Naruto Genkyouien

- ナルト- 威宴

Interlude: The Girl Who Is Loved By Flames

This is a story from thirteen years ago.

It was a fine night, cold despite the ward that blesses Higashiyama's Shrine Realm with good weather most of the year despite its location at the top of a mountain. The end of the year neared, according to the calendar of humans. It was the longest night of the year: the winter solstice.

Yet, in spite of the cold weather, the Great Clan of Higashiyama had gathered outdoors that evening, for it was a night of celebration. A large bonfire, taller than any of the kitsune present, had been placed in the middle of the central courtyard to keep them warm. A circle of smaller flames outlined the courtyard as well, and Higashiyama Yurine had picked one of them as to prepare all sorts of tasty treats. Wide hips swayed alluringly while she was at work before the grill, followed by five caramel tails.

Away from the rest of the clan, Higashiyama Yuria tried to fight sleep by keeping some distance from the warmth. In contrast, Higashiyama Yuriyo and her aunt Yurisa danced to the energetic rhythm of Higashiyama Yurimi's koto, accompanied by the twin sisters', Yuriko's and Yurika's, encouraging claps. Higashiyama Chiyuri laughed boisterously while under the effects of alcohol, her astoundingly long twintails bobbing merrily together with her bountiful chest. Her mother, tall and regal Himeyuri, watched her with some concern, torn between restraining her daughter and taking her eyes off the younger youko to refill her mother's and Kurosaki Sayoko's sakazuki.

There was a very special guest that evening. It was her second time inside the kitsune shrine proper, but after that evening she would be a guest no more, to become a permanent resident of Higashiyama Shrine.

That guest reposed quietly in Higashiyama Yurina's arms. A fox, its fur lustrous like golden threads.

It was the evening of Higashiyama Sayuri's hundredth birthday.

She had lived one hundred years as a completely ordinary creature; a placid, mostly tranquil life within the confines of the fenced area within Higashi Mountain prepared for the offspring of the clan during their first century of existence. She had grown, played, hunted and mated, like any fox was wont to do, and finally reached the twilight of her life as an animal. Like every fox who reached the century of age, that evening Sayuri would transcend her animal status to become youkai. It would be a literal rebirth: the fox in Yurina's arms was by all means an old vixen, who would become a newborn kitsune.

And thus, Higashiyama celebrated, for another of its lilies was about to be born. The next day, they would descend to the village on the slopes of the mountain, to share their joy with the lesser members of their clan and partake of the celebration they would prepare in honor of the new Higashiyama princess.

Naturally, the many bonfires that lit the shrine that evening served a practical as well as a symbolic purpose. That fox's (and Yurimi's) father was Shiranui Hisaki, head of the second fire-attuned kitsune dynasty after the Great Fire Clan of Kaenko. It was a courtship born of political interest as well as physical compatibility: Yuri and Hisaki wanted the other's powerful genes as much as the enjoyment of each other's bodies. Hisaki gained three very talented male offspring: Shiranui Takahi, Isamu and Kurama. While Higashiyama Yurimi's fire affinity could not be lower, her talent with the Spirit Arts of Higashiyama was the greatest since perhaps the First Matriarch.

Yuri had very high hopes for the new and upcoming lily.

A rustle from the trees beyond the separate buildings which housed the lilies drew the older kitsune's attention. Yuri and Sayoko turned their attention away from the alcohol and the dancing with unusual tension in their gazes, but quickly settled down once they saw it was one of their own.

The people who had never noticed Higashiyama Mayuri wander off in the first place watched her enter the circle of flames, offhandedly grabbing a beef skewer from the snacks table before settling down on the grass near Yuria. The Matriarch glanced up at the stars, needing only a few seconds to estimate the time.

"My girls, it is almost time," she said, clapping twice to get everyone's attention. The music and dancing stopped and even Yurine looked away from her outdoors kitchen, a piece of lettuce dangling comically out of her mouth.

The group gathered to witness the important event and Yurina placed the fox on the grass before her feet. Sayuri, despite being a wild animal, was plenty accustomed to the current company after a hundred years of regular meetings, and thus did not react warily to the sudden attention and the fact it was pretty much surrounded.

There was not much in the way of tension, and excitement was also rather suppressed. It was not something any of the kitsune present had not witnessed before—even Mayuri had seen such events through her visions. So, this was not some sort of amazing spectacle, but simply the important arrival of a new family member.

The fox that was Sayuri paced around idly, sniffing the air and feeling the cold breeze on its whiskers. It paced around, seemingly aimlessly, but they knew it was simply looking for a place to lie down. Some of them even remembered the weariness, the heavy feeling that accompanied the moment before the transformation. Perhaps it was something like death: the old fox looking for a place to settle down and find repose one last time. It was something of a tradition to try and guess where the "dying" fox would lie down; although about half of all kitsune-to-be sought the warmth of their mothers if they were present.

When it became clear that Sayuri wished to step out of the circle of kitsune which surrounded her, Yurina and Yuriyo opened a gap for the small quadruped to step through. Most animals are afraid of fire, and the fox was no exception; her steps traced a cautious circle halfway between the outer ring of bonfires and the large fire in the center. The kitsune could see the vivid flames reflected in Sayuri's tiny eyes, and her ears twitching in unison with the creaking of the burning wood. She froze when a shower of motes of flame jumped out of the large bonfire, something that made the tipsy Chiyuri giggle.

The weariness was followed by drowsiness, and indeed Sayuri's eyelids began to inch downwards against her own wishes. That was when, surprising the youkai—except perhaps Mayuri—, the centennial fox walked towards the largest flame, sniffed it once for whatever reason, and finally allowed herself to settle down next to it.

More minutes passed. Yuri feared that a stray tongue of flame might come to harm her youngest lily, but such a thing did not happen. Everything occurred as expected. As Sayuri drifted off to her final sleep as a fox, her chakra, the amalgam of her physical vitality and the sum of her century of experiences and natural abilities as a wild creature, began to pour out of her body. At first, it was a gentle trickle, like the condensation of air on a glass full of cold water. It became a cloak that further warmed the fox's body, until it eventually began to pour out in earnest, to the point it became visible to the naked eye. But it was no longer just Sayuri's chakra—an animal's chakra capacity is not very large, not even that of a hundred-years-old creature. It was the world around her showering Sayuri with chakra, as if acknowledging her as a creature closer to nature than any ordinary animal. The nature chakra would fully envelop her, mix with her own chakra and reenter her body, reshaping it into that of a true youkai.

That was when things got a little unusual.

"Uwah!" Such was the exclamation amongst the most expressive of the lilies—although, in Yurine's case it was closer to "Hawah!"—when the central bonfire suddenly rose in a thunderous blast, reaching for the sky until it was three of four times taller. The flames growled and hissed and roared like a beast, and then expanded until Sayuri was swallowed.

"Sayu—!" The Matriarch found herself stopped the moment she got on her feet. Her eyes fell on Sayoko, who had never stopped staring at the conflagration. The Silver Lily's eyes showed the urgency of one who was witnessing the death of her own offspring, but the Void user calmly shook her head.

Yuria, too, was looking down at the tiny hand that clenched her own the moment she tried to leap to save her sibling. The owner of that little hand was Higashiyama Mayuri, who gently urged Yuria to settle down once more.

"Uwawawah…the others too…!" Yurina called out to bring notice of the smaller bonfires that made a ring. Those, too, had grown louder and taller, becoming conical columns of flame like fingers reaching for the heavens. But it was the one at the center, the one which had swallowed Sayuri, that surged like an awakened evil god of flame and disaster. While the flames in the outer ring grew brighter and clearer, moving towards the hotter side of the spectrum, the central flame became darker, redder and somehow thicker, like a viscous flow rather than a manifestation of energy. It swirled and rose and spiraled, its growing form a spectacle no natural flame could perform. As it ascended even further, the bonfire became a tornado of flames, and the kitsune found themselves taking a step back in trepidation. However, had anybody asked them just why they had flinched in unison like that, they would have been hard pressed to reach a consensus.

"Wha…ugh…" Yuri uttered with a bitter voice. A droplet of sweat slipped down her throat and followed the curvature of her bust to disappear in the depths of her cleavage.

The fear they experienced was not really fear of the flames reaching them. Nonetheless, it still filled them with a feeling of dread; an intrinsic awareness that this flame was a threat beyond what a flame should entail. That perhaps it would leap at them like a hungry tiger and tear them apart before turning them into ashes.

"Wha…wha…?" Yurisa's voice seemed frail and desperate, and motherly instincts forced her to push her daughter and the other younger kitsune behind her back.

A flame that was more than 'just a flame'. A maelstrom of flames which carried a dire presence beyond its chaotic fury.

It was 'an enemy'. An enemy of Higashiyama.

An enemy of the world itself.

"Bu-but…that…that doesn't…make sense…" Himeyuri mumbled, shaking her head to dispel those strange, dire thoughts and the senseless instinct that warned her to fear and oppose this flame with the entirety of her power. It was not the dire, threatening presence of a nine-tailed kitsune, for those were accompanied with the majesty of a Bodhisattva and the hopelessness of the encroaching Void. It was something that answered to no emotion. Something like a plague.

The mother of all plagues: incurable, unpreventable, unstoppable.

And Yuria, who stubbornly refused to acknowledge the pathetic shaking of her entire body and the threnody of her chattering teeth, spoke the feelings of all present.

"Somebody, please! Make this stop!"

And then, the tornado of flames fell apart, exploding like a balloon, with one last deafening roar that pushed the weaker and clumsier lilies until they fell back on their butts. At the same time, the ring of ascending pillars of flame stretched further, so tall it seemed they could touch the stars, before finally receding and dispersing harmlessly, the ring of flames exhausted in full.

But the kitsune of Higashiyama only had eyes for the trails of flame gently dancing in the air; the remnants of that inexplicably terrifying vortex of flame turned swaying will-o'-wisps fluttering around like fireflies in summer. It was a beautiful scenery, in contrast with the soul-crushing phenomenon from mere seconds earlier; a lightening feeling of peace in opposition to that predatory feeling of imminent doom just before. It made the lilies question what they had just experienced, and wonder about the reason behind that irrational fear that overcame all temperance.

And in the midst of it all, a tiny newborn baby laughed merrily; her petite, human-like hands eagerly reaching for the dancing wisps of flame.

Interlude – END