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The forest west of Konoha, late afternoon...
"The area's clear," reported Ino as she jumped down from the top of a tree. "There's a road about three klicks to the west, smoke from a village about twenty klicks north, and that's about it. Nothing unnatural." Ino smirked as she glanced at her two companions. "Like there would be, this close to Konoha. What could possib--"
"Ino, don't say that."
Ino slowly closed her mouth and gave an unenthusiastic shrug. "Ah. Right. Wouldn't want to jinx us..."
The trio had stopped in a clearing by a small creek. Shikamaru was sitting on a small rock outcropping, hunched forward and staring at the grass in front of him. Choji was sitting cross-legged on the ground, wolfing down a bag of chips. Ino, having just returned from doing reconnaissance, took a seat on a large tree branch that had fallen into the clearing. The trio's three travel packs were sitting in a neat pile between Choji and Shikamaru.
"So, fearless leader," Ino prompted, with a mocking note to her voice. "We've been on the road for about four hours now. More than enough time for you to 'mull things over.' Are you ready to start dispensing orders yet?"
Shikamaru wearily looked up, then sighed. "Actually, yeah. Choji, listen up. And, uh, enjoy the snack break while you can. We won't be taking them once we get out of Fire Country."
Choji looked up abruptly. "Nh?"
"Sorry," Shikamaru muttered, "but we gotta stay focused. So eat whatever you need during the main meals."
Ino leaned back. "Stay focused? Nara Shikamaru wants us to stay focused?"
Choji, recovering from his earlier surprise, grinned. "Heh, maybe they were right about you deserving that jacket, Shikamaru."
Shikamaru tugged uncomfortably at the jacket's collar. "Maybe. Maybe not. But it does change your perspective..."
Amused, but serious, Ino leaned forward. "Okay then, fearless leader, what's the plan?"
"The plan," Shikamaru replied, "is this. Jiiya's fiefdom is in the north of Steppe Country. Way to the north. Border north." As he spoke, Shikamaru pulled out a kunai and began sketching a map in the dirt. "Right next to Rain Country. And just beyond some disputed territory here, you'll find Wind Country."
"Wind Country," Choji repeated, feeling uneasy. "That means... Sand Ninja territory."
Ino, having remembered the basic geography of Steppe Country from her academy lessons, looked seriously at Shikamaru. "You don't think other ninjas did this, do you? That Jiiya hired the Leaf to fight off the Sand or Rain?"
"I know," responded Shikamaru, looking at Choji. Shifting his gave to Ino, he continued. "But I don't think it was the Sand or Rain. Remember, this attack happened three weeks ago, at the latest. It probably happened before the Chuunin exam. Both countries are at least nominally allied with us, and with Steppe Country. Neither of them, especially of the Sand, would have wanted to start trouble before a major gathering like that. And even if they did, they wouldn't have done it by attacking something so pointless. No," Shikamaru concluded, looking back at his map. "This was bandits."
Shikamaru used his kunai to mark a point on the map. "Jiiya's capitol is here, well away from the Rain border. The Jounin in our briefing said that most of the province was uninhabited. That may be, but according to the map Jiiya sent in the mission scroll," Shikamaru added a three lines to his sketch. "There are well settled valleys here, here, and here. Which means there isn't much of the province that is inaccessible."
Choji narrowed his eyes, thinking. "So..."
"So?" Prompted Ino, figuring that Shikamaru was just walking them through what he had already figured out.
"So any serious patrol could cover most of the uninhabited lands. The bandits wouldn't find any refuge there. After pulling off a hit like what they did, there's only one safe place to fall back to." Shikamaru paused and glanced at both his companions. "No Man's Land. The stretch of land bordering Wind, Rain, and Steppe. Since none of the countries are in total control of it, no one can police it properly. It's just the sort of place outlaws would hang around in, because no one can follow them in without causing an international incident. Even us, I'm afraid."
Shikamaru put his blade on the ground and brought it around the earlier lines in an arc. "As we approach, we're going to skirt the border of the border. We'll get a look at that, as well as the land between the valleys. If we don't see any signs of the bandits, we circle around to Jiiya's manor. We'll consult with him, get a more detailed analysis of where he's looked and where he hasn't, and then go from there."
Choji nodded, taking it in. "Mh. You really did think this through."
"You've got us coming up from the south," pointed out Ino as she studied the map. "Is that why we're headed southwest now?"
"There is a large mountain range due east of Jiiya's lands. But south of that, there are several low passes. It'll be quicker to go southwest from here, cut through the mountains where they are narrowest, then go north through Steppe's steppes. No point in dragging this mission any longer than it has to be."
Choji smirked at his friend's pun. "Nice one."
"Okay then!" Declared Ino as she abruptly stood up. "A plan worthy of the Ino-Shika-Chou team! Lets get moving." Without waiting for the others, Ino shouldered her travel pack and disappeared into the trees.
"Shika-Ino-Chou," Choji corrected with a smirk. "Don't worry Shikamaru. She'll get used to you giving the orders eventually."
Shikamaru lazily got up and lightly flicked Choji's shoulder. "Eh, whatever..."
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Late morning, four days later, in Steppe Country...
Standing at the peak of a windswept hilltop, Shikamaru, Ino, and Choji, surveyed the scenery. The whole landscape was composed of north-south running ridges, extending as far as the eye could see. The ridges were jagged and windswept, covered mostly with prairie grass. Creeks frequently ran through the valley between crests, and there were scattered outcroppings of trees. But the groves consisted entirely of cottonwood and occasional willows, both far cries from the towering forests of Fire Country. Despite the apparent harshness of the environment, the trio could pick out multiple signs of at least seasonal human habitation.
"Yup," confirmed Ino, holding a spyglass to her eye. "Rain."
Choji wiped some sweat from his forehead and glanced up at the cloudless sky. "I wish..."
"You sure?" Shikamaru asked, without much enthusiasm.
Ino laughed as she tucked the spyglass into a side-pouch of her travel pack. "It's a fortress with four lines painted in bright blue on lookout tower. I'm pretty sure it's Rain."
"Hm," Choji muttered. "That makes it the third outpost we've seen."
"So much for the disputed territory," Ino joked.
"I would say the Rain Country has been making a power grab," Shikamaru muttered. "But those outposts don't look recent. They've had that land for a while. So either Jiiya sent an old map with the mission, or Steppe Country just doesn't want to admit that the Rain controls that territory."
Choji wiped his forehead again. "So what does this do to our plans?"
Shikamaru sat down and stared lazily at the sky. "Not much," he replied at length. "The bandits could still be taking refuge in Rain Country. And this part of Rain Country is a lot closer to the missing settlement than the official border. We'll keep skirting this border, and keep a look out for any sign of the bandits."
"What kind of sign?" Bluntly interjected Ino. "If the we assume Rain is actively sheltering the bandits, they won't be sitting out in the open."
"We're not assuming that, Ino," Shikamaru retorted. "You assumed that. I only mentioned the bandits could be on that side of the border. They could still just be outlaws that cross the border to avoid Steppe pursuit." Shikamaru sighed and went quiet for a moment. "Look, with what we know now, we can't say one way or another where the bandits will likely be. So we keep our eyes on both sides of the border. And we keep our heads down. We don't want to get spotted by any Rain lookouts."
Ino raised an eyebrow. "Any reason for that, or just general secrecy?"
"General secrecy," Shikamaru replied as he stood up. "Dealing with other ninjas is troublesome, and I'd just rather not have to do it."
"Now that's the Shikamaru we both know and love!" Proudly proclaimed Ino.
Choji just smiled.
"C'mon," Shikamaru muttered, shaking his head. "Lets keep moving."
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Northeast, five hours later...
"Well," yelled Ino, trying her best to be heard as she leapt through the air. "You said you wanted rain, Choji."
"Me and my big mouth," Choji muttered.
Shikamaru remained silent, but did smirk. His amusement, however, was fleeting.
The clouds had looked innocent enough when they first appeared nearly an hour earlier. Not even Shikamaru had noticed them at first. But they quickly developed into a line of full-fledged thunderstorms, stretching along the entire horizon. After the rain started, Shikamaru, Ino, and Choji barely had time to get their travel cloaks on before they were engulfed by the deluge. Ordinarily, Shikamaru would have called a halt in such a situation. But as it was, the trio hurried on.
Before the clouds opened up, the trio had sensed something unusual. An odd smell on the breeze and a faint echo through bedrock of the ridges. Naturally, they moved in to investigate. But then came the rain.
"How much farther do you think it is?" Choji yelled out.
"Can't be much farther," Ino replied. "I think..."
The three ninjas landed on a ridge in rapid succession. Ino jumped forward immediately, while Choji paused for half a second to gauge the distance in the rain. Shikamaru landed in crouch, and took a quick look around.
"Hey!" He yelled at his comrades. Hey!"
Twenty meters down the way, Ino landed and looked back.
"It's back here!" Shikamaru gestured with a wave of his arm, then carefully began to pick his way down the slope of the ridge.
Ino grabbed Choji as he landed beside her and pointed back to Shikamaru's position. The chubby ninja nodded, and the two of them made their way back on foot.
"Oi," Choji muttered a moment later as he and Ino came up behind Shikamaru. "I can barely see anything in this weather."
"Yeah," replied Shikamaru without any enthusiasm. The Chuunin was crouched down with a grim expression on his face. "It is troublesome..."
Beside Choji, Ino caught sight of what was beyond Shikamaru and stopped in her tracks.
"I'll say," Choji agreed. "It's like..." Choji trailed off. There was a long moment of silence before he spoke again. "Uh, this that... Normal."
"Of course it is, Choji," Shikamaru deadpanned. "Cows turn themselves inside-out all the time..."
Again, all three ninjas went silent. Before them lay a multitude of stripped cattle carcasses. The hides had been torn off, as had much of the meat, but not entirely. And not uniformly.
"Wha... What happened here?" Asked Choji, horrified.
Shikamaru, crouched in front of an upturned ribcage, responded in a level tone. "Feeding frenzy."
Unnerved, but unafraid, Ino began wandering forward. "Then you've seen something like this before?"
Shikamaru remained where he was, and stared intently though the mangled corpse before him. "I've seen a few kills, down on the family range. Every so often a jaguar will sneak in will bring down a doe, maybe a fawn, then drag it off. They eat their fill, sometimes over a couple of days, then leave what's left. After that, the scavengers take over. From there, the carcass is slowly stripped clean." Shikamaru paused, letting the rain fill the silence. "This is a fresh kill. The predator had its fill, but the scavengers haven't even noticed it yet."
Ino looked back through the downpour. "Shikamaru, I can see at least 15 of them from here. What kind of predator would kill this much?"
"I don't know."
"Calm down, Choji," Shikamaru ordered. "If it was still here, we would have known about it by now. Just search the perimeter, and look for any sign of what did this."
"Shikamaru," Ino interjected, "In this rain? There's not going to be anything to find! The trail is cold already!"
"We don't know that yet."
"Choji and I passed a watering trough coming here, and there's a lean-to right over there." Ino gestured angrily as she approached her teammate. "We're standing in a cattle path! The grass here was worn away, and the land wasn't exactly bone dry before. Look around, Shikamaru. This was mud before. Now it's soup! Everything is already washed away. Even the blood is half gone!"
Shikamaru stood up, and glared at Ino. "Just. Look."
Surprised by the intensity in the Chuunin's eyes, Ino took a step back. "All... Alright. But you know we're not going to find anything..."
Shikamaru turned away. "We're going to find something," he muttered to himself. "But we're not going to like what it is..."
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The same, dusk...
"Nothing," Shikamaru muttered. He and his two teammates were hunkered around a small fire under the lean-to. Outside, the rain had ended, and the sun's dying rays painted the sky a haunting mixture or red and orange. Shikamaru, with his back to the lean-to's wall, was gazing through the fire at the landscape beyond. "Absolutely nothing."
Ino, still wrapped in her cloak, sighed. "I told you we wouldn't find anything. That rain... If we had just gotten there one hour earlier..."
"Then we might be out there as well." Of the three, Choji had taken the scene the worst. Completely without appetite, he stared listlessly into the fire.
"Don't think like that, Choji."
Ino glanced at the squad leader. "We're all thinking that, Shikamaru. We found 38 dead cattle out there. And we heard whatever killed them from klicks away. This wasn't something natural."
Silence fell over the trio.
"We should have found something," Shikamaru muttered, thinking out loud. "A pack large enough to do that would have a trail too big to be washed away by a few minutes of rain. We should have come across some sign of their approach. Or of how they left... Damnit, a feeding frenzy shouldn't have been that clean!"
Choji grimaced at his friend swore. When Shikamaru didn't continue, he reluctantly spoke up. "Maybe it was a demon..."
Shikamaru scowled. "Ino, you were there when the old man did his summoning bit. Anything here resemble what happened then?"
Ino shook her head. "Nope. Not a bit. But I can't say there wasn't one around."
"Or more than one," Choji added.
"But why?" Asked Ino. "Demons don't eat. And why have a demon attack a herd of cattle? And why disappear so quickly, with the bodies still there?"
"Maybe he didn't like rain," Choji weakly offered.
Shikamaru exhaled slowly, and the trio went quiet again.
"So do we assume this is the same thing that happened to the village?" Asked Ino, finally speaking up. "Strictly speaking, that's what we were commissioned to investigate. Not cattle."
Shikamaru sighed. "I know. But the chance that these two attacks are connected... It's just to high to disregard."
Choji nodded. "So what do we do now?"
"We need to look around when its light," Shikamaru said at length. "In the morning, we'll take another look around. Maybe there's something we missed. But if there isn't... We'll continue our arc. If there have been other attacks like this, we'll notice 'em. When we reach Jiiya's manor... He and I are going to talk. I need to know exactly what his people found in that mining camp, and if anything else like this has been reported. Recently, or in years past. There's got be some sort of clue out there."
"Mh," Ino acknowledged. "Looks like we've fallen in over our heads again. And this time, we don't have Asuma-Sensei to pull us out."
"Yeah, but we've got Shikamaru," Choji added. "He's a Chuunin now. That's gotta count for something..."
"Not nearly enough," Shikamaru whispered to himself. Glancing up, he continued in a normal voice. "Choji, try to get some sleep. Ino and I will take the first watch."
"Both of you?" Choji asked.
"Does anyone have a problem with double watches?" Shikamaru watched as Ino and Choji glanced at each other, and quickly shook their heads. "Good. Until we know exactly what we are dealing with, we all need someone watching our back at all times. We can't afford to split up. Not with only three of us."
Ino sighed. "Makes you wish they sent you with a full squadron, doesn't it?"
"Makes me wish I had never joined the stupid ninja academy," Shikamaru retorted, looking into the distance. "This whole thing is just too damn troublesome..."
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