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"Sakura-chan!" - Regular Speech

'Baka!' - Thoughts

:Shannaro!: - Inner Sakura

[Quest Announcement] - Gamer Ability/Notification

Beta'd by BigCC

Chapter 28: Karehagakure Strikes

The Next Day

On the Road, Konohagakure Patrol Area

"Ayame-san, when you were training at the Academy, did you have anything in particular you wanted to specialize in when you became a kunoichi?" Sakura asked curiously as she walked by their client. Naruto, who had resumed the same position with Asuma as yesterday, perked up a bit at the question, more than a bit curious about the side of his surrogate-sister he'd never known about before.

"Hm? Well, I was still pretty young back then, but I'd always liked the idea of becoming a rear-line support kunoichi." the ramen waitress replied with a thoughtful expression. "You know, shurikenjutsu, iryōjutsu, trap making, that kind of thing. I was never the best in most of our combat classes outside shurikenjutsu. I didn't have the natural control or imagination you need to get really good with genjutsu outside of the basics, and I was never really aggressive or physically-minded enough to excel at taijutsu either. I was pretty good in ninjutsu, but never had enough chakra to think about becoming any kind of ninjutsu expert."

"What about weapons outside of shuriken?" Naruto asked curiously.

"Never really tried them. Even back then, they didn't start us training with anything beyond practice shuriken or training kunai until after I left and advanced weaponry never really caught my attention." Ayame responded with a shake of her head. "If they had, I might have gone with something like you use, Naruto-kun. A tantō or a kodachi or something like that might have fit me well enough, but like I said it never really caught my interest. Though my Chūnin-sensei did say that an Akimichi Ryōri-nin (Cooking Ninja) had taken an interest in me thanks to my experience in my dad's shop."

"Wait, really!?" Ino jerked around sharply in shock, suddenly breaking her conversation with Kurenai-sensei. "Wow, that's actually kinda impressive. The Akimichi are really protective of their Ryōri-nin arts and don't take a lot of apprentices outside their own clan. Even my clan and the Nara rarely get offered a chance to learn any of them, and our clans have been allied with the Akimichi for over a century. Someone must have thought you had a real talent for it."

"Huh…" Ayame blinked in surprise. "I never knew that."

"Ryōri-nin are pretty rare, the Akimichi are the only clan in Konoha that produces any number of them and only a small portion of the clan practices those arts." Asuma offered. "But they're also one of the best support corps you can have for long-term missions. A good one can turn even the worst field rations into something tasty and nutritious enough to keep morale high and everyone fighting fit, and the best ones can even produce food that can bolster a ninja fighting power or healing after they eat some. It's honestly a shame you didn't get a chance to follow through on that training Ichiraku-san, the village could always use another good supporter."

"Didn't really have a choice, like I said Kaa-san had just died and Oyaji really needed me." the brunette offered with a shrug and a rueful smile. "Too late to pout about it now, anyway. The best time to learn ninja-related stuff is when you're a kid and your chakra network and coils are still malleable and developing. Even if I re-enlisted it and that apprenticeship was still open, it'd take me ages just to reach genin-level."

"That's the sad truth of it, but Hokage-sama has been playing with the idea of creating something akin to a civilian auxiliary program. It will mostly be aimed at those who had attended the Academy but dropped out for some reason, offering it as a way to help keep their old skills sharp in case of an emergency and maybe even learn one or two new ones." the jonin informed her with a bit of a grin. "Just thought it might be something you'd be interested in looking into."

Ayame shrugged again, though she did look a bit…intrigued. "Oyaji has been meaning to hire in some more staff at the stall so we can have a bit more time for ourselves. If he does, and this auxiliary thing pans out, it certainly sounds like something that might be interesting."

The two genin teams and their client had set out early that morning from the inn where they'd spent the previous night and were currently making fairly good progress. With any luck they should arrive at the Shukuba where Ayame's ingredients were being delivered by early this afternoon. So far, the mission had been a cakewalk, with the only bit of excitement being a sudden attack from a Chakra Mutation.

The Mutation, which had resembled a large bull that snorted actual smoke and had horns made of burning coals, had simply charged out of the surrounding woods, bellowing like it had gone completely mad and charged directly toward their group. Asuma and Kurenai had stood back and let their students handle it, since the bull didn't seem too dangerous. Ino and Sakura had both quickly moved, each grabbing one of Ayame's arms and leaping backwards to get their client out of danger while Naruto had burst forward, unleashing a small horde of Rock Clones that had swarmed the beast and practically buried it under an avalanche of boulders and stone spears. Hinata and Chōji had quickly recovered their wits and moved to assist, while Shikamaru stayed back to help the girls defend their client. Their help, however, wasn't needed.

The bull hadn't lasted past the first barrage.

Naruto himself had been quite pleased with the event that the system had called a 'Wandering Encounter' since it had not only earned him enough experience to finally get his level up to Level 19, but had also scored him a Chakra Core from the bull, which he could either sell for a nice pocketful of Ryo or have a smith forge into a new weapon. Also, he'd learned something new about his [Gamer] ability, its reality-warping powers apparently made everyone else in the area think he'd used one of his remaining clones to dig the core out the dead Chakra Mutation, which was a bit gross but useful for keeping his power a secret for now.

He'd also earned one other reward and a fair bit of cash from defeating the 'Burning Bull.' A scroll on Kayakujutsu.

[Kayakujutsu] [LV1, 0%]

The Art of Gunpowder is a form of Bukijutsu that has fallen out of favour since the spread of Exploding Tags created using Fūinjutsu. While somewhat redundant with the advent of the more easily mass produced and transported explosive tags, this art can still be quite devastatingly effective in the proper hands, particular since modern ninja are now trained to look more for hidden fūinjutsu tags than more conventional explosives. As such, it is still practised among those who specialize in acts of sabotage and laying traps, and advanced users can be among the most devastating demolitions experts in the world. The most common product of Kayakujutsu still utilized in the modern era is the humble smoke bomb.

Unlike most forms of Bukijutsu, which can be used readily in the field as long as the user is carrying the needed weapon or tool, Kayakujutsu requires time, ingredients, and planning to properly prepare multiple single-use explosive in advance and then use them appropriately. By acquiring this art, several items, skills, and quests have been unlocked that were previously unavailable.

Kayakujutsu Recipe Unlocked: [Kemuridama (Smoke Bomb)]!

Kayakujutsu Recipe Unlocked: [Doku Kemuridama (Poison Smoke Bomb)]!

Kayakujutsu Recipe Unlocked: [Mahi Kemuridama (Paralysis Smoke Bomb)]!

Kayakujutsu Recipe Unlocked: [Burain Kemuridama (Blinding Smoke Bomb)]!

- Reduces Material Waste during Kayakujutsu Item Creation by 1%.

- Reduces Chance of a Fumble Incident during Kayakujutsu Item Creation by 1%.

Looking through the ingredients that he'd need to make use of this new skill, Naruto's grin was soon practically splitting his face at how easily he could find most of them. He could have easily found everything on the lists within a block or two of his old apartment complex. Heck, he was pretty sure he could easily pick up everything he'd need at the upcoming Shukuba! Everything from the mortar and pestle, beakers, and other supplies to the small list of chemical ingredients should all be readily available at a decent-sized trading post.

Now, some might be confused as to why Naruto, who had a passion for ninjutsu (and big, flashy ninjutsu in particular) would be so interested in something as relatively simplistic as Kayakujutsu. What those people seem to have forgotten was that Naruto was also a serial prankster with a talent for setting traps for his victims to walk into. Thus, this new form of jutsu actually fit into his existing skillset quite nicely.

Less than an hour later, the two teams and their client spotted a large wooden tower in the distance, with a large set heavy wooden walls coming into view a few moments later.

"Yup, that's Arakusa." Asuma confirmed with a nod. "If memory serves, the Shukuba should be located on the opposite side of the village, with the tower acting as the home base for whatever squad of the Boundary Patrol Corps currently stationed here."

"Isn't that…a bit too obvious a place for ninja to be stationed?" Chōji asked, sounding a bit confused.

Kurenai gave her student an approving smile. "A good observation, Chōji, and normally you'd be right. The Guard Tower does make itself an obvious target for any attacking force, but that is intentional in this case. The Boundary Patrol Corps has three main objectives: to detect any dangers or hostile forces within Konoha territory, to alert Konohagakure should any serious threat make itself known within our borders, and to protect the civilians that are living within the village's territory. The Guard Tower not only allows them an excellent view of the surroundings for any sign of trouble, but it will also draw the attention of any would-be attackers and give the civilians a better chance to either evacuate or hunker down while they focus their attention there. If nothing else, the strongest attackers will focus on the Konoha shinobi there, which will give the local guards a better chance against the small fry."

"Troublesome. Not like it matters, there hasn't been an attack on a Guard Tower in close to a decade now." Shikamaru muttered. "The Patrol Corps has a number of trackers and sensors that specialize in hunting down bandit groups and Nuke-nin before they can dig in and amass enough forces to actually threaten the Towers and the trading posts and villages they're located in. Or at least that's what my old man always says."

"Jonin Commander Shikaku is right about that." Asuma agreed with a proud nod. "Of course, that only applies to areas under the Konoha Patrol Umbrella. I know a lot of the trade routes in Hi no Kuni can't go more than a month without attracting some ambitious group of bandits or Nuke-nin. Even the capital gets attacked by Nuke-nin every once in a while."

"Isn't that kinda…suicidally stupid?" Sakura couldn't help but voice her disbelief.

"Hmm. You have to understand the capital is basically a city like any other, Sakura. Yeah, the guard's a bit larger, but they're still spread out across a very big place. Add to that, the Daimyo's Samurai are primarily concerned with the Kakikukyū (Fire Chrysanthemum Palace) and the surrounding governmental district, and the Guardian Shinobi Twelve are solely responsible for protecting Daimyo, his immediate family, and his interests." the former Guardian member informed his pinkette student. "As long as they're sure to stay a good distance away from those places, then a moderately competent group of Nuke-nin can, and have, infiltrate the capital in order to steal something of value. Sometimes they even manage to escape with their prize, though that hasn't happened in…close to five years ago now."

"Asuma should know, he was a member of the Twelve when that particular incident occurred." Kurenai pointed out.

"Urgh, don't remind me." the bearded jonin let out a huff and a mildly dramatic shudder. "A group of Nuke-nin snuck in and robbed a jewellery merchant that was popular with the nobility and managed to get away. The palace was practically flooded with squawking nobles all demanding that the Daimyo send out the full force of the Twelve out in order to 'bring the rapscallions who dared disturb the peace of the capital to justice' or some other such ruckus. Ugh, if I never have to deal with that much shrieking and howling again, it will be too soon…"

"What happened?" Hinata asked softly.

"The Daimyo refused to send out his personal guard, but did get in contact with Konoha and had Oyaji send out some of 'his best' to deal with it. Gai and Kakashi got sent out and managed to hunt the group down in just four days, two of it was spent travelling." Asuma offered with a smirk. "They even managed to take the entire band of Nuke-nin in alive so the Fire Daimyo could make a big show of having them tried and punished before his courts."

As they'd talked, the group had made it to just outside the outer wall of the village, particularly the wide-open gates that lead to the main road. On either side of the gate was a pair of Ashigaru, conscripted soldiery that were the only non-ninja force that the Daimyo allowed to operate under Konoha's umbrella of control. As Asuma-sensei had explained it, it was a gesture of trust from the Fire Daimyo to the Hokage since it pretty much indicated that the area was exclusively under his and his shinobi's control.

The only person who had to show their travelling papers to the guards was Ayame, the hitai-ate that the shinobi wore were sufficient identification while they were still under Konoha's umbrella. No one with any sense of self-preservation would try and impersonate a Konoha Shinobi so close to their home village.

"Well, this is where we part ways for the moment." Kurenai stated, nodding toward the Guard Tower as her team gathered behind her. "We'll reconvene at that café over there in a couple of hours."

Shikamaru and Chōji both wave goodbye as they left, albeit barely raising his arm in Shikamaru's case, while Hinata bobbed a quick bow and offered a shy, blushing smile at Naruto before turning to quickly follow her sensei. Again, Sakura and Ino had to fight down a sudden stab of irritation for some reason. They still had no clue why the sight of the timid and quiet Hyūga talking to Naruto would irk them so much.

Being the client and local expert, Ayame quickly led them to the Shukuba, which, as Asuma had said, was located near the main gates on the opposite side of the village. While they moved, Naruto quickly used the [Kage Bunshin no Jutsu] to summon up a dozen clones before sending them out to scour the local market and shops to see if there was anything…interesting available for sale.

"You really do love spamming that jutsu, don't you?" Sakura observed dryly.

"Don't even try and tell me that you wouldn't do the same if you could use it like I can, Sakura-chan." the blonde shot back with a grin, making the girl flush to match her hair before looking away with a huff.

"Ugh, I still can't believe you can just pop out a dozen Shadow Clones like it was nothing. That's a Jonin-rank technique!" Ino groaned in exasperation. "Just making one of them takes close to five times the amount chakra I can use at once, and you just pop them out like you don't even notice."

"My chakra pools are way bigger than most people, and I regenerate it a hell of a lot faster too." Naruto shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. "I've already regained most of the chakra I burned through to create those clones."

"Already!?" the Yamanaka Heiress gawped at him for a moment. "Gods and spirits, Naruto, just what the hell are you!? You have to have some crazy body-type Kekkai Genkai or something to generate that much chakra and chakra regeneration!"

"You're not too far off there, Ino. Though, no one was ever able to determine if the Uzumaki Clan's 'Bloodline of Longevity' was an actual Kekkai Genkai." Asuma offered with an amused huff. "Every member of that clan had impossibly powerful life forces and extremely large chakra reserves, though I think our resident Uzumaki would be considered a particularly strong case even then. There's a reason that they were called the 'Clan of Eternal Life'; even the members that never trained to become shinobi could live to be over a hundred if no outside forces intervened. Some members developing odd talents, like Naruto's equally insane regeneration speed, wasn't all that unheard of either. If I remember right, some members of the clan could even heal people just by sharing their chakra with them."

"…that is such an unfair ability." Ino muttered, momentarily dumbstruck by the unfairness of it all.

"It does come with quite a few downsides. The Uzumaki almost never had any genjutsu users worth the name. Even with a lifetime of training, even the most talented Uzumaki couldn't generate the small, tightly controlled bursts of chakra needed to use Genjutsu." Asuma offered. "Any form of jutsu that requires finer than average chakra control, like the Bunshin no Jutsu, is difficult for them so most tend to specialize in brute force techniques. There's even a rumour that the Nidaime created the Kage Bunshin as a wedding gift for the Uzumaki Clan when his brother married Uzumaki Mito so they could have a clone jutsu perfectly suited for them."

"Wait, so you're saying that Naruto-kun should've been taught that technique from the very beginning rather than struggling with the normal Bunshin for so long?" Ayame asked with a frown, indignant on Naruto's behalf. "What the hell?!"

"Blame Toji Mizuki, that asshat had pretty much been trying to sabotage me from day fucking one." the Last Uzumaki of Konoha grumbled out. "Bastard, hope he's having a fun time in the Hot Box."

The Hot Box was a rather popular nickname for the Konoha Strict Correctional Facility, since it was located in a mostly dormant volcano.

Their conversation came to a halt as they reached the Shukuba, a large warehouse-like building with a small office attached at the front. Walking up to the main desk at the front, Ayame gave her information and asked if her order had arrived yet.

"Ah, Ichiraku Ayame-sama? I'm sorry to say, but the convoy with your order hasn't arrived yet." the woman behind the counter, a stern-faced middle-aged woman dressed in a professional kimono, said after a moment of searching through her records. "It was expected a few hours ago, but it has yet to arrive."

"Eh?! No way!" the ramen waitress groaned in annoyed dismay.

"You have our most sincere apologies for this. This is most unlike Caravan Master Shūsuke." the woman offered with a bow and a nervous frown. "He is usually one of the most dependable overseers we have contracted and has not failed to bring in a caravan on time for nearly two decades. If you can tell me where you'll be staying, we will have a runner sent to inform you the moment the caravan arrives."

"Haaah, can't be helped, I guess." Ayame muttered under her breath before offering the woman a small bow. "Thank you, ma'am. I'll be either at the café called Eisuke-ya or at the local inn for most of the day."

The woman nodded and quickly jotted down a quick note onto a nearby sheet of paper.

As the group left and started to make their way back to the café they'd agreed to meet Team 8 at, Asuma gave Ayame a curious glance. "Does what she said match with what you know about this place, Ichiraku-san?"

"It does. Oyaji has been using the same trading company since I was a little girl to get the best ingredients we can find from Na no Kuni, and their caravans are almost never late. And even if they have been late, never by more than an hour or two." Ayame answered, nibbling worriedly on her lower lip. "I've been making these runs every other month for the past two or three years now and I can count the number of times the caravan has been late on one hand and still have most of my fingers left."

The jonin nodded, mouth turning down into a slight frown. "That's…certainly a bad sign. Given what we've heard, the length of time that has elapsed since they were supposed to arrive, and the fact they haven't sent messenger out ahead to warn the Shukuba about the delay; I'd say that they've likely been jumped by bandits. The best place for an attack like that would be right at the boundary line right at the edge of Konoha's umbrella. That would be…about a half-hour from here by wagon or maybe ten minutes by shinobi travel. I'd like to look into it, but I can't take my team outside of the umbrella, they simply aren't ready for C-rank level action just yet."

Naruto was frowning as well; this certainly wasn't going like he had been expecting. Had he just been paranoid earlier? No, he couldn't let his guard down yet. The fact that bandits had likely attacked the caravan meant that they were likely still in the area, and might still be hunting for more prey.

"Has Teuchi-ossan got enough ingredients to last until you can get another order in." Naruto asked as they reached the café.

"Nope. Unfortunately, we'd have to buy enough to hold us over from the local farms, and they charge an arm and a leg." Ayame explained with a shake of her head. "The Akimichi Clan has a bunch of long-standing contracts to buy up all the best produce directly from the local farms, so the merchants always charge a premium for any 'fresh' high-quality produce that they don't snap up. Makes it cheaper for restaurants like ours to just import what we need."

"I'll have to mention that to the old man, price gouging like that amongst Konoha citizenry is something he'd frown on." Asuma stated with a frown.

"They call it a 'Clan Price,' since they're aiming to sell to the more prominent ninja clans." Ayame shrugged. "All of the merchants that deal in foodstuffs back home are grouped into a block that supports it."

"Funny thing about blocks, they tend to break when you hit them hard enough." Asuma offered with a bit of a dark grin. "Anyway, let's get something to eat and drink while we wait for Kurenai and her team to show up. My treat."

Kurenai and her team arrived a bit less than an hour later, finding Team 10 and Ayame enjoying a nice little party amongst themselves which the other team was quickly invited into. In between the eating and drinking, Team 8 informed Team 10 that they had indeed succeeded in their mission and the Hokage's message had been delivered, but there had been an unforeseen complication.

"Three caravans were scheduled to arrive today and none of them have shown up yet. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the local detachment of the Patrol Corps are busy dealing with a mudslide that that's threatening to swallow a farming community nearby. They barely have enough people left to keep up their normal patrols." Kurenai informed Asuma while their genin were distracted with each other. "The Patrol Commander requested that I investigate, but I can't take my team outside the umbrella. Not only are they not ready for that kind of risk, but I'd be under a Disciplinary Review for taking them out before they've met the minimum thresholds for taking a C-rank."

"And you'd be in just as much trouble if you left them behind on their own." Asuma agreed with a nod. "If we combine our teams, we should have enough coverage for a full Genin Squadron, then you and I could head out, take care of this and be back within a day. We'll need to set up a proper chain of command before we head out though; if there's even a chance of an attack we can't risk the kid squabbling over what to do."

Kurenai had been brought in on the risk of a possible attack on this mission by the Hokage, keeping the origin of the warning as 'classified' for now, and she was clearly not happy with the idea of leaving her genin behind. Unfortunately, the fact that three caravans had suddenly gone missing while heading towards Konoha territory was a fairly big deal.

Despite only being a Chūnin, the local Boundary Patrol Commander had the authority to give orders to any Konoha Shinobi in the area, even a higher-ranked jonin, so long as the orders were germane to his duty of ensuring the security of Konoha's territory. That he was being polite and tactful enough to 'request' their assistance rather than simply ordering it was honestly more a show of respect and courtesy than actually giving them a choice.

Kurenai nodded, agreeing with Asuma's logic. If there was even a minor risk of the relay station itself coming under attack, then they couldn't risk their genin getting hurt due to infighting in the chaos.

"No offence to Shikamaru, but I don't think he'd welcome being forced to act as Genin Commander in this kind of situation. There's a chance he wouldn't take it seriously enough or just foist all the responsibility onto someone else." the bearded jonin offered, thinking aloud. "And neither Chōji and Hinata really have the assertiveness needed to take command just yet."

"I can't really argue with that, but Ino and Sakura aren't exactly good candidates either. They're both a bit too assertive to trust with this kind of authority." the Genjutsu Mistress countered, before pausing as she realized just who was left. "Wait, are you thinking of putting Naruto in command?"

"He's actually matured quite a bit since the Academy, Kurenai." Asuma replied with a bit of a proud grin. "He's gotten pretty good at keeping Ino and Sakura in line as it is. Hinata's crush should ensure she listens to him, and Shikamaru and Chōji will go along with it since they're too lazy and easygoing, respectively, to raise a ruckus on their own."

Still a bit dubious at the idea that Konoha's resident Prankster King was the most responsible Genin available to them, Kurenai nonetheless acceded to her colleague's greater experience with the boy and nodded her consent. "If you think he can be trusted. When do we head out?"

"We can leave at first light tomorrow. We were planning on staying overnight anyway." the Smoking Guardian stated. "That'll give the kids a chance to relax for the rest of the day and then we can inform them of what's happening over dinner, that'll let Naruto have a chance to get used to his temporary position and come up with a plan for if the worst happens."

Kurenai agreed with the plan. She also began to mentally shuffle through her thoughts for anything she could tell her adoptive little sister's crush to help him prepare for his impending encounter with leadership.

The Next Day

Outside Arakusa Inn, Arakusa Village

Naruto was reasonably pleased with the result of the previous day, the delay in the shipment and the looming threats aside. Thanks to his clones scouring the local shops and market he'd been able to buy everything that he needed to start using his new [Kayakujutsu] skill, and he'd even managed to find another mechanism for his [Trickster's Kote] at one of the stalls, one he was fairly sure he wouldn't have been able to notice if he hadn't acquired his newest skill the previous day.

[Mechanical Mini Kemuridama Launcher]


General Ninja Tool for the Trickster's Gauntlet (Can be placed in any slot)

A small mechanism designed to store up to a dozen miniature smoke bombs, as well as use a small, chakra-powered launcher to deploy them at mid-range. While in no ways an offensive weapon, this highly concealable tool concealed within the Trickster's Kote can allow a clever ninja a means to suddenly break combat, create a distraction, or provide cover in a pinch.

As a result of acquiring this Ninja Tool while also possessing the [Kayakujutsu] skill, recipes for miniaturised versions of all 'smoke bomb' type items have automatically been unlocked. Any new recipe for 'smoke bomb' type explosives that are acquired will automatically generate a miniaturized recipe as well.

Magazine Size: 12

He'd gleefully snapped his newest toy into the third slot on his Kote. He'd also found a box containing a bit less than a hundred of the miniature smoke bombs that it used as ammo. Sure, nearly a quarter of them had been water-damage, cracked, or otherwise rendered useless due to bad storage (they and the mechanism had apparently belonged to a retired shinobi and had been sold off as a lot after his death, with the buyer having no idea what he'd bought) and they were all standard smoke bombs, but that still meant he had seventy-six smoke bombs ready to use, and he could always make more now.

Then there was the issue where he'd apparently been shoehorned into acting as the Genin Commander, a position that hadn't seen regular use since the end of the last Great Ninja War, for their temporarily combined Genin Squadron since Asuma and Kurenai had been asked to investigate the caravans that had suddenly disappeared, including the one that had been carrying Ayame's shipment.

That little surprise had been enough to update the Quest [For the Love of Ramen], adding an additional object and completely rewriting the second objective and the rewards.

[Quest Updated!]

For the Love of Ramen: Ichiraku Ayame has hired your Genin team to escort her to the village of Arakusa, a small relay station and farming community located on the very edge of Konoha's outer patrol perimeter, in order to pick up a delivery of ingredients from Na no Kuni. Arakusa, while small, is an important rest point for many caravans heading into and out of Konoha, making it a tempting target for the likes of bandits and Nuke-nin.

Quest Objective 1: Escort Ichiraku Ayame to the Shukuba (Post Station) in the Village of Arakusa. (COMPLETE)

Quest Objective 2: Take command of Teams 10 and 8 in the absence of the Jonin-sensei and protect Ichiraku Ayame should Nuke-nin or bandits attack Arakusa Village. Duration: One Day. (In Progress)

Quest Objective 3: Escort Ichiraku Ayame back to Konohagakure, taking care to protect the produce as well.

Quest Failure: Death of Ichiraku Ayame, Death of yourself. Death and/or enslavement of your fellow genin, destruction of Ichiraku Ayame's ordered produce.

Quest Reward 1: +1000 EXP, +500 Reputation with [Ichiraku Ayame] (Deferred until Quest completion)

Quest Reward 2: +1500 EXP, +15000 Ryo, [Leadership] Skill, Random [Trickster's Kote] device.

Quest Reward 3: + 10000 EXP, +10000 Ryo, [Honoured] Reputation with [Ichiraku Teuchi] (Error: Reputation Already MAXED), [Honoured] Reputation with [Ichiraku Ayame] (Error: Reputation Already MAXED), ?, ?, ?.

The updated rewards made Naruto's paranoia ring alarm bells yet again. Triple the experience, a shit-ton of Ryo, a Skill that looked really useful and a fourth gadget for his kote. Yeah, the bandits-slash-Nuke-nin were definitely going to attack today, almost for certain.

It had changed last night, after he and the two Jonin had spent almost two hours going over what-if scenarios and contingency plans. He'd told Asuma-sensei as soon as he could, and the man looked deeply troubled by the revelation.

In the end, the senior ninja had ordered Naruto to place protecting the lives of his teammates, Ayame, and himself above the rest of the garrison and even the other civilians. If a large group of Nuke-nin or bandits attacked the outpost, they were to evacuate and hide in the countryside outside the village until Asuma and Kurenai returned.

That obviously hadn't sat well with Naruto, but he could still see his jonin-sensei's point. Any force of bandits and/or ninja that was strong enough to attack a fortified village like Arakusa would be way too much for a group of six fresh genin to handle. Even Naruto, with all the enhancements that [The Gamer] granted him, would be hard-pressed to do more than help hold off a force like that, even with the rest of the garrison helping.

With that in mind, the only real choice was to prioritize the life of himself and his comrades. The Patrol Corps were all duty-bound to defend the village, but they were still genin and thus were instead obligated to follow their sensei's orders.

Looking at his temporarily squad mates, he had been honestly surprised that Sakura and Ino had accepted his temporarily promotion so easily, neither arguing when he'd been put in charge. Chōji and Hinata had, likewise, offered no complaints. Shikamaru had been the only voice of dissent and his only argument, that 'he was troublesome' whatever that meant, had earned him a slap to the back of the head from Kurenai. Ayame had just congratulated him on his field promotion and had ruffled his hair, which he had allowed with only minimal protesting.

"Alright. So, we're going to be spending today as close to the south-western corner of the village as we can." Naruto addressed his squad firmly. Asuma and Kurenai had left only a few minutes ago, so it was time for him to get things organized and moving.

"Uhm, why there?" Ino blinked at the sudden announcement. Despite having been roused from her bed at an 'ungodly hour' to use her own words, the blonde still looked as remarkably well put-together as ever. Naruto vaguely wondered why he had even noticed that.

"Because Asuma-sensei and Kurenai-sensei had intel that indicates that this village may come under attack today." the Uzumaki stated softly, keeping an eye out to make sure no one was close enough to overhear him. "They've already warned the Patrol Commander about it, so the garrison should be on alert, but they also gave me strict orders that, should the attack occur, I am to evac all of us and Ayame out of the village. Since we've all got the ability to climb walls thanks to the [Tree Climbing Exercise], we should be able to get over the walls pretty quick if the worst happens, dontcha think?"

"Ugh…I can follow most of that, but why the south-west corner specifically?" Shikamaru asked, giving Naruto a tired look.

"Because the bandits, Nuke-nin, or whatever are likely going to be striking from outside the Konoha Umbrella." the blonde jinchūriki stated simply. "Our sensei are headed due south to investigate the trade route, so they'll catch any attack that comes from that general direction. If the enemy's smart enough to try and avoid the two jonin, who won't be actively working to conceal their chakra, then they'll likely circle around and try and attack us from the east or north-east."

"Ah, good point." the ponytailed Nara agreed with a sigh. "Alright, let's get moving then. The sooner we get there, the sooner I can find a nice place to cloud watch."

"So long as you're ready to fight and move if anything happens, knock yourself out Shikamaru." Naruto agreed. "Alright everyone, Bodyguard Formation Five!"

Ayame hitched an eyebrow as Hinata, Sakura, and Ino arrayed themselves into a triangle around her, before Naruto, Chōji and Shikamaru formed larger, inverted triangle around them. Formation Five was a guard formation designed to allow for a loose and quick reaction to any threat to a single target, allowing for multiple layers of defence. Using it on a simple civilian girl like her was fairly odd, it was usually reserved for high-value clients, but if it made Naruto feel better she wasn't going to protest about it.

They had barely reached a small, grassy patch of land on Arakusa's south-western corner when the enemy attacked. One minute they were looking for a comfortable spot to gather up and just wait out the day, and the next there was an enormous explosion coming from the eastern walls.

"Hinata, what's happening?" Naruto quickly asked.

"Byakugan! (White Eye!)" the Hyūga Heiress whispered, forming a handsign as she activated her clan's Dōjutsu. A second later, veins began to bulge around her eyes as her already pale lavender eyes paled considerably. With a moment's focus, she directed her now amplified sight toward where the explosions had originated and where the sounds of battle were already starting to echo from. "Th-There are…twenty-two attackers. Most of them seem to be roughly as strong as we are, genin-level, but I can see four that are look to be at least Chūnin-level and their apparent leader is Jonin-level…a fairly weak Jonin compared to Asuma-sensei or Kurenai-sensei, but still a Jonin."

"Right, we need to get outta here. Protecting our client comes first." Naruto decided. If it wasn't for the jonin, he might have considered going against orders to help protect the village and the populace, but he wasn't stupid enough to risk his friends and squad mates against a jonin. "Over the wall and out, then head straight for the treeline. Then we can find somewhere to bunker down until our sensei get back. Got it?"

Getting nothing but nods from his squad, Naruto quickly formed the Clone handsign. "[Kage Bunshin no Jutsu]!"

In a puff of smoke, six copies of himself suddenly appeared.

"Henge and go!" he ordered aloud. Getting grim nods in return, the six duplicates all used the [Henge no Jutsu] to transform into nondescript Chūnin that Naruto had seen around Konoha and quickly leapt back towards the battle.

"They'll do what they can to help, but they'll focus on keeping anyone from moving in our direction for as long as possible." he stated defensively as the others stared at him in surprise. "Now let's get gone, dammit!"

Picking up Ayame in a princess carry (which made her let out a very Hinata-ish 'eep!' in surprise), Naruto quickly ran up the wooden palisade, swiftly followed by his team and Team 8. As they quickly dropped down to the grass on the opposite side, Naruto twitched as two of his clones were suddenly destroyed by a large man wielding what had to be the oddest-looking sword that he had ever seen. Fortunately, his clones shared all of the abilities he had, including his 'gamer vision' so he now knew just who he was dealing with.

Hoshigaki Chikuwa LV 35

[Member of the Seven Shadow Swordsman of the Mist/Leader of Karehagakure]

'Karehagakure? The Village Hidden among the Dead Leaves?' the Jinchūriki blinked in shock, even as he ran for the treeline. 'That has to be some kind of jab at Konoha. Bastards.'

Technically 'Kareha' meant 'dried out leaves' if you took it literally, but it was mostly understood to mean just 'dead leaves' in general. For a group of Nuke-nin to use it as part of their name, it either implied that the majority of them were Konoha Nuke-nin or that they intended to turn Konohagakure into a dried-out husk of its former self. Either way, it was a direct insult to the village.

"One of my clones caught sight of the Jonin-level leader before it was dispelled, they had a slashed-out Kirigakure headband." Naruto called to the squad at large. "He claimed to be 'Hoshigaki Chikuwa,' leader of 'Karehagakure.' Those names mean anything to anyone?"

"…troublesome." Shikamaru groaned out. "The first name itself doesn't ring any bells, but Oyaji has mentioned the Hoshigaki Clan before, they're apparently a clan of battle maniacs from Kiri that tend to produce really dangerous shinobi."

"Yeah, that make sense. Guy boasted about being a member of the 'Seven Shadow Swordsmen of the Mist' before he chopped my clone in half." Naruto elaborated. "Any idea what that is? Asuma-sensei and Tenten have both mentioned the 'Seven Swordsmen of the Mist' before but neither of them said anything about shadows."

"Never heard of it." the Nara Heir shook his head, looking perturbed. "What about you Sakura? You ever come across that name in your reading?"

The pinkette kunoichi frowned as she wracked her mind, but shook her head as they finally reached the treeline. "No, nothing about any 'Shadow Swordsmen,' but I do remember reading about Kiri's 'Seven Shadow Swords of the Mist,' They were apparently the final prototypes for the swords that would become the signature weapons of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist. They're all supposed to be powerful, but they also all have some kind of major flaw that caused them to be discarded so the final swords could be made. There were a few mentions of them being used during the Second Great Shinobi War."

"Well this Hoshigaki guy did have a sword that was longer than he was tall; it kinda looked like a filleted fish." Naruto grunted, focusing on the memories he got from his clones. "Had to be at least six feet long, looked like a metal rod attached to a sword handle without a tsuba; with six large blades that looked kinda like shark teeth coming out of either side."

"Sorry, no clue." Sakura said with a shake of her head. "The book I read didn't have any real information on the Shadow Swords themselves, it was mostly about the history of the Seven Swords and the Seven Swordsmen."

"How long are we gonna keep running?" Ino asked, changing the subject. She was starting to look a bit winded.

"Until we find somewhere defensible where we can hunker down. Then we're going to trap the ever-loving hell out of it and wait." Naruto stated grimly. "Once we're secure, I'll send out some more Shadow Clones to keep an eye out and warn Asuma-sensei and Kurenai-sensei about the attack."

"Goddamn broken clone jutsu." Ino grumbled good-naturedly.

In short order, they'd found a small clearing and had started laying down traps all around it. Before they even started, Naruto had made six more Kage Bunshin and then sent them out after their Jonin-sensei to report the attack on Arakusa. He also had Hinata activate her Byakugan periodically to check and make sure that there weren't any enemies coming after them.

"That…should do it." Sakura sighed out as she reclined against a nearby tree, already tired from having to set up so many traps. "What the hell, Naruto? Why did you bring enough trapping supplies to trip up a Jonin with?! This was supposed to just be a High-D Rank mission for crying out loud!"

"Heh, you say that, but it certainly came in handy, didn't it Sakura-chan." Naruto gave her a foxy grin. "'Sides, a good prankster is always prepared to pull off something big. Not like weight is even an issue when you've got plenty of storage scrolls."

"You do realize that most genin don't really have access to over a dozen storage scrolls, right?" Shikamaru pointed out dryly, one eyebrow twitching in annoyed disbelief after having watched Naruto pull out at least a dozen scrolls from some hidden pockets in his jacket.

"Then most genin should really learn to make their own. It's a super useful skill to have." the Uzumaki replied smugly before turning to check on their client. "How are you doing, Ayame-nee-chan?"

"I'm fine, Naruto-kun." the ramen waitress replied from where she was sitting on the grass. "A bit hungry, but nothing to be worried about for the moment."

Naruto just reached into his jacket (actually his inventory) and pulled out yet another scroll (and causing Shikamaru's eyebrow to twitch some more) before rolling it out on the ground. Pressing a single finger into the array he fed a bit of his chakra into it. With a puff of smoke, a large selection of picnic foodstuffs, some still steaming hot, appeared atop a large blanket, making Chōji gulp hungrily.

"I was planning on using this as a little treat for everyone on the way home. A 'well done on completing our first out-of-the-village mission' kinda thing for my team." he offered with an embarrassed shrug as everyone, Ayame included, stared at him with raised eyebrows. "Hurry up and just dig in while it's still hot, dammit!"

Naturally, Chōji needed no further prompting to dive in.

After an impromptu lunch, Naruto started double-checking the traps set around the perimeter before suddenly wincing in pain as he was suddenly assaulted with the information as all of his remaining clones were destroyed in rapid succession. And not just the ones in the village, but also the six that he'd sent after their sensei as well.

"Fuck! Another group led by a Jonin was blocking the way that our sensei went." he quickly informed the rest of the group. "They just wiped out the clones I sent that way and then pincered the last few I had left helping out in the village. Six in total, five Chūnin and a single Jonin, all Nuke-nin."

"What villages?" Shikamaru asked.

"Three from Kirigakure, one from Iwagakure, one from Kumogakure, and the Jonin was from Konoha." Naruto listed off. "From what I overheard as they slaughtered my clones, looks like the Konoha Jonin was this group's leader before that Kirigakure guy came in, kicked her ass, and then took over."

Or rather, Naruto KNEW that was what happened.

Akazukin Sayuri LV33

[Former Leader of Karehagakure/Nuke-nin of Konoha]

A kunoichi Nuke-nin…Naruto knew that they were actually comparatively rarer when compared to shinobi Nuke-nin, with the added…risks…that being outlaw had for a kunoichi, but there were more than a few of them out there. He just hadn't expected to come across one so early in his career.

"A Jonin-ranked kunoichi Nuke-nin from Konoha?" Shikamaru asked, closing his eyes and falling into his thinking pose for a moment as Naruto quickly listed off a general description of the Nuke-nin in question. "Akazukin Sayuri. Formerly a Tokubetsu Jonin specialized in infiltration and assassinations. She was found guilty of taking unregistered assassination requests and torturing prisoners without authorization; but fled the village before she could be captured a couple years ago. Primary Katon, Secondary Doton, Tertiary Raiton affinities."

"…how the hell did you figure that out!?" Sakura boggled at him.

Shikamaru sighed before shrugging. "My old man let me skim through his copy of the Bingo Book a couple of times. Not like there was anything better to do when it was bucketing down the rain outside. So troublesome…so, what's the plan, commander?" the Nara asked, turning his attention to Naruto. "We're cut off from any backup, and I wouldn't count on us being able to hide out here for long, not with two Jonin and nearly a dozen Chūnin in play. There's a better than average chance at least one of them is some kind of tracker."

Naruto bit his lip, before turning to Hinata. "Hinata, check back in the direction of the village. Anything new in that direction?"

Nodding, the Hyūga once again activated her Kekkai Genkai again and flinched. "T-There's a four-man team of Chūnin heading our way from the village, and another group of four is coming our way from the southern road!"

"Great…we can't outrun a bunch of Chūnin, so it looks like we're going to have to fight." Naruto stated with a serious nod. "Alright everyone, gather round. Time to make a quick game plan…"


Next Chapter: Genin Versus Nuke-nin