• GROWL...
    "Aw man, I'm hungry..." said Naruto, as he walked across the woods, "How far is it, Pervy Sage?"
    "Just a little longer, Naruto," said Jiraiya, who was walking beside him, "You can see it from the clearing ahead."
    "Well, if it isn't too far, I guess I can wait..."
    "I miss Teuichi's ramen..." Naruto sighed.
    "Hmm, tell you what. I'll treat you to a feast once we get there. You have been training hard, after all."
    "Really? Aw, thanks, Pervy Sage!" Naruto grinned.
    "Heh-heh... I'm proud of you, Naruto. I was actually a little surprised to know you defeated that demon back in the previous village."
    "Oh yeah, that was one intense battle! I can't forget that day! Can't believe it's already a week since we left. Feels like a month!" Naruto smiled, "I hope Aoi's okay..."
    "She'll be fine. I wouldn't worry about her much if I were..." Jiraiya stopped.
    Something rustled behind the trees. Naruto and Jiraiya heard it.
    "It seems we have company, Naruto, Get ready!"
    "I'm way ahead of you, Pervy Sage," said Naruto, breaking his knuckles, "Heh, I haven't had any real action in a week!"


    A few minutes later, Naruto and Jiraiya arrived at the clearing; Naruto was looking pretty sullen, with his head low. From the look ion his face, one could say that he was irritated.
    Slowly, he mumbled, “Those were the weakest bunch of bandits I’ve ever fought…”
    “Well, they were new to the business…” said Jiraiya, also looking disappointed.
    Naruto started, “Seriously, they were greener than…”
    “I don’t… think I’ll make it…” said Naruto, clutching his stomach.
    “Well, you’ll forget your hunger when you see this,” said Jiraiya, smiling. He was pointing down the valley they had reached.
    Naruto looked down, and saw a marvelous sight.
    Nestled between the great mountains, was a large village that sprawled over the center of the valley. Naruto could see a large golden statue of a man in armor, carrying a sword which was pointed towards the sky. White cotton grew in little fields in front of the village, and behind it was a forest. Beyond the forest, out-towering all the other mountains, was an enormous mound that appeared to be a dormant volcano. It was so huge, that, not only did its shadow, caused by the sun setting behind it, loom over the entire forest, nearly touching the village, but also the sun itself seem to be on the verge of being completely swallowed by its great mouth. The effect made the volcano look like it was frozen while exploding. Even the village seemed to glow a pale crimson in the evening light, and the cotton in the fields glowed like embers.
    “Woah, this is amazing!’ said Naruto, now feeling excited, “This takes my breath away!”
    “Heh-heh…” Jiraiya laughed, “Naruto, welcome to the Village of White Ember!”

    Elsewhere, in a dark, circular stone room with a domed ceiling, a figure wearing a brown cloak, with its face hidden under a hood, stood at the center. Four balls of blue flame surrounded him, unsuspended and unmoving. The dim light reflected over the walls of the room eerily. Then, a deep and sinister voice spoke out from the darkness, “I have come to report that he has returned…” The voice belonged to another similarly-dressed figure that had appeared before the first.
    Then the first one said, “Is it really him?” in the same eerie voice.
    The second replied, “Yes, there is no doubt about it…”
    “Hm… We shall avenge our fallen brother…”
    “That we shall, but not yet,” said the second, “We can use this opportunity for the greater cause…”
    The first one remained silent for a while, as if it was thinking, then spoke, “Yes… after all, it has been prophesied that he would be freed…” He then gave a soft and evil laugh that echoed in the whole room.

    Inside the village, a little boy was playing with his kemari on the road, when he was distracted by the sound of the great gates of the village nearby opening slowly. He turned towards the gates and saw two strange people enter the village. He quickly picked up his ball and, like any other anxious kid, rushed to his mother nearby, who was holding a basket of clothes and was chatting with the neighbor about a festival and the disagreeable change in the weather.
    The boy tugged at his mother’s kimono and said, “Mom, there are two funny people coming this way.”
    The mother did not seem to have noticed.
    The boy, now irritated at not getting any attention, tugged harder and said, “Mom, look over there!” pointing to the two people.
    The mother finally responded, looking at her son with a look of irritation, “What now, Izumi? Can’t you see I’m talking to someone?” Then she turned towards the direction he was pointing, and eyes widened. But after a second, she sighed, “Oh, its him. The Perverted Demon Slayer.”

    The news spread like wildfire. Little boys and girls stared at Jiraiya as he passed them, while the older teens were chatting excitedly. Some looked at him curiously, and a few tried to approach him, but held themselves back. All the older men smiled at him, while the women either sighed or moaned. A few of the women actually smiled.
    Naruto noted the reactions of everyone and turned to ask Jiraiya about his popularity when one of the men approached them, greeting Jiraiya, “Hey Jiraiya, long time!”
    “Hey, Hotaru, it’s been a while,” replied Jiraiya, smiling, “How have you been?”
    “Yeah, I’ve been fine. So have Mizuki and Aya.”
    “Good to hear; what about the Mayor?”
    “Ah, yes, he’s grown a few grays lately, what with the preparations and all…”
    “Preparations?” asked Jiraiya, a little surprised.
    “You know, the Fire Festival that’s held every year… You didn’t forget, did you?”
    “Heh, already that time of the year, eh?”
    “Yeah, but this one’s really special.” The man winked, “It’s the 200th year now”
    “Hey now, that’s something special!” said Jiraiya, grinning.
    “Yeah, so are you going to the Mayor’s now?” the man asked.
    “That’s what I was about to do, when you came in,” Jiraiya laughed.
    “Heh… But there’s something else… How ‘bout you come over to my house for a while?” The man’s tone became a little serious.
    “Sure, I don’t see why not. Naruto, you can come with us.”
    Naruto said, “Uh, sure, but what’s going on, Pervy Sage?”
    “I’ll tell you later; It’s a long story… Let’s go for now”
    “Alright, I guess…” Naruto was still confused. Why was Jiraiya so popular? And what’s this Fire Festival? And something about a Demon slayer?

    Upon reaching his house, Hotaru knocked on the front door, and a few seconds later, a woman wearing an apron opened the door.
    “Oh, honey, it’s nearly dinner-time,” she said, “And who… Oh my,” she stopped on seeing Jiraiya.
    “Heh-heh, surprised to see me, Mizuki? It’s been a while.”
    “Ten years, my dear,” the woman said, enthusiastically.
    “Mom, what’s going on?" A girl’s voice rang out from inside.
    “Aya, come here, you won’t believe who has come,” said the woman, excitedly.
    A girl, about sixteen appeared at the doorway. “Hey dad,” she said to her father, “You’ve brought guests?” And on seeing Jiraiya, her jaw dropped.
    “J-Jiraiya-san? Is that you?” she said slowly after a few seconds.
    “Sorry to have dropped by so late, Aya,” Jiraiya smiled, “My, haven’t you grown into a fine young lady!”
    “Oh, Jiraiya-san!” she blushed, and hugged Jiraiya.
    Naruto could only stand and stare. Okay. This is weird. Pervy Sage hugged by a girl? And how does the family know him so well, let alone the whole village?
    When the girl let go, Jiraiya said, “Oh, let me introduce you to Naruto.”
    Naruto couldn’t say anything. He was still too surprised.
    “Hey, I know you’re surprised and all, but should you really be standing like that?” Jiraiya gave Naruto a nudge.
    “Ahh, my name’s Naruto Uzumaki, and I’m Perv… I mean, Jiraiya’s student.” Naruto managed to say.
    Naruto could only put his hands over his stomach sheepishly.
    “Well, someone’s hungry,” said the woman, “Why don’t you come in and have dinner with us?”
    “Oh, really?” Naruto’s face lit up.
    “Sure, Naruto,’ said Jiraiya, “You have been training hard, after all.”
    “Cool, thanks, Pervy Sage!” Naruto took a step in, and was greeted by the smell of a fine meal at the table.