Written By intoxicatedasphyxiation


"Nineteen dead in total, and the minister is unaccounted for."

"A kidnapping?"

"Most likely."

"Shit." Kankuro surveyed the scene before him, though all it screamed was the aftermath of a massacre, the stench of blood and initial decay wrenching through the air. Judging from the state of the bodies, he could tell that it had hardly been a day, and yet the early stages of putrefaction were dawning on the fallen bodies. That was the problem with the country's desert climate and thick clothes – all that body heat and sun only served to speed up the horrors of decomposition. He shuddered to think of what the scene might have unraveled instead if the village wasn't expecting the minister and his entourage; the sight might have been undiscovered for days, or even weeks. Few shinobi took this route, and even fewer civilians bothered to head this way at all – it was all sand and breeze for miles: the Hidden Sand Village's natural fortress, at best. There was only one conceivable conclusion, and it was evident on the faces of the three other shinobi studying the scene. "This needs to be reported back to the Kazekage – and to him alone. The situation needs to be contained before we inform the Daimyo that his closest advisor never made it to our village."

He eyed the dead before him – ten headbands in total, all from their village. Kankuro recognized them as the two separate cells the Kazekage had personally dispatched to escort the minister upon the Daimyo's request. The other six appeared to be the minister's personal bodyguards, judging by the weapons scattered close to their bodies – they were custom-made swords, with emblems of loyalty engraved into their hilts. The remaining three victims had been women in civilian garb – none of them the minister's wife.

"It's far too messy," the shinobi now closest to him commented, "It looks almost… random. Like a whimsical massacre, more than a planned kidnapping." Kankuro glanced at the blood work; the bodies were streamed with countless holes, some the size of fists – leaving behind only a mess of bloodied bodies rendered half to pulp. It was as though a rain of fastidious kunai had rained upon the entourage – and from the extent of the damage done to the bodies, Kankuro could only guess that they were chakra-laden too, for the wounds were thorough and unforgiving. The only problem with that assumption, however, was the lack of scattered weapons – there was no abundance of kunai and shuriken despite the countless inflictions, and the wounds didn't look like they were caused by swords either.

"A very powerful jutsu, if anything." Kankuro replied, "Though I've never heard of a jutsu that inflicts this sort of damage. Tearing a mass number of holes through flesh? And all of them, at that."

"You're suggesting… that whoever did this… did this by hand?" One of the chuunin asked, doubtfully.

"It's the only other possibility. There's no evidence of weaponry here." Kankuro circled the remnants of the entourage, "It's just pure brutality." He pointed at the bloodied mass where the women were entangled, an unsightly entwine of hair, terror, and tissue. "No hesitation whatsoever. Look at the way the bodies are positioned – it's like they didn't even have time to react." He looked at the carriages, as well as the fallen horses – the destructive holes had ripped through them too, as though they were only made of cardboard, and nothing more.

He turned to the chuunin closest to him and signaled him over. "Return to the village and tell the Kazekage that we'll be starting our search at the southern town closest from here. The search teams should be dispatched to the various towns within fifty miles of this site; it's impossible to cross this country without making a few stops – so it's highly possible that the kidnappers haven't crossed the border yet. The minister's life is the priority here. Should any of the other teams encounter them…" He let out a sigh, which didn't escape unnoticed.

"Let's just say that we might have a hostage situation… if we're lucky." Kankuro added grimly, and the man disappeared swiftly, message en route.

"How long do you think they'll take?" Phinx asked, arms folded across his chest as he leaned back in his chair, feet prepped up against the tabletop. His jacket was unzipped, revealing a loose-fitting sleeveless shirt underneath. He hated the heat, and the number of iced drinks he had consumed thus far still seemed incapable of soothing the parching heat. Glancing over at Feitan, he silently wondered how the shorter man managed to bear the heat in his all-covering, black attire.

"Give them a while; they need to discover the bodies first, after all." Franklin replied, taking a sip of his own drink, "The minister revealed that he was expected to arrive today, anyway."

"Plus," Coltopi added, "This town's not very big; I've made at least a dozen copies and scattered them multi-directionally between this town and the last. If anyone so much as passes through, I'll know."

"Tell me again why we're not waiting for them at the first town we stopped at?" Feitan asked, irritable as usual, "I thought our objective was to catch a ninja, but here we are, waiting for ninjas to catch up to us."

"Bad service," Phinx replied, chewing at his straw, "waiting for god-knows-how-long in a shithole like that without proper iced tea? You've gotta be fucking kidding me."

"It's a shame Pakunoda isn't with us any longer," Shalnark hummed over his drink, forcing a tepid silence over the group, "We'd probably have retrieved all the information we want by now. With absolute certainty, at that."

"And here I thought you took great pride in being a fundamental part of the information gathering division of the group." Phinx smirked, "Or will we need to begin a search for your replacement too?"

"Easy, Phinx." Franklin beckoned, though Shalnark merely smiled.

"That's the thing about us," Shalnark replied matter-of-factly, "we're easily replaceable. Pakunoda's skill set was exclusive – of the specialization class, at that. How many people have you heard of that can read thoughts and memories like she could? She was as rare as a nen eraser."

"Speaking of nen erasers," Shizuku interrupted, her hand raised to garner attention, "have you heard from Danchou yet?"

"He hasn't called." Shalnark responded, pulling his cell phone from his pocket to double check for missed messages. "Last Nobunaga texted me, though, he did say that Hisoka had convinced the eraser to do the job."

"Hisoka." Feitan spat, "Didn't he want to fight Danchou or something?"

"Still does, I'd imagine." Franklin chuckled, "Machi didn't take lightly to that."

"Personally I'd rather Machi just put him to death the moment Danchou's free from the damn nen." Phinx remarked, waving his empty glass at the nearest waitress for a refill.

"You doubt Danchou?" Feitan asked dryly, a sour expression on his lips.

"That's not what I fucking meant!" Phinx shot back angrily, "I just don't see why Danchou should have to fight the likes of him."

"Apparently he's pretty strong." Bonolenov interjected, "Danchou might even welcome the challenge."

"Pfft, what challenge? Danchou would be done with him in less than five."

"Just saying. They don't call him 'The Magician' from the way he dresses alone." The mummified man raised his hands in an open-gestured shrug.

"If he's so dangerous…" Karuto added softly, "Then shouldn't we be waiting with them?"

"It'll be fine," Shalnark replied coolly, "Danchou can't be taken down easily, no matter how strong the opponent. Worse come to worst, Machi and Nobu'll be there to deal with the aftermath."

"And the nen eraser." Franklin added, "I believe Danchou'll try to recruit him, should he prove successful. It's a rare enough trait that would safeguard against that Kurata kid."

"Ugh, don't even bring him up." Phinx said, slamming his glass against the table – not hard enough to shatter it, but enough to leave an impression, as a few passersby turned towards the unceremonious sound. "The brat pulled a dirty trick. That's all there is to it. He had his chance to kill Danchou, and he blew it on his friends. He'll never get a chance like that again." A strong silence followed, disrupted only by Shizuku as she slurped loudly towards the end of her drink. It was then that Coltopi turned towards the group, sharply nodding at once – garnering their full attention as he concentrated, as though counting in his head.

"Two of my structural copies have been breached," he announced, "There's a group of three, and a group of four. They're at opposite ends – the closest to us would be the group of four."

"Let's go, then." Phinx replied, flexing his joints as he stood up eagerly.

"They're fifteen minutes that way if we move at our fastest," Coltopi pointed northeast, "and that's assuming they don't leave my copy."

"I don't see why we can't just split up and torture them all." Feitan noted, "For us, it'd be child's play to round them up."

"Foreign ground, Feitan. We don't know how quickly they can summon backup, so it'd be best for us to move as a group until we dissect them, through and through." Franklin replied reassuringly as they set out, "It shouldn't take us long."

The man with the machete went by the name of Jonah.

Kurapika had acquired this little piece of information through the art of eavesdropping alone, as he wandered the decks, caring little for idle chatter in passing, until he heard a couple of seamen addressing the man as such. Those familiar with the seas seemed to know who Jonah was, and from the hearsay alone – it seemed that Jonah was a competent sailor in his own right too. Kurapika, on the other hand, was considered a negligible entity on the ship of deckhands – frequently ignored, though this suited to his advantage. He never considered himself the sociable type, after all.

Jonah spoke to him again when the ship docked at their intended destination. It was located just beyond the border of the Land of Wind in a neutral, and for the most part, demilitarized zone.

"It's the last time on this continent you'll see a semi-abundance of nen." Jonah joked, and Kurapika swore that he could count the number of conscious nen users on the fingers of his hands. It wasn't long before he found himself being pointed in the direction of a customs line. Jonah, on the other hand, had cargo to tend to – as an approved multiple-entry journeyman of his trade, the customs process he was subjected to was in an entirely different location altogether.

"Hey, kid." Jonah said to Kurapika, "Once you go beyond customs, you shouldn't refer to yourself as a Hunter anymore. Folks here tend to misinterpret these unfamiliar things, and you might be mistaken as a bounty hunter. The shinobi folk really tend to hate them, you see. Many of the prominent ones have bounties on them by other villages, as well as the underground markets."

"So how should I address myself, then?"

"Tourist, traveler, civilian – those should work fine, especially if you want to visit those shinobi villages. Keep your nen under wraps too. The folks here use chakra, but it's still a source of energy nonetheless. They don't take kindly to potential spies, foreign threats, and such."

"So I heard." Kurapika replied, his travel papers clenched tightly in his hands.

"Anyway, kid." Jonah said, turning to head back to help with the unloading of cargo from the ship, "Hope to see you again, especially when you're done with whatever it is you're doing over here. Kurapika, wasn't it? It's the only name on the Captain's list I couldn't put to a face."

"Yes," he nodded, "Kurata Kurapika."

"Kurata, eh? Sounds familiar, almost." Jonah replied, and Kurapika's eyes slanted in response, "Anyway, good luck on your business."

"Likewise." Kurapika replied, watching as the man jogged back to the docks. He saw the sun loom in the sky and wondered how many more days he'd lose before chancing upon the target of his search.

"I am a shinobi of the Sand, and I am obligated to tell you nothing."

"Seriously?" Feitan asked, feeling the crack of the man's collarbone between his fingers. A shout of pain followed, only to fall on deaf ears.

"They're really starting to bore." Karuto replied, paper fan in hand to beat away the scorch of the sun.

"On the bright side," Shalnark pointed out, "we've learned that they channel their energy differently from us. For instance, we can extend our nen to all parts of our body – flesh, skin, blood, and bones, while they can't seem to." He gestured to a paling shinobi who bled from where both his legs were separated from his body, parted just above the kneecaps. Turning to the dying shinobi, Shalnark tilted his head, "Can't you stop the bleeding? At all?"

"Fuck… you…" spouted the man, spurning an annoyed glare from Phinx, who stomped down on his left thigh. The man howled in pain as the blood flow only increased from the gaping wound.

"Useless." Feitan muttered, his grip tightening on the shoulder of the shinobi under his grip. "Might as well just finish that one off."

"Nah, let him bleed." Phinx replied, nudging at the man's maimed legs with his foot. The pool of blood spread across the sand, soaking the golden dust a rugged scarlet.

"Where's the minister?" Demanded the shinobi under Feitan's hold. His teeth were bloody from the few hits he had received from Phinx much earlier during the little skirmish – one that proved futile as the team of four fell almost instantly to the foreigners, most of whom had watched from the side as Phinx made claim to taking down the team on his own.

"He just won't let up, will he?" Shalnark laughed, "I like his expression. It's so serious. Ubou and Nobu would've loved this."

"You scum are responsible for the massacre, are you not?" The man demanded, "Kazekage-sama himself dispatched teams after you; it won't be long before you're brought to justice –"

"Oh, shut up." Feitan responded, snapping the man's other clavicle, eliciting another bout of curses in pain.

"Don't break him too much. That one over there's already useless," Shalnark noted, gesturing with a nod towards the bleeding mess beside Phinx, "and we've only got two more to go through if you break this one too." He turned to the two remaining shinobi at Franklin's feet, bound and gagged in splendid horror as they beheld the fate of their teammates. They looked much younger in appearance, and reeked of less experience than their tortured seniors.

"Look, that minister trash you're looking for already threatened us, and we killed him." Phinx reasoned, crossing his arms across his chest, "It should be obvious by now that we don't really care who or what comes after us. We'll kill them. It's as simple as that. Just tell us what we want to know; it's not like our questions are hard."

The man merely glanced up, before spitting out saliva and blood at his feet. "Fuck you."

Phinx cracked his knuckles. "My turn, Feitan."

Next Chapter: The brutalities pile up, and Kankuro's team arrives too late to find the remnants of another massacre – this time, of one of the dispatched search teams. An analysis of the scene and a dying shinobi's last words are all he has to keep on the trail of this cruel, elusive group.