1 - A Night Like Any Other
A soft moonlit night served as the backdrop for a typical evening in The Village Hidden in the Leaves. Citizens strolled past bustling shops, where merchants chatted excitedly with their customers in order to make a sale. Others slept undisturbed in their rooms, oblivious to the events happening outside their windows. For the moment, it seemed as if within the walls of The Leaf, happiness and safety abounded.
At first, there was nothing but the faint sound of wind blowing in the peaceful night sky. Then heavy darkness descended over the village. A thick cloud of smoke enveloped the area, obscuring from view the threat that approached. Roused from their evening activities by the unknown sound coming from the entrance to the front gate, all of the nearby villagers turned their heads and looked up to the sky.
There was no way this was possible. In the middle of the evening, with not so much as a warning? Several shinobi, still in their ninja gear and headed for the Hokage's mansion, stared back in disbelief as they observed a large beast emerging from an even larger smoke cloud. Although they did not want to believe what they were seeing, almost everyone but the small children who were present knew the identity of this creature. Time stood still, it seemed, for several long, terror-filled seconds. Even the wind itself seemed too frightened to make a sound. The dramatic moment of silence was pierced by the cry, "IT'S THE NINE TAILS!"
The chaos that followed destroyed any semblance of peace, along with the many houses and shops near the village entrance. A massive fox demon descended upon The Hidden Leaf. Its hollow growl alone was enough to shake the very ground on which the citizens stood.
Elsewhere, atop the village's identifying landmark, the Hokage Monument, stood a lone man, his long white coat and golden-blond hair flowing as a light breeze swept past. He looked out across his beloved village, thinking only of his lifelong vow to protect its citizens. Minato Namikaze, The Village Hidden in the Leaves' Hokage, was charged with the duty of defending the village and commanding all of its shinobi, or ninja. Now, having just witnessed the birth of his son, Naruto, he had no intention of letting harm come to their home. His fierce blue eyes passed over burning buildings with uniform dark green rooftops, scattered remnants of power lines, and smashed trunks of once-vibrant green trees mixed in amongst the rubble, at last settling on the cause of this destruction. He built up chakra in silence. How he chose to act in the next few moments would prove crucial to the outcome of this encounter. The Nine Tails honed in on him as it picked up on his powerful chakra.
"So, you noticed me?" Minato held his ground, confident as he watched the fox open its mouth to reveal a set of sharp, gleaming teeth, and conjure a purple ball of energy.
Here it comes, he thought to himself, planting his feet as he prepared a seal in the sky in front of him. A series of what resembled inked characters formed a complex pattern in the night sky. The symbols arranged themselves in front of the Hokage Monument, hovering near all four faces of the larger-than-life work of art. Minato held a special kunai in his hands that emitted a soft glow as he activated his jutsu.
"I won't let you destroy this," he declared with conviction.
The energy ball in the fox's mouth morphed and darkened, becoming larger and more dangerous every second. Minato stood undaunted, bracing himself as the potent chakra ball was blasted in his direction. Any buildings and living creatures in the vicinity were vaporized by the projectile as it tore a clean path through the village. When it reached Minato's seal, however, the ball stopped in its tracks. The orb writhed and stretched and the seal folded in on itself, forming a vacuum to pull the chakra ball inside. The blast was sucked in and vanished just as fast as it had come.
Concentrating hard on the farthest possible location he could reach with the technique, where he sensed almost no chakra signatures, Minato loosed the attack off into the distance. A deafening sound echoed through the forest, and a deep rumble traveled all the way back to where the Hokage now stood.
With power like that, I have to be very careful where I redirect this.
The explosion continued to resound across the landscape. He'd managed to divert the blast away from the village, but his work was far from done.
Minato went rigid, on high alert. A presence that was masked until now revealed itself. He sensed a person with an unfamiliar chakra signature behind him. The same one he sensed when a man appeared before him and his wife just a short while ago and tried to kill his son. Still not yet recovered from using the teleportation seal, Minato slashed with his custom kunai as he turned on the stranger. He knew he could not go easy on this man. As the Yellow Flash of the Leaf, surely he was far too fast for a sneak attack to succeed, even at point-blank range. So Minato was shocked when his kunai passed straight through the intangible figure, who chuckled. The Hokage drew back, but not fast enough.
The black-hooded, masked foe reached forward and grabbed his kunai-wielding arm. "I am your opponent," the mysterious man declared as he leaned in closer. "And you're done for!"
Minato stared into the single hole in the man's mask as a space-distorting vortex projected from it and pulled him closer. A second later, the Fourth Hokage was on the move, and the assailant's hand grasped at air. The cloaked figure stood on top of the stone monument, all alone.
"He got away. So fast…"
Knowing there was no time to waste, Minato worked on putting together a plan for how best to deal with this new threat to the Leaf Village. He thought about Kushina, his wife, and Naruto, his newborn son. He thought about his duty as the Hokage and all that would be lost if he failed. He could not let that happen, no matter what. Of course Hiruzen, the Third Hokage, would fight to his last breath to defend the village from the Nine Tails and this mysterious person who attacked Minato. However, their best chance would be if they could fight the threat as one rather than in separate locations.
That's when it hit him. Whoever the stranger was, everything that had happened so far was planned out by him. He was powerful, and seemed to know a dangerous amount of information about the village, and how to split The Fourth up from Hiruzen and anyone else who might assist him. He also somehow tracked Minato and Kushina when they went to a secluded location to await Naruto's birth. It was safe to assume that the invader was an ex-Leaf ninja with a grudge. However, there was something else about him that set off alarms in Minato's head. He could control the Nine Tails, was skilled with time-space ninjutsu, and knew that Kushina's seal would be vulnerable during her pregnancy. These facts were very troubling pieces of the puzzle. He must be an Uchiha, Minato reasoned. Cutting his train of thought short, the enemy appeared before him once more.
The air in front of Minato distorted into a swirling vortex that grew in size, depositing his pursuer onto the grass. "You can't afford to worry about others," the man warned.
Damn, Minato thought with frustration. He tracked me that quickly?!
In the battle that was to come, Minato knew that whether he was right or wrong, his goal was the same. This supposed Uchiha had to fall here. If not, all of The Leaf might meet its end. And the surest way to guarantee that he lost the battle was to sever his link to the rampaging tailed beast.
"Gamabunta!" Minato called out.
"What in the world have you gotten yourself into, Fourth?" cried a deep, hoarse voice.
"Did you hear me? There's no time!"
"Yeah, yeah. I've got it! Here I go."
Kushina and Minato clung to each other as a large cloud of smoke burst above them, enveloping the two. Minato hoped that he made the right decision as the giant red toad whom he had formed a contract with years ago vanished from sight. As if on cue, Kushina turned to him and nodded her approval. "I'm right here with you, so don't doubt yourself."
Thank you, Kushina, Minato thought to himself. He was so grateful to have this woman in his life.
The smoke began to dissipate, leaving them to face the gigantic fox beast, which Kushina managed to keep under control with her special ability. Glowing chains extended from her back and tangled around the giant fox in all directions, pulling taut. The fox crashed to the ground, weakened.
"Can you maintain this long enough?" Minato asked.
"Of course," Kushina panted. "We'll...huff...have to...huff...reinforce the...seal."
Minato grimaced as Kushina leaned against him, her body exhausted from all she had endured today. However, once he arrived, of course, none of that would matter anymore.
"I'm starting the process," Minato warned.
Moments later, the couple was prepared to transfer the Nine Tails back into Kushina where it belonged. Their newborn son Naruto slept nearby, his blond hair flowing in the wind and blissfully unaware of what was transpiring around him.
Kurama growled. It was insulting the way the humans carried on making decisions that involved him without his input. Other than The Sage, all of them had tried to control him or feared his presence. As he watched the Yellow Flash and the previous Nine Tails host preparing another seal, he saw an opportunity.
This is my chance!
He mustered the remainder of his strength and extended a long claw, intending to drive it through Kushina to stop the transfer. Minato reacted slower than usual because he was in the middle of stabilizing the sealing jutsu. The Hokage's unsteady hand was struggling to lift a special kunai from beneath his robe when another figure appeared on the scene. Kurama gasped, then lurched forward as a smaller creature's foot landed on his claw and drove it into the ground with the sheer weight of the impact. Dirt and rocks flew in all directions as his claw skidded to a stop mere feet from Kushina and Minato.
"Wow, you sure have great timing, Sensei," Minato said. "I was wearing myself thin!"
"Hmph! You may be my student, but that's hardly any way for the Fourth Hokage to talk, don't you think?"
Minato and his wife smiled with mutual relief. She added, "Thank you, Lord Jiraiya. You're a lifesaver!"
Jiraiya sneered back at them, his face riddled with dark markings and a boil-covered, swollen nose. His eyes were far from human; his pupils had become horizontal slits, and dark red markings graced the sides of his face. He maintained a wide stance, supported by thick-soled sandals. "You should know I skipped out on valuable research to come here!"
Minato looked up, observing his old mentor. "So, you decided to use your Sage Mode for this one?"
"The situation sounded dire. But never mind that. Let's talk after we finish restoring the seal." Jiraiya turned his attention to Minato's wife. "Ready, Kushina? You look like you're in bad shape."
Kushina struggled to her feet, her signature fiery red hair falling across her shoulders. "I don't need you worrying over me. I have to be strong as the Fourth Hokage's right hand woman, ya know." She smiled at the two men, doing little to reassure Jiraiya and Minato.
Before anyone could speak another word, the presence Minato sensed earlier caught his attention again. "Jiraiya-sensei!"
Jiraiya turned to face the stranger, who landed with a soft tap on top of the Nine Tails's head. The fox snarled, making it obvious he felt demeaned by his current treatment.
"I can't let you undo everything I just worked so hard for, Toad Sage," said the masked intruder. A vortex formed once again from within the stranger's mask and distorted the space around him.
"So you're the one responsible for all this," Jiraiya said. He turned to his student and called out, "Minato!" as he noticed the portal enlarging around the demon fox.
Minato nodded. "Right!" He felt around for some of his custom kunai, but was shocked to find none. "What? Where'd they go?"
"Looking for these?" The cloaked man taunted. He chuckled and waved the missing kunai in front of his face. "You lose."
Minato placed Kushina down on the ground, then teleported behind the enemy, using one of the kunai in his hand as a reference point. However, The Fourth's sneak attack swept through air.
"I'll see you in due time, Hokage," the masked man warned, the last word dripping with disdain. Then he faded away into one of his spiral portals. He was followed moments later by the Nine Tails, as it too disappeared with a gigantic poof. Minato and Jiraiya, who had been standing where there was now only air, landed on the grass across from one another.
All three Leaf Ninja exhaled in unison. Although the masked man was gone, the unthinkable had occurred. He now possessed the Nine-Tailed Fox, and with it, the power to destroy a nation in an instant.
"W-where'd he go?" Kushina gasped, clutching her stomach. Her trembling hand settled at the center of the dark, blotchy red stain on her blouse. Caked blood decorated the tips of her fingers.
Minato rushed to his wife's side. "Kushina, don't move! You'll hurt yourself more."
Jiraiya looked up into the night sky, his toadlike features softening and giving way to a less striking, human visage. "He must have called the Nine Tails to a remote location with summoning," the sage surmised, turning to lock eyes with Kushina.
She knelt, mouth agape while the gravity of recent events sank in. "Then that means…"
"It means we can't place its chakra back inside you," Minato finished for her, staring at the ground in deep thought. "Unless…" He drew in a breath and rose to a standing position, turning away from his wife.
"Minato?" Kushina said, a hint of confusion in her voice.
"I'm going," the Hokage stated, stepping forward. "Sensei, please watch Kushina until I get back."
Jiraiya's eyes widened at the sudden realization of the meaning behind his student's words, and he dashed toward him, arms out.
As the toad sage closed in, fingers within reach of Minato, his student vanished where he stood. Just like that, The Fourth was gone - transported to wherever their assailant had fled.
Jiraiya grasped feebly at air, then slumped his shoulders, realizing he was too late. Only time would tell what became of his student now. He shared a concerned glance with Kushina, and knelt next to her to support her weakened body. In the distance, allies approached. Jiraiya sensed a familiar chakra: it was the Third Hokage, accompanied by about a dozen Leaf Ninja.
Jiraiya stood behind the glass wall separating him from the operating room, where some of the best medical ninja The Village Hidden in the Leaves had to offer were working harder than ever to stabilize Kushina. Try as they might, they were unsuccessful thus far. The monitors continued to produce alarming vital sign readings. Kushina was hanging on by a thread, but had yet to wake up or make a sound.
"So you're here, Jiraiya-sensei?"
The familiar voice snapped Jiraiya out of his haze. A tattooed arm stepping into the field of his peripheral vision all but confirmed the speaker's identity. He took a quick sideways glance at the overalls and white mask associated with the standard ANBU Black Ops uniform, then resumed watching over Minato's wife.
"I am," Jiraiya said, expressionless. "Hello, Kakashi."
The white-haired youth posed with equal stoicism beside Jiraiya, gazing at Kushina behind the glass partition with both hands in his pockets.
"I heard Lady Kushina was in critical condition," Kakashi said. "Where is Minato-sensei at a time like this?"
Jiraiya swallowed hard. He was unsure how best to approach the topic. Coming up short on well-worded responses, he gave up and settled for the plain truth.
"He hurried off to face the enemy not long after I arrived. That's the last anyone in The Leaf saw of him."
"...I see. What brought you here? I rarely see you in the village."
"Minato called me," Jiraiya said. He looked at the floor, crinkling his chin. "It didn't feel right to leave again just yet, with Kushina in this condition."
Kakashi nodded in the corner of Jiraiya's vision. Then he sighed and went quiet. Jiraiya did the same.
An unnatural, warbling swoosh noise echoed through the hallway, followed by a strong breeze that blew nearby nurses, gurneys, and intravenous infusion devices in Jiraiya and Kakashi's direction. Kakashi dodged an IV machine that came flying toward him. Beside him, Jiraiya activated his Needle Jizo jutsu just in time, extending his hair to shield a doctor from an oncoming chair.
Having avoided any immediate danger, the two white-haired ninja turned to find the source of this disruption. Minato lay almost flat against the floor at the end of the hall, holding himself up on one elbow as he fought to regain his breath.
"Minato!" Jiraiya exclaimed, rushing to his student's side with Kakashi in tow.
Nurses and doctors scattered to make way, mumbling amongst themselves. Faint cries of "Lord Fourth!" reached Jiraiya's ears, but he tuned out all distractions as he knelt by the blond-haired Hokage's side.
"Minato, it's me. And Kakashi."
"Sensei, are you okay?" Kakashi asked as he slipped an arm under Minato to lift him up.
"I...I did it, Jiraiya-sensei, Kakashi." Minato looked up with a triumphant smile, beads of sweat collecting on his forehead. He opened a palm to reveal a handful of his special kunai. "And I got these back."
Kakashi looked down at Minato's torn and dirt-speckled Hokage coat. The village leader took a deep breath, his eyes drifting toward Kushina, who was still struggling to survive on the other side of the glass pane. He stowed away the kunai he had retrieved from the masked enemy, then squared his shoulders and stood tall. He left Kakashi's supportive embrace to walk on his own, his urgent steps echoing down the hall.
"Sensei, wait. Aren't you hurt?" Kakashi called from afar.
"Minato, hang on," Jiraiya said gruffly, touching his student on the shoulder to make him stop. Kakashi leaned against the wall nearby. "What's going on?"
"I memorized a sealing jutsu formula from one of our library's ancient scrolls. It's pretty basic, but strong enough for what I need to do."
"Why were you looking for a sealing jutsu?" Jiraiya slapped a hand against his forehead. "You went after that man again, didn't you?"
Minato nodded. "Flying Thunder God landed me in some kind of cave with him, and the Nine Tails. He seemed to have prepared for me to make that exact move. My custom kunai were scattered around the cave, in places that made jumping to them dangerous. The Nine Tails was behind a barrier. I tried to fight the masked man, but he used intangibility just like before, and tried to pull me into another portal."
"Like the one he used earlier, from inside his mask?"
"Right. In the end, I succeeded in getting close to the Nine Tails with my Flying Thunder God, but I couldn't take him down without devoting my full attention. So instead I used this."
Upon finishing his recollection of events, Minato exposed his stomach to reveal a marking at its center: a seal. He had contained the Nine Tails' chakra by trapping it in his own body.
"T-that's insane!" Jiraiya remarked, stopping short when Minato held up a finger.
"I'll be fine. It wasn't enough chakra to form a separate entity of the Nine Tails."
Minato covered himself again and kept walking, his master and student's footsteps close behind. They reached the end of the hall and stopped in front of the door to the operating room. Minato reached for the door, pausing when Kakashi spoke up.
"So you can save her?"
The three men regarded Kushina's near-lifeless figure beyond the glass pane. Her skin was pasty, and her beet-red hair was matted into messy clumps.
"Yes, I think so. It may not be much, but it should replenish enough of the chakra she lost to give her a fighting chance." The Fourth Hokage entered the room and hurried to his dying wife's side. The doctors nearby stepped back, not having expected his appearance, let alone the interruption.
"I'm here, Kushina," Minato whispered, closing both hands around his wife's limp one. She gave no visible reaction. He looked up to see Kakashi and Jiraiya, who had returned to watching from behind the glass wall. "Let's hope this works."
Taking a deep breath, he placed a hand on Kushina's belly. Minato concentrated his chakra, made the appropriate hand signs and undid the seal on his stomach.