Chapter 83 - Spark

"The world is ending and you're taking a moment to recover from dizziness," Orochimaru mocked with distaste as Itachi struggled to keep his head from spinning due to the blood loss.

Itachi leaned against a tree as he dug his fingers into the barks, trying to ingrain the texture into his skin and stimulate his senses to start working. He could feel Orochimaru's eyes on him, dangerous, predatory, dying to bite his fangs into any vulnerabilities - which arguably, he had a lot at this instant.

"Not dizzy enough to stop me from thinking," or impaling you with a sword, Itachi managed to say with his eyes as he returned Orochimaru's taunting gaze, making sure that nothing was shown other than stone-cold composure.

"And what's the result of your rumination, Itachi?" Orochimaru asked as he retracted his glance. "How are you going to stop the ruin of this world?"

For a second, Itachi considered the idea of impaling Orochimaru. He was feeling like crap because every cell in his body was hurting and complaining. As for the cataclysm that arrived in the form of Uchiha Madara … Itachi was sure that Orochimaru had enough intelligence to reach the same conclusion as him, thus making his question redundant while his voice danced on Itachi's nerves in every way possible.

But Itachi also registered that much of his irritation arose internally because he realized - they both did - that he was out of ideas.

Rationality and experience told him that Edo Tensei did not equate to true immortality. Shiki Fūjin, the sword of Totsuka, and even methods of traditional sealing served to balance out the unfairness of Edo Tensei, giving them the semblance of a chance to victory.

But Uchiha Madara was different. A soul strong enough to break the rules of Edo Tensei itself when countless other past Kage failed, Itachi could only imagine the strength of the body that such a soul created.

Perhaps it was a sign, Itachi thought, a sign that he should stop thinking and start moving, to go back to Konoha, to help them - to help Maiko - defend against Uchiha Madara. Perhaps he just needed some belief, after all, they still had a chance, with Sandaime's Shiki Fūjin, with the Sword of Totsuka, with …

Screw that.

Itachi knew it better than anyone that it was just a load of denials. By returning with nothing but faith - and a faith that rose as a defence mechanism to desperation, at that - Itachi wasn't doing anything to increase the chance of success they had against Uchiha Madara.

They were exhausted and injured - the afternoon sky at the start of the invasion was long replaced by the sunset at dusk. Their margin of error was still as tiny as ever as they tried to use their anti-Edo Tensei tools against an entity that could break their tools - and the people who were tied to them - much more easily than they could restrain him.

After all, the root of the problem was not the Edo Tensei, but the fact that it was Uchiha Madara who was an Edo Tensei.

Madara was an existence produced by a loophole, a blatant cheat using the mechanism of Edo Tensei. So, Itachi wondered, how far he was allowed to go - willing to go - to cheat against the cheater.

"Back off." Itachi felt his eyebrows twitch when he sensed Orochimaru's snakes stirred up again in excitement. Orochimaru opened his hands and his snakes quieted in feigned innocence as if he had no idea what he was talking about.

Very lightly, Itachi let out a sigh, not just at the pesky snakes that he couldn't shake off, but also at the subject of their deadly curiosity. As if on cue, the vegetation behind him rustled as Karin walked out of the shadow, looking as apologetic as she possibly could.

"A descendant of the Uzumaki Bloodline. Ah, the things I could have studied, If only …" Orochimaru said as he examined Karin, who shivered in discomfort as she moved closer to Itachi. Itachi thought that Karin had grown bold, to disregard his warnings and stayed, but seeing this, perhaps she had just grown reckless.

Still, Itachi pushed himself off of the tree and took a step forward, hiding Karin from Orochimaru's piercing gaze. Very briefly, he cast the young kunoichi a glance, asking her, in a very nice way - not at all intimidating, even if Karin did squirm a little - to explain why the hell was she still doing here.

At first, there was silence, but then, an arm was raised in front of Itachi.

"Please let me heal you." Itachi heard the girl say as she gulped down the nervousness and replaced it with determination. It took Itachi a moment to realize what she was offering and another to realize that he should probably decline.

But before the words were out of his mouth, Karin raised her arm higher until it was very much in his face. "I believe that what I've been given is a talent! And I don't want to forget what I can do and those that I can help!"

Okay, definitely bolder and more reckless.

But their circumstance dictated that it would be a day full of revelation and breakthroughs, in all aspects. Itachi was probably the last person to reprimand her, for he was about to do something much bolder and much more reckless. It would help immensely if he wasn't on the verge of fainting.

"Sorry, and thank you," Itachi accepted what she offered. Immediately, Itachi could feel the foreign chakra seeping into his body, healing his wounds and halting the blood loss with a flow bursting with vitality. The feeling of being healthy was an addictive sensation, so Itachi released Karin's arm only after a brief contact.

Itachi didn't miss the hunger in Orochimaru's eyes when he looked at Karin as if she was a new continent, full of forbidden knowledge to be researched and studied. Once again, he was reminded that it wasn't the desire that made Orochimaru dangerous, but his willingness to act on them without any restraint.

When dealing with snakes, be prepared to be bitten.

"You asked what I came up with?" Itachi titled his head up a little, catching Orochomaru's attention with his voice. "Use Edo Tensei to revive Shodaime Hokage, Senju Hashirama."

Karin gawked with her jaw dropped open when she heard Itachi's words, but Orochimaru merely laughed. "You never cease to surprise me, Itachi-kun. It's good to see that my fascination with you is well placed."

Thanks to Karin's healing, Itachi's brain was no longer muddled by drowsiness and nausea, waning off some of those irritations that he couldn't control. Yet, whenever Orochimaru opened his mouth, Itachi still had a hard time suppressing the urge to roll his eyes.

It reminded Itachi of his early days in Akatsuki when Orochimaru was still Itachi's mission partner - before the former stretched his appetite too far and almost choked to death. Back then, Orochimaru would never hide his so-called 'fascination' towards Itachi, studying him without an ounce of shame.

Other than the fact that Orochimaru was evaluating the possibility of an Uchiha vessel, Itachi had a feeling that the missing-nin just wanted to see how far Itachi had fallen. The values he had betrayed, the lines he had crossed, the morals he had discarded … all the things that changed for Itachi to fall from an exemplar of Konoha-nin to an atrocity, attracted Orochimaru's interest like blood to sharks.

So, what have you become, Itachi? Orochimaru was waiting for an answer.

"Are you going to help me?" Itachi asked, even though both of them knew that the time left for them to negotiate was ticking away with every breath they took. But for Itachi to ask that question - to reveal his intention to Orochimaru - it meant that he was ninety percent sure that Orochimaru would agree.

It had only been minutes since the crow that carried the news of Infinite Tsukuyomi from Kakashi disappeared in a swirl of feathers. The fact that the missing-nin stayed when he could have run away after taking all that was left of Kabuto told Itachi of the future that Orochimaru had chosen.

Orochimaru liked this world enough to scoff at the idea of falsified reality. Itachi supposed that they could all learn something from Orochimaru. After all, not everyone had the unwavering confidence to say that no genjutsu could ever deliver what they wanted from life.

It wasn't a question of if Orochimaru would agree - in fact, Orochimaru might even encourage Itachi's descent into hell - but what conditions he wanted in return.

"Only the Shodaime, huh. You've thought it through, haven't you?" Orochimaru said, putting away his snarky grins as seriousness settled on his face.

Cheat with cleverness; cheat with caution. Even if Itachi wanted to venture into the realm of taboo, he wouldn't do so without a certain degree of assurance. If there was a soul whose strength could compare to that of Uchiha Madara, then it would be Senju Hashirama.

Along with the fact that Orochimaru used the Hashirama cells as binding agents for his improved Edo Tensei, it was enough for Itachi to speculate that Senju Hashirama could be the other anomaly - another one that could break out of the rules of Edo Tensei should he want to, thus minimizing the chance of Orochimaru stabbing them in the back.

"Not just him," Orochimaru replied after some thought. It wasn't a rejection, but rather an amendment to Itachi's proposal. "If Senju Hashirama breaks out of my control, there's nothing stopping you or him from discarding me. I hope you didn't forget that I summoned Shodaime last time to attack Konoha and I'd rather not bet my survival on his forgiveness."

"Who else?" Itachi asked without pausing. At this point, Itachi wouldn't even bat an eye at how easily Orochimaru admitted his past records of sin. But at least they were on the same page.

If they were to go down this road full of questionable morals, then Shodaime's revival was non-negotiable, for his strength and autonomy were what Konoha - what the world - needed to stretch that margin of error against Uchiha Madara and widen that sliver of hope.

"Nidaime and …" Orochimaru paused a little as he considered his choices. No doubt, he needed someone that held enough significance and had enough strength to protect him even in the face of Shodaime, and especially, someone that had minimal connection to Hashirama so the usage of his cells as binding agents wouldn't have unexpected interference.

All of a sudden, Orochimaru's gaze landed on Karin as an idea - much to Itachi's headache - popped up as a glint in his eyes. "Shodaime, Nidaime, and Yondaime Hokage, am I not nice to revive such powerful allies of Konoha?"

Ah, Itachi could feel the edge between what was controllable and what was not blurred as everything distorted into a melting pot of mess. But then again, perhaps it was his fault for trying to hold onto the concept of balance when he dallied with the forbidden.

"Yondaime's soul was sealed by Shiki Fūjin," Itachi recalled that the last time Orochimaru tried to bring up the coffin for Yondaime at the Chunin Exam, it failed spectacularly.

"I'm well aware that souls sealed away can't be summoned by Edo Tensei. But I've recently found the location of an abandoned Uzumaki Shrine on the outskirts of Konoha, where the Shinigami Mask can be found," Orochimaru explained and Karin flinched at the mention of her lineage. "It's a backdoor to Shiki Fūjin. With the right sacrifice, what's been sealed can be released again."

"That 'right sacrifice' is the death of the wearer!" Karin interjected with a hushed tone as she hid behind Itachi. "Naruto-kun showed me the scroll with the Uzumaki heritage. To release the content sealed in the stomach of Shinigami, the wearer lent their body to the Shinigami, meaning they had to slash their own guts open." She was just short of shouting out "Don't trust him!" to get her point across.

"Don't get worked up, Uzumaki girl. I'm not asking you or him to be the sacrifice," Orochimaru said to Karin before he turned his attention back to Itachi. "I'll wear the Shinigami mask. Consider it a research interest on my part. I requested the presence of Yellow Flash for my own survival, after all."

Itachi narrowed his eyes at Orochimaru, contemplating the loopholes and deceit hidden in the missing-nin's words. In this setup that he proposed. Orochimaru only needed to give the order of 'Slaughter Konoha if I die' to Nidaime and Yondaime to guarantee that no harm would come to him, for the two of them posed enough threat that not even Shodaime could restrain them without casualty.

The vertigo of a free fall shrouded Itachi's mind, for even he didn't know how far he would have fallen by reaching for the solution that lay at the end of this dangerous negotiation. He needed an anchor, one that reminded him of the consequences of risking too much, in the most merciless way possible.

"If you mess with Edo Tensei in ways that you shouldn't, Orochimaru, I will send you to hell, even if I have to go there myself," Itachi warned. His voice was clear, his eyes were determined, his breathing wasn't rushed, and his hands weren't shaking.

Everything said that Itachi was confident to act as Orochimaru's executioner, the switch to a bomb that would destroy them both. "So for both of our sakes - but more yours than mine - don't screw this up."

"No thank you, I don't want to go to hell with you. There's too much left in this world for me to discover, and if I can ride the current, why go against it?" Orochimaru reassured with his utmost sincerity, which only seemed to make it worse.

But Orochimaru was nothing if not self-serving. If Itachi tried to understand everything by converting them to what would benefit Orochimaru and what would not, then the picture became clearer.

"Now, speaking of sacrifice, I hope you remember that Edo Tensei also requires sacrifices - ones that are alive and breathing." This was a topic that interested Orochimaru, who just wanted to see how far Itachi would cross the line that was set by Konoha.

"Don't tell me that you don't have spare white Zetsu used for research, or ways to get them." Itachi chose to bounce the problem back at Orochimaru. After all, he found it hard to believe that for an entity that could survive in limitless copies and rich in information about Wood Release, Orochimaru didn't think to research them.

"You're correct on that part," Orochimaru shrugged, not planning to dwell on it further. "Lastly, return Jūgo to me. I'm not starting, or rather, I can't start the process of Edo Tensei without him."

Itachi also didn't dwell on if Jūgo's presence was truly indispensable for Orochimaru to perform Edo Tensei. A crow materialized from his shadow and without wasting more time, Itachi instructed it to deliver a message to Kakashi.

When they evacuated the village, most of the prisoners were easy to transport and contain using seals and barriers. But Jūgo was an exception that gave them a headache, for no normal prison could hold him, especially when there was a shortage of wardens. In the end, the boy told them that he had an easier time dealing with animals than humans, so he was taken in by Kakashi's ninken using reverse summoning.

Orochimaru's nonchalant attitude, Itachi's calm demeanour, and Karin's worried expression all seemed to contrast with each other as they made their way towards the Uzumaki Shrine, painting them as a band of travellers that in no normal circumstances should be associating together.

Itachi brushed the remnant of a sealing paper with his fingers and the fabric fell from the broken column and into the dirt. Maiko used to complain about the state of Naka Shrine back when it was overrun by the growth of the vegetation, but that was nothing when compared to the scene in front of them.

Supposedly, this was a Mask Storage Temple used by the Uzumaki Clan, but nobody could ever be sure at first sight, seeing that the plaque hanging above its gate had long lost the symbol carved on it due to erosion.

Before they could step inside, though, a crow emerged out of Itachi's neck. It was set to deliver the message to Maiko and then return with updated news.

"Madara destroyed Konoha! Sandaime Hokage is dead! Maiko is fighting Madara!" The crow cawed with a sense of urgency. Karin covered her mouth as she sucked in a shaky breath. But Itachi merely paused for a moment before he quickened his steps.

There really was no time to be hesitant.

However, what he didn't expect was for Orochimaru to be rooted in place when he passed the missing-nin and reached the temple first. Itachi turned around just as Orochimaru's attention returned.

"My condolences, even if you don't care." Itachi found himself saying against his better judgment. As expected, Orochimaru let out a snort of contempt as he straightened his back and headed for the door.

"I was just wondering if I should revive my dear teacher through Edo Tensei as well. It's too bad that I don't have Sarutobi-sensei's tissue." Orochimaru didn't pause at all as he walked to the shelf tucked in the inner room.

Dozens of Shinigami masks hung on the wooden surface, each with facial expressions so vivid that it felt as if they were being judged at the moment of their death. Orochimaru hovered his hand over each one of them until he finally located a Shinigami mask at the bottom right corner. With care, Orochimaru detached it from the surface and examined it with unbridled fascination.

"I wondered what Konoha would think when they knew that you colluded with me over Edo Tensei. You know it as well as I do, that Konoha was never tolerant of such kinjutsu, even if their own Nidaime Hokage was the one that developed it." Orochimaru mentioned it as if it was just a side thought as he raised his eyes from the mask.

Itachi wondered about that too, but he supposed they were about to find out. Orochimaru took the moment of silence as a sign of avoidance. "You've already deviated this far, Itachi. How long will it be until you drop this whole facade of acceptable standards for the sake of your desires?"

"For those of us that have desires so strong that it can't be quenched, it'll be easier that way, speaking from experience," Orochimaru tempted, whispering in Itachi's head that he had already crossed the line of what Konoha would accept. From this point on, the only way to go was to go deeper into the abyss.

Itachi might be struggling a little with his sanity - they probably all were - but Itachi knew where he stood - on the edge of the cliff, but had never truly fallen.

"I'll accept the consequences, but I'm far from the point of no return, Orochimaru. I'm far from becoming you." Itachi let his voice echo in the empty room. Karin might have even let out a small breath of relief at that. Quite reasonable, seeing that every conversation he had with Orochimaru today was not for the faint of heart.

Time and time again, Itachi strayed from the line for what he believed to be the best action, sometimes by a lot, something barely noticeable. At one point, he had strayed so far by committing the Uchiha Massacre that he was sure that his life would have ended with him stuck at the bottom of the pit without ever seeing the sight of the sun again.

That was, until Maiko told him to come back.

No matter how far, Itachi promised to return, because his family was waiting.

The small talk ended when they heard the sound of something landing on the forest floor. The giant ink-bird flapped its wings before melting into a stream of ink and flowing into Sai's scroll holder.

"Please tell me that you've thought this through," Kakashi said as he rushed through the temple. Itachi had to do a double-take when he saw the grayed-out sharingan in the man's left eye socket, but he quickly pieced the situation together.

With certainty, Itachi nodded his head and Kakashi furrowed his brows tighter. Still, Kakashi didn't waste any more time as he bit his fingers and slapped his hand onto the ground. A cloud of smoke poofed out of the summoning array as a bulldog pushed Jūgo forward with his paw.

"Orochimaru-sama?" Jūgo asked with uncertainty when he finally made sense of the situation. With a wave from Orochimaru, Jūgo ran towards his old master, only to catch a severed limb - Kabuto's limb - that got spat out of Orochimaru's snake.

Orochimaru might have looked a little too ecstatic when he told the young boy to inject Natural Energy into the severed arm. Jūgo did without any questions. The result was half a dozen white masses that started to sprout as the dormant spores got rejuvenated by the rush of vitalizing energy that it couldn't process.

Snakes slithered out of Orochimaru's sleeves and bound three of the white Zetsu clones while Jūgo pinned down another following Orochimaru's instruction. Before the missing-nin could say anything, Itachi incinerated the remaining two with shuriken shrouded in flames.

"Commander Hatake, it is my sincerest hope that in the future when Konoha thinks of me, they'll remember this day, when I revived your Hokage to aid your battle for survival, instead of turning them into a source of chaos," Orochimaru said to Kakashi, continuing his trend of stepping on people's nerves, only changing the victim from Itachi to their Jonin Commander.

With that, Orochimaru slid the Shinigami Mask on his face. The forbidden ritual had begun.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

How much are you willing to burn to light that spark of hope?

Flames seared into my flesh with enough heat that it felt like my bones were melting. Fire danced across my vision, painting the scorching earth as the second coming of Hell itself. I opened my mouth, but only smoke came out, assaulting my senses along with the smell of burnt flesh.

Suddenly, the hellish scene broke into pieces like shattering glass when my Mangekyou pulsed. I moved my sword at the same time as when the scorching flames faded from my reality. With a heavy force, the edge of the gunbai slammed into my blade, making a deafening noise as the metal crashed into each other.

Soreness erupted from my wrist and started to spread throughout my arm. Before my hand could fully go numb, I managed to tilt the blade a little and ducked, forcing the gunbai that wished to slice open my neck to sail over my head instead.

Traces of electricity leaked out of my body as I closed the space between Madara and myself. Madara's sharingan swirled violently as he caught my movement with a gaze that spoke of judgment. As a show for his impeccable battle reflex, he shifted his weight and kicked.

The wind current from that kick arrived before his leg did, a testament to a force that would definitely break my forearm had I continued my strike that aimed at his shoulder. Sharply, I lowered my body and adjusted the grip on my ninjatō. The blade got pinned into the ground as I slid past Madara and escaped under his kick.

Using the latch created by the sword, I pulled myself back up right behind Madara. My left hand went for the tantō at the same time, unsheathing, twirling, and then extending the sword towards Madara's neck all in one swift motion too fast for most eyes to catch.

But Madara didn't have 'most eyes', just like how 'normal' was not a word that should ever be associated with him. My sword only managed to graze the skin at his neck before he bent his back and turned. The war fan quickly followed and sliced through the air. I retracted my tantō in a hurry as I dug my heels into the ground and jumped back.

A trail of red got splashed into the air as the edge of the gunbai sliced open my hand guard and drew blood from my arm. The stinging pain started to dull the moment I felt it, but it was the least of my worries, for Madara caught up to my steps as he flipped the direction of the gunbai without a pause.

"An Uchiha that abandoned the Uchiha Style of Taijutsu." Madara's voice rumbled in my brain as the war fan slammed into the side of my body. Gunbai was not a light weapon - certainly much heavier than swords - and its weight served as the perfect instrument to transduce the force behind the Madara's powerful strikes.

The Uchiha Style of Taijutsu strived for a balance of power and speed. Speed amplified power and power reflected the speed. The Uchiha believed that one couldn't improve without another and just as one wouldn't be effective without another. Obviously, I had deviated far from that practice from a very young age.

"When strengths can no longer be considered strengths, then all that is left are weaknesses."

It felt as if the beat of a drum had imploded inside my body as the force shook me to the core. The impact left me reeling for balance as my feet slid across the dirt ground. Something flashed in my vision and I raised my hands on instinct. Madara's elbow was mere centimetres from my face as I blocked his advancement using sword handles.

Jinrai capitalized on my speed and relied on the fluidity of motions to compensate for the lack of defence. So when my opponent had the visual acuity and bodily reflex to keep me from adjusting the distance, then Jinrai became a caged existence, unable to leave the danger zone or reach the full acceleration for counterattacks.

Veins popped in my arms as I pushed his elbow off its trajectory. Madara used the momentum of my push and rotated his body again, letting the strength build-up in his movement as he swung his gunbai towards my neck.

The metallic edge of the fan sliced through a spark of electricity as I managed to dodge in time. The frigid sensation lingered on my neck like my body couldn't even distinguish if my flesh had been sliced or not. Cold sweat gathered in my palms, making my grip feel clammy.

I tightened my fingers around the hilt, both to reaffirm my grip and to shake away the coldness that has permeated my body. Should I … no, not now, not yet.

I engaged him in taijutsu because of Rinnegan's ability to negate ninjutsu. But for a body made of Edo Tensei, only fatal injuries like a severed head were conducive to the process of sealing and it proved to be a task beyond difficult.

Yet, despite knowing the fact that I was using this time to recover my chakra, Madara went along with my pace, like an older Uchiha would have done when they were training the youngsters.

Make no mistake, this wasn't a training session and Madara sure wasn't exposing my flaws out of kindness. I wasn't sure why, but if I had to put my feelings into words, then I figured that Madara was treating me like a challenger.

A challenger always had to climb, one step at a time, as they reached the throne of the dominator. Every step they took, every door they opened, they invited divine judgment onto themselves. They opened the gate to the flood, so they had no one but themselves to blame when they drowned in the current.

It really was no difference to Madara because, in every area, he knew that he was better. But if I opened the door to ninjutsu despite knowing the existence of Rinnegan, then it was my own undoing. After all, I didn't do enough to break his condescending composure.

What a twisted definition of justice and fairness.

"Use ninjutsu. Otherwise, you're going to die in the next five seconds," Madara said right before he charged in. I dodged the gunbai and saw the sharp edge cut into the earth. Faster, go faster, I forced the lightning to circulate in my veins with even more ferocity as I lodged the tantō into the base of his gunbai and smacked it further into the ground.

Madara let go of the weapon immediately, knowing that speed was of the essence. Despite that, he was still stalled for a moment too long. Like a flash of lightning, I darted forward and slashed my ninjatō, eyeing nothing but his head and focusing on nothing but the motion of beheading.

I felt my blade cut into unnatural flesh, slicing through Madara's arm as he raised his hand to block. By sacrificing an arm, the resistance from the tissue allowed Madara to move his head out of the way.

In less than a second, the situation reversed. Immediately, I retracted my sword, but Madara had already grabbed onto the tip of the blade with his other hand. Nothing but paper dust was drawn out when I slid the sword out of his bare hand.

A breath was stuck in my lung when I got kneed in the stomach. It definitely felt as if my organs were being rearranged when I escaped, right before the second blow could land on my sternum. My chest heaved in pain as my body remained a broken machine that could fall apart at any moment. At that moment, the fragility of the human body was never more apparent.

Creak. Madara pulled the gunbai out of the ground and whacked it towards my head, all the while I struggled to maintain my balance. The silhouette of the war fan zoomed in my vision. Once again, my body could already imagine the sensation of being smashed in the skull as the dread of death permeated my skin.

Was that longer than five seconds? The thought popped in my head despite the terrible timing. Sparks flew by my ear as my blades clashed with the gunbai and scratched into the metallic fan. Madara was already turning his body, gathering the power for another strike as the heavy war fan pressured me into the ground.

Six seconds. My internal clock answered for me. Somehow, that made it feel better.

A veil of crimson rose from the ground, circling around me, searing into the gunbai's handle and part of Madara's hand that held it. Almost immediately, Madara flinched back and pulled his arm away. Without the force behind it, the weight of the gunbai lessened and I slammed it to the side.

The metallic war fan hit the Uchiha Kaenjin and got incinerated into a pile of melted goo without much struggle. Madara glanced at his hand, where the yin-chakra fire took off three of his fingers and continued to scorch the surface of the cut. It wasn't regenerating as fast as it should.

The curtain of flame rescinded back down as fast as I called it up. But no matter how brief, I still opened the dam and now the flood couldn't be held back.

But hey, the next time he wanted to sacrifice his hand so decisively, there was something to think about.

"Even in my times, to be able to raise the Uchiha Kaenjin without prior preparation was unheard of," Madara commented as he stretched his hand, quickly accepting the temporary loss of his fingers. "I was right, you are different."

"I was right to want to break you once and for all, or you'll be an annoyance to my vision for as long as you still have the will to fight." Madara raised his attention from his hand and this time, the Rinnegen stared back at me unhindered.

"Oh, I'll be more than an annoyance," I shout back with defiance despite the fact that every syllable felt like someone had punctured a needle into my lungs. At least call me an 'obstacle'. To save me some pain, I didn't say the last part out loud.

"We shall see about—" Before Madara could even finish his sentence, a flaming arrow raced across the distance, heading straight for his forehead. Madara barely moved his head as his Rinnegan pulsed.

It was as if an invisible barrier had been erected in front of his face, unravelling everything - the arrow, the fire, and the chakra - that dared to touch it. Hama Ya broke apart like threads and subsequently expanded into a cloud of red. Even then, all the fire got sucked into Madara's Rinnegan like dust would by a vacuum, leaving none of the sparks behind.

Just then, Madara narrowed his eyes, noticing that beyond the cloud of fire, there was no one in sight. A spark of electricity zoomed in the background as I arrived near his lower abdomen. Chakra gathered in my palm, revealing a ruby-like lotus flower. I pushed my palm forward, aiming to drive the imploding flower into Madara's body.

Feeling the threat from the yin-chakra fire, Madara flicked his fingers and a repulsive force flung me backwards. I stabbed the tantō into the ground in an attempt to hold myself in place. Despite the copious amount of chakra I siphoned to my feet to stick to the ground, I still got pushed back a few dozen metres.

There was no time for me to even stabilize my body when the repulsion ended. A tornado of flame spiralled towards me, reaching a scale that many fire jutsu wouldn't even dream of even with the augmentation of wind jutsu.

Orange flames engulfed everything in its path - the rocky outcrops, the broken splinters, and of course, me - like a flood sent from Heaven. For a second, it was as if all the air was replaced by fire, suffocating me with heat waves.

Susanoo's rib cage expanded around me in a smooth glow of silver and the seething fire slid past its shimmering surface, like a river partitioned by gentle hands. The bony hands were raised just in time to block the string of spinning magatama that crashed towards me.

A dash of blue filled my vision as Madara drove his own Susanoo - ribcage with bony hands - into the fire. The curved beads ground past the surface of my armour as Madara pulled them back. But just as he swung the Magatama towards me again, a pond of lotuses sprouted from under his feet.

Layers of blue chakra washed over Madara's Susanoo, adding a layer of muscle as the giant raised its upper body and warded Madara from the invasion from beneath. Still, the fiery lotuses crawled up the Susanoo's surface, trapping him in a world of liquid fire and melting into the blue armour with unrelenting temperature.

A silver warrior cracked by the Magatama beads; a blue giant melting under the lotus fire. At this moment where either of our Susanoo could break without warning, I saw the killing intent in Madara's Rinnegan and I knew that he had seen through the probing behind my attacks.

The Rinnegan's ninjutsu-negating ability - at least when it was used by Madara - was not infallible.

Pein separated the ability of Rinnegan into six different bodies, allowing each of them to have a role that they could focus on. Madara allowed his own body to encompass all the abilities of Rinnegan, making him more versatile but also increasing the cognitive load.

Rather than passive protection, the ninjutsu-negating ability was more like an active jutsu that Madara had to choose to activate. Like all jutsu, he had to negotiate its location, boundary, and activation speed as necessary. There was also a certain degree of irreversibility in the ability once a negation barrier was formed. Otherwise, he wouldn't need to use Shinra Tensei to repel my second attack earlier when he already expanded the barrier to negate Hama Ya.

Moreover, as a skill that required his active control, it would eat into his attention, especially when he needed to use other large-scale jutsu more suited for the offence. The effect might be small given Madara's inhuman battle intuition, but it was nevertheless there.

Of course, whether one was strong enough to capitalize on that knowledge, was a different question altogether.

Madara and I dispelled the partial Susanoo at the same time, familiar with the backlash we would suffer if our Susanoo broke involuntarily. The chain of Magatama squeezed together as it sliced past the aura of fading silver without any resistance, but I was already some distance away as lightning crackled around my body.

Madara, on the other hand, was covered by a layer of crimson as he negated the Yin-chakra fire that remained. He stomped the floor and immediately, I felt the earth shaking as if a dragon was swimming beneath the surface.

My analogy wasn't far off, for a wooden dragon broke out of the ground and crashed down with menace. I barely dodged the first hit as a crater formed where I used to stand, but the wooden dragon merely shook its body and countless wooden scales extended out, thicker than the branches in a jungle.

Quickly, I placed my fingers on the base of the ninjatō and let the lightning gather on the metal. The chirping of a thousand birds sounded around me as Chidori extended out from the tip of my blade. Just as the wooden branches were about to overwhelm me, I swung the spear of lightning and decimated everything that came close and bisected the wooden dragon.

All of a sudden, a force pulled my body to the side like a whiplash. Ignoring a wave of nausea that made my brain feel like mush, I raised the partial Susanoo around my body and forced a skeletal hand to dig into the ground against the gravitational pull.

I saw the aura of blue boiled around Madara as a glowing sword materialized in the giant's hand, waiting for me to impale me the moment I lost traction. Although, it did seem that he got tired of waiting as he willed the giant to stab the sword forward. If you want to do it this way …

Almost vengefully, I stretched my hands back like pulling a bowstring and a dozen fireballs reshaped themselves accordingly. Screw aiming, I thought as I released the ruby-red quills and let them drill towards Madara. Banshō Ten'in would have made the trajectory converge anyway.

Chakra flowed out of my body and into the silver warrior as it tried to ward off the pale-blue blade. Layers of musculature and armours built up around my Susanoo in defence and I couldn't help but cough out a mouthful of blood as my body maintained the taxing ordeal.

Everything felt like it was breaking - my body, my organs, my chakra system. I didn't know how long I could keep this up before I was drained of chakra and eventually, life. I just knew that I had to keep going.

I supposed that one thing that made it less miserable was the tiny flash of surprise on Madara's face when my quills drilled into the walls of his Susanoo. Thanks to Madara's involuntary help, I could sacrifice the aim of my jutsu for more power. Concentrated fire boiled in each and every arrow, carving a hole into his defence until finally breaking through the humanoid warrior.

The pressure exerted by the blue chakra sword was relieved and my body finally found the strength to breathe. The inherent paradox remained that to reach the Uchiha Madara that was shielded within, I needed to use the most piercing ninjutsu I got. Yet, all Madara needed to do was to suck my ninjutsu into oblivion and all my wasted chakra would have felt like a joke.

Indeed, it would have ended like a joke, if not for the columns of pressurized water that crashed into Madara from the side.

A pair of toads stood on Jiraiya-sama's shoulders, adding to the jet stream of water that Jiraiya breathed out. The wild markings of Sage Mode around the Toad Sannin's eyes told me that the water jutsu was composed of not just ninjutsu, but Natural Energy as well.

When the water columns crashed into the ninjutsu-negating barrier erected around Madara, there was a visible moment of hesitation in Madara's movements, enough for the tsunami of water to overwhelm the suction and send Madara flying back.

A glint of hope rose in Jiraiya's eyes, hoping that senjutsu would have the same effect as it did on Pein's puppets. "Now!" he shouted and a figure shrouded in a green aura flew past me.

Gai caught up to Madara as the latter crashed into a pile of rocks. "The Sixth Gate, Keimon! Morning Peacock!" The jonin shouted with vigour as he rained down the punches on Madara amidst the flying rubbles.

Flames were cradled around his fists, not because of any ninjutsu, but produced by the friction with the air itself. It sounded as if the entire earth was split open as Gai punched Madara deeper into the trenches, sending up rocks that occluded my vision.

It was hard to say that I was surprised when a hand of blue reached out and slammed Gai backwards. After all, Madara never paused the suction of Jiraiya's senjutsu, even if it created some visible discomfort, and he showed no sign of turning into stone.

"Compared to Hashirama's Senjutsu, this is disgustingly impure," Madara complained as he rose from the crater, cladded in the blue Susanoo once more. The clothes that covered his upper body were torn by the assaults, revealing a face that looked horrifyingly like the statue of Shodaime that was carved on the Hokage Rocks.

"That trick might have worked with an inexperienced child like Nagato, but I have seen the peak of Sage Arts." Not just 'seen', but 'taken' as well. I thought as I slapped my hands down on the ground while Madara was still in the middle of his speech.

"In any sense, that pathetic level of Senjutsu is not even as interesting as the Eight Gates—" The Uchiha Kaenjin rose between Madara and Gai, cutting straight into Susanoo's arm. Flames melted into the outstretched arm, loosening the death clutch it had on Gai.

Finally, Gai kicked open the giant's hand and escaped the fate of being squashed by the Susanoo. "Seventh Gate, Kyōmon!" The green aura around his body intensified until it turned a glow of bright blue. Without any hesitation, Gai charged in again.

Even if Senjutsu didn't produce the intended effect, Taijutsu was at least making a dent in Madara.

Anger towards our continued resistance - and maybe towards the fact that we kept on interrupting his speeches - boiled in Madara's eyes, eventually materializing as the humanoid giant that rose in the distance. It wasn't the complete Susanoo just yet, but the giant still dwarfed us in size.

Gai landed on Gamabunta just before the giant Toad made a sprint for the sky. Gamabunta turned his body midair and threw Gai towards Madara, allowing him to reach Madara's elevation inside the Susanoo.

Of course, the blue giant slashed forward with its twin swords, making a cross pattern both as a form of defence and offence. But before the blades could reach Gai, a flaming arrow darted across the sky and punctured the giant's right wrist. The subsequent explosion knocked one of the swords away from Gai's path, while a thick string of white hair drenched in oil restrained the other.

Tension swelled in Gai's muscles as he brought his hands together. When the intensity of the blue aura around his body reached its peak, he punched his palms forward. A shockwave expanded from the base of Gai's hands, even reaching Jiraiya and me at the edge of the battle, as the air pressure blasted forward in the form of a pouncing white tiger.

The white tiger crashed into the humanoid giant, cracking open Susanoo's defence like shattering glass. This time, Madara couldn't just absorb whatever he couldn't defend.

However, I caught it just before the impact blinded the entire sky, the figures that separated from the bodies of Uchiha Madara. When the smoke cleared, I saw nothing but a pile of broken wood splinters that was almost reduced to dust.

But there were no signs of floating paper dust, regenerating what was damaged but could never be killed.

Wooden clones, my sharingan told me as I raced forward, trying to search for the real Madara that escaped in the fray. Where could he have … I looked up to the sky, the one direction that all of us missed because of the sheer absurdity.

But Madara could propel himself to immense height using the power of Shinra Tensei without a care for the damage it would have caused his body. I saw it in the far end of my vision, the paper dust that gathered to reform Madara's limbs as he inched closer to earth in a free fall.

Shit. Silver chakra started to solidify around my body as I tried to bring out the giant and jump to intercept Madara before he could reach Gai. But then, the earth ripped open as a dozen wooden clones sprung up from the ground, settling into the features of Madara as they blocked the path in front of me and Jiraiya.

"I thought that I made it clear that strength belongs to a singular entity." One of the clones said as the full-size humanoid Susanoo wrapped around every one of the figures crafted from Wood Release. Despite the life-like features, there was the remnant of a doll-like apathy, telling me that I was speaking to something that couldn't be reasoned.

How can one fight this? How is it possible for something like him to exist? Yet, when the sound reached my throat, I managed to scream out, "Get the hell out of my way!", as my Susanoo grew in size all the way to its complete form.

"Do not delude yourself into thinking that teamwork is the answer; that the strengths of many can be gathered and weaknesses can be complemented. It only makes you break faster." 'Madara' said as a myriad of blades slashed down in all directions.

The silver Shakujō materialized in Susanoo's arm just before I swung it in a wide circle, repelling the swords that struck down. With a twist of Susanoo's wrist, the Shakujō dug into the midriff of a blue humanoid.

Chakra bursted out of my body and flowed to the sounding staff, coating it a layer of crimson red and allowing it to cut through the Susanoo, eventually incinerating the wooden clone that acted as its driver. The silver warrior bent its knees in preparation for a jump, but before I could move, a string of magatama beads fastened around the Susanno's legs as three humanoids pulled them with force.

In the distance, a dozen black rods materialized out of Madara's commands before he threw them down at Gai, who was also in a free fall because Gamabunta was smacked back by a blue humanoid before he could catch the jonin with his tongue.

"Don't cross me out yet, I'm far from running out of the Power of Youth!" Gai shouted while he maneuvered his body around the projectiles with just his muscle strength. I could see a force burning in his body, howling like strong winds, trying to break open the limit that didn't exist just for restraints, but to preserve one's life.

There was still one more gate left - the Gate of Death. The problem was, Madara was also aware of the existence of Eight Gates. He didn't send twelve of his clones cladded in Susanoo to separate us just for the thing that could break through his Rinnegan to come to fruition.

Before Gai could fully rush the chakra through the last tenketsu reservoir, Madara pulled with his hands, snapping Gai's free fall with bone-breaking forces and reeling the jonin towards him as he readied the black rod in his hand.

To defend himself, Gai had to punch his fists forward, sending another bout of pressurized air toward Madara. The recoil distanced Gai from Madara one more time while Madara was forced to call up a partial Susanoo in defence.

But I could see it from down under that disaster had just begun.

"Behind you!" My scream descended into a fit of cough as I ignited Amaterasu on one of the Magatama beads that tried to cut into my Susanoo. Forcefully, I stretched the Tengu warrior's wings, only for two more blue humanoids to push their blade down on its shoulder blades while another two jammed their swords into its armours.

Anger leaked into the pool of desperation as I slammed the Shakujō into the floor and called up the pond of lotuses from below. Stems wrapped around the humanoids' legs as the petals bloomed in full ferocity, searing into the blue Susanoo's legs without a care for their transient existence.

While the horde of humanoid giants stumbled in balance, I drew my hands back, shaping the arrows in a hurry, hoping that they would reach in time. But before the fire could even manifest, the black rods that Madara threw down earlier accelerated towards him under the influence of Bansho Ten'in.

Perhaps in a second - no, maybe milliseconds - Gai would have been able to open the Eighth Gate. But we didn't have that, not even a millisecond of extra time, and the black rods pierced into the Gai's body precisely at the major Tenketsu points.

Opening the Eight Gates serves to augment one's physical strength and speed beyond normal imagination, but its basis was still the flow of chakra. Without a connected chakra network, in a way, the body had already experienced death.

"You should have opened the last gate sooner, then you might have had a fleeting moment that could be considered as strong." I deciphered the words by reading Madara's lips as he mocked from above.

Clenching my teeth, I redirected the aim of my flame arrows and sent them towards Madara, forcing him to put more attention into strengthening his Susanoo first before swooshing down and finishing off Gai.

The silver warrior expanded its wings, knocking away the wobbly blue figures before ascending into the sky. Susanoo extended its hand and caught Gai before placing him inside its protection. Madara and I landed on the ground at the same time, the former now had the full Tengu warrior completed to match mine.

But we both knew that while I did it out of desperation, he did it out of choice - because I opened the dam and his idea of fairness was fulfilled.

I drove the glowing shakujō into the back of the Susanoo clone that was about to cut Gamabunta down. The red aura burned against the humanoid's resistance before the sounding staff finally broke through the blue barrier and turned the wooden clone inside into ashes.

Without another word, Gamabunta took an injured Gai away from my care. Just before the giant tongue fully wrapped around Gai, I heard him saying amidst broken breaths, "Sorry about that. I wish I could help more … this shouldn't be a battle that one has to fight alone."

Gamabunta sped away without looking back. A wise choice, considering that an entire forest broke through the ground and caged Madara and I in a microcosm made up of post-apocalypse jungle.

Roots crawled up onto the silver warrior, tightening around its ankle and pulling down its wings. With a swipe of the sounding staff, all of the roots were torn to pieces, but more would just climb up in an attempt to drown me in an ocean of trees.

So, for a second, I ignored all that and forced the Susanoo to raise its arms against the restraints. A wave of silver washed over its hands as the Shakujō reformed into the bow and I notched the crimson arrow back while aiming its tip at the blue Tengu warrior. In response, the blue Susanoo lowered its body in caution and rested its hands on the katana.

The ground shook when Madara's Susanoo pushed its heel into the ground and charged. Simultaneously, I swung the bow, changed the direction of my attack, and released the flaming arrow, right towards the crowd of wooden clones that was about to devour a trapped Jiraiya like hyenas would a deer.

It was as if someone had plucked a string hard enough for it to break, the arrow pierced through the air with a shrieking howl and struck down two of the humanoid giants. The subsequent implosion blew the rest back and gave Jiraiya time to sever his binds with a strong blast of water.

Clack! Madara's katana struck down from above and made the silver Susanoo fall on one knee. I barely raised the bow in time and met his blade in the air. Still, the silver bow started to break under the sharp katana, forcing me to dissolve it into an aura of silver before it could be cut in half.

My Susanoo slid past the blue giant and narrowly avoided the sword. When the silver warrior stood up again, shaking off the roots that crawled onto its ankle, a circle of fire lit up at the edge of the overgrown jungle, barricading Madara and me inside this primitive world.

"Maiko!" I heard the yell from Jiraiya as he was forced to escape outward as the fire roared in intensity. Despite the fire at the edge, the forest inside seemed to grow with even more vigour. Giant flowers bloomed at the tips of the thick branches, glowing under the backdrop of a burning hell.

"Without a Susanoo, one can't survive here," Madara was kind enough to explain as his Susanoo charged in again and clashed the katana with the sounding staff. "Well, even with one, survival is not guaranteed."

I could see the specks of pollen being released from the stamens of the flowers, diffusing into the atmosphere and mixing in with the smoke. The silver Susanoo fluttered its wings, but before I could put that thought into action, Madara willed his Susanoo to turn and slammed its body into mine.

"Fly upwards and I'll send wood clones after those still in Konoha," Madara said as he wretched the katana away from the silver staff. With a sharp pivot, the blue giant slammed the hilt of the katana into the base of my Susanoo's wing.

In the corner of my vision, I could see the blue aura melting away from the three remaining wooden clones. The clones of Madara crawled into the roots as if saying that these would longer be unnecessary.

"You must have felt it too. Susanoo was not a power that only arose out of our Mangekyou. It's a manifestation of our wills, our souls." Madara's voice felt so far away, even though our Susanoo was merely inches away. It took me a second to realize that it was the poisonous pollen in the air that was messing with my senses.

"My wooden clones don't have souls, so their Susanoo was merely a cheap imitation, more than enough to deal with the pests, but ripped apart by your flames all too easily." Easy? I might have rolled my eyes at that if I didn't taste the metallic liquid that dripped down from my nose.

Was it the pollen? Did I get a concussion earlier? Was something else breaking? I didn't have an answer and I didn't have time to find out.

"When one's body ages, when one's senses fade, when one's life is being chipped away by time, the only thing left unchanged is the soul." It felt as if someone had spun the world in circles when Madara's Susanoo bashed into mine and slammed the silver warrior into the ground. I barely had any time to react when the Katana dropped down, ripping off one of the wings as I forced the Susanoo to roll to the side.

Suddenly, an overwhelming pain ripped down my right shoulder blade as if someone had cleaved a part of my bone off. However, the pain did help to clear up my unfocused brain. Pollen … A stream of chakra ran down from the tip of the shakujō.

A second later, ribbons of ruby-red fire travelled up the thick stems that supported the flower buds. Despite my unhinged control, the subsequent implosions did their job and engulfed the flowers in storms of fire.

Similarly, a string of fire raced up Madara's katana before expanding right in front of his face. The explosion scrambled the air around us, pushing away the pollen that swarmed in my vicinity and bringing in some less contaminated air.

I gasped for breaths of air, even if they were heated by the flames to the point that they boiled my lungs. I wiped my face, rubbing away the blood, the sweat, and the dust that were gathering in front of my eyes.

Burning the flowers was only a temporary solution. If the root of the technique - the forest itself - was not destroyed, then it was only a matter of time until they grew back. However, to incinerate the entire forest, I would need an insane amount of chakra. There's also—

Clank! I raised the sounding staff in a hurry and lodged the blade into the clattering rings, stopping the sword just before it could dig into the head of my Susanoo and subsequently, decimate me.

"I will break your soul by breaking every aspect of you that can still fight. So, what is that Mangekyou power you've been hiding in your eyes?" The impact pushed the silver Susanoo further into the crater filled with rock, ashes, and splinters. Madara's gaze pierced through the two layers of Susanoo and landed on my left Mangekyou, where the tri-petalled flower swirled steadily in a circle but had yet to be activated.

"Would you believe me even if I tell you?" I retorted back and the blue giant pushed the katana further in response. "I guess not. Also, you'd have a better chance to just kill me. Why go through so much trouble? Unlike Obito, you don't look like the kind that needs to prove a point."

"I'm well aware that there's a high chance that the Rinnegan has already been destroyed, probably not long after Rinne Tensei was used." I didn't expect Madara to answer me, but he did anyway while the blue sword inched closer until it scratched the surface of my Susanoo.

"To awaken a pair of Rinnegan, the minimal requirement is the fusion of Uchiha and Senju. To make another pair, I will spare the Uchiha bloodline and perhaps one of you will do the trick." There was a pause as Madara observed how my Susanoo shimmered in instability - my chakra was dying - before finishing his sentence. "I need your life, but I have no use for your soul."

At that moment, the shakujō broke in half under the pressure and there was nothing stopping the katana from cracking open my Susanoo like eggshells.

I was sure that nobody - not me, not Madara - expected the Arena of Hell to be breached by anyone uninvited. Therefore, Madara showed a rare moment of surprise when a mass of purple flew past the walls of fire and slammed into the blue giant's head from the side.

Well, he did say that having a Susanoo was the ticket of entry.

"Maiko-nee!" Sasuke and Naruto shouted at the same time as they landed in front of me, covered by Sasuke's incomplete Susanoo. Having my own Susanoo shattered left my body shaking from the backlash.

But just then, a coat of orange shimmered around my body, covering me with a blanket of warmth and vitality that I never expected the hostile Nine-Tail chakra to have. I snapped my head up and saw the glowing coat of yellow on Naruto's body. As if noticing my gaze, Naruto returned a big smile and shouted, "I'm a passable Jinchuuriki now, Maiko-nee. I got you covered!"

"You both sure have grown," I couldn't help but mutter when Sasuke expanded his Susanoo to shield me as well. The forest shook in rage at the sudden intrusion as roots and branches sprung up and attacked us. But all of the attacks were blocked by the purple Susanoo as my little brother clenched his teeth to steady himself.

Sasuke turned around, looking like he was about to say something. But before he could open his mouth, I spoke up. "Listen, Sasuke. For a Susanoo to grow stronger, it's not just bigger in size or denser in the chakra. It becomes more alive."

I placed my hand on the ground, feeling the vast amount of chakra that was being supplied by the Nine-Tail Chakra coat. None of it was mine, but it somehow integrated with my chakra system perfectly, like gloves to hands, giving me the permission to use this pool of chakra.

"Don't think of Susanoo as a static being, don't think about making it more solid like you would put bricks to a wall. Make the barriers flow; make the chakra circulate like vessels to a body; make the Susanoo move like a creature would." I looked up and met Sasuke in the eyes.

The droplets of red that flowed down his cheeks stung my heart, but I knew that Sasuke wasn't a child that should be shielded. My little brother was a talented shinobi and he had reached such a level faster than I could ever imagine.

"So, I'm counting on you to protect us." With that, I sent a flood of chakra into the ground. Madara wasn't the only one who could call up a garden.

A sea of red burned in my vision as crimson lotuses rose from the ground and bloomed with hunger. The centre of the spectacle, of course, was the blue giant being ensnared in a blanket of petals,

Come to hell with me, the glow of the flames seemed to hypnotize as the flowers bloomed in passion. I promise it will be a paradise.

"Wait—" Sasuke swallowed the rest of his words when the world around us exploded in flames. Simultaneously, the purple Susanoo grew in size and complexity as Sasuke reacted in the heat of the moment.

Just like that, the empire of wood had fallen in a storm of fire. A shockwave expanded from the centre of the battlefield, repelling the flames and forcibly carving a hole in the ocean of red. Still, the once pristine armour cladded on the blue Susanoo was now marred with damage.

A rumbling thunder sounded in the background as clouds gathered in the sky above. A thunderstorm was brewing.

"Madara's Rinnegan allows him Pein's abilities, including the ability to absorb chakra-based and to a lesser degree, even senjutsu-based attacks. Focus on mobility first; your Susanoo is not going to hold under the strikes of his complete Susanoo." I barely had the time to finish my advice before a katana sliced down against the backdrop of flashing lightning.

The three of us scattered just before the glowing blade shredded the ground open. Naruto jumped out of Sasuke's Susanoo as he let the gold aura wash over his body and solidify into the shape of a giant fox. Meanwhile, I hitched a ride with Sasuke as the purple avatar to dash to the side.

"Chakra-based attacks, huh." Sasuke sounded thoughtful as he eyed the stormy clouds growing above. Then, he asked while dodging the wing - tattered and broken but nevertheless overshadowed us in size - that smacked down. "We destroyed Rinnegan, but I don't suppose that'll make him give up, will it?"

"Trust me, we've had that discussion before. You can see how that turned out," I replied while unsheathing my swords and crashing them together. As the metal grazed each other, sparks turned into electricity until eventually, half a dozen lightning dragons dashed out from the blade and sped towards Madara in midair.

"Lesson number two on Susanoo: once damaged, it won't regenerate unless its form evolves or if it's summoned again," I said to Sasuke just as my lightning dragons rammed into the blue giant's chest, digging their electrifying jaws into the broken armours, peeling the cracks open little by little.

Of course, Madara could always dispel the Susanoo and call out another for a fresh start - it wasn't like chakra conservation was a concern for him. But with the way Naruto jammed one senjutsu-infused Rasengan after another into his body without so much as a pause, he couldn't risk the downtime in between, especially when he was uncertain what types of attacks the boys could achieve.

But that situation would quickly change, once Madara deemed his Rinnegan to be sufficient to handle Naruto and Sasuke. Therefore, we needed to hurry and … "Number three: when a Susanoo's integrity is destroyed involuntarily, the backlash will prevent it from being summoned again for a little while."

Just when Madara pinned Naruto's fox avatar to the ground with a pulse of gravity, an arrow made of black flames was already notched by the purple Susanoo. Catching the moment when Shinra Tensei was in cool down, Sasuke released the arrow of divine flame toward Madara.

Roots sprout from the ground, tying down my brother's Susanoo, making the purple giant lose its balance. Several roots joined together and stood erect in front of us, determined to dwindle down the black flame before it could reach its target.

As if I would let that happen.

Lightning filled my limbs and I jumped out of Sasuke's Susanoo. The momentum pushed me forward, allowing me to reach the barrier of trees in the blink of an eye. Yin-chakra fire gathered in my palm, the concentration reaching its apex right as I punched the lotus into the wooden structure.

As I slid down the side of the wooden wall, using my sword to break the fall, a hole was blown open right in the middle by a cloud of crimson fire. The black arrow followed suit, passing through the smoke at full speed.

Despite being exaggerated as the ultimate defence, every Susanoo had its limit, including Madara's. The blue giant side-stepped in an attempt to dodge the attack, but the fox avatar hooked onto its feet using its tails, despite the fact that it was half-buried in the rubbles.

It was as if everything happened in slow motion. The tip of the arrow drilled into the head of the blue giant, punching in the last needle into the surface of an already cracked glass. The blue Susanoo shattered from the head and Amaterasu continued forward unobstructed.

Madara's Rinnegan pulsed and immediately, the black arrow started to unravel as soon as it reached his body. Root grew from the ground, creating ladders for Madara to break the free fall. For a moment, Madara looked in our direction with a gaze that screamed murder. But then, a disturbance on the ground forced him to shift his attention away.

The golden fox that used to be restrained by roots and branches was now gone. What appeared next, was Naruto - shrunk back to his original size - who had raced up the wooden ladders and sent a roundhouse kick right at Madara's chest.

"It's Taijutsu, take this!" Naruto yelled as his feet passed through the ninjutsu-negating barrier, losing only a layer of chakra-coating before slamming into Madara's body. The force from the strike barely made a dent in Madara as he blocked with his forearm, but only when Naruto's leg left did he see the piece of seal stuck to his arm.

An adamantine chain sprung out of the sealing paper, wrapping around Madara's arm before racing down to connect with the other seals stuck on the ground. The pulling force was so sudden that Madara didn't manage to negate all of the chakra chains before he was pulled down to the ground.

"Thanks for the fire, Maiko-nee." I heard Sasuke say as he raised his fingers and pointed towards the sky. Streams of electricity bounced on his fingertips and in response, thunder roared high above. Ah, the fire from earlier must have accelerated the conditions for a storm.

"Kirin!" Sasuke yelled as his chakra connected with the power stored in the thunder cloud. In the blink of an eye, lightning poured out from the sky and crashed down onto Madara in the shape of a mystical beast. Sasuke's lightning chakra was only a guide, meaning that the majority of the damage would be coming from a force of nature - a force beyond the domain of Rinnegan.

The resulting impact was blinding.

Naruto was already on the move as chakra tails grew from his back, each holding a binding seal used for restraining Edo Tensei. Despite the force of that attack, it wouldn't take long for an Edo Tensei body to regenerate from dust.

A hand giant made of wood broke through the ground and grabbed onto Naruto. I saw the flash of kanji for 'Sit' that was carved in its palm, glowing in an ominous aura. Naruto expanded the yellow coat of Nine-Tail chakra in a hurry, but the hand was still wrapped around him with an iron hold.

"It's … It's suppressing Kurama's consciousness!" Naruto yelled as a dozen more wooden hands rose all around him. Tailed-beast suppression, I realized all of a sudden. It was an ability that came innately with Wood Release, but I never realized that Madara could mimic its strength so close to the level of Shodaime.

Beyond the smoke and the fire, in the crater that was charred black, a blackened statue crouched over Madara. Despite its crumbling state, I could still make out the shape of a Tengu warrior - one that was carved out of wood, an artificial lightning rod that conducted the electricity away from Madara.

"When Hashirama fought me, he would create wooden constructs comparable in size with a complete Susanoo," Madara said as his paper dust flowed to regenerate his arms. "Since my experience in this technique is still lacking, maybe in a few years, all of you will grow enough strength to take advantage of that."

"Too bad, that won't ever happen."

The wooden hands clapped down on Naruto, suppressing his roaring Nine-Tail chakra into a pool of dead water while suffocating the boy in a prison of wood. Sasuke moved on the beat, making his Susanoo race to aid Naruto, only for a tornado of fire to slam him to the side.

Heatwaves cooked our bodies, and to make things worse, the coat of Nine-Tail chakra that surrounded our bodies also disappeared as its owner struggled to maintain the connection. The purple Susanoo shimmered in patches, telling me that Sasuke's chakra was also on its last leg, only able to keep up against the exertion because of Naruto's help.

"Hah!" I heard Naruto's scream mixed in with the sound of shrieking wind and muffled explosions, telling me that the boy was trying everything he could to cut open his restraints and free Kurama from the suppression.

"Worry about yourself." Madara's voice brought my attention to the sky, where a meteorite was starting to form above him. It wasn't to the size that flattened our village, but still big enough to decimate everything on this battlefield.

"Dispel your Susanoo, Sasuke," I said in a light whisper. When my little brother stared at me in silent protest, I managed to flash him a smile and said. "You'll need it later, so don't let it be broken."

"Trust me, and I'll entrust the rest to you and Naruto."

There was a pause before the purple aura faded around us. What replaced it, was layers and layers of silver that built up to a silver warrior in its entirety. Leaving a heavy footprint behind, the silver Susanoo jumped and landed in front of the tomb made of wood.

"Why do you sound like …" Sasuke couldn't finish the last bit of his sentence, but I knew what he wanted to ask anyway.

"What are you thinking? That thing won't kill me." I nodded at the Meteorite falling down.

Once again, the silver Susanoo spread its wings and braced the fall.

Mere seconds after I managed to summon the Susanoo again - fresh and free from its previous damage - it was already close to falling apart. Still, I gauged the amount of chakra left in my body. It was down to the last little bit, but if I was careful, it should just be enough.

The broken giant shook its body lightly and Sasuke fell right through the barrier. Without giving him a chance to yell at me - or allow myself any reluctance to leave - I made the Susanoo race towards Madara without looking back.

Madara erected another giant wooden statue in response, but it seemed unnecessary, for the silver giant started to fall apart at every step, making it a question of whether I could even reach him in one piece.

Madara might have even let out a mocking sound at me, that was until he saw the chakra rushing to my left eye.

How much are you willing to burn to light that spark of hope?

The first petal in my left eye ignited, wrapping Madara in a time prison as the battered armours around my Susanoo faded and the scales on its wings started to break off. The previous fight with Pein told me that the dimension created by Kannon Bosatsu was not immune to the ninjutsu negation. But just as the flow of time slowly returned to Madara while his Rinnegan sucked in the jutsu, the second petal ignited.

While it looked like Madara was caught in slow motion, the commands he had given out didn't slow down in time and the Wooden Tengu warrior crossed its arms in front of him to prevent me from closing in on an attack using Taijutsu.

When the second petal ran out, there was the third.

The silver Susanoo raised its arms as a crimson arrow was pulled back on the string of the bow. I didn't have enough chakra for the Magatama beads, so let's scratch that. Just before the arms broke apart too, Hama Ya was released from the bow.

Madara absorbed the last Kannon Bosatsu just in time to see the evil-banishing arrow pierce through the gaping hole in front of him and me following not far behind. There was only a fraction of a second to react, and Madara chose the best course of action.

The ninjutsu-negating barrier was reconstructed in front of Madara, breaking apart the flaming arrow and demolishing the fire that could threaten his regeneration with utmost efficiency. Meanwhile, Madara raised his palm and pushed, releasing a bout of repulsing force in an attempt to push me back.

Just before the almighty push arrived, I dashed out of its range, leaving only some residual lightning behind while the skeleton of what my Susanoo remained disintegrated under the repulsion. Using Madara's own wooden statue as a foothold, I appeared behind him, where his ninjutsu-negating barrier didn't reach.

Overwhelm him, force him to negotiate between his different skills, make him choose the most rational decision, and exploit that. Every skill suffered from compromise, and his ninjutsu-negating ability was no different. A range that covered his entire body was slower in its effects and held more interference for his other offensive skills.

A lotus bloomed in my hand, glowing red in an unearthly aura. If it imploded, it would have engulfed both of us in a blaze that was hot enough to melt through the bones.

"You think I won't be able to react to this?" Madara sounded offended as he turned around and reoriented his Rinnegan just as the lotus exploded. The ninjutsu-negating barrier opened right on time, sucking in the flames before they could touch him.

It was at that moment that he noticed the inconsistency. Even with the suction, the fire was so weak that it would only cause burns on the skin. The lotus was a dud; an empty shell of what it should have been, and much less concentrated than the fire I had been using.

Everything was unveiled under Madara's sharingan when he saw the dying chakra flow in my body, telling him that I was so depleted of chakra that this pathetic attempt of ambush might have been the best I could do.

It wasn't an act, I didn't even have enough chakra for another lotus, dud or not. This was the end of the road that Madara was looking for, where I had used up everything I had, tried everything I could think of until there was nothing left of me. A black rod appeared in his hand as he rushed forward in a counterattack.

How much are you willing to burn to light that spark of hope?

My answer to that would have been 'everything'.

A blade slashed through the ninjutsu-negating barrier unhindered as I reached my arm into the flames. The burns didn't feel so bad, but maybe that was just the adrenaline talking. Even if Madara didn't realize it, his reaction did slow, just a little, enough for my sword to catch him in surprise as it arrived at his face.

My blade slashed open Madara's eyes, etching a line across his face. The sudden loss of sight halted his ninjutsu absorption, but paper dust already started to flow to the wound. The Rinnegan would heal in less than a second, unless …

The last bit of my chakra rushed out of my body and into the blade in the form of pure yin-chakra. The silver aura flooded the metal and seared across the wound yet to close.

At the same time, a black rod pierced through my abdomen. The blade in my hand fell as I lost the strength to hold it.

"You …" The amount of seething rage in Madara seemed to drown out his words as he tightened his hand around my neck. See, I resisted using the yin-chakra blade in this entire battle until now so that Madara would never see a mere sword as a threat.

A second black rod was punched into my shoulder and I couldn't even suck in a breath to ease the pain because Madara's fingers clawed into my neck until it bled. But nothing changed the fact that his Rinnegan wouldn't regenerate for at least ten minutes.

"Even if you kill me, there are always others," I managed to squeeze my words out despite the lack of air in my lungs. "I don't need to win. I just need to help them win."

"Kill you?" Madara let out a cold laugh that would freeze the hell itself. "No, you should thank your Uchiha bloodline, or I would have ripped you to pieces."

"But as I said, I only need your life. That makes your eyes unnecessary." A hand reached for my eye sockets as I shut my eyes tight in a useless endeavour.

Fingers pried open my eyelids harshly, but before they could dig further, a rush of wind made Madara pause in an alert.

I only saw a flash of yellow hair as a kunai slashed through Madara's wrist. Then, the world in front of me warped as someone grabbed me. When the scene in front of me stabilized again, I could finally see the feature of the man that teleported me out.

The face of our Yondaime Hokage mixed with the characteristic features left by Edo Tensei would have been a nightmare, given all the trauma Edo Tensei had caused me.

But there was clearly a gap in knowledge, considering that a reanimation had just saved me from having my eyes gouged out. There was also the fact that Itachi, Kakashi, and Orochimaru were standing together, in no way shape or form trying to kill each other.

Therefore, I asked the only question that I believed to be appropriate at that moment.

"What the hell?"


A/N: I made it before June ended! I know that Madara is (mostly) beating their asses, but it's Madara - an undead Madara. Sasuke and Naruto are still babies, the former just opened the Mangekyou a few hours ago and the latter only learned how to use Nine-Tail chakra today. They're only fourteen and honestly skipping a lot of training time for their power output. Maiko - and everyone in Konoha - is also very very tired from nonstop fighting and she's scraping by with emergency healings and scuffed chakra regeneration.

Also deep respect for Orochimaru in canon, for lasting until the end. The man literally went from the most wanted criminal to doing research under unlimited state funding - literally every researcher's dream. It shows the importance of picking the winning side.