Disclaimer: I own no part of the Naruto franchise and this fanfiction is not intended to infringe on the copyright thereof.
-The Bell Calls Us-
The Haruno clan assembled only once every fifteen years, drawn from the far corners of the map to descend upon Mizu no Kuni. Though family, it was not love that drew them. Obedience, the instinct for survival, and the will of the oyakata-sama were the emotions that caused the clan to discard their everyday lives without a single qualm, the young and the old alike crawling if they must to their ancient, labyrinthine compound. For every fifteen years, the generation that had gone before prepared to indoctrinate the new in the reality of the Haruno. And, without fail, a new heir was chosen-a heir whose duty it would become to see that the cycle was enacted again in their time.
The oyakata-sama had no children of their own, so any parent of a child of the main line might put forward their offspring as a candidate for heir. But it was not a decision made lightly. For there could only be a single heir in every generation and those too weak to claim the title for their own were discarded, without exception, bias, or hesitation. For that was the way of the Haruno, reaching into the darkest, dimmest memories of the clan.
Haruno Chouko had not always been an Haruno. So it had been bemusement she had experienced when her husband had abruptly announced they were leaving Konohagakure no Sato. The emotion had been tinged with anger and perhaps faintly with relief when he told her of the gathering of the Haruno clan, for it was a meeting long overdue. She had never met her in-laws, though Katsuo had relatives in Konoha. She'd thought it odd, but loved him too blindly to protest.
This then was her chance to make a good impression, so she'd bundled up Sakura and their luggage without protest. There had been a noticeable tension in Haruno Ran and her son Shiho, but she'd thought their family strict. She never would have imagined this...monstrosity.
So she had turned, with her worries and fears, to the only women she knew in these place, to the one whose son was also endangered. Surely, she thought, surely Ran-san would also share a mother's horror.
Lips pressed unhappily together, Haruno Ran listened in silence to the diatribe of Katsuo's wife. A slowly building outrage simmered in her heart as the housewife dared to ramble on about the ugliness she perceived from the clan. About the danger to her precious pink-haired child. And what of my son? Ran thought viciously. His hair is white. And in this clan, that is the brand of someone destined to die and live again for the good of another. Perhaps even for your daughter. The one you're talking about like she's a figurine made of glass. If she dies in this place, she won't feel it as a child. Those are the true monsters, Chouko-san.
"And then Katsuo told me he'd nominated Sakura!" Chouko wailed without even the slightest attempt at dignity.
Ran felt her lips attempted to curl into a sneer. You're an adult. Crying in public? Out loud, she asked her, "And you don't believe Sakura has a chance at the position"
"I don't see how she could!" Chouko sniffled, "She's only a child! Katsuo and I couldn't even agree on whether or not she ought to attend the Academy."
White brows arched in disbelief. "Chouko-san," Ran inquired carefully, "Did Katsuo-san explain to you the nature of the Haruno kekkei genkei? None of the main branch children under five years of age are allowed to begin shinobi training, even should their parents wish it. It's strictly forbidden by oyakata-sama."
"I didn't...didn't really give him a chance. What with everything..."
"Even if you were disturbed by it, you should have let him explain," Ran told her ruthlessly. "Then you would have known that the test of the heir is a test of the bloodline. None of those children will be allowed to use their ninja tools and no one older than the age of ten can participate. What advantage those Academy attendees have will become null when faced with a newly awoken kekkei genkai."
Chouko paled abruptly. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean-." She cleared her throat, "Of course, you're worried about Shiho-kun and I'm falling to pieces about Sakura. Do you think...will they do that to him?" she asked quietly, as if she was speaking of a shameful act.
"It is his fate," Ran said after a pause. "And it will be his honor, if he is chosen. It was what he was born to do, after all."
Chouko leaned forward abruptly, placing both her hands over Ran's. "But it isn't fate, don't you see?" she pleaded her. "It's them. It's this family. It doesn't have to be like this. Let's take the children. Run away," she suggested frantically. "Shiho-kun is gentle and well-mannered, a very good child. You can't mean to sacrifice him to this madness!"
Ran pointedly withdrew her hands and rested them on her lap. "You heard what Katsuo-san told you," she said coldly, "but you did not listen. Do you believe that we branch clan members wish to live like this? And only a madman or a fool would wish the main house's kekkei genkai on themselves. It tears away all that makes a person human." She bit her tongue to keep from saying more. If her daughter resembled her in spirit, Ran had no doubt that young Sakura would fail the test. And that would be more than a pity, for Shiho had spoken to her in private.
Branch clan members could be chosen for main house members, yes, for there were few opportunities for members of the clan to interact and form connections on their own, but they were not without rights. If a branch member chose, they could appeal to oyakata-sama for the main house member of their choice. Whether or not he granted that appeal was strictly his whim, but the request could be made.
Shiho had expressed to her in halting words the desire to safeguard Sakura if her father decided his ambition was greater than his love for his daughter. And, grudgingly, Ran had agreed to his wish. For Shiho suffered from the secondary condition of the branch clan members, a chronic degenerative disease that would have only given him a few more years as a shinobi in any case before his organs would rapidly begin to fail.
By nature, the branch clan was a kind of parasitic existence. Ran herself was an anomaly, her continued good health a mystery in the face of her bloodline. Most branch family members were in decline by thirty and dead before their fiftieth year. Even at twenty-four, Shijo was beginning to show symptoms. Their disease was an intense calcification of the organs, reducing arterial and smooth muscle flexibility and increasing the strain of those same muscles and organs until their internal landscape resembled those of people four times their age.
But the Haruno branch clan was not limited by death in the same way as a normal human being. Perhaps as a result of their limited lifespan, the branch members had evolved a unique kekkei genkai that hinged on the main house.
For there couldn't have relatives more different in ability. Members of the main house were as long-lived as tortoises, born with pink hair that darkened to red with the development of their kekkai genkai. An ugly, monstrous thing it was, as different as the branch's evolutionary technique for survival as the night was from day.
And they were born to tie themselves to those monsters, leeching on to their lifespan through a jutsu known as Walking in the White Moon Garden. For when their weak, diseased bodies lost their usefulness as waking humans, they became reservoirs for their souls, their soft flesh eroding until only the skeleton remained. But not in a form recognizable as once being human. For in exchange for what passed as "life," they became a weapon, to be used by their new partner.
And those weapons were the only ones allowed in the killing field the tunnels beneath the compound would become as the children struggled to become the heir.
When she said as much to Chouko, the woman turned whiter still.
For my son's sake, Ran thought darkly, you must be a stronger person than your mother, Haruno Sakura.
Haruno Shiho was unaware of the conversation his mother was having only rooms away, occupied as he was with gently detaching a little girl from his pants leg. Fists tightly clenched in the loose fabric, Sakura wore a mulish expression.
"Sakura-chan," he said patiently, "why don't you want to play with the other children?" He could hear them faintly in the courtyard, playing kakurenbo, shrieking with mock fear and delight as the oni drew near. Knowledge of how deadly that game soon would turn made Shiho frown slightly, which did not reassure Sakura.
"Cousin Michiko is scary," Sakura protested, casting her gaze warily toward the courtyard.
Shiho blinked, then recalled the girl she was speaking of. He too had found her frightening, though he doubted their reasons were the same. There was a half-wild light in that little's girls eyes and a reckless disregard for the feelings of others that might have been only a bully's mentality in another family, but Shiho saw in her the signs of an early budding. With the gathering already upon them, oyakata-sama might choose to allow her to live, but if it had not been a gathering year, Shiho had no doubt she would have been culled. A child with a developed kekkei genkai had a natural resistance to the influence of a branch house member. In a worst-case scenario, they could be entirely deaf to the spirit of their weapon.
And for a branch member, consigned to do no more than murder for the rest of their existence, unable to communicate with the person with whom they should most be able to, it was a kind of living hell on earth. No one, not even oyakata-sama, would ask that of someone.
Shiho placed his hand gently on Sakura's petal-soft hair. "You don't have to play with cousin Michiko," he reassured her. "But the other children don't seem so bad. What about cousin Daiki?"
Sakura frowned up at him, but her grip slowly loosened. "Shiho-nii-chan," she asked quietly, pink brows furrowing, "Why are all the grown-ups so upset?"
Shiho silently cursed Sakura's mother, for it was not his place to explain such things to her. What did a child this young and coddled even know of death? Of obligation and loyalty to a clan? Nonetheless, he crouched down in front of her so that his eyes were level with hers. "The adults are upset because tonight is a very special night for the clan. Oyakata-sama hands down his judgments in the dark of the moon and then a white moon will rise just before the dawn. For the last three days, the clan has been counted, evaluated, and observed. Oyakata-sama and the elders have listened to the petitions for partnership and have watched the main house members for symptoms of kekkei genkai emergence. Now that they have a count, they can assign branch house members and prepare them to Walk in the White Moon Garden."
Shiho watched as Sakura tried to follow what he was saying, but bemusement kept her brow wrinkled.
It wasn't as if the main house did not bud except on gathering years, but the work of maintaining the clan was carried out quietly in those years, the oyakata-sama contacting the immediate families of those involved and no more. But on a gathering year, all those activities were suspended, so there were three days of what seemed unending killing as branch members were called upon. But a month later, in the full of the moon, it would be the turn of the main house, as their children died trying to claim the seat of oyakata-sama's heir.
His breath felt short when he thought of Sakura, entrapped in those dark tunnels, lost to the First Flower. Alone. Supported by a stranger. The time for making petitions was almost past and though he'd spoken to his mother about Walking for Sakura, he'd never made mention of his desire to oyakata-sama. Perhaps he had wanted to preserve the illusion of normality that he'd enjoyed so much in Konoha. Maybe had been afraid of the certain death that would follow such a decisive action. Whatever his reason, he had found his resolve now.
Shiho embraced the child before him, swallowing back tears. "I have to go away for a little while," he whispered to her. "But I'll be back soon, so play with the other children. Can you do that for me, Sakura-chan?"
"Do you have to leave?" Sakura whined, darting another frightened glance toward the other children.
Rocking back on his heels, Shiho forced a smile onto his face. "Just for a while." Her anxiety didn't abate and he was reminded that Sakura had been bullied for most of her childhood. It wasn't a phenomena he could explain; Sakura was shy, sweet, and passive, none of which should have attracted the kind of bullying she'd experienced, which had amounted to almost total social isolation. At first, he'd worried that the behavior would promote an early budding, much like Haruno Michiko, but Sakura had never lost the innocence that made it painful to not interfere.
"Why?" Sakura demanded.
"So that I can stay with you for a long, long time, Sakura-chan," he replied.
She peered at him suspiciously through eyes of Haruno jade, but then she nodded. "A long, long time," she parroted. "Promise?"
"It's a forever kind of promise."
When Sakura cautiously slid open the door, she found Ran-oba-san within, her head pillowed on crossed arms, shoulders shaking from the violence of her smothered tears.
Alarmed, she entered, asking, "What's wrong?"
Fierce eyes startled her, rimmed in red, accusatory in a way she was unaccustomed. But Ran-oba-san's voice was level when she spoke. "Nothing is wrong child, this is simply the way things are. If you're looking for Shiho-kun, he will be-," her voice broke slightly, "indisposed for a while longer. Now, please, leave me in peace."
Confused by the disparity between her words and her tears, Sakura shuffled backwards out of the room and fled.
But everywhere in the compound, she only intruded on more scenes of the same as she searched for her parents, who hadn't been in the room when she'd awakened from her afternoon nap. The long shadows cast by the hanging lamps created sinister pools from whence monsters might spring and the house, though she knew it to be filled with other children, was filled with a somber near-silence.
"Kaa-san. Kaa-san!" she whispered into the quiet. Sakura shivered when her mother did not answer. Decided that the familiarity of the empty room was preferable to these strange halls, Sakura turned but found herself quickly at a loss.
Forced to either guess a direction at random or sit down in the middle of the hall and cry, Sakura chose to wonder. It was not courage that prompted her decision, but rather some animal instinct that said that this place was not a welcoming one. Stepping as lightly as she could, wiping her running nose on her sleeve, Sakura padded in sock feet through the maze-like halls, seeing nothing familiar.
Jumping at little noises, Sakura kept going, desperately hoping that an adult would notice her and take her back to her parents. Where are you, kaa-san?
Just ahead, a door slid open and a tall figure stepped smoothly out into the hall. Sakura flinched backward, then crept closer. The man turned his head slightly and Sakura froze, trapped by a gaze that seemed flat and reptilian, as if the being that animated the body wasn't at all human. He was otherwise a perfect doppelganger of a human being; the man had a handsome face, and was lean beneath traditional clothing, his hair so dark a red it was almost a purple-black. But those eyes told a very different tale. This was not a man at all, her terrified imagination supplied, but some manner of youkai, here to devour her.
His voice was soft, pleasant, terrifying. "A little lost child. To whose family to you belong?"
"Haruno Katsuo is my father." Her voice trembled nearly as much as her body.
Those flat eyes widened slightly, pupils dilating with interest. "Ah. It seems luck is with you tonight, child. You've arrived just in time."
With his hand, the man indicated she should enter the room. Sakura wanted nothing more than to run away, but she was certain this man could catch her without effort. So she scraped together what little courage she possessed. "Who are you?"
Sakura bit her lip. It was an answer that wasn't an answer. But he was an adult and a member of the family, so she hesitantly entered the room he'd indicated.
The light was odd, illumination provided only by primitive bowls of oil with a single wick at the four corners of the room. A sharp scent pervaded the room and though the flickering light was uncertain, the tatami seemed discolored. As she stepped further into the room, she realized that not all the shadows upon the wall were caused by the lamps.
When she heard the door close behind her, a scream welled up in her throat.
The order was quiet, but it seemed to resound through her body.
"Haruno Katsuo's daughter...," Shiko ruminated aloud. "You fail to impress. Nevertheless, he is yours now, to do with as you like. I dislike polearms myself. Clumsy. Inelegant."
He seemed to be looking at something as he spoke and Sakura edged forward, to find herself staring at a weapon she had never before seen. White as sun-bleached bone from tip to counterweight, it was longer than Shiki was tall, the pole that the blade was mounted to a little over five foot in length. Rather than the narrow, straight blade of a naginata, this weapon had a curved edge on its sharpened side, the shape reminiscent but not so drastic as a crescent moon. On the blunt side of the blade, just where the blade met shaft, there was a spur from which a tassel of white hair had been hung. Between spur and tip, four rings had been threaded through the metal, if it was metal at all.
"It's a guan dao. A reclining moon blade. Who were you looking for tonight, Sakura?"
"Kaa-san. She wasn't there. I went to Ran-oba-chan's room, but she was crying. She said Shiho-nii-chan was..." she found she could not remember the difficult word Ran-oba-san had used, "Ran-oba-san said Shiho-nii-chan wasn't there. She was crying. I think something bad happened to Shiho-nii-chan," Sakura confided to the frightening man.
"Something bad?" Shiki asked with interest. "Yes. You might say something evil has happened to Shiho."
Sakura started, turning from the guan dao. "You know where Shiho-nii-chan is!" she accused.
"Of course. I am the head of this house. Nothing beneath this roof occurs without my command. Certainly not a ritual of this magnitude."
"Where is Shiho-nii-chan?" Sakura demanded.
One brow rose. Then he glanced back at the guan dao. "There, on the floor. That weapon is your Shiho-nii-chan." His expression turned to objective calculation. "I truly hope that you can show me something interesting, Sakura."
A/N: This was edited after the publishing of the chapters, so if this is your first read-through, you might find the second chapter supplies you with information you've already read and seems in places redundant. Please have patience, as I am working through this story in the hope of regaining my inspiration for it. If this isn't your first read-through and you think this chapter has just become wordier, rather than being improved, please let me know.