No more teams had made it to the tower with both scrolls that morning, leaving seven total teams standing grouped together in the afternoon. They’d gotten a brief lecture from Old Man Hokage, and then things had been handed back to Toma.
“Listen up,” Toma said. “We won’t have time during the finals for all of you, so we have to cut the numbers down further. As such, we’re going to be running a preliminary round of randomly-chosen single-elimination fights. You now stand on your own and not as a team, and most proctors would give you the chance to back out now if you don’t feel that you’re ready for chunin. I’m not one of them, in part because I know for a fact that some people never feel like they’re ready for chunin and in part because you don’t get to choose to abandon your mission just because you’re intimidated. To better simulate actual combat in the field, you also aren’t allowed to forfeit your matches. Winners will be determined by myself or Hayate Gekko deciding that one participant is defeated or has no chance of victory. As there are an odd number of you, one of you will get a free pass to the finals, but we won’t know who until the final match is called.”
The floor of the room was cleared, teams gathering with their sensei along the observation balconies before the first match came up on the monitor in the corner of the room.
Dosu Kinuta vs Neji Hyuga
Naruto hid his grin when a number of people were obviously surprised, likely because Neji hadn’t been put up against Hinata. This was largely ignored by the genin, who were focusing on the fight. There was no banter between the two combatants, which Naruto took to mean that Neji felt that he had to actually focus on his opponent. Dosu was still enough of an unknown to be wary of.
Things started with a quick taijutsu bout, where Neji shut down several of Dosu’s chakra points and Dosu appeared to blow out one of Neji’s eardrums. But Dosu had missed ninja wire being looped around the gauntlet thing on his arm, which an unstable Neji was still able to use as his opponent came in for a second strike. Chakra pushed down the ninja wire both redirected the attempted punch and overloaded the gauntlet with too much chakra, the latter causing it to break in two. Five strikes later Neji had cut off key chakra flows and knocked Dosu out.
Medic-nin quickly revived Dosu and healed up Neji’s ears on the spot, allowing both to remain to watch the rest of the fights.
Ino Yamanaka vs Karui
“I was unaware of any bloodlines in Konoha that grant animal features,” Karui commented once the two had squared off, her Kumo forehead protector being used as a bandana to keep her hair out of her face.
“There aren’t any,” Ino grumbled. “And if I find out that this is going to end up passed down to my kids then I’ll hunt down Orochimaru and castrate him.”
“Ah. I heard he was a fan of experimenting, my condolences for getting caught up in one of them. Don’t think it will make me go easy on you though.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Karui was obviously well practiced with her katana, but Ino was no slouch when it came to dodging. At the same time, her opponent wasn’t standing still long enough for the Yamanaka clan techniques to be all that useful, and without teammates it was arguable that taking over the enemy’s body wouldn’t be enough to secure a win anyway. Launched kunai and shuriken as distractions didn’t help much, two genjutsu attempts were shrugged off by the older kunoichi but Ino also shrugged off four that had been thrown back at her, and eventually she slipped up and found herself with a sword to her throat.
“Not bad,” Karui said after the match had been called in her favor. “For someone whose clan specializes in teamwork you did quite well on your own and it didn’t even look like my minor genjutsu took hold.”
“I think I need to get at least a short sword,” Ino said with a frown. “I had nothing suitable to block with.”
“One would likely serve you well, provided you can get proper training in its use.”
Tenten made a point of moving next to Ino to discuss weapon options with her, even producing a tape measure and some basic weights to help determine what would be the best fit.
Hitomo vs Yoroi Akado
Hitomo was one of Karui’s teammates and had more of a broadsword, which he used to keep Yoroi out of reach.
“If you think I’m letting you drain my chakra dry then you’ve got another thing coming,” Hitomo said after dispelling a genjutsu Yoroi had thrown at him.
Ah, right. The Akado family was down to one member but a couple generations back had developed the ability to drain chakra on touch. They were limited by their own capability to contain the chakra and generated far less of their own, but draining the energy out of an opponent and using it against them was a great tactic anyway.
At least when your opponent didn’t know about it and had a large sword to keep you at a distance with, of course.
The fight continued for several minutes before Yoroi threw another genjutsu and Hitomo pretended that it had affected him. A moment later Yoroi moved to get in closer, only to be stabbed through the chest by the broadsword. There was still an attempt made to grab Hitomo, but a swing of the sword launched Yoroi back off of it and into the wall. Toma called the match in Hitomo’s favor at that point, and medic-nin took Yoroi away.
Misumi Tsurugi vs Tenten
It became almost immediately obvious that Misumi preferred close-quarters grappling, and Tenten had picked up on that and refused to allow him to manage it. Instead she was using her broom to keep him at just enough of a distance to annoy him while trying to come up with a good way to knock him out. His glasses and facial covering made spitting soapy water in his face largely ineffective and also kept him from being annoyed at a tornado of dirt and dust being thrown his way. Though the latter left his clothing filthy, which was obvious inspiration.
“My apologies for getting your clothing filthy,” Tenten said as she batted the older genin away again. “Let me fix that for you.”
Her opponent ignored the blast of water she sent at him, obviously looking to power through it. At least until he realized that it had clung to his clothing, and that realization came too late. A moment later the water was heated to steam under the control of a steam-cleaning jutsu. Doing so while someone was still wearing the thing you were cleaning was...
Well, Misumi was screaming in pain for a reason, and that was enough of a distraction for a good hit to the head and a summoning of medic-nin to take him away for healing. At least that had been the utility jutsu and not the boil release version that melted skin and clothing.
Ami Hiramari vs Temari
“Had to be someone with ranged attacks,” Ami whined as she made her way down to the arena floor.
“And how do you know that I’ve got ranged attacks?” Temari asked.
“You’re carrying a battle fan. If you can’t use that for ranged wind attacks then you’re a chump that doesn’t deserve to be here.”
“Well, I suppose that shows that you’re smarter than most of my opponents have been. Are you willing to admit to anything about yourself?”
“Just that if I had the option I’d forfeit to save myself the pain of getting my ass kicked against someone I likely can’t get a good hit on at all.”
“I see. Perhaps I’ll make it quick for you.”
Two minutes later the match had been called in Temari’s favor after a single tornado had thrown Ami across the room and into the wall, though only after four seconds of surface-sticking kept the girl from being pulled into the air immediately. Her concentration breaking when the wind cut one of her flapping ears was what caused her chakra to lose grip on the ground.
Naruto Uzumaki vs Rock Lee
“Hmmm,” Gai said, putting his hand on Lee’s shoulder before the boy could jump into the arena. “One moment Lee.” He then raised his voice. “Uzumaki, it looks like you’re wearing training weights!”
“Yeah?” Naruto replied, not sure where the man was going with that.
“I’d like to propose that you and Lee show off the full strength of your Youth by removing your weights!”
“I don’t know if that’d be fair to bushy-brows.” Naruto could tell that Lee was wearing slightly heavier leg weights, but without arm weights or a resistance belt.
“No held weapons, no gates from Lee, and no elemental bloodline tricks from Naruto,” Anko-sensei called. “Taijutsu, basic utility, and single-element jutsu only!”
Gai blinked, then nodded before looking down at Lee. “Take them off and show them your Power of Youth.”
“Are you sure Gai-sensei?” Lee asked.
“You and your opponent both train with weights. It’s only fair to both of you to show each other how far you’ve come.”
Naruto sighed and removed his weights, and then disabled his resistance belt. Unlike Lee, he did so by sealing the weights away instead of jumping to the top of the statue of a ram hand seal and dropping them. Because of that he was left largely-ignored due to the clouds of dust kicked up by the heavy weights Lee had been wearing impacting the ground.
“This is going to be a problem,” Gekko noted as he backed up further.
A minute later he’d started the match and body-flickered out of the arena, just in time for Lee to charge at Naruto. On his part, he met the lunging punch with one of his own, the shockwave of the impact blowing dust away from both of them before he moved like he was about to intercept a kick. Instead he used the movement to drop under the kick and deliver one of his own to Lee’s stomach.
Orochimaru watched the match between the two genin with interest. Uzumaki had vanished for the rest of the day after being injured, only to show up again without any signs of nearly being cut in two at all. Without any aid from Kabuto, which implied that the boy’s teammates were far more skilled medic-nin than expected. Either that or the boy was on Kabuto’s level of being able to put himself back together.
It was an interesting turn of events, and now two genin were putting most high jounin to shame with their speed, strength, and reflexes. Both apparently through pure training with weights, as while Uzumaki was shielding himself with an interesting application of chakra neither boy appeared to be boosting himself. Far more interesting than the unfortunate failure of the latest cursed seal attempt.
A glance at Team Seven was all he spared for the moment. None of the three genin seemed to have his cursed seal, despite him knowing that all three had been gifted it. He wished he could reach out more fully to check, but that would likely trip up Anko’s seal and alert her to his presence. The only thing he could think of that would cause the three to not have the seal was the improved healing from the beast-man formula they’d previously survived, so perhaps the healing had overcome the seal. Which was impressive, but made them mutually-exclusive.
That was a pity, but saved him the trouble of restarting the beast-man project elsewhere. It was inferior to the seals in many ways, and if they were mutually-exclusive then he’d rather use the more reliable seals that also let him influence the minds of his shinobi in subtle ways. Unfortunately, it also meant that he didn’t have any hooks into an Uchiha with a confirmed-active sharingan. Perhaps a team would need to be directed to grab some of the other surviving children during the invasion?
Returning his focus to the two fighting genin, Orochimaru decided that he was lucky that Uzumaki had been wearing his weights in the forest. Speed and power like this with the element of surprise his killing intent provided on first exposure could have allowed the boy to get in a significant initial hit. Coupled with the rest of the demonstration it made explaining his survival without having access to a tailed beast’s chakra more understandable as well.
Knowing about these two allowed for planning around them though, and neither had demonstrated anything that could help against a tailed beast let loose in the village. Even that comment about elemental bloodline tricks wouldn’t matter, no matter how intriguing. Perhaps Uzumaki needed a deeper examination if he had unreported abilities...and the various spies in the village needed to work harder to uncover this kind of thing. Running partially blind when it came to such useful information was not how Orochimaru preferred to work.
Over half an hour of furious taijutsu combat, with the occasional minor jutsu from Naruto, had led to somewhat significant damage to the arena. Every time one of the two of them dodged something at the last moment it tended to result in the other hitting a wall or the floor and the overpressure from them meeting attacks head-on created its own damage. But Naruto was faster, slightly stronger, and had far larger chakra reserves.
Possibly more importantly, he had a healing factor that Lee didn’t and enough chakra to maintain a brute-forced whole-body chakra shield for a couple of hours. They weren’t using the Knight Armor spell for the preliminaries, but Naruto had realized that some of the basics of the protective barriers worked wonderfully on their own and was working on refining the technique during the battle. This was keeping his clothing intact even as Lee’s looked worse and worse off, but wasn’t helping as much with the bludgeoning damage.
Lee was already starting to look like a giant bruise, and without his healing factor Naruto would probably look the same.
But then things changed, Lee’s chakra flow shifting as one of the larger chakra points in his brain flipped open, immediately followed by another. This drastically increased the chakra flowing through his system and noticeably boosted his healing as well, the bruises starting to fade even as his speed increased. This was, as far as Naruto understood things, a likely-subconscious opening of two of the gates.
Now, he didn’t know how to do that safely himself, but if Lee was now opening gates then weapons or elemental kekkei genkai tricks were now on the table, right? The latter felt more fair as a chakra trick for a chakra trick, so Naruto started letting water out into the arena as he worked to keep up with Lee. This led to puddles in the holes they’d made in the floor and soaked walls as they kept fighting. Gai was yelling something to Lee, but it was impossible to hear properly and Naruto didn’t think Lee had even noticed.
It was hard to miss a dome of ice mirrors suddenly forming out of all of the water though, and Lee definitely noticed Naruto vanishing into one of them.
“Ice?” Lee said, glancing at the mirrors. “But that’s...” He then paled a little. “I opened two gates.”
“That you did,” Naruto called, seemingly from all of the mirrors at once.
A moment later he was bouncing between the mirrors at high speed, every pass striking Lee. While this worked better with throwing weapons or blades it was still usable with taijutsu, and the assault lifted Lee into the air and kept him from regaining his footing. Throwing Gentle Fist strikes in to gradually shut down the older boy’s chakra was also part of the strategy, and after five minutes Lee fell to the ground unconscious.
Only to get back up to his feet and look ready to fight anyway.
Naruto stepped out of one of the mirrors and let them melt while Toma called the match and medic-nin came in to look at Lee. Gai had to come down to get Lee to drop out of his fighting stance so that the medic-nin could do their thing, and once Lee was revived he was subject to an enthusiastic rant of not breaking the agreed-upon rules when lightly sparring with a comrade.
“We may need a few minutes to fix the arena before we continue,” Toma added after looking around.
“Meh,” Naruto said, molding a pile of earth chakra. “I helped make the mess so I can clean it up.” He flowed the chakra out into the floor and up the walls, debris almost melting as they flowed back into the gouges and holes. The water was directed towards a drain in the middle of the room that someone was kind enough to pop open, and after a couple of minutes the entire room looked just as good as it had when they’d started. Possibly cleaner, actually.
“And to think I thought the maid outfits were just a gimmick. Thank you. NEXT!”
Gaara vs Kabuto Yakushi
Kabuto looked unhappy at this turn of events, hopping the railing to get to the arena floor while Gaara used a sand-themed body flicker to get into position. Naruto and Hinata both frowned when they saw Kabuto look to the Oto jounin and get what looked like a ‘go ahead’ signal though. It was something that someone without an active byakugan might’ve missed.
“Why look towards the Oto jounin?” Hinata asked the team, including Anko-sensei and Kurenai-sensei.
“What are you talking about?” Kurenai-sensei asked.
“Kabuto got a signal from the Oto jounin instead of his own jounin-sensei,” Naruto answered.
“...that’s suspicious as hell,” Anko-sensei contributed, stating the obvious. “But there’s not much we can do about it right now.”
The opening moves of the fight were largely Kabuto testing Gaara’s defenses...and finding that getting close was incredibly difficult due to the shield of sand that would pop up. This went on for a minute or so before Gaara got bored and sent his sand out more offensively, but Kabuto proved to be more ready for that than expected as he kept ‘cutting’ the connection back to Gaara before the sand could fully encircle him. It never took long for the connection to be restored, but it was just enough time to escape several times in a row.
It was looking to be a stalemate. Kabuto couldn’t get to Gaara, but also wasn’t being hurt by Gaara either. But one thing that was obvious to the byakugan but probably not obvious to Kabuto was that the various ‘misses’ and ‘cut-off’ sands spread around the arena were still under or coming back under the control of Gaara’s chakra.
“Mother doesn’t like you,” Gaara finally said, holding his hand out. A moment later he clenched it into a fist, and all of the sand spread around the arena launched itself at Kabuto. An attempt was made at a dodge, but the body flicker didn’t let him get out of the sand in time and the upper half of his body was crushed to a fine paste, his blood absorbed by the sand in the process.
There was basically no chance of recovering from that and his chakra had faded away before the sand had returned to the gourd on Gaara’s back.
“I hate it when suspicious people die before they can be interrogated,” Anko-sensei whined through the communication jutsu.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have told the computer to pair them off,” Naruto admitted.
“...when the fuck did you do that?”
“I picked that as the replacement match-up for Hinata otherwise being paired up with Neji, because I expected the person generating the fight list to expect a ‘match same skill set’ pair and if they didn’t get one then they’d check the settings more deeply.”
“And you’re only mentioning this now?”Kurenai-sensei asked.
“It didn’t feel relevant until now.”
It felt like the rest of the team couldn’t come up with a reason to argue that point.
Baki frowned as he watched their primary in-village contact for the invasion die. Not that Gaara knew that Kabuto was their contact...nor would he have cared. It certainly made a few things more problematic than they might have been otherwise, but there were secondary contacts in case something happened to Kabuto. Less capable ones, but they existed.
The bigger concern was probably the level of skill shown by some of the Konoha genin. Sure, a couple had been essentially useless, but the exams were being held in Konoha. Suna let their essentially useless genin compete in Suna-hosted exams as well in hopes that the experience would get them training properly. Seeing what Uzumaki and Lee were capable of while holding back, as nobody could miss that both genin in that bout had been told to not use their full capabilities by their jounin-sensei, was honestly chilling.
What other surprises awaited them in Konoha’s ranks?
Sachie Sobu vs Sasuke Uchiha
With a death having happened things were a little more somber, but both shinobi dropped down into the arena. The match started, and the two first threw kunai and shuriken as somewhat of a distraction before moving in with taijutsu. Which appeared to be going fine for both of them, until Sasuke’s sharingan activated. A few seconds later Sachie jumped back, screaming bloody murder, and started throwing kunai.
A lot of kunai, but nowhere near ‘Tenten trying to blot out the sun with real weapons’ levels.
More impressive was the fact that every single kunai was embedding itself at least ring-deep in the walls when they hit, something that Sasuke very obviously noticed and had him dodging like his life depended on it. Which it very well might. Based on the chakra patterns in Sachie’s head it was likely that she’d been hit with a genjutsu, but what she was seeing was an entirely different question.
Eventually Sasuke decided that the only safe place to be was the ceiling and stuck himself there, seemingly hoping to wait out her kunai supply. Her pulling out several scrolls with new full pouches sealed in them made this take far longer than he likely expected though, and Naruto thought that needing a full scroll for a pouch refill was wasteful. Much better to have a string of tags inside the pouch that you can trigger to refill it in place, or store the current contents in to swap for a different loadout.
Then again, Sachie didn’t have someone studying seals on her team.
Over a hundred thrown kunai later the girl visibly started to tire, and it likely hadn’t escaped anyone’s notice that almost every single kunai had been launched at ‘head height’. As she approached a hundred and fifty she’d stopped putting as much power into them, and by two hundred she was flagging enough for Sasuke to be comfortable dropping down and chopping her in the back of the neck.
“What did you do to her?” Toma asked.
“Genjutsu to make her think zombies were attacking,” Sasuke replied.
Gai, Lee, and Neji all shivered in unison at that, with most of the present Konoha shinobi at least flinching as well. Sachie was revived and then her teammates helped pull all of the kunai they could out of the walls. Followed by Gai asking Naruto to help fix the damage to the walls as he and Neji weren’t up to the task, which included having the walls spit out more kunai that had been entirely buried in them.
Kin Tsuchi vs Omoi
The first match without a Konoha participant started off with Omoi demonstrating that while he was intelligent he wasn’t necessarily wise. He spent nearly a minute and a half extrapolating a horrible sequence of possible events from the match before Kin snapped out of her stupor listening to him and threw senbon with attached bells at him. That got him moving, pulling the sword off of his back as he dodged. The next set of senbon were blocked with the sword, two more sets went wide as he blocked a third.
Then one senbon without a bell was included in a salvo, and Omoi obviously missed it. The one in that group with a bell was blocked, the one without it slipped through and struck his arm.
“That’s clever,” he said after popping the senbon out. “Getting me used to the bells and then throwing senbon without them.”
Kin just grinned and flipped through some hand seals. Strings connecting to most of the bells allowed her chakra to flow down them, and suddenly an audio-based genjutsu that felt like it was intended to screw up balance was hitting the entire arena. Most of the effect was being targeted at Omoi though, and it was obviously working as he stumbled. His chakra pulsed to clear the effect multiple times, but Kin was maintaining the effect so it was constantly reapplying itself.
Despite the genjutsu screwing with his balance, Omoi still managed to deflect several more sets of senbon, including those without bells. Naruto thought this was in part because he was pushing chakra out in a sphere around him to form a basic detection effect. But the combined effort was keeping him from attacking and the attack on his ears was slowing him down as well. Likely making him nauseous thanks to the constant shifting of his balance.
There was a shift not long after though, as though the effect of the genjutsu on Omoi had suddenly jumped in magnitude. The next round of senbon had two get through, and Naruto finally noticed that they had something coating the tips. If the coating wasn’t a knockout drug that would be noticed right away, and instead somehow made the genjutsu more effective, then you might never realize you’d been drugged until it was too late.
Omoi fell to his knees, dry-heaving as he attempted to throw up before he passed out.
Kankuro vs Zaku Abumi
With two of the last three names up on the screen it was now obvious that Hinata had gotten the free pass. It was also obvious when Neji realized this, because he scowled and glared at Hinata for daring to get the free pass. Or at least that was Naruto’s assumption for the scowling and glaring.
Regardless of that, Kankuro and Zaku made their way to the arena floor, the former riding on the back of his disguised puppet. It was an interesting trick, but anyone who had a way of sensing chakra could probably spot it. Using a byakugan just made it extra-noticeable. The proctor started the fight, and it became immediately obvious that there was going to be a problem. Namely, both shinobi were ranged fighters, but in different ways that didn’t lend themselves to making any progress.
Zaku used air blasts in various ways thanks to tubes in his arms, but their strength dissipated too quickly. Incredibly useful to stop incoming projectiles, and he demonstrated boosting the speed of some kunai, but his aim was horrible. Kankuro attacked with his puppet, once he revealed it, but the puppet couldn’t get close enough to Zaku to engage in melee and the ranged weapons it held couldn’t get past the air blasts.
The combination was honestly incredibly boring to watch. Both were good at keeping their opponent at range and neither could do adequate damage at range against the other. They just traded ineffective attacks and stupid banter for three quarters of an hour, neither making any progress whatsoever, and not noticing Toma and Gekko consulting with Old Man Hokage and both of their jounin-sensei.
Toma stepped in when they were done with the consultations. “We’ve decided that the complete lack of injuries and zero solid hits to either party after this amount of time means that neither shinobi is capable of a decisive victory. As such, both are disqualified.”
The arena was cleaned up and Gekko took over, bringing out a bowl filled with numbered tokens. He had each of the ten passing to the finals take a single token, then collected the numbers and filled in a bracket.
“You’ll all get a copy of this when we’re out of the forest,” Gekko said, holding the bracket up. “But here’s the fight order.”
Things were laid out with Hitomo, Karui, Kin, Sasuke, and Tenten in one half. Hinata, Gaara, Naruto, Neji, and Temari were thus in the other half. Kin and Tenten would start things off in their half, followed by Naruto and Neji. Those two would get things down to a proper eight-man bracket. Hitomo and Sasuke would then fight, followed by Hinata and Temari. Karui would fight the winner of the first match and Gaara would fight the winner of the second, and then they’d go into the semifinals for each half of the bracket before the final match.
“The finals are at the beginning of August,” Gekko continued after a couple of coughs. “You’ll have a month to recuperate and prepare for fighting in front of an audience. Each of you will be representing your village to potential clients in addition to showcasing yourselves to the shinobi observers. Winning doesn’t guarantee promotion, and losing doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be promoted. Your goal is to show that you’re chunin material one way or another, with the caveat that winning more matches gives you more opportunities to do so. There have been exams where all finalists were promoted and exams where none were.”
They got an hour to pack up anything they’d left in the rooms, which for Team Yurei was nothing, before being escorted out of the training ground. Forms indicating various things and copies of the finals bracket were distributed before they were sent off on their own. Anko-sensei insisted on a meeting the next day on how to handle training over the next month, claiming that she and Kurenai-sensei had to check with some people about a number of things.
Naruto’s first stop was back home so that he could get out of the maid outfit and into something more comfortable, and then he needed to check with Karin. And he probably needed to ensure that Yoko was available first thing in the morning to be exasperated at the horrible attempts the civilian girls had been making at being ‘shrine maidens’...and possibly set things up to teach them if they really wanted to try to go that route in any capacity at all.