsukuyomi and Kotoamatsukami were special even among the Mangekyou abilities.

The day that Shisui revealed to him what his Mangekyou could do, he also told Itachi that he didn't know if he could ever use it as it was intended, and it had nothing to do with the strain it caused on one's vision.

"I can change someone's understanding of the world - their belief, their memory, their morality, and even their sense of self - without them ever knowing," Shisui told Itachi with an uncharacteristically grim voice as he laid on his back.

Shisui covered his face with Itachi's bingo book - apparently, he lost his own copy - making it hard for Itachi to see his expression. But that grimness only lasted for a second before Shisui propped himself up and joked, "Well, doing so might bring me to the brink of blindness, but …" he paused, letting his voice dim for a moment.

"I don't know if anyone should have such a power, least of all, me."

Itachi caught the bingo book before it could fall from Shisui's face. It was opened on the page of a missing-nin in Kumo with scars all over his body and face. He didn't know how Shisui could nap with that image in front of his face.

"If there must be someone that will gain such power, then I'm glad that it's you," Itachi remembered telling Shisui. He was twelve back then, without his Mangekyou and still had much hope that the increased tension between the Uchiha Clan and Konoha could be resolved with peace - a peace achieved by mutual understanding without the interference of Kotoamatsukami.

Shisui laughed when he heard that, his eyes lit up as if Itachi's unwavering trust was the best thing he ever had. Still, he lowered his face until their eyes met and asked, "I might look like a pretty decent human being to you now, Itachi, but what if the power over someone else's existence gets to my head? No one will know that it's my doing, will it?"

"You will," Itachi said. "You will know what you have done." He clarified a second later.

"I know you have a line in your heart that you won't cross." Itachi thought that the fact that Shisui was thinking - struggling - over his Mangekyou ability was a pretty good indication already.

Itachi was glad that Shisui was the one who gained that ability, not because he trusted him as his best friend, but because to be responsible for such an ability - a genjutsu that crossed to the side of reality - required the user to always be reflective, be repentant, and never lose themselves.

"Now that you said that, I can't disappoint my little cousin, can I?" Shisui said with a laugh as his hand somehow reached Itachi's head and frazzled his hair. Itachi pushed Shisui's hand away and the sigh was almost out of his mouth. It was then that he heard Shisui whispering.

"I'll trust you to pull me back if I ever strayed too far."

It wasn't until Itachi gained Tsukuyomi did he realize why Shisui sought comfort - a reassurance - from him. The 'line' wasn't just a painted mark on the side of the road, it was a tightrope hanging over a deep abyss.

When Itachi painted a perfect image of the future for Izumi using Tsukuyomi, he suddenly understood. Perhaps for a moment, he thought that it was merciful to end her life that way. But in her dream, there was an 'Itachi' that he didn't recognize, reminding him that he screwed up the reality for her and changed her against her will.

That was the first time Itachi pushed Tsukuyomi to cross to the side of reality, and the consequence was too heavy for him to take.

Itachi promised Shisui that he would pull him back if he ever strayed too far - whether that was because he was blinded by the feeling of playing god, or crushed by the weight of having to force a path for others. Yet, when Itachi opened his own Mangekyou, he was already determined to live the rest of his life alone. Thus, he couldn't afford to take a single step wrong.

Six years later, Itachi painted over the line of genjutsu and reality once again. But this time, he knew that he had others to pull him back if he ever strayed from the line; he had others to look over his imperfect judgment when such a power demanded perfection that no one alone could achieve.

Orochimaru clicked his tongue just as Kabuto started performing the hand seals to release Edo Tensei. "It looks like you won the gamble."

Itachi took a lot of gambles in his Tsukuyomi, to push the progression of events in the way he wanted. The most important gamble was to realize that Orochimaru was Kabuto's obsession. But the riskiest gamble he took was to bet that Kabuto wouldn't have understood how painful and miserable it was for Orochimaru to be stuck in the body of Edo Tensei, regardless of whether he broke out of Kabuto's control or not.

If Kabuto realized that, then he might have been content with letting Orochimaru continue to suffer in a body that wouldn't change or evolve, for stagnation was a fate worse than mortality in Orochimaru's book.

A crow materialized from Itachi's collar, confirming to him that the souls called back by Edo Tensei were departing. Against the pain in his eyes pushing him to the edge of insanity, Itachi let the red giant rise around him.

Itachi pulled the Sword of Totsuka out of the gourd and released the souls of the deceased Uchiha that he had sealed earlier. Blood pooled around Itachi's feet and he could feel his vision slipping away like the sand in an hourglass. But he promised himself that it was not the end when he sealed them into the dream-like realm.

Itachi was losing so much focus that he couldn't even react when Orochimaru turned his hand into a bundle of snakes and ripped off one of Kabuto's arms. The Sword of Totsuka followed suit, piercing Kabuto's body just as he was released by Tsukuyomi.

"What? He took a lot of my research materials. I think it's only fair that I recover some of the cost," Orochimaru said when he found Itachi's crows glaring at him with menace. But Itachi didn't have time for his twisted logic, seeing that Kabuto started to laugh in mania as his body and soul were drawn up the blade.

"You really should have taken my offer, Itachi! I can feel it, that all of my Edo Tensei pieces are being released, except for one who's powerful enough to break free from not only my control but the very rules of Edo Tensei!" Kabuto screamed as his body started to distort and melt.

"Who else did you reanimate, Kabuto?" Itachi asked in a hurry, but Kabuto was far too deranged to give him what he wanted.

"Bodies of mortals won't be able to match up to him when he already transcends the limit of Shinobi without an immortal body. But now he has a body that never fails, Konoha is doomed! The world is doomed! It's my legacy to the Shinobi world, my legacy—" Even when Kabuto was fully stuffed into the gourd full of red liquid, he wouldn't stop screaming.

The answer came quickly enough though when a second crow swirled into the air and cawed. "It's Uchiha Madara! Uchiha Madara is at Konoha!"

Whether it be Itachi or Orochimaru, only one thought crossed their mind at that moment.

The world is about to be turned upside down.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"We have to go, Nagato." Konan heard her own voice - hollow, ghostly, and barely composed - as she crushed the paper shikigami with her hand.

"What?" Nagato asked with a rare hint of confusion. His breathing was rushed and his body trembled, suffering from the backlash of having his Chikabu Tensei destroyed.

But that brief moment of vulnerability only lasted a second before Nagato returned to his usual will of iron. "Even without the Six Paths, I'm not spent yet, Konan. We can't stop here, not after we've come so far."

Konan lowered her eyes for a moment as the words got stuck on the tip of her tongue. We were fooled, Nagato. Tobi never believed in our 'peace'. But how could she tell Nagato that the plan they bet their entire life on was just a stepping stone for another? Even Nagato's Rinnegan might be something designed by others, like puppets being played by strings.

But their last betrayal destroyed Yahiko and Akatsuki. So this time, Konan remained suspicious. She couldn't take any chances, even if it meant doing things behind Nagato's back to investigate Tobi - or as she knew now, Uchiha Obito.

She couldn't let another betrayal destroy what was left of them - what was left of Nagato.

"Tobi has been lying. He never planned to follow through with our plan. He's just using us to gather the Tailed-Beasts needed to plunge the world into an eternal genjutsu." Konan explained as she released the shikigami in her hand and showed Nagato the transcript of Tobi's words in the Kamui space.

For a minute, Nagato was silent as he took in what was recorded by Konan's shikigami. Their heartbeats echoed in the empty tree trunk made of paper. The hollowed interior amplified every lub-dub of the heart, reflecting the disbelief, the rage … every emotion rushing through their chests.

"The Rinnegan - your Rinnegan - is their target now. You have to leave and recover before they come - before Konoha comes." Konan forced her words to be calm, to be the voice of reason. "It's not the end, Nagato. It's not—"

"Let them come," Nagato cut her off in a chilling voice. "I'll show them the price of betrayal. I don't know where this pair of Rinnegan came from that they would want to take it back, but I will be the one to use it to achieve our goal."

Their goal, of course. Nagato's eyes were never on anything other than their goal. Konan thought that she was the same. She wanted to achieve Yahiko's dream as much as Nagato. She would do anything to support Nagato in his pursuit of their dream, being his most loyal subordinate, and being his silent follower.

But at this moment, she realized that there was a criterion preceding the pursuit of their dream that she must preserve. It was the fact that Nagato had to be there.

"We don't know who will be the one completing Tobi's will and we don't know how they're going to do it. It's too risky with your condition now." This was the first time after Akatsuki's revival that Konan argued against Nagato, and it stunned Nagato just as it stunned her. But Konan stood her ground and added with a sharp tone.

"Don't let your rage and arrogance cloud your judgment, Nagato. You're the key to our dream, so don't treat it as if your life is not important."

There was a moment of panic as Konan wondered how this would end. Would Nagato listen to her words of worry like all those years ago? Or did Konan give up that privilege when she added her own desire and dream onto Nagato's shoulders, already heavy with burden and pain?

The lub-dub of Nagato's heart sped up only for a moment, before it calmed down once again, emitting a gentle aura that was preserved only for Konan.

The sigh of relief barely left Konan's chest when a disgusting, wicked sensation crawled all over her body. Her voice, her movement, even her chakra flow … everything was taken away from her as if every nerve and tenketsu that connected her body was being tightened by threads

"Konan!" Nagato yelled, but Konan couldn't do anything when the threads activated her chakra flow … no, not that one.

"Nagato, I'm sure you can see Konan's chakra flow." Konan heard a voice speaking through her body as she raised her hand and pointed her finger at her heart. "With one hand seal, the jutsu she prepared to sacrifice herself along with her enemies will be activated."

"Just think about it, 500 explosive tags, all packed together and boom!" It even laughed despite the growing anger and horror on Nagato's face. "Konan sure as hell wouldn't survive, and you, in your sorry state, won't be alive to avenge her, or do much of anything, for that matter."

"Black Zetsu. Get away from her!" Nagato's words identified the intruder. But when Nagato raised his hand towards her, Black Zetsu forced Konan's fingers to curve. The core of Chibaku Tensei was the materialization of Deva Path's power, so when it was shattered by Uchiha Maiko, Nagato wouldn't be able to use Deva Path's abilities until its power regenerated.

"Watch it, Nagato, I have both of your lives in my hands - well, Konan's hand, but you know what I mean." Black Zetsu was fearless, driving Nagato into a corner where he couldn't find another way but to listen.


"What do you want?" Nagato asked, swallowing his seething fury like covering the boiling pot with a lid. He placed his hand down and accordingly, Black Zetsu released the pressure on Konan's fingers as if rewarding a dog that followed its order.

No. I won't allow it.

"First of all, summon the Gedo Statue and let it go wild in Konoha," Black Zetsu said. In Nagato's current state, forcibly controlling the Geto Statue would have depleted most of his chakra. But it would surely compensate for the failed Invasion at Konoha, drawing the remaining Jinchuuriki here as reinforcement and subsequently allowing them to be sealed by the statue.

"Next, use Rinne Tensei and truly revive Uchiha Madara. His soul would have been marked by your Rinnegan, for he was the original owner of your eyes." Perhaps Konan should be more shocked by the revelation - like Nagato was. But all she could think of at this moment was the fact that Rinne Tensei would have cost Nagato's life.

Rinne Tensei was both a jutsu and a contract, promising the caster's life to be taken without any exception.

No. NO. I will never ever allow that to happen.

At that moment, Konan's will cut through some of the threads that controlled her body.

"Don't listen … Nagato! It needs you … techniques on Rinnegan! It won't survive … the explosion." Konan hissed, feeling her voice cutting in and out as Black Zetsu fought to take back control. Wicked thread clawed at every one of her cells and it felt like she was being diced from the inside. But it's not enough. I need to do more.

"Don't be naive. Of course, I will think of ways to protect myself and the Rinnegan." On cue with Black Zetsu's rebuttal, clones of white Zetsu sprouted from Konan's body and landed in the hollow hall. "If all those clones focus on protecting one spot, they can save Nagato's head - with me catching a ride. The rest can say goodbye to the world, though. If not you, then someone else can use the Rinnegan."

Konan wretched for the control of her chakra system, trying to turn off the flow of chakra in her body, but nothing moved against Black Zetsu's control. The entire chakra system was too large and too dispersed, Konan realized. So she changed her goal.

Threads cut into her veins and shredded her nerves and with every attempt of struggle, the pain doubled. But slowly and surely, a paper started to unravel on Konan's finger and fold back on itself.

"What the hell …" Even Black Zetsu was confused, but understanding soon reached him when the tip of the paper started to drill into Konan's flesh. "Are you crazy?"

With every fold, the paper gained strength. Eventually, if Konan could keep it up, the shikigami would drill into the spot about two centimetres above her heart. To defuse the bomb, one just had to remove the trigger. In this case, it was Konan's major tenketsu point, the start and end of her chakra system.

To cut that node would destroy the chakra flow in her body, reducing her to a human without the protection of any chakra and ninjutsu. It would most likely end in her death, one way or another.

With anger and hysteria, Black Zetsu tightened the hold on Konan, slowing down the folding process of the paper. Blood started to drip down Konan's chest, but the added pain seemed like nothing compared to the pain that was cutting Konan's soul as she struggled against Black Zetsu.

"Nagato, don't give them what they want, no matter what," Konan said as she folded the shikigami one more time. Just a few more folds and it would finally reach. Just a few more …

The shikigami froze, unable to move a single inch as a white Zetsu enveloped her hand and applied an external force. Black Zetsu might have let out a snort as he overpowered Konan's will and started to gather the chakra for ignition.

"Last chance, Nagato. Think of it this way, the world won't be made peaceful using your method, but just know that there won't be any conflict left after we're done. Oh, and Konan gets to live in 'peace'," Black Zetsu said with smugness as he dished out the ultimatum.

A moment of silence was all Black Zetsu would give Nagato, but before he would make a sound, the hollow tree itself burst open as a rain of lightning-infused shuriken fell down from the sky and hit the white Zetsu clones with precision.

Icy-blue lightning wrapped around the Zetsu clones upon contact, charring and immobilizing them in the blink of an eye. Falling down along with the projectile, was a human - creature? - glowing in bright orange.

The orange-coated figure landed next to Konan and she finally recognized him as the Nine-Tail Jinchuuriki of Konoha. Wasn't he in Suna? Regardless of Konan's confusion, a pair of orange tails grew from the Jinchuuriki's back as they grabbed onto her - not her, but a layer of something that coated half of her body.

It was a battle of chakra and energy, and Konan, being used as the battleground, could clearly feel the dark, wretched threads of Black Zetsu cowering under the bright, overflowing chakra of the Nine-Tail Jinchuuriki.

With a ripping sensation, Black Zetsu was pulled off of Konan's body. With a fresh breath of air, Konan finally regained control over her body.

Sheets of paper peeled off of Konan in the blink of an eye. Instinct took over as her shikigami regathered in front of Nagato and she was face to face with a pair of red sharingan. Lightning crackled violently on Uchiha Sasuke's blade as he pulled it out of its sheath. The sheer intensity of emotions in his eyes made Konan lower her gaze in avoidance.

"Move," the Uchiha boy hissed at Konan, not at all hiding his killing intent for Nagato. Konan's shikigami prepared for counterattacks immediately. A lot of things happened and the water just kept getting murkier. But what was always clear was that Konan would forever be by Nagato's side.

"Sasuke! I'm about to lose him, wait, I'm losing him!" A yell in the background broke the tension in the most comical way. Uchiha Sasuke might have let out a 'tsk' in exasperation before he rushed to help the blonde Jinchuuriki.

Half a dozen shadow clones, all coated in orange, wrestled with the multiplying white army that spilled out of Konan's destroyed paper tree. With every strike by the young Jinchuuriki, a tree sprouted, quickly overcrowding the forest, making it hard for the other half a dozen shadow clones to catch Black Zetsu slipping in and out of every surface.

"Dodge." The Uchiha boy only gave his teammate a curt warning before a wave of fire left his mouth, incinerating the newly grown forest and the white Zetsu clones that didn't make it out in time. Without stopping, he stabbed his sword into the ground and sent the wild lightning coursing through the forest floor.

Explosions filled Konan's vision as pieces of the ground were blown left and right. The string of black interweaved itself between the paralyzing lightning and the foci of explosion. Black Zetsu wouldn't run away, Konan was certain, because he needed Nagato's Rinnegan.

"That thing wants to start Infinite Tsukuyomi, am I correct?" Konan was surprised to hear the question from the Uchiha boy. Emotions and rationality seemed to reach a balance in him, as he analyzed the scene in front of him with the utmost rationality, while the emotions boiling deep fueled every one of his jutsu - every one of his movements - with glowing determination.

"Yes. It still needs the Rinnegan," Konan answered with honesty since there was no point in hiding. The boy understood the hidden implications immediately. One, Black Zetsu wouldn't be running away anytime soon. Two, Nagato would be his prime target.

In a battle with three different forces, every decision of hostility and alliance was one that must be made with careful deliberation.

To Uchiha Sasuke, the most beneficial course of action would be to destroy Nagato's Rinnegan first, both weakening Nagato and Konan's force and sabotaging Black Zetsu's plan. It was also the most justifiable action for him, emotion-wise, whose village had just suffered greatly under Nagato's invasion.

But Konan would do every she could to stop him should he take that action. Additionally, while Nagato was spent and exhausted, he was by no means defenceless if push came to shove.

It was clear that the Jinchuuriki alone - Uzumaki Naruto - was unable to contain Black Zetsu by himself. So if Uchiha Sasuke and Konan fought, regardless of the outcome, it would only provide opportunities for Black Zetsu to slip in and take what he wanted.

Therefore, only one logical course of action was left, and it was the one that Uchiha Sasuke chose despite harbouring an immense desire for revenge on Nagato and Konan.

They would be dealing with Black Zetsu first.

Konan couldn't identify Black Zetsu using her sensory abilities. By how the creature snuck up on them earlier, it could also escape the identification of chakra signatures by dōjutsu like Sharingan and Rinnegan. It was as if chakra didn't exist on Black Zetsu.

But, there was one person here that seemed to be able to sense Black Zetsu.

Tails of orange smashed down on the ground as the Nine-Tail Jinchuuriki split the ground open, driving Black Zetsu out of his hiding. It was unfortunate that the Jinchuuriki's attack was always a beat behind against the cunning and agile shadow.

His teammate dropped down from above, already taking the delay into account as he predicted where Black Zetsu would likely end up. With a blade infused with lightning, the Uchiha boy stabbed his weapon forward into the black mass.

But the boy's blade didn't reach anything, for Black Zetsu opened a hole in its own mass and let the sword pass through. Uchiha Sasuke widened his eyes in surprise, but it only took a fraction of a moment for him to understand that if this continued, then Black Zetsu would be able to plaster itself all over his body.

After seeing what happened to Konan, no one wanted to end up in that fate.

Weak currents of electricity leaked out of Uchiha Sasuke's body, surrounding him and creating a layer of defence, making sure that anything that came close could be paralyzed by the electricity. It prevented Black Zetsu from making physical contact with him and forced the shadowy mass to slide past him and morph back to its humanoid shape.

It was then that Konan's shikigami arrived, circling around Black Zetsu like a snowy storm. With Black Zetsu changing its shape like fluid, they needed an attack that would seal it inside a contained space, making sure there was no chance for it to slip out.

Konan pumped chakra into her shikigami, forcing the papers to be glued to each other as tightly as possible. Explosive tags were already prepared inside and the moment Konan wrapped Black Zetsu inside the fortress of white, everything was detonated.

Pieces of paper fell like snow dirtied by soot, charred and some were still aflame. But beyond the smoke and the fire, a black mass rested between corpses of white Zetsu clones. Black Zetsu had a venomous expression on its face before it dived back into the ground again.

Konan felt grim about her future attacks. That last attempt only managed to catch Black Zetsu because it was busy dealing with the two Konoha-nin. But now that Black Zetsu saw it coming, it wouldn't give her any time to form a barricade of that scale again.

"Naruto!" Uchiha Sasuke yelled from the side and the blonde boy ran to him without a pause. With a handclap, the JInchuuriki passed a handful of kunai to his teammate, before turning his attention back to the runaway enemy.

"Attack using projectiles." The boy sounded disgusted by the fact that he had to talk to her, leaving only a brief sentence and uncaring if she would listen. But Konan's pride was secondary when compared to Black Zetsu's demise, so she commanded her shikigami to fold into dozens and dozens of paper shuriken.

The Jinchuuriki punched through the ground and stirred the rubbles upside down, before shooting out a kunai with his chakra tail. Black Zetsu dodged the kunai with no problem, but it looked wary as it noticed the seal that was pasted on its handle.

Konan's paper shuriken followed suit and rained down with ferocity. The shikigami cut down the growing white Zetsu clones that never seemed to end and isolated Black Zetsu from its convenient meat shields. Mixing in with the bunch, was another handful of projectiles from Uchiha Sasuke.

Konan could see the amazing concentration in the boy's body as his red sharingan swirled fiercely. In the blink of an eye, a few kunai, all with the special seal attached, arrived at Black Zetsu's position with precision. But Black Zetsu, already wary of the seals, twisted and morphed his body, allowing the kunai to pass through him without ever making contact.

"Bind." Along with the command from the young Jinchuuriki, was the sound of rattling chains being pulled between the kunai. The Uchiha boy made sure that when the kunai hit the ground and trees, they would form a pattern that could be connected with each other.

Glowing chains got pulled taut around Black Zetsu, who couldn't slip out in time because he was distracted with morphing to avoid the kunai. It wasn't a closed containment, but the chains somehow slowed Black Zetsu's movement, as if its body was suddenly being turned to lead.

It was the perfect time to attack and destroy the black mass once and for all. But when Konan heard it whisper with a giggle, "you woke it up!", she knew that things weren't going to go as they planned.

The entire ground underneath their feet shook with agony as a mass arose above the forest. The Gedo Statue stood up and made its way towards them.

"What the hell?" The blonde Jinchuuriki yelled in confusion before he widened his eyes and said in a hurry, "Kakashi-sensei and the rest of them are still there!" The next second, two birds made of ink flew into the sky. Konan could make out three people on the birds' backs as they rushed to get away from the wooden giant.

Konan glanced at Nagato, who furrowed his eyebrows and shook his head. It wasn't him that woke the Gedo Statue, then, it could only mean that it was awoken by … Konan turned to the blonde Jinchuuriki as realization dawned on her face. It was attracted by the abundance of Tailed-Beast chakra.

Her speculation was confirmed when the statue spat out a purple dragon that rushed towards the Jinchuuriki faster than anyone could imagine. In the blink of an eye, all of his shadow clones that got caught up by the sweeping attack had their chakra absorbed into the purple dragon.

"It's taking away my chakra!" The Jinchuuriki shouted with disbelief, but the Uchiha boy was much more attuned to details, noticing how the attack ignored the rest of them because Uzumaki Naruto was some distance away.

"It's coming for the Tailed-Beast inside of you." Uchiha Sasuke concluded. He eyed the array of sealing chains that were in shambles because the earthquake displaced the kunai. Black Zetsu had already escaped the binding and was nowhere to be found again.

Gedo Statue crawled towards them, the second wave of its attack already started as the purple dragon was once again formed from its mouth, bigger, thicker, and would catch a lot more in its breath.

"Run!" Uchiha Sasuke yelled and the blonde-haired boy bolted into the forest. As expected, the purple dragon chased his movement, opening its jaw wide as it flew through the landscape. The bigger the space for his movement, the more chance he had at escaping. Moreover, the Jinchuuriki boy was determined not to let the creature affect everyone else.

But this meant that they would have to deal with Black Zetsu with any 'sight'. At that moment, all of them tensed their body in anticipation, of the shadow that could appear anywhere.

Rather than an entity made of chakra, Black Zetsu is more like … a consciousness. It couldn't use any complex attack unless it latched onto someone, which made it likely that it would come for one of them.

The Uchiha boy caught it with his sharingan the moment the black shadow popped up by his feet. Shuriken crackled with lightning dropped as the boy jumped back, but the black shadow swerved around the projectiles easily.

With a bounce, Black Zetsu stretched its body and zoomed towards Uchiha Sasuke like an arrow. Konan's shikigami was already in the process of being fired off, but to her horror, she realized that Black Zetsu never severed its connection with the ground.

Just then, another thin thread of black burst through the floor and went straight for Nagato. A layer of earth wall rose up in front of Nagato as he blocked the ambush. Clenching her teeth, Konan pulled the shikigami back and made them slice towards the other half of Black Zetsu at Nagato's end.

The ground was dangerous because Black Zetsu could hide in plain sight. Uchiha Sasuke didn't hesitate as he jumped onto the back of his hawk. Wings made of paper were already gathered by Konan's back, but Nagato …

She shouldn't have hesitated.

A spore sprouted near Konan's feet, catching Konan's left foot before she could leave the ground. White Zetsu clones were fragile and their attacks were hardly more than pesky disturbances, but their true horror lay in the inconspicuous nature of their dormant spores and most importantly, their hunger for warm, flowing chakra.

Konan could feel her own chakra being sucked out by the expanding white mass. The wings in her back cracked and started to peel off from the disturbance of chakra flow. With some difficulty, Konan folded her shikigami into a shuriken.

But before Konan could cut the clone off using the paper shuriken, a bullet of water pierced through the mass of white and broke it in half. Nagato coughed a little, but his hand remained steady. Konan's wings regathered and she shot for the sky. She kicked her leg, trying to shake the last bit of Zetsu's flesh off of her ankle.

At that moment, a tendril of black reached out from the broken piece of white Zetsu. All of their eyes were on Nagato, who was grounded by his fragile body. Nobody reacted in time when Black Zetsu morphed himself into the shape of a spear and pierced Konan's body.

Konan's Dance of Shikigami allowed her to be immune to most physical attacks, but only because it was supported by her impeccable chakra flow. She focused on making herself airborne, but her chakra flow hadn't recovered enough to support the jutsu throughout the rest of her body.

Blood spilled out of Konan's torso while a web of black wrapped around her, once again, taking over her movement, her chakra, and her ninjutsu.

I can't believe I fell for the same thing twice.

When Konan blasted the tornado of shikigami toward Nagato and Uchiha Sasuke, forced by Black Zetsu, it was never more clear to her that the delicate balance that Konan tried to maintain was broken.

Without Konan's power on Nagato's side, the battle of two against one to prevent Black Zetsu from taking Nagato's Rinnegan would collapse into a three-way struggle to determine the Rinnegan's fate, where Nagato would undoubtedly be the target of both.

In fact, Konan was sure that the boy was already reevaluating his options as he rolled to the side and crashed a fire dragon into Konan's shikigami. He glanced towards the battleground not far from here, where his teammates joined forces to stop the rampaging Gedo Statue while the Jinchuuriki drew its fire and kited it far from Konoha.

Konan felt her heart drum in despair when her attacks reached Nagato. But this time, Nagato managed to push the shikigami back with a bout of Shinra Tensei, telling her that his Deva Path power had finally returned, even if he was still weak and injured.

Nagato was a sinner - to Uchiha Sasuke, to Konoha, and to the world. But despite that, Konan couldn't accept an end that was Nagato alone against the world, because she would never be on his opposite side, no matter what happened.

Threads of evil invaded every inch of Konan's body, stitching Black Zetsu to her like a parasite that she couldn't get rid of … An idea often only needed a spark and a decision was only made in a second.

Konan realized what she might be able to do, to reset everything back on its path - back to before Black Zetsu's intrusion made Rinnegan a chess piece and Nagato a mere holding vessel. She would return the path to what it was supposed to be; a fate that was chosen and accepted by both of them, no matter the eventual outcome.

She waited as Black Zetsu stirred up her chakra and unleashed her jutsu onto the one she was meant to protect. When the flow resembled what she needed, Konan gave away everything to fight for the control of her body.

Ever heard of tolerance to poison? Konan thought to Black Zetsu as the latter cursed back. But Konan had a will that she couldn't lose, even more strongly than the first time Black Zetsu took over the control of her body.

With a snap, Konan ripped the stitches out but all the while clutching onto the fabric known as Black Zetsu. Her control wouldn't last long, so without wasting any time, she tweaked the chakra flow and shikigami started to be absorbed back onto her, covering the side of her body that was drenched in black.

Nagato recognized what she wanted to do as he screamed, "Konan, no!"

"I will always support your will, Nagato. Your dream too, not just Yahiko's." Konan managed to say as she rushed to push the jutsu to its completion. Things would be different this time; Konan knew that Nagato could protect himself with Shinra Tensei.

Every member of Akatsuki, even Tobi and Zetsu, viewed Konan as a tool that followed Nagato's every word and action, having no opinions of her own. But Konan believed, without any doubt, that she had never strayed from her path.

To believe in Yahiko and Nagato's dreams … That was Konan's dream. From the beginning of Akatsuki to its despair, then to its twisted revival, and finally, to its end … Konan believed in every dream that Yahiko and Nagato had, even if those dreams were changed by death and dyed by blood.

Born in a world of violence and separation, the three of them found each other, so they shouldn't ever be alone again.

Just before Konan formed the hand seal, her glance rested on the Uchiha boy, who watched the chakra burn in her body with wariness but had no idea what the scale of Konan's jutsu could reach.

"I'm about to explode with a power equivalent to 500 explosion tags. So run if you can't survive against it," Konan said with barely a whisper, but she knew that the boy could hear her.

Uchiha Sasuke gave her one last look - very much full of caution, but just a little confused - as the hawk flapped its wings and they ascended higher into the sky.

That was a little wilful of Konan, but she just … wanted to try and follow Yahiko's dream one last time, to reduce the casualty by one less, to halt the cycle of hatred, even if just a little. After all, it started when the Uchiha boy paused his revenge in favour of protecting the world.

Holding onto the black mass that radiated selfishness, destruction, and apathy, making sure that it couldn't escape, Konan finished her hand seal. Somehow, I'm a little hopeful, Konan thought at the moment of her demise.

Dance of Shikigami: Omamori.

An explosion engulfed the forest as the last shikigami disintegrated into dust.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"How long will it take before I can go?" I asked and immediately, I felt the medical chakra spike up for a brief moment as Shizune-san clenched my shoulder in warning. Ouch.

We were resting in the middle of a barren field that used to be covered by vegetation. About two hundred metres behind us marked the remains of Konoha's North Gate. In fact, much of the village walls were gone now as the boundary blended with the aftermath of destruction.

"Twenty-one of your tenketsu points are damaged. Twenty-one!" Shizune-san pushed the words out of her teeth. "If you rush chakra through your body before I fix them, you can say goodbye to your career as a shinobi!"

But she knew that her threats were lost on me when she saw all of my attention being caught in the distance, where Sasuke's team managed to pick up a half-dead Kakashi after he got spat out of Kamui, before reaching Pein's final hideout.

Shizune-san was always a gentle person, so with a sigh, she told me, "Just ten more minutes, Maiko, and you should be able to use chakra again without any irreversible harm."

"Thank you," I said as genuinely as I could, for Shizune-san was already giving everything she had to get me ready for battle again. But at this point, even one second counted.

"Finally." I heard Tsunade-sama let out a sigh of relief before a Yamanaka Mind-Body Transmission latched onto my brain with a light static. The communication network was back, reconstructed to its barest backbone.

"Casualty stabilized around 150 deaths and 1800 injuries. No enemies were sighted since the last wave of attack ended eight minutes ago, but we will continue to monitor with caution." Nara-san reported in his usual calm and steady words.

"Any reports from Itachi?" I heard Tsunade-sama asking and her voice sounded both inside my head and next to me.

"Not yet …" Before Nara-san could finish his words, we all saw it, the pearly white wisps that seemed to rise from all corners of the village, signifying the departing souls that had been released from Edo Tensei.

Itachi made it.

"Well, I guess we have the answer to that," Tsunade-sama said as she worked hard to suppress a burst of laughter. An emotion was spreading among us - among everyone that remained in the battered village - lifting up our spirits, lessening the painful injuries all over our bodies.

It was called hope.

"Now all that's left is Pein and this … new development of Infinite Tsukuyomi." Tsunade-sama paused for a second in deep concentration, before she relayed her orders. "Jiraiya, take a team of eight Jonin-level shinobi and go support Sasuke's location—"

It was unfortunate that her orders were interrupted by a screeching howl in the distance accompanied by the trembling of the earth.

"My Apologies, Tsunade-sama, but we just identified a giant humanoid creature in the distance, to Pein's direction. For unknown reasons, it remained unseen to us until now." Director Yamanaka spoke up in a hurry.

"... Make that a team of eighteen, Maiko will catch up shortly." Tsunade-sama changed her orders while she furrowed her brows in unease.

As the backbone of Konoha's emergency medical support, Tsunade couldn't stay too far from the village, or else the army of Katsuyu couldn't be sustained. While Konoha got a moment to breathe during the intermission, no one knew if more enemy was coming, so she had to carefully balance the forces for deployment.

But of course, when had plans ever caught up to changes.

"Tsunade-sama! An intruder from the North! The chakra signature is foreign, but it's of a monstrous size. Moreover, the Hyuuga sensors were sure that he was …"

"An Edo Tensei," I whispered when the features of the dot in the distance cleared up a little in my vision. A skin filled with cracks like porcelain, an armour painted with the fading red of flames, and the Uchiha Insignia carved at the base of the gunbai.

It wasn't just any Edo Tensei. It was the Edo Tensei of Uchiha Madara.

How did he get so close? I thought Madara was just a fake identity used by Tobi. How was he not released when Edo Tensei ended? Did someone else reanimate him? What does that person want? Can anyone even control 'Uchiha Madara'? So what does Madara want …

So many things raced through my mind, but they all converged into one sentence as I transmitted through the Mind-Body jutsu. "We need to evacuate every injured shinobi and medical-nin into the underground containment."

"But medical stations are already working in full capacity underground and it's too risky to move some of the patients." It was one of the team leaders of the Medical Corps who spoke up.

"Do it. As quickly as possible." Tsunade-sama said in an indisputable tone as grimness washed over her face. "Prepare for battle and reorganize those that can still fight into brigades for performing mass-scale ninjutsu."

She knew it as well as I do, having seen it first hand, just one attack from a complete Susanoo was enough to wipe a portion of the village flat.

Yet, despite that, we had to contain Uchiha Madara here, so that he wouldn't complicate whatever the hell was going on with Pein.

As if noticing the gaze from the village, Uchiha Madara stopped examining the aftermath made by the failed Chibaku Tensei and turned in the direction of Konoha.

Just one gaze, and it froze the blood in my body with just the sheer pressure he emitted.

I pushed my fingernails into my arm to force myself to react. It took Shizune-san even longer to realize my urge to stand up - to move and intercept Uchiha Madara before he deemed us too boring to exist and moved on to something else.

"No, Maiko. Ten minutes is already pushing it!" Shizune-san yelled in a hushed whisper just as I pushed myself up from the ground.

I opened my mouth to come up with a rebuttal, but before I could, Sandaime walked past us, his battle armour clattered with every footstep as he carried the bō made of black and gold.

"Uchiha Madara was a shinobi that transcends what the normal standards of shinobi could measure. I doubt that anything other than Shiki Fūjin would be able to seal him," Sandaime said as he paused his step a little.

He wasn't looking much better than the rest of us as marks of battle filled his armour and exhaustion weighed on his eyelids. "I don't know if I will be enough, but I will try everything to seal him with Shiki Fūjin. At the very least, we will get you ten minutes."

For a moment, the Sandaime Hokage turned to me and said, "You probably don't want to hear this from me again, but I'm truly sorry for how the matter with the Uchiha Clan had resolved under my eyes. As a Hokage, I should have been able to do more."

"So, I'm beyond thankful that despite my negligence, you still hold so much hope for Konoha's future - a future that you, your generation, and generations beyond that, will build with your own hands." The old Hokage gave me a smile full of wrinkles before he turned towards where Madara was standing.

The bō staff smashed into the ground when he landed some distance in front of Madara. The commotion certainly caught the man's attention as he narrowed his eyes at Sandaime.

"Hiruzen, so even you have succumbed to old age and senility," Uchiha Madara commented without any emotion that came with the reunion. He didn't have to do anything special and the sheer amount of chakra and pressure in his voice just naturally reached across the distance.

"I'm a remnant of the past, Madara, we both are. So shouldn't we return to our graves and stop interfering with the world?" Sandaime said as he readied the staff - transformed by Enma - and lowered his body into the battle stance.

"Huh." That was the only answer Madara gave, and it summarized his contempt and disdain for Sandaime's speech perfectly.

"It's not how I imagined that I would return to this world, but I recognized marks of battle left behind by Rinnegan, so a war against the Shinobi World must have been waged." Against the tension in Sandaime's body, Uchiha Madara looked like he didn't give a damn as he examined the war-torn village in the distance.

"Now, Hiruzen, you have one minute to explain what is happening with the world before I send you to your grave."

A/N: Someone please explain to Grandpa Madara what is going on in the modern world.

Tobi wouldn't let Kabuto use Madara because he got his own plans going, so Kabuto only set it in motion when Itachi was pissing him off. So Madara literally got awoken a moment before Itachi made Kabuto release Edo Tensei, and then he released himself right before he floated back to the sky, all the while wondering who the hell is messing around. It was unfortunate that Obito was dead and Black Zetsu was kind of busy, so nobody is there to fill Grandpa Madara in.

Omamori was the protection charm sold at shrines. Konan chose that name because she created the jutsu in hopes that she will be a protection charm for Yahiko and Nagato, blocking their misfortune with her own body. I know a lot happened, but we'll get to how Sasuke's team reconvened with Kakashi and Naruto next chapter.