The village elder was an old man, dressed in a simple gray hakama and sitting cross-legged on a tatami mat. A cup of steaming herbal tea was resting in front of him. His head was bald, his eyes seemed to be closed, face covered with wrinkles and liver spots and a long beard of stringy white hair. He seemed to be a man in his mid to late eighties, and so Itachi guessed that he must have been one of the first settlers to this outpost in the far north of the Land of Fire.
Flanking him on either side were another two elders of the village, both men and both seemingly as old as the one in the front. They wore the same coloured hakama, sat cross-legged on the tatami mats. One seemed to be younger, for he still had hair even though it was pure white and his dark eyes were looking at Itachi with suspician. The other seemed as old as the village leader, his beard was trimmed shorter and his hair was white and stringy but he had an air about him that told Itachi that he was not helpless and the katana placed to the side cemented the thought in his mind.
The old village leader spoke up, nodding his head in a small bow as his words escaped him, old and raspy. "It is good to see that Shinobi from the Hidden Village have finally come, although I was hoping for a few more."
"I assure you sir," Itachi spoke up, bowing his head to show his knowledge of the station this man held; "That for a group of bandits and slavers we will be enough."
"Hmm, true, true," the elder nodded, folding his arms. "I am the leader of this village, Oda Takahara and these two are my advisors and fellow elders Kenshin Kagemura and Saru Matsumoto. We have been the elders of this village since its founding some forty years ago."
Itachi nodded to each elder, who returned it tautly. "I assure you that we will remain until this problem has been resolved. Please tell me what you know of your attackers, have there been any survivors or has any witnesses?"
Takahara shook his head, "The enemy comes in the dead of night, and uses the night to hide themselves so as not to be discovered. The attack on the Namakura last night was the closest they have dared tread near the village proper. Before then they struck at work crews returning home from the mines, nightshifts mostly, and a week later they began hitting the outer farms. There are always no survivors."
"Perhaps some of the men on the walls last night caught a glimpse of whoever the attackers were," Itachi muttered to himself.
"There have been... rumours spreading since the attack last night." Kenshin said with a heavy sigh. "Some of the men on the walls reported seeing shapes at the edges of the flames, shapes that did not look human."
"A trick of the light, nothing more," Saru scoffed lightly. "It is obviously the work of bandits. I will not allow these rumours of monsters striking in the dead of night be believed. The people are scared enough as it is, Kenshin."
"I am simply informing our new protectors of as much information as possible, Saru." The old Samurai replied calmly. "We do not want our new protectors to leave the defences of the village without knowing as much as we can tell them."
"Humph," the other man huffed in supreme annoyance. "You say that now, Kenshin, however you continue to protect that woman. All other humans have been attacked and yet she remains alive and seemingly well in that shrine!"
"Enough," Oda barked angrily. "This bickering is getting us nowhere. The danger to the village is still very real!"
Itachi remained silent the entire time, "Please, tell me about this woman?"
"There is not much to tell," Kenshin replied with a frown. "There is a shrine atop the mountain. It had been there since before the villagers settled here, and until around the decade ago it had been tendered to by three old shrine maidens of Inari."
"Hmm," Itachi hummed as he took in the information. Inari was a goddess of the Shinto religion, known to be the patron Kami of fertility, rice, agriculture, industry and worldly success. It was said that the goddess appeared before many a blacksmith, aiding them in creating a legendary sword. Inari was also said to be the patron kami of foxes, some believed that the goddess was a fox herself.
"When your village was attacked by that nine tailed demon the shrine maidens vanished without a trace, no one knew where they had disappeared too or why." Saru scoffed lightly, folding his arms. "Then about six years ago a young shrine maiden wandered into our village, asking for directions to the abandoned temple. When asked as to why she replied that she was going to take over its upkeep."
"Does she come down often?" Itachi asked.
"Once or twice a month to barter supplies and listen to village gossip," Oda replied simply before turning to Saru. "She really was a sweet young lady, always willing to listen. She even plays with the children. I don't see why you are so hostile towards her Saru."
The old man huffed, "You are too trusting, Oda."
"She's probably fallen victim to whatever's out there now anyway," Kenshin sighed. "She hasn't been seen or heard from in a month."
"May I have directions to this temple?" Itachi asked. "Perhaps, if she is still there, she may have seen who has caused this strife to your village."
"If she's even still alive," Kenshin muttered heavily. "A pretty young thing like that would probably fetch quite a price in a slave market."
"If she hasn't been working for them all along," Saru snapped.
"She has been here for just over half a decade, Saru." Oda sighed. "I doubt she would be working for whoever is harassing us."
"You are too trusting, old friend."
Fear, the village was ripe with it.
Ino felt that fear, heavy in the air, and shuddered at its density. As the heiress of the Yamanaka clan she had been taught by her father in how to understand body language and the mood in the air. The people looked frightened, truly frightened, with their weary eyes, slumped posture and timid whispers. These were a people who were defeated, lost and without hope.
She came to a stop on a rooftop, looking down upon the small streets below her. There were a few people about, but many had already fled to the apparent safety of their homes, closed the windows and locked the doors in preparation for another long harrowing night.
"The Namakura's have gone now too."
She looked down to see two men closing up a small shop, a grocery store she guessed. The man lowering the shudders looked over at his colleague. "That's how many families?"
"I lost count at six," the other man grimaced.
"By god," the other grimaced. The two of them were worried, Ino could feel it. "It won't be long until they come here next."
"Are you still going on about that?" the other frowned, shaking his head. "It's the work of slavers and bandits. When they see that we're behind the village walls they will leave us alone."
"No they won't," the other replied, shaking his head. "They'll never leave us alone, not until every last one of us is dead and gone."
"Morbid much?" the other man asked with a frown. "Alright then, how do you know they aren't bandits or slavers?"
"I saw them.
That peeked Ino's interest, and as she looked down she saw just how scared this man was. He was shaking, hands balled into fists and teeth grinding together. Whatever he had seen scared him, and scared him badly. The other man raised a brow at this. "What did you see?"
He looked over at him, "A monster."
"A monster?" the other asked with a snort. "You've been on the drink a little too much, Ryu."
Ryu didn't answer for a long moment. He simply finished pinning down the shutters before looking back at his colleague with true terror in his eyes. "They were real."
"Then what did they look like?" the other asked, disbelieving, but Ino could tell that he wasn't lying. She edged a little closer, listening in. It may be nothing more than superstition but any information could be valuable.
"Wolves," the other replied with a shiver, a full body shiver. "Fur as black as night, and eyes as red as hell, one of them looked at me. It was smiling."
"Smiling." Ryo affirmed before rubbing his face with his right hand.
"When the hell did this happen?"
"On the guard tower last night, when the Namakura farmhouse started to burn I saw them at the edge of the flames." He looked at the man, eyes wide in fear as a small smile pulled at his lips, not a smile of one who was happy. "I thought I was hallucinating, but dear god I wasn't. They'll come and they'll kill us all."
"Calm down man," the other man didn't look like he saw it as a joke anymore. If anything he started to look unnerved. Ino continued to watch the exchange, unaware of a larger presence until it landed beside her. She looked to the side, startled, only to relax when she saw her sensei knelling beside her, looking down at the conversation.
Before either one could say another word her sensei stepped over the edge, dropping down and landing on his feet with perfect movement, almost as if he had simply taken a simple step. The two men were so enamoured in their conversation that they both visibly jumped when he surprised them, but her sensei simply raised his hands in surrender.
"I mean you both no harm." He said simply.
"That headband," the as of yet unnamed man said in relief. "You're from Konoha."
"I am," Itachi affirmed with a nod.
"Ninja are here?" the one named Ryo asked in a timid voice.
"I would like to ask you some questions as to what you saw last night," her sensei stated before looking up at her. "Ino, would you assemble Naruto and Shino please?"
"Yes, sensei," She nodded her head before spinning around and taking off across the rooftops, using her limited sensory ability to try and detect her two male teammates.
Itachi watched until the young girl had vanished from sight before turning around to study the two individuals. They were both rather plain in appearance, with brown hair and stocky builds. The man named Ryo was about a half a head shorter than his companion, and maybe a decade younger. His hair was spikier and more unkempt. "My name is Itachi Uchiha, Jōnin ranked Shinobi from the village of Konohagakure."
"Jun Akamura," the taller and older man introduced.
"Ryo Saito," the younger introduced after a moment of unsure silence.
"Jun, Ryo," Itachi acknowledged with a nod before he went back to business; "I need you to tell me exactly what you have seen, down to the very last detail."
Ryo took a deep breath, and when he opened his eyes again they were the eyes of someone who was indeed scared, but also wished nothing more than to help in any way he could, "Yes, Itachi-sama. I will tell you all that I can."
Itachi nodded, and then looked up just a second before three thumps could be heard on the rooftop above. All three men looked up, the two civilians in sudden alarm, as his three Genin settled on the rooftop for a moment before hopping off and landing on crouches in the centre of the now deserted street.
"Naruto, Ino," Itachi spoke up in a quiet yet firm voice. "Take Ryo to the local tavern. Rooms have already been prepared for our use."
"Yes sensei." The two replied as one with a nod before leading the younger man down the road. Itachi waited until the three of them were out of sight before turning back to the third member of his group. "Shino, I want you to release your swarm. Have them setup a perimeter on the walls of the village, and keep them alert for anything out of the ordinary."
"Yes sensei," Shino nodded before turning around and spreading his hands, waiting for a brief moment before uttering a single word. "Go."
The swarm of Kikaichu exploded from under the Aburame's clothes, swarming around him for a long moment as a mass of black before scattering in all directions, some taking to the skies above the wooden structures while others ventured down the main streets or down side alleys. Every single insect moved with the same, hive-minded purpose of setting up the perimeter as their masters sensei had ordered.
Itachi nodded as the last insect vanished from view, "Very good, you're control is improving. Now follow Naruto and Ino to the inn, and remain on your guard until I get there."
Shino nodded, "Yes sensei."
Itachi waited until Shino rounded the corner before turning back to the second man, Jun, who was starring in the direction the Aburame vanished, eyes wide in disbelief and awe. "I have heard of the Aburame clan of Konoha, but this is the first time I have seen one of them."
"There is something more to Ryo than I am being told," Itachi said after a moment. "Tell me."
Jun sighed, "He isn't going to like me telling you this, but Ryo was sweet with the Namakura's oldest daughter, Yuki, I think her name was. He will probably want to come with you if you're going after the bandits."
Itachi sighed, "I see."
"He's a good kid, and I know he's hurting," Jun muttered before walking in the opposite direction, to his own home most likely. "Don't let him go to his death. I doubt that's what Yuki would have wanted."
They left at first light. The light of the sun was only just dipping over the horizon when they left the village and made their way along the dirt pathway towards the forest. According to the village elders there was a side road that led up the mountain, about a kilometre behind the tree line. The shrine resided midway up the mountain, seemingly carved into the huge creation of nature.
The mood of the three kids was tense, Itachi felt it, and saw it in the way that Ino and Naruto were not fighting like they would usually do. Shino seemed the same as ever, but the Uchiha could see it in his posture that he was also nervous. All three Genin had been affected by the way which the boy had practically begged them to come along. The poor kid was almost in tears.
Naruto seemed to be affected by the scene more than Ino and Shino, Itachi believed that the boy understood some of Ryo's pain and even asked afterwards if they could take him along. Itachi had immediately said no to the idea, telling Naruto that where they were going was no place for an unseasoned miner who had never experienced combat.
Naruto understood what his sensei was saying, and agreed that if there was going to be a fight then Ryo would not be able to come, if anything he would be a liability. Against the likes of them, trained Ninja, bandits wouldn't be too much of a challenge, but if some civilian was in the way then the tables could probably turn very quickly.
Soon the three of them had left the open prairies and were now moving through the dense forests of evergreen trees. Itachi listened with his ears imbued with chakra, making a list of every birdcall, and every rustle of wildlife. The forest was alive and thriving with small woodland creatures, which was good for them. If something foreign was out there, like humans setting up camp, then the woods would become eerily silent. The presence of predators does that to a natural ecosystem.
"It's creepy out here," Ino muttered.
"Getting scared?" Naruto asked with a smirk.
"As if," Ino scoffed back. "Unlike you I don't jump at every snapping of a twig."
Naruto scowled at her, "That was one time."
"You jumped right out of your skin," Ino giggled. "Funniest thing I've ever seen you do."
"Ah shut up."
"You shut up!"
Itachi sighed, immediately tuning them out as they continued their trek. Ino and Naruto always seemed to get on each other's bad sides way too quickly, always bickering and fighting over the smallest things. He had learned nearly a week into him taking them as his team that the best thing to do was simply to ignore them and let them sort it out on their own. Sometimes Shino would intervene as a peacekeeper, but most of the time the two of them were simply allowed to squabble until they've had their fill.
True to his hypothesis the two eventually ran out of steam, and spent the rest of the trek simply glaring at each other. By then they had already taken the side path and were now nearly halfway to their destination. They could already see the worn red painted Tori gates slowly rising before them, signalling the end of the dirt road and the beginning of a mass of stone steps leading up to the shrine itself.
There were a total of ten tori gates, red constructs which encompassed the stone steps, and there were a lot of steps. The four of them simply continued on in silence, now fully alert. It was only broken when Naruto spoke. "So, uh, why are we going to see this lady again?"
"Because she's the last living human left outside of the village you idiot," Ino muttered.
"Bite me," Naruto replied.
"Enough, both of you," Itachi sighed, silencing his two unruly students with a slightly annoyed look. "We are here because she might know the identity of the attackers, and if she doesn't we are to escort her back to the safety of the village until the danger passes."
"Oh, right." Naruto replied, nodding in understanding as the team fell into silence once more. It was almost midday by the time the four man cell made it up to the top of the mountain, stepping past the last tori gate and gazing upon the small shrine which sat upon its peak. It was made of two buildings, the small temple itself and another side building which probably housed the living quarters for the maidens who cared for it. The ground was covered by stone paves, some looked new and recently replaced; the tori gates at the summit also looked better cared for, the red paint newer and showing no signs of age.
"Our shrine maiden has been busy it seems," Itachi muttered as he stepped past the last gate and slowly walked across the stone tiles, his three Genin following him closely.
"Hello," Ino called. "Is anyone here!"
Her voice echoed through the small temple, but only silence greeted her for several tense seconds. The Ninja were in the middle of the shrine when the sliding doors of the temple in front of them opened with a sudden rolling of joints and a woman walked onto the porch. She was tall and graceful, dressed in a white hakama and red pants of a shrine maiden, a broom was held in slender hands.
She was quite beautiful, young, perhaps in her mid to late twenties by Itachi's guess. Her face was roundish, almost heart shaped, her hair was long and flowing past her shoulders near the small of her back, raven black in colour and shimmering in the midday sun. Her eyes were the colour of deep violet and her skin was as freshly fallen snow. Her voice, when she spoke, was sweet and honeyed.
"Oh, visitors," she said, setting her broom to the side and placing her hands together in front of her gave the four Shinobi a sweeping bow, her hair flowing from the quickness of her movements. "Welcome to the Naka shrine."
"You are the shrine maiden here?" Itachi asked.
"Yes, my name is Saiyuri, Saiyruri Hishikawa. I am the maiden in charge of this shrine." She looked up at them with an inquisitive expression. "Pardon me for asking this, but that uniform, could you be Shinobi from Konoha?"
"We are," Itachi responded with a nod. "My name is Itachi of the Uchiha clan. My associates are Ino Yamanaka, Shino Aburame and Naruto Uzumaki."
She nodded to each of them in turn, before bowing her head in acknowledgement. "Please enter, and pardon the mess. We don't really get very many visitors these days, and I think this is the first time Shinobi have visited us."
She closed the sliding door to the temple and with a graceful flow of movement almost seemed to glide from one building to the other. The front of the living quarters consisted of nothing more than a long porch and a line of sliding doors, and as she opened one of the central panels Itachi and his students noticed a simply designed room as long as the building, well crafted, if worn, timber pillars were evenly spaced and in the centre of the room was a low table surrounded by tatami mats.
Itachi took her unconscious queue, slipping out of his sandals as he entered the shrine and gently knelt on the tatami mat opposite the maiden, his three students hesitated for a brief moment before following their sensei' lead, slipping out of their sandals and each taking a mat to sit on. Ino sat with the grace of a noblewoman but here sapphire eyes were snapping back and forth as she surveyed the room with a childish curiosity. Shino was completely unreadable as he sat on his own mat, and Naruto... well, Naruto just fidgeted and looked very uncomfortable.
It took him a moment to see that the young woman was studying him with a slightly amused smile. "What?"
Ino hissed at him, "Don't be rude, Naruto!"
"It's quite alright," the young woman smiled. "I take it you don't come to shrines often, young Shinobi?"
Naruto looked sheepish, "Heh, yeah it's my first time."
"I can give you and your friends a tour if you'd like," she said as she leaned back to look up at the ceiling; "Though I admit that it's a pretty small shrine, so there isn't much to see."
Itachi politely cleared his throat. "I apologise, my lady, but there is a reason why we're here."
She nodded. "I know, there has been a lot of commotion in the valley below and in the forests around me."
"Have you seen any of the perpetrators of these acts?" Itachi asked, leaning forward.
She nodded a small frown on her seemingly delicate features. "I believe I have, though I doubt you would believe me. I find it difficult to believe what I am seeing around this shrine at night myself."
"Can you tell us?" Itachi asked.
Saiyuri sighed, looking the Uchiha straight in the eye for a long moment, as if assessing him, before she spoke. "I believe I see black wolves, Master Shinobi, and the more I observe them the more I believe that they are not of the ordinary variety."
The results of the shrine maidens answers were surprising, but Itachi and his students were silent for other reasons. His students looked at the woman with a mass of different emotions. Ino looked at her as if she were insane, Naruto began to look edgy, and as for Shino. He was as emotionless in appearance as he usually was, but Itachi could just make out the rising of his brow at her answer.
Ino laughed, though it was nervous. "There's no way that's true, right? I mean demons don't exist?"
"Don't they," Saiyuri asked in obvious surprise at the young Shinobi's answer. "The Nine Biju are not classified as demons by you Shinobi, and what about those animals you are known to summon, aren't they classed as demons as well?"
The more the woman spoke the more nervous Ino seemed to get, and Itachi didn't blame her. Such creatures were not unknown to Shinobi, but it was usually just the higher ranking warriors who knew about demonic forces outside of those that could be summoned. But besides that the Shinobi usually tended to leave these creatures alone. They tended to remain isolated from human contact, even those linked to the infamous Biju.
"Have they not attempted to enter this shrine?" Itachi asked, frowning at her answer.
"No, they appear unable too," she replied with a sigh as she slowly stood up and walked towards the porch. "They have tried, however they appear unable to pass the tori gates. It almost seems like something is keeping them from entering. When one gets too close they recoil as if struck."
"Why have you not attempted to leave?"
"I have attempted too," the maiden replied with a shake of her head. "But I must admit that I am a little afraid. I know now that the shrine is the safest place in the valley, but at the same time sightings of them around its perimeter are becoming more and more common."
"If I may ask," Shino interjected, speaking for the first time since the conversation began. "Why haven't they been able to enter the temple?"
"I am unsure," Saiyuri replied with a slight frown. "But there is an old legend, or rather a myth, around the foundations of this shrine. According to a few old stories and folklore around here it is said that this shrine was once the haven of a Kitsune clan."
The Shinobi in her presence immediately stiffened, all except for Itachi, who eyes his students very carefully to assess their replies. He was almost sure that Naruto had stopped breathing as the name was spoken.
"It was said that it was one of the thirteen great clans who originally built this temple, long before any humans settled here." The maiden explained with a coy smile. "Some say it was one of the two most powerful clans, either void or celestial, who built this shrine. They placed wards and charms around it to stop any non-Kitsune entity from entering. If these folktales are true, then perhaps it is simply those charms which are stopping these wolves from entering."
"Do Kitsune actually exist?" Ino asked, looking a little twitchy as she looked between the shrine maiden and Itachi.
"We are not sure," Itachi replied, eyes not leaving those of the maiden who met his gaze just as unflinchingly. "There have been sightings, more so in the older days before the establishment of the Ninja villages. There were even supposed to be a handful of people who studied them and their culture, but no one has seen a Kitsune face to face in almost a hundred years."
"Perhaps they simply do not wish to be found," Saiyuri informed, turning around to face them. "According to the old legends Kitsune were masters of shape shifting and subterfuge. It was said that they're illusions were greater than most Genjutsu. In fact there were some historians who considered that the first Genjutsu users may have received instruction from Kitsune."
"What's all this about void and celestial?" Naruto asked at last, looking weary, but curiosity seemed to get the best of him.
"It is said that the Kitsune are separated into thirteen clans, these clans were known as fire, earth, river, ocean, mountain, forest, thunder, time and sound." The maiden explained. "However of these clans there were four which were considered the oldest and despite them being in lesser numbers they were also the most powerful, those four were wind, spirit, celestial and void. Of these four the most powerful were celestial and void. It was said that their eldest members were as strong as entire armies."
"You appear to know a lot about this subject, Saiyuri-san." Itachi questioned lightly.
Saiyuri shrugged her slender shoulders, "I'm on my own up here. I like to read and there is quite a fine collection of old scrolls in the temple building."
They're eyes met and held for several heartbeats before the Shinobi closed his eyes and shook his head.
"Enough for now," Itachi raised his hand, looking up in time to see the sun beginning to set over the rocks and trees. "The hour is late. Tomorrow morning we will escort the shrine maiden to the safety of the village, and then we will send word to Konoha for reinforcements. I believe this is beyond the ability of a Jōnin and three Genin to take care of."
Author's Note 1: Naruto is the property of Masashi Kishimoto, I have no claim to the characters or original story.
Author's Note 2: How long has it been since I updated this story? Quite a long time if I remember, I may get some flak for this but I wanted to try my hand at adding another coming of age scenario for Naruto. We've all seen the Wave Arc used so much that it's becoming a little redundant, so I decided on trying something else. Just think of this as me trying something new from the Wave Arc while still adding the original scenario into the story.
Author's Note 3: I'm going to set the next few chapters up as back and forth chapters, one for Yugito in Wave and the other with Naruto in the northern wilderness. The next one will go back to wave to catch up on our characters there after their battle with Zabuza and Haku, and then the one after that will deal with Naruto and company.