Naruto: Crisis: Shinobi Fate
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Hyuuga Hitomi

Hyuuga Hitomi

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Join date : 2016-02-13

Peeling back the Night 2 Empty
PostSubject: Peeling back the Night 2   Peeling back the Night 2 Icon_minitimeTue Feb 16, 2016 1:19 am

Hitomi moves under the twisted branches of the shaped pines in the inner courtyard. For a moment she pauses, considering the tight-wound copper wires and cleverly placed bars of metal that bind the aged tree limbs, torturing them into shapes that at once seemed utterly natural and yet more perfect than anything found in nature. The ninja, she thinks, is not all that different from the bonsai artist. Both wield sharp blades, shaping life as they see fit. The tree limbs are the bonsai artist's disciples. To some she gives support and training, that they might achieve their purest possible form. Others she prunes, ending life where it does not conform to the client's wishes. But to work one tree over so many years--Hitomi lacks the patience for this, and already she has lingered here too long. A night thrush calls from between the buildings of the villa proper up ahead and she moves swiftly, crossing an ornamental pond on a bridge of stones. The bridge, too, shows the exquisite skill of the gardener. Each of its stones has a different texture beneath his feet, yet they are cut so they link intimately to one another like the verses in a court poem: each unique with its own character, yet its shape subtly suggesting and leading to the next verse.

Over another bridge, she runs faster now, ducking through an open gateway with an intricately carved wooden archpiece. She knows the design, sensing its meaning without actually seeing it. It is a landscape: long grain rice growing under a chrysanthemum sun, the symbol of the merchant house of Matsuno--longtime allies of the Uzumaki clan. Odd that one of them should be marked for death--but her training kills the question in her mind before it forms. Words on a scroll float in her memory. There is no motive, no client, no self. There is only what must be done.

* * *

"This," Master Kagero said, stroking a long grey whisker as he stepped away to give his students a view of a single black kanji character drawn on the scroll, "is nin. It is shinobi, the one who walks at night. It is ninja, the one who endures." He pointed to the top of the kanji. "See here the blade that strikes here." His hand traced down the stylized drawing of a blade complete with fleck of blood that formed the top half of the kanji to the strangely curved line and three dots at the bottom that symbolized a heart.

The girl sat with three others in the tea-hall they used as a lecture room for calligraphy lessons. The other boys were older than her, and, for the most part, they preferred the other sort of lesson--where they would run through the high reeds of the plains like gazelles, dance over lily pads like the water-strider, and throw shuriken at dragonflies to practice their aim. Master Kagero stood, brush dripping with black sumi ink in his gnarled hand, and stared at them. Outside, a lazy cicada droned loudly in the summer haze. Sh-sh-sh-shhhh... The master paused, then smiled. "Next lesson!"

"What does it mean, master?" The words were out before the girl could stop hierself. "Why does the blade cut the heart? Who must endure, and what? Is it our enemies who must endure the pain of death by sword, or is it us who must endure the harshness of our training..." She faltered. Master Kagero threw his brush toward the side of the room where it stuck, buried halfway into the wattled straw and clay of the wall, and walked out. The three others looked at the girl, stunned that she had actually asked a question, but before any could speak, the master returned, brandishing a long stick. He jammed the dusty end of the stick into the girl’s ribs. The girl grunted, stifling a cry of pain. "What is this?" cried Master Kagero.

"A walking stick, master?" the girl gasped.

"Tell me then, what does this walking stick mean?"

All was still. The cicada called again from its leafy perch. SH-sh-sh-shhh... The sound trailed off and the master stood glaring, as though he were waiting for the little insect to finish. Then he grunted, and tossed the walking stick out the window. "Dismissed." He walked toward the open doorway, then stopped and turned to look back at where his students sat quivering. "The meaning," said their master, a deep sadness in his voice, "is yours alone to find."

It was three years later that the girl, now a young woman, learned the first part of what Master Kagero hinted at that summer day. She was walking down a mossy path in the forested hill-lands north of the road to Kuwabara in the guise of a traveling paper-seller. She wore a small green cloth upon her head, and carried a heavy satchel of oiled rice paper, cutting tools, and mesh for making more paper should she actually sell her stock. The purpose of her guise was twofold. One, she was to gather information on how the merchant houses were supporting or failing to support Hyouzangakure, and perhaps more importantly, she was to practice being a paper-seller. "A fool can walk down the road wearing the raiment of an emperor, yet the blind mendicant will still know him for the fool," Master Kagero had said. "When you can stand before me, ninja-to sword in hand, clothed in your gi, and still walk as though you carry these rolls of paper on your back, then you may return." And so she was to sell paper, and then, perhaps, she would be a blacksmith, or a samurai, or a weaving woman, as met his master's fancy.

She continued down the path, her feet sinking in mud and leaves sodden with water from a nearby stream that must have overflowed in the recent rains. She could hear the cheery burble of the stream waft up through the trees and it took her mind off the heavy and ill-weighted pack that dug into her back. The path passed between two tall, moss-grown boulders and down to a small wooden bridge that crossed the stream. She stepped out onto its wet planks and was halfway across it when she noticed her.

A woman bathed below the bridge, where the stream widened into a still pool before exiting to rush down a rocky gorge beyond. She had not seen the young kunoichi. Half fearing she was some kind of river kami come to lure her to his death, the young woman quickly hopped back to the bank and behind the shadow of one of the large boulders.

From her new vantage point she could see the woman’s profile, and her heart leapt in her chest. She had never seen someone as beautiful. Her limbs were pale and slender. She had the high, painted eyebrows of the nobility, and lips stained with indigo dye. Her eyes were clearer than the blue glacier ice of the Sokenzan mountains, her cheeks the color of plum blossoms, blushing in the first sun of spring. If indeed she was no kami then, the girl thought, she must be a well-born daughter of some merchant who lived in a longhouse along the main road in town, and came up here to bathe. Then she swam, her every motion a dance of beauty in the young ninja's eyes, and she watched her for what seemed like an eternity before she reluctantly came to her senses. Hefting her pack once more, she quietly made her way out of the river vale. It was in the following weeks, when her every waking and sleeping moment was consumed with thoughts of her, that she realized the meaning of the character "nin"--to endure. Her was the heart that must endure separation from her own kind. She would never take another or have a family. Nor would she ever know a community other than the village. More than this, she could never have her--and the knowledge cut her heart like a blade.

* * *

The blade of a night-guard's spear flashes to her left as Hitomi vaults over the railing of the main hall's veranda. The hall retinue is alert now--the missing sentries have been noticed. Body flat against the wall, she fishes in her pocket for a small sphere. She pulls it out, twists the small cap on one end. Flint and saltpeter grind and the sphere coughs black smoke. She tosses it towards where the guard has emerged into the courtyard. There is a soundless flash, and smoke fills the air, a patch of true night where the moonlight cannot penetrate. More blades shine as her deshi seem to slip out of the air itself and bear down on the blinded sentry. Three pairs of hands catch the body before the armor clangs on the fine gravel path. All happens before the sentry can even cry out. Hitomi turns and pushes a veranda screen to the side, and disappears into the hall.

* * *

The young woman was now grown. She had taken thirty-two other lives. Some were from the North, some southerners, some from the floating lands in the sky. All fall to her blade, and with each successful mission she received another deshi to follow her and learn. She had her own enclave, a satellite to the village but growing stronger with every new pupil who joined her. Already she taught more students than Master Kagero had. As a matter of practicality, she dealt directly with her own clients, so it was with some surprise that she received the summons, inked in the familiar hand of his master. Setting her affairs in order and canceling the remainder of the day's lessons, she set out for the temple at once.

The day was waning when she finally arrived at the temple gardens. The pond where she first learned to walk on the lily pads so many years ago was a steel mirror, reflecting the ruddy light of the setting sun. The grounds seemed deserted, a twice-abandoned temple to faithless gods. From up ahead a gong sounded softly in the falling dusk, the only sound in the still twilight. The woman approached, stepping through the doorless gate, and around the trees that smelled of fragrant cedar and the sweet pawlonia wood that is slow to rot and favored when building temples, and the sacred catalpa wood, once used to draw the kami down from the heavens, now as a ward to keep their mischief at bay. The woman stopped, smelling the air. Then she began what seemed to be a sort of strange, solitary dance, swaying to blend his movements into the sounds of the dusk, and the wind blowing through leaves. The very rhythm of her heart slowed to echo the gentle drumming of the gong. She became one not just with the gong-hammer, but with the hand that held it, the man inside the Temple hall. After moments of sidestepping and prancing forward she reached the door to the hall, keeping every motion in careful harmony with the world around her. She rushed forward with a surge of the wind, then when she felt the wind begin to stop she too held...and a lingering beam of sunlight broke through the trees on the hillside to the west, stirring up a twilight breeze.

Hastily, she flung open the door. The golden gong hung in the middle of the hall, gently swaying on its stand, the beat of the soft hammer still shimmering in the air. But as for the one who wielded the hammer, nothing could be seen. The woman's face twisted in chagrin at the wind's treachery and her failure.

"It is an easy thing to be invisible, like the kami " said a familiar voice. "They walk the veil between worlds. Step to the other side, the kakuriyo and to a mortal, you are gone. Step to our side, the utsushiyo and you are one of us." Laughing, Master Kagero dropped down from the hall rafters with the eerie grace of a spirit kumo. "Did you know, Benihisui, that some among the Joki have trained themselves to smell the kami? Yes, even the gods have weaknesses. Let the kami have their veils of invisibility, it is a far harder thing to remain in this world yet be unseen."

It was a lesson the woman had heard many times, yet one thing her master said gave her pause. "Benihisui?"

"Yes, Kokou no Benihisui… The lofty crimson jade...that is your name now."

"But only a Sannin may..." Suddenly, the answer to her question was plain to her before she could speak the words.

"You are a master now." Master Kagero straightened, taking a formal stance. "Crimson Jade, I name you. It is to your good fortune that I am no enemy to you. Never forget that you are mortal, Hitomi."

Master Kagero's shoulders dropped, and for a moment it seemed as though the wearying burden of age he had stealthily evaded all his life had finally caught up to him. "We have a new client," he said, shuffling back to his desk against the wall, drawing out a scroll trimmed with exquisite gilt brocade. From over his master's bent back, Higure could see the silvery flow of Sky claigraphy. She wondered who one of the Sky dwellers would want dead, and why, but she was much older now than the girl who had so foolishly asked her master a question in the learning hut with the walls of wattle and clay. Master Kagero swiftly rolled up the scroll and turned to face her. "You will be going back to the hill-lands."

* * *

Hitomi moves silently up the tightly wound mahogany stair, coming to the hallway that runs alongside the lotus chamber of the villa, where the noble folk would reside when not greeting visitors in the reception hall below. A screen slides open. She presses against the wall and listens to a voice from down the hall.

"No, Kio, I told you it is safe here, and here you shall remain." A pause, then the voice continues, softer. "I am your father and you will obey me." She moves three screens down to see the man where he stands talking to someone in the inner chamber. "Do not worry," the man says, hands fumbling to fasten the leather strap of his heavy iron helm, "they're probably just gambling in the orchard again. I will see what has happened and be right back."

The painted screen slides shut and the man walks down the hall, passing not more than a hand's-width away from where Hitomi stands. The samurai merchant Matsuno is heavy-set and walks down the mahogany stairs with a slight sway, as though he was favoring his right leg--an old injury, perhaps. Out from his hiding place, Hitomi pads to the screen, throwing it open.

She enters the room walking heavily, the limp in her right leg barely noticeable but there all the same. A charcoal brazier in the corner suffuses the room in smoky light, but dark enough for Hitomis deception to work, and the nobleman's son looks up from where he sits, bedecked in resplendent purple robes. No, not his son--his daughter. The pale and slender limbs. the high, painted eyebrows, lips stained with indigo dye, eyes clearer than glacier ice and cheeks the color of plum blossoms--all are exactly as she remembers the woman who bathed in the river by the bridge those many years ago. It is her.

Hitomi's mind boils. She hears voices--a girl, a young woman, a woman inside her clamoring to be heard. Then, another voice, the voice of wisdom giving a lesson on a hot summer day. "The meaning is yours to find." Suddenly she knows what it means. The sword that Master Kagero drew on that scroll a lifetime ago was the ninja-to she now carries, and the heart was her own.

The lady Kio rises, protesting her confinement, only realizing something is amiss when she sees the charcoal-light shine on naked steel and Hitomi’s smooth helmet. "You are not my father," she whispers, her voice as cold as the mountain stream in which she once bathed. "My father was a warrior who fought on the field of battle--a true man. You are no man."

"No," Hitomi replies, "I am ninja."

A scream echoes in the wood-paneled halls. In the light of charcoal embers spilled from a kicked-over brazier, a crimson stain spreads over indigo and onto the tatami mat floor of the lotus chamber. Outside the night is still, the moon hangs heavily in the sky. The only sound is the chirping of crickets. Then they, too, fall silent.

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