A/N: Thank you for your continued support. Rest assured that all the issuespeople have brought up have been taken under consideration. If you spot anyfurther issues or inconsistencies, please don’t hesitate to let me know.
Before Kakashi could react, there was another sound, this one no lesshorrible: the unmistakeable sound of a large blade cleaving through flesh.Three times. Only incredible reflexes allowed him to bring up his own kunai intime to block, leaving him struggling to hold back the weight of theattacker’s sword.
“Wind Element: Squall Technique!”
A sudden blast of pressurised air swept through the clearing, instantly wipingaway the mist. The attacker’s balance faltered for a split second. SinceKakashi had expected the technique, his did not, and he ducked under the swordas he brought his kunai up and through his enemy’s stomach. He felt a rush ofliquid down his hands. At the same time, a series of four popping noisessounded in quick succession around him.
“You live up to your reputation, Hatake ‘Sharingan’ Kakashi,” a deep malevoice commented.
Kakashi looked up to see his attacker, perfectly alive, standing on a hightree branch across the clearing, near the lake. A tall, well-muscled man,bare-chested and wearing grey camouflage gear on his limbs, he carried anenormous broadsword with a large circular hole near the top of the blade.Despite the white half-mask covering the lower part of his face, a sure signof good taste in shinobi gear, the crossed-out Mist symbol on his headband andthe unique weapon made him instantly recognisable.
Kakashi quickly glanced around. Just as planned, his squad was standing aroundhim in perfect formation. Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke and Kakashi Prime were all inaggressive stances with weapons out. At a nod from the original, the clonedispelled himself.
“Momochi ‘Demon’ Zabuza,” the real Kakashi replied. “One of the Seven ShinobiSwordsmen, and master of Silent Killing and Water Element techniques. It seemsGatō is really pulling out all the stops on this one.”
“You sent a squad of shadow clones out as bait, knowing that you’d realise theinstant one was destroyed, and had your real squad ready to take me out beforeI noticed that there was no sound of bodies hitting the ground,” Zabuzaobserved. “I like your style. If that hadn’t been a water clone, I’d be deadfive ways by now.”
There was no reply. Kakashi was busy analysing the terrain and estimating howmuch chakra he could spend on this fight. Naruto was busy being excited at theexpectation of finally seeing experienced ninja fight, but also unnerved thatevery opponent they’d faced so far had “Demon” in their name. After that onevision of demons dragging his soul down to Hell, it cut a little close to thebone.
Meanwhile, Sakura was feeling proud of her team upon hearing Zabuza’scompliment, and Sasuke was wondering if he’d misheard Zabuza’s initialcomment. “Sharingan” Kakashi? There was no possible way that could be right.Then again, he did always keep his left eye covered up…
“Of course,” Zabuza added, “if that hadn’t been a water clone, it would havebeen me, and then you’d all be dead by now. Or at least your little Geninwould. They look like they’ve come straight from Leaf’s ninja school, notwaded through rivers of blood to get here like you and me, Kakashi.”
A chill went through the younger three-quarters of Team Seven.
“Don’t let him get to you,” Kakashi said. “Psychological warfare is one of thebasic weapons of the shinobi. If he can convince you that you’re weaker thanyou really are, he’s already won.”
“You think I’m trying to screw with their minds?” Zabuza asked. “Why would Ibother? Their lives are already forfeit - I’m just letting them die with theireyes open. Let them see how they have been sent to certain death, their livestraded for money as one resource for another, while their leaders continue topreach of loyalty and bonds.”
Naruto could see his team’s mood sinking rapidly. The cool confidence withwhich Zabuza was talking about their deaths was somehow more frightening thanany amount of angry threats, and for all Kakashi-sensei’s virtues, he didn’tthink an inspirational pep talk was in the offing.
On the other hand, Naruto himself wasn’t terribly affected. While Zabuza’sdelivery put him head and shoulders above most people Naruto had heard before,the fact remained that he’d grown up on death threats and intimidation the waymost children had grown up being told to brush their teeth before bed and eattheir greens. Until Zabuza was actually ready to fight, he wasn’t inherentlyscarier than, say, Mr Yamada from downstairs, who had threatened to cutNaruto’s limbs off with a rusty saw when he thought Naruto was the onestealing his newspaper.
Besides, to Zabuza convincing untruths delivered with perfect self-assurancewere a trick to soften up his opponents before battle. To Naruto, confidentlyspouting utter bullshit was a way of life. Zabuza was challenging him on hishome ground, and Naruto wasn’t going down without a fight.
“I know what you’re doing!” Naruto exclaimed. “But you’re not the only onewith this secret Bloodline Limit. Windbag Element: Endless MonologueTechnique!”
Naruto struck a dramatic pose, his hands in front of his wide-open mouth as ifprojecting a sonic beam out of it.
Everyone present, including Zabuza, was now giving him a somewhat incredulouslook.
“Oops, I forgot,” Naruto confessed. “The Endless Monologue Technique doesn’tactually do anything. It’s just a way to enjoy the sound of my own voice. Thenagain, I’m just a doomed little Genin. Maybe it does something different whenused by a Jōnin?”
He looked up at Zabuza. “Well? We’re all waiting.”
There was silence for several seconds. Then there was a sudden “snerk” asSasuke finally failed to suppress his laughter.
“Naruto, you are such a moron!” Sakura likewise gave up resisting the call ofher most fundamental instincts.
Kakashi just rolled his eyes in resignation. He couldn’t for the life of himremember what he’d done to the Hokage that was bad enough to deserve gettingassigned this team.
Zabuza, meanwhile, now knew exactly whom he was going to eviscerate first.Without wasting any more time, he jumped off the tree branch - and straightonto the surface of the lake. His landing was so perfect that the surfacebarely rippled.
“Water Element: Water Clone Technique!”
Six identical Zabuzas rose from the surface of the water. As soon as they werefully formed, they moved as one in the direction Team Seven had come from.
Kakashi turned towards them and started forming seals, but was forced to abortas Zabuza’s blade suddenly came down. The man had appeared in front of himwith unbelievable speed for someone of his build.
“I don’t think so, Kakashi. I’m your opponent.”
To the eyes of Team Seven, the two men turned into one incomprehensibly fastblur of ducking, swiping, lunging and blocking.
“Intercept them before they find Tazuna!” Kakashi called out.
Zabuza laughed. “You’re willing to sacrifice your Genin team just to slow medown?” he asked loudly. “And here I’d been told Leaf had grown soft in itsdays of peace.”
“Don’t listen to him!” Kakashi shouted at Team Seven’s retreating backs.“Water clones only have a tenth of the original’s power! You can do this!”
Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura faced off against the six water clones, which hadevidently decided to eliminate their pursuers early on rather than risk beingbackstabbed. Each one had a copy of Zabuza’s huge sword, and a stance thatspoke of decades of experience in using it to kill.
Things didn’t look good. What did Kakashi-sensei mean about a tenth of theoriginal’s power? Were they a tenth as fast? A tenth as intelligent? Did theyhave a tenth of the original’s chakra? Naruto needed more information, and heneeded a way of getting the rest of the team through this alive.
“Elemental clones are pre-programmed constructs,” Sasuke suddenly announced.“They can’t think for themselves to adapt to new challenges. So our best shotis trying to surprise them.”
Naruto caught himself nodding before he could help it. This was good thinking.The catch, of course, was that Zabuza seemed like a skilled clone user.Skilled users of elemental clone techniques were pretty rare, because makingclones that could actually fight alongside you, rather than just beingdisposable materials for one-shot stratagems, was incredibly hard. You had tohave a solid grasp of clone AI in order to devise effective behaviour patternsfor them, and you had to practise until you could create a clone with acomplex program at a moment’s notice without having to take time toconcentrate. Creating a high-quality elemental clone was like trying to writea publishable academic treatise in your head, in a couple of seconds, undercombat conditions. Naruto had invested a lot of time and effort into studyingclone AI, mostly through experimentation thanks to his limited access tobooks, and was immensely grateful when the Shadow Clone Technique suddenlyallowed him to stop worrying about it.
So if Zabuza was a skilled clone user, they were in trouble. Especially if hewas one of the select few who understood emergent behaviour. An elite cloneuser, Naruto knew from his reading, would emphasise high levels of basicabilities like dodging and taijutsu, and then program the clone to scan thesituation for ways to combine them as effectively as possible, rather thandeveloping specific behaviour patterns for all the possible individualscenarios. These were scary, ANBU levels of skill, but they undeniably madethe clones far more flexible, and thus far more deadly.
“Naruto,” Sasuke snapped him out of his contemplation. Quickly turning so thathis hands couldn’t be seen from the front, he made the hand signs for“distraction”, “three” and “second”.
Naruto nodded. If surprise was the way to overcome Zabuza’s clones, then hewould do his best to oblige.
“Uzumaki-style Ninjutsu: Harem Technique!”
A dozen naked girls appeared out of nowhere, all of them looking suspiciouslylike an older, gender-swapped Naruto, and with curiously static wisps of cloudaround certain parts of their anatomy. Naruto suddenly felt a wave of intensekilling intent, but from Sakura rather than the water clones. Before she evenhad time to comment, however, the girls had closed the distance to theirtargets, and were trying to drape themselves over the water clones withexclamations along the lines of “oh, Master Zabuza, your sword is so big!” and“I’ve always had a thing for sextuplets!” There were also at least threedifferent puns on “wet”.
For obvious reasons, Zabuza had not programmed these clones to resistseduction. For a second, they froze, uncertain what to do with very obviouslyunarmed women acting in a non-hostile (and in fact downright friendly)fashion. Then, moving as one, they destroyed them with precise hand strikes tovital areas, but by then it was too late. As the mist caused by the shadowclones’ destruction dissipated, they heard Sasuke’s voice.
A large, four-bladed shuriken flew towards the clone in the middle at chestlevel. He was about to duck under it, when one of the others, with a differentangle of view, suddenly exclaimed “shadow windmill!”
The clone instantly changed its mind and stepped just to the side, allowingboth the shuriken and the second one hidden below it, in its shadow, to fly byharmlessly.
Then the exploding tag on the hidden shuriken detonated.
The dodging clone was instantly obliterated. As an added bonus, the force ofthe explosion flung the original shuriken to the side, and into another clone,forcing it to explode into water.
Sakura started to cheer, but was abruptly cut off.
“Water Element: Concealing Mist Technique!”
Within seconds, visibility was down to zero, and the Genin were up againstfour clones of what Kakashi had warned them was a master of tracking andkilling by sound alone. The mist might as well have been a solid grey wall,wrapping around them and taking away all sense of distance and direction. Noneof the three could hear anything except their own heartbeats, which grew everlouder as the suspense mounted.
Naruto’s, however, was growing louder with excitement. Earlier, Zabuza hadbroken one of the cardinal rules of the ninja: he’d let an enemy see hisspeciality technique and survive. And after feeling his shadow clones pop inZabuza’s mist the first time, Naruto had been preparing. In his mind, hedivided the battlefield into a hexagonal grid.
“Multiple Shadow Clone Technique!”
Within seconds, a shadow clone was running in circles (well, hexes) around theedge of each hex, each clone singing a different song (or occasionally thesame song to a different tune), as loudly as possible. The cacophony was worsethan that time he’d left a gunpowder trail leading from Captain Asuma’sfavourite smoking spot, to a carefully concealed fuse, to a closed crate offireworks labelled “tax ordinance paperwork” in the Hokage’s office. Let’s seeZabuza track him or his teammates by sound now.
Unsurprisingly, he immediately felt one of his shadow clones get sliced inhalf. Then another. And another. And then…
“Gotcha.” Naruto didn’t say this out loud. Instead, he said “Shadow CloneTechnique.”
A clone appeared next to him and instantly dispelled itself again. Everyshadow clone immediately knew what Naruto had known when he used thetechnique: namely, that there was a Zabuza clone at coordinate 16-D.
Over a dozen shadow clones converged on that one point, and between theirsheer numbers and the fact that the water clone was as blind as they were withall the noise, at least one kunai got through.
Unfortunately, the water clones had not been programmed to continue a tacticthat left them at a disadvantage. The mist quickly dissipated, and then theZabuzas moved with the speed of hungry sharks. Within seconds, all of thegrid-running clones were destroyed. Now Naruto was alone with Sasuke andSakura on the far side of the clearing.
That was the point at which things went wrong.
The clones moved in fast. One went for each of the three Genin, and Naruto nolonger had the leisure to keep track of his teammates. He ducked under a swipethat would have decapitated him, then just barely managed to block a knee blowthat would have crushed his ribs. It still sent him flying back across theclearing, and only an emergency mid-air Shadow Clone Technique to summon aclone as padding allowed him to soften the impact of the tree he hit.
Zabuza’s taijutsu was devastating, and there was no possible way to fightback. It was all Naruto could do to avoid taking direct hits, and try to dragthe battle out as long as possible in the hope that some opportunity wouldpresent itself. If the worst came to the worst, he could use some of _those_techniques, but… but then they’d know. And he’d lose everything he’d spentyears building up. It probably wasn’t as bad as being eviscerated by Zabuza,but it came pretty damn close.
Sasuke was faring better, but not by much. He was more agile than Naruto, butZabuza’s blade doubled as a very effective shield thanks to its extraordinarybreadth, and the circular hole near the top allowed the clone to keep watchingSasuke while blocking, minimising the blind spot. Sasuke tried several timesto stab his opponent through it, but its creator was clearly experienced inusing it this way, and the clone kept shifting its position and angle too fastto allow any such trick.
And then, as Naruto was busy jumping back out of range of a deadly swipe, andSasuke was desperately recovering from a failed lunge, the third clone cutSakura in half.
Or so it thought. The two halves of the log clattered to the ground as Sakurareappeared next to a tree at the edge of the clearing. Though exhausted andterrified, she allowed herself a quick smile. She really was good at theSubstitution Technique.
Zabuza was better. Another clone, taking a break from fighting Naruto, waswaiting for her as she reappeared. With a single, casual movement, it smashedher head into the tree. Sakura fell, and stopped moving.
Sasuke was standing at an angle which let him see this, and the sight appearedto send him into a frenzy. His rapid kunai strikes actually broke Zabuza’smomentum, and the second he made an opening, Sasuke instantly leapt back.
“Fire Element: Great Fireball Technique!”
The clone had no room to dodge the enormous fireball coming towards it.Instead, it did something unexpected. It threw its sword at the flames. As itsailed through the air, the blade exploded into pure water, and contact withit diminished the fireball to the point that it didn’t do enough damage todispel the clone.
Sasuke cursed silently. Of course his fire techniques would be weak againstthe water element. He charged in to press his advantage, but unfortunately,the water clones were faster. The unarmed clone fled as Sakura’s formeropponent took its place.
An enormous blade cut down as Sasuke, still running forwards, was unable toarrest his momentum. It cut right through his shoulder…
And once again a bisected log tumbled to the ground.
In a flash, Sasuke appeared at the edge of the clearing. The unarmed clone waswaiting for him, but before it could even begin to move, Sasuke disappearedagain within the same instant.
He reappeared where he’d been before, sending half the log back to itsoriginal location. Before the clone could lift its sword, it found a kunaithrust through its neck.
Unfortunately, this seemed to trigger something within the clones, as theirlevels of aggression suddenly spiked.
“Water Element: Water Bullet!”
A mass of compressed water shot at Sasuke’s head with incredible speed. It wasall he could do to dive sideways to avoid it, then push his hands against theground and go into an impromptu cartwheel to dodge the second shot.
And then suddenly the unarmed clone was lying on the ground next to him,having swapped places with Sakura’s log. Sasuke only had time to marvel for aninstant at how effectively he’d been driven into position before the clone’sarm snapped out, grabbed his head, and slammed it viciously against theground. Sasuke was down.
Meanwhile, the other clone had also stopped reserving its limited chakrasupply.
“Water Element: Geyser Blade Technique!”
Before Naruto could dodge, a sudden blast of pressurised water came out of theground beneath his feet, faster and more devastating even than Zabuza’s sword.Within a mere second, there was nothing left of him.
At least until a new pair of shadow clones appeared in the place of a coupleof fallen tree branches across the clearing.
“You call yourselves clones? Any true clone would know never to let theoriginal onto the battlefield.”
The Zabuzas turned to face the Narutos. The unarmed one drew a kunai.
Both Narutos considered the battlefield. Sasuke and Sakura were out, but theyseemed to be breathing. Which figured. If a professional assassin like Zabuzahad wanted them dead, he’d have finished them off the second they weredisabled. Why he hadn’t done so, of course, was another question.
“You guys just made two extremely stupid mistakes,” Naruto A informed them.
“You hurt my team,” Naruto B continued.
“And you made sure they couldn’t see me fight,” Naruto A finished.
“And now you pay.”
The two clones started making seals at the same time as the Zabuzas chargedtowards them. They finished just before the enemy got within striking range.
“Uzumaki-style Genjutsu: Void Prison!”
There was a blur of something coming from the Narutos’ hands too fast tocomprehend, and then each Zabuza froze. Suddenly, all light and sound hadvanished from the world, leaving only limitless darkness. It was as if theywere trapped in the void before creation, empty of anything but their ownawareness (or so the original Zabuza would have thought - his clones had noneed for poetic thinking, and so were not capable of it).
There was an obvious routine for dealing with genjutsu. Each Zabuza sheathedits weapon and made the dispelling seal.
Nothing happened. Nor with a second attempt, nor a third.
The Zabuzas retrieved their blades. For a few seconds, they stood perfectlystill, analysing the situation.
Fact: the caster’s level of observed combat skill placed them solidly in theGenin category, even with the anomalous use of shadow clones.
Fact: few Genin were competent with genjutsu.
Fact: this was clearly an advanced genjutsu that created a coherentillusionary world apparently outside the target’s body, rather than a basicblockage or warping of the senses. This explained why the clones could heartheir own breathing but no other sounds, and why they could feel their bodies,weapons etc., but nothing beyond them.
Fact: even with their reduced chakra levels, with Jōnin-level mastery of theDispelling Technique the clones should have been able to break a Genin’sgenjutsu.
Fact: the probability of successfully using genjutsu on a clone was very lowto begin with due to differences between the ways humans and clones processedinformation, and a Genin could not be expected to possess that level ofspecial expertise.
These statements combined meant that the experience the clones were undergoinghad an extremely low probability of actually occurring.
When undergoing an extremely low-probability experience, seek additional datafor verification.
The clones began to loudly intone a very low note, gradually going up inpitch. They stopped very quickly.
Confirmation. The acoustic properties of the space they were in were not thoseof infinite emptiness. They were those of a fairly confined, soundproofedspace.
The two Zabuzas struck out in front of them, and suddenly there was light, andthe puff of mist of a clone being destroyed. A few quick motions got rid ofthe remaining four clones “disguised” as interlocking soundproof black panels.
Then the clones’ experiences diverged.
The first, sword-wielding, clone saw a kunai flying towards it, andautomatically raised its sword to block.
“Uzumaki-style Taijutsu: Battering Ram Technique!”
With a flicker, the kunai was replaced by Naruto A. Then, in the same instant,Naruto A disappeared again. He was replaced by an enormous log. And thanks tothe wonderful property of momentum exchange, which allowed even fast-movingninja to use the Substitution Technique to safely swap with static objects,the log was moving at thrown kunai speed.
The blow took the clone clean off its feet. Then, as it fell, Naruto Areplaced the log once again, and started stabbing. The water clone never had achance.
Meanwhile, the other Zabuza clone found a hail of shuriken flying at it in awide spread. Most of them went hopelessly wide, flying above the clone’s headand off to its sides. What few were on target were effortlessly deflected witha kunai block.
Naruto B was unfazed.
“Uzumaki-style Taijutsu: Trick Shot Technique!”
As the shuriken passed Zabuza, each one turned into a shadow clone, and eachshadow clone, still in mid-flight, started to throw kunai as fast as it coulddraw them.
There were too many angles, and not enough time to turn. The clone wasdestroyed even before Naruto B’s own supplementary kunai could reach it.
It was over.
A few seconds later, a bush near the edge of the clearing turned into the realNaruto. He gave the clones an approving nod, and all three busied themselveswith trying to wake Sasuke and Sakura.
Unfortunately, his teammates were out cold. Then again, the fact that theyweren’t dead, and had apparently avoided any major injuries, was more thangood enough. After leaving Naruto A and B to drag them out of sight and standguard, and dispelling the other clones he’d concealed around the area duringthe Concealing Mist Technique, Naruto himself ran off to back up Kakashi.
His haste turned out to be unwarranted. He met Kakashi halfway back,apparently hurrying to do the exact same thing for Team Seven.
Naruto filled him in. His story was a masterpiece he’d concocted on the way,managing to describe the battle in a way that was entirely consistent withwhat Sakura and Sasuke had seen, _and _to make it sound like their success wasmostly thanks to Sasuke, _and _to make it sound like Naruto was trying todownplay Sasuke’s role as much as possible in favour of his own.
Kakashi seemed impressed. “You took out all six? I’m proud of you three. Ithought you’d manage to whittle their numbers down enough to stand your grounduntil I was done with Zabuza, but this is extraordinary.”
“So what happened with Zabuza, anyway?” Naruto asked.
Kakashi’s (probable) smile vanished. “He outplayed me. I was about to finishhim off when a Mist hunter-nin came in, dealt the deathblow with a thrownneedle, and retrieved the body.”
“Why’s that bad?” Naruto endeavoured to look confused, although he couldalready see where this was going. “Isn’t it those guys’ job to kill missing-nin and destroy the bodies before anyone can get village secrets out of them?”
“That’s just it,” Kakashi explained. “It’s unusual for them to retrieve thebody instead of destroying it, and when they do retrieve it they normally usea special seal for storing corpses in scrolls. They certainly don’t carry itoff by hand, especially when the body is so much bigger than they are.
“And unfortunately, I only realised all of this three seconds after thehunter-nin moved out of combat range,” he added. “Following him would havemeant abandoning you three, and I didn’t have enough chakra left afterfighting Zabuza to split it with shadow clones and still face an opponent ofunknown level.”
Kakashi-sensei was being unusually forthcoming, it occurred to Naruto. Was hefeeling guilty? Some small part of Naruto’s mind stored this behaviour patternaway for later use.
“So you’re saying… what? That it wasn’t a real hunter-nin?”
Kakashi nodded. “He’s probably one of Zabuza’s allies. That means Zabuza isstill alive, and now he’s seen many of my best techniques, and has time towork out counters for them. And if he was planning this from the start, heprobably took care not to show me his best techniques, so we can’t do thesame.”
Naruto swallowed. “So what do we do?”
“Fortunately, we have time to prepare as well,” Kakashi told him. “Being putinto a feigned death state with a needle throw isn’t something you simplyshrug off. Assuming that, in the worst-case scenario, our reinforcements don’tarrive on time, we’re going to get to Wave, and then I’m going to train youthree as best I can for the final confrontation. At least we can be fairlysure we’ll be safe until Zabuza is ready - his pride and his professionalreputation both demand that he not let another mercenary finish his job.”
After picking up Sasuke and Sakura, and retrieving Tazuna from his camouflagedhiding place, they stopped by the original lake so that Kakashi could pick uphis used ninja tools. And Naruto’s jaw dropped.
The place was some kind of elemental hell. Enormous, sharp spikes of rock rosefrom the lake, some of them partially broken off. Water-filled chasms dividedup the landscape, with crumbling remnants of stone walls jutting up at randompoints. Many of the trees around the edge had been completely uprooted, whileothers had perfectly round holes punched clean through their trunks.
This was how Jōnin fought when they didn’t have to worry about friendlyfire.
< Prev Next >