'Sup? I hope you haven't forgotten about me…Though, if you have, it's perfectly understandable. Been gone for awhile, and honestly, I don't feel I have enough to show for it. 20,000 words isn't enough? Nope, not when it's only 2/3 of what I wanted to do. I had plans, people. This "mini-arc" was supposed to be started and wrapped up all in one big-ass chapter. Too ambitious. I had to cut it in two because there's just too much going on, and when it's all coming at you rapid-fire, it loses impact and meaning. It starts to blur together and you stop paying attention. At least, that's how it is for me.

Of course, this means the Exams are delayed. Again. At this point, I've resigned myself to the fact that the Exams will get here when they get here, as all of my attempts to expedite the process have either fallen through or backfired on me. I'm done stressing over it, and I'm done trying to force it. For now, I'm just focused on giving you guys something worth reading in the meantime.

For my fellow gorehounds in the audience, this chapter should be quite a treat. You've seen Naruto's softer, more compassionate side, and you've been seeing it for some time now. Consider this chapter a reminder of who and what he is, and what he's capable of. This is a return to form. A return to the Naruto who makes a game out of slaughtering people in droves. The one who tore a man in half with his bare hands, just to one-up someone else. If you didn't know better, you'd mistake him for the story's main villain.

Not gonna lie, writing this chapter gave me the warm fuzzies. And if you're still here after 44 chapters, hopefully it'll provide you with a similar feeling.

Let's get this show on the road! Oh, and a happy belated New Year to you all!

XXXX

(Hokage's Office, 3:25pm)

"You mean there aren't any missions available?" Sakura asked the Hokage incredulously. Beside her stood Sasuke, looking just as skeptical, and behind them were Naruto and Kakashi.

"I'm afraid not, Sakura-chan." Hiruzen answered with an apologetic smile. "Unless you want to herd cattle for an injured farmer, that is." he chuckled at the look the girl gave him.

"Told you." Kakashi chimed in.

"Slow day?" Sasuke ventured.

"It's the Chūnin Selection Exams. When they roll around, the host village's shinobi know they won't be able to take missions until they're over. We are effectively allowing potential enemies and spies into our home, afterall. Before they begin, it's routine for shinobi to take as many missions as possible, since most of them won't have any income for some time." the aged Hokage explained.

Though the other two Genin had proverbial question marks floating above their heads, Naruto was well aware of that particular phenomenon. He'd used it to his advantage many times in the past to pull off some of his more risky stunts. He always thought it was pretty stupid, though. It was like no one ever thought about who could've been watching and waiting, timing an attack to coincide with Konoha's best warriors being away from the village. Just last year, Naruto was certain someone would try something, as there had been a forty-eight-hour period in which roughly half of Konoha's entire ninja roster was gone. Just like today, in fact. How that was ever allowed, Naruto had no idea, but he wasn't about to voice his criticisms just yet. Not when he could still benefit from it.

"So, if we had gotten here earlier..." Sasuke trailed off, throwing an accusatory look at Kakashi over his shoulder.

"Well, Team Ten took the last C-Class mission about an hour ago, and your team hasn't done enough missions to qualify for anything of higher rank, even if there were any missions left." Hiruzen said.

As the words sunk in, Sakura and Sasuke's eyes widened, and Kakashi's exposed eye turned to the floor. In their three months as an official team, they'd only done one mission above D-Class, and even though it counted as both a C and A-Class mission on their record, it didn't matter. As per the rules and regulations, they needed a minimum of twelve C-Class missions under their belt before they could take a B-Class, and another twelve C AND B-Class missions to qualify for an A-Class.(1)

Had it really taken them so long to get their act together?

A dumb question if there ever was one.

"...So, now what?" Sakura turned to Kakashi, her expression equal parts lost and disappointed.

"Well, we c-!" Kakashi was interrupted when someone suddenly appeared on the narrow balcony outside of the Hokage's office via Body Flicker and slipped through one of the open windows. His first instinct was to rush the would-be assassin and cut his throat before he even knew what was going on. But as his right arm instinctively reached for a kunai, he recognized the familiar tan longcoat and orange skirt of Anko Mitarashi.

"Hokage-sama, trouble!" the Tokubetsu Jōnin said, kneeling next to the Hokage's desk.

"Report." Hiruzen ordered, all traces of the kindly grandfather figure from just seconds ago gone.

"Outskirts, four miles to the North. I came across a wounded medic-nin who said the safehouse he was assigned to was attacked. He barely escaped alive, but the others, another medic and two ANBU stayed behind. I don't know of any safehouses in that area, but he said that you would know what he was talking about, Hokage-sama." Anko finished.

Instantly, the entire atmosphere of the office changed. An attack on Konoha's own soil? Someone had some major balls.

"Where is the man you found now?" the Sandaime asked.

"I had a Shadow Clone take him to the hospital." at that moment, said clone dispelled, sending its memories to its creator. "The clone just dropped him off, he's being treated as we speak."

"Did he give you any other information?"

"He said that it was the Kurama clan who attacked, and they were after a girl named 'Yakumo'."

"The Kurama clan? As in all of them?" the question came from Kakashi, who looked thoroughly shocked to hear such a thing.

"He couldn't tell." Anko answered. "The combination of surprise, layered Genjutsu and solid clones, he had no idea just how many there were."

"Damn." Kakashi grumbled. As far as he knew, the Kurama clan had at least thirty ninjas in its ranks, including plenty of Jōnin and Chūnin. Not knowing how many were involved made things a lot riskier for any first responders.

"I think that about sums it up." the Hokage frowned. "This can't possibly be a coincidence, them pulling a stunt like this on a day where nearly half of our shinobi forces are away on missions."

"You still have us." all eyes went to Naruto, who had been silent up until now. "We want a mission, and you need someone up at that safehouse as soon as possible."

"Hold your horses, Naruto." Kakashi said. "If we're dealing with the Kurama, that could be anywhere from a handful of ninjas, to thirty-plus."

"Thirty-seven in all. Eight Jōnin, eleven Chūnin and eighteen Genin." Naruto replied.

"...And knowing that, you still want to volunteer us to go, when we could be outnumbered more than nine-to-one?" the cyclopic Jōnin asked incredulously.

"I'm going with you as well." Anko said.

"Okay, seven-to-one. Still horrible odds no matter how you slice it."

"Would you rather wait for backup and possibly let the Kurama get what they want and leave?" Naruto questioned.

"I would rather we have a better idea of what we'll be up against, as opposed to rushing in blindly."

"And how do you propose we get a better idea, before it's too late to do anything?"

Kakashi actually didn't have any ideas, as there wasn't enough time to gather intelligence and come up with a solid plan. Whatever they were going to do, they had to do it now. However, he knew that Naruto hadn't made his proposal in the name of helping comrades and bringing justice to traitors; he saw an opportunity for an unrestrained fight and he was taking it. But he was volunteering the entire team, while not thinking about them at all. They didn't have the luxuries of being able to summon strange creatures and abuse clone techniques like Naruto. Kakashi had no doubt he'd be able to hold his own against multiple opponents, but what if Sakura and/or Sasuke got split off and cornered by a group of Chūnin or worse?

"Alright, we'll do it your way." Kakashi conceded. "But," his one-eyed stare turned hard and intense, "this isn't going to be about you showing off. You fancy yourself the leader of the team, so it's time to put your money where your mouth is. You lead, we follow. Just know that you are accepting full responsibility for this mission. If something, anything, goes wrong, it's all on you."

This wasn't an intimidation tactic, those didn't work on Naruto. Just cold, hard truth, so he knew the gravity of the situation. If the idea of taking on an entire clan didn't make him think twice, maybe the prospect of taking responsibility for someone other than himself would.

It worked, making Naruto pause and take a glance at his teammates. They looked nervous, unsure, but ready to do whatever they needed to nonetheless. They had come a long way, but Naruto would still have to watch out for them. The real question was: How could he keep them out of trouble, yet allow them to get some real combat experience at the same time? They'd never get anywhere if he babysat them out in the field, and it was about time they got their first kills.

"Very well, then. Hokage-sama, your orders?" Naruto gave a nod to Kakashi, then turned to their commander and chief.

While the two had been conversing, Hiruzen had been silently observing, weighing the pros and cons of sending Team Seven and Anko out as first responders. Just about the only pro was that he really couldn't have asked for a better team to fight a clan of Genjutsu specialists. Two Sharingan wielders and a Jinchūriki who could power through just about any illusion they managed to trap him in. But the cons were more numerous. Sakura and Sasuke had no business on a mission like this, which would be considered an A-Class if he gave it to them, perhaps even S-Class in the worst case scenario. It was way out of their league, and they'd probably end up being more of a liability than help. Sakura especially; at least Sasuke had the benefit of illusion-piercing eyes. Anko's presence should have been a pro, but she was fresh off of an A-Class mission herself, which had turned out to be even more challenging than the ranking would suggest. She was supposed to have at least forty-eight hours of downtime after something like that, as per regulations. Who knew what condition she was in?

But then Anko remembered one last tidbit of information. "There was one more thing." the Tokubetsu Jōnin said. "I don't know if it changes anything, but the Medic did mention one of the assailants by name: 'Unkai'."

The Sandaime's eyes widened. The Kurama clan in general had a huge chip on their collective shoulder, but Unkai took it to a different level. He went as far as to blame Konoha itself for his clan being unable to recapture their former glory, accusing other clans of conspiring against them. It reminded Hiruzen far too much of the Uchiha debacle. And now, it looked like things were going to end much the same way.

The Sandaime sighed in resignation. "As much as I don't like it, there is no alternative; I have to send you out. Kurama Unkai is an Elder of the clan, as well as its Head, and has been for years. He's a part of Konoha's infrastructure, and has knowledge of our inner workings that absolutely CANNOT be allowed to get out. Above all else, even protecting the girl they're after, Kurama Unkai must be killed."

"You expect him to be there?" Naruto asked. Who leads the charge for their own dirty work?

"Were he anyone else, I'd say no. But Unkai is the type to oversee something like this personally. He doesn't really trust others with such important matters." Sarutobi answered. "I trust you know who I'm talking about, what he looks like?" receiving a nod from both Naruto and Kakashi, Sarutobi riffled through a drawer in his desk and produced a scroll, which he presented to the masked boy. "Here's a map of the area with the location of the safehouse marked."

"Thank you. It will be done as you have instructed, Hokage-sama." Naruto said, saluting the Sandaime before looking to the team. His team. "Let's go."

(Outskirts, 3:40pm)

"Anything?" Kiba asked anxiously as he watched Hinata scan the area with her Byakugan.

"Two teams in the area, two men each. Way too close for us to move without being spotted." Hinata sighed and hunkered back down, though she kept her bloodline active. It may have been a waste of chakra she might need later, but they couldn't afford to have anyone sneak up on them.

"Dammit, don't these goons have anythin' better to do?!" Kiba growled lowly. "I'd figure traitors would wanna hightail it ASAP, but they sure are takin' their sweet-ass time!"

"That's because of us." Shino said, drawing confused looks from his teammates. "I suspect no one knows what they're up to, so they have plenty of time to do whatever it is they are out here for, then get out with a decent head start. That's the key, they need that head start. But they won't get it if we escape and alert the village. If they want to ensure their own escape, they can't let us escape."

"Then what are we supposed to do?!" Kiba hissed. "We can't move without bein' seen, and we sure as hell can't outrun 'em!"

"Then we fight." Hinata said matter-of-factly.

"...What?" Kiba blinked, not believing what he'd just heard.

"We can't run and we can't hide forever, so what other choice is there? We have to fight, and we have to be smart about it."

"Indeed." Shino nodded in agreement. "They may have numbers, but they are moving in small groups, spreading themselves thin to cover more ground. If we're quick and quiet enough, we can pick them off one-by-one."

"And take whatever we need off of 'em." Kiba added. He knew it would be far easier said than done, but any plan was better than sitting there, waiting to be found and murdered. "If these guys have gone rogue, each and every one of 'em probably came prepared for war. Weapons, equipment, medical supplies..." Kiba swallowed a lump in his throat as he looked down at Akamaru.

"Exactly. But..." Hinata trailed off, knowing what needed to be said, but not sure how to word it.

"You and Shino will have to leave me behind, I know." Kiba flashed a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "I fucked up, and this is the kind of thing that happens when you fuck up. You guys do what you gotta do, don't mind me. Besides, someone's gotta watch over sensei and Akamaru."

"And if someone finds you?" Shino asked.

Kiba's smile faltered, but didn't fade. "I think I'll still be able to give 'em a good fight. Adrenaline's awesome like that."

In that moment, Hinata wanted nothing more than to tell Shino to stay behind, but she knew neither he nor Kiba would go for that. It was either together, or not at all. She couldn't even leave a clone or two behind for support, since someone was bound to feel the chakra spike and come running.

"It won't come to that. Just stay low, stay quiet and keep your chakra suppressed. We'll be back before you know it!" Hinata flashed a smile of her own, only marginally less fake than Kiba's.

"We'll be waiting." Kiba waved as he watched his friends take to the trees to find their first target. As they left, the Inuzuka felt a strange sense of calm come over him. The anxiety and fear were still there, but for the moment they were buried under a decidedly out-of-place feeling of serenity that briefly made Kiba worry that he was caught in a Genjutsu.

But his nose didn't fail him. There was no illusion at work here. Just a shinobi resigned to whatever fate awaited him.

Now that he was taking time out to evaluate his surroundings, Kiba found the place quite peaceful. The number of hostile people in the area had driven away most of the wildlife, but the weather was great, with the sun shining through holes in the forest canopy and a nice breeze carrying all the smells of the outdoors into the boy's nose.

"...I could think of worse places to buy the farm." Kiba murmured to himself, idly stroking his unconscious pup's head.

(Meanwhile)(2)

Two boys, no older than fifteen, trekked through the forest, casually chatting away as they went. Though they wore no forehead protectors, the gear they had readily identified them as ninjas.

"Y'know, I think I'm gonna miss this. The forest, I mean." one of the boys said, stretching out his arms before resting his hands on the back of his head.

"I hear ya'." the other replied. "Earth Country's mostly flat plains and canyons when you look at a map."

They were supposed to be one of groups hunting down the Genin who'd found their clan out, but whereas everyone else knew time was of the essence, these two didn't quite get it. There was absolutely no sense of urgency. But why should there be for a team of rookies? Jinki had already proven he could take their sensei with on hand tied behind his back, and the rest of them were wet-behind-the-ears amateurs, one of whom had even injured himself attempting to use his own clan technique. The teen boys saw no reason to stress themselves out over such an incompetent, inexperienced enemy.

They were Genin themselves, but still.

"Well, at least it has more than one season. I'll finally see some snow, and you'll have a reason to wear that scarf, Kuma." the slightly taller Genin snickered, referring to the rather heavy, hand-knit scarf wrapped around the other boy's neck.

"I told you, it was a gift from my girlfriend!" Kuma huffed.

"Which makes it worse. Your girlfriend, born and raised in Konoha, gave you a scarf, knowing full well that the coldest it EVER gets around here is upper fifties. And that's only on a handful of days in the middle of 'Winter', at night. And you're walking around wearing it, even though she's not here, and you're never going to see her again."

"That's exactly why I'm wearing it; to remember her. That girl was gonna be my wife, man." Kuma sighed sorrowfully and placed a hand over his heart. If he could've, he would've asked her to come with him.

"Tch, please. You were only dating her because her sister wouldn't give you the time of day."

"...Dei, if you think us being cousins will keep me from beating you into the ground, you're wrong." Kuma warned with a growl and a glare.

"You're only mad 'cause you know it's true." Dei replied dismissively.

"Why the fuck did I have to be paired with y-!" Kuma mouth snapped shut when the sound of a twig snapping disrupted the tranquility of the forest.

"Came from over there." Dei said, all traces of the carefree attitude disappearing as he unsheathed his tantō and nodded towards a fairly dense patch of underbrush.

"Too late to pretend you're not there, and you won't make it far if you run." Kuma called out, reaching into both of his thigh pouches to grasp three shuriken each between his fingers. "Just make it easy on yourself and come outta there." when three seconds passed without so much as a rustle, Kuma smirked. "Suit yourself, pincushion!"

In the blink of an eye, all six shuriken were launched into the foliage. Kuma and Dei paused, expecting to hear either groans of agony or the sound of a panicked kid trying to run. But they heard nothing but the sound of the metal stars embedding themselves into the trunk of a tree.

"I think your aim was off." Dei snickered.

"Bullshit, I don't miss; I'm not you." Kuma snorted. "If I didn't hit anything, that just means there wasn't anything there to hit." he made to walk away, then suddenly took out his standard-issue tantō, spun around and charged the bushes. If he really had missed and there was someone hiding, a full-on assault was sure to make them panic and show themselves.

As Kuma jumped into the underbrush and disappeared from sight, Dei only shook his head. Kuma really needed to learn how to let shit go.

"You play around in the leaves all you want, I'm moving ahead." Dei said and began to walk away, only to stop when he heard what sounded like hissing. Pretty loud hissing, too. "Ah hell, don't tell me he jumped into a snake nest..." the boy grumbled to himself and turned back around to help his cousin.

He froze mid-step when Kuma reappeared, with company. He hadn't found a whole nest of snakes, just one. A very big one that had coiled itself around his body and was squeezing so hard that the boy's face was turning red. But the snake was paying no attention to the prey it had already captured. It's eyes were firmly locked onto Dei's own, as if daring him to try and do something about it.

But, before he could, another surprise guest appeared from out of the bushes: A woman with purple hair, a tan trenchcoat and a mischievous smile. And a forehead protector displaying the symbol of the Hidden Leaf.

"Hi!" the woman greeted with a small wave.

"Bye." Dei's eyes widened to almost impossible diameters as he heard a distinctly masculine voice from directly behind him.

A fraction of a second later, a clawed hand erupted from his chest in a burst of blood and gore. As the boy's jaw fell open, the hand came up and slipped two fingers into his mouth. The claws sank into and through his tongue and the soft flesh under it as the hand firmly grabbed his mandible. Then the arm violently pulled down and back out through the hole in his chest, tearing the jaw from the Kurama's head. A wide strip of skin and tissue from his neck went with it, exposing his windpipe and other assorted arteries and muscle structure to the elements.

As Dei's body crumpled to the ground, his killer was revealed. A Hunter-nin, dressed in all black, still clutching his "prize" in his blood-drenched right hand.

Naruto regarded the mandible with little interest and casually tossed it to the side as he strolled up to his prisoner. He would have a clone collect it and the rest of the head later.

"'Kuma', was it?" Naruto asked as the large python lifted its body off the ground to hold the young Kurama at eye-level with him. "Do you know why I just brutally murdered your cousin?" Kuma only stared in wide-eyed terror, trembling and gasping for air. "I did it so you would understand the situation you're in. There will be no games, no bargaining, negotiating, banter or idle threats. You either tell us what we want to know, or you'll be getting a refresher course in human anatomy when I show you what your insides look like. Understand?" when there was no immediate response on the teen's part, Naruto grabbed his jaw in his blood-soaked hand and snarled, "Am I understood?"

"Y-Y-Yes! I-I'll tell y-you wha-whatever you wa-want! Just p-please...don't kill me." Kuma whimpered, tears streaming down his cheeks.

"Be a good boy, and I won't." Naruto patted the boy on the head mockingly, noticing that it stuck to his hair when he pulled away. "Hm, I suppose I should clean up a bit." he then unwrapped Kuma's scarf from around his neck and used it as a towel to wipe the blood from his hand and forearm, placing it back around neck afterward. "Thanks."

"D-Don't m-mention it..." Kuma whimpered, struggling to hold back the bile rising in his throat from the coppery stench wafting from the damp strip of cloth.

"Well, let's get down to business, shall we? Honestly, I'm not expecting to get much out of you, seeing as how you're the bottom of the barrel. But I think you've been told enough about the plan to at least give me an idea of what's going on around here." Naruto said.

"We couldn't help but overhear your conversation earlier." Anko said. While watching Naruto work was entertaining enough on its own, she couldn't let him have all the fun. "You were talking about Earth Country, so is it safe to assume the clan's headed to Iwagakure after you're done here?"

"Y-Yeah, Iwa..." Kuma swallowed hard, silently thanking Kami that the snake had loosened its hold on him enough to make breathing less of a challenge. "Th-There's a c-contact we're supposed t-to meet, who'll t-take us there."

"Sounds counterintuitive if you want to get there as soon as possible. Middlemen always make things take longer than they really need to." Naruto commented.

"W-We don't h-have a choice...We-We'll be killed o-on sight if w-we show up without th-the contact."

"And I take it you don't know who that contact is or where you're supposed to meet." it was a statement on Anko's part, not a question. A grunt like this boy wouldn't be privy to that knowledge, he was meant to simply follow the people who were. "Okay, so why are you sticking around instead of meeting the contact now?"

"I...I d-don't really know." Kuma admitted. "S-Something about a 'loose end' that n-needs to be t-tied up."

"Ah, so you won't be able to tell us anything about this 'Yakumo' girl your clan is after." Naruto sighed.

"Y-Yakumo? But w-we disowned her..."

"Oh?"

"She w-was worthless, couldn't b-be trained at all. Our c-clan spent a lot of t-time and money on h-her, and got nothing b-back. She was k-kicked out nearly two y-years ago, haven't h-heard a word about her since."

"I see..." Naruto nodded to himself, the cogs already turning in his head. There had to be a whole hell of a lot more to the story than that. If this 'Yakumo' was really so worthless, then she could be left behind with no consequences. But he wasn't going to be getting anything else out of his prisoner, so it was time to move on and find someone of higher rank.

"How many of your fellow clansmen are in on this?" Anko asked.

"E-Everyone." Kuma knew he should've felt some kind of shame for squealing like he was, but fuck the clan; he wanted to live, dammit! "O-Only the civilians don't know."

"Well, isn't that nice of you guys?" Anko cooed, playfully pinching Kuma's left cheek. "Keeping the civvies out of the loop so they wouldn't be charged with treason and executed when you left them behind."

Actually, it was because no one trusted any of the civilians not to blab about it and ruin everything. Not to mention they were far more vulnerable to information probing and/or outright interrogation by other ninjas who got suspicious. But if his captors wanted to think it was out of some kind of noble reasoning, he wasn't about to correct them.

"Actually, I would think they didn't tell the civilians because they can't be trusted to keep their mouths shut, either on their own or when being questioned." Naruto opined.

'Goddammit!' Kuma mentally cursed.

"Yeah, that sounds more like it." Anko nodded in agreement. "Though, if that's the case, I don't know why they would've told you, since you aren't much better at holding up under pressure." she snickered while flicking the boy's nose with enough force to make him yelp.

"Last question. What were you two doing all the way out here? The safehouse is some two miles in the opposite direction." Naruto leaned in slightly. "While I'm certainly not convinced that you're too smart to be lost and wandering aimlessly, I think you were out here on orders to look for something or someone. Care to tell us what you were hunting while we were hunting you?"

"A Genin team and their sensei." Kuma had finally stopped stuttering, feeling that he might actually get out of this alive for his cooperation. "They showed up outta the blue and got into a fight with Jinki. They managed to get away, but just barely. Jinki kicked the shit out of the sensei, and one of the Genin botched his own technique and hurt himself."

Both Naruto and Anko frowned at that. If there was one ninja from the Kurama clan who truly stood out, it was Jinki Kurama. He was one of the stronger Jōnin in Konoha's ranks. Not quite up to, say, Kakashi's level, but his confirmed presence made their mission a lot more dangerous.

"Looks like this has turned into a rescue mission, as well." Naruto sighed. "Could you describe this team for us? It would help to know who we're looking for. Or whose family to contact if we're too late."

"I wasn't told much. All I know is the team is made up of two boys and a girl; an Inuzuka, an Aburame and a Hyūga." Kuma answered.

Naruto and Anko froze. Team Eight? Like they didn't have enough to deal with already...

"That will be all. Thank you for your time." Naruto gave a nod Anko before walking off in the direction he felt the rest of his team's chakra. This new information changed everything and called for a new gameplan.

"Your cooperation has been much appreciated!" Anko beamed.

"You're welcome." Kuma allowed himself a small smile in return.

Anko's grin widened. "And to show our appreciation, I won't have Uwabami-chan, here, eat you alive!" she stroked the python's chin lovingly.

Kuma sighed in relief. "Thank y-"

"She's still gonna eat you, you'll just be dead."

"Wha-!" the huge snake struck, clamping its mouth over Kuma's face. He screamed in pain and terror as two-hundred hook-like teeth pierced his flesh down to the bone. Keeping his head stationary, the python twisted its body, spinning Kuma's own a full one-hundred and eighty degrees, snapping his neck like a dry twig.

Quick, relatively painless, and better than a traitor deserved, but he did make their jobs so much easier than usual.

Leaving the summon to its meal, Anko quickly caught up with Naruto and the "psycho mask" she used on the job dropped, revealing an expression bordering on panic.

"Naruto, you're going back to the Kakashi and the brats, right?" she asked.

Naruto nodded. "The presence of Team Eight changes everything. We need a new gameplan." though he was as concerned for his friend and student as Anko, he knew that losing his cool wouldn't help anyone. He had to keep a level head, be smart about his courses of action, and trust Hinata to keep herself and her teammates alive by putting what she'd been taught to use.

"I...I can't go. I have to look for her." Anko said.

"What?" Naruto blinked in confusion behind his mask. "I understand you're worried; I am, too. But-"

"No, you don't understand..." Anko cut Naruto off with a sigh. "I'll bet anything she's out here because of me. I bumped into her earlier and gave her some shitty advice that she took to heart. Kurenai must have come up here for whatever reason, and Hinata followed her. That's on me. So if she gets hurt, or worse, that's on me, too." she explained, her eyes pleading.

Naruto quickly weighed the pros and cons of allowing Anko to go off on her own. She was a phenomenal tracker and was sure to find Team Eight. Plus, she was stealthy enough to avoid detection, strong enough to take down any Kurama, barring Jinki, if she crossed paths with the enemy, and crafty enough to escape if she had to.

However, they were heavily outnumbered in the first place, and sending someone off by themselves was a terrible idea, no matter how capable they were. If the main group ran into trouble, they might need her, if only to help keep the "less qualified" amongst them safe. And if she ran into trouble, the group might be too far away to provide back-up in a timely manner. Then there was the fact that, as far as Naruto knew, Anko didn't have much in the way of methods to counter Genjutsu. There were still the usual options of physical pain, strong smells and whatnot, but she didn't have the luxury of special eyes or the ability to simply overwhelm Genjutsu with raw power.

In the end, Naruto decided to trust Anko to be able to take care of herself. "...Alright." he relented. "Just...be careful. And when you find them, get them back to Konoha."

"You're really getting into this leader thing, aintcha?" Anko said with a wry smirk.

"Get going, before I change my mind." Naruto snorted, then took off towards the safehouse to the Northeast.

"Yes, sir." Anko giggled, then went through a set of handseals for the "Forked Tongue" technique. Invented by Anko herself, though based on Orochimaru's extensive notes on techniques revolving around body modification.

It was one of those techniques that did what it said on the box, turning a normal human tongue into the long, slender, two-pronged one of a serpent. It also increased the sensitivity of the vomeronasal organ in the roof of the mouth several times over. This allowed a human to gather and analyze scents in the same way as a snake, which also enabled them to determine the direction of the scent by which fork of the tongue was most heavily saturated with particles.

There. It was faint, but Anko could still detect the scent of a canine on the wind coming from the Northwest. It was hard to tell from such a small trace, but, in her mind, it was identical to the scent of the ningen belonging to Hinata's Inuzuka teammate. A familiar scent, since it always clung to the girl when she met up with her unofficial senseis after team training exercises. However, this time it was tinged with something even more familiar: Blood.

'No, no, no, no!' the desperate mantra repeated in Anko's mind as she raced through the trees.

(3:50pm)

Hidden in the forest canopy some thirty feet above the ground, Hinata and Shino stalked their chosen prey. A team of two, a man in his mid thirties and a boy no older than the members of Team Eight. Judging from his chakra reserves and flak jacket, the man was a Chūnin, but he certainly didn't act the part. The boy at his side refused to shut up, talking a mile a minute about nothing, announcing their presence to any and everything in the area, and the man just let it happen. He was running low on patience, if his facial expression was anything to go by, but made no effort to make the boy quiet down.

Apparently, neither of them took their jobs or the current situation seriously, and it would be their undoing.

With but a single shared glance, Hinata and Shino reaffirmed their plan and their resolve to carry it out. It was time to get their hands dirty. They couldn't afford to leave an enemy alive; if they were going to attack, it was going to be quick, clean, quiet and lethal.

And when they sprung into action, all four requirements were met. Shino's kikaichū beetles descended upon the two Kuramas in two relatively small clouds, settling over their heads. Blinded, deafened and choking on the bugs literally crawling down their throats, the two males panicked, uselessly swiping and clawing at the insects. Their struggles were ended by two daggers plunging into the backs of their skulls up to the hilts.

As their bodies went limp and fell to the ground, they took the wielder of the blades with them. The weapons were stuck; Hinata had put too much power behind the simultaneous killing blows. As she got back to her feet and tugged her daggers out, she realized something that terrified her. She felt nothing. First kills were supposed to be significant, often traumatizing events, and hers had been a twofer, yet...nothing. No shock, no joy, no repulsion, no remorse. No, "Oh my God, what have I done?!", but more along the lines of, "Huh...Well, that happened". If anything, she just felt embarrassed that she'd fallen over like that and Shino had seen it.

This lack of regret and/or disgust made her recall the mission Kurenai had contracted Naruto to join her team on. Hinata had seen him obliterate dozens of men and drench the ground in blood. Hell, she saw him eat one of them right in front of her and hadn't even flinched. In fact, now that she thought about it, Hinata remembered being somewhat mad at Naruto for not leaving anyone for her and her team to fight.

Was this a side-effect of the demon blood in her system? Were humans becoming "lesser beings" in her eyes or something?

"It's alright, Hinata." Shino said, interpreting her distress as the reaction to her first kill. "It's them or us out here, there's no room for hesitation or regret. As traitors, they're dead men walking anyway."

"...Easy for you to say..." Hinata mumbled before taking a deep, calming breath and setting about looting the body of the Chūnin.

"...I'll take the next ones." Shino replied, then unclipped the thigh pouch from the other corpse and nodding in satisfaction when he found it stuffed with useful items. Three kunai, six shuriken, two spools of ninja wire and five smoke bombs.

At least something was going well today.

(Meanwhile)

'Hm, so that's the safehouse.' Kakashi thought as he looked at the structure through a pair of small binoculars. It was pretty nice for a cabin built in the middle of a forest, miles away from any trail, but still had a "homely" air about it. Well, it would have, if not for the two corpses out front, an ANBU and a Medic judging from the uniforms. 'Shit.'

"Kakashi-sensei, what's wrong?" Sakura whispered, wondering why they were hiding in a dense thicket over a hundred yards from the safehouse, when there was no one around to hide from. The Kurama were after whoever was in there, right? So shouldn't they be making sure the traitors hadn't gotten to their target yet? Not that Sakura was particularly eager to engage the enemy, especially with Naruto's words still going through her head.

On the way over, he had told both her and Sasuke that, when they encountered the enemy, they would have to be ready to kill. These people were traitors who had attacked, and possibly killed, fellow Konoha ninjas, and were planning to assassinate a Konoha citizen. If they got captured, all that awaited them was interrogation and eventual execution. They couldn't afford to be taken alive, so they would fight tooth and nail against any opposition and wouldn't hesitate to take a life if it meant saving their own. Not to mention the fact that there were a lot of Jōnin, Chūnin and older Genin who had no qualms about killing in the first place.

Kill or be killed. The only way to avoid it was to avoid fighting, and that wasn't an option.

"Nothing's wrong, except that nothing's wrong." Kakashi replied just as quietly. "Their target is supposed to be in there, and they've obviously already hit the place, but the Kurama are still here."

"Which means they haven't gotten what they came for yet." Sasuke said, catching onto Kakashi's line of thought.

The Jōnin nodded. "But why? From what I know of your typical safehouse, I'm willing to bet anything that this one is loaded with seals to keep intruders out. This would include a powerful barrier seal, to keep people, objects and Ninjutsu at bay. I'm also willing to bet one of those two dead Konoha-nin out there activated that barrier before they were killed. The Kurama would have to get by that before they could even think of getting to that Yakumo girl. By all rights, there should at least be one person here working on the barrier, yet the closest chakra signature I can sense is nearly half a mile away and moving further out." he explained, though he was mostly just thinking out loud.

"But just because you can't sense anyone, doesn't mean nobody's there." Sasuke rubbed his face, frowning when he felt wetness on his fingertips.

No matter how he tried to convince himself he was ready for this, he couldn't shake the nervousness. Not about the thought of killing; he was no stranger to death and carnage. He was sweating because this would be the first real test of the power and skills he'd gained since Team Seven's last true mission. His performance here would show whether or not he'd come as far as he thought. Sasuke had no shortage of self-confidence, but he couldn't silence the little voice in the back of his mind, whispering "what ifs". And he couldn't help but listen to it, because if he wasn't up to snuff, he was as good as dead.

"Which is why we're hanging back. But right now, I'm more interested in why they're all so spread out like this. What, or who, are they looking for?" Kakashi hummed thoughtfully.

"Maybe they did get through the barrier, and the girl ran when the safehouse was compromised?" Sakura suggested.

"That's my best guess as well. I can't see them devoting so much time and manpower to anything else." Kakashi nodded in agreement, snapping his head up when a series of three whistles, two low and one high, sounded from behind them, on the other side of the thicket.

Kakashi responded with two whistles of his own, one high, one low. A second later, Naruto stepped through the foliage.

"We've got a problem." the masked boy said. "It isn't the girl they're looking for; it's Team Eight and their sensei."

"...Please tell me you're joking." Kakashi groaned.

"Afraid not. Anko and I captured and interrogated a Kurama a few minutes ago. He was just a Genin, so he didn't know much, but he did know that he and the others are out looking for a Genin team consisting of a Hyūga, an Aburame and an Inuzuka, as well as their female sensei. He also said that the sensei had already been knocked out, and the Inuzuka is injured."

"This just keeps getting better." Kakashi grumbled, then finally took note of the fact that Naruto had come back alone. "Where's Mitarashi?"

"Tracking Team Eight down for extraction. I didn't want to let her go alone, but we need to get them out of here and she will find them quicker than either of us could."

Kakashi didn't like the thought of anyone going off on their own in a situation like this, but he couldn't argue with the logic behind the decision.

"So we need a new strategy...and I take it you have one."

Naruto nodded. "While Anko is looking for Team Eight, I want you to get into the safehouse and extract the girl."

"And you?"

"I'm going to provide a distraction so you won't be bothered by any unwelcome guests while you work." the rest of Team Seven got the distinct impression that there was a malicious grin hidden behind the mask.

"You're not planning to..." Kakashi trailed off, realizing how dumb a question that was. Of course that's what Naruto was planning.

"Mm-hm. I'm going to announce myself and bring the whole clan down on my head. Draw them in, then wipe them out." were he on less of a time crunch, Naruto would've had fun stalking through the forest and picking the Kurama off one by one. But time was of the essence, and getting them all in the same place so he could kill them in one go was the most efficient method.

And it would still be just as entertaining.

"What about Kurama Unkai?" Kakashi questioned.

"You might have to take care of him yourself, if he's actually here." Naruto replied. "He really wants that girl dead, that much is obvious. Once I make myself known, I highly doubt he'll come for me along with the others. My guess, he'll go straight for the safehouse once he knows someone else is out here and onto their little operation."

"And if he brings backup with him?" Kakashi was already sold on the plan, since it was better than anything else he was able to think of on such short notice. But he wanted to know how far Naruto had thought ahead and what eventualities he was prepared for.

"You've got your own, don't you? You can spare a bit of chakra for a couple clones, and from what I saw back in Wave Country, those dogs of yours can go a long way in tipping the balance if you find yourself outnumbered."

Kakashi nodded, that was about as much as he could expect, given the circumstances.

"When you 'announce yourself', we'll move in. If there's anyone hiding around here, hopefully that will draw them out as well."

"That's the idea." Naruto then turned to his teammates. "And just because Hatake-san can take care of himself, doesn't mean you two get to slack off. Be ready to defend yourselves or help out when you see an opportunity. And if he gets tied up, it may be up to you to get the girl out safely."

"We'll be ready." Sasuke answered firmly.

"You'd better be, for your sake." Naruto would believe it when he saw it.

It was easy to talk a big game when nothing was happening, but there was no telling how a person would react when they found themselves in the thick of it. Naruto wasn't expecting either of them to freeze up or anything, but even a split second of hesitation could spell disaster in a life-or-death fight.

And with that, Naruto disappeared back through the thicket.

When he left, Kakashi went back to surveying the area around the safehouse through the binoculars. His focus kept getting drawn back to the pair of bodies. He was certainly no stranger to seeing fallen comrades, but the sight of those corpses brought forth a very disconcerting revelation. The Watcher would be here, if he wasn't already. If he had shown up for a mere sparring match, then he would most certainly make an appearance when the fighting started. Though Kakashi held out some hope that the Watcher would be distracted by Naruto's upcoming bloodbath. Plenty of fresh souls to play with.

Even so, Kakashi checked his vest pockets to make sure his "charms" were still there.(3)

(3:53pm)

"Where the fuck are they?!" Jinki fumed as he paced back and forth in a small clearing he occupied along with the four other Kuramas who'd had their chakra drained by the Aburame brat. They were still a bit woozy, but the slow-release Soldier Pills were doing their job.

He had been tracking the Genin via the drops of blood left behind by the wounded dog, but that trail had quickly gone cold. He suspected it had been leading him in the wrong direction, too. If nothing else, these kids were smart, and it pissed Jinki off to no end. A bunch of children were making a fool out of him! Out of his whole clan!

Three more of his fellow clansmen, a Jōnin and two Chūnin, entered the clearing.

"We can't so much as pick up a trail, Jinki." the Jōnin said.

"Fuck!" Jinki hissed as two more Chūnin showed up. "And you?" he asked, turning to the newcomers.

"Nothing." the older of the two shook his head.

Jinki gave a roar of frustration and lashed out at a nearby tree with his fist, splintering the bark and leaving an imprint of his knuckles in the wood underneath.

"This is a waste of time." a female Chūnin said. "If we'd just done what we came here to do, instead of chasing after that Medic, and now after these kids, we could've been on our way to the meeting point by now."

"With ANBU and Hunters on our heels the whole way." a deep, aged voice added as a relatively short man, looking to be in his late fifties to early sixties, stepped into the clearing.

"Unkai-sama." Jinki acknowledged as he stopped pacing and stood up straighter, an action mimicked by every other Kurama around him.

"No one can know of what we are doing out here. It will take a full day, at minimum, to reach the meeting point, and if we show up with Konoha ninjas on our tail, do you think the contact will show himself? We need as much of a lead as possible, but if word gets to Konoha, we won't have one at all." Unkai explained. "That's why the Medic had to be killed, and that's why these newest uninvited guests need to be dealt with."

"Um..." one of the Chūnin started, appearing to shrink in on himself when everyone's attention turned to him. "A-About that Medic..." he coughed into his fist before continuing. "We didn't...actually kill him...per se."

"...What?" Unkai's expression was unreadable, but his eyes took on a kind of hard edge that spoke volumes.

"We, uh, kinda...lost track of him." the Chūnin rubbed the back of his head. "But he didn't get away unscathed, no sir! I got him good before he ran. From the way he was bleeding, I know I cut something important. I'll bet anything that he's somewhere out here, propped up against a tree, looking like a vampire got to him." he said with a self-satisfied grin.

"Oh, my God, you complete fucking retard." Jinki said, looking genuinely astonished at the other man's stupidity.

"What?"

"He was a MEDIC! If anyone could survive a wound like that, it would be a Medic! Blood loss is one of the very first things they're trained to deal with!" Jinki started pacing again.

"No way he could-"

"Fucking hell, have you ever heard of a Blood Pill?! How about a little Medical Ninjutsu called the Tourniquet Technique? Cauterizing? There's any number of things he could've done to at least buy himself enough time to find help!"

"B-But-" this time, the Chūnin was cut off in a far more literal sense, courtesy of a furious Unkai.

The elder Kurama didn't bat an eyelash as the now headless body of one of his own nephews fell to the ground. He had no tolerance for such incompetence, even at the best of times, so extreme measures weren't entirely unexpected in such a dire situation.

"...Does anyone else have any monumental failures to share with the group?" Unkai ground out.

A second later, everyone tensed as they felt a chakra pulse East of their position. It wasn't a signature that any of them recognized.

"Finally got desperate enough to try and signal for help." Jinki smirked. "Heh, I knew those brats would slip up eventually."

"Assuming it's them and not someone else." Unkai scowled. His plan, so carefully constructed over ten long years, was unraveling in mere minutes, all thanks to the ineptitude of one of his own.

"What should we do?" Jinki asked.

"You're coming with me, we're going after It. Everyone else will go for whoever sent out that distress signal." Unkai ordered.

"You heard him, get going." Jinki said to the other Kurama, who were gone before he even finished. He then pressed the button on the earpiece to his wireless radio. "All teams, converge on the chakra spike. Repeat, all teams, converge on the spike."

(Meanwhile)

"This one packed light." Hinata sighed as she finished checking the last pocket in the fallen Chūnin's flak vest. "Two kunai, five Shuriken and three ration bars." and involuntary shudder ran through her body as she mentioned those last items.

"Much the same here." Shino said. "Three kunai, four shuriken and one Soldier Pill."

True to his word, Shino had killed the next team of their would-be killers, identified as part of the Kurama clan when Shino recognized the crest on the tantō he'd taken from his and Hinata's first "victims". Thankfully, despite the targets being Chūnin, they hadn't thought much of hunting a bunch of Genin and let their guard down. Easy kills, and though they were his first, Shino felt next to nothing when he allowed his bugs to drain them dry. He was an Aburame, and for him it was all a matter of logic and pragmatism. These people were traitors, out to kill him and his friends. They deserved no pity or mercy, nor could he afford to give it.

Hinata took some small comfort in the fact that she wasn't the only one not freaking out over their first kills. Maybe it wasn't that she was seeing humans as some kind of lower life form not worth fretting over. Maybe it was just the fact that they were unrepentant criminals trying to hunt her and her friends down like animals. Why should she feel anything for them? Same with the bandits a month ago. They were nothing but a roving band of psychopathic murderers and slave traders. The world was a better place without them.

Though it was still clear the demon blood in her veins was altering her mind, at least she wasn't losing it.

"Do you think we've got enough to head back?" Hinata asked, securing the fallen Chūnin's equipment pouch to her left thigh.

"Enough to effectively defend ourselves if we run into trouble. But we still haven't found anything of a medical nature." Shino answered.

So far, the assumption that each and every rogue would be adequately prepared for a major battle hadn't quite panned out. To Shino, that meant they had mobilized on short notice. They saw an opportunity and struck while the iron was hot, probably leaving those less "in the know", like Genin and lower-tier Chūnin, with just minutes to scrounge up whatever they could before moving out. That's the only reason the Aburame heir could think of for there not being even one basic field dressing kit between the four enemies he and Hinata had taken down. Assuming, of course, they weren't just plain incompetent.

"You're right." Hinata sighed. "On to the next ones, the-!" she stopped short when she felt a chakra spike in the distance; a universal call for help amongst ninjas. Hinata's heart fluttered and a grin found its way onto her face. She recognized that signature! "Naruto-sama!" she all but squealed and made to take off.

But before she could get too far, a firm hand on her shoulder halted her.

Filing away Hinata's odd choice of honorific, Shino shook his head when she turned to look at him in confusion.

"While I am just as relieved by Naruto-san's presence as you, I don't think we will want to be anywhere near him in the next few minutes. In fact, we should be looking for a place to hide." the Aburame said.

"What? Why?"

"This is Naruto-san we're talking about; that wasn't a distress call, it was bait. And I suspect that every rogue in this forest will be coming for him soon, like moths to a flame. Some of them will likely come through this area, so I suggest we find somewhere to hide these bodies, as well as ourselves."

It all clicked immediately in Hinata's brain and she nodded in agreement. "Right, right...So, uh, do we bury them, or something?" she asked, scratching her head while looking at the corpses. Last time, there had been a convenient rotting log to stuff the bodies under. But now there was no such luck.

"Not enough time. I saw a dead tree three-hundred yards back the way we came. There were clear signs of termite damage; Western Red Termites, I think. If I'm right, then that entire tree should be hollowed out. We can hide the bodies in there." Shino answered.

Both he and Hinata nearly jumped out of their skins when the wireless radio one of the dead Chūnin carried suddenly crackled to life. They had been so focused on pockets and pouches that they hadn't even noticed the earpiece or the collar.

"All teams, converge on the chakra spike. Repeat, all teams, converge on the spike." it sounded like that Jōnin who'd done a number on Kurenai earlier.

"Let's get a move on." Shino said, quickly relieving the corpse of the radio before picking the body up and hoisting it onto his shoulder with a grunt of exertion.

Hinata nodded and picked up the second body. Both men were around the same size, weighing around a hundred and ninety pounds. But where it had taken some doing for Shino to get the dead weight up off the ground, Hinata did it in a single, fluid motion, without so much as a huff.

Shino said nothing, filing the sight away with all the other instances of Hinata's abnormal behavior he had witnessed. He didn't have time to dwell on it right now.

Hinata had no idea of her teammates thoughts, practically skipping as she followed him to the dead tree. All she could think about was Naruto coming to her rescue, seemingly appearing out of thin air to pull her and her friends out of the fire. Oh, she couldn't wait to tell him about her first kills!

(With Kiba)

Kiba's eyes snapped open at the sound of rustling foliage. He had no idea when or for how long, but at some point he had dozed off. Quickly taking stock of his surroundings, he found that nothing had changed. Akamaru was still cradled in his arms, breathing raggedly, but still breathing, and Kurenai was still out cold. But someone was coming, and it wasn't Hinata or Shino; they would've done something to announce themselves by now.

'Fuck!' the Inuzuka cursed mentally. It looked like he would have to fight afterall.

With great care, he deposited Akamaru on the ground, a sob nearly breaking free from his throat at the pup's unconscious whimper. He then crawled along the forest floor on his belly and slipped under a large bush, using the sounds of the approaching person to mask his own. It may not have been his teammates, but fortunately whoever it was had no idea how close he/she was to the hiding spot.

Or they did, and were intentionally making so much noise as a distraction...

'Don't panic, just breathe. Calm down and focus.' Kiba told himself, falling back on the advice given to him by his mother. In situations like this, it was easy for a ninja to become their own worst enemy. Once their minds started going down certain paths, they'd quickly psych themselves out and go into full-blown panic mode if they couldn't rein their thoughts in.

For the longest minute of his life, Kiba laid prone on the ground, motionless save for his darting eyes. Then, out of the underbrush right in front of him, a pair of feet. He couldn't see anything above the person's knees, so he didn't know if they had a vest, but the wrapped shins and dark blue pants were just as much a part of the standard Chūnin/Jōnin uniform. That made things a lot more dangerous, but Kiba still had the element of surprise on his side.

And though he couldn't see much of the enemy, he could see enough to tell it was a woman. The small, dainty feet and toes, the pedicured toenails, and the angle and placement of the feet. This was confirmed when the woman spoke.

"Ugh, I knew I should've gone with the bun!" the woman groaned. "I'm gonna be picking leaves and twigs outta my hair for hours!"

Kiba almost smiled at his luck. Whatever her rank, she wasn't taking this seriously, and that would make taking her by surprise that much easier.

Then, as if some malevolent higher power had been listening in on the boy's thoughts, the wind shifted. The woman immediately stopped fiddling with her hair and took a whiff of the air, catching the familiar scent of blood. It was close, incredibly so. As in, within twenty feet of her current position.

Panic began to set in again for Kiba as he saw the woman's stance change and she began to slowly make her way towards him. He involuntarily flinched at the sound of a blade being drawn from its sheath. She was on high-alert now, and that meant he was as good as dead. Even though he was sure to at least startle her with a sudden attack, there was no way he'd be able to get in a killing blow before she ended him.

'...Fuck it. Said I'd go out fightin', didn't I?' the Inuzuka heir steeled himself, even as a tear slid down his cheek. Such was the Inuzuka way.

But that higher power must have decided to take pity on the poor kid, because just as the woman got within two feet of the bush Kiba was under, there was a sudden pulse of chakra in the distance. The woman tensed and whirled in the direction it came from. But Kiba paid no attention to it. All he saw was an opportunity, and he took it.

It was over in less than two seconds. Kiba's hand shot out and latched onto the woman's right ankle. He pulled with everything he had, ripping her off her feet as she released a sharp yelp. When she hit the ground, he threw himself onto her back, where she wouldn't be able to stab him somewhere vital. He grabbed a handful of the woman's long hair in his left hand and wrenched her head back, exposing her throat. Before the older ninja could even cry out, the inch-long claws of her assailant's right hand raked across her neck, tearing through flesh and muscle as if it were wet paper.

Blood poured forth in streams from the severed carotid and jugular, then in a forceful spray as the woman began to cough and hack. Her weapon lay forgotten at her side as her hands struggled desperately to staunch the bleeding. An exercise in futility.

Kiba rolled off of his writhing victim and got to his feet, his left hand flying to the small of his back to make sure he hadn't been stabbed when a sharp pain erupted along his spine. When the hand came away blood-free, Kiba finally began to calm down, though it didn't last long once he had time to process what he'd just done. He took a look at his other hand, far from blood-free and shaking like a leaf.

"Oh, God..." Kiba wheezed, already feeling the bile rising up in the back of his throat. That mission with Naruto was supposed to have helped them deal with death, so they wouldn't freeze up. But seeing death, no matter how violent, and dealing it out yourself were two very different things.

At least he'd managed to keep his lunch down this time, though just barely.

A low gurgling noise brought Kiba's attention back to his first kill. This wasn't a movie, where people took all of five seconds to bleed out after having their throat cut. The woman still had some life left in her, though thankfully not enough to launch an attack. Now that Kiba had the opportunity to really look at her, he saw that she did, indeed, have a Konoha flak vest, which gave him a bit of a morale boost. He also found that she was quite pretty, on par with Kurenai, though this woman had a more "delicate" appearance and looked to be a good deal younger. Heart-shaped face, button-like nose, flawless skin and long, luscious black hair, which, thankfully, was covering up the ragged hole in her neck.

But it was her eyes that made Kiba's heart skip a beat. Those hazel eyes, that he normally would've found beautiful, were glaring rusty, poison-coated daggers at her killer. At him. There was no sense of pleading, fear or acceptance; just pure hatred. Kiba wanted to run, wanted to say he was sorry and beg for forgiveness, he even thought of finishing the job just so he wouldn't have to be subjected to that terrifying gaze. But he was rooted to his spot, intimidated into inaction by a woman who would be a corpse in less than a minute.

But seconds were all she needed. She may have been all but drained of blood, but she still had plenty of chakra, and enough presence of mind to use it for a measure of revenge in her final act.

'It's not fair...' Seiya Kurama thought, which was becoming increasingly difficult as she lost more and more blood.

She had just made Jōnin two months ago, finally doing her former sensei and the rest of her family proud, and getting her chance to do her part in putting the Kurama clan back on the map. After a decade of busting her ass, things were looking up...And now it was all over. After just twenty-four years, her story was finished. An impromptu final chapter written by a nobody; a goddamn child, probably fresh out of the Academy. No great battle, no worthy opponent, no noble sacrifice, no glory whatsoever. She was going to die out in the middle of nowhere, face down in the dirt, quite literally at the hands of a fucking kid. And it wasn't even one of those prodigies, like the Uchiha or that girly-looking Hyūga boy. She didn't even need killing intent to have him nearly pissing his pants!

It wasn't fair...and it would not go unpunished.

With the boy scared stiff and unable to break eye-contact, Seiya performed what would have become her signature technique if she had lived at least a few more years. Something three years in the making. A particularly potent self-sustaining Genjutsu that required eye-contact and could be done with half-seals; more or less the result of her attempt at bastardizing the Tsukuyomi, made infamous by Itachi Uchiha. Many Kurama had tried to make something similar, but Seiya was one of the few who had succeeded.

'If I can't kill you, then I'll make you wish I had. Have fun, you son of a bitch...' her technique completed, Seiya closed her eyes and released her final breath, a wet wheeze accompanied by one last spurt of crimson mist.

Kiba, the poor bastard, never knew what hit him. Literally, he never felt the Genjutsu take hold, nor did his superhuman senses detect that anything was amiss. Such was the masterpiece of mental manipulation Seiya Kurama had created; a perfect blend of subtlety and power.

When she finally went limp, Kiba collapsed to his knees and released the breath he'd been unknowingly holding in an explosive sigh of relief. For a second, he thought she was going to get up and come after him!

But his relief was short-lived. The sound of rustling leaves reached his ears again, this time accompanied by a hissing growl that made the hairs on the back of Kiba's neck stand up. His eyes darted to the patch of bushes he'd been hiding under not even a minute ago.

"Aw, now what?" the Inuzuka groaned as he stood up and took out his "just in case" kunai. He just couldn't catch a break today.

(With Naruto)

Underneath his mask, Naruto sported a smile he couldn't wipe off if he tried. Not that he wanted to; he had every reason to smile right now, as far as he was concerned.

He could feel them out there, twenty, at least, getting closer with every second. Twenty victims. Twenty skulls to take back home. That's all they were to him. They weren't opponents, and what was about to happen wasn't going to be a fight. It would be genocide.

When they came, they would be looking for a desperate, helpless child. But they would only find an ambush. They would look for attack patterns and strategies, but they would only find chaos. That was how Kyuubi had trained Naruto to take on groups of organized, experienced and high-powered enemies. Catch them off-guard and keep them off-guard. Control the flow of battle by making sure there was none, never letting them get their bearings and settle into a rhythm. Descend upon them as a whirling dervish of carnage, drive them apart and pick them off one by one while they were still trying to process what the hell was going on.

Honestly, Naruto felt it was overkill, and not really in a good way. Though the latest generation of the Kurama clan was full of more well-rounded ninjas, Genjutsu was still the main weapon in their arsenal. Without it, they were smallfry, with only a couple of exceptions.

In Naruto's professional opinion, there was no need for a platoon of fifty clones. He wasn't entertaining the thought of taking them all on by himself, though he had no doubt that he could, but a maximum of maybe fifteen clones sounded more reasonable to him. But it didn't really matter what he thought. He'd just managed to get himself back into Kyuubi's good graces, and he wasn't about to risk putting himself in the dog house again. He would adhere to what he'd been taught, which was to ensure that he outnumbered his enemies at least two-to-one in situations like this. Besides, it wasn't like he wouldn't be having fun. He could do all the killing himself, with the clones running distractions and wearing victims down with hit-and-run tactics.

A lazy way of doing things, as several of his clones had muttered under their breaths when he sent them out, but it was the proper way. So, Naruto and his clones waited, silent and motionless in their hiding places.

Fortunately, they didn't have to wait much longer. Just under a minute after the "dinner bell" was rung, the first Kurama, a male in standard Chūnin/Jōnin garb, entered the "Ring of Death". Within seconds he was joined by four more men, appearing from the cardinal directions, all sporting green flak jackets.

They had all come in with hardened expressions and weapons drawn, ready to kill. But instead of a target, they found a small, empty clearing.

Taunt muscles slackened, guards dropped and faces became masks of confusion and frustration. That was the cue. The wait was over and the frenzy began.

The clones came in low, launching out of the undergrowth as little more than black and white blurs. Femurs were broken, kneecaps shattered and hamstrings severed. In no more than a second, all five Kuramas were on the ground, wailing in agony.

One tried to reach for his tantō, which he'd dropped when instinctively clutching at his broken right leg. His fingertips were just an inch away from the blade when something slammed down onto his right scapula with tremendous force, crushing the bone and destroying the ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder.

Naruto had now entered the fray himself, pinning the older male to the ground with a boot on his back. As the Kurama screamed, the nails of Naruto's right hand grew into claws and he plunged four of them deep into the man's eyes. Then, after getting a firm grip, ignoring his victim's struggles and high-pitched shrieks, Naruto pulled up and back violently, ripping the man's head in half.

The hanyou was quite impressed with himself; he didn't think he'd be able to get the whole cranium off intact.

While Naruto was admiring his handiwork, his clones were amusing themselves by knocking the remaining cripples around like piñatas. They broke bones, knocked out teeth and left gashes in the bodies of their victims, but not once did they go for a killing blow. That was their creator's job; they were there to wound and disorient the prey, so the Boss could finish them off at his leisure. But it was somewhat challenging to keep from inflicting any serious injuries. As with all wounded animals, the surviving Kuramas were a feisty bunch. One in particular just would not stay down, getting up on his one good leg time and again.

If nothing else, one had to admire his tenacity. Unfortunately, it meant nothing in the end. When the man got up one more time, he was brutally hip-checked into a tree, where two clones quickly grabbed his arms, jerked them out of their sockets and held them back against the trunk.

The Kurama Chūnin's pained yelp turned into an explosive wheeze as Naruto buried a fist into his gut. The first of over three-hundred and fifty powerful and precise punches delivered to the torso, all in the span of roughly five seconds, pulverizing ribs into powder and virtually liquefying internal organs. If not for the jacket, one would have seen the dead Kurama's gut swelling out grotesquely as the "soup" settled and pooled.

Time slowed for Naruto as he stepped back from his kill, watching the corpse flop to the ground when the clones let go. He looked at himself, seeing that he was spattered with blood, no doubt forced up and out of his victim's mouth. He hadn't even noticed when it happened. All he could think about, all that mattered, was the kill. While fighting a worthy opponent was what Naruto really pined for, lording his power over such weaklings...

He was brought back to the mission to Wave Country, and the bridge that had been turned into a slaughterhouse. The sounds and sensations. The screams and the blood. The pleasure of feeling those laughably fragile bodies bending, twisting, ripping and breaking so easily under his strength. Those pathetic vermin were beneath him in every way, so much so, that even killing them should have felt like a chore, a waste of time and effort, minimal though it was. Like the sparring matches back in the Academy. And yet, he couldn't recall a single moment in which he'd felt more powerful, more alive. The only thing that compared was a "spar" with Kyuubi, but that was an entirely different kind of rush.

However, even that didn't really measure up to what Naruto was feeling now. Though his Mindscape battles with Kyuubi got his blood pumping in ways few other things could match, the knowledge that he could never really win put something of a damper on the experience. Even when it seemed he had her on the ropes, Naruto held no delusions; Kyuubi was bringing herself down to his level for the sake of teaching him and evaluating his capabilities. Waaay down. If/When she so chose, she could annihilate him in a million ways before he ever saw it coming.

But moments like this gave Naruto a taste of what it was like to be on the other side. To be the one with ALL the power, deciding his opponent's fate on a whim…To say it was intoxicating would be an understatement. It wasn't just fun, it was downright euphoric!

Looking towards the kill zone, Naruto saw that more Kuramas had arrived. They rushed in with battle cries and weapons raised, trying to be heroes and save their family members, only to be swept up in the storm themselves. Just as Naruto had hoped. Under normal circumstances, it would've been imperative to wait until all targets were accounted for before springing the trap, as any who arrived after the fact would turn tail and run. But this wasn't just a team of ninjas from the same village; this was a clan. A family. Naruto was counting on their loyalty and affection for one another to override individual self-preservation instincts and training, making them stand their ground and fight a battle they had no hope of winning. A gamble on Naruto's part, though it wasn't like he couldn't catch them if they did run, but it paid off.

Naruto's entire being all but vibrated with energy as another rush of adrenaline entered his system. Dilated eyes quickly locked onto a target, a newcomer who'd been unceremoniously smacked out of the air by a clone after attempting a surprise attack from the treetops.

When the boy, no older than sixteen, staggered to his feet, Naruto was right there, standing behind him not even three feet away. The teen felt his presence and spun, lashing out with his tantō at the same time. His blade met nothing but air. Before the look of confusion even settled onto his face, a boot connected with his back, packing enough force to crush a few vertebrae and propel him forward as if he were shot out of a cannon. One could almost call his damaged spinal cord a stroke of luck, as it meant he didn't feel it when Naruto, in an impressive display of reflexes, grabbed his left leg mid-flight and used the momentum, plus his own strength, to tear the limb free at the hip.

Naruto whirled around and swung the leg like a bat, smashing another Kurama in the left temple and toppling her. Without missing a beat, he descended upon her like an ogre, mercilessly bashing her head into the ground with his makeshift club. The leg may have been "padded", so to speak, but it still weighed about thirty pounds and was coming down with a lot of force.(4) With a beastly growl, Naruto brought the leg down one last time and grinned as the girl's skull finally caved with a meaty, satisfying "crunch". Fragmented skulls used to annoy him, but now he had come to enjoy the task of piecing them back together. Much more challenging and rewarding than any run-of-the-mill jigsaw puzzle.

High-pitched screams marked Naruto's next target, a boy whose right arm flopped around limply at his side, obviously broken in several places. He had to have been a Genin, judging from his age, lack of a vest and complete loss of composure. He tripped over his own feet as he tried to back away, tumbling head over heels. You'd think he had never seen a person get beaten to death with a severed limb before.

The Academy would pass anyone these days.

Before the boy could get back up, Naruto was on him. Claws pierced skin and muscle with frightening ease, and cleaved through bone without the slightest snag. In the blink of an eye the Kurama boy's good arm was torn off at the shoulder. For a good second he simply stared at the wound, spewing seemingly endless gouts of blood, with wide, disbelieving eyes. And then he screamed. At least, he tried to, for the moment he opened his mouth, Naruto jammed the arm into it. Teeth broke, skin ripped, muscles stretched and tore, and the boy's jaw was forced to unhinge with an audible "pop" as his own arm was forced into his throat down to the elbow.

Naruto let the boy fall, body spasming and eyes bulging from their sockets. He briefly thought of putting the poor traitor out of his misery, but decided there was no point. Whether he suffocated or bled out, he'd be dead in a minute or two either way, and would be unconscious well before that.

Suddenly the masked youth felt something directly behind him. Looking over his shoulder, Naruto saw that one of the Kurama had somehow slipped through the net of clones and was now standing poised to drive a tantō right through his heart. Fortunately, Naruto's jacket "saw" the enemy coming and reacted before its wearer could. Quick as a blink, the twin coat-tails struck, wrapping themselves around the man's upper and lower body, causing him to drop his weapon.(5)

Tear-filled eyes widened, casting one final look at the still-twitching body at Naruto's feet before the coat-tails twisted and pulled, wrenching his body in two at the waist. As the halves were flung away Naruto looked down at the boy deep-throating his own arm. He was still alive and conscious, though his face was turning purple. The bifurcated Jōnin must have known the kid; they may have even been father and son.

Oh well, sucked to be them.

Before choosing his next target, Naruto took a moment to see if there was anyone worth keeping alive. He still needed to know the full story behind what was going on, and for that he needed someone who was part of whatever "inner circle" existed at the center of the whole scheme. That would likely be one of the more outstanding members of the clan, so Naruto was on the lookout for someone who managed to hold their own against his clones instead of getting the shit kicked out of them like the others.

At first, he didn't see anyone that even remotely qualified. But upon closer inspection, he spied a woman in a flak vest who appeared to be a candidate. Sure, she was on the ground right now, reeling from an especially hard hit, but she wasn't nearly as bruised and battered as those around her. That might have been because she had just recently arrived, but Naruto felt she was worth keeping an eye on and sent a mental command to his clones to put her to the test.

Seeing no one else, Naruto returned to scanning for more victims, singling out those in vests to be dealt with first. They were the biggest threats, though that was a bit like being the tallest midget in this case, and had the most potential to screw things up if given the chance.

The next target managed to put up a bit of a fight, his kunai clashing with Naruto's large knife in a brief flurry. But, unfortunately for the Kurama, his equipment wasn't exactly top of the line, as his dagger was soon cracked and shattered by the heavier blade. A look of panic crossed the man's face for a split second, before being replaced by one of agony as he felt the knife plunge into his side up to the hilt. Naruto ripped the knife free and quickly spun around behind his foe, slicing through the backs of the unfortunate soul's knees, forcing him into a kneeling position. He was done for, but instead of using the knife for the finishing blow, Naruto smashed the point of his right elbow into the top of the man's head, cracking his skull like an egg and punching through to the brain. An instantaneous, inadvertently merciful death.

Naruto moved onto his next target before the body even fell; a tall, lanky man leaning against a tree, nursing a broken left leg. He still had his weapon out and his head on a swivel, ready to defend himself. But he couldn't hope to keep track of everything and everyone in this maelstrom of brutality, so by the time he saw Naruto coming at him, it was too late. The last thing he saw was a knee flying at his face, then it all went dark. His head was splattered against the trunk of the tree before he even felt the blow.

Naruto didn't stop to appreciate the kill, immediately speeding up to another vest-clad Kurama and ramming his hand into her gut before she could react. He stopped just short of going all the way through, feeling around for a second before wrapping his hand around the woman's spine and pulling back. His arm came out in a shower of gore and the woman's body collapsed, folding backwards in on itself. She stayed alive just long enough to see her killer open his blood-drenched right hand, dropping the three lumbar vertebrae he'd pulled out.

It wasn't long before Naruto had his hand inside someone else, this time a middle-aged man who'd tried to come up behind him. Unfortunately for him, Naruto had learned his lesson from the first close call and was making use of his Thousand Eyes Technique. Not only did it give him the ability to see the enemy coming, but seeing a pair of eyes suddenly open up on his intended target's back freaked the Kurama out and caused him to hesitate. It was only for a split second, but it was enough for Naruto to whirl around and jam his right hand into the man's ribcage. When the hand was pulled back, it was clutching a bloody souvenir. As the Kurama fell over, Naruto chuckled briefly; the look on a person's face after they see their own heart get torn out was something special.

But there was something else Naruto wanted to see, which would undoubtedly be very special as well. Actually, there were a few things he wanted to see. So before moving on to the next lamb, Naruto quickly took stock of how many "guinea pigs" he had to work with. In the time it had taken him to dispatch ten Kuramas, it seemed as though the rest of the clan had shown up, nineteen in all. More than enough.

And the female Jōnin from before was still in the mix, holding her own and even managing to land a few hits on the clones herself. It also looked like she was protecting someone; a man, also wearing a vest, curled up on the ground and clutching his right side. A clone must have sliced him pretty good, if the amount of blood soaking the fabric of the vest was any indication. Naruto's keen eyes scanned over the two Kurama's facial features, finding some remarkable similarities. In fact, he'd go as far as to say they were twins.

Jackpot.

Naruto sent out a command to capture and detain the two Kuramas, while he proceeded to take out the other seventeen.

Victim number eleven was chosen for him when a boy, no older than Naruto himself, was sent flying into him. As the boy's back hit his chest, Naruto's arms snapped shut around his arms and upper torso. As the unlucky child struggled and cried, Naruto began to squeeze. The boy wailed in pain, quickly exhausting his air supply and thrashing even more vigorously when he found he couldn't inhale anymore. As more pressure was applied, the next thing out of the kid's mouth was a spray of blood as his ribcage snapped, the entire structure collapsing inward at the sides with single cringe-inducing crack. When he finally went limp, Naruto released his hold, allowing the body to flop to the ground.(6)

An enraged scream alerted Naruto to another Genin, coming at him from the right. He casually leaned back, allowing the boy to sail right by him, exposing his back. Quicker than a blink, Naruto delivered a rabbit punch to the back of the young Kurama's neck, shattering the cervical vertebrae and resulting in something known as a "functional decapitation".

Once again, Naruto's next kill is chosen for him as an eye on the back of his left arm catches a vest-wearing Kurama barreling towards him. Wielding his knife again, Naruto turned and grabbed the Kurama's weapon arm and snaped his wrist, forcing him to drop his own blade. Naruto, still holding the enemy's arm, then lunged, going low and wrenching the arm over his head, popping the elbow out of the socket and scoring a deep gash across the man's belly with his knife in the process. Enough for a kill by itself, but Naruto wasn't done. Tugging on the arm, Naruto pulled the Kurama back into him and cleanly decapitated him with a single, well-aimed swipe.

Looking at the newest weapon in his arsenal, Naruto nodded in satisfaction. The knife was so much better than a kunai for direct combat, he wondered why more ninjas didn't use them.

A second later, the Thousand Eyes Technique proved its worth once again by allowing Naruto to spot a lone Kurama trying to make a run for it. He quickly unwrapped his battle chain and whipped it forward, using chakra to manipulate its movements and zero in on the target. The spike at the chain's tip drove itself into and through the Kurama's right knee, putting him face-first into the dirt.

Naruto was suddenly alerted to another threat from behind when his jacket sprang into action and grabbed something out of the air before it could hit him. Turning, Naruto saw, of all things, a crossbow bolt being snapped in two and tossed aside by one of his coattails. It didn't take long to find the shooter, a boy who was very much regretting his course of action, judging from the trembling and the look of pure terror on his face. He couldn't even take another shot, though his repeating crossbow already had the next bolt loaded and ready to fly.

That was fine by Naruto, though he did wonder how the hell the kid had managed to pull out a freakin' crossbow, aim and take an accurate shot at him, without being assaulted by any of the clones. Whatever, he could chew them out later. With his chain still impaled through the downed Kurama's leg, Naruto wrapped the chain around the limb and jerked the man into the air, over his head, then down onto the wannabe sniper. The boy looked up just in time to see it coming, but didn't even get a chance to scream before being crushed, the full spectacle obscured by an eruption of red-tinged dust thrown up by the impact.

The sound of something heavy hitting the ground behind him, accompanied by a pained grunt, prompted Naruto to turn around. What he saw was a teen boy on the ground about five feet away, curled up and holding his abdomen as he coughed and wheezed, struggling to breathe. It took him a few seconds to notice Naruto, but when he did, he made no effort to attack or escape. Just the opposite, really; he stayed right where he was and begged for his life.

"Wait, please!" the terrified youth pleaded. "Y-You're a Hunter, r-right? J-Just take me i-in, I s-surrender." he slowly and deliberately unclipped his equipment pouch and kunai holster, tossed them aside and held his hands in the air.

For several seconds, the "Hunter" said nothing and just stood there, staring. And then…

"…Rank."

"W-What?"

"Your rank."

"G-Genin." the word left his mouth before he could even think about lying.

"…When a Hunter takes a mark in alive, it is because said mark made a deal, believing he or she has information valuable enough to bargain with. So, in begging me to spare you, you're telling me that you've got something that makes you worth sparing." with a single tug, Naruto brought his chain back, letting out an amused snort when the lower portion of the impaled leg came with it.

The boy took one look at the severed limb, just in time to see the "Hunter" yank the spike out, and retched.

"I'm having a difficult time believing that, you being a Genin and all. Now maybe you happened to overhear something you weren't supposed to, but I'm more inclined to believe that this is just the first thing your panic-addled mind could come up with, and you haven't thought this out at all."

"I swear I've got info!"

"And I'm supposed to take your word for it?"

"I…I can tell you where the clan is headed!"

"Earth Country. Specifically, Iwagakure no Sato."

"H-How…?"

"Already got that out of another Genin a while back. Doesn't tell me anything, other than that Iwa is up to the same old tricks, though I have to give them credit for managing to draw in not only an entire clan, but one of the more influential ones. But, if you could, say, tell me where you were supposed to meet your guide, then we'd have something to talk about."

"…" the boy's mind raced to come up with something, but kept drawing blanks.

"Okay…How about the girl, Kurama Yakumo. Do you know anything about her?"

"Sh-She was di-"

"'Disowned by the clan for being a failure', got that from the last guy, too." Naruto interrupted, shaking his head. "Anything else?"

"…" the teen's eyes started to tear up as the house of cards that was his last ditch effort began to collapse.

"Right. I assume you know who Kurama Unkai is?" receiving a hesitant nod, Naruto continued. "Do you know where he is? I kinda need to kill him."

The teen suddenly perked up; maybe he could save his own hide afterall!

"Y-Yeah, yeah! If he's not here, then he'd have to be at the initial target site, probably with his 'golden boy' Jinki! It's a safehouse…somewhere in this forest, I'm not sure of exactly where it is from here…"

"I do, don't worry about it." Naruto waved him off. "Your cooperation is appreciated, Kurama-san."

"Thank you. I..." the teen trailed off as a trio of shadows fell over him. Looking around, he found himself surrounded by three carbon copies of the Hunter in front of him. Escorts, he assumed. Then two of them roughly grabbed his arms and hauled him to his feet. "Hey, not so hard! I told you I'd come quietly!"

"I should hope not; it's not as much fun if you don't scream." one of the clones said with a diabolical chuckle.

"What are you...W-Wait! We had a deal!"

"Hm? Since when?" Naruto asked, head cocked to the side slightly.

"I-I told you what I knew!"

"Which was next to nothing." Naruto countered. "And even if that wasn't the case, you already told me, so what's the point of taking you back to Konoha?"

"B-But-"

"How did you think this would turn out? Even if I did take you back to Konoha, you'd just be interrogated as a formality, then you'd be locked in a cell until a date was scheduled for your execution. You're the worst kind of traitor, you know. Not only did you betray the village, but you just sold out your own family without a second thought, just to save yourself. You're a dead man walking anyway, so why draw it out The very least you can do is die with your last shred of dignity intact."

The teen started to struggle, but it was useless. "No, no! Please, don't!"

"...Okay, scratch the dignity." Naruto rolled his eyes behind his mask, then grabbed the Kurama's right leg, while the third clone took the left.

As one, Naruto and his clones pulled, suspending the Kurama in the air between them. His frantic shrieks and cries fell on deaf ears, and with a single command, all four of his limbs were simultaneously torn from his body. After that, the only noises that came out of him were pitiful squeaks and wheezes as he went into shock.

"Hey, Boss, do you mind if I stick around for a bit?" one of the clones asked. "I want to see the light leave his eyes."

Naruto stared at the clone for a couple seconds; apparently, a disproportionate amount of his own sadism had come through in this clone.

"Suit yourself." the hanyou eventually replied with a shrug.

"We got a runner, Boss." another clone said, pointing to a Kurama making a break for the treeline.

"Again?" Naruto sighed. This time it was a Genin, judging from the lack of a vest.

"We'll get him." two of the clones prepared to give chase, but were waved off by their creator.

"I got him." Naruto said, letting his letting his battle chain fly once more.

Fully expecting another direct hit, Naruto was briefly dumbstruck when the "Genin" suddenly whirled around, smacked the chain aside, turned back around and kept running. No way in hell a Genin could pull off a move like that with such speed and grace, obvious exceptions aside.

"Clever bastard." Naruto grunted as he took off after the imposter, who had given up his act and was now moving at speeds that suggested a upper-tier Chūnin, if not Jōnin rank.

He must have figured out that Naruto was going after those wearing vests and, somehow, managed to ditch his without being noticed. A more-than-decent plan, but one that relied on the assumption that Naruto would let him run. And we all know what happens when you assume.

The Jōnin fought valiantly, dodging fists, feet and chains, even using corpses to Kawarimi out of harm's way. He had the advantage in speed and agility, at least over the clones, but they could keep up their pace indefinitely; he couldn't. Eventually, fatigue and numbers would catch up to him.

Well, they would've, if Naruto himself hadn't beaten them to the punch.

The Jōnin replaced himself with another corpse just the clones managed to box him in again, but this time their creators had the move scouted. By the time the Kurama reappeared, a fist was already coming at him. He barely even had time to suck in a breath, let alone avoid the right cross. Knuckles met jaw and the former won out, sending the Kurama to the floor, barely able to remember his own name.

"That looked like it hurt. Please, tell me it hurt." Naruto chuckled as he and his clones surrounded the downed shinobi. But in his mind, Naruto immediately regretted his course of action. The Jōnin probably knew something, but there was no way he'd be able to talk with nearly half his face shattered.

While Naruto thought of non-verbal ways to get any possible information, his quarry decided to go out on his own terms. He would not share the fate of his relatives, slaughtered like an animal, spending his last moments in agony and terror as the plaything of some sick fuck of a Hunter-nin.

A half Ram seal and defiant glare later, a low hissing noise set off the warning bells in Naruto's head. He looked down just long enough to see the fuse on the explosive tag start to burn through the man's shirt, then leapt back, his clones quickly following suit. Half a second later, a bright flash, a deafening bang and a sizeable fireball signaled the Kurama's exit from the mortal coil.

"…Are you shitting me?" Naruto groaned in disappointment. Out of all the weaklings, cowards and spineless sacks of crap, the one guy who stood out as actually being worth something, is the one who commits suicide?

Though, now that he thought about it, Naruto was surprised this was the first time it had happened. It was more or less standard procedure to blow oneself up if you ended up outnumbered, outmatched and with no chance of escape, rescue or victory. Especially if you possessed valuable intel that could be used against your allies. Nine times out of ten, the instantaneous lethality of an explosion was better than the alternative, and if you were lucky you could take out a few enemy ninjas as well.

All the more reason for Naruto to be annoyed, as the man's final act just proved that he would have been worth interrogating.

Luckily, Naruto still had at least one more horse to bet on in helping him get the big picture. She and the man she'd been protecting were currently knocked out and tied to the trunks of two trees with large, jet-black "ropes". With them down and out, Naruto counted eight more Kuramas left, none of which wore vests. He wanted to hope that at least one of them was another Jōnin playing the wolf in sheep's clothing, but from the way they were all being knocked around by the clones, they were just as fresh as they looked. Oh well, at least they'd take his mind off the one that "got away".

He stalked after a girl trying to crawl away, moving slowly across the ground on her belly, trying to make herself as small and unnoticeable as possible. He grabbed her by her shoulder-length brown hair and pulled her up until she was on her knees, wincing as her shrill screams assaulted his ears. He quickly put a stop to them, taking hold of the top of her head and pushing straight down with all his strength. The girl's entire head disappeared inside her chest cavity in a veritable fountain of blood, drenching Naruto's mask.

The next was someone Naruto recognized as a former classmate from the Academy, Jubei Kurama. Nice guy, actually, though his older brother, whom Naruto had yet to see in the forest, was an asshole. Remembering that Jubei was one of the few who treated him like just another kid back then, Naruto decided to grant him a quick death. While he was busy trying to fend off a clone that was toying with him, Naruto crept up from behind and blew his head off with a Rasen Shottogan. He didn't feel a thing.

The sound of the technique going off awakened one of the survivors, who'd been knocked fairly early on. The very first thing he saw was a headless body crumple to the ground. The ninja in him told the boy to stay right where he was and play dead. Afterall, the fact that he'd been unconscious was probably the only reason he was still alive. But before that more rational part of his brain could rein it in, panic dashed all hopes of remaining unnoticed. The Genin screamed, though it was more of a yelp, really. He immediately clapped his hands over his mouth, as if the action would capture the sound and swallow it before it could be heard. No such luck; the masked shinobi was looking right at him.

The boy's "inner ninja" had nothing to say this time, so panic had free reign. It said "run", and that's what he did, scrambling to his feet and dashing in the opposite direction with every bit of adrenaline-fueled strength his legs could muster. He got about fifty feet before a heavy chain wrapped itself around his waist and yanked him back. He hit the ground with a grunt and slid for a few feet, before coming to a stop next to a pair of black boots.

Before his prey could react, Naruto hauled him up, wrapped the chain around his midsection a few more times, then proceeded to spin him around above his head. Relatively slowly at first, but Naruto soon picked up speed. The remaining clones all stopped to watch, more than a few laughing as the unfortunate Kurama went 'round and 'round. As the speeds increased, so did the centrifugal force, and it didn't take long for the boy's body to begin to give under the immense strain. His screams heightened in pitch as the joints in his limbs dislocated. Skin, muscles and ligaments were stretched to their breaking points and body parts began to virtually explode off of the Genin. The area outside of the swing radius became coated with blood and miscellaneous bits of flesh. Even the clones were getting covered, though none of them seemed to mind. In fact, it just made them laugh that much harder.(7)

Eventually, Naruto allowed the chain to unravel and flung what was left of the Genin's corpse off into the forest. Now THAT was interesting! He'd seen something similar in a manga years ago and had always wondered if it was actually possible. Now he just wished he had a camera on-hand to film it; he was sure he had Zabuza definitively beat with that kill, but there was no way the former nuke-nin would take his word for it without proof.

Looking around, Naruto saw that only five Kuramas remained, and they were all bruised, battered and out cold. Apparently, the clones had gotten a bit too…overzealous in keeping them occupied. Oh well, Naruto had a Jōnin to question anyway.

As he brandished his knife in preparation to slit a few throats, Naruto was halted by Kyuubi.

"Hold on a second, Naruto-koi."

Naruto rose an eyebrow at the sound of his mate's voice. It was low and husky, dare he say sultry.

'Is something wrong?'

"Oh, far from it, lover." Kyuubi giggled.

Normally, she wasn't one for wanton slaughter. Like Naruto, she much preferred opponents who had both the power and will to fight back. But something about Naruto's display of utter dominance got her motor running. Perhaps a repressed masochistic desire to try being the "sub" in the relationship that had finally surfaced? She'd never gotten to try out those particular fantasies with her first mate, on account of him respecting, and fearing, her far too much to even think of playing the role of the "dom", even if she wanted it. Way too far out of his comfort zone.

But Kyuubi knew Naruto would have no such qualms. All she had to do was ask, and he'd tie her up and spank her until her ass glowed like a hunk of metal fresh out of a furnace. Then he'd break out the hot wax and…

'…Kyuu-chan?' Naruto was starting to get somewhat creeped out. He swore he heard the demoness mutter something along the lines of "It burns so good".

"Hm? Oh, don't mind that, just spaced out for a second there." Kyuubi at least had the good grace to pretend to be embarrassed.

'Okay…So, is there a reason I'm not opening arteries right now?'

"I think this is a prime opportunity to acquire some live test subjects. There are some techniques and poisons that you've been itching to put through 'human trials', right? No one will miss them; there's no one left to miss them. Their 'deaths' will just be added to the tally and no one will give it a second thought."

Kyuubi had a point, Naruto still had quite a few untested concoctions stashed away, and there were some "alternate applications" of a few techniques that he wanted to try out. Unfortunately, live guinea pigs were scarce. These days, assassination attempts were few and far between, and the villagers were too scared to do more than give him nasty looks and a few muttered curses. Wave Country represented a missed opportunity, but experimentation had been the last thing on Naruto's mind during his game of "One-Up" with Zabuza on the bridge.

'How many?'

"These five should do for now. The other two…I don't think the wimp will survive what you're planning on doing to him, and the Jōnin is too risky to keep around. If she ever got loose, by some miracle, she could actually do some damage."

'Very well.' Naruto then looked to his clones, which were all standing around, awaiting orders. "We're taking these last five alive. I need you to take them to the cells, two of you per person."

"You got it, Boss." a clone replied with a salute, an action mimicked by nine others.

While the clones set about their given task, Naruto walked over to the two captive Kuramas, idly noting that the clones had broken their hands.

"…Are we really going to play this game?" he asked, looking back and forth between the pair. When he got no response, Naruto sighed and reached into his jacket, pulling out a dimly glowing orb. It pulsed once before he dropped it off to his left, in front of the woman.

A cloud of fog erupted as it hit the ground, but still neither Kurama moved a muscle. It wasn't until a Hellhound leapt out of the fog, its jaws snapping shut just inches from the Jōnin's head, that they both recoiled with twin shrieks of terror.

"Do I have your attention now?" Naruto drawled, holding the devil dog back with a chain of solid shadow as a leash. He let go of it when the other end extended to wrap itself around tree about twenty feet back.

"You're wasting your time, Hunter." the woman hissed out, determined to be defiant even in the face of…whatever the hell that thing was. "You'll get nothing out of us."

Naruto chuckled. "You'll come to realize the irony of that statement in a bit." he again looked back and forth between the two, once more noting the uncanny resemblance. "Twins, I take it?"

"…" neither Kurama answered.

"Okay, dumb question. Here's one that's more to-the-point…" a quick jab broke the brother's nose. "How much do you care about him?"

"I told you, you're wasting your time!" the sister growled, eyes smoldering with anger. "Even if he knew anything, he'd never tell you."

"I know; that's why I'm not asking him. See, I think I've got you two figured out. You look pretty young, what are you, twenty-four, twenty-five? And it's plain to see that you've got some experience, so I'm guessing you've been a Jōnin for a while now." Naruto grabbed the male twin by the jaw and squeezed until he started to whimper. "This guy's only a Chūnin, and, if you ask me, he barely makes the grade. I think you're the 'prodigy', the one who's had everything going for you from day one. I think your bro, here, couldn't keep up, and you've spent most of your career watching out for him, taking up his slack when he fell short. I think the family wasn't too proud of him, so the chances that he knows more than any other grunt are slim."

"This is pointless. Either take us to prison or finish us off."

Naruto ignored her and carried on with his deduction. "But you, on the other hand, look like you have what it takes to be part of the 'inner circle'. You don't want to talk? That's fine by me; it's more fun that way. So I've got another question for you." he reached into his jacket again and pulled out the fighting knife, making sure they both got a good look at the blade. "How much will you let your brother suffer?"

The "ropes" binding the brother shifted and slithered to his limbs, becoming shackles and pinning his arms and legs painfully to the tree. Another part migrated to his mouth and formed a gag. Naruto then unzipped the man's vest, parted it, and slowly slid the knife into the right side of his abdomen, all while staring at his sister. The blade went in three and a half inches, then was dragged around to the left side before being extracted and put away. Ignoring the man's muffled screams, and still looking at the sister, Naruto dug his right hand into the wound.

The Jōnin retched when the hand came out with a section of her brother's innards.

"You're sick! You're fucking sick!" she screamed, tears welling up in her eyes. She struggled against her restraints, only to slam back into the tree trunk as the monstrous canine roared at her.

"Yep." Naruto nodded, pulling out the large intestine inch by inch. "I'm an honorary member of the Torture and Interrogation Corps. They get paid to do stuff like this, but I choose to do it for free. For fun." he held the bit of intestine up in front of its owner and gave it a squeeze. "You should think about what that means for your dear sibling."

"..."

Naruto smirked under his mask. She was going to break, he could tell from the look on her face. That look of inner turmoil, betraying a vicious battle between love and pragmatism, conscience and training. Just a few more buttons to press and the walls would come down.

"Hey, hey, wake up." Naruto smacked the man's cheek as his head drooped. "You don't get to pass out. You're going to feel every second of this, and there will be as many seconds as I want. You see, I can keep you alive indefinitely. I can force your body to keep producing blood, keep your body temperature up and prevent your organs from failing. You won't die until I'm good and ready, understand?" Naruto then turned to the woman. "But I can also heal him. All depends on you."

"...What do you want?" the Jōnin all but whispered as her resolve finally crumbled. It went against everything she'd ever been taught or learned through experience, but she couldn't bear seeing her brother like that.

"Nothing much, really. Just everything you know about the girl, Kurama Yakumo. From everything I've gathered, your leader is here for her, and I want to know why. That's all. I don't care about where you're going, who you're meeting or any other details of your 'master plan'. I think you'll agree that it hardly matters now. All I want is the reason thirty-seven ninjas came all the way out here just to kill a single girl. A member of your own clan, no less. You give me that, and I'll patch your brother up."

"...That's it?"

"That's it."

"Alright...It's not Yakumo that Unkai's after; it's what's inside her."

"You mean she's..."

"A Jinchūriki, yes." the woman nodded, doing her best not to look at the length of intestine still hanging out of her brother. "The Kyuubi's attack sparked the idea. The clan had been looking for a way to reclaim their former status for years. We were making progress, but not enough for some. Unkai and the other Elders saw a solution when the Yondaime sealed the demon away. Yakumo was chosen because she had a special ability that's only appeared four times in the history of our clan. She can create illusions so powerful that they have actual physical effects."

"Psychosomatic reactions?" asked with a raised eyebrow, not that anyone could see it.

"In the extreme. Her Genjutsu could actively take control of your chakra and use it to duplicate what was happening inside the illusion. At least, that's how I understood it. But the ability takes a toll; Yakumo was physically too frail to be a kunoichi. The Elders researched all kinds of demons, and eventually found one they thought would amplify Yakumo's natural abilities, as well as strengthen her body. A demon that specialized in illusions, but could still fight in more conventional ways. They found it in a demon known as 'Rumare'. When they summoned him, they played it smart, striking a deal instead of trying to force it into a seal. I don't know the exact terms, but I do know that Rumare wanted…souls as payment. Pure souls…"

"Virgins." Naruto finished.

The Jōnin nodded hesitantly. "The Elders sacrificed children to the demon...In some cases, even their own grandkids, ten in total. All in the name of putting the clan back where we belonged. After that, the demon allowed itself to be sealed into Yakumo, but…"

"This 'Rumare' didn't keep his end of the bargain." Naruto shook his head. "Shocker."

The Jōnin grimaced. "If anything, Yakumo got worse. Her physical condition didn't get any better, and she seemed to lose control over her power. It got so bad, that at one point she started an illusionary fire in one of the clan houses that ended up killing five people, including her own parents. Any training she got was completely ineffective. To make matters worse, the more powerful members of the clan couldn't even bear to look at her because of what she reminded them of, and others were too damn scared to go near her. She was pushed off on a friend of the clan, a Genjutsu user who'd trained with us and proved to be something of a prodigy. Yūhi Kurenai…The Elders put our most valuable egg in her basket, and she let it fall through the gaps." the woman's broken hands twitched, as if she were trying to make fists. "That bitch. Her father was a student of our former Head Elder, and when he died fighting the Kyuubi, we took her in. When she became an orphan, we treated her like one of our own! And how did she repay us? When we needed her most, she not only gave up on Yakumo, but convinced the Third to seal her power away, claiming she was too dangerous. After that, the clan disowned her and let the Third ship her off to a safehouse in the middle of nowhere. That was two years ago, and no one's seen her since."

"Ahh, the final gambit fell through and he clan decided it was time to go." Naruto nodded to himself, then gestured flippantly to the carnage all around them. "But that doesn't tell me the reason for all of this. If not for this little witch hunt, you could've had a nice lead on anyone sent after you."

"It was all Unkai's idea." the woman all but spat out the name. This whole thing was his fault. "After all that he had done 'for the good of the clan', the demon made a fool out of him. He's not one to let something like that go. It's been seven years since the sealing, and he's been seething the whole time. You're right to call it a witch hunt; he says it's about justice and a monster getting what it deserves, but it's just revenge, plain and simple."

"Well, that certainly brings back memories." Naruto snorted. If he had a ryō for every time a would-be assassin justified their actions under the banner of "justice"…

"That's it. That's all I know about the girl. I kept my end of the deal." the Jōnin said, giving the masked shinobi a look that was equal parts demanding and pleading.

"So you did." Naruto flashed through a set of handseals and his right hand began to give off a green glow. "I don't know if this will hurt, but I suspect it will feel very strange, so brace yourself for that." he then put his hand on the Chūnin's abdomen, just above the incision.

The Jōnin's jaw dropped when she saw her brother's hanging intestine being drawn back into his body on its own.

"You know, I'm surprised not a single one of you seems to know who I am. In fact, I'm almost offended. I would've figured the kids, at least, told you about me; I was in the Academy with several of them afterall." Naruto remarked.

"Should I know you?"

"Look around, then rethink that question." Naruto deadpanned. "I know if I were planning something like mass defection, I'd take stock of each and every ninja around who could potentially throw a wrench into the gears."

"We did, but no one matching your description was on our list. It's very hard to get information on Hunters, and we didn't think it would matter. Hunter-nin are rarely ever here, and when they are, it's just to collect a payment or bring someone in, then they leave. You're the lightning strike; the one-in-a-million disaster that no one thought to calculate."

"Very true, but I'm not a Hunter-nin, and it's pretty easy to get info on the 'Kyuubi Brat'. Just ask around, the villagers will be more than happy to tell you how dangerous and unpredictably violent I am."

"No…There's no way in hell YOU'RE the Kyuubi vessel! He's just a Genin!"

"Yeah, rub it in, thank you." Naruto scoffed. "I'll have you know that I'm a month away from a promotion…Or whenever the date for the Exams is set."

"Goddammit…" the Jōnin hung her head. Her whole family had been taken out by a damn Genin. But at least she and her brother still had a chance. If the Genin took them back to Konoha, she was sure she had enough bargaining material.

"There, good as new." Naruto said as the brother's wound sealed itself shut. "Since it was a success, I guess it's okay to tell you that I wasn't sure it would work. I mean, I've used that technique before to save a couple lives, but I didn't know if it would, you know, put everything back in the right place."

"…" the looks they gave him were priceless.

"And now for some free advice." Naruto clapped his hands together. "Being a Jinchūriki, I know a thing or two about demons, and that happens to include the proper way to go about making deals with them. And the first rule of making a deal with a demon? Don't." then, faster than either Kurama could see, Naruto's right hand lashed out, a single claw swiping across the brother's neck. The wound was deep enough to be fatal, having sliced partway through the jugular, but not particularly quickly. The man would live for another two, maybe three minutes. Long enough to witness what would become of his sister.

"NO!" the Jōnin screeched, struggling against her bindings, this time ignoring the monster snarling and snapping at her.

"But if you must, there's a second rule." Naruto quipped. "Always read the fine print."

"You bastard! WE HAD A FUCKING DEAL!" the woman raged as tears poured down her cheeks.

"Am I talking to myself, here? What did I just tell you about making deals with demons?" with a snap of his fingers, Naruto dissolved the chain holding the Hellhound. "Remember, I want the head intact!" he yelled over the screams as he walked away. He didn't need to remind the clones, they were already at work.

"Hey, Boss, uh…What do we do with this one?" one of the remaining clones asked, pointing to Jubei Kurama's body. There was no skull to retrieve; the biggest piece the clone could find was about the size of an oyster cracker.

"Huh…Oops." Naruto scratched his head lightly. "Take a femur or something." he made his way back towards the safehouse without waiting for a reply.

"…'Kay." the clone shrugged.

(Meanwhile)

Once he felt the chakra spike, Kakashi waited a full minute to move. When that minute passed by uneventfully, he motioned for his students to follow him.

When they reached the cabin door, he took a moment to inspect the seals in place. The barrier seal itself was pretty standard fare; powerful, but not particularly complex. The integrated trap seals would be more of a challenge, but still weren't anything Kakashi couldn't crack.

"I'll have this down in no time." Kakashi flashed his signature eye-smile and began a series of handseals.

"Can we get an exact timeframe, please?" Sasuke asked, scanning the area with his Sharingan active and a kunai at the ready.

"Thirty seconds." Kakashi replied, then suddenly tensed up. "…Sasuke, Sakura, the moment this barrier goes down, I want you to get inside as fast as you can. I'll reactivate it behind you."

"What?" Sasuke questioned, brow furrowed in confusion.

"Someone's coming, fast." Sakura informed her teammate, eyes closed as she concentrated on feeling out the chakra signatures. "Two of them, Jōnin level at least." she swallowed hard and gripped the kunai in her right hand tighter.

"I'll take care of them, you two need to get in and find the girl. Ten seconds."

Neither Genin argued, they knew they'd just be in the way otherwise. They started their own mental countdowns and steeled their nerves. There was a dim flash over the entire exterior of the cabin, signaling the barrier's deactivation, and they wasted no time dashing into the building, slamming the door behind them. Another flash, and the barrier was back in place.

A second later, two men appeared from out of the forest. Unkai, just as Naruto predicted, and Jinki, just as Kakashi worried. The best the Kurama clan had to offer.

After a brief staredown, Unkai was the first to speak. "Sharingan no Kakashi. Well, if this isn't an unwelcome surprise."

"Likewise." Kakashi replied, producing an elongated kunai from a small storage seal on his right wrist.

"I can take him, Unkai-sama." Jinki grinned, spinning his tantō around with his fingers.

"You think so?" Kakashi blinked, looking completely unperturbed, perhaps even a bit bored.

"Just as calm and cool as ever, Hatake. Let's see if you can keep that level head. Actually, let's see if you can keep your head at all!" and with that, the battle had begun.

XXXX

Ah, gratuitous violence, my mistress.

Hopefully this will satisfy those who feel Naruto has somehow gotten weaker since the fic's early days. Of course, that's not the case; Naruto's just gone from being a piranha in a pond, to being a barracuda in the open ocean. Still dangerous in his own right, but not even close to the top of the food chain.

Anywho, I thought this was a solid chapter. Not my best, but decent enough. What say you, the people?

(1) 24 D-Class missions allows a team to take on C-Class mission. 12 C's allow for B's. 24 C's and 12 B's allow for A's. 72 C's, 48 B's and 24 A's allow for an S-Class. Of course, this is in an official capacity; ninjas can still be chosen or recommended for missions they technically don't qualify for. This is not canon, but my own system, and it is not standardized; other villages have other requirements, sometimes having nothing to do with the number of missions completed.

(2) I shouldn't have to explain this, but I will for the sake of preventing reviews calling me out like it's my fault someone can't keep up with what's going on. "Meanwhile" is used to indicate a scene taking place in the same timeframe as the one before it, but in a different location. The same goes for (With [insert character name here]) transitions.

(3) The charms will be revealed in the next chapter.

(4) General rule of thumb is that a person's leg makes up about 20% of their total weight. The guy Naruto got the leg from weighed 150lbs, so using that ratio, the leg would weigh about 30lbs.

(5) Been a while since the cloak/jacket actually did anything. It'll be proving its worth more frequently from now on.

(6) Naruto loves hugs, the big softy.

(7) Bit of a tribute to the manga series "Attack on Titan", which featured a similar "centrifuge" kill. Pretty awesome series, though it can be a bit difficult to tell who's who during the chaotic battles. Not that it matters; the vast majority of the characters are just cannon fodder anyway.

Really not much to say about this chapter, since it's pretty straightforward.

But there is a bit to say about the next chapter. First off, it's going to be a shorter one, probably just over 10k words. Secondly, it's going to be a dark one. As in, depressing, somber and morbid, so don't expect any humor. But, for those who aren't really into that sort of thing, there will be plenty of action and carnage to sink your teeth into. Also, you'll get your first glimpse of Hinata making conscious use of her newfound power, which more than a few of you have been clamoring for.

Well, I think that's about it. Standard procedure, if you've got questions, ask away. PROVIDING YOU HAVE AN ACCOUNT. Guest reviews containing questions will be deleted. You don't have an account, I can't reply, and that drives me nuts. Those who want to whine about the story not going the way they want it to, can take their complaints to Don T. Givadamme in the Customer Service department.

Until next time, folks!

Jason Out!