'Sup, people? Nope, I ain't dead and neither is this story. It was a close one for the story, though.
You see, as much as I appreciate my audience, and as much as I like talking to those of you who actually have something to say, I don't write for you. I write for myself, to put ideas on "paper" and see where they go. With the stories I've posted, I did so for the express purpose of honing my skills. I am here to improve, so I can do justice to my ideas and the stories I want to tell.
So it doesn't matter how long it takes, or how irrelevant Naruto becomes as a franchise. As long as I still care, this story will live.
That said, there were several times in the last ten months where this story almost died. Never have I hated working on a chapter more than this one. Setback after setback, rewrite after rewrite. I was fully prepared to bury this whole thing and move on to another project multiple times over. But I'm back in it now. Late as fuck, but I'm back.
And now for a brief recap of the last chapter, since it's nearly been a full goddamn year…I really like how this came out in the end, but seriously, fuck this chapter.
Naruto goes to the hospital to check up on Anko, only to find her not only awake, but mobile. Their reunion doesn't go as well as either of them wanted, and the emotional toll of being rejected by his best friend causes Naruto to shut himself off and partially revert to his old ways.
The first one to experience the new old Naruto is Haku, who tries to talk to him about the issues she's having with Hinata, only to be rebuffed and told to solve her own problems.
As the Chūnin Selection Exams begin, the rest of Team Seven notes Naruto's return to form and Kakashi gives them a pep talk before the event begins. He also gives Naruto something to think about, reminding him of the responsibility that comes with the position he put himself in.
As predicted, the Exams are packed with ringers, some of whom are cleverly pointed out by Ibiki. As Stage One of the Exams, a paper test, gets fully underway, ringers and actual Genin alike cheat their asses off with varying degrees of success.
With eliminations done, the Stage One concludes with Genma's arrival, and of course he can't resist messing with Sasuke. Genma then leads the teams to the Forest of Death, where he proceeds to mess with all of them. The teams sign waivers, pick up their forfeit scrolls, get a rundown of the rules and it's time for Stage Two.
Team Seven make a pit stop so Sasuke and Sakura can change into their new gear(read the last few paragraphs of the previous chapter for a description), while Naruto keeps watch. He's confronted by a Kusagakure team who see him as easy pickings because most people who look that edgy have nothing to back it up. Unfortunately for them, Naruto is not one of those people and they are summarily sacrificed upon the altar of gore.
This will probably be a thing from now on, since one of the main complaints about this story is that by the time I update, everyone's forgotten what happened last time.
Now that that's out of the way, you kids have fun with this one.
(Forest of Death, 1:50pm)
"We can stop here." Naruto said lowly as he touched down on a massive tree branch, his teammates right behind him.
Sakura and Sasuke nodded and went for the brightest patch of sunlight they could find. There weren't a whole lot of constants amongst the various horrors the forest had to offer, but an aversion to light was one of them. The forest was decently open for about the first mile in, but it didn't take long for the combination of dense leaf cover and huge, crisscrossing branches to turn the forest floor into a world of permanent night. Like cave-dwellers and deep sea animals, each creature down there had evolved to thrive in the darkness. Many were blind, having sacrificed eyesight for enhanced senses of smell, touch and hearing, and sometimes brand new senses entirely. Others had gone in the opposite direction, developing huge eyes that could see perfectly with only the faintest glimmers of light and were incredibly sensitive to movement.
After decades of research, and countless casualties along the way, Konoha had developed methods for navigating the Forest of Death in relative safety. One of them was moving very quickly and very quietly, but only in short bursts. There was no viable way to move around undetected in the forest; something was going to "see" you. So moving around was essentially dangling meat in front of starving beasts, and the longer you did it, the greater the chances of something getting hungry enough to brave the light. Stopping for a few minutes, keeping quiet and out of sight, was supposed to give whatever was hunting you time to settle down and move on, or expose itself so you could kill it with less hassle.
Not a perfect system by any means; just the one with the lowest body count.
Sasuke and Sakura sat down in the patch of sun, facing one another so they could watch each other's back. The Uchiha reached into one of his pockets to retrieve two packets, each containing three strips of beef jerky, and offered one to his teammate. But just as she reached to take it, Naruto spoke up.
"We're in a forest, surrounded by carnivores of all shapes and sizes, and you want to open up packs of seasoned meat?"
"…Yeah, probably not the best idea." Sakura said, keeping her voice low, then reached into her own pocket and pulled out a pair of granola bars. "But these should be okay."
"Thanks." Sasuke said as he took the offered snack. He then silently nodded towards Naruto, who had has back to them.
"You want one, Naruto?" Sakura asked, holding up another bar.
"Nah, I'm good." he answered after glancing over his shoulder. "But thanks anyway."
The other Genin paused and looked at each other, expressions shifting to irritated scowls.
"So, what's your name?" Sasuke asked/demanded.
"Excuse me?" Naruto turned to face them.
"You're not Naruto." Sakura replied. "You're a clone, but way stronger than the usual ones. Last time we met one like you, she had a name."
After a lengthy pause, "Naruto" finally sighed and ran a hand through his hair.
"You two are getting better. What gave me away?"
"Several things, actually. Like being able to feel your chakra." Sakura said before taking a bite of her granola bar. "You're doing an amazing job of suppressing it, but the fact that I'm getting anything from you at this distance is a tell."
"Then there's the fact that Naruto's been all tense and moody lately. You're too relaxed." Sasuke continued.
"Not nearly as...growly and grunty, either." Sakura added.
"Oh, and you just said 'nah', so...yeah."
"Fair enough. Name's N2. Yes, I know it's unoriginal. No, I don't care. That's the beauty of naming yourself: you don't have to stick with the first choice."
"So he ditched us the first chance he got, huh?" Sasuke scoffed. "Can't say I'm surprised."
"The first chance he had was when you were putting on your new gear." N2 said firmly. "But instead he waited until you were well ahead of most of the other teams, single-handedly got you halfway to passing with two-hundred and fifty-five points, AND gave you a protection detail consisting of no less than two-dozen clones, including the strongest of them all: me. So maybe be a bit more appreciative?"
"We are," Sakura said, "but that doesn't mean it's okay to sneak off without telling us anything. It's like the early days, when he would leave a clone behind and run off during our missions. We'd be none the wiser until Kaka-sensei said something. I thought we were past all that."
"What she said." Sasuke nodded in agreement. "Haven't we at least earned the right to know what's going on?"
"...Yeah, you have," N2 admitted, "and that was a shitty thing to do on the boss' part. But you have to remember what he's really out here for. Seeing you and the others to the finish line is the secondary objective; his main job is to assess threats and thin the herd."
"Don't you mean cull the herd?" Sasuke grumbled.
"I mean, we have to let some of them through." N2 shrugged.
"Wouldn't want the finals to be a shit show, now would we?"
"With how much money is riding on them? No, we definitely wouldn't want that."
"It was an imposter..."
Just a mile to the north another team was also taking a rest in the canopy, but for entirely different reasons.
"That was…fucking stupid." the lone male of the Takigakure trio panted, then grunted in pain as he pressed a glowing hand to the wound on his left side.
"That wasn't him…" one of the girls muttered, lost in thought as she unconsciously chewed her finger.
"We have a village to represent AND a contract to fulfill." the boy hissed. "This is NOT the time to settle old scores!"
"Way too strong…And what the fuck was with that tongue?" the girl continued to ignore him.
"Are you even listening?"
"They were imposters, all of them." the girl said to her teammates, not hearing a word that was said to her. "That couldn't have been Shiore and his crew."(1)
"Yeah, I figured that out when he danced around us like we were nothing and nearly GUTTED me with a goddamn FINGER!" the boy seethed, pointing aggressively at his nearly-healed wound. "But so the fuck what?! They weren't a problem; YOU'RE the one who started that whole clusterfuck by trying to ambush them! And for what? To keep your stupid little rivalry going?"
"It is, and we all know it." the boy snorted as he stood up, wincing a little and favoring his still-sore side.
"He stole that contract right out from under us!" the girl practically screamed, her pitch rising with every word.
"That he did. But he did it by stealing that beauty contest right out from under you, and that's the real crime, right Kara?"
"You're a son of a bitch."
"A correct son of a bitch, and that's all that matters." the boy replied with a smirk. "But if you're really so hung up on contracts, how about we take care of the one we've got, before someone steals that one as well?"
"...Fine, but once this is done, we're gonna have words about respecting a superior officer, Juno."
"You weren't so 'superior' when I saved your ass back there." Juno sneered, getting right in the girl's face. "And before you let that promotion go to your head, remember how you got it. Remember who actually did all the work and let you take the credit."
It was then that the third member of the team finally spoke up.
"Even in this realm of horrors, surrounded by death and worse, all you do is argue over trivialities." the other girl remarked flatly, her voice surprisingly deep and carrying a fairly thick accent.
"Holy shit, she actually said something besides 'we shouldn't be here'." the male Genin said with a mocking clap. "Look at you, expanding your vocabulary."
"Laugh if you must, but the path you have chosen leads to nothing but darkness and pain."
"Duh, we're ninjas," Kara scoffed, "kind of an occupational hazard."
"That is not what I'm talking ab-!" she paused abruptly and her hand quickly reached for the plain brown pouch hanging off her right hip. Almost frantically she unclipped it and dumped its contents onto the branch, then kneeled down to inspect them.
"Ugh, again with the bones…" her fellow female sneered, turning her nose up at the display.
"...Unfortunate." she sighed, gathering up what indeed appeared to be an assortment of small animal bones.
"Now what?" Juno, clearly exasperated.
"I told you we shouldn't be here. I told you we were entering a domain of monsters and fiends, and now-"
"Yeah, yeah." Juno interrupted dismissively. "By the pricking of your thumbs, something wicked-"
"Is already here…" the girl finished with a shudder.
The other two nearly jumped out of their skins when a fourth voice joined the conversation.
"Apologies for eavesdropping," Naruto said as he walked up the side of the branch from underneath, "but I was just passing by when I heard something I couldn't ignore. One of you is already a Chūnin? Ooh, sneaky, sneaky."
"...Hey, isn't that…" the boy whispered to his team.
"Looks like it." Kara answered.
"I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to activate your forfeit scrolls and remove yourselves from the competition." Naruto said blandly, knowing they wouldn't take the easy way out. But he could say he tried.
The girl with the darker skin tone actually reached into one of her pouches to retrieve her scroll, but the boy quickly turned and snatched it from her.
"No. No one's going anywhere. Not us…" Juno suddenly whipped around with a kunai at the ready, "or y-"
Naruto had already closed the distance, smashing his left elbow into the fair-skinned girl's face, shattering her cheekbone and sending her flying back. Juno was then floored with an equally vicious left cross.
"I'd say you've picked a lovely place to die, but let's be honest: this is a shithole."
He was mildly impressed when the boy got back to his feet, albeit shakily. From the amount of blood leaking from his mouth, he'd probably be spitting out teeth in a second, but he hadn't been knocked out.
On a whim Naruto nearly offered them a second chance to surrender, but the words died on his tongue when the boy unsheathed the machete on his hip and leapt forward.
So, with a roll of his eyes, Naruto reached out to his left, stopping the girl, who'd also recovered quite quickly, in her tracks and grabbing her by the front of her jacket. He then pulled her around in front of him, placing her right in the path of her teammate's blade. By the time the boy registered what had happened, it was too late to stop. The machete cleaved into the side of her neck and ended up lodged inside a vertebrae.
A second later they were both shoved clear off the side of the branch, where tendrils of solid shadow shot up to ensnare them. The boy's panicked yell echoed through the forest as they were dragged into the darkness below.
With two foes vanquished, Naruto turned to the third, cocking his head slightly when he found that she hadn't moved from her spot. Add to that the fact she was now on her knees, with her weapons and utility pouches laid out in front of her, and you had a recipe for one bemused Jinchūriki.
Bemused, and on-guard. Someone who barely reacted at all to the annihilation of their teammates probably wasn't someone to underestimate.
"You are remarkably calm considering what just happened." Naruto remarked after a moment spent examining her. Her deep bronze colored skin gave her an exotic flair similar to a few of the Kumo Genin. But the intricate markings painted on her body in white were what really drew his attention. Though the patterns were completely different, Naruto couldn't help but be reminded of the Jashinist he'd fought in Kumogakure.
"I have nothing to fear from you." the girl replied, meeting his stare unflinchingly.
It was at this time that a familiar voice filtered up from the forest floor.
"Mali?" it was her male teammate, still alive but clearly not well. "Mali, help! I...I'm stuck, I can't move!"
"You don't?" Naruto's head tilted just a bit more to the side.
"A beast you may be, but you are an honorable one."
"Mali, where are you?! There's...something down here..."
"I am?" Naruto asked, his head tilting just a bit more.
"When your prey is unarmed and surrendering, yes." the corner of her mouth twitched ever so slightly.
"I can feel you up there, Mali! Help me, dammit! I can hear it getting closer!"
"Hell of a thing to stake your life on." Naruto drawled.
"Ama has never led me astray."
"Wha...What the fuck is that?! Mali?! MALI?!"
"And who might this 'Ama' be?"
"My guide and mentor in all things. The one who gifts me with the visions that made the village Elders choose me for this mission."
"Nonononono, get away!"
"And she knows me?"
"Yes, and you will come to know her in due time."
The Juno's screams became incoherent as the sounds of dozens of small feet scurrying across the ground converged, followed shortly by the horrid noises of a body being torn apart.
"You know, in our line of work when someone says something like that to you, it's usually a threat." Naruto pointed out.
"She is no threat to you, nor am I." Mali assured. "Ama is a being of light and love, not violence."
"Then why would she want anything to do with me?" Naruto almost laughed.
"Yes, a miasma of death and hate shrouds you, and you bend to the will of the dark as much as it bends to yours. But Ama has room in her heart for all, and does not begrudge the things we must do for survival…"
If she didn't have Naruto's attention before, the young shaman did now.
"...What about the things we do for fun?"
Throwing Naruto for yet another loop, Mali actually smiled at that, if only slightly.
"We are all broken in our own little ways. Ama works to make us whole; we need only admit to needing help."
"Uh-huh. And…'Juno', was it? Pretty sure he asked for help. Quite loudly, too."
"Only on the brink of death; a place he put himself with his own selfish and bullheaded actions." Mali scoffed. "He and Kara were cut from the same cloth. Unwilling to see what was right in front of them. Unwilling to listen to reason if it meant sacrificing their pride. Every warning I gave went unheeded." her voice began to rise as her hands clenched into fists in her lap. "I warned them not to underestimate this forest. I warned them not to take the contract on you. I even tried to save them with the scroll, and they took it from me!"
"Wait, wait, back up. There's a contract on me?" Naruto blinked owlishly behind his mask.
"Indeed," Mali nodded, "an open one as well, with a five-hundred thousand ryō payout."(2)
"Huh...Anything on the holder?"
"No. When we awoke this morning, we found notes under our pillows telling us about the contract and to burn two of the notes if we were interested, and all three if we weren't. Of course Kara and Juno accepted and within a minute a man dressed in ANBU garb walked out of our bathroom. He told us your name, gave us three photographs and said his client wanted you dead either in the forest or in the finals."
"Interesting. Not all that surprising, all things considered, but thanks for the heads-up." Naruto said before pulling a forfeit scroll out of his jacket and tossing it to her. "You'll probably need one of these, seeing as how yours are likely in something's stomach by now."
"All of our points, too." Mali quipped.
"Not worth it." Naruto snorted.
"I suppose not." Mali gathered up her things in slow, deliberate movements. "Farewell, Honorable Beast."
'Not a nickname I'd want to be stuck with.' Naruto thought as the girl unrolled the scroll and was enveloped in a cloud of white smoke.
"Look at you, moving up in the world with your first international contract!" Kyuubi giggled. "Gotta wonder who put it up, though."
'Definitely local, definitely an amateur.' Naruto replied. 'Five-hundred thousand would be a nice payday for an actual Genin, but anyone worth a damn wouldn't bother with it under the current circumstances. That's about the average pay for a B-class mission, and assassinating a fairly high-profile target in their own village, while said village is more on-edge than it's been in over a decade, is A-class material at least.'
"Especially considering the short notice, lack of intel and limited time to gather more."
'So I'm thinking a civilian, but one with enough money and connections to possibly have an ANBU be their middle-man. But not enough to have that ANBU take the contract himself.'
"Don't be so sure." Kyuubi warned. "The open contract could just be a cover. The real assassin takes you out, gets his money and if anyone looked into it they'd have hundreds of suspects from all over the nations."
'...Then I guess I'd better hope the holder is as green as I think they are.' Naruto replied, but made a few more clones to watch his back, just in case.
'I hope someone offs that fucking psycho!' Shibire raged mentally. '"Let him do his job", "You'll be protected"; my ass!'(3)
"Can't go…much longer, Shibire…" his friend gasped between desperate gulps of air.
"Light ahead." Shibire wheezed.
"Oh, thank Kami!" Minoji would've laughed in relief if his lungs weren't already working overtime.
The two teens broke into the clearing like the devil was on their tail, and didn't stop until there was a good hundred feet of unbroken sunlight between them and the darkness of the inner forest. Even then they didn't relax until several minutes passed with no unpleasant surprises, at which point they collapsed to their knees.
Through all the stories, warnings and briefings about the Forest of Death over the past couple weeks, Team Shibire had their doubts. Though they paid attention, took their notes and prepared as recommended, in the backs of their minds they thought it was all a little exaggerated. The place was supposedly home to creatures that could overrun entire villages overnight, but somehow they were held at bay by a fence? A very large, very strong, very electrified fence, sure; but still just a fence.
It was that misplaced confidence in their supposed smarts which led them to where they were now.
They were a team of unapologetic sandbaggers three years running and knew there couldn't be a fourth. But if they were going to be forced into action, they'd decided it was their time to shine. Between their experience, training and arsenal of techniques, they were more than qualified to be Chūnin and considered themselves one of the aces up Konoha's sleeve. Combined with some extra intense training leading up to the exams, as well as the promise of backup from the village's own Lord of the Ringers, Team Shibire felt ready to take on the world.
So when they ran into a team of nobodies from a joke of a "Hidden Village" that didn't have a single accomplishment to its name, they saw easy points and not much else.
The plan was to swoop in, knock them all out, take their shit and move on. But before they could do any swooping, the girl put the fear of Kami into them. It began with a dance as she decided to show off her skills as a ballerina seemingly at random. Then, in the middle of a pirouette, things took an even weirder turn. She seamlessly slipped her massive ring blade off her shoulder, over her head and let it fall, only to catch the inner rim on her hip and swing it around her body in a very...distracting display of her talent in belly dancing. Then she lifted her right arm up above her head and,, with almost inhuman grace, used only the motion of her body to bring the blade all the way up to her hand...where she suddenly spun around and flung it at the Konoha team with such speed and power that only pure instinct kept them from getting cut in half.
It only got worse from there as they were forced to dive from their hiding place. Realizing they'd bitten off more than they could chew, they tried to talk their way out of it, or at least Shibire did, readily handing over their points as a peace offering. But he went completely ignored while the Tsukigakure ninjas argued among themselves about who would get to kill them.
Scare tactic or not, they weren't waiting around to find out, so Shibire threw down a smoke bomb and the three decided to take their chances with the denizens of the undergrowth.
That proved to be the second greatest mistake of their young lives.
They didn't know if they'd been running for five minutes or five hours; all they knew was that someone upstairs liked them, because it was nothing short of a miracle they'd survived even a second of it.
The problem now was that their lives were just about the only things they kept. Clothes, boots, equipment pouches, weapons; even their forehead protectors had been lost to grasping claws and gnashing teeth in the dark. Even their jackets, costing several missions-worth of pay each, designed to withstand keen, steel edges were sliced and ripped off of them in short order by things they hadn't even seen. But despite all that, again by some miracle their injuries were minor. Yes, their skins were now patchworks of scrapes, scratches and bruises, but nothing serious and, as far as they could tell, nothing toxic.
"You think...You think anyone will believe us...when we get back?" Minoji panted, sweating so much that the green marks around his eyes, which most assumed were tattoos, were starting to run.
"Dude...I don't believe it, and I was there." Shibire replied as he tore off the tattered remains of what were once his shirt and pants to give himself another once-over. "Anything on my back?"
"You'll have a couple scars, but you'll live." Minoji said, then pulled off the shredded rag formerly known as a shirt. "What about me?"
"Holy shit, dude," Shibire grimaced at the symmetrical pairs of small holes running down his friend's back, "something went right for your spine."
Minoji shivered at the memory of what gave him those wounds. His feet had barely hit the ground when something pounced on him. It wasn't large, maybe the size of a housecat, but whatever it was came equipped with spikes sharp enough to punch right through his armored jacket and into his skin. But just as he felt them going deeper, the creature was suddenly snatched off his back, taking a big chunk of his jacket with it.
"Didn't get it, thank Kami. So I'm good?" the dark-haired boy was slightly concerned by the fact that he couldn't feel any of his injuries, but he would blame that on adrenaline for the moment.
"You're alive, not 'good'." Shibire grunted. "We won't be 'good' until we're outta this hellhole."
"So what's the plan?" Minoji asked, wincing a little as his wounds finally started to make themselves known.
"Well, we can make a run for it back to the fence, or we can try to find another Konoha team and beg for a forfeit scroll. Pick your poison, I guess."
"We can't do either until we find Tanzō."
"You can't be serious, Shibire."
"No, YOU can't be serious, Minoji. We're down to our fucking boxers and you want to got back in?"
"Thought so. Look, if Tanzō got as lucky as us, he should be on his way to the fence. If he wasn't...one KIA is better than three."
Despite how much he wanted to argue for the sake of his friend and teammate, Minoji couldn't deny the reality of their situation.
"Come on, we gotta move." Shibire said. "Straight ahead until we either reach the fence, or find a team we can bum a scroll off of. And keep a lookout for the dead drops; we can use the points to trade and the spikes will come in handy if we have to fight." and with that, he jumped up to the nearest branch.
"...Sorry, man." Minoji whispered as he took one last look at the vile abyss that had most likely claimed his friend's life, before taking off after his team leader.
Their trip was short-lived; less than two minutes in Shibire signaled Minoji to stop. They perched on a branch overlooking a strangely barren patch of land.
"What's wrong?" Minoji whispered, not particularly liking the contemplative look on the other boy's face.
"Look at the tree in the far end of the clearing." Shibire replied.
Minoji quickly caught sight of the dead drop spike stuck in the tree truck, and the orange flag dangling off of it.
"You're kidding, right?" the dark-haired boy hissed.
"Looks like an easy grab, and that's fifty-one points to trade with, minimum." Shibire answered, eyes narrowing as he continued to weigh the risk and reward.
"You do remember what orange means, right? 'Something mean is known to frequent the area'!"
"Well it ain't there now."
"How do you know? Because you can't see it? I don't know if you've noticed, but making assumptions hasn't exactly panned out for us today!"
"You're right, you're right. Shit, what am I doing?" Shibire groaned at his own stupidity. "Let's…" he trailed off as someone suddenly came into view below them, walking straight for the orange drop. "Tanzō?"
"Tanzō?!" Minoji nearly fell out of the tree when he looked down and, sure enough, there was the third member of their team.
What was left of him, at least. Whatever had happened to him, he'd fared so much worse than his comrades. His skin was as shredded as the blood-soaked rags that used to be his clothes. His left arm had been severed just above the elbow, and the wound had clearly been cauterized already. The scalp on the right side of his head had been stripped off, exposing his skull, and his right ear was hanging off the side of his face by a single flap of skin.
And that was just what Shibire and Minoji could see from the back.
"Tanzō!" they screamed in unison as they jumped down to land in front of him, where they immediately recoiled in horror.
Gashes and holes littered his torso, including some on his abdomen so deep, it was a wonder he hadn't been disemboweled. Like his stump of an arm, the most grievous wounds had been cauterized, and the blisters and charred flesh at the edges showed it was done with something far hotter than needed. His face wasn't any better, with his left cheek dominated by a ragged tear that exposed his teeth, and his right orbital bone shattered to the point that his eye had popped out of its socket.
"What the fuck?!" Minoji retched at the sight. Eye injuries had always been a weakness of his.
But Shibire was focused on the other eye. The one that darted around inside its socket in clear panic before resting on him, leaking tears all the while.
"Grab him!" he suddenly ordered.
"GRAB HIM!" Shibire roared. "He's being controlled!" he moved in and attempted to hold Tanzō in place, but found himself being pushed back by strength he was sure the other boy didn't have. After a couple seconds of this he realized he was working alone and yelled out, "What the hell, Minoji?!"
He looked and saw that, instead of making any move to help, Minoji was just standing there, unmoving...except for his eyes, darting around in their sockets in clear panic.
"NO!" Shibire screamed. Or at least tried to, but his mouth wouldn't work. His arms rebelled against him next, letting go of Tanzō. Then his legs moved him out of the way, clearing Tanzō's path to the orange drop.
"You cannot save him." came a voice from directly behind him that made Shibire's heart sink. "He belongs to Jashin now."
He couldn't turn his head, but he knew it was one of the "Genin" from Tsukigakure; the girly-looking guy dressed like a monk.
Shibire's body moved to stand beside Minoji, where a pair of arms slung across their shoulders and a face appeared between them. Another member of the psychotic trio, the one with the skeleton hoodie.
"I feel like I should apologize for the deception, lettin' you guys think you got away and all. Y'see, normally we would've killed scrubs like you right off and moved on. But due to circumstances beyond our control, we gotta do things a certain way and take what we can get. For us, that means we gotta play with our food. For you, it means this…" the orange-haired teen pointed straight ahead, where Tanzō had just reached the edge of the strange patch of land.
He got three steps in before the dead soil came to life. Ants. Millions upon millions upon millions of them, moving with one mind and one purpose.
They swarmed up Tanzō's legs, biting and tearing as they went. By the time he reached the dead drop, the boy had been stripped to the bone from the waist down and had surely expired from blood loss, but his body kept going. Even with no muscles or tendons left to move its legs, the body was still walking. It wrenched the spike from the tree and turned around to walk back, allowing Tanzō's teammates to see how the ants had surged inside his chest cavity, eating their way through his organs and up into his head, where they poured out of his nose, mouth and ears. Unable to close their eyes, they were forced to watch as his remaining eye seemed to dissolve inside his head, devoured from the inside.
A...mostly intact person had gone into the clearing, but what came back was little more than a skeleton, still in the process of being picked clean.
The bones walked up to the monk and held out the dead drop spike, but he made no move to take it.
"Need some bug spray over there?" the hoodie-clad teen snickered.
"If you wouldn't mind." the monk replied.
The red-head stuck up his right middle finger, ignited a small flame at the tip and flicked it towards the corpse. The tiny fireball sailed through the air in the blink of an eye, colliding with the skeleton and setting it alight like it was doused in gasoline.
A beat of silence followed, then the redhead and the monk started to chuckle, joined by the feminine giggle of their third teammate from somewhere neither Shibire nor Minoji could see.
"Sorry guys," the redhead laughed, "inside joke, you wouldn't understand."
The flames vanished, leaving behind only charred bones and smoke.
"Please accept this small token of suffering and blood spilled in your name, Lord Jashin, and know that I remain your humble servant, unwavering and undying through your grace." the monk finished his prayer before taking the drop.
As soon as the spike left its hand, the skeleton collapsed.
"You're an artist, Juji." Inferno cackled. "Next." he shoved Minoji forward, who tripped over his own feet upon suddenly regaining control of his body.
But before he could even think about doing anything with his regained freedom, Tira hooked his neck with the inside of her ring blade and flung him into a tree with effortless ease.
"That's a tough act to follow for sure, so how 'bout something simple? A real classic!" Tira said as she spun the weapon around her wrist, picking up speed with every word. "I thought I'd at least take an arm or something that first time, but you all dodged it clean!" she continued with a pout. "So I want a do-over! And just to make it fair, you're free to go if you live!"
"ONLY you, though." Inferno added before ruffling Shibire's hair. "This one's mine."
"Ready?" Tira asked with a toothy grin.
For a moment a look of determination graced Minoji's features. But only for a moment. A single step forward was the only warning he got before the two halves of his body practically exploded apart from each other. More than half of the death wheel sliced through the other side of the tree, itself a good three feet in diameter, such was the force behind the throw.
"Huh, guess it was a fluke." Tira remarked with only mild disappointment as she went to retrieve her weapon.
"To be fair, last time he had fifty yards to work with; you only gave him ten this time." Inferno pointed out.
"Oh, NOW you say something?!"
Inferno just chuckled before turning his attention back to Shibire.
"As for you, I was just gonna set you on fire and laugh, buuuuut...flash-frying your friend over there made me hungry. However, since we'll be stuck out here for a bit, I figure this is the perfect time to indulge my inner chef. Now, considering your total sausage-fest of a team, you're probably more than familiar with spit roasting. But I guarantee you're not gonna like the version I have in mind."
'That's just fucked…' the clone thought as it arrived on the scene.
After being alerted to trouble by the sudden destruction of an entire protection detail for a team of sandbaggers, a three-man cell of clones had gone to check things out. And when they were wiped out as well, before ever seeing their assailants, yet another trio made the trip, though far more stealthily.
They'd gone in expecting to find corpses. What they hadn't expected was the cookout from hell.
It was the Tsukigakure team, seated in a small clearing just a few yards away from a barren patch of land marking the nesting site of a sizable colony of Executioner Ants. The girl was sitting cross legged on the ground and rummaging through three equipment pouches, while the monk appeared to be meditating. But their demon-possessed leader was...roasting an entire human body over an open fire, complete with a DIY rotisserie spit impaled through it. Even the fire itself had human bones from at least two different victims among the coals.
The clones had done all they could to remain undetected, suppressing their chakra and dropping all pretenses of being human to move silently through the trees via stretched limbs and pliable bodies. They'd even ditched the features of their creator to become little more than walking silhouettes hiding in the darkest spots they could find.
Even so, the demon called out to them.
"Hiya, fellas! Sorry about earlier, but that was a private party and you weren't invited. Feel free to stick around and join us for lunch, though; I make some killer burgers."
"Hah!" the girl barked, but didn't bother to look up from her task.
"But, if you're not here for some long pig, I suggest you fuck off. There are still plenty of other scrubs you can fail at guarding." the demon finished with a cackle.
"Fuck you, too." Naruto growled to himself as the memory he'd received from the clone ended.
The whole situation with the Tsukigakure team was screwed up. They were a problem that Naruto wasn't sure he could take care of, and even if he could his hands were tied in just about every way possible. Nightmare had heavily cautioned against confronting them, Kyuubi flat out forbade any direct action, and even the Hokage had taken a route infuriatingly similar to "wait and see".
Naruto understood, of course. They had no idea what they were dealing with, and taking on a demon blind was what started the whole mess they were in to begin with. A Rumare-level incident right in the middle of the Exams would almost certainly spell doom for Konohagakure. He couldn't be the cause of something like that. Not again.
So it was time to get back to work, rather than dwell on things that were out of his hands.
Naruto referred back to his list for the next potential target. Delivered to him by an ANBU shortly after he'd broken away from his team, the list was amazingly detailed for something that had been made in only a few hours. Naruto made a mental note to ask how so much information had been pulled together on so many people in such a short time, though he knew the answer would most likely be well above his clearance level.
As someone who always kept an up-to-date version of the Bingo Book, Naruto saw several familiar clan names on the list. Messing with them could bring trouble if they happened to be the nephew, sister or even child of a powerful rogue.
Provided there were witnesses, of course.
"Perhaps a less direct approach?" Kyuubi chimed in. "You have an entire forest full of monsters to work with; use your imagination."
'You're right, I really should be thinking outside the box…' Naruto's thoughts trailed off as a peculiar sound reached his ears. "Is that…"
Naruto wasted no time investigating the noise. Though he knew the world was full of freaks, this he had to see to believe.
It didn't take him long to find the source, and not only was it exactly what it sounded like; somehow it was even more outlandish.
There, pinned to the trunk of a tree with her long, shapely legs wrapped around the pistoning waist of her partner, was a very attractive young woman. Long, dark blue hair framed a heart-shaped face with narrow eyes and full lips.
"Meh, too much makeup." Kyuubi remarked. "One look at Haku and she'd probably kill herself from sheer insecurity."
Naruto wasn't so sure about the insecure bit, considering the girl was not only banging away out in the open, but letting herself be filmed as well. The cameraman, presumably the third member of the team, slowly and methodically moved around the couple with what looked like a rather expensive camera. His practiced movements and deadpan expression spoke of a wealth of experience in this secondary profession.
"Hey!" Naruto felt the incoming chakra signature just moments before the yell and mentally berated himself for being so distracted. He turned to regard the tall, olive-skinned teen who came marching out of the bushes with a scowl on his face. The same face as the cameraman.
Startled by the sudden shout, the two lovers stopped moving, but didn't disengage, and turned to look at the interloper, revealing forehead protectors stamped with the star symbol of Hoshigakure.
"What the fuck, Dom?!" the guy groused. "You're the goddamn lookout!"
"I had to take a piss!" Dom yelled back.
Naruto took note of the older shinobi's accent.
"You had to walk away to take a piss?" the other guy asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Some of us don't like waving their junk around in front of people, Etō!" Dom defended.
"Yeah, well some of us have junk that's worth waving around." Etō countered with a smirk, causing the girl he was still inside of to roll her eyes.
"Can we focus, please?" she then nodded towards Naruto. "Who the hell are you?"
"I would say I'm the most uncomfortable person here…" Naruto looked directly at Dom, "but now I'm not so sure about that."
"Oh, kabuki boy's got jokes, huh? Just fuck off before you get fucked on."
"...What?" Naruto didn't actually want to know, but felt compelled to ask anyway.
"It's where we knock your punk ass out and take off that mask so the camera can see your face while they use you as a lumpy mattress." Dom grinned wickedly.
"Ah, don't be such a wet blanket, man." Etō said. "If the kid wants to watch, I'm sure we could negotiate a viewing fee. Maybe even a participation fee…"
"Hold up, don't go pimping me out to wannabe ANBU like I'm not right fucking here!" the girl protested hotly, using the hand not bracing herself on Etō's shoulder to smack him upside the head. "Besides, kid's probably hung like a doorknob. I'm with Dom."
"Welp, you heard the lady. Get lo…" Etō trailed off when he saw their fifth wheel was already gone, leaving Dom just as bewildered.
"...Okay, that's a little spooky." the girl murmured.
"I guess he's just good at running away." Etō chuckled.
"Actually, I was referring to how you're still hard even after all that." the girl giggled as she gave him a little squeeze with certain expertly controlled muscles.
"Oh please, Misako. I can barely stay soft when I'm around you. Inside you? I'll have to see a doctor, 'cause this thing'll definitely last over four hours." Etō replied with a wiggle of his eyebrows.
"Mm, so very romantic." Misako snorted.
"Hey, that's why we work so well together; you can't stand me, I can't stand you. There's no chance of us falling for each other and making it weird."
"Ahem…" the two "lovers" looked to see Dom's clone staring at them with an exasperated expression.
"What?" they asked in unison.
"Can you get back to fucking already? Our tagline is 'Real Ninjas, Real Danger'; 'Real Talk' ain't part of it."
"Edit it out, dickhead." Etō growled.
"I dunno, maybe he's right." Misako said. "I mean, the whole point is the thrill of the possibility of getting caught. But actually getting caught is...kind of a mood-killer."
"The hell it is!" Etō practically roared as he adjusted his grip on Misako's ass cheeks, pulled back his hips and then surged forward, hilting her in a single stroke.
"Oh!" Misako yelped and had to adjust her own grip to hold on. It only took about a dozen of those same hard, driving thrusts to get her right back into it. "Holy shit, that's more like it!"
Their reckless rutting reached a new level of intensity as the true significance of their little encounter finally settled in their heads. Forty-nine videos in the bag and not once had they been literally caught with their pants down/off. There had been many, many close calls, which were the real driving force behind the success of their movies, but this was a first.
And then there was where and how they had been caught. These were the Chūnin Exams. This was THE Forest of Death. The ultimate danger zone on a GOOD day, filled with killer bugs, killer plants, killer snakes and killer everything else, now with killer humans added to the mix. It was by luck alone that the one who'd caught them was less of a killer and more of a budding voyeur, probably too young and/or creepy to even know what to do with a woman. Or man, if that was the team he played for.
But it was the thought of what COULD have happened that really stoked their fires and brought them to heights of pleasure they'd only seen in the exaggerated works of hentai artists. Orgasms that caused them to black out for a moment, and come back to find their bodies hadn't missed a beat, starting another desperate climb to that blissful peak.
By the time their bodies finally gave in, Etō was seeing double, Misako had lost count of how many times she came, both were starting to feel more pain than anything, and neither could say how much time had passed.
"We...We should...get caught more often…" Etō panted heavily, too tired to even put his pants back on.
"If we want to fuck each other to death, sure." Misako laughed, though it came out as a series of wheezing breaths.
"Not the worst way to go." Etō took a moment to look around and, now that he had enough blood in his brain to think clearly, noticed they were more alone than they should've been. "Where's Dom?"
"Oh, you'd better be fucking with me." Misako snarled. "I swear to God, if he's taking another bathroom break, I'll turn him into a woman so he'll have a reason to squat in the bushes!"
"He left the camera." Etō said as he stood up on wobbly legs and moved to pick up the device.
"...So we just had the fuck of the century, and he might not have got it on tape?!" the girl hissed as she hopped to her feet, her fatigue suddenly washed away by a wave of outrage.
"Can you think of anything that would've caused him to miss that?"
"Yeah." Etō dropped the camera in favor of retrieving his pants. He also tossed Misako her shorts and a small packet of tissues. "You're, uh, leaking."
"Yeah I am." she smiled, having never felt so good about being so sore.
Once they had themselves squared away, they put on their rather uncomfortable shortwave throat mics and called for their cameraman.
"Dom? Dom, where the hell are you, dude?" Etō called out, but got no reply.
So Misako tried her hand. "Dominic, if you don't get your ass back here pronto, don't bother coming back at all; you won't like what'll be waiting for you!"
It seemed to do the trick, as both radios crackled to life and a familiar voice came through.
"Keep it down, you fucks!" Dom spoke in an urgent whisper, clearly in distress. "They're fucking everywhere…"
"I fucked up, guys. Kabuki Boy came back and I tried to run him off, but he led me into a fucking trap!" a light gasp followed the outburst, then silence, save for faint clicking noises in the background.
"Dom?" Etō whispered with genuine concern in his tone.
"I'm here, I'm here."
Even Misako breathed a sigh of relief. "You could've said something."
"And interrupt our best video ever?"
"Priorities, man." Etō chastised, but couldn't help but chuckle.
"I thought I could handle it. He ran before; guess that was the setup."
"We can talk about you being a cocky meathead when we get outta here." Misako said. "Where are you?"
"Not far, I don't think. I went straight south for maybe fifty yards, then I went right for a bit, then left, so...I can't be more than two-hundred yards south of you, maybe a little southwest."
"So deeper into the Forest of Sodomy." Misako scoffed.
"I told you I fucked up."
"And we'll never let you live it down, so you sure you want us to come get you?" Etō grinned as he and Misako set off.
"You ever seen how a centipede eats? I have, and I want no part of it!"
Neither Etō or Misako liked the sound of that, but they weren't unfamiliar with giant bugs."
"You tried burnin' 'em?" Etō asked.
"Can't risk it." Dom replied. "Pretty sure I'm surrounded and I can't get all of them at once. I give away my position and one of those fuckers will be up my ass before I know it."
"Well we can't have that; you've never been good with anal." Misako giggled.
"It's an exit, not an entrance; I don't care what you say."
After a brief chuckle the two ninjas went silent as they reached what they believed was the general area where Dom was pinned down.
Etō suddenly gave the signal to stop and hunkered down behind a nasty-looking thorn bush.
"I smell blood."
"You're near the tiger."
"Biggest one I've ever seen. It ambushed me, then got ambushed itself. All the commotion woke the whole damn nest or whatever up."
"Remind me to never take you to a casino." Etō muttered, then turned to his present teammate. "I think we treat this like a smash-and-grab. Bust in, light the place up and make a break for it before they know what hit them. Ready?"
"Sounds good to me."
"Wait," Misako whispered and leaned closer to the bush, "you hear that?"
Etō took a moment to pump a little chakra into his ears and listened. Then immediately wished he hadn't as wet crunching noises wormed their way into his brain and right down his spine.
"Well?" came Dom's impatient hiss.
"Fuck it." Etō grunted and gave Misako a nod before they both leapt over the bush, already performing the seals for a basic Flamethrower technique.
Only to be stopped dead in their tracks by the sight that greeted them. There was indeed blood everywhere, but not from any tiger. It was Dom, lying on the forest floor, lifeless but still twitching and jerking from the fifteen-foot centipede that had its entire head shoved into his chest cavity.
"Where are you guys?"
Maybe it was because they were still riding high on the best sex of their lives, but for whatever reason the impossibility of what they were hearing, versus what they were seeing didn't compute right away. Their minds were slow to question how Dom was clearly dead and still talking to them. It was this moment of confusion, shock and, above all, inaction that sealed their fates.
Before either of them could react, another centipede, even bigger than the one devouring their cameraman's corpse, shot out of the underbrush and rammed right into Etō's abdomen. A split second later, it drove its massive fang-like pincers into his sides, spearing through his kidneys, into his intestines and just barely missing his spine. A vile cocktail of venom and digestive enzymes flooded out through the hollow claws, locking up his muscles before he could even scream and starting to corrode his insides as the giant arthropod began to eat.
Misako heard the horrid skittering of another gargantuan bug closing in on her and it was enough for the fight-or-flight instinct to break through the daze. Her body chose flight and took to the trees before her mind really caught up to what was happening. She didn't stop until she couldn't feel her legs and her lungs felt ready to burst. She had no idea how far she'd gone, or in what direction, but she was in the canopy as far from the ground as she could get, and that was enough.
"Whatthefuckwhatthefuckwhatthefuckwhatthefu-" her mad rambling was cut short by a crackle from her radio.
Something came down from the leaves above her and before she knew it, her throat had been opened.
"You're leaking." it was Kabuki Boy, wicked knife in-hand and once pristine mask now spattered with red. So much for the budding voyeur…
"Yeah she is." another kabuki boy entered her rapidly dimming field of view, ensuring the last thing she ever saw was the lens of a very familiar camera.
Naruto watched her die with barely any interest, then casually nudged her off the branch and listened to the dull thumps of her body smacking other branches on the way down. He then took out his list and crossed two names off of it.
Honestly, he could've let them go with just a scare. They were low-priority, just using the Exams as an excuse to make more of their "danger porn". But, they were on the list, they had insulted him most grievously, and…
"This is a nice camera." Naruto's clone said with an appreciative nod.
"Anyone else feel like this is…wrong, somehow?" Chōji asked as one of Naruto's clones led Team Ten to another easy yellow-flagged spike.
"Yeah, I'm starting to." Shikamaru said, visibly agitated for the first time in a while. "Being protected is one thing, but this…If we aren't doing it ourselves, what's the point in us even being here?"
"This IS protecting you." the clone grunted, not even sparing them a glance. "Things have changed. We knew other villages would be sending the best they could get away with, but even so we still underestimated them. As far as anyone can tell, there are more ringers than actual participants, and all of them seem to have made it to stage two." the clone paused to yank a blue spike out of a tree trunk and tossed it over its shoulder, not caring who caught it. "As clan heirs, you three have bigger targets on your backs than most, and if someone comes for you out here, there's no guarantee we can take them before they get to you."
Just then another clone dropped down from a branch above, hanging upside-down from a jet black tendril that appeared to be coming out of its hand.
Once the team recovered from the scare, the new clone threw a spike with a yellow flag down to them.
"So the plan now is to get you to the fortress as quickly as possible, before the Boss turns this place into a warzone." the new clone continued where the other left off.
"There are two other options if being led by the hand is too…unpalatable." the first clone remarked. "If you're confident in your skills, we can go back into the shadows and just observe until we're needed, as per the original plan…"
"Or you can use your forfeit scrolls and go home." the hanging clone finished.
"An idea that's becoming more attractive by the minute." the first clone muttered.
"If that's the case, again I question why we're even here." Shikamaru retorted with a frown bordering on a scowl. "If you get us to the fortress and we pass, then what? We're forced into one-on-one fights with people we have no hope of beating on our own."
"One-on-one fights in a controlled environment, with Konoha Jōnin, including your sensei, watching everything and ready to step in at a moment's notice." the hanging clone pointed out. "And let's be real, how far did you think you were going to go anyway? With your teamwork, you might have gotten through this forest just fine if not for the elevated threat level. But by yourselves? To call you 'mediocre' is a compliment."
The whole team winced in unison at the dig, but none could argue against it. Naruto and even their own sensei had said as much the same. They had coasted on their combined strength for so long, they had totally neglected their individual weaknesses.
Chōji was physically powerful and more than able to take a punch or two, provided he was working on a full stomach…And providing he didn't get nailed in said full stomach. But he was slow and a purely up-close fighter with no answer for ranged attacks. His primary role typically revolved around protecting his teammates until at least one of them could do their thing and immobilize the enemy, at which point Chōji could move in for the finishing blow. But take away his backup and he was completely at the mercy of a faster opponent, which would be just about anyone.
Shikamaru was the brains of the outfit, clearly, but outside of that? He was quick and nimble enough for a combat style that focused on evasion and redirection, and could be trouble when he was allowed to use the environment to his advantage, but he hit like a wet noodle and had about the same stamina. If he was caught out in the open, it wasn't a matter of if he would be taken down, but when.
Ino was objectively the best of the bunch. A decent all-rounder and really the only one who could effectively operate independently for any length of time. However she had issues with tunnel vision, and without anyone to watch her back she was prone to focusing on one objective to the point that she lost track of her surroundings.
"In light of that, and the looks on your faces right now, I have to ask: Do you want to go home?"
"We can't." Ino answered firmly, drawing some odd looks from her teammates.
"Excuse me?!" Shikamaru practically yelped.
"We can't!" Ino rounded on him with a heated glare.
"Why the hell not?!" Shikamaru bit back, for once not backing down in the face of his friend's fury. "You heard him, staying out here would be insane!"
"Haven't you heard what people say about us? Do you always want to be known as a shinobi who gets by on the bare minimum? Is that really the reputation you want?!"
"Reputations are earned by results, not methods; something YOU used to be just fine with until…" Shikamaru cut himself off and backed up half a step. Aggression wasn't the answer and needling the blonde with her own insecurities would only escalate things further. "We're Genin, Ino; we've got our entire careers to build a reputation that sounds good to you."
"And personally, I would like those careers to last beyond today." Chōji finally spoke up.
"Tch, I should've known better than to expect you to care." Ino sneered before turning on her heel to march deeper into the forest.
"Yet you still expect us to follow you into hell?" the Nara clan heir jogged up behind the girl with a scowl and grabbed her shoulder. It wasn't until he felt the wind on his face that he realized not only had Ino thrown a punch at him, but he had dodged it on instinct alone.
"That's enough of that." the standing clone, which had walked right up beside Ino, casually swatted her upside the head with enough force to knock her out cold.
"You didn't have to hit her that hard!" Shikamaru growled as he kneeled to check on his friend.
"Well, since no one else was going to do anything about your little tiff…" the clone turned and looked directly at Chōji.
"What?" the plus-sized Genin asked, only for both clones to shake their heads at him like disappointed parents. "What?!"
"Anyway, now that your mouthpiece is taking a nap, what's the call?" the hanging clone asked.
For a moment Shikamaru looked like he wanted to say something about the "mouthpiece" jab, but instead turned to Chōji.
"We don't belong out here, Shika." the Akimichi heir sighed as his shoulders slumped. "Ino has a point; we've been slacking off for too long. But this is NOT the time for us to try and step up."
"Then let's go home." Shikamaru reached for the scroll in his utility pouch and for a moment felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders.
And then it all went wrong.
The small, metal object fell perfectly in the center of a patch of long grass, totally muffling the sound of the impact. By luck alone did the standing clone see it from the corner of its eye.
The two conscious members of Team Ten were understandably startled when the clone suddenly dove to the ground, and horrified when it exploded a scant second later, throwing them both off their feet.
The hanging clone dropped to the forest floor immediately, but before it could even assume a fighting stance it was assaulted by a dark blur. It kept up admirably for a short while, despite being caught completely off-guard, blocking almost every blow. But it ended as quickly as it started when a series of attacks landed to its midsection, each marked by a split-second glint of metal in the sunlight.
The clone was then carelessly tossed aside, landing in heap and leaving only a tall, lanky, black-clad Iwagakure ninja staring down at the three clan heirs with clear malice in his eyes. He was soon joined by two others, who all bore the same look.
"…I don't suppose you'd consider just taking our points and letting us go?" Shikamaru ventured as he placed himself between the foreign team and Ino.
"After what your parents did to ours?" the tall one rasped. "Not a chance."
"So it's revenge, then." Shikamaru sighed. "Go after their kids, who had nothing to do with anything by the way, because you can't touch the adults."
"What better revenge is there than to make them feel exactly what we have for the last five years?"
"I see." Shikamaru said as he shifted his weight, like he was preparing to move, causing the three Iwa Genin to tense up. "At least there's a bit of silver lining here. If your parents are dead, they won't miss you."
Before anyone could even register the meaning behind his words, the clone that had been stabbed popped up behind the trio. Its masked face already split open into a massive, fanged maw, it grabbed one of the Genin by the head and bit off the entire back of the boy's skull.
The other two scattered on instinct, and that was their fatal mistake.
One dove to the side, but was so busy looking at the carnage behind him, that he didn't see Chōji waiting for him with open arms. Only after those arms were constricting him did he realize his mistake. He didn't have long to dwell on it, however, as black spikes erupted from his torso, skewering his vital organs.
The last, the beanpole of a leader, ran straight forward, momentarily forgetting who was in front of him. He was stopped in his tracks by a sudden pressure in his abdomen, accompanied by a pain unlike anything he'd ever felt. It was the Nara, with his right arm outstretched and formed into a thick black tendril that was now speared through the Iwa Genin's small intestine.
Then, a pair of feminine hands settled on his shoulders.
"You should've taken the points." came the whisper of a girl's voice behind him.
A shaky glance over his left shoulder revealed the Yamanaka girl staring at him. He never saw her right hand lengthen and flatten into a pitch-black blade. Nor did he feel it when that blade lopped his head off in one effortless stroke.
"I feel like that shouldn't have worked so smoothly." "Shikamaru" said as he removed his tentacle arm from the foreign ninja's torso, allowing the body to crumple to the ground.
"Yeah, I thought for sure at least one of them would notice there was no blood on the blade when he stabbed me." the Naruto clone remarked, its masked face absolutely drenched in blood, but showing no signs of the monstrous mouth.
"I guess that's what happens when you're too focused on the objective." "Ino" shrugged, then looked over to "Chōji", who still had his victim stuck to him. "Why do you still have that?"
"Because the looks on their faces are hilarious." the "boy" answered and nodded to the trees on his left.
All three disguised clones turned to look at the actual Ino-Shika-Chō heirs, who were all staring at them, mouths agape and eyes wide with abject horror.
"Why are you still here?" the fake Shikamaru practically growled, drawing back his tentacle to form back into a normal arm. "You wanted to leave. So leave."
Team Ten couldn't move fast enough, each of them fumbling with their forfeit scrolls, barely able to hold them with their violently shaking hands. Three large puffs of white smoke and three short yelps signaled their eventual success as they were spirited away by the reverse-summoned ANBU Shadow Clones.
With them gone, the Naruto clones assumed their true forms and addressed the elephant in the room.
"We need to be more on the ball." one clone said.
"Indeed." another nodded. "They had us, we can't deny that. They actually managed to get the drop on us, and if they had cooked that grenade just a second longer…"
"I'll spread the word. One close call is enough." one of the clones said before dispelling itself to give its memories to the clones in the surrounding area. The other clones dispersed back into the forest, one of them taking Team Ten's points to hand out to the nearest Konoha team.
"Anyone else keep hearing explosions?" Haku asked, breaking the silence of the last twenty minutes.
Hinata looked up in surprise, thinking she was the only one who could hear the distant, muffled booms.
"Yeah, but that's to be expected." the fledgling half-demon replied. "Honestly, I expected to hear more."
"If there were more actual Genin out here, we probably would." Haku said.
"You're probably right." Hinata nodded and went back to testing out her other eyes beneath her new mask.(4)
The demon eyes definitely made her vision much sharper, but they had nothing on the Byakugan. That said, they had one advantage in that they didn't require energy or sustained effort. All she had to do was tap into her yōki to bring about the change, and it would last until she used human chakra.
"So, uh, how are you liking the mask?" Haku inquired somewhat hesitantly. "Think you'll keep it?"
Hinata let out an audible sigh that nearly made Haku retreat, but she stood her ground. She decided it was time to start being proactive and make an impression. Her previous strategy of staying in the background to avoid making waves was shortsighted at best, especially after Hinata became her neighbor for all intents and purposes.
If Haku was going to be a part of Naruto's life, Hinata would be a part of hers, along with Shino and whoever ended up as the third member of Team Eight. And then there was the possibility of Zabuza continuing to teach them. Being passive now would only make things more difficult later.
"I think so." Hinata said after resigning herself to the conversation. "Not as an everyday thing, but for missions definitely. Not this one, though."
"What's wrong with it?"
"I bought it off the shelf just for the Exams, so it doesn't really fit right and it's missing some pretty useful features." Hinata said, adjusting the mask slightly. "Might as well splurge on a couple of custom jobs while I still have access to clan funds."
"Yeah, even the expensive retail ones don't hold a candle to the customs." Haku said, thinking about her own mask at home. Hinata had the right idea; it would definitely be seeing more use once she started going on missions.
"...You had a mask?" Hinata asked flatly.
Haku took no notice of the girl's sudden change in demeanor; she was just happy to finally have some common ground.
"Yeah, it's back at the apartment. Zabuza had it made for my fourteenth birthday, though he said it was only to make our emergency exit plan more effective. I was the only member of the crew who was still unknown and didn't have a bounty, and he wanted to keep it that way." Haku smiled at the memory. "That mask gave me a level of freedom that I honestly took for granted. When I took it off, I could walk into any village, shinobi or not, and never worry about a thing. But they had to wear disguises and use Henge just to go to the market."
"Of course you have a mask…" Hinata muttered as she stood up and walked past Haku without another word.
"What? What did I say?" the brown-haired girl blinked in confusion.
The heiress ignored her and walked over to Shino, who sat off to the side with his beetles buzzing around him.
"Where's your new friend?" she asked.
"Sunning herself about fifty yards off." the boy nodded off to his right.
"Kinda far for a bodyguard."
"Maintaining the Bubble and my connection to her is proving more difficult than I anticipated." Shino said.
The "Bubble", named by Kiba because "Insectoid Early Warning and Defense Perimeter" was ridiculous to anyone who wasn't an Aburame, was basically what it sounded like. A dome or full sphere of bugs spread out over an area that served to both alert the team to threats, and attack them if needed.
"Should we be worried?" Hinata inquired with a bit of an edge in her tone. Having such a creature lurking about was unnerving enough when it was being controlled; she did NOT want that thing off its leash.
"No. As long as one of my beetles is on your person, she will recognize you as friendlies." Shino assured his friend and leader. "But if she wanders off and finds something to eat...The fuller she gets, the less use she'll be in a fight."
Hinata nodded in understanding; Anko told her much the same thing about snake summons.
"Well, if you're ready to move, call her back and let's get going. We don't want to be out here any longer than necessary."
"Let me call the beetles back and I'll be ready. What about Haku-san?"
"Ready and waiting." Hinata answered curtly.
"...Alright. Give me a moment."
"Oh, and can you have your friend follow us from a distance, preferably out of sight?"
"I'll have her fly above the canopy."
"Hiding in plain sight? I like it."
Minutes later they were on the move again. Hinata took point with her Byakugan, but upon entering the forest she learned quickly to use it sparingly. There was simply too much to see at any given time, and with new, predatory instincts making her more drawn to movement than ever before, sensory overload came within seconds.
Hinata's current solution was to use her eyes in pulses, keeping them active just long enough for her brain to make sense of the images. Ten seconds on, thirty off was a balance that had served her well so far.
"There's a drop up ahead, but I can't tell what color it is." Hinata announced the findings of her latest pulse.
"If there's nothing around, let's go for it." Haku said. "We can be at the tower before sunset at this rate."
Hinata had to stop herself from disagreeing on reflex and grudgingly admitted the brunette was right. As it turned out, with Hinata's eyes, Haku's speed and Shino's bugs, they could snatch up even red drops almost risk-free. They were already up to four-hundred and eleven points, and most of it was from just three drops. Depending on the color of the next one, they'd be free to make a b-line right for the tower…
"Let's do it." Hinata said. "Shino, have your friend on standby just in case."
With that, the heiress led the way to the drop. But as she and her team descended through the leaves, she found the drop wasn't nearly as clear as it had been just seconds before.
'Where the hell did they come from?!' Hinata thought frantically.
Caught completely by surprise, the trio of young men did what any good ninja would do.
"Whoa!" Hinata exclaimed as she twisted her body midair to avoid a kunai aimed at center-mass. Too late she noticed the blade's trajectory would now put it in Shino's chest instead of her own.
She needn't have worried, for the kunai was deflected by a senbon needle hurled with enough force to not only knock the much heavier projectile way off target, but also fully penetrate the steel, causing a brief flash of sparks.
Team Eight landed on the gargantuan tree branch in a loose formation. Hinata had her daggers at the ready, while beetles swarmed angrily around Shino's hands and the tips of Haku's needles just barely glinted in the low light.
Similarly the foreign shinobi stood across from them prepared for battle. A tall, lanky fellow with long, green hair and a half mask wielded a rather plain-looking katana, and his stance suggested he knew how to use it. The second was a few inches shorter, but built more like a bear than a beanpole, with bulging muscles just slightly less menacing than his all-metal kanabō club. The last was also the smallest and youngest-looking of the three, armed with a kunai between each finger and yellow eyes trained specifically on Haku.
Taking note of their forehead protectors, Hinata was suddenly even more appreciative of her mask.
'It just HAD to be Kumogakure ninjas…' she growled mentally.
"I say we feed them their own eyes." Inner Hinata snarled.
For several seconds neither side moved a muscle. Then the tall Kumo Genin lowered his sword a bit too quickly, causing the other five to flinch simultaneously.
"Okay…" he began slowly, "I'm sensing that nobody actually wants a fight right now."
"Could've fooled us with that kunai." Hinata countered, making her voice deeper for no real reason she could pinpoint.
"We're in a place called the 'Forest of Death', surrounded by hostiles at any given time, and a rival team just literally got the drop on us." the Kumo team's marksman deadpanned. "How would YOU react?"
"...Fair enough." Hinata conceded.
"I think we can solve this without bloodshed." the swordsman said, then pointed to the orange drop behind his team. "We're just here for the drop. You gotta admit we got here first, so if you acknowledge our claim on it, we're cool."
"Fine by us."
"Then we're cool." the swordsman slowly sheathed his weapon and looked at his teammates. "Cool?"
"Cool." the marksman nodded, slipping his kunai back into their holsters.
The big one just grunted an affirmative and rested the club on his shoulder; probably about the closest he could get to "nonthreatening".
"We'll be on our way." Hinata said with a short bow towards the Kumo team. "Good luck."
"To you as well." the swordsman returned the gesture. "And maybe be a bit more careful from now on? I doubt there are many teams out here as chill as us."
Hinata merely nodded and leapt back into the treetops, Shino and Haku following immediately after.
"Well, that went better than expected." the swordsman smiled, then turned to his younger companion and gestured towards the drop. "Tanaka?"
"I got it." the boy said, then, with a flick of his wrist, launched a small hook out of his sleeve, attached to a spool of ninja wire. The hook wrapped around the dead drop spike and one quick pull later, the spike was in his hand. "Haha, ninety-five!"
"That makes three-forty, right? Well, boys, I don't think we'll be spending three days in this shitpit!" the swordsman laughed, only to quiet down when he noticed his other teammate staring off into the distance, in the same direction the Konoha team had gone. "Corbin, you've got that look on your face…"
"...That kid with the shades and the bugs?" the barrel-chested teen practically growled in a low, gruff voice. "Pretty damn sure that was Aburame Shino, heir to the clan."
"Last I heard, the Inuzuka heir bought it, so Ms. Sweet Thing must be his replacement."
"Which makes the one in the mask Hyūga Hinata." Corbin finished with a smile full of pearly white teeth.
"You...can't be serious."
"I can be, and I am, Yoshi." Corbin's smile widened.
"Serious about what?" Tanaka asked.
"About saying screw this Exam noise, plucking those eyes out of her skull and going home. We present them to the Council and be heroes, or sell 'em to the highest bidder and be rich."
"That's...not a bad idea, actually." Tanaka said, not really seeing any downsides. Even the normal trouble of assassinating an heir to a big clan was mitigated by the rules Konoha themselves implemented.
"You guys…" Yoshi trailed off with a sigh and stared up at the leaves above. "We kill her BEFORE doing any 'plucking', and we make it quick. No need for her to suffer. Cool?"
"Cool." Tanaka nodded.
"We'll see." Corbin chuckled ominously and made to set off, only to be stopped by Yoshi standing in his way.
"Corbin…" Yoshi said in a warning tone as he tried to stare the stockier male down.
"Yoshi…" Corbin said calmly, meeting the taller teen's eyes with his own unimpressed gaze.
The standoff lasted only four seconds before Yoshi blinked first, allowing Corbin to walk by him and jump into the trees.
"Listen, Yoshi," Tanaka said lowly, "it's better for everyone if you just let him do his thing and stay out of it. The more you try to stop him, the more he'll try to drag you into it, and that is NOT a rabbit hole you wanna go down. I'd tell you to ask Genji, but…"
"Is that you admitting the rumors are true?" Yoshi asked with narrowed eyes.
"That's me telling you to use your fucking head while you still have it." Tanaka replied coolly before taking off after the team tank.
Muttering obscenities to himself, Yoshi followed suit. Mid-jump he noticed a large patch of green that didn't look quite right, but he was too late in recognizing the outline of an enormous praying mantis.
The creature struck with speed and precision most ninjas could only aspire to, capturing Yoshi's torso and legs in a bone-crushing grip. He managed a single scream before the spikes lining the giant insect's forelegs punctured his lungs. The bug started to feed immediately, mandibles shearing through his armored clothing with ease and into the flesh on his side.
Yoshi struggled with everything he had left. His upper body and legs were locked in place, but his right arm had some freedom and he used it for all it was worth. He raked at one of the creature's bulbous eyes, but his fingernails slipped off like he was scratching glass. It did make the mantis pause, but only so it could line up a shot on his hand, biting down on Yoshi's wrist and chewing through it in a second.
It was then the bug decided it didn't like its grip and readjusted, finding a new anchor point around Yoshi's thighs, snapping his femurs and skewering a femoral artery in the process. It rotated him vertically and it's right forelimb clamped over Yoshi's left shoulder, crushing several ribs as well as impaling him all over again, forcing a spray of foamy blood from his mouth. Satisfied, the mantis wasted no time getting back to its meal.
Between the blood loss and respiratory failure, Yoshi was done. Mercifully he was already at a stage where he couldn't really feel anything anymore, so his brain registered only the sounds of the mandibles scraping and crunching as they chewed through his skull.
Above it all, hiding in the leaves with his back turned to the scene and trying desperately not to let the sounds get to him, was Shino.
"Them, or us…" he droned to himself, eyebrow twitching at a particularly loud "crunch" down below. "Them, or us."
Meanwhile, Haku had no such hang-ups. The Kumo ninjas had their chance. The conflict had been resolved without violence, everyone was free and clear to go about their business. Of course no one on Team Eight trusted it, so they weren't very surprised when one of Naruto's clones gave them a real-time transcript of what was being said after they left.
The Kumo team made themselves the enemy, so Haku felt no remorse as she stood over the corpse of the Kumo marksman. As the large icicle sticking out of the boy's forehead melted rapidly and flowed up through the air and back into her bottle, Haku felt only annoyance. She liked it when diplomacy prevailed, if only because that showed that it could in such a violent world. But, as was so often the case with negotiations, all it took was one greedy degenerate to ruin everything.
"Guess it was a bad idea after all." Haku sneered at the body.
"GRAAAAH!" she heard a forceful bellow just before the sound of a very heavy impact and cracking wood close by, but out of sight. "You're only making this harder on yourself"
"Still not as hard as it is on you." quipped Hinata's voice. "Let me know when you need a break."
"I'll break your damn skull!" a booming scream, followed by several grunts of exertion.
"And ruin these eyes you want so bad?"
"Oh, I got me a technique!" the male voice replied with a breathy chuckle. "See, you come down on the top just right, the pressure makes the eyes pop right out."
"Oh yeah. Here, let me show you!" one male yell suddenly became two, followed by the sound of two bodies colliding, a forceful exhalation, something metal clanging to the floor and the telltale "pop" of a dispelling Shadow Clone.
"Oh-ho, trying to distract me with conversation? Maybe you aren't just the brawn of the team." Hinata laughed.
"You little-HYAH!" another series of grunts and Haku could just imagine the big guy trying to engage a girl half his size hand-to-hand, swinging away and whiffing time and again. "Oof!"
"Really? Did you really just try to go hand-to-hand with me, knowing full well who I am? I take it back; you're ALL brawn."
At this point Haku decided she needed to see what was going on. What she was hearing sounded like a cat toying with its food, and that wasn't how Hinata did things.
'As far as I know, anyway.' Haku thought as she moved through the branches and perched on one overlooking the "fight" to watch it play out.
As it was now, the big brute, "Corbin" according to Naruto's clone, was struggling to get to his feet and holding his stomach, while Hinata was slowly circling him.
"Thought you'd be tougher than this, but I guess you're just big for no reason." Hinata sighed and suddenly paused and looked at her hands. She looked back at Corbin again, and slipped into a stance Haku had never actually seen her use.
In the time she had worked with Hinata, the girl had gone out of her way to not use her family's most famous technique. Which wasn't all that surprising, considering the relationship she had with them. And while Haku couldn't understand Hinata for the life of her, she was damn good at reading body language. And what she was seeing now told her the heiress was using the Gentle Fist in anger and spite.
Corbin had come after her for her bloodline, and this was her saying, "You want a Hyūga? You've got one."
And that was the light bulb moment. This was the kind of anger that had a story behind it, and Haku had an idea of what it was. Perhaps there was common ground to be found after all.
The ice user counted sixty-four strikes, increasing in speed and power until the last one launched the much larger ninja back ass over elbow. Oddly enough, he came to rest on his knees as if sitting seiza-style.
"You wanted a Hyūga? There you go." Hinata said, taking a moment to admire her handiwork before walking over to Corbin's discarded club. She lifted the hefty chunk of steel by its leather-wrapped handle and dragged it back over to its owner.
"M-M-Mer...c-c-cy…" Corbin wheezed as well as he could with a diaphragm that didn't want to cooperate.
"'Mercy', huh? Tell me, if you weren't such a weak little boy and our roles were reversed, would I be getting any mercy right now? No, I think I'd be getting my eyes plucked out." she lifted the kanabō and held it over Corbin's head. "Speaking of which, you said you have a technique for that and, quite frankly, it sounded a little far-fetched. So, for science…" she raised the club.
"...You know you deserve this, so shut the fuck up and hold still." the club came down with monstrous force, obliterating Corbin's skull and even crushing its way down into his chest cavity, resulting in a fountain of blood and shattered bone. And eyes.
"Holy shit…" Haku jumped at the sudden voice and looked to see that Shino had come to stand next to her at some point, and was now looking a little green around the gills.
Even Hinata wasn't immune to the gore she created.
"Ew...Ew…" the heiress backed up from the corpse and fruitlessly tried to fling the blood off her arms. "I don't know what I was expecting, but gross!"
"Um...Need a rinse?" Haku asked with an awkward smile.
"Desperately." Hinata replied with a shudder.
"Hey, guys?" Sakura asked, breaking the silence of the last half hour. "Can I ask you guys a question?"
"Yes, but I reserve the right not to answer it." N2 replied, sitting on the underside of a branch above the one Sasuke and Sakura were seated on.
"Same." Sasuke grunted.
Sakura opened her mouth to speak, but quickly closed it and looked down with a furrowed brow. She was clearly deliberating over what to say, and the blush that was starting to grow on her cheeks was more than a little worrying for the two males.
"How is it that boys can talk about blood like it's just business, and have the time of their lives covered in blood, but you practically gag and run away at the mere mention of a girl's cycle?"
"...Okay, where did that come from?" Sasuke demanded after a good five seconds of stunned silence.
"I...The quiet was getting to me." Sakura admitted, unable to meet anyone's eyes. "But it's still a legitimate question."
"This one's all yours." Sasuke said to N2 and walked off to the side, removing himself from the conversation.
"Whatever." N2 shrugged, but decided to humor the girl since he was more than a little bored himself. "First off, we're ninjas, so there's a good chance that when guys talk about blood, it IS business. For civilians, 'just another day at the office' can mean staring at reports all day. For us, it can mean carving someone up."
"That's a nice image…" Sakura deadpanned.
"Ain't it though?" N2 deadpanned right back. "Second, guys don't have the 'time of their life' covered in blood. It's sticky, it smells, it attracts flies and it stains everything. Or so I'm told about that last one; the boss doesn't really have that problem."
"That's not what Kaka-sensei told us about what happened in Wave Country. Naruto and Zabuza, covered in blood, bodies everywhere, having the time of their lives."
"Heat of the moment. Otherwise, being drenched in blood is annoying at best. And that's not even considering what might be IN that blood." N2 gave a theatrical shudder. "I mean, imagine offing some guy who just ran at you kamikaze style. Turns out he did it because he just found out he had some incurable disease and had nothing left to lose. Now his blood is in your eyes, up your nose, in your mouth, and you swallowed some of it…"
"You're doing that on purpose." Sakura accused, covering her mouth with the back of her hand.
"I am." N2 nodded. "Can you taste the copper yet?"
Sakura retched in response, glaring defiantly at the clone as she struggled to keep her snacks down.
But before N2 could go in for the kill, something attacked him. Appearing as little more than a large, dark blur to Sasuke and Sakura, it smashed into the clone and carried him off deeper into the forest so quickly, they would've missed it had they not been looking right at him.
There was a split second of shock before their training kicked in and they stood back-to-back in battle positions. Sasuke's Sharingan was already active, but he hardly needed it to see the woman standing on another branch dead ahead.
Just…there, still as a mannequin, staring him dead in the eyes at thirty-five yards. Mostly in shadow, save for a single beam of light that shined down when the leaves shifted just right and glinted off of her forehead protector, which bore the symbol of Kusagakure.
Nothing overtly threatening, yet still the single most threatening thing Sasuke had ever laid eyes on. And then she smiled.
And the Snake Man cometh.
That's another one in the bag. Hopefully you all had as much fun reading it as I didn't have writing it.
(1): For those who don't know, which is probably most of you since I had to look this up in the first place: Shiore is the name of the Kusa Genin Orochimaru killed and replaced to infiltrate the Exams in-canon.
(2): I know I've explained this before, but it's been a while so here it is again. The canon conversion rate has 1 Ryō equal to 10 Yen, which, for the story, is equal to 10 cents(9 cents in the real world as of June 2020, rounded up for convenience). So ¥500,000 converts to $50,000(American).
(3): Team Shibire, according to the Naruto Wiki, are the guys who opened their Earth/Heaven scrolls in the forest and were disqualified in-canon.
(4): If you don't remember, Hinata brought a Hunter mask to Stage One in the last chapter so she could use her Byakugan undetected.
The next chapter is pretty much wall-to-wall fights, so if that's your thing, look forward to it. I can only hope it won't take a year this time around.
Stay safe out there, folks. I'll see you next time.