Disclaimer: Of course I own nothing. I'm just playing in someone else's sandbox.
Author's Notes: The start of a very long AU, lovelies. This incorporates a lot of mythology as well as some fantasy elements from the mind of yours truly. My first try at a Naruto AU that is not a crossover so feedback, good or bad, is appreciated. Also, be aware that the rating may go up. I have not yet decided how "adult" I'm going to go with this. Do not be alarmed that I have messed with everyone's loyalties, I promise it will work out.
Dedicated to BC.
Hyuuga Neji felt a sense of anticipation as he climbed the temple steps, his sandals making no noise against the alabaster stone. His black cloak flared out in a sudden breeze, rays of the setting sun reflecting dully off his dark chest armor and greaves. He had been called straight from the practice fields and hadn't had time to change or bathe, his skin sparkling with the heat of the day. Even in his position, one did not refuse a summons from Orochimaru, War Lord of the East.
The guards at the top of the temple stairs did not greet him and Neji ignored them in turn, handing over his spear and the shield from his back with barely a pause. Such was the tradition of the Leaf Temple, and though Neji had never been inside it before, he knew the rules as well as anyone. This particular temple was home to the Sound's Fortuneteller, the oracle that predicted the future. It was on her power that Orochimaru's strength was based. With her foresight, he knew when and where to place men in battle to achieve victory, knew which lands to take and which to destroy. Some said he even knew the hour of his own death, though if it were true Neji had never heard of it.
It was very possible that Orochimaru had called him to discuss one of the Fortuneteller's visions, some battle campaign that would strengthen The Sound's position in their world of ever-shifting borderlines. Orochimaru was ambitious and ruthless, but he was strong and the Hyuugas had served The Sound for almost one hundred years. History dictated that Neji do the same and he had no regrets. Orochimaru's army was the finest in the world and to lead them was both Neji's duty and honor.
Lee, his second, was waiting for him just inside the first row of pillars, just as weaponless as Neji. The spear and shield were just for show on Lee, however. The lanky, black-haired soldier much preferred using his hands and feet anyway. An undignified, if effective, way of fighting in Neji's mind.
"Lee," Neji greeted, a little distracted by the utter silence within the temple. There was an aura of calm there, of serenity. It seemed to whisper of sleep and dreams and it rubbed Neji's battle senses the wrong way. His was a life spent constantly alert. It seemed the temple was a rather dangerous place if one didn't keep their wits about them.
"I know," Lee answered, reading his expression. "The Fortuneteller is awake. That's why it feels so lethargic here. The War Lord is with her now."
Neji frowned. "Awake? Has she had a vision?" Orochimaru kept his Fortunteller sedated when she was not in use so that her prophecies could be kept between a trusted few. Usually it was only Orochimaru and his heir, Uchiha Sasuke, that were allowed to hear them.
"The Lord says it will be soon." Lee's eyebrows pinched together. "He has requested your presence for it."
He had suspected as much, but now that he was there, Neji wasn't altogether sure he wanted the privilege. He relied on facts and instinct and the cool point of his spear. He did not need the foggy words of some mystic to confuse his soldiers and cloud his judgment.
But an order was an order.
He followed Lee silently into the inner chamber, passing by silent maidens in gold and purple, symbolizing their service to the Fortuneteller. They seemed demure and bent low as he and Lee passed, never raising their eyes nor their voice.
The place was almost a tomb.
But then they crossed into the sanctuary's antechamber and found another world entirely, one of light and energy and a conversation between Uchiha Sasuke and Orochimaru's Advisor, Kabuto.
The silver-haired Advisor was the one speaking but he fell silent upon Lee and Neji's arrival, his lips curving into some semblance of a smile.
"Welcome, Commander, we have been waiting for you."
Neji bowed, holding the angle for a moment in reverence to Sasuke's presence, ignoring Kabuto altogether. The man's false pleasantries were an annoyance. "Forgive my lateness, my lord," Neji said, directing his words to the Uchiha, "I came from the field as soon as I heard."
Sasuke looked irritated, but Neji had a feeling it was directed more at Kabuto than himself. The heir nodded once towards the archway leading to the sanctuary. "He is within." Black eyes regarded Neji's armor briefly but he said nothing more. Neji motioned for Lee to stay behind and passed through the arch, his gaze immediately finding Orochimaru in the middle of the room.
The War Lord of the East was dressed rather plainly, his feet surprisingly bare. He seemed somehow diminished there, in that room, as if he were less in that moment. Such a thing could only be attributed to the other presence, that of the woman who knelt at his feet, hands folded in her lap, her long wine-colored robes spilling over the floor in a froth of soft silk.
The Fortuneteller was young, much younger than Neji would have thought, with dark waves that spilled down her back, restrained only by the gold circlet across her brow. Her face was smooth, expressionless, her skin a dusky cream color.
It was her eyes, though, that unnerved him.
They were blank, a tranquil ocean of amber that did not see him, nor even Orochimaru who stood before her. She seemed to stare at the far wall, oblivious to them. She showed no sign that she even felt the hand Orochimaru had in her hair, stroking down along her jaw.
The caress made Neji slightly uncomfortable. It said clearly that the War Lord thought of the girl at his feet as only a precious trinket, a possession. Neji forced his face to clear and went down on one knee, bowing his head.
"Neji," Orochimaru murmured, "You made it at last." He paused a moment, wrapping a lock of the girl's dark hair around his finger. "What do you think of our Fortunteller, Neji? It is your first viewing, is it not?" There was something in his voice, a subtle sharpness on the last question that seemed out of place.
"It is, my lord." He hesitated a moment. "She is not what I imagined."
Orochimaru laughed quietly and that odd sharpness disappeared. "The soldiers gossip that she is old, a witch of sorts, as ancient as our world. Her power is certainly archaic but her body and mind are not." His finger made a trail across the Fortunteller's bare clavicle. Neji once again felt that vague unease. The girl was clearly drugged, completely unresponsive. Orochimaru's obvious familiarity with her seemed almost wrong when she was so unaware. But Neji was only a servant of the War Lord and Orochimaru had his own way of doing things. Neji commanded himself to stillness, watching as their leader moved to one side.
"I asked you here, Commander, because there is something I would have you witness to."
Neji shifted his weight slightly, unsurprised that Orochimaru did not bid him rise. The War Lord liked hierarchy, it pleased him for others to be aware of his power and show their subservience to him. It was, however, not very comfortable to kneel for long periods in steel shin guards. Once more, Neji rued the fact that he had no prior warning of this meeting.
"A foretelling, my lord?"
Orochimaru's yellow-gold eyes flickered over to him. "Yes." The word was almost a hiss. "What you are about to hear does not leave this room, Commander."
"Of course, my lord. I will not speak of it but by your order."
Orochimaru nodded as if he had expected nothing less. Then he angled his body towards the Fortuneteller, his mouth twisting in a smile that told of a master's pleasure in his favorite pet.
"Speak, girl, the words you revealed to me last evening."
Lips opened and Neji blinked, momentarily surprised. He had thought she was unaware of them, but it appeared he was wrong. Words chimed into existence, fluttering around the room like winged things.
"The heir plots in secret, twisted paths before him. One shall make him a king, the other shall kill him, and the third will set him free. The heir plots in secret and none can follow him, save one."
The moment Neji heard her voice, his head streaked with bright pain, a headache so strong he hunched over against the force of it. His mind flashed with images, colors he couldn't distinguish as they flipped rapidly before his eyes.
When it faded enough for him to straighten, leaning against his bent knee, he found Orochimaru watching him, his gaze narrowed with suspicion.
"What is it, Commander? What just happened to you?"
Neji swallowed, trying to right himself. The Fortuneteller was still kneeling on the carpets, a pretty doll whose face showed nothing. "When she spoke I…" His eyebrows drew together with echoes of pain, "I thought I saw something."
"What was it?"
Neji shook his head. "It was too fast. I did not recognize it."
The War Lord's mouth made a thin line, his eyes contemplating his kneeling Commander shrewdly. "It is not unheard of for strange things to happen when she is awake," he said, turning his attention to the silent Fortuneteller. He went to her side again but did not touch her. "Much of her power is still a mystery, but one thing is certain. Her visions are never wrong, Commander."
Neji's jaw tightened briefly. "You believe Sasuke is planning to overthrow you." It was not a question. Orochimaru only tilted his head, long hair falling over his shoulder.
"It would not surprise me. I have taught him much these last few years but he is getting restless, ready to use the strength I've given him. I would be disappointed if he did not at least try to kill me." He smiled, a predator's smile. "You can see why I could not allow him to hear this. Still, I do not like this talk of multiple paths. He will lead the Sound when I am gone, but that does not make him a king, and neither would I have him dead or free. Sasuke belongs to me until I say otherwise." Again that possessive voice. Neji was barely aware of it this time, his head still ringing from the Fortuneteller's prophecy.
"What would you have me do, my lord?"
"Keep an eye on our would-be princeling, Neji. A couple of distractions would not be amiss, either. Keep him occupied until I can discover more of his plans. Then I will call upon you again."
Neji inclined his head. "As you wish, my lord."
He rose, a trifle unsteady, and took one last look at the Fortuneteller's passive face before turning to rejoin Lee, his new orders foremost in his thoughts.
He was walking in an oppressive darkness. There was a feeling of closeness around him, as if he were deep underground. The sound of water falling echoed in the distance.
There were rocks underneath his feet and he stumbled over the uneven ground, his hands catching on sharp edges, drawing blood. He kept moving forward, undaunted, following something he could neither see nor touch.
A voice called softly, pitifully, "Neji."
It was a child's voice, full of fear and misery. He quickened his pace, his mind filling with the sweet, sharp pain of relief. He was close, so very close.
Another rocky rise and he scrambled down the other side, loose shale and rock tumbling with him. Then he saw her, crumbled on her side near the underground lake. Her eyes shone in the dark.
"Neji," she said again, and there was hope this time. Joy.
He reached out for her, exultant and intense all at once.
"Tenten," he said, "I found you."
He startled awake, sitting bolt upright in bed, breathing as heavily as if he had just finished a particularly hard practice. The dream still swam in front of him, dark and almost out of focus, but so very real he had a hard time believing it was only a dream. It had felt as close as a memory, which was strange because he was sure he had never met a girl named Tenten, not even as a child.
Neji rubbed a hand over his face, brushing long strands of dark hair away from his eyes. Moonlight fell through his thin curtains, the transparent gauze fluttering in the nightly breeze. It was still very early, several hours till dawn, and now he was utterly awake with a long day looming in front of him.
Sighing, he slipped out of bed, padding silently to one of the arched doorways in order to look out at the sleeping city. His bed chamber was very open, only a long corridor connecting it to the rest of the officer's corridors, but he had long since stopped fearing attacks on his person. He had come to his position at an early age but it had been based on his fearless fighting skill, his relentless strength in battle. Now he commanded the Sound's army, still young perhaps, but never to be underestimated. The Hyuugas were a proud family, their service was forever. Neji had known that in the beginning, ever since he'd left his father's country estate and come to the city to kneel for Orochimaru and pledge his spear to the War Lord of the East. He did not regret his decision.
He did wonder though, sometimes, what his life would be like if he had chosen differently.
The dream brought those thoughts again. He had been fearless in that cave, unafraid of what he couldn't see, and it had felt right, utterly right, when he'd reached for that little girl's hand.
He had not felt that sense of certainty in a very long time.
With a smooth turn, Neji left his contemplation of the sparkling city and reached for his clothes, emptying his mind of unnecessary thoughts. Dreams and maybes were interesting but they had no place in a soldier's life. He had orders to fulfill and that was the core of his existence.
His was a life of servitude.
It was not his place to want more.
Tenten, I found you.
His hand paused in lacing his shirt, that voice – his voice – ringing through his head. There was a low pulse of pain and then another voice, light and feminine spoke, her words somehow full of regret and sorrow.
Stay alive for me, Neji.
The pain this time was instantaneous. He dropped to the floor clutching his head, grunting with the agonizing realization that was branded in his mind's eye. Himself as a boy, the girl in the cave, Orochimaru's sharp question, the Fortuneteller's expressionless face…
He pushed himself off the tiled floor and stumbled for the hallway, shouting for his cloak. He had a picture in his mind, a full, bright picture that felt right.
And he had to get to the temple before he lost it.
TO BE CONTINUED