Exiting the cave was significantly easier than getting in. The massive tremors had collapsed several of the tunnels, but a few crevices here and there went straight to the surface. Emerging into fresh air again was an amazing experience - all things considered, the three of us weren't in there for all that long. On the other hand, fighting a massive demon is literally a once in a lifetime occurrence. For most people, anyways. I've fought nine, ten technically, but I'm a little bit of a special case, since I happen to have one sealed inside me.
There's a crowd gathered at the mouth to the cave system, probably brought there out of curiosity. Several ninja are clustered at the front trying to hold back the press of people, while others escort teams of genin out of the testing area. A few teams have made their own way out of the cave, following the giant cracks in the cave roof.
"Genin teams! All genin teams, come this way. Over here please!" A bespectacled ninja waves a clipboard above his head as he tries to attract attention over the dull roar of the slowly growing mass of people.
We head down the mountain side, jumping from rocky outcropping to rocky outcropping, avoiding the loose, crumbling patches of soil that dot the mountainside.
If anybody asks, I have no idea how any of this could possibly have happened.
"Alright, there seems to have been a few issues with the second test."
The assembled genin just look at the Kiri jonin as if he couldn't possibly say anything stupider.
"As you were told before the beginning of the test, the objective was to traverse the cave and find the shrine hidden at the center. Once there, each three man team was supposed to realize that the center pedestal could only be unlocked with four people." Here, the man pauses and wipes his damp forehead with a worn white handkerchief. "This was supposed to test your ability to work with other people. Unfortunately, there seems to have been a slight problem." He wipes his forehead again.
"We're not exactly sure what happened down there, but the higher ups have decided to redo the second test." He reaches into a brown sack at his side and pulls out a number of the tags that we picked up in the cavern. "If every team would come and get one of these tags - one per person, please - I can start the explanation of the next task."
As the genin around us shuffle forwards to receive a tag, Kabuto subtly motions for us to hide our own. As the proctor hands me the slim card, I take a moment to actually examine what it is.
There is nothing special about it - it's just a rectangular sheet of thick paper, marked with a number. The one I had is a nine, while Kurenai's is a six. Kabuto's, the one he officially has, is a two.
"The new test will be a free for all. It will take place in a former administration building. There will be 10 entrances, each one corresponding with the number on your tag. For those interested in the rest of the rules, several ninja dressed in bright blue are scattered throughout the village. If you can catch one, they will tell you single hint that about the test, depending on what number your tag is. Good luck!"
With that, he wipes his forehead one last time and disappears. I turn to my teammates, cocking an eyebrow.
"So, anybody else notice the lack of all the important details in that speech?"
We decided that splitting up and searching for the missing information was probably the best way to go about this. Kurenai, being female, highly attractive, and old enough not to draw the wrong kind of attention, volunteered to go bar hopping.
It's faint, but I vaguely remember Kiba mentioning something about one of his teacher's bad habits. Probably nothing important.
Kabuto went to check up on our absent instructor in the hospital, and promised to keep his ears open for any relevant conversations. I almost feel sorry for the poor man - at this rate, it'll be a miracle for him to ever leave the hospital, much less get back to "teaching" us.
On second thought, I really can't be bothered enough to care, as long as I don't have to fill out any extra paperwork. I have more important things to do.
I hop down from roof I'm standing on, sniffing the air around me, carefully isolating a specific scent from the plethora of others that pervaded the air. Let's see, there's one here, here and another over here. Time to go!
Ah, that was good. I place the eighth bowl of ramen on top of the rest of the stack, pushing a pile of money across the counter with my free hand.
Now that the main point of business is taken care of, I should probably investigate the time and exact location of the exam. It will take superior skill, a great deal of cunning, and a healthy dose of luck.
I scratch my head and look up, trying to think of a suitable plan. The thing in Iwa was a onetime deal, so that's out. The odds of me finding a drunk crossdressing barmaid are tiny, so that won't work either. I could always - no, Kiri's zoo probably doesn't have a platypus. Darn, all the good options aren't really practical right now.
There was always plan B, however. I rub my hands together and chuckle evilly.
It's a pretty good chuckle too. It better be, since I spent quite a while getting it right.
Terumi Ringo slumped over her desk, idly chasing around a bit of lint with the back of her pen. The amount of paperwork that came with setting up a major inter village event was horrendous - even more so considering the mishap that occurred in the second test.
She dropped the pen and pulled a sheet from the towering stack before her, massaging the back of her neck with her other hand. The preliminary report had only been submitted a few hours ago, and already, there were four or five conflicting viewpoints showing up, with more promising to appear. The list of damages was quite clear, but the potential causes ranged from a rampaging jinchuuriki to the summoning of an eldritch abomination.
She quirked an eyebrow at the last one - clearly, some of her ninja needed to get more rest.
With a sigh, Ringo began to work her way through the gathered information. Most of the experts she had looking at the situation agreed that while it was possible the damage to the inner cavern was caused by the release of a biju's chakra, analysis of the leftover traces suggested that most of the chakra being thrown around in there had been from a source that was basically unidentifiable.
Each so called expert had their own pet theory, but since the most experienced of the Mist's researchers had died under Yagura's regime, she was leery of taking any of remaining ones at face value.
There was another sheet, written by her trusted right hand, Ao. Though technically head of the hunter-nin division and a high ranking member of the sensor corps, he was more commonly known as her overworked secretary - one of the perks of being his former jounin instructor.
As she reached for his report, a faint sensation tickled the back of her mind. There was something, something familiar but just out of reach.
Unlike the majority of ninja who were classified as sensors, Ringo did not have to actively manipulate her chakra to scan an area. If anything, her method was the complete opposite.
To the uninformed, her bloodline seemed to be limited to the production and manipulation of lava - which, to be fair, was partially correct. Like nearly all other elemental bloodlines, however, a few extra perks came with it; a seeming immunity to high temperatures, resistance to both fire and earth natured chakra, and an extreme sensitivity to even slight temperature fluctuations.
Slitting her eyes, she reached inwards and slowly lowered her own body heat, letting her body adjust until it completely matched the ambient temperature.
"Come out, whoever you are."
Not even a twitch.
"Whoever you are, you don't know much about the Terumi bloodline, do you? You can try to hide as much as you want, but unless you have complete control over your body's energy radiation, I can feel you a mile away."
This time, there was a reaction. Just as she was about to turn her chair, a child's giggle broke the stillness.
"Well damn, for a granny, you sure got some scary tricks up your sleeve." Konoha's jinchuuriki hopped off the window sill behind her and landed with a rather audible thud, all attempts at stealth gone.
Cocking a finely sculpted brow, white just beginning to creep in among the red, the Mizukage leaned back and crossed her legs, taking Ao's report with her.
"You're not so bad yourself, kid. Trying to sneak up on a kage - that takes guts. Guts, and a great deal to stupidity, to be exact. I'm honestly more impressed that you snuck past all the guards and made it here unannounced to begin with."
He shrugged, leaning back against the wall and affecting and arrogant tone.
"Oh, that? That was easy - I just walked right up the side of the wall and opened your window. Apparently, no one thought anybody would be crazy enough to actually do something so brazen."
She sighed, closing her eyes and rubbing her forehead.
"Most people aren't, you know. Really." She put down the report and crossed her arms. "So, little weapon of mass destruction, what can I do for you today?"
She could almost feel him grin. "Aww, I knew you liked me! Anyways, you think you could just tell me the details for the second exam?"
"Figures - going around and following the rules too boring for you? No, don't even bother answering; we both know it's true." The chair creaked as she adjusted herself, feeling her joints protest after the long period of just sitting at a desk. "Well first of all, any details you were told earlier are mostly lies. The actual test itself will take place in the the old warehouse by the docks. You can't miss it, since it's a six story building with eight inch thick iron walls. There are another four stories underground, but all of the actual flooring has been removed from the building. The doors will open at eight in the morning tomorrow, and close in ten minutes. If you don't get there in time, you fail the exam. That's all I know."
"That's it? What's the actual test?"
"Like I said - I don't actually know. Hell, at this point in time, no one knows! The proctors will decide on the test an hour before it begins - until then, it could be anything."
"Seriously? Kinda paranoid, don't you think?"
She snorted. "Considering that Konoha slipped the Kyuubi's jinchuuriki into the mix, I'm not sure you have any right to complain. Regardless, you have your answers - get out of here and let me finish up my work."
"Have fun with that - the faster you try to clear your desk, the faster the paperwork comes in. Sucker."
With a last mocking laugh, he dived out the window, taunting the ninja who finally realized there was an intruder in her offices all the way down.
Ringo sits still for a moment longer, before leaning forward and examining a sheet in front of her. Although Ao admitted that the majority of the chakra that had been thrown around in the cavern was decidedly foreign to his eye, there was one particular signature that was quite familiar. In fact, he had recognized it from the fight against Yagura just a short while ago.
What the hell was going on?
So, a mystery competition in an abandoned warehouse with a suspicious structure. Sounds like it came straight out of one of my great great grandchildren's video games. I shake my head, remembering the amount of time I had spent playing with those brats - after a while, their parents had even taken to kicking us all out of the house to get some fresh air. Oh, the indignity of being chased around by the same people whose diapers I had changed.
Finding Kabuto is pretty easy, as he's waiting for me on the roof of our inn. I hop over to him, landing on the traditionally thatched roof without disturbing the water reeds.
"Are we even allowed up here?"
He looks at me with a blank face. "Why wouldn't we be?"
I spend a moment gesturing at the relatively fragile material beneath us before just giving up. "So, what did you find?"
He parts his lips slightly and speaks without moving his lips. Neat trick. "Our...esteemed instructor... will be unfortunately indisposed for quite some time. There were some ... complications."
I quirk an eyebrow, tilting my head quizzically. "Do tell."
"It seems that his wounds were mistreated and some how he ended up with acute blood poisoning. Sadly, it is most likely that he will have to be transferred to a hospital in Konoha for longer term care, though he should make a full recovery in two months at most."
I shake my head. "Sepsis, huh. It feels like a little bit much, don't you think."
"I am afraid I do not understand what you are referring to."
"Of course you don't. I have the relevant information about the test, though it looks like the actual details won't be decided for quite some time. It's -"
He interrupts me, gesturing at Kurenai, who had just landed on the roof with decidedly less grace than normal.
"Eight at the dock's warehouse, right?" She slurs her words, and the spots of red on her cheeks coupled with her slightly drooping eyes tell me everything I need to know.
"Kurenai, you wouldn't happen to be drunk the day before our test, right?"
She reaches out to pat my head and swings through a spot about nine inches to my left. "Hey, why'd to move?"
I sink my face into my palm, finally remembering what Kiba said about her biggest bad habit. "Dammit."
After apologizing heartily to the innkeeper, whose punishment was to set us to immediately repairing the new hole in the roof, I send Kabuto up to our room to deal with our wasted teammate.
As he slips away, I pull out the map I liberated from a careless Iwa genin who crossed my path earlier. The warehouse was easy enough to find, and conveniently, there was a junkyard not far from it. Perfect.
Seven fifty the following morning finds us standing outside the abandoned warehouse, along with almost two dozen other teams from all of the major villages and some minor ones to boot. Among them are faces that I don't recognize from the previous tests but before I have a chance to discover what's going on, the bandaged proctor from the previous test appears in a puff of mist.
The ten doors at ground level snap open and the genin pour in. We enter gate eight, using Kabuto's stash of extra tags to stay together. Inside is a massive space that stretches from the floor, four stories beneath us, to the ceiling, six stories up.
Metal struts spring from the walls like some kind of sideways forest, and each door opens onto a flat ledge that just barely holds the genin in each group. At the very top of the building are sixteen doors, each around my height. They're too short for the majority of people around me to get through without crawling, but I can fit through if I duck my head. Convenient.
The most alarming features, however, are the three massive holes in the floor, each at least thirty feet across. Water is bubbling upwards in each pipe, slowly beginning to flood the lowest level.
A speaker crackles, and a woman's voice is heard, sadistically cheerful.
"Hello there, boys and girls. Since you all decided to pile us with extra work, we all got together and came up with this lovely little game." A mad cackle sends most of the genin into shivers, and the doors slam shut behind us, leaving no light to enter the building.
"The doors up top will open in eight hours, and the first ones through each door get to move on. The rest? Well, all I'm going to say is those pipes won't stop pumping out water till until all the competitors in the next round have been decided. Have fun kiddies!"
A/N: Well, it's been awhile. Again. It's been difficult to write when the two of us are in different colleges (and now timezones) but we got that figured out.
And, well. College.
We hope you enjoy this!