The week of traveling had been uneventful. Fire Nation was the most heavily populated of the five great nations, but it still had huge swaths of raw untamed wilderness.
The team had traveled ninja mode from dawn until noon, racing along the treetops of the impressive trees that covered most of Fire Country. At noon they took a break for lunch, and then walked civilian speed until nightfall. This was a standard way of travel for making good time and keeping the shinobi as rested as they could.
Hinata for her part had spent those walking hours practicing her new Jutsu every few minutes. At first her teammates tried to persuade her to save her strength, but there was no other time for training and she was used to long hours of it. After a couple of days they stopped trying to persuade her to slow it down and the boys actually started doing some training of their own while they walked. Though she was concerned that they would be too tired to respond to an emergency like this, Kurenai let it slide because the probabilities of encountering trouble were so low. And it seemed to build their teamwork and comradery. Plus, she inwardly suspected the boy's esteem for the girl went up a notch when they got to see her work ethic first hand.
When they struck camp at nightfall they cooked a quick meal and a few of the nights Kiba or Shino managed to catch a hare to add to the small field cooking pot they carried. After eating Hinata would go off and train until she was so tired she stumbled back into camp and positively collapsed on her sleeping bag. By silent agreement her three teammates let her have the last watch, which was the easiest one to take. She needed it most, the girl pushed herself hard. Kurenai was a little worried about it, but the red-eyed woman was very proud of the shy girl.
By the end of the sixth night Hinata had mastered Katon: Wakai Kasai to the point she could create the flamethrower-effect rather well. She had even managed to improve her Body Movement a bit as well, though she had not yet managed to master stopping. In the morning of the seventh day they arrived at the walled town of Goro, where their client awaited them.
As the team entered the town, one of the first things they noticed was that the place was too small to have the impressive walls that it did. This town looked to Kurenai to have maybe about 10,000 inhabitants. Not a little farming village by any means, but certainly not a town you would expect to be surrounded by strong sturdy walls. As they walked in and across town they noticed a surprisingly large amount of armed soldiers with the crest of a local garrison.
Kiba looked around and tried to see what information he could gather about this place. As he looked and smelled he could pick up an undercurrent of fear in the people walking the streets. Nothing overt, but like an underlying uneasiness. It made him wonder if something was up with this town, and if it had anything to do with all the soldiers. Also, annoyingly predictably, most of the men they walked by would either do a double take on sensei or stop and openly stare. He never thought being popular with the opposite sex could be a bad thing but being a totally hot chick totally had its drawbacks. Hell seeing all the men acting like idiots was annoying him, and he wasn't even the target of their shameless ogling. Kiba had always thought that Naruto and Sasuke were crazy for complaining about so much female attention, but after experiencing some of that with sensei he now felt a bit sorry for the two fan girl magnets.
"So, where are we going Kurenai-sensei?" Kiba asked.
"On the other side of town is the headquarters of Traders Guild. Our client is there. Keep your eyes open and don't get lost" she said.
Kiba rolled his eyes. Yea, like anyone in this town could be a threat to shinobi. Why didn't she just whip out the kiddie leashes to make sure they didn't get lost? Kurenai-sensei was always like this, she was usually cool but on missions she sometimes treated them like children. It was kind of annoying.
They finally arrived at a two story building, not very fancy but well maintained and practical. "Land of Fire Trading Guild chapter 117" was posted over the door.
Inside the receptionist directed them to them to the office of the Guild Master for their chapter. Kiba caught the dirty look the female receptionist gave Kurenai-sensei after they turned to walk away. Geez, she gets crap from both the men AND the women. Maybe being super good looking and popular isn't all it's cracked up to be. These people all have these really strong reactions and they don't even know a damn thing about Kurenai-sensei. What kind of stupid crap is that?
Thankfully, the Guild Master didn't make an idiot out of himself like so many people did. He just saw a widening in the man's eyes as he saw Kurenai in surprise, but then he regained his composure and acted completely normal and professional. He had a kindly face, and smelled of cinnamon and vanilla and saffron. That was unusual. Spice traders maybe?
"Well," began the Guild Master, "thank you all for coming." Points for him for not saying anything about them being 'kids', thought Kiba. "I suppose I'll give you a little background as to our little problem here and why you have been called. As you may know, these towns here on the border are far from the shinobi village, Konoha, so if we ever need aid it takes at the earliest two weeks for it to arrive. Many sought to take advantage of this by attacking us and fleeing long before any help arrived, so the bigger towns along the border developed their own system of soldiers and defensible walls… all approved and sanctioned by the Fire Lord of course… to deal with sporadic raids of bandits and occasionally rouge militias from the nearby Land of Hot Water,"
"As a result moving valuable cargo has always been tricky, but manageable," he continued, "a large armed escort was often enough to protect the valuables. That was, until recently… when someone seems to have organized most of the bandits and miscreants of the region into one super sized band cutthroat bandits. The problem has become considerable. It went from bands consisting of 20 or 30 brigands to now a group that we estimate has around three hundred members."
Kiba could see the scale of their problem now. He doubted they could hire more than a few dozen guards from a town this size. Such a size force would not be enough to deal with three hundred armed bandits. It made Kiba sweat a little hearing those numbers. Sure, he could handle ten, maybe twenty non shinobi without a problem. But what if he had a hundred falling on him? That might be a different story. This mission might prove just a tad more tricky than they had originally anticipated.
"There are five major towns out here in far west fire country, all of them roughly the size of this one," the man continued, "and we do our yearly trading run from here to all the four other towns. It is essential economically for the Guild, and for the towns as well. We also trade a great deal of medical supplies that are imported, so from a humanitarian point of view it is also imperative that this trip succeeds. Our caravan will carry medicine, gold and jewels, spices, and a great deal of cash currency for the trading. It is the largest such prize all year long, and there is no doubt the bandits will be tempted to attack it. So please, protect our trade caravan from these men."
The caravan left the following morning at dawn. It was quite impressive for something that happened every year amongst what was essentialy a backwater of Fire Nation. Twelve oversized wagons requiring a pulling team of six oxen each were completely ladden with spices, currency in the form of Fire Nation capital as well as precious metals and stones, clothes, huge hundred gallon barrels of fine wines, chewing tabacco, a great deal of weapons, and most importantly a very generous ammout of medicines. Every wagon was as big as a small house. Hinata inspected every cart discretely with her Byakugan as she had been instructed to. Everything seemed in order and nothing out of the ordinary. That is until her gaze fell in one of the wagons near the rear where a man and a young woman were... Hinata's face turned beet red as she realized what she was seeing. She quickly deactivated her Byakugan and turned her gaze away, face burning hot and mortified.
She felt a hand land on he shoulder and a soft voice say, "Hinata". The girl gave a startled yelp and jumped a little, surprised and horrified that someone maybe thought she had been peeping. The genin looked up to see Kurenai looking down at her curiously and with a slightly worried frown.
"Hinata, you ok?" the Jounin queried.
Hinata nodded a bit awkwardly, turning her face away to try and hide her still increasing blush. "Hai Kurenai-sensei. Just got done peeking... err observing all of the wagons. Nothing... suspicious to report." The girl gulped and tried to look casual.
Kurenai smiled and had to keep herself from snickering. She had seen the man in his 30's and his young wife getting into the back of the waggon, clearly having other things than the day-long trip in mind. It was so fun to be in love.
"Well Hinata... just make sure to keep looking at them from time to time. You should watch if anything changes" said the Red-eyed Jounin.
The girl blushed and even more impossible shade of tomato red and nodded her agreement that she would comply. The girl had seen what she had suspected, Kurenai thought somewhat amused. Kurenai swiftly walked away, a grin spreading across her lips. The girl had to learn about this sort of thing sooner or later. Kurenai shook her head, feeling just a little bit guilty at her amusement. Was she going to start enjoying making her students uncomfortable like Anko did? Surely not.
I mean she did have a legitimate reason to order the Genin to peek once in a while. Hinata did need to keep an eye on things in case of anything suspicious. Right?
Though Kurenai doubted very the girl would observe that particular wagon too closely.
It would be the morning of the third day before they arrived at their first destination. Within a few minutes the caravan and the shinobi were underway.
It was on the second day that the bandits attacked.
Kurenai knew they were there long before they attacked of course. To shinobi senses, especially those of a Jounin, a group of men stumbling about in the woods was about as subtle as setting someone on fire to get their attention. They were waiting in ambush in maybe a hundred yards away off the right side of the road.
To Kurenai's senses, there were good news and bad news. The good news were that the bandits had only positioned themselves on the right side of the road, and not on both sides. Her team would not have to worry about enemies in front and behind. There was also the advantage that there was about thirty feet of flat ground between the path the caravan was taking and the edge of the woods making for an easy place to fight.
The bad news was that the Guild Master had been right about the size of the bandit gang. There must be around two hundred people hidden in the woods, lying on their stomachs waiting for the caravan to wonder right up to them. That was way more than she wanted to face in an open brawl. She was going to have to pull out all the stops.
Kurenai yawned dramatically and covered her mouth with her hand. It looked natural, but it was the signal they had agreed upon to alert each other about an upcoming ambush. Since Kurenai was at the front of the caravan, at least one of her students behind her would see it and make sure the message was passed on to all the shinobi in code. A few moments later she heard Akamaru yip. That was the signal that the message had been received by all of them.
This mission was going to be a little bit more dangerous than your average C-ranked. Kurenai had to trust her students could handle themselves against bandits, because in this flood of bodies it was going to be very hard to quickly dance across the battlefield to help any of her students in trouble. The best she could do would be to reduce the number of combatants as much as she could.
For Kurenai it would be a huge drain of Chakra, but with a simple genjutsu spread over a large area she could probably incapacitate about half the bandits before they even got up off the forest floor. The caravan was maybe fifty yards away from the ambush site now.
Kurenai moved herself to the side of the cart opposite the bandits so she would be hidden from view. Then she made some deliberate hand seals, ones for a wide spread genjutsu that should put around a hundred of them in to a deep sleep. There was a limit to how many people the jutsu could affect, and it would be a huge drain of chakra, but it would neatly cut their opponents in half.
She completed the jutsu and cast it over the area she knew the bandits were hidden. Kurenai could feel the jutsu taking effect as the chakra pathways in their brains were forced to slow in the same way as one did when sleeping. They would not be waking up for a while now. Good she thought, the situation should be much more manageable now.
Still that left about a hundred armed cutthroats. She and her students would be busy.
As the caravan passed by the ambush site, a blood curling battlecry came from where the bandits were hidden.
Hinata's hands were sweating. Her breathing came a little fast. She was anxious, and if she was honest she was also scared. Unless you decided to count some of her times with Sensei, Hinata had never been in a fight for her life. A kill or be killed fight. Well she didn't have to kill anyone, but they sure as heck would be trying their best to kill her.
The girl heard the blood curling cry from the woods. It had the intended effect, it made her freeze and it frightened her. Then the men started pouring out of the woods like ants out of a kicked over anthill.
They were all dirty, sweaty men with a collection of rusty blades and hard leathery skin. The closest one to her screamed and charged, eyes almost feverish with bloodlust and battle fury. The man came straight at her and swung as if to cut her in half with a big rusty cutlass.
Hinata's body moved, and it was almost laughably easy to get out of the way. The world suddenly became slow motion in her eyes. The man had to have had no training whatsoever. There was a shocked look on his face when the man realized his blade did not make contact with his intended target. He was so committed to the swing and so overbalanced Hinata was almost positive the man would fall to the ground on his own even without any help from her.
There were so many openings Hinata could pick and choose to strike whatever she wanted. She slapped the man in the upper back with a strike of her Juken. Such a strike would inflame the nerves of his spinal chord and would mostly paralyze all his limbs and torso for the next six to twelve hours. The man fell like a brick, the bloodlust and fury in his eyes replaced by confusion and fear.
Hinata almost laughed, to think that the man's look of violence had intimidated her a little bit, and with almost no effort all the bravado turned into helpless fear. It had been so easy!
She was so distracted she almost missed the man that thrust at her with a spear. Hinata produced a kunai and parried the blade, moving quickly along the shaft to get up close to the bandit. His face registered surprise when the girl was right on top of him, but before he could react Hinata struck. She hit his neck in a half dozen places inside a second. It was not a Juken move you could pull off in combat against a shinobi, but against a bandit it proved no problem. The blood flow to his brain was slowed so much that he passed out, but not slowed enough where he would die. Another one incapacitated.
Hinata bit her lip, and smiled. She could do this. This felt good. She liked this. Losing herself in her training, once again she let the world melt away as she flung herself into a group of bandits. Against the lavender whirlwind none of them stood a chance.
Things were going surprisingly well for the caravan as the fight progressed. Along with her and her genin team, there had also been twenty hired disciplined soldiers with them. These soldiers proved to be more than a match for the bandits one on one. Along with four shinobi as backup, one hundred bandits were proving to be not as dangerous as they originally seemed.
Kurenai stayed close to the formation of soldiers and kept herself busy by keeping them from being surrounded and overwhelmed by superior numbers. The soldiers positioned themselves between two of the house-size wagons in an attempt to keep from getting surrounded. Whenever a group went to try and flank the soldiers and overwhelm them, Kurani was there, flashing with her kunai. She preferred to incapacitate but she was a Jounin and honestly wasn't too picky about it either way. Half of those that ran in to her ended up dead and the rest ended up so injured they could not continue to fight.
Live by the sword, die by the sword. No one ever made it to Jounin if they were squeamish about taking life in combat.
Because the combat wasn't really intense by shinobi standards, especially by Jounin standards, Kurenai risked a look around to see how her students were holding up.
The space around Shino had become a huge swarm of flying insects. The bandits were trying very hard to stay away from the insect swarm without much success. It had been a while since Kurenai had seen an Aburame cut loose and a swirling mass of stinging, biting death was as intimidating now as it ever was. There were a handful of bandits dispatched by Shino and weather they were unconscious from chakra drain or some kind of insect poison Kurenai did not know. Since most bandits were fleeing from Shino she didn't think she had much to worry about his safety.
Kurenai saw another group of six men try to run behind a wagon and come around and flank the group of soldiers. She Shushin-no-Jutsu to them and cut them all down before they even realized she was there. With some annoyance Kurenai felt hot blood splash across her face. She really did not like getting dirty any more than she had to.
With some breathing room she looked around again and quickly spotted Kiba. The other boy seemed to be playing it smart, and thankfully wasn't trying to be a hero. Since he realized most of the fighting had centered around the group of soldiers and that's what the bandits were mainly focused on, Kiba had made his way to the outskirts of the fight. He would dash in and bash a few heads. When a large group of men would eventually turn their attention to him he would dash out and circle around the bandits to engage the large mass of bodies from another angle. Kurenai was proud to see that he was very efficiently putting down large numbers of bandits while minimizing the risk to himself. The crowd was so focused on overwhelming the soldiers that as a whole it did not notice it was being picked off from the outskirts. There were never enough men with their attention on Kiba to risk overwhelming him.
The Inuzuka, while he acted like the biggest fool (and probably was) in the team, Kurenai was starting to think had the best tactical mind out of all of them.
That just left Hinata. Kurenai had to pause and deal with another five men before she could turn to look for her.
What she saw of her female genin made her frown.
The girl was fighting in the middle of a horde of men who were trying to overwhelm her by sheer numbers. What made her frown was where Hinata found herself. Instead of getting some distance or putting something safe at her back she was instead wading into a large group of men. The girl moved like water and it was hard not to be a little impressed by her fluid Juken style taijutsu. But she was getting careless with her positioning, losing herself in the battle and not thinking. The girl had literally let herself be surrounded by men on all sides and to Kurenai it seemed the girl did not even realize what a terrible tactical blunder she had made. Even if they were only bandits, a genin in that position would have a very high chance of eventually getting hit by the untrained men.
The girl wasn't even looking for a way out. She was holding her own but had completely lost herself to the melee and had zero tactical awareness. Kurenai readied a kunai in each hand. She was going to have to go bail her student out.
Suddenly, Kurenai detected a spike of chakra high in the treeline from where the bandits had come from. Kurenai reacted on instinct and tossed herself to the side as a bolt of electricity shot out from the trees in her direction. The electric lightning struck the ground where she had been standing a moment before, detonating in an explosion that tossed the Jounin to the ground. Kurenai, struggling to her feet, moved as quickly as she could to cover behind one of the wagons between her and the treeline.
"Shinobi? What is a shinobi doing working with a gang of filthy bandits?" Kurenai muttered to herself while she waited for the ringing in her ears to subside. That had been a high level lightning jutsu. If that had hit her she would have been at least seriously injured, which all the way out here in the wilderness meant as good as dead. Kurenai cursed. There was no way she was going to be able to protect the soldiers, keep her students safe and take on this mysterious shinobi suddenly slinging Jounin-level jutsus from a tree behind the tree line all at the same time.
As if on cue Kurenai's sensitive ears picked a high pitched scream amongst all the chaos. Kurenai quickly looked around the corner of the wagon towards Hinata. In an instant her blood went cold. One of the bandits had caught Hinata with a blade and Kurenai saw her fall out of sight below a wall of bloodthirsty men.
Hinata was scared and exhilarated all at the same time. All around her were men trying to stab her with every kind of cheap rusty weapon you could think of. She lost herself to her training like she had been taught to do, and lashed out at whoever came near her.
One man swung a sword in front and another tried to stab her with a knife from behind. Hinata sidestepped, grabbed the hand of the man with the sword and guided him into shove it in to the knife bandit's shoulder. Three men then attacked her, two with clubs and one with a kama. She stepped to the side and let two of them crash in to each other and she hit the third man in the throat, dropping him while he struggled for breath. The tenketsu she had closed would make him feel weak and out of breath for at least an hour.
While Hinata did feel some fear as she fought, it mostly came from the new experience of having people actually trying to kill her. She did not feel like she could lose. The men were absolutely terrible fighters. When several of them attacked at once, more often than not with a bit of movement they just got in each other's way. At least twice that she had seen they had stabbed each other when they swung to hit her. Absently she noted that the circle around her that was getting tighter and tighter leaving her with less room to maneuver. She was so deep into her fighting headspace that she did not even think of it as especially significant.
A few moments later Hinata heard something like an explosion coming from where she knew the caravan was. Through the fighting she tried to take a look at what it was. She got a look at Kurenai-sensei rolling away from something and getting behind cover.
The momentary distraction was enough to weaken her concentration on the men she was fighting. She saw a sword coming at her neck and reacted a hair later than she should have, hastily backpedalling away from the blow. This left her somewhat off balance as five men in the mob surrounding her came at her at once. Hinata dodged two of the blades, deflected a third and injured the fourth man's lung with with a Juken strike. She wasn't able to entirely avoid the fifth attacker.
The fifth man thrust at her with a spear. Hinata tried to move out of the way but the blade still bit deep in to the meat of her shoulder. The young genin cried out at the sudden and unexpected pain. The force of the blow and the surprising burning in her arm drove the girl to one knee.
Hinata looked around with her Byakugan and suddenly realized what a stupid mistake she had made. She had allowed herself to surrounded on all sides and that was the last thing you wanted to do when fighting multiple opponents. There were now at least twenty men who had their attention on her and were trying to rush in even now and finish her off. Hinata felt a cold weight in her stomach settle as she realized that now that she was injured there was a real chance she would not walk away from this fight. As the men crowded around her tightly and the weapons began to swing at her again, Hinata couldn't help but wish she could do Kaiten like her father could.
The young girl got to her feet just at the same spear that had gotten her in the arm was stabbing at her again. She spun and parried the blow, but at the same time four more weapons were coming down on her. The genin now barely had a few feet of space now to work with and dodge. Hinata avoided all of them and incapacitated two more men, but one of the blades left a shallow wound on the back of her hand. The next round of attacks was even closer, and another bandit managed a cut on her leg that began to bleed freely. She was going to get overwhelmed merely by mass of numbers and press of bodies leaving her nowhere to dodge. A part of Hinata wondered if this was the end for her, if this was where she was going to die.
All of a sudden the bandits on one side of her started to scatter and get distracted, turning their attention from her and looking behind them. That momentary distraction was all the opening she needed. She rushed at the few men who had suddenly turned their attention away from her. Hinata jumped up put her foot on a startled bandit's shoulder. He gave a startled yelp as Hinata used him as a springboard to jump over the throng of men.
As she landed she looked and saw who had drawn some of the bandit's attention and saved her neck. "Shino!" she cried out in relief.
Hinata had never seen him like this. His kikaichu were swarming all around him like a great black cloud, jumping on anyone foolish enough to get close to him. Most men were running away from him and the few brave enough regretted it as swarming biting insects clogged up their noses, mouths ears and eyes. Those that were not overcome by that soon had their chakra drained and fell unconscious. He had never cut loose like this in any of their training sessions.
"Hinata, are you all right?" he called out to her.
Hinata nodded. The worst of her injuries was her arm where the spear had gotten her, but after training with Anko for over a month such a wound would only be a minor distraction. She got injured worse in training almost every single day.
She stood up and put weight on her wounded leg. It felt a little wobbly but it was still strong. Standing close to Shino the bandits kept their distance buying the two of them a few free moments.
"What was that explosion earlier Shino? Is Kurenai-sensei ok?" asked Hinata while she dug a fresh weapon out of her thigh holster.
"I do not know. From what little I saw in my peripheral vision, it looked like it could have been a lightning or fire jutsu" Shino replied.
Hinata and Shino both felt a sharp spike of chakra an instant before an attack that looked like a small lightning bolt shot out from high in the tree line. It slammed in to the middle of the formation of soldiers that were defending the caravan. Five of them went flying from the explosive force of the jutsu.
Shino and Hinata both looked at the site of the impact, both of them momentarily frozen from the shock.
The shouting voice of Kurenai-sensei reached their ears over the sounds of battle. "You three, take cover behind the wagons and back up the soldiers! I'm going after that shinobi!"
Hinata and Shino exchanged a quick look before they started running to do as their instructor commanded. They had almost made their way to the wagons and the fighting soldiers when a loud horn blew from behind tree line.
All at once, those bandits that could still move began to retreat. There were not that many of them left. The remaining soldiers looked like they wanted to pursue but fear of the mysterious attack from the tree line held them back.
As they were fleeing Shino and Hinata both managed to snag and take down a couple of bandits each. Still the majority that turned to flee got away and returned to the woods.
"Don't pursue. Let them go" called out their Jounin-sensei.
Hinata and the two others on her team hurried over to their sensei. Her face was stoic, blank and hiding anything she might be feeling.
Kurenai gave them each a once over to see if any of them were wounded. They were all at least lightly injured, Hinata being the worst by far, but apparently it wasn't serious enough to merit Kurenai's concern at the moment. "You three there is some rope in the back of the first wagon. Grab it and secure whoever is still alive. We'll need to question them. Be quick about it, I'll do what I can for the wounded."
The Jounin seemed a bit agitated, and her bruske and sharp tone were completely different from what the three genin were used to. They all looked at each other, bloody and bruised but not too the worse for wear. Then they turned around and got to work.
They talked amongst themselves and it was decided the two boys would go about trying up those who were obviously alive while Hinata would make sure those who were not moving were in fact dead and not just pretending or unconscious.
Hinata was shocked at the devastation they had caused. She wasn't sure exactly how many men attacked them, but the number who had retreated had been far smaller than the number that came to attack them. There were sixty four men on the final count – bandits – who were down and scattered all around them. About half of them had been killed. There were many more who to Hinata's inexperienced eyes it seemed like they would not survive their injuries out here about half a day from the nearest town.
The girl had never seen a dead body that she could clearly remember. The smell was the worst. In one of the least flattering things that happened upon death, people lose control of their bowels and many end up soiling themselves. It was undignified and made checking for pulses on the dead bodies even more revolting. The sight of so many dead made something inside the girl start to panic and scream incoherently. It wasn't long before nausea overtook her and she stumbled off the side and vomited.
She lay there sunk on her knees, trying to slow her breathing down. The girl wasn't sure how much time had passed before she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"Hey," asked Kiba with a worried expression on his face, "how you holding up?"
Hinata looked up at him and he seemed composed and concerned for her. This made Hinata feel guilty and ashamed of her own behavior. Her father would be embarrassed by her lack of composure. By her shaming herself and vomiting in front of others. Why couldn't she keep it together like Kiba?
"Hinata?" he asked again, a little more concern in his voice this time.
"I… I've never seen so many dead people" she said. "I'm sorr… I'm just. I'm n-not handling it well. I-I'm not used to this s-sort of thing."
Kiba nodded in understanding, a dark grim expression coming over his face for a moment that he couldn't conceal.
"What's wrong Kiba?" she asked, instantly regretting what a dumb question it was. What wasn't wrong? They were in a field of dead people.
"It's nothing" he said stubbornly, giving her shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
There was a moment of silence, neither genin knowing what to say. Finally Hinata broke the silence.
"Kiba… d-did you kill anybody?" she asked.
Kiba's expression darkened again. "Yeah… at least a couple that I'm sure of. I tried not to but you know… the training takes over. I couldn't avoid it. I think some of them might have gotten me if I'd held back."
Hinata just nodded, feeling bad for the boy but not knowing what to say to make him feel better. The girl was sure that she had not killed anyone. As a Hyuuga she's fortunate that even in a life or death situation the Juken allows one to fight without having to kill. Most other shinobi did not have that luxury. The techniques they trained in were meant to kill and it was crippling to try to fight and not be lethal at the same time.
Here she was, a mess on the ground at just looking at dead people. Here was her teammate who had had to kill for the first time and he was holding it together enough to try and reassure her. How pathetic was she?
Hinata wiped her mouth and shakily got to her feet. She turned to Kiba and tried to put as much emphasis as she could on her voice. "It wasn't you fault Kiba. You… You did what you had to do. It's ok."
The boy wouldn't meet her eyes, and looked away at the ground.
"Yeah. I guess" said Kiba.
Hinata just nodded. She hoped that Kurenai-sensei would know what to say to make Kiba feel better. They had been taught at the academy that all shinobi had it rough the first time they killed somebody. They had been taught that they should remember that it was necessary for the success of the mission and the security of the village. Looking around at all the dead people around them, suddenly those things weren't so comforting as they were meant to be.
"Come on," she said, taking Kiba by the arm, "let's just get this done ok? We'll worry about that other stuff later."
"Yeah… you're right. Yeah. Thanks Hinata. Let's just get this done and over with" he said, with a ghost of his cocky toothy grin coming back to his lips.
"Ok" She replied. Her own smile felt equally underwhelming but she knew it was there.
Hinata managed to finish checking all those who were not moving to see if they were dead or just unconscious while the two boys finished tying everyone else up.
Kurenai pinched the bridge of her nose. She had another migraine, her first in almost a week. This mission was not going as smoothly as planned.
Of the twenty professional soldiers hired with the caravan had five dead and four wounded. They gave a lot better than they got. Kurenai estimated they took down at least twenty bandits. If it hadn't been for thee wounded and two dead from that lightning jutsu they would have done even better. They were surprisingly disciplined, for non shinobi. The woman now stood before Fujita the captain of the troop of soldiers.
"Captain Fujita," she began "I just got done interrogating some of the bandits. Things are worse than we imagined I'm afraid."
Fujita was a large man of about forty with a scarred and weather beaten face. He was tough and he seemed competent. Thankfully the man was smart enough not to make an issue taking orders from and deferring to a woman. Civilian soldiers that lasted long enough learned that Shinobi were dramatically stronger than they ever would be, the Jounins even more so.
"Well then Kurenai-san, don't beat around the bush. What are we facing here?" Fujita asked.
"According to five different prisoners I questioned your estimates of the size of the band of bandits was wrong. They total not 300 but a little over 400. Today they brought only about half their number because they didn't think a larger number would be able to remain hidden in ambush" said the Jounin.
"Half? But there were about a hundred men that attacked today, not two hundred. Maybe the stupid cretins can't count" replied the captain.
"Actually there were about two hundred hiding in the brush behind the tree line. I used a genjutsu – a ninja technique – to put about half of them in a heavy sleep that should have lasted several hours before the fight started."
It was comical how the captain's eyes seemed to almost bulge out of his head at hearing what numbers they could have faced and at hearing the power a Jounin had. Kurenai allowed herself a small smile at his reaction.
"So what went wrong? You said 'should have lasted'. We got more trouble?" Asked the captain with a grim look.
Kurenai's face darkened. "Yeah, that's the other part of the problem and possibly a bigger one than an extra hundred bandits living out in the woods. Apparently the one who pulled all these men together and is holding them together as a single unit is a Shinobi. According to the prisoners there are two of them, the leader and a younger one who seems to be his subordinate. I know for a fact one of those Shinobi was leading the attack. He was the one who broke my genjutsu on his men, and after the few minutes it took him to do that he started slinging Jutsus at us before calling the retreat."
The captain shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. "Not to question your competence or the like Kurenai-san, but even with you here we were at a disadvantage. If he woke all those men up he should have ordered them to attack. They would have stood a darn good chance of overwhelming us, even with you here."
Kurenai shook her head. "You underestimate shinobi. Even with another hundred men attacking there was no guarantee of victory. There were four of us shinobi that he could see and only one of him. Four shinobi whose strengths and abilities he had no idea of and was unprepared to deal with. The shinobi leading this group was also the subordinate, not the leader. Even though he has an impressive jutsu the reason he only attacked us with it twice is likely because he has a limit of how many times he can use that technique in a day before being completely exhausted. After that he would have had to duke it out against four unknowns, one of us clearly a Jounin. Calling the retreat was definitely the best move for him."
The captain was silent for a minute, head bowed in thought. Then he asked, "Do you think these bandits will strike again?"
"Unfortunately, there is no way to tell for sure," said the Jounin. "We don't know the level of these shinobi, and that is by and far the most dangerous X factor here. If they are only chunnin level or below they will hesitate to attack a Joinin and may decide to wait for easier pickings. If the shinobi are bold or strong enough however… they may attempt swarming us with the entirety of their band of cutthroats. To be honest Captain, a head on fight against three hundred of these miscreants plus two unknown shinobi would be a losing proposition for us. I don't see how we can hold out against those odds if we play our cards the way we did today."
The Captain nodded grimly. "Aye. There are scarcely a dozen of us fit for duty now after today's attack. I don't know how effective we'll be against the kinds of numbers you're talking about."
"For what it's worth Captain, my gut tells me we haven't seen the last of these animals. We'll try to come up with some strategy to deal with their numbers." And by we, Kurenai thought, it meant she would have to think of a way out of this bloody mess somehow. There was a reason many shinobi avoided being team leaders as much as possible.
Captain Fujita nodded, taking her at her word. "All right then. Well that just leaves us with one outstanding piece of business. We've got thirty four live prisoners after the count is all said and done, many of them wounded. What should we do with them Jounin-san?" asked the Captain. It was times like this he was glad somebody else was in charge as the female Jounin was in charge of the caravan's security.
Kurenai's expression turned hard and dark. " We're over half a day from the nearest town. We'll have to camp overnight before we reach there. We have neither the resources nor the manpower to keep this many prisoner compliant and secure before we reach the town."
"So what should we do?" asked the Captain.
"Have your men kill them all Captain," said Kurenai with a flint hard look in her eyes, "we can't take them with us and we can't have any of this scum getting away and reporting to their boss."
The Captain saluted crisply with a fist to his heart. "It will be done" he said. The veteran turned on his heels and went to issue out her order.
Kurenai turned away, hiding a pained look on her face. She had killed before, and she had known as a Jounin she might be called to make this type of decision. But ordering the death of prisoners didn't sit well with her not in the least. But it was the right decision. Trying to take them along was too big a risk. Kurenai squared her shoulders and went to find her students. She did not want them around when the killing started.
This had all gone to hell. She thought her students would get to beat up a handful of bandits and get some experience in the field. Instead they were witness to an absolute bloodbath and she was sure at least some of them had killed for the first time today. Now with executing these prisoners she was worried about how her students would take it. Best they were away and didn't find out about it until much later.
It wasn't long until she found the three of them. They were sitting and standing next to the wagon furthest to the front. They were not acting like shinobi should… they all had the look of someone who had undergone shellshock. She would have to make time to talk to them tonight. Even Shino seemed conflicted and uncomfortable even through his high collar and glasses.
"I need you three to scout ahead," Kurenai said as she approached the group in a gentle voice. "Don't engage and stay out of sight. Just go see if there are any more surprises waiting for us. The caravan will be underway soon. Double back and catch up to us by nightfall."
The three genin got to their feet and nodded their consent. Without a word they shuffled off. Kurenai started having second thoughts about sending them off by themselves. In their current state, exhaustion and mental shock they might make mistakes that would get them in trouble. But they were a team that specialized in recon… Kurenai reasoned that between Kiba's nose, Shino's bugs and Hintata's Byakugan they would be able to spot trouble well before it found them.
A minute after they were gone, Kurenai began to hear the yelling and begging as the prisoners realized what was about to happen to them. She had given the order. Even though she didn't want to she strode over to where the prisoners were being executed. If she had to order the death of all these people, the least she could do was watch it happen.
It was nighttime and Shino, Hinata and Kurenai were sitting around a small campfire. They sat in silence eating their rations without much enthusiasm. Kiba was off taking the first watch of the night.
Shino had killed that afternoon for the first time just like his teammate Kiba. He had killed at least four people. And while it did not sit well with him he was better able to compartmentalize his doubts and the painful twisting inside and put it aside until another more appropriate time to deal with it.
Shino then was able to maintain his observation and analytical skills more or less intact after the experience while his teammates seemed to be experiencing some kind of post traumatic shock. So he was the first to notice after they had come back to camp that the prisoners they had tied up were nowhere to be found.
"Kurenai-sensei… what happened to the prisoners?" asked Shino without preamble.
Kurenai hesitated before answering. "We couldn't secure that many prisoners safely, and we couldn't risk them getting away and reuniting with the larger group."
Shino gave Kurenai a hard look as understanding dawned on him, but Hinata still looked confused.
"What? What does that mean?" the girl asked.
"It means Kurenai-sensei decided to kill over thirty unarmed prisoners Hinata" said Shino with anger in his voice.
Hinata looked confused for a moment before her eyes widened and she looked over at Kurenai, a questioning look in her eyes.
"Is that true Kurenai-sensei?" she asked, looking a little pale.
Kurenai tried not to sigh. She had known this conversation was coming but she had not been looking forward to it. "I gave the order for the prisoners to be executed, yes. It would have been extremely difficult and impractical to take them with us. Not to mention dangerous. We're in a precarious situation out here. We couldn't afford the liability."
"Difficult and impractical… but not impossible" said Shino with an accusing tone in his voice.
Kurenai's tone took a hard edge to it. "My main priorities are the successful completion of this mission and the survival of every member of this team. If that means having to kill a bunch of murdering bandits in cold blood then that is what I am going to do. This isn't me trying to be callous, this is the duty of every shinobi. Sparing the lives of our enemies is a luxury and one that in this case we could not afford to take."
There was an awkward silence that followed. Shino's resentment could be felt rolling off in waves off him. He really didn't like how things had gone down. But for whatever reason he kept his mouth closed and did not argue the point further.
"Now then," began Kurenai after a few moments, "we need to discuss what we're going to do from now on."
"Kurenai-sensei," began Hinata, "should we abandon the mission? Or send for reinforcements? These large numbers of bandits, plus two uknown shinobi… it seems l-like a lot of us to handle."
This time Kurenai did audibly sigh. The girl had a point but it wasn't so simple as that. Since this had proven itself to be at least B-Rank, and possibly even A-Rank mision depending on the skill of the shinobi that were leading the bandits, it was within her authority to pull the plug on the mission if she judged it to be in the best interests of Konoha. In most cases that would mean making the judgment that the risk to the lives of promising young genin was too great, the chances of success were too low, and the drawback to the village of abandoning the mission was an acceptable loss given the unexpected circumstances.
However it was also true that without the success of this trading expedition the economy out here in far eastern land of fire would be hard hit. Though most shinobi didn't think about this, the fact was that ninja villages had to worry as much about politics and economics as they did about missions and military power. Failing this mission and allowing these wagons to be ransacked could have a great many indirect detrimental effects on the land of fire and by extension Konoha.
For example, if the situation got bad enough the fire lord may be forced to send some military aid to the area. Or konoha would have to send out another mission to wipe out the bandits… but it would foster a lot of ill will if they allowed the livelihood of these border towns to be crippled and indirectly undermine the authority of the fire lord near the border and trust in konoha. In short she couldn't just abandon this mission without the possibility of some serious consequences.
"No Hinata, we're not abandoning the mission. And there is no time to send for backup. We're going to neutralize this threat to the border towns. We won't abandon this mission unless we have no other choice" said the red eyed Jounin.
"So what is the plan?" asked Shino, seeming to be back to his usual controlled self.
"We can't just continue on with the caravan route waiting to get ambushed again. We have to assume the shinobi will try to take the caravan again, this time with every single bandit they can muster. Since they are far more mobile they can set up a far more dangerous ambush further along the route. We really have no choice. If we want to have the best chance of success we need to go after them in the forest and take the offensive" said Kurenai.
Hinata gulped nervously and Shino said nothing. "Kurenai-sensei… y-you r-re-really want us t-to fight t-three hundred bandits and t-t-two shinobi?" asked Hinata. To Kurenai it seemed when she was nervous or scared Hinata's nervous stutter began to act up.
The Jounin shook her head. "No, no we are facing a superior force. Our best bet is to use your strengths and scout them out. We'll have to make an opportunity and take down the two shinobi. That will be the equivalent of cutting off the head of the serpent. Without a charismatic leader who can bully them to stay in line a group of bandits like this will soon break up and go back to becoming the manageable nuisances they were before. Our goal will be to find these two shinobi and neutralize them."
"Tomorrow morning," Kurenai continued "we will arrive at the first town in on the caravan's trading trip. They should be safe enough behind the walls of that town. We will enter the woods and head to where the captured bandits told us their camp was located. We will scout the situation make plans to engage the two ninja without having to engage all the thugs at the same time. If all goes well we should be able to catch them by surprise."