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Naruto had expected to have to hunt around for a while to find the Sage of the Slugs, but almost immediately after reaching Shikkotsu forest he spotted a thick trail of slime. He followed it to a clearing where he came across a giant, red slug sidled up against a tree, tugging at a branch with its mouth.
Naruto cleared his throat.
“Um, excuse me,” he said, “I’m looking for the Sage of the Slugs.”
One of its languid eye-stalks swiveled around. It looked him up and down, and then turned back to the leaves it was nibbling.
He felt a bit silly trying to talk to an animal, but no normal slug could have grown as big as a person, and he could see with his byakugan that the creature had yin and yang chakra inside. Tsunade had said the Slug Sage knew language, at least, but had only been willing to say that it was all “mystical shit” and “didn’t make any fucking sense”. Even with Jiraiya’s help she had never managed to acquire her own sage mode.
“I’ve come to learn the ways of the Sages,” he said. “If you’re the Slug Sage, would you, uh, like to teach me? Please? …I’m a good student.”
The slug didn’t even acknowledge him this time.
Undeterred, Naruto dug a handful of dates out of his pouch. He’d gathered them on the way, suspecting some kind of trade might turn out to be necessary—he didn’t know if giant slugs ate fruit, but they were sweet and probably not very common this far from the desert.
“I’ve brought you some fruit, if you want it,” he said. “And if you’re not the Sage, do you know where I might find him, or how to begin the process of whatever I should be doing here?”
The creature slowly turned its ponderous bulk around and slurped the dates right from his hand.
Its eye-stalks swiveled up to face him, and it spoke.
“Randy, is that water down there?”
Naruto glanced over his shoulder, uncertain. Nobody else seemed to be around, and there wasn’t any water for miles. The slug spoke with a strange accent, a little difficult to make out.
“Hey Biff, get a load of this guy’s life preserver,” the slug said, its tone of voice having shifted, slightly. “Dork thinks he’s gonna drown.”
Naruto turned his head. “Uh, are you—are you talking to me, or…”
“…This matter is best disposed of from a great height, over water.”
It kept saying things about water, but what that meant exactly was a mystery.
“So I jump ship in Hong Kong, and I make my way over to Tibet.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” Naruto said. “Something about water?”
“Made it, Ma!” the slug said, “Top of the world!”
Naruto hadn’t expected it to be easy, but he wasn’t even sure this counted as a real two-way communication.
“Randy, is that water down there?” The slug repeated. “…One thousand years from now there’ll be no guys and no girls, just wankers.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” Naruto said. “I’m looking to study under the Slug Sage, so that I can learn to wield nature chakra. Is this some kind of riddle that I need to solve?”
He wasn’t sure how a giant slug was even able to talk in the first place—did the yin and yang chakra create vocal folds, too? Presumably there had to be some differences in the brain, as well.
The slug turned to regard the open sky.
“Empty your mind,” it said. “Be formless… Shapeless… Like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now—water can flow, or it can crash… Be water, my friend.”
That was more like what Naruto had been expecting to hear. He still wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but it sounded a lot more like the path to sage-like enlightenment than the stuff it had been saying before.
The slug seemed to have lost interest in him now, slowly shuffling itself away.
“Uh, thank you, wise Slug,” Naruto said, bowing. “I will, uh… I’ll go and meditate on your teachings, for a while. Thank you.”
Naruto found a spot in the forest to sit down to think with a few of his shadow clones. No great insight came immediately to mind.
Eventually he started some half-hearted attempts to train and spar in various flowy, crashy, watery sorts of ways. He didn’t accomplish anything unusual, though, and he certainly didn’t feel like he was about to sprout a brilliant rainbow carapace.
Kabuto had said that Orochimaru always sat very still when acting as a conduit for Sasuke’s nature chakra, through the third eye “cursed seal”, but if sitting still was necessary then it would be a pretty useless battle technique. Maybe that was required just for the channeling part, or maybe it was just easier, sitting still. That made it sound like it might have something to do with being connected to nature, somehow, maybe, by sitting very still, or being a part of nature or something. Nature chakra.
He tried sitting still and meditating or speculating about things while his other bodies set up camp or tried to come up with ideas. A few clones were assigned to pursue specific lines of thought, or to ruminate on one particular abstract concept, spiraling into loops of self-reflection, but after pausing to sleep and resuming the next morning he seemed to have grown no closer to enlightenment.
He’d already searched the forest with his byakugan and shadow clones, finding no other creatures with yin and yang chakra. That one slug was the only real candidate for being the Sage, and his only source of advice. Eventually he decided to seek it out, again, for another dose of cryptic advice.
He found the slug lazing in the sun, which seemed like a dangerous thing for a slug to be doing, but he supposed there were few birds large enough to swoop down and carry off something so fat. Maybe it fought back with ninjutsu, if they ever tried to peck it. That would be something to see.
The slug addressed him before he even spoke. “Hello. Is anybody there? Anybody at all?”
“Yes! I’m here!” Naruto said, eagerly. “I’ve—”
“The cause in which they died will continue.”
“Uh… okay. I’ve been thinking about what you said, though. Meditating,” Naruto said.
“Do you read me, Hal? Hello, Hal, do you read me?”
“Do—do I read?” Naruto asked, unsure if it even understood him. “Y—Yes? Yes, I like to read. Do you read?”
“One small step for man,” said the slug. “One giant leap for mankind.”
“I still don’t really know what you mean,” Naruto said. “I tried—”
“What’s this? What’s this!” the slug interjected. “…Wow, what a totally amazing, excellent discovery—not! …Stop that astronaut! Bring him to me… A witch! A witch! We have found a witch—may we burn her?”
Naruto paused, allowing the slug a chance to continue.
“I found him, I found that karate motherfucker!” it said. “We have found a witch! That karate motherfucker… That karate… witch! That karate… witch!”
It was no clearer than it had been yesterday—he didn’t know what a karate motherfucker was, or a “witch”, but it didn’t seem to be interested in talking about water anymore, at least.
“Here he is.” said the slug. “Here’s who? The man from the moon… Surprise motherfucker… I’m the king of the wooorld!”
Naruto let it continue. There was almost a kind of sense to it—a series of disconnected phrases that seemed to be hinting at something. He didn’t think it was choosing its words entirely at random, at least.
“…Randy, is that water down there?” the slug repeated.
“Do you want water?” Naruto asked. “Is that what you’re asking for?”
“One thousand years from now there’ll be no guys and no girls, just wankers.”
Naruto decided to take that as a “yes” and knelt down to dig a little ditch in the dirt. He didn’t carry water on any of his clones, anymore, since he could always just make more with his water chakra. Even a normal ninja could have easily filled a small lake with how much water could be produced from just a little chakra. He’d wondered before how many ninja it would take to irrigate the deserts of Sand country… probably too many. More than was available, at least. He didn’t know the topography well enough to guess where the rivers would run.
“Dork thinks he’s gonna drown… One thousand years from now… This matter is best disposed of from a great height,” the slug repeated. “So I jump ship in Hong Kong, and I make my way over to Tibet… Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”
Naruto had never heard of a place called “Tibet”. Maybe that was just the slug word for Shikkotsu forest.
Once the ditch looked big enough he formed the hand-seals of the raging wave technique and gushed water from his mouth, enough to overfill the makeshift-trough almost immediately.
The slug recoiled, screaming. “EEEEEEEEE!”
Its eye-stalks gesticulated wildly.
“What? What?” Naruto said, “It’s water!”
Naruto scooped up a handful and drank some to demonstrate, but the slug was already slithering away. It could only move slowly, but it seemed to be in a desperate hurry. It had mentioned drowning a few times—was it afraid of water?
“I’m sorry!” Naruto said, walking after it as it tried to escape. “I misunderstood! I’m sorry! No more water.”
The slug didn’t respond.
“I’ll make it go away, alright?” Naruto shoved the dirt back into the hole he’d made, filling it back in. “Look, no more water.”
The slug didn’t seem to be listening, and kept wriggling away.
“Best disposed of from a great height, over water. Best disposed of from a great height, over water.”
“You keep saying things about getting to high ground, and water,” Naruto said. “Are you trying to tell me to get to high ground? Is—is there a tsunami coming, or something? Or—is it coming in a ‘thousand years’?”
“One thousand years from now there’ll be no guys and no girls, just wankers,” said the slug. “Made it, Ma! Top of the world! Made it, Ma! Made it, Ma!”
The slug slowed to a halt, looking down at the forest floor.
“Top of the world!”
“This—you mean this is the top of the world?” Naruto asked. “We’re… already at the top?”
Now he understood.
“You mean… you mean it was thousand years ago. Don’t you,” Naruto said. “The seas rose, since then… That’s why they say the world was a hundred times bigger and a thousand times more populous… The ancients—their whole world, it—it was drowned? And this is all that’s left?”
“…One thousand years from now there’ll be no guys and no girls, just wankers.”
He looked at the little pool he’d created. The ditch full of water that he’d made appear from nothing—water that would evaporate into rain, and then fall from the sky to fertilize the fields. He remembered the heaps of shattered ice that the Cloud ninja Samui had left in her wake. Once the techniques were done, it was just regular water. At no point would it just, spontaneously… disappear, again.
He’d never really thought about it before, but it had to go somewhere… the world was so big, though, and—and it was just water… Was a thousand years even long enough to cause the entire ocean to rise? He had no idea—the ocean was enormous, but there were a lot of ninja, all training and fighting every day. There would have been even more when there was more land—they said the world used to be a thousand times more populous, but ‘thousand’ might not even be accurate—it might have been ten-thousand, or ten-thousand years ago, for all he knew. Who could even hazard a guess at when exactly the ancients had lived?
“Can it—can it be undone?” Naruto asked. “The water, can we fix it?”
The slug seemed to pause, in thought, perhaps for the first time since he’d first met the creature.
“…He will never be rid of his need for it,” the slug said. “He hates, and loves the ring, as he hates and loves himself…”
“No—no, that cant—I won’t let it be like that,” he said. “I’ll find a way to change it—I don’t know, I’ll fill in the water—or I’ll burn it off or something. I’ll get rid of it properly. I’ll bring the seas back down.”
“…Randy, is that water down there?”
“I don’t understand, but I’ll find out what went wrong… we can—no, first we should establish a better method of communication. Look,” Naruto scrawled the words “yes” and “no” in big letters in the dirt. “You can point at these, see?”
The slug crawled past the marks he’d made, unresponsive.
“Or—or we can come up with some other thing. Say—say some phrase that means ‘yes’.”
“…Randy, is that water down there?”
“Okay, good, now pick a different phrase that can mean ‘no’.”
“…Randy, is that water down there?”
“Do you—you don’t understand? You still don’t understand me?”
“Hey Biff, get a load of this guy’s life preserver,” the slug said. “Dork thinks he’s gonna drown.”
Naruto’s put his head in his hands.
The slug slowly wriggled on, making its way toward a low branch covered in leaves.
Naruto lay down on the grass, watching the slug eat, in silence.
He didn’t know what that implied about the other elements. Wind, Lightning and Fire didn’t really produce anything that would last. Earth element did, but not at anywhere near the efficiency of Water, in terms of volume per unit of chakra spent. Undoubtedly the landscape would have shifted a little, over time, but the water was probably the main concern. His own element, slowly erasing the world. Slowly drowning what little was left.
“I don’t understand you…” Naruto said, “I’m not sure if you understand me very well either, but it doesn’t matter. If the oceans are filling up, I’ll find a way to get rid of the water, okay? And if something else is wrong, then I’ll keep thinking until I find a way to fix that too. That’s why I—”
“Randy, is that water down there?”
“That’s why I came to you in the first place,” Naruto said. “I wanted to become strong, so that I’d have the power to fix things, once I figured out how to fix them. I guess I’ve just got a whole new problem now, as well, but at least the answer to this one seems… I don’t know. Simpler, kind of. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’ll try. I’ll keep going—I’ll fix the ocean.”
“One thousand years from now there’ll be no guys and no girls,” the slug said, “just wankers.”
“Okay. I’m going to go think some more,” Naruto said. “I don’t know if you can understand me or not, but I need to become stronger before I can change things. Thank you for helping me, though. I’ll keep thinking.”
He left the slug alone with the leaves and berries. He could try the meditation for a while more, at least.
For the rest of that day, and the three days that followed, Naruto continued his practice, meditating and sparring and thinking about the things that the slug had said.
He had all the bodies he could spare gathered in the forest, sitting in circles to discuss things, or reclining in the trees, thinking, when the Slug Sage returned.
It slithered its way through his camp, eye-stalks regarding him. Naruto didn’t attempt to speak with it—he didn’t know if it would understand, or even if it wanted to understand. He was starting to think that it probably had a lot more in common with other slugs than with ninja.
“…Please forgive,” said the slug. “Too many mind.”
Naruto looked up from his notes.
“Mind the sword. Mind the people watch. Mind your enemy… Too many mind…” it said. “No mind.”
Was it referring to his shadow clones?
The slug slithered off, and he let it go.
He didn’t like the idea of dispelling his clones, but he’d survived the first twelve years of his life without them, and he’d been physically closer then than he was now to people who might want to kill him. There weren’t even any civilians for miles around, and if Uchiha Itachi chose this precise moment to drop out of the sky then Naruto would be very annoyed, but he would still have his byakugan, and he could flee in all directions at a pace no one else could maintain for long.
Still, he felt nervous giving the instruction.
Across the vast distances of the continent, reaching clones as far away as eastern Cloud and the south of Sand his numerous bodies interrupted their travels, or their training, and one by one dispelled themselves.
Their memories trickled in, slowly, as they took the time to wake up their sleeping partner-clones, or to make a final mental note of their surroundings. Their memories showed places too sparsely populated to ever feel much ninja influence. Places far beyond the pockmarked and battle-scarred landscape he’d grown accustomed to.
Kabuto had to be informed that he’d be gone from Sound village for a while—he’d already found out when Sasuke and Hinata were due back, but Naruto simply said he would be returning “soon”, which he hoped was vague enough to sound threatening. If Kabuto had wanted to escape he’d had ample opportunity to do so already—Naruto probably wouldn’t have even been able to resist a concerted effort to usurp power in Sound; nobody there even really knew he was technically in charge already, other than Kabuto, and from the beginning he’d never really had much hope of enforcing his will if anyone tried to call his bluff. He probably would have been ousted already if the village had been anything like Leaf, with well-entrenched clans in a complex web of alliances, always angling for power. Most of the Sound shinobi were still lone individuals, for now; turncoats without families of their own, yet.
He still wasn’t sure what he would do with Sound in the long term. It was a lucky break to have control of an entire country already, if he could actually hold on to it. Even if they worked their whole lives, most ninja never would never get close to such power, and it could dramatically accelerate any plans he had that might require resources at such a scale, but every other country was already engaged in a constant struggle for territory and power, and he had no particular reason to think that he would succeed any more than average, or that he would get close to the First Hokage’s influence just by the regular means of war and diplomacy. The more land his country took, the harder it would be just to hold things together, and he’d have an ever-larger number of ninja fighting to take his place from beneath. It would be even harder, now, if he was going to have to waste political capital and other resources on some grand charitable project to drain the ocean, or whatever else he had to do. He was still too weak. Still far, far too weak.
Once all of his clones had been accounted for he confirmed that they were gone by biting his own tongue.
It was strange, now, to actually feel pain. It had become routine already that whenever he took a minor injury he would just burst, and disappear.
He looked down at his hands, suddenly very conscious of his vulnerability. It was possible that he might never again be alive in just the one place. Certainly there was little reason to take the risk if there were people who wanted him dead, and the fact that there were seemed unlikely to change in the future.
His chakra levels were good, and his unified body seemed to be in fine condition. He’d slept well and eaten enough to avoid any accumulated problems in the recombination, but the forest seemed no different now than before. It felt a lot more like having one mind than “no mind”.
He sat there in the forest for half an hour or so, just considering his position. It took a lot longer to think, now, with only one brain to contribute ideas. Eventually he decided on a course of action.
He stood up and started looking around for a nice dense patch of forest, and once he’d found one he knelt down in the dirt between two trees to begin digging. It probably would have been faster just to use his whirlpool technique to drill a hole, but he dug with his hands anyway… it seemed more natural, somehow.
He scooped load after load of earth from the pit, working his way slowly down through the layers of increasingly hard-packed soil as the sun moved through the sky. Maybe during the work he approached a state of having no mind—or at least of his one mind being completely occupied by the work, but if so it made no obvious difference.
His fingers felt raw by the end of it, and his clothes were covered in little bits of twigs and leaves. He probably smelled like a farmer, but there was nobody around to notice. It would be night, soon, and after considering the air temperature he disrobed, depositing the clothes in a bundle with his equipment that he concealed in a tree, a few miles from the spot he’d been digging. If he was going to do this, he would do it right.
When the hole was finally deep enough for him to fit inside, he crouched down in it and began filling it back up with the dirt he’d dug out. He didn’t compact it down too much, being wary of getting stuck, but his head was still mostly above ground, and the rest of him sat curled up just a foot or two beneath. He used his free arm to pile a loose layer of earth and leaves and twigs from the forest floor over the top of him, when he was nearly done, leaving only just enough space to breathe before digging the arm back down into the dirt. He wanted to be as fully immersed in nature as he could get. To make it as much as possible like he wasn’t even there.
In the quiet of the earth he activated his byakugan, and put his mind to rest. As perfectly still as the dirt itself. He observed, freely, the trees and beetles of the forest, seeing it all from every angle and any angle other than that of his own eyes.
He was only one part of the forest, or maybe no part at all—perhaps he was just the forest’s way of observing itself. No part of it being more worthy of notice than any other.
He was nervous at first. Anxious about whether it would work or how stupid he would look if anybody showed up, but the strongest sort of feelings seemed to rely at least in part on their novelty, so with enough time to grow accustomed they faded into the background. Eventually he stopped wondering about how much time had passed, and whether he was being sufficiently mindless, and simply let himself be.
He saw the leaves waving in the gentle wind, and a beetle digging, very slowly working toward some obscure ambition. He was a floating point of view, with no true place or identity. Something disembodied, and wholly apart from all other things.
A tingle against his flesh jolted him out of that state.
Nature chakra, briefly flowering in his veins.
His excitement at the early sign of success kept him from returning to the right mental state for a while, but eventually he managed it again, after working to briefly abandon the sense of purpose that had driven him to this point in the first place.
He felt the chakra return, and lost his peace, again, repeating the cycle over and over, but each time returning to it more easily, and lasting longer and longer without distraction as the hours of night passed, and as the nocturnal birds did their hunting, and the crawling creatures scaled the trees, taking so long to reach something that was already so close.
When he noticed it was morning he’d been basking in the chakra for some time. He wasn’t sure how long, but it was notable at least that it seemed to still be thriving despite his conscious introspection.
He attempted to move and immediately saw the chakra fade as his senses anchored themselves in the physical world, rediscovering the relative position of his body. Only a moment of stillness and focus was necessary to bring it back, though. For a while longer he remained there, half buried by the earth, before finally rising from his hole, too curious at the result to remain there any longer.
His body felt strange and unwieldy—he’d expected to have a pain in his neck from sitting so long in the one position, but he didn’t hurt at all. After a moment he noticed his vision seemed to be shifting, and with his byakugan he could see that his whole body was shrinking—just a few inches. It stopped at what seemed like his normal height. He’d grown slightly taller, somehow, in the ground, and then lost it when the nature chakra went away. Maybe that was some animal’s trait, like Jiraiya said.
He lay down on his back on the forest floor, channeling the nature chakra again. It came easily, now, as his thoughts explored the familiar pattern. He watched it happen, this time, as his whole body grew a little. Not just taller, but a little thicker in the limbs—like muscles. He felt healthy.
He wasn’t sure if that was a normal part of the technique or not, but Sasuke hadn’t grown at all when his seal was active, and Naruto couldn’t see any other signs of the animal countenance he was supposed to have. He just looked like he’d grown up a year or two—or that he’d become a very physically robust example of a person his own age.
What kind of animal was tall and strong, though? A horse, maybe… Jiraiya had said his nose grew thicker and that he sprouted a beard, but now that he thought about it neither of those traits really seemed all that toad-like.
Naruto had been hoping at least for a hint at his animal affinity, seeing as he probably couldn’t justify wasting Jiraiya’s scroll anymore, to find out the easy way, but as far as he could tell every part of him was still human-shaped. The changes he’d received probably wouldn’t make much of a difference in battle, in any case; only civilians relied on their muscles for strength, but any extra physical endurance would be welcome, assuming he could find a way to stop the nature chakra from instantly disappearing whenever he moved.
He could assume that there was some way to do it, or else the technique would have been useless in combat. Mere practice didn’t seem to be helping at all—the effect was too perfectly timed, too constant and unchanging. He couldn’t disassociate himself from the world while physically moving around within it, let alone trying to take part in an actual battle.
His first idea was to generate a clone and put it in his “sage mode,” then to use that chakra-transferral technique he and Sasuke had learned from Kabuto. After finding a way to rest one body’s arm on the flesh of the other without the touch being too distracting he was able to feel the flow coming through a little, even while wiggling the finger of his other hand. That was a proof of concept, at least, but Jiraiya probably wasn’t carting around a limp shadow clone on his back every time he fought, so there were probably better options to be found.
Sasuke’s seal had worked well enough for him while he’d been moving; maybe there was some way he could put the seal on his clones and channel into himself; he could set up a clone in permanent seclusion somewhere safe, meditating forever, but he didn’t even know where to begin reconstructing the mechanics of a thing like that. Kabuto had said he didn’t know how it worked, either. It seemed like a kind of advanced medical ninjutsu thing, so Tsunade might be able to make an educated guess, or maybe Hinata would be able to suggest something, once she got back. If not, he could just ask Jiraiya how he did it.
The thought of where he might hide a clone reminded him that he was still in just the one body, and since it seemed he could enter his sage mode relatively easily now that he knew what to do, he got dressed again and summoned a group of shadow clone to send off as backups, again.
When they were gone he sat down to continue his work, but he found the touch of the cloth against his bare skin was distracting, and made the technique a little harder to wield. He stripped off again, but then instead of beginning his experiments right away, he felt like laying down some more, and basking a while longer in the sunlight.
It felt good to relax. He hadn’t really had much opportunity lately, always struggling to keep up with Hinata and Sasuke, working hundreds of hours a day and optimizing every second of it as best he could. He knew it was important to schedule some free time, of course, and he’d taken account of that in his plans, but even then he had usually felt a bit guilty about the waste.
Here, he felt almost like he could just keep on resting forever. As if he could just turn into a rock, like Jiraiya had said. Even the recognition that there might be some genuine danger of that actually happening—that the technique might be corrupting his mind, like the nine-tails had—it didn’t bring him out of his detachment. It probably wasn’t that extreme, anyway. It just felt nice, that was all.
And how bad could it even be to be a rock, anyway; it wasn’t like he’d be eating anyone… He wasn’t sure he would even notice if he started wasting away, right here, but even as he rested his thoughts kept turning back to the inviting questions he had about this new technique, and his interesting ideas for how to explore them. His curiosity was itself too pleasant to ignore, without the incongruous application of mental discipline, and indulging it even for a second only gave it more strength as each question brought to mind new prospects and possibilities.
Eventually his fear of forgetting one of the growing number of ideas in his head compelled him to get up, at least temporarily, just for the sake of writing them down.
A sense of existential horror came over him as he left that peaceful state.
It really hadn’t been that much unlike the case of the nine-tails—certainly not as much as he’d felt a minute ago. Sage mode had been playing tricks on his mind. He resolved that in future he would try to have shadow clones in existence as a precaution at all times, and he’d require all important decisions to be made outside the influence of sage mode, even if it seemed pointless to bother at the time—or, no, especially if it seemed like he shouldn’t bother. And if he ever caught himself trying to avoid even thinking about it so that he could stay in sage mode, that would initiate the emergency shutdown procedure, and his brain would unleash untold horrors upon itself.
Precommitment was an important tool; one which too many ninja gave up unwittingly when they broke their word. That was something else he had learned from clever Odysseus, who had tied himself to the mast of his ship so that he might hear the captivating song of the sirens without being tempted to his death. If you ever allowed your most sacred promises to be broken—if you set sail with a rope you knew was weak—then you would never be able to enjoy all the best kinds of music.
By the end of the day Naruto hadn’t found any better way of funneling nature chakra into himself than what he’d already managed that morning by draping his arm over a clone. He had managed to play around a little with the chakra while it was in him, though, and it appeared to be every bit as powerful as Sasuke’s seal had been.
It felt like he had more to push with—which made sense, as there was nature chakra now involved alongside the usual yin and yang, so that he could theoretically accelerate his body with about fifty percent more force than before.
His skin felt a little tougher, too. Not enough to make a difference in keeping his shadow clones alive, though, or to prohibit the tongue-biting method of dispelling himself. It made him wonder if that was why ninja tended to be a little more physically resilient than civilians—having two parts to their chakra instead of one. The nature chakra seemed impossible to wield on its own though—it was more like a reinforcement that went along with the yin and yang, never moving on its own, which he supposed made sense too; the world would probably be long since drowned by now if even the farmers could create water at will.
He managed, eventually, to get the technique working without even requiring his byakugan, which he’d known had to be possible if Jiraiya and Orochimaru could do it. Unlike Sasuke’s seal, though, it seemed that sage mode actually gave him chakra, rather than gradually burning through it. The thought of an army of clones came to mind, a legion of bodies secluded in the mountains, each one producing a surplus of nature chakra and portioning it out amongst his other bodies by dispelling—generating enough to oversupply him for every possible need. Infinite chakra.
Unfortunately, a little testing revealed the mechanics of the technique to be a little more mundane.
After a few hours of careful observation, he confirmed the regeneration rate and total chakra capacity of any given shadow clone would increase by 50%, relative to whatever they’d started with, meaning that he was still limited to a total increase of just 50%, at most, no matter how he spread it out.
Still, that was nothing to frown about. He’d have no difficulty in putting the extra to use. Fifty percent of a normal ninja’s chakra regeneration mightn’t even be noticeable, but to him that was 25 millichakra every second—a dozen more bodies, or two and a half more simultaneous byakugan. That was all assuming that he could find a practical way to actually sustain it, of course. It made him wonder why Jiraiya didn’t just walk around in sage mode all the time, if he could do it at all. Maybe he hadn’t even noticed the effect.
Another possible explanation was that it required a shadow clone, which would be reason enough in Jiraiya’s case—a single extra body cost 4 mc/sec, in effect, which would exhaust a sage-mode-ninja’s 1.5 mc/sec regeneration not much more slowly than for any other ninja with the standard 1 mc/sec.
He decided for the moment to put aside the mobility problem, turning instead to the other new techniques he’d picked up from the warehouse. He still had more than two months left before Sasuke and Hinata were due back at Sound, and there was a whole lot he still didn’t know about how the abilities actually worked.
He’d managed to get the invisibility technique working already through the sporadic efforts of his scattered clones, and with a little work he was able to determine that the cost to sustain it was around 10 mc/sec, with a base casting price of 20,000 mc. It too would stop as soon as he moved a muscle, which was probably a good thing considering how easily Stone could have dominated the world, otherwise—but it didn’t theoretically prevent you from casting another technique if you could do it without any hand-seals, and without disrupting the steady supply of chakra upholding the invisibility. For Naruto that probably wouldn’t mean much yet, as the only technique he could do by thought alone was his whirlpool, but in the longer term he could imagine finding all kinds of uses for it. He could visit some Kage’s office and leave an invisible body behind, just waiting for the perfect moment to make his dynamic entry.
The Syrup field trap took a little longer to fully figure out. It was a difficult technique, requiring more manual control than he was accustomed to, but it turned out to be a lot easier to work first with standing water—a small pool from his Raging Wave worked fine. He made sure to practice well away from the Slug Sage, to avoid upsetting him again. Voluntarily abstaining from all water techniques would get him nowhere—it would be too much of a competitive disadvantage, and even if there were a rule against it that could be enforced against everyone, it would still only slow the growth of the problem. He would do whatever he could to grow strong, for now, so that someday he could put a real fix in place.
After practicing a while at transforming it into a pool of syrup he started to work on producing the sticky syrup directly from water elemental chakra as it left his mouth, but with the concentrated efforts of his clones he eventually had it fully functional. Like his Raging Wave technique the cost in chakra would scale depending on how much syrup he wanted to produce, but it wasn’t all that much more expensive, by volume.
Curious, he tasted it, hoping for something sugary sweet, but it was tingly and stung his tongue. Anything made from chakra seemed to be like that; very slightly poisonous, until the chakra was all gone and it had reverted to a pure elemental form. Water, but no food. Not unless you could eat fire.
Dutifully he consolidated his notes, exchanging information with himself and recording observations, and making independent calculations to minimize the errors in his understanding. Every step of the process took time, and only when all of that was complete did he finally begin to investigate the particulars of the water clone technique.
He started with the usual chained shadow clones, getting some idea of the costs of the technique in millichakra by halving himself again and again, measuring comparisons using past observations as benchmarks, counting time and averaging estimates over multiple bodies. Generating and falsifying predictions. It turned out that the water clones split off from their casting body just like the shadow clone, but took ten percent of the caster’s chakra with them—assuming that the caster could afford the base casting price of 20,000.
Unlike the shadow clone, though, he retained a single “real body” distinct from the clones, rather than how—in a sense—he became all of his shadow clones at once. The water clones were a temporary tool, not quite conscious and not able to report back what they’d seen and learned. They had what seemed like about ten percent of the shadow clone’s physical strength, making them pitifully weak without the use of extra chakra to propel their attacks, and they had a one-tenth fraction of the caster’s regeneration, too—a meager sum when made from one of his shadow clones, but theoretically up to 5 mc/sec at most, from which 1 mc/sec was subtracted for the cost of sustaining the water clone’s body.
The strange thing was that this fraction of his physical strength and regenerative capacity didn’t seem to be subtracted from the original casting body. He didn’t get one tenth weaker when he summoned one. They took (or were given) ten percent of the caster’s chakra as they spawned, and returned it if they were dispelled, but it was more like they had their own physical strength and capacity for regeneration, which just so happened to be ten percent of his own.
What was odd about that was that it seemed to imply that if he summoned a water clone with his proper fully-consolidated body, he could have the water clone regenerating at one tenth his full regeneration speed—5 mc/sec, or 4 mc/s in practice once accounting for the cost of the body—without any negative impact on his own regeneration from that point on. So theoretically, he could go and burn all of his main body’s chakra in a fight or something, then dispel the water clone for a kind of instant-regeneration effect. He wasn’t sure what would even stop him from carting around a whole flock of water clones and throwing a knife into the herd whenever he ran low on chakra. A normal ninja would have had water clones with only 0.1 mc/s regeneration, or a total of negative 0.9 mc/s counting the cost of the clone, which would burn through the 20,000 mc or so stockpiled in the water clone within six hours or so, but with his unnaturally high base regeneration each clone could potentially be self-supplying, with a net gain in total chakra over time.
He couldn’t disprove it as things stood, but the potential seemed large enough to once again justify sending out the order for his backup clones to dispel.
Again he was reconstituted into a single form, and this time he used it to summon six water clones. They stood around with blank looks on their faces, waiting for an order.
He sat with them, and watched, waiting for time to pass. At 4 mc per second, total, each clone should have been regenerating 14,000 per hour, or just under 350,000 per day. They’d all be starting life with a tenth of his maximum chakra in hand—200,000, and after ten hours or so to regenerate, the six of them combined could be expected to hold around two million millichakra, while his real body by that point would have also regenerated back to full—another two million. He could test it, then, by burning all two million from himself and then popping the clones to try doing it again.
It was the middle of the night when he was finally ready. He could have slept, but he didn’t trust the water clones to keep an effective watch over his one real body, even if they could apparently use the byakugan. He probably could have sent off a shadow clone or two already, for safety, after summoning the water clones, but he didn’t want any unnecessary complicating factors in his data, and escaping any threat that showed up still seemed like it wouldn’t be much of a problem.
When the hour came he summoned 1700 shadow clones into the forest. He performed a quick decentralized headcount to confirm the numbers were about right, and then dispelled them. With quantities that large his control tended to be a little less precise, but previous tests had suggested he was likely to be within a range of a few percent, at most. To be extra certain that he really was almost out of chakra now, he summoned a single shadow clone and had it sustain an enormous barrier technique until it burst, measuring the time it took. He could have done it all by intuition—relying only on the vague understanding that most ninja had of their chakra and the cost of their techniques, but numbers brought a clarity far beyond that of the nebulous impressions available to his lesser senses. Other ninja might think it was a waste of time to be so precise, but it was only his precision with the numbers that had brought this strange scheme to mind in the first place, and if it was a dumb idea after all, it was the numbers that would reveal why. This was his nindo—his way of being a ninja.
He had the water clones dispel manually, using the proper hand-seal rather than physical destruction, just to minimize all the ways for corruption to seep into his results. He couldn’t see anything yet, with his byakugan disabled to preserve what was left of his chakra, but on all previous occasions their unspent chakra had been returned, and by his calculations they should have had enough between them now to refill him completely.
In the dark of the forest, his fingers moved once again through the familiar seals of the shadow clone technique. From Tiger seal to Boar, from Boar to Monkey, Monkey to Hare, to Horse, to Ox, to Rat.
On cue, seventeen-hundred shadow clones appeared in a dense crowd.
He dispelled them again and collapsed on his back, from bewilderment rather than exhaustion.
What did this even mean?
That was all it seemed like it could mean; he’d been so careful that there wasn’t really any other way to interpret things—he could make a bunch of water clones, break them as necessary, and get however much chakra he needed, whenever he needed it. Anything that had previously been constrained for lack of chakra would, from now on, be unconstrained.
He’d grown used to having far more chakra than other ninja, and finding ways to turn it to his advantage, but infinite chakra was something else entirely.
With this, he could read every book in every village he could find—he could force his way into every village on the continent and hand-copy every book himself. He could sustain an army of clones, or ten armies, and do whatever was necessary to change things in the world.
He’d just—he’d just won, apparently. All the rest was just a matter of logistics.
He couldn’t even imagine what could stand up to infinite clones with infinite chakra, other than some even more ridiculous technique like the rinnegan, but if that was real then he’d never had any chance in the first place.
He couldn’t just start conquering things yet, though—he didn’t even know what kind of changes would be wise to make, and there was a good chance he’d somehow manage to screw things up even worse than they had been to begin with. But… it was distinctly plausible that he’d just stumbled across the only real discovery that would ever matter—that the stupid little water clone technique he’d left to rot for weeks while he buried himself in the dirt was actually—when combined with a jinchuuriki’s high base regeneration—potentially the key instrument to the founding of a new era.
And he hadn’t even been wearing pants when he’d figured it out.
But first, the logistics… He had to actually figure out all those gritty details of precisely how to best exploit the trick in battle and out of it—he’d need some kind of system. A group of water clones isolated somewhere, maybe, and constantly generating chakra for him in secret, or multiple such groups in separate locations, all constantly funneling the chakra back to his shadow clones, to wield as necessary.
The next few days were filled with sessions of clone-amplified idea generation and criticism and refining and testing as he experimented with how exactly the water clone could best be employed. As it turned out, he needn’t have even dispelled the clones to make use of them; once filled to their maximum they actually overflowed with chakra, channeling it back to him at the full rate of 4 mc/sec, spread evenly over all his shadow clone bodies, which were all equally ‘real’ in whatever sense mattered to the water clones, apparently. Each water clone could also be put into sage mode—they seemed to have even less difficulty with it than he did. This boosted their regeneration a further 50%, raising the available overflow from 4 mc/sec to 6.5 mc/sec—an insignificant difference when compared to the infinity of chakra already available, but it now contained one third nature chakra, allowing the shadow clones on the receiving end to enter sage mode at a distance, even while moving, or fighting, or doing whatever they liked.
Mobility problem: solved.
He did have some concern that the water clones would eventually turn into rocks if they meditated too long, like Jiraiya had warned, and that he’d have to periodically smack them awake, but it seemed they didn’t possess enough consciousness for it to even apply. They were too dumb to turn into rocks. No—that was unfair; they were giving him infinite chakra, he could at least spare a little sympathy for their stupid, goofy faces… They looked like they’d just woken up. Sleepy little Narutos not quite yet ready to face the day. He hoped Hinata hadn’t seen him looking like that in the mornings.
Soon he was leaping around the forest in sage mode, fed with an abundance of nature chakra by the gang of water clones meditating on the ground. He had to stay in just the one body to create them, but he’d already proven that it would work equally well for all his shadow clones, as long as there was enough nature chakra coming in. And since there was effectively no limit on the number of water clones he could set up, he had no intention of stopping here.
The attention of his sole intelligent body was occupied for a while with the planning of new base of operations. His ice fortress. No—no, he wanted to keep it hidden, “fortress” was the wrong word. His… secret lair.
It would be a massive construction project. An insulated water clone repository built into the side of a tall mountain, high enough up in the cold that not even the hardiest of civilians could eke out a living there.
Hidden amongst the ice and snow he would build himself an unassailable sanctuary, one large enough to house a thousand working water clones and their shadow clone overseers. That meant rows upon rows of benches, plus sleeping quarters, shelves and tables, all to be designed and constructed. The water clones were not human enough to need to sleep or eat, but the shadow clones would, and that meant regular deliveries of food, unless he could fit in a small garden somewhere. He would have to find out how much pasturage was necessary to keep a mountain goat in health, and how much milk he could expect from each…
All of this kept him busy, single-minded as he was, until his flock of water clones was enormous, and brimming with chakra.
He sought out the Slug Sage to convey his thanks before leaving the forest, but when he found the creature it seemed not to pay him any attention.
“Hello? …Hello, uh… Randy?” Naruto said, hoping to prompt some kind of reply. “Randy, is that water down there?”
The slug nibbled quietly at the leaves.
Naruto smiled, repeating the lines the slug had said to him, a while ago. “Hello. Is anybody there? Anybody at all?”
Still the creature was silent. Naruto wasn’t sure whether it didn’t feel like talking, or whether it just didn’t have anything to say. It hadn’t even looked at him—maybe it was unable to see him, now, somehow, with the nature chakra flowing through him? He wasn’t invisible, clearly, but maybe the slug didn’t do all of its seeing with its eyes. In any case, he couldn’t really leave his sage mode to check—not without obstructing the accelerating growth of his watery brood.
At some point he would probably go looking for the other animal Sages, to see what could be learned. Maybe the snakes or the toads had their own knowledge to pass on about the seas, or some other great catastrophe to warn him about.
“I just wanted to tell you I’m leaving,” Naruto said, “and I wanted to say thanks.”
The slug nosed around beneath a branch.
“I don’t know if you can tell, but I figured out this sage mode thing. Your advice was pretty good, actually. ‘No mind.’”
He watched it as it ate, maybe still oblivious to his presence.
“And hey, I think I might actually already have the first part of a solution to the water problem, too,” he said. “I don’t know exactly how to get rid of the extra water, yet, and even if I did I’m sure it’d just fill back up again once I’m gone, but I think I might have the strength to actually do something, now. So that’s… yeah. Not bad, right?”
Naruto didn’t think anything could even stop him from tiling the world ten feet deep with the blank smiling faces of his water clones. For every shadow clone doing the real work he’d probably need a vast number of water clones supplying the power, but once he decided how best to get rid of the water, that problem was probably solved. The real challenge would be finding a way to make sure things didn’t just go right back to how they were once he’d grown old and died. He had to figure out a way to rule the world from beyond the grave.
“Well, I guess I’ll get going, then,” he said. “I don’t even know if you can hear me in there, but thanks again. And goodbye, for now.”
He turned to leave, but heard a voice from behind him.
“…The cause in which they died will continue.”
He looked back over his shoulder, smiling at the inscrutable slug as it nibbled at the dark leaves.
“Yeah,” he said. “Whoever they were… It’ll continue.”
High in the mountains, standing before the assembled battalion of water clones; Naruto cleaved the chilly air with a gesture and gave them his command.
“Strike the earth!”
They bore into the rock with their whirlpool drills, carving out his hidden keep. Separate teams oversaw the felling of trees for timber, or the requisition and transportation of all the necessary supplies, or filled the necessary management roles. The remarkable efficiency of the operation left him wondering whether he would even need any other ninja to run a country; there was so little wasted on administrative overhead and infighting and inertia and corruption, and all the other little inefficiencies that seemed to just disappear when every person involved was a perfect copy of your own mind.
He’d dispatched a pair of clones back to Sound to read the library, too. All of it. All of it at once. He hadn’t been able to get started on such things while building up his flock, but with a full thousand water clones finally in place in his chakra manufactory he had a total regeneration rate of six and a half thousand mc every second, and no real need to conserve it.
Backup shadow clones were sent out across the continent again, for safety’s sake, and he took back control of Sound from Kabuto, who had wisely decided not to seize power in his absence. Maybe he was just a completely trustworthy guy after all, with a very suspicious-looking face.
Questions about his new physical stature were put down to a “growth spurt”.
Eventually he planned to have a number of factory bases like the one in Stone, all functioning as redundant backups in case of discovery or attack, but for the time being his single mountain fort seemed sufficiently impregnable, even against something like a full-scale assault from Leaf village, and the nearest mountain passes were almost never used, even in wartime. It was hard to justify the continued risk of staying concentrated in one place just for a few extra water clones when his regeneration rate was probably already higher than every other living ninja combined. Caution was a habit, after all—and what were the odds he would suddenly find himself needing more chakra than that?