Pein tapped the kneeling ninja’s shoulder with an old sword acquired specially for the occasion, mimicking the ceremony as he’d seen it described in somebody’s mind, passed down from ancient times.
“And do you swear your loyalty to me, and to my cause, unto death?”
Sharp teeth showed when he smiled. “Sure… I swear.”
“Then you are the night. Arise, Sir Hoshigaki Kisame, and claim what is yours, for all the islands of Mist shall be yours when our work is complete… Seek now Uchiha Itachi, and lend him your aid to capture the hosts of the eight and nine-tailed beasts.”
Sound village was amazing—rich in everything a ninja could ever desire.
The treasury contained ninety-six million ryo; enough to pay a year’s worth of expenses for thousands of ninja, if he’d had the desire to waste it. Not all of it had been seized from Hot Springs—this was Orochimaru’s personal hoard, much of it still hidden away in various locations far from prying eyes.
Kabuto seemed to have fallen for their bluff, acting as if he thought that if he didn’t cooperate fully then whatever Naruto had done to his master could still be done to him, but Naruto still didn’t trust him completely.
He’d explained that Orochimaru had developed a technique that allowed him to move his brain into the body of some unsuspecting host, thereby theoretically allowing him to live forever. Unfortunately, it hadn’t worked out quite like he’d hoped. His brain still aged at the normal rate, and the technique put such a great strain on the new body that they rarely survived longer than a few years, so he was left perpetually seeking good replacements just to try to recapture some of the strength he’d lost when he abandoned his original body. Sasuke had been his favored candidate for the next few years, and the “third eye” seal had just been a kind of necessary preparatory step—they called it the cursed seal, and it was needed to expand his pores by exposure to nature chakra. Apparently it had been routing the chakra through Orochimaru somehow from a distance, every time Sasuke activated the technique. Sasuke had only ever been borrowing the extra power, and now the possibility was gone.
Kabuto claimed not to know how his master had done it, other than that it involved sitting perfectly still whenever one of his candidates needed to make use of their seal, and that he had slit-eyes like a snake for the duration. Kabuto did suspect however that there were others who could do it—making use of “nature chakra”—as it was not a technique of Orochimaru’s own devising. Other than that, he could offer no information on how Sasuke might regain the use of the seal, or how Naruto could get one of his own. They had a number of syringes prepared, but without Orochimaru they would have had no effect. Nor did he have any information to offer about that paralysis technique.
The ninety percent fatality rate had been a complete lie, though—Orochimaru had been receiving reports on Sasuke’s development from his academy instructor, Mizuki, who had suggested that he might be more likely to take the seal if it was framed as a costly sacrifice for power to use against his brother, rather than just a huge upgrade offered for free, seemingly too good to be true. With Sasuke’s seal gone though, now, they were technically weaker in combat than they had been yesterday—maybe even weaker than they had been in months. But Kabuto didn’t need to know that.
Sound village’s intelligence network suggested that Leaf was intending to attack Mist country within days, if it hadn’t already—Sound wasn’t close enough to Leaf to be a part of that decision, but the news would travel quickly enough when they were called into action against Stone. Naruto had no comments to make on their standing plans for war; he wasn’t even sure yet whether he wanted to stay here to take over Sound, or to just grab whatever the three of them could carry and get the heck out before someone saw through their lies, but it was clear that Kabuto had kept Sound under competent administration for his master. Some of the smaller countries’ “villages” were little more than a collection of shacks housing a few clans, their “leader” amounting to whichever old man currently held the most sway amongst his cousins and neighbors.
Orochimaru’s ninjutsu library was something Naruto was very eager to see. They had apparently managed to penetrate the hierarchies of all the other great villages up to the jounin level, and gained access to what Kabuto claimed to be the single largest technique library anywhere, but it was hidden in an underground warehouse a few days to the north. Kabuto had offered to show them the way, but as soon as he’d pointed it out on a map Naruto had discreetly sent off a shadow clone in the right direction.
Sasuke interrupted the tour when Kabuto was showing them through some of the archived intelligence.
“You got anything in there about Uchiha Itachi?”
“On his present whereabouts, or on his strength as a combatant?” Kabuto asked.
“Well, most members of Akatsuki tend to move around too freely to be tracked with much consistency,” Kabuto said. “You are aware of Akatsuki, I presume?”
“Yeah. Gang of missing-nin,” Sasuke said. “How hard would it be to locate one that could lead me to him?”
“It would be no trouble at all,” Kabuto replied. “I will be meeting with one of their number in just a few months. Sasori of the Red Sand. I can attempt to find out Itachi’s current assignment, for you, if you wish.”
“Yeah. What about combat info, then?” Sasuke asked.
Kabuto drew a deck of cards from his back pocket and fanned them out in front of them.
“I took these from a Mist-nin last year. They’ve been so useful I’ve just been carrying them around.”
The faces of the cards were blank, but when he channeled his chakra into them a little portrait appeared with a name written beneath. Uchiha Itachi.
He flipped it over to display the chart on its back, and handed it to Sasuke. It showed numerical estimates of several factors that each might contribute to a ninja’s combat ability.
“I hope you won’t judge the imperfections too harshly,” Kabuto said, “I just keep the numbers updated; the one who created these is long gone, now.”
The information was split into 8 points displayed on a star chart: Ninjutsu scope, Taijutsu, Special, Knowledge, Power, Mobility, Endurance, and Seal compression.
It was a strange list of factors—undoubtedly not all of them could be of precisely equal importance in battle, but Naruto could see how it would give a much clearer picture of a ninja’s strength when compared to the standard ranking system of genin, chuunin and jounin—assuming you had the luxury of such detailed information available. Apparently, Kabuto did.
Itachi was rated fully 5 out of 5 for ninjutsu scope, 4.5 for taijutsu, 5 for special, 5 for knowledge, 3.5 power, 5 mobility, 2.5 endurance and 5 for seal compression, for a total score of 35.5 out of a possible maximum of 40. It gave the picture of a supremely talented ninja overall, but one more reliant on polished technique than raw strength.
“Show me my card,” Sasuke said.
“Well—you must understand that these numbers are more than a little out of date, now, and—”
“Just show me.”
Kabuto swallowed, and showed him the card.
Sasuke’s scores totaled a mere 18.5 points, scarcely half that of his brother and strictly lower in every single category. It might not have even been so inaccurate now, either, considering that he’d lost the use of the cursed seal.
“I think—” Kabuto said, “I think you’ll find that for a young ninja so recently out of the academy, these numbers really are quite impressive.”
He handed them a few other cards for comparison. “And of course these numbers have nothing to do with potential, they are only estimates based on very old observations…”
Rock Lee was rated a 17 overall, with Tenten at 16; surprisingly close behind.
“What about Hyuuga Neji?” Hinata asked.
Kabuto activated the relevant card. 21 points. Neji scored as far above Sasuke as Sasuke did above Tenten.
Sasuke sniffed, turning away. “You need better sources.”
“And… myself? Do I have a card?” Hinata asked.
Naruto scored a mere 14.5, himself. Kakashi had been a 33. The Third Hokage was in there at 34, lower than both Uchiha Itachi and Orochimaru too, who had been a 35, though there was obviously some room for interpretation in the numbers—probably a lot of room. Kabuto was even in there himself, at thirty points, including five out of five for “Knowledge”.
Naruto turned one of the cards over in his hands, curious. “Who’s got the highest score in there?”
Kabuto produced two cards. One they’d seen before, Uchiha Itachi, but the other was Jiraiya of the Sannin, both tied at 35.5 points. Jiraiya had been evaluated a little higher on strength and endurance, but less on “Special”, which Naruto took to be a kind of catch-all rating for bloodline techniques or uncommon fighting styles.
“These are pretty useful,” Naruto said, “I assume that I could use them too, if you showed me how?”
“You’ll need to know the name and face of the ninja to unlock their card, but I can make you a copy of the deck, if you give me a few days.” Kabuto said. “I’ve got to get on your good side so you don’t kill me.”
Naruto almost felt he was being mocked, but Kabuto’s smile seemed so deferential that he wasn’t really sure what to think.
“Alright,” he said, nodding as if he heard that sort of thing all the time. “Carry on then.”
They continued their tour into the lists of ninja currently working for Sound. Most were turncoats from Hot Springs, with naturally little loyalty to a village so newly founded, but they were paid well and they held their own in combat against foreigners despite their ignoble origins. According to Hinata, the weakness of Hot Springs country was more the fault of its administration than of its shinobi.
It had been late in the evening when their tour began, so they called a stop to get some sleep before too much of the night passed. The three of them returned to the beds in the underground base, guarded by a watchful shadow clone, and the indirect defense of their other shadow clones now safely far beyond the bounds of the village. Sound was still partly under construction, but those few ninja who were in residence at present were yet unaware of the death of their leader. The three of them hadn’t decided what exactly they would be doing here, yet.
Sasuke and Hinata seemed content to leave the important questions to him, even after he had almost killed them. With his intimate knowledge of the numbers relating to travel times and chakra expenses he’d somehow fallen into the role of team planner, despite consistently managing to lead them straight into trouble. Hinata was still a little quieter than usual, but the fact that the three of them were speaking at all was a good sign. A lot had changed in the last few months, since that first morning on the bridge, waiting for Kakashi in mutual silence.
Sound country undoubtedly had whatever resources they might need to grow stronger as individuals, but running a village was a big job, and not one likely to leave much time for training. Sasuke and Hinata had no interest in it. Naruto had clones to help, of course, but he didn’t really want to be in charge of an entire village. Well—in a sense he did want to be in charge of all villages—if he could figure out some alternative way to structure the entire world that would make things a little less horrible then he would probably need to impose the change by force, but even then he envisioned something more along the lines of making a couple of tweaks to whatever fundamental errors were at the root of the problem and then going off to live a normal life somewhere else, while the rest took care of itself. He didn’t want to actually rule.
Leaf might feel affronted to see three of their missing-nin setting up on their northern border, but for the moment at least they had Mist and Stone to worry about, and there were all kinds of sophisticated diplomatic ways to address these sorts of things. Kabuto or Hinata would probably know—maybe a newly-empowered Cloud would chafe at the influence of Leaf in the north, and then deals could be struck, and alliances made…
The other option was to take what they could, and get out. There was more than enough ryo to last three lifetimes, and nobody seemed to be in any position to stop them from taking a large portion of it away with them—Kabuto handled almost all of the local administration personally, which just wasn’t possible in a huge village like Leaf. A country ten times as large would need a civil bureaucracy more than ten times the size just to keep up, with all the added overhead of having information spread out across so many minds, and all the costs of the management hierarchy, as well.
He was reminded of the fable of Damokuresu no ken—a story all orphaned ninja were familiar with. As king Shakingspear always said, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” but Naruto had come to Sound village ready to risk his life for a seal like Sasuke’s, and he knew that even with all the money in the treasury he couldn’t simply buy the things he wanted.
Whatever they chose to do, the first priority would probably be to visit Orochimaru’s hidden ninjutsu warehouse in the north. Naruto’s clone had burned chakra for hours to race up there alone, and he’d finally reported back that there was indeed an underground store of scrolls visible to his byakugan, though it would take him a while to work through the traps if he was going to get inside.
In Sound village he’d informed Hinata and Sasuke that they would be facing the prospect of chakra exhaustion if they left their clones active through the night, but that they probably still had a brief length of time in which they could burst away to escape him. It was possible that they were only faking their intent to remain here; to try to bait him into revealing himself while they still had time to flee, but he’d already admitted to them that he’d seen through the possibility of such a plan, for the sake of transparency, so it probably wouldn’t have worked.
He went to sleep a little glum, replaying his mistakes in his mind over and over, but when he woke up the next morning, Hinata and Sasuke were still there.
Naruto had been thinking of a longer-term security strategy that involved sending pairs of his shadow clones in multiple directions, aiming to eventually have permanent backup-copies scattered in as many distant locations as possible. He’d been far too careless in the past. A system like the one he envisioned seemed like it would make it nearly impossible for anyone to actually kill him without coordinating a synchronized attack in several countries at once. For months he’d been sitting around, worrying about things like Hyuuga assassins while ignoring what amounted to a complete invulnerability technique. Costs would be minimal: 2 of his 50 mc/sec regen, per clone—little need for wasting chakra on speed or scouting or defense, and they could supply themselves with food and sleep. Even with one byakugan permanently in use at his primary location with Sasuke and Hinata he would still have around half of his regeneration left over for whatever losses he incurred during the day, though it would require a bit of balancing to allocate the correct amount of regeneration to each body. One of the other clones could keep track of that.
Sasuke and Hinata didn’t have the chakra to send clones up to the warehouse from a distance, so they would have to travel there themselves to take advantage of it, which meant bringing Kabuto too, if Naruto didn’t want to reveal too much about what he could do with his clones. And if Kabuto was going, then Naruto would have to accompany them, which meant the four of them would be travelling together. He could have left a clone behind in Sound to oversee things, but it seemed wiser to avoid showing off his chakra capacity in public view, even now.
Official word from Leaf came in before they left, stating that a group of ninja from the “increasingly-destabilized” village of Mist had crossed into Leaf and killed a group of academy students on a field trip. Leaf was “taking all necessary action in the defense of its citizens and allies”, and the village of Sound was thus required to dispatch all available shinobi westward to shore up the defenses of Grass country, as per the recent treaty.
That confirmed, more or less, that the three of them had been sent down there to die. Apparently it had been easier for Leaf to find a new team to take their place than to rework the entire diplomatic framework of their attack.
Kabuto selected a jounin named Sakon—a ninja with two heads—to have authority over Sound in their absence. It was rare to see such visibly prominent bloodlines, but he certainly stood out from a crowd. He was an ex-Frost ninja, like Gen’yumaru had been. Kabuto assured them he could be trusted with command for a few days, at least. He had a good head on his shoulders.
They traded their old gear in at the armory before leaving. They’d never had a chance to receive their flak jackets as chuunin in Leaf, with all the disorganization of the assassination, but there were plenty available in the black color of Sound village. It was a little thicker in the shoulders than the design Naruto was familiar with, and the pouches had been combined into one and shifted down a little in the front, but these days most countries followed a pretty similar pattern in their gear. Back in the academy he had sometimes entertained himself by planning out elaborate designs of his own, with all kinds of weird adornments—boiled leather scales, or entire suits of molded steel—but anything heavier than the standard mail insert would have had a serious impact on his mobility, and body armor was only ever useful against the lightest blows anyway; a technique like his whirlpool would bore right through.
He took a big cloak, too, for warmth, pausing to coat each item with a little of his chakra in case he needed to duplicate them any time soon. He probably would have been happy to carry around just about anything he could see a potential use for—he could come up with a surprisingly convincing list of reason not to leave the village without a ten-foot pole—but mobility was key, and every wasted pound was speed and chakra being thrown away.
After stuffing every available pocket with gold 1000-ryo coins, they set off northward.
They didn’t expect to face much danger from the war on their way—it would take some time for Stone to mobilize the ninja from all across their vast country even just to hold off Grass and Waterfall.
Kabuto inquired about their familiarity with medical ninjutsu, while they walked. Naruto didn’t think it would be revealing too much to admit their ignorance, and on hearing his reply Kabuto offered to give the three of them some instruction in the basics, on the way.
He was really doing his best to be useful—Naruto could see why Orochimaru would have liked having him around.
At first, Naruto hoped that they might all learn something, but it quickly became apparent that neither he nor Sasuke could keep up with Hinata’s natural talent for chakra control, and the idea of having at least one competent medical-nin between them sounded more appealing than three who were equally inept, so it wasn’t long before he and Sasuke took on the role of observers, practicing the basic chakra-transferral technique on each other while Hinata continued on to the more advanced exercises.
He could tell that she had a talent for it, even beyond just being good at chakra control. He recalled that medical-nin in Leaf were expected to go through a year’s training before they could wear the red on white seal, and that their final examinations were supposed to involve a half-dead fish, yet by the second day of their trip Kabuto was already looking for a live rabbit to continue his lessons on, and by that afternoon she had her hands inside the thing, making small cuts and stimulating their repair.
Even the best medical ninja were limited by what the body could do on its own; much of their art consisted of making useful tradeoffs, typically just to close a major wound or reattach a limb fast enough to avoid death, but it was said that as a young prodigy of medicine lady Tsunade of the Sannin had inadvertently caused her skin to wrinkle up like a prune in an attempt to stimulate the growth in her… her bust region. Legend had it that she’d refused to appear in public ever since, except under the guise of a transformation technique, but that was probably just a rumor. There were a lot of baseless things said about famous people, like that Jiraiya wrote erotic fan-fiction of his own life story, or that Tsunade was deep in debt due to a life-long gambling addiction and a crippling fondness for fresh bacon.
Naruto sat down with Sasuke to eat, keeping an eye on Kabuto’s training with Hinata from a short distance with his byakugan.
“Hey, uh, this might sound kind of weird,” Naruto said, “but, has Hinata said anything strange to you… just in the last day or two? Like that she’s mad at me, or anything?”
Sasuke frowned. “Don’t think so,” he said. “Why?”
“She’s just been sort of quiet since that thing that happened back in Sound. I can’t tell whether she’s just still suspicious of me, or if she dislikes me now, or if she’s angry, or what.”
Sasuke stopped chewing. “Dude… can you really not tell what’s going on?”
“What? Why? What’s going on?” Naruto asked.
“Man… for a smart guy, you sure can be blind sometimes,” he said. “It’s so obvious.”
“What is it? Just tell me.”
“She’s obsessed with revenge,” Sasuke said, like it was the simplest thing in the world. “Think about it. Her clan kicked her out, her sister becomes the new heir, the village tries to kill her, and now she’s on the run while the Hyuuga are sitting pretty back in Leaf. She won’t be happy until they’re dead.”
“Why would that make her upset with me, though?”
“She’s just rattled that she almost died before defeating her father. Trust me dude; if I got kicked out of my clan, I’d be vengeful as fuck.”
“Maybe you’re right…” Naruto said. “So should I apologize to her again, you think? I must be getting annoying, but I don’t know what else to do.”
“Try doing something nice to make up for it,” he said. “It’s not that big a deal, anyway. People kill each other all the time.”
“I guess. But I’m already trying to fix literally the whole world; I don’t think it’s possible to do anything nicer than that.”
“Well I already told you how stupid that idea is, but I meant you should do something nice for her,” Sasuke said. “Something personal she can appreciate, you know? Like teach her a really deadly assassination technique.”
The warehouse would have just about any techniques she could want, though—he had nothing in particular to offer, there.
“Thanks for the advice,” Naruto said. “I’m not sure what I can do, but I’ll definitely think about it. Thanks.”
They pressed on late the next day to reach the hidden warehouse a little after nightfall. Naruto had avoided disturbing the place with his clones so as not to tip Kabuto off when he saw the traps had been triggered or disabled by someone before they arrived.
After Kabuto laboriously opened the way inside they spent an hour or so getting briefly acquainted with the 874 different techniques available, which by Kabuto’s estimate amounted to roughly three quarters of all ninjutsu and genjutsu techniques in present-day use.
It was an incredible selection, but Naruto knew from past experience organizing Leaf’s open library that there would be a lot of overlap and redundancy. Jounin libraries were restricted to preserve whatever secrets were left, not because those techniques were particularly worth keeping secret.
By far the largest category were the many varieties of simple striking techniques, designed to work at various ranges with one of the main five elements, or sometimes two, or being non-elemental entirely—no doubt their prevalence also had something to do with how easy they were to develop; even Naruto had managed to create one of his own, though he liked to think of his whirlpool technique as being at least a little bit more special than the many dozens of ways a ninja could use earth chakra to throw rocks at people.
Almost half of the techniques were familiar to him already from the open library in Leaf, and most of the remainder would be unattainable in the near term because of their requirements for manipulating elements other than his native water chakra. Any ninja could theoretically make use of any element, with enough training, but even jounin usually only ever managed to wield two. The Third Hokage was said to have been the only shinobi in generations to master all five, but he’d lived a very long life, and even with all Naruto’s clones he’d never been impressed by his own chakra control. By normal standards he was still new to his first element.
Overall, the results of his preliminary search were a little underwhelming. He’d kept hoping to notice some clever combination of two techniques that were harmless in isolation but potentially unstoppable when combined—some simple trick nobody had ever happened to notice before, or maybe just a new way to exploit a more common technique, but nothing looked nearly as promising as his shadow clones had been.
One technique that stood out on its own merits was Stone village’s infamous invisibility technique, which allowed a ninja to blend into their surroundings like a chameleon. To his surprise it wasn’t even an elemental technique—for some reason he’d assumed it would require earth manipulation. There were stories about it even in Leaf; the Second Tsuchikage of Stone village had apparently made so much use of it outside of combat that some people said he was still alive today, just waiting somewhere, invisible. Watching.
The scroll said you could only use the technique while standing still, and that it was impractical to sustain for longer than a few hours, but chakra limitations were less of a concern for him than for most ninja, especially if there was a large upfront cost with only a reasonably mild continuous burn. It was worth investigating, at least.
Naruto had planned to ask Kabuto to head back to Sound on his own once they’d arrived, so that the three of them could have some privacy to try out the new techniques, but Hinata’s lessons were going too well to interrupt.
After a night’s rest they spent most of the next day browsing and picking out a few scrolls each to copy and bring back to the village. They could always return if they needed more, and Naruto intended to leave a clone behind once they left to do a little more reading, but overall the trip had been a little disappointing. Naruto had gotten his hopes up on the way, thinking about all the things he might be able to do if he was strong enough, but now it seemed more than ever like there might just not be any quick shortcuts to incredible power, even with all the resources he now had available. He certainly wasn’t ever going to toy around with the tailed beast’s power; he’d thought too much about it already—one slip up there and he might literally drive humanity extinct. But plenty of other ninja had spent their entire lives trying to gain power in more mundane ways, and most of them died long before they ever got anywhere. Kakashi had been elite among the jounin of Leaf, but it hadn’t been nearly enough even just to take out one unremarkable Kage.
Aside from Stone’s invisibility technique, Naruto copied the scrolls of Mist village’s water clone technique, which looked like it would be inferior to the shadow clone in almost every respect, and another water technique, from Leaf, called the “Syrup field trap”, which showed some promise as a terrain-controlling measure. Even so, he suspected it might cause just as much inconvenience to his own teammates and shadow clones as to the enemy.
Hinata wanted to learn a basic ranged elemental striking technique more suitable for her than the Raging Wave. She found an ice-dart technique that would perform better at longer ranges, in comparison, but which didn’t scale quite as well with chakra expenditure. On Naruto’s suggestion she also took along the Hiding Mist technique, which was another water elemental move that concealed the battlefield in a dense fog, potentially pretty useful to a team composed of three ninja with special eye-techniques, though the sharingan would probably perform only marginally better than a normal eye under such conditions.
Sasuke found a lightning-element technique that would charge his body with enough current to cause mild harm to anything that touched him, and which would slightly boost the power of his taijutsu martial arts, as well as a promising technique for imbuing thrown senbon needles with lightning chakra as a ranged attack. He already had the Great Fireball technique to strike at middle range, but he suspected he might get more use out of something from his own element. He’d only ever managed to learn the fireball through a combination of natural talent, grit, and enough ignorance to let him keep practicing every day for years because nobody had been around to tell him that his natural elemental affinity wasn’t toward fire. He simply hadn’t known any better than to keep trying, over and over, but somehow, for him, that had worked.
Hinata continued her medical training on the way back to Sound while Naruto carried out his own plans in a few distant places at once, using the other bodies he’d dispatched across the continent. Already his clones in Grass country had reported back their success with the water clone technique they’d been assigned. It had required no more manual control than the shadow clone.
One sentence in particular from the water clone technique’s scroll had appealed to his creativity—the line that said each clone possessed “one tenth” the power of the original. He wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, but his hope was that if he could summon, say, eleven of them, then he might have a higher total strength, and then if eleven worked, why not a hundred? They were supposed to be vulnerable to taijutsu, but it would have been hard for anything to be more vulnerable than a shadow clone.
Unfortunately, it turned out that the technique also cost about a tenth of his current chakra, too, and was therefore way too expensive—far more costly for him than for any other ninja, and there was a fixed minimum cost to cast it as well. Even just summoning a few would eat through most of his entire reserves. The scroll said that the water clones were capable of carrying out simple instructions, and it had obeyed when he told it to poke itself in the eye, which killed it, but otherwise it was like some kind of unthinking automaton, whereas his shadow clones were capable of both following orders and of thinking for themselves, and they were a lot easier to amass in numbers, too.
He reassigned the Grass team to other things, for the moment, at least—the huge expense of even a single use of the technique made even experimentation with it pretty impractical. There had been a report from a shadow clone observing with the byakugan that he’d seen a little flaring-up of his chakra when the water clone burst, so maybe he had received some of the unspent chakra back, and it wasn’t really so terrible, in practice, but there were other techniques with clearer potential yet to be investigated.
Naruto found himself wishing he’d been born with an affinity for the earth element instead of water. Hinata would have already granted their team some access to watery things, if they’d ever needed to use one technique in particular, and the earth clone technique looked very impressive. Of the three famous clone techniques—shadow, water and earth—it alone could produce bodies that had any kind of endurance in battle, and while it must have been pretty expensive given that Stone ninja didn’t habitually fight alongside ten copies of themselves, he did have a lot more chakra than most people, and even just one or two fully-fledged extra combatants on his side would have made a huge difference, in any fight. An affinity toward the earth element wouldn’t have even cost him his access to the shadow clone technique, since that one wasn’t associated with any element in particular.
It would probably be years before he could do anything like that, though. Even with all his extra clones on the task, full time, he’d be looking at several months at least before he could wield earth nature. It was definitely a project worth pursuing, but not one he could expect to have finished before they decided which village to settle down in.
The Syrup field trap and Invisibility techniques were a little less straightforward to cast than the water clone, but he had some hope at least that they would make viable additions to his battle patterns in the near-term. With his clones now spending so much of their time in travel, though—busily spreading out over the continent—there wasn’t yet a whole lot of time and chakra left for training, so neither technique was functional by the time they were drawing near to Sound village again.
The first scouting party they met on the road had urgent news to impart once Kabuto had identified himself with the proper passphrase.
Three foreign ninja had forced their way into the village with threats of violence, two of them claiming to be the surviving members of the Sannin: the Toad Sage Jiraiya, and Tsunade the Slug Princess.
“They said had business with an ‘Uzumaki Naruto’, sir.”
It seemed inconceivable that the Sannin would have been sent after a group of rogue chuunin. They must have somehow found out about Orochimaru. They were after him, personally.
Sasuke met his eye as if to urge an answer to the question on both of their minds.
Run, or fight?