It happened after the Kyuubi's attack.
The defences of the town had been weakened immensely, as the demon fox had broken through the outer gates with nary a care in the world. It had shrugged off the automated defence systems, and the Meikou barrier, a system implemented to guard Konoha against foreign invaders, barely made a scratch against the Kyuubi's fur – it had been made to deal with human opponents, after all, not a demon fox a hundred feet tall. Continuing, its fur barely scratched by the many jutsu that the shinobi of the village had thrown at it, the Kyuubi laid waste to much of the land right outside the main village, destroying crops and eroding topsoil for generations to come with its toxic Chakra.
The people of the village despaired, giving up hope. Evacuations happened by the hundreds, as the civilians of the village attempted to flee their home, knowing that it was quickly going to become nothing more than a demonic slaughterhouse. Children were taken away. Men lead their wives out of the village. Only the shinobi remained, fighting for their lives, for their beliefs, and for their families.
That was when the hero arrived.
The Yondaime, his hair a bundle of yellow flame, arrived on the back of perhaps the most celebrated summon in all of Konoha's history. Quickly, he took command of the situation, leading the shinobi where they had to go and heading off into battle himself. His eyes burned brightly with righteous fury, and his cold spirit – tinged with immense melancholy – radiated off him in waves, countering the terrifying properties of the Kyuubi's own.
He held, in his arms, the form of a small child.
The battle commenced, and to the wonders of all those who had been there, the winner at the end was the Yondaime, the Fourth Hokage of Konoha. As the Kyuubi's body, a mere solid manifestation of Chakra, hit the ground and dissipated, the Yondaime took his last breath. Nobody knew what he had done, much less how he had done it. All he left at the end was a crying baby lying in a bundle beside him.
What was thought to be perhaps the greatest danger that Konoha had ever encountered had been defeated, yet there was no time for rebuilding, no time for rejoicing, and no time to mourn the ones that had been lost. Merely two months after the defeat of the Kyuubi, a mysterious force moved in from the Rice Country, known later to belong to the Hidden Sound, and quickly made their way towards Konoha.
With so many of its legendary shinobi gone, and morale down after the death of the Fourth, resistance was both ineffective and terminated quite easily. The force, composed of main missing-nin united under a single banner, was quickly able to subdue the entirety of Konoha, and gained control of the Land of Fire.
The Daimyo was killed in his house, fearing for his life as he did so. His wife was also butchered, her remains thrown into the river and her head displayed on a pike as a symbol of the new government. The cat, Tora, the Lady's greatest prize, was fed to the snake summons of the Sound army.
The Hokage was executed, cursing the name of the new ruler the entire time as he was brought to the stake. His wizened old form had never looked so weak and frail as he had been, dressed in the clothing of prisoners and criminals, as he was beheaded in front of a horrified, shocked crowd.
And thousands of shinobi were forced into service under the new regime, their families taken into custody and used as hostages. Those who had been in high places were demoted, serving as nothing more than captains and lieutenants of the new shinobi force. Those who resisted were killed, and those who resisted and yet were valuable at the same time were given fates worse than death.
This was the beginning of the Hidden Poison, a blemish upon the face of the Elemental Countries.
In the depths of the Land of Fire, there was a place forgotten by the world. Buried deep amongst history, and hidden in the whispers of the past, amongst those who knew of its existence, at least nine out of ten regarded it as nothing more than a myth, an old wives' tale. If few knew of its existence and fewer realized fiction was grounded in fact, even fewer knew exactly where it was and what the true form of this mythical stadium was.
Hidden deep within the high, craggy peaks of the Furin Mountains, high enough to oversee the world, was where it was located. Nobody would ever look here for anything, being so far apart from the rest of civilization. It was the perfect hiding place; the perfect spot to put something meant to be kept out of careless hands.
Furinji Temple was located here.
Located in the deepest of forests, in the most rural of areas, and with no civilization within miles, it was perfect place for people who wanted to hide away from the world. It was the perfect place for those who had been shunned by society, those who did not fit into society, and those who did not want to join society. It was the perfect place for those people, yes, but that wasn't its main purpose.
It was the last remaining refuge of Budo, the martial arts, in the world.
The sun blazed as the air sweltered with the afternoon heat. The trees, which were coloured a ripe green, moved slightly in the breeze as the sounds from below came steadily, in a rhythm. The ground, consisting of earth and stone mixed together in rather rough patch of terrain, was conducting the warmth in the air very well. This was the area behind the main temple of Furinji, known to those who frequented it as the Courtyard.
Voices ringed through the air as bare feet stamped down on the rock and earth, their owners disregarding the heat as they practiced under the blazing sun. Each of them, no more than fifteen years of age at the maximum, had their legs stamped down on the ground, their arms held out in fighting positions. Each of them wore the standard uniform of the Furinji monks, clean white robes with black footwear that seemed to belong in some timeless fantasy. Beads of sweat dripped down from their faces, and each of them had their eyes narrowed in concentration.
There was quite a variety here, both boys and girls of different body shapes and sizes, yet there was one thing common to all of them. Their arms were taut with muscles, and their legs resembled horses in power and girth. Their eyes shined with a duality of burning fire and flowing water, and it was clear that they had all been here for a while now.
The man standing in the front, easily two decades older than the oldest of them, barked out commands with the ease of a military commander, and the young crowd followed them perfectly, having been trained with discipline. His eyes were brown, and remarkably clear. Dry hair was bound back in a knot, resembling a samurai of some sort. A scar went from below one eye to the other, giving him a distinct look.
"Fourteen!" he cried as he smacked his wooden pole against the ground.
In an instant, the crowd moved in perfect unison. From their horse-riding stance, they shifted forwards, delivering a swift kick made only faster by the way they shifted their back legs forwards, allowing the front leg to come up naturally into a lightning-like front kick. Then, they kicked off upwards with their other leg, turning three-hundred and sixty degrees in mid-air, delivering a strong roundhouse with their other leg along with a shout, before landing on the ground and quickly forming a cat stance.
The man in the front looked closely at each of their positions, leaving them like that for several minutes, before going back to the front and nodding. He raised his pole once more, and the faces of several students tensed up. The next part was going to be hard.
From the cat stance they had adopted, the crowd moved once more, forming a low block with their left arms, before putting one fist in front of another and pulling backwards, as though each member of the crowd had suddenly gripped an imaginary opponent's arm by the wrist. Turning back, they delivered a flying back kick which knocked their imaginary opponents' heads clean off, before landing once more, spinning their arms like a circle, and then hitting the ground with a sweep kick, standing upright once they had done so.
Iruka nodded as he watched the procession. The training of the children was indeed going very well; each of them showed ample spirit to learn, to develop, and to become stronger. They were all very well-trained physically as well, few of them crumbling under the afternoon heat. All in all, they were coming along.
He looked at the young boy at the back of the class, his stature showed him to be about twelve or so. Blonde hair stuck up against the earthy backdrop, and cerulean eyes reminded him simultaneously of both the sea and sky. Although he was at the back, it was not for reason of skill, but rather of age. If line-ups were decided through pure skill and dedication, Iruka had no doubt that the kid would be at the front, and leading by a mile.
Closing his eyes for a second, he found himself flung into the past.
"Look, Master..." said the large, white-haired man as he looked at the other figure in front of him, scratching his forehead as he did so. "Sorry for calling you to a place like this. I figure it's not what you're used to, but these are the only sort of places I know where we won't get busted and executed. I think you can get the feeling that I'm kinda desperate right now."
The light in the diner was dim, almost nonexistent. They sat at a booth, with a bowl of hot pot in the middle of the table. The interior was rather shabby, and the waitress that had sat them down watched them from the side, smoking as she did so. She was definitely not a good-looking woman. Perhaps she had been in the past, but now she was past her prime. Definitely not Jiraiya's type, anyhow.
"No worries, Jiraiya-dono," said the old man. His face was wrinkled, almost like a prune, and liver spots dotted the top of his bald, shaven head. His eyes were perpetually closed, yet any doubts about his eyesight were instantly washed away as his hand homed in on his teacup, which he brought to his lip. "Now, now... I do find it rather interesting that you've called me out here. Me of all people. The head monk of my home, Furinji Temple. What are you planning, Sennin-dono?"
Jiraiya shrugged, before looking around. The waitress clucked her tongue, obviously annoyed with how long they were taking to even browse through the menu. He wasn't worried about her.
"Yeah, sorry about that," said the Toad Sage as he looked into the old man's eyes. "Master Kensei, I heard that you know Gamabunta?"
"Indeed," said Kensei, not blinking an eye as he set his teacup down. His robes were plain and simple, the uniform of Furinji Temple. With his outfit and age, old even for a civilian, it was no surprise that he drew quite a bit of attention. Nobody really took him seriously in the streets, though. "Gamabunta-san... yes. I am acquainted with him. He has known me since I was a child, actually. I have had the pleasure of meeting with him several times."
What foolish assumptions humans could make, noted Jiraiya as he used his observational abilities, honed through years of peeping and shinobi espionage, to see what other people could not. Although the old man had no traces of Chakra about his coils, there was no doubting that his body, despite his advanced age and rickety limbs, were at the peak of physical fitness, even beating out most of the Jounin that Jiraiya had seen through his years. Although the old man was not a shinobi, Jiraiya had no doubt that he would be able to match a Jounin at least in skill, and without the use of Chakra while he was at it.
"He recommended you to me," said Jiraiya. "Said you're a really decent guy. I'm in a bit of a situation right now, and I think you're the only one who can help me out of it."
"Of course, those of Myobokuzan and Furinzan have always been close," said Kensei, smiling. "The same place, yet on two different planes of existence. We have always had good relations with each another. I will do anything I can to help a Toad summoner. Yet, I am uninformed. What seems to be the problem?"
At Jiraiya's side, a small figure sat, completely eclipsed by the giant stature of the white-haired Sennin. He was a child, of about perhaps ten years of age. Black hair was slicked back in a ponytail, and a bandage covered his face from beneath one eye to another. He was silent, lost in thought. In his arms was a bundle of blankets, hiding a baby within.
"You know about Konoha's fall?"
"I've heard of it, but disregarded it as rumour," said Kensei as he set his tea down once more from his lip. His smile was gone now, replaced with a frown. "Should I assume it to be true, then?"
"Yes. It's true," said Jiraiya. "We've been invaded, and taken down. The Sandaime's dead, and the Daimyo's been completely eliminated. Those who weren't able to escape have been enslaved by the Sound."
"I offer my condolences."
"It's fine, Master," said Jiraiya as he looked into the sky for a few moments, before collecting his head. He sipped at his own tea, before looking back at Kensei for a few seconds. "What's done is done; there's no turning back. There's nothing I could do about Konoha right now. No, I need to get out of this country before Orochimaru starts sending out troops to find me – skilled I might, I don't stand a chance against the entirety of the Sound plus Orochimaru himself. But, I don't want to leave these two alone. I can't take them with me, that'll be too dangerous. I want them to grow up safe somewhere they won't be affected by the bullshit that Orochimaru will be putting out."
There was a silence for several seconds. Just when Jiraiya thought that he had been rejected on the spot, however, Kensei opened his eyes just a smidgeon. Brown eyes poked out from under tired eyelids, eyes that spoke simultaneously of wisdom, strength, skill, and experience. It took only seconds for Jiraiya to be humbled, to realize that he was in the presence of a true master. The last time he had felt like this was when the Sandaime had been appointed Hokage, and that event had been bolstered by the fact that the Sandaime had been his teacher. This man, one he didn't even know, was able to invoke in him the same feeling with no more than the blink of an eye.
"You wish me to take them as disciples?" he asked, slowly.
"Yes," swallowed Jiraiya. "That's exactly what I'm asking."
Their food arrived, appetizers, mostly. Jiraiya had heard that the food of the Furinji Temple was similar to Iwa cuisine, and so he had gone out of his way to find a place where the food was good and where they wouldn't attract too much of the wrong sort of attention. It turned out that the food part, at least, was correct.
They ate a little, not much. Jiraiya didn't feel too hungry – he wasn't a large fan of Iwa cuisine, nope – so he merely sipped at his tea. The old master, too, concentrated mostly on his drink, although he did take a couple of shiu mai.
"That should be fine," said the old man. "Lord knows that we need more disciples."
Jiraiya almost couldn't believe his ears. Although it was what he was hoping for all along – Furinji would be the perfect place for them – he hadn't even entertained the thought of the old master agreeing to his proposal so quickly, and without even asking for reparations. There had to be some kind of catch somewhere – he didn't come this far in his espionage career without knowing how people worked.
"Yet, I must take a look at them," said Kensei. "If they do not pass the qualifications to become good disciples... Taking them in will be no more than a waste of time. I'm sorry – if it was simply up to me, I would take them in as normal children and let them live a life of peace, but I, before anything else, am the master of Furinji Temple. The purity of Budo cannot be disturbed in its one remaining home."
"I understand," said Jiraiya, swallowing. "This... this is Umino Iruka, and in his arms is my godson, Uzumaki Naruto."
At the sound of his name, Iruka looked upwards. His eyes were in a sort of daze, as though he still couldn't believe what had happened to his home. Jiraiya frowned, since he had found the kid, he hadn't said a word no matter what he had done. Dammit, if he didn't pass the test, then he'd have to drop him off somewhere; there was no way he could make it pass the border with a kid, and even if he did the dangers would only multiply from there on out. The kid would be dead within a week if they went together.
Kensei reached out his bony arms, and tilted the boy's chin towards him, his eyes looking into Iruka's own. The boy seemed to suddenly find a moment of clarity, as his eyes lost their muddiness and turned bright. It lasted for only a second, however, before they once again went back to their dull shine.
"In this boy... I see both potential and damage," said Kensei. "He is... strange. Something's happened to him, something very traumatic. It will take time for him to overcome it, but I can see that he will become a wonderful practitioner of the martial arts. There is clear water here, and a good seed. Given the sun's rays, he will grow into a magnificent tree. I will take him."
"As for the other..." said Kensei as he lifted the blankets. "Let me see..."
Iruka shook himself out of his stupor as he watched the students in front of him continue with their patterns. Kata. Forms. Whatever you called them, in whatever martial arts style you wished, they were more or less the same. It was rather interesting how so many different styles managed to develop something that was so fundamentally exact, but now was not the time to think along those lines. It was a good thing that he had trained himself to give commands even when his mind was occupied, as he watched the students finish the last movement of the forms and return to the starting stance.
He walked amongst them, looking at the places where they were standing. One of the fundamentals of martial arts was awareness of surroundings and self-control, and forms were meant to help with that. One was supposed to end a form in the same place they had started it, and Iruka smiled internally as he saw that most of the students had accomplished this feat. Those who didn't... Well, they were the ones newest to forms and the youngest, so this time he would forgive them.
After he had made his rounds, he returned to the front of the group. Turning to face them, he barked out a command.
They did so instantly, dropping their guards and putting their arms to their sides, closing their feet so that one could not see past their legs. They stood like soldiers, looking at him like their sergeant, and Iruka could not help but feel a little embarrassed at it. Strong he had become through Budo training, he still could not help but feel a little unworthy of the attention that these disciples gave him.
Yet, he did not show this on his face. Instructors, even teaching assistants, were supposed to be strong. Quick like the wind, silent like the forest... Destructive like fire, and steady as a mountain. In front of his students, he could show no weakness on his face, at least not while in the middle of training. So it was with great self-control that he belted out his next order.
They did so, turning their eyes down towards the ground. Many of the starting students did this wrong, turning their eyes up to their instructor as they did so. That was a symbol of disrespect, of not trusting their superior, and it was something that was quickly corrected. Without trust in the instructor, one's training would never truly work.
After a few seconds or so, they were up again. Iruka smiled as he watched them move. No energy was wasted, no motion made larger than it was supposed to be. It felt great to be teaching such a high-level class, rather than the other ones.
"Face senior belts! Ready. Bow."
They did so, turning towards the students at the front. They had different sashes around their waist, which were red rather than the blues and greens that the other students wore. Sash colour signified rank... They were the gauge by which time spent training was discovered. In the past, martial artists started out with white belts, which they never washed after donning for the first time. After years of training, of being knocked to the ground, of getting dirt and blood on their clothing, the belt's colour changed slowly, from white to yellow to brown and then, finally, after years of training and blood spilt, black.
That was the beginning of the legendary belt system, and although they nowadays didn't do it that way anymore, the rule of colours was still kept. Senior students passed tests and received their next level of belts, and then only once a student surpassed the coloured belts and received the black sash... Well, that was when the true training began.
Budo was a lifelong study, after all.
"Now, partner up!" cried Iruka as he tapped the stick on the ground once more. The students lined up to face each other, looking dead into each other's eyes. They were all familiar with this routine, and had picked fellow disciples who were similar in both size and stature. "Face your partner. Ready. Bow."
They did so, and settled into fighting stances right after. They were similar, yet subtly different. Each of them, although all students of Budo, were trained in different styles after all. It was only for confusion's sake that they had adopted similar stances. Weapons were best left hidden until they were required.
After the flurry of feet and fists had finished, and practice had ended, Iruka caught Naruto before the boy went off with the others to wash in the stream. The assistant instructor couldn't help but smile as he saw his fellow refugee's form, which was dripping with sweat all over. Naruto had taken off the top part of his robes, which were now drenched as though somebody had thrown a pail of water over his head.
The blonde disciple looked backwards at his instructor, wringing his robes out as he did so. Clear liquid dripped out of the cloth and landed on the ground with splatters, before starting to dry up quickly due to the swelling afternoon heat.
"Iruka-shishou, what's up?"
"Just wanted to congratulate you on a job well-done, Naruto," said Iruka as he smiled, rubbing the top of the boy's head. "I was a little worried about you coming to train with the others rather than being stuck in that class with only Kensei-sama all day, but it seems like you're fitting in fine."
"Hehe, that's right," grinned the blonde disciple as he finished what he was doing and threw his robe over his shoulder. He was wearing a simple pair of black pants with the characteristic black shoes of the Furinji temple. "Budo is all about being adaptable, after all, and this Naruto-sama is nothing if not a master of it all!"
Iruka ruffled his head playfully.
"Haha, right, right," grinned Iruka, his smile widening. Although one was not supposed to show weakness and soft emotions in front of a disciple, it wasn't really a rule that was enforced anymore except during practice. "I saw your roundhouse kick, you know. You've definitely improved on it a lot."
"You saw it?" grinned Naruto back. "I'm surprised, Iruka-shishou. The other guys could barely follow it at all."
"Well, that's the difference between a coloured sash and a black sash," said Iruka. "This thing tied around my waist isn't just for show, you know. It means I know a thing or two about Budo, and that you little coloured punks would never be able to beat me in a fight."
"Oh shut up, you're only third dan!"
"Hey, third dan is still higher than you!"
Coloured belts were below black belts, that was true, but once a practitioner earned the status of black belt... Well, that was just the beginning. From then on, now that the basics had been mastered, a whole new tier opened up. It was from only that point on that the disciple realized that Budo was a lifelong study, and that there was really no end to it.
Black sashes were ranked with dan, from first to twelfth. The first dan was the one that all black belts started off with, and the twelfth dan was almost quite literally impossible to achieve, considering it was to be the pinnacle of Budo achievement. Even the old master, Kensei-sama, had only reached ninth level by his own estimation. It only took third dan to be a teaching assistant, though, and fifth dan to become a fully qualified instructor. Master instructors existed from seventh dan and above, and only a few, countable on one hand, existed in Furinji temple.
"Jeez, now you've sidetracked me," said Iruka as he rubbed his forehead. "What was I trying to say...? Oh yes, I know. Naruto, Kensei-sama asked for you. He wants to see you in his chamber after afternoon practice."
"What's that old fart want with me?" asked Naruto as he crinkled his nose. "Can't it wait? I don't want to go around sweating like a pig. At least let me swim a bit in the stream before going..."
"No! Are you daft?!" asked Iruka as he drove a fist into Naruto's hair. The blonde boy gave a small cry before he landed on the ground butt-first, rubbing his blonde locks as he swore gently. "Kensei-sama is the one responsible for taking us in when this stuff all started out, you know?! He's the one who's been taking care of us all these years, treating us like his own children and teaching us martial arts. You're going to go see him right now, and for Nirvana's sake stop calling him an old fart!"
"I can't help it!" groaned Naruto as he cradled his bruised noggin. "I call 'em like I see 'em!"
"I'll make you see stars if you don't your ass in gear!" said Iruka, dragging his younger companion up onto his feet. He then turned him around in the direction of the main building, a temple built out of brilliantly red wood, and pushed him off. "Start moving!"
"Iruka-shishou, you slave-driver!" cried Naruto as he started jogging towards the main building, his white robes still draped over his shoulder. As he vanished up the stone stairs that led upwards, he shot one last remark back at his teacher. "You owe me a ton of ramen the next time that merchant cart comes by, you know! At least fifteen bowls!"
"Are you kidding me!? Do you know how much imported foods cost?!" cried Iruka back up the stairs. By this time Naruto was already out of eyesight, having vanished into the trees that hid the path, but the teaching assistant knew that the blonde-haired disciple could still hear it. "You know that selling bok choi doesn't make the temple a lot of money at all! Be more considerate!"
Iruka turned around, having finished his rant. Sighing, he closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. Already, he knew that he had lost; Naruto was simply too good at coercing people and getting what he wanted out of them, or at least he was too good at coercing him. He just knew that he'd be swindled out of all the money that he'd earn by selling the excess bok choi.
Why did the damn kid have to get addicted to something so unhealthy?
And expensive too?
Iruka wanted to cry.
The main building of Furinji temple was situated straight in the center of the compound, and towered over the rest of the structures. It was constructed of wood, painted red, and had been standing there for who knows how long. There were at least five floors with steepled roofs, and if one looked at it from the bottom there was no end to its majesty. It was a pagoda of reknown, or at least had been in the old world, before the advent of shinobi. It was known as the Furinji Pagoda.
Naruto went through the front gate, skipping up the steps and landing gently, making nary a sound. There were several other disciples on this level, but they were absorbed in their prayers and didn't even turn to meet his eyes. That was perfectly fine with him.
The first floor of the Pagoda was used for religious purposes, although Naruto himself wasn't a big believer in Buddhism. Golden statues were scattered around the floor, each of them a patron deity of a particular trait or kind of people. It wasn't something that he paid much attention to, but there were times he prayed to them if he had nothing to do. Although he didn't believe, he respected the devotion of others in the temple that did, after all.
He quickly skipped up the stairs to the second floor, and instantly the sounds of a workout reached his ears. Several groups of black belts were laid out in rows and columns, and were running through forms of their own. Although they were the same fundamentally as the ones that Naruto had been doing earlier, they were on a completely different level. The boy could not feel humbled but watch, but then he shook his head and continued on.
The third floor of the Pagoda was a large library, consisting of many ancient texts that had been preserved carefully over time by the people of the Pagoda. It wasn't something that Naruto was interested in, much like the rest of the floors in this place, but he had tried to read one before and realized just how ancient the texts were. Although the letters and characters were familiar, many of them didn't make sense the way he read it. It had been quite clear that they were ancient, before the modern language of their world had formed. Naruto had felt a strange sense of timelessness as he browsed through the book, trying to look for characters that he recognized. Furinji Temple truly was ancient.
The fourth floor was nothing really interesting, in Naruto's opinion. It was the place where the records were kept, where some of the top-ranking members of the temple kept track of what happened around the place. It was much like an office, although with a lot more interesting things in its decor. Birdcages lined the windows and the ceilings and even on some of the desks, and the floor was constantly filled with brilliant birdsong that brought the outside world in.
The fifth floor was where he wanted to go.
Naruto screeched to a halt as he reached the end of the steps, realizing he had gotten himself to his destination. Looking around, he stopped for a second to look outside, watching the happenings going on down below. Another group of students had taken their previous place in the Courtyard, this time being led by another black sash. They seemed to be a younger class, though, and most of their belts were from yellow to green. Hardly anything interesting to look at. Turning backwards, he was confronted with the view of a pair of large double doors, which stared out at him ominously.
The ominous feeling was broken instantly when the doors opened up, however, and the weathered figure of the head monk at the temple looked outwards at him. Even after twelve years had passed, Master Kensei didn't change at all. His eyes were closed, as they constantly were, yet he could still sense his presence.
"Naruto... Ah yes, I called for you. Please come in," said the old master as he turned his back to the younger disciple and walked into the chamber. Naruto followed him a second after.
The chambers of the master were located at the top of the Pagoda, in the Dragon Room, and when one was inside those chambers one could see why. Although it was furnished sparsely, much like the dormitory rooms that Naruto and the other students lived in, but that was where the similarity ended.
The entire room was a work of art carved out of wood. In the four corners of the room were wooden dragons larger than a grown man, carved meticulously and detailed like nothing Naruto had ever seen. Each of them held a separate orb in its mouth, inscribed with the characters for north, south, west, and east. On the ground was a large circle, and in the center of the circle was emblazoned the character for center.
This place was the center of the entire Furinji Temple compound, the center of everything. And fittingly enough, it was the master who lived here. Kensei sat down on a wooden chair he had pulled out, and took out a small wooden table along with a tea set.
"No thanks, old man," said Naruto. It was one thing to call him an old fart when he wasn't looking, it was another thing to call him an old fart in front of him. So he had changed it to the slightly less offensive old man. Kensei cocked a white, wizened eyebrow, clearly amused. "What'd you call me here for anyway?"
"I just wanted to know how you were doing in that new class of yours," said Kensei as he sipped at his own tea, which was green in colour. It was well-known around the place that the master was an aficionado of tea, and had even created his own blends, which were sold off along with the other products of the temple when the merchant came. Aside from the intricately sculpted figures that the more artistic of disciples made, his tea probably made the most money for the temple. "I imagine that there are some disciples who are a little jealous of your... special education, might I say."
"You mean being trained by you since I remember walking?" asked Naruto. He gingerly rubbed at his arm, remembering the training that the old man had put him through in his youth. He had become strong enough that those things didn't bother him anymore, but the memories still made him sore. "Didn't tell them that just yet. Iruka-shishou just told them that I skipped belts because of my abilities, that's all. Some of them looked at me a little funny, but that's about it."
"I suppose, in a sense, that is truth," said Kensei as he set down his cup. "Now, tell me. What do you think of the other students there?"
Naruto looked upwards in thought.
"Well, none of them can really match up to me," said Naruto as he thought about it. "A couple of the red sashes were pretty good, I saw during the spar, but other than that I'd probably be able to beat them easy. Iruka-shishou told me to go a bit easy though, so I did. Probably wasn't a good idea, since that Kenichi guy managed to give me a pretty bad bruise right... here."
He raised his arm, showing a slightly raised area of flesh that was turning a little pink. In time it would turn purple, and then green, and then it would clear up. For now though, Naruto was going to have to deal with a bit of pain.
"Good to see you're making friends," smiled Kensei. "You've definitely come a long way."
They sat in comfortable silence for a while, Naruto taking his time to look around the room. The place hadn't changed since the last time he had visited, now that he thought about it. The chairs and table seemed a little more worn, but that was about it. Even the bed was perfectly made, and Naruto could've sworn that the old man hadn't slept in it at all since the last time he had come around.
Kensei was thinking of different things himself. He looked at the form of his young student, one of the disciples that he felt the closest of personal connections with. Although the young man sometimes acted rashly and rudely, the old martial arts master nevertheless considered the boy much like a grandfather would consider a favourite grandson, even if all the disciples of Furinji Temple were his children. He, too, was lost in thought for a second, remembering their first meeting.
The silence lasted for several minutes more, before it became unbearable for Naruto to handle. He couldn't break it though, not with his usual attitude. Although he hid it pretty well, he had way too much respect for the old man to do something so brash. And so he waited, even though it was unbearable, because that's what a disciple was supposed to do.
At long last, he opened his mouth.
"Tell me, Naruto," said Kensei. "What is this temple to you?"
Naruto was taken back. Whatever it had been that he expected the old man to belt out, this wasn't it. His mind worked at miles per hour, trying to figure out what the guy was trying to find out, but no matter how he thought about it, it seemed nothing more than an inane question.
He tilted his head back, and looked towards the ceiling. Now that he thought about it, he had never been asked that question before, nor had he ever considered it in his head. Furinji Temple... what was it to him? As far as it could remember... it was the only thing he had ever known. Martial arts training, being educated by the monks, and working in the fields and with sculptures when money was needed and food was required.
What was it to him?
"Um... home, I guess," said Naruto, uncertainly. "Why?"
"I see," said Kensei as he looked into his tea. There was a silence of several seconds longer, before Kensei opened his mouth once more underneath that white moustache. "You have no idea how much joy your answer brings me, Naruto. Just remember... No matter what happens in life, no matter what kind of things go on, and no matter what goes wrong, Furinji Temple will always be home to you, as a child of martial arts."
Naruto looked at him quizzically for a few seconds longer.
"Now, you best be off," said Kensei as he crinkled his nose. "I can smell the sweat from here. Go take a dip in the stream now... There'll be plenty of time for talking later."
Naruto could not agree more. Jumping up, the young disciple gave the old master a reverent bow, something that all students did when they were dismissed by those in higher position.
"Thanks, old man," said Naruto, grinning.
"Go in peace, but before you do so," said Kensei, standing up as well. "Recite the five Budo Oaths and the five Budo Tenets. I want to make sure you've remembered them all."
"Of course," said Naruto. "For the Oaths: I shall observe the Budo Tenets, I shall respect instructors and seniors, I shall never misuse Budo, I shall be a champion of freedom and justice, and I shall build a more peaceful world. For the Tenets: Courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and an indomitable spirit! Is that all?"
"Yes, very well done," said Kensei. "Off with you now, then."
Naruto made his way out of the chamber after one last bow, and Kensei could hear the distant rumbling of his student's steps as the boy jumped down the stairs two at a time. The old man shook his head as he walked out of the chamber himself and onto the balcony, looking outwards over the Furinji Temple as he did so.
He tapped his wooden stick on the ground as he looked into the sky. The clouds today were moving slowly, yet aggressively. The sky, blue as it normally was to the untrained eye, was to him the perfect symbol of the dark shroud that was beginning to cover the temple. Although nobody else could sense it, he did. Something was starting, something was beginning. Something that would disrupt the ancient, solitary existence that Furinji Temple had cultivated and encouraged for so long.
He didn't know what was coming, except that it would bring change.
He didn't know when it would start, except that it would be soon.
He didn't know how it would end.
All he knew... was why.
Back in the diner, the table was silent. Jiraiya watched as Kensei observed the boy with his own eyes, which were covered in shadows. He could not tell what the other man was doing, what expression he had on his face. All he could do now was put things up to luck. After some time, much longer than when the old man had examined Iruka, the old master finally moved.
"What is with this boy?" asked Kensei as he put the blankets back down. His eyes, which had been clear and full of wisdom, were now troubled with something. His hands shook slightly as they went to his tea. "You... say he is your godson?"
"Yes," said Jiraiya, nodding. "He is."
"You must know his parents, then."
"Yes, I do," said Jiraiya, wondering where this was going. "What's the problem?"
"This boy," said Kensei as he gestured towards the child. "Is a myriad of possibilities, of unlimited potential. He will definitely become great, but I can't tell what kind of greatness it will bring. He's... not somebody who will be content with staying in solitude, of living life out on the fringes of the world. I wonder... if he'll truly be a good match for Furinji Temple."
"Are you saying you can't take him?"
Kensei fell silent, contemplating his tea, as though he was reading his fortune. Looking through the green-tinted liquid, he focused on the tea leaves without really seeing them. Although he was looking, he was also lost in thought, musing and pondering about the future and the possibilities contained therein.
"He will cause change to the temple," said Kensei. "He will never be happy there. He will leave one day, and go to do great things. Whether good or evil, I cannot tell, but nevertheless he will accomplish things. His potential is not something that should be left to chance. I will take him, and I will raise him up to be a great man, even if he ends up leaving our temple one day."
Jiraiya felt a great relief swell through his body as he wiped the sweat from his forehead. Although he felt a little bad for admitting it, his foremost concern was getting Naruto to safety, rather than both the kids. Now his primary concern was taken care of.
"Are you sure? I knew his father, and he was a bit of a handful when he was a brat too," said Jiraiya jokingly.
"I am sure," said Kensei, smiling as he looked at the bundle of blankets once more. "There are two paths open for people of greatness like him, the path of saving and the path of destroying. Rather than allowing him to become a rampant plague, a poison on the lands, I will mould him into a towering tree that will bear life. It is my responsibility, now that I have discovered him."
"Trees and poison, huh?" asked Jiraiya. "Life-giving and life-taking."
"Indeed," said Kensei. "Trees and poison."
As evening arrived and dinner was completed, the students found their free times. Those who were tired from practice, mostly students arriving from other classes who were not used to this intensity, went straight to bed, intent on resting their wounds and sores and planning on waking up tomorrow ready to get going with the next stage. For those who were finished with their workouts and yet still had energy to spare, now was free time for them.
The more intellectual of the students settled down in the small building at the side of the compound to read texts that they had borrowed from the third floor's library, educating themselves in history and the past. Some of them even pulled out boards, taking their turns with igo, shougi, xiangqi, and other such games. Naruto knew he could never hope to beat them in their mental battles, and so he looked for other ways to entertain himself.
Swimming was out of the question, as many of the younger students were doing at the moment. After a hard day's worth of discipline and other such things that did not suit the attention span of eight to ten year olds, they were relaxing by playing water fights in the middle of the stream. To an untrained eye they were merely doing what other kids normally did, and to them it must've seemed the same as well. Any of the black belts who had seen the outside world, however, knew otherwise. Their arms and legs, even in the water, moved with grace unbefitting a young child, and their movements were less like humans in water and more like fishes, as if they belonged there.
Naruto didn't want to swim, however, not today. He just didn't feel like it, and so he trudged towards the Courtyard once more, knowing that only the strongest of the coloured sashes remained on the stone-paved grounds. He descended from the stream, where he had washed himself and his clothing, and walked down the steps that lead to the Courtyard. The evening air left a pleasant sensation on his wet skin, and the setting sun gave the entire place an almost mystic atmosphere. Here, unburdened by the pollution and smog that civilization produced, the sky was truly breath-taking in its beauty, although regrettably Naruto did not see it. He had been here all his life, after all.
Standing on the stone grounds, he watched as a ring of about twelve to fifteen disciples formed around two combatants in the middle of the make-shift arena. One of them was a young man, about fifteen years of age. He had a red sash around his waist, and he was wearing the standard uniform which dripped with sweat. Brown hair was slicked with sweat, and the bruises on his body and the blood dripping from his chin spoke volumes about how long he had been spending in the ring.
The other was also a young man, although he looked slightly younger. Blonde hair was tied back into a ponytail, and although he was sweating much less, he was also much more bruised. One of his eyes were shut as a cut opened above it on his forehead, and from what Naruto could see he was going to fall down soon.
One of the boys at the edge of the ring welcomed him as he walked closer.
"Hey, it's that new kid," grinned the red-headed boy as he waved him in, opening a spot in the ring for him. Naruto wedged himself between the fire-haired boy and the girl beside him, who was completely absorbed into the fight. "Looks like you found out about the Ring already, what's up with that?"
"Kenichi told me about it," said Naruto as he watched the fight. "After the spar."
"Looks like you pass, then," said the red-headed boy as he turned back towards the battle. "None of us here really ever give out anything about the Ring unless we figure the guy's got a chance of surviving in it. Kenichi's one of the toughest guys to please, so you're gonna fit in just fine. Just watch the fight for a bit; wait your turn. I'm Wataru, by the way."
"Name's Naruto. Who's who?" asked Naruto as he watched, interested. "And what styles are they using? I don't think I've ever seen those before."
"Guy with the brown hair's Hiroshi, and the other's Daisuke," said Wataru as he crossed his arms. Naruto noticed for the first time the swelling on his arms; normally it would've been unnoticeable considering the length of his sleeves, but right now he had them rolled up. Apparently he had already gone a round or two in the ring. "Hiroshi... He uses Hakkyokuken. Daisuke's style is Keiiken. They're both pretty good fighters, but there's no way in hell Daisuke's going to take down Hiroshi. The guy's been in the ring for five fights already, and it doesn't look like he's going to drop anytime soon."
"Hakkyokuken and Keiiken," muttered Naruto as he watched, hooked immediately. He had heard about those from the old man before, when he had been teaching him about other styles. The old man had mostly referred to them by their archaic names, though, rather than their modern ones. "You mean Bajiquan and Xingyiquan?"
"Yeah, if that's what you call 'em," smiled Wataru as he watched the fight. Hiroshi took a step forwards, smashing his front foot onto the ground, letting off a resounding clap much like thunder in the distance, before thrusting his elbow forwards like a spear. "That's the quake step! Probably the most unique thing about Hakkyokuken there is. Hey kid, if this is the first time you see this you might want to take notes."
"What's that move for?" asked Naruto as he watched.
"The quake step is meant to transfer force and stability, as well as intimidate your opponent," grinned Wataru as he watched. He rubbed his shoulder slightly. "It works even if your opponent knows it's coming, because of the way you relax right before you stomp. Against a brawler, it's probably doesn't do much, but against a trained Budoshi like you or I it works very well. Watch."
Naruto continued observing as Hiroshi came down on his opponent like a raging storm. No matter what kind of defence Daisuke tried putting up, it was broken constantly through a combination of powerful quake steps, elbows, and shoulder strikes from the attacking force. The ground shook with each step that Hiroshi took, and Naruto could plainly see the leg strength that the brown-haired young man had developed in order to use his art effectively.
"This is a bad match for Daisuke," noted Wataru. "Hakkyokuken focuses hugely on offence, almost foregoing defence entirely in a real fight. There's a reason it's called the Art of Door Opening, you know. In Hakkyokuken, there are six different ways of breaking open an opponent's doors. Keiiken goes for offence and defence at the same time, but Daisuke's so focused on surviving he's completely forgetting about the offence part. This match is already decided."
"Wow, looks like you know a lot about this stuff," said Naruto as he looked upwards at the other boy. "You do a lot of research or something?"
"Can't help it," grinned Wataru as he watched on. "When you're going up against these guys day after day, sooner or later you'll start learning about their styles, even if you don't want to. Anyway, it's always good to know what kind of thing you're going up against. A fight's as much a physical one as a mental one, or at least that's what Kimiko-shishou says."
"Kimiko-shishou?" asked Naruto. "Who's that?"
"She's the black sash who manages this place and makes sure nobody gets hurt," said Wataru. "She's not here today, so Haruna over there's the temporary leader. She calls the shots, calling fights before they get too dangerous. Anyway, I think it's about time. Daisuke can't fight back anymore and – Yep, there she goes."
One of the few girls at the ring, a young lady with a head of luminous black hair, walked forwards a step and raised her hand. Immediately Hiroshi's assault finished, and Daisuke dropped his waist, taking his chance to breathe deeply. There was swelling on his body from where he had been hit by the other boy's fists and shoulders, and even a few cuts here and there from where he had been nicked by Hiroshi's elbows. He had been skilled enough to avoid any truly damaging injuries, however, and although he was done there was no doubt with a few days worth of rest he'd be back up.
Haruna walked forwards, and raised Hiroshi's hand up into the sky, provoking a series of cheers from the bystanders. The two combatants bowed, before Daisuke walked back into the ring dejectedly, welcomed by the others. Although he had lost, he had fought honourably and well, and there was no shame in that. One of the students, probably his friend, helped to hold him upright as he was absorbed into the surrounding circle.
"That's what goes on here," said Wataru as he continued watching. "The winner keeps fighting in there until he's been beaten, and the guy who beats him stays in there until he's beaten. It's training to see how long you can last."
"Man, that seems like so much fun," grinned Naruto. The fight had been exciting, even if it had been a little short. The reason for that was probably because he had come in during the middle, though, and now he couldn't wait to see the next fight. Although he had learned about the variety of styles from the old man, there was nothing quite like seeing them in action. He hadn't had a chance to do so during the practice today because it had been a general warm-up, so this was all new to him. "I can't wait to see who's up next!"
"Oh?" grinned Wataru, with a strange gleam in his eye. "Well, enjoy it then."
Hiroshi took up his position in the center of the ring, before looking around. It was clear that he was picking his opponent now, after he had defeated his previous one. His eyes went from one disciple to another, judging their levels of skill as he did so. His eyes finally came upon Naruto, and he raised his hand and pointed.
"You," said the brown-haired boy in a low, rumbling bass. "You'll be my next opponent."
There was a bit of murmuring from the other disciples as they realized for the first time that a stranger was in their midst, but quickly quieted down again when they saw Haruna's expression. Naruto's eyes widened when Hiroshi's finger fell on him, but he calmed down when Wataru's hand gripped his shoulder.
"Don't worry about it," said the red-headed boy. "It's a rule. The champion of the ring is supposed to pick a newbie. Since you were picked by Kenichi, that means you definitely got the skills. I'll be looking forwards to seeing your moves."
"Hehe, don't worry about it?" grinned Naruto as he tugged at the collars of his robes. "I'm not worryin' about it at all. I can't wait to throw down!"
Wataru grinned, and pushed Naruto out from where he had been standing. The blonde boy stumbled for a second, before recovering and walking forwards confidently, standing in front of Hiroshi, with about two meters worth of space in between them. The silence that had overtaken the crowd seemed to deepen, as the red light from the setting sun washed over the Courtyard. The cool evening air drifted from one direction to another, picking up speed several times and blowing Naruto's slightly-damp locks to and fro.
They stayed there like that for several seconds, as combatant took one another into their own eyes, looking for weaknesses and imperfections to exploit. Their sashes, Hiroshi's red against Naruto's blue, spoke only slightly about the differences in their experience and skill. Brown eyes met blue, and blue eyes met brown as they fought briefly within the recesses of their own minds.
Haruna's left hard flew into the sky, and the battle began.
The quake step was everything Wataru had said it would be, and more. The moment that the battle started, the ground seemed to shake under Naruto's feet – it was not until a second later that Naruto realized his arms, which he had thrown up in front of him in a clumsy cross-block, were bruised and that he had been thrown backwards several steps. He hadn't even seen his opponent move.
"Get a hold of yourself!" cried Wataru from the sidelines. "It's always like that when you start fighting for real. Unless you get your head in gear quickly you're going to lose!"
Naruto, caught within the moment, barely heard what the red-headed boy had called from the sidelines, but somehow he still registered it anyway. He dropped the clumsy guard, watching with his eyes this time, and the instant that Hiroshi dropped his leg and charged forwards with a punch Naruto sidestepped, before raising his leg into the air and dropping the heel onto his opponent's back.
The crowd went into murmurs at the sight of it. Although Naruto had reacted only at the movement, it seemed to the bystanders watching that he had been waiting for it all along. The first attack that the newbie had thrown out had managed to deal a heavy blow to their reigning champion.
"An axe kick!" grinned Wataru as he watched. "That's... that's Tekondo!"
"I don't know why you like using the modern names for these styles, Wataru," griped a nearby disciple. "Taekwondo sounds much better."
"Oh, shut your face, Yuuji."
Hiroshi hit the ground with a thud, somehow managing to grip the ground with his palms, before flipping up and landing on his feet once more, turning around, he looked towards his opponent once more. This time he was calmer, more observant. The unexpected move that Naruto had pulled off had shaken his expectations of this new challenger, and he trying to re-evaluate him.
Naruto would not give him the chance, however. He quickly spun around on one leg, turning his knee up against his opponent, before jumping into the air and delivering two powerful kicks, one after another, both aimed towards Hiroshi's head. The brown-haired boy would have none of that, however, as he gripped Naruto's leg in mid-air and threw him down harshly towards the ground. The blonde-haired boy had been prepared for it before hand, and quickly used his other leg to kick his entrapped limb out of the death-grip, before hitting the ground in a roll that allowed him to divert most of the damaging force into the ground through powerful slaps.
There were slight gasps from all around as they watched the battle. Wataru managed to capture the feelings of everybody in the circle when he exclaimed happily.
"Judo! That's Judo!" grinned the red-headed boy like a Cheshire cat. "That's the yoko ukemi! Damn, this kid uses a mix!"
"Goddammit, Wataru," cried out the same boy, Yuuji, who had admonished him earlier. "Shut up! We just want to watch!"
Naruto went back into a fighting stance, this time acting more cautiously. That had been a bad move, attempting a flying attack when his opponent had been more than prepared to receive it. It was impossible to change direction in mid-air, and he had paid the fee for not remembering that. Although he had diverted most of the damage through the yoko ukemi, his hands and body still stung from being pounded against the stone floor.
Now that he thought about it, he was at a great disadvantage. His opponent was older than him, and had definitely hit a growth spurt along the way somewhere. He himself was almost a head shorter, and considering that it was impossible for him to match ranges without being outmanoeuvred. He was at a heavy disadvantage, although it was made better by the fact that his opponent favoured arm attacks rather than leg attacks. There was nothing for it.
"Hey, weapons are allowed here, right?" asked Naruto.
It was Haruna who answered.
"Yes, they are," said the black-haired girl. "However, they may not be sharp. If you wish to use a sword or a spear, they must be wooden or dull."
"Alright, that makes me feel better," grinned Naruto.
The blonde boy bent downwards, looking for the entire world like he was ready to charge. Hiroshi narrowed his eyes, bringing his body together in a position that tightened his muscles, preparing to spring. If his opponent was preparing to start the attack, he would counter with an even faster attack that would take him off his guard. The essence of Hakkyokuken was the destruction of an opponent's doors, after all, there was no point in having his own doors broken.
He sprung, using his legs like springs, allowing an explosive boom to echo in the wide, open Courtyard, using the force to propel his elbow forwards. Although he did not expect his technique to hit, it would undoubtedly cause his opponent to back off, upon when he would be finished. Once somebody started backing off against Hakkyokuken, they were finished.
What he did not expected was a counter-attack.
Split seconds later, he realized that he had reeled back. His momentum, which had been going forwards the entire time, had been bounced back. The blow had hit his midsection, which was riddled with bruises already, causing him to stumble backwards, gasping for breath. He looked upwards, wondering just how his opponent had managed to make him fumble.
His answer was in the form of his opponent, who was moving around flamboyantly with a tree branch in his right hand that he had probably taken off the ground. He was hopping, skipping, and twirling around the place, looking for the entire world like he was in the middle of a dance. Had Hiroshi been trained poorly, perhaps he would've taken the dance as a taunt and reacted blindly, but as it was he knew better. The boy, although moving around in ways that hardly bespoke martial arts, kept his eyes on him the entire time. Whatever it was that his opponent was doing, it definitely had its uses.
He settled back into a fighting position, with his left hand in front of him and his right hand back, his legs settled into the horse-riding stance. Well, he would let him make the first move then, if only to see what he was planning on doing. Above all else, his faith in his observational abilities was not misplaced.
The boy did move, but it was in a strange, twirling way that was hard to describe. He moved forwards in a combination of a lunge and a skip, and spun on the spot, delivering a swift strike with the tree branch from the left. Hiroshi brought his right arm up to defend, tensing his muscles as he did so. Wooden boards had broken before him like doors against battering rams; he would have no problem defending against this flimsy branch.
The attack was not powerful, however. Before he had realized it, another two strikes landed on his arms, causing a stinging pain throughout his body. When he moved past the brief second of discomfort, however, Naruto had already retreated out of his range, still moving in that strange, flamboyant way.
"Hey, yo, Wataru," said Yuuji. "What's this?"
"I thought you said you didn't want me to say anything anymore?" asked Wataru, turning his nose up towards the sky. He would've closed his eyes, but he didn't want to miss what was happening here. The boy was a gold mine of different Budo styles, there was no way in hell he would miss even one second of this awesome fight. "Nah, I'm just kidding. I know what this is."
"What is it then? Huh?"
"Well, its name is really weird, but apparently it started out as a form of self-defence with the tools they had on hand at the time," said Wataru. "I don't really remember the name... Oh wait, yes I do. This is Canne de Combat!"
That was enough, Hiroshi decided. As long as his opponent had that branch, there was no easy way for him to get closer without getting hit, and there was no way for him to defend against his opponent's moves. That left only one option for him; breaking that infuriating weapon.
To that end, he prepared his step in the same way he had done before, closing his body and tightening it, preparing for a powerful spring. Through the gaps in his arms he could see the blonde kid preparing himself, stopping his flamboyant movements for a split second as he prepared himself to be attacked. It was that split second that Hiroshi charged, stomping on the ground as hard as he could, sending out a shockwave that disoriented even a couple of the bystanders. As he moved, he could see the branch coming.
Closer... Ever closer...
It was in reach.
Turning around in a split flash, Hiroshi stopped his movement, bringing his back arm down in a movement that was quite distinctively Hakkyokuken, dropping his opponent's arm and putting the branch where it was in sight and an easy target. Bringing his forward arm back, he let off another quake step in the split second that his opponent was stunned, bringing his back arm forwards in an open palm strike capable of breaking concrete.
The branch stood no chance, being eradicated much like precious china in front of a rampaging elephant. Instantly, the weapon that Naruto had been using to compensate for the difference in range was eliminated, and Hiroshi noted with an inner smile that there were no other branches of usable size around. He had removed his opponent's sole weapon against him, and now all he needed to do was take victory with his own two hands.
Wait... something was wrong.
The boy's face had never been a perfect poker face, but he had guarded his expressions well in the course of the fight, never revealing when he was cornered and when he was attacking. So how come there was a shit-eating grin on his face now, like a tiger that had just managed to take down a deer or a cat that just caught the canary? Was there something he was missing...?
Hiroshi's eyes widened as he considered it.
The branch that he had destroyed... It had been meant for compensation. Compensation for what, exactly? Range, of course, that was to say distance, since his limbs were longer than the kid's. He had a greater effective range than the boy, so the boy had made up for it through adding on attacking distance with artificial measures.
As he considered it, Hiroshi's eyes widened at the realization.
He... he had stepped in.
He had given up his greatest weapon, that distance, to destroy the object that was granting his opponent the means to neutralize the advantage, and while he had done so he had put himself in harm's way, right in the middle of the boy's attack range, and now that he was completing his attack, there was no way he could move.
He was a sitting duck.
The first fist that collided against his midsection was weak, but the moment he was hit Hiroshi knew what was coming. The way that the boy had attacked, with a vertical fist that was both direct and quick, was exactly the same as a punch he had suffered from another challenger in a previous fight, the characteristic move of Wing Chun, or Eishunken. He knew about the moves that would follow; the combination of close-range techniques that Wing Chun was famous for.
They came like building rain, soft at first and then speeding up and powering up. The first two punches landed on his midriff like little pebbles, merely pushing him backwards slightly, not really damaging him all that much. The next two punches were stronger, causing him to gasp slightly and curl inwards. The next two punches were even heavier, and he felt as if somebody was pounding stones into his stomach. The last punch, however, took the cake.
Later, when he recalled the fight, he would've sworn that he had been hit by a sledgehammer.
Hiroshi collapsed onto the ground with a huge gasp, his knees touching the stone-paved ground and his arms in front of him, breathing deeply. His face turned slightly green, and he made a motion as if he was planning on speaking, before turning downwards as his face took on a pale tinge. Each of the students knew what was coming.
Before Hiroshi had a chance to unload his dinner onto the ground, a couple of the other students ran in and gripped him, holding him softly and patting his back. One of the students had with him a metal pail, which he set under the brown-haired teen's mouth, and not a moment too soon, either.
Hiroshi was quickly taken away after the spectacle by a pair of students, as another took the pail to the nearby washroom where they would get rid of the foul combination that was now contained within. Haruna stepped forwards, and took Naruto's hand into her own. With a slight smile, she raised his hand into the air.
"What's your name, boy?"
"Na... It's Naruto!" grinned the blonde boy, smiling like an idiot. He wiped away the sweat that had gathered on his forehead. That had been really different, completely different than the sparring that he had participated in with others during the general practice session. The ferocity of his opponent's Hakkyokuken still had him shaking at the knees, and he was sure if the old man hadn't drilled discipline into him at every chance he got he would've broken down in the middle of the battle.
Only, now after the battle had concluded, did he realize how close the fight had truly been. He had been outmatched in both fighting experience and distance, and somehow he had still managed to pull out a win against the reigning champ. It was true that the guy had been exhausted from his previous fights, as the sweat on his robes clearly showed, but nonetheless he had managed to do it! Those near misses from those elbow blows had given him cold sweat!
"Shousa... Naruto!" cried Haruna, as the circle erupted into cheers and frenzied clapping.
"Holy shit, it's over," noted Wataru, eyes wide. Whatever he had expected, it had not been for the new kid to take down Hiroshi, exhausted or not. That red sash was the king of the Ring, after all. He won more times in a row than any other kid in the circle did. The last time that a newbie had managed to take down the king of the Ring... Well, as far as he could remember, that was never. "Man, smart play with the Eishunken at the end there."
"Tell me about it," said Yuuji from the side, crossing his arms. "I tried the same move today against Hiroshi, but he managed to deflect it because I was standing too far. If it wasn't for the branch he was using, I don't think he would've made it."
"True... but that was smart," said Wataru. "Eishunken was developed by a woman to beat a man, after all. To make up for the lack of distance and muscle strength, it's totally aggressive and dangerous in close-quarters combat. I'm surprised the kid didn't knock him out."
"Hiroshi's tough like that, even though I think he'd rather be knocked out. Those punches tend to stay with a guy, too," said Yuuji, blanching as the smell of the pail neared him. "Ugh. And for God's sake, just call it Wing Chun, will you?"
"I'll call it what I want!"
As the cheering died down, Naruto found himself standing in the center of the ring. His uniform, that had been so recently washed, was starting to get stained with sweat again. There was a reason that Furinji robes were built to be hardy, after all, and even then most students had to get new ones every couple of months or so. Naruto looked around, suddenly realizing that he was in a different situation now.
Just as Haruna was about to walk back into the ring, Naruto gripped her by the arm. She looked down quizzically, before finding herself softened by his confused face.
"What is it?"
"Um, what... Er, what am I supposed to do now?"
"What kind of question is that? You pick somebody, and you fight them. Keep doing that until you lose," said the girl with a smile. "Oh yes, try to pick everybody equally. There's no point in fighting somebody who's already worn out, and people who don't get picked get a little stir-crazy. I'll leave it to you, then."
Haruna walked back into the ring, and for the first time Naruto realized what had happened. He had taken out Hiroshi, who had been the king of the Ring, and so he was the one who had to pick the challenger now. Looking around at the crowd of eager faces, each one so plainly wanting to duke it out with fresh meat, Naruto couldn't help but gulp audibly.
Wataru grinned from the side.
"Oh, pick me, pick me!"
Darkness fell as the students retreated to their respective rooms, some of them nursing wounds that others had inflicted (Hiroshi cursed the heavens as he vomited all over the toilet bowl – the Ring took place after dinner, which, now that he thought about it, was a horrible, horrible idea), some of them griping about missing a chance to fight (Wataru flipped over on his bed as he brooded, thinking silently about how the kid had skipped over him while choosing opponents), and even others grinning as they fell asleep, despite the bruises and sores (Naruto snored happily).
Not one of them noticed the bird flying in the air high above Furinji temple, a species that did not belong there in the mountains. Iruka looked up momentarily from where he was sweeping the floor, sensing something strange, although nothing could be made out against the backdrop of the darkened clouds. He narrowed his eyes for a moment, before shrugging and going back to sweeping. The Courtyard would have to be perfectly clean for tomorrow morning's exercise.
Against the darkened clouds, change had come.
The bird, swooping about in mid-air, took in all the information about Furinji Temple it could through avian eyes, swooping down gently here and there, making sure that none of the inhabitants caught as much as a glance of it. Its body was almost midnight black, the perfect camouflage on this moonless night. Every now and then it covered up a patch of twinkling stars, but aside from that there was no indication of its presence, much less its existence.
It flew strangely, less like a living being and more like a construct, yet its movement was so graceful and beautiful that its motions were less like those of mechanical origins and more like those of a work of art.
After about ten minutes in mid-air, the avian figure swooped downwards, keeping low towards the ground, quickly making its way out of the vicinity of the temple. Taking advantage of the supremacy of wings in the air, it travelled through the branches of trees and in the low foliage, as though enjoying the thrill of encountering danger in a place where danger did not exist. The backdrop of branches and leaves flew past it like a barrage of arrows, although it never hit as much as a leaf.
Within minutes, it was out of the forest, and was launching itself up towards the air. The clouds parted, revealing the moon from within, and subsequently the landscape was awash in silver light. The bird, illuminated, revealed its true structure.
It was mechanical in nature, painted a midnight black. Where a real bird's eyes would've been, there was nothing more than a small, light blue lens, ostensibly connected to a camera. Four wings sprouted from the main body, each lined with midnight black feathers that rode the wind like flower petals. On the back of the robotic critter was a small patch of metal, much like the ones commonly found on shinobi hitae-ates.
The symbol was that of a broken spiral, trapped within a cloud of smoke.
It was the symbol of Dokugakure, the Hidden Poison.
As it moved towards its destination, it was joined by a flock of other, similar creatures. They drew together, like birds of a feather, as they created a beautiful pattern in the middle of the night sky. It was too bad that nobody could see it, however.
Two... three... five... ten... twenty...
They spread their wings, and blazed across the landscape.
"You got a fix on the location, then?"
There was no fire in the middle of the camp, not even a trace of one. Three figures sat around the clearing, two of them seemed hardly even alive. The third one was working on a set of machinery in the middle of the clearing, with electronic equipment spread out around her, as her fingers flew across the keyboards.
They had picked a good spot if their goal was to remain unseen. The trees were high, and the leaves let no light through. Almost no light reached the forest floor, which they took advantage of by dressing in all black. The darkness of the forest seemed to welcome them like its own children, embracing them and allowing them into the midnight cloak that it had spread out across the woods.
The third figure looked up, revealing a head of blonde hair as well as a tattoo mark around her left eye in the shape of a butterfly. She removed the pair of headphones that covered her ears, letting them drop to sit on her collar. Her clothing, a rather inviting two piece outfit, seemed to conduct itself towards stealth and espionage in total darkness.
"Yeah. Got it," she said in a gentle soprano. Her eyes, a greyish-blue that reminded one of defiled waters and rainy sky, were focused sharply on something in the monitor before her. "I got a lock on it... Seems like nothing more than a bunch of hermit monks to me. Looks like that merchant was lying to us."
"Hmph," said the second figure, the one who had spoken before. He was a huge, bulky bear of a man, his face almost completely covered in black cloth. There was a strip of skin laid bare around his eyes, but they too were mostly hidden by the pair of round shapes that he employed, apparently to keep his identity hidden. "What do you expect? We've taken out all of the hidden villages in Fire Country already; it's impossible to think that we've missed one."
"Well, I guess that means we had the right idea in killing him," said the first figure, grinning as he did so. His hair, pure midnight black, was swept back into a ponytail, and his clothing brought to mind the image of a soldier. A headband covered his eyes. "Pity that he had nothing good with him, though. Just a truckload of bok choi and a couple of useless sculptures... They were useful for firewood, though. What's the place look like, Tsubame?"
"Nothing special, just a couple of monks," said the woman as she looked downwards. "Looks like they practice a little bit of Taijutsu, but it seems like it's just something to keep them fit. They're nothing compared with ninjas; not even ninja academy graduate level. Why, Hayabusa?"
The first figure, Hayabusa, strode over to where Tsubame was sitting. Bending downwards, he checked out the video footage that displayed on the monitor. Moving images, scenes of Furinji Temple... Even what seemed to be a young monk sweeping the temple grounds.
"Hm... this place looks pretty wealthy. Look at that building over there," said Hayabusa as he stroked his chin. He waved to the large man to the side, the mountain of muscle. "Hey, yo, Fukurou. C'mere and see."
The large man walked forwards, his shades glinting with the dim light that the monitor was giving off. Taking his hand out of the pockets of his large overcoat, he fixed his glasses for a second, before staring into the monitor.
"Looks rich, you mean," grinned Hayabusa. "I know these ancient temple types... They're always filled with riches and treasure unlike anything else you've ever seen. Relics of the past, and all that bullshit. I don't care much for history, but these are things that'll fetch a pretty penny on the market, and might even get us some favour with Danzou-sama, too."
"You think?" asked Tsubame as she looked up hopefully.
"I don't think," said Hayabusa as he grinned. "I know."
Gleeful smiles appeared on the faces of the teammates, although Fukurou's was barely more than a slight upturn at the edges of his lips. Hayabusa turned from where he had been standing, going off to the side, carefully observing a tree through the headband that covered his eyes.
His hand inched forwards, and landed on the side of the tree softly. Gently he rubbed at the bark, enjoying the rough sensation underneath his gloved hand. Then, he pulled his arm back slowly, so that it was about a meter back from the trunk. Then, looking at his fist, he declared gently...
"We haven't had a chance like this in a long time, guys, so remember..."
In an instant, he tensed. His knuckles bulged and the veins in his arms popped up, giving him the appearance of one hopped up on performance-enhancing drugs. Stepping forwards, he swung his fist like an athlete tossing shot-put, smashing his arm into the tree with all of his might. The thick trunk shuddered, and the foliage above shook like no tomorrow. A giant indentation had been left in the bark, the knuckle marks going in at least five inches.
The leaves, shaken, gave way to the light that came down from above. Rays illuminated the clearing, if only slightly, but it was more than enough to illuminate the symbol that was emblazoned on their hitae-ates.
A broken spiral caught within a poisonous cloud.
"...We, of the Hidden Poison, always get what we want."
Under the slight moonlight, his grin seemed to reek of madness.