Chapter 82 - Bell Test

"Sai, you and Sakura stay here with Kakashi-sensei. I'm going to continue our objective," Sasuke said as he fought against the swaying currents in his eyes. He needed to remain calm and rational because their team assembled in a hurry - pulled out of those that remained after the explosion - needed a leader to make sound decisions when facing crossroads.

The first crossroad came when they found their Jonin-sensei heavily injured on their way to Pein's hideout. It really said something about Kakashi-sensei's current state if he remained unconscious despite the clearly unnatural creature that was buried in the ground.

"Sasuke-kun, it's too dangerous for you to go alone." For once, Sai didn't give him the fake smile that grated on Sasuke's nerves. Instead, seriousness filled Sai's voice as he looked Sasuke in the eyes and expressed his dissent.

If it was stupid to look a sharingan user in the eyes, then it was bordering suicidal to meet the gaze of a pair of Mangekyou. But Sasuke didn't see any distrust, wariness, or fear in Sai's eyes, only worries - worries about his current state and how it might have impacted his judgment.

Sasuke hated it, not being able to hide his emotions - and thus, vulnerabilities - because he was forced to display the wound and trauma through a pair of red and black eyes that couldn't be hidden. So, for a brief moment, Sasuke closed his eyes, remembering all of Maiko-nee's lessons on control, and imagined the scene of a dark night sky.

Sasuke immersed himself in the vast sky that stretched for eternity, feeling as if everything that was running wild in his body - whether it was emotions, memories, or chakra - were all being soothed by the sinking void.

It worked. When Sasuke opened his eyes again, his irides returned to the pattern of the normal sharingan, swirling slowly, hiding the newfound power that crouched like a tiger hidden within.

"Someone needs to be alert of the surroundings while Sakura heals Kakashi-sensei, especially when that thing is right over there." Sasuke pointed at the alien statue lying on the ground. He wasn't stupid enough to think that Pein slugged this giant statue here only for decoration.

It wasn't that he didn't trust Sakura's abilities - both in healing and in self-defence - but there was simply too much unknown. They didn't know what that wooden statue was for, much less what it was capable of. At least with Sai around, they had the advantage of air mobility.

"I just need three minutes to stabilize the wound on Sensei's chest, then we can move him to a safer place," Sakura said as medical chakra radiated out of her palm. Clearly, she didn't want to move Kakashi-sensei unless it was necessary, but when the situation was less than ideal … the glow on her hand intensified as Sakura refocused her attention on Kakashi-sensei, trying to make every fraction of a second count.

Mission objectives, the safety of his comrades, revenge for his loved ones … so many things collided together in Sasuke's mind as he struggled to come up with an acceptable solution. Everything seemed to weigh down on his body that it felt as if stress fractures were slowly splitting open his bones.

If I make the wrong decision (again), will the fractures eventually build up and shatter everything (just like last time)?

"Sai and I will continue to pursue Pein, but I'll leave Garuda here as transportation and Sai will leave his ink creatures here for communication." It wasn't the most secure strategy, but it was the most efficient one Sasuke could come up with and it was the one that Sasuke was determined to take responsibility for.

Upon gaining a nod from both Sakura and Sai, Sasuke bit his fingers and pressed his hand on the ground, ready for the summoning array to expand.

But Sasuke's breath was caught in his throat when he felt something burning on the side of his stomach. His fingers tightened with tension and the summoning ritual was interrupted. Yet, a puff of smoke still appeared in front of him, and what walked out of it was someone that shouldn't be there.

"Sasuke!" Naruto jumped out of the smoke screen with a yell, breaching into Sasuke's personal space as his face zoomed to fill his vision. "I felt the seal flare up some time ago. Are you okay?"

Not really. Sasuke didn't know why that thought popped up. But with Naruto, it was so easy for him to let his guard down, to open the dam and let the flood crash through. Not really, Naruto. My Mangekyou opened; Ryuu was more important to me than I realized; I think it's my fault that he died.

"... so is Naruto-kun your summoning …" creature? Sai mouthed the last word once he realized that it might not be so appropriate, but the confusion in his eyes was obvious as he and Sakura stared at the strange scene in front of them.

Haha, very funny, Sasuke thought as he took a breath to calm himself. He didn't know that Sai had a sense of humour like that.

"No, I didn't summon him here," Sasuke said through his clenched teeth as he pushed Naruto's face away with his hand. "I'm fine, and you shouldn't be near Konoha! Pein is still alive, and what if Tobi finds your location and teleports his forces over?"

Sasuke thought Naruto must be insane, to rush over to him just because Sasuke bled a little, despite having received information on how Konoha was not the place to be for the Jinchuuriki. And look, even the toad that rested on Naruto's shoulder nodded his head in agreement.

"About that, Tobi is dead." All of them turned towards the origin of the cracked voice. Kakashi-sensei pressed a hand to his throat to ease the pain. It took him a moment to fully open his eyes. Without the Hitai-ate, there was nothing to hide the sharingan that lay on top of the scar.

"He's dead, so there's no need to worry about his teleportation anymore," Kakashi-sensei confirmed once again - louder, clearer, more certain - as Sakura helped him sit up. Sasuke didn't miss the way Kakashi-sensei lowered his gaze, to blur the built-up fractures in his sharingan.

For a second, it felt as if Kakashi-sensei was mourning - letting go of something that he alone held onto. He looked … lonely.

But that aura of loneliness was only there for a moment before Kakashi-sensei re-focused his gaze on his students, unwavering and full of clarity. It was as if he knew that the fractures would be smoothed with the help of time - the help of somebody - or at least, he believed.

"Then … Naruto, go with me to find Pein." Sasuke turned to Naruto and made his decision. Knowing Naruto, now that he made it here, there was no point forcing him to go away. So, come with me, and I'll keep you from running off the tangent, Sasuke thought.

Naruto nodded, accepting Sasuke's leadership without any question. Sasuke turned to the rest of his teammates and said, "Sai and Sakura will stay with Kakashi-sensei until he's … looking more alive." Their Sensei had the energy to crack a smile at his words, but he nodded too, knowing that the best way to help was to get himself out of his sad state first.

"Before you leave, there's something you should know," Kakashi-sensei said just before Sasuke was about to summon Garuda - for real, this time. "It's the truth of why Tobi started this war."

"He did it for Infinite Tsukuyomi." With those words playing on repeat in Sasuke's mind, they arrived at the second crossroad.

Sasuke felt his nails digging into his skin as he forced himself to focus on their newest objective - Black Zetsu - instead of turning his blade towards Konan and Pein. It probably took every ounce of his control and then some, to not see red.

His sanity was being held on by a very thin thread. It was a line that could be snapped at any second, and it did, when Black Zetsu took control of Konan, taking advantage of their lack of sensory methods when Naruto had to run for his life.

The recoil from the web of messy strings - connecting them with cause and effects, with common goals and mutual animosity - was enough to send Sasuke's mind into overdrive as he reconsidered the possibility of attacking Pein - the third crossroad.

Except that this time, the crossroad was abolished by Konan as she exploded herself along with Black Zetsu.

Sasuke was confused - ridiculed even - when Konan warned him in advance and told him to run, rather than enveloping him with a blast that took out half the forest. Sasuke could have been stuck in the explosion and trapped in the fire, struggling to keep himself and Garuda alive with a barely functional Susanoo.

But instead, they were hovering in the sky as Garuda flapped his wings violently to keep his balance in the blasting currents. Heatwaves licked Sasuke's skin, and he could see the full impact of a deadly firework that was fueled by everything that encompassed a life.

It was unfortunate that Sasuke was neither an expert in fire nor emotions when his clan was supposed to be bound to both. But at that moment, when the emotional desires fueled the fire and the fire spread the undying feelings in a blast, Sasuke could finally understand what Konan wanted to exchange with her life.

So, when the explosion died down and the smoke cleared up, Sasuke moved without thinking. He slid his sword out of its sheath, turning the statics from friction into crackling lightning. With a swing of the blade, a dozen shuriken made of lightning left the metal and shot for the ground, where only Nagato remained after the explosion.

White masses sprouted from the scorched earth, trying to clutch onto Nagato with their twisted limbs. Nagato reacted like it was an afterthought, raising his hand while his eyes remained unfocused.

But before he could even do anything, the wave of lightning shuriken crashed down, leaving barely a burn mark on his arm as they pierced the white Zetsu clones. Garuda zoomed down from the sky, skewering an expanding clone with its beaks as Sasuke landed right in front of Nagato.

"What the hell is with that pathetic reaction?" Sasuke said as he cut down a Zetsu clone with his blade. Electricity spread from his sword to envelop the white humanoid creature, charring it black before it could even let out a curse.

"She didn't give up her life so you can stay in such a catatonic state, or did the explosion damage your brain so much that you can't even see the obvious?" Get angry, Sasuke thought, stop acting so pathetic, like you're the victim here. At least protect your damn eyes from Zetsu before I can slash open the Rinnegan myself.

Finally, Nagato reacted, staring into Sasuke's eyes - Rinnegan to Sharingan - showing a sign that he was still of this world.

"She saved your dignity, you know, so you can continue to be a human, not a tool or an object defined by your Rinnegan." Sasuke thought that he must be crazy, to waste words on a lost cause - not just any lost cause, but a lost cause whose throat he should be putting a sword into.

But everything was pissing him off, how Nagato could just act like he was confused in life after so many lives had been lost both because of him and for him; how Konan bothered to warn him of the impending doom as if she minded the casualty.

"She gave you the chance to be a human, so act like one, choose a path and stick to it." Sasuke must be a lost cause too, for he vengefully wanted to tell Nagato, look, for someone who deemed the world to have lost the right to choose, isn't it ironic that someone else gave up everything for you to have one?

"At least have some guts and accept the consequences of your actions." With that, Sasuke was done rubbing salt on Nagato's wound. The lightning on his blade faded as Sasuke tightened it in his fingers, but the flow of chakra roared so strongly in his body, in preparation for the calamity to come.

At least, Sasuke didn't expect Nagato to be so calm after hearing what he had to say.

"You're right," Nagato let out his first words after Konan's death. Sasuke didn't care to understand which part of his speech he found to be agreeable, because it sure wouldn't change the fact that they had a fight to get to.

Sure enough, Nagato raised his hand, letting his palm face Sasuke. If he uses the repulsive forces, then I'll defend using Susanoo, Sasuke went through the possibilities in his head. They didn't know his Mangekyou abilities, so when the cooldown came …

Nagato closed his hand and Sasuke's eyes swirled into the Mangekyou at the same time.

Sasuke was not prepared for the world to turn silent, and not because a catastrophic force had taken away all his senses, but quite literally, because the giant creature that was in a frenzy over Naruto's Tailed-Beast chakra suddenly turned sluggish, as if someone had forcibly put a leash around its neck.

Sasuke heard a fit of coughing coming out of Nagato's throat and he could see it too, how the man's body shook in pain ever so slightly as life force escaped with every one of his breaths.

Is that a threat, Sasuke wondered, to show me that he has control over the alien creature, so I would be mindful of his life? That was a natural conclusion, otherwise, he had no clue why Nagato would drain his energy just to lessen the pressure on his enemies.

"I know it better than anyone else, what Konan had chosen with her last actions," Nagato said with quick breaths as his eyes rested on Sasuke, whose muscles tensed in unease. "I thought we had lost it - Yahiko's hope, I mean. But it turns out that it was just me that had given up."

It can't be, you've got to be kidding me, Sasuke looked at Nagato with a frown full of disbelief. Yeah, perhaps the explosion did screw up his brain or something because this sudden introspection was an insult to every bit of Sasuke's mental preparation.

"I'm not the one who deserves a second chance to live as a human, she is." It was almost like Nagato was lost in his thoughts as he mumbled what crossed his mind for Sasuke to hear. "The thought of believing such idealistic hope again brings fear to my mind, and I've lost the courage to try. But Konan … yes, she will find a way to believe in her life, in her path, and in her hope."

It was then that his words turned feverish - he must have lost it at this point - as he said, "Rinne Tensei can revive the dead - those recorded by my Rinnegan within a certain time and a certain vicinity, anyway."

Sasuke's breath was caught in his throat as he processed Nagato's words. 'Those' he said, plural.

"If I revive her, Konan, as the sole survivor of Akatsuki, would have paid for my debt, wouldn't she?" Nagato asked and Sasuke wanted to laugh. He should be coming up with ways to force Nagato to use Rinne Tensei on those that had fallen in battle or to put a sword in his skull like he always wanted. All he had to do was to choose one, instead of standing here, listening to Nagato's self-reflection.

"What were you expecting?" Sasuke said, loathing himself on the inside. "Also, it wasn't like she's all that innocent in your hunt for Tailed-Beasts, is she?"

Nagato's thought process was beyond Sasuke, but with a moment of silence, the man spoke up again. "I will revive Konan and everyone killed in the battle of Konoha, but only for Konan's sake."

Nagato's proposal was like a torch in the middle of an eternal night, drawing Sasuke over like a moth to the flame, like a frozen traveller desperate for some warmth. But the last bit of rationality in his brain picked up the hidden implication behind Nagato's words, and it doused the flame without any mercy.

"Only those that had fallen in Konoha?" Sasuke asked and Nagato nodded in confirmation, with an expression that said that it couldn't be helped.

"Believe it or not, Rinne Tensei cannot reach those too far away, both in time and space, except for special circumstances," Nagato explained, the glint in his eyes told Sasuke that he might have lost some senses in his decision-making, but his intelligence was far from gone.

How could Konoha be the only one who had no casualty, who escaped the tragedy of loss? Sasuke was sure that it would be the question that other villages would have asked with seething anger and burning suspicion.

Nagato couldn't find a way to wash away Konan's sins, so he shared its burden with Konoha, over an offer that no one could refuse.

"Fine, Konoha will deal with it somehow," Sasuke said through his gritted teeth. "Konan too will find a way to deal with your mess. It sounds like she faces reality much better than you do anyway."

"That, I don't intend to argue," Nagato replied before quickly descending into another coughing fit.

In the aftermath of Rinne Tensei, the alliance between the villages might break apart into worse shape than before. They might be entering into another era of conflict, waged over perceived unfairness; over lives that shouldn't be lost and lives that shouldn't be saved. The other villages might have screamed for Konan's execution out of anger, right after they screamed for Konoha to compensate for their lost ones.

But whatever, life had to continue. Besides, how would they know for certain that things could break apart so easily? If they lost faith in the future so easily, then how was that any different from Nagato's bleak view?

If this was Nagato's idea of a test - a seed of strife being shed at his last moment - then Sasuke, until the day he died, would fight to prove him wrong.

"Tell Konan that using Rinne Tensei is a decision that I truly believed in," Nagato mumbled as he brought his hands together to make the hand seals.

"My existence, or my Rinnegan, was at least some part by the design of others. Even as I look back and examine my life, I cannot tell if I was acting as a puppet for something else. But this? I could be sure that it was something I believe to be worthy." For the first time, Nagato looked as if he found clarity and peace in his decision, after countless debates with his past and present.

It would have been a rare miracle, Sasuke gathered, if things ended here like one of those fairy tales in the children's books.

A black shadow, writhing in the dark like an aggregate of obsessions. It latched onto Nagato from the ground, when they least expected it.

"You should have been destroyed!" Nagato growled in disbelief as the shadow consumed half of his body and covered the left side of his face. This time, Sasuke didn't hesitate as he coated his blade with a layer of the divine black flame.

"You think that little blast can destroy me? I have survived in the shadows for eons, Nagato, scraping by using the fear and hate of others. Surely, I have a few secrets up my sleeve. You can thank your stubbornness, for Konan just died for nothing." Black Zetsu laughed as he relished the cruelty he had imposed on Nagato. Forcing Nagato's eyeballs to move, Black Zetsu laid his gaze on Sasuke's flaming sword.

"Don't fear me, young Sasuke. I'm just going to bring back one extra person using Rinne Tensei. You can still have the lives that Konoha had lost," the shadow said, trying to fill Sasuke's ears with temptation as a droplet of blood fell from the rim of his eyes.

"But if you destroy the Rinnegan now, you can say goodbye to those souls that could have been saved." The threats came right after that. Right, Sasuke was planning to aim Amaterasu right at Nagato's eyes, to destroy the godly power before Black Zetsu could misuse it.

"Are you going to kill them for a second time? Is this how you're repaying the person who made it possible for you to open those prized Mangekyou—"

The arc of black flame sliced through the air as Sasuke took a swing with his sword. With a curse, Black Zetsu forced Nagato to release a bout of repulsive force, to push both Amaterasu and Sasuke back in defence.

A skeleton of purple chakra protected his body just before Sasuke's back slammed into the ground. Hands made of bones expanded from the skeleton, digging into the barren earth as Sasuke rolled himself up from the ground.

Haven't I sinned enough in Ryuu's death? So what's the harm in adding another sin onto the list, Sasuke's thoughts spiralled as another layer of black flames already slithered up his blade, yearning to be released and devour anything it had touched.

"Ahhh, you jackass! How dare you twist your words and make it all into Sasuke's burden!" The scream should have been a warning, really, but Sasuke nevertheless felt his attention skipping a beat when a dash of gold descended from the sky and latched onto Black Zetsu with his orange tails.

"He's the kind that takes it seriously, ya know! And it will really hurt!" Naruto screamed in anger, but all it did was send a jolt of embarrassment down Sasuke's body. With a ripping sound, Naruto forced Black Zetsu off of Nagato and bashed him into the ground.

Letting out a choking sound, Black Zetsu tried to wrench himself back into the ground in between Naruto's blows, but Sasuke's attack followed without any pause. A black arrow pierced through the pool of shadow, making the creature writhe in pain as it tried its best to slip away.

Sasuke didn't think it was enough to kill Black Zetsu - perhaps, the concept of death might not even be possible, given everything that they had tried. But it was enough for Nagato to regain his bearings and bring his hands together, to finish what he always intended.

"No!" With Black Zetsu's scream in the background, Nagato clasped his fingers together and said, with utmost care and devotion, "Rinne Tensei."

A gate rose behind Nagato as it opened its mouth. Soon, sparks of green flew out of the bottomless pit, painting the evening sky into a mesmerizing scene of shooting stars. The stars gleamed with hope and flew in the direction of Konoha as if returning to their home. One of them landed near Sasuke, hovering just above the ground before expanding into a soft white glow.

Nagato breathed out a sigh of relief as his flesh crumbled and his hair bleached into a lifeless white. "Now, the future is in your hands."

"Nagato?" Sasuke didn't want to be the one who had to explain everything to Konan when she reappeared unharmed. But with one look at Nagato's lifeless body, she understood what he had chosen.

"He said it's a decision that he truly believed in," Sasuke told her before she could say another word. He couldn't wait to spit out the burden that Nagato had left behind. Leave me out of it, he thought, leave me out of your convoluted mess. They had so much to worry about, namely …

"Oh crap. It's riled up again," Naruto cursed as the giant creature roared at them while reaching forward with its long limbs. "Kurama told me that it's the husk used to seal the Tailed-Beasts, that's why it wants his chakra. It must have been starving."

It was because of Nagato's interference that Naruto escaped its pursuit and made it here. Now that he was dead, there was truly nothing that could control the alien-like creature.

Garuda rushed down from the sky and Naruto jumped on his back with a sense of familiarity. It was only when he turned that he realized that Sasuke didn't make it onto Garuda and the decision was intentional.

"Take him away!" Sasuke shouted at Garuda just before the husk crashed its arm down. The hawk let out a loud shriek as he carried Naruto out of the fray. With a series of body flickers, Sasuke narrowly avoided the impact as rubbles flew past his vision.

There it was, Nagato's fallen body, barely out of his reach. They needed to secure his Rinnegan and destroy it before it could be taken. A flurry of shikigami swirled around him, telling Sasuke that Konan had already caught on and opted to do the same thing as him.

But the ground had always been Zetsu's territory, especially the ground that had been surrounded by the vast forest. A wall of trees sprouted from the cracks in the earth, blocking Sasuke's path forward. Between the branches, he could see in his vision, Black Zetsu, now latched onto a white Zetsu, digging its black tendrils into Nagato's eye sockets.

Konan's Shikigami blew the blockade of trees apart like a hurricane. Sasuke couldn't care for the splinters that scratched his skin as he charged a batch of shuriken with lightning and sent them flying towards both Nagato's Rinnegan and Black Zetsu.

Despite the shower of projectiles that shadowed Zetsu from all directions, it paid them no attention as thick planks of wood grew from the White Zetsu it was latching onto, forming layers of shields around them.

This one was different, Sasuke registered. This one was stronger, sturdier, and had more mastery over Wood Release than all the throwaway clones he had cut down so far.

At the same time as when the storm of shikigami and electro-charged shuriken shredded the wooden defence, Sasuke heard a popping sound that disgusted him to his core. In many aspects, it was an image out of a nightmare, when White Zetsu gulped down the pair of Rinnegan and held them in its body.

Sasuke drove his sword into the ground, but the collective entity of Black and White Zetsu had already swerved around the sharp edge and retreated back into the ground. Under Konan's will, hundreds of shikigami wrapped around Nagato's dead body, protecting what was left of him. But it didn't change the fact that they were a beat too late.

Lightning rushed off the blade and into the ground as Sasuke tightened his grip, but nothing seemed to register in the feedback of the currents.

Focus, Sasuke pushed down stinging pain in his eyes as he forced his vision to be sharper. Black Zetsu opted to use a white Zetsu to transport Rinnegan to make sure no harm came to it. The mode of transportation used by white Zetsu, as Sasuke had come to learn, was based on Wood Release and Earth Release.

It would certainly leave a trace - a trace that even Sasuke's sharingan should be able to identify.

He saw it, the tingling of the ground, overshadowed by the ruckus that the giant creature was making, but nevertheless, jarring like the ripple made by a pebble thrown into the lake.

Sasuke moved, dashing forward as he pulled out a kunai and coated it with wild lightning. Without any hesitation, he threw it towards the tiny ripple of the earth and the blue electricity crawled into the earth upon contact.

As if sensing the incoming attack, the ripple in the ground turned, moving to the right to avoid being zapped. Sasuke was on it the moment he caught on. The cry of a thousand birds surrounded his blade as he raised it in concentration. His vision started to tunnel as he could focus on nothing else but the target hiding in the ground.

Only because of the sharingan was Sasuke able to see the looming danger coming from above.

In its pursuit of Naruto, the giant creature stomped around. It just so happened - or perhaps Zetsu led him to it - that an ugly paw was about to land on Sasuke. Before the creature could stomp Sasuke to the floor, a storm of shikigami crashed into its body and exploded in succession.

The explosion knocked the creature to the side, halting its momentum just enough for Sasuke to escape the fate of being squashed. In the corner of his vision, Sasuke saw Konan, half dissolved in a flurry of shikigami, carrying Nagato's body behind her.

She mouthed a quiet 'sorry' before wings gathered behind her back. She was going to leave, Sasuke realized. The battle ended for her the moment Nagato died. Before the war drew its conclusion and consequences started crashing down, Konan only had so much time to bury Nagato and say goodbye.

Sasuke turned his attention back to the problems at hand as Konan flew away from the battlefield. Some escaped to relish the last moments of stolen tranquillity, but others had reasons to stay and fight until their last breath.

"I can sense Black Zetsu! I'll lead the husk in its direction, but I need to free the other Tailed-Beasts somehow!" Sasuke heard a deafening yell from the sky and he resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Even in this situation, where Naruto was running for his life, he had to go take on more responsibilities.

But what could Sasuke do? This was Naruto, whom he couldn't say no to.

The shout from Naruto was like the first beat of the war drum, banding everyone's attention together, allowing them to answer the call to battle.

Garuda made a turn under Naruto's direction, narrowly avoiding the stream of the purple dragon that flowed out of the creature's mouth. The creature stumbled in balance as Garuda weaved in and out of its reach, sending up rubbles and pieces of broken wood as it advanced into the forest that was yet to be destroyed.

With an angry screech, it swiped both of its arms forward, attempting to block Naruto's path and catch him. But it was then that the space started to swirl around its arms. The harsh wind breathed the smell of blood into the atmosphere. It was as if the gods had taken a brush and stirred the surface known as the sky, drawing circles until the space itself snapped.

Mud-like liquid poured out of the creature's broken limbs as its claws disappeared from this world. The husk looked confused for a second as if it couldn't understand what in the world just happened. Sasuke wasn't sure how sentient it was other than its drive to satiate its hunger, but this was a moment too good for him to pass up.

Fire chakra gathered in Sasuke's throat, boiling, compressing, and concentrating to the limit of his control until finally, he had no choice but to unleash the flame of destruction that refused to bow to anyone, not even its creator.

A flaming serpent slithered up the creature's leg as patches of red, blue and violet flowed on its skin like liquid. It was one step from hell, but Sasuke was far from being done with this world, so he filled his limbs with chakra and ran with everything he got.

Exactly one second later, the fire serpent engulfed the creature's lower body in a blazing cloud. Heat pressed against Sasuke's back, searing his flesh, scorching his nerves. A shadow descended from the sky and Sasuke's body moved on its own, swinging himself onto the back of the ink bird and letting it carry him to the sky.

As Sai's bird carried him above the forest, Sasuke watched with shaky breaths how Naruto abandoned the safety on Garuda's back and jumped towards the husk in its moment of vulnerability. Nine-Tail Chakra roamed all over his body as the tails extended behind his back and latched onto three eyes that remained open on the statue's face.

"Come on!" Naruto shouted as the tips of his chakra tails manifested into claws that dug into the creature's eyes. The husk roared, struggling to shake Naruto off. A hint of purple was already on its tongue, but Sasuke ran his fingers over his sword and the blade lit up the black flames again.

It felt as if his vision was permanently dyed red by the blood that gathered in his eyes, but everything was so clear when Sasuke slashed his sword down and let the black crescent cut into the creature's throat, forcing it to choke down whatever it was about to puke out.

At the same time, a flash of pink dropped down from above. Sakura punched into the husk's head and Sasuke could feel the shockwave of the impact even at this distance. The creature's body was unbelievably hard to crack, but Sakura's punch packed enough force to make it sink into the earth.

All the chaos converged, exploded, and then turned silent when Naruto managed to pull out three figures from the husk. A four-tailed ape, a five-tailed goat, and a two-tailed cat. Sasuke couldn't help but be awed when the shapes of the captured Tailed-Beasts - so lifelike, yet so mystical - shimmered under the evening sky.

As they were returned to nature in its rawest, purest form, they were finally free.

Based on how mad the creature was over losing its possessions, Sasuke doubted that any of their problems were solved. They still had a pair of eyes to retrieve and they still had an otherworldly creature to deal with. If anything, the latter only became more troublesome.

"We're heading in the direction of Konoha," Sai observed as he guided Sasuke's ink bird to pick up Sakura and they regrouped in the sky. Naruto was way ahead of them, following Black Zetsu while also occupying the creature's attention with Garuda's agile maneuvers.

This was like a trainwreck, and the direction of their collision was determined by Black Zetsu, who had chosen Konoha to be the final destination.

"It doesn't look like methods of destruction are working for the husk," Kakashi-sensei said as he wiped the blood off of his face, quite a useless endeavour to get rid of the pungent smell when his mask was already soaked through. Still, it seemed to help Kakashi-sensei focus as he strained his eyes on the giant creature, whose arms were starting to regenerate slowly from where it was cleaved off by Kamui.

Tōda's concentrated fire barely managed to scorch the creature's skin and Sakura's punch that could split open a mountain didn't even make a dent in its body. Even Amaterasu was unable to burn off more than a chunk of the creature's neck before Sasuke's control over it faltered.

"It's the same with Black Zetsu. It somehow managed to survive 500 explosion tags and escape from Amaterasu. I don't think normal means can get rid of it either," Sasuke added, feeling Sakura's medical chakra hovering over his back as she healed the burns and replenished his chakra.

It was as if the rules of the universe ordained them to be immortal. If that was the case, then they just needed to trap it somewhere it couldn't get out.

"We have to seal them into a different space," Kakashi-sensei said as all of them reached the same conclusion. Immediately, Sasuke, Sai, and Sakura stared at Kakashi-sensei's left sharingan, with various degrees of skepticism.

"Well, I guess that we're on the same page. That makes things easy." Kakashi-sensei looked like he might have let out a chuckle, if not for the fact that it hurt to even be awake now. But yes, all of them caught onto Kakashi-sensei's plan of action without the need for further explanation.

When Team 7 was barely a batch of freshly graduated genin, they boldly claimed that one day, they would be able to fight alongside their Jonin-sensei, to be strong and intuitive enough to catch the pace of the battle as it shifted at every second.

Sasuke supposed that it was time to put that claim to test.

"Obviously, a few things need to be solved if we're going down that route. First and foremost, I won't have enough chakra to support teleportation that expansive." Kakashi-sensei paused a little before an idea lit up in his eyes. "Unless Naruto lent me some of his Nine-Tail chakra again."

"The last time he tried to share his chakra with us, it ended up making us a target for the giant creature," Sakura recalled as she flexed her wrist, switching from healing mode to battle mode.

"We can use that," Sasuke said without any delay. "We have to guide the husk and Black Zetsu together anyway."

Looking at the state that Kakashi-sensei was in, they only got one shot with Kamui to suck both of them in. That required them to group Black Zetsu and the husk into one place when it was unlikely for the former to do so voluntarily.

"Next, I need them to remain temporarily immobile for my Kamui to work." Kakashi-sensei glanced around before adding, "Sai and Sakura can fill Naruto in and deal with the husk, while Sasuke and I will work on Black Zetsu."

The ultimate objective was identified. The targets were delegated accordingly. No methods were specified so it was up to them to figure things out as they went. After all, they were no longer rookies that needed to be held hands at every step of the mission.

"Take care of your Mangekyou, Sasuke," Kakashi-sensei said to him before they jumped down from Sai's bird. His voice was barely a whisper that could be drowned out by the harsh wind at any moment. "Only one of us needs to go blind after this."

Sasuke could see the faint traces of chakra travelling between the vegetation, flickering in and out of existence in his vision, making it hard for him to pinpoint Zetsu's precise path. He curled his fingers in front of his mouth and blew out four chains of fire dragons.

The fire dragons breezed through the forest, incinerating every tree that looked suspicious in Sasuke's eyes. Finally, Sasuke caught the glimpse of a black shadow, escaping the tree trunk before it was roamed through by the fire.

Immediately, white masses bud off of Zetsu, expanding into a wall of white Zetsu clones within the span of a single breath. At that moment, countless chakra signals filled Sasuke's vision. As if mocking Sasuke's half-assed sensing, Zetsu slid back into the ground along with its brethren and soon, its signature would have blended in with all the clones like a drop of water entering the sea.

Yeah, as if Sasuke would just let it happen.

A dozen clusters of Hōsenka flew out of Sasuke's mouth at the same time as when he threw out a handful of shuriken. The fire enveloped the metal projectiles while the shuriken guided their paths with even more precision.

The flaming shuriken stuck to the ground, but the strength behind it determined that it wouldn't do anything but make a dent in the ground. Sasuke could hear the jeers from the white Zetsu clones that stayed above ground to attack him, but before one of them could even finish their laughter, Sasuke had already sliced it in half as a web of electricity flowed across his blade.

It was then that a series of thunderbolts rained down, each with barely the thickness of Sasuke's fingers. Yet, when they made an impact with the burning shuriken marked on the ground, the implosion dug deep into the earth and drove out whatever was hiding underground, every single last one of them.

The patchwork of black and white escaped from the flying rubble with a hiss as it turned and saw Kakashi standing some distance away, his fingers still pointing in their direction after he called the falling thunder.

Sasuke adjusted the sword in his grip as he took into the feedback from the blade. There was no mistake, these clones were like paper when compared to the one that Black Zetsu had latched on. If there was an original White Zetsu, then it would be the one that Black Zetsu fused to protect and transport the Rinnegan.

Furthermore, the number of clones being shed by the original White Zetsu was significantly less than during their earlier confrontation. Is it because of chakra exhaustion? Sasuke was skeptical of that idea. Then … is it a matter of attention?

If White Zetsu had to use most of its attention for protecting the pair of Rinnegan in its body, keeping it viable and rejuvenated after it had left a living body, then it would explain the lack of pressure it was exerting on its pursuers.

I could follow them all, Sasuke confirmed in his head. If this was the best level of diversion that Zetsu could use, then Sasuke could catch them all in his burning gaze.

Now that Black Zetsu was driven out of its hiding by the lightning, Sasuke refused to give it any time to reorient. He stabbed his sword into the ground and a web of electricity expanded from his feet, racing forward and springing up again from below, preventing Zetsu from diving back into the earth again.

With fluidity, Zetsu morphed its body to avoid the electricity currents as it looked to run away from the sides, only for a dozen shuriken coated with electricity to sail past its body. Despite the fast reaction, the electrical discharge from one of the projectiles still left a sizzling mark on its skin.

Clones of white Zetsu peeled off the white part of its body accordingly, swallowing up the projectiles and rendering them a dud, leaving only four shuriken to hit the trees with fading electricity.

Sasuke frowned when he saw the patch of skin on Zetsu's shoulder that was grazed by the electricity. It doesn't feel right, it must be … Despite the racing thoughts in his head, Sasuke's hands couldn't stop moving as he gathered up a giant fireball and shot it forward.

Zetsu raced towards the surrounding tree trunks, wanting to hide in its home turf - the forest that never ended. But a flash of electricity hit the leftover shuriken in the trees, bouncing off the metallic pieces one by one, connecting them with strings of flowing electrical currents.

In the blink of an eye, Kakashi-sensei sealed off Black Zetsu's escape using a prison of lightning. The fireball pressing forward would have forced him to concentrate on defence, thus stalling him here as per their plan.

But of course, they didn't live in a vacuum. There were so many things happening in the space around them that it wasn't even a surprise anymore when the earth shook as the husk fell back and crashed into the earth with its clunky body.

Sasuke could see the splash of ink that covered the husk's face when Sai let his ink beast crash into the creature. Naruto's Rasengan followed suit, which caused the earlier commission. With the ink birds now gone, Sai and Sakura fell from the sky, but their calm demeanour told Sasuke that it was all under control … probably.

The earthquake loosened the projectiles stuck in the wood, making the electrical prison falter in consistency. Black Zetsu didn't miss that moment of opening as he left a bloated clone in his place as the decoy to be swallowed by the flame, before escaping the destruction and melting into a tree root that was exposed when the ground turned.

Sakura landed a hundred metres away from Sasuke. Their eyes met for a moment and Sakura gave him a small nod. The signal was clear: they had finished their fair share of the preparation.

It was too bad that Sasuke was having some problem on their ends, namely, the fact that the body that Black Zetsu latched on right now was most definitely just a clone. If it was the original, then that weak electrical discharge wouldn't have been able to leave a graze with such clarity.

This meant that the real Rinnegan was probably being kept by one of those white masses that had sunk back into the earth earlier. It was a bold move for Black Zetsu to allow for Rinnegan to be moved separately while he drew all the fire. But it was also a genius move, for even Naruto, with his superior sensing, would have marked Black Zetsu as the abnormal entity out of dozens of copies of white Zetsu.

With a deep breath, Sasuke shouted at the top of his lungs, "Focus on the Rinnegan!" That confusing sentence came out of nowhere, but all Sasuke wanted was to catch Naruto's attention as he hovered in the distance.

Naruto's body jolted in response, telling Sasuke that his voice was just enough, thanks to Naruto's enhanced senses. All right, they better get it, "It's just like the bell test! Just don't fall for the same trick as what Sensei used last time."

Naruto complained for three days straight after their first meeting with Kakashi-sensei, about how unfair it was for him to use a shadow clone. That meant that Sasuke and Sakura had to listen to him complain for three days to the point that they were getting calluses on their ears.

So, if they didn't want to fall for the same trick again, they better realize that Black Zetsu was never the real target, only a pretender that drew the fire.

"You bet that we've learned!" Naruto's shouts came as a premonition of the destruction to come. Orbs of wind chakra swirled and crashed against each other as they spun in hands made of chakra tails. Without giving their enemy any time to react, Naruto threw them all towards the ground and let them split through the trees and shred through the forest floor.

Sakura didn't have any sensing abilities to help her locate the masses of white Zetsu by chakra, but common logic dictated that she should aim for the ground. After that, the range of the attack was the least of her worries as she slammed her fists into the ground and forced the earth to crumble under her punch.

Once again, every last of those white creatures in the area was driven out under the merciless attacks, including Black Zetsu. The holes it called eyes caught Sasuke amidst the flying rubble and saw the vindictive intent in his glare.

It might have even flinched when Sasuke raised his sword that was burning a black flame and sliced it down. But more likely than not, even that moment of fear was just a feigned act, masking the mockery it had for Sasuke when he was fooled by the wrong target.

But when the scythe of Amaterasu was about to reach Black Zetsu, Sasuke's right eye pulsed. It was as if someone had placed the black flames in his hands, malleable, flexible, and completely under his control.

Like Kagutsuchi who commanded the flames as the god of fire, Sasuke could feel Amaterasu - a flame that remained heavenly and aloof - answer his bidding. With a pull of his fingers, the blade made of black fire fell apart and scattered like threads.

Black Zetsu looked like it choked on shock when strings of black flame pierced through each and every one of the white Zetsu that got exposed when the ground turned over. Inevitably, its eyes followed the only white mass it cared about - the original White Zetsu who kept the Rinnegan.

"What do I do!" White Zetsu let out a scream as Amaterasu threaded through its body. But as soon as the black flame touched it, the fine needlework fell apart and the fire started to consume its body in full.

In a state of panic, White Zetsu regurgitated out the pair of Rinngenan in its body. At this point, Black Zetsu couldn't see anything else other than those eyeballs - not the fact that Sasuke was running away from the area, not the fact that Nine-tail's chakra signature dimmed around Naruto, and certainly not the fact that a coat of orange was burning around Kakashi-sensei whose presence had almost faded into the background until this moment.

Black Zetsu dashed across the air and curled its tendrils around the pair of Rinnegan with care. Then, something rammed into it like a meteor, causing it to let out a gagged screech as it got plastered on the fist of the giant husk that was heading straight towards Kakashi-sensei.

It only had the time to cushion the Rinngan with its own body before a kunai zoomed towards it. Sakura threw the kunai with enough force that it dug into the creature's fist. Only by sheer reflex, did Black Zetsu melt his body around the projectile and shifted the eyeballs away

The seal attached to the kunai handle glowed, shining a light to illuminate the expression of horror on the mass of black that had been reduced to a sheet of pancake.

A set of forty-nine seals, the strongest binding seals that Naruto carried on him, and the last one had just been put in place. Adamantine chains stretched across the seals, tying the giant creature in place - and Black Zetsu to the creature - restraining its movement with principles that went beyond physical strength.

It was a rare moment of tranquillity before the fabric of the world started to fold and twist. Kakashi-sensei gasped with large breaths as the chakra coat around him burned to supply the vast amount of chakra he needed.

Sasuke thought it was kind of ironic that when he threw a shuriken forged using Amaterasu towards the pair of Rinnegan that remained in Black Zetsu's clutch, it instinctively tried to shift its mud-like body away in self-preservation - not that it worked under the binding seals.

"I won't die, you know that! Hundreds of years, thousands of years! When all of you are nothing but rotting flesh and bones, I will find a way to come back! Ahhhh!" Extreme selfishness, apathy, wickedness … everything mixed together and condensed into a creature known as Black Zetsu.

But those curses barely made a ripple in Sasuke's heart when everything - the struggling giant husk, Black Zetsu, even the pair of Rinnegan that was still burning in Amaterasu - disappeared into a portal.

Like a tone of finality, Sasuke heard a thud as Kakashi-sensei's knees hit the ground while he clutched onto his bleeding Mangekyou.

"Sensei!" Sakura let out a yell of worry, but her hand was shaking for a different reason. When they made up this strategy, Kakashi-sensei never planned for Kamui to exist beyond this use. Only this way, would they be able to truly lock the husk and Black Zetsu into a different space.

Therefore, as the medical-nin of the team, Sakura was charged with the task of destroying the Mangekyou. Sucking in a breath to solidify her determination, Sakura steadied her hand and let a layer of chakra scalpel materialize out of her fingers.

Still, when Kakashi-sensei raised his head again, what Sasuke and Sakura - and later, Naruto and Sai, as they gathered - saw made all of them pause.

"Kakashi-sensei … can you see through your left eye?" Sasuke asked as he stared at the lifeless pupil in their teacher's gaze. The gray sclera was like a film of glass, reflecting back to Sasuke an ending that he would inevitably reach, determined the moment his Mangekyou opened.

It took Kakashi-sensei's exhausted brain a moment to understand what Sasuke was implying. Slowly, he closed his right eye, only leaving the remnant of what used to be his sharingan open. A second later, he shook his head before letting out a weak laugh.

It was funny that out of all the remaining Uchiha who burnt away their Mangekyou like they ignited the flame of their life, it was Kakashi-sensei who exhausted the power of his Mangekyou first.

"It really is for the best." Kakashi-sensei laughed until he choked on his own blood, making Sakura flash him a glare of disapproval. Still, Sakura ran her medical chakra over their sensei's eyes just to make sure, eventually confirming that the grayed-out sharingan no longer reacted to any sort of chakra stimulation.

"Let's return to the village." That was all Kakashi-sensei said when Naruto and Sakura looked at him with concern, mostly because they were wondering if he had gone insane from the trauma. After all, what sane person would start laughing when they just lost one of their eyes - not just any eye, but a Sharingan that gave Kakashi-sensei his fame as the copy-ninja.

But Sasuke had a feeling that compared to the power of the Sharingan itself, it was something else that Kakashi-sensei was glad that he didn't have to destroy.

"I hope Rinne Tensei worked," Naruto muttered as they picked up their tired limbs from the ground and climbed onto Sai's ink birds. Garuda was long released from his summons so Sasuke could conserve his chakra.

Sasuke wanted to know as well, after witnessing Konan's revival with his own eyes. A seed of hope had been sown in his chest, like a butterfly fluttering its wings, stirring up a wave of restlessness to the point that it became nauseating.

But when they ascended into the sky and raced towards Konoha, a breath was caught in Sasuke's throat as he felt his heartbeat was overwhelmed by arrhythmia.

Finally, Konoha entered his vision in the far, far distance, barely a dot in size. But everything that Sasuke remembered Konoha to be was now replaced by a wasteland of broken meteorites.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

Watch. Observe. Learn everything you can about the entity known as Uchiha Madara.

That was the last sentence Tsunade-sama left me before she joined Sandaime in the battle against Uchiha Madara.

She didn't have to tell me, really, for I already couldn't peel my eyes away.

"The evacuation into Northern underground containment is complete. There are still around one hundred that need to evacuate into the Western containment, and fifty into the East." I heard Inoichi-san's report in my head as I watched Sandaime swinging the giant bō into the blue ribcage that surrounded Madara.

With nonchalance, Madara flicked his finger, and an arm made of bones extended from his side, grabbing onto the bō staff and halting its movement. Sandaime pushed forward and the bō lengthened under his command, pushing into the Susanoo at its end, forcing Madara to take a step back to regain balance.

"Jiraiya-sama, how many localized barriers can we set up?" I asked in my head without moving my gaze away. The force from the bō made Madara raise an eyebrow, but with merely a spin of his body, the ribcage slammed its other arm into the staff and threw it along with Sandaime to the side.

Just then, Tsunade rammed into the ribcage with her iron punch. With a shockwave, the impact pushed the partial Susanoo into the ground as cracks started to materialize on the surface of the ribcage.

"Three at maximum, but their strength will be inversely proportional to the number we have to set up." Jiraiya's voice came through after a while. The temporary commanding unit had to stay on the surface for the Yamanaka Mind-body transmission to function effectively and for Nara-san to gauge the situation accurately.

Madara's partial Susanoo shimmered as Tsunade-sama's attack bashed open a moment of vulnerability. Without any pause, Saidaime sucked in a breath before blowing out a water dragon with a size that could be compared to a Tsunami.

The vortex of water drilled towards Madara, pressuring into the shield of blue with unrelenting force. But the moment the ribcage shattered like glass, Madara slashed his gunbai in one fluid motion, hitting Tsunade-sama away with the handle before using the fan to take a swipe at the stream of fire that flew out of his mouth.

In a fraction of a second, all I could see was a sea of orange as the blazing flame, despite the element's natural disadvantage, swallowed up the water dragon in one full sweep.

"Sixty left at the Western containment. Twenty left in the East."

What looked like a ball of fire shot out of the blazing sea, but upon closer inspection, it was actually Tsunade-sama as she was covered by the flame. I heard Shizune-san let out a sound of worry, but that kind of damage wouldn't kill Tsunade-sama.

As expected, Tsunade-sama crashed into a crater, but she quickly picked herself up as the fire that she caught quickly got smouldered by the smooth layer of chakra released around her body.

"Is this the standard for Hokage nowadays? How underwhelming." As the smoke cleared, I could vaguely see what Madara was saying through the movement of his lips. Flames danced around his unprotected body. Even without the Susanoo as a shield, he stood as if nothing could hurt him.

Tsunade-sama's breathing picked up as she raised her head to look at Madara, who also spared a glance at the severe burns that covered her arms and the front side of her body. "It seems that being Hashirama's descendant didn't make you inherit his strength. After all, strength only belongs to a singular entity."

It took Tsunade-sama a second for the regeneration to wash over the damage on her throat, but when it did, she stood up under Madara's pressuring gaze while her burnt flesh peeled off to reveal the inhuman regeneration. "Ah, I didn't inherit his strength, but I figured out my own."

"Why must you continue, Madara? Even the one who has summoned you back from the dead has released Edo Tensei," Sandaime shouted as he steadied his footing. It had only been a few minutes, but the continuous stream of ninjutsu he had to keep up just to crack Madara's defence was not kind to his stamina.

But anyone with eyes could see that Madara had used the bare minimum of his efforts to repel all the attacks that had rained down. While Tsunade-sama and Sandaime were trying to occupy his attention, Madara was playing along as he tried to gather information on the situation.

That balance was never going to last long, and Madara was running out of patience.

"Do not presume to understand my motivation, Hiruzen. I couldn't care less about who summoned me back and what they wanted." A burst of energy erupted from Madara's body as the blue ribcage reformed around his body. Soon, a layer of musculature smoothed over the skeleton as the rest of the blue giant rose from the ground, elevating Madara to a height that loomed over the village.

"I am back, that's the only thing I care about, and I will see to it that my wish is obtained, even if Obito and Nagato had screwed up everything with their incompetence." Before anyone could process his words, Madara rushed forward. The pattern of Mangekyou in his eyes burned with fervour as the humanoid Susanoo sliced his sword down on Sandaime.

"The evacuation into the Eastern containment is complete! There are still around forty left at the Western facility. The battalions are in place around the outskirts of the village." The report from Inoichi-san came at the same time as when Sandaime blocked the sword strike with his bō, but without giving him any time to rest, a second sword appeared in the giant's hand and dropped down in a heartbeat.

"Unit 1, 2, 5 and 6, Earth spike!" The command from Nara-san rang loud in my ears and immediately, four giant spikes of earth rose from the edge of the battlefield and attempted to cage the Susanoo in a criss-cross shape.

The blue giant only got delayed for a second, before it shattered all the rocks with one movement. Using that time, Sandaime propped himself into the air using his bō staff and narrowly avoided the blade that glowed blue.

Meanwhile, Tsunade-sama broke one of the earth spikes that had yet to be shattered in half. Carrying the large pillar, Tsunade-sama landed on another broken earth spike and launched herself into the air. With a deafening yell, she slammed the broken pillar into the back of Susanoo.

The force of the impact shook the ground and made Madara turn. The earth pillar broke apart into a waterfall of rubbles and dust, creating a visual curtain around the torso of Susanoo. It was then that Sandaime clapped his hands together and released a compressed stream of wind that shredded into Madara's Susanoo.

Even Madara had to treat the attack with seriousness when he felt the Susanoo's defence started to be shaved open at that point of impact. To everyone's surprise, Madara didn't even blink as he jumped out of his Susanoo and thus abandoned the greatest arsenal given by the Mangekyou.

Using his own shattering Susanoo as a platform, he dashed towards Sandaime before he could even react. Very barely, Sandaime raised his handguard and blocked Madara's strike. But fighting in midair was a battle of opportunity. Madara jammed his knee into Sandaime's spleen without any hesitation and when Sandaime's body froze up by the impact, Madara clawed onto Sandaime's neck and both of them crashed down to the ground.

"Sarutobi-sensei!" Tsunade-sama yelled as she rushed forward. But to her horror, a block of wood rose from the earth and turned into the shape of Madara himself.

"Wood Release," Tsunade-sama breathed out the words in shock when the wooden clone of Madara let an intense aura of chakra envelop him until another Susanoo stared right down at her.

"Unit 3 to 5, retreat and scatter!" Nara-san barely had the time to shout out the orders, before Susanoo slashed its sword down and the shockwave tore open the earth without any mercy.

Closer to the village, a giant crater was formed when both Sandaime and Madara plummeted down from the sky. Madara's red eyes swirled as he pressed Sandaime - bloodied and unmoving - into the rubbles.

"Hiruzen, are Obito and Nagato dead?" Madara asked as he forced the genjutsu on Sandaime.

Sandaime spat out a mouthful of blood, but words flowed out of his mouth without his consent, "Obito is dead … Nagato is defeated and weakened."

"And the Tailed-Beasts? Are they all captured into the Gedo Statue?" Madara asked again, not giving Sandaime any time to breathe.

"... Three are captured … we won't let the rest be taken." Those words must be Sandaime's last bit of defiance to Madara's tyranny, who just let out a cold laugh in response.

"Neither Black nor White Zetsu are here, so they must be collecting the Rinnegan for me. As for the Tailed-Beasts, I should probably get to them now," Madara said without an ounce of care as he was ready to end Sandaim's life with another blow. However, only those in the Mind-Body transmission could hear the raspy words that were whispered.

"Don't interfere," Sandaime said to us, having already broken out of the genjutsu.

His breathing almost looked silent and I could barely see the rise and fall of his chest. Yet, it was with such ferocity that he stretched out his hand and grabbed Madara's ankle. Lightning exploded from Sandaime's body as electricity spread all over Madara, creating a moment of paralysis just from the intensity of the current.

"Shiki Fūjin!" Sandaime's voice was shaking as he brought his hands together in an attempt to finish the seal, hoping to catch Madara with the hands of Shikigami before the lightning lost its effect. There was only a second of distance away from success, but it never reached the finish line.

My heart skipped a beat when I saw Madara's Mangekyou swirling into another set of eyes with completely different colours and patterns. With Rinnegan, the lightning got sucked into oblivion, reminding me of Number 3's ability to negate chakra-based attacks.

With a kick, Madara broke the bones in Sandaime's hands. Before he could end Sandaime's life with a slice of his gunbai, Tsunade-sama created an earthquake with her punch and disrupted Madara's balance.

Disregarding the slash on her back that reached as deep as the spine, Tsunade-sama dashed to pick up Sandaime and retreated some distance away.

"One more tenketsu," Shizune-san muttered with panic in her voice, but her healing hands remained steady. But we're out of options. What was the point of a career as a shinobi when there was no future left?

But before I could move away from my spot, Madara paused in his movement as he raised his eyes to the sky. I looked up and sucked in a breath at the unbelievable sight in front of my eyes.

It was like a meteor shower, as sparks of green comets flashed through the sky and descended into the village. Under the sharingan, I could see clusters of chakra started growing at where the comets landed.

"... Those killed in battle are being revived - not through Edo Tensei, but truly … revived." I could hear the disbelief in Inoichi-san's voice as he relayed what those around the village were reporting.

A Miracle.

The comets - the sparks of life - came from Nagato's direction, so it must be an ability of the Rinnegan. Given what Madara said when he first appeared, about how this was not how he imagined that he would return to this world, I suddenly realized.

Madara was always sure of the fact that he would be revived, not through Edo Tensei, but through this.

"Those that got revived, are they scattered? Can they be evacuated quickly?" I asked in a hurry as unease boiled in my mind. Nobody liked to have things that they already claimed to be used by another, especially not Uchiha Madara, who believed his own value - his will - to be the only thing worthy of such a miracle.

"We collected the bodies of the deceased that we can find in the Community Square." They weren't even close to one of the underground hideouts. "But there are those that got revived in all corners of the village." Okay, even worse news.

"Done!" Shizune-san yelled in a hurry as she injected the last wave of medical chakra into my body. Without any warning, I grabbed her and started running into the village.

"How foolish of me to even think that others can ever be competent," Madara said and for the first time, I could clearly hear the rage and anger in his voice.

"I wasn't going to deal with Konoha until I was done with the Tailed-Beasts, seeing that the village was already battered by war, but given the resistance you've been putting on, I think it's only fair that I take back what should have belonged to me." Madara raised a hand into the sky and tilted his head, making the pair of Rinnegan fully visible.

"Tengai Shinsei."

I thought that nothing could ever shock me anymore after seeing that display of Chibaku Tensei. Oh, how wrong could I be.

A meteorite with a size that dwarfed Konoha crashed down from the sky and made the clouds part ways for its destruction. Shadows loomed above the village like a total eclipse that covered the everlasting source of light, truly a premonition of the apocalypse.

"All the battalions around the village outskirt, move away from the village!" Nara-san shouted just before Inoichi-san reported, "Other than the revived shinobi, the Western containment still has a crowd that didn't make it in!"

"Jiraiya! Pull up a barrier around the Commanding station and another one at the entrance to Western Containment. As for the revived shinobi …" There was a pause as Tsunade-sama tried to figure out what to do with them when none of our defence measures considered the possibility of their existence.

"I'm heading there!" I supplied in my mind, and Tsunade-sama followed up with my thought quickly, "Get all the revived shinobi to either the Community Square, the Western Containment, or the Commanding Unit."

Even before I reached the Community Square, I expanded the full size of Susanoo around myself and Shizune-san. In that instant, I felt a gaze trained on me, judging me, examining me, scrutinizing me. But I had no time to be scared as I landed near the group of shinobi that gathered, all were previously announced as deceased.

"Maiko-senpai." I heard Ryuu's gasp of surprise before I found him amongst the crowd. For a moment, I couldn't figure out if the feeling rising up in my chest was hope or despair. So, I ignored everything and shouted. "Please stay close together!"

As I enveloped the silver chakra around everyone I could count, I saw a giant rod growing into the sky and pounding into the surface of the meteorite. Sandaime - at his last leg - stood in front of the barrier around the Western Underground Containment as Konoha-nin and Medical-nin rushed to send the injured into the hideout.

A little farther away at the Commanding unit, I could see a giant slug that continued to expand in size in an attempt to wrap around the barrier.

Despite Sandaime's best effort, the rod barely made a difference to the falling meteorite, other than some cracks that started to expand like a spider web at the point of impact. What if …

Immediately, I made the Susanoo raise its arms as the silver chakra flowed into the shape of a bow. In one fluid movement, yin-chakra fire gathered in the giant's palm as it notched the arrow back.

I barely had the time to let the spinning magatama settle in shape before I fired the arrow off into the meteorite. If the giant rock had fallen onto Konoha in one big compacted piece, all the weight would have crushed down together and flattened the village. But If I could just break it up a little, loosen it so that it was more likely to break into pieces, then perhaps the damage could be lessened.

The flaming arrow drilled into the meteor with a deafening explosion, merely seconds before it fell down. I saw in the corner of my eyes, how Gai and Asuma were rushing over with two shinobi slugged over their shoulders.

They barely made it into the reach of my Susanoo as the silver giant hunched down and wrapped its wings all over its body. When everything crashed down, I couldn't - I didn't want to - think about those that were still left outside; those that didn't make it into one of the barriers on time; those that were revived just to be sent to another death.

Otherwise, I would have gone insane.

Uchiha Madara stayed to observe the aftermath as his body reformed from paper dust. He narrowed his eyes in the direction of the Community Square, where my Susanoo remained among the piles and piles of broken meteorites, with holes all over its body and had its wings broken into pieces.

The ringing in my ear wouldn't stop as I struggled to keep my body straight. Every bone in my body felt as if it had been snapped in half, but somehow, everything still connected and I was still alive.

The last bit of the village that survived the earlier invasion was now reduced to dust.

Slugs started to appear from the crevices between the rubbles as they searched for any survivors and healed the injured. That made me turn my head and look in the direction of the Commanding Unit.

The barrier was beyond destruction, but a slimy layer of white covered what used to be the Commanding Station, creating a protective cushion. But when my eyes rested on the figure resting near, I had to cover my mouth to stop a cry from coming out.

Tsunade-sama slumped by the pillow of Katsuyu, looking as if she had aged half a century. A copy of Katsuyu-sama nudged her with worry, but very slowly, she shook her head, probably telling them to use the last bit of her chakra left, not to treat herself, but to treat the survivors left, however many there were.

Her eyes turned a little and both of us saw the iron forest constructed of a dozen bō staff, sticking out amidst the rubble, sheltering the entrance to the Western Underground Containment. Sandaime stood by one of the iron rods, his legs stuck to the ground as he remained in the defensive stance.

His chest wasn't moving. There was no heartbeat left.

It was so out of place when a crow hovered above this wasteland that I called home before swooping down and landing on my shoulder. It dangled its feet and a piece of message dropped down in front of my eyes.

I know about Uchiha Madara. I'm coming back soon.

With Sandaime's death, there was no one left that knew how to perform Shiki Fūjin. And let's not talk about the Rinnegan and its ninjutsu-negating ability that came straight out of my nightmare. Again.

But when Itachi used that succinct tone, it implied that he was thinking of a solution, so I needed to figure out mine.

Slowly, I closed my eyes and swallowed the mouthful of blood that clogged my throat. Susanoo shimmered around me like the screen of a broken television before I disintegrated its damaged body. In the blink of an eye, I let the rush of lightning fill my limbs as I zoomed to the edge of the village.

Madara paused in his footsteps as I arrived near him. He turned and laid his eyes - it had returned to the Eternal Mangekyou now - on me and I stared back unflinching. It was always so hard for me to hide the emotions in the sharingan, so I was sure that he saw it all in the swirling tri-petal flowers that were engraved in my eyes.

Do not leave, my eyes said. Do not leave just to destroy more that I held dear.

"I figured there might be Uchiha left in Konoha that had the Mangekyou, but that pattern in your eyes, it looks too complex to be just a pair of normal Mangekyou," Madara said as he examined my eyes. "Eternal Mangekyou and Complete Susanoo, consider my interest piqued."

"Were you the one who devised the plan for Infinite Tsukuyomi?" I asked the question I always wanted to ask. As expected, Madara admitted it with ease. "And Uchiha Obito, Nagato … they are what, your successors, your proxies?"

"Successors? Proxies?" Madara laughed when he heard that. "Don't make me laugh, Uchiha child, they're just tools used to carry out my plan - quite disappointing tools, in fact."

Ah, that confirms it, I thought with a sense of dread that I didn't know I had. There was no convincing Uchiha Madara to stop, even if the majority of his plan had been fucked up and almost all of Obito's preparation had been demolished.

Every one of his actions and words told me that his conviction was stronger than anything I had seen. He had extreme confidence - but with the power to live up to it - over his abilities and values and he trusted no one but his own strength.

Even if Sasuke and his teammates had somehow destroyed the Rinnegan, even if the Tailed-Beasts that were already captured by Akatsuki were rescued … even if hell froze over, Uchiha Madara would continue towards his goal, by himself, until the end of time.

It was too bad that Edo Tensei made sure that he wouldn't be limited by time and mortality.

"But you, Uchiha child, disappoints me as well," Madara suddenly spoke up as the intensity in his gaze increased to the point that it felt suffocating. "The power of sharingan evolved for one to stand alone. At the level of our Eternal Mangekyou, we should have been unaffected by anything else - anyone else - in our path."

He nodded at the destruction behind me and with a mocking tone, he said, "I can see your fatigue and injuries. Yet, you used your power to protect those who don't have the strength to help you in a single bit, as you come here to face me."

"Strength is singular. No one else can help you, and you're better off walking alone."

Right, he did write something similar on the Eternal Mangekyou, about walking a path with unwavering hearts or something. I didn't take that sentence to be this extreme, but I supposed that time really did a number on people.

"That's unfortunate. When I obtained the Eternal Mangekyou, I realized that even if I wanted to, I was never walking my path alone," I said and watched Madara raise an eyebrow at my objection. His patience was as fickle as his interest, and both were running thin.

"What an unworthy mindset for the Eternal Mangekyou." Madara shook his head as he turned around, ready to move on and collect what he believed to be his - Rinnegan, Tailed-Beasts, whatever. But the sound of my sword unsheathing made him pause his movement.

"Are you going to stop me from leaving?" With such a battered body and naive mindset, and you think you can stop me from leaving? That was the real question he was asking.

"Yes," I answered. Or at least, I'll die trying.


A/N: RIP a lot of things. As you can probably imagine, I'm not going to deal with the Ten-Tail or Kaguya for this story. Madara, Edo Tensei version, will be the final stage. For me, Madara really has the conviction and power to make a story of 'one against the world' lean towards the side of 'one'.

Thanks for all the kind comments and encouragement I've been getting. They're really pushing me to finish this when I'm getting writer's blocks just before the end lol. I have some epilogue chapters that I will write after the war, but we have maybe two more chapters for this arc (hopefully, I planned to have three more chapters when it was three chapters ago, look how that turned out XD). So really, my thanks to all my readers!