Chapter 14:



Though I know indeed
That the night will come again
After day has dawned,
Still, in truth, I hate the sight
Of the morning's coming light.

-          Fujiwara no Michinobu


Dawn breaks with the solemn rise of the sun from behind the mountains; its weak yellow light diffused by the thick layer of fog that descends from the heavens.


In town, its inhabitants diligently awaken with zombie-like motions in preparation for the long day ahead. Children, too young to participate, are left with the old ones too weary to be bothered with the ritual. There is a tense feeling of anticipation as they bundle up in warm clothes, lock their doors and begin the journey to a venue that promises retribution through ‘merciful’ death. Neighbors, friends, and strangers nod in silent acknowledgement to each other as they converge on the streets. The ‘outsiders’ – those from neighboring towns and even as far as other prefectures – mingle with the growing crowd and try to engage in polite conversation. For some reason, they cannot look each other in the eye even as lips form empty syllables. It is sometimes shameful to admit that they eagerly welcome the brutal punishment deserving of those sinners. It is shameful that they sometimes feel a thrill with the descent of the sacred blade or listening to the wails of despair from the condemned. For what it’s worth, they justify their feelings by claiming that these lost souls are being redeemed after all.  


No one pays much attention to the two men dressed in nondescript hooded dark robes, for they blend easily into the throng of shuffling townsfolk. Today, the roadsides are lined with several watchdogs on duty; primarily to make sure everyone behaves themselves and there are no scuffles or unnecessary fights. The hooded men dutifully bow their heads as they walk past each officer; giving the impression they are completely subservient in their positions.


However, as they cross the bridge which will lead them to their final destination, and as the sudden heavy dum dum dum sound of the sacred drums and gongs being struck echoes across the landscape from within the towering walls of Byaku-Shinkyou, it is clear that one of the men is greatly affected by this, for his hands form tight fists within his robes. His companion spares him a quick look of sympathy, but knows this is no time to focus on past regrets. Sharp dark eyes survey their surroundings and take mental snapshots. Their plan today is to go without a hitch and every opportunity has been taken to make sure their sleepless nights were not for naught. He nods (barely) in acknowledgment to the people he seeks for they too blend into the crowd being ushered into the grounds by either uniformed officers or toga’d guards.


So far. So good.


The younger of the two seems hesitant as he comes to the threshold. Though he is jostled and shoved by the impatient ones, he is almost frozen and seems to have forgotten the simple task of walking. One more step will take him into a place he has not seen in over fourteen years, and though he cannot help noticing slight changes here and there…


I am home again. is still as beautiful as it has always been. Nostalgia – like a sudden bout of nausea – makes him weak-kneed and he nearly stumbles, but strong and familiar hands grasp his upper arm to steady him. He meets the fierce (stern) gaze trained on him and forces himself to gather his composure. He has come here for one reason and one reason alone. If all works out as planned…then it will simply be the first step to recovering what was once lost all those years ago.

They could not afford to fail now.






Dawn breaks with the solemn rise of the sun from behind the mountains; its weak yellow light diffused by the thick layer of fog that descends from the heavens.


Kimimaro finds him sitting as motionless as the sacred statue he is beneath. His eyes are closed, his legs crossed Indian style, and hands placed on them in the traditional meditative state. His alabaster skin literally glows beneath the golden hue of Buddha’s shadow; his long black hair a cloak around his silk-clad form. It’s opened to reveal he is wearing nothing beneath and though this is hardly the time or place to admire his master and lover’s body, Kimimaro knows he is weak to such blatant temptation.


However, he is still extremely sore from his master’s ‘punishment’ last night. Sasuke’s insubordination had triggered Orochimaru’s ire and frustration to its limit, and as always, Kimimaro found himself being the physical punching bag. His wrists, ankles, and neck still bore the bruises from being shackled; his skin still tingled from the lashes he had received; some hard enough to leave welts on his backside though he had pleaded and begged for mercy. Through his silent tears, he suffered indignities he could never mention to anyone; all masked beneath a subservient attitude that did nothing to appease his insatiable and furious lover. In the end, he was left ‘discarded’ on the floor; aching, bruised, sticky with cum from not just his master, but two of his guests who had been invited to watch and partake of the humiliating acts.


(broken yet again)


He sighs inwardly and kneels before the podium; patiently waiting for his master to be done with his ritual before leading him to his inner sanctuary where he’ll then be purified for the festivities. The guests, including Lord Danzo, have already been taken to the dining hall for a quick breakfast after which they’d be escorted to the outdoor venue. Kimimaro can already hear the excitable cacophony of the townsfolk and visitors culminating in a dull hum within the hallowed walls. He closes his eyes and listens to the dull thrum of the sacred drums and gongs; feeling the familiar adrenaline rush of excitement course through him at the prospect of witnessing something powerful yet different with this year’s Gudan.


He has performed the role of executioner a few times in the past where there is a feeling unlike any other when taking the life of those who do not deserve to live. However, this new format was nothing short of intriguing. This could be the day when the executioner could find himself being the hunted; the one desperate to live. He licks his lips at the notion of seeing Sasuke at his wit’s end should he have to face a sinner stronger than he. Kimimaro has his money put on the one named Hidan. He is more than familiar with the follower of Jashinism and his hideous crimes. Those who practiced the religion tended to have a high threshold for pain and sometimes felt they were immortal. It was sometimes literally impossible to kill some of them by ‘normal’ means, hence beheading would have been the best way to go. He has no doubt the zealot will win the battle royale and face Sasuke in the end, and if all goes well…then…


It will be sad to watch you die, Sasuke…but you really have served your purpose for Lord Orochimaru and he needs you no longer. I thought we’d have bonded. I was willing to be your big brother, but you seemed so intent on distancing yourself from me…from us. A grave pity. You had so much potential…


“Kimimaro,” comes the sudden low call that has the younger man sitting up with a start of surprise. His master is still in position, but those guarded, watchful and piercing green eyes are now trained squarely on him.


“My Lord?” he finally replies with a bow of his head to the floor.


“Is everything prepared?”


“As you have requested.”


He pauses. “And Danzo?”


“Having breakfast with the others.”


“He said nothing to you?”


Kimimaro shakes his head. “Nothing of significance, my Lord. Though he kept glancing at his watch with impatience.”


“Of course. Why expect anything different from that old fool?”


/Just stick to your end of the bargain…/


A small smile comes to the thin lips, which are licked slowly in satisfaction. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and lifts his lashes to look out the windows where thin blades of pale sunlight struggle to push their way through.


“It’s a good day,” he finally whispers more to himself than to his companion. “A very good day to die.”





Dawn breaks with the solemn rise of the sun from behind the mountains; its weak yellow light diffused by the thick layer of fog that descends from the heavens.


Sleep had not come easy last night, and he awoke long before the sun’s arrival. If Haku was surprised to see his master already dressed and paying his daily tributes at the small family shrine, he said nothing but went about his duties with a million butterflies fluttering within the pit of his stomach. His outward expression was one of quiet calm and (possible) indifference; simply giving nothing away. However, the poison-tipped needles – though light as feathers – sat heavily and seemed to weigh a ton within his kimono. As he quietly served his master, he feared that even one false move would reveal the key to Naruto-kun’s victory. However, his master seemed…different this morning. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. There was no fear on Sasuke’s face; neither did he look angry and discontent with the world. There was a strange sense of calm and purpose; an aura that threatened to keep Haku away, though he politely thanked his manservant for the meal which was then eaten with measured bites and sips.


He knelt in his usual position a few feet away to observe his master eat in silence.


You won’t kill Naruto-kun, will you?


His hands clenched tightly on his lap and he bit his lower lip hard enough to draw blood.


Please…Sasuke-sama…please tell me you won’t kill Naruto-kun if he makes it to the final round?


It would be too cruel. Too horrible to imagine that after going through such a brutal battle, he’d still be executed. Why else would Sasuke-sama have the sacred sword of Riku-sama in his possession? Why else would he be dressed in his ceremonial garb consisting of a white kamishimo, with the Uchiha family mon etched on its back, and a black and purple striped hakama? Was that the plan all along? He hadn’t really caught all of the conversation about the new rules of Gudan, all the same…if Lord Orochimaru’s intentions was still to eliminate even the last man standing then…


It was nothing but a waste of time. All our plans would have been for a lost cause. I’m so sorry, Naruto-kun. So, so, so, so, sorry...




Haku lifted his miserable gaze from his pale hands to look at his master, and for a second, felt something sharp - a deep pang - pierce through his chest and into his heart as he stared at the strong and handsome profile before him. Was it possible for a person to be born ‘perfect’? Was it the way his master’s dark hair fell just so? Was it the slightly long lashes? The deep set dark eyes? The straight nose? The strong cheekbones? Those slightly full lips? The tightened jaw? The powerful neck? That porcelain skin that never seemed to favor the sun no matter how long he spent outside? Was it the strong hands with its lean fingers? Or a toned physique that Haku had been lucky to worship with his hands during his massages? was none of those things. It was none of those ‘perfect’ physical attributes at all. He loved his master. He really did, but it was not for the physical. This love was beyond that. It was deep rooted in a sense of loyalty and devotion; of knowing a side of Sasuke-sama that no one else would ever know. It was the side that had watched his master suffer in silence all this time; this side that was too proud to share his fears and innermost thoughts with him.


/Just…take care of the guy. Methinks he’s going to need you…/


Haku smiled sadly. Naruto-kun…were you able to see something I’ve been unable to see all this time?


“My Lord?” he finally called out quietly when it seemed like Sasuke wasn’t planning on speaking anytime soon. He noticed that his master had barely eaten half of the meal set out for him, not that Haku could blame him. It was probably not easy being able to digest anything knowing that you were probably going to be…


No! No! No! It’s not going to happen!


“It’s a beautiful morning, isn’t it?”




Haku blinked in surprise at the low random statement/question, and finally forced his gaze to look through the opened shoji screen doors with its breathtaking view of the gardens and mountains in the horizon. Sasuke-sama was right. The fog was finally beginning to lift and pearly dew drops on the leaves and flowers gave the illusion of having rained the night before. There was a fresh tangy scent in the air, and though the haunting sounds of the sacred drums and gongs went off in the distance, it couldn’t break through the tranquility of their surroundings. It would have been a perfectly wonderful morning…if both men didn’t realize just what lay ahead.


“Yes,” Haku finally replied softly. “It is a beautiful morning, my Lord.”


Sasuke gave a light grunt in agreement and rose to his feet. He motioned for Haku to bring the sacred sword to him, which was done with slight trepidation. There was something about holding onto the somewhat heavy weapon that always made him break out in a cold sweat, and as he handed the ancient but powerful sword to his master, he obediently stood close by; watching as Sasuke attached it expertly to his obi in quick snaps and tugs. He would not need his regular katana and wakizashi today. Riku-sama’s sword would be more than enough to carry out whatever he had to do.


With the sword finally secure, Sasuke seemed to take a deep breath, and Haku – assuming that his work was done – prepared to clear away the tray when he felt the strong and steady hand suddenly placed gently on his head. He felt his cheeks burn with insuppressible heat as he met the dark unreadable eyes before him, and though he had so many questions to ask and so many things to say, they all seemed trivial to the two simple words uttered at him.


“Thank you.”


His vision blurred almost immediately, and he had to bite his lower lip to stop them from quivering. Sure Sasuke-sama had thanked him a lot of times in the past, but there was something so deeply genuine and heartfelt about it this particular time around. Was it the timbre of his voice? Or that same inscrutable expression in his eyes? Was it the small smile that threatened to appear on his face before a sound from the outside eradicated it just as quickly as it had appeared? They both turned to notice the four officers awaiting him. They were his escorts to the venue...not that he didn’t know the way there, but it was tradition after all.


With a final pat on his servant’s head, Sasuke spun on his heels to join them and would have been glad to leave with no queries asked, when the sudden call of his name had him turning back with a raised brow of surprise.


It was Haku – of course – whose tears had finally broken free to trickle down his cheeks silently. He opened his mouth to speak, but the words seemed lodged somewhere in his throat. Sasuke, sensing the officers were uncomfortable with this scene and wanting to spare his servant any more embarrassment, prodded him gently.


“What is it, Haku?”


He clutched fistfuls of his kimono and took a deep breath, before bowing deeply. “I vow to keep my promise to Naruto-kun!” he cried out in a rush. “No matter what happens...I promise...I will take care of you until my dying breath!”


He failed to see the reaction this caused on his master’s visage, and perhaps if he had, he would have noticed the flicker of uncertainty and confusion that had filled those dark eyes. Either way, it was too late to do so now, for when he finally managed to lift his head, all he could see was the gentle sway of the plants and trees before him as well as the faint and receding steps of the other men.




The sudden change in the drum beats had him jerking out of his reverie. He had little to no time to make it to the arena, and as he dashed back into the house to finish up his chores; his mind whirled with countless possibilities, many of which involved an (happy) ending that he sincerely prayed for.


No matter how impossible it might seem.




Dawn breaks with the solemn rise of the sun from behind the mountains; its weak yellow light diffused by the thick layer of fog that descends from the heavens.


He was already on his third cigarette and he still could find no relief; not from the cold weather or the cold weight filling his heart. There were dark rings beneath his eyes and he generally felt like shit. Though he had spent the better part of the night with Asuma, either staring morosely at the flickering fire in their hideout, or forcing himself to smile at the jokes the older man tried to crack to break the tension, it was Asuma’s eventual revelation of what was to happen today (besides the obvious) that made him sick to his stomach.


Sasuke’s brother was still alive, and not only that, there was a damn pretty risky plan this so-called Akatsuki folks had come up with. There was no doubt that if it went as planned, some lives would be lost, but it was a risk they were willing to take.


Stupid, he thought angrily but wearily. This is all so fucking stupid.


He gazed blearily at the other sinners around him; they too looking as miserable as he felt. They were the unfortunate crew set to take out the dead and clean up the ring after the blood bath. They hovered in the underground tunnel where the condemned would be brought out from their dungeons to face the screaming mass of spectators now filling the stands. Shikamaru’s ears rang with the loud thud of the drums and gongs being struck, and every now and then the thunderous roar of the crowd would add to his already blinding headache. He squeezed his eyes shut and placed a finger to his temple. Though this was only his second time witnessing Gudan, the craziness was still as potent as ever. He couldn’t understand why humans would enjoy the concept of watching people die in such a manner.


Just do your best, Naruto, he thought as he lifted his lashes to stare blindly at the rocky ground. I know you can do it, you stubborn bastard. I don’t want to be the one to carry your dead body out of there. I don’t think I could take it.


He and Asuma had done the best they could with the little time they had. It was now up to Naruto to pull out all and every skill he had ever learned – not just from them – but from his life on the streets. Sometimes battles were won with the head and not just whatever weapon was placed in your hand.


He lifted his gaze to stare out to the arena as another thunderous cheer went up. It was quickly followed by the nearly delirious chants of ‘Orochimaru-sama! Orochimaru-sama! Orochimaru-sama!’ It was clear that the overseer of this affair was finally in the building. The gruesome show was about to begin.


Shikamaru – as well as the other sinners on duty – seemed to straighten up from their slouched positions. He walked closer to the exit, where he had a much better view of the intimidating arena. Sure enough, the balcony reserved for the V.I.Ps was rapidly filling up with the dignitaries. Lord Orochimaru looked resplendent in a black gown embroidered with golden snakes to match the elegant staff he wielded in his right hand. He lifted his arms and the crowd went absolutely insane with their adulation of the man they seemed to see as their god. He basked in their love and stated as such; his voice booming over them all via loud speakers set around the nearly 15,000-seat arena now filled to capacity.


“My dear ones,” he began with a flourish. “We are gathered here today....!”


Shikamaru skipped over Orochimaru to notice that Kimimaro was – as always – standing behind him dressed in similar clothing. Sakon and Ukon were also on guard; though they seemed hidden further into the shadows of the roof protecting them. Among the dignitaries, Shikamaru could make out Lord Danzo, who remained sitting with an expression of absolute indifference to the proceedings. The others seemed more excited and chattered eagerly amongst themselves, every now and then taking a sip of their expensive drinks or munching on a finger food. Each official also had their servants or guards, which made for a rather cluttered V.I.P section.


This could be a little tough...


Feeling the back of his neck prickle with awareness, he lowered his gaze back to eye level to notice Asuma blending in with the other officers of his rank. The big man gave him a light wink and barely noticeable nod, which Shikamaru returned. Asuma made a motion with his left hand, which to anyone else would look like he was simply waving something away from his face, but it was a signal to Shikamaru to turn his gaze to the five o’clock position. Sure enough, there they were; two of the most powerful remnants of the Uchiha clan sitting several spaces apart in the lower section of the seats next to the entrance. There was really nothing to distinguish them from anyone else and Shikamaru might have dismissed them if it wasn’t for Asuma telling him of what to look out for. Asuma had also said there would be more of them, but Shikamaru was distracted at the sight of Haku – who had just dashed into the tunnel and was slightly out of breath.


“You’re late,” Shikamaru replied dryly as Haku blushed and squeezed himself beside the other man.


“Sorry,” came the breathless reply. He craned his neck to look toward the arena...and then turned back into the tunnel. “Just in time though.”


Shikamaru nodded and then felt his stomach drop a little as he heard the undeniable sounds of the guards ordering the sinners to begin their march to the outside. He closed his eyes and muttered a quick prayer.


It was now or never.


The ball was now squarely in Uzumaki Naruto’s court.






The least they could do was give us something to eat.


So it wasn’t exactly the sort of the thing I ought to be thinking about considering the gravity of the day, but all things considered it really would have been nice to at least have a drink of water if nothing else. Foolishly, I had finished the rice ball and tea Captain Hard Ass had delivered last night, and this morning, my stomach was growling all sorts of weird noises that would have been embarrassing if I really gave a damn. I guess I could have rationed the thing, but how was I to know they wouldn’t give us nourishment on our last day on earth? It didn’t seem fair and it would be a big disadvantage to those of us who couldn’t function on a full or semi-full stomach. I was beginning to feel faint already.


“Get moving!” came the snarl as I was dragged unceremoniously to my feet and shoved into the room where we were apparently being prepared for Gudan.


It was already cold down here in the dungeons, but as the guards ordered us to strip out of our loin cloths, I could already hear the mumbles and grumbles of complaints from my fellow sinners. I shivered as I stood in my birthday suit; not even bothering to protect the crown jewels, though I rubbed my arms to try to get some warmth into them. I even took the opportunity to size up my opponents and felt a little heartened at the state of some of them. For one thing, some looked older than me, and I made a mental note to use the needles on those who looked like they were close to death anyway.


There was this old dude – well not really that old – but he was mumbling and sniffling and crying and saying something about his “Aya-chan and Seisuke-chan” and how he would miss them, and I figured those were his kids. I would go for him first...take him out and hopefully he’d be revived and make his escape. The next I’d go for would be the guy who looked like he was stoned. His jaw was slack, his gray eyes glazed and unfocused. He had a nice face; you know...the kind that didn’t look like they could hurt a fly. I didn’t know what his deal was, or why he was set for death, but I’m sure after spending these past four months underground...all thoughts of doing anything bad ever again would have been erased. Yep. I would give him a chance for a new life by using the needle on him too.


As I went down the line, I realized that I was just about ready to give every damn person a ‘needle’, but had to wonder just how realistic that would be. For starters, I didn’t know how many Haku would even give me, and secondly, hadn’t Asuma told me that these guys would want to take each other out first when they realized that they were to fight each other to the death? I couldn’t make it too obvious that I had a secret weapon. I’d have to at least put up a decent fight to make it seem like I was giving it my all.


Secret weapon aside, there was another advantage I had, which was that most of these guys looked so thin and frail, it wasn’t fair to have them thrust into a battle like this. They had been locked up below ground for so long; it would be a miracle if being outdoors alone wouldn’t kill them immediately. Their skins looked pasty and I could see a few ribs sticking out like sore thumbs. It was like having to fight walking corpses; a realization that was beginning to make me feel depressed as least until I met the amused dark eyes of the tall guy with the slicked back hair. How I failed to notice him before this was beyond me, but there he was. Looking for all the world like he had just strolled into a candy store and given his choice of tasty desserts to feast on. He had this snotty attitude that was beginning to rub me the wrong way; a kind of ‘I’m-better-than-you-peons’ attitude that reminded me of Sasuke. There was a deep gash on his left shoulder that looked pretty disgusting and fresh, which made me wonder just when the hell he had gotten that wound? Had he tried to escape? Did the guards do that to him? Didn’t matter though, the guy didn’t look as if he was in any pain neither did he look as frail and hungry as the others. If anything, he looked ready to go, something he was quick to emphasize as he blatantly eyed me and then licked his lips as if seeing something he liked. My skin crawled and I gritted my teeth. This guy was dangerous with a capital ‘D’. I was most definitely not sparing a needle on him, but I’d have to do my best to steer clear of him early. He could prove to be a pain to get rid of.


“Step forward!” came the loud order that galvanized us to move again.


We all dutifully shuffled forward, only to fight back yelps of surprise or pain as we were suddenly doused with water so fucking cold, it set into my bones and had me stumbling to my knees. The shock took my breath away and I actually had to force myself to remember to suck oxygen into my lungs to get them functioning again. We coughed and sputtered like drowned dogs, and just when we assumed the torture was over, we were doused again as the sadists began chanting “Gudan” beneath their breaths.




Thankfully this only happened three times before we were shuffled (more like dragged, since some of us fainted) out of the cleansing room and into another where we were outfitted in the same drab yukata we were introduced to when we first arrived. For underwear, we were made to wear the same freakin’ loin cloth thing we had on last night, only it was tightened so we would spare the masses the sight of our dicks and balls flailing all over the place. How nice of them. I hated the damn thing and it made moving a little awkward. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we were not allowed to wear sandals or even socks, and as our hands were tied behind our backs with crude burlap ropes that dug into our skins, I (reluctantly) began to feel the first twinges of panic fill my stomach.


“Everyone secure?” the head officer asked as about ten of the uniformed watchdogs appeared from out of nowhere. Damn. You’d think we were planning to escape with the way they were treating us.


“Let’s head out!”


Head out. I’d laugh at the irony of the term, but I was too busy trying to remember everything Asuma and Shikamaru had taught me. It didn’t make sense that they’d teach me how to fight with a sword when it didn’t seem like anyone was giving us any weapon to fight with. Did they expect us to use our fists? It had been a while since I’d gotten into a fist-a-cuff with anyone, but I flexed my fingers as best I could; wondering if they were strong enough to cause any real damage to anyone’s face.


Especially Mr. Smug Face up there.


He was at the front of the line and unlike the other sinners who had their heads down in misery; his was held high as if he was being led to a party and not his death. Even some of the officers seemed a bit surprised (or pissed) at his attitude.


Either way, thoughts of Smug Face or his behavior were wiped out as we began to hear the dull throb of the drums beating rhythmically and the subsequent cheers from what was no doubt...people. Jesus fucking Christ! It sounded like there were a million folks out there! It made the butterflies in my stomach flutter even harder, and I swallowed tightly as I felt a cold sweat break out on my brow. The march was getting a little steeper, a clear sign we were rapidly approaching the entrance to our doom. The drum beats were now louder; the cheers more rapturous. I tried to even my breathing, to think of good things...happy things...and yet, the closer we got, the more anxious I became. I was so focused on what was ahead; I failed to see the familiar faces of my friends until it was almost too late.


Fortunately, the officer in the lead finally yelled for us to stop, which was when Haku stepped out to begin his job of rubbing some oil like substance on our foreheads. I held my breath as he approached. This was too risky. This was too fucking dangerous. There were too many officers around us. They would discover him trying to slip the needles to me. They would catch us in the act. They would know and then not only would I be in trouble, but Haku could be in some serious trouble too. Who knew what they’d do to him after I’m gone? I was almost this close to shaking my head and telling him to forget the whole thing, when at that same exact moment, Shikamaru did something to cause a little distraction. He gave a loud curse and seemed to motion at something on the ground, which had everyone looking for what was the cause for his distress. It was more than enough time for Haku, for in what seemed like one fluid motion, he managed to rub the oil on my forehead and slip the small pouch into the ‘pocket’ made where the sash of my yukata met to keep it in place. He managed to give me a small smile before moving to the next sinner, and I felt I could breathe again, but not before giving Shika a grateful nod while he was being lectured by the head officer for being such a pussy at a little spider of all things.


“...time has come for those who wish to fill the earth with their sullied evil to face the consequences of their actions!”


Snake Dude was in full force this morning, wasn’t he? His voice seemed to boom everywhere, and even if he said ‘eh’, the crowd would scream and yell as if he had given them all cash to squander or something. I couldn’t really make out the arena from here, but if the sound was any indication, it was going to be one impressive place that’s for sure.


“And now...we present to you, those whose very presence should make you all lucky you are not in their positions. Bring out the sinners!”


That’s our cue! It’s show time, folks!


I straightened up and squared my shoulders. Hell, if Smug Face was going to walk out there like he owned the place, I might as well do the same. What was the point of going out there with a defeatist attitude? If I already gave that impression, then I might as well tell the whole world that I was ready to accept my fate whatever that might be. I might have done something bad, but I had a reason to, and any one of those assholes screaming out there might have done the same thing if they were in my shoes. I had nothing to be ashamed of. I’d kill a million Kojimas all over again if they threatened the ones I loved.


The chants and boos began almost as soon as we stepped foot into the arena. While some showed their displeasure with their boos, others chanted “Gudan! Gudan! Gudan!” and stamped their feet in unison. I felt something hard thrown at my head, but ignored it as best I could, more interested in appraising my surroundings than dealing with a bunch of overzealous zombies.


The place was fucking HUGE.


Think of a baseball stadium, but without the diamond in the middle. Every fucking seat in the house was occupied and as I squinted and blinked my way through the shit being thrown at us, I realized that the middle of the stadium was kinda...weird. For one thing, there was a huge circular moat around the main ring, and it was clear we’d have to cross a wobbling wooden bridge to get to it. Well, actually there were four bridges connected to the main stage, which was designed to look like a caged dome. However, this was no ordinary moat, for instead of clear water, it looked murky and oily; giving one the impression that if you fell in it, you would probably die from just inhaling a drop of whatever the fuck it was. What were they planning to do? Throw all the dead bodies in there? Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of using the needles and reviving those who were taken away?


“KILL THEM ALL! KILL THE SINNERS!!” Some folks bellowed enthusiastically.


Well fuck you too, assholes. Like you’re any better than me.


We were marched across the bridge, which I swear kept wobbling so bad with every step, it was a goddamn miracle none of us fell into the oily sludge. Another guard was waiting at the end of the trip and he opened the dome with a rattle of keys where we were all pushed into roughly and our ropes eventually untied. Almost immediately, one idiot tried to escape, but he was shoved back much to the amusement of the crowd who boo’d again as the poor guy huddled in a corner and cried like a baby.


God. This was turning out to be a disaster before its even started.


“Welcome to your final day on earth, sinners!”


We looked up and toward the highest section of the stadium where a bunch of important-looking people sat observing the proceedings with acute interest. Snake Dude was the one who had greeted us, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the guy was clearly enjoying himself. I noticed the white-haired guy with the dot on his forehead was with him too, but where was pretty boy First Captain Extraordinaire? He wasn’t among the V.I.Ps; neither did a quick survey of the ground/lower sections reveal anything. Hmm. Maybe he couldn’t stomach it after all, though I tried to ignore the small part of me that was a little disappointed. I did want to at least show him my new and improved fighting skills if nothing else.


And that dream...what the fuck did that mean anyway?


/It is finally our time.../


“Whatever,” I muttered beneath my breath and focused my attention (or at least tried to) on what Snake Dude was saying.


“...for it is only fitting that sinners who deem themselves worthy of forgiveness must seek that forgiveness the best way they know how.”


Talks too fucking much...


“...and hence, you must face your worst fears by confronting each other in the tradition of old.” He paused for effect, before finally announcing it. “A battle to the death!”


The collective gasp from the crowd and even some of the sinners (oh that’s right...they wouldn’t know about this, would they?) had me struggling to hide my smile. Not surprisingly, everyone began to murmur and talk at once. You could literally taste the confusion in the air...and the growing panic in the cage. Some of the prisoners looked absolutely stricken and began to yell and shake at the steel bars. This hadn’t been the plan! They were supposed to be beheaded and that’s it! What was all this talk about ‘battling to the death’?!


“Present their weapons!”


Guards marched from the four bridges to converge before the dome and before we could brace ourselves, they tossed in swords, and what looked like machetes, through the grilles before stepping back. At first, none of us moved as we stared at each other (and the weapons) in bemusement, but when Smug Face reached out for the longest katana in the bunch, the rest of us dove in to grab whatever we could. My fingers sought and found a katana as well, which was a good thing because we realized that there wasn’t enough to go around. About five people ended up not getting anything, and with the guards walking was clear that it had been planned that way.


Man! Talk about being cruel and unjust.


“As the Great Book says,” Snake Dude rang out with a raise of his arms. “Fight until the blood runs down your veins. Fight until your body is cleansed of its impurities and the last one standing...he who conquers all...shall find and regain his freedom! Let the ritual of Gudan...BEGIN!”


Another rousing and near deafening cheer went up amidst chants of “Gudan! Gudan! Gudan! Gudan!” and yet neither of us in the cage could move. We all wanted to live and yet no one wanted to die or be the first to strike either. There was fear in their eyes, but as each heavy second ticked by, and the chants grew more frenzied, the fear was slowly being replaced by a crazed madness and clear desperation. No one wanted to die, but by God, they were going to fight through this even if it killed them.


And one guy did just that. It was the idiot who had tried to escape earlier. He had grabbed a machete and with a wild cry, dashed towards the weakest one of the bunch, who was without a weapon of his own. I pressed myself against the cage and waited for it, when the guy was suddenly stopped halfway as someone else’s katana had pierced straight through his heart.


It was Smug Face! I hadn’t even noticed the guy move, and as he withdrew his sword; now coated thick with the poor guy’s blood, we all watched the body slump to the dusty ground face down. The crowd seemed to fall silent for a second at this sudden development, before erupting in a loud cheer of approval. Smug Face was rapidly becoming their hero.


Another loud cry was heard and as sinners began to dash towards each other wildly, I did my best to remain unnoticed...which was pretty much impossible because for one thing, the cage wasn’t all that big and you could only run and dodge for so far before you were caught. I cringed as hot blood splattered on me; feeling pretty damn useless as the bodies went by too fast and chaotic for me to figure out who was who or who I could use the needle on.


I swung wildly, just in time to prevent a machete from chopping off my head. The clash of the steel blades gave off a faint spark and as I looked up to see my opponent, it was the dude who had been calling out his kids name back in the dungeon. There was pure insanity in his eyes now, and as I fought/pushed him back with one hand, I tried desperately to reach into my yukata to pull out a needle.


Don’t prick yourself. Don’t prick yourself. Do not fucking prick yourself, Uzumaki Naruto.


Bless, Haku. He had made it easy enough for me to unroll the pouch, and as I chose a needle as carefully as I could (mind you, I was still parrying with the guy and trying not to get my ass killed), I finally managed to secure one, which I quickly thrust into his wrist before stabbing him in the upper thigh with my katana. It wasn’t deep enough to cause him to die (I hoped), but him suddenly falling over so quickly, had me panicking a little. Haku hadn’t been kidding. This thing worked like a charm. The illusion would be that my wound to the thigh had killed him, but I would have little to no time to admire this feat when I was attacked again by another guy.


This one seemed to know what he was doing, and he was able to dodge my attacks though I really wasn’t planning to hurt him that badly. I finally managed to find an opening and stuck a needle at the back of his neck sending him to the ground with the growing number of bodies around us. Speaking of us...


Holy shit.


What the hell happened while I was so busy with my need to save folks? It looked like hell in here. Not just at the fact that there were dead (and not so dead) bodies all over the place, but that some of them had actually been...been...beheaded!


I covered my mouth to control the almost immediate surge of vomit that rose to my throat, and I didn’t need to look around to see who was responsible for this. Smug Face was standing tall and looking like the Prince of Death himself. From head to toe, he was bathed in blood; his katana barely distinguishable from his hand now. His eyes were frenzied with an excitement that was worrisome and though you couldn’t tell if he had been injured or not, it didn’t matter anyway. The dude was positively enjoying himself.  He tossed away the head he had just severed off and I felt my stomach drop in disbelief and misery as I realized it was the very same guy I had pricked with the needle earlier. Smug Face was going about beheading everyone who was already dead! He was leaving nothing to chance. Was he really working for Snake Dude then? Was he some decoy sent in to make sure that no foul play was involved? It would explain why he was able to walk and look like he had no fear. They had sent him as the executioner in place of Sasuke! Those lying, conniving sons-of-bitches! A quick glance up at Snake Dude proved my theory. The pale-skinned guy looked like he was this close to having some kind of weird orgasm. He was enjoying this as much as Smug Face was.


“Help me!” came the desperate cry before it was silenced as the blade effortlessly sliced through the sinner’s neck. I held back my cry of horror, my fingers tightening around the handle of my katana that was barely touched with blood. There were two other sinners left – besides me – and they too seemed to realize they were left in here with a mad man. They abandoned all hopes of trying to fight for themselves and tried to claw at the cage to make their escape; crying and sobbing like children as they begged for mercy.


What is this?


Smug Face laughed and tapped his katana against his thigh as he approached the duo.


What is the meaning of this?


He was mocking them. Toying with them.


Why is this happening?


He towered over them as they fell to their knees and begged for forgiveness.


Why...? Why the fuck are people this...evil?!


I couldn’t tell you when I moved, considering there was a line of dead bodies between me and the others, but I did and I didn’t allow myself to think twice about what I was doing as I plunged the katana into Smug Face’s back with every strength I had left. I honestly thought I had done some serious damage; that I had at least hit a vital point and this guy would be finished once and for all, but to my shock, he only seemed to stare at the protruding end of my katana from his stomach as if seeing such a thing for the first time in his life. To my chagrin, he broke into a grin as he turned a little to look at me.


“I hadn’t forgotten about you,” he drawled lazily. What the fuck was wrong with this guy? Wasn’t he supposed to be dying?! “As soon as I’m done with them...I will take great pleasure in killing you.”


My scream of horror was overshadowed by the chants from the spectators as he swung his sword and took off the heads of the men before him cleanly. Such brute strength was unseen and unheard of, and as I staggered away on legs that shook with fear, I knew I had not only failed, but I was going to die in here.


This crazy bastard was going to be the death of me, and I could do absolutely nothing in return.


He took a deep breath; seemed to suck in a lot of air and then reached behind him to yank out my useless katana. He eyed the weapon, with distaste, before dropping it to the ground. Still ignoring me, he lowered a sleeve of his yukata to reveal his blood-streaked shoulder and arm. He began to draw weird markings on his face and body with his blood, all the while muttering something beneath his breath. The crowd was beginning to grow restless and they were now screaming for me to do something instead of being such a goddamn coward.


I wanted to tell them all to shut the fuck up. They had not faced Death in the eye before, and just like it was with Kojima, I found myself freezing up with a fear so deep, I was finding it a little hard to breathe. He was now moving the bodies aside to make more room ...but only to draw a weird anagram of a circle with a triangle in the middle on the ground with yes...more blood from the bodies he had decapitated. Boos now echoed around the stadium as Smug Face lifted his arms and began to pray or chant or whatever and I realized this would be a good a time as any to make my move...


(if my damn legs would cooperate)


All I had to do was prick him with a needle and then chop off his head like he’s done with all the others. It would be perfect. I took a deep breath and began to move slowly; keeping my gaze firmly on him as he continued his prayers with his eyes closed. I had to step on or around bodies and finally found a katana that I could work with. I slid slowly to my haunches to pick it up, and just as my fingers wrapped around it, I felt the wind promptly knocked out of sails and my body (literally) flying across the ring to slam painfully against the steel cage.


Jesus fucking Christ! What the hell...?!




Strong fingers clutched a fistful of my hair from the roots and dragged me up to my knees. My eyes watered with pain, but I refused to release my grip on the katana. I looked into the deranged dark eyes and watched his lips curve into a sneer.


“Your blood,” he drawled. “Smells and tastes powerful enough to complete the circle.”


“Up...yours...” I grunted and spat in his face.


The immediate blow to my stomach had me vomiting out my meager dinner from last night and blood at the same time. I sank to the floor and would have passed out, but I was dragged up again by my hair to face him.


Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! This was too much to deal with.


He struck me again and I think I heard a few bones cracking. Like nothing more than a rag doll, I was flung aside; left to burrow my shame and agony against the still warm bodies of my fellow sinners. I made the mistake of looking up; to see if Snake Dude was having the time of his life with my suffering, but it was Haku’s tear-streaked face I saw instead. He was standing beside Shikamaru – who looked expressionless – and mouthing (yelling) something at me that my muddled mind could not comprehend.


What are you saying? Why are you shouting? I can’t do anything anymore, Haku. I’m sorry. This plan was not going to work in the first place. I am not fit to live anyway. I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sor –


Get up, Uzumaki Naruto.


Huh? What...what was that?


Call it telepathy or ESP or whatever it is they call it these days, but I swear to you that I really did hear that hard ass’s voice fill my head. I didn’t understand it. Why the fuck was he speaking to me (if it was him and not just my mind playing tricks on me), and secondly...why was I even thinking about him now of all times?!


And yet, I found myself searching through the throng of endless bodies and faceless faces; looking...seeking...and eventually finding the bane of my existence. He wasn’t among the V.I.Ps, much to my surprise, but he was surrounded by officers all the same. With arms folded across his chest and his features about as giving as a brick wall, there was no mistaking First Captain Uchiha Sasuke or the fact that he was obviously staring right back at me. I couldn’t tell if he was pissed off or just didn’t give a shit. Either way, there was no way he could have said anything to me because his lips were tightened...and still I heard him again.


Get the fuck up, you worthless sinner and finish what you started!


How eloquent, you piece of shit, I thought, though I still found myself closing my eyes and chuckling a little. How ironic that it would have to be his ‘voice’ to set those flames of rebellion within me again. I tightened my grip on the katana and lifted my lashes.


You’re right. This is no time to feel sorry for myself. I came all this way, and I’m not going down with a fucking fight.


I sensed Smug Face coming up behind me, and biting my lip to control the grimace of pain as I moved, I spun around and rolled aside just as his katana plunged itself into the already dead body I had been lying on. I rose to a knee and remembering what Asuma taught me, slashed hard towards Smug Face’s thigh; sending him toppling to the ground in surprise. His blood – hot and metallic – drenched me as I withdrew and struck again, this time finding an area at the back of his leg. He growled in fury and swung with his sword. It would have taken me out, but I leapt out of the way just in time and got a nick around my jaw for my effort.


He rose to his feet in a manner that did not betray he had almost gotten a leg sliced off. I swear this guy must be made out of iron or something.


“You sure don’t know how to die, do you?” I panted in disbelief as I braced myself and held out my katana in preparation.


Smug Face smiled; a gruesome sight considering all the weird markings and blood on him. “That is because I am immortal.”


“Eh?” I raised a brow in disbelief. What the fuck is he high on?


“Jashin,” he explained with a smirk. “My clueless one. Through the merciful powers of Lord Jashin, I have been given the power of immortality! So no matter how many times you slice and dice me...I simply will not die.”


Fantastic. If what this psycho was saying is true, then how the hell was one supposed to kill him?! Would the fucking needle even work?


“DIE IN THE NAME OF LORD JASHIN!” He suddenly roared and with a maniacal laugh, he dove for me with both a machete and katana in hand.


Whoa! I ducked, tripped over a body and had to practically roll aside as he kept slashing at the already dead humans around us. I know how this looks, but that’s exactly what kept happening. He was mutilating the poor guys (limbs and pieces of flesh now flying around) and the ground was now so slippery with blood, I could hardly walk (or run in this case). They could at least stop the fight and get them out of here, couldn’t they?


“Fuck!” I barely held out my katana to block the weapons coming at me, but it gave me enough time to strike out with my left leg; sending him back long enough for me to dig into my yukata for another needle...


Wait...what...? Where was the pouch?! Oh no! What...!


To my horror, I realized it must have probably rolled out when I was dodging earlier, and a desperate glance around the den of hell revealed nothing. That thing had been so small, it was almost hard to make out in this mess. Smug Face was heading for me again, and in my panicked attempt to dodge, I slipped on a pool of blood and nearly took myself out as I fell and struck my head against the cage. Smug Face came hollering and screaming at me, and I was only able to slide a little lower just in time to prevent the machete from taking off my head. The idiot  had swung so hard, the weapon was now stuck within the steel grille and wouldn’t budge. Did that stop the fucker? You bet it didn’t.


He struck with his katana, which I was able to block in time before I found my free wrist suddenly captured and twisted so hard, the world blacked out for a second. He head-butted me away and I slumped down to the ground; the surge of adrenaline I had felt earlier vanishing just as rapidly as it came.


Aww hell...I’m aching and hurting all over.


I could barely move or lift an arm, and I realized that if this was the price for freedom, I wanted out...and fast. It just wasn’t worth being abused like this.


“Are you prepared to meet your beautiful death, Oh Scarred One?”


I lifted heavy lashes to look up at the towering figure above me. Beautiful death, eh? It would have been beautiful if I had my girl with me, but hey...


/The bottom line is that Kendo relies mostly on mental strength. It is the ability to think fast on your feet and to think two, three, five steps ahead of your opponent. It’s all well and good to swing a sword around, but you must keep your mind sharp and think of tactics to throw him off guard. Sometimes the quickest way to win a fight is to be unorthodox. Do something your opponent least expects, and when you have an opening or have him at your mercy…you must strike immediately!/


Thank you...Asuma-sensei.


I watched the glint of the blood-stained katana as it hovered over me; his intentions to plunge it right into my heart.  However, if my calculations were right, and if I moved fast enough...


“Die for the glory of Lord Jashin!”


As if, you bastard.


It all happened so damn fast, I wouldn’t have the time to admire the feat until long after. He plunged, I rolled away, but only to reach up to tug hard on the sash of his yukata. What did this move do? It made it easy for me to spin him around and toward the direction of the machete that still sat lodged and waiting for just the perfect head to decapitate. It had to be timed and angled properly, and I really wasn’t expecting it to work at all. It had been a wild hunch...a whim if you will, but damn if it didn’t go as planned.  Smug Face would only have enough time to open his mouth in a soundless scream before his head was sent flying through the air before landing amongst the pile he had accumulated earlier.


I know. Pretty fucking anti-climatic, but that was it. Just like was all over.


As his big body eventually slumped to the ground, my knees finally gave way and I sunk in weariness and incredulity at what had just taken place. In fact, I fully expected his body to get up again and for his headless corpse to finish off what it started while his head laughed and mocked me for being so stupid and careless. Immortality meant he couldn’t die, so what was the point of this little tactic?


And I trembled and waited for the inevitable; to hear that mocking laughter or to see that damned katana rise again, all I could hear was the thunderous cheer of the spectators, seeping through my highly strung yet dulled senses. It was a painful reminder that all this time, we had really been fighting for the enjoyment and pleasure of blood-thirsty morons. I looked up and blinked slowly. I couldn’t make out what they were chanting, but it certainly didn’t seem like “Gudan! Gudan! Gudan!” anymore.


Was this it then? Was I finally going to be set free?


Feeling a light sensation begin to flutter within my heart and stomach, I half staggered and stumbled to my feet to clutch the steel cage with eagerness. I looked toward Snake Dude’s section, wishing there was a way I could scream and make him hear me. Our eyes did meet, and what I saw...I didn’t really like. I couldn’t explain it to you if I tried. There was that expression of pleasure and yet a darkness that bothered me. I forced my gaze away and tried to find Haku and Shikamaru. Haku was applauding and even Shika...but I got the feeling he was still worried about something. What? Couldn’t he be happy for me? I had survived the battle, hadn’t I? Was he just jealous that he would still be stuck in here while I was finally out? Although when I remember his words of me winning and getting out of just didn’t seem to fit. I noticed him glancing to a place on his left, and as I followed his gaze, I finally saw Asuma within the throng of officers. He too was looking at me, but there was only a small smile on his visage and not a ginormous one given to a person who was really happy the fiasco was over.


Something...something’s not right...


I could feel it now, and my palms got sweatier as I darted a panicked glance to search for the final face  (of approval?). But to my chagrin, he was no longer in the vicinity. The officers were still there, but Sasuke was gone.


Fair enough. He had probably seen all he needed to see and would now -


“Well done, Sinner!” came the booming voice of Snake Dude that was followed by another cheer from the crowd. I could hear the loud groan of the steel cage doors being opened, from all four sides, and the sinners on duty (about fifty of them) ushered in to begin carrying out the bodies and cleaning up the mess quickly. I honestly thought about slipping out with them, but didn’t want to get in the way of their cleaning, besides...I’d be released soon anyway, so what was the rush?


“You have far exceeded our expectations!” Orochimaru continued with a wide smile on his features. “Your strength and courage has shown that you are most deserving of your freedom, and you shall have it for our god is most merciful!”


I smiled and closed my eyes as a huge rush of relief overwhelmed me. Freedom. At last. Never had a word sounded so beautiful to me. Technically, I could leave this place with my head held high because I had only actually killed one person, and that person was a psycho who did deserve to get his ass butchered, but otherwise, I was still relatively clean, which was good. All I had to do was find the next bus that would take me to Kyoto first thing in the morning and then –


“...trials and tribulations to overcome.”


Huh? What the hell is he still talking about?


I lifted my lashes and had to step aside as water was being hosed to rinse away the blood that had accumulated. I watched with slight revulsion as the ‘debris’ of chopped fingers and entrails pooled into the oily moat.


“...for the Great Book says...”


I swear if I find this so-called Great Book, I am going to burn that fucking thing.


“...the heart and body can only be truly free after the final battle.”




I heard the loud clang of the steel doors being shut again, and I spun around in panic; eyes widening as I watched the guards walk away, leaving me all alone in the now clean (well as clean as it could be considering there were still streaks of blood everywhere) cage.


“What...” I began with a lick of my dry lips. “What the hell is going on?”


I spun back to face Snake Dude and screamed at the top of my lungs. “What the hell is going on?!” I shook the cage angrily. “I’m supposed to be free, aren’t I? You promised I’d go free if I was the last one standing, you fucker!”


I didn’t really think he’d hear me considering the crowd was still delirious with their need for more blood shed, but apparently he did.


“Oh? But you aren’t the last one standing, Uzumaki Naruto,” Orochimaru replied with a sneer. He even knows my name! “You have one more opponent to overcome.”


WHAT?! One more opponent to overcome?! Why did I have to go through all this again?! And who the hell was I going to have to face now?!


As the loud clang of the steel door opened again behind me, I turned with an angry scowl to confront the bastard unfortunate to deal with me in my current state of mind. I was too pissed off to think straight, and all I could think about was picking up my katana and stabbing the asshole once and for all (or chopping off his head if he turned out to be another immortal) to end this farce. At the back of my mind I guess I knew things weren’t going to be this easy, and perhaps that was why Shikamaru and Asuma hadn’t been so thrilled either.


They knew, I thought bitterly. They both knew I would have to face one more person and they didn’t tell me so I wouldn’t get my hopes up. So much faith you two had in me, huh? Well fuck you two as well.


I reached for my sword and held it before me. I still couldn’t make out who my new opponent was, because he was proceeded by four officers, who eventually stepped aside to let him through.


The effect of being sucker-punched in the nether regions was fucking intense.


I don’t...I don’t fucking believe it.


I wanted to laugh, but I had a feeling it would be of the maniacal, hysterical kind. Of course. Of course it would have to be him. Who else? Call it poetic justice that I’d have to face the man responsible for sending me here in the first place. God...or Snake Dude really did have a wicked sense of humor. I shook my head and lowered the katana a little before turning to glance at Snake Dude and his cronies. They all looked riveted, hell even the crowd had gasped in surprise at this sudden turn in development, and who could blame them. The star of the show had finally arrived; the one destined to show them how Gudan was truly performed. Did they really think I had no choice? It was clear I was at the disadvantage. I was tired and considerably weakened from the skirmish earlier, so this had all been set up as a no-win situation for yours truly.


There had really been no intention of me getting out of here in the first place, and that knowledge set the fires of fury literally burning me up.


I turned back to face him and allowed a bitter smile to come to my face.


“Sorry, I couldn’t clean up a little better for you,” I said calmly. “Just been put through a useless fight and had to take out a few people...if you know what I mean.”


He said nothing, simply waiting for the door to the cage to be closed again before slowly unsheathing the katana. I had to admit it looked pretty damn impressive, though my admiration was cut short as he fell into his stance; presenting that somewhat intimidating persona again. Maybe it was the white top he was wearing; the fact that it seemed to fucking glow amidst the carnage that had just taken place earlier. Whatever it was, his aura this time around was far different than the one I had experienced in the dojo. While that Sasuke had looked bleary-eyed and pissed at the world, this one just didn’t seem to give a fuck who he was facing. In fact, I had the feeling he wasn’t even seeing me at all! Why that knowledge added to my already raging fury, I had no idea.


But no matter.


I’d make him fucking see me if it was the last thing I did. I’d make him acknowledge that I fucking exist, and if it meant killing him to accomplish that...then so be it.


One of us had to die today, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to be me.





Chapter 15

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