Chapter 26

They passed underneath the arch of the great gate leading into the forbidding, multi-tiered tower that awaited them. The gate led to a high and narrow hall with a second gate close behind, which was locked with no discernible means of opening it. The only other visible item in the room was an ancient calligraphy scroll, which hung on the wall above the gate and bore a cryptic text.

“If you do not possess heaven, gain knowledge and be prepared. If you do not possess earth, run through the fields and seek strength. If you possess both heaven and earth, paths that were once dangerous are now benign.” Sakura frowned in thought. “I think it’s telling us to open the scrolls.”

Gingerly, Naruto unfolded the earth scroll, while Sasuke did the same with the heaven scroll. If they all failed now because they misinterpreted some stupid cryptic text… Naruto could just imagine some bearded old man telling them that noooo, the text told them to skip around in the field until they tripped over a hidden lever; who said anything about scrolls?

Naruto flinched as a sudden eruption of air revealed a man in front of them. He would have looked like a perfectly ordinary looking chūnin, except for the horizontal scar running across his face and the fact that he sat in a chair with large wheels on the sides.

“Hello,” he said. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Iruka-sensei?” Naruto stumbled backwards in shock, faced with the man who had been crippled partly because of his naivety. “What? But… how?”

“The Heaven and Earth scrolls each carry the seal for the summoning technique,” Iruka explained with a laugh. “It is traditional for the previous generation of chūnin to greet the new contestants after they pass the second round, and I volunteered to-”

Naruto gaped. “You can teleport people with a scroll? Why don’t we all have those?” If Mizuki-sensei had carried a scroll like that during his doomed mission, or if Kakashi-sensei had one when his childhood friends were in trouble or even during the Land of Waves mission, it would have changed everything. And if that crazy examiner lady had just told them what the scrolls were for instead of saying they should open them to signal surrender, Naruto could have used it to summon help when Gaara was trying to kill everyone.

“It costs an enormous amount of chakra to summon people rather than spirits, so scrolls like that are not normally available,” Iruka explained. He seemed more amused by Naruto’s reaction than anything else. “That’s why during the chūnin exams, for the sake of upholding our most sacred traditions, the Hokage orders the Village’s most powerful summoners to inscribe their technique into those scrolls.”

Tradition. Well, of course it had to be something stupid like that – what else? Though, if the range was limited by the amount of chakra that was put into it, a scroll like that still might not have saved everyone, Naruto reflected.

Sakura meanwhile was politely inquiring into how Iruka-sensei was doing, which their former teacher waved off. “I’m fine, really. It’s amazing, how much more attention the class pays to me now that I have a chair like this. I should have faked an injury years ago, haha!”

“Something has happened in the forest,” Sasuke said in a tone that instantly schooled Iruka’s features. “There were three ninjas from the Hidden Sand, heirs to the Kazekage. Naruto saw the youngest of them execute three Rain ninjas in cold blood, using a sand technique to obscure the Byakugan’s vision.”

Iruka sent a doubtful glance in Naruto’s direction. “Are you sure? Is it possible that you misheard, or perhaps misunderstood something? After all, it is easy to get confused in the midst of battle…”

Naruto felt heat rush to his face as his muscles tensed, but Sasuke didn’t give him the chance to react. “Naruto would not be saying it if he weren’t certain,” he said coolly. “He understands the significance of this as well as you.”

“Right,” said Iruka, rubbing his forehead. “Of course. I’ll pass it over to Ibiki, who’ll inform the Hokage. But if this was done by the Kazekage’s own children, and there’s no evidence of what happened…” He raised his hands in a warding gesture. “I’m not saying they won’t believe you, Naruto, but they might pretend not to. Perhaps… perhaps it would be best if you don’t speak of this to anyone else, for now.”

After a rushed conclusion of the greeting ceremony, the team passed through the gate and into the great hall where they were told to wait for the other teams to arrive. An overhanging balcony lined the walls in a semi-circle, while a colossal statue of two hands forming the tiger seal loomed over them at the far end of the room. Not even the tip of those stone fingers were tall enough to reach the roof, which was so high it was scarcely even visible in the flickering torchlight.

It did not take long for them to spot the Sand ninjas, which were huddled in a corner of the hall, together with a dangerous-looking man in a turban who could only be their teacher. It took even less time to decide to stay as far away from them as possible.

“I guess we should head for the pantry area to see if we can get some free food,” said Naruto. “Or wait: The medics are supposed to be at the top of the tower, right? I’m gonna go see if the Anbu brought Hinata there yet, if that’s okay with you guys.” The last he remembered from his clone was handing her over to Kiba, who had insisted he could carry her faster as he leaped away on all fours.

“All right,” said Sakura. “In that case, we’ll – aaahh!” A shadow had jumped onto Sakura’s back, and she made a desperate effort to throw it off, only for the figure to leap back and land lightly on its feet.

“Hah! Not, hah, not bad, forehead girl.” Ino sounded as though she had tried to cast the Grand Fireball technique while inhaling instead of exhaling, and her teammates who were close behind did not look to be in much better shape. Chōji had a bloody nose and his scorched clothes still carried a foul scent, while Shikamaru looked like he had tried to hang himself and was now fervently wishing he had succeeded.

“Are you mad?” Sakura had grabbed a kunai with lethal intent and was only now stowing it away. “What were you thinking, surprising a ninja from behind like that? And why are you not in the hospital? And – and how can you possibly be here before us?”

Ino smiled the sure-fire grin of someone who might have lost her voice, but certainly not her capacity to leave others speechless. “This, hah – is nothing. Ninjas should always, hah, hrm, always…” She tried to continue, but her words were lost in a fit of coughing. “Anbu… rghh! Gah!”

“For the love of…” Shikamaru motioned for her to stay silent. “What Ino is trying to say is, after you guys left we were picked up by the Anbu, who brought us straight to this place. One of them already checked us over, said we’re fine as long as Ino does not talk for at least a few days.” He glanced in her direction, as if to say that the Anbu might as well have said ‘as long as up is down and true is false’.

“I think I like her better this way,” Chōji said in between mouthfuls from a bag that he must have raided from the pantry. “I vote we keep her like this.” This earned him a death glare from Ino, which he was only too happy to pretend not to notice.

“What a pain…” Shikamaru sighed deeply. “I gotta hand it to you though, Naruto: I never would’ve guessed you could turn Ino’s technique on her like that. I thought your chakra control would be too poor for that, but I guess you guys just have more battle experience than us.” At this point Ino’s gaze settled on Naruto with a perfectly neutral, innocuous look that instantly made him want to flee the Land of Fire.

“Something happened in the forest,” said Sasuke, blithely ignoring the on-going conversation as he began his explanation of what happened. Technically, nobody had told him to stay quiet about it, Naruto reflected. With an unusually serious expression on her face, Ino formed the hand signs for her technique, and Naruto winced as her thoughts wormed their way into his head once again.

“I’ll let daddy know what happened,” she intoned in his head. “He works for Ibiki, so he will know what to do. Shika and Chōji, you do the same with your dads: If it’s coming from three different people, they won’t be able to ignore us.” A part of Naruto wanted to see if he could shut Ino out of his head, but the part of him that was not insane decided not to try. “For now, let’s all just stay far away from those Sand ninjas.”    

The group turned as they became aware of an increase in the general commotion around them: All around the hall, chūnin were buzzing about as more genin trickled into the room. Could it be that the second stage of the exam had ended already? He saw several of the teachers show up as well, including Kakashi, though they were keeping their distance for now. Aside from the Sand ninjas, Naruto recognized the information card-shark Kabuto and his team, which surprised him – Naruto was sure the older Leaf ninja would have forfeited by now to continue his con game. Then there was the Hyūga’s team of course, and… Kiba? Why was the feral ninja not with Hinata in the hospital? That was strange.

The chūnin and jōnin lined up along the walls of the room, as though waiting for something to happen, and that was when he saw them: The barest hints of movement in the corner of his eye, flickering in and out of existence in tandem with the uncertain torchlight. All along the walls, on top of the balconies and even on the ceiling, there were shadows. Men and women in black cloaks, with no discernible features but for the white masks they wore, which were made to look like animal faces.

The main gates to the tower blasted open, and yet more ninjas poured into the room, lining up on either side of the door and crouching in deference. At last the one they were waiting for entered the hall, advancing with swift and sturdy strides despite his advanced age, his white robes of office trailing behind him as he went.

Hushed whispers rose up from the assembled genin. “Is that him?” “It can’t be him, he looks so old.” “He was retired until the Fourth’s death – they say he was already Hokage during the First War.” “The most powerful of the Five Kage…” “The only ninja who knows every Leaf technique…” “The Professor…”

Sarutobi Hiruzen, Third Hokage and leader of the Village hidden in the Leaves, strode up to the assembled genin with wide open arms and a smile on his lips. “Why, what a commotion for one tired old man. You would almost think you were here for me, instead of the other way around!” He chuckled at his own jape as two more shadows fell in behind him. To his right stood Morino Ibiki, the head of the Torture and Interrogation unit, head of Intelligence and de facto head of the Anbu. To his left stood Mitarashi Anko, former student of the Snake Sannin Orochimaru, known all around the Village to be dangerously mad.

The gates of the tower closed shut behind them.

“First of all, congratulations to those of you who have passed the second test,” the Hokage said, gesturing with his pipe as he addressed the group. “More importantly, I feel I owe you all an explanation regarding the true purpose of this exam, and the reason it is held together with our allied nations.” The genin shot uncertain glances at each other, but none of them even dared to whisper now. “You will have heard it is done in order to foster good relations with our neighbours, but do not let that reason deceive you. The fact of the matter is that the chūnin exams are an extension of war through other means.” This time there were hushed whispers, but they died almost instantly.

The Hokage took a long drag from his pipe and exhaled smoke, his eyes distant. “If you look back through our long and noble history, you will find that the past is filled with violent conflict between countries that we now consider to be close allies. Whenever countries perceived an imbalance in military strength, the temptation arose for the stronger of them to capitalize on their dominance and rise in power through military means. That is why events such as the chūnin exams were organized: In order to allow countries, through minimal violence, to measure their respective strength and thus prevent war. Additionally-”

“What are you talking about?” One of the genin had broken rank and stepped forward, facing the Hokage. It was Kiba. “Allied countries? Measuring strength? Who the hell cares about any of that stuff. Hinata almost died out there just now! You sent us all into a giant forest filled with monsters and enemy ninjas, and for what? So you could play at politics?” Everyone stared at him in shock.

“Down, boy,” Morino Ibiki said warningly. “That’s the Hokage you’re talking to.”

The Third Hokage took his pipe from his mouth and looked at Kiba severely. “Your concern for your friend does you credit, young genin. However, in order to prevent war, it is sometimes necessary to make certain sacrifices. We all greatly appreciate you and your brave friend’s willingness to walk this dangerous path for the sake of our Village-”

Willingness to-” Kiba stared at the Hokage in blind rage. “Why don’t you go fu-”

Suddenly Anko’s fist was in his stomach, and he crumpled over with a wheezing gasp of pain. She grabbed hold of his wounded arm and twisted it viciously, forcing out a strangled scream. “Ibiki told you to heel, boy! Do I need to teach you a few lessons in respect?”

“Anko! Let him go.” The Hokage looked at her with an expression of anger and disappointment. “The boy is clearly injured and upset for his friend – go escort him to the hospital. We’ll talk about this later.”

The crazy examiner did as she was told, seeming none too bothered about the chastisement. As they watched her drag the feral ninja up the stairs, Naruto wondered if anyone would say anything if they just never saw Kiba again after this, or if they would not speak of him anymore as was the case with Mizuki-sensei. Naruto did not know if he himself would dare to say anything in that case – but he now knew that Kiba would.

Dogs are supposed to be loyal creatures, after all…

The Third Hokage shook his head wearily. “What a way to start the exams. I imagine none of you younglings will want to hear me lecture you on history after that display. I will leave the rest up to you then, Gekkō Hayate.” He turned and left through the gates, Morino Ibiki following close behind.

“Thank you, Hokage-sama.” From the ranks of assembled ninja, a greasy-haired man who looked like he had not slept in years stepped forward. “I am the examiner for the third round. As the Hokage explained, the final round is a one-on-one ninja tournament meant to display our military strength to other countries. However-” A sudden coughing fit forced him to stop talking. When he lowered his hand, Naruto thought he saw something glisten red. “However… before that we need to hold some, ah, preliminary rounds, to reduce the numbers, since the attendees will have limited time available.” He held up a plain wooden box. “I wrote your names on notes and put them in here, so uhm, I guess I’ll just take two random ones out each time and you can fight each other until we’re down to eight.”

Naruto stared at the man as he talked, a growing sense of wrongness pervading him. There was something incredibly off about hearing a process that could decide his life or death described in such a casual way, especially coming from someone who looked like he was about to die himself. Naruto glanced around nervously. If he was forced to fight with that monster from the Sand… but no, he could always just forfeit. Sasuke had been right: There was no good reason not to at least wait and see what came next.

The examiner coughed again, and reached into the box with a glistening hand. “Uhm, first match. Hyūga Neji, versus…” He reached in again, still coughing. “Hyūga Hinata.”

Well, that was clearly a mistake. Obviously, someone had neglected to notify this sick and dying man that Hinata’s team had dropped out of the exam.

“To think that I would get to face our very heiress – it seems the fates smile upon me.” Hyūga Neji stepped out into the centre of the room, his fists clenched. “Well? Where is she? Don’t tell me the heir to Konoha’s most noble clan is too fearful to fight a mere branch member of the house.”

Hinata stepped out to face him.

Naruto twisted around, looking for Kiba, but as he was absent he rounded on Shino instead. “You!” He grabbed the hooded boy by the collar and drew him in close. “What the hell is Hinata-chan doing here? You guys were supposed to get her to safety, not drag her along with you to the next round!”

“P-please don’t be mad at him, Naruto-kun,” Hinata said quietly. “I asked… I begged Shino-kun and Kiba-kun to continue with the exam, since we already had our second scroll.”

Naruto slowly let go of Shino’s collar. “What? But why?”

“It’s because, I am… the heir to, to lord Hiashi.” Her back was turned to him, so Naruto could not see her injuries, but he remembered how the blood had run down her cheeks when the sand pressed in on her, and the image filled him with the same helpless terror as it had back then. “I was taught to always represent the, the Hyūga’s strength, and to hold my head on high. That is why, in front of the person I admire, I cannot bear the thought of looking weak.”

“That’s why?” Naruto stared at her, uncomprehending. “Just because of something like that, because you don’t wanna look weak to others, you’re gonna risk your life?” He realized he was being a hypocrite, but he was too horrified to care. “Hinata-chan, I dunno what kind of things you were taught, but refusing to accept reality doesn’t make you strong at all! If you’re gonna throw your life away just because you’re too stubborn to give up, well, there’s nothing that could make me lose more respect for you!”

A small gasp escaped from Hinata’s lips.

“How pathetic.” Hyūga Neji crossed his arms and smiled viciously. “I understood that Lord Hiashi gifted you a pet hound and an insect when you became a genin, lady Hinata, but now it looks to me as though it were the other way around. Allowing a mere commoner to lecture you is disgraceful – but what is worse is that he’s right.” His sneer intensified. “An inability to accept your own destiny is the lowliest form of weakness there is. Every effort you make to deny your own inadequacy merely affirms it.”

Naruto stepped forward. “You shut up right now, or…” A firm hand on his shoulder held him back.

“You should not trouble yourself,” said Shino. “Why is that? Because I do not believe Hinata is the one he truly despises.” He turned to face Hyūga Neji. “I heard that your fathers were born just a few seconds apart. If we must all accept our own roles in life, then it must be truly unfortunate to find yourself forever resigned to a cage due to a mere accident of birth. Am I wrong?”

It happened so fast Naruto almost missed it: Neji’s eyes flashed white and he lunged at Shino, who twirled around with a flash of metal as a deadly sickle-blade appeared in his hand, but then both froze mid-strike – their wrists held in an iron grip by a boy in green clothing with a bowl cut and thick black eye brows. Lee was standing between the two in a crouch, holding them back with arms outstretched as though he had always been there. That’s not possible! He was right behind me – he couldn’t possibly have moved that fast without chakra! But even as Naruto thought that, the realization came to him that being unable to control chakra was not the same as being unable to use it.

“Forgive me,” said Lee, not looking at either of them. “But I would much prefer to resolve this matter within our team. For you see, the person who will finally show Neji to be wrong is me.” He raised his head to face Naruto. “And you are wrong too, Naruto-kun… there is nothing more noble than defying one’s own destiny! It is only when you believe in the impossible that you are able to make it a reality.”

Neji ripped himself free, scowling. “What utter nonsense. It does not matter how much a hare dreams of soaring through the sky, it still cannot grow wings and fly!”

Naruto turned to look at Hinata, who still stood rooted to the spot, her eyes red from where the sand had tried to force its way into her skull.

“Hinata-chan…”

“Never mind,” she said quietly, her lips trembling. “I – I should have… who was I trying to fool? I only made things difficult for everyone again.” She turned and fled up the stairs, leaving Naruto behind.

Why? Why is it always like this? Even when I win, I still lose…

“Winner by forfeit: Hyūga Neji.” The examiner coughed wetly. “If we’re done with all the distractions, I would like to continue with the preliminaries. Everyone who has forfeited should move out of the hall – uhm, or if you want to watch you can do it from the balconies I guess.” He reached into the box and pulled out two more papers. “Next match: Tenten versus Kankuro.”

That was one of the Sand Village ninjas: The middle child, if Naruto remembered correctly. As he and the others made their way up the stairs to the balcony, he sent a worried glance to the mousy girl, but she seemed oblivious.

“Hey kids.” Their teacher greeted them with a jaunty wave. “Good to see you all made it in one piece.”

“Kakashi,” Sasuke said immediately. “Something has happened in the forest…”

Naruto left them to it, choosing instead to lean over the balcony in order to watch the coming fight below. Tenten was readying herself, having unfolded her giant scroll onto the stone floor and going over each of her seals while humming quietly to herself. There was no sign of her opponent.

“I will now explain the rules,” announced the examiner. Naruto perked up. “Or actually, I’m not going to tell you all the rules, because you would just figure out ways around them.” Naruto cursed inwardly. “But basically, don’t leave the arena, don’t use techniques until the match starts, and don’t kill your opponent or I’ll fail you no matter what.” He glanced around the area, and coughed again. “Where is the second contestant? If he does not show up, I will have to grant the victory to, uhm, Tenten.”

The room fell quiet as everyone looked around, except for the remaining Sand ninjas at the far end of the balcony who merely looked bored. Right when the examiner looked ready to call the match, smoke burst out in a cloud at the very top of the giant stone hands forming the tiger seal.

“Your long wait is over,” a voice intoned solemnly. A figure in a black hooded outfit appeared on top of the statue’s index finger, wearing purple face paint and carrying a foreign object on his back. “Behold, for I am Kankuro… of the Black Sand!”

A loud snort emanated from the other end of the balcony, where his older sister was trying not to laugh. “Black sand? How do you imagine that’s supposed to happen? Do you go streaking in the desert and leave your clothes behind?” She snorted again as Kankuro’s face turned visibly red. “And I have to say: Imitating someone as vile as Sasori of the Red Sand, that’s totally tasteless, even by your standards.”

“Shut up! Every great Sand ninja has an epithet, and master Sasori is a true genius – he’s just misunderstood!” The sand ninja leaped down from his perch at a strangely slow speed, and he touched the ground with barely a sound.

Hayate regarded him dispassionately. “If you are finally ready…” He coughed. “Begin.”

Tenten launched a volley of kunai at him, watching like a hawk to see how he would dodge… which he did not do. The throwing knives veered aside at the last second, embedding themselves into the stone statue behind him.

“Hey, I didn’t say I was ready yet!” Kankuro pulled on the cords wrapped around the object on his back, and it dropped to the ground with its black shroud hanging in tatters around it. What looked to be four wooden limbs stuck out at odd angles. “Oh well… I guess an artist should always be ready to perform.”

“He’s a puppet master,” Sakura breathed into Naruto’s ear. “Oh, this is so unfair. She should quit now.”

Naruto would have asked what she meant, but there was no time: What looked like a wooden head emerged from underneath the tattered black cloth, and from its twisted mouth spat forth a hail of iron needles. Tenten immediately dodged to the side as she unfurled one of her scrolls, twin crossbows appearing in her hands and shooting bolts at Kankuro while she ran in a circle around him. In response he manoeuvred the cloaked puppet to intercept the bolts with its body, the dull impacts achieving nothing as it extended both arms and fired yet more needles from its open palms.

“How is he doing that?” Naruto whispered. “Controlling it, I mean.” Is it some kind of telekinesis? But then why would he use it to control a humanoid puppet, of all things?

Sasuke appeared next to Naruto with his Sharingan active. “There are chakra strings extending from his fingers to the puppet: He shouldn’t be able to move each individual joint like that though.” He frowned in thought. “Either way, she should use a chakra weapon or technique to disrupt the effect somehow.”

“Not likely,” said Kakashi. “Her teacher, Maito Gai, does not really teach ninjutsu. This is all she has.”

Down below, Tenten had discarded one of her crossbows in favour of a thick metal shield, and was using it to charge directly at Kankuro in an attempt to get close enough to land a hit. The puppet rushed at her in response, blades appearing along the lengths of its spindly wooden arms as it moved in for a lethal embrace. She dropped the other crossbow and pulled out a flail, spinning the ball and chain in deadly arcs around her. For a moment the two danced around each other, as Tenten blocked the incoming needles with her shield while the puppet drifted around her flail like a wraith. Then the ball and chain shot out, and the puppet was struck dead in its centre and shattered into a dozen pieces.

Yes!

Each individual component of the puppet drifted up into the air, circling Tenten and clacking angrily, before unleashing a hailstorm of needles at her from every direction. She slammed her scroll onto the ground and an iron shell appeared around her, deflecting the projectiles just as Naruto had done in his fight with Haku. Then a canister shot out from the puppet’s chest and landed next to the metal barrier, hissing with what Naruto could only guess was escaping gas.

“He uses poison too?” Shikamaru said, a bit further down the balcony. “This fight is as good as over.”

“How can you be so sure?” asked Naruto. “I mean, I get that it looks bad, but she only has to land one good hit, right? She just has to surprise him somehow, and she can still win.”

Shikamaru shook his head and sighed. “It doesn’t matter what she can do – it’s just not gonna happen.”

Tenten managed to overturn her cover and leap away from the gas, covering her mouth with her elbow pit while she assessed the situation. As the puppet parts recombined into a single puppet she unfolded her scroll once more, and this time she pulled out a rope with a large metal projectile attached. Naruto sucked in a breath when he saw the explosive tags covering it. He knew just how expensive those things were – Naruto might have access to Sasuke’s family fortune, but to her that one projectile might well represent her life’s savings. She began twirling it in a wide vertical arc.

Kankuro drew his puppet in close and grinned. “Planning to destroy my precious Crow, are you? I don’t think so. Show me what you’ve got, panda girl!”

Tenten scowled and released the rope, hurling the projectile directly at Kankuro and his puppet. Right when it came within ten meters of him it veered away with a twitch of Kankuro’s fingers. Then there was a clicking sound as the projectile split into pieces, a spring mechanism launching each explosive tag in a different direction and covering the entire area. Dropping the puppet in a panic, Kankuro sent each of the projectiles veering away from him in turn, but then the explosive tags detonated and the entire area went up in a roar of fire and smoke.

Tenten unfurled her giant scroll one more time, not even waiting to see the result of her last attack.

Slowly, a black silhouette reappeared within the smoke, stooped over and shaking slightly. “Hah… did you really believe that would work? It will take more than that to-”

A massive siege crossbow appeared on the scroll in front of Tenten, and she instantly pulled the release. The giant missile soared through the air almost too fast to follow – too fast even for a jōnin to dodge – and went straight through her enemy, dragging him along with barbed hooks and spearing him to the far side wall. His body shuddered once and then drooped over, hanging from the spear like a slab of meat.

The entire room was deathly silent.

“Uhm,” said the examiner. “I thought I said that killing your opponent was not allowed? I mean, I realize that accidents do happen, but that looks like lethal force to me.”

“Ah… sorry,” Tenten said, as she rubbed the back of her head embarrassedly. Her cheeks were flushed from exertion. “I may have overdone it a little bit. You’re not going to fail me now, are you?”

Naruto looked up in a panic to see how the Sand Ninjas were reacting, but Gaara only stared at where Kankuro had fallen with an empty expression. Naruto followed his gaze, and stopped. Kankuro’s arms had fallen off. His legs, his head… his entire body was falling apart while in the centre of the room, the form which he had thought to be the puppet was standing up, draped in a black and tattered cloak.

“Ahh, the classic puppet-body-replacement trick,” Kankuro said, grinning. “That one never gets old.”

Eyes wide, Tenten threw more kunai at her enemy, but Kankuro pulled out a scroll of his own and manifested another black and cloaked form to intercept them, this one even larger than himself. He leaped onto his monstrous horned puppet, clutching to its back as it flew at Tenten, who shrieked and tried to dodge only for the puppet’s chest to open up and swallow her whole before closing again.

“You should have known better than to underestimate me!” He leaped off his puppet and landed on the floor without a sound. “For I am Kankuro: The Scorpion’s disciple!” Muffled screams emanated from the puppet, but they were almost immediately stifled as the mechanism locked up completely, and then only the clacking of wooden puppet parts and the whirring of its internal devices could be heard.

“Incidentally,” said Kankuro, turning to face the examiner, “you said killing was not allowed, but how do you feel about maiming, poisoning, and permanent disfiguration? I’m just asking, because if you’re against any of those things, you might want to call this match… right about now.”

Gekkō Hayate took one look at the monstrous horned puppet, and nodded. “Winner: Kankuro.”

Kankuro flicked his fingers and the puppet opened up, dumping its terrified cargo onto the floor.

“I forfeit!” Tenten scrambled away on all fours, kicking off the ground to get as far away from the puppet as possible. “I forfeit!” She ran towards the stairs and nearly tripped, crawling up the steps towards the balcony. She dashed blindly ahead and ran towards her team, tears streaming from her eyes, before finally collapsing in her teacher’s arms. “I forfeit… I forfeit… I forfeit…”

“See?” Shikamaru sighed deeply. “I told you, didn’t I? Against an opponent like that, you just can’t win.”

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6 thoughts on “Chapter 26

    • Hi! What do you mean something is missing? Do you mean the scene jump compared to last chapter? The idea is that after fighting Ino-Shika-Cho, they have their scroll and just need to head to the tower, so that’s where this chapter starts. Or isn’t that what you meant?

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    • Nope, that was just an insect clone, but Naruto did not know he could do that so we was confused and horrified at the time. Hinata is indeed too injured too fight, which is precisely why he gets mad at the fact that she still wants to fight Neji, but Shino is fine.

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