I don't own Naruto.

They sat facing each across a small fire, forming a rough square that was big enough for one of them to get up and start to run before the others could grab them. He and Takeshi were staring directly at each other, Sayuri was rocking back and forth, her joints clicking as she looked at both of them, ready to spring into action if necessary, while Kiyoshi huddled in the shadows, looking as if she was desperately trying to wake up from a nightmare. Naruto doubted that he'd need the space - he hated running away, and Takeshi wasn't a big enough threat for him to swallow that dislike - but then again, he still didn't know exactly how skilled Takeshi or the girl really were.

But he intended to find out.

It was Takeshi who started off though, arms folded as he leaned forward, making sure to look Naruto directly in the eye. "Okay. Talk."

Naruto glanced at Sayuri before looking back at him. "What do you want to know?"

Takeshi made an impatient noise, waving his hand. "Everything! Who are you? Where are you from? Are you a shinobi? What are you doing now? What did you do back in that town - you know, when you blew it up? What do jinchuuriki have to do with you? What...What happened to Sayuri? If you're with a village, why aren't you with them?"

All of that was said without taking a single breath, and Takeshi looked quite winded by the end of it. However, the determination in his eyes never wavered, and Naruto nodded slowly. There really wasn't any point to hiding any more - subtlety had never been his strong suit, and he had already slipped up in front of these guys. And if they couldn't be trusted...

He could take them down. He was sure of it.

"Okay." Naruto took a deep breath, mentally preparing himself. "It's a long story."

Takeshi glanced up at the faint gleam of moonlight visible through the leaves above them. "We're not going anywhere."

"He's right, nii-san," Sayuri muttered, her fingers twisting a blade of grass back and forth, head ducked down to avoid his look. "We've got lots of time."

Damn. He had kind of been hoping for some back-up in that direction...but then again, Sayuri didn't know that much about him either, only what had happened in Oto, and she didn't know that much about that either. She'd probably be curious too.

"Fine." Naruto raised his head, looking at Takeshi. "You remember when I told you about bijuu?"

Kiyoshi stiffened, but she didn't say anything, her eyes fixed intently on the flames. Takeshi looked unsure at Naruto's question, but nodded his head slowly. "Yeah - they're demons, they're really powerful, and I'm guessing that thing we saw was one of 'em." He glanced in Kiyoshi's direction, but she ignored him, her head bowed as she stared into the fire. "What have they got to do with this?"

Naruto shrugged, trying to squash the nervous feeling in his gut. "Everything, really."

Takeshi frowned. "How? I mean, I know that that woman and those people back at the town wanted them, but why? What can they do?"

"I said they were powerful, remember? Really, really powerful. Most of them could destroy villages without breaking a sweat, and there were guys out there who thought that they could find a way to use them as weapons."

Takeshi's voice was quiet. "Did they?"

Well, this was it, Naruto supposed. "Yeah. They made jinchuuriki out of them."

That finally got a reaction out of Kiyoshi as her head snapped up, her weak chakra fluctuating wildly. Looking at her, Naruto found it hard to believe that she'd been created as a weapon - the occasional flicker of a dark purple chakra amongst the pale green of the girl's own was the only sign that there might be something strange about her chakra. Granted, he hadn't seen any other jinchuuriki apart from her, so he didn't have much to compare her with apart from himself, but it still looked like it wouldn't be very easy to draw on her bijuu's chakra.

So how had she managed to manifest its full form?

Feeling someone tug at his sleeve, he looked over to see Sayuri. She wasn't bothering to force her face into any expression, and it looked eerily blank in the flickering light.

"Yeah, but nii-san...What are jinchuuriki?"

Naruto grimaced. "They're people with bijuu sealed inside of them. It lets them use the bijuu's power, but it's really hard to control." According to Kabuto anyway, and while Naruto hated the guy almost as much as Orochimaru, he didn't think that using a bijuu's power sounded that good either - that, and he'd just had a front-row seat to what had happened when someone did use it, and judging from the charred hole they had found her in, she hadn't handled it too well.

"Wait!" Takeshi held up a hand, looking bewildered. "Sealed? You mean they actually have...You have a demon inside you? As in, inside inside you?"

Naruto shrugged, trying to hide a sudden twist of nervousness. Takeshi's tone was more shocked than repulsed, but he could still remember being back in Konoha, unable to understand why all the adults avoided him. why only the old man seemed to want to acknowledge that he was there. "Yep. It's how they get access to their chakra, but you can't get the bijuu out without killing the jinchuuriki."

"That's..." Naruto watched his face twist as he struggled to find the right words. "Why would anyone do that to themselves?"

Although his question was directed at Naruto, Takeshi's gaze flickered over to Kiyoshi, looked back at him, her expression wary and confused. Naruto, however, felt a surge of anger at the suggestion that he had chosen to have the Kyuubi shoved into him, that he let Konoha put it into him because he wanted power, like Orochimaru. "They don't," he bit out. "Bijuu are normally sealed in jinchuuriki when they're kids, babies, even. No one chooses it."

Well, they didn't as far as he knew. Naruto was aware that, despite the scrolls he had looked through so far, there was a lot he didn't know about both jinchuuriki and bijuu, and so he supposed that there was a chance that he was wrong about only being able to use babies to seal bijuu into...but he had never seen another jinchuuriki apart from Kiyoshi, who was his own age, and he doubted that she had been able to seal a bijuu into herself.

Takeshi looked taken aback by the venom in his tone, but his features quickly shifted from bewilderment to what looked like embarrassment. "Oh...Okay, then. But...if you didn't do it to yourself, who did it to you? You're not old enough to have been born in a war, so why would you need to be one?"

"It wasn't to make a weapon," Naruto explained, wishing that he knew if that was true or not. He didn't want to have to rely on what Orochimaru had told him - he didn't trust that snake nearly as far as he could throw him, and he knew that Orochimaru had been jealous of the Yondaime getting chosen to lead the village instead of him - but, unfortunately, he was the only person who had talked to him about it, and the knowledge that he had provided was all Naruto had to go on. "On the day I was born, one of the bijuu attacked my village. The only way to stop it was to seal it in someone, and I was the only one there that they could seal it into."

The reactions of the other three were mixed. He heard a sharp intake of breath from Kiyoshi, who was now staring at him, looking shocked, while Sayuri was looking very indignant about something. Naruto only hoped that it was the idea about him being made into a jinchuuriki without being asked, and not about the fact that he had been keeping it a secret from her as well. He really didn't want to be on Sayuri's bad side.

Takeshi closed his eyes briefly, as if trying to think something through. "Which one?"


"You told me that there were nine of them. And that some were more powerful than others. Which one did they put in you?"


The word was a faint whisper, and Naruto looked over to see Kiyoshi's pale blue eyes fixed on him, her body shifted into a crouch that reminded him of a wounded animal. She stared back at him, and he was abruptly reminded of the fact that, somehow, her bijuu had escaped the seal that bound it, and what was left over had not been pretty.

He nodded slowly. "How'd you guess?"

She made a small, quick gesture at his face, and Naruto realised that she was pointing at the three pairs of lines that had been on his cheeks for as long as he could remember. "The whiskers...You don't smell of death."

Belatedly, Naruto remembered of what he'd read of the bijuu. There was a lot that he didn't know, but he did know that they each had an animal that they mostly resembled, like the Kyuubi being a giant fox - and the Nibi being a large cat. He didn't know much about the rest of them, but if those two were the only ones with whiskers, he guessed it was pretty easy to work out the answer - if he had power over death, he'd definitely have been flinging it around in that stupid castle.

Takeshi drummed his fingers against the ground. "The Kyuubi...that's the strongest of them, isn't it?"


Naruto saw a strange expression flicker across the older boy's face for a moment, but he couldn't tell what it was - he sucked at being able to read people, and he knew it.

"Well, that's just..." He trailed off, shaking his head. "So, that's why those people back in the town were after you? Because they want the Kyuubi?"

Naruto felt a flash of anger at the mention of the now dead shinobi. "Yeah. I guess they think it's too dangerous to let me walk around, in case I let it out and it goes after them. But I don't think that they're the only ones looking for it. That woman who came to the village - she wanted you for yours, didn't she?"

The question was directed at Kiyoshi, who nodded slowly, her shoulders slumping. Takeshi looked sharply at her. "Which one do you have, then? I didn't count the tails..."

"Gobi." She didn't look at any of them, staring down at her hands as she mumbled the words, each one sounding like a struggle to bring forth. "It...came to my village years ago. It was weak...sleeping...It's chakra wasn't as strong as the others, but it had genjutsu...When it came, it trapped all the shinobi in their minds...Crushed half the village because no one could get out of it...But it didn't get everyone. Obaa-chan knew how to seal it. She put it in me. She said that no one had sealed it in a jinchuuriki for decades...That no village would come looking for it."

"But someone else did?"

"Stranger...Not a ninja from our village. We'd never seen her before. She followed us home. She said that she was from Akatsuki...that they needed the power of the bijuu. We tried to run." Her voice dropped to a low whisper as she shifted her gaze back to the fire. "She...she killed Obaa-chan. So I...I let the Gobi out-"

"You what?"

Kiyoshi shrank back from Takeshi's furious cry, while Naruto frantically hissed for him to be quiet. Takeshi ignored the warning, glaring angrily at her instead. "You let that thing out? Did you see what it did?"

"I had to - she was going to kill me-"

"Well, I don't know if you noticed, but it did a bit more than kill you-"

"Shut up!" Naruto snapped, glancing warily at the trees. There was no one springing out of the shadows to attack them, but he knew that acting stupidly - as, he admitted to himself, they kinda had in the castle, walking in blindly and then splitting up - was going to get them killed - or worse, dragged back to Oto. Besides, what Kiyoshi said was definitely something new to consider. He'd always thought that the only people who'd be interested in the Kyuubi was Konoha - he wasn't stupid, he knew that it was really powerful, but he didn't think that anyone would go trooping around after it, especially going to the point of entering a ninja village and killing someone there for it. The fact that someone - Akatsuki...what the hell was that? - was going around doing that, and not just for one bijuu, wasn't a nice thought.

Takeshi gave Kiyoshi a last look of disgust, then deliberately turned his back to her, looking at Naruto. "Okay, so you're getting hunted down for the Kyuubi. But then, why are you out of your village? If you were born in Konoha, then why aren't you there now? I mean, if you have the Kyuubi then I'm guessing that they wouldn't want you running around everywhere."

"They probably don't," Naruto admitted. "But I haven't been in Konoha in years."

Takeshi blinked. "Why?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Naruto saw Sayuri turn her face away. She knew what was coming, even if the other two had no idea. This was the part that Naruto really hadn't been looking forward to talking about - but he'd promised that he'd say everything.

"Have you ever heard of Orochimaru?"

Sumaru had no idea how long he'd been running. Everything hurt, from the soles of his feet to the top of his head, and exhaustion was beginning to sap away at his strength. But he wouldn't stop. He couldn't stop, not until he was far, far away from Hoshigakure, not until he was sure that no one could find him.

He had spent ages stumbling along in the dark, unable to find his way out of the cramped, dusty tunnels, and utterly terrified that someone was going to find him. Eventually, he'd found a door - found it by running head-first into it - which had led into the tiny, musty cellar of one of the older houses in Hoshigakure. He didn't know who lived there, but there hadn't been anyone in the building when he made his way upstairs, and so he had been able to make his way outside undetected. There wouldn't be many ninja out and about in the village at this time of night - only the guards at the village's entrance and at the dojo where the star was kept - and he knew enough about the village he'd grown up in to be able to find a way to slip past them.

He didn't know what was going to happen then. He hadn't been out of the village many times before, and he didn't know where he was going to go. Part of him wanted to run to an adult, to find someone who could help - but he couldn't. They'd sent him off with the others, they'd let he and his friends be taken down to that place, and...Now he knew he couldn't trust any of them, even as he longed to stop running and go back home.

Sumaru swallowed as he ducked around a corner, doing his best to choke back a sudden wave of nausea. He had never felt so wretched, not even on that horrible day when the Hoshikage had sat him down and told him that his parents had fallen against foreign ninja, and he wished he knew what they had done to him - he couldn't explain it, but something didn't feel normal, didn't feel right, even without the burning pain or the fact that he felt like he was going to be violently sick. What had the Hoshikage said? That they were going to be going through 'special training', that it would make them better ninja, make them stronger-

He shivered as he heard a shout in the distance. He might have survived what had been done to him, but he didn't feel strong at all. He felt alone, sick, and very, very scared.

Naruto didn't bother to mince his words - whatever that meant - about what had happened in Oto. He didn't go into much detail, and he certainly didn't mention the full circumstances about what had happened to Sayuri - he still burned with the shame of not being able to help her that night, and he couldn't bear the idea of having to admit to her that it had been his hand, not that of some faceless Oto scientist, that had wielded the tools to make her into what she was. But it was still a while before he was finished talking, and both Takeshi and Kiyoshi were looking fairly sick by the time he was done.

"So, let me get this straight. This guy...Orocha-"


"Fine, Orochimaru...He kidnapped you, locked you up for years, experimented on you...and he did it because he wants to steal your body?"

On seconds thoughts, maybe he could have cut it down a little more.

"That's basically it, yeah."

"But..." Takeshi looked at him, and Naruto knew what he was seeing - the rippled eyes, the stitches, the silvered hair. "Why?"

"He's evil," said Sayuri, her tone matter-of-fact, her face devoid of any expression. "There's no one nice in that place." She looked up at him, and smiled brightly, the sudden change a bit disconcerting. "No one but nii-san. And he's stronger than any of them, 'cept Orochimaru."

Naruto didn't bother to correct her that Orochimaru also had people like Kabuto and Guren, both of whom he was pretty sure could take him down if they ever had a straight up fight. Instead, he smiled grimly at Takeshi, glad to find someone outside of Sayuri who wasn't either cowed by Orochimaru or happily worshipping the ground he walked on. "He wants to live forever, so he has to keep on swapping bodies every couple of years - and he's obsessed with kekkei genkai. That's why he needed me - most people die when you try to transfer a bloodline to them, so he had to have someone who could survive it happening over and over again." He looked over at Sayuri. "Though he does a lot of other experiments as well."

Takeshi shuddered. "That's...that's sick. And Konoha just gave you to him?"

Naruto thought of the old man, of how happy he'd been whenever he showed up to take him out for ramen, of how he had watched in awe at how everyone respected him, of how he'd wanted to become Hokage to see the same respect and love in people's eyes when they looked at him, instead of cold indifference. And then he remembered the old man's office, remembered getting knocked out and waking up in Oto, and Kabuto telling him how his village had happily handed him over to them.

"Yeah. It wasn't just me though, there were a lot of other people there, from a lot of other villages. I don't know how he got them all, but some of them were shinobi. Some people should have gone looking for them."

Takeshi gulped. "Okay. So this guy, or the people working for him, are strong enough to grab shinobi, and he's either sneaky enough to be able to get them without people able to find out who took them, or he's scary enough able to get them handed over. And if he put all of that work into you, he's going to come after you, isn't he?"

Naruto winced. "...Probably."

For a few minutes, there was no sound in the clearing apart from the crackle of the flames as everyone contemplated that piece of information - well, as Takeshi and Kiyoshi did. Naruto had known from the beginning that escaping Oto would not be a one-off thing, that he and Sayuri were going to spend a long time, if not the rest of their lives running from it. But then, Takeshi and Kiyoshi didn't have that threat - the only reason Oto would go after them was if they were with him.

"...I'm staying."

Though he tried to, Naruto couldn't quite keep the surprise off his face. "Really?"

Takeshi nodded, looking a bit uncomfortable. "I don't have anywhere else to go - and if you've got all of that stuff, then being with you is probably safer than breing on my own. Besides...I guess I sorta owe you know, getting us out alive back there."

Naruto felt a flare of relief at this news - although he didn't want to admit it, the thought of travelling with only Sayuri while being chased by Oto wasn't a very comforting one. He knew that there were loads of stuff that he didn't know, things that he had to know if he was going to survive for long outside Oto, and even if Takeshi wasn't that much older than he was, he could help teach him. But he also knew that Otogakure wasn't the only danger out there - and that he wasn't the only one running from something.

"You can stay, but I want to know what happened to you. You said you'd tell-"

"Tell you where I came from," Takeshi finished, leaning back with a look that seemed strangely unconcerned, considering his demeanor in the castle. "Yeah, I remember. There's not much to tell, really. I'm from Kiri."

Naruto blinked. "Kirigakure?"

"Yep." His voice was flat, his gaze unfocused as he tilted his head back to look at the sky. "Suppose you wouldn't know, but...a while back, people from the clans there started going missing. Hunted. Turns out that people were getting fed up with us after the wars, and...well, they took matters into their own hands. We went into hiding, but they found us pretty quickly. Killed everyone there, except for me - locked me up in the prison instead. Said that they were building a pyre, that they were going to burn us in a couple of weeks. Dunno why they didn't just kill us when they found us...But the prison's seals failed. I got out. And then I found you guys."

Naruto was struggling a little to wrap his head around the concepts of people being butchered for being part of a clan - having come from Oto, where kekkei genkais were more than prized, they could mean life or death, he couldn't work out why Kiri would want to kill off such a asset. But then, he'd learned long ago that the world didn't quite make sense, especially when it came to the behavior of adults. Takeshi's tale certainly wasn't pleasant, but he'd seen far worse in Oto, and he wasn't quite sure what to say. Luckily, Sayuri butted in for him.

"You're part of a clan? So, you've got a kekkei genkai like nii-san?"

Takeshi cast a wary glance at Naruto. "Not exactly like him, but..."

He produced a senbon and, ignoring Kiyoshi's start at the weapon, dug it into his palm, holding the injured hand up so that they could see the wound and the blood trickling from it. Naruto didn't understand until Takeshi gave a flick of his wrist, and suddenly the red liquid lashed into the air. As Naruto watched, it solidified into a bubbling mass that then formed into an exact copy of the senbon. The weapon held its shape for a moments before melting and reforming into half a dozen others, only some of which Naruto made out - a shuriken, a kunai, a razor thin wire - before evaporating completely. As Takeshi lowered his hand, Naruto saw that the wound had already sealed up.

Sayuri, however, was unimpressed. "That's it?"

"No!" Takeshi snapped, looking offended. "There's loads more - using someone's blood against them, spreading disease, finding and copying stuff in the body, and...well, look, I haven't been doing this thing for long. I'll be a lot better at it one day."

Naruto shrugged, though he was secretly a bit disappointed himself. "If they locked you up and you escaped...How much would they want to get you back?"

Takeshi shrugged. "Not that much, I don't think...I mean, I didn't even make it to genin before this all started, and I don't know any important village secrets, or clan stuff for that matter. I mean, there was probably hunter-nin looking through that area, and if they caught me, they'd kill me or take me back there...but I don't think they'd go chasing after me into enemy territory. Probably wouldn't even put up a bounty."

Naruto relaxed slightly. At least that was one enemy then that they wouldn't have to worry about, as he had no intention of going anywhere near Kiri. "Okay then - I don't see a problem with you coming with us then.

Takeshi smiled then, even if it was a little like a grimace. "Well...thanks for that. Probably a good thing too...I mean, considering what's happening tomorrow."

Naruto tried not to wince at the thought of the castle's order to summon whatever it truly was in order to prove himself worthy of being a permanent summoner. He didn't know what kind of thing the summon actually was, but something that had thing shapeshifted itself into a castle and eaten anyone who came in for fifty years probably wasn't going to set him anything easy to do.

The talk had given them a lot to think about, and it was a long time before anyone slept. However, that night's adventures had taken their toll, and soon everyone's eyes had slowly closed as they at last succumbed to the need to sleep. Kiyoshi lay awake for the longest, her mind in turmoil as her body still ached from the effects of the Gobi's chakra on her system. But eventually, even she fell unconscious, only it wasn't a dream she slipped into.

She found herself standing back in the forest, but it looked very different from her last visit. The air was heavy with smoke that stung her eyes and made her cough, the trees had been reduced to charred stumps, the undergrowth razed to ash. But the worse damage of all was to the gates of the Gobi's cage. The metal had been warped and bent, not far enough for the creature to be able to slip free, but enough to create a significant gap in the once impenetrable cage. And most damning of all, the seal attached to the cage, her grandmother's best work, the true prison of the Gobi, was dry and stained, the ink running across the cracked parchment. Behind it, the Gobi lay sleeping, its heavy breathing the only sound she could hear.

Sleeping. For now. Because the seal was all that held it back, the seal that was damaged, almost broken, because she had opened it, she had disobeyed the order that obaa-chan had made her promise to never do, she was so stupid-

The Gobi wasn't a liar, but it didn't need to be - that was how it had got by, being the weakest of the bijuu apart from its genjutsu. It was clever, it was cunning, it knew how to trick mortals. It had stepped in with its offer when her grandmother, the only person she loved, the person it hated most of all, had been murdered, it had gone out and destroyed the village that had escaped it when it was sealed, and then it had gone back inside her, knowing that Kiyoshi, its jailer, the one entrusted with keeping it locked away, opening up its prison willingly would weaken the seal far more than any brute force ever would.

How long would the seal hold now? How much more of the Gobi's poisonous chakra could it take before it failed completely?

She didn't know. She didn't know anything any more. Her village was gone. Obaa-chan was gone. She was trapped with a group of strangers, who had rescued her but who didn't trust her - and she didn't trust them, she didn't know anything about them apart from the fact that they had been like her, that they had been trapped and scared and alone...and they hadn't done what she had done.

That boy, that strange-eyed boy - Naruto - he was the Kyuubi jinchuuriki. Her grandmother had set her on seals as soon as she could read, genjutsu as soon as she could mold chakra, but it was Kiyoshi herself who had read through the scrolls on the other bijuu, who had wanted to know about the people like her. And she knew that the Gobi was nothing next to the Kyuubi, that its illusions and elements were easily swept aside by the sheer raw power that each of the nine tails contained. If Naruto unleashed it, what could he do?

He'd have been able to hurt the people who hurt him. Not like her. She had broken every promise she ever made her grandmother, betrayed her purpose as a jinchuuriki, killed everyone in her village - what if Obaa-chan wasn't dead, what if she could still see, what if she knew - and let the Gobi finally finish what it had started. And it was all for nothing.

The woman had not come for Kinugakure. She might have even let her grandmother go, if only Kiyoshi had gone with her. She wouldn't have attacked the village, unlike the Gobi. And her grandmother had sacrificed her to the village before, her and others. Kiyoshi didn't know much about her father, but the Gobi had whispered enough to her over the years. He was weak, weaker than Obaa-chan, proud and stupid. Kiyoshi had never felt much for her parents save contempt, her father for leading the Gobi to the village and starting it all, her mother for perishing within genjutsu, the art as familiar to Kiyoshi as her own heartbeat. But her grandmother must have loved him, and she'd given him up anyway, for the sake of her village.

If the choice had been put to her, she'd have given up Kiyoshi as well. Protecting the village was her life's triumph, and Kiyoshi had snuffed out that legacy the moment she opened the gate.

Kiyoshi wasn't sure how long she stood there, staring quietly into the Gobi's cage as it slumbered. It was powerful, it was evil, and she hated it. But she was its jailer, and that was all she had now. She wasn't a ninja, she had no family, she belonged to no village. But she was still a jinchuuriki.

She still had a job to do. And she was going to do it properly.

"I'm never going to let you out again." Her voice quavered, but there was no one around to hear it other than the sleeping Gobi, and the thought gave her courage. "I won't use your chakra. I won't call on you ever again. You can stay in here forever - you can die here. I won't break my word either."

She had raised her voice as she talked, until it echoed around the desolate clearing, but still the Gobi did not wake. That was fine with Kiyoshi. She had not expected an answer - truthfully, she did not think that she could deal with one.

Slowly, she turned around and walked out of the clearing. She did not look back.

There wasn't much chatter as everyone woke up and ate breakfast the next day. They were still pondering all that they had learned the night before, as well as now glancing nervously at the shadows for these new enemies that they'd now have to face. Yet, oddly enough, there was also a sense of relief now. Everyone had come clean - or, at least they'd appeared to - those enemies now had names, and if they were still unsure of where they were going to go from there, there were a sense that they could at least trust the people that they were with to be able to have their back without putting a knife into it.

Or maybe that was because, as Takeshi had pointed out, they now had a more immediate challenge to face now. There was a heavy tension in the air as Naruto gently unrolled the summoning scroll over the ground, taking care to not let it snag against the tree roots or get it muddy. In the daylight, he could see a great deal more detail, and he had to admit that he was impressed. The contract was far longer than he had originally thought, metres and metres of parchment tightly rolled up, and there were dozens upon dozens of names written there, from his own freshly dried untidy scrawl, to names so old that the kanjii had almost faded completely.

This was definitely a major summoning contract, and he had to admit that he was impressed by the lord of the castle, who'd managed to not only summon but gain the respect of whatever the hell this creature was, when there were plenty of ninja who couldn't even dream of doing something like that.

And now he'd have to try to prove himself instead. Well, this was going to be...interesting, he guessed.

Everyone else gathered to watch him from a few feet away, no doubt ready to get out of there if there were any problems with the summoning (although he was kind of hoping that they'd stick around to help him out if that was the case. He had no desire to get crushed into the ground or digested for eternity in some monstrous creature's stomach).

Well, here went nothing. Taking a deep breath, Naruto bit his thumb and swiped it across the parchment.

At once, his vision was obscured by an explosion of white smoke, accompanied by a series of muffled thuds, as if something heavy had just hit the ground. He heard a cry of alarm from Sayuri, and one hand darted for his sword, but the smoke was already clearing and for the first time he saw the creature's true form.

Towering above them, its huge form casting them all into shadow, was a gigantic lizard, a type of which Naruto had never seen before. Its enormous head was crowned with three curving horns, its scales were bright green with flecks of blue, its feet, each one big enough to crush their entire group into the ground, were tong-shaped with each toe tipped with a sharp claw, and its red eyes were larger than Naruto's entire body. He could hear the awed murmurs of the others as they stared up at it, but he couldn't look away from the creature. It was magnificent, it was more than slightly terrifying, and Naruto couldn't quite suppress a gulp when one of those eyes swivelled down to look at him.

"So, Uzumaki Naruto. You decided to call me forth and face my challenge."

"Yeah," Naruto nodded his head, not really sure what else he was meant to do. The lizard's eyes flickered from him to the others, before turning to look at the trees.

"This land has changed, I see." The lizard's rumbling voice had not changed from when it was disguised as a castle, but its tone lacked the anger and desperation that had been present when they confronted it. "For over two hundred years, my people stood with the lords of this land as they lived, fought and died to protect it. Now, you would call me to leave that legacy to follow a new lineage, to have a child as a summoner when we once stood behind warriors. If you wish us to obey you, you must prove yourself to be as worthy as they, in more than battle, but in bravery, strength of will and perseverance."

Naruto nodded again, this time more eagerly. "What do you want us to do?"

For a few moments, the creature remained silent. Then its eyes lowered back down to look at him, and Naruto shivered slightly under the weight of its gaze. "Our first summoner was the bride of Koza's ancestor, a great and honourable woman. Her skills in battle were matched only by her mastery of fuinjutsu. It was she who sought us out, she who created the contract you see before you, and we have served her and her line ever since. But the contract was made before her marriage, and her kin were permitted to sign as well, after they had proven themselves worthy, and that skill was also passed down through their descendants. Even after my final summon, my children continued to serve them. Since my return to my home realm, however, I have discovered that even those summons have ceased. The lines have been extinguished, the last summoners have fallen, their home destroyed. But their legacy...their true not so easily destroyed."

The lizard's tail twisted, and Naruto heard Takeshi curse as the three were forced to duck suddenly to avoid getting knocked backwards. "Complete this task for me, Uzumaki Naruto. Go to the ruins of our summoner's homeland. Retrieve their legacy and restore their name to greatness once more. Do so, and I and my children will forever more fight by you and your kin and make our enemies remember the true might of our people."

It appeared that the lizard had said all that it meant to, but Naruto had spotted a slight flaw in the instructions they had been given. "Wait! You didn't tell us the name of your old summoners - you didn't even say where we're meant to go!"

The lizard's eyes glittered. "Their name means nothing without the legacy; you may discover it once your task is done. But as for where you should look...Their home lies within Uzu no Kuni, in the village that was once the pride of that land. To find their legacy, you must go to the place of whirlpools - to the lost village of Uzushiogakure."

*Takes deep breath*

I am very, very, very, very sorry for the wait for this chapter. If it makes any of you feel better, I was waiting for it as desperately as you were - unfortunately, real life and writer's block once again made themselves known, and impeded my writing for a very long time. If there is a lesson to be learned from this, I suppose it's that I should stop making promises about updating soon, as every time I do that, something inevitably seems to pop up and get in the way.

In other news, as my beta sadly seems to have gone AWOL, if anyone's interested in taking in the spot, please drop me a line, as I'm hoping to go through this chapter and previous ones to fix up any mistakes that went unchecked, though there shouldn't be any need for anyone to reread them after it's done.

And now, please review!