The flames soared in the Uchiha District that night—so bright that even those who lived on the other side of the city could see them with ease. They had come bursting forth from some depths under the earth, spreading across the entire community in what seemed like only a blink.
House after house, instantly devoured. The flames licked up the electricity lines and all along the wires, snapping them and sending them whipping about in the harsh winds, still burning, hissing like vipers. The trees in the district were consumed as well, one after the other exploding from the heat, cannon shots that rent the night apart.
It swallowed lives too, of course. The same way it swallowed everything else.
Such was the suddenness and intensity of the disaster that by the time the conflagration was finally under control, the entire Uchiha District had been reduced to little more than ashes, leaving behind only charred husks of brick and stone. After several hours of fruitless searching, the respective heads of the search and rescue team and the on-scene medical personnel could only exchange muted stares. Throughout the entire Uchiha district, not one person had survived. The most renowned clan since the Land of Fire’s founding had been wiped out in a single night.
The chief police inspector sighed as he concluded his report. He had closed his notebook and was about to head back to the station to make his report when a sudden, nearby ‘plunk’ caught his attention.
A little boy had dropped his backpack on the sidewalk next to his car. He was no more than seven or eight years old, with dark, choppy hair plastered to his face with sweat and a face that was pale as chalk. His tiny fists were balled at his sides even as he stood unmoving, the contents of his schoolbag spilling out across the ground—books, folders, pencils, and from just behind the zipper—a family photo.
That snapped the inspector out of his stupor. He walked up to the child—quickly, but carefully, so as not to scare him off. Instinct gained through years of experience was screaming at him about the boy’s importance to the upcoming investigation. It was paramount that he approached him correctly. “What is your name, little one?” he asked in as gentle a voice as he could muster.
An eternity of silence passed, and at last the boy’s gaze seemed to shift. Dark, dark eyes—empty, listless—turned upon the inspector, and when the child spoke at last to answer the question even his voice seemed tinny and hollow, as if echoing forth from a shell.
“……Sasuke,” he answered at last. “Uchiha Sasuke.”
Uzumaki Naruto woke to the sound of an all-out assault on his door. When he had finally managed to drag himself to the entryway and haul it open, Jiraiya’s laugh so startled him that his toothbrush fell out of his mouth and hit the floor with a flop. “Jiraiya-sensei, you’re here too early, it’s not even four a.m,” he mumbled, rubbing his eyes as he retrieved and cleaned his unfortunate toiletry.
“Nonsense! Your magic is strongest at sunrise, so we have to be at Tsunade’s place at least an hour before the sun rises! You know her temper as well as I do, kid. Trust me, it’s better to get there early.” Still grinning, Jiraiya wandered into the tiny apartment and plopped a small plastic bag on the table. “Look, I even brought you breakfast, like the good, thoughtful teacher I am!”
Naruto stuck the cleaned toothbrush back in its cup. He gave Jiraiya a flat look. “I’m not a kid anymore, sensei.”
“At least let me help you this much,” Jiraiya said, beaming, “I brought your favorite! It should still be warm, in fact.”
“What about you?”
“I already ate, kiddo! You better hurry and eat it though, to show your appreciation for my hard work. It’s from Icharaku’s so it’d be a shame if you let it cool off.”
“Icharaku’s?” Naruto repeated, perking up at the familiar name. He hurried over to the table and tore open the plastic bag, his eyes lighting up at the sight of the packaging. He yanked off the lid, and the dizzying smell of salt and broth filled the room with its cheerful aroma. The proper words of “awesome, thanks!” had barely squeezed past his lips before he was attacking the noodles with fervor, like a man who had not eaten in days.
“You’re still such a child,” Jiraiya remarked affectionately as he watched Naruto polish off the container within minutes.
Naruto, for the matter, just sat and grinned, too full of warm noodles to even think about filing complaints. “Have you been to Tsunade-baa-chan’s place before?” he asked with a slight belch, “I’ve known her for a while now, but I’ve never actually been there.”
“I’ve been there once, but that was before you were born, because after that I had to keep my eyes on you all the time! That said, normally Tsunade wouldn’t go either, but this time it’s special circumstances, since she’s prepared your summoning station and artifacts there. I will also meet you there in the future to trade information with you, once this whole fiasco gets off the ground.”
Naruto nodded. “Yeah, I know that, but I’m still a little worried you know? The War of the Holy Grail has nothing to do with you or Tsunade-baa-chan originally, and helping a competitor isn’t exactly the safest job I mean. Are you both sure you want to do this?”
“Ha! You’re still thinking about this now, Naruto? I’ve told you before to stop worrying about it. The grail chose you as a master, not me or Tsunade. No matter how this goes, the other teams in the war will be sure to target you first, rather than taking the long way to come after me or her, and besides, it’s not like we can’t handle ourselves in a fight. You just have to take care of yourself boy!”
“I know you and baa-chan can take care of yourselves,” Naruto answered, “but those teams will be comprised of both masters and servants, and you know normal mages don’t stand a chance. Even though I’m technically the prime target, they could still go after you to try and use you against me, which I definitely wouldn’t want.”
Jiraiya stared for a moment before he burst out laughing. “Oh Naruto, you’re too kind!” he said, guffawing still, “when I say don’t worry about it I mean it! It’s not like Tsunade and I are fresh on the magic scene, so you just fret about that wine cup of yours alright? Remember, you winning the grail is the best thing Tsunade and I could hope for, since you’re probably the only kind of person who wouldn’t abuse its power to grant your wish.”
At the word “wish,” Naruto’s eyes dimmed for briefly, but in the very next instant the look was gone. “Yeah,” he said with his usual cheer, “I’ll definitely win the grail, so don’t you worry.”
“That’s right.” Jiraiya nodded approvingly. “Then let’s prepare to go, shall we? It’s almost time anyway.”
Naruto grinned a little sheepishly. “Ah, uh, yeah. Just, let me go get changed first okay?” And he took off to his bedroom without waiting for a response.
Left alone in the empty living room, Jiraiya sighed deeply. “Kids these days,” he said, but even as he complained he was smiling. “But, that’s the way it should be.”
When Naruto and Jiraiya had finally made it to the old Senju compound, Tsunade was already there waiting for them. “You’re finally here,” she harrumphed, glaring at Jiraiya. “I told you to be here by 4:15 am, and now it’s nearly 4:30 already. You know the sun’s rising in twenty-seven minutes—don’t you know the significance of being on time for once, damn it?”
Naruto rubbed his head and laughed. “Uh, it’s not really Jiraiya sensei’s fault this time, Baa-chan, it was me who got out the door late, so you should probably be angry at me instead, you know?”
Tsunade turned towards Naruto, noticeably softening her gaze as she did so. “Oh you,” she said, “it’s fine, you’re not irreparably late anyhow. Come with me now, I’ve already prepared the summoning circle and everything. Once we’re inside, I’ll give you the artifact.”
And so the two followed Tsunade into the Senju compound. It was a structure for its time—steeped in traditional architecture, grandly designed but detailed in all the right places. The many courtyards they passed were lined with wooden buildings, with their elaborate window carvings still intact, and the gardens themselves were planned down to the last blade of grass. Despite it having been centuries, the wooden walkways beneath their feet still gleamed, as if they had just been laid down the day before.
“Is this place usually cleaned?” Naruto could not help asking as they continued to walk deeper into the compound.
Tsunade shook her head. “No. This place was designed and built by my direct ancestors, long ago in the shinobi era. They used some sort of technique that has since been lost to seal away everything within this area, so that time no longer seemed to affect it. Everything you see here is exactly as it was a thousand years ago.”
“Then why don’t you live here year-round, baa-chan? You’d never grow old then,” Naruto said, half-jokingly.
“It’s not that simple. Whatever technique they used does not seem to work on people. Even though these plants and these buildings have all been sealed away in this bubble, the humans who once lived here still grow old. If it really was as you say……” Tsunade let out a breath and paused. “Never mind. Point is, Naruto, no one can live in the past forever, as I’m sure Jiraiya’s already told you before. Now come on in,” she said, pulling open the door to the innermost building of the compound—a nine-story tower that resembled the Buddhist temples of old.
The interior of the tower was surprisingly well-lit. They were standing on the lowest floor of the tower, and the last of the stars and moon streamed through the many carved windows, throwing latticed shadows on the ground. “Ninth floor,” Tsunade said, leading the way up the stairs. Naruto and Jiraiya exchanged a glance but followed regardless.
“Tsunade-baa-chan, aren’t servant summonings usually held as close to the ground as possible? I thought we needed to be close to the ley lines underground,” Naruto asked on the seventh floor, unable to hold back the question any longer.
“The servant I prepared for you to summon is no common one,” Tsunade said, smiling. “Do you still remember the spell for the summoning? Servants are not called ‘keeper of the balance’ for nothing—the line refers to the abilities of the first person with the capacity be summoned as such—his summoning circle requires a balance between the earth and sky. My ancestors did not build this compound without reason. I’ve done years of research, and I’ve found that this tower right here was not only built over the most concentrated group of earth magic ley lines in Konoha, but also optimally situated to absorb the magic floating in the air. This is the best place there can be to summon him.”
“Wait a second,” Naruto frowned as he listened to her words, “Baa-chan, are you…having me summon one of your ancestors? Isn’t that a little, uh, rude for me?”
Tsunade just laughed as an indirect answer. She climbed up the last flight of stairs and crossed the threshold, gesturing for Naruto and Jiraiya to catch up. Only when they were all within the top floor of the tower did she turn to Naruto once more, her expression more serious than he had ever seen her. “Look closely,” she said, before reaching both hands to the back of her neck. The necklace she untied and brought forth was exceedingly simple in design, little more than a string if not for the brilliant jade jewel that seemed to reflect the sun.
“Naruto. Legend says, that this necklace is a direct memento passed down from my greatest ancestor, the one who raised this city from the ground. It has been passed down in my family through generations, and it is also the artifact I said I would give you. People say it would bring its wearer luck, but for me it has brought nothing but sorrow, and so I am passing it to you—because I believe that you can change its fortunes.”
Speechless, Naruto stared at the necklace in Tsunade’s hands. At last, he reached out, and ever so slowly closed his fist around that gleaming green jewel. Although the piece could not have weighed more than a few handfuls of rice in actuality, he still felt it bear down like a stone in his hands, trust-laden. “I understand,” he said softly, “I will keep it well.”
“I know you will.”
Swallowing once, Naruto steeled his resolve and walked into the center of the summoning circle that Tsunade had already drawn for him, gently laying down the necklace before backing out to the perimeter. The light of a new sun was just now peeking over the horizon, spilling its pale brilliance through the tower windows. He could feel his magic surge within him—it was time. “Wish me luck,” he said to himself, before pulling out a short blade and slashing his palm, pressing his bleeding hand to the edge of the circle. And without once taking his eyes off the jewel in the center, he began to chant the time-honored words:
I shall declare here.
Your self is under me, my fate is in your sword.
With the call of the Holy Grail, if you abide by this feeling, this reason—then answer.
Here is my oath. I shall attain all the world’s virtues. I shall rule over all the world’s evils.
You, seven heavens clad in three words of power, arrive from the ring of deterrence,
O keeper of the balance!
A blast of white light exploded with the circle as its epicenter—it blended briefly with the dawning sun, before dispersing in all directions. By the time Naruto could open his eyes again, the jewel at the circle’s heart had disappeared, replaced by a placid-looking man with a heavy eastern air. He was dressed plainly in a light green kimono jacket, a dark shirt, and wide striped kimono pants, all of which complimented his long, silky dark hair that spilled down to his waist. When he opened his eyes, Naruto noticed that they were dark as well, and warm, filled with life.
“And you must be my master,” the servant mused as he looked unmistakably towards Naruto. “It’s nice to meet you. My name is Senju Hashirama, and I will be the Saber class for this war.”
Naruto glanced down in surprise, and sure enough, his three command spells were changing shape, forming a cross-like pattern on the back of his right hand. He looked back up and could not help the beaming grin that he knew he was now sporting, relief sweet on his tongue.
“And you must be Tsunade-baa-chan’s great ancestor, Hashirama-san,” he said, walking easily up to the still-seated servant and sticking out his hand. “Good to meet ya! I’m Uzumaki Naruto, your partner in crime for this Holy Grail war, and I can’t wait to start working with you.”