Chapter 1: Our Purpose

Panther followed his comrades single file down the long corridor. The hallway was pitch black, but it didn't matter; he'd walked these exact steps countless times. They all had.

Even deep underground, the faint smell of ash from the devastation above permeated the air. Cracks along the ceiling served as a reminder of the beast's immense power. Even the caves and catacombs under the Leaf Village didn't escape its rampage unscathed.

Ten days ago, the Nine-Tailed Fox suddenly appeared in the center of the Leaf. Its head was the size of one of the busts on the Hokage monument. Each tail was the length of an entire district and the width of an apartment complex. The immense weight of its chakra suffocated and burned the lungs of all those nearby.

Since the age of four, Panther has trained. Trained for every scenario, spent countless hours perfecting every shinobi discipline. He survived hundreds of near-death experiences due to the skills he gathered over the years. He'd become the perfect killing machine.

But in front of the Nine-Tails, he was a speck of dirt on the road. An insect one squashes without a single care in the world, without even knowing it was there.

And yet, the Fourth Hokage had defeated it. A single man managed to move the mountain-sized beast from the center of the village to a secluded area and then seal the beast away in a mere infant.

But it wasn't without cost. Their savior, the very man who had become the symbol of progress for the new generation of Leaf Shinobi, was dead.

The corridor widened into a large atrium. A maze of intersecting pathways lay above and below, all lined with small torches that provided the minimum amount of light needed for a briefing. At the center of the atrium on their level was a circular platform where two men stood. One taller than the average man. He wore a simple black and white robe with bandages wrapped around one eye and across his forehead. The other was a short older man who wore a red and white robe. An all too familiar diamond hat sat atop his head.

Danzo Shimura and Sarutobi Hiruzen stood like statues waiting for their summoned shinobi. Danzo, their sponsor and trainer. The man who turned him and the twenty shinobi around him into killers. The man who worked in the shadows so all those above could bask in the sun's warm glow.

Sarutobi, the god, the man who held the torch that shined bright on the path the entire village would follow. A man who led the village through two wars and fought in the first.

The line began to separate as it reached the two men on the platform. Then, two lines of ten began to form. Panther followed the slender girl in front and joined her in the second row. He stood completely still and at attention. Not a sound escaped any shinobi as they waited for their leaders to inform them of the reason for their summons.

Danzo moved first and stepped forward. He glanced at the two lines of shinobi; for a second, Panther thought he saw pride in that single black eye. The ghost of a grin twitched at the corner of his mouth.

"Over the years, the Root Program has strived to create the perfect shinobi. Men and women willing to give everything for their village. A being shrouded in shadows who could unleash death and destruction without a single sound." Danzo said in his familiar gravelly voice. "You twenty are some of the program's finest work."

The man continued to pace as Sarutobi watched silently from behind.

"Time and time again, Root has been called upon to prowl in the shadows. To stalk the Leaf's enemies and silence them before they can become a threat. This time is no different." The Root creator said as he stopped a couple of shinobi down the line from where Panther stood. "The Leaf is on fire, neighborhoods crushed, bodies stacked too high to count. And the man who's three-pronged kunai we hid behind during The Third Ninja War is dead."

Danzo continued his pacing and glanced briefly at Lord Third. A slight tilt of the hat was the only signal he needed to continue.

"Our great village is vulnerable. Its walls are cracked, and the jackals too numerous to count are outside clambering to get in." Danzo stopped in front of Panther and stared into his eyes. Panther smiled under his mask. The crinkles at the edges of his eyes must have been visible because Danzo responded with a vicious grin of his own. "It's time for you to fulfill your purpose."

Danzo turned and walked back to Lord Third. He raised his chin and peered into the eyes of each ninja.

"Each of you will be assigned a region outside the Land of Fire's borders. Your goal is to buy the Leaf time. Burn their crops, salt their fields, and spread discord through their towns. Time is what the Leaf needs. Time to recoup our strength, to patch the walls. Time is what you will purchase, and you will pay with your lives." With a short pause, Danzo continued. "You are all experienced enough to know there will be no coming back from a mission like this. One by one, over the coming months, you will be cut down. But not before you wreak havoc on our adversaries. And when you inevitably fall, your existence will disappear into the void. For you are Root, and you do not exist."

Danzo placed his palm on the table in front of him and Lord Third. A small puff of white smoke exploded out from under his hand, revealing a scroll. With a twist of his wrist, Danzo unraveled the scroll and laid it flat on the table. He then beckoned with a finger to the first Root ninja in line.

The young man walked forward and received his orders from Danzo, he then turned to Lord Third, and the God of Shinobi shook his hand and offered a few words. The Root Operative then bowed low and exited the room.

After many others received the same treatment, it was Panther's turn. He calmly walked forward and bowed to both Danzo and Lord Sarutobi.

"Panther," Danzo said as he pointed to a region on the map. "You will be placed in The Land of Lighting. Your hunting grounds will be the region bordered by the Land of Frost to the west and three hundred and fifty miles east. The coast along The Gaikotsu Bay will be your northern boundary. The lands bordering The Haran Bay will be your southern limit."

Danzo paused and looked up from the map. "When you're finished, I want everyone traveling west from the Land of Lighting's heartland to second guess their decision. I want that region's economy in shambles. I want to hear stories of a vengeful ghost prowling the landscape looking for easy prey."

Panther bowed to one of the few men he respected. The man who added purpose to his life. The man who showed him darkness was to be feared and respected.

"Consider it done, sir."

Panther turned towards Lord Third, one of the other few he respected. He removed his mask like the others and reached out with his hand. Lord Sarutobi grabbed it and gave him a firm handshake.

"Ren." The man said, causing Panther to shudder in surprise.

That's right; he had a name. Before he was Panther, he was Ren.

"Your name might not be in the records, but it lives in my and Danzo's memories. Thank you for your service. The Leaf is in your debt."

Panther looked into the God of Shinobi's black eyes. Past the apparent signs of age and weariness, he saw many things. But the most prominent was that of resolve. Resolve forged from decades of conflict, folded over and over onto itself like a blacksmith forges a sword. Hammered and reheated until the impurities were cast from its hardened form.

Yes, this was the God of Shinobi. A man Panther respected, a man he'd die for without a moment's hesitation.

Panther bowed profoundly and then, without a second look, turned and headed into the darkness.

He was a Root Operative. A forgotten orphan pulled from the dusty streets of a small village. His servitude gave him purpose, and the shadows cast by the Leaf's great walls were his playgrounds.

Authors Note:

This story spawned from a concept that has been brewing in my head. This will not be the main story I focus on. Nor will it be of epic length. I'm shooting for 40k-60k words.

Long Live the Leaf is entirely experimental. I plan on trying new things out and practicing my writing. Expect slow updates as my other works remain my priority.