Author's Notes:

Yes. After 2 years of hiatus, I've come back!

And so much for a comeback, just two days ago, I got my left knee dislocated and it was so fcking painful. I had to endure it for five hours 'coz the doctor wasn't around. I'm in the middle of recovering from the horrid incident but heyy, I thought about updating.

As always, I thank my humble beta, Serious Sam-san.

I missed you all, so I do hope that I make it up for making you wait for so long with this chapter.

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.


On the last chapter...

The night of the seventh day of the seventh month of the year, or the so-called Tanabata Festival had come to the Hidden Village of the Leaf. Hinata and Naruto enjoyed the festival together with the help of Sakura and Ino, who were troubled in love. And even though they were engrossed in the festivities, Sakura and Ino couldn't help but miss their boyfriends were currently away on a dangerous mission.

Ino had suspicions of the mysteries surrounding the Hyūga maiden and asked permission from Sakura to explore Hinata's mind again. Meanwhile, Gaara remembered the girl he met several years ago and started feeling that she might possibly be Hinata. After finding out that Madoka's grave was in the Sand Village, and due to a scheduled meeting in Konoha in three days, he decided to meet Hinata personally to deliver the news.

Back in Konoha, Hinata and Naruto were watching the fireworks. However the bright, flashing explosions of the fireworks brought repressed memories of the laboratory to the surface and her forgotten past started to reoccur in her mind. It was too much for her to handle, and the overload caused her to lose consciousness, while also subconsciously activating her Byakugan as a defense mechanism. Things quickly changed from enjoying the night, to Hinata being in the hospital in serious condition due to her activation of Byakugan, and Naruto taking the blame for not being able to take care of her.


XIII. Into the depths of Demon Country

Time meant everything to Hyuga Neji. Their supposedly two-day journey to Dark Mountain was accomplished sooner than what Kabuto anticipated. Leaving at dawn yesterday was a wise decision because it saved them the trouble of alerting any citizens or ninjas in the village. After all, they were the ones involved in killing the guardians at the Forlorn Forest and Kabuto's genjutsu had already worn off. Sooner or later, apprehension would arise in the Village in the Shadows and they would start a search to find those responsible for the attack – and that was the last thing they wanted to happen.

Anonymity was their biggest ally at this point.

Someone might have seen them yesterday staying at one of the local inns and if the news about the abduction did happen to reach the village and was reported to whoever was in charge, there was a high probability they would be the ones implicated. Thankfully, they took it upon themselves to be extra cautious and left before anything could possibly happen.

Their journey was easier and faster since Kabuto memorized the shortcut. The only danger they'd face was entering the mountain itself, since it was one of several abandoned places where demons and other monsters happened to reside, but with Neji's Byakugan they were able to avoid them.

The mountain certainly lived up to its name – the top was covered with thick dark thunder clouds that hindered any daylight that struggled to pass through, making it appear forever shrouded in night. Danger lurked around every corner, as if someone – or something – monstrous would emerge from the shadows and attack them any moment. However, with the addition of Kabuto's genjutsu, they walked through the forest without any confrontations. None of them were dumb enough to drop their guards, however. Kabuto wasn't skilled enough to know what was inside the forest, but he know something was there and whatever it was sent a chill down his spine.

With his Byakugan, Neji saw creatures that seemed straight out of a bad fairy tale. Fangs, scales, horns, claws as big as his head and rows of razor sharp teeth – they made a bear look like a beaver by comparison. Even though it was temporary, at the moment Neji was thankful for Kabuto's presence and skills.

After what seemed like hours, they finally stood in front of a dilapidated temple. The front door was weathered but unlocked, which they took as a signal that the owner must be very confident that the surroundings and whatever lived in them was more than enough to serve as its guard.

Kabuto stepped forward and pushed the door open, causing a creak to echo through the deafening silence. That didn't last long however, as a growl escaped the darkness and pair of three-headed demonic hounds slunk out of the shadows and walked straight towards them, which shouldn't have happened since they were supposed to be concealed by his genjutsu.

Maybe it didn't work on them? Maybe it wasn't strong enough? Neither of them stopped to wonder why and quickly dodged. Neji barely avoided one while Kabuto used Kawarimi to avoid the other.

Once Neji gained some distance, he dropped into a defensive stance and focused his Byakugan on the creature. Just like a large dog (or maybe even a wolf), it had a heart and nerves which would be his main targets to subdue the beast since it was his first time dealing with something that was as far away from… normal as he could imagine. The beast dashed towards him faster than Neji thought possible, surprising him enough that he almost didn't have enough time to use his Kaiten. It was stronger than he expected, since it continued to try forcing its way through the barrier, but Neji doubled the power and speed, sending the beast flying backwards. While the beast was still in mid-air and unable to defend itself, Neji leapt forward and delivered a heavy jyuuken strike on its chest, sending it flying into a nearby stone pillar. Neji immediately regained his stance in case that wasn't enough to incapacitate the creature but as luck would have it, the beast didn't move.

Kabuto found it amusing to be dealing with a three-headed demon dog… wolf… whatever since in the past, he and Orochimaru tried to create artificial ones by experimenting on different animals – or even humans, if they happened to have a few spare ones hanging around. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Neji managed to defeat the other one, and he knew that dissecting these creatures and finding out what made them tick was the least of his concerns. He had to end the fight without even seeing even half of what it might be capable of.

It only took a second for him to flash through a few hand signs, and then in a cloud of smoke a large boa constrictor appeared directly in the path of the demon hound. It quickly wrapped itself around the animal, slowly squeezing it tighter and tighter. But when the beast finally let out a high-pitched yelp, they both heard a foreign voice from above the staircase.

"That's enough." It was a voice of an old man.

He was standing at the top of a flight of stairs wearing a black hakama. Both his eyes were closed, his skin was wrinkled and the top of his head was bald due to old age, but he still stood straight and firm. A wooden cane, or what seemed more like a staff, with the design of a three-headed hound was clasped in his right hand.

"Ahhh! Let them go! Let them go!" The old man suddenly panicked when he saw the condition the hounds were in. "Makio! Setsuna!" He ran down the stairs but his back gave out, making him flinch and grab the railing for support.

Neji blankly stared at the man who was hissing and grinding his teeth in pain. After a minute or so to recover, he muttered a few words under his breath and the two hounds suddenly vanished.

"Iorogi-sama, well met." Kabuto politely bowed. "It has been a long time. How have you been doing?"

"Kabuto!" Iorogi reprimanded him. "You didn't have to hurt Setsuna that much! And you!" He pointed accusingly pointed at Neji, also doing a double take in the process. "Oh, you possess the Byakugan… but I don't care! You paralyzed Makio!"

So, this was the elder that Kabuto was talking about? The one who was banished for attempting to kill the reigning Emperor of Demon Country twenty years ago?

"Iorogi, if we had given them the chance, they would have torn the flesh from our limbs to satisfy their demonic appetites." Kabuto deadpanned.

"Nonsense. Setsuna and Makio are the most loveable pets I've ever had." Irogi scowled at his visitors. "They'd never hurt a fly!"

Neji decided to interrupt the conversation before things degenerated into arguments and name calling. He bowed respectfully and then got straight to the point. "Where is Orochimaru?"

The elder turned towards Neji and stared at him, even though his eyes were still closed. "Hey, Kabuto… is this the Hyūga girl you told me about? From the way you described her, I thought she'd be a real beauty but she looks more like a… man?"

Neji's eyebrow started to tick, but forced himself to remain calm. "I am Neji of the Hyūga clan. I've come here to help with saving my cousin, Hyūga Hinata."

"Ah!" The old man breathed out a sigh of relief. "I would be very disappointed to see that such a beautiful girl grew up to look so boyish. No offense, you're a good-looking youngster, but your hair's just too long for a man." The elder guffawed.

The tick on Neji's forehead grew worse, but he didn't say anything.

Kabuto noticed his rising irritation (fortunately), so he decided to speak up. "Iorogi-sama, as fascinating as this conversation is, and as much as I'd like to catch up, we came here in search of Orochimaru."

The elder sighed and took a seat on a nearby chair. "Another one that has long hair," he muttered under his breath. He probably fixated on such things since he was bald. "All right. Orochimaru came by three months ago, seeking my assistance. I know about his motives and decided to lend him a hand. Right now, he's in the palace, disguised as one of Akesato's servants and he gave me an urgent message to pass on you."

Kabuto cocked an eyebrow and waited patiently.

"He'll stop pretending to be the Prince's underling once you find him in the palace. So, after you've spoken to me, you will have to head straight there to get him. I'm sure he's discovered the darkest secrets of what that cursed palace possesses…and he must know how to save that girl."

"The palace. Where is it located?" Neji suddenly asked.

"Oh, don't you worry. It's not very far. Just to the east. Nor more than a few hours' walk." The old man reassured him. "You seem very eager to save your cousin, Neji-san. I can see from the fire in your eyes that you want to get there as soon as possible. But even though I can sense how strong a shinobi you are, I wouldn't underestimate Akesato." He tilted his head in thought. "I've heard that the Priestess of this country would be visiting as well, so his guards are probably at maximum for her protection."

"Priestess?" Something clicked in Neji's mind, remembering a crucial detail he'd forgotten until now. "Is the Priestess of this country still Shion?"

The elder was taken aback about how casually he spoke the Priestess' name. "I assume you know about her. What about it?"

"I am one of the ninjas who helped her seal the Demon Moryo three years ago." Neji figured he could use this to their advantage if he got to talk to the priestess and let them know about their current situation. He knew for certain she would help. It was for the safety of the world, after all… and she may be the key to saving Hinata as well. "Iorogi-san, how do we get into the palace?"

Iorogi chuckled. "This kid is quite surprising, eh, Kabuto?" He motioned his hand. "Join me in my study room. It just so happens that was the task assigned to me upon lending my assistance to Orochimaru…" A wide grin split his face. "I'd be the one coming up with a strategy to get you safely inside."

They followed Iorogi into his study. Tall shelves filled with books, scrolls, statues and artifacts surrounded the dimly lit room. He walked over to one particular shelf and pulled out a scroll, laying it out on the wooden table located in the center. It appeared to be a map of the palace they were just talking about.

"Guards are posted everywhere, and the patrols run every five minutes. Three if they are some of the new, young and eager recruits. But as you might expect, the majority of them would be concentrated in two areas – the front gate, and the throne room." He pointed towards a specific section of the map. "If your aim is to get to the Priestess, she would definitely be staying here. This entire wing is designated as her living quarters, and as you can see there are no ways in or out other than from the throne room." He sighed heavily. "At least, none that I was able to find. If there are secret entrances in or out, either there are no records of them, or those that knew about them are dead."

Neji cocked a skeptical eyebrow. "It seems you know quite a bit for someone who's been banished."

The elder chuckled dryly. "What a cunning mind you have. Of course, I still know a lot. I might not have set foot anywhere but the Dark Mountain, boy, but they didn't banish me here for no reason. I still have power… and quite a few tricks up my sleeves." He snickered and raised his hand, pointing towards an open window. A black butterfly emerged from his sleeves and flew out. "I can watch the village whenever I want without anyone knowing, and I've been doing that for the past two decades. Besides, it's my responsibility to check on my precious grandniece, Shion. I'll have to know if that accursed Akesato starts making advances on her so I can take… appropriate measures."

Neji was taken aback. This was Shion's granduncle? It was quite surprising, knowing that he was the granduncle of the Priestess they saved years back. Did that mean he was really on their side? Or did he have a more sinister purpose in mind?

"Make sure not a single strand of hair on my grandniece's head is harmed, do you understand that?" He threatened, as another black butterfly flew out of his sleeves and landed on Neji's shoulder. "I'll be watching closely."

"Iorogi-san," Kabuto quickly interrupted as the air in the room turned thick and heavy. Best to change the subject quickly, he thought. His eyes caught something odd on the map. It was a passage that connected straight to the dungeon, but it seemed to be hand drawn. "Is this a hidden passage that connects the dungeon of the palace to the barracks?"

"Good observation, Kabuto. It was designed that way for two reasons – one, to give the soldiers easy access to prisoners for interrogation and torture, and two, as a means of escape for the emperor in the event we are invaded by either humans or demons." The elder smirked. "Don't worry. As long as you follow my instructions, you'll be inside there within five minutes."

"We'll start here…" He pointed at the east end of the map where the barracks were situated and started discussing his tactics.

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Tenten gulped hard as she sped across the forest, which was engulfed in a thick fog. She had always been a courageous and independent kunoichi, whether it came to going on dangerous missions or overcoming her personal fears but truth be told, one of her few weakness was ghosts. And this place, called the Forlorn Forest (she'd heard that name from Sai and Sasuke), seemed as good as any evidence that her fears just might be real. Nevertheless, she pressed forward, making sure her teammates didn't sense her discomfort, even though this place sent chills down her spine.

At least she wasn't alone. However, the fact that the three weirdest ninjas from the Leaf Village were with her right now didn't help her one bit. Shino's bugs creeped her out, Sai was an emotionless, pale introvert who was beyond socially awkward and Sasuke… well, his personality switched depending on his mood between being bearable, and scary as hell.

Hasn't she suffered enough for bearing with Lee and Gai-sensei for all these years?

She sighed inwardly. She knew this wasn't the time to be complaining that she was placed in a team with a couple of highly unapproachable individuals, but in all fairness it was definitely better than the humiliations she and Neji went through going on missions with the rest of their team.

Sasuke, who was leading the team, suddenly raised his hand to bring the group to a halt. They could immediately tell why – they all sensed a foreign presence ahead and quickly and silently blended into their surroundings. It didn't take long before a group of cloaked men – five to be precise – showed up where they had been standing only moments earlier.

"Ninjas…" Sasuke muttered under his breath. He could tell they were on guard over something, but what? Curious, he activated his Sharingan and saw through what they seemed to be guarding, which was hidden by a nearby illusion. What appeared to be a large boulder was actually a hidden passage. It still shimmered, even with his enhanced vision meaning it was an unusually strong genjutsu. Luckily enough, his eyes were stronger.

He pressed the button on his headset. "I'll handle this," he told the rest of his team, leaping down from where he was perched on a tree limb before any of his teammates could respond.

"Who goes there?!" one of the guards blurted, taken by surprise at Sasuke's sudden appearance. Weapons were drawn in a flash and they moved into a defensive formation. "What's your business here? Are you with those two who slaughtered the guards here last night?"

Sasuke mentally chuckled. These guys were definitely making their work easy. Without saying a word, he'd received confirmation that Kabuto and Neji had already been through here.

Amateurs, he thought. "What if I am?" he replied cockily.

"Seize him!"

It didn't take a genius to figure out these ninjas were from Demon Country, but as much as he was itching for a fight, Sasuke knew full well dealing with ninjas from a country where Forbidden Arts originate was the last thing any of his group wanted right now. Good thing that the majority of forbidden techniques took time to execute, and the fact that his speed was several levels above normal was enough to keep any hindrances down.

He unsheathed Kusanagi, pushed chakra into his legs and unleashed a lightning speed attack. Before any of his opponents could set up any sort of defense, he'd slashed through flesh and bone and taken most of them out.

He left one of them unscathed. For questioning. He hovered Kusanagi a few inches away from the guard's throat, the blade bathed in the blood of his associates. "Those ninjas you're talking about… where are they headed?"

"Get lost! You won't get answers from me! You killed my companions!"

"I didn't kill them. In fact, they're still alive." He pointed as one of the ninja twitched and groaned in pain. "Though it's none of my concern if they survive or not."

"We just want some answers." Sai emerged from the bushes with Ten-ten and Shino trailing closely behind. "You already mentioned two ninjas arrived here before us. I'm pretty sure they're the ones we're looking for." He gave the guard one of his hair-rising kind, yet sinister smile. "Could you please tell us where they're headed?"

The guard ground his teeth in frustration. "You won't get away with this! The Dragon Prince will definitely make you pay! Leave this country at once!"

Sasuke growled darkly. "You're wasting our time." He was about to start torturing the man for information when Tenten suddenly stepped forward ahead. She saw something engraved by the wall of the cave.

Shadow Village, it said. She knew immediately who wrote it. The cuts in the stone matched up with the custom kunai she made for the Hyūga clan.

"I know where they're headed." Tenten announced and then went back to where her teammates stood. She touched a storage scroll on her belt, and a large steel cudgel appeared in her hand. She hit the man hard on the head and he fell to the ground, unconscious. "There's no time to waste. Let's go." She hoisted the cudgel onto her shoulder. "Who knows? Maybe the bitchy skank daughter of some town's mayor is fawning over Neji again. I think I could go for some stress relief."

Sai watched as Tenten walked past him into the cave as Sasuke wiped his sword clean on the pantleg of one of the incapacitated ninjas. "Tenten-san looked scared earlier. Was she acting then or is she acting now?"

As expected, he didn't get any reactions. Shino just followed Tenten into the cave, and Sasuke followed suit after he finished cleaning his sword.

"Ah. Looks like I'm talking to myself again." Sai chuckled and followed his teammates.

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Neji and Kabuto settled on a large branch of an oak tree within the thicket, maintaining a safe distance from the barracks it surrounded. However, they were still well within the range of the Hyūga's Byakugan so he could survey the entire without alerting the guards.

"Four men at the east where the first trigger is located. The second trigger at the west is guarded by six men, and the last trigger…" He pushed more chakra into his eyes and the veins surrounding them became more pronounced as his field of vision doubled. "It's situated in one of the rooms at the southwest. Six men guard the entrance, and four more are inside. Guarding the passage to the room where the last trigger is located are two summons… beasts like those we encountered before, but larger again by half."

"Then it's a good thing we learned how to deal with them at Iorogi-sama's temple." Kabuto commented.

"You take the first trigger and I'll take the second. We will meet by the courtyard before we ambush the last one," Neji instructed. "Meet me there in ten minutes." The Hyūga jumped down and advanced through the thicket, heading towards the of the barracks.

"I'll meet you in five." Kabuto said and brought up the rear.

Neji dashed out of the thicket and headed straight towards the west where the second trigger was located. He paid no heed to the guards stationed where the first trigger was located since he knew Kabuto would deal with them.

It didn't take long before they were spotted.

"Intruder!" One of the guards shouted, pointing towards him with his spear. "Take him down! Don't let him get to the palace!"

Neji doubled his speed and took a kunai out of his leg pouch. When one of the guards had nearly caught up to him, he saw a couple of venomous snakes shoot up from the ground and sink its fangs into the guard's neck and legs. With the first barrage taken care of, Neji threw his kunai and several shurkien at the guards stationed near the entrance of the quarters by the second trigger.

Two of the remaining seven guards attacked him once as they blocked the weapons and dashed forward at a speed almost matching Neji's. One man whipped out his katana and aimed for Neji's throat, causing the Hyūga to duck quickly. Only a few strands of hair didn't survive, but the opening was enough for Neji to slam a Gentle Fist into his solar plexus, sending him flying into the nearest wall. From the way he slumped forward on the ground the guard wouldn't be getting up anytime soon.

He sensed another guard appearing behind him and a round of kunai coming from two more guards by the post, so he extended his arms and spun to form his kaiten. The barrier effectively blocked the upcoming attacks and sent the other ninja guard who was about to swing his katana at him into the air.

Neji came to a halt just as the man reached the apex of his flight, where he was unable to defend himself. He immediately threw three shuriken that landed square in the middle of his back.

The guard fell to the ground, motionless. Two down.

"Alert the others!" another guard shouted.

"Katon: Kuro Hiendan no jutsu!" Another guard sent a fire technique at Neji, but it was different than a normal fire attack. The color was an angry, dark red. Neji had no idea why it was like that, but he knew it was best to avoid it. He dodged the fire bullet attacks and sprinted around the attacker for a few seconds until the jutsu subsided. Kabuto and Iorogi warned him about forbidden techniques and how dangerous they were, but the one main weakness they had was that they took longer to set up.

No matter how small a drawback that was, Neji could make use of it.

While the guard was still facing forward shooting his fire bullet attack at where he was only a second before, Neji landed a Jyuuken hit in the middle of his back, debilitating the man's spine. He crumpled to earth like a puppet with his strings cut, unconscious.

In a bit of good fortune, this caused the guard's aim for his fire attack to become erratic, and it accidentally hit the final guard who was charging from the front. Neji didn't stop to watch – he'd seen enough horrors in his life and didn't need to add one more. He noticed a silver key sticking out of the fallen guard's pocket and snatched it to unlock the barracks.

Click. Once he pulled the lever for the second trigger, he dashed into the courtyard to meet with his temporary ally. He wasn't surprised that Kabuto was already done taking care of the first trigger and the guards assigned to it.

"The last one is inside there." Kabuto pointed. "They know about us so it won't be that easy anymore."

"As long as they haven't alerted the palace, it still shouldn't be much of a problem." Neji replied. "They haven't touched the last trigger so it means the only way of getting inside is still closed. No audible alarm has been raised, so we should be able to catch them by surprise."

"All right. How many were they again?"

Neji activated his Byakugan and surveyed the area. He narrowed his eyes and frowned. "Fourteen. Their numbers went up since I last checked. There's seven both inside and out. Someone must have gotten through. Strange that they still haven't activated the trigger or alerted the palace, though."

"Maybe they think that by capturing us they can gain favor with their captain or the priestess." Kabuto readjusted his cape and unsheathed his katana. "I'll take three of them plus the two beasts you talked about, and you handle the rest. Then we'll regroup and take out the rest of the guards waiting inside."

Neji replied with a stern nod. They both bolted forward, doing their best to catch the men unaware and not give them the chance to cast any forbidden jutsu.

However, it seemed that they were well prepared. Because one of them managed to do it.

"Kinjutsu: Suffocation of Death…"

Neji put up every defense he had, waiting for the technique to be fully unleashed. The leader of the guards, grinning savagely as he stood at the very back of his troop, used the rest of his squad as diversions in order to give himself time to pull off the forbidden jutsu. He and Kabuto only managed to take down one guard each, and neither of the beasts who stood between them and the last trigger.

One of the guards looked at Neji and laughed. "Ha! The boss will finish you both with his…"

Before Neji had a chance to be pissed off, the man froze as his eyes suddenly went wide. He numbly dropped his weapon as he struggled to breathe. The same thing happened to the rest of the guards. They dropped their weapons and clawed at their necks, like they were trying to free themselves from whatever it was that seemed to be suffocating them.

Neji and Kabuto did a double take. Every single one of their enemies was suffering from the same mysterious phenomenon – even the beasts. Kabuto cocked an eyebrow at Neji, who shook his head in denial. It seemed neither one of them were responsible for what was happening to their attackers, causing them both to come to the same conclusion.

There was only one other person left standing… and he was the one responsible for the Forbidden Technique. Unlike the guards who were dressed in full tactical gear, he wore a high-class full length jacket, which indicated he was a high ranking official. His cold eyes glared back at them but Kabuto saw through them and recognized who he was by the smug smirk on his face.

"What's… happening…" one of the guards coughed. He, along with the others, fell to their knees as their faces turned a purplish-blue from lack of oxygen.

"I—Ishido-sama… why…" Another guard clawed the ground as he crawled towards their leader, mustering whatever strength he had left in his body as he reached out, almost begging for his life.

The only reply they received was a sinister chuckle. Then "Ishido" contemptuously pulled his leg away from the guard's grasp and kicked him aside to clear his path.

Neji watched the leader casually make his way towards them, noticing Kabuto had lowered his defenses and deemed the man was no threat. It only took another second or two for the last of the guards and one beast who were desperately gasping for air to stop moving.

"I've been waiting for you, Kabuto-kun." The man called Ishido finally spoke. With no other witnesses, he was engulfed in a puff of smoke and revealed his true form. "Well met, Neji-kun."

Neji glared at the devil in pale skin. "Orochimaru."

It had been a while since he'd been seen as his normal self. For the last three months he'd been disguised as a Ninja scholar named as Noshikori Ishido hailing from Kumogakure. The story he'd sold the people here in Demon Country was that he came to learn the origins of Forbidden Jutsu. That was certainly a curiosity of his, of course, but the main reason for him being here was entirely different. So far, his plans were going smoothly since the palace guards still believed he was working under the supervision of Prince Akesato. And just as he intended, he had gotten rid of anything standing between him and his goal by practicing the Forbidden Jutsu that their loyal prince shared with him as a gesture of good faith.

Moreover, now he didn't have to hide anymore. His back-up had finally arrived.

Orochimaru flicked his jet black hair and smirked, feeling very content with himself. "That was one of the first Forbidden Jutsus I had the pleasure of learning. Did you find it interesting?" he chuckled lowly. "These fools thought some sort of unseen presence was strangling them when in fact I had just paralyzed their lungs.

Neji shot him a look of disdain. "You don't need to explain. I saw through what you did."

"Your dojutsu never fails to amuse me, Neji-kun. I guess that means you know why I've taken care of your precious cousin for so long."

In a span of a nanosecond, Neji slammed Orochimaru against a wall with enough force to crater the surface. His Byakugan was throbbing as he pushed his arm against the Sannin's neck while the other hand hovered mere inches away from his heart, just itching to shred the organ to pieces with a well-executed jyuuken strike. "If you want… I can show you the full extent of our clan's dojutsu. And while I do not know if it would be enough to kill you, I know full well that causing your heart to explode will hurt. A lot."

Orochimaru glared back at him. He had been reckless with his words, provoking someone considered a prodigy by a clan that made killing an art. The Hyūga was right. With his body replacement technique, it wouldn't be enough to kill him. And even though he'd done countless experiments on his own body, having his heart suddenly explode would cause him pain. In waves.

The Hyūga was currently on the same side as him and Kabuto, but that alliance was tied to one goal and aside from that, nothing else. He'd be in much deeper trouble if the fight was against Uchiha Sasuke. Or if a certain special experiment he'd spent several years keeping at bay suddenly decided to… wake up, for lack of a better term.

Neji decided to pull back, remembering that the man responsible for kidnapping his cousin was also his best, and at the moment only chance of saving her. But when it came time to exact revenge on the Sannin, he'd seeek help from someone he knew that held the same amount of rage for what happened to Hinata – Uzumaki Naruto.

Orochimaru didn't notice that he was actually holding his breath until the moment Neji let him go.

"It's obvious that we met Iorogi-san in the Dark Mountain." Neji said. "I believe you will take over the plan from here, but I'd like to volunteer to locate the Head Priestess, Shion, and personally have a word with her."

"The Head Priestess's arrival was of short notice. It actually caused me to re-evaluate some aspects of my plan because Akesato tightened the palace security, though in the end my job was made easier since he assigned me to be the leader of the guards assigned to guard the palace triggers." Orochimaru frowned. "We're still at advantage. As you can see, no one's capable of reporting to the palace," he said, pointing out the guards lying around on the ground still unconscious, "but even though we are in control of the entire situation, the passage to the palace remains closed."

"So what do you propose from here on, Orochimaru-sama?" Kabuto interjected. "What information did you discover during your stay here?"

"Well, naturally I made every second count and took advantage of the royalty's trust. This is not the proper time to specifically discuss all of my discoveries, but…" The Sannin gleefully rubbed his hands together. "…the most important one of all is here. I found the scroll and know how to get rid of that demon inside of the Hyūga."

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While the head priestess's arrival was of short notice, it was also perfect timing. Now disguised as palace guards, infiltrating the castle became far easier. Between a combination of genjutsu and the proper uniforms, they walked right through the front gate. This time it was Neji who transformed into the commander, Ishido, the persona Orochimaru created. This was because disguised as Ishido, he would have better access to approaching Shion. No one would suspect a thing as long as his disguise remained in place.

They reached the throne room, which other than a few guards and attendants, was currently unoccupied. It was dark, dimly lit with candles on the walls but with Neji's Byakugan locating Shion was child's play. It only took a few seconds for him to find the head priestess; she was in the third room down a hall to the left of the throne.

The front door of the chamber was guarded by two men and a single hellound-beast. Ishido-Neji dismissed Orochimaru and Kabuto, giving them a curt nod that he could handle it from here and they should continue with the rest of the plan, which was to steal a specific scroll from the archives deep within the palace.

"The head priestess has requested my presence," Ishido-Neji told the guards in front of Shion's room. Yielding to his authority, they stepped aside and allowed him through. Once inside, he stealthily locked the door behind him, taking notice of anything that might interrupt his meeting.

The head priestess didn't hear him enter the room. She was kneeling by the foot of her bed, meditating with her hands clasped in front of her chest and her eyes shut. She was only aware of his presence when he called out her name.

"Shion-sama."

She jumped slightly, quickly turning her head towards him as she put a hand above her heart. "Oh! You scared me! Wait, what? What are you doing in my—"

Ishido-Neji teleported next to Shion and placed a hand over her mouth. "I need you to stay calm, Shion-sama. Pardon my intrusion, but I did not come here to hurt you. Could you please do me a favor and stay quiet?"

The priestess tensed but silently, she nodded. Neji slowly released her.

Assured that she wouldn't scream or alert the guards to his presence, he removed his hand and removed his genjutsu. Her eyes widened in shock as she recognized him and he immediately placed a finger on his lips, asking her without words to keep as quiet as possible.

The priestess, to say the least, was stunned to see him. "How and why are you here?" she asked in a hushed voice. "Is Naruto here as well?"

Neji didn't miss the glimmer of hope in her eyes at the mention of his friend's name. They did have a history after all, and Naruto was known to leave an unforgettable impression on anyone he's ever come across with. Though he knew full well that Shion held on to more than just an impression when it came to Naruto.

"He's not here. But we need your help."

"Anything." Shion quickly agreed. "I am forever indebted to you all for helping me seal Moryo. I wouldn't hesitate to lend my assistance if you're in need of it. What is it about?"

"I don't have much time to spare so I will get straight to the point. I'm quite sure you know of the Demon Goddess, Melantha?"

Shion tensed up again at the mention of Melantha's name. "How do you know about that?" she asked apprehensively. "My grandfather was the one who sealed her decades ago when she threatened to break free."

Neji could tell by the tone of her voice that Kabuto and Orochimaru weren't bluffing about how dangerous a situation they were dealing with. If the demon was unleashed… "Eight years ago, that scroll was stolen… and Melantha was given a vessel."

"W-what? How is that possible? Prince Akesato should have informed me of this! Why…"

"That's why I need your help. We have to extract the demon out of the vessel's body and seal it away for good. We met your granduncle at Dark Mountain; he said that as the Head Priestess, you're the only one able to do this."

"Melantha is one of the most powerful demons to have existed and no one, even from my clan, knows the full extent of what she is capable of. Legends say that a fraction of her power was what led to the discovery of forbidden jutsu. My mother once mentioned that her goal was to find someone – a human female, specifically – that she could take over in order to gain a physical existence on this plane. Who is the vessel?"

"She's my cousin… Hyūga Hinata."

Neji kept his face impassive, but the sound of his voice failed to mask his anger and guilt. Orochimaru had given him a brief summary of his findings, and he hated the fact that sealing the demon away wouldn't come without some sort of sacrifice.

It was just a matter of how great a sacrifice they would have to make.

"The priestess can seal away the demon by using the Scroll of Divine Imprisonment, however… there is no guarantee regarding the safety of the vessel."

So, it was either let the demon take control of Hinata and fight until it was weak enough to be sealed away once again – which could cost countless lives but give Hinata a better chance of survival – or extract the demon from her body and imprison it in eternal banishment, which would probably cost her life.

Hinata was a sacrifice either way. It was basically a no-win scenario.

Even worse, if Hinata did happen to beat the odds and survive the whole ordeal, he had no assurances that she wouldn't end up as Orochimaru's guinea pig. The only thing he had to counter that possibility was Uzumaki Naruto… and that certainly was no small thing. Neji knew from personal experience that Naruto with his luck, determination and power, wasn't someone you could easily dismiss.

Suddenly, an explosion came from another section of the palace. Neji frowned – an explosion wasn't part of the plan, which meant their covers were blown. He grabbed Shion's wrist and said, "Let's go." The throne room was just down the hall, so he could escape quickly with the priestess by taking the secret passage Iorogi had told them about.

However, before he could do anything else the door of the room slammed open. Standing there was a man with golden hair with sharp, angular features whom Neji heard called himself the prince of Demon Country. His scarlet red eyes glinted dangerously as he glared at the Hyūga.

"I would ask you to step away from the priestess, intruder."

"Akesato-sama, please listen to me—"

Shion was about to explain their situation with the prince, but Orochimaru warned Neji about something before they made their way into the palace.

Never let Akesato find the vessel.

Neji pushed Shion behind min and quickly wrapped an exploding tag on the handle of a kunai from his pouch before throwing it at the self-proclaimed prince. With the explosion and smoke buying them time, he threw another kunai with an explosive at the nearest wall. He pulled Shion through the newly formed hole and broke into a sprint.

With his Byakugan activated, he watched Akesato's movement. He'd thrown the first kunai accurately, however it seemed that at the last second the man had formed some sort of barrier to protect him. He was moving unexpectedly fast, and it didn't take more than a second or two for him to reach them. Even worse, he now sported an angry black scythe. The thing seemed to thrum with malice and left a dark shadow in its wake as he swung the weapon at them.

Neji pushed Shion away as he quickly spun to perform his Kaiten. Akesato's scythe collided against the dome and sent him stumbling back.

"Interesting. You're strong enough to withstand my weapon. But not strong enough to get out of here alive."

Akesato moved in for another attack. With speed and precision far above what Neji expected, he swung his scythe with practiced grace at the Hyūga, not giving him another chance to form another Kaiten and forcing him to dodge rather than counterattack.

"Neji!" Shion shouted in warning. "Behind you!"

While Neji was preoccupied with fighting Akesato, several guards entered the room behind him. Two of them grabbed Shion and the rest fired a slew of arrows at the Hyūga. The person initiating the attack also seemed to be their leader; a woman dressed in a red and green kimono with a pattern of mocking birds stitched into the fabric. She notched another arrow in her bow and took aim at him.

Neji managed to dodge the arrows. He took out a specialized kunai he got from Tenten and blocked the scythe. The clash of metals and a shower of sparks echoed throughout the room as the two constantly dodged and attacked each other. The fight carried on for a minute or so, as Akesato and the guards left Neji very little space to form a proper counterattack or at the very least, escape with Shion.

"Enough!" Akesato yelled in frustration. "This farce ends now!"

Dark flames erupted from the scythe and managed to burn a good portion of skin on Neji's left arm. The pain took him aback – not only did it burn, it felt like his skin was being shredded to pieces. Before he could regain his senses, Akesato got behind him and ran his scythe through Neji's stomach.

"Stop, Akesato-sama!" The priestess yelled, reaching out her hand towards Neji. "He's an ally of mine and I need to help him!"

"Your ally?" Akesato cocked an eyebrow. "Clearly, he is from Fire Country. The Hidden Village of Shadows swore an oath never to associate with outsiders and you, being the Head Priestess, should know that above anyone else." He pulled his scythe out of the Hyūga's stomach and let his body hit the ground with a sharp thud. "If you are in league with this group of intruders who broke in to steal an ancient artifact of this country, the Scroll of Divine Imprisonment, I will have you locked in the dungeon and declared a traitor."

"You don't understand!" Shion tried to free herself from her captors, but their grip became much less gentle after Akesato declared her a traitor. "They came here because Mel—"

"No!" Neji sharply interrupted, his hand over the wound in his stomach in a futile attempt to the gushing blood. "Don't… say…a word…"

The woman in the kimono grunted as she pushed back her long sleek silver hair. "He's bleeding on my floor, brother."

"I apologize, Atsuko-nee-sama. I will have servants clean your room afterwards."

"Then you should've thought that before stabbing him. I abhor the scent of blood; so why do you think I would fancy stains on my floor?" She waved her hand towards Neji. "Patch him up," she instructed the other guards. "If he continues bleeding, he'll die and we won't get to interrogate him."

"I won't… say… anything." Neji coughed up blood, much to the Priestess' dismay. "Get out of here… Shion-sama…"

"She won't be going anywhere. Take her to the dungeon." Akesato commanded. "Treat the intruder's wound and prepare him for interrogation."

"No, unhand me! You will not send the Head Priestess to your filthy dungeon!"

As Shion struggled with her captors, they heard a high-pitched sound which resembled a bird of prey crying out. What happened next was a blur; there was a streak of lightning, followed by grunts from the guards surrounding Shion, who were now lying on the ground with deep slashes down their backs. Akesato's scythe was sent flying from his hand and embedded itself in a wall on the far side of the room.

Neji fought to remain awake. With his hazy vision, he saw a familiar raven-haired ninja, along with a brown-haired kunoichi carrying a huge spiked club on her shoulder. The sight actually make him smile, since he knew that meant the kunoichi was extremely pissed.

"I'll get Neji out of here. Can you hold them back?" he heard Tenten ask her companion.

"Go," was Sasuke's curt reply. It was the last thing Neji remembered before darkness closed in.

.

.

.

It was dark, cold, and quiet. She didn't know where she was, but she was sure that didn't want to be here. She shut her eyes tightly, hoping that when she opened them, she would be some place far away and safe. However, when she opened them, she was in a place she never wanted to see again.

Orochimaru's laboratory.

Fear not, little one. It's time that you discover who you are. Remember what you are.

Every hair on her body stood on end when she heard that voice. It promised pleasure and pain at the same time. Sanity and madness. Power and despair.

"Who's there?!"

No need to rush. You are about to see everything. The voice chuckled.

Slowly, the scene materialized. She was standing in the middle of the laboratory and a 13-year-old Hinata shimmered into view, sitting in a chair with her arms tightly bound to the frame. Orochimaru appeared, then Kabuto… and last of all, there was Madoka.

She had no recollection of this memory. When did this happen? Was it before she was induced into a six-year coma?

She watched as her younger self fought to remain conscious as Orochimaru proceeded to inject more fluids into her arm. The tray that Madoka was holding contained three syringes, two of them had been used; the last one was being injected at the moment of this memory.

Hinata turned away. She never wanted to feel those needles piercing her skin ever again.

No, no. Don't look away. This is the best part.

Suddenly, there was a cacophony of things being shattered – glass, lights and and other laboratory equipment. Everything was in chaos. Her younger self was free from her bindings and was suspended limply in the air above her chair. The way she was moving made it appear like she was a puppet.

"Hinata-chan!" Madoka called urgently as she tried to push herself up from the ground. She hissed in pain when she felt the shards of glass that had pierced through her legs during the explosion.

Hinata wanted to rush to her aid, but she knew this was just a memory. No matter what she did, it would change a single thing about what happened.

13-year old Hinata's head slowly lifted until they could see her face. Instead of her pale, lavender eyes, the glowed an angry blood-red.

"Your Hinata is gone. This is my body now."

Hinata's eyes widened. It was her young self who spoke, but her voice sounded different. It was like the rustle of dying leaves on an autumn wind, but at the same time heavy with power and the promise of suffering.

It was the same voice that she kept hearing in her head.

"Hold her down, Kabuto!"

Orochimaru and Kabuto had done everything to restrain her, but she was too strong. Hinata watched as her possessed-self danced around the hideout, slaughtering everything she laid eyes on. Screams of agony, accompanied by her twisted laughs echoed throughout the entire place.

There was no stopping it.

A severely wounded Orochimaru and Kabuto eventually caught up to her. Each summoned a serpent to attack the possessed Hinata, but upon contact with her, they blackened and turned to ashes. She vanished in a fraction of a second and reappeared in front of Orochimaru, wrapping her hands around his throat.

"This girl. She fears you. But she holds that anger deep inside. The desire to kill you someday. Vengeance for the atrocities you committed on her."

"Hinata-chan!"

Hinata's face paled. It was Madoka. No… Madoka-san, stay away.

Madoka rushed towards her and desperately yanked on her arms, trying to push them away from Orochimaru. "Hinata-chan! Please, wake up! Don't let it win over you!"

The possessed Hinata grunted, looking at Madoka with disgust and contempt for touching her. A force formed beneath her palms and she used it to collapse part of the ceiling on Orochimaru.

Then she turned to Madoka.

"Get your filthy hands off me, lowly servant."

"Madoka-san!" Hinata shouted. Then what she feared most actually happened.

Her possessed self didn't hesitate for an instant, driving her hand into Madoka's chest and stabbing her straight through her heart.

No…

Once that was done, she flicked her arm and flung the woman aside like a discarded piece of trash. Madoka hit the floor lifelessly.

No… this can't be.

Hinata fell to her knees, tears streaming down her face as she stared at Madoka who was looking at her with cold, lifeless eyes. The one person with whom she found safety and comfort during the darkest hours of her life… the one who cared for her as if she were her own child… the one who gave her food, bathed her, held her in comfort when she cried…

She was dead.

"And you killed her."

Hinata lifted her head and found herself looking directly into the eyes of her younger, possessed self.

"This is what you truly are… and you will never be rid of it."

.

.

.

The moment she awakened, cold sweat was dripping from her head and neck, and she was gasping for breath. It still was dark, but she knew right away she wasn't back in that horrid place. It took her a minute to grasp why it was dark and she quickly realized it was because of a bandage around her eyes.

The last thing she remembered was involuntarily activating Byakugan before passing out. But what she had seen in her dream… no, it wasn't a dream – it was a repressed memory, finally brought to the surface.

Her sight was a concern, but it paled in comparison to what she remembered.

She still couldn't remember everything... but she remembered a name.

Melantha.

To be continued.

Vocabulary

Katon: Kuro Hiendan no jutsu- Fire Release: Dark Flying Flame Bullet


Author's Notes:

So that's it. I finally got to push out the chapter after so long. I finally got to introduce Melantha! We'll definitely know more about her in the coming chapters. Let me know what you think and do leave a review~ Reviews are very much appreciated. Always. It will make my knee heal faster so I can get back to work in no time.

See you!