The next day, to the west...
"So what now?"
Standing atop the crest of a ridge, Ino, Choji and Gaara looked out over the highland plain before them. The next ridgeline was fading into the horizon, nearly ten klicks away. The land between the two ridges was almost perfectly flat, and stretched south as far as the eye could see. The plain was vegetated with tall grass, regularly punctuated by brush patches springing up to three meters high.
With her hands on her hips, Ino thoughtfully surveyed the scene. "Now, we search the valley. This is exactly the sort of place that we're going find something. Wide open space, abundant prey, no creeks, but plenty of light cover to hide in. If I were an insect, this is the sort of place I'd nest." Ino paused as she looked to the next ridge. "Besides, if we go much farther west we'll run into the disputed lands."
"What prey?" Asked Gaara, skeptically. "There is no one here, nor is the plain set up for livestock."
"Open range grazing," answered Choji. "Apparently there's a lot that out here. They just let the herds run wild, then every few years go out and round up a bunch of them, drive them to a city, and..." Choji finished with a gesture across his neck.
"Who would let livestock loose like that?"
Ino chuckled. "These aren't sheep, Gaara. Or goats. Out here, they have cattle, and cattle can fend for themselves. There aren't many shepherds east of the Magoi Mountains." Ino glanced at Gaara before continuing. "Besides, in a place like this, there's going to be some wild game as well. Deer, alpine gazelles, mustangs, maybe even some wild boar. Everything you need to feed a hive of hungry insects."
Choji looked at Ino apprehensively. "You really think Regekion is here now?"
"We should be that lucky," Ino muttered. "No. Odds are she isn't here right now, but I'll bet she's been here. She likes to wander, right?" Ino asked, addressing Gaara again. "But she has to settle down to nest every once in a while. This'd be just the place to do that."
Gaara nodded. "In our briefing, we were told Regekion's swarm nests in scrapes. Shallow tunnels and holes in the ground, usually at the base of rise or in a patch of trees."
Choji looked out over patchwork of scrub trees. "Great..."
"Regekion's larvae incubate in cells of about three by one and half meters," continued Gaara. "Usually cut into the dirt and reinforced with mud. There may be shed skins or discarded egg material left behind. We were not told of Regekion trying to cover her tracks, but it should not be ruled out."
Ino nodded and looked back over the valley. "Well, that should be pretty obvious if we spot it. Look for those, or any large mass of dead game. Should be just as obvious."
"And if we do find any of that?" Asked Choji.
"We look at it, see what else is around, and see if we can figure how long ago Regekion left it."
"And if we find Regekion?" Gaara prompted.
Ino bit the side of her lip. "Depends. If they don't notice you, fall back and quietly get everyone else. If they attack you, fight back and make a lot of noise to get the our attention." Ino glanced at Gaara, mentally debating with herself. "Well... Don't try to fight them unless you know you can take them all. And even then... If we kill a squad, Regekion will know someone is here... So..."
"We cannot win if we do not attack," stated Gaara.
Ino glanced at Choji, then back at Gaara. "I know, but... We don't want to start this fight until we know we can finish it. With the others away..."
"There's no guarantee we'll find the mother swarm," pointed out Choji. "We took out that last swarm and haven't been attacked for two days."
"Okay," agreed Ino, abruptly changing tones. "Search and destroy. If you can take them, kill them. If you can't, find the others and we'll have the whole team attack. And you," Ino pointed at Gaara. "Try to take one alive. Wrap it in sand or something. If we could interrogate a drone, we might get something useful."
"So we're splitting up?" Observed Choji.
"Only to cover more ground," Ino amended. "Stay within sight of me. I'll be in the center, Choji, you stay to my right, Gaara, stick to my left. We'll meander as necessary, but our overall course will be south along the valley."
Gaara nodded again.
"And whenever you can, stick to the high ground or get on top of those bushes. It'll help us keep in contact." Ino paused a moment to adjust the straps on her travel pack. "Team Ino-Gara-Chou, let's go!"
With Ino's pronouncement, the two Leaf ninjas leapt down the side of the ridge. Gaara remained where he was, watching them leave. After a moment, he silently chuckled to himself. At his bidding, sand pulled itself out of the hillside and formed a small platform in front of him. Gaara stepped on the sand, which proceeded to carry him to the base of the hill.
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The same valley, later that afternoon...
Nearly ten klicks south of where they had entered the plain, Gaara ceased his leaping and looked back. Almost at the limit of his sight, a figure was perched atop a brush patch. From the way she seemed to be stretched out, and from her voice filtering through the breeze, she was obviously trying to get his attention. Composing himself, Gaara closed his eyes and sub-vocalized the necessary incantation.
A moment later, he appeared next to Ino in a swirl of sand.
"Gah!" Ino leapt to the side in surprise, landing in a defensive stance on the ground below. After glancing back at where she had been, she relaxed. "Don't do that!" She admonished. "Sheesh. Can't you just skip across the landscape like a normal ninja?"
"I'm not a normal ninja," Gaara reminded her.
"Yeah, I know," mumbled Ino. "But you still shouldn't try to scare me like that."
"I wasn't trying to scare you." Gaara paused as he watched Ino exhale in exasperation. "You've discovered something?" He prompted.
Ino nodded, gesturing for Gaara to follow her. "Kill site. Choji saw it. It's by a soggy patch near the western ridge." Ino paused, looking back at her subordinate. "And get there normally..."
Gaara tipped his head to the side, making a show of acknowledging the order. With very deliberate movements, he then proceeded to leap to the next brush over.
"Better," said Ino, before sprinting forward herself.
As they traveled, Gaara glanced at Ino. Though he could leap far enough to jump from brush-top to brush-top without trouble, Ino seemed confined to the ground. She was continuously sprinting, veering around brush in her path and banking off or rises in the ground. The kunoichi managed to do all the course corrections with having to check her momentum. After a moment, she leapt up, and sprung off a low patch of brush to get a view of the land ahead of her. Landing in a run, she regained her stride barely missing a beat.
After a moment, Gaara slowed his pace slightly and took a position roughly alongside Ino. "You named this team?" He blurted out.
Ino glanced up at the boy, a bit surprised he was trying to strike up a conversation. "Yeah," she responded as she turned her attention back to the ground ahead of her. "'Course I did."
"Why?" Gaara persisted. "This isn't permanent."
"It may be," Ino dryly joked. "If one of our teams has a bad run in with Regekion..." Ino veered away from Gaara as she went around a depression. "But seriously, why wouldn't I?"
"Shikamaru wouldn't have."
"Shikamaru doesn't name anything on his own," Ino retorted.
"He does not truly consider us on the same team," Gaara clarified.
As much as she could while sprinting, Ino nodded. "Yeah," she agreed. "He's got some serious issues with you."
"Understandable. Given what he knew about me."
"Knew?" Prompted Ino. "Past tense?"
"As I told him yesterday, I am not the person I was during the exam." Gaara paused a moment. "I was dangerous then. He would be right to mistrust me."
"Something about you killing assassins from your father?" Ino suggested.
The Sand ninja nodded his head as he continued forward. "Yes. What my father did... What he meant to do... Weighed heavily on me. It left me empty. Hollow. My sand made me invulnerable, but I had nothing to live for. The only thing that gave me meaning was killing."
"Ick," Ino blanched. "I'm glad you're not that person any more. So what changed? Your dad dying? Or it your fight with Sasuske, right?"
Gaara abruptly slowed, hopping off the brush tops and coming to a stop on the grass. Noticing his reaction, Ino skid to stop and cautiously walked back to him.
"No," Gaara mused, as if revealing something profound. "It wasn't Sasuske. Sasuske reaffirmed everything I knew to be true."
"What?" Balked Ino. "No, Sasuske wouldn't have done that. Sasuske is-"
"A killer," finished Gaara. "I saw it in his eyes. The same empty rage, the desire for power, same driving need for vengeance that I had known since I was a child. He is everything I was."
Ino pulled away slightly, uncomfortable hearing Sasuske described in those terms. "Then..."
"The change," continued Gaara, "came from Rock Lee and Naruto."
"Naruto?" Repeated Ino. "The loudmouth in the orange jumpsuit? Lee I can see, but what could Naruto have to do with anything?"
Gaara gazed at Ino. "You truly don't know?"
"No," Ino honestly replied.
"Then I don't think I can explain it, myself." Gaara closed his eyes for a moment. "I suppose... Naruto... And Lee... Both sought power, like I did. But their reasons for doing so... Were beyond my comprehension."
Ino scratched her head skeptically. "Uh, as far as I know, Naruto just wants to be the best because it will get him attention. Lee just wants to make his sensei proud." Ino shrugged. "I suppose Sakura comes into it somewhere, heavens know why..."
Gaara opened his eyes and gazed at Ino. "But you see, even now, I can't see how that could drive them enough to matter."
Ino stared at Gaara for a moment. "That's messed up," she quietly observed.
Gaara nodded imperceptibly. "It is what happens when you grow up unloved... And unkillable." Without waiting for Ino to respond, Gaara ended the conversation by leaping away.
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A short time later, elsewhere in the plain...
When Ino arrived at the kill site, Gaara was already there. The Sand ninja was standing on a slight rise, dispassionately looking around. What had caught her attention, however, was Choji, who was standing in a patch of thinned grass, seemingly pantomiming something.
When her teammate did not respond, Ino crossed her arms and walked up to the boy. After wrinkling her nose from the smell, she addressed him. "Choji, what the heck are you doing?"
Choji held up a hand to delay taking notice of Ino. Instead, he rolled from a standing position onto his toes, then back down. Contorting around to look at his feet and the impression they left in the dirt, he repeated the gesture.
With her arms still crossed, Ino watched impatiently.
"That way," Choji confirmed after repeating the motion a third time. Walking a short distance away, he looked down to mark his position, and then held out his hand. "From here, that way." The boy shuffled over to a third location. "And here, that way." Choji met Ino's gaze. "North by northwest."
Ino raised an eyebrow. "Oooo-kay?"
"You can see the insect tracks this time," Choji explained. "They're different, six stick legs, so it's hard to find, but this time they're there. I think I've figure out what the tracks look like when they are walking, and right here," Choji gestured downward, "is where one of those walking trails ends. Same with there and there." Choji gestured to the previous to placed he had been. "And from the way they moving, and the way the tracks are different where they jumped away, they all headed roughly the same way. North by northwest."
Ino raised both eyebrows, genuinely impressed. "Okay," she repeated. "Do we know how long ago?"
Choji's expression went blank. "Uh..."
"Two and half weeks," injected Gaara. "Give or take a few days. Long enough to have attracted more mundane scavengers."
Choji nodded. "Yeah, I did see some wolf tracks. Or coyotes, or really big foxes or whatever they have out here."
Ino shook her head. "Whatever. Too bad it hasn't been here long enough to stop smelling."
A bit of sand shot up from beside Gaara and crushed a fly that was buzzing around his head. "Indeed."
Trying to think through what she needed to find out, Ino looked back at Choji. "How many? Carcasses, I mean."
"Seven," answered Choji. "And a lot more spread out than the first one we saw. All in line going that way... I think the cattle saw them coming this time. So they had a chance to run."
Ino rubbed her chin. "Were these all that were in the herd?"
"No," answered Gaara. "Tracks continue beyond the last carcass."
"Have either of you tracked where the rest of the cattle went?"
Choji shrugged. "No. Why would I have?"
Ino held her hand in front of her face to gesture for emphasis. "We've seen these swarms take out herds of forty at once. They wiped out a town of at least twenty-five people without letting anyone escape. And they could give ninjas a close fight." Ino paused for a moment to let her words sink in. "So why only take seven cattle here?"
Silence hung in the air for a moment.
"Part of a trap?" Choji hesitantly suggested.
"For cattle?" Gaara deadpanned. "If they could take care of themselves that well, they would not be livestock to begin with."
"And there's no way it could have been for us," Ino continued. "None of us were even on the trail that long ago. That can't be the reason..."
"Regekion's driving the cattle," deduced Choji, struck by the observation. "She's moving them to where she wants them. To a hive..."
Ino gulped, tilting her head to the side to hide the reaction. "Gaara," she ordered. "Take point. We'll be right behind you."
Gaara grimly nodded.
"And everyone," Ino finished, "the trail may be old, but stay quiet."
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Soon after, elsewhere in the plain...
"You can come forward," Gaara grimly informed. "There is no reason to fear..."
Gaara stood at the top of a break in a plain. The break was due to the beginning of a new ridge. Further north, the ridge blended into the adjacent ridges, forming the western boundary of the plain. But where Gaara was, the ridge was barely discernable. The land slowly rose from the valley floor until abruptly ending in a fifteen-meter drop of bare rock. The drop curved back to the ridge, diminishing further as it went, but effectively creating a wedge of low ground with steep slopes on all sides.
"Unless you are easily disturbed," finished Gaara and Ino and Choji joined him.
Ino flinched away as soon as she looked down.
"Damn," swore Choji, wincing.
"I had wondered about the smell in the air," said Gaara. "There was the smell of death. But not of blood..."
"Because Regekion stripped them clean," concluded Ino, tentatively looking down again.
Gaara nodded. "To the bone."
Below the ninjas, cattle bones were strewn across the foot of the ledge. Few skeletons remained intact, most having been ripped to pieces in the scouring. Nor was the pile of bones directly below them the only kill site in sight. Similar piles were scattered all along the ridgeline.
The ninjas took in the scene in silence.
At length, Ino spoke up. "How many insects would it have taken to do all this?" She asked in wonder.
Gaara closed his eyes.
"A lot more than we were expecting," Choji faintly replied.
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