Chapter Nine: Eschaton
The King in Red
And he arose; a face many and none, a morphic echo of your mother, your father, your daughters and sons; a thing of clay and all answers and none. The flower of human knowledge burst within his skull and the pollen of its fruits was heady and strong.
And he arose; raven's feathers on wolf fur, hunched over and compact. Behind the veil flickered the lights of madness, like swamp gas or the dancing of the moon. His claws arced for the length of a man's arm, dripping ashen saliva. He hungered for the feast.
And he arose; the liar behind the door, whose face is never seen. A thing of whispers and secrets and messages of paper, he crept between the lettters of all meaning and made it corrupt. Catlike, the leopard-spots of his body rippled into words that had no meaning.
And he arose; The Eld Harvester. Sheppard of the aged and infirm, his crooked staff herded souls to their ultimate paralysis. A quiet man who breathed a gas of coma, to sleep and never awake. The dullness of domestic beasts shrouded the his bent form.
And they sat, or stood, or crawled, or writhed, before the King in Red; before the cracked and shattered body of a child, no hair upon his chin. Blood ran from the rivets of his face where an unearthly voice had split open the seams, and the taut-strings of tendon had torn apart. He had no more strength to raise his hands, but there was hate enough say:
And they did so.
Naruto laid on the pavement, bled and cried and laughed, rolling in puddles of his own blood and tears. The scent of necrotic meat surged through his nostrils, and he continued to laugh as the tanned skin of his forearms crinkled a sickly grey and began to flake off like snowflakes, melting in the open air and leaving nothing but pale salt behind. There was no words anymore left for this tiny, pitiful child.
Quite literally, for he had bitten off his tongue when he howled.
Dandelions burst into gargantuan flower and extended their curled stamens forward, tangling about the startled arms and legs, or heads of the people of Konoha. There was no salvation for those caught; they were dragged back into the tremendous blossoms, now the height of a man or more, and pulled into the yellow hearts.
A steaming hiss arose from those hearts, and a boiling hot, colorlessly spray of liquid jetted out, splattering the ground about. Little particles of brown or black hung suspended in the spills. Then the stamens unfurled again as their hues of yellow intensified to almost sun-bright gold.
Konoha was a village of ninja, but the leaves held no reprieve, and the stamen went on forever like cat's-cradle dementia and the equators of the earth. And between these things walked a thing of moulded clay, unintelligible and speechless. But with every man or woman or child welcomed into the golden hearts, the face of the clay would shift, and a little detail would appear. Maybe an eyebrow, or a cheekbone; a perfect amalgam. But nothing could hide the hideous fringe of petals around its neck, like a jester's collar or a lion's mane. It flopped wearily from side to side as the clay strode, but never changed and never began to shift.
But as the dandelions grew to the size of mountains, shadowing the Hokage's tower, and Dantalion walked on a path of petals between rooftops, dropping seeds in the alleys between, he didn't seem to mind.
And those he faced soon began to lose grip on their kunai and shuriken when they saw his perfect face. Androgynous and lovely, they knelt before him and did not fight, as the dandelions took them home.
The last thought of Tenten's mind was delight, as she felt her face reach perfect proportions, beautiful beyond measure of man or woman.
I am, she thought peacefully, as the threads of her mind were picked apart and woven into vegetative strands, becoming a leaf of the blossom now planted where her home was.
Opposite Dantalion's peaceful merging, massacre took place. Andras, the King of Beasts roared into existence and tore a Jounin in half, blatantly ignoring the Earth Dragon that bulled into its side. With a vicious swipe, the dragon was split asunder and crumbled, and the berserker turned to another victim, screamed, and shoulder-blocked the apartment complex he had been taking cover in. Eight apartments ceased to exist as a two-story thing of bone, rage, and heated muscle crashed through.
The feathers of Andra's arms and legs took flight and whirled into shape, becoming hooked talons that swerved and screamed, tearing hunks of flesh from those not quick enough to dodge. Crow-things borne on dozens of spindly, twitching legs skittered about and launched themselves at anything they could see, scrabbling at movement, heat, and life. A dozen of them crowded about the Beast and scratched at him, but he paid no mind.
Kunai rained down; clones bounded in and slashed; exploding tags turned acres of flesh into charred and blasted expanses.
Andras kept moving. His flesh steamed with contempt as it bubbled towards wholeness, never stopping or hesitating. The metal of weaponry cracked as it was drawn within, and then emerged on his back as deadly spines.
And he never, never stopped howling.
But finally the ANBU appeared, row on row of red and black; a faceless beast to match the one before them. The Beast stood on his hind legs, smiled and hissed.
And from between his twinkling feathers dropped a river of crow-walkers, panic and discord and screeching fear, flooding over their element dragons, flame blasts and thunder, earth walls and water surges and the gigantic tree that erupted from below. They surged over the ANBU line, pecking endlessly and annoyingly.
They were only a distraction for the Beast himself, who crashed into the disorganized ranks and began a slaughter.
Ose walked in misery, but not a soul struck out at him; he was above their quarrels. Wives buried butcher knives in their husbands as he passed. Children forced baseballs and toys down each other's throats and writhed in homoerotic suicide. Toddlers rolled onto their faces and drowned in their soft, gentle pillows.
Mangled language rippled over his paper-white skin. Inken tides surged and left kanji that looked too oddly rounded, too sharp on the edges; as if seen through a telescope, bent by the intervening space. Ose's muzzle ticked, but he made no sound.
Nothing more than a leopard stood upright, he paused and looked about, at the few that remained pure of his moon-madness. It was this that let him dodge the seething mass of insects that descended from above. Graceful as his form suggested, he streaked out of the way, leaving white-and-black stains on the air as if he was a dripping easel.
Ose glanced upwards, and saw a boy with his overcoat tight on his form, a collar tucked about his chin; the child stood on the edge of a building overhead, isolated from the rioting populace. Expressionless glasses glared as the vermin came about again. Liquid as smoke, the leopard dashed out of the way and, as if gravity had no meaning, up the intervening space.
The boy drew a pair of kamas with expertise, and closed his eyes; but there was no help as Ose came near, limblessly dodging the wild swipes.
He heard "SShhi-no;" his name, distorted through sibilant lips. Shino's mind shuddered away from a sudden, slick grasp. Twice more the kamas sang out, dividing lines of air with their razor sharpness.
Then again; "Sshhi-no."
And again. "Sshhi-no."
And again. "Sshhi-no."
And again. "Sshhi-no."
And again. An echo of endless reverberations caught inside the carapace of his skull. The scream of a bat in a cage or the sound of water dripping in a box.
Shino sucked in a breath, staggered back and opened his eyes, and read the kanji of his name across the smiling lips of the leopard.
The kamas swung upwards and embedded with a thunk into the boy's eye sockets. He slumped and died.
Ose smiled and went on.
From the tower, Sarutobi watched this all; and heard the sounds as the door creaked open, and weathered feet padded across the carpet.
The Hokage robe and hat had already been slung aside on the chair, besides the stamp and an aged picture of Team 7; the original and the new. Both had the grease of fingertips on their glassy frames, recent and old.
The old man stood before the window, armored in ANBU uniform. The sigil of the Fire Shadow gleamed upon his breast.
He was the God of Shinobi: Sarutobi Hiruzen.
The Hokage's wrinkled face turned to regard his visitor. It was a visage that called to his own; a human form, the lines of age just starting to overlie a tanned face. Black hair, sprinkled with grey, hung over eyes the color of darker nights; a deep blue-and-black embrace. A Sheppard's crook thumped against the floor with a final ring.
"You will not take my village from me." Sarutobi said softly, staring across the expanse of his desk at his visitor. "You will not overcome the will of fire."
The visitor inclined his head patiently. There was no hurry in any of his movements.
"Perhaps not." he murmured.
Sarutobi clapped his hands together, and started to make hand seals when he felt all the strength in him flow out and drain into the floor; like a long autumn shower had fallen onto his shoulders, and with its drops his vitality had gone. Gasping for suddenly distant breath, Sarutobi sagged against the wall, forcing himself back upright with a hand.
The visitor stood, unmoving and watchful. There was a knowing in his eyes that took Sarutobi's breath away; the weight of ages, of his age drawing on his shoulders and bearing him down to the earth, where he could curl up and sleep, to rest. An inevitable plummet that Hiruzen felt to the tips of his fingers, and he watched in disgusted self-recrimination as his digits turned pale and lifeless, immobile.
Sarutobi closed his eyes, drew in a long breath. His back rested against the wall for all of a moment.
"No." he said, drawing himself straight and locking gazes with his foe. There was a crunch as Sarutobi slammed his fist off-angle into the windowsill, breaking two fingers on his left hand; the pain briefly gave him focus.
Without pause he drew a kunai, slammed it through the palm of his other hand - OH but that HURT! - the force projecting it straight through to embed in the ceiling just before the west wall. Sarutobi brought his hands up before him and sealed.
I have been here too long, he thought.
I have made too many mistakes.
I have seen too much suffering.
And I will die here.
But I will not go alone.
I will not abandon my village, the heart of fire to you
For everyone I've failed
I give everything for you.
. . . i just want to lie down so bad
. . . I GIVE EVERYTHING!
A clap. Sarutobi breathed deep, and completed the signs of the Shiki Fuujin, smiling softly even in the end as he closed his eyes. At least, he would follow in the footsteps of the man he had failed so badly. For his age and proposed wisdom, he didn't seem to have many options after all.
But at least he had pride.
Four seconds later, Sarutobi opened his eyes and stared into the dead-dull black of the visitor's eyes, who stood before the Hokage. Face-to-face.
Sarutobi's eyelids fluttered once, and he slumped to the floor; there was a loud pop as his hip gave out underneath the sudden, awkward weight. But there was no cry of pain as the Hokage struck the floor.
Slowly, he curled up into a ball, hands coming up against his face. The very tip of his wrinkled thumb rested against his chapped and open lips.
His mouth closed. There was a sigh; and stillness, except for the rising and falling of Sarutobi's chest.
Konove looked at the curled form on the floor for a moment. Then he turned and slipped out the door, closing it with a soft click behind him.
The elderly man on the floor did not notice.
Konoha burned. A terrible quartet had descended onto its populace and stolen their minds away; sealed into perfect floors, or squashed like grapes against the floor, between toes. The scent of spilt blood was overwhelmed with pollen and ink, except where Andra lingered; the stink of feathers and rotting blood followed him like a court, crow-walker nobles scattered about in frenetic lines.
In his puddle of vomit and tears, Naruto heaved himself up and stared at the shapes of flowers, rising towards the moon; if he watched carefully he could see where the tendrils spiraled upwards. He watched in wonder as one plucked a point of light out of the sky, and drew it downwards into the heart. A moment later, the blossom began to softly glow, and little pistils came out, with tiny forms of people on them. He thought he recognized Tenten on one; she sat on a petal and stroked it, betwitched. A spiderweb of wispy roots fell from the bun of her hair and trailed back into the flower's heart.
Naruto laid his head back against the pavement, as the ground rumbled and Andra stalked by, growls and whispers emanating from his primitive form; spindly, flightless birds leapt about on top of his flesh and picked away the gobbets of meat and dried blood. Where the Beast was wounded, the bird drooled on the flesh; and soon, the gash steamed and writhed to a close. Besides him, on the lake, the boy watched a corpse-white leopard, standing upright, skate over the water. It was strangely graceful; and where his paws touched ink spread over the water in silent, rippling patterns, the birth of an eternal tesseract on the waters of Konoha's reservoir.
And Naruto looked up, as Ronove came near, and extended his hand; and Naruto smiled and would have said thank you, but he had not the tongue to do so. Instead he took the Sheppard's hand, and looped his arm over the welcome shoulder, and staggered towards the lake.
The ripples were beautiful; and Naruto could look at them and read; here, when he had first killed a man, scooping away flesh with the red of his claws; and here, when that woman (Cardinal?) had wrapped her arms around him once, and he had felt a hug. There were stories in the water, so many of them; and so many were stories of Naruto, calling him to the cool surface of his bier.
He wondered briefly where Cardinal was; and then shook his head gently, knowing his gift wasn't one to be given away. She would carry it, and bless them, and die.
And she would be happy, like him.
The blonde nodded to Ronove, mouthing 'thank you'; but the old Sheppard shook his head in return, and pushed Naruto gently towards the lake.
"You gave us everything." the Sheppard said, crossing his arms. And then he knelt, and pressed his head to the ground below, dirt and grass. In his penitence, he was still.
Naruto paled slightly in shock, and looked around; but there, on a ruined store, was Dantalion. His petal-hands were raised in farewell, and fond remembrance. The pistils and stamens of the great dandelions slowed, and then they were still.
Andras's mighty fangs brushed the gravel as his head lowered as well, even lower than Ronove's. The scrabbling crows stilled, and knelt as well. They were still.
And Ose, he stopped upon the lake and bent as well, muzzle just passing the surface of the inken lake. The meaning-waters of his skin was still.
The boy's eyes teared up, and nitrous trails flowed down; burning and cracking the surface of his flesh, boiling it away. But he felt no pain; he nodded, and mouthed something else.
No one heard it; their heads were held low, and away from his lips. Even Ose could not tell, for Naruto faced away from him.
The boy turned, and glanced downward into the waters; he saw faces there, and knew them all, but he couldn't say their names. So he waded out into the white-and-black, until it came up to his waist; and the water was warm, and never moved, never rippled but for the beloved ones below.
And the blonde scooped up some water in his hands; it took him many tries, because the water spilled between the blades of his fingers. But every time a little more clung to his hands, until a sphere of monochrome rested on his palms.
In it, he saw the face of an older blonde, a mantle on his shoulders; a prosperous village behind him, in the shadow of a mountain with the faces of heroes. His eyes gleamed a wonderful, deep blue, like the boy had never seen.
He had never seen such wonderfully beautiful eyes.
Naruto closed his own, and fell forward into the lake, without a splash, or a ripple. The waters swallowed him whole, and everything - was still.
In the distant land of Sunagakure, a woman raised her head and blinked, scratching at the spiraling bald strip in the depths of her hair.
She thought she had seen something out of the corner of her eye.
The spiral itched.
Ronove touched the familiar brow.
"WAKE." he said, softly, but the words echoed through the water.
Two bright eyes slid open, and the world took a breath and awoke; the moment between dawn and morning, asleep and aware swelled and became great. A kingdom settled in the border, a place of windows, paintings, and halls; but no doors.
Winaohud, the Waker, straightened, his slow eyes caressing the depths of the lake.
"Hello." he murmured, and a soft clacking began from his fingers.
Jiraya stood in silent disbelief before where Konoha had once been. Suddenly as swift as he was in his prime, he dashed away from the floral citadel, clouded in rains of feathers. He didn't miss thefact that each and every feather's edge glinted, and the aged crimson stain on each.
He pulled a summoning scroll from his pouch, bit his thumb, and then smeared it on the parchment; there was a puff of smoke, and then nothing.
Jiraya staggered. Sarutobi was dead. Most likely, so was everyone else.
He redoubled his pace, heading towards the closest post of his spy network. The Princess would need to know; if only so she could laugh and be free of the village she had disliked so long.
He would bet this was Orochimaru's fault, somehow.
Cardinal opened her eyes, and began to stretch.
Then she felt the phantom caress of talons across the top of her head, and she whipped around, not entirely awake but struggling towards the surface.
She saw a blank white wall; her bedroom was painted green.
She turned around and saw another blank white wall.
She turned one last time, and looked to where the window of her room had been; it was still there, and there was a little face in the corner, shrouded in blonde hair.
"Hello." he said, and Cardinal felt a heartbeat, twin to her own, pulse in the crown of her head.
Sarutobi opened his eyes, and saw a man with a flower for a head, standing before him. He had the most beautiful face he had ever seen.
Sarutobi opened his mouth, and said "huuungwry."
Dantalion fed him.
There is no greater strangeness than in the heart of your own child.