Gensō no Tsunemori
When the nausea of whatever had just happened wore off, Hinata looked first to where her parents were – no, to where her parents had been. They were gone! In their place lay a featureless, dark void.
Hinata shuffled closer to Kurama, once again in human form, and grasped the sleeve of his haori. Once she had that anchor of safety, she took stock of her surroundings.
In every direction, there was only darkness. A mist crept along the floor, an icy dampness even through clothing, stretching on until it faded away into the shadows. On either side of them, a brazier burned with an otherworldly fire of green and purple. It was the only source of illumination, and even then, it gave off the impression that it ate shadows rather than cast light. The summoning scroll that had precipitated this lay at their feet. Following Kurama’s line of sight, Hinata saw the glint of something large and white in the distance.
A voice that could only belong to something truly massive filled the air. “Oh? You are who would be our new summoners?” It spoke with a curiosity laced in malice. The light caught on a row of white now as the thing in the dark spoke. They were teeth, Hinata realized, each one larger than she stood tall! Then its enormous eyes shone a horrible red to confirm their owner’s gargantuan size.
Hinata, too terrified to scream and draw attention to herself, hid behind Kurama. He remained brave and unmoved and might very well be her only hope of survival. From there, she worked up the courage necessary to peek over his shoulder.
“What have you done with our previous contractor, I wonder,” the voice continued, closer now.
“Enough, Inari!” Kurama said. “You’re traumatizing the kit.”
All fell silent. The eyes faded. The teeth vanished. In the quiet, moments passed one after another until a figure appeared from the dark. It at least appeared human, even if the fox ears and tail likely purposefully gave away its true nature. It dressed in fine silk of the purest white with hair and fur to match. As it drew close enough to better see its face, Hinata couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. The rest of its figure gave no hints either, not that it mattered much. If her mother’s stories had any grain of truth, it could probably be either or indeed anything it wished.
When the former fox – Inari? – fully came into the light, it’d already locked eyes with Kurama. It approached with a blank expression, shrinking with each step to more closely match their own size. Then once it’d come within arm’s reach, confusion settled in on its face. It leaned closer and sniffed. That only seemed to confuse it at first, but a wide grin soon grew on its face.
“Kurama,” it said. It sounded amused, perhaps even restraining a fit of laughter. “I thought that might be you, but what’s this?” It looked Kurama up and down, snickering. “You got yourself sealed away again. Not fully, clearly, but I heard the toads’ youngest dispersed your physical manifestation.”
Kurama muttered something Hinata didn’t catch. Her movement to better hear, however, caught the attention of the giant fox in human form.
“Ah, yes, the kit. Hinata Hyūga, I think it was.”
Perhaps an eep wasn’t the most dignified response, but Hinata felt it very appropriate as she shrunk back more fully behind Kurama.
“Hmm, she has the eyes. That makes her your…first cousin how many times removed?”
Kurama shrugged. “I settled on ‘niece’. Be nice to her. She’s my high priestess.”
That finally broke the fox’s restraint. It erupted into full on laughter, not stopping until it’d doubled over and wheezed as it breathed.
“Are you done?” Kurama asked, not amused.
“Yes, yes. For now,” the fox replied. It first collected itself more fully and then said, “A deal, then. You will tell me everything of your life since your sealing. In exchange, I won’t ask how my summoning scroll came into your possession.”
Kurama, after a moment’s thought, bit out a terse, “Fine.”
“Good. Now introduce me properly to the kit.”
With a sharp nod, Kurama twisted his head around to peer behind him as best as human anatomy would allow. “Hinata, this is Inari, the head of the fox tribe. Be polite and say hello.” He then shifted suddenly, leaving Hinata very much exposed despite her lingering grip on the back of his haori.
Hinata mumbled, “I, um…” before trying to hide herself behind Kurama again.
Kurama was having none of that, however. He grasped Hinata’s arms and led her to stand in front of him not entirely unlike how her mother would sometimes do. Inari, meanwhile, put on a friendly smile and patiently waited for her to find her voice.
“I… I’m Hinata Hyūga.” Falling back on the very basic formalities she’d been taught, she bowed too quickly to be graceful and added, “It’s very nice to meet you.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you too,” Inari said. “I’m eager to learn more about the girl who managed to get this grump” – he glanced up at Kurama, who snorted – “to act downright parental.”
Hinata blushed and stared down at her feet. She didn’t have the slightest clue how to respond to that.
“But,” Inari continued, “that can wait.” Once more, he turned his attention to Kurama behind Hinata. “I have more amusing business to attend to first.”
A spike of killing intent surged from Kurama, much to Inari’s amusement. Hinata, long since inured to it, let it wash over her without paying it any mind.
Inari snapped a pair of fingers. The darkness fled before new light, illuminating a massive hall fit for a fox as big as a manor itself. The braziers beside them now lit with proper fire to signify the change in atmosphere. In the background, dozens upon dozens of foxes sat watching them while more still moved about in the background. Their sizes varied from a newborn kit to just larger than a human with a few notable exceptions reaching even greater heights. Where Inari had originally been was a massive, ornate cushion. Clearly, this was either a throne room or, at the very least, an audience chamber of some sort.
“Everyone, we have two new summoners!”
At Inari’s declaration, the foxes broke out into excited cheers and, judging by their movements, eager whispers.
“The girl is Hinata Hyūga, the niece of our other contractor. Treat her with respect. She’s young and shy.” Inari now grinned mischievously. “As for the other, I think you all remember Kurama the nine-tailed fox.”
The responses ranged from shock to glee to outright hostility. Hinata gathered that they did.
“Have fun with him.”
In deadly seriousness, Kurama growled, “Inari, I am going to kill you.”
“Perhaps,” Inari said dismissively, “but not today.”
With that, the foxes all went on their way once Inari dismissed them. Most stayed in their natural form, but several shifted into another animal or even a human shape. A few even turned into birds and flew off through an open door. Despite the terrifying false start, Hinata couldn’t reach any conclusion as she watched the crowd but that this would be a fascinating place to explore.
Meanwhile, Inari picked up the summoning scroll on the ground. It shrank to a more age-appropriate size, and Inari sent one of the smaller foxes off to retrieve a baldric for it. It was a fairly short wait, and Hinata soon found herself with the scroll strapped to her back.
“I entrust this contract to you,” Inari said gravely. “If it’s destroyed, you’ll lose your connection to us. If it’s stolen, well, don’t let that happen. It’d embarrass us all. We’re very good thieves when we wish to be, you know.”
Hinata hadn’t known that, but she’d keep it in mind in case the need ever arose. Regardless, she promised to take good care of the summoning scroll. The vow may have come out more nervous and timid than she wanted, but she chose to remember otherwise.
“Now then.” Gesturing to the fox who’d brought the baldric, a beautiful red fox standing nearly a head taller than the other three present with the distinctly svelte features of a vixen, Inari said, “Hinata, this is Tamamizu. Tamamizu, please look after Hinata for us while Kurama and I catch up with one another.”
“Of course,” Tamamizu said with a slight bow of her head. She turned to Hinata and asked, “Are you comfortable with me like this?”
Hinata nodded a little too fiercely to be polite. But she desperately wanted to run her hands across Tamamizu’s fur and bury her cheeks in its coat. It looked so soft and silky. That couldn’t be good manners, however. She might be new here, but that seemed self-evident.
With that settled, Inari lastly added, “Then we shall be off. Hinata, welcome to Gensō no Tsunemori. Feel free to make yourself at home here and enjoy your stay.”
As Kurama and Inari departed together, the latter whispered something apparently amusing into Tamamizu’s ear, judging by the snickers that followed. Kurama raised a skeptical eyebrow at the exchange, but Inari left it a mystery, and their conversation quickly turned to other things as they wandered away.
That left Hinata alone in Tamamizu’s charge.
Hitomi felt her breaths come shallow. Her vision blurred as she lost focus. She forced herself to not think, to not react, to not panic, to not anything. She’d lost two children already. If she wasn’t careful, she could lose another.
Beside her, Hiashi remained frustratingly calm as he stared at his empty hands which once held the summoning scroll. He stood there for a few moments, processing what had just occurred right in front of them that they’d been powerless to prevent. Then he woke as if from a trance and merely rumbled, “Strange. But not altogether unexpected.”
“What!” Had Hiashi known this could happen the entire time and not told her?
Hiashi blinked and then turned to Hitomi. “Ah, signing the contract allows both parties to summon any of their opposite. You were unaware?”
“Yes!” Hitomi shrieked. No one had ever told her summoners could be hauled off to an alternative plane of existence without so much as a by your leave! “What are we going to do about this?” They didn’t even have the scroll anymore to sign themselves.
To his great credit, Hiashi revealed that he’d prepared for this eventuality. “Once we successfully retrieved the scroll, the hokage asked Enma to personally make the journey to the foxes’ domain.”
That name sounded vaguely familiar. It took a few moments for Hitomi to remember where she’d heard it. “The monkey king?” she asked.
Hiashi nodded. “If necessary, he will negotiate on the children’s behalf.”
A moment passed before Hitomi breathed out, “Well.” That was a load off her mind, not that she would stop worrying. That was her solemn duty as a mother. “How long will they be gone?”
This time Hiashi could only offer a shrug. “Moments. Days. Years. The foxes shall keep them for as long as they wish.”
That was far less reassuring. Time didn’t mean the same thing to spirits, even the animal summons, as it did to humans. And it wasn’t just that they lived nigh on immortal lives. Hitomi had heard stories of humans attending a spirit’s celebration only to return centuries later as though they’d only been gone a few days. While the more extreme tales never involved any of the known summons, the possibility nonetheless remained.
Yet what more could they do now but wait?
The world outside of the foxes’ dwellings was like nothing Hinata had expected. The great forest outside Inari’s palatial den above ground was always shifting and changing. A thin fog forever hung in the air, and strange flora she’d never even dreamt of spread out in every direction. Despite living in the Village Hidden in the Leaves, she couldn’t identify any of the trees. The flowers, too, were new to her and bloomed in a hundred beautiful colors. Odd, green-glowing fungi attached themselves to most of the detritus. Tamamizu said that most people mistook it for foxfire, and she easily believed it. Further off, she could see will-o’-wisps appear and vanish as if in a playful dance that made her wonder if they were actually hitodama. Accompanying them were the tiny lights of insects Tamamizu called fireflies.
Hinata had never seen a place so vibrant and alive. “Your home is so pretty.”
“Yes, it is,” Tamamizu replied. “But it’s not without its dangers. The further you travel, the more likely you are to find yourself ensnared within an illusion.”
An illusion? “You mean a genjutsu? The forest can cast them?” Even the youngest, most untrained Hyūga, Hinata knew, could see through those so long as their Byakugan remained active.
But Tamamizu shook her head. “No, your language doesn’t have a word for it. The forest…shifts, yet remains the same. Direction here has less meaning than connections. I know the way from my home to Inari’s and how to return, but I couldn’t draw you a map. Visitors without a guide have gotten lost in the forest forever.”
From her perch atop Tamamizu’s withers, Hinata more tightly hugged herself into the fox’s neck.
Tamamizu chuckled as she walked. “Worry not, little summoner. If you are lost, we can call you home so long as you remain contracted to us.”
That banished Hinata’s unease entirely, and she returned to absorbing as much of the forest as she could. Who knew when she would next have a chance to visit or if she ever would?
After a time, Hinata asked something she should have long ago. “Where are we going?”
“To see a friend first. Inari asked me to see you properly outfitted for your station during your stay here.”
Hinata inhaled at unknowingly making such a gaffe. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know summoners had a uniform.”
“You misunderstand, little summoner. Your situation at home may be different, but here we recognize you as–” A small noise that Hinata couldn’t quite identify escaped Tamamizu. “–Kurama’s high priestess. It’s important that you dress accordingly.”
Oh, that was even worse! She hazarded asking, “How important?”
“Very,” Tamamizu replied, solemn and serious.
And thus they were off with Hinata silently ever wishing Tamamizu would walk a little faster. This error had to be corrected as soon as possible!
It wasn’t too long before strands of white began appearing in the forest, hanging from branches, caught between plants, or just stuck to the ground. Hinata didn’t recognize them for what they were at first, but that only lasted until she saw a giant web spun into the image of a fox beside a beautiful woman. It was a work of art, no doubt, but what made it worried her.
Knowing exactly what was on Hinata’s mind, Tamamizu said, “Arachne is a guest resident, an excellent weaver and seamstress, admittedly a bit enthusiastic about her work, and yes, she sources her own silk. Be polite. She’s very nice.”
Hinata gulped. She could do this. She would do this. It was her responsibility, and if Arachne proved generous enough to provide her with clothing, she would accept that kindness with all due gratitude.
Much to Hinata’s surprise, Arachne didn’t live in a giant web in the trees. No, instead she’d made her home inside of a cave behind a small waterfall. Perhaps she was a trapdoor spider? Regardless, the entrance was somewhat dank, but a thin trail of smoke rising up and out along the cave ceiling explained the slowly rising temperature as Tamamizu carried them deeper within.
Then at last they came upon Arachne’s workshop. It overflowed with fabrics, yarns, dyes, dresses, kimono, coats, and every other type of clothing imaginable. A few tapestries hung against what little free space existed on the walls. Several looms held works in progress either abandoned or awaiting further attention. Beside the fireplace, a bewitchingly beautiful woman sat upon a very comfortable looking chair embroidering a handkerchief with a faint smile and a faraway expression.
A sinking feeling grew in Hinata’s chest and she herself sunk more closely into Tamamizu. This was so much worse than she’d thought. Arachne wasn’t a spider summon. She was a jorōgumo. Hinata hadn’t known they were real.
And then Tamamizu drew attention to them long before Hinata was ready.
“Arachne, how are you?”
The jorōgumo slowly drew out of her thoughts and turned toward them. Her smile widened. “Tamamizu. I’m well, of course, but how are you? It’s been too long.”
“Ah, well, busy,” Tamamizu replied. “Our last summoner called upon me often.”
“Last summoner? I wasn’t aware…” It was then that Arachne finally noticed Hinata obscured behind Tamamizu’s neck. “Oh my! Is that – oh dear, how rude of me.” She rose and drew nearer, and Hinata fought to do no more than grip Tamamizu’s coat a little tighter when she shifted to better expose her passenger. “Welcome to my workshop, little one. I’m Arachne, the greatest weaver of every world.”
Tamamizu jerked her back, prompting Hinata to return the courtesy. “I’m Hinata Hyūga.”
“A pleasure, Hinata.” Arachne eyed her up and down. “This is a fine cut of cloth. Excellent pattern. Do you happen to know who designed it?”
It took a moment for Hinata to realize that Arachne was referring to her kimono. She shook her head.
“A pity. Ah, well, what can I do for you two? Are you just making the rounds, or do you have work for me?”
“A little of the former, mostly the latter,” Tamamizu replied. “Our new summoner here is a priestess in need of appropriate attire.”
That visibly surprised Arachne. “Truly? Well, we can’t have that. Allow me a few moments to throw something together, then.”
And with nothing more than that, Arachne flew into a flurry of motion. She pulled fabrics from their shelves, retrieved a suitable selection of matching threads, tossed everything onto a workbench, and then finally set to taking Hinata’s measurements after a bit of gentle but stern insistence from Tamamizu.
Once all that was done, Tamamizu curled up beside the fireplace while Arachne worked. At some point, she fell into a peaceful slumber. Hinata, meanwhile, entertained herself with examining the various materials and clothes in the room when she wasn’t ever less warily watching Arachne practicing her craft.
Eventually, Hinata worked up the nerve to start a conversation. “Um… Arachne, um, I… I was wondering…”
Arachne glanced up from the red hakama currently receiving most of her attention. After a brief look at Hinata, her face of concentration shifted into a weary smile. “You were wondering what a jorōgumo is doing living amongst the fox summons.”
Hinata nodded, somewhat abashed for being so obvious.
“Perhaps another time, darling,” Arachne allowed. “It’s a long story involving me not eating a rather handsome man.”
That raised so many more questions than it answered!
“Would you mind if I asked how you became a priestess so young?”
As this wasn’t Konoha or even the human world and the foxes all knew Kurama personally, Hinata decided, after a moment of thought, that it would be okay to answer. “I gave Kurama a cinnamon bun. Then he said I was his high priestess.” She still wasn’t entirely certain what that meant, but he hadn’t complained yet, so she must have been doing a good job.
A moment passed.
“Darling,” Arachne began, “I think I may be missing a few details. Context is key, you know.”
Slowly, Arachne coaxed the full story out of Hinata a bit at a time until she’d painted the whole picture.
Once Hinata finished – or at least once Arachne was satisfied – the woman said, “I see. Well, I can certainly say you’ve done a fine job. Do continue to be a good friend to Kurama.”
Hinata wore a proud smile for quite some time after that. Tamamizu woke up a while later and engaged Arachne in idle conversation about the happenings of the forest. The two kindly offered an explanation whenever Hinata, who, lacking anything better to do, had sat with them and absorbed the chatter, chimed in with a question.
Then at long last, Arachne proclaimed that she had all but finished. She only required a final fitting to stamp her seal of approval on the project.
In perfect honesty, the white kosode and red hakama Arachne dressed her in consisted of the single most comfortable outfit Hinata had ever worn. The fit was better than any she’d ever had despite the woman’s fussing over the fine details, and the spider silk felt warm, durable, and smooth against her skin. It was perfect.
When Arachne finished the minor alterations necessary to the uniform, Hinata thanked her profusely. It didn’t matter to her, Hinata was sure, but in the human world, the clothing would constitute an exorbitant gift. The satchel lovingly embroidered with flowers she offered to store Hinata’s old clothes in only made it more so.
“It was nothing, dear. Come back when it starts feeling snug. I’ll make you something a size larger.”
With that parting promise made, Hinata and Tamamizu departed for the forest above.
When they were once again outside, Tamamizu asked, “See? She’s not so bad, is she?”
Hinata shook her head, not that it did any good with her riding atop Tamamizu as she had before. “Where are we going next?” she then asked.
A long hum emanated from Tamamizu. “Traditionally, you would learn to use a bow. Especially with your eyes. Are you interested?”
Hinata, naturally, said, “Yes!”
“Then we shall have to see to having a bow made for you.”